For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

For Whom the Bell Tolls

In our country, General, they say never blow a bridge until you come to it. During the Spanish Civil War, an American professor of Spanish and explosives expert, Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) allied with the Republicans finds romance with freedom fighting peasant Maria (Ingrid Bergman) during a desperate mission to blow up a strategically important bridge in the mountains while the Axis powers attempt to establish a base in Europe … Each of us must do this thing alone. Bergman got another Oscar nomination for her performance and Cooper displays his stoic masculinity in Dudley Nichols’ romantic (and lengthy) adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel. The protean quality of both stars is much in evidence here – Bergman is luminous as the Loyalist and Cooper is a perfect hero, strong, reliable and deeply felt. I’ve always loved you but I never saw you before. They make an awesome couple.  They don’t shoot you for being a Republican in America. However the adaptation isn’t as focused on action as it ought to be, the dialogue is occasionally too on the nose (explaining that Germany and Italy are using Spain against Russia) and overall this is not especially well staged, confined as it is to studio settings (imagine if they’d done this somewhere as lush as Northern Spain). Katina Paxou got the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award and she’s tremendous as the tough plain-speaking older woman Pilar in this story of betrayals and compromise – and, inevitably, sacrifice. With Akim Tamiroff, Arturo de Cordova, Vladimir Sokoloff and Joseph Calleia in a characterful ensemble, this doesn’t lack for interesting exchanges or tension which escalates as the moment descends. The original running time was trimmed from 168 minutes to 130 and then restored to 165. It’s too long but as a relic of classic screen performances and despite the issues it’s still one of the better Hemingway adaptations and simply must be seen. Directed by Sam Wood. Each of us must do this thing alone

Code Name: Emerald (1985)

Code Name Emerald

I was expecting Peter Lorre. Augustus Lang aka Emerald (Ed Harris) is a spy for the Allies working undercover in Nazi-Occupied Paris during World War II but the Nazis believe he’s their man. With his assistance they capture Wheeler (Eric Stoltz) an ‘Overlord’ thought to know the plans for D-Day. Lang is planted as his cell mate and their conversations are monitored by Gestapo officer Walter Hoffman (Horst Buchholz) who is constantly at odds with his SS colleague Ernst Ritter (Helmut Berger) but retains friendly relations with decent Jurgen Brausch (Max Von Sydow).  Outside the cell in everyday Paris, Lang is in contact with Claire Jouvet  (Cyrielle Clair) who is trying to help him engineer Wheeler’s escape. But Wheeler is weakening under threat of torture and Hoffman suspects there might be more than one spy in the wings … Averages aren’t everything. There’s such a thing as grace. A really good premise in a terrific screenplay by Ronald Bass from his novel is largely laid waste by miscasting and some underpowered directing. That makes a change! Harris is not expressive enough to elicit our sympathy as the hero of the piece and Stoltz is unconvincing and probably too young in his role; paradoxically it’s Buchholz who has the most interesting character to play – how often do we see Nazis in civvies in WW2 films? Von Sydow is good as a vitally placed German officer and Clair does very well as the woman at the centre of the romance/resistance storyline. While the tension isn’t strictly maintained, the magnificent score by John Addison goes a long way to giving this a sense of urgency that isn’t necessarily in the dénouement – the outcome of the war is at stake but you wouldn’t know it from the way this is staged. C’est la guerre. Directed by Jonathan Sanger for NBC in their first theatrical production. One of these Krauts is on our side. Problem is, I don’t which one it is

 

Veronika Voss (1982)

Veronika Voss

Aka Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss. Light and shadow; the two secrets of motion pictures. Munich 1955. Ageing Third Reich film star Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) who is rumoured to have slept with Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda Josef Goebbels, becomes a drug addict at the mercy of corrupt Lesbian neurologist Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer), who keeps her supplied with morphine, draining her of her money. Veronika attends at the clinic where Katz cohabits with her lover and a black American GI (Günther Kaufmann) who is also a drug dealer. After meeting impressionable sports writer Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) in a nightclub, Veronika begins to dream of a return to the silver screen. As the couple’s relationship escalates in intensity and Krohn sees the possibility of a story, Veronika begins seriously planning her return to the cinema – only to realise how debilitated she has become through her drug habit as things don’t go according to plan … Artists are different from ordinary people. They are wrapped up in themselves, or simply forgetful. The prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s penultimate film and one of his greatest, its predictive theme would have horrible resonance as he died just a few months after its release. Conceived as the third part of his economic trilogy including The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola, this reworking of or homage to Sunset Blvd., whose ideas it broadly limns, has many of his usual tropes and characters and even features his sometime lover Kaufmann who could also be seen in Maria Braun; while Krohn tells his fellow journalist girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess) of his experience and potential scoop but Veronika’s hoped-for return is not what he anticipates with a Billy Wilder-like figure despairing of her problem. Its message about life in 1950s Germany is told through the style of movies themselves without offering the kind of escapist narratives Veronika seems to have acted in during her heyday.  She’ll be your downfall. There’s nothing you can do about it. She’ll destroy you, because she’s a pitiful creature. Fassbinder was hugely influenced not just by Douglas Sirk but Carl Dreyer and this story is also inspired by the tragic life of gifted actress Sybille Schmitz, who performed in Vampyr.  She died in 1955 in a suicide apparently facilitated by a corrupt Lesbian doctor.  The unusually characterful Zech is tremendous in the role. She would later play the lead in Percy Adlon’s Alaska-set Salmonberries as well as having a long career in TV. She died in 2011. It’s an extraordinary looking film with all the possibilities of cinematography deployed by Xaver Schwarzenberger to achieve a classical Hollywood effect for a story that has no redemption, no gain, no safety, no love.  Fassbinder himself appears briefly at the beginning of the film, seated behind Zech in a cinema. This is where movie dreams become a country’s nightmare. All that lustrous whiteness dazzles the eye and covers so much. Screenplay by Fassbinder with regular collaborators Peter Märtesheimer and Pea Fröhlich.  Let me tell you, it was a joy for me that someone should take care of me without knowing I’m Veronika Voss, and how famous I am. I felt like a human being again. A human being!

Zelig (1983)

Zelig

All the themes of our culture were there. In this fictional documentary set during the 1920s and 1930s a non-descript American called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) achieves notoriety for his ability to look, act and sound like anyone he meets. He ingratiates himself with everyone from the lower echelons of society to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Pope becoming famous as The Changing Man. Even Hollywood comes calling and makes a film about him. His chameleon-like skill catches the eye of Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychiatrist who thinks Zelig is in need of serious cognitive analysis as someone who goes to extremes to make himself fit into society. Their relationship moves in a direction that’s not often covered in medical textbooks as she hypnotises him I’m certain it’s something he picked up from eating Mexican food. A formally and technically brilliant and absolutely hilarious spoof documentary that integrates real and manipulated newsreel footage with faked home movies, a film within a film, period photographs of the leads and interviews with contemporary personalities, real and imagined, from Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to ‘Eudora Fletcher’ (Ellen Garrison) in the present day. Even Bruno Bettelheim shows up to declare the subject the ultimate conformist. The sequence on the anti-semitism Zelig experiences as a child (his parents sided with the anti-semites, narrator Patrick Horgan informs us mournfully) is laugh out loud funny. Of course it has a payoff – in Nazi Germany. The editing alone is breathtaking, there is not a false moment and the music is superlative, forming a backdrop and a commentary as well as instilling in the audience a realistic feel for the time in which this is set. There are moments where you will not believe your eyes as Allen transforms into everyone he meets – regardless of race, shape or colour. An original and funny mockumentary that’s actually about the world we live in, an extreme response to childhood bullying and what we do to make ourselves fit in and where that could lead. You just told the truth and it sold papers – it never happened before!

 

Catch-22 (1970)

Catch 22.jpg

Help the bombardier. Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) an American pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II attempts to cope with the madness of armed conflict. Convinced that everyone is trying to murder him, he decides to try to become certified insane but that is merely proof that he’s fully competent. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian has to resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation... All great countries are destroyed, why not yours? Not being a fan of the rather repetitive and circular source novel aids one’s enjoyment of this adaptation by director Mike Nichols who was coasting on the stunning success of his first two movies (also adaptations), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, which was also adapted by Buck HenryThe critical reception for this resisted adulation instead focusing on a flawed construction which really goes back to Joseph Heller’s book and does not conform to the rules of a combat picture as well as contracting the action and removing and substituting characters. But aside from the overall absurdity which is literally cut in an act of stunning violence which shears through one character in shocking fashion, there is dialogue of the machine gun variety which you’d expect from a services satire and there are good jokes about communication, following orders, profiteering and stealing parachutes to sell silk on the black market.  There are interesting visual and auditory ways of conveying Yossarian’s inner life – in the first scene we can’t hear him over the noise of the bombings, because his superiors are literally deaf to what he’s saying, a useful metaphor. The impressionistic approach of Henry’s adaptation is one used consistently, preparing the audience for the culmination of the action in a surreal episode worthy of Fellini. I like it a lot, certainly more than the recent TV adaptation and the cast are just incredible:  Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen and Orson Welles among a large ensemble. Even novelist Philip Roth plays a doctor. It’s shot by David Watkin, edited by Sam O’Steen and the production is designed by Richard Sylbert. Where the hell’s my parachute?

Damascus Cover (2017)

 

Damascus Cover.png

When missions go bad, there’s only one rule – protect your partner.  Following the murder of his colleague in Damascus by Syrian Secret Police Chief Sarraj (Navid Negahban) Israeli agent Ari Ben-Sion aka Hans Hoffman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is deployed to Syria by his overseer Miki (John Hurt) to exfiltrate a spy and his family and runs into American photographer Kim (Olivia Thirlby) with whom he becomes involved before realising she is part of a much bigger plot and the real target of his mission is an entirely different individual in deep cover but hiding in plain sight … It’s a real maze. Adapted by director Daniel Zelik Berk and Samantha Newton from Howard Kaplan’s 1977 bestseller this is updated to 1989, the year of revolutions, so that the action happens in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall (although they’re not exactly celebrating Christmas here). The characterisation is undercooked and the storytelling is a little clunky – you feel that Hans/Ari should have figured out a lot quicker that something bigger is going on than his purported task. It’s the textural matters that are more interesting – the maze-like construction of a city where Jews are only permitted to leave their quarter one at a time, where streets lead you to dead ends like a rat; the depicting of the secret police under the original Assad; the post-war Nazis doing business in an Islamic haven (the role of Moslems in the Holocaust has yet to be dramatised); the issue of identity in a region where anti-semitism is writ large: when Ari enters Syria he is asked, Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine? He is already displaced in Israel after moving from Germany as a child and is suffering the bereavement any father would following the breakdown of his marriage in the wake of the death of his young son (although we don’t know how that happened, there are several shots of children at play as well as his haunting nightmares about the boy).  He doesn’t exhibit true emotion until he’s engaged with Kim who herself has issues with being distanced from her young son and who has a father whose actions for his Syrian overlords has resulted in his death.  She appears to be repaying a debt to the intelligence service, willingly or not. Berk is the former talent agent who introduced John Travolta to Quentin Tarantino for which we are all truly grateful and this has a slick look and a trim running time. It’s beautifully shot by Chloë Thomson.  Despite the welcome complexities in Ari and his mistakes, and the issue of Syria versus Israel, it doesn’t plumb the resonant depths of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the echo casting of John Hurt in the perfunctory but dramatically significant role of Miki has a sorrowfulness because it is that great actor’s final part. It is fitting therefore that he should have the last word in the film’s signing off, Goodbye my friend

Battle of the Bulge (1965)

Battle of the Bulge.jpg

I did not lose a war to die in the back seat of a car. At the end of 1944 American Lt. Col. Dan Kiley (Henry Fonda), a military intelligence whiz and former police officer, discovers that the Nazis are planning to attack Allied forces near Belgium. Certain that the exhausted enemy can’t muster much force, General Joe Grey (Robert Ryan) isn’t convinced by Kiley’s findings, and his men pay the price when the German tanks begin their offensive in the Ardennes. In the heat of this key World War II battle, Kiley must come up with a plan when it becomes clear that the Nazis are trying to steal fuel from the Allies, there are Germans disguised as American MPs diverting traffic from the new Western Front and an ambitious German Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw) who intends keeping the war going as long as possible no matter how many are sacrificed as he leads the Panzer spearhead of the German counterattack … Having been an inspector of police does not disqualify me from thinking. Written by (formerly blacklisted) Bernard Gordon, producer Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (with contributions by John Melson), this is proper WW2 entertainment about a huge episode that involved a million men and which I once had the temerity to describe to someone as an instance of poor project management on the part of Hitler and his cronies. I love me a good war movie, better still if there are tanks (my dream vehicle, particularly the camo models in Desert Storm. So sue me!) so this is perfect Easter (or Passover!) holiday fare. Criticised for not being 100% accurate and its Spanish locations being a poor imitation of the Ardennes setting, this has a lot going for it, not least the staging and the tremendous cast. There is detail by the yard – and the weather reports are crucial. The way that the strategy and tactics are exposed is a triumph of film storytelling. Shaw is sizzling as one of the nastiest Nazis outside the Bulgarian Waffen SS and it’s a star-making role. Fonda’s doggedness is wonderfully sympathetic, especially when you have the feeling (because you’ve seen him in other movies) that he’s probably right about everything and his bozo superiors find out, soon enough. It’s the perceptive structuring of the narrative from both perspectives that makes this tick along quickly. While not setting out to be a satire (hardly, although WW2 vet Sperling was no fan of warfare) the dialogue is sparkling with zingers – aphoristic and otherwise, particularly punctuating Shaw’s scenes – and there’s one out-and-out comic scene (played straight) when Savalas returns to his business to check how things are doing. Pier Angeli pleads for some promise of marriage because this is what she understands by the term ‘business partnership’ and wants a sign. But he’s rushing back to the front so he just tells her to keep feeding the chickens (they’re looking scrawny). This amusing character sidebar is one part of a dedicated soldier and Savalas plays it to the hilt. There’s a mass execution which won’t surprise you – but someone gets away and the payoff is very satisfying indeed. There are some good map room scenes; a really funny one-word message from US Command to German Command; and a breathtaking POV section with Fonda gliding down in silence over the attack position of the German tanks on the other side of the river:  just listen to the score. Such inventive work by Benjamin Frankel. The final sequence of tank battle is suitably fiery and an injured and vengeful Savalas joins forces with James MacArthur at the fuel depot where they get to blow up more than just the gas supply. Beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard in 70mm and a fine job of direction by Ken Annakin with not a moment to spare in its 163 minutes. Never mind what Ike said – this is simply sensational. When I have a brigade of tanks – that is reality!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.jpg

Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.  Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) is a free-spirited teacher at a Scottish girls’ school during the 1930s. She encourages her young pupils to embrace romantic ideals, educating them about love and art rather than hard facts.  She instructs them in poetry and literature and femininity and regales them with tales of her lost love, fallen in Flanders. However, her controversial teaching style draws the ire of the school’s headmistress, Miss Mackey (Celia Johnson), and, as Miss Brodie becomes entangled in a love triangle with art teacher Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens, who was married to Smith at the time), her behavior towards her favourite students including the lovely but treacherous Sandy (Pamela Franklin) becomes increasingly manipulative…  That’ll teach you to look at an artist like that. An interpretation of the stage version of Muriel Spark’s novel, this is a straightened-out story jettisoning some of the religious references and making composites of some characters to render the narrative easier to follow. At its heart is a barnstorming, beguiling performance by Smith as the charismatic leader of ‘gels’ hoist by her own sexual petard. Spark’s novels are cunning constructions that seem linear and obvious – until you realise the trick that has been played.  Miss Brodie truly makes people in her own image until she realises too, too late that she was never in control of a simulacrum with bad intentions. Is she being saved from herself? Are the girls being saved from her? The very conventionality of the setting juxtaposed with the fascistic politics has its own dynamic power. It’s witty, ferocious stuff, with a great cast acting their socks off in a brilliant tragicomedy.  This is a masterful technical production that is powered by emotional devastation. Written by Jay Presson Allen and directed by Ronald Neame.  Remember you are a child very far from your prime

The Goose Steps Out (1942)

The Goose Steps Out.jpg

O for Otto! Bumbling teacher William Potts (Will Hay) turns out to be the double of German General Muller, who the British have just captured. He is flown into Germany to impersonate the general and causes chaos and hilarity in a Hitler Youth college where the students are being trained to spy in Britain … Written by Angus MacPhail and John Dighton, based on an idea by Bernard Miles and Reg Groves, this is a souped-up Hay outing, co-directed by the star with Basil Dearden, who would of course become a filmmaker of note. (They had previously made The Black Sheep of Whitehall). Parlaying the usual array of schoolboy types and jokes in this espionage caper, Anne Firth makes for a comely Lena, the woman who would if Potts could, Peter Ustinov (in his debut) is a standout as Krauss  and Charles Hawtrey is Max, the boy who figures out precisely what is in their midst and does his best to help Potts make his escape. Diverting, funny, and well-staged, the action blends briskly with the comedy and concludes with a terrific finale in which Potts almost Blitzes London (again). There’s a funny scene involving English pronunciation – Leicester/Worcester/Bicester/Gloucester (helpfully written on a blackboard). If that sounds too complicated, just laugh at Hay giving Hitler’s portrait two fingers. Repeatedly. He does! Jingo all the way.  It’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me Goebbels

Frieda (1947)

Frieda 1947.jpg

You can’t treat a human being as less then human without becoming less than human yourself. RAF pilot Robert Dawson (David Farrar) returns home to Middle England from World War II with his new bride, Frieda Mansfeld (Mai Zetterling), the German nurse who helped him escape from a prisoner-of-war camp and whom he has married in Germany during an air raid. Because she is Catholic and they married in a Protestant church they are to marry in his village. In the meantime, Frieda has to deal with the  bigotry of people, including Robert’s family, and his aunt Nell (Flora Robson) whose political career is threatened and who is forced to denounce her future sister-in-law on the hustings. His late brother Alan’s wife Judy (Glynis Johns) is conflicted over her feelings for Robert.  Robert gives up his teaching job when boys drop out of school because of their families’ objections to his associating with the enemy. Six months later and just when the small town’s prejudice against her begins to subside and she agrees to marry Robert in a local Catholic church, Frieda’s brother Richard (Albert Lieven), a closet Nazi sympathiser, arrives for a visit, causing even Robert’s faith in his wife to be tested and leading to a standoff in a local pub when a victim from the camps recognises his tormentor and declares he wouldn’t forget the man who scarred his face in a thousand years.  Robert takes Richard’s word over Frieda’s …  The Germans look so ordinary we forget they’re not like the rest of us. Vividly written, performed and directed (by Basil Dearden), this is an enervating treatise from the house of Ealing on post-war Britain and attitudes to Germans, Germany and Nazism. With the piquant presence of Farrar, whose hyper-masculinity is well used (as it was by Powell and Pressburger) even if the film doesn’t fulfill the role’s promise, this is balanced by the sorrowful acting of a luminous Zetterling and the pivotal role played by Robson, who is not delighted to be proven correct in her suspicions, just gravely pleased that the British are so accepting of foreigners but aware of the price they must pay as a result. She is the force field about whom this revolves. The eloquent screenplay is written by Angus MacPhail and Ronald Millar. Scored by John Greenwood.  Then it does not matter what I am myself. I am German. That is all that counts