Angel Face (1952)

Angel Face

I only ask questions and I love to dance. When wealthy Beverly Hills denizen Mrs. Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neill) is mysteriously poisoned with gas, ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) meets her refined but sensuous stepdaughter Diane (Jean Simmons), who quickly pursues and infatuates him, taking him away from his hospital receptionist girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman) who expects to marry him. Diane’s father Charles Tremayne (Herbert Marshall) is a formerly successful novelist who hasn’t written a word in a year and indulges his daughter. Diane persuades Frank to work as her family’s chauffeur and asks her stepmother to give him money to fund the former racing driver’s plan for a garage of his own. Despite fearing that Diane’s hatred of her mother could lead her to kill her, Frank goes along with her plan to run away but then both her stepmother and father have an accident and he finds himself embroiled in a court case … One acquires bad habits so early. Producer/director Otto Preminger spins a deeply subversive noir melodrama out of Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard’s screenplay (from a story by Chester Erskine) with uncredited contributions from Ben Hecht, almost removing the drama so that when the violence occurs – twice – it comes as more of a surprise than it would in a conventionally mounted suspenser. Mitchum is great as the sap who says he won’t be caught as the innocent bystander, while Simmons unleashes her inner demon to great effect. In their smaller roles, Marshall plays a typical Englishman albeit one whose charm has run out for his wealthy wife due to his spendthrift ways; while Mona Freeman is fine as the girlfriend who knows only too well she can’t outcompete Simmons. Leon Ames and Jim Backus have fun in the courtroom face-off. There’s a a lyrically misleading score from Dimitri Tiomkin and it’s beautifully shot by Harry Stradling. Quietly brilliant. All I want is you. I can’t let you go – I won’t

You Only Live Twice (1967)

You Only Live Twice

Bad news from outer space. When an American space capsule is supposedly swallowed by a Russian spaceship it’s an international incident. James Bond has apparently been killed in Hong Kong but he is ‘resurrected’ following his own funeral and sent undercover to Japan to find out who is behind the political aggression and the owner of the mysterious spacecraft. However while Russia and the US blame each other and Japan is under suspiion, he discovers with the assistance of his Japanese opposite number Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tanba) that SPECTRE is responsible for this attempt to start World War III and uncovers a trail that leads to the mysterious Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) whose evil empire is run from the centre of a volcano … Now that you’re dead our old friends will perhaps pay a little less attention to you than before. The one where Bond turns Japanese and trains as a ninja. A carnival of implausibilities that has the benefit of some gorgeous Japanese locations, stylish direction by Lewis Gilbert and introducing cat-loving megalomaniac Blofeld in the form of Pleasence, who we only glimpse over his shoulder as he strokes his pussycat before the big reveal. What an amazing villain! And how ripe for parody! Roald Dahl’s screenplay may throw out most of Ian Fleming’s novel (there is ‘additional story material’ by Harold Jack Bloom) but he does something clever – he takes the title seriously and has the second half begin exactly as the first, replacing a US with a Soviet rocket and doing a Screenplay 101 with the differing outcome second time around. The Cold War/space race theme might remind you of a certain Dr Strangelove. There are some good media jibes – If you’re going to force me to watch television I’m going to need a smoke, says James before aiming his cigarette at the enemy; astonishing production design by Ken Adam; and very resourceful sidekicks in Aki (Akika Wakabayashi) and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama); as well as the series’ first German Bond girl, Karin Dor, aka Miss Crime, due to the number of thrillers she starred in. Sadly it doesn’t save her here. This is gorgeously shot by Freddie Young and the restoration is impeccable. The John Barry and Leslie Bricusse theme song is performed by Nancy Sinatra. For a European you are very cultivated! 

The Operative (2019)

The Operative

We do not execute at any cost. If something is not according to plan you have the right to call it off.  British-Jewish Mossad agent Thomas (Martin Freeman) who is based in Germany is summoned to try and figure out the whereabouts of an agent he recruited following her father’s funeral in London because she is a valuable asset who has vanished without trace.  He met and persuaded this mysterious woman Anne/Rachel (Diane Kruger) to become an agent, sending her to Tehran on an undercover mission where she falls in love with Farhad (Casvar) whose business Mossad are hoping to use as cover for a nuclear weapons exchange to destabilise the national programme. When her missions become more dangerous and Farhad is kidnapped by her colleagues, she decides to quit, forcing her boss to find her before she becomes a threat to Israel… You should visit Israel. To connect to the place. The people. Adapted from the Hebrew novel The English Teacher by former intelligence officer Yiftach Reicher-Atir, writer/director Yuval Adler has made a smartly told, nuanced story benefitting from a defining performance by an almost unrecognisable dressed-down Kruger. The Tehran section is as educative as it is narrative, with Rachel’s love story an echo of her real feelings about the city and its people. Her enigmatic persona – she persists in telling people she’s adopted even though she isn’t – is not properly explored which suggests a hinterland the film doesn’t entirely reconcile. The letdown is Freeman, who apparently replaced Eric Bana as Rachel’s handler. Refreshing mainly because of its insights into the region’s geopolitics from a new perspective. I can’t believe I’m here. Doing this

An Inspector Calls (1954)

An Inspector Calls

We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. In 1912 Inspector Poole (Alastair Sim) arrives at the wealthy Birling household as he investigates the apparent suicide that afternooon of Eva Smith (Jane Wenham), a young working-class woman. He arrives in the middle of a dinner party and slowly reveals how each family member, including stern patriarch Arthur Birling (Arthur Young) and his uptight wife, Sybil (Olga Lindo), daughter Sheila (Eileen Moore), future son-in-law Brian Worth (Gerald Croft) and finally his own son Eric (Bryan Forbes), could all have had a hand in Eva’s death…  We all started like that, so confident and pleased with ourselves, and then he started asking us questions.  J.B. Priestley’s 1945 blend of closed-room suspenser and drama of conscience is a fascinating theatrical exercise adapted by Desmond Davis retaining Priestley’s rather blustering retro-fitted comment about complacency ahead of a war that couldn’t possibly happen in those halcyon pre-WW1 days. With the casting of Sim (famously Inspector Cockrill) you know this isn’t going to play out conventionally but each family member plus Worth has their flashback to their supposed involvement and the implications grow of a politically loaded social threat:  the father set in motion the girl’s downfall because he didn’t want to pay more than subsistence wages and feared her collectivist instincts so fired her.  It’s a canny work, toying with all kinds of prejudices and fears, ultimately summoning the supernatural to extinguish the guilty parties who are all, in their way, corrupt. Directed by Guy Hamilton. You and I aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner here

 

Les enfants terribles (1950)

Les enfants terribles

Aka The Strange Ones. Beauty enjoys immense privileges, even from those unaware of it. Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and her brother Paul (Edouard Dermithe) live isolated from much of the world after Paul is injured in a snowball fight at school. As a coping mechanism, the two conjure up a hermetically sealed dream of their own making filled with fetish objects and strange obsessions. Their relationship, however, isn’t exactly wholesome and when their ailing mother (Karin Lannby) dies the wider world intrudes and they are taken on holiday to the seaside to try to readjust. Back home their friend Gérard (Jacques Bernard) moves in and jealousy and a malevolent undercurrent intrude on their fantasy life:  he secretly likes her but she proves difficult to know.  Elisabeth starts modelling for Gerard’s uncle’s (Roger Gaillard) company and invites the strange girl from work Agathe (Renée Cosima) to stay with them – and Paul is immediately attracted to her:  she resembles all the images of the people – male and female – he hero-worships, as well as his nemesis, Dargelos. Elisabeth marries Michael (Melvyn Martin) a rich Jewish American man but he is killed immediately after their wedding and she inherits a large apartment. There, Paul tries to replicate the bedroom he shared with Elisabeth and reveals his love of Agathe to the shock of his sister  … Elisabeth never thanked anyone. She was used to miracles, also they came as no surprise. She expected them, and they never failed to happen. Jean Cocteau’s poetic 1929 novel translates to the screen as a mesmerising study in adolescence, obsession and solitude, testing the limits of imagination, impossible wish-fulfillment and the consequences. Director Jean-Pierre Melville directs Stéphane to the height of controlled hysteria and betrayal with the insinuations of many sexual inclinations subtly inflected in the text. The dream sequences are perfectly announced in the use of Vivaldi – such a startling and memorable combination in a narrative told by Cocteau himself. She married him for his death

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth poster

Could you do without me? Northern England 1865.  Newly sold into marriage to an older man, rich industrialist Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself confined to the house and starved of companionship. Her husband can’t or won’t have sex with her but makes her strip and masturbates while she faces a wall. Forced to spend her days in endless tedium, dining with his bullying father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), when her husband is called away to one of his collieries she starts to spend more time with maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and begins a passionate and fiery relationship with a young groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) from the estate, beginning a conflict that will end in violence. Following her husband’s demise at her hands and after hiding his body, a surprise arrives on her doorstep in the form of her husband’s illegitimate son Teddy (Anton Palmer) accompanied by his grandmother Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) throwing Katherine’s plans into disarray .You’ve got fatter. Adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, this austere treatment of a rural tragedy is as contained as anti-heroine Pugh by corsetry and decency until sensuality spills forth and all hell breaks loose.  This is the distinctive Pugh’s breakout performance following The Falling and TV’s Marcella and her polarising character anchors a narrative which is ostensibly feminist but ultimately offers a critique of female power and how it is achieved and sustained. Perhaps the casting of black actors in the story complicates the issue of power by raising another issue, that of of race, in what is otherwise a melodrama of sex and class. Ultimately what happens when people are undone by desire can be murderous. It is a drama entirely without ornament. Directed by William Oldroyd. She is a disease

Noose for a Lady (1953)

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We’re all of us a little delicate these days. Margaret Hallam (Pamela Alan) is sentenced to death for murdering her manipulative husband and her cousin Simon Gale (Dennis Price) arrives from Uganda determined to prove her innocence with only seven days to clear her name. He works with her stepdaughter Jill (Rona Anderson) to investigate all lines of enquiry including everyone in Margaret’s immediate circle of family, friends and neighbours.  He encounters a situation that could implicate any one of their number because the victim knew each of their past indiscretions and was practising extortion. Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the hangman’s noose awaits but as Simon closes in on the real culprit they start tying up loose ends …  Let’s stop theorizing. A decent B-movie whodunnit, Price sleuthing Poirot-style with the theatrical touch that he gathers all possible suspects at the beginning so that we then follow each plot thread with a little foreknowledge until the twist ending. The revealing of a slew of personal secrets gives a melodramatic spin to things, making it logical that each character has skin in the killing game – except of course more lives are at stake. There’s a shifty housekeeper (Doris Yorke), a man with a sleeping pill habit (Charles Lloyd-Pack), a woman with an illegitimate child (Alison Leggatt), a nasty old gossip (Esma Cannon) and so forth. To heighten tension, the policeman (George Merritt) is given a spot of insight that you’d think would be attributed to Price, whose usual villainous edge is toned down to permit him to play decent and enjoy a spot of romance with Vanessa Lane (Melissa Stribling). The gang is assembled again at the climax, Christie-style and even if you see the outcome telegraphed in advance, it plays very well and there are some good exchanges. Adapted from Gerald Verner’s novel The Whispering Woman by Rex Rienits and stylishly directed by the prolific writer Wolf Rilla in his debut:  this was the first of four features he made in 1953 alone. Shot at Merton Park. So much for Chesterton. This is a miracle that isn’t going to happen

War Paint (1953)

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I once read a lot of books about humanity. All wrong. When we get back I’ll write a new one. With only nine days to deliver a peace treaty to Gray Smoke, the chief of a strong Native American tribe, cavalry Lieutenant Billings (Robert Stack) and his troopers are in a race against time to avoid all-out war. Since time is of the essence, Billings recruits the chief’s son Taslik (Keith Larsen), to guide the men to the settlement. However Billings and his men are unaware that a group of renegades, wary of the suspicious U.S. treaty, seek to kill the messengers before they can complete their mission and they find that the Bureau of Indian Affairs officer Kirby has been killed – by Taslik . Gradually depleted of supplies including mapping equipment, water and horses, they realise Taslik has led them in a circle but are unaware they are being tracked by his sister Wanima (Joan Taylor) who is causing the landslides and is watching and waiting with a rifle … Without water he’s as dead as we are. This western is rich in irony, not least in the casting because Stack’s impassivity is a good physical reflection of the painted features of Larsen. The backstories of each trooper are drawn out smartly:  Charnofsky (John Doucette) is Polish and says he fled the old country because the Tsar wanted to put me in the military! As the men are gradually driven mad by thirst and greed, the infighting worsens, casualties mount and there is a truly compelling account of a death by poison; one man chooses suicide rather than wait for what appears to be inevitable. The original script had a mercy killing which elicited the ire of the Production Code Administration and had to be removed. All in all a convincing narrative, shot in the relentless glare of Death Valley. It’s written by C. Fred Freiberger, William Tunberg and producer Aubrey Schenck, who wrote the original story, while the screenplay credits are to Richard Alan Simmons and Martin Berkeley. The score is by Arthur Lange and Emil Newman and any film that has a song called Elaine can’t be half bad. Directed by Lesley Selander. Kinda lost track here. Only thing that breaks up the time is the wars

Holmes & Watson (2018)

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He and I co-detectives? Not I. Not here. Not even in my rapturous moments of private fantasy! Renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) join forces to investigate a mysterious murder threat upon Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) at Buckingham Palace. It seems like an open-and-shut case as all signs point to Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), the criminal mastermind and longtime nemesis of the crime-solving duo. Both men are diverted by American women – Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her companion Millicent (Lauren Lapkus) whom she insists is her electric shock treatment subject, a woman reared by feral cats. When new twists and clues begin to emerge, the sleuth and his assistant must use their legendary wits and ingenious methods to catch the killer who may have been hiding in plain sight very close to home I have the oddest feeling. Like knowing, but the opposite. Blending the steampunk approach of the Robert Downey films and the flash-forward visual detection of Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV Sherlock, this also has anachronistic shtick (Titanic in the life of Queen Vic, anyone?) and a cheeky reference to one of the more arcane Holmes incarnations in the casting of Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – TV’s House, geddit?! (That’s a scene that doesn’t work, sadly). Some of the best sequences and laughs are with Hall and Lapkus, between the misogyny and the bits about nineteenth century medical treatments, with some genuinely amusing romantic farce and bromantic jokes.  This is beautifully shot by Oliver Wood, exquisitely designed by James Hambidge and costumed by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Naturally it’s only a matter of time until someone says No shit Sherlock and it’s from the mouths of Dickensian runts straight out of Oliver!  There’s a funny passing song that occasions a joke about musicals when the film finally lets rip à la The Muppets giving it more promise than it delivers and there are some highly contemporary visual and political references. So there’s wit and invention aplenty but it’s not quite clever enough all the time. Rather like Holmes. Minus the innuendo and lewdness this could have been a marvellous comic outing for children, agreeably silly with some easy but amusing targets but you know, these guys, they just can’t help themselves, with Ferrell doing too much of what he likes as the ultimate defective detective and Reilly as his hapless foil, a Johnson in more ways than one (until the roles get switched, which happens constantly and is confusing). The ladies are fantastic and Fiennes brings that immaculate class as is his wont and manages to be the only one who doesn’t actually twirl that comedy moustache; while Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald and Steve Coogan (as a one-armed tattooist) get their moments of infamy. Written and directed by Etan Coen. No, not that Coen, obvs. Terrible and clueless but not totally awful. Go figure.  A sniff of morning cocaine always helps the brain

St Agatha (2018)

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Your name is … Agatha! In October 1957 pregnant con woman Mary (Sabrina Kern) leaves her boyfriend Jimmy (Justin Miles) when a scam goes wrong and takes refuge at an isolated Georgia convent but soon finds out that things are not quite as they seem and has to escape before Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennessy) and her cohorts harm her and her baby … Get your hands off me you bitches! This hopped-up interpretation of what Catholic nuns do to single mothers starts with a claustrophobe’s nightmare – being locked in a coffin: so as someone who baled on my last MRI scan, I was duly entrapped in a story which is a very twisted take on Christian origins. Shot beautifully by Joseph White with gauzy filters lending the convent’s surrounding forest an air of supernature and the entire production an atmosphere which sustains the suspense with the backstory dropped in to illustrate Mary’s family issues. These bewitching scary nuns sure know how to welcome strangers – Mother Superior declares that she too was an unwed mother (the Senator dumped her!) and the scratching sounds in the attics and the bizarre bird-feed vomit in the coffin treatment just confirm Mary’s suspicions that all is not quite right. With its dense flock wallpaper and red lights in the basement this place resembles a brothel. Soon Mary aka Agatha recognises a fellow con in Mother Superior. When Jimmy shows up to try to get Mary back she finds the nuns have guns and they won’t stop short of murder to save the babies to sell them to donors! The books must be balanced and the story takes off. There is quite literally a twist ending when you can take succour from the uses to which you can put a freshly cut umbilical cord:  a logical conclusion to the mediaeval torture that is childbirth. All hail virgin martyrs! Written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Michaels, Sara Sometti Michaels and Clint Sears.  Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. You’ve seen what I’m capable of. What kind of mother would I be?