Frontier Gal (1945)

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I don’t want to be a bride – I want to be a widow! Johnny Hart(Rod Cameron)  heads for Red Gulch, looking for the mystery man who murdered his partner. He quickly meets Lorena Dumont (Yvonne De Carlo), a beautiful saloon keeper who is loved by Blackie (Sheldon Leonard), a jealous crook who doesn’t like her interest in Johnny. After he resists her seduction by saying he has another girl back home but she misunderstands his intentions, he is forced to marry her at gunpoint – an actual shotgun wedding! She turns him over to the sheriff when she learns he’s a fugitive with a price on his head. He escapes, spends a night of passion with Lorena, then is recaptured. Six years later, Johnny returns from a long spell in prison to Red Gulch seeking revenge. He now knows it was Blackie who killed his partner. Johnny’s former girlfriend is summoned to meet him, but it turns out he fathered a child with Lorena who’s now a whipsmart five year old called Mary Ann (Beverly Sue Simmons) …… Squaw easy to get. Hard to lose. This little-known western musical comedy is a lively, flavourful hoot from start to action-packed finish, with a zesty performance by De Carlo in a role intended for Maria Montez. Cameron isn’t great as her opposite number in this Taming of the Shrew knockoff, but Andy Devine is the business as Big Ben and little Simmons is just laugh out loud great as the sharp kid Johnny suddenly loves despite not knowing about her existence for five years. An underrated gem, written by Michael Fessier and Ernest Pagano and directed by Charles Lamont, this zips along to a cracking score by Frank Skinner and some entertaining songs performed by the cast although De Carlo is voiced by Doreen Tryden in one of hers. A gun so big can make a big man like me look so small

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Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

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Don’t anyone suppose that because I’m a woman, I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you’re awake, I shall be afield before you’re up, and I shall have breakfasted before you’re afield. In short, I shall astonish you all. In the late nineteenth century in England’s West Country beautiful young Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) inherits a picturesque farm from her uncle and decides to run it herself. Three very different suitors – Francis Troy (Terence Stamp), an intense soldier who has impregnated a maid; William Boldwood (Peter Finch), a prosperous middle-aged farmer; and Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), a neighbouring sheep farmer of modest means – all contend for her hand in marriage and her different attitudes to each of them cause conflict and tragedy … At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be. And whenever you look up, there I shall be. Adapted by Frederic Raphael from Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, this is one of the most gloriously beautiful films of its era, starring some of the most attractive British performers, all shot in almost decadently luminous imagery by the great Nicolas Roeg, a few years from making his directing debut. However none of that would matter if it weren’t for the management of the material which clarifies the novel’s question – how is it possible for a woman to maintain her independence and property while claiming a romantic relationship for herself? The painful issues of patriarchy and community combine when Bathsheba turns down Gabriel’s offer of marriage and she inadvertently triggers a chain of horribly dramatic events in this bucolic setting. It’s director John Schlesinger’s third film with Christie and she’s at the peak of her beauty and charisma playing this passionate girl. You can understand why everybody loves her. A woman like you does more damage than she can conceivably imagine

Winchester (2018)

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Aka The 13th Hour. A house in permanent construction on the orders of a grieving woman. In 1906 the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company solicit the services of widowed and dissolute laudanum-addicted Dr Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess the mental health of Sarah Lockwood Winchester (Helen Mirren) heiress to the Winchester fortune.  She is in the middle of a neverending building project that stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To an outsider, it looks like a monstrous monument to her unravelling mind but for her it is an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts – and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchesters and her niece Marion’s (Sarah Snook) son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) seems to be the vehicle for revenge… Instruments of death have a powerful connection with the afterlife. Tom Vaughan and directors the Spierig Brothers write a not very scary supernatural horror that excavates the legend of America’s most haunted house via the ghosts of the Civil War, killed by the rifle that won it for the Union. Clarke is more sympathetic than usual while the great Mirren in her widow’s weeds isn’t given much space in a narrative that has an interesting focus on what happens in life involving the afterlife and ghosts with PTSD but seems to lose the plot. It’s lavish but I wouldn’t call it home. Do you know who the most terrifying monster is? The one you invite in

Jamaica Inn (1939)

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Bah, stop crying! Stop it, you little fool! Be beautiful! Oh, ply those tears if you like, but you must be beautiful. Well, you have to be hard now. The Age of Chivalry is gone! England in 1819, the reign of George IV.  After the death of her mother, young orphan Mary Yellen (Maureen O’Hara) travels from Ireland to the Cornish coast to live with her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney). Stranded on a windswept, isolated road, Mary meets the bumptious Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton), who escorts her to Jamaica Inn. There, Mary meets her aunt and bullying uncle, Merlyn Joss (Leslie Banks) – who secretly leads a band of pirates that pilfers the goods from wrecked ships. Suspicious, Mary turns to Pengallan for help, only to discover another dark secret… Why not a toast to beauty, Sir Humphrey?  Written by Alma Reville, Sidney Gilliat, Joan Harrison and J.B. Priestley, this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel about wreckers still has some of that book’s atmospherics despite too much staginess and the overt theatricality of Laughton’s performance. O’Hara is luminous in her first major role and along with the gripping opening wrecking scene, it’s her scenes with Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) that give this its tinge of excitement.  It’s disappointing in many production respects and Du Maurier reportedly wasn’t happy with the result.  It’s not really a Hitchcock picture – even he realised that, since it was produced by Laughton’s company – but it still has some touches of gallows humour and bright moments of dark humanity. That’s women for you – save your life one minute, frightened of you the next. I guess I’m not a very pretty sight at the moment, but I don’t bite, you know

Doctor Dolittle (1967)

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There’s no doubt about it – animals are far more interesting than people.  In early Victorian England, Dr. John Dolittle (Rex Harrison) lives in a small village where he much prefers the company of animals to humans.  He trains as a veterinarian and specialises in caring for and verbally communicating with animals. When Dr. Dolittle is unjustly sent to an insane asylum for freeing lovesick circus seal Sophie from captivity so she can return to her husband at the North Pole, his animals and two closest human friends, Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley) and Tommy Stubbins (William Dix), liberate him. Afterwards they join Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar) and set out by boat to find a famed and elusive creature: the Great Pink Sea Snail, fetching up on an island where the natives prove a challenge…  How do you make money with a Pushmi-Pullyu? Songwriter Leslie Bricusse adapted Hugh Lofting’s classic children’s books and Harrison and Newley take their theatrical shtick to the screen with zest. A witty, whimsical delight, this was a controversial flop following some disastrous choices of location shooting led to huge production overruns and Harrison’s loathsome behaviour made filming a chore for the human cast.  The songs are fun, the action marvellous (Harrison’s love scene with Sophie the Seal has to be seen to be appreciated) and it’s a wonderfully colourful musical directed with some flair by Richard Fleischer.  I have nothing in common with the human race

Night of the Demon (1957)

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Aka Curse of the Demon. Where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight, this half world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?  American professor Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in London for a conference on parapsychology only to discover that the colleague he was supposed to meet, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) was killed in a freak accident the day before. It turns out that the deceased had been investigating a devil-worshipping cult lead by Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Though sceptical, Holden is suspicious of Karswell. Following a trail of mysterious manuscripts, Holden finds out that the sole link between Karswell and Harrington is a supposed murderer Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde) who is now catatonic. At Harrington’s funeral he meets the man’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) who gives him Harrington’s diary. He enters a world that makes him question his faith in science…  Adapted by producer Hal E. Chester, Charles Bennett (responsible for creating Hitchcock’s trademark tropes) and Cy Endfield, from the story Casting the Runes by the great M.R. James, this is one of the best horror films ever made. Notwithstanding the material’s power, the producer argued with director Jacques Tourneur (and Bennett) as to whether the demon should actually be shown – the producer won. Andrews (replacing Robert Taylor) is pretty good in a film that just drips with tension:  you wouldn’t want to attend a seance led by Athene Seyler in a hurry.  Locations include Brocket Hall, Herts., Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain, Bricket Wood Railway Station, Heathrow Airport, the Savoy and the British Museum Reading Room. It’s totally terrifying, incredibly atmospheric and an under-seen minor classic of the genre. I’ve heard it I’ve seen it I know it’s real

Great Expectations (1998)

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Why had she told me?  She told me to wound me. Orphan Finn (Jeremy James Kissner) is being raised by his older sister Maggie (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend Joe (Chris Cooper) a fisherman on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Finn fatefully makes the acquaintance of an escaped con, mobster Arthur Lustig (Robert De Niro) whom he tries to help get away from the police but the man is caught. He helps crazy old Nora Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft) and her beautiful niece Estella (Raquel Beaudene) by doing the gardening around their old mansion. Finn shows the old woman his art and she has him do a portrait of Estella.  When they are teenagers Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) reveals in a passionate encounter that she knows Finn (Ethan Hawke) is in love with her, then disappears to study in Europe. In the ’80s a mysterious lawyer Jerry Ragno (Josh Mostel) turns up and offers to finance a show of Finn’s work in New York where he pursues his career in art, leaving the fishing business where he’s been working with Joe for years. He once again encounters his beloved Estella, now engaged to rich, snobby Walter (Hank Azaria)…  I’m not going to tell the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.  Director Alfonso Cuarón glories in the ironic world envisioned by Dickens now transposed to a very different, much lusher and contemporary locale by screenwriter Mitch Glazer. With the incredible production design and setting on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Paradiso Perduto the overgrown and crumbling tropical mansion decaying around Miss Havisham’s newest iteration, her every appearance serenaded by Bésame Mucho, the scene is set for a very modern retelling of a tragic romance. With Pip as Finn the lovelorn child and artist, surrounded by the wonders of Nature, the opportunity to relate the love story through pictures gives it a different level of expressionism.  Paltrow is the epitome of the cool Nineties blonde – think Carolyn Bessette, as she may have done, and her impossible persona of Estella and the snobby world of tastemakers she inhabits makes sense. Bancroft is perfectly lurid as the sad and wicked old dame to whose wise words Finn is deaf – his love for Estella is simply too overwhelming as her revenge plot against treacherous men unfolds. The contrast between the wonderfully blue seas and overgrowing gardens familiar to us from a few great private eye novels (and even Grey Gardens) with New York’s glittery art scene couldn’t be more pronounced and Uncle Joe’s arrival at Finn’s opening night is horribly embarrassing and sad. The shocking return of Magwitch/Lustig is perfectly achieved and we see Finn finally grow up in this tragically transforming tale from innocence to experience. A bewitching, stylish interpretation with stunning photography and lighting by Emanuel Lubezki and art by Francesco Clemente. The voiceover from Finn’s older and wiser perspective was written by David Mamet. What is it like not to feel anything?

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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I’ve studied you all these years – a little girl in a cage waiting for someone to let her out. In 1928 young Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) inadvertently causes the death of her cruel, authoritarian and extremely wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha lies to the police and Walter (Kirk Douglas), who saw the crime, corroborates the girl’s story. Eventually, they grow up and wed out of convenience; the meek and alcoholic Walter is genuinely in love, and Martha thinks that her secret is safe since she has married the one witness to her aunt’s death. As District Attorney he saw her lie on the stand and put an innocent man to death for the crime. However now Martha is trying to get Walter elected Governor and her childhood pal Sam (Van Heflin) shows up.  Martha knows her dark past may not stay a secret for long and Sam’s romance with Toni (Lizabeth Scott) – an ex-con just out of jail – threatens to come between them …  The film noir as hothouse melodrama, this has Stanwyck at her most manipulative since Double Indemnity but the surrounding performances are impressive as satellites to her cunning. Adapted by Robert Rossen (and an uncredited Robert Riskin)  from playwright John Patrick’s short story Love Lies Bleeding, this plays fast and loose with love and death, desire and obsession, betrayal and murder, marriage and entrapment. The pickup between Heflin and Scott is really something and the dialogue is really striking – just look at the way the Bible crops up at crucial plot points. Stanwyck’s string of extra-marital affairs reveals a longing for sex not often portrayed in Hollywood films of the era. Douglas makes an impressive debut as the weak husband just as capable of lying. The twisting DNA spiral of guilt and secrecy plays out brilliantly as these conflicted personalities bump up against one another in a deadly game. And what a twist(ed) ending! Listen to how the rain hits the windows of that fabulous house during some of the toughest conversations – talk about atmospheric! The cinematography by Victor Miler and score by Miklós Rósza are quite splendid. Directed by Lewis Milestone.

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.