Wings of Desire (1987)

Wings of Desire UK

Aka  Der Himmel Über Berlin / The Heaven Over Berlin / The Sky Over Berlin. Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun just a dream? Isn’t what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world? Two angels, kindred spirits Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), glide through the streets of Berlin, observing the bustling population, providing invisible rays of hope to the distressed but never interacting with them. They are only visible to children and other people who like them. When Damiel falls in love with wistful lonely trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin) whose circus has closed due to financial problems, he tires of his surveillance job and longs to experience life in the physical world. With words of wisdom from actor Peter Falk (playing himself) performing in a WW2 thriller whose cast and crew the angels are observing – he believes it might be possible for him to take human form and enter history ... We are now the times. Not only the whole town – the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are now more than us two. We incarnate something. We’re representing the people now. And the whole place is full of those who are dreaming the same dream. We are deciding everyone’s game. I am ready. Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your handThis beautiful benign allegory of the divided city of Berlin is of course clear to anyone familiar with the practices of the Stasi, who deployed one half of the East German population to spy on the other half:  when the Wall came down and the files were opened families and friendships were torn asunder. However a few years before that occurred, director Wim Wenders plugs into the nightmare of watching and being watched and makes it into a surreal dream in this romantic fantasy. I can’t see you but I know you’re here. It’s verging on noir with its portrait of a place riven by war and totalitarian rule, its acknowledging of the Holocaust and the overview of the Wall snaking through a post-war world. You can’t get lost. You always end up at the Wall.  A poetic film that’s so much of its time yet its yearning humanity is palpable, its message one of eternal hope. Shot in stunning monochrome by Henri Alekan, brought out of retirement and for whom the circus is named. I’m taking the plunge. Written by Peter Handke, for all the fallen angels on the outside looking in. Co-written by Wenders with additions by Richard Reitinger, loosely inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems. An exquisite city symphony that insists on the disrupting of image making, bearing witness, choosing life. With Curt Bois as Homer and Crime and the City Solution and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform.  Must I give up now? If I do give up, then mankind will lose its storyteller. And if mankind once loses its storyteller, then it will lose its childhood

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The Greatest Show on Earth

Under the big top only two days count – today and tomorrow. Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is trying to keep the world’s biggest railroad circus on the road but the backers want to curtail the current run to ten weeks. He has to demote his girlfriend trapeze artiste Holly (Betty Hutton) from the centre ring to make way for returning high flyer The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) who immediately sets out to seduce her, ignoring former lovers Angel (Gloria Grahame) from the elephant act and Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour) who’s in a South Seas performance. Concessionaire Harry (John Kellogg) is duping the customers while Buttons the Clown (James Stewart) hides behind his cosmetics but a visit from his mother in the crowd suggests he is a former doctor who mercy killed his young wife ten years earlier even if he explains away his first aid skills as wartime experience. Elephant trainer Klaus (Lyle Bettger) is fired when jealousy gets the better of him and he nearly kills Angel during his act. He decides to take revenge when the circus is travelling again … I send her for a doctor and she comes back with an elephant. Sly banter, fantastic characterisation and plain old-fashioned good against bad make this splashy Cecil B. DeMille spectacular an evergreen entertainment that mixes romance, action, crime and disaster storylines with panache. Extraneous attractions to the main narrative are real-life performers from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus’ 1951 troupe, obstinately glum children in the audience and the tent being raised, a high-wire act in itself. There’s Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in one shot, presumably to ogle Lamour; while Hutton gets to belt out some lively numbers amid a rousing score by Victor Young. The shifting love triangles between Heston, Hutton, Wilde and Grahame are smartly managed with nifty dialogue. Walk me off – do not rob me of my exit. The train wreck is justly famous even if it looks a bit Dinky Cars these days. They’ll never find me behind this nose. The mystery with Buttons is nicely sustained with a terrifically ironic payoff and Heston gets to go on with the show. Lawrence Tierney has a nice supporting role and there’s a satifsying reveal at the end, showing us exactly who’s been narrating this tall tale. Expertly written by Frederic M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett and Barré Lyndon aka Alfred Edgar with uncredited additions by Jack Gariss. You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll hurl! Classic. The only net I use is in my hair

The Big Circus (1959)

The Big Circus

You are a human bullet … blasted out of a mighty cannon! Bankrupt circus owner Hank Whirling (Victor Mature) manages to get his show back on the road, but has reckoned without the reaction of his disgruntled former partners, who are determined to see him fail just when he needs to impress a banker who is determined to inspect the business. He has to take on Randy Sherman (Red Buttons) to watch the spending. He also has to keep a close eye on his younger sister Jeannie (Kathryn Grant) and a daredevil high-flyer Zach Colino (Gilbert Roland), who rashly promises to perform the stunt of the century but amid a series of supposed accidents that turn out to be the work of a saboteur they have to make it to New York before Hank’s former partner Jules Borman (Nesdon Booth) … You face the snarling fangs of the King of Beasts! Written by Charles Bennett and Irving Wallace from a story by producer/auteur Irwin Allen, this is a splendidly splashy spectacular, bursting with vigour and vitality, just the ticket for a family entertainment in these (non-) testing times. Spills, thrills and elephants with dramatic acrobatics, an escaped lion, attempted sabotage and financial finagling. Mature was almost on the skids but he does very well here. Rhonda Fleming is excellent in the supporting role of PR Helen Harrison and has some bright scenes. With Vincent Price as your ringmaster and Peter Lorre as Skeeter the clown where better to turn than this well-constructed mystery?!  Directed by Joseph M. Newman. Roll up! Roll up!

Nor the Moon by Night (1958)

Nor the Moon By Night film

Aka Elephant Gun. This is not England. After the mother she’s nursed for years dies, Englishwoman Alice Lang (Belinda Lee) goes to Kenya to marry her pen pal gamekeeper Andrew Miller (Patrick McGoohan). However he has to deal with a poaching incident on the game reserve and redirect a herd of elephants out of harm’s way. He sends his younger brother and colleague Rusty (Michael Craig) to meet Alice and they spend two days together falling in love and getting into life-threatening scenarios with elephants. Meanwhile Andrew uncovers a web of murderous corruption led by Anton Boryslawski (Eric Pohlman) whose teenage daughter Thea (Anna Gaylor) is in love with him and he finds himself at the wrong side of some lions …  You have always been a hermit. Joy Packer’s popular novel had been serialised in a magazine and the adaptation by Guy Elmes makes for a fabulously pulpy melodrama with magnificent cinematography by Harry Waxman (who replaced original DoP Peter Hennessey after crewing issues) and one particularly torrid scene between Craig and the beautiful and tragic Lee, who tried to commit suicide during filming. Shot in South Africa (Kruger National Park) and Kenya, with interiors work done back at Pinewood, it offers a snapshot of the end of Empire, a colonial-eye view that’s mostly depoliticised. Directed by Ken Annakin who reportedly claimed of the troubled production, One day there was only me and a snake available to work. Craig had an affair with Lee’s stand in, McGoohan nearly got killed in a car crash but it all worked out in the end. In this country you can’t be sure of anything

Circus of Fear (1966)

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Aka Psycho-CircusCircus of Terror/ Das Rätsel des silbernen Dreieck / Mystery of the Silver Triangle/ Scotland Yard auf heißer Spur. I wonder if we have something in common with the murderer.  We’re both looking for the same thing. In the aftermath of a daring armoured car heist on London’s Tower Bridge that ends with the murder of a security guard, police detective Jim Elliott (Leo Genn) follows a trail of clues to the travelling Barberini Circus, which has just passed through the city. Though he suspects a conspiracy under the big top, he discovers strained relations between the disfigured lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee) and his associates and colleagues who include owner Barberini (Anthony Newlands), ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache), bookkeeper and wannabe clown Eddie (Eddi Arent), knife-thrower Mario (Maurice Kaufmann) and a dwarf called Mr Big (Skip Martin). Elliot struggles to find his man – and recover the stolen cash – in a maze of blackmail and deceit that concludes in a sharp-edged dénouement courtesy of Mario …  Why must these things always happen at the weekend? Written by producer Harry Alan Towers (as Peter Welbeck) and based on Again The Three Just Men by Edgar Wallace, whose prolific work had just spawned another series of adaptations at Merton Park Studios, this is a British take on the German krimi genre and happily has Klaus Kinski as the mysterious Manfred among a terrific cast numbering Suzy Kendall as Gregor’s niece Natasha, Cecil Parker as Sir John of the Yard, and Victor Maddern as Mason the unfortunate who uses a gun, with Lee in a mask rather defeating his key role but leading to a key unveiling in the third act. Genn is a bit of a PC Plod rather than an intuitive ‘tec but his role winds up anchoring the narrative and he’s nicely sardonic if secondary to the overly complex and twisty plot of the circus crowd’s behind the scenes antics with red herrings and dead ends dangling everywhere. Mostly nicely handled by cinematographer Ernest Steward with some interesting shot setups and well paced by director John [Llewellyn] Moxey. The opening scene is smartly achieved without dialogue and the final summing up scene is a high wire act quite different from what you’d see in Agatha Christie. Werner Jacobs directed the German version which has an alternative ending and was released in black and white. I do like to respect a man’s privacy but in a criminal case there’s really no such thing

Dumbo (2019)

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You should listen to your kids more. Struggling travelling circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists a former equestrian star, WW1 amputee Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and son Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for Dumbo, a baby elephant born with oversized ears to Mrs Jumbo. When the family discovers that the animal can fly, it soon becomes the main attraction — bringing in huge audiences and revitalizing the run-down circus. His mother is separated from him leaving him distraught then his magical ability draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life entertainment venture Dreamland where he intends his spirited  Parisian trapeze artiste Colette Marchant (Eva Green) will use the little fellow in her act…  You have something very rare. You have wonder. You have mystique. You have magic. In this latest pointless live-action remake of Disney’s brilliant animated features, Ehren Kruger’s screenplay (welcome back to the big leagues) has to tread a fine line between the exigencies of the House of Mouse with its unadulterated classic sentiment and the Gothic flourishes and flawed excesses of director Tim Burton who reassembles some of his usual actors (DeVito, Green, Keaton) alongside Disney’s latest humanoid fave, Farrell. Dumbo is the greatest animation ever made and a personal favourite, an utterly beguiling story of grave majesty and emotionality. This is never going to reach those heights no matter how many high wire acts, freakshows and armless motherless humans are dramatised as reactive tropes, how many of the circus’ darkest inclinations are exhibited, how many cartoon baddies (with Afrikaaner accents) are on standby, how good Keaton (as the anti-Walt Disney!) and DeVito are, how sweet the family message. The Art Deco interiors and production design are splendid, there is real jeopardy and the CGI elephants are beautiful, but you don’t need elephants to save your blank-eyed expressionless soul (Parker has no acting ability whatsoever) which is this film’s message. It expands on the original adaptation of Helen Alberson’s book and it’s not the anticipated travesty that  the horrific Alice in Wonderland was for the same auteur pairing but that’s not saying much.  If you really want to do something for the plight of their species stop all those vile African natives and American trophy hunters from brutally killing them and ensuring their imminent extinction. Back to the drawing board. Fly, Dumbo … fly

 

Gunga Din (1939)

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You will never leave here. Already your graves are dug! British army sergeants Tommy Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant) and Mac MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) serve in India on the North West Frontier during the 1880s, along with their native water-bearer, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe). While completing a dangerous telegraph-repair mission, they unearth evidence of the suppressed Thuggee cult. When Gunga Din tells the sergeants about a secret temple made of gold, the fortune-hunting Cutter is captured by the Thuggees, and it’s up to his friends to rescue him before the Thuggees run rampage across the territory... Ever since time began, they’ve called mad all the great soldiers in this world. Mad? We shall see what wisdom lies within my madness. Loosely adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s poem and his short story collection Soldiers Three, Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur’s story has a central conflict closely related to their play The Front Page. The screenplay by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol with uncredited additions by Anthony Veiller, Lester Cohen, John Colton, Dudley Nichols, Vincent Lawrence and William Faulkner (if only we knew!) is a ripping yarn, classical Hollywood at its finest, with George Stevens at the helm. Redolent with wit, fun, danger and charm – Grant even has a way with an elephant! – and his and McLaglen’s reactions to Fairbanks’ marriage to Joan Fontaine are highly amusing. This is a marvellous action adventure, reeking of camaraderie and derring-do and good old-fashioned brio. Reginald Sheffield appears uncredited as Kipling. Lone Pine CA and Yuma AZ stand in for India! You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din 

Out of Africa (1985)

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I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a failed love affair in Denmark the aristocrat Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) sets out for the white highlands of Kenya where she marries her lover’s brother Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer).  She is intent on dairy farming, Bror instead spends their money on a coffee plantation. After discovering Bror is unfaithful when she contracts syphilis, Karen develops feelings for British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) but he prefers a simple lifestyle compared to her upper class affectations. She separates from Bror and sets about remaking her home to his taste. The two continue their relationship until a series of events force Karen to choose between her love life and her personal growth as an individual … Like a lot of people, I imagine, I first heard of Isak Dinesen (or Karen Blixen) courtesy of The Catcher in the Rye. If it was good enough for Holden Caulfield, I figured, I’ve got to check it out. And that was my introduction to a great writer whose life is immortalised here in the form of La Streep while the less than glamorous Finch Hatton is personified by Redford. History is rewritten right there! But their chemistry is so right. Streep is wonderful as the woman who finally finds herself, Redford is great as a hunter who simultaneously deplores environmental destruction – these are fantastic star performances.  So the school, the farm, that’s what I am now Director Sydney Pollack later regretted that he didn’t shoot this in widescreen and you can see why. This is a film of big emotions in a breathtaking landscape that dwarfs the concerns of the little people, aristos or not. There are fabulous, memorable scenes:  when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair; when they play Mozart on the gramophone to monkeys and Denys remarks that it’s their first exposure to humans; when he takes her flying; when she begs for land for the Kikuyu. And when she leaves.  If you like me at all, don’t ask me to do this Altering the focus of Dinesen’s writing somewhat to the personalities rather than the issues that actually drove Dinesen and the contradictions within Finch Hatton, it’s a glorious, epic and tragic romance sensitively performed, with a meticulous score by John Barry. Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay was adapted from three sources:  Dinesen’s Out of Africa;  Judith Thurman’s biography Isak Dinesen:  The Life of a Story Teller;  and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski. He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast

 

Born Free (1966)

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We spent the day in agony like the parents of a teenage girl out on her first date. At a national park in Kenya, English game warden George Adamson (Bill Travers) and his wife, Joy (Virginia McKenna), care for three orphaned lion cubs. After the two larger lions are shipped off to a zoo in the Netherlands, the smallest of the three, Elsa, stays with the couple. When Elsa is blamed for causing an elephant stampede in the nearby village, head warden John Kendall (Geoffrey Keen) demands the young lion either be trained to survive in the wilds of the Serengeti or be sent to a zoo… Joy Adamson’s 1960 book caused a sensation and was part of the beginning of a widespread conservation movement that radically informed westerners about the problems in maintaining wild populations on the continent of Africa. On a more personal level, this is an extremely moving story about her own romance with the wonderful lioness who became part of her life and how hard it was to let her go and live the life she’d been meant to have. Adapted by blacklisted Lester Cole (under the pseudonym Gerald L.C. Copley) this is a wonderfully made, utterly engrossing true story with all the jeopardy you’d expect given the setting which is tantalisingly photographed by Kenneth Talbot.  The co-stars are Girl, Boy, Ugas, Henrietta, Mara and the Cubs and they are completely fabulous. Even my little Graymalkin didn’t evince a shred of jealousy toward her large African cousins and she’s the flyingest supercat around. The soundtrack and theme song by John Barry (with lyrics by Don Black and performed over the end credits by the incomparable Matt Monro) will bring you to tears if the unsentimental drama does not (reader I blubbed all through it, all over again – I do it every time. ) The credits thank Hailie Selassie I among others. Golly. The making of the film transformed the lives of its stars, a real-life married couple who had previously co-starred in The Smallest Show on Earth. They started the Born Free Foundation which you can support here:  http://www.bornfree.org.uk/. The outcome for the Adamsons was rather different:  they were both murdered. By humans. Directed by documentary maker James Hill with uncredited work by Tom McGowan.

Elephant Walk (1954)

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She is not one of us and her ways are cold and strange. When John Wiley (Peter Finch), an affluent plantation owner, brings his new wife, Ruth (Elizabeth Taylor), to his estate in the jungles of British Ceylon,  she finds she is the only white woman.  She’s overjoyed by the exotic location and luxurious accommodations until it becomes clear her new husband is more interested in palling around with his friends than spending time with her. She is intimidated by houseman Apphuamy (Abraham Sofaer) who is still being bossed by the late Old Man Wiley a rotten individual who has deliberately blocked the elephants from their ancient water source (hence the name). Left alone on the plantation, Ruth strikes up a friendship with American overseer Dick Carver (Dana Andrews), and it isn’t long before a love triangle develops… An old-school colonial romance, the novel by Robert Standish (aka Digby George Gerahty) was adapted by Hollywood vet John Lee Mahin who knew this kind of material from Red Dust two decades earlier. While revelling in the lush jungle landscape and the forbidden desires of Taylor the real story is the haunting of Wiley by his late father whose ghost dominates his life and the plantation. Taylor of course replaced Vivien Leigh who had a nervous breakdown yet whose figure remains in long shots that weren’t repeated and her lover Finch remained in the picture in a role originally intended for Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier. Andrews might not be our idea of a hot extra-marital affair but in a situation like that … It looks rather beautiful courtesy of the marvellous work by cinematographer Loyal Griggs but you might find yourself wanting to see more of the elephants than Taylor such is their pulchritudinous affect. You choose. Directed by William Dieterle.