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.

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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.

Paint Your Wagon (1969)

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As a small child I loved hearing a single my dad had called Wand’rin’ Star with no clue that it came from a musical comedy western starring Lee Marvin. This tale of gold claims in northern California back in the day was destroyed by critics – see a bandwagon, jump on it, seems to me. Yet it’s a wildly enjoyable story of Ben Rumson (Marvin) rescuing Pardner (Clint Eastwood) and they end up setting up home together with Mormon refugee Jean Seberg in No-Name City:  population male. After escorting French prostitutes and setting up a whorehouse to establish the place as a boom town, they realise they could get rich from the gold dust falling through the cracks of the town’s buildings so they set about digging a tunnel …Paddy Chayefsky adapted the 1951 Lerner and Loewe stage hit and it had several new songs written by Andre Previn to augment the score. It was directed – surprisingly – by Josh Logan. The only real singer in the cast is Harve Presnell as Rotten Luck Willie but that’s not to say that Eastwood’s I Talk to the Trees isn’t memorable! Seberg fell hard for Eastwood on the location shoot and ended her marriage in the belief that they were a serious couple. When they moved to LA for the studio scenes he acted like he didn’t know her. But as far as this is concerned, Marvin is the whole show.

The War Wagon (1967)

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Burt Kennedy is a fairly unusual figure in western movie history – a gifted screenwriter who became a very interesting filmmaker specialising in humorous genre workouts, brilliant at managing and sustaining a mocking tone and creating quite original roles for women.  He didn’t exactly turn western tropes inside out but he was very good at playing with characters and situations in tongue-in-cheek fashion to subtly question their generic arrangement. Clair Huffaker adapted his novel Badman for this parodic outing. John Wayne produced it through his own company, Batjac, and rumours persist that he didn’t much like the end result. He teams up with Kirk Douglas, former gun for hire to villain Bruce Cabot, who ensured Wayne was put in prison for 3 years and took his land which has been a literal goldmine. Wayne wants to carry out a heist on the titular wagon of gold which is armed with a Gatling gun so he assembles a motley crew and intends an explosive takeover. Naturally, there are complications. The fun en route includes a great barroom brawl involving wisecracking cardshark Indian, Howard Keel; and there’s a nice turn from Joanna Barnes (almost the wicked stepmom in The Parent Trap) as poker dealer Lola.  Wayne and Douglas make a good, edgy buddy team and there’s always a fear that they’ll wind up killing each other as they trade taunts about guns and gals. They had previously starred together in Cast a Giant Shadow and In Harm’s Way. Some reference guides list Robert Walker in the talented ensemble but as he’d been killed by his psychiatrist 15 years earlier, it’s actually his lookalike son, Robert Walker Jr.  Good,laid back, funny actioner.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

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It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled;  good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now. An Irish lad on the make in eighteenth century English society. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s everything. Adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon, this is Stanley Kubrick’s most sumptuous production and my own favourite among his films (that poster dominates my dining room) and close to being my all-time favourite movie. Rarely appreciated, Ryan O’Neal is just perfect and wholly sympathetic in the role of the impoverished and ambitious social-climbing soldier who romances a wealthy widow. The candlelit interiors, the narration, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the performances – with so many striking cameos – all combine to create an incredible sensory achievement. Much misunderstood over the years, this was re-released to the big screen over the past year to fresh appreciation. It is stunning and enriching, in ways you have to see to believe.

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.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

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Halfway through the twentieth century came another excoriating portrait of life behind the gates in the mansions of Hollywood stars and a glimpse into the dog days of the jobbing screenwriter. When Joe Gillis (William Holden) finds himself in the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) little does he imagine that he will become a pawn in her deluded plans for a comeback and wind up face down in her swimming pool (the film is narrated by his corpse.) A stunning conceit, brilliantly executed, and made by Billy Wilder with regular co-writer and producer Charles Brackett, this is cinematic navel-gazing at its finest by one of its best teams, including Holden, who appeared regularly for Wilder, and Swanson, who was barely 50 yet her glory days were decades behind her.  Erich Von Stroheim, one of her former directors, appears here as her butler, and former director, shielding her from the reality she can no longer face. The film is 65 years old today. Happy Birthday!