The Return of Frank James (1940)

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I can’t talk without thinking, not being a lawyer. When Jesse James’s murderers the Ford Brothers are set free, his brother Frank (Henry Fonda) who’s been lying low farming, vows revenge and, accompanied by his gang, sets out to track them down. To fund his manhunt, he robs an express office and is subsequently wrongly accused of the clerk’s murder, but an aspiring newspaper reporter Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney) is determined to find out the truth… Sam Hellman wrote a sequel to the earlier Henry King film and it was directed by renowned German director Fritz Lang, his first colour film and his first western. Notable for also being Tierney’s acting debut, she was appalled at her voice and thought she sounded like an angry Mickey Mouse:  she remedied the problem by developing a lifelong smoking habit. She plays nicely opposite Fonda who returns from the earlier film and has several great scenes, including the theatre episode when he’s watching a dramatic ‘re-enactment’ portray his brother’s murder by the Fords while he runs away – the Fords play themselves – and registers his disgust, drawing their attention to him and commencing a chase with Bob Ford (John Carradine). There’s a very funny scene when he and young brother Clem (wonderfully characterised by Jackie Cooper) imprison a nosy Pinkerton detective who’s alerted Stone to their true identities. When justice is finally seen to be done after a trial, Clem steps in to help and the final scene between them is very touching. Wonderfully staged and played, this is a consummate, straightforward revenge western, well told.

 

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The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

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

Black Widow (1954)

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Writer/director/producer Nunnally Johnson had a great career as one of the finest screenwriters in Hollywood but he made some mis-steps when he moved to producing and directing and this is one of them. At a theatre world party, ambitious young writer Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner) weasels her way into the affections of married producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin) whose actress wife Iris (Gene Tierney) is away. She is then found dead in his apartment a presumed suicide but it swiftly becomes a murder investigation and Peter is the chief suspect. Neighbours Lottie Marin (Ginger Rogers) – another famous actress  – and her husband Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner) are concerned for their friend’s situation. Nancy was staying with a brother John (Skip Homeier) and sister Claire (Virginia Leith) from the Amberlys, a wealthy family, and it appears from Peter’s investigations that she had designs on the brother, as well as any man who could give her a leg up, as it were, but there’s a letter produced from Nancy that states she is pregnant by a man with a famous wife called Iris. George Raft is the detective on the case … Adapted by Hugh Wheeler from Patrick Quentin’s novel and with a screenplay by Johnson himself, this manages to fail on many fronts despite wonderful star wattage on display albeit some of the performances are poor. There is no attempt to conjure the attractions of Broadway despite the location shoot and the widescreen process doesn’t aid the suspense. The most arresting characterisation comes from Leith who had a very short career and her most infamous appearance was in a sci-fi called The Brain That Wouldn’t Die as a decapitated head. That’s showbiz.

The Mirror Crack’d (1980)

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Oh joy! An Agatha Christie murder mystery set in the 1950s on location in England with … four of the era’s real-life stars in the leading roles! What a brilliant idea, at least. Elizabeth Taylor re-enacts a story Christie knew about Gene Tierney who was embraced by a fan at the Hollywood Canteen while Tierney was pregnant with her first child by husband Oleg Cassini. The fan had left quarantine where she was languishing with German measles. Tragically, Tierney’s daughter was born blind and deaf and severely retarded as a result of the woman’s selfishness. Christie took the idea and ran with it, bringing movie star Marina Rudd on location to film the story of the sisters Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots with old rival Lola Brewster (Kim Novak) a production being directed by her husband Jason (Rock Hudson) and produced by Lola’s husband Marty (Tony Curtis). This was Taylor and Hudson’s second film together twenty-five years after the epoch-defining Giant. A chance meeting at the launch party brings Marina into contact with the woman who she now realises had infected her at a theatre during WW2 and the woman is murdered then anonymous letters start arriving … Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler adapted the novel, John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin produced and Guy Hamilton directed, with Angela Lansbury playing Miss Marple in what proved to be an audition for Murder, She Wrote. She is accompanied by her nephew at Scotland Yard Dermot Craddock (Edward Fox):  there’s a top-notch cast list with Pierce Brosnan to be spotted in a small role. And when was the last time you saw Anthony Steel?!  This isn’t the tense mystery that it should be, but it provides vast pleasures for those of us consumed with Hollywood in all its iterations. The cinematography by the great Christopher Challis doesn’t hurt but the final shot of the fabulous Ms Taylor is deeply unflattering and should have been rethought (Natalie Wood had been the first choice for the role).  On the other hand, there are close shots of her eyes that are not in any of her other films – and they are legendary!

The Razor’s Edge (1946)

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Somerset Maugham’s magnificent novel of the Lost Generation gets the A treatment from Darryl F. Zanuck’s Twentieth-Century Fox. It was a vehicle for the ludicrously beautiful Tyrone Power, newly returned from the War, just like the hero, socialite Larry Darrell, on a quest to find himself after WW1. The obscenely brilliant Lamar Trotti (who died far too young) crafted a faithful screenplay and Maugham himself, who drifts in and out of the story (“as if he leads our lives for us”) is played by Herbert Marshall.  Only Gene Tierney was gorgeous enough to cast opposite Power and she is the woman who can’t let go of him – even after she has. He turns up years later in Paris after his Indian odyssey and she is still in love with him despite husband (John Payne) and children and gets in the way of his self-sacrificing marriage to their childhood friend, the tragic alcoholic Sophie, played in an extraordinarily vivid performance by Anne Baxter (despite the boxy costumes which accentuate her disproportionate frame). Uncle Elliott, the social climber, is played by the wonderfully epicene Clifton Webb (he’ll always be Waldo Lydecker to me). It is meticulously directed by the overwhelmingly gifted British actor/writer/director Edmund Goulding who would be reunited with Power the following year for the simply astonishing Nightmare Alley. Those were the days. The material was so potent that writer/director John Byrum did a version in 1984 starring Bill Murray and Theresa Russell, but that’s another story.

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.

Advise & Consent (1962)

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Allen Drury’s Pulitzer-winning 1959 novel was a hugely controversial roman a clef (something he denied) about Washington shenanigans. Written after the Chambers-Hiss affair, it uncovers the background to Communist witch hunting, homosexual blackmail and lobbying in the wake of the ailing President’s decision to nominate a new Secretary of State. Long and engrossing, it is probably director Otto Preminger’s last great film with a stellar cast including Franchot Tone, Walter Pidgeon, Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney (reunited with Preminger many years after Laura), Charles Laughton, Don Murray and Lew Ayres. Intelligent and complex, full of constitutional issues, moral quagmires and voting tension.  Quite an achievement.