Our Man in Havana (1959)

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Everything’s legal in Havana. Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness) is an English ex-pat living in pre-revolutionary Havana with his vain teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow). He owns a vacuum cleaner shop but isn’t very successful and Milly is annoyed he’s unable to fulfill his promise of a horse and country club membership, so he accepts an offer from Hawthorne (Noel Coward) of the British Secret Service to recruit a network of spies in Cuba. Wormold hasn’t got a clue where to start but when his friend Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) suggests that the best secrets are known to no one, he decides to manufacture a list of agents from people he only knows by sight and provides fictional tales for the benefit of his paymasters in London. He is soon seen as the best agent in the Western hemisphere and is particularly happy with his new friend, the beautiful spy Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara) but it all unravels when the local police decode his cables and everything he has invented bizarrely begins to come true when they start rounding up his network and he learns that he is the target of a group out to kill him… This film is, rather like North by Northwest, a taste of things to come:  an irreverent picture of the Cold War, the assumptions of the West and of course a picture of Cuba on the verge of a revolutionary breakdown (it was shot immediately after the Batista regime was overthrown). Graham Greene was reluctant to let anyone film his novels following the near-desecration of The Quiet American but this novel (the last he would term an entertainment and based on his WW2 experiences in Portugal) survives pretty unscathed with its comic tone evident throughout the cast (albeit Greene hated Maureen O’Hara). Who doesn’t love Ernie Kovacs? Or Guinness, for that matter, who perfectly inhabits this hapless effortful beast Wormold. I particularly liked his take on a game of checkers. Beautifully photographed by the great Oswald Morris  – but in black and white – in Havana?! Why?!  Directed, not by Hitchcock, who had tried to acquire the rights from Greene, but by Carol Reed. It was their third collaboration following The Fallen Idol and The Third ManOne never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.

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Cleopatra (1963)

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Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus. The Seventh Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) manipulates and falls in love with both Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) in her ill-fated attempt to save the Egyptian empire from a takeover by the Roman Empire. This love triangle is one of the most famous ever to be captured on film, with betrayal by trusted Octavian (Roddy McDowall), the murder of Caesar, the escape of Cleopatra who has borne Caesar’s son and the final, terrible defeat at Actium in Greece … What gets lost in the palaver about this truly epic historical saga which ruined Twentieth Century Fox for a while is just how good it is:  how it measures the scale of the action to the depth of performance. Elizabeth Taylor is imperious, vulnerable, scathing, dictatorial, brilliant and moving: What can I do? Where can I go in a world suddenly without you? You believe her. And she is matched by the acerbic Harrison, the slyly snide McDowall (we’re a long way from Lassie!), loyal Rufio (Martin Landau) and what about the very sad end of Burton whose line to Octavian makes you gulp with emotion:  Is there nobody who would grant Antony an honourable way to die? Oh! Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by C.M. Franzero and the histories by Plutarch, Appian and Suetonius the much-laboured upon screenplay is by Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, and director Joseph Mankiewicz who certainly suffered for everybody’s art as the man to take over the botched first attempt aborted in London and relaunched at Cinecitta in Rome. As legendary as this is for its effect on Hollywood, what shouldn’t be forgotten is what a brilliant spectacle it is. It’s quite breathtaking.

Carry On Cleo (1964)

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I came. I saw. I conked out. Julius Caesar (Kenneth Williams) is invading Britain. Mark Antony (Sid James) has to lead the army through horrible weather. Cavemen Horsa (Jim Dale) and Hengist Pod (Kenneth Connor) try to warn Queen Boudicea but they are taken captive. Horsa is sold as a slave by Marcus et Spencius. Nobody wants Hengist so he’s going to be thrown to the lions – but they both escape and hide in the Temple of Vesta when Caesar arrives for a consultation with the Vestal Virgins but an attempt is made on his life by his bodyguard Bilius (David Davenport). In the ensuing action Horsa kills Bilius and escapes leaving Hengist to take the credit for saving Caesar’s life and to be made his new bodyguard. In Egypt a power struggle leads Caesar to send Mark Antony to force the abdication of Cleopatra (Amanda Barrie) in order for Ptolemy to succeed – but he falls in love with her and kills Ptolemy instead! Then she persuades him to kill Caesar so he can take over Rome himself and they can rule the entire region together … – I’ve got a poisonous asp. – It’s not that bad. Probably the greatest in the Carry On series (although my own favourite is Carry On Screaming) this is simply laugh out loud hilarious from start to finish, with lines you’ll wish you’d written yourself. Infamy, infamy. They’ve all got it in for me!  Using the sets from the abandoned first attempt to film the juggernaut that was Cleopatra at Pinewood, the crazy gang went in and made a meal of everything past and present even giving James’ and Connor’s own What a Carve Up! a shout out while making a complete mockery of Cleopatra itself. Sublimely funny. Written by Talbot Rothwell, produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas. Blimus!

 

Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

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The Sutton family headed by sadistic and conventional middle class pharmacist father Mervyn Johns lead a stultifying and cruel Victorian existence;  innkeeper’s wife Googie Withers plots a way out of her nasty marriage by luring the oppressed younger Sutton (Gordon Jackson) into a friendship that will gain her access to his poisons and frame him for her husband’s murder while she carries on with her lover. This airless drama has much to recommend it in terms of setting – there are some rare scenes between gossiping women at the Oyster Bar – and performance, especially Withers, whose fabulous face and figure scream sex. However its emphasis on the unfortunate children of Johns, including an ambitious daughter who wants to make her way as a concert singer, somewhat dissolves the drama’s potential. It’s difficult to believe that Withers will give up as easily as she does – Johns simply doesn’t possess that kind of power outside the four walls of his home. Nonetheless, it was the wonderful Robert Hamer’s atmospheric debut and we love his films, don’t we?  It’s a fairly damning take on 1880s standards. Adapted from Roland Pertwee’s play by Diana Morgan. An Ealing production. And for trivia fans, yes, Roland was the father of Jon Pertwee, some people’s best ever Dr Who!

 

The Beguiled (2017)

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You vengeful bitches! I had high hopes for Sofia Coppola’s take on the Don Siegel Southern Gothic movie that made such a difference to our perception of Clint Eastwood way back when. Coppola has created such an interesting catalogue of films that are female-centred and immediately recognisable from their diffused palettes, lens flare, sense of mystery,soundtracks, alienation from family and the ultimate unknowability of teenaged girls. Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, the Irish soldier of fortune fighting for the North lying wounded in the woods near Martha Farnsworth’s boarding school for young ladies in deepest Louisiana when he is found by little girl Amy (Oona Laurence) on her daily mushroom-picking trip. She drags him back to the almost derelict building and the decision is made not to report him to the Confederates passing through the area despite the objections of staunch loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice, who was so great in The Nice Guys). There are only five students and the eldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) is the woman most obviously hot to trot – sad and clearly desperate for a man and a reason for escape. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney while he is unconscious and there are a lot of shots of water pooling in the cavities of his neck and abdomen. His objectification is writ large by the simple expedient of not having the camera include his face. Farnsworth admits to having had a man before the war when McBurney asks but as each of the girls enters his room to get a look at him and steal a kiss (a foxy Fanning) he realises he can play them off against each other. He learns to walk again and helps out, cutting wood and generally being the maintenance man. But all the while he has become the women’s fantasy. The problems really begin when each of them finds out what he is doing with the others. When Edwina invites him to her room after a particularly excruciating dinner and dance in this Gothic manse, she finds him having sex instead with Carol and takes terrible revenge …. And Farnsworth aims at keeping him there forever. There is something not quite right about the film. The control and the tone never really articulate the plot’s inherent collective madness, something that was so brutally effective in the earlier adaptation. The photography doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bruce Surtees’ work and that is surprising given Coppola’s customary attention to appearances (and the consequently unfortunate effect on the way Kidman appears). The relative containment of the story to the building doesn’t really work since so many of the shots are repetitive and one has the paradoxical desire to see more of the outdoors. Coppola has dropped some of the previous film’s elements – the black servant, the flashbacks to Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother – and this vacuum is not replaced with enough plot to sustain the story’s mordantly black tone. The performances are uniformly good and Dunst and Fanning are obviously back working again with Coppola. (And if you still haven’t watched Marie Antoinette go look at it now to watch Dunst give a complete performance as the child bride.) Farrell gives a good account of himself as a man who can’t believe his good luck even if it’s quite disconcerting to hear him speaking in an Irish accent. The young kids are very good in their roles and while Dunst’s part is not written especially well the sex scene with her buttons spilling over the floor is one of the best things in the film. Fanning is just a little too odd – but she has definitely grown up since Somewhere. Laurence is especially good as the little girl who stands up for McBurney right up until he hurts her little turtle Henry. The revenge is all too clearly telegraphed in a way that it wasn’t in the earlier film and that is the ultimate disappointment:  the staircase scene is thrown away.  There are some nice touches – the use of jewellery (Coppola loves fetishising sparkly objects) and costume and some Hitchcockian shots of the women’s hairstyles from behind. But it can’t make up for the lack of real tension. There is good use of music – that’s Mr Coppola’s band Phoenix reinterpreting Monteverdi’s Magnificat on the soundtrack and there’s apposite use of Stephen Foster’s song Virginia Belle.  Overall however this just doesn’t work the way you want it to do and despite its relatively short length (94 minutes) for a contemporary film it has its longeurs. Coppola adapted the original screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, a woman who was writing pseudonymously as ‘Grimes Grice’ which is the name mysteriously used on the film’s credits. Despite my reservations about this,  I find Coppola a fascinating – even beguiling! – director and I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s new book about her in the latest issue of Offscreen which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

Wild Things (1998)

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Teenage sexpot Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) is hot for teacher Sam (Matt Dillon), a former lover of her wealthy widowed mother Sandra (Theresa Russell) but he’s not having any. Well, not with her. So she cries Rape and he gets caught up in a very dense web involving loser Suzie (Neve Campbell) who also calls Rape. She was busted for drugs the previous year by Detective Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and suffered 6 months in the clink. When personal injury shyster lawyer Ken (Bill Murray) defends Sam the plot gets as convoluted and murky as a Florida swamp.  The girls admit they made it up because Sam didn’t protect Suzie from prison. Sam celebrates his eventual defamation winnings – by having sex with both girls. They were scamming Sandra for money. And that’s just the start of it. Cross, double cross, murder and betrayal are at the centre of a complex story that opens out like a neverending Russian nesting doll. Twisty Twister McTwisted isn’t in it! Sexy, funny, outrageous and brilliant neo noir. Written by Stephen Peters and directed by John (Henry:  Portrait of a Serial Killer) McNaughton, with a notable score by George Clinton. Super steamy.

Wonder Woman (2017)

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Diana (Gal Gadot) is the stroppy kid brought up in an Amazonian matriarchy by mom Connie Nielsen and tough as hell trainer aunt Robin Wright. She cannot be told of her godlike origins in this society of strong women. Then WW1 crashes into their ancient Greek Island world in the form of airman Chris Pine, a double agent for the allies, kitted out in German uniform with their army hot on his tail as Diana drags him out of his plane. There’s fighting on the beach of a kind you don’t often see – bows and arrows against German gunfire. And when her aunt dies saving her, it’s up to Wonder Woman to take serious action against the god Aries whom she deems responsible for the global conflict. She heads to London with her newfound companion, there’s some very amusing and sexy byplay, a departure to the Front with an unpromising crew, some displays of camaraderie and great costume changes, excellent combat and truly evil Germans. And Aries is not who you think he is after all…. After years of snarky annoying movies about silly superheroes all shot in greyscale this is actually a colourful and proper good-versus-evil plot about gods and monsters that threatens but never actually tips into full camp (those first scenes gave me the wobbles but right prevailed), the humour is spot-on, the performances tonally perfect and I am pleased to agree with many others that this is really terrific. Well done director Patty (Monster) Jenkins and the screenwriter Allan Heinberg, working from a story by himself, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs. Miraculously it all seems to make sense. Based  – of course – on the comic book by William Moulton Marston. The soundtrack by Rupert Gregson-Williams is fabulous – but what I really wanted to hear was …. you know!!

The Beguiled (1971)

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What an extraordinary generic blend this is:  part Western, part Gothic or Grand Guignol, and an emblematic role for Clint Eastwood who would turn aspects  of its perverse sexuality into a motif in Play Misty for Me and Tightrope.  He’s a Union soldier badly wounded in the Civil War, found by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) a little girl who attends a seminary nearby in very Southern Louisiana. Deciding eventually not to report him to the Confederate soldiers, headmistress Geraldine Page sets her sights on him – but so does teacher Elizabeth Hartman. And student Jo Ann Harris … Adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, this plumbs areas of psyched out femininity that no other films truly reach.  It becomes clear that Page indulged in an incestuous relationship with her late brother;  Hartman is a virgin;  and Harris is a fox – whom Eastwood naturally beds, to the others’ uncontrollable fury. The Gothic trope of the staircase looms and Hartman pushes him to the bottom of it – giving Page an excuse to lop off one of his legs and trap him there forever. When he accidentally kills Amy’s turtle everything comes to a head and any plans he might have are as dust. There’s nothing like women scorned, is there? Bruce Surtees’ dreamlike cinematography lends this twisted narrative an art house feel that is entirely different to any of Eastwood’s output to that time – and the studio had no idea how to market it. Blacklisted writer Albert Maltz did the original adaptation but he gave it a happy ending – so another draft was done by Irene Kamp. Both of them were credited pseudonymously. And the real rewrite by associate producer Claude Traverse went uncredited. Director Don Siegel worked with Eastwood to create a different phase of his iconicity following the spaghetti westerns that brought the actor global fame  – and this was the real start of crafting something mysterious and ineffable and even masochistic in his screen persona, alongside the action roles that kept the studios happy. No wonder Sofia Coppola wanted to remake it. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. This is great anyhow you choose. (And an opportunity to see the tragic Hartman). When this came out my aunt’s mate at boarding school snuck out to see it and she was caught by the nuns climbing back in a window very late at night. When she explained her uncontrollable weakness for Mr Eastwood they said they understood completely and she wasn’t punished. Now that’s some cool nuns. And how very fitting!

The Mirror Crack’d (1980)

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Oh joy! An Agatha Christie murder mystery set in the 1950s on location in England with … four of the era’s real-life stars in the leading roles! What a brilliant idea, at least. Elizabeth Taylor re-enacts a story Christie knew about Gene Tierney who was embraced by a fan at the Hollywood Canteen while Tierney was pregnant with her first child by husband Oleg Cassini. The fan had left quarantine where she was languishing with German measles. Tragically, Tierney’s daughter was born blind and deaf and severely retarded as a result of the woman’s selfishness. Christie took the idea and ran with it, bringing movie star Marina Rudd on location to film the story of the sisters Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots with old rival Lola Brewster (Kim Novak) a production being directed by her husband Jason (Rock Hudson) and produced by Lola’s husband Marty (Tony Curtis). This was Taylor and Hudson’s second film together twenty-five years after the epoch-defining Giant. A chance meeting at the launch party brings Marina into contact with the woman who she now realises had infected her at a theatre during WW2 and the woman is murdered then anonymous letters start arriving … Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler adapted the novel, John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin produced and Guy Hamilton directed, with Angela Lansbury playing Miss Marple in what proved to be an audition for Murder, She Wrote. She is accompanied by her nephew at Scotland Yard Dermot Craddock (Edward Fox):  there’s a top-notch cast list with Pierce Brosnan to be spotted in a small role. And when was the last time you saw Anthony Steel?!  This isn’t the tense mystery that it should be, but it provides vast pleasures for those of us consumed with Hollywood in all its iterations. The cinematography by the great Christopher Challis doesn’t hurt but the final shot of the fabulous Ms Taylor is deeply unflattering and should have been rethought (Natalie Wood had been the first choice for the role).  On the other hand, there are close shots of her eyes that are not in any of her other films – and they are legendary!