The Driver (1978)

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You know I don’t like guns. The laconic and enigmatic Driver (Ryan O’Neal) excels at manoeuvering getaway vehicles through the tightest of spots following robberies, making him quite in demand in the criminal underworld. His skill and notoriety, however, infuriate the corrupt Detective (Bruce Dern), who becomes obsessed with taking the Driver down and has issues convincing his cohorts (Matt Clark and Felice Orlandi) on the best way to entrap him. He decides to use Teeth (Joseph Walsh) and his trigger-happy gang, and offers them a deal in a set up robbery. Luckily for the speed-loving anti-hero, the Player (Isabelle Adjani), a gorgeous and resourceful woman, is around to help him elude the Detective… I’ll tell you something, I’m very good at what I do. Who says American cinema doesn’t do existential? Channeling Melville (Jean-Pierre) and Camus this boils the film noir down to essentials and provides a sustained picture of Los Angeles at night often challenged, rarely equalled. From the country and western music played on his Craig electronic notebook (I want one) to his moniker of Cowboy, the western allusions play out with an unexpected shootout involving a man who doesn’t usually carry a gun. The irony of course is in the casting:  Dern once killed John Wayne on screen, so brings that genre baggage to this tapestry of tropes. Writer Walter Hill was making his sophomore directing outing following Hard Times and you can tell he watched a lot of Raoul Walsh movies.  The generic character names are proper archetypes that take flight in this most meticulously conceived actioner, the car chases reminding us of his work as AD on Bullitt (he wrote this for Steve McQueen). There’s astonishing camerawork and shot design by Philip H. Lathrop, who did Shadow of a Doubt and Saboteur with Hitchcock and the opening tracking shot on Touch of Evil, as well as doing a great job on Blake Edwards’ astonishing LA movie Experiment in Terror and The Pink Panther. There are other titles on his resumé, but those are impressive enough credentials for one DoP. The limpid lighting and great cutting make this muscular thriller a visually haunting experience. The scene when the Driver teaches Teeth and his gang how to really drive a Merc in an underground car park is stunning and you know, when you think about it, they’re just driving around a car park.  That’s all. But it’s how they do it that matters. There is a winning simplicity and modernity that bespeaks careful construction to achieve this finessed cinematic affect. And there’s the significance of the cars in the culture and what this is about symbolically, a western scenario unfolding in a lawless town where Dern fancies his chances as omnipotent sheriff irritated by his constantly questioning sidekicks. There’s the usual hilariously inexpressive performing by Adjani, a great supporting role for Ronee Blakley as the Connection and a very satisfying ending. This is why Walter Hill is one of the geniuses of cinema and why O’Neal was a major star, perfect for the era. He looks great, he says little and he does it with surgical exactitude. He and Dern have utterly asymmetrical acting styles and make remarkably memorable complementary foes. One of the great Seventies movies.  How do we know you’re that good?

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Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

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Don’t anyone suppose that because I’m a woman, I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you’re awake, I shall be afield before you’re up, and I shall have breakfasted before you’re afield. In short, I shall astonish you all. In the late nineteenth century in England’s West Country beautiful young Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) inherits a picturesque farm from her uncle and decides to run it herself. Three very different suitors – Francis Troy (Terence Stamp), an intense soldier who has impregnated a maid; William Boldwood (Peter Finch), a prosperous middle-aged farmer; and Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), a neighbouring sheep farmer of modest means – all contend for her hand in marriage and her different attitudes to each of them cause conflict and tragedy … At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be. And whenever you look up, there I shall be. Adapted by Frederic Raphael from Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, this is one of the most gloriously beautiful films of its era, starring some of the most attractive British performers, all shot in almost decadently luminous imagery by the great Nicolas Roeg, a few years from making his directing debut. However none of that would matter if it weren’t for the management of the material which clarifies the novel’s question – how is it possible for a woman to maintain her independence and property while claiming a romantic relationship for herself? The painful issues of patriarchy and community combine when Bathsheba turns down Gabriel’s offer of marriage and she inadvertently triggers a chain of horribly dramatic events in this bucolic setting. It’s director John Schlesinger’s third film with Christie and she’s at the peak of her beauty and charisma playing this passionate girl. You can understand why everybody loves her. A woman like you does more damage than she can conceivably imagine

The Sting (1973)

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I don’t know enough about killin’ to kill him. In Depression-era Chicago following the murder of mutual friend Luther (Robert Earl Jones), smalltime grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) teams up with old pro Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to take revenge on the ruthless crime boss responsible, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) from whom Johnny unwittingly steals. Hooker and Gondorff set about implementing an elaborate scheme, one that involves a lot of other con artists and so crafty that Lonnegan won’t even know he’s been swindled. As their big con unfolds, however, things don’t go according to plan, requiring some last-minute improvisation by the undaunted duo… It’s not like playing winos in the street. You can’t outrun Lonnegan. This unofficial followup to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was huge in its day, just not in my house where I smelled the phoniness as a small child and have to admit despite several efforts over the years never made it through more than the first 25 minutes of this any time it was on TV – until today! So I finally broke my duck. This is gorgeously mounted and the relationship between Newman and Redford plays as well as you’d expect, with a lovely meet-cute – Newman’s face pressed against a wall, asleep, dead drunk. They’re still outlaws, of a sort. The twist is terrific, the long con well staged with lovely silent movie-style inter-titles and the occasional trope from the era for instance a polychromatic montage done to the famous Scott Joplin ragtime adapted by Marvin Hamlisch as The Entertainer, but, but…  I cannot shake what I felt as a child despite everything I know about the movies – it’s just – fake. I cannot take it remotely seriously (I blame Redford, don’t ask me why, I don’t know) despite the performances big and small with some terrific character work by Ray Winston, Charles Durning and Eileen Brennan. And Shaw is fantastic as the nasty crim. As ever! Directed by George Roy Hill, an alumnus of Trinity College Dublin where he trained as an actor with Cyril Cusack.  He would work again with both Redford and Newman, but separately – with the former in The Great Waldo Pepper and the latter in Slap Shot, a personal favourite of this movie maniac. Written by David S. Ward who did a follow up with a different cast. Ho. Hum. Sit down and shut up, will ya? Try not to live up to all my expectations

Stan & Ollie (2018)

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I will miss us when we’re gone. Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy (John C. Reilly) – the world’s greatest comedy team – split in 1937 over contract issues with Hal Roach (Danny Huston) who has made a fortune from them. Years later they are trying to put their differences aside to face an uncertain future as their golden era of Hollywood films remain long behind them. The duo set out to reconnect with their adoring fans and rekindle their career by touring variety halls in Britain and Ireland in 1953 sponsored by the impresario Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones). The shows only become a hit following a terrible start in dingy halls in the north of England when they agree to do some demeaning public appearances and then things take off and they stay at London’s Savoy Hotel.  However they can’t quite shake the past as long-buried tension and Hardy’s failing health start to threaten their precious partnership.  Then their wives arrive and the truth about an anticipated Robin Hood film project emergesTwo double acts for the price of one.  No double act can surpass the pair here (except maybe their wives, played by Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as Ida Laurel) but this is no nostalgic tribute – there’s plenty of salt and a lot of vinegar in this story of how the ageing duo try to forget about why they had an acrimonious split leading to a difficult period offscreen. Stan is forever writing and doing ‘bits’ and Oliver just wants to earn some money and be nice to people. It’s a genuinely touching movie, unafraid to dissect the friendship and cleverly (and very humorously) interweaving familiar film sketches into the day-to-day experiences – their arrival at a terrible hotel in the middle of nowhere is masterful. Both Coogan and Reilly give uncanny performances, filled with humanity and authenticity. And the wives are pretty good too – not to be messed with and having some decent scenes of their own with some ripe exchanges.  There are really three marriages being examined here. The recreation of their arrival in Ireland to a rousing welcome with the church bells of Cork ringing out Dance of the Cuckoos is sure to put a lump in your throat:  they told film critic Derek Malcolm (all of 14 at the time) that it brought tears to their eyes. Adapted by Jeff Pope from A.J. Marriot’s book Laurel and Hardy – The British Tours and directed by Jon S. Baird. I love us./You love Laurel and Hardy

Against All Odds (1984)

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Guys are crippling themselves for you, lady. I could give a shit what you believe. Having been cut from his professional football team the Los Angeles Outlaws after sustaining a shoulder injury, ageing down-and-out athlete Terry Brogan (Jeff Bridges) is in desperate need of money. Crooked nightclub owner and bookie Jake Wise (James Woods) offers Terry a hefty sum to go to Mexico and find his girlfriend, Jessie Wyler (Rachel Ward) the daughter of team owner Mrs Wyler (Jane Greer). Terry is broke and cannot turn the offer down. When he finds Jessie on an island off Mexico, the two fall in love and he reveals to her his guilt over his points-shaving scam with Jake. Terry reports that he failed to find Jessie but Jake sends someone else – the team trainer Hank Sully (Alex Karras) who reveals that he had identified Terry and other debt-laden players to Jake to make them work for him. When a gun falls into Jessie’s hands during a struggle the twists of the plot start being revealed to Terry, the patsy of all time … You got problems now, Terry. You want trouble too? One of the great Eighties thrillers, this remake of Out of the Past (adapted from Daniel Mainwaring’s novel Build My Gallows High, its alternative title) written by Eric Hughes, this is dangerous, surprising, gorgeous to look at (shot by Donald E. Thorin) and literally drenched in sex (one scene is frequently cut from TV broadcast). The central relationship between Terry and Jessie is one of the most cunningly constructed of all movie pairings, a brilliant homage to Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, the original amoral noir girl nicely cast here in the role of Jessie’s powerful mother. Key roles are played by Saul Rubinek and Richard Widmark. The action is superb – what about that chickie race down Sunset! The plotting becomes convoluted, its neo-noir narrative nodding to Chinatown with a property/environment conspiracy backdrop but it’s the twists and turns between this sexy couple that’ll have you panting for more. A sensational film that gets better by the year with a performance by Kid Creole and the Coconuts, one of the many acts on a soundtrack distinguished by the famous title song, by Phil Collins. Directed by Taylor Hackford.  Don’t leave without saying goodbye

The Rake’s Progress (1945)

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Aka The Notorious Gentleman. The private life of a magnificent heel…who brought out the woman in women! Posh boy Vivian Kenway (Rex Harrison) is sent down from Oxford after putting a chamberpot on a beloved statue. He is known as a cad, a playboy and a scoundrel. Seducing his best friend’s wife Jill Duncan (Jean Kent) and his father’s (Godfrey Tearle) secretary Jennifer Calthorp (Margaret Johnston) before ultimately marrying for money may be considered reprehensible and foolish. But when his questionable behaviour results in his serving in the Army during World War II, his actions and decisions just might lead him to redemption after being challenged by his conscience … Eton’s no joking matter old cock. Half the war cabinet came from there.  Zippy, funny and snide, its conclusion may be affected by the recent days of war, but this is a superb entertainment mostly set between 1931-1938, with a raft of comments about class, conduct and notions of masculinity. Harrison is ideally cast in a screenplay written by director Sidney Gilliat with his usual partner Frank Launder and Val Valentine. Harrison’s wife at the time, Lili Palmer, appears in the supporting cast. There’s a wonderful score by William Alwyn. Fast and rather furious about a lot of things.  It’s just that you’re the last straw that’s all. I’m sick and tired of teaching their jobs to gilded youths backed by influence and class privilege, and then watching them end up with better positions than my own

Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)

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Aka SarabandNo one’s safe in love. In the 18th century, Sophie Dorothea (Joan Greenwood) is forced into marriage with Prince George Louis (Peter Bull), an aristocrat destined to inherit the British crown as George I. But when he becomes king, Sophie meets suave Swedish mercenary Count Philip Konigsmark (Stewart Granger) with whom she falls in love.  They decide to flee England together, abandoning her horrific marriage. Their scheme is discovered  however and the lovers must figure out a way to escape while Philip’s previous lover Countess Platen (Flora Robson) plots revenge … My sisters have been liberal with their favours in half the courts of Europe.  Doomed romance! Beautiful costumes! Colour cinematography! John Dighton and Alexander Mackendrick’s adaptation of Helen Simpson’s melodramatic novel about the Hanoverian claim to the British throne hit the ground running for Ealing with the man chat show host Michael Parkinson described as resembling a Maltese pimp setting hearts and more aflutter. Greenwood’s husky voice alone is worth the price of admission. This lavish post-war tale was just what the doctor ordered with the exigencies and privations the nation was suffering in the aftermath of combat. Françoise Rosay makes a wonderfully superior Electress Sophia while Anthony Quayle and Michael Gough line up among the ensemble and the score by Alan Rawsthorne is just swoonsome. Fabulously entertaining, overblown saucy fluff directed by Basil Dearden and produced by Michael Balcon and Michael Relph.  I hear she doesn’t want me for a husband. Well, I sympathise with her – I don’t want her for a wife

Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952)

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This is a story about money … remember it! Ageing heir-less millionaire Samuel Fulton (Charles Coburn) wants to leave his fortune to the unsuspecting family of his first love Millicent Blaisdell but not before testing his prospective heirs by living with them under the guise of a poor boarder under the alias John Smith.  He finds history repeating itself when he leaves them an anonymous bequest and observes Millicent’s daughter Harriet (Lynn Bari) losing the run of herself keeping up with the town’s richies and urging her own daughter Millie (Piper Laurie) to wed the son (Skip Homeier) of a wealthy family instead of Dan (Rock Hudson) who works in her dad’s (Larry Gates) pharmacy while studying at night …  Hot diggity Millie, you’re the cat’s miaow!  Set in Tarrytown, New York at the end of the Twenties, this nostalgia-fest was one of several smalltown films made by Douglas Sirk and his first in glorious Technicolor.  Not quite a musical, it takes its song and dance cues from diegetic sources so we have singalongs courtesy of the wireless and a windup travelling pianola.  This has a sharp moral lesson under the fun and it’s the kids who are smarter than the parents – little Roberta (Gigi Perreau) is the one who knows the value of friendship and paints alongside ‘John Smith’ while he starts working as a soda jerk in the store.  Twenty-one year old James Dean makes his infamous debut as the kid ordering a super-complicated malt to which Coburn makes the disarming retort, Would you like to come in Wednesday for a fitting? Handsome William Reynolds as Howard, the son who gets a gambling habit, would make another notable appearance for Sirk in All That Heaven Allows along with There’s Always Tomorrow, while Hudson and Dean would both make another film together – the legendary Giant. Hudson of course became a star under Sirk’s direction in a handful of productions for Universal. Here he’s comfortable in a funny ensemble piece.  Adapted from a story by Eleanor H. (Pollyanna) Porter by Joseph Hoffman, this is an utter delight, camouflaging its social comment with an abundance of witty lines and smart playing. What else can you expect from the nouveau riche?

Nobody Runs Forever (1968)

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Aka The High Commissioner. He’s got to back to Australia and straighten a few things out. Australian outback police detective Scobie Malone (Rod Taylor) arrives in London to arrest the Australian High Commissioner Sir James Quentin (Christopher Plummer) for the murder of his first wife and return him to Sydney, but his task does not go as planned. The lawman finds himself acting as a bodyguard when assassins start to appear with alarming regularity in this world of international men of mystery.  Quentin’s foreign-born wife Sheila (Lili Palmer) is curious about why Malone is there, while Dutch secretary Lisa Pretorius (Camilla Sparv) is protective of the man she respects above all but it’s beautiful Madame Cholon (Daliah Lavi) who entices him into her bed … Use your own passport and get out. I don’t know you. Taylor produced and did some writing on this adaptation of Jon Cleary’s novel The High Commissioner which is attributed to Wilfred Greatorex. Presumably it’s an attempt to get in on the Bond craze and the settings in London are splendid – all that neon and nightlife and a shootout at Wimbledon and we don’t mean tennis (rather, we do), albeit director Ralph Thomas hardly brings Hitchcockian technique to a scenario reminiscent of The Man Who Knew Too Much. The fish out of water situation is nicely set up – we meet Scobie in the midst of a sheep farm only for him to be swiftly deposited in London to do the political will of the Prime Minister of New South Wales, Flannery (an uncredited Leo McKern) widely believed to be based on real-life politico Sir Robert Askin.  He soon figures this is a setup of sorts and develops a quick empathy with Quentin – triggered by an assassination attempt as soon as they set foot outside the embassy’s front door. His character occupies a position oddly close to a spoof, emphasising his difference from anyone in the diplomatic scene, from his Aussie deadpanning to the beatings he takes and the jibes at London bobbies; while the number of beautiful European ladies points us in their direction even if we don’t know precisely what anyone is spying about or why anyone would try to kill Quentin, who seems to be brokering discussions at a peace conference. Quite why the final scene is left for Quentin to get there first is anyone’s guess. It’s good to see Burt Kwouk in a supporting role and it all makes for some pretty pictures and there’s a good score by Georges Delerue. Produced by Betty Box.

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

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I know a sure cure for a nosebleed: a cold knife in the middle of the back. A mysterious fellow, Tim Foster (Preston Foster) contacts a trio of criminals Pete, Boyd and Tony (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef) to help with a bank heist. The four wear masks and remain strangers to each other, planning to reunite in Mexico to divvy up the loot. Joe Rolfe (John Payne), a down on his luck former GI and ex-con trying to go straight that they framed to take the heat, gets his charges dropped, and the police offer him a reward if he can help recover the cash. But only after they beat up and torture him. He agrees, and when one of the thieves meets his end, Rolfe assumes his identity to catch the crooks… What’s waiting for you, Harris? The chair, the gas chamber, or just a rope? Like all good little noirs, there are lessons to be learned and a steep moral curve is there if you’re looking for it but mainly this is a well managed, pacy heist movie with bristling dialogue. Star Payne and director Phil Karlson did uncredited work on the sharp script attributed to Harold Green and Rowland Brown (story) and George Bruce and Harry Esssex (screenplay). Payne was once famed screenwriter Robert Towne’s father-in-law and had an interesting career, mainly a song and dance man and mostly famous for appearing in Miracle on 34th Street, but then becoming an interesting character actor. This particular production was part of a seven-picture deal with Pine-Thomas Productions to which he eventually obtained the rights. He had showed his dramatic chops paired with Claudette Colbert in Remember the Day and later in The Razor’s Edge and this particular cycle of action/crime films would conclude with Technicolor noir Slightly Scarlet. He then had his own western TV series, The Restless Gun, which ran for two seasons, in which daughter Julie appeared. Her daughter Katharine Towne is now an actress too, carrying on the family tradition. This is an effective thriller, briskly directed by Karlson and performed to the hilt by an ensemble to beat the band – some of those lowlifes are among my favourite character actors, with Coleen Gray and Dona Drake in nice supporting roles. The armoured car heist is superbly simply done in a tough as nails actioner that must have inspired Reservoir DogsIt don’t take no big thinking to figure a couple of guys like us ain’t in this bananaville on a vacation!