Double Indemnity (1944)

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It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets roped into a murderous scheme when he falls for the sensual Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who is intent on killing her husband (Tom Powers) by arranging his ‘accidental death’ and living off the fraudulent accidental death claim. Prompted by the late Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), insurance investigator and Neff’s mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) looks into the case, and gradually begins to uncover the truth… Staggering film noir, this early masterpiece from director Billy Wilder boasts a screenplay co-written (sort of) with Raymond Chandler, adapted from the James M. Cain story Three of a Kind. Rarely has the sensibility of a filmmaker been so attuned to the material in such crystalline fashion:  in this treatise on corruption, crime, sex, adultery and murder the casting plays to all the character strengths with Wilder seeing in the light actor MacMurray something infinitely schlemiel-like, sleazy and vulnerable.  It is literally picture-perfect, offering us a visual and psychological template for noir, a story told in flashback, shot on location all over Los Angeles, from Jerry’s Market to the Chateau Marmont, Glendale Station to the Hollywood Bowl, with venetian blinds, curling cigarette smoke and tilted fedoras filling out the emotional space shot by DoP John Seitz. Did a city ever feel so lonesome? Stanwyck was never better – dolled up in a blonde wig with bangs and an ankle bracelet begging to be opened, this is one of the fatalest femmes ever on screen. Robinson is fantastic as the fatherly man who unravels this story of these blackest of hearts, while this study of behaviour is decorated with the kind of dialogue that you savour forever. How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Classsic Hollywood, in every possible sense of that term.

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Father’s Little Dividend (1951)

 

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Don’t worry about her. She took her toothbrush so she’s not gone to the river.  Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy) reminisces about the year since his beloved daughter Kay (Elizabeth Taylor) got married to Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor). Wife Ellie (Myrna Loy) takes Kay’s baby news in her stride but Stanley is undone, particularly when Kay regales him with the ideas her gynaecologist has for her mothering style – carrying the baby on her back for two years doing the housework and swinging him around to feed him every so often. The wealthy in-laws (Moroni Olsen and Billie Burke) take over the young couple’s new home leaving Stanley feeling quite useless. They all swamp Kay with ideas about what the new arrival should be called. She leaves Buckley, believing him to be having an affair when he claims to be working late and returns home where Stanley works out a diplomatic reunification. When the baby boy is born he doesn’t like Stanley and the rejected grandfather ignores him until the parents leave him in his and Ellie’s care for a weekend and he manages to lose him … The sequel to Father of the Bride (one of the first in Hollywood) with the same winning cast, this is worth catching for Tracy alone:  his facial expressions are classic. Written by Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett, from Edward Streeter’s characters and directed once again by Vincente Minnelli. Partly remade 45 years later by Nancy Meyers, this is a really good account of marriage and family and abounds in charm.

The Whole Truth (1958)

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I almost wish it had been me who killed her. I’d have enjoyed doing it.  Film producer Max Poulton (Stewart Granger) is on location on the French Riviera shooting a film starring his lover, troublesome Italian actress Gina Bertini (Gianna Maria Canale). When he ends their fling to return to his loyal wife, Carol (Donna Reed), the jilted actress threatens to reveal details of their affair to Carol. Later, at a party at Max’s villa, Scotland Yard investigator Carliss (George Sanders) arrives with news that Gina has been killed and that Max is a murder suspect. Then Carol tries to prove her husband is innocent of a crime with a twist … Philip Mackie’s play had been recorded for BBC TV and is given a smart adaptation by Jonathan Latimer with a superb cast – Sanders in particular is viciously good. A neat British thriller, directed by John Guillermin (with an uncredited assist by Dan Cohen) and produced by Jack Clayton.

The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.

Let the Sunshine In (2017)

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Aka Un Beau Soleil Intérieur.  Live what you have to live.  Divorced fiftysomething artist and mother Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) navigates a series of unsatisfying relationships with men during a week when her daughter is staying with her ex-husband François (Laurent Grévill) and afterwards, following a brief sojourn at an art exposition in the Lot.  She discusses her relationships with a female friend (Sandrine Dumas) who brags about her own happiness and a male friend Fabrice (Bruno Podalydès) who cautions her to stick with someone from her milieu. She finally consults a psychic (Gerard Depardieu) to see whom she will end up with …  The film opens on a graphic sex scene which certainly perked up my cats. Watching a beautiful woman have a horrible experience with a nasty old fat banker (Xavier Beauvois) is not an edifying experience. You are charming. But my wife is extraordinary, he declares.  Her response to his rudeness in a bar is to be super nice to everyone she encounters in the service industry. She is squirming when she feels compelled to ask her new gallerist Maxime (Josiane Balasko) if it’s true what the banker told her – that she’d had a relationship with Isabelle’s ex-husband. Then she has a one-night stand with an unpleasant actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) with whom she’s considering doing a project – she’s in love, he regrets it. She dances to At Last with Sylvain (Paul Blain) a strange guy in the Lot and sleeps with her ex who tries out a porno move. He appears to be using their daughter as a weapon and keeps the keys to the apartment so he can come and go as he pleases. We are stunned to learn that she is convinced she loves the weirdo from the Lot and another uncomfortable conversation occurs. She is unhappy and cries a lot and pleads with men to stay with her. She produces little art. She wants to be in love but is needy and demanding, but unlike all women deploying their feminine guiles to reel them in, the men are using this older woman and she is getting nothing back. This film by Claire Denis is constructed on the slimmest of threads – what does a woman of a certain age want when the men she attracts are so horrifying? (And why is she wearing thigh-high hooker boots?)  If she’s such a great artist why don’t we see any of her paintings? That’s not the point, of course.  Supposedly adapted by Denis and Christine Angot from Roland Barthes’ 1977 A Lover’s Discourse, this attempts to penetrate the female psyche but what are we to say when Isabelle herself winds up consulting a fortune teller? Only Freud claimed to know what women want but we know he was a fraud. The final twist is that we enter the fortune teller’s storyline before he meets Isabelle. Out of nowhere the narrative is disrupted. Binoche is extraordinary but the psychodrama is as unsatisfying and fascinating as the men are unpromising. Such, alas, is life for women who will of course never be emotionally satisfied by one or any man.  All talk and no trousers, this is also about all the talk about the talking and the not talking. It positions itself as an awkward comedy of manners but plays like a horribly relatable documentary about how awful it is to be female.  Hey, she slept with three men in a week.  C’est la vie, malheuruesement. Customarily rigorous cinematography by Agnès Godard. Open.

Strokes of Genius: Federer v Nadal (2018)

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The true story lying behind the epic battle of the Wimbledon Men’s Final in 2008 between the sport’s titanic champion, grass court genius Roger Federer, and his recent rival, clay court overlord Rafa Nadal. It took place over five hours under darkening skies with lightning strikes and two rain breaks. Nadal took the first two sets, Federer the next two. Nadal says one of Federer’s passing shots in the fourth was the worst feeling he had ever experienced in tennis. The narration spins us back to their upbringing, born five years apart. You wouldn’t think it now but Federer had a vicious temper and frequently broke racquets on court. He had to learn to control his mind and co-ordinate his actions. He says he became surprised by his own creativity. You would think it was the Spaniard who had the fiery nature but he is sweetness itself. Nadal and Federer both became pro at 16 but Nadal needed to build up his strength. His vulnerability inadvertently gave him his greatest weapon – he returned late with a raised arm. It’s the greatest return since Jimmy Connors was playing. Both men come from close-knit families:  Nadal is most at home on the island of his birth, Mallorca, cooking, sailing, fishing; Federer has a happy home life in Switzerland with wife and fellow tennis player Miroslava (or Mirka), and now, their four children. Their coaches and parents and that match’s umpire stress both men’s humanity and their desire to evolve:  they make each other better. They also work hard.  While Federer seems to look effortless he trains relentlessly. One amusing shot prior to their entering the court for one French Open final shows Nadal warming up like a prize fighter while Federer looks on, hands in pockets. It’s a misleading image. One commentator suggests that it was as though the tennis gods got together and made Nadal to compete with Federer – their games are utterly opposite, yet complementary. Federer is an artist who fights;  Nadal is a fighter who also happens to be an artist.  They are two strands of tennis DNA. The one is right-handed, the other a leftie. Nadal had lost the Wimbledon final the previous 2 years;  Federer had been thrashed by him in Paris a month earlier, in three, the last set to love. Devastating.  Home movies and interviews with both men and those around them and other players makes this illuminating and the footage of the 2008 match and others compel all over again as the differences between the merely brilliant players and the champions are teased out.  Other great tennis rivalries are explored in passing:  Evert/Navratilova, Borg/McEnroe – remember 1980?!  When Borg retired McEnroe was not the same, Borg made him better. Navratilova makes the observation that those two guys are happiest in each other’s company;  Evert says she and Navratilova made each other greater players. The true greats of the sport enjoy rarefied air and are the only other people on the planet to understand what it’s like up there. We are now living in what is probably the twilight of the greatest tennis era:  this documentary shows us why.  Directed by Andrew Douglas and based on material from Jon Wertheim’s book.

Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

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Sinners is my business. You and that hip-slinging daughter of Satan. You know there’s the smell of sulfur and brimstone about you. The smell of hellfire.  In the 1930s Texan Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) hits the road to search for his long-lost sweetheart Hallie Gerard (Capucine). On the road he meets free-spirited Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda) and she joins him on his trip to New Orleans, where the two find Hallie working at the Doll House, a brothel. When Dove tries to take Hallie away with him, he is confronted by the brothel’s possessive madam, the sapphically-inclined Jo Courtney (Barbara Stanwyck), who is unwilling to give up her favorite employee without a fight and resorts to devious means to keep control … Fabulously pulpy, lurid melodrama that steams up the screen. The female pulchritude and the whiff of perversion make for a pleasing concoction. And then there’s Harvey! There was trouble on set when he said Capucine (producer Charles Feldman’s girlfriend) couldn’t act. He had a point. (I always thought she was a tranny, but now I can’t remember why). Stanwyck is masterful as the Lesbian madam, Fonda oozes sex and Anne Baxter is fantastic in a supporting role (rendered problematic when production had to resume as she was heavily pregnant). John Fante and Edmund Morris adapted Nelson Algren’s novel with an uncredited contribution by Ben Hecht. Edward Dmytryk conducted proceedings, with a score by Elmer Bernstein and the famous song over classic titles by Saul Bass. A fetishistic, campy indulgence.

Key Largo (1948)

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You don’t like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don’t you? If it doesn’t stop, shoot it. World War II vet Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) visits Key Largo to pay his respects to the family of his late war buddy, McCloud attempts to comfort his comrade’s widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall) and wheelchair-bound father James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), who operate a run-down hotel. But McCloud realises that mobsters, led by the infamous Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), are staying in the hotel. When the criminals take over the establishment, conflict is on the cards with murder and mayhem ensuing as a hurricane approaches … Director John Huston and Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’ s 1939 is stunning entertainment, see-sawing as violently as the weather that eventually challenges the survivors of Rocco’s plan.  Stars blend perfectly in cracking classical Hollywood entertainment – Robinson and Barrymore are quite brilliant, as are Bogie and Bacall, paired again (and finally) after To Have and Have Not, with Claire Trevor giving an Academy Award-winning performance as the tragic moll. Literally thrilling, awash with high points and a memorable Max Steiner score.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

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Maybe Chicago’s got a heart but I ain’t found one.  Young Italian-American Rocky Barbella (Paul Newman) endures abuse from his father (Harold J. Stone) and despite his mother (Eileen Heckart) and her constant efforts to intervene he messes with small-time crime with his streetwise friend Romolo (Sal Mineo).  His consequent run-ins with the law lead him in and out of detention centers and prisons. When it seems he has it together, Rocky is drafted into the wartime Army but can’t stick the regime and goes AWOL. He takes up boxing to earn quick money with coach Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane), but when he discovers he has a natural talent in the ring, he builds the confidence to pursue his love interest, Norma (Pier Angeli), and fulfill his potential as a middleweight fighter. Pressured to take a bribe, his reputation takes a major hit.  He doesn’t know how to redeem himself except by fighting …  Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Rocky Graziano’s autobiography is full of clichés – but they’re good ones because they’re true. Filled with big, dramatic performances and great action which is what you want from a gutsy story of an abused child through his spells in juvie and prison and the Army, this is a wonderful portrait of NYC and its denizens and the final bout is heart-stopping. The right hooks aren’t confined to Rocky, Lehman’s dialogue is ripe with zingers:  The trouble with reading the phonebook is you always know how it’s going to come out.  Gleaming monochrome cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and a song by Perry Como add to a magnificent movie bio experience but one is forced to ask what Paul Newman’s career would have looked like if its intended lead James Dean hadn’t died before this went into production:  his Rebel co-star Mineo (who looks altogether lustrous) bolsters the teen crim story and the beautiful Angeli was engaged to Dean for a while (as well as doing The Silver Chalice with Newman). His ghost is everywhere. Look for Robert Loggia and Dean Jones down the cast list.  Directed by Robert Wise.

Elle (2016)

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Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all. Believe me. Perverse, funny, strange, blackly comic and at times surreal, this is a film like few others. It opens on a black screen as Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped by a masked man. She gets up, cleans herself and bathes and carries on as though nothing has happened. At work she is the one in control – it’s her company and she deals in the hyper-real, trying to make video games more experiential, the storytelling sharper, the visuals more tactile. She is attacked in a cafe by a woman who recognises her as her father’s lure – as a child she her dad murdered a slew of people and he’s an infamous serial killer, turned down for release yet again at the age of 76 and it’s all over the news:  there’s a photo taken of her as a blank-eyed ten year old which haunts people. Her mother is a plastic surgery junkie shacked up with another young lover. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is broke and tries to pitch her an idea for a game. Her loser son has supposedly knocked up a lunatic girlfriend (the eventual baby is not white) and needs money for a home. Elle is sleeping with the husband of her partner Anna (Anne Consigny). She likes to ogle her neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). Now as she gets text messages about her body she tries to figure out who among her circle of acquaintances could have raped her – and then when it happens again she unmasks him and starts a relationship of sorts following a car crash (a deer crosses the road, not for the first time in a 2016 film).  This is where the edges of making stories, power, control, reality, games and the desire for revenge become blurred. Adapted from Patrick Dijan’s novel Oh by David Birke and translated into French by Harold Manning, this is Paul Verhoeven’s stunning return to form, with Huppert giving a towering performance as a wily, strong, vulnerable, tested woman – she owns her own company and handles unruly employees using a sympathetic snitch but cannot control her family members and their nuttiness. You can’t take your eyes off her, nor can the camera.  While she tries to figure out how to regain her composure (she rarely loses it, even while she’s getting punched in the face) she also sees a way in which she might obtain pleasure.  In some senses we might see a relationship with Belle de Jour: Michèle is the still centre of a world in which crazy is normal. It’s shot to reflect this, with the video game and the animation of her made illicitly by one employee the only visual extremes:  the assaults (there’s more than the first, when she gets the taste for it) are conventionally staged. She has turned the tables on her rapist – he is undone by her desire for sex. This is all about role play.  When Michèle finally decides to cut the cord on all the loose ends in her life it brings everything to a satisfying conclusion as she regains her balance – her role as CEO assists her manage her own narrative minus any generic tropes. Now that’s clever. Oh! The audacity! What a great film for women in a very contemporary take on noir and the notion of the femme fatale. Big wow.  I killed you by coming here.