The 39 Steps (1959)

The 39 Steps 1959

If you’re looking for Richard Hannay this is the man you want. Freshly returned to London, British diplomat Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) goes to the aid of a nanny ‘Nannie’ (Faith Brook) in a park only to discover there is no baby in the pram and follows her to a music hall where he watches Mr Memory (James Hayter). She goes back to his flat and reveals that she is a spy working for British intelligence looking for the organisation The Thirty-Nine Steps who are after information on the British ballistic missiles project. When she is murdered in his flat he goes on the run, encountering a bevy of schoolgirls on a train with their teacher Miss Fisher (Taina Elg) who reports him to the police but he jumps off the vehicle on the Forth Bridge and hitches a ride on a truck driven by ex-con Percy Baker (Sidney James) who advises him to stay at The Gallows Inn run by occultist Nellie Lumsden (Brenda De Banzie) and her husband who help him escape during a cycling race.  He approaches Professor Logan (Barry Jones) only to find the man is in fact the leader of the spy ring and he must keep running … I’m not having a Sagittarius in the house tonight! Hitchcock was responsible for the first adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy-chase thriller and this is a more or less straight remake, with the romance-chase narrative lines crisscrossing pleasingly as per the generic template established by The Master. More may be a slightly ridiculous hero but this is played for comic effect and its Hitchcockian homage continues in the casting of De Banzie who essays a knowing spiritualist in her crofting cottage. It has the advantage of location shooting, a winning plot, doubtful romantic interest, a deal of suspense and a collective tongue planted firmly in cheek. Directed by Ralph Thomas, written by Frank Harvey and produced by Betty Box. Keep out of the woods. Especially in August!

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

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The Man Who Knew Too Much 1934

Let that be a lesson to you. Never have any children. On a family holiday in Saint Moritz, Switzerland, Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his wife, Jill (Edna Best), become friendly with Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) who is staying in their hotel. He is assassinated in their presence, but as he is dying manages to passes along a secret to Jill, asking her to contact the British consulate. To keep the pair silent, a band of foreign assassins kidnaps their teenage daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Offered no help by the police, Bob and Jill hunt for their daughter back in London as they try to understand the information that they have before tracing the kidnappers and once again encountering the cunning Abbott (Peter Lorre) in very compromising circumstances while an assassination is due to take place during a concert at the Albert HallYou must learn to control your fatherly feelings. Providing a template for much of director Alfred Hitchcock’s subsequent career, this is written by Charles Bennett and D. B. Wyndham Lewis with a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlinson (and additional dialogue by Emlyn Williams) and it’s a gripping and blackly comic suspenser with a simple lesson – if a gun goes off in the first act it’s bound to go off again in the third, in order to bring things to a pleasingly grim conclusion in an extended siege and shootout. Hitchcock’s experience in German cinema is telling in terms of editing and design (for which Alfred Junge is responsible) and it moves quickly and effectively, suiting his talents far better than the slow-moving melodramas he made after the coming of sound, with nary a moment to contemplate some of the zingers which particularly work for Lorre’s sly delivery. Above all it’s a fascinating portrait of subversives in the seedier parts of London, influenced by the 1911 Sidney Street siege, a Conradian subject of anarchy to which Hitchcock would soon return. You’ll be agog at the gathering at the Tabernacle of the Sun and amused by Banks and his mate Clive (Hugh Wakefield) singing out instructions to each other to the tune of a hymn. Hitchcock’s future assistant and producer Joan Harrison has a small uncredited role as a secretary but it’s Best you’ll remember as the brilliant sharpshooting mother – you don’t want to mess with the woman. Don’t breathe a word!

The Double (2011)

The Double 2011

He trained us all – his way. Decades after the ending of the Cold War, retired CIA operative Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere) is persuaded by his former boss Tom Highland (Martin Sheen) to return to the fray to hunt down a mysterious and legendary Soviet assassin known as ‘Cassius’ presumed to be behind the assassination of a Senator yet thought to be long dead:  the victim’s throat was slit, his trademark. Shepherdson is teamed up with rookie FBI agent Ben Geary (Topher Grace) who wrote his Master’s thesis on Shepherdson’s long pursuit of his nemesis. Eventually, their investigations uncover disturbing secrets, which lead them to suspect each other even as Shepherdson’s motives are rendered complicated by some very personal business… Respect is the last thing I have for an animal like him. A dull-looking retro action thriller puts a twist upon a twist, using Gere’s established cool persona to aid a plot that ultimately manages to surprise.  When the initial revelation after thirty minutes about a sleeper agent seems like sloppy storytelling but then registers later as irony, it serves to enhance the enigmatic Shepherdson (it’s in the name, actually) as a kinder more benign individual whose otherwise impenetrable obsession with family is revealed in a rather satisfying conclusion. Grace is not as expressive as one would wish particularly given the subplot involving Shepherdson’s care and concern for Geary’s wife Natalie (Odette Yustman) but we find out why in the final sequence. The risk taken structurally (it’s in the title) is quite audacious – buy into it it or not. With Stephen Moyer as a really nasty prisoner called Brutus and Tamer Hassan as an even nastier cove called Bozlovski and an intriguing Mexican border prologue. Written by Derek Haas and director Michael Brandt. What if that’s what they wanted – a more visible alter ego

State Secret (1950)

State Secret larger

Aka The Great Manhunt. It’s very gratifying to think that a doctor can still perform a non-political operation. American doctor John Marlowe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) is visiting England when he is deployed to Vosnia, a small middle European country where people speak Esperanto. He finds that he is there to operate on the country’s dictator who dies during brain surgery but is replaced by a look-alike. As one of the few who know, Marlowe is hunted by the country’s secret police who are intent on shooting to kill because the dictator’s death must be kept secret. Marlowe flees and seeks the help of music hall performer Lisa Robinson (Glynis Johns). They blackmail Balkan smuggler Karl Theodor (Herbert Lom) into helping them. Pursued across the country, they are on the point of escaping when Karl is shot and killed and Lisa is wounded. Marlowe could escape without her but remains. Government minister Colonel Galcon (Jack Hawkins) arranges a ‘shooting accident’ for Marlowe but as Marlowe walks to his fate, the false dictator’s speech is being broadcast on the radio. Shots are heard and Galcon confirms that the stand-in has been assassinated and realises that it may all be over for him … Have you changed your mind?/No, I’ve just lost it. Loosely adapted from a Roy Huggins novel by director Sidney Gilliat, this is a cracking thriller as you’d expect from one of the writing team (with producer Frank Launder) behind Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich It’s nicely shot by Robert (The Third Man) Krasker who has fun at the start with some point of view shots underscoring Fairbanks’ narration and Trento and the Dolomites make great locations although the locals weren’t too happy during production with post-war communist feelings at fever pitch. The suspense quotient is upped by a superior score from William Alwyn. The version of Esperanto here is made up of Latin and Slavic languages but the universal language is thrills and it has more of those when Johns joins the chase 45 minutes in and Lom cracks wise as the shyster because Fairbanks is a fairly flavourless lead. Every time I have a haircut I’ll be thinking of you

Venetian Bird (1952)

Venetian Bird

Aka The Assassin. A thousand lira should take care of your ethics. English private detective Charles Mercer (Richard Todd) is deployed by a French insurance company to find a brave Italian war hero who is to be rewarded for his assisting of the Allies in WW2. But from the moment Mercer arrives in Venice his first contact is murdered in a shop and he finds himself on the wrong side of the law – he’s the prime suspect. After enquiring about the mysterious Boldesca (Sydney Tafler) at a museum where the art department  is run by the lovely Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok) the trail leads to a glassblowing factory at Murano where he discovers he has wandered into the plot of a coup d’état run by Count Boria (Wolf Rilla) and Lieutenant Longo (John Bailey) and it turns out that the supposedly dead mystery man Uccello (John Gregson) is very much alive and well and ready for action with an important figure visiting the city the following day … There is nothing for you in Venice. Adapted by Victor Canning from his novel, this has the impression of a Third Man-lite and if it doesn’t have that film’s canted chiaroscuro angles or shooting expertise it has an interesting location and an engrossing if initially confusing scenario. Todd (who was Ian Fleming’s preferred choice to play James Bond) acquits himself well in a narrative which involves a lot of running and jumping and standing still behind statues;  Bartok is suitably enigmatic as the woman with a secret;  and Margot Grahame gets some fantastically dry lines in her role as Rosa, a woman of a certain age:  I have never kept a man under my bed in my life. There are sly laughs to be had at the wholly incongruous casting of Gregson and Sid James, of all people, as native Italians. Directed by Ralph Thomas, but one is left wondering how a film of this ambition would have turned out if a master stylist like Carol Reed had taken hold of such promising material:  instead of a nighttime chase in the sewers of Vienna, we have a daytime chase across the rooftops of Venice; and there is another political theme that was groundbreaking. The score is by Nino Rota. Produced by Betty Box. Out of weakness and confusion we shall create division and strength

Bananas (1971)

Bananas

And now, as is our annual custom, each citizen of San Marcos will come up here and present his Excellency with his weight in horse manure. Hapless New York product tester Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) desperately attempts to impress attractive social activist  Nancy (Louise Lasser). He travels to the turbulent Latin American country of San Marcos where he falls in with resistance fighters and, before long, accidentally becomes drafted as their leader replacing the crazed Castro-esque Esposito (Jacobo Morales) after foiling an assassination attempt by General Vargas (Carlos Montalbán). While Mellish’s position of authority wins Nancy over, he has to deal with the many burdens of being a dictator but being President just might impress Nancy ... Can you believe that? She says I’m not leader enough for her. Who was she looking for… Hitler? A hoot from glorious start to ridiculous finish, Allen’s hilarious homage to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup has everything: silent musicians (they have no instruments); Swedish deemed the only suitably non-decadent language appropriate for a post-revolutionary society; and a very young Marvin Hamlisch’s first ever score (funny in and of itself). A freewheeling mix of parody, satire, one-liners, sight gags and slapstick, this loose adaptation of Richard B. Powell’s novel Don Quixote USA is co-written with Allen’s longtime close friend, Mickey Rose, who also collaborated on Take the Money and Run. Featuring Howard Cosell, Roger Grimsby and Don Dunphy as themselves. Gleefully bonkers fun in the worst possible taste. Power has driven him mad!

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

John Wick 3

John Wick, Excommunicado. In effect, 6:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. After gunning down Santino d’Antonio, a member of the shadowy international assassins’ guild the High Table, hit man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself stripped of the organisation’s protective services. There’s a $14 million bounty on his head and he is on the run in New York City, the target of the world’s most ruthless killers and he tries to locate the Elder (Said Taghmaoui) the only person above the High Table empowered to take the price tag off his head … He shot my dog/I get it. Starting quite literally from the last shot of the second film in the trilogy about the world’s calmest hitman, this is breathless action fare that starts in New York Public Library of all places setting things in motion with a crucifix necklace and a medallion. What better storage facility for your jewels? Then things get seriously international and move to Morocco and the desert as this violent quest for a kind of redemption gets underway while John reconciles with his origins: he is actually Jardani Jovonovich of Belarus, which we learn courtesy of a drop in at Anjelica Huston’s ballet school. Reeves is as Zen-like as ever even when offing everyone in sight and his dog is the dog’s, as they say, although he mostly keeps out of trouble by residing at the Hotel Continental. A sinuous exercise in ultraviolence, this is actually very beautiful to watch. With Ian McShane back as John’s dubious caretaker Winston, Halle Berry sharing his love canines and Laurence Fishburne giving this a Matrix-y feeling, this has a lot of good moments bookended by two extraordinary sequences of skillfully choreographed action with – what else – a cliffhanging ending. Written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams, based on a story by Kolstad. Directed by Chad Stahelski. It wasn’t just a puppy

Nobody Runs Forever (1968)

Nobody Runs Forever horizontal.jpg

Aka The High Commissioner. He’s got to back to Australia and straighten a few things out. Australian outback police detective Scobie Malone (Rod Taylor) arrives in London to arrest the Australian High Commissioner Sir James Quentin (Christopher Plummer) for the murder of his first wife and return him to Sydney, but his task does not go as planned. The lawman finds himself acting as a bodyguard when assassins start to appear with alarming regularity in this world of international men of mystery.  Quentin’s foreign-born wife Sheila (Lili Palmer) is curious about why Malone is there, while Dutch secretary Lisa Pretorius (Camilla Sparv) is protective of the man she respects above all but it’s beautiful Madame Cholon (Daliah Lavi) who entices him into her bed … Use your own passport and get out. I don’t know you. Taylor produced and did some writing on this adaptation of Jon Cleary’s novel The High Commissioner which is attributed to Wilfred Greatorex. Presumably it’s an attempt to get in on the Bond craze and the settings in London are splendid – all that neon and nightlife and a shootout at Wimbledon and we don’t mean tennis (rather, we do), albeit director Ralph Thomas hardly brings Hitchcockian technique to a scenario reminiscent of The Man Who Knew Too Much. The fish out of water situation is nicely set up – we meet Scobie in the midst of a sheep farm only for him to be swiftly deposited in London to do the political will of the Prime Minister of New South Wales, Flannery (an uncredited Leo McKern) widely believed to be based on real-life politico Sir Robert Askin.  He soon figures this is a setup of sorts and develops a quick empathy with Quentin – triggered by an assassination attempt as soon as they set foot outside the embassy’s front door. His character occupies a position oddly close to a spoof, emphasising his difference from anyone in the diplomatic scene, from his Aussie deadpanning to the beatings he takes and the jibes at London bobbies; while the number of beautiful European ladies points us in their direction even if we don’t know precisely what anyone is spying about or why anyone would try to kill Quentin, who seems to be brokering discussions at a peace conference. Quite why the final scene is left for Quentin to get there first is anyone’s guess. It’s good to see Burt Kwouk in a supporting role and it all makes for some pretty pictures and there’s a good score by Georges Delerue. Produced by Betty Box.

Berlin Express (1948)

Berlin Express.jpg

That’s right – the dove of peace was a pigeon. A dead pigeon. In Allied-occupied post-war Germany a group of passengers of various nationalities travels by train from France to Berlin. One of them, Dr. Bernhardt (Paul Lukas), is an influential peacemaker who wants to mend the war-torn continent. Nazi conspirators aboard the vehicle are determined to keep Bernhardt quiet – they set off an explosion on the train but it kills a man who turns out to have been Bernhardt’s decoy. Other passengers – Bernhardt’s assistant Lucienne (Merle Oberon), American agricultural expert Robert J. Lindley (Robert Ryan), Frenchman Perrot (Charles Korvin) and British teacher James Sterling (Robert Coote) seek the doctor for an explanation, but deception is all around and danger awaits Bernhardt at the next station when the train stops … I do sleight of hand. We’re supposed to make 1,500 calories look like an eight-course meal – and prevent things like plague and starvation. Curt Siodmak’s original story might have allegorical qualities but Harold Medford’s screenplay is an efficient genre work, a tense thriller with aspects of film noir and the procedural:  The German Vanishes, perhaps. Aside from the real-life echoes and the international cast, this is fascinating as a production shot on location in Europe right after the war, with all the spare psychology that Jacques Tourneur can bring to this atmospheric film, sorting out the wheat from the chaff in a briskly paced search through bomb-damaged Frankfurt.  The sharp dialogue really suits Ryan, who gives an excellent performance. It’s nice too to see Merle Oberon in a contemporary film which was shot documentary-style by her husband, Lucien Ballard:  producer Bert Granet spent 6 weeks in Germany in 1946 shooting 16mm film for reference. Friedrich Hollaender’s score is very effective for a story about the ongoing Nazi threat to peace in the aftermath of the war and the film is notable for not translating French and German dialogue, adding to the film’s frisson of danger in a landscape filled with the rubble of WW2 as the trans-Europe express speeds to Berlin. Due to currency fluctuations the interiors intended for France had to be shot in Culver City. We don’t have any more German enemies, do we?/  No authorised ones, anyway