Peyton Place (1957)

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Quality is a very good thing in a roll of cloth but it’s very dull on a big date. Mike Rossi (Lee Phillips) arrives in the small New England town of Peyton Place to interview for high school principal, usurping the favourite teacher (Mildred Dunnock). He drives past a shack where Selena Cross (Hope Lange) lives with her mother (Betty Field), little brother and drunken stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Selena’s best friend is the graduating class’s star student and wannabe writer Allison Mackenzie (Diane Varsi) whose widowed mother Constance (Lana Turner) has a clothing store and immediately attracts Mike’s interest. Allison has a crush on Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) heir to the local fabric mill but he only has eyes for trashy Betty (Terry Moore). Allison confides in Norman (Russ Tamblyn) whose watchful mother has altogether too much to do with her shy son. All of the characters attempt to assert their individuality and grow up but malicious rumours, a rape and a suicide followed by a murder are just around the corner as Lucas forces himself on his stepdaughter and Constance reveals to Allison the truth about her obscure origins; then the newspaper carries a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor … Even decades after Grace Metalious’ novel was published it bore the whiff of scandal and my eleven-year old self carried it as though it were dangerous contraband – which of course it was, for about a minute. Part of its attraction was the back cover photograph of the authoress, a gorgeous young thing with a Fifties Tammy ponytail wearing a plaid shirt, cut offs and penny loafers – it was years before I would learn that this was a model (paid tribute by a shot of Allison in the film) and that Metalious was in reality a bloated alcoholic who died not long afterwards:  not such a role model after all!  The bestselling exposition of a horribly inward looking and vicious group of people in an outwardly lovely small town in Maine gets a meticulous adaptation by John Michael Hayes who was working carefully around the censor yet still managed to craft a moving even shocking melodrama from some explosive storylines arranged through the seasons. Lange comes off best in a film which has some daring off-casting – including Turner as the frigid so-called widow, cannily using her star carnality against the character. (In reality she would encounter her own extraordinary scandal with teenage daughter Cheryl within a year of this film’s release). Lloyd Nolan playing the local doctor has a field day in the showstopping courtroom revelation telling some vicious home truths amid some frankly disbelieving onlookers including the unrepentant gossips. Tamblyn gets one of the roles of his career as Norman, the son who is loved just a little too much by his mom… I hadn’t seen this in a long time but much to my surprise was immediately humming along again with the wonderfully lyrical score by Franz Waxman. In many ways this evocative drama sums up the morality of the Fifties even while being set on the eve of WW2 and the early Forties. A very pleasant, beautifully made and surprising reminder of a book whose opening line I’ve never forgotten:  Indian Summer is like a woman … Ah! The film is sixty years old this year. Directed by Mark Robson.

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Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967)

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It’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Not often do you hear a line from Milton at the movies, certainly not in a biker film. But this was in the vanguard of that cycle (!) in the late 60s and took the lead from the previous year’s Wild Angels and ran a little farther with Sonny Barger himself on the sidelines. Poet (Jack Nicholson) is pumping gas when he joins Buddy (Adam Roarke) and his gang after having his sickle damaged by one of them and then getting set upon by a bunch of sailors. The Angels take to the road and Buddy’s girl Shill (Sabrina Scharf) becomes the main attraction for this new ‘prospect’ as they ride around and provoke violence among hapless bystanders. This was written by R. Wright Campbell (who wrote a handful of screenplays for Roger Corman) and directed by Richard Rush whose decided distaste for the material is evidenced in a variety of contrasting setups lensed by Leslie (Laszlo) Kovacs who comes into his own with the handheld photography. It starts promisingly, with a riff on Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and there are some quite bizarrely languid pastoral interludes in the breaks between outbursts of violence, which are designed and shot rather amateurishly. It will all end in flames with that woman and those guys involved … It certainly looks like a lot of kicks were had vrooming around CA pretending to be violent while the real Hell’s Angels filled in the bike seats as extras. This is notable as one of those early-ish Nicholson performances where he seems to be almost horizontal in contrast with the perpendicular effortful grimacing of those around him, particularly the leading man, Roarke. B movie directors Jack Starrett and Bruno VeSota appear respectively as the policeman and priest who cross the gang’s path.

In Harm’s Way (1965)

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I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way. This sprawling WW2 naval epic from producer/director Otto Preminger is set amid the Pacific battles with the Japanese and starts with the attack on Pearl Harbour. John Wayne is Captain Rock Torrey who’s demoted after surviving that encounter because his ship is then damaged in a subsequent episode. He meets the son (Brandon de Wilde) whom he abandoned 18 years earlier, and the boy is now in the Navy himself. He starts to romance a nurse (Patricia Neal) but he and his troublemaker colleague Commander Paul Eddington (Kirk Douglas) are tasked with salvaging a dangerous mission … This is an underrated war film with a brilliant cast, a mix of old-timers (Franchot Tone, Bruce Cabot, Dana Andrews, Stanley Holloway, Burgess Meredith, Henry Fonda) with new talent (Tom Tryon, Paula Prentiss, James Mitchum) who together bring a brisk sense of character to a realistic and unsentimental portrayal of men and women in war.  It’s another in Preminger’s examinations of institutions, with a story that has romance and work relationships aplenty with a keen eye for toughness:  what happens to de Wilde’s girlfriend (Jill Haworth) is quite the shocker. There are no punches pulled when it comes to relaying the heavy price to be paid for victory and the concluding scenes are impressively staged. This is a film in which the characters never suffer from the scale of the narrative. Wait for the credits by Saul Bass, who also designed the wonderful poster.  Adapted by Wendell Mayes from the book by James Bassett.

Dunkirk (2017)

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Survival’s not fair. A great disaster. Hundreds of thousands of British and French troops got at from all sides by the Nazis. A young guy Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) running down the streets of Dunkirk shot at from every direction with all his fellow soldiers mown down beside him. Then he gets to the beach and sees what looks like half the British Army waiting … and waiting. And the beach is strafed by German planes. In the clouds Tom Hardy (masked, mostly, like in his last Christopher Nolan outing) is playing cat and mouse in his Spitfire. His fellow pilot is shot down. Back in England Mark Rylance and his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local lad (strange Irish actor Barry Keoghan) take their pleasure cruiser plus dozens of life jackets out with them before the Navy can check them dockside. These stories with their differing timelines (1 week, 1 hour, 1 day) don’t converge until 70 minutes in. In the interim there is a lot of water. – The tide is turning. – How do you know? – The bodies are coming back. Drowning. Suicides. Shootings by the Germans. If you’re afraid of water you will be very queasy. The word for the viewer experience is immersive. Quite literally. The bigger picture is only put in the mouth of Commander Kenneth Branagh in conversation as the safe place for berthing destroyers (the Mole) is being blown asunder when he talks about the war. That’s when we hear about the callout for small vessels to attempt a rescue on the beach. Otherwise we are escaping with Whitehead as he accompanies Harry Styles (in his film debut) and a Frenchie pretending to be English and they have to try to survive in the bottom of a sinking boat being fired upon; Rylance and son and the traumatised man they rescue from the hull of a sunken boat (Cillian Murphy) who tells them to return to Blighty and kills their assistant;  and the pilots – watching one almost drown is quite traumatic.  For all the enormous budget we never get a sense of the enormity or the scale of the enterprise:  far too few soldiers, hardly any boats. The stories are told in convoluted fashion due to the differing timeframes for each of them. So just when you think you’re ahead, you’re catapulted back to an explanation. And then … it’s over. This reminds me of the problem with Inception which it took me a while to work out:  that film is really a video game. This is also that in one significant part – I too have seen those YouTube Battle of Britain videos, Christopher Nolan, and they’re stunning:  I love a good airborne catfight.  And even though we see very little of Hardy, this is the first time I thought he’s a movie star at last. But that’s not it really. This is actually a tone poem. It’s more like a Derek Jarman film than anything I’ve seen since that great visual artist’s death. And that’s an issue presumably for most of the paying audience who like a good yarn. There is some characterisation – there is bravery, cowardice, viciousness, swagger, kindness and terrible suffering. But what little there is cannot make up for the lack of actual dramatic structure and story. And Churchill’s words are said in the most desultory fashion and barely make an impact because of the actor’s speaking voice and the sound mix even if it’s a very canny and surprising move in how it’s delivered.  But mostly there is Hans Zimmer’s astonishing score:  it’s an unforgettable, breathtaking symphony (with a nod or ten to Elgar) that deserves a better film. There. I’ve said it. Where’s W. H. Auden when you need him? It’s rumoured that Hitler gave the Brits a fighting chance by only allowing the bombing of the beaches instead of launching a full-scale ground attack and invading Britain:  Nolan simply dismissed the vastness of the story and loses its importance in the doing.

Juggernaut (1974)

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In 1972 the QE2 was subjected to a bomb hoax and Royal Marines were deployed to deal with the situation:  this is an adaptation of that incident, with writer/producer Richard Alan Simmons (writing under the nom de plume Richard De Koker) moving events to the North Atlantic and a cruise liner tellingly christened Britannic. An Irish-accented man telephones the owner of the line Ian Holm with the information that seven drums of amatol (an explosive) are rigged in the hold. He wants a half million ransom.The seas are too stormy to save the 1200 passengers and while the police led by Anthony Hopkins (whose wife and son are on board) race against time to track the phonecalls, Navy bomb disposal expert Richard Harris and his team including David Hemmings are winched to the ship to try and defuse everything. This came out at the height of the Arab oil crisis and the IRA’s mainland Britain bombing campaign – and – crucially – the disaster movie genre. Yet it has a rare degree of realism and character definition, probably because after the original directors Bryan Forbes and then Don Medford abandoned ship (!) Richard Lester took over and rewrote it with Alan Plater, demonstrating that he is as adept at action/adventure as slapstick comedy, with regular Roy Kinnear along for the ride, supplying some morbidly funny lines as the entertainer while the clock ticks. While Captain Omar Sharif sweats and looks a little red around the eyes, even with Shirley Knight providing his kicks, Harris smokes his pipe and gets on with the job.  He does some really great character work given that most of his acting takes place in quite literally a tiny frame – head and shoulders. The revelation of the bomber’s identity – he’s not foreign – provides some thought-provoking context. Free of contemporary technology and with some telling lines about refugees, this is an unusually watchable genre exercise, driven by something deeper than just explosions and with a really great ending.

Murder Ahoy! (1964)

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The final of the four Miss Marple film series starring the legendary Margaret Rutherford as a most unlikely Agatha Christie heroine – but who wants anyone else in the role?! This is only vaguely Christie, with a superficial reminder of one plot component in They Do It With Mirrors – a bunch of teenage tearaways supposedly being rehabilitated in an institution but actually being trained in burglary. Here they’re on a former naval ship run by a charitable trust.  When one of her fellow trustees is murdered, Marple infiltrates the boat … and a whole slew of deaths follows! Great fun, with the usual gang – Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell is back as Chief Inspector Craddock, Stringer Davies (Rutherford’s real life husband) returns as Marple’s fellow sleuth and there’s Lionel Jeffries in a  highly amusing performance as Captain Rhumstone.  Derek Nimmo, Miles Malleson and Nicholas Parsons bring up the considerable rear. Directed by George Pollock from a screenplay by David Pursall and Jack Seddon. Word up for the amazing poster design by Tom Jung and that fabulous jaunty signature tune by Ron Goodwin.

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

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A friend of mine is under the weather at the moment so I prescribed holiday viewing:  The Great Escape and its fraternal twin, this, one of the best men on a mission action adventures to come out of WW2. It’s 1943.  An Allied commando team is deployed to destroy huge German guns on the Greek island of Navarone in order to rescue troops trapped on Kheros. They’re led by British Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle) and include the American Mallory (Gregory Peck), Greek resistance fighter Stavros (Anthony Quinn) and reluctant Brit explosives expert Miller (David Niven). Facing impossible odds, the men battle stormy seas and daunting cliffs. When Franklin is injured, Mallory takes command, and the infighting begins. They have to impersonate Nazi officers and work with local resistance fighters Irene Papas and Gia Scala. There is a spy  in the camp – but who can it be? There’s interrogation and explosives and betrayal and all kinds of good stuff. This is sublime fun and contains probably my favourite movie line of all, from the inimitable Niven:  Heil everybody! Adapted from Alastair MacLean’s novel by blacklisted screenwriter and producer Carl Foreman (who made a lot of changes to the material) and directed by J. Lee Thompson (taking over from Alexander Mackendrick one week before production – that old saw, ‘creative differences.’) Narrated by James Robertson Justice and shot by the peerless Oswald Morris with a majestic soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin. Definitely taking this to the desert island. Or even a Greek one.

The Last Detail (1973)

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I am the motherfucking shore patrol! Jack Nicholson was one of the biggest stars of the 70s after Easy Rider and this adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s terrific novel is one of the key buddy movies of the period. Nicholson plays Billy ‘Badass’ Buddusky, Signalman First Class who’s awaiting orders at Norfolk naval base with Richard ‘Mule’ Mulhall (Otis Young) when they are directed to escort young Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to prison in Maine in the depths of winter.  He tried to steal $40 from a charity collection box – and the problem is it’s a favourite of his commanding officer’s wife so he’s got eight years for his efforts.  They set out on a Bon Voyage tour of the north east, getting into all sorts of scrapes and seeing the virginal Larry’s miserable home in Philadelphia en route.  Screenwriter Robert Towne, working for the first (but not the last) time with director Hal Ashby radically altered Ponicsan’s Camus-loving protagonist with his beyond-beautiful wife and recast him as a more ultimately compromised man, adding him to the gallery of unformed underachievers that populates his screenplays:  J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, George Roundy in Shampoo, Mac in Tequila Sunrise.  All of these men are compromised in their need for the means to survive. Of these characters, it could be said that Buddusky (certainly in Towne’s interpretation of the original character as conceived by Ponicsan) is actually the least tragic (he does not succumb to the fate administered in Ponicsan’s novel, thereby rendering the title meaningless!), the most pragmatic – and the most well-adjusted. Towne’s interpretation of Buddusky aligns him in the vanguard of New Hollywood in its politicised, anti-authoritarian heyday.  While his work on the film was undoubtedly influenced by his producer (Gerald Ayres) and director (particularly, it seems, by Ashby), he wrote it with Nicholson in mind and it copperfastened his position as upcoming screenwriter in the early Seventies.  Nicholson’s casting also helped get the film made – the original draft screenplay had ‘342 fucks.’ (There were 65 in the final release.) However Towne had also envisioned the film being cast with Rupert Crosse who died before it got the greenlight so the spotlight of the film now shifted more completely to Nicholson, and the script’s emphasis was therefore changed: Nicholson simply did not have the same kind of relationship with Otis Young, Crosse’s replacement. It was now truly a star vehicle. Meadows was played by Texan newcomer Randy Quaid, who towered over Nicholson, lending even more comedy to the situation. (John Travolta made it to the last two but it was Quaid’s height which lent his character even more poignancy.) It took Nicholson’s winning the Best Actor award at Cannes to get Columbia to finally release the film which was a long time in the editing room. Nicholson still regards it as his best role – Chinatown notwithstanding! Ribald, profane, oddly touching and screamingly funny, this is a tonally perfect comic drama and one you won’t forget in a hurry. For more on it and the significance of Nicholson’s work with his greatest collaborator, screenwriter Robert Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489670058&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

The Baby and the Battleship (1956)

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Sailor Knocker White (Richard Attenborough) has a girlfriend in Naples and when he goes on shore leave with his mucker Puncher White (John Mills) they get separated and Puncher finds himself left with the youngest brother of Knocker’s girlfriend who’s one of 13 children. He smuggles the infant on board the vessel doing Allied manoeuvres off the Italian coast and the expected complications ensue in this sweet forces comedy (a phrase you don’t hear too much nowadays). Co-written by co-star ‘Professor’ Bryan Forbes (who created Mills’s role) in an adaptation of Anthony Thorne’s novel by Richard De Roy, director Jay Lewis and Gilbert Hackforth-Jones (great name, BTW). There is a ‘clever’ diplomatic resolution when it comes time to part company with Baby… Shot aboard HMS Birmingham and around Malta, this was a top 10 hit at the British box office. Different times indeed.

The Caine Mutiny (1954)

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New ensign Willis Keith (Robert Francis) is sent to serve on the dilapidated Navy destroyer The Caine where he finds his captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) is losing his mind. It all starts with a row over the dessert (I get it). Communications officer Fred MacMurray decides the irrationality is serious and when everything goes to pot during a storm Queeg is relieved of his post by executive officer Van Johnson. And the men are then tried for mutiny. Herman Wouk’s novel was a Pulitzer Prize winner and enjoyed a highly successful run in theatres where it was adapted by Wouk and directed by Charles Laughton. Director Edward Dmytryk and producer Stanley Kramer hired Stanley Roberts and Michael Blankfort to bring it to the screen, reducing Keith’s role in the drama and making Queeg less of a loon in order to secure friendlier relations with the US Navy. Nonetheless, it’s a compelling piece of midcentury cinema and a must for fans of Bogie, who isn’t at his best here but hey, he was very unwell, even if he took another year to fess up to the fact.