Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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I’m not home. I never will be. I first encountered a Nam vet on Central Park West. He chased me despite being on crutches that were well past their sell-by date. I guess maybe it was because I had more legs than he did. I was waiting tables in a township on Long Island called Massapequa at a ghastly restaurant where a deranged and thankfully distant relative worked. Massapequa is the hometown of the Baldwin brothers and Ron Kovic, the subject of this impassioned film by Oliver Stone, a man whose own combat experiences had informed his previous film, Platoon, that astonishingly immersive journey of a naif to manhood in a horrifying exposition of American soldiers’ experiences. Ron Kovic’s book is the basis of another coming of age tale, this time of a Catholic boy whose parents’ devotion to JFK unwittingly unleashes their sports-mad son’s inner patriot.  I hadn’t seen this since its release and my fresh impression of its first sequences was of overwrought melodrama, underlined by John Williams’ overheated score. But this is all of a piece with the film’s intentions:  starting with a heightened picture of America’s hearth and home;  the futility and horror of war; the brutality of veterans’ experiences in epically gruesome, filthy underfunded hospitals (Kovic’s God-loving mother never even paid him a visit); the utter loneliness of being a castrated, paralysed man with a beating heart and functioning brain who is ridiculed by the anti-war protesters; the recognition that the only people with whom he now has anything in common are the other vets who are even more fucked up than he is. And so it moves into its more austere final sections. Politicisation. Separation from a family who refuse to accept he could have killed women and children and for whom he is a mere embarassment in a block where the other soldiers at least died. Is there a better correlative image in Stone’s entire oeuvre than the crane shot over the Wilson family home, where Ron has confessed to killing new recruit, their nineteen year old son William, in the dunes of Nam as the sun flared during an ambush, then he is wheeled away by a helper amid the scraps and detritus dumped in their yard and the leafy branches fade into a fluttering stars and stripes – and we are plunged into more police brutality at the 1972 Republican convention where he has joined the protest movement? This is elegant filmmaking. It is not without its humour or self-awareness. Ron has finally had his cherry broken by a Mexican whore in a sequence of T&A that reunites Stone with Willem Defoe who welcomes him to this sick paradise and he thinks it’s love – but hides his gift for her when he realises sex with a cripple is just a job for her. These vets’ wheelchair-off is a salve for those of us who might have liked to see one between Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, who beat him to an Academy Award that year (DDL gurned more). I’ve never been back to Massapequa or that cruddy restaurant but Stephen Baldwin has a small role as a schoolfriend, Tom Berenger gets him to join up, Frank Whaley is the other surviving vet who helps Ron out of his doomladen hole and Kyra Sedgwick is the gorgeous girl he loved so much he ran through the rain to dance with her at the Prom and she turns him on to the anti-war crusade. Cruise is simply great, giving a complete performance from boy to man in a narrative which exemplifies the art of juxtaposition and emotional arcs. This is cinema, utterly moving and indignant and humane. Watch it and weep.

A Foreign Affair (1947)

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When tightly wound Iowa Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) arrives in rubble-strewn Berlin on a fact-finding mission about GI morals she doesn’t reckon on falling for smooth-talking black marketeer Captain Pringle (John Lund) or indeed his mistress Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich) whose ex is a former Nazi high commander… Billy Wilder was stationed in his favourite city for the US military in 1945, years after he’d fled when Hitler came to power. He was shocked by everything he saw and was charged with reorganising the entertainment industry and editing footage from the camps. He shot film of the city and instead of going to a mental hospital when he discovered what the Nazis had done to his only family, returned to Hollywood where he made a crazed Bing Crosby movie about interspecies breeding in the Tirol called The Emperor Waltz. Then he returned to this subject – post-war Berlin and how diplomacy was a thin veneer over a lot of mucky surviving and blind eyes being turned to the reality – via a story by David Shaw. It caused a lot of censorship problems for Paramount, where the interiors were shot, while locations filming took care of the exteriors. Dietrich is the only possible person to be Erika, the slinky seductive songstress who winds everyone around her finger delivering louche songs by Frederick Hollaender that speak to her own background on the cabaret scene in the city. She and Arthur are cannily deployed against one another and this led to serious frostiness on the set. The politics of occupation and accommodation and the pointlessness of reeducating the shameless were never so hilariously depicted and this wasn’t even screened in Germany until 1977. Nobody gets out of this unscathed. Adapted by Robert Harari and written by Wilder and Charles Brackett. You can read more about this in my article on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/billy-wilders-a-foreign-affair.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

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Judge not, that ye be not judged. Spencer Tracy arrives in the rubble of the great city of Nuremberg after the bombs have fallen:  this is what remains of a once-proud metropolis in the wake of Hitlerism. He’s the chief military judge in one of the trials taking place there in Abby Mann’s adaptation of his TV play and Maximillian Schell replays his role as the German defence counsel. The case involves four judges in the Nazi courts who had people executed and sterilised and otherwise punished for not being Party members: it’s a representative slice of what actually occurred aided in no small part by what we might call stunt casting.  Burt Lancaster is the one judge who acknowledges what he’s done is wrong. Marlene Dietrich is the widow of the man already executed whose home Tracy occupies and after whom he hankers a little. Judy Garland and the incredible Montgomery Clift testify in court. Clift is a former Communist whom one of the judges had sterilised. His scene in the stand is unforgettable. Schell does a great job as the frustrated counsel, eager to prove the overwhelming logic of the judges’ work;  Richard Widmark has his day in court showing the films shot by Allied troops liberating the camps. Naturally the Germans think this is a cheap shot. This film shocked me as a child and it shocks me no less today, particularly when Tracy, having sentenced the men, is asked to visit Lancaster and has to explain to him why he came to his decision. He is our conscience, arguing for the value of a single human life in the face of ruthless German logic. The end credits include the reminder that by the time this film was made not a single Nazi convicted at Nuremberg remained in prison despite life sentences handed down. That’s right, they’re all running the Fourth Reich in a Germany that’s been on the rise ever since. Be afraid. Directed by Stanley Kramer.

The Third Man (1949)

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Western pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in post-WW2 Vienna at the invitation of old schoolfriend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to find that he is just in time for his funeral. British military intelligence in the form of Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) makes his acquaintance while Holly believes there was a third man present at Harry’s mysterious death and he finds himself falling for Harry’s lover Anna (Alida Valli). There are some films whose imagery is practically enamelled in one’s brain and this is one of them, regularly voted the greatest British film ever (despite the crucial involvement of David O. Selznick) with its unforgettable score, the shimmering rain-slicked streets, the chase through the sewers, the treacherous manchild, the funeral, the theatre, the appalling talk at the British Council, the cuckoo clock speech, the Prater … A combination of spy thriller, spiv drama, film noir, character study, western, romance, this was an unusually brilliant collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, whose friend Kim Philby was a source of much of the story. And this is ultimately a film about stories and storytelling. But nothing can explain this film’s legend – not even Orson Welles’ tall tales – it must be seen to feel that tangible atmosphere, those shadows, the light at the end of the tunnel, those canted angles, that amazing sense of place. My book on its complex origins, production and afterlife in radio and TV is published today on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Trouble-Harry-Third-Man-ebook/dp/B072BTQN48/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1494840986&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon.

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The Two Jakes (1990)

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We’re approaching Jack Nicholson’s landmark 80th birthday and he’s not very far from our minds anyhow, is he? Nobody dislikes this guy, a Seventies superstar whose offscreen life never threatened his essential abilities to act better than most anyone else. Two Jakes is the continuing story of Jake Gittes whom Nicholson inhabited so memorably in the classic Chinatown, a mythos of Los Angeles created by Robert Towne as part homage, part interrogation of that great city and its wobbly foundations. Now it’s post-WW2 and Gittes is hired by another Jake, Berman (Harvey Keitel) to do a routine matrimonial job. Gittes leads Berman to his wife’s lover, whom he murders. He’s Berman’s business partner. We return to the world of deceit and conspiracy that characterises film noir, albeit we are in living colour with a fabulously feline Madeleine Stowe as a very fatale femme.  It isn’t always a success and while the voiceover narration is true to the style it’s not always satisfying in a plot which might have been tightened a tad had screenwriter Robert Towne been around to finish it, an issue that caused trouble for Nicholson, who directed this outing. However there’s a lot to savour – it looks amazing and there’s a flavoursome soundtrack by Van Dyke Parks. It makes me wish we could finally have the last part of Towne’s projected LA trilogy. For more on this see my book about Robert Towne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1492610518&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

Carrington VC (1954)

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It would be too much to credit Anthony Asquith as an auteur but it must be said he authored so many elegant, witty adaptations of theatrical works exploring the class system that there should be proper recognition of his contribution to British cinema. In this John Hunter adaptation of Dorothy Christie and Campbell Christie’s play, David Niven is the officer who’s had to resort to taking money from mess funds to make up all the back pay he’s owed because his wife is threatening to kill herself over their financial woes. He’s a decorated WW2 hero despised by Col. Henniker (Allan Cuthbertson) a CO who’s got no cred amongst his men because he’s seen no action – so he pretends he didn’t know about the issue and brings Carrington to court martial. Carrington’s friend Captain Alison Graham (Noelle Middleton) stands by him and is secretly in love with him. When Carrington’s suicidal wife Val (Margaret Leighton) finally condescends to attend the trial she shrewishly gives false testimony to avenge her husband’s one night stand with Graham. This sounds like fairly conventional stuff but it’s smart, witty and well played, particularly by Niven whose typical typecasting actually works here – he really is an officer and a gentleman in a bit of a jam who’s terribly loyal even to people screwing him over – including his wife.  Victor Maddern (you’ll remember him from several Carry On roles) is fantastic as Bombardier Owen who has photographic recall of every detail of Carrington’s transactions and it wouldn’t be a Fifties Brit flick without Geoffrey Keen, Laurence Naismith and Maurice Denham whose presence really bolsters a story about the army in peacetime, somewhat at a loss in the post-war world.

Sleeping Car to Trieste (1948)

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A potentially controversial diary is stolen from an embassy in post-WW2 Paris and a train trip across the continent becomes a hotbed of intrigue as everyone on board is concealing some kind of secret … This remake of Rome Express is so confusing I almost forgot the premise as I was watching it but the cast is so absorbing and some of the dialogue so barbed the plot didn’t matter after a while and Benjamin Frankel’s score rocks those tracks. Jean Kent (late, lamented) and Albert Lieven are the thieving espionage agents who make off with the politically incendiary diary and they are double crossed by Alan Wheatley who takes the Orient Express where he is being pursued by a police inspector. There’s a married man having an affair (Derrick de Marney and Rona Anderson);  an irascible writer (Finlay Currie) with his unhappy assistant;  an amorous American soldier (Bonar Colleano); a moronic stockbroker (a very young David Tomlinson);  an irritating birdwatcher; two French girls with a penchant for hats and the New Look; and the train’s chef (Coco Aslan) who’s plagued by an Englishman proud of his hotpot and roly poly recipes (yes, there’s a recipe for train movies too.) It gets a bit violent and there’s a horrible death (remember Shadow of a Doubt? It’s like that.)  Directed by John Paddy Carstairs from a script by Allan McKinnon, adapted from Clifford Grey’s story. PS Never go to Trieste. Worst people I have ever encountered  – no wonder it was the region where Mussolini had his biggest following. Just saying.

Snowbound (1948)

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Terrifically tricksy adaptation of the Hammond Innes (remember him?!) novel The Lonely Skier.  Dennis Price (you had me at hello!) is a former soldier recruited by his WW2 CO Robert Newton (Price is an extra on his film set) to pretend to be a screenwriter at an Alpine resort where a motley assortment of characters is gathering – the most English Englishman ever, Guy Middleton, Italian comtessa Mila Parely, Marcel Dalio. Stanley Holloway and a self-announced Greek, Herbert Lom (yeah, right!).  Price is producing reports for Newton in between ski runs and it eventually transpires that they’re all in search of a horde of gold stashed during the war. There’s wads of tension, a Christie-esque scene in which Holloway laughingly disrupts a gun quarrel by dint of opening a door, a marvellous torchlit search on the mountains when Price is inevitably injured by Lom – a Nazi, obviously – and left for dead, and a conflagration for a conclusion. It’s a bit too clever by far but give me mountains, give me snow, give me gluhwein, I’m there. Wonderfully atmospheric. Adapted by Keith Campbell and David Evans directed by David MacDonald. A Gainsborough production.

Hue & Cry (1947)

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Harry Fowler is the kid who reads the adventures of Selwyn Pike in the pages of the Trump comic to his gang of Blood and Thunder Kids and becomes convinced that the strip is used as code by black marketeers. The police won’t believe him and he takes on the criminals himself, first visiting the sinister writer Alastair Sim and then working for grocer Nightingale (Jack Warner) who turns out to be central to the smuggling ring. After some false attempts to capture the criminals and stave off a department store robbery, and tying up Rhona (Valerie White) from the magazine, the scene is set for a standoff using Sim to engineer it in his story … Tremendous entertainment from writer TEB Clarke, with vivid performances from the kids running amok in the rubble-strewn bombed-out East End right after WW2. Ealing Comedy was really up and running in a film whose Expressionist leanings (courtesy of DoP Douglas Slocombe) remind one of Emil and the Detectives. Directed by Charles Crichton.

Stage Fright (1950)

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The scene is set with a theatrical curtain rising on a picture perfect London:  we are prepared for a performance in this Hitchcock thriller, a role-playing and female-centric adaptation of a Selwyn Jepson story by Whitfield Cook and Alma Reville. This was the last of her husband’s films on which Reville would receive a credit for her writing work. (There was some additional dialogue by James Bridie). Hitchcock’s return to his home town after the war is one of his lesser films for Warners but is interesting nonetheless for  some of the tropes familiar from his earlier English films – longer takes, point of view shots, the use of performance as metaphor. Not to mention a characterful Marlene Dietrich so louche as to barely bother singing The Laziest Gal in Town. Jane Wyman is the drama student whose best friend Richard Todd runs to her for help on behalf of his mistress, Dietrich, whom he says killed her husband in a flashback that is controversial to this day because he’s lying – he’s The Right Man, as it were. This however could be regarded as another development in the suspense thriller format even if Hitchcock himself said afterwards it was a mistake (people can lie, the camera shouldn’t, even if it’s someone’s version of events …)  There’s a lot to love in this ensemble drama of post-war London theatre –  Wyman playing a mousy role opposite Dietrich in Dior, Alastair Sim as Wyman’s dad, Joyce Grenfell doing her kooky shtick, Pat Hitchcock as one of Wyman’s fellow students at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (where she really studied – and she does the stunt driving for Wyman in the opening scene) and Richard Todd is very good indeed in the role of Jonathan Cooper, the villain. Michael Wilding – Dietrich’s real-life lover (or one of many) – is fine as the policeman convinced of his guilt. Was there ever a more final curtain?