Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

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The Planter’s Wife (1952)

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Aka Outpost in Malaya. Colonial pictures can present problems nowadays for the kind of people who wouldn’t dream of exiting their own parish for a pint of milk. But if you know anyone who settled anywhere more than a day’s travel away, you’ll know it’s never easy and it’s often done for reasons that are simply not relevant these days:  duty, opportunity, adventure, a desire for the exotic. Not a gap year, more a life choice. This was originally going to be called White Blood (a reference to liquid rubber) but that title was rejected by the Colonial Office (it was a thing – until 1966) on the basis that it could incite racial problems. It’s not often we see one of these stories set in the Malay peninsula and this is set in the Emergency that started in 1948 between the Commonwealth forces and the terrorist wing of the local Communist Party. Claudette Colbert and Jack Hawkins are under pressure with the local bandits threatening their livelihood – and lives – as rubber planters. Parents to a small boy, Mike (Peter Asher of Peter & Gordon fame), it’s time for him to go back to England to boarding school and Colbert thinks she’ll go with him and leave her husband for good. A local policeman (Anthony Steel) urges her not to bring Hawkins with her or her marriage will really be dead in the water. They give a sympathetic Malay a lift to town and he’s murdered after the Brits arm him;  then the plantation comes under sustained attack, Colbert uses a gun and the tension is non-stop until a lot of people are killed as the family are under siege. A neighbour/rival reluctantly calls for help but it takes a long time to come … A surprisingly violent and engrossing outing with some very exciting scenes, one of the best involving a cobra and Mr Mangles, Mike’s mongoose;  and Colbert using a Bren gun. (A sight I never thought I’d see. She was delighted to get the opportunity, and allegedly became very useful with small arms.) Based on the novel by Sidney Charles George which was adapted by Guy Elmes and Peter Proud and directed by Ken Annakin. It’s well edited by Alfred Roome and the cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth camouflages the fact that it was most of it was made at Pinewood with a second unit shooting in Malaya, Malacca, Singapore and Ceylon. Bill Travers and Don Sharp, who would become a noted writer and director, have uncredited roles as soldiers.

 

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

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What an astonishing year for Hollywood was 1939. And John Ford alone made Young Mr Lincoln, Stagecoach, and this, his first attempt at directing a Technicolor production at Darryl F. Zanuck’s Twentieth Century-Fox. The novel about the Revolutionary Wars in central New York by Walter D. Edmonds was adapted by Sonya Levien and Lamar Trotti, two of the finest screenwriters at the time. Being Fox, DFZ made sure everything moved at a gallop. Claudette Colbert joins new husband Henry Fonda at his frontier home to start married life and he joins the local militia since there is war in the air. Their home is attacked and destroyed, she miscarries and they accept work at the home of the redoubtable Edna May Oliver, a prosperous widow.  All is peaceable until the British approach with a party of Indians and Fonda is injured in the affray. After their son is born, the raids on the settlements recommence …  This is rousing, exciting, funny and sweet in equal measure. Ford’s shot composition is magnificent even if the historians take issue with the overall accuracy of the story’s detail. Oliver – if you haven’t checked out her Hildegarde Withers movies, do – is brilliant and got an Academy Award nomination. (She died just 3 years later but what antecedents – John Quincy Adams and John Adams!) The cinematography by Ray Rennahan and Bert Glennon is exquisite. Happy Independence Day!

Without Reservations (1946)

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Claudette Colbert is the famous author of a political allegory that’s been snapped up by Hollywood. On the train while travelling to the studios she meets a Marine (John Wayne) who could play her hero now that Cary Grant’s dropped out but she conceals her identity – Wayne doesn’t like the book – and an array of misadventures ensue. He’s accompanied by best bud Don DeFore (two DeFore movies in one day, howzaboutthat?!) and they are both charmed by the cute little lady whose antics are clearly inspired by two of her previous train and road movies – The Palm Beach Story and It Happened One Night. They are both classic comedies. This is not, even if it is based on a novel written by two smart women, Jane Allen and Mae Livingston: I am presuming the acclaimed novel Colbert has written is Ayn Rand-lite.  They detour to New Mexico where their host advises her to write based on her experiences before chasing them off his property with a shotgun. In the end they take 80 minutes to get to LA by which time I was gnawing at my own arm in frustration. Louella Parsons issues some of her radio gossip and Cary Grant turns up but it’s not enough to save this, even with Colbert being her customarily lustrous self. Interestingly, however, given that this is a romantic comedy, it ends on a shot of a bed, with Colbert and Wayne being joyously reunited just offscreen … daring!

Imitation of Life (1959)

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This is a stunning film about American women, race, sexism, work, performance, relationships, family, mothers and daughters. It stars Lana Turner, lately the star of a huge scandal in which her lover, a gangster named Johnny Stompanato, was allegedly stabbed to death by her 14-year old daughter Cheryl (was it really her?!) and needing another big role to sustain a career that had begun in classic Hollywood style at Schwabs’ Drug Store, or so the myth would have it. The novel by Fannie Hurst was a bestseller that had already been adapted in 1934 and directed by John Stahl, starring Claudette Colbert. The role of Lora Meredith, the widowed (maybe) actress trying to make it in a coldwater flat with a tiny daughter, was perfectly inhabited by Turner. Her brassy look was hardening into something darker and the grasping ambitious matriarch that she becomes is not a huge leap for an empathetic audience. Two screenwriters were involved in the adaptation:  Eleanore Griffin, who had a long career, principally in originating screen stories. She would go on to adapt Hurst’s Back Street in a few years. Allan Scott had written some of the great musicals in the 30s – Follow the Fleet, Top Hat, Swing Time, Carefree, Shall We Dance… Their combined interpretations work amazingly well here. Both of them would die in 1995. The director was German emigre Douglas Sirk. He was reappraised as an auteur in the late 60s and his kitschy melodramas of the 50s were interpreted as analyses of society in the United States, distinguished by garish colours, stunning production design and coded drama. There are so many dramatic high points here it seems useless to enumerate them, but the performance by the great Mahalia Jackson is a personal favourite and Susan Kohner’s uneasy presence as the half-caste girl is perfectly matched by Sandra Dee’s sweetness. Juanita Moore is an ocean of decency as the help. It is too easy to put this down as a melodrama, but it really is one, in the original, political sense. Classic.