A Canterbury Tale (1944)

A Canterbury Tale

I was born here and my father was born here. You’re here because there’s a war. On the way to Canterbury, Kent during World War II, American G.I. Bob Johnson (real-life soldier John Sweet) mistakenly gets off the train in Chillingbourne, where he encounters British Army Sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price) and British Land Girl Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), who’s working as a shopkeeper. When they’re confronted with a serial criminal who puts glue in women’s hair, and Alison becomes his newest victim, these twentieth century pilgrims are drawn into a mystery that brings them closer together. During their stay they get to know local landowner and magistrate Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman) who wants to share his local knowledge with the new residents … Sergeant! The glue-man’s out again! This almost indefinable film from the Powell and Pressburger stable is a pastoral account of Englishness, an expressive linking of past and present, city and country, displaced persons and new community. At a time of lockdown Sim’s plaintive cry is resonant:  Why should people who love the country have to live in big cities? The shooting style of German Erwin Hillier lends itself beautifully to an idea of a new Romantic era in England, piercing wartime privations with an almost bucolic sense of possibility and nodding to Chaucer. And yet it’s the story of a man who puts glue in women’s hair and how in solving the mystery of his identity three very different people find their own way to a kind of spirituality and even a miracle in the case of bereaved Sim. Sweet is terribly engaging as the figure who enables a boost in Anglo-American relations. The moment of awe is apposite – when Price plays the organ in Canterbury Cathedral after years of being consigned to movie theatres. The city has been devastated by German bombs but the music soars.  This is the point where Powell and Pressburger engage in a kind of angelic conversation and it is appropriately inspiring. Narrated by Esmond Knight who also plays a soldier and the Village Idiot. You can’t hurry an elm

Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger theatrical

I must be dreaming. MI6 agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is holidaying in Miami when his opposite number in the CIA Felix Leiter (Cec Linder) asks him to keep an eye on a fellow hotel guest – so he winds up investigating a gold-smuggling ring run by businessman Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe). As he delves deeper into his activities, he uncovers a sinister plan to attack Fort Knox’s gold reserves to destroy the world’s economy… Do you expect me to talk?/No, Mr Bond. I expect you to die! The third in the series, this is where everything came right – action, humour, thrills, villain, style, ingenious gadgets,  great set design by Ken Adam, doubles entendres, devilish mute Korean hitman Oddjob (Harold Takata), Goldfinger’s persuasive personal pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) with her Flying Circus and the notorious death by gold paint of Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) which still startles today. Adapted by Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn (with suggestions by Wolf Mankowitz) from Ian Fleming’s eponymous seventh novel, the character of Auric Goldfinger is a very specific kind of nemesis, with his psychopathic obsession the Achilles heel of the man: This is gold, Mr. Bond. All my life I’ve been in love with its color… its brilliance, its divine heaviness. That’s what makes him a perfect crazed criminal but also a great pivot into Cold War politics and economic ideas, a kind of double bluff à la Hitchcock. This is a narrative where sex and danger and death are combined symbolically in the iconic title sequence (by graphic artist Robert Brownjohn) with all those dead painted girls providing a backdrop of morbidity and Connery freely imbues his performance with fear particularly when he’s about to get his by an artfully directed laser beam. The chase and action sequences are brilliantly managed with the modified Aston Martin DB5 in a class of its own. Then of course there’s the legendary theme written by composer John Barry with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Tony Newley and performed by Shirley Bassey, creating a siren song of sass. Smartly directed by Guy Hamilton, a colleague of Fleming’s in Britain’s wartime intelligence operations, this is totally thrilling entertainment that provided the blueprint for the films that followed.  Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He’s fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavour… except crime!

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!

Manhunter (1986)

Manhunter

You want the scent? Smell yourself! Former FBI Agent Will Graham (William Petersen) is called out of early retirement by his boss Jack Crawford (Denis Farina) to catch a serial killer.  The media have dubbed him The Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan) because he kills random families in their homes. Will is a profiler whose speciality is psychic empathy, getting inside the minds of his prey. The horror of the murders takes its toll on him. He asks for the help of his imprisoned arch-nemesis, Dr Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) who gets to him like nobody else and nearly murdered him years earlier yet has insights into the methodology of the killer that could unlock the case… He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks. The mindbending antics of Thomas Harris’ narcissistic creation Lecktor were first espied here but it’s really Will Graham’s story and what a surprise casting choice the introspective pigeon-toed Petersen seemed.  He carries this oppressively chilling thriller where he is the masochist to his targets’ sadistic mechanisms. The dispassionate style, the modernist interiors, the internal machinations of the protagonist’s obsessive inner voice while he inhabits the minds of his relentlessly morbid prey, lend this a hypnotic mood. As the action increases in intensity the colours and style of cinematographer Dante Spinotti become cooler and more distancing. The diegetic score by bands including Shriekback and The Reds is an immersive trip into the nightmarish vision. An extraordinary spin on terror that is as far from the camp baroque theatrics of The Silence of the Lambs as it is possible to imagine, this masterpiece has yet to be equalled in the genre and feels like a worm has infected your brain and is burrowing through it, out of your control, colouring your dreams, imprinting you with a thought pattern that may never depart. A dazzling exercise in perspective and perception, this is a stunning work of art. Adapted from Red Dragon by director Michael Mann. Does this kind of understanding make you uncomfortable?

The Gauntlet (1977)

The Gauntlet

On a scale of one to ten, I’d have to give her a two, and that’s because I haven’t seen a one before. Hard-living ageing cop Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood) is recruited to escort Augustina ‘Gus’ Mally (Sondra Locke), a key witness in a Mob trial, from Las Vegas to Phoenix. But far from being a nothing witness in a nothing trial as Commissioner Blakelock (William Prince) insists, Gus is a lovely, well-educated if coarse call girl who claims to have explosive information on a significant figure that makes the two highly expendable targets. Ben starts to believe her story after numerous attempts are made to kill them and they have to travel across the unforgiving desert without official protection, pursued by angry bikers and corrupt police officers and he contacts his direct boss Josephson (Pat Hingle) to try to rearrange the outcome  ... Now, the next turkey who tries that, I’m gonna shoot him, stuff him, and stick an apple in his ass. Chris Petit remarks elsewhere that this in its own way is as significant to the Eastwood screen persona as Annie Hall is to Woody Allen’s – and that’s true, insofar as it examines masculinity (and it’s shown up in elemental form), quasi-feminist principles and gut-busting hardcore action and thrills based on the first formal rule of movie making – people chasing people. Written by Michael Butler and David Shryack, they were working on a screenplay originally intended for Brando and Streisand (can you imagine?) and Brando withdrew in favour of Steve McQueen and Streisand then walked – leading to Eastwood coming on board to direct and star so the self-deprecating humour took on a new edge as he challenges institutional corruption and general stupidity (mostly his own) once again. Locke is great as the prostitute with a planet-sized brain, a heart of gold and a mine of information and she’s every bit as resourceful as you’d expect when the two hit the road running. Fast, funny and occasionally quite furious, this is a key film in both of the stars’ careers. Shryack would go on to write Pale Rider (1985) for Eastwood and it was that decade’s biggest grossing western. There are some marvellous jazz solos from Art Pepper and Jon Faddis. Smart, rip roaring fun, a pursuit western in all but name. I can go anywhere I please if I have reasonable suspicion. Now if I have suspicion a felony’s been committed, I can just walk right in here anytime I feel like it, ’cause I got this badge, I got this gun, and I got the love of Jesus right here in my pretty green eyes

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

For Your Eyes Only theatrical

Welcome to Remote Control Airways! After a British information-gathering vessel gets sunk into the sea, MI6’s Agent 007 (Roger Moore) is given the responsibility of locating the lost encryption device the Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator (ATAC) and thwarting it from entering enemy ie Russian military hands led by the KGB’s General Gogol (Walter Gotell). Bond becomes tangled in a web of deception spun by rival Greek businessmen Aris Kristatos (Julian Glover) who initially presents as Bond’s ally and Milos Columbo (Topol); along with Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet), a British-Greek woman  seeking to avenge the murder of her parents, marine archaeologists working for the British Government … The Chinese have a saying: “When setting out on revenge, you first dig two graves”. This is the Bond that rather divides the purists. Culled from the title story in the eponymous collection along with another, Risico, plus an action sequence from Live and Let Die, this is back to basics and a down to earth reboot after the sci fi outing Moonraker. James visits late wife Tracy’s grave (from OHMSS) and has to live on his wits instead of Q’s (Desmond Llewelyn) gadgets – hence the Lotus exploding early on followed by a hair raising Keystone Cops-style chase through a Spanish village in a rickety little Citroën 2CV. It’s got to be one of the more visually pleasurable of all films, never mind in the franchise, with heart-stoppingly beautiful location shooting in Greece and Italy, and Greece standing in for some scenes set in Spain. Bouquet is a fabulous leading lady with great motivation – revenge – and she can shoot a very mean crossbow.  The action overall is simply breathtaking – that initial helicopter sequence around the abandoned Beckton Gas Works (which Kubrick would turn into Vietnam for Full Metal Jacket), the ski/motorbike chase and jump, the mountain top monastery that lends such a dramatic impact for the final scene, the Empress Sissi’s summer palace in Corfu that provides such a distinctive setting, the yachts that home the catalysing confrontations which include sharks! Glover (originally mooted as Bond himself, years earlier) makes for a satisfying ally turned villain after the jokey title set piece, the winter sports, and the use of the bob sleigh run are quite thrilling. Topol is very charismatic as the Greek helpmate Columbo, Kristatos’ former smuggling partner; and Lynn-Holly Johnson is totally disarming as the ice-skating Olympic hopeful and ingenue Bibi Dahl who has an unhealthy desire for inappropriate relations with a clearly embarrassed Bond. Smooth as butter with Moore very good in a demanding realistic production. What’s not to love in a film that channels the best bits of Black Magic and Martini adverts from the Seventies?! This boasts the first titles sequence in the series to feature the song’s performer, Sheena Easton, singing a composition by Bill Conti and Michael Leeson. Badass Cassandra Harris who plays Columbo’s mistress Countess Lisl Von Schlaf was visited by her husband Pierce Brosnan during production and the Bond team duly took notice. Charles Dance makes a brief appearance as a henchman of Locque (Emil Gothard), a hired killer deployed by Kristatos. Out of respect for the recent death of Bernard Lee, the role of M was put aside. The screenplay is by vet Richard Maibaum and executive producer Michael G. Wilson while long time editor John Glen graduates to the top job and does it wonderfully. Remarkably good in every way, this is one of the very best Bonds and even though it was the first one of the Eighties feels like it could have been made an hour ago. Don’t grow up. You’ll make life impossible for men

Ray & Liz (2018)

Ray and Liz

They can do anything nowadays. In England’s Black Country in the Thatcher era, Ray (Justin Salinger) and Liz (Ella Smith) raise their two sons Richard (Jacob Tuton/Sam Jacobs) and his younger brother Jason (Callum Slater/Joshua Millard-Lyon) on the margins of society in a Dudley council flat… A horrifying and virtually unwatchable portrait of the underclass with gruelling depictions of heavy drinking, parental neglect and familial dysfunction on a fathomless scale, told over a period of eight years as Richard becomes a teenager.  It’s framed within a flashback when Ray (Patrick Romer) is now an alcoholic separated from Liz (Deirdre Kelly) and neighbour Sid (Richard Ashton) is vying for his welfare benefits by keeping him drunk. Made by photographer and artist Richard Billingham about his impoverished upbringing and developed from a short film, this unsentimental fragmentary narrative is not without the odd millisecond of humour – perhaps when Jason runs away and meets his mother the following day wheeling a rabbit in a pram in a local park we are in the realm of Lewis Carroll. Her maintenance of a menagerie in their squalid surroundings is given a correlative in a visit to a zoo. Spot the difference between that and council accommodation. Then the social workers intervene, as you might expect but only Jason gets to go to a foster family: Richard is told he is almost old enough to leave and his coping mechanism to record and photograph his family throughout his childhood is the key to his freedom. It’s his recording that proved the nasty lodger Will (Sam Gittins) forced drink down the throat of retarded Uncle Lol (Tony Way) but tattooed drinker and smoker Liz destroys the evidence after she’s inflicted mindless violence. And returns to her jigsaw puzzles. Stylistically it’s slow, disconnected, anti-dramatic for the most part and pitiless and may remind you of Terence Davies’ work but other than feeling gutted for feral children born into such gob smacking fecklessness, when you look away from a work that refuses all possibility of empathy you’ll wind up thinking perhaps eugenics isn’t such a rotten idea after all – because bad people do bad things to the children they should never be permitted to have. Perhaps not the appropriate reaction. Kitchen sink realism for a new era, it’s a staggering if emotionless indictment of the kind of Britain that still exists for millions of people. This is what happens when you enact official policies of social isolation, austerity and poverty. It really is Grim Up North. Brutal.

Lucy Gallant (1955)

Lucy Gallant

Don’t get people mixed up with flowers. That only works for the birds and the bees or didn’t anyone tell you? 1941. Stranded by a storm in Sage City Texas en route to Mexico, Lucy Gallant (Jane Wyman) is assisted by handsome rancher Casey Cole (Charlton Heston) who helps find her suitable lodging in a town celebrating recent oil strikes. Local women’s reaction starting with Irma Wilson (Mary Field) and her daughter Laura (Gloria Talbott) to her fashion persuades Lucy to sell the contents of her trousseau and she decides to stay and open a dress shop with the backing of the local bank manager Charles Madden (William Demarest). Lucy lives at Molly Basserman’s (Thelma Ritter) boarding house and runs her store out of Lady ‘Mac’ MacBeth’s (Claire Trevor) brothel, The Red Derrick. She resists newly rich Casey’s romantic approaches explaining that she’d been on the verge of marriage when her fiancé jilted her following her father’s indictment for fraud. Casey proposes to her but only if she gives up business. She returns to find her store has burned down. He underwrites a bank loan for her to rebuild bigger and better without her knowledge. When WW2 breaks out Casey enlists and after the war he returns and they quarrel. He becomes engaged to a fashion model in  Paris but the relationship breaks up and Casey returns to Texas just when Lucy believes she is about to have her greatest success … Some champagne please, I feel like breaking glasses. Adapted from a novella by prolific short story writer Margaret Cousins, the screenplay by John Lee Mahin and Winston Miller feels somewhat laboured and the leads have little to do. The salty presence of Trevor and Ritter as Lucy’s solid female backup is welcome relief from a fairly turgid romance and the sexism is rather unpleasant. The brightest spot is towards the end with a spectacular fashion show guest hosted by legendary Edith Head (who designed the costumes) in a rare appearance (minus her signature blue lenses); while real-life Texas Governor Allan Shivers appears as himself. It can’t hold a candle to Giant, which also tells the story of modern Texas up to the same period. Directed by Robert Parrish. I really shouldn’t let you do it but I will

 

About a Boy (2002)

About a Boy

I’ll tell you one thing. Men are bastards.  Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is a wealthy child-free and hedonistic thirtysomething London bachelor who, in search of available women, invents an imaginary son and starts attending single parent meetings claiming he’s been left with a two year-old son. As a result of his attraction to Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), he meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) a solemn twelve-year-old boy with problems at school and a suicidal hippie mother Fiona (Toni Collette). Gradually, Will and Marcus become friends and Marcus pretends to be his son so Will can pursue a relationship with single mother Rachel (Rachel Weisz).  As Will teaches Marcus how to fit in, Marcus helps Will to finally be a man ... Two people aren’t enough. You need backup. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel by Peter Hedges and co-directors Chris and Paul Weitz, this has all the elements of a mawkish soap but the performances and humour raise it to another level. Grant’s always been a great cad but here he also learns lessons – he already knows he doesn’t want to be a conventional husband or have responsibility but through friendship with this odd kid he learns how to be authentically emotional and to be a good guy. The fact that he’s hanging out with a twelve-year old boy leads Fiona to confront him in a restaurant where everyone immediately assumes he’s a pederast in one of the best scenes in the film. Hoult is properly strange looking (the wonder is that Will takes him shoe shopping rather than for a haircut) but the point is that both of them are outcasts in their own way and need to grow up by facing their fears – which brings the film to its penultimate scene at a school concert which presents the potential for lifelong humiliation. The songs are intrinsic to the storytelling as is customary with Hornby’s work and it’s a mosaic of cool and cringe, including the horrible Christmas song composed by Will’s father which afforded him his louche lifestyle in the first place. A film of exceptional charm. As I sat there I had a strange feeling. I was enjoying myself

When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

When Eight Bells Toll

Operates best under conditions of extreme pressure. Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) is a tough British Navy secret service agent called in by ‘Uncle Arthur’ (Robert Morley) to track down gold bullion smugglers after two agents are murdered on the job tracking cargo ships that have been hijacked in the Irish Sea. He follows the trail off the Scottish coast to a close-mouthed community where Greek tycoon Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins) has moored yacht off and finds the well-connected aristo is married for the second time to the stunning much younger Charlotte (Nathalie Delon). After his colleague Hunslett (Corin Redgrave) is murdered and he escapes from his Royal Navy helicopter following the shooting of his pilot, who is conducting the heists? … You can’t go round acting like a one-man execution squad. This is England! Alistair MacLean’s 1965 adventure bestseller was eyed up as a potential starter for a series to rival the James Bond franchise but that’s not what happened. Despite ample action, jaw-droppingly witty lines and a lovely lady who may or may not be one of the good guys, this isn’t quite slick enough looking to fit a 007-shaped hole following Sean Connery’s departure. Hopkins is a rather unlikely romantic lead but his scenes with Delon feel like they’re straight out of screwball comedy: The nights would be good but the days would be a drag. Morley is playing a role he’s done before but putting this portly gent out in the field and into a rowing boat is a stroke of genius – literally an outsize fish out of water in water. We’re going to prove that Britannia rules the waves. Every line hits the bullseye. This is a story about class distinction and clubbable men too:  Working-his-way-through-the-ranks type, he comments disdainfully of Hopkins. Any time the action flags a little the robust score by Angela Morley lifts it into another dimension. The only thing they couldn’t alter is the miserable grey sky. We can sympathise with Delon and close our eyes and reimagine this in the Med but for MacLean who adapted his book for producer Elliott Kastner (who had also made Where Eagles Dare) this was of course coming home. An unsung and fast-moving gem of its era with an inventive approach to the enemy lair.  Jack Hawkins had to be dubbed by Charles Gray following the removal of his larynx (nothing to do with the action here however). Directed by Étienne Périer. There’s always peril in the water