The Two-Headed Spy (1958)

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A man cannot control the circumstances of his birth but he can make a choice. In 1939 Alex Shottland (Jack Hawkins) has been embedded as a British agent at the highest levels of the German military since WW1 and is tiring of his role but is urged to continue by his fellow agent Cornaz (Felix Aylmer) who is posing as an antiques dealer. They carry on their meetings under cover of Shottland’s purported interest in clocks. The revelatioin of Schottland’s half-British origins raises the eyebrows of the obsessive and creepy Lt. Reinisch (Erik Schumann) who works as his assistant and he alerts Schottland’s superiors about a potentially traitorous connection to the enemy. Schottland falls in love with singer and fellow spy Lili Geyr  (Gia Scala) whose melancholic songs carry coded messages across the airwaves to the Allies.  Reinisch suspects their relationship is a cover just as the Battle of the Bulge is getting underway and Schottland struggles to communicate the plans to his real superiors I’ll come to your place any time you want me to and spend the night. The amazing true-ish story was based on J. Alvin Kugelmass’ book Britain’s Two-Headed Spy and although A.P. Scotland was an adviser on the production it’s not based on his real escapades. The screenplay is notable for being written by not one but two blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson and the uncredited Alfred Lewis Levitt. Hawkins is excellent as the net seems to be closing in and he has to endure Cornaz being tortured to death;  while Scala impresses as the slinky songstress with espionage at her heart. There are some terrific scenes at Berlin’s highest table with Kenneth Griffith emoting unseen as Hitler.  Taut storytelling, excellent characteristation, glossy monochrome cinematography by Ted Scaife and an urgent score by Gerard Schurmann combine to make this an enthralling spy thriller. Look quickly for Michael Caine as a Gestapo agent while Geoffrey (Catweazle) Bayldon is Dietz. Directed by André De Toth. Truth is allegiance

Destroyer (2018)

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Silas is back. As a young cop, Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) went under cover with colleague Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate a gang in the California desert – with tragic results. Sixteen years later, a prematurely aged, alcoholic and divorced Bell continues to work as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, but feelings of anger and remorse leave her worn-down and consumed by guilt. She has to deal with her trampy truanting 16-year old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) shacked up with a hoodlum (Beau Knapp) while in the custody of her ex-husband Ethan (Scott McNairy). When Silas (Toby Kebbell) the leader of the old gang suddenly re-emerges, Erin embarks on a quest to find his former associates, bring him to justice and make peace with her tortured past but the implications for everyone connected with her could prove terminal ... I’ve got good news and bad news. There’s nobody fucking watching. But I see who you are. Kidman is absolutely rivetting in a narrative that is all about backstory and how it plays into the present – great writing by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi with a marvellous reversal of the usual gender expectations, Kidman giving us her version of Bad Lieutenant. This is relentlessly tense but also touching – who couldn’t feel desperately sad when Shelby shows up for an attempt at conciliation by her mother – accompanied by the twentysomething junkie gangster who’s having sex with her? Dreadful. Emma’s demons are internal but they’re also familial, professional, external. It’s probably Kidman’s greatest performance but it’s brilliantly conceived and executed in terms of how it looks (shot by Julie Kirkwood), how it feels and how it plays, with a raft of detailed, memorable character performances by a cast that includes James Jordan, Bradley Whitford and Tatiana Maslany. A tour de force by director Karyn Kusama, and all who sailed with her. Outstanding. What if I know who did it?

 

The Irishman (2019)

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It is what it is. In 1975 mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives are on an east-west roadtrip, their ultimate destination Detroit for the wedding of Russell’s niece. An elderly Sheeran tells the story of their association as a meet-cute when he was driving a meat truck in the 1950s and his rise through the ranks, his appointment to a Teamster position under Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the union supremo with deep Mafia ties. It becomes apparent that there is an ulterior motive to the journey and their role in America’s evolution particularly with regard to the Kennedy family is traced against a series of hits Sheeran carries out that reverberate through US history… What kind of man makes a call like that. Not so much Goodfellas as Oldfellas, a ruminative journey through midcentury America via the prism of a violent hitman who allegedly befriended and later murdered infamous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. This is toned-down Scorsese, with muted colours to match the readjusted and very mature framing of Mafia doings in terms of the impact it has on family, chiefly Sheeran’s sensitive daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult) whose mostly silent presence functions as the story’s moral centre:  her horror of Bufalino is a constant reprimand. Steven (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses is not for the fainthearted:  its overlength is sustained mainly by performance with a powerhouse set of principals (plus Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale et al) battling against a lot of unmemorable and somewhat repetitive dialogue (but when it’s good, it’s great), under-dramatised setpieces and a fatally bloated midsection (as in life, so in narrative), much of which is spent in courtrooms. Every time there’s a lull in the action someone needs Frank to off the source of their discontent and sometimes this is handled with straightforward exposition, sometimes in a montage of Frank disposing gun after gun off a bridge. That’s the story punctuation. Mostly however the issue is with DeNiro’s dull and wearying voiceover. This is not the funny jive kick of Ray Liotta in the aforementioned 1990 classic, it’s a man utterly comfortable in his killer’s skin who doesn’t defend himself because it’s who he is and he is not given to introspection, a flaw in the anchoring perspective. If we’re seeing it, we don’t need to be told too. The de-ageing effect is jarring because we don’t see the DeNiro of Mean Streets, rather a jowly preternaturally middle-aged man who shuffles in an old man’s gait. While Pesci is calm and chillingly content in his own position as a capo, it’s Pacino (in his first collaboration with Scorsese) who lifts the mood and fills the air with punchy, positive ions, giving the movie a much-needed burst of energy. But even he seems to be circling the wagons around his own self-satisfied persona as the same story/work-life issues repeatedly arise. It’s a big movie about nasty men who (perhaps) played a huge role in the shaping of their country and the hierarchies of cultures and ethnicities are regularly invoked in a tale which may or may not be true. There are some potentially amusing gatherings of men in black suits at family events. But funny they ain’t.  It’s sad perhaps that Scorsese didn’t make this for cinema and after three weeks on limited release it is fated for eternity on a streaming service:  a sign of the times and perhaps the swansong of a major filmmaker at the end of the 2010s. The nail in the coffin of an era? After this we might be asking not just who killed Jimmy Hoffa but who killed the mob movie. Late Scorsese, in more ways than one. They can whack the President, they can whack the president of the union

Captain Marvel (2019)

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You call me ‘young lady’ again, I’ll shove my foot up somewhere it’s not supposed to be. Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers or Vers (Brie Larson) is an extraterrestrial Kree warrior who finds herself caught in the middle of an intergalactic battle between her people and the Skrulls. After crashing an experimental aircraft, Air Force pilot Carol Danvers was discovered by the Kree and trained as a member of the elite Starforce Military under the command of her mentor Yon-Rogg. Back on Earth in 1995, she keeps having recurring memories of another life as U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers. With help from S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) Captain Marvel tries to uncover the secrets of her past while harnessing her special superpowers to end the war with the evil Skrulls… We have no idea what other intergalactic threats are out there. And our one woman security force had a prior commitment on the other side of the universe. S.H.I.E.L.D. alone can’t protect us. We need to find more. The first twenty minutes are wildly confusing – flashbacks? dreams? reality? WTF? Etc. Then when Vers hits 1995 we’re back in familiar earthbound territory – Blockbuster Video, slow bandwidth, familiar clothes, Laser Tag references, and aliens arriving to sort stuff out under cover of human identities. And a killer soundtrack of songs by mostly girl bands(Garbage, Elastica, TLC et al). So far, so expected. Digital de-ageing assists the older crew including Annette Bening (she’s not just Dr Wendy Lawson! she’s Supreme Intelligence, natch) but the colourless Brie Larson (well, she is named after a cheese) doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the otherwise tolerable female-oriented end of the action adventure. There is however a rather marvellous ginger cat called Goose happily reminding us of both Alien and Top GunWritten and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. I have nothing to prove to you

War Paint (1953)

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I once read a lot of books about humanity. All wrong. When we get back I’ll write a new one. With only nine days to deliver a peace treaty to Gray Smoke, the chief of a strong Native American tribe, cavalry Lieutenant Billings (Robert Stack) and his troopers are in a race against time to avoid all-out war. Since time is of the essence, Billings recruits the chief’s son Taslik (Keith Larsen), to guide the men to the settlement. However Billings and his men are unaware that a group of renegades, wary of the suspicious U.S. treaty, seek to kill the messengers before they can complete their mission and they find that the Bureau of Indian Affairs officer Kirby has been killed – by Taslik . Gradually depleted of supplies including mapping equipment, water and horses, they realise Taslik has led them in a circle but are unaware they are being tracked by his sister Wanima (Joan Taylor) who is causing the landslides and is watching and waiting with a rifle … Without water he’s as dead as we are. This western is rich in irony, not least in the casting because Stack’s impassivity is a good physical reflection of the painted features of Larsen. The backstories of each trooper are drawn out smartly:  Charnofsky (John Doucette) is Polish and says he fled the old country because the Tsar wanted to put me in the military! As the men are gradually driven mad by thirst and greed, the infighting worsens, casualties mount and there is a truly compelling account of a death by poison; one man chooses suicide rather than wait for what appears to be inevitable. The original script had a mercy killing which elicited the ire of the Production Code Administration and had to be removed. All in all a convincing narrative, shot in the relentless glare of Death Valley. It’s written by C. Fred Freiberger, William Tunberg and producer Aubrey Schenck, who wrote the original story, while the screenplay credits are to Richard Alan Simmons and Martin Berkeley. The score is by Arthur Lange and Emil Newman and any film that has a song called Elaine can’t be half bad. Directed by Lesley Selander. Kinda lost track here. Only thing that breaks up the time is the wars

Damascus Cover (2017)

 

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When missions go bad, there’s only one rule – protect your partner.  Following the murder of his colleague in Damascus by Syrian Secret Police Chief Sarraj (Navid Negahban) Israeli agent Ari Ben-Sion aka Hans Hoffman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is deployed to Syria by his overseer Miki (John Hurt) to exfiltrate a spy and his family and runs into American photographer Kim (Olivia Thirlby) with whom he becomes involved before realising she is part of a much bigger plot and the real target of his mission is an entirely different individual in deep cover but hiding in plain sight … It’s a real maze. Adapted by director Daniel Zelik Berk and Samantha Newton from Howard Kaplan’s 1977 bestseller this is updated to 1989, the year of revolutions, so that the action happens in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall (although they’re not exactly celebrating Christmas here). The characterisation is undercooked and the storytelling is a little clunky – you feel that Hans/Ari should have figured out a lot quicker that something bigger is going on than his purported task. It’s the textural matters that are more interesting – the maze-like construction of a city where Jews are only permitted to leave their quarter one at a time, where streets lead you to dead ends like a rat; the depicting of the secret police under the original Assad; the post-war Nazis doing business in an Islamic haven (the role of Moslems in the Holocaust has yet to be dramatised); the issue of identity in a region where anti-semitism is writ large: when Ari enters Syria he is asked, Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine? He is already displaced in Israel after moving from Germany as a child and is suffering the bereavement any father would following the breakdown of his marriage in the wake of the death of his young son (although we don’t know how that happened, there are several shots of children at play as well as his haunting nightmares about the boy).  He doesn’t exhibit true emotion until he’s engaged with Kim who herself has issues with being distanced from her young son and who has a father whose actions for his Syrian overlords has resulted in his death.  She appears to be repaying a debt to the intelligence service, willingly or not. Berk is the former talent agent who introduced John Travolta to Quentin Tarantino for which we are all truly grateful and this has a slick look and a trim running time. It’s beautifully shot by Chloë Thomson.  Despite the welcome complexities in Ari and his mistakes, and the issue of Syria versus Israel, it doesn’t plumb the resonant depths of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the echo casting of John Hurt in the perfunctory but dramatically significant role of Miki has a sorrowfulness because it is that great actor’s final part. It is fitting therefore that he should have the last word in the film’s signing off, Goodbye my friend

Address Unknown (1944)

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The quicksand of despair – and just before we died a man pulled us out. When Martin Schultz (Paul Lukas), a German expatriate art dealer living in the US, visits his homeland, he begins to get attracted by the Nazi propaganda and breaks ties with his close Jewish friend, Max Eisenstein (Morris Carnovsky) whose daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens) an aspiring actress is engaged to marry his son Heinrich (Peter Van Eyck) and she has accompanied Martin to Munich to pursue her career for a year. But Martin is swiftly recruited by Baron von Friesche (Carl Esmond) to work in the Culture Ministry with devastating repercussions … You can’t sit on two stools at once. At least not here in Germany. Kressmann Taylor’s 1938 novella sounded a gunshot over the ramparts about the dangers of Nazism and the screenplay by Herbert Dalmas does it justice – and then some. Director William Cameron Menzies deploys the style of German Expressionism (shot by Rudolf Maté) in the service of all that is decent and the escalating tension is brilliantly paced. The near-lynching of Griselle at the theatre is shocking and concludes in the tragic manner you know to expect. The atmosphere of intimidation and dread is expertly sustained while Lukas’ encroaching guilt over his role in the desperate developments in Germany grinds to a logical conclusion in the form of coded communication as the visuals veer from film noir shadows to straightforward horror mise en scène. A superb evocation of how two intertwined families suffer in the murderous Nazi terror. The old Juncker spirit and German arrogance are gone

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

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Aka Island of the Burning Damned/Island of the Burning Doomed. We must avoid injecting fear into an already dangerous situation. Novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson) run a pub called The Swan on the island of Fara, on the English coast.  Jeff hires former lover Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow) as his secretary and she arrives in the middle of an unseasonal and stifling heatwave – it’s winter, yet unusual things are occurring with cars stalling and TVs blowing up and sheep are dying inexplicably. Scientist Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee) arrives and rents a room at The Swan, setting up motion sensor cameras and taking soil samples and Jeff confronts him about what might really be happening and discovers that extra-terrestrials are in their midst so it’s time to get local doctor Vernon Stone (Peter Cushing to lend assistance as the temperatures rise and everyone seems to be losing their mind and what on earth is down in the gravel pit? … If the heat goes on like this it could very likely drive us insane!  Adapted by Ronald Liles from John Lymington’s novel, this had previously been adapted for broadcast by ITV in their Play of the Week slot in 1960 and Doctor Who husband and wife screenwriting team Pip and Jane Baker were hired to do this rewrite. This Hammer Films iteration has the key players in the studio and is all the better for it: that alien protoplasm ain’t got nothing on these guys, living in a pressure cooker of sex and fear. It’s nice to see Patrick Allen – that terrifying voice that so dominates my childhood memories is actually quite the thesp:  hark at him explain to his wife what the deal is with the smouldering minx Angela:  I wanted her! I wanted her body! It was completely physical, I promise you! while Lee is his usual earnest self as the de rigeur scientist, completely rational for a change, with Cushing, as ever, battling evil.  Merrow is marvellous as the vamp, going crazy, like everyone, in the sweltering heat. Satisfying sci fi very well handled by Terence Fisher. He’s a peculiar chap – but he’s got guts

 

The Thing From Another World (1951)

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Do you suppose the Pentagon could send us a revolving door?  Scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) reports a UFO near his North Pole research base, the US Air Force sends in a team under Capt. Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) to investigate. They uncover a wrecked spaceship and a humanoid creature (James Arness) frozen in the ice. They bring their discovery back to the base, but Carrington and Hendry disagree over what to do with it. Meanwhile, the creature is accidentally thawed and begins wreaking havoc... That’s what I like about the Army – smart all the way to the top! Produced and closely supervised by Howard Hawks, although this is credited to editor Christian Nyby as director, it is usually categorised as a Hawks film (Tobey said Hawks directed all but one scene) and it has his usual tropes – a community of professional men on a mission, quick wit and a feisty woman (and Margaret Sheridan gets most of the best lines as Tobey’s useful love interest). I’m not your enemy – I’m a scientist! Add to this an alien accidentally defrosted and a journalist desperate to share a scoop, together with a philosophical difference between soldiers and scientists raging as a blizzard whirls outside and you have a thriller perfectly modulated in tense phases culminating in a dynamic fight that emblemises the Cold War (that setting’s no accident). Part of the narrative’s psychology derives from the horrors of Hiroshima and contemporary public scepticism about the supposed advances of science. This is a fun, smart, well-written and staged entertainment – it could only be Hawks, not that it really matters. Adapted from John W. Campbell Jr’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? by Charles Lederer with uncredited work by Ben Hecht and Hawks. Watch the skies!

Dark Journey (1937)

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Not bad but you need to practise. World War I is in full thrust, but Swedish fashion store clerk Madeleine Goddard (Vivien Leigh) has apparently not aligned herself with either side. When she meets German soldier Karl Von Marwitz (Conrad Veidt), she falls in love. Karl, who presents himself as a footman of low rank and supposedly disgraced officer, is in fact a high-ranking official in the German army and an aristocrat. Madeleine has secrets of her own – she is a spy and double agent, working for the Allies in a bid to uncover the new head of the German Secret Service in Stockholm. As Madeleine and Karl are pulled deeper into the escalating war, their love may be the thing that saves their lives but when her German co-conspirator Anatole (Eliot Makeham) is murdered events overtake them and their identities might just prove their undoing ... Is it a crime to be German?/It’s worse, it’s a vulgarity. This pre-WW2 drama is prescient, pacifist and fence-sitting, all at once, a notably atmospheric tale of spy/counter-spy in a Stockholm that presents rather like a certain Moroccan destination would five years later.  Leigh is inscrutable to the point of roboticism at first, then suave ladykiller Veidt comes along and she’s even more attractive than that saucy minx Brazilian socialite Lupita (Joan Gardner, wife of Zoltan Korda, uncredited producer Alexander’s brother) who seems permanently up for it. With maps, submarines, pips on the radio, coded messages on the fabric held up against lamplight and fog dappling the harbour, it’s a very attractive concoction with a terrific ensemble cast that includes Ursula Jeans, Cecil Parker and Robert Newton as a U-boat officer. With a screenplay by Lajos Biró and scenario and dialogue by Arthur Wimperis, this is assisted by nicely graduated greys and soft whites in the cinematography which was carried out at Denham Studios on splendid sets designed by Andrej Andrejew, and enhanced by a suitably suspenseful score by Richard Addinsell conducted by Muir Mathieson. Naturally, the costumes by René Hubert are rather fabulous. Directed by Victor Saville. It’s easy to touch your pocket, it’s difficult to touch your heart