The Secret Place (1957)

What you haven’t got you can’t lose. In East London 14-year old Freddie Haywood (Michael Brooke) has a crush on kiosk attendant Molly Wilson (Belinda Lee) who is engaged to Gerry Carter (Ronald Lewis). Gerry is a member of a criminal gang working from a car dealership where Molly’s brother Mike (David McCallum) also works. Gerry, Mike and their friend, Steve (Michael Gwynn) are planning a diamond robbery and need a policeman’s uniform. Molly asks Freddie to borrow the uniform of his policeman father (Geoffrey Keen) without telling him why. After the robbery of a jewellers in Hatton Garden, Gerry hides the diamonds inside Molly’s record player. Not knowing this, Molly gives the player to Freddie as a thank you gift. Freddie discovers the diamonds and the gang go after him to retrieve them… You men. Always taken in by a pretty face. Film editor Clive Donner made his directing debut with this startling film noir. It’s an incredible portrait of a good-natured teen’s misplaced admiration (or love) for the local beauty who’s in with a bad ‘un and dreams of escape, symbolised by the posh apartment he’s chosen for them to live in when they cash in. The potent setting of post-war London in ruins plants the conclusion in an early wide shot with scaffolding in the background – it forms the setting for the fantastic penultimate scenes, beautifully set up by cinematographer Ernest Steward. Tragic beauty Lee is terrific and Lewis is typically impressive as the gangster – how awful that he died by suicide at the age of just 53. But it’s Brooke as the youngster you’ll really remember:  this was in fact his last screen appearance, he later trained in law and was called to the Bar, renowned for obtaining compensation from the NHS for haemophiliacs who received blood transfusions contaminated with HIV. He died in 2014. Written by Linette Perry – her sole screenplay – this is a true British cult classic. You never know what goes on in a child’s heart really

 

No Highway in the Sky (1951)

All boffins are a bit crackers but I suppose he’s the worst. Theodore Honey (James Stewart) is an apparently eccentric mathematician and aeronautical engineer charged with discovering what caused the crash of a ‘Reindeer’ airliner, a newly designed carrier for the Royal Aircraft Establishment. As he travels to investigate, he realises en route that he’s flying on the very same type of airplane. He believes that after 1,440 airborne hours the metal in the tail will bend and fall off, causing the plane to fall out of the sky. But he can’t persuade the captain Samuelson (Niall MacGinnis, bizarrely uncredited). Convinced it will suffer a similar accident, he deliberately sabotages it once it lands, and soon finds himself defending his sanity in an English courtroom. Fortunately, a sympathetic actress Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich) and a stewardess Marjorie Corder (Glynis Johns) both believe his desire to prevent certain death and come to his defence People must be someone else’s concern – I can’t let it be mine. Stewart is cast as a kind of mad scientist, complete with a young daughter Elspeth (Janette Scott) who cares for him rather than the other way round, forgetting which of the lookalike tract houses he occupies despite living there 11 years. This adaptation of Nevil Shute’s 1947 novel is so interesting after a protracted set up simply because it expresses so much of the time in which it was made:  the post-war era, jet engine propulsion, families torn apart by WW2. And in the centre of it are two very different kinds of femininity – the international jet setter movie star played by Dietrich (who else?) and the no-nonsense, efficient and kind Johns, woman now working in the air but who has a background as a nurse, another casualty of WW2. Typecasting always works and it’s one of the pleasing oddities of this story that they’re not exactly in competition, rather both support Theodore. The fear that a plane will just … fall out of the sky is the kind of catastrophising that typifies most of our intercontinental journeys and it’s the explanation as to why this could happen that provides the drama and tension as well as characterisation – Stewart is fine as the befuddled man who nonetheless gets it right but at a cost, with terrible publicity and a potential future in the lunatic asylum. Metal fatigue can lead to mental fatigue, it seems. Lending great support are Jack Hawkins as company man Dennis Scott and Kenneth More as Dobson, the co-pilot, also uncredited, like the other pilot! Written for the screen by R. C. Sheriff & Alec Coppel & Oscar Millard, Shute probably wrote his story as a kind of purge – he had been an aeronautical engineer, involved first with the de Havilland company and then as a constructor with his own firm, the British government created a vehicle in direct competition with one of his designs which ended disastrously. He knew whereof he wrote. Directed by Henry Koster who of course directed Stewart in his previous film, Harvey, and they would work together again on Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation and Dear Brigitte, also starring Johns. We never walked out on one of your pictures

Black and Blue (2019)

Just because she didn’t do it doesn’t mean she wasn’t involved. Witnessing her colleague Brown (James Moses Black)  and undercover narc Terry Malone (Frank Grillo) killing a drug dealer land rookie New Orleans PD officer Alicia West (Naomie Harris) into trouble. Falsely accused of the crime, she now has to fight both the corrupt police and evil gangsters while running through the back streets of New Orleans with body cam footage that will exonerate her from some very angry men. The victim is the nephew of one very pissed off drug dealer, Darius (Mike Coulter). She takes refuge with shopkeeper Mouse (Tyrese Gibson) who she knows from back in the day and he’s the only guy in the hood who’ll take her side and try to keep her alive as the cops close ranks and close in … Murder is murder, no matter who you are. Fantastically well performed, this is that rare thing, an action film boasting a great role for a female protagonist as a police officer (it’s thirty years since Theresa Russell and Jamie Lee Curtis had the pleasure). And boy does Harris nail it. She’s on the run practically from the first scene when she twigs that she’s witnessed a cold blooded murder by undercover narcotic cops, cleaning up those mean streets of N’Orleans in their inimitably corrupt style while pocketing their share of the goodies. In terms of race commentary, it’s a drama that demonstrates without making an issue of it that crime and corruption have no monopoly on ethnicity – what’s more important here is making the most of your particular skill set.  When it comes out that Harris was a former JD and a soldier who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan we know we’re being set up for some explosive and decent can-do action – but she’s constantly under threat and literally runs for her life.  It turns out her options are very limited indeed as her old friends including Missy (Nafessa Williams) who’s mother to a young boy can’t figure a black woman in a blue uniform. Peter A. Dowling’s screenplay doesn’t pull punches and Deon Taylor’s direction never permits the action to be distracted by the visuals which are gritty and pointed in a story that is tough and well managed. She’s a ghost

The Informer (2019)

It’s happening. New York.  Recruited by the FBI, ex-con and former special operations soldier Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) uses his covert skills to try and take down Polish gangster Klimek aka the General (Eugene Lipinski) who happens to be the most powerful crime boss in New York. When a sting results in the death of an undercover cop, Pete suddenly finds himself caught in the crossfire between the mob and the FBI with a five-year jail sentence part of the deal for the General to be sated following the loss of his drugs business with the Feds closing in. Forced to return to Bale Hill Prison, Koslow must now come up with a plan to escape from the clutches of the law and the General to save himself and his family, relying on Erica Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) to do a deal but then he discovers she is compromised by her boss Montgomery (Clive Owen). When the dead cop’s colleague Edward Grens (Common) surveils activity at  Pete’s house he realises the truth is anything but a plain picture and contacts Pete’s wife Sofia (Ana de Armas) to offer help when Wilcox burns Pete and he’s at the mercy of the General’s enemies behind bars …  You go back inside, you’ll never get out. A no-fuss, no-frills fast-moving yet characterful and tough thriller that hits all the spots with a great cast doing fine work? A story that makes sense and tilts at institutional windmills, corruption and the truth behind the headlines?  What really happens in prison? A family under threat? Some horrifically realistic scuzzy Polack crims and double-crossing Feds? This delivers and how, with Kinnaman giving a career-best performance as the betrayed soldier who can barely conceal his justifiable rage in an adaptation of Roslund/Hellstrom’s novel Three Seconds by Matt Cook and Rowan Joffe and director Andrea Di Stefano. You’ll get angry at the women for different reasons until they both turn out to be far more useful than is originally suspected. Brilliantly set up with no-holds-barred violence and a stunning prison set piece. Explosive and superb. Burn him

Play Misty for Me (1971)

Play Misty for Me large

You ever find yourself being completely smothered by somebody? Popular late night radio show host Dave Garver (Clint Eastwood) at jazz station KRML becomes restless in his relationship with artist girlfriend Tobie Williams (Donna Mills). Impulsively, he goes out and has a one night stand with Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter) a woman he meets at a nightclub. Afterwards he finds out she was not an anonymous hookup, but an obsessive fan who has been calling in repeatedly to request he play the Errol Garner song Misty. Garver soon discovers extricating himself from Evelyn will be no easy feat as she insinuates herself into his life, showing up everywhere and becoming increasingly deranged. He seeks help from policeman Sgt McCallum (John Larch) only realising at the eleventh hour that Tobie may be in danger... Do you know your nostrils flare out into little wings when you’re mad? It’s kinda cute. Eastwood made his directing debut with trusted mentor Don Siegel by his side and playing Murphy the bartender at a local joint in the town where he lived, Carmel-by-the-Sea in Northern California, a locale made look even more beautiful by the skilled cinematography of usual Eastwood DoP Bruce Surtees. The screenplay was written by Jo Heims, a former model and dancer, while Dean Riesner (from Dirty Harry and Coogan’s Bluff) polished it;  with the idea for a girlfriend, Tobie, coming from editor Sonia Chernus. It’s a clever and lean premise, brilliantly executed in the economic style we have come to know as Eastwood’s particular stamp. He uses his local knowledge to establish a keen sense of place, with a variety of shots giving us a good idea of the geography of this stunning town, the gorgeous sunlight steadily accreting to create a form of terror all over Monterey County. The tension is marvellously sustained with expert use of the jazz soundtrack (and the local music festival) creating more suspense with Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face used for a romantic mood. (The song’s exposure turned it into a Number One hit.) Walter was Eastwood’s first choice for Evelyn following her appearance in The Group a half dozen years earlier, and we believe her to be so much of a threat that she can do absolutely anything to impose her will; while Mills acquits herself very well as the only stable character in this unwitting love triangle. She had played opposite Burt Reynolds in an episode of his show Dan August and he recommended her to Eastwood. He looked at rushes and hired her without even meeting her. Eastwood is excellent here, completely believable as a man of a certain age who is selfish and unaware and still thinks he can hit it big in the city yet has to bide his time reading poetry late at night to a devoted small town audience. A great first film.  I did it because I LOVE YOU!

Alvarez Kelly (1966)

Alvarez Kelly

I’m a reasonable man. If I weren’t I might go over to the other side. In 1864 Alvarez Kelly (William Holden) is a Mexican-Irish cattle rancher who is doing his best to stay out of the Civil War. He has no interest in which side may win or lose being more concerned about his own survival, and about making money, supplying cattle to the Union side via Major Tom Stedman (Patrick O’Neal). He soon finds himself in the middle of the conflict, however, when a confederate colonel Tom Rossiter (Richard Widmark) captures him and forces Kelly to help his soldiers steal a nearby herd of cattle, which they desperately need for food. Kelly is blackmailed into doing it by alluring and very well-named treacherous widow Charity Warwick (Victoria Shaw) but is really attracted to a madam in peril Liz Pickering (Janice Rule) whose escape he engineers. However on the trail of the rustlers is Stedman and it becomes a battle of wits as Kelly has to decide whose side he really does belong to God deliver me from dedicated men. A dynamic story that somehow doesn’t get justice which you can probably put down to the stylings of director Edward Dmytryk. The screenplay by Franklin Coen (with uncredited rewrites by Daniel Taradash and Elliott Arnold) certainly has all the elements required for a frequently comic western, albeit the humour is rooted in darkness and male sexuality. The casting is of course key:  Widmark is playing to his Tommy Udo reputation while you can see why Peckinpah wanted hyper-sexed renegade Holden in The Wild Bunch a few years later. The combination of fruity exchanges and violence creates a particularly potent admixture even if you would never credit Dmytryk with an ability to indulge humour. The scenes between Holden and Rule are especially pleasurable:  Pity is the real empty room I despise, she deadpans. They’re a sure thing. Until they’re not. The rivalry with Widmark is extremely well played, with an edge of nastiness that tips into threat and violence on many occasions. Save for a few obvious process shots it looks very well courtesy of Joseph MacDonald and gets rebalanced at the end with a tremendous pairing of stampede and shootout in a slick robbery that even impressed Lincoln. The virtuous Irish lord wasn’t able to stop his son from becoming a pirate

Octopussy (1983)

Octopussy

Englishman. Likes eggs, preferably Fabergé. Likes dice, preferably fully loaded. British MI6 agent 009 drops off a fake Fabergé jewelled egg at the British embassy in East Berlin and is later killed at Octopussy’s travelling circus. Suspicions mount when the assistant manager of the circus who happens to be exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), outbids 007 James Bond (Roger Moore) for the real Fabergé piece at Sotheby’s. Bond follows Kamal to India where Bond thwarts several ingenious attacks, kidnapping by Kamal and encounters Kamal’s ally, the anti-heroine of the title (Maud Adams), an international smuggler who runs the circus as a cover for her illegal operations. It seems that Orlov (Steven Berkoff), a decidedly rank and belligerent Russian general is planning to raise enough money with the fake Fabergés to detonate a nuclear bomb in Europe and then defeat NATO forces once and for all in conventional warfare… The West is decadent and divided. The thirteenth in the series and Moore’s seventh appearance as the sexy superspy as well as the first to feature Robert Brown as M following Bernard Lee’s recent death, this is derived from a number of Ian Fleming’s stories: the title is from his 1966 short story collection and there is a scene inspired by another story, The Property of a Lady (included in 1967 and later editions of Octopussy and The Living Daylights), as well as one brief bit of characterisation lifted from Moonraker; while the events of the titular story Octopussy form a part of the title character’s background which she relates herself; but the bulk of the narrative is original, the screenplay credited to novelist George MacDonald Fraser who suggested that it be set in India, series regular Richard Maibaum & producer Michael G. Wilson. In fact Moore had intended retiring from the role but was deemed the most profitable actor for the part when the rival production Never Say Never Again with former Bond Sean Connery was up and running at the same time: James Brolin was apparently due to take over from Moore – can you imagine! The perception of this as the weakest of Moore’s particular Bond films doesn’t hold up despite its apparently problematic heroine (her MO is a bit slight) but Bond’s seduction of a woman who is his equal is particularly well observed –  in fact they both have a death to avenge. The narrative is especially prescient – to have a nuclear bomb planned for Germany, at the time the centre of Cold War fears (see the TV show Deutschland 83 for a dramatic interpretation of the time), feels utterly relevant and Moore is given great space for both humour and action, pitched at a perfect balance here and decidedly lacking in camp. It’s probably the best written of all his Bond iterations. The chases (and there are quite a few) are brilliantly mounted, including trains, planes automobiles and elephants and there’s a great homage to The Most Dangerous Game when our man is the jungle prey. The climactic aerial stunts are some of the most astonishing you’ll ever see – utterly thrilling. Legendary tennis player Vijay Amritraj has a great supporting role as Bond’s MI6 ally in India and even Q (Desmond Llewelyn) gets in on the action with a fabulous hot air balloon! Jourdan makes for a suitably insidious villain and Berkoff (almost!) has a blast as the nutty military man who makes the KGB’s Gogol (Walter Gotell) look sane. There is a terrific performance by Kristina Wayborn as Kamal’s stunning henchwoman Magda – her exit from a night with Bond has to be seen! Adams had of course appeared opposite Moore in previous Bond outing The Man With the Golden Gun as Scaramanga’s doomed mistress and she gets to flex more muscles here albeit her entrance is not until the film’s second half. Watch out for former Pan’s People dancer Cherry Gillespie as Midge, one of Octopussy’s bodyguards.  It’s wonderfully paced, with each sequence superseding the action of the previous one and the flavourful locations are beautifully captured by Alan Hume’s cinematography: this has undergone a pristine restoration. Among the very best Bonds, an episode whose influence can clearly be seen in both the Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible franchises.  The theme song, All Time High is written by John Barry and Tim Rice and performed by Rita Coolidge. Directed by John Glen, the second of his five outings at the helm. Perfect escapism. Mr Bond is indeed a very rare breed, soon to be made extinct

 

The Wolf Hour (2019)

The Wolf Hour

I don’t like to leave here. In 1977’s summer heatwave, New York City descends into violence with looting and rioting. Once-celebrated feminist author June Leigh (Naomi Watts) is afraid to leave her grandmother’s South Bronx walkup while the city burns. But it’s nothing new – she hasn’t left in years. Her groceries are delivered by Freddie (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from the store; she’s afraid to touch the garbage piling up on the floor with the noise of insects inside; the only contact she has with people is over the telephone. She can’t write the novel she’s been threatening for a long time. She is tormented by someone ringing her doorbell several times a night. She leaves a message for her sister Margot (Jennifer Ehle) to ask for money. When Margot shows up and evinces despair at June’s living conditions we recognise something traumatic has happened and a TV recording reveals an interview she did about her novel The Patriarch that created a devastating chasm in her family. Then the lights go out … The world gives back what you give to it. A weirdly timely look at the paranoia of someone who’s afraid to leave their own home – Watts even dons a facemask when her sister does the cleanup, afraid there’s a dead body on the premises. June looks out at the world in a state of some distress. It’s initially a portrait of a paranoid individual, then it’s a glimpse at the observational lifestyle of a particularly nervy and reclusive writer, then it’s a portrait of a someone suffering trauma. The arrival of three people trigger the action and story development – Freddie from the store who wants to wash himself in her bathroom; Officer Blake (Jeremy Bobb), a creepy policeman answering her call for help a week late with designs on her; Billy (Emory Cohen) the rent boy who gratifies her need for sex and finally checks out what’s happening downstairs – are classic dramatic characters. It’s the call from her agent that makes June wake up however with a month to produce her work. The tension as we wait to see if Freddie makes that drop is stomach churning. When Watts lets go and dances to music (in a score composed by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans) we empathise with her brief liberation from a hibernation that is clearly outside her control. Written and directed by Alistair Banks Griffin, this is strangely comforting lockdown viewing when everything is back to basic survival mode. Is that you?

The Upturned Glass (1946)

The Upturned Glass

The man who is prepared to pursue his own ethical convictions even to the point of murder. Prosperous British neurosurgeon Michael Joyce (James Mason) falls in love with the married mother Emma Wright (Rosamund John) of a girl Ann (Ann Stephens) he saves in an operation. They carry on an affair which she abruptly terminates. When Emma falls to her death from the bedroom window of her holiday home Michael notices at the inquest that her shrewish sister-in-law Kate Wright (Pamela Kellino) is guiding Ann’s answers and comes to realise she is implicated in the death of the woman he loved. He swears revenge and initiates a relationship with Kate who he discovers is deeply greedy but he feels compelled to talk about the case at one of his regular medical school lectures … A doctor dispenses death and healing with blind impartiality. Mason gets to unleash both sadistic and masochistic elements of performance in this wonderfully complex and brilliantly told melodrama of love and vanity, obsession, passion and revenge, a project he and his wife Kellino dreamed up for themselves (having started out as a chronicle of the Brontë family under the same title!). Kellino’s co-writer Jno P. Monaghan, an American serviceman, has a small role as an American soldier who encounters Mason stuck on the road in a car with Kellino’s body inside. It’s a glossily made noir with a truly inspired storytelling style – the framing story becomes something else:  a subtle and unwitting confession by a reliable narrator! Talk about fatalistic! – and it’s glossily shot. A disarming film with a really amazing philosophy unspooling behind the narrative, with Dr Farrell  (Brefni O’Rorke) there to provide the killer psychological blow after a redeeming surgery takes place. Kellino is a revelation – a nasty piece of work who elicits sympathy; while Stephens is the image of Irish actress Jessie Buckley which is a little disturbing in a 75-year old film because she too was a singer and made a classic recording of Teddy Bear’s Picnic. She would make another film with this director, Lawrence Huntington, The Franchise Affair. She died shockingly young, aged 35 in 1966. Produced by Mason with Betty Box and Sydney Box. Man doesn’t have any generous feelings – he only thinks he has. Selfishness, habit and hard cash – those are his real motives

Appointment in Berlin (1943)

Appointment in Berlin

That’s the whole point of Secret Service – to prevent people suspecting. In 1938 disillusioned and recently disgraced RAF officer Wing Commander Keith Wilson (George Sanders) risks his life in Berlin by broadcasting pro-Nazi propaganda as a cover for counter-espionage. His broadcasts have a military code enabling British manoeuvres. He falls in love with Ilse (Marguerite Chapman) sister of a high-ranking Nazi Rudolph von Preising (Onslow Stevens) and forges links with journalist Greta van Leyden (Gale Sondergaard) who is actually a spy as well and when a message needs to be taken to Holland he’s the only one left standing … If you are going in at the deep end you may as well do it for England. In a rare tragic role, Sanders scores as the officer whose disgust at Britain’s politically neutral stance prior to WW2 leads him to become a pariah – lending him handy cover when England expects. The question of identity hovers over every scene here as Ilse’s transformation is nicely nuanced whereas Sondergaard’s situation is more extreme and her ending is well staged. There’s an amusing double act from a pair of American neutrals whose constant haranguing of supposedly treacherous Wilson adds humour to proceedings – inevitably they assist in his time of need. Nice references to Goebbels and his role in the manufacturing of truth. An interesting propaganda picture of pre-war problems and the reason why cross-border co-operation was required. Michael Hogan and Horace McCoy wrote the screenplay based on B.P. Fineman’s story.  Directed by Alfred E. Green. It’s finally happened