It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

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Nobody is flying the plane!  During a massive traffic jam in California caused by reckless  ex-convict (following a tuna factory robbery 15 years earlier) Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante), he crashes his car off twisting, mountainous State Highway 74 near Palm Desert. Five motorists stop to help him: dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar) and his wife Monica (Edie Adams); furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters); two guys on their way to Las Vegas, Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett); and Fresno entrepreneur J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle), his wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and his loud mother-in-law Mrs Marcus (Ethel Merman). Just before he dies kicking a bucket, Grogan tells the men about $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park near the border with Mexico under “… a big W”. The motorists set out across California to find the fortune, unaware that Captain T.G. Culpeper, Chief of Detectives of the Santa Rosita Police Department, has been patiently working on the Smiler Grogan case for years, hoping to someday solve it and retire. When he learns of the crash, he suspects Grogan may have tipped off the passersby, so he has them tracked by various police units. His suspicions are confirmed by their nutty behaviour but he may have ulterior motives for retrieving the loot  …  It’s a nice dream.  Lasted almost five minutes.  Earnest producer/director Stanley Kramer’s film may not in fact be the comedy to end all comedies as it was billed but it has most of the mid-century movie world’s best comic performers (and more besides) involved in incredibly engineered slapstick sequences, marvellously sustained as a lengthy madcap satirical farce, with some of the best colour cinematography you will ever see:  those reds and yellows and blues pop perfectly off the screen in staggering synchrony thanks to astonishing work by Ernest Laszlo. Written by William Rose and Tania Rose, it’s an epic ensemble endeavour with support and guest bits from a vast variety of mostly TV stars like Phil Silvers, Peter Falk, Jerry Lewis, Dick Shawn, Andy Devine, The Three Stooges, Edward Everett Horton and the great Buster Keaton, with Zasu Pitts in her final film,  and some lively dancing by Barrie Chase (screenwriter Borden Chase’s daughter and Robert Towne’s onetime girlfriend, previously married to Hollywood hairdresser Gene Shacove and therefore the inspiration for Shampoo!). We love Terry-Thomas (in a role intended for Peter Sellers, who asked for too much money – ironically) and his comments here about American obsessions provide the caustic witticisms that balance the narrative and characters’ unstoppable drive for money.  Sid Caesar inherited the role intended for the fabulous Ernie Kovacs following his death in a car crash driving home from Milton Berle’s baby shower (again, the irony…). A beautifully constructed gem that shows off California in precisely the way you would wish and after commencing with someone kicking the bucket in a cliffhanger opening, ends on an entirely apposite banana skin. Watching these legendary performers trying to steal scenes is a kick:  make America funny again! Beautifully restored.  Don’t call me baby

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Tormented (1960)

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No one will ever have you! Jazz pianist Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson) lives on the beach in Cape Cod and is preparing to marry Meg Hubbard (Lugene Sanders) when old flame Vi Mason (Juli Reding) turns up to stop him and falls to her death from the local lighthouse when he refuses to lend her a hand as the railing breaks.  Wet footprints turn up on his mat, a hand reaches out to him, Vi’s voice haunts him and he starts behaving strangely particularly in front of Meg’s little sister Sandy (Susan Gordon).  Blind landlady Mrs Ellis (Lillian Adams) explains to him that similarly supernatural stuff happened when someone else died in the area. Then the beatnik ferry captain Nick (Joe Turkel)  who took Vi to the island to see Tom appears and starts getting suspicious that she never returned particularly when wedding bells are in the air … I’m going to live my life again and stop running. With a pedigree crew – director Bert I. Gordon co-wrote with regular collaborator George Worthing Yates – who did the screenplays for some great pirate movies and sci fis including Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, which starred Hugh Marlowe, frequently mistaken for Richard Carlson – you’d be expecting a class act. And it’s a good story hampered by a minuscule budget which gives off a different kind of aroma. The effects are hilarious – particularly good is some woman’s hand entering frame when Tom is in young Sandy’s company and he hits it and runs off.  Sandy sees nothing, of course. My favourite moment is when Vi’s disembodied head appears and Tom reaches out and enjoys a tussle with a blonde wig which he then wraps in paper and throws down a step only to have it picked up by his blackmailer and opens it only to find dead flowers. Despite Carlson’s character mutating into a murderous beast and his ex spinning a Monroe-esque vibe, and the hilarious hey-daddy-o exchanges with the beatnik boatman (whom you’ll recognise as Lloyd the bartender in The Shining), by far the most complex performance comes from young Gordon (the director’s wonderfully talented daughter). The ending is satisfying indeed if you like really proper ghost stories. However if you think you’re going to hear some decent jazz, well, it’s hardly a priority in a camp outing such as this. This was Sanders’ last film in a strangely brief career.  She’s a perfume, she’s a footprint, she’s a hand, she’s a space in a picture

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400

The Drowning Pool (1975)

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Swimming’s a good way to relax but I know a better way. LA based private detective Lew Harper is hired by old flame Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward), who is being blackmailed about an extra-marital affair she says never happened. He travels down to Louisiana to investigate, but things take a turn for the worse when her mother-in-law (Coral Browne) is killed and her nymphet daughter Schuyler (Melanie Griffith) appears to be involved with the family’s disreputable ex-chauffeur Reavis (Andrew Robinson) who Iris believes is responsible for the blackmailing … I ran a check on you, Mr. Harper. You are not stupid. Adapted by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Walter Hill and Lorenzo Semple Jr. from Ross Macdonald’s titular 1950 novel, this rather laidback followup to Newman’s previous outing as Lew Harper a decade earlier relocates him from his familiar California setting and the New Orleans and Lafayette backdrops provide an easy atmosphere for this most likable of PIs. Beyond the visual attractions of the bayous and plantation home shot by Gordon Willis, there’s the spectacle of real life husband and wife Newman and the marvellous Woodward sharing screen time, Griffith as the jailbait daughter with the squeaky voice, Murray Hamilton as crazed oil magnate J.J. Kilbourne, Anthony Franciosa as Police Chief Broussard and Richard Jaeckel gets some very good moments as a corrupt police officer. You’ll recognise Robinson as the shooter from Dirty Harry. Less deftly plotted than Harper, it’s rounded out with a score by Michael Small arranged around the liberal use of the modern classic, Killing Me Softly, an exceedingly apt choice considering the denouement. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Harper, you’re not such a tough guy

Seven Days to Noon (1950)

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When I was young I saw science as a means of serving God and my fellow men. When Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones) becomes wary of the nuclear weapons he is helping build, he steals a warhead and writes a letter to the Prime Minister threatening to detonate it in London in one week unless the government begins nuclear disarmament. As Willingdon goes into hiding in various locations around London, Detective Folland (Andre Morell) of Scotland Yard sets out to find him using all the resources at his disposal. Willingdon’s daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) also joins the cause, hoping she can talk sense into her father before he causes a catastrophe but the Government decides evacuating the capital city is the only answer as time runs out and Willingdon takes up with an unwitting actress (Olive Sloane) when he needs a place to overnight … London – she’ll either make you or break you, isn’t that what they always say? Co-director Roy Boulting and Frank Harvey wrote the screenplay from an original story by Paul Dehn and James Bernard. From the cracking titles sequence to the wonderfully shot panoramas by Gilbert Taylor, we are taken on a grand tour of London from massage parlours, boarding houses and pubs, through the Underground and to the British Museum, the BBC and 10 Downing Street. The eerie silence of the streets when the trains leave the city is positively terrifying. When did you ever think you’d hear the words, Advancing into Belgravia?!  An absolutely cracking blackmail thriller about doomsday whose moral grip is intensified by the bristling inventive score from John Addison, that genius composer whose work we love so much. Directed by the Boulting Brothers. Repressing of fear is like trying to hold down the lid of a boiling kettle. Something’s got to give eventually

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)

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A policeman who breaks the law is twice the sucker.  Career criminal Ralph Cotter (James Cagney) escapes from prison and then murders the partner-in-crime (Neville Brand) who grassed him up in the first place. He attempts to woo his ex-partner’s sister Holiday Carleton (Barbara Payton) by threatening to expose her role in his escape. Cotter quickly gets back into the crime business—only to be shaken down by corrupt local LA cops led by Inspector Weber (Ward Bond) and Lt. John Reece (Barton MacLane). When Cotter turns the tables on them, his real troubles have only started…  I don’t want the coroner to find the bruises on these birds. One of the purest expressions of violence committed to celluloid, this post-war gangster noir is dominated by the strutting sadism of James Cagney, who bestrides it as though he hadn’t been blown up at the end of White Heat. Co-star Barbara Payton was hand-picked by Cagney and is of course one of Hollywood’s most notorious party girl casualties whose own biography bore this film’s title and she gives us a direct line to sex in her interaction with Cagney, while rival Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter) is her visual and performative opposite; Bond is a locus of police corruption and revenge; and Group Theater founder Luther Adler bristles as the lawyer coerced into helping the gang. If I ever saw a crazy man, he’s it. Adapted by Harry Brown from Horace McCoy’s novel, and produced by Cagney’s brother William, this is an amazing exposition of Los Angeles as an exquisite corpse of genre tropes, the cinematic city responsible for most of noir’s topography where the cops are just another filthy gang.  We couldn’t tip ’em off if we sat on the roof of their car. In another stranger than fiction story from that metropolis’s Ripley’s lore, this is the film that Phil Spector and Lana Clarkson were watching the night of her killing. Utterly riveting, febrile and quite shocking. Directed by Gordon Douglas. All I saw were the guns

Strangers When We Meet (1960)

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Kiss me. Please don’t kiss me. Californian architect Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) yearns to create adventurous designs, but his pragmatic wife, Eve (Barbara Rush), is determined to make her husband focus on more marketable, straightforward work instead of the unconventional work he craves. Maggie Gault (Kim Novak), a neighbor of the Coe family who is trapped in a loveless marriage and who Larry hits on at their kids’ school bus stop, believes in Larry’s creative impulses, and the pair eventually strike up a love affair while he builds the house of his dreams on his ideal coastal site for wealthy writer Roger Altar (Ernie Kovacs). However, they’re interrupted by the nosy, lecherous Felix (Walter Matthau), who has eyes for Eve and turns to blackmail… Alright, Larry, I wanted him. That’s what you really wanted to hear, isn’t it. I wanted him. One of the most brutally beautiful scrutinies of love in the burbs and middle class meltdown ever committed to the silver screen, this has Novak at her beguiling best, reunited with lover Richard Quine, who directed her in Bell, Book and Candle alongside co-star Kovacs. Novelist Evan Hunter adapted his book and it’s treated lushly, the carefully designed house on the perfect cliff-edge site operating as a metaphor for the dangerous relationship that sates the love-lorn pair lonely in their respective marriages and looking for a satisfying sexual encounter that matches their romantic expectations. The supporting performances are fantastic – Matthau as the vicious neighbour, Rush as the wisely restrained wife, Virginia Bruce as Novak’s suspicious mother – but it’s the compelling sexual attraction between Douglas and Novak that’ll have you coming up for air as you reach for a gin martini. The score by George Duning is a thing of majesty and it’s one of the most gorgeous portraits of Los Angeles you will ever see with locations masterfully shot by Charles Lang at Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Santa Monica and Malibu. Any place you’ve got a housewife, you’ve got a potential mistress

The Kremlin Letter (1970)

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You’re a fool.  What’s worse, you’re a romantic fool. When an unauthorised letter is sent to Moscow alleging the U.S. government’s willingness to help Russia attack Red China, US Navy Intelligence Officer Charles Rone (Patrick O’Neal) has his commission revoked so he can do an extra-governmental espionage mission.  He’s speaks eight languages fluently and has a flawless photographic memory. He and his team are sent to retrieve the letter, going undercover and successfully reaching out to Erika (Bibi Andersson), the wife of a former agent now married to the head of Russia’s secret police, Kosnov (Max von Sydow). Their plans are interrupted, however, when their Moscow hideout is raided by cunning politician Bresnavitch (Orson Welles) and Rone finds himself being played by a network of older spies seeking revenge .My father says bed is integral to this and one must be good at it. Adapted by director John Huston with his regular collaborator Gladys Hill (who began as dialogue director on Welles’ The Stranger) from Noel Behn’s 1966 novel, this complex canvas of betrayal, treason, murder and double cross is in a line with Huston’s film noir period with a soupçon of Beat the Devil‘s absurdism. Its convoluted plot is best appreciated in response to the hijinks of Bond with its determinedly low-key approach allowing the banal thuggery of the spy master to be revealed. The cast is astonishing – Richard Boone as Ward, the peroxide instigator capable of literally anything, sadism, torture and murder;  two Bergman alumni united in transcontinental jiggery pokery; George Sanders playing piano in drag at a gay nightclub and worse, with a penchant for knitting; Barbara Parkins as Niall MacGinnis’ safe-cracking daughter; Vonetta McGee as a Lesbian seductress;  Nigel Green as The Whore, another old spy keen on playing dress up; Lila Kedrova as a Russian brothel keeper;  and Welles’ Gate Theatre mentor Micheál MacLiammóir shows up – in fact he’s the first character we encounter. A crazy cast in a fascinating Cold War timepiece that requires keen attention. Even so, it’s a stretch to have dour O’Neal pose as a gigolo to win Andersson’s affections. Still, Ted Scaife’s cinematography is a thing of beauty. Never mind the story, feel the wit. Huston appears early as the Admiral who gives Rone his marching papers. If you believe in a cause no danger is frightening

Too Late for Tears (1949)

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Just where did you stash my cash? Jane and Alan Palmer (Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy) are driving to a party in the Hollywood Hills when someone in another car throws a satchel into the back seat of their convertible. They open it and find $100,000 cash.  She wants to keep it, he doesn’t. They put it in a locker in Union Station. Then Danny (Dan Duryea) shows up at their apartment when Alan is at work and they scheme to get his money back, a once in a lifetime payoff from a blackmail/insurance scam. Jane persuades him to help kill Alan on a boat trip. She reports Alan as missing. Kathy Palmer (Kristine Miller) suspects Jane has murdered her brother and investigates with a man claiming to be his friend Don Blake (Don DeFore), who look into her dealings. Meanwhile Jane is plotting to keep all of the money for herself …  Looking down her nose at me like a big ugly house looks over Hollywood.  Scott has a great showcase as a ruthless, mutinous femme fatale, a silky smooth siren desperate to shake off the shackles of middle class unease:  the kind of people who can’t keep up with the bills every day and die a little. Duryea is good as the villain/accomplice, like a musical comedy star who’s wandered onto the wrong movie set and likes the fit of his suit but his taste for drink proves his undoing. Miller is particularly good as Kennedy’s sister. It was her second time to be paired with Scott following I Walk Alone; while DeFore proves the magic ingredient that unlocks the mystery of Scott’s first husband’s deathA vicious portrayal of venal post-war Los Angeles society, a cautionary tale laced with venom that is brilliantly conceived, shot and performed with lashings of good lines. Written by Roy Huggins (later famous as TV writer/producer of The Fugitive, Maverick and The Rockford Files) and adapted from his novel which was serialised in the Saturday Evening Post.  Directed by Byron Haskin.  I let you in because housewives can get awfully bored sometimes!

Subway (1985)

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So what’re you doing down here?  A tuxedoed and peroxided safecracker Fred (Christopher Lambert) gets romantically involved with Héléna (Isabelle Adjani) the chic young trophy wife of the gangster whose documents he’s stolen and they join the Paris subway fringe. Fred forms a band with The Drummer (Jean Reno) and The Dreamer (Éric Serra) but The Rollerskater (Jean-Hugues Anglade) is caught by Commissioner Gesberg (Michel Galabru) who has been pressured to catch Fred. Fred and The Florist (Richard Bohringer) rob a train, leaving Fred with the money but the gang and the police are closing in … Your Cinderella’s got a pistol this big in her bag. Along with Diva, this audacious, pulsating, fun, characterful thriller announced le cinéma du look to the anglophone world. Critics might think it vacuous and good-looking for its own sake. Do we care?! Written and directed by Luc Besson (who became an industry powerhouse in France) this can be summed up in one word – cool. From the Serra score, the fizzy cinematography of Carlo Varini to the laidback (underwritten!) roles and the energetic editing of Sophie Schmit, this is stylish as hell with wit to burn. Boasting an attractive portrait of netherworld originals and misfits living in Paris Métro sets designed by the legendary Alexandre Trauner and an attitude of epic nonchalance, this epitomises what people felt the French must be like thirty years ago – punk, carefree, individual. Co-written by Besson with Alain Le Henry, Pierre Jolivet, Marc Perrier and Sophie Schmit. Why don’t you love me?/ Because I don’t have the guts