School for Scoundrels (1960)

School for Scoundrels

Aka School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating! Lifemanship is the science of being one up on your opponents at all times. Kind but gormless twit Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) is cheated, bullied and abused by everyone he encounters – from car salesmen the Winsome Welshmen, Dunstan (Dennis Price) and Dudley Dorchester (Peter Jones ), to a restaurant head waiter (John le Mesurier) and upper-class cad Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas). Even his own employees are hoodwinking him. When the charming April Smith (Janette Scott) is stolen away from him by Delauney, Henry takes drastic action and enrols in the College of Lifemanship, run by Mr Potter (Alastair Sim) where he can learn to beat others in life through classes in Partymanship, Woomanship and general One-upmanship. Well equipped now in the means to manipulate others and get ahead, he embarks on a course of his own – revengeWe like our motor cars to go to good homes – like dogs. A sublime cast rises to the occasion for an adaptation of Stephen Potter’s books by Irish screenwriter Patricia Moyes and producer Hal E. Chester, with Carmichael going through an enlightening character arc as the hapless victim of everyone else’s ploys – until he comes up with one of his own. Sim is the usual delight while T-T is as awesomely smarmy as you’d expect. To say that Price and Jones are an utter joy as the dastardly used car salesmen is to do them a disservice. With a supremely witty score by John Addison, this is the final film directed by the great Robert Hamer who was succumbing to the alcoholism that would kill him a few years later, so some scenes were filmed by Cyril Frankel and Chester. He who is not one up is one down

Midnight Express (1978)

Midnight Express

The best thing to do is to get your ass out of here. Best way that you can. American college student Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is caught smuggling hashish when he’s travelling out of Turkey with girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle). He is prosecuted and jailed for four years. When his sentence is increased to 30 years, Billy, along with other inmates including British heroin addict Max (John Hurt) and American candle thief Jimmy (Randy Quaid), makes a plan to escape but local prisoners betray their plans to vicious guard Hamidou (Paul L. Smith)… It’s not a train. It’s a prison word for… escape. But it doesn’t stop around here. Adapted by Oliver Stone from Billy Hayes’ memoir (written with William Hoffer), this is a high wire act of male melodrama and violence with an astonishing, poundingly graphic series of setpieces that will definitely curdle your view of Turkey, even knowing that much of this was deliberately fabricated for effect. The searing heat, the horrendous conditions and the appalling locals will give pause to even the most strident anti-drugs campaigner. Director Alan Parker has a muscular, energetic style and brilliantly choreographs scenes big and small with the tragic and brilliant Davis (an appealing latterday James Dean-type performer) perfectly cast and Hurt a marvel as the shortsighted druggie whom he protects. The big scene where Davis totally loses it shocks to this day. Shot in Malta (permission to shoot in Istanbul was not granted, unsurprisingly) by Michael Seresin with a throbbing electronic score by Giorgio Moroder. Everyone runs around stabbing everyone else in the ass. That’s what they call Turkish revenge. I know it must all sound crazy to you, but this place is crazy

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

Down Three Dark Streets (1954)

Down Three Dark Streets

I kept asking myself, all night long, who would want to such a thing? FBI agent John Ripley (Broderick Crawford) inherits three cases his murdered partner Zack Stewart (Kenneth Tobey) has been investigating, hoping one of them will turn up his killer. Glamourpuss Connie Anderson (Martha Hyer) can be connected to gas station killer Joe Walpo (Joe Bassett). Fashion buyer Kate Martell (Ruth Roman) is getting phonecalls extorting insurance money that she received following her husband’s death and her young daughter is being threatened.When boxer Matty Pavelich (Claude Akins) beats up blind Julie Angelino (Marisa Pavan) her husband Vince (Gene Reynolds) agrees to testify, so another case is tied up … I don’t like men staring at me before lunch. Adapted by The Gordons (Mildred and Gordon) from their novel Case File FBI, this serves as something of a Valentine to that agency although J. Edgar Hoover reputedly objected to the early draft scripts. It’s enlivened by the shift between documentary-style realism, great location shooting and a conventional thriller mode boasting some terrific female performances, particularly Hyer (once touted as the new Grace Kelly) giving it the full Marilyn Monroe as the sexpot link to a mysterious criminal. Roman is her customarily intense self with a problematic household, an aggressive romantic interest (Max Showalter) and a job as a fashion buyer to contend with; while Crawford’s gruff persona suits the no-nonsense lead role. There is some especially piquant dialogue and a gloriously funny moment when an inventor tries to sell him on a Geiger counter for spies (it has a light that comes on when a taxman is in the vicinity). The stories are well put together and it ends (happily, for the viewer at least) at the Hollywood sign in a Los Angeles that is still notably rural, with the freeway almost empty of the traffic to come. Directed by Arnold Laven. Sometimes you meet some nice people in this business

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

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Nobody is flying the plane!  During a massive traffic jam in California caused by reckless  ex-convict (following a tuna factory robbery 15 years earlier) Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante), he crashes his car off twisting, mountainous State Highway 74 near Palm Desert. Five motorists stop to help him: dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar) and his wife Monica (Edie Adams); furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters); two guys on their way to Las Vegas, Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett); and Fresno entrepreneur J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle), his wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and his loud mother-in-law Mrs Marcus (Ethel Merman). Just before he dies kicking a bucket, Grogan tells the men about $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park near the border with Mexico under “… a big W”. The motorists set out across California to find the fortune, unaware that Captain T.G. Culpeper, Chief of Detectives of the Santa Rosita Police Department, has been patiently working on the Smiler Grogan case for years, hoping to someday solve it and retire. When he learns of the crash, he suspects Grogan may have tipped off the passersby, so he has them tracked by various police units. His suspicions are confirmed by their nutty behaviour but he may have ulterior motives for retrieving the loot  …  It’s a nice dream.  Lasted almost five minutes.  Earnest producer/director Stanley Kramer’s film may not in fact be the comedy to end all comedies as it was billed but it has most of the mid-century movie world’s best comic performers (and more besides) involved in incredibly engineered slapstick sequences, marvellously sustained as a lengthy madcap satirical farce, with some of the best colour cinematography you will ever see:  those reds and yellows and blues pop perfectly off the screen in staggering synchrony thanks to astonishing work by Ernest Laszlo. Written by William Rose and Tania Rose, it’s an epic ensemble endeavour with support and guest bits from a vast variety of mostly TV stars like Phil Silvers, Peter Falk, Jerry Lewis, Dick Shawn, Andy Devine, The Three Stooges, Edward Everett Horton and the great Buster Keaton, with Zasu Pitts in her final film,  and some lively dancing by Barrie Chase (screenwriter Borden Chase’s daughter and Robert Towne’s onetime girlfriend, previously married to Hollywood hairdresser Gene Shacove and therefore the inspiration for Shampoo!). We love Terry-Thomas (in a role intended for Peter Sellers, who asked for too much money – ironically) and his comments here about American obsessions provide the caustic witticisms that balance the narrative and characters’ unstoppable drive for money.  Sid Caesar inherited the role intended for the fabulous Ernie Kovacs following his death in a car crash driving home from Milton Berle’s baby shower (again, the irony…). A beautifully constructed gem that shows off California in precisely the way you would wish and after commencing with someone kicking the bucket in a cliffhanger opening, ends on an entirely apposite banana skin. Watching these legendary performers trying to steal scenes is a kick:  make America funny again! Beautifully restored.  Don’t call me baby

Mad World still

 

 

Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

Bande a Part (1964)

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Aka Band of OutsidersA Who-Dunit, Who’s Got-It, Where-Is-It-Now Wild One From That “Breathless” director Jean-Luc Godard!  Smalltime crooks and cinéphile slackers Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) spend their days mimicking the antiheroes of Hollywood noirs and Westerns while pursuing the lovely Odile (Anna Karina) whom they meet at English class. The misfit trio upends convention at every turn, through choreographed dances in cafés or frolicsome romps through the Louvre trying to set a record for fastest circumnavigation. Eventually, their romantic view of outlaws pushes them to plan their own heist, but their inexperience may send them out in a blaze of glory – just like their B-movie heroes … Isn’t it strange how people never form a whole?Ostensibly an adaptation of a novel called Fool’s Gold by Dorothy Hitchens, that’s just a skeleton on which the mischievous Jean-Luc Godard drapes his love and admiration of Hollywood genres (and Karina) over a series of apparently improvised riffs in this lightly constructed charmer. A few clues for latecomers: Several weeks ago… A pile of money… An English class… A house by the river… A romantic young girl... It’s a splendidly rackety affair, with several standout scenes providing the postmodern matrix for much of pop culture (and a name for Quentin Tarantino’s production company). It’s Godard at his most playful, joyous and audience-pleasing, exploring what it’s like to not want to grow up and how it’s always possible to have fun with like-minded people. Then, you go a little too far and someone goes and spoils it all for everyone. Maybe. Sheer pleasure. Godard said of the dance scene: “Alice in Wonderland as re-choreographed by Kafka”. A minute of silence can last a long time… a whole eternity

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

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No, I am not finished. Look, I’m gettin’ old, you hear? Ageing low-level Boston gunrunner Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle (Robert Mitchum) is looking at several years of jail for a hold-up if he doesn’t funnel information to treasury agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) so he has to decide whether to turn stoolie. He buys guns from another gunrunner, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), then gives him up to Foley, but it’s not enough. Conflicted, Eddie decides to also give up the gang of bank robbers he’s been supplying, only to find Foley already knows about them, and the mob believes Eddie snitched. The real permanent cop fink, barkeep Dillon (Peter Boyle) is called upon to render a service .. I wished I had a nickel for every name I got that was all right.  It could only be Robert Mitchum, couldn’t it, in this great gangster flick, one of the best films of the Seventies. Adapted from George V. Higgins’ classic novel, a gripping iteration of the Irish-American underworld given a stately interpretation by producer Paul Monash who knows just how to put the boot into that old saw about honour among thieves and how you really shouldn’t trust cops cos they’re just another gang.  There is nothing wrong with this film. It’s a snapshot of an anti-romantic world which we believe to be utterly true, and no higher compliment can you give a film. Mitchum is so good and gives such a committed performance as this determinedly anti-heroic loser that you cannot think of anyone else in the role. You believe a guy would shut a drawer on this bozo’s hand. The tone is just right, the danger palpable, the parameters real, the tension total. We’re looking at the world of Whitey Bulger and his gang in reality (Peter Boyle is Dillon, the avatar for Bulger, although Higgins denied the connection). Mitchum wanted to meet some of the real crims but was cautiously directed elsewhere although cast member Alex Rocco (he plays bank robber Jimmy Scalise) who had been associated with the Winter Hill gang and served a prison term during the Boston Irish Gang Wars in the Sixties prior to his name change and a Hollywood career may have made some introductions to the man who actually killed the prototype for Coyle. Let’s talk about screenwriter Monash who was a producer and TV scriptwriter (Peyton Place, among others) but really wanted to write a great novel. He was so good that Orson Welles tapped him to do rewrite work on Touch of Evil but for those of us who grew up in the Eighties he’s the guy who brought Salem’s Lot to the screen putting me at least behind a cushion and a couch to bridge the distance from the screen in order to somehow stop the fear (it didn’t); as well as a fantastic TVM remake of All Quiet on the Western Front, the series V and a very memorable film about Huey Long, Kingfish. Let’s not forget the wonderful British director Peter Yates who brings all his considerable weight and lightness of touch to this incredibly atmospheric production.  He’s made some of my favourite movies including Bullitt and Breaking Away, The Hot RockEyewitness and this. He directed my friend Shane Connaughton’s quasi-autobiographical Irish production The Run of the Country and was responsible for a fantastic mini-series of Don Quixote starring John Lithgow. Not only that, he managed the legendary racer Stirling Moss in his heyday. Good grief I love the man! This is great, resonant filmmaking, desperate, downbeat and convincing with an incredible cast, including my beloved Joe Santos, Margaret Ladd and Helena Carroll. Listen to that dialogue:  it’s rare, raw and relentless. With friends like these, well, you know.  I shoulda known better than to trust a cop. My own goddamn mother coulda told me that

Kinsey (2004)

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Are my answers typical? Professor Alfred ‘Prok’ Kinsey (Liam Neeson) is interviewed about his sexual history by one of his graduate students Clyde Martin (Sarsgaard) and reflects on how he became the author of famous studies of modern Americans’ sexual behaviour. He grew up in a repressed household headed by Alfred Seguine Kinsey (John Lithgow) and disobeyed him to study biology and became a lecturer, marrying his student Mac (Laura Linney). After completing his study of gall wasp behaviour and addressing the sexual issues within his own marriage his advice is sought by students and he begins teaching a sex ed course that raises questions he cannot answer.  He devises a questionnaire to find out what passes for normal activity among his students but soon realises that 100 completed documents are not remotely sufficient.  He commences a countrywide research project in which he taxonomises sexual behaviour inside and outside average marriages and subgroups like homosexuals at a time when all these things are illegal in several states … The forces of chastity are massing again. Writer/director Bill Condon’s biography of the famed sex researcher whose reports rocked midcentury America is careful, detailed and filled with good performances (appropriately). Both Linney and Neeson contribute complete characters and their respective realisation that Clyde wants to seduce Prok are extremely touching and when you consider it’s established in a phonecall it’s all the more affecting. Their marriage is a profile of the parameters of this study – until things become more extreme and the grad students carrying out the research offer their own services to be recorded. The issue of agreed infidelity and extra-marital sex is just one of the common behavioural tics dealt with here and deftly personalised. There are of course some limits to even these sexologists’ tolerance – and Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell) storms out when a particularly noxious individual (William Sadler) decides to regale him and Kinsey about his incest, bestiality and more, including incidents with pre-adolescent children. There are some abusive perversions that are just too tough to take. Word about the nature of the team’s methodologies gets out and their funding is cut by the Rockefeller Foundation, an issue that is particularly effective as a narrative device because it reminds us of the real-world difficulties in securing funding and the consequences that not funding this particular study might have had – its far-reaching insights into human behaviour in a highly censorious era was groundbreaking.  Oliver Platt is particularly good as the genial Herman Wells, President of the University at Bloomington whose support of the controversial work is so important. The confrontational nature of the film doesn’t descend to pornography chiefly because the humanity of the protagonists – and that of the study’s participants – is carefully graphed against the social norms. The topper to Alfred Senior’s difficult relationship with his son is very sad and crystallises the reasons behind his bullying, a habit Prock has inherited and replays with his own son Bruce (Luke MacFarlane) over mealtimes. At this point we don’t need any lectures on nature versus nurture or gene theory. The coda is a wonderful exchange between Kinsey and his latest interview subject played by Lynn Redgrave. It’s a marvellous conclusion to a remarkable film that deals with biology, family and the life force. A very satisfying experience. Where love is concerned we’re all in the dark

Searching (2018)

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I didn’t know her. I didn’t know my daughter. David Kim (John Cho) becomes desperate when his 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) disappears. He decides to search Margot’s laptop. He traces her digital footprints and contacts her friends and looks at photos and videos for any possible clues to her whereabouts and when he realises his daughter was essentially friendless and put all her piano tuition in a bank account which is now empty, he contacts the police who assign Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) to the case … Small screens on a big screen. Smartphones. Technology. Icons. Lists. Photos. Typing. Skyping. I don’t care, I want fresh air. It’s not me, it’s you. Reader, I abandoned this after a half hour. Modern life is rubbish. Bring me my quill. Directed by Aneesh Chaganty who co-wrote this with Sev Ohanian.