The Talk of the Town (1942)

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Stop saying “Leopold” like that, tenderly. It sounds funny. You can’t do it with a name like Leopold. Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant), who was wrongfully convicted of arson an an assumed murderer, manages to escape from prison in New England. On the lam, he finds Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur), an old schoolfriend for whom he harbours a secret love. Nora believes in Dilg’s innocence and lets him pose as her landscaper; meanwhile, renowned Harvard Professor Lightcap (Ronald Colman), a legal expert, has just begun renting a room in Nora’s home. Lightcap also has eyes for Nora, leading to a series of comic misadventures as the police close in … With a screenplay by Sidney Buchman, Irwin Shaw and Dale Van Every, from a story by Sidney Harmon, this George Stevens production oozes classic Hollywood and it powers the stars with the sheer driving wit of the dialogue. Arthur is particularly dazzling in this lesser known screwball with a political text, which is a hoot from start to finish as the threesome battle for each other’s attention and affections. With these indoor habits of yours, you’ve got the complexion of a gravel pit

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The Spiral Staircase (1945)

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Murderer, you killed them. You killed them all. It’s 1906. Helen is a young mute woman (Dorothy McGuire) working in a New England mansion as a domestic to bedridden Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore) who lives with her professor stepson Albert (gorgeous George Brent), a secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who used to be his girlfriend and is now romancing her newly returned son Steven (Gordon Oliver), verbally abused Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood), drunken housekeeper Mrs Oates (Elsa Lanchester) and her husband (Rhys Williams).  A maniac is killing off people with disabilities. After Mrs Warren warns her of the danger to her personal safety she makes plans to leave the dark old house with her boyfriend Dr Parry (Kent Smith), but it is too late. The maniac is in the house, and she is his prey… Mel Dinelli made his screenwriting debut with this adaptation of Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch – the  idea for the staircase came from a Mary Roberts Rinehart novel.  It’s a beautifully mounted gripping Gothic suspenser with an ideal setting, atmosphere and occasional flashes of director Robert Siodmak’s Expressionist roots by DoP Nicholas Musuraca, underscoring the murderousness at its core. Spinechilling from start to finish. 

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

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Now it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn toward you, but – well, there haven’t been any quiet moments. Harried paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) has to make a good impression on society matron Mrs. Random (May Robson), who is considering donating one million dollars to his museum. On the day before his wedding to Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), Huxley meets Mrs. Random’s high-spirited young niece, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), a madcap adventuress who immediately falls for the straitlaced scientist when she steals his car and crashes it on a golf course. The ever-growing chaos – including a missing dinosaur bone and a pet leopard – threatens to swallow him whole… Wildly inventive, hilarious and classic screwball comedy from director Howard Hawks, written by Hagar Wilde and Dudley Nichols and performed by a group of actors indelibly engraved on our collective brains for their roles here.  Hepburn learned from Grant’s uptight persona to play it straight and if it were any slower this would be a film noir because she is one of the fatalest femmes you could ever dread to meet in a text bursting with double entendres. With Charles Ruggles, Barry Fitzgerald and Fritz Feld (as a psychiatrist!) bringing up the rear, Asta the dog from The Thin Man series and The Awful Truth (uncredited! the injustice of it!) and Grant going ‘gay all of a sudden’ what we have here is gaspingly funny cinematic perfection.

Second Chorus (1940)

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I said ‘music,’ and Father said ‘bottlecaps.’ Father won. Two New England college music students Danny O’Neill (Fred Astaire) and Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith) repeatedly fail their exams so that they can stay in college and play in their band, O’Neill’s Perennials. They change their attitude, however, when they meet Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard) who agrees to be their manager and both attempt to woo her as a way of eventually getting a job in Artie Shaw’s band but Shaw woos Ellen to be his secretary and the guys fail their auditions. Ellen tries to persuade millionaire J. Lester Chisholm (Charles Butterworth) a wannabe mandolin player to fund a concert which will debut Danny’s song but the guys get in the way and muck it up by pretending to be married to her.  To get things back on track they have to keep this eccentric backer Chisholm from forcing Shaw to have him play at their gig … Astaire and Meredith are the oldest students in movies and if that’s a silly premise in itself (albeit I knew someone who failed for twenty years to avail of a family bequest which lasted as long as he stayed in college) and this occasionally veers on the puerile (even for B-movie standards) it’s still hard to dislike.  Astaire’s masquerade as a Russian refugee performing his nation’s songs is funny and at some point the film has to incorporate his dancing expertise – which it does as he conducts his own composition in the concluding concert number with aplomb and a little tap. Butterworth is drolly amusing. Goddard is luminously beautiful, as you’d expect and acquits herself well in a murderous dance sequence (I Ain’t Hep to that Step But I’ll Dig It) with Astaire but clarinet supremo and band leader Shaw is no thesp. Dig that swing, though! Billy Butterfield dubbed Meredith’s trumpet solo while Bobby Hackett played for Astaire. Musos will recognise several numbers. Frank Cavett wrote the story while the screenplay is by Elaine Ryan and Ian McLellan Hunter with uncredited contributions by songwriter Johnnny Mercer and Ben Hecht. That’s quite the band. Directed by H.C. Potter.

 

Jumanji (1995)

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You’re playing the game I started in 1969.  In 1869 in New Hampshire two men bury a board game. 100 years later young Alan Harris (Adam Hann-Byrd) can do nothing right for his exacting father (Jonathan Hyde) who owns a shoe factory and intends that Alan go to the same prep school he attended. Alan invites schoolfriend Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy) over and when they play the board game he found after being chased by bullies he gets sucked into it and she runs from the house. 26 years later orphaned siblings Peter (Bradley Pierce) and Judy Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst) move to the town with their aunt (Bebe Neuwirth). While exploring the old mansion she got at rock bottom price, the youngsters find a curious, jungle-themed game called Jumanji in the attic. When they start playing, they free the adult Alan Parrish (Robin Williams), who’s been stuck in the game’s inner jungle world for decades.  They go in search of the adult Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) who’s now a psychic with an extreme need for therapy. They join forces and if they win Jumanji, the kids can free Alan for good – but that means braving giant bugs, ill-mannered monkeys and even stampeding rhinos as well as a killer big-game hunter who bears a distinct resemblance to Alan’s father … Adapted from Chris Van Allsburg’s eponymous novel by Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh and Jim Strain, this is a superb, action-packed family adventure that never loses sight of the father-son story at its heart principally because the characters are highly relatable. Dunst plays a compulsive liar while her brother is more sensitive but they’re not obnoxious and their aunt’s impoverished attempts at parenting are entirely understandable. Particularly when a monkey takes over her car. When Robin Williams is unleashed from the game in full survival mode from the hellish jungle he’s absolutely on it with a few nice put-downs that aren’t too cruel for a school age kid. It’s great fun to see Pierce transform into a monkey – complete with tail. This is resolved wonderfully and directed at a terrific pace with superb design at every level. Cracking! Directed by Joe Johnston.

Get Out (2017)

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A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) reluctantly agrees to meet the family of his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) after dating for 5 months. But he’s unsure of a warm reception. During their drive to the family’s countryside estate, they hit a deer and report the incident. The white policeman asks for Chris’ ID even though he was not driving, but Rose intervenes and the encounter goes unrecorded. At the house, Rose’s parents, neurosurgeon Dean (Bradley Whitford) and psychiatrist/hypnotherapist Missy (Catherine Keener) make odd comments about black people. Chris notices that the black workers at the estate are uncannily compliant. Unable to sleep, Chris goes out for a smoke and sees groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) running from the woods. He sees housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) apparently watching him from a window. Missy catches Chris rand talks him into a hypnotherapy session to cure his smoking addiction and he enters ‘the sunken place’. He awakens from his ‘nightmare’ –  cigarettes now revolt him. Georgina unplugs his phone, draining his battery. Wealthy white people arrive for the Armitages’ annual get-together. They take a great interest in Chris, admiring his physique or expressing admiration for famous black figures. Chris meets Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield) a black man married to a much older white woman, who also acts strangely. Chris tries to fist bump, to no avail. Chris calls his friend, black Transport Authority Officer Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery) about the hypnosis and the strange behavior at the house. When Chris tries to stealthily photograph Logan, the camera flash makes Logan hysterical; he screams at Chris to get out. Dean claims he has epilepsy. Chris persuades Rose to leave with him, while Dean holds an auction – with a picture of Chris on display. Chris sends Logan’s photo on his phone to Rod who recognizes him as a missing person. While packing to leave, Chris finds photos of Rose in prior relationships with black people -including Walter and Georgina. Rose and the family block his exit and Missy hypnotises him. Suspecting a conspiracy, Rod goes to the police but is laughed out of it. Chris awakens strapped to a chair watching  featuring Rose’s grandfather Roman on a TV screen explains that the family transplants the brains of white people into black bodies – the consciousness of the host remains in the ‘sunken place’ – seeing but powerless. Jim Hudson (Stephen Root) a blind art dealer, tells Chris he wants his body so he can regain sight and Chris’s artistic talents. Chris plugs his ears with stuffing pulled from the chair, blocking the hypnotic commands instigated by Missy. When Rose’s crazed brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) comes to collect him for the surgery, Chris bludgeons him. Then he impales Dean with the antlers of a mounted stag, and stabs Missy. Chris steals a car and drives away but hits Georgina. Guilty over his mother’s death in a hit and run when he was a kid, he carries Georgina into the car, but she is possessed by Rose’s grandmother Marianne; she attacks him and Chris crashes, killing her. Rose and Walter, who is possessed by Roman, catch up with him. Chris awakens the real “Walter” with his phone flash; Walter takes Rose’s rifle, shoots her, and kills himself, and Roman with him. Chris begins to strangle Rose, but cannot bring himself to kill her. Rod arrives in a TSA vehicle and he and Chris drive away as Rose succumbs to her wound. Daring, witty, horrifying and verging on every cusp of taste and political correctness, here’s a take on race relations via The Stepford Wives that’s gut-bustingly sharp and funny with absolutely no false moments. Who could credit that this astonishing satirical suspense thriller is the debut of comic actor Jordan Peele? It’s stunning. One of the year’s must-see films. I told you not to go in the house!

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.

White Christmas (1954)

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I’m dreaming of a white Christmas with every Christmas card I write. Singer Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) has his life saved on Christmas night towards the end of WW2 (Bing Crosby) by soldier Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) who persuades him to become a double act. Davis fancies Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) who performs with her sister Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and he basically cons Wallace into joining them at a ski lodge in rural Vermont where the girls are going to perform a Christmas show – but they discover there’s no snow and it’s owned by Gen. Waverly (Dean Jagger), the boys’ commander in World War II, who, they learn, is having financial difficulties; his quaint country inn is failing. A season without snow could be a disaster. So what’s the foursome to do but plan a yuletide miracle: a fun-filled musical extravaganza that’s sure to put Waverly and his business back in the black! Then Betty figures Wallace isn’t the guy she thinks he is and abandons ship … Christmas is coming and this is as much a part of the celebration as that vat of cocoa and egg nog I’m currently drowning in as I watch the snow coming down. Originally intended for Fred Astaire opposite Crosby (who’d already had a bit of a hit with that little title tune in their smash movie Holiday Inn…) Astaire dropped out when he read the script so it went to Donald O’Connor. Then Crosby’s wife died and he went into mourning before coming back to it when Danny Kaye got involved and, well, here we are. There are nice jibes about showbiz, a nod to what retired people are supposed to do with their time when their faculties are still intact, and not a few great songs which are only written by the legendary Irving Berlin. With dance numbers to die for, romantic confusion and some crisp witticisms delivered with style – with a crew like that, would you expect any less? – this is tremendous, sentimental entertainment.  Shot in VistaVision (Paramount’s version of widescreen) this has some of the most gleaming reds you’ll see in cinema:  no Santa suit will ever match up to what these guys and gals wear for the ultimate seasonal singalong. Written by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank and directed by Michael (‘Bring on the empty horses!’) Curtiz. Look fast for George Chakiris in the dance troupe. 

Jaws (1975)

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Ibsen by way of a Peter Benchley bestseller and an adventurous and gifted director called Steven Spielberg. I got caught up in this again late last night and was gripped, as ever, by this visceral tale of beachside terror which hasn’t aged a day and in many respects remains my favourite Spielberg movie. There is so much to relish. The atmosphere, aided immeasurably by John Williams’ stunningly suggestive score – which was the soundtrack in the bathroom of the late lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London – utterly terrifying!. The performances:  who doesn’t love Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist? Roy Scheider as the seaside town police chief who’s scarified of water? Robert Shaw as the drunken shark hunting Captain Quint? And those hellishly cute kids. And what about the titles sequence? There’s the politics of the summer season and the mayor who doesn’t want word to get out. The anger of the bereaved mother. The bloodied water and beach toys. The track-zoom of realisation. The clear storytelling. White sharks got a bad press out of this epic battle but there has rarely been a better exploration of the ecology of man and beast. Quite literally sensational. Classic, brilliant, the original of the species. Written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with a little assist from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, and John Milius.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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And that’s how you play Get the Guest. Edward Albee’s shocking 1962 play was bought by Jack Warner and the intention was to hire Bette Davis and James Mason – and how fun would that have been, having Davis quote herself with that unforgettable first line, What a dump!? But it’s Elizabeth Taylor who gets to declare the immortal line, squinting, bug-eyed with drink, into the harsh light after a night out on campus with unambitious lecturer hubby historian Richard Burton. When young marrieds George Segal and Sandy Dennis enter their den of iniquitous untruths and illusion their own marriage is laid bare as well in a devastating series of tragicomic slurs and fantasies, a miasma of lies, put downs and storytelling. Albee’s play was of course a profane satire about the sham foundations of marriage and social mores of the time;  this film helped dismantle the Production Code and was the first film Jack Valenti really had to look at in terms of what constituted entertainment for consenting adults. Albee said of the leads that Taylor was quite good while Burton was incredible. That’s in the eye of the beholder – in fact Taylor is extraordinary and it is remarkable that she gave her greatest exhibition of not merely star quality but intensely affecting emotional performances in works written by homosexual playwrights – one thinks of her in Suddenly Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, complex works that, like this, have a strain of flagrant misogyny running through them. Ernest Lehman did the adaptation which mostly cleaves to the play with just a couple of exceptions and it’s ‘opened out’ with the dance scene in the diner – and what a humdinger that is! What is perhaps most astonishing is that this was Mike Nichols’ directing debut, supposedly at Taylor’s insistence. Just look at the way he frames shots with Haskell Wexler as his DoP: he said he learned everything he knew about directing from watching A Place in the Sun. Taylor and Burton are at the apex of their careers here, particularly with regard to their joint projects. But despite the plethora of nominations it was she and Dennis who walked away with the Academy Awards – A Man For All Seasons took all the other big plaudits that year. There is a reason that Taylor is known for being the last great Hollywood star – and it’s right here. Phenomenal.