Topkapi (1964)

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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.

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The Rainmaker (1997)

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I sit here with this poor suffering kid and I swear revenge. Struggling new attorney Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) resorts to working for a shady lawyer Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke), where he meets paralegal Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito). He has a couple of clients including Colleen ‘Miss Birdie’ Birdson (Teresa Wright) whose millions turn out to be a bust but at least she has a garage apartment he can rent instead of living in his car. When the insurance company of Dot Black (Mary Kay Place) refuses her dying son coverage, Baylor and Shifflet team up to fight the corrupt corporation, taking on its callous lawyer Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight). Meanwhile, Baylor becomes involved with Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), an abused wife, whose husband (Andrew Shue) complicates matters when he confronts Baylor…  Director Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Herr do a fine job of making a very well balanced adaptation of John Grisham’s bestseller, with a nice portion of (occasionally gallows) humour to oppose the sometimes shocking domestic violence. There’s an exceptional cast doing some very convincing roleplay here. It’s a pleasure to see Rourke as the smoothly corrupt Stone, with his first scene referencing Rumble Fish (which he starred in for Coppola years earlier) by virtue of a well-placed aquarium. Damon is fine as the naif who has to grow up and take responsibility for people of all ages and persuasions and the relationship with DeVito is very well drawn. There are no real dramatic surprises, just a well made film but Virginia Madsen has an excellent part in the film’s last courtroom sequence and Place is fantastic as the mother who wants justice for her sick son. The wonderful Teresa Wright made her final screen appearance here.

The Letter (1940)

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With all my heart, I still love the man I killed. In Singapore, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of a rubber plantation administrator, shoots and kills a man, Geoff Hammond, claiming that he tried to take advantage of her. She is arrested and her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) hires attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to defend her. Her claim of self-defence is doubted by the locals. During the trial Howard uncovers an incriminating letter that casts doubt on Leslie’s story. The two become embroiled in a blackmail scheme involving a Malayan clerk Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) and the dead man’s widow Mrs Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) … One of the great melodramas of the era, this Somerset Maugham adaptation by Howard Koch had already received an interpretation in 1929 with Jeanne Eagels in the leading role and Marshall had played Geoff Hammond. With the dream team of Davis and director William Wyler it became an opportunity for Warners to make an intense, lush festival of emotions concerning race and sex shot by Tony Gaudio, costumed by Orry-Kelly and scored by Max Steiner. Davis is simply unforgettable, as is the opening scene, when a shot rings out under a full moon …

84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

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Elizabeth will have to ascend the throne without me. Teeth are all I’m going to see crowned for the next couple of years. In 1949 New York City script developer and bibliophile Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft) writes to the London bookshop Marks & Co at the titular address in search of some titles she has not been able to turn up locally. Nobody reads English literature in New York City?! Store manager Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins) responds politely to her chatty letter, and over the course of two decades, a deep, long-distance friendship evolves against the backdrop of post-WW2 society, food rationing in London, Frank’s family life with his second wife and two daughters, the day to day business of the book shop, Hanff’s solitary life (her fiance was killed in combat), her career as a TV writer (Ellery Queen!) and her ravenous appetite for great words in her little apartment and cheap overstuffed chair. Helene Hanff’s autobiographical book of letters exchanged with a bookseller at Marks and Co. was a bit of a hit back in the Eighties, along with the two-hander play adapted from it. Produced by Anne Bancroft’s hubby’s company (Mel Brooks’ Brooksfilms), this runs with the conceit, breaking the fourth wall, bringing post-war NYC and London to life through the gabby and acerbic Jewish Hanff and the more reserved yet quietly interesting Doel. It initially seems like a drab tapestry but it becomes enriched by both of these different protagonists’ passion for writing which they evoke in their very individual ways. This is a romance, of a kind. That the two never meet compounds the tragic aspect. Now that all my favourite bookshops on Charing X Road are closed due to spiralling rents I felt quite tearful throughout as I watched these two lives unwrap like those transatlantic parcels they regularly exchanged and opened  – Hanff sent care packages of food from Denmark for Doel and his co-workers, family and friends at regular intervals with the kinds of goodies (vegetables! eggs! ham! bananas!) they could only get otherwise on the black market with just 2 ounces of meat per person and one egg a month permitted per head at the time. As a booklover and someone who whiled away many hours in shops just like this (oh how I miss Zwemmers!)  I found this absurdly moving and could practically smell the must and feel the foxed pages coming off the screen. It really shouldn’t work. In many ways it doesn’t. So what? The performances are pitch-perfect in this most fascinating portrait of friendship. It’s a lovely way to celebrate both Hopkins’ 80th birthday and New Year’s Eve. Adapted from James Roose-Evans’ play by Hugh Whitemore  and directed by David Jones.

Mansfield Park (1999)

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It could have all turned out differently I suppose. But it didn’t. Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) is born into a poor family with far too many children so she is sent away to live with wealthy uncle Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter), his wife Aunt Norris (Lindsay Duncan) and their four children, where she’ll be brought up for a proper introduction to society. She is treated unfavorably by her relatives, except for her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), whom she grows fond of. However her life is thrown into disarray with the arrival of worldly Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz) and her brother Henry (Alessandro Nivola). The path of true love never runs smoothly and then there are matters of money. Matches are made and Fanny rejects Henry which sends everyone into a spin and certain romantic fancies turn to actual sex … Well what a palaver – a Jane Austen adaptation that puts sex and politics and money front and centre in the most obvious way. Patricia (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing) Rozema’s adaptation plays with the form and breaks the fourth wall and even introduces some very out-there drawings which take Uncle Harold Pinter down a moral peg or three:  he’s made his money in slavery and his son Tom’s return from the West Indies with a terrible illness makes him produce some very realistic impressions of his father’s predilections and the depredations of the slave trade. Austen was the hottest screenwriter in the world in the 1990s (not that she knew a thing about it) and survives even this quite postmodern dip into adaptation by the Canadian filmmaker with some delightful performances, particularly by O’Connor who is given lines from Austen’s own private correspondence in her addresses to camera. But sex? In Austen? Tut tut! Charming, in its own perversely witty fashion.

The Red Shoes (1948)

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– Why do you want to dance? – Why do you want to live? Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is a ballerina torn between her dedication to dance and her desire to love. Her autocratic, imperious mentor (and ‘attractive brute’) Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) who has his own ballet company, urges to her to forget anything but ballet. When his star retires he turns to Vicky. Vicky falls for a charming young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) who Lermontov has taken under his wing. He creates The Red Shoes ballet for the impresario and Vicky is to dance the lead. Eventually Vicky, under great emotional stress, must choose to pursue either her art or her romance, a decision that carries deadly consequences… The dancer’s film – or the film that makes you want to dance. An extraordinary interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, this sadomasochistic tribute to ballet and the nutcases who populate the performing universe at unspeakable cost to themselves and those around them is a classic. A magnificent achievement in British cinema and the coming of age of the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger partnership, it is distinguished by its sheerly beautiful Technicolor cinematography by the masterful Jack Cardiff. It also boasts key performances by dancers Robert Helpmann, Ludmila Tcherina and Leonide Massine with a wordless walk-on by Marie Rambert. The delectable pastiche score is by Brian Easdale. Swoony and unforgettable, this is a gloriously nutty film about composers, musicians, performers, dancers and the obsessive creative drive – to death. Said to be inspired by the relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, this was co-written by Powell and Pressburger with additional dialogue by Keith Winter. It was a huge hit despite Rank’s mealy-mouthed ad campaign and in its initial two-year run in the US at just one theatre it made over 2 million dollars.

 

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.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

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There are times when I think what a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life. In 1930s England James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) serves as butler to the doltish Lord Darlington (James Fox). Stevens is so dedicated that he forgoes visiting his father (Peter Vaughan) on his deathbed in order to serve a bunch of blackshirts dinner. He overlooks Darlington’s Nazi sympathies and growing anti-Semitism even dispensing with the service of two young Jewish refugees who he knows will be returned to Germany. Twenty years after the disgraced Darlington’s death and in the wake of the Suez Crisis Stevens tries to make contact once again with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), Darlington’s head housekeeper who married their former colleague Benn (the late and lamented Tim Pigott-Smith). He travels to see her in the West Country and in the course of his trip begins to regret his blind loyalty and servitude to his former master who pursued a libel case to the detriment of his reputation and whose American critic Congressman Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve) now owns Darlington Hall. Stevens now works for him and his life is utterly unfulfilled. He must make up for lost time. The Merchant Ivory team regroup with their Howards End stars and the amazing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prize winning novel ponders class relations, political naivete and the lack of wisdom in relationships at every conceivable level. A friend of mine commented caustically on it at the time of its release, The fireplaces are wonderful. And it’s true, they are, but that is much too reductive of a project which  cannot translate the more subtle nuances of the novel instead transmitting through performance on a sometimes barely perceptible register of glances or a slight movement what mere writing cannot – the affect of loss and its immense impact on the totality of a life. Hopkins has one of the most difficult roles of his career – the stubborn butler who simply cannot accept the limitations of his boss or his father’s revelation. His refusal to admit emotionality is devastating. His humiliation at the pleasure of his lordship’s house guests makes you squirm on his behalf. Thompson is heartbreaking as the woman who loves him but hurts him rather than tell him directly. Their final leavetaking is horrifying in its simplicity and tragedy. There are two other exquisite scenes and they both predominantly feature fingers:  when Stevens finds his father collapsed and must wrench his fingers from a trolley after the old man has had a stroke;  and when Miss Kenton prises with great difficulty a novel from his own hand to declare rather disbelievingly that it is only a sentimental romance. The fear of embarrassment is all over this epic tale of a country’s honour in microcosm. It is an achievement that seems much larger in retrospect than a quarter of a century ago. A stylish, intelligent, immensely moving drama.

Daddy Long Legs (1955)

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When an irresistible force such as me meets an immovable object like you something’s got to give. American playboy millionaire Jervis Pendleton (Fred Astaire) finds himself on state business in France in a broken down car and happens upon an orphanage where eighteen-year old waif Julie (Leslie Caron) is instructing the younger children. She never meets him but he pays for her tuition at a ladies’ college in Massachusetts on condition that she writes him a letter once a month – which he then doesn’t read for two years until his secretary (Thelma Ritter) insists. Then they meet up because she’s rooming (by his arrangement) with his niece. And, she falls for him without realising that he is ‘John Smith’… Gene Kelly’s influence is all over Fifties musicals – the French connection and the Broadway Melody sequence from Singin’ in the Rain play large parts in this story adapted from Jean Webster’s classic young adult novel of 1912 which already got a handful of previous adaptations, including one for Mary Pickford and another for Shirley Temple (Curly Top). Henry and Phoebe Ephron (Nora’s folks) create a long-ish but diverting vehicle for Astaire and Caron who are both entirely delightful in a situation that could be kind of creepy were it not for the fact that the unseemliness of a relationship is something addressed early on. In fact, the unsuitability of such an old man romancing a young woman is part of the drama. There are some wonderful dance sequences as you’d expect and Jervis’ obsession with music is one of the most attractive things about the story – the early scene where he bounces drum sticks off the walls is really something. This outstays its welcome by at least one fantasy sequence (with Caron aping Cyd Charisse) but overall it’s a beautiful production as you’d expect from that underrated director Jean Negulesco and it totally oozes charm.

Cheaper by the Dozen (1950)

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They come cheaper by the dozen you know! Frank Gilbreth (Clifton Webb) and his wife Lillian (Myrna Loy) are efficiency experts – they would need to be with their enormous family – two are born in the course of the story, adapted from the biographical book by their son and daughter Frank and Ernestine by writer/producer Lamar Trotti. It’s a sweet, episodic narrative about the trials and tribulations of a good-natured family dealing with a house move, Father’s desire for recognition (talk of an invitation to a conference in Prague) and Mother (a psychologist) manfully giving birth to the twelfth child, a son, on father’s orders. The main drama is one boy’s desire for a dog and eldest daughter Ann (Jeanne Crain, who was 25 playing a teen) and her desire to be a flapper and cut her hair to stop being a freak.  Father believes in improving all his brood and amongst other things wants them to be great musicians but secretly knows they’re tuneless. There’s a very good scene when it turns out a fed up neighbour has suggested Mother be the local rep for Planned Parenthood. This was made at the height of Webb’s fame as Mr Belvedere and he’s terrific as the dad who is full of surprises – just watch him show the kids’ new headmistress how to bathe in seconds flat! – with Loy her usually sharp self. It looks lovely courtesy of legendary cinematographer Leon Shamroy and is nicely put together by director Walter Lang with thoroughly charming performances in a comic drama which uniquely for the Americana being produced at the time is finally tinged with tragedy.