Soldier of Fortune (1955)

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Nations fall when they lose their sense of humour. Jane Hoyt (Susan Hayward) arrives in Hong Kong looking for her missing photojournalist husband Louis (Gene Barry). He’s been kidnapped by the Chinese. She seeks help from an American smuggler (or shipping magnate!) Hank Lee (Clark Gable) but winds up trying her luck on Macau with Fernand Rocha (Mel Welles). However her guide is taken by the Communists en route and Rocha locks her up and gambles her money. Lee finds out from hard-drinking Rene Dupont Chevalier (Alexander D’Arcy) that Jane is probably in trouble and he uses one of his junks to travel, taking police Inspector Merryweather (Michael Rennie) against his will to ensure their safety… When Gable and Hayward meet there’s an instant attraction and one of the good things about Ernest Gann’s adaptation of his own novel is the dagger-like lines that he bestows upon each character in turn, and when she says this to Gable it’s knockout:  To me mister, you’re just a gangster, a throwback. I hope you enjoy living with yourself. Somehow it plays right into what we know of Gable from his past roles and the sense of the impending end of her marriage when she eventually reunites with her husband is written in the stars. The texture of this drama is aided immeasurably by the location photography – those HK streets really buzz , while the typical ex-pat scene of lowlifes and barflies populating the seedy Tweedie’s where so much of Jane’s learning curve occurs makes some of the action pop. The final escape from Macau into Hong Kong harbour is really something. Hayward couldn’t shoot her scenes locally because she was stuck in the US in the middle of a divorce so a stand-in was used in a few shots but it’s all very well handled by Edward Dmytryk.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Aka Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World. Must I take drastic action in order to get a hearing? When humanoid alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrives on a flying saucer in Washington DC the military takes action and the world takes notice. He’s accompanied by an eight-foot robot called Gort. When Klaatu speaks about world peace a nervous soldier opens fire and he disappears from Walter Reed Hospital where he cures himself. Meanwhile Gort is in front of the spaceship, unmoving. Klaatu hides in plain sight in a boarding house (wearing a suit from a dry cleaner’s bearing the tag ‘Mr Carpenter’) where he is befriended by Bobby (the great child actor Billy Gray) whose widowed mother Helen (Patricia Neal) is a secretary engaged to Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe). Bobby goes to Arlington National Cemetery with Klaatu and the alien expresses a desire to meet someone of the calibre of Lincoln. Bobby suggests Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) but when Klaatu visits he’s out so he writes a solution to a mathematical problem left unfinished on the blackboard with instructions on how to be reached. Klaatu returns with government escort and the men discuss the dangerous nature of atomic power:  Klaatu warns that Earth will be eliminated. Bobby follows him and sees him enter the spaceship. He reports the incident to Helen and Tom and Klaatu visits Helen at work and they enter an elevator that stops – he stops all electricity worldwide for a half hour, demonstrating the incapacity of governments to deal with true power… it all comes to a head when he returns with Helen to Professor Barnhardt and the trigger-happy military shoot him dead after being forewarned by Tom. Until … Klaatu stages a resurrection. This Christ analogy was smothered in censor-friendly form, its pacifist message a radical intervention into Cold War paranoia with superb production design (Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to the UFO!) and a suitably strange soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann. Tightly written by Edmund H. North from a story by Harry Bates and superbly directed documentary-style by Robert Wise, this has many great scenes with some of the best in the boarding house between Rennie and Gray. There’s a reason this is a classic and it’s very resonant today. Remember – Klaatu barada nikito!

When Worlds Collide (1951)

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I’m a sucker for a 50s sci-fi and this is a beauty – gorgeous to look at and filled with everything you expect from the era:  great design (although crucial mattes had to be replaced by less expensive sketches), daft romance, a madman in a wheelchair, a sense of jeopardy – extinction! – and a winning optimism about life outside Earth. Producer George Pal could be considered an auteur in this area and the source material is a couple of novels from the 1930s by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer adapted by Sydney Boehm. Pilot David Randall (Richard Derr) has top secret photographs which he brings from South African astronomer Dr Emery Bronson (Hayden Rorke) to American scientist Dr Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) confirming that the planet is in the path of rogue star Bellus. The world is going to end in 8 months and Hendron goes to the United Nations to let everyone know and pleads for space arks to transport a limited number of humans to the passing planet Zyra which orbits Bellus, realising it is humanity’s only hope. He’s not believed and has to get money from wealthy and disabled industrialist Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt) to build the vehicles but Stanton wants to choose the people instead of just being allocated a seat. Meanwhile Joyce Hendron (Barbara Rush – wahey!) falls for Randall, forgetting about her boyfriend.  Everyone is building rocketships, people are being evacuated and the world is about to end:   who will survive the impact of Zyra as it first approaches Earth and causes volcanoes and crashing buildings?  And who will make it onto the arks in this lottery for survival? Soon as anything, there’s a riot going on. Great fun. Directed by Rudolph Mate.

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.

Hot Enough for June (1964)

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Aka Agent 8 3/4.Dirk Bogarde is a louche unpublished London writer who happens to speak Czech so he’s whipped off the dole queue by British Intelligence and winds up hapless in Prague, trying to bring back a coded message he doesn’t understand, not even realising he’s been hired as a spy. This breezy spoof was one of many films riding on the coat-tails of the James Bond phenomenon and the versatile Bogarde is perfect in a role originally intended for Laurence Harvey, in this colourful mix of homage, pastiche, satire and romance, with buckets of tension as he eventually makes a connection in the Gents’ at a glass factory and makes out with the gorgeous Sylvia Koscina (making her English-language debut) who conceals her role for the secret police. There’s great byplay between spymaster Robert Morley and his opposite number, Leo McKern, and some wonderful dressing up as Bogarde tries to get back to London in one piece. Great location photography (in Padua, since the Cold War was ongoing!) by Ernest Steward distinguishes this attractive time piece. Adapted from Lionel Davidson’s The Night of Wenceslas by Lukas Heller. Directed by Ralph Thomas and produced by Betty Box, this was one of the later of their thirty-plus collaborations.

From Russia with Love (1963)

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It seems like an opportune time to revisit Cold War cinema, since winter is coming round again in the political world, as they (sort of) say in Game of Thrones. Guns, gals, trains, violence, it all seems like simpler times in this tale of James Bond (Sean Connery) going after a cryptography machine before SPECTRE gets hold of it. Naturally SPECTRE want revenge for Bond killing Dr No. Do keep up. There’s high jinks in Istanbul, murder on the Orient Express and sexy time with Daniela Bianchi who makes for a very convincing conflicted action heroine and a great title song sung by Matt Monro. Every inch of tension is squeezed out of Fleming’s second novel, adapted by Johanna Harwood and written by Richard Maibaum and superbly directed by Terence Young (himself not totally unfamiliar with the world of action, serving as a tank commander in WW2). Lotte Lenya is unforgettable as the sadistic Lesbian killer with those kinky shoes. It was edited by Peter Hunt, who went on to direct many afficionados’ fave, OHMSS. This was the second in the series, when Bond was great.

 

Julie and Julia (2009)

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What an intriguing idea New Yorker Julie Powell had:  to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year. And what an intriguing idea Nora Ephron had:  to combine Powell’s account of her food blog with Child’s own account of how she came to learn to cook in France immediately after World War 2 . This isn’t just about two cooks and a lot of food memories. It’s also about two very interesting marriages of equals – a trope that carries through the twin strands of this cooking story as the transatlantic tale smoothly whisks us through these women’s lives as they cope with their own private traumas (which have their larger correlative in 9/11 and WW2/Cold War paranoia). Of course Meryl gets the lion’s share of our interest – apart from anything else, how short did everyone else in the cast have to be to persuade us that she could be six-two?! Her joy is infectious. And the story problem:  is a blog writer really as fascinating as Child whose TV appearances are legendary? And does a call centre operator (albeit for 9/11 victims’ families) moving from Brooklyn to Queens really equate to moving to France not speaking a word of the language and giving up your career (Child was in the OSS)?  The narrative imbalance is efficiently handled with other elements – performance not being the least but Adams’s drabness is an occasional irritant when compared with Streep’s effervescence and Stanley Tucci’s suave turn as her husband. Child’s experiences with French ladies who lunch is paralleled with Powell’s, who makes the cover of a magazine labelled a thirtysomething failure by a journalist among her circle of careerist friends. The women’s lives did cross directly, but with mixed results. With the right combination of ingredients,  Ephron shows how to sift through all of the similarities and differences to concoct quite a mouthwatering feast albeit a souffle rather than a boeuf bourgignon. And boy am I hungry right now: do not watch without ready access to sustenance. Bon appetit!

The Way We Were (1973)

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Just watch the first ten minutes and realise this is how movies used to be. The Seventies! Oh! Katie Morosky (Barbra Streisand) is producing radio shows in the wake of WW2 in NYC. She walks into a bar with her colleague and a girl is standing beside a Naval officer who’s falling asleep on a stool but remarkably remaining upright. And watch Katie’s face and see her draw in her breath at this beautiful man. Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford). It’s one of the great moments of cinema. Everyone in the audience enjoys a sharp intake of breath along with Barbra. This really is one beautiful man. And we’re into a titles sequence that fills in the pre-WW2 backstory at college, Barbra sings the title song, an incredible composition by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, and we learn she was a Communist, he was a feckless WASP. And they were drawn to each other, somehow, beyond all expectations … Arthur Laurents’ screenplay was orginally intended for Streisand and Ryan O’Neal but with Ray Stark on board as producer he didn’t want to upset Streisand after her affair with O’Neal ended. Sydney Pollack was hired at Laurents’ own suggestion as director. Boy did he regret it. The casting of that vastly enigmatic superstar Redford somehow lends the bastardised bowdlerized version of the screenplay (there were 11 other writers) a depth its plot holes couldn’t disguise and that weren’t in Laurents’ work. The team had to come crawling back to Laurents who naturally demanded a huge sum of money – to restore some sort  of order to the mess they’d made of his sharply focused work. Katie and Hubbell wind up in Hollywood, he’s a successful screenwriter but her activism in the HUAC witch hunt creates difficulties for his career and we get a lot of in-house studio politics as well as seeing the compromises that a screenwriter (ironically) endures. You can read Laurents’ extraordinary memoir for his own account but what is sad is that Ray Stark consistently blocked efforts by both Redford and Streisand, and Laurents, to make a sequel. K-k-k-k-k-Katie! We’ll always have that look, that song, those scenes. A remarkable work in nostalgia starring screen presences at the height of their incomparable powers.F-f-f-f-f-fabulous! The way cinema was.

The Blob (1958)

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This independently made campy trash classic is mainly of interest these days because it stars Steve McQueen – and it boasts a fairly horrific theme tune by one Burt Bacharach. Steve’s out necking in his crush-worthy automobile with Jane when a shooting star that crashes to earth turns out to be … a parasitical blob of cherry Jell-O that infests humans! Well, what would you do, Daddy-O? Truly a product of its time but it looks pretty good and it must have been sensational at the drive-in paired with I Married a Monster From Outer Space!

Despite the Falling Snow (2016)

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Winter is coming. So my thoughts naturally gravitate to films whose titles reflect grim weather. Political and otherwise … Shamim Sarif adapted his own Cold War novel which has a parallel narrative structure. In 1992 Alexander Ivanov or Sasha (Charles Dance) is living in NYC, a long-time exile from Russia where he was part of the political elite. His artist niece Lauren  (Rebecca Ferguson) lives with him, unaware of his past. Her portrait of her late aunt Katya stirs memories. Between 1959 and 1961 we learn of his romance (he’s played by Sam Reid) with Katya (also Ferguson) a Russian woman turned American agent who was using him for his access to arms secrets and who married him. She had sworn revenge on the Stalinist regime that saw her parents murdered. Her boyfriend Misha (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) helps her but then she really falls in love with Sasha and persuades him to defect with her … In 1992 Lauren wants to go to Moscow for an exhibition and a woman journalist Marina (Antje Traue) with whom she begins having sex is revealed to have a connection to her late aunt’s espionage activities, fully revealed when Sasha visits and Misha (Anthony Head) crawls out of the woodwork. Sasha learns what really happens to his lost love. This starts convincingly, with Sasha’s Cold War defection to the US, but overall the tension in the drama isn’t especially well handled and some of the intimate scenes are not put over well by the cast. Bizarrely, Dance and Head resemble the actors playing each other’s younger selves, which kills the drama. A promising story that seems like something from an entirely different age – until you start listening to the news.