Grand Prix (1966)

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The only thing to do here is drive as fast as you know how and hope your car doesn’t brake. Have you ever been to the racetrack at Monza? It’s eerie. It has an aura of death about it. It seems to be hanging in the gloom of all those tall trees. Probably the memory of those spectators killed trackside 1961:  and the final race here in the fictional reconstruction of the 1966 season told from the perspectives of four drivers is at Monza and the death is of a driver, whose broken body is strung up on a tree as his car flies off the north ridge. It’s shocking. This is a brillant film, still the best by far of all the motor racing films, with an opening 20 minute sequence on the street circuit at Monaco that is one of the best in the history of cinema. Of course it helps to be a petrolhead, but the screenplay, by Robert Alan Arthur, is clever and artful, blending action and storytelling and characterisation as efficiently as you’ll ever see in that opening, using the TV commentary to introduce us to Pete Aron (James Garner) who causes a terrible crash sending Brit driver Scott Stoddard into hospital with appalling injuries and destroying both their Jordan-BRM cars. Pete is forced to look for a drive in Japan with Toshiro Mifune doing a take on Soichiro Honda. Twice world champion, Ferrari driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is looking for another title but has young team-mate Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) to contend with. If there isn’t enough drama on the track, there’s a complex of love lives off it, with Scott’s wife Pat (Jessica Walter) looking for love and finding it for a spell with Pete while her husband continues to relive his late brother’s career despite being drugged to the hilt; the married Jean-Pierre falling for American journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint); and Nino meeting Lisa (Francoise Hardy – nope, she doesn’t sing!) in a bar with an amusing exchange of perfunctory sentences before they get together and she becomes the perfect racer girlfriend, attending the races, timing the laps. This is a great sports film and one that is redolent with both danger and romance. It’s amazing looking and I only wish I could have been around for the original release in Cinerama which would do justice to the split-screen and the amazing Super Panavision 70 cinematography by Lionel Lindon with Saul Bass. It’s as tightly wound as a suspense thriller with the threat of death on every corner and it’s tough on the business side of this most unforgiving sport and the obsession of its participants. For fans there’s the joy of seeing real-life heroes like Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, oh, a whole host of legends. Adolfo Celi does a take on Enzo Ferrari aka Manetta and real-life BBC reporter Raymond Baxter interviews Nino at Brand’s Hatch. Years later, in 1996, my acting hero (Garner) met my driving hero (Jacques Villeneuve) at Monza to celebrate the film 30 years after its release:

Garner was a fine driver and after shooting this – doing all his own driving and one fire stunt with butane that nearly went fatally wrong – he founded the American International Racers team, running cars in Formula A (just below F1), driving in the Baja 100, all leading to his eventually being inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.

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The Racing Scene is a documentary following the team in 1969 when he finally broke it up because of the money and time commitment. He drove the pace car at the Indy 500 in 1975, 1977 and 1985. What a mensch. He said after making Grand Prix – thanks to his Great Escape castmate Steve McQueen dropping out! – he simply had to be involved in the sport.  This won Academy Awards for editing, sound and sound effects (none for the magnificent Maurice Jarre score) but it is so much more than the sum of its parts. Simply sensational. Directed by John Frankenheimer, whose wife, Evans Evans, has an uncredited role.

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The Odessa File (1974)

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The faction novel by Frederick Forsyth has a special place in my heart because it was the first book I borrowed when I finally got a ticket to join the Adult section of my local public library after I turned 12. And it stunned me when I discovered that Forsyth was merely fictionalising in very approximate fashion the story of the Butcher of Riga, Eduard Roschman (Maximilian Schell) who is protected by the Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehoerigen (Former SS Members) in winter 1963. Journalist Peter Milller (Jon Voight) happens upon the story by simple expedient of pulling over in a Hamburg street to hear that President Kennedy has died and then literally chases an ambulance to an apartment building where an elderly Holocaust survivor has gassed himself. A policeman friend hands him the man’s diary and he uncovers the story behind the suicide of Salomon Tauber which contains one gleaming detail:  the murder by Roschmann at Riga port of a colleague who won a very rare German military medal. After meeting many unhelpful people in authority in a Germany still clearly run by the Nazis (there were 12 million of them after all, and they all just returned to civilian life and kept their pensions) he goes to Vienna where he visits Simon Wiesenthal who tells him about the ODESSA. He is beaten up, his dancer girlfriend (Mary Tamm) is threatened by some ex-Nazis and then ‘befriended’ by a policewoman when Miller goes off grid. He’s kidnapped by Mossad agents who want to know who he is and why he’s after Roschmann, supposedly dead almost two decades ago.  Then he dons a disguise … There are a few alterations to the source by Kenneth Ross and George (The Prisoner) Markstein and this is a fairly conventional procedural but still satisfying considering the strength of the subject matter (a topic plundered years later by novelist Sam Bourne aka Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland.) Voight is very good in what could be a difficult part and he gets a superb twist ending – when we learn the deeply personal reason for his search in addition to the quest for a great story. In a nice touch Maria Schell plays Voight’s mother, making this the only time she and Maximilian acted in the same film. The lovely Mary Tamm would later become a notable assistant to BBC’s Doctor Who and would have a good role as Blanche Ingram in TV’s Jane Eyre opposite Timothy Dalton. She died too soon.  There is an interesting score by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a special mention for Perry Como’s rendition of Christmas Dream and some superb cinematography by the great Oswald Morris and scene-setting by production designer Rolf Zehetbauer in this Anglo-German production – which might just account for the somewhat cleaned-up account of post-war Nazism. As it’s directed by multi-hyphenate Ronald Neame you wouldn’t expect anything less than a great-looking movie.  In another pleasing twist to the narrative, this prompted the tracking down of the real Roschmann to South America. But you’ll have to consult the history books to find out what happened next …

Valkyrie (2008)

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WW2:  the gift that keeps on giving. I’m sure it was  more than his similarity to Claus Von Stauffenberg’s photo that persuaded Tom Cruise to make this, but that apparently was the raison d’etre for this production about a group of high-ranking German soldiers who wanted to take Hitler out in summer 1944.  Claus has lost his eye in action but he becomes the key to planting a bomb following one failed assassination attempt on der Fuhrer and enacting Operation Valkyrie. With a slew of Brit actors including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard as the High Command running the plot, this never really works in terms of tension or thrills in a conspiracy that was well laid but never got its man. Probably overshadowed by the German version Operation Valkyrie (2004) starring Sebastian Koch. Written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander and directed by Bryan Singer.

A Foreign Affair (1947)

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When tightly wound Iowa Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) arrives in rubble-strewn Berlin on a fact-finding mission about GI morals she doesn’t reckon on falling for smooth-talking black marketeer Captain Pringle (John Lund) or indeed his mistress Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich) whose ex is a former Nazi high commander… Billy Wilder was stationed in his favourite city for the US military in 1945, years after he’d fled when Hitler came to power. He was shocked by everything he saw and was charged with reorganising the entertainment industry and editing footage from the camps. He shot film of the city and instead of going to a mental hospital when he discovered what the Nazis had done to his only family, returned to Hollywood where he made a crazed Bing Crosby movie about interspecies breeding in the Tirol called The Emperor Waltz. Then he returned to this subject – post-war Berlin and how diplomacy was a thin veneer over a lot of mucky surviving and blind eyes being turned to the reality – via a story by David Shaw. It caused a lot of censorship problems for Paramount, where the interiors were shot, while locations filming took care of the exteriors. Dietrich is the only possible person to be Erika, the slinky seductive songstress who winds everyone around her finger delivering louche songs by Frederick Hollaender that speak to her own background on the cabaret scene in the city. She and Arthur are cannily deployed against one another and this led to serious frostiness on the set. The politics of occupation and accommodation and the pointlessness of reeducating the shameless were never so hilariously depicted and this wasn’t even screened in Germany until 1977. Nobody gets out of this unscathed. Adapted by Robert Harari and written by Wilder and Charles Brackett. You can read more about this in my article on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/billy-wilders-a-foreign-affair.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

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Judge not, that ye be not judged. Spencer Tracy arrives in the rubble of the great city of Nuremberg after the bombs have fallen:  this is what remains of a once-proud metropolis in the wake of Hitlerism. He’s the chief military judge in one of the trials taking place there in Abby Mann’s adaptation of his TV play and Maximillian Schell replays his role as the German defence counsel. The case involves four judges in the Nazi courts who had people executed and sterilised and otherwise punished for not being Party members: it’s a representative slice of what actually occurred aided in no small part by what we might call stunt casting.  Burt Lancaster is the one judge who acknowledges what he’s done is wrong. Marlene Dietrich is the widow of the man already executed whose home Tracy occupies and after whom he hankers a little. Judy Garland and the incredible Montgomery Clift testify in court. Clift is a former Communist whom one of the judges had sterilised. His scene in the stand is unforgettable. Schell does a great job as the frustrated counsel, eager to prove the overwhelming logic of the judges’ work;  Richard Widmark has his day in court showing the films shot by Allied troops liberating the camps. Naturally the Germans think this is a cheap shot. This film shocked me as a child and it shocks me no less today, particularly when Tracy, having sentenced the men, is asked to visit Lancaster and has to explain to him why he came to his decision. He is our conscience, arguing for the value of a single human life in the face of ruthless German logic. The end credits include the reminder that by the time this film was made not a single Nazi convicted at Nuremberg remained in prison despite life sentences handed down. That’s right, they’re all running the Fourth Reich in a Germany that’s been on the rise ever since. Be afraid. Directed by Stanley Kramer.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

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It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled;  good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now. An Irish lad on the make in eighteenth century English society. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s everything. Adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon, this is Stanley Kubrick’s most sumptuous production and my own favourite among his films (that poster dominates my dining room) and close to being my all-time favourite movie. Rarely appreciated, Ryan O’Neal is just perfect and wholly sympathetic in the role of the impoverished and ambitious social-climbing soldier who romances a wealthy widow. The candlelit interiors, the narration, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the performances – with so many striking cameos – all combine to create an incredible sensory achievement. Much misunderstood over the years, this was re-released to the big screen over the past year to fresh appreciation. It is stunning and enriching, in ways you have to see to believe.

Winter Sleepers (1997)

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Was hast du wahrend der Weihnachtsferien getan? Gegessen. Gelesen. Geschlafen. A cinema projectionist with memory issues unwittingly causes a catastrophic accident when he ‘borrows’ a sports car that is left unlocked outside a house. The father of the injured child swears revenge;  meanwhile the projectionist starts sleeping with a nurse who lives at the house, where her translator roommate is dating the car’s owner, a ski instructor. A deadly chain of events is set in motion. This adaptation of Anne-Francoise Pyszora’s novel Expense of Spirit by writer/director Tom Tykwer, making his debut, is one of the best films of the Nineties and remains his best work. Simply brilliant, layered storytelling in a great snowbound milieu with screwed up twentysomethings trying to live like adults in the post-Christmas gloom. Terrific.

Vampyr (1932)

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Aka The Strange Adventure of David Gray, Not Against the Flesh, The Castle of Doom. One of those unique films that a film snob such as myself extols above all others. After the extraordinary Passion of Joan of Arc, Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer worked with Christen Jul on a more-or-less adaptation of Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly (mainly Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant) to come up with the story of Allan Gray, a dreamer (that old German trope) and student of the occult investigating phenomena in the village of Courtempierre, a place haunted by a vampire’s curse. For financial reasons, the film had to be shot in French, German and Italian, and this presented problems with dialogue so that was cut to the bone, with one of the financiers, Nicholas de Gunzburg, starring under the pseudonym Julian West. Sound was a new technology and French cinema was having trouble adapting so title cards were used where possible, contributing to the effect of the silents. The unique atmosphere is partly conjured by primitive effects, partly by the soft focus shooting style deployed by Rudolph Mate (returning from Joan of Arc) and the production design by Hermann Warm (ditto) and in part again by the ensemble of freaked-out weirdos populating the cast. If you ever wondered where that grain silo scene in Witness was lifted from, you have to watch the last reel …  Dreyer had directed his locations assistant to scout for “a factory in ruins, a chopped up phantom, worthy of the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe. Somewhere in Paris. We can’t travel far.” Except in the mind. To die for.

Night People (1954)

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According to his biographer Tom Stempel, writer/producer Nunnally Johnson found himself at a loose end on the London set of The Mudlark in 1950 so he decided he needed to direct himself albeit a few years happened before it came to pass. Henry Hathaway told him he wouldn’t make a good director because he wasn’t a bastard. He co-wrote this from a story written by Jed Harris (a theatre producer) and Tom Reed (with an uncredited assist from WR Burnett) and it was developed from a science fiction property owned by Twentieth Century-Fox previously known as The Cannibals. Johnson wanted to shoot a film with Gregory Peck and as they’d worked successfully on The Gunman the star readily agreed. They shot this Cold War thriller on location in Berlin and also at the Geiselsteig Studios in Munich, utilising Cinemascope (by Charles G. Clarke) which of course bore its own compositional limitations. Peck plays Steve Van Dyke, a tough-talking Colonel who’s charged with rescuing a 19-year old conscript kidnapped by the Russians (supposedly) from the American sector. He has a shrewd team in secretary Rita Gam and sideman Buddy Ebsen (who gets some good humour to play) but can his female informant Hoffy (Anita Bjork) be trusted? And the soldier’s father (Broderick Crawford) is an axle grease magnate with attitude and influence (he plays golf!) who arrives in Berlin to sort things out (he thinks) and whose face-off with Van Dyke is one of the highlights. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing about who people really are and from a dramatic point of view the major problem is that much of the double-dealing takes place in a hospital environment regarding the fate of the individuals that the other side want in exchange for Leatherby. The complexity derives from the identity of the exchangees, anti-Nazi conspirators – and who might really be after them. From a visual perspective it’s nice to see the Brandenburg Gate in colour but the film lacks a chase or something to justify the location and it would be good to see more of the day to day work of the Military Police in the divided city. The conclusion is particularly weakly executed.  Johnson’s daughter Marjorie Fowler was the editor on the picture. It got some negative reviews for its perceived propaganda purposes but Johnson had no such intention and in fact Van Dyke is scrupulously attentive to his Russian friend.  The man who wrote The Desert Fox was hardly a political tool. Johnson had written How to Marry a Millionaire the year before which created the dumb blonde persona for Marilyn Monroe with whom he’d also worked on We’re Not Married:  she of course made the persona her own and there’s a neat visual reference to her in the opening scenes when Leatherby takes his girl to her movie Niagara. Johnson would go on to write How To Be Very Very Popular for her but she refused to take the role which she believed was beneath her. Nonetheless, they remained friends.  There were rumours about a Johnson-Peck on-set feud but as Stempel explains, this was a ruse so that the philandering Darryl F. Zanuck could visit one of his mistresses in Europe and he fomented the longstanding story as an unfortunate public cover. Peck and Johnson would go on to make The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. This is a hard film to get hold of – mine is a Spanish version which thankfully had an English audio and is in the Scope ratio. Region 1 dvds are not as good and squeeze out the image. For students of Cold War cinema or fans of Gregory Peck and the late Rita Gam, it’s an interesting diversion.