The Hand of Night (1968)

The Hand of Night

Aka Beast of Morocco. I’m a harbinger of death and desolation. Paul Carver (William Sylvester) is a guilty widower grieving the deaths of his wife and children in a car accident when he takes an unusual and hazardous job accompanying archaeologist Otto Gunther (Edward Underdown) and his assistant Chantal (Diane Clare) on a North African tomb-hunting expedition. They learn of a legend involving a female Moorish vampire who haunts the tomb taking her revenge against men. Before long, Paul has succumbed to the seductive wiles of a mysterious Moroccan woman Marisa (Alizia Gur) whom he first encounters at Gunther’s party but who nobody else apparently saw. She begins to bend him to her will and he follows Omar (Terence de Marney) around the city looking for her, finding her in an apparently abandoned palace where her sirens dance for him. It is left to Chantal to come to his rescue, but her attempts place her in even greater jeopardy; ultimately it is Paul who has to break free of Marisa’s evil clutches and destroy her before she destroys him… I know that a man can misunderstand himself but surely not forever. Good looking cult item shot on location in Morocco in 1966 best seen as a moody piece of low budget work with an intermittently interesting score by Joan Shakespeare, blessed with omens and portents and second sight and a very alluring vampire. Strange to say the most appealing aspects are the rather realistic approach, blending the touristic filming style with local storytelling, Dracula, mummy myths, a vanishing castle and the opportunity to see stalwarts of British Bs in a very different setting. It fits in more with the European vampire films of the era than anything being made in the UK. It was British-Hungarian Clare’s last film and she’s very good indeed;  fans of the genre remember her for Witchcraft and The Plague of the Zombies. The stunningly beautiful Gur, who was a former Miss Israel, had appeared in From Russia With Love and after this she would only record five more screen credits, all for TV. (Weirdly, as the daughter of German Jewish emigrants who fled Nazi Germany, she married two men boasting the initials SS.) Sylvester would go on to greater things with 2001: A Space Odyssey. An Associated British-Pathé production written by Bruce (Timeslip) Stewart and directed by Frederic Goode who had made another archaeology-themed film in North Africa a few years earlier, Valley of the Kings. For fans of such esoterica it’s interesting to compare with The Velvet Vampire, made a few years later. You seek the road into the dark

 

The Operative (2019)

The Operative

We do not execute at any cost. If something is not according to plan you have the right to call it off.  British-Jewish Mossad agent Thomas (Martin Freeman) who is based in Germany is summoned to try and figure out the whereabouts of an agent he recruited following her father’s funeral in London because she is a valuable asset who has vanished without trace.  He met and persuaded this mysterious woman Anne/Rachel (Diane Kruger) to become an agent, sending her to Tehran on an undercover mission where she falls in love with Farhad (Casvar) whose business Mossad are hoping to use as cover for a nuclear weapons exchange to destabilise the national programme. When her missions become more dangerous and Farhad is kidnapped by her colleagues, she decides to quit, forcing her boss to find her before she becomes a threat to Israel… You should visit Israel. To connect to the place. The people. Adapted from the Hebrew novel The English Teacher by former intelligence officer Yiftach Reicher-Atir, writer/director Yuval Adler has made a smartly told, nuanced story benefitting from a defining performance by an almost unrecognisable dressed-down Kruger. The Tehran section is as educative as it is narrative, with Rachel’s love story an echo of her real feelings about the city and its people. Her enigmatic persona – she persists in telling people she’s adopted even though she isn’t – is not properly explored which suggests a hinterland the film doesn’t entirely reconcile. The letdown is Freeman, who apparently replaced Eric Bana as Rachel’s handler. Refreshing mainly because of its insights into the region’s geopolitics from a new perspective. I can’t believe I’m here. Doing this

Return of the Seven (1966)

Return of the Seven

Aka Return of the Magnificent SevenWe got to stand along side of ’em so that someday they can stand alone. Fifty gunmen force all the men in a small Mexican village to ride off with them into the desert. Among the captured farmers is love-smitten Chico (Julián Mateos), who three years before was one of seven hired gunslingers responsible for ridding the village of the tyrannical bandit, Calvera. Chico’s wife, Petra (Elisa Montés), looks for the only other members of the band to survive: Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Robert Fuller). She begs them to save the village once again. To replace the deceased members of the group, Chris buys the release of a brooding gunman Frank (Claude Akins) and famous bandit Luis (Virgilio Teixeira), held in the local jail, and recruits two more: sharpshooting ladies’ man Colbee (Warren Oates) and young cockfighter Manuel (Jordan Christopher). The men discover that the missing villagers are being used as slave labor to rebuild a desert village and church as a memorial to the dead sons of wealthy and psychotic rancher Francisco Lorca (Emilio Fernándes). In a surprise attack, the six gunmen force Lorca’s men to leave and prepare for a counterattack with Chico. The cowed farmers offer no help but the seven defenders successfully repel Lorca’s initial attack. Lorca then gathers all the men on his land to rout the seven men. The situation seems bleak until Manuel discovers a supply of dynamite which the seven use in a counteroffensive… Sure Chico is a friend of mine. But, hell, I don’t even know his last name. The first sequel to The Magnificent Seven is written by one (future) auteur, Larry Cohen and directed by another, Burt Kennedy, who already had form with a series of superb screenplays starting the previous decade.  This is his fourth film as director and unfortunately he does not marshal the drama in the exciting way you’d hope. Part of the miracle of the legendary first film was the spot-on casting but only Brynner makes the cut here, and despite more or less the same premise and setting, with location shooting in Spain, Fernando Rey as the priest, and a rousing score – a re-recorded version of the original from Elmer Bernstein – this never hits the same notes of of empathy or sheer bravado even with a wealth of decent banter and action. The avengers may have reassembled, but Fuller is no Steve McQueen and Mateos is no substitute for Horst Buchholz.  What they really need is Eli Wallach to return as the consummate bad guy. In all the years I made my way with a gun, I never once shot a man just to see him fall

Appointment in London (1953)

Appointment in London

It’s time you stopped flying. In 1943 Wing Commander Tim Mason (Dirk Bogarde) is stationed at RAF Bomber Command and wants to conclude his third tour of 30 operations but he’s been working too hard and he’s too valuable to the team. He assists widowed WREN Eve Canyon (Dinah Sheridan) at the roadside and she accompanies him and the crew to the pub. It turns out she’s working with them and she is romanced by American pilot Mac Baker (William Sylvester). Losses are mounting and missions are failing. Crew members Brown (Bill Kerr) and The Brat aka Greeno (Bryan Forbes) believe there’s a jinx on them. Mason finds Greeno has been sending telegrams off-station that could be a security risk but they turn out to be to his wife Pam (Anne Leon) who asks to meet Mason when Greeno goes missing. A bombing load falls off a plane injuring crew just before a crucial mission over Germany and Mac steps in at the eleventh hour while Tim boards too in order to assuage the men’s fears of a jinx and their return prompts his realisation that he can now fulfill his appointment at the Palace in the company of a woman he loves … Everything seemed to go wrong from the start. John Wooldridge’s story is based on his own wartime experiences and he shares screenplay credit with Robert Westerby, managing a well-paced narrative that ratchets with tension and anticipation. It culminates in a wonderfully satisfying night-time firefight. The eagle-eyed will spot that navigation officer Sandy is played by one Anthony Forwood, one-time husband of Glynis Johns who became Bogarde’s other half in real life. Wooldridge composed the score and died prematurely in 1958. Made with the assistance of Bomber Harris, planespotters will be thrilled with all the Lancasters. Directed by Philip Leacock. Steady. Steady. Steady. Bombs go!

American Woman (2018)

American Woman

We’re supposed to just sit here and wait. In a small blue-collar town in Rust Belt Pennsylvania, a 32-year-old single woman Debra Callahan’s (Sienna Miller) teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes missing. Left to raise her infant grandson Jesse (Aidan McGraw/Aidan Fiske) alone, she desperately seeks the answers behind her daughter’s disappearance while her sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) and mother Peggy (Amy Madigan) lend their support but Police Detective Sergeant Morris (E. Roger Mitchell) has no leads. After years of re-training at college and abandoning her habit of sleeping with married men, indulging a horrific coercive relationship and living from hand to mouth waiting tables, she has a job in administration and a prospective younger husband Chris (Aaron Paul) whom she marries after a couple of months but eventually life comes crashing down again …You think you’re special. More than anything else, this tale of working class people concerns the pain and difficulty of single motherhood (like mother, like daughter, both teen moms) which creates a cycle of poverty, low paid work and promiscuity. The story of generational mistakes is a somewhat run of the mill and depressing exercise, not caring to particularise the different phases of femininity save in its biological underpinnings which is after all a zero-sum game:  no matter what you do, you’re wrong and you’re trapped. Melodrama is substituted for mystery and Bridget’s disappearance is all but forgotten while life is dramatised as a series of betrayals. It finally obtains a power and focus in the closing sequences when Debra achieves a meeting with her daughter’s (inevitable) killer in prison: we just see the reflection of his face on hers, before they have an unheard conversation that leads Debra to Bridget’s final resting place, buried with his other victims. She is just a number in the earth now. Ironically, Debra now looks younger than she did eleven years earlier because is no longer the trashy tramp she essayed to survive:  with an answer to what happened she has a kind of equilibrium, at last. Very well performed by a great cast – how good is it see Amy Madigan even in a small role. Miller is superb, encompassing her character’s stop-start odyssey of rage in the smallest of gestures. Written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Jake Scott. This is it Mom. The moment you’ve been waiting for for forty years

The Gentle Sex (1943)

The Gentle Sex

We’ve got a world where people have to die because we don’t know how to live. Seven women from different backgrounds meet at an Auxiliary Territorial Service training camp. “Gentle” British girls, including sensible Scot Maggie Fraser (Rosamund John), Anne (Joyce Howard), who is from a service family and the youngest, Betty (Joan Greenwood), they are joined by Czech refugee Erna Debruski (Lilli Palmer) and are now doing their bit to help out in World War 2 from drilling and driving lorries to manning ack-ack batteries … You’ve a great resemblance of a girl I’ve a mind to marry. Writer and co-director Leslie Howard [with an uncredited Maurice Elvey who worked on it following the death of his colleague’s mistress] voices an ‘ironic’ narration (written by Doris Langley Moore) which may have its own ironically patronising overtones but this portrait of female solidarity, hard work and loss while those brave menfolk are overseas is not just fine propaganda but a bewitching home front experience. Six characters in search of … what? Howard deadpans. With additional dialogue by Aimee Stuart and uncredited rewrites by Roland Pertwee and Elizabeth Baron from an original story and screenplay by Moie Charles, it gifts John with one of her best roles and she excels, especially in the comedic relationship with John Laurie. This is a woman’s war. The structure provides the anticipated social overview but interestingly these are women who do not require men’s approval (unlike the similarly themed Millions Like Us). Good on detail, relationships and loyalty, it’s a fount of social history, utilising a documentary style and emphasis on the collective to achieve the affect of togetherness:  it works. Now we have hatred to fill the empty spaces in our hearts

Lost (1956)

Lost film

Aka Tears for Simon. I didn’t neglect my baby. U.S. Embassy employee Lee Cochrane (David Knight) and his wife Sue (Julia Arnall), receive a shock when they discover that their 18-month-old son, Simon, has disappeared in London from Kensington Gardens. He was last seen with their nanny, and the couple seemingly have no leads that might help police Detective Inspector Craig (David Farrar) in his investigation but the pages of a popular novel might provide a useful lead that involves several staff members to look for a clue. The media sensationalises the incident, causing an unnecessary distraction as the couple prepares to confront the culprit face-to-face when they get a series of phonecalls despite warnings not to give a ransom as time is running out … Can a career woman be a mother as well? That’s the tabloid headline screaming from a newspaper article that Sue agrees to be interviewed for in order to secure publicity for her missing son – and that’s what a woman journalist writes about her. The screenplay by the estimable Janet Green never ignores the gender-baiting of the era in this punchy thriller which allows ample time for Sue to shed tears and do anything she can to save her child while she loses it psychologically too. Farrar is his usual tough and brusque character but there are some good jibes about his bachelorhood in an office boasting a female Sergeant (Meredith Edwards). Everley Gregg (a favourite actress of Noël Coward) has a great bit as a Lady who likes cars; while Thora Hird, Mona Washbourne, Joan Sims, Joan Hickson, Barbara Windsor and Shirley Anne Field all make appearances. The parallel investigation narratives – by the police and the parents – are well intertwined and converge in literally a cliff-hanging ending. Shot by Harry Waxman, edited by Anne V. Coates and directed by Guy Green. You have a genius for the obvious

Personal Affair (1953)

Personal Affair

You see sex in everything! 17-year old Barbara Vining (Glynis Johns) is infatuated with her Latin teacher Stephen Barlow (Leo Genn) who’s married to lonely and insecure American woman Kay (Gene Tierney). When Barbara disappears after a private tutoring session with Stephen and Kay notices the girl’s crush on her husband, rumours swirl and he has to defend himself from the suspicion that he may have  raped and murdered her … I don’t think we are really ourselves in school hours. Lesley Storm adapted her stage play A Day’s Mischief;  she had form in that regard, having written the original play The Great Day, also adapted for cinema. She was an established screenwriter, contributing additional scenes and dialogue for Graham Greene’s The Fallen Idol and Adam and Evelyne and writing several other screenplays, with another Greene adaptation, The Heart of the Matter, released the same year as this, 1953. This mines a rich seam of prurient gossip and innuendo in a small community and with a great supporting cast including Megs Jenkins and Walter Fitzgerald as Barbara’s parents, Pamela Brown as her aunt who had a permanent disappointment in love at a similar age that has poisoned her outlook on relationships, Thora Hird as the Barlows’ housekeeper and Michael Hordern as the headmaster, and a raft of young (if not yet familiar) faces like Shirley Eaton and Nanette Newman (in her first role) playing her school chums. William Alwyn’s exacting score underlines the melodramatic urgency of the story which paradoxically takes place mostly in conversation between the adults who admit their misunderstanding of human behaviour and the subtlety of instinct while three women at different stages of life enact their experience of love and potentially its loss.  Directed by Anthony Pelissier. I’m no good without you

 

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

The Marriage of Maria Braun.jpg

Aka Die Ehe der Maria Braun. I don’t know a thing about business. But I do know what German women want. You might even say I’m an expert on it. Near the end of World War II, Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch), who is immediately sent off to battle at the Russian front before the marriage can be consummated. When the war concludes, Maria believes that Hermann is dead. The new widow tries to make a go of life on her own and she starts working at an Allied bar, where she meets black American GI Bill (George Byrd). They start a relationship that is interrupted when Hermann returns unexpectedlyyy. During a scuffle between the men, in the heat of the moment Maria accidentally kills Bill. Hermann takes the blame and goes to jail, while Maria begins a hard new life and builds an empire of her own … He kept me warm on those cold nights after the war. Practically a German take on Mildred Pierce with the miraculous Schygulla giving Joan Crawford a run for her money (Fassbinder had intended the role for Romy Schneider) in the post-war noir-ish businesswoman stakes, this is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fiercely sardonic take on marriage and money set in a new kind of Germany with a nod to Brecht. Life for women involves transactional sex which is justified as the ultimate practicality: I don’t care what people think. I do care what you think. And you’re not having an affair with me. I’m having an affair with you. The entire text bleeds fascism – how politics is funneled through culture to create a political landscape, whether we like it or not, infecting everyone who inhabits it.  This is the first of Fassbinder’s three Wirtschaftswunder films and is a key work of the New German Cinema with an ending that literally detonates before your eyes. Eva describes herself as the Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle and this dissects desire in all its forms. The screenplay is by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Mörthesheimer who also wrote the dialogue with director Fassbinder, based on his outline (and he plays a small role in the drama).  It’s a perfect blend of subject matter, realisation and performance, graced with stunning cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. Reality lags behind my consciousness

The Witches (1990)

The Witches 1990.jpg

You can never be sure if it’s a witch you’re looking at or a kind lady. Little American boy Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is holidaying with his Norwegian grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) who regales him with stories of witches, female demons masquerading as normal women but possessing undending hatred of children.  Helga’s best friend in childhood was entrapped by one of them in a painting and eventually faded from view. When Luke’s parents die his grandmother becomes his guardian and sends him to boarding school where he evades the attention of one such witch (Anne Lambton) and during the holidays at a seaside resort Luke become aware that witches are holding their annual British convention as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston).  When he and another boy Bruno (Charlie Potter) are in their midst they encounter a life-changing transformation into mice and have to avoid all sorts of predators as they try to escape to safety experiencing an actual cat and mouse chase … Real witches hate children! Adapted by Allan Scott from Roald Dahl’s darkly comic book, the biggest surprise to fans of Nicolas Roeg is that he directed it (perhaps not when you consider he had young sons at the time) but it has some of his recognisable tropes as well as a crew of his regular collaborators, including Scott, costumier Marit Allen and editor Tony Lawson in a production from Henson Studios with all that firm’s puppeteering and effects skills to the fore. The trick of balancing realism with fantasy, humour with horror, and scares for children (Roeg edited out more morbid material after seeing one of his children’s reactions) with jokes for adults, is perfectly achieved in this ambitious comic drama with Huston camping it up appositely to Zetterling’s caring grandmother. How is the room service here?/Diabolical./ Good! A third of the film is the adventure the boys have as mice, attempting to avoid becoming part of the hotel’s dinner menu, and there’s a marvellous payoff with formerly fat Bruno achieving his mother’s (Brenda Blethyn) ambition that he lose weight. The (happy) ending is different from that in the book and Dahl hated it and threatened to publicly campaign against it (Jim Henson dissuaded him) but overall it retains his casual cruelty and wit. Stanley Myers’ score is amped up with excerpts from Dies irae here and there to sound like Berlioz’ The Witches’ Sabbath. Shot in Bergen, Newquay and at Bray Studios, this was the last feature to involve the great Henson and the final one of Dahl’s books to be adapted prior to his own demise. A foolish witch without a brain, must sizzle into fire and flame! A witch who dares to say I’m wrong, will not be with us… VERY LONG!