The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

The Mephisto Waltz.jpg

There’s no reason to be scared. A frustrated pianist who spent four years at Juilliard, music journalist Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) is thrilled to interview virtuoso Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens). Duncan, however, is terminally ill and not much interested in Myles until he observes that Myles’ hands are ideally suited for piano. Suddenly, he can’t get enough of his new friend and thinks he should perform; while his daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins) thinks Myles should act, and Myles’ wife, Paula (Jacqueline Bisset), who believes he has a great novel in him, becomes suspicious of Duncan’s intentions. Her suspicions grow when Duncan dies and Myles mysteriously becomes a virtuoso overnight... Hands like yours are one in a hundred thousand.  Adapted from Fred Mustard Stewart’s novel it’s easy to dismiss this as an unambiguous Faustian followup to Rosemary’s Baby but it’s better than that. Once-blacklisted screenwriter Ben Maddow does a fine job (on his final screenplay) in conveying the book’s deep sense of dread and Jurgens is terrifying as the man whose influence stretches beyond mere existence. It’s set in California in a change from the original New York location. No matter how lusciously lovely it looks (courtesy of William W. Spencer), it’s shot through with death and strangeness, odd setups, underpinned by Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score (and a guy called Liszt) and highly effective performances, particularly by Bisset who is fantastic as the horrifyingly cuckolded wife, and by the imposingly scary soul-switching Satanist Jurgens. I feel unfaithful – he’s like three different men, says Bisset after having sex with the newly-transfused Alda.  Even Parkins impresses as the seductive daughter whose own father clearly loves her outside the usual limits. Unfortunately Alda is the weakest link and seems more like a lucky social climber. It remains a terrifying film, with glorious visual insinuation and eerie dream sequences, wonderfully directed by Paul Wendkos. The only feature production by legendary TV producer Quinn Martin.  Success makes you miserable, doesn’t it

Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)

Backstabbing_for_Beginners_poster.png

Information is everything  – the currency, the power. Young United Nations employee Michael Soussan (Theo James) has left his lucrative job at a bank because he wants to follow in his late diplomat father’s footsteps and travels to Iraq with his mentor Under-Secretary-General Costa ‘Pasha’ Passaris (Ben Kingsley), who is going to show him how successful the UN’s Oil-for-Food Programme has been. When Michael gets a deeper look at the organisation on the ground he listens to the concerns of local UN diplomat Christina Dupre (Jacqueline Bisset) and unveils a corruption conspiracy in which officials both inside and outside of the UN are skimming billions off the top of the aid meant for the Iraqi people. When he meets UN worker (and secret Kurdish activist) Nashim (Bilçim Bilgin) and she informs him his predecessor was murdered, he finds his head being turned yet he wants to do the right thing … There was nobody left who knew how to run the countryPitched as a political thriller, this reeks of the great Seventies paranoid conspiracy stories that Pakula and Pollack made so much their own – and even concludes in a visit to the Wall Street Journal, conjuring images of Robert Redford in his own cat and mouse chase. However this whistleblower drama is a bigger story with the bad guys less easy to identify simply because there are so many of them – thousands of global companies, some household brands, bribing Saddam Hussein, and, as we might recall from the news of 15 years ago, revolved around the United Nations. So basically everything we know is right – they’re all at it, as the overly truthful title indicates. Graft is good. Our shoulder-shrugging dismay is sealed by intermittent montages of newsreel, reminding us that we are watching, as it were, a true story, while some of the ensemble get killed in car bombs as Iraq is carved up by vested interests. Kingsley, unsurprisingly, gets all the best lines and this performance is meat and drink to him. James is more diffuse as the good guy constantly stunned into submission by the realisation that corruption is a way of life and he still scrabbles to do whatever is right, whatever that might be, at any given time as the tables are constantly turned on him in this story of a naïf’s progress.  Adapted from Soussan’s memoir by director Per Fly (isn’t that the best name ever?!) and Daniel Pyne. Admirable but not wholly effective.  What you call corruption is simply the growing pains of a new democracy

 

Under the Volcano (1984)

Under the Volcano.jpg

He on whose heart the dust of Mexico has lain, will find no peace in any other land. A day in the life of a man in 1938. Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) is an alcoholic former British consul living in Quauhnahuac, a small Mexican town. As the local Day of the Dead celebration gets underway, Geoffrey drowns himself in the bottle, having cut himself off from his family, friends and job. When he goes missing, his ex-wife, actress Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), who has returned from the US in the hopes of resurrecting their relationship, convinces his half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) to conduct a last-ditch search for him, hoping that Hugh might be able to rescue her self-destructing husband… How, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken? Finney and Bisset are reunited a decade after Murder on the Orient Express. This is a very different experienceAdapted by Guy Gallo (his only screenplay to date) from Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 masterpiece, this late John Huston film (and he rejected over 20 versions of the screenplay over the decades) is a powerhouse film: brilliantly interpreted by everyone concerned. Reunited with his director following Annie, Finney offers one of his great performances, committed and charismatic, as the dissolute man who nonetheless has a core of humanity. Huston said of it, I think it’s the finest performance I have ever witnessed, let alone directed.  Huston had lived in Puerto Vallarta for a period and shot The Night of the Iguana there as well of course as having made one of his other films in Mexico – maybe his best ever, full stop – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Clearly the country brought something special to his aesthetic – and vice versa. There is nothing more real than magic. Here the various elements churn and dissect a life, symbolised in the wonderful titles sequence. It’s marvellous to see Katy Jurado as Senora Gregoria, a key supporting character in this drama that constantly threatens us with being on the brink of something – death? Truth? War? It was originally written by Lowry in 1936 but underwent many rewrites. It’s so special it’s the subject of two documentaries including the Oscar-nominated Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, in which Lowry’s words are read by Richard Burton, who Huston had hoped to cast as the lead right after they shot Iguana. Quite, quite the film then, with a legacy all its own. Hell is my natural habitat

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express 1974_-_UK_poster.png

Bianchi, Doctor, has it occurred to you that there are too many clues in this room? Having concluded a case, fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) settles into what he expects will be a relaxing journey home from Istanbul via Calais aboard the Orient Express in December 1935 courtesy of the line’s director, Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam). But when an unpopular and enigmatic American billionaire Ratchett (Richard Widmark) is murdered en route, Poirot takes up the case, and everyone on board the famous train is a suspect. The other passengers travelling on the Calais coach are: Mrs. Harriet Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), a fussy, talkative, multiple-widowed American;  Ratchett’s secretary and translator Hector McQueen (Anthony Perkins) and English manservant Beddoes (John Gielgud); elderly Russian Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) and her German maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachel Roberts); Hungarian diplomat Count Rudolf Andrenyi (Michael York) and his wife Elena (Jacqueline Bisset); British Indian Army officer Col. John Arbuthnot (Sean Connery); Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave), a teacher of English in Baghdad;  Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman), a timid Swedish missionary to Africa on a fund-raising trip; Italian-American car salesman Antonio Foscarelli (Denis Quilley); and Cyrus B. Hardman (Colin Blakely), an American theatrical agent;  and the conductor Pierre Paul Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel).  Using an avalanche in Yugoslavia blocking the tracks to his advantage, Poirot gradually realizes that many of the passengers have revenge as a motive, and he begins to home in on the culprit as he discovers that everyone aboard is in some way connected with the kidnapping of a little girl which resulted in several deaths … Colourful, energetic pastiche of old train movies, the most surprising aspect of this is that the venerable street-savvy Sidney Lumet directed it.  Heading up the extraordinarily starry cast is Finney who is unrecognisable and plays the man with all those little grey cells to the manner born, achieving a brilliant comedic affect.  With all those famous actors it’s interesting to note how they use ‘business’ to get attention and the cunning score by Richard Rodney Bennett gives them each their own signature (guess what Perkins’ sounds like!) enlivening their vignettes.  There are no surprises in Paul Dehn’s screenplay and the dénouement when Poirot takes us through the murder is very satisfying even while most of the cast must keep quiet as Finney gives his masterclass.  Interesting to note all but two of them got a flat fee of $100,000 barring Finney (who has the lion’s share of the acting) and Connery who was big enough to garner points. Apparently life on the set was better for the actors than the crew, who were subjected to Redgrave’s lunchtime political lectures – the cast got to hear Gielgud’s theatrical anecdotes instead. It was one of just two Agatha Christie plots which the Queen of Crime based on real events. Great fun.

Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt poster.jpg

Steve McQueen. A Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback. The greatest car chase ever filmed (until The French Connection). Jacqueline Bisset as the beautiful and intelligent love interest.  A fairly routine police procedural adapted from the novel Mute Witness was elevated to something approaching mythic precisely because McQueen’s innate cool transforms the material by virtue of his being allowed to be himself under Peter Yates’ careful direction. He’s up against a senator (Magnificent Seven co-star Robert Vaughn) with an agenda to shut down a Mafia investigation while Steve has to keep his witness hidden and find out what’s really going on. Adapted by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner from the novel by Robert L. Fish (or Pike!). Just listen to Lalo Schifrin’s score! Truly iconic.

Two For the Road (1967)

Two for the Road movie.jpg

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.

Domino (2005)

Domino poster.jpg

The story of gorgeous film star Laurence Harvey’s model turned bounty hunter daughter was always going to attract attention. Written by Richard Kelly on screenplay duties for director Tony Scott (late, lamented) this is told in an exhilarating style.  Scott had known Harvey for 12 years at the point that it went into production. The business with her father (clips from The Manchurian Candidate) is dealt with early on and the date of his death and other aspects are fabricated; while her mother (Jacqueline Bisset) participates in the decision to make a reality show when Domino has made her name in the bounty game. There are digressions about race (hilarious), prison, guns, nunchucks… you name it.The pity is that its subject did not survive to see it, dying of a painkiller overdose while trying to clear her name of drug trafficking.

High Season (1987)

High Season poster

The life of the screenwriter can be challenging, that of the writer/director even moreso, particularly if you’re a woman. Clare Peploe has mostly been associated with her husband, Bernardo Bertolucci, but she has forged her own directing signature. It has a variable imprint. This story of a hard-up photographer (Jacqueline Bisset) in Rhodes falls on its sword despite an enviable location, lovely cast and some sharp scenes.  The tone falls between stools – Bisset’s good friend Sharpie (the rarely seen Sebastian Shaw) has given her a vase that she can sell to the unscrupulous Konstantinos  (Robert Stephens) to save her house since her philandering sculptor husband (James Fox) has taken a commission from Lord Byron fanatic Yanni (Paris Tselios) to lure tourists that sets his patriotic fanatical mother (the wonderful Irene Papas) crazy. An English couple turn up – played by Kenneth Branagh and Lesley Manville – and they are the equivalent of Charters and Caldicott on holiday. Their scenes are hideously wrong. Peploe has no idea how to control them and they ruin the film’s delicacy which ultimately turns on the identity of the infamous Tenth Man. There is neither rhyme nor reason to the film’s opening sequence but hopefully DoP Chris Menges had a nice holiday.  The location photography is stunning.