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 …

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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.