A Kid for Two Farthings (1955)

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A warm, atmospheric portrait of the Jewish community in Petticoat Lane, Wolf Mankowitz adapted his own novel to be directed by that supremely empathetic man, Carol Reed, whose own pictures of childhood would reach a kind of apogee with Oliver! Jonathan Ashmore is little Joe, whose mother Celia Johnson is left alone while her husband works in South Africa and their tailor landlord David Kossoff’s stories entertain but also soothe Joe when one after another his pets die. Joe believes in unicorns so when he finds a one-horned kid goat he thinks fairytales come true and his story is intertwined with that of the startlingly sweet Diana Dors, in love with her boxer boyfriend Joe Robinson, who like most of his ilk, is mixed up with lowlifes who want him involved in match-fixing. Joe now thinks if things happen there’s a 50/50 chance it’s because he’s wished for them on his unicorn:  he’s got a point …This piquant comedy drama has excited some critics about its portrait of Anglo-Jewry but let’s face it nowadays that goat would be a kebab. A wonderful, vibrant film with a great cast including Sydney Tafler, Sid James, Brenda de Banzie, Lou Jacobi, Joseph Tomelty and Irene Handl, this makes you feel like you’re right in the middle of everything. It features young Ashmore’s only film performance – he grew up to be Bernard Katz Professor of Biophysics at University College London:  what a shlemiel!!

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True Deception (2016)

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Aka The Adderall Diaries. Written and directed by Pamela Romanowsky this James Franco-starrer (he also produced) is an adaptation of a misery memoir by ‘orphaned’ writer Stephen Elliott whose inconveniently live father shows up to wreck his reputation and publishing deals. At the same time he becomes obsessed with a murder case involving millionaire Hans Reisner (Christian Slater) who’s accused of killing his wife;  and sexually involved with a journalist (Amber Heard) who’s had a bad childhood herself. Much of the story is compressed into conflicting montages and competing flashbacks squeezed into a relatively short running time of 83 minutes so it’s hard to reconcile the somewhat wasted star power with the narrative. The mirroring idea of the villainous murdering father on trial is a rather obvious metaphor, real or not, and the writer’s block being solved by a true crime is verbally compared with Capote and Mailer. But the writing process remains mysterious and the scenes with Slater are fairly perfunctory. Cynthia Nixon shows up as one of the few drug-free actors in this narcissist’s psychodrama. One wonders why Franco was drawn to playing this role following True Story (2015). However the main interest here and maybe for him is seeing two very pretty people in an S&M relationship with some scenes rather reminiscent of Madonna’s great embarrassment, Body of Evidence. Memories are made of this. Sigh.

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

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British cinema is always in crisis yet has boasted its share of indisputably great filmmakers and Robert Hamer was one of them, even if nobody particularly noticed at the time. He had contributed The Haunted Mirror sequence to portmanteau horror Dead of Night a couple of years earlier and was adept at any number of genres. This Ealing production was not in the comedy idiom so beloved of moviegoers but rather belongs in the realm of poetic realism that started in France in the Thirties; we might instead call it film noir. Adapted from the novel by Arthur La Bern, by Angus MacPhail, Henry Cornelius and the director, the mainly Yiddish world of Bethnal Green carries on as  one of its inhabitants, married Rosie Sandigate  (Googie Withers), hides her ex-lover Tommy Swann (John McCallum) who’s escaped from Dartmoor and taken refuge in the familiy’s air raid shelter. She then conceals him in the bedroom she shares with her staid older husband (Edward Chapman). It’s Sunday morning and Tommy wants to have it away with her while she tries to carry on the masquerade of housework, laundry, preparing lunch and getting her feckless adult stepdaughters out of the way. Meanwhile the police (Jack Warner, who else?) and a newspaper reporter are on Tommy’s trail and it concludes in achingly existential fashion … Enormously evocative portrayal of a certain era adorned with an intensely felt performance of stridency and eroticism by the fabulous Withers (dontcha LOVE that name) who had met and married McCallum after they appeared in The Loves of Joanna Godden. It’s shot with gleaming precision by Douglas Slocombe while Georges Auric contributes an endearingly melodramatic incidental score for an atmospheric outing in which the radio plays such an elemental role in punctuating the drama. The ensemble has such familiar faces as Alfie Bass, Sydney Tafler, Hermione Baddeley, Jimmy Hanley and Sid James (as the leader of a dance band). Hamer would go on to make one of my favourite British films, Kind Hearts and Coronets but this is a marvellous reminder of the post-war era, the meaning of ‘a couple of anvils’ and how to feel when that dangerous wideboy resurfaces in your humdrum life.

Second Chance (1953)

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RKO made some pretty fast-moving, fun noirs and this is one of them – shot on location in Mexico with good looking people, as was the wont of Howard Hughes, by now in charge of the studio. The screenplay by Sydney Boehm and Oscar Millard was based on a story by DM Marshman Jr who shared writing credit on Sunset Blvd and went back east after this to join the world of advertising. Rudolph Mate was directing for 3D so other than the pulchritude of stars Robert Mitchum as a boxer and Linda Darnell as a singer – he’s helping her escape the attention of her mobster boyfriend Jack Palance – there’s a stunning climax in a cable car. Palance was at the peak of his Hollywood heaviness and he’s as good as you’d hope.

Till The End of Time (1946)

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Guy Madison (to whom Canadian avant gardist Guy Maddin owes his moniker) is the young Marine home from WW2, a typical draftee after Pearl Harbour and college dropout, whose parents welcome him back but stop him from discussing his experiences. He can’t settle down to civilian life and hangs out with war widow Dorothy McGuire while second banana star Robert Mitchum’s head injury is causing outrageous headaches and boxer Bill Williams can’t deal with losing his legs. This study of PTSD is part of a wave of films that tried to explain the difficulties of post-war adjustment. Los Angeles was like most major cities subject to a crimewave committed by vets and this middle-class take on malaise is mostly decent stuff, and the propaganda aspect is to be expected, adapted from the Niven Busch novel They Dream of Home by Allen Rivkin and directed by Edward Dmytryk. It ends happily in a fistfight started by a bunch who sat it out and call themselves patriots. This was overshadowed by the Academy Award-drenched The Best Years of Our Lives but is worth a watch, particularly for McGuire.The theme tune, derived from Chopin’s Polonaise Opus 53, was a huge hit for a young Perry Como.

The Ring (1952)

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Billed as a boxing movie, this is so much more. It’s really a vivid and flavorful account of the Mexican immigrant experience in Los Angeles. Directed by German emigre Kurt Neumann, who began making European-language versions of Hollywood films and then became famous decades later with sci-fi such as The Fly, we start with an authoritative doc-style voiceover explaining the topography of LA and the Mexican area. Adapted from the Irving Shulman novel (he specialised in post-war juvenile studies – you will know Rebel Without a Cause), we are introduced to young Tommy Cantanios (Lalo Rios) whose family is falling on hard times and when he’s subjected to a racist attack he beats the crap out of his assailants. He’s spotted by a boxing promoter Pete Ganusa (Gerald Mohr) and wins his first fight in a technical KO. His sometime girlfriend (Rita Moreno, top-billed but in very much a supporting role) cannot agree with his decision to pursue this lifestyle and it takes him a while to see the writing on the wall when he starts losing and his earnings are chewed up by his team. The casual racism of the era is well captured and there’s a very good scene in a diner when a sympathetic cop recognises ‘Tommy Kansas’ and ensures he and his friends get something to eat despite the management’s policy. Tommy has some hard lessons to learn, Moreno is beautiful and sweet and the family dynamic is somewhat cliched but touching. You’ll probably recall Rios from Touch of Evil, and a few years later he featured in Lonely is the Brave. He died aged just 46.  This is a very interesting piece of work for so many reasons, boxing being just one of them.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

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The only time my parents expressed any concern about my childhood viewing habits was when they found me watching comedy double act Abbott and Costello – because Bud Abbott was such a bully. This reminds me of those halcyon summer mornings before tearing off to play with my friends then whiling away afternoons at the tennis club before a night of Christopher Lee acting all Fu Manchu. Sigh! Here, no sooner have our bumbling duo graduated from private detective school than a boxer on the run from the cops requires their services. He’s alleged to have killed his manager. His girlfriend’s father injects him with invisibility serum to help him find the gangster who framed him and all hell breaks loose when everyone thinks Costello is a great boxer. A classic match ensues. The special effects by Stanley Horsley are fantastic, the jokes funny (I especially like the one about a Whole Nelson) and it’s fast and furious. If you don’t like it, chances are you had better check your pulse.

 

Southpaw (2015)

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Much has been made of Jake Gyllenhaal’s transformation into boxer mode for this sentimental tale. Kurt Sutter’s script hits all the right beats for a story that is much more The Champ than Raging Bull. There’s nothing here to surprise anyone but the story of riches to rags and back again is played for real.