Rome Express (1932)

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Discretion is the better part of wagons-lits.  As the express train is about to depart Paris for Rome, two men, Zurta (Conrad Veidt) and his colleague Tom (Gordon Harker), rush onto the platform and just manage to board. They have received information that someone they want to see is on the train. Another passenger, McBain (Cedric Hardwicke) a wealthy businessman travelling with his brow-beaten secretary/valet Mills (Eliot Makeham), learns that a valuable painting by Van Dyck, which he had previously tried to buy and had later been stolen from a Paris gallery has still not been recovered, and he says he would do anything to get hold of it. Also on the train are an adulterous couple (Harold Huth and Joan Barry, an annoyingly sociable Englishman, Tony (Hugh Williams), a French police officer M. Jolif (Frank Vosper), and an American film star Asta Marvelle (Esther Ralston) who is tiring of her fame, accompanied by her manager/publicist Sam (Finlay Currie). It transpires that the stolen painting is in the possession of a man, Poole (Donald Calthrop) who conspicuously keeps his briefcase close to him at all times. When he agrees to join a poker game on the train, he finds one of the other players is Zurta, and Poole’s reaction shows that they know each other. Poole is disconcerted and carelessly lays down his briefcase, which is later innocently taken away by Mills who has a similar briefcase. After the poker game ends, Zurta follows Poole to his compartment, forces his way in and confronts Poole, who offers to hand over the painting but finds he has the wrong briefcase. Zurta threatens to throw him from the train and they struggle and Poole is killed. Meanwhile, McBain discovers in Mills’ briefcase the stolen painting which he had wanted to buy. When Poole’s body is discovered by a train attendant, the police inspector begins an investigation and interviews all those who have been in contact with Poole. Zurta learns that the briefcases have been switched and tries to recover it from McBain’s compartment, but is apprehended by McBain and Mills as the police arrive… … The main interest here is the performance by Ralston, whose romance with Williams provides a nice subplot. She was a silent luminary after being a child vaudeville star (kinda Baby Jane-ish) but her career somewhat derailed in the Thirties despite a captivating presence.  This is based on a screenplay by Clifford Grey and Sidney Gilliat (with additional dialogue by Frank Vosper and Ralph Stock) and it’s rather creaky as train thrillers go. Gilliat would go on to perfect the form with The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich. It was remade as Sleeping Car to Trieste. Directed by Walter Forde.

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Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983) (TVM)

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I’d left it too late. That’s the funny thing – everyone thinks they’re exempt. It’s 1974, and Barbara Dean (Judi Dench) is a British assistant manager and loan officer in a foreign bank in Saigon.  She’s something of a depressive and has to ward off the advances of her co-worker Donald (Roger Rees) while her narration informs us she has been a woman of secrets ever since having an affair with a friend of her father’s at a very young age. She meets an American Bob Chesneau (Frederic Forrest) at the end of a party one night when she’s waiting for a taxi home. She has fended off the interest of Frank (Wallace Shawn), a US Embassy officer with whom she plays bridge. She and Bob begin a relationship and she realises that he’s not a cultural attaché but he works for the CIA and knows that the fall of South Vietnam is very near because sources suggest the North Vietnamese are stepping up plans to take Saigon. Things are heating up at the bank when a member of the public comes in armed with a gun demanding all his money. Barbara delays planning her departure even when she’s helping the locals get passports for their own hasty exits. Bob tries to persuade his boss Jack Ockham (Josef Sommer) and the US Ambassador (E.G. Marshall) to evacuate the South Vietnamese who have been working for them but the Ambassador wants to appease President Thieu’s regime. Bob and Barbara’s relationship suffers under the strain …  Made for Thames TV, this is a real auteur work – an original teleplay by theatrical giant David Hare and directed by Stephen Frears the year before he made The Hit. Dench was likewise a lady of the theatre albeit with some TV in the bag but it was a long time before America discovered her properly in Goldeneye. If the direction feels a little clunky at times, and perhaps it’s due to both the low budget and the schematic constraints of Hare’s writing, there are some good elements. There’s a nice juxtaposition when the Jolly Green Giants swoop into the city and White Christmas is on the soundtrack – as Bob has said, When the radio stations play all Bing Crosby Americans know it’s the end.  This is a rather obvious trope but is used to signify that the US military are really out of their depth. There’s a nicely mounted tension and the intermittent meetings between the US Ambassador and the nervy hard-drinking Ockham, with Shawn’s character providing a kind of Greek chorus, add to the sense of fear. Spooky to think that of the cast it’s Judi Dench who went from strength to strength while the marvellous Forrest has been more or less retired for decades. I haven’t seen him since he played in John Frankenheimer’s last movie 16 years ago, coincidentally another TV movie about Nam, Path to War. Now that is a real injustice. I miss him. George Fenton’s score is nicely understated.

 

Sgt. Bilko (1996)

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Can’t is a four-letter word in this platoon! Sergeant Bilko (Steve Martin) is in charge of the motor pool at his Kansas base but more importantly he oversees his base’s gambling operations and occasionally runs a little con game, all under the oblivious nose of his commanding officer, Colonel Hall (Dan Aykroyd). After Bilko’s old nemesis, Major Thorn (Phil Hartman), shows up, intent on ruining his career and stealing his girlfriend, Rita (Glenne Headly), Bilko must take extra care to cover his tracks while concocting the perfect scheme to take down his foe… I have been avoiding this since it came out (a long time ago) because I grew up watching the Phil Silvers show on re-runs practically every night. I even gifted myself a box set of the series a short while back.  However I’m glad to report that far from the grimfest I half-expected it’s a very likeable physical comedy with some great setpieces perfectly cued to showcase Martin’s adeptness at farce. The material and scenarios are somewhat updated to accommodate modern mores – which provide some fun during a dorm check – and Hartman gets a wonderful opportunity to exact revenge for a laugh out loud prank which we see in flashback:  the best boxing match ever on film with both participants taking a dive! And then Bilko gets his turn when all the chips are down and the guys line up to help him out. It’ll never erase the great TV show but there are compensations – Headly as the woman forever scorned (until she bests him) and the chance to see a soft side of Aykroyd who allows all the chicanery to take place without ever expressing a cruel word. And Austin Pendleton shows Bilko how to play poker! There’s even Chris Rock and Phil Silvers’ daughter Cathy who come to audit the base and cannot catch Bilko for love or money. It’s like watching a magician!  she declares. Very funny indeed. Andy Breckman adapted Nat Hiken’s show and it’s directed by Jonathan Lynn.

More (1969)

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I fell in love at first sight with the blonde in the corner. Stefan (Klaus Grünberg) is a German student who has finished his mathematics studies and decides to have the adventure to discard his personal commitments. After hitch-hiking to Paris, he makes friends with Charlie (Michel Chanderli) while playing cards in the Latin Quarter and they decide to commit a burglary to get some money. At a swinging Left Bank party, Stefan meets a free-spirited-beautiful but elusive American girl called Estelle (Mimsy Farmer) and follows her to the island of Ibiza. The two become lovers, with an atmosphere of easy sex, nude sunbathing and lots of drugs. He discovers Estelle is involved with former Nazi Dr. Wolf  (Heinz Engelmann). Borrowing a villa from a hippie, Stefan saves Estelle from Dr. Wolf only to find she does not really want to be saved, and she introduces him to heroin, which she has stolen from Dr. Wolf. Stefan is initially against Estelle using heroin, but having used it previously, she persuades him to try it. Soon Stefan and Estelle are both heavily addicted to heroin. They try to break the addiction using LSD and initially manage to stay clean… Debut director Barbet Schroeder’s original story was developed into a screenplay with Paul Gégauff. It is a statement film about the chasm between the hippie dream and the deluded addicts drifting in its wake. The deep sense of desolation, despair and sorrow which the narrative confers upon the viewer could be seen again in various shapes and forms in Schroeder’s later works: the irony of Maîtresse (1975) lying in the bourgeois Ariane’s need to humiliate men; Von Bülow’s effortlessly synchronous double life and his passing for innocent in high society in Reversal of Fortune (1990); Hedra’s destruction of Allison’s life in Single White Female (1992) by the simple expedient of moving into her apartment, imitating her appearance and infiltrating her existence to the point of murder. In More, Schroeder may not have been interrogating the relationship between these vicious partners in a destructive spiral, however the spiritless effect is one of total devastation. Pink Floyd’s diegetic score is simply wonderful and the cinematography by Nestor Almendros provides a startling contrast between the wet motorways of Germany and the bleached blissed-out landscape of Ibiza. I’ve written about this extraordinary film here:  http://offscreen.com/view/barbet-schroeders-more-1969.

Panic in the Streets (1950)

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Methuselah is younger than I am tonight.  A US Health Service physician Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) is called to supervise the autopsy of an unknown man and realises the John Doe (actually Kochak and played by Lewis Charles) died of pneumonic plague, the pulmonary iteration of bubonic plague. We have already seen the man chased and shot by the flunkies of gangster Blackie (Walter Jack Palance), Poldi (Guy Thomajan) and Fitch (Zero Mostel) on the dockside. Revealing his discovery to the mayor and city officials, Reed is informed that he has 48 hours before the public will be told about a potential outbreak. Joined by Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), Reed must race against time to find out where the unknown man came from and stop journalists from printing the story so that they can prevent an epidemic. They begin their search among Slav and Armenian immigrants as the man’s body is cremated … From the low level and unwittingly infected crims racing to find the booty they believe the dead man Kochak was protecting, to the warehouses unloading produce on the New Orleans wharves, this paints a great portrait of a city that no longer resembles what we see in this post-war crime thriller. The lurid title only tells you part of the story which director Elia Kazan insisted be shot entirely on location, using the smarts he picked up on Boomerang to create episodes of masterly tension from Bourbon Street in the French Quarter (spot Brennans!) to the banks of the Mississippi, with Reed’s marital and parenting issues nicely etched – there are bills to pay and he should spend more time with his son instead of trying to be more ambitious, according to his wife Nancy, played by Barbara Bel Geddes – providing the day to day humdrum issues against which the bigger melodrama takes place in a race against time. The contrast in performing styles is gripping – from Widmark’s Method-like approach to Palance’s conventional and scary villain, Mostel’s semi-comic goon and Douglas’ usual rambunctious affect to Bel Geddes classical mode, this is a terrific demonstration of American theatre and film acting styles bumping up against each other. It’s beautifully shot by Joseph MacDonald and edited by Harmon Jones. Edna and Edward Anhalt’s story was adapted by Daniel Fuchs and the screenplay is by Richard Murphy but Kazan stated that it was rewritten every day while they were shooting. He would use what he learned of The Big Easy for his next (studio-bound) film, A Streetcar Named Desire. He believed this was the only perfect film he made “because it’s essentially a piece of mechanism and it doesn’t deal in any ambivalences at all, really. It just fits together in the sequence of storytelling rather perfectly. But that’s really why I did it, and I got a hell of a lot out of it for future films.”  Very impressive, cher!

The Odd Couple (1968)

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Don’t point that finger at me unless you intend to use it. Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) is suicidal over his divorce and checks into a cheap hotel to off himself. Then his back gives out, he has second thoughts and he calls his friend Oscar the sportswriter (Walter Matthau) in the middle of their regular poker game. Oscar figures he can save Felix from himself and invites him to move in. Felix’s neat obsession drives slobby Oscar crazy and he arranges a double date with the English Pigeon sisters from another apartment upstairs but Felix cries about his divorce and it sends the empathetic ladies home and Oscar over the edge. Mike Nichols’ staging is replicated here to the extent that you feel you’re watching a lot of this on the other side of the proscenium. However that doesn’t detract from the strength of the performances, grounded in Neil Simon’s mordant wit:  who sends a suicide telegram?  How two mismatched men get over their divorced status and then enter a virtual marriage themselves and find out what it is that made their wives leave them is the whole show. There’s terrific support from Herb (TV’s Big John, Little John) Edelman as Murray the cop and John Fiedler as Vinnie, who get a taste for Felix’s delicious sandwiches even if the stench of disinfectant from the playing cards forces them out. With a notable score by Neal Hefti (how could you forget that theme), a screenplay by Simon himself and a rather theatrical directing job by Gene Saks, this is a good but not great comedy, but marks the first of four collaborations between the writer and Lemmon, that Everyman of Seventies cinema.

Hellfighters (1968)

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He’s not too smart about which fires to walk away from. Chance Buckman (John Wayne) is injured fighting an oil field fire and his assistant Greg (Jim Hutton) brings his boss’ estranged daughter Tish (Katharine Ross) to visit him in hospital – they’ve just got married a mere five days after meeting and Chance isn’t too pleased given Greg’s promiscuous ways. His marriage to Tish’s mom Madelyn (Vera Miles) ended because she couldn’t take the pressure of his work and Tish swears it’ll be different for her.  After seeing Greg get hurt she starts to fray at the edges and play solitaire a lot. When he takes over a gig in Venezuela and the team comes under fire from revolutionaries it’s time for Chance to return and his remarriage to Madelyn is postponed … A fascinating premise derived from the biography of legendary firefighter Red Adair, this moots the potential of examining the process and plumps for the melodrama of being the woman on the sidelines. Ross’ gorgeous sorrowfulness isn’t exploited but there are some good, colourful scenes and a nice barroom brawl to keep Wayne’s donnybrooking fans happy in between the talking shops. Written by Clair Huffaker and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen who had worked with Wayne in McLintock! Wayne got a million dollars to star.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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Raymond Shaw is the nicest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever met. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is nothing of the sort. He’s a nasty friendless well-connected Sergeant returning from the Korean War whose domineering widowed mother (Angela Lansbury) is now married to McCarthyite Senator Iselin (James Gregory) and she really is the power behind the throne:  he’s so dim he has to look at a bottle of ketchup to remember the number of Communists he says are in the State Dept. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is plagued by dreams of brainwashing and he’s not the only one. He investigates the possibility that there’s a sleeper agent in his platoon:  but what’s the plan? And when he discovers it’s Shaw, what is he programmed to do? And who could be his US control? This astonishing blend of Cold War paranoia, satire, political thriller and film noir is as urgent as it’s ever been. Brilliantly constructed visually – look at the cutting from dream to reality to TV coverage – by John Frankenheimer, in George Axelrod’s adaptation of the Richard Condon novel, this is even better tenth time around. This hugely controversial film was released during the Bay of Pigs crisis. The title has entered the lexicon and it became the go-to explanation for the major assassinations – both Kennedys and even John Lennon. This was Sinatra’s second film about a potential Presidential murder (he starred in Suddenly eight years earlier) and he stopped its distribution following the JFK assassination – but not due to personal sensitivities, moreso that his profit participation wasn’t being honoured by United Artists. His involvement was such that even a nightclub is named Jilly’s. Lansbury is simply masterful as the monster mother but the book’s incest theme is played down. What you will be left wondering in the aftermath of the film’s shocking impact is just why did Janet Leigh refer to the Chinese?! Amazing.

The Lawless Breed (1953)

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I love you the way you are. The way you really are. Legend has it that gunslinger, card sharp and outlaw John Wesley Hardin once shot a man because he was snoring. In this Universal-Technicolor version of a story he wrote about himself – his real life, as it were – we get the fast-moving, adventurous western that veteran director Raoul Walsh favoured, with a luminous performance by Rock Hudson in the role that made him a star. It starts with a beautiful framing device:  freed after 16 years from a prison sentence, the aged Hardin (and Hudson looks just like he would twenty years later in MacMillan and Wife!) leaves those portals and the first beings he touches in many years are a donkey and a dog. He has us at hello. Then he walks into a print shop and hands over a manuscript – his autobiography. It’s a great opening. Then we relive his life from his point of view in one long flashback:  as a young man he’s whupped by his strict preacher father (John McIntire) and launched into a life of crime following a card game. “It was self-defence,” becomes his mantra. He’s followed through Texas by Union soldiers, takes refuge with his sympathetic uncle (also played by McIntire), continues his relationship with the most beautiful girl in the State, Jane (Mary Castle) and eventually takes refuge with the saloon girl who understands him, Rosie (Julie aka Julia Adams). It’s a fatalistic tale which became a Bob Dylan song but this being Hollywood we don’t see the sordid ending that actually befell the man and Hudson imbues his character with wonderful gentleness.  When he returns home to save his grown son (Race Gentry) from his destiny the reason for writing his memoirs becomes clarified. Great, rousing tale, brilliantly handled by Walsh with his usual terrific staging and pace and doesn’t it look beautiful, like all movies should. Very loosely adapted from Hardin’s book by the great (and blacklisted) screenwriter Bernard Gordon. Never mind the facts – print the legend!

Metropolitan (1990)

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When a down on his luck student gets taken up by a clique calling themselves The Sally Fowler Rat Pack he sees another aspect of the rarefied debutante season in winter on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Whit Stillman’s warm and deftly witty debut is a low budget surprise (financed by selling his apartment) and based on his own experiences home from college living with his divorced mother back in 1970 (his father had worked for JFK). Tom Townsend (Edward Clements)  is the wan ginger protagonist who used to be a trust fund kid before his parents divorce but now can’t afford a decent overcoat and is still pining for his ex, socialite Serena (Ellia Thompson).  Audrey (Carolyn Farina, a brunette preppie Molly Ringwald) has a crush on him that he doesn’t acknowledge. She’s a passionate Jane Austen fan, he’s only read criticism (that’s a funny exchange). Nick (Chris Eigeman) eggs on his new protege while dissing the very girl he himself is sleeping with; Serena is involved with the awful Rick (Will Kempe); and now Sally Fowler (Dylan Hundley) may be falling for him. Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) is not convinced that Tom is worthy of Audrey and is the naysayer in the group. But when Audrey and Sally get caught up in a plan to spend time at despicable Rick’s in West Hampton someone has to come riding to the rescue (in a yellow taxi).  This is a very winning comedy of manners  (and the screenplay was given a nod at the Academy Awards) which weaves Austen references in so subtly you get surprised when you see motor cars on the streets of Manhattan. Eigeman is fantastic and gets the lion’s share of the best lines which are mostly thrown away in drifts of sentences so that you have to watch this twice to catch some of them (not a problem). My favourite? Playing strip poker with an exhibitionist somehow takes the challenge away. Bliss.