The Sting (1973)

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I don’t know enough about killin’ to kill him. In Depression-era Chicago following the murder of mutual friend Luther (Robert Earl Jones), smalltime grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) teams up with old pro Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to take revenge on the ruthless crime boss responsible, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) from whom Johnny unwittingly steals. Hooker and Gondorff set about implementing an elaborate scheme, one that involves a lot of other con artists and so crafty that Lonnegan won’t even know he’s been swindled. As their big con unfolds, however, things don’t go according to plan, requiring some last-minute improvisation by the undaunted duo… It’s not like playing winos in the street. You can’t outrun Lonnegan. This unofficial followup to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was huge in its day, just not in my house where I smelled the phoniness as a small child and have to admit despite several efforts over the years never made it through more than the first 25 minutes of this any time it was on TV – until today! So I finally broke my duck. This is gorgeously mounted and the relationship between Newman and Redford plays as well as you’d expect, with a lovely meet-cute – Newman’s face pressed against a wall, asleep, dead drunk. They’re still outlaws, of a sort. The twist is terrific, the long con well staged with lovely silent movie-style inter-titles and the occasional trope from the era for instance a polychromatic montage done to the famous Scott Joplin ragtime adapted by Marvin Hamlisch as The Entertainer, but, but…  I cannot shake what I felt as a child despite everything I know about the movies – it’s just – fake. I cannot take it remotely seriously (I blame Redford, don’t ask me why, I don’t know) despite the performances big and small with some terrific character work by Ray Winston, Charles Durning and Eileen Brennan. And Shaw is fantastic as the nasty crim. As ever! Directed by George Roy Hill, an alumnus of Trinity College Dublin where he trained as an actor with Cyril Cusack.  He would work again with both Redford and Newman, but separately – with the former in The Great Waldo Pepper and the latter in Slap Shot, a personal favourite of this movie maniac. Written by David S. Ward who did a follow up with a different cast. Ho. Hum. Sit down and shut up, will ya? Try not to live up to all my expectations

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Sudden Fear (1952)

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I’m so crazy about you I could break your bones. Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) is a successful and wealthy Broadway playwright who rejects actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) for her new production because he doesn’t look like a romantic leading man. When she meets him on a train bound for home back in San Francisco he insinuates himself into her life and she is swept off her feet, and marries him. He learns that she’s writing her will and intends leaving most of her money to a heart foundation and plots her murder with his girlfriend Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame). However Myra has accidentally left her tape recorder running and finds out their plan. She decides upon one of her own and plots it as she would one of her plays – to kill Lester and frame Irene for it. But while hiding in Irene’s apartment she sees her reflection with gun poised and alters her plan, terrified at what she’s become. Then Lester lets himself into the apartment … I like to look at you. Adapted by Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith from Edna Sherry’s 1948 novel, this is a superior noir melodrama, with Crawford at her sensational best in one of her key roles.  Everything about the production is top notch with wonderful design (Boris Leven and Edward G. Boyle) and shooting by Charles Lang, enhanced by the location and night-time street scenes. Palance matches Crawford – talk about a face off! – with some truly creepy affectations; while Grahame is entrancing as ever. But it’s Crawford’s show and the happiness slipping from that classic mask is something to see.  She was directed to an Academy Award nomination by David Miller (he was a very fine woman’s director.) The final sequence – the first half of which has Crawford hiding in a closet; the second with her being chased up and down the streets of San Francisco by Palance – is unbearably, brilliantly tense. Sizzling stuff. Executive produced by an uncredited Miss Joan Crawford.  Remember what Nietzsche says “Live dangerously!”

Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)

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Aka SarabandNo one’s safe in love. In the 18th century, Sophie Dorothea (Joan Greenwood) is forced into marriage with Prince George Louis (Peter Bull), an aristocrat destined to inherit the British crown as George I. But when he becomes king, Sophie meets suave Swedish mercenary Count Philip Konigsmark (Stewart Granger) with whom she falls in love.  They decide to flee England together, abandoning her horrific marriage. Their scheme is discovered  however and the lovers must figure out a way to escape while Philip’s previous lover Countess Platen (Flora Robson) plots revenge … My sisters have been liberal with their favours in half the courts of Europe.  Doomed romance! Beautiful costumes! Colour cinematography! John Dighton and Alexander Mackendrick’s adaptation of Helen Simpson’s melodramatic novel about the Hanoverian claim to the British throne hit the ground running for Ealing with the man chat show host Michael Parkinson described as resembling a Maltese pimp setting hearts and more aflutter. Greenwood’s husky voice alone is worth the price of admission. This lavish post-war tale was just what the doctor ordered with the exigencies and privations the nation was suffering in the aftermath of combat. Françoise Rosay makes a wonderfully superior Electress Sophia while Anthony Quayle and Michael Gough line up among the ensemble and the score by Alan Rawsthorne is just swoonsome. Fabulously entertaining, overblown saucy fluff directed by Basil Dearden and produced by Michael Balcon and Michael Relph.  I hear she doesn’t want me for a husband. Well, I sympathise with her – I don’t want her for a wife

Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952)

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This is a story about money … remember it! Ageing heir-less millionaire Samuel Fulton (Charles Coburn) wants to leave his fortune to the unsuspecting family of his first love Millicent Blaisdell but not before testing his prospective heirs by living with them under the guise of a poor boarder under the alias John Smith.  He finds history repeating itself when he leaves them an anonymous bequest and observes Millicent’s daughter Harriet (Lynn Bari) losing the run of herself keeping up with the town’s richies and urging her own daughter Millie (Piper Laurie) to wed the son (Skip Homeier) of a wealthy family instead of Dan (Rock Hudson) who works in her dad’s (Larry Gates) pharmacy while studying at night …  Hot diggity Millie, you’re the cat’s miaow!  Set in Tarrytown, New York at the end of the Twenties, this nostalgia-fest was one of several smalltown films made by Douglas Sirk and his first in glorious Technicolor.  Not quite a musical, it takes its song and dance cues from diegetic sources so we have singalongs courtesy of the wireless and a windup travelling pianola.  This has a sharp moral lesson under the fun and it’s the kids who are smarter than the parents – little Roberta (Gigi Perreau) is the one who knows the value of friendship and paints alongside ‘John Smith’ while he starts working as a soda jerk in the store.  Twenty-one year old James Dean makes his infamous debut as the kid ordering a super-complicated malt to which Coburn makes the disarming retort, Would you like to come in Wednesday for a fitting? Handsome William Reynolds as Howard, the son who gets a gambling habit, would make another notable appearance for Sirk in All That Heaven Allows along with There’s Always Tomorrow, while Hudson and Dean would both make another film together – the legendary Giant. Hudson of course became a star under Sirk’s direction in a handful of productions for Universal. Here he’s comfortable in a funny ensemble piece.  Adapted from a story by Eleanor H. (Pollyanna) Porter by Joseph Hoffman, this is an utter delight, camouflaging its social comment with an abundance of witty lines and smart playing. What else can you expect from the nouveau riche?

Junior Bonner (1972)

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Rodeo time, I gotta get it on down the road/What road? I mean, I’m workin’ on my first million, and you’re still workin’ on eight seconds. Middle-aged rodeo rider Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen) returns to his Arizona hometown where he reunites with his family, which includes his charming, troublemaker of a father, Ace (Robert Preston), and his ambitious real estate-developer brother Curly (Joe Don Baker). Mom Elvira (Ida Lupino) is estranged from her husband. So while Ace dreams of finding his fortune in Australia, Junior is determined to conquer a tough bull named Sunshine by riding it for eight seconds. Can Junior claim victory over Sunshine and stay in the rodeo business?… Junior, you’re my brother, and I guess I love you. Well, we’re family. I don’t care what you do. You can sell one lot or a hundred lots. I’m just tryin’ to keep us together. Directed by Sam Peckinpah from a script by Jeb Rosebrook, this is a wonderful, warm, sympathetic portrait of a man having issues with ageing, returning home to a scrappy if welcoming family in a changing West and finally figuring out who he is. This is another Peckinpah film about the coming of modernity to the frontier and when we see The Wild Bunch embroidered on a suited-and-booted rider’s saddle blanket it’s just one thread of symbolic commentary in the bountiful narrative. There’s a great use of split-screen for the Prescott rodeo and the performances are memorable in an affecting, compelling film, probably Peckinpah’s most gentle outing with an undertow of violence beneath the gentility and quest for honour. McQueen is brilliant as the cowboy staking his claim. There’s one of him, and one of me

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

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I know a sure cure for a nosebleed: a cold knife in the middle of the back. A mysterious fellow, Tim Foster (Preston Foster) contacts a trio of criminals Pete, Boyd and Tony (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef) to help with a bank heist. The four wear masks and remain strangers to each other, planning to reunite in Mexico to divvy up the loot. Joe Rolfe (John Payne), a down on his luck former GI and ex-con trying to go straight that they framed to take the heat, gets his charges dropped, and the police offer him a reward if he can help recover the cash. But only after they beat up and torture him. He agrees, and when one of the thieves meets his end, Rolfe assumes his identity to catch the crooks… What’s waiting for you, Harris? The chair, the gas chamber, or just a rope? Like all good little noirs, there are lessons to be learned and a steep moral curve is there if you’re looking for it but mainly this is a well managed, pacy heist movie with bristling dialogue. Star Payne and director Phil Karlson did uncredited work on the sharp script attributed to Harold Green and Rowland Brown (story) and George Bruce and Harry Esssex (screenplay). Payne was once famed screenwriter Robert Towne’s father-in-law and had an interesting career, mainly a song and dance man and mostly famous for appearing in Miracle on 34th Street, but then becoming an interesting character actor. This particular production was part of a seven-picture deal with Pine-Thomas Productions to which he eventually obtained the rights. He had showed his dramatic chops paired with Claudette Colbert in Remember the Day and later in The Razor’s Edge and this particular cycle of action/crime films would conclude with Technicolor noir Slightly Scarlet. He then had his own western TV series, The Restless Gun, which ran for two seasons, in which daughter Julie appeared. Her daughter Katharine Towne is now an actress too, carrying on the family tradition. This is an effective thriller, briskly directed by Karlson and performed to the hilt by an ensemble to beat the band – some of those lowlifes are among my favourite character actors, with Coleen Gray and Dona Drake in nice supporting roles. The armoured car heist is superbly simply done in a tough as nails actioner that must have inspired Reservoir DogsIt don’t take no big thinking to figure a couple of guys like us ain’t in this bananaville on a vacation!

Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures (2004) (TVM)

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 It was such a time to be alive. You could be anything, and biology would do the rest. In 1962 an elderly Agatha Christie (Anna Massey) is attending a party at the theatre for a decade of The Mousetrap. Questions from journalists spur memories of 3 years ago when as a younger woman (Olivia Williams) attending a psychiatrist (Stephen Boxer) she is hypnotised into recalling why she disappeared four months earlier triggering a police search … Richard Curson Smith’s docudrama is based on the intriguing real-life case of the famous author’s apparent fugue state when she was located at a spa in Harrogate, having signed in under the name of the mother of her husband’s mistress. The title alludes to the means by which the doctor engages with Christie to start the story: as a young girl (Bonnie Wright) whose father’s death changes the family dynamic, particularly when her older sister marries. She has been haunted for years by a mysterious character whom she calls The Gunman and many men of her acquaintance transform into this figure when she is under stress. Her marriage to soldier Archie Christie (Raymond Coulthard) is met with disapproval by her mother, who encourages her to write. Her time nursing wounded soldiers introduces her to Belgian refugees, one of whom inspires Hercule Poirot and her first novel. She has few memories of times when she is happy, the catalysts for unhappiness make her focus on what may have occurred to prompt her flight – her discovery of her husband’s adultery with Nancy Neele, a secretary … The use of photos, pastiche photographic studios and fake home movies and newsreels gives this a patina of realism which is visually impressive. This is territory previously explored by the film Agatha and Kathleen Tynan’s book, and more recently in a faction novel by Andrew Wilson. Williams gets the lion’s share of the scenes, as a morose young woman who must confront her husband’s extra-marital liaison and his wish to end their union. Even her little daughter says it’s her mother that’s the problem. The older Christie is wiser and happier following a long marriage to a younger man, archaeologist Max Mallowan (Bertie Carvel) whose work on sites in Syria and Iraq literally takes Christie out of herself and England and also inspires some of her best books which she then produces annually. There’s a terrific scene when she comes up with the idea for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which is the book that made her know she was good. There are some technical issues with the sound mixing (you can hardly hear Massey, and some dialogue is drowned out with incidental music) but it’s a thorough and thoughtful account of an episode that’s as mysterious as any of Christie’s novels, supplying psychology to the central character in a way that the Queen of Crime disdained.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

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Get me a bottle of milk and some tranquilisers. Screenwriter Alun Owen and director Richard Lester’s semi-documentary, wholly New Wave account of a day in the life of the world’s biggest band works wonderfully.  Shot in glistening monochrome by the inventive Gilbert Taylor the Beatles are on a train with Paul’s bolshie Irish grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) who is ‘very clean,’ as everyone keeps remarking. Hounded by their fans, they are performing on a TV show directed by Victor Spinetti while their put-upon manager Norm (Norman Rossington) and road manager Shake (John Junkin) try to corral this travelling circus as Grandpa keeps going missing, showing up variously in a casino and a police station. Taylor and the five camera operators run around with Arriflexes capturing the minutiae of the band’s characters who are defined in smart exchanges and incidents, with wonderfully droll moments of mockery, self- and otherwise.  The resulting freedom accorded Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr adds to the sense of  naturalism and reality. The visual wit is complemented by the auditory, with overdubbing and non-synchronous sound combining to create an overwhelming atmosphere of effervescent fun and immediacy:  these guys are young and pulpy and enjoying their first brush with fame and their caustic, cheeky chappie Scouse personalities come across extraordinarily. That enjoyment wouldn’t last (see Ron Howard’s Eight Days a Week) but these indelible images contributed to their myth. You probably know the songs … Edited by John Jympson.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

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Let me give you some advice. Assume everyone will betray you. And you will never be disappointed. Scrumrat Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is separated from his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) on the planet Corellia and finds adventure when he joins a gang of galactic smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and career criminal Val (Thandie Newton) and including a 196-year-old furry Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Indebted to the gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) with whom Qi’ra has now thrown in her lot as a kept woman,  the crew devises a daring plan to travel to the mining planet Kessel to carry out a heist:  the booty is a batch of valuable coaxium, the kind of hyperfuel that gets the big bucks these days. In need of a fast ship, Solo meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the suave owner of the perfect vessel for the dangerous mission – the Millennium Falcon. As Qi’ra joins them on their mission, can she be trusted while a rebellion gets underway?… Let’s forget for a moment that Disney are all about squeezing the lemon dry.  The Star Wars Anthology Series continues with the most blatant sympathy plea ever:  the origins story behind Han and Chewie teaming up, sci fi’s most delectable meet cute.  In fact, tonally this has a lot in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark but then it was written by Lawrence Kasdan (working here with son Jonathan) who did Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders and The Force Awakens so we’re in good hands:  who knows Han better than this guy?! We find out how Han gets his name, how he and Chewie meet (cheers all round!), where he got the golden dice, how he meets dandyish smuggler Lando Calrissian (a welcome return albeit with Glover, who’s terrific) and in the other most anticipated meet cute – seeing the Millennium Falcon for the first time – and how he becomes its owner. Everything you really wanted to know, basically, is here in this SW primer, never mind the abortive milliennial trilogy. In fact this starts at a clip and mostly keeps it up in its own rackety style, with the literary names getting a payoff in a fight with a kind of sea monster out of Jules Verne: epic!  You’ll never mistake Ehrenreich for Solo (he looks too much like a young Orson Welles) but after a while you’ll take this on its own merits as he reluctantly discovers he’s not a complete rogue but a good guy against the background of a truly evil Empire. Interestingly for the principal female, Qi’ra is far from straightforward which will presumably lead us down some black holes in future outings even if Clarke is not convincing. If someone had never seen a Star Wars film (Heaven forfend) this would actually be a pretty good place to start even if I don’t always love it, neither the way it looks (too dirty and grey a lot of the time) nor the pace which doesn’t always maintain its consistency.  Never mind the box office, feel the wit. Directed (eventually) by Ron Howard.

Silent Running (1972)

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It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth… and there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in – you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air… and there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out in to space.  After the end of all botanical life on Earth, with all the flora and fauna destroyed and forests defoliated, ecologist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) maintains a greenhouse on a space station around the rings of Saturn in order to preserve various plants for future generations. Assisted by three robots (Huey, Dewey and Louie!) and a small human crew (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint), Lowell rebels when he is ordered to destroy the greenhouse in favor of carrying cargo.  The decision he takes puts him at odds with everyone but his robots and they are forced to do anything necessary to keep their invaluable greenery alive. But when he finds himself playing poker with his remaining robots he realises the desperation of loneliness and then his bosses locate him … This is one of a slew of environmentally conscious sci fis from the early 70s. It works because it asks the biggest question:  what do we mean in the universe? And it does so simply and without deep philosophical pondering, it’s just a guy in outer space who wants to save the world and realises he misses human companionship. Dern is superb as the uncomplicated man who tries to save himself. Written by Michael Cimino, Steve Bochco and Deric Washburn. The directing debut of 2001‘s effects guy, Douglas Trumbull:  when you see his charming robots you’ll know why he got a call from George Lucas for Star Wars. Ecological elegance.