Ace in the Hole (1951)

 

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Aka The Big Carnival. I’ve met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my time but you – you’re twenty minutes.  Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is the callous hard-drinking big city journo who’s been fired from every newspaper he ever worked for and finds himself in a small town in New Mexico on a reduced income desperate for a story to get him the Pulitzer. When treasure hunter Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) gets trapped in a mineshaft looking for Indian artifacts, Chuck colludes with an electioneering sheriff (Ray Teal) to keep the man down there in a delayed and protracted rescue effort in order to draw attention to his scoop which he uses to parlay his way back into his old job. Minosa’s wife Lorraine isn’t bothered one way or another. As played by the brilliant actress Jan Sterling she’s a brittle bottle-blonde broad who gives as good as she has to take from her violent new love interest, with Douglas as vicious as you’d imagine. This was an important film for director Billy Wilder, the first time he was out on his own as producer and writer without Charles Brackett. It was more or less inspired by the Floyd Collins cave-in story in 1925 which earned reporter William Burke Miller the Pulitzer. And a couple of years before this was made a child ended up dying in a well while thousands of people gathered to watch the failed rescue. Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman wrote the hard as nails screenplay which seems not the cynical exploitation picture it was accused of being upon release and more an accurate representation of the relationships around the press and the news they report. This gets more contemporary by the day.

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Shalako (1968)

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What a potentially terrific project this was: a British western, made in Spain, shot by Edward Dmytryk and pairing the sex symbols of the era, Sean Connery (in between Bonds) and Brigitte Bardot. An adaptation of a 1962 novel by Louis L’Amour (c’mon, how many books did this genius write?!) it’s the story of an aristocratic European hunting party in New Mexico, led on a safari through an Apache reservation by unscrupulous guide, Stephen Boyd. Countess Irina (Bardot) finds herself separated from her companions and kills an Apache, at which point she encounters Shalako (Connery) who comes to her rescue.The natives are restless and Shalako warns everyone to leave this land, which is subject to treaty. Their refusal prompts an attack after Shalako goes for help. Meanwhile Bardot is left behind with the party and is a crack shot, while a dumb American senator underplays the danger and Honor Blackman (who co-starred with Connery in Goldfinger) does the dirty on debt-ridden husband Jack Hawkins when the going gets tough. Dmytryk doesn’t seem entirely at home with the genre’s mechanics and some of the landscape is photographed lazily. When Bardot and Connery finally have their moment it doesn’t fizz as it should:  whether it’s down to the writing, the lack of chemistry, the staging, is open to debate. Shot in Almeria, this doesn’t have the cojones or the contours of the era’s spaghetti westerns, but it’s a watchable curiosity, not least for the sight of Eric Sykes as a resourceful British butler. Adapted by JJ Griffith and Hal Hopper.

Contact (1997)

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In between paying the bills, dealing with people, learning stuff, surviving illness, being distracted and getting through the day, everyone is trying to figure out what we are, why we are here and all that good stuff. There are many of us who would leap at the chance of getting off the Earth and into the galaxy for a bit. No?! Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) has been trying to make contact with people since she was a kid and her father (David Morse – what an apposite name) supplied her first with radios then telescopes and now that she’s an orphaned adult she’s a hugely important research scientist with SETI battling for funding until she can finally make contact with extra-terrestrial life:  people on Earth are just not as fascinating, when you get down to it. And funding’s a bitch as far as getting the Government to back you. The publicity attaching to her private project when static is finally revealed to be the first ever TV pictures being beamed back to Earth (Hitler at the 1936 Olympics) – along with plans to build a bloody huge machine for goodness knows what purpose – elicits scepticism, terror and hostility, especially from the religious nuts. She argues with theologian Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) about the differences between facts and articles of faith and the film is really a disquisition on the politics of belief. She misses out on the first supposed opportunity to travel to meet the alien life forms, in favour of her game-playing boss David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt); while the original project is actually being backed by a reclusive billionaire SR Hadden (John Hurt) who has his own very personal reasons. Science versus religion is the heart of this superior production from Carl Sagan’s novel which he based on a story devised with his wife Ann Druyan, originally a treatment for a film at Warners. It was adapted by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Foster is perfectly cast in this story of grim determination. If you’ve been to Cape Canaveral you’ll wonder at the possibilities, as much as you laugh at the rockets and paraphernalia that seem to be made from egg boxes and tinfoil. But all it takes is a leap of faith … Marvellous, in every sense.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

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Adapted by Nelson Gidding from Michael Crichton’s bestseller, this posits the idea that a satellite that has landed in Piedmont New Mexico was carrying an alien pathogen capable of causing mass casualties – everyone in the tiny township is dead. The scientists from Project Scoop are called in and find two people touched but still alive – a baby and an old man, who they remove to a lab. The researchers have to be decontaminated and then it’s a matter of identifying whether it is in fact an alien bacterium that is being launched on the earth’s population and it’s a race against time before a solution is found … Where you stand on this film’s success depends on your tolerance for old technology albeit with great effects for the era, devised by Douglas Trumbull who’d made his name doing 2001. The other issue is the uninteresting nature of the leads – perhaps casting Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne and Kate Reid (a man in the source novel) was to ensure that your attention was focused on the story so that the issues of government readiness for such a potential catastrophe or alien invasion, secret projects (the left hand scientist doesn’t know what the right hand scientist is working on) and the nature of the storytelling itself are foregrounded. It’s told documentary fashion, with several interesting split screen effects and a ticker telling us what happens each day. Each specialist brings something different to the Wildfire project with their foibles and strengths exposed as things become exponentially problematic and the clock is ticking on the nuclear device should there be a containment breach – and everyone now knows that whatever this is it’s airborne and is too big to be a virus. Robert Wise directed a film that is very much a product of its time but with some astute lessons about how to deal with foreign invasions, germ warfare and what to do when your chief researcher experiences absence epilepsy and makes the wrong finding.The kind of film that makes you want to go back to the books to look at how pH range functions.

Them! (1954)

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There’s been a series of mysterious deaths out in the desert. When little Sandy Descher is found wandering catatonic and clutching her doll all she can do when they put formic acid under her nose is scream, Them! And run in terror. Radioactivity has caused a mutation in the ant population and now they’re gigantic and killing people! This was the best giant bug movie and it’s pretty great, with James Whitmore as the brave cop on their trail, James Arness as an FBI agent and Edmund Gwenn as the venerable scientist tracing the effects of atomic explosions and his clever daughter, fellow scientist Joan Weldon coming face to face with the unleashed beasts. Time is running out and they need to get the army to help them kill the queens in their nest … which necessitates a chase through the storm drains of Los Angeles. Brilliant sci fi from a story by George Worthing Yates (who would write a lot more in the Fifties), developed into a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes and directed by Gordon Douglas. There are good effects and a fantastically exciting score by Bronislau Kaper, adding enormously to the thrills.

Without Reservations (1946)

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Claudette Colbert is the famous author of a political allegory that’s been snapped up by Hollywood. On the train while travelling to the studios she meets a Marine (John Wayne) who could play her hero now that Cary Grant’s dropped out but she conceals her identity – Wayne doesn’t like the book – and an array of misadventures ensue. He’s accompanied by best bud Don DeFore (two DeFore movies in one day, howzaboutthat?!) and they are both charmed by the cute little lady whose antics are clearly inspired by two of her previous train and road movies – The Palm Beach Story and It Happened One Night. They are both classic comedies. This is not, even if it is based on a novel written by two smart women, Jane Allen and Mae Livingston: I am presuming the acclaimed novel Colbert has written is Ayn Rand-lite.  They detour to New Mexico where their host advises her to write based on her experiences before chasing them off his property with a shotgun. In the end they take 80 minutes to get to LA by which time I was gnawing at my own arm in frustration. Louella Parsons issues some of her radio gossip and Cary Grant turns up but it’s not enough to save this, even with Colbert being her customarily lustrous self. Interestingly, however, given that this is a romantic comedy, it ends on a shot of a bed, with Colbert and Wayne being joyously reunited just offscreen … daring!

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

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An extraordinary film in so many ways. A woman bewitches a man and ruins his life. Or does he destroy hers? She is Gene Tierney, a performer whose legacy is little recognised today but she had a great run in the 1940s. He is Cornel Wilde, a mild presence at best, perfectly suited as the mediocre writer who doesn’t quite know what he’s getting into by marrying a woman whose father he closely resembles. Or does he? She walks out on her fiance, she marries him instead, kills his crippled brother in a scene that remains one of the best ever filmed and then she kills their unborn child and THEN … frames him for her own murder after she discovers his love for her cousin, brought up as her adoptive sister and to whom he has dedicated his latest book. She might be one of the most evil women who ever lived in anyone’s imagination, or one of the most wronged. After all, didn’t he want her as a muse? And then dragged all manner of people into their domestic environment. She says early on, Every book’s a confession. And he is wanting for inspiration. Jo Swerling was enlisted by fabled producer Darryl F. Zanuck to adapt Ben Ames Williams’ bestselling novel which Tierney read and then petitioned for the role. Amazing houses, wonderful cinematography by Leon Shamroy, sublime costuming (Kay Nelson with a helping hand from Oleg Cassini) and effective direction by John M. Stahl, responsible for so many terrific melodramas. This is framed as a film noir with its flashback narration but really belongs in that genre. Tierney is genius.