The Gauntlet (1977)

The Gauntlet

On a scale of one to ten, I’d have to give her a two, and that’s because I haven’t seen a one before. Hard-living ageing cop Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood) is recruited to escort Augustina ‘Gus’ Mally (Sondra Locke), a key witness in a Mob trial, from Las Vegas to Phoenix. But far from being a nothing witness in a nothing trial as Commissioner Blakelock (William Prince) insists, Gus is a lovely, well-educated if coarse call girl who claims to have explosive information on a significant figure that makes the two highly expendable targets. Ben starts to believe her story after numerous attempts are made to kill them and they have to travel across the unforgiving desert without official protection, pursued by angry bikers and corrupt police officers and he contacts his direct boss Josephson (Pat Hingle) to try to rearrange the outcome  ... Now, the next turkey who tries that, I’m gonna shoot him, stuff him, and stick an apple in his ass. Chris Petit remarks elsewhere that this in its own way is as significant to the Eastwood screen persona as Annie Hall is to Woody Allen’s – and that’s true, insofar as it examines masculinity (and it’s shown up in elemental form), quasi-feminist principles and gut-busting hardcore action and thrills based on the first formal rule of movie making – people chasing people. Written by Michael Butler and David Shryack, they were working on a screenplay originally intended for Brando and Streisand (can you imagine?) and Brando withdrew in favour of Steve McQueen and Streisand then walked – leading to Eastwood coming on board to direct and star so the self-deprecating humour took on a new edge as he challenges institutional corruption and general stupidity (mostly his own) once again. Locke is great as the prostitute with a planet-sized brain, a heart of gold and a mine of information and she’s every bit as resourceful as you’d expect when the two hit the road running. Fast, funny and occasionally quite furious, this is a key film in both of the stars’ careers. Shryack would go on to write Pale Rider (1985) for Eastwood and it was that decade’s biggest grossing western. There are some marvellous jazz solos from Art Pepper and Jon Faddis. Smart, rip roaring fun, a pursuit western in all but name. I can go anywhere I please if I have reasonable suspicion. Now if I have suspicion a felony’s been committed, I can just walk right in here anytime I feel like it, ’cause I got this badge, I got this gun, and I got the love of Jesus right here in my pretty green eyes

Torn Curtain (1966)

Torn Curtain

How do you like playing the dirty defector? During a trip to Copenhagen, American physicist and rocket scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) is attending a conference with his lab assistant and fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) and he picks up a telegram and tells her he is going to Stockholm. She follows him as he travels to Berlin where he publicly announces he is defecting to pursue his research for the Soviet Union. During a trip to a farm Michael meets a ‘farmer’ contact (Mort Mills) and it is clear that he is on a secret spying mission for the US. At the farmhouse he is watched by his official guard Herman Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who suspects what he is doing and Michael and the farmer’s ‘wife’ (Carolyn Conwell) are forced to kill him. He travels to Leipzig and tells Sarah what is really going on. He goes to the University in an attempt to persuade Professor Lindt (Ludwig Donath) to share his secrets but the man realises Michael has little to share and calls the authorities and the chase to catch him with Sarah commences … I forbid you to leave this room! A Hitchcock film in which various getaways are staged using bicycles, buses and boats, this is the one that forced him to conclude he no longer wished to work with stars. And what stars! Newman, who had already played a variation on this role in The Prize and Andrews, the world’s favourite actress at the time. They were not the choice of the director but of moneyman Lew Wasserman who probably played too large a role in his career and contributed to what could be described as his decline in the Sixties. And it’s true that they are weirdly mismatched. Nonetheless there is ample opportunity for local actors, Lila Kedrova, Tamara Toumanova and Ludwig Donath to shine. Peter Lorre Jr even has an uncredited role as a treacherous taxi driver! Many feel this is one of Hitchcock’s lesser films and one might ask, given that he had originated the Cold War spy thriller genre with a masterpiece, North By Northwest, why he felt he had to make another one. But we forget how fascinating the Iron Curtain was, and not just to filmmakers. What an opportunity to look at a society where spying on people wasn’t confined to Government but permeated everyday life – most Germans were snoops and tattle tales, and not in a good way. The landscape is another reason – all that flat land. (A reminder of the crop dusting scene…). The opportunity to kill someone in virtual silence because there’s a taxi driver outside the door – and what a sequence that is, using whatever comes to hand in a farmhouse kitchen.  Hitchcock told Truffaut in their famous interview that the point of that was to demonstrate how hard it actually was to kill somebody, something that the conventions of the contemporary spy thriller avoided. There is a sense in which Hitchcock is playing his greatest hits – the set pieces are fun and  quite reminiscent of ones he did earlier. Perhaps that’s understandable given that this was his fiftieth film and projects he felt more deeply about had failed to get off the ground. Despite being inspired by the defections of famed British traitors Burgess and Maclean the script originally focused on the female character and so Irish writer Brian Moore whose gynocentric novels were so acclaimed did the original draft. At that point Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant were Hitchcock’s dream cast – a replay of old attractions. But when that changed he got Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall to rewrite and the story was radically altered but Moore still got sole credit. (Moore repaid the slight by caricaturing Hitchcock in his novel Fergus). There are some horribly clunky visuals that make it obvious this was shot on the Universal lot – very unlike a director who should have been at the peak of his powers. Is he deliberately making the artificiality of the genre more transparent?! Even more oddly, Hitchcock dumped Bernard Herrmann’s unsatisfactory score (which you can find on the DVD and watch it again) and commissioned John Addison to do the version used on the theatrical release – viewing this with a different musical accompaniment alters the affect (something that a Channel 4 documentary demonstrated twenty-plus years ago). Fascinating, suspenseful and altogether necessary and not just for Hitchcock completionists. You told me nothing! You know nothing!

Six Days, Seven Nights (1998)

Six Days Seven Nights

It’s an island, babe. If you don’t bring it here you won’t find it here. Robin Monroe (Anne Heche) is a New York City journalist who works for Dazzle, a fashion magazine run by editor Marjorie (Alison Janney). She is invited by her boyfriend Frank Martin (David Schwimmer) to spend a week holidaying with him on the South Sea island paradise of Makatea. The final leg of their journey via Tahiti is in a small dilapidated aeroplane, piloted by disgruntled middle-aged American Quinn Harris (Harrison Ford). They are accompanied by Quinn’s dancer girlfriend and co-pilot Angelica (Jacqueline Obradors). Frank proposes marriage but Robin is immediately needed on a photoshoot on Tahiti and hires Quinn to take her there.  They crash in a storm on a deserted island with no beacon – they are lost. While they fight pirates led by Jager (Temeura Morrison) who they’ve witnessed murdering a yacht owner, Frank and Angelica console each other on Makatea and spend the night together. Robin and Quinn escape into the island’s jungle where they find an old Japanese warplane which Quinn manages to get up and running with Robin’s help. They are falling in love with each other. As they start up the plane on the beach Jager spots them and trains his weapons … I’ve flown with you twice. You’ve crashed half the time. Ivan Reitman knows how to handle stars and this Michael Browning screenplay plays perfectly to the strengths of Ford and Heche (and even Schwimmer, doing a Ross from Friends-type schlub act) keeping just this side of outrageous screwball antics (it helps to introduce some vicious armed pirates). It’s breezy fun, with some shrewd observations about the sexes, the virtues of being with the right person and even addresses the age difference between Robin and Quinn – You deserve someone fresh, he observes. Cute romcom fare with glorious location photography. Great fun. This experience has tested me and revealed no character whatsoever

The Operative (2019)

The Operative

We do not execute at any cost. If something is not according to plan you have the right to call it off.  British-Jewish Mossad agent Thomas (Martin Freeman) who is based in Germany is summoned to try and figure out the whereabouts of an agent he recruited following her father’s funeral in London because she is a valuable asset who has vanished without trace.  He met and persuaded this mysterious woman Anne/Rachel (Diane Kruger) to become an agent, sending her to Tehran on an undercover mission where she falls in love with Farhad (Casvar) whose business Mossad are hoping to use as cover for a nuclear weapons exchange to destabilise the national programme. When her missions become more dangerous and Farhad is kidnapped by her colleagues, she decides to quit, forcing her boss to find her before she becomes a threat to Israel… You should visit Israel. To connect to the place. The people. Adapted from the Hebrew novel The English Teacher by former intelligence officer Yiftach Reicher-Atir, writer/director Yuval Adler has made a smartly told, nuanced story benefitting from a defining performance by an almost unrecognisable dressed-down Kruger. The Tehran section is as educative as it is narrative, with Rachel’s love story an echo of her real feelings about the city and its people. Her enigmatic persona – she persists in telling people she’s adopted even though she isn’t – is not properly explored which suggests a hinterland the film doesn’t entirely reconcile. The letdown is Freeman, who apparently replaced Eric Bana as Rachel’s handler. Refreshing mainly because of its insights into the region’s geopolitics from a new perspective. I can’t believe I’m here. Doing this

Knight and Day (2010)

Knight and Day

Sometimes things happen for a reason. June Havens (Cameron Diaz) is a car fanatic preparing to board a flight back home for her sister’s wedding when she bumps into Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) in the middle of a busy airport. A few minutes later, they’re making small talk on the plane when June excuses herself to the bathroom, and all hell breaks loose in the fuselage. By the time June emerges with her makeup fixed and ready for some romance, Roy has killed everybody on board, including the pilots. After crash-landing the plane in a darkened cornfield, Roy tells June that she should expect a visit from government agents, but warns her that by cooperating with them she risks almost certain death. He drugs her and she wakes up at home the following day, and his prediction comes true when June is confronted by a group of CIA agents who come under heavy fire while bombarding her with questions about her mysterious companion who it transpires is a lethal CIA operative who is to be feared. Suddenly, Roy is back, whisking June away to safety and away from her ex, fireman Rodney (Mark Blucas).  Before long the girl who never travelled far from home and doesn’t even possess a passport is off on an impromptu global adventure that takes her from the Azores to Austria, France, and Spain. Somewhere in all of the confusion and gunfire, June begins to forge a bond with Roy, a disgraced spy who’s trying to clear his name while trying to avoid being murdered. Unfortunately, it’s never quite clear whether he’s one of the good guys and by the time he reveals that he’s attempting to protect a valuable new energy source, a never-ending battery hidden in a toy knight and created by an autistic wunderkind called Simon Feck (Paul Dano), he’s got to protect him from not just his former colleague Fitz (Peter Sarsgard) but also a gang keen to get it for themselves … Nobody follows us or I kill myself and then her. A completely nutty action comedy with thrills, spills and mayhem is just what the doctor ordered so here it is, a star vehicle perfectly tailored to the respective talents of Cruise and Diaz, previously paired in the rather (in)different Vanilla Sky and taking place on planes, trains, automobiles and motorbikes. And yet they weren’t meant to be the stars when this was originally mooted and of the twelve writers – you read correctly, twelve – only one, Patrick O’Neill, gets credited. It takes some narrative shortcuts – every time June might pose a problem, Roy drugs her – but he doesn’t take advantage (no, really!) and she has some skills, and she gets to use them in the wittiest way possible no matter that she might fire off in all directions. Totally left field, barmy fun with amazing stunts, a stunning car-bike chase in the middle of a bull run and a nice twist ending. That’s Gal Gadot as a spy in a restaurant. Directed by James Mangold. Who are you?

Appointment in London (1953)

Appointment in London

It’s time you stopped flying. In 1943 Wing Commander Tim Mason (Dirk Bogarde) is stationed at RAF Bomber Command and wants to conclude his third tour of 30 operations but he’s been working too hard and he’s too valuable to the team. He assists widowed WREN Eve Canyon (Dinah Sheridan) at the roadside and she accompanies him and the crew to the pub. It turns out she’s working with them and she is romanced by American pilot Mac Baker (William Sylvester). Losses are mounting and missions are failing. Crew members Brown (Bill Kerr) and The Brat aka Greeno (Bryan Forbes) believe there’s a jinx on them. Mason finds Greeno has been sending telegrams off-station that could be a security risk but they turn out to be to his wife Pam (Anne Leon) who asks to meet Mason when Greeno goes missing. A bombing load falls off a plane injuring crew just before a crucial mission over Germany and Mac steps in at the eleventh hour while Tim boards too in order to assuage the men’s fears of a jinx and their return prompts his realisation that he can now fulfill his appointment at the Palace in the company of a woman he loves … Everything seemed to go wrong from the start. John Wooldridge’s story is based on his own wartime experiences and he shares screenplay credit with Robert Westerby, managing a well-paced narrative that ratchets with tension and anticipation. It culminates in a wonderfully satisfying night-time firefight. The eagle-eyed will spot that navigation officer Sandy is played by one Anthony Forwood, one-time husband of Glynis Johns who became Bogarde’s other half in real life. Wooldridge composed the score and died prematurely in 1958. Made with the assistance of Bomber Harris, planespotters will be thrilled with all the Lancasters. Directed by Philip Leacock. Steady. Steady. Steady. Bombs go!

Affair in Trinidad (1952)

Affair in Trinidad

It’s dangerous to presume with the Trinidad lady. Post-war Trinidad and Tobago, a territory under British control. When nightclub performer Chris Emery (Rita Hayworth) discovers that her husband Neil has died in suspicious circumstances, initially thought to be suicide, she resolves to help the local police Inspector Smythe (Torin Thatcher) and Anderson (Howard Wendell) find his killer. Soon she is caught between two men, her late husband’s suave foreign friend Max Fabian (Alexander Scourby), who has designs on her; and her brother-in-law, Steve Emory (Glenn Ford), who arrives on the island and begins his own investigation into his sibling’s death since he cannot take the suicide verdict remotely seriously due to a letter his brother sent him. As evidence begins to point to Max as the killer and her feelings for Steve grow, Chris finds herself in an increasingly dangerous situation with a political plot that threatens the stability of everyone around her, even her homeland of the United States The worst tortures are the ones we invent for ourselves. Reuniting the stars of that perverse noir Gilda, this essays a variation on the theme but this time the S&M is ingrained in the political subtext of Nazis planning an attack on an unsuspecting US from the British-controlled Caribbean. Hayworth was making her comeback after four years away from the screen gadding about with the jet set and getting married and what have you. She is at her most lustrous and dazzling, singing, dancing to calypso and generally slinking around being sexily begowned by Jean Louis; while Ford is befuddled and anxious, as befits the role of the concerned brother-in-law investigating murderous island-hopping foreigners. The script by Oscar Saul and James Gunn is just ringing with memorable lines decently distributed through a wonderfully sinister ensemble nourishing a rich atmosphere. Valerie Bettis snarls vixen-like among the Germans she accompanies; and even Juanita Moore as housemaid Dominique gets her moments – This one is a man. The other is a shadow of him.  The gallows humour doesn’t end there as tensions escalate and intentions are clarified – Even at the risk of dislocating your personality, try to be calm. You’ll recognise the references – Notorious, Casablanca, even All About Eve. Fabulous stuff, nimbly directed by Vincent Sherman and produced by co-writer Virginia Van Upp who devised the story with Bernie Giler. I am just a pawn, a weak man. I am very easily dominated!

UFO (2019)

UFO

The guy on TV was lying.  College student Derek (Alex Sharp) tries to use his exceptional mathematical skills to interpret messages that appear to have been sent around a UFO sighting at a local airport, suggesting extra-terrestrial attempts at contact. Accompanied by his room mate Lee (Benjamin Beatty) and girlfriend Natalie (Ella Purnell) he is rebuffed by the airport staff and Government officials including FBI Agent Franklin Ahls (David Strathairn) and suspects a cover up. He requests the assistance of his professor Dr. Hendricks (Gillian Anderson) who thinks he is brilliant along the lines of a Thomas Edison but doesn’t really want anything to do with a gifted guy prepared to risk his scholarship by flunking her class. But he is haunted by memories of a childhood sighting which his mother refused to acknowledge … Do you know how many threats the airport gets every day? It’s not quite correct to describe this as suspenseful because it doesn’t conform to the usual tenets of dramatic pitch:  rather it settles for a flat realist line mirroring the landscape, leaving the maths to do the talking.  What’s marvellous is the lo-fi approach of paper, pencils and calculators to try and decrypt the probability and navigate the universe. Anderson is cannily cast, linking her meta-fashion to The X-Files, a shortcut to the idea dominating the story: We Are Not Alone. An intriguing exercise of singular focus utilising real-life information and TV newscasts about a 2006 incident at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Written and directed by Ryan Eslinger with a smart score by West Dylan Thordson. They put the Fine Structure Constant in their message. The mathematical equations and graphs are a thing of beauty, no matter how impenetrable. Practically a Hipster PDA exercise in astrophysics. That’s Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s son as Lee. The wavelength is the unit of the measurement – it IS co-ordinates

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

Love is a Many Splendored Thing

Our gorgeous lie did not even last the night. Hong Kong 1949. American journalist Mark Elliott (William Holden) is covering the Chinese civil war. Undergoing a trial separation from his wife, he meets beautiful Dr. Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones), a widowed Eurasian physician originally from mainland China. As the pair fall in love, they encounter disapproval from both her family, his friends and Hong Kong society about their interracial romance … I have my work and an uncomplicated life. I don’t want to feel anything again… ever. This outrageously beautiful melodrama lingers long in the memory for its Widescreen Deluxe images, shot by the great Leon Shamroy, including two weeks on location in its Hong Kong setting; and its cast. Adapted by John Patrick from Suyin’s 1952 autobiographical novel it’s a pulsatingly lush romance, played to the hilt and given gravitas with its issues of race against a background of the war in China leading to a takeover by the Communist Party. The subject matter meant there was trouble getting it off the ground in those censorious days. The production was no less troubled, with the stars eventually coming to loathe each other. None of that matters because the performances sing in a carefully dramatised story that boasts some of the most romantic scenes in either of their careers. All those love letters, kissing on hilltops, swimming … it’s a spectacular and vivid epic, sad and tender. And was there ever a more impressive hunk of sexy mid-century masculinity than Holden?! There is a strong supporting cast including Torin Thatcher, Murray Matheson and Isobel Elsom, rounding out a snapshot of colonial life in those post-WW2 days. Ornamenting the gorgeous score by Alfred Newman is the title song by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, one of the great movie themes, and it’s sung by The Four Aces. It was an enormous hit, just like the film.  Patrick would write another Hong Kong-set romance starring Holden, The World of Suzie Wong. Directed by Henry King, who had a knack for making beautiful films, with second unit location work by Otto Lang, who is uncredited. Love is nature’s way of giving a reason to be living, The golden crown that makes a man a king

Island in the Sun (1957)

Island in the Sun

Santa Marta, an island in the West Indies. Hot-tempered plantation owner Maxwell Fleury (James Mason) is jealous of his wife Sylvia (Patricia Owens) whom he presumes is having an affair with retired war hero Hilary Carson (Michael Rennie). He envies his sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins) who is dating war hero (Stephen Boyd), at home to visit his father, Lord Tempelton (Ronald Squire), Governor of the island. Their mother (Diana Wynyard) and father Julian (Basil Sydney) are concealing family history from them. Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine) a member of the island’s richest family, becomes romantically involved with islander David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte) who is politically ambitious. Drugstore clerk Margot Seaton (Dorothy Dandridge) is having a relationship with Denis Archer (John Justin) the aide to the Governor. When Carson is murdered, police chief Colonel Whittingham (John Williams) investigates. Meanwhile Bradshaw (Hartley Power) an American journalist is looking into the background of the Fleury family and his scoop that their grandmother was part black may scupper Maxwell’s political hopes… Does it make any difference, having an aim in life? As Caribbean potboilers go, this melodrama of sex, race, class and politics takes some beating. Adapted by the wonderful writer Alfred Hayes from Alec Waugh’s 1955 novel, it was directed by Robert Rossen, a man most of the cast despised for his HUAC stance (after being punished for his silence about membership of the Communist Party the talented writer/director eventually named names and wouldn’t really get his career back on track until The Hustler). It’s a perfectly picturesque production with all the limitations of mid-century censorship and taste yet still conveys a flavoursome spectrum of ideas and plot with some highly suggestive scenes, Fontaine and Belafonte’s interracial kiss being highly controversial at the time. This end of Empire movie graphically illustrates the colonial issues then raging, offering a true insight into identity politics. Mason has a rather narrow range here but Dandridge shines. Shot primarily on Trinidad and Tobago and also on Barbados and Grenada with interiors done at EMI-MGM in England. Produced by Daryl F. Zanuck, Belafonte co-wrote the hit title song with Irving Burgie and it was featured on his album Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean. In the last analysis the great patriots were those who identified personal ambition with the welfare of their country