Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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The truth does not make it easier to understand, you know. I mean, you think that you find out the truth about me, and then you’ll understand me. And then you would forgive me for all those… for all my lies. Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young writer, moves to Brooklyn (or The Sodom of the North as his father calls it) in the hot summer of 1947 to begin work on his first novel. As he becomes friendly with his upstairs neighbour Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her biologist lover Nathan (Kevin Kline), a Jew, he learns that Sophie is a Holocaust survivor. Flashbacks reveal her harrowing story, from pre-war prosperity to Auschwitz. In the present, Sophie and Nathan’s relationship increasingly unravels as Stingo grows closer to Sophie and Nathan’s fragile mental state becomes ever more apparent just as Sophie’s past haunts her … Alan J. Pakula abandoned his customary 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller style to adapt William Styron’s novel – and yet one wonders if the Nazi takeover and atrocities aren’t the perfect subject for such an approach? As it is this too-faithful work exercises a Gothic hold despite the dayglo colours of Nestor Alemendros’ cinematography.  Death is in the narrative cracks. MacNicol is strange enough to withstand the attention as the rather naif narrator, Kline epitomises the term kinetic in a tremendously physical interpretation of the disturbed Nathan as he literally envelops Streep, whose luminous moony pallor dominates every scene. The structure – revealing the tragic titular decision – is painstaking but it somehow works against the dramatic tension in a film that is too long and paradoxically fears taking a risk. It’s Streep who makes this work in a jaw-dropping performance which created her legend.

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Black Narcissus (1946)

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I told you it was no place to put a nunnery! There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated … A group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), are sent to a mountain in the Himalayas. The climate in the region is hostile and the nuns are housed in an odd old palace, home to the Sisters of St Faith and previously home to the concubines of the General in the area. They work to establish a school and a hospital, but slowly their focus shifts. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) falls for a government worker, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), and begins to question her vow of celibacy. As Sister Ruth obsesses over Mr. Dean, Sister Clodagh becomes immersed in her own memories of love back in Ireland while their conflicts are put into relief by the forbidden desire between The Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who is of entirely unsuitable caste.  Sister Ruth’s psychological problems devolve into violent madness … Rumer Godden’s story gets the high-velocity melodrama treatment in this extraordinary interpretation of her story about religion in a colonial outpost. Alfred Junge created the illusion of the exotic in Pinewood (and a Surrey garden) with Jack Cardiff’s magical cinematography enhancing the impression of lushness.  The Renaissance light and shadows highlight the growing atmosphere of hysteria. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted an astonishingly sensual portrait of women in hothouse seclusion, lured to their various fates by a man in their midst as they wrestle with issues of conscience, race, sex and vocation. It has not lost its power to bewitch and Byron’s performance is unforgettable.

Brief Encounter (1945)

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I had no thoughts at all. Only an overwhelming desire never to feel anything ever again. Returning home from a shopping trip to a nearby town where she regularly spends the afternoons taking in a matinee at the cinema, bored suburban housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is thrown by happenstance into an acquaintance with conscientious doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) who is also unhappily married with a child but finds solace in his work. Their casual friendship soon develops during their weekly visits into something more emotionally fulfilling than either expected and they must wrestle with the potential havoc their deepening relationship would have on their lives as they run into her friends and start to tell lies to cover for their encounters.  The lives of those they love are impacted despite their respective spouses remaining unaware of their infidelities and Alec considers a job offer in South Africa which sends Laura over the edge … This meticulous evocation of forbidden desire, class and repression has always been ripe for parody yet its virutosity of construction, performance and emotion means that this doomed romance adapted from the 1936 play Still Life by Noël Coward (part of the ten-act cycle Tonight at 8.30) has stood the test of time. It came out right after the conclusion of World War 2 and is enormously evocative of a period when trains ran on time and people strove to do the right thing.  The couple are in their forties which makes their predicament oddly more affecting and the constrictions of social coding understandable.  It was adapted by director David Lean with producer Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame and opens out Coward’s play, with the frustrated lovers disturbed in a friend’s flat and they take a boating trip not possible in the stage version.  Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is part of everyone’s cinematic DNA at this point and the recording here was by Eileen Joyce, adeptly placed to heighten the tension of Laura’s desire tempered by her middle class morality. The final scenes, reminiscent of Anna Karenina followed by the banal resolution in the marital home, makes the adulterous but unconsummated passionate relationship all the more tragic. Gulp. Quite devastating, then.

Lewis Gilbert 03/06/1920-02/23/2018

 

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Veteran British director Lewis Gilbert has shuffled off this mortal coil at the grand old age of 97. His is a career marked not merely by longevity or versatility but by the power of making films that speak to generation after generation not least my own James Bond years because he directed the first of that series that I was allowed to go see at the cinema, Moonraker. It might not have been one of the best Bonds – or even one of his best Bonds – because he had already made The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice – but for a kid it had tremendous value, hopping up the cartoon-like aspects and the ingenious potential of the effects. The impression you get is that he likes the characters whose stories he is shaping (even Alfie!) – and then you learn he was a child actor, born to music hall performers, which explains his generosity towards them. This goes some way toward why he was as much at ease doing war films with Kenneth More as he was female-centric dramas with Julie Walters. The realisation that he was responsible for so many of those war movies broadcast on Sunday afternoons in my childhood (and how I adored the Seventies iteration, Operation Daybreak) and other youth-oriented and equally affecting films is a testament to his own taste as much the material that might have been on the table – Susannah York in The Greengage Summer is an adolescent favourite and remains a wonderfully made drama;  later Free Love stories like Paul and Michelle offer more contemporary takes on the concept of youthful relationships and the negotiating required to attain maturity.  He would make films that found massive audiences in the Eighties with two projects adapted from Willy Russell’s plays about middle-aged lower class women getting their mojo back, Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine. He played a small role in The Divorce of Lady X opposite Laurence Olivier and made such an impression on mogul Alexander Korda he offered to sponsor him at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Gilbert instead opted to study directing and assisted Alfred Hitchcock on Jamaica Inn. He acquired technical knowledge during his wartime service with the American Air Corps film unit where he was seconded to the director William Keighley and after making a handful of short documentaries for Gaumont British put it to excellent use in those brilliantly crafted post-war British films that still tell us so much about the mindset that combated WW2 and dealt with the tricky (cinematic) aftermath. He married Hylda Tafler, sister of the actor Sydney, and it was she who found the property Alfie while visiting the hairdresser one day, seated beside an actress who was appearing in the Bill Naughton play. It was the standout of his career because it was the culmination of his studies of working class people who were finally being dramatised in complete narratives but it was also a theatrical style of filmmaking which broke the fourth wall. He often said his worst experience was working with Orson Welles on Ferry to Hong Kong and his biggest mistake was turning down Oliver! Lewis Gilbert, truly a professional man for all seasons and showman who was an excellent and amusing interviewee and recorded his memoirs in All My Flashbacks. Rest in peace.

Elephant Walk (1954)

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She is not one of us and her ways are cold and strange. When John Wiley (Peter Finch), an affluent plantation owner, brings his new wife, Ruth (Elizabeth Taylor), to his estate in the jungles of British Ceylon,  she finds she is the only white woman.  She’s overjoyed by the exotic location and luxurious accommodations until it becomes clear her new husband is more interested in palling around with his friends than spending time with her. She is intimidated by houseman Apphuamy (Abraham Sofaer) who is still being bossed by the late Old Man Wiley a rotten individual who has deliberately blocked the elephants from their ancient water source (hence the name). Left alone on the plantation, Ruth strikes up a friendship with American overseer Dick Carver (Dana Andrews), and it isn’t long before a love triangle develops… An old-school colonial romance, the novel by Robert Standish (aka Digby George Gerahty) was adapted by Hollywood vet John Lee Mahin who knew this kind of material from Red Dust two decades earlier. While revelling in the lush jungle landscape and the forbidden desires of Taylor the real story is the haunting of Wiley by his late father whose ghost dominates his life and the plantation. Taylor of course replaced Vivien Leigh who had a nervous breakdown yet whose figure remains in long shots that weren’t repeated and her lover Finch remained in the picture in a role originally intended for Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier. Andrews might not be our idea of a hot extra-marital affair but in a situation like that … It looks rather beautiful courtesy of the marvellous work by cinematographer Loyal Griggs but you might find yourself wanting to see more of the elephants than Taylor such is their pulchritudinous affect. You choose. Directed by William Dieterle.

Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983) (TVM)

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I’d left it too late. That’s the funny thing – everyone thinks they’re exempt. It’s 1974, and Barbara Dean (Judi Dench) is a British assistant manager and loan officer in a foreign bank in Saigon.  She’s something of a depressive and has to ward off the advances of her co-worker Donald (Roger Rees) while her narration informs us she has been a woman of secrets ever since having an affair with a friend of her father’s at a very young age. She meets an American Bob Chesneau (Frederic Forrest) at the end of a party one night when she’s waiting for a taxi home. She has fended off the interest of Frank (Wallace Shawn), a US Embassy officer with whom she plays bridge. She and Bob begin a relationship and she realises that he’s not a cultural attaché but he works for the CIA and knows that the fall of South Vietnam is very near because sources suggest the North Vietnamese are stepping up plans to take Saigon. Things are heating up at the bank when a member of the public comes in armed with a gun demanding all his money. Barbara delays planning her departure even when she’s helping the locals get passports for their own hasty exits. Bob tries to persuade his boss Jack Ockham (Josef Sommer) and the US Ambassador (E.G. Marshall) to evacuate the South Vietnamese who have been working for them but the Ambassador wants to appease President Thieu’s regime. Bob and Barbara’s relationship suffers under the strain …  Made for Thames TV, this is a real auteur work – an original teleplay by theatrical giant David Hare and directed by Stephen Frears the year before he made The Hit. Dench was likewise a lady of the theatre albeit with some TV in the bag but it was a long time before America discovered her properly in Goldeneye. If the direction feels a little clunky at times, and perhaps it’s due to both the low budget and the schematic constraints of Hare’s writing, there are some good elements. There’s a nice juxtaposition when the Jolly Green Giants swoop into the city and White Christmas is on the soundtrack – as Bob has said, When the radio stations play all Bing Crosby Americans know it’s the end.  This is a rather obvious trope but is used to signify that the US military are really out of their depth. There’s a nicely mounted tension and the intermittent meetings between the US Ambassador and the nervy hard-drinking Ockham, with Shawn’s character providing a kind of Greek chorus, add to the sense of fear. Spooky to think that of the cast it’s Judi Dench who went from strength to strength while the marvellous Forrest has been more or less retired for decades. I haven’t seen him since he played in John Frankenheimer’s last movie 16 years ago, coincidentally another TV movie about Nam, Path to War. Now that is a real injustice. I miss him. George Fenton’s score is nicely understated.

 

The Night My Number Came Up (1955)

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They kept talking about the mainland.  They were in very heavy cloud.  It kept getting darker and darker … British Air Marshal Hardie (Michael Redgrave) is attending a party in Hong Kong when he hears of a dream, told by a pilot Commander Lindsay (Michael Hordern), in which Hardie’s flight to Tokyo on a small Dakota propeller plane crashes on a Japanese beach. Hardie dismisses the dream as pure fantasy, but while he is flying to Tokyo the next day, circumstances start changing to line up with the pilot’s vivid vision, including the plane they have to take and it looks like the dream disaster may become a reality… R. C. Sheriff’s screenplay is a game of two halves:  what happens in the first leg of the flight, when it doesn’t have quite the quota of components outlined by Lindsay;  but then the second leg has the flashy loudmouth businessman Bennett (George Rose) and all the fears of the passengers in the know about Lindsay’s prophetic dream start to manifest in their behaviour. Then they hit a storm, the wings ice up and they lose radio contact – and are to all intents and purposes lost. There are nice behavioural touches here, as people come to terms with their own beliefs in the supernatural or otherwise. There’s a nice ensemble including Ursula Jeans, Sheila Sim, Victor Maddern and Alfie Bass as a bolshie soldier. Director Leslie Norman found the original story, from the real-life journal of British Air Marshal Sir Victor Goddard in a 1951 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Ealing’s Michael Balcon wouldn’t let him write the script and turned it over to Sheriff whose efforts in the director’s opinion added nothing to the story. However the final twist is quite pleasing. Handled well. Almost as well as the flight itself!

Viceroy’s House (2017)

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History is written by the victors. The final Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) arrives with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela (Lily Travers) in 1947 British India where he is tasked with overseeing the transition to independence, but meets with conflict as different sides clash in the face of monumental change. In this vast house, new valet Jeet (Manish Dayal) a former prison officer who left due to his political leanings meets beautiful Alia (Human Qureshi) whom he knew beforehand. She tries to ignore him because he is Hindu and she is Muslim and doesn’t wish to disappoint her invalided father Ali (Om Puri). While Mountbatten tries to balance the arguments about what to do regarding the various parties’ demands – hearing out Jinnah (Denzil Smith), Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) – and Edwina causes consternation among the staff by insisting on diverse meal preparation, Mountbatten realises that Lord Ismay (Michael Gambon) has been carrying out covert work to use partition to create a buffer state between India and the Soviet Union … This was gutted by some commentators and you can see why:  a project that was years in development, culled from several books of differing provenance with a foot in both camps as it were – a heritage romance that deals sharp lessons in politicking culminating in the greatest human migration in history with a million casualties. There are two books credited as the basis for the screenplay and a few writers: the principal source was Narendra Singh Saril’s The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition which was based on secret documents discovered in the British Library;  Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and director Gurinder Chadha are credited as screenwriters. History does not look kindly on Louis Mountbatten, who was, as this film clarifies, something of a stooge for a plan that had been in the London Government’s works for some time. (Maybe). His intentions were good, his overlords’ were anything but, is the arc here. You divided India for oil. Nonetheless the (heavily beautified) portrait of the Mountbatten marriage (no hint of Edwina’s affair with Nehru) with all the attractions of soft power being exercised within and without the household plus the subplot of the below stairs romance which is the only kind of happy ending possible here, is meticulously made. It’s nicely performed, beautifully photographed by Ben Smithard, integrating some great newsreels (real and faux) and sympathetically scored by A.R. Rahman.  Chadha’s personal relationship with the material is clarified in the end credits. As you can see, there are no straight lines in India. MM #1600.

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!

The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp (1953)

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A beautiful blonde angel (Diane Cilento) arrives in The Angel, Islington on a goodwill mission to soften the heart of pawnbroker Joshua Webman (Felix Aylmer). To raise money for her earthly mission, she pawns her harp for £20 and declares her love for the shop assistant Len (Philip Guard) who is immediately taken with her. She shows the people she encounters the path down which their happiness lies, whilst winning at the dogs and dodging pickpockets (Alfie Bass and Thomas Gallagher) and tries to improve people’s economic situations (pretty dire at the time) and puts couples together. This is a fairly typical British film of its post-WW2 era, blending elements of sentiment and whimsy with social realism (but you could take issue with the way that Jewish characters are represented). There are some nice visual touches – my favourite occurs when Bass gets planted in a birdcage during a foiled burglary. This was adapted by Charles Terrot from his novel and TV play with Sidney Cole and directed by Alan Bromly. Quite charming, with Cilento immensely impressive as the naive visitor in one of her earliest appearances, really becoming the Angel of Islington. There’s a pleasant score by Antony Hopkins.