Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

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

That Darn Cat! (1965)

That Darn Cat 1965

Do I look like Eliot Ness? Siamese pretty boy Darn Cat aka DC returns to the suburban home he shares with sisters Patti (Hayley Mills) and Ingrid aka Inkie Randall (Dorothy Provine) with a partly-inscribed watch replacing his collar after he follows bank robbers Iggy (Frank Gorshin) and Dan (Neville Brand) to their hideout where they’re hiding their kidnap victim Margaret Miller (Grayson Hall). Patti sees the news story and thinks the watch belongs to the woman and reports the case to the FBI who detail Agent Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones) to the case.  He has a really tough job tailing DC on his nighttime excursions trying to track down the robbers … D.C.’s a cat! He can’t help his instincts. He’s a hunter, just like you are. Only he’s not stupid enough to stand out in the pouring rain all day! Long and funny slapstick cat actioner with Mills utterly charming and Jones perfectly cast as the agent charged with following the titular feline. There are good jokes about surf movies, TV weather and nosy neighbours, with Elsa Lanchester a particular irritant. Roddy McDowall is a hoot as Gregory, the woefully misguided mama’s boy who serves as a brief romantic interest for Ingrid, mainly because he can drive her to work every day. Provine has a marvellous moment looking to camera in one of their scenes. Adapted by Bill Walsh and The Gordons, from their 1963 novel Undercover Cat, this has enough satirical elements to win over a wide audience. Bobby Darin sings the title song, composed by the Sherman brothers. You might recognise one of the two versatile Seal Point Siamese cats who play DC as the co-star of The Incredible Journey. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Sir, a mouse is no more permitted in here, than a man without a car

Down Three Dark Streets (1954)

Down Three Dark Streets

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

J.T. LeRoy (2019)

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You’re as much a part of JT as me.  When Laura Albert (Laura Dern) finally meets her musician husband Geoff Knoop’s (Jim Sturgess) androgynous younger sister Savannah (Kristen Stewart) she sees the embodiment of her pseudonymous author’s identity ‘JT LeRoy,’ an acclaimed memoirist who is supposedly the gifted and abused 19-year old gender fluid prostitute offspring of a truckstop hooker, the subject of her bestselling book Sarah. Journalists and celebrities are keen to meet ‘J.T.’ after prolonged phonecalls and emails from Laura (an accomplished phone sex operator) adopting a Southern accent. Savannah reluctantly agrees to be photographed in disguise for an interview that has already been done over the phone by Laura, but the hunger for publicity grows and Hollywood, in the form of producer Sasha (Courtney Love), comes calling with an offer. Laura decides to masquerade as ‘Speedy,’ JT’s agent and adopts an outrageous faux English accent. Then European actress Eva (Diane Kruger) decides to adapt the book The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things for the screen. What could possibly go wrong? … Just because you played a writer doesn’t mean you are one. What if an author’s fantasy identity is actually a character (or avatar, as Laura Albert prefers) for someone entirely different? The perfect physical representation of an idealised misery memoirist who doesn’t actually exist? An author’s identity becomes the focus of celebrity and publishing interest in one of the literary hoaxes of the 2000s with Dern and Stewart being given ample room to create empathetic characters, both women taking succour from the temporary expeditious ruse. This version of events is from the perspective of Savannah Knoop whose own recollection of events Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy is adapted here by director Justin Kelly who has form with films about sexual identity.  It’s like a Russian doll of meta-ness but Albert comes across better here than in the documentary about her (Author) where she seemed far closer to psychopath than Dern’s rather more sympathetic figure, a formerly fat child who’d been sent to a group mental home for adults and developed the survival methods and identity issues that led to her creating JT in the first place. You can understand the incremental jealousy she experiences over the six-year long impersonation as Savannah lives out her invented persona in the public eye. Eva is the pseudonym for Italian actress Asia Argento, who claimed latterly not to realise that JT was a woman and denied their sexual encounter. She is portrayed ruthlessly close to the raccoon penis bone by Kruger as something of a scheming wannabe auteur who would (as Albert says) do anything to get the rights to the film property. Stewart is literally the site of misrecognition – a bisexual who is co-habiting with a good guy Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) yet she is confused by the public roleplay because she actually falls for ‘Eva’ and has sex with her. Laura ironically never keeps Savannah up to Speed(y) with the latest email exchanges between JT and Eva, leading to increasing embarrassment when ‘JT’ is set loose upon the fawning credulous public and privately, with Eva. Argento was the real-life subject of a sex assault case to do with the film in question when this was originally released, which took the shine off this (much to Laura Albert’s fury, we are sure). Argento is also the daughter of a famous Italian auteur so one might surmise she was also trying to create another kind of persona for herself in a fiercely misogynistic environment. JT is a complex part, more akin to what Stewart has achieved in her French films, and it’s well played as far as it goes but the performance centres on a kind of passivity which makes for a lack of dramatic energy. The film ends on a Hole song, Don’t Make Me Over, proving that Frankenstein’s monster really does have a life of its own in a film which never completely decides what it wants to be – echoing the subject at hand. There are a few narrative tricks missed in the telling of this web of deceit spun by an arch fantasist whose dreams literally came to life and ran away from her. You could have written a different ending

The Facts of Life (1960)

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Am I really going to San Francisco to spend the weekend… with the husband of my best friend? When neighbours Kitty Weaver (Lucille Ball) and Larry Gilbert (Bob Hope) meet it’s irritation at first sight but there’s an undeniable attraction which they eventually act upon during the annual neighbourhood vacation in Acapulco when they’re forced to spend it together. Problem is, they’re both married, she to habitual gambler Jack (Don DeFore), he to perfect homemaker Mary (Ruth Hussey) and they both have two children. They vow to take off together after circumstances and regular encounters at social gatherings mean they keep running into each other but a messed up drunken assignation at a motel makes them rethink. Then things change after Larry finds out that Kitty has written a note to Jack to tell him she’s leaving him when the pair take go to San Francisco for the weekend during the winter vacation … This is my first affair, so please be kind. A breezy but cold-eyed comedy of suburban middle class adultery is not necessarily what you might expect with that cast, but that’s what legendary screenwriting partners Norman Panama and Melvin Frank created and it’s very well played by the leads who of course are both peerless comedy performers and this is the third of the four films they made together. It’s as though Johns Cheever and Updike decided to up sticks and go Hollywood and take all the baggage of midcentury masculinity with them. Panama and Frank are of course great comic screenwriters.  Their first screen credit was on Hope’s 1942 movie My Favorite Blonde and later work with him includes Road to Utopia, Monsieur Beaucaire and an uncredited rewrite of The Princess and the Pirate so they know his strengths (they are his, as it were) and they turn a messy uncomfortable familial disruption into an easily enjoyed romcom whose moral messiness is tidied into great dialogue and barely concealed social anxiety.  This is the essence of comedy and it’s their forte. There are some shockingly barbed exchanges and there are excruciating sequences when the couple discuss the legal and financial ramifications of two divorces and realise when they’re finally alone together that they’re probably mismatched; when they almost get found out by neighbours at San Francisco Airport the tension is horrific.  There’s a notable score by Johnny Mercer and Leigh Harline with the title song performed by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé and while Frank gets the sole directing credit, it appears Panama co-directed. There’s an unexpectedly conventional titles sequence designed by Saul Bass, putting us right in the mood for the tenor of that era’s comedy style and it all looks beautiful in monochrome thanks to cinematographer Charles Lang. Night-time Los Angeles looks glossy even in black and white.  It’s an interesting one to compare with another film about an extra-marital suburban affair filmed the same year, Strangers When We Meet. Played a beat slower with a fraction less of the leads’ comedy mugging and shot in colour, this could match its melodramatic tone. Are you sure you’re with the right woman?

Destroyer (2018)

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Silas is back. As a young cop, Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) went under cover with colleague Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate a gang in the California desert – with tragic results. Sixteen years later, a prematurely aged, alcoholic and divorced Bell continues to work as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, but feelings of anger and remorse leave her worn-down and consumed by guilt. She has to deal with her trampy truanting 16-year old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) shacked up with a hoodlum (Beau Knapp) while in the custody of her ex-husband Ethan (Scott McNairy). When Silas (Toby Kebbell) the leader of the old gang suddenly re-emerges, Erin embarks on a quest to find his former associates, bring him to justice and make peace with her tortured past but the implications for everyone connected with her could prove terminal ... I’ve got good news and bad news. There’s nobody fucking watching. But I see who you are. Kidman is absolutely rivetting in a narrative that is all about backstory and how it plays into the present – great writing by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi with a marvellous reversal of the usual gender expectations, Kidman giving us her version of Bad Lieutenant. This is relentlessly tense but also touching – who couldn’t feel desperately sad when Shelby shows up for an attempt at conciliation by her mother – accompanied by the twentysomething junkie gangster who’s having sex with her? Dreadful. Emma’s demons are internal but they’re also familial, professional, external. It’s probably Kidman’s greatest performance but it’s brilliantly conceived and executed in terms of how it looks (shot by Julie Kirkwood), how it feels and how it plays, with a raft of detailed, memorable character performances by a cast that includes James Jordan, Bradley Whitford and Tatiana Maslany. A tour de force by director Karyn Kusama, and all who sailed with her. Outstanding. What if I know who did it?

 

Miss Bala (2019)

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They’re all dirty. And they’re coming after me. Los Angeles makeup artist and Mexican emigrée Gloria Fuentes (Gina Rodriguez) asks the police for help when cartel hit men kidnap her friend Suzu Ramos (Cristina Rodio) from a nightclub in Tijuana, Mexico. She soon finds herself in big trouble when a corrupt cop hands her over to the same goons who shot up the place in an attempted hit on Police Chief Saucedo (Damian Alcazar). Gang leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) decides to use Gloria for his dirty work to avoid detection from the Drug Enforcement Administration one of whom Brian Reich (Matt Lauria) puts a tracking device on her to entrap the gang who get her to transport drugs across the border to San Diego where she’s met by gangster Jimmy (Anthony Mackie) who is actually an undercover CIA agent. Determined to get away, Gloria must now play a dangerous game to outwit not only the cartel but the DEA agents who now suspect her of complicity and she winds up finding out the hard way that she’s been sold out – in the middle of a shootout – and has to choose sides …  You thought I was a bad guy?  I’m just playing their game. This action thriller remake of a 2011 Spanish-language film from director Catherine Hardwicke has everything going for it except characterisation:  sometime, someone, somewhere will remember that character is also action, it’s not enough in the #MeToo era to just put a woman in the protagonist’s role and have her run from bullets (and that’s what ‘bala’ means, not that you’d know it) and sell it as a female-oriented film. And, in yet another ad for Mexico’s tourism industry – drugs, guns, cross-border crime, female intimidation, endless non-stop murders – the best thing you could possibly do on that front is to keep well away. And what on earth has that poster got to do with anything? Oh, when the plot finally kicks in after 70 minutes our heroine has to take part in a beauty pageant (Miss Baja) which leads to a rather good twist ending but it’s all too little, rather late. There is some interesting architecture however. Yawn. Written by Garrett Dunnet-Alcocer. Everyone works for us now. Play your part

The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

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There’s no reason to be scared. A frustrated pianist who spent four years at Juilliard, music journalist Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) is thrilled to interview virtuoso Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens). Duncan, however, is terminally ill and not much interested in Myles until he observes that Myles’ hands are ideally suited for piano. Suddenly, he can’t get enough of his new friend and thinks he should perform; while his daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins) thinks Myles should act, and Myles’ wife, Paula (Jacqueline Bisset), who believes he has a great novel in him, becomes suspicious of Duncan’s intentions. Her suspicions grow when Duncan dies and Myles mysteriously becomes a virtuoso overnight... Hands like yours are one in a hundred thousand.  Adapted from Fred Mustard Stewart’s novel it’s easy to dismiss this as an unambiguous Faustian followup to Rosemary’s Baby but it’s better than that. Once-blacklisted screenwriter Ben Maddow does a fine job (on his final screenplay) in conveying the book’s deep sense of dread and Jurgens is terrifying as the man whose influence stretches beyond mere existence. It’s set in California in a change from the original New York location. No matter how lusciously lovely it looks (courtesy of William W. Spencer), it’s shot through with death and strangeness, odd setups, underpinned by Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score (and a guy called Liszt) and highly effective performances, particularly by Bisset who is fantastic as the horrifyingly cuckolded wife, and by the imposingly scary soul-switching Satanist Jurgens. I feel unfaithful – he’s like three different men, says Bisset after having sex with the newly-transfused Alda.  Even Parkins impresses as the seductive daughter whose own father clearly loves her outside the usual limits. Unfortunately Alda is the weakest link and seems more like a lucky social climber. It remains a terrifying film, with glorious visual insinuation and eerie dream sequences, wonderfully directed by Paul Wendkos. The only feature production by legendary TV producer Quinn Martin.  Success makes you miserable, doesn’t it

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

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Aka Cemetery Girls. Remember – this is the desert and out here the sun can be destructive. Nice guy Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett) and his pretty wife, Susan (Sherry Miles) are introduced by friend Carl Stoker (Gene Shane) to mysterious vixen Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall) to visit her in her secluded desert estate. She lives with Juan (Jerry Daniels) whom she says her family raised when his died on their reservation. However when she takes them to a graveyard where she claims her husband is buried tensions arise – trouble is Mr LeFanu was buried in 1875.  The couple, unaware at first that Diane is in reality a centuries-old vampire, realise that they are both objects of the pale temptress’ desire but that doesn’t really stop them lying in the way of her systematic seduction… Diane, I think I want to drive your buggy. This homage to Irish horror maestros Bram Stoker, Sheridan LeFanu and the recent Euro-Gothic erotic vampire genre, is the kind of cult exploitationer that should be seen more regularly but still belongs firmly in that realm despite its contemporary dayglo modern California setting, dune buggies and post-hippie glam.  While played straight, the lines aerate the daft premise with humour:  There is no life without blood, says the marvellous diaphonously clad Yarnall, a veteran of TV’s Ozzie and Harriet who died one year ago this week. You’ll recognise her from Live a Little, Love a Little as the beautiful girl who inspires Elvis to sing A Little Less Conversation. Miles is a lovably clueless ditsy blonde, barely clad in a bikini but topless more often than not. Blodgett (Lance in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) is perfectly engaging as the good guy who just can’t help himself. The low budget is put to one side by the clever setting – that Spanish Revival house in the desert where the sunlight plays havoc with those pale of skin who prefer to socialise at night but also gives costumier Keith Hodges some fun opportunities and Daniel LaCambre shoots it beautifully. There’s a well conceived climax at LA’s bus terminal and a rather appetising coda. Blues musician Johnny Shines performs his song Evil-Hearted Woman. Directed by cult fave Stephanie Rothman and co-written by her (with her producer husband Charles S. Swartz and Maurice Jules, who also co-wrote that voodoo vampire outing Scream Blacula Scream), this gives you a good idea why her point of view as a feminist filmmaker was so significant in the drive-in era and it’s a real shame her women’s movies aren’t more widely known. Roger Corman was somewhat disappointed with the finished result and released it on a double bill with the Italian horror Scream of the Demon LoverI was having the same dream

Becoming Cary Grant (2017)

Becoming Cary Grant poster

Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. Born in 1904 as Archie Leach, Cary Grant was the greatest star ever produced in Hollywood. Before he went there he was the younger survivor of two sons with the older dying following an accident for which his mother blamed herself. Then one day aged eleven he came home to be told by his father that his mother had died. Twenty years later he discovered she had been institutionalised on the man’s say-so in order that he could shack up with another woman. The reinvention Archie conjured across the Atlantic having literally run away with the circus to become an acrobat was accompanied by a lifelong mistrust of women and a name change. After two dozen films where he played a piece of jewellery for his leading ladies as contributor Mark Glancy puts it, he found himself working with George Cukor in Sylvia Scarlett and played a character I know, as Jonathan Pryce relates from Grant’s unpublished autobiography: he was finally acting and he was good. When he worked with director Leo McCarey on The Awful Truth nerves got the better of him and he took his lead from his director – McCarey was a suave, urbane, debonair, handsome, beautifully dressed and well-spoken ladykiller, and Grant copied him. That character became key to his screen persona. At the age of 31 he was reunited with the mother he had thought dead for twenty years and when they met, she asked him, Archie, is that really you?  His identity is at the centre of this film by Mark Kidel, as it penetrates the mystery of  his spectacular stardom and his acting technique.  Yet critic David Thomson says Grant’s persona is very democratic,  you can still sense the working class Archie Leach in him, something you can aspire to.  Howard Hawks would further the development of his screen image, locating in Grant something insecure and strange. Their many collaborations would reveal these layers of oddness, some of which was inhabited by Grant’s sexuality. He appealed equally to men and women. The film interrogates his relationships with women (he married among others actress Virginia Cherrill, heiress Barbara Hutton and actress Betsy Drake) but never mentions his long living arrangement with fellow actor Randolph Scott in the Thirties. Thomson claims, This is a man who is exploring gender safeguards as we see a clip of Bringing Up Baby, in which Grant’s character exclaims, I just went gay all of a sudden! wearing a woman’s dressing gown. Grant was well aware of his dichotomy and much of the film explores pictorially what Grant expresses in his unpublished writing, the experience of using LSD in controlled experiments in the late Fifties, an idea pushed by his then wife Drake, a woman who made him feel young again and who was an avid proponent of the therapeutic treatment herself.  It is clear that Grant believed it helped him make psychological breakthroughs. Home movies show him dressing up and acting the clown and in late life when he would do a theatre tour about his career he particularly liked to show those film clips which showed him doing backflips. When he worked with Hitchcock, Thomson declares that the director saw a different level of darkness than other collaborators and excerpts from Suspicion and Notorious accompany the narration. (But the viewer will note that Hitchcock also did the same for James Stewart, albeit he had already exploited a kind of psychopathic edge in the westerns he made with Anthony Mann). You never quite know where you are, Thomson says of this degree of sadism on display. It doesn’t ruin the likability but it qualifies it. Grant went independent so that he could control the roles he played and in the Forties persuaded RKO to buy the rights to the novel None But the Lonely Heart in which he essays the role of the kind of man he might have been had he remained in Britain, as one commentator notes.  Following a period of near-retirement he would work again happily with Hitchcock on To Catch a Thief of whom he said, Hitch and I had a rapport deeper than words.  He was incredibly well prepared.  Nothing ever went wrong. He is similarly complimentary about co-star Grace Kelly of whom he was in awe and he says, There are very few actresses who really listen to you. He could throw any line at her and she had a comeback. They were fast friends. He would team up with Hitchcock again for North By Northwest, and Thomson says of the great Cold War comic thriller, It’s about a man who has to grow up emotionally. He aged better than any other actor and in Father Goose despite its apparent un-Cary Grant-ness he always maintained the louche mariner was the one most similar to himself. He loved children and would finally find personal happiness when wife Dyan Cannon gave birth to their daughter Jennifer. He adored her and would have loved a huge family.  Despite a divorce a couple of years later he and Jennifer would remain close. She says what he really liked to do was stay home and watch TV – He loved television! she smiles to camera as home movie footage shows father and daughter sitting up on a huge bed with snack trays in front of them. His last wife Barbara Jaynes recalls him with love but says of his early perceived abandonment, Somewhere in the back of his mind was the idea that women were not always going to be there. She still lives in his Hollywood house with the panoramic views of the city he loved. In 1986 he had a massive stroke during a rehearsal for his one-man show and he died shortly afterwards. Kirk Kerkorian choppered Barbara and Jennifer over his home and out to sea, to spread the ashes of Archie Leach who insisted there be no funeral or memorial. A film about the best Hollywood star ends scattered in the air, skirting the surface of a fascinating man who was all transatlantic speaking voice and great clothes and beautiful movement, an actor who was never quite there.  Written by Kidel and Nick Ware. I feel fine. Alone. But fine