Battle of the Bulge (1965)

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I did not lose a war to die in the back seat of a car. At the end of 1944 American Lt. Col. Dan Kiley (Henry Fonda), a military intelligence whiz and former police officer, discovers that the Nazis are planning to attack Allied forces near Belgium. Certain that the exhausted enemy can’t muster much force, General Joe Grey (Robert Ryan) isn’t convinced by Kiley’s findings, and his men pay the price when the German tanks begin their offensive in the Ardennes. In the heat of this key World War II battle, Kiley must come up with a plan when it becomes clear that the Nazis are trying to steal fuel from the Allies, there are Germans disguised as American MPs diverting traffic from the new Western Front and an ambitious German Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw) who intends keeping the war going as long as possible no matter how many are sacrificed as he leads the Panzer spearhead of the German counterattack … Having been an inspector of police does not disqualify me from thinking. Written by (formerly blacklisted) Bernard Gordon, producer Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (with contributions by John Melson), this is proper WW2 entertainment about a huge episode that involved a million men and which I once had the temerity to describe to someone as an instance of poor project management on the part of Hitler and his cronies. I love me a good war movie, better still if there are tanks (my dream vehicle, particularly the camo models in Desert Storm. So sue me!) so this is perfect Easter (or Passover!) holiday fare. Criticised for not being 100% accurate and its Spanish locations being a poor imitation of the Ardennes setting, this has a lot going for it, not least the staging and the tremendous cast. There is detail by the yard – and the weather reports are crucial. The way that the strategy and tactics are exposed is a triumph of film storytelling. Shaw is sizzling as one of the nastiest Nazis outside the Bulgarian Waffen SS and it’s a star-making role. Fonda’s doggedness is wonderfully sympathetic, especially when you have the feeling (because you’ve seen him in other movies) that he’s probably right about everything and his bozo superiors find out, soon enough. It’s the perceptive structuring of the narrative from both perspectives that makes this tick along quickly. While not setting out to be a satire (hardly, although WW2 vet Sperling was no fan of warfare) the dialogue is sparkling with zingers – aphoristic and otherwise, particularly punctuating Shaw’s scenes – and there’s one out-and-out comic scene (played straight) when Savalas returns to his business to check how things are doing. Pier Angeli pleads for some promise of marriage because this is what she understands by the term ‘business partnership’ and wants a sign. But he’s rushing back to the front so he just tells her to keep feeding the chickens (they’re looking scrawny). This amusing character sidebar is one part of a dedicated soldier and Savalas plays it to the hilt. There’s a mass execution which won’t surprise you – but someone gets away and the payoff is very satisfying indeed. There are some good map room scenes; a really funny one-word message from US Command to German Command; and a breathtaking POV section with Fonda gliding down in silence over the attack position of the German tanks on the other side of the river:  just listen to the score. Such inventive work by Benjamin Frankel. The final sequence of tank battle is suitably fiery and an injured and vengeful Savalas joins forces with James MacArthur at the fuel depot where they get to blow up more than just the gas supply. Beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard in 70mm and a fine job of direction by Ken Annakin with not a moment to spare in its 163 minutes. Never mind what Ike said – this is simply sensational. When I have a brigade of tanks – that is reality!

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The Train (1965)

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He won’t leave the train. I’m beginning to know him. In August 1944 art connoisseur German Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is planning to take the great art works from the Jeu de Paume gallery under the curatorship of Rose Vallard (Suzanne Flon) out of Paris before it’s liberated. She approaches officials at the SNCF to stop the train crossing out of France and into Germany with some of the greatest paintings ever produced. Labiche (Burt Lancaster) and his Resistance colleagues (Michel Simon, Albert Rémy, Charles Millot, Jacques Marin) do everything possible to keep train no. 40,0444 running late, diverting it through disguised stations and interfering with the tracks but the Allies have a new plan … Keep your eyes open. Your horizon’s about to be broadened. Decades before Monuments Men came this gripping actioner, directed by francophile thriller maestro John Frankenheimer. Scofield and Lancaster are mesmerising as the men who are protagonist/antagonist to each other, with their unreeling taking very different forms. In this scenario adapted by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis and the blacklisted Walter Bernstein from Rose Vallard’s Le Front de l’art, the political just got personal. There’s a deal of portentous and pretentious verbalising about art and its meaning to the nation, but at base this is a great cat and mouse chase and you’ll learn more than you ever knew was possible about rail yards, tracks, lines and switches. Moreau has a nice two-sequence arc as a hotelier who helps out while there are really fantastic smaller roles for a marvellous lineup that includes Franco-Irish actor Donal O’Brien (as Sergeant Schwartz) who would appear the following year for Frankenheimer in Grand Prix and then enjoy a career in Italian spaghetti westerns, horrors and giallos.  Maurice Jarre’s score is intense. And the ending? Straight out of Sartre. Parfait. No one’s ever hurt. Just dead

American Animals (2018)

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You’re taught your entire life that what you do matters and that you’re special. In 2003 Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) are four friends who live an ordinary existence in Kentucky. Spencer is a budding artist and following his visit to the Special Collections room at Transylvania University in Lexington, he informs Lipka of the contents. Lipka comes up with the idea to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the school’s library:  it involves tying up the librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) and making off with the Audubon book, Birds of America, the most valuable one there. They lose their nerve at the first attempt which they prepare for by dressing up as old men. They plot a different approach for the second attempt. As one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history starts to unfold, the men question whether their attempts to inject excitement and purpose into their lives are simply misguided attempts at achieving the American dream and Spencer gave an auction house in NYC his real-life cell phone number with his dumb message on it … How can I tell you if I’m in or I’m out without telling me the first thing about what I might be in or out of.  Writer/director Bart Layton takes a true crime and spins it into something stylish but problematic, a treatise on all-American stupidity. Interviews with the real-life perpetrators, rather humbled after the fact, are interspersed with the narrative drama, which gives it a melancholy quality but the consequent issues in pacing don’t always lead to a pleasing viewing experience. It’s not set up correctly, working against any possibility of suspense. The second attempt at the heist is permitted to progress unimpeded by anything other than the protagonists’ staggering ineptitude. The outcome is inevitable and famous. The film does however blend fact and fiction and the interviews form a kind of Greek chorus, baiting us with the various points of view, Rashomon-like, and at one point even inserts Spencer into the action, albeit briefly. And it does boast Udo Kier in the cast. One day you’ll die

 

Toni Erdmann (2016)

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You have to do this or that, but meanwhile life is just passing by.  Corporate strategist Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) is busy at her job in Bucharest and reluctantly has to spend time with her estranged father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher divorced from her mother, who apparently returns to Germany but instead adopts an outrageous disguise and poses as her CEO’s life coach, Toni Erdmann …  How are you supposed to hang on to moments? A rip-roaring German comedy? Surely you jest! In a way. This comedy drama slayed all comers a couple of years back and despite overlength (you wonder at times what Billy Wilder would have done with his rapier wit, wisdom and speed with such material) this hits so many truths with such mortifying behaviour and courage that you forgive writer/director Maren Ade’s liberties and go with the mad dad – as, eventually, Ines decides to do. This after all is a guy who didn’t even tell her his beloved dog died – and we find out about it when he lies on the dog’s bed in the garden. He gatecrashes her business functions and regales assorted bigwigs with tall and taller tales in a toupee and false teeth. When she lets go of her own inhibitions (not too many of them, to be fair, as the sex and drugs scenes prove) and goes with her father’s adopted persona, unleashing the beast within, you’d cheer if it wasn’t all done in such a low key, realistic fashion. Truly the difference between business and personal in this mansplaining environment is don’t show, don’t tell the truth. The naked team building scene is jaw dropping. And the performance of a Whitney Schnuck (sorry, Houston) favourite is a high point. For some. Intriguing stuff, with an undertow of loneliness rarely explored in cinema and so relatable to anyone who’s ever been embarrassed by their parents.   I don’t want to lose my bite

Up With the Lark (1943)

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Don’t be so effeminate. Call me Bill.  Ethel (Ethel Revnell) and Gracie (Gracie West) lose their jobs as telephone operators when the hotel where they work is burgled. They are persuaded by the police to pose as Land Girls in the countryside where the gang of black marketeers is headquartered… This is no ordinary gaol. We take pride in making people feel at home. In which the radio comedy stars play intrepid dimwits caught up in something bigger than they are and inadvertently help catch criminals.  A true relic of its time, this B flick is done on the cheap with some very strange performances albeit Ivor Barnard’s multiple roles should be seen. Directed by Phil Brandon from a story by Val Valentine and a screenplay by James Seymour. If you can’t go cuckoo go cock-a-doodle-doo!

Pancho Villa (1972)

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He doesn’t need a doctor, he needs a change of underwear. Trigger-happy Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (Telly Savalas) is on his way to his own execution when his men rescue him. He attempts to kill bitter nemesis General Goyo (Antonio Casas) and overthrow Mexico’s government. The violent endeavour brings Villa north to Columbus in New Mexico, where he battles a group of determined American soldiers led by the no-nonsense Colonel Wilcox (Chuck Connors), and endures unanticipated mishaps and bad fortune, including a double-cross by his friend and partner Scotty (Clint Walker) when they attempt retaliation in a raid… He’s got nerves of iron and rocks in his head. History through the lens of spaghetti! This comical approach to biography is an entertaining mix of action, violence, broad humour and not a little camp – that’s right because Savalas treats us to his rumbling vocal stylings on Don Black’s song in the closing credits. In between there are pitiful villagers, an episode about a fly in the army’s soup and a bit of impersonation, amid a soundtrack full of the bells and whistles of high comedy. Connors has a ball as the straight arrow colonel and Savalas just lets rip. You’ll crack up when the lizard pops out from his clothing after the doctor scratches his head wondering why Pancho’s got two heartbeats. Anne Francis has fun as the gutsy woman in his life. This is practically a mockumentary:  all history lessons should be this fast and funny, genocidal mania aside. Directed by Eugenio Martin from a screenplay by Julian Zimet. Every great man was once a bandit

 

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

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Oh, come on. If I’ve got to watch my language just because they let a few broads in, I’m going to quit. How the hell can you run a goddamn railroad without swearing?  In New York City, a criminal gang disguised as Groucho Marx and led by the ruthless Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), all boarding the NYC subway at different stations, hijacks a subway car and threatens to start shooting one passenger per minute unless they receive a million dollars in cash from the city within an hour.  They separate the front car from the remainder of the train. On the other end of the line, crusty veteran transit policeman Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) has his hands full dealing with the mayor’s office and his hotheaded fellow cops, while also trying to deliver the ransom before the deadline expires and they start killing the 18 hostages … Look, I got my rights! This is my home! I just want a little peace and quiet. Now, just do me a favor, willya? Get the hell out of here!  Adapted by Peter Stone from the novel by John Godey (aka Morton Freedgood), this is one of the most sensational thrillers from the Seventies. Stone fillets and fries the story so that we have the bare bones, a race against time, two blistering characters in the shape of Mr Blue and Zachary, plus a cross-section of that fabled city’s great and good heightening the drama. With Martin Balsam as Green, Hector Elizondo as Grey and Earl Hindman as Brown, the fast-moving stage is set for internecine trouble. James Broderick as the conductor lends his customary gravitas while under pressure. Brilliantly written by Stone who was in his element here in the realm of identity, an ongoing theme throughout his oeuvre (he liked a pseudonym or three himself.) The action is perfectly paced and this literally doesn’t let up until the chaotic crew runs out of track. Screw the goddamn bastards. What do they expect for their thirty-five cents, to live forever? Made entirely without the assistance of the NYC Transit Authority and directed by Joseph Sargent with superlative photography by the great Owen Roizman and a stonking score by David Shire. Matthau is fantastic and his hangdog look was never so adeptly deployed. Shaw is equally good as the villain du jour.  Ladies and gentlemen, it might interest you to know that the City of New York has agreed to pay for your release

Rent-a-Cop (1987)

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Sometimes you have to go through a hell of a lot to find out what you’re really good at. A drug bust is about to go down and Chicago street cop Tony Church (Burt Reynolds) is on the case. Things go horribly wrong, though. His fellow officers get slaughtered at the hotel venue and Church takes the blame, getting fired from the force. Della (Liza Minnelli) a high-priced hooker, happened to be in a neighbouring room at the time and got a good look at the killer’s face. Now she’s scared and needs protection. She tracks down Church, who can’t find employment other than as a security guard and he’s playing Santa Claus at a big downtown store. Della offers him a fee and implores him to be her bodyguard until the killer is caught. The lunatic everyone’s after is called Dancer (James Remar) partly because he likes to bust a move in front of a mirror whenever he gets the chance. A colleague of Church’s, Roger (Richard Masur) is around to give Church advice and assistance, at least until it’s revealed that Roger is now totally corrupt and was the reason all his colleagues were killed. Della brings Church to her madam Beth (Dionne Warwick) who provides them with information about police officers on her client list. Church manages to keep Della alive but Dancer is taking out anyone who has crossed him and everything is leading to drugs bigwig Alexander (John Stanton)…. Hit me with your nightstick/Show me what you know! What a lyric! With nice support from former NFL star Bernie Casey (back from Sharky’s Machine) as Lemar and Robby Benson as rookie Pitts, the police colleagues staking out Tony’s place, there’s something to look at in every scene in a film which is hardly breaking the back of corruption in the constabulary – we saw that with street cop masterpiece Serpico. Michael Blodgett and Dennis Shryack’s script more or less keeps the difficult balance between the relationship angle and the psycho murderer story.  It’s held together by Burt and Liza who have some terrific repartee delivered in the anticipated fashion – him droll, her breathless, in keeping with his dry wit/good cop role and hers as a hooker with a heart of gold and a paradoxical fear of kindness. It was their third time performing together after Silent Movie and Lucky Lady and their timing is perfect even if you feel Reynolds isn’t wholly committed. The tone only slides for one sequence about 48 minutes in when Dancer attempts to kill Della and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is badly misjudged:  sometimes tragedy comes from action comedy plus bad music. 46. Is that the year or your number? However it’s hard not to like a movie where Burt gets to dress up as Santa and those photos of him playing college football are all him. Directed by Jerry London. Don’t you have anybody who’s alive?

Make Mine Mink (1960)

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Look at me now – holed up here with a lot of dotty females. No job. No future.  Ex-con Lily (Billie Whitelaw), a maid at Dame Beatrice’s (Athene Seyler) boarding house, steals a mink coat to give to Beatrice, the other residents of the house organize to return the coat and save Lily from arrest because she’s done her time inside already. However, the excitement is a great change from their boring lives, and they decide to start stealing coats for charity purposes. Major Rayne (Terry-Thomas) a former WW2 officer missing the cut and thrust of battle and orders, leads the otherwise female group of unlikely thieves – Nanette (Hattie Jacques), Pinkie (Elspeth Duxbury) and Beatrice. Things become very complicated indeed when the team of ‘Gangsters and Their Molls’ as the newspapers have it might be found out because Lily starts to date a policeman, Jim Benham (Jack Hedley). The gang’s last job – they raid a casino disguised as police officers – is itself duplicated by a raid by the real thing and a detective (Raymond Huntley – he was bound to show up, wasn’t he) knocks on the door … This is a typically British farce of eccentrics and implausible plotting with a wonderful cast. Jacques has a good time of it as the masculine take-charge woman who then dresses up to look rather like Diana Dors while T-T doesn’t really let rip for a while. Seyler is fun as the do-gooder Dame whose nephew (Kenneth Williams) is a well-appointed fence and Duxbury is good as a quasi-hysteric:  Noel Purcell turns up as a very helpful burglar indeed – right under her bed. You’ll recognise some other famous faces in blink-or-you’ll-miss-them uncredited bits – Clement Freud as a croupier, Peter Vaughan, Ron Moody … Written by Michael Pertwee and Peter Blackmore based on Peter Coke’s stage farce, with a jaunty sub-jazz muzak backdrop composed by Philip Green. Directed by Robert Asher. Even minor Terry-Thomas is better than none at all!

Carry On Cleo (1964)

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I came. I saw. I conked out. Julius Caesar (Kenneth Williams) is invading Britain. Mark Antony (Sid James) has to lead the army through horrible weather. Cavemen Horsa (Jim Dale) and Hengist Pod (Kenneth Connor) try to warn Queen Boudicea but they are taken captive. Horsa is sold as a slave by Marcus et Spencius. Nobody wants Hengist so he’s going to be thrown to the lions – but they both escape and hide in the Temple of Vesta when Caesar arrives for a consultation with the Vestal Virgins but an attempt is made on his life by his bodyguard Bilius (David Davenport). In the ensuing action Horsa kills Bilius and escapes leaving Hengist to take the credit for saving Caesar’s life and to be made his new bodyguard. In Egypt a power struggle leads Caesar to send Mark Antony to force the abdication of Cleopatra (Amanda Barrie) in order for Ptolemy to succeed – but he falls in love with her and kills Ptolemy instead! Then she persuades him to kill Caesar so he can take over Rome himself and they can rule the entire region together … – I’ve got a poisonous asp. – It’s not that bad. Probably the greatest in the Carry On series (although my own favourite is Carry On Screaming) this is simply laugh out loud hilarious from start to finish, with lines you’ll wish you’d written yourself. Infamy, infamy. They’ve all got it in for me!  Using the sets from the abandoned first attempt to film the juggernaut that was Cleopatra at Pinewood, the crazy gang went in and made a meal of everything past and present even giving James’ and Connor’s own What a Carve Up! a shout out while making a complete mockery of Cleopatra itself. Sublimely funny. Written by Talbot Rothwell, produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas. Blimus!