Air Force (1943)

Air Force

Don’t talk – shoot! On December 6, 1941 nine B-17 bomber sets off on a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii en route to the Philippines. The Mary Ann is commanded by pilot ‘Irish’ Quincannon (John Ridgely). Bombardier Tommy McMartin (Arthur Kennedy) has a sister living in Hawaii and his co-pilot Bill Williams (Gig Young) is sweet on her. Cynical rear-gunner Joe Winocki (John Garfield) is intent upon leaving the air corps. They arrive at Hickam Field on the morning of December 7, just as the Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor and other military facilities. As Roosevelt announces the US’ entry into the war, all of the men prepare to face the enemy, including Winocki whose bitter attitude changes quickly in the course of combat in the Pacific … What kind of lunatics do I have in this air corps anyhow? Don’t any of you know what’s impossible? With a screenplay by Dudley Nichols (and a deathbed scene written by an uncredited William Faulkner), this Howard Hawks film is an indelible picture of a cross-section of American society at the helm of a bomber, made at the height of WW2 and based around an actual incident when a flight of B-17s journeying to reinforce the defence of the Philippines flew into the attack on Pearl Harbour. The characters are based, more or less, on people Hawks met while consulting with Lt. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, Commander of the Army Air Force, in Washington DC and the production was made in conjunction with approval of the War Dept. Originally scheduled by producer Hal Wallis to be released on Pearl Harbour’s first anniversary, the shoot was repeatedly delayed and WW1 aviator Hawks’ insistence on altering dialogue led to him being temporarily replaced by Vincent Sherman who then remained as assistant when Hawks returned. Garfield’s outsider character is the barometer for everything that occurs as he becomes integrated into the group and he is paid tribute by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction. There are historical inaccuracies but it packs an emotional punch in its vivid, electrifying violence and humour and Jeanine Basinger says it is “perhaps the purest combat film ever about the air service … It is like some hideous wagon train west, with problems of supplies and hostile forces constantly attacking the wagonload of heroes. It fits perfectly with the tradition of American films, and yet it is a unique and original film, not quite like any other.” Shot by James Wong Howe, Elmer Dyer and Charles A. Marshall, this is a bona fide classic. We’re gonna start a war, not a fight!

The Eiger Sanction (1975)

The Eiger Sanction

Why am I the only one that can perform the sanction? Art professor and collector Dr. Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) a retired assassin for C2 a secret Government organisation run by albino Dragon (Thayer David), is blackmailed into returning to his deadly profession and do one more ‘sanction,’ a euphemism for killing. Duped by C2 operative Jemima Brown (Vonetta McGee), he agrees to join an international climbing team in Switzerland planning an ascent north face of the Eiger Mountain in order to complete a second sanction to avenge the murder of old friend, Wormwood aka Henri Baq who fought with him in the Green Berets back in Indochina.  He trains with another friend from his climbing days, Ben Bowman (George Kennedy) who runs a school in the desert where another Indochina ally, flamboyant gay hit man Miles Mellough (Jack Cassidy) turns up and tries to kill Hemlock. Ben is leading the Eiger team and when Hemlock is tracking the killer, he finds himself on a treacherous mountain passage, unable to identify his target … You’re getting religion a little late. A barmy enterprise for Clint Eastwood to star in and direct but not without its consolations – a deal of wit; awesome photography (by Frank Stanley) of the locations in Monument Valley, the southwest and Switzerland; and terrific characterisation – but that all depends on caricature, homophobia and race stereotyping typical of the era.  So it goes in a text that was fatally misunderstood:  the novel on which it was based by the pseudonymous ‘Trevanian’ was a spoof – and in a later book he called it ‘vapid’ in a footnote! Eastwood did his own stunts, training for months and it is actually astonishing to see a star of his magnitude defying death at such extreme heights. One of the experienced mountaineers employed on the team wasn’t so fortunate:  British climber David Knowles died on the second day of filming in what was a very dangerous shoot. It’s good to see Kennedy and Eastwood working together again after Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and the romance with blaxploitation star McGee is certainly progressive but it’s Cassidy as the unbelievably dangerous cissy who steals the show in an unforgettable performance. Adapted by Trevanian (actually film scholar Rodney Whitaker) and mystery novelist Warren Murphy. Wish-fulfilment writ large, this is a lot of stylish fun. Here’s to the selfish killer and patriotic whore

The Grass is Greener (1961)

The Grass is Greener green

Our love for each other is founded on mutual distrust. In order to maintain their crumbling and damp stately home, Earl Vincent Rhyall aka Victor (Cary Grant) and his wife Lady Hilary (Deborah Kerr) reluctantly open it to coach parties of tourists, one of whom, American oil millionaire Charles Delacro (Robert Mitchum), falls for the lady of the manor. Feeling rather neglected, she begins to return his advances and spends four days with him at the Savoy in London. In order to win her back, the Earl has to call on the services of his old flame, Hattie Durant (Jean Simmons) and his very laconic, very English butler Trevor Sellers (Moray Watson) who’s really looking for material for a novel. When Hilary and Charles return to the manor, Victor decides there’s only one way to settle things and it’s straight out of the eighteenth century... That’s the way the world wags. It’s the third time Grant was paired with Kerr following Dream Wife and An Affair to Remember; ditto for Mitchum and Simmons after Angel Face and She Couldn’t Say No; and Mitchum had been memorably cast opposite Kerr in Heaven Knows Mr Allison and more recently in The Sundowners, also released in December 1960. Director Stanley Donen knew what he was doing with this immaculately polished stage adaptation by Hugh Williams and Margaret Vyner of their West End success. Yes, it’s theatrical but it’s beautifully mounted, the setting is fabulous and the Dior costumes wonderful (particularly Simmons’) and the cast really get their teeth into the smart dialogue. There are good in- jokes – including about Rock Hudson (originally intended for Mitchum’s role), a mutual friend of both men called ‘Josh Peters’ (a nod to Donen’s two young sons) and Paramount Studios. A class act, in every sense of the term, this was shot by Christopher Challis at Osterley Park, just outside London and the interiors were by Felix Harbord. There’s no honour where there’s sex

 

Bad Education (2019)

Bad Education

You were always the guy in the suits. Long Island, New York, 2002. Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is the superintendent of Roslyn School District which oversees Roslyn High School. Frank, along with his assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) have overseen major improvements in the district, with Roslyn becoming the 4th ranked public school in the country under their watch. This in turn stimulates the local economy, reaping rewards for school board head and real estate broker Bob Spicer (Ray Romano). Frank is beloved by students and parents alike, and sought after by women; Frank claims to have lost his wife several years ago, but is in fact gay, living with Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella) in NYC. While attending a conference in Las Vegas, Frank begins an affair with former student Kyle Contreras (Rafeal Casal) who has given up his dream of writing sci fi for waiting tables and dancing. While writing an article for the Roslyn school paper about an $8m sky bridge the school is planning to construct, student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) begins to discover discrepancies in the district’s finances. Unbeknownst to anyone at the school, Frank and Pam are co-conspirators in a massive embezzlement scheme that has cost millions of taxpayer dollars and her steady research leads all the way to the top and when Frank gives up Pam there will be hell to pay ... We come in here at the crack of dawn because we’re good people.  We want you to have a good life. Adapted from Bad Superintendent, a story by Robert Kolker in New York magazine by Mike Makowsky, who was a middle school student in that school district when Tassone was arrested for grand larceny.  Viswanathan isn’t a particularly interesting performer but she does what all journalists have done since watching All the President’s Men – she follows the money. It’s dogged old-school reporting stuff, looking at purchase orders, not finding receipts and then questioning everyone concerned.  It’s fun to see those moments with her doubtful student paper editor Nick Fleischman (Alex Wolff) doing a junior Ben Bradlee. The moment one hour in where she finds the so-called offices of the school’s pamphlet producer and realises it’s Tassone’s plush apartment where he’s co-habiting with a man is brilliantly done – capped when Tassone arrives and sees her desperate to leave the building. Jackman is superb as a charismatic man with many secrets, utilising his ability to psychoanalyse everyone around him to get the better of them since he seems to care so much about them. For the longest time we don’t even know the extent of his involvement as information is drip fed slowly through the narrative. His vanity is reflected in the scenes with him attending to his cosmetic routine, culminating in surgery. Jackman finds ways to plumb the breadth of the character and elicit empathy, stealing our hearts as easily as expensing first class flights to London with his boyfriend and deflecting come-ons from women in the parents’ association book club. Janney is superb in a chewy role – able to talk her way out of trouble, trying to buy her children’s affections even when her son is a total loser and ultimately choosing the path of revenge. Erring more on the dramatic rather than the comedic side of genre, this gives a rare insight into white collar crime – the quotidian corruption that afflicts cosy cartels running public bodies leading to those occasional stupefying headlines when you see something has gone bust yet all the admin people are living high on the hog while their workplaces are falling apart with damp. The sidebars about food intake, digestive issues, cosmetics, clothes, jewellery, pushy parenting and spoiling wrong ‘uns are well judged subplots amplifying the drudgery of the teaching environment and the desire to rise above the mere plebs. It’s wordy, it’s smart, it’s filled with people covering their asses and it’s called the ring of truth. Directed by Cory Finley. I am not the sociopath here

Dr No (1962)

Dr No

You are carrying a double 0 number. It means you are licensed to kill, not get killed. British agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) by head of the Secret Service M (Bernard Lee) is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow British agent, Strangways (Timothy Moxon) to determine if it is related to Strangways’ decision to co-operate on a CIA case involving the disruption of rocket launches from NASA’s base at Cape Canaveral in Florida by radio jamming. When Bond arrives in Jamaica, he is immediately accosted by a man claiming to be a chauffeur sent to collect him who is really an enemy agent sent to kill him. Before Bond can interrogate him, following a struggle, the agent kills himself with a cyanide capsule. After visiting Strangways’ house, Bond confronts Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) a boatman who was collecting mineral samples from Crab Key for Strangways and who reveals that he is aiding the CIA, introducing Bond to agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), who is also investigating Strangways’ disappearance. Local geologist Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) claims the samples are normal but Bond is not convinced. Dent travels to the underground base of megalomaniac Dr Julius No (Joseph Wiseman) a Chinese-German with prosthetic metal hands who is the operator of a bauxite mine on the Caribbean island of Crab Key (and a reclusive member of SPECTRE) who is plotting to disrupt the US space programme … Cyanide in a cigarette? Fantastic! The first in the series, based on Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel (the sixth in the book series) this really introduced Connery to the world. Shot with a relatively low budget, it’s fast-moving, whip smart and set the tone for a secret agent trend that has never really ceased. Fleming originally came up with the idea for the story as a screenplay for a film called Commander Jamaica with Dr No a riff on the character of Fu Manchu. That film never got made so Fleming adapted it into a novel. The screenplay for this was based on that as well as several other strands of Fleming’s work: Richard Maibaum and Wolf Mankowitz did the original draft which the producers rejected then Maibaum did one while Mankowitz removed his name; Irish writer Johanna Harwood who worked for Harry Saltzman rewrote that draft with thriller writer Berkely Mather. SPECTRE wasn’t mentioned until Thunderball, the 1961 novel that the producers had originally wanted to adapt first before legal issues complicated that plan. This may not have the bells and whistles of later films in the series but it has many of the iconic elements that became part of the identity of this long-running franchise including Ken Adam’s production design, Bond being introduced to the Walther PPK and an undertow of S&M. Connery’s performance is nigh-on perfect, a combination of violence, suave intelligence and droll wit; while shell diver Honey Rider’s (Ursula Andress) arrival like Venus on the beach is for the cultural ages. Directed by Terence Young. I do not like failure

Octopussy (1983)

Octopussy

Englishman. Likes eggs, preferably Fabergé. Likes dice, preferably fully loaded. British MI6 agent 009 drops off a fake Fabergé jewelled egg at the British embassy in East Berlin and is later killed at Octopussy’s travelling circus. Suspicions mount when the assistant manager of the circus who happens to be exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), outbids 007 James Bond (Roger Moore) for the real Fabergé piece at Sotheby’s. Bond follows Kamal to India where Bond thwarts several ingenious attacks, kidnapping by Kamal and encounters Kamal’s ally, the anti-heroine of the title (Maud Adams), an international smuggler who runs the circus as a cover for her illegal operations. It seems that Orlov (Steven Berkoff), a decidedly rank and belligerent Russian general is planning to raise enough money with the fake Fabergés to detonate a nuclear bomb in Europe and then defeat NATO forces once and for all in conventional warfare… The West is decadent and divided. The thirteenth in the series and Moore’s seventh appearance as the sexy superspy as well as the first to feature Robert Brown as M following Bernard Lee’s recent death, this is derived from a number of Ian Fleming’s stories: the title is from his 1966 short story collection and there is a scene inspired by another story, The Property of a Lady (included in 1967 and later editions of Octopussy and The Living Daylights), as well as one brief bit of characterisation lifted from Moonraker; while the events of the titular story Octopussy form a part of the title character’s background which she relates herself; but the bulk of the narrative is original, the screenplay credited to novelist George MacDonald Fraser who suggested that it be set in India, series regular Richard Maibaum & producer Michael G. Wilson. In fact Moore had intended retiring from the role but was deemed the most profitable actor for the part when the rival production Never Say Never Again with former Bond Sean Connery was up and running at the same time: James Brolin was apparently due to take over from Moore – can you imagine! The perception of this as the weakest of Moore’s particular Bond films doesn’t hold up despite its apparently problematic heroine (her MO is a bit slight) but Bond’s seduction of a woman who is his equal is particularly well observed –  in fact they both have a death to avenge. The narrative is especially prescient – to have a nuclear bomb planned for Germany, at the time the centre of Cold War fears (see the TV show Deutschland 83 for a dramatic interpretation of the time), feels utterly relevant and Moore is given great space for both humour and action, pitched at a perfect balance here and decidedly lacking in camp. It’s probably the best written of all his Bond iterations. The chases (and there are quite a few) are brilliantly mounted, including trains, planes automobiles and elephants and there’s a great homage to The Most Dangerous Game when our man is the jungle prey. The climactic aerial stunts are some of the most astonishing you’ll ever see – utterly thrilling. Legendary tennis player Vijay Amritraj has a great supporting role as Bond’s MI6 ally in India and even Q (Desmond Llewelyn) gets in on the action with a fabulous hot air balloon! Jourdan makes for a suitably insidious villain and Berkoff (almost!) has a blast as the nutty military man who makes the KGB’s Gogol (Walter Gotell) look sane. There is a terrific performance by Kristina Wayborn as Kamal’s stunning henchwoman Magda – her exit from a night with Bond has to be seen! Adams had of course appeared opposite Moore in previous Bond outing The Man With the Golden Gun as Scaramanga’s doomed mistress and she gets to flex more muscles here albeit her entrance is not until the film’s second half. Watch out for former Pan’s People dancer Cherry Gillespie as Midge, one of Octopussy’s bodyguards.  It’s wonderfully paced, with each sequence superseding the action of the previous one and the flavourful locations are beautifully captured by Alan Hume’s cinematography: this has undergone a pristine restoration. Among the very best Bonds, an episode whose influence can clearly be seen in both the Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible franchises.  The theme song, All Time High is written by John Barry and Tim Rice and performed by Rita Coolidge. Directed by John Glen, the second of his five outings at the helm. Perfect escapism. Mr Bond is indeed a very rare breed, soon to be made extinct

 

The Wolf Hour (2019)

The Wolf Hour

I don’t like to leave here. In 1977’s summer heatwave, New York City descends into violence with looting and rioting. Once-celebrated feminist author June Leigh (Naomi Watts) is afraid to leave her grandmother’s South Bronx walkup while the city burns. But it’s nothing new – she hasn’t left in years. Her groceries are delivered by Freddie (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from the store; she’s afraid to touch the garbage piling up on the floor with the noise of insects inside; the only contact she has with people is over the telephone. She can’t write the novel she’s been threatening for a long time. She is tormented by someone ringing her doorbell several times a night. She leaves a message for her sister Margot (Jennifer Ehle) to ask for money. When Margot shows up and evinces despair at June’s living conditions we recognise something traumatic has happened and a TV recording reveals an interview she did about her novel The Patriarch that created a devastating chasm in her family. Then the lights go out … The world gives back what you give to it. A weirdly timely look at the paranoia of someone who’s afraid to leave their own home – Watts even dons a facemask when her sister does the cleanup, afraid there’s a dead body on the premises. June looks out at the world in a state of some distress. It’s initially a portrait of a paranoid individual, then it’s a glimpse at the observational lifestyle of a particularly nervy and reclusive writer, then it’s a portrait of a someone suffering trauma. The arrival of three people trigger the action and story development – Freddie from the store who wants to wash himself in her bathroom; Officer Blake (Jeremy Bobb), a creepy policeman answering her call for help a week late with designs on her; Billy (Emory Cohen) the rent boy who gratifies her need for sex and finally checks out what’s happening downstairs – are classic dramatic characters. It’s the call from her agent that makes June wake up however with a month to produce her work. The tension as we wait to see if Freddie makes that drop is stomach churning. When Watts lets go and dances to music (in a score composed by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans) we empathise with her brief liberation from a hibernation that is clearly outside her control. Written and directed by Alistair Banks Griffin, this is strangely comforting lockdown viewing when everything is back to basic survival mode. Is that you?

Action in the North Atlantic (1943)

Action in the North Atlantic

Aka Heroes Without Uniforms. We’ve run into a wolfpack. Merchant Marine sailors First Mate Joe Rossi (Humphrey Bogart) and Captain Steve Jarvis (Raymond Massey) survive the sinking of SS Northern Star by German U-boat U-37 en route from Halifax. After 11 days drifting they are rescued. Steve spends time with his wife Sarah (Ruth Gordon), while Joe meets and marries singer Pearl O’Neill (Julie Bishop). At the union hall, merchant seamen, including the Northern Star survivors, spend their time waiting to be assigned to a new ship. Over a round of poker, Johnnie Pulaski (Dane Clark) jokes about getting a shore job and reveals his fear of dying at sea. The others shame him into signing along with them on another ship. Alfred “Boats” O’Hara (Alan Hale, Sr.) is tracked down by his wife, who has apparently not seen him since he was rescued. She angrily serves him with a divorce summons. O’Hara, knowing he is headed back to sea, gleefully tears it up, saying Them ‘Liberty Boats’ are sure well named! When they are charged with getting supply vessel Seawitch to Russian allies in Murmansk as part of a sea convoy and the group of ships comes under attack from U-37 again, Rossi and Jarvis are motivated by the opportunity to strike back at the Germans but now have to dodge Luftwaffe bullets too  For a sailor’s wife this war is just another storm.  Tremendously exciting action adventure paying tribute to the men of the US Merchant Marine. The evocation of a group under pressure with their particular avocations and tics is expertly done and the characterisation is a model for war movies. There are all kinds of devices and diversions, from an onboard kitten and his successor; to envy of a Naval officer Cadet Ezra Parker (Dick Hogan); and the usual carping about the quality of the nosh. With a screenplay by John Howard Lawson (from a story by Guy Gilpatric) and additional dialogue by A.I. Bezzerides and W. R. Burnett you can be sure there are some riproaring lines: A trip to perdition would be like a pleasure cruise compared with what we’re going into. Wonderfully shot by Ted McCord with marvellous effects, you would never guess that this was shot on the studio lot due to wartime restrictions. Directed by Lloyd Bacon with uncredited work by Byron Haskin and Raoul Walsh. I’ve got faith – in God, President Roosevelt and the Brooklyn Dodgers – in the order of their importance!

True as a Turtle (1956)

True as a Turtle

You’re in a taxi rank, skipper! Newly married Tony Hudson (John Gregson) offers his young wife Jane (June Thorburn) a cruise on a yacht as a honeymoon trip with his rich industrialist friend Dudley Partridge (Cecil Parker) who is sailing with his family, insurance man Harry Bell (Keith Michell) and his wealthy landlubber girlfriend Ann (Elvi Hale). Jane suffers from chronic seasickness but agrees and they go on board the Turtle, a fine ketch which initially has difficulty leaving port. A lot of misadventures await – including Partridge’s niece Susie (Pauline Drewett) catching German measles, crossing paths with a counterfeit gaming chip scam when they arrive at the French port of Dinard and then dealing with a real pea-souper fog that just might scupper their return … I hate boats. Don’t you? Jack Davies, Nicholas Phipps and John Coates adapted Coates’ novel, a marital comedy involving a lot of messing about in boats while the newlyweds really navigate their relationship. Gregson’s casting tips the wink that this is a kind of reworking of the beloved Genevieve, with Kay Kendall’s role being taken by Hale; while there are more than a few riffs on the plot of Brandy for the Parson but director Wendy Toye has a light touch and the intrigue and setting give this its own particular charm. It’s nicely shot on location in Dorset, Hampshire, London and France by Reginald Wyer. Look out for Clement Freud playing a croupier. You’ll soon get used to things being wet

Road to Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition

Where would this town be without Mr John Rooney? In 1931 Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hitman and enforcer for Irish-American mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) in the Rock Island area. His son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) hides in the car one night after the wake for one of Rooney’s henchmen and sees his Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) administer a shot in the head to the dead man’s brother Finn (Ciarán Hinds) who talked too much at the event; while he understands for the first time what his father does for a living when he witnesses the bloodshed. Rooney sends Connor to kill Michael and the boy but Connor instead kills his wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and other son Peter (Liam Aiken) in cold blood and Michael goes on the run with Michael Jr in an attempt to gain revenge for his family’s murder. He finds that he has no friends and no protection and is advised by Mafia man Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to give up. He reckons without a freelance corpse photographer Maguire (Jude Law) following him and thinks that by uncovering Connor’s theft that Rooney will accept him as the son he never had … A man of honour always pays his debts and keeps his word. I like this far better now that years have passed, Newman is gone and what I originally thought of as directorial heavy-handedness is more readily recognisable as a comfort with the excessive expressionistic qualities of the source material. Hanks’ doughy face with its deep-set eyes seems peculiarly unsuited for this kind of role but paradoxically lends the performance an unexpected quality. His six-week road trip with his son gives him an opportunity to impart lessons and learn about the boy for the first time. He makes us know that Michael Jr is not to follow him into this deadly business. His scenes with Newman are marvellous – a kind of trading off in acting styles, one legend passing on lessons to the next, borne out in the storytelling. What Michael doesn’t know is that blood means more than sympathy, no matter the horrors involved in being part of the Rooney family. Of course Connor would betray his father;  and of course his father knows. It’s a hard thing to watch Michael learn the truth. Loyalty sucks. This is a gallery of masculine roles – Craig as the ever-smiling psychotic son, Law as the rotten-toothed shooter masquerading as the photographer of death – a correlative of the film’s own morbidity; Hoechlin as the boy learning at his father’s elbow as the guns go off. Hinds impresses in those early scenes, quietly seething then mouthing off at his brother’s wake, a crime which will  not go unpunished. Dylan Baker’s accountant Alexander Rance has a decidedly old-fashioned homosexual taint of prissiness. This is a linear story of fathers and sons, cause and effect, crime, punishment and revenge in an Oedipal setting dictated by the rules of inevitability that can be traced to Greek tragedy. There are no surprises but the pleasures of the production design by Dennis Gassner, the cinematography by Conrad Hall (who earned a posthumous Academy Award) and the performances make this worth a re-viewing. Screenplay by David Self from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers