Sunset (1988)

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Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Rod Amateau’s unpublished manuscript about the friendship between movie cowboy Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) and real life Wyatt Earp (James Garner) had the potential to be something quite brilliant:  it doesn’t carry it off due to inconsistencies of tone (never quite slapstick, never quite thriller) and performance (Willis didn’t heed his director to take his role seriously) but it retains its interest. Hollywood’s well-preserved 1920s villas provide a magnificent backdrop to a story set in 1929 just when the industry was getting to grips with the transition to sound. Earp in real life had moved to Los Angeles in 1910 but here he’s newly arrived and hired on a silent movie set to advise Mix and they get embroiled in a murder at the Kit Kat Club, a high class brothel where the whores are movie star lookalikes (shades of LA Confidential) run by the cross-dressing Cheryl (Mariel Hemingway.) Earp tries to help his old girlfriend Christina (Patricia Hodge) who happens to be married to studio boss Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell), a thinly disguised version of Chaplin, and her son, who is in constant trouble and goes missing. The mystery at the story’s heart involves police corruption with those reliable villains M. Emmet Walsh and Richard Bradford and Warhol stud Joe Dallasandro showing up as a gangster. There’s a scene at that year’s Academy Awards (not anatomically correct, but still fun) and lots of really interesting performances in the wings including John Fountain playing his grandfather, the legendary John Gilbert. Willis’ unpreparedness made for a difficult time and Garner (a gentleman) commented on it, a rare instance of his speaking out against a colleague and his own performance really saves the film. Garner had of course worked with Edwards before – on Victor/Victoria. His interpretation of Earp is markedly lighter than his earlier one in Hour of the Gun.  There’s a cute running joke about his inability to drive a car – he does it a lot and in real life Garner was an accomplished racer and stunt driver particularly on The Rockford Files. In a neat nod to that, Dermot Mulroney makes his debut – he would play (my beloved!) Rockford in a TVM reboot. The other pluses are the LA locations used including the Ambassador Hotel, the Roosevelt Hotel, Melody Ranch, Bell Ranch and Orange Empire Railway Museum. Not great Edwards but worth a watch for the idea and Garner, with the usually reliable score from Henry Mancini as well as delectable photography by Anthony B. Richmond. A missed opportunity to make a satisfying Hollywood murder mystery but heck with all that talent I’ll take this anyhow.

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Mommie Dearest (1981)

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Joan Crawford said in the early 1970s that the only young modern actress who had what it took to be a star was Faye Dunaway. Maybe she planted an idea …. This quasi-delirious festival of camp Hollywood eating itself boasts a stunning – and perhaps fatal – performance by Faye Dunaway. Her impersonation of Crawford as a bat shit crazy obsessive compulsive derives from ingrate adopted daughter Christina’s infamous memoir, which she waited to publish until after the star’s death although there were signs she had been writing it beforehand. Being the cuckoo in the nest (one of four, in fact) of a narcissistic exhibitionist and likely bipolar cannot be easy (it’s not!) but doing it in the public eye must have been a certain kind of hell.  For Christina as played by the bizarre little Mara Hobel (who won a Razzie!) there is a kind of fascination in watching the mad mother take revenge, over and over again against the child’s perceived slights. The big scenes are the ones everyone knows – the beating because of wire hangers in the kids’ closet;  the midnight rose-cutting after she’s fired by MGM; wanting the child to eat rare meat; the brutal attack on a teenage Christina which was witnessed by a trade journo (who confirmed it.) However the narrative is damaged by a performance that takes it a little de trop, as Celeste Holm might aver, and Dunaway merely said of it that a director other than Frank Perry might have reined her in at times (even if the likeness is uncanny).  Her boyfriend, then husband, photographer Terry O’Neill was one of the producers. There was no reining in those shoulderpads though and the adaptation by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry and producer Frank Yablans loses steam every so often, especially in the second half when mother and adopted daughter were more or less reconciled (Diana Scarwid plays the adolescent and adult Christina) and she just appears like a Mean Girl to alkie Mommie. It’s not quite mad enough to be trash nor lurid enough to be exploitation. But there is great chutzpah in the opening montage when we watch Crawford prepare herself without once seeing her face – right up until the point where she’s ready for her grand entrance. And it is literally unbelievable but true that this sixty year old drag queen replaced her twentysomething daughter on a daytime soap when the girl was hospitalised with an ovarian tumour. That’s showbiz! And boy would I love to have her closet and get her round to scrub my floors!

Two For the Road (1967)

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Architect Albert Finney is on a road trip to Saint Tropez with wife Audrey Hepburn to meet a wealthy client. On the way, they reflect on their relationship, how they met, their marriage and the possibility of splitting up for good. Who was it said every road movie was an emotional journey? And this Frederic Raphael screenplay directed by Stanley Donen is all that, and more besides, influenced as it was by the work of French auteurs, chiefly Alain Resnais, whose non-linear mosaic-like approach also had its effect on Nicolas Roeg. So the contemporary scenes are juxtaposed variously with scenes from alternating phases in their 12-year long relationship, all emblemised by different models of  (enviable!) cars, to great effect. The leads are as magnificent as you’d expect (Hepburn was not even wearing Givenchy, shock horror!) and it really is as magical as you’d want for a film that sends them towards the glorious Med as their marriage spirals up and down. It’s a daring film for its time with adult themes, realistic depiction of the banality of marriage and brilliant locations for the armchair francophile. Extraordinary photography by Christopher Challis, a great score (and song) by Henry Mancini and a notable titles sequence by Maurice Binder distinguish this mid-Sixties gem. A wonderful meshing of talents, this was the final of the three films Hepburn and Donen made together after Funny Face and Charade and it’s not remembered as well as it deserves to be.

The Great Race (1965)

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Extremely long and lavish but fun and entertaining comedy version of the 1908 transcontinental land race from New York to Paris – using every means, fair and foul. Jack Lemmon is the moustache-twirling villainous Professor Fate while cleancut white-suited Tony Curtis is the good guy and Natalie Wood is the feminist journalist who joins in but whose car breaks down midway and she hitches a ride … Director Blake Edwards (working from Arthur Ross’s screenplay of Edwards’ original story) pays homage to the slapstick comedies of his youth with pratfalls, barroom brawls and piefights – the film is dedicated to Laurel and Hardy. There’s Jack times 2 in a Ruritanian kingdom so we have a comic take on The Prince and the Pauper with swordfights for good measure. There are some nice performances including Peter Falk as as Fate’s sidekick, Keenan Wynn as Wood’s mechanic and the delightful Dorothy Provine showing up as a showgirl in the western parody sequence. Wood’s recent divorce from Robert Wagner meant he didn’t get the lead as intended and she only agreed to do this in exchange for doing Inside Daisy Clover, the Gavin Lambert adaptation. She looks incredibly pretty and her costumes by Edith Head undoubtedly help. Lambert and Wood became close friends and he wrote a brilliant biography of her. The title cards are a lovely Pop tribute to late nineteenth century French paintings. It was billed as the funniest comedy ever made, it’s not – it’s the most expensive – but it’s good for a laugh.

The Night Visitor (1971)

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What an oddity this is:  Ingmar Bergman’s regular troupe – Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Per Oscarsson – in the middle of an ax-murdering spree investigated by Trevor Howard in Sweden’s snowy wastes. You know you’re in for something different when you don’t recognise Henry Mancini as the composer – no easy cinematic grace notes, here, just an off-key harpsichord, organ, woodwind and synths which have the predictably unsettling effect that producer Mel Ferrer and director Laslo Benedek sought. Max escapes a lunatic asylum and starts killing the family members who framed him for a crime that saw him put away for life. But he goes back at night – curling his lanky and unwieldy frame into unlikely shapes and climbing vast edifices and running through the snow fields leaving a ghastly trail of bodies in his wake. He succeeds in persuading police inspector Howard that something is indeed amiss about the circumstances of his imprisonment but gets out again and, well, he’s now a serial killing ax murderer. There will be blood. Striking in all sorts of ways, but the parrot really takes the cake! Written by Guy Elmes.

Interlude (1957)

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What does anyone see in June Allyson? Goodness knows, but she was the go-to wife next door for the 1950s and Rossano Brazzi was the go-to exotic Romeo in any number of films featuring WASPy women looking for a bit of rumpy-pumpy away from home. James Cain’s story had already been adapted and filmed by John M.Stahl but here it’s German auteur Douglas Sirk on directing duties, returning to home turf, with Allyson as a reporter taking a job at an American cultural mission in Munich. She meets up with an American doctor, Morley, who is very keen on her – but not as keen as she is on the troubled symphony conductor who charms her and takes her on a spin in his sports car to Salzburg and then to his lake house … After spending the night, she finds out that he is married. He literally has a madwoman in the attic, as it were. With a change in cinematographer (William Daniels) and location, Sirk focuses almost entirely on the workings of desire in all his characters. Stahl’s melodramas were rich resources for Sirk’s particular avocations, as we have seen in Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, but this operates in a different, more clearly musical mode, as you’d expect in a classical melodrama – with contributions from Frank Skinner and Henry Mancini. You will recognise one piece of music from two of his other films of the period:  how many times did he use it?! Candice Bergen’s mother Frances plays the disapproving co-worker and Marianne Koch does a fine job as the wronged and crazy wife. And, y’know, grudging kudos to Allyson, playing girlish at 40. Jane Eyre on Tour in Yerp.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

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This was the first movie poster I ever bought, for my very first home while I was away at college, a studio apartment that was even smaller than the one inhabited by Holly Golightly, that flighty Manhattan party girl. Heavily sanitised for contemporary audiences, there are still people to this day who don’t understand that she’s a prostitute. I wonder what they make of Paul Varjak? Do they think he’s breaking in 2E’s bed?! With the passing of time, Audrey Hepburn feels ever more like a sprightly cipher, hardly human, barely knowable. It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that this Truman Capote story was for, and about, Marilyn Monroe, and that he was upset that she wasn’t cast. There’s magic in this concoction adapted by George Axelrod:  from the first sight of Holly in the Givenchy dress; her wonderful cat (Cat);  the party; Holly singing Moon River; the courtroom mess; and the final, lovely scene when Paul (George Peppard) makes her see sense and finds Cat and we believe she might have a different kind of life. There is the opportunity to nit-pick and there are some that hate Mickey Rooney playing Oriental. And the scene where Holly gets the telegram about Fred is upsetting. It is this twist from happy go lucky to tragic that marks out the film as a major turning point in the star’s persona and indeed her future career. She hits a lot of different notes. But somehow director Blake Edwards sustains the lightness of touch that makes this Hepburn’s best-loved movie: there is a clarity and charm and brittleness that belie the churning emotions beneath. She’s not an icon for nothing. And I still cherish my poster – the original, theatrical, Sellotape-stained mess that it now is.

Wait Until Dark (1967)

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Alfred Hitchcock once said that the point about acquiring a stage play for screen adaptation was in its construction – so you shouldn’t change it. He was referring to Dial M for Murder by Frederick Knott, which he directed with some degree of success. This too is a woman-centric work by Knott and is a typically plot-perfect thriller which was a huge stage hit.  Three drug dealers have to retrieve a stash of heroin in a china doll which Audrey Hepburn’s husband has carried as a favour for a young woman leaving the airport … and the twist is that when they get to Audrey’s basement apartment they find out that she’s blind. And she has to out-manoeuvre them to keep alive.  Hepburn is superb in a difficult role – she got an Academy Award nomination. Intrinsic to what the screenwriter wants to do in the best thrillers she does here –  turning an outrageous handicap into a processual advantage in a believable fashion. And how! The villains are led by an utterly psycho Alan Arkin whom I never trusted afterwards – having formed a childhood affection for him in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! Richard Crenna is the sympathetic one and Jack Weston is the obvious one. There’s an obnoxious but useful little girl upstairs played by Julie Herrod and Efrem Zimbalist is the decent hubby. Terence Young’s direction is excellent – there isn’t a moment that lapses and the tension escalates scene on scene, assisted by a terrific score by Henry Mancini, who was pretty much Hepburn’s go-to composer by this point in her career. It was produced by her husband, Mel Ferrer, from whom she separated shortly afterwards. The screenplay was adapted by Robert Carrington and Jane-Howard Hammerstein. A wonderfully oppressive thriller.

Arabesque (1966)

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A professor who is expert in hieroglypics is hired to go undercover to assist an Arab prime minister whose life is in danger from a mysterious organisation led by Alan Badel. David Pollock was a role conceived for Cary Grant after Charade, but he was retiring and it went to Gregory Peck instead and a huge amount was spent on rewrites – utilising the talents of Pierre Marton aka Peter Stone (and Julian Mitchell and Stanley Price) once again but even he can’t make Peck deliver humour like Grant. The beautiful woman this time is the awesome Sophia Loren who is the mistress of Badel. Since it’s Peter Stone there is cross and double cross and code and it’s espionage therefore there’s tension to burn … if you can figure out the plot. It really is quite a lot of hieroglyphics but it’s also one of the most incredible films ever shot, with the glory going to cinematographer Christopher Challis who gives great colour and there are lots of wacky angles a la mod style of the era, supposedly to camouflage the production issues. If you hate going to the optician best avoid the first ten minutes. It’s the last film of John Merivale, Vivien Leigh’s last companion, and the debut of legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong. There’s another fabulous titles sequence by Maurice Binder and it’s scored by Henry Mancini with some interesting sax and trombone work. Gorgeous entertainment.

Charade (1963)

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One of the great entertainments, from the pen of Peter Stone (aka Pierre Marton – get it?!) with a story by him and Marc Behm, and directed by the estimable Stanley Donen. Audrey is the befuddled widow whose husband turns out to have been in on a wartime heist and she’s expected to know where he stashed the loot; Cary’s the guy from the US embassy keen to help her out … or is he? With hubby’s ex-gang after her for the money, nobody is who they seem in this play on identity, a pastiche of thriller tropes that is betimes gleefully black – George Kennedy’s hook for a hand lends itself to a lot of interesting outcomes! Walter Matthau is brilliantly cast as the CIA man. Great romance, wonderful locations in Paris and Megeve, incredible stars and extremely slickly done. This is pure Hitchcockian enjoyment with the difference being that the gender roles are switched and we care about the McGuffin. On a meta level, the use of names is particular to people on the production – eg Cary is called Peter Joshua after Stanley Donen’s sons. Stone plays the man in the elevator, Jim Clark edits and Charles Lang does the incredible cinematography. Audrey is dressed by Hubert de Givenchy – qui d’autre?!  For lovers of Paris you get a travelogue of practically everything you want to see – the Comedie Francaise, the Eiffel Tower, Les Halles, the Theatre de Guignol … Watch for that classic titles sequence by Maurice Binder and music by Henry Mancini. This came out the week after JFK was assassinated so maybe its humour wasn’t loved that winter, but it’s going with me on that desert island for sure. Totally delightful.