The Million Pound Note (1954)

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Aka The Man With a Million. Ronald Neame directs this colourful comedy featuring Gregory Peck as a destitute American sailor washed up in Edwardian London who becomes the subject of a bet between a pair of wealthy brothers (Ronald Squire and Wilfrid Hyde-White) as to what might happen him in a month in possession of a loan of a million pound note, with the promise of a job at the end of it.  Whenever tailors, hoteliers, charity fundraisers or investors get a whiff of it they fall at his feet – while he falls in love with Portia (Jane Griffiths) who prefers him poor but doesn’t believe him when he tries to persuade her he really is. A winning adaptation of the Mark Twain story by Jill Craigie (Labour leader Michael Foot’s wife!) and quite delightful entertainment with Peck (never a comedian, by his own admission) amusingly persuasive as the luckiest guy in the world.

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Three Men in a Boat (1956)

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Jerome K. Jerome’s witty novel gets a colour boost in this amusing Edwardian comedy of three men who just want to get away from the various women in their lives and take to the river Thames as far as Oxford in a row boat with their dog (the lovely Montmorency) where naturally they encounter even more of the finer species. Laurence Harvey, Jimmy (Whack-O!) Edwards and David Tomlinson are the gents in question while various of the wonderful wives and girlfriends and interfering prospective mother in law include Shirley Eaton, Jill Ireland and Martita Hunt. Some very amusing sequences involving canned pineapple, punting with a photographer capturing the outcome, putting up the tent, the Hampton Court maze and a night time raid on the boating ladies’ bedroom, are treated with a lovely light touch. Delightful entertainment adapted by Hubert Gregg and Vernon Harris with a splendid score by John Addison (I love that guy!) There’s plenty of weather and even some cricket for anglophiles and look fast for Norman Rossington making his debut! (To say nothing of the dog.) Directed by Ken Annakin.

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016)

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What’s good about this? It’s not actually Potterworld. So, no ugly children (well… maybe a few, but briefly) and no long-drawn out battle between Good and Evil. Maybe…. Because this moneymaker is now the first of goodness knows how many sequels due to the gazillions it’s already earned within a week of release. And it’s good. It’s not really what you’d expect. It’s got a muted palette with occasional jolts of monochrome to indicate who might be bad (that’s you, Colin Farrell) amongst the hoi polloi thronging the machine age streets  which are being subjected to some serious beast-action chopping through the bricks and cement. Meanwhile Eddie Redmayne is Edwardian magizoologist Newt Scamander, arriving at Ellis Island with some cute platypus-like creature called a niffler who has a magpie-like yen for silver and disappears in a bank looking for coins where a wannabe baker Jacob (Dan Fogler) takes his case by mistake after being turned down for a loan. Scamander is the future author of the eponymous book, which is found by Harry Potter, in other words he’s a former student at Hogwarts. He didn’t fight in WW1 – too busy fighting dragons, as it happens. NYC is on lockdown against magic and in denial about it so it’s not really a good time to arrive. Witches are on the menu and wicked foster mother Samantha Morton has her charges out campaigning against the subculture of which her eldest Credence (Ezra Miller doing Buster Keaton) is a part, which is very  unfortunate for her. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) wants to haul Newt in to the Magical Congress for importing his funny little creatures to the country but he needs to return one of them to the desert –  which he magicks with a Mary Poppins-like flourish out of the suitcase which has been retrieved: problem is now there’s a Muggler baker in on the secret only here he’s called a No-Maj.  There’s a race against time, as we are warned by the clock at the Congress which tells us of an impending doom-like scenario. There’s an extremely funny sequence at Central Park Zoo which you have to see to  believe but it involves a mating situation. And there’s a sidebar romance between Jacob and Tina’s mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) who likes this chubster.  And a scummy nightclub scene rather like one we know from Star Wars. And there’s the big issue: a certain angry teenager who might just … explode, as PO’d adolescents are wont. A politician suffers the consequences of his rage. And Graves (Farrell) wants to find him….  and Newt. This is an enjoyable wallow in nostalgia but instead of seeing those huge offices worked by people in Vidor’s pre-Depression classic The Crowd we have darkened rooms filled with typewriters which are … typing automatically! It’s a vision for those of us amused by gadgets and tricky machines, a steampunked 1926 filled with huge department stores and smog where women wear trousers and men are either brave eccentrics or weapons of the state. More than that, beneath the vision is a message about persecuted minorities and cults and the measures they take – not very nice betimes – to secure their own existence. Including white-out chambers where people are being lobotomised, or its nearest equivalent (‘obliviated’ as they call it here). So much for human rights under self-appointed dictators, eh? And this underground lot are led by a black woman, Carmen Ejogo. Will she turn out to be Fidelia Castro?! If I have any problems here it might be to do with casting – there’s enough money floating around this world so can someone please give Eddie Redmayne (wearing Benedict’s Sherlock coat or something very like it) assistance with his diction?  He could at least enunciate correctly now that he’s not confined to a wheelchair or concealing his male parts. I can’t decide whether he’s adequate to the task, really good in an underwritten part or just plain wrong. The relationship with beady-eyed Waterston is barely worked out:  in a way you don’t care because she’s not right either. But you should . This efficiently-tooled behemoth of parallel realities comes from the mythical Potter universe ie producer David Heyman and director David Yates. It’s oddly like Ghostbusters, but … different. And there are enough plot threads to function as a preview of several coming attractions.  The screenplay was conjured by the godhead herself, JK Rowling:  is there nothing she can’t do?

My Week With Marilyn (2011)

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Marilyn Monroe took acting very seriously and trained with several coaches throughout her career – she was nervous as a cat about performing and terrified about getting her lines right. She was dyslexic, had Meniere’s disease and and suffered stage fright to beat the band.Her capacity to remember lines was practically non-existent. It drove co-workers crazy – the more takes she did in her quest for perfection, the better she got. And they dropped from exhaustion. She fled Hollywood to take more control of her roles and set up a production company with Look photographer Milton Greene and their first film was Bus Stop – finally Marilyn can act, the critics said. She had wound up at the Actors’ Studio inadvertently following the death of Constance Collier whom she had been training with in NYC. The association caused untold complications in her life. Then a project arose with Laurence Olivier – an Edwardian comedy of manners by Terence Rattigan, The Sleeping Prince. Olivier and Vivien Leigh had played it onstage. Leigh was too old to play the chorus girl on film and Monroe wanted to be taken seriously so it became a joint production of both of their companies with Olivier starring and directing (that was inadvertent, the result of a misunderstanding that everyone was too polite to point out). Monroe rolled up for the English shoot with new husband playwright Arthur Miller, Greene, publicist Arthur Jacobs and acting coach/sycophant Paula Strasberg, Lee’s wife  …  Colin Clark was the son of Olivier’s friend Kenneth Clark and as a new unemployed graduate needed a job. He got taken on as Third Assistant Director on the film that became The Prince and the Showgirl and kept a diary which he finally published as The Prince, The Showgirl and Me in 1995. He later wrote a memoir, My Week With Marilyn, and these two volumes are combined here by Adrian Hodges with a touch of creative licence, coyness and diplomacy:  Clark’s (and Olivier’s) views of Miller (Dougray Scott here) in particular were scathing and Clark’s real-life sexual inclinations were more worldly than those exhibited in the personage of Eddie Redmayne. Michelle Williams gets the poisoned chalice role but manages at times to exquisitely portray the plight of the most famous woman in the world trying to get along in a new marriage with a man clearly using her and a cast and crew (led by Kenneth Branagh as Olivier) who appeared to despise her (they trashed her leaving gifts, not that we see that in this British production). Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) famously said that Monroe was the only one among them who knew how to act for the camera while Olivier ranted at Clark that ‘Trying to teach Marilyn how to act is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger.’ Seeing her luminous performance and his own overacting in rushes nearly finished him and stopped his desire for directing (he eventually made one just more feature and a TVM!). Clark stated that Olivier was a great actor who wanted to be a film star while Monroe was a film star who wanted to be a great actress. According to his memoir he told her this in order to allay her fears in the hostile environment in which she found herself adrift. Who knows how much of this is true? It’s all rather unlikely. It makes for a good story though. Director Simon Curtis manages to get the balance of despair, humour and pathos into this on-set romance and it’s a testament to all the talents involved that it’s more insightful and touching than exploitative.

The Riddle of the Sands (1979)

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What a treat it is to see this in widescreen and Panavision – a delightful slow-burn of a romantic adventure spy film, adapted from the classic by Erskine Childers. Written by director Tony Maylam and John Bailey, it tells the tale of Arthur Davies (Simon MacCorkindale) an amateur yachtsman charting the sandbanks of the area around the Frisian Islands off the North German coast in 1903. He is discovered by the sinister Dollmann (Alan Badel) a salvage merchant whose daughter (Jenny Agutter) he befriends. When Dollman runs him aground en route to duck shooting in the Baltic, he contacts his university friend, Charles Carruthers (Michael York) now working in the Foreign Office with an invitation to join him on vacation. The suspicion that England is about to be invaded by the Kaiser using a flotilla of barges is proven correct. Quietly thrilling, incredibly shot (by the great Christopher Challis, whose son, Drummond, produced) this has some nice directorial touches – concealing Carruthers long after we first hear York’s unmistakeable throaty voice, hiding Badel’s real identity behind an impressive hipster beard, retaining a sense of real tension and implacable difference between these very British buddies – not to mention the fabulous sweaters. I really dig the cut of this jib.

Gaslight (1944)

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Patrick Hamilton’s play gets the big screen treatment with Anton Walbrook … oh no! That’s the one I love! And this is the other one, with Boyer and Bergman. Oh well. That’s TCM for you – false advertising, false hope. When Hollywood got their mitts on this they tried to destroy all the prints of the 1940 English adaptation directed by Thorold Dickinson, but thankfully for the movie lover, they never burned the negative. Anyhow, here we are with the American version, adapted by John Van Druten and Walter Reisch, which director George Cukor said was as happy a collaboration as you would want – until all those writers got ideas about ‘saying something.’  (John Balderston also did some work on it, but we weren’t supposed to know about it.) A big backstory is added with Charles Boyer seducing the teenaged Bergman in Italy where she was removed after witnessing the death of her aunt, a well-known opera singer, whose career she cannot hope to emulate. Her new husband persuades her to return to the scene at Thornton Square and then proceeds to drive her mad. This is where the term ‘gaslighting’ originated and it is steeped in the Gothic romance films of the period, which commenced with Rebecca. It’s a departure for Cukor, who was heavily dependent on the amazing production design which stuffs the house with clutter and ornamentation and is stifling in the peculiar way that post-Victorian decor can be. The lights dim, there are odd noises, and the snarky spiteful maid (Angela Lansbury) is in cahoots with the master. Bergman studied a mentally ill woman to convincingly portray a woman losing it, Boyer just doesn’t do it for me – he’s too obviously a villain in that Continental manner. (Whereas Walbrook … ooh, missus!) It’s Lansbury who’s astonishing. She was new to Hollywood, the 17-year old daughter of actress Moyna MacGill and wrapping gifts in Bullocks when Cukor was told about this recent emigree from the blitzed city where this was set. And THIS was her first screen appearance? Wow!!!! I still prefer the original, though. Ahem.

The Winslow Boy (1948)

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Terence Rattigan’s play is brought to the screen adapted by the man himself (co-written with producer Anatole De Grunwald) and helmed by Anthony Asquith, directing a cast of the great and good of British acting of the time.When little Naval cadet Ronnie Winslow (Neil North) is sacked from the Academy accused of stealing a postal order, his stern but scrupulous father (Cedric Hardwicke) takes his word for it and insists on justice for his unfairly accused boy. Daughter Margaret Leighton backs him to the hilt and the case goes to trial with barrister Robert Donat leading the defence. This finely calibrated argument about right and wrong, justice, guilt, innocence, decency and family is old-fashioned in the best sense of the term. And how nice it must be to come from a family who don’t hang you out to dry for the fun of it! Fun to see Basil Radford (without Naunton Wayne!) as former cricketer now family solicitor helping out. Everyone pays a high price to see the boy right. Rattigan is little appreciated now but there was a time when his name was a byword for great theatre. Superbly shot by Freddie Young, scored by William Alwyn, this is another wonderful London Films production. Decades later North would play First Lord of the Admiralty in a new interpretation by writer/director David Mamet!