The Spiral Staircase (1945)

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Murderer, you killed them. You killed them all. It’s 1906. Helen is a young mute woman (Dorothy McGuire) working in a New England mansion as a domestic to bedridden Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore) who lives with her professor stepson Albert (gorgeous George Brent), a secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who used to be his girlfriend and is now romancing her newly returned son Steven (Gordon Oliver), verbally abused Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood), drunken housekeeper Mrs Oates (Elsa Lanchester) and her husband (Rhys Williams).  A maniac is killing off people with disabilities. After Mrs Warren warns her of the danger to her personal safety she makes plans to leave the dark old house with her boyfriend Dr Parry (Kent Smith), but it is too late. The maniac is in the house, and she is his prey… Mel Dinelli made his screenwriting debut with this adaptation of Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch – the  idea for the staircase came from a Mary Roberts Rinehart novel.  It’s a beautifully mounted gripping Gothic suspenser with an ideal setting, atmosphere and occasional flashes of director Robert Siodmak’s Expressionist roots by DoP Nicholas Musuraca, underscoring the murderousness at its core. Spinechilling from start to finish. 

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Red River (1948)

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Cherry was right. You’re soft, you should have let ’em kill me, ’cause I’m gonna kill you. I’ll catch up with ya. I don’t know when, but I’ll catch up. Every time you turn around, expect to see me, ’cause one time you’ll turn around and I’ll be there. I’m gonna kill ya, Matt.Headstrong Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) starts a thriving Texas cattle ranch with the help of his faithful trail hand, Groot (Walter Brennan), and his protégé, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), an orphan Dunson took under his wing when Matt was a boy when he was the only survivor of an Indian attack on a wagon train. In need of money following the Civil War and 14 years after starting the ranch, Dunson and Matt lead a cattle drive to Missouri, where they will get a better price for his 10,000 head than locally, but the crotchety older man and his willful young partner begin to butt heads on the exhausting journey… Famous as a collision of egos and acting styles (Wayne vs. Clift, who was making his first pilgrimage from the New York stage), Paul Fix (who plays Teeler Yacey), Borden Chase and Charles Schnee adapted the screenplay from Chase’s Saturday Evening Post story Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, a fictional account of the first cattle drive west. It was shot in 1946 but director Howard Hawks was unhappy with the edit and handed it to Christian Nyby who spent a year on it. He declared of Wayne, I didn’t know the son of a bitch could act! And it is an extraordinary Freudian story in its contrast portraits of masculinity, a brilliant exposition of father-son conflict and of the kind of family romance most people don’t understand in the mythical context of the conquest of the land of the Americas. Quite profound and a great action movie too. Co-directed by Arthur Rosson.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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I’ve studied you all these years – a little girl in a cage waiting for someone to let her out. In 1928 young Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) inadvertently causes the death of her cruel, authoritarian and extremely wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha lies to the police and Walter (Kirk Douglas), who saw the crime, corroborates the girl’s story. Eventually, they grow up and wed out of convenience; the meek and alcoholic Walter is genuinely in love, and Martha thinks that her secret is safe since she has married the one witness to her aunt’s death. As District Attorney he saw her lie on the stand and put an innocent man to death for the crime. However now Martha is trying to get Walter elected Governor and her childhood pal Sam (Van Heflin) shows up.  Martha knows her dark past may not stay a secret for long and Sam’s romance with Toni (Lizabeth Scott) – an ex-con just out of jail – threatens to come between them …  The film noir as hothouse melodrama, this has Stanwyck at her most manipulative since Double Indemnity but the surrounding performances are impressive as satellites to her cunning. Adapted by Robert Rossen (and an uncredited Robert Riskin)  from playwright John Patrick’s short story Love Lies Bleeding, this plays fast and loose with love and death, desire and obsession, betrayal and murder, marriage and entrapment. The pickup between Heflin and Scott is really something and the dialogue is really striking – just look at the way the Bible crops up at crucial plot points. Stanwyck’s string of extra-marital affairs reveals a longing for sex not often portrayed in Hollywood films of the era. Douglas makes an impressive debut as the weak husband just as capable of lying. The twisting DNA spiral of guilt and secrecy plays out brilliantly as these conflicted personalities bump up against one another in a deadly game. And what a twist(ed) ending! Listen to how the rain hits the windows of that fabulous house during some of the toughest conversations – talk about atmospheric! The cinematography by Victor Miler and score by Miklós Rósza are quite splendid. Directed by Lewis Milestone.

Green for Danger (1946)

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‘In view of my failure—correction, comparative failure—I feel that I have no alternative but to offer you, sir, my resignation, in the sincere hope that you will not accept it.’  Full stop. During a German bombing raid on rural southeast England during World War II, a hospital undergoes heavy shelling. Postman Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott) dies on the operating table when a bomb explodes in the operating room. But when Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) dies after revealing that this is not the first patient of anaesthetist Barney Barnes (Trevor Howard) to die under suspicious circumstances, Scotland Yard’s  Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) is brought in to investigate… Knotty, fast-moving, hilarious and satirical, this is one of the very best British films, a murder mystery (a variant on the country house genre) that thrives on dismantling the very conventions of cinema at that time – if you can tell one of the female characters from the other (Sally Gray, Rosamund John, Campbell… ) you’re a better man than I, which is kinda the point of this! From the team of Launder and Gilliat, with Claude Gurney and Gilliat adapting Christianna Brand’s wartime novel this moves like the clappers and you won’t realise whodunnit until it’s too late – just like the droll Cockrill!  It was the first film to be shot at Pinewood in the aftermath of WW2 and the production design and sense of fear and enclosure works perfectly. The plot is ingenious and even while everyone’s being offed in highly unsentimental fashion you’ll struggle to figure it out despite the structure. Sim is wonderful but he’s matched all the way by Leo Genn as the Harley Street surgeon. And all the while the German doodlebugs (V1 bombs) keep everyone in a state of terror.  Brilliant.

Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

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Every time he goes out of this house he shakes my hand and he kisses you.  Advertising executive Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) discovers his wife Muriel’s (Myrna Loy) plan to redecorate their cramped New York apartment which they share with their two young daughters. He proposes instead that they move to rural Connecticut. She agrees, and the two are soon conned into buying a 200-year old farmhouse that turns out to be a complete nightmare. Construction and repair bills accumulate quickly as the house has to be torn down and completely rebuilt, and Jim worries that their future hangs in the balance unless he can come up with a catchy new jingle that will sell ham while Jim’s friend and lawyer Bill (Melvyn Douglas) steps in to help and spends the night with Muriel during a thunderstorm … Written and produced by comic experts Norman Panama and Melvin Frank adapting Eric Hodgins’ 1946 bestseller, this is a terrific example of Grant and fellow screwball player Loy in their prime. They have marvellous chemistry. Director H.C. Potter handles the action and slapstick beautifully while the marital woes are worked out architecturally. Loy’s paint scheme scene is a classic and Douglas is a hoot as the friend. Watch for Lex Barker as a carpenter. With a score by Leigh Harline and crisp photography by James Wong Howe this is prime post-war RKO fluff. Anyone who’s made the mistake of buying and remodelling a fixer-upper will relate! Hint:  don’t do that, watch this instead. It’s a lot cheaper.

Black Narcissus (1946)

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I told you it was no place to put a nunnery! There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated … A group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), are sent to a mountain in the Himalayas. The climate in the region is hostile and the nuns are housed in an odd old palace, home to the Sisters of St Faith and previously home to the concubines of the General in the area. They work to establish a school and a hospital, but slowly their focus shifts. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) falls for a government worker, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), and begins to question her vow of celibacy. As Sister Ruth obsesses over Mr. Dean, Sister Clodagh becomes immersed in her own memories of love back in Ireland while their conflicts are put into relief by the forbidden desire between The Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who is of entirely unsuitable caste.  Sister Ruth’s psychological problems devolve into violent madness … Rumer Godden’s story gets the high-velocity melodrama treatment in this extraordinary interpretation of her story about religion in a colonial outpost. Alfred Junge created the illusion of the exotic in Pinewood (and a Surrey garden) with Jack Cardiff’s magical cinematography enhancing the impression of lushness.  The Renaissance light and shadows highlight the growing atmosphere of hysteria. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted an astonishingly sensual portrait of women in hothouse seclusion, lured to their various fates by a man in their midst as they wrestle with issues of conscience, race, sex and vocation. It has not lost its power to bewitch and Byron’s performance is unforgettable.

Brief Encounter (1945)

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I had no thoughts at all. Only an overwhelming desire never to feel anything ever again. Returning home from a shopping trip to a nearby town where she regularly spends the afternoons taking in a matinee at the cinema, bored suburban housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is thrown by happenstance into an acquaintance with conscientious doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) who is also unhappily married with a child but finds solace in his work. Their casual friendship soon develops during their weekly visits into something more emotionally fulfilling than either expected and they must wrestle with the potential havoc their deepening relationship would have on their lives as they run into her friends and start to tell lies to cover for their encounters.  The lives of those they love are impacted despite their respective spouses remaining unaware of their infidelities and Alec considers a job offer in South Africa which sends Laura over the edge … This meticulous evocation of forbidden desire, class and repression has always been ripe for parody yet its virutosity of construction, performance and emotion means that this doomed romance adapted from the 1936 play Still Life by Noël Coward (part of the ten-act cycle Tonight at 8.30) has stood the test of time. It came out right after the conclusion of World War 2 and is enormously evocative of a period when trains ran on time and people strove to do the right thing.  The couple are in their forties which makes their predicament oddly more affecting and the constrictions of social coding understandable.  It was adapted by director David Lean with producer Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame and opens out Coward’s play, with the frustrated lovers disturbed in a friend’s flat and they take a boating trip not possible in the stage version.  Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is part of everyone’s cinematic DNA at this point and the recording here was by Eileen Joyce, adeptly placed to heighten the tension of Laura’s desire tempered by her middle class morality. The final scenes, reminiscent of Anna Karenina followed by the banal resolution in the marital home, makes the adulterous but unconsummated passionate relationship all the more tragic. Gulp. Quite devastating, then.

Millions Like Us (1943)

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You can’t cook or sew, I doubt if you can even knit. You know nothing about life, not what I call life. You’re still only a moderate hand on a milling machine and if you had to fend for yourself in the midst of plenty you’d die of starvation. Those are only your bad points. I’m not saying you haven’t got any good ones. At the outbreak of World War II, Celia (Patricia Roc) and her family must join the domestic British war effort. Celia is recruited to work in a munitions factory building aircraft, where her co-workers represent a variety of social classes. She falls in love with Fred Blake (Gordon Jackson), a young pilot, and the two are married. Fred is soon deployed to battle, however, and Celia must face the harsh realities of life as a soldier’s wife, while continuing her crucial work on the home front… Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat’s film is a morale-boosting propaganda effort that still stirs the heart and mind all these years later and even boasts Charters and Caldicott, the auteur’s favourite Brit double act as part of the ensemble. Roc’s performance is winning with the challenge of leaving home for the first time and sharing digs with educated Gwen (Megs Jenkins) and her relationship with Jackson believable while the exchanges on the factory floor hammer home the stratification of social class that was such a feature of film drama at the time. Their relationship is mirrored in that between snobby Jennifer (Anne Crawford) and foreman Charlie (Eric Portman). Part of the film’s ongoing attractions are the famous song South of the Border, composed by Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Carr.

Pursued (1947)

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Came straight to this place just like I’d known the way. There was something in my life that ruined that house. That house was myself. It’s the 1880s. Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) is an orphan raised by a foster family in New Mexico who remains tormented by dreams of  the traumatic murder of his parents when he was a child. He is treated well by his foster mother, Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), and her daughter, Thor (Teresa Wright), but he and foster brother Adam (John Rodney) have a tense relationship. When Jeb is shot at while riding his horse, he blames Adam  but Mrs. Callum knows that in fact it’s another member of the Callum clan who is out to get him, her brother-in-law, Grant (Dean Jagger) out to avenge events of the past of which Jeb has only the most tenuous knowledge … This psychological revenge western is a film noir with Freudian aspects – obliterating the notion of family in a glassily emotional construction which has lots of weird nightmarish aftereffects to haunt the viewer making us feel like Mitchum’s sleepwalking protagonist. There is plenty to enjoy here beyond the immediacy of the character tensions – the stunning nocturnal landscapes (shot by James Wong Howe, edited by Christian Nyby), the oppressive interiors, the suspense of the revelations withheld until a crucial moment in the drama and Mitchum singing The Streets of Laredo in a score composed by Max Steiner Adapted by Niven Busch (Wright’s husband) from a story by Horace McCoy, this is one of the strangest and least logical films in that narrow sub-genre which lasted a few years after WW2.  It’s worth it for the contrasting performing styles of its fantastic stars engaged in this baroque clashing of generic components and the return of the repressed. Directed by Raoul Walsh. If that house was me what part of me was buried in those graves?

Second Chorus (1940)

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I said ‘music,’ and Father said ‘bottlecaps.’ Father won. Two New England college music students Danny O’Neill (Fred Astaire) and Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith) repeatedly fail their exams so that they can stay in college and play in their band, O’Neill’s Perennials. They change their attitude, however, when they meet Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard) who agrees to be their manager and both attempt to woo her as a way of eventually getting a job in Artie Shaw’s band but Shaw woos Ellen to be his secretary and the guys fail their auditions. Ellen tries to persuade millionaire J. Lester Chisholm (Charles Butterworth) a wannabe mandolin player to fund a concert which will debut Danny’s song but the guys get in the way and muck it up by pretending to be married to her.  To get things back on track they have to keep this eccentric backer Chisholm from forcing Shaw to have him play at their gig … Astaire and Meredith are the oldest students in movies and if that’s a silly premise in itself (albeit I knew someone who failed for twenty years to avail of a family bequest which lasted as long as he stayed in college) and this occasionally veers on the puerile (even for B-movie standards) it’s still hard to dislike.  Astaire’s masquerade as a Russian refugee performing his nation’s songs is funny and at some point the film has to incorporate his dancing expertise – which it does as he conducts his own composition in the concluding concert number with aplomb and a little tap. Butterworth is drolly amusing. Goddard is luminously beautiful, as you’d expect and acquits herself well in a murderous dance sequence (I Ain’t Hep to that Step But I’ll Dig It) with Astaire but clarinet supremo and band leader Shaw is no thesp. Dig that swing, though! Billy Butterfield dubbed Meredith’s trumpet solo while Bobby Hackett played for Astaire. Musos will recognise several numbers. Frank Cavett wrote the story while the screenplay is by Elaine Ryan and Ian McLellan Hunter with uncredited contributions by songwriter Johnnny Mercer and Ben Hecht. That’s quite the band. Directed by H.C. Potter.