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

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The Deadly Affair (1966)

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I’m a socialist capitalist.  MI6 agent Charles Dobbs (James Mason) is shocked to discover that a Foreign Office official Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) whom he knew has committed suicide following their meeting in a park after which Dobbs cleared him of charges that he was a Communist spy despite his past activities at Oxford as a student. Suspicious circumstances soon point to the death being a murder, and Dobbs investigates further, contacting the victim’s wife, Elsa Fennan (Simone Signoret), a Jewish survivor of a concentration camp. At home his Swedish wife Ann (Harriet Andersson) is carrying on another affair under his nose and this time he doesn’t want to know who it is because when he asked before about her arrangement with his work colleague  it wasn’t to his advantage. One afternoon he arrives to find Ann has a visitor: Dieter Frey (Maximilian Schell), whom he trained years ago and who is now selling chocolate for a firm in Zurich. Ann admits she’s sleeping with him. Despite pressures from senior officials to leave the case, Dobbs continues, hiring veteran cop Inspector Mendel (Harry Andrews) to dig deeper. But Dobbs is being followed and winds up being injured while Mendel is querying a lowlife garage proprietor Adam Scarr (Roy Kinnear) in a pub and now Dobbs is keen to land his prey which involves a trip to the theatre …  I’ve never held your appetites against you. The unaddicted shouldn’t blame the addicted. Adapted by Paul Dehn from John le Carré’s Call for the Dead, the character of Dobbs is actually George Smiley, altered for rights reasons. Sidney Lumet produced and directed this downbeat English-set thriller which is dedicated to procedure, detail and an incredible conflation of the personal and political told across two marriages, unwittingly linked.  Mason is remarkably affecting as Dobbs/Smiley. When his wife confesses the identity of her current lover the ever tolerant Dobbs says he loved him too so he understands completely. There’s a reservoir of hurt in that admission. When you see what he can do with a broken hand to the same man when the chips are down you understand the character’s power and drive. And also the anguish. Ann screams at him, How can you be so aggressive about your job and so gentle about me? Just who is he?!  This truly is the flipside to Mason’s Vandamm. It’s quite bizarre seeing Andersson as his feckless promiscuous wife, living up to everyone’s belief about Swedes, never mind Bergman heroines. Flemyng had played the director of MI5 in the previous year’s spy spoof The Spy With the Cold Nose and had a decent role as Rushington in The Quiller Memorandum the year before that Signoret is hard to watch – a solidified pudding of historical damage. There are recognisable backdrops shot by the gifted Freddie Young – not just the West End where the penultimate setpiece takes place at the Aldwych Theatre but in the bus trips and the docks and the ‘burbs and dull interiors barely enlivened by two-bar electric fires.  There’s a line about a clearly epicene MI5 boss Morton (Max Adrian, who is fabulously OTT) that lands rather too sharply nowadays if you get it: Marlene Dietrich but there’s fantastically good byplay between Dobbs and Mendel particularly when the latter refuses to stoop to an assumptioin and nods off whenever Dobbs talks hypotheticallyStrangely enough, this casting is a link with Mason because Adrian had a role in The Third Man TV series which Mason had turned down and he also had a role in Alfred Hitchcock Presents the same year Mason worked with the director on North By Northwest. You could say there’s a twist ending – as it transpires, and like a lot of le Carré, the entire plot is a twist and it’s unbelievably satisfying.  Lumet and Mason work so well together – the director knew just what Mason could give to this role as they had done three TV plays together in the US. Whatever you gave to him he would take it, assimilate it and then make it his own, Lumet said of the star who was in the ascendant again with this and Georgy Girl – whose breakout star Lynn Redgrave features here, as does her brother Corin.  The final scenes from Peter Hall’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Edward II starring David Warner are a great record of the theatre scene of the time not to mention excruciating to watch (the rectal insertion of a red hot poker:  do keep up) and an utterly drab variation on a Hitchcock thriller’s choreography yet yielding an equally desperate conclusion in the cheap seats. The amusingly intrusive bossa nova score is by Quincy Jones and the mournful theme song by Astrud Gilberto is utilised to cheeky effect in a scene between Mason and Andersson. This is Sixties spycraft at its finest.  It’s not a woman’s play

 

 

The Skeleton Key (2005)

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The thing folks just don’t understand about sacrifice… sometimes it’s more of a trade. Twentysomething Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson), a good-natured nurse living in New Orleans feels guilty about not being around for her father’s death while she was on the road working for rock bands. She quits her job as a carer at a hospice to work at a plantation mansion in the Terrebonne Parish for Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), an elderly woman whose husband, Ben (John Hurt), is in poor health following a stroke. When Caroline begins to explore the couple’s rundown house where Violet bans mirrors, she discovers strange artifacts in a locked room at the back of the attic and learns the house has a mysterious past to do with servants from the 1920s, Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott) and the practice of hoodoo. She realises that Violet is keeping a sinister secret about the cause of Ben’s illness and wants to get the old man out of there. When she appeals to their estate lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) for assistance she finds that he’s not quite what he seems to be …  It gets harder every time. They just don’t believe like they used to. Gotta get ’em all riled up. An immensely appealing excursion into folk horror that is as much about the history of Louisiana and race relations as it is a genre exercise (though it’s a fairly efficient suspense machine too). Beautifully staged and atmospherically sustained by that very stylish director Iain Softley, it’s written by Ehren Kruger, who burst on the scene with the surprising Arlington Road, another look at Americana (of the homebred terror group variety) who has spent his time since this either a) making a shedload of money or b) squandering his immense talent (take your pick – perhaps both?) making the Transformers films. Hudson is very good opposite screen great Rowlands while Hurt spends his time silenced by the stroke, emoting with his eyes and making a failed suicide attempt off a roof. That’s how badly he needs outta here. Gorgeous location shooting around New Orleans and Louisiana make this a feast for the eyes and the twist ending is very satisyfing, cherI don’t believe I don’t believe I don’t believe

An Education (2009)

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If people die the moment that they graduate, then surely it’s the things we do beforehand that count.  In early Sixties London, Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) is a teen with a bright future; she’s smart and pretty and her parents (Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina) want a good life for her so encourage her aspirations of attending Oxford University.  But when David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming but much older suitor, motors into her life in a shiny maroon Bristol, Jenny gets a taste of adult life that she won’t soon forget and it puts everything she’s been working for in jeopardy… Nick Hornby adapted the memoir of Lynn Barber, that acerbic Times columnist, who revealed the shocker of her youth:  her underage romance with a colleague of Peter Rachman, the slum landlord.  David tells Jenny the ‘stats’ he and his mate Danny (Dominic Cooper) haunt are the little old ladies who move out of their flats and sell them for half nothing once the guys move coloureds in next door. She’s just wise enough not to be wholly shocked. She loves everything French and sings Juliet Greco songs and colludes with David in deceiving her parents so that she can lose her virginity to him in Paris.  The beauty of the screenplay is its deadpan humour: she marvels after that episode that all those love songs and poems are written about something that doesn’t last that long. It’s this oblique commentary that saves it from becoming sordid. Her friendship with Helen (Rosamund Pike), Danny’s  gloriously dim but kind and beautiful girlfriend, provides some of the wonderfully observed high points but Jenny conveniently ignores all the signs that something is wrong with this perfect picture. The concerned English teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) who acts as the conscience of the piece turns out to be a mentor of sorts in a stirring coming of age story that is a far from sentimental education. Emma Thompson as the anti-semitic headmistress is a piece of work – she expels Jenny when she learns she’s engaged to a Jew. It’s beautifully handled and performed and London looks just as it should, courtesy of John de Borman’s cinematography. Directed by Lone Scherfig.

Psyche 59 (1964)

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It’s the welfare state. Once they nationalised sex people began to lose interest.  Allison Crawford (Patricia Neal) lost her sight in an accident at her home when she was about to give birth. Married to businessman Eric (Curt Jurgens) she is disturbed when he declares her ravishing younger sister Robin (Samantha Eggar) is not welcome at their house that summer following her divorce in America. However it’s too late, she is arriving imminently. At lunch with Robin, Allison tells her that doctors insist her blindness is psychologically induced but she has no memory of the events leading up to the incident, so her condition persists as ‘hysterical blindness’. Robin pursues a relationship with Eric’s employee Paul (Ian Bannen) but a long-buried memory of Eric’s adultery emerges for Allison as the sisters go to their grandmother’s (Beatrix Lehmann) house in the country with Allison’s young daughters, one of whom she has never seen. When Eric and Paul join them there are terrible tensions and Robin acts out and causes an accident that prompts the return of Allison’s vision – a fact that she keeps to herself… Adapted by Julian Halevy (aka blacklisted writer Julian Zimet) from the novel Psyche 63 by Françoise des Ligneris this is a little-seen melodrama that is worth checking out. The violence of the emotions is what is so striking, reflected in some shot compositions in a film that is a psychological drama but operates like a suspense thriller.  The mystery of Allison’s blindness is front and centre and her grandmother’s obsession with horoscopes guides some of the action. How Allison’s senses – particularly auditory – are heightened is compounded by the significance of objects and her perception of people’s conduct. The way her unconscious knowledge of the affair conducted under her nose is unravelled is fascinating:  she is never fully paranoid but the little teasers of other people’s behaviour fit in with what she knows in her heart to be true. Eggar and Neal are very good as the chalk and cheese sisters – Eggar in particular is a revelation as the screwed-up good time girl determined to taunt Jurgens – and the penultimate scene with Jurgens is quite jaw-dropping. Directed with real verve and distinction by Alexander Singer, who is responsible for the wonderful cult entries A Cold Wind in August and Glass Houses, but worked primarily in TV. There’s some terrific photography by Walter Lassally.

Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

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Sinners is my business. You and that hip-slinging daughter of Satan. You know there’s the smell of sulfur and brimstone about you. The smell of hellfire.  In the 1930s Texan Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) hits the road to search for his long-lost sweetheart Hallie Gerard (Capucine). On the road he meets free-spirited Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda) and she joins him on his trip to New Orleans, where the two find Hallie working at the Doll House, a brothel. When Dove tries to take Hallie away with him, he is confronted by the brothel’s possessive madam, the sapphically-inclined Jo Courtney (Barbara Stanwyck), who is unwilling to give up her favorite employee without a fight and resorts to devious means to keep control … Fabulously pulpy, lurid melodrama that steams up the screen. The female pulchritude and the whiff of perversion make for a pleasing concoction. And then there’s Harvey! There was trouble on set when he said Capucine (producer Charles Feldman’s girlfriend) couldn’t act. He had a point. (I always thought she was a tranny, but now I can’t remember why). Stanwyck is masterful as the Lesbian madam, Fonda oozes sex and Anne Baxter is fantastic in a supporting role (rendered problematic when production had to resume as she was heavily pregnant). John Fante and Edmund Morris adapted Nelson Algren’s novel with an uncredited contribution by Ben Hecht. Edward Dmytryk conducted proceedings, with a score by Elmer Bernstein and the famous song over classic titles by Saul Bass. A fetishistic, campy indulgence.

The Great Gatsby (1974)

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You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can. Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) is a young man from the Midwest living modestly among the decadent mansions of 1920s Long Island. He becomes involved in the life of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford), a rich man who throws the most lavish parties on the island. But behind Gatsby’s outgoing demeanor is a lonely man who wants nothing more than to be with his old love, Nick’s second cousin-once removed, the beautiful Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow). She is married to the adulterous and bullheaded millionaire Tom (Bruce Dern), creating a love triangle that will end in tragedy when a misunderstanding leads Tom’s lover Myrtle (Karen Black) to her death in a road accident and her cuckolded husband seeking revenge … We hear all about Gatsby long before we meet him, even if Nick imagines he sees him on the end of the dock early on, with that green light winking on and off. It’s the perfect way to introduce a character who is a self-made myth. Everyone has a different idea about the protagonist of a novel which itself is a masterpiece of sleight of hand storytelling:  it tells us on page one just how. There are a lot of things to admire about this film which is as hollow with the sound of money as Daisy’s voice:  the design, the tone, the casting, which is nigh-on perfect, but the writing leaves the performances with very little to do. Redford, that enigmatic, elusive, evasive Seventies superstar is the ultimately unknowable, uncommitted actor trying to revivify his past love, even as Daisy cries out to this now-multi-millionaire Don’t you know rich girls don’t marry poor boys? Waterston does his best as the writer/narrator who knows far less than he lets on. Dern probably comes off best as the unfiltered louse Fitzgerald wrote but overall Francis Ford Coppola’s script while faithful cannot replicate symbolic effect and the entire novella represents in the most eloquent language ever written class gone wrong in the ultimate American tragedy. Directed by Jack Clayton.

 

Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967)

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It’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Not often do you hear a line from Milton at the movies, certainly not in a biker film. But this was in the vanguard of that cycle (!) in the late 60s and took the lead from the previous year’s Wild Angels and ran a little farther with Sonny Barger himself on the sidelines. Poet (Jack Nicholson) is pumping gas when he joins Buddy (Adam Roarke) and his gang after having his sickle damaged by one of them and then getting set upon by a bunch of sailors. The Angels take to the road and Buddy’s girl Shill (Sabrina Scharf) becomes the main attraction for this new ‘prospect’ as they ride around and provoke violence among hapless bystanders. This was written by R. Wright Campbell (who wrote a handful of screenplays for Roger Corman) and directed by Richard Rush whose decided distaste for the material is evidenced in a variety of contrasting setups lensed by Leslie (Laszlo) Kovacs who comes into his own with the handheld photography. It starts promisingly, with a riff on Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and there are some quite bizarrely languid pastoral interludes in the breaks between outbursts of violence, which are designed and shot rather amateurishly. It will all end in flames with that woman and those guys involved … It certainly looks like a lot of kicks were had vrooming around CA pretending to be violent while the real Hell’s Angels filled in the bike seats as extras. This is notable as one of those early-ish Nicholson performances where he seems to be almost horizontal in contrast with the perpendicular effortful grimacing of those around him, particularly the leading man, Roarke. B movie directors Jack Starrett and Bruno VeSota appear respectively as the policeman and priest who cross the gang’s path.

Born to be Blue (2015)

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This faux biography of a particular episode in Chet Baker’s life plays fast and loose with the truth – which is not really what you expect. Ethan Hawke is Baker in 1954, when he’s the James Dean of jazz, getting his first hit of heroin; then he’s Baker in 1966, making a film about himself, when his dealer breaks his front teeth and almost ruins his playing career. He takes up with Jane (Carmen Ejogo) the actress playing his ex-wife Elaine and endures the usual cycle of movie portrayals of jazz musicians/junkies:  getting in trouble with the cops, making good with his parents, cleaning up, getting his girl pregnant, getting a chance again, getting hooked again. The big scene – Baker singing My Funny Valentine, the one everyone knows – doesn’t add up to much dramatically speaking despite it being quite literally the sweet spot in his career. The big irony in this interpretation is that he berates his father (Stephen McHattie) for giving up on his talent but then he has so little belief in his own that he thinks he needs heroin to play again at Birdland – a long sought gig  – after he’s got accustomed to his dentures. There are some lines thrown away about the difference between east and west coast music and Baker’s desperate quest to impress Miles Davis. The other subtext of Baker’s story was his weird desire to be part of the black community – hence his relationships with black women one presumes. This just raises more questions than it can answer. A bleak, joyless film that never conveys the utterly unfathomable improvisable beauty of a genre that I love. Written and directed by Robert Budreau.

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

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Aka Love in Las Vegas. The legendary pairing of The King with Ann-Margret is literally the whole show in a town full of them. Even for an Elvis film the storyline is surprisingly weak but the eye-poppingly colourful scene-setting by supreme stylist George Sidney mitigates the problem. Elvis  is Lucky Jackson, a talented singer and driver whose luck has run out so he’s in Vegas to raise money to take part in the Grand Prix. He sees dancer and swimming instructor Rusty (A-M) and is smitten. But so is his rival, Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova). Lucky and Rusty do some sightseeing around the Hoover Dam – nice helicopter views – and we learn a little about Nevada and her good relationship with her father (William Demarest).  Lucky winds up losing all his money in the hotel pool and having to earn his living as a waiter which leads to some nice slapstick serving Rusty and Elmo. Then his luck turns and there is the climactic race across the desert which is pretty well shot and there are some disasters along the route … The songs are terrific and the sequences of the city and casinos are wonderful. You can see Teri Garr in a bit part as a showgirl at one point but the most surprising element is that this was written by Sally Benson, responsible for Meet Me in St Louis. And then there’s the real-life romance between Elvis and Ann-Margret! In the film they marry at the Little Church of the West, the oldest wedding chapel in Vegas.