Fear in the Night (1972)

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Aka Dynasty of Fear/Honeymoon of Fear. Your pretty little brand new wife.  The fragile wife Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson) of teacher Robert (Ralph Bates) is attacked in the bathroom of her boarding house by a man with a mechanical arm but nobody believes her and she is briefly institutionalised prior to his taking a job at a small prep school outside London run by Michael Carmichael (Peter Cushing) a mysterious figure whose wife Molly (Joan Collins) Peggy instantly dislikes. Soon Peggy identifies Carmichael’s arm from the earlier attack and left alone by Robert one evening takes out the shotgun to exact revenge when Michael is visiting her but for some reason he can’t be killed. When Robert returns a plot is revealed in a school that isn’t open at all  … I spilled something. The contours of this resemble another school thriller, the French classic  Les Diaboliques, which director (and writer/producer) Jimmy Sangster had already transposed into a Hammer film for Seth Holt in A Taste of Fear a decade earlier. The marital triangle contrived here with co-screenwriter Michael Syson is more straightforwardly adapted in this version, with the relentless pressure on Peggy like a time bomb waiting to go off in the audience as well in what is also an alternate take on Gaslight. The very ordinariness of the physical situation somehow makes it horribly plausible and Geeson’s torment is clarified in her impressively detailed performance. It’s a fantastic role for her but Collins doesn’t get enough to do (even as a trigger happy sculptress!) and never shares time with Cushing, her screen husband. There’s an excellent use of flashbacks and a wonderful plot twist. And there’s a shot of Cushing – when he’s shot! – that I’ll never forget. Never mind his arm, what about those spectacles … I’ll find Michael. And if he’s still alive I’ll kill him!

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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

W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975)

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I wish I was in Dixie. It’s 1957 and W.W. Bright (Burt Reynolds) is an easygoing crook who robs banks and gas stations because he has a grudge against the corrupt businessman who owns the SOS Oil Co. He bribes the attendants not to grass on him to the cops. He meets the Dixie Dancekings, a two-bit country and western band looking for their big break when he hijacks their car running from the police. Dixie (Conny Van Dyke), their singer, gives him an alibi. He claims to be in the music business, and ends up promoting the group. Wayne (Jerry Reed), the band’s leader, does not trust him, but the others all have faith in him. W.W. only steals from SOS gas stations, so the company’s chairman sends for Bible-thumping ex-lawman Deacon John Wesley Gore (Art Carney) to track him down. Meanwhile, W.W. and the newly outfitted band go to see Country Bull (Ned Beatty), a highly successful singer-songwriter. He is willing to write them a song for $1,000. W.W. talks the Dancekings into a bank robbery (SOS has just opened a drive-in bank branch) that does not work out quite as planned. When Gore broadcasts the description of the getaway car on a radio revival show, W.W. burns up his car. He is ready to separate from the Dancekings in order to protect them (Y’all keep practising – cos you need it!) but then he hears them rehearsing Wayne’s new song. He persuades Country Bull to listen to it; the man is so impressed, he puts them on the Grand Ole Opry. There Gore catches W.W. using an exact replica of his burnt car as bait…. If I ever turn queer, that’s the guy I’d turn queer for. That’s Burt Reynolds talking about Errol Flynn in The Sun Also Rises, the film within a film featured early on at a drive-in, in this John Avildsen production. Avildsen made this in between Save the Tiger and Rocky (so this is the one right before he got the Oscar for Best Director) and it doesn’t have quite the cutting social edge or drive of either but it’s pacy and energetic and seems to be on the cusp of something mythical. That’s emblemised in the 1955 ‘Golden Anniversary’ Oldsmobile 88 (it didn’t exist but three were made for the film) and in the time period – post-James Dean, with W.W. wearing a deep orange zip jacket that calls to mind Rebel Without a Cause. Just a matter of time. And money.  And luck. And perhaps for screenwriter Thomas Rickman W.W. is a smooth-talking charming Southern version of that character all grown up and wised up and prone to larceny. It was a true star vehicle for Reynolds and he’s well teamed with Beatty, his co-star from Deliverance and White Lightning as the country superstar and Reed (a legendary guitarist) his future co-star from Gator and Smokey and the Bandit (and Don Williams is also in the Dancekings lineup). You can call me anything you like but don’t you ever call me no communist. It has a nice line in irony (literally:  The Edsel’s the car of the future) and getting ahead by robbing The Man provides a nice backdrop for faux nostalgia and a behind the scenes look at the C&W music scene.  It was released just a few weeks before Nashville despite having been shot months earlier and being billed as the first movie out of that fabled quarter. Nashville however has a political element which made it a much more divisive piece of work, an effect generated by many of Robert Altman’s films. Beatty was also in that film, as the character Delbert Reese. But you’ll just die when you see him in the cowboy getup here and it turns out it really is a case of the emperor’s new clothes.  Reynolds is awesomely engaging as the shapeshifting conman, just like you’d want him to be in what is rambunctious entertainment. Rickman clearly understood how to get the best out of Reynolds and a few years later they collaborated on Hooper, which is one of his very best performances and a terrific film, an hilarious look at the life of Hollywood stuntmen.  Rickman also wrote Coal Miner’s Daughter and Everybody’s All-American, some of the best dramas of their era.  If you’re nice to people they’re nice to you right back and that’s what I like about the South

The Man Who Never Was (1956)

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If we can get Gerry to move one weapon – a battery or even a gun – it’s going to save a lot of lives.  In 1943 the Allies are preparing to invade Sicily during World War II and British naval intelligence agent Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) hatches a cunning plan to fool Germany into believing the Allies’ true target is Greece. Concocting a fictitious British officer ‘Major William Martin’, with an unwitting patriot put on ice in a London mortuary, Montagu gathers false top-secret documents and personal letters to plant upon a corpse that will wash ashore in Spain at Huelva where the local German spy will presumably investigate his authenticity and the neutral Spanish Government share the documents with the Abwehr. But the investigations of a German undercover agent Irishman Patrick O’Reilly (Stephen Boyd) in London could potentially expose the fraud and scupper the landing in Sicily … Sensitive to a fault, this depiction of the true-life British WW2 scam known as Operation Mincemeat is wonderfully written by Nigel Balchin (adapted from Montagu’s book), persuasively performed by a terrific cast and crisply directed by Ronald Neame. This particular plan was to prove a turning point in the war and it was (Ripley’s here) based on the Trout memo of 1939 written by Rear Admiral John Godfrey and his right-hand man a certain Lt. Commander Ian Fleming.  The scenes with the father of the unknowing volunteer and the disposal of his body in the Mediterannean are treated with dignity.  Gloria Grahame’s performance as the lovelorn flatmate of secretary Pam (Josephine Griffin) is striking and the scene when O’Reilly calls on the women to verify the minutiae of the non-existent Martin’s life is unbelievably tense. It didn’t quite happen that way because the British had controlled the German spy network through the Double-Cross System, a fact that was not made public at the time this was made. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant story efficiently told,  also documented in columnist Ben MacIntyre’s book Operation Mincemeat which I heartily recommend. Watch for Joan Hickson (TV’s Miss Marple) as O’Reilly’s landlady and Cyril Cusack as the taxi driver/spy. Montagu himself appears uncredited as an Air Vice Marshal and a certain Winston Churchill appears in voice only!

 

20th Century Women (2016)

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Wondering if you’re happy is a shortcut to being depressed. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.  Architect Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling 1905 fixer-upper boarding house at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion.  William (Billy Crudup) the contractor renting a room doesn’t seem like an appropriate father figure so Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the house and neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning) a savvy and provocative teenage neighbour who often spends the night sleeping there – to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like what’s happening to him and finds it difficult to reconcile the female-centric education with the man she wants him to be … Mike Mills’ autobiographical film has something of an arm’s length feel which you can surmise from the title. In creating this portrait of his mother he is keen to contextualise her in terms of her time and the opportunities open to her. Jamie often excuses the attitudes of this quasi-androgynous high-achieving divorcee with the line, Don’t worry about Mom, she’s from the Depression. Framing his semi-biographical comic drama in the terms of feminist and punk politics sometimes seems like a microscope powered by sociology is being applied in a film essay style instead of a dramatic eye when you want these lives to intersect more. However the drama is triggered by the opening scene when the family car spontaneously combusts in a parking lot.  It’s a good catalyst for the series of events to follow as Jamie’s adolescence progresses and Dorothea says in a moment of truth to Abbie, You get to see him out in the world and I never will. It’s a startling admission and something in these lines fuels a powerful drama that’s concealed between the smarts and upfront sex talk. Look at Bening’s face when her son tells her he thinks it’s good for him to be informed about clitoral stimulation. She’s the one who wanted him to learn how to be a man after all – she just didn’t know how it would make her feel when he goes out of his way to learn how to be a good man. There’s a lot to like here in an ironic mode and in a sense it’s crystallised by the cultural references – culminating in the clips from Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech when he says the country is at a turning point:  they serve to illuminate the theme of the personal as political.  We are all living in the fallout from what was going on in northern Cali in the late 70s and Mills captures this in an uncanny fashion, fixing on a time that has birthed where we are now (albeit now it’s monetised). The production design is just right – the mix of the early 70s vogue for Art Nouveau with the well-placed mushroom lamp, the battle between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans which has a visual result on the doors of Dorothea’s Bug. There are a lot of good aesthetic and narrative choices here coupled with some very sympathetic performances amid a raft of generational and gendered experiences, Abbie and Julie’s mother issues being succinctly handled in parallel stories within medical and therapeutic settings. There is of course a nostalgic air but it’s cut through with intellectual argument bathed in California sun. Sensitive, seductive, suprising and satisfying.

I am a Camera (1955)

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I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.  In the 1950s the writer Christopher Isherwood visits his London club and discovers that he has arrived in the middle of a book launch by a woman called Sally Bowles and regales his friends with stories of their life together just before the Nazis ascend to power in 1930s Berlin. Chris (Laurence Harvey), an aspiring novelist from England and ‘confirmed bachelor’ meets vivacious cabaret entertainer Sally Bowles (Julie Harris) at a nightclub where she’s performing her act and an unusual friendship is born. She moves into his boarding house and their lives become inextricably intertwined as he struggles to write and she tries to make her way with men, a ‘future would-be film star’ as she tells the landlady (Lea Seidl). As Sally feeds her extravagant tastes, Chris goes along for the ride and they are financed by American Clive Mortimer (Ron Randell) until their pal, Fritz (Anton Diffring), encounters trouble after ingratiating himself with Natalia Landauer (Shelley Winters) the daughter of a wealthy department store owner and confesses he himself has been concealing his Judaism. Meanwhile the Nazis bully people on the streets prior to a popular election result … Adapted from the play by John Van Druten, itself based on Goodbye to Berlin, part of the memoirs of writer Christopher Isherwood, this story also served as the inspiration for the later acclaimed musical Cabaret which Bob Fosse turned into a garish and extraordinary fascist-baiting extravaganza. This adaptation by John Collier of Van Druten’s play is of an altogether more modest variety but is entertaining for all that – the charming Harvey (I’m prejudiced, I love him) and the winsomely over the top Harris are wonderful together in their drab bedsits as they try to make their lives fit their pretensions. The treatment got a lot of criticism at the time and you might even be vaguely shocked by what Sally does in the aftermath of her abortion which is characterised as a false pregnancy here. It still ran into censorship problems because there are no moral lessons. Isherwood himself didn’t like it at all and believed Harris to have been ‘mis-directed’ (she had won the Tony for the role on Broadway) but it was his life of course so he could say what he liked. (Me no Leica.) Watch for Patrick McGoohan as a Swedish Water Therapist! Directed by Henry Cornelius.

Make Mine Mink (1960)

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Look at me now – holed up here with a lot of dotty females. No job. No future.  Ex-con Lily (Billie Whitelaw), a maid at Dame Beatrice’s (Athene Seyler) boarding house, steals a mink coat to give to Beatrice, the other residents of the house organize to return the coat and save Lily from arrest because she’s done her time inside already. However, the excitement is a great change from their boring lives, and they decide to start stealing coats for charity purposes. Major Rayne (Terry-Thomas) a former WW2 officer missing the cut and thrust of battle and orders, leads the otherwise female group of unlikely thieves – Nanette (Hattie Jacques), Pinkie (Elspeth Duxbury) and Beatrice. Things become very complicated indeed when the team of ‘Gangsters and Their Molls’ as the newspapers have it might be found out because Lily starts to date a policeman, Jim Benham (Jack Hedley). The gang’s last job – they raid a casino disguised as police officers – is itself duplicated by a raid by the real thing and a detective (Raymond Huntley – he was bound to show up, wasn’t he) knocks on the door … This is a typically British farce of eccentrics and implausible plotting with a wonderful cast. Jacques has a good time of it as the masculine take-charge woman who then dresses up to look rather like Diana Dors while T-T doesn’t really let rip for a while. Seyler is fun as the do-gooder Dame whose nephew (Kenneth Williams) is a well-appointed fence and Duxbury is good as a quasi-hysteric:  Noel Purcell turns up as a very helpful burglar indeed – right under her bed. You’ll recognise some other famous faces in blink-or-you’ll-miss-them uncredited bits – Clement Freud as a croupier, Peter Vaughan, Ron Moody … Written by Michael Pertwee and Peter Blackmore based on Peter Coke’s stage farce, with a jaunty sub-jazz muzak backdrop composed by Philip Green. Directed by Robert Asher. Even minor Terry-Thomas is better than none at all!

Your Money or Your Wife! (1960)

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Gay Butterworth (Peggy Cummins) finds out from family solicitor Hubert Fry (Richard Wattis) that she has inherited a tidy sum from her late aunt. There’s only one catch – in order to avail of the bequest she must divorce her buttoned-up City husband Pelham (Donald Sinden) if he doesn’t die. They figure out a loophole and turn their home into a boarding house to make money, thus introducing an array of ‘types’ into their humdrum existence including a bohemian drummer Theodore Malek (Peter Reynolds) and an exotic siren Juliet Frost (Barbara Steele). Predictable antics ensue in this inoffensive but stagey marital comedy with a game cast injecting life into a poorly handled farce written by Ronald Jeans. Directed by Anthony Simmons and nicely shot by Brendan Stafford.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Aka Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World. Must I take drastic action in order to get a hearing? When humanoid alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrives on a flying saucer in Washington DC the military takes action and the world takes notice. He’s accompanied by an eight-foot robot called Gort. When Klaatu speaks about world peace a nervous soldier opens fire and he disappears from Walter Reed Hospital where he cures himself. Meanwhile Gort is in front of the spaceship, unmoving. Klaatu hides in plain sight in a boarding house (wearing a suit from a dry cleaner’s bearing the tag ‘Mr Carpenter’) where he is befriended by Bobby (the great child actor Billy Gray) whose widowed mother Helen (Patricia Neal) is a secretary engaged to Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe). Bobby goes to Arlington National Cemetery with Klaatu and the alien expresses a desire to meet someone of the calibre of Lincoln. Bobby suggests Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) but when Klaatu visits he’s out so he writes a solution to a mathematical problem left unfinished on the blackboard with instructions on how to be reached. Klaatu returns with government escort and the men discuss the dangerous nature of atomic power:  Klaatu warns that Earth will be eliminated. Bobby follows him and sees him enter the spaceship. He reports the incident to Helen and Tom and Klaatu visits Helen at work and they enter an elevator that stops – he stops all electricity worldwide for a half hour, demonstrating the incapacity of governments to deal with true power… it all comes to a head when he returns with Helen to Professor Barnhardt and the trigger-happy military shoot him dead after being forewarned by Tom. Until … Klaatu stages a resurrection. This Christ analogy was smothered in censor-friendly form, its pacifist message a radical intervention into Cold War paranoia with superb production design (Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to the UFO!) and a suitably strange soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann. Tightly written by Edmund H. North from a story by Harry Bates and superbly directed documentary-style by Robert Wise, this has many great scenes with some of the best in the boarding house between Rennie and Gray. There’s a reason this is a classic and it’s very resonant today. Remember – Klaatu barada nikito!

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.