Brief Encounter (1945)

Brief Encounter

I had no thoughts at all. Only an overwhelming desire never to feel anything ever again. Returning home from a shopping trip to a nearby town where she regularly spends the afternoons taking in a matinee at the cinema, bored suburban housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is thrown by happenstance into an acquaintance with conscientious doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) who is also unhappily married with a child but finds solace in his work. Their casual friendship soon develops during their weekly visits into something more emotionally fulfilling than either expected and they must wrestle with the potential havoc their deepening relationship would have on their lives as they run into her friends and start to tell lies to cover for their encounters.  The lives of those they love are impacted despite their respective spouses remaining unaware of their infidelities and Alec considers a job offer in South Africa which sends Laura over the edge … This meticulous evocation of forbidden desire, class and repression has always been ripe for parody yet its virutosity of construction, performance and emotion means that this doomed romance adapted from the 1936 play Still Life by Noël Coward (part of the ten-act cycle Tonight at 8.30) has stood the test of time. It came out right after the conclusion of World War 2 and is enormously evocative of a period when trains ran on time and people strove to do the right thing.  The couple are in their forties which makes their predicament oddly more affecting and the constrictions of social coding understandable.  It was adapted by director David Lean with producer Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame and opens out Coward’s play, with the frustrated lovers disturbed in a friend’s flat and they take a boating trip not possible in the stage version.  Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is part of everyone’s cinematic DNA at this point and the recording here was by Eileen Joyce, adeptly placed to heighten the tension of Laura’s desire tempered by her middle class morality. The final scenes, reminiscent of Anna Karenina followed by the banal resolution in the marital home, makes the adulterous but unconsummated passionate relationship all the more tragic. Gulp. Quite devastating, then.

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45 Years (2015)

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It’s funny how you forget the things in life that make you happy. In the week leading up to her 45th wedding anniversary, retired teacher Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) is perturbed by the arrival of a letter in German to her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) informing him of the discovery of his former girlfriend’s body which was trapped in a Swiss glacier following an accident during a holiday 50 years earlier.  He was her next of kin and he never told Kate. The news affects Kate in ways she can’t articulate but as she prepares for their party, a delayed 40th celebration due to Geoff’s ill health, she realises that her marriage was built as a reaction to the shaky foundations of her husband’s previous life … Director Andrew Haigh adapted the short story In Another Country by David Constantine and it doesn’t start particularly promisingly. A letter arrives in the home of a comfortably-off couple. There’s a quiet ripple effect which builds towards the retractable ladder up to the attic where photographs and old film slides are stored, attaining the properties of a horror trope. She is angry that he has gone up there to look at the artifacts of a life which was never hers. The fact that the ex is called Katya horrifies Kate – it’s so close to her own name. Theirs is a childless marriage. And when she pries she sees that her predecessor was apparently pregnant at the time of her death. She understands very late in life that her marriage is rather a sham and far from the happy union she had believed. And it’s too late to do anything about it. The past intrudes on the present in the most active of ways. He is so disturbed he takes up smoking again, so does she. She thinks she can smell Katya’s perfume in the house. She now knows the reason they kept German Shepherds as their substitute children. The fissure that trapped Katya is now a crack in what seemed to be a happy marriage. The Norfolk Broads provide a stark juxtaposition with the Alpine Mountains that gave the shambling irritable Geoff a vibrant, thrilling relationship before they ever met. The musical choices suggest that Geoff might have been responsible for Katya’s death after she flirted with their mountain guide. Rampling’s characteristic subtlety is put to great use here because the totality of the story’s emotion must unfold in her silent unravelling at the conclusion – someone she never knew died a long time ago but it’s her grief about her marriage which dominates the narrative as the ageless love of her husband’s youth is perfectly preserved in his mind and she is now falling apart. The cinematography by Lol Crawley is quite unforgiving but the leads offer exquisitely nuanced performances in simply edited frames. Quite haunting.

Lady Bird (2017)

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Just because something looks ugly doesn’t mean that it’s morally wrong. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. She longs to go to an eastern college in “a city with culture”. Her family is struggling financially, and her mother, a psychiatric nurse working double shifts (Laurie Metcalf) tells her she’s  ungrateful for what she has. She and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) join their school theatre programme for a production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, where Lady Bird meets a boy called Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges). They develop a romantic relationship, and, to her mother’s disappointment, Lady Bird joins Danny’s family for Thanksgiving. Their relationship ends when Lady Bird discovers Danny kissing a boy in a bathroom stall. At the behest of her mother, Lady Bird takes a job at a coffee shop, where she meets a young musician, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). He and Lady Bird begin a romantic relationship, and she and Julie drift apart. After the beautiful Jenna (Odeya Rush), one of the popular girls at the school, is reprimanded by Sister Sarah (Lois Smith) for wearing a short skirt, Lady Bird suggests the two bond by vandalizing the Sister’s car. Lady Bird gives Danny’s grandmother’s home as her address to appear wealthy. She drops out of the theatre programme. At the coffee shop, she consoles Danny after he expresses his struggle to come out. After Kyle tells her he is a virgin, she loses her virginity to him, but he later denies saying this. Jenna discovers that Lady Bird lied about her address. Lady Bird discovers that her father (Tracy Letts) has lost his job and has been battling depression for most of his life. Lady Bird begins applying to east-coast colleges with her father’s support despite her mother’s insistence that the family cannot afford it. She is elated to discover that she has been placed on the wait list for a New York college. She sets out for her high school prom with Kyle, Jenna, and Jenna’s boyfriend, but the four decide to go to a party instead. Lady Bird asks them to drop her off at Julie’s apartment, where the two tearfully rekindle their friendship and go to the prom together. After graduation, Mom finds Lady Bird applied to an out of state school and they stop talking. Lady Bird celebrates her coming of age by buying cigarettes and a lottery ticket and a copy of Playgirl, passes her driver’s test first time and redecorates. She gets into college in NYC and Mom refuses to see her off at the airport, has a change of heart and drives back, but Lady Bird has already left.  In New York, Lady Bird finds thoughtful letters written by her mother and salvaged by her father, and begins using her birth name again. She is hospitalized after drinking heavily at a party. After leaving the hospital, she observes a Sunday church service, then calls home and leaves an apologetic message for her mother… Very novelistic and composed of many vignettes, this leaves a rather odd feeling in its wake: a sense of dissociation, perhaps. It’s a more modest success than its critical reception would suggest with the exceptional characterisation of Metcalf and Letts emphasising the continuities in relationships that are at the screenplay’s heart. It’s about a self-centred teenager (is there any other kind) finding herself in a nexus of people who are themselves struggling and lying and just making it through the day. Ronan is playing an avatar for debutant writer-director Greta Gerwig and it’s a Valentine to her hometown but it also functions as a tribute to misguided, confused, artistically oriented kids who want something else other than their uncultured boring origins but they don’t know quite what. Ronan’s performance doesn’t feel quite as centred as it needs to be. It has its moments but they’re mostly quiet ones with the mother-daughter frenemy status the quivering fulcrum around which everything orbits. Somehow this is less than the sum of its parts and it had a curiously deflating effect on the audience with whom I watched it. Hmmm…

Marathon Man (1976)

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How am I to fathom your mind if you continue to hide it from me?  Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a Columbia graduate student and long-distance runner who has just enrolled in a doctoral seminar with Prof. Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver) where his focus will be the fate of his father a fellow historian driven to suicide in the McCarthy era purely on the grounds of his Judaism.  He is oblivious to the fact that his older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), is not in fact an oil executive but a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) and who is almost murdered by a blue-eyed Asian hitman in a Paris hotel. Doc visits Babe in NYC and meets his girlfriend the allegedly Swiss Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) whom he figures out immediately as one of Szell’s couriers. Babe doesn’t believe there’s a bad bone in her body.  Doc is murdered and his colleague Janeway (William Devane) tells Babe the muggers who ambushed him in Central Park are Szell’s henchmen but they won’t come for him tonight – but they do, and Babe is held at the end of Szell’s dentist’s drill constantly being asked Is it safe?  He is caught in the middle of a transaction being expedited by The Division who clean up matters arising from disagreements between Washington and the CIA ...  Director John Schlesinger reunited with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman to make this iconic paranoid thriller adaptation by William Goldman of his 1974 novel which invokes all sorts of historic nightmares not to mention the fear of unnecessary dental surgery. For a liberal pacifist you have some sense of vengeance Doc tells Babe when he realises he still has the gun their father used to blow his brains out. The last time I saw this was in the middle of another sleepless night during a three-month bout of glandular fever and the words Is it safe? made it impossible for me to recover, for, oh, probably another month at that point. There might be plotholes you could drive a truck through that not even Robert Towne’s putative and uncredited rewrite fixed but even fully conscious and in broad daylight it remains a transfixing piece of work whose echoes are still felt. The schematic structure is emblematic of a film whose many well-constructed sequences take place in famous locations – Columbia, Central Park, the diamond district, where Szell is recognised by two of his victims. Szell! Der Weisse Engel! shrieks a camp survivor as the old Nazi is ironically forced to get a price for his diamonds from the very race he tortured and executed with extreme prejudice thirty years earlier. The entire text is replete with such irony, expressed by Janeway in the line Everything we do cuts both ways after he supposedly rescues Babe only to deliver him back to the Nazi. The dialogue is biting and great:  I believe in my country/So did we all. Michael Small’s score is superb with a real feel for the emotive fraternal and familial issues underlying the narrative action whose logic turns on the notion of history itself and the versions of truth which we tell ourselves and in turn are told to keep us happy.  He did much the same job on The Parallax View, another paranoid conspiracy thriller whose similarly allusive style (and on which Towne also did some controversial rewrite work during a writers’ strike) makes it the best political film of its time. It looks incredible, thanks to Conrad Hall. Oh the Seventies really had great films. Nowadays they’d probably give Szell a sympathetic backstory. Not so much in real life for Keller whose father actually was a Nazi. History is all around us in this persistent, resonant film. Pauline Kael called it a Jewish revenge fantasy. Goy veh.

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.

Can-Can (1960)

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If in Lesbos, a pure Lesbian can, Baby, you can can-can too. In Montmartre, Paris, 1896, nightclub owner Simone Pistache (Shirley MacLaine) is known for her performances of the can-can, a provocative (panty-free) dance recently outlawed for being immoral.  The women in the club, including Claudine (Juliet Prowse) use their feminine wiles to get the police to look the other way (eventually). Though Simone’s dancing delights patrons to no end, it also attracts the ire of the self-righteous Judge Philippe Forrestier (Louis Jourdan), who aims to punish her. The judge hatches a plot to photograph Simone in the act and ends up falling for her – much to the chagrin of her boyfriend, handsome lawyer François Durnais (Frank Sinatra)… Based on Abe Burrows’ musical comedy, this was written by Dorothy Kingsley and Charles Lederer. The music (by Cole Porter) was arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, famous for his work with Sinatra, whose duet with Judge Paul Barriére (Maurice Chevalier) of the opening and closing number I Love Paris was deleted from the release print. MacLaine gives a barnstorming performance in the lead and Sinatra is … himself. Let’s Do It, You Do Something To Me and Just One of Those Things are among the great songs. It’s beautifully staged (with Hollywood’s interior decorator to the stars Tony Duquette getting a consultant’s credit) and witty, with particularly smart lyrics. The ladies and gentlemen are costumed in great style by Irene Sharaff. It may be set in Paris but it was shot (gorgeously, by Billy Daniels) on the studio lot and was the occasion of a famous set visit by Nikita Khrushchev who denounced the scene as depraved in what he believed was a propaganda coup. It wasn’t remotely as decadent as having somewhere between 20 and 60 million of your own citizens murdered (why keep count) but hey, that’s showbiz. Directed by Walter Lang.

Legend of the Lost (1957)

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A desert is full of bones that were looking for treasure. Experienced desert guide Joe January (John Wayne) leaves a Timbuktu police cell and reluctantly joins a Saharan treasure hunting expedition led by Paul Bonnard (Rossano Brazzi), a man obsessed with confirming his dead father’s claim to have found a lost city. Dita (Sophia Loren) a woman of dubious reputation, becomes infatuated with Paul. She invites herself along and turns up on a camel in the middle of a caravan of Touareg – it’s quite the entrance. During the  ordeal Joe and Dita become attracted to each other and tensions escalate. As they run out of water, they stumble upon the ancient city and a well. There, they find three human skeletons, a woman and two men:  Joe figures out that Paul’s father found his woman in the arms of his guide, killed them and then shot himself. The treasure is nowhere to be found. Paul’s faith in his father is shattered and he becomes drunk and maniacal. They find the treasure after Joe deciphers the clues left by Paul’s father in a Bible. They load the jewellery and artifacts and prepare to leave in the morning. Paul tries to seduce Dita but she rejects him and he gets into a fight with Joe. Paul sneaks off in the night taking all the animals, supplies, and treasure with him and leaving the others to die. Joe and Dita chase after him on foot and eventually catch up, finding him unconscious from dehydration. While Joe and Dita dig for desperately needed water, Paul regains consciousness and in his delirium thinks they are digging his grave. He buries the treasure and attacks Joe from behind with a knife. Dita is forced to shoot and kill Paul. When they spot a caravan, Joe and Dita are saved. I can cook! I can breathe! I can live! Loren declares happily to Wayne and it’s this kind of snappy dialogue that enlivens what should have been a rather more fun outing. Written by Ben Hecht and Robert Presnell, with that cast it should have been a sizzler but they don’t entirely mesh. Henry Hathaway directed it for Wayne’s Batjac Productions and it was one of a half-dozen films they made together. It’s shot by Jack Cardiff and looks amazing – with wide shots of the Libyan desert anticipating the more luxuriant episodes of Lawrence of Arabia and the treasure hunt leading to the kind of thirsty delusion worthy of Greed. It’s wonderful to see the ruins of Leptis Magna, the 7th century Roman settlement. There’s a nice fight between the three points of this love triangle and guess who comes out on top? We must give thanks for Sophia Loren!

 

The Odessa File (1974)

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The faction novel by Frederick Forsyth has a special place in my heart because it was the first book I borrowed when I finally got a ticket to join the Adult section of my local public library after I turned 12. And it stunned me when I discovered that Forsyth was merely fictionalising in very approximate fashion the story of the Butcher of Riga, Eduard Roschman (Maximilian Schell) who is protected by the Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehoerigen (Former SS Members) in winter 1963. Journalist Peter Milller (Jon Voight) happens upon the story by simple expedient of pulling over in a Hamburg street to hear that President Kennedy has died and then literally chases an ambulance to an apartment building where an elderly Holocaust survivor has gassed himself. A policeman friend hands him the man’s diary and he uncovers the story behind the suicide of Salomon Tauber which contains one gleaming detail:  the murder by Roschmann at Riga port of a colleague who won a very rare German military medal. After meeting many unhelpful people in authority in a Germany still clearly run by the Nazis (there were 12 million of them after all, and they all just returned to civilian life and kept their pensions) he goes to Vienna where he visits Simon Wiesenthal who tells him about the ODESSA. He is beaten up, his dancer girlfriend (Mary Tamm) is threatened by some ex-Nazis and then ‘befriended’ by a policewoman when Miller goes off grid. He’s kidnapped by Mossad agents who want to know who he is and why he’s after Roschmann, supposedly dead almost two decades ago.  Then he dons a disguise … There are a few alterations to the source by Kenneth Ross and George (The Prisoner) Markstein and this is a fairly conventional procedural but still satisfying considering the strength of the subject matter (a topic plundered years later by novelist Sam Bourne aka Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland.) Voight is very good in what could be a difficult part and he gets a superb twist ending – when we learn the deeply personal reason for his search in addition to the quest for a great story. In a nice touch Maria Schell plays Voight’s mother, making this the only time she and Maximilian acted in the same film. The lovely Mary Tamm would later become a notable assistant to BBC’s Doctor Who and would have a good role as Blanche Ingram in TV’s Jane Eyre opposite Timothy Dalton. She died too soon.  There is an interesting score by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a special mention for Perry Como’s rendition of Christmas Dream and some superb cinematography by the great Oswald Morris and scene-setting by production designer Rolf Zehetbauer in this Anglo-German production – which might just account for the somewhat cleaned-up account of post-war Nazism. As it’s directed by multi-hyphenate Ronald Neame you wouldn’t expect anything less than a great-looking movie.  In another pleasing twist to the narrative, this prompted the tracking down of the real Roschmann to South America. But you’ll have to consult the history books to find out what happened next …

Trapeze (1956)

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Burt Lancaster is Mike Ribble, a disabled acrobat who walks with a limp because of a triple somersault that went drastically wrong years ago. Now he’s working as a rigger. Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis) wants to learn the triple and Ribble’s the only guy who can teach him. He doesn’t want to but his ex Rosa (Katy Jurado) persuades him to do it. The men form an act and try to crack the big time but when Italian trampolinist Lola (Gina Lollabrigida) gets between them their plans start to come apart at the seams … Vivid, colourful and atmospheric circus film directed by Carol Reed from a script by Liam O’Brien, adapting a novel called The Killing Frost by Max Catto. The screenplay was credited to James R. Webb but there were uncredited additions by Ben Hecht and Wolf Mankowitz. La Lollo makes her American debut in a starry, well-performed production that shows off Lancaster’s acrobatic skills, well documented by Robert Krasker’s photography (he was responsible for all those tilted angles for Reed in The Third Man.) Curtis is an excellent leading man, full of beauty, brio and bravery. Malcolm Arnold’s score captures the jauntiness and terror of the circus with its captivating sense of danger and daring. The bromance is great fun and La Lollo is an alluring femme fatale, as you’d expect! This was damned by the critics but huge at the box office. Quoi de neuf?!

 

Casablanca (1942)

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Round up the usual suspects. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she has to walk into mine. Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  Play it, Sam. We’ll always have Paris. Here’s looking at you, kid. I stick my neck out for nobody. Sometimes you have to go back to the source to remind yourself that there was a time when mainstream cinema produced work with remarkable, quotable dialogue and not every film was a comic book rehashed  for a market where people boil dogs as a pre-prandial treat. Romantic thriller Casablanca is notorious for being rewritten on the set, nobody knew what was going to happen next and certainly nobody concerned thought it would be the embodiment of all that was great about Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart is Rick Blaine, one of the great screen protagonists, an apparently jaded uncommitted man of the world and a dedicated ex-patriate pragmatist who is in fact a passionate, patriotic and loyal friend who sticks his neck out for absolutely everyone. Ingrid Bergman is the woman he loved in Paris, showing up at his cafe in occupied Morocco, unaware that he is there. And we flash back to their coup de foudre and realise she is now the other half of famed Resistance fighter Paul Henreid, who needs to escape the Nazis on his tail. Rick’s friendship with local police chief Claude Rains smooths a lot of issues regarding his backroom business in supplying refugees with Letters of Transit but this new situation is brimming with complications.The writers who adapted and altered the unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s were Howard Koch (maybe), the Epstein brothers (definitely) and Casey Robinson (whose rewrites were uncredited), Michael Curtiz directed a cast made in heaven and the music is just perfection! The character of Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid, was based on a Jewish activist who allegedly fathered Marlene Dietrich’s daughter back in Berlin (her marriage was very happily open.) After WW2 he became persona non grata in exile and was executed by the Czech government with his remains used for surfacing a road. Not a Hollywood ending. The film that he inspired is sublime.