Scarlet Thread (1951)

An East End spiv. A 1950s wide boy with cinema accent. Petty thief Freddie(Laurence Harvey) likes to talk jive in an American accent in London’s Soho where he hangs out trying to impress the ladies. He joins forces with suave gangster Marcon (Sydney Tafler) to commit a jewel heist in the University town of Cambridge with (Harry Fowler) driving their getaway car. But loses his never, fires his gun and the victim, an elderly man gets dragged away in the car. When the men are chased through the streets of Cambridge by students they take refuge in the garden of the Master’s house and are greeted by his daughter Josephine (Kathleen Byron) who takes them for graduates and invites them in. Marcon introduces himself as an old student – Aubrey Bellingham – and passes himself off to a visiting vicar but Josephine’s romantic interest Shaw (Arthur Hill) is suspicious and then her aunt (Renee Kelly ) arrives – the woman the men ran into as they escaped their pursuers. And womanising Freddie then takes a fancy to Josephine, then it transpires the man he shot was her father – and the radio news reports the man has died … This university is packed with young men who talk in inverted commas. Lewis Gilbert’s early noirish film provides a great opportunity to see a callow pulpy youthful Laurence Harvey, learning which side of his face was more photogenic and doing the old cheap romance thing with (bizarrely enough) charismatic Byron, she of Black Narcissus with the crazy lipsticked mouth – and the clue to his real British identity recalls that film. How bizarre it is to see these gangsters come a cropper in the rarefied setting of Cambridge University, chased by students in flapping gowns. There’s some genuinely interesting cinematography by Geoffrey Faithfull – over the shoulder tracking behind Tafler (Gilbert’s brother-in-law) and Harvey after the heist goes wrong; point of view shots in the getaway car piloted by Harry Fowler alongside a policeman on a motorbike making good use of the rear view mirror as he sweats at the wheel. The contrast between these surprising crims and the fish out of water setting is jarring but also pleasing, the early Soho scenes with Dora Bryan and the presentation of Harvey as spiv quite fascinating. Not great but it is has its moments, not least when Harvey’s mask (and fake American accent) slips and Tafler’s act as the ancient graduate is very convincing. Adapted by A.R. Rawlinson and Moie Charles from their play. You dance too well. It makes me think of all the women you’ve danced with

Year of the Dragon (1985)

Only one Stanley White. Following the murders of Mafia and Triad leaders in NYC, Polish Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) takes it upon himself to bring down the Chinese organised crime gangs. He’s breaking the long held treaty to permit the Chinese to take care of things in Chinatown. This puts him in conflict with Tony Tai (John Lone) the ruthless leader of the organisation.  It pulls his life apart with his already crumbling childless marriage to nurse Connie (Caroline Kava) collapsing altogether when Stanley falls for the charms of ambitious journalist Tracy Tzu (Ariane). Now Tony has a major shipment coming in from Thailand and Stanley engages in wire tapping for information .. This is America and it’s two hundred years old and you need to change your clocks. This sprawling portrait of the gangs of New York was much misunderstood upon its release but it lays its cards on the table upfront: it’s all in the name (changed) because NYC’s most decorated cop is an unapologetic racist Nam vet and sexist to boot. He’s launching his own tong war. Naturally Rourke plays him as a total charmer and it works:  he has the aura of death about him, his hair is as white as his adopted name and everyone around him seems to get crushed.  As written by Oliver Stone and director Michael Cimino this adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel is remarkably discreet in some areas – and lurid in others. The major love scene between Stanley and Tracy is cleverly done as they tell each other how much they hate each other and then … Her big ‘angry’ scene when he’s moved his team into her preposterously huge loft is amusing because her acting is so poor, all stiff arms like an Irish dancer. Part of the film’s issue representationally is the obvious inexpressivity of the Chinese actors, a physical trait there’s no escaping. They make up for it by killing people. Their treatment historically in the US and their unequal immigrant experience is posited against Stanley’s veteran’s hangups, something that’s used against him.  He wants to sleep with a journalist while both he and Tony decry the media’s role in the portrayal of violence and the way ethnicity is covered. Therefore there is a balance established with Tony – that’s clever storytelling. Lone is super handsome, a great suave villain to play opposite.  The lean way in which the marital story is exposed is a good hook for Stanley’s humanity and it’s the dramatic crutch that assists the outcome. The intra-Asian racism is well dramatised and horrendously violent. Class is an issue that becomes an overriding theme. The whole thing looks incredible – shot by Alex Thomson on a set (by Wolf Kroeger and Victoria Paul) in North Carolina for NYC (except for the views from Tracy’s apartment at the top of the Clocktower Building giving a beguiling view of the city’s skyline).  There’s a fascinating and intricate score by David Mansfield with echoes of phrases from The Deer Hunter. That this is a disguised western is clarified in those final scenes on the railway track. And in this wonderful mesh of genre and tradition there is an honourable way out for one man. What a way to end. Amazingly the role of White (originally called Arthur Powers – but there’s a Stanley White credited as Police Consultant!) was intended for Clint Eastwood. Both he and Paul Newman turned it down. Just as well. Only one Mickey Rourke. He’s a good cop but he won’t stop

The Secret Place (1957)

What you haven’t got you can’t lose. In East London 14-year old Freddie Haywood (Michael Brooke) has a crush on kiosk attendant Molly Wilson (Belinda Lee) who is engaged to Gerry Carter (Ronald Lewis). Gerry is a member of a criminal gang working from a car dealership where Molly’s brother Mike (David McCallum) also works. Gerry, Mike and their friend, Steve (Michael Gwynn) are planning a diamond robbery and need a policeman’s uniform. Molly asks Freddie to borrow the uniform of his policeman father (Geoffrey Keen) without telling him why. After the robbery of a jewellers in Hatton Garden, Gerry hides the diamonds inside Molly’s record player. Not knowing this, Molly gives the player to Freddie as a thank you gift. Freddie discovers the diamonds and the gang go after him to retrieve them… You men. Always taken in by a pretty face. Film editor Clive Donner made his directing debut with this startling film noir. It’s an incredible portrait of a good-natured teen’s misplaced admiration (or love) for the local beauty who’s in with a bad ‘un and dreams of escape, symbolised by the posh apartment he’s chosen for them to live in when they cash in. The potent setting of post-war London in ruins plants the conclusion in an early wide shot with scaffolding in the background – it forms the setting for the fantastic penultimate scenes, beautifully set up by cinematographer Ernest Steward. Tragic beauty Lee is terrific and Lewis is typically impressive as the gangster – how awful that he died by suicide at the age of just 53. But it’s Brooke as the youngster you’ll really remember:  this was in fact his last screen appearance, he later trained in law and was called to the Bar, renowned for obtaining compensation from the NHS for haemophiliacs who received blood transfusions contaminated with HIV. He died in 2014. Written by Linette Perry – her sole screenplay – this is a true British cult classic. You never know what goes on in a child’s heart really

 

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (2020)

Aka Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. I lost all sense of who I was. It’s open season on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) when her explosive breakup with the Joker puts a big fat target on her back. Unprotected and on the run, Quinn faces the wrath of narcissistic crime boss Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor)), his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), and every other vile thug in Gotham. But things soon even out when Harley becomes unexpected allies with three deadly women – Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) out to avenge the murder of her entire Mafia family as a child; club singer Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who’s forced to become Mask’s driver; and hot-tempered suspended cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who’s keen to make her mark in a hostile male environment. And then there’s the tricky street thief Cassandra Cane (Ella Jay Basco) who’s swallowed that diamond with the mob’s bank account details in its mutiple surfaces and that’s what everybody wants most of all Nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence. The sole bright spark in the otherwise execrable Suicide Squad was Robbie’s Quinn so you can see how she might have wanted to bring this powerhouse character back in a more equitable narrative. The driving force is to get the attention of the man who broke up with her, Joker, but as we know from other films, he’s kinda tied up elsewhere  and is quickly forgotten here. The idea of the girl gang that comes to fruition in the final 25 minutes is the MO but intriguingly it’s Harley who needs to be told to ‘focus’ – the other characters are more precisely delineated: the frustrated cop whose throwaway lines are from an 80s cop show, the ingenious pickpocket who unwittingly causes everything, the action babe singer, the highly creative crossbow killer with a serious revenge motive (whose name The Huntress everyone forgets, a nice running joke) which ironically leads to the whole premise being diffused, albeit for a higher feminist purpose. Each of them (bar Harley, who has a penchant for glitter) has a particular fighting style (and the stunts are real something.) McGregor’s psycho villain is thinly drawn and characterised. The fact that the penultimate sequence/showdown takes place in a fun house just exacerbates the cartoonish impact of DC’s all-women superhero squad. Yet it fizzes with antic, frantic, anarchic energy and a sense of its own ridiculousness expressed in many ways but most obviously in the title cards introducing all the characters and the batshit baby doll voiceover. Not to mention that rollerskating Harley’s pet hyena is called Bruce.  And yet it’s a story about female empowerment, diversity and righteous vengeance and is all done with effortless humour because Harley ultimately realises their talents are best deployed against their common enemies – scummy men. Robbie is charm itself and channels her inner Marilyn/Madonna with her performance of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. Written by Christina (Bumblebee) Hodson, produced by Robbie and directed by Cathy Yan. It almost makes you yearn for Tank Girl and Barb Wire, a pair of female action movies from the 90s that just missed their target. Almost. What a breakup movie – it even has a hair-pulling scene. Well what else would you expect from the fractured psyche of a PhD in Psychology? Girl Power kicks ass! You know, vengeance rarely brings the catharsis we hope for

First Love (2019)

First Love 2019

Aka  初恋/Hepburn/Hatsukoi. It’s all I can do. One night in Tokyo, a self-confident young boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) who was abandoned as a child and Monica aka Yuri (Sakurako Konishi) a prostitute hallucinating her late father for want of a fix get caught up in a drug-smuggling plot involving organised crime, corrupt cops and an enraged female assassin Julie (Becky) out to avenge the murder of her boyfriend who may or may be betraying his bosses. Kase (Shota Sometani) is desperate to ascend the ranks and kill whoever crosses his path to help his ambition but is plotting a scam with corrupt cop Otomo (Nao Omori) while the gang has to take on the Chinese but are unaware Otomo has infiltrated their ranks … I’m out to kill! Everybody let’s kill! A typically energetic, funny crime thriller from Japanese auteur Takeshi Miike, with an abundance of identity confusion, revenge, astonishing and surreal violence, savage humour and romance. The kind of film where the line Trust in Japanese cars is delivered with utter seriousness. Quite literally a blast from start to finish with bristling action, beautiful night scenes in neon-lit Tokyo captured by Nobuyashu Kita and brilliantly handled action. Written by Masaru Nakamura and produced by Jeremy Thomas. Still things to do before I die

The Kitchen (2019)

The Kitchen

You’re way worse than we ever were. Between 8th Avenue and the Hudson River, the Irish mafia runs 20 blocks of a tough New York City neighbourhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. In the 1970s Irish-American gang wives Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss), things are about to take a dramatic and radical turn. When the FBI’s agent Gary Silvers (Common) sends their husbands to prison after a robbery, the three women take business into their own hands by taking the rackets out of the hands of Little Jimmy Quinn (Myk Watford) and taking out the competition. Kathy’s husband Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James) is low on the totem pole but she’s a take charge kind of woman and her own dad Larry (Wayne Duvall) ends up realising she’s Queen of the Micks. For Ruby, a black woman married to Kevin (James Badge Dale) whose mother Helen (Margo Martindale) pulls the strings while he’s away, it’s never going to be easy in an Irish neighbourhood. Claire is downtrodden after years of beatings by her husband. They agree to an alliance with Mob boss Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp) but their diverging ambitions create tensions and when their husbands get out of jail months earlier than anticipated things go off I never felt safe. No woman does. And now I do. I put me first. Writer/directorAndrea Berloff makes a fantastically impressive debut with this atmospheric picture of low-level Irish-American crims in 70s NYC. Each of the women has a personal issue – with Kathy it’s a weak husband; Ruby, who gives new meaning to the term Black Irish, has a secret that is revealed in a satisfying twist three quarters of the way through;  Claire’s victimhood is writ so large even a homeless stranger attacks her when she’s volunteering at the convent. Each goes through a revolution and hers is through ultraviolence via a mentoring relationship with her new boyfriend, psychotic ‘Nam vet Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson) who teaches her not just to kill but to strip corpses and dump them in the right part of the river. Unfairly compared with the sleek slick big screen adaptation of Widows whose broad contours it limns, this is down and dirty and relatable, and there’s a trio of powerhouse performances leading the way, tramping the streets of the city, getting to know everyone and taking their money. Or shooting them on the front stoop when they don’t pay up. You go girls!! Isn’t it nice to see Annabella Sciorra again in the role of Coretti’s kind wife. Based on the DC Vertigo comic series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle. We’re doing good in the community

Bugsy (1991)

Bugsy

I don’t go by what other men have done. Gangster Ben ‘Bugsy’ Siegel (Warren Beatty), who works for Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) and Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano (Bill Graham), goes west to Los Angeles and falls in love with Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) a tough-talking Hollywood starlet who has slept around with several men, as he is regularly reminded by his pals, who he meets on a film set where his friend George Raft (Joe Mantegna) is the lead.  He buys a house in Beverly Hills and shops at all the best tailors and furnishes his house beautifully while his wife Esta (Wendy Phillips) and young daughters remain in Scarsdale, New York. His job is to wrest control back of betting parlours currently run by Jack Dragna (Richard Sarafian) but life is complicated when Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) robs one of his places – Bugsy decides to go into business with him instead of punishing him and puts him in charge of casinos, while Dragna is forced to admit to a raging Bugsy that he stole $14,000, and is told he now answers to Cohen. On a trip to a deadbeat casino in the desert Bugsy dreams up an idea for a casino to end all casinos, named after Virginia (Flamingo), bringing the stars to Nevada but the costs overrun dramatically and his childhood friend Lansky is not happy particularly when it seems Bugsy might be aware that Virginia has cooked the books … Looks matter if it matters how you look. Warren Beatty’s long-cherished project was written by James Toback and Beatty micro-managed the writing and production and the result is one of the most powerful and beautiful films of the Nineties:  a picture of America talking to itself, with a gangster for a visionary at its fulcrum, building a kingdom in the desert as though through damascene conversion while being seduced by Hollywood and its luminaries, watching his own screen test the most entertaining way to spend an evening other than having sex. It sows the seeds of his destruction because his inspiration is his thrilling and volatile lover and making her happy and making a name for himself but it’s also a profoundly political film for all that, as with most of Beatty’s work. It’s undoubtedly personal on many levels too not least because the legendarily promiscuous man known as The Pro in movie circles impregnated his co-star Bening who was already showing before production ended. They married after she had his baby and have remained together since. His avocation of the institution is an important part of the narrative and gangsterism is a version of family here too but he chases tail, right into an elevator and straight to his penthouse too. Perhaps he wants to show us how it’s done by the nattiest dresser in town. It’s a statement about how a nation came to be but unlike The Godfather films it’s one that demonstrates how the idea literally reflects the image of the man who dreams it up in all his vainglory:  he enjoys nothing more than checking his hair in the glass when he’s kicking someone half to death (perhaps a metaphor too far). He is a narcissist to the very end, charming and totally ruthless while Ennio Morricone gives him a tragic signature tune. Impeccably made and kind of great with outstanding performances by Beatty, Bening and Kingsley. Directed by Barry Levinson. I have found the answer to the dream of America

The Brink’s Job (1978)

The Brinks Job theatrical

You know the trouble with you?  You don’t read the comic books, you just look at the pictures. On 17th January 1950, a group of unlikely criminal masterminds commits what became known as the robbery of the century. Led by petty thief Tony Pino (Peter Falk), fresh out of prison, who accidentally finds out that Brink’s security arrangements are unbelievably lax, and arrogant fence Joe McGinnis (Peter Boyle), who specialises in planning lucrative capers.  Tony recruits his wife Mary’s (Gena Rowlands) thick brother Vinnie (Allen Goorwitz), smooth Jazz Maffie (Paul Sorvino), anxious Specs O’Keefe (Warren Oates) and Stanley Gusciora (Kevin O’Connor). The gang robs Brink’s main office in Boston of more than $2 million. However, things begin to go wrong when McGinnis refuses to hand over the loot and Specs and Stan decide to do some shoplifting. The FBI gets involved, with J. Edgar Hoover (Sheldon Leonard) taking a personal interest and setting up a make-shift office in Boston specifically to investigate the case, while the cops start cracking down on the gang. Specs and Stan get lengthy prison terms for their petty thieving and the goons start pressuring them to talk Aren’t you glad your father caught the boat? Despite the meticulous period reconstruction this never really leaps to life until Warren Oates enters the drama and connects with the story but his melancholy performance as a damaged Iwo Jima veteran unhinges it somewhat.  That’s partly because this true crime story can’t decide if it’s comic or dramatic and lurches tonally like an out of control pendulum, shifting from farce to realism and back again. The surprise is that William Friedkin is the director because it lacks the sure-handedness and energy that characterise his work. It concludes on a jaunty note that somewhat redeems the excursions into betrayal and a postscript informs us that the motley crew got out of prison after 14 years, living comfortably [presumably off the proceeds of the job] while only $50,000 was ever recovered by authorities. Based on Noel Behn’s Big Stick-Up at Brink’s, adapted by Walon Green, this is fascinating for students of Friedkin but disappointing overall with its indecisive style. This joint’s mine. I own this joint!

The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972)

The Magnificent Seven Ride

Aka The Magnificent Seven 4Seven’s always been my lucky number. Former gunslinger Chris Adams (Lee Van Cleef) has put his rowdy days behind him, settling down with new wife Arrilla (Mariette Hartley) and serving as the sheriff of his town in the Arizona territory. When his old pal Jim Mackay (Ralph Waite) asks for help defending the border town of Magdalena, Mexico, from a marauding bandit named Juan De Toro (Ron Stein) and his 50-strong band of outlaws, Chris refuses. Arrilla persuades him to reluctantly release teenage bankrobber Shelly Donovan (Darrell Larson) but Donovan and his gang kidnap and hang her after they rob another bank and wound Chris in the getaway. He then enlists a cutthroat gang of prisoners led by Mark Skinner (Luke Askew) to help him get revenge, pursuing De Toro into Mexican territory and helping a town of women who’ve been raped by the marauding men, including widowed mother Laurie Gunn (Stefanie Powers), while newspaper reporter Noah Forbes (Michael Callan) accompanies him to document the latest events in his storied career out West as he kidnaps De Toro’s woman (Rita Rogers) setting up a shootout to even the score … There sure has been a lot of killing since I met you. With Lee Van Cleef in the saddle as the redoubtable Chris, you know you’re in good hands. If it never feels exciting, exactly, there’s a decent plot by Arthur Crowe that turns the screws more than once, it has pretty good roles for two of my favourite actresses and it’s all set up well visually by director George McCowan and cinematographer Fred Koenekamp. And there’s still the variation on that legendary score by Elmer Bernstein anchoring the action which is pretty much nonstop. Don’t die just ridin’, that’d be a real anti-climax

Knight and Day (2010)

Knight and Day

Sometimes things happen for a reason. June Havens (Cameron Diaz) is a car fanatic preparing to board a flight back home for her sister’s wedding when she bumps into Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) in the middle of a busy airport. A few minutes later, they’re making small talk on the plane when June excuses herself to the bathroom, and all hell breaks loose in the fuselage. By the time June emerges with her makeup fixed and ready for some romance, Roy has killed everybody on board, including the pilots. After crash-landing the plane in a darkened cornfield, Roy tells June that she should expect a visit from government agents, but warns her that by cooperating with them she risks almost certain death. He drugs her and she wakes up at home the following day, and his prediction comes true when June is confronted by a group of CIA agents who come under heavy fire while bombarding her with questions about her mysterious companion who it transpires is a lethal CIA operative who is to be feared. Suddenly, Roy is back, whisking June away to safety and away from her ex, fireman Rodney (Mark Blucas).  Before long the girl who never travelled far from home and doesn’t even possess a passport is off on an impromptu global adventure that takes her from the Azores to Austria, France, and Spain. Somewhere in all of the confusion and gunfire, June begins to forge a bond with Roy, a disgraced spy who’s trying to clear his name while trying to avoid being murdered. Unfortunately, it’s never quite clear whether he’s one of the good guys and by the time he reveals that he’s attempting to protect a valuable new energy source, a never-ending battery hidden in a toy knight and created by an autistic wunderkind called Simon Feck (Paul Dano), he’s got to protect him from not just his former colleague Fitz (Peter Sarsgard) but also a gang keen to get it for themselves … Nobody follows us or I kill myself and then her. A completely nutty action comedy with thrills, spills and mayhem is just what the doctor ordered so here it is, a star vehicle perfectly tailored to the respective talents of Cruise and Diaz, previously paired in the rather (in)different Vanilla Sky and taking place on planes, trains, automobiles and motorbikes. And yet they weren’t meant to be the stars when this was originally mooted and of the twelve writers – you read correctly, twelve – only one, Patrick O’Neill, gets credited. It takes some narrative shortcuts – every time June might pose a problem, Roy drugs her – but he doesn’t take advantage (no, really!) and she has some skills, and she gets to use them in the wittiest way possible no matter that she might fire off in all directions. Totally left field, barmy fun with amazing stunts, a stunning car-bike chase in the middle of a bull run and a nice twist ending. That’s Gal Gadot as a spy in a restaurant. Directed by James Mangold. Who are you?