Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

Valerie (1957)

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The opportunity to see La Ekberg act opposite then husband Anthony Steel is irresistible. This post-Civil War western noir, directed by Gerd Oswald, is an interesting proposition, maritally speaking:  she’s a real femme fatale, a settler who’s interested in money and sex, keen to pursue an affair, first with her brother in law (Peter Walker) and then a local priest (Steel) who intervenes to save her marriage, above and beyond any concern for her Union soldier husband turned cattle farmer Sterling Hayden. When she becomes pregnant it’s obvious it isn’t her husband’s and she initially refuses to give evidence in the case against him for the tragic death of her parents. Mostly taking place in flashbacks and then bringing the story up to date in the courtroom (and hospital bed) with their conflicting accounts of a marriage gone very badly wrong. There are three accounts of the murders:  whose is right?  Written by Emmet Murphy and Laurence Heath aka Leonard Heiderman, this is a dramatically fascinating if not totally satisfying piece of work (like a lot of Oswald’s films) with a chance to see two quite antithetical performers – Hayden and Ekberg – demonstrating their very different acting styles in this morally involving story a la Rashomon. Ekberg would reunite with Oswald for Screaming Mimi a couple of years later.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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The Lawless Breed (1953)

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I love you the way you are. The way you really are. Legend has it that gunslinger, card sharp and outlaw John Wesley Hardin once shot a man because he was snoring. In this Universal-Technicolor version of a story he wrote about himself – his real life, as it were – we get the fast-moving, adventurous western that veteran director Raoul Walsh favoured, with a luminous performance by Rock Hudson in the role that made him a star. It starts with a beautiful framing device:  freed after 16 years from a prison sentence, the aged Hardin (and Hudson looks just like he would twenty years later in MacMillan and Wife!) leaves those portals and the first beings he touches in many years are a donkey and a dog. He has us at hello. Then he walks into a print shop and hands over a manuscript – his autobiography. It’s a great opening. Then we relive his life from his point of view in one long flashback:  as a young man he’s whupped by his strict preacher father (John McIntire) and launched into a life of crime following a card game. “It was self-defence,” becomes his mantra. He’s followed through Texas by Union soldiers, takes refuge with his sympathetic uncle (also played by McIntire), continues his relationship with the most beautiful girl in the State, Jane (Mary Castle) and eventually takes refuge with the saloon girl who understands him, Rosie (Julie aka Julia Adams). It’s a fatalistic tale which became a Bob Dylan song but this being Hollywood we don’t see the sordid ending that actually befell the man and Hudson imbues his character with wonderful gentleness.  When he returns home to save his grown son (Race Gentry) from his destiny the reason for writing his memoirs becomes clarified. Great, rousing tale, brilliantly handled by Walsh with his usual terrific staging and pace and doesn’t it look beautiful, like all movies should. Very loosely adapted from Hardin’s book by the great (and blacklisted) screenwriter Bernard Gordon. Never mind the facts – print the legend!

Hell or High Water (2016)

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Call it white man’s intuition.  Taylor (Sicario) Sheridan writes a great screenplay so this was bound to be thrilling one way or another. Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers carrying out bank heists in west Texas to retrieve the family land, in foreclosure by the local bank two weeks after their Mom’s death. Tanner’s not long out of prison, Toby is divorced and wanting to do right by his sons:  he’s found oil on the property so he knows it’s crucial to get the ownership in order and there’s no way out now he’s lost his job and is behind in child support. Tanner carries out a third robbery after Toby is befriended by a waitress in a nearby diner and it’s the first bank to have CCTV that works. Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) who’s mere weeks from retirement gets the bit between his teeth and decides to take them down if he can figure out who they are by a simple method of deduction as the brothers rob the remaining banks in the chain – to repay the same bank  … Crafty, wise, mordantly funny and unbearably tense, this has two parallel male friendships – Marcus’s partner Indian-Mexican Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is the target of his ongoing race jokes –  winding around each other like DNA. This contemporary western has a great socio-political background (mass repossessions after the 2008 crash) and a wonderful setting:  look at those empty roads and desert and big skies. All four are convincing in their acutely interesting roles, everyone with something to lose and clearly defined by both action and dialogue. It reminds me of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, another outing with Bridges but with him on the other side of the law four decades later. It asks questions about right and wrong and family and friendship and being a western it must have a logical conclusion – with a shootout. And then some. Brilliantly balanced storytelling that’s really well directed by David (Starred Up) Mackenzie, a Brit who clearly relished being let loose in all that big scenery.

The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

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While I’m away put him straight again. I want him the way he used to be. Gifted actor Brady (Mysterious Skin) Corbet makes his directing debut with this gripping mystery, a tale in three tantrums of a fascist-in-waiting between the two Great Wars. Prescott (Tom Sweet) is the long-haired son of Father (Liam Cunningham) and Mother (Berenice Bejo) who are residing in France in 1919 during the Versailles Treaty negotiations. Father’s an American career diplomat and a harsh authoritarian figure who appears to be having it off with the boy’s tutor Ada (Stacy Martin);  Mother is a disturbed German religious devotee who fires Ada and Mona the housekeeper because they try to humanise her son.  The episodes are based on control and power:  personal, religious, political. They all take place against the dysfunctional family backdrop and the mystery is set up at the beginning when Father is meeting with his colleague Charles Marker (Robert Pattinson) who is widowed.  Marker turns up at another crucial instance of personal transition for Prescott whose bad behaviour culminates in a shocking exchange with Mother at Versailles. There is a haunting inexorable draw to the narrative, adapted by Corbet with his wife and fellow filmmaker Mona Fastvold, from Jean-Paul Sartre’s story, with some debt to John Fowles’ The Magus. The leader is never named and the film retains a sense of the cryptic and it avoids making direct statements. There is a sleight of hand to the conclusion and an artful confidence to this episodic debut, aided immeasurably by the morbid score created by Peter Walsh and Scott Walker. A remarkable piece of political aesthetics produced in an age when nobody wants to put their cards on the table and say what’s gone wrong with the world.

Julieta (2016)

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The abject maternal has long been a strong component of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s oeuvre and in this striking adaptation of three Alice Munro stories from Runaway he plunders the deep emotional issues that carry through the generations. On a Madrid street widowed Julieta (Emma Suarez) runs into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) who used to be her daughter’s best friend. Bea tells her she met Antia in Switzerland where she’s married with three children.  Julieta enters a spiral of despair – she hasn’t seen Antia since she went on a spiritual retreat 12 years earlier and she now abandons lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) on the eve of their departure for Portugal. She returns to the apartment she lived in with Antia when the girl was an adolescent and hopes to hear from her, the birthday postcards having long ceased. We are transported back to the 1980s when on a snowy train journey to a school in Andalucia Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) resisted the advances of an older man who then committed suicide and she had a one-night stand with Xoan (Daniel Grao). She turns up at his house months later and his housekeeper Marian (the heroically odd Rossy de Palma) tells her his wife has died and he’s spending the night with Ava (Inma Cuesta). Julieta and Xoan resume their sexual relationship and she tells Ava she’s pregnant and is advised to tell Xoan. And so she settles into a seaside lifestyle with him as he fishes and she returns with her young child to visit her parents’ home where her mother is bedridden and her father is carrying on with the help. Years go by and she wants to return to teaching Greek literature, which has its echoes in the storytelling here. The housekeeper hates her and keeps her informed of Xoan’s onoing trysts with Ava;  her daughter is away at camp;  she and Xoan fight and he goes out fishing on a stormy day and doesn’t return alive. This triggers the relationship between Antia and Bea at summer camp which evolves into Lesbianism albeit we only hear about this development latterly, when Bea tells Julieta that once it become an inferno she couldn’t take it any more and Antia departed for the spiritual retreat where she became something of a fanatic.  Julieta’s guilt over the old man’s death, her husband’s suicidal fishing trip and her daughter’s disappearance and estrangement lead her to stop caring for herself – and Lorenzo returns as she allows hope to triumph over miserable experience. There are moments here that recall Old Hollywood and not merely because of the Gothic tributes, the secrets and deceptions and illicit sexual liaisons. The colour coding, with the wonderfully expressive use of red, reminds one that Almodovar continues to be a masterful filmmaker even when not utterly committed to the material;  and if it’s not as passionate as some of his earlier female dramas, it’s held together by an overwhelming depiction of guilt and grief and the sheer unfathomability of relationships, familial and otherwise. Suarez and Ugarte are extremely convincing playing the different phases of Julieta’s experiences – how odd it might have been in its original proposed version, with Meryl Streep in the leading role, at both 25 and 50, and filming in English. I might still prefer his early funny ones but a little Almodovar is better than none at all.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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I’m not home. I never will be. I first encountered a Nam vet on Central Park West. He chased me despite being on crutches that were well past their sell-by date. I guess maybe it was because I had more legs than he did. I was waiting tables in a township on Long Island called Massapequa at a ghastly restaurant where a deranged and thankfully distant relative worked. Massapequa is the hometown of the Baldwin brothers and Ron Kovic, the subject of this impassioned film by Oliver Stone, a man whose own combat experiences had informed his previous film, Platoon, that astonishingly immersive journey of a naif to manhood in a horrifying exposition of American soldiers’ experiences. Ron Kovic’s book is the basis of another coming of age tale, this time of a Catholic boy whose parents’ devotion to JFK unwittingly unleashes their sports-mad son’s inner patriot.  I hadn’t seen this since its release and my fresh impression of its first sequences was of overwrought melodrama, underlined by John Williams’ overheated score. But this is all of a piece with the film’s intentions:  starting with a heightened picture of America’s hearth and home;  the futility and horror of war; the brutality of veterans’ experiences in epically gruesome, filthy underfunded hospitals (Kovic’s God-loving mother never even paid him a visit); the utter loneliness of being a castrated, paralysed man with a beating heart and functioning brain who is ridiculed by the anti-war protesters; the recognition that the only people with whom he now has anything in common are the other vets who are even more fucked up than he is. And so it moves into its more austere final sections. Politicisation. Separation from a family who refuse to accept he could have killed women and children and for whom he is a mere embarassment in a block where the other soldiers at least died. Is there a better correlative image in Stone’s entire oeuvre than the crane shot over the Wilson family home, where Ron has confessed to killing new recruit, their nineteen year old son William, in the dunes of Nam as the sun flared during an ambush, then he is wheeled away by a helper amid the scraps and detritus dumped in their yard and the leafy branches fade into a fluttering stars and stripes – and we are plunged into more police brutality at the 1972 Republican convention where he has joined the protest movement? This is elegant filmmaking. It is not without its humour or self-awareness. Ron has finally had his cherry broken by a Mexican whore in a sequence of T&A that reunites Stone with Willem Defoe who welcomes him to this sick paradise and he thinks it’s love – but hides his gift for her when he realises sex with a cripple is just a job for her. These vets’ wheelchair-off is a salve for those of us who might have liked to see one between Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, who beat him to an Academy Award that year (DDL gurned more). I’ve never been back to Massapequa or that cruddy restaurant but Stephen Baldwin has a small role as a schoolfriend, Tom Berenger gets him to join up, Frank Whaley is the other surviving vet who helps Ron out of his doomladen hole and Kyra Sedgwick is the gorgeous girl he loved so much he ran through the rain to dance with her at the Prom and she turns him on to the anti-war crusade. Cruise is simply great, giving a complete performance from boy to man in a narrative which exemplifies the art of juxtaposition and emotional arcs. This is cinema, utterly moving and indignant and humane. Watch it and weep.

Ivanhoe (1952)

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Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) is determined to right the wrong of kidnapped Richard the Lionheart’s predicament, confronting his evil brother Prince John (Guy Rolfe) and Norman knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders). His own estranged father Cedric (Finlay Currie) doesn’t know he’s loyal to the king but feisty Rowena (Joan Fontaine) is still his lady love although his affections are now swung by the beautiful Jewess Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), daughter to Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer), who is almost robbed by the knights and whose fortune can aid the King. Robin Hood appears and Ivanhoe joins forces with him and his men, there’s jousting at the tournament and love lost and won, and a trial for witchcraft ….  Adapted by AEneas MacKenzie from the Walter Scott novel, this was written by Noel Langley and Marguerite Roberts, whose name was removed subsequent to her being blacklisted. It’s glorious picture-book pageantry in Technicolor, such a wonderful change from those grim grey superhero and historical excursions to which we are being currently subjected in the multiplex. Everyone performs with great gusto, there’s chivalry and action aplenty, a great baddie, a kangaroo court, a ransom to be paid, a love triangle, a king to rescue, costumes to die for and properly beautiful movie stars performing under the super sharp lens of Freddie Young to a robust score by Miklos Rozsa. It was the first in an unofficial mediaeval MGM trilogy shot in the UK, followed by Knights of the Round Table and The Adventures of Quentin Durward, all starring Taylor (Robert, that is) and shot by Richard Thorpe. Prepare to have your swash buckled. Fabulous.

Stars in My Crown (1950)

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– Good story. – Don’t rush me. A prime example of Americana, based on Joe David Brown’s novel, Joel McCrea is the preacher determined to bring God to the settlement of Walesburg after the Civil War. He has to take the villagers seriously – at gunpoint, to bring them round. In this episodic narrative told by his adopted nephew Dean Stockwell as an adult (voiced by Marshall Thompson) there is a low key romance with church organist Ellen Drew; the arrival of typhoid fever which threatens not just lives but the respect between him and  young doctor James Mitchell;  McCrea’s struggle when he refuses to accept the school well is the cause of the outbreak; and the repeated threats to black farmer Famous (Juano Hernandez) prove this is far from twee.  Indeed when the KKK bring a burning cross to the patch that he has made home you realise this is a lot more than a story of tough love. McCrea is a solid leading man and he is excellent here as a man whose faith is truly tested.There’s really good work from Alan Hale as the Swedish father of five who never goes to church but is always ready to lend a helping hand and James Arness and Amanda Blake feature years before Gunsmoke. This is far from your average western, a keen mix of humour, commentary and drama. Brown adapted his novel but it was the work of the screenwriter Margaret Fitts that’s interesting. She did several screen adaptations and is one of those women who did such good writing for the western genre, including adapting her own novel, The King and Four Queens, which became the Clark Gable movie. This was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a man many consider in the realm of auteur.