Behold a Pale Horse (1964)

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What is it they want? I’ve done enough. Screenwriter Emeric Pressburger wrote a novella about the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War entitled Killing a Mouse on Sunday. JP  Miller adapted it as Behold a Pale Horse (pace The Book of Revelations) and Fred Zinnemann (a director who purveyed an interest in men of conscience) took it to the screen. It was shot in southwest France but there was intimidation from the fascist government of Franco to the extent that Columbia Pictures divested its distribution arm in Spain afterwards and it wasn’t screened on US TV networks following intervention from Madrid. Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn are reunited following The Guns of Navarone as protagonist/antagonist to each other 20 years after the cessation of hostilities. Peck plays former resistance fighter Manuel Artiguez  (loosely based on real-life Catalan guerilla ‘Zapater’) living in exile in Pau, the Basque region of France. Quinn is Vinolas, an officer in the Guardia Civil who has vowed to kill his enemy of longstanding. The young son Paco (Marietto Angeletti) of Artiguez’ former co-fighter arrives  in Pau to ask him to avenge his father’s murder – the Guardia Civil beat him to death to try and find out Artiguez’ hiding place. A young priest Francisco (Omar Sharif) is summoned to the deathbed in the hospital at San Martin of Artiguez’ mother (Mildred Dunnock) an atheist who nonetheless asks him to stop off en route to Lourdes to warn her son not to return to Spain or he will be killed. Francisco’s colleague in the priesthood has a brain injury from a bank robbery the Loyalists carried out so he himself is implicated in any action against the police. Paco warns Artiguez that his close associate in Pau, Carlos (Raymond Pellegrin) is in fact an informer who watched his father’s murder. The scene is set for a squaring of accounts and promises a standoff of epic proportions – Civil War has the terrible longlasting effect of cleaving even families asunder. The first part of the film has its focus on Vinolas and his quest for revenge and his marital issues;  then we are primarily in Pau with the unfolding events. This leads to a pacing problem. Sharif and Quinn meet and we hope for something as graceful as their parts in Lawrence of Arabia and it’s promising but not really as effective as you would wish. When Peck and Sharif meet across the border it’s really a high point as the men’s various takes on morality are parried. Vinolas is then in the background until the final cataclysmic balancing of the books.  There should be more equivalence between these two but it’s really only down to a taste in loose women. The drama is slow and rather like watching pieces being manoeuvred on a chessboard.  Shot in a wonderfully oily monochrome by Jean Badal (with whom Zinnemann purportedly did not see eye to eye) this is beautifully captured. The action however is distinctly lacking and the climax is not the one we want – a shootout which wraps a conclusion that is neither logically exact nor emotionally true. We have been led to believe that this is the post-war equivalent of One Last Job and it fails spectacularly due to a wrongheaded decision by Artiguez (and the creative team). Who puts an act of personal treachery above the common good and the prospect of political revolution? That’s the question.There’s a subtle score by Maurice Jarre which picks out single notes and chords and drum sounds in an unconventional fashion and there are nice supporting performances by Christian Marquand, Rosalie Crutchley and Dunnock.  This is one of several films by Zinnemann dealing with the phenomenon of fascism (and the resistance to it) in the twentieth century, a body of work which means he more than deserves the occasionally perverse accolade of auteur. It’s not his best film but it is a testament to his beliefs. A misfire, yes, but a fascinating one, with Peck mostly convincing and Quinn very good but it’s Sharif you’ll remember. Those eyes!

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Death on the Nile (1978)

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La grande ambition des femmes est d’inspirer l’amour. Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot gets to flex his little grey cells on a luxury cruise through Egypt that is filled with eccentrics, madwomen and murderers.  Peter Ustinov plays the beloved Belgian for the first time in this plush, epic adaptation by Anthony Shaffer which is as much black comedy as murder mystery. Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) is the heiress who steals Simon Doyle (Simon McCorkindale) from her best friend Jackie (Mia Farrow) and the jilted one turns up on their honeymoon everywhere they stop – including Egypt. Poirot meets up with Colonel Race (David Niven) and a right motley crew of passengers on a paddle steamer tour, including a drunken romance writer Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) with her long-suffering daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey); kleptomaniac socialite Marie von Schuyloer  (Bette Davis, in Baby Jane eyeliner) and her decidedly masculine assistant and travelling companion Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith); Linnet’s greedy lawyer Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy); Linnet’s decidedly frisky French maid Louise Bourget (Jane Birkin). Turns out everyone on board had a good reason for killing Linnet. There’s also Jon Finch, Jack Warden and Sam Wanamaker for good measure. While we see Aswan, the Pyramids, Karnak and the Sphinx, we enjoy the trials and tribulations as these people knock up against each other and what unspools when Linnet is eventually murdered. Seeing Lansbury strongarm Niven into a dance is a particular delight. This is a great cast playing with evident relish. Gorgeously costumed by Anthony Powell, beautifully lit and shot by Jack Cardiff,  typically well scored by Nino Rota and handled with pace and humour by director John Guillermin, this is a leisurely and colourful Sunday afternoon treat.

The Fisher King (1991)

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Obnoxious NYC shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is doling out advice as per and looking forward to a part in a TV sitcom when the news mentions his name – a man was inspired by his rant against yuppies to go on a shooting spree in a restaurant and then killed himself. Jack spirals into a suicidal depression and we find him three years later working in the video store owned by his girlfriend (a fiery Mercedes Ruehl) and about to kill himself when some youthful vigilantes decide to do some street cleaning – he’s rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), a Grail obsessive and homeless loner whose wife was killed in the restaurant massacre. How their lives intertwine and they both chase the objects of their affection (and each other’s obsession) while battling mental illness is the backbone of this comedy-drama-fantasy that is told in the usual robust and arresting style of Terry Gilliam, who was directing a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese. There are iconic images here – the Red Knight appearing to Parry as his hallucinations kick in, and the chase through Central Park;  the extraordinary Grand Central Station waltzing scene in which Parry meets the weird Lydia (Amanda Plummer);  Jack and Parry watching the stars. Gilliam’s own obsessions are all over this despite his not writing it, with references to the Grail (obv) and Don Quixote.  It’s all wrapped into four distinctive performances which embody oddball characters in search of a role for life in a very conventional time, with emotions riding high while personal circumstances contrive to drag them to the very pit of their being. There are some outstanding performances in small roles by Tom Waits, Michael Jeter and Kathy Najimy in a film that proves that dreams do come true.

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.

Sunset (1988)

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Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Rod Amateau’s unpublished manuscript about the friendship between movie cowboy Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) and real life Wyatt Earp (James Garner) had the potential to be something quite brilliant:  it doesn’t carry it off due to inconsistencies of tone (never quite slapstick, never quite thriller) and performance (Willis didn’t heed his director to take his role seriously) but it retains its interest. Hollywood’s well-preserved 1920s villas provide a magnificent backdrop to a story set in 1929 just when the industry was getting to grips with the transition to sound. Earp in real life had moved to Los Angeles in 1910 but here he’s newly arrived and hired on a silent movie set to advise Mix and they get embroiled in a murder at the Kit Kat Club, a high class brothel where the whores are movie star lookalikes (shades of LA Confidential) run by the cross-dressing Cheryl (Mariel Hemingway.) Earp tries to help his old girlfriend Christina (Patricia Hodge) who happens to be married to studio boss Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell), a thinly disguised version of Chaplin, and her son, who is in constant trouble and goes missing. The mystery at the story’s heart involves police corruption with those reliable villains M. Emmet Walsh and Richard Bradford and Warhol stud Joe Dallasandro showing up as a gangster. There’s a scene at that year’s Academy Awards (not anatomically correct, but still fun) and lots of really interesting performances in the wings including John Fountain playing his grandfather, the legendary John Gilbert. Willis’ unpreparedness made for a difficult time and Garner (a gentleman) commented on it, a rare instance of his speaking out against a colleague and his own performance really saves the film. Garner had of course worked with Edwards before – on Victor/Victoria. His interpretation of Earp is markedly lighter than his earlier one in Hour of the Gun.  There’s a cute running joke about his inability to drive a car – he does it a lot and in real life Garner was an accomplished racer and stunt driver particularly on The Rockford Files. In a neat nod to that, Dermot Mulroney makes his debut – he would play (my beloved!) Rockford in a TVM reboot. The other pluses are the LA locations used including the Ambassador Hotel, the Roosevelt Hotel, Melody Ranch, Bell Ranch and Orange Empire Railway Museum. Not great Edwards but worth a watch for the idea and Garner, with the usually reliable score from Henry Mancini as well as delectable photography by Anthony B. Richmond. A missed opportunity to make a satisfying Hollywood murder mystery but heck with all that talent I’ll take this anyhow.

The Hustler (1961)

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What’s so great about the film that made Paul Newman a superstar? This grim tale of Fast Eddie Felson the up and coming pool shark and his manager/nemesis Bert Gordon (the vicious George C. Scott is well cast) who wants to take the mantle of Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) at Ames Billiards Parlor in NYC is an enduring classic rooted in 50s social realism.  When Eddie loses face and money he retreats to the railway station locker room and cafe and finds another waif, the apparently confident but alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie) who like him is an accident waiting to happen. Stunningly designed by Harry Horner and shot by Eugene Schufftan, this is a story of people enclosed by their chosen occupations. The film’s very texture is pure gloom. Newman is simply great as the guy who dares to return to the pool hall even after he’s had his thumbs broken and confidence shattered:  not everyone loves pool sharks.  For most of the film the only light is coming from his eyes. Gleason is superb as the laconic competition and Scott is as evil as you’d expect. Laurie is heartbreaking as the price of Eddie’s ambition. This earned a fistful of Oscar nominations and ended up with two wins (for Horner and Schufftan). It was adapted from Walter Tevis’ story by Sydney Carroll and director Robert Rossen.  Rossen has a complex reputation. He was a man whose actions created a lot of ill-feeling on film sets. He was a former blacklistee (named by colleagues) who himself became a namer of names to HUAC after a second go-round in order to work again. But this comeback film drew upon his own experiences with its driven, failing, vicious, deadly characters. He grew up a poor Russian Jew in New York and did whatever he could to earn a buck. Desire and ambition were at the core of his being. He was a longtime member of the Communist Party when Communists played such a huge role in New York theatre and his screenplays in the 30s and 40s were concerned with society and poverty and getting out. The work certainly suited the studios who employed him at the time:  he got John Garfield to give a truly brilliant performance in boxing classic Body and Soul.  Unlike his fellow director Elia Kazan, he could never mend those bridges after the HUAC hearings.  His next film, Lilith, would be his last, reportedly after a contentious relationship with star Warren Beatty:  Lilith, after all, was a psychological study of a strong (if probably psychotic) woman, and it’s a strange piece of work that simply shines with the alluring lustre of Jean Seberg and the emotion of the truly felt. But after that experience he stated that if he never made another film he had The Hustler to his credit. It is a tragic story, well told. Rossen died aged 57 in 1966.

It Happened to Jane (1959)

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Doris plays Jane Osgood, a widowed mother of two trading lobster. When a shipment of 300 of the poor creatures dies in transit she asks her lawyer George (Jack Lemmon) to sue the railroad company and she’s awarded money. The company files against her and George wants her to take the train in lieu then the newspapers get hold of the story and she threatens to appear on TV. George is jealous of Larry (Steve Forrest) who’s a journalist she’s smitten with and the railroad bypasses the town, endangering all the businesses … Cute undemanding comedy with great stars and fun script by Norman Katkov and Max Wilk, this saw director/producer Richard Quine reunited again with regular star Lemmon and the great Ernie Kovacs, who had also appeared in Bell, Book and Candle:  he’s cast here as “the meanest man in the world”! Re-released in 1961 as Twinkle and Shine.

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

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What’s weird watching this again today is the realisation that it’s now longer since this was made (40 years…) than it was between the end of WW2 (or the Emergency, as the Irish like to call it – still not lifted, BTW) and this going into production. Northern Irish writer Jack Higgins (aka Harry Patterson) had quite a run back in the day but this was really the peak attraction – a fictitious attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill, “for a negotiated peace,” as one-eyed Nazi Radl (Robert Duvall) puts it. He deploys IRA ‘soldier’ lecturer Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland with the requisite eye-watering Oirish accent) and he turns up at the home of sleeper agent Jean Marsh in Norfolk and attempts to put the plan into action … With Michael Caine as anti-Nazi Kurt Steiner (an homage to Cross of Iron, vielleicht?) leading the mission this is really quite an unlikely mouthwatering actioner, but there you go. Caine had been offered the role of Devlin but didn’t want to be associated with the IRA, ditto Richard Harris. Adapted by Tom Mankiewicz, crisply shot by the great Anthony B. Richmond, and scored by Lalo Schifrin, this was the last film helmed by the marvellous John Sturges but Mankiewicz said Sturges didn’t bother making it properly and that editor Anne V. Coates rescued it in post-production. Great fun.

A Run for Your Money (1949)

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This Ealing comedy falls into the less than classic category. Brothers Dai (Donald Houston) and Thomas (Meredith Edwards) are the Welshmen who win a newspapercompetition which takes  them on their first trip to London – for a rugby game at Twickenham, what else. It follows their misadventures around the capital when they miss meeting their contact, gardening columnist Whimple (Alec Guinness) and become separated. Dai becomes embroiled with con Moira Lister, Thomas spends his time getting plastered in the city’s pubs and finally meets someone he knows, Huw Price (Hugh Griffith) and they try to find Dai. Good to see the London of the era (there are some smart comments about the city after the war) and the shots by Douglas Slocombe in the Underground station are excellent – there’s a good scene with Griffith and a harp but it’s not enervating, mostly it’s mild, pleasing fun about country mice in the big city. What a lot of writers there were:  Guy Evans was responsible for the story, Richard Hughes, producer Leslie Norman (critic Barry’s dad), and director Charles Frend wrote the screenplay with additional dialogue by Diana Morgan.

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

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British cinema is always in crisis yet has boasted its share of indisputably great filmmakers and Robert Hamer was one of them, even if nobody particularly noticed at the time. He had contributed The Haunted Mirror sequence to portmanteau horror Dead of Night a couple of years earlier and was adept at any number of genres. This Ealing production was not in the comedy idiom so beloved of moviegoers but rather belongs in the realm of poetic realism that started in France in the Thirties; we might instead call it film noir. Adapted from the novel by Arthur La Bern, by Angus MacPhail, Henry Cornelius and the director, the mainly Yiddish world of Bethnal Green carries on as  one of its inhabitants, married Rosie Sandigate  (Googie Withers), hides her ex-lover Tommy Swann (John McCallum) who’s escaped from Dartmoor and taken refuge in the familiy’s air raid shelter. She then conceals him in the bedroom she shares with her staid older husband (Edward Chapman). It’s Sunday morning and Tommy wants to have it away with her while she tries to carry on the masquerade of housework, laundry, preparing lunch and getting her feckless adult stepdaughters out of the way. Meanwhile the police (Jack Warner, who else?) and a newspaper reporter are on Tommy’s trail and it concludes in achingly existential fashion … Enormously evocative portrayal of a certain era adorned with an intensely felt performance of stridency and eroticism by the fabulous Withers (dontcha LOVE that name) who had met and married McCallum after they appeared in The Loves of Joanna Godden. It’s shot with gleaming precision by Douglas Slocombe while Georges Auric contributes an endearingly melodramatic incidental score for an atmospheric outing in which the radio plays such an elemental role in punctuating the drama. The ensemble has such familiar faces as Alfie Bass, Sydney Tafler, Hermione Baddeley, Jimmy Hanley and Sid James (as the leader of a dance band). Hamer would go on to make one of my favourite British films, Kind Hearts and Coronets but this is a marvellous reminder of the post-war era, the meaning of ‘a couple of anvils’ and how to feel when that dangerous wideboy resurfaces in your humdrum life.