Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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Even these days it isn’t as easy to go crazy as you might think. Divorced Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his smalltown practice in California after being away for a couple of weeks at a medical conference. Seems like half the population has been complaining of a mysterious feeling and then not returning, claiming to be better. And the other half says family members aren’t themselves – they’re impostors, lacking nothing except emotion. When his ex Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) returns from England after her own failed marriage they visit mystery writer Jack Bellicec (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) because his double is lying on the billiards table and frankly it freaks them out. Becky’s father is a little strange too and as for the local psychiatrist…. Soon it appears the whole town is being taken over by alien seed pods now being actively cultivated to make everyone the same. Whether you take this as ‘straight’ sci fi or horror (as if that were ever a thing), a political allegory (it works for  communism or fascism) or a warning about the homogeneity and groupthink of Fifties culture or even a comment on the brainwashing techniques used during the Korean War, this is brilliant cinema. From the sly innuendo of McCarthy getting back together with his ex, to the satirical thrusts at a humdrum life, this hasn’t aged a day. The scene when Teddy sees Jack’s double open his eyes while Jack is asleep is really thrilling. And as for the pods throbbing in the greenhouse! Adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from sci fi legend Jack Finney’s Colliers serial (later a novel) it was directed by Don Siegel. Whit Bisssell is the Dr in the concluding scenes and Sam Peckinpah plays Charlie the meter reader – he was director Siegel’s dialogue coach on this and four other of his Fifties films. The prologue and epilogue were added because the studio got cold feet over the pessimistic content –  but you will never forget the sight of McCarthy shouting at the trucks on the highway, and this was its original ending. Nevertheless, this is extraordinary, urgent and fiercely exciting, simply one of the best films ever made.

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My Cousin Rachel (2017)

 

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Daphne du Maurier’s novels have never really gone out of fashion, certainly not Rebecca, but this nineteenth century-set variation on gaslighting and Gothic has not been a favourite. Already adapted in 1952 starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton, it gets a run through in a new British version written and directed by Roger Michell. Sam Claflin is Philip the devoted cousin of Ambrose Ashley whose illness drives him to the sun and Italy where he falls for the half-Italian Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and his letters home indicate that she means him ill. When Philip goes to Italy he discovers his cousin is dead, Rachel has vanished and the house is empty with only a man called Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) to suggest what might have happened. Rachel then materialises at Ambrose’s estate in England where Philip is running the show. He wants to kill her and avenge this monster for his cousin’s supposed murder…. but she is stunningly beautiful and she bewitches first his dogs, then him. His godfather Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) warns him off her and his daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger) who is Philip’s presumed future wife also sees that he is enchanted by her. His own doltish undeveloped sexuality means he is wholly taken in by her – and then means to have her, at whatever cost. She prepares tisanes for him that seem designed to poison him but he rushes into a financial settlement upon his coming of age despite evidence that she is sending vast sums of money abroad: a marriage would seem to be the solution to his carnal needs and her avarice. The combination of two attractive players who nonetheless appear to be in parallel universes doesn’t help this interesting interpretation of toxic relationships and male paranoia that wraps around a mystery that isn’t particularly puzzling:  she is after her late husband’s money. The shock of what Rachel does after a bout of al fresco sex in a bluebell wood is one of the several juxtapositions that reminds one that this is a very modern take on a tale that is old as the hills:  marriages are never equal and relationships based on revenge are never going to end well.

Valerie (1957)

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The opportunity to see La Ekberg act opposite then husband Anthony Steel is irresistible. This post-Civil War western noir, directed by Gerd Oswald, is an interesting proposition, maritally speaking:  she’s a real femme fatale, a settler who’s interested in money and sex, keen to pursue an affair, first with her brother in law (Peter Walker) and then a local priest (Steel) who intervenes to save her marriage, above and beyond any concern for her Union soldier husband turned cattle farmer Sterling Hayden. When she becomes pregnant it’s obvious it isn’t her husband’s and she initially refuses to give evidence in the case against him for the tragic death of her parents. Mostly taking place in flashbacks and then bringing the story up to date in the courtroom (and hospital bed) with their conflicting accounts of a marriage gone very badly wrong. There are three accounts of the murders:  whose is right?  Written by Emmet Murphy and Laurence Heath aka Leonard Heiderman, this is a dramatically fascinating if not totally satisfying piece of work (like a lot of Oswald’s films) with a chance to see two quite antithetical performers – Hayden and Ekberg – demonstrating their very different acting styles in this morally involving story a la Rashomon. Ekberg would reunite with Oswald for Screaming Mimi a couple of years later.

Tarka the Otter (1979)

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Henry Williamson resisted Walt Disney for years and eventually succumbed to having his nature classic adapted by wildlife documentary maker David Cobham when he was persuaded by his son Harry, a musician. Narrated by Peter Ustinov from a script co-written by Gerald Durrell we are presented with the life cycle of an otter:  from his birth, through the death of his father, separation from his mother, the gruesome death of his sibling in a trap, mating with White Tip who is the mother of his pups, to an epic conclusion against the otter hound bent on his death. We see Tarka through the seasons and experience the world from his perspective, a kind of anthropomorphism that Williamson resisted. As my own little Tarka (named after this wonderful hero) slept on the couch throughout, I wept.

The Lawless Breed (1953)

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I love you the way you are. The way you really are. Legend has it that gunslinger, card sharp and outlaw John Wesley Hardin once shot a man because he was snoring. In this Universal-Technicolor version of a story he wrote about himself – his real life, as it were – we get the fast-moving, adventurous western that veteran director Raoul Walsh favoured, with a luminous performance by Rock Hudson in the role that made him a star. It starts with a beautiful framing device:  freed after 16 years from a prison sentence, the aged Hardin (and Hudson looks just like he would twenty years later in MacMillan and Wife!) leaves those portals and the first beings he touches in many years are a donkey and a dog. He has us at hello. Then he walks into a print shop and hands over a manuscript – his autobiography. It’s a great opening. Then we relive his life from his point of view in one long flashback:  as a young man he’s whupped by his strict preacher father (John McIntire) and launched into a life of crime following a card game. “It was self-defence,” becomes his mantra. He’s followed through Texas by Union soldiers, takes refuge with his sympathetic uncle (also played by McIntire), continues his relationship with the most beautiful girl in the State, Jane (Mary Castle) and eventually takes refuge with the saloon girl who understands him, Rosie (Julie aka Julia Adams). It’s a fatalistic tale which became a Bob Dylan song but this being Hollywood we don’t see the sordid ending that actually befell the man and Hudson imbues his character with wonderful gentleness.  When he returns home to save his grown son (Race Gentry) from his destiny the reason for writing his memoirs becomes clarified. Great, rousing tale, brilliantly handled by Walsh with his usual terrific staging and pace and doesn’t it look beautiful, like all movies should. Very loosely adapted from Hardin’s book by the great (and blacklisted) screenwriter Bernard Gordon. Never mind the facts – print the legend!

Julieta (2016)

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The abject maternal has long been a strong component of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s oeuvre and in this striking adaptation of three Alice Munro stories from Runaway he plunders the deep emotional issues that carry through the generations. On a Madrid street widowed Julieta (Emma Suarez) runs into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) who used to be her daughter’s best friend. Bea tells her she met Antia in Switzerland where she’s married with three children.  Julieta enters a spiral of despair – she hasn’t seen Antia since she went on a spiritual retreat 12 years earlier and she now abandons lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) on the eve of their departure for Portugal. She returns to the apartment she lived in with Antia when the girl was an adolescent and hopes to hear from her, the birthday postcards having long ceased. We are transported back to the 1980s when on a snowy train journey to a school in Andalucia Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) resisted the advances of an older man who then committed suicide and she had a one-night stand with Xoan (Daniel Grao). She turns up at his house months later and his housekeeper Marian (the heroically odd Rossy de Palma) tells her his wife has died and he’s spending the night with Ava (Inma Cuesta). Julieta and Xoan resume their sexual relationship and she tells Ava she’s pregnant and is advised to tell Xoan. And so she settles into a seaside lifestyle with him as he fishes and she returns with her young child to visit her parents’ home where her mother is bedridden and her father is carrying on with the help. Years go by and she wants to return to teaching Greek literature, which has its echoes in the storytelling here. The housekeeper hates her and keeps her informed of Xoan’s onoing trysts with Ava;  her daughter is away at camp;  she and Xoan fight and he goes out fishing on a stormy day and doesn’t return alive. This triggers the relationship between Antia and Bea at summer camp which evolves into Lesbianism albeit we only hear about this development latterly, when Bea tells Julieta that once it become an inferno she couldn’t take it any more and Antia departed for the spiritual retreat where she became something of a fanatic.  Julieta’s guilt over the old man’s death, her husband’s suicidal fishing trip and her daughter’s disappearance and estrangement lead her to stop caring for herself – and Lorenzo returns as she allows hope to triumph over miserable experience. There are moments here that recall Old Hollywood and not merely because of the Gothic tributes, the secrets and deceptions and illicit sexual liaisons. The colour coding, with the wonderfully expressive use of red, reminds one that Almodovar continues to be a masterful filmmaker even when not utterly committed to the material;  and if it’s not as passionate as some of his earlier female dramas, it’s held together by an overwhelming depiction of guilt and grief and the sheer unfathomability of relationships, familial and otherwise. Suarez and Ugarte are extremely convincing playing the different phases of Julieta’s experiences – how odd it might have been in its original proposed version, with Meryl Streep in the leading role, at both 25 and 50, and filming in English. I might still prefer his early funny ones but a little Almodovar is better than none at all.

Stars in My Crown (1950)

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– Good story. – Don’t rush me. A prime example of Americana, based on Joe David Brown’s novel, Joel McCrea is the preacher determined to bring God to the settlement of Walesburg after the Civil War. He has to take the villagers seriously – at gunpoint, to bring them round. In this episodic narrative told by his adopted nephew Dean Stockwell as an adult (voiced by Marshall Thompson) there is a low key romance with church organist Ellen Drew; the arrival of typhoid fever which threatens not just lives but the respect between him and  young doctor James Mitchell;  McCrea’s struggle when he refuses to accept the school well is the cause of the outbreak; and the repeated threats to black farmer Famous (Juano Hernandez) prove this is far from twee.  Indeed when the KKK bring a burning cross to the patch that he has made home you realise this is a lot more than a story of tough love. McCrea is a solid leading man and he is excellent here as a man whose faith is truly tested.There’s really good work from Alan Hale as the Swedish father of five who never goes to church but is always ready to lend a helping hand and James Arness and Amanda Blake feature years before Gunsmoke. This is far from your average western, a keen mix of humour, commentary and drama. Brown adapted his novel but it was the work of the screenwriter Margaret Fitts that’s interesting. She did several screen adaptations and is one of those women who did such good writing for the western genre, including adapting her own novel, The King and Four Queens, which became the Clark Gable movie. This was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a man many consider in the realm of auteur.

LIFE (2015)

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Luke Davies’ screenplay centring on the circumstances behind the unforgettable LIFE photo essay about James Dean in an issue from March 1955 is uncertain about who the story’s protagonist is:   the most exciting actor most of us have ever seen, as incarnated by Dane DeHaan, or photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson)? Peculiarly it is Stock who comes across as pathological, unhappy and desperate whereas Dean seems a decent sort being screwed around by Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley) who knows he’s on to something great but wants to control this rebel from bad PR. Stock supposedly met Dean at a party at Nick Ray’s when he was casting Rebel Without a Cause and the distractions are looking at an actress who looks nothing like Natalie Wood and an epicene man who only bares a slight resemblance to Ray, along with the overriding story arc of Stock’s failed teenage marriage and his unwillingness to spend time with a very young son. Dean’s relationship with Pier Angeli is artfully used to construct the parameters of his Hollywood life;  while the trip the two men make back to Indiana before the premiere of East of Eden which commences in NYC’s Times Square is of course the setting for one of most people’s favourite poster, latterly called The Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The real story here is about the relationship between a photographer and his subject, whom he virtually stalked for the story, perhaps sensing something in Dean that Dean did not yet suspect was within himself. It’s nicely put together and shot, as you would expect from Anton Corbijn, a man who knows something about the craft behind creating iconic images – his rock career is probably the most notable of any photographer/video director of the last thirty years. But somehow even De Haan’s uncanny interpretation is not the favoured performance here and the ghastly Pattinson gets equal screen time in some sort of deluded payoff to the director’s former job. I don’t get it. How’d that happen?! There seems to be some kind of queer subtext that isn’t quite brought to the surface – despite the rumours about Dean, it’s Stock who appears to be unhealthily obsessive and projecting something that isn’t really there.  It makes you wonder about all those people who made money off their Jimmy stories when he was no longer around. Oh well, better to be talked about … than not. An opportunity mostly missed, sadly.

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The Missouri Breaks (1976)

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Nicholson and Brando. A legendary pairing. Nicholson is cattle rustler Tom Logan, whose friend has been hanged by David Braxton (John McLiam) so he decides to avenge his death by buying land next to Braxton and he and his gang start stealing his horses. Braxton hires bounty hunter Robert E. Lee Clayton (Brando) to deal with them. Clayton is, to say the least, an eccentric but an efficient and ruthless killer too … Nicholson arrived on the $8 million set to discover that his role had been minimized in his absence, due to Brando’s influencing of director Arthur Penn.  ‘Poor Nicholson was stuck in the center of it all,  cranking the damned thing out,’ Brando said, ‘while I whipped in and out of scenes like greased lightning.’ He also kills while wearing a dress. He dreamed up a handmade weapon for his character, a cross between a harpoon and a mace. It should have been great but it’s disjointed and thematically incoherent. Nicholson thought it could have been saved in the editing, but his opinion was disregarded.  He didn’t like the film, and he told director Penn so.  Penn was offended and stopped speaking to him. Written by Thomas McGuane, Robert Towne was brought in to try and fix the script (like he’d done for Penn and Beatty on Bonnie and Clyde) but it is unclear as to what his contribution might have been. A Seventies oddity with an affecting performance from Brando which in hindsight we might see as an expression of a dying genre.

 

The Southerner (1945)

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French master Jean Renoir’s American work may not be as lauded as his films in his native France, but this is a tremendously well told adaptation of a novel by George Sessions Perry, Hold Autumn in Your Hand,  not surprisingly when you see who wrote the screenplay:  Nunnally Johnson, Hugo Butler, William Faulkner and Renoir himself. Not too dusty. It’s the tale of the Tuckers, cotton pickers in Texas. Sam (Zachary Scott) and Nona (Betty Field), their kids Jot and Daisy, and his mother (Beulah Bondi) decide to start up their own farm with nothing but a mule and some seed. They need access to water so the neighbour Devers (J. Carrol Naish) reluctantly permits access to his own supply and after a freezing winter in which their son becomes seriously ill,  the feud escalates and involves Devers’ half-wit nephew. Devers finds Sam trying to find a huge catfish that he’s been after for years and they find a way to solve their differences. The general store owner (Percy Kilbride – Pa Kettle!) who’s refused the family credit now wants to marry Sam’s mother but a terrible storm and resultant flooding ruins their entire plot and they have to start over. This is a really great story, so well told, limpidly shot by Lucien Andriot in the San Joaquin Valley and beautifully characterised and performed by a splendid cast – it cannot be fairly described. It shouldn’t be overlooked in Renoir’s oeuvre because even if it’s not as iconic a cinematic text as The Grapes of Wrath it’s an economic and beautifully framed and shot slice of Americana and it was the director’s own favourite of his American films. Scott has never been better cast and Field is simply luminous. Bondi is … herself! Really affecting filmmaking.