The Girl With a Pistol (1968)

The Girl With a Pistol

Aka La Ragazza con la Pistola. Her you should kill – not you! In a small village in Sicily, Assunta (Monica Vitti) is seduced by Vincenzo (Carlo Giuffré) after he kidnaps her thinking she’s her fat cousin and takes her to his remote country home. He plans to dishonour her and thereby win her hand in marriage. However she likes sex so much it frightens him and he runs away the day after they become lovers. According to the local traditions Assunta and her sisters are unable to marry unless someone in the family kills the offender and restores the family’s honour. She leaves for England where Vincenzo has fled. Assunta finds herself intimidated by the different culture, but transforms herself into a Swinging Sixties mod and resolutely travels to Edinburgh, Sheffield, Bath, and London in search of Vincenzo in order to kill him. She befriends rugby player John (Tony Booth) in Sheffield and tries to locate Vincenzo in Bath where hospital staff cover for him. After an accident, Assunta is hospitalised; she meets a cute and lovelorn failed suicide Frank Hogan (Corin Redgrave) who takes her blood donation and who advises her to forget about Vincenzo, and to devote herself to him. Dr Osborne (Stanley Baker) takes her to a gay pub and shows him Frank’s cheating ex – a man. She falls for divorced and soon she creates for herself a new and wonderful life in England but there’s still the matter of Vincenzo … The ones who cut their wrists always remember to bring their blood group. Directed by Mario Monicelli, a name not really remembered now but he was a masterful comedy auteur and this was nominated for an Academy Award. Vitti previously performed in his 1964 film High Infidelity and 1966’s Sex Quartet (aka The Queens). Luigi Magni and Rodolfo Sonego’s script capitalises on Vitti’s top comic talent and her glorious beauty:  we really don’t believe she’s a dowdy country girl, do we? Her transformation into a London fashionista is very amusing and her deadpan delivery really works. It’s nice to see some familiar British faces like Redgrave and Booth (with Johnny Briggs making a small splash) and it all looks like a terrific jaunt with good jokes about translation and kilts. And, she gets hers, just not in the way she planned. It’s an interesting companion piece to view alongside her other British film, Modesty Blaise and there’s plenty of nutty, good looking fun even if Vincenzo’s parting comments leave a sort of nasty aftertaste. My aim was not good!

Elizabeth of Ladymead (1948)

Elizabeth of Ladymead

I want to live here and really feel it’s mine. Liz (Anna Neagle) lives in the beautiful Georgian mansion of Ladymead and awaits the arrival home of her husband  (Hugh Williams) who’s been away for five years fighting in WW2. They soon argue about what he must do – she’s put the house on the market with the intention of returning to London so that he can resume his career in politics, as she and her mother (Isabel Jeans) plan. He however just wants to stay at home and tend the garden. During a fight she walks into a wall she thinks is a door and drifts asleep and dreams about other women who lived in the house who have shared her name and plight. Beth, lives in 1854 London, as the Crimean War rages thousands of miles away. When her husband (Nicholas Phipps) returns he expresses disgruntlement at her ideas that she should even have an opinion about anything. The second, Elizabeth, lives in 1903, just after the Boer war. She has made the farm profitable and embarrassed her husband (Bernard Lee) by becoming a suffragette and sympathising with the Boers. The third, Betty, is a girl of 1919, the year after World War I. She has led a life of such independence she no longer requires a husband (Michael Lawrence) since she has been taking lovers since his departure. Each of the four Elizabeths emerges as a woman of independence while the menfolk are off to war and some of the men do not survive the return … Miss Nightingale is very remarkable but as a woman she’s a freak. From the husband and wife team of producer/director Herbert Wilcox and actress Anna Neagle this is an imaginative way to tackle post-war malaise and the changing roles of the sexes or as the titles inform us, The changing role of the girl he left behind. Adapted by co-star (and regular Wilcox collaborator) Nicholas Phipps from a play by Frank Harvey, the transitions from the framing narrative of post-WW2 dissatisfaction are neatly achieved, Neagle has a range of emotions to play in each incarnation and it’s very well managed from era to era, shot in stunning Technicolor. An intriguing picture of society and how women are perceived as they struggle to attain individuation as part of a married couple. We must put it down to the instability of the female

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

 

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 Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven

You must fight. Fight! A poor Mexican village is regularly raid by a gang of bandits led by Calvera (Eli Wallach). When Calvera kills a villager, the leaders decide they have had enough and one of the elders (Vladimir Sokoloff) advises them to fight back. Taking their few objects of value, three of them ride to a town just inside the US hoping to barter for weapons. Instead they they are impressed by Cajun gunslighter Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) who suggests they instead hiregunfighters to defend the village, and he eventually decides to lead the group. Despite the meager pay offered, he finds five willing gunmen:  gunfighter Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) broke after a round from gambling;  Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) who thinks his old friend Chris is hiding a much bigger reward for the work; half Irish, half Mexican Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson) who has fallen on hard times; knife and gun expert Britt (James Coburn) who relishes the challenge; and Lee (Robert Vaughn) the well-attired gunman on the run who is burdened by nightmares about the men he has killed. On their way to the village they are followed by aspiring gunfighter, hotheaded Chico (Horst Buchholz) whose previous attempts to join the group were spurned by Chris but he impresses the villagers with his passion and Chris asks him to be part of what is now a group of seven.  Chico then encounters Petra (Rosenda Materos) and the men realise the farmers had hidden their women to protect them from being raped by the bandits. Three of Calvera’s men are dispatched to recce the village; the seven kill all three. Calvera and his bandits arrive in force and another eight of them are killed. The villagers celebrate, thinking Calvera won’t return and ask the men to leave. But Chico infiltrates Calvera’s camp and learns that Calvera must return, as his men are short of food and the seven have to prepare for a final encounter … I’ve been offered a lot of money – but never everything. A film so perfectly archetypal it feels like it’s been inscribed in our collective consciousness since the dawn of time. Screenwriter Walter Newman said that the success of a film always commences with the premise and everyone concerned knew they had a good one because Akira Kurosawa had already made it in Japan. Newman and the blacklisted Walter Bernstein did an uncredited rewrite of the screenplay The Seven Samurai which had been adapted by William Roberts from the work by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. Each character has his own arc, with his flaws, luck and skills underwriting his destiny. The story of the youngster Chico earning his stripes and finding love with Petra (Rosenda Monteros) gives the story a bedrock as a rites of passage experience but it’s the camaraderie, solidarity and the good intentions that make this a human interest story – the willingness to fight for a cause, putting the good of the group over selfish needs. The cast? How can you even begin to describe the charisma pouring off the screen? Inimitable. The set pieces by director John Sturges are matched by the more intimate episodes and the dialogue is never less than whip smart. Elmer Bernstein’s score is another essential part of the film’s rich mythology – an unforgettable, urgent, rousing call to action that heralds bravery, sacrifice and tragedy. Simply great. I have never had this kind of courage

Enemy Mine (1985)

Enemy Mine

Do you think we really are alone out here? During a late 21st century a war between humans and the reptilian Drac race,Bilateral Terran Alliance (BTA) spaceship pilot Willis E. Davidge (Dennis Quaid) ends up stranded after their dogfight ends up with them both crash landing on alien planet Fyrine IV with enemy soldier Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett Jr.). While both Willis and his Drac counterpart can breathe on the planet, the volcanic environment and its creatures are relatively hostile, forcing the two to trust each other and work together to survive. As time goes by, Willis and Jeriba become unlikely friends, though their unique relationship faces considerable challenges over three years and they save each other’s lives. Davidge dreams of spaceships and then sees human miners scavenging on the planet:  they have to avoided because they use Dracs as slaves. Then Jerry, who like all Dracs is asexual, reveals his pregnancy and dies in childbirth after bearing a baby son Zammis (Bumper Robinson) whom Davidge undertakes to raise and return to the Drac world … Don’t you ever get tired of reading that book?  Edward Khmara’s adaptation of Barry B. Longyear’s novella strains between creature feature and sci fi epic but succeeds on its own terms with a message of intrinsic humanity.  It harks back perhaps to the effects-laden production that was director Wolfgang Petersen’s previous outing, The Neverending Story, especially with Gossett’s lizard-like makeup, but the Why Can’t We All Just Get Along theme is well worked out in the inter-species friendship and Quaid is his typically charismatic self. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find it touching. It looks great and the beautiful score is by Maurice Jarre. That’s why when we walk or when we hunt we always walk in the direction of the rising sun

Les enfants terribles (1950)

Les enfants terribles

Aka The Strange Ones. Beauty enjoys immense privileges, even from those unaware of it. Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and her brother Paul (Edouard Dermithe) live isolated from much of the world after Paul is injured in a snowball fight at school. As a coping mechanism, the two conjure up a hermetically sealed dream of their own making filled with fetish objects and strange obsessions. Their relationship, however, isn’t exactly wholesome and when their ailing mother (Karin Lannby) dies the wider world intrudes and they are taken on holiday to the seaside to try to readjust. Back home their friend Gérard (Jacques Bernard) moves in and jealousy and a malevolent undercurrent intrude on their fantasy life:  he secretly likes her but she proves difficult to know.  Elisabeth starts modelling for Gerard’s uncle’s (Roger Gaillard) company and invites the strange girl from work Agathe (Renée Cosima) to stay with them – and Paul is immediately attracted to her:  she resembles all the images of the people – male and female – he hero-worships, as well as his nemesis, Dargelos. Elisabeth marries Michael (Melvyn Martin) a rich Jewish American man but he is killed immediately after their wedding and she inherits a large apartment. There, Paul tries to replicate the bedroom he shared with Elisabeth and reveals his love of Agathe to the shock of his sister  … Elisabeth never thanked anyone. She was used to miracles, also they came as no surprise. She expected them, and they never failed to happen. Jean Cocteau’s poetic 1929 novel translates to the screen as a mesmerising study in adolescence, obsession and solitude, testing the limits of imagination, impossible wish-fulfillment and the consequences. Director Jean-Pierre Melville directs Stéphane to the height of controlled hysteria and betrayal with the insinuations of many sexual inclinations subtly inflected in the text. The dream sequences are perfectly announced in the use of Vivaldi – such a startling and memorable combination in a narrative told by Cocteau himself. She married him for his death

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

Out of Blue (2019)

Out of Blue

Can you explain your place in the universe? When well-connected black hole expert and astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) is found shot at a New Orleans Observatory, police detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) is put in charge of the investigation and questions her co-worker, observatory manager Professor Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) and her teaching colleague boyfriend Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors). When she encounters Jennifer’s father Colonel Tom Rockwell (James Caan) she finds an intimidating figure, a well-known local businessman, famous soldier and POW who walks on a cane. His wife Miriam (Jacki Weaver) is a fidgeting fusspot, the twin sons Walt and Bray (Brad and Todd Mann) argumentative and odd. Their office is dominated by a family portrait. Similarities are noted by her colleague Aaron Tevit (Tony Silvero) and reporter Stella Honey (Devyn A. Tyler) with the unsolved murders of other blonde thirtysomething women from decades earlier where items were exchanged with the victims. Mike pursues the idea that Tom might have been responsible but then it becomes clear that Jennifer killed herself. When Mike finds a familiar brooch among Jennifer’s collection of vintage clothes and costume jewellery questions of the cosmos start to inform the solution … The catastrophic death of a star brings new life to the universe. We are all stardust.  This adaptation of Martin Amis’ 1997 genre novel Night Train has some changes but mostly it bears the marks of writer/director Carol Morley, a singular talent who likes to compose a flat frame with just enough textural detail to suggest complexity, a taste that lends itself perfectly to this atmospheric thriller which shows a less travelled side of New Orleans. Mike is a troubled former alcoholic with a spare lifestyle; while Jennifer’s home is filled with nick nacks and her recorded talks anchor the narrative:  We spend our lives trying to get to the heart of this dark energy. It’s other people who point to the clues in the past – a TV journalist and another police officer. The similarities to the .38 caliber gun murders are inescapable – the victims are all blonde and of a certain age and the killings stopped when Jennifer was born. The intriguing use of imagery – not just fetish objects like blue marbles, a pot of handcream, but the confusion as to whether Mike is fantasising, dreaming or even remembering – is conjoined with the theme of the stars and their influence. And with a hint of Chinatown hanging over a story about family and power, there’s a cute reference when Miriam leaps into Mike’s police car and pulls her nose: You know what happens to very nosy people?  They lose their noses! We are reminded of Polanski. The narrative raises questions about how society deals with war – just what kind of man walks out of three years’ imprisonment a hero? Clarkson is great as this unconventional woman who lets loose in a strip club:  There’s many ways to be a woman. There are black holes in the story itself with a wry running joke about cats in boxes (and not just Schrödinger’s). In my experience usually what’s in a sealed box is dead. In the end, this is not just about the murder mystery, it’s about where we come from, who we are, what formed us and what happened to us. In that sense, the final sequence is truly a revelation of personal history in a unique procedural narrative which grapples with a bigger cosmic picture. Produced by Luc Roeg with a score by Clint Mansell. The past is messy

Catch-22 (1970)

Catch 22.jpg

Help the bombardier. Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) an American pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II attempts to cope with the madness of armed conflict. Convinced that everyone is trying to murder him, he decides to try to become certified insane but that is merely proof that he’s fully competent. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian has to resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation... All great countries are destroyed, why not yours? Not being a fan of the rather repetitive and circular source novel aids one’s enjoyment of this adaptation by director Mike Nichols who was coasting on the stunning success of his first two movies (also adaptations), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, which was also adapted by Buck HenryThe critical reception for this resisted adulation instead focusing on a flawed construction which really goes back to Joseph Heller’s book and does not conform to the rules of a combat picture as well as contracting the action and removing and substituting characters. But aside from the overall absurdity which is literally cut in an act of stunning violence which shears through one character in shocking fashion, there is dialogue of the machine gun variety which you’d expect from a services satire and there are good jokes about communication, following orders, profiteering and stealing parachutes to sell silk on the black market.  There are interesting visual and auditory ways of conveying Yossarian’s inner life – in the first scene we can’t hear him over the noise of the bombings, because his superiors are literally deaf to what he’s saying, a useful metaphor. The impressionistic approach of Henry’s adaptation is one used consistently, preparing the audience for the culmination of the action in a surreal episode worthy of Fellini. I like it a lot, certainly more than the recent TV adaptation and the cast are just incredible:  Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen and Orson Welles among a large ensemble. Even novelist Philip Roth plays a doctor. It’s shot by David Watkin, edited by Sam O’Steen and the production is designed by Richard Sylbert. Where the hell’s my parachute?