The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) attends the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in a small Western town. Flashing back 25 years, we learn Doniphon saved Stoddard, then a lawyer, when he was roughed up by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). As the territory’s safety hung in the balance, Doniphon and Stoddard, two of the only people standing up to him, proved to be very important, but different, foes to Valance. Stoddard opened a law office over the offices of the Shinbone Star, the newspaper which is run by a steadfast editor determined to expose the reality of the violence terrorising the territory and preserve the freedom of the press. Both Doniphon and Stoddard are in love with the same woman, Hallie (Vera Miles) who cooks in her immigrant parents’ restaurant and whom Stoddard teaches to read and write. When the newspaper prints a (mis-spelled) headline declaring Valance is defeated, he takes revenge – and then the peace-loving Stoddard takes up a gun … This is a film of polarities, exemplified by the civilising influence of Ransom opposed to Valance and Doniphon’s own belief in the power of the gun (which ironically opens up the possibility for bringing law and order to the place). Vera Miles is splendid as the illiterate love of both men:  What good has reading and writing done you? Look at you – in an apron!  An eloquent essay on the genre itself, this was not received warmly upon release. And yet its entire narrative provides the content for soon to be popular structuralist analysis of the western:  the East versus the West, old versus new, the wilderness versus civilisation, violence versus law and order, reality versus myth, the desert versus the garden. Never was a cactus rose deployed to such symbolic effect! John Ford made one of the great films but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch up. Adapted from Dorothy Johnson’s short story by producer Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah .

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It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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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.

Union Pacific (1939)

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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!

The Strange World of Planet X (1957)

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Now let me get this straight – this fiercesome contraption of yours went on working even when you switched off the current?! In the deepest English countryside Dr Laird (Alex Mango) and his team are playing around with the electro-magnetic field and the insects in the surrounding fields are getting big as you like because the energy has to come from somewhere. Gaby Andre (Michele Dupont) is a computer scientist who tries to help out following an accident that injures a lab assistant. When hipster alien Smith (Martin Benson) arrives to warn them to stop playing around with things they don’t understand it’s already too late the and the monster bugs are already on the rampage and don’t even talk about the hole they’ve torn in the iononasphere and people are becoming murderous because those cosmic rays are just wild … With far more fiction than science and less money than sense this cheap Brit monster movie has its moments – mostly when Forrest Tucker as expert Gil Graham smokes while wearing a tasty tweed jacket or the penultimate scenes of insect ravaging. Fun but even at 72 minutes this wears out its welcome pretty darn quick. Watch out for Dandy Nichols and this was Wyndham Goldie’s last film. Paul Ryder and Joe Ambor adapted Rene Ray’s novel and it was directed by Gilbert Gunn while the music from Robert Sharples’ theremin fills in the missing action. MM #1500

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

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There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is the creme de la creme of Hollywood directors, maker of such fine escapist fare as Ants in Your Pants of 1939. The audiences love him! But he wants to make a social contribution and desires more than anything critical favour and socially relevant material. His butler (Robert Greig) and valet (Eric Blore – how I love him!) deplore the idea. He is followed by a fully-staffed double-decker bus provided by studio boss Lebrand (Robert Warwick) should his needs demand anything solid like a bed or food. He fails first time out but second time he determines to dress up like a hobo and find out what real life is like for the working man. He encounters a waitress known only as The Girl (Veronica Lake) who takes pity on him and he ultimately realises – after serious trials – that making ordinary joes laugh and relieving their impoverished misery is far better than any serious-minded nonsense like his planned adaptation of that crack preachy serious novel, O, Brother Where Art Thou?  McCrea is superb and Lake is stunning as the super-sweet girl who falls for this man who’s supposedly hit hard times. As if! Was there ever a finer Hollywood satire? Hardly. From the camera-stylo de Preston Sturges whose favourite players are all over the cast. He’s the only filmmaker whose office I tried to locate on the Paramount Studios tour. Oh! The hilarity! Sheer, unadulterated genius.

Ramrod (1947)

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From now on, I’m going to make a life  of my own. And, being a woman, I won’t have to use guns. Connie (Veronica Lake) is the ambitious daughter of rancher Ben Dickason (Charlie Ruggles).  When her sheep farming boyfriend can’t take pressure from cattle baron Frank Ivey (Preston Foster) she buys the sheep ranch to augment her property and hires recovering alcoholic overseer Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) to take care of business. But Ivey burns down the ranch and a range war begins between cattle and sheepmen (and women). Connie’s ruthlessness then dominates the action, seducing both Dave and his friend Bill (Don DeFore) a promiscuous and deadly gunman to do her bidding which she claims she can accomplish without guns, just her femininity … This western noir sees Lake’s famous platinum hair darkened and her character is likewise streaked with ruthlessness. She sets her sights on Dave but he only has eyes for Rose (Arleen Whelan). Directed by her then husband Andre DeToth, she really works it. Jack Moffitt, C. Graham Baker and Cecile Kramer adapted a story by Luke Short and it’s a well constructed, complex character study of a female anti-hero (or femme fatale) just filled with satisfying scenes and interesting male-female interaction.

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

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Aka Desert Attack. Two million men. Two million stories. This is one that happens to be true. Captain Anson (John Mills) is dying for a drink but he has to leave his post in Tobruk before the Germans invade and make his way with a medical unit by field ambulance (nicknamed Katy) to Alexandria in Egypt. He has to travel with MSM Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews) and a couple of nurses, Diana Murdoch (Sylvia Syms) and Denise Norton (Diane Clare). They make their own way when they get separated from the rest of their colleagues and come cross a South African officer Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle) who wants a lift to the British lines.  They are fired on by the German Afrika Corps and Denise is shot through the walls of the vehicle. When van der Poel approaches the Germans they withdraw. Anson is suspicious. Van der Poel cannot be parted from his backpack – he shows Anson a couple of bottles of gin and the Brit comforts himself with dreams of a a drink in Alexandria. Pugh is suspicious when van der Poel doesn’t know how to make tea the (British) Army way and is convinced he’s seen an antenna in the backpack. When van der Poel goes off again at night they shine the ambulance lights on him and he gets stuck in quicksand and they have to decide what to do with a German spy … This is a classic British fifties wartime adventure, with John Mills at the peak of his career exploiting notions of his occasionally abject masculinity and he’s especially impressive here, battling alcoholism and exhaustion. Syms has a very good role as the woman who appears to understand him while Quayle is excellent as the interloper with a diplomatic way about him and the brute strength required to push the ambulance when it gets stuck in an escarpment. Christopher Landon adapted his own Saturday Evening Post articles (and then a 1957 novel) with T. J. Morrison and it was directed with verve by J. Lee Thompson. This got a whole new lease of life thirty years ago when the final sequence was used as an ad by Carlsberg because as everyone knows and John Mills says, Worth waiting for. Iconic.

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

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It’s you Myra it’s always been you. Put-upon asthmatic househusband Billy Savage (Richard Attenborough) is persuaded by his wife Myra (Kim Stanley) a mentally ill medium to kidnap the daughter (Judith Donner) of a wealthy London couple (Mark Eden and Nanette Newman) so that she can locate the victim and tout herself as a successful psychic. Billy collects the ransom in a cat and mouse chase around telephone kiosks and Tube stations in the vicinity of Piccadilly Circus.  The couple pretend to the girl that she’s in a hospital but as Myra begins to lose her grip on reality and believes her stillborn son Arthur is telling her to kill the child Billy decides he must do the decent thing … Splendidly taut adaptation of Mark McShane’s novel by writer/director Bryan Forbes which makes brilliant use of the London locations and exudes tension both through performance and shooting style with the cinematography by Gerry Turpin a particular standout. There are some marvellous sequences but the kidnapping alone with John Barry’s inventive and characterful score is indelible and some of the train scenes are hallucinatory. It’s a great pleasure to see Patrick Magee turn up as a policeman in the final scene.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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Even these days it isn’t as easy to go crazy as you might think. Divorced Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his smalltown practice in California after being away for a couple of weeks at a medical conference. Seems like half the population has been complaining of a mysterious feeling and then not returning, claiming to be better. And the other half says family members aren’t themselves – they’re impostors, lacking nothing except emotion. When his ex Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) returns from England after her own failed marriage they visit mystery writer Jack Bellicec (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) because his double is lying on the billiards table and frankly it freaks them out. Becky’s father is a little strange too and as for the local psychiatrist…. Soon it appears the whole town is being taken over by alien seed pods now being actively cultivated to make everyone the same. Whether you take this as ‘straight’ sci fi or horror (as if that were ever a thing), a political allegory (it works for  communism or fascism) or a warning about the homogeneity and groupthink of Fifties culture or even a comment on the brainwashing techniques used during the Korean War, this is brilliant cinema. From the sly innuendo of McCarthy getting back together with his ex, to the satirical thrusts at a humdrum life, this hasn’t aged a day. The scene when Teddy sees Jack’s double open his eyes while Jack is asleep is really thrilling. And as for the pods throbbing in the greenhouse! Adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from sci fi legend Jack Finney’s Colliers serial (later a novel) it was directed by Don Siegel. Whit Bisssell is the Dr in the concluding scenes and Sam Peckinpah plays Charlie the meter reader – he was director Siegel’s dialogue coach on this and four other of his Fifties films. The prologue and epilogue were added because the studio got cold feet over the pessimistic content –  but you will never forget the sight of McCarthy shouting at the trucks on the highway, and this was its original ending. Nevertheless, this is extraordinary, urgent and fiercely exciting, simply one of the best films ever made.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

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It’s man taking on himself the vengeance of the law. Drifters Gil (Henry Fonda) and Art (Henry Morgan) wander into a small Nevada town and enjoy a drink at the bar when news reaches people that local rancher Kinkaid has had 600 head of cattle rustled and he’s been murdered. The sheriff has gone to investigate. In the meantime the locals take the law into their own hands and Gil and Art tag along with the lynch mob. They find three men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and elderly Francis Ford) eating in Ox-Bow Canyon and without evidence, trial or jury, decide to hang them as thieves and murderers despite the eldest man protesting he bought their cattle from Kinkaid without receiving a bill of sale. Only seven men refuse to support their actions. Then the sheriff arrives and tells them he’s found the murderer… This taut adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1940 western novel was adapted and produced by Lamar Trotti for Twentieth-Century Fox and its economy of form (a studio set) immeasurably aids the aesthetic choices by director William Wellman in a sparse and breathtaking seventy-three minutes. Within that straitened narrative are teased the limits of a father-son relationship (the self-righteous Major Tetley whose son doesn’t agree with his actions), a romantic relationship between Gil and Rose (Mary Beth Hughes), who turns up on the stage with the man she just married en route to San Francisco, and the allegorical debate about law and justice at the heart of everything. Fonda’s future role in Twelve Angry Men is also prophesied while his part in The Grapes of Wrath is recalled by having Jane Darwell join the baying murderers. A classic of liberalism, a jewel in Hollywood’s crown and a warning about the sadistic lure of mob rule.