Mysterious Island (1961)

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Why don’t we turn this island into a democracy and elect a leader? During the Civil War, a group of soldiers led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) escape a Confederate prison siege using an observation balloon, and due to a storm that lasts four days and pitches them off course, are forced to land on a strange island that is full of tropical jungles and volcanoes. They are confronted by giant mutated animals, find two Englishwomen, Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece Elena (Beth Rogan) washed up from a shipwreck, fight marauding pirates and are then confronted by the infamous Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) whose submarine the Nautilus was feared lost off Mexico eight years previously. They need to escape and that volcano is rumbling but will Nemo assist them using his engineering genius? … We lived like primitive men using primitive implements. The followup to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea doesn’t start particularly promisingly – the escape from the Confederate prison isn’t very well handled by director Cy Endfield, not the first name you’d come up with for an effects-laden juvenile fantasy flick taken from Jules Verne’s two-part novel. However when the action kicks in on the island and the Ray Harryhausen effects interplay with the threat of a volcano about to blow and those sheer painted backdrops hint at disaster, well, it finally gets interesting. Everything is punctuated by regular run-ins with those giant creatures who are the result of Nemo’s horticultural physics experiments. The laughs come courtesy of war journo Gideon Spilitt (Gary Merrill) who has an ongoing run of food jokes: I wonder how long this will take to cook in a slow oven, he deadpans about the giant chicken they believe they’ve killed; turns out Nemo shot it. The cast is excellent although Craig doesn’t set the screen alight and it’s great to see Lom doing his Nemo:  he’s a misunderstood guy who just wants to stop the causes of war. Rogan and Michael Callan get to do a bit of romancing before being sealed into a giant honeycomb; while Percy Herbert and Dan Jackson bring up the rear. The whole shebang is carried by Bernard Herrmann’s sonorous score, booming from the screen as surely as those explosives. From a screenplay by Crane Wilbur, Daniel B. Ullman and John Prebble. Shot at Shepperton Studios and on location in Catalonia. A man could write an inspired novel in a place like this

Arizona (1940)

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Did you ever see a man’s stomach tore open by a shotgun? Phoebe Titus (Jean Arthur) is the only woman in 1861 Tucson, Arizona and after falling for Peter Muncie (William Holden) who’s passing through, offers him a job in the freight company she’s just set up with Solomon Warner (Paul Harvey) the local storekeeper but he wants to see California and promises to return. Then charming southern dandy Jefferson Carteret (Warren William) shows up as the Civil War breaks out and coerces Phoebe’s main competitor Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall) into joining in with undermining her business while pretending to be her friend. He bribes local Indians to attack her wagon supply and meantime the Confederate troops secure local allegiance but are called away and Tucson is in trouble when Peter shows up with Union soldiers …  Gets on my dander how a doggone war interferes with the plans of people who want to mind their own business. Adapted by Claude Binyon (better known for romcoms and musicals) from the 1939 Clarence Budington Kelland novel, this was shot around the Sonoran Desert and takes a male genre and turns it into a battle of the sexes story with a distinct feminist twist. That makes sense when you have Arthur as the protagonist – with that can-do attitude and the gurgle of a voice, she’s perfectly cast and knew the territory after playing Calamity Jane in DeMille’s The Plainsman. Plus Binyon and director Wesley Ruggles had previously collaborated on a number of films presenting women in a great light, including the great screwball comedy True Confession (starring Carole Lombard) as well as the previous year’s collaboration with Arthur, Too Many Husbands, a version of the Enoch Arden story (by Somerset Maugham) trumped by My Favorite Wife at the box office. The personal touch abounds in this epic, the central asymmetrical romance with Holden (years younger than Arthur, who never looked her real age) matched by the villainy of William.  While we bide our time waiting for the sublime twist ending, played beautifully by Arthur, there’s lots of shoot ’em ups, murders, wartime action and a fantastically shot cattle rush. The film was made in blistering heat which added horribly to the discomfort and budget. Nonetheless it’s a great showcase for Arthur who revels in the situation and the witty lines gifted this pioneering frontier woman. She’s one tough cookie! The music by Victor Young is a series of  inventive orchestrations of and variations on Stephen Foster’s Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.  If this is what it’s like to be in love I’m glad I’m only going to love once

Winchester (2018)

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Aka The 13th Hour. A house in permanent construction on the orders of a grieving woman. In 1906 the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company solicit the services of widowed and dissolute laudanum-addicted Dr Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess the mental health of Sarah Lockwood Winchester (Helen Mirren) heiress to the Winchester fortune.  She is in the middle of a neverending building project that stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To an outsider, it looks like a monstrous monument to her unravelling mind but for her it is an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts – and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchesters and her niece Marion’s (Sarah Snook) son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) seems to be the vehicle for revenge… Instruments of death have a powerful connection with the afterlife. Tom Vaughan and directors the Spierig Brothers write a not very scary supernatural horror that excavates the legend of America’s most haunted house via the ghosts of the Civil War, killed by the rifle that won it for the Union. Clarke is more sympathetic than usual while the great Mirren in her widow’s weeds isn’t given much space in a narrative that has an interesting focus on what happens in life involving the afterlife and ghosts with PTSD but seems to lose the plot. It’s lavish but I wouldn’t call it home. Do you know who the most terrifying monster is? The one you invite in

Westbound (1959)

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Well, they tell me they got a good man runnin’ this place.  In 1864 former Union officer, John Hayes (Randolph Scott) manages the Overland stagecoach company which transports gold to the North from California. Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), a businessman who’s quit working for Overland and is secretly loyal to the South, is intent on robbing the coaches. Hoping to heist the treasure as a way to revive the Confederacy, Putnam also has a grudge against Hayes, since his wife, Norma (Virginia Mayo), was once involved with Hayes. It seems everyone in this small Colorado town is now out to help the South …  You walk out of this house and you go out the way you came in… with nothing but the clothes on your back! The sixth in the western partnership between Scott and producer/director Budd Boetticher this does not belong to the official Ranown cycle and is written by Bern Giler (as opposed to Burt Kennedy) from a story with Albert S. Le Vino. It’s not the typically taut film you’d expect from that team but it’s notable for the killing of a small child and two striking female performances by Mayo and Karen Steele (as Jeanie Miller). Scott is solid as ever. That’s a lot of woman!

Gone With the Wind (1939)

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What a woman.  The life of petulant southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), from her idyllic youth on a sprawling plantation, through her survival through the tragic history of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and her tangled love affairs with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who marries his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland); and roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who wants her for himself and makes money as a blockade runner while Ashley goes to warLand’s the only thing that matters, the only thing that lasts. The drama of David O.Selznick’s search for Scarlett is well known, so too the issues with the directors (George Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming, who was replaced for a spell by Sam Wood) but it’s the antebellum grandeur and the personalities of this epic historical romance set against the Civil War that continue to enthrall.  The beauty of plantation life is contrasted with the vivid scenes of Atlanta in flames;  the picture perfect homes and life embroidering and dancing and romancing are juxtaposed with the screams of the dying soldiers. Scarlett’s deceitful delusions about Ashley are dissipated by the reality of his cowardice. And there are the unexpected mini-dramas too:  that Scarlett becomes a can-do woman and saves Tara as her family cry bullying; when Rhett drunkenly asserts his droit de seigneur over Scarlett, she wakes up the next day as pleased with herself as the cat that got the cream. This image still has the capacity to shock (if not entirely surprise). That the screenplay and the performances effortlessly manage the extremes of humanity is a tribute to the talent behind the scenes and in front of camera. Gable is magnificent, but so too is de Havilland as Melanie, the kindest woman ever, who has the breadth of compassion to handle everything put her way and unexpectedly expresses delight when Scarlett kills a Yankee soldier. However it is Leigh’s film:  she is simply perfect as the selfish coquette who becomes brave when everyone around her is falling to pieces and she lives a wholly ironic life as a result. They say great characters make great books and I read it when I was fourteen, a great age to appreciate the feeling that Margaret Mitchell gives to these fully developed people living through the worst of times and trying in their own particular way to survive it. Expertly adapted by Sidney Howard. Wonderful. Tomorrow is another day

Sweet Home Alabama (2002)

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In my entire life I have never met anyone so manipulative, so deceitful. And I’m in politics!  New York fashion designer and socialite Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon) suddenly finds herself engaged to the city’s most eligible bachelor Andrew Hennings(Patrick Dempsey) whose mother just happens to be Mayor (Candice Bergen). But Melanie’s past holds many secrets, including Jake Perry (Josh Lucas), the redneck husband she married in high school, who refuses to divorce her seven years after being sent the papers. Determined to end their relationship once and for all, Melanie sneaks back home to Alabama to confront him, only to discover that you can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl…. I don’t care if he’s a Yankee. At least he’s sober! Douglas J. Eboch’s story was developed as a screenplay by C. Jay Cox and it’s a tour de force for Witherspoon whose astonishing charm keeps this Southern-fried screwball show on the road as she gets to pick between two smouldering romantic interests:  her good ol’ boy sort-of ex who deep down is as polished as the sand struck by lightning that makes those glass sculptures of his;  and the smooth city charmer who really loves her despite his overbearing mom warning him off since she sees him as the next JFK. The story is nicely buoyed by turning Deep South tropes on their head and having a lot of fun with Civil War re-enactments – Fred Ward has a ball as Mel’s enthusiastic dad and it’s nice to see Mary Kay Place getting a turn as her mother who wants more for her than the life she had. At the heart of this story is a smalltown girl made good who once blew up the local bank and now struggles with her identity and this grounds the fairytale-fish out of water narrative as it comes back to haunt her in the most amusing way. Reverting to type never seemed so entertaining. You will certainly know the songs. Directed by Andy Tennant.  How many times does your only daughter get married? Other than before …

 

Behold a Pale Horse (1964)

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What is it they want? I’ve done enough. Screenwriter Emeric Pressburger wrote a novella about the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War entitled Killing a Mouse on Sunday. JP  Miller adapted it as Behold a Pale Horse (pace The Book of Revelations) and Fred Zinnemann (a director who purveyed an interest in men of conscience) took it to the screen. It was shot in southwest France but there was intimidation from the fascist government of Franco to the extent that Columbia Pictures divested its distribution arm in Spain afterwards and it wasn’t screened on US TV networks following intervention from Madrid. Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn are reunited following The Guns of Navarone as protagonist/antagonist to each other 20 years after the cessation of hostilities. Peck plays former resistance fighter Manuel Artiguez  (loosely based on real-life Catalan guerilla ‘Zapater’) living in exile in Pau, the Basque region of France. Quinn is Vinolas, an officer in the Guardia Civil who has vowed to kill his enemy of longstanding. The young son Paco (Marietto Angeletti) of Artiguez’ former co-fighter arrives  in Pau to ask him to avenge his father’s murder – the Guardia Civil beat him to death to try and find out Artiguez’ hiding place. A young priest Francisco (Omar Sharif) is summoned to the deathbed in the hospital at San Martin of Artiguez’ mother (Mildred Dunnock) an atheist who nonetheless asks him to stop off en route to Lourdes to warn her son not to return to Spain or he will be killed. Francisco’s colleague in the priesthood has a brain injury from a bank robbery the Loyalists carried out so he himself is implicated in any action against the police. Paco warns Artiguez that his close associate in Pau, Carlos (Raymond Pellegrin) is in fact an informer who watched his father’s murder. The scene is set for a squaring of accounts and promises a standoff of epic proportions – Civil War has the terrible longlasting effect of cleaving even families asunder. The first part of the film has its focus on Vinolas and his quest for revenge and his marital issues;  then we are primarily in Pau with the unfolding events. This leads to a pacing problem. Sharif and Quinn meet and we hope for something as graceful as their parts in Lawrence of Arabia and it’s promising but not really as effective as you would wish. When Peck and Sharif meet across the border it’s really a high point as the men’s various takes on morality are parried. Vinolas is then in the background until the final cataclysmic balancing of the books.  There should be more equivalence between these two but it’s really only down to a taste in loose women. The drama is slow and rather like watching pieces being manoeuvred on a chessboard.  Shot in a wonderfully oily monochrome by Jean Badal (with whom Zinnemann purportedly did not see eye to eye) this is beautifully captured. The action however is distinctly lacking and the climax is not the one we want – a shootout which wraps a conclusion that is neither logically exact nor emotionally true. We have been led to believe that this is the post-war equivalent of One Last Job and it fails spectacularly due to a wrongheaded decision by Artiguez (and the creative team). Who puts an act of personal treachery above the common good and the prospect of political revolution? That’s the question.There’s a subtle score by Maurice Jarre which picks out single notes and chords and drum sounds in an unconventional fashion and there are nice supporting performances by Christian Marquand, Rosalie Crutchley and Dunnock.  This is one of several films by Zinnemann dealing with the phenomenon of fascism (and the resistance to it) in the twentieth century, a body of work which means he more than deserves the occasionally perverse accolade of auteur. It’s not his best film but it is a testament to his beliefs. A misfire, yes, but a fascinating one, with Peck mostly convincing and Quinn very good but it’s Sharif you’ll remember. Those eyes!

The Beguiled (2017)

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You vengeful bitches! I had high hopes for Sofia Coppola’s take on the Don Siegel Southern Gothic movie that made such a difference to our perception of Clint Eastwood way back when. Coppola has created such an interesting catalogue of films that are female-centred and immediately recognisable from their diffused palettes, lens flare, sense of mystery,soundtracks, alienation from family and the ultimate unknowability of teenaged girls. Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, the Irish soldier of fortune fighting for the North lying wounded in the woods near Martha Farnsworth’s boarding school for young ladies in deepest Louisiana when he is found by little girl Amy (Oona Laurence) on her daily mushroom-picking trip. She drags him back to the almost derelict building and the decision is made not to report him to the Confederates passing through the area despite the objections of staunch loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice, who was so great in The Nice Guys). There are only five students and the eldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) is the woman most obviously hot to trot – sad and clearly desperate for a man and a reason for escape. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney while he is unconscious and there are a lot of shots of water pooling in the cavities of his neck and abdomen. His objectification is writ large by the simple expedient of not having the camera include his face. Farnsworth admits to having had a man before the war when McBurney asks but as each of the girls enters his room to get a look at him and steal a kiss (a foxy Fanning) he realises he can play them off against each other. He learns to walk again and helps out, cutting wood and generally being the maintenance man. But all the while he has become the women’s fantasy. The problems really begin when each of them finds out what he is doing with the others. When Edwina invites him to her room after a particularly excruciating dinner and dance in this Gothic manse, she finds him having sex instead with Carol and takes terrible revenge …. And Farnsworth aims at keeping him there forever. There is something not quite right about the film. The control and the tone never really articulate the plot’s inherent collective madness, something that was so brutally effective in the earlier adaptation. The photography doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bruce Surtees’ work and that is surprising given Coppola’s customary attention to appearances (and the consequently unfortunate effect on the way Kidman appears). The relative containment of the story to the building doesn’t really work since so many of the shots are repetitive and one has the paradoxical desire to see more of the outdoors. Coppola has dropped some of the previous film’s elements – the black servant, the flashbacks to Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother – and this vacuum is not replaced with enough plot to sustain the story’s mordantly black tone. The performances are uniformly good and Dunst and Fanning are obviously back working again with Coppola. (And if you still haven’t watched Marie Antoinette go look at it now to watch Dunst give a complete performance as the child bride.) Farrell gives a good account of himself as a man who can’t believe his good luck even if it’s quite disconcerting to hear him speaking in an Irish accent. The young kids are very good in their roles and while Dunst’s part is not written especially well the sex scene with her buttons spilling over the floor is one of the best things in the film. Fanning is just a little too odd – but she has definitely grown up since Somewhere. Laurence is especially good as the little girl who stands up for McBurney right up until he hurts her little turtle Henry. The revenge is all too clearly telegraphed in a way that it wasn’t in the earlier film and that is the ultimate disappointment:  the staircase scene is thrown away.  There are some nice touches – the use of jewellery (Coppola loves fetishising sparkly objects) and costume and some Hitchcockian shots of the women’s hairstyles from behind. But it can’t make up for the lack of real tension. There is good use of music – that’s Mr Coppola’s band Phoenix reinterpreting Monteverdi’s Magnificat on the soundtrack and there’s apposite use of Stephen Foster’s song Virginia Belle.  Overall however this just doesn’t work the way you want it to do and despite its relatively short length (94 minutes) for a contemporary film it has its longeurs. Coppola adapted the original screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, a woman who was writing pseudonymously as ‘Grimes Grice’ which is the name mysteriously used on the film’s credits. Despite my reservations about this,  I find Coppola a fascinating – even beguiling! – director and I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s new book about her in the latest issue of Offscreen which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

The Beguiled (1971)

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What an extraordinary generic blend this is:  part Western, part Gothic or Grand Guignol, and an emblematic role for Clint Eastwood who would turn aspects  of its perverse sexuality into a motif in Play Misty for Me and Tightrope.  He’s a Union soldier badly wounded in the Civil War, found by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) a little girl who attends a seminary nearby in very Southern Louisiana. Deciding eventually not to report him to the Confederate soldiers, headmistress Geraldine Page sets her sights on him – but so does teacher Elizabeth Hartman. And student Jo Ann Harris … Adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, this plumbs areas of psyched out femininity that no other films truly reach.  It becomes clear that Page indulged in an incestuous relationship with her late brother;  Hartman is a virgin;  and Harris is a fox – whom Eastwood naturally beds, to the others’ uncontrollable fury. The Gothic trope of the staircase looms and Hartman pushes him to the bottom of it – giving Page an excuse to lop off one of his legs and trap him there forever. When he accidentally kills Amy’s turtle everything comes to a head and any plans he might have are as dust. There’s nothing like women scorned, is there? Bruce Surtees’ dreamlike cinematography lends this twisted narrative an art house feel that is entirely different to any of Eastwood’s output to that time – and the studio had no idea how to market it. Blacklisted writer Albert Maltz did the original adaptation but he gave it a happy ending – so another draft was done by Irene Kamp. Both of them were credited pseudonymously. And the real rewrite by associate producer Claude Traverse went uncredited. Director Don Siegel worked with Eastwood to create a different phase of his iconicity following the spaghetti westerns that brought the actor global fame  – and this was the real start of crafting something mysterious and ineffable and even masochistic in his screen persona, alongside the action roles that kept the studios happy. No wonder Sofia Coppola wanted to remake it. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. This is great anyhow you choose. (And an opportunity to see the tragic Hartman). When this came out my aunt’s mate at boarding school snuck out to see it and she was caught by the nuns climbing back in a window very late at night. When she explained her uncontrollable weakness for Mr Eastwood they said they understood completely and she wasn’t punished. Now that’s some cool nuns. And how very fitting!

The Old Maid (1939)

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Edith Wharton. Zoe Akins. This Bette Davis outing had serious literary chops,with Wharton’s short story adapted first for Broadway by Akins and then Casey Robinson was appointed by Warners to bring it to the screen with the era’s most vital actress – and her longtime rival, Miriam Hopkins. This is the one where Bette has a little affair with Clem Spender (the splendid George Brent – sigh) who has returned after disappearing for two years to discover his fiancee, Bette’s cousin Miriam, is about to get married to a wealthy rival. He departs once again and dies in the Civil War. Cut to: six years later and Bette is running an orphanage for war foundlings … including her own secret illegitimate daughter, Tina, short for Clementine… nomenclature being what it is we know who Papa was. Bette’s about to get married to Miriam’s brother in law but she confesses to Miriam right before the ceremony who Tina’s father is … and jealous Miriam sabotages her wedding with a lie and then strong-arms Bette into giving up her daughter to be brought up with her cousins, themselves now fatherless following an accident. The daughter grows up to be the nasty, vicious Jane Bryan, who never discovers who this greying maiden aunt really is … Sob! The women are just fabulous and Bryan really stays in the mind:  it was her third time to act with Davis after Marked Woman and Kid Galahad and Warners had her marked for great things. But she abandoned acting and married a very wealthy man on New Year’s Eve 1939 and ended her career. She and her husband were fervent Republicans and got their good friend Ronald Reagan to run for President in 1980. Tony Gaudio’s camerawork is luminous and it’s directed by Edmund Goulding, who worked with Bryan the following year on We Are Not Alone; and with Davis a handful of times, including in the incredible Dark Victory the previous year which also co-starred Brent. I’ve written about Davis’ intriguing dualistic career for the Canadian journal Offscreenhttps://www.offscreen.com/view/double_life_part_1.