Marathon Man (1976)

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How am I to fathom your mind if you continue to hide it from me?  Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a Columbia graduate student and long-distance runner who has just enrolled in a doctoral seminar with Prof. Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver) where his focus will be the fate of his father a fellow historian driven to suicide in the McCarthy era purely on the grounds of his Judaism.  He is oblivious to the fact that his older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), is not in fact an oil executive but a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) and who is almost murdered by a blue-eyed Asian hitman in a Paris hotel. Doc visits Babe in NYC and meets his girlfriend the allegedly Swiss Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) whom he figures out immediately as one of Szell’s couriers. Babe doesn’t believe there’s a bad bone in her body.  Doc is murdered and his colleague Janeway (William Devane) tells Babe the muggers who ambushed him in Central Park are Szell’s henchmen but they won’t come for him tonight – but they do, and Babe is held at the end of Szell’s dentist’s drill constantly being asked Is it safe?  He is caught in the middle of a transaction being expedited by The Division who clean up matters arising from disagreements between Washington and the CIA ...  Director John Schlesinger reunited with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman to make this iconic paranoid thriller adaptation by William Goldman of his 1974 novel which invokes all sorts of historic nightmares not to mention the fear of unnecessary dental surgery. For a liberal pacifist you have some sense of vengeance Doc tells Babe when he realises he still has the gun their father used to blow his brains out. The last time I saw this was in the middle of another sleepless night during a three-month bout of glandular fever and the words Is it safe? made it impossible for me to recover, for, oh, probably another month at that point. There might be plotholes you could drive a truck through that not even Robert Towne’s putative and uncredited rewrite fixed but even fully conscious and in broad daylight it remains a transfixing piece of work whose echoes are still felt. The schematic structure is emblematic of a film whose many well-constructed sequences take place in famous locations – Columbia, Central Park, the diamond district, where Szell is recognised by two of his victims. Szell! Der Weisse Engel! shrieks a camp survivor as the old Nazi is ironically forced to get a price for his diamonds from the very race he tortured and executed with extreme prejudice thirty years earlier. The entire text is replete with such irony, expressed by Janeway in the line Everything we do cuts both ways after he supposedly rescues Babe only to deliver him back to the Nazi. The dialogue is biting and great:  I believe in my country/So did we all. Michael Small’s score is superb with a real feel for the emotive fraternal and familial issues underlying the narrative action whose logic turns on the notion of history itself and the versions of truth which we tell ourselves and in turn are told to keep us happy.  He did much the same job on The Parallax View, another paranoid conspiracy thriller whose similarly allusive style (and on which Towne also did some controversial rewrite work during a writers’ strike) makes it the best political film of its time. It looks incredible, thanks to Conrad Hall. Oh the Seventies really had great films. Nowadays they’d probably give Szell a sympathetic backstory. Not so much in real life for Keller whose father actually was a Nazi. History is all around us in this persistent, resonant film. Pauline Kael called it a Jewish revenge fantasy. Goy veh.


Hell is a City (1960)

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Do you know how long it is since you made love to me?  World-weary police inspector Harry Martineau (Stanley Baker) waits in Manchester for an escaped killer Don Starling (John Crawford) to return for his loot and when there’s a violent jailbreak followed by a street robbery which winds up with the murder of a young woman and her body is found dumped on the moors he thinks his man is on the loose…. This police procedural has a lot going for it, not least the location shooting in Manchester, Stanley Baker’s performance (did he ever give a bad one) and the obsession that drives him. Then there are the women – a louche bunch who don’t mind him at all but he’s got a nagging bored wife Judith (Maxine Audley) who’s basically frigid and wonders why he can’t call her every morning despite being up to his oxters in murder. As Martineau works through his contacts to find the gang and locate Starling he encounters the febrile women in Starling’s life –  randy barmaid Lucky Lusk (Vanda Godsell), unfaithful Chloe Hawkins (Billie Whitelaw) who’s married to Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasence) who’s been robbed, and deaf and dumb Silver Steele (Sarah Branch) the granddaughter of antiques dealer Doug Savage (Joseph Tomelty) who may know more than he’s saying … This is an astonishingly powerful genre work, gaining traction from the toughness, the sadism and the brittle knowing dialogue which goes a long way to explaining the relations between thuggish men and dissatisfied women.  Martineau will say or do anything to stop the carnage. There’s a harrowing mano a mano fight to the near death on the rooftops of this drab city. Adapted from Maurice Procter’s novel by director Val Guest, who is responsible for so many great cult films of the era. There’s a great team here – Hammer producer Michael Carreras, composer Stanley Black and cinematographer Arthur Grant. You’ll shiver when the girl is left on the moors. Manchester. So much to answer for.

Hush (1998)

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Do you see what she’s doing? She wants to be me! Handsome rich guy Jackson (Johnathon Schaech) and Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) are in love and he introduces her to Mom Martha (Jessica Lange) down home in the Deep South. About to have their first child, an attempted robbery and rape prompt them to leave NYC and they move in with Jackson’s mother in order to take care of the family estate which is a horse breeding ranch with a great yield. But all is not well in this household. Martha is jealous of her son’s affection for Helen, and, despite her smile, she’s starting to act strangely. As Helen tries to create a happy home life, Martha attempts to divide the family so that Jackson will become hers alone… Long before she played Joan Crawford in the first hagsploitation horror What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? pace Feud: Bette and Joan, Jessica Lange was sharpening her claws on Gwyneth Paltrow. Jackson is pretty dumb as sons of controlling mothers go, but Martha lays it on the line for Helen every day even trying to prevent her from seeing her late husband’s mother (Nina Foch) who’s in a wheelchair in an old folk’s home and full of interesting tidbits about her son’s death. When Helen’s departure from NYC is prompted by a burglar who intends raping her but she screams I’m pregnant and he scarpers you just know who’s behind it. Luckily Helen notices a blackened fingernail which leads her to the culprit – after she’s found a very spooky nursery in the stables. And her beloved locket with her late parents’ photo. This wears its influences on its expansive sleeve (Rosemary’s Baby et al) but it never really goes full tilt crazy even during the horrendous childbirth so the finale doesn’t have the delirium of Grand Guignol cacklins you want to see.  Mommie Dearest indeed. Written by Jane Rusconi  and director Jonathan Darby.

How Do You Know (2010)

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Don’t ever listen to me when I drink Guinness. Lisa Jorgenson’s (Reese Witherspoon) entire life has been defined by softball, but at 31, she is deemed too old to play and cut from the team. After being cast adrift, she begins a fling with Matty (Owen Wilson), a charming womanizer who plays professional baseball. About the same time, she goes on a blind date with George (Paul Rudd), a businessman on the hook for stock fraud. Caught in a romantic triangle with the two men, Lisa ponders the meaning of love as she moves in with Matty, has dinner with George and George himself is speechlessthroughout because he has learned that his father wants him to go to prison for a securities fraud that he himself has carried out.  Then when Lisa realises who she’s shacked up with, she moves out – twice … There are a lot of bright moments in this relationship dramedy or romcom with a starry cast getting some fun lines but it’s really Witherspoon’s chance to shine. However auteur James L. Brooks’ storyline comes unstuck – which is a pity because even if it’s about people whose lives are variously derailed, and the most convincing scene in the whole thing is in a birthing ward where George’s secretary (Kathryn Hahn) has just had a son out of wedlock, the narrative has nowhere for any of them to go:  it even concludes at a bus stop, for crying out loud! Nobody here is a completely dim bulb but they’re not gifted with the smarts required for this soft-centred delight to really take off and even the Machiavellian Nicholson’s puppet master fails at the end. Strange – but not an entirely unenjoyable meeting of talents despite Brooks not really caring enough about what makes anyone tick to pull it together. Maybe that’s what gives it the ring of truth.

Topkapi (1964)


I’ve just had a great idea – something I’ve been looking for a long time… a very long time. Beautiful thief Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) and her ex-lover, Swiss criminal genius Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) put together a plan to steal an emerald-encrusted dagger from Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace with the assistance of larger than life Heath Robinson-type mechanical genius Cedric Page (Robert Morley). As part of their amateur acrobatic crew, they hire small-time con-man Anglo-Egyptian Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov) as their driver and fall guy. When the Turkish secret police capture Simpson at the border with a dodgy passport, they persuade him to spy on the gang, mistakenly believing that they’re Communist agents plotting an assassination… French-American director Jules Dassin had already perfected the heist movie with Rififi but everything here is played for laughs even if the scenes with the dubiously tranny charms of his wife Mercouri as the jewel-obsessed magpie are a little more on the forced side and overlong. The pitch is different from the Eric Ambler source novel The Light of Day where Simpson’s voice prevails but the heist itself has been enormously influential, viz. Mission:  Impossible and it was one of the top Sixties crime capers. Gilles Segal is terrific as the mute human fly whose super abilities charge the theft and Akim Tamiroff amusing as the cook. At this distance it all looks a little fake, rather like the team itself – and the recording parrot! Ustinov is very good as the stool pigeon whose intelligence notes to the police need decoding. At the end it seems this is all about a squawking bird. Dassin himself appears as the proprietor of the travelling show intended to transport the dagger across the Turkish border at the conclusion and there are some diversionary oily homoerotic wrestling scenes in an arena which should appeal to the Putinesque. Written by Monja Danischewsky.

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

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Aka Thelma Jordon.  The past is the prelude to the future. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that, Miss Jordon?  The lovely Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck) shows up late one night in the office of soused assistant DA Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey) a married man, who would rather get drunk than go home to a younger wife whose father torments him. Thelma tells him a story about prowlers and burglars at the home of her aunt who she takes care of. She’s concerned about her aunt’s valuable emeralds. He asks her to join him for a drink and she agrees. Before Cleve can stop himself, he and Thelma are involved in a love affair. But Thelma is a mysterious woman, and Cleve can’t help wondering if she is hiding something.When Aunt Vera is found shot, Thelma calls Cleve rather than the police, and he helps her cover up evidence that may incriminate her, but he believes her version of events – an intruder killed the woman. When she is arrested for murder, Marshall is in a unique position to help her and persuades the prosecution that a reasonable doubt exists due to evidence of an elusive Mr X (which he believes is Thelma’s estranged husband, Tony Laredo). Thelma Jordon is acquitted. Her past, however, has begun to catch up with her and she finds a deadly way to make it go away … Marty Holland’s story was developed as a screenplay by Pulitzer Prizewinner Ketti Frings and the links to Stanwyck’s previous femme fatale in Double Indemnity are clear with Stanwyck fiercely attractive as the bad girl who does the right thing – in the end. The atmosphere is quite fatalistic, and practically Langian, amplified by the dark tones of cinematography by George Barnes, echoing Thelma’s plea, why do crimes always have to take place at night? Very well handled by emigre director Robert Siodmak, this is a very underrated noir which despite some flawed construction offers some wonderful performances to enjoy with a truly shocking outburst of violence leading to an almost contrite conclusion.

Rules Don’t Apply (2017)

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A girl can get in trouble for having a case of the smarts. 1964 Acapulco:  a decrepit and isolated Howard Hughes is on the verge of making a televised phonecall from his hotel hideout to prove he doesn’t have dementia to dispute a claim by the writer of a book who may never actually have met him. Flashback to 1958, Hollywood:  Small-town Virginia beauty queen and devout Baptist Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), under contract to the infamous Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) arrives in Los Angeles with her mother (Annette Bening) to do a screen test for a film called Stella Starlight. She is picked up at the airport by her driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) only two weeks on the job and also from a religiously conservative background. He’s engaged to his seventh grade girlfriend. He drives them to their new home above the Hollywood Bowl where the sound of evening concerts wafts their way. She’s earning more than her college professor father ever did. The instant attraction between Marla and Frank not only puts their religious convictions to the test but also defies Hughes’ number one rule: no employee is allowed to have an intimate relationship with a contract actress and there are 26 of them installed all over Hollywood. Hughes is battling TWA shareholders over his proposals for the fleet as well as having to appear before a Senate sub-committee;  Marla bemoans the fact that she is a songwriter who doesn’t sing – so what kind of an actress can she be? And Frank wants to become a property developer and tries to persuade his employer to invest in him but Hughes is talking about a new birth control pill to him and when he meets Marla he talks to her about this thing called DNA that some English people discovered a few years back … It’s quite impossible to watch this without thinking of all the references, forwards and backwards, that it conjures:  that Beatty was tipped to play Hughes by Time after the mogul’s death, a decade after he had already espoused an interest in the mysterious billionaire who also lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a spell;  that he himself arrived in Hollywood at the end of the Fifties (via theatre) from Virginia and liked to play piano and got by with help from the homosexuals he impressed and the actresses like Joan Collins he squired about town;  Ehrenreich might be another aspect of Beatty as a youngster on the make, keen to impress mentors like Jean Renoir and George Stevens;  the motif of father and son takes a whole meta leap in his casting Ashley Hamilton, a Beatty lookalike who might well be his son (I think this is an inside joke, as it were), as a Hughes stand-in;  the dig at Beatty’s own rep for having a satyr-like lifestyle with the quickie Hughes has with Marla which deflowers her after she’s had her first taste of alcohol. It’s just inescapable. And if that seems distasteful, Beatty is 80 playing 50, and it has a ring of farce about it, as does much of the film which telescopes things like Hughes’ crash in LA for dramatic effect and plays scenes like they’re in a screwball comedy. There’s a lovely visual joke when he orders Frank to drive him somewhere at 3AM and they sit and eat fast food (after Frank says a prayer) and eventually we see where they’re seated – in front of Hughes’ enormous aeroplane (and Frank has never flown). This is too funny to merit the lousy reviews and too invested in its own nostalgia to be a serious take on either Hollywood or Hughes but it has its points of interest as another variation on the myth of both subjects. In real life it was long rumoured that Hughes had a son by Katharine Hepburn who allegedly had him adopted at the end of the Thirties. Timewise it picks up somewhere after The Aviator ends, but not strictly so. All it shares with that film is the banana leaf wallpaper. Tonally, it’s shifting from one generic mode to another (all that Mahler from Death in Venice is pointing to tragedy and age and decay, not youth and beauty and promise) but it’s difficult to dislike. It’s extremely well cast: Collins is terrific as the gauche naive young woman in the big city who’s given up her music scholarship and Ehrenreich is very good as the ambitious and conflicted guy who wants a mentor; Matthew Broderick does well as Levar, the senior driver jaded by long years of service to this eccentric and Oliver Platt (who did the great Bulworth with Beatty twenty years ago) has fun in a small role but Candice Bergen is wasted in the role of Nadine, the office manager. Bening is really great as Mrs Mabrey but she just … disappears. Beatty plays Hughes sympathetically, even unflatteringly (he knew him, albeit very slightly) and these young people’s relationship is ultimately played for its future potential despite its signposting as evidence of the hypocrisy lying directly beneath a church-led society. Written by Beatty with a story credit to him and Bo Goldman, and directed by Beatty, his first film in two decades.

Blind (2017)

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We’re all just trying to get home I suppose. Suzanne Dutchman (Demi Moore) seems to be a happily married trophy wife. Her husband Mark (Dylan McDermott) is a wolf of Wall Street. At a dinner party Mark speaks to his client Howard (James McCaffrey) who is then caught by an undercover female agent for using and dealing cocaine and does a deal for immunity in exchange for information on Mark’s insider dealing. Mark is then arrested and Suzanne is facing charges and she is sentenced to 100 hours of community service.  She begins reading for visually impaired Bill Oakland (Alec Baldwin) a famous one-hit-wonder author and now a writing professor who is guilt-ridden over his wife’s death in the car crash that blinded him.  They take an instant dislike to each other. But she can’t leave and he needs someone to read his student’s work to him. During her time with Bill, Suzanne develops feelings for him and also finds out about her husband’s affair which leans her towards Bill even more… This is carried mostly by star power by three very likeable performes – although McDermott’s violence is foreshadowed in his presentation of a diamond necklace to his wife in the first scene, as though he’s imprisoning her. We understand the title isn’t just about Oakland, it also serves as a metaphor for Suzanne’s entrapment, blind to her husband’s flaws – and they become very problematic indeed. Her massive wedding ring also signifies the situation – writ large in the first scene with Oakland. Her arrival supplants volunteer Gavin (Steven Prescod) who is really a superfan looking to get into Oakland’s writing class – but even when he takes the job of houseboy he takes advantage and makes off with Oakland’s unfinished second novel. This is really a story about writer’s block, and then some. It has some lovely visuals and interactions but lags a bit in pacing. Still, it’s nice to see these actors who don’t get in front of the cameras enough, as far as I’m concerned. Based on a story by Diane Fisher, this was adapted by John Buffalo Mailer (who also acts here) and directed by Michael Mailer, sons of that very pugnacious writer, Norman.


To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

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You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. Six-year old Scout Finch (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in sleepy smalltown Maycomb, Alabama during the Depression, spending their time with their friend Dill (John Megna) who visits every summer, spying on their reclusive and mysterious neighbour the mentally defective Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). When Atticus (Gregory Peck) their widowed father and a respected lawyer, defends a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) against fabricated rape charges by a redneck white girl Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox) whose own father Bob (James Anderson) has attacked her, the trial and surrounding issues expose the children to evils of racism and stereotyping and the accuser’s father has a bone to pick with Finch and his children … This feels like it has always been here:  the gracious Peck in the role with which he would come to be identified and young Scout’s view of unfolding events, the most violent of which are all offscreen. Horton Foote’s careful adaptation of Harper Lee’s instant classic and Pulitzer Prize-winner (with Dill a stand-in for her own childhood friend, Truman Capote) both heightens and elevates the issue of white supremacy in some of the shot set-ups by director Robert Mulligan, never mind the text in which the innocent victim of white justice is mysteriously shot by the police while allegedly escaping. Perhaps that’s the quibble of someone viewing it in retrospect twice over – the 1960s take on a 30s point of view. The sense of place and period ambiance is impeccable and the playing of the motherless girl by Badham (sister of director John) is hugely influential in its insistence on how we see things are – or were, perhaps, with no distractions or subplots to take from this essential drama of the rights of the vulnerable with the odd scene properly essaying the effect of horror films, just as a child experiences life. Each of the children makes a lasting impression. The courtroom scene is classic and the quiet dignity of the black community rising to their feet as Atticus leaves the legendary trial sequence is very moving. Quite monumental.

The First Wives Club (1996)

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There are only three ages for women in Hollywood – babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. In 1969 at college class valedictorian Cynthia Swann (Stockard Channing) presents her best friends with pearl necklaces.  A quarter of a century later she throws herself off a building after being betrayed by her adulterous billionaire husband. Her friends reunite at her funeral: Annie (Diane Keaton) is depressed and in therapy after separating from her husband Aaron (Stephen Collins) who’s screwing Annie’s therapist Leslie (Marcia Gay Harden);  Brenda (Bette Midler) is divorced from the cheapo millionaire husband Morty (Dan Hedaya) she made rich and now he’s shacked up with bulimic Shelly the Barracuda (Sarah Jessica Parker);  Elise (Goldie Hawn) is a big acting star with no work, addictions to cosmetic procedures and alcohol and a soon-to-be-ex-husband producer Bill (Victor Garber) sleeping with a young actress Phoebe (Elizabeth Berkley) who’s getting the lead role in a movie – and Elise is only going to play her mother! And Bill’s looking for half of everything – plus alimony. The women pretend to each other everything is fine but the truth is told over a drink or ten following the church service. When they each receive letters that Cynthia got her maid to mail them before her suicide they realise that they have been taken for granted by their husbands and decide to create the First Wives Club, aiming to get revenge on their exes. Annie’s lesbian daughter Chris (Jennifer Dundas)  gets in on the plan by asking for a job at her father’s advertising agency so she can supply her mother with inside information.  Brenda enlists the support of society hostess Gunilla Garson Goldberg (Maggie Smith) – another trophy wife victim – to persuade Shelly to hire unattainable decorator Duarto Felice (Bronson Pinchot) to do over her and Morty’s fabulous penthouse with outrageously expensive tat. Brenda then discovers from her uncle Carmine (Philip Bosco) who has Mafia connections that Morty is guilty of income tax fraud, while Annie makes a plan to revive her advertising career and buy out Aaron’s partners. However, as their plan moves ahead things start to fall apart when they find out that Bill appears to have no checkered past and nothing for them to use against him. Or does he? Elise gets drunk which results in her and Brenda hurling appalling insults at each other and the women then drift apart. When Annie starts thinking about closing down the First Wives Club, her friends come back, saying that they want to see this to the end and Bill hasn’t done anything blatantly wrong – at least as far as he knows. Figuring that revenge would make them no better than their husbands, they instead use these situations to push their men into funding the establishment of a non-profit organisation for abused women, in memory of Cynthia. But not before Elise finds out Phoebe is underage, Brenda kidnaps Morty in a Mafia meat van and Annie takes over …  I do have feelings! I’m an actress! I have all of them! There are digs at everyone in this movie – not just the moronic men who dump their wives in the prime of their lives but vain actors, plastic surgery victims, chumps in therapy – it’s an equal opportunities offender.  This is a real NYC movie with walk on cameos from Ed Koch, Gloria Steinem and Ivana Trump who utters the immortal line, Don’t get mad – get everything! Adapted from Olivia Goldsmith’s novel by Robert Harling and directed by Hugh Wilson. Great fun and far sharper than Marc Shaiman’s soft score would suggest.