It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Its_A_Wonderful_Life_Movie_Poster.jpg

You sit here and you spin your little web and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Up in Heaven Clarence (Henry Travers) is awaiting his angel’s wings when a case is made to him about George Bailey (James Stewart) who’s thinking about jumping off a bridge and into a wintry river at Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve 1945. Clarence is told George’s story: as a young boy rescuing his brother Harry from an icy pond, to his father’s death just when his own life should have been taking off and he winds up staying in this loathsome little town running the bank and having his honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) ruined when there’s a run on the bank’s funds … and losing himself amid other people’s accidents, deaths and rank stupidity while the town runs afoul of greedy financier Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George is such a great guy with dreams of travel and adventure and the truth is he never leaves home and becomes a martyr to other people. I’ve always found this immensely depressing. What happens to him – the sheer passive aggression directed at him and the loss of all of his ambitions in order to satisfy other people’s banal wishes at the expense of his own life’s desires  – is a complete downer. Reworking A Christmas Carol with added danger it feels like a post-war attempt to make people feel happy with their very limited lot. Which is why I watch this very rarely and with complete reluctance precisely because its petty moralising is achieved so beautifully and rationally … So sue me! Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling and directed by Frank Capra.

Advertisements

Union Pacific (1939)

Union Pacific theatrical.jpg

First time I’ve discarded aces for a queen! President Lincoln signed off on the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act to authorise pushing the Union Pacific Railroad west across the wilderness toward California. However now that Lincoln is dead financial opportunist Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) hopes to profit from obstructing it. Chief troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) has his hands full fighting Barrows’ agent the gambler Sid Campeau (the wonderfully devilish Brian Donlevy). Campeau’s partner veteran Dick Allen (Robert Preston) is Jeff’s war buddy and rival suitor for Irish rail engineer’s daughter Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck). Who will survive the effort to push the railroad through at any cost? And who will win Molly? Cecil B. DeMille’s rousing, sprawling western was in the vanguard of historical tales bringing together the rival attempts at forming a national history – and this all culminates at Promontory Point Utah when Leland Stanford drove a ceremonial spike to unite this with the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. Filled with great starry performances this is history on a human scale. Despite Stanwyck’s typical luminosity and McCrea’s decency and likeability,  it’s probably Preston who comes off best, even photographically, in his showy role. Filled with fighting, shooting, murder, building and dismantling, Indian attacks, drinking, gambling, love and death, with one killing from the window of a train that is shocking to this day, this is truly a film for the ages. A splendid, zesty example of the power of classical Hollywood. Written by Walter DeLeon, Jack Cunningham and C. Gardner Sullivan, adapting Ernest Haycox’ novel Troubleshooter. This is the first ever winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes – awarded in 2002 due to the debut Festival’s cancellation following the outbreak of WW2!

Hanover Street (1979)

Hanover Street US poster

Nothing makes sense and then I’m with you and everything makes sense. Flight Lieutenant David Halloran (Harrison Ford) is standing in line for a London bus during the Blitz and plays leapfrog with a nurse (Lesley-Anne Down) and their antics mean they both miss the bus but fall in love over a cup of tea and then the street is bombed by the Germans. He wants to meet her on Thursday week – he has many bombing missions in between times – and she arrives, many hours late. They travel to the country and after several sexual assignations she finally tells him her name is Margaret. His squadron has another mission to fly but he notices an engine problem at takeoff and his colleague takes off in his place and is shot down. He is wracked with guilt. Meanwhile, it transpires that Margaret is married and her husband Paul Sellinger (Christopher Plummer) is a mild-mannered teacher training officers in intelligence and two have been captured and killed within two weeks of landing in Lyons:  there’s a double agent in the ranks. He volunteers to be dropped in France to photograph Nazi files to root out the culprit – and when he is allocated a pilot it’s Halloran and they’re the sole survivors of a firestorm. They have to don disguise to survive detection and find a hiding place on a farm. When Sellinger starts to describe his wife Halloran realises they’re in love with the same woman and she is giving them both reason to live … This has one of the great meet-cutes and it is overwhelming because it comes in the first ten minutes. Down and Ford are a fabulous looking pair and the (somewhat thin) story reminds you of the great WW2 romances, on which it was clearly modelled. The Sellingers’ home life is wonderfully exposed by their relationship with their young daughter Sarah played by cool girl Patsy Kensit and there’s some convincingly irritating banter between the bomb squad. We can see several Indiana Jones scenes in advance, played out here on German occupied territory albeit with a tad less humour. This doesn’t reach the heights it aims for but it’s beautifully made and the score by John Barry is simply epic. It makes you wonder why on earth the glorious Down hasn’t been cast more over the years. Sigh. There is however a rare appearance by the legendary comedian Max Wall as a locksmith. Written and directed by Peter Hyams.

Stand By Me (1986)

Stand_By_Me_1986_American_Theatrical_Release_Poster.jpg

Did your mother have any kids that lived?! The Writer (Richard Dreyfuss) is returning to Castle Rock, the small town in Oregon where he grew up. He’s got a newspaper in his hand announcing the death of one of his childhood friends and recalls the summer that everything changed when they and two other twelve year old boys went on an odyssey to view the body of a kid hit by a train passing through several miles away. It’s 1959.  Gordie (Wil Wheaton) is the neglected younger son in a family after his older brother (John Cusack) was killed on the way to basic training. His best friend is Chris (River Phoenix) who’s got a bad name because he comes from a criminal family. Teddy (Corey Feldman) is the abused child of a mentally ill man who claimed to be a WW2 hero. And Vern (Jerry O’Connell) is the chubby kid who overhears about the whereabouts of a missing boy when his older brother talks about it on the porch. They pretend they’re going on a camping trip and learn more about each other than they ever knew as they dodge death on a railway bridge, deal with leeches and a mythical killer dog and Gordie entertains his chums with the Barforama story to beat them all.  Then the older boys come a calling to retrieve the dead body … Wise, witty, sad, moving and hilarious, this is such a true story of friendship and family and is told in a brief 83 minutes, not a moment of which is wasted. The adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body (in Different Seasons) by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans is canny and kind, balanced between comedy and drama and utilising the flashback structure (there are flashbacks within the overall flashback narrative) to illustrate the experience and the effects of the incident very well (it’s quite complex within the novella). Beautifully played sense of time and place, with the interactions between those talented boys utterly believable, this is a modern classic. I never had any friends later in life like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone? Absolutely wonderful. Directed by Rob Reiner.

Dirty Harry (1971)

Dirty Harry.jpg

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.

The Sense of an Ending (2017)

The_Sense_of_an_Ending_poster.jpg

Literariness is embedded in the very loins of this, utilising as it does the title of theorist Frank Kermode’s famous 1967 volume. Julian Barnes is a determinedly literary writer but his 2011 novel isn’t just about verbal and written narrative, it’s also a story told in pictures, photographs which document the early life of retired camera shop proprietor Tony (Jim Broadbent), divorced from Margaret (Harriet Walter) and whose daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is about to give birth to a child she is having on her own. He receives notice that he has been left a small sum of money and an item (which turns out to be a diary) by Sarah Ford, the mother (Emily Mortimer) of his first lover, the mysterious Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), and whom he only met once at their home 50 years earlier when the older woman flirted with him and Veronica’s brother made clear his attraction to him too. The diary is not forthcoming and Tony pursues it relentlessly when he finds out it belonged not to Sarah but to Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn) his academically gifted classmate who cheated with Veronica. The unravelling of this mystery hinges on a horrible letter the young Tony (Billy Howle) wrote to Veronica (Freya Mavor) when they were all at Cambridge. What caused Adrian to commit suicide and what is the mature Veronica now withholding from him? He embarks on what his wife and daughter call the ‘stalking’ of his former girlfriend and the earlier story unspools in parallel. What this lacks in tension it makes up for in the carefully observed minutiae of performance and appearance, appropriately for a text that is all about the accumulation and capture of such information. It’s shot beautifully by Christopher Ross in an anti-nostalgic attempt to uncover a meaning to life in London’s leafy northern suburbs with tastefully restrained middle class homes:  a little ornamentation is always enough to hint at discernment if not understanding. When all the threads are gradually united there is a patina of sorrow, bringing together the book’s philosophical core interests in history and action. Adapted by Nick Payne and directed by Ritesh Batra.

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

A Bridge Too Far poster.jpg

Fool’s courage. Operation Market Garden was the code name for the failed attempt to take the bridges around Arnhem in Holland as winter drew in during 1944. The Allies led by Montgomery and Eisenhower had the idea to power through to the damaged German factories on the Ruhr – and a combination of bloody mindedness, poor planning, bad luck and bad weather made it a pretty disastrous sortie and certainly did not end WW2 as anticipated.  The great Irish writer Cornelius Ryan’s stonking blockbuster books about the era yielded this (published in 1974) and Darryl F. Zanuck’s independent production The Longest Day (1962) and his brilliance as a journalist and investigative historian have cleared up a lot of myths about certain WW2 events, this not being the least of them. Both films have an A-Z list of stars in common but Richard Attenborough was the sole helmer here and William Goldman adapted the book, published in 1974.  General Browning (Dirk Bogarde, a real life WW2 soldier) is the man poised to lead Montgomery’s plan but when a doubting Private Wicks (Paul Copley) carries out an extra recce and supplies him with photos of concealed armoured German tanks in the area where the landing is planned he has him put out on sick leave. Bad idea. With seven days’ notice the paratroopers, infantry and air service both US and UK are sent in. It’s well set up with the Dutch underground – a father and son carry out some spying for the Brits on the Nazis assembled in the area – and the putting together of a team of doubting Thomas Allies with Sean Connery in particular being given some great moments as General Urquhart – confessing to air sickness before takeoff;  landing in a forest where the lunatics from the local asylum are literally laughing at him;  and in a lovely touch and a symmetrical moment after the disaster has happened, arriving at Browning’s Dutch HQ being greeted by geese – who are clearly laughing at him too. That’s good writing. Never mind the naysayers, and there have been a lot over the years amongst the critical posse, who probably wish this had had a very different outcome (don’t we all):  this is fiercely exciting, mordantly funny and has memorable moments of sheer bloody minded bravery, not least when James Caan pilots a jeep through a Nazi regiment with the body of a young captain he has promised he wouldn’t let die. If you’re not cheering at this then you’re not breathing, mate. Maximillian Schell is terrific as the German General who applauds his opponents’ courage and hands Anthony Hopkins a bar of chocolate upon capture. After he’s given the order to raze Arnhem. Thrilling, splendid and a history lesson we still need to learn – bad project management, not heeding early warnings and then stopping the Poles from parachuting in because of fog when it was too late to rescue those poor men who were being slaughtered by the thousand. And those bloody radio crystals. Why’d they bring the wrong ones when the drop zone was eight miles from the river? Sheesh. Exciting as hell. And with a bigger body count. Fantastic, with every Seventies star you could wish for, be they given ever so little but with a special mention to little known Paul Maxwell and Erik Van’t Wout. There is an absolutely iconic score by the great John Addison:  hear it and you know exactly where you are. What a shame Ryan didn’t live long enough to see it:  he died two months after the book was published. What a gentleman and scholar he was. His contribution to our knowledge is immense. Just the thing for a rainy summer’s day when you should be watching Wimbledon but they shunted it back by a fortnight. Again.

The Odd Angry Shot (1979)

The Odd Angry Shot.jpg

When Nam volunteer Bill (John Jarratt) fetches up on duty with fellow Fosters drinkers courtesy of local politicians, he’s among a group of special air servicemen led by old geezer Harry (Graham Kennedy), numbed by boredom only intermittently relieved by occasional mortar attacks and booby traps set by the virtually invisible Vietnamese. His girlfriend sends him a barely comprehensible Dear John letter, the guys make a wanking machine for the padre, they get a scorpion and spider to fight to the death, and Bung (John Hargreaves) is distraught by tragic news from home. A night with whores in the city with some black American soldiers lifts the spirits. Rogers (Bryan Brown) loses his feet and jaw in a mine and then Bung is lost, pointlessly, when they take a bridge only to be told it’s not needed any more. This plays more like Dad’s Army than Platoon but under-budget and clearly not shot in Vietnam (it was made in Queensland) the limitations serve to amplify the sheer stupidity of this historic sortie and heighten questions of class and politics by dint of the relentless focus on a small group of men in this most irreverent of tragicomedies. Adapted from William Nagle’s autobiographical novel by director Tom Jeffrey. Artless, in every sense.

The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man poster.jpg

Western pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in post-WW2 Vienna at the invitation of old schoolfriend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to find that he is just in time for his funeral. British military intelligence in the form of Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) makes his acquaintance while Holly believes there was a third man present at Harry’s mysterious death and he finds himself falling for Harry’s lover Anna (Alida Valli). There are some films whose imagery is practically enamelled in one’s brain and this is one of them, regularly voted the greatest British film ever (despite the crucial involvement of David O. Selznick) with its unforgettable score, the shimmering rain-slicked streets, the chase through the sewers, the treacherous manchild, the funeral, the theatre, the appalling talk at the British Council, the cuckoo clock speech, the Prater … A combination of spy thriller, spiv drama, film noir, character study, western, romance, this was an unusually brilliant collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, whose friend Kim Philby was a source of much of the story. And this is ultimately a film about stories and storytelling. But nothing can explain this film’s legend – not even Orson Welles’ tall tales – it must be seen to feel that tangible atmosphere, those shadows, the light at the end of the tunnel, those canted angles, that amazing sense of place. My book on its complex origins, production and afterlife in radio and TV is published today on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Trouble-Harry-Third-Man-ebook/dp/B072BTQN48/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1494840986&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon.

The Trouble With Harry The Third Man book cover.jpg

Enchantment (1948)

Enchantment 1948 movie.jpeg

If houses could talk, what stories they could tell! Producer Samuel Goldwyn had high hopes for this intensely romantic intergenerational family drama adapted from the great Rumer Godden’s novel, Take Three Tenses.  A young American ambulance driver Grizel Dane (Evelyn Keyes) turns up uninvited at the home of her great uncle General Rollo Dane (David Niven) during WW2. Gradually he reveals to her his own story of lost love, with his father’s ward Lark (Teresa Wright) who moved in with their family following her parents’ tragic death and he regales her with a story of his older sister’s terrible jealousy of the little girl, persuading Lark into a marriage with an Italian count and getting Rollo to a high military commission by serving in Afghanistan. Rollo swore never to return to his home until his sister died. In contemporary life, Grizel falls for pilot officer Pax Masterson (Farley Granger) – who happens to be Lark’s own nephew. The intertwined stories make for quite the compelling romantic tragedy but it never hits the peaks you think it could, perhaps the complex serial flashbacks put paid to the tension and sustained drama. Goldwyn was so angry with the immensely moving Teresa Wright for her reluctance to promote the film that he terminated her contract and pretty much her career. Niven was criticised for the silver wig he wears as he plays the aged Rollo (which he does very well) but in fact Goldwyn had forced him to dye his hair which remained various shades of purple for the next two years, making his children scream and his dog bite him. His career with Goldwyn also suffered but his adventurous take on tackling older characters would pay off a decade later in Separate Tables, winning him an Academy Award.  This was the last feature shot by the great Gregg Toland who died a few weeks after the shoot, from a coronary thrombosis at the age of just 44.