Cleopatra (1963)

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Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus. The Seventh Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) manipulates and falls in love with both Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) in her ill-fated attempt to save the Egyptian empire from a takeover by the Roman Empire. This love triangle is one of the most famous ever to be captured on film, with betrayal by trusted Octavian (Roddy McDowall), the murder of Caesar, the escape of Cleopatra who has borne Caesar’s son and the final, terrible defeat at Actium in Greece … What gets lost in the palaver about this truly epic historical saga which ruined Twentieth Century Fox for a while is just how good it is:  how it measures the scale of the action to the depth of performance. Elizabeth Taylor is imperious, vulnerable, scathing, dictatorial, brilliant and moving: What can I do? Where can I go in a world suddenly without you? You believe her. And she is matched by the acerbic Harrison, the slyly snide McDowall (we’re a long way from Lassie!), loyal Rufio (Martin Landau) and what about the very sad end of Burton whose line to Octavian makes you gulp with emotion:  Is there nobody who would grant Antony an honourable way to die? Oh! Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by C.M. Franzero and the histories by Plutarch, Appian and Suetonius the much-laboured upon screenplay is by Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, and director Joseph Mankiewicz who certainly suffered for everybody’s art as the man to take over the botched first attempt aborted in London and relaunched at Cinecitta in Rome. As legendary as this is for its effect on Hollywood, what shouldn’t be forgotten is what a brilliant spectacle it is. It’s quite breathtaking.

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The Ten Commandments (1956)

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It is not by a sword that He will deliver His people but by the staff of a shepherd! When Rameses I of Egypt orders the killing of all firstborn Hebrew babies the baby Moses (Fraser Heston) is put in a basket on the Nile and is found in the bulrushes and taken in by the pharaoh’s daughter. Moses (Charlton Heston) grows up to lead armies, drive slaves and live a life of luxury, falling for the princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter). But when he discovers his Hebrew heritage and God’s expectations of him it brings him into conflict with his ‘brother’ Rameses II (Yul Brynner). He dedicates himself to liberating his people from captivity and – with the aid of plagues and divine intervention – leads them out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. A greater challenge comes in the form of the golden calf idol which drives believers to sin.  It takes a visitation by God on Mount Sinai for Moses’ mission to prevail. Cecil B. DeMille liked this story so much he made it twice, once in the silent era and then again with even more spectacular visual effects three decades later. And what a vision this is: the building of the pyramids,  the burning bush, the Voice of God, the parting of the Red Sea…  Heston is in his element (and some very flattering short skirts) as the man whose amazing physical and spiritual transformation from slave owner to man of God leads the Israelites to their destiny.  Adapted from a number of sources by the rather intimidated scribes Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss and Frederic M. Frank:  Dorothy Clarke Wilson’s Prince of Egypt; Pillar of Fire by J. H. Ingraham; On Eagle’s Wings by A. E. Southon;  and the Book of Exodus. There were many other historical documents sourced for narrative clarity (to fill in those pesky gaps).  With a soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein and cinematography by Loyal Griggs this still holds the attention with its cunning juxtaposition of sex and death, crime and punishment, cruelty and retribution, mothers and sons. Truly a Biblical experience, filmed on location in Egypt and Sinai. DeMille’s final film, this is magnificently hokey and splendidly spectacular. Where the holiday season begins. One of the longest films ever made for the shortest day of the year. Let my people go!

Cheaper by the Dozen (1950)

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They come cheaper by the dozen you know! Frank Gilbreth (Clifton Webb) and his wife Lillian (Myrna Loy) are efficiency experts – they would need to be with their enormous family – two are born in the course of the story, adapted from the biographical book by their son and daughter Frank and Ernestine by writer/producer Lamar Trotti. It’s a sweet, episodic narrative about the trials and tribulations of a good-natured family dealing with a house move, Father’s desire for recognition (talk of an invitation to a conference in Prague) and Mother (a psychologist) manfully giving birth to the twelfth child, a son, on father’s orders. The main drama is one boy’s desire for a dog and eldest daughter Ann (Jeanne Crain, who was 25 playing a teen) and her desire to be a flapper and cut her hair to stop being a freak.  Father believes in improving all his brood and amongst other things wants them to be great musicians but secretly knows they’re tuneless. There’s a very good scene when it turns out a fed up neighbour has suggested Mother be the local rep for Planned Parenthood. This was made at the height of Webb’s fame as Mr Belvedere and he’s terrific as the dad who is full of surprises – just watch him show the kids’ new headmistress how to bathe in seconds flat! – with Loy her usually sharp self. It looks lovely courtesy of legendary cinematographer Leon Shamroy and is nicely put together by director Walter Lang with thoroughly charming performances in a comic drama which uniquely for the Americana being produced at the time is finally tinged with tragedy.

 

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

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Everybody’s got a right to be a sucker once. When Budd Boetticher wrote this story he thought it would be a perfect return to Hollywood after his near-decade long Mexican odyssey when the subject of his bullfighting documentary died and he nearly bought the farm himself. But his career was effectively over and this was rewritten by Albert Maltz, another (blacklisted) resident of Mexico and instead of his hoped-for Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr starring, it was supposed to have Elizabeth Taylor in the lead. She gave the script to Clint Eastwood on the set of Where Eagles Dare (in which he co-starred with Richard Burton) and the whole game changed when it wasn’t going to be shot in Spain. In fact it became a Mexican co-production.  Eastwood is Hogan, a mercenary en route to assist Mexican revolutionaries against the French who were then engaged in an invasion of the country, with the promise of enough gold to set up a bar in California. He rescues nun Sara (MacLaine) who has had her clothes ripped off her by a bunch of marauding cowboys and he shoots them dead. She proves to be much more resourceful than he expects and enjoys drinking, smoking and helps him stop an ammunition train in its tracks as they make their way to a French fort on behalf of the Juaristas.  It turns out that the nun’s garb is just a costume that covers up her real vocation, that of prostitute … Gorgeously shot by Gabriel Figueroa (assisted by Bruce Surtees) this is a sensational comedy western with two gripping star performances. Don Siegel didn’t like MacLaine whom he declared unfeminine because she had too many balls. It was the last time Eastwood got second billing and also the last time that he would agree to an actress of stature as his co-star until Meryl Streep acted opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County. Siegel takes a spaghetti-style story and gives it some nicely sardonic twists with some terrific scenes – when MacLaine is giving a former client the last rites; and playing for time with General LeClaire (Albert Morin) while children dump a dynamite-filled pinata at the fort, to name but two. Boetticher was appalled at the alterations to his original story and when Siegel said he woke up every day to a paycheque, Boetticher responded he woke up every day and could look at himself in the mirror. Nonetheless this is engaging, smart and funny and a really great acting masterclass. Ennio Morricone’s insistent, brutally repetitive score is a plus.

Wind River (2017)

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How do you gauge someone’s will to live? I once knew a film producer who said the two rules of moviemaking were, Never make a western and Never make a film in the snow. Well thank goodness nobody told screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who makes his directing debut here following the screenplays for the extraordinary Sicario and Hell or High Water, two of the best films in the past decade. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is an agent (read:  animal catcher) for the US Fish and Wildlife Service working in the vast titular Native American reservation in Wyoming when he happens upon the body of a young woman Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) who was his own late daughter’s best friend. He’s seconded by a neophyte FBI officer Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to help her as she has no expertise in tracking or this mountainous terrain the size of Rhode Island with just 6 police officers led by Graham Greene. While Cory is still dealing with the fallout of a divorce, having to forego caring for his young son when his ex is out of town for a couple of days in order to look for the killers, we unspool through family photos and start to understand some of his motivation for helping this officer who doesn’t even have the right clothing for minus 20: Cory’s mother in law loans her her late granddaughter’s clothing with the warning, These are not a gift.  His young son is startled at the sight of this white girl in his dead sister’s clothes. Together Cory and Jane embark on a hunt when the coroner finds the girl has been likely multiply raped but drowned in her own blood because the alveoli in her lungs filled with freezing air as she ran barefoot from her assailants. She ran six miles. So it can’t officially be listed as murder. Then Cory finds a second body …  With all Sheridan’s films now we see a certain pattern:  the idea of borders, which also extend to different races and traditions and values transmuted through marriage, and of course singular acts of transgression which here comprise murder but obviously incorporate other acts of violation arising from untrammelled self-justification. It culminates in a chase and a shootout but concludes in an act of individual revenge on Wyoming’s highest mountain peak which calls to mind the work of James Stewart and Anthony Mann in their western collaborations.  Most debut writer/directors make the mistake of filing every hole with overwritten dialogue:  Sheridan is too shrewd for that.  He allows the pictures to speak for themselves, human nature to assert itself as it usually does and the dead bodies are permitted testimony to their brutal demise. He chooses to end on a frame that expresses friendship and acceptance.  (Followed by a piece of text which states that the only portion of the demographic not featured in Missing Person figures is Native American women.) It’s a very satisfying film – tense, character-driven, fast-moving and deeply felt – and it’s adorned with excellent performances and some beautifully mournful songs composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

Grand Prix (1966)

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The only thing to do here is drive as fast as you know how and hope your car doesn’t brake. Have you ever been to the racetrack at Monza? It’s eerie. It has an aura of death about it. It seems to be hanging in the gloom of all those tall trees. Probably the memory of those spectators killed trackside 1961:  and the final race here in the fictional reconstruction of the 1966 season told from the perspectives of four drivers is at Monza and the death is of a driver, whose broken body is strung up on a tree as his car flies off the north ridge. It’s shocking. This is a brillant film, still the best by far of all the motor racing films, with an opening 20 minute sequence on the street circuit at Monaco that is one of the best in the history of cinema. Of course it helps to be a petrolhead, but the screenplay, by Robert Alan Arthur, is clever and artful, blending action and storytelling and characterisation as efficiently as you’ll ever see in that opening, using the TV commentary to introduce us to Pete Aron (James Garner) who causes a terrible crash sending Brit driver Scott Stoddard into hospital with appalling injuries and destroying both their Jordan-BRM cars. Pete is forced to look for a drive in Japan with Toshiro Mifune doing a take on Soichiro Honda. Twice world champion, Ferrari driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is looking for another title but has young team-mate Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) to contend with. If there isn’t enough drama on the track, there’s a complex of love lives off it, with Scott’s wife Pat (Jessica Walter) looking for love and finding it for a spell with Pete while her husband continues to relive his late brother’s career despite being drugged to the hilt; the married Jean-Pierre falling for American journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint); and Nino meeting Lisa (Francoise Hardy – nope, she doesn’t sing!) in a bar with an amusing exchange of perfunctory sentences before they get together and she becomes the perfect racer girlfriend, attending the races, timing the laps. This is a great sports film and one that is redolent with both danger and romance. It’s amazing looking and I only wish I could have been around for the original release in Cinerama which would do justice to the split-screen and the amazing Super Panavision 70 cinematography by Lionel Lindon with Saul Bass. It’s as tightly wound as a suspense thriller with the threat of death on every corner and it’s tough on the business side of this most unforgiving sport and the obsession of its participants. For fans there’s the joy of seeing real-life heroes like Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, oh, a whole host of legends. Adolfo Celi does a take on Enzo Ferrari aka Manetta and real-life BBC reporter Raymond Baxter interviews Nino at Brand’s Hatch. Years later, in 1996, my acting hero (Garner) met my driving hero (Jacques Villeneuve) at Monza to celebrate the film 30 years after its release:

Garner was a fine driver and after shooting this – doing all his own driving and one fire stunt with butane that nearly went fatally wrong – he founded the American International Racers team, running cars in Formula A (just below F1), driving in the Baja 100, all leading to his eventually being inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.

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The Racing Scene is a documentary following the team in 1969 when he finally broke it up because of the money and time commitment. He drove the pace car at the Indy 500 in 1975, 1977 and 1985. What a mensch. He said after making Grand Prix – thanks to his Great Escape castmate Steve McQueen dropping out! – he simply had to be involved in the sport.  This won Academy Awards for editing, sound and sound effects (none for the magnificent Maurice Jarre score) but it is so much more than the sum of its parts. Simply sensational. Directed by John Frankenheimer, whose wife, Evans Evans, has an uncredited role.

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She (1965)

 

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This Hammer adaptation of the Rider Haggard novel works because it takes it seriously and never really slides into camp territory, which the material always threatened. The performances are dedicated, Ursula Andress is so extremely beautiful and the narrative is well handled by screenwriter David T. Chantler.  Robert Day makes sure the archaeologists Major Holly (Peter Cushing) and Leo Vincey (John Richardson) the reincarnated love interest and their valet Job (Bernard Cribbins) are credibly established to include their initial scepticism about a lost Pharaonic city. The saga of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is ultimately a tragic tale of romance, culminating in horrible self-sacrifice and immolation. Andress was re-voiced by Nikki Van der Zyl who did a lot of voiceovers for Bond girls and wound up becoming a lawyer and a painter. It was shot in Israel (which leads to a dialogue gaffe…) The handsome Richardson would be Raquel Welch’s co-star in the following year’s One Million Years BC and he was briefly considered to replace Sean Connery as Bond.  He gave up a long career in Italian films to become a photographer.  This was a huge hit back in the day and perfect entertainment for a rainy weekend afternoon.

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.

Risky Business (1983)

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What was it about Chicago’s North Shore that inspired such good movies in the 80s? It’s hard to believe but it’s 34 years since Tom Cruise became a star – and this smart, tart satire about sex and money is the reason why. Joel Goodson (Cruise) is mostly a good boy but his grades are not top notch and his dad is trying to get him into Princeton. The folks are going out of town for the weekend so it’s time to bust out some bucks and deliver some guys of their innocence courtesy of some hookers after one attempt goes wrong. One of them is Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) who as well as spending the night, has an idea for some moneymaking activities to pay her bill – and the damage to the family Porsche – which coincide with the visit from the Princeton rep (Richard Masur): Joel has turned his folks’ house into a brothel. He makes a pile of money. Then Lana’s pimp (Joe Pantoliano) wants a piece and holds the furniture ransom.  Cruise is flawless in Paul Brickman’s directing debut (working from his original screenplay.) We all know the iconic moments – Cruise dancing in his pants, his winning smile, the sex act on the train (the last time Cruise knowingly participated in such a thing onscreen – and performed to Phil Collins of all people!) but it’s a sharp social commentary too, with a great soundtrack courtesy of Tangerine Dream (remember them?!) as well of course as Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll. This was really on the money and retains its impact. Classic.

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.