Top Hat (1935)

Top Hat

For the women the kiss, for the men the sword! American dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) comes to London to star in a show produced by Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). He meets and attempts to impress model Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) to win her affection, but she mistakes him for Horace. Jerry pursues her to Venice where she is promoting the work of Jerry’s love rival, fashion designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) and visiting her friend Madge (Helen Broderick) who is Horace’s wife … My dear, when you’re as old as I am, you take your men as you find them – if you can find them. With a score by Max Steiner and songs by Irving Berlin, who couldn’t love this arch, witty treatise on love? And there are also all those extra tasty treats for connoisseurs of the period – particularly our favourite, Eric Blore as Bates, Hardwick’s fussy valet; incredible gowns designed by Bernard Newman; and the high Art Deco production design typical of the era’s screwball romances but specifically the Big White Set by Van Nest Polglase constructed for the Astaire/Rogers musicals. It’s probably the best loved of the duo’s ten pairings and with good reason, the combination of song and dance reaching peaks of sheer perfection in this the fourth time they co-starred. In fact, it’s Heaven. Swoonsome, amusing entertainment in the smooth classical style. Written specifically for Astaire and Rogers by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott, adapted from a stage play, this was RKO’s most profitable film of the decade. Directed by Mark Sandrich. In dealing with a girl or horse, one just lets nature take its course

Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations 1946

Pip – a young gentleman of great expectations! Orphaned Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip (Anthony Wager) lives with his older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe (Bernard Miles). He encounters runaway convict Magwitch (Finlay Currie) on the marshes and assists him with food and helps him cut himself free. However Magwitch is recaptured when he has a fight with a fellow escapee. An eccentric elderly spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) wants company for herself and her teenage ward Estella (Jean Simmons) a cruel but beautiful teenager who mocks Pip but with whom he falls in love from afar. Pip is apprenticed to a blacksmith when he turns 14 and Estella goes to France to become a lady. Years later Pip (John Mills) is visited by Miss Havisham’s lawyer Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) and he is to be the beneficiary of a mysterious benefactor to become a gentleman of great expectations in London where he befriends Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness) who tells him that Miss Havisham’s life is dedicated to revenge against men because she was jilted at the altar and Estella was brought up likewise. They are reunited when Pip is 21 and he visits Miss Havisham after getting his living stipend of £500 a year and he finds that Estella (Valerie Hobson) is engaged to a man she doesn’t love. Pip is visited by Magwitch who reveals he was his benefactor and that Miss Havisham was using him. He confronts her and she realises the great harm she has done and as Pip is leaving a terrible accident occurs. Magwitch should not be on the territory and is commiting a felony and Pip undertakes to help him escape England … I want to be a gentleman on her account. Director David Lean recalled a perfectly condensed theatre adaptation of the Dickens novel and wrote the screenplay with producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame and Kay Walsh. From its magnificent opening sequence on the marshes (shot by Robert Krasker) and the atmosphere conjured by the decaying mansion housing Miss Havisham, this is a film of such dazzling detail and character, brilliant playing and staging and flawless pacing, as to merit the description perfect. Lean came of age as a director and the cinematography by Guy Green and the soaring score by Walter Goehr pick out, express and complement the heart of the drama. It never dodges the little social critiques (Mills’ reaction to the public hangings) or the touches of humour (Pip popping Pocket in the jaw; his silly fashionable get up) nor the ideas of snobbery, stupidity, guilt or social injustice that characterise the text of the novel. The final scene, when Pip returns and throws light upon Estella is heartbreaking and delightful. A simply bewitching masterpiece. What larks!

Dark Shadows (2012)

Dark Shadows

I killed your parents, and every one of your lovers. They kept us apart. AD 1972.  Two hundred years after he’s been condemned to a living death as a vampire by Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) a spurned servant who happens to be a witch, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is accidentally exhumed and vows to help his impoverished dysfunctional descendants while falling for his reincarnated lost love Victoria/Josette (Bella Heathcote). He returns to Collinwood where he hypnotises caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) into being his servant, introduces matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) to the family’s treasure trove, ordering her to keep it secret from her nee’er do well brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his eccentric little boy David (Gully McGrath) and her own rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). They have a permanent houseguest in Dr Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), David’s hard-drinking psychiatrist. They also have a rival in the local fishing business in Angel Bay Cannery run by Angie Bouchard (Green) who is still alive and well and determined to finally win Barnabas for herself but he is still in love with Josette… She has the most fertile birthing hips I have ever laid eyes upon. Just your everyday story of immigrants to the New World who turn into vampires because of an ancestral curse, this is one of those Tim Burton films that seems to fall between two stools:  homage and nostalgia, in this earnest adaptation/pastiche of a TV daytime drama hitherto unknown to me but certainly filed nowadays under the heading of Cult. The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith is from a story credited to him and John August and adapted from Dan Curtis’ original show and was reportedly being regularly rewritten on set which is not unusual. It might account for the strangely disconnected feel of the production, which however looks incredible thanks to the designer Rick Heinrichs. At its heart it’s a morality tale about family:  Family is the only real wealth. While the plot’s construction is of the laborious join the dots variety, there are some cute generation gap and proto feminist threads, good time shift moments, like Barnabas’ shocked reaction to television (What sorcery is this?), rock star Alice Cooper (who else?!) performing a concert and of course Depp, who gives a superbly physical Max Schreck-like performance and has very amusing sparring exchanges with all concerned. Not really sure if it wants to be a straight-up horror or a campy comedy and falls between both stools. Luckily Christopher Lee shows up as the king of the fishermen. Green would go on to replace Bonham Carter as Burton’s long term companion. Okay. If you wanna get with her, you’re gonna have to change your approach. Drop the whole weird Swinging London thing and hang out with a few normal people

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)

The Pink Panther Strikes Again

Do you know what kind of bomb it was?/The exploding kind. Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) escapes from a mental hospital and determines to commandeer a Doomsday machine invented by Dr Hugo Fassbender (Richard Vernon) in order to wipe out the entire world if necessary – just as long as he can kiss his bête noire Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) farewell. He kidnaps Fassbender and his daughter Margo  (Briony McRoberts) and holds them captive in his Bavarian castle but not willing to take any chances, he also hires a series of hitmen (Eddie Stacey, Herb Tanney, Terry Maidment) to help out. Meanwhile, Clouseau is diverted by the attentions of alluring Russian spy Olga (Lesley-Anne Down) …  Now we’ll see who has the last laugh. They’ve all betrayed me, and now they will have to pay. What shall I destroy? Buckingham Palace? Too small. How about London? Not big enough. England! Yes, England. In which Dreyfus becomes a kind of Blofeld-styled criminal mastermind crossed with Count Dracula, the animated titles pastiche so many genres it’s just a shame they don’t get to pay homage to them all (including Edwards’ wife Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music!). Not as well constructed as the preceding films, this genre mashup does pay dividends in the expertly engineered sight gags and one extended action sequence involving Lom, Sellers and the redoubtable Burt Kwouk as Cato. Some might take issue with the scene in the gay club and the crossdressing performers but this is a scenario that Edwards would plunder to astonishing effect in the later Victor/Victoria. There’s a packed ensemble of English actors and it’s only a shame that the great Leonard Rossiter hasn’t more to do as Clouseau’s shocked opposite number. Look quickly for Omar Sharif as an Egyptian hitman while Byron Kane does a Kissingeresque Secretary of State. Lots of fun but not for the purist – even though it had me from the moment Lom’s eye twitched. Written by Frank Waldman and director Blake Edwards. I thought you said that your dog didn’t bite!/That is not my dog

The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954)

The Last Time I Saw Paris

I’ve been having a bad day for a year now, maybe I’m growing up. Novelist Charles Wills (Van Johnson) returns to Paris to claim custody of his young daughter Vicki (Sandy Descher) and recalls his life there… On VE Day in Paris, American journalist Charles Wills is on the crowded streets of Paris when he meets an unknown woman Helen Ellswirth (Elizabeth Taylor) who kisses him and runs away. He discovers who she is when he encounters her lovely sister Marion (Donna Reed) in a cafe and is smitten. He meets their father James (Walter Pidgeon) and finds a man from the Lost Generation who is flat broke but encourages his daughters to live in his lackadaisical fashion, dreaming big dreams but making no firm plans. Charles falls in love with Helen and they marry but when he parties away the unexpected dowry from James’ oil investments it drives a wedge between them then his ambition to write a book sunders them completely … What kind of wife are you, dancing with other men?  Adapted by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and director Richard Brooks from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story Babylon Revisited, updated to after WW2, this is a wonderfully atmospheric portrait of the Lost Generation and the clash with the post-war world of the Forties generation (which altogether alters the story’s theme). Sensitive to both male and female perspectives, disappointments in life and love and tragic to the core, this is an unusual production because it’s chiefly from the perspective of the male protagonist and even if Johnson’s no dream boat he acquits himself well. Taylor is rather wonderful and Reed is equally good as the responsible older sister who settles for dull marriage to a decent man, prosecutor Claude Matine (George Dolenz). Roger Moore has a good role as Paul Lane, a tennis pro who romances Taylor; while Johnson is diverted by Eva Gabor. A good old-fashioned melodrama, beautifully made despite the constraints of the studio set. Happy VE Day. I’m sick to death of death. I want to enjoy things, have fun, live every day like it’s the last day. Wouldn’t that be nice, a lifetime full of last days?

The Sea Wolves (1980)

The Sea Wolves

It’s insane and you know it. Put together a plan! During WW2 German submarines are sinking British merchant ships and Intelligence Services believe the information is being radioed from a transmitter on a German ship interned in Goa, Portuguese ie neutral territory so any attack has to be done unconventionally. The Special Operations Executive approach the Territorial Unit of British expatriates – the Calcutta Light Horse – who are all military veterans mostly deployed in civilian life. They are led by Col. Lewis Henry Owain Pugh (Gregory Peck), Col. W.H. Grice (David Niven) and Captain Gavin Stewart (Roger Moore) and they recruit a number of their former colleagues who require a brief training course to reacquaint them with combat before they can hijack and down the ship in question. Jack Cartwright (Trevor Howard) is in no condition to join them but he persuades them and he’s the first to realise that Stewart’s romantic interest ‘Mrs Cromwell’ (Barbara Kellerman) is not who she claims to be. The men’s quarry is the German known as ‘Trompeta’ (Wolf Kahler) and to get to him requires infiltrating diplomatic circles and avoiding being murdered before finally launching a raiding party from a decrepit barge … He was about to kill me – or you. That’s the sort of thing that tends to make me impulsive. What appears to be the first geriaction movie long before the term came into popular usage is actually a true story. This adaptation of James Leasor’s faction book Boarding Party by Reginald Rose takes some liberties and conjures some fictions but it’s all in the name of entertainment. It might seem like the boys from Navarone have been reassembled but eventually it’s Moore who comes to the fore and it’s only a matter of time before he dons a tuxedo and reverts to Bondian type doing a fine job of espionage while romancing the attractive German agent out to kill him (a character created for the film). There’s a gallery of familiar faces, many of whom appeared with Moore in The Wild Geese, from Patrick Macnee and Michael Medwin to Glyn Houston and Terence Longdon, with Faith Brook having a nice bit as Niven’s wife. After the initial setup it’s a rollicking actioner and a fascinating portrait of the colonial life during a war taking place on other territories and is wonderfully shot by Tony Imi on location. The score by Roy Budd has fun with military motifs while the theme song is an arrangement of The Warsaw Concerto by John Addinsell with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and it’s performed by the redoubtable Matt Monro. Incredibly this was made with the assistance of German survivors of the sunken ship! Dedicated to Lord Louis Mountbatten. Directed by reliable action helmer Andrew V. McLaglen. It starts off like an Hungarian omelette

Torn Curtain (1966)

Torn Curtain

How do you like playing the dirty defector? During a trip to Copenhagen, American physicist and rocket scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) is attending a conference with his lab assistant and fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) and he picks up a telegram and tells her he is going to Stockholm. She follows him as he travels to Berlin where he publicly announces he is defecting to pursue his research for the Soviet Union. During a trip to a farm Michael meets a ‘farmer’ contact (Mort Mills) and it is clear that he is on a secret spying mission for the US. At the farmhouse he is watched by his official guard Herman Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who suspects what he is doing and Michael and the farmer’s ‘wife’ (Carolyn Conwell) are forced to kill him. He travels to Leipzig and tells Sarah what is really going on. He goes to the University in an attempt to persuade Professor Lindt (Ludwig Donath) to share his secrets but the man realises Michael has little to share and calls the authorities and the chase to catch him with Sarah commences … I forbid you to leave this room! A Hitchcock film in which various getaways are staged using bicycles, buses and boats, this is the one that forced him to conclude he no longer wished to work with stars. And what stars! Newman, who had already played a variation on this role in The Prize and Andrews, the world’s favourite actress at the time. They were not the choice of the director but of moneyman Lew Wasserman who probably played too large a role in his career and contributed to what could be described as his decline in the Sixties. And it’s true that they are weirdly mismatched. Nonetheless there is ample opportunity for local actors, Lila Kedrova, Tamara Toumanova and Ludwig Donath to shine. Peter Lorre Jr even has an uncredited role as a treacherous taxi driver! Many feel this is one of Hitchcock’s lesser films and one might ask, given that he had originated the Cold War spy thriller genre with a masterpiece, North By Northwest, why he felt he had to make another one. But we forget how fascinating the Iron Curtain was, and not just to filmmakers. What an opportunity to look at a society where spying on people wasn’t confined to Government but permeated everyday life – most Germans were snoops and tattle tales, and not in a good way. The landscape is another reason – all that flat land. (A reminder of the crop dusting scene…). The opportunity to kill someone in virtual silence because there’s a taxi driver outside the door – and what a sequence that is, using whatever comes to hand in a farmhouse kitchen.  Hitchcock told Truffaut in their famous interview that the point of that was to demonstrate how hard it actually was to kill somebody, something that the conventions of the contemporary spy thriller avoided. There is a sense in which Hitchcock is playing his greatest hits – the set pieces are fun and  quite reminiscent of ones he did earlier. Perhaps that’s understandable given that this was his fiftieth film and projects he felt more deeply about had failed to get off the ground. Despite being inspired by the defections of famed British traitors Burgess and Maclean the script originally focused on the female character and so Irish writer Brian Moore whose gynocentric novels were so acclaimed did the original draft. At that point Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant were Hitchcock’s dream cast – a replay of old attractions. But when that changed he got Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall to rewrite and the story was radically altered but Moore still got sole credit. (Moore repaid the slight by caricaturing Hitchcock in his novel Fergus). There are some horribly clunky visuals that make it obvious this was shot on the Universal lot – very unlike a director who should have been at the peak of his powers. Is he deliberately making the artificiality of the genre more transparent?! Even more oddly, Hitchcock dumped Bernard Herrmann’s unsatisfactory score (which you can find on the DVD and watch it again) and commissioned John Addison to do the version used on the theatrical release – viewing this with a different musical accompaniment alters the affect (something that a Channel 4 documentary demonstrated twenty-plus years ago). Fascinating, suspenseful and altogether necessary and not just for Hitchcock completionists. You told me nothing! You know nothing!

The Fan (1981)

The Fan 1981

Dear Miss Ross, I’m your biggest fan. Broadway theatre star Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) is successful, famous and nervous about rehearsing for a new musical. She’s still in love with ex-husband Jake Berman (James Garner) who has moved on with a newer model, and his absence creates a void in her life. Despite her loneliness, she doesn’t reciprocate when a fan, record store assistant Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn), starts sending her letters which are intercepted by her loyal secretary Belle Goldberg (Maureen Stapleton). The letters exhibit an obsessive interest in Sally and become steadily more personal and explicit, causing Belle to warn him off. This angers Douglas so much that he starts getting violent, with everyone in Sally’s immediate circle being targeted Quick, let’s think of something funny. The kind of film you’d think wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting released in the wake of John Lennon’s murder (and Bacall lived at the Dakota building too), this is a mix of high end midlife backstage melodrama and slasher horror exploitation, with the first half hour’s truly terrible pacing and poor editing ultimately damaging it on both fronts albeit the balance is finally struck in the last third. Bacall seems to the manner born as the quick-tempered diva giving Belle a hard time, while both Hector Elizondo as the police detective Raphael and Garner are particularly at ease in their supporting roles with some real chemistry between them and the leading lady on the screen. A strange mix of genres that doesn’t work overall but it’s somehow satisfying to see Bacall cast as the Final Girl confronting her deranged fan and Stapleton is outstanding. The music is by the legendary Pino Donaggio and there’s the bonus of seeing Bacall hoofing on stage in the manner of her own hit Applause (based of course on All About Eve, whose plot this rather wickedly limns). Watch out for Dana Delany and Griffin Dunne in small roles while legendary columnist Liz Smith appears as herself (George Sanders proving dead and therefore unavailable). If it wasn’t for the stabbings this might have had something to say about the dangers of being a celebrity. Adapted by Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell from the novel by Bob Randall. Directed by Edward Bianchi and shot by an individual called Dick Bush. I rest your case.  I’m more than a fan, I’m a friend

Magic Town (1947)

Magic Town

The air becomes charged with electricity around desperate men. WW2 vet Lawrence ‘Rip’ Smith (James Stewart) is looking to find a way to beat fellow pollster George Stringer and his military colleague Professor Frederick Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) tells him about Grandview, a town that offers a precisely representative model for the entire United States. Rip promises a client a result within 24 hours that Stringer has been working on for a long time and he and his team arrive in the town posing as insurance salesmen. He has to deal with Mary Peterman  (Jane Wyman) who is trying to persuade the Mayor (Harry Holman) to build more property and give the town a civic centre – which would alter the demographic. It forces Rip to address the town and they side with him, not Mary who writes an editorial about him in her family newspaper. While they are attracted to each other, he is gathering information as well as coaching the school basketball team. When she overhears him calling a client, she writes another story about the reason for his being in Grandview and a national paper picks it up and Rip’s mission is made known in the ‘public opinion capital of the U.S.’ … Okay now. You’re a typical American – act like it! Robert Riskin’s script is rather reminiscent of a Frank Capra film – but then he wrote most of them, despite Capra’s self-aggrandising public line that his was The Name Above the Title. And yet this isn’t directed by Capra, but by William Wellman. While it readily captures much of the kind of atmosphere and social concerns of Riskin’s pre-WW2 work in that partnership the shifts from comedy to drama aren’t managed in the same way – with Riskin as producer from a story he wrote with Joseph Krumgold and Wellman directing, the sharp ends of the story are confronted directly, suggesting the compromises the screenwriter might have been making prior to this production. Rip wants money, Mary is after a good story with a political edge. This exists almost in inverse relationship to Riskin’s previous narratives, with the kinds of conversations that Capra softened into sentiment given a much tougher emphasis here (underlined by the Roy Webb’s score). So it’s the same type of material as before but given a much different treatment, although it all comes together in the end with the people creating their own destiny.  This as ever with Riskin is a blue-sky picture asking people what kind of country they want the United States to be and to make it happen democratically – but he never takes his eye off the ball, locating the peculiar way in which families run towns and thereby society as a whole. Fascinating as a prism through which to view Stewart’s stuttering post-war career (It’s a Wonderful Life was also a box office failure) as well as clarifying what Riskin had done for Capra now that they were separate entities. That’s Mickey Rooney’s dad Joe Yule as the radio comic. How do you like your fancy beautiful circus of a town now?

Father of the Bride (1991)

Father of the Bride 1991

From that moment on I decided to shut my mouth and go with the flow. Los Angeles-based shoe factory proprietor George Banks (Steve Martin) leads the perfect life with his wife Nina (Diane Keaton), beloved twentysomething student architect daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams) and little son Mattie (Kieran Culkin). However, when Annie returns from her semester in Rome with Bryan Mackenzie (George Newbern) her new fiancé in tow, he has a hard time letting go of her. George makes a show of himself when he and Nina meet Bryan’s parents at their palatial Hollywood home; then Nina and Annie plan a grand celebration with bizarre wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer (Martin Short) and the costs escalate wildly to the point where George believes the entire scheme is a conspiracy against him … It’s very nice. We’ll change it all though. Let’s go! This remake and update of the gold-plated classical Hollywood family comedy is much modernised by husband and wife writer/director Charles Shyer and screenwriter Nancy Meyers but retains a good heart. Carried by a marvellous cast with Martin superb in a difficult role – sentimental and farcical in equal measure as he confronts a crisis triggered by the loss of his darling little girl to another man!  – his voiceover narration is perfectly pitched between loss, self-pitying acceptance and mockery. It’s interesting to see Meyers lookalike Keaton back in the camp after Baby Boom (and not for the last time).  The early Nineties era of comedy is well represented with Short side-splitting as the insufferable but indispensable wedding planner with his impenetrable strangulated locutions; and Eugene Levy has a nice bit auditioning as a wedding singer. The ironies abound including the car parking issue forcing George to miss the whole thing; and the first snowfall in Los Angeles in 36 years that means the absurd swans have to be kept warm in a bathtub (if nothing else, a brilliant visual moment). The updating includes giving Annie a career and given the dramatic significance of homes in Meyers’ work it’s apt that she is (albeit briefly) an architect – a homemaker of a different variety. George and Nina’s marriage is a great relationship model without being sickening – a tribute to the spot-on performing by the leads in a scenario that has more than one outright slapstick sequence – meeting the future in-laws at their outrageous mansion is a highlight. Adapted by Meyers & Shyer from the original screenplay written by another husband and wife team, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, which was adapted from Edward Streeter’s novel. The eagle-eyed will spot the filmmakers’ children Hallie and Annie as Williams’ flower girls. Hallie has of course continued in the business and is a now a writer/director herself. Hugely successful, this was followed four years later by an amusing sequel. For more on this you can read my book about Nancy Meyers:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1? dchild=1&keywords=elaine+lennon+pathways+of+desire&qid=1588162542&s=books&sr=1-1. Directed by Charles Shyer. That’s when it hit me like a Mack Truck. Annie was like me and Brian was like Nina. They were a perfect match