The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960)

The Wackiest Ship in the Army.

This hulk is commissioned?  As what?! In 1943 at the height of World War 2 Lieutenant Rip Crandall (Jack Lemmon) is conned into taking charge of a broken-down ship with a clueless crew whom he has to train up to learn the most basic elements of seagoing. The only member who knows how to work a ship with sails is eager young Ensign Tommy Hanson (Ricky Nelson) who cost Crandall a yacht race with a mistake before the war. Hanson and Crandall’s former sailing buddy Lieutenant Commander Vandewater (John Lund) wear down his resistance. Then he finds out they have a top secret mission and he has to sneak an Australian spy/coast watcher Patterson (Chips Rafferty) into enemy waters of the Pacific patrolled by the Japanese … This was a period of far-reaching decisions, desperate strategies, and incredibly daring counter-strokes – not the least of which involved two bright young naval officers. A colourful widescreen action adventure that achieves the transition from docks-bound comedy to island warfare so smoothly you won’t even notice. Lemmon is superb as the supposed schmuck who rises to the challenge of educating a bunch of crafty oddballs. Lund more or less reprises his role from A Foreign Affair 15 years earlier as the slick willy officer conniving with Nelson, who has one of his best roles here and even gets to sing while Lemmon jams on a piano. Rafferty adds serious flavour in the final scene sequence when they have to deal with some pesky Japanese soldiers, one of whom speaks English and finds common ground (then water) with Lemmon. Herb Margolis & William Raynor’s screen story was based on a story by Herbert Carlson about the real USS Echo which was requisitioned from New Zealand and the screenplay was by director Richard Murphy. A terrific comedy drama. What, aren’t you going to stay here and die for the ‘Rising Sun’?

The Carpetbaggers (1964)

The CarpetbaggersThe Carpetbaggers cast poster

Living up in the air like a rich seagull. When playboy Jonas Cord (George Peppard) inherits his father’s industrial empire based on an explosives factory, he expands it by acquiring an aircraft factory and Hollywood movie studio. His rise to power during the 1920s and 1930s is ruthless. He sets aviation records and starts a passenger airline. He marries and then quickly abandons sweet, bubbly Monica Winthrop (Elizabeth Ashley) the daughter of a business rival and provokes their divorce before she gives birth to their daughter; turns his young, gorgeous stepmother, Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker), who was his girlfriend originally before his father Jonas Sr. (Leif Erickson) married her, into a self-destructive movie star; and manages to disappoint even his closest friend and surrogate father, cowboy movie star Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd) whose concealed background he uses for a movie script. Then he falls for a prostitute Jennie Denton (Martha Hyer) whom he wants to turn into the movie star of America’s dreams… If that woman ran an immoral house she’d have to pay me. Despite the lurid and sadistic content of Harold Robbins’ sensational 1961 bestseller, a roman à clef which mines the contours of a Howard Hughes-type protagonist, and censorship issues aside, this is a strangely muted adaptation by John Michael Hayes and Edward Dmytryk’s stilted direction doesn’t help. The real shocker is the fight scene between Peppard and an ageing Ladd which looks properly dangerous and finally explores Cord’s psychology but it’s truly disturbing because it feels real, unlike much of the drama. As a portrait of the Thirties movie-making scene it’s certainly got a nose for the Hollywood casting couch mentality and its general air of seedy decadence and corruption. In that light it’s an interesting take on the career of the Harlow rip off played by Baker (and she made the biopic the following year). Robert Cummings is properly horrifying as Dan Pierce, the smooth agent who is a pimp in all but name; and Martin Balsam scores as Bernard B. Norman, a dastardly studio head; but in many ways, including performance, with Peppard the main culprit, this is all trash, all surface. Ladd’s character is a mélange of Tom Mix, William Boyd and Ken Maynard:  the prequel, Nevada Smith, would be directed by Henry Hathaway from a John Michael Hayes script with Steve McQueen in the lead. Ladd died before this was released. Only you know how all the pieces fit

White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd (1991) (TVM)

White_Hot_The_Mysterious_Murder_of_Thelma_Todd

Just what this town needed – another gorgeous skinny dumb blonde. Los Angeles, 1935. When beautiful movie star Thelma Todd (Loni Anderson) is found dead in her car at the age of 29 it’s initially put down to suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning but Assistant DA Louis Marsden (Scott Paulin) hears her distraught mother Alice (Lois Smith) screaming, For God’s sake, what’s the matter with you? Don’t you know a murder when you see one? He pursues it with the supposed help of the DA in Los Angeles Buron Fitts (Dakin Matthews) and questions the people in Thelma’s life, putting together a picture of her as an actress but also the proprietress of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe at the beach where all Hollywood society likes to dine and which might hold the clues to her violent demise. He unspools stories that eventually reveal her ex Pat DiCicco (John O’Hurley) drove her into the arms of notorious Mafioso Lucky Luciano (Robert Davi) who wanted to use a room at her restaurant as a casino to blackmail the studio heads …… I want to buy you everything you ever wanted. A Rashomon-like approach to this Hollywood biopic pays dividends in this adaptation of the book Hot Toddy by Andy Edmonds, as Matthews pursues witnesses to a likely murder. As he questions her one-time married boyfriend Roland West (Lawrence Pressman) and business partner whose wife is putting up the money for their joint venture in a restaurant; Thelma’s mother; her movie sidekick Patsy Kelly (Maryedith Burrell); her ex-husband DiCicco (The Glamour Boy of Hollywood as this putative gangster associate and cousin of James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli was known); and Lucky Luciano’s henchman – we get a ripe picture of movie town and all the power players, locating the real people behind the silver screen at a time when the Mafia had most of the studios by the short and curlies via the unions. Smith gets some pearls to deliver as Thelma’s mother, a woman who finally shuts up when she realises the DA’s office is putting together the real story and her life could be at stake too. Todd is a name that’s little remembered now but she was a brilliant comedienne, enjoyed stardom (known as The Ice Cream Blonde) and as well as a lot of Hal Roach (played here by Paul Dooley) comedies (particularly with Queen of Wisecracks Kelly) she played opposite the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers. Anderson might be a tad old for the role but it’s a spirited performance of a woman who apparently barely slept, surviving on a cocktail of diet drugs, uppers and champagne, high on life and longing for true love, eventually stepping way out of her league. It’s a loose interpretation of what is known, but it’s beautifully shot by Chuck Arnold with fantastic set design by Donald Lee Harris and Lee Vail, with simply gorgeous costumes for Anderson by Heidi Kaczenski (apparently most of the clothes were leftovers from The Untouchables, designed by Giorgio Armani). There’s a period-type score composed by Mark Snow, adding to the atmosphere of this impressive TV movie, directed by veteran Paul Wendkos. Adapted by Robert E. Thompson and Lindsay Harrison. Look out for an uncredited Ann Turkel as Gloria Swanson – coincidentally, Turkel’s mother’s name is Thelma!  Incredibly, this was broadcast as a double feature with Anderson doing headlining duty in The Jayne Mansfield Story too.  I understand the only basic law of human nature – love talks, money walks

 

Serpent of the Nile (1953)

Serpent of the Nile

A woman of beauty, intellect and charity – this is almost too much to believe! Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in Rome 44 BC, Mark Antony (Raymond Burr) spares the life of Lucilius (William Lundigan), a Roman officer who becomes a friend as he makes his way to Alexandria in Egypt. However, Lucilius has had history with Cleopatra although she chooses to take up with Mark Antony. Eventually Antony loses his grip in a society resentful of a queen living in luxury while they become increasingly impoverished. Lucilius joins Antony’s rival, Octavius (Michael Fox), who arrives to put an end to Antony’s failing expedition since he is clearly being used by Cleopatra to establish dominion in Rome… Are women ever conquered? Adapted from H. Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra by Robert E. Kent, this low-budgeter from producer Sam Katzman was shot on the leftover sets from Salome, the Rita Hayworth film. It was the year for fans of Julius Caesar and the ancients as the successful Brando-starrer proved and despite the rackety origins, this is fun, filled with ripe dialogue and fruity leers. Lundigan has a blast as Burr’s love rival with a secret, having admired Cleo in Caesar’s house for many a long year;  while Fleming is totally alluring as the queen bee. That glorious gilded woman performing a dance of seduction is the great Julie Newmar. With an atmospheric score by Mischa Bakaleinikoff and narration by Fred Sears, this is very entertaining. Directed by William Castle. If you had but loved yourself more and Cleopatra less

The End of the Affair (1955)

The End of the Affair 1955

Trust is a variable quality. London during World War 2. Novelist Maurice Bendrix (Van Johnson) meets Sarah Miles (Deborah Kerr) the wife of civil servant Henry Miles (Peter Cushing) at their sherry party. He is asking Henry for information to help with his next book. Maurice is intrigued by Sarah after he sees her kissing another man. They become lovers that night at his hotel. After his rooms are bombed when they are together there, she ends their relationship and he suffers from the delayed shock from the bombing and from her ending the affair. After their break-up and the end of the war, Bendrix encounters Henry, who invites him for a drink at his home, especially since Sarah is out.  Henry confides that he suspects Sarah is unfaithful and has looked into engaging a private investigator, but then decides against it. Sarah returns home before Bendrix leaves and is curt with him. Bendrix follows through with hiring a private detective agency on his own account. They come across information which suggests that Sarah is being unfaithful, which Bendrix shares with Henry in revenge. Bendrix then obtains Sarah’s diary via the private investigator Albert Parkis (John Mills) which reveals that Sarah is not having an affair and that she promised God to give Bendrix up if he was spared death in the bombing. Then they meet again … I’ve learned that you must pray like you make love – with everything you have. A deeply felt narrative revolving around love, sex and religious belief sounds like a melodramatic quagmire but Lenore Coffee’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1951 semi-autobiographical novel is a rich textured work with impressive performances by the entire cast. Kerr and Johnson might be perceived to be something of a mismatch but that’s the point of the story:  he is fated to forever misunderstand her and as he tries to navigate his way through her complex emotions and her deals with God, he responds with just one emotion – jealousy. His unruly misunderstanding in a world of good manners and looking the other way means he flails hopelessly while we are then persuaded of her beliefs via her diary, the contents of which dominate the film’s second half, leading him to regret his desire for revenge. Love doesn’t end just because we don’t see each other. The ensemble is well presented and their individual big moments are sketches of superb characterisation, Mills’ pride in his snooping a particular highlight. It’s extraordinarily well done, very touching and filled with moments of truth which never fail to hit home in a story that is cunningly managed and beautifully tempered with empathy. Kerr is simply great. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. The ‘not done’ things are done every day. I’ve done most of them myself

Alvarez Kelly (1966)

Alvarez Kelly

I’m a reasonable man. If I weren’t I might go over to the other side. In 1864 Alvarez Kelly (William Holden) is a Mexican-Irish cattle rancher who is doing his best to stay out of the Civil War. He has no interest in which side may win or lose being more concerned about his own survival, and about making money, supplying cattle to the Union side via Major Tom Stedman (Patrick O’Neal). He soon finds himself in the middle of the conflict, however, when a confederate colonel Tom Rossiter (Richard Widmark) captures him and forces Kelly to help his soldiers steal a nearby herd of cattle, which they desperately need for food. Kelly is blackmailed into doing it by alluring and very well-named treacherous widow Charity Warwick (Victoria Shaw) but is really attracted to a madam in peril Liz Pickering (Janice Rule) whose escape he engineers. However on the trail of the rustlers is Stedman and it becomes a battle of wits as Kelly has to decide whose side he really does belong to God deliver me from dedicated men. A dynamic story that somehow doesn’t get justice which you can probably put down to the stylings of director Edward Dmytryk. The screenplay by Franklin Coen (with uncredited rewrites by Daniel Taradash and Elliott Arnold) certainly has all the elements required for a frequently comic western, albeit the humour is rooted in darkness and male sexuality. The casting is of course key:  Widmark is playing to his Tommy Udo reputation while you can see why Peckinpah wanted hyper-sexed renegade Holden in The Wild Bunch a few years later. The combination of fruity exchanges and violence creates a particularly potent admixture even if you would never credit Dmytryk with an ability to indulge humour. The scenes between Holden and Rule are especially pleasurable:  Pity is the real empty room I despise, she deadpans. They’re a sure thing. Until they’re not. The rivalry with Widmark is extremely well played, with an edge of nastiness that tips into threat and violence on many occasions. Save for a few obvious process shots it looks very well courtesy of Joseph MacDonald and gets rebalanced at the end with a tremendous pairing of stampede and shootout in a slick robbery that even impressed Lincoln. The virtuous Irish lord wasn’t able to stop his son from becoming a pirate

Please Turn Over (1959)

Please Turn Over

I do wish Julia would go out more. In a small English town a scandal ensues after bored teenage hairdresser Jo Halliday (Julia Lockwood) secretly writes a novel called Naked Revolt, turning versions of her family, friends and neighbours into sex-mad boozers.  Her father Edward (Ted Ray) is an inoffensive accountant now believed to be an embezzler, her mother Janet (Jean Kent) is thought to be carrying on with a retired soldier turned driving instructor Willoughby (Lionel Jeffries) whom people now assume is Jo’s father.  Her fitness-obsessed aunt Gladys (June Jago) is treated as an alcoholic having an affair with the local philandering doctor Henry Manners (Leslie Phillips). Although initially surprised to see themselves written into the book, everyone begins to learn more about themselves and each other through the novel, meanwhile Angry Young Playwright Robert Hughes (Tim Seely) is interested in adapting the novel to the stage and begins a relationship with Jo …. My goodness! That’s a highly sagacious aphorism, what’s its current application? Adapted from Basil Thomas’ play Book of the Month by Norman Hudis this is the British version of Peyton Place and it’s a much more anodyne portrait of small town secrets. Directed by Gerald Thomas and produced by Peter Rogers, this is a Carry On production but more subtle than its origins would suggest with a superb British cast of familiar faces like Joan Sims, Joan Hickson and Victor Maddern. Lockwood is the daughter of star Margaret Lockwood and acquits herself very well as the knowing ingenue. It looks good thanks to the cinematography of Ted Scaife. Good fun but unfortunately the author Basil Thomas didn’t live to see this on the screen – he died in 1957 aged just 44. Those that are the most affected are always the last to know

Action in the North Atlantic (1943)

Action in the North Atlantic

Aka Heroes Without Uniforms. We’ve run into a wolfpack. Merchant Marine sailors First Mate Joe Rossi (Humphrey Bogart) and Captain Steve Jarvis (Raymond Massey) survive the sinking of SS Northern Star by German U-boat U-37 en route from Halifax. After 11 days drifting they are rescued. Steve spends time with his wife Sarah (Ruth Gordon), while Joe meets and marries singer Pearl O’Neill (Julie Bishop). At the union hall, merchant seamen, including the Northern Star survivors, spend their time waiting to be assigned to a new ship. Over a round of poker, Johnnie Pulaski (Dane Clark) jokes about getting a shore job and reveals his fear of dying at sea. The others shame him into signing along with them on another ship. Alfred “Boats” O’Hara (Alan Hale, Sr.) is tracked down by his wife, who has apparently not seen him since he was rescued. She angrily serves him with a divorce summons. O’Hara, knowing he is headed back to sea, gleefully tears it up, saying Them ‘Liberty Boats’ are sure well named! When they are charged with getting supply vessel Seawitch to Russian allies in Murmansk as part of a sea convoy and the group of ships comes under attack from U-37 again, Rossi and Jarvis are motivated by the opportunity to strike back at the Germans but now have to dodge Luftwaffe bullets too  For a sailor’s wife this war is just another storm.  Tremendously exciting action adventure paying tribute to the men of the US Merchant Marine. The evocation of a group under pressure with their particular avocations and tics is expertly done and the characterisation is a model for war movies. There are all kinds of devices and diversions, from an onboard kitten and his successor; to envy of a Naval officer Cadet Ezra Parker (Dick Hogan); and the usual carping about the quality of the nosh. With a screenplay by John Howard Lawson (from a story by Guy Gilpatric) and additional dialogue by A.I. Bezzerides and W. R. Burnett you can be sure there are some riproaring lines: A trip to perdition would be like a pleasure cruise compared with what we’re going into. Wonderfully shot by Ted McCord with marvellous effects, you would never guess that this was shot on the studio lot due to wartime restrictions. Directed by Lloyd Bacon with uncredited work by Byron Haskin and Raoul Walsh. I’ve got faith – in God, President Roosevelt and the Brooklyn Dodgers – in the order of their importance!

Road to Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition

Where would this town be without Mr John Rooney? In 1931 Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hitman and enforcer for Irish-American mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) in the Rock Island area. His son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) hides in the car one night after the wake for one of Rooney’s henchmen and sees his Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) administer a shot in the head to the dead man’s brother Finn (Ciarán Hinds) who talked too much at the event; while he understands for the first time what his father does for a living when he witnesses the bloodshed. Rooney sends Connor to kill Michael and the boy but Connor instead kills his wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and other son Peter (Liam Aiken) in cold blood and Michael goes on the run with Michael Jr in an attempt to gain revenge for his family’s murder. He finds that he has no friends and no protection and is advised by Mafia man Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to give up. He reckons without a freelance corpse photographer Maguire (Jude Law) following him and thinks that by uncovering Connor’s theft that Rooney will accept him as the son he never had … A man of honour always pays his debts and keeps his word. I like this far better now that years have passed, Newman is gone and what I originally thought of as directorial heavy-handedness is more readily recognisable as a comfort with the excessive expressionistic qualities of the source material. Hanks’ doughy face with its deep-set eyes seems peculiarly unsuited for this kind of role but paradoxically lends the performance an unexpected quality. His six-week road trip with his son gives him an opportunity to impart lessons and learn about the boy for the first time. He makes us know that Michael Jr is not to follow him into this deadly business. His scenes with Newman are marvellous – a kind of trading off in acting styles, one legend passing on lessons to the next, borne out in the storytelling. What Michael doesn’t know is that blood means more than sympathy, no matter the horrors involved in being part of the Rooney family. Of course Connor would betray his father;  and of course his father knows. It’s a hard thing to watch Michael learn the truth. Loyalty sucks. This is a gallery of masculine roles – Craig as the ever-smiling psychotic son, Law as the rotten-toothed shooter masquerading as the photographer of death – a correlative of the film’s own morbidity; Hoechlin as the boy learning at his father’s elbow as the guns go off. Hinds impresses in those early scenes, quietly seething then mouthing off at his brother’s wake, a crime which will  not go unpunished. Dylan Baker’s accountant Alexander Rance has a decidedly old-fashioned homosexual taint of prissiness. This is a linear story of fathers and sons, cause and effect, crime, punishment and revenge in an Oedipal setting dictated by the rules of inevitability that can be traced to Greek tragedy. There are no surprises but the pleasures of the production design by Dennis Gassner, the cinematography by Conrad Hall (who earned a posthumous Academy Award) and the performances make this worth a re-viewing. Screenplay by David Self from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers

Mr Jones (2019)

Mr Jones

The Soviets have built more in five years than our Government has in ten. In 1933, Gareth Jones (James Norton) is an ambitious young Welsh journalist who has gained renown for his interview with Adolf Hitler. Thanks to his connections to Britain’s former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), he is able to get official permission to travel to the Soviet Union. Jones intends to try and interview Stalin and find out more about the Soviet Union’s economic expansion and its apparently successful five-year development plan. Jones is restricted to Moscow where he encounters Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) a libertine who sticks to the Communist Party line.  He befriends and romances German journalist Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) who reluctantly sees him follow the path of murdered journalist Kleb in pursuit of a story. He jumps his train and travels unofficially to Ukraine to discover evidence of the Holodomor (famine) including empty villages, starving people, cannibalism, and the enforced collection of grain exported out of the region while millions die. He escapes with his life because Duranty bargains for it on condition he report nothing but lies. On his return to the UK he struggles to get the true story taken seriously and is forced to return home to Wales in ignominy … They are killing us. Millions.  Framed by the writing of Animal Farm after a credulous commie-admiring Eric Blair aka George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) expresses disbelief that Stalin is anything but a good guy, this is an oddly diffident telling of a shocking true story that’s art-directed within an inch of its life. Introducing Orwell feels like a disservice to Jones. Norton has a difficult job because the screenplay by Andrea Chalupa is too mannerly and the film’s aesthetic betrays his intent. Director Agnieszka Holland is a fine filmmaker but the colour grading, the great lighting (there’s even a red night sky shot from below as Jones and Brooks walk through Moscow) and the excessive use of handheld shooting to express Jones’ inner turmoil somehow detracts from the original fake news story. It happens three times during food scenes including when he realises he’s eating some kids’ older brother. Shocking but somehow not surprising and amazingly relevant given the present state of totalitarian things, everywhere, in a world where Presidents express the wish to have journalists executed and some of them succeed. Some things never change. Chilling. I have no expectations. I just have questions