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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Fletch (1985)

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Are you putting a whole fist up there Doc? Irwin Fletcher (Chevy Chase) is an undercover reporter doing a drugs story while disguised as a homeless junkie on the beach when he’s approached by businessman Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson) to kill him for $50,000 because he’s got bone cancer. Fletch identifies himself as Ted Nugent. He then investigates this fascinating proposition, donning a myriad of disguises and identities (we particularly like the 49c teeth), getting mired in Stanwyk’s marital disarray, property deals, police corruption involving Chief of Police Karlin (Joe Don Baker) – and murder. And he gets to know Alan’s LA wife Gail (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) in a mutually satisfying fashion. Win! Gregory Mcdonald’s novel gets a fast-moving adaptation from Andrew Bergman, a director in his own right (there was some additional uncredited work by fellow writer-director Phil Alden Robinson.)  Chase gives the performance (or performances) that you’d expect – droll and deadpan, always amiable (yet plucky!) and the running joke about his bizarre expense claims is well done. Fine, funny lighthearted fare handled with his customary aplomb by director Michael Ritchie, energised by a typically zippy plinkety-plonk score from Harold Faltermeyer, the go-to composer for zeitgeisty mid-Eighties entertainment. Chase even dons an Afro to play basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There’s a wonderful supporting cast including Geena Davis in the newsroom, David Harper (of The Waltons!) as ‘teenager’ and Kenneth Mars:  we are thrice blessed!

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

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There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is the creme de la creme of Hollywood directors, maker of such fine escapist fare as Ants in Your Pants of 1939. The audiences love him! But he wants to make a social contribution and desires more than anything critical favour and socially relevant material. His butler (Robert Greig) and valet (Eric Blore – how I love him!) deplore the idea. He is followed by a fully-staffed double-decker bus provided by studio boss Lebrand (Robert Warwick) should his needs demand anything solid like a bed or food. He fails first time out but second time he determines to dress up like a hobo and find out what real life is like for the working man. He encounters a waitress known only as The Girl (Veronica Lake) who takes pity on him and he ultimately realises – after serious trials – that making ordinary joes laugh and relieving their impoverished misery is far better than any serious-minded nonsense like his planned adaptation of that crack preachy serious novel, O, Brother Where Art Thou?  McCrea is superb and Lake is stunning as the super-sweet girl who falls for this man who’s supposedly hit hard times. As if! Was there ever a finer Hollywood satire? Hardly. From the camera-stylo de Preston Sturges whose favourite players are all over the cast. He’s the only filmmaker whose office I tried to locate on the Paramount Studios tour. Oh! The hilarity! Sheer, unadulterated genius.

Summer Holiday (1963)

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Who forgot to buy the bread?!  Don (Cliff Richard) and his friends (Melvyn Hayes, Teddy Green and Jeremy Bulloch) are London Transport bus mechanics. During a miserably wet British summer lunch break, Don arrives, having persuaded their employers to lend him and his friends a double-decker bus which they convert into a holiday caravan, which they drive across continental Europe, intending to reach the Riviera. However, their eventual destination is Athens. On the way, they are joined by a trio of young women singers (Una Stubbs, Pamela Hart and Jacqueline Daryl) whose car has broken down and a runaway singer (Lauri Peters), who initially pretends to be a 14-year old boy called Bobby, pursued by her voracious stage mother (Madge Ryan) and agent (Lionel Murton). There are chases, dogs, singalongs, dance sequences with Cliff’s band The Shadows, a misunderstanding almost causing a marriage to a moustachioed shepherdess and problems at border crossings. Written by Peter Myers and Ronald Cass with musical orchestration by Stanley Black, this is chock-a-block with songs – Bachelor Boy was added to increase the running time. It’s genial, hokey stuff with England’s biggest rock ‘n’ roller Cliff making for a charming lead. His opposite number Lauri Peters was never a big name but she’d established the role of Liesel in the 1959 Broadway production of The Sound of Music where she sang Sixteen Going On Seventeen to teen Nazi Rolf played by Jon Voight who became her husband. She was overdubbed here by Grazina Frame who did the same job in Cliff’s previous film The Young Ones. The dance numbers were choreographed by Herbert Ross who made quite the director himself.  This was huge in the UK but in the US it played to empty houses – hardly surprising when you consider it was released there 54 years ago, November 24th 1963, two days after the assassination of JFK. Directed by debutant Peter Yates, this is why we all love red double-decker London buses!

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

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My number’s Pennsylvania 6-5000. Glenn Miller (James Stewart) is a young impoverished trombonist who pawns the instrument every time he leaves his latest band because nobody wants to use his arrangements: he hears music in a certain way but hasn’t the means to achieve his own orchestra, at least not yet. He’s confident it’ll happen some day just as he is that Helen (June Allyson) the girl he once dated at college in Colorado will marry him so he buys her a fake string of pearls and gets her to see him for the first time in two years despite her being engaged to someone else. Then he disappears again.  When she agrees to meet him in NYC she marries him and while he falls in and out of jobs she gets him to form his own crew with the money she squirrelled away without his knowing and by 1939 he has one of the biggest swing bands in the US … This biographical film is just so good it’s hard to know where to start:  the transitions which are so brilliantly inscribed by visually expert director Anthony Mann, particularly in the early scenes when the pawn shop is so central to Miller’s whole life;  the ease with which we grasp Miller’s misery at not being able to translate the music in his head to live performance (the squirming during a showgirl’s bowdlerized delivery of Moonlight Serenade has to be seen to be believed); the simple way the adoption of their children is handled; and the depiction of friendship with pianist Chummy (Henry Morgan) and its significance to running a smooth band. If you’re a jazz fan you’ll get a shiver of recognition every time a familiar chord strikes up and kudos to arranger Henry Mancini (who had played with Miller and was part of the ‘ghost’ band made up of the original and the Army Air Force players when he died) who errs just the right side of easy. There’s another recognition factor too – watching Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa perform is another plus;  as is the scene in London during a German bombing raid when the band play on in the open air – and the audience applaud once they get up again. Stewart is splendid in the title role and his resemblance to Miller doesn’t hurt. He was paired previously with Allyson in The Stratton Story and would work with her again in director Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command. This was the star and director’s fifth film collaboration  (out of eight) and the first non-Western. It was a huge hit, as was the soundtrack album and is a genuinely thrilling musical which will give real fans immense pleasure. There’s a great final scene with that little brown jug. Gulp. Written by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper.

Soldier of Fortune (1955)

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Nations fall when they lose their sense of humour. Jane Hoyt (Susan Hayward) arrives in Hong Kong looking for her missing photojournalist husband Louis (Gene Barry). He’s been kidnapped by the Chinese. She seeks help from an American smuggler (or shipping magnate!) Hank Lee (Clark Gable) but winds up trying her luck on Macau with Fernand Rocha (Mel Welles). However her guide is taken by the Communists en route and Rocha locks her up and gambles her money. Lee finds out from hard-drinking Rene Dupont Chevalier (Alexander D’Arcy) that Jane is probably in trouble and he uses one of his junks to travel, taking police Inspector Merryweather (Michael Rennie) against his will to ensure their safety… When Gable and Hayward meet there’s an instant attraction and one of the good things about Ernest Gann’s adaptation of his own novel is the dagger-like lines that he bestows upon each character in turn, and when she says this to Gable it’s knockout:  To me mister, you’re just a gangster, a throwback. I hope you enjoy living with yourself. Somehow it plays right into what we know of Gable from his past roles and the sense of the impending end of her marriage when she eventually reunites with her husband is written in the stars. The texture of this drama is aided immeasurably by the location photography – those HK streets really buzz , while the typical ex-pat scene of lowlifes and barflies populating the seedy Tweedie’s where so much of Jane’s learning curve occurs makes some of the action pop. The final escape from Macau into Hong Kong harbour is really something. Hayward couldn’t shoot her scenes locally because she was stuck in the US in the middle of a divorce so a stand-in was used in a few shots but it’s all very well handled by Edward Dmytryk.

A Month by the Lake (1995)

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My father taught me it’s better to observe than to be observed.  It’s 1937. Miss Bentley (Vanessa Redgrave) is making her annual pilgrimage to Lake Como, the destination she frequented with her late father. She’s an unmarried woman of a certain age, the sporty delight of gorgeous young Italian men and a jolly hockey sticks type who fraternises with the ladies of the establishment (mainly Alida Valli). Then she spots a newcomer, Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox) with whose ears she becomes obsessed and whom she attempts to attract while beating him at tennis and making him miss the steamer back to the hotel. When a young Italian family employ a new American nanny Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman) straight out of finishing school he mistakes the girl’s earnest gesture upon his early leavetaking – and returns. The complications that arise are gently dramatised and the unfolding romances culminate in a broadcast that reminds us that this is the last such summer for several years… This is a charming and subtle comedy of flirtation, manners and misunderstandings. H.E. Bates’ novella gets a thorough treatment from Trevor Bentham and is really well acted by Redgrave who channels her inner Joyce Grenfell, fusing boyishness with withheld emotion:  she has a particularly funny scene when handsome young gun Vittorio (Allesandro Gassman, son of actor/director Vittorio) attempts to seduce her. She conquers him with the camera she carries everywhere. Produced by Fox’s younger brother Robert (previously married to Redgrave’s daughter, Natasha Richardson) this almost-family affair was filmed around Varenna, Bellagio and Lierna and it looks utterly splendid. A lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon – or indeed a month. Directed by John Irvin.

Runaway Jury (2003)

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Trials are too important to be left to juries! Nothing like the element of surprise to heat up a legal drama and this has it in spades. After a workplace shooting in New Orleans that kills married broker Jacob (Dylan McDermott), lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) takes up the case against the gun manufacturer for the man’s widow Celeste (Joanna Going) but has to deal with a ‘jury consultant’, Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman). When Nicholas Easter (John Cusack), a man without an apparent past, gets on the jury he seems to be able to exert influence on the outcome – with the assistance of his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) who’s operating at the end of a telephone. Both sides are approached to make them an offer to sway the decision – a situation rendered immensely complicated when they are sequestered in a motel on the East Texas border … John Grisham’s thriller was in development for half a dozen years and its original topic – big tobacco – was altered after The Insider (coincidentally featuring Bruce McGill, the judge here) but taps into the very emotive theme of gun rights, the Second Amendment and – in the big reveal – a school shooting. The setting of N’Oleans heaps atmosphere into this very effectively plotted thriller and you’ll recognise a lot of landmarks. The playing – that cast! – is exceptional with Hackman making his return to Grisham territory 9 years after The Firm in which he also essayed a very shady character. Really well managed even if the coda errs on the side of sentiment. Adapted by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman. Directed by Gary Fleder.

Stand By Me (1986)

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Did your mother have any kids that lived?! The Writer (Richard Dreyfuss) is returning to Castle Rock, the small town in Oregon where he grew up. He’s got a newspaper in his hand announcing the death of one of his childhood friends and recalls the summer that everything changed when they and two other twelve year old boys went on an odyssey to view the body of a kid hit by a train passing through several miles away. It’s 1959.  Gordie (Wil Wheaton) is the neglected younger son in a family after his older brother (John Cusack) was killed on the way to basic training. His best friend is Chris (River Phoenix) who’s got a bad name because he comes from a criminal family. Teddy (Corey Feldman) is the abused child of a mentally ill man who claimed to be a WW2 hero. And Vern (Jerry O’Connell) is the chubby kid who overhears about the whereabouts of a missing boy when his older brother talks about it on the porch. They pretend they’re going on a camping trip and learn more about each other than they ever knew as they dodge death on a railway bridge, deal with leeches and a mythical killer dog and Gordie entertains his chums with the Barforama story to beat them all.  Then the older boys come a calling to retrieve the dead body … Wise, witty, sad, moving and hilarious, this is such a true story of friendship and family and is told in a brief 83 minutes, not a moment of which is wasted. The adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body (in Different Seasons) by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans is canny and kind, balanced between comedy and drama and utilising the flashback structure (there are flashbacks within the overall flashback narrative) to illustrate the experience and the effects of the incident very well (it’s quite complex within the novella). Beautifully played sense of time and place, with the interactions between those talented boys utterly believable, this is a modern classic. I never had any friends later in life like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone? Absolutely wonderful. Directed by Rob Reiner.

Live By Night (2016)

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What you put out in the world will always come back to you but never how you predict. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the WW1-weary son of Irish-American police officer (Brendan Gleeson) who tries to be good but you know how it is. He’s trying to make his way as a small-time crook in 1927 Boston but crosses paths with gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) by stealing from him and sleeping with his sassy Irish girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). He’s blackmailed by White’s rival mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to kill White or he’ll rat on the affair so robs a bank to flee to California with Emma. That was the original plan but police officers get killed and Emma apparently drowns being chased by police after White came close to killing Joe. Despite the efforts of his father he serves three years in prison for the police killings and his father is dead when he gets out so he does a deal with Piscatore to take over his rum business in Florida where he can get revenge on White. It means setting up business with Suarez (Miguel Pimentele) and he shacks up with his sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana). He and his sidekick Dion (Chris Messina) take over and then someone thought dead turns up in a photograph and Maso has a showdown with Joe and it turns into a triple cross situation  … There are a lot of admirable things in this production: the settings, the design (even if the cars are way too clean), some brilliant lines (rather than exchanges of dialogue) and a depiction of the Prohibition era in Florida that introduces the Ku Klux Klan into the mix because these gangsters are Catholic. Affleck’s commitment to bringing Dennis Lehane’s Boston Irish mythology to the screen is to be commended but his waxy inexpressiveness is central to why this doesn’t work (blank is simply not a good look in a gangster movie). Miller makes him look better than he is in their scenes together – they crackle – but she departs the story early. All the bits are here, they just don’t add up, and that usually leads us back to the screenwriter – also Affleck. There are plotlines thrown away in a photograph or a newspaper cutting. There are technical issues too – some of the sound mix particularly at the beginning is poor. A smarter filmmaker would have dropped a lot of the overhead shots and the dumb narration (look at how it doesn’t work and compare it with Goodfellas!) and cast a better actor in the lead:  just watch how Chris Cooper in his small role as police chief Figgis in Tampa wipes the floor with Affleck in his first scene and listen to him deliver the line about a fallen world. That’s when he introduces his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) who’s on her way to a Hollywood screen test:  bad move. This storyline takes a good turn paying off in a parable about evangelical Protestantism but the conclusion is just dumped for yet another newspaper story after a scene which unravels the sins of fathers who want better things for their kids. Oedipal scenarios aside, this is a guy who traffics liquor and murders people but still thinks he’s his father’s good son. Affleck looks quite laughable in his oversized suit but then you realise that he resembles legendary screen heavy Lawrence Tierney who was so incredibly nasty in days of yore.  Hmmm! What might have been. Oh! The vanity!