Circus of Fear (1966)

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Aka Psycho-CircusCircus of Terror/ Das Rätsel des silbernen Dreieck / Mystery of the Silver Triangle/ Scotland Yard auf heißer Spur. I wonder if we have something in common with the murderer.  We’re both looking for the same thing. In the aftermath of a daring armoured car heist on London’s Tower Bridge that ends with the murder of a security guard, police detective Jim Elliott (Leo Genn) follows a trail of clues to the travelling Barberini Circus, which has just passed through the city. Though he suspects a conspiracy under the big top, he discovers strained relations between the disfigured lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee) and his associates and colleagues who include owner Barberini (Anthony Newlands), ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache), bookkeeper and wannabe clown Eddie (Eddi Arent), knife-thrower Mario (Maurice Kaufmann) and a dwarf called Mr Big (Skip Martin). Elliot struggles to find his man – and recover the stolen cash – in a maze of blackmail and deceit that concludes in a sharp-edged dénouement courtesy of Mario …  Why must these things always happen at the weekend? Written by producer Harry Alan Towers (as Peter Welbeck) and based on Again The Three Just Men by Edgar Wallace, whose prolific work had just spawned another series of adaptations at Merton Park Studios, this is a British take on the German krimi genre and happily has Klaus Kinski as the mysterious Manfred among a terrific cast numbering Suzy Kendall as Gregor’s niece Natasha, Cecil Parker as Sir John of the Yard, and Victor Maddern as Mason the unfortunate who uses a gun, with Lee in a mask rather defeating his key role but leading to a key unveiling in the third act. Genn is a bit of a PC Plod rather than an intuitive ‘tec but his role winds up anchoring the narrative and he’s nicely sardonic if secondary to the overly complex and twisty plot of the circus crowd’s behind the scenes antics with red herrings and dead ends dangling everywhere. Mostly nicely handled by cinematographer Ernest Steward with some interesting shot setups and well paced by director John [Llewellyn] Moxey. The opening scene is smartly achieved without dialogue and the final summing up scene is a high wire act quite different from what you’d see in Agatha Christie. Werner Jacobs directed the German version which has an alternative ending and was released in black and white. I do like to respect a man’s privacy but in a criminal case there’s really no such thing

Hotel Mumbai (2019)

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The whole world is watching. In 2008 terror strikes in the heart of Mumbai, India, as members of the Islamic terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba storm the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, one in a series of 12 coordinated attacks throughout the city by the jihadists. Amid the gunfire and mayhem, a brave chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and Sikh kitchen worker Arjun (Dev Patel) decide to risk their own lives to try and protect the frightened guests in a place where the credo is the guest is god. As the militants continue their assault on the hotel, a British Moslem heiress Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and her American architect husband David (Armie Hammer) and their nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) must do whatever they can to protect their newborn baby, even while circumstances conspire to separate them; while shady Russian businessman Vasili (Jason Isaacs) steps up to see how he can protect himself and others. Meanwhile the under-resourced local police force are completely overwhelmed by the military-grade assault and the terrorists make sporadic appearances, executing more and more guests as they make their way through the building taking orders from Brother Bull ...  From Mumbai to Washington, their screams will be heard. The temptation to describe this as a disaster movie is overwhelming, because that’s how this account of a terror attack is presented and packaged. It’s a technically proficient exercise in docudrama with little time to get to know the real heroes who make incredible sacrifices to save strangers. In reality 174 people were murdered in an act of racial hatred that lasted four long days. This was no sinking ship or fiery skyscraper, it was a meticulously planned carnival of cold-blooded mass murder carried out against supposed infidels by Moslems with some stupid complicity by news media giving away the escapees’ location (something repeated during the factory siege following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris). The conventions of genre are efficiently deployed by debut director Anthony Maras and co-writer John Collee to very discomfiting effect with gruesome brutality. A frankly misjudged piece of work which might lure more terrorists into the fray in the belief that their actions will be dramatised unquestioningly, even with a degree of entirely inappropriate sympathy for gullible subliterate peasants whose first experience of flush toilets this was. Or: it’s a timely warning to western and westernising countries to get a grip and stop permitting Islam to flourish.  If any of you want to back out now, no hard feelings

Battle of the Bulge (1965)

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I did not lose a war to die in the back seat of a car. At the end of 1944 American Lt. Col. Dan Kiley (Henry Fonda), a military intelligence whiz and former police officer, discovers that the Nazis are planning to attack Allied forces near Belgium. Certain that the exhausted enemy can’t muster much force, General Joe Grey (Robert Ryan) isn’t convinced by Kiley’s findings, and his men pay the price when the German tanks begin their offensive in the Ardennes. In the heat of this key World War II battle, Kiley must come up with a plan when it becomes clear that the Nazis are trying to steal fuel from the Allies, there are Germans disguised as American MPs diverting traffic from the new Western Front and an ambitious German Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw) who intends keeping the war going as long as possible no matter how many are sacrificed as he leads the Panzer spearhead of the German counterattack … Having been an inspector of police does not disqualify me from thinking. Written by (formerly blacklisted) Bernard Gordon, producer Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (with contributions by John Melson), this is proper WW2 entertainment about a huge episode that involved a million men and which I once had the temerity to describe to someone as an instance of poor project management on the part of Hitler and his cronies. I love me a good war movie, better still if there are tanks (my dream vehicle, particularly the camo models in Desert Storm. So sue me!) so this is perfect Easter (or Passover!) holiday fare. Criticised for not being 100% accurate and its Spanish locations being a poor imitation of the Ardennes setting, this has a lot going for it, not least the staging and the tremendous cast. There is detail by the yard – and the weather reports are crucial. The way that the strategy and tactics are exposed is a triumph of film storytelling. Shaw is sizzling as one of the nastiest Nazis outside the Bulgarian Waffen SS and it’s a star-making role. Fonda’s doggedness is wonderfully sympathetic, especially when you have the feeling (because you’ve seen him in other movies) that he’s probably right about everything and his bozo superiors find out, soon enough. It’s the perceptive structuring of the narrative from both perspectives that makes this tick along quickly. While not setting out to be a satire (hardly, although WW2 vet Sperling was no fan of warfare) the dialogue is sparkling with zingers – aphoristic and otherwise, particularly punctuating Shaw’s scenes – and there’s one out-and-out comic scene (played straight) when Savalas returns to his business to check how things are doing. Pier Angeli pleads for some promise of marriage because this is what she understands by the term ‘business partnership’ and wants a sign. But he’s rushing back to the front so he just tells her to keep feeding the chickens (they’re looking scrawny). This amusing character sidebar is one part of a dedicated soldier and Savalas plays it to the hilt. There’s a mass execution which won’t surprise you – but someone gets away and the payoff is very satisfying indeed. There are some good map room scenes; a really funny one-word message from US Command to German Command; and a breathtaking POV section with Fonda gliding down in silence over the attack position of the German tanks on the other side of the river:  just listen to the score. Such inventive work by Benjamin Frankel. The final sequence of tank battle is suitably fiery and an injured and vengeful Savalas joins forces with James MacArthur at the fuel depot where they get to blow up more than just the gas supply. Beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard in 70mm and a fine job of direction by Ken Annakin with not a moment to spare in its 163 minutes. Never mind what Ike said – this is simply sensational. When I have a brigade of tanks – that is reality!

The Tamarind Seed (1974)

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She could be one of our most important agents over here. On holiday from her job in the civil service at the Home Office, Judith Farrow (Julie Andrews) heads to the Caribbean after ending a love affair with married Government minister Richard Paterson (David Baron). On Barbados she is befriended by debonair Russian Feodor Sverdlov (Omar Sharif). The two quickly fall in love despite his married status, but Judith’s feelings are tested when Sverdlov is revealed to be a Russian agent eager to win her over to his cause. Back in London, intelligence officer Jack Loder (Anthony Quayle) is aware of a mole in the Government and is convinced Sverdlov is trying to recruit Judith as a Soviet spy.  She is instructed never to see him again, but can’t shake the attachment and soon finds that both of their lives are in danger … With titles by Maurice Binder and a resonant piano-based score by John Barry, you’d almost think you were in a James Bond film. Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Evelyn Anthony’s 1971 novel is true to its sense of high romance, urgent drama and deep-seated tensions stemming from the clash of ideologies pulsing beneath the lust. Andrews and Sharif are extraordinarily well-matched in this stylish epic, with gorgeous photography by Freddie Young in what is a charged if relatively well-heeled and glossy depiction of the Cold War, with betrayal and assassinations and embassy parties. Perfect for a dull September evening. A few days to convince her that she is doing it for love

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

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I killed someone! I killed someone! Thirty-year old Audrey Stockton (Mila Kunis) is a drab woman living in LA who has just been dumped – by text! – by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux).  Best friend Morgan Freeman (Kate McKinnon) is trying to cheer her up on a night out. They vow to burn the shit he left behind in the apartment the women share. Drew calls her while he’s on a job – which involves killing people. He reappears and admits to Audrey that he’s CIA, it emerges he is a secret agent as bullets fall around them, and with his dying breath after being shot by a Ukrainian that Morgan picked up at the bar, he asks that Audrey go to Vienna to fulfill his mission and save countless lives. He gives her a Fantasy Football trophy and instructs her to meet someone called Verne at the Cafe Schiel in Vienna. The women have never been to Europe and when another secret agent, the dashing English Sebastian (Sam Heughan), gets involved it becomes less clear who the goodies and baddies really are. But the gals have been bitten by the spy bug, and are determined to save those countless lives all the same especially since it means travelling to Prague, Budapest, Paris and Berlin. Inadvertently they find they have skills that come in handy when they’re being tortured by deranged criminals. They are tagged by hitwoman/model/gymanst Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno) who’s umbilically attached to her balance beam and winds up looking like The Terminator … What can I say? I didn’t even know this existed before yesterday and I just saw one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a while. And that includes the slowest getaway in movie history (it’s a stick shift…)  followed by a brilliant car and bike chase that just might the wackiest since … Wacky Races. This starts with a chase in Lithuania and after dirty tricks in LA plays out in Eastern Europe before swiftly migrating to safer soil in France and Berlin – so we’re back in comfortable old Cold War territory. There’s a double-double cross with that suspect but super-handsome English agent and his co-worker Duffer (Hasan Minhaj) and some straight up objectifying adoration of their boss Wendy (Gillian Anderson) by hero-worshipping Morgan who realises she is ‘a little much’. Mother, did you get the two dick pics I sent you? This knows its spy tropes but it also knows female friendship and they’re a contrasting pair: McKinnon is the OTT over-sharing feminist actress (who’s trained in trapeze at the New Jersey Circus School!) to Kunis’ organic food store worker straight woman and she’s kinda great. She gets to act out in a zany way that wasn’t visible in the Ghostbusters retread and makes this work. The more honed script here lets her loose in a controlled and satisfying form that pays dramatic dividends – her action finale is fabulous. Kunis’ role suffers somewhat as a result of the climactic sequence but there’s a payoff in the credits (stay to watch them).  With Jane Curtin and Paul Reiser at the end of a phone to offer endless support to their needy daughter Morgan, an extraordinarily good ‘Edward Snowden’ scene (he had a thing for Morgan back in camp), this has comic chops, a lot of rude elements, actual toilet humour and some very dodgy songs on the soundtrack. It may be a spoof and follow in the big boots left by Melissa McCarthy in the hilarious Spy but it’s the most violent one I can recall and is like the souped-up Interrail trip you really wish you had taken the year you did Yerp. With, y’know, grenades and guns and thumbs and stuff. Completely daft and occasionally hilarious and never, ever dull! Written and directed by Susanna Fogel, with David Iserson on co-writing duties.  Oh my God, it’s a stick shift! Do you know how to drive a stick shift? / No!  / How do you change gear?  / What’s a gear? / Abort! Abort Mission! Go!

The Wild Bunch (1969)

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If they move… kill ’em! In 1913, ageing outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) prepares to retire after one final botched robbery on the Mexican border. Joined by his gang, including Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) and brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), Bishop discovers the heist is a setup orchestrated in part by his old partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) now a ruthless mercenary. They’ve wound up with washers, not silver. As the remaining gang cross the Rio Grande and take refuge in Mexican territory, Thornton trails them, resulting in their taking on a suicide mission if ever there were one – as they are engaged by double-crossing Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to hijack a stash of guns from a train while he fights Pancho Villa under the military guidance of a German Commander (Fernando Wagner) on the eve of WW1 … This was going to be my last.  Sublime filmmaking from one of the iconoclasts of American cinema, Sam Peckinpah, who wrote the screenplay with Walon Green, the writer of the original story with Roy N. Sickner.  The titles sequence with scorpions tells us that this will be so much more than your regular western:  it’s a meditation on masculinity, ageing, violence, warfare and revenge.  Like all of Peckinpah’s genre work its focus is on the male in a hostile environment and it abounds in visual style with Peckinpah and cinematographer Lucien Ballard using multiple camera setups and different film speeds to accentuate the conflict between the old and the new, mythology and modernity. They demonstrate that there can be honour among thieves, if it is of a singularly macho variety. There is also friendship, pragmatism, humour and resignation.  The final shootout is glorious. This is one of the crowning achievements in cinema. Walk softly, boys

Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983) (TVM)

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I’d left it too late. That’s the funny thing – everyone thinks they’re exempt. It’s 1974, and Barbara Dean (Judi Dench) is a British assistant manager and loan officer in a foreign bank in Saigon.  She’s something of a depressive and has to ward off the advances of her co-worker Donald (Roger Rees) while her narration informs us she has been a woman of secrets ever since having an affair with a friend of her father’s at a very young age. She meets an American Bob Chesneau (Frederic Forrest) at the end of a party one night when she’s waiting for a taxi home. She has fended off the interest of Frank (Wallace Shawn), a US Embassy officer with whom she plays bridge. She and Bob begin a relationship and she realises that he’s not a cultural attaché but he works for the CIA and knows that the fall of South Vietnam is very near because sources suggest the North Vietnamese are stepping up plans to take Saigon. Things are heating up at the bank when a member of the public comes in armed with a gun demanding all his money. Barbara delays planning her departure even when she’s helping the locals get passports for their own hasty exits. Bob tries to persuade his boss Jack Ockham (Josef Sommer) and the US Ambassador (E.G. Marshall) to evacuate the South Vietnamese who have been working for them but the Ambassador wants to appease President Thieu’s regime. Bob and Barbara’s relationship suffers under the strain …  Made for Thames TV, this is a real auteur work – an original teleplay by theatrical giant David Hare and directed by Stephen Frears the year before he made The Hit. Dench was likewise a lady of the theatre albeit with some TV in the bag but it was a long time before America discovered her properly in Goldeneye. If the direction feels a little clunky at times, and perhaps it’s due to both the low budget and the schematic constraints of Hare’s writing, there are some good elements. There’s a nice juxtaposition when the Jolly Green Giants swoop into the city and White Christmas is on the soundtrack – as Bob has said, When the radio stations play all Bing Crosby Americans know it’s the end.  This is a rather obvious trope but is used to signify that the US military are really out of their depth. There’s a nicely mounted tension and the intermittent meetings between the US Ambassador and the nervy hard-drinking Ockham, with Shawn’s character providing a kind of Greek chorus, add to the sense of fear. Spooky to think that of the cast it’s Judi Dench who went from strength to strength while the marvellous Forrest has been more or less retired for decades. I haven’t seen him since he played in John Frankenheimer’s last movie 16 years ago, coincidentally another TV movie about Nam, Path to War. Now that is a real injustice. I miss him. George Fenton’s score is nicely understated.

 

Lost Command (1966)

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This isn’t vengeance, it’s pointless slaughter. You’ve turned warfare into murder. Following a botched incident in Indochina in which his under-resourced paratroopers are overrun by communists at Dien Bien Phu, Basque Colonel Pierre Raspeguy (Anthony Quinn) is freed from Vietnamese war prison to assist in quelling the resistance to French rule in Algeria being led by Mahidi (George Segal) a former French lieutenant. Raspeguy is helped by Captain Esclavier (Alain Delon) a military historian who has tired of fighting and Captain Boisfeuras (Maurice Ronet) who breathes war. Raspeguy has to shape up an airborne unit to fight the insurgents with the promise of being made General and marriage to a beautiful countess (Michele Morgan) the widow of the man who died helping reinforce Raspeguy’s garrison. Meanwhile Esclavier meets local girl Aicha (Claudia Cardinale) and believes she’s on their side and not the FLN (National Liberation Front). After participating in a murderous ambush in a village Esclavier starts to take a different view of his nation’s activities in the name of war  … The bestselling French novel The Centurions by Jean Larteguy was acquired by producer/director Mark Robson and adapted by Nelson Gidding. It has lots to recommend it – several well-staged action scenes, issues of retribution and redemption and a to-die-for cast, reuniting as it does the beautiful young lovers from The Leopard, Delon and Cardinale, and it gives Quinn an excellent showcase in a vaguely biographical role (that of Marcel Bigeard, the commander in Indochina) as the colonel keen to justify himself after taking the fall. Political subtleties are necessarily worked out in broad characterisation with Cardinale as the stunning woman who plays both ends against the middle. Despite simplifying issues in the narrative this remains a rare English-language attempt to get to grips with a war that still has huge ramifications in France. The last image, with Delon leaving the military and seeing an FLN child activist painting a graffito, is a brilliant conclusion to a complex scenario.

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

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Aka Desert Attack. Two million men. Two million stories. This is one that happens to be true. Captain Anson (John Mills) is dying for a drink but he has to leave his post in Tobruk before the Germans invade and make his way with a medical unit by field ambulance (nicknamed Katy) to Alexandria in Egypt. He has to travel with MSM Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews) and a couple of nurses, Diana Murdoch (Sylvia Syms) and Denise Norton (Diane Clare). They make their own way when they get separated from the rest of their colleagues and come cross a South African officer Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle) who wants a lift to the British lines.  They are fired on by the German Afrika Corps and Denise is shot through the walls of the vehicle. When van der Poel approaches the Germans they withdraw. Anson is suspicious. Van der Poel cannot be parted from his backpack – he shows Anson a couple of bottles of gin and the Brit comforts himself with dreams of a a drink in Alexandria. Pugh is suspicious when van der Poel doesn’t know how to make tea the (British) Army way and is convinced he’s seen an antenna in the backpack. When van der Poel goes off again at night they shine the ambulance lights on him and he gets stuck in quicksand and they have to decide what to do with a German spy … This is a classic British fifties wartime adventure, with John Mills at the peak of his career exploiting notions of his occasionally abject masculinity and he’s especially impressive here, battling alcoholism and exhaustion. Syms has a very good role as the woman who appears to understand him while Quayle is excellent as the interloper with a diplomatic way about him and the brute strength required to push the ambulance when it gets stuck in an escarpment. Christopher Landon adapted his own Saturday Evening Post articles (and then a 1957 novel) with T. J. Morrison and it was directed with verve by J. Lee Thompson. This got a whole new lease of life thirty years ago when the final sequence was used as an ad by Carlsberg because as everyone knows and John Mills says, Worth waiting for. Iconic.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

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Where did you get him – Psychos R Us? Its Christmas in LA. A beautiful young blonde takes some pills and swan dives from a high rise apartment onto the roof of a parked car. Ageing police officer and family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is newly paired with psychotically reckless widowed undercover cop and former Green Beret Marty Riggs (Mel Gibson) who has been suicidal and virtually homicidal since the death of his wife in a car crash. The dead girl is Amanda Hunsaker the daughter of an acquaintance of Murtaugh’s from Nam. Her pills were drugged with drain cleaner so she would have been dead within 15 minutes one way or another. After a shootout with Amanda’s pimp, Murtaugh figures the reason his friend was trying to contact him in the days before Amanda’s death was because he wanted to rat out his colleagues in a heroin smuggling ring dating back to their days in Air America, the CIA front for smuggling in Laos and they likely killed the girl as a warning. The group is led by General McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) whose enforcer Jack Joshua (Gary Busey) is a violent psychotic who meets his match in Marty Riggs and when he captures him it’s torture  … Shane Black’s screenplay caused a sensation when it sold for megabucks back in the day.  It has some uncredited work done by Jeffrey Boam because the original was much darker than what we see here. Sure it’s a trashy loud violent action buddy movie but its real strength is the bed of emotions played by Glover and Gibson, two well-matched actors who have charisma to burn and were ingeniously cast by the legendary Marion Dougherty. Murtaugh’s quandary as the father of a teenage daughter is amplified by his Nam buddy’s heartache over his daughter’s plight and motivates him to pursue the conspirators (and is also a significant plot point); while Riggs’s deranged grief is understandable to anyone who’s bereaved:  his rooftop rescue of a jumper is breathtaking.  The deadpan style is emphasised when Murtaugh is warned by a police psychiatrist after the fact about what could happen when Riggs blows. The treatment of the suicide storyline is extremely well written. It’s all about how these guys choose to express their feelings and confront their fears while carrying out their duties in this smart and funny slambang sensation which is so sharply directed by Richard Donner. It has visual and narrative energy in abundance: Donner makes his usual visual jokes about where he places his credit and puts The Lost Boys on a cinema marquee and the film is dedicated to stuntman Dar Robinson who died after production. This was the first in a long-running franchise and three years later Gibson starred in Air America a film about those very merry pranksters who are the villains here Produced by Joel Silver.