The MacKintosh Man (1973)

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Put a bag over my head. I’ve been in prison for 15 months! Secret agent Joseph Rearden (Paul Newman) poses as an Australian jewel thief and is quickly convicted of stealing £140,000 of diamonds and imprisoned in order to infiltrate an organisation headed by Home Secretary Sir George Wheeler (James Mason) who organises Rearden’s escape along with that of MI6 intelligence officer Slade (Ian Bannen) who was gaoled as a Soviet mole … I don’t know about you, Slade; I’m not ready for death. The rest I’ll drink to. Adapted by Walter Hill (along with director John Huston and William Fairchild) from Desmond Bagley’s The Freedom Trap, this starts out quietly and continues that way for some time – tricking the susceptible viewer into believing that Rearden himself has been tricked by MI6 into taking the fall for a jewel heist and for more than a half hour it’s a prison movie. However the sleight of hand is revealed as it becomes clear Rearden has gone into deep cover to smoke out a dangerous organisation in this Cold War tale. Of course you will recognise the contours of the real-life story of George Blake, whose daring prison escape is the stuff of legend. For an action film and spy thriller this is a work of smooth surfaces and understated performances, especially by Newman, enhanced by the cinematography of the great Oswald Morris and a beautiful score by Maurice Jarre. The locations around Galway – Oranmore and Roundstone – were local to director Huston who spent much of the Fifties onwards at his house St Cleran’s. The palpable anger and keen sense of duty comes in fits and starts, usually at the conclusion of realistically staged action sequences, including a chase across an Irish bog and using banged up cars rather than Aston Martins. There are also some small gems of supporting appearances – Leo Genn as prosecuting counsel, Jenny Runacre as Gerda the nurse, Noel Purcell and Donal McCann in the Irish scenes. There are also scenes of misogyny and violence (even against a dog) that might shock in this more politically even-handed climate. The strangest character Mrs Smith, played by Une femme douce herself Dominique Sanda, gets an incredible payoff.  You might even say she has the last word. The cool, straightforward approach to treachery, duplicity in the modern state and something of a twist ending just raises more questions, making this a palpable pleasure, a film which tells one simple truth – trust nobody. Produced by John Foreman who had a company first with Newman and then made a cycle of films with Huston. Our deaths would mean little or nothing to anyone, anywhere – only to ourselves

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

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You save that jiggle for your husband.  Semi-retired Michigan lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) takes the case of Army Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who murdered local innkeeper Barney Quill after his wife Laura (Lee Remick) claimed that he raped and beat her.  However a police surgeon finds no evidence of rape.  Over the course of a big trial, Biegler is the smalltown lawyer (and recently deposed District Attorney) who must parry with the new DA Lodwick (Brooks West) and out-of-town prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) to set his client free, but his case rests on the victim’s mysterious business partner Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), who’s hiding a dark secret.  Biegler has to prove Manion was suffering temporary insanity but will the jury buy it after Biegler discovers he’s a violent and jealous husband and he knows in his heart he’s got a very weak defence? … Producer/director Otto Preminger spent most of the 1950s baiting the censor with material for adults and this long engrossing account of a true crime is no different. Wendell Mayes adapted Robert Traver’s (aka John D. Voelker) novel based on his own experiences on a 1952 case in the state of Michigan.The matter of fact handling of the explicit physical details in the courtroom confirms that this is a film that has no cinematic tricks. It’s shot wide and flat in black and white with the only camouflage or disguise in the personalities presenting themselves. That applies to the legal team too:  Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) has to swear off the booze for the duration to assist Biegler;  Laura must drop the tight pedal pushers, don skirts and hide her wonderful hair;  Biegler’s bonhomie hides a finagling mind that doesn’t express great surprise at anything anyone says or conceals.   There’s a strand of humour running through both dialogue and characterisation that raises the game: the lightness of Remick as the bruised flirtatious beauty, with her wonderful companion dog Muff (Snuffy) who gets to provide his own witness statement in court, alongside Stewart’s jolly and wryly witty performance, makes this more pleasurable than the subject matter suggests. In fact the whole film avoids melodramatic excess and has a devious sinuousness that leads from Stewart. His banter with Joseph N. Welch [chief counsel for the US Army when it was being investigated for UnAmerican Activities in the McCarthy Hearings] about fishing provides a lot of enjoyment; Eve Arden as the reliable and seen-it-all secretary Maida Rutledge offers her typical scepticism in a film constructed from the cynic’s playbook. There are no histrionics or crazy closing arguments, just practice, rationale  and evidence (of witness-coaching). Now, Mr  Dancer, get off the panties – you’ve done enough damage.  Duke Ellington provides the film’s notable score and he appears uncredited as pianist Pie Eye and enjoys an exchange with Stewart. The great titles are by Saul Bass. This is elegant filmmaking, wonderfully crafted, telling a difficult story in the procedural vernacular very stylishly.  How can a jury disregard what it’s already heard?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) attends the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in a small Western town. Flashing back 25 years, we learn Doniphon saved Stoddard, then a lawyer, when he was roughed up by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). As the territory’s safety hung in the balance, Doniphon and Stoddard, two of the only people standing up to him, proved to be very important, but different, foes to Valance. Stoddard opened a law office over the offices of the Shinbone Star, the newspaper which is run by a steadfast editor determined to expose the reality of the violence terrorising the territory and preserve the freedom of the press. Both Doniphon and Stoddard are in love with the same woman, Hallie (Vera Miles) who cooks in her immigrant parents’ restaurant and whom Stoddard teaches to read and write. When the newspaper prints a (mis-spelled) headline declaring Valance is defeated, he takes revenge – and then the peace-loving Stoddard takes up a gun … This is a film of polarities, exemplified by the civilising influence of Ransom opposed to Valance and Doniphon’s own belief in the power of the gun (which ironically opens up the possibility for bringing law and order to the place). Vera Miles is splendid as the illiterate love of both men:  What good has reading and writing done you? Look at you – in an apron!  An eloquent essay on the genre itself, this was not received warmly upon release. And yet its entire narrative provides the content for soon to be popular structuralist analysis of the western:  the East versus the West, old versus new, the wilderness versus civilisation, violence versus law and order, reality versus myth, the desert versus the garden. Never was a cactus rose deployed to such symbolic effect! John Ford made one of the great films but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch up. Adapted from Dorothy Johnson’s short story by producer Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah .

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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You sit here and you spin your little web and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Up in Heaven Clarence (Henry Travers) is awaiting his angel’s wings when a case is made to him about George Bailey (James Stewart) who’s thinking about jumping off a bridge and into a wintry river at Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve 1945. Clarence is told George’s story: as a young boy rescuing his brother Harry from an icy pond, to his father’s death just when his own life should have been taking off and he winds up staying in this loathsome little town running the bank and having his honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) ruined when there’s a run on the bank’s funds … and losing himself amid other people’s accidents, deaths and rank stupidity while the town runs afoul of greedy financier Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George is such a great guy with dreams of travel and adventure and the truth is he never leaves home and becomes a martyr to other people. I’ve always found this immensely depressing. What happens to him – the sheer passive aggression directed at him and the loss of all of his ambitions in order to satisfy other people’s banal wishes at the expense of his own life’s desires  – is a complete downer. Reworking A Christmas Carol with added danger it feels like a post-war attempt to make people feel happy with their very limited lot. Which is why I watch this very rarely and with complete reluctance precisely because its petty moralising is achieved so beautifully and rationally … So sue me! Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling and directed by Frank Capra.

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

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My number’s Pennsylvania 6-5000. Glenn Miller (James Stewart) is a young impoverished trombonist who pawns the instrument every time he leaves his latest band because nobody wants to use his arrangements: he hears music in a certain way but hasn’t the means to achieve his own orchestra, at least not yet. He’s confident it’ll happen some day just as he is that Helen (June Allyson) the girl he once dated at college in Colorado will marry him so he buys her a fake string of pearls and gets her to see him for the first time in two years despite her being engaged to someone else. Then he disappears again.  When she agrees to meet him in NYC she marries him and while he falls in and out of jobs she gets him to form his own crew with the money she squirrelled away without his knowing and by 1939 he has one of the biggest swing bands in the US … This biographical film is just so good it’s hard to know where to start:  the transitions which are so brilliantly inscribed by visually expert director Anthony Mann, particularly in the early scenes when the pawn shop is so central to Miller’s whole life;  the ease with which we grasp Miller’s misery at not being able to translate the music in his head to live performance (the squirming during a showgirl’s bowdlerized delivery of Moonlight Serenade has to be seen to be believed); the simple way the adoption of their children is handled; and the depiction of friendship with pianist Chummy (Henry Morgan) and its significance to running a smooth band. If you’re a jazz fan you’ll get a shiver of recognition every time a familiar chord strikes up and kudos to arranger Henry Mancini (who had played with Miller and was part of the ‘ghost’ band made up of the original and the Army Air Force players when he died) who errs just the right side of easy. There’s another recognition factor too – watching Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa perform is another plus;  as is the scene in London during a German bombing raid when the band play on in the open air – and the audience applaud once they get up again. Stewart is splendid in the title role and his resemblance to Miller doesn’t hurt. He was paired previously with Allyson in The Stratton Story and would work with her again in director Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command. This was the star and director’s fifth film collaboration  (out of eight) and the first non-Western. It was a huge hit, as was the soundtrack album and is a genuinely thrilling musical which will give real fans immense pleasure. There’s a great final scene with that little brown jug. Gulp. Written by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper.

Two Rode Together (1961)

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They’re expecting a Messiah, a Moses, to deliver them from their bondage – and I’ve got to send them you! Cynical Texas marshal (James Stewart) and conscientious Army officer (Richard Widmark) are deputised to rescue white people kidnapped by Comanches years earlier but only when negotiations with them succeed. They get two of them back to camp – some mother’s son and a Mexican woman – but find they have completely forgotten their origins and a massive culture clash ensues with the boy killing the woman who is convinced she is his mother and Elena ostracised by white society for becoming an Indian squaw.  The casting of this John Ford western is interesting as Stewart wears his talismanic hat from the Anthony Mann westerns and pours cold water on everything while Widmark always tries to do the right thing; Shirley Jones makes an impact as the girl who can’t get her missing brother out of her mind. Ford didn’t want to make this since he felt he had said all he needed to say about this sort of thing with The Searchers and he was basically correct. But his new star, Stewart, and the widescreen shooting make this worth a watch and the double act at its heart is genuinely interesting. Adapted by Frank Nugent from Will Cook’s novel Comanche Captives.

Harvey (1950)

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Harvey has overcome not only time and space but any objections. Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a wealthy eccentric living with his sister and niece who enjoys a daily tipple especially when it’s with his best friend, a six foot three and a half inch rabbit, the titular Harvey. And Harvey is invisible, in Elwood’s words, a pooka (a ghost in Celtic mythology). When Elwood’s social-climbing sister Veta (Josephine Hull) tries to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium it’s she who winds up incarcerated after she admits she’s heard so much about the rabbit she sometimes sees him too…. Mary Chase’s hit Broadway play ran for a long time and it gets a delightful treatment here with Hull reprising her role:  one of the good visual jokes is her short stature. She has some nice jibes about psychiatry including, That’s all they talk about – sex. Why don’t they get out, take some long walks in the fresh air?! The sanitarium director Dr Chumley (Cecil Kellaway) tries to help Elwood but then he has some experiences with Harvey himself … Chase’s Irish Catholic background helped her conceptualise this invisible helpmate as a kind of friendly ghost and it was one of three of her plays translated to the screen. Delicately handled by director Henry Koster, this was adapted by Oscar Brodney (and an uncredited Myles Connolly) and is perfectly judged between staging and characterisation. Great performances make it an enduring entertainment.

The Far Country (1954)

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I don’t need other people. I don’t need help. I can take care of myself. Cowboy Jeff Webster (James Stewart) is bringing cattle from Wyoming to the Yukon but the corrupt sheriff in Skagway (John McIntire) steals the herd. Jeff joins forces with the saloon keeper (Ruth Roman) from a neighbouring town but they’re up against someone so tough he kills Jeff’s sidekick (Walter Brennan) and Jeff finally swears revenge for reasons other than his own. Great 50s western that has a political undertow – the journey from individual to collective responsibility. Somehow, director Anthony Mann’s construction and use of painted backdrops combine to undermine the film’s radical message while Stewart (in their fourth collaboration) adds another hue of psychopathy to his character palette. With Corinne Calvet as the young woman who must compete with Roman for Stewart’s affections, this is pretty fantastic entertainment and it looks wonderful (they knew colour then). Written by Borden Chase.

Rear Window (1954)

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Grace Kelly had one hour to choose between returning to work with Alfred Hitchcock or taking the part of the girl in On the Waterfront. She chose this. And a good thing too, because it was written with her in mind. At the director’s suggestion, radio writer John Michael Hayes had got to know her on and off the set of Dial M for Murder and designed the role adapted from a story by Cornell Woolrich around Kelly’s authentic persona and that of his wife, a former model. It was by working with Hitchcock that Kelly learned to work with her whole body. He listened to her and she loved his jokes – they shared a filthy sense of humour. She plays Lisa Carol Fremont, a high society NYC mover and shaker who’s in love with photojournalist James Stewart, stuck looking out his window at his neighbours’ apartments while laid up with a broken leg. She’s desperately in love with him but he wants to get rid of her – then she becomes a gorgeous Nancy Drew when he suspects one of his neighbours has murdered his wife. Only then does he realise what he’s got. She’s the action girl of his dreams. When you go to Paramount Studios you can see the four-wall facility that Hitchcock used to create the biggest set built there but sadly nothing remains of this paean to onanism, voyeurism, narcissism and whatever other perversion you’re having yourself. Oh, and scopophilia. In theory, this is all about Stewart but really it’s all about Kelly – and the biggest joke here of course is that the most beautiful woman in the world wants him and he doesn’t get it. Not really. Not until she becomes a part of the unfolding events he watches through his viewfinder. Kelly’s entrance is probably the greatest afforded any movie star. Her costumes alone tell a great story. MGM never knew what to do with her so loaning her out wasn’t a problem.  The theatre owners knew who the real star of the film was – and put her name up on their marquees above anyone else’s. Audiences adored her. She was the biggest thing in 1954. And this witty, clever study of a man afraid of marriage is for most people Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. For more on Kelly’s collaborations with Hitchcock, which are the peak of both their careers, and the high point of midcentury cinema, you can see my essay Hitchcock/Kelly at Canadian journal Offscreen:  https://www.offscreen.com/hitchcock-kelly.

The Naked Spur (1953)

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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.