Double Indemnity (1944)

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It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets roped into a murderous scheme when he falls for the sensual Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who is intent on killing her husband (Tom Powers) by arranging his ‘accidental death’ and living off the fraudulent accidental death claim. Prompted by the late Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), insurance investigator and Neff’s mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) looks into the case, and gradually begins to uncover the truth… Staggering film noir, this early masterpiece from director Billy Wilder boasts a screenplay co-written (sort of) with Raymond Chandler, adapted from the James M. Cain story Three of a Kind. Rarely has the sensibility of a filmmaker been so attuned to the material in such crystalline fashion:  in this treatise on corruption, crime, sex, adultery and murder the casting plays to all the character strengths with Wilder seeing in the light actor MacMurray something infinitely schlemiel-like, sleazy and vulnerable.  It is literally picture-perfect, offering us a visual and psychological template for noir, a story told in flashback, shot on location all over Los Angeles, from Jerry’s Market to the Chateau Marmont, Glendale Station to the Hollywood Bowl, with venetian blinds, curling cigarette smoke and tilted fedoras filling out the emotional space shot by DoP John Seitz. Did a city ever feel so lonesome? Stanwyck was never better – dolled up in a blonde wig with bangs and an ankle bracelet begging to be opened, this is one of the fatalest femmes ever on screen. Robinson is fantastic as the fatherly man who unravels this story of the blackest of hearts, while this study of behaviour is decorated with the kind of dialogue that you savour forever. How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Classsic Hollywood, in every possible sense of that term.

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Move Over Darling (1963)

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Suppose Mr Arden’s wife came back, like Irene Dunne done. Did. Five years after her disappearance at sea, Nicky Arden (James Garner) is in the process of having his wife declared dead so he can marry his new fiancée Bianca (Polly Bergen) when Ellen (Doris Day) materialises and the honeymoon is delayed but Nick finds out Ellen wasn’t alone on the island after the shipwreck after all …  A remake of one of the greatest screen comedies starring two of my favourite people? You had me at hello! This got partly remade as Something’s Got To Give with Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin but got put on hold.  Her premature death led to this iteration of Enoch Arden and My Favorite Wife, which was written by Samuel and Bella Spewack and Leo McCarey (upon whom Cary Grant modelled much of his suave screwball persona for their collaboration on The Awful Truth, another ingenious marital sex comedy.) Arnold Schulman, Nunnally Johnson and Walter Bernstein reworked that screenplay for the Monroe version (she agreed to star in it because of Johnson, and then George Cukor had it rewritten which upset her greatly); and then Hal Kanter and Jack Sher wrote this.  We can blame Tennyson for the original. The set for the Arden home was the same from the Monroe version and it was based on Cukor’s legendarily luxurious Hollywood digs. We even get to spend time at the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Garner and Day are brilliantly cast and work wonderfully well together, making this one of the biggest hits of its year (it was released on Christmas Day). They had proven their chemistry on The Thrill of it All and make for a crazy good looking couple. With Thelma Ritter as Nicky’s mom, Chuck Connors as the island Adam, and Don Knotts, Edgar Buchanan and John Astin rounding out the cast, we’re in great hands. The title song, co-written by Day’s son Terry Melcher and arranged by Jack Nitzsche, was a monster. Terrific, slick, funny blend of farce and sex comedy, this censor-baiting entertainment is of its time but wears it well. Directed by Michael Gordon.

Father’s Little Dividend (1951)

 

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Don’t worry about her. She took her toothbrush so she’s not gone to the river.  Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy) reminisces about the year since his beloved daughter Kay (Elizabeth Taylor) got married to Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor). Wife Ellie (Myrna Loy) takes Kay’s baby news in her stride but Stanley is undone, particularly when Kay regales him with the ideas her gynaecologist has for her mothering style – carrying the baby on her back for two years doing the housework and swinging him around to feed him every so often. The wealthy in-laws (Moroni Olsen and Billie Burke) take over the young couple’s new home leaving Stanley feeling quite useless. They all swamp Kay with ideas about what the new arrival should be called. She leaves Buckley, believing him to be having an affair when he claims to be working late and returns home where Stanley works out a diplomatic reunification. When the baby boy is born he doesn’t like Stanley and the rejected grandfather ignores him until the parents leave him in his and Ellie’s care for a weekend and he manages to lose him … The sequel to Father of the Bride (one of the first in Hollywood) with the same winning cast, this is worth catching for Tracy alone:  his facial expressions are classic. Written by Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett, from Edward Streeter’s characters and directed once again by Vincente Minnelli. Partly remade 45 years later by Nancy Meyers, this is a really good account of marriage and family and abounds in charm.

The Whole Truth (1958)

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I almost wish it had been me who killed her. I’d have enjoyed doing it.  Film producer Max Poulton (Stewart Granger) is on location on the French Riviera shooting a film starring his lover, troublesome Italian actress Gina Bertini (Gianna Maria Canale). When he ends their fling to return to his loyal wife, Carol (Donna Reed), the jilted actress threatens to reveal details of their affair to Carol. Later, at a party at Max’s villa, Scotland Yard investigator Carliss (George Sanders) arrives with news that Gina has been killed and that Max is a murder suspect. Then Carol tries to prove her husband is innocent of a crime with a twist … Philip Mackie’s play had been recorded for BBC TV and is given a smart adaptation by Jonathan Latimer with a superb cast – Sanders in particular is viciously good. A neat British thriller, directed by John Guillermin (with an uncredited assist by Dan Cohen) and produced by Jack Clayton.

The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

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Are you normal?  What is normal?  Harvard psychologist and inventor Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) has the good fortune of having two women in his life – his eventual wife and colleague Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) who is denied her PhD because of her gender and their mutual lover, student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) the niece of the birth control activist, Margaret Sanger, whose feminist mother Ethel, Sanger’s sister, abandoned her to the care of nuns. Marston creates the DISC theory of Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance which he lectures on to besotted female students.  In addition to helping him perfect the lie detector test, they form a ménage à trois which leads to the academics being fired from their University jobs and moving to the burbs where the two women inspire him to create one of the greatest female superheroes of all time, beloved comic book character Wonder Woman as their unconventional lifestyle and penchant for S&M causes problems for the legitimate and illegitimate children they raise together…  This sly old dissertation on American values is told in a series of flashbacks as Marston is forced to defend his comic book’s content to Josette Frank (Connie Britton) inquisitor in chief at the Child Study Association of America in the post-war era as comic books were literally burned, Hitler style, in the streets. No fool she as she knows all the moves, BDSM or no.  It’s amusing to see the trio’s relationship revealed first with the lie detector machine and then in the den of iniquity lorded over by Charles Guyette, the G-string king (JJ Feild) while outwardly life in the burbs goes on as per usual. This is an origins story with a difference and if it plays rather fast and loose (or restrained, whichever you’d prefer) with the lasso of truth, then it’s fun and imaginative and very well performed – interpreted, written and directed by Angela Robinson. Produced by Amy Redford.

The Wilde Wedding (2017)

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Retired film star Eve Wilde (Glenn Close) is marrying at her beachside home for the fourth time, to an acclaimed British novelist Harold (Patrick Stewart) and invites her three sons to attend:  Jimmy (Noah Emmerich), fellow actor Ethan (Peter Facinelli) who wants her to co-star in a movie and nusician Rory (Jack Davenport) whose ex-wife rock star Priscilla (Minnie Driver) shows up with their children, one of whom is recording everything on video. When the boys’ father, stage actor Laurence (John Malkovich) shows up things start to unravel and the air of civility changes as Harold’s daughters set their sights on possible sexual assignations in the family circle,  male and female …  Damian Harris’ writing/directing effort was clearly attractive to Close and Malkovich who last appeared together in Dangerous Liaisons and executive produced here. There are so many ill-defined people in it it’s confusing. The interior of the house looks frequently like a convent – all that panelling. The dialogue is weak and all the scenes on the sunny beach and around the garden don’t enhance the lack of compelling central action.  Makes me hanker for the days when Robert Altman’s A Wedding could be seen on BBC.  Or Bergman, for that matter. Days of yore. Lazy but pretty with Stewart and Close’s respective hairpieces giving the outstanding performances.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

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Maybe Chicago’s got a heart but I ain’t found one.  Young Italian-American Rocky Barbella (Paul Newman) endures abuse from his father (Harold J. Stone) and despite his mother (Eileen Heckart) and her constant efforts to intervene he messes with small-time crime with his streetwise friend Romolo (Sal Mineo).  His consequent run-ins with the law lead him in and out of detention centers and prisons. When it seems he has it together, Rocky is drafted into the wartime Army but can’t stick the regime and goes AWOL. He takes up boxing to earn quick money with coach Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane), but when he discovers he has a natural talent in the ring, he builds the confidence to pursue his love interest, Norma (Pier Angeli), and fulfill his potential as a middleweight fighter. Pressured to take a bribe, his reputation takes a major hit.  He doesn’t know how to redeem himself except by fighting …  Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Rocky Graziano’s autobiography is full of clichés – but they’re good ones because they’re true. Filled with big, dramatic performances and great action which is what you want from a gutsy story of an abused child through his spells in juvie and prison and the Army, this is a wonderful portrait of NYC and its denizens and the final bout is heart-stopping. The right hooks aren’t confined to Rocky, Lehman’s dialogue is ripe with zingers:  The trouble with reading the phonebook is you always know how it’s going to come out.  Gleaming monochrome cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and a song by Perry Como add to a magnificent movie bio experience but one is forced to ask what Paul Newman’s career would have looked like if its intended lead James Dean hadn’t died before this went into production:  his Rebel co-star Mineo (who looks altogether lustrous) bolsters the teen crim story and the beautiful Angeli was engaged to Dean for a while (as well as doing The Silver Chalice with Newman). His ghost is everywhere. Look for Robert Loggia and Dean Jones down the cast list.  Directed by Robert Wise.

The Leisure Seeker (2017)

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It’s just something I really need to do with your father.  Retired English teacher John Spencer (Donald Sutherland) and wife Ella (Helen Mirren) take off in their RV without telling anyone in order to escape a probable nursing home (him, with Alzheimer’s) and a punishing chemo regime (her, for cancer). They abandon grown up son Will (Christian McKay) who cares for them each day, despite knowing it’s his sister Jane (Janel Moloney) who’s the favoured offspring and college professor a comfortable couple of hours away. The siblings are up the walls about the disappearance. Even neighbour Lillian (Dana Ivey) is out of the loop. The couple negotiate the Seventies vehicle down the east coast via camp sites, diners, the world’s slowest police chase, historical re-enactments, a stint in a home and occasional beaches, to their eventual destination, the home of John’s hero, Ernest Hemingway, in Key West.  En route their journey has revelations, massive doses of forgetfulness, a holdup, a posh hotel, a terrible (unconscious) admission, illness and phonecalls home… Michael Zadoorian’s novel is adapted by Italian director Paolo Virzi, making his English language feature debut, with Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi and Francesco Piccolo, and it bears up considerably better than you might think. This isn’t just down to the playing of the leads, who are brilliant, although Mirren’s Savannah accent slips a lot.  There are lovely moments particularly when Sutherland is regaling waitresses with lines from his favourite books and when one confesses she’s done her thesis on it he’s in hog heaven. Ella prefers the movie adaptations. They are a joy to watch, sparking off one another and falling into old habits and new ideas.  Their life together is recalled in tranquil bouts of watching slides on a sheet outside the RV at night when they’re camping. Their days are about coping and how exhausting it is to be a carer and to be ill but also how genuinely in love they have been and how that materialises in their concern for one another. Sutherland’s recurring obsession with Mirren’s first boyfriend from fifty years earlier has a funny payoff.  How she deals with his husbandly failing is hilarious.  His physical response to one medication is … unexpected! But its success is also to do with the deep understanding of Alzheimer’s which causes bouts of memory loss and bullying all too familiar to anyone with a relative suffering its predations – I laughed aloud with recognition far too many times.  While this is concerned with ageing in a semi-comic context it’s a very pointed narrative about the ways in which older people are made feel lousy about their right to exist, how they are treated when they are beginning to become infirm and the radical element here is how one couple choose how to live and exit gracefully when they take the opportunity (even if one of them doesn’t really know what in hell is going on). Immensely enjoyable.

 

Woman on the Run (1950)

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It’s no use honey once they’re gone, they’re gone.  When he witnesses a gangland murder whilst out walking his dog at night in San Francisco, artist Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) goes on the run to avoid being killed himself. His wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan) seems almost apathetic about finding him when questioned by police detective Harris (Robert Keith), due to their marital problems. However, after learning from his doctor that Frank has a grave heart condition, Eleanor teams up with persistent reporter Dan Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe) to help track down her husband with only a cryptic letter to go on. She tries to evade the police’s surveillance team and in the course of her search she finds she has new love for Frank but is unaware that the killer may be closer than she knows… Fantastically nifty and smart post-war noir, with wonderful location shooting (Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, the Art Gallery, Telegraph Hill) and a gripping performance by the leading lady who delivers great barbs and has a grabby sidekick in the scene-stealing Rembrandt the dog.  Sylvia Tate’s short story was adapted by Alan Campbell and director Norman Foster (an associate of Orson Welles), with a dialogue assist by Ross Hunter and its sharpness immeasurably assists a pacy genre entry. The impressive roller coaster finale was shot at Santa Monica Pier. Underrated