The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

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Whoever heard of a cowardly ghost. It’s 1900 and widowed Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is finally breaking away from the oppression of the awful in-laws, renting a sea cottage with her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and maid Martha (Edna Best). That’s despite the estate agent’s advice to take another property because … it’s haunted by its former owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), a presumed suicide. When he appears to her on a regular basis he insists it was an accident when he fell asleep in front of the gas fire. They have a frosty relationship but it becomes something more than mutual tolerance and he calls her Lucia because she’s more Amazonian than she believes. He insists on keeping his portrait – in her bedrooom. He is incensed when she cuts down the monkey puzzle he planted himself. He teaches her salty language and by dictating a sensational book – Blood and Swash! – he saves her from penury and a dread return to her late husband’s home. He appears at the most inopportune moments, for a year anyhow. One day at the publisher’s she encounters Uncle Neddy (George Sanders) a most unlikely children’s author. She is romanced, to the grievous jealousy of Daniel. She is the only person who likes the suave one, and the joke’s on her as she finds out one day in London.  The years pass … The paradox at the centre of the story is perfectly encapsulated by Tierney whose very blankness elicited criticism:  for it is the dead seadog who brings her back to life. There’s a very funny scene when he’s seated beside her on the train and the clever writing actually conveys the joke. Philip Dunne adapted the novel The Ghost of Captain Gregg and Mrs Muir by R.A. Dick, a pseudonym for Josephine Leslie. This is utterly beguiling, a sheer delight and an enchantment from another time. Directed rather beautifully by Joseph Mankiewicz.

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Blade Runner (1982)

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I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Los Angeles 2019. A rebellion amongst replicants in the off-colonies has to be put down and blade runner (or detective/android killer) Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is recruited to assassinate the leaders – Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). The replicants are returning to Earth in order to extend their four-year lifespan. His employer, the boss of the Tyrell Corporation introduces him to Rachael (Sean Young) his most cherished creation …  Hampton Fancher and David Peoples loosely adapted Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and with Ridley Scott at the helm created an utterly beguiling brand of future shock which is beautiful and dazzling, grand and depressing. It’s a rain-slicked Metropolis where life is cheap and detectives prowl the streets like Chandler was scripting with robots:  human nature never really changes.  The mise-en-scène falls into both the sci-fi and film noir genres (echoing the identity crisis at the heart of the story). A proliferation of signs from both cinematic traditions, coupled with overwhelming production design (by Lawrence G. Paull and David Snyder based on sketches by Scott and Syd Mead) calls to mind modern-day Hong Kong, music videos and the fog and teeming rain associated with America in a World War II era familiar from hundreds of noir movies, this is a virtual essay in postmodernism (which supplants the concept of genre with that of textuality). This is such a complex quasi-generic film, awash with implications for representation in the age of modern technology which are obvious:  ‘authenticity’, ‘realism’ are artificial constructs.  A play on our familiarity with other cultural products is central to postmodernism’s perceived jokiness, while the traditional relationships between time and space are condensed (a condition of postmodernity) and undermined to create virtual reality so that a ‘real, knowable world’ is just that – a world in quotation marks, as real or unreal as you choose to make it.  The film represents a summary of this problem with a jumble of signs referring to other signs – its pastiche of styles telescoping the ancient world, 1940s, 1980s and 2019, its electronic soundtrack (by Eighties maestro Vangelis) and a raft of references to other movies, other characters, ideas and themes.  It’s about dystopia and imperialism, dehumanisation by a Tyrannical Corporation, totalitarianist tech companies and class revolution, the nature and function of memory, what it is to be free, what it is to have power and to have none, the fragmentary nature of identity in a dying culture, what it means to be human. No matter what version you watch – and there are nine (variously with and without voiceovers and certain revelations/clarifications) if you include The Director’s Cut and The Final Cut – you will never be able to stop its imagery searing your cortex. Philip K. Dick saw some footage before his untimely death from a stroke – and loved it. It is visionary cinema and it is astonishing. This is my 1,400th post on Mondo Movies. Thank you for watching.

Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

Winter Sleepers (1997)

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Was hast du wahrend der Weihnachtsferien getan? Gegessen. Gelesen. Geschlafen. A cinema projectionist with memory issues unwittingly causes a catastrophic accident when he ‘borrows’ a sports car that is left unlocked outside a house. The father of the injured child swears revenge;  meanwhile the projectionist starts sleeping with a nurse who lives at the house, where her translator roommate is dating the car’s owner, a ski instructor. A deadly chain of events is set in motion. This adaptation of Anne-Francoise Pyszora’s novel Expense of Spirit by writer/director Tom Tykwer, making his debut, is one of the best films of the Nineties and remains his best work. Simply brilliant, layered storytelling in a great snowbound milieu with screwed up twentysomethings trying to live like adults in the post-Christmas gloom. Terrific.

The Spiritualist (1948)

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Aka The Amazing Mr X. The wonderful Carole Landis committed suicide in the most horrendous way a couple of days before shooting began on this;  she was replaced by the estimable Lynn Bari, no mean actress in her own right. She’s widowed Christine Faber, haunted by the ghost of her late husband (Donald Curtis) rising from the surf, but a tall dark stranger (Turhan Bey) materialises who knows more about her than he ought, faking his way as a medium, and luring her into a dangerous game … With Cathy O’Donnell as her sister Janet and my sci fi heart-throb Richard Carlson as a lawyer, Harry Mendoza and Virginia Gregg rounding out the ensemble, we are taken into truly villainous territory with Bey making for an alluring bad guy who gets in way too deep.  In his eyes, the threat of terror! In his hands, the power to destroy! Crane Wilbur’s story was written for the screen by Muriel Roy Bolton and Ian McLellan Hunter and directed by Bernard Vorhaus. This film noir is gilt-edged thanks to the luminous cinematography by John Alton and good use is made of Chopin’s Prelude for Piano, opus 28 no. 4 in E minor. A special experience.

Man in the Attic (1953)

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Ugly does as ugly is:  there’s a lesson here, folks, Beware ugly people and that means Jack Palance, an actor rather limited by his foreboding appearance. What he lacked in looks he made up in horrible intensity.  In this B-movie adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ fictionalised Ripper tale, The Lodger (already done by Hitchcock and John Brahm) he’s the self-proclaimed pathologist renting a room in London c1888 from Helen Harley (Frances Bavier),  whose niece, dance hall performer Lily Bonner (Constance Smith) responds to him and ignores warnings about his odd behaviour while all around her London looks for Jack. Hugo Fregonese directs an oft-told tale with surprising dexterity, the theatrical shows are well staged, it’s commandingly shot by Leo Tover, Palance goes off the rails as only he can and it’s great to see Smith, Ireland’s answer to Hedy Lamarr, giving her considerable all as the decent, naive Parisian veteran – surely a contradiction in terms. Adapted by Barre Lyndon and Robert Presnell Jr, edited by the marvellous Marjorie Fowler.

The Masquerader (1933)

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What’s better than a Ronald Colman movie? A Ronald Colman movie with TWO Ronald Colmans! And this pre-Code drama about a dissolute English politician John Chilcote whose drug-taking is threatening to wreck his career is a curate’s egg in the sense that while both Colman as the politico and the (obviously identical) cousin, journalist John Loder, who impersonates him to save his reputation both generate very different kinds of heat, you’re looking for the physical seams and if you look hard enough you can spot them. However it’s the content which is truly surprising and this is an adaptation of a pretty nifty novel by Katherine Cecil Thurston which was then turned into a play by John Hunter Booth and very well served in Howard Estabrook’s interpretation, gifted by some great dialogue by Moss Hart. What a team! There are great scenes in parliament and with the women in the man/men’s life – both  Elissa Landi as the estranged wife and Juliette Compton as the mistress give incredibly good performances. Halliwell Hobbes is marvellous as loyal servant Brock. Really, some sharp stuff for its day and some lovely London fog! Shot by Gregg Toland and directed by Richard Wallace. And for another Ronald Colman ‘double’ don’t forget he did the same in The Prisoner of Zenda!

Cynara (1932)

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Fascinating pre-Code melodrama with Ronald Colman as the staid London barrister whose rock solid marriage to the disarming Kay Francis when she takes off for Venice with her flighty younger sister is challenged when Mephistopholean colleague Henry Stephenson manoeuvres him into a romance with attractive shopgirl Phyllis Barry. Cunningly adapted by Frances Marion and Lynn Starling from the novel by Robert Gore-Brown, this is structured as a flashback and there are some startling slices of dialogue to cut through the class froth. This is an opportunity to experience the fragrant charms of cult fave Francis while Colman is typically good. Directed by King Vidor.

A Stolen Life (1946)

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What could possibly be better than a Bette Davis film? Why, a film with two Bette Davis performances, of course! And this, her first self-produced outing, is a compelling drama with that hoary Forties trope of the good twin/bad twin variety. Reserved artist Kate Bosworth (I know…) goes to visit her cousin Charlie Ruggles at the family’s enormous cottage getaway on Martha’s Vineyard only to fall for lighthouse keeper Glenn Ford, whom Davis ensured to cast. Their cosy dates are usurped by the visit of her identical twin Pat, a confident, glamorous and highly sexed character who masquerades as Kate, steals her beau, marries him and then dies in a boating accident with her twin, after which Kate pretends to be her and discovers the truth about her sister’s life …  This is a brilliant, Grade A  melodrama, a blend of noir, horror and psychology, playing on Davis’ complex duality, all set on open seas, fog-enshrouded cliffs, chi-chi Boston townhouses and an artist’s garret. Davis’ performance as her introverted Self and her own Other  – rumoured to be based on professional nemesis Miriam Hopkins! – is captivating. This was technically a remake, the story having already been made in England before WW2, adapted from the source novel by Karel Benes with Elisabeth Bergner in the lead. But this is very much a Hollywood adaptation by Margaret Buell Wilder and the screenplay came from the practised hand of hit playwright and novelist Catherine Turney, a woman regularly hired by Warner Bros for the films of Davis and her other great rival, Joan Crawford. I’ve written an essay on the subject which you can find here:  http://www.offscreen.com/view/double_life_part1.

The Fog (1980)

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‘Tis the season to be spooky! The countdown to Halloween commences. See this wonderful John Carpenter film in its original widescreen version, not the pan/scan version so frequently used on television.  A beautifully shot ghost story, a genuinely eerie tale of a (literal) haunting revenge on the northern Californian coast one hundred years after a shipwreck. A logical conclusion to The Birds (1963), perhaps, featuring Hitchcock’s most memorable heroine, Janet Leigh.