Cape Fear (1962)

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From my limited knowledge of human nature, Max Cady isn’t a man who makes idle threats. After an eight-year prison sentence for rape, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) targets Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), one of the lawyers who sent him away. When Max finds Sam and his family, he begins a terrifying stalking spree, intending to ruin Sam’s life. Desperate to protect his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin), Sam makes every effort to send Max back to jail. But when his attempts fail, Sam realizes that he must take matters into his own hands if he wants to rid his life of Max for good after he targets his family and makes the lewdest of provocative suggestions to the Councillor …  The great John D. MacDonald’s novel The Executioners was adapted by James R. Webb and director J. Lee Thompson turns the whole kit and caboodle into something absolutely sensational:  a crime thriller that has an extraordinary pair of performances at its helm and a great sense of place. Peck (reunited with his Guns of Navarone helmer) is the relentlessly decent family man driven to violence and Mitchum is extraordinary as the horrifically lascivious crim who says and does everything imaginable to torture him, playing the system to its limits for all it’s worth while Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas are on both their tails. Brilliantly shot, paced and designed and totally enervating. Fabulous.

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I, Tonya (2017)

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There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants! In 1991, talented figure skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) becomes the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. We first see her as a three year old in 1970s Portland Oregon where her monstrous multiply-married mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) insists that she be mentored by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) at the local rink.  In 1994, her world comes crashing down when her violent ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) conspires with her moronic and delusional bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to injure Harding’s friend  and fellow Olympic hopeful and biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in a poorly conceived attack that forces the young woman to withdraw from the national championship. Harding’s life and legacy instantly become tarnished as she’s forever associated with one of the most infamous scandals in sports history…  When producer and star Robbie read Steven Rogers’s pitch black comedy she didn’t realise it was based on a true story (sort of). Her determination to bring this radical post-modern interpretation of one of the most notorious sporting crimes in the last quarter of a century to the big screen is testament to both her good taste and her chutzpah – this after all is her first starring role and she produced the film. She gives a powerhouse performance in a difficult role, delineating Harding’s evolution from white trash teen to triple axel-crushing rink monster routinely routed by snobby judges who want someone more ‘family’-friendly as their poster child and create the conditions for unconscious revenge against the powers that be. You were as graceless as a bull dyke. It was embarrassing! Janney’s performance has won all the awards (never forget she was everyone’s fave woman in the world in The West Wing) however she plays this crushing creature for a couple too many laughs.  It’s Robbie who has the tough job here – convincing us in this self-reflexive narrative that she really did deserve plaudits and not the horrifying level of domestic abuse which she came to expect after being reared by a veritable dragon in human form. Having each of the characters variously interviewed and breaking the fourth wall occasionally to ask why their contribution isn’t being featured at different points in the story reminds you that there are competing testimonies here.  The end credits, complete with real-life cringe-inducing footage of the ghastly individuals (this is really a documentary!) interspersed with Harding’s uplifting, magical performances makes you wonder how the poor girl ever survived the rank and file awfulness of her dreary Pacific north-west background. The interview with Hard Copy journalist Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) and the juxtaposition with the breaking news of OJ Simpson as the drama concludes in 1994 reinforces the underlying story of newsmaking in the 90s and how these two stories changed TV journalism forever. Brilliantly constructed and performed and well executed by Craig Gillespie. 6.0! Go Tonya!

All the President’s Men (1976)

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Where’s the goddamn story? There’s a break in at the Watergate building and a laidback and very green Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is suspicious when the Cuban-American burglars appear in court with high-level representation. Boss Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) teams him up with chippy Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to help out  – Bernstein writes better copy. Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) is not convinced that there’s much there but reluctantly gives the go-ahead.  With the help of a mysterious source, code-named Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), the two reporters make a connection between the burglars and a White House staffer. They encounter dirty tricks, ‘rat-fucking’ and an organisation known as CREEP. Follow the money Despite dire warnings about their safety, the duo follows the money all the way to the top… Part conspiracy thriller, part detective story, part newspaper flick, this only errs on the forgivably smug side that you’d expect if you’d been one of the hacks who’d (mistakenly) stumbled on an Oval Office-level conspiracy in the early 1970s. Part of director Alan J. Pakula’s unofficial paranoid trilogy (along with Klute and The Parallax View) this was adapted from Woodward and Bernstein’s book by William Goldman in the first instance – or actually four – before it was rewritten by Bernstein and Nora Ephron and then by Pakula and Redford, albeit those claims have been debunked. It’s a film that shows you the process of how to get and write the story – the sheer drudgery of sitting at desks, making phonecalls, being fobbed off, meeting strange men in car parks, going to libraries to borrow books, boredom, fear, anticipation, surveillance, and typing, typing, typing, the whole kit and caboodle. But when it’s played by two of the world’s biggest film stars at the time and they make calling someone on the phone so unbearably tense, you know you’re in good hands. As Redford’s biographer Michael Feeney Callan clarifies, Redford’s mind was already elsewhere during production despite the project being his and he was permanently distracted, yet we are carried on this tidal wave of information that started as a local story and became a national scandal – despite knowing the rather fabled outcome. What a way to make your name. Katharine Graham’s role was excised entirely from the action, to be resurrected in the preceding scandal of the Pentagon Papers dramatised in the recent The Post. Remarkable on every level, with the characters becoming at times functionaries of a cannily authentic production design by George Jenkins and a shooting style by Gordon Willis that emphasises light – its presence and absence, its curtailment and its blazing power – amid an ensemble of brilliant players in roles large and small, thrillingly brought to life. Classic.

 

 

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

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Personally I prefer a girlfriend not to have a husband. An Irish-American seaman Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) becomes involved in a complex murder plot when he is hired by renowned criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan) to work on a yacht after rescuing the man’s wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth) from a disturbing attack in Central Park NYC. He soon finds himself implicated in the murder, despite his innocence. The film is best remembered for the climactic hall of mirrors scene with a shoot out amidst shards of shattering glass…. Orson Welles’ adaptation (with uncredited help from William Castle, Charles Lederer and Fletcher Markle) of a novel by Sherwood King was so confusing that Columbia boss Harry Cohn offered a reward to anyone who could make head or tail of it. Somebody please tell me what it’s about! But the plot of this murder mystery pastiche is hardly the point:  it’s a gorgeously shot tongue in cheek meditation on the games men and women play. Sometimes they wind up in murder. The narration is crucial. The hall of mirrors scene is justly famous. Shot by Charles Lawton (and Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker) with the yachting scenes done on Errol Flynn’s Zaca, this is the one where Hayworth’s fiery locks were shorn into a shockingly short blonde bob and Welles sports a cod Oirish accent presumably culled from his days at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Mad, strange and blacker than black, this is all about shadows and deception and imagery and set-pieces. Stunningly edited by Viola Lawrence. I never make my mind up about anything until it’s over and done with.

Can-Can (1960)

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If in Lesbos, a pure Lesbian can, Baby, you can can-can too. In Montmartre, Paris, 1896, nightclub owner Simone Pistache (Shirley MacLaine) is known for her performances of the can-can, a provocative (panty-free) dance recently outlawed for being immoral.  The women in the club, including Claudine (Juliet Prowse) use their feminine wiles to get the police to look the other way (eventually). Though Simone’s dancing delights patrons to no end, it also attracts the ire of the self-righteous Judge Philippe Forrestier (Louis Jourdan), who aims to punish her. The judge hatches a plot to photograph Simone in the act and ends up falling for her – much to the chagrin of her boyfriend, handsome lawyer François Durnais (Frank Sinatra)… Based on Abe Burrows’ musical comedy, this was written by Dorothy Kingsley and Charles Lederer. The music (by Cole Porter) was arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, famous for his work with Sinatra, whose duet with Judge Paul Barriére (Maurice Chevalier) of the opening and closing number I Love Paris was deleted from the release print. MacLaine gives a barnstorming performance in the lead and Sinatra is … himself. Let’s Do It, You Do Something To Me and Just One of Those Things are among the great songs. It’s beautifully staged (with Hollywood’s interior decorator to the stars Tony Duquette getting a consultant’s credit) and witty, with particularly smart lyrics. The ladies and gentlemen are costumed in great style by Irene Sharaff. It may be set in Paris but it was shot (gorgeously, by Billy Daniels) on the studio lot and was the occasion of a famous set visit by Nikita Khrushchev who denounced the scene as depraved in what he believed was a propaganda coup. It wasn’t remotely as decadent as having somewhere between 20 and 60 million of your own citizens murdered (why keep count) but hey, that’s showbiz. Directed by Walter Lang.

The Return of Frank James (1940)

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I can’t talk without thinking, not being a lawyer. When Jesse James’s murderers the Ford Brothers are set free, his brother Frank (Henry Fonda) who’s been lying low farming, vows revenge and, accompanied by his gang, sets out to track them down. To fund his manhunt, he robs an express office and is subsequently wrongly accused of the clerk’s murder, but an aspiring newspaper reporter Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney) is determined to find out the truth… Sam Hellman wrote a sequel to the earlier Henry King film and it was directed by renowned German director Fritz Lang, his first colour film and his first western. Notable for also being Tierney’s acting debut, she was appalled at her voice and thought she sounded like an angry Mickey Mouse:  she remedied the problem by developing a lifelong smoking habit. She plays nicely opposite Fonda who returns from the earlier film and has several great scenes, including the theatre episode when he’s watching a dramatic ‘re-enactment’ portray his brother’s murder by the Fords while he runs away – the Fords play themselves – and registers his disgust, drawing their attention to him and commencing a chase with Bob Ford (John Carradine). There’s a very funny scene when he and young brother Clem (wonderfully characterised by Jackie Cooper) imprison a nosy Pinkerton detective who’s alerted Stone to their true identities. When justice is finally seen to be done after a trial, Clem steps in to help and the final scene between them is very touching. Wonderfully staged and played, this is a consummate, straightforward revenge western, well told.

 

The Rainmaker (1997)

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I sit here with this poor suffering kid and I swear revenge. Struggling new attorney Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) resorts to working for a shady lawyer Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke), where he meets paralegal Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito). He has a couple of clients including Colleen ‘Miss Birdie’ Birdson (Teresa Wright) whose millions turn out to be a bust but at least she has a garage apartment he can rent instead of living in his car. When the insurance company of Dot Black (Mary Kay Place) refuses her dying son coverage, Baylor and Shifflet team up to fight the corrupt corporation, taking on its callous lawyer Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight). Meanwhile, Baylor becomes involved with Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), an abused wife, whose husband (Andrew Shue) complicates matters when he confronts Baylor…  Director Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Herr do a fine job of making a very well balanced adaptation of John Grisham’s bestseller, with a nice portion of (occasionally gallows) humour to oppose the sometimes shocking domestic violence. There’s an exceptional cast doing some very convincing roleplay here. It’s a pleasure to see Rourke as the smoothly corrupt Stone, with his first scene referencing Rumble Fish (which he starred in for Coppola years earlier) by virtue of a well-placed aquarium. Damon is fine as the naif who has to grow up and take responsibility for people of all ages and persuasions and the relationship with DeVito is very well drawn. There are no real dramatic surprises, just a well made film but Virginia Madsen has an excellent part in the film’s last courtroom sequence and Place is fantastic as the mother who wants justice for her sick son. The wonderful Teresa Wright made her final screen appearance here.

How To Murder Your Wife (1965)

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Follow the adventures of America’s favorite hen-pecked boob! Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) is a successful cartoonist with his syndicated Bash Brannigan strip and happily single, cosseted by his disdainful valet Charles (Terry-Thomas) who maintains the status quo which includes his weight. That’s until Stanley gets drunk at a friend’s bachelor party and impulsively proposes to the beautiful woman who pops out of the cake (Virna Lisi). Once sober and back home the next morning with a total stranger, he regrets the decision, but she won’t agree to a divorce – she’s Italian! And doesn’t speak a word of English until she stays up all night watching TV. During the day she cooks him delicious fattening meals and he can barely jog around the gym any longer. Stanley jokingly vents his frustrations in his comic strip by having the main character kill his wife with Charles  returning to the fold in his usual role of photographer in chief. But when his actual wife goes missing and Stanley is arrested for her murder, he has a change of heart – then there’s a trial and he has to find a way to demonstrate that he doesn’t always draw cartoons from pre-photographed scenarios … Written and produced by George Axelrod and directed by Lemmon’s regular collaborator, Richard Quine, this is as good-looking as we’ve come to expect of the team and is a lot of fun. Part of the charm is in the casting which has some fantastic supporting characters, especially Eddie Mayehoff as Harold Lampson, Stanley’s lawyer, who himself harbours fantasies about murdering his own wife, Edna (Claire Trevor) an Italophile who suspects Stanley of foul deeds. Lisi is a delight as Mrs Ford (we never learn her real name) and this was the first of her Hollywood films in which she was clearly being groomed to emulate Marilyn Monroe, whose death pose (itself widely acknowledged to have been carefully staged) she unfortunately emulates in one of Stanley’s fantasies while she is asleep. And what about that white gown! Fabulous. Nonetheless, despite the misogynistic aspects, this is great fun and … the women have the last (gap-toothed!) word. As it should be.

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

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Aka Thelma Jordon.  The past is the prelude to the future. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that, Miss Jordon?  The lovely Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck) shows up late one night in the office of soused assistant DA Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey) a married man, who would rather get drunk than go home to a younger wife whose father torments him. Thelma tells him a story about prowlers and burglars at the home of her aunt who she takes care of. She’s concerned about her aunt’s valuable emeralds. He asks her to join him for a drink and she agrees. Before Cleve can stop himself, he and Thelma are involved in a love affair. But Thelma is a mysterious woman, and Cleve can’t help wondering if she is hiding something.When Aunt Vera is found shot, Thelma calls Cleve rather than the police, and he helps her cover up evidence that may incriminate her, but he believes her version of events – an intruder killed the woman. When she is arrested for murder, Marshall is in a unique position to help her and persuades the prosecution that a reasonable doubt exists due to evidence of an elusive Mr X (which he believes is Thelma’s estranged husband, Tony Laredo). Thelma Jordon is acquitted. Her past, however, has begun to catch up with her and she finds a deadly way to make it go away … Marty Holland’s story was developed as a screenplay by Pulitzer Prizewinner Ketti Frings and the links to Stanwyck’s previous femme fatale in Double Indemnity are clear with Stanwyck fiercely attractive as the bad girl who does the right thing – in the end. The atmosphere is quite fatalistic, and practically Langian, amplified by the dark tones of cinematography by George Barnes, echoing Thelma’s plea, why do crimes always have to take place at night? Very well handled by emigre director Robert Siodmak, this is a very underrated noir which despite some flawed construction offers some wonderful performances to enjoy with a truly shocking outburst of violence leading to an almost contrite conclusion.

Molly’s Game (2017)

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The United States versus Molly Bloom. The true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) a beautiful, young, Olympic-class freestyle skier trained by her father (Kevin Costner) who had a terrible accident that stopped her in her tracks aged 22 and she turned to running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade in LA then NYC before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and … the Russian mob which she didn’t know about but she’s indicted all the same. She’s broke, her money’s on the street, she has no friends. Her only ally is her criminal defence lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who learns there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led people to believe… This should be a screwball comedy but the stakes aren’t really high enough and most of the time Molly isn’t the protagonist, she’s more of a stooge to several men whose power she threatens.  Aaron Sorkin turns his own poker hand to directing with this adaptation of the well-publicised book by Bloom. What it has aside from a woman with daddy issues and an incredible brain are some insights into one vastly overrated charming pillow-lipped actor (I’m lying, obvs) who isn’t named here but everyone knows his poker habit and that he married the studio boss’ daughter (they’re now divorced, he’s not been onscreen for ages) and what he does to Molly is … what you’d expect. So this devolves into sexist power-playing and cheating. The difference between sport, playing poker, gambling and cheating is the axis on which the narrative rests, and those slim timings between winning and losing and trusting what you know rather than letting the other fellow game you with a duff hand. I’m agnostic about Chastain although as critic Tom Shone has it, she doesn’t care whether we like her. In real life, Bloom is a very interesting woman. Here, despite her smarts, it takes her psychologist/nemesis father to give her the dimestore truths about what’s screwed her up (and it’s very obvious, just not to her). It’s just a shame it takes 125 minutes to get the three-year diagnosis in the three minutes it actually takes. However it’s structurally relevant because she has undercut him as a kid by issuing her high school teacher’s critique of Freud in an attempt to undermine his profession over family dinner. There is a good supporting cast:  Michael Cera is the Movie Star, Chris O’Dowd is the Irish American schmuck who turns informer for the FBI, Brian d’Arcy James is the idiot loser who turns out to be something else entirely, Bill Camp is the serious player who loses everything. The voiceover narration (somewhat unreliable, given that it’s from an addict suppressing her memories) is both irritating and enlightening. The exchanges with Elba are problematic – as ever he has diction issues so he’s not as fluid as Chastain and you take cover for fear of his spittle reaching beyond the screen. However as long-winded and prolix as this is (and thank goodness there’s very little time spent in court and none walking/talking) it’s almost a relief to see a film that doesn’t require the female to have sex with the leading man, even if he’s permitted to win a verbal battle concerning The Crucible and she has to take a horrible beating courtesy of some very nasty Joisey mooks. What this probably needed is the conclusion that the real (literary) Molly Bloom has courtesy of James Joyce, referenced here several times: a final, stinging monologue that takes everyone down. But even Sorkin knows he can’t outplay the master and Molly has learned what she knew all along – trust nobody. The only problem is after 140 minutes it really doesn’t amount to a hill of poker chips.  Adapted by Sorkin from Bloom’s memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.