Ice Station Zebra (1968)

Ice Station Zebra

We operate on a first name basis. My name is Captain. Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson) captain of the American nuclear attack submarine USS Tigerfish (SSN-509) is ordered by Admiral Garvey to rescue the personnel of Drift Ice Station Zebra, a British scientific weather station moving with the ice pack. However, the mission is actually a cover for a classified assignment and he is obliged to take on board a British intelligence agent known only as ‘Mr. Jones’ (Patrick MacGoohan) and a U.S. Marine platoon; while a helicopter brings them Captain Anders (Jim Brown). The sub is also joined by Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) a Russian defector and spy who is a trusted colleague of Jones. As they try to break through the ice near the Orkney Islands when approaching the last position of ICZ the sub floods in an act of sabotage and it’s retrieved – just. But Lt. Mills (Murray Rose) is killed.  Ferraday suspects Vaslov and Jones suspects Anders. Ferraday orders the Tigerfish to surface and they find the weather station in ruins, the personnel nearly dead and Jones and Vaslov are soon discovered to be looking for something – a capsule, valuable to both sides in the Cold War, because it contains film of missile sites … I’ve saved a lot of lives by teaching men to jump when I speak. Notoriously the favourite film of one Howard Hughes, if ever there were a time to watch a long movie about the Cold War (actualised in freezing temperatures)… it’s now. I hadn’t seen this since I graduated from Jennings and Billy Bunter books to the oeuvre of Alistair MacLean aged  11 or thereabouts, so it’s both a time-warp exercise (when times were good!) and a deviation from a less visible issue tearing at the world’s synapses. (It makes one vaguely nostalgic for good old-fashioned political intrigue). There’s a deal of nudge-wink dialogue of the sticking torpedoes up spouts variety but the also the odd tart line such as Hudson grumbling at a nervous sailor’s prayer, Do you mind son, we’re trying to think.  Hudson is fine as the mariner under pressure but MacGoohan is particularly good in the most interesting role. Alf Kjellin impresses in his necessarily short sequences as Ostrovsky, the head of the Russian paras and it’s nice to see legendary footballer Jim Brown as Anders as well as actor/producer Tony Bill playing the quite showy role of Lt. Walker. Borgnine is much as you’d expect as a villain of sorts, a part intended for Laurence Harvey. There are some good setpieces centering on jeopardy – when the sub floods;  when some men fall into a crevasse once on icy territory; the tussle between Jones and Vaslov at the staion; and the final clincher which is literally a cold war shootout.  There are some clunky visual effects particularly in the latter stages but there are some fantastic underwater scenes too and the atmosphere is well sustained. It gains a frisson of recognition from knowing it’s based on two real incidents that apparently took place a) in 1959 near Spitsbergen, in Norway, involving a CIA/USAF strategic reconnaissance satellite called … Corona!;  and b) a few years later when two American officers parachuted to an old Soviet weather station.  Michel Legrand’s score is particularly effective in a film constricted by those claustrophobic physical locations and then there are those limitations imposed by all that political and generic roleplay. Adapted by Douglas Heyes, Harry Julian Fink and W.R. Burnett. Directed by John Sturges, who was responsible for the earlier MacLean adaptation, The Satan Bug.  I chose my side out of conviction not by accident of birth.

The Constant Husband (1955)

The Constant Husband

Aka Marriage a la Mode. What are you? Who the devil are you? When William Egerton (Rex Harrison) aka Charles Hathaway Peter, Pietro and Bill, emerges from a lengthy period of amnesia to find himself in a hotel in Wales. He retrieves a trunk of his belongings from a station and finds evidence that he was a conman and a serial bigamist. A professor of psychological medicine Llewellyn (Cecil Parker) helps him to start piecing his life back together but William discovers he has been married to seven women all over the country – at the same time. He is pleased to find that he is married to a lovely fashion photographer Monica Hendricks (Kay Kendall) in London, but when he goes to his office at the Munitions Ministry to ask his boss for sick leave, he is thrown out as a stranger. He is also persona non grata in his club, since he pushed a waiter over a balcony. He is kidnapped by the injured waiter (George Cole) and learns that he was also married to the waiter’s relative Lola ( ) who is now a circus acrobat, and whose Italian family run a restaurant. He is arrested and tried, and, ignoring his female barrister Miss Chesterman’s (Margaret Leighton) case for the defence, admits his guilt and asks to go to prison for a quiet life away from all his wives, who all want him back. On leaving prison he is still sought by his wives as well as by his barrister … I am beginning to be seriously concerned about my character. Director Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine’s screenplay is an exercise in caddish charm, capitalising on the persona (on- and offscreen) of Harrison who had successfully essayed the type in Gilliat’s A Rake’s Progress, a decade earlier. As the women pile up, his dilemma worsens and the potential for criminal charges exponentially increases.  The lesson if there is one in this farcical narrative is a kind of redemption but the ironic outcome has our hero simply running away from the imprisonment of marriage into a real prison: all the while these women cannot control their attraction to him. Male wishful thinking? Hmm! The witty, literate script comes to a head in an hilarious courtroom scene in which Harrison agrees with the prosecution’s characterisation of the dingy exploits of a shopworn cavalier; while Leighton bemoans sexism in the court yet falls for her hopeless client; and a lawyer wonders at the supportive wives, The same again is every woman’s ideal  –they’re gluttons for punishment. This skates between a wry play on Harrison’s lifestyle and outright misogyny.  Zesty, funny and played to the hilt by a fabulous cast of familiar British faces. The meta-irony is that Harrison commenced an adulterous affair with the fabulous Kendall, whom he married. Think of all your morbid fancies of yesterday – then look at this!

They Met in the Dark (1943)

They Met in the Dark

Aka Dark End. An old friend of mine. Met him this morning. When Navy Commander Richard Heritage (James Mason) is cashiered by Commander Lippinscott (David Farrar) after accidentally revealing important manoeuvres during World War 2 because he’s been framed by Nazi spies, he recalls how his troubles began.  He sets out to clear his name by seeking out Mary (Patricia Medina) the Blackpool-based manicurist with the charm bracelet who set him up by stealing Allied secrets for a ring of Fifth Columnists led by theatrical agent Christopher Child (Tom Walls). But she is found dead at the rural cottage of two old mariners by their niece Laura Verity (Joyce Howard) who’s visiting from Canada.  When Richard shows up looking for Mary they immediately suspect each other and wind up in the local police station. The pair’s stories are not believed by police and they team up, on and off, as well as trying to avoid each other, criss-crossing the country to uncover the involvement of several of the agency’s performers including The Great Riccardo (Karel Stepanek) who are part of a well run organisation communicating in musical notes … I’m in command again tonight. Brittle dialogue, charming actors and a narrative regularly interrupted by song performances make this a quaint excursion into wartime espionage activities in that unique Venn diagram crossover area of showbiz and the British Navy with an almost satirical edge. It’s overly long and rather uneven in mood but the shifts from dangerous to jaunty are so much fun as they seem to forget the plot and go up another entertaining alley that you’ll enjoy the variety, from the monocled Fritz Lang-a-like farceur Walls essaying his Nazi agent; to an occasionally dubiously motivated Mason and very charismatic and resourceful Howard who make for a Hitchockian couple in a film that has several scenes harking back to both The Lady Vanishes and The Thirty Nine Steps with a very effective scene in a tunnel. Phyllis Stanley has some rare lines as singer Lily Bernard and there’s a terrific ensemble to enliven the action. You’ll forget about Mason’s comedy beard which is cleverly (and thankfully) removed in the second scene in the hotel spa where the suspense plot all begins. Fun, with a cast list as long as your arm to the extent that the opening credits conclude etc etc etc.  Adapted from Anthony Gilbert’s novel The Vanished Corpse with a screenplay by Basil Bartlett, Anatole de Grunwald, Victor MacLure, Miles Malleson and James Seymour. Directed by Karel Lamac. She’s not just a starstruck young girl, you know

A Place in the Sun (1951) Titles Sequence

A Place in the Sun poster

One of the most rousingly romantic scores by Franz Waxman introduces this superb exercise in melodrama directed by George Stevens. Mike Nichols said he learned everything he needed to know about directing by watching this over and over again. Mandy Merck wrote a brilliant book about its origins, including the anti-capitalist source novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser; a failed attempt by Sergei Eisenstein to film it; an adaptation by Josef von Sternberg; and the eventual acclaimed production written by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, starring a sixteen-year old Elizabeth Taylor whose stunning beauty is matched by the legendary Montgomery Clift in scenes that literally take the breath away. If you want to remember what true star power is, watch this film. My review of the Merck book can be found here:  https://offscreen.com/view/hollywoods_american_tragedies

 

Turn the Key Softly (1953)

Turn the Key Softly

I’m saying goodbye to regulations. Well-spoken burglar Monica Marsden (Yvonne Mitchell), pretty prostitute Stella Jarvis (Joan Collins) and elderly shoplifter Granny Quilliam (Kathleen Harrison) are released from Holloway Women’s Prison on the same day and venture out in London, meeting up for an early dinner in the West End as they negotiate their first day of freedom. Monica returns to her flat where she promises her friend Joan (Dorothy Alison) not to meet up again with David (Terence Morgan), a ne’er do well for whose crime she took the fall. She secures a job in an office with a start on Monday, despite her prison record. But when she returns to the flat David is waiting for her and wines and dines her, with the promise of a night at the theatre. Stella meets up with her busdriver fiancé Bob (Glyn Houston) and promises to get a room to stay in at Canonbury but spends his money on earrings. meeting up with her former working girl friends. Granny returns to her rundown Shepherds Bush room to her beloved special friend Johnny – who turns out to be a dog – and after cooking him food visits her daughter in the suburbs to the delight of her grand daughter but they weren’t expecting her and she has to return to town where she goes for a posh dinner at Monica’s expense, champagne included. Stella takes off with a man who took a fancy to Monica on the Tube earlier, and Monica leaves in a taxi with David for an evening that she hadn’t counted on … Sooner or later they’re sure to find out. This post-war British crime drama is a fantastically atmospheric show and tell about London society and its war-damaged physicality – between rainy Leicester Square where The Snows of Kilimanjaro is playing (and La Collins would co-star with Gregory Peck within just a few short years) and the council flats sitting cheek-by-jowl with semi-derelict terraces, you can practically sniff the desperation, the spivvery and the desire for something better in the documentary-style location shooting by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Mitchell is the real star here and has the better part of the narrative which turns upon her desire for her dastardly lover who manages to deceive her once again following an afternoon in the sack;  but Harrison has a marvellous role (you just know it won’t end well) and plays it beautifully; while Collins is well cast as the good time girl who has found a decent man and she makes the most of some smartly written moments. When she makes her decision about which way to go in life there’s a decidedly odd shot at Piccadilly Circus with her former prostitute colleague featuring close on camera. It’s a terrific film for women, this exploration of an array of femininity of differing ages and types re-entering the world on its tricky terms. What starts as a kind of melodrama with a social message about stigma turns into a suspenser, high on the rooftops of a city theatre, with a rather tragic ending. Very satisfying indeed. Adapted by Maurice Cowan from John Brophy’s novel, this is written and directed by documentary veteran Jack Lee, the elder brother of novelist Laurie.

 

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!

Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans (2015)

Steve McQueen The Man and Le Mans

We had the star, we had the drivers. We had an incredible array of technical support, we had everything. Except a script. The story behind the making of Le Mans, Steve McQueen’s dream project – a realistic film about motor racing set around the great 24-hour endurance race in 1970. He planned a documentary-style production starring himself and made by his own company Solar in collaboration with Cinema Center Films, but it went over budget and schedule. He disagreed with and fired Thomas Crown Affair/Bullitt writer Alan Trustman (who he says in an audio recording knew him like nobody did); and he also fell out with his Magnificent Seven/Great Escape director John Sturges, who walked out; then Cinema Center tried to replace McQueen – on his own film!- with Robert Redford. McQueen agreed to a pay cut. I don’t think there’s any racing drive who can tell you why he races. But he can show you. The film was plagued by crashes, the worst involving David Piper, whose leg was amputated. Charles Manson was on his killing spree at the time and McQueen discovered he was on his hit list and became paranoid, taking to carrying a handgun. His marriage to wife Neile broke up when he found out she had finally paid him back for his multiple infidelities with one of her own. He crashed a car late at night with his young Swedish mistress actress Louise Edlind and blamed it on a 21-year old set assistant who was on his first day at work on the film. McQueen didn’t bear a scratch from the incident. When the film came out in 1971 it received ‘mixed’ reviews … We were winging it. Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna’s film tells an inglorious tale of ego, hubris and racing too close to the sun, a paradoxical move for the coolest man to ever walk the earth. You better believe in what you;re doing. I believe in what I do. It’s stylishly directed, with a plethora of remarkably beautiful clips retrieved from private collections and unfinished on-set documentary footage as well as boasting terrific new interviews (and some from the previous 2001 doc Filming at Speed) which suggest that this was a devastating experience for McQueen, a turning point from which he may never have truly recovered. With Trustman and Sturges on board it was the dream team but McQueen was both stunningly indecisive and doctrinaire. He felt responsible for the racers, above all, but never visited Piper following an accident that only occurred because a scene was shot twice owing to the absence of a script. They never met again. The film reveals to Piper that McQueen had written to the powers that be to release the premiere’s takings to Piper for his medical treatment – they did not; but Piper is pleased at the revelation. He had something hidden. McQueen’s long business relationship and friendship with Bob Relyea was sundered. He was trying to capitalise on his stardom but clashed with the studio ethic of storytelling in the classical style in an ironic bid to strip away filmmaking tricks and falling victim to excess. When he wanted to give back Hollywood wasn’t there for him. Essentially he wanted to build his own empire while also attempting to obtain creative control. Instead he wound up skipping the premiere and quitting racing for good. Yet it’s the film he had shipped to Mexico a decade later when he was receiving treatment for the cancer that would kill him, showing it to fellow patients. It transpires that the asbestos that caused his cancer is the type used in racing suits in the Sixties. In many ways it seems this film was the time when McQueen’s luck finally ran out. This is a visceral experience for the viewer, almost tactile in its power. Smell the fumes and feel the need for speed. Gripping.  I am too old and too rich to be putting up with this type of shit