Carrie (1952)

Everybody’s a stranger until you meet ’em. Beautiful young Carrie Meeber (Jennifer Jones) travels from her small hometown to live with her married sister Minnie (Jacqueline de Witt) in Chicago in the 1890s, On the train she meets well-off travelling salesman Charles Drouet (Eddie Albert). When she loses her job in a sweatshop, she reconnects with the charming and smitten Drouet because she needs a new job to pay $5 board to her Swedish brother-in-law Sven (Robert Foulk – uncredited) but she becomes Drouet’s mistress and is now a kept woman. When Drouet’s friend middle-aged restaurant manager George Hurstwood (Laurence Olivier) falls in love with her, complications ensue. He hasn’t told her he’s married albeit unhappily to a controlling social-climbing wife Julie (Miriam Hopkins) and to escape his marriage (and two children making their way in society) he has to commit grand larceny in his office. As he and Carrie make a life together in New York his circumstances worsen and she is none the wiser as to why he cannot work. Then she tells him she’s pregnant and their financial problems threaten to overwhelm them when he reads in the newspaper that his newly married son is arriving from his honeymoon and Carrie sees an opportunity to improve their situation leaving him to his own devices while she blags her way to an acting career … You’ve got to pay the fiddler in this world. Theodore Dreiser’s realist novel Sister Carrie is adapted by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz for the screen and becomes a typically beautiful William Wyler production – grave, melancholy and immensely moving. Not least because Olivier gives a truly magnificent performance as a man undone by desire and love, brought low by a woman so much younger and more naive. When he declares, This much happiness I’m going to have, you know his sacrifice will bring him down. He is enormously sympathetic, his acting horns drawn right in, probably because with Wyler he was never going to be able to indulge the grand theatrics of old: they had already worked together on Wuthering Heights and the mannered actor in him had been brought to book then by a director who knew just how much he needed from him, and how much storytelling he could do with the camera. And here the camerawork by Victor Milner is supreme, framing every emotional beat with just the right amount of distance and shot size, emphasising different perspectives and roles, juxtaposing possibility with imminent disaster, not least in those wonderful train scenes. Jones’s lack of technique somehow works to the advantage of the story: as her professional acumen improves, so does her control of the narrative: when she sees her ill and bedraggled husband again, and asks, Did I do this? it is simply heartbreaking. Their mismatched yet overwhelming love for one another contrives to make this one of the great unsung melodramas. The casting of Hopkins, who had also worked with Wyler (These Three), and Albert, is perfect, their character notes bringing solidity to an otherwise unbearable tragedy. It’s a sad story but I’ll keep it strictly commercial

The Rainmaker (1956)

I need a name that’s as whole as the sky with the power of a man. During the Great Depression, a drought is wreaking havoc on a small, destitute Kansas town. Bill Starbuck (Burt Lancaster) a slick con artist arrives in town, promising he can make it rain in exchange for $100. His offer is accepted by H. C. Curry (Cameron Prudhomme), a rancher whose middle-aged spinster daughter Lizzie (Katharine Hepburn) is desperate for a suitor. Her brothers Noah (Lloyd Bridges) and Jim (Earl Holliman) are more concerned about her marital status than the state of their thirsty cattle. Lizzie finally finds confidence when Starbuck, ever the smooth talker, convinces her she’s beautiful but the Deputy Sheriff J.S. File (Wendell Corey) for whom she has an unrequited love discovers Starbuck’s true identity and purpose and arrives at the ranch to put him away … You don’t know what’s plain and what’s beautiful. A stagy adaptation by N. Richard Nash of his own play that really struggles to breathe until the last third when Hepburn comes into her own and blossoms under the gaze of antagonist Lancaster, who gives his barnstorming character a touch of magic. It would have been better if Bridges’ role had been bigger as the meaner, more pragmatic brother but Holliman is really fun as the younger supportive one. It’s a studio-bound production which doesn’t even attempt realism but the photography by Charles Lang is rather lovely and the twist ending gives it a nice sendoff. Worth seeing purely for the starry performances. Directed by Joseph Anthony. Is it me? Is it really me?

Scarlet Thread (1951)

An East End spiv. A 1950s wide boy with cinema accent. Petty thief Freddie(Laurence Harvey) likes to talk jive in an American accent in London’s Soho where he hangs out trying to impress the ladies. He joins forces with suave gangster Marcon (Sydney Tafler) to commit a jewel heist in the University town of Cambridge with (Harry Fowler) driving their getaway car. But loses his never, fires his gun and the victim, an elderly man gets dragged away in the car. When the men are chased through the streets of Cambridge by students they take refuge in the garden of the Master’s house and are greeted by his daughter Josephine (Kathleen Byron) who takes them for graduates and invites them in. Marcon introduces himself as an old student – Aubrey Bellingham – and passes himself off to a visiting vicar but Josephine’s romantic interest Shaw (Arthur Hill) is suspicious and then her aunt (Renee Kelly ) arrives – the woman the men ran into as they escaped their pursuers. And womanising Freddie then takes a fancy to Josephine, then it transpires the man he shot was her father – and the radio news reports the man has died … This university is packed with young men who talk in inverted commas. Lewis Gilbert’s early noirish film provides a great opportunity to see a callow pulpy youthful Laurence Harvey, learning which side of his face was more photogenic and doing the old cheap romance thing with (bizarrely enough) charismatic Byron, she of Black Narcissus with the crazy lipsticked mouth – and the clue to his real British identity recalls that film. How bizarre it is to see these gangsters come a cropper in the rarefied setting of Cambridge University, chased by students in flapping gowns. There’s some genuinely interesting cinematography by Geoffrey Faithfull – over the shoulder tracking behind Tafler (Gilbert’s brother-in-law) and Harvey after the heist goes wrong; point of view shots in the getaway car piloted by Harry Fowler alongside a policeman on a motorbike making good use of the rear view mirror as he sweats at the wheel. The contrast between these surprising crims and the fish out of water setting is jarring but also pleasing, the early Soho scenes with Dora Bryan and the presentation of Harvey as spiv quite fascinating. Not great but it is has its moments, not least when Harvey’s mask (and fake American accent) slips and Tafler’s act as the ancient graduate is very convincing. Adapted by A.R. Rawlinson and Moie Charles from their play. You dance too well. It makes me think of all the women you’ve danced with

Evil Under the Sun (1982)

Even in those days, she could always throw her legs up in the air higher than any of us… and wider. Private detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) goes to an exclusive island that is frequented by the rich and famous. Fabulous actress Arlena Stuart (Diana Rigg) has alienated her latest husband Kenneth Marshall’s (Denis Quilley) young daughter (Emily Hone); is in an adulterous relationship with married gadfly Patrick Redfern (Nicolas Clay) whose jealous wife Christine (Jane Birkin) doesn’t even want to go out in the sun; and she is probably the culprit over a very valuable jewel stolen from her former husband Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakeley) that Poirot was hired to locate by the insurance company when he presented them with a fake. Gossip columnist Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall) can’t get Arlena to sign off on a tell-all biography; while theatre producers Odell Gardener (James Mason) and his wife Myra (Sylvia Miles) lost their shirts when Arlena walked off their last stage show with a fake medical cert. The hotel’s proprietress, failed actress and former rival Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith) meanwhile is still brooding over their comparative successes and her isolation from the world of showbiz. When Arlena is found murdered everyone has an alibi. Except Poirot … I have a big fat motive but no alibi. Adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel by Anthony Shaffer (with uncredited work by Barry Sandler) this takes a decidedly camp approach to the material, aided and abetted by wonderfully playful costuming, classic Cole Porter songs (arranged by John Lanchbery) and an exotic location in the Adriatic in contrast with the original’s island off Devon. It plays fast and loose with the content replacing the original’s dialogue with some very amusing wisecracks and barbed exchanges, viz. Rigg’s comment about her awkward teenage stepdaughter, She runs like a dromedary with dropsy. It’s not Christie but it is funny. Ustinov had replaced Albert Finney (from Murder on the Orient Express) in the preceding adaptation Death on the Nile and delivers a different variety of flamboyance with all kinds of nice touches and humour. It gathers itself back into the author’s original mode for the last half hour with everything accounted for in a very pleasing conclusion. Great fun. Directed by Guy Hamilton in Majorca and shot beautifully by Christopher Challis. You mean nobody did it. MM #3100

Downhill (2020)

It wasn’t nothing – at all. It was something. Pete Stanton (Will Ferrell) and his lawyer wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are holidaying in Ischgl, Austria with their young sons Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford) when a close call with an avalanche brings all the pre-existing tensions in their relationship to the fore after Pete runs with his mobile phone instead of ensuring his family’s safety. Publicly, Billie says it’s because Pete is mourning his father, dead eight months earlier. Their sexually forthright tour guide Lady Bobo (Miranda Otto) makes them uncomfortable but Billie starts to feel the seven year itch. Pete is in contact with his colleague Zach (Zach Woods) who’s on a whistlestop, country-a-day trip to Europe with girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao) and he invites them both to visit without informing Billie who promptly tells them about how he left the family in the lurch when he thought the avalanche was going to kill them. Then she has an assignation with a very forward ski instructor … Dad ran away. The American remake of Swedish filmmaker’s Ruben Ostlund’s fantastic 2014 black comedy Force Majeure is that rare thing – it works of itself, it’s subtle, funny, striking and just the right duration. If its sketchiness occasionally lacks the dark dynamism of the original and doesn’t capitalise on Ferrell in particular, it replaces it with some obvious sexual jokes but never loses the central conceit – the total failure of communications between two grown ups who cannot face the truth of their relationship. We’re in a stock image right now. Louis-Dreyfus’ outburst in front of Zach and Rosie is astonishing – and using the kids to back her up is a step even she eventually concedes is a bit de trop. Ferrell’s riposte – going apeshit in a nightclub off his head – doesn’t play the same but he’s a simpler, selfish beast. This is real battle of the sexes territory. The conclusion – when Billie tries to make Pete look good in front of their sons – suggests that this icy marriage might not even last to the end of the credits. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash who co-wrote the screenplay with Jesse Armstrong. Every day is all we have

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Aka WW84. Nothing good is born from lies. And greatness is not what you think. As a young girl, immortal Amazon demi-goddess and princess Diana (Lily Aspell) competes in an athletic competition on Themyscira Island against older Amazons. She falls from her horse, misses a stage, and is disqualified after trying to take a shortcut. Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) who is general of the Amazon army lecture her on the importance of truth. In 1984 adult Diana (Gal Gadot) works as a senior anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. She specialises in the culture of ancient Mediterranean civilisations and studies languages for fun. She continues to fight crime as Wonder Woman, albeit while trying to maintain some anonymity, rescuing people from a botched jewellery heist in a local mall. Diana meets new co-worker, gemologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) an insecure woman who idolises Diana and tries to befriend her. Aspiring businessman and charismatic TV huckster Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) visits the museum to try to acquire a mysterious Dreamstone which grants wishes to anyone who touches it. It is one of the artifacts found as part of the black market the jewellery store engages in and both of the women unwittingly use it for their own desires: Diana wants to be reunited with her dead WW1 pilot lover Steve Trevor (Chris Pine); while Barbara wants to be like Diana. She gets a makeover at a local boutique and Lord turns up at a Smithsonian gala and manipulates her in order to retrieve the stone. Once it’s in his possession he wishes to become its embodiment and gains its power to grant wishes, while also able to take whatever he desires from others: he’s been selling shares in oil without striking it yet and in a matter of days becomes a powerful and influential global figure leaving chaos and destruction in his wake. Barbara, Diana and Steve try to investigate the Dreamstone’s power further, and discover it was created by the God of Treachery and Mischief; the stone grants a user their wish but takes their most cherished possession in return, and the only way to reverse the condition is by renouncing their wish, or destroying the stone itself. Steve realises that his existence comes at the cost of Diana’s power. Both Diana and Barbara are unwilling to renounce their wishes, and try to figure out another solution. Maxwell, upon learning from the U.S. President (Stuart Milligan) of a satellite broadcast system that can transmit signals globally, decides to use it to communicate to the entire world, offering to grant their wishes. Barbara/Cheetah joins forces with Maxwell to prevent Diana from harming him. Steve convinces Diana to let him go and renounce her wish so that she can regain her strength and save the world. She returns home and dons the armour of the legendary Amazon warrior Asteria, then heads to the broadcast station and battles Barbara, who has made another wish with Maxwell to become an apex predator, transforming her into a cheetah-woman. After defeating Barbara, Diana confronts Maxwell and uses her Lasso of Truth to communicate with the world … Does everybody parachute now? What a great welcome this film deserves: a charming, heartfelt feminist superhero sequel with a message of peace, love and understanding – but not before the world comes close to annihilation. Adapted from William Moulton Marston’s DC Comics character with a screenplay by director Patty Jenkins & Geoff Johns & Dave Callaham, this starts out very well but tellingly goes straight from a prehistoric setpiece into an Eighties mall sequence and the first half hour is fantastic. Then … there’s character development when the klutzy Barbara arrives and her transformation to Cheetah takes its sweet time while odious businessman Lord is also introduced with his own backstory. The wheels don’t come off, exactly. The scenes are fractionally overlong and the two villain stories don’t mesh precisely with excursions into politics (the Middle East and a bit of an anti-Irish scene in London) which then escalates when Lord introduces himself to the US President (Reagan himself though he’s unnamed) at the height of the Star Wars policy (and we don’t mean sci fi movies). The winged one then learns the beauty of flight from her reincarnated boyfriend; while Barbara becomes more feline and vicious, an apex predator as she puts it. And Lord gets greedy while alienating his little son. So there are three somewhat diverging narrative threads. This is a structural flaw in an otherwise rather wonderful story. An exhilarating pair of back to back introductory setpieces followed by a Superman tribute that is exceedingly pleasant but doesn’t capitalise on all the characters’ considerable potential, this is a half hour too long (like all superhero outings) with scenes that need to be cut and political commentary that doesn’t sit quite right. Some of the jokes about the Eighties (in Pine’s scenes) get a little lost (directing or editing issues?) but the costuming is on the money and given that Diana lives in the Watergate Complex it’s a little surprising more wasn’t made of this or that it wasn’t set a decade earlier. Otherwise DC is nicely established in terms of geography and obviously it’s plundered for story. There are jokes that land rather well, like the Ponzi scheme; and when Steve gets into a modern aeroplane and Diana suddenly remembers that radar exists. In effect, this is a movie about the conflict in using your powers – there is a time and a place and it’s not always appropriate to get what you want because there are consequences and making a choice implies potentially terrible consequences and sometimes loss of life. It also engages with rape culture, sexism and the dangers of TV, taking down cheap salesmen and televangelists. Witty, moralistic and humane this has everything you want in a superhero movie and it looks beautiful courtesy of cinematographer Matthew Jensen and production designer Aline Bonetto. There’s a neat coda in the end credits. And how nice is it that the late great Dawn Steel’s daughter Rebecca Steel Roven is a producer alongside her father Charles Roven? You go Gal! You’ve always had everything while people like me have had nothing. Well now it’s my turn. Get used to it

John le Carre 19th October 1931 – 12th December 2020

The death has taken place of David Cornwell, otherwise known as John le Carre, the man who was in the British security service and then took to writing novels that enlightened the world about the Cold War and the machinations of spying. One of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, he was a superb communicator about the conditions of the world. His work has inspired film and television adaptations and frequently shone a light on the murky side of realpolitik and state-sponsored surveillance and violence. His most celebrated character, George Smiley, has been incarnated and reincarnated for big and small screen alike, a prism into the changing political landscape and the puppet masters behind it. We are the wiser for having been able to partake of his knowledge, his conscience and his elegant writing. Rest in peace.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

My interest is energy – transference of energy. Humanoid alien Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) comes to Earth from a distant planet on a mission to take water back to his home planet,which is experiencing a catastrophic drought. He uses the advanced technology of his home planet to patent many inventions on Earth, and acquires tremendous wealth as the head of a technology-based conglomerate, World Enterprises Corporation, aided by leading patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) who carries out all the interactions with people. His wealth is needed to construct a space vehicle with the intention of shipping water back to his home planet. While revisiting New Mexico he meets lonely Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) who works as a maid, bell-hop, and elevator operator in the small hotel where he’s staying. He tells her he is English. Mary-Lou introduces Newton to many customs of Earth, including church-going, alcohol, and sex. She and Newton live together in a house Newton has built close to where he first landed in New Mexico many years earlier. Womanising college lecturer Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) lands a job as a fuel technician with World Enterprises and slowly becomes Newton’s confidant. He senses Newton’s alien nature and arranges a meeting with Newton at his home where he has hidden a special X-ray camera. When he steals a picture of Newton it reveals alien physiology. Newton’s appetite for alcohol and television becomes crippling and he and Mary-Lou fight. Realising that Bryce has learnt his secret, Newton reveals his alien form to Mary-Lou. Her initial reaction is one of pure shock and horror. She tries to accept what she sees but then panics and flees. Newton completes the spaceship and attempts to take it on its maiden voyage amid intense press exposure. However, just before his scheduled take-off, he is seized and detained, apparently by the government and a rival company while Farnsworth, is murdered. The government had been monitoring Newton via his driver and he is now held captive in a locked luxury apartment, constructed deep within a hotel. He is kept sedated with alcohol (to which he has become addicted) and continuously subject him to rigorous medical tests, cutting into the artificial applications which make him appear human. Eventually, one examination, involving X-rays, causes the contact lenses he wears as part of his human disguise to permanently affix themselves to his eyes … It happened literally overnight. Paul Mayersberg’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel is rigorous and finely attuned to the surreal. Bowie was living on milk and cocaine at the time, if his own admissions are to be believed, and his detachment and appearance are central to the success of probably the greatest science fiction film of the Seventies, an exploration of fragility and trust and rotten human behaviour. And it’s also about the alien nation of America, alienation and sex, feeding into contemporary paranoia about the political establishment. The flashbacks to Newton’s home and family are strange and lovely, his arrival in the nineteenth century simply dramatised for extra effectiveness in a narrative based on juxtaposition of the modern and the unknowable. Beautifully constructed, shot (by Anthony Richmond) and edited (by Graeme Clifford), this may well be director Nicolas Roeg’s greatest achievement with a wondrous soundtrack co-ordinated by John Phillips and featuring compositions by Stomu Yamashta. Stunning. I realise you’ve made certain assumptions about me