The Magus (1968)

The Magus

We have all been cast as the traitor for one simple reason:  we have all failed to love.  Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine) takes up a position as schoolteacher on the Greek island of Phraxos where his predecessor has committed suicide. He wants to write and to escape the pressures of his relationship with Anne (Anna Karina) an emotionally complex air hostess.  He becomes obsessed with a rich old man Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn) living in a big complex on the other side of the island who draws him into his odd domestic arrangements which include beautiful American actress Lily (Candice Bergen).  As Maurice starts to play mind games with Nicholas and tells him of his alleged involvement in the deaths of more than 80 villagers during the Nazi occupation, Nicholas loses his grip on reality – he doesn’t know if Maurice is a filmmaker, a psychiatrist, a Nazi collaborator or a demonic magician. They play a dice game which inevitably signals more than its elements. He is put on trial, with everyone from Maurice’s stories and films attending… The once fiendishly famous John Fowles adapted his own novel which no self-respecting student could be seen without.  He may have fallen out of fashion but his work is entrancing and important and if this doesn’t live up to its billing that can be laid at the door of Fowles himself and director Guy Green (Caine and Bergen certainly did). However, it’s a beguiling production, one of the best looking you will ever see courtesy of DoP Billy Williams (Green himself was of course an Academy Award-winning cinematographer) and in its narrative creases you might detect a kind of text much more acknowledged these days – psychogeography, the T.S. Eliot references hint at this of course although even entry level kids can rhyme off the line, No man is an island. Of course the Magus himself is a reference to the diabolical Aleister Crowley (whose home had been in Sicily) but Quinn’s character creates a backstory based in real-life horror and a mass execution, all the while taking on the physical qualities of a latterday Picasso. Fowles himself appears as a boat captain who speaks to Nicholas.  There’s a tremendous cast – including Julian Glover, Takis Emmanuel and Paul Stassino – telling a complex story of identity, responsibility, punishment and redemption that is streamlined to its essential parts and it adds up to something utterly beautiful.  We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time

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The Happy Prince (2018)

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Intimacy in the sewers followed by fantasy in the gods, and then, total silence.  As he flees England to France in the wake of his release from prison, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) tries to reestablish his life, finish his writing work and disdain his lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Colin Morgan) whose father the Marquis of Queensberry had him gaoled for his homosexuality following a libel suit.  All the while he is hounded by the press who have made his life a misery in a society  whose denizens once enjoyed being sent up by him but which are now all too happy to shun him. He is assisted in exile by his literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and loyal friend, journalist Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). But when his identity is revealed to a hotel proprietor following a fracas with bullying English tourists, he is obliged to take up residence in Paris where he slides into dissolution, corresponds with Bosie and is cut off by his wife Constance (Emily Watson) on the advice of her solicitors… There is no question that Everett achieves something rather special here:  he inhabits Wilde with the kind of comfort that can only come from someone who has long shepherded this project as well as playing him a number of times on stage;  the acknowledging that Bosie was truly Wilde’s Achilles heel – he simply cannot resist the nasty little bugger, a beauty, a nauseating irresponsible temptress in male clothing, a sop to Wilde’s vanity.  He is his downfall and he is simply irresistible. Everett doesn’t spare Wilde physically either – bloated, drugging and drinking, wearing rouge, he’s a braggart whose survival depends on his wit yet he says he found God in gaol:  in that cell there was only himself and Christ. He has lost his strength yet he musters a violent thug within to confront holidaying yobs who recognise him in France:  that their showdown occurs in a church is a nicely Wildean touch. He finishes De Profundis;  he tells the story of The Happy Prince both to his sons in flashback and to the two street boys he befriends in the Parisian underworld. The multi-faceted backwards and forwards in time structure should confuse but doesn’t because the focus is all on Oscar:  and Everett is savage as appropriate.  This is a self-inflicted theatrical exit, fuelled by lust and blind obsession, invariably leading to terrible pain which he seems unable to stop. We are watching a great writer decompose, in all the senses that that term might conjure. There are all kinds of second-tier attractions:  the mood of melancholy offset with famous bons mots and rueful self-examination;  the locations;  the portrayal of male friendship and loyalty;  the hypocrisy writ large even within Oscar’s own worldview because he tells people what they need to hear even when everyone concerned knows it’s not true (Ross truly loves him and Wilde loves him back, just not in the same way);  his thoroughly wistful longing to see his small children again which grieves him terribly;  Everett’s old pal Béatrice Dalle (from Betty Blue) turning up as the proprietress of a risqué bar;  the interweaving of onstage characters from Wilde’s plays with his real-life associates; the wondrous score by Gabriel Yared. Frisky, fruity and just a little salty – rather like the man himself. It’s a heartbreaking  and profoundly literary valentine, wise and witty and immensely good. What a debut for Rupert Everett, film writer and director.  Surely Love is a wonderful thing

On Chesil Beach (2017)

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We’re not two old queers living in secret on Beaumont Street. We’re man and wife!  It’s 1962.  New graduates historian Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and musician Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are nervously about to consummate their marriage in a seaside hotel in Dorset.  The waiters bring a roast dinner to their suite and make fun of them, practically sniffing the virginity in the ether. As the couple prepare to disrobe and attempt foreplay they recall the moments that brought them to this situation:  his chaotic home where his headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) has to deal with a brain injured wife (Ann Marie Duff) and two twin girls;  her engineering company owner father (Samuel West) and academic mother (Emily Watson) who are on the one hand consumed with matters of class and on the other distracted, the wife looking down on her husband rather! Edward and Florence recall their first meeting at Oxford, when he had nobody to tell about his first in History from UCL and she’s the stranger at the CND gathering who lets him know she got a First too, but in music;  when she walked seven miles from the train to meet him at the cricket club where he works; when she got his mother to paint a ‘forgery’ of her favourite painter, Uccello. The memories come rushing in as she lies on the bed issuing instructions and he fumbles and then she rejects him and rushes to the beach … Ian McEwan’s novella was never going to be simple to adapt.  Part of its bittersweet sting lies in the acute choice of words which cannot be replicated on screen.  It’s a romance lacking in passion and the flashback structure literally interrupts the non-coitus. The suggestion that Florence has endured abuse at the hands of her nasty father on a boating trip is skilfully and subtly worked into the story but still doesn’t fully explain her frigidity. (The tennis match she observes between Edward and her father clues us in a little more.)  Her disgust at the contents of a sex manual suggests that of a child not a grown woman and isn’t sufficiently elaborated considering the company she and her family keep (her mother is a friend of Iris Murdoch) and her deep emotionality performing music in a quartet is surely not that of someone who doesn’t understand desire. The book does something extraordinary in demonstrating in just a few pages how Edward’s life pans out and it is utterly devastating, elaborating directly how this single night has sabotaged his life. This melancholy adaptation works on some levels:  for one,  the production design whose attention to period detail gives us an innate sense of the era’s propriety and indicators of class and behaviour.  There are brave performances too:  Ann Marie Duff spends half of hers topless, brain damaged from being hit by a train door on the local platform;  Ronan and Howle do very well in suggesting the naivete that seemingly plagued newlyweds of the era. In essence the relationship fails because of Edward’s pride and Florence’s prejudice and it’s hard to dramatise although his taste in music (jazz, rock and roll) versus hers (strictly classical) sums it up – together however they lack erotic obsession or straightforward lust and this tentative attempt flounders for the same reason as their wedding night:  nobody just goes for it and Florence just won’t shut up. But unsatisfying as this is there’s a porno shot you won’t forget in a hurry. Adapted by McEwan and directed by Dominic Cooke.

I Was Monty’s Double (1958)

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That was bloody close.  Before the planned D-Day landings the British Government is spreading disinformation to distract German attention from the Normandy beaches.  Two intelligence officers, Colonel Logan (Cecil Parker) and Major Harvey (John Mills) are running the operation but they are initially unable to devise such a plan.  One night at the theatre in London Harvey sees an actor do a convincing impression of General Bernard Montgomery. He is M.E. Clifton James, in the army Pay Corps stationed in Leicester and the officers hire him to act as a decoy – playing Montgomery doing a tour of North Africa. After studying him and meeting him, he is dispatched to Gibraltar where the British anticipate that a known German agent Karl Nielson (Marius Goring) posing as a businessman will encounter him and hopefully inform Berlin. ‘Monty’ is accompanied by Harvey who is promoted to Brigadier to act as his aide de camp. When the British learn that the Germans are moving their panzer divisions away from Normandy this ‘Monty’ is sequestered in a North African house until it is safe to return him to his original job but the Germans have other ideas …  Adapted from the autobiography of M.E. Clifton James by Bryan Forbes (who plays a crucial role in the penultimate sequence) this is a spry and suspenseful account of Operation Copperhead.  Told efficiently, with James playing himself – and Monty! – it moves quickly and two scenes in particular are handled very well by director John Guillermin:  when Nielson meets Monty it transpires it’s for the second time – a shocker;  and the inevitable kidnapping.  With a brisk score by John Addison and a good turn by Mills, one of the many in the Fifties that encapsulates his particular brand of British masculinity, this is an entertaining account of yet another Believe It Or Not from WW2: the gift that just keeps on giving, especially when you realise that the man who actually recruited Clifton James was none other than … David Niven! There are good supporting roles for Michael Hordern, Leslie Phillips with James Hayter, Sid James and Sam Kydd down the ensemble.

Darkest Hour (2017)

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Here’s to not buggering it up.  May 1940. After the Chamberlain debacle Britain must find a new Prime Minister. Within days of becoming the country’s leader, an aged Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) must face one of his most turbulent and defining trials: exploring a negotiated peace treaty with Nazi Germany which Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) demands; or standing firm to fight for the ideals, liberty and freedom of a nation. As the unstoppable Nazi forces roll across Western Europe, troops at Dunkirk are surrounded and the threat of invasion is imminent, with an unprepared public, a sceptical King, and his own party plotting against him, all the while dealing with a new typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) who is shocked to tears by the old man’s abruptness at their first meeting – in his bedroom. Supported by steadfast wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Sir Anthony Eden (Samuel West) in Parliament, Churchill must withstand his darkest hour, rally a nation and change the course of world history just as Hitler is jackbooting across the Continent … The right words won’t come. I can’t think of another portrait of Englishness which engages so directly with speech in all its iterations – impeded, strangulated, idiomatic, and ultimately, political. In a supremely ironic scene Churchill deals at one of their weekly meetings with the King (Ben Mendelsohn) – a man with a famous problem speaking – who admits to being wary of him. Everyone has been since Gallipoli, admits Churchill. He discusses his background. His mother was a glamorous woman who loved too widely. His father? Like God – busy elsewhere.  Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is gripping, fleet and witty, understated and wry, bloated and commanding, subtle and aggressive.  It’s also about how people move:  Churchill strides purposefully;  Londoners use the bus and the Tube;  the troops have to be evacuated and the Panzers diverted. Joe Wright’s directing may at times be compensating for the linguistic origins of this film or even trying to disguise its orientation with diverting camerawork and trickery but it doesn’t detract from its mesmerising subject. It may not always be factual but it’s true. And Oldman is superb. He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Psyche 59 (1964)

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It’s the welfare state. Once they nationalised sex people began to lose interest.  Allison Crawford (Patricia Neal) lost her sight in an accident at her home when she was about to give birth. Married to businessman Eric (Curt Jurgens) she is disturbed when he declares her ravishing younger sister Robin (Samantha Eggar) is not welcome at their house that summer following her divorce in America. However it’s too late, she is arriving imminently. At lunch with Robin, Allison tells her that doctors insist her blindness is psychologically induced but she has no memory of the events leading up to the incident, so her condition persists as ‘hysterical blindness’. Robin pursues a relationship with Eric’s employee Paul (Ian Bannen) but a long-buried memory of Eric’s adultery emerges for Allison as the sisters go to their grandmother’s (Beatrix Lehmann) house in the country with Allison’s young daughters, one of whom she has never seen. When Eric and Paul join them there are terrible tensions and Robin acts out and causes an accident that prompts the return of Allison’s vision – a fact that she keeps to herself… Adapted by Julian Halevy (aka blacklisted writer Julian Zimet) from the novel Psyche 63 by Françoise des Ligneris this is a little-seen melodrama that is worth checking out. The violence of the emotions is what is so striking, reflected in some shot compositions in a film that is a psychological drama but operates like a suspense thriller.  The mystery of Allison’s blindness is front and centre and her grandmother’s obsession with horoscopes guides some of the action. How Allison’s senses – particularly auditory – are heightened is compounded by the significance of objects and her perception of people’s conduct. The way her unconscious knowledge of the affair conducted under her nose is unravelled is fascinating:  she is never fully paranoid but the little teasers of other people’s behaviour fit in with what she knows in her heart to be true. Eggar and Neal are very good as the chalk and cheese sisters – Eggar in particular is a revelation as the screwed-up good time girl determined to taunt Jurgens – and the penultimate scene with Jurgens is quite jaw-dropping. Directed with real verve and distinction by Alexander Singer, who is responsible for the wonderful cult entries A Cold Wind in August and Glass Houses, but worked primarily in TV. There’s some terrific photography by Walter Lassally.

She Played With Fire (1957)

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Aka Fortune is a Woman.  I don’t suppose she’ll stay a widow very long.  Insurance detective Oliver Branwell (Jack Hawkins) uncovers a shifty art dealer’s ingenious scheme but is unable to do anything about it because the crook Tracey Moreton (Dennis Price) has married the investigator’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Arlene Dahl) and he fears that she may be involved. The detective’s dilemma continues until the dealer gets careless one day and Branwell wonders if Sarah has anything to do with a series of arson attacks when he starts being blackmailed …  With a screenplay by director Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder and Val Valentine, working from a novel by Winston (Poldark) Graham, a splendid cast (including Greta Gynt, Bernard Miles, Ian Hunter and Christopher Lee!) and a great setting, you know you’re in for a good if complex noirish melodrama. Why let a little fraud get in the way of romance? Would you believe the preternaturally beautiful Arlene Dahl capable of murder? She’d been quite naughty in the previous year’s colour noir Slightly Scarlet, so you never know. Watch and wait … with a terrific score by William Alwyn.

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!

 

Blood of the Vampire (1958)

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Three quarters of what you hear here are the ravings of imbeciles. Anaemic Dr Callistratus (Donald Wolfit) is bringing criminally insane prisoners at his remote castle asylum into the lab to take their blood because mistaken villagers put him to death after mistaking him for a vampire.  Resuscitated through a heart transplant, he needs a regular supply of blood.  Poor Dr John Pierre (Vincent Ball) fetches up there instead of a penal colony for medical malpractice following a blood transfusion that goes wrong . We are in deepest Transylvania in the 1870s and when John’s fiancee Madeleine (Barbara Shelley) follows her beloved you can imagine the consequences … You might find it hard to stifle a giggle when you see Victor Maddern turn up as Carl the one-eyed hunch-backed enforcer in the imaginatively named village of Carlstadt but otherwise this takes itself very seriously indeed, which is how it should be.  The topic of medical experiments made a lot of people squirm in the wake of finding out what the Nazis had been up to in WW2 so this had a weird kind of topicality in genre form:  exchanging one person’s entire bloodstream for another’s? Why not? Theatrical actor-manager legend Wolfit eats up the screen as the baddie and Ball and Shelley are a very attractive couple battling the madmen and the dogs. Woof! Written by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster who had just written that studio’s first two big hits (also in colour) and directed by Henry Cass.

All Night Long (1962)

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Oh, I belong to that new minority group: white American jazz musicians. They’re going to hold a mass meeting in a phone booth.  Up-and-coming jazz drummer Johnny Cousin (Patrick McGoohan) wants to start his own band, but he needs a singer. He attempts to court Delia Lane (Marti Stevens), a famous singer who’s retired now but when it’s clear that Delia won’t perform with him, he tries to convince Delia’s husband African-American band leader Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) that she is cheating on him with road  manager Cass (Keith Michell). His attempts to end their marriage may well cost Johnny his own over the course of a very eventful night … Practically the embodiment of cult, this reworking of Othello is notable not just for being a screenplay co-written by HUAC-blacklisted Paul Jarrico (under the name of Peter Achilles) with Nel King, but for its outstanding array of notable jazz figures – Dave Brubeck, Johnny Dankworth, Charlie Mingus, Tubby Hayes – in an atmospheric and melodramatic tale that features mixed-race marriage and drug-taking. There’s marvellous dockside action and tasty East End scene-setting with McGoohan giving one of his best performances pre-The Prisoner in his take on the malevolent Iago and some good support from Keith Michell, Betsy Blair and Richard Attenborough’s role as a hipster millionaire is certainly memorable. Definitely one for music fans with some sensational tunes. Look fast for Carol White. Produced by that reliable team of progressives, producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden. Be seeing you.