Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

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It’s getting out of control. I just wish I were a lot older or a lot younger. Designer Anne (Deborah Kerr) travels to the French Riviera to visit her old lover Raymond (David Niven), the wealthy playboy husband of her recently deceased friend. His pampered seventeen-year old daughter, Cecile (Jean Seberg), afraid that the rather prim Anne’s presence may alter their hedonistic lifestyle, attempts to drive a wedge between the woman and her father, with the help of his latest French mistress Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) when Raymond proposes marriage to Anne.  Little do they know that Anne’s proper attitude hides a fragility that could lead to tragic consequences and when they set their plot in motion everything begins to come undone ... She’s prim, and prissy, and a prude. And a know it all. And I hate her! This adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s slim but shocking bestseller by Arthur Laurents has lost none of its power. The father-daughter double act beautifully played by Niven and Seberg has the sense of perversion and decadence that twists the material’s bittersweet threads into something that still raises eyebrows:  incest, perhaps? Producer/director Svengali Otto Preminger once again subjects his famous young Saint Joan protegée to a kind of trial of inquiry – this time for her libertinism – in a flavoursome morality tale that delineates corruption with admirable precision as the pieces are moved into place.  Stunningly imagined in widescreen, in both monochrome and colour, by cinematographer Georges Périnal, with a classic score by Georges Auric and that legendary title song, performed by Juliette Gréco. The poster is of course the work of Saul Bass. Beautiful, scandalous and compelling, this is where the Nouvelle Vague begins. Anne had made me look at myself for the first time in my life. And that turned me against her – dead against her

Separate Tables (1958)

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The trouble about being on the side of right, as one sees it, is that one often finds oneself in the company of such very questionable allies. During the off-season at the Beauregard Hotel by the English seaside, the secrets of some guests are exposed. Lovely but vulnerable Ann Shankland (Rita Hayworth) travels to the hotel in hopes of starting over with her ex-husband, John (Burt Lancaster) unaware that that he is secretly engaged to Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller), the manageress of the hotel. Meanwhile, Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper) and her shy and bullied daughter Sibyl (Deborah Kerr) discover the hidden truth about resident guest, the debonair war hero Major Pollack (David Niven)… When you’re together, you slash each other to pieces. When you’re alone, you slash yourselves to pieces.Terence Rattigan isn’t fashionable now although there was a revival of sorts in the West End a few years ago but in the Fifties he was quite the name to drop:  an exponent of what we might term drawing room drama with a deep emotional core, delving into the hypocrisies of the middle classes and the everyday deceptions practised to make the day pass without incident. This is derived from two of his one-act plays. Niven won the Academy Award for Best Actor even though his role is of the supporting variety:  it’s a virtuoso display of fraudulence, disappointment and delusion and his relationship with Kerr is terribly touching. Together they are horribly lonely in this study of morality and behaviour. The array of relationships and how they intersect and resound dramatically is expertly explored by screenwriter John Gay and an uncredited John Michael Hayes who always had a wonderful way with words – double-talk being his speciality. Hayworth’s impact as the elegant lonely lady is something to behold:  stardom in action, overcoming an underwritten role. She was married to co-producer James Hill (part of the production company with Lancaster and Harold Hecht). Kerr essays a combination of timidity and hysteria – quite a balancing act – in the shadow of her harridan mother Cooper, who is terrifying. Wendy Hiller won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as the dignified proprietor facing emotional loss. Cathleen Nesbitt has a lovely role as the compassionate Lady Matheson. This is a world in which the mass of folk are misfits who lead lives of quiet desperation constrained by the mores of their time. Ain’t that the truth! Directed with sustained tension by Delbert Mann with a sympathetic score by David Raksin and some marvellous editing by Marjorie Fowler.  Why have you told so many awful lies? 

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

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Sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread. Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is struggling to raise funds to build a cathedral and beseeches heaven for guidance.  He is visited immediately by Dudley (Cary Grant), who claims to be an angel. Henry is septical, then gets annoyed when Dudley ingratiates himself into the household as his assistant – and worse, wins the attentions of Henry’s kind wife Julia (Loretta Young). When Dudley continues to intervene in Henry’s struggles, the bishop decides to challenge heaven as he now has to repair his marriage too … I was praying for a cathedral./ No, Henry. You were praying for guidance. Adapted by Leonardo Bercovici and Robert E. Sherwood (with uncredited additions by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder) from Robert Nathan’s 1928 novel, this is an irresistible seasonal fantasy. It’s about faith and love and the blend of stars is unexpectedly successful – a surfeit of charm and wit combine to lend weight and wit to the more spiritual aspects. This, after all is about how to become more human. To quote Loretta Young in the trailer, It’s quite the most unusual film Sam Goldwyn has ever made. A beautiful film for a special time of year. And if that’s not enough, it’s got Monty Woolley as Professor Wutheridge with Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester and Regis Toomey bringing up the rear. Did I mention that it’s beautifully shot by Gregg Toland? This is classic Christmas charm. Enough said. Directed by Henry Koster.  Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most… and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.

I Was Monty’s Double (1958)

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That was bloody close.  Before the planned D-Day landings the British Government is spreading disinformation to distract German attention from the Normandy beaches.  Two intelligence officers, Colonel Logan (Cecil Parker) and Major Harvey (John Mills) are running the operation but they are initially unable to devise such a plan.  One night at the theatre in London Harvey sees an actor do a convincing impression of General Bernard Montgomery. He is M.E. Clifton James, in the army Pay Corps stationed in Leicester and the officers hire him to act as a decoy – playing Montgomery doing a tour of North Africa. After studying him and meeting him, he is dispatched to Gibraltar where the British anticipate that a known German agent Karl Nielson (Marius Goring) posing as a businessman will encounter him and hopefully inform Berlin. ‘Monty’ is accompanied by Harvey who is promoted to Brigadier to act as his aide de camp. When the British learn that the Germans are moving their panzer divisions away from Normandy this ‘Monty’ is sequestered in a North African house until it is safe to return him to his original job but the Germans have other ideas …  Adapted from the autobiography of M.E. Clifton James by Bryan Forbes (who plays a crucial role in the penultimate sequence) this is a spry and suspenseful account of Operation Copperhead.  Told efficiently, with James playing himself – and Monty! – it moves quickly and two scenes in particular are handled very well by director John Guillermin:  when Nielson meets Monty it transpires it’s for the second time – a shocker;  and the inevitable kidnapping.  With a brisk score by John Addison and a good turn by Mills, one of the many in the Fifties that encapsulates his particular brand of British masculinity, this is an entertaining account of yet another Believe It Or Not from WW2: the gift that just keeps on giving, especially when you realise that the man who actually recruited Clifton James was none other than … David Niven! There are good supporting roles for Michael Hordern, Leslie Phillips with James Hayter, Sid James and Sam Kydd down the ensemble.

Raffles (1939)

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This isn’t the first time I’ve set a thief to catch a thief.  Famous cricketer A.J. Raffles (David Niven) is a man about town welcomed in high society which he uses to his advantage in his secret career as ‘The Amateur Cracksman’, a master burglar and safecracker who is always one step ahead of Scotland Yard teasing homeowners and returning their possessions intact. His old school friend Bunny Manders (Douglas Walton) reintroduces Raffles to his sister Gwen (Olivia de Havilland) with whom Raffles had been infatuated a decade ago. Raffles falls in love with her. When Bunny confides a crushing gambling debt of £1,000 over which he is considering suicide, Raffles assures him the money can be obtained. He accepts a weekend invitation to the country house of Lord and Lady Melrose (Lionel Pape and Dame May Whitty) – Lady Melrose’s famous jewellery can solve Bunny’s problem. But another guest is Inspector MacKenzie of the Yard (Douglas Digges) passing incognito, who clearly suspects Raffles of being the Cracksman. Raffles plots to frame a petty criminal with the jewel theft and keep the jewellery until the policeman seems to get one up on him and Gwen begins to suspect his motivations … E.W. Hornung’s short story collection about the gentleman cat burglar had already been adapted, including nine years earlier by Sidney Howard who gets a posthumous credit here, along with John van Druten (with suspected uncredited work by F. Scott Fitzgerald). It’s a typical classical Hollywood view of upper class Britishness with beautiful production design, pacy direction by Sam Wood (with uncredited work by William Wyler) and lovely characterisation by the leads.  Crisp entertainment from Sam Goldwyn’s company.

Casino Royale (1967)

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You are joke shop spies, gentlemen.  The original James Bond (David Niven) is the debonair spy, now retired and living a peaceful existence. He is reluctantly called back into duty when the mysterious organization SMERSH begins assassinating British secret agents (through the medium of sex) and he is impersonated by six impostors and his return to service includes taking on the villainous Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) and baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) who is hired by Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress, the greatest Bond girl of all!) to be yet another iteration of the great spy as she plays both ends against the middle.  Then there’s Bond’s bumbling nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen)… Producer Charles Feldman acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel in 1960 but despite protracted negotiations with Eon could never agree terms so decided to send it up – everyone else was making Bond spoofs, so why shouldn’t he?  Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers play fast and loose with the source and it’s directed variously by Ken Hughes, John Huston (who gets blown up early on in the film as M/McTarry), Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish and an uncredited Richard Talmadge. Niven has fun in the film’s early sequence overlong though it is stretching credibility at its occasionally joyless spoofing. However there are compensations – Ursula and Peter’s sidelong romance;  motormouth comic Allen becoming silenced in the presence of his famous uncle;  Welles doing a magic trick. And what about Bond finding his illegitimate daughter Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) by Mata Hari?! Meta is the word. And I love seeing Charles Boyer and George Raft (as himself!), Deborah Kerr sending up her Oirish accent from Black Narcissus playing the nun-wannabe widow of Huston, French spy spoofer Jean-Paul Belmondo, TV stars Ronnie Corbett and Derek Nimmo (and Catweazle plays Q!) with starlets Jacky (Jacqueline) Bisset and Alexandra Bastedo. Mad and quite bad it might be – there’s a flying saucer! And cowboys! – but heck it’s also a lot of fun, dated as it is. The cinematography by Jack Hildyard, Nicolas Roeg and John Wilcox is decadence itself. And then there’s the Burt Bacharach soundtrack and that song:  the desert island classic…

The Real Glory (1939)

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I can start a fire by rubbing two boy scouts together. This loose reworking of Lives of a Bengal Lancer reunites that film’s director Henry Hathaway with star Gary Cooper, transposing the action to the Philippines mid-uprising by the Moro (Moslem) guerillas. Colonel Hatch (Roy Gordon) is ordered to withdraw his troops from their island station.  There’s an insurgent army threatening the Filipinos so he lines up some of his best men to train the locals – military doctor Bill Canavan (Cooper),  along with McCool (David Niven) and Larson (Broderick Crawford), who make a lively pair of heroes.  When Linda (Andrea Leeds) the daughter of Captain Steve Hartley (Reginald Owen) enters the fray there are the usual romantic complications but these are second to the action which is at times horribly violent but excellently handled by Hathaway who was by now an expert at the genre and made a total of seven films with Cooper. (He had also previously made another Philippines-set film, Come On Marines!). When Hatch is killed by the guerillas Manning (Russell Hicks) takes over and after the local river is dammed there’s a cholera outbreak. Canavan befriends ‘Mike’ and infiltrates a Moro camp. Lines get crossed and a rescue attempt turns into an ambush …  Hartley meanwhile is going blind and doesn’t want to admit it. Who will blow up the dam? Jo Swerling and Robert Presnell Sr. adapted the novel by Charles L. Clifford which dealt with the real rebellion during US occupation at the beginning of the last century. Niven isn’t used remotely often enough in this Samuel Goldwyn Production but Leeds makes a very good impression as an atypical romantic lead. This was her third last film before her marriage into the Howard family who bred racehorses – including that little fella that could, Seabiscuit.

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

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A friend of mine is under the weather at the moment so I prescribed holiday viewing:  The Great Escape and its fraternal twin, this, one of the best men on a mission action adventures to come out of WW2. It’s 1943.  An Allied commando team is deployed to destroy huge German guns on the Greek island of Navarone in order to rescue troops trapped on Kheros. They’re led by British Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle) and include the American Mallory (Gregory Peck), Greek resistance fighter Stavros (Anthony Quinn) and reluctant Brit explosives expert Miller (David Niven). Facing impossible odds, the men battle stormy seas and daunting cliffs. When Franklin is injured, Mallory takes command, and the infighting begins. They have to impersonate Nazi officers and work with local resistance fighters Irene Papas and Gia Scala. There is a spy  in the camp – but who can it be? There’s interrogation and explosives and betrayal and all kinds of good stuff. This is sublime fun and contains probably my favourite movie line of all, from the inimitable Niven:  Heil everybody! Adapted from Alastair MacLean’s novel by blacklisted screenwriter and producer Carl Foreman (who made a lot of changes to the material) and directed by J. Lee Thompson (taking over from Alexander Mackendrick one week before production – that old saw, ‘creative differences.’) Narrated by James Robertson Justice and shot by the peerless Oswald Morris with a majestic soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin. Definitely taking this to the desert island. Or even a Greek one.

Carrington VC (1954)

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It would be too much to credit Anthony Asquith as an auteur but it must be said he authored so many elegant, witty adaptations of theatrical works exploring the class system that there should be proper recognition of his contribution to British cinema. In this John Hunter adaptation of Dorothy Christie and Campbell Christie’s play, David Niven is the officer who’s had to resort to taking money from mess funds to make up all the back pay he’s owed because his wife is threatening to kill herself over their financial woes. He’s a decorated WW2 hero despised by Col. Henniker (Allan Cuthbertson) a CO who’s got no cred amongst his men because he’s seen no action – so he pretends he didn’t know about the issue and brings Carrington to court martial. Carrington’s friend Captain Alison Graham (Noelle Middleton) stands by him and is secretly in love with him. When Carrington’s suicidal wife Val (Margaret Leighton) finally condescends to attend the trial she shrewishly gives false testimony to avenge her husband’s one night stand with Graham. This sounds like fairly conventional stuff but it’s smart, witty and well played, particularly by Niven whose typical typecasting actually works here – he really is an officer and a gentleman in a bit of a jam who’s terribly loyal even to people screwing him over – including his wife.  Victor Maddern (you’ll remember him from several Carry On roles) is fantastic as Bombardier Owen who has photographic recall of every detail of Carrington’s transactions and it wouldn’t be a Fifties Brit flick without Geoffrey Keen, Laurence Naismith and Maurice Denham whose presence really bolsters a story about the army in peacetime, somewhat at a loss in the post-war world.

Enchantment (1948)

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If houses could talk, what stories they could tell! Producer Samuel Goldwyn had high hopes for this intensely romantic intergenerational family drama adapted from the great Rumer Godden’s novel, Take Three Tenses.  A young American ambulance driver Grizel Dane (Evelyn Keyes) turns up uninvited at the home of her great uncle General Rollo Dane (David Niven) during WW2. Gradually he reveals to her his own story of lost love, with his father’s ward Lark (Teresa Wright) who moved in with their family following her parents’ tragic death and he regales her with a story of his older sister’s terrible jealousy of the little girl, persuading Lark into a marriage with an Italian count and getting Rollo to a high military commission by serving in Afghanistan. Rollo swore never to return to his home until his sister died. In contemporary life, Grizel falls for pilot officer Pax Masterson (Farley Granger) – who happens to be Lark’s own nephew. The intertwined stories make for quite the compelling romantic tragedy but it never hits the peaks you think it could, perhaps the complex serial flashbacks put paid to the tension and sustained drama. Goldwyn was so angry with the immensely moving Teresa Wright for her reluctance to promote the film that he terminated her contract and pretty much her career. Niven was criticised for the silver wig he wears as he plays the aged Rollo (which he does very well) but in fact Goldwyn had forced him to dye his hair which remained various shades of purple for the next two years, making his children scream and his dog bite him. His career with Goldwyn also suffered but his adventurous take on tackling older characters would pay off a decade later in Separate Tables, winning him an Academy Award.  This was the last feature shot by the great Gregg Toland who died a few weeks after the shoot, from a coronary thrombosis at the age of just 44.