Hell is a City (1960)

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Do you know how long it is since you made love to me?  World-weary police inspector Harry Martineau (Stanley Baker) waits in Manchester for an escaped killer Don Starling (John Crawford) to return for his loot and when there’s a violent jailbreak followed by a street robbery which winds up with the murder of a young woman and her body is found dumped on the moors he thinks his man is on the loose…. This police procedural has a lot going for it, not least the location shooting in Manchester, Stanley Baker’s performance (did he ever give a bad one) and the obsession that drives him. Then there are the women – a louche bunch who don’t mind him at all but he’s got a nagging bored wife Judith (Maxine Audley) who’s basically frigid and wonders why he can’t call her every morning despite being up to his oxters in murder. As Martineau works through his contacts to find the gang and locate Starling he encounters the febrile women in Starling’s life –  randy barmaid Lucky Lusk (Vanda Godsell), unfaithful Chloe Hawkins (Billie Whitelaw) who’s married to Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasence) who’s been robbed, and deaf and dumb Silver Steele (Sarah Branch) the granddaughter of antiques dealer Doug Savage (Joseph Tomelty) who may know more than he’s saying … This is an astonishingly powerful genre work, gaining traction from the toughness, the sadism and the brittle knowing dialogue which goes a long way to explaining the relations between thuggish men and dissatisfied women.  Martineau will say or do anything to stop the carnage. There’s a harrowing mano a mano fight to the near death on the rooftops of this drab city. Adapted from Maurice Procter’s novel by director Val Guest, who is responsible for so many great cult films of the era. There’s a great team here – Hammer producer Michael Carreras, composer Stanley Black and cinematographer Arthur Grant. You’ll shiver when the girl is left on the moors. Manchester. So much to answer for.

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Topkapi (1964)

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I’ve just had a great idea – something I’ve been looking for a long time… a very long time. Beautiful thief Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) and her ex-lover, Swiss criminal genius Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) put together a plan to steal an emerald-encrusted dagger from Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace with the assistance of larger than life Heath Robinson-type mechanical genius Cedric Page (Robert Morley). As part of their amateur acrobatic crew, they hire small-time con-man Anglo-Egyptian Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov) as their driver and fall guy. When the Turkish secret police capture Simpson at the border with a dodgy passport, they persuade him to spy on the gang, mistakenly believing that they’re Communist agents plotting an assassination… French-American director Jules Dassin had already perfected the heist movie with Rififi but everything here is played for laughs even if the scenes with the dubiously tranny charms of his wife Mercouri as the jewel-obsessed magpie are a little more on the forced side and overlong. The pitch is different from the Eric Ambler source novel The Light of Day where Simpson’s voice prevails but the heist itself has been enormously influential, viz. Mission:  Impossible and it was one of the top Sixties crime capers. Gilles Segal is terrific as the mute human fly whose super abilities charge the theft and Akim Tamiroff amusing as the cook. At this distance it all looks a little fake, rather like the team itself – and the recording parrot! Ustinov is very good as the stool pigeon whose intelligence notes to the police need decoding. At the end it seems this is all about a squawking bird. Dassin himself appears as the proprietor of the travelling show intended to transport the dagger across the Turkish border at the conclusion and there are some diversionary oily homoerotic wrestling scenes in an arena which should appeal to the Putinesque. Written by Monja Danischewsky.

Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)

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These girls in love never realise they should be dishonestly honest instead of honestly dishonest. American secretary Maria (Maggie McNamara) is a newcomer to Rome, seeking romance. I’m going to like Rome at any rate of exchange, she declares. She moves into a spacious apartment with a spectacular view of the city, with agency colleague Anita (Jean Peters) and the more mature Frances (Dorothy McGuire) who’s working for the reclusive novelist (Clifton Webb). They fling their coins into Rome’s Trevi Fountain, each making a wish. Maria is pursued by dashing Prince Dino di Cessi (Louis Jourdan) whom she steadfastly deceives about her origins and interests which she regrets upon meeting his mother; Anita finds herself involved with a forbidden coworker, translator and wannabe lawyer Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi) on an eventful trip to a family celebration at their mountain farm; and Frances receives a surprising proposal from her boss John Frederick Shadwell (Clifton Webb) for whom she has nursed a well-known crush since she came to Rome 15 years earlier. They move through the worlds of society, art and music. But there are complications – not to mention strings attached, which prove surprisingly moving. All three women return to the Trevi where the water is switched on again, as though just for them … Adapted by John Patrick from John H. Secondari’s novel, this is the glossy, beautiful movie that brought tourists in their millions to Rome, its Technicolor process luxuriantly wallowing in the staggering architecture and location scenery heightened by CinemaScope. From the title tune by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn (delivered by Sinatra), to the pure romance (with some surprisingly tart insights about feminine deception and compromise) and gorgeous scene-setting, this is just dreamy. Directed by Jean Negulesco.

The First Wives Club (1996)

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There are only three ages for women in Hollywood – babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. In 1969 at college class valedictorian Cynthia Swann (Stockard Channing) presents her best friends with pearl necklaces.  A quarter of a century later she throws herself off a building after being betrayed by her adulterous billionaire husband. Her friends reunite at her funeral: Annie (Diane Keaton) is depressed and in therapy after separating from her husband Aaron (Stephen Collins) who’s screwing Annie’s therapist Leslie (Marcia Gay Harden);  Brenda (Bette Midler) is divorced from the cheapo millionaire husband Morty (Dan Hedaya) she made rich and now he’s shacked up with bulimic Shelly the Barracuda (Sarah Jessica Parker);  Elise (Goldie Hawn) is a big acting star with no work, addictions to cosmetic procedures and alcohol and a soon-to-be-ex-husband producer Bill (Victor Garber) sleeping with a young actress Phoebe (Elizabeth Berkley) who’s getting the lead role in a movie – and Elise is only going to play her mother! And Bill’s looking for half of everything – plus alimony. The women pretend to each other everything is fine but the truth is told over a drink or ten following the church service. When they each receive letters that Cynthia got her maid to mail them before her suicide they realise that they have been taken for granted by their husbands and decide to create the First Wives Club, aiming to get revenge on their exes. Annie’s lesbian daughter Chris (Jennifer Dundas)  gets in on the plan by asking for a job at her father’s advertising agency so she can supply her mother with inside information.  Brenda enlists the support of society hostess Gunilla Garson Goldberg (Maggie Smith) – another trophy wife victim – to persuade Shelly to hire unattainable decorator Duarto Felice (Bronson Pinchot) to do over her and Morty’s fabulous penthouse with outrageously expensive tat. Brenda then discovers from her uncle Carmine (Philip Bosco) who has Mafia connections that Morty is guilty of income tax fraud, while Annie makes a plan to revive her advertising career and buy out Aaron’s partners. However, as their plan moves ahead things start to fall apart when they find out that Bill appears to have no checkered past and nothing for them to use against him. Or does he? Elise gets drunk which results in her and Brenda hurling appalling insults at each other and the women then drift apart. When Annie starts thinking about closing down the First Wives Club, her friends come back, saying that they want to see this to the end and Bill hasn’t done anything blatantly wrong – at least as far as he knows. Figuring that revenge would make them no better than their husbands, they instead use these situations to push their men into funding the establishment of a non-profit organisation for abused women, in memory of Cynthia. But not before Elise finds out Phoebe is underage, Brenda kidnaps Morty in a Mafia meat van and Annie takes over …  I do have feelings! I’m an actress! I have all of them! There are digs at everyone in this movie – not just the moronic men who dump their wives in the prime of their lives but vain actors, plastic surgery victims, chumps in therapy – it’s an equal opportunities offender.  This is a real NYC movie with walk on cameos from Ed Koch, Gloria Steinem and Ivana Trump who utters the immortal line, Don’t get mad – get everything! Adapted from Olivia Goldsmith’s novel by Robert Harling and directed by Hugh Wilson. Great fun and far sharper than Marc Shaiman’s soft score would suggest.

Boy on a Dolphin (1957)

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You’re talking to me as if I were a man of honour – I’m not! Phaedra (Sophia Loren) is a sponge diver on the island of Hydra who finds a valuable statue underwater. She and her idle Albanian boyfriend Rhif (Jorge Mistral) try to figure out how to sell the treasure so that they can leave their life of poverty behind. She goes to Athens, where she meets Dr. James Calder (Alan Ladd) an American archaeologist working in Greece to restore national treasures. He can only pay them a small finder’s fee for the piece. Then  a millionaire treasure hunter Victor Parmalee (Clifton Webb) wants the treasure for himself and organises to help Phaedra raise the treasure and smuggle it out of the country. He is happy to pay her for it – and for other things. Meanwhile, Calder joins in the chase for the statue and Phaedra lies to him about its whereabouts, hoping that he will give up or run out of money. Finally her little brother Niko (Piero Giagnoni) persuades her to do the right thing by giving the statue to her homeland, thus opening up the possibility of a relationship with Calder. Ivan Moffat and Dwight Taylor adapted David Divine’s novel and it was given the full Techincolor widescreen treatment in an attempt to emulate the success of Three Coins in the Fountain with that film’s director, Jean Negulesco. Cary Grant was supposed to co-star with his latest cinematic squeeze Loren (after The Pride and the Passion) but Ladd eventually replaced him because Grant’s wife the actress Betsy Drake narrowly escaped with her life when the liner Andrea Doria sank and he rushed home to be at her bedside. Ladd hated flying and while travelling to the set he and his wife were robbed on the Orient Express and arrived to less than adequate facilities on Hydra. He didn’t get on with Loren at all and insisted she be placed to meet him at eye level despite her being much taller. She looks spectacular and even if the film wasn’t the anticipated hit for the studio, that cling-on swimsuit made her a huge star. While interiors were done in Cinecitta, the locations are simply spectacular:  Hydra, the Acropolis, Rhodes, the Saronic Gulf, Meteora, Corinth, Mykonos, Delphi and the Aegean Islands:  this is why colour film was invented. The title song is performed uncredited by the wonderful Julie London and Loren sings it in the story – as well as dancing and enchanting both Ladd and Webb, not the easiest of tasks, when you think about it.

American Gigolo (1980)

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A romantic drama about a male prostitute. Well it would have to be the beautiful Richard Gere at the peak of his masculinity in every sense – he was the first star to be photographed full frontal. Then of course a decade later he would play the man hiring the whore in Pretty Woman – not that my three year old cousin whose fave movie that was had the remotest idea. Paul Schrader’s fantasy about procurement, licentious behaviour and surfaces plays remarkably well these days. Gere is Julian Kaye, the high class multilingual (quiet there at the back) gigolo who usually works for an elegant procuress, Anne (Nina van Pallandt) sleeping with rich older women and squiring widows about town. He takes a job as a favour for street pimp Leon (Bill Duke) which turns into a very rough trick in Palm Springs and days later he’s had a murder pinned on him. Detective Hector Elizondo pretty much knows it’s not him but has to go after him anyhow. In the interim Julian has fallen for an unhappily married politician’s wife Michelle Stratton (model Lauren Hutton) and finds himself untouchable. That’s the big irony in this cool and observant film about narcissism and control. It became famous for two things – the Blondie song in the title sequence (Call Me)  which is reworked into thematic sequences and the montage in which Julian picks out his wardrobe – all Armani. The abstract images for the sex sequences particularly between Gere and Hutton seem to crystallise emotional detachment but the final image in which Julian perversely finds freedom in prison with Michelle on the other side of a window is pure Bresson. He rescues her and she saves him right back. Very interesting indeed and a key reason for Gere’s superstardom after the studio wanted Christopher Reeve and John Travolta turned it down – as he did many roles which then fell in Gere’s capacious lap…

Jackie (2016)

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Did I really see this film?! That’s an appropriate afterthought given its hallucinatory quality, a narcotised morphine fever dream about a woman with a flip haircut, boiled wool suits and a voice from the Marilyn playbook. Natalie Portman doesn’t remotely resemble the upperclass journalist who married into the crass Kennedy family and wound up First Lady with her husband’s brains spattered into her lap on an ill-judged trip to Texas, home to LBJ. Yet that doesn’t matter because after a half hour of her narration you are sucked into this Warholesque meditation on fame and public approval. She lies constantly to journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) interviewing her for Life after the assassination and then tells him things she insists cannot possibly go to print. She will edit the image and control the myth – which she calls Camelot. That record spins as she cascades into a vortex of desperation and disbelief. This will be her version of events. She crashes around the White House, drunk; argues with Bobby and Jack Valenti about the funeral and changes her mind back and forth about how much of Lincoln’s leavetaking should be imitated, while the clodhopping Kennedy sisters try to manipulate the situation;  when her husband’s casket is put on public view she sympathises with LBJ that this should be the terrible beginning of his Presidency. One suspects it is precisely the beginning he desired. Real footage of her White House restoration tour for TV is intercut with a grainy impressionistic copy where she is coached and cheered from the sidelines by Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). Suddenly Portman’s embodiment doesn’t seem as mad. She retracts all the truthful statements from her account to White – what she did with her husband’s skull, the sound of the bullet – but it is to Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt) that she speaks about her loveless marriage, her insecurities, her need to have her dead children interred with their father. Their burial in the rainy hillside at Arlington feels like the ultimate cruelty. Archive footage is impeccably interwoven with this recreation of events in which we all have an investment, even those of us born long after they occurred. As she leaves the White House for the final time she passes Hamiltons department store and sees rows of window mannequins wearing her wigs and two-piece Chanel imitations. What is real? What is performance? she muses. One gets the distinct impression she knew more than most. And off she goes, homeless, to an unknowable, husbandless future. Written by Noah Oppenheim with a visceral arrest of a soundtrack created by Mica Levi, undercutting the sense of camp that this sad and crazy brilliance otherwise imparts. Andy Warhol is alive and well and still making movies. There is just one word for this: astonishing. Directed by Pablo Larrain. Oh!

Romancing the Stone (1984)

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“Wilder? Joan Wilder?!” What must it be like to meet your Number One fan and they don’t want to hobble you like in Misery but to help you out in the middle of the jungle in South America?! Ah, just perfect this, a romantic action adventure that brought Kathleen Turner to megastardom for a short spell, playing the unmarried romantic novelist who’s allergic to everything. After completing her latest magnum opus she rushes to Colombia when her sister Elaine (!) (Mary Ellen Trainor) calls for help. She brings with her a treasure map sent by her late brother in law who’s been hacked to death:  the map is the ransom for her sister’s freedom. Antiquities hunters Ira (Zack Norman) and Ralph (Danny De Vito) are holding her but Joan gets the wrong bus at the airport on the helpful advice of Zolo (her brother in law’s killer) and when she realises, causes it to crash.and is rescued by exotic bird smuggler Jack Colton (Michael Douglas) promising to repay him for his wrecked Jeep with travellers’ cheques. A love-hate relationship ensues as they spend the night in a crashed aeroplane, dance the hell out of each other, get help from a drug lord who’s her biggest fan (I love that scene!), and find the enormous emerald that’s the cause of all the trouble in the first place. “Aw man, the Doobie Brothers broke up!” moans Jack on finding an old issue of Rolling Stone. Witty, fast-moving, scintillating actioner (written in 1978) with great performances from all concerned. Turner is just great in one of the best movies of the Eighties. The horrible coda to all this is that the brilliant first-time writer, Diane Thomas, was killed in the Porsche Carrera gifted her by Michael Douglas when her boyfriend was driving her home after she’d had a few. The novelisation of this and its sequel, which she was unable to write because of being contracted to doing a draft of Always for Spielberg, is credited to one Joan Wilder. Tremendous, timeless entertainment. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Possession (2002)

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To get ahead in academia you have to be pretty tough. My own supervisor told me, I know you’re after my job. And didn’t read a page of my work for three and a half years. And stayed in his job. Quelle surprise. (45% of doctoral candidates drop out because of this kind of sanctioned behaviour.) Well, Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) has been passed over for an academic post that went to Fergus Wolfe (Toby Stephens) and has to keep labouring under eccentric Irish Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey) in search of anything relating to Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam),  the subject of an upcoming celebration and famous for a collection of poems dedicated to his wife (Holly Aird). Mostly Roland is cataloguing recipes. Ensconced in the London Library, however, he steals a couple of handwritten letters tucked in a book which he thinks are written to a lady poet, Christabel La Motte (Jennnifer Ehle). He follows his hunch to the acknowledged expert on her work, lecturer Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and despite her extreme misgivings, they visit her relatives, descendants of La Motte, and thence to France and Whitby, on the trail of what they find was a forbidden and adulterous romance. The stories are told in interweaving parallel, with a hint of French Lieutenant’s Woman about it all, but with added Lesbianism (La Motte has an inhouse painter, Lena Headey). Wolfe is assisting American literary bounty hunter Cropper (Trevor Eve) to get anything related to Ash and the mystery thickens and takes on a vicious patina with lives at risk. The story is wonderful even if Neil LaBute is probably the last director on earth you would expect to be handling it.  David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and LaBute himself each did a draft screenplay. The acting is the problem. Paltrow is horribly stiff, Eckhart cannot pronounce her name correctly (it sounds like Mad) and the stories that emanated from the set about their intolerance of each other and lack of chemistry certainly dooms any reality about their performance. LaBute made Roland brash and American so we get a culture clash that’s underlined a few times in the dialogue. Ehle is rather an insipid player but the romance with Northam is convincing and tragic and the impact on the women in their lives is horribly realistic. AS Byatt’s novel was a great literary bestseller and if it doesn’t work in its entirety (the Gothic potential was clearly not realised in lighting, cinematography or design) it’s a pleasing narrative, occasionally very touching and mostly well told with some nice performances by Tom Hollander and Anna Massey in the supporting cast. Red buses. Books. Libraries. I’m there!

High Season (1987)

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The life of the screenwriter can be challenging, that of the writer/director even moreso, particularly if you’re a woman. Clare Peploe has mostly been associated with her husband, Bernardo Bertolucci, but she has forged her own directing signature. It has a variable imprint. This story of a hard-up photographer (Jacqueline Bisset) in Rhodes falls on its sword despite an enviable location, lovely cast and some sharp scenes.  The tone falls between stools – Bisset’s good friend Sharpie (the rarely seen Sebastian Shaw) has given her a vase that she can sell to the unscrupulous Konstantinos  (Robert Stephens) to save her house since her philandering sculptor husband (James Fox) has taken a commission from Lord Byron fanatic Yanni (Paris Tselios) to lure tourists that sets his patriotic fanatical mother (the wonderful Irene Papas) crazy. An English couple turn up – played by Kenneth Branagh and Lesley Manville – and they are the equivalent of Charters and Caldicott on holiday. Their scenes are hideously wrong. Peploe has no idea how to control them and they ruin the film’s delicacy which ultimately turns on the identity of the infamous Tenth Man. There is neither rhyme nor reason to the film’s opening sequence but hopefully DoP Chris Menges had a nice holiday.  The location photography is stunning.