Stanley Donen 13th April 1924 – 23rd February 2019

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Hollywood great Stanley Donen has died aged 94. Handsome, genial, witty and debonair he was an actor, dancer and choreographer who teamed up with Gene Kelly at a ridiculously young age and made screen history with the first musical shot on location, On the Town. They made the greatest musical in film history together, Singin’ in the Rain, the perfect integrated backstage Hollywood movie, the most brilliant, joyous blend of song and dance and storytelling. It transformed cinema. During the Fifties Donen continued learning his craft as director with romantic comedies and returning to his favourite form with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, another innovative iteration of the musical. He reunited with Kelly for It’s Always Fair Weather and then became an independent producer. He worked with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in the enduring classic Funny Face and then relocated to England and made some terrific midlife romcoms, including Indiscreet and The Grass is Greener before turning to thrillers with the great Charade, a Hitchcockian suspenser, back in Paris with Audrey Hepburn and another regular collaborator, Cary Grant. He followed that with another Peter Stone collaboration, ArabesqueTwo for the Road was his most personal film, a comedy drama about a couple in crisis, again starring Hepburn. His Seventies films were variable with Lucky Lady and Movie Movie the standouts, loving homages and pastiches of a Hollywood that he ironically had helped quash. He produced the 1986 Oscars, which boasted a musical number featuring a roll call of Hollywood musical stars:  Leslie Caron, June Allyson, Marge Champion, Cyd Charisse, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds and Esther Williams. His legacy is indelible;  he worked with the greats and made them better;  he mastered musicals, elevating them to a different level entirely with animation, editing and choreography;  romantic comedies; thrillers; and dramas.  Each time I see one of his films I feel a lot better about everything. He was one of my all-time favourite directors. Rest in peace.

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The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

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Oh, come on. If I’ve got to watch my language just because they let a few broads in, I’m going to quit. How the hell can you run a goddamn railroad without swearing?  In New York City, a criminal gang disguised as Groucho Marx and led by the ruthless Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), all boarding the NYC subway at different stations, hijacks a subway car and threatens to start shooting one passenger per minute unless they receive a million dollars in cash from the city within an hour.  They separate the front car from the remainder of the train. On the other end of the line, crusty veteran transit policeman Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) has his hands full dealing with the mayor’s office and his hotheaded fellow cops, while also trying to deliver the ransom before the deadline expires and they start killing the 18 hostages … Look, I got my rights! This is my home! I just want a little peace and quiet. Now, just do me a favor, willya? Get the hell out of here!  Adapted by Peter Stone from the novel by John Godey (aka Morton Freedgood), this is one of the most sensational thrillers from the Seventies. Stone fillets and fries the story so that we have the bare bones, a race against time, two blistering characters in the shape of Mr Blue and Zachary, plus a cross-section of that fabled city’s great and good heightening the drama. With Martin Balsam as Green, Hector Elizondo as Grey and Earl Hindman as Brown, the fast-moving stage is set for internecine trouble. James Broderick as the conductor lends his customary gravitas while under pressure. Brilliantly written by Stone who was in his element here in the realm of identity, an ongoing theme throughout his oeuvre (he liked a pseudonym or three himself.) The action is perfectly paced and this literally doesn’t let up until the chaotic crew runs out of track. Screw the goddamn bastards. What do they expect for their thirty-five cents, to live forever? Made entirely without the assistance of the NYC Transit Authority and directed by Joseph Sargent with superlative photography by the great Owen Roizman and a stonking score by David Shire. Matthau is fantastic and his hangdog look was never so adeptly deployed. Shaw is equally good as the villain du jour.  Ladies and gentlemen, it might interest you to know that the City of New York has agreed to pay for your release

Father Goose (1964)

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Great blood! A battle of the sexes comedy masquerading as a wartime spy film, this features Cary Grant’s penultimate screen outing as history prof Walter Eckland living the life of a beach bum and persuaded by his old friend Commander Frank Houghton (Trevor Howard) of the Australian Navy to report for the Allies on Japanese activities around his remote Pacific island following an evacuation in the area. He’s a lousy watch and spends most of his time drinking so he’s ordered to fetch his replacement on a nearby island. Instead he finds stuck-up French teacher Catherine (Leslie Caron) who was washed ashore with seven of her charges, the children of diplomats whose ship was wrecked. In between the sparring the romantic sparks fly and Eckland’s unexpected rapport with the children leads one of them to speak for the first time. And the difficulties between the adults dissolve leading them to contemplate marriage over the radio with a Navy chaplain presiding. Then the Japanese arrive … once, twice and then with feeling. It’s time to get off the island and into a submarine. Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff adapted S. H. Barnett’s short story A Place of Dragons and their screenplay won the Academy Award – definitely not what you’d figure in these PC days when clever light comedy is far from the trophy room. It was Stone’s second script for Grant after Charade and while it doesn’t have the depth or construction or even the raft of smart dialogue (there is some nursery rhyme byplay) of that Hitchcockian thriller, it’s an agreeable way to spend a couple of hours. It looks lovely and Grant and Caron are very good together. But here’s the thing:  Grant turned down My Fair Lady to do this and he wanted his Charade co-star Audrey Hepburn to co-star with him in this but she had already committed to My Fair Lady … Wow! Apparently Grant felt this was the screen role that most resembled him in real life which is pretty incredible when the general belief was that he was the suave smooth talking gent he generally portrayed. He got on so well with the children he kept in touch  with them as they grew up and had their own families – and of course he married after this and had a daughter of his own. Directed by Ralph Nelson.

Sweet Charity (1969)

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Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) was an enormously popular Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film in which his real-life wife Giulietta Masina played a naive Roman hooker with a heart of gold who keeps falling for the wrong men. Neil Simon took the material and adapted it into a Broadway show which became Bob Fosse’s directing debut, a smashing musical romp through NYC from the perspective of the exuberant kooky taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine, played by Shirley MacLaine in an extraordinary performance. The songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields are unforgettable and staged in graphic, distinctive style – Hey, Big Spender, Rhythm of Life (Sammy Davis Jr!) and MacLaine’s signature song, If They Could See Me Now, to name but a few. Songs to die for! And most homes had this soundtrack album in the Seventies. If you can get past some unfortunate shot choices in the opening sequence by Robert Surtees – dissolves and zooms, very Sixties! – you can earn some balm for your troubled soul.  Screenplay by one of my very favourite people, Peter Stone, with costumes by Edith Head and a great supporting cast in Chita Rivera and Stubby Kaye and John McMartin but Shirley’s the whole show!

Arabesque (1966)

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A professor who is expert in hieroglyphics is hired to go undercover to assist an Arab prime minister whose life is in danger from a mysterious organisation led by Alan Badel. David Pollock was a role conceived for Cary Grant after Charade, but he was retiring and it went to Gregory Peck instead and a huge amount was spent on rewrites – utilising the talents of Pierre Marton aka Peter Stone (and Julian Mitchell and Stanley Price) once again but even he can’t make Peck deliver humour like Grant. The beautiful woman this time is the awesome Sophia Loren who is the mistress of Badel. Since it’s Peter Stone there is cross and double cross and code and it’s espionage therefore there’s tension to burn … if you can figure out the plot. It really is quite a lot of hieroglyphics but it’s also one of the most incredible films ever shot, with the glory going to cinematographer Christopher Challis who gives great colour and there are lots of wacky angles a la mod style of the era, supposedly to camouflage the production issues. If you hate going to the optician best avoid the first ten minutes. It’s the last film of John Merivale, Vivien Leigh’s last companion, and the debut of legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong. There’s another fabulous titles sequence by Maurice Binder and it’s scored by Henry Mancini with some interesting sax and trombone work. Gorgeous entertainment.

Charade (1963)

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One of the great entertainments, from the pen of Peter Stone (aka Pierre Marton – get it?!) with a story by him and Marc Behm, and directed by the estimable Stanley Donen. Audrey is the befuddled widow whose husband turns out to have been in on a wartime heist and she’s expected to know where he stashed the loot; Cary’s the guy from the US embassy keen to help her out … or is he? With hubby’s ex-gang after her for the money, nobody is who they seem in this play on identity, a pastiche of thriller tropes that is betimes gleefully black – George Kennedy’s hook for a hand lends itself to a lot of interesting outcomes! Walter Matthau is brilliantly cast as the CIA man. Great romance, wonderful locations in Paris and Megeve, incredible stars and extremely slickly done. This is pure Hitchcockian enjoyment with the difference being that the gender roles are switched and we care about the McGuffin. On a meta level, the use of names is particular to people on the production – eg Cary is called Peter Joshua after Stanley Donen’s sons. Stone plays the man in the elevator, Jim Clark edits and Charles Lang does the incredible cinematography. Audrey is dressed by Hubert de Givenchy – qui d’autre?!  For lovers of Paris you get a travelogue of practically everything you want to see – the Comedie Francaise, the Eiffel Tower, Les Halles, the Theatre de Guignol … Watch for that classic titles sequence by Maurice Binder and music by Henry Mancini. This came out the week after JFK was assassinated so maybe its humour wasn’t loved that winter, but it’s going with me on that desert island for sure. Totally delightful.

The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968)

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Paul Newman had an amazing run of hits in the 1960s. The Hustler. Hud. Harper. Newman got to have a thing about the letter H so that he became superstitious and wanted it in the titles of all his films. Ross Macdonald’s delightful private eye Lew Archer became Harper to satisfy the star. That was directed by Jack Smight, as is this WW2 outing. Cool Hand Luke immediately preceded it, so … One of my favourite writers, Peter (Charade) Stone, who had the lightest of touches, co-wrote the screenplay with the writer who originated the story, Frank Tarloff. Five Allied generals are captured by the Nazis in an Italian villa and apparently lack the ingenuity to escape which is rather embarrassing for Ike. A US private with a penchant for escaping the military stockade in England is doing little to help the cause so he’s promoted with a mission that he has no option but to accept. And so Newman winds up living among some friendly Italians while the comtessa (Sylvia Koscina) whose villa it is holes up in the gate house. It’s pretty tame and more like Hogan’s Heroes (TV, 1965-1971) in sensibility than The Dirty Dozen. In a bizarre turn, the lovely Koscina invested in a very lovely villa in real life and when those pesky tax inspectors turned up when her income started to diminish, she too, had to give up her home. Art/life, etc.