Young Guns of Texas (1962)

 

When two men fight it’s a duel. When somebody tries to stop them it becomes a war. After the Civil War cadet Tyler Duane (Gary Conway) is expelled from West Point military academy when his brother, a Union officer, is accused of stealing $30,000 of Army payroll. He sets out on his trail encountering trouble en route. He is befriended by Morgan Coe (James Mitchum) and preacher’s son Jeff Shelby (Jody McCrea). Morgan is in love with local beauty Lily Glendenning (Alana Ladd) but her father Jesse (Robert Lowery) opposes the marriage and wants to get his hands on the stolen money. Jeff’s father Sam (Chill Wills) initially refuses to perform the wedding ceremony but relents when the youngsters plan on going to the Mission to have a priest do it after Morgan has killed the ranch foreman. Glendenning forms a posse believing Lily has been kidnapped. Then the youngsters are attacked by Apaches and find out what happened to Tyler’s brother …  This country needs this money. Then we’ll see changes.  Of interest principally for its cast, the offspring of Hollywood royalty, this is neither good nor bad enough to enter the realm of cult. It’s a fairly standard low budget oater distinguished by the use Cinemascope photography albeit it’s to no evident visual effect. There are some nice moments with Barbara Mansell as Martha Jane Canary (the real name of Calamity Jane) who washes outdoors – Always meant to put a door on this bathroom! Otherwise, no surprises except to marvel at the physical similarities (and not a lot else) between the offspring and their famous and talented fathers. It was Ladd’s final screen appearance. The title song by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter is performed by Kenny Miller.  Written by Henry Cross aka Harry Spalding and directed by Maury Dexter. Either you’re going to be an orphan or a widow?

The Running Man (1963)

You’re not in Croydon any more. Stella Black (Lee Remick) returns from the memorial service for Rex, her late husband, a pilot who died in a gliding accident. He (Laurence Harvey) is in fact alive and well and in hiding at a secluded seaside boarding house having defrauded his insurer Excelsior out of a huge sum of money for his premature death after they failed to pay out for an accident involving his airline business. Stella joins him in Malaga, Spain where he has changed his appearance and is living under the assumed name of Jim Jerome. Things start to go wrong when an insurance investigator Stephen Maddox (Alan Bates) appears to be following Stella as she drives her expensive car and enjoys the high life at a lovely hotel … He shouldn’t have married her. Adapted by John Mortimer from Shelley Smith’s novel The Ballad of the Running Man, this starts out as a sunny neo noir suspenser and turns into something quite different with a nice twist that dictates the outcome. Harvey and Remick are superb as the beautiful blonde married couple whose fate alters irrevocably and their relationship with it; while the issue of mistaken identity regarding Bates is wonderfully played out, subtly inverting the entire premise so that it rebounds with catastrophic consequences. Thanks to Robert Krasker’s cinematography (a very different experience to the kind of exploitation of locations in The Third Man) Spain looks stunning and the sinister nature of the story comes entirely from the construction and playing. Never was misunderstanding so well portrayed: everything here is lost in translation. Watch out for Fernando Rey as a policeman and Noel Purcell and Eddie Byrne have small roles in a production partly shot at Ardmore Studios in Ireland.  Directed by Carol Reed. They’ll have to put up the insurance premiums on anyone who wants to make love to you

Flashdance (1983)

It’s her social security number, asshole – she works for you! Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) is an eighteen year old juggling two odd jobs in Pittsburgh – welding by day at a steel mill, dancing by night in a working men’s club. But she aspires to become a successful ballet dancer. Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri) is her boss and he becomes her lover and he supports and encourages her to fulfill her dream; so does her mentor Hanna Long (Lilia Skala) a retired ballerina who once danced in the Ziegfeld Follies. Her best friends are Jeanie (Sunny Johnson) a waitress and an aspiring ice skater and Jeanie’s boyfriend Richie (Kyle T. Heffner) who works as a short order cook but dreams of making it as a stand up comic and going to Hollywood. Alex is afraid to push herself when she sees that fellow competitors for Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory have years of training and it takes her friends’ botched efforts and a nudge in the right direction to make her take that big step towards her future … Dreaming is wonderful but it won’t put you closer to what you want. This was a cultural phenomenon back in the day and it’s the music video dream brought to life via the extraordinary backlit cinematography (by Donald Peterman) favoured by auteur Adrian Lyne, a simple plot borrowed from the backstage musicals of Busby Berkeley and the most thumping soundtrack ever dreamed up for the screen. And it is a dream, this story of a beautiful teen who fears failure but keeps on truckin’ and despite the huge warehouse loft apartment, the amazing figure and the somewhat grave demeanour, she’s oddly relatable precisely because she lacks confidence and gets around on a racing bike. Beals is a wonderfully charismatic performer who looks good in or partly out of clothes. Her casual attitude to what she wears is disarming, particularly when she takes off her tux in front of Nouri’s ex Katie (Belinda Bauer) and we see underneath is a fake shirt and it’s backless and barely there. Somehow everything she does feels empowering and sexy. There was some controversy stirred up over the fact that the dancer who (clearly!) performs the electrifying routines for Beals, Marine Jahan, was mysteriously uncredited and she called out the producers herself but it didn’t stop this going gonzo at the box office.  Super Bowl XXI made up for it when she was the featured dancer in the half-time performance. (Sharon Shapiro did the body flips but no word on any further acknowledgement). The soundtrack is by Giorgio Moroder with the songs led by Irene Cara’s What a Feeling, doing for this what her theme for Fame did for that other sassy youthful production with a dark side and legwarmers. This is what feminism looked like in 1983 and it’s hot stuff, if you ask me.  The first collaboration between producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, this fabulous fairytale was written by Tom Hedley and Joe Eszterhas from Hedley’s story and directed by Lyne, a man who clearly loves women. Don’t you understand? When you give up your dream you die

The Passionate Stranger (1957)

Aka A Novel Affair. You see! You shut me out! Just like the others! Upper-middle-class housewife Judith Wynter (Margaret Leighton) is a best-selling author of steamy bodice-rippers. As her beloved husband Roger (Ralph Richardson) convalesces from polio and is now presently wheelchair-bound, the couple’s new Sicilian chauffeur Carlo (Carlo Justini) discovers Judith’s latest manuscript about a housewife unhappily married to a disabled man she despises and has a passionate affair with the family chauffeur. He jumps to conclusions that create increasingly awkward situations for them all as he attempts to imitate lines and scenes from her book which features a concert pianist with a jealous and disabled husband and a lusty Sicilian driver … There are stories all around you if you know where to look. There’s probably one right under your nose. From husband and wife producing and directing team Sydney and Muriel Box (who also co-wrote the screenplay) this fitfully amusing comedy has a fatal flaw – the film within a film which is made in colour and lasts more than half of the film overall is very heightened reality and played too straight:  the hilarious silent movie in Singin’ in the Rain should have been the model for this, or even the Gainsborough romances, instead it’s a bourgeois melo. Then in the return to monochrome ‘reality’ in the final third there is a slippage of tone when Carlo’s plan to imitate the book goes very wrong and a tragedy seems on the cards. It pulls back just in time but the narrative emphasis is at fault. Nonetheless it gives Patricia Dainton a delightful chance to change pace from sly Scottish-accented housemaid Emily to coquettish plotter Betty while Richardson is a grumpy old man and Leighton is a more extreme incarnation of her writer self. Megs Jenkins is a pub landlady in the film within a film. Made at Shepperton with exteriors at Chilworth in Surrey. I do not forget! I never leave you! Ever!

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Everything is flat and empty here. There’s nothing to do. In 1951 Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) are high-school seniors and friends inAnarene, North Texas. Duane is dating Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), who Sonny considers the prettiest girl in town. Sonny breaks up with his girlfriend Charlene Duggs. Over the Christmas holiday Sonny begins an affair with lonely Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) the depressed wife of high-school “Coach” Popper (Bill Thurman) who is secretly gay. At the Christmas dance Jacy is invited by Lester Marlow (Randy Quaid) to a naked indoor pool party at the home of Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette) a wealthy young man who seems a better romantic prospect than Duane. Bobby tells Jacy that he isn’t interested in virgins and to come back after she’s had sex. Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) bans the boys from his cafe, pool hall and cinema when they mistreat their retarded friend Billy (Sam Bottoms) taking him to a prostitute who beats him for making a mess. Sam dies while the boys are on a road trip to Mexico and leaves his property to different people, including Sonny. Jacy invites Duane for sex in a motel and eventually breaks up with him by phone, eventually losing her viriginity on a pool table to her mother’s lover Abilene (Clu Gulager). Sonny fights with Duane over Jacy  and Duane leaves town to work on the rigs out of town. Jacy sets her sight on Sonny and they elope to her parents’ fury. The war in Korea provides an escape route for Duane but there’s one last picture show on before the cinema closes down forever … Nothing’s ever the way it’s supposed to be at all. They say the third time’s the charm and so it was for neophyte director Peter Bogdanovich in this adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel about kids growing up in small town North Texas which he co-wrote with the author as well as wife Polly Platt, who was the production designer and collaborator with Bogdanovich on all his films. (Then he fell in love with his young leading lady Shepherd, but that’s another story). The film was shot in black and white following advice from Orson Welles, Bogdanovich’s house guest at the time (and the best book on Welles derives from this era of their wide-ranging conversations, This Is Orson Welles, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum).  The cinematography rendered by Robert Surtees is simply exquisite, the attention to detail extraordinary but this is no nostalgic trip down memory lane. The universally pitch-perfect performances exist in this very specific texture as a kind of miracle, duly rewarding Johnson and Leachman at the Academy Awards. But Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mom Lois has some of the best lines and delivers them with power. She and Shepherd have one amazing scene together. This is a coming of age movie but it’s also about ageing and loneliness and deception and disappointment and it’s the acknowledging of the sliding scale of desperation where the emotions hit gold. And there are juxtapositions which still manage to shock – like when Sonny looks out the window to see one horse mount another while a great romantic poem is being read in class. The realisation that Sam’s great love was Lois and vice versa. The callous way sexual manipulation is used as a casual transaction for the bored. There were controversies over scenes of sex and nudity which didn’t make it into the initial release but those parts were restored in 1992 by Bogdanovich so that the full potential of the story could be contextualised. A poignant Fordian masterpiece now firmly imprinted as an American classic.  You couldn’t believe how this country’s changed

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (2020)

Aka Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. I lost all sense of who I was. It’s open season on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) when her explosive breakup with the Joker puts a big fat target on her back. Unprotected and on the run, Quinn faces the wrath of narcissistic crime boss Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor)), his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), and every other vile thug in Gotham. But things soon even out when Harley becomes unexpected allies with three deadly women – Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) out to avenge the murder of her entire Mafia family as a child; club singer Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who’s forced to become Mask’s driver; and hot-tempered suspended cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who’s keen to make her mark in a hostile male environment. And then there’s the tricky street thief Cassandra Cane (Ella Jay Basco) who’s swallowed that diamond with the mob’s bank account details in its mutiple surfaces and that’s what everybody wants most of all Nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence. The sole bright spark in the otherwise execrable Suicide Squad was Robbie’s Quinn so you can see how she might have wanted to bring this powerhouse character back in a more equitable narrative. The driving force is to get the attention of the man who broke up with her, Joker, but as we know from other films, he’s kinda tied up elsewhere  and is quickly forgotten here. The idea of the girl gang that comes to fruition in the final 25 minutes is the MO but intriguingly it’s Harley who needs to be told to ‘focus’ – the other characters are more precisely delineated: the frustrated cop whose throwaway lines are from an 80s cop show, the ingenious pickpocket who unwittingly causes everything, the action babe singer, the highly creative crossbow killer with a serious revenge motive (whose name The Huntress everyone forgets, a nice running joke) which ironically leads to the whole premise being diffused, albeit for a higher feminist purpose. Each of them (bar Harley, who has a penchant for glitter) has a particular fighting style (and the stunts are real something.) McGregor’s psycho villain is thinly drawn and characterised. The fact that the penultimate sequence/showdown takes place in a fun house just exacerbates the cartoonish impact of DC’s all-women superhero squad. Yet it fizzes with antic, frantic, anarchic energy and a sense of its own ridiculousness expressed in many ways but most obviously in the title cards introducing all the characters and the batshit baby doll voiceover. Not to mention that rollerskating Harley’s pet hyena is called Bruce.  And yet it’s a story about female empowerment, diversity and righteous vengeance and is all done with effortless humour because Harley ultimately realises their talents are best deployed against their common enemies – scummy men. Robbie is charm itself and channels her inner Marilyn/Madonna with her performance of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. Written by Christina (Bumblebee) Hodson, produced by Robbie and directed by Cathy Yan. It almost makes you yearn for Tank Girl and Barb Wire, a pair of female action movies from the 90s that just missed their target. Almost. What a breakup movie – it even has a hair-pulling scene. Well what else would you expect from the fractured psyche of a PhD in Psychology? Girl Power kicks ass! You know, vengeance rarely brings the catharsis we hope for

Birdy (1984)

I wish I could die and be born again as a bird. 1960s. Following reconstructive surgery on his face when he’s home from Vietnam Al Columbato (Nicolas Cage) is visiting his eccentric bird-loving friend Birdy (Matthew Modine), incarcerated in a mental ward after going missing in action for a month during the conflict. He thinks he’s a bird. Al recalls their friendship back in Philadelphia, restoring a car, going to prom, dog catching, and tries to persuade his friend to communicate, while engaging in his own war of wills with the medical authorities …You ever wondered what our lives down here must look like to a bird? Sandy Kroopf & Jack Behr adapted William Wharton’s 1978 novel, a very significant read when you’re a young person, almost like when you discover Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and Amory Blaine. It’s updated from WW2 to Vietnam so the cultural touchstones and speech patterns land closer to home. Alan Parker brings his customary tendresse to this depiction of youth with some exhilarating passages to contrast with the melancholy affect of Modine’s birdlike crouch in the psych ward. A different kind of buddy movie, with social awkwardness, difference and male friendship framed by the devastating experience of war. The performances by Modine and Cage reach places you thought could never be touched. So emotional you’ll believe you can fly. There’s a notable score composed by Peter Gabriel.  Flying is much more than flapping wings

Casino (1995)


There are three ways of doing things around here: the right way, the wrong way, and the way that I do it. You understand? Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is a Jewish handicapper asked by the Chicago Mob to oversee the day-to-day casino and hotel operations at the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas in 1973. His childhood friend, mobster Nicky Santoro (Pesci), is a made man and makes life tricky for Ace. Ace falls for call girl and chip hustler Ginger McKenna (Stone) whom he eventually marries. They have a daughter Amy (Erika von Tagen) but Ginger gets into drugs and her behaviour becomes loud and difficult. Ace has problems getting a gaming licence despite keeping local politicos happy and the skimmed money is being skimmed by people he employs. All his relationship begin to break down and the FBI are closing in when Ginger runs away with her lover and pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods) taking Amy with them … When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believed, that’s the kind of love I had.  At first glance it doesn’t seem elegiac yet this Scorsese collaboration with co-writer Nicholas Pileggi (from his Casino:  Love and Honor in Las Vegas) five years after Goodfellas operates as a long goodbye to a way of life essentially foreign, about strangers in a strange land. It’s adapted from the lives of Frank Rosenthal, Anthony Spilotro and Geri McGee. The mob were never at ease in the desert landscape and the story problem doesn’t end there because all the relationships here are uneven and mismatched:  Jewish and Italian, Ace and Nicky, Ace and Ginger, the Mob and Vegas. It starts audaciously: with a bomb. Yet the victim is one of the narrators. The competing voiceovers by Ace and Nicky are stark illustrations of the power plays beyond the gaming tables. The storytelling, spanning a decade to 1983 (and ‘many years before’) is a familiar one of bribery, corruption, murder, gambling, crooked politicians, prostitution, children, golf, drugs and great clothes, And the production design by Dante Ferretti lit up by Robert Richardson’s beautiful cinematography offers a stark contrast to the coarseness of these terrible people. It’s long and talky and horrifically violent and startling in terms of juxtapositions and acting. At the centre of the extraordinary soundtrack in this epic of marriages gone wrong is the score for Godard’s Contempt (Le mepris) by Georges Delerue, pointing our response in the correct direction. We are left to contemplate the magnificent, complete performance by Sharon Stone, one of the best in modern cinema, the cause and effect in this epic and tragic tale of the misbegotten. In the end it is a pitiless exploration of humanity. A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes

The Sleeping Tiger (1954)

The Sleeping Tiger

He’s wrong. People are born the way they are. When brash young thug Frank Clemmons (Dirk Bogarde) attempts to rob psychiatrist Clive Esmond (Alexander Knox), the doctor surprisingly gains the upper hand. Instead of sending Frank to prison, Clive offers to have the criminal stay at his home, where he’ll attempt to reform the delinquent via in-depth analysis.  Esmond’s assistant Carol (Maxine Audley) is very wary of the guy. Settling into the doctor’s house, Clive meets Esmond’s wife, Glenda (Alexis Smith), who arrives back early from a holiday and initially dislikes her coarse guest who warns the housemaid Sally (Patricia McCarron) not to leave, instilling fear in the young woman. When Glenda begins to fall for Frank, intense conflict ensues and he returns to his old ways before introducing her to a different kind of life but the police Inspector (Hugh Griffith) returns to the property every time Clemmons is identified at the scene of a crime and Esmond proves too willing to provide an alibi…  He’s got courage. Under that bravado of his there’s something rather appealing. This erotically charged tale of crime, psychoanalysis and adulterous sex is the British debut of blacklisted director Joseph Losey who was forced to ‘borrow’ the name of Victor Hanbury for exhibition purposes. It’s twisted into a coil of jeopardy and perversion as Bogarde seems to bring out the worst in others – to his own chagrin as he realises halfway through when Smith’s psychopathology becomes clear during a chase with the police. There’s a look in his eyes, cast toward the passenger window, that expresses everything: what kind of married couple did he disturb?!  I wish I were a man, declares Smith through gritted teeth. Her past is another country too. The title isn’t just her lover’s own sorry backstory as a boy abandoned to a wicked stepmother, it also refers to what’s going on in Smith’s head as she responds to the interloper in their midst who seems to be gaming her husband – but the revelations of each character’s weakness is set against a crime thriller drama, with a Gothic staircase providing the scene for many confrontations and Bogarde’s bedroom and the horse riding enjoyed by the troubled pair giving this an electric and lurid charge. His and Smith’s feline barbs can only end in one way. The final images are superbly literal in a story where the doctor might actually know what he’s talking about. That’s young Billie Whitelaw in the office Bogarde holds up. Adapted from Maurice Moiseiwitsch’s novel by ‘Derek Frye’ a pseudonym that was created as cover for blacklisted screenwriters Harold Buchman and Carl Foreman. Made at Nettlefold Studios. Maybe you shouldn’t tamper with people

The Carpetbaggers (1964)

The CarpetbaggersThe Carpetbaggers cast poster

Living up in the air like a rich seagull. When playboy Jonas Cord (George Peppard) inherits his father’s industrial empire based on an explosives factory, he expands it by acquiring an aircraft factory and Hollywood movie studio. His rise to power during the 1920s and 1930s is ruthless. He sets aviation records and starts a passenger airline. He marries and then quickly abandons sweet, bubbly Monica Winthrop (Elizabeth Ashley) the daughter of a business rival and provokes their divorce before she gives birth to their daughter; turns his young, gorgeous stepmother, Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker), who was his girlfriend originally before his father Jonas Sr. (Leif Erickson) married her, into a self-destructive movie star; and manages to disappoint even his closest friend and surrogate father, cowboy movie star Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd) whose concealed background he uses for a movie script. Then he falls for a prostitute Jennie Denton (Martha Hyer) whom he wants to turn into the movie star of America’s dreams… If that woman ran an immoral house she’d have to pay me. Despite the lurid and sadistic content of Harold Robbins’ sensational 1961 bestseller, a roman à clef which mines the contours of a Howard Hughes-type protagonist, and censorship issues aside, this is a strangely muted adaptation by John Michael Hayes and Edward Dmytryk’s stilted direction doesn’t help. The real shocker is the fight scene between Peppard and an ageing Ladd which looks properly dangerous and finally explores Cord’s psychology but it’s truly disturbing because it feels real, unlike much of the drama. As a portrait of the Thirties movie-making scene it’s certainly got a nose for the Hollywood casting couch mentality and its general air of seedy decadence and corruption. In that light it’s an interesting take on the career of the Harlow rip off played by Baker (and she made the biopic the following year). Robert Cummings is properly horrifying as Dan Pierce, the smooth agent who is a pimp in all but name; and Martin Balsam scores as Bernard B. Norman, a dastardly studio head; but in many ways, including performance, with Peppard the main culprit, this is all trash, all surface. Ladd’s character is a mélange of Tom Mix, William Boyd and Ken Maynard:  the prequel, Nevada Smith, would be directed by Henry Hathaway from a John Michael Hayes script with Steve McQueen in the lead. Ladd died before this was released. Only you know how all the pieces fit