Eyewitness (1970)

Eyewitness 1970

Aka Sudden Terror. Twelve year old daydreamer Ziggy (Mark Lester) is an accidental witness to a political killing on a Mediterranean island where martial law obtains, after which he is attacked himself by the perpetrator, policeman Paul Grazzini (Peter Vaughan) who is assisted by Victor Grazzini (Peter Bowles). He gets separated from his older sister, Pippa (Susan George), then they are helped by their grandfather, a retired Colonel, Papa (Lionel Jeffries) and a resourceful bystander with the moniker Tom Jones (Tony Bonner), taking refuge at the lighthouse where the family lives. Meanwhile police Inspector Galleria (Jeremy Kemp) goes on the trail of the killers but ends up where Ziggy is hiding and the boy goes on the run, fleeing for his life as the men close in and calling to his best friend Ann-Marie (Maxine Kalli) … Adapted by Ronald Harwood from the 1966 novel by Mark Hebden (aka John Harris) with some uncredited work by Bryan Forbes who was head of EMI at the time. John Hough directs a surprisingly violent and not completely coherent thriller on an island that remains unnamed (it was shot in Malta) that has strange moments of humour and unusual tonal shifts. Jeffries’ role is so odd that you imagine he’s going to kill his own grandchild. George’s relationship with Bonner is not entirely clear.  It’s a real shock when a child is shot in cold blood but never mind it’s not little Mark Lester. An oddity with a terrific soundtrack which was assembled by Jonathan Demme, a rock journo in London at the time.

Serpent of the Nile (1953)

Serpent of the Nile

A woman of beauty, intellect and charity – this is almost too much to believe! Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in Rome 44 BC, Mark Antony (Raymond Burr) spares the life of Lucilius (William Lundigan), a Roman officer who becomes a friend as he makes his way to Alexandria in Egypt. However, Lucilius has had history with Cleopatra although she chooses to take up with Mark Antony. Eventually Antony loses his grip in a society resentful of a queen living in luxury while they become increasingly impoverished. Lucilius joins Antony’s rival, Octavius (Michael Fox), who arrives to put an end to Antony’s failing expedition since he is clearly being used by Cleopatra to establish dominion in Rome… Are women ever conquered? Adapted from H. Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra by Robert E. Kent, this low-budgeter from producer Sam Katzman was shot on the leftover sets from Salome, the Rita Hayworth film. It was the year for fans of Julius Caesar and the ancients as the successful Brando-starrer proved and despite the rackety origins, this is fun, filled with ripe dialogue and fruity leers. Lundigan has a blast as Burr’s love rival with a secret, having admired Cleo in Caesar’s house for many a long year;  while Fleming is totally alluring as the queen bee. That glorious gilded woman performing a dance of seduction is the great Julie Newmar. With an atmospheric score by Mischa Bakaleinikoff and narration by Fred Sears, this is very entertaining. Directed by William Castle. If you had but loved yourself more and Cleopatra less

Europa (1991)

Europa theatrical

Aka Zentropa. I thought the war was over. Just after World War II Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American of German descent takes a job on the Zentropa train line in US-occupied Germany to help the country rebuild. He becomes a sleeping-car conductor under the tutelage of his drunken uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård). He falls under the spell of the mysterious Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa) daughter of Zentropa railway magnate Max (Jørgen Reenberg) whose friendship with US Colonel Harris (Eddie Constantine) has raised hackles. Her gay brother Lawrence (Udo Kier) is the family embarrassment because like Leopold he didn’t serve his country. Leopold inadvertently becomes embroiled with a pro-Nazi fascist organisation known as the Werewolves who are conspiring to overthrow the state. Simultaneously being used by the US Army, Leopold finds neutrality an impossible position … I understand unemployment in Germany a lot better now. It costs too much to work here. Danish auteur Lars von Trier made this great train thriller long before he became a trying controversialist down the Dogma 95 rabbit hole. It plugs into that febrile post-war atmosphere which we already know from films of the late 40s like Berlin Express as well as sensational character-driven pre-war comedy thrillers like The Lady Vanishes. It’s the final part of the director’s first trilogy (following The Element of Crime and The Epidemic) and it gained a lot of kudos upon release, particularly for its visual style, principally shot in black and white with rear projections in colour (photographed by Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski and Jean-Paul Meurisse) lending an eerie aspect to what is already an innovative production, shifting tone as surely as it shifts pigments. The hypnotic (literally) narration by Max von Sydow lulls you into submission like the mesmerising shuffle of the carriages along the tracks; while the charm of the leading man on his journey which is physical, emotional and political, all at once, carries you through a sensitive yet experimental scenario.The miraculous editing achievement is by Hervé Schneid. It feels like a new kind of film is being born, reformulating the grammar of the language with its surrealist nods and noir references. A cult item from the casting of Kier and Constantine alone, with Sukowa’s role harking back to her Fassbinder films, this is a classic of modern European cinema. Written by von Trier (who appears as a Jew) & Niels Vørsel with a shooting script by von Trier & Tómas Gislason. You have carried out your orders. Now relax

 

 

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!