Otley (1968)

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If they are the cowboys we’re supposed to be the Indians. Gerald Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) is a petty crook and wannabe antique dealer mistaken for a British secret agent when he sleeps on a couch belonging to his friend Eric Lambert (Edward Hardwicke) who’s really a suspected influence pedlar and document smuggler and who is found murdered while Otley wakes up two days on the runway at Gatwick. Otley trails double agents and double martinis at a posh cocktail party before discovering the villains have the cooperation of top government officials. He’s pegged to pose as a possible defector to oust the criminal mastermind who plans to sell stolen documents vital to national security to any enemy agent with the most money. British secret agent Imogen (Romy Schneider) first has Otley beaten up by her thugs before combining forces to go after the real villains …  I was last year’s winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Award for Lethargy. Directed by Dick Clement and co-written with his regular collaborator Ian La Frenais, this adaptation of a novel by Northern Irish author Martin Waddell is funny and characterful, laced with real wit and a bright British cast including James Bolam (from Clement and La Frenais’ The Likely Lads), Alan Badel as MI5 overlord Hadrian, James Villiers as the resurrecting spy Hendrickson, Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mum and you can see the shared mannerisms), Geoffrey Bayldon as a police superintendent, Freddie Jones as an epicene gallerist, the dulcet tones of radio DJs Pete Murray and Jimmy Young, and Leonard Rossiter – as a hitman! Great mileage is got out of the mistaken identity scenario, everyone changing sides constantly, with Courtenay wonderfully charismatic as the feckless cheeky chappie protagonist street trader in way over his head between teams of rival spies who believe everyone has a price, while Schneider has fun as the perky intelligence agent. With fantastic location shooting (by Austin Dempster), the action scenes are atypical of the spy genre although the golf course sequence will remind you of a certain Bond movie, a titles sequence in Portobello Road market shows uncooperative shoppers staring into the camera as it tracks back from Courtenay strolling among the stalls and shops, there’s a rumble among the houseboats at Cheyne Walk, a sequence at the Playboy Club and a disastrous driving test that turns into a nutty car chase. This comic approach to the wrong man spy thriller is uniquely entertaining. Damian Harris, Robin Askwith and Kenneth Cranham play kids and the music and theme song are by Stanley Myers. I’m Gerard Arthur Otley and I’ve had enough

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Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

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Aka Phantom Ladies Over Paris. Usually, it started like this. When stage magician Céline (Juliet Berto) goes traipsing across a Parisian park, she unwittingly drops first a scarf, then other objects which librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) cannot help but pick up. So begins a fanciful and obsessive relationship between the two, which soon sees Céline sharing Julie’s apartment and each of them playfully switching identities in their daily lives. As they increasingly indulge their fantasies, they find themselves trying to rescue a young girl Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar) from a supposedly haunted house that Julie worked in and Céline lived next to as a child.  Now it appears to be filled with ghosts (Barbet Schroeder, Marie-France Pisier, Bulle Ogier) …So, my future is in the present.  One of the greatest films ever made, Jacques Rivette’s fragmented narrative of two feisty young women started with two stories by Henry James (The Other House;  The Romance of Certain Old Clothes), giving him a bit of a head start, then he liberally sprinkled some Alice in Wonderland into the mix, created a drama of identity, a rescue fantasy, a story about storytelling, a movie about the cinema, sometimes speeding up and sometimes slowing down, a fiction about fictional creation (because ‘to go boating’ means to take a trip), and came up with a fantasy that adult life could always be as good as your childhood dreams. This is a woman’s film in the very best sense that we can imagine and is of course the source of Desperately Seeking Susan. Devised by Rivette and the stars with input from Ogier and Pisier,and Eduardo de Gregorio, this is a remarkable film of disarming charm, once seen never forgotten, especially with its 194 minute running time. A female buddy film like no other. It doesn’t hurt to fall off the moon!

The Drowning Pool (1975)

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Swimming’s a good way to relax but I know a better way. LA based private detective Lew Harper is hired by old flame Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward), who is being blackmailed about an extra-marital affair she says never happened. He travels down to Louisiana to investigate, but things take a turn for the worse when her mother-in-law (Coral Browne) is killed and her nymphet daughter Schuyler (Melanie Griffith) appears to be involved with the family’s disreputable ex-chauffeur Reavis (Andrew Robinson) who Iris believes is responsible for the blackmailing … I ran a check on you, Mr. Harper. You are not stupid. Adapted by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Walter Hill and Lorenzo Semple Jr. from Ross Macdonald’s titular 1950 novel, this rather laidback followup to Newman’s previous outing as Lew Harper a decade earlier relocates him from his familiar California setting and the New Orleans and Lafayette backdrops provide an easy atmosphere for this most likable of PIs. Beyond the visual attractions of the bayous and plantation home shot by Gordon Willis, there’s the spectacle of real life husband and wife Newman and the marvellous Woodward sharing screen time, Griffith as the jailbait daughter with the squeaky voice, Murray Hamilton as crazed oil magnate J.J. Kilbourne, Anthony Franciosa as Police Chief Broussard and Richard Jaeckel gets some very good moments as a corrupt police officer. You’ll recognise Robinson as the shooter from Dirty Harry. Less deftly plotted than Harper, it’s rounded out with a score by Michael Small arranged around the liberal use of the modern classic, Killing Me Softly, an exceedingly apt choice considering the denouement. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Harper, you’re not such a tough guy

Harper (1966)

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Why so fast, Harper? You trying to impress me? Struggling private eye Lew Harper (Paul Newman) takes a simple missing-person case that quickly spirals into something much more complex. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), recently paralysed in a horse-riding accident, wants Harper to find her missing oil baron husband Ralph, but her tempestuous teenage stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) thinks Mrs. Sampson knows more than she’s letting on… The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise. Brilliantly adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 mystery The Moving Target featuring private eye Archer, renamed here because Newman believed the letter ‘H’ to be lucky following Hud and The Hustler. With that team you know it’s filled with zingers, like, Kinky is British for weird. Macdonald’s roots in the post-war noir world are called up in the casting of Bacall, who reminds us that it was The Big Sleep, among other films based on books by the great Raymond Chandler, that brought this style into being. Of course Macdonald’s own interpretation is consciously more mythical than the prototypical Chandler’s, with allusions to Greek tragedy in its familial iterations but it continues in that vein of a ferociously stylish, ironic, delightfully cool appraisal of California’s upper class denizens and their intractable problems. Newman is perfectly cast as a kind of wandering conscience with problems of his own, while Janet Leigh as his ex-wife, Robert Wagner as a playboy, Julie Harris as a junkie musician, Shelley Winters as a faded movie star, Robert Webber as her criminal husband and Albert Hill as a lovelorn lawyer, all add wonderful details to this portrait of a social clique. A flavoursome, perfectly pitched entertainment with lovely widescreen cinematography by Conrad Hall and oh so wittily and precisely staged by director Jack Smight, underscored by the smooth Sixties jazz orchestrations of Johnny Mandel with an original song by Dory and Andre Previn. I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

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This doll had almost been loved to death. You know, love inflicts the most terrible injuries on my small patients. When American single mother Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) reports her small daughter as missing after she dropped her at nursery school when she arrives in London, Scotland Yard Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) investigates and begins to wonder if the child isn’t a figment of the woman’s imagination. Her relationship with her journalist brother Steven (Keir Dullea) also raises questions … Ever heard him read poetry? It’s like a Welsh parson gargling with molasses. Adapted for producer/director Otto Preminger from Evelyn Piper’s (domestic suspense pioneer Merriam Modell who also wrote The Nanny) New York-set novel by husband and wife team John and Penelope Mortimer after unsuccessful attempts by Ira Levin  and Dalton Trumbo, this fits into the director’s psychological noir films where the escalating of suspense is less interesting than the sheer strangeness of people’s lives. From the intricate editing and soundtrack alternating between Paul Glass’ score and rock songs by The Zombies (including one that comments on the action) to the title sequence by Saul Bass, this is a beautiful interrogation of the space between what is real and unreal. Sumptuous looking, it’s a film that simply glides on the surfaces of a society that has not yet erupted into sexual freedom and that knowledge feeds into the solution of the mystery which is altered from the source novel. There is an astounding supporting cast including Clive Revill, Noël Coward (as Ann’s landlord who’s into S&M memorabilia), Lucie Mannheim, Martita Hunt, Finlay Currie and Megs Jenkins.  Olivier has top billing but it’s all about the brother and sister and both the young actors do very well. During production Lynley and Dullea discovered not only that they had in common an Irish heritage but they even shared living relatives in Ireland which makes sense when you look at them, echoing the implication of incest in the story. Lynley claimed that Dullea bore the brunt of Preminger’s legendary bullying. Noël Coward (No autographs please but you may touch my garment) didn’t think much of Dullea as an actor either. He apparently walked up to him on the set one day and whispered, “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.” Dullea had the last laugh – Stanley Kubrick offered him the lead in 2001: A Space Odyssey after seeing this.  He didn’t even have to audition. I have some more African heads in my apartment. Small, pickled ones. Do drop in anytime you care to meet some unsuccessful politicians

The Deadly Affair (1966)

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I’m a socialist capitalist.  MI6 agent Charles Dobbs (James Mason) is shocked to discover that a Foreign Office official Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) whom he knew has committed suicide following their meeting in a park after which Dobbs cleared him of charges that he was a Communist spy despite his past activities at Oxford as a student. Suspicious circumstances soon point to the death being a murder, and Dobbs investigates further, contacting the victim’s wife, Elsa Fennan (Simone Signoret), a Jewish survivor of a concentration camp. At home his Swedish wife Ann (Harriet Andersson) is carrying on another affair under his nose and this time he doesn’t want to know who it is because when he asked before about her arrangement with his work colleague  it wasn’t to his advantage. One afternoon he arrives to find Ann has a visitor: Dieter Frey (Maximilian Schell), whom he trained years ago and who is now selling chocolate for a firm in Zurich. Ann admits she’s sleeping with him. Despite pressures from senior officials to leave the case, Dobbs continues, hiring veteran cop Inspector Mendel (Harry Andrews) to dig deeper. But Dobbs is being followed and winds up being injured while Mendel is querying a lowlife garage proprietor Adam Scarr (Roy Kinnear) in a pub and now Dobbs is keen to land his prey which involves a trip to the theatre …  I’ve never held your appetites against you. The unaddicted shouldn’t blame the addicted. Adapted by Paul Dehn from John le Carré’s Call for the Dead, the character of Dobbs is actually George Smiley, altered for rights reasons. Sidney Lumet produced and directed this downbeat English-set thriller which is dedicated to procedure, detail and an incredible conflation of the personal and political told across two marriages, unwittingly linked.  Mason is remarkably affecting as Dobbs/Smiley. When his wife confesses the identity of her current lover the ever tolerant Dobbs says he loved him too so he understands completely. There’s a reservoir of hurt in that admission. When you see what he can do with a broken hand to the same man when the chips are down you understand the character’s power and drive. And also the anguish. Ann screams at him, How can you be so aggressive about your job and so gentle about me? Just who is he?!  This truly is the flipside to Mason’s Vandamm. It’s quite bizarre seeing Andersson as his feckless promiscuous wife, living up to everyone’s belief about Swedes, never mind Bergman heroines. Flemyng had played the director of MI5 in the previous year’s spy spoof The Spy With the Cold Nose and had a decent role as Rushington in The Quiller Memorandum the year before that Signoret is hard to watch – a solidified pudding of historical damage. There are recognisable backdrops shot by the gifted Freddie Young – not just the West End where the penultimate setpiece takes place at the Aldwych Theatre but in the bus trips and the docks and the ‘burbs and dull interiors barely enlivened by two-bar electric fires.  There’s a line about a clearly epicene MI5 boss Morton (Max Adrian, who is fabulously OTT) that lands rather too sharply nowadays if you get it: Marlene Dietrich but there’s fantastically good byplay between Dobbs and Mendel particularly when the latter refuses to stoop to an assumptioin and nods off whenever Dobbs talks hypotheticallyStrangely enough, this casting is a link with Mason because Adrian had a role in The Third Man TV series which Mason had turned down and he also had a role in Alfred Hitchcock Presents the same year Mason worked with the director on North By Northwest. You could say there’s a twist ending – as it transpires, and like a lot of le Carré, the entire plot is a twist and it’s unbelievably satisfying.  Lumet and Mason work so well together – the director knew just what Mason could give to this role as they had done three TV plays together in the US. Whatever you gave to him he would take it, assimilate it and then make it his own, Lumet said of the star who was in the ascendant again with this and Georgy Girl – whose breakout star Lynn Redgrave features here, as does her brother Corin.  The final scenes from Peter Hall’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Edward II starring David Warner are a great record of the theatre scene of the time not to mention excruciating to watch (the rectal insertion of a red hot poker:  do keep up) and an utterly drab variation on a Hitchcock thriller’s choreography yet yielding an equally desperate conclusion in the cheap seats. The amusingly intrusive bossa nova score is by Quincy Jones and the mournful theme song by Astrud Gilberto is utilised to cheeky effect in a scene between Mason and Andersson. This is Sixties spycraft at its finest.  It’s not a woman’s play

 

 

In The Cut (2003)

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I wanna get married once… just for my mom. Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan), a middle-class lecturer in New York City, witnesses a sexual incident that could have been the prelude to a murder by a killer roaming the city. Detective Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) arrives to interview her following the murder of a young woman in her neighbourhood which he’s investigating with his partner Ritchie Rodriguez (Nick Damici) but their relationship soon moves from personal to passionate.  Soon she comes to suspect that he is the serial killer he claims to be hunting down so who can she really trust? …  You know what your problem is? You’re fucking exhausting. Fuck this, you know, I was doing just fine before I met you, just fine. Susanna Moore’s novel was a new take on the subject matter of that controversial exercise in female masochism Looking for Mr Goodbar and Nicole Kidman spent five years shepherding the adaptation by Moore and director Jane Campion (with co-writer Stavros Kazantzidis) only to bail on the lead role when her marriage to Tom Cruise ended abruptly. Thus it was that America’s romcom sweetheart Ryan stepped into the dark heart of this voyeuristic thriller in a performance that seemed to frighten critics even after her impressive turn in the earlier Courage Under Fire. This is a formally beautiful, graphic and stunningly shot (by Dion Beebe) analysis of female sexual desire and as such twists the usual misogynistic genre tropes even as the body count mounts. Some of Ruffalo’s scenes may grate but Jennifer Jason Leigh has a fantastic role as Ryan’s tragic, romantically obsessed sister and Kevin Bacon has a terrific (unbilled) part as a man with whom Ryan has had relations and he is now stalking her. Ryan is superb, not just technically, but emotionally, and this is intense on every level, an intelligent slasher film with things to say about what women really want and how dangerous that can prove. The final sequence, when she contemplates the scene of her intended death, is outstanding, a masterpiece of empathy. I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees

The Lost City of Z (2016)

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You’re a long way from Government now. At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is encouraged by his superiors to redeem his family name following his father’s dissolute actions, ruining the Fawcett reputation.  Although married to the supportive Nina (Sienna Miller) with a young son and one on the way, he journeys across the Atlantic to South America to carry out a survey of the Amazon in order to help adjudicate borders and to establish national territories.  On board the ship he encounters Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson)  a man who knows the rainforest. He joins the party which includes aide-de-camp Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and they go into the Amazon, where they experience the surreal pleasures of an opera in the middle of the jungle and discover evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation that may have once inhabited the region, triggered by stories told them by their guide. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment back in London when he reports his findings, which contradicts their bias against indigenous populations as savages, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, Costin and Manley, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. After another set of discoveries he is challenged by biologist James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) who falsely claims they left him for dead so Fawcett leaves the Royal Geographical Society. He is injured on the Somme when he fights in WW1 but in 1925 when his son Jack (Tom Holland) grows up he wants to help his father pursue his obsession and find the City of Z that Nina found out about in a conquistador text at Trinity College Dublin... To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? It comes off a little like Fawcett of Amazonia at first but then this James Gray film establishes its own insistent rhythm with a hallucinatory bent that comes first from obsession and then with repetition. Indeed one is forced into a world recognisably that of David Lean but also Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (quite literally, at the opera) and perhaps Conrad. However the difference is in the doggedness and the feminine element – here Nina plays a crucial part in Percy’s evolving obsession when the document she finds fuels the fire in his belly and ironically leads to increased separation. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, this has some of the usual flaws besetting Gray’s films – a kind of muted incompleteness or psychological lack and a physical darkness – but the facts of the story, the deadly nature of the pursuit and the fascinating history compensate and it has a decent pace. Hunnam grows into the role as the story progresses, caring about slavery and native peoples and expressing proper awe at the sight of sculptures and ancient artefacts; and Miller is fine as the proto-feminist who reads from the letter she wrote when she thought she wouldn’t survive childbirth:  as she tells her husband, “You haven’t even seen it for two minutes,” when he protests the jungle is no place for a woman and takes off yet again leaving her pregnant. It’s an admirable corrective to the standard male-oriented expedition narratives, with an amazing coda. In the end, this is actually spellbinding. There is great irony deployed: Fawcett meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Ireland and years later in South America he sees the story about his assassination and is told it will trigger a great war:  his escape across the Atlantic was precisely to avoid conflict and now he is going to be catapulted back into something quite dreadful.  He has a wonderful wife and happy domestic life yet he is truly at home in an utterly alien environment where the natives happily shoot poison arrows. He goes back, again and again, despite ridicule and disputes. He has a higher aim and it becomes something verging on mystical. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and score by Christopher Spelman are quite wondrous at times. Executive produced by Brad Pitt. There is no going back. We are already here

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

Serenity (2019)

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Reel him in.  Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fishing boat captain who leads tours off the tranquil enclave of Plymouth Island in the Florida Keys with assistant Duke (Djimon Hounsou) motivated by eventually catching a big tuna he calls Justice. He enjoys sex for money with Constance (Diane Lane) but his life is disturbed by inexplicable visions that seem to connect him with the son he hasn’t seen since his time in Iraq. His routine is soon shattered when his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) tracks him down. Desperate for help, Karen begs Baker to save her and their son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) from her abusive husband, criminal Frank Zariakas (Jason Clarke). She wants Baker to take the violent brute out for a fishing excursion – then throw him overboard to the sharks. But a late night visit from a mysterious company representative Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong) throws a spanner into the works … A hooker that can’t afford hooks. I like a boat thriller. Something about the infinite dramatic possibilities played out on the finite dimensions of a floating vehicle, all at sea. Like Knife in the Water. Masquerade. Dead Calm. There are enough clues in this gorgeous looking melodrama that things are off – the World’s Greatest Dad mug; the seemingly telepathic connection with Patrick; the inter-cutting with Patrick creating a world in which he is catching fish on his computer; and the frankly hysterical sex scene with McConaughey and Hathaway, a ludicrous interplanetary femme fatale, on a boat lurching in a rainstorm:  she promptly gets up and puts on her trenchcoat and hat and trots off up the pier. Bonkers. McConaughey strips off regularly evoking quite a different take on the inspirational Moby Dick: Mobile Dick, perhaps. Sex with your ex, indeed. Lane out-acts everyone by being discreet; Hounsou mutters incomprehensibly bizarre aphorisms like he’s read them off a matchbook, everyone else speaks in similarly random non sequiturs. I would have laughed out loud but I struggled to hear much of the unintentionally hilarious dialogue.  I get the meta stuff and video games but like I said, I also like a boat thriller. This ain’t it. Bad and utterly irrational, like you would not believe. Written and directed by Steven Knight. If someone invented me, how come I know who I am?