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

Misbehaviour (2020)

So this is the eye of the revolution – up close it sure is revolting. As the 1970 Miss World competition looms, divorced mother of a little daughter Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) encounters sexism as she is interviewed for a place as a mature History student at University College London. She encounters Women’s Liberation activist Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) painting slogans on a poster and warns her about bobbies patrolling the street. She joins her group which lives as a commune and advises them to engage with the media – they’re so shabby and disorganised and they don’t even have TV but another group in Peckham disagrees with their tactics. Meanwhile Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and his wife Julia (Keeley Hawes) are busy trying to secure Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) as host of Miss World against his wife Dolores’ (Lesley Manville) wishes because when he last did it in 1961 he took the winner home. Pressured by London-based South African apartheid activist Peter Hain (Luke Thompson), Eric Morley decides to parachute in an extra contestant, black Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) who along with Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is one of the few coloured contestants in the beauty contest. Then a wilder element of Libbers blows up a BBC van on the eve of the competition and the Grosvenor Road commune has to go through with a proper protest under cover of normal clothing during the live show … You think you can have the same freedoms as a man but you can’t. The screenplay by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe from Frayn’s story is rooted in reality: this is a group biography but done as a comedy drama in the style of a heist story. It’s a conscientious and entertaining if mild intervention into the evolution of women’s rights. A touch more of zany might have helped this become a genre entry which it’s straining to do but respect for the (still living) heroines obviously hampers wilder moments. And perhaps the truth. It’s a political tale of unbelievable misogyny and inequality. The display of the beauty queens’ behinds for rating is truly shocking: how on earth did this outrageous cattle mart go on as long as it did?! However the lovely irony, that the protest (which occurs in the midst of infamous philanderer Hope’s outrageously sexist monologue) engenders a feminist movement is well played and the meeting between arrested Sally and newly-crowned winner Hosten nicely encapsulates the complex theme and issues which today’s feminists would call intersectional. Fun fact: Sally’s daughter Abigail (Maya Kelly) was the daughter from her marriage to legendary actor John Thaw. Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe. Turns out my seat at the table is actually a high chair

The Secret Place (1957)

What you haven’t got you can’t lose. In East London 14-year old Freddie Haywood (Michael Brooke) has a crush on kiosk attendant Molly Wilson (Belinda Lee) who is engaged to Gerry Carter (Ronald Lewis). Gerry is a member of a criminal gang working from a car dealership where Molly’s brother Mike (David McCallum) also works. Gerry, Mike and their friend, Steve (Michael Gwynn) are planning a diamond robbery and need a policeman’s uniform. Molly asks Freddie to borrow the uniform of his policeman father (Geoffrey Keen) without telling him why. After the robbery of a jewellers in Hatton Garden, Gerry hides the diamonds inside Molly’s record player. Not knowing this, Molly gives the player to Freddie as a thank you gift. Freddie discovers the diamonds and the gang go after him to retrieve them… You men. Always taken in by a pretty face. Film editor Clive Donner made his directing debut with this startling film noir. It’s an incredible portrait of a good-natured teen’s misplaced admiration (or love) for the local beauty who’s in with a bad ‘un and dreams of escape, symbolised by the posh apartment he’s chosen for them to live in when they cash in. The potent setting of post-war London in ruins plants the conclusion in an early wide shot with scaffolding in the background – it forms the setting for the fantastic penultimate scenes, beautifully set up by cinematographer Ernest Steward. Tragic beauty Lee is terrific and Lewis is typically impressive as the gangster – how awful that he died by suicide at the age of just 53. But it’s Brooke as the youngster you’ll really remember:  this was in fact his last screen appearance, he later trained in law and was called to the Bar, renowned for obtaining compensation from the NHS for haemophiliacs who received blood transfusions contaminated with HIV. He died in 2014. Written by Linette Perry – her sole screenplay – this is a true British cult classic. You never know what goes on in a child’s heart really

 

Sam Whiskey (1969)

Sam Whiskey

I didn’t travel four hundred miles to bury your bird. Gambling rogue Sam Whiskey (Burt Reynolds) has got his hands on a heist job that’s pretty outrageous. Drop-dead-gorgeous widow Laura Breckenridge (Angie Dickinson) wants to quietly give back the gold to the Denver Mint that her late husband had stolen because she comes from a prestigious family whom she doesn’t wish to embarrass. She approaches Sam to retrieve the gold from a steamboat wreck at the bottom of a river and smuggle it back into the mint. The widow’s beauty, and the nice sum she promises him, leave Sam powerless to resist the preposterous proposal following a vigorous bout of sex in her hotel room. Sam enlists the help of  local blacksmith Jedidiah Hooker (Ossie Davis) and old Army buddy turned inventor O. W. Bandy (Clint Walker),  offering them shares of the reward. However after they locate the riverboat they are unaware that are being followed by Fat Henry Hobson (Rick Davis) and his gang who kidnap Sam’s friends thinking that he’s dead There is a new administration. Burt is hot and funny, Angie’s insatiable and it’s all a leisurely and amusing comedy western caper in reverse with a well-engineered concluding sequence at the Mint. The screenplay by William Norton, who would help hone Reynolds’ good ol’ boy persona to perfection in the later White Lightning and Gator, gives him plenty of good moments here (including a song!) and he just radiates charisma. A lot of fun. Directed by TV producer/director veteran Arnold Laven. Stolen money burns a hole in your pocket

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

The Return of the Pink Panther

Compared to Clouseau, Attila the Hun was a Red Cross volunteer. The famous jewel and national treasure of Lugash, the Pink Panther, is stolen once again in a daring heist with only the trademark glove as evidence. Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) is rehabilitated from his demotion to the street beat by Chief Inspector Dreyfuss (Herbert Lom) of the Sureté and sets off on a mission to nab the notorious thief who is probably Sir Charles Lytton (Christopher Plummer). But when Clouseau carries out surveillance at his house in Nice he encounters his resourceful wife Claudine (Catherine Schell) who leads him on a wild goose chase to Gstaad… There’s something about a wife – even with a beard. Marking the return of both writer/director Blake Edwards (writing with Frank Waldman) and star Sellers to the series following a misguided iteration with Alan Arkin in 1968, this succeeds due to some fabulous slapstick set pieces with all kinds of ordinary things defeating the brainless Inspector – a blind bank robbery lookout with his minky (a scene that is actually gasp-inducing), a telephone, a vacuum cleaner, his own moustache and a fake nose. Great visual gags involving tiny vehicles (á la M. Hulot), an unfortunately located swimming pool, in-house martial artist Cato (Burt Kwouk) and some very funny verbals including Sellers’ horrific mangling of the French language make up for the deadening miscasting of Plummer in the role previously handled effortlessly by David Niven. Sellers is so hilarious as the anarachic disaster-prone idiot he had Schell giggling uncontrollably – and those takes are in the final cut! There’s also the priceless running joke of an increasingly deranged Lom and his gun lighter. If it’s in the first act … well, you know your Chekhov. Seriously funny at times with extraordinary titles designed by Richard Williams. With friends like you, who needs enemies?

The Brink’s Job (1978)

The Brinks Job theatrical

You know the trouble with you?  You don’t read the comic books, you just look at the pictures. On 17th January 1950, a group of unlikely criminal masterminds commits what became known as the robbery of the century. Led by petty thief Tony Pino (Peter Falk), fresh out of prison, who accidentally finds out that Brink’s security arrangements are unbelievably lax, and arrogant fence Joe McGinnis (Peter Boyle), who specialises in planning lucrative capers.  Tony recruits his wife Mary’s (Gena Rowlands) thick brother Vinnie (Allen Goorwitz), smooth Jazz Maffie (Paul Sorvino), anxious Specs O’Keefe (Warren Oates) and Stanley Gusciora (Kevin O’Connor). The gang robs Brink’s main office in Boston of more than $2 million. However, things begin to go wrong when McGinnis refuses to hand over the loot and Specs and Stan decide to do some shoplifting. The FBI gets involved, with J. Edgar Hoover (Sheldon Leonard) taking a personal interest and setting up a make-shift office in Boston specifically to investigate the case, while the cops start cracking down on the gang. Specs and Stan get lengthy prison terms for their petty thieving and the goons start pressuring them to talk Aren’t you glad your father caught the boat? Despite the meticulous period reconstruction this never really leaps to life until Warren Oates enters the drama and connects with the story but his melancholy performance as a damaged Iwo Jima veteran unhinges it somewhat.  That’s partly because this true crime story can’t decide if it’s comic or dramatic and lurches tonally like an out of control pendulum, shifting from farce to realism and back again. The surprise is that William Friedkin is the director because it lacks the sure-handedness and energy that characterise his work. It concludes on a jaunty note that somewhat redeems the excursions into betrayal and a postscript informs us that the motley crew got out of prison after 14 years, living comfortably [presumably off the proceeds of the job] while only $50,000 was ever recovered by authorities. Based on Noel Behn’s Big Stick-Up at Brink’s, adapted by Walon Green, this is fascinating for students of Friedkin but disappointing overall with its indecisive style. This joint’s mine. I own this joint!

The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966)

The Great St Trinians Train Robbery

They’re only schoolgirls. “Alphonse of Monte Carolo” aka Alfred Askett (Frankie Howerd) is a hairdresser running ops for a gang of crooks led behind the scenes by an invisible mastermind (voiced by Stratford Johns). He gives instructions to Askett about a new train robbery, Operation Windfall, using a variety of gadgets. The crooks hide the money in Hamingwell Grange, a deserted country mansion, and after waiting for the fuss to die down they return to collect the mailbags which contain £2.5 million (the same amount as in the real Great Train Robbery). However, after the Labour Party win the election, the house has been converted into a new home for St Trinian’s School for Girls because the new Minister for Schools, Sir Horace (Raymond Huntley) is having an affair with the headmistress, Amber Spottiswood (Dora Bryan). The crooks decide to infiltrate the school by enrolling Askett’s delinquent daughters, Lavinia (Susan Jones) and Marcia Mary (Maureen Crombie) as pupils, in order to case the joint and retrieve the loot from its hiding place. The crooks’ attempt to recover the mailbags on Parents’ Day, disguised as caterers, results in a climactic train chase back and forth between the robbers and the girls… If a Labour Government gets in it means the end of all public schools – and that appalling school, St Trinian’s! The fourth and final installment about Ronald Searle’s anarchic schoolgirls under the original authors, Launder and Gilliat, this is a little more episodic than usual, using the recent real-life Great Train Robbery as the starting point, making satirical jibes about the current political situation, spoofing James Bond’s gadgets and that series’ criminal mastermind (the iteration here is voiced by Stratford Johns) and replacing Alastair Sim with Dora Bryan, who performs with gusto in this colour production. Richard Wattis, Terry Scott and George Cole return, and there are new faces familiar to TV comedy fans, like Eric Barker and Arthur Mullard. James Mason’s daughter Portland plays Georgina, one of the kids. Droll fun, with a terrific montage introducing not only the gang members (including Reg Varney as Gilbert the Wheel) but the teachers, including art teacher Susie Naphill played by Margaret Nolan (who was Bond’s masseuse Dink in Goldfinger), doing the real-life striptease she usually did in a Soho club, to music performed by the John Barry Seven! Directed by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder from a screenplay by Gilliat and Ivo Herbert, based on the directors’ story co-written with producer Leslie Gilliat. The final extended chase sequence is a doozy straight out of silent movies. A photograph of these sordid excesses could well unmask this whole imposture

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

The Thomas Crown Affair wide.jpg

Play something else. Bored Boston millionaire Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) devises and executes a brilliant scheme to rob a bank on a sunny summer’s afternoon without having to do any of the work himself. He rolls up in his Rolls Royce and collects the takings from a trash can without ever meeting the four men he hired to pull it off. When the police get nowhere fast, American abroad Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), an investigator hired by the bank’s insurance company, takes an interest in Crown and the two begin a complicated cat-and-mouse game with a romantic undertone although Vicki is also assisting police with their enquiries via Detective Eddy Malone (Paul Burke) who stops short of calling her a prostitute due to her exceedingly unorthodox working methods. Suspicious of Anderson’s agenda, Crown devises another robbery like his first, wondering if he can get away with the same crime twice while Vicki is conflicted by her feelings and Tommy considers giving himself up I’m running a sex orgy for a couple of freaks on Government funds. Dune buggies. Gliders. Polo ponies. Aran sweaters. The sexiest chess game in cinema. Those lips! Those eyes! Those fingers! Has castling ever seemed so raunchy?! Super slick, witty, rather wistful and absurdly beautiful, this classic caper is the epitome of Sixties cool, self-consciously clever, teeming with split-screen imagery, bursting with erotic ideas and boasting a brilliant if enigmatic theme song Windmills of Your Mind composed by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman. The breeziest, flightiest concoction this side of a recipe for soufflé, it benefits from both protagonists’ identity crisis where everything comes easily to Tommy and life is a game, and yet, and yet … while Vicki is genuinely hurt when Detective Malone hands her a file on Tommy’s nightlife affairs with another woman. Written by Alan Trustman, also responsible for Bullitt. The production is designed by Robert Boyle, shot by Haskell Wexler and directed by Norman Jewison while the editing is led by future director Hal Ashby.  This is deliriously entertaining.  And did Persol shades ever look as amazing? It’s not the money, it’s me and the system

Circus of Fear (1966)

Circus of Fear.jpeg

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

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Bad Times at the El Royale

Alright, yeah, I think it’s some kind of pervert hotel. It’s 1969. The El Royale is a run-down hotel that sits on Lake Tahoe on the border between California and Nevada. It soon becomes a seedy battleground when seven strangers – cleric Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Ervio), a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), the Summerspring sisters, Emily (Dakota Johnson) and Rose (Cailee Spaeny), the sole staff member on site, manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) and the mysterious Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) – all converge on the hotel one fateful night for one last shot at redemption before everything goes wrong… I can’t do it. I can’t kill no more people. Doesn’t your heart go out to actors nowadays? Either they starve themselves on chicken breasts and broccoli to appear as ludicrous superheroes looking deranged from hanger and bodybuilding steroids on the subsequent publicity tour, or they wind up in something like this (or in Hemsworth’s case, both), a kind of Tarantinoesque closed-room Agatha Christie mystery trading on well-worn tropes. It’s really not right, is it? Seven strangers. Seven secrets. All roads lead here. However this pastiche is cleverly staged (with an actual state border running through the building), impeccably designed (by Martin Whist) and shot (by Seamus McGarvey) and well performed outside that narrow generic style that such material demands.  It’s overlong but florid and rather fruity with nods to Hitchcock and Lynch and the big reveal is worth waiting for. Written, produced and directed by Drew Goddard. Well, it looks like the Lord hasn’t forsaken you yet