Harper (1966)

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Why so fast, Harper? You trying to impress me? Struggling private eye Lew Harper (Paul Newman) takes a simple missing-person case that quickly spirals into something much more complex. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), recently paralysed in a horse-riding accident, wants Harper to find her missing oil baron husband Ralph, but her tempestuous teenage stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) thinks Mrs. Sampson knows more than she’s letting on… The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise. Brilliantly adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 mystery The Moving Target featuring private eye Archer, renamed here because Newman believed the letter ‘H’ to be lucky following Hud and The Hustler. With that team you know it’s filled with zingers, like, Kinky is British for weird. Macdonald’s roots in the post-war noir world are called up in the casting of Bacall, who reminds us that it was The Big Sleep, among other films based on books by the great Raymond Chandler, that brought this style into being. Of course Macdonald’s own interpretation is consciously more mythical than the prototypical Chandler’s, with allusions to Greek tragedy in its familial iterations but it continues in that vein of a ferociously stylish, ironic, delightfully cool appraisal of California’s upper class denizens and their intractable problems. Newman is perfectly cast as a kind of wandering conscience with problems of his own, while Janet Leigh as his ex-wife, Robert Wagner as a playboy, Julie Harris as a junkie musician, Shelley Winters as a faded movie star, Robert Webber as her criminal husband and Albert Hill as a lovelorn lawyer, all add wonderful details to this portrait of a social clique. A flavoursome, perfectly pitched entertainment with lovely widescreen cinematography by Conrad Hall and oh so wittily and precisely staged by director Jack Smight, underscored by the smooth Sixties jazz orchestrations of Johnny Mandel with an original song by Dory and Andre Previn. I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test

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Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)

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A policeman who breaks the law is twice the sucker.  Career criminal Ralph Cotter (James Cagney) escapes from prison and then murders the partner-in-crime (Neville Brand) who grassed him up in the first place. He attempts to woo his ex-partner’s sister Holiday Carleton (Barbara Payton) by threatening to expose her role in his escape. Cotter quickly gets back into the crime business—only to be shaken down by corrupt local LA cops led by Inspector Weber (Ward Bond) and Lt. John Reece (Barton MacLane). When Cotter turns the tables on them, his real troubles have only started…  I don’t want the coroner to find the bruises on these birds. One of the purest expressions of violence committed to celluloid, this post-war gangster noir is dominated by the strutting sadism of James Cagney, who bestrides it as though he hadn’t been blown up at the end of White Heat. Co-star Barbara Payton was hand-picked by Cagney and is of course one of Hollywood’s most notorious party girl casualties whose own biography bore this film’s title and she gives us a direct line to sex in her interaction with Cagney, while rival Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter) is her visual and performative opposite; Bond is a locus of police corruption and revenge; and Group Theater founder Luther Adler bristles as the lawyer coerced into helping the gang. If I ever saw a crazy man, he’s it. Adapted by Harry Brown from Horace McCoy’s novel, and produced by Cagney’s brother William, this is an amazing exposition of Los Angeles as an exquisite corpse of genre tropes, the cinematic city responsible for most of noir’s topography where the cops are just another filthy gang.  We couldn’t tip ’em off if we sat on the roof of their car. In another stranger than fiction story from that metropolis’s Ripley’s lore, this is the film that Phil Spector and Lana Clarkson were watching the night of her killing. Utterly riveting, febrile and quite shocking. Directed by Gordon Douglas. All I saw were the guns

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

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It’s getting out of control. I just wish I were a lot older or a lot younger. Designer Anne (Deborah Kerr) travels to the French Riviera to visit her old lover Raymond (David Niven), the wealthy playboy husband of her recently deceased friend. His pampered seventeen-year old daughter, Cecile (Jean Seberg), afraid that the rather prim Anne’s presence may alter their hedonistic lifestyle, attempts to drive a wedge between the woman and her father, with the help of his latest French mistress Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) when Raymond proposes marriage to Anne.  Little do they know that Anne’s proper attitude hides a fragility that could lead to tragic consequences and when they set their plot in motion everything begins to come undone ... She’s prim, and prissy, and a prude. And a know it all. And I hate her! This adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s slim but shocking bestseller by Arthur Laurents has lost none of its power. The father-daughter double act beautifully played by Niven and Seberg has the sense of perversion and decadence that twists the material’s bittersweet threads into something that still raises eyebrows:  incest, perhaps? Producer/director Svengali Otto Preminger once again subjects his famous young Saint Joan protegée to a kind of trial of inquiry – this time for her libertinism – in a flavoursome morality tale that delineates corruption with admirable precision as the pieces are moved into place.  Stunningly imagined in widescreen, in both monochrome and colour, by cinematographer Georges Périnal, with a classic score by Georges Auric and that legendary title song, performed by Juliette Gréco. The poster is of course the work of Saul Bass. Beautiful, scandalous and compelling, this is where the Nouvelle Vague begins. Anne had made me look at myself for the first time in my life. And that turned me against her – dead against her

Sudden Fear (1952)

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I’m so crazy about you I could break your bones. Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) is a successful and wealthy Broadway playwright who rejects actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) for her new production because he doesn’t look like a romantic leading man. When she meets him on a train bound for home back in San Francisco he insinuates himself into her life and she is swept off her feet, and marries him. He learns that she’s writing her will and intends leaving most of her money to a heart foundation and plots her murder with his girlfriend Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame). However Myra has accidentally left her tape recorder running and finds out their plan. She decides upon one of her own and plots it as she would one of her plays – to kill Lester and frame Irene for it. But while hiding in Irene’s apartment she sees her reflection with gun poised and alters her plan, terrified at what she’s become. Then Lester lets himself into the apartment … I like to look at you. Adapted by Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith from Edna Sherry’s 1948 novel, this is a superior noir melodrama, with Crawford at her sensational best in one of her key roles.  Everything about the production is top notch with wonderful design (Boris Leven and Edward G. Boyle) and shooting by Charles Lang, enhanced by the location and night-time street scenes. Palance matches Crawford – talk about a face off! – with some truly creepy affectations; while Grahame is entrancing as ever. But it’s Crawford’s show and the happiness slipping from that classic mask is something to see.  She was directed to an Academy Award nomination by David Miller (he was a very fine woman’s director.) The final sequence – the first half of which has Crawford hiding in a closet; the second with her being chased up and down the streets of San Francisco by Palance – is unbearably, brilliantly tense. Sizzling stuff. Executive produced by an uncredited Miss Joan Crawford.  Remember what Nietzsche says “Live dangerously!”

The Love Witch (2016)

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Men are like children. They’re very easy to please as long as we give them what they want.  Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful young modern day witch, is determined to find a man to love her following the death of Jerry, the husband from whom she was divorced. She moves from San Francisco to Arcata California to rent from a friend and in her Gothic Victorian apartment she makes spells and potions, then picks up men and seduces them. Lecturer Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) is so overcome by their hallucinatory lovefest he dies and she buries him in the grounds of his cabin (actually a huge house). Her spells work too well, and she ends up with more hapless victims including Richard (Robert Seeley) the husband of interior decorator Trish (Laura Waddell). When she at last meets the man of her dreams, Griff (Gian Keys) the policeman sent to investigate Wayne’s death, her desperation to be loved drives her to the brink of insanity and murder... l’ll bet you like to spend time in the woods. ‘To say that this oozes style is to understate the affect of a fully-fleshed sexploitation homage from auteur Anna Billen – who not only writes and directs and edits but designs the costumes, painted the artwork, designed the production, composed the theme song and for all I know manufactured the lenses and served the crew gourmet lunches from the craft vehicle.  Clearly the woman can do just about everything. It’s fabulous – a wicca-feminist twist on a serial killing murdering witch who just wants to use sex magick for ultimate personal fulfillment but gosh darn it wouldn’t ya know it, men just never know what to do with their feelings after an amazing session in bed. Shot by M. David Mullen so that this beautiful out-of-time pastiche looks like it could have been made circa 1970 (only a cell phone conversation removes the impression), it works as a satire that goes full tilt boogie at the tropes of romantic melodrama while evoking sly commentary on what men really want from women, principally in the performing styles and an occasional internal monologue. At this rate, never the twain shall meet. If there’s anything wrong with this is it’s overlength:  at two hours it could lose 25 minutes without any fatal damage, probably from the police procedural subplot. But it’s quite incredible, a loony tunes essay on gender roles that’s drenched in sex, sensuality and humour, a pulpy delirium no matter how you look at it and the soundtrack culled from Ennio Morricone’s Italian giallo scores is to die for. Literally! According to the experts, men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way

Serenity (2019)

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Reel him in.  Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fishing boat captain who leads tours off the tranquil enclave of Plymouth Island in the Florida Keys with assistant Duke (Djimon Hounsou) motivated by eventually catching a big tuna he calls Justice. He enjoys sex for money with Constance (Diane Lane) but his life is disturbed by inexplicable visions that seem to connect him with the son he hasn’t seen since his time in Iraq. His routine is soon shattered when his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) tracks him down. Desperate for help, Karen begs Baker to save her and their son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) from her abusive husband, criminal Frank Zariakas (Jason Clarke). She wants Baker to take the violent brute out for a fishing excursion – then throw him overboard to the sharks. But a late night visit from a mysterious company representative Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong) throws a spanner into the works … A hooker that can’t afford hooks. I like a boat thriller. Something about the infinite dramatic possibilities played out on the finite dimensions of a floating vehicle, all at sea. Like Knife in the Water. Masquerade. Dead Calm. There are enough clues in this gorgeous looking melodrama that things are off – the World’s Greatest Dad mug; the seemingly telepathic connection with Patrick; the inter-cutting with Patrick creating a world in which he is catching fish on his computer; and the frankly hysterical sex scene with McConaughey and Hathaway, a ludicrous interplanetary femme fatale, on a boat lurching in a rainstorm:  she promptly gets up and puts on her trenchcoat and hat and trots off up the pier. Bonkers. McConaughey strips off regularly evoking quite a different take on the inspirational Moby Dick: Mobile Dick, perhaps. Sex with your ex, indeed. Lane out-acts everyone by being discreet; Hounsou mutters incomprehensibly bizarre aphorisms like he’s read them off a matchbook, everyone else speaks in similarly random non sequiturs. I would have laughed out loud but I struggled to hear much of the unintentionally hilarious dialogue.  I get the meta stuff and video games but like I said, I also like a boat thriller. This ain’t it. Bad and utterly irrational, like you would not believe. Written and directed by Steven Knight. If someone invented me, how come I know who I am?

Too Late for Tears (1949)

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Just where did you stash my cash? Jane and Alan Palmer (Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy) are driving to a party in the Hollywood Hills when someone in another car throws a satchel into the back seat of their convertible. They open it and find $100,000 cash.  She wants to keep it, he doesn’t. They put it in a locker in Union Station. Then Danny (Dan Duryea) shows up at their apartment when Alan is at work and they scheme to get his money back, a once in a lifetime payoff from a blackmail/insurance scam. Jane persuades him to help kill Alan on a boat trip. She reports Alan as missing. Kathy Palmer (Kristine Miller) suspects Jane has murdered her brother and investigates with a man claiming to be his friend Don Blake (Don DeFore), who look into her dealings. Meanwhile Jane is plotting to keep all of the money for herself …  Looking down her nose at me like a big ugly house looks over Hollywood.  Scott has a great showcase as a ruthless, mutinous femme fatale, a silky smooth siren desperate to shake off the shackles of middle class unease:  the kind of people who can’t keep up with the bills every day and die a little. Duryea is good as the villain/accomplice, like a musical comedy star who’s wandered onto the wrong movie set and likes the fit of his suit but his taste for drink proves his undoing. Miller is particularly good as Kennedy’s sister. It was her second time to be paired with Scott following I Walk Alone; while DeFore proves the magic ingredient that unlocks the mystery of Scott’s first husband’s deathA vicious portrayal of venal post-war Los Angeles society, a cautionary tale laced with venom that is brilliantly conceived, shot and performed with lashings of good lines. Written by Roy Huggins (later famous as TV writer/producer of The Fugitive, Maverick and The Rockford Files) and adapted from his novel which was serialised in the Saturday Evening Post.  Directed by Byron Haskin.  I let you in because housewives can get awfully bored sometimes!

Another Man’s Poison (1951)

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I want him. I wanted him from the first moment I ever saw him. Mystery writer Janet Frobisher (Bette Davis) lives in Yorkshire and has been separated for years from her husband, a man with a criminal past. Her nearest neighbour is nosy veterinarian Dr. Henderson (Emlyn Williams). Janet has been having having an affair with Larry (Anthony Steel) who is years younger than her and he just happens to be engaged to marry her secretary Chris (Barbara Murray). When her estranged husband unexpectedly appears, Janet poisons him by administering medication given to her by Dr. Henderson for her horse. One of the deceased man’s criminal cohorts George (Gary Merrill) arrives as she’s preparing to dispose of the body in the local lake. When Chris and Larry arrive at the secluded house, the mysterious man, who has assisted her with her scheme, impersonates George, the long-absent spouse of Janet and Chris learns of the affair between Janet and Larry. When George kills her beloved horse Fury she sends him after Chris in an unsafe vehicle left at her front door by Henderson. He crashes, but survives and she determines on revenge … The night air teems with unexpected guests. Sounds like Shakespeare but isn’t. With additions to Val Guest’s screenplay by actor/playwright Williams (whose credits include The Corn is Green), this is a stage adaptation from Leslie Sands’ play Deadlock whose origins remain somewhat despite efforts to open it out and it lacks the visual panache in interiors that Hitchcock would manage to demonstrate with his take on Dial M for Murder. For all that, Davis bristles as a barnstorming man magnet, delighting in the viciousness of her mystery writer role and the woman’s insatiable desire for sex with her secretary’s fiancé. The barbs fly. Of course the second pairing of Davis and (now husband) Merrill is worth watching a year after they met and seemingly enacted the main couple’s relationship on All About Eve:  here there is real hatred between the two. She relishes the chance to play nasty and her manic laugh at the highly ironic conclusion is filled with gleeful appreciation, a creator of mystery entrapped by the machinations of her own deadly plot. We see some of the ingredients for Baby Jane right here. This is a narrative of barely suppressed, sometimes shockingly overt, violence and it’s unique in the canon of her work for that reason. This interesting instance of British film noir was produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who spent a number of years in the UK making independent movies and it was directed by Irving Rapper who had made the classic Now, Voyager with Davis a decade earlier. Shot on location in Yorkshire’s West Riding and at Nettlefold Studios by Robert Krasker, best known for his work on The Third Man. There’s an extremely witty use of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust on the soundtrack.  Out of evil cometh good. That is, occasionally

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

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Because I love her and nothing else! It isn’t a little loving. It isn’t a fancy. It isn’t something you’d turn on and off. It’s everything I think and feel and want and know. And there’s no room in me for anything else. And never will be again.   England in the early nineteenth century. When Philip Ashley’s (Richard Burton) wealthy cousin, Ambrose (John Sutton), who raised him, dies suddenly following his marriage in Italy, his suspicions drift to Ambrose’s new and icy wife, Rachel (Olivia de Havilland), the widow of a Florentine aristocrat, who stands to benefit greatly from his cousin’s death. When Ashley is introduced to Rachel at Ambrose’s funeral, however, his fears are immediately laid to rest: how could such a beautiful young woman possibly be a murderer? When the estate is left to Ashley on his 25th birthday, he begins to fear for his life but is overcome by his feelings for the older woman whose outrageous lifestyle and expenses don’t arouse his suspicions and he plans on giving her everything … I haven’t the time to explain. But I’m convinced now that Ambrose was right. She not only murdered him but she’s done her best to kill me too. Novelist Daphne du Maurier was very unhappy with Nunnally Johnson’s adaptation of her book and so was director George Cukor so they both departed this, which was produced by Johnson and directed by Henry Koster. Perhaps de Havilland is too obviously suspect as the dark femme fatale luring men into her black widow’s web and young Burton, making his first lead appearance in an American production, isn’t the most attractive of suitors. The suspense element is too ambiguous, even at the film’s conclusion. However it’s a nicely sustained atmospheric outing for the most part, with attractive performances including Irish actress Audrey Dalton as Louise Kendall and Ronald Squire as her father. The masterful cinematography, blending studio work with backdrops shot in Cornwall, is by Joseph LaShelle.  Always remember, Philip, death is the price for murder

A Woman’s Secret (1949)

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I’ll admit mister that I’ve heard stories that make less sense than that. Popular singer Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) suddenly and inexplicably loses her voice, causing a shake-up at the nightclub where she performs. Her worried but loyal piano playe Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas) helps to promote a new, younger singer Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame) to temporarily replace Marian. Susan finds some early acclaim after being coached and improved, expanding her very limited range, but decides to leave the club after a few performances. Soon after Susan quits, she is shot and Marian becomes a suspect, telling the police that she shot Susan in a fury when she told her she was giving up singing, forfeiting the future she herself could have had. Luke counts on Detective Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) being able to prove Marian’s innocence Mrs. Fowler never seems to realise that crime goes on twenty-four hours a day.  Adapted from Vicki Baum’s Mortgage on Life by producer and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, this was Nicholas Ray’s debut feature, although They Live By Night was released first. The constant flashbacks make more of a mystery than there really is, with O’Hara particularly good as the woman who is basically scorned – by another woman. Their contrasting performing styles carry the film. There are some nice visual touches but hardly of the variety that mark out Ray’s later work and this is rather a perverse noir rendered more straight backstage melodrama by virtue of the presence of Douglas who never lets things get too strange. Mary Philips – the first Mrs Humphrey Bogart – is terrific as Mrs Fowler, the person who gets to the bottom of it all in a story that throws up some bright dialogue.  I’ve told you we’re going to keep talking about this until we stumble on something or other that will clear it up