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!

I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

I Was a Male War Bride theatrical

If the American army says that I CAN be my wife, who am I to dispute them? French Army Captain Henri Rochard (Cary Grant) is assigned to work with American 1st Lieutenant Catherine Gates on a mission to locate a German lens maker Schindler (Martin Miller) in post-war Occupied Germany. Henri and Catherine worked together before and are at daggers drawn. However despite the initial problems between the two, with only Catherine being allowed to drive a motorcycle to Bad Neuheim and Henri forced to sit in a sidecar, it’s not long before their battling turns to romance and they hastily arrange to get married. But a steady stream of bureaucratic red tape ensures the couple cannot be together and with Catherine receiving orders that she’s to be sent home, there is just one option – Henri will have to invoke a War Brides Clause in army regulations and be recognised as Catherine’s bride but to do that he has to disguise himself as a WAC … Oh, no! You mean you and ME? Well, I’d be glad to explain to them. The very idea of any connection is revolting. Shot in the last months of 1948 in post-war Germany, this is resolutely apolitical in the typical manner of producer/director Howard Hawks but it was plagued by problems. Illness meant that the beginning and end of the midpoint sequence – Grant vanishing into a haystack and coming out the other side – were shot several months apart, with Grant 37 pounds lighter from hepatitis when we meet him again. Sheridan was also ill, with pleurisy. Hawks got hives. Even co-writer Charles Lederer got sick and Orson Welles stepped in to write a scene (allegedly). When the production moved to London for the interiors they were subjected to work-to-rule habits of the British unions which prolonged things further. However it’s still fun to watch for its low-key fashion rather than the antic hilarity of Hawks and Grant’s earlier Bringing Up Baby.  Despite its being promoted on the basis of Grant’s cross-dressing, that only takes place in the last 10 minutes and it works because Grant listened to Hawks and didn’t do effeminate, he plays it totally straight, a man dressed in women’s clothes – and it ain’t pretty. This is a whip smart attack on bureaucracy and transatlantic misunderstandings and the whole plot basically revolves around coitus postponus because even when the squabbling couple agree to the three marriages deemed necessary to be legal they still can’t get five minutes together, not even in a haystack (which led to their marriage in the first place). It fits nicely into that crossover between screwball and army farce with the entire construction designed to be an affront to Grant’s dignity and an essay on sexual frustration. That said, it’s slow to set up and a lot of the jokes are sight gags, relying on Grant’s acrobatic background to pull them off, while Sheridan is a great broad in the best sense, fizzing with common sense and sex appeal, the very incarnation of a good sport. Hawks’ very young girlfriend Marion Marshall has a nice role as her colleague who gets to relay verbally what women see in Grant and the whole thing is a very relaxed entertainment, the antithesis of the circumstances in which it was apparently produced. It marked Hawks’ and Grant’s fourth collaboration and Grant always said it was his favourite of his own films while it was the third highest grossing of Hawks’ career. Adapted by Lederer & Leonard Spigelgass and Hagar Wilde from  I Was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress, a biographical account of Belgian officer Henri Rochard’s [the pseudonym for Roger Charlier] experience entering the US when he married an American nurse during WW2. My name is Rochard. You’ll think I’m a bride but actually I’m a husband. There’ll be a moment or two of confusion but, if we all keep our heads, everything will be fine

When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

When Eight Bells Toll

Operates best under conditions of extreme pressure. Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) is a tough British Navy secret service agent called in by ‘Uncle Arthur’ (Robert Morley) to track down gold bullion smugglers after two agents are murdered on the job tracking cargo ships that have been hijacked in the Irish Sea. He follows the trail off the Scottish coast to a close-mouthed community where Greek tycoon Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins) has moored yacht off and finds the well-connected aristo is married for the second time to the stunning much younger Charlotte (Nathalie Delon). After his colleague Hunslett (Corin Redgrave) is murdered and he escapes from his Royal Navy helicopter following the shooting of his pilot, who is conducting the heists? … You can’t go round acting like a one-man execution squad. This is England! Alistair MacLean’s 1965 adventure bestseller was eyed up as a potential starter for a series to rival the James Bond franchise but that’s not what happened. Despite ample action, jaw-droppingly witty lines and a lovely lady who may or may not be one of the good guys, this isn’t quite slick enough looking to fit a 007-shaped hole following Sean Connery’s departure. Hopkins is a rather unlikely romantic lead but his scenes with Delon feel like they’re straight out of screwball comedy: The nights would be good but the days would be a drag. Morley is playing a role he’s done before but putting this portly gent out in the field and into a rowing boat is a stroke of genius – literally an outsize fish out of water in water. We’re going to prove that Britannia rules the waves. Every line hits the bullseye. This is a story about class distinction and clubbable men too:  Working-his-way-through-the-ranks type, he comments disdainfully of Hopkins. Any time the action flags a little the robust score by Angela Morley lifts it into another dimension. The only thing they couldn’t alter is the miserable grey sky. We can sympathise with Delon and close our eyes and reimagine this in the Med but for MacLean who adapted his book for producer Elliott Kastner (who had also made Where Eagles Dare) this was of course coming home. An unsung and fast-moving gem of its era with an inventive approach to the enemy lair.  Jack Hawkins had to be dubbed by Charles Gray following the removal of his larynx (nothing to do with the action here however). Directed by Étienne Périer. There’s always peril in the water

You Only Live Twice (1967)

You Only Live Twice

Bad news from outer space. When an American space capsule is supposedly swallowed by a Russian spaceship it’s an international incident. James Bond has apparently been killed in Hong Kong but he is ‘resurrected’ following his own funeral and sent undercover to Japan to find out who is behind the political aggression and the owner of the mysterious spacecraft. However while Russia and the US blame each other and Japan is under suspiion, he discovers with the assistance of his Japanese opposite number Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tanba) that SPECTRE is responsible for this attempt to start World War III and uncovers a trail that leads to the mysterious Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) whose evil empire is run from the centre of a volcano … Now that you’re dead our old friends will perhaps pay a little less attention to you than before. The one where Bond turns Japanese and trains as a ninja. A carnival of implausibilities that has the benefit of some gorgeous Japanese locations, stylish direction by Lewis Gilbert and introducing cat-loving megalomaniac Blofeld in the form of Pleasence, who we only glimpse over his shoulder as he strokes his pussycat before the big reveal. What an amazing villain! And how ripe for parody! Roald Dahl’s screenplay may throw out most of Ian Fleming’s novel (there is ‘additional story material’ by Harold Jack Bloom) but he does something clever – he takes the title seriously and has the second half begin exactly as the first, replacing a US with a Soviet rocket and doing a Screenplay 101 with the differing outcome second time around. The Cold War/space race theme might remind you of a certain Dr Strangelove. There are some good media jibes – If you’re going to force me to watch television I’m going to need a smoke, says James before aiming his cigarette at the enemy; astonishing production design by Ken Adam; and very resourceful sidekicks in Aki (Akika Wakabayashi) and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama); as well as the series’ first German Bond girl, Karin Dor, aka Miss Crime, due to the number of thrillers she starred in. Sadly it doesn’t save her here. This is gorgeously shot by Freddie Young and the restoration is impeccable. The John Barry and Leslie Bricusse theme song is performed by Nancy Sinatra. For a European you are very cultivated! 

Run Silent Run Deep (1958)

Run Silent Run Deep

Not even Pearl knows where we are. The deskbound captain ‘Rich’ Richardson (Clark Gable) of a submarine sunk by the Japanese during WWII is finally given a chance to skipper another sub but he demands an Executive Officer with recent experience and is assigned a resentful Lt. Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster). Richardson’s singleminded determination for revenge against the destroyer that sunk his previous vessel puts his new crew in unneccessary danger as he trains the USS Nerka in the Bungo Straits despite express orders to avoid that section of the seas in order to sink his nemesis whom he christens Bungo Pete. Richardson begins to rigorously drill the crew on a rapid bow shot: firing at the bow of an approaching ship – what’s considered an act of desperation due to a vessel’s extremely narrow profile. He then bypasses one target, only to take on a Japanese destroyer with. The crew realises that Richardson is avoiding legitimate targets, then they encounter a large convoy. Soon after blowing up a cargo ship and engaging Bungo Pete, they are attacked by aircraft that had somehow been alerted to their presence and were waiting in ambush. They are forced to dive and barely survive depth charges. Three of the crew are killed and Richardson suffers an incapacitating concussion. Bledsoe takes charge and sets the course for Pearl Harbour while Tokyo Rose announces their deaths – by name – and they chase Bungo Pete, who doesn’t even know they are there… With all due respect to your rank, may I say you’re an ass. The model for all sub movies, this superb John Gay adaptation of the 1955 book by (Commander) Edward L. Beach Jr. is an exercise in tension. Lancaster produced it through his own company and gives his usual acrobat compadre Nick Cravat a small speaking role, for once. Gable is supreme as the skipper who pisses off his executive officer (Lancaster), setting up the rattled crew for a shouty standoff with the final ironic battle pitched against the Japs in the coolest of terms. It helps that Gable is concussed. A young Jack Warden acquits himself very well as Yeoman Mueller in a claustrophobic, drastically compromised setting while Don Rickles makes his debut. Wonderfully handled by director Robert Wise with a marvellous score from Franz Waxman. Let no one here ever say we never had a captain

Barnacle Bill (1957)

Barnacle Bill theatrical

Aka All At Sea. From the dawn of time we have always mixed in nautical circles. Royal Navy Captain William Horatio Ambrose (Alec Guinness) has an unfortunate problem – seasickness. It’s particularly embarrassing given his family’s 400-year history in the profession. He spent WW2 teaching in training schools and wasn’t exactly a success. He decides to invest in an amusement pier in the seaside town of Sandcastle but encounters opposition from the local Councillors when he attempts to establish the Victorian structure as a centre for entertainment for the young instead of the old codgers so decides upon a radical course – to have it registered as a foreign sailing vessel (the Arabella, in honour of his former foe now ally, beach hut proprietress Mrs Barringon, played by Irene Browne). He advertises cruises, to which the public flock in droves. When the councillors decide to charge him berthing fees he cuts off their land connection and his enemies plot a course of sabotage … For the price of my modest savings at last a command of my own. T.E.B. Clarke’s script might have a little too much quirk for modern tastes but it’s a lot of fun, with a couple of sequences featuring Bill’s ancestors that tip the nod to Guinness’ eight roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets – because Guinness plays them all. There are lots of other familiar faces including Percy Herbert as his first officer; Eric Pohlmann as the Ambassador from Liberama, happy to give his pier a boat number; Richard Wattis as a civil servant; and Victor Maddern as a treacherous dredge boater. There is a great sense of sly rather than vicious satire, backed up with lots of fun visual jokes – an escape artist rolling about stuck in a sack; a bunch of uniforms waging war in pedalos!; Bill and Mrs Barrington getting drunk and sliding up and down the floors of Crazy Cottage in wonderfully canted shots – and several good scenes mocking petty conspiracies and the backhanders people have to pay to councils, profiting off their situation. Ultimately cut off from the rest of his ‘ship,’ Bill arrives in France, to the delight of the locals. One might call it his Dunkirk. John Addison has a lot of fun pastiching seafaring tunes and shanties. Watch out for Jackie Collins as a beat girl. A massively underrated late Ealing feature, ripe for rediscovery. Directed by Charles Frend, also responsible for The Cruel Sea. What larks! What goes down must come up!

Lord Jim (1965)

Lord Jim

What storm can fully reveal the heart of a man? Midshipman Jim Burke (Peter O’Toole) becomes second in command of a British merchant navy ship in Asia but is stripped of his responsibilities when he abandons ship with three other crew who disappear, leaving the passengers to drown.However the Patma was salvaged by a French vessel. Disheartened and filled with self-loathing, Jim confesses in public, leading to his Captain Marlow’s (Jack Hawkins) suicide and he seeks to redeem his sins by going upriver and assisting natives in their uprising against the General (Eli Wallach)… The weapon is truth. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel by writer/director Richard Brooks, this perhaps contains flaws related to the project’s conscientious fidelity to its problematic source. Overlong and both burdened and made fascinating by its pithy philosophical dialogue, O’Toole is another cypher (like T.E. Lawrence) burning up the screen with his charisma but surrendering most of the best moments to a terrific ensemble cast. The psychology of his character remains rather impenetrable. There are exchanges dealing with cowardice, shame, bravery, heroism, the meaning of life itself and the reasons why people do what they do – and the consequences for others. There is guilt and there is sacrifice, the stuff of tragedy, in a film bursting with inner struggle, misunderstandings, romantic complications and the taint of violence. Shot by Freddie Young, who does for the jungle what he did for the deserts of the aforementioned Lawrence of Arabia. When ships changed to steam perhaps men changed too

Against All Flags (1952)

Against All Flags.jpg

I don’t like the cut of your sail!  In 1700 British officer Lt Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn) on the British ship Monsoon infiltrates a group of pirates led by Roc Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn) located on Libertatia on the coast of the island of Madagascar  He poses as a deserter and falls in love with pirate captain ‘Spitfire’ Stevens (Maureen O’Hara). He proves his worth and is aboard Brasiliano’s vessel when they loot a Moghul ship and kidnap a harem of women protected by their chaperone Molvina MacGregor (Mildred Natwick) who hides the identity of Princess Patma (Alice Kelley). Meanwhile, Hawke is gathering information through his romance with Spitfire to attack the pirate base …  You’re a real rooster, aren’t you!  Nobody is who they claim to be here in a movie that’s full of rousing action, furious innuendo and Taming of the Shrew-ishness. O’Sullivan is resplendent as the pirate queen and Flynn gets one of his last good action roles (and his final pirate part in Hollywood) although a life of excess had already taken a toll on his glorious looks. They have great fun knocking sparks off each other, particularly when he’s training her to be a lady and instructing her in etiquette. The moment when O’Hara, all decked out in her piratical duds, outbids Flynn for Kelley at a slave auction and says to Flynn, I think I prefer you as a bachelor is just a preview of coming attractions:  she then pulls back the girl’s veil, sees how beautiful her new possession is and observes to Flynn, Curse me if I can blame you too much! One for a queer film compilation for sure. Written by Aeneas MacKenzie as a vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks Jr. it was then rewritten by Joseph Hoffman, and directed for the most part by George Sherman but when Flynn broke his ankle production was postponed, Sherman moved on and Douglas Sirk took over a further ten days’ filming upon Flynn’s eventual return. It looks stunning thanks to Russell Metty and Hans Salter handles the boisterous score. Lambasted by the critics, this made a shedload of money in its time. When he comes back with blood on his hands then he can hoist his own black flag but not before!

The Young Mr. Pitt (1942)

The Young Mr Pitt.jpg

Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England, 1783. King George III appoints 24 year old William Pitt (Robert Donat) as prime minister. When members of Parliament refuse to take Pitt seriously, he calls for a general election and wins. He sets to work on a programme of reform, focusing on rebuilding the navy while across the sea in France, Napoleon Bonaparte (Herbert Lom) begins his conquest of Europe. After rejecting an alliance with France, he puts his own mind at ease by selecting Admiral Horatio Nelson (Stephen Haggard) to lead the fleet… Does the Minister propose to defeat Bonaparte by earnest consideration? It’s not the most typical of Carol Reed’s films – you won’t see the visual flourishes for which he would become distinguished even if Freddie Young is responsible for some fine cinematography here. It’s a fairly conventional biography, adapted by Launder and Gilliat from the book by the Viscount Castlerosse, who also contributes to the dialogue (with the parliamentary exchanges based on real speeches in Westminster) and it’s pleasingly busy with sharp lines and buzzing with character, Donat’s face registering as is his wont every injury and sorrow. He ages convincingly, his personal worries – romantic, financial – mirroring Napoleon’s onward march:  Conquerors are invariably upstarts. It’s significant that this was made during World War 2, with a call to arms against such individuals resonant throughout the rise of this iteration of Hitler (rather unfair to Napoleon, I think). This is a lively piece of work, ripe with history, boasting a great ensemble including Robert Morley as Charles Fox, John Mills as William Wilberforce and Phyllis Calvert as Eleanor Eden, with an amusing Albert Lieven playing Talleyrand.  Do not seek fame through war

The Weaker Sex (1948)

The Weaker Sex

I wish I didn’t feel so cut off.   Widowed Martha Dacre (Ursula Jeans) tries to keep house and home together for her two serving daughters Helen (Joan Hopkins) who’s involved with radio officer Nigel (Derek Bond) and Lolly (Lana Morris) who’s going out with sailor Roddy (John Stone);  and servicemen billeted on her in Portsmouth, a naval base during WW2. While son Benjie (Digby Wolfe) is away in the Navy she has chosen to stay at home as a housewife, but when she learns that his ship has been damaged during the D Day landings, she regrets not taking a more active role in the war and works in a canteen and as a fire watcher. The family story moves forward from D-Day to VE-Day, the 1945 general election and on to 1948. Martha eventually re-marries to her late husband’s colleague, naval officer Geoffrey (Cecil Parker) who was one of those billeted on her and has become a father-figure to her son and daughters…  Oh dear, who’d be a mother? This British homefront drama was released three years following the conclusion of hostilities so it has the benefit of victorious hindsight as well as expressing the postwar era when everyone was completely obsessed with the lack of food. Adapted from actress Esther McCracken’s 1944 stage play No Medals by Paul Soskin with additional scenes created by Val Valentine to bring it up to the year of shooting, it’s a witty drama filled with resigned Keep Calm and Carry On messages underscored by dissatisfaction at the dreariness of housework and the plight of women whose life is dictated by the unavailability of food which becomes a thoroughly good running joke:  The housewives’ battle cry – the fishmonger’s got fish! cackles housekeeper Mrs Gaye (Thora Hird). Intended as post-war propaganda, a kind of decent British take on Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver (minus the Nazi in the garden) with added politics, it’s smart, unfussy and fair, yet trenchant and involving.  Jeans is terrific as the middle class woman finding herself rather (class) envious of Harriet Lessing (Marian Spencer) living in a serviced flat and volunteering:  there’s humour to be had in a lovely payoff when Harriet gets her public comeuppance after the war as rationing motivates her to head the local Militant Housewives League and she gets caught up in an unholy scrimmage which fetches up on the front page of the papers. Parker is a great casting choice – the guy not ashamed of being seen decked out in his uniform doing the vacuuming who can say unabashed to Jeans, I never had a genuinely platonic friendship with a woman before. Of course we know where that leads. He digs in and gets creative when he’s sick of being starved of regular food – and milks a goat. I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life is duty. There is a great sense of warmth in the family relationships and a scene of remarkable tension when Helen and Martha play a card game awaiting a phonecall to find out whether Nigel has survived a bombing.  Jeans tells herself when awaiting more bad news, I mustn’t back down. I must try to be of some use. Parker responds, This language of ours is so completely inadequate. They are expressing the weariness of a nation almost done in yet somehow dragging itself up to cope with the inevitability of ongoing loss. There are occasional dips into newsreel montages to bring a context to the experiences as the story commences in the run up to D Day, through VE Day, the 1945 General Election, Hiroshima and after, but the footage is smoothly integrated and doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow. Hugely successful in its day it’s a really rather spiffing reminder of how and why Britain came through the war, the importance of family and sadly that tragic deaths don’t just occur in wartime. Crisply shot by Erwin Hillier amid exquisite sets by Alex Vetchinsky and this raft of wonderful performances are very well directed by Roy [Ward] Baker. Shabby perhaps, but not yet shoddy