The 39 Steps (1959)

The 39 Steps 1959

If you’re looking for Richard Hannay this is the man you want. Freshly returned to London, British diplomat Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) goes to the aid of a nanny ‘Nannie’ (Faith Brook) in a park only to discover there is no baby in the pram and follows her to a music hall where he watches Mr Memory (James Hayter). She goes back to his flat and reveals that she is a spy working for British intelligence looking for the organisation The Thirty-Nine Steps who are after information on the British ballistic missiles project. When she is murdered in his flat he goes on the run, encountering a bevy of schoolgirls on a train with their teacher Miss Fisher (Taina Elg) who reports him to the police but he jumps off the vehicle on the Forth Bridge and hitches a ride on a truck driven by ex-con Percy Baker (Sidney James) who advises him to stay at The Gallows Inn run by occultist Nellie Lumsden (Brenda De Banzie) and her husband who help him escape during a cycling race.  He approaches Professor Logan (Barry Jones) only to find the man is in fact the leader of the spy ring and he must keep running … I’m not having a Sagittarius in the house tonight! Hitchcock was responsible for the first adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy-chase thriller and this is a more or less straight remake, with the romance-chase narrative lines crisscrossing pleasingly as per the generic template established by The Master. More may be a slightly ridiculous hero but this is played for comic effect and its Hitchcockian homage continues in the casting of De Banzie who essays a knowing spiritualist in her crofting cottage. It has the advantage of location shooting, a winning plot, doubtful romantic interest, a deal of suspense and a collective tongue planted firmly in cheek. Directed by Ralph Thomas, written by Frank Harvey and produced by Betty Box. Keep out of the woods. Especially in August!

State Secret (1950)

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Aka The Great Manhunt. It’s very gratifying to think that a doctor can still perform a non-political operation. American doctor John Marlowe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) is visiting England when he is deployed to Vosnia, a small middle European country where people speak Esperanto. He finds that he is there to operate on the country’s dictator who dies during brain surgery but is replaced by a look-alike. As one of the few who know, Marlowe is hunted by the country’s secret police who are intent on shooting to kill because the dictator’s death must be kept secret. Marlowe flees and seeks the help of music hall performer Lisa Robinson (Glynis Johns). They blackmail Balkan smuggler Karl Theodor (Herbert Lom) into helping them. Pursued across the country, they are on the point of escaping when Karl is shot and killed and Lisa is wounded. Marlowe could escape without her but remains. Government minister Colonel Galcon (Jack Hawkins) arranges a ‘shooting accident’ for Marlowe but as Marlowe walks to his fate, the false dictator’s speech is being broadcast on the radio. Shots are heard and Galcon confirms that the stand-in has been assassinated and realises that it may all be over for him … Have you changed your mind?/No, I’ve just lost it. Loosely adapted from a Roy Huggins novel by director Sidney Gilliat, this is a cracking thriller as you’d expect from one of the writing team (with producer Frank Launder) behind Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich It’s nicely shot by Robert (The Third Man) Krasker who has fun at the start with some point of view shots underscoring Fairbanks’ narration and Trento and the Dolomites make great locations although the locals weren’t too happy during production with post-war communist feelings at fever pitch. The suspense quotient is upped by a superior score from William Alwyn. The version of Esperanto here is made up of Latin and Slavic languages but the universal language is thrills and it has more of those when Johns joins the chase 45 minutes in and Lom cracks wise as the shyster because Fairbanks is a fairly flavourless lead. Every time I have a haircut I’ll be thinking of you

Death Defying Acts (2007)

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We had a real double act, my mam and me.  It’s 1926. Upon arriving in Edinburgh, Scotland for a series of mind-boggling performances, master illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) offers an impressive cash reward of $10,000 to any supposed psychic who can accurately tell him his beloved late mother’s exact last words. Gorgeous local swindler Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) rises to the challenge and together with her streetwise daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) leads Houdini on in a dangerous flirtation that blurs the line between reality and paranoia –  but she has reckoned without the machinations of his canny manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) who knows a con when he sees it but has his own reasons to let this Oedipal obsession play out in the world of spiritualists, fake or not … Nothing in this world’s free. It’s an engaging premise and well staged but this drama of who’s-fooling-who sadly won’t hoodwink the audience. Pearce is hardly Houdini although he’s a charmer whether tied up underwater or on the surface, and Jones’ and Ronan’s lively performances as grifters are marvellous but can’t conceal the dramatic deficit at the centre of the narrative. It looks wonderful and is beautifully staged but never really takes off, the mystery of Houdini’s personality is never convincingly exposed and of course as we know it ends in tragedy. Written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, directed by Gillian Armstrong. I used to be a nice man you know. Do you believe me?

 

Colette (2018)

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You’ve done something important. You’ve invented a type. After moving to Paris from the rural idyll of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye to marry her much older critic/publisher lover Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) known as ‘Willy’, young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) agrees to ghostwrite a semi-autobiographical novel for him. Its success soon ultimately inspires her to fight for creative ownership while working in his writing factory and overcome the societal constraints of the early 20th century as they share their lover duplicitous Louisiana debutante Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson), making them jealous of each other’s sexual escapades.  Colette has to write more and more to make ends meet as Willy fritters away the earnings made in his name alone. Colette begins a relationship with Missy (Denise Gough), a wealthy Lesbian who cross-dresses and this new lover accompanies Colette on a music hall tour as she attempts to assert her power away from Willy, performing controversial shows as an actress. Her life with Willy is fatally compromised when he sells the rights to her fictional character, ‘Claudine,’ the heroine of the bestselling series of books bearing his name but which are her life and thoughts entirely… You still need a headmaster. An attractive rites of passage narrative evoking a gauzy rural France and the late nineteenth century café society where men and women live radically different lives. That is, until Colette decides she wants what her philandering husband has and rails against the accepted norms even as he smooths and polishes her writing and adds the prurience that the pulp market requires. He is revealed as an increasingly tawdry, jealous type despite having an abundance of charm and social success. Her creative growth is calibrated against their mutual infidelity – interestingly with the same woman and then sated by different people.  The idea of identity and authorship and Willy’s liberal education of his innocent but yearning wife is portrayed as a drama of exploitation that has both profit and loss at its heart. This battle of the sexes biography plays out against the trials of the (re-)writing life and it elicits good performances but never really sparks the kind of emotional notes you would expect considering the astonishing story of this racy belle époque heroine, not to mention the sheer sensual joy of Colette’s body of work which came of age as the world embraced modernity. Written by director Wash Westmoreland and Rebecca Lenkiewica and the late Richard Glatzer to whom the film is dedicated. The one who wields the pen writes history

 

 

 

Up With the Lark (1943)

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Don’t be so effeminate. Call me Bill.  Ethel (Ethel Revnell) and Gracie (Gracie West) lose their jobs as telephone operators when the hotel where they work is burgled. They are persuaded by the police to pose as Land Girls in the countryside where the gang of black marketeers is headquartered… This is no ordinary gaol. We take pride in making people feel at home. In which the radio comedy stars play intrepid dimwits caught up in something bigger than they are and inadvertently help catch criminals.  A true relic of its time, this B flick is done on the cheap with some very strange performances albeit Ivor Barnard’s multiple roles should be seen. Directed by Phil Brandon from a story by Val Valentine and a screenplay by James Seymour. If you can’t go cuckoo go cock-a-doodle-doo!

On Chesil Beach (2017)

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We’re not two old queers living in secret on Beaumont Street. We’re man and wife!  It’s 1962.  New graduates historian Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and musician Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are nervously about to consummate their marriage in a seaside hotel in Dorset.  The waiters bring a roast dinner to their suite and make fun of them, practically sniffing the virginity in the ether. As the couple prepare to disrobe and attempt foreplay they recall the moments that brought them to this situation:  his chaotic home where his headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) has to deal with a brain injured wife (Ann Marie Duff) and two twin girls;  her engineering company owner father (Samuel West) and academic mother (Emily Watson) who are on the one hand consumed with matters of class and on the other distracted, the wife looking down on her husband rather! Edward and Florence recall their first meeting at Oxford, when he had nobody to tell about his first in History from UCL and she’s the stranger at the CND gathering who lets him know she got a First too, but in music;  when she walked seven miles from the train to meet him at the cricket club where he works; when she got his mother to paint a ‘forgery’ of her favourite painter, Uccello. The memories come rushing in as she lies on the bed issuing instructions and he fumbles and then she rejects him and rushes to the beach … Ian McEwan’s novella was never going to be simple to adapt.  Part of its bittersweet sting lies in the acute choice of words which cannot be replicated on screen.  It’s a romance lacking in passion and the flashback structure literally interrupts the non-coitus. The suggestion that Florence has endured abuse at the hands of her nasty father on a boating trip is skilfully and subtly worked into the story but still doesn’t fully explain her frigidity. (The tennis match she observes between Edward and her father clues us in a little more.)  Her disgust at the contents of a sex manual suggests that of a child not a grown woman and isn’t sufficiently elaborated considering the company she and her family keep (her mother is a friend of Iris Murdoch) and her deep emotionality performing music in a quartet is surely not that of someone who doesn’t understand desire. The book does something extraordinary in demonstrating in just a few pages how Edward’s life pans out and it is utterly devastating, elaborating directly how this single night has sabotaged his life. This melancholy adaptation works on some levels:  for one,  the production design whose attention to period detail gives us an innate sense of the era’s propriety and indicators of class and behaviour.  There are brave performances too:  Ann Marie Duff spends half of hers topless, brain damaged from being hit by a train door on the local platform;  Ronan and Howle do very well in suggesting the naivete that seemingly plagued newlyweds of the era. In essence the relationship fails because of Edward’s pride and Florence’s prejudice and it’s hard to dramatise although his taste in music (jazz, rock and roll) versus hers (strictly classical) sums it up – together however they lack erotic obsession or straightforward lust and this tentative attempt flounders for the same reason as their wedding night:  nobody just goes for it and Florence just won’t shut up. But unsatisfying as this is there’s a porno shot you won’t forget in a hurry. Adapted by McEwan and directed by Dominic Cooke.

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

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Who knows what men are really capable of?  We all wear pantomime masks.  It’s 1880 and Victorian London is gripped with fear as a serial killer is on the loose leaving cryptic messages written in the blood of his victims who appear to have no connection with each other. As the body count mounts the mystery becomes increasingly outlandish and blame falls on the mythical creature of Jewish lore – the golem. With few leads and increasing public pressure, Scotland Yard assigns the case to Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), a seasoned detective whose homosexual inclinations prevent his promotion and who suspects that he’s being set up to fail. Faced with a long list of suspects, Kildare must rely on help from a witness to stop the murders and bring the maniac to justice… Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful Victorian novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem gets a suitably OTT workout here but Jane Goldman’s adaptation misses a trick or three and doesn’t entirely sustain the plot (you’ll guess the killer very quickly). There’s a lot to like, particularly in the interplay between Nighy and Daniel Mays as Constable George Flood which is put to the forefront of this interpretation but the rivalry with Inspector Roberts (Peter Sullivan) is badly underwritten. A game cast including Douglas Booth as the legendary Leno, Eddie Marsan as Uncle, Sam Reid as failed playwright John Cree, Olivia Cooke as his wife and surprisingly literate former music hall performer Lizzie and even Paul Ritter bringing up the rear as a librarian, do a lot in a good-looking production. It’s not often Karl Marx and George Gissing are suspected of serial murders! And Nighy deepens his usual bonhomie with barely concealed emotion. However the misguided construction means that this never really comes over the way you’d expect given the powerful origins of the tale and ultimately it fails to reconcile the male and female stories in this multifaceted portrait of sex and violence.  Directed by Juan Carlos Medina.