Panic in the Streets (1950)

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Methuselah is younger than I am tonight.  A US Health Service physician Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) is called to supervise the autopsy of an unknown man and realises the John Doe (actually Kochak and played by Lewis Charles) died of pneumonic plague, the pulmonary iteration of bubonic plague. We have already seen the man chased and shot by the flunkies of gangster Blackie (Walter Jack Palance), Poldi (Guy Thomajan) and Fitch (Zero Mostel) on the dockside. Revealing his discovery to the mayor and city officials, Reed is informed that he has 48 hours before the public will be told about a potential outbreak. Joined by Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), Reed must race against time to find out where the unknown man came from and stop journalists from printing the story so that they can prevent an epidemic. They begin their search among Slav and Armenian immigrants as the man’s body is cremated … From the low level and unwittingly infected crims racing to find the booty they believe the dead man Kochak was protecting, to the warehouses unloading produce on the New Orleans wharves, this paints a great portrait of a city that no longer resembles what we see in this post-war crime thriller. The lurid title only tells you part of the story which director Elia Kazan insisted be shot entirely on location, using the smarts he picked up on Boomerang to create episodes of masterly tension from Bourbon Street in the French Quarter (spot Brennans!) to the banks of the Mississippi, with Reed’s marital and parenting issues nicely etched – there are bills to pay and he should spend more time with his son instead of trying to be more ambitious, according to his wife Nancy, played by Barbara Bel Geddes – providing the day to day humdrum issues against which the bigger melodrama takes place in a race against time. The contrast in performing styles is gripping – from Widmark’s Method-like approach to Palance’s conventional and scary villain, Mostel’s semi-comic goon and Douglas’ usual rambunctious affect to Bel Geddes classical mode, this is a terrific demonstration of American theatre and film acting styles bumping up against each other. It’s beautifully shot by Joseph MacDonald and edited by Harmon Jones. Edna and Edward Anhalt’s story was adapted by Daniel Fuchs and the screenplay is by Richard Murphy but Kazan stated that it was rewritten every day while they were shooting. He would use what he learned of The Big Easy for his next (studio-bound) film, A Streetcar Named Desire. He believed this was the only perfect film he made “because it’s essentially a piece of mechanism and it doesn’t deal in any ambivalences at all, really. It just fits together in the sequence of storytelling rather perfectly. But that’s really why I did it, and I got a hell of a lot out of it for future films.”  Very impressive, cher!

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Rules Don’t Apply (2017)

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A girl can get in trouble for having a case of the smarts. 1964 Acapulco:  a decrepit and isolated Howard Hughes is on the verge of making a televised phonecall from his hotel hideout to prove he doesn’t have dementia to dispute a claim by the writer of a book who may never actually have met him. Flashback to 1958, Hollywood:  Small-town Virginia beauty queen and devout Baptist Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), under contract to the infamous Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) arrives in Los Angeles with her mother (Annette Bening) to do a screen test for a film called Stella Starlight. She is picked up at the airport by her driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) only two weeks on the job and also from a religiously conservative background. He’s engaged to his seventh grade girlfriend. He drives them to their new home above the Hollywood Bowl where the sound of evening concerts wafts their way. She’s earning more than her college professor father ever did. The instant attraction between Marla and Frank not only puts their religious convictions to the test but also defies Hughes’ number one rule: no employee is allowed to have an intimate relationship with a contract actress and there are 26 of them installed all over Hollywood. Hughes is battling TWA shareholders over his proposals for the fleet as well as having to appear before a Senate sub-committee;  Marla bemoans the fact that she is a songwriter who doesn’t sing – so what kind of an actress can she be? And Frank wants to become a property developer and tries to persuade his employer to invest in him but Hughes is talking about a new birth control pill to him and when he meets Marla he talks to her about this thing called DNA that some English people discovered a few years back … It’s quite impossible to watch this without thinking of all the references, forwards and backwards, that it conjures:  that Beatty was tipped to play Hughes by Time after the mogul’s death, a decade after he had already espoused an interest in the mysterious billionaire who also lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a spell;  that he himself arrived in Hollywood at the end of the Fifties (via theatre) from Virginia and liked to play piano and got by with help from the homosexuals he impressed and the actresses like Joan Collins he squired about town;  Ehrenreich might be another aspect of Beatty as a youngster on the make, keen to impress mentors like Jean Renoir and George Stevens;  the motif of father and son takes a whole meta leap in his casting Ashley Hamilton, a Beatty lookalike who might well be his son (I think this is an inside joke, as it were), as a Hughes stand-in;  the dig at Beatty’s own rep for having a satyr-like lifestyle with the quickie Hughes has with Marla which deflowers her after she’s had her first taste of alcohol. It’s just inescapable. And if that seems distasteful, Beatty is 80 playing 50, and it has a ring of farce about it, as does much of the film which telescopes things like Hughes’ crash in LA for dramatic effect and plays scenes like they’re in a screwball comedy. There’s a lovely visual joke when he orders Frank to drive him somewhere at 3AM and they sit and eat fast food (after Frank says a prayer) and eventually we see where they’re seated – in front of Hughes’ enormous aeroplane (and Frank has never flown). This is too funny to merit the lousy reviews and too invested in its own nostalgia to be a serious take on either Hollywood or Hughes but it has its points of interest as another variation on the myth of both subjects. In real life it was long rumoured that Hughes had a son by Katharine Hepburn who allegedly had him adopted at the end of the Thirties. Timewise it picks up somewhere after The Aviator ends, but not strictly so. All it shares with that film is the banana leaf wallpaper. Tonally, it’s shifting from one generic mode to another (all that Mahler from Death in Venice is pointing to tragedy and age and decay, not youth and beauty and promise) but it’s difficult to dislike. It’s extremely well cast: Collins is terrific as the gauche naive young woman in the big city who’s given up her music scholarship and Ehrenreich is very good as the ambitious and conflicted guy who wants a mentor; Matthew Broderick does well as Levar, the senior driver jaded by long years of service to this eccentric and Oliver Platt (who did the great Bulworth with Beatty twenty years ago) has fun in a small role but Candice Bergen is wasted in the role of Nadine, the office manager. Bening is really great as Mrs Mabrey but she just … disappears. Beatty plays Hughes sympathetically, even unflatteringly (he knew him, albeit very slightly) and these young people’s relationship is ultimately played for its future potential despite its signposting as evidence of the hypocrisy lying directly beneath a church-led society. Written by Beatty with a story credit to him and Bo Goldman, and directed by Beatty, his first film in two decades.

The Letter (1940)

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With all my heart, I still love the man I killed. In Singapore, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of a rubber plantation administrator, shoots and kills a man, Geoff Hammond, claiming that he tried to take advantage of her. She is arrested and her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) hires attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to defend her. Her claim of self-defence is doubted by the locals. During the trial Howard uncovers an incriminating letter that casts doubt on Leslie’s story. The two become embroiled in a blackmail scheme involving a Malayan clerk Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) and the dead man’s widow Mrs Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) … One of the great melodramas of the era, this Somerset Maugham adaptation by Howard Koch had already received an interpretation in 1929 with Jeanne Eagels in the leading role and Marshall had played Geoff Hammond. With the dream team of Davis and director William Wyler it became an opportunity for Warners to make an intense, lush festival of emotions concerning race and sex shot by Tony Gaudio, costumed by Orry-Kelly and scored by Max Steiner. Davis is simply unforgettable, as is the opening scene, when a shot rings out under a full moon …

84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

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Elizabeth will have to ascend the throne without me. Teeth are all I’m going to see crowned for the next couple of years. In 1949 New York City script developer and bibliophile Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft) writes to the London bookshop Marks & Co at the titular address in search of some titles she has not been able to turn up locally. Nobody reads English literature in New York City?! Store manager Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins) responds politely to her chatty letter, and over the course of two decades, a deep, long-distance friendship evolves against the backdrop of post-WW2 society, food rationing in London, Frank’s family life with his second wife and two daughters, the day to day business of the book shop, Hanff’s solitary life (her fiance was killed in combat), her career as a TV writer (Ellery Queen!) and her ravenous appetite for great words in her little apartment and cheap overstuffed chair. Helene Hanff’s autobiographical book of letters exchanged with a bookseller at Marks and Co. was a bit of a hit back in the Eighties, along with the two-hander play adapted from it. Produced by Anne Bancroft’s hubby’s company (Mel Brooks’ Brooksfilms), this runs with the conceit, breaking the fourth wall, bringing post-war NYC and London to life through the gabby and acerbic Jewish Hanff and the more reserved yet quietly interesting Doel. It initially seems like a drab tapestry but it becomes enriched by both of these different protagonists’ passion for writing which they evoke in their very individual ways. This is a romance, of a kind. That the two never meet compounds the tragic aspect. Now that all my favourite bookshops on Charing X Road are closed due to spiralling rents I felt quite tearful throughout as I watched these two lives unwrap like those transatlantic parcels they regularly exchanged and opened  – Hanff sent care packages of food from Denmark for Doel and his co-workers, family and friends at regular intervals with the kinds of goodies (vegetables! eggs! ham! bananas!) they could only get otherwise on the black market with just 2 ounces of meat per person and one egg a month permitted per head at the time. As a booklover and someone who whiled away many hours in shops just like this (oh how I miss Zwemmers!)  I found this absurdly moving and could practically smell the must and feel the foxed pages coming off the screen. It really shouldn’t work. In many ways it doesn’t. So what? The performances are pitch-perfect in this most fascinating portrait of friendship. It’s a lovely way to celebrate both Hopkins’ 80th birthday and New Year’s Eve. Adapted from James Roose-Evans’ play by Hugh Whitemore  and directed by David Jones.

Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)

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These girls in love never realise they should be dishonestly honest instead of honestly dishonest. American secretary Maria (Maggie McNamara) is a newcomer to Rome, seeking romance. I’m going to like Rome at any rate of exchange, she declares. She moves into a spacious apartment with a spectacular view of the city, with agency colleague Anita (Jean Peters) and the more mature Frances (Dorothy McGuire) who’s working for the reclusive novelist (Clifton Webb). They fling their coins into Rome’s Trevi Fountain, each making a wish. Maria is pursued by dashing Prince Dino di Cessi (Louis Jourdan) whom she steadfastly deceives about her origins and interests which she regrets upon meeting his mother; Anita finds herself involved with a forbidden coworker, translator and wannabe lawyer Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi) on an eventful trip to a family celebration at their mountain farm; and Frances receives a surprising proposal from her boss John Frederick Shadwell (Clifton Webb) for whom she has nursed a well-known crush since she came to Rome 15 years earlier. They move through the worlds of society, art and music. But there are complications – not to mention strings attached, which prove surprisingly moving. All three women return to the Trevi where the water is switched on again, as though just for them … Adapted by John Patrick from John H. Secondari’s novel, this is the glossy, beautiful movie that brought tourists in their millions to Rome, its Technicolor process luxuriantly wallowing in the staggering architecture and location scenery heightened by CinemaScope. From the title tune by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn (delivered by Sinatra), to the pure romance (with some surprisingly tart insights about feminine deception and compromise) and gorgeous scene-setting, this is just dreamy. Directed by Jean Negulesco.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

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Have you ever noticed how everything seems better at Christmas? It’s Christmas Eve. Kermit the Frog is Bob Cratchit the put-upon overworked office clerk of stingy boss Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine). Miss Piggy is his wife (their family are quite the example of inter-species marriage with Robin playing Tiny Tim) and other Muppets –  Gonzo, Fozzie Bear and Rizzo (who are Dickens and his friend) and Sam the Eagle – weave in and out of the story, as Scrooge reluctantly agrees to give his book keepers a day off. Scrooge falls asleep and receives a visit from his late business partners the Marley Brothers (Statler and Waldor) who warn him to repent or he will live to regret his ways. Then he is visited by the Ghosts of three Christmases – past, present and future. They show him the error of his selfishness but he seems past any hope of redemption and happiness until a vision illustrates that not everything valuable is a financial transaction … Dickens’ melodramatic classic gets a sharp treatment that oozes wit, wisdom and charm in an adaptation by Jerry Juhl that avoids the most sentimental and condescending aspects of this morality tale. Stunningly made and told, with Caine’s underplaying of the old miser merely heightening the immense charm of the enterprise, brilliantly offset by the songs of Paul Williams and music by Miles Goodman. Funny, inventive, smart and humane. Probably the best Christmas film ever. Directed by Brian Henson. 

Cat People (1982)

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You think it’s love but it’s blood.  Irena Gallier (Nastassia Kinski) has a dark family secret, one that resurfaces dramatically when she reconnects with her estranged brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). She moves into his home in New Orleans but when he disappears for a few days during which a vicious murder occurs, Irena finds herself enamored with zoologist Oliver Yates (John Heard) whom she meets in the city zoo. As her brother makes his own advances toward her she begins to experience feelings which she knows make her different to other humans. Oliver’s colleague Alice (Annette O’Toole) is suspicious of this beautiful naive woman whose eyes betray her.  It’s not long before the dangerous curse of the Gallier clan rears its feline head and Irena finds out her parents were brother and sister, descended from leopards who mated with humans and who transform back to their original species after coitus… I was prepared to dislike this as much as I did the first time I saw it, which was a long time ago. Paul Schrader’s adaptation or remake (with Alan Ormsby) of DeWitt Bodeen’s supremely gripping horror fantasy for producer Val Lewton forty years earlier seemed to have been trashed to make an exploitative wild sex fantasy with the undertow of nastiness which I always found to be Schrader’s troubling trademark. This time around however I found it compelling, daring and even – yes – moving. This fantastical mix of zoology, myth and desire is audaciously put together with some very telling references – a scene in a river straight out of Italian rice movies; a setup to remind us of Richard Avedon’s portrait of Kinski with a python the previous year; and the overriding idea of sex’s transformative power. The occasional forays into fantasy land are utterly beguiling. With that cast and their contrasting performing styles it’s hard to pick out a favourite because it’s so well written and their roles so well determined that they do completely different things. If it were left to my cat Gilbert, he’d point out McDowell’s because of the utterly arresting incarnation of half-man half-cat on the bathroom floor (a scene that disgusted me when I first saw it…) which made him sit right up, presumably recognising kin. Kinski has a terrific time in her difficult role which is literally a sex kitten who becomes a cat woman; while Heard is the man obsessed who has to do things most men wouldn’t mind in order to set her free. Meet the parents would have been quite the feat in this case. It’s a remarkable achievement and I’m thrilled to have seen it again to revise my smart ass opinion from years ago. A nightmarish portrayal of a sexual awakening that has touches of greatness, adorned by a magnificent score by Giorgio Moroder and that song by David Bowie. Wow!

The First Wives Club (1996)

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There are only three ages for women in Hollywood – babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. In 1969 at college class valedictorian Cynthia Swann (Stockard Channing) presents her best friends with pearl necklaces.  A quarter of a century later she throws herself off a building after being betrayed by her adulterous billionaire husband. Her friends reunite at her funeral: Annie (Diane Keaton) is depressed and in therapy after separating from her husband Aaron (Stephen Collins) who’s screwing Annie’s therapist Leslie (Marcia Gay Harden);  Brenda (Bette Midler) is divorced from the cheapo millionaire husband Morty (Dan Hedaya) she made rich and now he’s shacked up with bulimic Shelly the Barracuda (Sarah Jessica Parker);  Elise (Goldie Hawn) is a big acting star with no work, addictions to cosmetic procedures and alcohol and a soon-to-be-ex-husband producer Bill (Victor Garber) sleeping with a young actress Phoebe (Elizabeth Berkley) who’s getting the lead role in a movie – and Elise is only going to play her mother! And Bill’s looking for half of everything – plus alimony. The women pretend to each other everything is fine but the truth is told over a drink or ten following the church service. When they each receive letters that Cynthia got her maid to mail them before her suicide they realise that they have been taken for granted by their husbands and decide to create the First Wives Club, aiming to get revenge on their exes. Annie’s lesbian daughter Chris (Jennifer Dundas)  gets in on the plan by asking for a job at her father’s advertising agency so she can supply her mother with inside information.  Brenda enlists the support of society hostess Gunilla Garson Goldberg (Maggie Smith) – another trophy wife victim – to persuade Shelly to hire unattainable decorator Duarto Felice (Bronson Pinchot) to do over her and Morty’s fabulous penthouse with outrageously expensive tat. Brenda then discovers from her uncle Carmine (Philip Bosco) who has Mafia connections that Morty is guilty of income tax fraud, while Annie makes a plan to revive her advertising career and buy out Aaron’s partners. However, as their plan moves ahead things start to fall apart when they find out that Bill appears to have no checkered past and nothing for them to use against him. Or does he? Elise gets drunk which results in her and Brenda hurling appalling insults at each other and the women then drift apart. When Annie starts thinking about closing down the First Wives Club, her friends come back, saying that they want to see this to the end and Bill hasn’t done anything blatantly wrong – at least as far as he knows. Figuring that revenge would make them no better than their husbands, they instead use these situations to push their men into funding the establishment of a non-profit organisation for abused women, in memory of Cynthia. But not before Elise finds out Phoebe is underage, Brenda kidnaps Morty in a Mafia meat van and Annie takes over …  I do have feelings! I’m an actress! I have all of them! There are digs at everyone in this movie – not just the moronic men who dump their wives in the prime of their lives but vain actors, plastic surgery victims, chumps in therapy – it’s an equal opportunities offender.  This is a real NYC movie with walk on cameos from Ed Koch, Gloria Steinem and Ivana Trump who utters the immortal line, Don’t get mad – get everything! Adapted from Olivia Goldsmith’s novel by Robert Harling and directed by Hugh Wilson. Great fun and far sharper than Marc Shaiman’s soft score would suggest.

Sabrina (1954)

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Aka Sabrina Fair/La vie en rose – Oh Sabrina Sabrina Sabrina where have you been all my life?  – Right over the garage. Chauffeur’s daughter Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is an ugly duckling who tries to commit suicide in her employer’s limousine because of a bad case of unrequited love for boss’ son playboy David Larrabee (William Holden). He doesn’t even know she’s alive. So when she returns to Long Island from two years at cooking school in Paris a beautiful young woman she immediately catches three-times married David’s attention when he sees her waiting for her proper English father Thomas (John Williams) at the railway station. David woos and wins her but their romance is threatened by David’s serious older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), who runs the family business and is relying on David to marry an heiress Elizabeth (Martha Hyer) in order for a crucial corporate merger to take place. So when David’s back is out Linus tries to distract Sabrina and finds himself falling for her himself  but can’t admit it and plans to ship her back to Paris … This cynical romcom is extraordinary for a few things: its star wattage, its creepy Freudian setup (Bogart looks like Hepburn’s grandfather) and amazing dry wit. Samuel Taylor adapted his stageplay Sabrina Fair with contributions from Ernest Lehman and director Billy Wilder, who was making his last film at Paramount. Bogart behaved badly on set, believing he was miscast (Cary Grant was Wilder’s first choice) and wanting his wife Lauren Bacall in Hepburn’s role. He found Hepburn unprofessional because of her problems learning lines but just read some of the ones they delivered: Look at me, Joe College with a touch of arthritis. Or, Paris isn’t for changing planes it’s for changing your outlook. And, There’s a front seat and a back seat and a window in between. And perhaps its mission statement in a film about class and sex and money: Nobody poor was ever called democratic for marrying someone rich. This is a writer’s movie for sure! It’s really a movie about movies and how they pair off young girls with old men (how relevant is that nowadays with everything in the news?!) But it was the scene of a serious set romance for the blond-highlighted Holden and Hepburn and also the introduction of Hubert de Givenchy’s gowns to Hollywood, credited to Edith Head. When Hepburn walked into his Paris salon he thought he was going to meet Katharine Hepburn. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful screen association:  she is the very epitome of elfin beauty in this film, a duckling who grows into an astonishing swan. And she calls her French poodle David! There are some very funny scenes, many taking place in the car and some at the boardroom where Bogart gets to fire guns at new plastic inventions. No wonder he apologised to everyone concerned at the conclusion of production. It gave him a role he hadn’t had before – an uptight stick in the mud who turns into a romantic lead – and at his age! 

Paddington 2 (2017)

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Exit bear, pursued by an actor. Paddington is now settled with the Brown family and wants to earn money for a beautiful pop-up book of London which he finds in Mr Gruber’s antiques shop as a gift for Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday. He takes a series of odd jobs which all end up more or less in chaos. When the family attend a funfair opened by thespian neighbour Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) he lets slip to the self-absorbed one about the book and nobody notices Buchanan’s interest. Paddington then disturbs a burglary at Mr Gruber’s and gets put in prison after chasing the thief and being charged himself:  the pop-up book was stolen, leaving far more ostensibly valuable items behind. The family work to get Paddington out of prison, with Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) doing artist’s impressions of him from witness descriptions. She can’t convince Henry (Hugh Bonneville) of Buchanan’s guilt – he’s too preoccupied by his own midlife crisis. Buchanan has the book and dons a series of theatrical disguises to follow the clues around great city landmarks to an immense treasure. Meanwhile, in prison, Paddington has convinced the brutal cook Nuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) to make marmalade sandwiches and change the menu and get the prison warder to read everyone bedtime stories:  everyone is his friend … This is a fiendishly inventive and funny narrative whose winning spirit is in every frame. Grant has a whale of a time as a splendidly awful actor who now does dog food commercials (his agent Joanna Lumley explains he can only act on his own) while the Brown family’s attempts to prove Paddington’s innocence rely on each of their particular talents:  Judy (Madeleine Harris) writes her own newspaper while Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) aka J-Dog is intimately acquainted with steam trains. Mary’s in training for a cross-Channel swim which comes in amazingly handy. Fizzing with irreverent whimsy, dazzling production design, joyful exuberance, sorrow, good manners, respect and – gulp – love, this is, in the words of choreographer Craig Revel Horwood (responsible for Grant’s incredible jailhouse hoofing in the credits), Fab-U-Lous.  Adapted by Simon Farnaby and director Paul King from those unmissable books of my childhood by Michael Bond. This little bear is the best superhero ever. Just wonderful.