The Letter (1940)

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With all my heart, I still love the man I killed. In Singapore, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of a rubber plantation administrator, shoots and kills a man, Geoff Hammond, claiming that he tried to take advantage of her. She is arrested and her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) hires attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to defend her. Her claim of self-defence is doubted by the locals. During the trial Howard uncovers an incriminating letter that casts doubt on Leslie’s story. The two become embroiled in a blackmail scheme involving a Malayan clerk Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) and the dead man’s widow Mrs Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) … One of the great melodramas of the era, this Somerset Maugham adaptation by Howard Koch had already received an interpretation in 1929 with Jeanne Eagels in the leading role and Marshall had played Geoff Hammond. With the dream team of Davis and director William Wyler it became an opportunity for Warners to make an intense, lush festival of emotions concerning race and sex shot by Tony Gaudio, costumed by Orry-Kelly and scored by Max Steiner. Davis is simply unforgettable, as is the opening scene, when a shot rings out under a full moon …

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The First Wives Club (1996)

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There are only three ages for women in Hollywood – babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. In 1969 at college class valedictorian Cynthia Swann (Stockard Channing) presents her best friends with pearl necklaces.  A quarter of a century later she throws herself off a building after being betrayed by her adulterous billionaire husband. Her friends reunite at her funeral: Annie (Diane Keaton) is depressed and in therapy after separating from her husband Aaron (Stephen Collins) who’s screwing Annie’s therapist Leslie (Marcia Gay Harden);  Brenda (Bette Midler) is divorced from the cheapo millionaire husband Morty (Dan Hedaya) she made rich and now he’s shacked up with bulimic Shelly the Barracuda (Sarah Jessica Parker);  Elise (Goldie Hawn) is a big acting star with no work, addictions to cosmetic procedures and alcohol and a soon-to-be-ex-husband producer Bill (Victor Garber) sleeping with a young actress Phoebe (Elizabeth Berkley) who’s getting the lead role in a movie – and Elise is only going to play her mother! And Bill’s looking for half of everything – plus alimony. The women pretend to each other everything is fine but the truth is told over a drink or ten following the church service. When they each receive letters that Cynthia got her maid to mail them before her suicide they realise that they have been taken for granted by their husbands and decide to create the First Wives Club, aiming to get revenge on their exes. Annie’s lesbian daughter Chris (Jennifer Dundas)  gets in on the plan by asking for a job at her father’s advertising agency so she can supply her mother with inside information.  Brenda enlists the support of society hostess Gunilla Garson Goldberg (Maggie Smith) – another trophy wife victim – to persuade Shelly to hire unattainable decorator Duarto Felice (Bronson Pinchot) to do over her and Morty’s fabulous penthouse with outrageously expensive tat. Brenda then discovers from her uncle Carmine (Philip Bosco) who has Mafia connections that Morty is guilty of income tax fraud, while Annie makes a plan to revive her advertising career and buy out Aaron’s partners. However, as their plan moves ahead things start to fall apart when they find out that Bill appears to have no checkered past and nothing for them to use against him. Or does he? Elise gets drunk which results in her and Brenda hurling appalling insults at each other and the women then drift apart. When Annie starts thinking about closing down the First Wives Club, her friends come back, saying that they want to see this to the end and Bill hasn’t done anything blatantly wrong – at least as far as he knows. Figuring that revenge would make them no better than their husbands, they instead use these situations to push their men into funding the establishment of a non-profit organisation for abused women, in memory of Cynthia. But not before Elise finds out Phoebe is underage, Brenda kidnaps Morty in a Mafia meat van and Annie takes over …  I do have feelings! I’m an actress! I have all of them! There are digs at everyone in this movie – not just the moronic men who dump their wives in the prime of their lives but vain actors, plastic surgery victims, chumps in therapy – it’s an equal opportunities offender.  This is a real NYC movie with walk on cameos from Ed Koch, Gloria Steinem and Ivana Trump who utters the immortal line, Don’t get mad – get everything! Adapted from Olivia Goldsmith’s novel by Robert Harling and directed by Hugh Wilson. Great fun and far sharper than Marc Shaiman’s soft score would suggest.

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!

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

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I fight against fascism. That is my trade. Jack Warner acquired Lillian Hellman’s hit play for an enormous sum and her lover Dashiell Hammett adapted it for the screen. Bette Davis gets top billing but she’s just one in an ensemble and therefore a supporting player in this tale of anti-fascist activists in Washington in wartime. She plays Sara, the wife of German anti-Nazi Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) who travel with their three children from Europe via Mexico back to her hometown to stay with her widowed mother (Lucile Watson) and brother David (Donald Woods) in a very upscale home. They have other houseguests: Teck De Brankovis (George Colouris) a smooth but desperate Romanian who lives off his wealthy wife Martha (Geraldine Fitzgerald, Davis’s Dark Victory co-star), a woman who is falling for David. Teck soon makes it clear he is a collaborator of the Nazis in Washington and rifles through Kurt’s briefcase threatening blackmail over his true identity.  As Chekhov once proved, if there’s a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third … This talky melodrama is a political tract that works in fits and starts. FDR fan Davis clashed with theatre director Herman Shumlin (who had staged it on Broadway) and argued against the casting of Watson, a Republican, who had established the role on stage. However Watson dominates every scene she’s in with an arresting presence. When she declares, Well we’ve been shaken out of the magnolias, you want to cheer. Very much of its time and terribly stagebound but it demonstrates a consciousness about goings-on in Europe and the wheeling and dealing of so-called diplomats on foreign soils at a time when it really mattered. To demonstrate their commitment to the project Warners refused to bow to pressure from the Hays Office and retained the original ending. They dropped most of the location backgrounds because they contained shots of Government buildings. Shumlin was a prolific stage director and also did Hellman’s The Little Foxes on Broadway. He made just one further film, Confidential Agent (1945). It is not noble. It is only the way I must live.

Dirty Harry (1971)

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You’ve got to ask yourself a question.  ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk? When a serial killer calling himself Scorpio menaces women in San Francisco cop ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is assigned to track him down. He’s involved in a cat and mouse chase that sees him racing all over the city in pursuit even dragging a school bus with children into the fray and bringing him into disrepute by questioning suspects’ Escobedo and Miranda rights. This starts by honouring the institution of policing and ends very firmly on a note of critique – with a move by Harry that is replicated by Keanu Reeves in Point Break twenty years later (albeit Harry gets his man). This starts in such an astonishing fashion, with the camera at the killer’s shoulder when he takes aim with a sniper rifle at a woman swimming in a rooftop pool:  it sutures you directly into his point of view and makes you question everything you see. There is an undertow of satire (and a string of murders) that secures your sympathy for Harry’s unorthodox approach. The story by Harry Julian Fink and R. M. Fink was vaguely based on the Zodiac killer terrorising young women at the time (and later the subject of another brilliant film) and was rewritten by John Milius and Dean Riesner (and Terrence Malick did an early draft), and the end result is tight as a bullet casing. Milius said it’s obvious which parts of the screenplay were his – because for him Harry is just like the killer but with a police badge. It’s directed in such a muscular way by Don Siegel (who had just made The Beguiled with Eastwood) and characterised so indelibly by Eastwood there is only one word to encapsulate it – iconic. Much imitated (even with four sequels of its own) but never equalled, with a moody empathetic score by Lalo Schifrin. What’s weird is that the killer was played by unknown actor and pacifist Andy Robinson – who replaced war hero Audie Murphy following the star’s death in a plane crash before he signed on the dotted line.

American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.

Nightcrawler (2014)

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What a character Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is – petty thief turned news stringer, a hollowed out husk of a ghoul, shooting pictures of the grisliest crime scenes in LA, an autodidact with a taste for death trying to impress a news director (Rene Russo) on the vampire shift competing with all the other TV outlets in the area. This modern day Taxi Driver goes even further in Dan Gilroy’s screenplay, providing a window into the colluding audience’s bloodlust for murder and suffering. The scene-setting is extraordinary, the performances utterly committed and brilliant. Compelling, horrible, wonderful and probably a modern classic.

Juggernaut (1974)

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In 1972 the QE2 was subjected to a bomb hoax and Royal Marines were deployed to deal with the situation:  this is an adaptation of that incident, with writer/producer Richard Alan Simmons (writing under the nom de plume Richard De Koker) moving events to the North Atlantic and a cruise liner tellingly christened Britannic. An Irish-accented man telephones the owner of the line Ian Holm with the information that seven drums of amatol (an explosive) are rigged in the hold. He wants a half million ransom.The seas are too stormy to save the 1200 passengers and while the police led by Anthony Hopkins (whose wife and son are on board) race against time to track the phonecalls, Navy bomb disposal expert Richard Harris and his team including David Hemmings are winched to the ship to try and defuse everything. This came out at the height of the Arab oil crisis and the IRA’s mainland Britain bombing campaign – and – crucially – the disaster movie genre. Yet it has a rare degree of realism and character definition, probably because after the original directors Bryan Forbes and then Don Medford abandoned ship (!) Richard Lester took over and rewrote it with Alan Plater, demonstrating that he is as adept at action/adventure as slapstick comedy, with regular Roy Kinnear along for the ride, supplying some morbidly funny lines as the entertainer while the clock ticks. While Captain Omar Sharif sweats and looks a little red around the eyes, even with Shirley Knight providing his kicks, Harris smokes his pipe and gets on with the job.  He does some really great character work given that most of his acting takes place in quite literally a tiny frame – head and shoulders. The revelation of the bomber’s identity – he’s not foreign – provides some thought-provoking context. Free of contemporary technology and with some telling lines about refugees, this is an unusually watchable genre exercise, driven by something deeper than just explosions and with a really great ending.

Women of Twilight (1952)

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Sylvia Rayman’s startling 1951 play about unmarried mothers became the first British film to receive the new ‘X’ certificate. Adapted by Anatole de Grunwald and directed by Gordon Parry, we enter with a very young and beauteous Jerry Nolan (Laurence Harvey) singing to his lady love fellow nightclub performer Vivianne Bruce (Rene Ray).  When she discovers she’s pregnant he’s arrested for murder and she finds herself looking for a home to sit things out during his court case. She winds up living under the sadistic Mrs Alistair  (Freda Jackson) who runs a somewhat sleazy Hampstead establishment which turns out to be a baby farm where she’s aided and abetted by a slovenly housemaid, Vida (Jessie Smithson). Vivianne rejects a newspaper offer of £500 for her story and is unable to deal with the illness accompanying her pregnancy. Vivianne’s only real friend is room mate Chris (Lois Maxwell) who supports her when Jerry is hanged, but whose child she neglects and he dies in her care when Chris is away for a few days to be reunited with her fiance.  The singular Ray  (later a novelist and the Countess of Midleton!) plays Vivianne half-distracted, half-deranged by grief. Then the half-wit kitchen girl confesses to her that she’s had a deformed child whom Mrs Alistair killed and buried in the garden behind the house. Mrs Alistair overhears Vivianne’s plans to tell the police and throws her down a staircase, bringing on the birth of Jerry’s illegitimate child … This was groundbreaking stuff and it boasts an array of very vivid performances, making this a thoroughly gripping experience. Harvey’s big scene before his death is really something but all the roles are so well written – including Dora Bryan as Olga, a streetwise ‘slut’ as Alistair calls her, Dorothy Gordon as Sally the mad one, and Joan Dowling as the giggler (she would commit suicide two years later when she found husband Harry Fowler was having an affair). Jackson really lets loose in her final scenes and Ray is so odd that she’s quite unforgettable. Extraordinary stuff.

T2 Trainspotting (2017)

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You’re a tourist in your own youth. That’s how I felt too, when I sat down in an empty cinema for this – a far cry from the wild reaction that I expressed and experienced when the Godhead of Nineties movies made its debut. Wow! What a rush that was! Twenty years ago. Which is the real shocker. And age is what this is all about – age and betrayal and memory (or nostalgia) and payback. Renton is back – after making away with all that dosh in London. Sickboy – call him Simon now – ain’t too happy and beats him up. He rescues tragic Spud from certain death. Franco’s just had himself stabbed in prison so he can escape and lure his teenage son away from hotel management and into a life of crime … Revenge? Yes, please. There’s tragedy, fun and kickbacks to spare in this blackly comic outing with portions of Porno mixed up with a narrative carved from the original novel and several flashbacks to the old action and new-old footage of the guys as kids. Edinburgh like the rest of the British Isles is now afloat in Eastern European whores, one of whom has her claws into Simon but whom Renton fancies. Then there’s a scheme to set up Simon’s pub as a rival brothel to a chain of ‘saunas’ which invites interest from the proprietor. And in between bizarre music videos – check out Your Dad’s Best Friend by Rubberbandits! – a hilarious excursion picking pockets at a Loyalist club and digressions on George Best at Hibs, the rhythm section of director Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge and the superb cast (with the obvious exception of Tommy) is reassembled with a sense of style and a closing of the book, as it were. Spud gets a great storyline and there’s a nod to his precursor when Irvine Welsh turns up as chief car booster. Stick to the day job, dude. And there’s a brilliant payoff with a toilet bowl. Whew, it’s okay then. All is right with the world. Choose this.