East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden

The way he looks at you. Sorta like an animal. In 1917 Salinas Cal (James Dean) and Aaron (Richard Davalos) Trask are the sons of decent farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) who is chairman of the local wartime draft board. Both compete for his attention but Cal has discovered that the mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) they were told was long dead is in fact the madam of a whorehouse in Monterey, 15 miles away. He borrows money from her to profit from a rise in the bean farming market intending to repay his father for his failed experiment in freezing food for long-haul shipping.  But his father prefers Aaron’s announcement of his engagement to Abra (Julie Harris) whom Cal starts to desire just as Aaron feels pressure to enlist and Cal decides to surprise him … I’ve been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn’t even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don’t want it anymore… I can’t use it anymore. I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off. Was there ever a more important or sinuous entrance in the history of cinema than James Dean’s arrival here? The way he moves, coiled like a caged animal set to pounce, slinking along like a cat, then hunched and feral, infiltrating our consciousness and catalysing our puzzlement and desire? I first saw this aged 12 and that’s the perfect age to watch it for the first time, this story of bad parenting, bullying, abandonment, sibling rivalry, envy and first love, all choreographed to the backdrop of the outbreak of WW1 in a masterful adaptation (by Paul Osborn) of the last section of John Steinbeck’s great 1952 novel. Everything about it is right:  the shooting style laying out the gorgeous landscape of Salinas, alternately warm and sunny, chill and foggy; the wide screen that’s barely able to contain the raw emotionality; the marvellous, occasionally strident score by Leonard Rosenman with its soaring, sonorous swoops. And there’s the cast. Jo Van Fleet gives a great performance (in her screen debut) as the wild whoremongering mother  – just look at her strut when we first see her (this is a film of brilliant entrances), providing the angular example of difference to this half-grown boy of hers; Massey is upstanding, a self-righteous, arrogant man, given to sermonising, incapable of leading by empathy; Harris is generous to a fault, allowing Dean to be everything, all at once, boy, man, lover. He burns up the screen with playfulness, confusion and rage. His scenes with Davalos, the Abel to his Cain, bespeak a softness and eroticism rarely equalled and play into the latterday perceptions of his orientation – or perhaps director Elia Kazan just understood how he needed to be in the part, getting into your head by whatever means necessary. Kazan recalled the audience reaction to Dean at the first screening and said that kids were screaming and yelling and practically falling over the balcony to get closer to him, they went wild. That’s how he makes you feel, James Dean. You want to get closer to him. You want to be him. This is really where that sensation began:  of feelings being teased, opened up, acknowledged. Once seen, never forgotten. You’re a likeable kid

Animals (2019)

Animals

You’re my team. Long-time friends and party-lovers Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) navigate life and love in Dublin, Ireland. However, when wannabe writer Laura becomes engaged to concert pianist Jim (Fra Fee) her lifestyle of drinking, drugging and sleeping around alongside barista Tyler becomes unstuck, threatening their friendship. Tyler attends Laura’s family gatherings revolving around her parents and pregnant older sister (Amy Molloy). When Laura fancies poet Marty (Dermot Murphy), whom Tyler also likes, the difficulties intensify, and Laura thinks of moving out of the nice Georgian flat subsidised by Tyler’s late father, while Laura’s novel gets nowhere, now ten years in the writing…  Sorry girls, didn’t mean to get all holy on you there with my burning bush. With its action transposed from Manchester to Dublin, Emma Jane Unsworth adapts her much-loved novel. It’s energetically directed by Australian Sophie Hyde (her second feature after 2013’s 52 Tuesdays) who does a fine job commandeering two of the most endearing female friends explored on film in a long time, in all their unpleasant, messy, extreme, inglorious situations. The moon has married us both.  Grainger exhibits wonderful poise on her soulful journey through sex and love, while Shawkat is as convincing as ever, an established comic performer relishing the role of a thirtysomething wild child whose balance is undone, spinning into infinity, all to the backdrop of a quasi-bohemian arts scene where happiness is just a stolen bottle of MDMA away. A graphic depiction of problematic modern femininity which is subversive and true. Was any of it real?

The Uncanny (1977)

The Uncanny

Horror author Wilbur Gray (Peter Cushing) tells publisher Frank Richards (Ray Milland) of his fear that cats are preparing to replace humans and regales him with three true stories that prove his point. London 1912. The cat gets everything. wealthy dowager Miss Malkin (Joan Greenwood) is planning to write her only nephew Michael (Simon Williams) out of her will, and bequeath her large fortune entirely to her large multitude of cats. When her maid Janet (Susan Penhaligon), hears the old woman making these changes with her lawyer Wallace (Roland Culver) she alerts Michael and they plan to destroy the last copy of the will locked in Miss Malkin’s bedside safe. Janet waits for the perfect moment to crack the combination but Miss Malkin catches her in the act and attempts to call the police, forcing Janet to kill her. But the cats witness everything and stop her from destroying their inheritance. Quebec Province 1975Why can’t you be more like Angela? She never puts a foot wrong. Young orphan Lucy (Katrina Holden), moves into her aunt Joan’s (Alexandra Stewart) home along with her pet cat Wellington. Her cousin Angela (Chloe Franklin), however, gets extremely jealous when she discovers that Wellington will be living with them, since she’s not allowed any pets herself. When her whining does little to change her parents’ (Alexandra Stewart and Donald Pilon) minds, Angela delights in getting both the cat and Lucy in trouble, prompting her fed-up father to bring Wellington to be put down. Wellington somehow finds his way home, and helps Lucy plot her revenge against the troublemaking Angela by shrinking her cousin down to the size of a toy. Hollywood 1936.  It was the cat that did it. B-movie star Valentine De’ath (Donald Pleasance) does away with his leading lady wife in an artfully arranged accident, persuading his producer Pomeroy (John Vernon) into handing over the role role to the actor’s vapid girlfriend Edina (Samantha Eggar) who calls him ‘VD’. As the two celebrate back at De’ath’s mansion, they are constantly interrupted by his wife’s cat, who is taking care of her newborn litter. De’ath hates the little creatures and drowns them all, but the mother cat escapes and follows him to the studio to take her revenge, eating through ropes to drop a light on his head and then shutting an iron maiden with his girlfriend inside… This British/Canadian Amicus anthology features a great cast but offers fairly slim pickings even if the theme of feline revenge is immensely appealing. It just doesn’t serve it with sufficient variety. There are some nice moments – including a photo of Pleasence in his Bond role, white pussycat on his lap;  but the framing story isn’t sufficiently surprising even with its twist ending. The cats are delightful, if somewhat intimidating. And hungry. Written by Michel Parry and directed by porn stalwart Denis Héroux.

Tell it to the Bees (2018)

Tell it to the Bees

He said this town was too small for secrets. With her failing marriage to her estranged former soldier husband Robert (Emun Elliott) and a curious young son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), Manchester-born Lydia Weekes (Holliday Grainger) does not fit into the small Scottish Borders town where she has ended up. She starts a friendship with the town’s new doctor Jean Markham (Ann Paquin) who has bonded with Charlie after he takes an interest in her bee colonies at the house she inherited from her late father, the town’s former doctor. However, in 1950s rural Scotland, the women’s relationship raises questions particularly because Jean is remembered from a terrible incident involving another girl in her schooldays which prompted her father to send her away.  When Lydia is evicted from her home and loses her job at the local lace factory where her boss is her sister-in-law Pam (Kate Dickie) she goes to live at Jean’s house with Charlie to work as her housekeeper. However they are drawn to each other and start a sexual relationship. Somehow the locals get wind of the arrangement and gossip spreads. Charlie witnesses them in bed together and runs to report to his father. Jean could lose her career if Lydia fights for custody of Charlie.  Meanwhile, Robert’s younger sister Annie (Lauren Lyle), who is friends with Lydia, is happily pregnant by her black boyfriend and the family want her dealt with before the pregnancy becomes public … How do I explain? Jessica Ashworth and Henrietta Ashworth adapted the 2009 novel by Fiona Shaw [not the actress]. What could occasionally be perceived as a contemporary story retro-fitted to critique the insular homophobic values of its Fifties setting, this mostly manages to overcome that fear by reducing the significance of the unlikeable child who is a prism for adult behaviour.  It broaches some tough situations (like a botched home abortion) with the refusing of sentiment and a modicum of unsettling violence. This steers it through the conventional posturing and clichéd setup which is nimbly handled by director Annabel Jankel.  The leads (particularly Grainger) are superb. The cinematography by Bartosz Nalazek is beautiful.  Those sort of people don’t change their minds

Island in the Sun (1957)

Island in the Sun

Santa Marta, an island in the West Indies. Hot-tempered plantation owner Maxwell Fleury (James Mason) is jealous of his wife Sylvia (Patricia Owens) whom he presumes is having an affair with retired war hero Hilary Carson (Michael Rennie). He envies his sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins) who is dating war hero (Stephen Boyd), at home to visit his father, Lord Tempelton (Ronald Squire), Governor of the island. Their mother (Diana Wynyard) and father Julian (Basil Sydney) are concealing family history from them. Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine) a member of the island’s richest family, becomes romantically involved with islander David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte) who is politically ambitious. Drugstore clerk Margot Seaton (Dorothy Dandridge) is having a relationship with Denis Archer (John Justin) the aide to the Governor. When Carson is murdered, police chief Colonel Whittingham (John Williams) investigates. Meanwhile Bradshaw (Hartley Power) an American journalist is looking into the background of the Fleury family and his scoop that their grandmother was part black may scupper Maxwell’s political hopes… Does it make any difference, having an aim in life? As Caribbean potboilers go, this melodrama of sex, race, class and politics takes some beating. Adapted by the wonderful writer Alfred Hayes from Alec Waugh’s 1955 novel, it was directed by Robert Rossen, a man most of the cast despised for his HUAC stance (after being punished for his silence about membership of the Communist Party the talented writer/director eventually named names and wouldn’t really get his career back on track until The Hustler). It’s a perfectly picturesque production with all the limitations of mid-century censorship and taste yet still conveys a flavoursome spectrum of ideas and plot with some highly suggestive scenes, Fontaine and Belafonte’s interracial kiss being highly controversial at the time. This end of Empire movie graphically illustrates the colonial issues then raging, offering a true insight into identity politics. Mason has a rather narrow range here but Dandridge shines. Shot primarily on Trinidad and Tobago and also on Barbados and Grenada with interiors done at EMI-MGM in England. Produced by Daryl F. Zanuck, Belafonte co-wrote the hit title song with Irving Burgie and it was featured on his album Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean. In the last analysis the great patriots were those who identified personal ambition with the welfare of their country

Nor the Moon by Night (1958)

Nor the Moon By Night film

Aka Elephant Gun. This is not England. After the mother she’s nursed for years dies, Englishwoman Alice Lang (Belinda Lee) goes to Kenya to marry her pen pal gamekeeper Andrew Miller (Patrick McGoohan). However he has to deal with a poaching incident on the game reserve and redirect a herd of elephants out of harm’s way. He sends his younger brother and colleague Rusty (Michael Craig) to meet Alice and they spend two days together falling in love and getting into life-threatening scenarios with elephants. Meanwhile Andrew uncovers a web of murderous corruption led by Anton Boryslawski (Eric Pohlman) whose teenage daughter Thea (Anna Gaylor) is in love with him and he finds himself at the wrong side of some lions …  You have always been a hermit. Joy Packer’s popular novel had been serialised in a magazine and the adaptation by Guy Elmes makes for a fabulously pulpy melodrama with magnificent cinematography by Harry Waxman (who replaced original DoP Peter Hennessey after crewing issues) and one particularly torrid scene between Craig and the beautiful and tragic Lee, who tried to commit suicide during filming. Shot in South Africa (Kruger National Park) and Kenya, with interiors work done back at Pinewood, it offers a snapshot of the end of Empire, a colonial-eye view that’s mostly depoliticised. Directed by Ken Annakin who reportedly claimed of the troubled production, One day there was only me and a snake available to work. Craig had an affair with Lee’s stand in, McGoohan nearly got killed in a car crash but it all worked out in the end. In this country you can’t be sure of anything

Les enfants terribles (1950)

Les enfants terribles

Aka The Strange Ones. Beauty enjoys immense privileges, even from those unaware of it. Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and her brother Paul (Edouard Dermithe) live isolated from much of the world after Paul is injured in a snowball fight at school. As a coping mechanism, the two conjure up a hermetically sealed dream of their own making filled with fetish objects and strange obsessions. Their relationship, however, isn’t exactly wholesome and when their ailing mother (Karin Lannby) dies the wider world intrudes and they are taken on holiday to the seaside to try to readjust. Back home their friend Gérard (Jacques Bernard) moves in and jealousy and a malevolent undercurrent intrude on their fantasy life:  he secretly likes her but she proves difficult to know.  Elisabeth starts modelling for Gerard’s uncle’s (Roger Gaillard) company and invites the strange girl from work Agathe (Renée Cosima) to stay with them – and Paul is immediately attracted to her:  she resembles all the images of the people – male and female – he hero-worships, as well as his nemesis, Dargelos. Elisabeth marries Michael (Melvyn Martin) a rich Jewish American man but he is killed immediately after their wedding and she inherits a large apartment. There, Paul tries to replicate the bedroom he shared with Elisabeth and reveals his love of Agathe to the shock of his sister  … Elisabeth never thanked anyone. She was used to miracles, also they came as no surprise. She expected them, and they never failed to happen. Jean Cocteau’s poetic 1929 novel translates to the screen as a mesmerising study in adolescence, obsession and solitude, testing the limits of imagination, impossible wish-fulfillment and the consequences. Director Jean-Pierre Melville directs Stéphane to the height of controlled hysteria and betrayal with the insinuations of many sexual inclinations subtly inflected in the text. The dream sequences are perfectly announced in the use of Vivaldi – such a startling and memorable combination in a narrative told by Cocteau himself. She married him for his death

Picnic (1955)

Picnic

Why should anyone be interested in him? Former college football star and failed Hollywood actor Hal Carter (William Holden) is drifting through Kansas and stops in Neewollah where his old fraternity buddy Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) is dating beauty queen Madge Owens (Kim Novak) whom Hal meets when he’s doing chores for her elderly neighbour Mrs Potts (Verna Felton) who immediately sees he’s hungry and has fallen on hard times. Alan’s father owns the grain elevators in the town and Alan promises Hal a job but it’s Labor Day and Alan says his date at the town picnic can be Madge’s little sister Millie (Susan Strasberg). The Owens’ boarder, unmarried teacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) gets drunk on the whisky that store owner Howard Bevens (Arthur O’Connell) brings and her violent jealousy of Madge and Hal’s obvious romantic attraction causes a commotion and disrupts Alan and Madge’s relationship to Mrs Owens’ (Betty Field) horror, who wants Madge to marry well, unlike her …  I liked you from the first time I saw you. This lushly romantic if rather heavy-handed adaptation of William Inge’s play by Daniel Taradash retains its power principally through the expressive masculinity of Holden as the overgrown hunk and the several phases of womanhood represented by the female cast. Russell is shocking as the put-out spinster and O’Connell impresses as her trapped bird of a suitor. Strasberg is fantastic as beautiful Madge’s pigtailed little sister. Novak is Novak – a smalltown girl with a future due to her exquisite looks. What is stunning still is the big scene between Novak and Holden – that dance, to Moonglow, one of the most sensual ever captured on film. It’s simply breathtaking. What a perfect mid-century moment in a film of such feeling, capturing the difference between night and day like few other movies. Directed by Josh Logan, scored by George Duning with Robertson in his debut. You love me. You love me!

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

Down Three Dark Streets (1954)

Down Three Dark Streets

I kept asking myself, all night long, who would want to such a thing? FBI agent John Ripley (Broderick Crawford) inherits three cases his murdered partner Zack Stewart (Kenneth Tobey) has been investigating, hoping one of them will turn up his killer. Glamourpuss Connie Anderson (Martha Hyer) can be connected to gas station killer Joe Walpo (Joe Bassett). Fashion buyer Kate Martell (Ruth Roman) is getting phonecalls extorting insurance money that she received following her husband’s death and her young daughter is being threatened.When boxer Matty Pavelich (Claude Akins) beats up blind Julie Angelino (Marisa Pavan) her husband Vince (Gene Reynolds) agrees to testify, so another case is tied up … I don’t like men staring at me before lunch. Adapted by The Gordons (Mildred and Gordon) from their novel Case File FBI, this serves as something of a Valentine to that agency although J. Edgar Hoover reputedly objected to the early draft scripts. It’s enlivened by the shift between documentary-style realism, great location shooting and a conventional thriller mode boasting some terrific female performances, particularly Hyer (once touted as the new Grace Kelly) giving it the full Marilyn Monroe as the sexpot link to a mysterious criminal. Roman is her customarily intense self with a problematic household, an aggressive romantic interest (Max Showalter) and a job as a fashion buyer to contend with; while Crawford’s gruff persona suits the no-nonsense lead role. There is some especially piquant dialogue and a gloriously funny moment when an inventor tries to sell him on a Geiger counter for spies (it has a light that comes on when a taxman is in the vicinity). The stories are well put together and it ends (happily, for the viewer at least) at the Hollywood sign in a Los Angeles that is still notably rural, with the freeway almost empty of the traffic to come. Directed by Arnold Laven. Sometimes you meet some nice people in this business