Nothing But the Night (1973)

I dislike being put in my placefor you or anyone else. Three wealthy trustees of the Van Traylen fund, which supports a school for orphans on the Scottish island of Bala, are murdered but their deaths are clearly staged as suicide or accident. Three other trustees are on a bus carrying children from the school when the driver suddenly catches on fire, but he is the only one to die. One of the girls Mary Valley (Gwyneth Strong) is taken to a London hospital where she has strange seizures and recounts stories which she couldn’t possibly have experienced. Psychiatrist Dr Haynes (Keith Barron) and tabloid journalist Joan Foster (Georgia Brown) interview the girl’s mother Anna Harb (Diana Dors), a prostitute who’s done ten years in Broadmoor for murdering three people. They hope to enlist the aid of the hospital’s senior member, Sir Mark Ashley (Peter Cushing). When Haynes is brutally murdered following a visit from Harb, Ashley enlists the aid of old friend and police inspector Colonel Charles Bingham (Christopher Lee). They take their investigation to Bala where precautions have been taken to protect the children and the remaining trustees by the local police headed by Cameron (Fulton Mackay). In the meantime, Anna Harb travels secretly to Bala, hoping to find Mary, although she is now suspected of the murders and an explosion on a boat that apparently kills several others of the trustees. Ashley and Bingham then uncover the sinister truth behind the murders … Blasted reporters – never let you get on with your work. An intriguing premise rather undone by a sloppy screenplay from Brian Hayles adapting John Blackburn’s novel. It’s wonderful to see Lee and Cushing uniting in a contemporary story that doesn’t involve vampirism and it’s certainly odd that by the end of that year Lee would be ensconced in another Scottish island folk horror shocker, The Wicker Man. He produced this under his own company banner Charlemagne Films which he formed with producer Anthony Nelson Keys – their only production as it didn’t make money. What a shame that Dors is reduced to so little dialogue and spending half the film grubbing about in the undergrowth – then getting the old pyro treatment. And yes, that is Michael Gambon playing Inspector Grant; Kathleen Byron (the mad nun from Black Narcissus) plays Dr Rose; while young Strong is making her screen debut and would go on to become a much loved TV performer in shows like Only Fools and Horses. The ending is literally a cliffhanger but it’s practically thrown away: you might find similarities with the recent Get Out. Directed by Peter Sasdy. You burned your own mother alive!

Red Joan (2019)

Socialists can have glamour. Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is a widow living out a quiet retirement in the suburbs when, shockingly, the British Secret Service places her under arrest. The charge: providing classified scientific information – including details on the building of the atomic bomb – to the Soviet government for decades. As the interrogation gets underway, Joan relives the dramatic events that shaped her life and her beliefs. As a physics student at Cambridge in the Thirties, young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is befriended by beautiful Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes) who grew up together after Sonya was orphaned and their relationship is more like that of a brother and a sister than cousins. Joan falls in love with the intense intellectual Leo. He goes to Russia in 1939 and is stuck there when war breaks out. Joan takes a job as assistant to married scientist Prof. Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) at the wartime Tube Alloys project planning an atomic bomb for Britain. Leo returns from the Soviet Union and asks her to pass information but she refuses. She starts sleeping with Max on a trip to Canada where an encounter with Leo (now based in Montreal) sees her refusing once again to be a spy. Back in England she watches horrified the newsreel footage of the bombing of Hiroshima and finds herself sympathetic to the Soviet cause. But she accuses Leo of using her and then finds him dead, an apparent suicide. She tries to make contact with Sonya again … We’re not on the same side any more. Adapted from Jennie Rooney’s titular novel (based on the life of Melita Norwood) by Lindsay Shapero, this spy drama is meticulously made and attractively played by a talented cast. (If Tom Hughes isn’t the next James Bond I’ll eat one of the extravagant hats on display here). However some crucial plot points and revelations are played down in a badly mismanaged script which effectively diffuses any suspense into two near-identical scenes of the police staging a search of the Alloys department to find evidence about the supply of information to the Soviets. The flashback structure doesn’t always come off, the passage of time isn’t demarcated well and the relationship between Dench and her barrister son Nick (Ben Miles) doesn’t hit the dramatic point required: in fact his father’s identity isn’t clear in a parallel plot with Sonya’s pregnancy in the 1930s. The real culprit recruiting people to the Russian side is far too obvious, the tension is flat and it’s paced poorly. Not what you expect from a director of the calibre of Trevor Nunn but the story is intriguing nonetheless and Cookson does well with the role. Beautifully shot by Zac Nicholson. Is anything you ever told me actually true?

Miranda (1948)

There’s a dreadful shortage of men below sea. With his wife Clare (Googie Withers) uninterested in fishing, Dr. Paul Martin (Griffith Jones) goes on holiday in Cornwall.  There he snags mermaid Miranda Trewella (Glynis Johns) and is pulled into the water. She keeps him prisoner in her underwater cavern and only lets him go after he agrees to show her London. He disguises her as an invalid patient in a wheelchair and takes her to his flat for a month-long stay. Clare reluctantly agrees to the arrangement, but gets him to hire someone to look after their house guest and he selects Nurse Carey (Margaret Rutherford) for the eccentric nature that previously caused him to get rid of her and takes her into his confidence. To Paul’s relief, Carey is delighted to be working for a mermaid as she always believed they exist. Miranda’s seductive nature earns her the admiration of not only Paul, but also his chauffeur Charles (David Tomlinson), as well as Nigel (John McCallum), the artist fiancé of Clare’s friend and upstairs neighbour Isobel (Sonia Holm) arousing the jealousy of the women in their lives. Clare starts to follow her instincts and starts reading up on her suspicions. Nigel breaks off his engagement, but then he and Charles discover that Miranda has been flirting with both of them ….  You’ve hated me ever since I set tail in this house. The delightful Johns has fun as the beguiling mermaid who insinuates herself into the life of a doctor living quite the de luxe life in his well appointed London apartment with his lovely wife Withers. And then she drives every man mad with desire. There are lovely moments when she can’t help herself – snacking on the goldfish straight from the bowl, scarfing cockles at the fish market and depriving a sea lion of his lunch on a trip to the zoo. Witty and surprising, this wastes no time in introducing Johns – two minutes – and once she fishes Paul out of the water and into her cave she wastes no time in telling him she had to throw the last two men back because their legs were too short. She has a disarming way of critiquing men’s physiques to their face. Withers plays opposite offscreen husband McCallum while the redoubtable Rutherford has an amusing scene in a museum with a mummy and off-screen husband Stringer Davis. Witty, charming fluff with Johns as bewitching as ever as the flirty fish out of water and some timely references including the novel Forever Amber – which plants the suggestive conclusion. Adapted from his play by Peter Blackmore with additional dialogue by Denis Waldock, this was produced by Betty Box and directed by Ken Annakin. Tail by Dunlop. There is a sequel, made 6 years later, Mad About Men. If you ask me there’s something very fishy about this case

The Running Man (1963)

You’re not in Croydon any more. Stella Black (Lee Remick) returns from the memorial service for Rex, her late husband, a pilot who died in a gliding accident. He (Laurence Harvey) is in fact alive and well and in hiding at a secluded seaside boarding house having defrauded his insurer Excelsior out of a huge sum of money for his premature death after they failed to pay out for an accident involving his airline business. Stella joins him in Malaga, Spain where he has changed his appearance and is living under the assumed name of Jim Jerome. Things start to go wrong when an insurance investigator Stephen Maddox (Alan Bates) appears to be following Stella as she drives her expensive car and enjoys the high life at a lovely hotel … He shouldn’t have married her. Adapted by John Mortimer from Shelley Smith’s novel The Ballad of the Running Man, this starts out as a sunny neo noir suspenser and turns into something quite different with a nice twist that dictates the outcome. Harvey and Remick are superb as the beautiful blonde married couple whose fate alters irrevocably and their relationship with it; while the issue of mistaken identity regarding Bates is wonderfully played out, subtly inverting the entire premise so that it rebounds with catastrophic consequences. Thanks to Robert Krasker’s cinematography (a very different experience to the kind of exploitation of locations in The Third Man) Spain looks stunning and the sinister nature of the story comes entirely from the construction and playing. Never was misunderstanding so well portrayed: everything here is lost in translation. Watch out for Fernando Rey as a policeman and Noel Purcell and Eddie Byrne have small roles in a production partly shot at Ardmore Studios in Ireland.  Directed by Carol Reed. They’ll have to put up the insurance premiums on anyone who wants to make love to you

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

There is no whole thing. You have to make it work. Divorced thirtysomething recruitment agent Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson) begins a romantic relationship with glamorous sculptor Bob Elkin (Murray Head), aware that he’s also intimately involved with lonely middle-aged Jewish doctor Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch).  Bob takes off from the weekend babysitting for Alex’s friends the Hodsons (Vivian Pickles and Frank Windsor) in order to spend time with Daniel. The younger man represents a break with the pasts of both Bob’s older lovers, and neither is willing to let go of the love and vitality he brings to their mundane lives although he’s planning to leave for New York … I know you’re not getting enough of me but you’re getting all there is. Film critic Penelope Gilliatt’s screenplay, suggested by material she plumbed in her novel One by One, is a deep delve into the compromises and deceptions people make in order to have a little happiness. The North London setting with its population of slightly boho middle class types conceals the fact that the story is told rather cleverly, through the shared answering service, tales that Daniel is told by his patients, the insights of the precocious children Alex is minding and her mother’s truisms about marriage. The autumnal scenes carving out a season of political unrest hint at the melancholy truth that these are people who live in fear of rejection, hesitant about commitment, afraid to make a permanent display of emotion in a film which wears its protagonists’ pathology on its shirt sleeve, a patina of loss.  It’s amusing to see both Alex and Daniel cruise past Bob’s flat late at night, fearful there might be yet another person claiming his affection. Alongside the brilliant performances of the leads, with Finch a standout, there’s legendary silent actress Bessie Love as an answering service operator; Tony Britton in search of a job and winding up with a one night stand; and a very young Daniel Day-Lewis as a car vandal. How apposite for Jon Finch to be hustling his namesake, narrowly avoiding a late night arrest in Piccadilly Circus. Directed by John Schlesinger, whose best film this is, about a world he fully inhabits. He also contributed to the screenplay for this landmark in gay representation, along with David Sherwin and Ken Levison, who are thanked for their assistance in the credits. Some people believe something is better than nothing, but I’m beginning to believe that nothing can be better than something

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

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

The Return of the Pink Panther

Compared to Clouseau, Attila the Hun was a Red Cross volunteer. The famous jewel and national treasure of Lugash, the Pink Panther, is stolen once again in a daring heist with only the trademark glove as evidence. Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) is rehabilitated from his demotion to the street beat by Chief Inspector Dreyfuss (Herbert Lom) of the Sureté and sets off on a mission to nab the notorious thief who is probably Sir Charles Lytton (Christopher Plummer). But when Clouseau carries out surveillance at his house in Nice he encounters his resourceful wife Claudine (Catherine Schell) who leads him on a wild goose chase to Gstaad… There’s something about a wife – even with a beard. Marking the return of both writer/director Blake Edwards (writing with Frank Waldman) and star Sellers to the series following a misguided iteration with Alan Arkin in 1968, this succeeds due to some fabulous slapstick set pieces with all kinds of ordinary things defeating the brainless Inspector – a blind bank robbery lookout with his minky (a scene that is actually gasp-inducing), a telephone, a vacuum cleaner, his own moustache and a fake nose. Great visual gags involving tiny vehicles (á la M. Hulot), an unfortunately located swimming pool, in-house martial artist Cato (Burt Kwouk) and some very funny verbals including Sellers’ horrific mangling of the French language make up for the deadening miscasting of Plummer in the role previously handled effortlessly by David Niven. Sellers is so hilarious as the anarachic disaster-prone idiot he had Schell giggling uncontrollably – and those takes are in the final cut! There’s also the priceless running joke of an increasingly deranged Lom and his gun lighter. If it’s in the first act … well, you know your Chekhov. Seriously funny at times with extraordinary titles designed by Richard Williams. With friends like you, who needs enemies?

Magic Town (1947)

Magic Town

The air becomes charged with electricity around desperate men. WW2 vet Lawrence ‘Rip’ Smith (James Stewart) is looking to find a way to beat fellow pollster George Stringer and his military colleague Professor Frederick Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) tells him about Grandview, a town that offers a precisely representative model for the entire United States. Rip promises a client a result within 24 hours that Stringer has been working on for a long time and he and his team arrive in the town posing as insurance salesmen. He has to deal with Mary Peterman  (Jane Wyman) who is trying to persuade the Mayor (Harry Holman) to build more property and give the town a civic centre – which would alter the demographic. It forces Rip to address the town and they side with him, not Mary who writes an editorial about him in her family newspaper. While they are attracted to each other, he is gathering information as well as coaching the school basketball team. When she overhears him calling a client, she writes another story about the reason for his being in Grandview and a national paper picks it up and Rip’s mission is made known in the ‘public opinion capital of the U.S.’ … Okay now. You’re a typical American – act like it! Robert Riskin’s script is rather reminiscent of a Frank Capra film – but then he wrote most of them, despite Capra’s self-aggrandising public line that his was The Name Above the Title. And yet this isn’t directed by Capra, but by William Wellman. While it readily captures much of the kind of atmosphere and social concerns of Riskin’s pre-WW2 work in that partnership the shifts from comedy to drama aren’t managed in the same way – with Riskin as producer from a story he wrote with Joseph Krumgold and Wellman directing, the sharp ends of the story are confronted directly, suggesting the compromises the screenwriter might have been making prior to this production. Rip wants money, Mary is after a good story with a political edge. This exists almost in inverse relationship to Riskin’s previous narratives, with the kinds of conversations that Capra softened into sentiment given a much tougher emphasis here (underlined by the Roy Webb’s score). So it’s the same type of material as before but given a much different treatment, although it all comes together in the end with the people creating their own destiny.  This as ever with Riskin is a blue-sky picture asking people what kind of country they want the United States to be and to make it happen democratically – but he never takes his eye off the ball, locating the peculiar way in which families run towns and thereby society as a whole. Fascinating as a prism through which to view Stewart’s stuttering post-war career (It’s a Wonderful Life was also a box office failure) as well as clarifying what Riskin had done for Capra now that they were separate entities. That’s Mickey Rooney’s dad Joe Yule as the radio comic. How do you like your fancy beautiful circus of a town now?

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters

You’re flushing your career down the toilet for a cowhand. Corporate defence lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is approached by his grandmother’s farmer neighbour Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) to investigate the deaths of hundreds of his cattle in Parkersburg, West Virginia, probably due to a poisoning incident by manufacturer DuPont. The company’s lawyer Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) promises to help Robert but stalls so Robert files suit to get discovery and with nothing useful in an Environmental Protection Agency report he finds information about an unregulated chemical called PFOA which turns out to be Teflon – and it’s on and in everything including the water supply, poisoning with a substance the body cannot tolerate or absorb and causing six cancers and facial deformities. It transpires that DuPont carried out tests and did not make the findings public. The case drives Robert’s behaviour to cause his former lawyer wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) to worry for him and he eventually collapses from ill-health as the years wind on, with Wilbur and his wife Sandra (Denise Dal Vera) getting cancer from the infected water they’ve been consuming. They refuse DuPont’s offer of settlement – they want justice. Robert finds that Medical Monitoring is permitted in West Virginia and undertakes a class action lawsuit with the biggest sample of epidemiological data in history but after seven years there are still no results, his marriage is in difficulty and he’s taking yet another paycut  … Better living through chemistry. Adapted by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael  Carnahan from three articles in The New York Times and The Intercept, this is a grimy looking drama about corporate malfeasance that’s paced as slowly and deliberately as Bilott’s lawsuits, with some touches of conventional genre paranoia in one thriller sequence (in a car park, surprise surprise).  It unfurls chronologically, a decade-and-a-half-long story of terrible, destructive deceit – a toxic pollution arrangement covertly blessed by Government agencies, yet another searing indictment of structural inequality and the impunity with which big companies abuse power and kill people, no questions asked. It’s a David and Goliath procedural tale that has global ramifications and despite its desperately dull appearance and some flawed and oddly impersonal directing choices there are some great moments especially for Tim Robbins as Ruffalo’s boss; and Bill Camp, who exudes his usual authenticity beneath some truly eccentric eyebrows. Hathaway’s stay-at-home wife gradually gets a better arc than at first appears; while Ruffalo is shuffling and in pain, dressed in too-big clothes in a whistleblowing role that clearly is a labour of love, a wannabe Hulk gravitationally pulled to earth, feeling the hurt of all his sick, suffering and dying clients as he does his due diligence with dignity and perseverance. Stick with it. Like the Teflon on your frying pan that’s killing you every day. Directed by Todd Haynes. The system is rigged

Le Week-End (2013)

Le Weekend

I’m amazed at how mediocre I’ve turned out to be. Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg Burrows (Lindsay Duncan) are a married academic couple from Birmingham advancing in age and tension. To mark their 30th wedding anniversary, the two embark on a trip to the place they honeymooned three decades before: Paris. Hoping to rejuvenate their marriage, the couple arrives in Paris only for things not to go as planned. Their honeymoon hotel is horrifying so Meg insists on booking into the best hotel in town. They eat lavishly and run out of a restaurant without paying. Their hi jinks re-ignite their romance. Their son wants to move back in but Meg is adamant he can’t, Nick fields the calls from back in England as Meg rages that he is too tolerant. Eventually, the two bump into Nick’s former Cambridge acolyte Morgan (Jeff Goldblum) who is now a philosophy star and they attend a dinner party at his posh Rue de Rivoli home that ultimately opens up a new view of life and love for the ageing couple… I knew this trip would be a fucking disaster. Author and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi’s fourth collaboration with director Roger Michell is all at once delightful homage, biting meditation on ageing and a thoughtful discourse on the absurd difficulties of sustaining an enduring marriage. It’s also a sly commentary on academic rivalry, PC-ness (Nick is being retired early because he told a black woman student she should spend more time on the books and less on her hair), wrongful assumptions about the person you know best and the real problems of intimacy after decades living in someone else’s pocket. This last five to ten years your vagina has become something of a closed book. Sentimental Broadbent is angry beneath that pleading surface;  flinty Duncan is superficially icy but truly loyal – and hot. When Morgan takes Nick’s raucous and self-pitying dinner party confession for a kind of Situationist performance and both husband and wife are disgusted by his ignorance of the truth when it’s laid bare, it is a joy to behold them unite again. And then, the ending, a glorious homage to Bande à part, re-enacting a scene in a simple but uplifting manner that might make you fear growing old just a little bit less. You’ll recognise Morgan’s son as Olly Alexander, of the band Years and Years. This is where I want to be forever