Watch on the Rhine (1943)

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I fight against fascism. That is my trade. Jack Warner acquired Lillian Hellman’s hit play for an enormous sum and her lover Dashiell Hammett adapted it for the screen. Bette Davis gets top billing but she’s just one in an ensemble and therefore a supporting player in this tale of anti-fascist activists in Washington in wartime. She plays Sara, the wife of German anti-Nazi Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) who travel with their three children from Europe via Mexico back to her hometown to stay with her widowed mother (Lucile Watson) and brother David (Donald Woods) in a very upscale home. They have other houseguests: Teck De Brankovis (George Colouris) a smooth but desperate Romanian who lives off his wealthy wife Martha (Geraldine Fitzgerald, Davis’s Dark Victory co-star), a woman who is falling for David. Teck soon makes it clear he is a collaborator of the Nazis in Washington and rifles through Kurt’s briefcase threatening blackmail over his true identity.  As Chekhov once proved, if there’s a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third … This talky melodrama is a political tract that works in fits and starts. FDR fan Davis clashed with theatre director Herman Shumlin (who had staged it on Broadway) and argued against the casting of Watson, a Republican, who had established the role on stage. However Watson dominates every scene she’s in with an arresting presence. When she declares, Well we’ve been shaken out of the magnolias, you want to cheer. Very much of its time and terribly stagebound but it demonstrates a consciousness about goings-on in Europe and the wheeling and dealing of so-called diplomats on foreign soils at a time when it really mattered. To demonstrate their commitment to the project Warners refused to bow to pressure from the Hays Office and retained the original ending. They dropped most of the location backgrounds because they contained shots of Government buildings. Shumlin was a prolific stage director and also did Hellman’s The Little Foxes on Broadway. He made just one further film, Confidential Agent (1945). It is not noble. It is only the way I must live.

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In Harm’s Way (1965)

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I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way. This sprawling WW2 naval epic from producer/director Otto Preminger is set amid the Pacific battles with the Japanese and starts with the attack on Pearl Harbour. John Wayne is Captain Rock Torrey who’s demoted after surviving that encounter because his ship is then damaged in a subsequent episode. He meets the son (Brandon de Wilde) whom he abandoned 18 years earlier, and the boy is now in the Navy himself. He starts to romance a nurse (Patricia Neal) but he and his troublemaker colleague Commander Paul Eddington (Kirk Douglas) are tasked with salvaging a dangerous mission … This is an underrated war film with a brilliant cast, a mix of old-timers (Franchot Tone, Bruce Cabot, Dana Andrews, Stanley Holloway, Burgess Meredith, Henry Fonda) with new talent (Tom Tryon, Paula Prentiss, James Mitchum) who together bring a brisk sense of character to a realistic and unsentimental portrayal of men and women in war.  It’s another in Preminger’s examinations of institutions, with a story that has romance and work relationships aplenty with a keen eye for toughness:  what happens to de Wilde’s girlfriend (Jill Haworth) is quite the shocker. There are no punches pulled when it comes to relaying the heavy price to be paid for victory and the concluding scenes are impressively staged. This is a film in which the characters never suffer from the scale of the narrative. Wait for the credits by Saul Bass, who also designed the wonderful poster.  Adapted by Wendell Mayes from the book by James Bassett.

American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.

Conflict of Wings (1954)

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Aka Fuss Over Feathers and The Norfolk Story.  That great expanse of sky and never a ripple to disturb that ancient garden. A Norfolk bird sanctuary that was the burial ground for children in Roman times is threatened by the Royal Air Force’s plan to use it as a target range for testing their new DeHavilland Vampires with a rocket system. Led by Muriel Pavlow, whose boyfriend John Gregson is an RAF corporal, the community discovers that the land was gifted to the Church by Henry VIII in thanks for assisting quell a rebellion and finds grounds for defending the sanctuary from the rocket tests. The local eel catcher starts squatting on the land, protesting his fishing rights, and everyone forms a human shield around the island to stop a test but they accidentally damage the RAF’s temporary telephone line and the base can’t be told in time to stop a launch just as clouds begin massing and impeding the pilots’ sightlines …  With its story of a community fighting to preserve their historical rights, this has echoes of Passport to Pimlico and can thus be viewed as part of a wider sense of post-war anti-establishment feeling. Nonetheless with the revelation that the squadron will be moving on to Malaya, there’s something of a triumphalist conclusion. Shot in a variety of Norfolk locations – Hickling Broad, Cley-next-the-Sea, Ludham, Wells and West Raynham, which used to have an airfield. Adapted from actor turned screenwriter and director Don Sharp’s debut novel by John Pudney and directed by John Eldridge, there are plenty of familiar faces from the era – Kieron Moore, Niall MacGinnis, Harry Fowler, Guy Middleton – in this small but satisfying drama with its wonderful setting. Planespotters will have a field day. And there’s a charming gull too! Lovely score by Philip Green who was longtime musical director at the Rank Organisation and whose stock music has been used in everything from Ren and Stimpy to Night of the Living Dead. Now that’s versatile. Made under the Group 3 scheme to encourage independent films under the umbrella of the National Film Finance Corporation.

The Desert Fox (1951)

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Aka The Desert Fox:  The Story of Rommel. Too soon?! Rommel was admired and feared, a brilliant tactician (see: desert campaign 1941-43) whose reputation even Churchill embellished with his words (quoted at the conclusion) but he was a thorn in Hitler’s side. ‘Victory or death’ really didn’t seem reasonable to the Field Marshal and this version of events concerns the last few months of his life when his position was becoming untenable. When his friend Dr Stroelin persuades him to play a part in the plot to kill Hitler known as ‘Valkyrie’ he agrees but it fails and he is given only one option by the regime – suicide. Narrated by Michael Rennie, this elegant adaptation by Twentieth Century-Fox’s in house master builder Nunnally Johnson of Desmond Young’s biography is defiantly unsentimental, sympathetic and convincing. There is no attempt to do shonky Germanic accents and that somehow just enhances the impression of realism (or true crime, perhaps).  The studio’s use of stock footage to achieve their customary documentary effect is highly effective even if there isn’t remotely enough film from Africa. It might well be propaganda given the timing and the skewed content – it was time to pony up to the new Nazi-forgiving German regime and make trade deals, dontcha know and the military genius who wanted peace talks with the Allies was the perfect foil for this narrative. This is really about the military mindset rather than a political analysis of a landscape forever foreign and anti-semitic. However you view it, you don’t need me to tell you that this is James Mason at his greatest. WW2 – the gift that keeps on giving. Superb. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

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Sofia Coppola knows what it feels like for a girl. When the officials at Versailles gave her the very big keys to open up the palace and reimagine a little Austrian girl lost in the vicious and foreign French royal court working from Antonia Fraser’s biography, they probably didn’t picture this — a portrait of teenage decadence in the pastel palette of macaroons (magenta, citron, mint) scored to a New Romantic soundtrack as if she were making an Adam and the Ants video.  Kirsten Dunst is the kid sold to the gormless dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) in a strategic alliance organised by her mother the Empress (Marianne Faithfull). Her father in law the King Louis XV (Rip Torn) is like a Texan cowboy carrying on with Madame du Barry (Asia Argento). Her husband has no idea what to do in bed and she’s a giggly kid who spends her nights drinking and gambling with her girly friends and it takes a visit from her brother Emperor Josef (Danny Huston) to explain to the mechanically-minded prospective king about locks and holes, and a year later, finally, the marriage is consummated and a baby girl is born.  Seven years of foreplay!  The life of conspicuous consumption of colourful costumes and cookies and candy is swopped for something almost rural and natural at Le Petit Trianon where the young mother holds a different kind of court and succumbs to an affair with the Swedish Count Fersel (Jamie Dornan) and frolics with her little girl in the meadows. The mood alters and the cinematography (by Lance Acord) attains the backlit flared quality of a nature documentary:  this is impressionistic and expressionistic all at once, reliant on Dunst’s face and the overall vision of a writer/director in sympathetic tune with her tragic protagonist whose perception of the vicious society over which she holds sway dominates the narrative. The final quarter hour is the nightmare:  people are starving because the peasants are bearing the cost of the war in America, and propaganda and lies, dead children and the baying mob are at the door. This is a fabulist film about fashion and feeling and food and it gets into your head and your heart. If you don’t like it, you know what you can go eat.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

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Redemption. That’s the word that conjures the ambit of this film’s scope. The true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss who rescued 75 colleagues on the eponymous battle site at Okinawa, a guy who enlisted in order to serve as a medic to redeem his own feelings of violence, because of almost killing his brother as a child, because of wanting to shoot his drunken WW1 vet father (Hugo Weaving) to stop his attacks on his mother (Rachel Griffiths), because of an obligation to serve his country and stand up for the values in which he believed. Andrew Garfield gives a heart-stopping, fully realised performance as the conflicted soldier and the film’s first hour delineates his family relationships, his meeting with the woman of his life, nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) in the local hospital, and his awful training at the hands of a bullying Sergeant (Vince Vaughn), a tough Captain (Sam Worthington) and a bunch of fellows who like to beat the hell out of him. His Seventh Day Adventist beliefs lead him to a court martial but his father’s intervention with a former colleague saves the day. And he arrives in Japan. By 95 minutes we are entering the second wave of assaults and it is brutal and ferocious and horrifying. “They don’t care if they live or die,” exclaims one vet of the 96th whose battalion has basically been wiped out by the Japs. The action is reminiscent – inevitably – of Saving Private Ryan‘s opening sequence:  we are completely immersed  in a kind of hell with killings as unimaginable as have ever been put on screen. Doss and his mate Smitty (Luke Bracey) look out for each other – they’ve overcome their initial differences and bond at night, when Doss has a terrible nightmare. And then they go back in, and the results are awful. Doss hangs around, against all the odds, rescuing whoever he can.  He has prayed for help, not knowing any more if, as Dorothy accused him, his conscientious objection to combat is merely pride. He asks God for direction. So he saves lives. So many lives. One more, he keeps telling himself. One more. Written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, adapted from this incredible true story of one man’s courage, photographed by Simon Duggan, with a rousing score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, this is a return to the fold for Mel Gibson, the meta story at work here:  a man who burned a lot of boats in Hollywood is now in the running for Best Director awards and they are fully deserved. There is a bravery about bringing Christianity to the forefront of any film at present and it is remarkable that Garfield has been the lead in both outstanding recent releases. His performance here is more complete than in Silence thanks to the writing and the expansiveness of the explosive setting. Yet nothing feels forced or exceptional because every man is sharply written and there is a sense of bringing it all back home with the standout Australians in the cast (it was eventually co-financed through tax incentives there.) This story took a long time to reach the screen, with Audie Murphy expressing interest in it several decades ago, and Bing Crosby’s grandson Gregory eventually developing an  initial treatment. Randall Wallace took a pass at the screenplay at one point but you have to admit that this is just right: the right people making the right film at the right time. Quite remarkable.

Night People (1954)

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According to his biographer Tom Stempel, writer/producer Nunnally Johnson found himself at a loose end on the London set of The Mudlark in 1950 so he decided he needed to direct himself albeit a few years happened before it came to pass. Henry Hathaway told him he wouldn’t make a good director because he wasn’t a bastard. He co-wrote this from a story written by Jed Harris (a theatre producer) and Tom Reed (with an uncredited assist from WR Burnett) and it was developed from a science fiction property owned by Twentieth Century-Fox previously known as The Cannibals. Johnson wanted to shoot a film with Gregory Peck and as they’d worked successfully on The Gunman the star readily agreed. They shot this Cold War thriller on location in Berlin and also at the Geiselsteig Studios in Munich, utilising Cinemascope (by Charles G. Clarke) which of course bore its own compositional limitations. Peck plays Steve Van Dyke, a tough-talking Colonel who’s charged with rescuing a 19-year old conscript kidnapped by the Russians (supposedly) from the American sector. He has a shrewd team in secretary Rita Gam and sideman Buddy Ebsen (who gets some good humour to play) but can his female informant Hoffy (Anita Bjork) be trusted? And the soldier’s father (Broderick Crawford) is an axle grease magnate with attitude and influence (he plays golf!) who arrives in Berlin to sort things out (he thinks) and whose face-off with Van Dyke is one of the highlights. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing about who people really are and from a dramatic point of view the major problem is that much of the double-dealing takes place in a hospital environment regarding the fate of the individuals that the other side want in exchange for Leatherby. The complexity derives from the identity of the exchangees, anti-Nazi conspirators – and who might really be after them. From a visual perspective it’s nice to see the Brandenburg Gate in colour but the film lacks a chase or something to justify the location and it would be good to see more of the day to day work of the Military Police in the divided city. The conclusion is particularly weakly executed.  Johnson’s daughter Marjorie Fowler was the editor on the picture. It got some negative reviews for its perceived propaganda purposes but Johnson had no such intention and in fact Van Dyke is scrupulously attentive to his Russian friend.  The man who wrote The Desert Fox was hardly a political tool. Johnson had written How to Marry a Millionaire the year before which created the dumb blonde persona for Marilyn Monroe with whom he’d also worked on We’re Not Married:  she of course made the persona her own and there’s a neat visual reference to her in the opening scenes when Leatherby takes his girl to her movie Niagara. Johnson would go on to write How To Be Very Very Popular for her but she refused to take the role which she believed was beneath her. Nonetheless, they remained friends.  There were rumours about a Johnson-Peck on-set feud but as Stempel explains, this was a ruse so that the philandering Darryl F. Zanuck could visit one of his mistresses in Europe and he fomented the longstanding story as an unfortunate public cover. Peck and Johnson would go on to make The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. This is a hard film to get hold of – mine is a Spanish version which thankfully had an English audio and is in the Scope ratio. Region 1 dvds are not as good and squeeze out the image. For students of Cold War cinema or fans of Gregory Peck and the late Rita Gam, it’s an interesting diversion.

A Welcome to Britain (1943)

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Burgess Meredith introduces American troops to the scepter’d isle to prepare them for the bizarre rituals of the locals: this Defense Dept film was intended to smooth relations between the beleaguered Brits and the crass Yankee soldiers – with one million of them swirling around the old country up to December 1943 throwing their money around and behaving inappropriately. In an amusing series of vignettes co-directed by Anthony Asquith and star Meredith, we learn how to behave in pubs (not the same as saloons), the family home, restaurants (where there’s a variation on potato for every war-rationed course); discover the geography of the country with Felix Aylmer as ‘Mister Chips’ in a classroom; Bob Hope explains shillings and pence and Beatrice Lillie performs one of her bits. All in all fairly palatable, with the glaring example of introducing the notion of coloured soldiers which yields an exchange with a General best deemed of its time. There is some gunfire and a little action with real-life soldiers but this propaganda docu-drama is notable for having been telecast Stateside in 1944.

The Missing Scientists (1955)

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Two atomic scientists go missing at the height of the Cold War in this low budget propaganda piece. Jackie Collins (the same!) calls in about her hubby Manfredi and there’s a pretty indecipherable cat and mouse narrative as the defecting scientists try to get to the East and a US commissioner attempts to stop them. I couldn’t believe I was looking at Irene Papas (photographed here) playing Kurt Kreuger’s girlfriend, as she looks totally different from her famous roles in films like The Guns of Navarone. Made by Steve Sekely, a writer/director/producer from Budapest who had  a long career starting in Europe but then spent years in the US and the UK, where he made the brilliant Day of the Triffids in 1962. Low on thrills, sense and most everything else. A curiosity.