Noose for a Lady (1953)

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We’re all of us a little delicate these days. Margaret Hallam (Pamela Alan) is sentenced to death for murdering her manipulative husband and her cousin Simon Gale (Dennis Price) arrives from Uganda determined to prove her innocence with only seven days to clear her name. He works with her stepdaughter Jill (Rona Anderson) to investigate all lines of enquiry including everyone in Margaret’s immediate circle of family, friends and neighbours.  He encounters a situation that could implicate any one of their number because the victim knew each of their past indiscretions and was practising extortion. Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the hangman’s noose awaits but as Simon closes in on the real culprit they start tying up loose ends …  Let’s stop theorizing. A decent B-movie whodunnit, Price sleuthing Poirot-style with the theatrical touch that he gathers all possible suspects at the beginning so that we then follow each plot thread with a little foreknowledge until the twist ending. The revealing of a slew of personal secrets gives a melodramatic spin to things, making it logical that each character has skin in the killing game – except of course more lives are at stake. There’s a shifty housekeeper (Doris Yorke), a man with a sleeping pill habit (Charles Lloyd-Pack), a woman with an illegitimate child (Alison Leggatt), a nasty old gossip (Esma Cannon) and so forth. To heighten tension, the policeman (George Merritt) is given a spot of insight that you’d think would be attributed to Price, whose usual villainous edge is toned down to permit him to play decent and enjoy a spot of romance with Vanessa Lane (Melissa Stribling). The gang is assembled again at the climax, Christie-style and even if you see the outcome telegraphed in advance, it plays very well and there are some good exchanges. Adapted from Gerald Verner’s novel The Whispering Woman by Rex Rienits and stylishly directed by the prolific writer Wolf Rilla in his debut:  this was the first of four features he made in 1953 alone. Shot at Merton Park. So much for Chesterton. This is a miracle that isn’t going to happen

Knives Out (2019)

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I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects.  When crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies just after his 85th birthday, inquisitive Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives at his estate to investigate despite the presence of police officers (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan). He sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind the writer’s untimely demise as each of the family members and the immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who cared for Harlan is questioned in turn. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a successful businesswoman with a an unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson) and a layabout son Ransom (Chris Evans). Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing company his father founded for his writing output, but they’ve been fighting. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is an advocate of self-help and has been helping herself to the old man’s money. His ancient mother (K Callan) never seems to die. Harlan’s devoted nurse Marta then becomes Harlan’s most trusted confidante but who hired him in the first place? … This is a twisted web, and we are not finished untangling it, not yet. The closed-room murder mystery is a staple of crime fiction and it’s not necessarily where you’d expect writer/director Rian Johnson to turn after a Star Wars episode (The Last Jedi) although it harks back to his debut, Brick, a take on Chandler/Hammett with teenagers. The touchstones are pretty clear:  Agatha Christie; the game (and film) of Clue(do); Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark; and some of the grasping familial mendacity we recognise from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If truth be told, it’s not very mysterious and barely suspenseful with two big twists a regular filmgoer or mystery reader will see through easily which means that they of course are not the point. It’s the dismantling of those hoary old tropes that provides the narrative motor. Much of the entertainment value derives from game comic playing by an established cast with a soupçon of political commentary provided by the nurse’s immigrant status which leads to a good line featuring Broadway hit Hamilton and everyone gets her native country wrong, one of the running jokes. Another is her need to vomit when telling a lie. The other one is stretching out the syllables in Benoit’s name so it sounds like Ben wa although personally I find Craig more prophylactic than sex toy and his ‘tec is Poirot X Columbo with an affected drawl. It looks quite sober and already feels like Sunday evening TV. For the undemanding viewer. CSI KFC!

Greta (2018)

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It’s not harassment if it’s in a public place. Young waitress Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) finds a handbag on the New York subway and promptly returns it to its Brooklyn owner Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert) an eccentric French piano teacher and former nurse who loves tea and classical music. Having recently lost her mother and with her Boston-based father (Colm Feore) consumed by his work, Frances strikes up a seemingly harmless friendship with the lonely and kind widow who enjoys her company, her own daughter seemingly away studying in Paris. But when Greta’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and obsessive, Frances does whatever it takes to end the toxic relationship before things spirals out of control and attempts to get the police involved. She reckons without Greta’s persistence… The crazier they are the harder they cling! Ray Wright and director Neil Jordan wrote the screenplay from Wright’s original story and it’s a pulpy thriller whose plot twists are signalled from the get-go.  Pure stalker territory it might be but by simple expedient of voicemail messages the sinister nature of Greta’s pursuit of Frances is soundtracked as surely as a spider spins a web around its prey. Nonetheless Huppert and Moretz give highly committed performances with Greta’s room mate Erica (Maika Monroe) offering wonderfully comic sidelong observations all the while, and Stephen Rea playing a private eye on nutty Greta’s trail. What Huppert does when she loses a finger has to be seen. Although set in a scary NYC a lot of shooting took place in Toronto and Dublin, Ireland and the fakery adds to the camp fun. Everything has its end even company

Damascus Cover (2017)

 

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When missions go bad, there’s only one rule – protect your partner.  Following the murder of his colleague in Damascus by Syrian Secret Police Chief Sarraj (Navid Negahban) Israeli agent Ari Ben-Sion aka Hans Hoffman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is deployed to Syria by his overseer Miki (John Hurt) to exfiltrate a spy and his family and runs into American photographer Kim (Olivia Thirlby) with whom he becomes involved before realising she is part of a much bigger plot and the real target of his mission is an entirely different individual in deep cover but hiding in plain sight … It’s a real maze. Adapted by director Daniel Zelik Berk and Samantha Newton from Howard Kaplan’s 1977 bestseller this is updated to 1989, the year of revolutions, so that the action happens in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall (although they’re not exactly celebrating Christmas here). The characterisation is undercooked and the storytelling is a little clunky – you feel that Hans/Ari should have figured out a lot quicker that something bigger is going on than his purported task. It’s the textural matters that are more interesting – the maze-like construction of a city where Jews are only permitted to leave their quarter one at a time, where streets lead you to dead ends like a rat; the depicting of the secret police under the original Assad; the post-war Nazis doing business in an Islamic haven (the role of Moslems in the Holocaust has yet to be dramatised); the issue of identity in a region where anti-semitism is writ large: when Ari enters Syria he is asked, Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine? He is already displaced in Israel after moving from Germany as a child and is suffering the bereavement any father would following the breakdown of his marriage in the wake of the death of his young son (although we don’t know how that happened, there are several shots of children at play as well as his haunting nightmares about the boy).  He doesn’t exhibit true emotion until he’s engaged with Kim who herself has issues with being distanced from her young son and who has a father whose actions for his Syrian overlords has resulted in his death.  She appears to be repaying a debt to the intelligence service, willingly or not. Berk is the former talent agent who introduced John Travolta to Quentin Tarantino for which we are all truly grateful and this has a slick look and a trim running time. It’s beautifully shot by Chloë Thomson.  Despite the welcome complexities in Ari and his mistakes, and the issue of Syria versus Israel, it doesn’t plumb the resonant depths of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the echo casting of John Hurt in the perfunctory but dramatically significant role of Miki has a sorrowfulness because it is that great actor’s final part. It is fitting therefore that he should have the last word in the film’s signing off, Goodbye my friend

Dark Journey (1937)

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Not bad but you need to practise. World War I is in full thrust, but Swedish fashion store clerk Madeleine Goddard (Vivien Leigh) has apparently not aligned herself with either side. When she meets German soldier Karl Von Marwitz (Conrad Veidt), she falls in love. Karl, who presents himself as a footman of low rank and supposedly disgraced officer, is in fact a high-ranking official in the German army and an aristocrat. Madeleine has secrets of her own – she is a spy and double agent, working for the Allies in a bid to uncover the new head of the German Secret Service in Stockholm. As Madeleine and Karl are pulled deeper into the escalating war, their love may be the thing that saves their lives but when her German co-conspirator Anatole (Eliot Makeham) is murdered events overtake them and their identities might just prove their undoing ... Is it a crime to be German?/It’s worse, it’s a vulgarity. This pre-WW2 drama is prescient, pacifist and fence-sitting, all at once, a notably atmospheric tale of spy/counter-spy in a Stockholm that presents rather like a certain Moroccan destination would five years later.  Leigh is inscrutable to the point of roboticism at first, then suave ladykiller Veidt comes along and she’s even more attractive than that saucy minx Brazilian socialite Lupita (Joan Gardner, wife of Zoltan Korda, uncredited producer Alexander’s brother) who seems permanently up for it. With maps, submarines, pips on the radio, coded messages on the fabric held up against lamplight and fog dappling the harbour, it’s a very attractive concoction with a terrific ensemble cast that includes Ursula Jeans, Cecil Parker and Robert Newton as a U-boat officer. With a screenplay by Lajos Biró and scenario and dialogue by Arthur Wimperis, this is assisted by nicely graduated greys and soft whites in the cinematography which was carried out at Denham Studios on splendid sets designed by Andrej Andrejew, and enhanced by a suitably suspenseful score by Richard Addinsell conducted by Muir Mathieson. Naturally, the costumes by René Hubert are rather fabulous. Directed by Victor Saville. It’s easy to touch your pocket, it’s difficult to touch your heart

The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

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There’s no reason to be scared. A frustrated pianist who spent four years at Juilliard, music journalist Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) is thrilled to interview virtuoso Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens). Duncan, however, is terminally ill and not much interested in Myles until he observes that Myles’ hands are ideally suited for piano. Suddenly, he can’t get enough of his new friend and thinks he should perform; while his daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins) thinks Myles should act, and Myles’ wife, Paula (Jacqueline Bisset), who believes he has a great novel in him, becomes suspicious of Duncan’s intentions. Her suspicions grow when Duncan dies and Myles mysteriously becomes a virtuoso overnight... Hands like yours are one in a hundred thousand.  Adapted from Fred Mustard Stewart’s novel it’s easy to dismiss this as an unambiguous Faustian followup to Rosemary’s Baby but it’s better than that. Once-blacklisted screenwriter Ben Maddow does a fine job (on his final screenplay) in conveying the book’s deep sense of dread and Jurgens is terrifying as the man whose influence stretches beyond mere existence. It’s set in California in a change from the original New York location. No matter how lusciously lovely it looks (courtesy of William W. Spencer), it’s shot through with death and strangeness, odd setups, underpinned by Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score (and a guy called Liszt) and highly effective performances, particularly by Bisset who is fantastic as the horrifyingly cuckolded wife, and by the imposingly scary soul-switching Satanist Jurgens. I feel unfaithful – he’s like three different men, says Bisset after having sex with the newly-transfused Alda.  Even Parkins impresses as the seductive daughter whose own father clearly loves her outside the usual limits. Unfortunately Alda is the weakest link and seems more like a lucky social climber. It remains a terrifying film, with glorious visual insinuation and eerie dream sequences, wonderfully directed by Paul Wendkos. The only feature production by legendary TV producer Quinn Martin.  Success makes you miserable, doesn’t it

Steel Country (2018)

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Aka A Dark Place. With a dead kid there’s almost always abuse first. In smalltown rural Pennsylvania garbage truck driver Donny Devlin (Andrew Scott) becomes obsessed with the death of local boy Tyler Ziegler when the police don’t want to investigate how he is found in a river and he is buried without an autopsy. Donny takes it upon himself to investigate, irritating his initially sympathetic co-worker Donna (Bronagh Waugh), getting an admission of suspicion of abuse from Mrs Ziegler (Kate Forbes), confronting a local police officer Max Himmler (Griff Furst), tackling the sheriff (Michael Rose), the paediatrician Dr Pomorowski (Andrew Masset) whose office has taken a lot of calls from Tyler’s mom and finally suspecting the boy’s father Jerry (Jason Davies). His own disordered personality almost puts him in the frame, until he digs up Tyler’s corpse and brings it to a coroner to prove his suspicions … Nothing ever happens around here. Brendan Higgins’ screenplay is equal parts character study and mystery. The noises in Donny’s head and his frankly unusual disposition are never truly explained, the grounds for his obsession left untapped other than a presumed autistic problem hence a rather narrow field of enquiry. The circumstances of how he conceived his beloved 11-year old daughter Wendy (Christa Beth Campbell) with Linda (Denise Gough) are rather seedy;  his living situation with his disabled mother (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) kindly depicted. Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography peers into the American darklands but other than corruption, the kind of easy institutional conspiracy that seems ten-a-penny in child abuse cases and the interesting positing of a paediatrician as a paedophile (one is reminded of a case in the UK when subliterate vigilantes targetted a doctor’s office, presumably believing that child abusers advertise their predilections on their doors), it doesn’t really ring the narrative cause-effect that is required. However it is tonally interesting and Scott delivers a committed if distracting performance in this ironically titled story where industry has long departed leaving predators free to exploit their working class targets. The ending is jaw-dropping – just not necessarily in a good way. Directed by Simon Fellows. What are you trying to do? You trying to give your shitty life some meaning?

One Deadly Summer (1983)

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Aka L’Été meurtrier. They call her Eva Braun. Shortly after Eliane or Elle Wieck (Isabelle Adjani) moves to a small southern French town, she begins dating Fiorimonto Montecciari aka Pin-Pon (Alain Souchon), a quiet young mechanic who has grown obsessed with the beautiful newcomer and they get married. But Elle has her own reason for the relationship: Pin-Pon’s late father was one of the trio of Italian immigrants who brutally gang-raped her German mother Paula Wieck Devigne (Maria Machado) two decades before, and she’s out to get her own form of revenge. However, Pin-Pon’s deaf aunt Nine aka Cognata (Suzanne Flon) suspects Elle’s true motivation when the young woman insists on knowing the origins of a barrel organ in the barn … He used to say, You can beat anyone on earth, no matter who.  Adapted by Sébastien Japrisot from his own novel with director Jean Becker, this is the kind of film that the French seem to make better than anyone else – an erotic drama that simply oozes sensuality, suffused with the sultry air of rural France in summer and boasting a stunning performance by Adjani who has a whale of the time as the nutty myopic sexpot seducing everyone in her path except her prospective mother-in-law (Jenny Clève).  Her occasional stillness is brilliantly deployed to ultimately devastating effect. Singer Souchon is a match for her with his very different screen presence essaying an easily gulled guy, in a story which remains quite novelistic with its story passing from narrator to narrator, a strategy which deepens the mystery and ratchets up the tension as it proceeds – starting as a kind of bucolic comedy and turning into a very different animal, a kind of anti-pastoral. A film whose twists are so complex you may need a second viewing, it seems to slowly exhale the very air of Provence leaving a disturbing memory wafting in its tragic wake. With François Cluzet, Michel Galabru and Édith Scob, this is scored immensely inventively by Georges Delerue. If this were the cinema not an eye would be dry

Circus of Fear (1966)

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Aka Psycho-CircusCircus of Terror/ Das Rätsel des silbernen Dreieck / Mystery of the Silver Triangle/ Scotland Yard auf heißer Spur. I wonder if we have something in common with the murderer.  We’re both looking for the same thing. In the aftermath of a daring armoured car heist on London’s Tower Bridge that ends with the murder of a security guard, police detective Jim Elliott (Leo Genn) follows a trail of clues to the travelling Barberini Circus, which has just passed through the city. Though he suspects a conspiracy under the big top, he discovers strained relations between the disfigured lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee) and his associates and colleagues who include owner Barberini (Anthony Newlands), ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache), bookkeeper and wannabe clown Eddie (Eddi Arent), knife-thrower Mario (Maurice Kaufmann) and a dwarf called Mr Big (Skip Martin). Elliot struggles to find his man – and recover the stolen cash – in a maze of blackmail and deceit that concludes in a sharp-edged dénouement courtesy of Mario …  Why must these things always happen at the weekend? Written by producer Harry Alan Towers (as Peter Welbeck) and based on Again The Three Just Men by Edgar Wallace, whose prolific work had just spawned another series of adaptations at Merton Park Studios, this is a British take on the German krimi genre and happily has Klaus Kinski as the mysterious Manfred among a terrific cast numbering Suzy Kendall as Gregor’s niece Natasha, Cecil Parker as Sir John of the Yard, and Victor Maddern as Mason the unfortunate who uses a gun, with Lee in a mask rather defeating his key role but leading to a key unveiling in the third act. Genn is a bit of a PC Plod rather than an intuitive ‘tec but his role winds up anchoring the narrative and he’s nicely sardonic if secondary to the overly complex and twisty plot of the circus crowd’s behind the scenes antics with red herrings and dead ends dangling everywhere. Mostly nicely handled by cinematographer Ernest Steward with some interesting shot setups and well paced by director John [Llewellyn] Moxey. The opening scene is smartly achieved without dialogue and the final summing up scene is a high wire act quite different from what you’d see in Agatha Christie. Werner Jacobs directed the German version which has an alternative ending and was released in black and white. I do like to respect a man’s privacy but in a criminal case there’s really no such thing

Ad Astra (2019)

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Most of us spend our entire lives in hiding. Sometime in the future. Following a mysterious global power surge, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a cool guy with a blissfully low pulse rate, travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his father, heroic scientist Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who’s been missing for 29 years following the disappearance of the Lima Project.  Now apparently there are signs that he’s alive, out on Neptune. The purpose of the trip is to unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of humans on Earth and to uncover whether Clifford is somehow responsible for the weird imbalances that are killing tens of thousands back on Earth. Roy travels to the Moon in the company of Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) and they are set upon by violent assailants in a buggy chase across craters that endangers them both and kills a crew member. He suspects from his psychiatric evaluations that he’s being used as a stooge and hears from a woman called Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) whose parents travelled with Clifford all those years ago that his father probably murdered them and others in the team. He determines to carry on with the trip to Neptune to locate his father and has to deceive Space Comm in order to do so … I don’t know whether to find him or to finally be free of him. What are the chances of Brad Pitt giving his finest two performances in back to back films? If the first, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, ponders the very contemporary question of whether movie stars serve a function in the new cinematic universe, this film, the second, is the proof that they do. And how. To the stars is a wonderfully ironic title in these circumstances. And what about the usually moribund director James Gray finally breaking out of the chains of realism (with his excursion to the jungle in The Lost City of Z he came close to greatness) and unsympathetic characters by shooting out of the earth’s atmosphere to infinity and beyond? It has set him free as a filmmaker. This has a lyricism and a beauty arising from the script by Gray and Ethan Gross, yet the resolutely familiar shooting style (by Hoyte van Hoytema and Caleb Deschanel (credited with ‘additional photography’) maintains a sober palette that permits the performances and the intrinsic ideas to shine, rather like when Godard did sci fi in Alphaville. We know this world.  We even believe that the Moon (‘the Earth’s Moon’, as one character puts it) could look like a shopping mall once humans colonise it. The brief sequence between Pitt and Lee Jones has more humanity in it than the entirety of the auteur’s preceding body of work; Roy’s lack of emotionality turns into something else when the reality of his father’s existence hits him:  this is a Conradian truth and this might be Apocalypse Now in space. We’re all we’ve got. In between we have a fabulously Freudian take on fathers and sons and space with some mileage gained from the diadic homonym son/sun and the movie’s existential philosophising pondering the father’s quest for alien intelligence; while the son’s ruminations take a decidedly more paternalistic twist despite his own lack of family, visions of an ignored wife Eve (Liv Tyler) chiefly accessible through old videophone messages notwithstanding. There are cute and clever references to other films but so intelligently do they unfold you won’t remotely care. It’s tremendous. It’s just what the cinema needs: a thrilling exploration of metaphor that oozes humanity, awe, wonder and acceptance as space becomes the past and the future, all at once. In the end the son suffers the sins of the father