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.

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Mrs Pollifax – Spy (1971)

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A widowed retiree volunteers her services to the CIA and finds herself drugged in Mexico City and handcuffed to Darren McGavin on a plane to Albania. A different kind of gap year, perhaps. Rosalind Russell herself adapted the promising book by Dorothy Gilman (one of a series) in a production by her husband, Frederick Brisson. Instead of the fun travelogue spoof you might expect of the era, it’s a mostly dull stint in an Albanian prison (an hour…) with just a few colour shots in Mexico and an awful lot of sparse mountains. Remind me never to go to the land of Enver Hoxha or even Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which looks like an utterly miserable substitute. Unremarkable, to say the very least. It was Russell’s last film. Directed by Leslie Martinson.

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.

Battle Hymn (1957)

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I love the films of Douglas Sirk because despite their largely being remakes of weepies he cuts through the sentiment with astringency and formal style. Usually. Not so here in an adaptation of a memoir by preacher Dean Hess. Hudson is full of remorse for having accidentally killed 37 children in a German orphanage in WW2 and signs up to train fighter pilots in Korea leaving wife Martha Hyer at home to brood (literally – she’s pregnant). He conceals his religiosity and newfound ministry from old buddy Don DeFore and his colleagues until he’s found out and they feel deceived. He puts his beliefs to good use in acts of atonement for local orphans who are being cared for by Anna Kashfi (the London Irish model who pretended to be Indian, even fooling husband Marlon Brando). She falls for him, unaware he is married and he participates in bombing missions and then tries to save DeFore after a disastrous outing and the orphans need to be saved from repeat attacks. This is in many ways a typical service movie but with added mawkishness rendering it close to intolerable even with Hudson acting his socks off and some more than decent aerial photography.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

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For a book to not merely survive but to come intact and unbesmirched out of a screen adaptation once is great good fortune;  to do so twice is little short of miraculous. Yet this is what has happened with John Le Carre’s great, resonant spy novel which exposed the dull, continuous procedural processes underlying the killing machine of British intelligence. The late Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan did a fine job of whittling back the story, even if some of the agents didn’t get the kind of coverage in terms of the narrative that the 1979 BBC series was able to luxuriate in telling. Crucially, they understand that much of this is about storytelling itself and the nature of perspective. Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish director, had form in adaptations. Let the Right One In (2008) seemed like a superb, inventive vampire story beneath the flat shooting style – until one reads the novel, which is essentially a screenplay template that was altered just two jots (the child abuse theme; and a scene at the swimming pool was altered  in the timeline) in its adaptation. (So much for auteurism!) However here he comes into his own. Each shot choice, every aesthetic decision, every scene, is immersive.  It is a great woozy 70s experience, with Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography perfectly capturing the very brown-ness of the era in London, and Maria Djurkovic’s production design stunningly accurate. The performances are pitch perfect. Gary Oldman had a tough call to make as Smiley but if you’re not fetishistic about Alec Guinness he is a wonderful casting choice (and got an Academy Award nomination); and of the vast and interesting ensemble Benedict Cumberbatch is a fabulous, swaggering Peter Guillam, inhabiting him like a predatory male model. He looks so very different to all those other bland grey men. The scene when he ditches his gay lover is shot behind a rain-spattered window, the sound dulled down, and it is unbearably moving. Smiley’s Lady Anne is never seen fully, just in profile, as she cheats on her beleaguered husband over and over again. The green painted walls, the telephones, the music. It’s all ready and waiting. For paper addicts, this is a feast for the eyes –  notes, files, archives … Glorious!! This is simply brilliant cinema, to be watched over and over. Superb.

Advise & Consent (1962)

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Allen Drury’s Pulitzer-winning 1959 novel was a hugely controversial roman a clef (something he denied) about Washington shenanigans. Written after the Chambers-Hiss affair, it uncovers the background to Communist witch hunting, homosexual blackmail and lobbying in the wake of the ailing President’s decision to nominate a new Secretary of State. Long and engrossing, it is probably director Otto Preminger’s last great film with a stellar cast including Franchot Tone, Walter Pidgeon, Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Charles Laughton, Don Murray and Lew Ayres. Intelligent and complex, full of constitutional issues, moral quagmires and voting tension.  Quite an achievement.