The Boys from Brazil (1978)

The Boys from Brazil.jpg

Will I be plagued till my dying day by that infernal Jew? Keen young Nazi hunter Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) contacts the renowned Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) from South America with the startling news that Nazi war criminals are gathering in Paraguay under the aegis of Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck). As he phones him a recording of a meeting detailing a strange plan he is killed and Mengele realises someone knows something they shouldn’t…. In Vienna, Lieberman opens a packet of photos Barry sent him and tries to make sense of what he’s heard – why must 94 sixty-five year old male civil servants in several different countries be killed by a certain date? After speaking to Nazi guard Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen) in prison he finds out that several male babies were adopted in the Sixties by women who were 23 years younger than their husbands. After speaking with biologist Professor Bruckner (Bruno Ganz) he discovers that cloning is indeed possible and not necessarily from living donors:  Mengele has bred mini-Hitlers and is having them raised in conditions akin to those in which his glorious leader lived (his father was a civil servant who died before the boy was 15). Lieberman must stop the plot to rekindle the Fourth Reich. Ira Levin’s speculative fiction is probably closer to happening now than it was in the Seventies – since which time IVF, cloning and three-parent babies are a mere thought away from what Mengele was doing in his horrifying twins experiments in Auschwitz. So this is a lot less like science fiction than it is science fact. It plugs into the real-life work of Simon Wiesenthal (with Olivier perhaps atoning for his sins in Marathon Man!) when real-life Nazis were still relatively young and of course a huge number of high profile SS men were known to be living freely in sympathetic countries like Brazil and Argentina (never mind running Austria and Germany). It also uses the Lebensborn project as a basis for what is now entirely feasible – apparently. James Mason plays Eduard Seibert, the man who comes to rain on Mengele’s crazy rainforest parade but not before Mengele makes his way to Lancaster Pennsylvania to murder Wheelock (John Dehner) the father of the fourth cloned Hitler (Jeremy Black) a child who is as obnoxious and snotty as his copies in London and elsewhere but has a crucially murderous nature which Lieberman discovers after the boy sets the family’s Doberman’s on Mengele. There is a fight to the death – but whose?  This is literally sensational and for connoisseurs of Nazi villains (in cinema) it’s bizarre to see the great liberal actor Peck have a go at Walter Gotell whom he thinks is betraying his plan for world domination. Didn’t they meet in The Guns of Navarone?! Bizarre also to see Bruno Ganz pontificating about clones when his own resemblance to Hitler meant he would play him years later in Downfall. Most bizarre is the fact that Mengele was still alive (for at least another year, possibly longer) when this was released. And for all we know all those Germans in South America (and Europe) have already got their fortysomething men waiting in the wings. Adapted by Heywood Gould and directed by Franklin Schaffner, this had 25 minutes cut for theatrical release in Germany. Poor things! When will everybody stop talking about the Third Reich already?! In the words of the great Dr Henry Jones Jr., Nazis, I hate these guys.

Advertisements

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.jpg

Got a whale of a tale to tell ya lads! It’s 1868.  Professor Pierre M. Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) are stuck in San Francisco because of a disruption in the Pacific’s shipping lanes. The US invites them to join an expedition to prove it’s due to a sea monster. On board with them is the whaler Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) and they find that the creature is actually a submarine, the Nautilus, piloted by the rather eccentric Captain Nemo (James Mason). The three get thrown overboard and end up joining Nemo, who brings them to the island of Rura Penthe, a penal colony, where he and his crew were held prisoner. When they are stranded off New Guinea the men are allowed ashore where Ned almost gets caught by cannibals. When a warship finds them the Nautilus plunges underwater and there’s an amazing battle with a giant squid. Then Ned entertains us by playing music to a sea lion. Nemo says he wants to make peace but tries planting a bomb at the ships’ base … Wildly exciting, funny, dramatic adventure adapted by Earl Felton from Jules Verne’s novel and Richard Fleischer directed for Disney and stages it brilliantly. Marvellous and gripping pre-steampunk stuff!

Hotel Reserve (1944)

Hotel Reserve.jpeg

Don’t just stand there – do something! The great novelist Eric Ambler was a screenwriter himself but this time round his Epitaph for a Spy was adapted by John Davenport who turns in a very tense thriller despite the obvious limitations of this studio-bound production. It’s the eve of WW2.  James Mason plays Peter Vadassy, an Austrian medical student (he’s half French!) on holiday on the Riviera. He’s arrested for photographs of a naval base near Toulon that appear to have been taken on his camera – but the police know the truth and need to root out a Nazi spy in the hotel without raising suspicions. Vadassy is keen to assert his French nationality and if he doesn’t go along with agent Julien Mitchell’s plans he might be deported to Germany and face goodness knows what. There follows a positively Christie-esque drama as Vadassy attempts to figure out which of the hotel’s suspect residents swapped cameras with him and it’s not hugely surprising when Herbert Lom tops the list. Better still, his villainous other half is played by Lucie Mannheim. If you’re wondering who the Irish-accented lovely is who has a crush on Vadassy it’s Maureen O’Hara’s sister Florrie Fitzsimons in her sole screen appearance under the name Clare Hamilton. Directed by a trio of men – Lance Comfort, Max Greene (Mutz Greenbaum) and Victor Hanbury – who turn in an atmospheric film that raises questions about Britain’s wartime relations with France which still had that government at Vichy when this was released …

The Desert Fox (1951)

The Desert Fox theatre card.jpg

Aka The Desert Fox:  The Story of Rommel. Too soon?! Rommel was admired and feared, a brilliant tactician (see: desert campaign 1941-43) whose reputation even Churchill embellished with his words (quoted at the conclusion) but he was a thorn in Hitler’s side. ‘Victory or death’ really didn’t seem reasonable to the Field Marshal and this version of events concerns the last few months of his life when his position was becoming untenable. When his friend Dr Stroelin persuades him to play a part in the plot to kill Hitler known as ‘Valkyrie’ he agrees but it fails and he is given only one option by the regime – suicide. Narrated by Michael Rennie, this elegant adaptation by Twentieth Century-Fox’s in house master builder Nunnally Johnson of Desmond Young’s biography is defiantly unsentimental, sympathetic and convincing. There is no attempt to do shonky Germanic accents and that somehow just enhances the impression of realism (or true crime, perhaps).  The studio’s use of stock footage to achieve their customary documentary effect is highly effective even if there isn’t remotely enough film from Africa. It might well be propaganda given the timing and the skewed content – it was time to pony up to the new Nazi-forgiving German regime and make trade deals, dontcha know and the military genius who wanted peace talks with the Allies was the perfect foil for this narrative. This is really about the military mindset rather than a political analysis of a landscape forever foreign and anti-semitic. However you view it, you don’t need me to tell you that this is James Mason at his greatest. WW2 – the gift that keeps on giving. Superb. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

A Place of One’s Own (1945)

A Place of One's Own movie poster.jpg

An old house in the country. Creaking boards. Flickering lights. Things that go bump in the night…  I’m there. This Gothic melodrama from Gainsborough originated in a 1942 novel by Osbert Sitwell and was adapted by Brock Williams to fit the mode so popular in the wartime period. James Mason was a huge star and insisted on playing the retired husband to Barbara Mullen, both of them wearing makeup to dramatically age for the parts. Directed by Bernard Knowles, Mason put much of the film’s disappointing end result down to their miscasting (blame his pliant father in law, the studio boss) and Knowles’ infatuation with Citizen Kane and those uninterrupted long shots without the redeeming features of a brilliant script or cast. However the haunting, the love story between doctor Dennis Price and young Margaret Lockwood, the couple’s companion who is possessed by a girl murdered 40 years earlier, and the sustained eerieness, remain  quite cogent and provide fiercely atmospheric chills just in time for Christmas. With Dulcie Gray, Moore Marriott and Ernest Thesiger in the ensemble for a production which makes excellent use of Chopin, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Gungl, all arranged by Hubert Bath.

The Seventh Veil (1945)

The Seventh Veil.jpg

Classical pianist Ann Todd is hypnotised by psychiatrist Herbert Lom to try to rid her of the obsession that she will never play again. He takes her back through her life and relationships to work out her problem. She’s the ward of second cousin James Mason, a brooding monster whose ambition for her knows no bounds and he takes her out of the country just when she seems to be settling for a loving relationship with bandleader Hugh McDermott. When she’s in love with another man, Albert Lieven, her cousin causes another cataclysmic situation. The Oscar-winning screenplay by Muriel and Sydney Box (directed by Compton Bennett) successfully blends elements of Victorian melodrama and au courant ideas about psychiatry onto a version of Jane Eyre with a bit of de Sade thrown in for good measure. And it all concludes with Lom doing an Hercule Poirot assembling all the men in her life for Ann Todd to choose between them to lift the seventh veil of her unconscious. This did huge business and made Mason a household name. Fabulous tosh!

The Naked Spur (1953)

The Naked Spur poster

What a change James Stewart’s rep took in the Fifties: in this, his third western collaboration with director Anthony Mann, he is perfectly neurotic, hysterical even, as the greed-driven bounty hunter. He teams up with an old-timer prospector (Millard Mitchell) and a former soldier (Ralph Meeker) to track down marshal-killer Robert Ryan (he made two other films with Mann: Men in War and God’s Little Acre). They think Stewart is a sheriff. Then when Ryan’s found, he tells them about the number on his head and he’s accompanied by his ward, Janet Leigh. Ryan pits them all against each other and the tensions play out against a tremendously photographed landscape:  Durango, the San Juan Mountains and Lone Pine, California (the Hollywood of the Rockies, as Stewart dedicated a monument during production). Stewart is tremendous, so too is Leigh. What is it about her that made so many great directors work with her? She did Touch of Evil with Welles;  Psycho with Hitchcock;  and The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer and looking far more spookily relevant the more we learn about insider politics in Washington and the Kennedy ‘lone assassins’. Her exchanges with Stewart here are wonderful. She can really carry a scene and she looks great. Mitchell died aged fifty soon after production was concluded. Stewart had two other films directed by Mann on release the same year: Thunder Bay and The Glenn Miller Story, both good (and good looking) in their way but nothing like as striking as this. It got an Academy Award for the screenplay by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom – something that rarely happens for a western.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

The Prisoner of Zenda 1952 poster.jpg

Part of my unofficial Deborah Kerr season, this. It’s very like the 1937 version directed by John Cromwell … because it’s copied scene for scene! Wonderful cast, with Stewart Granger (who did something similar six months earlier with the great Scaramouche), Kerr (who had done King Solomon’s Mines with Granger two years earlier) and the villainous James Mason, along with Jane Greer, more familiar to us from RKO’s noirs. It’s interesting to see Mason and Granger face off – they had had remarkably similar career trajectories in Gainsborough melodramas but it would be Mason who would ultimately have the bigger career. Lovely to look at and great fun. What more could you desire?

The Reckless Moment (1948)

The Reckless Moment poster.jpg

A brilliant satire on the middle classes directed by the peerless Max Ophuls from the story The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding originally published in Ladies’ Home Journal. Wonderfully cool photography of a coastal California town by Burnett Guffey distances us from this busy household where a self-absorbed teenage art student has the murder of her sleazy lover covered up by the mother (Joan Bennett) whose husband is busy saving the world in Berlin. Then James Mason comes to call to sort out a debt for his ‘friend’ … While Bennett does her best to save her reckless daughter from the consequences of her underage sexual drive, Mason plays an Irishman who wants to do the right thing by this wonderfully cynical woman and plays up the fatalism in much the same way he did in Odd Man Out. Fabulous. Written by Mel Dinelli, Robert E. Kent, Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg.