Double Indemnity (1944)

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It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets roped into a murderous scheme when he falls for the sensual Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who is intent on killing her husband (Tom Powers) by arranging his ‘accidental death’ and living off the fraudulent accidental death claim. Prompted by the late Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), insurance investigator and Neff’s mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) looks into the case, and gradually begins to uncover the truth… Staggering film noir, this early masterpiece from director Billy Wilder boasts a screenplay co-written (sort of) with Raymond Chandler, adapted from the James M. Cain story Three of a Kind. Rarely has the sensibility of a filmmaker been so attuned to the material in such crystalline fashion:  in this treatise on corruption, crime, sex, adultery and murder the casting plays to all the character strengths with Wilder seeing in the light actor MacMurray something infinitely schlemiel-like, sleazy and vulnerable.  It is literally picture-perfect, offering us a visual and psychological template for noir, a story told in flashback, shot on location all over Los Angeles, from Jerry’s Market to the Chateau Marmont, Glendale Station to the Hollywood Bowl, with venetian blinds, curling cigarette smoke and tilted fedoras filling out the emotional space shot by DoP John Seitz. Did a city ever feel so lonesome? Stanwyck was never better – dolled up in a blonde wig with bangs and an ankle bracelet begging to be opened, this is one of the fatalest femmes ever on screen. Robinson is fantastic as the fatherly man who unravels this story of the blackest of hearts, while this study of behaviour is decorated with the kind of dialogue that you savour forever. How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Classsic Hollywood, in every possible sense of that term.

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Planes Trains and Automobiles (1987)

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I really don’t care for the way your company left me in the middle of fucking nowhere with fucking keys to a fucking car that isn’t fucking there. And I really didn’t care to fucking walk, down a fucking highway, and across a fucking runway to get back here to have you smile in my fucking face. I want a fucking car… right… fucking… now. Advertising executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) is something of a control freak. Trying to get home to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with his wife (Laila Robins) and kids, his flight is rerouted to a distant city in Kansas because of a freak snowstorm, and his sanity begins to fray. Worse yet, he is forced to bunk up with talkative slob Del Griffith (John Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman, whom he finds extremely annoying. Together they have to overcome the insanity of holiday travel to reach their intended destination… John Hughes’ films still tug at our heartstrings because they have a core of humanity beneath the hilarity.  Martin and Candy are perfectly paired – the nutty fastidious guy versus the relaxed nice guy, a kind of Odd Couple on a road trip with some outrageously good banter balancing the physical silliness. Martin’s descent into incivility is a joy:  anyone who’s ever been desperate to pick up their rental car will relate to how Neal loses it at the hire desk! I remember hearing when Candy had died feeling a terrible sorrow and thinking that of all the larger than life actors out there he was the one I most wanted to have around a very long time. I haven’t changed my mind. This is still very funny indeed.

The Railway Children (1970)

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Daddy my daddy! When Charles Waterbury (Iain Cuthbertson) is imprisoned on false charges of selling state secrets from his place of work at the Foreign Office, his wife (Dinah Sheridan) must move from London to a small house near a railway station in rural Yorkshire. The Waterbury children – Bobbie (Jenny Agutter), Phyllis (Sally Thomsett) and Peter (Gary Warren) – occupy themselves watching the trains,  making friends with the porter Albert Perks (Bernard Cribbins) and even befriending a gentleman (William Mervyn) who frequents the station. When the children discover what has happened to their father, their new friend provides key assistance. In the meantime they act kindly towards all those they know – even taking in a Russian dissident writer (Gordon Whiting), save the train from crashing and rescuing a boy (Christopher Witty) who gets hit in the railway tunnel while running on a paper chase … Actor Lionel Jeffries adapted and directed this and cast Jenny Agutter a year after the BBC had dramatised the E. Nesbit novel. It’s beautifully shot on locations that include the Brontë parsonage at Haworth. It’s sheerly delightful from beginning to end, a thoroughly charming story which nonetheless is grounded in the harsh reality of some adult experiences. Wonderful.

Brief Encounter (1945)

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I had no thoughts at all. Only an overwhelming desire never to feel anything ever again. Returning home from a shopping trip to a nearby town where she regularly spends the afternoons taking in a matinee at the cinema, bored suburban housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is thrown by happenstance into an acquaintance with conscientious doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) who is also unhappily married with a child but finds solace in his work. Their casual friendship soon develops during their weekly visits into something more emotionally fulfilling than either expected and they must wrestle with the potential havoc their deepening relationship would have on their lives as they run into her friends and start to tell lies to cover for their encounters.  The lives of those they love are impacted despite their respective spouses remaining unaware of their infidelities and Alec considers a job offer in South Africa which sends Laura over the edge … This meticulous evocation of forbidden desire, class and repression has always been ripe for parody yet its virutosity of construction, performance and emotion means that this doomed romance adapted from the 1936 play Still Life by Noël Coward (part of the ten-act cycle Tonight at 8.30) has stood the test of time. It came out right after the conclusion of World War 2 and is enormously evocative of a period when trains ran on time and people strove to do the right thing.  The couple are in their forties which makes their predicament oddly more affecting and the constrictions of social coding understandable.  It was adapted by director David Lean with producer Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame and opens out Coward’s play, with the frustrated lovers disturbed in a friend’s flat and they take a boating trip not possible in the stage version.  Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is part of everyone’s cinematic DNA at this point and the recording here was by Eileen Joyce, adeptly placed to heighten the tension of Laura’s desire tempered by her middle class morality. The final scenes, reminiscent of Anna Karenina followed by the banal resolution in the marital home, makes the adulterous but unconsummated passionate relationship all the more tragic. Gulp. Quite devastating, then.

Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)

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Everything on this station is either too old or doesn’t work. And you’re both! Mr Porter (Will Hay) is sent to be the stationmaster of an underused and putatively haunted ramshackle Northern Irish railway station in rural Buggleskelly. His unprofessional colleagues are the elderly deputy master Harbottle (Moore Marriott) and the insolent young Albert (Graham Moffatt) who operate a black market in train tickets for food and tell Porter his predecessors were offed by One-Eyed Joe. He plans to upgrade facilities by organising a trip to Connemara – unaware that some of his customers are gunrunners intending to transport weapons into the Irish Free State …  Filled with confusion, misunderstandings, a run-in with terrorists and a disappearing train, this is a terrifically realised comedy with Hay and his co-stars performing perfectly in roles that would later inspire Dad’s Army. Written by J.O.C. Orton, Marriott Edgar and Val Guest and based on a story by Frank Launder, this was directed by Marcel Varnel and remains Hay’s most acclaimed work.  It’s a minor British genre classic filled with gags galore – there’s even a donnybrook in a pub!

Rome Express (1932)

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Discretion is the better part of wagons-lits.  As the express train is about to depart Paris for Rome, two men, Zurta (Conrad Veidt) and his colleague Tom (Gordon Harker), rush onto the platform and just manage to board. They have received information that someone they want to see is on the train. Another passenger, McBain (Cedric Hardwicke) a wealthy businessman travelling with his brow-beaten secretary/valet Mills (Eliot Makeham), learns that a valuable painting by Van Dyck, which he had previously tried to buy and had later been stolen from a Paris gallery has still not been recovered, and he says he would do anything to get hold of it. Also on the train are an adulterous couple (Harold Huth and Joan Barry, an annoyingly sociable Englishman, Tony (Hugh Williams), a French police officer M. Jolif (Frank Vosper), and an American film star Asta Marvelle (Esther Ralston) who is tiring of her fame, accompanied by her manager/publicist Sam (Finlay Currie). It transpires that the stolen painting is in the possession of a man, Poole (Donald Calthrop) who conspicuously keeps his briefcase close to him at all times. When he agrees to join a poker game on the train, he finds one of the other players is Zurta, and Poole’s reaction shows that they know each other. Poole is disconcerted and carelessly lays down his briefcase, which is later innocently taken away by Mills who has a similar briefcase. After the poker game ends, Zurta follows Poole to his compartment, forces his way in and confronts Poole, who offers to hand over the painting but finds he has the wrong briefcase. Zurta threatens to throw him from the train and they struggle and Poole is killed. Meanwhile, McBain discovers in Mills’ briefcase the stolen painting which he had wanted to buy. When Poole’s body is discovered by a train attendant, the police inspector begins an investigation and interviews all those who have been in contact with Poole. Zurta learns that the briefcases have been switched and tries to recover it from McBain’s compartment, but is apprehended by McBain and Mills as the police arrive… … The main interest here is the performance by Ralston, whose romance with Williams provides a nice subplot. She was a silent luminary after being a child vaudeville star (kinda Baby Jane-ish) but her career somewhat derailed in the Thirties despite a captivating presence.  This is based on a screenplay by Clifford Grey and Sidney Gilliat (with additional dialogue by Frank Vosper and Ralph Stock) and it’s rather creaky as train thrillers go. Gilliat would go on to perfect the form with The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich. It was remade as Sleeping Car to Trieste. Directed by Walter Forde.

The Red Shoes (1948)

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– Why do you want to dance? – Why do you want to live? Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is a ballerina torn between her dedication to dance and her desire to love. Her autocratic, imperious mentor (and ‘attractive brute’) Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) who has his own ballet company, urges to her to forget anything but ballet. When his star retires he turns to Vicky. Vicky falls for a charming young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) who Lermontov has taken under his wing. He creates The Red Shoes ballet for the impresario and Vicky is to dance the lead. Eventually Vicky, under great emotional stress, must choose to pursue either her art or her romance, a decision that carries deadly consequences… The dancer’s film – or the film that makes you want to dance. An extraordinary interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, this sadomasochistic tribute to ballet and the nutcases who populate the performing universe at unspeakable cost to themselves and those around them is a classic. A magnificent achievement in British cinema and the coming of age of the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger partnership, it is distinguished by its sheerly beautiful Technicolor cinematography by the masterful Jack Cardiff. It also boasts key performances by dancers Robert Helpmann, Ludmila Tcherina and Leonide Massine with a wordless walk-on by Marie Rambert. The delectable pastiche score is by Brian Easdale. Swoony and unforgettable, this is a gloriously nutty film about composers, musicians, performers, dancers and the obsessive creative drive – to death. Said to be inspired by the relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, this was co-written by Powell and Pressburger with additional dialogue by Keith Winter. It was a huge hit despite Rank’s mealy-mouthed ad campaign and in its initial two-year run in the US at just one theatre it made over 2 million dollars.

 

Sabrina (1954)

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Aka Sabrina Fair/La vie en rose – Oh Sabrina Sabrina Sabrina where have you been all my life?  – Right over the garage. Chauffeur’s daughter Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is an ugly duckling who tries to commit suicide in her employer’s limousine because of a bad case of unrequited love for boss’ son playboy David Larrabee (William Holden). He doesn’t even know she’s alive. So when she returns to Long Island from two years at cooking school in Paris a beautiful young woman she immediately catches three-times married David’s attention when he sees her waiting for her proper English father Thomas (John Williams) at the railway station. David woos and wins her but their romance is threatened by David’s serious older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), who runs the family business and is relying on David to marry an heiress Elizabeth (Martha Hyer) in order for a crucial corporate merger to take place. So when David’s back is out Linus tries to distract Sabrina and finds himself falling for her himself  but can’t admit it and plans to ship her back to Paris … This cynical romcom is extraordinary for a few things: its star wattage, its creepy Freudian setup (Bogart looks like Hepburn’s grandfather) and amazing dry wit. Samuel Taylor adapted his stageplay Sabrina Fair with contributions from Ernest Lehman and director Billy Wilder, who was making his last film at Paramount. Bogart behaved badly on set, believing he was miscast (Cary Grant was Wilder’s first choice) and wanting his wife Lauren Bacall in Hepburn’s role. He found Hepburn unprofessional because of her problems learning lines but just read some of the ones they delivered: Look at me, Joe College with a touch of arthritis. Or, Paris isn’t for changing planes it’s for changing your outlook. And, There’s a front seat and a back seat and a window in between. And perhaps its mission statement in a film about class and sex and money: Nobody poor was ever called democratic for marrying someone rich. This is a writer’s movie for sure! It’s really a movie about movies and how they pair off young girls with old men (how relevant is that nowadays with everything in the news?!) But it was the scene of a serious set romance for the blond-highlighted Holden and Hepburn and also the introduction of Hubert de Givenchy’s gowns to Hollywood, credited to Edith Head. When Hepburn walked into his Paris salon he thought he was going to meet Katharine Hepburn. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful screen association:  she is the very epitome of elfin beauty in this film, a duckling who grows into an astonishing swan. And she calls her French poodle David! The fact that she marries the much older, successful brother and heir to the family money isn’t remotely cynical, not at all! There are some very funny scenes, many taking place in the car and some at the boardroom where Bogart gets to fire guns at new plastic inventions. No wonder he apologised to everyone concerned at the conclusion of production. It gave him a role he hadn’t had before – an uptight stick in the mud who turns into a romantic lead – and at his age! 

The Good Die Young (1954)

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All the good boys died in the war. Or should have done. Four men are sitting in a car – about to carry out a heist. Flashback to each of their journeys to this point: Mike (Stanley Baker) is a boxer who has had to give up the fight and needs to find a job. He injures himself and is discovered to have been fighting with a broken hand which is amputated. He discovers his wife Angela (Rene Ray) has given away the thousands he’s saved to start a shop – to the police on behalf of her brother who skipped bail so the money Mike won in the worst circumstances possible is gone and he is now crippled.  Joe (Richard Basehart) is a former GI married to Mary (Joan Collins) who’s desperate to return to NYC to get work but his wife is under the cosh of her bullying mother (Freda Jackson) who stages a fake suicide attempt just as they’re boarding at Heathrow. Eddie (John Ireland) is an American flyer gone AWOL whose actress wife Denise (Gloria Grahame) is carrying on with yet another affair. ‘Rave’ Ravenscourt (Laurence Harvey) is an aristocrat and a scoundrel with massive gambling debts, an older and mostly tolerant wife Eve (Margaret Leighton) and a father (Robert Morley) who despises him. He’s the charismatic lure who preys on the others’ desperation and corrupts them into carrying out a Post Office robbery and the aftermath is tense, bloody and awful …  Featuring a superlative performance as a psycho by the great Harvey, some terrific acting by the women, Richard Macauley’s novel of the same name was adapted by Vernon Harris and director Lewis Gilbert and transposed to London where the post-war smog and gloom contribute untold amounts in a tale of some crime but mostly punishment. Quite riveting Brit noir, directed with a great eye by Gilbert.

Paddington 2 (2017)

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Exit bear, pursued by an actor. Paddington is now settled with the Brown family and wants to earn money for a beautiful pop-up book of London which he finds in Mr Gruber’s antiques shop as a gift for Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday. He takes a series of odd jobs which all end up more or less in chaos. When the family attend a funfair opened by thespian neighbour Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) he lets slip to the self-absorbed one about the book and nobody notices Buchanan’s interest. Paddington then disturbs a burglary at Mr Gruber’s and gets put in prison after chasing the thief and being charged himself:  the pop-up book was stolen, leaving far more ostensibly valuable items behind. The family work to get Paddington out of prison, with Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) doing artist’s impressions of him from witness descriptions. She can’t convince Henry (Hugh Bonneville) of Buchanan’s guilt – he’s too preoccupied by his own midlife crisis. Buchanan has the book and dons a series of theatrical disguises to follow the clues around great city landmarks to an immense treasure. Meanwhile, in prison, Paddington has convinced the brutal cook Nuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) to make marmalade sandwiches and change the menu and get the prison warder to read everyone bedtime stories:  everyone is his friend … This is a fiendishly inventive and funny narrative whose winning spirit is in every frame. Grant has a whale of a time as a splendidly awful actor who now does dog food commercials (his agent Joanna Lumley explains he can only act on his own) while the Brown family’s attempts to prove Paddington’s innocence rely on each of their particular talents:  Judy (Madeleine Harris) writes her own newspaper while Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) aka J-Dog is intimately acquainted with steam trains. Mary’s in training for a cross-Channel swim which comes in amazingly handy. Fizzing with irreverent whimsy, dazzling production design, joyful exuberance, sorrow, good manners, respect and – gulp – love, this is, in the words of choreographer Craig Revel Horwood (responsible for Grant’s incredible jailhouse hoofing in the credits), Fab-U-Lous.  Adapted by Simon Farnaby and director Paul King from those unmissable books of my childhood by Michael Bond. This little bear is the best superhero ever. Just wonderful.