Lady of Deceit (1947)

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Aka Born to Kill. Stop that phony intellectual patter you climbing faker! A cult item this, a film noir with a distinctly nasty undertow of viciousness and some droll lines. Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) is freshly divorced in Reno and finds the body of another woman and her boyfriend in her boarding house. Returning on the train to her wealthy foster sister’s home in San Francisco she’s accompanied by the ambitious thuggish drifter Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) who murdered the couple. Their attraction is obvious but he marries her sister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long) and introduces his sidekick Marty (Elisha Cook Jr) to the mix. When philosophical private eye (Walter Slezak) turns up to investigate the Reno murders it transpires he was hired by the victim’s landlady Mrs Kraft (Esther Howard, always a joy) whose alcoholic inclinations won’t stop her from doing a Miss Marple. Helen inadvertently leads the older woman into a murderous situation engineered by Marty. Trevor’s byplay with Tierney is really something and the awfulness of everyone concerned is heightened in their verbal interactions. What this lacks in pace it makes up for in sheer psychopathy. A thoroughly febrile post-war film directed by former editor Robert Wise. It was adapted by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay from the 1943 novel Deadlier Than the Male, written by that fascinating screenwriter, novelist and producer James Gunn, who specialised in the hard-boiled pulps so familiar from the period.

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The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Nobody fucks with the Jesus. The Dude abides. Where to start with one of the most cherished films there has ever been? Not in the beginning. I may have almost had a coronary from laughing the first time I saw this at a festival screening prior to its release, but a lot of critics just did not get it. It’s the Coen Brothers in excelsis, a broad Chandler adaptation and tribute to Los Angeles,  a hymn to male friendship and the Tao of easy living with some extraordinarily surreal fantasy and dream sequences – not to mention some deadly bowling. Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, a guy so laid back he’s horizontal but he gets a little antsy when some thieves mistake him for The Big Lebowski and piss on his rug (it really tied the room together). Best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is his bowling buddy, an uptight Nam vet with adoptive-Jewish issues in this hilarious offside take on director John Milius. Steve Buscemi is their sweet-natured friend Donny and John Turturro is the unforgettable sports foe, a hispanic gangsta paedo in a hairnet, Jesus Quintana. After the rug issue is handled, Dude is hired by his namesake (David Huddleston) a wheelchair-bound multimillionaire philanthropist, to exchange a ransom when his young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped. Naturally Dude screws it up. There’s a band of nihilists led by Peter Stormare, some porn producers (Bunny makes flesh flicks), Lebowski’s randy artist daughter (Julianne Moore) and a private eye following everyone. And there’s Sam Elliott, narrating this tale of tumbleweed and laziness.  Everyone has their signature song in one of the great movie soundtracks and Dude has not only Creedence but White Russians to really mellow his day. Just like The Big Sleep, the plot really doesn’t matter a fig. This is inspired lunacy and I love it SO much.

How to Steal a Million (1966)

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You should be in jail and I should be in bed. Super stylish Sixties Art Nouveau heist comedy about a painting forger Bonnet (Hugh Griffiths) whose daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) needs to steal back a famous but fake statue (by her grandfather) that he’s loaned to an art museum and does it with the aid of a thief Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole) –  who’s actually a private detective investigating this sort of thing.   Harry Kurnitz adapted the 1962  story Venus Rising from a collection about art forgeries by George Bradshaw and despite its overlength it coasts on the sheerly delightful charm of the leads and some very sparky dialogue. Charles Boyer has a blast as O’Toole’s boss and you’ll recognise the chief security guard at the museum Jacques Marin because he played the chief of police in Hepburn’s earlier Parisian comedy thriller, Charade. Eli Wallach is an industrialist who feigns romantic interest in Hepburn to get at her grandfather’s work and there’s an outstanding score by John Williams as well as to-die-for production design. Givenchy dressed Hepburn – mais quoi d’neuf? Directed by William Wyler reunited with Hepburn 13 years after Roman Holiday. Bliss.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

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Truncated and abbreviated to 125 minutes from its intended original 200+ minute running time it might well be, but there is much to love about this Billy Wilder-IAL Diamond screenplay adaptation of everyone’s favourite ‘tec. With two stories instead of the four plus a flashback (apparently available on Laserdisc – remember them?!), Robert Stephens is the intuitive one with Colin Blakely as Watson, whom he pretends to a forward Russian noblewoman is gay to get out of fathering her child. Then he is taken in – for a spell – by a German spy masquerading as a woman in peril (Genevieve Page) with a detour to Scotland where a Jules Verne-esque submersible, Trappist monks and dwarves at Loch Ness are involved in an elaborate scheme which even attracts the attention of Queen Victoria. Brother Mycroft shows up in the person of Christopher Lee. Warm, witty, compassionate and sad, with a beautiful sense of irony, this is the underrated but gorgeously charming film that inspired the current BBC show. Happy International Sherlock Holmes Day!

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

The Firm (1993)

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Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) is the hotshot Harvard grad hired by Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an established law firm run by Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) but he soon discovers that beneath the outward trappings of success there’s a very dark side and a price to be paid for that nice car and condo (well, they’re lawyers, whatcha expect but corruption?). When Mitch travels to the Caymans to hide client funds, he’s seduced by a woman on the beach – and the resulting photos compromise his marriage (to Jeanne Tripplehorn) and he’s now under the cosh to do as he’s told because as he finds out previous associates were murdered when they uncovered the firm’s mafia tax fraud. He’s approached by the FBI to wear a wire … There are tremendous performances here in this super-efficiently told thriller, especially by Holly Hunter who has a whale of a time as Gary Busey’s secretary/ lover – he’s the private eye who shared a prison cell with Mitch’s brother, whose existence made Mitch vulnerable to exploitation. The John Grisham thriller was originally adapted by David Rayfiel who had been working with director Sydney Pollack since the mid-Sixties however a major rewrite and restructuring (and removal of some) of the book’s elements by Robert Towne made it a far pacier piece of work.  (There was a draft by David Rabe but Towne supposedly never saw it.) It’s a fantastically suspenseful entertainment, with a great performance by Cruise and he is matched by the peerless Hackman. You can read more about all of this in my book ChinaTowne in the chapter detailing Towne’s collaborations with superstar Cruise:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1489868389&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

Psycho (1998)

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The Hitchcock film is so ingrained in the collective psyche it was some kind of madness to remake it shot for shot (almost – there are some surreal inserts.) When Gus Van Sant’s name was attached it didn’t even make lunatic sense. Nor the fact that some cast members (I mean you, Anne Heche) didn’t even seem to know the original. The cinematographer (Chris Doyle) didn’t even understand the point of some shots, it appears. If you can get past the fact that this is sacrilege; that paradoxically Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, the keeper of her father’s flame, approved it; and that huge dead-eyed Vince Vaughn was selected to play the delicate bird-like Norman Bates (okay, Vaughn is truer to Bloch’s image, but who but the indelible Anthony Perkins is Norman?!), this can be viewed as an interesting homage to the most important film in (some people’s) living memory. It is about identity and its negation;  the camera articulates vision and perception (just look! A crane shot introduces Marion Crane! And the final shot of her eye is the single most important image in cinema); and Anne Heche’s underwear is kinda wonderful – the whole first section of the film is all about the colour orange. It’s about a man in a dress pretending to be his dead mother, whose rotting corpse is in the fruit cellar. The original film was censor-bait – when Janet Leigh flushed her calculations down the toilet censorship was literally flushed away in American cinema: that doesn’t even register nowadays. It is a reverie about a kingdom of death, as Donald Spoto has it. Joseph Stefano’s screenplay (he had a lot of help from Mrs Hitchcock) is shot word for word;  and Bernard Herrmann’s score is reworked by Danny Elfman. So this is an empty act of nostalgia and avant-gardism inasmuch as it is doing a Warhol to something that effectively belongs to everyone. But it is Hitchcock. Not to be reproduced. Like I said, sacrilege.

Psycho (1960)

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Sometimes we are in danger of overlooking the greatest filmmakers – and Alfred Hitchcock never won an Academy Award, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about recognition. As we know from Sacha Gervasi’s supremely funny and informative Hitchcock (adapted from Stephen Rebello’s The Making of Psycho) the great man needed a new project that would excite him. Yet he had been coining it from his TV show and was the most famous filmmaker on the planet. He should have been resting on his laurels on the eve of his sixtieth birthday – instead he took a radical new direction, had a true crime shocker by Robert Bloch adapted (by Joseph Stefano and his own wife, Alma Reville, who was uncredited) and filmed it in monochrome on his TV sets on a low budget. He created film history. No matter how you feel about the auteur theory (and I’m agnostic depending on the day/the director) he was responsible for pursuing the notion of the split protagonist to ever more devastating effect from Shadow of a Doubt (1943) through  Strangers on a Train (1951) and Vertigo (1958) which were adapted from neo-Gothic novels.  And here, in perhaps the ultimate noir tale, troubled mama’s boy Norman Bates internalises a perplexing matriarch and compulsively stuffs birds in an attempt at a kind of female individuation. It is of course the blackest of comedies. It boasts two astonishing performances – Janet Leigh in the first forty-five minutes, whose desires as Marion Crane drive that narrative, until she crosses paths with a confused motel proprietor, Anthony Perkins as that charmingly twitchy mother-loving madman. This is a tour de force in presentation:  these drab worlds are the external realities of the protagonists and the flatness of the style is then rendered bent in two by juxtaposition with the extraordinarily inventive murder sequences –  the shower scene cannot be adequately described, only experienced (preferably only cinematically) and definitely with those screaming violins. It was released 57 years ago and was the start of something entirely new that goes beyond its being merely the parent of the slasher flick:  a cinema of unease, a cinema of anxiety, something totally modern that severed the connection with the democratic and the unified. Cinema was never the same afterwards. And look at all those references to birds! A preview of coming attractions, as Grace Kelly once told us. Totally terrifying.

Payment on Demand (1951)

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Bette Davis was reunited with her A Stolen Life director Curtis Bernhardt for this divorce drama that sees her screen persona keenly picked apart and reconstituted as she squares off against husband Barry Sullivan. She’s the San Francisco socialite who’s worried about her daughter’s relationship with a lower class guy when hubby arrives home to tell her he wants to split. Perfectly judged flashbacks reveal the dissolution of their relationship from its earliest days in hardscrabble families through marriage, business, children and society, until the dread day when she is told by her friends that her beloved has been carrying on with a woman and “she’s not even young!” That woman is Frances Dee, a university professor with interests and taste until the private eye’s flashbulbs intrude. Davis goes hell for leather for the money she helped hubby make. The screenplay by Bernhardt and Bruce Manning cleverly interpellates the journey from brittle/skittish to brutal/scathing, a diad that the audience knew characterised Davis’ own growth as a star and her capacity for both vulnerability and cruelty. She plays it to the hilt with good support from Sullivan and in the film’s most potentially mawkish scene she is brilliant – with her back to camera. This encapsulates Davis’ acting persona and it’s a winner. For more on her dualistic performances you can see my essay on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/double_life_part_1.

Chinatown (1974)

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How do you describe a movie you’ve seen? How do you write a movie you’ve seen in your head so many times it’s like you lived it? The stars aligned when this one was made. Robert Towne turned down a lot of money to adapt The Great Gatsby for producer Robert Evans to decamp to Catalina Island with his great friends – the scholar Edward Taylor and his dog Hira. There, in the winter of 1971, he wrote one of the great Hollywood films, a fictionalised telling of the diversion of water from the Owens River Valley, set a few decades later than it occurred.  Private eye Jake/JJ Gittes was based on his friend Jack Nicholson, who played the role as born to it. Los Angeles, 1937. Jake is hired by a woman to investigate her cheating husband and gets mired in a mystery he could never hope to solve:  the corruption infesting the State of California and the distribution of Water (and Power), unwittingly finding himself falling in love with an heiress who’s given birth to her sister/daughter, the progeny of the man responsible for raping the land. Towne wrote a second draft which reads like Hammett, a beautiful exercise in pulp noir: I love it so much I dream about that biplane ride out to Catalina. But director Roman Polanski forced Towne into a third draft with an altered ending which is what was shot. Even with plot holes it’s extraordinary, shocking, funny, terrifying and blindingly brilliant, a sublime cinematic experience. Towne won the Academy Award. The guide at Paramount may be too young to know about it when you do the studio tour but if you want to know more  you can read my book about Towne and this film and all the other screenplays he’s written and films he’s made: https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481117503&sr=1-3&keywords=elaine+lennon.