Circus of Fear (1966)

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Aka Psycho-CircusCircus of Terror/ Das Rätsel des silbernen Dreieck / Mystery of the Silver Triangle/ Scotland Yard auf heißer Spur. I wonder if we have something in common with the murderer.  We’re both looking for the same thing. In the aftermath of a daring armoured car heist on London’s Tower Bridge that ends with the murder of a security guard, police detective Jim Elliott (Leo Genn) follows a trail of clues to the travelling Barberini Circus, which has just passed through the city. Though he suspects a conspiracy under the big top, he discovers strained relations between the disfigured lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee) and his associates and colleagues who include owner Barberini (Anthony Newlands), ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache), bookkeeper and wannabe clown Eddie (Eddi Arent), knife-thrower Mario (Maurice Kaufmann) and a dwarf called Mr Big (Skip Martin). Elliot struggles to find his man – and recover the stolen cash – in a maze of blackmail and deceit that concludes in a sharp-edged dénouement courtesy of Mario …  Why must these things always happen at the weekend? Written by producer Harry Alan Towers (as Peter Welbeck) and based on Again The Three Just Men by Edgar Wallace, whose prolific work had just spawned another series of adaptations at Merton Park Studios, this is a British take on the German krimi genre and happily has Klaus Kinski as the mysterious Manfred among a terrific cast numbering Suzy Kendall as Gregor’s niece Natasha, Cecil Parker as Sir John of the Yard, and Victor Maddern as Mason the unfortunate who uses a gun, with Lee in a mask rather defeating his key role but leading to a key unveiling in the third act. Genn is a bit of a PC Plod rather than an intuitive ‘tec but his role winds up anchoring the narrative and he’s nicely sardonic if secondary to the overly complex and twisty plot of the circus crowd’s behind the scenes antics with red herrings and dead ends dangling everywhere. Mostly nicely handled by cinematographer Ernest Steward with some interesting shot setups and well paced by director John [Llewellyn] Moxey. The opening scene is smartly achieved without dialogue and the final summing up scene is a high wire act quite different from what you’d see in Agatha Christie. Werner Jacobs directed the German version which has an alternative ending and was released in black and white. I do like to respect a man’s privacy but in a criminal case there’s really no such thing

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Battle of the Bulge (1965)

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I did not lose a war to die in the back seat of a car. At the end of 1944 American Lt. Col. Dan Kiley (Henry Fonda), a military intelligence whiz and former police officer, discovers that the Nazis are planning to attack Allied forces near Belgium. Certain that the exhausted enemy can’t muster much force, General Joe Grey (Robert Ryan) isn’t convinced by Kiley’s findings, and his men pay the price when the German tanks begin their offensive in the Ardennes. In the heat of this key World War II battle, Kiley must come up with a plan when it becomes clear that the Nazis are trying to steal fuel from the Allies, there are Germans disguised as American MPs diverting traffic from the new Western Front and an ambitious German Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw) who intends keeping the war going as long as possible no matter how many are sacrificed as he leads the Panzer spearhead of the German counterattack … Having been an inspector of police does not disqualify me from thinking. Written by (formerly blacklisted) Bernard Gordon, producer Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (with contributions by John Melson), this is proper WW2 entertainment about a huge episode that involved a million men and which I once had the temerity to describe to someone as an instance of poor project management on the part of Hitler and his cronies. I love me a good war movie, better still if there are tanks (my dream vehicle, particularly the camo models in Desert Storm. So sue me!) so this is perfect Easter (or Passover!) holiday fare. Criticised for not being 100% accurate and its Spanish locations being a poor imitation of the Ardennes setting, this has a lot going for it, not least the staging and the tremendous cast. There is detail by the yard – and the weather reports are crucial. The way that the strategy and tactics are exposed is a triumph of film storytelling. Shaw is sizzling as one of the nastiest Nazis outside the Bulgarian Waffen SS and it’s a star-making role. Fonda’s doggedness is wonderfully sympathetic, especially when you have the feeling (because you’ve seen him in other movies) that he’s probably right about everything and his bozo superiors find out, soon enough. It’s the perceptive structuring of the narrative from both perspectives that makes this tick along quickly. While not setting out to be a satire (hardly, although WW2 vet Sperling was no fan of warfare) the dialogue is sparkling with zingers – aphoristic and otherwise, particularly punctuating Shaw’s scenes – and there’s one out-and-out comic scene (played straight) when Savalas returns to his business to check how things are doing. Pier Angeli pleads for some promise of marriage because this is what she understands by the term ‘business partnership’ and wants a sign. But he’s rushing back to the front so he just tells her to keep feeding the chickens (they’re looking scrawny). This amusing character sidebar is one part of a dedicated soldier and Savalas plays it to the hilt. There’s a mass execution which won’t surprise you – but someone gets away and the payoff is very satisfying indeed. There are some good map room scenes; a really funny one-word message from US Command to German Command; and a breathtaking POV section with Fonda gliding down in silence over the attack position of the German tanks on the other side of the river:  just listen to the score. Such inventive work by Benjamin Frankel. The final sequence of tank battle is suitably fiery and an injured and vengeful Savalas joins forces with James MacArthur at the fuel depot where they get to blow up more than just the gas supply. Beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard in 70mm and a fine job of direction by Ken Annakin with not a moment to spare in its 163 minutes. Never mind what Ike said – this is simply sensational. When I have a brigade of tanks – that is reality!

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991)

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Hello, dreamed of you. Love woke me. Artist Michèle (Juliette Binoche) who is losing her sight, encounters fire-eater Alex (Denis Lavant), a homeless guy with addiction problems.  They embark on an unlikely relationship at the Pont-Neuf in Paris, closed over the summer for repairs. They have to deal with a landlord of sorts (Klaus-Michael Grüber).  Leos Carax’s enervating romantic drama is beautifully shot by Jean-Yves Escoffier with a soundtrack featuring David Bowie, among others. Set during France’s 1989 Bicentennial celebrations this is a weirdly brutal, bewildering, compelling, rather magnificent oddity. Quite thrilling, like a nutty modern-day silent movie. Spot Edith Scob in the last scene, an homage to L’Atalante. Do you like it?/Yes./Yes yes or yes no?/Yes yes!

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

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Nobody’s asking you to be a hero. In the middle of World War II, an array of American soldiers gets inside information from a drunk German colonel about 16 million dollars worth of gold hidden on enemy soil in occupied France. Kelly (Clint Eastwood), a private with the platoon, devises a plan to sneak past the German officers to steal the loot for his crew. They recruit more men and set their plan into action. Despite several casualties, the men are determined to press forward, even if it means striking a deal with the opposing army… Crazy… I mean like, so many positive waves… maybe we can’t lose, you’re on! With Donald Sutherland as a hippie-inspired Oddball, this owes more to contemporary values than WW2 tropes but that just makes it more of a blast. Its cinematic DNA with its group of misfits and nuts is clearly derived from The Dirty Dozen as it also boasts Telly Savalas from that lineup but it lacks that film’s nihilistic streak and has more of the formal properties of a Bilko workout. Written by the estimable Troy (The Italian Job) Kennedy Martin and directed by Brian G. Hutton, who previously guided the very chilled Eastwood through WW2 shenanigans in Where Eagles Dare, the Lalo Schifrin score (with many spaghetti western nods including jangling spurs) and the Mike Curb theme makes it even more of a bangin’ experience. Good silly fun. Basically, I like any film where they blow the bloody doors off.  Stop calling me Barbara!

 

The Goose Steps Out (1942)

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O for Otto! Bumbling teacher William Potts (Will Hay) turns out to be the double of German General Muller, who the British have just captured. He is flown into Germany to impersonate the general and causes chaos and hilarity in a Hitler Youth college where the students are being trained to spy in Britain … Written by Angus MacPhail and John Dighton, based on an idea by Bernard Miles and Reg Groves, this is a souped-up Hay outing, co-directed by the star with Basil Dearden, who would of course become a filmmaker of note. (They had previously made The Black Sheep of Whitehall). Parlaying the usual array of schoolboy types and jokes in this espionage caper, Anne Firth makes for a comely Lena, the woman who would if Potts could, Peter Ustinov (in his debut) is a standout as Krauss  and Charles Hawtrey is Max, the boy who figures out precisely what is in their midst and does his best to help Potts make his escape. Diverting, funny, and well-staged, the action blends briskly with the comedy and concludes with a terrific finale in which Potts almost Blitzes London (again). There’s a funny scene involving English pronunciation – Leicester/Worcester/Bicester/Gloucester (helpfully written on a blackboard). If that sounds too complicated, just laugh at Hay giving Hitler’s portrait two fingers. Repeatedly. He does! Jingo all the way.  It’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me Goebbels

In Darkness (2018)

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It’s alright, I’ve got friends with eyes. In London blind pianist Sofia (Natalie Dormer) overhears a struggle in the apartment above hers that leads to the death of her neighbour Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski). It is the start of a journey that pulls Sofia out of her depth and brings her into contact with Veronique’s father, Zoran Radic (Jan Bijvoet), a Serbian businessman accused of being a war criminal in the Bosnian crisis twenty years ago. Sofia is drawn into a dangerous world of corruption, investigating police, hitmen, the criminal underworld and the Russian mafia—a world with links to Sofia’s past and a path of revenge she has kept hidden until now… She really is a mystery box. Dormer co-wrote this with director (and boyfriend) Anthony Byrne, and she does what all actors should do – gives herself a great part, even if the action doesn’t really capitalise on the dynamic plot tension although the direction moves you through the surprises with ease.  A blind pianist with a secret, her origins are camouflaged with twist upon twist, until the real reason behind her accommodation is revealed. Even in the final scene, you will be asking yourself what really happened – and does she have some remnants of the sight she was born with? The real flaw here is the portentous political issue at its heart. With Neil Maskell cast as a good cop, Ed Skrein as a bad guy who might be good and Joely Richardson as his very bad sister, the casting makes hay of the convoluted premise and the opening titles with their point-of-view position will confuse your expectations:  Dormer’s similarity to Anna Massey isn’t the only reminder of Peeping TomBlood is blood. You can’t turn your back on that

Spellbound (1945)

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If there’s anything I hate, it’s a smug woman. Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives at Green Manors, a Vermont mental hospital, to replace the outgoing hospital director, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll).  Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), a psychoanalyst, discovers he is an impostor. The man confesses that the real Dr. Edwardes is dead and he believes he might have killed him, but cannot recall anything. Dr. Peterson, however is convinced he is innocent and joins him on a quest to unravel his amnesia through psychoanalysis…That Freud stuff’s a bunch of hooey/Oh, you are a fine one to talk! You have a guilt complex and amnesia and you don’t know if you are coming or going from somewhere, but Freud is hooey! *This* you know! Hmph! Wiseguy.  Adapted by Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht (with uncredited contributions from David O. Selznick’s psychiatrist May Romm!) from the 1927 novel The House of Dr Edwardes by Hilary Saint George Saunders and John Palmer, this is the Hitchcock film that brought Salvador Dali to Hollywood and those dream sequences (only 2 of the original 20 minutes remain) are a fascinating component of a film that also boasts notable theremin work in the score by Miklós Rózsa. Peck and Bergman are quite wonderful in a story that has a solidly suspenseful plot with many surprises. It’s a mad film that isn’t so much directed as orchestrated and the melodramatic flourishes are perfectly pitched. A brilliant synthesis of talents and ideas that were all aswirl as Freudianism gripped America, awash with dream symbolism and nutty psychoanalysis, it is also fascinating to see Michael (Mikhail) Chekhov, the acting coach who famously trained talents as diverse as Marilyn Monroe and Jack Nicholson, in the role of Dr Alex Brulov, Constance’s mentor. Hitchcock regular Carroll is good as the inscrutable head of the hospital, while Rhonda Fleming has a nice supporting role as a patient.  Good night and sweet dreams… which we’ll analyze at breakfast

The Reptile (1966)

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Half woman – half snake! England in the early twentieth century. Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) inherits his brother Charles’s cottage in Clagmoor Heath following the man’s mysterious death. He moves in with his new wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel). They are not welcomed by any of the locals save for the publican Tom Bailey (Michael Ripper) who tells him Charles died of the Black Death. The local crazy Mad Peter (John Laurie) may be the only person who knows what’s going on:  a Malayan curse has turned the daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) of Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman) into a snake woman… You’re like your brother – obstinate! With a screenplay by Anthony Hinds (as John Elder), this was filmed by director John Gilling back-to-back with The Plague of the Zombies for Hammer and it shares its elegance and controlled atmosphere (and some of its major cast and sets) but let’s face it, it’s fairly silly. The actors are splendid – particularly Pearce as Cobra Girl and Laurie as Mad Peter, with Ripper great as ever – and there’s a flavourful score by Don Banks, making this a most enjoyable excursion into mind control with some terrific set pieces. This was cut to avoid an ‘X’ rating and was then passed in full in 1994.  If you take my advice you won’t live there

 

Halloween (1978)

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Every kid in Haddonfield thinks this place is haunted. On a cold Halloween night in 1963, six year old Michael Myers brutally murdered his 17-year-old sister, Judith. He was sentenced and locked away for 15 years in a sanitarium for the childhood murder of his older sister Judith. Now it’s October 30, 1978 and while being transferred for a court date 21-year-old Michael (Nick Castle) steals a car and escapes Smith’s Grove. He returns to his quiet hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, where he looks for his next victims, stalking and killing promiscuous teenage babysitters on Halloween night. He targets Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) while being hunted down by his psychiatrist Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence) … I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.  John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s cunning screenplay dissects and reconstructs the slasher movie and places it in the suburbs where carefree teens drink and drug and play around unaware that their grisly deaths are imminent as light briefly illuminates the dangerous darkness. The movies’ first properly famous virginal Final Girl is immortalised by Curtis in her screen debut, cast in her mother Janet’s immense Psycho shadow. On the one hand this is a clever homage and pastiche of feminist and misogynistic tropes;  on the other it’s a towering work of terror and one of the greatest horror films ever made, the granddaddy of them all.  Dazzling. You’ve fooled them, haven’t you, Michael? But not me

First Man (2018)

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You’re down here and you look up and you don’t think about it too much. But, space exploration changes your perception. Following the death of his daughter, pilot and engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) applies to train as an astronaut and participate in the Project Gemini space program, NASA’s project to put a man on the moon by the end of the Sixties. From 1961 through the Apollo 11 landing of July 1969,  details of the different phases of the mission and their effects are dramatised involving his co-pilots and his family … I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it, allows us to see things. That maybe we should have seen a long time ago. But, just haven’t been able to until now. Josh Singer adapted James R. Hansen’s biographical book about the man who took a step into the future and history, all at once. It reunites the LA LA Land dream team, Gosling and auteur Damien Chazelle, and the theme is announced in an early line of dialogue about gaining a different perspective on things. What’s wonderful about this – in the true sense, exhibiting wonder – is that it bridges the chasm between inner (human) and outer space:  this is a story of scale and it offers man-size thrills. Armstrong is no less an enigma here than elsewhere but the link between his tiny daughter’s death from a brain tumour and what he needs to do to come to terms with it is the unique narrative trope that humanises him and gives the filmmakers those private moments that enable us to have a sympathetic insight:  when he’s working out his engineering problems, he’s also writing up medical notes on little Karen’s progress;  after her funeral he pulls the curtains on his study and sits down to cry, alone, at the same desk where he charted her reaction to treatment. This is a portrait of a very private man whose profound sense of loss actually untethers him. The payoff and the personal clarification – and perhaps fulfillment, or even annihilation – because Armstrong’s characterisation is a masterclass in avoidance and obfuscation – is finally achieved when he goes on that moonwalk and leaves something of Karen on the surface of the mysterious object that he watches each night, from earth. In between there are missions and experiments and deaths, terrible deaths. Crashing into buildings in fog. Burning alive. As Armstrong points out, better to fail down here so that we don’t fail up there. And it all takes place against a febrile political background and rivalry with the Soviet Union. What’s radical about this is how lo-fi the technology is – and if you’ve been to Cape Canaveral you’ll know how everything seems to be made from balsa wood and tin foil, something that Janet points out to Armstrong’s platitudinising boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler):  You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!  Indeed, one on-board problem is solved with a Swiss Army knife. Foy offers heat where Gosling gives us cool; together their expressivity makes a whole person and dramatises the emotion inherent in such a dangerous pursuit. She has a new baby to care for;  when he is in crisis he is visited by memories of his daughter, his hands running through her hair. The other astronauts are a variable bunch and it’s Ed White (Jason Clarke) to whom Armstrong finally mentions his dead daughter, years after they’ve first met;  and it’s the fairly noxious Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) whom he advises to be more diplomatic who winds up accompanying him on the greatest journey of them all. This is brilliantly told, from the point of view of the only man who could have explained, but didn’t. The pictures from the space craft are small, the size he would have seen. Expressions are minimal. The risk is exceptional. The awe in the final section is everything. These men truly walked with death. But there could only ever be one man to do it first and it’s a staggering personal expression of earthbound grief, finally freed. This is a film of feeling. Watch. And wonder.