Judy (2019)

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I’m only Judy Garland for an hour a night. Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) tells young Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) just how special she is while he bullies her and drugs her with her mother’s (Natasha Powell) collusion to keep her thin to star in The Wizard of Oz. Mickey Rooney turns her down and she is forced to endure a fake birthday party for the press. Thirty years later the beloved actress and singer (Renée Zellwegger) is bankrupt and scrabbling to play any gig she can with her young children Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Llloyd) in order to get enough money for the next day – literally singing for her supper. She deposits the kids with her ex Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) when no hotel in LA will have her because of her history of non-payment.  She attends a party at older daughter Liza Minnelli’s (Gemma-Leah Devereux ) where she marvels at Liza’s lack of nerves before her own next show. She encounters Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) a young guy who clearly wants to impress her. Her only hope of getting her kids back and having a home of her own again is to sing concerts and she is bailed out by an offer from promoter Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) to play a long cabaret engagement at The Talk of the Town nightclub in London. Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) is appointed her assistant and minder and has to help get her onstage each night as Judy battles nerves, drink and pills. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans and begins a whirlwind romance with Mickey who turns up to surprise her and she is smitten again … I see how great you are. I don’t see the problems. Adapted by Tom Edge from the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter this never quite escapes its stage roots and each song (including Come Rain or Come ShineThe Trolley Song, Over the Rainbow) serves – performed either when she is late, drunk, nervous, or abusive – as a trigger for another flashback to the Thirties at MGM to explain the status quo. The trouble with this is that there is no joy in the performance, which may be true to life but this narrow focus ill-serves a biopic although there are moments when Zellwegger has an uncanny resemblance to Garland – facially, with gesture and movement as she nails the physique of a depleted, bag of bones Judy in her final months. She also sings the songs herself but the lip-syncing seems off.  Despite a two-hour running time her relationships feel underwritten and under-represented. Even the backstage antics with the talented Buckley (a glorious singer in her own right) don’t seem busy enough for that situation and while it may be true the idea that she never rehearsed with her music director (Matt Nalton) it seems preposterous whether or not she was always using the same music charts from Carnegie Hall. The highlights of her career are ignored but she enjoys the offstage attention of two diehard Friends of Dorothy (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerquiera) in a subplot which feels tacked on even if it’s a serviceable nod to the gay fans that Judy so openly acknowledged (and her funeral occurred in NYC just a few hours before the Stonewall Riots – coincidence?). It has its moments and one occurs close to the end when Delfont is suing her after she has used the F word at a member of the audience. Buckley and Nalton take her for a farewell lunch and tempt her to eat something. She plays with a piece of delicious cake on her plate and finally takes a bite and savours the taste. She declares, I think maybe I was just hungry.  It’s a rare piece of black comedy referencing the starvation she endured as a teenager and finally lightens the mood as if this constant state of hanger might well explain her decades of poor decision-making and a bad rep. There’s an attempt at a feel-good ending onstage but it’s not enough and rings rather hollow, trying to squeeze more emotion out of that tiny diaphragm in a set of songs that aren’t especially well directed.  This is a film about performance, not feeling. It’s a BBC Films production and it seems under funded, threadbare and careworn, practically uncinematic. Surely such a star deserves better, even at the fag-end of her career. Directed by Rupert Goold. What have you ever done that would make anyone listen to you?

Quadrophenia (1979)

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You’ll be getting like them bloody beatniks before you know it. Ban the bomb and do fuck all for a living poncing about all day. In 1964 angst-ridden London teenager Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels) escapes the drudgery of his mailroom job at an ad agency as a member of the Mods, a sharply dressed drugged-up scooter-riding tribe of post-war teens constantly at odds with their conformist parents and their rivals, the bike-riding Rockers.  Jimmy  parties with Dave (Mark Wingett), Chalky (Phil Davis) and Spider (Gary Shail), fellow Mods. When the Mods and Rockers clash in the coastal town of Brighton, England, it leads to both trouble and an encounter with his crush, the lovely Steph (Leslie Ash). Returning to London, Jimmy, who aspires to be like Mod leader Ace Face (Sting), becomes even more disillusioned when his scooter is destroyed by a collision with a lorry, he’s thrown out of home and he returns off his head to Brighton where he discovers the kind of reality he has long sought to escape … If you don’t work, you don’t get paid no money. And I like money. Forty years since its original release, this is a landmark film about working class culture, growing up and finding your place in the world. The Who must have already seemed out of step with the times when this was made at the height of punk (Johnny Rotten was screen tested for Jimmy but nobody would insure him) – it’s an adaptation of their 1973 opera, an expression of the band’s situation (each band member’s face is reflected in the four mirrors on Jimmy’s Lambretta on the album cover) which would be splintered completely a mere two weeks before production with Keith Moon’s shocking death. Their first manager Peter Meaden had died the previous year. So the meta story becomes about the band’s own reinvention. It’s the story of all youthful quests, different songs reflecting the various band members while Pete Townshend tries to sum up the culture that drove the formation of The Who in the first place. There’s real pleasure to be had seeing well-known actors and musicians as teenagers, albeit Trevor Laird and Toyah Wilcox were 20 and Sting, who was topping the charts with The Police by the time this was released, was in his late twenties. Ray Winstone is Kevin, Jimmy’s childhood friend who has left the Army and is beaten up in an act of revenge and Jimmy rides off when he can’t stop the attack. For true cultists, there’s a brief (uncredited) appearance by Simon Gipps-Kent, a gifted actor who died young in mysterious circumstances (he opens the door to the guys at the posh party 15 minutes in).  The critics weren’t too kind to a film that’s rough around the edges and could have been better directed for much of its running time, but its blend of kitchen sink realism, rites of passage narrative, theme of rebellion and astonishing music gives it real heart and meant the audience lapped it up and it led to a revival of Mod culture and probably helped launch ska, prompting a whole new era in music. The Who’s John Entwistle was responsible for supervising the soundtrack and those of the album’s songs that are featured are in a different order from the album and are mixed up with The Kinks and The Crystals, among others, and the score doesn’t drive the story, it serves it. It starts with The Real Me and the most poignant inclusion from the original album is Love Reign O’er Me. Why do people love it so, this teenage symphony to Mod? It’s about searching for something to believe, somewhere to belong:  meanwhile, life as tragicomedy. Written by director Franc Roddam, Martin Stellman, Dave Humphries and Pete Townshend. We are the Mods! We are the Mods! We are, we are, we are the Mods!

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

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Everything you ever hoped for, everything you ever dreamed of being a part of, is a fabrication. Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a disenchanted 33-year-old who discovers a mysterious woman, Sarah (Riley Keough) frolicking in his apartment’s swimming pool.  He befriends her little bichon frisé dog Coca Cola. She has a drink with him and they watch How to Marry a Millionaire in the apartment she shares with two other women.  Her disappearance coincides with that of billionaire Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann) whose body is eventually found with Sarah’s. Sam embarks on a surreal quest across Los Angeles to decode the secret behind her disappearance, leading him into the murkiest depths of mystery, scandal, and conspiracy as he descends to a labyrinth beneath the City of Angels while engaging with Comic Fan (Patrick Fischler) author of Under the Silver Lake a comic book about urban legends who he believes knows what’s behind a series of dog killings and other conspiracy theories who himself is murdered …Something really big is going on. I know it. Written, produced and directed by David Robert Mitchell who made the modern horror masterpiece It Follows, this is another metatext in which strange portents and signs abound. Revelling in Hollywoodiana – Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Gaynor – and noir and death and the afterlife and the songs that dominate your life and who may or may not have written them, this seems to be an exploration of the obsessions of Gen X. It’s an interesting film to have come out in the same year as Tarantino’s Hollywood mythic valentine Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and it covers some of the same tropes that have decorated that auteur’s past narratives with a postmodern approach that is summed up in one line: An entire generation of men obsessed with codes and video games and space aliens. The messages in the fetishised songs and cereal box toys and movies are all pointing to a massive conspiracy in communication diverting people from their own meaninglessness, symbolised in the disappearance of the billionaire which has to do with a different idea of the afterlife available only to the very rich. Sam’s quest (and it is a quest – he’s literally led by an Arthurian type of homeless guy – David Yow from the band The Jesus Lizard – straight out of The Fisher King) is a choose your own adventure affair where he gets led down some blind alleys including prostitution and chess games and even gets sprayed by a skunk which lends his character a very special aroma. The postmodern approach even extends to the sex he has – with Millicent Sevence’s (Callie Hernandez) death being a grotesque parody of the magazine cover that initiated him to masturbation. Sigh. Garfield holds the unfolding cartography together but that’s what actors do – they fill in the missing scenes:  it may not be everyone’s idea of fun to watch Spider Man having graphic sex scenes and doing things to himself but the audience is also being played.  If the objects are diffuse and the message too broad, well, you can make of it what you will. It means whatever you want it to mean (it’s not about burial, it’s about ascension), a spectral fever dream that at the end of the day is a highly sexual story about a guy who wants to make it with the woman across the court yard in his apartment building, no matter how many secret messages or subliminal warnings are in your breakfast or how many Monroe scenes are re-enacted, filmed, photographed or otherwise stored in the minutiae of our obsessive compulsive Nineties brains. So what do you think it all means?

 

Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998) (TVM)

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I want to be loved. 1940s New York City: Jacqueline Susann (Michele Lee) is a second-string theatre actress and well-known party girl who turns to journalism following her marriage to press agent turned producer Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though constantly surrounded by the glitterati of the theatre and social scene she doesn’t achieve celebrity status herself and has to endure the tragedy of a brain-damaged son who has to be institutionalised. Then when she’s 47,  she publishes the raunchy bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls. Outwardly committed to publicising her work and involved in regular cross-country media campaigns, she privately battles cancer and constantly questions her troubled relationship with her society portraitist father Robert (Kenneth Welsh) who never got around to finishing her picture …  Everything I do is for you. Everything I make is for you. Treading much straighter territory than Isn’t She Great (the Bette Midler version) this adaptation by Michele Gallery of Barbara Seaman’s biography Lovely Me ironically strays indirectly and presumably unintentionally into camp now and then, and it doesn’t really do justice to the genius of its subject but Lee is excellent as this spiky confrontational woman who did things her own way. For anyone interested in the backstage antics of NYC’s post-war theatre scene with big personalities like Ethel Merman (Gloria Slade), the evolution of publishing and the making of the notorious film of Susann’s most famous novel with Barbara Parkins (Annie Laurie Williams), Patty Duke (Melanie Peterson) and the lovely Sharon Tate (Leila Johnson), there are residual attractions, but the drivers of this biopic are the private tragedies of the woman who revolutionised modern publishing by establishing her own critic-proof brand of sex and sass. Directed by Bruce McDonald. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you never stay in. My life is never going to be dull

Cold War (2018)

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Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love.  In post-war Poland conductor and musicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are holding auditions for a state-sponsored folk music ensemble. Wiktor’s attention is immediately captured by Zula (Joanna Kulig), an ambitious and captivating young woman who is faking a peasant identity and is on probation after attacking her abusive father when he attempted to rape her. They commence a sexual relationship but Wiktor doesn’t want to incorporate more Stalinist propaganda in their productions and wants to escape to the West. Zula doesn’t join him when he escapes in Berlin but a couple of years later he finds her on tour in Yugoslavia where he is quickly removed back to his current base in Paris. Then Zula shows up and leaves her marriage and becomes a recording artist with his help. She can’t stand what he has become and flees to Poland the night her album is launched and Wiktor makes a tremendous sacrifice just to see her again … As far as we’re concerned you don’t exist. It starts with people singing folk songs, performed plaintively and sonorously against a mysterious monochrome backdrop which is rural Poland yet some images take a while to reveal themselves from abstraction. That’s all of a piece with the lives of these somewhat disembodied, disenfranchised individuals whose better existence is entwined with each other yet whose life together is messy, filled with bust-ups, disagreements, partings, border crossings, cultural preservation, propaganda and politics. Their identity – colonised, travelling, in denial – presents a kind of melancholy frankly incomprehensible to people who think they should be glad to be out of the hellhole of the Eastern Bloc.  Neither protagonist is especially likable and the underage relationship is at first shocking, even if she is sexually precocious. The gleaming black and white photography seems bleak at first but paradoxically heightens the romance because this is a film that rejoices in the possibilities of cities and how people can express themselves in one international language – music. Watching Zula finally let loose in the West to Rock Around the Clock is joyous, even if it further fractures her relationship. The architecture isn’t stressed but the common culture it expresses looms over the narrative – building styles, churches, bars, clubs, concert halls, the locations where this couple can find themselves and each other, over and over again. It’s sombre but passionate. Finally they wind up at a literal crossroads, decision made. Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski traverses these ideas like a high-wire artist, never stooping to the obvious even if some of the melodramatic curves seem inevitable. When Zula tosses her eponymous record in a fountain and then takes off back to Poland it seems unlikely they can ever meet again. But Viktor returns to his home country only to be imprisoned? Well. If it wasn’t true, would you believe it? Yet that is what Pawlikowski’s own background looks like – complex, difficult, liminal, like all stories about affiliations and borders and political ideologies and exile. It’s about his parents. And it’s true. And it took years and years for them to get together and their relationship covers a continent of musical styles and idioms. Remarkable. Let’s go to the other side.

In The Cut (2003)

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I wanna get married once… just for my mom. Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan), a middle-class lecturer in New York City, witnesses a sexual incident that could have been the prelude to a murder by a killer roaming the city. Detective Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) arrives to interview her following the murder of a young woman in her neighbourhood which he’s investigating with his partner Ritchie Rodriguez (Nick Damici) but their relationship soon moves from personal to passionate.  Soon she comes to suspect that he is the serial killer he claims to be hunting down so who can she really trust? …  You know what your problem is? You’re fucking exhausting. Fuck this, you know, I was doing just fine before I met you, just fine. Susanna Moore’s novel was a new take on the subject matter of that controversial exercise in female masochism Looking for Mr Goodbar and Nicole Kidman spent five years shepherding the adaptation by Moore and director Jane Campion (with co-writer Stavros Kazantzidis) only to bail on the lead role when her marriage to Tom Cruise ended abruptly. Thus it was that America’s romcom sweetheart Ryan stepped into the dark heart of this voyeuristic thriller in a performance that seemed to frighten critics even after her impressive turn in the earlier Courage Under Fire. This is a formally beautiful, graphic and stunningly shot (by Dion Beebe) analysis of female sexual desire and as such twists the usual misogynistic genre tropes even as the body count mounts. Some of Ruffalo’s scenes may grate but Jennifer Jason Leigh has a fantastic role as Ryan’s tragic, romantically obsessed sister and Kevin Bacon has a terrific (unbilled) part as a man with whom Ryan has had relations and he is now stalking her. Ryan is superb, not just technically, but emotionally, and this is intense on every level, an intelligent slasher film with things to say about what women really want and how dangerous that can prove. The final sequence, when she contemplates the scene of her intended death, is outstanding, a masterpiece of empathy. I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees

The Victors (1963)

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The whole world is full of love. A group of American soldiers manages to survive over the course of World War II, from the Battle of Britain, moving up through Sicily and France and Germany to the fall of the Third Reich and a station in occupied Berlin in the war’s aftermath. Along the way, a number of unfortunate incidents occur:  white soldiers violently abuse fellow black soldiers, a deserter is executed on New Year’s Eve and a sergeant takes advantage of a shell-shocked French woman. War is hell for the winners and the losers in this episodic meditation on the horrors that exist on and off the field of battle… Have a good time tonight? Find someone to rape? Irony is writ large in this film – starting with the title. These guys victors? God help us all. What they do to a little dog following Peter Fonda as he leaves camp doesn’t bear a second viewing. They are racist, vicious, narcissistic thugs. But hey, they’re ours! That’s really the point of this anti-war anti-blockbuster from auteur Carl Foreman, the formerly blacklisted screenwriter who gave us the joyous Guns of Navarone. So we see Vince Edwards make nice with young Italian mother Rosanna Schiaffino, Eli Wallach generously gives widowed Jeanne Moreau a break from the bombs in exchange for food, George Hamilton falls for the duplicitous musician Romy Schneider and George Peppard has an unpleasant encounter with Melina Mercouri. There is a bitter conclusion in the post-war experience as drunken Russian soldier Albert Finney in a very showy role exercises the ultimate droit de seigneur of the fatal variety. Interspersed with newsreels and taking us through the entire WW2 as a series of personal vignettes, we are oddly removed from any kind of empathy because these really are not nice guys. We get it:  nobody’s a winner. The snow field execution while Sinatra croons Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is duly horrifying. Adapted by Foreman from the novel The Human Kind by Alexander Baron who himself served in Sicily, Normandy and Belgium through D-Day.  Directed by Carl Foreman and shot by the great Christopher Challis.  I don’t think I can ever be frightened again

 

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

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I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.  New York City newspaper journalist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) has a considerable influence on public opinion with his Broadway column, but one thing that he can’t control is his younger sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), who is in a relationship with aspiring jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Marty Milner). Hunsecker strongly disproves of the romance and recruits publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to find a way to split the couple, no matter how ruthless the method.  Falco comes up with a scheme to convince another columnist who is Hunsecker’s bitter rival to run the smear item suggesting Steve is a commie and a junkie, so that Susan won’t suspect it comes from her brother’s camp but it affects her terribly and the men compete for her affections… I love this dirty town An astonishing portrait of venality and viciousness, Lancaster (who produced) and Curtis are simply unforgettable. Major stars at the time, they were steeped in the character psychology of to-the-death rivalry in a story widely assumed to be inspired by Walter Winchell, the feared real-life columnist.  Harrison is memorable as the young woman whose brother has an almost incestuous obsession with her but it’s the face off between the male villains that makes this one of the most rivetting studies of cruelty ever put on film.  They are the yin to the other’s yang, the flip side of the same bad penny. The best of everything is good enough for me. Those mean streets of Manhattan are photographed by James Wong Howe and they are slick with rain and glistening with fear. Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets wrote the screenplay from a story by Lehman (himself a press agent in another life) and Alexander Mackendrick was making his American directing debut after holding the fort at Britain’s Ealing Studios for many years. It’s a film that looks and sounds great (courtesy of a marvellous score by Elmer Bernstein incorporating the work of the Chico Hamilton Quintet), with that wonderful quality – the ring of truth. You’re dead son. Get yourself buried

Lured (1947)

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Would it be against Anglo-American tradition to tell a girl when the next audition is?Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball) is a London-based dancer who is distraught to learn that her friend Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) from the nightclub where she’s working has disappeared. She’s approached by Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), a Scotland Yard investigator who believes her friend has been murdered by a serial killer who uses personal ads to find his victims. The lure is poetry along the lines of Charles Baudelaire. Temple hatches a plan to catch the killer using Sandra as bait, and Sandra agrees to help. But complications arise when the mystery appears to be solved and Sandra becomes engaged to a nightclub owner and man about town Robert Fleming (George Sanders) with whom she’s already become acquainted and who shares his home with his business and legal partner Julian Wilde (Sir Cedric Harwicke) …  I’m not interested in references as much as character/I can see that for myself. Director Douglas Sirk commands this gamy mystery with verve, making a total entertainment from Leo Rosten’s screenplay, peopled with performers right in their characterful element delivering edgy lines with great wit. From the opening titles – a torch shining on the names – the mystery is driven with pace and style with running jokes (including a crossword filled in by H.R. Barrett, played by George Zucco) and enormous style.  Boris Karloff has a great supporting role as a formerly successful fashion designer living in a fantasy world while Sanders is suave as you like and Ball is … ballsy! Annette Warren, who dubs blonde club singer Ethelreda Leopold here, would also provides Ball’s singing voice in Fancy Pants and Sorrowful Jones. Gorgeously shot by Billy Daniels, this is a remake of a 1939 French film (Pieges) directed by Robert Siodmak. She’s won her spurs, she deserves to be happy