Peyton Place (1957)

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Quality is a very good thing in a roll of cloth but it’s very dull on a big date. Mike Rossi (Lee Phillips) arrives in the small New England town of Peyton Place to interview for high school principal, usurping the favourite teacher (Mildred Dunnock). He drives past a shack where Selena Cross (Hope Lange) lives with her mother (Betty Field), little brother and drunken stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Selena’s best friend is the graduating class’s star student and wannabe writer Allison Mackenzie (Diane Varsi) whose widowed mother Constance (Lana Turner) has a clothing store and immediately attracts Mike’s interest. Allison has a crush on Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) heir to the local fabric mill but he only has eyes for trashy Betty (Terry Moore). Allison confides in Norman (Russ Tamblyn) whose watchful mother has altogether too much to do with her shy son. All of the characters attempt to assert their individuality and grow up but malicious rumours, a rape and a suicide followed by a murder are just around the corner as Lucas forces himself on his stepdaughter and Constance reveals to Allison the truth about her obscure origins; then the newspaper carries a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor … Even decades after Grace Metalious’ novel was published it bore the whiff of scandal and my eleven-year old self carried it as though it were dangerous contraband – which of course it was, for about a minute. Part of its attraction was the back cover photograph of the authoress, a gorgeous young thing with a Fifties Tammy ponytail wearing a plaid shirt, cut offs and penny loafers – it was years before I would learn that this was a model (paid tribute by a shot of Allison in the film) and that Metalious was in reality a bloated alcoholic who died not long afterwards:  not such a role model after all!  The bestselling exposition of a horribly inward looking and vicious group of people in an outwardly lovely small town in Maine gets a meticulous adaptation by John Michael Hayes who was working carefully around the censor yet still managed to craft a moving even shocking melodrama from some explosive storylines arranged through the seasons. Lange comes off best in a film which has some daring off-casting – including Turner as the frigid so-called widow, cannily using her star carnality against the character. (In reality she would encounter her own extraordinary scandal with teenage daughter Cheryl within a year of this film’s release). Lloyd Nolan playing the local doctor has a field day in the showstopping courtroom revelation telling some vicious home truths amid some frankly disbelieving onlookers including the unrepentant gossips. Tamblyn gets one of the roles of his career as Norman, the son who is loved just a little too much by his mom… I hadn’t seen this in a long time but much to my surprise was immediately humming along again with the wonderfully lyrical score by Franz Waxman. In many ways this evocative drama sums up the morality of the Fifties even while being set on the eve of WW2 and the early Forties. A very pleasant, beautifully made and surprising reminder of a book whose opening line I’ve never forgotten:  Indian Summer is like a woman … Ah! The film is sixty years old this year. Directed by Mark Robson.

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The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

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It’s man taking on himself the vengeance of the law. Drifters Gil (Henry Fonda) and Art (Henry Morgan) wander into a small Nevada town and enjoy a drink at the bar when news reaches people that local rancher Kinkaid has had 600 head of cattle rustled and he’s been murdered. The sheriff has gone to investigate. In the meantime the locals take the law into their own hands and Gil and Art tag along with the lynch mob. They find three men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and elderly Francis Ford) eating in Ox-Bow Canyon and without evidence, trial or jury, decide to hang them as thieves and murderers despite the eldest man protesting he bought their cattle from Kinkaid without receiving a bill of sale. Only seven men refuse to support their actions. Then the sheriff arrives and tells them he’s found the murderer… This taut adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1940 western novel was adapted and produced by Lamar Trotti for Twentieth-Century Fox and its economy of form (a studio set) immeasurably aids the aesthetic choices by director William Wellman in a sparse and breathtaking seventy-three minutes. Within that straitened narrative are teased the limits of a father-son relationship (the self-righteous Major Tetley whose son doesn’t agree with his actions), a romantic relationship between Gil and Rose (Mary Beth Hughes), who turns up on the stage with the man she just married en route to San Francisco, and the allegorical debate about law and justice at the heart of everything. Fonda’s future role in Twelve Angry Men is also prophesied while his part in The Grapes of Wrath is recalled by having Jane Darwell join the baying murderers. A classic of liberalism, a jewel in Hollywood’s crown and a warning about the sadistic lure of mob rule.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies.  We are dealing with archetypes rather than real characters despite its biographical origins. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.

Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

The Missouri Breaks (1976)

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Nicholson and Brando. A legendary pairing. Nicholson is cattle rustler Tom Logan, whose friend has been hanged by David Braxton (John McLiam) so he decides to avenge his death by buying land next to Braxton and he and his gang start stealing his horses. Braxton hires bounty hunter Robert E. Lee Clayton (Brando) to deal with them. Clayton is, to say the least, an eccentric but an efficient and ruthless killer too … Nicholson arrived on the $8 million set to discover that his role had been minimized in his absence, due to Brando’s influencing of director Arthur Penn.  ‘Poor Nicholson was stuck in the center of it all,  cranking the damned thing out,’ Brando said, ‘while I whipped in and out of scenes like greased lightning.’ He also kills while wearing a dress. He dreamed up a handmade weapon for his character, a cross between a harpoon and a mace. It should have been great but it’s disjointed and thematically incoherent. Nicholson thought it could have been saved in the editing, but his opinion was disregarded.  He didn’t like the film, and he told director Penn so.  Penn was offended and stopped speaking to him. Written by Thomas McGuane, Robert Towne was brought in to try and fix the script (like he’d done for Penn and Beatty on Bonnie and Clyde) but it is unclear as to what his contribution might have been. A Seventies oddity with an affecting performance from Brando which in hindsight we might see as an expression of a dying genre.

 

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)

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Time has been kind to this. Or perhaps it’s the fading November light and my depleted brain cells, damaged from an excess of Halloween Pringles and pumpkin soup. I admit I could not make it through the novel by Louis de Bernieres – I’m a quick reader but after two weeks and 13 pages I threw it over. I found it unreadable. The fact that the film was ‘trailed’ by Julia Roberts at the end of Notting Hill, a Working Title film I despised at the time, did not help. Nor did I like this film particularly when it was released. It’s the story of a musical Italian, Antonio (Nicolas Cage) who along with his battery of fellow soldiers (who have never fired a shot) disrupts life for the locals on the Greek island of Cephalonia during WW2 particularly that of Pelagia  (Penelope Cruz) daughter of the local doctor Iannis (John Hurt) and engaged to an illiterate fisherman turned resistance fighter Mandras (Christian Bale). Antonio tries to woo her while training his men to sing as a choir. Then the German pact with Italy falls apart, Mandras returns briefly but disappears to the hills and the Nazis arrive and the most apparently civilised of them, Captain Gunther Webber (Steven Morrissey) tries to befriend his opposite number and date a local girl. That’s before orders come from above … Shawn Slovo adapted the novel with some major episodes softened for cinematic tastes and John Madden directed and it has improved for me over time, even with residual misgivings about casting and accents. No quarrel with the great Irene Papas as Mandras’ mother though. The cinematography by John Toll is exquisite. This is really an epic tale of endurance and a tribute to all those thousands of Italians murdered by the Nazis in September 1943 for the hell of it. And people wonder why the Brits voted for Brexit?! The spectre of an island being overrun by murderous reasonable Germans is just too, too much. Nobody’s memory is that short. People can only take so much totalitarian fascism, nicht wahr?!

Ride Lonesome (1959)

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One of the acclaimed Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher collaborations utilising the amazing writing talent of Burt Kennedy, later to direct some pretty terrific westerns himself. This has Scott as Ben Brigade, a bounty hunter transporting a killer (James Best) but waiting for his brother (Lee van Cleef) to show up to account for an even worse crime. He is stuck at a staging post helping a woman (Karen Steele) whose husband has been killed by Indians and two outlaws help him out. They are played by James Coburn in his debut and Pernell Roberts, who is a very sexy, swaggering, saturnine man – much to my surprise, only knowing him in later years as Trapper John MD but who achieved fame shortly after this by starring in Bonanza on TV. Steele is incredible looking and her assets are a match for the beautiful stark landscape, used as ever by Boetticher to comment on the action, with the burning hanging tree at the conclusion a symbolic form of closure. James Best, the cowardly killer, is immediately recognisable from The Dukes of Hazzard as Sheriff Rosco Coltrane. How cool is that?

The Seventh Victim (1943)

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An empty subway.  A noose hanging over a chair in an unfurnished apartment.  A trembling hand. An atmosphere of dread. A teenage girl goes looking for her older sister and finds her amongst a group of devil-worshippers in wartime Greenwich Village. A masterpiece from the house of Lewton with a screenplay by Charles O’Neal and DeWitt  Bodeen. Not too many films acknowledge John Donne: “I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, And all my pleasures are like yesterday.”Not so much a horror film as a yearning for death, as David Thomson puts it.