Fear in the Night (1972)

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Aka Dynasty of Fear/Honeymoon of Fear. Your pretty little brand new wife.  The fragile wife Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson) of teacher Robert (Ralph Bates) is attacked in the bathroom of her boarding house by a man with a mechanical arm but nobody believes her and she is briefly institutionalised prior to his taking a job at a small prep school outside London run by Michael Carmichael (Peter Cushing) a mysterious figure whose wife Molly (Joan Collins) Peggy instantly dislikes. Soon Peggy identifies Carmichael’s arm from the earlier attack and left alone by Robert one evening takes out the shotgun to exact revenge when Michael is visiting her but for some reason he can’t be killed. When Robert returns a plot is revealed in a school that isn’t open at all  … I spilled something. The contours of this resemble another school thriller, the French classic  Les Diaboliques, which director (and writer/producer) Jimmy Sangster had already transposed into a Hammer film for Seth Holt in A Taste of Fear a decade earlier. The marital triangle contrived here with co-screenwriter Michael Syson is more straightforwardly adapted in this version, with the relentless pressure on Peggy like a time bomb waiting to go off in the audience as well in what is also an alternate take on Gaslight. The very ordinariness of the physical situation somehow makes it horribly plausible and Geeson’s torment is clarified in her impressively detailed performance. It’s a fantastic role for her but Collins doesn’t get enough to do (even as a trigger happy sculptress!) and never shares time with Cushing, her screen husband. There’s an excellent use of flashbacks and a wonderful plot twist. And there’s a shot of Cushing – when he’s shot! – that I’ll never forget. Never mind his arm, what about those spectacles … I’ll find Michael. And if he’s still alive I’ll kill him!

A Simple Favour (2018)

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Are you going to Diabolique me?  Perky smalltown single mom and vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is swept away by her new friendship with the glorious Emily (Blake Lively) PR director to obnoxious NYC fashion maven Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend), too busy in her professional life to do anything but show up occasionally to collect her little son from school. While fellow moms inform Stephanie that she’s just a free babysitter she’s convinced she and Emily are best friends because they bond over a daily martini at Emily’s fabulous glass modernist house until one day she gets a call from Emily to look after her kid and Emily doesn’t return. Stephanie’s daily vlogs get increasingly desperate as the days wear on. After five days she can’t take it any more. She gets embroiled in a search along with Emily’s husband, the blocked author Sean Townsend (Henry Golding) for whom she has a bit of a thing until she decides to dress up and play Nancy Drew when she discovers Emily had a very good life insurance policy… She’s an enigma my wife. You can get close to her, but you never quite reach her. She’s like a beautiful ghost.  While the world gets its knickers in a twist about female representation along comes Paul Feig once again with an astonishing showcase for two of the least understood actresses in American cinema and lets them rip in complex roles that are wildly funny, smart and pretty damned vicious.  This adaptation by Jessica Sharzer of Darcey Bell’s novel has more twists and turns than a corkscrew and from the incredible jangly French pop soundtrack – which includes everyone from Bardot & Gainsbourg and Dutronc to Zaz – to the cataclysmic meeting between these two pathological liars this is bound to end up in … murder! Deceit! Treachery! Nutty betrayals! Incredible clothes! Lady parts! Revelations of incest! Everything works here – from jibes about competitive parenting and volunteering, to the fashion business, family, film noir, Gone Girl (a variant of which is tucked in as a sub-plot), heavy drinking, wonderful food, electric cars.  And again, the clothes! Kudos to designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus who understands how to convey personality and story. Never wear a vintage Hermès scarf with a Gap T-shirt. If you were truly Emily’s friend, you would know that It’s wonderfully lensed by John Schwartzman, one of my favourite cinematographers and the production design and juxtapositions sing. This is an amazing tour of genres which comes together in two performances that are totally persuasive – in another kind of film Kendrick and Lively might have to tell each other You complete me:  the shocking flashbacks to their pasts (which are both truthful and deceitful) illuminate their true characters. This is that utter rarity – a brilliantly complicated, nasty and humorous tale of female friendship that doesn’t fear to tread where few films venture. It’s an epic battle of the moms. Film of the year? I’ll say! I am so glad that this is the basis of my 2,000th post. Brotherfucker!  MM#2000

 

They Were Sisters (1945)

They Were Sisters

 

 

 

She’s the kind that likes a man that wipes the floor with her. In 1919 three middle-class sisters meet the men they marry and the marriages develop into very different types of relationships. Twenty years later Lucy Moore (Phyllis Calvert) is happily married to her loving husband, the gentle William (Peter Murray-Hill) who has compassion and bases their marriage on understanding. She showers love and affection on her nieces and nephew, since she is unable to bear children of her own. Vera Sargeant (Anne Crawford), is also married to a very loving but fatally dull husband, Brian (Barry Livesey).  She never loved him and indulges her unhappiness with countless affairs and pays little heed to their young daughter. In 1939 both women become worried about their other sister, Charlotte Lee (Dulcie Gray), who cowers in fear of her manipulative and emotionally abusive husband, the sneering scowling Geoffrey (James Mason).  He is a monster and sadist who has picked at Charlotte, belittling her and turning her into a submissive drudge, bullying her to the point of alcoholism. He adores his older daughter Margaret (Pamela Mason) who works for him in his home office where he sells insurance but merely tolerates their younger son and daughter, at best. When Lucy attempts to get help for her, but fails because Geoffrey becomes aware of the failed appointment with a doctor when Vera puts her lover first instead of helping divert him from home, Gray commits the ultimate act of self-harm … Everything I’m used to has given me up. Quite an extraordinary entry in the Gainsborough ‘genre’ – stories of cruelty, the battle of the sexes and violently fantastical romances this is instead a contemporary story of domestic abuse and one lacking the allure of a Regency narrative with a seductive saturnine brute. Mason is just a commonplace bully keen to reduce his wife to nothing – which is what she becomes and her children and sisters are ultimately helpless to break the relationship with Geoffrey. Adapted by Katharine Strueby from Dorothy Whipple’s novel, the screenplay is by Roland Pertwee, who plays the coroner’s court judge. The ties that bind family are explored and the psychology of the bully brilliantly exposed in a drama that does not flinch from showing precisely how women are destroyed by men and lose their sense of self in incompatible unions:  this is a cautionary tale like few produced in British cinema. Weirdly, Charlotte and Geoffrey’s elder daughter is played by Mason’s wife Pamela (Kellino), the daughter of the film’s producer, Maurice Ostrer:  their physical likeness is uncanny. Mason was none too happy about being boxed in these kinds of roles and when he’s reduced to even being cruel to the young son about the dog he’s bought to bribe him and his sister you understand his point: this is a women’s picture, told for the benefit of those caught in terrible relationships. When Vera finally elects to leave her loveless domain and move abroad with the one man she has ever loved, it is at the expense of losing her daughter, who doesn’t even miss her. That the kind and childless Lucy winds up looking after both sister’s children is a dramatic irony that clearly struck people in the aftermath of World War 2.  Gray is wonderful as the woman who simply cannot take it any more while Calvert and Murray-Hill make for an utterly believable couple. This magnificently soapy modern Gothic story of gaslighting was number 4 at the box office on its release. Directed by Arthur Crabtree and produced by Michael Balcon. There are a million families like us

 

 

Experiment Perilous (1944)

Experiment Perilous

If any man had one moment of sanity, in that one moment, he would take himself out of this world. When psychiatrist Hunt Bailey (George Brent) encounters elderly Clarissa ‘Cissie’ Bedereaux (Olive Blakeney) during a violent storm on a cross-country train trip in 1903, his unusual relationship with the strange Bedereaux family begins with an introduction by his friend on arrival in New York. Suspicious of Cissie’s sudden death by heart attack at her brother’s house just hours after they parted and entranced by a painting he sees of Allida (Hedy Lamarr), the gorgeous but troubled wife of Nick Bedereaux (Paul Lukas), Hunt sets out to discover if Allida is really insane, as her husband claims – or if Nick is the disturbed one. He finds a he said-she said scenario but starts to believe Nick is gaslighting Allida when he overhears a suspicious conversation between Nick and their young son whom the man appears to have imprisoned at the top of a spiral staircase.  He now believes Nick is mad and Allida is in danger … Life is short and the art long. Decision difficult, experiment perilous.  Warren B. Duff’s screenplay (adapting a novel by Margaret Carpenter) is an efficient entry in the Gothic genre that took off during WW2. Director Jacques Tourneur handles it well enough but it doesn’t have the kind of tension that marks out the classics. Lukas is never as threatening as you would hope and Brent is as usual the classy caring handsome gent we all know and love but the action has no compelling line. It’s worth seeing for Lamarr, that stunning and poorly deployed actress who takes on a type of role made famous by Ingrid Bergman and applies her own particularly distanced interpretation, with the maternal focus lending it a poignancy.  That Lukas is the older husband who groomed a much younger wife for society has its echoes in Lamarr’s own biography. The strangers on a train inciting incident is well constructed and the social scene nicely established but the cod-psychiatry might irritate.

My Cousin Rachel (2017)

 

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Daphne du Maurier’s novels have never really gone out of fashion, certainly not Rebecca, but this nineteenth century-set variation on gaslighting and Gothic has not been a favourite. Already adapted in 1952 starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton, it gets a run through in a new British version written and directed by Roger Michell. Sam Claflin is Philip the devoted cousin of Ambrose Ashley whose illness drives him to the sun and Italy where he falls for the half-Italian Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and his letters home indicate that she means him ill. When Philip goes to Italy he discovers his cousin is dead, Rachel has vanished and the house is empty with only a man called Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) to suggest what might have happened. Rachel then materialises at Ambrose’s estate in England where Philip is running the show. He wants to kill her and avenge this monster for his cousin’s supposed murder…. but she is stunningly beautiful and she bewitches first his dogs, then him. His godfather Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) warns him off her and his daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger) who is Philip’s presumed future wife also sees that he is enchanted by her. His own doltish undeveloped sexuality means he is wholly taken in by her – and then means to have her, at whatever cost. She prepares tisanes for him that seem designed to poison him but he rushes into a financial settlement upon his coming of age despite evidence that she is sending vast sums of money abroad: a marriage would seem to be the solution to his carnal needs and her avarice. The combination of two attractive players who nonetheless appear to be in parallel universes doesn’t help this interesting interpretation of toxic relationships and male paranoia that wraps around a mystery that isn’t particularly puzzling:  she is after her late husband’s money. The shock of what Rachel does after a bout of al fresco sex in a bluebell wood is one of the several juxtapositions that reminds one that this is a very modern take on a tale that is old as the hills:  marriages are never equal and relationships based on revenge are never going to end well.

The Girl on the Train (2016)

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Spoiler alert:  don’t read this if you haven’t seen it! Paula Hawkins’ thriller novel was the watercooler special last year – the tale of Rachel (Emily Blunt), a sorry alcoholic divorcee who pretends to her roommate that she goes to work every day on the train but in truth is rambling around London unemployed. Her train route passes her old house where her husband is still ensconced but with the woman he married and their baby and down the street the young woman who appears to be having an affair disappears and our protagonist believes she’s been murdered. But she’s had a blackout and she finds herself at home covered in blood and thinks that she must have done it and works to clear her name. A good premise – but in truth the book shuffled back and forth from different characters and time frames and you had to leaf back through it to remember who was who and what was what … and you know what? It was a structure that made it seem better than it was. And so we have a change of location – to Westchester, NY, despite two English principals, Emily Blunt and Luke Evans, with no evident rationale. There is no attempt to establish a sense of place. The shooting style, editing, C-list casting choices and screenplay adaptation (altered very little, bad, bad idea…) means that there is effectively very little mystery, and it’s all handled so ineptly by director Tate Taylor that at the screening I attended, when Justin Theroux has the screwdriver plunged and turned harder into his neck (kinda like what Emily has been doing all along, just to bottles) people laughed out loud. You might make a claim for abject maternity (can’t have/won’t have/has baby and lords it over everyone) but that would be to give it credence. Worse than Thursday nights on Lifetime channel, this is dire beyond belief. It’s extraordinary that this trash was released by a major studio in this kinda shape and I’ll wager only Emily Blunt’s presence precluded it being quietly dumped. This was evidently fixed after a cut was delivered:  can you actually conceive of a film being any worse than this?! Money back? I wish! I need a drink …

Gaslight (1944)

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Patrick Hamilton’s play gets the big screen treatment with Anton Walbrook … oh no! That’s the one I love! And this is the other one, with Boyer and Bergman. Oh well. That’s TCM for you – false advertising, false hope. When Hollywood got their mitts on this they tried to destroy all the prints of the 1940 English adaptation directed by Thorold Dickinson, but thankfully for the movie lover, they never burned the negative. Anyhow, here we are with the American version, adapted by John Van Druten and Walter Reisch, which director George Cukor said was as happy a collaboration as you would want – until all those writers got ideas about ‘saying something.’  (John Balderston also did some work on it, but we weren’t supposed to know about it.) A big backstory is added with Charles Boyer seducing the teenaged Bergman in Italy where she was removed after witnessing the death of her aunt, a well-known opera singer, whose career she cannot hope to emulate. Her new husband persuades her to return to the scene at Thornton Square and then proceeds to drive her mad. This is where the term ‘gaslighting’ originated and it is steeped in the Gothic romance films of the period, which commenced with Rebecca. It’s a departure for Cukor, who was heavily dependent on the amazing production design which stuffs the house with clutter and ornamentation and is stifling in the peculiar way that post-Victorian decor can be. The lights dim, there are odd noises, and the snarky spiteful maid (Angela Lansbury) is in cahoots with the master. Bergman studied a mentally ill woman to convincingly portray a woman losing it; Boyer just doesn’t do it for me – he’s too obviously a villain in that Continental manner. (Whereas Walbrook … ooh, missus!). It’s Lansbury who’s astonishing. She was new to Hollywood, the 17-year old daughter of actress Moyna MacGill and wrapping gifts in Bullocks when Cukor was told about this recent emigrée from the blitzed city where this was set. And THIS was her first screen appearance? Wow!!!! I still prefer the original, though. Ahem.

Midnight Lace (1960)

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Just how much do we love Doris Day? Oh, let us count the ways! Probably better appreciated nowadays for her work as a brilliant comedienne, she also did the odd dramatic work and acquitted herself extremely well. Here she’s the housewife in London terrorized by a series of phonecalls in which an unknown voice tells her she’s going to be murdered. Janet Green, who wrote the stage play, was a noted screenwriter with a venerable body of work and this was quite a hit in London in its day. Ivan Goff and  Ben Roberts (who simultaneously had the similarly themed Lana Turner vehicle Portrait in Black on release)  adapted it for the screen. Reunited here with director David Miller who had a great record bringing Oscar noms to actors, she is definitely in a Universal Picture:  Ross Hunter along with her husband Martin Melcher on producing duties, Russell Metty doing the cinematography and art direction by Robert Clatworthy and Alexander Golitzen. There is Sexy Rexy Harrison as Doris’ elegant husband and a wonderful supporting cast including Myrna Loy, Roddy McDowall, Herbert Marshall, Natasha Parry, Hermione Baddeley and Hitchcock favourite John Williams as the Inspector along with Anthony Dawson  (also from Dial M for Murder) in the lineup. As you might surmise, this is indeed another case of Marriage is Murder. London at the time was quite the location as we know from previous outings. (I want a flat in St James’, and in this life, please). Not the greatest thriller of its time but boy is it fun! Now:  when is someone going to screen Sudden Fear (1952), directed by Miller and starring Joan Crawford?!

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

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An extraordinary film in so many ways. A woman bewitches a man and ruins his life. Or does he destroy hers? She is Gene Tierney, a performer whose legacy is little recognised today but she had a great run in the 1940s. He is Cornel Wilde, a mild presence at best, perfectly suited as the mediocre writer who doesn’t quite know what he’s getting into by marrying a woman whose father he closely resembles. Or does he? She walks out on her fiance, she marries him instead, kills his crippled brother in a scene that remains one of the best ever filmed and then she kills their unborn child and THEN … frames him for her own murder after she discovers his love for her cousin, brought up as her adoptive sister and to whom he has dedicated his latest book. She might be one of the most evil women who ever lived in anyone’s imagination, or one of the most wronged. After all, didn’t he want her as a muse? And then dragged all manner of people into their domestic environment. She says early on, Every book’s a confession. And he is wanting for inspiration. Jo Swerling was enlisted by fabled producer Darryl F. Zanuck to adapt Ben Ames Williams’ bestselling novel which Tierney read and then petitioned for the role. Amazing houses, wonderful cinematography by Leon Shamroy, sublime costuming (Kay Nelson with a helping hand from Oleg Cassini) and effective direction by John M. Stahl, responsible for so many terrific melodramas. This is framed as a film noir with its flashback narration but really belongs in that genre. Tierney is genius.