King Rat (1965)


Why are you so different? American Corporal King (George Segal) is a fast-talking wheeler-dealer stuck in Changi, a squalid Japanese prisoner of war camp near Singapore, a place so awful there is no need for walls because there is no means of escape and nowhere to go. Mired with some very proper British officers including Flight Lieutenant RAF officer Peter Marlowe (James Fox) whom he employs as a translator, as well as some Australian inmates, he  barters for everything. That includes medicine to save Marlowe’s arm from but it’s not clear why he has done so.  He has a different kind of relationship with the more obviously lower class First Lieutenant Grey (Tom Courtenay) who has contempt for him but no evidence and has his own dilemma when he realises Colonel Jones (Gerald Sim) has been stealing food supplies. He reports the matter to Colonel Smedley-Taylor (John Mills) who advises him to forget about it and assumes his silence is consent to promotion. Meanwhile King is breeding rats and persuading the guards it’s mouse-deer meat. Everyone is in a quandary when a diamond comes into the camp and the issue of who is on the side of the prisoners, the guards or the officers, decides the issue at least temporarily and then King’s own position is called into question … When do I have to kiss thee in the arse? James Clavell was a POW in Malaysia and his 1963 novel was based on his own experiences but for the cinemagoer it would have seemed as if Stalag 17 had been fused The Bridge on the River Kwai with Segal in the Holden role of the cunning spiv who really has a heart of gold (sort of) and Guinness’ treacherous misanthrope undertaken by a combination of British officers too blinkered by class and self-involved to even know when they’re eating a poor soldier’s dog. The various sub-plots, character rivalries and efforts at one-upmanship make this a broader, tougher work delving into the thorny depths of psychology and it’s wonderfully captured by Burnett Guffey’s photography – the very screen seems to be bathed in the sweat of these wretched starving men. The cultural differences are clarified when the war finally ends and Changi is liberated:  the officer asks why all the Brits are in rags and shell shocked while Segal has evidently taken good care of himself. Therein lieth the plot – the individual who rises above his circumstances, rescues people and enables their revenge. Perhaps the Biblical lesson is that no man shall profit in his own land because at the end of the day no good turn goes unpunished. There are nice supporting roles for James Donald, Patrick O’Neal, Denholm Elliott, John Standing, Geoffrey Bayldon and Richard Dawson who turns up at the conclusion. Written and directed by Bryan Forbes whose voice we hear on the radio broadcast while the immersive score is by John Barry.  The war will be over. Then you’ll get yours

Year of the Dragon (1985)

Only one Stanley White. Following the murders of Mafia and Triad leaders in NYC, Polish Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) takes it upon himself to bring down the Chinese organised crime gangs. He’s breaking the long held treaty to permit the Chinese to take care of things in Chinatown. This puts him in conflict with Tony Tai (John Lone) the ruthless leader of the organisation.  It pulls his life apart with his already crumbling childless marriage to nurse Connie (Caroline Kava) collapsing altogether when Stanley falls for the charms of ambitious journalist Tracy Tzu (Ariane). Now Tony has a major shipment coming in from Thailand and Stanley engages in wire tapping for information .. This is America and it’s two hundred years old and you need to change your clocks. This sprawling portrait of the gangs of New York was much misunderstood upon its release but it lays its cards on the table upfront: it’s all in the name (changed) because NYC’s most decorated cop is an unapologetic racist Nam vet and sexist to boot. He’s launching his own tong war. Naturally Rourke plays him as a total charmer and it works:  he has the aura of death about him, his hair is as white as his adopted name and everyone around him seems to get crushed.  As written by Oliver Stone and director Michael Cimino this adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel is remarkably discreet in some areas – and lurid in others. The major love scene between Stanley and Tracy is cleverly done as they tell each other how much they hate each other and then … Her big ‘angry’ scene when he’s moved his team into her preposterously huge loft is amusing because her acting is so poor, all stiff arms like an Irish dancer. Part of the film’s issue representationally is the obvious inexpressivity of the Chinese actors, a physical trait there’s no escaping. They make up for it by killing people. Their treatment historically in the US and their unequal immigrant experience is posited against Stanley’s veteran’s hangups, something that’s used against him.  He wants to sleep with a journalist while both he and Tony decry the media’s role in the portrayal of violence and the way ethnicity is covered. Therefore there is a balance established with Tony – that’s clever storytelling. Lone is super handsome, a great suave villain to play opposite.  The lean way in which the marital story is exposed is a good hook for Stanley’s humanity and it’s the dramatic crutch that assists the outcome. The intra-Asian racism is well dramatised and horrendously violent. Class is an issue that becomes an overriding theme. The whole thing looks incredible – shot by Alex Thomson on a set (by Wolf Kroeger and Victoria Paul) in North Carolina for NYC (except for the views from Tracy’s apartment at the top of the Clocktower Building giving a beguiling view of the city’s skyline).  There’s a fascinating and intricate score by David Mansfield with echoes of phrases from The Deer Hunter. That this is a disguised western is clarified in those final scenes on the railway track. And in this wonderful mesh of genre and tradition there is an honourable way out for one man. What a way to end. Amazingly the role of White (originally called Arthur Powers – but there’s a Stanley White credited as Police Consultant!) was intended for Clint Eastwood. Both he and Paul Newman turned it down. Just as well. Only one Mickey Rourke. He’s a good cop but he won’t stop

The Secret Place (1957)

What you haven’t got you can’t lose. In East London 14-year old Freddie Haywood (Michael Brooke) has a crush on kiosk attendant Molly Wilson (Belinda Lee) who is engaged to Gerry Carter (Ronald Lewis). Gerry is a member of a criminal gang working from a car dealership where Molly’s brother Mike (David McCallum) also works. Gerry, Mike and their friend, Steve (Michael Gwynn) are planning a diamond robbery and need a policeman’s uniform. Molly asks Freddie to borrow the uniform of his policeman father (Geoffrey Keen) without telling him why. After the robbery of a jewellers in Hatton Garden, Gerry hides the diamonds inside Molly’s record player. Not knowing this, Molly gives the player to Freddie as a thank you gift. Freddie discovers the diamonds and the gang go after him to retrieve them… You men. Always taken in by a pretty face. Film editor Clive Donner made his directing debut with this startling film noir. It’s an incredible portrait of a good-natured teen’s misplaced admiration (or love) for the local beauty who’s in with a bad ‘un and dreams of escape, symbolised by the posh apartment he’s chosen for them to live in when they cash in. The potent setting of post-war London in ruins plants the conclusion in an early wide shot with scaffolding in the background – it forms the setting for the fantastic penultimate scenes, beautifully set up by cinematographer Ernest Steward. Tragic beauty Lee is terrific and Lewis is typically impressive as the gangster – how awful that he died by suicide at the age of just 53. But it’s Brooke as the youngster you’ll really remember:  this was in fact his last screen appearance, he later trained in law and was called to the Bar, renowned for obtaining compensation from the NHS for haemophiliacs who received blood transfusions contaminated with HIV. He died in 2014. Written by Linette Perry – her sole screenplay – this is a true British cult classic. You never know what goes on in a child’s heart really

 

The Running Man (1963)

You’re not in Croydon any more. Stella Black (Lee Remick) returns from the memorial service for Rex, her late husband, a pilot who died in a gliding accident. He (Laurence Harvey) is in fact alive and well and in hiding at a secluded seaside boarding house having defrauded his insurer Excelsior out of a huge sum of money for his premature death after they failed to pay out for an accident involving his airline business. Stella joins him in Malaga, Spain where he has changed his appearance and is living under the assumed name of Jim Jerome. Things start to go wrong when an insurance investigator Stephen Maddox (Alan Bates) appears to be following Stella as she drives her expensive car and enjoys the high life at a lovely hotel … He shouldn’t have married her. Adapted by John Mortimer from Shelley Smith’s novel The Ballad of the Running Man, this starts out as a sunny neo noir suspenser and turns into something quite different with a nice twist that dictates the outcome. Harvey and Remick are superb as the beautiful blonde married couple whose fate alters irrevocably and their relationship with it; while the issue of mistaken identity regarding Bates is wonderfully played out, subtly inverting the entire premise so that it rebounds with catastrophic consequences. Thanks to Robert Krasker’s cinematography (a very different experience to the kind of exploitation of locations in The Third Man) Spain looks stunning and the sinister nature of the story comes entirely from the construction and playing. Never was misunderstanding so well portrayed: everything here is lost in translation. Watch out for Fernando Rey as a policeman and Noel Purcell and Eddie Byrne have small roles in a production partly shot at Ardmore Studios in Ireland.  Directed by Carol Reed. They’ll have to put up the insurance premiums on anyone who wants to make love to you

The Pledge (2001)

There can’t be such devils.  Veteran detective  Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) investigates the murder of a little girl in small-town Nevada just six hours before he’s officially retired.  He makes a pledge on a crucifix the dead girl made to her anguished mother (Patricia Clarkson) that he will catch the perpetrator. When the only suspect Native American Toby Jay Wadenah (Benicio del Toro) blows his head off in custody, Jerry sets off on his longed-for retirement fishing trip but TV coverage of the case affects him deeply and he moves into the neighbourhood buying a gas station where the killing occurred. When he begins a relationship with a waitress and mother Lori (Robin Wright) and gives a home to her and her young daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts) after she takes a beating from her ex, he has all the more reason to nail the killer – but by this time his colleagues reckon they have long since wrapped up an open-and-shut case.  The behaviour of a local Jesus freak Gary Jackson (Tom Noonan) causes Jerry to believe he might have solved not just the mystery death of the young girl the previous winter but the grisly crimes of a previously unnoticed serial killer and when Chrissy goes to meet a man she calls The Wizard Jerry decides to set a trap All at once you became like an animal. Nicholson’s heartbreaking performance, as the twice-divorced retired cop who might just find happiness late in life and solve the crimes of a serial killer, is everything in this meticulously staged murder mystery. The relationships are well observed, the contrast with blowhard ‘tec Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), the wonderfully observed eccentrics (Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke, Eileen Ryan, Vanessa Redgrave) who populate the ensemble, the visual tics and psychological hints at Nicholson’s state of mind, the clues, signs and portents which inflect the text. Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novella (adapted by Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski) was already transposed three times to both big and small screen but its tragic undertow is an understandable lure for someone like director Sean Penn, a performer who himself never shirks complex dramas. Nobody gets away with anything here – and it’s not a pretty picture and even Wright (Mrs Penn at the time) looks careworn with half a tooth missing. Far more than a police procedural, this is a deeply affecting, emotive exploration of loss and missed chances, with the revelations managed so very well.  It’s not just about the predilections of paedophiles but also about paying heed to small children and what they tell adults. The ending is just horrendous and Nicholson, reunited with Penn from The Crossing Guard, is just wonderful, a dedicated cop pursuing his suspicions to the very last. What a great performance. How could God be so greedy?

The Teckman Mystery (1954)

Why all the mystery about him? Novelist Philip Chance (John Justin) meets a beautiful woman named Helen (Margaret Leighton) on a flight from France to London just when it’s been announced he’s researching a biography on a pilot Martin Teckman (Michael Medwin) who died during the test flight of a new plane. He’s her brother. As Chance uncovers more about the test flight, people connected with the case begin to die: the engineer Garvin (George Coulouris) who used to work with Martin; and when Chance fails to fly to West Berlin for a high-paying magazine job calculated to divert his attentions,  he has a third meeting with the mysterious magazine publisher Reisz (Meier Tzelniker) but the man is dead on Chance’s arrival.  Scotland Yard inspectors (Roland Culver and Duncan Lamont) are on the case, uncovering Martin’s secret marriage to Ruth Wade (Jane Wenham) who might have persuaded him to join a conspiracy. Then the supposedly dead Martin makes contact with Chance … We don’t want anything political – no sir. From a story by Francis (Paul Temple) Durbridge and a screenplay he co-wrote with James Mathews, this is a nifty thriller cogitating on matters of family, loyalty and patriotism in the middle of the Cold War – not that our handsome but dim hero puts any of that together, always one step behind. Leighton is excellent as the potentially duplicitous femme fatale designer and Tzelniker has the juicy kind of role a bigger budget would have had Peter Lorre play. It all concludes at the Tower of London in a production which makes terrific use of its smog-free locations – practically all of which are shot in broad daylight. Justin was himself a test pilot during WW2 and appeared in The Sound Barrier! Directed by Wendy Toye. You’re asking me to kill you

 

 

 

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (2020)

Aka Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. I lost all sense of who I was. It’s open season on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) when her explosive breakup with the Joker puts a big fat target on her back. Unprotected and on the run, Quinn faces the wrath of narcissistic crime boss Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor)), his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), and every other vile thug in Gotham. But things soon even out when Harley becomes unexpected allies with three deadly women – Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) out to avenge the murder of her entire Mafia family as a child; club singer Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who’s forced to become Mask’s driver; and hot-tempered suspended cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who’s keen to make her mark in a hostile male environment. And then there’s the tricky street thief Cassandra Cane (Ella Jay Basco) who’s swallowed that diamond with the mob’s bank account details in its mutiple surfaces and that’s what everybody wants most of all Nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence. The sole bright spark in the otherwise execrable Suicide Squad was Robbie’s Quinn so you can see how she might have wanted to bring this powerhouse character back in a more equitable narrative. The driving force is to get the attention of the man who broke up with her, Joker, but as we know from other films, he’s kinda tied up elsewhere  and is quickly forgotten here. The idea of the girl gang that comes to fruition in the final 25 minutes is the MO but intriguingly it’s Harley who needs to be told to ‘focus’ – the other characters are more precisely delineated: the frustrated cop whose throwaway lines are from an 80s cop show, the ingenious pickpocket who unwittingly causes everything, the action babe singer, the highly creative crossbow killer with a serious revenge motive (whose name The Huntress everyone forgets, a nice running joke) which ironically leads to the whole premise being diffused, albeit for a higher feminist purpose. Each of them (bar Harley, who has a penchant for glitter) has a particular fighting style (and the stunts are real something.) McGregor’s psycho villain is thinly drawn and characterised. The fact that the penultimate sequence/showdown takes place in a fun house just exacerbates the cartoonish impact of DC’s all-women superhero squad. Yet it fizzes with antic, frantic, anarchic energy and a sense of its own ridiculousness expressed in many ways but most obviously in the title cards introducing all the characters and the batshit baby doll voiceover. Not to mention that rollerskating Harley’s pet hyena is called Bruce.  And yet it’s a story about female empowerment, diversity and righteous vengeance and is all done with effortless humour because Harley ultimately realises their talents are best deployed against their common enemies – scummy men. Robbie is charm itself and channels her inner Marilyn/Madonna with her performance of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. Written by Christina (Bumblebee) Hodson, produced by Robbie and directed by Cathy Yan. It almost makes you yearn for Tank Girl and Barb Wire, a pair of female action movies from the 90s that just missed their target. Almost. What a breakup movie – it even has a hair-pulling scene. Well what else would you expect from the fractured psyche of a PhD in Psychology? Girl Power kicks ass! You know, vengeance rarely brings the catharsis we hope for

Black and Blue (2019)

Just because she didn’t do it doesn’t mean she wasn’t involved. Witnessing her colleague Brown (James Moses Black)  and undercover narc Terry Malone (Frank Grillo) killing a drug dealer land rookie New Orleans PD officer Alicia West (Naomie Harris) into trouble. Falsely accused of the crime, she now has to fight both the corrupt police and evil gangsters while running through the back streets of New Orleans with body cam footage that will exonerate her from some very angry men. The victim is the nephew of one very pissed off drug dealer, Darius (Mike Coulter). She takes refuge with shopkeeper Mouse (Tyrese Gibson) who she knows from back in the day and he’s the only guy in the hood who’ll take her side and try to keep her alive as the cops close ranks and close in … Murder is murder, no matter who you are. Fantastically well performed, this is that rare thing, an action film boasting a great role for a female protagonist as a police officer (it’s thirty years since Theresa Russell and Jamie Lee Curtis had the pleasure). And boy does Harris nail it. She’s on the run practically from the first scene when she twigs that she’s witnessed a cold blooded murder by undercover narcotic cops, cleaning up those mean streets of N’Orleans in their inimitably corrupt style while pocketing their share of the goodies. In terms of race commentary, it’s a drama that demonstrates without making an issue of it that crime and corruption have no monopoly on ethnicity – what’s more important here is making the most of your particular skill set.  When it comes out that Harris was a former JD and a soldier who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan we know we’re being set up for some explosive and decent can-do action – but she’s constantly under threat and literally runs for her life.  It turns out her options are very limited indeed as her old friends including Missy (Nafessa Williams) who’s mother to a young boy can’t figure a black woman in a blue uniform. Peter A. Dowling’s screenplay doesn’t pull punches and Deon Taylor’s direction never permits the action to be distracted by the visuals which are gritty and pointed in a story that is tough and well managed. She’s a ghost

The Shiralee (1957)

I’m not sore – I’m just indifferent. When freewheeling drover and occasional poacher Jim Macauley (Peter Finch) arrives home to Sydney from his regular ‘walkabout’ and finds his wife Marge (Elizabeth Sellars) in the arms of another man, he leaves with his young daughter Buster (Dana Wilson), whom he barely knows. He soon realises that he has to let go of his wandering ways in order to care for the little girl but when her mother wants her back and the child has an accident on his watch a legal battle must be fought … I’m no angel, but I played square with you. Peter Finch’s favourite of his own films, this is a wonderfully unsentimental portrait of a marriage gone wrong, a kid with an errant dad keen to make things right -well, if there isn’t a pretty girl handy.  It’s a picturesque exploration of the parts of Australia, beginning to be populated as the frontier of this vast new country continued to expand. The rugged landscape (north east New South Wales) is expertly framed by cinematographer Paul Beeson in one of a handful of films made by Ealing Films on location in Australia. There are entrancing performances from the leads with Finch superb as the man conflicted between the wish to redeem himself and enjoy the freedom of the open road. Niall MacGinnis has a good supporting role as an unreliable friend and Bud Tingwell turns up too;   while Sid James and Tessie O’Shea provide succour for the vagabond father and charmingly tomboyish daughter especially when his ex-girlfriend Lily’s (Rosemary Harris) father Parker (Russell Napier) wants him out of the area because of the wrong he did her years earlier – he left her pregnant. Neil Patterson co-wrote the adaptation of D’Arcy Niland’s novel with director Leslie Norman, father of much missed movie critic Barry. An absorbing modern western with a keen sense of character and place, sympathetically scored by the great John Addison. The song of the title (which incidentally means ‘burden’) became a hit for Tommy Steele.  I want her because she’s mine

 

The Good Liar (2019)

What I deplore more than anything is deception. Career con artist Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) can hardly believe his luck when he meets wealthy recently widowed Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) online. As Betty opens her life and bland suburban home to him, Roy is surprised to find himself caring about her, turning what should be a straightforward swindle into the most treacherous tightrope walk of his life. Her PhD student grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey) makes it clear he suspects Roy is out for financial gain and turns up at various encounters. When Roy is away from Betty he’s in London organising a long con from investors using Russian decoys with co-conspirator Vincent Halloran (Jim Broadbent). One of the victims follows Roy in the street one day and after he is dispatched under a Tube train Roy decides to take Betty on holiday to Berlin where a surprise awaits … It’s like being smothered in beige. Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s novel goes in different directions and manages to constantly surprise while being faithful to the traits established in the first scenes. McKellen and Mirren effortlessly plumb the characterisation, coming up trumps as the narrative brings us back to a very different world where the stakes where initially raised. The story’s roots in 1940s Germany are jaw-dropping when revealed – this is far from being a conventional story of a duped geriatric in some pensions scam:  we are tipped off when McKellen drops his act early on and meets his fellow crims at Stringfellows’ strip club and we meet the guys who want to join in the quick profit as investors (nice to recognise Mark Lewis Jones and Lucian Msamati from the astonishingly violent summer TV hit Gangs of London). Now that’s not a typical octagenarian move. We have to look after what we’ve worked to secure. The long con twists wonderfully in Mirren’s favour in Berlin when another identity is uncovered and the suspense ratchets up several notches as an obscenity from the past is resurrected. The stylish and pacy direction of this wonderfully tangled web is by Bill Condon, who previously worked with McKellen two decades ago on the cherishable Gods and MonstersDo you know who you are?