Driven (2018)

Driven 2018

A flying car that can’t fucking fly! FBI informant Jim Hoffman (Jason Sudeikis) is in trouble with the agency and Benedict Tisa (Corey Stoll) has him on tap to give information about drug trafficker Morgan Hetrick (Michael Cudlitz) after he’s been caught flying cocaine for him. He’s living under witness protection with wife Ellen (Judy Greer) in a ritzy San Diego neighbourhood and his next door neighbour happens to be the charismatic former General Motors magnate John DeLorean (Lee Pace) who lives with former model Cristina Ferrara (Isabel Arraiza) and is dreaming of building his own futuristic car. The couples socialise and Jim ingratiates himself into a friendship with the designer as he negotiates deals and suddenly decides to open a factory in Northern Ireland in the middle of The Troubles:  Do you know how many people were murdered there last year? Ninety! Do you know how many people were murdered in Detroit last year? Nine hundred! But when his former secretary Molly (Tara Summers) goes public with information about his offshore accounts, the British Government withdraws funding and he’s in deep financial trouble. Jim comes up with an idea to save John’s skin but it’s really to save his own – to buy cocaine from Hetrick in order to rescue the factory means he can settle scores with the FBI but it means betraying DeLorean in an undercover sting for cocaine trafficking… In the America I grew up in a man was defined by the job that he did. For anyone born within an ass’s roar of Northern Ireland the name DeLorean conjures up a misty-eyed recollection of when bad times were kinda good because Belfast was home to his car manufacturing for a spell. So it’s appropriate that two men from that locale (who previously collaborated on The Journey) make this biographical film about the FBI sting that almost took DeLorean down when the British Government reneged on their deal to make the most inspiring car that ever made it into movies. Screenwriter Colin Bateman is of course a gifted comic novelist, while Nick Hamm has made several films in different genres in his time and it’s nicely staged, looks great and only has a hint of the tragedy it really is, kept buoyant with a vague ridiculousness that makes you keep asking yourself how this ever happened. Sudeikis scores as the slippery informant whose conscience only works some of the time although he’s a lightweight actor and sometimes the complexity doesn’t hit home when the comedy turns serious. Pace plays DeLorean as part-mystic, part-showman, part chinless con-man and the final twist is one to savour. In some ways this is worth watching just to see the tonsorially challenged Stoll don a frightwig. But mainly, it’s all about the car that brought us all back to the future and the man who dreamed it up. It’s not all true, but it might be and you wish it could have turned out differently. Co-written by Alejandro Carpio.  I will be remembered. My car will be remembered. Our scuzzy coke deal won’t be remembered

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

A Canterbury Tale

I was born here and my father was born here. You’re here because there’s a war. On the way to Canterbury, Kent during World War II, American G.I. Bob Johnson (real-life soldier John Sweet) mistakenly gets off the train in Chillingbourne, where he encounters British Army Sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price) and British Land Girl Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), who’s working as a shopkeeper. When they’re confronted with a serial criminal who puts glue in women’s hair, and Alison becomes his newest victim, these twentieth century pilgrims are drawn into a mystery that brings them closer together. During their stay they get to know local landowner and magistrate Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman) who wants to share his local knowledge with the new residents … Sergeant! The glue-man’s out again! This almost indefinable film from the Powell and Pressburger stable is a pastoral account of Englishness, an expressive linking of past and present, city and country, displaced persons and new community. At a time of lockdown Sim’s plaintive cry is resonant:  Why should people who love the country have to live in big cities? The shooting style of German Erwin Hillier lends itself beautifully to an idea of a new Romantic era in England, piercing wartime privations with an almost bucolic sense of possibility and nodding to Chaucer. And yet it’s the story of a man who puts glue in women’s hair and how in solving the mystery of his identity three very different people find their own way to a kind of spirituality and even a miracle in the case of bereaved Sim. Sweet is terribly engaging as the figure who enables a boost in Anglo-American relations. The moment of awe is apposite – when Price plays the organ in Canterbury Cathedral after years of being consigned to movie theatres. The city has been devastated by German bombs but the music soars.  This is the point where Powell and Pressburger engage in a kind of angelic conversation and it is appropriately inspiring. Narrated by Esmond Knight who also plays a soldier and the Village Idiot. You can’t hurry an elm

Manhunter (1986)

Manhunter

You want the scent? Smell yourself! Former FBI Agent Will Graham (William Petersen) is called out of early retirement by his boss Jack Crawford (Denis Farina) to catch a serial killer.  The media have dubbed him The Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan) because he kills random families in their homes. Will is a profiler whose speciality is psychic empathy, getting inside the minds of his prey. The horror of the murders takes its toll on him. He asks for the help of his imprisoned arch-nemesis, Dr Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) who gets to him like nobody else and nearly murdered him years earlier yet has insights into the methodology of the killer that could unlock the case… He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks. The mindbending antics of Thomas Harris’ narcissistic creation Lecktor were first espied here but it’s really Will Graham’s story and what a surprise casting choice the introspective pigeon-toed Petersen seemed.  He carries this oppressively chilling thriller where he is the masochist to his targets’ sadistic mechanisms. The dispassionate style, the modernist interiors, the internal machinations of the protagonist’s obsessive inner voice while he inhabits the minds of his relentlessly morbid prey, lend this a hypnotic mood. As the action increases in intensity the colours and style of cinematographer Dante Spinotti become cooler and more distancing. The diegetic score by bands including Shriekback and The Reds is an immersive trip into the nightmarish vision. An extraordinary spin on terror that is as far from the camp baroque theatrics of The Silence of the Lambs as it is possible to imagine, this masterpiece has yet to be equalled in the genre and feels like a worm has infected your brain and is burrowing through it, out of your control, colouring your dreams, imprinting you with a thought pattern that may never depart. A dazzling exercise in perspective and perception, this is a stunning work of art. Adapted from Red Dragon by director Michael Mann. Does this kind of understanding make you uncomfortable?

The 39 Steps (1959)

The 39 Steps 1959

If you’re looking for Richard Hannay this is the man you want. Freshly returned to London, British diplomat Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) goes to the aid of a nanny ‘Nannie’ (Faith Brook) in a park only to discover there is no baby in the pram and follows her to a music hall where he watches Mr Memory (James Hayter). She goes back to his flat and reveals that she is a spy working for British intelligence looking for the organisation The Thirty-Nine Steps who are after information on the British ballistic missiles project. When she is murdered in his flat he goes on the run, encountering a bevy of schoolgirls on a train with their teacher Miss Fisher (Taina Elg) who reports him to the police but he jumps off the vehicle on the Forth Bridge and hitches a ride on a truck driven by ex-con Percy Baker (Sidney James) who advises him to stay at The Gallows Inn run by occultist Nellie Lumsden (Brenda De Banzie) and her husband who help him escape during a cycling race.  He approaches Professor Logan (Barry Jones) only to find the man is in fact the leader of the spy ring and he must keep running … I’m not having a Sagittarius in the house tonight! Hitchcock was responsible for the first adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy-chase thriller and this is a more or less straight remake, with the romance-chase narrative lines crisscrossing pleasingly as per the generic template established by The Master. More may be a slightly ridiculous hero but this is played for comic effect and its Hitchcockian homage continues in the casting of De Banzie who essays a knowing spiritualist in her crofting cottage. It has the advantage of location shooting, a winning plot, doubtful romantic interest, a deal of suspense and a collective tongue planted firmly in cheek. Directed by Ralph Thomas, written by Frank Harvey and produced by Betty Box. Keep out of the woods. Especially in August!

Torn Curtain (1966)

Torn Curtain

How do you like playing the dirty defector? During a trip to Copenhagen, American physicist and rocket scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) is attending a conference with his lab assistant and fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) and he picks up a telegram and tells her he is going to Stockholm. She follows him as he travels to Berlin where he publicly announces he is defecting to pursue his research for the Soviet Union. During a trip to a farm Michael meets a ‘farmer’ contact (Mort Mills) and it is clear that he is on a secret spying mission for the US. At the farmhouse he is watched by his official guard Herman Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who suspects what he is doing and Michael and the farmer’s ‘wife’ (Carolyn Conwell) are forced to kill him. He travels to Leipzig and tells Sarah what is really going on. He goes to the University in an attempt to persuade Professor Lindt (Ludwig Donath) to share his secrets but the man realises Michael has little to share and calls the authorities and the chase to catch him with Sarah commences … I forbid you to leave this room! A Hitchcock film in which various getaways are staged using bicycles, buses and boats, this is the one that forced him to conclude he no longer wished to work with stars. And what stars! Newman, who had already played a variation on this role in The Prize and Andrews, the world’s favourite actress at the time. They were not the choice of the director but of moneyman Lew Wasserman who probably played too large a role in his career and contributed to what could be described as his decline in the Sixties. And it’s true that they are weirdly mismatched. Nonetheless there is ample opportunity for local actors, Lila Kedrova, Tamara Toumanova and Ludwig Donath to shine. Peter Lorre Jr even has an uncredited role as a treacherous taxi driver! Many feel this is one of Hitchcock’s lesser films and one might ask, given that he had originated the Cold War spy thriller genre with a masterpiece, North By Northwest, why he felt he had to make another one. But we forget how fascinating the Iron Curtain was, and not just to filmmakers. What an opportunity to look at a society where spying on people wasn’t confined to Government but permeated everyday life – most Germans were snoops and tattle tales, and not in a good way. The landscape is another reason – all that flat land. (A reminder of the crop dusting scene…). The opportunity to kill someone in virtual silence because there’s a taxi driver outside the door – and what a sequence that is, using whatever comes to hand in a farmhouse kitchen.  Hitchcock told Truffaut in their famous interview that the point of that was to demonstrate how hard it actually was to kill somebody, something that the conventions of the contemporary spy thriller avoided. There is a sense in which Hitchcock is playing his greatest hits – the set pieces are fun and  quite reminiscent of ones he did earlier. Perhaps that’s understandable given that this was his fiftieth film and projects he felt more deeply about had failed to get off the ground. Despite being inspired by the defections of famed British traitors Burgess and Maclean the script originally focused on the female character and so Irish writer Brian Moore whose gynocentric novels were so acclaimed did the original draft. At that point Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant were Hitchcock’s dream cast – a replay of old attractions. But when that changed he got Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall to rewrite and the story was radically altered but Moore still got sole credit. (Moore repaid the slight by caricaturing Hitchcock in his novel Fergus). There are some horribly clunky visuals that make it obvious this was shot on the Universal lot – very unlike a director who should have been at the peak of his powers. Is he deliberately making the artificiality of the genre more transparent?! Even more oddly, Hitchcock dumped Bernard Herrmann’s unsatisfactory score (which you can find on the DVD and watch it again) and commissioned John Addison to do the version used on the theatrical release – viewing this with a different musical accompaniment alters the affect (something that a Channel 4 documentary demonstrated twenty-plus years ago). Fascinating, suspenseful and altogether necessary and not just for Hitchcock completionists. You told me nothing! You know nothing!

The Fan (1981)

The Fan 1981

Dear Miss Ross, I’m your biggest fan. Broadway theatre star Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) is successful, famous and nervous about rehearsing for a new musical. She’s still in love with ex-husband Jake Berman (James Garner) who has moved on with a newer model, and his absence creates a void in her life. Despite her loneliness, she doesn’t reciprocate when a fan, record store assistant Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn), starts sending her letters which are intercepted by her loyal secretary Belle Goldberg (Maureen Stapleton). The letters exhibit an obsessive interest in Sally and become steadily more personal and explicit, causing Belle to warn him off. This angers Douglas so much that he starts getting violent, with everyone in Sally’s immediate circle being targeted Quick, let’s think of something funny. The kind of film you’d think wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting released in the wake of John Lennon’s murder (and Bacall lived at the Dakota building too), this is a mix of high end midlife backstage melodrama and slasher horror exploitation, with the first half hour’s truly terrible pacing and poor editing ultimately damaging it on both fronts albeit the balance is finally struck in the last third. Bacall seems to the manner born as the quick-tempered diva giving Belle a hard time, while both Hector Elizondo as the police detective Raphael and Garner are particularly at ease in their supporting roles with some real chemistry between them and the leading lady on the screen. A strange mix of genres that doesn’t work overall but it’s somehow satisfying to see Bacall cast as the Final Girl confronting her deranged fan and Stapleton is outstanding. The music is by the legendary Pino Donaggio and there’s the bonus of seeing Bacall hoofing on stage in the manner of her own hit Applause (based of course on All About Eve, whose plot this rather wickedly limns). Watch out for Dana Delany and Griffin Dunne in small roles while legendary columnist Liz Smith appears as herself (George Sanders proving dead and therefore unavailable). If it wasn’t for the stabbings this might have had something to say about the dangers of being a celebrity. Adapted by Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell from the novel by Bob Randall. Directed by Edward Bianchi and shot by an individual called Dick Bush. I rest your case.  I’m more than a fan, I’m a friend

Magic Town (1947)

Magic Town

The air becomes charged with electricity around desperate men. WW2 vet Lawrence ‘Rip’ Smith (James Stewart) is looking to find a way to beat fellow pollster George Stringer and his military colleague Professor Frederick Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) tells him about Grandview, a town that offers a precisely representative model for the entire United States. Rip promises a client a result within 24 hours that Stringer has been working on for a long time and he and his team arrive in the town posing as insurance salesmen. He has to deal with Mary Peterman  (Jane Wyman) who is trying to persuade the Mayor (Harry Holman) to build more property and give the town a civic centre – which would alter the demographic. It forces Rip to address the town and they side with him, not Mary who writes an editorial about him in her family newspaper. While they are attracted to each other, he is gathering information as well as coaching the school basketball team. When she overhears him calling a client, she writes another story about the reason for his being in Grandview and a national paper picks it up and Rip’s mission is made known in the ‘public opinion capital of the U.S.’ … Okay now. You’re a typical American – act like it! Robert Riskin’s script is rather reminiscent of a Frank Capra film – but then he wrote most of them, despite Capra’s self-aggrandising public line that his was The Name Above the Title. And yet this isn’t directed by Capra, but by William Wellman. While it readily captures much of the kind of atmosphere and social concerns of Riskin’s pre-WW2 work in that partnership the shifts from comedy to drama aren’t managed in the same way – with Riskin as producer from a story he wrote with Joseph Krumgold and Wellman directing, the sharp ends of the story are confronted directly, suggesting the compromises the screenwriter might have been making prior to this production. Rip wants money, Mary is after a good story with a political edge. This exists almost in inverse relationship to Riskin’s previous narratives, with the kinds of conversations that Capra softened into sentiment given a much tougher emphasis here (underlined by the Roy Webb’s score). So it’s the same type of material as before but given a much different treatment, although it all comes together in the end with the people creating their own destiny.  This as ever with Riskin is a blue-sky picture asking people what kind of country they want the United States to be and to make it happen democratically – but he never takes his eye off the ball, locating the peculiar way in which families run towns and thereby society as a whole. Fascinating as a prism through which to view Stewart’s stuttering post-war career (It’s a Wonderful Life was also a box office failure) as well as clarifying what Riskin had done for Capra now that they were separate entities. That’s Mickey Rooney’s dad Joe Yule as the radio comic. How do you like your fancy beautiful circus of a town now?

Days of Thunder (1990)

Days of Thunder

I don’t expect I’ll see too much of him except in my rear view mirror.  Hot tempered budding stock car racer Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) is recruited by a big brand headed by Tim Daland (Randy Quaid) but meets with an accident which seriously injures his team mate Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker). However, when he returns with the help of his mentor Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) and an attractive young doctor Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman), he has to face an ambitious adversary Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes) who not only wants to defeat but also disable him… He’s destroyed both my cars! The Top Gun team reassembled to bring Cruise’s need for speed to the racetrack which he’d tasted with acting buddy Paul Newman and decided to cement on the big screen with a story he dreamed up with the help of Robert Towne. Hated by critics and not particularly insightful about the motor racing world (and it has to be said that the NASCAR series just doesn’t have the romance of Formula One’s European trackside dramas) this is nonetheless a loud, colourful, fast-moving blast as you’d expect from director Tony Scott. Duvall is superb as the mentor, it’s fun to see Kidman when she still looked like herself (and prior to marriage to Cruise) and the final showdown is well done.  It’s distinguished by Hans Zimmer’s score and the songs which include Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven. Co-producer Don Simpson appears as racer Aldo Benedetti. For fans of this sporting sub-genre, John C. Reilly would get his kicks sending it up with Will Ferrell years later in Talladega Nights:  The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  It may not reach the heights of Howard Hawks’ movies about professional male groups but this marked the beginning of a long collaboration and friendship between Cruise and Towne, which I’ve written about in my book ChinaTowne: https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Screenplays-Robert-Towne-1960-2000/dp/1695887409/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=elaine+lennon+chinatowne&qid=1587925465&s=books&sr=1-1.  You are selfish, you are crazy and you’re scared

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The Greatest Show on Earth

Under the big top only two days count – today and tomorrow. Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is trying to keep the world’s biggest railroad circus on the road but the backers want to curtail the current run to ten weeks. He has to demote his girlfriend trapeze artiste Holly (Betty Hutton) from the centre ring to make way for returning high flyer The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) who immediately sets out to seduce her, ignoring former lovers Angel (Gloria Grahame) from the elephant act and Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour) who’s in a South Seas performance. Concessionaire Harry (John Kellogg) is duping the customers while Buttons the Clown (James Stewart) hides behind his cosmetics but a visit from his mother in the crowd suggests he is a former doctor who mercy killed his young wife ten years earlier even if he explains away his first aid skills as wartime experience. Elephant trainer Klaus (Lyle Bettger) is fired when jealousy gets the better of him and he nearly kills Angel during his act. He decides to take revenge when the circus is travelling again … I send her for a doctor and she comes back with an elephant. Sly banter, fantastic characterisation and plain old-fashioned good against bad make this splashy Cecil B. DeMille spectacular an evergreen entertainment that mixes romance, action, crime and disaster storylines with panache. Extraneous attractions to the main narrative are real-life performers from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus’ 1951 troupe, obstinately glum children in the audience and the tent being raised, a high-wire act in itself. There’s Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in one shot, presumably to ogle Lamour; while Hutton gets to belt out some lively numbers amid a rousing score by Victor Young. The shifting love triangles between Heston, Hutton, Wilde and Grahame are smartly managed with nifty dialogue. Walk me off – do not rob me of my exit. The train wreck is justly famous even if it looks a bit Dinky Cars these days. They’ll never find me behind this nose. The mystery with Buttons is nicely sustained with a terrifically ironic payoff and Heston gets to go on with the show. Lawrence Tierney has a nice supporting role and there’s a satifsying reveal at the end, showing us exactly who’s been narrating this tall tale. Expertly written by Frederic M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett and Barré Lyndon aka Alfred Edgar with uncredited additions by Jack Gariss. You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll hurl! Classic. The only net I use is in my hair

The Brink’s Job (1978)

The Brinks Job theatrical

You know the trouble with you?  You don’t read the comic books, you just look at the pictures. On 17th January 1950, a group of unlikely criminal masterminds commits what became known as the robbery of the century. Led by petty thief Tony Pino (Peter Falk), fresh out of prison, who accidentally finds out that Brink’s security arrangements are unbelievably lax, and arrogant fence Joe McGinnis (Peter Boyle), who specialises in planning lucrative capers.  Tony recruits his wife Mary’s (Gena Rowlands) thick brother Vinnie (Allen Goorwitz), smooth Jazz Maffie (Paul Sorvino), anxious Specs O’Keefe (Warren Oates) and Stanley Gusciora (Kevin O’Connor). The gang robs Brink’s main office in Boston of more than $2 million. However, things begin to go wrong when McGinnis refuses to hand over the loot and Specs and Stan decide to do some shoplifting. The FBI gets involved, with J. Edgar Hoover (Sheldon Leonard) taking a personal interest and setting up a make-shift office in Boston specifically to investigate the case, while the cops start cracking down on the gang. Specs and Stan get lengthy prison terms for their petty thieving and the goons start pressuring them to talk Aren’t you glad your father caught the boat? Despite the meticulous period reconstruction this never really leaps to life until Warren Oates enters the drama and connects with the story but his melancholy performance as a damaged Iwo Jima veteran unhinges it somewhat.  That’s partly because this true crime story can’t decide if it’s comic or dramatic and lurches tonally like an out of control pendulum, shifting from farce to realism and back again. The surprise is that William Friedkin is the director because it lacks the sure-handedness and energy that characterise his work. It concludes on a jaunty note that somewhat redeems the excursions into betrayal and a postscript informs us that the motley crew got out of prison after 14 years, living comfortably [presumably off the proceeds of the job] while only $50,000 was ever recovered by authorities. Based on Noel Behn’s Big Stick-Up at Brink’s, adapted by Walon Green, this is fascinating for students of Friedkin but disappointing overall with its indecisive style. This joint’s mine. I own this joint!