Passport to China (1960)

Aka Visit to Canton. The city lives on whispers – all of spies. Former US pilot Don Benton (Richard Basehart) is running a profitable tour company out of Hong Kong when he is persuaded to perform a dangerous undercover mission following a plane crash in Formosa involving his good friend Jimmy (Burt Kwouk). He travels to Canton to rescue lovely American Lola Sanchez (Lila Gastoni) but following some dealings with casino operator Ivano Kong (Eric Pohlmann) she asks him to transport refugees out of Red China … I’ve never been so scared in my life. Suave Basehart puts his genial persona to good work in this unusual entry from Hammer – because it’s so conventional even as Cold War thrillers go. The screenplay by Gordon Wellesley has some nice quips and action and it’s quite a surprise to see Athene Seyler playing Mao Tai Tai, grandmother to Kwouk, not to mention Bernard Cribbins as a junior wheeler dealer type.  The sophomore outing from director Michael Carreras, such a huge figure at the studio, has some exotic backdrops to enhance a studio-bound production. A wise man never arrives too early – or too late

Octopussy (1983)

Octopussy

Englishman. Likes eggs, preferably Fabergé. Likes dice, preferably fully loaded. British MI6 agent 009 drops off a fake Fabergé jewelled egg at the British embassy in East Berlin and is later killed at Octopussy’s travelling circus. Suspicions mount when the assistant manager of the circus who happens to be exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), outbids 007 James Bond (Roger Moore) for the real Fabergé piece at Sotheby’s. Bond follows Kamal to India where Bond thwarts several ingenious attacks, kidnapping by Kamal and encounters Kamal’s ally, the anti-heroine of the title (Maud Adams), an international smuggler who runs the circus as a cover for her illegal operations. It seems that Orlov (Steven Berkoff), a decidedly rank and belligerent Russian general is planning to raise enough money with the fake Fabergés to detonate a nuclear bomb in Europe and then defeat NATO forces once and for all in conventional warfare… The West is decadent and divided. The thirteenth in the series and Moore’s seventh appearance as the sexy superspy as well as the first to feature Robert Brown as M following Bernard Lee’s recent death, this is derived from a number of Ian Fleming’s stories: the title is from his 1966 short story collection and there is a scene inspired by another story, The Property of a Lady (included in 1967 and later editions of Octopussy and The Living Daylights), as well as one brief bit of characterisation lifted from Moonraker; while the events of the titular story Octopussy form a part of the title character’s background which she relates herself; but the bulk of the narrative is original, the screenplay credited to novelist George MacDonald Fraser who suggested that it be set in India, series regular Richard Maibaum & producer Michael G. Wilson. In fact Moore had intended retiring from the role but was deemed the most profitable actor for the part when the rival production Never Say Never Again with former Bond Sean Connery was up and running at the same time: James Brolin was apparently due to take over from Moore – can you imagine! The perception of this as the weakest of Moore’s particular Bond films doesn’t hold up despite its apparently problematic heroine (her MO is a bit slight) but Bond’s seduction of a woman who is his equal is particularly well observed –  in fact they both have a death to avenge. The narrative is especially prescient – to have a nuclear bomb planned for Germany, at the time the centre of Cold War fears (see the TV show Deutschland 83 for a dramatic interpretation of the time), feels utterly relevant and Moore is given great space for both humour and action, pitched at a perfect balance here and decidedly lacking in camp. It’s probably the best written of all his Bond iterations. The chases (and there are quite a few) are brilliantly mounted, including trains, planes automobiles and elephants and there’s a great homage to The Most Dangerous Game when our man is the jungle prey. The climactic aerial stunts are some of the most astonishing you’ll ever see – utterly thrilling. Legendary tennis player Vijay Amritraj has a great supporting role as Bond’s MI6 ally in India and even Q (Desmond Llewelyn) gets in on the action with a fabulous hot air balloon! Jourdan makes for a suitably insidious villain and Berkoff (almost!) has a blast as the nutty military man who makes the KGB’s Gogol (Walter Gotell) look sane. There is a terrific performance by Kristina Wayborn as Kamal’s stunning henchwoman Magda – her exit from a night with Bond has to be seen! Adams had of course appeared opposite Moore in previous Bond outing The Man With the Golden Gun as Scaramanga’s doomed mistress and she gets to flex more muscles here albeit her entrance is not until the film’s second half. Watch out for former Pan’s People dancer Cherry Gillespie as Midge, one of Octopussy’s bodyguards.  It’s wonderfully paced, with each sequence superseding the action of the previous one and the flavourful locations are beautifully captured by Alan Hume’s cinematography: this has undergone a pristine restoration. Among the very best Bonds, an episode whose influence can clearly be seen in both the Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible franchises.  The theme song, All Time High is written by John Barry and Tim Rice and performed by Rita Coolidge. Directed by John Glen, the second of his five outings at the helm. Perfect escapism. Mr Bond is indeed a very rare breed, soon to be made extinct

 

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

The Hand of Night (1968)

The Hand of Night

Aka Beast of Morocco. I’m a harbinger of death and desolation. Paul Carver (William Sylvester) is a guilty widower grieving the deaths of his wife and children in a car accident when he takes an unusual and hazardous job accompanying archaeologist Otto Gunther (Edward Underdown) and his assistant Chantal (Diane Clare) on a North African tomb-hunting expedition. They learn of a legend involving a female Moorish vampire who haunts the tomb taking her revenge against men. Before long, Paul has succumbed to the seductive wiles of a mysterious Moroccan woman Marisa (Alizia Gur) whom he first encounters at Gunther’s party but who nobody else apparently saw. She begins to bend him to her will and he follows Omar (Terence de Marney) around the city looking for her, finding her in an apparently abandoned palace where her sirens dance for him. It is left to Chantal to come to his rescue, but her attempts place her in even greater jeopardy; ultimately it is Paul who has to break free of Marisa’s evil clutches and destroy her before she destroys him… I know that a man can misunderstand himself but surely not forever. Good looking cult item shot on location in Morocco in 1966 best seen as a moody piece of low budget work with an intermittently interesting score by Joan Shakespeare, blessed with omens and portents and second sight and a very alluring vampire. Strange to say the most appealing aspects are the rather realistic approach, blending the touristic filming style with local storytelling, Dracula, mummy myths, a vanishing castle and the opportunity to see stalwarts of British Bs in a very different setting. It fits in more with the European vampire films of the era than anything being made in the UK. It was British-Hungarian Clare’s last film and she’s very good indeed;  fans of the genre remember her for Witchcraft and The Plague of the Zombies. The stunningly beautiful Gur, who was a former Miss Israel, had appeared in From Russia With Love and after this she would only record five more screen credits, all for TV. (Weirdly, as the daughter of German Jewish emigrants who fled Nazi Germany, she married two men boasting the initials SS.) Sylvester would go on to greater things with 2001: A Space Odyssey. An Associated British-Pathé production written by Bruce (Timeslip) Stewart and directed by Frederic Goode who had made another archaeology-themed film in North Africa a few years earlier, Valley of the Kings. For fans of such esoterica it’s interesting to compare with The Velvet Vampire, made a few years later. You seek the road into the dark

 

Affair in Trinidad (1952)

Affair in Trinidad

It’s dangerous to presume with the Trinidad lady. Post-war Trinidad and Tobago, a territory under British control. When nightclub performer Chris Emery (Rita Hayworth) discovers that her husband Neil has died in suspicious circumstances, initially thought to be suicide, she resolves to help the local police Inspector Smythe (Torin Thatcher) and Anderson (Howard Wendell) find his killer. Soon she is caught between two men, her late husband’s suave foreign friend Max Fabian (Alexander Scourby), who has designs on her; and her brother-in-law, Steve Emory (Glenn Ford), who arrives on the island and begins his own investigation into his sibling’s death since he cannot take the suicide verdict remotely seriously due to a letter his brother sent him. As evidence begins to point to Max as the killer and her feelings for Steve grow, Chris finds herself in an increasingly dangerous situation with a political plot that threatens the stability of everyone around her, even her homeland of the United States The worst tortures are the ones we invent for ourselves. Reuniting the stars of that perverse noir Gilda, this essays a variation on the theme but this time the S&M is ingrained in the political subtext of Nazis planning an attack on an unsuspecting US from the British-controlled Caribbean. Hayworth was making her comeback after four years away from the screen gadding about with the jet set and getting married and what have you. She is at her most lustrous and dazzling, singing, dancing to calypso and generally slinking around being sexily begowned by Jean Louis; while Ford is befuddled and anxious, as befits the role of the concerned brother-in-law investigating murderous island-hopping foreigners. The script by Oscar Saul and James Gunn is just ringing with memorable lines decently distributed through a wonderfully sinister ensemble nourishing a rich atmosphere. Valerie Bettis snarls vixen-like among the Germans she accompanies; and even Juanita Moore as housemaid Dominique gets her moments – This one is a man. The other is a shadow of him.  The gallows humour doesn’t end there as tensions escalate and intentions are clarified – Even at the risk of dislocating your personality, try to be calm. You’ll recognise the references – Notorious, Casablanca, even All About Eve. Fabulous stuff, nimbly directed by Vincent Sherman and produced by co-writer Virginia Van Upp who devised the story with Bernie Giler. I am just a pawn, a weak man. I am very easily dominated!

The Sheltering Sky (1990)

The Sheltering Sky

We’re not tourists. We’re travellers. In the late Forties American expats Port Moresby (John Malkovich) and his wife Kit (Debra Winger) are trying to inject their tired marriage with adventure in North Africa. They are accompanied by their friend George Tunner (Campbell Scott) and fall in with some loathsome English expats, the Lyles, a mother (Jill Bennett) and her son Eric (Timothy Spall). When the city hems them in they journey through the desert. Port sleeps with a prostitute while George starts an affair with Kit and now there is a complicated love triangle unfurling in difficult circumstances because Port becomes ill … No matter what’s wrong between us there can never be anyone else. Bernardo Bertolucci’s romantic interpretation of Paul Bowles’ debut novel about alienation plugs into its erotic and dramatic intensity and wisely avoids any attempt at expressing its overwhelming interiority, with astonishing performances by the leads (particularly Winger), mesmerising cinematography of the sweeping desert landscapes by Vittorio Storaro and an utterly tragic dénouement to this unconventional marriage of fine minds and wild desires that feels utterly confrontational. It’s a staggeringly beautiful work that is as decorative as it is despairing, resonant, mystifying and depressing by turn. It’s a plot that promises melodrama but is more consequential in the symbolic realm yet it also boasts a harsh lesson – that white people will always be strangers in this strange land of seductive images and grasping locals with their own motives. The haunting score accompanying this epic tale of love and death is composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Richard Horowitz. Written by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe. Bowles hated it – and he’s in it. My only plan is I have no plan

Lord Jim (1965)

Lord Jim

What storm can fully reveal the heart of a man? Midshipman Jim Burke (Peter O’Toole) becomes second in command of a British merchant navy ship in Asia but is stripped of his responsibilities when he abandons ship with three other crew who disappear, leaving the passengers to drown.However the Patma was salvaged by a French vessel. Disheartened and filled with self-loathing, Jim confesses in public, leading to his Captain Marlow’s (Jack Hawkins) suicide and he seeks to redeem his sins by going upriver and assisting natives in their uprising against the General (Eli Wallach)… The weapon is truth. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel by writer/director Richard Brooks, this perhaps contains flaws related to the project’s conscientious fidelity to its problematic source. Overlong and both burdened and made fascinating by its pithy philosophical dialogue, O’Toole is another cypher (like T.E. Lawrence) burning up the screen with his charisma but surrendering most of the best moments to a terrific ensemble cast. The psychology of his character remains rather impenetrable. There are exchanges dealing with cowardice, shame, bravery, heroism, the meaning of life itself and the reasons why people do what they do – and the consequences for others. There is guilt and there is sacrifice, the stuff of tragedy, in a film bursting with inner struggle, misunderstandings, romantic complications and the taint of violence. Shot by Freddie Young, who does for the jungle what he did for the deserts of the aforementioned Lawrence of Arabia. When ships changed to steam perhaps men changed too

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

Love is a Many Splendored Thing

Our gorgeous lie did not even last the night. Hong Kong 1949. American journalist Mark Elliott (William Holden) is covering the Chinese civil war. Undergoing a trial separation from his wife, he meets beautiful Dr. Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones), a widowed Eurasian physician originally from mainland China. As the pair fall in love, they encounter disapproval from both her family, his friends and Hong Kong society about their interracial romance … I have my work and an uncomplicated life. I don’t want to feel anything again… ever. This outrageously beautiful melodrama lingers long in the memory for its Widescreen Deluxe images, shot by the great Leon Shamroy, including two weeks on location in its Hong Kong setting; and its cast. Adapted by John Patrick from Suyin’s 1952 autobiographical novel it’s a pulsatingly lush romance, played to the hilt and given gravitas with its issues of race against a background of the war in China leading to a takeover by the Communist Party. The subject matter meant there was trouble getting it off the ground in those censorious days. The production was no less troubled, with the stars eventually coming to loathe each other. None of that matters because the performances sing in a carefully dramatised story that boasts some of the most romantic scenes in either of their careers. All those love letters, kissing on hilltops, swimming … it’s a spectacular and vivid epic, sad and tender. And was there ever a more impressive hunk of sexy mid-century masculinity than Holden?! There is a strong supporting cast including Torin Thatcher, Murray Matheson and Isobel Elsom, rounding out a snapshot of colonial life in those post-WW2 days. Ornamenting the gorgeous score by Alfred Newman is the title song by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, one of the great movie themes, and it’s sung by The Four Aces. It was an enormous hit, just like the film.  Patrick would write another Hong Kong-set romance starring Holden, The World of Suzie Wong. Directed by Henry King, who had a knack for making beautiful films, with second unit location work by Otto Lang, who is uncredited. Love is nature’s way of giving a reason to be living, The golden crown that makes a man a king

Island in the Sun (1957)

Island in the Sun

Santa Marta, an island in the West Indies. Hot-tempered plantation owner Maxwell Fleury (James Mason) is jealous of his wife Sylvia (Patricia Owens) whom he presumes is having an affair with retired war hero Hilary Carson (Michael Rennie). He envies his sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins) who is dating war hero (Stephen Boyd), at home to visit his father, Lord Tempelton (Ronald Squire), Governor of the island. Their mother (Diana Wynyard) and father Julian (Basil Sydney) are concealing family history from them. Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine) a member of the island’s richest family, becomes romantically involved with islander David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte) who is politically ambitious. Drugstore clerk Margot Seaton (Dorothy Dandridge) is having a relationship with Denis Archer (John Justin) the aide to the Governor. When Carson is murdered, police chief Colonel Whittingham (John Williams) investigates. Meanwhile Bradshaw (Hartley Power) an American journalist is looking into the background of the Fleury family and his scoop that their grandmother was part black may scupper Maxwell’s political hopes… Does it make any difference, having an aim in life? As Caribbean potboilers go, this melodrama of sex, race, class and politics takes some beating. Adapted by the wonderful writer Alfred Hayes from Alec Waugh’s 1955 novel, it was directed by Robert Rossen, a man most of the cast despised for his HUAC stance (after being punished for his silence about membership of the Communist Party the talented writer/director eventually named names and wouldn’t really get his career back on track until The Hustler). It’s a perfectly picturesque production with all the limitations of mid-century censorship and taste yet still conveys a flavoursome spectrum of ideas and plot with some highly suggestive scenes, Fontaine and Belafonte’s interracial kiss being highly controversial at the time. This end of Empire movie graphically illustrates the colonial issues then raging, offering a true insight into identity politics. Mason has a rather narrow range here but Dandridge shines. Shot primarily on Trinidad and Tobago and also on Barbados and Grenada with interiors done at EMI-MGM in England. Produced by Daryl F. Zanuck, Belafonte co-wrote the hit title song with Irving Burgie and it was featured on his album Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean. In the last analysis the great patriots were those who identified personal ambition with the welfare of their country

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