Capricorn One (1978)

A funny thing happened on the way to Mars. Three astronauts Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston) and John Walker (O.J. Simpson) are about to launch into space on the first mission to Mars. But when a mechanical failure surfaces that would kill the three men, NASA chief Dr James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) removes them from the Capricorn One capsule otherwise their funding will be pulled by Washington. To prevent a public outcry, NASA secretly launches the capsule unmanned and requires the astronauts to film fake mission footage in a studio in the middle of the desert. They do so under fear of their families being killed on a plane bringing them back home. However, the plan is compromised when ambitious TV journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) starts reading deeply into a message Brubaker has broadcast to his wife Kay (Brenda Vaccaro) after his friend at NASA Elliot Whitter (Robert Walden) suddenly disappears when he detected the TV signals ahead of the capsule transmissions. When Caulfield’s brakes are tampered with he visits Mrs Brubaker at home to watch some innocuous home movies which confirm his suspicions that the mission is faked then finds the FBI in his apartment framing him for drug possession … With that kind of technology you can convince people of almost anything. Conspiracy theories ahoy! Director Peter Hyams’ screenplay exploits the story that won’t go away about the televised Apollo moon landing and extrapolates a juicy suspenser with an amiable cast. Not in the same league as the major paranoid thrillers of the era, it’s still bright and breezy and pretty plausible given the deniability factors and the political mood. Of cult value for the (non-)performance of Simpson with Karen Black along to help the wonderfully ironic Gould (whose dialogue is superior to the rest of the cast’s) get his man. And then there’s a crop dusting scene that of course recalls North by Northwest – in reverse! With Kojak at the helm! Godalmighty this is a lot of fun but there’s one horrifying scene in the noonday sun that will make you weep. It’ll keep something alive that shouldn’t die

Scarlet Thread (1951)

An East End spiv. A 1950s wide boy with cinema accent. Petty thief Freddie(Laurence Harvey) likes to talk jive in an American accent in London’s Soho where he hangs out trying to impress the ladies. He joins forces with suave gangster Marcon (Sydney Tafler) to commit a jewel heist in the University town of Cambridge with (Harry Fowler) driving their getaway car. But loses his never, fires his gun and the victim, an elderly man gets dragged away in the car. When the men are chased through the streets of Cambridge by students they take refuge in the garden of the Master’s house and are greeted by his daughter Josephine (Kathleen Byron) who takes them for graduates and invites them in. Marcon introduces himself as an old student – Aubrey Bellingham – and passes himself off to a visiting vicar but Josephine’s romantic interest Shaw (Arthur Hill) is suspicious and then her aunt (Renee Kelly ) arrives – the woman the men ran into as they escaped their pursuers. And womanising Freddie then takes a fancy to Josephine, then it transpires the man he shot was her father – and the radio news reports the man has died … This university is packed with young men who talk in inverted commas. Lewis Gilbert’s early noirish film provides a great opportunity to see a callow pulpy youthful Laurence Harvey, learning which side of his face was more photogenic and doing the old cheap romance thing with (bizarrely enough) charismatic Byron, she of Black Narcissus with the crazy lipsticked mouth – and the clue to his real British identity recalls that film. How bizarre it is to see these gangsters come a cropper in the rarefied setting of Cambridge University, chased by students in flapping gowns. There’s some genuinely interesting cinematography by Geoffrey Faithfull – over the shoulder tracking behind Tafler (Gilbert’s brother-in-law) and Harvey after the heist goes wrong; point of view shots in the getaway car piloted by Harry Fowler alongside a policeman on a motorbike making good use of the rear view mirror as he sweats at the wheel. The contrast between these surprising crims and the fish out of water setting is jarring but also pleasing, the early Soho scenes with Dora Bryan and the presentation of Harvey as spiv quite fascinating. Not great but it is has its moments, not least when Harvey’s mask (and fake American accent) slips and Tafler’s act as the ancient graduate is very convincing. Adapted by A.R. Rawlinson and Moie Charles from their play. You dance too well. It makes me think of all the women you’ve danced with

Evil Under the Sun (1982)

Even in those days, she could always throw her legs up in the air higher than any of us… and wider. Private detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) goes to an exclusive island that is frequented by the rich and famous. Fabulous actress Arlena Stuart (Diana Rigg) has alienated her latest husband Kenneth Marshall’s (Denis Quilley) young daughter (Emily Hone); is in an adulterous relationship with married gadfly Patrick Redfern (Nicolas Clay) whose jealous wife Christine (Jane Birkin) doesn’t even want to go out in the sun; and she is probably the culprit over a very valuable jewel stolen from her former husband Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakeley) that Poirot was hired to locate by the insurance company when he presented them with a fake. Gossip columnist Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall) can’t get Arlena to sign off on a tell-all biography; while theatre producers Odell Gardener (James Mason) and his wife Myra (Sylvia Miles) lost their shirts when Arlena walked off their last stage show with a fake medical cert. The hotel’s proprietress, failed actress and former rival Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith) meanwhile is still brooding over their comparative successes and her isolation from the world of showbiz. When Arlena is found murdered everyone has an alibi. Except Poirot … I have a big fat motive but no alibi. Adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel by Anthony Shaffer (with uncredited work by Barry Sandler) this takes a decidedly camp approach to the material, aided and abetted by wonderfully playful costuming, classic Cole Porter songs (arranged by John Lanchbery) and an exotic location in the Adriatic in contrast with the original’s island off Devon. It plays fast and loose with the content replacing the original’s dialogue with some very amusing wisecracks and barbed exchanges, viz. Rigg’s comment about her awkward teenage stepdaughter, She runs like a dromedary with dropsy. It’s not Christie but it is funny. Ustinov had replaced Albert Finney (from Murder on the Orient Express) in the preceding adaptation Death on the Nile and delivers a different variety of flamboyance with all kinds of nice touches and humour. It gathers itself back into the author’s original mode for the last half hour with everything accounted for in a very pleasing conclusion. Great fun. Directed by Guy Hamilton in Majorca and shot beautifully by Christopher Challis. You mean nobody did it. MM #3100

One Way to Denmark (2020)

Aka Denmark. Medical reports indicate you are sick no longer. Unemployed down on his luck Welshman Herb (Rafe Spall) is broke and can’t see his son. Life in his small town is dank and miserable. He gets mugged for his rubbish phone, the neighbours are awful and he has nothing going on. After he sees a TV documentary about Danish open prisons he hits on a plan to stage a heist with a fake firearm and get himself arrested so that he’ll at least have somewhere warm to sleep and regular food. But after hitching a lift and getting smuggled in a container, when he gets there he is befriended first by a dog and then by a wonderful woman Mathilda (Simone Lykke) who brings him to her home for dinner, introduces him to her little daughter and sceptical mother and he rethinks the plan. Then he doesn’t have enough money to pay for a ticket back home … Your father was a pain in the arse tramp but you know what I think? You’ve beaten even him. The premise harks back to Ken Loach with the dole office problems, the family divisions and the general air of hopelessness – but the larkiness and the mates (including Joel Fry and Tim Woodward) enliven Spall’s performance which struggles to rise above the writing by Jeff Murphy. It feels stuck between wanting to break out as a man who potentially could stage a heist a la Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon and the tenets/constraints of social realism – when Mathilda protests Wales must be beautiful, you feel for Herb’s attempts to explain just how dreadful it really is. The juxtaposition of the ease and relative modern luxury of flat Denmark with rainy stony mountainous Wales is nicely established. There are some moments of gentle comedy and the best visual is when Herb is caught and photographed by the police – his mugshot reads ‘A. Herbert’ which raises a chuckle but generally this is as lacking in laughs and drama as the Danish scenery and the relationships don’t ring true. Directed by Adrian Shergold. Incarceration tourism – that’s a fucking new one

Pixie (2020)

She won’t just break you she’ll take a Kalashnikov to your heart. Sligo, Ireland. Wannabe photographer Pixie O’Brien (Olivia Cooke) uses her ex-boyfriends Fergus (Fra Fee) and Colin (Rory Fleck Byrne ) to stage an elaborate drug heist on gangster priests which winds up with the men of the cloth murdered, and Colin kills Fergus with a bullet to the head. Two smitten local boys Frank (Ben Hardy) and Harland (Daryl McCormack) join her on the run from the hit man Seamus (Ned Dennehy) her gangster stepfather (Colm Meaney) has set on them when they try to sell 15kg of MDMA back to the priest Father Hector McGrath (Alec Baldwin) who runs the drug scene on the west coast. It turns out Pixie has a very personal motivation beyond money – revenge for the death of her mother who was helped along by her psycho step brother Mickey (Turlough Convery) … These guns won’t shoot themselves. Father and son team Barnaby and Preston Thompson direct and write respectively and this road trip down Ireland’s west coast (rechristened the Wild Atlantic Way to attract tourists) is bloody and violent and very funny, played by a well cast ensemble who revel in the opportunity to get up to Tarntino-esque antics in a picturesque setting shot rather niftily by John de Borman. There are some zingers but they’re often let down by the sound which prioritises a crazily effective set of songs curated by David Holmes and punch lines get lost in the mix (which does not include any songs by Pixies …). Cooke is fantastic in what is likely her best role to date as the amoral (not manic) pixie dream girl but there is also effective characterisation by Meaney and Baldwin as well as her companions Hardy and McCormack whom she seduces into a homoerotic scene that definitely was not on their cards. It’s got references from all over the shop, it’s rackety and fun with a very spirited tone. Dylan Moran appears as a very nasty piece of work indeed. You’ll cheer when you see what Pixie does to him. Naturally there’s a shootout that features nuns with guns. A great bit of craic altogether. I’m sorry we didn’t fucking cover body disposal in our economics course

Silver River (1948)

I’ve got news for you – I think you’ve just gone into the gambling business. Unfairly cashiered from the Union Army Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) heads to Nevada and after running some card games gets into the silver business following an encounter with Georgia Moore (Ann Sheridan) whose husband Stanley (Bruce Bennett) is a mining engineer convinced that the nearby hills are full of silver. McComb lets him go out to the territory despite knowing the Shoshone Indians are on the warpath and his lawyer Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell) cannot persuade him of the wrong he is doing – McComb is smitten with Georgia. By the time guilt overwhelms him he is too late to save Moore and ends up marrying Georgia and getting rich off the proceeds from the mine. His bank is using vouchers from the miners but when Plato shows up drunk at a housewarming dinner and tells the truth about McComb’s faults, the townspeople end up taking their savings from the bank, rival owners open other mines and he loses everything … His name marks our schools and our banks – and one day, maybe, our finish. Raoul Walsh liked both Flynn and Sheridan and this has a fantastically sparky script by Harriet Frank adapted from a story by Stephen Longstreet. He was a friend of Flynn’s and knew that by 1947 the star’s looks and acting were deteriorating, mainly from drink, possibly drugs and definitely from the financial and marital hurt inflicted by some wives. He says that both Flynn and Sheridan were drinking heavily on set and that director Raoul Walsh told him, ” ‘Kid, write it fast. They’re not drinking.’ It soon became clear that they were even if we didn’t see how. [Later on set] I went over and tasted the ice water. It was pure 90-proof vodka.’ ” What a shame. Because there are some great lines and exchanges here and the performances by the leads are sluggish, muted and dead on arrival for most of the film. The humour and ribaldry are fine, it’s the delivery that’s the issue. The irony that it’s about a man whose ability to lead is ruined by some intrinsic flaw cannot have been lost on Flynn. The references to King David, Bathsheba and the serpent’s egg by Mitchell are very clear Biblical analogies that point this up as a morality tale. What might have been, alas, in a film that is rather stillborn from such a paradoxically lively cast and a gifted director. Don’t let’s have a lynching

Operation Amsterdam (1958)

Gentlemen, the noise you can hear is the German Army. Summer 1940. British army officer Major Dillon (Tony Britton) leads a dangerous commando-style raid with diamond dealer Jan Smit (Peter Finch) and expert Walter Keyser (Alexander Knox) to Amsterdam to prevent valuable industrial diamonds falling into the hands of the invading Germans. When they reach port Jan stops Anna (Eva Bartok) from driving her car into the water after she realises she’s put her Jewish fiance’s parents on to a small craft just bombed by the Nazis. He persuades her to take them to Amsterdam where he asks his father Johan (Malcolm Keen) to get his colleagues to allow them bring their jewels to London for safe keeping by the British Government. While the men enter negotiations, Anna pays a visit to Colonel Janssen (John Le Mesurier) and informs on her latest acquaintances, promising to monitor them and she returns to the men as they attempt to plan an expedition to crack a safe and avoid setting off an alarm. They play cat and mouse with the Dutch Army, never sure of who’s collaborating with the invading forces … We’re trying to beat the clock and the Germans. Every second counts. From the opening voiceover informing us that this incident doesn’t even exist in wartime records through the nailbiting heist scene in the bank, this is a documentary-style race against time WW2 drama with a possible femme fatale, fifth columnists and Nazis breathing down the necks of our men on a mission. And they still need permission to board the boat home. Bureaucracy has no respect for heroes. Finch is as good as he ever is as the dashing, daring Dutchman and the late Britton has the role of his career – he finds out just how hard it is to kill a German soldier along the canals, sweat bedevilling him as his eyes dart around seeking safe harbour. And you never know where you are with Bartok – she’s convincing as the woman under pressure. And wouldn’t you know it there’s Melvyn Hayes to help them save the day. An intriguing premise from David E.Walker’s novel Adventure in Diamonds adapted by John Eldridge and director Michael McCarthy. Nicely shot by Reginald Wyer (with second unit work by Sidney Hayers) in a near-empty Amsterdam where hidden ears are always cocked for the rat-a-tat of gunfire as the Germans approach. We’ve all had a busy day

Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

I got shot with my own gun. Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is a lonely private detective who doesn’t let Tourette’s syndrome stand in the way of his job. Gifted with a few clues and an obsessive mind, Lionel sets out to solve the murder of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) his mentor and only friend while they’re out on a job. Scouring the jazz clubs and slums of Brooklyn and Harlem, Essrog soon uncovers a web of secrets while contending with thugs, corruption and the most dangerous man in the city, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) famed for building parks but in reality lining the pockets of his fellow investors in building corporations. Meanwhile Lionel finds that the half-caste daughter Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatah-Raw) who campaigns against housing discrimination may be connected with him. And the man supplying him with information on Randolph (Willem Dafoe) is not quite who he claims to be Everybody looks like everybody to me.  Star and director Edward Norton loved Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel and determined to adapt it when it was published but this bears virtually no connection with its source material, setting it forty years earlier and fusing a variation on the plot of Chinatown with Robert Caro’s 1974 biography of Robert Moses.  It takes its sweet time to bed in and Norton’s character’s tics are immensely irritating even offputting. Once it settles into being a private eye flick it’s a better fit with the tone and the tropes work well – surveillance, shady operators, mistaken identity, chases, beatings and – just like Jake Gittes – going to a public meeting and then looking up files in City Hall. The issue of race and miscegenation replaces the incest plot but it’s all about power. Baldwin is at his best declaiming and he has some good lines here:  Do you have the first inkling how power works? The plot really kicks in when Norton works out who Dafoe really is. Norton asserts his own peculiar charms as the disabled guy whose problem ironically makes people think he’s dumb and uses that to his advantage. Either that or a sugar shaker. Wonderfully shot by Dick Pope, this is a tad long but ultimately a rather intriguing throwback noir melodrama with straightforward political commentary about slum clearance, ghettoising and corruption. This is not a programme for slum removal. This is a programme for negro removal

Anna Karenina (1948)

Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. St Petersburg, 1870s. Anna Karenina (Vivien Leigh) is married to dull government official Alexei Karenin (Ralph Richardson) who is apparently more interested in his career than in satisfying the emotional needs of his wife. Called to Moscow by her brother Stepan Oblonsky (Hugh Dempster), a reprobate who has been serially unfaithful to his trusting wife Dolly (Mary Kerridge), who he wishes Anna to placate, Anna meets Countess Vronsky (Helen Haye) on the night train. They discuss their sons, with the Countess showing Anna a picture of her son Count Vronsky (Kieron Moore), a cavalry officer. When he shows up at the railway station to meet his mother it’s lust at first sight. Each of them eventually gives up everything for the other and their baby dies in childbirth while Anna is seriously ill but her husband forgives her the indiscretion that has scandalised them both when she appears to be close to death. Anna has to choose which man with whom to live and risk giving up her young son by her husband and going into exile abroad with Vronsky. Upon their return to Russia Anna is shunned …  You’ve no idea what women like. The tragic love story at the centre of Tolstoy’s 1877 novel is a consistent literary trap for filmmakers. Despite the opulent style this Alexander Korda vehicle for Vivien Leigh is occasionally stillborn. It should be perfect casting but Leigh is pretty vacant at times, imperious and persuasive at others, in comparison with the supposedly unsuitable Garbo’s positive radiance in the role a decade earlier, while Moore is wholly wrong as Vronsky. At first. And yet Leigh becomes fabulously fatalistic in that sobering Russian way while Moore gives up everything for her and they never quite understand or trust each other, their emotionality overwhelming them in different ways. Meanwhile her righteous husband maintains his pomposity by referring to his Christian principles and refuses her a divorce, to utterly awful effect. Women are the pivot. Adapted by Jean Anouilh & Guy Morgan and director Julien Duvivier, this long film is compromised by the tone which takes its time to exude the sheer joy of the illicit sexual attraction thereby somewhat pre-empting the nature of the tragedy to come. There are some terrific set pieces and wonderful deep focus cinematography by Henri Alekan with incredible costumes by Cecil Beaton. Overall it’s a rewarding watch that was an unexpected disaster. But was that such a surprise? Scarlett O’Hara dumping her family and frolicking with a soldier in the aftermath of World War 2 while post-war privations were at a height? Better than its reputation would suggest. The last scene is rightly shocking.  And the light by which she had been reading the book of life, blazed up suddenly, illuminating those pages that had been dark, then flickered, grew dim, and went out forever

Little Nikita (1988)

I was crossing into the west before you could spell bolshevik. Jeffrey Nicolas Grant (River Phoenix) is a cocky hyperactive teen living in a suburb of San Diego with his parents Richard (Richard Jenkins) and Elisabeth (Caroline Kava) who run a garden centre. Ambitious and keen to fly, Jeff has applied for entry to the Air Force Academy. During a routine background check on Jeff, FBI agent Roy Parmenter (Sidney Poitier) finds contradictory information on his parents, who have adopted identities of people dead a hundred years, making him suspect that all is not as it should be especially given the present whereabouts of a Soviet agent Konstantin Karpov (Richard Bradford) on the trail of a rogue agent Scuba (Richard Lynch) apparently killing off all the Soviet sleepers in the US. Further investigations reveal that the Grants may be sleeper agents too. Unable to arrest them as they have not done anything illegal, Roy continues his investigation, moves into the house across the street from the Grant family, and worms his way into Jeff’s confidence, eventually confronting Jeff with his suspicions and seeking his cooperation to learn more about his parents. Jeff is soon forced to accept the facts and discovers that his real name is Nikita. Meanwhile Karpov is moving closer to home and Scuba is heading straight for the Grants … Straight As. Tells his friends he gets Cs. A coming of age tale with a difference. Written by Bo Goldman and John Hill the intriguing premise is let down somewhat by the uneven directing from actor Richard Benjamin and the conclusion. Phoenix impresses as the brash teen who isn’t remotely what he thinks he is while Jenkins and Kava perfectly capture the fear implied by the big reveal. It all ends predictably enough with respect between Poitier and Bradford winning out over the presumed quarry. For Phoenix fans this is of course the perfect companion piece to the comparable but superior Running On Empty, released 6 months later, another story about a teenager on the cusp of adulthood whose parents’ politics are dangerously problematic. Shot by the legendary Laszlo Kovacs with an occasionally discordant score from Marvin Hamlisch, there’s a fabulous sequence of the Sleeping Beauty ballet choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan. You’re not my father. You’re not even my friend