The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

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Otley (1968)

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If they are the cowboys we’re supposed to be the Indians. Gerald Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) is a petty crook and wannabe antique dealer mistaken for a British secret agent when he sleeps on a couch belonging to his friend Eric Lambert (Edward Hardwicke) who’s really a suspected influence pedlar and document smuggler and who is found murdered while Otley wakes up two days on the runway at Gatwick. Otley trails double agents and double martinis at a posh cocktail party before discovering the villains have the cooperation of top government officials. He’s pegged to pose as a possible defector to oust the criminal mastermind who plans to sell stolen documents vital to national security to any enemy agent with the most money. British secret agent Imogen (Romy Schneider) first has Otley beaten up by her thugs before combining forces to go after the real villains …  I was last year’s winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Award for Lethargy. Directed by Dick Clement and co-written with his regular collaborator Ian La Frenais, this adaptation of a novel by Northern Irish author Martin Waddell is funny and characterful, laced with real wit and a bright British cast including James Bolam (from Clement and La Frenais’ The Likely Lads), Alan Badel as MI5 overlord Hadrian, James Villiers as the resurrecting spy Hendrickson, Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mum and you can see the shared mannerisms), Geoffrey Bayldon as a police superintendent, Freddie Jones as an epicene gallerist, the dulcet tones of radio DJs Pete Murray and Jimmy Young, and Leonard Rossiter – as a hitman! Great mileage is got out of the mistaken identity scenario, everyone changing sides constantly, with Courtenay wonderfully charismatic as the feckless cheeky chappie protagonist street trader in way over his head between teams of rival spies who believe everyone has a price, while Schneider has fun as the perky intelligence agent. With fantastic location shooting (by Austin Dempster), the action scenes are atypical of the spy genre although the golf course sequence will remind you of a certain Bond movie, a titles sequence in Portobello Road market shows uncooperative shoppers staring into the camera as it tracks back from Courtenay strolling among the stalls and shops, there’s a rumble among the houseboats at Cheyne Walk, a sequence at the Playboy Club and a disastrous driving test that turns into a nutty car chase. This comic approach to the wrong man spy thriller is uniquely entertaining. Damian Harris, Robin Askwith and Kenneth Cranham play kids and the music and theme song are by Stanley Myers. I’m Gerard Arthur Otley and I’ve had enough

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

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They told me I’d have control over it but they lied. Fired from the National Security Agency, Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) recruits infamous computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) to steal FireWall, a computer programme he has created that can access codes for nuclear weapons worldwide and he wants to disable it before it falls into the wrong hands. The download soon draws attention from an NSA agent Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) who traces the activity to Stockholm where he’s warned off interfering on arrival by Gabriella Grane (Synnove Macody Lund) deputy director of the Swedish Security Service. Further problems arise when Russian thugs take Lisbeth’s laptop and kidnap a math whiz who can make FireWall work. When Frans is murdered and his young autistic son August (Christopher Convery) is kidnapped Lisbeth must race against time to save the boy and recover the codes to avert disaster but a series of violent obstacles lead her to ask journalist ally Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) for help and he understands that the roots of her problem lie within her own family and the sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks) whom she says is dead I think you are scared of what would become of Mikael Blomkvist if there was no Lisabeth Salander. It’s not really about Mikael, actually, because it’s about family and the violence within and what Lisbeth left behind. Adapted by director Fede Álvarez, Steven Knight and Jay Basu from the eponymous novel by David Lagercrantz, a sequel to the Millennium Trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson, this forms a sequel of sorts to David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo whose audience reception apparently caused him to lose interest in continuing the series and there’s a total change in casting and emphasis. It starts with a flashback to sex abuse in Lisbeth’s family, with a pervert father and an abused sister who cannot reconcile Lisbeth’s crusade against men who harm women:  Lisbeth left her behind and Camilla has pursued her father’s career with Russian gangsters. The jeopardy with the kidnapping of August produces emotional resonance but everything else is rather by the numbers considering the depth of backstory and Foy’s performance, supplanting earrings with characterisation in what is a kind of origin story. The sisters’ face off (literally – involving S&M and stopping Lisbeth breathe) is one of the film’s highlights, another is a motorcycle escape across an icy Swedish lake and there’s a nice turnaround featuring techie expert Plague (Cameron Britton) working in cahoots with Edwin, but otherwise it’s quite a muted and unenergetic thriller with a rather silly plot, seemingly shot in Stockholm’s yellowy grey mornings at dawn, and not exactly an advert for the tourism business.  I bet you can’t wait to write a story about all this

Harper (1966)

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Why so fast, Harper? You trying to impress me? Struggling private eye Lew Harper (Paul Newman) takes a simple missing-person case that quickly spirals into something much more complex. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), recently paralysed in a horse-riding accident, wants Harper to find her missing oil baron husband Ralph, but her tempestuous teenage stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) thinks Mrs. Sampson knows more than she’s letting on… The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise. Brilliantly adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 mystery The Moving Target featuring private eye Archer, renamed here because Newman believed the letter ‘H’ to be lucky following Hud and The Hustler. With that team you know it’s filled with zingers, like, Kinky is British for weird. Macdonald’s roots in the post-war noir world are called up in the casting of Bacall, who reminds us that it was The Big Sleep, among other films based on books by the great Raymond Chandler, that brought this style into being. Of course Macdonald’s own interpretation is consciously more mythical than the prototypical Chandler’s, with allusions to Greek tragedy in its familial iterations but it continues in that vein of a ferociously stylish, ironic, delightfully cool appraisal of California’s upper class denizens and their intractable problems. Newman is perfectly cast as a kind of wandering conscience with problems of his own, while Janet Leigh as his ex-wife, Robert Wagner as a playboy, Julie Harris as a junkie musician, Shelley Winters as a faded movie star, Robert Webber as her criminal husband and Albert Hill as a lovelorn lawyer, all add wonderful details to this portrait of a social clique. A flavoursome, perfectly pitched entertainment with lovely widescreen cinematography by Conrad Hall and oh so wittily and precisely staged by director Jack Smight, underscored by the smooth Sixties jazz orchestrations of Johnny Mandel with an original song by Dory and Andre Previn. I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test

The MacKintosh Man (1973)

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Put a bag over my head. I’ve been in prison for 15 months! Secret agent Joseph Rearden (Paul Newman) poses as an Australian jewel thief and is quickly convicted of stealing £140,000 of diamonds and imprisoned in order to infiltrate an organisation headed by Home Secretary Sir George Wheeler (James Mason) who organises Rearden’s escape along with that of MI6 intelligence officer Slade (Ian Bannen) who was gaoled as a Soviet mole … I don’t know about you, Slade; I’m not ready for death. The rest I’ll drink to. Adapted by Walter Hill (along with director John Huston and William Fairchild) from Desmond Bagley’s The Freedom Trap, this starts out quietly and continues that way for some time – tricking the susceptible viewer into believing that Rearden himself has been tricked by MI6 into taking the fall for a jewel heist and for more than a half hour it’s a prison movie. However the sleight of hand is revealed as it becomes clear Rearden has gone into deep cover to smoke out a dangerous organisation in this Cold War tale. Of course you will recognise the contours of the real-life story of George Blake, whose daring prison escape is the stuff of legend. For an action film and spy thriller this is a work of smooth surfaces and understated performances, especially by Newman, enhanced by the cinematography of the great Oswald Morris and a beautiful score by Maurice Jarre. The locations around Galway – Oranmore and Roundstone – were local to director Huston who spent much of the Fifties onwards at his house St Cleran’s. The palpable anger and keen sense of duty comes in fits and starts, usually at the conclusion of realistically staged action sequences, including a chase across an Irish bog and using banged up cars rather than Aston Martins. There are also some small gems of supporting appearances – Leo Genn as prosecuting counsel, Jenny Runacre as Gerda the nurse, Noel Purcell and Donal McCann in the Irish scenes. There are also scenes of misogyny and violence (even against a dog) that might shock in this more politically even-handed climate. The strangest character Mrs Smith, played by Une femme douce herself Dominique Sanda, gets an incredible payoff.  You might even say she has the last word. The cool, straightforward approach to treachery, duplicity in the modern state and something of a twist ending just raises more questions, making this a palpable pleasure, a film which tells one simple truth – trust nobody. Produced by John Foreman who had a company first with Newman and then made a cycle of films with Huston. Our deaths would mean little or nothing to anyone, anywhere – only to ourselves

Seven Days to Noon (1950)

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When I was young I saw science as a means of serving God and my fellow men. When Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones) becomes wary of the nuclear weapons he is helping build, he steals a warhead and writes a letter to the Prime Minister threatening to detonate it in London in one week unless the government begins nuclear disarmament. As Willingdon goes into hiding in various locations around London, Detective Folland (Andre Morell) of Scotland Yard sets out to find him using all the resources at his disposal. Willingdon’s daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) also joins the cause, hoping she can talk sense into her father before he causes a catastrophe but the Government decides evacuating the capital city is the only answer as time runs out and Willingdon takes up with an unwitting actress (Olive Sloane) when he needs a place to overnight … London – she’ll either make you or break you, isn’t that what they always say? Co-director Roy Boulting and Frank Harvey wrote the screenplay from an original story by Paul Dehn and James Bernard. From the cracking titles sequence to the wonderfully shot panoramas by Gilbert Taylor, we are taken on a grand tour of London from massage parlours, boarding houses and pubs, through the Underground and to the British Museum, the BBC and 10 Downing Street. The eerie silence of the streets when the trains leave the city is positively terrifying. When did you ever think you’d hear the words, Advancing into Belgravia?!  An absolutely cracking blackmail thriller about doomsday whose moral grip is intensified by the bristling inventive score from John Addison, that genius composer whose work we love so much. Directed by the Boulting Brothers. Repressing of fear is like trying to hold down the lid of a boiling kettle. Something’s got to give eventually

Clockwise (1986)

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The first step to knowing who you are is knowing where you are and when you are. Comprehensive school headmaster Brian Stimpson (John Cleese) is obsessed with timeliness, order and discipline. He tends to add the word ‘Right’ to everything he says, which inadvertently gives people misdirections and wrong impressions.  After meticulously preparing a speech for a Headmasters’ conference, Brian misses his train. With no one else to turn to, he asks student Laura Wisely (Sharon Maiden) for a lift to Norwich. Laura, upset over a break-up with what turns out to be a married colleague of Brian’s, impulsively agrees to drive him in her parents’ car – which alarms her mother (Pat Keen) and father (Geoffrey Hutchings), who worry that she has run away with a married man so they alert the police. Brian and Laura forget to pay for petrol; crash into a squad car; run into an old college friend of Brian’s (Penelope Wilton) who gets the impression that Brian is having an affair with this schoolgirl; get stuck in the mud; and then find themselves in a monastery – all the while unaware that a growing number of people are chasing them who wind up at the conference long before Brian ever manages to get there … We can’t go forwards so we’ll go backwards instead. Novelist and playwright Michael Frayn wrote this on spec as an experiment in screenwriting and John Cleese agreed to it the moment his agent sent it to him. In his tour de force performance of a man gradually unravelling as his scheme is destroyed by one simple mistake, you can see that it’s a perfect fit for the man who made Basil Fawlty part of the lexicon. Mild-mannered English comedy it may be but at times it’s supremely funny and as well constructed as, well, a clock. Superb support from Alison Steadman as his disbelieving wife, Maiden as the worldly sixth-former eager to use her study period on an away day to make her lover jealous, and a cast of more or less familiar faces, all winding Brian up even while he tries to re-run that all-important speech in his head. Highly amusing. Directed by Christopher Morahan. It’s not the despair. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope

Bande a Part (1964)

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Aka Band of OutsidersA Who-Dunit, Who’s Got-It, Where-Is-It-Now Wild One From That “Breathless” director Jean-Luc Godard!  Smalltime crooks and cinéphile slackers Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) spend their days mimicking the antiheroes of Hollywood noirs and Westerns while pursuing the lovely Odile (Anna Karina) whom they meet at English class. The misfit trio upends convention at every turn, through choreographed dances in cafés or frolicsome romps through the Louvre trying to set a record for fastest circumnavigation. Eventually, their romantic view of outlaws pushes them to plan their own heist, but their inexperience may send them out in a blaze of glory – just like their B-movie heroes … Isn’t it strange how people never form a whole?Ostensibly an adaptation of a novel called Fool’s Gold by Dorothy Hitchens, that’s just a skeleton on which the mischievous Jean-Luc Godard drapes his love and admiration of Hollywood genres (and Karina) over a series of apparently improvised riffs in this lightly constructed charmer. A few clues for latecomers: Several weeks ago… A pile of money… An English class… A house by the river… A romantic young girl... It’s a splendidly rackety affair, with several standout scenes providing the postmodern matrix for much of pop culture (and a name for Quentin Tarantino’s production company). It’s Godard at his most playful, joyous and audience-pleasing, exploring what it’s like to not want to grow up and how it’s always possible to have fun with like-minded people. Then, you go a little too far and someone goes and spoils it all for everyone. Maybe. Sheer pleasure. Godard said of the dance scene: “Alice in Wonderland as re-choreographed by Kafka”. A minute of silence can last a long time… a whole eternity

Black ’47 (2018)

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Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan. Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) is an Irish Ranger returning to Connemara from the British Empire’s war in Afghanistan to discover his family home destroyed like that of other tenant farmers and everyone dead from starvation, his brother having been hanged for stabbing the bailiff during the family’s eviction. He stays with his brother’s widow Ellie (Sarah Greene) and her children in the property where they’re squatting, making plans for everyone to emigrate to America, until the Anglo-Irish landlord sends in the bailiffs to remove them and Feeney’s nephew is killed.  Feeney is taken away for questioning and burns down the barracks. He returns to find Ellie and her daughter dead from exposure and swears revenge but murderous British Army vet and RIC officer Hannah (Hugo Weaving) is ordered along with Colonel Pope (Freddie Fox) to apprehend him.  Hannah and Feeney served together in Afghanistan and it transpires that Feeney is a deserter but Hannah acknowledges that his former colleague is the best soldier he ever met.  Hannah’s wiles are tested when Feeney goes on the run leaving a trail of grisly destruction behind him and when they encounter Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent) they find they are the ones being chased … The peasants are all the same. No appreciation of beauty.  Described elsewhere as a revenge western, this is a generically apposite form for a story that seeks to describe the psychological wound and schematic genocide caused by the famine enforced by British occupying powers in Ireland 170 years ago as well as delivering a revisionist resistance punch to the oppressors in entertaining fashion. We see the bodies dead from starvation mounting up in corners; food is held under armed guard before being exported to Britain;  we understand that the term ‘taking the soup’ derives from people who really were served broth to convert to Protestantism in a countrywide evangelical drive.  The Famine has featured recently in British TV series Victoria but this is the first time it’s been properly dramatised on the big screen, a strange fate for such a significant disaster that lives as trauma in the folk memory. The title is based on this fact:  in 1847 4,000 ships exported food from Ireland while 400,000 Irish men women and children starved to death during a blight on the potato crop which was their sole food.  The disease affected whole swathes of Europe but Ireland’s position was far worse than that of other countries due to the geographical island location and the British occupation. Taking the action movie approach to this emotive history is smart because it immediately personalises the motivation in an easily digestible narrative that fulfills a kind of empathetic nationalist fantasy about a horrific political crime. While it mostly moves like the clappers in several action sequences, there are almost surreal expressions of violence. There are two rather irksome elements:  the decision to use subtitles that bob about distractingly all over the image; and the failure to engage a major Irish star in the lead. This may seem like cavil but Frecheville’s dour expression isn’t assisted either by a huge ginger beard that wouldn’t look out of place on Santa Claus and camouflages him. And it’s an odd choice in a film that is ultimately speaking an historical truth to power when your protagonist is Australian, no matter how good Frecheville is in the Clint Eastwood role, the ranger turncoat; but Stephen Rea does his usual thing as tracker/guide Conneely, while rising stars Barry Keoghan and Moe Dunford get extremely good supporting parts; and Broadbent is brutally effective as the vicious absentee landlord inspired by an ancestor of the notorious Lord Lucan. Weaving is typically good and the ending at a crossroads is apt for a story rooted in a nation permanently playing both ends against the middle with tragic outcomes. It’s not perfect but it’s gripping and who ever knew there were so many shades of grey before Declan Quinn photographed those Galway skies?! Some compositions could be out of a Paul Henry painting. Adapted by P.J. Dillon and Pierce Ryan from their short film An Ranger with further writing from director Lance Daly and Eugene O’Brien. Everyone’s starving and they’re putting food on boats

The Goonies (1985)

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Kids suck.  A band of adventurous kids from the Goon Docks in Astoria Oregon take on the might of a property developing company which plans to destroy their home to build a country club. When the children discover an old pirate map in the attic of Mikey (Sean Astin) and Brandon (Josh Brolin) Walsh, the brothers and their friends Mouth (Corey Feldman), Data (Ke Huy Quan) and Chunk (Josh Cohen) follow it into an underground cavern in search of lost treasure but come up against plenty of dangerous obstacles along the way as a dangerous gang of criminals, the Fratellis, Mama (Anne Ramsay) and her sons (Robert Davi and Joey Pantoliano) have the treasure in their sights You’re in the clouds – we are in a basement.  Steven Spielberg wrote the story and produced, Chris Columbus did the screenplay and Richard (Superman) Donner directed. You want pirates? Treasure? Storytelling? And kids trying to save their home? Here it is. The classic 80s kiddie film gets a re-release and if it has all these great things it also has flaws, principally the screamfest style that irritated me in the first place. Will they ever just … shut up?! There are too many kids too but if there were any fewer we wouldn’t have the girls and no awkward and possibly inappropriate romantic moments. Ramsay is her hatchet-faced best as the crooked mama and there is even a guy who looks like Stephen King (Keith Walker) cast as the father of Brolin and Astin because if there’s something this resembles in an homage assemblage it’s It – but also the Our Gang movies, Ealing comedy and Spielberg’s own oeuvre, particularly the Indiana Jones films (and Quan is a veteran of Temple of Doom) and kids on bikes, single moms and absent dads. The score by the prolific Dave Grusin (whom I more or less just about tolerate by and large) actually manages Steineresque heights in the piratey last sequences (there’s a clip from Captain Blood on the TV) and there is terrific production design by J. Michael Riva, the late grandson of screen goddess Marlene Dietrich. When Astin finally meets One-Eyed Willy – well, it works for me. It’s notable for a performance by NFL star John Matuszak as the Fratelli’s deformed brother who Cohen befriends. All well and good  – but does everyone absolutely positively have to be so loud?! I mean you, Josh Cohen! He’s just like his father