American Gigolo (1980)

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A romantic drama about a male prostitute. Well it would have to be the beautiful Richard Gere at the peak of his masculinity in every sense – he was the first star to be photographed full frontal. Then of course a decade later he would play the man hiring the whore in Pretty Woman – not that my three year old cousin whose fave movie that was had the remotest idea. Paul Schrader’s fantasy about procurement, licentious behaviour and surfaces plays remarkably well these days. Gere is Julian Kaye, the high class multilingual (quiet there at the back) gigolo who usually works for an elegant procuress, Anne (Nina van Pallandt) sleeping with rich older women and squiring widows about town. He takes a job as a favour for street pimp Leon (Bill Duke) which turns into a very rough trick in Palm Springs and days later he’s had a murder pinned on him. Detective Hector Elizondo pretty much knows it’s not him but has to go after him anyhow. In the interim Julian has fallen for an unhappily married politician’s wife Michelle Stratton (model Lauren Hutton) and finds himself untouchable. That’s the big irony in this cool and observant film about narcissism and control. It became famous for two things – the Blondie song in the title sequence (Call Me)  which is reworked into thematic sequences and the montage in which Julian picks out his wardrobe – all Armani. The abstract images for the sex sequences particularly between Gere and Hutton seem to crystallise emotional detachment but the final image in which Julian perversely finds freedom in prison with Michelle on the other side of a window is pure Bresson. He rescues her and she saves him right back. Very interesting indeed and a key reason for Gere’s superstardom after the studio wanted Christopher Reeve and John Travolta turned it down – as he did many roles which then fell in Gere’s capacious lap…

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Les Diaboliques (1955)

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Aka The Devils or The Fiends. Paul Meurisse est le directeur sadique d’une école de français provinciale qui a été assassinée par sa femme douce (Vera Clouzot, épouse du réalisateur) et sa maîtresse endurciée (Simone Signoret). Elles le noient dans une baignoire dans la maison de Signoret en vacances et le rendent à la piscine de l’école. Cependant, son corps n’est pas situé comme prévu et il est vu par d’autres personnes sur place. Cette adaptation du roman de Boileau-Narcejac (Celle qui n’était plus) serait l’inspiration pour Psycho: Robert Bloch a déclaré que c’était son film préféré dans le genre; Hitchcock a été battu aux droits du film par le réalisateur Henri-Georges Clouzot, qui l’a adapté avec Jérôme Geronimi; et il a ensuite acquis un autre roman par la paire pour faire Vertigo. L’atmosphère dans l’école maternelle est merveilleusement réalisée; la tension entre les femmes (à l’origine un couple lesbien dans le roman) superbement créé dans leurs caractères antithétiques; le monde terrifiant de l’après-guerre créé inoubliablement; et la fin de la torsion est simplement un choc classique. Suspense supérieure et infiniment influente, avec un prototype pour Columbo dans le détective joué par Charles Vanel. Le thème de Georges Van Parys joué sur les titres est sublime.

 

Rear Window (1954)

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Grace Kelly had one hour to choose between returning to work with Alfred Hitchcock or taking the part of the girl in On the Waterfront. She chose this. And a good thing too, because it was written with her in mind. At the director’s suggestion, radio writer John Michael Hayes had got to know her on and off the set of Dial M for Murder and designed the role adapted from a story by Cornell Woolrich around Kelly’s authentic persona and that of his wife, a former model. It was by working with Hitchcock that Kelly learned to work with her whole body. He listened to her and she loved his jokes – they shared a filthy sense of humour. She plays Lisa Carol Fremont, a high society NYC mover and shaker who’s in love with photojournalist James Stewart, stuck looking out his window at his neighbours’ apartments while laid up with a broken leg. She’s desperately in love with him but he wants to get rid of her – then she becomes a gorgeous Nancy Drew when he suspects one of his neighbours has murdered his wife. Only then does he realise what he’s got. She’s the action girl of his dreams. When you go to Paramount Studios you can see the four-wall facility that Hitchcock used to create the biggest set built there but sadly nothing remains of this paean to onanism, voyeurism, narcissism and whatever other perversion you’re having yourself. Oh, and scopophilia. In theory, this is all about Stewart but really it’s all about Kelly – and the biggest joke here of course is that the most beautiful woman in the world wants him and he doesn’t get it. Not really. Not until she becomes a part of the unfolding events he watches through his viewfinder. Kelly’s entrance is probably the greatest afforded any movie star. Her costumes alone tell a great story. MGM never knew what to do with her so loaning her out wasn’t a problem.  The theatre owners knew who the real star was – and put her name up on their marquees above anyone else’s. Audiences adored her. She was the biggest thing in 1954. And this witty, clever study of a man afraid of marriage is for most people Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. For more on Kelly’s collaborations with Hitchcock, which are the peak of both their careers, and the high point of midcentury cinema, you can see my essay Hitchcock/Kelly at Canadian journal Offscreen:  https://www.offscreen.com/hitchcock-kelly.

Murder Ahoy! (1964)

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The final of the four Miss Marple film series starring the legendary Margaret Rutherford as a most unlikely Agatha Christie heroine – but who wants anyone else in the role?! This is only vaguely Christie, with a superficial reminder of one plot component in They Do It With Mirrors – a bunch of teenage tearaways supposedly being rehabilitated in an institution but actually being trained in burglary. Here they’re on a former naval ship run by a charitable trust.  When one of her fellow trustees is murdered, Marple infiltrates the boat … and a whole slew of deaths follows! Great fun, with the usual gang – Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell is back as Chief Inspector Craddock, Stringer Davies (Rutherford’s real life husband) returns as Marple’s fellow sleuth and there’s Lionel Jeffries in a  highly amusing performance as Captain Rhumstone.  Derek Nimmo, Miles Malleson and Nicholas Parsons bring up the considerable rear. Directed by George Pollock from a screenplay by David Pursall and Jack Seddon. Word up for the amazing poster design by Tom Jung and that fabulous jaunty signature tune by Ron Goodwin.

Bullitt (1968)

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Steve McQueen. A Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback. The greatest car chase ever filmed (until The French Connection). Jacqueline Bisset as the beautiful and intelligent love interest.  A fairly routine police procedural adapted from the novel Mute Witness was elevated to something approaching mythic precisely because McQueen’s innate cool transforms the material by virtue of his being allowed to be himself under Peter Yates’ careful direction. He’s up against a senator (Magnificent Seven co-star Robert Vaughn) with an agenda to shut down a Mafia investigation while Steve has to keep his witness hidden and find out what’s really going on. Adapted by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner from the novel by Robert L. Fish (or Pike!). Just listen to Lalo Schifrin’s score! Truly iconic.

Chinatown (1974)

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How do you describe a movie you’ve seen? How do you write a movie you’ve seen in your head so many times it’s like you lived it? The stars aligned when this one was made. Robert Towne turned down a lot of money to adapt The Great Gatsby for producer Robert Evans to decamp to Catalina Island with his great friends – the scholar Edward Taylor and his dog Hira. There, in the winter of 1971, he wrote one of the great Hollywood films, a fictionalised telling of the diversion of water from the Owens River Valley, set a few decades later than it occurred.  Private eye Jake/JJ Gittes was based on his friend Jack Nicholson, who played the role as born to it. Los Angeles, 1937. Jake is hired by a woman to investigate her cheating husband and gets mired in a mystery he could never hope to solve:  the corruption infesting the State of California and the distribution of Water (and Power), unwittingly finding himself falling in love with an heiress who’s given birth to her sister/daughter, the progeny of the man responsible for raping the land. Towne wrote a second draft which reads like Hammett, a beautiful exercise in pulp noir: I love it so much I dream about that biplane ride out to Catalina. But director Roman Polanski forced Towne into a third draft with an altered ending which is what was shot. Even with plot holes it’s extraordinary, shocking, funny, terrifying and blindingly brilliant, a sublime cinematic experience. Towne won the Academy Award. The guide at Paramount may be too young to know about it when you do the studio tour but if you want to know more  you can read my book about Towne and this film and all the other screenplays he’s written and films he’s made: https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481117503&sr=1-3&keywords=elaine+lennon.

After the Sunset (2004)

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

A Study in Terror (1965)

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The poster says it all:  the great literary detective versus the notorious serial killer of women in this Sixties fantasy chiller set in Victorian London. Adapted by Derek Ford and Donald Ford from their story which takes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters played here by John Neville and Donald Houston, with John Fraser as the aristocratic lunatic terrorising the East End. Produced by those exploitation experts Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger, this could easily have slid into the realms of the lurid but thanks to the great handling by director James Hill, costumes by Motley, delicate cinematography by Desmond Dickinson and an elegant score by John Scott it skirts the edges of taste to produce a gripping, entertaining thriller. The theory presented here is perfectly viable but one that might be scotched by more recent findings (even director Bruce Robinson has spent a decade on this trail). Still, it’s always been fun to speculate about this most horrifying of murderers. The cast is fantastic and just look down the ensemble:  Barbara Windsor, Anthony Quayle, Robert Morley, Adrienne Corri, Judi Dench, Cecil Parker, Kay Walsh, and my beloved Frank Finlay! You had me at hello!

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016)

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With Bridget Jones back in our lives like it was 2001 all over again, surely it was time for those other old drunk birds Patsy and Edina to re-enter the fray, this time on the big screen. The Four Js are back and it’s much as before – a small idea stretched too far but with enough funny moments to make you realise you missed them. Edina (writer/creator Jennifer Saunders) is no longer a hot London PR – she’s only got Lulu, Baby Spice and a boutique vodka to her name and her memoirs are rubbished by a prospective editor. Patsy  (Joanna Lumley) hears from her editor Magda (Kathy Burke) that Kate Moss needs new representation so Edina uses her half-African wealthy granddaughter Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holmes) as bait. Unfortunately it goes wrong and Edina ends up pushing the world’s most famous model into the Thames. Threatened with prison for manslaughter and the pariah of the whole world and not just the world of PR/fashion, she and Patsy decide to go on the run to the South of France (bien sur) where Mother (June Whitfield) is partying, with Saffy (Julia Sawalha) and her boyfriend DI Nick (Robert Webb) on their tails as they come up with an ingenious idea for a profitable marriage and a whole new life of luxe involving a drag act … Aside from the usually silent and Garboesque La Belle Moss, there are as many slebs here as you’ll find in Vivienne Westwood’s diaries:  models, designers, actors (with a couple of great cameos) as well as the usual suspects and a brilliant opportunity (not used enough IMHO) to see the inside of Pierre Cardin’s fabulous bubble (a propos…!) house in Saint Tropez. It’s as rackety as the series always was, Joanna Lumley the whole show with her deathray stare – but weirdly (given the plot) no reference to a famous episode when she admitted to a sex change in Morocco back in the day. For cult TV afficionados Wanda Ventham (Sherlock’s mum) makes a welcome appearance and for the yoof there’s Glee’s Chris Colfer and the cool factor is supplied by Jon Hamm reliving his de-virginizing at Patsy’s hands:  he’s stunned she’s still alive. There’s not much new here and the story is as coke-thin as a supermodel, nor is it well directed by TV veteran Mandie Fletcher, making just her second film, paired once again with Jane Horrocks (Bubble) from Deadly Advice two decades ago.At its essence this is a movie about two women who are best friends lumbered with people who don’t want to have fun any more. However in a year of few good films this fashion flick is like water in a desert. And I gasped at the Botox injection scene (yikes!) Welcome back, ladies. God I miss the Nineties!

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

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Has there been a more ravishing film in the last twenty years? Hardly. And that’s just the start of it. Patricia Highsmith was an exquisitely stealthy writer, composing short, even, straightforward sentences that revealed ever so slowly the beating heart of psychotic Tom Ripley (and others) in relatively neat novels and stories that crept up on you before unsettling you permanently. The world never seemed quite as balanced thereafter. Ripley is barely making a living playing keyboards at chi-chi events in 1950s NYC when the wealthy father of someone he pretends to know makes him an offer he can’t refuse:  travel to Italy, bring home the reprobate Dickie Greenleaf and all for a handsome reward. When Ripley goes there and finds the beauteous Dickie shacking up with girlfriend Marge he craves their lifestyle, apes their liking for jazz and begins to send some misleading telegrams Stateside to keep Pop on a leash and lure Dickie into a gay relationship (some hope). Then he goes to any lengths necessary to take over Dickie’s life. Including murder …  As a Highsmith fan I had many problems with this in the first instance:  I attended an early screening, attended by writer/director Anthony Minghella and I had a burning question to ask but felt constrained by the company:  why cast pug-ugly Matt Damon as Ripley?  Did Harvey Weinstein force it? Particularly because the moment you see Jude Law as Dickie you are simply breathtaken:  he just stuns. His performance telegraphs contempt, superiority, ease, all at once, he doesn’t have to speak, he just IS. (He was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination).  And the beautiful Alain Delon was the most brilliant, audacious Ripley in Purple Noon/Plein Soleil. When Philip Seymour Hoffman appears as Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles he wipes Damon off the screen – and sees through his act. Perhaps that’s the whole point! In a study of class envy, Ripley is simply outclassed, on every level. Then there are the additions:  did Highsmith not write enough? Minghella created a whole new subplot with a woman called Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) whom Ripley encounters on the sea journey to Europe. She’s another discomfiting blonde goddess, balancing Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge but with a different kind of corny effect. So there are a lot of things wrong here if one thinks purely in terms of fidelity. But there are some right things too. There are extraordinary moments at times and isn’t that what Polanski says cinema is, moments? The entire effect can be wondrous, if you can get past the casting.