Hellfighters (1968)

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He’s not too smart about which fires to walk away from. Chance Buckman (John Wayne) is injured fighting an oil field fire and his assistant Greg (Jim Hutton) brings his boss’ estranged daughter Tish (Katharine Ross) to visit him in hospital – they’ve just got married a mere five days after meeting and Chance isn’t too pleased given Greg’s promiscuous ways. His marriage to Tish’s mom Madelyn (Vera Miles) ended because she couldn’t take the pressure of his work and Tish swears it’ll be different for her.  After seeing Greg get hurt she starts to fray at the edges and play solitaire a lot. When he takes over a gig in Venezuela and the team comes under fire from revolutionaries it’s time for Chance to return and his remarriage to Madelyn is postponed … A fascinating premise derived from the biography of legendary firefighter Red Adair, this moots the potential of examining the process and plumps for the melodrama of being the woman on the sidelines. Ross’ gorgeous sorrowfulness isn’t exploited but there are some good, colourful scenes and a nice barroom brawl to keep Wayne’s donnybrooking fans happy in between the talking shops. Written by Clair Huffaker and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen who had worked with Wayne in McLintock! Wayne got a million dollars to star.

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Ronin (1998)

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Lady I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.  IRA woman Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) assembles a team of ex-special ops men turned mercenaries in Paris to carry out a heist on a briefcase carrying some mysterious material. They include ex-CIA agent Frank (Robert DeNiro), Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and French op Vincent (Jean Reno). They are joined by Englishman Spence (Sean Bean) and German Gregor (Stellan Skarsgaard). Each has a special gift to bring to this party. Spence immediately thinks he knows Frank from somewhere and the narrative die is cast:  as each member of the heist team begins to distrust the other, the body count mounts and this travelogue (through the south of France) speeds at an exhilarating pace with amazing car chases punctuating the stylish action around Arles and Nice. Deirdre meets secretly with fellow IRA op Seamus (Jonathan Pryce) and while she is double-crossing the team their numbers are dwindling at the hands of the Russian mob whose path they cross. Added to the mix is the ice skater Natacha Kirilova (Katharina Witt) whose showcase becomes the venue for the penultimate showdown. J. D. Zeik’s story and screenplay received a major rewrite from David Mamet under the name Richard Weisz and this super smart spy thriller benefits from shrewd juxtaposition of action with gleaming character detail. Add to that beautiful cinematography, some of the best car stunts outside of Bullitt (with Sudduth doing most of his own driving) and spot-on performances and you have a cracking genre entertainment which at the time marked a major comeback for the amazing John Frankenheimer.  The francophile was making a return to the south of France for the first time since French Connection II.  It’s great to see Michael Lonsdale as a fixer whose interest in samurai supplies the story behind the title. The final revelation is both surprising and satisfying. And the contents of that briefcase?  Well you’ve seen enough Hitchcock films to figure it out for yourself. Fantastic stuff, brilliantly directed.

Soldier of Fortune (1955)

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Nations fall when they lose their sense of humour. Jane Hoyt (Susan Hayward) arrives in Hong Kong looking for her missing photojournalist husband Louis (Gene Barry). He’s been kidnapped by the Chinese. She seeks help from an American smuggler (or shipping magnate!) Hank Lee (Clark Gable) but winds up trying her luck on Macau with Fernand Rocha (Mel Welles). However her guide is taken by the Communists en route and Rocha locks her up and gambles her money. Lee finds out from hard-drinking Rene Dupont Chevalier (Alexander D’Arcy) that Jane is probably in trouble and he uses one of his junks to travel, taking police Inspector Merryweather (Michael Rennie) against his will to ensure their safety… When Gable and Hayward meet there’s an instant attraction and one of the good things about Ernest Gann’s adaptation of his own novel is the dagger-like lines that he bestows upon each character in turn, and when she says this to Gable it’s knockout:  To me mister, you’re just a gangster, a throwback. I hope you enjoy living with yourself. Somehow it plays right into what we know of Gable from his past roles and the sense of the impending end of her marriage when she eventually reunites with her husband is written in the stars. The texture of this drama is aided immeasurably by the location photography – those HK streets really buzz , while the typical ex-pat scene of lowlifes and barflies populating the seedy Tweedie’s where so much of Jane’s learning curve occurs makes some of the action pop. The final escape from Macau into Hong Kong harbour is really something. Hayward couldn’t shoot her scenes locally because she was stuck in the US in the middle of a divorce so a stand-in was used in a few shots but it’s all very well handled by Edward Dmytryk.

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

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Aka Desert Attack. Two million men. Two million stories. This is one that happens to be true. Captain Anson (John Mills) is dying for a drink but he has to leave his post in Tobruk before the Germans invade and make his way with a medical unit by field ambulance (nicknamed Katy) to Alexandria in Egypt. He has to travel with MSM Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews) and a couple of nurses, Diana Murdoch (Sylvia Syms) and Denise Norton (Diane Clare). They make their own way when they get separated from the rest of their colleagues and come cross a South African officer Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle) who wants a lift to the British lines.  They are fired on by the German Afrika Corps and Denise is shot through the walls of the vehicle. When van der Poel approaches the Germans they withdraw. Anson is suspicious. Van der Poel cannot be parted from his backpack – he shows Anson a couple of bottles of gin and the Brit comforts himself with dreams of a a drink in Alexandria. Pugh is suspicious when van der Poel doesn’t know how to make tea the (British) Army way and is convinced he’s seen an antenna in the backpack. When van der Poel goes off again at night they shine the ambulance lights on him and he gets stuck in quicksand and they have to decide what to do with a German spy … This is a classic British fifties wartime adventure, with John Mills at the peak of his career exploiting notions of his occasionally abject masculinity and he’s especially impressive here, battling alcoholism and exhaustion. Syms has a very good role as the woman who appears to understand him while Quayle is excellent as the interloper with a diplomatic way about him and the brute strength required to push the ambulance when it gets stuck in an escarpment. Christopher Landon adapted his own Saturday Evening Post articles (and then a 1957 novel) with T. J. Morrison and it was directed with verve by J. Lee Thompson. This got a whole new lease of life thirty years ago when the final sequence was used as an ad by Carlsberg because as everyone knows and John Mills says, Worth waiting for. Iconic.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

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It’s man taking on himself the vengeance of the law. Drifters Gil (Henry Fonda) and Art (Henry Morgan) wander into a small Nevada town and enjoy a drink at the bar when news reaches people that local rancher Kinkaid has had 600 head of cattle rustled and he’s been murdered. The sheriff has gone to investigate. In the meantime the locals take the law into their own hands and Gil and Art tag along with the lynch mob. They find three men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and elderly Francis Ford) eating in Ox-Bow Canyon and without evidence, trial or jury, decide to hang them as thieves and murderers despite the eldest man protesting he bought their cattle from Kinkaid without receiving a bill of sale. Only seven men refuse to support their actions. Then the sheriff arrives and tells them he’s found the murderer… This taut adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1940 western novel was adapted and produced by Lamar Trotti for Twentieth-Century Fox and its economy of form (a studio set) immeasurably aids the aesthetic choices by director William Wellman in a sparse and breathtaking seventy-three minutes. Within that straitened narrative are teased the limits of a father-son relationship (the self-righteous Major Tetley whose son doesn’t agree with his actions), a romantic relationship between Gil and Rose (Mary Beth Hughes), who turns up on the stage with the man she just married en route to San Francisco, and the allegorical debate about law and justice at the heart of everything. Fonda’s future role in Twelve Angry Men is also prophesied while his part in The Grapes of Wrath is recalled by having Jane Darwell join the baying murderers. A classic of liberalism, a jewel in Hollywood’s crown and a warning about the sadistic lure of mob rule.

Runaway Jury (2003)

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Trials are too important to be left to juries! Nothing like the element of surprise to heat up a legal drama and this has it in spades. After a workplace shooting in New Orleans that kills married broker Jacob (Dylan McDermott), lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) takes up the case against the gun manufacturer for the man’s widow Celeste (Joanna Going) but has to deal with a ‘jury consultant’, Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman). When Nicholas Easter (John Cusack), a man without an apparent past, gets on the jury he seems to be able to exert influence on the outcome – with the assistance of his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) who’s operating at the end of a telephone. Both sides are approached to make them an offer to sway the decision – a situation rendered immensely complicated when they are sequestered in a motel on the East Texas border … John Grisham’s thriller was in development for half a dozen years and its original topic – big tobacco – was altered after The Insider (coincidentally featuring Bruce McGill, the judge here) but taps into the very emotive theme of gun rights, the Second Amendment and – in the big reveal – a school shooting. The setting of N’Oleans heaps atmosphere into this very effectively plotted thriller and you’ll recognise a lot of landmarks. The playing – that cast! – is exceptional with Hackman making his return to Grisham territory 9 years after The Firm in which he also essayed a very shady character. Really well managed even if the coda errs on the side of sentiment. Adapted by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman. Directed by Gary Fleder.

The China Syndrome (1979)

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I know the vibration was not normal. A lot of films depend on luck to make a success – and a matter of days after this was released there was a major incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. So a story about an accident in a nuclear plant that is filmed by a TV crew that usually does soft news and how that impacts on the news cycle, the plant supervisor and potentially the wider environment, saw reality and cinema converge in the most immediate fashion.  Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) has nice hair and does a great job covering idiotic stuff to put at the end of the evening show in LA but wants to cover more serious stories. Cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas) and soundman Hector (Daniel Valdez) accompany her to a local nuclear plant where they witness a shudder that supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) says should not have happened and he quarrels with colleague Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) about safety when the reactor is going to be cranked up. The film is stopped from being broadcast and the news crew try to protect Jack when he holes up in a motel so they can get an exclusive story. His bosses are on a mission to stop him from going public at an environmental hearing and are prepared to leave no murder attempt unturned … Written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook and director James Bridges, this was produced by Michael Douglas, who has always recognised a zeitgeist when he’s met one. This is as much an indictment of the politics of news production as it is about the propaganda behind the supposed safety of nuclear energy. Nobody comes out of this looking good. Excellent, tense storytelling, all the more extraordinary for a total lack of music other than Stephen Bishop’s theme song: the shudder of the reactor is terrifying enough and the acting from Fonda and Lemmon is superb, embodying their emblematic images as frustrated feminist activist and sympathetic conscientious objector – and in that order!

Harvey (1950)

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Harvey has overcome not only time and space but any objections. Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a wealthy eccentric living with his sister and niece who enjoys a daily tipple especially when it’s with his best friend, a six foot three and a half inch rabbit, the titular Harvey. And Harvey is invisible, in Elwood’s words, a pooka (a ghost in Celtic mythology). When Elwood’s social-climbing sister Veta (Josephine Hull) tries to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium it’s she who winds up incarcerated after she admits she’s heard so much about the rabbit she sometimes sees him too…. Mary Chase’s hit Broadway play ran for a long time and it gets a delightful treatment here with Hull reprising her role:  one of the good visual jokes is her short stature. She has some nice jibes about psychiatry including, That’s all they talk about – sex. Why don’t they get out, take some long walks in the fresh air?! The sanitarium director Dr Chumley (Cecil Kellaway) tries to help Elwood but then he has some experiences with Harvey himself … Chase’s Irish Catholic background helped her conceptualise this invisible helpmate as a kind of friendly ghost and it was one of three of her plays translated to the screen. Delicately handled by director Henry Koster, this was adapted by Oscar Brodney (and an uncredited Myles Connolly) and is perfectly judged between staging and characterisation. Great performances make it an enduring entertainment.

Live By Night (2016)

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What you put out in the world will always come back to you but never how you predict. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the WW1-weary son of Irish-American police officer (Brendan Gleeson) who tries to be good but you know how it is. He’s trying to make his way as a small-time crook in 1927 Boston but crosses paths with gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) by stealing from him and sleeping with his sassy Irish girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). He’s blackmailed by White’s rival mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to kill White or he’ll rat on the affair so robs a bank to flee to California with Emma. That was the original plan but police officers get killed and Emma apparently drowns being chased by police after White came close to killing Joe. Despite the efforts of his father he serves three years in prison for the police killings and his father is dead when he gets out so he does a deal with Piscatore to take over his rum business in Florida where he can get revenge on White. It means setting up business with Suarez (Miguel Pimentele) and he shacks up with his sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana). He and his sidekick Dion (Chris Messina) take over and then someone thought dead turns up in a photograph and Maso has a showdown with Joe and it turns into a triple cross situation  … There are a lot of admirable things in this production: the settings, the design (even if the cars are way too clean), some brilliant lines (rather than exchanges of dialogue) and a depiction of the Prohibition era in Florida that introduces the Ku Klux Klan into the mix because these gangsters are Catholic. Affleck’s commitment to bringing Dennis Lehane’s Boston Irish mythology to the screen is to be commended but his waxy inexpressiveness is central to why this doesn’t work (blank is simply not a good look in a gangster movie). Miller makes him look better than he is in their scenes together – they crackle – but she departs the story early. All the bits are here, they just don’t add up, and that usually leads us back to the screenwriter – also Affleck. There are plotlines thrown away in a photograph or a newspaper cutting. There are technical issues too – some of the sound mix particularly at the beginning is poor. A smarter filmmaker would have dropped a lot of the overhead shots and the dumb narration (look at how it doesn’t work and compare it with Goodfellas!) and cast a better actor in the lead:  just watch how Chris Cooper in his small role as police chief Figgis in Tampa wipes the floor with Affleck in his first scene and listen to him deliver the line about a fallen world. That’s when he introduces his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) who’s on her way to a Hollywood screen test:  bad move. This storyline takes a good turn paying off in a parable about evangelical Protestantism but the conclusion is just dumped for yet another newspaper story after a scene which unravels the sins of fathers who want better things for their kids. Oedipal scenarios aside, this is a guy who traffics liquor and murders people but still thinks he’s his father’s good son. Affleck looks quite laughable in his oversized suit but then you realise that he resembles legendary screen heavy Lawrence Tierney who was so incredibly nasty in days of yore.  Hmmm! What might have been. Oh! The vanity!

In This Our Life (1942)

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You’ve never gotten over me and you never will. John Huston’s sophomore outing (after The Maltese Falcon) is this deranged adaptation of Ellen Glasgow’s Pulitzer-winning novel concerning race relations and sibling rivalry in the contemporary South, a subject on which she was rather an expert. Bette Davis is Stanley Timberlake who is about to marry lawyer Craig Fleming (George Brent, Davis’ frequent co-star) but runs off instead with her brother in law Dr Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan). Stanley’s sister Roy (Olivia DeHavilland) divorces Peter but starts dating Craig in revenge and Peter starts to get nervous when Stanley goes kinda crazy at a roadhouse.  He becomes an alcoholic and commits suicide. Stanley returns to Virginia and wants to stop Roy from marrying Craig. She kills a mother and child while drunk and tries to pin the crime on a young black man Parry Clay (Ernest Anderson) working for the family and interning in Craig’s office to prepare for law school … What a wonderful showcase of the very opposing talents of Warners’ biggest stars. Both Davis and DeHavilland were having a bad time on this film:  Davis’ husband fell very ill and the company made it difficult for her to visit him then she fell ill;  DeHavilland was overworked and tired and felt overweight. Davis felt Huston favoured her co-star and drew attention to herself with her overwrought self-designed makeup scheme and her very busy costumes by Orry-Kelly. Her personification of this selfish nasty histrionic woman whose very physicality bespeaks narcissism is totally compelling;  her quasi-incestuous scene with her indulgent uncle William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn) is still shocking – he holds the power once he’s taken over the family business. That scene was directed by Raoul Walsh when Huston was called away on war duty (this was made between October and December 1941). But what made this film such a problem when it was released was its truthful depiction of the state of race relations and therefore created a distribution issue. There are many things wrong with Howard Koch’s adaptation but the busy-ness of the production design with its wildly clashing patterns, the strength of the ensemble scenes and the sheerly contrasting powers of the ladies playing opposite one another in their varying interpretations (madly hysterical versus quiet revenge) in some very good shot setups by Huston make this a very interesting example of Forties melodrama. Watch for Walter Huston as a bartender.