Under the Volcano (1984)

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He on whose heart the dust of Mexico has lain, will find no peace in any other land. A day in the life of a man in 1938. Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) is an alcoholic former British consul living in Quauhnahuac, a small Mexican town. As the local Day of the Dead celebration gets underway, Geoffrey drowns himself in the bottle, having cut himself off from his family, friends and job. When he goes missing, his ex-wife, actress Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), who has returned from the US in the hopes of resurrecting their relationship, convinces his half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) to conduct a last-ditch search for him, hoping that Hugh might be able to rescue her self-destructing husband… How, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken? Adapted by Guy Gallo (his only screenplay to date) from Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 masterpiece, this late John Huston film (and he rejected over 20 versions of the screenplay over the decades) is a powerhouse film: brilliantly interpreted by everyone concerned. Reunited with his director following Annie, Finney offers one of his great performances, committed and charismatic, as the dissolute man who nonetheless has a core of humanity. Huston said of it, I think it’s the finest performance I have ever witnessed, let alone directed.  Huston had lived in Puerto Vallarta for a period and shot The Night of the Iguana there as well of course as having made one of his other films in Mexico – maybe his best ever, full stop – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Clearly the country brought something special to his aesthetic – and vice versa. There is nothing more real than magic. Here the various elements churn and dissect a life, symbolised in the wonderful titles sequence. It’s marvellous to see Katy Jurado as Senora Gregoria, a key supporting character in this drama that constantly threatens us with being on the brink of something – death? Truth? War? It was originally written by Lowry in 1936 but underwent many rewrites. It’s so special it’s the subject of two documentaries including the Oscar-nominated Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, in which Lowry’s words are read by Richard Burton, who Huston had hoped to cast as the lead right after they shot Iguana. Quite, quite the film then, with a legacy all its own. Hell is my natural habitat

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The Victors (1963)

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The whole world is full of love. A group of American soldiers manages to survive over the course of World War II, from the Battle of Britain, moving up through Sicily and France and Germany to the fall of the Third Reich and a station in occupied Berlin in the war’s aftermath. Along the way, a number of unfortunate incidents occur:  white soldiers violently abuse fellow black soldiers, a deserter is executed on New Year’s Eve and a sergeant takes advantage of a shell-shocked French woman. War is hell for the winners and the losers in this episodic meditation on the horrors that exist on and off the field of battle… Have a good time tonight? Find someone to rape? Irony is writ large in this film – starting with the title. These guys victors? God help us all. What they do to a little dog following Peter Fonda as he leaves camp doesn’t bear a second viewing. They are racist, vicious, narcissistic thugs. But hey, they’re ours! That’s really the point of this anti-war anti-blockbuster from auteur Carl Foreman, the formerly blacklisted screenwriter who gave us the joyous Guns of Navarone. So we see Vince Edwards make nice with young Italian mother Rosanna Schiaffino, Eli Wallach generously gives widowed Jeanne Moreau a break from the bombs in exchange for food, George Hamilton falls for the duplicitous musician Romy Schneider and George Peppard has an unpleasant encounter with Melina Mercouri. There is a bitter conclusion in the post-war experience as drunken Russian soldier Albert Finney in a very showy role exercises the ultimate droit de seigneur of the fatal variety. Interspersed with newsreels and taking us through the entire WW2 as a series of personal vignettes, we are oddly removed from any kind of empathy because these really are not nice guys. We get it:  nobody’s a winner. The snow field execution while Sinatra croons Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is duly horrifying. Adapted by Foreman from the novel The Human Kind by Alexander Baron who himself served in Sicily, Normandy and Belgium through D-Day.  Directed by Carl Foreman and shot by the great Christopher Challis.  I don’t think I can ever be frightened again

 

Albert Finney 9th May 1936 – 7th February 2019

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The wonderful British actor Albert Finney has died. Born in Salford, he began in theatre in Birmingham and at the Old Vic where he created the role of Billy Liar and also came to prominence as Luther. His first screen appearance in The Entertainer didn’t excite, but when he played the Angry Young Man in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning a star was born. He was at his best doing gruff and savage and he became a global sensation in Tom Jones, an eighteenth century tale of a Northern lad made good in a kind of upmarket epic of kitchen sink realism.  He didn’t do enough work and sometimes years passed between his films – yet found he was in his element when he was mining his Northern roots – in Charlie Bubbles which he directed from Shelagh Delaney’s screenplay and especially in Gumshoe where the combination of humour and movies fit him to a T.  His love of musicals came as a surprise and he was a fascinating Scrooge and later Daddy Warbucks in Annie for John Huston. He starred in two of my favourite movies, the astonishing Wolfen and the highly emotive Shoot the Moon as the divorced father. He wasn’t the only one crying. And how about Miller’s Crossing?! Two For the Road?  And talk about an unexpected Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express. He starred in two films written by my friend Shane Connaughton – The Playboys and The Run of the Country – a writer’s dream come true, to have Albert Finney reincarnate your father – and then graced Erin Brockovich with real character. His last appearance as gamekeeper Kincade in Skyfall gave that navel-gazing James Bond outing real class. Fleet, funny, plain and powerful, Finney was some kind of man. Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not

Gumshoe (1971)

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Don’t be embarrassed when we’re out together – I could walk behind you.  Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney) works at a bingo hall in Liverpool, England, but dreams of becoming a stylish private investigator like those he has read about and seen in films – he’s entranced by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. After finally placing an advertisement in a local newspaper announcing his detective services, he receives a mysterious offer from a fat man who sends him a brown paper package containing a gun and he asks him to find a girl called Alison (Carolyn Seymour). His usually estranged brother William (Frank Finlay) offers him money to stop his investigation. He hangs out with his nice sister-in-law Ellen (Billie Whitelaw) but when he’s approached by the mysterious American Mrs Blankerson (Janice Rule) he’s soon in over his head. Even though Eddie is inexperienced and clueless at certain aspects of investigating he realises that he is entangled in a serious case involving drugs, murder and his own family… I sometimes hit below the belt.  Co-produced by Finney with Michael Medwin, this is an oddly charming piece of work, an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s private eye in the North of England with a man trying desperately to be Bogie in a trenchcoat but actually working in a Manchester bingo hall. The initially discomfiting narration in Eddie’s real voice is soon forgotten, aided immeasurably by a decent cast, a good level of mystery and a superbly witty score by Andrew Lloyd Webber whose flair and flourishes are laugh out loud enjoyable (he would re-use some of it for Sunset Boulevard). Finney makes a very game PI, a fish out of water in this dullsville backwater where the biggest crooks are members of his own family hoodwinking the poor putz.  Writer and actor Neville Smith adapted his own novel and it was directed by Stephen Frears, making his debut and the nicely lit location photography is by Chris Menges, sometimes shooting in a Liverpool no longer there.   Keep your guard up, don’t lead with your chin, and keep throwing out those lefts

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

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Bianchi, Doctor, has it occurred to you that there are too many clues in this room? Having concluded a case, fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) settles into what he expects will be a relaxing journey home from Istanbul via Calais aboard the Orient Express in December 1935 courtesy of the line’s director, Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam). But when an unpopular and enigmatic American billionaire Ratchett (Richard Widmark) is murdered en route, Poirot takes up the case, and everyone on board the famous train is a suspect. The other passengers travelling on the Calais coach are: Mrs. Harriet Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), a fussy, talkative, multiple-widowed American;  Ratchett’s secretary and translator Hector McQueen (Anthony Perkins) and English manservant Beddoes (John Gielgud); elderly Russian Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) and her German maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachel Roberts); Hungarian diplomat Count Rudolf Andrenyi (Michael York) and his wife Elena (Jacqueline Bisset); British Indian Army officer Col. John Arbuthnot (Sean Connery); Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave), a teacher of English in Baghdad;  Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman), a timid Swedish missionary to Africa on a fund-raising trip; Italian-American car salesman Antonio Foscarelli (Denis Quilley); and Cyrus B. Hardman (Colin Blakely), an American theatrical agent;  and the conductor Pierre Paul Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel).  Using an avalanche in Yugoslavia blocking the tracks to his advantage, Poirot gradually realizes that many of the passengers have revenge as a motive, and he begins to home in on the culprit as he discovers that everyone aboard is in some way connected with the kidnapping of a little girl which resulted in several deaths … Colourful, energetic pastiche of old train movies, the most surprising aspect of this is that the venerable street-savvy Sidney Lumet directed it.  Heading up the extraordinarily starry cast is Finney who is unrecognisable and plays the man with all those little grey cells to the manner born, achieving a brilliant comedic affect.  With all those famous actors it’s interesting to note how they use ‘business’ to get attention and the cunning score by Richard Rodney Bennett gives them each their own signature (guess what Perkins’ sounds like!) enlivening their vignettes.  There are no surprises in Paul Dehn’s screenplay and the dénouement when Poirot takes us through the murder is very satisfying even while most of the cast must keep quiet as Finney gives his masterclass.  Interesting to note all but two of them got a flat fee of $100,000 barring Finney (who has the lion’s share of the acting) and Connery who was big enough to garner points. Apparently life on the set was better for the actors than the crew, who were subjected to Redgrave’s lunchtime political lectures – the cast got to hear Gielgud’s theatrical anecdotes instead. It was one of just two Agatha Christie plots which the Queen of Crime based on real events. Great fun.