The Kremlin Letter (1970)

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You’re a fool.  What’s worse, you’re a romantic fool. When an unauthorised letter is sent to Moscow alleging the U.S. government’s willingness to help Russia attack Red China, US Navy Intelligence Officer Charles Rone (Patrick O’Neal) has his commission revoked so he can do an extra-governmental espionage mission.  He’s speaks eight languages fluently and has a flawless photographic memory. He and his team are sent to retrieve the letter, going undercover and successfully reaching out to Erika (Bibi Andersson), the wife of a former agent now married to the head of Russia’s secret police, Kosnov (Max von Sydow). Their plans are interrupted, however, when their Moscow hideout is raided by cunning politician Bresnavitch (Orson Welles) and Rone finds himself being played by a network of older spies seeking revenge .My father says bed is integral to this and one must be good at it. Adapted by director John Huston with his regular collaborator Gladys Hill (who began as dialogue director on Welles’ The Stranger) from Noel Behn’s 1966 novel, this complex canvas of betrayal, treason, murder and double cross is in a line with Huston’s film noir period with a soupçon of Beat the Devil‘s absurdism. Its convoluted plot is best appreciated in response to the hijinks of Bond with its determinedly low-key approach allowing the banal thuggery of the spy master to be revealed. The cast is astonishing – Richard Boone as Ward, the peroxide instigator capable of literally anything, sadism, torture and murder;  two Bergman alumni united in transcontinental jiggery pokery; George Sanders playing piano in drag at a gay nightclub and worse, with a penchant for knitting; Barbara Parkins as Niall MacGinnis’ safe-cracking daughter; Vonetta McGee as a Lesbian seductress;  Nigel Green as The Whore, another old spy keen on playing dress up; Lila Kedrova as a Russian brothel keeper;  and Welles’ Gate Theatre mentor Micheál MacLiammóir shows up – in fact he’s the first character we encounter. A crazy cast in a fascinating Cold War timepiece that requires keen attention. Even so, it’s a stretch to have dour O’Neal pose as a gigolo to win Andersson’s affections. Still, Ted Scaife’s cinematography is a thing of beauty. Never mind the story, feel the wit. Huston appears early as the Admiral who gives Rone his marching papers. If you believe in a cause no danger is frightening

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Under the Volcano (1984)

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He on whose heart the dust of Mexico has lain, will find no peace in any other land. A day in the life of a man in 1938. Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) is an alcoholic former British consul living in Quauhnahuac, a small Mexican town. As the local Day of the Dead celebration gets underway, Geoffrey drowns himself in the bottle, having cut himself off from his family, friends and job. When he goes missing, his ex-wife, actress Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), who has returned from the US in the hopes of resurrecting their relationship, convinces his half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) to conduct a last-ditch search for him, hoping that Hugh might be able to rescue her self-destructing husband… How, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken? Adapted by Guy Gallo (his only screenplay to date) from Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 masterpiece, this late John Huston film (and he rejected over 20 versions of the screenplay over the decades) is a powerhouse film: brilliantly interpreted by everyone concerned. Reunited with his director following Annie, Finney offers one of his great performances, committed and charismatic, as the dissolute man who nonetheless has a core of humanity. Huston said of it, I think it’s the finest performance I have ever witnessed, let alone directed.  Huston had lived in Puerto Vallarta for a period and shot The Night of the Iguana there as well of course as having made one of his other films in Mexico – maybe his best ever, full stop – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Clearly the country brought something special to his aesthetic – and vice versa. There is nothing more real than magic. Here the various elements churn and dissect a life, symbolised in the wonderful titles sequence. It’s marvellous to see Katy Jurado as Senora Gregoria, a key supporting character in this drama that constantly threatens us with being on the brink of something – death? Truth? War? It was originally written by Lowry in 1936 but underwent many rewrites. It’s so special it’s the subject of two documentaries including the Oscar-nominated Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, in which Lowry’s words are read by Richard Burton, who Huston had hoped to cast as the lead right after they shot Iguana. Quite, quite the film then, with a legacy all its own. Hell is my natural habitat

Too Late for Tears (1949)

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Just where did you stash my cash? Jane and Alan Palmer (Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy) are driving to a party in the Hollywood Hills when someone in another car throws a satchel into the back seat of their convertible. They open it and find $100,000 cash.  She wants to keep it, he doesn’t. They put it in a locker in Union Station. Then Danny (Dan Duryea) shows up at their apartment when Alan is at work and they scheme to get his money back, a once in a lifetime payoff from a blackmail/insurance scam. Jane persuades him to help kill Alan on a boat trip. She reports Alan as missing. Kathy Palmer (Kristine Miller) suspects Jane has murdered her brother and investigates with a man claiming to be his friend Don Blake (Don DeFore), who look into her dealings. Meanwhile Jane is plotting to keep all of the money for herself …  Looking down her nose at me like a big ugly house looks over Hollywood.  Scott has a great showcase as a ruthless, mutinous femme fatale, a silky smooth siren desperate to shake off the shackles of middle class unease:  the kind of people who can’t keep up with the bills every day and die a little. Duryea is good as the villain/accomplice, like a musical comedy star who’s wandered onto the wrong movie set and likes the fit of his suit but his taste for drink proves his undoing. Miller is particularly good as Kennedy’s sister. It was her second time to be paired with Scott following I Walk Alone; while DeFore proves the magic ingredient that unlocks the mystery of Scott’s first husband’s deathA vicious portrayal of venal post-war Los Angeles society, a cautionary tale laced with venom that is brilliantly conceived, shot and performed with lashings of good lines. Written by Roy Huggins (later famous as TV writer/producer of The Fugitive, Maverick and The Rockford Files) and adapted from his novel which was serialised in the Saturday Evening Post.  Directed by Byron Haskin.  I let you in because housewives can get awfully bored sometimes!

Against All Odds (1984)

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Guys are crippling themselves for you, lady. I could give a shit what you believe. Having been cut from his professional football team the Los Angeles Outlaws after sustaining a shoulder injury, ageing down-and-out athlete Terry Brogan (Jeff Bridges) is in desperate need of money. Crooked nightclub owner and bookie Jake Wise (James Woods) offers Terry a hefty sum to go to Mexico and find his girlfriend, Jessie Wyler (Rachel Ward) the daughter of team owner Mrs Wyler (Jane Greer). Terry is broke and cannot turn the offer down. When he finds Jessie on an island off Mexico, the two fall in love and he reveals to her his guilt over his points-shaving scam with Jake. Terry reports that he failed to find Jessie but Jake sends someone else – the team trainer Hank Sully (Alex Karras) who reveals that he had identified Terry and other debt-laden players to Jake to make them work for him. When a gun falls into Jessie’s hands during a struggle the twists of the plot start being revealed to Terry, the patsy of all time … You got problems now, Terry. You want trouble too? One of the great Eighties thrillers, this remake of Out of the Past (adapted from Daniel Mainwaring’s novel Build My Gallows High, its alternative title) written by Eric Hughes, this is dangerous, surprising, gorgeous to look at (shot by Donald E. Thorin) and literally drenched in sex (one scene is frequently cut from TV broadcast). The central relationship between Terry and Jessie is one of the most cunningly constructed of all movie pairings, a brilliant homage to Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, the original amoral noir girl nicely cast here in the role of Jessie’s powerful mother. Key roles are played by Saul Rubinek and Richard Widmark. The action is superb – what about that chickie race down Sunset! The plotting becomes convoluted, its neo-noir narrative nodding to Chinatown with a property/environment conspiracy backdrop but it’s the twists and turns between this sexy couple that’ll have you panting for more. A sensational film that gets better by the year with a performance by Kid Creole and the Coconuts, one of the many acts on a soundtrack distinguished by the famous title song, by Phil Collins. Directed by Taylor Hackford.  Don’t leave without saying goodbye

The Face of Love (2013)

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Are you going to run away on me again? Five years after her artist husband Garret (Ed Harris) drowned while they were on holiday in Mexico, Nikki Lostrom (Annette Bening) sees a man at the LA County Museum of Art who is a dead ringer for him.  He’s Tom Young (Ed Harris), a divorced art teacher who takes up painting again just as they commence an affair. She pursues him, determined to resurrect Garret.  Tom’s ex-wife Ann (Amy Brenneman) asks him if he’s revealed his heart problems to Nikki:  he doesn’t want her to know. Nikki doesn’t want her neighbour Roger (Robin Williams) to see Tom because he and Garret were friends. When her adult daughter Summer (Jess Weixler) arrives on a surprise visit from Seattle she becomes hysterical in shock at Tom’s resemblance to her father and Tom leaves … Well, kids huh? They’re just one long grieving process. A characterful study of grief and deception, this is a wonderfully performed pas de deux by the leads who are both engaged in duplicitous behaviour, but we’re not sure where either of their limits might lie. Bening gives her role the expected precision and Nikki’s gamesmanship proves as damaging to herself as it is to Tom who is acted in a more diffuse way by Harris, mainly because the script leaves too many holes.  However it is resolved rather wonderfully in a final sequence conjoining art and life and in between there are metaphors galore in the ideas about architecture and designs for life – Nikki dresses houses for realtors and lives in a home that was Garret’s dream for her;  Tom’s abode is like an art museum. With excellent costuming by Judianna Makovsky, this is a splendidly shot (by Antonio Riestra) ode to Los Angeles. Directed by Arie (Chumscrubber) Posin who co-wrote with Matthew McDuffie. What are you doing?/Making new memories

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

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I know a sure cure for a nosebleed: a cold knife in the middle of the back. A mysterious fellow, Tim Foster (Preston Foster) contacts a trio of criminals Pete, Boyd and Tony (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef) to help with a bank heist. The four wear masks and remain strangers to each other, planning to reunite in Mexico to divvy up the loot. Joe Rolfe (John Payne), a down on his luck former GI and ex-con trying to go straight that they framed to take the heat, gets his charges dropped, and the police offer him a reward if he can help recover the cash. But only after they beat up and torture him. He agrees, and when one of the thieves meets his end, Rolfe assumes his identity to catch the crooks… What’s waiting for you, Harris? The chair, the gas chamber, or just a rope? Like all good little noirs, there are lessons to be learned and a steep moral curve is there if you’re looking for it but mainly this is a well managed, pacy heist movie with bristling dialogue. Star Payne and director Phil Karlson did uncredited work on the sharp script attributed to Harold Green and Rowland Brown (story) and George Bruce and Harry Esssex (screenplay). Payne was once famed screenwriter Robert Towne’s father-in-law and had an interesting career, mainly a song and dance man and mostly famous for appearing in Miracle on 34th Street, but then becoming an interesting character actor. This particular production was part of a seven-picture deal with Pine-Thomas Productions to which he eventually obtained the rights. He had showed his dramatic chops paired with Claudette Colbert in Remember the Day and later in The Razor’s Edge and this particular cycle of action/crime films would conclude with Technicolor noir Slightly Scarlet. He then had his own western TV series, The Restless Gun, which ran for two seasons, in which daughter Julie appeared. Her daughter Katharine Towne is now an actress too, carrying on the family tradition. This is an effective thriller, briskly directed by Karlson and performed to the hilt by an ensemble to beat the band – some of those lowlifes are among my favourite character actors, with Coleen Gray and Dona Drake in nice supporting roles. The armoured car heist is superbly simply done in a tough as nails actioner that must have inspired Reservoir DogsIt don’t take no big thinking to figure a couple of guys like us ain’t in this bananaville on a vacation!

Pancho Villa (1972)

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He doesn’t need a doctor, he needs a change of underwear. Trigger-happy Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (Telly Savalas) is on his way to his own execution when his men rescue him. He attempts to kill bitter nemesis General Goyo (Antonio Casas) and overthrow Mexico’s government. The violent endeavour brings Villa north to Columbus in New Mexico, where he battles a group of determined American soldiers led by the no-nonsense Colonel Wilcox (Chuck Connors), and endures unanticipated mishaps and bad fortune, including a double-cross by his friend and partner Scotty (Clint Walker) when they attempt retaliation in a raid… He’s got nerves of iron and rocks in his head. History through the lens of spaghetti! This comical approach to biography is an entertaining mix of action, violence, broad humour and not a little camp – that’s right because Savalas treats us to his rumbling vocal stylings on Don Black’s song in the closing credits. In between there are pitiful villagers, an episode about a fly in the army’s soup and a bit of impersonation, amid a soundtrack full of the bells and whistles of high comedy. Connors has a ball as the straight arrow colonel and Savalas just lets rip. You’ll crack up when the lizard pops out from his clothing after the doctor scratches his head wondering why Pancho’s got two heartbeats. Anne Francis has fun as the gutsy woman in his life. This is practically a mockumentary:  all history lessons should be this fast and funny, genocidal mania aside. Directed by Eugenio Martin from a screenplay by Julian Zimet. Every great man was once a bandit

 

100 Rifles (1969)

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Every time four Mexicans get together one of them makes himself a General.  In 1912 Sonora Mexico, Arizona lawman Lyedecker (Jim Brown) chases Yaqui Joe (Burt Reynolds), a half-Yaqui, half-white bank robber who has stolen $6,000. Both men are captured by the Mexican general Verdugo (Fernando Lamas). Lyedecker learns that Joe used the loot to buy 100 rifles for the Yaqui people, who are being repressed by the government and he regards them as his people. Lyedecker is not interested in Joe’s motive, and intends to recover the money and apprehend Joe to further his career. The two men escape a Mexican firing squad and flee to the hills, where they are joined by the bandito’s sidekick Sarita (Raquel Welch) a beautiful Indian revolutionary. Sarita has a vendetta against the soldiers, who murdered her father. The fugitives become allies. Leading the Yaqui against Verdugo’s forces, they ambush and derail the General’s train and overcome his soldiers in an extended firefight… My daddy was a Yaqui Indian and my mamma was from Alabama. Adapted from Robert MacLeod’s 1966 novel The Californio first by Clair Huffaker and then by director Tom (Will Penny) Gries, this spaghetti western occasioned a great meeting of male and female puchritude recently recalled by Welch:  “The first time I laid eyes on him, he came strolling across the tarmac towards the plane and, well, he had a walk that was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. He was somewhere between a jock and a cowboy, which was just about perfect. I was thinking he’s just the hottest thing. And I haven’t even seen his face!” She was of course referring to Reynolds, who walks away with the picture, macho, moustachioed, sardonically amused when he isn’t fighting, he just oozes charisma and carries the acting and physical duties with ease. Half of it I spent on whisky and women, the other half I wasted! Welch wasn’t happy on set as Brown stated: “[Burt Reynolds] was usually a stabilising influence [between the stars]… He’s a heck of a cat. He had various talks with Raquel and tried to assure her that nothing was going on, that we weren’t trying to steal anything.” I admire a man who dies well  Reynolds himself wrote of the experience:  “I was playing Yaqui Joe, supposedly an Indian with a moustache. Raquel had a Spanish accent that sounded like a cross between Carmen Miranda and Zasu Pitts. Jimmy Brown was afraid of only two things in the entire world: one was heights, the other was horses. And he was on a horse fighting me on a cliff. It just didn’t work… I play a half breed but… I send it up, I make it seem like the other ‘half’ of the guy is from Alabama. I play it nasty, dirty, funky. I look like a Christmas tree — wrist bands, arm bands. At the beginning I even wore these funky spurs. But every time I walked I couldn’t hear dialogue.” He said of the problems with Welch and Brown:  “I spent the entire time refereeing fights between Jim Brown and Raquel Welch…  It started because they were kind of attracted to each other. After a while they both displayed a little temperament, but don’t forget we were out in the middle of the bloody desert with the temperature at 110. Of course, I don’t think they’ll ever work together again. The critics have really been knocking those two — murdering them — but as far as I know no one ever said they were Lunt and Fontanne. Jim is the most honest man I know… And Raquel — one of the gutsiest broads I know, physically. She did all her own stunts. There’s also a performance in there somewhere.”  He and Brown make a great, funny double act. Weirdly, they were born just 6 days apart and of course Brown had the football career Reynolds had dreamed of having. Welch said later: “Jim was very forceful and I am feisty. I was a little uncomfortable with too much male aggression. But — it turned out to be great exploitation for the film, now as you look back. It broke new ground.” She told Variety Reynolds was  “one of my favorites. Nobody did — or does — quite what Burt does. And he has a darker edge, which made the scenes sexy.” It’s beautifully shot by Cecilio Paniagua and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is rousing, compensating for some deficiencies in the action choreography. Lamas is fun as Verdugo and Dan O’Herlihy offers typically good support as villain Grimes with Hans Gudegast (aka Eric Braeden) as the German advisor to Verdugo. Some might see elements of The Wild Bunch and even Blazing Saddles;  one way or another it’s underrated. Cult value lies in the presence of Soledad Miranda as the prostitute with Joe in the opening scenes at the hotel. She is best known for her collaborations with Jess Franco, particularly Vampyros Lesbos. She died aged 27 a year after this was released. I think with a little bit of luck we might be able to get out of this

 

The Wild Bunch (1969)

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If they move… kill ’em! In 1913, ageing outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) prepares to retire after one final botched robbery on the Mexican border. Joined by his gang, including Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) and brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), Bishop discovers the heist is a setup orchestrated in part by his old partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) now a ruthless mercenary. They’ve wound up with washers, not silver. As the remaining gang cross the Rio Grande and take refuge in Mexican territory, Thornton trails them, resulting in their taking on a suicide mission if ever there were one – as they are engaged by double-crossing Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to hijack a stash of guns from a train while he fights Pancho Villa under the military guidance of a German Commander (Fernando Wagner) on the eve of WW1 … This was going to be my last.  Sublime filmmaking from one of the iconoclasts of American cinema, Sam Peckinpah, who wrote the screenplay with Walon Green, the writer of the original story with Roy N. Sickner.  The titles sequence with scorpions tells us that this will be so much more than your regular western:  it’s a meditation on masculinity, ageing, violence, warfare and revenge.  Like all of Peckinpah’s genre work its focus is on the male in a hostile environment and it abounds in visual style with Peckinpah and cinematographer Lucien Ballard using multiple camera setups and different film speeds to accentuate the conflict between the old and the new, mythology and modernity. They demonstrate that there can be honour among thieves, if it is of a singularly macho variety. There is also friendship, pragmatism, humour and resignation.  The final shootout is glorious. This is one of the crowning achievements in cinema. Walk softly, boys

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

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I could throw a stick across the river and hit fifty grieving fathers.  Following an Isis suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) as Mexican drug cartels are starting to smuggle terrorists across the U.S. border. The war escalates when Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug kingpin’s thirteen-year old daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to deliberately increase the tensions. When the young girl is seen as collateral damage, the two men will determine her fate as they question everything that they are fighting for, with Alejandro and the girl left on the wrong side of the border when the corrupt Mexican police upset the staged return of Isabel.  At the same time a teenaged Mexican in Texas Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is recruited to move people illegally and the Government drop Alejandro in it  … Sicario was my top film of 2015 and I was pretty surprised that it would become a victim of sequelitis. This is  a far more conventional action outing but steadily winds itself around you with a vise-like grip even if it entirely lacks the deep pulsating strangeness of the original and its fabulously formal widescreen compositions by director Denis Villeneuve and DoP Roger Deakins and the amazing, visceral score of the late great Jóhann Jóhansson, to whom this is dedicated. Crucially it also lacks Emily Blunt’s character, something of a passive protagonist who also functioned as moral compass. What an unusual setup that was! It punched you in the solar plexus, kicked you in the abdomen and grabbed you by the throat. And all the time you wondered who everyone really was in that rather Homeric setup. The formerly silent and mysterious Alejandro has achieved his revenge so why does this even exist? Better ask Taylor Sheridan, who is revisiting the border territory he seems to have made his own, writing some of the best screenplays of recent years. There has been a lot of guff about the timing of this and the fact that there’s a girl ‘separated’ from her (lovely!) family here but this is a film that shows us exactly why the US or the POTUS at least wants a wall:  it’s a portrait of ruthless people trafficking poor people with the resultant evolution of drug lords, gangs and murderers. (You can leave the pity party at the door especially when you look at the murder rates in Mexico last year alone. Chaos streams from that part of the world, lest we forget. And the answer is a slew of dirty tricks and disavowed ops.)  Alejandro is almost forced to question his actions, with Isabel figuring out his relationship with her father:  he’s the attorney whose wife and kids Daddy had murdered. Moner is fantastic, a real find. She is extraordinarily self-possessed as the narco whore! administering beatings in the school yard where the principal is shit-scared of expelling her for fear of reprisals. Brolin returns to the fray dealing out fear in Somalia trying to trace the Isis loonies but back on US soil he’s dealing with the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) and his immediate superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) who wants everything off the books when two dozen Mexican cops are killed (they unleash the firepower first) and the Oval Office can no longer be officially seen to sanction any cross-border activities. The clever aspect is parallel teenage stories – the Tex-Mex boy killer and the kingpin’s girl even if they are rather replete with clichés, no matter the shock value. The conclusion has been set up to deliver another movie with del Toro – a long way from the money laundering (literally!) in Licence to Kill – still in the druggie violent territory to which he so frequently returns. Directed by Stefano Sollima.