Malta Story (1953)

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They have many more planes. There’s not much to stop them. During World War II, British archaeologist turned photo-reconnaissance pilot Peter Ross (Alec Guinness) discovers that the Italians are planning a secret invasion of Malta, a strategically important island nation critical to keeping the Allied supply lines open. Though they have few resources left, Peter and his commanding officer, Frank (Jack Hawkins), resolve to fight off the enemy and save the island. At the same time, Peter struggles to keep his relationship with a local girl Maria (Muriel Pavlow) from falling apart. Her brother is discovered spying for the Axis powers and their mother (Flora Robson) is desperate to see him in British military prison …  The convoluted origins of this post-war propaganda outing typical of 1950s British studios lay in a book Briefed to Attack by Sir Hugh P. Lloyd and an idea by original director Thorold Dickinson and producer Peter de Sarigny with a story by William Fairchild (the three had a production company) which became a vehicle for the Ministry of Information:  it was a demonstration of the wartime co-operation between the air, military and naval services and the Siege of Malta was an appropriate backdrop. J. Arthur Rank hired Nigel Balchin to rewrite the script and hired Brian Desmond Hurst. There are some good performances here in what is quite the morality tale – Hawkins in particular has to maintain a stiff upper lip while sending men to their certain death. And all for information about enemy movements. It’s an efficient mix of melodrama and action with romance and espionage, interspersed with very tense newsreel footage and the occasional shock – like the bombing of a local island bus from which some of our protagonists have just disembarked. The spy subplot could have done with more space in the narrative however. It’s nice to at least recognise this vulnerable island, subject as it was to so many Luftwaffe attacks. The final scenes – a death, the emphasis on the decisions required in wartime and the devastation of a loved one lost, are very effective.

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The Night My Number Came Up (1955)

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They kept talking about the mainland.  They were in very heavy cloud.  It kept getting darker and darker … British Air Marshal Hardie (Michael Redgrave) is attending a party in Hong Kong when he hears of a dream, told by a pilot Commander Lindsay (Michael Hordern), in which Hardie’s flight to Tokyo on a small Dakota propeller plane crashes on a Japanese beach. Hardie dismisses the dream as pure fantasy, but while he is flying to Tokyo the next day, circumstances start changing to line up with the pilot’s vivid vision, including the plane they have to take and it looks like the dream disaster may become a reality… R. C. Sheriff’s screenplay is a game of two halves:  what happens in the first leg of the flight, when it doesn’t have quite the quota of components outlined by Lindsay;  but then the second leg has the flashy loudmouth businessman Bennett (George Rose) and all the fears of the passengers in the know about Lindsay’s prophetic dream start to manifest in their behaviour. Then they hit a storm, the wings ice up and they lose radio contact – and are to all intents and purposes lost. There are nice behavioural touches here, as people come to terms with their own beliefs in the supernatural or otherwise. There’s a nice ensemble including Ursula Jeans, Sheila Sim, Victor Maddern and Alfie Bass as a bolshie soldier. Director Leslie Norman found the original story, from the real-life journal of British Air Marshal Sir Victor Goddard in a 1951 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Ealing’s Michael Balcon wouldn’t let him write the script and turned it over to Sheriff whose efforts in the director’s opinion added nothing to the story. However the final twist is quite pleasing. Handled well. Almost as well as the flight itself!

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

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My God I’ve never seen anything like it – a gigantic wall of water heading directly for the ship! The SS Poseidon is on its last voyage from New York to Athens before retirement. Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) is a troublesome priest being sent to Africa as punishment. Detective Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-prostitute wife Linda (Stella Stevens) are dealing with her seasickness and a man who recognises her. Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) and her little brother Robin (Eric Shea) are squabbling on the trip that will see them meet with their parents. Manny Rosen (Jack Albertson) and his wife Belle (Shelley Winters) are going to Israel to meet their new grandson. Nonnie (Carol Lynley) is rehearsing songs with her brother in the ballroom for the New Year’s Eve dance. Bachelor James Martin (Red Buttons) confesses his shyness at the captain’s table at dinner. And then a tidal wave (what we now call a tsunami) capsizes the ship and their whole world is upside down and flooding quickly … Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel gets a great adaptation by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes who distill people’s essential characters into pithy exchanges and lines of action – let’s face it in a situation like this there’s no time for sweet nothings. Producer Irwin Allen assembled a star-ridden cast for this disaster movie to end them all. A raft of Oscar winners – Borgnine, Winters, Buttons, Albertson – make it into the final half dozen who swim, climb and beat their way to the engine room on the upturned vessel and the pressure (water, religious and otherwise) is intense as they are led by Scott who is invested with crazed levels of commitment by Hackman. But before they can be saved there are terrible personal sacrifices… And you thought you’ve had bad New Year’s Eves! This is thrilling from start to finish! Directed by Ronald Neame with a lot of interiors done on the Queen Mary docked at Long Beach and a resonant score by John Williams.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

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There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is the creme de la creme of Hollywood directors, maker of such fine escapist fare as Ants in Your Pants of 1939. The audiences love him! But he wants to make a social contribution and desires more than anything critical favour and socially relevant material. His butler (Robert Greig) and valet (Eric Blore – how I love him!) deplore the idea. He is followed by a fully-staffed double-decker bus provided by studio boss Lebrand (Robert Warwick) should his needs demand anything solid like a bed or food. He fails first time out but second time he determines to dress up like a hobo and find out what real life is like for the working man. He encounters a waitress known only as The Girl (Veronica Lake) who takes pity on him and he ultimately realises – after serious trials – that making ordinary joes laugh and relieving their impoverished misery is far better than any serious-minded nonsense like his planned adaptation of that crack preachy serious novel, O, Brother Where Art Thou?  McCrea is superb and Lake is stunning as the super-sweet girl who falls for this man who’s supposedly hit hard times. As if! Was there ever a finer Hollywood satire? Hardly. From the camera-stylo de Preston Sturges whose favourite players are all over the cast. He’s the only filmmaker whose office I tried to locate on the Paramount Studios tour. Oh! The hilarity! Sheer, unadulterated genius.

The China Syndrome (1979)

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I know the vibration was not normal. A lot of films depend on luck to make a success – and a matter of days after this was released there was a major incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. So a story about an accident in a nuclear plant that is filmed by a TV crew that usually does soft news and how that impacts on the news cycle, the plant supervisor and potentially the wider environment, saw reality and cinema converge in the most immediate fashion.  Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) has nice hair and does a great job covering idiotic stuff to put at the end of the evening show in LA but wants to cover more serious stories. Cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas) and soundman Hector (Daniel Valdez) accompany her to a local nuclear plant where they witness a shudder that supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) says should not have happened and he quarrels with colleague Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) about safety when the reactor is going to be cranked up. The film is stopped from being broadcast and the news crew try to protect Jack when he holes up in a motel so they can get an exclusive story. His bosses are on a mission to stop him from going public at an environmental hearing and are prepared to leave no murder attempt unturned … Written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook and director James Bridges, this was produced by Michael Douglas, who has always recognised a zeitgeist when he’s met one. This is as much an indictment of the politics of news production as it is about the propaganda behind the supposed safety of nuclear energy. Nobody comes out of this looking good. Excellent, tense storytelling, all the more extraordinary for a total lack of music other than Stephen Bishop’s theme song: the shudder of the reactor is terrifying enough and the acting from Fonda and Lemmon is superb, embodying their emblematic images as frustrated feminist activist and sympathetic conscientious objector – and in that order!

American Graffiti (1973)

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You just can’t stay seventeen forever. From magic hour until dawn, George Lucas’ evocation of the last night of properly being a teenager in Modesto, CA c. 1962 remains one of the most truly felt, realistically dramatised portraits of that difficult age. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is arguing with high school class president Steve (Ron Howard) in the car park of Mel’s Drive-In when he says he’s changing his mind about leaving for college in the morning. Steve breaks up with Curt’s sister and head cheerleader Laurie (Cindy Williams) and vests custody of his beloved wheels to Toad (Charles Martin Smith) while the oldest teen in town, John Milner (Paul Le Mat) looks on.  Music is pouring from the school hall where Herby & the Heartbeats aka Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids are performing at the back to school hop. Steve and Laurie have to pretend they’re still getting along as they dance in front of everyone. Curt spots a blonde angel (Suzanne Somers) cruising the strip in a Thunderbird and can’t be persuaded she’s a prostitute even after phoning her. John gives little Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) a ride and she aggressively but innocently pursues her crush on him. Toad picks up Debbie (Candy Clark) in the car and she proves surprisingly sweet considering her Monroe-esque attributes. John agrees to a drag race on Paradise Road against Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) and it ends in a flame-out at dawn …  This low budget quasi-autobiographical film and tribute to hot rodding was made by George Lucas when he couldn’t get his version of Apocalypse Now off the ground. HIs college classmates Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck co-wrote his story and Richard Walter did a sexy rewrite which didn’t work for Lucas and he rewrote it all himself using his record collection as inspiration for the different sections. It wasn’t sufficiently sexy or violent enough for AIP so United Artists financed the development (whew). It looked to UA like a music montage so that was when Universal came up with the money for production. It was shot in Techniscope utilising two cinematographers in each scene to save time and money and look like widescreen 16mm. It was editor Walter Murch’s idea (after Verna Fields left the rough cut for a bigger budget movie called What’s Up Doc?) to arrange the story to Wolfman Jack’s radio show focusing on rock ‘n’ roll classics. The soundtrack budget didn’t allow for the fees demanded by Elvis’ company, RCA and it’s all curated by Kim Fowley. The songs chronicle each of the vignettes, culminating in Curt’s departure for college at the local airport. Steve stays in Modesto and the credits commence with a card telling us of what supposedly becomes of each of the four protagonists. Ironically Lucas missed his high school reunion in Modesto because of the shoot which took him to San Rafael and then Petaluma. It was done in sequence and mainly at night so the actors would look progressively more tired as the night becomes morning. Charming, cherishable, wise and funny, with a vast array of performers who became household names and starting a huge vogue for Fifties nostalgia – Rock and roll has been going downhill since Buddy Holly died, as one of the guys declares while rubbishing The Beach Boys. An evocative, classic, inspirational homage to guys, girls, cars and rock ‘n’ roll. What more do you want?! Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, whose Dementia 13 is on the marquee of the local cinema.

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!

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies.  We are dealing with archetypes rather than real characters despite its biographical origins. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.

A Cry in the Dark (1988)

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Aka Evil Angels. You could crack walnuts on her face. Fred Schepisi’s docudrama-style retelling of John Bryson’s book is real watercooler stuff:  the appalling tale of a 9-week old baby, Azaria Chamberlain, taken from her family’s tent at a campsite beneath Ayers Rock and presumably murdered, and the prosecution and wrongful conviction of her mother Lindy (Meryl Streep). A dingo’s got my baby! was the war cry attributed to the unsympathetic woman whose every character flaw was exposed by a prurient Australian press who condemned her because of her appearance (that terrible haircut!), speaking voice and curt mannerisms. As played by Streep, she is obviously a more complex, interesting and compassionate woman in private.  Her inner strength is immensely bothersome to a public who are shown reacting variously to news reportage on TV – in their own homes, in bars, on the streets – which serves to demonstrate the horrendous arena that is the court of public opinion as well as distancing us somewhat perhaps from a more penetrating account of the couple at the centre of the tragedy. Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is the pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa, Queensland and it is the minority nature of their Christian sect that also works against them when the name Azaria is wrongly reported to mean ‘sacrifice in the wilderness’. His unconvincing and wavering witness testimony does for his wife, as does the sheer incompetence of the expert witnesses, many of whose claims were later discounted. The impact of her interviews and the way in which they are misreported by a baying press is very well handled and her eventual imprisonment on circumstantial as opposed to forensic evidence is still strikingly mediaeval in its stupidity (preserve us all from juries). Streep is terribly good and the portrayal of a loving marriage in all its fraying details is nicely observed:  posited against the procedural detail and the slipshod collection of evidence we are conscious of something akin to a conspiracy. This was released just about the time that the Chamberlains were finally exonerated (but it took until 2012 for the charges to be finally dropped). This isn’t creative so much as it is journalistic and in that spirit it makes up for the actions of some of those sewer rats who waited thirty years to apologise to Lindy Chamberlain for their vile lies. Her ex-husband (they divorced in 1991) died earlier this year. Adapted by Robert Caswell and director Schepisi from John Bryson’s Evil Angels.

In Harm’s Way (1965)

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