Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

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Everybody’s got a right to be a sucker once. When Budd Boetticher wrote this story he thought it would be a perfect return to Hollywood after his near-decade long Mexican odyssey when the subject of his bullfighting documentary died and he nearly bought the farm himself. But his career was effectively over and this was rewritten by Albert Maltz, another (blacklisted) resident of Mexico and instead of his hoped-for Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr starring, it was supposed to have Elizabeth Taylor in the lead. She gave the script to Clint Eastwood on the set of Where Eagles Dare (in which he co-starred with Richard Burton) and the whole game changed when it wasn’t going to be shot in Spain. In fact it became a Mexican co-production.  Eastwood is Hogan, a mercenary en route to assist Mexican revolutionaries against the French who were then engaged in an invasion of the country, with the promise of enough gold to set up a bar in California. He rescues nun Sara (MacLaine) who has had her clothes ripped off her by a bunch of marauding cowboys and he shoots them dead. She proves to be much more resourceful than he expects and enjoys drinking, smoking and helps him stop an ammunition train in its tracks as they make their way to a French fort on behalf of the Juaristas.  It turns out that the nun’s garb is just a costume that covers up her real vocation, that of prostitute … Gorgeously shot by Gabriel Figueroa (assisted by Bruce Surtees) this is a sensational comedy western with two gripping star performances. Don Siegel didn’t like MacLaine whom he declared unfeminine because she had too many balls. It was the last time Eastwood got second billing and also the last time that he would agree to an actress of stature as his co-star until Meryl Streep acted opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County. Siegel takes a spaghetti-style story and gives it some nicely sardonic twists with some terrific scenes – when MacLaine is giving a former client the last rites; and playing for time with General LeClaire (Albert Morin) while children dump a dynamite-filled pinata at the fort, to name but two. Boetticher was appalled at the alterations to his original story and when Siegel said he woke up every day to a paycheque, Boetticher responded he woke up every day and could look at himself in the mirror. Nonetheless this is engaging, smart and funny and a really great acting masterclass. Ennio Morricone’s insistent, brutally repetitive score is a plus.

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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.

The Lawless Breed (1953)

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I love you the way you are. The way you really are. Legend has it that gunslinger, card sharp and outlaw John Wesley Hardin once shot a man because he was snoring. In this Universal-Technicolor version of a story he wrote about himself – his real life, as it were – we get the fast-moving, adventurous western that veteran director Raoul Walsh favoured, with a luminous performance by Rock Hudson in the role that made him a star. It starts with a beautiful framing device:  freed after 16 years from a prison sentence, the aged Hardin (and Hudson looks just like he would twenty years later in MacMillan and Wife!) leaves those portals and the first beings he touches in many years are a donkey and a dog. He has us at hello. Then he walks into a print shop and hands over a manuscript – his autobiography. It’s a great opening. Then we relive his life from his point of view in one long flashback:  as a young man he’s whupped by his strict preacher father (John McIntire) and launched into a life of crime following a card game. “It was self-defence,” becomes his mantra. He’s followed through Texas by Union soldiers, takes refuge with his sympathetic uncle (also played by McIntire), continues his relationship with the most beautiful girl in the State, Jane (Mary Castle) and eventually takes refuge with the saloon girl who understands him, Rosie (Julie aka Julia Adams). It’s a fatalistic tale which became a Bob Dylan song but this being Hollywood we don’t see the sordid ending that actually befell the man and Hudson imbues his character with wonderful gentleness.  When he returns home to save his grown son (Race Gentry) from his destiny the reason for writing his memoirs becomes clarified. Great, rousing tale, brilliantly handled by Walsh with his usual terrific staging and pace and doesn’t it look beautiful, like all movies should. Very loosely adapted from Hardin’s book by the great (and blacklisted) screenwriter Bernard Gordon. Never mind the facts – print the legend!

The Hustler (1961)

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What’s so great about the film that made Paul Newman a superstar? This grim tale of Fast Eddie Felson the up and coming pool shark and his manager/nemesis Bert Gordon (the vicious George C. Scott is well cast) who wants to take the mantle of Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) at Ames Billiards Parlor in NYC is an enduring classic rooted in 50s social realism.  When Eddie loses face and money he retreats to the railway station locker room and cafe and finds another waif, the apparently confident but alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie) who like him is an accident waiting to happen. Stunningly designed by Harry Horner and shot by Eugene Schufftan, this is a story of people enclosed by their chosen occupations. The film’s very texture is pure gloom. Newman is simply great as the guy who dares to return to the pool hall even after he’s had his thumbs broken and confidence shattered:  not everyone loves pool sharks.  For most of the film the only light is coming from his eyes. Gleason is superb as the laconic competition and Scott is as evil as you’d expect. Laurie is heartbreaking as the price of Eddie’s ambition. This earned a fistful of Oscar nominations and ended up with two wins (for Horner and Schufftan). It was adapted from Walter Tevis’ story by Sydney Carroll and director Robert Rossen.  Rossen has a complex reputation. He was a man whose actions created a lot of ill-feeling on film sets. He was a former blacklistee (named by colleagues) who himself became a namer of names to HUAC after a second go-round in order to work again. But this comeback film drew upon his own experiences with its driven, failing, vicious, deadly characters. He grew up a poor Russian Jew in New York and did whatever he could to earn a buck. Desire and ambition were at the core of his being. He was a longtime member of the Communist Party when Communists played such a huge role in New York theatre and his screenplays in the 30s and 40s were concerned with society and poverty and getting out. The work certainly suited the studios who employed him at the time:  he got John Garfield to give a truly brilliant performance in boxing classic Body and Soul.  Unlike his fellow director Elia Kazan, he could never mend those bridges after the HUAC hearings.  His next film, Lilith, would be his last, reportedly after a contentious relationship with star Warren Beatty:  Lilith, after all, was a psychological study of a strong (if probably psychotic) woman, and it’s a strange piece of work that simply shines with the alluring lustre of Jean Seberg and the emotion of the truly felt. But after that experience he stated that if he never made another film he had The Hustler to his credit. It is a tragic story, well told. Rossen died aged 57 in 1966.

Ivanhoe (1952)

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Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) is determined to right the wrong of kidnapped Richard the Lionheart’s predicament, confronting his evil brother Prince John (Guy Rolfe) and Norman knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders). His own estranged father Cedric (Finlay Currie) doesn’t know he’s loyal to the king but feisty Rowena (Joan Fontaine) is still his lady love although his affections are now swung by the beautiful Jewess Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), daughter to Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer), who is almost robbed by the knights and whose fortune can aid the King. Robin Hood appears and Ivanhoe joins forces with him and his men, there’s jousting at the tournament and love lost and won, and a trial for witchcraft ….  Adapted by AEneas MacKenzie from the Walter Scott novel, this was written by Noel Langley and Marguerite Roberts, whose name was removed subsequent to her being blacklisted. It’s glorious picture-book pageantry in Technicolor, such a wonderful change from those grim grey superhero and historical excursions to which we are being currently subjected in the multiplex. Everyone performs with great gusto, there’s chivalry and action aplenty, a great baddie, a kangaroo court, a ransom to be paid, a love triangle, a king to rescue, costumes to die for and properly beautiful movie stars performing under the super sharp lens of Freddie Young to a robust score by Miklos Rozsa. It was the first in an unofficial mediaeval MGM trilogy shot in the UK, followed by Knights of the Round Table and The Adventures of Quentin Durward, all starring Taylor (Robert, that is) and shot by Richard Thorpe. Prepare to have your swash buckled. Fabulous.

The Beguiled (1971)

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What an extraordinary generic blend this is:  part Western, part Gothic or Grand Guignol, and an emblematic role for Clint Eastwood who would turn aspects  of its perverse sexuality into a motif in Play Misty for Me and Tightrope.  He’s a Union soldier badly wounded in the Civil War, found by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) a little girl who attends a seminary nearby in very Southern Louisiana. Deciding eventually not to report him to the Confederate soldiers, headmistress Geraldine Page sets her sights on him – but so does teacher Elizabeth Hartman. And student Jo Ann Harris … Adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, this plumbs areas of psyched out femininity that no other films truly reach.  It becomes clear that Page indulged in an incestuous relationship with her late brother;  Hartman is a virgin;  and Harris is a fox – whom Eastwood naturally beds, to the others’ uncontrollable fury. The Gothic trope of the staircase looms and Hartman pushes him to the bottom of it – giving Page an excuse to lop off one of his legs and trap him there forever. When he accidentally kills Amy’s turtle everything comes to a head and any plans he might have are as dust. There’s nothing like women scorned, is there? Bruce Surtees’ dreamlike cinematography lends this twisted narrative an art house feel that is entirely different to any of Eastwood’s output to that time – and the studio had no idea how to market it. Blacklisted writer Albert Maltz did the original adaptation but he gave it a happy ending – so another draft was done by Irene Kamp. Both of them were credited pseudonymously. And the real rewrite by associate producer Claude Traverse went uncredited. Director Don Siegel worked with Eastwood to create a different phase of his iconicity following the spaghetti westerns that brought the actor global fame  – and this was the real start of crafting something mysterious and ineffable and even masochistic in his screen persona, alongside the action roles that kept the studios happy. No wonder Sofia Coppola wanted to remake it. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. This is great anyhow you choose. (And an opportunity to see the tragic Hartman). When this came out my aunt’s mate at boarding school snuck out to see it and she was caught by the nuns climbing back in a window very late at night. When she explained her uncontrollable weakness for Mr Eastwood they said they understood completely and she wasn’t punished. Now that’s some cool nuns. And how very fitting!

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

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A friend of mine is under the weather at the moment so I prescribed holiday viewing:  The Great Escape and its fraternal twin, this, one of the best men on a mission action adventures to come out of WW2. It’s 1943.  An Allied commando team is deployed to destroy huge German guns on the Greek island of Navarone in order to rescue troops trapped on Kheros. They’re led by British Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle) and include the American Mallory (Gregory Peck), Greek resistance fighter Stavros (Anthony Quinn) and reluctant Brit explosives expert Miller (David Niven). Facing impossible odds, the men battle stormy seas and daunting cliffs. When Franklin is injured, Mallory takes command, and the infighting begins. They have to impersonate Nazi officers and work with local resistance fighters Irene Papas and Gia Scala. There is a spy  in the camp – but who can it be? There’s interrogation and explosives and betrayal and all kinds of good stuff. This is sublime fun and contains probably my favourite movie line of all, from the inimitable Niven:  Heil everybody! Adapted from Alastair MacLean’s novel by blacklisted screenwriter and producer Carl Foreman (who made a lot of changes to the material) and directed by J. Lee Thompson (taking over from Alexander Mackendrick one week before production – that old saw, ‘creative differences.’) Narrated by James Robertson Justice and shot by the peerless Oswald Morris with a majestic soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin. Definitely taking this to the desert island. Or even a Greek one.

The Naked Jungle (1954)

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I’ll go a long way to see an ant movie but this is only worth it if you’re feeling in the mood for a masochistic melodrama with a two-mile-wide by twenty-mile-long column of bugs at the tail end. Eleanor Parker is the proxy mail order bride who fetches up on Charlton Heston’s South American cocoa plantation at the turn of the century but he doesn’t much like her and takes agin her when he realises she’s a widow. He hasn’t really been there or done that way out in the Amazon jungle so she has him at something of a disadvantage. Some torrid and rather suggestive arguments lead him to send her back to N’Oleans but their gallop upriver is halted by the insects, he greases up to burn them out and she sleeps through the worst of it. Golly, they sure don’t make them like this any more! Based on a story by Carl Stephenson this was adapted by Ranald MacDougall and blacklistees Ben Maddow and Philip Yordan, directed by Byron Haskin and produced by George Pal. This was released March 3rd 1954 so it’s practically an anniversary screening. Personally I prefer Them! and Phase IV. Oh my heaving bosom!

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Someone asked me why I hadn’t enjoyed the recent POW movie Unbroken and I said that after 2 hours I still knew absolutely nothing about the protagonist or any of his imprisoned confreres. I didn’t even know why he ran despite it being based on an athlete’s memoir. For me that represented a huge failure in the writing (by the Coen Bros.)  No such problem here which is the skeleton plot for all such films. The British war movie was at its zenith in the 1950s and the writing here is so precise, the casting so meticulous, you don’t even have to hear anyone speak a line of dialogue before you know exactly who these men are, what they are capable of,  what and who they represent in a somewhat fictional take on the building of the Burma-Siam railway. James Donald, Andre Morell, Geoffrey Horne, Peter Williams. We know these men. The adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel about prisoners in a WW2 Japanese camp by blacklisted Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson was credited to Boulle and he got the Academy Award for something he didn’t do. They were eventually awarded posthumously. British critics still look at this and hate it because it was made by David Lean (financed and produced by Sam Spiegel) and it seemed to indicate a permanent change to his filmmaking approach, that of international tourism. He made pretty pictures, that’s for sure, but they were meaningful and he was highly involved in their development from all perspectives, not merely visual (as though that were a crime in a visual medium) but also the screenplay, despite never taking a writing credit. The setting in Burma (it was shot in Ceylon) was demanding and the casting was crucial to satisfy an international audience. William Holden was a brilliant choice – look at his previous roles, particularly in Stalag 17 – and his physicality, sex appeal and a convincing ability as a bit of a sly piece of work made him a perfect if brave and reliable reprobate., a complex action hero of questionable loyalties. Guinness is the shortsighted Brit Colonel Nicholson who takes seriously issues of honour, legality and pride, a model of the officer and gentleman (Holden is nothing of the sort as one of his mates tells him) opposite the Jap camp commander played by Sessue Hayakawa whose own viciousness barely conceals his incomprehension at the stubborn morality of his opposite number. Holden escapes, Guinness wants to build a bridge of military importance to the Japs and Jack Hawkins blackmails Holden into blowing it up. It’s such an interesting play on character and belief and the deranged survival instincts of people under murderous tyranny. How could anyone not like this?! I first saw this aged 9 and like every other kid in my class was whistling Colonel Bogey on the way home from school the next day. That was before I learned what the Japs did to my great uncle in one of their camps (and he was one of the very few in his regiment to have survived) and what he experienced and witnessed – that is another story but one that people should not forget. A fabulously suspenseful drama and the tension never lets up. This is brilliant.

Love and Death (1975)

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I fell over laughing when I first saw this on TV aged about 13 so I thought it was time to revisit and see if it holds up. With a screenplay by Allen, Donald Ogden Stewart and Mildred Cram you’d have a high expectation of this satire of Russian literature and the Napoleonic war being extremely funny and it is! Cram was a very popular short story writer and got the Academy Award for  perenially popular Love Affair (1939) which most of us know better from its modern iteration, Sleepless in Seattle. DOS of course was a famous humorist and wit, a member of the Algonquin Round Table and had a slew of movie credits to his name. He is immortalised as Bill Gorton in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A member of the Anti-Nazi League prior to WW2, he was nailed by HUAC and had to abandon the US for the UK. Let’s just say he was a lot funnier than any of the censorious goons who hounded him out. Allen? He takes the concept of Monsieur Beaucaire and puts himself in the Bob Hope role, a coward running through swathes of Tolstoy with a disrespectful pitchfork in pursuit of real-life lady love Diane Keaton, playing the helpless trampy cousin he adores, and it’s an amuse-bouche for Annie Hall, that other devoted homage to anti-heroic schmuckery, sex and all-round meaninglessness in the face of egotistical slaughter. This is the film that birthed the exchange, Sex without love is an empty experience/As empty experiences go, it’s one of the best:  not necessarily what you’d expect in a piss-take of War and Peace. Supremely silly with screamingly witty lines and an abundance of hilarious sight gags – even the bloody battlefield scenes are a hoot. Gotta go watch it again and pretend I’m still 13. With Harold Gould, Olga Georges-Picot, Jessica Harper, and Death.