Scarlet Thread (1951)

An East End spiv. A 1950s wide boy with cinema accent. Petty thief Freddie(Laurence Harvey) likes to talk jive in an American accent in London’s Soho where he hangs out trying to impress the ladies. He joins forces with suave gangster Marcon (Sydney Tafler) to commit a jewel heist in the University town of Cambridge with (Harry Fowler) driving their getaway car. But loses his never, fires his gun and the victim, an elderly man gets dragged away in the car. When the men are chased through the streets of Cambridge by students they take refuge in the garden of the Master’s house and are greeted by his daughter Josephine (Kathleen Byron) who takes them for graduates and invites them in. Marcon introduces himself as an old student – Aubrey Bellingham – and passes himself off to a visiting vicar but Josephine’s romantic interest Shaw (Arthur Hill) is suspicious and then her aunt (Renee Kelly ) arrives – the woman the men ran into as they escaped their pursuers. And womanising Freddie then takes a fancy to Josephine, then it transpires the man he shot was her father – and the radio news reports the man has died … This university is packed with young men who talk in inverted commas. Lewis Gilbert’s early noirish film provides a great opportunity to see a callow pulpy youthful Laurence Harvey, learning which side of his face was more photogenic and doing the old cheap romance thing with (bizarrely enough) charismatic Byron, she of Black Narcissus with the crazy lipsticked mouth – and the clue to his real British identity recalls that film. How bizarre it is to see these gangsters come a cropper in the rarefied setting of Cambridge University, chased by students in flapping gowns. There’s some genuinely interesting cinematography by Geoffrey Faithfull – over the shoulder tracking behind Tafler (Gilbert’s brother-in-law) and Harvey after the heist goes wrong; point of view shots in the getaway car piloted by Harry Fowler alongside a policeman on a motorbike making good use of the rear view mirror as he sweats at the wheel. The contrast between these surprising crims and the fish out of water setting is jarring but also pleasing, the early Soho scenes with Dora Bryan and the presentation of Harvey as spiv quite fascinating. Not great but it is has its moments, not least when Harvey’s mask (and fake American accent) slips and Tafler’s act as the ancient graduate is very convincing. Adapted by A.R. Rawlinson and Moie Charles from their play. You dance too well. It makes me think of all the women you’ve danced with

Evil Under the Sun (1982)

Even in those days, she could always throw her legs up in the air higher than any of us… and wider. Private detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) goes to an exclusive island that is frequented by the rich and famous. Fabulous actress Arlena Stuart (Diana Rigg) has alienated her latest husband Kenneth Marshall’s (Denis Quilley) young daughter (Emily Hone); is in an adulterous relationship with married gadfly Patrick Redfern (Nicolas Clay) whose jealous wife Christine (Jane Birkin) doesn’t even want to go out in the sun; and she is probably the culprit over a very valuable jewel stolen from her former husband Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakeley) that Poirot was hired to locate by the insurance company when he presented them with a fake. Gossip columnist Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall) can’t get Arlena to sign off on a tell-all biography; while theatre producers Odell Gardener (James Mason) and his wife Myra (Sylvia Miles) lost their shirts when Arlena walked off their last stage show with a fake medical cert. The hotel’s proprietress, failed actress and former rival Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith) meanwhile is still brooding over their comparative successes and her isolation from the world of showbiz. When Arlena is found murdered everyone has an alibi. Except Poirot … I have a big fat motive but no alibi. Adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel by Anthony Shaffer (with uncredited work by Barry Sandler) this takes a decidedly camp approach to the material, aided and abetted by wonderfully playful costuming, classic Cole Porter songs (arranged by John Lanchbery) and an exotic location in the Adriatic in contrast with the original’s island off Devon. It plays fast and loose with the content replacing the original’s dialogue with some very amusing wisecracks and barbed exchanges, viz. Rigg’s comment about her awkward teenage stepdaughter, She runs like a dromedary with dropsy. It’s not Christie but it is funny. Ustinov had replaced Albert Finney (from Murder on the Orient Express) in the preceding adaptation Death on the Nile and delivers a different variety of flamboyance with all kinds of nice touches and humour. It gathers itself back into the author’s original mode for the last half hour with everything accounted for in a very pleasing conclusion. Great fun. Directed by Guy Hamilton in Majorca and shot beautifully by Christopher Challis. You mean nobody did it. MM #3100

Misbehaviour (2020)

So this is the eye of the revolution – up close it sure is revolting. As the 1970 Miss World competition looms, divorced mother of a little daughter Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) encounters sexism as she is interviewed for a place as a mature History student at University College London. She encounters Women’s Liberation activist Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) painting slogans on a poster and warns her about bobbies patrolling the street. She joins her group which lives as a commune and advises them to engage with the media – they’re so shabby and disorganised and they don’t even have TV but another group in Peckham disagrees with their tactics. Meanwhile Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and his wife Julia (Keeley Hawes) are busy trying to secure Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) as host of Miss World against his wife Dolores’ (Lesley Manville) wishes because when he last did it in 1961 he took the winner home. Pressured by London-based South African apartheid activist Peter Hain (Luke Thompson), Eric Morley decides to parachute in an extra contestant, black Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) who along with Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is one of the few coloured contestants in the beauty contest. Then a wilder element of Libbers blows up a BBC van on the eve of the competition and the Grosvenor Road commune has to go through with a proper protest under cover of normal clothing during the live show … You think you can have the same freedoms as a man but you can’t. The screenplay by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe from Frayn’s story is rooted in reality: this is a group biography but done as a comedy drama in the style of a heist story. It’s a conscientious and entertaining if mild intervention into the evolution of women’s rights. A touch more of zany might have helped this become a genre entry which it’s straining to do but respect for the (still living) heroines obviously hampers wilder moments. And perhaps the truth. It’s a political tale of unbelievable misogyny and inequality. The display of the beauty queens’ behinds for rating is truly shocking: how on earth did this outrageous cattle mart go on as long as it did?! However the lovely irony, that the protest (which occurs in the midst of infamous philanderer Hope’s outrageously sexist monologue) engenders a feminist movement is well played and the meeting between arrested Sally and newly-crowned winner Hosten nicely encapsulates the complex theme and issues which today’s feminists would call intersectional. Fun fact: Sally’s daughter Abigail (Maya Kelly) was the daughter from her marriage to legendary actor John Thaw. Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe. Turns out my seat at the table is actually a high chair

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Aka WW84. Nothing good is born from lies. And greatness is not what you think. As a young girl, immortal Amazon demi-goddess and princess Diana (Lily Aspell) competes in an athletic competition on Themyscira Island against older Amazons. She falls from her horse, misses a stage, and is disqualified after trying to take a shortcut. Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) who is general of the Amazon army lecture her on the importance of truth. In 1984 adult Diana (Gal Gadot) works as a senior anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. She specialises in the culture of ancient Mediterranean civilisations and studies languages for fun. She continues to fight crime as Wonder Woman, albeit while trying to maintain some anonymity, rescuing people from a botched jewellery heist in a local mall. Diana meets new co-worker, gemologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) an insecure woman who idolises Diana and tries to befriend her. Aspiring businessman and charismatic TV huckster Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) visits the museum to try to acquire a mysterious Dreamstone which grants wishes to anyone who touches it. It is one of the artifacts found as part of the black market the jewellery store engages in and both of the women unwittingly use it for their own desires: Diana wants to be reunited with her dead WW1 pilot lover Steve Trevor (Chris Pine); while Barbara wants to be like Diana. She gets a makeover at a local boutique and Lord turns up at a Smithsonian gala and manipulates her in order to retrieve the stone. Once it’s in his possession he wishes to become its embodiment and gains its power to grant wishes, while also able to take whatever he desires from others: he’s been selling shares in oil without striking it yet and in a matter of days becomes a powerful and influential global figure leaving chaos and destruction in his wake. Barbara, Diana and Steve try to investigate the Dreamstone’s power further, and discover it was created by the God of Treachery and Mischief; the stone grants a user their wish but takes their most cherished possession in return, and the only way to reverse the condition is by renouncing their wish, or destroying the stone itself. Steve realises that his existence comes at the cost of Diana’s power. Both Diana and Barbara are unwilling to renounce their wishes, and try to figure out another solution. Maxwell, upon learning from the U.S. President (Stuart Milligan) of a satellite broadcast system that can transmit signals globally, decides to use it to communicate to the entire world, offering to grant their wishes. Barbara/Cheetah joins forces with Maxwell to prevent Diana from harming him. Steve convinces Diana to let him go and renounce her wish so that she can regain her strength and save the world. She returns home and dons the armour of the legendary Amazon warrior Asteria, then heads to the broadcast station and battles Barbara, who has made another wish with Maxwell to become an apex predator, transforming her into a cheetah-woman. After defeating Barbara, Diana confronts Maxwell and uses her Lasso of Truth to communicate with the world … Does everybody parachute now? What a great welcome this film deserves: a charming, heartfelt feminist superhero sequel with a message of peace, love and understanding – but not before the world comes close to annihilation. Adapted from William Moulton Marston’s DC Comics character with a screenplay by director Patty Jenkins & Geoff Johns & Dave Callaham, this starts out very well but tellingly goes straight from a prehistoric setpiece into an Eighties mall sequence and the first half hour is fantastic. Then … there’s character development when the klutzy Barbara arrives and her transformation to Cheetah takes its sweet time while odious businessman Lord is also introduced with his own backstory. The wheels don’t come off, exactly. The scenes are fractionally overlong and the two villain stories don’t mesh precisely with excursions into politics (the Middle East and a bit of an anti-Irish scene in London) which then escalates when Lord introduces himself to the US President (Reagan himself though he’s unnamed) at the height of the Star Wars policy (and we don’t mean sci fi movies). The winged one then learns the beauty of flight from her reincarnated boyfriend; while Barbara becomes more feline and vicious, an apex predator as she puts it. And Lord gets greedy while alienating his little son. So there are three somewhat diverging narrative threads. This is a structural flaw in an otherwise rather wonderful story. An exhilarating pair of back to back introductory setpieces followed by a Superman tribute that is exceedingly pleasant but doesn’t capitalise on all the characters’ considerable potential, this is a half hour too long (like all superhero outings) with scenes that need to be cut and political commentary that doesn’t sit quite right. Some of the jokes about the Eighties (in Pine’s scenes) get a little lost (directing or editing issues?) but the costuming is on the money and given that Diana lives in the Watergate Complex it’s a little surprising more wasn’t made of this or that it wasn’t set a decade earlier. Otherwise DC is nicely established in terms of geography and obviously it’s plundered for story. There are jokes that land rather well, like the Ponzi scheme; and when Steve gets into a modern aeroplane and Diana suddenly remembers that radar exists. In effect, this is a movie about the conflict in using your powers – there is a time and a place and it’s not always appropriate to get what you want because there are consequences and making a choice implies potentially terrible consequences and sometimes loss of life. It also engages with rape culture, sexism and the dangers of TV, taking down cheap salesmen and televangelists. Witty, moralistic and humane this has everything you want in a superhero movie and it looks beautiful courtesy of cinematographer Matthew Jensen and production designer Aline Bonetto. There’s a neat coda in the end credits. And how nice is it that the late great Dawn Steel’s daughter Rebecca Steel Roven is a producer alongside her father Charles Roven? You go Gal! You’ve always had everything while people like me have had nothing. Well now it’s my turn. Get used to it

Barbara Windsor 6th August 1937 – 10th December 2020

What a sad day. The woman born Barbara Ann Deeks has died. Barbara Windsor had an inimitable cackle, she brought joy into our lives first in the Carry On films and latterly as the redoubtable landlady Peggy Mitchell in BBC’s watercooler soap opera EastEnders. She was never far from the headlines between her social life and latterly with her diagnosis of dementia for which she campaigned with her husband Scott. A talented theatre performer who worked with Joan Littlewood and acted on Broadway, she wasn’t so much an actress as an institution, a part of all our lives since she first made a splash with Sparrows Can’t Sing and Carry On Spying when she became intrinsic to that beloved ensemble. She lit up everything she was in and felt like part of the family. What a legend. Rest in peace, Babs.

Nothing But the Night (1973)

I dislike being put in my placefor you or anyone else. Three wealthy trustees of the Van Traylen fund, which supports a school for orphans on the Scottish island of Bala, are murdered but their deaths are clearly staged as suicide or accident. Three other trustees are on a bus carrying children from the school when the driver suddenly catches on fire, but he is the only one to die. One of the girls Mary Valley (Gwyneth Strong) is taken to a London hospital where she has strange seizures and recounts stories which she couldn’t possibly have experienced. Psychiatrist Dr Haynes (Keith Barron) and tabloid journalist Joan Foster (Georgia Brown) interview the girl’s mother Anna Harb (Diana Dors), a prostitute who’s done ten years in Broadmoor for murdering three people. They hope to enlist the aid of the hospital’s senior member, Sir Mark Ashley (Peter Cushing). When Haynes is brutally murdered following a visit from Harb, Ashley enlists the aid of old friend and police inspector Colonel Charles Bingham (Christopher Lee). They take their investigation to Bala where precautions have been taken to protect the children and the remaining trustees by the local police headed by Cameron (Fulton Mackay). In the meantime, Anna Harb travels secretly to Bala, hoping to find Mary, although she is now suspected of the murders and an explosion on a boat that apparently kills several others of the trustees. Ashley and Bingham then uncover the sinister truth behind the murders … Blasted reporters – never let you get on with your work. An intriguing premise rather undone by a sloppy screenplay from Brian Hayles adapting John Blackburn’s novel. It’s wonderful to see Lee and Cushing uniting in a contemporary story that doesn’t involve vampirism and it’s certainly odd that by the end of that year Lee would be ensconced in another Scottish island folk horror shocker, The Wicker Man. He produced this under his own company banner Charlemagne Films which he formed with producer Anthony Nelson Keys – their only production as it didn’t make money. What a shame that Dors is reduced to so little dialogue and spending half the film grubbing about in the undergrowth – then getting the old pyro treatment. And yes, that is Michael Gambon playing Inspector Grant; Kathleen Byron (the mad nun from Black Narcissus) plays Dr Rose; while young Strong is making her screen debut and would go on to become a much loved TV performer in shows like Only Fools and Horses. The ending is literally a cliffhanger but it’s practically thrown away: you might find similarities with the recent Get Out. Directed by Peter Sasdy. You burned your own mother alive!

Love Sarah (2020)

If anyone can put her spirit into this it’s you. Twentysomething dancer Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) wants to honour her late mother Sarah’s (Candice Brown) memory by opening the bakery she was about to open with childhood friend Isabella (Shelley Conn) when she was tragically killed while cycling to recce their new premises. Trouble is there isn’t enough money. She moves in with her estranged grandmother, former trapeze artist Mimi (Celia Imrie) who is reluctant but then the three women pitch their talents and her money together, attracting Sarah’s dishy Michelin-starred ex Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones) as the chief baker – and he may or may not be Clarissa’s father. Neighour Felix Rosenbaum (Bill Paterson) is a surveillance fan whose fancy turns to Mimi just as the gang hit on an idea to attract more customers and a Time Out review suddenly beckons … Imagine her baking that for you every morning with bacon and eggs – and sex. A thoughtful and low key study of grief written by Jake Brunger from a story by Mahalia Rimmer and director Eliza Schroeder, this is a beautifully made film set in London’s Notting Hill. If it lacks a dynamic centre there are compensations – not least in the performances by Imrie, Conn and Tarbet, the joint protagonists. Imrie is always worth watching, a pinch of salt and an amused twinkle never far from her features – here she needs to reconnect with her late daughter in a concrete fashion and (the very talented TV actress) Conn needs to repurpose her life which is falling away with the death of her best friend. Tarbet’s story isn’t as well dramatised but it’s a delicate performance, the dope-smoking ballerina wannabe who can’t make a go of anything, even a relationship that fails and renders her homeless. If the back story isn’t exposed in the melodramatic style we might expect in such a maternal narrative, and it never gorges on itself in the way its spiritual sister Chocolat does (another film about creating your own community), the complications arising from past and current romances, paternity and the idea about baking yourself out of existential and actual depression are movingly articulated. And it’s a nice reference for fans of TV’s Great British Bake Off to have winner Brown as Sarah, glimpsed in the final scene. Shot by Aaron Reid and designed by Anna Papa. Directed by Eliza Schroeder and dedicated to Sonya Schroeder. We make our bakery a home from home

Carve Her Name With Pride (1958)

If I’d been a man I’d like to have been a professional soldier. Young English war-widow and mother to Tania, a toddler daughter, Violette Szabo (Virginia McKenna) is recruited to become a secret agent in occupied France during World War II following the death in North Africa of her French soldier husband Etienne Szabo (Alain Saury). Teamed with Captain Tony Fraser (Paul Scofield) whom she has encountered socially, she is sent on her first mission to Rouen and does so well she even has time to go shopping in Paris. The second mission to Limoges is much more dangerous and she gets caught when her dodgy ankle gives up but not before she kills a dozen Nazis, allowing French Resistance fighter Jacques (Maurice Ronet) to escape and warn the rest of the cell. Exposed to torture at Avenue Foch by the Gestapo and the degradation of Ravensbruck concentration camp in the company of fellow trainees Denise (Nicole Stephane) and Lilian (Anne Leon) Violette finds herself facing a continual struggle for survival… I think you have certain qualifications that might be of great use. This adaptation by Vernon Harris and director Lewis Gilbert of R. J. Minney’s biography is a British war classic: the true story of a brave young Englishwoman who was selected to serve her country by dint of her ability to speak French, her athleticism and recent widowhood. It’s lightly told in monochrome against the backdrop of grey wartime London, with funny montages illustrating the progression of the relationship with Etienne – Violette is always accompanied by best friend Winnie (Billie Whitelaw) tagging along on their dates; while the antics at training camp are amusingly done and the action scenes are solid. The ending and coda are all the more tragic for their understatement. A story of greatness, very well told and McKenna was rightly recognised for her achievement in the complex role. Lewis Gilbert’s brother-in-law Sydney Tafler plays Potter, the ‘Ministry of Pensions’ official who hired Szabo. Look quickly for Michael Caine as one of the thirsty prisoners on the train. Real-life heroine ‘Odette’ was one of the film’s technical advisers and the poem that’s the source of Violette’s code was written by real-life SOE coder Leo Marks who would later become a playwright and screenwriter, perhaps best known for the film that killed Michael Powell’s brilliant British career (at least in the eyes of the so-called critics), Peeping Tom. They are not going to catch me

Last Christmas (2019)

I’m a part of you. Take care of my heart. Katarina ‘Kate’ Andrich (Emilia Clarke) an aspiring singer, works as an elf at a year-round Christmas shop in Central London where the humorless owner (Michelle Yeoh) calls herself ‘Santa’. Kate is homeless after being forced out by her flatmate for her typically unreasonable behaviour. While at work, she notices a man (Henry Golding) outside staring upwards. She talks with him, learning that his name is Tom. After an unsuccessful singing audition, Kate sees Tom again and they go for a walk, where he charms her with his unusual observations of London. Upon isolating herself from her oldest friend Jenna (Ritu Arya) who is pregnant by her boyfriend Rufus (Ansu Kabia) and who Kate has alienated with her carelessness, Kate is forced to return to her parents’ home where her Yugoslav immigrants, her mother, Petra (Emma Thompson) suffers from depression and her father, Ivan, a former lawyer, works as a minicab driver. Kate feels suffocated by her mother, who dotes on her while ignoring Kate’s sister, Marta (Lydia Leonard) a successful lawyer. Kate begins spending more time with Tom, who rides a bike and volunteers at a homeless shelter, which she initially mocks. Tom disappears for days at a time and Kate begins helping at the shelter in the hope of running into him, but finds that the staff have never met him. While celebrating Marta’s promotion, Kate spitefully outs Marta as Lesbian to their parents then she runs into Tom. She reveals that, a year earlier, she had to have heart transplant. She tries to initiate sex, but he declines and they part. She then sets about making amends to those she has wronged. After a few days she runs into Tom again and he says he has something important to tell her, but she presume he’s a commitment phobe and walks away. Finally, wanting to make amends with Tom, she returns to his apartment only to realise who he is …There’s no such thing as normal. It’s a stupid word. Does a lot of damage. Excruciating in that very special way that truly terrible films are, this is an unprecedented fail for the amazing Paul Feig who is the most female-centric filmmaker out there. Golding returns to work with him after the sublime Hitchcock pastiche A Simple Favor, while Clarke gurns her way through what is basically a turkey-flavoured multicultural comic tragedy – in every sense. With songs. That she sings. And there are awkward structural similarities to Frozen for which theatre production Kate fails her audition. She is having a quarter-life crisis with one-night stands, a lot of accidents and standoffs with friends and family. And a heart condition. George Michael must be turning in his grave if this is what he inspired co-writers Emma Thompson and her husband Greg Wise and Bryony Kimmings to create. Some lines sound as if Thompson had written them for herself: you can just hear her in them. Some scenes are so forced as to be physically difficult to endure. Mystifying and with a political subtext that is as subtle as a hammer, yet there are very pretty pictures of London including the narrowest alley, the most decorated council house and the oldest pub. Maybe. Up there with Love Actually for the distinction of most dreadful Christmas film ever. God rest ye all. I will nail you to my dick

Miranda (1948)

There’s a dreadful shortage of men below sea. With his wife Clare (Googie Withers) uninterested in fishing, Dr. Paul Martin (Griffith Jones) goes on holiday in Cornwall.  There he snags mermaid Miranda Trewella (Glynis Johns) and is pulled into the water. She keeps him prisoner in her underwater cavern and only lets him go after he agrees to show her London. He disguises her as an invalid patient in a wheelchair and takes her to his flat for a month-long stay. Clare reluctantly agrees to the arrangement, but gets him to hire someone to look after their house guest and he selects Nurse Carey (Margaret Rutherford) for the eccentric nature that previously caused him to get rid of her and takes her into his confidence. To Paul’s relief, Carey is delighted to be working for a mermaid as she always believed they exist. Miranda’s seductive nature earns her the admiration of not only Paul, but also his chauffeur Charles (David Tomlinson), as well as Nigel (John McCallum), the artist fiancé of Clare’s friend and upstairs neighbour Isobel (Sonia Holm) arousing the jealousy of the women in their lives. Clare starts to follow her instincts and starts reading up on her suspicions. Nigel breaks off his engagement, but then he and Charles discover that Miranda has been flirting with both of them ….  You’ve hated me ever since I set tail in this house. The delightful Johns has fun as the beguiling mermaid who insinuates herself into the life of a doctor living quite the de luxe life in his well appointed London apartment with his lovely wife Withers. And then she drives every man mad with desire. There are lovely moments when she can’t help herself – snacking on the goldfish straight from the bowl, scarfing cockles at the fish market and depriving a sea lion of his lunch on a trip to the zoo. Witty and surprising, this wastes no time in introducing Johns – two minutes – and once she fishes Paul out of the water and into her cave she wastes no time in telling him she had to throw the last two men back because their legs were too short. She has a disarming way of critiquing men’s physiques to their face. Withers plays opposite offscreen husband McCallum while the redoubtable Rutherford has an amusing scene in a museum with a mummy and off-screen husband Stringer Davis. Witty, charming fluff with Johns as bewitching as ever as the flirty fish out of water and some timely references including the novel Forever Amber – which plants the suggestive conclusion. Adapted from his play by Peter Blackmore with additional dialogue by Denis Waldock, this was produced by Betty Box and directed by Ken Annakin. Tail by Dunlop. There is a sequel, made 6 years later, Mad About Men. If you ask me there’s something very fishy about this case