Black Narcissus (1946)

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I told you it was no place to put a nunnery! There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated … A group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), are sent to a mountain in the Himalayas. The climate in the region is hostile and the nuns are housed in an odd old palace, home to the Sisters of St Faith and previously home to the concubines of the General in the area. They work to establish a school and a hospital, but slowly their focus shifts. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) falls for a government worker, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), and begins to question her vow of celibacy. As Sister Ruth obsesses over Mr. Dean, Sister Clodagh becomes immersed in her own memories of love back in Ireland while their conflicts are put into relief by the forbidden desire between The Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who is of entirely unsuitable caste.  Sister Ruth’s psychological problems devolve into violent madness … Rumer Godden’s story gets the high-velocity melodrama treatment in this extraordinary interpretation of her story about religion in a colonial outpost. Alfred Junge created the illusion of the exotic in Pinewood (and a Surrey garden) with Jack Cardiff’s magical cinematography enhancing the impression of lushness.  The Renaissance light and shadows highlight the growing atmosphere of hysteria. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted an astonishingly sensual portrait of women in hothouse seclusion, lured to their various fates by a man in their midst as they wrestle with issues of conscience, race, sex and vocation. It has not lost its power to bewitch and Byron’s performance is unforgettable.

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Pursued (1947)

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Came straight to this place just like I’d known the way. There was something in my life that ruined that house. That house was myself. It’s the 1880s. Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) is an orphan raised by a foster family in New Mexico who remains tormented by dreams of  the traumatic murder of his parents when he was a child. He is treated well by his foster mother, Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), and her daughter, Thor (Teresa Wright), but he and foster brother Adam (John Rodney) have a tense relationship. When Jeb is shot at while riding his horse, he blames Adam  but Mrs. Callum knows that in fact it’s another member of the Callum clan who is out to get him, her brother-in-law, Grant (Dean Jagger) out to avenge events of the past of which Jeb has only the most tenuous knowledge … This psychological revenge western is a film noir with Freudian aspects – obliterating the notion of family in a glassily emotional construction which has lots of weird nightmarish aftereffects to haunt the viewer making us feel like Mitchum’s sleepwalking protagonist. There is plenty to enjoy here beyond the immediacy of the character tensions – the stunning nocturnal landscapes (shot by James Wong Howe, edited by Christian Nyby), the oppressive interiors, the suspense of the revelations withheld until a crucial moment in the drama and Mitchum singing The Streets of Laredo in a score composed by Max Steiner Adapted by Niven Busch (Wright’s husband) from a story by Horace McCoy, this is one of the strangest and least logical films in that narrow sub-genre which lasted a few years after WW2.  It’s worth it for the contrasting performing styles of its fantastic stars engaged in this baroque clashing of generic components and the return of the repressed. Directed by Raoul Walsh. If that house was me what part of me was buried in those graves?

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

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Personally I prefer a girlfriend not to have a husband. An Irish-American seaman Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) becomes involved in a complex murder plot when he is hired by renowned criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan) to work on a yacht after rescuing the man’s wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth) from a disturbing attack in Central Park NYC. He soon finds himself implicated in the murder, despite his innocence. The film is best remembered for the climactic hall of mirrors scene with a shoot out amidst shards of shattering glass…. Orson Welles’ adaptation (with uncredited help from William Castle, Charles Lederer and Fletcher Markle) of a novel by Sherwood King was so confusing that Columbia boss Harry Cohn offered a reward to anyone who could make head or tail of it. Somebody please tell me what it’s about! But the plot of this murder mystery pastiche is hardly the point:  it’s a gorgeously shot tongue in cheek meditation on the games men and women play. Sometimes they wind up in murder. The narration is crucial. The hall of mirrors scene is justly famous. Shot by Charles Lawton (and Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker) with the yachting scenes done on Errol Flynn’s Zaca, this is the one where Hayworth’s fiery locks were shorn into a shockingly short blonde bob and Welles sports a cod Oirish accent presumably culled from his days at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Mad, strange and blacker than black, this is all about shadows and deception and imagery and set-pieces. Stunningly edited by Viola Lawrence. I never make my mind up about anything until it’s over and done with.

Moonrise (1948)

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Sure is remarkable how dying can make a saint of a man. Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) is the son of a murderer who was hanged for his crimes. Haunted by his father’s past already in his childhood, the young man is tormented by the young people of the small southern town in which he lives:  the man Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges) whom he crosses in adulthood was one of those children who taunted him about his father. Hawkins’ only friend is Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), a girl who is falling in love with him. When Hawkins kills Sykes in self-defence, he fears the same fate as his father. When the body is found and Sheriff Clem Otis (Allyn Joslyn) starts closing in, Danny becomes crazed. He jumps off a Ferris wheel at a funfair and nearly strangles  mute Billy Scripture (Harry Morgan) who found Hawkins’ pocket knife near the body. While hiding out in the swamps, Hawkins visits his Grandma (Ethel Barrymore) who tells him the truth about his father’s crime. Hawkins realizes he’s not tainted by bad blood’ and turns himself in … Theodore Strauss’ novel was adapted by Charles F. Haas and its melodramatic potential is mined by renowned Expressionist director Frank Borzage but the narrative falls far short of the genre’s demands. Clark is an odd sort of cove with a big child’s face yet we know from other outings he can do sharp and candid too. Much of the depth comes from Russell, who never fails to move us. Somehow there aren’t enough pieces to make this moody psychological study more than the sum of its parts even if it is clearly a link on the film chain between Sunrise and Night of the Hunter. Pity:  I waited many years to see this!

Possessed (1947)

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Beautiful woman. Intelligent. Frustrated. Frustrated like all the other women we see.  A woman (Joan Crawford) is found wandering around LA. She appears to be catatonic and when injected with a miracle drug by a psychiatrist is jolted into telling her story, relayed in a series of melodramatic flashbacks. She is Louise Howell, who previously worked as something of a psychiatric nurse to an invalided woman in the home of Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). She was in love with a neighbour across the lake, an engineer called David Sutton (Van Heflin) who dumps her because of her obsession with him and the idea of marrying him. When Mrs Graham drowns there is an inquest and the outcome is undetermined – did she commit suicide or did someone kill her? Louise is persuaded to remain at the DC home to look after the Graham children, a little boy called Wynn and Carol (Geraldine Brooks) who is at college. When Graham asks Louise to marry him she reluctantly agrees after a bruising encounter with David, who is doing some work for him. Then David falls for Carol and Louise starts hallucinating about doing harm to her … A fascinating portrait of a guilt-ridden woman who is steadily becoming unhinged which stands out in that group of late Forties psychological noirs in a drama that owes a lot structurally at least to Mildred Pierce.  Crawford is superb in a role which demands a lot of overwrought acting paired with more subtle intimations of the female experience and she’s matched very step of the way by Brooks as the stepdaughter who gets in the way. The story by Rita Weiman was adapted by Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall, and directed by Curtis Bernhardt who knew a thing or three about how to do a woman’s picture since he had just made the wonderful A Stolen Life with Bette Davis (and reportedly kept calling Crawford ‘Bette’). The sound effects add a marvellous frisson to proceedings and the glinting night light on the lake is something you won’t quickly forget. And Franz Waxman’s reworking of Schumann makes this so atmospheric. Quite the movie!

Marie Antoinette (2006)

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Sofia Coppola knows what it feels like for a girl. When the officials at Versailles gave her the very big keys to open up the palace and reimagine a little Austrian girl lost in the vicious and foreign French royal court working from Antonia Fraser’s biography, they probably didn’t picture this – a portrait of teenage decadence in the pastel palette of macaroons (magenta, citron, mint) scored to a New Romantic soundtrack as if she were making an Adam and the Ants video.  Kirsten Dunst is the kid sold to the gormless dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) in a strategic alliance organised by her mother the Empress (Marianne Faithfull). Her father in law the King Louis XV (Rip Torn) is like a Texan cowboy carrying on with Madame du Barry (Asia Argento). Her husband has no idea what to do in bed and she’s a giggly kid who spends her nights drinking and gambling with her girly friends and it takes a visit from her brother Emperor Josef (Danny Huston) to explain to the mechanically-minded prospective king about locks and holes, and a year later, finally, the marriage is consummated and a baby girl is born. Seven years of foreplay!  The life of conspicuous consumption, of colourful costumes and cookies and candy is swopped for something almost rural and natural at Le Petit Trianon where the young mother holds a different kind of court and succumbs to an affair with the Swedish Count Fersel (Jamie Dornan) and frolics with her little girl in the meadows. The mood alters and the cinematography (by Lance Acord) attains the backlit flared quality of a nature documentary:  this is impressionistic and expressionistic all at once, reliant on Dunst’s face and the overall vision of a writer/director in sympathetic tune with her tragic protagonist whose perception of the vicious society over which she holds sway dominates the narrative. The final quarter hour is the nightmare:  people are starving because the peasants are bearing the cost of the war in America, and propaganda and lies, dead children and the baying mob are at the door. This is a fabulist film about fashion and feeling and food and it gets into your head and your heart. If you don’t like it, you know what you can go eat. I’ver reviewed Fiona Handyside’s study of Coppola on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

Hue & Cry (1947)

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Harry Fowler is the kid who reads the adventures of Selwyn Pike in the pages of the Trump comic to his gang of Blood and Thunder Kids and becomes convinced that the strip is used as code by black marketeers. The police won’t believe him and he takes on the criminals himself, first visiting the sinister writer Alastair Sim and then working for grocer Nightingale (Jack Warner) who turns out to be central to the smuggling ring. After some false attempts to capture the criminals and stave off a department store robbery, and tying up Rhona (Valerie White) from the magazine, the scene is set for a standoff using Sim to engineer it in his story … Tremendous entertainment from writer TEB Clarke, with vivid performances from the kids running amok in the rubble-strewn bombed-out East End right after WW2. Ealing Comedy was really up and running in a film whose Expressionist leanings (courtesy of DoP Douglas Slocombe) remind one of Emil and the Detectives. Directed by Charles Crichton.

Moonlight (2016)

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What’s a faggot? This sensuous journey through three chapters of a black man’s life won the Academy Award for Best Picture and its experimental nature, its subject and its lack of narrative sense all make that a problematic and strange choice. It’s a fairytale without a happy ending – a story about gay sex that avoids showing it directly. Director Barry Jenkins, a Florida SU film graduate, adapted it from an unproduced and very visual play written for a  drama programme, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney which used several voices back and forth to tell a story of a gay boy in Liberty City, one of Miami’s projects. It wasn’t dramatised because it didn’t really work for the stage, structured with three different guys of different ages playing the same character in the course of a day. It was apparently very unclear. When Jenkins found it, he changed it and it now tells the story of Chiron, the son of a junkie single mom Paula (Naomie Harris, who is superb) at three different stages of his life in three separate stories. The first 37-minute chapter (Little) is about him as a young boy (played by the very striking Alex R. Hibbert) getting solace from visits with Juan (Mahershala Ali) a drugs dealer, and his girlfriend (Janelle Monae). Their father-son friendship is sundered when he realises Juan is selling his mom crack. As a teenager (Chiron) he’s a sullen withdrawn kid (now played by a very different looking Ashton Sanders) terrorised in high school, bullied daily for being gay and he takes a public beating directed by the nattily dreadlocked Terrel (Patrick Decile) but carried out by Kevin (Jaden Piner) who’s had sex with him on the beach.  He’s taken away by police. In the final forty-minute episode (Black) we’re introduced in Atlanta to a garish grill-wearing earring-bedecked drug dealer – and it’s him, now played by Trevante Rhodes. He looks like a powerful guy with a bodacious workout ethic but when he takes a call of apology from Kevin (Andre Holland), a decade after the violence, it starts him on a different path. He visits Paula in a drug rehab centre where she’s become institutionalized and she finally seems to comprehend what her lifestyle drove him to do. We follow him back to Miami to the restaurant where Kevin works as a short order cook following a spell in prison. It’s shot superbly but with the art-house touches of a student film – and the shots singling out the adult Kevin lead us to believe we are in black Warhol territory and something major is going to happen. (Do you really think that’s smoke?! Someone remembered Blow Job!)  He doesn’t know why Black is here – but the camera tells us as it sensually caresses Black’s face:  Black practically has an orgasm watching Kevin and the cinematography has us primed for mano-a-mano action. (The shots are separated by several minutes but the intent is clear.) But Kevin has a kid with a girl they knew at high school and he’s on probation after a spell in prison: Kevin is not gay. Their reunion over a few bottles of wine (Chiron doesn’t drink) makes us realise that Black is a hollowed-out man and his confession to Kevin, who introduced him to the phenomenon of physical love, is – eventually – deeply touching.”This is not you,” Kevin tells Black.  So nothing happens. With all those pretty boys! Talk about leading a person on! Naomie Harris is the acting heart of the film primarily because aside from a fine performance as the strung out mom, she appears in all three chapters which are otherwise quite disconnected and Little/Chiron/Black is basically mute. So much of the story’s emotion depends on the heightened expressivity of the actors in the final section and Rhodes and Holland are just breathtaking in their physicality. James Laxton’s camera just loves Rhodes (and Holland too, to be entirely fair…) Black actors often suffer visually because of the lighting issues with skin tone but here they used an Arri Alexa digital camera and worked on the colorising with great attention to detail to achieve a different kind of texture in each chapter. There is however a narrative disconnect between the three sections not helped by the totally different actors with Harris the only source of continuity. (Jenkins and McCraney grew up in neighbouring projects with junkie mothers so there is a hint of autobiography in the story.) And yet despite its major shortcomings it’s oddly memorable. Some readings of this suggest that it’s a story of a boy who finds support from his community. Golly. The community bullied him senseless for being gay and he became a sexy virginal shell of a man who puts people in fear for not buying his supply. This is all foreplay and no … well I told you already. All mouth and no trousers, as it were. Talk about a p***ktease.  Next year:  #OscarsNotRemotelyGayEnough. Watch this space!

La La Land (2016)

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I left this singing the songs and wiping tears from my eyes. Hardly a typical exit from a movie on a viciously cold winter’s day but confirmation that everything you’ve heard about this is true:  it’s absolutely, unexpectedly wonderful. The opening is casually breathtaking, a pass-it-along song among disenchanted motorists stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway in LA, singing and dancing as far as the eye can see in an utterly joyous spectacle. Ryan Gosling is playing and re-playing a piano sequence on the tape deck of his vintage car while Emma Stone is in the car in front, talking on the phone and looking at a scene for an audition. She doesn’t see the traffic move along, he overtakes, glares at her and she gives him the finger. This meet cute is in three parts and the second is at a club where he gets fired for playing his preferred jazz tunes;  then a pool party where he’s playing in an 80s covers band and she requests I Ran. He invites her to see Rebel Without a Cause (my favourite movie!) at The Rialto and then the romance begins in earnest, under the stars at the Griffith Observatory, over the course of the seasons, with everything colour coded, in tribute perhaps to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but with liberal references to a slew of other musicals that have soundtracked our lives. Everything is perfectly judged as they move in together, she attends hilariously awful auditions, he has to slowly forego his dream of a jazz club and must earn his crust playing with John Legend (I know), just as he’s persuaded her to love the musical form she associates with Kenny G (exactly). He explains to her what jazz is:  Conflict and Compromise. And that’s how the story works. There is wit and smarts to spare, not just movie references, since the score by Justin Hurwitz is its own animal and the free jazz improv daubs this Damien Chazelle work with its own singular mojo. The narrative combines the integrated musical, the backstage musical and straightforward musical drama in a discursive work which posits settling against success, love against loss, against a bedrock of millennial failures and wannabes – baristas, waiters and jobless performers, living in an LA rarely seen on screen with its rackety streets, vintage accoutrements, nouveau restaurants and old style clubs, not to mention the Warners’ lot. This is just brilliant filmmaking, with an audacious ending and fantastically good performances by the leads who are terrific given their deliberately limited dancing and singing abilities. Gosling has improved so much (wasn’t The Nice Guys the making of him?); and Stone gives a gracious, complex, fully rounded empathy to a role that beautifully complements his sardonic but passionate dude. A widescreen valentine to Hollywood, music, movies, and La-La-Land, that destination for dreamers everywhere. Stunning.

A Place of One’s Own (1945)

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An old house in the country. Creaking boards. Flickering lights. Things that go bump in the night…  I’m there. This Gothic melodrama from Gainsborough originated in a 1942 novel by Osbert Sitwell and was adapted by Brock Williams to fit the mode so popular in the wartime period. James Mason was a huge star and insisted on playing the retired husband to Barbara Mullen, both of them wearing makeup to dramatically age for the parts. Directed by Bernard Knowles, Mason put much of the film’s disappointing end result down to their miscasting (blame his pliant father in law, the studio boss) and Knowles’ infatuation with Citizen Kane and those uninterrupted long shots without the redeeming features of a brilliant script or cast. However the haunting, the love story between doctor Dennis Price and young Margaret Lockwood, the couple’s companion who is possessed by a girl murdered 40 years earlier, and the sustained eerieness, remain  quite cogent and provide fiercely atmospheric chills just in time for Christmas. With Dulcie Gray, Moore Marriott and Ernest Thesiger in the ensemble for a production which makes excellent use of Chopin, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Gungl, all arranged by Hubert Bath.