The Running Man (1963)

You’re not in Croydon any more. Stella Black (Lee Remick) returns from the memorial service for Rex, her late husband, a pilot who died in a gliding accident. He (Laurence Harvey) is in fact alive and well and in hiding at a secluded seaside boarding house having defrauded his insurer Excelsior out of a huge sum of money for his premature death after they failed to pay out for an accident involving his airline business. Stella joins him in Malaga, Spain where he has changed his appearance and is living under the assumed name of Jim Jerome. Things start to go wrong when an insurance investigator Stephen Maddox (Alan Bates) appears to be following Stella as she drives her expensive car and enjoys the high life at a lovely hotel … He shouldn’t have married her. Adapted by John Mortimer from Shelley Smith’s novel The Ballad of the Running Man, this starts out as a sunny neo noir suspenser and turns into something quite different with a nice twist that dictates the outcome. Harvey and Remick are superb as the beautiful blonde married couple whose fate alters irrevocably and their relationship with it; while the issue of mistaken identity regarding Bates is wonderfully played out, subtly inverting the entire premise so that it rebounds with catastrophic consequences. Thanks to Robert Krasker’s cinematography (a very different experience to the kind of exploitation of locations in The Third Man) Spain looks stunning and the sinister nature of the story comes entirely from the construction and playing. Never was misunderstanding so well portrayed: everything here is lost in translation. Watch out for Fernando Rey as a policeman and Noel Purcell and Eddie Byrne have small roles in a production partly shot at Ardmore Studios in Ireland.  Directed by Carol Reed. They’ll have to put up the insurance premiums on anyone who wants to make love to you

Along Came Polly (2004)

Along Came Polly

I’ve found the perfect woman. Risk-averse insurance company risk assessor Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller) takes a chance on marrying his ideal woman, realtor Lisa Kramer (Debra Messing) but she has an affair with nudist scuba instructor Claude (Hank Azaria) on the first day of their St Bart’s honeymoon. His best friend actor Sandy Lyle (Philip Seymour Hoffman) known from his bagpipe-playing role in an 80s teen movie advises him to play the field and at a gallery opening they encounter their junior school classmate Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston) now working as a waitress. He asks her out and finds his life taking a different turn when they date because she’s a kook who tries everything (including Latin dancing and Middle Eastern food) but commits to nothing while his buttoned-up persona descends into a kind of undone madness by association. Meanwhile he has to assess daredevil accident-prone businessman Leland Van Lew (Bryan Brown) who is forever leaving a trail of destruction behind him but represents a great deal of money to the firm run by Stan Indursky (Alec Baldwin). Chaos ensues when Lisa returns to reconcile with Reuben and he has to make decisions that don’t depend on his Risk Master technology … I can’t have thrown up 19 times in 48 days if I wasn’t in love with you. Writer-director John Hamburg was listening in screenwriting class because he pushes every single character to do the opposite of what their nature impels them to – with delightfully nutty comic results in this modern take on screwball, the ill-advised toilet humour notwithstanding (an issue arising from Reuben’s unfortunate Irritable Bowel Syndrome condition). Sure, there are cheap laughs, including Polly’s flatmate – her blind ferret Rodolpho – but all of the character flaws are cleverly turned into neat plot pivots: when Reuben’s silent dad Irving (Bob Dishy) finally speaks he talks only common sense and spins the plot into its final happy resolution, with Sandy letting go of his past and getting his greatest role, posing as Reuben so that Reuben can stop Polly from leaving the country, with Polly committing at last and Reuben ultimately taking a risk. It’s crazy but works because at its beating heart it’s dramatically logical. Great silly fun with Stiller and Aniston making for a tremendously charismatic couple in a story that makes neat references to The Breakfast Club and Friends. What kind of guy are you?

Lord Jim (1965)

Lord Jim

What storm can fully reveal the heart of a man? Midshipman Jim Burke (Peter O’Toole) becomes second in command of a British merchant navy ship in Asia but is stripped of his responsibilities when he abandons ship with three other crew who disappear, leaving the passengers to drown.However the Patma was salvaged by a French vessel. Disheartened and filled with self-loathing, Jim confesses in public, leading to his Captain Marlow’s (Jack Hawkins) suicide and he seeks to redeem his sins by going upriver and assisting natives in their uprising against the General (Eli Wallach)… The weapon is truth. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel by writer/director Richard Brooks, this perhaps contains flaws related to the project’s conscientious fidelity to its problematic source. Overlong and both burdened and made fascinating by its pithy philosophical dialogue, O’Toole is another cypher (like T.E. Lawrence) burning up the screen with his charisma but surrendering most of the best moments to a terrific ensemble cast. The psychology of his character remains rather impenetrable. There are exchanges dealing with cowardice, shame, bravery, heroism, the meaning of life itself and the reasons why people do what they do – and the consequences for others. There is guilt and there is sacrifice, the stuff of tragedy, in a film bursting with inner struggle, misunderstandings, romantic complications and the taint of violence. Shot by Freddie Young, who does for the jungle what he did for the deserts of the aforementioned Lawrence of Arabia. When ships changed to steam perhaps men changed too

Legal Eagles (1986)

Legal Eagles

Objection, your honour. The defence has just fondled one of the jurors. Divorced New York City assistant District Attorney Tom Logan (Robert Redford) is busy alternately fighting and flirting with his defence lawyer adversary Laura Kelly (Deborah Winger) and her unpredictable artist client Chelsea Deardon (Daryl Hannah) who is on trial for a murder she did not commit and wraps Tom around her little finger as the case against her builds … I’m not going to lose him. Where is he? Truly a star vehicle from writer/director Ivan Reitman with Redford in his once-a-decade comedy but armed with a really good supporting cast too including Brian Dennehy, Terence Stamp, Christine Baranski and Davids Clennon and Hart. Styled as a Tracy-Hepburn battle of the sexes comedy it lacks the quickfire dialogue you’d expect and Winger plays her role kind of soft but Redford is really charming. The leads are slightly overwhelmed by Hannah, cast on point as the kooky performance artist in a story which recalls the scandal that descended upon the estate of Mark Rothko. The screenplay is by Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr., that powerhouse screenwriting partnership, from a story by Reitman and the screenwriters. It’s a bit overloaded for such lightweight fun but it does have a lovely sense of NYC and if you look quickly you’ll see a bottle of Newman’s Own salad dressing on Winger’s dining table. Do you always cross-examine people?/Only when they lie to me

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

I found the Picasso. It wasn’t easy. I was looking for a woman with a guitar and it was all cubes. It took me two hours to find her nose. It’s the 1930s. Veteran New York insurance investigator C.W. Briggs (Woody Allen) is at daggers drawn with newly recruited efficiency manager Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt): he goes by instinct (and a few well chosen bribes) and she is all about rational thinking. It’s hate at first sight. He trades quips with and about office beauty Jill (Elizabeth Berkeley) while Betty is carrying on with married boss Magruder (Dan Aykroyd) who promises he’ll leave his wife. When they are both hypnotised by crooked nightclub magician Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) on an office outing the pair of them unwittingly carry out jewellery thefts from their own clients and wind up investigating themselves while not falling in love … Germs can’t live in your blood – it’s too cold.  A hilarious tale scripted like a Thirties newspaper screwball with rat-a-tat machine gun banter sprinkled liberally with sexist abuse being fired off in both directions and several nods to Kafka not least when Hunt repeatedly calls Allen variations on the word roach. With Double Indemnity hovering in the background, Theron a smouldering femme fatale just dying to bed Allen and Hunt giving it her best Rosalind Russell, this is sheerly brilliant escapist fare with so many laugh out loud exchanges it’s impossible to hear all the great lines. Is she kidding, talking to me like that? It’s ’cause she thinks she’s smarter… you know, ’cause she graduated from Vassar and I went to driving school

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

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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

A Simple Favour (2018)

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Are you going to Diabolique me?  Perky smalltown single mom and vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is swept away by her new friendship with the glorious Emily (Blake Lively) PR director to obnoxious NYC fashion maven Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend), too busy in her professional life to do anything but show up occasionally to collect her little son from school. While fellow moms inform Stephanie that she’s just a free babysitter she’s convinced she and Emily are best friends because they bond over a daily martini at Emily’s fabulous glass modernist house until one day she gets a call from Emily to look after her kid and Emily doesn’t return. Stephanie’s daily vlogs get increasingly desperate as the days wear on. After five days she can’t take it any more. She gets embroiled in a search along with Emily’s husband, the blocked author Sean Townsend (Henry Golding) for whom she has a bit of a thing until she decides to dress up and play Nancy Drew when she discovers Emily had a very good life insurance policy… She’s an enigma my wife. You can get close to her, but you never quite reach her. She’s like a beautiful ghost.  While the world gets its knickers in a twist about female representation along comes Paul Feig once again with an astonishing showcase for two of the least understood actresses in American cinema and lets them rip in complex roles that are wildly funny, smart and pretty damned vicious.  This adaptation by Jessica Sharzer of Darcey Bell’s novel has more twists and turns than a corkscrew and from the incredible jangly French pop soundtrack – which includes everyone from Bardot & Gainsbourg and Dutronc to Zaz – to the cataclysmic meeting between these two pathological liars this is bound to end up in … murder! Deceit! Treachery! Nutty betrayals! Incredible clothes! Lady parts! Revelations of incest! Everything works here – from jibes about competitive parenting and volunteering, to the fashion business, family, film noir, Gone Girl (a variant of which is tucked in as a sub-plot), heavy drinking, wonderful food, electric cars.  And again, the clothes! Kudos to designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus who understands how to convey personality and story. Never wear a vintage Hermès scarf with a Gap T-shirt. If you were truly Emily’s friend, you would know that It’s wonderfully lensed by John Schwartzman, one of my favourite cinematographers and the production design and juxtapositions sing. This is an amazing tour of genres which comes together in two performances that are totally persuasive – in another kind of film Kendrick and Lively might have to tell each other You complete me:  the shocking flashbacks to their pasts (which are both truthful and deceitful) illuminate their true characters. This is that utter rarity – a brilliantly complicated, nasty and humorous tale of female friendship that doesn’t fear to tread where few films venture. It’s an epic battle of the moms. Film of the year? I’ll say! I am so glad that this is the basis of my 2,000th post. Brotherfucker!  MM#2000

 

She Played With Fire (1957)

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Aka Fortune is a Woman.  I don’t suppose she’ll stay a widow very long.  Insurance detective Oliver Branwell (Jack Hawkins) uncovers a shifty art dealer’s ingenious scheme but is unable to do anything about it because the crook Tracey Moreton (Dennis Price) has married the investigator’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Arlene Dahl) and he fears that she may be involved. The detective’s dilemma continues until the dealer gets careless one day and Branwell wonders if Sarah has anything to do with a series of arson attacks when he starts being blackmailed …  With a screenplay by director Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder and Val Valentine, working from a novel by Winston (Poldark) Graham, a splendid cast (including Greta Gynt, Bernard Miles, Ian Hunter and Christopher Lee!) and a great setting, you know you’re in for a good if complex noirish melodrama. Why let a little fraud get in the way of romance? Would you believe the preternaturally beautiful Arlene Dahl capable of murder? She’d been quite naughty in the previous year’s colour noir Slightly Scarlet, so you never know. Watch and wait … with a terrific score by William Alwyn.

Double Indemnity (1944)

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It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets roped into a murderous scheme when he falls for the sensual Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who is intent on killing her husband (Tom Powers) by arranging his ‘accidental death’ and living off the fraudulent accidental death claim. Prompted by the late Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), insurance investigator and Neff’s mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) looks into the case, and gradually begins to uncover the truth… Maybe you knew all along I was the somebody else. Staggering film noir, this early masterpiece from director Billy Wilder boasts a screenplay co-written (sort of) with Raymond Chandler, adapted from the James M. Cain story Three of a Kind. Rarely has the sensibility of a filmmaker been so attuned to the material in such crystalline fashion:  in this treatise on corruption, crime, sex, adultery and murder the casting of this labyrinthine tale of sexual obsession plays to all the character strengths with Wilder seeing in the light actor MacMurray something infinitely schlemiel-like, sleazy and vulnerable.  It is literally picture-perfect, offering us a visual and psychological template for noir, a story told in flashback, shot on location all over Los Angeles, from Jerry’s Market to the Chateau Marmont, Glendale Station to the Hollywood Bowl, with venetian blinds, curling cigarette smoke and tilted fedoras filling out the emotional space shot by DoP John Seitz. Did a city ever feel so lonesome? So oppressive? You can see this kind of L.A. referenced in the avant garde work of Maya Deren at around the same time or in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, five decades later. Stanwyck was never better – dolled up in a blonde wig with bangs and an ankle bracelet begging to be opened, she’s one of the fatalest femmes ever. Robinson is fantastic as the fatherly colleague who unravels this story of these blackest of hearts, while this study of venal behaviour is decorated with the kind of dialogue that you savour forever. How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Classsic Hollywood, in every possible sense of that term.

Ocean’s Eight (2018)

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A him gets noticed, a her gets ignored. And we want to be ignored.  After she’s been released from prison, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) younger estranged sister of the late Danny, meets with her former partner-in-crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) to convince her to join an audacious heist that she planned while serving her sentence. Debbie and Lou assemble the rest of their team: Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter) a disgraced fashion designer who is deeply in debt with the IRS; Amita (Mindy Kaling) a jewellery maker keen to move out of her mother’s house and start her own life; Nine Ball (Rihanna) a computer hacker; Constance (Awkwafina) a street hustler and pickpocket; and Tammy (Sarah Paulson) a profiteer and another friend of Debbie’s who has been secretly selling stolen goods out of her family’s suburban home. Debbie is after a $150 million Cartier necklace, from the Met Gala in five weeks, and plans to use co-host Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), a dim-witted and snobby actress, as an unwitting mule who will wear the necklace into the gala. After the team manipulates Daphne into choosing Weil as her stylist, Weil and Amita go to Cartier to convince them to let Daphne wear the Toussaint, as well as surreptitiously digitally scan it to later manufacture a zircon duplicate but things start to unravel when the original is delivered on the day … A sequel (and spin-off) of sorts to the enjoyable Ocean’s Eleven franchise, this is produced by Steven Soderbergh who bowed out of directing duties in favour of Gary Ross who co-wrote this with Olivia Milch. Burdened perhaps by the poor reception afforded the all-female Ghostbusters, this is a far more confident and fun piece of work, tightly scripted with few lulls (maybe a short one, an hour in) and great casting, with several celebrity cameos:  even Anna Wintour makes an appearance when Tammy interns at Vogue, a nod to the films within a film (The First Monday in May, The September Issue) and of course Hathaway’s fashion film in which Wintour was played by Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada, so this is a kind of fan fiction on screen at least in part. The heist would be nothing without a revenge motif (Richard Armitage as artist/conman Claude Becker got Debbie put in the clink), an insurance investigation (my heart sank when James Corden appeared but forsooth! he doesn’t ruin it) and a twist ending. Bonham Carter’s turn as a kind of Oirish Vivienne Westwood is somewhat heartstopping but what I really want to know is where Bullock and Blanchett got their skin. Seriously.  A lot of fun, with brilliant shoplifting ideas.