Lady of Deceit (1947)

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Aka Born to Kill. Stop that phony intellectual patter you climbing faker! A cult item this, a film noir with a distinctly nasty undertow of viciousness and some droll lines. Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) is freshly divorced in Reno and finds the body of another woman and her boyfriend in her boarding house. Returning on the train to her wealthy foster sister’s home in San Francisco she’s accompanied by the ambitious thuggish drifter Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) who murdered the couple. Their attraction is obvious but he marries her sister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long) and introduces his sidekick Marty (Elisha Cook Jr) to the mix. When philosophical private eye (Walter Slezak) turns up to investigate the Reno murders it transpires he was hired by the victim’s landlady Mrs Kraft (Esther Howard, always a joy) whose alcoholic inclinations won’t stop her from doing a Miss Marple. Helen inadvertently leads the older woman into a murderous situation engineered by Marty. Trevor’s byplay with Tierney is really something and the awfulness of everyone concerned is heightened in their verbal interactions. What this lacks in pace it makes up for in sheer psychopathy. A thoroughly febrile post-war film directed by former editor Robert Wise. It was adapted by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay from the 1943 novel Deadlier Than the Male, written by that fascinating screenwriter, novelist and producer James Gunn, who specialised in the hard-boiled pulps so familiar from the period.

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Back to the Future (1985)

 

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Are you telling me you made a time machine out of a DeLorean?! Simply great storytelling here in a knotty, brilliantly constructed time travel-adventure-comedy that has a great big throbbing heart bursting with love at its centre. When you consider it came from the wickedly funny minds of Roberts Gale and Zemeckis – remember the amazing Used Cars?! – it seems an even bigger achievement. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is an average teenager in Twin Pines, a small town with a nice square boasting a clock that hasn’t worked since 1955, a cinema running soft porn, and screwed up parents with an alkie mom (Lea Thompson), a meek dad (Crispin Glover), loser sister and a thirty year old brother in a MacJob. He has a cute girlfriend, a skateboard and an eccentric friend called Doc (Christopher Lloyd) a scientist who has wasted his family’s fortune making a ‘flux capacitor’ fuelled by plutonium. Just when the nutty professor manages to prove he can travel back in time with an Eighties sports car (to die for!) the Libyans come calling and when Doc is mown down in a hail of gunfire Marty guns the engines of the DeLorean and at 88mph is catapulted back to the week the town clock stopped working in a lightning storm. He’s initially mistaken for a spaceman and finds that his housing estate is only just being constructed.  He needs to ensure that his parents get together in high school or the future will look very different as he and his siblings’ images begin to disappear from the family photo back in 1985 and Marty’s mom begins to fall for him in one of the more brilliant takes on incest in film history!  Plus he has to get back to 1985 to save Doc’s life in what is literally a race against time! … Fast, sharp-witted and brilliantly inventive, this has the kind of gleaming detail (skateboards, digital watches, Diet Pepsi, puffa jackets for 1985;  Davy Crockett, sci-fi comics, a classic diner, a Barbara Stanwyck oater at the movie theatre for 1955) that makes it almost documentary-like in resonance and relatability. The organisation of the narrative is mind-boggling when you consider the complexity of the story elements. Add in hugely likeable stars, great one-liners, and a genuine sense of fun,  this is proof that you can rewrite history and even get some very subtle revenge on the school bully!  One of the cinema’s evergreen classics, this is tonally perfect:  it just sings with joy. Brilliant.

The Hustler (1961)

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What’s so great about the film that made Paul Newman a superstar? This grim tale of Fast Eddie Felson the up and coming pool shark and his manager/nemesis Bert Gordon (the vicious George C. Scott is well cast) who wants to take the mantle of Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) at Ames Billiards Parlor in NYC is an enduring classic rooted in 50s social realism.  When Eddie loses face and money he retreats to the railway station locker room and cafe and finds another waif, the apparently confident but alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie) who like him is an accident waiting to happen. Stunningly designed by Harry Horner and shot by Eugene Schufftan, this is a story of people enclosed by their chosen occupations. The film’s very texture is pure gloom. Newman is simply great as the guy who dares to return to the pool hall even after he’s had his thumbs broken and confidence shattered:  not everyone loves pool sharks.  For most of the film the only light is coming from his eyes. Gleason is superb as the laconic competition and Scott is as evil as you’d expect. Laurie is heartbreaking as the price of Eddie’s ambition. This earned a fistful of Oscar nominations and ended up with two wins (for Horner and Schufftan). It was adapted from Walter Tevis’ story by Sydney Carroll and director Robert Rossen.  Rossen has a complex reputation. He was a man whose actions created a lot of ill-feeling on film sets. He was a former blacklistee (named by colleagues) who himself became a namer of names to HUAC after a second go-round in order to work again. But this comeback film drew upon his own experiences with its driven, failing, vicious, deadly characters. He grew up a poor Russian Jew in New York and did whatever he could to earn a buck. Desire and ambition were at the core of his being. He was a longtime member of the Communist Party when Communists played such a huge role in New York theatre and his screenplays in the 30s and 40s were concerned with society and poverty and getting out. The work certainly suited the studios who employed him at the time:  he got John Garfield to give a truly brilliant performance in boxing classic Body and Soul.  Unlike his fellow director Elia Kazan, he could never mend those bridges after the HUAC hearings.  His next film, Lilith, would be his last, reportedly after a contentious relationship with star Warren Beatty:  Lilith, after all, was a psychological study of a strong (if probably psychotic) woman, and it’s a strange piece of work that simply shines with the alluring lustre of Jean Seberg and the emotion of the truly felt. But after that experience he stated that if he never made another film he had The Hustler to his credit. It is a tragic story, well told. Rossen died aged 57 in 1966.

The Shining (1980)

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In the bigger scheme of things I have no idea what this film is about and I don’t know anyone who does. It started as an adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel but it evolved into something he disliked intensely.  It boasts a key performance in Jack Nicholson’s career – in which those eyebrows are utilised to express something truly demonic and he launched a million caricatures not least when he hymned Johnny Carson.  The bones of King’s novel are here – wannabe writer Jack Torrance decamps with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and little son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains to act as caretaker in the off season, hoping to overcome writer’s block. His son has psychic premonitions, possessed by the building itself, which however do not manage to overwhelm him and he shares their secrets with chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) with whom he communicates telepathically. Then Jack senses the hotel’s secrets – it’s built on a Native American burial ground – and he starts to lose his mind as we begin to connect the dots with a party that took place in 1921 and a photograph …  What happens here is not as important as how it looks.  Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson remove all the tropes that characterise the haunted house novel and we are left with overlit flatness and unsaturated colours that repeat and repeat and create their own rhythm. There are images that sear themselves on your brain:  the elevator pouring blood into those endless corridors that get longer and longer as Danny cycles up and down the hotel;  the twin Grady girls; the bar that suddenly opens up;  the nubile young woman who turns into an old crone; Wendy finding out what Jack’s been typing for months and months on those sheaves of paper;  Danny’s voice, growling red rum, red rum;  and Jack hacking through the bathroom door with an ax as Wendy cowers; Jack killing Dick, whose return to the hotel is because he senses that Danny needs him; the maze filling with snow as Danny tries to escape his lunatic father. Kubrick’s authorial vision produces something very odd and compelling and against the notion of the traditional horror film, perhaps minus all those strange theories promulgated by the documentary Room 237 which has a major preoccupation with presumed spatial discrepancies in the building’s layout. This is notable for Garret Brown’s use of the Steadicam, another instance of Kubrick’s obsession with using all the then-new technology to create powerful visuals. This production may have arisen from the master’s deep need to make a commercial hit after the failure of the beautiful Barry Lyndon, but one thing’s for sure about this ghost story like no other – once seen, never forgotten. Here’s Johnny!

The Country Girl (1954)

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This is the film that earned Grace Kelly her Best Actress Academy Award and nowadays her performance looks better than ever:  look at what she has to do. She plays the dowdy, dependable but once glamorous wife of faded alcoholic Broadway star Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) whose chance at a comeback is created by temperamental director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) against his backers’ better judgement. Dodd believes Kelly’s a suicidal drinker but she’s actually fronting for the massive insecurity of her husband, an habitual and chronic liar who’s using their son’s death in his care as an excuse for his cowardliness and retreat to the bottle. Kelly has to keep him going while the out of town previews go badly and go along with his stories to Dodd, who thinks she’s destroying him until he finally sees Frank on a bender and Frank confesses. Then Dodd realises his antipathy is based on his pure misogyny – he’s down on marriage since he cheated on his ex-wife obviously – and thinks he’s in love with her. Kelly thinks she is sympathetic to him too but she wants her husband’s comeback to work too. This Clifford Odets story is adapted very well by producer/director/writer George Seaton with key observational touches – there’s a lovely bit where Kelly overhears the audience’s opinions in the interval and smiles to herself – in between the big scenes, which are adorned with some crackling expository and personal dialogue. One of Crosby’s final lines is to die for. However he overplays his moroseness and Holden is occasionally too strident although that’s probably the Odets character – making Kelly’s job of pivoting between the pair that much harder. Some of her best moments are beautifully adorned by Victor Young’s supremely subtle score. A cracking backstage drama that deals with addiction, bereavement, guilt, grief and a dying marriage:  you know, the little things. Now, let’s put on a show!

Moulin Rouge (1952)

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Fine, absorbing and detailed chronicle of the life of Post-Impressionist legend, Toulouse-Lautrec, the crippled alcoholic whose paintings and lithographs of the Parisian demi-monde comprise the indelible imagery of the Belle Epoque (doesn’t every home have one of his posters?) Adapted from Pierre La Mure’s bestselling 1950 biography by Anthony Veiller, director John Huston is operating at his best, insisting on a muted palette in three-strip Technicolor (shot by the great Oswald Morris) to better mimic the tone of the artist’s own work, and getting a classic performance from stage legend Jose Ferrer, who had earlier won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac. His childhood years as the son of an aristocrat are well observed, with hunting scenes wonderfully conveyed – as one would expect of Huston, and echoed at a race track later on. The observations of his influences and the women in his life sharply delineate not merely his inspiration but how he applied materials to canvas and produced prints in the 1890s when his amazingly prolific art of raucous dance-hall culture made his name. The performances by the women here are excellent:  Colette Marchand as Marie Charlet, the prostitute whom he takes in and with whom he has a troubled relationship, almost culminating in his suicide when she reveals the reason for co-habiting with him; Suzanne Flon as Myriamme Hyam, the socialite he rescues on the Pont Alexandre, leaving her lover Peter Cushing (what an astonishing shot when he first sees her!); Katherine Kath as the once-famous dancer at the Moulin Rouge, now no longer a place for outcasts; Claude Nollier, terribly touching as the painter’s understanding and kind mother; and Zsa Zsa Gabor, immortalised of course as Jane Avril, and for whom this role is a terrific showcase. Ferrer is brilliant in a role which required him to perform on his knees using pads, and platforms, and he also plays his own father. The final scene is a valediction and a benediction.This is a model of the biography film, a classic of the period and a wonderful tribute to an incredible artist. Huston’s direction (and co-writing) is superlative, with the choreography of the infamous can-can having massive influence, including on Bob Fosse. All together now …!

Manchester By The Sea (2016)

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I can’t beat it. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a janitor in Boston, permanently hunched and haunted and beset by half-dressed female tenants who want to have sex with him and complain to his boss when he evinces no interest whatsoever and just fixes their toilets. He barely speaks. When he gets a call that older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died suddenly he is forced back to his titular hometown where people refer to him as ‘the Lee Chandler’ and he finds out from his brother’s lawyer he’s been named guardian to his irritating, underage, sexually voracious nephew Patrick (goofy ginger Lucas Hedges). It takes us a long time and a lot of repetitive scenes to get to the reason for his devastation:  the death of his young family for which he feels incalculable guilt. Patrick has no reaction to his father’s demise and just gets on with getting it on with whatever nasty teenage girls have sex with him, plays hockey and generally acts like dumb teenagers do when confronted with intimations of mortality (I was recently at a funeral when the teenage son of the woman whose death was being commemorated left midway to smoke cigarettes with several girls. This shit happens.) So much  of this is low-key and true that when these guys eventually drop their protective masks it is both surprising and shocking and explosive in terms of the situations  in which they finally let loose as much as anything else. Michelle Williams has one wonderful scene as Lee’s ex-wife (pictured in the poster) and it is of such delicacy that it elicits pure emotions not just from Affleck but the audience, otherwise her role is mainly confined to flashbacks of their marriage and its unfortunate and tragicomic ending (that ambulance scene is literally killer). So paradoxically despite its overlength the unsentimental narrative focus is somewhat diverted to the wrong situations and some scenes are consigned to montage underscored by rather obvious and ill-chosen music when we would prefer to hear the dialogue.  The flashback structure works brilliantly however. The rarely seen Gretchen Mol (the Next Big Thing, according to Vanity Fair circa 1998  when she co-starred with this film’s producer and intended star Matt Damon in Rounders) shows up as Patrick’s alkie mom, long estranged from the family. Affleck is simply masterful as this man who desires punishment but nobody wants him to suffer any more, except for a few women who believe he killed his kids. However it’s a long time getting to the point about how people deal differently with bereavement and even if we agree, such is real life, a playwright, screenwriter (and director) as smart as Kenneth Lonergan should and could have got there quicker.

The Smallest Show on Earth (1957)

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Aka Big Time Operators. Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers are shocked to find that his great-uncle’s bequest is the Bijou Kinema aka The Fleapit and the neighbouring Grand has a grasping owner who makes them an offer they refuse – they bluff that they’re going to reopen. Unfortunately commissionaire Old Tom (Bernard Miles) – one of three old-timers in the Bijou’s inherited staff including bookkeeper Mrs Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford) and drunken projectionist Mr Quill (Peter Sellers) – lets slip to a Grand employee that it’s all a show:  so then they have to go through with it. Dodgy equipment, low crowds and a constant supply of American B-westerns don’t help. But a sexy ice cream salesgirl (June Cunningham) brings an audience and Old Tom makes up for his mistake and the Grand is burned to the ground … A fun story of English eccentricity but coming from the pen of William Rose (and John Eldridge) we might presume it’s actually an allegory for Keeping Calm and Carrying On. Produced by Launder and Gilliat and Michael Relph, directed by Basil Dearden, in a kind of Ealing Comedy shot by Douglas Slocombe with added Leslie Phillips and Sid James plus a score from William Alwyn. Charming!

I Saw the Light (2015)

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It starts with a marriage in a garage and within the first ten minutes I had switched this off twice. Elizabeth Olsen plays the talentless attention-seeking narcissistic divorced mother Audrey Sheppard, who latches onto Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) like a leech and whines and wheedles her way on his radio show alienating his band, his producers and his manager mother Lillie (Cherry Jones). Her vile off-key nasal voice literally drove me to distraction and the OFF button. It may be true to life but boy did it rile me. Sometimes verisimilitude is fine for dialect coaches but not the audience. This manages to boast a sterling performance by Hiddleston in a story which tells you nothing about how this genius’ mind worked. It has no interest in portraying how he got those demons, how his mother drove his father away, how she ran her son’s life, just the external consequences and incomprehensible relationships. A musical biopic with no interest in music? How a man who couldn’t understand notation came to write some of the century’s greatest songs? No context for those significant radio shows? The wider musical landscape? His dealings with his bandmates? The beating Williams took before his strange death in his own car after being treated by a quack for his chronic alcoholism en route to a concert? Nope. That’s all folks. Hiddleston, who sings all the songs himself, and very well, is wasted. What a shame. If you knew nothing about Williams before you will know even less after this. Stick with Your Cheatin’ Heart  (1964) with George Hamilton.  Or prepare to get really irritated indeed. Adapted from the biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen by writer/director Marc Abraham.

Pillow Talk (1959)

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Producer Ross Hunter thought Doris Day could be sexy and her husband Marty Melcher resurrected a script by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene that had been loitering unmade since 1942, and with a rewrite by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin and a co-star in Rock Hudson, a new movie partnership was born. From the titles sequence to the original ending (reshot, making things legal) this romcom about an interior decorator (her) and a composer (him) sharing a party line (ie telephone!) whose lives cross, this skirts all sorts of sex and censorship issues using split screens with hilarious results. It doesn’t hurt that Tony Randall is her besotted suitor and his disgruntled friend, or that Thelma Ritter is the dipso housekeeper with rare repartee. A new era of sex comedy was born, with awards and profits flying in every direction and both Day and Hudson re-inventing their careers in the first of their screen collabs. A great looking film in every respect. Directed by Michael Gordon, who advised Hudson, Comedy is the most serious tragedy in the world. Play it that way and you can’t go wrong. If you ever think of yourself as funny, you haven’t got a chance.