The Hand of Night (1968)

The Hand of Night

Aka Beast of Morocco. I’m a harbinger of death and desolation. Paul Carver (William Sylvester) is a guilty widower grieving the deaths of his wife and children in a car accident when he takes an unusual and hazardous job accompanying archaeologist Otto Gunther (Edward Underdown) and his assistant Chantal (Diane Clare) on a North African tomb-hunting expedition. They learn of a legend involving a female Moorish vampire who haunts the tomb taking her revenge against men. Before long, Paul has succumbed to the seductive wiles of a mysterious Moroccan woman Marisa (Alizia Gur) whom he first encounters at Gunther’s party but who nobody else apparently saw. She begins to bend him to her will and he follows Omar (Terence de Marney) around the city looking for her, finding her in an apparently abandoned palace where her sirens dance for him. It is left to Chantal to come to his rescue, but her attempts place her in even greater jeopardy; ultimately it is Paul who has to break free of Marisa’s evil clutches and destroy her before she destroys him… I know that a man can misunderstand himself but surely not forever. Good looking cult item shot on location in Morocco in 1966 best seen as a moody piece of low budget work with an intermittently interesting score by Joan Shakespeare, blessed with omens and portents and second sight and a very alluring vampire. Strange to say the most appealing aspects are the rather realistic approach, blending the touristic filming style with local storytelling, Dracula, mummy myths, a vanishing castle and the opportunity to see stalwarts of British Bs in a very different setting. It fits in more with the European vampire films of the era than anything being made in the UK. It was British-Hungarian Clare’s last film and she’s very good indeed;  fans of the genre remember her for Witchcraft and The Plague of the Zombies. The stunningly beautiful Gur, who was a former Miss Israel, had appeared in From Russia With Love and after this she would only record five more screen credits, all for TV. (Weirdly, as the daughter of German Jewish emigrants who fled Nazi Germany, she married two men boasting the initials SS.) Sylvester would go on to greater things with 2001: A Space Odyssey. An Associated British-Pathé production written by Bruce (Timeslip) Stewart and directed by Frederic Goode who had made another archaeology-themed film in North Africa a few years earlier, Valley of the Kings. For fans of such esoterica it’s interesting to compare with The Velvet Vampire, made a few years later. You seek the road into the dark

 

The Sheltering Sky (1990)

The Sheltering Sky

We’re not tourists. We’re travellers. In the late Forties American expats Port Moresby (John Malkovich) and his wife Kit (Debra Winger) are trying to inject their tired marriage with adventure in North Africa. They are accompanied by their friend George Tunner (Campbell Scott) and fall in with some loathsome English expats, the Lyles, a mother (Jill Bennett) and her son Eric (Timothy Spall). When the city hems them in they journey through the desert. Port sleeps with a prostitute while George starts an affair with Kit and now there is a complicated love triangle unfurling in difficult circumstances because Port becomes ill … No matter what’s wrong between us there can never be anyone else. Bernardo Bertolucci’s romantic interpretation of Paul Bowles’ debut novel about alienation plugs into its erotic and dramatic intensity and wisely avoids any attempt at expressing its overwhelming interiority, with astonishing performances by the leads (particularly Winger), mesmerising cinematography of the sweeping desert landscapes by Vittorio Storaro and an utterly tragic dénouement to this unconventional marriage of fine minds and wild desires that feels utterly confrontational. It’s a staggeringly beautiful work that is as decorative as it is despairing, resonant, mystifying and depressing by turn. It’s a plot that promises melodrama but is more consequential in the symbolic realm yet it also boasts a harsh lesson – that white people will always be strangers in this strange land of seductive images and grasping locals with their own motives. The haunting score accompanying this epic tale of love and death is composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Richard Horowitz. Written by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe. Bowles hated it – and he’s in it. My only plan is I have no plan

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

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John Wick, Excommunicado. In effect, 6:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. After gunning down Santino d’Antonio, a member of the shadowy international assassins’ guild the High Table, hit man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself stripped of the organisation’s protective services. There’s a $14 million bounty on his head and he is on the run in New York City, the target of the world’s most ruthless killers and he tries to locate the Elder (Said Taghmaoui) the only person above the High Table empowered to take the price tag off his head … He shot my dog/I get it. Starting quite literally from the last shot of the second film in the trilogy about the world’s calmest hitman, this is breathless action fare that starts in New York Public Library of all places setting things in motion with a crucifix necklace and a medallion. What better storage facility for your jewels? Then things get seriously international and move to Morocco and the desert as this violent quest for a kind of redemption gets underway while John reconciles with his origins: he is actually Jardani Jovonovich of Belarus, which we learn courtesy of a drop in at Anjelica Huston’s ballet school. Reeves is as Zen-like as ever even when offing everyone in sight and his dog is the dog’s, as they say, although he mostly keeps out of trouble by residing at the Hotel Continental. A sinuous exercise in ultraviolence, this is actually very beautiful to watch. With Ian McShane back as John’s dubious caretaker Winston, Halle Berry sharing his love canines and Laurence Fishburne giving this a Matrix-y feeling, this has a lot of good moments bookended by two extraordinary sequences of skillfully choreographed action with – what else – a cliffhanging ending. Written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams, based on a story by Kolstad. Directed by Chad Stahelski. It wasn’t just a puppy

The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018)

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You left no autobiography but you left this. Writer and filmmaker Mark Cousins was given access to hundreds of paintings and drawings by Orson Welles and he uses these as a prism to gain entry into how the man’s mind worked and discusses how this level of visual creativity was fused with narrative to create his films. This is an intensely personal work:  Cousins addresses Welles in the voiceover, doing away with any sense of chronology, making a mosaic of thoughts, inflections, inferences and putting together a narrative that deals with his films, his politics, his acting, his working methods and his extensive romantic life. This is filmic storytelling of a superior type, stressing the way in which Welles’ designs actively structured his cinematic approach, garnering detailed insights from these previously undiscovered and unsung artistic outpourings to make an intimate free-associating portrait of a fascinating man. This is an utterly unique take on a larger than life character whose indelible performances as an actor (with their king or king-like personae) form a parallel or diptych with his directing work. Welles has never seemed more attractive, more interesting, more Shakespearean in scope, more mysterious and dreamlike or yet more relevant. A seer. Featuring his daughter Beatrice Welles, this is executive produced by Michael Moore. You thought in lines and shapes

All the Money in the World (2017)

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I’m telling you this, so you could understand the things you’re about to see, and maybe you can forgive us. It’s like we’re from another planet, where the force of gravity is so strong it bends the light. We look like you, but we’re not like you.  When 16-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is kidnapped on the streets of Rome in 1973 his devoted mother Gail (Michelle Williams) who’s divorced from the boy’s father John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan) tries to convince his billionaire grandfather, the world’s wealthiest man, oil billionaire John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) to pay the ransom. When Getty Sr. refuses, Gail attempts to sway him as her son’s captors become increasingly volatile and brutal:  she is telephoned regularly by one of his kidnappers, Cinquanta (Romain Duris) who has an unlikely frenemy relationship with Paul in his rural hideout. With her son’s life in the balance, Gail and Getty’s security advisor Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) become allies in the race against time as he misjudges the scenario and she relentlessly pursues Old Getty for the money to save her son’s life. When the kidnappers tire of waiting for their ransom they hack off they boy’s ear and mail it to a newspaper and she takes decisive action …  I’m, uh, building a house in California. An exact replica of my imperial villa in Rome, down to the very last detail. But with flush toilets. Yes, the mountain may not have come to Muhammad, but it sure as hell came to me. The true story of John Paul Getty III’s horrific kidnapping has elements of surprise even though it’s a famous crime:  adapted from the 1995 John Pearson book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J Paul Getty, screenwriter David Scarpa gives us the contours of unimaginable wealth, alienation and inhumanity, tailored in an efficiently-staged thriller which turns into a family melodrama with a child’s life at stake as his body starts to be dismembered and sent in the mail while Grandpa simply refuses to play the Mafia’s game because it doesn’t represent a decent tax dodge. You see everything has a price. The great struggle in life is coming to terms with what that price is. The action sequences are unexpected and stealthy – the kidnapping is swift and effective, as unnoticeable as a transaction with a whore on the Via Veneto. The concluding sequence when Paul runs for his life while the mobsters realise the police are on their tail and then they look for him to kill him takes place in a small mountain town at night and the simultaneous pursuit by Gail and Chase is nail biting – the villagers refuse to help them or Paul. Corruption is rife in Calabria and is treated as normal. When a man gets wealthy, he has to deal with the problems of freedom. All the choices he could possibly want. An abyss opens up. Well, I watched that abyss. I watched it ruin men, marriages, but most of all, it ruins the children.  At the heart of the story is Gail Getty’s relentless quest to find the money to free her son:  her trip to a museum to try to trade a valuable gift from Old Getty to Paul is heartbreaking – it’s a worthless trinket you can buy for 5 bucks in the shop and he told the kid it was worth $1.2 million. This is such a dreadful betrayal of Getty’s favourite grandson and heir. Her mission to con the guy to come up with the goods takes guts and glory and Chase’s loyalty to his employer ultimately shifts as Gail starts to think like Getty. Williams is splendid as the woman who has to see her drug-addled ex-husband across the negotiating table, with his father making full custody of the children a condition of the ransom being paid. (If anyone ever believed that JP Getty II and Talitha’s Moroccan junkie monsters were the epitome of style they should watch this). If you can count your money you’re not a billionaire. Christopher Plummer as the guileless bully who believes he’s the reincarnation of Emperor Hadrian bestrides the persona of the family patriarch who just happens to be the wealthiest man in history. His final journey into night as he grips a great work of art in his jaw-dropping collection shows us a man who just needed a mother in his life – how ironic it turns out to be his daughter-in-law, a tigress for her son. Ridley Scott just made another feminist fable. Isn’t that great? There’s a highly innovative choral score by Daniel Pemberton, while Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is simply breathtaking.  There’s a purity to beautiful things that I’ve never been able to find in another human being

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.

Our Man in Marrakesh (1966)

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Aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!  I just came here to build a hotel.  One of six travellers who catch the bus from Casablanca airport to Marrakesh is carrying $2 million to pay a powerful local man Mr Casimir (Herbert Lom) to fix a vote at the United Nations on behalf of an unnamed nation. But not even the powerful man knows which of them it is – and his background checks reveal that at least three of them aren’t who they claim to be. As agents from other nations may be among them, he and his henchmen have to be very careful until the courier chooses to reveal himself – or herself. One of them is Andrew Jessel (Tony Randall) who is in Morocco to finance a hotel but he seems the most likely prospect. On the bus, he encounters the lovely Kyra Stanovy (Senta Berger) who soon appears to be another dubious individual. When Jessel’s briefcase gets mixed up with Casimir’s the chase is on across rooftops and through bazaars and Jessel and Kyra are thrown together when a corpse materialises in his wardrobe – but what is she really up to aside from being a rather too lovable mod femme fatale? … The mid-Sixties spy spoof sub-genre or Eurospy movie continues apace with this picturesque travelogue, boasting some of my fave film faces including Klaus Kinski as the white-suited Jonquil, Casimir’s creepy little henchman, who gets a great entrance in the titles sequence, Grégoire Aslan as Achmed, a Moroccan trucker, Wilfred Hyde-White as Arthur Fairbrother, a likely courier for Red China and of course the indubitable Terry-Thomas as the Oxbridge educated El Caid, a very useful intermediary. There’s even John Le Mesurier as another would-be go-between for the Communists and Burt Kwouk, who has the tiny role of hotel clerk. Margaret Lee appears as the goofy lover of Casimir. Randall is an unlikely love interest and a hapless hero – don’t let the poster fool you – there’s no attempt to portray him as James Bond, he’s much more James Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but this is a lot of fun with a corpse repeatedly turning up at the most inopportune moments. Berger is adorable as the compulsive liar. There’s a colourful score by Malcolm Lockyer. From producer Harry Alan Towers, this was co-written by him with Peter (The Liquidator) Yeldham and directed by Don Sharp.

Allied (2016)

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Different kinds of bad movies are bad for different reasons but we love them just the same. Sort of. Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is the French-speaking Canadian intelligence agent parachuted into occupied Morocco on a mission during WW2.  He arrives in a bar and cosies up to his fake wife Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) who introduces him to her friends. They are all speaking French. Max and Marianne are spies and have never actually met before tonight. Before you can say Operation Desert Storm they’re having it away in a swirl of sand in their car and without even a hint of jeopardy they carry out their ostensible mission to assassinate the local Nazi chief at a lovely party. Then they fetch up in London at their wedding and while the city is bombed Marianne has their baby daughter. A year later Max is working and she’s staying at home and he’s asked to look at the evidence against his beloved – his superiors in the Special Operations Executive claim that he is sleeping with the enemy and the couple are pitted against one another as Max is forced to question everything and has to figure out if he must kill his own wife….  This starts out kinda like Casablanca. Well. That’s to say it starts in Casablanca which is not the same thing at all. But it does end in an aerodrome. The first half hour is in the realm of the ludicrous – perfect design, badly paced, poorly written and wholly unbelievable. The acting is debatable. I suppose there was some.  Marianne criticises Max’s Canadian French (I know – the worst insult I ever had in Paris was that my accent was Canadian – sheesh!). Except that it was a rainy Saturday, that was me. But it actually gets better. There’s something about dull old north London burbs that has a lingering interest and wondering how wicked Jared Harris might be in planting a seed of doubt in Max’s mind about his lovely wife – not that it lasts for long. This is a turkey that mutates into something of a hybrid spy romance melodrama. It wanted to be a classic but refined its ambitions to resemble something like Hanover Street. Oh I’m too kind. More story, less sauce, next time, you naughty boys with your Lesbian antics. Written by Steven Knight and directed by Robert Zemeckis. I know! Can you believe it? Frankly, no.

Keeping Up With the Joneses (2016)

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Ten years, thirty countries, nobody finds us out and we don’t last a week in the suburbs! Desperate housewife Karen Gaffney (Isla Fisher) is bored out of her mind with her kids packed off to summer camp and her meek human resources guy husband Jeff (Zach Galafianakis) off to work at MBI Electronics every day. She spends her days designing a urinal. Then a gorgeous couple moves in across the street and suddenly life in the cul de sac takes on a whiff of international intrigue when she starts spying on them  … only to find that they are undercover agents. Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot are the Joneses and they insinuate themselves into the couple’s life apparently without realising they are being followed by them in turn. When the situation is reversed the average joes find themselves at the centre of a murderous espionage plot – with some treacherous neighbours implicated in industrial theft. Jeff’s people skills and Karen’s feminine intuition come in handy when push comes to shove and there’s an explosive finale involving a villain with self-esteem issues but overall the very good premise and a wonderful cast is laid waste by something – the writing? The pacing? Shame. It coulda been a contender! Written by Michael LeSieur and directed by Greg Mottola.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

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Hitchcock returned to the scene of his first international success, radically altered it, and put two of the industry’s biggest stars at its centre, doctor James Stewart (the Everyman of American cinema) and singer Doris Day, who gets to trill Que Sera, Sera to their young son, Christopher Olsen, who will be kidnapped. The VistaVision Technicolor action is transferred from Switzerland to Morocco (where Day was shocked by the state of animal health) and the juxtaposition with the film’s later scenes in London is well achieved. Uniquely among the master’s films this is almost entirely predicated on the notion of pure suspense, augmented by Bernard Herrmann’s innovative scoring and concluding of course in a famous concert sequence. Featuring those two chaps Ambrose Chappell and Albert Hall, this was adapted from the original (Charles Bennett and DB Wyndham Lewis) by Hitch’s regular Fifties collaborator John Michael Hayes, with an uncredited assist from Angus MacPhail, the man who had dreamed up the term MacGuffin for the meaningless Hitchcockian plot lure. Beautifully shot by Robert Burks and edited by George Tomasini, there is a nice opportunity to watch French actor Daniel Gelin at work – he was the father of the late Maria Schneider, whom he never acknowledged. And the improvised scene with the food is great!