Showdown (1963)

Showdown

Aka The Iron Collar. You can’t do this to a man. Not to a man! Two drifters, cowpoke Chris Foster (Audie Murphy) and veterinarian Bert Pickett (Charles Drake) go into the border town of Adonde. Bert gets in a fight after getting drunk and punches out the local sheriff during a card game and he and Chris are put in iron collars, chained to an outlaw and famed killer, LaValle (Harold J. Stone) at a post in the town square. He is there with his gang members Foray (L.Q. Jones) and Caslon (Skip Homeier). They manage to escape but La Valle wants them to rob a bank and they try to buy their way to freedom with some stolen bonds … The man who said he could never be caught. He’s collared now. Written by Bronson Howitzer (aka Ric Hardman) and directed by western stalwart R.G. Springsteen, this is standard genre fodder, albeit with appropriately noir overtones for this monochrome affair. Murphy acquits himself well, Stone is a convincing villain, Kathleen Crowley makes for an admirably cynical kind of femme fatale with a sympathetic backstory and Lone Pine stands in for New Mexico with well mounted if small-scale action. When I call you come or I put you back on the leash!

Road to Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition

Where would this town be without Mr John Rooney? In 1931 Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hitman and enforcer for Irish-American mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) in the Rock Island area. His son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) hides in the car one night after the wake for one of Rooney’s henchmen and sees his Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) administer a shot in the head to the dead man’s brother Finn (Ciarán Hinds) who talked too much at the event; while he understands for the first time what his father does for a living when he witnesses the bloodshed. Rooney sends Connor to kill Michael and the boy but Connor instead kills his wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and other son Peter (Liam Aiken) in cold blood and Michael goes on the run with Michael Jr in an attempt to gain revenge for his family’s murder. He finds that he has no friends and no protection and is advised by Mafia man Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to give up. He reckons without a freelance corpse photographer Maguire (Jude Law) following him and thinks that by uncovering Connor’s theft that Rooney will accept him as the son he never had … A man of honour always pays his debts and keeps his word. I like this far better now that years have passed, Newman is gone and what I originally thought of as directorial heavy-handedness is more readily recognisable as a comfort with the excessive expressionistic qualities of the source material. Hanks’ doughy face with its deep-set eyes seems peculiarly unsuited for this kind of role but paradoxically lends the performance an unexpected quality. His six-week road trip with his son gives him an opportunity to impart lessons and learn about the boy for the first time. He makes us know that Michael Jr is not to follow him into this deadly business. His scenes with Newman are marvellous – a kind of trading off in acting styles, one legend passing on lessons to the next, borne out in the storytelling. What Michael doesn’t know is that blood means more than sympathy, no matter the horrors involved in being part of the Rooney family. Of course Connor would betray his father;  and of course his father knows. It’s a hard thing to watch Michael learn the truth. Loyalty sucks. This is a gallery of masculine roles – Craig as the ever-smiling psychotic son, Law as the rotten-toothed shooter masquerading as the photographer of death – a correlative of the film’s own morbidity; Hoechlin as the boy learning at his father’s elbow as the guns go off. Hinds impresses in those early scenes, quietly seething then mouthing off at his brother’s wake, a crime which will  not go unpunished. Dylan Baker’s accountant Alexander Rance has a decidedly old-fashioned homosexual taint of prissiness. This is a linear story of fathers and sons, cause and effect, crime, punishment and revenge in an Oedipal setting dictated by the rules of inevitability that can be traced to Greek tragedy. There are no surprises but the pleasures of the production design by Dennis Gassner, the cinematography by Conrad Hall (who earned a posthumous Academy Award) and the performances make this worth a re-viewing. Screenplay by David Self from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers

Above Suspicion (1943)

Above Suspicion

Her conception of foreign affairs derives directly from Hollywood. In 1939 just prior to WW2 honeymooning couple Oxford professor Richard Myles (Fred MacMurray) and his new bride, undergraduate Frances (Joan Crawford) are recruited to spy on the Nazis for British intelligence. Initially finding the mission fun the trail gets them in real danger as they try to interpret their encounters with contacts.  They then realise a fellow guest Peter Galt (Richard Ainley) at their holiday destination is actually a hitman on a mission of his own and his girlfriend has been murdered at Dachau after the Brits let them take on a job without informing them how bad the Nazis really were … Here we have an iron maiden, also known as the German Statue of Liberty. Crawford may have railed at the preposterous plot in TV’s Feud:  Bette and Joan and it would be her last film at MGM but the fact is Helen MacInnes based her excellent wartime novel on something that actually happened to herself and her husband. Crawford has several good moments – and a ‘bit’ involving what happens her ankle when she’s nervous – including when Conrad Veidt inveigles his way into their museum visit and shows her an instrument of torture which she describes as a totalitarian manicure. It’s a preview of coming attractions. She and MacMurray have chemistry and there are terrifically tense musical moments with some remarks that just skid past innuendo regarding their honeymoon. Fact is, they’ve been dumped in a really dangerous situation and now don’t they know it and the mention of concentration camps proves beyond reasonable doubt the Allies had a pretty good idea what was going on despite post-war claims. There’s an assassination that will only surprise someone who’s never watched a film. A sprightly script by Keith Winter & Melville Baker and Patricia Coleman (with uncredited work by Leonard Lee) keeps things moving quickly in Hollywood’s version of Europe, circa, whenever, and who can’t love a movie that reveals suave Basil Rathbone in Nazi regalia? Directed by Richard Thorpe but it should have been Hitchcock, as Crawford herself stated. Typical tourists – above suspicion

Appointment in Berlin (1943)

Appointment in Berlin

That’s the whole point of Secret Service – to prevent people suspecting. In 1938 disillusioned and recently disgraced RAF officer Wing Commander Keith Wilson (George Sanders) risks his life in Berlin by broadcasting pro-Nazi propaganda as a cover for counter-espionage. His broadcasts have a military code enabling British manoeuvres. He falls in love with Ilse (Marguerite Chapman) sister of a high-ranking Nazi Rudolph von Preising (Onslow Stevens) and forges links with journalist Greta van Leyden (Gale Sondergaard) who is actually a spy as well and when a message needs to be taken to Holland he’s the only one left standing … If you are going in at the deep end you may as well do it for England. In a rare tragic role, Sanders scores as the officer whose disgust at Britain’s politically neutral stance prior to WW2 leads him to become a pariah – lending him handy cover when England expects. The question of identity hovers over every scene here as Ilse’s transformation is nicely nuanced whereas Sondergaard’s situation is more extreme and her ending is well staged. There’s an amusing double act from a pair of American neutrals whose constant haranguing of supposedly treacherous Wilson adds humour to proceedings – inevitably they assist in his time of need. Nice references to Goebbels and his role in the manufacturing of truth. An interesting propaganda picture of pre-war problems and the reason why cross-border co-operation was required. Michael Hogan and Horace McCoy wrote the screenplay based on B.P. Fineman’s story.  Directed by Alfred E. Green. It’s finally happened

The Romantic Englishwoman (1975)

The Romantic Englishwoman

Women are an occupied country. Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson) is the bored wife of a successful English pulp writer Lewis Fielding (Michael Caine) who is currently suffering from writer’s block. She leaves him and their son David (Marcus Richardson) and runs away to the German spa town of Baden-Baden. There she meets Thomas (Helmut Berger), who claims to be a poet but who is actually a petty thief, conman, drug courier and gigolo. Though the two are briefly attracted to each other, she returns home. He, hunted by gangsters headed by Swan (Mich[a]el Lonsdale) for a drug consignment he has lost, follows her to England. Lewis, highly suspicious of his wife, invites the young man to stay with them and act as his secretary. Lewis embarks on writing a screenplay for German film producer Herman (Rene Kolldehoff) – a penetrating psychological story about The New Woman. Initially resenting the presence of the handsome stranger now installed in their home as her husband’s amanuensis and carrying on with the nanny Isabel (Béatrice Romand), Elizabeth starts an affair with him and the two run away with no money to Monaco and the South of France. Lewis follows them, while he in turn is followed by the gangsters looking for Thomas… It’s about this ungrateful woman who is married to this man of great charm, brilliance, and integrity. She thinks he won’t let her be herself, and she feels stuck in a straitjacket when she ought to be out and about and taking the waters and finding herself. With a cast like that, this had me at Hello. Director Joseph Losey’s customarily cool eye is lent a glint in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Thomas Wiseman’s novel (with the screenplay co-written by the author) in a work that teeters on the edges of satire. A house bristling with tension is meat and drink to both Stoppard and Losey, whose best films concern the malign effects of an interloper introducing instability into a home.  It’s engineered to produce some uncanny results – as it appears that Lewis the novelist is capable of real-life plotting and we are left wondering if Elizabeth’s affair has occurred at all or whether it might be him working out a story. Perhaps it’s his jealous fantasy or it might be his elaborate fictionalising of reality. Invariably there are resonances of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad but it’s far funnier. Like that film, it’s something of an intellectual game with a mystery at its centre. Aren’t you sick of these foreign films? Viewed as a pure exploration of writerly paranoia as well as the marital comedy intended by the novel, it’s a hall of mirrors exercise also reminiscent of another instance of the era’s art house modernism, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  The flashback/fantasy elevator sequence that is Lewis’ might also belong to Elizabeth. You might enjoy the moment when Thomas mistakes Lewis for the other Fielding (Henry) but he still hangs in there without embarrassment and seduces all around him. Or when Lewis suggests to his producer that he make a thriller rather than the more subtle study he’s suggesting – and then you realise that’s what this British-French co-production becomes. It’s richly ironic – Lewis and Elizabeth have such a vigorously happy marriage a neighbour (Tom Chatto) interrupts a bout of al fresco lovemaking but none of them seems remotely surprised, as if this is a regular occurrence. And any film that has Lonsdale introduce himself as the Irish Minister for Sport has a sense of humour. If it seems inconsistent there is compensation in the beauty of the performances (particularly Jackson’s, which is charming, warm and funny – All she wanted was everything!) and the gorgeous settings, with a very fine score by Richard Hartley. The elegance, precision and self-referentiality make this a must for Losey fans. It was probably a tricky shoot – Jackson and Berger couldn’t stand each other, allegedly. And Caine placed a bet that he could make the director smile by the end of the shoot. He lost. Wiseman commemorated his experience with Losey in his novel Genius Jack. It’s not kind. This, however, is a sly treat you don’t want to miss. You are a novelist, an imaginer of fiction.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)

Maleficent 2

This is no fairytale. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) travels to a grand old castle to celebrate young Aurora Queen of the Moors’ (Elle Fanning) upcoming wedding to Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). While there, she meets Aurora’s future mother-in-law Queen Ingrith  (Michelle Pfeiffer) a conniving queen who hatches a devious plot to destroy the land’s fairies. Hoping to stop her, Maleficent joins forces with a seasoned warrior , the dark fae Borra (Ed Skrein) and a group of outcasts to battle the queen and her powerful army...  We have opened our home to a witch. The overblown sequel to the relatively charming first film in the series is as far from Disney’s delicate and spare Gothic Sleeping Beauty as it can be conceived. This was clearly dreamt up as a bastard concoction of Game of Thrones and to a lesser extent Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy. It’s a shame because the story is a decent face-off between rival mothers-in-law and it’s great to see some of the best cheekbones in the business (enhanced or otherwise) tussling with the special effects. At the centre of it is a treatise on motherhood but you might find yourself wondering more about the dragon and the bear and fairy army than some old fairytale tropes. So it goes. Written by Linda Woolverton and Noah Harpster & Micah Fitzerman-Blue. Directed by Joachim Rønning. Curses don’t end – they’re broken

The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966)

The Brides of Fu Manchu

Take this knife and place it at the throat of the man who is your father. In 1924, Chinese megalomaniac Dr. Fu Manchu Christopher Lee), his army of dacoits and his vicious daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) are kidnapping and holding hostage the daughters of prominent scientists and industrialists taking them to his remote island, where he demands that the fathers help him to build a radio device that transmits blast waves through a transmitter he intends to use to take over the world. He plans to keep (even marry) the girls in question. But Dr. Fu Manchu’s archenemy, Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer) of Scotland Yard, is determined not to let that happen, assisted by Franz Baumer (Heinz Drache) who impersonates the man Fu Manchu most wants on his side, Otto Lentz (Joseph Furst) but an international conference is about to take place in London and time is running out … Remember – the snake pit is one of the quicker deaths that awaits your daughter! The second in the Sax Rohmer series directed for writer/producer Harry Alan Towers by Don Sharp, this isn’t as lushly beautiful and startling as the first but it’s still a lovely period suspenser with Lee returning as the diabolical Yellow Peril criminal mastermind with world domination dictating his every action. Pink Panther fans will enjoy Burt Kwouk’s performance as henchman Feng. The entire world will capitulate to me. That is the destiny of Fu Manchu

Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations 1946

Pip – a young gentleman of great expectations! Orphaned Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip (Anthony Wager) lives with his older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe (Bernard Miles). He encounters runaway convict Magwitch (Finlay Currie) on the marshes and assists him with food and helps him cut himself free. However Magwitch is recaptured when he has a fight with a fellow escapee. An eccentric elderly spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) wants company for herself and her teenage ward Estella (Jean Simmons) a cruel but beautiful teenager who mocks Pip but with whom he falls in love from afar. Pip is apprenticed to a blacksmith when he turns 14 and Estella goes to France to become a lady. Years later Pip (John Mills) is visited by Miss Havisham’s lawyer Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) and he is to be the beneficiary of a mysterious benefactor to become a gentleman of great expectations in London where he befriends Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness) who tells him that Miss Havisham’s life is dedicated to revenge against men because she was jilted at the altar and Estella was brought up likewise. They are reunited when Pip is 21 and he visits Miss Havisham after getting his living stipend of £500 a year and he finds that Estella (Valerie Hobson) is engaged to a man she doesn’t love. Pip is visited by Magwitch who reveals he was his benefactor and that Miss Havisham was using him. He confronts her and she realises the great harm she has done and as Pip is leaving a terrible accident occurs. Magwitch should not be on the territory and is commiting a felony and Pip undertakes to help him escape England … I want to be a gentleman on her account. Director David Lean recalled a perfectly condensed theatre adaptation of the Dickens novel and wrote the screenplay with producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame and Kay Walsh. From its magnificent opening sequence on the marshes (shot by Robert Krasker) and the atmosphere conjured by the decaying mansion housing Miss Havisham, this is a film of such dazzling detail and character, brilliant playing and staging and flawless pacing, as to merit the description perfect. Lean came of age as a director and the cinematography by Guy Green and the soaring score by Walter Goehr pick out, express and complement the heart of the drama. It never dodges the little social critiques (Mills’ reaction to the public hangings) or the touches of humour (Pip popping Pocket in the jaw; his silly fashionable get up) nor the ideas of snobbery, stupidity, guilt or social injustice that characterise the text of the novel. The final scene, when Pip returns and throws light upon Estella is heartbreaking and delightful. A simply bewitching masterpiece. What larks!

Lonely are the Brave (1962)

Lonely Are the Brave

The more fences there are, the more he hates it. Roaming ranch hand John W. ‘Jack’ Burns (Kirk Douglas) feels out of place in the modern world. He visits his friend Paul Bondi’s loving wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands) and little son. He deliberately gets into a bar room fight with a one-armed Mexican (Paul Raisch) in order to be imprisoned alongside Paul (Michael Kane) who was arrested for helping illegal aliens and is serving a two-year term in the penitentiary. They decide to let him go but he punches one of them to get re-arrested and jailed. Jack tries to convince Paul to flee with him, but, as a family man, Paul has too much at stake and abandons the plan. Jack escapes after a beating from a sadistic Mexican police deputy Gutierrez (George Kennedy) and heads for the hills. An extensive manhunt breaks out, led by sympathetic Sheriff Johnson (Walter Matthau) who watches helpless as the decorated war vet sharpshooter takes on an Air Force helicopter in his attempt to make it over the border to Mexico … Our cowboy’s just shot down the Air Force. With a wonderful feel for landscape and animal life and juxtaposition of the natural world with the restrictive modernity of technocratic praxis, this beautiful looking monochrome production never seemed so resonant or relevant. Douglas’ sense of what’s right is perfectly communicated in this sympathetic Dalton Trumbo adaptation of environmentalist Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy.  Matthau’s is a more complex character than he first appears, making for a wonderfully exposed twist in the tale. Tautly directed by David Miller and told in four principal movements, this makes good bedfellows with The Misfits, another elegiac presentation of man versus nature. You’re worse than a woman

Force 10 From Navarone (1978)

Force 10 From Navarone

It’s being treated on a need to know basis and you don’t need to know. At the height of WW2 British commandos Major Keith Mallory (Robert Shaw) and demolition expert Sergeant Donovan ‘Dusty’ Miller (Edward Fox) are being sent behind enemy lines to eliminate a German spy known as ‘Nicolai’ aka Colonel von Ingorslebon who betrayed the original Navarone mission and is believed to have infiltrated a unit of Yugoslav partisans in the guise of ‘Captain Lescovar’ (Franco Nero). To get to the Balkans they are teamed up with a US sabotage unit led by Lieutenant Colonel Mike Barnsby (Harrison Ford) who steals a Lancaster bomber in Italy under fire from US military police and they are joined by US Army medic Captain Weaver (Carl Weathers).  They get shot down by the Luftwaffe and imprisoned by partisan Chetniks headed by Captain Drazak (Richard Kiel) posing as pro-Allied Forces who are actually Nazi collaborators on the ground. Mallory and Barnsby are assisted by Maritza Petrovic (Barbara Bach) and meet up with her father Colonel Petrovic (Alan Badel) and Mallory’s target – Lescovar but Petrovic assures them he’s the wrong man. The partisan camp is close to a hydroelectric dam crucial for the Germans and Barnsby reveals that Force 10’s job is to blow it up. They rescue Miller using Lescovar and Marko (Petar Buntic) but in the course of a gunfight Maritza is killed and the men have to get to the bridge with suspicions growing about Lescovar. Meanwhile, they are being pursued by Drazak … We can’t just stand here like ducks in a storm. The sequel to the stone cold classic The Guns of Navarone replaces Peck with Shaw and Niven with Fox and throws out more or less the whole of Alistair Maclean’s novel which he wrote originally as a screen treatment and when it was unmade he novelised it and it sold like hot cakes. Adapted by actor and playwright Robin Chapman with an uncredited on-set rewrite by George (Flashman) MacDonald Fraser (among four others, also uncredited) it’s directed in a fairly slapdash way by Bond veteran Guy Hamilton managing to extract much of the suspense and thrills from the story. However there are decent set pieces, some nice humour and a few good scenes with Fox who relishes the surprise at the end. Ford seems uncomfortable in the early part but comes into his own in scenes with Shaw who sadly died before the film was released. Watch out for Wolf Kahler in a small role. There’s no bridge in the world that can’t be blown. That’s what Force 10 was here to prove