L.A. Story (1991)

LA Story

Why is it that we don’t always recognize the moment when love begins but we always know when it ends? Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin) has the easiest job in the world: he’s a TV weatherman in Los Angeles, where the weather is so predictable he tapes his ‘wacky’ forecasts days in advance. Bored with his job, his life and his relationship with longtime girlfriend Trudi (Marilu Henner), foundering while she carries on an affair with a colleague, Harris begins to receive secret messages from an electronic freeway sign near his home, which lead him to pursue romance with a married British journalist Sara (Victoria Tennant) doing a story on LA lifestyles and a vapid young model SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker). Sara doesn’t want to let down her husband Roland Mackey (Richard E. Grant) but Harris believes she could be his source of happiness … Let us just say I was deeply unhappy, but I didn’t know it because I was so happy all the time. Written by Martin and directed by Mick Jackson, this pleasantly zany romcom perfectly encapsulates what many believe to be true of a certain kind of social scene in Los Angeles, an updated take on Cyra McFadden’s earlier self-help satire Serial, perhaps, with fads and fashions plucked from the air like oranges from trees or aphorisms from freeway signs. If it never hits the comic heights you would expect from Martin, this is a Valentine to the city, an observational fantasy that sees contentment as a home run while a certain kind of busy wit unspools through these characters’ lives...it’s not what I expected. It’s a place where they’ve taken a desert and turned it into their dreams. I’ve seen a lot of L.A. and I think it’s also a place of secrets: secret houses, secret lives, secret pleasures. And no one is looking to the outside for verification that what they’re doing is all right. Not quite the Odyssey Harris’ name suggests but an intriguing and insightful journey nonetheless, with an outstanding soundtrack which will practically bring tears to the eyes of Nineties kids. Ordinarily, I don’t like to be around interesting people because it means I have to be interesting too

The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954)

The Last Time I Saw Paris

I’ve been having a bad day for a year now, maybe I’m growing up. Novelist Charles Wills (Van Johnson) returns to Paris to claim custody of his young daughter Vicki (Sandy Descher) and recalls his life there… On VE Day in Paris, American journalist Charles Wills is on the crowded streets of Paris when he meets an unknown woman Helen Ellswirth (Elizabeth Taylor) who kisses him and runs away. He discovers who she is when he encounters her lovely sister Marion (Donna Reed) in a cafe and is smitten. He meets their father James (Walter Pidgeon) and finds a man from the Lost Generation who is flat broke but encourages his daughters to live in his lackadaisical fashion, dreaming big dreams but making no firm plans. Charles falls in love with Helen and they marry but when he parties away the unexpected dowry from James’ oil investments it drives a wedge between them then his ambition to write a book sunders them completely … What kind of wife are you, dancing with other men?  Adapted by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and director Richard Brooks from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story Babylon Revisited, updated to after WW2, this is a wonderfully atmospheric portrait of the Lost Generation and the clash with the post-war world of the Forties generation (which altogether alters the story’s theme). Sensitive to both male and female perspectives, disappointments in life and love and tragic to the core, this is an unusual production because it’s chiefly from the perspective of the male protagonist and even if Johnson’s no dream boat he acquits himself well. Taylor is rather wonderful and Reed is equally good as the responsible older sister who settles for dull marriage to a decent man, prosecutor Claude Matine (George Dolenz). Roger Moore has a good role as Paul Lane, a tennis pro who romances Taylor; while Johnson is diverted by Eva Gabor. A good old-fashioned melodrama, beautifully made despite the constraints of the studio set. Happy VE Day. I’m sick to death of death. I want to enjoy things, have fun, live every day like it’s the last day. Wouldn’t that be nice, a lifetime full of last days?

The Sea Wolves (1980)

The Sea Wolves

It’s insane and you know it. Put together a plan! During WW2 German submarines are sinking British merchant ships and Intelligence Services believe the information is being radioed from a transmitter on a German ship interned in Goa, Portuguese ie neutral territory so any attack has to be done unconventionally. The Special Operations Executive approach the Territorial Unit of British expatriates – the Calcutta Light Horse – who are all military veterans mostly deployed in civilian life. They are led by Col. Lewis Henry Owain Pugh (Gregory Peck), Col. W.H. Grice (David Niven) and Captain Gavin Stewart (Roger Moore) and they recruit a number of their former colleagues who require a brief training course to reacquaint them with combat before they can hijack and down the ship in question. Jack Cartwright (Trevor Howard) is in no condition to join them but he persuades them and he’s the first to realise that Stewart’s romantic interest ‘Mrs Cromwell’ (Barbara Kellerman) is not who she claims to be. The men’s quarry is the German known as ‘Trompeta’ (Wolf Kahler) and to get to him requires infiltrating diplomatic circles and avoiding being murdered before finally launching a raiding party from a decrepit barge … He was about to kill me – or you. That’s the sort of thing that tends to make me impulsive. What appears to be the first geriaction movie long before the term came into popular usage is actually a true story. This adaptation of James Leasor’s faction book Boarding Party by Reginald Rose takes some liberties and conjures some fictions but it’s all in the name of entertainment. It might seem like the boys from Navarone have been reassembled but eventually it’s Moore who comes to the fore and it’s only a matter of time before he dons a tuxedo and reverts to Bondian type doing a fine job of espionage while romancing the attractive German agent out to kill him (a character created for the film). There’s a gallery of familiar faces, many of whom appeared with Moore in The Wild Geese, from Patrick Macnee and Michael Medwin to Glyn Houston and Terence Longdon, with Faith Brook having a nice bit as Niven’s wife. After the initial setup it’s a rollicking actioner and a fascinating portrait of the colonial life during a war taking place on other territories and is wonderfully shot by Tony Imi on location. The score by Roy Budd has fun with military motifs while the theme song is an arrangement of The Warsaw Concerto by John Addinsell with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and it’s performed by the redoubtable Matt Monro. Incredibly this was made with the assistance of German survivors of the sunken ship! Dedicated to Lord Louis Mountbatten. Directed by reliable action helmer Andrew V. McLaglen. It starts off like an Hungarian omelette

Torn Curtain (1966)

Torn Curtain

How do you like playing the dirty defector? During a trip to Copenhagen, American physicist and rocket scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) is attending a conference with his lab assistant and fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) and he picks up a telegram and tells her he is going to Stockholm. She follows him as he travels to Berlin where he publicly announces he is defecting to pursue his research for the Soviet Union. During a trip to a farm Michael meets a ‘farmer’ contact (Mort Mills) and it is clear that he is on a secret spying mission for the US. At the farmhouse he is watched by his official guard Herman Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who suspects what he is doing and Michael and the farmer’s ‘wife’ (Carolyn Conwell) are forced to kill him. He travels to Leipzig and tells Sarah what is really going on. He goes to the University in an attempt to persuade Professor Lindt (Ludwig Donath) to share his secrets but the man realises Michael has little to share and calls the authorities and the chase to catch him with Sarah commences … I forbid you to leave this room! A Hitchcock film in which various getaways are staged using bicycles, buses and boats, this is the one that forced him to conclude he no longer wished to work with stars. And what stars! Newman, who had already played a variation on this role in The Prize and Andrews, the world’s favourite actress at the time. They were not the choice of the director but of moneyman Lew Wasserman who probably played too large a role in his career and contributed to what could be described as his decline in the Sixties. And it’s true that they are weirdly mismatched. Nonetheless there is ample opportunity for local actors, Lila Kedrova, Tamara Toumanova and Ludwig Donath to shine. Peter Lorre Jr even has an uncredited role as a treacherous taxi driver! Many feel this is one of Hitchcock’s lesser films and one might ask, given that he had originated the Cold War spy thriller genre with a masterpiece, North By Northwest, why he felt he had to make another one. But we forget how fascinating the Iron Curtain was, and not just to filmmakers. What an opportunity to look at a society where spying on people wasn’t confined to Government but permeated everyday life – most Germans were snoops and tattle tales, and not in a good way. The landscape is another reason – all that flat land. (A reminder of the crop dusting scene…). The opportunity to kill someone in virtual silence because there’s a taxi driver outside the door – and what a sequence that is, using whatever comes to hand in a farmhouse kitchen.  Hitchcock told Truffaut in their famous interview that the point of that was to demonstrate how hard it actually was to kill somebody, something that the conventions of the contemporary spy thriller avoided. There is a sense in which Hitchcock is playing his greatest hits – the set pieces are fun and  quite reminiscent of ones he did earlier. Perhaps that’s understandable given that this was his fiftieth film and projects he felt more deeply about had failed to get off the ground. Despite being inspired by the defections of famed British traitors Burgess and Maclean the script originally focused on the female character and so Irish writer Brian Moore whose gynocentric novels were so acclaimed did the original draft. At that point Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant were Hitchcock’s dream cast – a replay of old attractions. But when that changed he got Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall to rewrite and the story was radically altered but Moore still got sole credit. (Moore repaid the slight by caricaturing Hitchcock in his novel Fergus). There are some horribly clunky visuals that make it obvious this was shot on the Universal lot – very unlike a director who should have been at the peak of his powers. Is he deliberately making the artificiality of the genre more transparent?! Even more oddly, Hitchcock dumped Bernard Herrmann’s unsatisfactory score (which you can find on the DVD and watch it again) and commissioned John Addison to do the version used on the theatrical release – viewing this with a different musical accompaniment alters the affect (something that a Channel 4 documentary demonstrated twenty-plus years ago). Fascinating, suspenseful and altogether necessary and not just for Hitchcock completionists. You told me nothing! You know nothing!

The Operative (2019)

The Operative

We do not execute at any cost. If something is not according to plan you have the right to call it off.  British-Jewish Mossad agent Thomas (Martin Freeman) who is based in Germany is summoned to try and figure out the whereabouts of an agent he recruited following her father’s funeral in London because she is a valuable asset who has vanished without trace.  He met and persuaded this mysterious woman Anne/Rachel (Diane Kruger) to become an agent, sending her to Tehran on an undercover mission where she falls in love with Farhad (Casvar) whose business Mossad are hoping to use as cover for a nuclear weapons exchange to destabilise the national programme. When her missions become more dangerous and Farhad is kidnapped by her colleagues, she decides to quit, forcing her boss to find her before she becomes a threat to Israel… You should visit Israel. To connect to the place. The people. Adapted from the Hebrew novel The English Teacher by former intelligence officer Yiftach Reicher-Atir, writer/director Yuval Adler has made a smartly told, nuanced story benefitting from a defining performance by an almost unrecognisable dressed-down Kruger. The Tehran section is as educative as it is narrative, with Rachel’s love story an echo of her real feelings about the city and its people. Her enigmatic persona – she persists in telling people she’s adopted even though she isn’t – is not properly explored which suggests a hinterland the film doesn’t entirely reconcile. The letdown is Freeman, who apparently replaced Eric Bana as Rachel’s handler. Refreshing mainly because of its insights into the region’s geopolitics from a new perspective. I can’t believe I’m here. Doing this

Shadows and Fog (1991)

Shadows and Fog

I was just pointing out to these lovely ladies the metaphors of perversion. Europe, between the wars. Kleinman (Woody Allen), a cowardly bookkeeper, is woken in the night by a mob of vigilantes and assigned the task of finding a strangler on the loose in the fog-shrouded town where the circus is visiting. Meanwhile, after a lover’s quarrel with her clown boyfriend (John Malkovich) after seeing him flirt with trapeze artist Marie (Madonna), sword-swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) escapes into the city, eventually joining up with Kleinman for support as they make their way through the ominous streets and foggy back alleys. Kleinman meets up with a mortician (Donald Pleasance) who’s dissecting the murderer’s victims; while Irmy encounters a prostitute (Lily Tomlin) who offers her a place to stay at the brothel where she works and wealthy student Jack (John Cusack) chooses to sleep with her rather than the professionals present.  She enjoys it and wants to donate the money to charity. When certain circumstantial evidence points towards Kleinman, he must prove his innocence as the police take interest and vigilantes assemble … There isn’t a whore in the world that’s worth $700. The first screening may have had the studio suits immobilised and looking like they’d been paralysed with curare, as Woody Allen recalls in his memoir, and this adaptation of his play Death is an admittedly uneasy mix. It’s part German Expressionist serial killer flick, circus picture, sex comedy, cowardly nebbish tale and social melodrama – but it’s still funny as hell when it hits the right notes, even though some of the cast (David Ogden Stiers, Kurtwood Smith) apparently think they’re in a different film altogether. But who doesn’t love Donald Pleasence as the mortician about to get his? And what about Kathy Baker, Lily Tomlin (especially Lily Tomlin) and Jodie Foster as chilled-out smart alecky prostitutes (even if they aren’t given proper names)? There’s a myriad of funny moments and lines with Allen giving most of them to himself but Farrow gets some of them, including, I always think you can tell a lot about an audience by how they respond to a good sword swallower. And howzabaout the great Kenneth Mars as a drunken magician? I once plucked a rabbit from between the bosoms of the Queen of Denmark. Small rabbit. Small bosoms. A hoot, in fits and starts, and so much more fun than its reputation suggests. Miraculous production design by Santo Loquasto, building an entire set at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, NYC and shot by Carlo Di Palma. It’s drenched in an atmosphere equally mysterious and amusing with a sort of sinister undertaste, alluding to Lang, Pabst, Murnau but also Hitchcock because we don’t really care about the strangler McGuffin a whit. He’s played by Michael Kirby. See? Told you. Soundtrack by Kurt Weill – well who else could it possibly have been? Written, directed by and starring Woody Allen as the Kafkaesque Little Man. I can’t make a leap of faith necessary to believe in my OWN existence

Le Week-End (2013)

Le Weekend

I’m amazed at how mediocre I’ve turned out to be. Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg Burrows (Lindsay Duncan) are a married academic couple from Birmingham advancing in age and tension. To mark their 30th wedding anniversary, the two embark on a trip to the place they honeymooned three decades before: Paris. Hoping to rejuvenate their marriage, the couple arrives in Paris only for things not to go as planned. Their honeymoon hotel is horrifying so Meg insists on booking into the best hotel in town. They eat lavishly and run out of a restaurant without paying. Their hi jinks re-ignite their romance. Their son wants to move back in but Meg is adamant he can’t, Nick fields the calls from back in England as Meg rages that he is too tolerant. Eventually, the two bump into Nick’s former Cambridge acolyte Morgan (Jeff Goldblum) who is now a philosophy star and they attend a dinner party at his posh Rue de Rivoli home that ultimately opens up a new view of life and love for the ageing couple… I knew this trip would be a fucking disaster. Author and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi’s fourth collaboration with director Roger Michell is all at once delightful homage, biting meditation on ageing and a thoughtful discourse on the absurd difficulties of sustaining an enduring marriage. It’s also a sly commentary on academic rivalry, PC-ness (Nick is being retired early because he told a black woman student she should spend more time on the books and less on her hair), wrongful assumptions about the person you know best and the real problems of intimacy after decades living in someone else’s pocket. This last five to ten years your vagina has become something of a closed book. Sentimental Broadbent is angry beneath that pleading surface;  flinty Duncan is superficially icy but truly loyal – and hot. When Morgan takes Nick’s raucous and self-pitying dinner party confession for a kind of Situationist performance and both husband and wife are disgusted by his ignorance of the truth when it’s laid bare, it is a joy to behold them unite again. And then, the ending, a glorious homage to Bande à part, re-enacting a scene in a simple but uplifting manner that might make you fear growing old just a little bit less. You’ll recognise Morgan’s son as Olly Alexander, of the band Years and Years. This is where I want to be forever

The Sun Also Rises (1957)

The Sun Also Rises

I don’t have a problem with Americans. In 1920s Paris American news correspondent Jake Barnes (Tyrone Power) has ended up injured, impotent and disillusioned from World War 1. He mingles with an aimless group of bohemian expatriates including hangers on, the wealthy and aimless Robert Cohn (Mel Ferrer) and Bill Gorton (Eddie Albert). His ex-fiancée, the seductive nymphomaniacal Lady Brett Ashley (Ava Gardner) who nursed him back to health in Italy returns to Paris and after Jake and Bill go on a fishing trip in Bayonne, she introduces him to her fiancé, the reckless alcoholic Mike Campbell (Errol Flynn) when they all converge in Pamplona for the bull run, where Robert turns up. Together, they pursue a hedonistic, directionless lifestyle until Brett’s affection for Jake complicates mattersBeing away from you is worse than being here. Adapted by Peter Viertel from Ernest Hemingway’s classic 1926 Lost Generation novel, this somewhat static rendition is truly enlivened by performance (ironically, given the theme) by a cast several years too old for their roles. Ironically, that seems to play into the book’s ideas of the relentless passing of time, never to be regained. Power looks aged, and would be dead within a year; Flynn would die two years later; and Gardner was shortly to be facially scarred – during a bullfight in Spain. Naturally much is lost in adaptation – the density of feeling, for starters – but it’s an attractive proposition with beautiful people suffering in lovely locations. The dissipated Flynn, his beauty long lost to drink, is ideally cast as the soused larger than life Scot and in fact his performance was the only thing Hemingway thought decent about the film; rather wonderfully, Pancho Villa’s son was Flynn’s stand-in. This is the production that launched movie mogul Robert Evans upon the world, playing the sexy young matador Pedro Romero giving Gardner the attention she craves (cleaving rather closely to Gardner’s real life). Everyone on the cast and crew wanted him gone but this mutiny triggered Darryl F. Zanuck’s infamous line, The kids stays in the picture, providing Evans with the title of his legendary memoir. Gardner of course had a habit of driving her lovers crazy for her and that creeps into her role, as well as the fact that she had already essayed Hemingway as a sizzling femme fatale in The Killers, to unforgettable effect. And there’s Juliette Gréco in the first part of the story, set in Paris, not singing but exuding blackly comic and blunt sensuality. Ferrer and his then wife Audrey Hepburn had spotted her performing at a nightclub and recommended her to DFZ, who started a relationship with her. It’s a true exploration of nostalgia, a term that arose to recognise a phenomenon among soldiers returning home from war for whom life was never the same; but it also has a metafiction, about the stars themselves, on the precipice of their celebrity, facing the end of everything. If nothing else, the louche life looks rather picturesque and gorgeously romantic, as does everything directed by Henry King. Everyone behaves badly given the proper chance

Jules and Jim (1962)

Jules and Jim

Catherine never does anything halfway. She’s an irresistible force that can’t be stopped. Her harmony is never shaken because… she knows she is always innocent. In the days leading up to the First World War, shy Austrian writer Jules (Oskar Werner) becomes friends with extroverted Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre) and they travel to an Adriatic island to see an ancient sculpture, eventually encountering a free-spirited woman Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) who is a double for the statue. Jules and Catherine become involved and go to Austria to marry while Jim is involved with Gilberte (Vanna Urbino). The men serve on opposite sides during the war and wonder if they’ve killed each other.  They survive and Jim visits Jules and Catherine in their Black Forest home where they have a young daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin) and the marital tensions are evident with Catherine torturing Jules due to her recurrent infidelities. She tries to seduce Jim and Jules permits their marriage but wants them all to live together but when Jim and Catherine can’t have a child she leaves him… I may not be very moral, but I have no taste for secrecy. One of the great French New Wave films, François Truffaut adapted (with Jean Gruault) a late semi-autobiographical first novel by elderly art collector Henri-Pierre Roché, turning it into a freewheeling nostalgic tragedy, boasting incredible and playful cinematography by Raoul Coutard, a stunning score by Georges Delerue (with a hit song, Le Tourbillon de la vie) and a standout performance by Moreau, the centre of this love triangle which above all is about enduring friendship in the face of passion. She bewitches, she betrays, she is incandescent, vivacious, an irresistible siren. As Jules says, Whatever Catherine does, she does fully. She’s a force of nature that manifests in cataclysms. In every circumstance she lives in clarity and harmony, convinced of her own innocence. Yet it’s also about war and the particular awfulness of trench warfare, emblemised by a story Jim tells about a man who falls in love with a girl on a train and how he keeps himself alive in the hope of seeing her again. A landmark in cinema, this never fails to entertain, to involve, to terrorise, to touch. It is a kind of enchantment that starts like a dream and concludes in unbearable tragedy, a story of a joyous life lived at full throttle. You said, “I love you.” I said, “Wait.” I was about to say, “Take me.” You said, “Go away”

Highly Dangerous (1950)

Highly Dangerous

It may not interest you technically but for a large section of humanity it could be a matter of life and death. The British government asks entomologist Frances Gray (Margaret Lockwood) to go behind the Iron Curtain and examine insects that might be used as carriers to spread disease in germ warfare. Grudgingly accepting the job, Frances goes undercover as Frances Conway, a tour director looking for potential holiday destinations and meets tough American reporter Bill Casey (Dane Clark) in the process. Unfortunately, the chief of police Razinski (Marius Goring) quickly sees through Frances’ flimsy cover. Then her contact is murdered and his body left in her hotel room and Frances is taken into custody, prompting Casey to come to her aid… A few months ago some people were shot accidentally in the woods. It was terrible. A vehicle for Lockwood after a period doing theatre, Eric Ambler loosely adapted one of his novels (The Dark Frontier), changed the gender of the protagonist and it’s a spirited adventure. The Ruritanian setting hints at the comedy style, returning Lockwood to a kind of thriller along the lines of The Lady Vanishes – enhanced by the casting of Naunton Wayne as Frances’ recruiter, Hedgerley, Wilfrid Hyde White (after The Third Man) and Goring’s performance as a comedy police chief, enlivening the playfulness. Like The Third Man, Ambler’s script makes a meta issue of storytelling, there’s a torture scene in a TV studio-like location and there are references to soap opera and a character called Frank Conway, the star of a radio serial that Frances listens to for her little nephew and for whom she is re-named. Nicely done with a good mix of intrigue, suspense and fun led by Clark as the inadvertent hero of the situation. Directed by Roy (Ward) Baker. You just can’t do things like that in real life.