Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (2020) (TVM)

What Remains Behind

People knew she was smart and exceptionally well organised, says Mia Farrow of her late friend, Natalie Wood. Wood’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner has produced this personal tribute to her mother, assembling film clips, home movies, photographs and interviews with friends, co-stars and her younger sister Courtney Wagner (who says her famous mother is difficult to access), as well as Robert Wagner, to whom Wood was married for the second time at the time of her death in November 1981. Wagner celebrated her 18th birthday with her after she had admired him aged 10 and their subsequent relationship and marriage played out on the covers of magazine, love’s young dream. They co-starred in All the Fine Young Cannibals and fellow cast member George Hamilton says, She made you feel important, not her. Her career ascended to new heights on Splendor in the Grass where she met Elia Kazan’s production assistant, Mart Crowley, extensively interviewed here, who became fast friends with Wood (and subsequently worked on Wagner’s smash hit 80s TV series Hart to Hart.) Contrary to popular belief he and Wagner both deny Warren Beatty broke up the marriage – it was already in trouble. Wagner puts it down to the pressures on her as she went straight to work on West Side Story without the rest of the cast’s rehearsal time. His career was experiencing a lull. They split, he moved to Rome and remained there for 3 years, and had daughter Katie with his next wife, Marion Marshall, Stanley Donen’s ex, becoming stepfather to her sons, (the late) Peter and Joshua Donen. Natasha reads from a letter she found written by her mother, an essay that was intended for publication in Ladies Home Journal but wasn’t released. She describes the two-year affair with Beatty as a collision from start to finish. She was involved with (among others) Frank Sinatra, Henry Jaglom, David Niven Jr and Michael Caine, as well as getting engaged to Arthur Loew Jr and Ladislav Blatnik the shoe king of Venezuela as someone amusingly recalls. She married British writer/producer Richard Gregson and had Natasha but was so besotted with her newborn that Gregson slept with Wood’s secretary and that was that. She and Wagner met at a party, sparks flew, they both cried afterwards and they remarried in July 1972, creating a large happy home on Canon Drive, Beverly Hills where they had a new baby together, daughter Courtney, hired beloved nanny Willy Mae, and had a very busy guest house with his stepsons, her stepchildren and various friends visiting. Josh Donen even moved in at Wood’s invitation, with movie stars and family attending their fabulous parties. It seemed to me that they should be together, says Josh. Friend Richard Benjamin says, It made you feel good to be there. Wood took her foot off the gas in terms of her career rearing her daughters even if Courtney sadly remembers that Wood was Natasha’s mother, while she relied on Willy Mae. She was totally happy. There’s a rewind to Wood’s own childhood, second daughter to a pushy Russian mother who got her noticed during the location shoot for a film in Santa Rosa which led to the family moving to Los Angeles and Orson Welles says in a TV interview, I was her first leading man, referring to Tomorrow Is Forever, when little Natalie Wood as Natasha Gurdin became, was line perfect while he kept fluffing his. Critic Julia Salamon says of her performance in Miracle on 34th Street, there’s no artificeshe was very sure-seeming in who she was. She injured her wrist on a set and covered it up forever after with a big bangle. Her mother constantly told her that a gypsy foretold that her second daughter would be world famous but beware of dark water, inculcating total fear in Wood. She was the sole breadwinner from 12 when her father Nick got injured and at the same time she entered regular school but had no airs or graces as her schoolfriend recalls. Daughter Natasha says, Being the daughter of a narcissistic controlling mother …. that’s played out in so many of her films, on the subject of the hysterical, dramatic, superstitious mother Maria who ran her life, living vicariously through her beautiful and successful child, pushing her on until Wood herself chose to do Rebel Without a Cause, the film which made her finally realise she could act and on the set she had an affair with director Nick Ray, decades her senior. Robert Redford admits she was responsible for his screen career beginning, insisting after she saw him on Broadway that the theatre actor be cast opposite her in Inside Daisy Clover and she just carried me along to This Property Is Condemned. Before that she had discovered on the set of comedy The Great Race that both Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis were paid more and she insisted on parity. But she was in trouble, attending a psychiatrist five days a week, a practice she continued for 8 years, and ODd on pills one weekend during the shoot going to Mart Crowley’s room in her house calling for assistance. She went to hospital and returned to work the next Monday morning. Scenes on the psychiatrist’s couch from Splendour and Penelope are played, as if to state that without Method training Wood was sublimating her problems in the roles she chose. She was brave too. She was the emotional engine behind Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, as Elliott Gould says, Natalie brought what the film needed. She had points in the film, which was very successful and she could afford to pick and choose her projects thereafter. She took a break of almost 5 years to rear her daughters and then made headlines with her return in the big TV movie event, The Cracker Factory. She reinvented herself in terms of cosmetics and styling with Michael Childers, the photographer who made her look as beautiful as she deserved entering her forties, never a good age for an actress. She appeared in From Here to Eternity, a water-cooler mini-series remake of the famous film. She shot The Last Married Couple in America with George Segal and he comments, She was very wise about how she dispensed herself. She was going to be making her first stage appearance in Anastasia. She went to North Carolina to shoot Brainstorm with director Douglas Trumbull. On the subject of their rumored affair, he says with no fuss, There was no physical charisma between her and Christopher Walken. [We can infer what we will given the obvious and forgivable lacunae in the telling of this life]. There is TV coverage of her disappearance off Catalina. Natasha’s face to face chat with Wagner, which dominates the interviews, gets to the point of what happened that fateful night after Thanksgiving 1981 when both stars were home from location shoots, Wood on Brainstorm, Wagner on Hawaii with Hart to Hart. The weather was terrible, stormy and rainy. Walken was a house guest and the arguments between him and Wagner were apparently so awful that people were embarrassed and her friend Delphine Mann wouldn’t go on the boat to Catalina which she now regrets. Josh Donen encouraged Wood to go, which he says he wish he never had. There are tears streaming down Natasha’s face as she listens to the man she calls Daddy Wagner recount what he believes might have happened. It’s a highly uncomfortable sequence as though they’re playing out a therapy session. I was a little high at the time.  It’s devastating. The scene at the house afterwards was surreal, with news crews maintaining a vigil and Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley MacLaine showing up with a crystal ball.  It doesn’t explain anything, certainly not in terms of his being described as a Person of Interest by the LAPD in the reopened case. The family appear to have come to terms with Wood’s loss, although Courtney resorted to drink and drugs as a coping mechanism in the aftermath: she was just seven years old when Wood died. The party was over, she says ruefully. She wound up in rehab. Wagner followed his therapist’s advice following the funeral. They went to Switzerland and celebrated Christmas with his friend David Niven. They went to England and had New Year’s Eve with Natasha’s father Richard Gregson and his wife and children. It was the return to school that was tough.  Nobody handled Wagner dating Jill St John particularly well. St John says she had experience of loss herself – her husband died in a helicopter crash. She says of Wood, Natalie was a life well-lived. For fans of Wood like myself nobody other than Mia Farrow attempts to get to what it was that Wood communicates in her extraordinarily emotive performing style:  Natalie was unique. She doesn’t have a false moment in her movies. The family dismiss the ongoing speculation and are particularly harsh about Wood’s younger sister Lana who clearly believes Wagner knows more than he’s letting on as she restates in interview after interview. Natasha claims that whenever Lana visited she had no interest in her or her sister, just Wood. Perhaps this film is a salve. Natasha is 50 years old this year with a memoir of Wood published and she says she takes comfort in her daughter, Clover, the most healing thing for me. The last image is of Natasha, Clover and Courtney watching clips of Wood onscreen. It doesn’t tell us anything new except to explore Wood’s family’s pain which is searing and affecting and a little raw, 39 years on. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Everything went upside down

Bad Education (2019)

Bad Education

You were always the guy in the suits. Long Island, New York, 2002. Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is the superintendent of Roslyn School District which oversees Roslyn High School. Frank, along with his assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) have overseen major improvements in the district, with Roslyn becoming the 4th ranked public school in the country under their watch. This in turn stimulates the local economy, reaping rewards for school board head and real estate broker Bob Spicer (Ray Romano). Frank is beloved by students and parents alike, and sought after by women; Frank claims to have lost his wife several years ago, but is in fact gay, living with Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella) in NYC. While attending a conference in Las Vegas, Frank begins an affair with former student Kyle Contreras (Rafeal Casal) who has given up his dream of writing sci fi for waiting tables and dancing. While writing an article for the Roslyn school paper about an $8m sky bridge the school is planning to construct, student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) begins to discover discrepancies in the district’s finances. Unbeknownst to anyone at the school, Frank and Pam are co-conspirators in a massive embezzlement scheme that has cost millions of taxpayer dollars and her steady research leads all the way to the top and when Frank gives up Pam there will be hell to pay ... We come in here at the crack of dawn because we’re good people.  We want you to have a good life. Adapted from Bad Superintendent, a story by Robert Kolker in New York magazine by Mike Makowsky, who was a middle school student in that school district when Tassone was arrested for grand larceny.  Viswanathan isn’t a particularly interesting performer but she does what all journalists have done since watching All the President’s Men – she follows the money. It’s dogged old-school reporting stuff, looking at purchase orders, not finding receipts and then questioning everyone concerned.  It’s fun to see those moments with her doubtful student paper editor Nick Fleischman (Alex Wolff) doing a junior Ben Bradlee. The moment one hour in where she finds the so-called offices of the school’s pamphlet producer and realises it’s Tassone’s plush apartment where he’s co-habiting with a man is brilliantly done – capped when Tassone arrives and sees her desperate to leave the building. Jackman is superb as a charismatic man with many secrets, utilising his ability to psychoanalyse everyone around him to get the better of them since he seems to care so much about them. For the longest time we don’t even know the extent of his involvement as information is drip fed slowly through the narrative. His vanity is reflected in the scenes with him attending to his cosmetic routine, culminating in surgery. Jackman finds ways to plumb the breadth of the character and elicit empathy, stealing our hearts as easily as expensing first class flights to London with his boyfriend and deflecting come-ons from women in the parents’ association book club. Janney is superb in a chewy role – able to talk her way out of trouble, trying to buy her children’s affections even when her son is a total loser and ultimately choosing the path of revenge. Erring more on the dramatic rather than the comedic side of genre, this gives a rare insight into white collar crime – the quotidian corruption that afflicts cosy cartels running public bodies leading to those occasional stupefying headlines when you see something has gone bust yet all the admin people are living high on the hog while their workplaces are falling apart with damp. The sidebars about food intake, digestive issues, cosmetics, clothes, jewellery, pushy parenting and spoiling wrong ‘uns are well judged subplots amplifying the drudgery of the teaching environment and the desire to rise above the mere plebs. It’s wordy, it’s smart, it’s filled with people covering their asses and it’s called the ring of truth. Directed by Cory Finley. I am not the sociopath here

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2019)

What She Said The Art of Pauline Kael

People don’t tend to like a good critic. They tend to hate your guts. Film critic Pauline Kael had an unimaginable influence in the world of thumbs up, thumbs down reviewing and accumulated acolytes and rivals as she cultivated what she believed was an expressive art form. She was a failed playwright from California who moved to New York City, had an illegitimate daughter by experimental filmmaker James Broughton and returned to Berkeley where she started talking about movies on a radio show. What she failed at in her theatre writing she achieved in reviewing. Something just clicked, as one interviewee recalls. She loved Shoeshine, damned Limelight and got herself in print with a book called I Lost it at the Movies which made her a name. And that title underwrites everything about a woman who regarded every movie as a date. She worked at McCalls’ until she was asked to leave because she did not sit on the fence and was not in tune with the mainstream. She crucified some films, like Hiroshima, mon amour and Lawrence of Arabia. She deplored American cinema at the time. Bonnie and Clyde is the review that made her famous in the wake of Bosley Crowther’s famously damning criticism. Her review was rejected by The New Republic and when The New Yorker published it it was a sensation and she got a job there on a six-month on, six-month off contract.  Robert Towne, who consulted on the film, describes how it helped the film. She loved movies and famously wrote Trash, Art and the Movies where she delineates the difference between the good and the bad as she saw it. She experienced sexism, as she stated on a 1973 TV show:  It is very difficult for men to accept that women can argue reasonably. She had her favourites – Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Warren Beatty among them. Camille Paglia shudders and says she can’t understand why she went to the mat for Last Tango in Paris:  she bought her own ticket at the New York Film Festival and stole the march on her rivals, giving it a rave that weekend. Mean Streets she loved and Scorsese was one filmmaker who benefitted from her cheerleading. She crucified films she thought were phony – she described Shoah as having a lack of moral complexity and summed up Apocalypse Now as white man – he devil. She would not be intimidated. She hated horror movies – she lived in New York City and said she had a hard enough time living in such a scary place without having to contend with The Exorcist and its ilk. There’s an excerpt of a TV interview with author William Peter Blatty saying that Kael’s reviews are full of personal poison. She got herself a great big house in Massachusetts and would spend a week at a time in New York at screenings. She enhanced some careers,  damaged others. She had her camp followers and encouraged Paulettes like Paul Schrader who would take on a job on the LA Weekly and then jump on the bandwagon for a particular film at her request. She had a rivalry with auteurist critic Andrew Sarris whom she castigates in her essay Circles and Squares. His widow Molly Haskell says of Kael, No male critic had as much testosterone as Pauline. While this is quite good on context it never really nails the nitty gritty of what it is to be a journalist and to go out on a limb giving the only viciously – and presumptively – perceptive account of a film that other critics are afraid to give what she would call a con. Her famous book about Citizen Kane‘s authorship rehabilitated the reputation of forgotten screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his role in creating that masterpiece.  But just as Beatty sought to keep her quiet by giving her a job in Hollywood it showed she had blind spots and was perhaps rather naive:  she had come to believe her own publicity much as she professed to scorn the studios’: She was a virgin who was very willing to be seduced. Those six months made her bid a hasty retreat to the rather safer confines of critcism. When she loved something, you knew it:  she came out in a big way for Casualties of War. After 24 years and suffering from Parkinson’s she retired from The New Yorker. Readings from letters and telegrams that celebrities wrote to her capture some of the devastation she wrought including one from Gregory Peck:  You may have cost me good roles in the most productive phase of my career. Her review of Blade Runner was so damaging that director Ridley Scott hasn’t read a review since. On the other hand, Steven Spielberg wrote, 1000 reviews later you are the only writer who really understood Jaws.  It is interesting  – and impossible to credit in the democratised, non-edited non-hierarchical space and era of social media and the internet in which nobody has any particular importance – that one critic could have held such sway over popular opinion in a world where limited opening dominated. For Pauline Kael everything was a conversation. There are a lot of interviews here but their content feels circumstantial rather than deep or meaningful. It’s something of an irony. Written and directed by Rob Garver.  The movies needed her

 

Harlow (1965)

Harlow

Everything about me is real.  Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) arrives in Los Angeles as a teenager, pushed into showbiz by her sex-mad mother Mama Jean (Angela Lansbury) and grasping stepfather Marino Bello (Raf Vallone). Kindhearted agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons) becomes Jean’s mentor and rescues her from glamour shots and the casting couch, while a devious Howard Hughes-like mogul Richard Manley (Leslie Nielsen) grows infatuated with the beautiful young actress. Harlow herself falls for writer/producer Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) before tragedy strikes right after their marriage and her efforts to get together with fellow studio star Jack Harrison (Mike Connors) come to nothing …  You have the body of a woman and the emotions of a child!  The big-budget version of the screen icon’s life was beaten to it by a cheaper experimental film starring Carol Lynley that barely scraped into theatres so this is the one that people remember, if at all. Adapted in part from Landau and Irving Shulman’s pulpy biography of the sex goddess by John Michael Hayes, this skips and jumps through Harlow’s life, eliminating altogether any direct reference to her relationship with William Powell (Connors plays a variation on him) or her co-star Clark Gable, more or less fabricating whole sequences and introducing an element of wantonness involving her stepfather that seems excessive even in this version of events. It’s rather lurid and seems to deviate from what is known of Harlow’s true character but it’s rather interesting to see the platinum blonde in vivid Technicolor with Edith Head making the most of the opportunity to create some stunning gowns. Baker had featured in the controversial Hayes adaptation of Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers a year earlier and shot a famous nude scene in the role of Rina, a thinly veiled version of Harlow – so her casting here is no surprise given that Paramount produced both pictures. Effectively, then, this is a remake in part of part of a year-old film. Baker is a decade older than Harlow at the time of her death but her performance is tender and appealing, capturing some of the spirit of Harlow’s great characters against a melodramatic backdrop that nonetheless plays fast and loose with the facts including the circumstances of her demise. Lansbury and Vallone are extremely impressive as the lusty parental figures while Buttons is very good as the kind man who remains her one true friend. A fascinating insight into how Hollywood saw itself at one time. Welcome to the velvet prison. Hayes deserves his reputation as a great writer of dialogue and he manages to invest showbiz clichés with the ring of truth especially when uttered venomously by Connors. Julie Parrish appears uncredited as Connors’ wife and would make a couple of appearances opposite him on Mannix five years later. The production design by Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira and James W. Payne is jaw dropping. The theme song Lonely Girl is sung by Bobby Vinton. Directed by Gordon Douglas. There’s nobody deader than I am right now. Oh, I guarantee all of you I won’t be by tomorrow

The Wolf Hour (2019)

The Wolf Hour

I don’t like to leave here. In 1977’s summer heatwave, New York City descends into violence with looting and rioting. Once-celebrated feminist author June Leigh (Naomi Watts) is afraid to leave her grandmother’s South Bronx walkup while the city burns. But it’s nothing new – she hasn’t left in years. Her groceries are delivered by Freddie (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from the store; she’s afraid to touch the garbage piling up on the floor with the noise of insects inside; the only contact she has with people is over the telephone. She can’t write the novel she’s been threatening for a long time. She is tormented by someone ringing her doorbell several times a night. She leaves a message for her sister Margot (Jennifer Ehle) to ask for money. When Margot shows up and evinces despair at June’s living conditions we recognise something traumatic has happened and a TV recording reveals an interview she did about her novel The Patriarch that created a devastating chasm in her family. Then the lights go out … The world gives back what you give to it. A weirdly timely look at the paranoia of someone who’s afraid to leave their own home – Watts even dons a facemask when her sister does the cleanup, afraid there’s a dead body on the premises. June looks out at the world in a state of some distress. It’s initially a portrait of a paranoid individual, then it’s a glimpse at the observational lifestyle of a particularly nervy and reclusive writer, then it’s a portrait of a someone suffering trauma. The arrival of three people trigger the action and story development – Freddie from the store who wants to wash himself in her bathroom; Officer Blake (Jeremy Bobb), a creepy policeman answering her call for help a week late with designs on her; Billy (Emory Cohen) the rent boy who gratifies her need for sex and finally checks out what’s happening downstairs – are classic dramatic characters. It’s the call from her agent that makes June wake up however with a month to produce her work. The tension as we wait to see if Freddie makes that drop is stomach churning. When Watts lets go and dances to music (in a score composed by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans) we empathise with her brief liberation from a hibernation that is clearly outside her control. Written and directed by Alistair Banks Griffin, this is strangely comforting lockdown viewing when everything is back to basic survival mode. Is that you?

Captain Boycott (1947)

Captain Boycott

I simply can’t understand a man like that. In 1880s Ireland Charles Stewart Parnell (Robert Donat) makes a rousing speech against the villainous property thefts by the British in Ireland but urges passive resistance, shunning rather than killing landlords. In a Mayo village, British landowner Captain Charles Boycott (Cecil Parker) dispossesses the townspeople who are being charged extortionate rents as his tenants and uses police and army to evict them, leaving them without hope. But when a passionate farmer Hugh Davin (Stewart Granger) creates an organised and nonviolent rebellion against the oppressor and falls in love with a beautiful newcomer Ann Killain (Kathleen Ryan) he proves that the Irish people are willing to fight for their rights ... You can’t make British soldiers fight for what any fool can see is an unjust cause.  Wolfgang Wilhelm’s screenplay makes light work of the systematic property rout and starving of Irish citizens described in Philip Rooney’s source novel, weaving a skein of complicity, action and politics that rings true. Co-written by director Frank Launder, with additional dialogue by Paul Vincent Carroll and Patrick Campbell,  the location shooting (with Westmeath standing in for Mayo) adding immeasurably to this history lesson about the infamous land agent who entered the lexicon because of the campaign of ostracising that brought him recognition. The cast is a Who’s Who of the British and Irish acting contingent of the era including the genial Noel Purcell playing Daniel McGinty a teacher who is also a crafty agitator, Mervyn Johns as a sneaky property dealer, Alastair Sim as a Catholic priest, Father McKeogh, and Maurice Denham as Lieutenant Colonel Strickland who is inclined to attribute Boycott’s conduct to a kind of personal pig-headed eccentricity rather than Anglo rule. Granger has a good role and is up to the witty and lively construction of this typical Launder and Gilliat production. William Alwyn’s spirited score captures the mood of the rebellion very well. Can you count pain – suffering – hunger – wretchedness?

Mr Jones (2019)

Mr Jones

The Soviets have built more in five years than our Government has in ten. In 1933, Gareth Jones (James Norton) is an ambitious young Welsh journalist who has gained renown for his interview with Adolf Hitler. Thanks to his connections to Britain’s former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), he is able to get official permission to travel to the Soviet Union. Jones intends to try and interview Stalin and find out more about the Soviet Union’s economic expansion and its apparently successful five-year development plan. Jones is restricted to Moscow where he encounters Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) a libertine who sticks to the Communist Party line.  He befriends and romances German journalist Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) who reluctantly sees him follow the path of murdered journalist Kleb in pursuit of a story. He jumps his train and travels unofficially to Ukraine to discover evidence of the Holodomor (famine) including empty villages, starving people, cannibalism, and the enforced collection of grain exported out of the region while millions die. He escapes with his life because Duranty bargains for it on condition he report nothing but lies. On his return to the UK he struggles to get the true story taken seriously and is forced to return home to Wales in ignominy … They are killing us. Millions.  Framed by the writing of Animal Farm after a credulous commie-admiring Eric Blair aka George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) expresses disbelief that Stalin is anything but a good guy, this is an oddly diffident telling of a shocking true story that’s art-directed within an inch of its life. Introducing Orwell feels like a disservice to Jones. Norton has a difficult job because the screenplay by Andrea Chalupa is too mannerly and the film’s aesthetic betrays his intent. Director Agnieszka Holland is a fine filmmaker but the colour grading, the great lighting (there’s even a red night sky shot from below as Jones and Brooks walk through Moscow) and the excessive use of handheld shooting to express Jones’ inner turmoil somehow detracts from the original fake news story. It happens three times during food scenes including when he realises he’s eating some kids’ older brother. Shocking but somehow not surprising and amazingly relevant given the present state of totalitarian things, everywhere, in a world where Presidents express the wish to have journalists executed and some of them succeed. Some things never change. Chilling. I have no expectations. I just have questions

Appointment in Berlin (1943)

Appointment in Berlin

That’s the whole point of Secret Service – to prevent people suspecting. In 1938 disillusioned and recently disgraced RAF officer Wing Commander Keith Wilson (George Sanders) risks his life in Berlin by broadcasting pro-Nazi propaganda as a cover for counter-espionage. His broadcasts have a military code enabling British manoeuvres. He falls in love with Ilse (Marguerite Chapman) sister of a high-ranking Nazi Rudolph von Preising (Onslow Stevens) and forges links with journalist Greta van Leyden (Gale Sondergaard) who is actually a spy as well and when a message needs to be taken to Holland he’s the only one left standing … If you are going in at the deep end you may as well do it for England. In a rare tragic role, Sanders scores as the officer whose disgust at Britain’s politically neutral stance prior to WW2 leads him to become a pariah – lending him handy cover when England expects. The question of identity hovers over every scene here as Ilse’s transformation is nicely nuanced whereas Sondergaard’s situation is more extreme and her ending is well staged. There’s an amusing double act from a pair of American neutrals whose constant haranguing of supposedly treacherous Wilson adds humour to proceedings – inevitably they assist in his time of need. Nice references to Goebbels and his role in the manufacturing of truth. An interesting propaganda picture of pre-war problems and the reason why cross-border co-operation was required. Michael Hogan and Horace McCoy wrote the screenplay based on B.P. Fineman’s story.  Directed by Alfred E. Green. It’s finally happened

Havana (1990)

Havana theatrical

Now I want a shot. One shot. At a game I could never get in before. Christmas Eve 1958. On the eve of revolution, Navy veteran and professional high-stakes gambler Jack Weil (Robert Redford) arrives in Cuba seeking to win big in poker games. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Bobby (Lena Olin), the wife of a Communist revolutionary Arturo Duràn (an uncredited Raul Julia) and gradually becomes convinced that the anti-Batista campaign is a cause worth fighting for… Nobody should be here. Redford’s seventh collaboration with director Sydney Pollack is their final work together and is a rather uneven experience once it veers away from its inherent genre identity of romantic melodrama. Perhaps the problem is inherent in the premise linked to previous Redford characters and his meta perception as an enigma:  the lack of commitment to a cause which reeks of Casablanca.  In truth it’s a problem with the screenplay which takes too many stances too quickly. This also suffers somewhat in comparison with treatment of broadly related subject matter in The Godfather Part II with Mark Rydell making an appearance here as Meyer Lansky and that film’s outrageous sex show is in another dimension from the tame act Redford brings American tourists Diane (Betsy Brantley) and Patty (Lise Cutter) to see, the foreplay to their inevitable threesome. In fact the role of ‘Rick Blaine’ is actually split between Redford and Alan Arkin who plays Joe Volpi, Lansky’s front guy. Then Arkin gets to essay a variation on Claude Rains in the penultimate scene with Redford adopting a more straightforward heroic stance, not that that was ever in any doubt because of how the story begins. It starts out with an ill-advised voiceover by Redford and gets right into action which involves his going out on a limb for no perceptible reason to help a total stranger escape the attentions of SIM (Batista’s secret police) onboard the Cuba-bound ship, forcing the meet-cute with Olin. Olin’s character is an out of work Swedish actress who was inspired by Garbo – shouldn’t it have been Bergman?! – while her former husband, a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter got her exiled to Mexico and then marriage to Duràn, son of a well-connected Cuban family (we’re non-torturable, he explains). There’s talk about American citizenship. A lot of talk about moving to Miami. There’s a great character – a ‘fake fairy food critic’ called Marion Chigwell (Daniel Davis) and he is – what else – a CIA spook. Somewhere here there’s a great movie but it’s badly organised and the sub-plot with the journalist friend Julio Ramos (Tony Plana) seems under-explained. There are great poker scenes with the military chief Menocal (Tomas Milian) who of course is not what he appears. After Olin’s character loses her naturalistic diffidence in the first two-thirds it shifts into a different and more convincing gear. Even if we never believe Redford is in real trouble. Despite this there is an uncannily evocative atmosphere throughout and some great lines. Pollack was an inveterate messer with scripts, perhaps that explains it. There are major compensations in Owen Roizman’s cinematography (of the Dominican Republic, where this was shot) and the dreamy production design by Terence Marsh is something of a miracle. Written by Judith Rascoe (from her original idea) and Pollack’s usual collaborator, David Rayfiel. A fascinating work for students of Hollywood stardom as Redford edged into his mid-fifties. History is overtaking us

Smashing Time (1967)

Smashing Time large

I do love your accent. It’s so tuned in. Selfish Yvonne (Lynn Redgrave) and her best friend frumpy Brenda (Rita Tushingham) leave the drab North of England and head for London with dreams of hitting the big time, their ideas of the place dominated by what they read in trendy magazines. But when they arrive and quickly lose their savings to a robber, they find that city life is tougher than expected and success may be more elusive than they planned. Yvonne hits Carnaby Street where she encounters trendy photographer Tom Wabe (Michael York) and then lucks her way into TV and achieves celebrity when she unexpectedly turns a bad song into a hit single.  She begins to wonder about the cost of fame, and the whereabouts of her old friend who has become Tom’s modelling muse and is now the face of a cosmetics campaign including the perfume Direct Action which uses footage from protests in its TV advertising … Ain’t she smashing when she gets the needle! Screenwriter George Melly (yes, the same jazz hero) has a ball making fun of the Swinging London scene with ‘Brenda’ and ‘Yvonne’ which were the nicknames given to the Queen and Princess Margaret by Private Eye magazine. Director Desmond Davis had previously directed Tushingham and Redgrave in The Girl With Green Eyes and they clearly have a rapport – their burning charisma has a lot to contend with in a narrative that is essentially ten slapstick scene-sequences (including a pie fight) so there’s a lot of wide-eyed mugging as well as some nifty lingo. Effectively our lovely ladies are turned into a distaff Laurel and Hardy. Tushingham’s A Taste of Honey co-star Murray Melvin makes an appearance, Ian Carmichael does a kind of class throwback as a nightclub lech who gets his back at his, Anna Quayle scores as posh shop-owner Charlotte who doesn’t want to sell anything, Arthur Mullard and Sam Kydd have a knockabout in a greasy spoon and Irene Handl seems to appear with one of her own chihuahuas in the vintage clothes shop. The last scene is literally set to overload and the pair see the ludicrousness of the cool gang for themselves even if they’ve briefly been their icons. The garish glare of the ‘happening’ places is physically some distance from the rest of London, which is shot in several tracking shots, revealing its true grimy drabness. The songs are a lot of fun in a pastiche score by John Addison. A time capsule that might even have been too late by the time it was released but a must for fans of the appealing stars whose sheer exuberance lights up the screen.  Watch out for the psychedelic group Tomorrow. Thanks to Talking Pictures for putting this on their schedule.  I may be green but I’m not cabbage-coloured