Year of the Dragon (1985)

Only one Stanley White. Following the murders of Mafia and Triad leaders in NYC, Polish Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) takes it upon himself to bring down the Chinese organised crime gangs. He’s breaking the long held treaty to permit the Chinese to take care of things in Chinatown. This puts him in conflict with Tony Tai (John Lone) the ruthless leader of the organisation.  It pulls his life apart with his already crumbling childless marriage to nurse Connie (Caroline Kava) collapsing altogether when Stanley falls for the charms of ambitious journalist Tracy Tzu (Ariane). Now Tony has a major shipment coming in from Thailand and Stanley engages in wire tapping for information .. This is America and it’s two hundred years old and you need to change your clocks. This sprawling portrait of the gangs of New York was much misunderstood upon its release but it lays its cards on the table upfront: it’s all in the name (changed) because NYC’s most decorated cop is an unapologetic racist Nam vet and sexist to boot. He’s launching his own tong war. Naturally Rourke plays him as a total charmer and it works:  he has the aura of death about him, his hair is as white as his adopted name and everyone around him seems to get crushed.  As written by Oliver Stone and director Michael Cimino this adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel is remarkably discreet in some areas – and lurid in others. The major love scene between Stanley and Tracy is cleverly done as they tell each other how much they hate each other and then … Her big ‘angry’ scene when he’s moved his team into her preposterously huge loft is amusing because her acting is so poor, all stiff arms like an Irish dancer. Part of the film’s issue representationally is the obvious inexpressivity of the Chinese actors, a physical trait there’s no escaping. They make up for it by killing people. Their treatment historically in the US and their unequal immigrant experience is posited against Stanley’s veteran’s hangups, something that’s used against him.  He wants to sleep with a journalist while both he and Tony decry the media’s role in the portrayal of violence and the way ethnicity is covered. Therefore there is a balance established with Tony – that’s clever storytelling. Lone is super handsome, a great suave villain to play opposite.  The lean way in which the marital story is exposed is a good hook for Stanley’s humanity and it’s the dramatic crutch that assists the outcome. The intra-Asian racism is well dramatised and horrendously violent. Class is an issue that becomes an overriding theme. The whole thing looks incredible – shot by Alex Thomson on a set (by Wolf Kroeger and Victoria Paul) in North Carolina for NYC (except for the views from Tracy’s apartment at the top of the Clocktower Building giving a beguiling view of the city’s skyline).  There’s a fascinating and intricate score by David Mansfield with echoes of phrases from The Deer Hunter. That this is a disguised western is clarified in those final scenes on the railway track. And in this wonderful mesh of genre and tradition there is an honourable way out for one man. What a way to end. Amazingly the role of White (originally called Arthur Powers – but there’s a Stanley White credited as Police Consultant!) was intended for Clint Eastwood. Both he and Paul Newman turned it down. Just as well. Only one Mickey Rourke. He’s a good cop but he won’t stop

The Pledge (2001)

There can’t be such devils.  Veteran detective  Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) investigates the murder of a little girl in small-town Nevada just six hours before he’s officially retired.  He makes a pledge on a crucifix the dead girl made to her anguished mother (Patricia Clarkson) that he will catch the perpetrator. When the only suspect Native American Toby Jay Wadenah (Benicio del Toro) blows his head off in custody, Jerry sets off on his longed-for retirement fishing trip but TV coverage of the case affects him deeply and he moves into the neighbourhood buying a gas station where the killing occurred. When he begins a relationship with a waitress and mother Lori (Robin Wright) and gives a home to her and her young daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts) after she takes a beating from her ex, he has all the more reason to nail the killer – but by this time his colleagues reckon they have long since wrapped up an open-and-shut case.  The behaviour of a local Jesus freak Gary Jackson (Tom Noonan) causes Jerry to believe he might have solved not just the mystery death of the young girl the previous winter but the grisly crimes of a previously unnoticed serial killer and when Chrissy goes to meet a man she calls The Wizard Jerry decides to set a trap All at once you became like an animal. Nicholson’s heartbreaking performance, as the twice-divorced retired cop who might just find happiness late in life and solve the crimes of a serial killer, is everything in this meticulously staged murder mystery. The relationships are well observed, the contrast with blowhard ‘tec Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), the wonderfully observed eccentrics (Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke, Eileen Ryan, Vanessa Redgrave) who populate the ensemble, the visual tics and psychological hints at Nicholson’s state of mind, the clues, signs and portents which inflect the text. Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novella (adapted by Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski) was already transposed three times to both big and small screen but its tragic undertow is an understandable lure for someone like director Sean Penn, a performer who himself never shirks complex dramas. Nobody gets away with anything here – and it’s not a pretty picture and even Wright (Mrs Penn at the time) looks careworn with half a tooth missing. Far more than a police procedural, this is a deeply affecting, emotive exploration of loss and missed chances, with the revelations managed so very well.  It’s not just about the predilections of paedophiles but also about paying heed to small children and what they tell adults. The ending is just horrendous and Nicholson, reunited with Penn from The Crossing Guard, is just wonderful, a dedicated cop pursuing his suspicions to the very last. What a great performance. How could God be so greedy?

The Appaloosa (1966)

This horse ain’t for sale. Mexican-American buffalo hunter Matt Fletcher (Marlon Brando) returns home only to have his beloved horse stolen by a powerful bandit, Chuy Medena (John Saxon), ending his dream of owning a stud farm. Matt begins to hunt down the bandit to recapture the horse but finds matters more complicated than expected when he meets Chuy’s girlfriend Trini (Anjanette Comer) in the border town of Ojo Prieto. Trini was sold by her impoverished father to Chuy at the age of 15 but has been brutalised and discarded. Fletcher is subjected to torture and humiliation by Chuy and his gang. A foray into Medina’s camp results in a brutal arm wresting match in a bar between Fletcher and the bandido. Fletcher loses and is stung on the arm by a scorpion.  Fletcher is rescued by Trini, who despises Chuy. They get help from a kindly old peasant, which later costs the old man his life. Fletcher is then forced to choose between Trini and his beloved Appaloosa … Chuy’s not just one man – Chuy’s an army. Adapted from Robert McLeod’s novel by James Bridges and Roland Kibbee, this stately drama directed by Sidney Furie and lensed by Russell Metty retreads Brando’s slightly eccentric One-Eyed Jacks characterisation and blocks out the action with obvious obstacles forcing a psychological perspective in every scene. Pauline Kael may have christened it ‘a dog of a movie about a horse’ but it has other interesting qualities, not least in the performances, with Saxon a standout as the sadistic bandit and Comer (who would be in the later, fabulously perverse The Baby) offering wonderfully precise contrast to Brando’s masochistic rebel with a cause. And what about Mexico’s finest,  Emilio Fernandez as Lazaro and Alex Montoya as Squint Eye!  They sure had faces then. I don’t want no more trouble. I just want a peaceful life

 

Ordinary Love (2019)

How do you say to someone, Don’t die? Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) Thompson are a happy, long-married couple who enjoy a quiet life until she discovers a mass in her breast and makes an appointment to see a doctor who confirms she has a lump. When it is removed along with many lymph nodes she then proceeds to have chemotherapy. Her recovery is difficult and painful and she befriends the terminally ill teacher Peter (David Wilmot) of her late daughter. Her hair falls out, her temper frays and she and Tom have a major argument when she is at a low point and taunt each other.  They have a nice night together and make love before her double mastectomy. After Peter’s death they prepare for Christmas and decide to invite Peter’s boyfriend to join them … Putting sick people together:  how is that going to make anybody feel better? Even a marriage of kindness and vulnerability can hit a rocky patch. Facing up to a cancer diagnosis can bring out the worst in anyone, even briefly. Asking tough questions of a doctor when it’s not your illness makes you the rude guy; likening your bystander role to that of the person being mutilated and burned in operating theatres and treatment rooms makes you intolerable. For a while. This is also a story about bereavement and a Sixties Modernist house empty of personal touches because a child died, we’re not sure when. Even the goldfish dies. Death is contagious, it seems. And in the midst of that atmosphere somehow a marriage of true friends carries on, through hospital appointments, surgeries, horrific medical solutions and the deaths of other people in the ward. Manville and Neeson are tremendous in a subtle piece of writing by Owen McCafferty. Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn and filmed in Northern Ireland, with a score co-written by producer David Holmes.  A triumph of intimacy, in the best sense. You’d rather be worse than better

What a Way to Go! (1964)

What a Way to Go

You don’t need a psychiatrist, you need your head examined. Louisa May Foster (Shirley MacLaine), a widow four times over, donates $200 million to the Internal Revenue Service because all her four marriages end in her husbands’ deaths, leading her to believe that the money is cursed and she is a jinx when all she wanted to do was marry for love. She winds up on the couch of psychiatrist Dr. Victor Stephanson (Bob Cummings) who asks her what has led her to do something so crazy and Louisa recounts her life starting with her childhood when her hypocrite mother (Margaret Dumont) preached penury but actually wanted to be rich and berated her poor husband. Louisa dates the richest boy in town Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin) but prefers the little shopkeeper Edgar Hopper (Dick Van Dyke) from high school who refuses to sell out and they bond over Thoreau – until he feels guilty and ends up accumulating huge wealth from non-stop working until it kills him. Then she travels to Paris for the holiday they never took where she encounters part-time taxi driver and wannabe artist Larry Flint (Paul Newman) and inspires him to create moneymaking paintings using machines that respond to Mendelssohn and kill him. She meets maple syrup tycoon Rod Anderson Jr.(Robert Mitchum) who flies her to NYC on his private plane when she misses her flight home and they marry immediately. When he sells up and they retire to a farm he mistakes a bull for a cow in the milking parlour and winds up in a water trough. Dead. Louisa goes for a coffee in a diner and meets Pinky Benson (Gene Kelly) a performer who stars in a terrible dinner theatre production every night. When she persuades him to be himself the crowd loves him, he becomes a star and they go Hollywood where the fans love him to death and Dr. Stephanson hasn’t been listening for the last two husbands …  Every man whose life I touch withers. This Betty Comden and Adolph Greene screenplay (from a story by Gwen Davis) proves an astonishing showcase for MacLaine with the film within a film parodies punctuating each marriage providing a great opportunity to send up various moviemaking styles, including silent movies, foreign art films, a Lush Budgett!! spectacular, and culminating in a wonderful musical pastiche with Kelly.  It’s a total treat to see these famous dancers performing together (look quickly for Teri Garr in the background!). It’s a breezy soufflé of a movie and a distinct change of pace for director J. Lee Thompson who previously worked with Mitchum on the classic thriller Cape Fear. Very charming and funny with lots of good jokes about the American Dream, the art world, Hollywood and fame, and terrific production values. That’s Reginald Gardiner as the unfortunate who has to paint Pinky’s house … pink. A wonderful opportunity to see some of the top male stars of the era making fun of themselves. Perhaps what’s most astonishing is that this was supposed to star Marilyn Monroe until her shocking death and Pinky’s swimming pool is the one from the abandoned set of Something’s Got To Give.  Thompson and MacLaine would work again the following year on the Cold War spoof John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. Shot by Leon Shamroy, edited by Marjorie Fowler, costumes by Edith Head, jewellery by Harry Winston and score by Nelson Riddle. Money corrupts, art erupts

 

The End of the Affair (1955)

The End of the Affair 1955

Trust is a variable quality. London during World War 2. Novelist Maurice Bendrix (Van Johnson) meets Sarah Miles (Deborah Kerr) the wife of civil servant Henry Miles (Peter Cushing) at their sherry party. He is asking Henry for information to help with his next book. Maurice is intrigued by Sarah after he sees her kissing another man. They become lovers that night at his hotel. After his rooms are bombed when they are together there, she ends their relationship and he suffers from the delayed shock from the bombing and from her ending the affair. After their break-up and the end of the war, Bendrix encounters Henry, who invites him for a drink at his home, especially since Sarah is out.  Henry confides that he suspects Sarah is unfaithful and has looked into engaging a private investigator, but then decides against it. Sarah returns home before Bendrix leaves and is curt with him. Bendrix follows through with hiring a private detective agency on his own account. They come across information which suggests that Sarah is being unfaithful, which Bendrix shares with Henry in revenge. Bendrix then obtains Sarah’s diary via the private investigator Albert Parkis (John Mills) which reveals that Sarah is not having an affair and that she promised God to give Bendrix up if he was spared death in the bombing. Then they meet again … I’ve learned that you must pray like you make love – with everything you have. A deeply felt narrative revolving around love, sex and religious belief sounds like a melodramatic quagmire but Lenore Coffee’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1951 semi-autobiographical novel is a rich textured work with impressive performances by the entire cast. Kerr and Johnson might be perceived to be something of a mismatch but that’s the point of the story:  he is fated to forever misunderstand her and as he tries to navigate his way through her complex emotions and her deals with God, he responds with just one emotion – jealousy. His unruly misunderstanding in a world of good manners and looking the other way means he flails hopelessly while we are then persuaded of her beliefs via her diary, the contents of which dominate the film’s second half, leading him to regret his desire for revenge. Love doesn’t end just because we don’t see each other. The ensemble is well presented and their individual big moments are sketches of superb characterisation, Mills’ pride in his snooping a particular highlight. It’s extraordinarily well done, very touching and filled with moments of truth which never fail to hit home in a story that is cunningly managed and beautifully tempered with empathy. Kerr is simply great. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. The ‘not done’ things are done every day. I’ve done most of them myself

Beautiful But Dangerous (1954)

Beautiful But Dangerous

Aka She Couldn’t Say No. I do a lot of thinking when I’m driving and sometimes I just don’t notice small towns. Wealthy Corby Lane (Jean Simmons) returns to the American hamlet of Progress, Arkansas, whose residents had paid for a critical medical operation for her when she was a child. Now her father has died and she has returned from being educated in England, she decides to express her gratitude by giving them money anonymously but her goodwill bumps up against the homespun locals. The headstrong heiress clashes with the local doctor, Robert Sellers (Robert Mitchum), a confident type who foresees the resulting chaos and tries to woo her himself … I only got two ways of feeling. I either feel bad or I feel awful bad. A good cast wrestles with a dull script and the liveliest scenes are when Simmons goes fishing with little Jimmy Hunt who wises her up to the local scene. The score by Roy Webb fills in the gaps that the screenplay by D.D. Beauchamp & Williams Bowers and Richard Flournoy doesn’t reach. Lloyd Bacon’s final film. Is there anyone you’d care to marry?

 

Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (1957)

Shoot Out at Medicine Bend

Aka The Marshal of Independence. Thee has to talk like them and don’t forget it. Captain Buck Devlin (Randolph Scott) and cavalry troopers Sergeant John Maitland James Garner) and Private Wilbur Clegg (Gordon Jones) all recently mustered out of the army, head to Devlin’s brother’s homestead to settle down and arrive just in time to drive off an Indian attack but just too late to save his brother. Faulty ammunition cost him his life. The three men set out for Medicine Bend to find out who sold the ammunition. The community also gives them all their funds to buy badly needed supplies. On the way however, they are robbed of everything – the money, their horses, even their uniforms. Fortunately, they happen upon a local church (who have also been robbed), and are given spare clothing. Devlin decides it would be a good idea to pretend to be Brethren while in town. They quickly connect the robbers, and later the defective ammunition, to Ep Clark (James Craig). Clark controls the mayor and the sheriff, and has his gang attack wagon trains of pioneers heading west and forces other local traders out of business. The men are up against it in their pursuit of the ruthless town boss … I prefer sour ‘bosom.’ It’s more refined. Directed by Richard Bare and amusingly written by John Tucker Battle and D.D. Beauchamp, this is standard western fare but it’s more fun than most with our leads gussied up as Quakers sorting out the decent wheat from the villainous chaff and doing the Robin Hood act.  Probably the only film you’ll ever see where that peaceable bunch do the necessary to end violence and it is of course interesting to watch Scott fulfill his contract at Warner Brothers while independently making classics of the genre under his own banner elsewhere. Garner says of the experience in his memoir, “It was always fun working with Dick Bare, and Randy Scott was an old pro, but the movie isn’t worth a damn. I was under contract, so I had to do what they put in front of me.” Angie Dickinson has a nice role as the storekeeper’s niece who is of course Scott’s love interest while Dani Crayne sings Kiss Me Quick in the saloon earning Garner’s attention. The title tells you all about how it ends. Get his partner. Give ’em a fair trial. Then hang ’em!

Wings of Desire (1987)

Wings of Desire UK

Aka  Der Himmel Über Berlin / The Heaven Over Berlin / The Sky Over Berlin. Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun just a dream? Isn’t what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world? Two angels, kindred spirits Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), glide through the streets of Berlin, observing the bustling population, providing invisible rays of hope to the distressed but never interacting with them. They are only visible to children and other people who like them. When Damiel falls in love with wistful lonely trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin) whose circus has closed due to financial problems, he tires of his surveillance job and longs to experience life in the physical world. With words of wisdom from actor Peter Falk (playing himself) performing in a WW2 thriller whose cast and crew the angels are observing – he believes it might be possible for him to take human form and enter history ... We are now the times. Not only the whole town – the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are now more than us two. We incarnate something. We’re representing the people now. And the whole place is full of those who are dreaming the same dream. We are deciding everyone’s game. I am ready. Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your handThis beautiful benign allegory of the divided city of Berlin is of course clear to anyone familiar with the practices of the Stasi, who deployed one half of the East German population to spy on the other half:  when the Wall came down and the files were opened families and friendships were torn asunder. However a few years before that occurred, director Wim Wenders plugs into the nightmare of watching and being watched and makes it into a surreal dream in this romantic fantasy. I can’t see you but I know you’re here. It’s verging on noir with its portrait of a place riven by war and totalitarian rule, its acknowledging of the Holocaust and the overview of the Wall snaking through a post-war world. You can’t get lost. You always end up at the Wall.  A poetic film that’s so much of its time yet its yearning humanity is palpable, its message one of eternal hope. Shot in stunning monochrome by Henri Alekan, brought out of retirement and for whom the circus is named. I’m taking the plunge. Written by Peter Handke, for all the fallen angels on the outside looking in. Co-written by Wenders with additions by Richard Reitinger, loosely inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems. An exquisite city symphony that insists on the disrupting of image making, bearing witness, choosing life. With Curt Bois as Homer and Crime and the City Solution and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform.  Must I give up now? If I do give up, then mankind will lose its storyteller. And if mankind once loses its storyteller, then it will lose its childhood

The Longest Day (1962)

The Longest Day theatrical

Tonight. I know it’s tonight. In the days leading up to D-Day, 6th June 1944, concentrating on events on both sides of the English Channel the Allies wait for a break in the poor weather while anticipating the reaction of the Axis forces defending northern France which they plan to invade at Normandy. As Supreme Commander of Supreme Headquarters of Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (Henry Grace) makes the decision to go after reviewing the initial bad weather reports and the reports about the divisions within the German High Command as to where an invasion might happen and what should be their response as the Allies have made fake preparations for Operation Fortitude, to take place in a quite different landing position:  are the Germans fooled? Allied airborne troops land inland.The French Resistance react. British gliders secure Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal. American paratroopers launch counter-attacks at Manche in Normandy. The Resistance carries out sabotage and infiltrate the German ranks. The Wehrmacht responds ….  He’s dead. I’m crippled. You’re lost. Do you suppose it’s always like that? I mean war. Funny, intense, jaw-dropping in scale, this landmark war epic produced by D-Day veteran Darryl F. Zanuck, whose dream project this was, is a 6th June commemoration like no other, a tribute to the armed forces who launched the magnificent amphibian assault. The screenplay is by Cornelius Ryan (who did not get along with DFZ) who was adapting his 1959 non-fiction book, with additional scenes written by novelists Romain Gary and James Jones, and David Pursall & Jack Seddon. DFZ knew the difficulties of such a mammoth undertaking which included eight battle scenes and hired directors from each of the major participating countries/regions: Ken Annakin directed the British and French exteriors, with Gerd Oswald the uncredited director of the Sainte-Marie-Église parachute drop sequence; while the American exteriors were directed by Andrew Marton; and Austria’s Bernhard Wicki shot the German scenes. Zanuck himself shot some pick ups. There are cameos by the major actors of the era, some of whom actually participated in the events depicted: Irish-born Richard Todd plays Major Howard of D Company and he really was at Pegasus Bridge and is wearing his own beret from the event; Leo Genn plays Major-General Hollander of SHAEF; Kenneth More is Acting Captain Colin Maud of the Royal Navy at Juno Beach and is carrying his shillelagh; Rod Steiger plays Lt. Commander Joseph Witherow Jr., Commander of the USS Satterlee; Eddie Albert is Colonel Lloyd Thompson, ADC to General Norman Cota (Robert Mitchum) of the Fighting 29th Infantry Division; Henry Fonda plays Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Assistant Commander of the 4th Infantry Division. The all-star cast also includes John Wayne (replacing Charlton Heston), Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Mel Ferrer, Tom Tryon, Stuart Whitman, George Segal, Jeffrey Hunter (who’s probably got the best role), Sal Mineo, Robert Wagner; Peter Lawford, Richard Burton and Roddy McDowall (who both volunteered to appear for nothing out of boredom on the Cleopatra set in Rome), Sean Connery,  Leslie Phillips, Frank Finlay; Christian Marquand, Georges Wilson (Lambert’s dad), Bourvil, Jean-Louis Barrault, Arletty;  Paul Hartmann, Werner Hinz (as Rommel), Curd Jürgens, Walter Gotell, Peter van Eyck, Gert Fröbe, Dietmar Schönherr. An astonishing lineup in a production which does not shirk the horrors of war, the number of casualties or the overwhelming noise of terror. It’s a stunning achievement, measured and wonderfully realistically staged with the co-operation of all the forces organised by producer Frank McCarthy who worked at the US Department of War during WW2.  The key scene-sequences are the parachute drop into Sainte-Mère-Église; the advance from the Normandy beaches; the U.S. Ranger Assault Group’s assault on the Pointe du Hoc; the attack on the town of Ouistreham by Free French Forces; and the strafing of the beaches by the only two Luftwaffe pilots in the area. The vastness of the project inevitably means there are flaws:  where’s the point of view? Where are the Canadians?! But it is a majestic reconstruction made at the height of the Cold War of one of the biggest events of the twentieth century. Or, as Basil Fawlty said before he was muzzled by the BBC yesterday, Don’t Mention The War. Yeah, right. Or maybe do like Hitler did – take a sleeping pill and pretend it’s not happening. Thank God for common sense, great soldiers and DFZ, come to think of it. Spectacular.  You remember it. Remember every bit of it, ’cause we are on the eve of a day that people are going to talk about long after we are dead and gone