Strangers When We Meet (1960)

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Kiss me. Please don’t kiss me. Californian architect Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) yearns to create adventurous designs, but his pragmatic wife, Eve (Barbara Rush), is determined to make her husband focus on more marketable, straightforward work instead of the unconventional work he craves. Maggie Gault (Kim Novak), a neighbor of the Coe family who is trapped in a loveless marriage and who Larry hits on at their kids’ school bus stop, believes in Larry’s creative impulses, and the pair eventually strike up a love affair while he builds the house of his dreams on his ideal coastal site for wealthy writer Roger Altar (Ernie Kovacs). However, they’re interrupted by the nosy, lecherous Felix (Walter Matthau), who has eyes for Eve and turns to blackmail… Alright, Larry, I wanted him. That’s what you really wanted to hear, isn’t it. I wanted him. One of the most brutally beautiful scrutinies of love in the burbs and middle class meltdown ever committed to the silver screen, this has Novak at her beguiling best, reunited with lover Richard Quine, who directed her in Bell, Book and Candle alongside co-star Kovacs. Novelist Evan Hunter adapted his book and it’s treated lushly, the carefully designed house on the perfect cliff-edge site operating as a metaphor for the dangerous relationship that sates the love-lorn pair lonely in their respective marriages and looking for a satisfying sexual encounter that matches their romantic expectations. The supporting performances are fantastic – Matthau as the vicious neighbour, Rush as the wisely restrained wife, Virginia Bruce as Novak’s suspicious mother – but it’s the compelling sexual attraction between Douglas and Novak that’ll have you coming up for air as you reach for a gin martini. The score by George Duning is a thing of majesty and it’s one of the most gorgeous portraits of Los Angeles you will ever see with locations masterfully shot by Charles Lang at Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Santa Monica and Malibu. Any place you’ve got a housewife, you’ve got a potential mistress

Our Man in Havana (1959)

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Everything’s legal in Havana. Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness) is an English ex-pat living in pre-revolutionary Havana with his vain teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow). He owns a vacuum cleaner shop but isn’t very successful and Milly is annoyed he’s unable to fulfill his promise of a horse and country club membership, so he accepts an offer from Hawthorne (Noel Coward) of the British Secret Service to recruit a network of spies in Cuba. Wormold hasn’t got a clue where to start but when his friend Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) suggests that the best secrets are known to no one, he decides to manufacture a list of agents from people he only knows by sight and provides fictional tales for the benefit of his paymasters in London. He is soon seen as the best agent in the Western hemisphere and is particularly happy with his new friend, the beautiful spy Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara) but it all unravels when the local police decode his cables and everything he has invented bizarrely begins to come true when they start rounding up his network and he learns that he is the target of a group out to kill him… This film is, rather like North by Northwest, a taste of things to come:  an irreverent picture of the Cold War, the assumptions of the West and of course a picture of Cuba on the verge of a revolutionary breakdown (it was shot immediately after the Batista regime was overthrown). Graham Greene was reluctant to let anyone film his novels following the near-desecration of The Quiet American but this novel (the last he would term an entertainment and based on his WW2 experiences in Portugal) survives pretty unscathed with its comic tone evident throughout the cast (albeit Greene hated Maureen O’Hara). Who doesn’t love Ernie Kovacs? Or Guinness, for that matter, who perfectly inhabits this hapless effortful beast Wormold. I particularly liked his take on a game of checkers. Beautifully photographed by the great Oswald Morris  – but in black and white – in Havana?! Why?!  Directed, not by Hitchcock, who had tried to acquire the rights from Greene, but by Carol Reed. It was their third collaboration following The Fallen Idol and The Third ManOne never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.

It Happened to Jane (1959)

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Doris plays Jane Osgood, a widowed mother of two trading lobster. When a shipment of 300 of the poor creatures dies in transit she asks her lawyer George (Jack Lemmon) to sue the railroad company and she’s awarded money. The company files against her and George wants her to take the train in lieu then the newspapers get hold of the story and she threatens to appear on TV. George is jealous of Larry (Steve Forrest) who’s a journalist she’s smitten with and the railroad bypasses the town, endangering all the businesses … Cute undemanding comedy with great stars and fun script by Norman Katkov and Max Wilk, this saw director/producer Richard Quine reunited again with regular star Lemmon and the great Ernie Kovacs, who had also appeared in Bell, Book and Candle:  he’s cast here as “the meanest man in the world”! Re-released in 1961 as Twinkle and Shine.

North to Alaska (1960)

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Such a fun-filled, rumbustious comedy western must have had a great concept – but it didn’t, other than being a Wayne vehicle in Alaska, the newest state and vaguely based on a play called Birthday Gift. There was no script. The first director didn’t like the choice of Capucine as Angel, the prostitute, declaring her unsexy – he didn’t know she was shacking up with Charles Feldman, the producer. So Henry Hathaway came on board. And they started shooting this adventure about prospectors George (John Wayne) and Sam (Stewart Granger) who strike it rich but need to steer clear of conman Frankie (Ernie Kovacs) and keep Sam’s kid brother Billy (Fabian) on the straight and narrow. When Sam’s fiancee in Seattle proves to have married someone else, George brings back Angel and her relationships with each of the men reveals something of each of their characters in the midst of their efforts to keep the gold haul for themselves. For a script written mostly on the hoof by old-timers John Lee Mahin, Martin Rackin, Claude Binyon, Wendell Mayes and Ben Hecht, with contributions by Feldman, it works like a dream, with a tongue in cheek touch that more prepared productions should envy. The song was a huge hit and made the film even more popular. Proper entertainment.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

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How fabulous was Kim Novak? She had an intimate relationship with Richard Quine which led to probably her best performance, in the later Strangers When We Meet, but in their collaboration here she’s the gorgeous Gillian, who bewitches staid publisher James Stewart when he moves into the apartment above her shop in snowy Greenwich Village. She puts a love spell on him because he’s engaged to Janice Rule, who made her life hell in college. Then … she starts to like the idea of being human. With Ernie Kovacs as the crazed overpraised writer on Shep’s books, Jack Lemmon as Gillian’s kooky brother and Elsa Lanchester and Hermione Gingold in a witch-off, this is a highly enjoyable adaptation by Daniel Taradash of John Van Druten’s stage classic. Beautiful in every way, Gillian’s shop is why my lounge looks like I’ve been doing some Magic in Mexico research myself. Scored by George Duning and shot by James Wong Howe, this is a perfect romantic entertainment with one of the best cats ever. Love you, Pye!