Darkest Hour (2017)

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Here’s to not buggering it up.  May 1940. After the Chamberlain debacle Britain must find a new Prime Minister. Within days of becoming the country’s leader, an aged Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) must face one of his most turbulent and defining trials: exploring a negotiated peace treaty with Nazi Germany which Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) demands; or standing firm to fight for the ideals, liberty and freedom of a nation. As the unstoppable Nazi forces roll across Western Europe, troops at Dunkirk are surrounded and the threat of invasion is imminent, with an unprepared public, a sceptical King, and his own party plotting against him, all the while dealing with a new typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) who is shocked to tears by the old man’s abruptness at their first meeting – in his bedroom. Supported by steadfast wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Sir Anthony Eden (Samuel West) in Parliament, Churchill must withstand his darkest hour, rally a nation and change the course of world history just as Hitler is jackbooting across the Continent … The right words won’t come. I can’t think of another portrait of Englishness which engages so directly with speech in all its iterations – impeded, strangulated, idiomatic, and ultimately, political. In a supremely ironic scene Churchill deals at one of their weekly meetings with the King (Ben Mendelsohn) – a man with a famous problem speaking – who admits to being wary of him. Everyone has been since Gallipoli, admits Churchill. He discusses his background. His mother was a glamorous woman who loved too widely. His father? Like God – busy elsewhere.  Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is gripping, fleet and witty, understated and wry, bloated and commanding, subtle and aggressive.  It’s also about how people move:  Churchill strides purposefully;  Londoners use the bus and the Tube;  the troops have to be evacuated and the Panzers diverted. Joe Wright’s directing may at times be compensating for the linguistic origins of this film or even trying to disguise its orientation with diverting camerawork and trickery but it doesn’t detract from its mesmerising subject. It may not always be factual but it’s true. And Oldman is superb. He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

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The Man Who Never Was (1956)

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If we can get Gerry to move one weapon – a battery or even a gun – it’s going to save a lot of lives.  In 1943 the Allies are preparing to invade Sicily during World War II and British naval intelligence agent Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) hatches a cunning plan to fool Germany into believing the Allies’ true target is Greece. Concocting a fictitious British officer ‘Major William Martin’, with an unwitting patriot put on ice in a London mortuary, Montagu gathers false top-secret documents and personal letters to plant upon a corpse that will wash ashore in Spain at Huelva where the local German spy will presumably investigate his authenticity and the neutral Spanish Government share the documents with the Abwehr. But the investigations of a German undercover agent Irishman Patrick O’Reilly (Stephen Boyd) in London could potentially expose the fraud and scupper the landing in Sicily … Sensitive to a fault, this depiction of the true-life British WW2 scam known as Operation Mincemeat is wonderfully written by Nigel Balchin (adapted from Montagu’s book), persuasively performed by a terrific cast and crisply directed by Ronald Neame. This particular plan was to prove a turning point in the war and it was (Ripley’s here) based on the Trout memo of 1939 written by Rear Admiral John Godfrey and his right-hand man a certain Lt. Commander Ian Fleming.  The scenes with the father of the unknowing volunteer and the disposal of his body in the Mediterannean are treated with dignity.  Gloria Grahame’s performance as the lovelorn flatmate of secretary Pam (Josephine Griffin) is striking and the scene when O’Reilly calls on the women to verify the minutiae of the non-existent Martin’s life is unbelievably tense. It didn’t quite happen that way because the British had controlled the German spy network through the Double-Cross System, a fact that was not made public at the time this was made. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant story efficiently told,  also documented in columnist Ben MacIntyre’s book Operation Mincemeat which I heartily recommend. Watch for Joan Hickson (TV’s Miss Marple) as O’Reilly’s landlady and Cyril Cusack as the taxi driver/spy. Montagu himself appears uncredited as an Air Vice Marshal and a certain Winston Churchill appears in voice only!

 

Duffy (1968)

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That stinking operation of yours gets on my wick. Half-brothers playboy Stefane (James Fox) and useless businessman Antony (John Alderton) despise their father, callous and aggressive millionaire Charles Calvert (James Mason) who appears to have made all of his money off their respective mothers. Because Charles refuses to share his wealth with them they ask hip enigmatic American thrill-seeker the piratical Duffy (James Coburn) to help steal the money they believe is their birthright when Stefane’s girlfriend Segolene (Susannah York) recalls his name during a hairdressing appointment. When Charles decides to move a million pounds of his savings from Morocco to France on one of his ships Duffy has an opportunity to stage a daring burglary at sea but he takes some convincing and then it transpires that indeed all is not as it seems …  A crime caper featuring members of the Swinging London set that permits Coburn to do his shit-eating grin seems like a good idea on paper but director Robert Parrish doesn’t really time things as well as he might despite the superficial attractions of the settings and cast.  With a screenplay by Donald Cammell you would think this might be a deal weirder than it actually is, but that would come in a couple of years when he re-teamed with Fox for the penetrating counterculture examination that was Performance.  For now we have to make do with pretty people scamming their pop with an independent-minded outsider in exotic locales and a loopy soundtrack to underline the hip fun in an outing that seems to herald the end of Mod as events take a tricky turn in that destination of decadence and dilettantism, Morocco. Quirky fun.

Knife in the Water (1962)

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You’re just like him… only half his age, and twice as dumb.  On their way to an afternoon on the lake, husband and wife sportswriter Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) nearly run over a young unnamed hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz). Inviting the young man onto the boat with them, Andrzej begins to subtly torment him; the hitchhiker responds by challenging his masculinity and making overtures toward Krystyna. When the hitchhiker is accidentally knocked overboard, Andrzej panics and leaves the boat to go to the police. The hitchhiker appears from behind a buoy where he’s been concealing himself and has sex with Krystyna who’s alone on the deck.  Then she reunites with Andrzej … Roman Polanski’s debut was nominated for the Best Foreign Film at the 1963 Academy Awards and announced a major talent. The imaginative direction of a limited cast in such a confined space led to it being chosen as the still on a Time cover story about international cinema. Tense, psychologically challenging and boasting a pervasive sense of danger and violence, this is a remarkable and occasionally audacious piece of work with a wonderful jazz score by Kryzsztof Komeda. Co-written by Polanski with Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski.

The Dam Busters (1955)

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Every time one of these Lancasters fly over, my chickens lay premature eggs.  At the start of WW2, British aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) is struggling to find a means of attacking dams in Germany in the hope of crippling the country’s heavy industry. He is working for both the Ministry of Aircraft Production and Vickers Engineering trying desperately to make practical his theory of a bouncing bomb which would skip over the water to avoid protective torpedo nets. When it came into contact with the dam, it would sink before exploding, making it much more destructive. Wallis calculates that the aircraft will have to fly extremely low (150 feet (46 m)) to enable the bombs to skip over the water correctly, but when he takes his conclusions to the Ministry, he is told that lack of production capacity means they cannot go ahead with his proposals.  Frustrated, Wallis gets a meeting with Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris (Basil Sydney) the head of RAF Bomber Command who is reluctant to take the idea seriously. Eventually he takes the idea to the Prime Minster who authorises the project. Bomber Command forms a special squadron of Lancaster bombers, 617 Squadron, to be commanded by Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) and tasked to fly the mission. He recruits experienced crews, especially those with low-altitude flight experience. While they train for the mission, Wallis continues his development of the bomb but has problems, such as the bomb breaking apart upon hitting the water. This requires the drop altitude to be reduced to 60 feet (18 m). With only a few weeks to go, he succeeds in fixing the problems and the mission can go ahead and the bombers attack the dams … Paul Brickhill’s account of this daring strategy and Guy Gibson’s own memoir East Coast Ahead were adapted by R. C. Sheriff who himself had written some brilliant tales of WW1 derring-do. Redgrave and Todd are superb as the principals in an exciting biographical account of ingenious engineering and aeronautical bravery which was first released 63 years ago today and which is re-released as part of the RAF’s 75 year anniversary. The Dam Busters March by Eric Coates is justly famous and Erwin Hillier’s aerial cinematography is magnificent. Dedicated to director Michael Anderson who died just a few weeks ago.

 

 

 

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

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Color me gone! A mechanic (Dennis Wilson) and a driver (James Taylor) live only to race and maintain their grey 1955 Chevy. Heading east from California with no particular agenda, they give a girl (Laurie Bird) a ride, and en route she incites jealousy between the men by sleeping with them both. Meanwhile, the trio encounters an overbearing 1970 Pontiac GTO driver (Warren Oates) who makes up stories about his life and agrees to race them to New York, each side putting at stake their most prized possession: their car… Stunningly shot (by Gregory Sandor though credited to union member Jack Deerson), almost dialogue-free, this seminal road movie (when that term really meant something) is a showcase of cinematic poetry in motion exhibiting the performing talents of two of the most important music stars of the era. Taciturnity is their mojo as they engage in this eastern, a reversal of the traditional drift of men across the continent, living in the moment.  Oates is remarkable as the man living his own personal fantasy. It helps if you’re a car freak but it’s not necessary. This is a study of a society without a point. Turn on. Tune in. Drop out. Directed by Monte Hellman from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer (who plays a hot rod driver), Will Corry and uncredited contributions from Floyd Mutrux. Absolutely iconic.

Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)

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Everything on this station is either too old or doesn’t work. And you’re both! Mr Porter (Will Hay) is sent to be the stationmaster of an underused and putatively haunted ramshackle Northern Irish railway station in rural Buggleskelly. His unprofessional colleagues are the elderly deputy master Harbottle (Moore Marriott) and the insolent young Albert (Graham Moffatt) who operate a black market in train tickets for food and tell Porter his predecessors were offed by One-Eyed Joe. He plans to upgrade facilities by organising a trip to Connemara – unaware that some of his customers are gunrunners intending to transport weapons into the Irish Free State …  Filled with confusion, misunderstandings, a run-in with terrorists and a disappearing train, this is a terrifically realised comedy with Hay and his co-stars performing perfectly in roles that would later inspire Dad’s Army. Written by J.O.C. Orton, Marriott Edgar and Val Guest and based on a story by Frank Launder, this was directed by Marcel Varnel and remains Hay’s most acclaimed work.  It’s a minor British genre classic filled with gags galore – there’s even a donnybrook in a pub!

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

 

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No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Due to his knowledge of the native Bedouin tribes, British Army Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to Arabia to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and serve as liaison between the Arabs and the British in their fight against the Turks. With the aid of the native Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence rebels against the orders of his superior officer and strikes out on a daring camel journey across the harsh desert to attack a well-guarded Turkish port… The greatest film ever made? Probably. One of my more shocking cinematic excursions was to see this at London’s Odeon Marble Arch when it was re-released in a new print:  I hared to the early evening screening, thought I was incredibly late when I got my ticket because the foyer was deserted, ran upstairs two steps at a time and took my seat. And realised I was the only person there. This is one of the most feverishly protagonist-led narratives you will ever see, by which I mean that what you are seeing is the world created by Lawrence, whether or not it is true to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the entire facts of the matter or the man.  Like Psycho, everything in it exists to explain his perspective, his character, his essence. And it starts so shockingly, in a way that horrified me when I first saw it on TV one afternoon when I was probably nine years old:  his death in an English country lane on a summer’s day on a motorcycle. This frames an action adventure rooted in archaeology, espionage, politics, propaganda and the division of the vast desert lands and their warring tribes into convenient nation-states. It’s a narrative that is  free of women but includes issues of homosexuality and torture. It uses the trope of the journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) rewriting history as it is being made. It is filled with imagery that pulses through your brain – the arrival of Ali across the shimmering sands;  the (literal) match cut;  Lawrence shot from below in his white Arabic robes, stalking the hijacked train;  the magical appearance of water. I watch this on a regular basis and get lost in it every time. It’s extraordinary, arresting, brilliant, startling, stunning. O’Toole is utterly luminous as this complex man. Blacklisted Michael Wilson and British screenwriter Robert Bolt did drafts of the script and it may not be entirely historically accurate but it is true. Shot by Freddie Young, scored by Maurice Jarre, directed by David Lean. Magnificent. Happy Birthday to me.

Battle of Britain (1969)

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The essential arithmetic is that our young men will have to shoot down their young men at the rate of four to one, if we’re to keep pace at all. Britain’s Finest Hour. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (Laurence Olivier) must rally his outnumbered pilots against Hitler’s feared Luftwaffe. Besieged by German bombing runs, the Brits counter with an aggressive air campaign of their own but the argument rages as to whether the Big Wing strategy is helping or hindering. Within months, the Nazis find themselves on the run, thanks to Dowding’s tactical genius and the work of talented squadron leaders (Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer) and other brave patriots… An all-star cast was assembled for this little-screened epic adaptation of Derek Dempster and Derek Wood’s book The Narrow Margin by James Kennaway & Wilfred Greatorex. Director Guy Hamilton (himself a WW2 vet) does a pretty crackerjack job of balancing the politics with the dogfight aerobatics and the toll taken on both sides (Curt Jurgens is Baron von Richter) as the brave young men take to the skies in this do-or-die campaign in which even well-known names are sacrificed for the greater good. If you want a really great written account try Len Deighton’s book but in the interim this will do very well. Fabulous stuff if the dialogue is a tad on the wonky side, with luminous cinematography by Freddie Young and a stirring score courtesy of William Walton.

The Mummy (2017)

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People don’t realize that London is a giant graveland. A modern city built on centuries of death. Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a soldier of fortune who plunders ancient sites for timeless artifacts and sells them to the highest bidder. When Nick and his partner Chris (Jake Johnson) come under attack in the Middle East, the ensuing battle accidentally unearths Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) a betrayed Egyptian princess who was entombed under the desert for thousands of years. As her powers constantly evolve Morton has tostop the resurrected monster as she embarks on a furious rampage through the streets of London …  Hell hath no fury like an ancient princess scorned! This remake of the old Universe horror movie owes little to its origins (more’s the pity) and much to the contemporary taste for drained grayscale mindless action visuals (whose taste is the question – I want colour! Colour! Colour!) Beyond that there’s a bit of fun. Russell Crowe is the antagonist/expert Dr Henry Jekyll (get the name… this Dark Universe is crossing the protagonists and characters from film to film, literally making a monster mash) joining another heroic franchise (if it comes to pass); and Cruise is paired with another in a long line of terrifically feisty females, Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) this being a welcome staple character in his M: I series – not to mention a screeching harpie villainess who wants to get with him and rule the world. There ain’t a lot of chemistry here but it moves fairly quickly through some shonky sequences so you don’t care too much. This is not entirely the mess some reviews would have you believe but then I’m a sucker for all things archaeological and groovy destructive women!  The universe I’m concerned with is the previous remake  – the wonderful 1999 iteration starring Brendan Fraser which was tonally perfect (the other two, not so much) but like the subject matter here that’s a thing of the past. Screenplay by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman from a story by Jon Spaihts, director Alex Kurtzman & Jenny Lumet.