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.

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Encore (1951)

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My great aunt Louise very nearly had a man’s mind. She also very nearly had a man’s moustache. Anthology dramatization of three short stories by W. Somerset Maugham.  The Ant and the Grasshopper: Tom (Nigel Patrick) is a thorn in the side of his diligent brother George (Roland Culver) but a chance meeting with a wealthy woman changes everything. Directed by Pat Jackson and adapted by T.E.B. Clarke. Winter Cruise: Miss Reid (Kay Walsh) is boring her fellow cruise ship passengers with incessant talking, so  led by the captain (Noel Purcell) they set her up on a date with a handsome steward (Jacques Francois) that has surprising consequences for everyone. Directed by Anthony Pelissier and adapted by Arthur Macrae. Gigolo and Gigolette: Stella (Glynis Johns) and her husband Syd (Terence Morgan) are professional daredevils, but her worries about the future upon meeting two old troupers with a similarly dangerous act prompt her to risk it all at the casino in Monte Carlo. Directed by Harold French and adapted by Eric Ambler. I’ve always had a taste for Maugham’s stories and this is a pleasingly piquant collection, each introduced by the man himself from Villa La Mauresque, his home on the Riviera, where some of the action is set. Each story has a different rhythm and tone and yet they all coalesce into a solid whole with the obligatory (and rather unexpected) twist ending, giving Glynis Johns one of the best of her early roles. This was the third of a trilogy of films based on Maugham’s stories and it’s a treat.

Payment on Demand (1951)

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Bette Davis was reunited with her A Stolen Life director Curtis Bernhardt for this divorce drama that sees her screen persona keenly picked apart and reconstituted as she squares off against husband Barry Sullivan. She’s the San Francisco socialite who’s worried about her daughter’s relationship with a lower class guy when hubby arrives home to tell her he wants to split. Perfectly judged flashbacks reveal the dissolution of their relationship from its earliest days in hardscrabble families through marriage, business, children and society, until the dread day when she is told by her friends that her beloved has been carrying on with a woman and “she’s not even young!” That woman is Frances Dee, a university professor with interests and taste until the private eye’s flashbulbs intrude. Davis goes hell for leather for the money she helped hubby make. The screenplay by Bernhardt and Bruce Manning cleverly interpellates the journey from brittle/skittish to brutal/scathing, a diad that the audience knew characterised Davis’ own growth as a star and her capacity for both vulnerability and cruelty. She plays it to the hilt with good support from Sullivan and in the film’s most potentially mawkish scene she is brilliant – with her back to camera. This encapsulates Davis’ acting persona and it’s a winner. For more on her dualistic performances you can see my essay on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/double_life_part_1.

Christmas With the Kranks (2004)

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Tis the season to be jolly. Or not, if you’re Luther Krank (Tim Allen), your daughter Blairy (Julie Gonzalo) is in the Peace Corps in Peru for the forseeable future and you spent a shedload on this meaningless tripe last year – so why bother? This year he’s skipping Christmas, as the original title of this John Grisham adaptation goes. Time for a Caribbean cruise! Wife Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis) isn’t so sure and the pressure is on as the suburban neighbours gang up against them in their unsurprising display of conformist mob rule and the kids prank call them and organise baying crowds at their front door which is unadorned by lights or decor. There are some good jokes about Botox and religion. The satire turns soft when Blairy calls to say she’s arriving the next night for the traditional Christmas Eve celebrations – with her Peruvian boyfriend who’s asked her to marry him. There ensues a series of eleventh hour pratfalls to save the celebration, including borrowing a tree, finding tinned ham (uh – yum?!) and pretending that everything is going ahead as normal. The neighbours – even the curmudgeonly thug M. Emmet Walsh – help the Kranks pull off a regular Christmas because, you know, that’s how lynch mobs work. Live by their rules or die. And Luther gives away the cruise. Yes I live in a place just like this. As a vegetarian and humanist I can assure you no pigs will suffer chez moi and I would not have a glass snowman on my roof if my life were to depend upon it. Written by Chris Columbus and directed by Joe Roth. The countdown begins.

After the Sunset (2004)

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An enormously charming cast makes this action comedy caper a wholly enjoyable affair. Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek are the diamond thieves tempted by One Last Job on an island paradise prior to their wedding and retirement, though he keeps delaying writing his vows. Woody Harrelson is the FBI agent determined to catch them because they’ve foiled him before. Don Cheadle is the local crime bigwig who spots an opportunity to steal the third of the Napoleon Diamonds on a cruise ship stopping in the vicinity and Brosnan has to face him down – he stole the first two. It becomes a buddy movie and the sight of Brosnan and Harrelson spooning is really something. Naomie Harris pops up with the local police to add to the Bondian references. If you’re going to do this kinda thing, do it on a tropical island with performers who have charisma to burn. There’s a great ending, BTW. Brett Ratner returned to this sub-genre with Tower Heist and they’re probably the only two of his films to feature anything resembling real people, relatively speaking. Screenplay by Paul Zbyszewski and Craig Rosenberg.

Overboard (1987)

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I have never willingly foregone an opportunity to watch a Goldie Hawn movie:  she’s my kind of girl. And Leslie Dixon is a damned fine screenwriter – this was her sophomore outing – and as for Garry Marshall… well we know all about how well he could commandeer a comedy and make it as charming as you like. This is the screwball one on the boat where Goldie’s the rich bitch travelling up the Pacific coast with hubby Edward Herrmann being roundly abusive to all the staff and particularly carpenter Kurt Russell whom she hires to remodel her closet. When she’s picked up by a garbage scow after a late-night fall, Herrmann affects not to know her and Russell pretends she’s his wife and the mother of his four near-feral sons and makes hay out of her amnesia. She just knows she wasn’t meant for life in a hovel but weirdly becomes attached to the kids even after they’ve Superglued her hands to serving plates. Then her mother guilt trips her hubby out of partying with his girl pals and he goes looking for her … This works as a pastiche of 1930s screwball comedy and populist fable but more than that it capitalises on the charisma of the cast which includes Roddy McDowall who executive produced. It’s beautifully photographed by the venerable John A. Alonzo and boasts a song by Randy Newman and while it’s not a classic Goldie is always worth a whirl – not to mention she’s paired with real life love Kurt – and it’s now attained cult status. Go on. You know you’ll love it.

Now, Voyager (1942)

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All I have is a faded corsage and an empty bottle of perfume … Sob! Most people’s favourite Bette Davis picture, this tale of a bullied daughter of Boston brahmin stock, sent away to recover from a mother-induced nervous breakdown only to return a woman of the world with a married man, is pure classical Hollywood. Olive Higgins Prouty’s bestseller of an ugly thirtysomething duckling who turns into a mature and lovely swan is the stuff of Cinderella transformations and all the stops were pulled out to ensure its success. Casey Robinson was the steady hand deployed to manage the emotions and tap all the appropriate responses in what would have been censor-baiting material. He was the greatest screenwriter at Warners’ disposal, starting his career with Captain Blood (1935) which made Errol Flynn a star and created a tone for all action-adventure films to follow. He started writing films for Bette Davis two years later with It’s Love I’m After and followed it with the great Dark Victory, the film which properly turned Davis into a feminine star. He said it helped to know which actor he was writing for because then everything was in their voice “and Bette Davis, how I heard her voice!”  Irving Rapper directed,Gladys Cooper is Mommie Dearest,  Claude Rains is the suave and suaver psychiatrist and Paul Henreid does the two-cigarette act with aplomb. Golly this is great.