The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

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Personally I prefer a girlfriend not to have a husband. An Irish-American seaman Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) becomes involved in a complex murder plot when he is hired by renowned criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan) to work on a yacht after rescuing the man’s wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth) from a disturbing attack in Central Park NYC. He soon finds himself implicated in the murder, despite his innocence. The film is best remembered for the climactic hall of mirrors scene with a shoot out amidst shards of shattering glass…. Orson Welles’ adaptation (with uncredited help from William Castle, Charles Lederer and Fletcher Markle) of a novel by Sherwood King was so confusing that Columbia boss Harry Cohn offered a reward to anyone who could make head or tail of it. Somebody please tell me what it’s about! But the plot of this murder mystery pastiche is hardly the point:  it’s a gorgeously shot tongue in cheek meditation on the games men and women play. Sometimes they wind up in murder. The narration is crucial. The hall of mirrors scene is justly famous. Shot by Charles Lawton (and Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker) with the yachting scenes done on Errol Flynn’s Zaca, this is the one where Hayworth’s fiery locks were shorn into a shockingly short blonde bob and Welles sports a cod Oirish accent presumably culled from his days at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Mad, strange and blacker than black, this is all about shadows and deception and imagery and set-pieces. Stunningly edited by Viola Lawrence. I never make my mind up about anything until it’s over and done with.

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Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983) (TVM)

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I’d left it too late. That’s the funny thing – everyone thinks they’re exempt. It’s 1974, and Barbara Dean (Judi Dench) is a British assistant manager and loan officer in a foreign bank in Saigon.  She’s something of a depressive and has to ward off the advances of her co-worker Donald (Roger Rees) while her narration informs us she has been a woman of secrets ever since having an affair with a friend of her father’s at a very young age. She meets an American Bob Chesneau (Frederic Forrest) at the end of a party one night when she’s waiting for a taxi home. She has fended off the interest of Frank (Wallace Shawn), a US Embassy officer with whom she plays bridge. She and Bob begin a relationship and she realises that he’s not a cultural attaché but he works for the CIA and knows that the fall of South Vietnam is very near because sources suggest the North Vietnamese are stepping up plans to take Saigon. Things are heating up at the bank when a member of the public comes in armed with a gun demanding all his money. Barbara delays planning her departure even when she’s helping the locals get passports for their own hasty exits. Bob tries to persuade his boss Jack Ockham (Josef Sommer) and the US Ambassador (E.G. Marshall) to evacuate the South Vietnamese who have been working for them but the Ambassador wants to appease President Thieu’s regime. Bob and Barbara’s relationship suffers under the strain …  Made for Thames TV, this is a real auteur work – an original teleplay by theatrical giant David Hare and directed by Stephen Frears the year before he made The Hit. Dench was likewise a lady of the theatre albeit with some TV in the bag but it was a long time before America discovered her properly in Goldeneye. If the direction feels a little clunky at times, and perhaps it’s due to both the low budget and the schematic constraints of Hare’s writing, there are some good elements. There’s a nice juxtaposition when the Jolly Green Giants swoop into the city and White Christmas is on the soundtrack – as Bob has said, When the radio stations play all Bing Crosby Americans know it’s the end.  This is a rather obvious trope but is used to signify that the US military are really out of their depth. There’s a nicely mounted tension and the intermittent meetings between the US Ambassador and the nervy hard-drinking Ockham, with Shawn’s character providing a kind of Greek chorus, add to the sense of fear. Spooky to think that of the cast it’s Judi Dench who went from strength to strength while the marvellous Forrest has been more or less retired for decades. I haven’t seen him since he played in John Frankenheimer’s last movie 16 years ago, coincidentally another TV movie about Nam, Path to War. Now that is a real injustice. I miss him. George Fenton’s score is nicely understated.

 

The Greatest Showman (2017)

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Any other critic might call it a celebration of humanity. A young Phineas Barnum and his tailor father Philo are mocked at the home of the wealthy Hallett family but he falls in love with their lovely daughter Charity and they keep in touch by letter when she is sent to school. When he grows up the adult Phineas (Hugh Jackman) marries Charity (Michelle Williams) and moves from job to job while rearing two little girls in poverty until he hits on the idea of a show with nature’s oddities, creating a community of people who are shunned – Tom Thumb, the Bearded Lady, the Irish Giant, et al. He persuades high society playwright Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to join forces to give him respectability and their success brings them fame – even Queen Victoria wants an audience with them. Phineas meets Swedish songbird Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and mortgages everything to bring her all over the USA but she wants him as well – and betrays him, lying to the press, prompting Charity to leave him. When he returns to NYC protesters burn down the circus and Philip runs into the burning building to try to rescue his beloved Anne (Zendaya) an acrobat of colour whom he must battle society to spend his life with …  This moves quickly and expeditiously, daring you to see the cracks – in fact it’s really a stage musical with few concessions to anything you don’t know outside the business of show. It’s got a very inclusive message which is right-on for the current climate. Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and directed by first-timer Michael Gracey, there were reshoots apparently supervised by James Mangold who receives an executive producer credit – he had worked closely with Jackman on Logan.  It all adds up to a very nice night out at the musical theatre – even if it bears little relationship to the reality behind the real-life subject or even the musical Barnum by Cy Coleman, Paul Stewart and Mark Bramble. The songs are by Benj Pasek and Michael Paul and bear no relationship with any music produced in the nineteenth century:  to call the music ersatz would be misleading, it’s very contemporary and could come from any new musical you’ve seen or heard lately. However it’s a great showcase for some heartfelt, showstopping numbers  – particularly Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) leading on This Is Me and Efron and Zendaya’s Rewrite the Stars. There are few dramatic segues so this won’t trouble your brain overly much:  it’s a swaggering, confident piece of work which has little faith in the audience – a criticism constantly made of Barnum himself by the resident journo critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) who chronicles his highs and his lows but eventually comes round.  He says it there, it comes out here. Praise is due cinematographer Seamus McGarvey for keeping everything looking absolutely splendid.

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

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 I think the world may be going through a phase, the way I was with mother. It’ll pass. Maybe not hundreds of years, but someday. – I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart. In 1945 Otto Frank (Joseph Schildkraut) revisits the Amsterdam building where he and his wife and young daughters were hidden from the Nazis during the Occupation and recalls their life in the cramped space with other families … In Nazi-occupied Holland in 1942, shopkeeper Kraler (Douglas Spencer) hides two Jewish families in the attic above his office. Young Anne Frank (Millie Perkins) keeps a diary of everyday life for the Franks and the Van Daans (Lou Jacobi and Shelley Winters) chronicling the Nazi threat as well as family dynamics. They have to maintain total silence during office hours. Miep (Dody Heath) frequently visits with food and other items to keep them going. A romance with Peter Van Daan (Richard Beymer) causes jealousy between Anne and her sister, Margot (Diane Baker). Only Kraler’s radio can provide any relief, especially when troops land at Normandy. But then the office telephone rings repeatedly and the strain tells … As it is Holocaust Memorial Day it is apt to recall a film which was based on a diary (probably co-authored post hoc by her father) kept by an ordinary teenage girl recording her impressions of her daily experiences, her first love, her day-to-day activities and fantasies amid extraordinary circumstances – the utterly desperate covert existence led by a disparate and uncomfortably ill-matched group of people forced to live out in cramped conditions under threat of discovery by Nazis and their collaborators and informers in wartime Holland. It was essential reading when I was growing up and it can hardly have lost its lustre or significance. The building where the family hid was the first destination for me on my trip to Amsterdam and it was unbearably moving to see the newspaper cuttings of movie stars (a lot of Garbo) pasted to the wall in the room where Anne had slept. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett adapted their own stage play (based on Diary of a Young Girl) and it perfectly captures the initial civility that gives way to the normal reactions to which people under pressure might succumb when food goes missing (stolen by selfish Van Daan), a fake cat allergy (Ed Wynn as dentist Albert Dussell), and a thief who makes regular night-time visits to the safe downstairs, with everyone simply dreading a knock on the door. When Anne has a nightmare about the schoolfriend taken to a concentration camp it is a jolt. While former model Perkins doesn’t have quite sufficient emotional range to convey the complexity of the role (which, to be fair, may have been mostly fictional in the first place) the stresses and irritations of people stuck with each other provide a narrative arc with certain inevitable outcomes that are extremely well played out. The story is persuasively told – suspenseful, tense, sentimental, and, worst of all, horribly true. Directed by George Stevens, a man forever changed by what he saw in the camps. פן ישכחו.


					

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

 

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I want you to do something. I want you to get yourself out of the bed, and get over to the window and scream as loud as you can. Otherwise you only have another three minutes to live. Due to a glitch on the phone line, cough drop queen Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), a spoiled controlling heiress confined to a wheelchair, overhears a conversation about a plan to kill a woman. Unable to leave her home or reach her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) – who’s employed as one of her wealthy father’s many powerless company vice-presidents – and written off by the police, Leona struggles to uncover the truth through a series of phone calls that only lead her deeper into a mystery, which may involve her college love rival, Sally (Ann Richards), and a scheme to sell pharmaceuticals on the black market. As she speaks to different people, flashbacks illuminate the plot but she struggles to find Henry and then she thinks she hears somebody downstairs … Lucille Fletcher’s radio play was called the best ever written by none other than Welles – and he would know. Stanwyck’s hysteria is irritating and wholly appropriate – sweating it out at the end of the line, curtains billowing into her luxurious bedroom where she is literally an unmoving target in a nailbiting thriller which never lets you go as it plays out in real time. This is a superbly controlled noir Gothic thriller with just enough breathing space in the flashbacks until the inexorable, horrible finale – and that last line of dialogue! Adapted by Fletcher and directed by Anatole Litvak.

To Live and Die in LA (1985)

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– Why are you chasing me? – Why are you running? – Cause you’re chasing me, man! When his longtime partner on the force Jimmy Hart (Michael Green) is killed, reckless U.S. Secret Service agent and counterfeiting specialist Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) vows revenge, setting out to nab dangerous counterfeiter and artist Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe). Partnered with the seemingly straight-arrow John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance sets up a scheme to entrap Masters, resulting in the accidental death of an undercover officer. As Chance’s desire for justice becomes an obsession, Vukovich questions the lawless methods he employs:  Chance is ‘sextorting’ Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Fluegel), promising her her freedom in exchange for information and his dangerous methods include landing Masters’ flunky Carl Cody (John Turturro) behind bars which triggers a series of violent events … Directed by William Friedkin, this feels a lot like a feature-length episode of Miami Vice with added vicious. It starts in quite an extraordinary fashion – a mad mullah swearing to destroy civilisation on the roof of a building – which somehow makes it very contemporary (albeit he’s not taking anyone with him). Based on Gerald Petievich’s autobiographical work and adapted by him with Friedkin, this holds up surprisingly well but there isn’t a single character with whom you can empathise:  they are all singularly sleazy. Luminously shot by Robby Muller, this is a burnished LA, all sunsets and cement and chrome, with corruption a thread running through everything and a stunning car chase that’ll have you clutching the arms of your chair. It’s surprisingly full-frontal in its sex scenes and scored by Wang Chung. Now that’s not a sentence you read every day. This swirls around in the brain long after the last, very unusual shot happens at the tail end of the credits:  Petersen’s face.

The Great Gatsby (1974)

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You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can. Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) is a young man from the Midwest living modestly among the decadent mansions of 1920s Long Island. He becomes involved in the life of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford), a rich man who throws the most lavish parties on the island. But behind Gatsby’s outgoing demeanor is a lonely man who wants nothing more than to be with his old love, Nick’s second cousin-once removed, the beautiful Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow). She is married to the adulterous and bullheaded millionaire Tom (Bruce Dern), creating a love triangle that will end in tragedy when a misunderstanding leads Tom’s lover Myrtle (Karen Black) to her death in a road accident and her cuckolded husband seeking revenge … We hear all about Gatsby long before we meet him, even if Nick imagines he sees him on the end of the dock early on, with that green light winking on and off. It’s the perfect way to introduce a character who is a self-made myth. Everyone has a different idea about the protagonist of a novel which itself is a masterpiece of sleight of hand storytelling:  it tells us on page one just how. There are a lot of things to admire about this film which is as hollow with the sound of money as Daisy’s voice:  the design, the tone, the casting, which is nigh-on perfect, but the writing leaves the performances with very little to do. Redford, that enigmatic, elusive, evasive Seventies superstar is the ultimately unknowable, uncommitted actor trying to revivify his past love, even as Daisy cries out to this now-multi-millionaire Don’t you know rich girls don’t marry poor boys? Waterston does his best as the writer/narrator who knows far less than he lets on. Dern probably comes off best as the unfiltered louse Fitzgerald wrote but overall Francis Ford Coppola’s script while faithful cannot replicate symbolic effect and the entire novella represents in the most eloquent language ever written class gone wrong in the ultimate American tragedy. Directed by Jack Clayton.

 

Logan (2017)

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You know, Logan… this is what life looks like. A home, people who love each other. Safe place. You should take a moment and feel it. It’s 2029 and a badly aged, heavy drinking and very weary Logan (Hugh Jackman) cares for an ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart) at a remote outpost on the Mexican border. His plan to hide from the outside world gets upended when he meets Laura a young mutant (Dafne Keen) who is very much like him and was created in a lab by Alkali-Transigen who now want her back: their IVF-bred young mutants are not responding as expected and some of them have free will – and feelings. Logan must now protect the girl and battle the dark forces that want to capture her as they are hunted down by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) on behalf of mad scientist Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) who fools Caliban (Stephen Merchant) into giving his friends away. What Logan hasn’t reckoned on is his seed having been used to make a copy – of him …  Adapted by Scott Frank and Michael Green and director James Mangold from the Wolverine comic books by Roy Thomas, Len Wein and John Romita Sr. This is elegant filmmaking – a strange claim perhaps to make about one of the most brutal and violent films you’ll ever see (heads actually roll) but it’s truer in spirit to adult-oriented comic books as per Frank Miller than anything else you’ve seen in this vein. It’s performed brilliantly by an almost perfect cast and the clips from Shane which X watches with Laura in their hotel room are a very fine metaphor for what happens, a kind of honourable suicide, for the future and the greater good. It really is the only decent superhero movie I’ve seen in years.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

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You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. Six-year old Scout Finch (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in sleepy smalltown Maycomb, Alabama during the Depression, spending their time with their friend Dill (John Megna) who visits every summer, spying on their reclusive and mysterious neighbour the mentally defective Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). When Atticus (Gregory Peck) their widowed father and a respected lawyer, defends a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) against fabricated rape charges by a redneck white girl Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox) whose own father Bob (James Anderson) has attacked her, the trial and surrounding issues expose the children to evils of racism and stereotyping and the accuser’s father has a bone to pick with Finch and his children … This feels like it has always been here:  the gracious Peck in the role with which he would come to be identified and young Scout’s view of unfolding events, the most violent of which are all offscreen. Horton Foote’s careful adaptation of Harper Lee’s instant classic and Pulitzer Prize-winner (with Dill a stand-in for her own childhood friend, Truman Capote) both heightens and elevates the issue of white supremacy in some of the shot set-ups by director Robert Mulligan, never mind the text in which the innocent victim of white justice is mysteriously shot by the police while allegedly escaping. Perhaps that’s the quibble of someone viewing it in retrospect twice over – the 1960s take on a 30s point of view. The sense of place and period ambiance is impeccable and the playing of the motherless girl by Badham (sister of director John) is hugely influential in its insistence on how we see things are – or were, perhaps, with no distractions or subplots to take from this essential drama of the rights of the vulnerable with the odd scene properly essaying the effect of horror films, just as a child experiences life. Each of the children makes a lasting impression. The courtroom scene is classic and the quiet dignity of the black community rising to their feet as Atticus leaves the legendary trial sequence is very moving. Quite monumental.

Cleopatra (1963)

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Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus. The Seventh Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) manipulates and falls in love with both Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) in her ill-fated attempt to save the Egyptian empire from a takeover by the Roman Empire. This love triangle is one of the most famous ever to be captured on film, with betrayal by trusted Octavian (Roddy McDowall), the murder of Caesar, the escape of Cleopatra who has borne Caesar’s son and the final, terrible defeat at Actium in Greece … What gets lost in the palaver about this truly epic historical saga which ruined Twentieth Century Fox for a while is just how good it is:  how it measures the scale of the action to the depth of performance. Elizabeth Taylor is imperious, vulnerable, scathing, dictatorial, brilliant and moving: What can I do? Where can I go in a world suddenly without you? You believe her. And she is matched by the acerbic Harrison, the slyly snide McDowall (we’re a long way from Lassie!), loyal Rufio (Martin Landau) and what about the very sad end of Burton whose line to Octavian makes you gulp with emotion:  Is there nobody who would grant Antony an honourable way to die? Oh! Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by C.M. Franzero and the histories by Plutarch, Appian and Suetonius the much-laboured upon screenplay is by Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, and director Joseph Mankiewicz who certainly suffered for everybody’s art as the man to take over the botched first attempt aborted in London and relaunched at Cinecitta in Rome. As legendary as this is for its effect on Hollywood, what shouldn’t be forgotten is what a brilliant spectacle it is. It’s quite breathtaking.