The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) attends the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in a small Western town. Flashing back 25 years, we learn Doniphon saved Stoddard, then a lawyer, when he was roughed up by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). As the territory’s safety hung in the balance, Doniphon and Stoddard, two of the only people standing up to him, proved to be very important, but different, foes to Valance. Stoddard opened a law office over the offices of the Shinbone Star, the newspaper which is run by a steadfast editor determined to expose the reality of the violence terrorising the territory and preserve the freedom of the press. Both Doniphon and Stoddard are in love with the same woman, Hallie (Vera Miles) who cooks in her immigrant parents’ restaurant and whom Stoddard teaches to read and write. When the newspaper prints a (mis-spelled) headline declaring Valance is defeated, he takes revenge – and then the peace-loving Stoddard takes up a gun … This is a film of polarities, exemplified by the civilising influence of Ransom opposed to Valance and Doniphon’s own belief in the power of the gun (which ironically opens up the possibility for bringing law and order to the place). Vera Miles is splendid as the illiterate love of both men:  What good has reading and writing done you? Look at you – in an apron!  An eloquent essay on the genre itself, this was not received warmly upon release. And yet its entire narrative provides the content for soon to be popular structuralist analysis of the western:  the East versus the West, old versus new, the wilderness versus civilisation, violence versus law and order, reality versus myth, the desert versus the garden. Never was a cactus rose deployed to such symbolic effect! John Ford made one of the great films but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch up. Adapted from Dorothy Johnson’s short story by producer Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah .

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Miller’s Crossing (1990)

 

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There’s nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is the hardman and advisor to Irish American gangster Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who’s at war with Italian Mafia boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) at the height of Prohibition. When crooked bookie Bernie (John Turturro) the brother of Leo’s mistress and Tom’s lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) is threatened by Caspar, the dark-hearted and brainy Reagan is found out by Leo and appears to switch sides in an escalating rivalry over liquor distribution that has a huge body count… It’s hard to pick out a single sequence of brilliance in this positively baroque outing but today I’m choosing the attempt on Leo’s life to the sounds of Frank Patterson warbling Danny Boy: what a stunning declaration of visual bravura (kudos to DoP Barry Sonnenfeld). Brutal, witty, dazzling, beautiful, postmodern and classic, this is a masterpiece. The dialogue is straight out of old gangster movies (and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key) and coming out of Byrne’s accented mouth sounds hilarious:  you gasp at some of the lines, they’re so stunningly written. The narrative is constructed on well known gangster tropes and turns them inside out in a film that acts as a commentary on the genre – Tom’s asides with the Irish policemen are an excruciating Greek chorus! – as well as exulting in its excesses, its ghastly violence, its humour, its morality, its sheer decadence. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen and directed by the former, this is one of the modern greats that engages the brain, the heart and the mind with Reagan’s psychology supplying Byrne with a career-defining role. Astounding.

The Spoilers (1942)

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A woman doesn’t run out on the man she loves, she sticks with him through thick and thin. It’s 1900 and Flapjack (Russell Simpson) and Banty (George Cleveland) arrive in Nome, Alaska to check up on their claim to a gold mine. Saloon owner Charry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) knows that Bennett (Forrest Taylor) and Clark (Ray Bennett) are plotting to steal their claim. The new gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott) is part of the corrupt scheme as is the territory’s judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S. Hinds) whose niece Helen (Margaret Lindsay) has a thing for Cherry’s old flame Roy Glennister (John Wayne), fresh from a trip to Europe. Roy makes the mistake of siding with McNamara which damages his relationship with longtime partner Al Dextry (Harry Carey).  Roy realizes he’s been deceived as McNamara and Stillman prepare to steal at least $250,000 while the mine’s case awaits appeal. Helen is now in love with Roy, who begs Dextry’s forgiveness and persuades him to rob a bank to take back the wealth stolen from them. Both Glennister and Dextry don black faces to disguise themselves during the heist. The Bronco Kid (Richard Barthelmess) kills the sheriff but Roy gets the blame. He is arrested and a plot forms to kill him – permitting him to escape then murdering him on the street – but Cherry comes to his rescue, breaking Roy out of jail. A spectacular train derailment occurs during his fight for freedom. Then a fierce fistfight with McNamara results in Roy getting back his mine and his girl. A great starry cast play brilliantly off one another in this spirited adaptation of the novel by Rex Beach, adapted by Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed. The tone is set from the start with a shootout in this muddy town and Dietrich beats a path to the dock to greet old love Wayne. She doesn’t sing but wears several sparkly numbers in this monochrome delight. Her byplay with romantic rival Lindsay is a wonderful contrast in performing styles and her scenes with Wayne positively crackle The frequent references to Robert Service’s works are done with a nod and a wink to his own appearance as The Poet. Directed by Ray Enright who brings everything to a rousing conclusion with one of the longest fistfights ever filmed – and it’s all over the saloon! Wonderful fun.

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

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My number’s Pennsylvania 6-5000. Glenn Miller (James Stewart) is a young impoverished trombonist who pawns the instrument every time he leaves his latest band because nobody wants to use his arrangements: he hears music in a certain way but hasn’t the means to achieve his own orchestra, at least not yet. He’s confident it’ll happen some day just as he is that Helen (June Allyson) the girl he once dated at college in Colorado will marry him so he buys her a fake string of pearls and gets her to see him for the first time in two years despite her being engaged to someone else. Then he disappears again.  When she agrees to meet him in NYC she marries him and while he falls in and out of jobs she gets him to form his own crew with the money she squirrelled away without his knowing and by 1939 he has one of the biggest swing bands in the US … This biographical film is just so good it’s hard to know where to start:  the transitions which are so brilliantly inscribed by visually expert director Anthony Mann, particularly in the early scenes when the pawn shop is so central to Miller’s whole life;  the ease with which we grasp Miller’s misery at not being able to translate the music in his head to live performance (the squirming during a showgirl’s bowdlerized delivery of Moonlight Serenade has to be seen to be believed); the simple way the adoption of their children is handled; and the depiction of friendship with pianist Chummy (Henry Morgan) and its significance to running a smooth band. If you’re a jazz fan you’ll get a shiver of recognition every time a familiar chord strikes up and kudos to arranger Henry Mancini (who had played with Miller and was part of the ‘ghost’ band made up of the original and the Army Air Force players when he died) who errs just the right side of easy. There’s another recognition factor too – watching Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa perform is another plus;  as is the scene in London during a German bombing raid when the band play on in the open air – and the audience applaud once they get up again. Stewart is splendid in the title role and his resemblance to Miller doesn’t hurt. He was paired previously with Allyson in The Stratton Story and would work with her again in director Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command. This was the star and director’s fifth film collaboration  (out of eight) and the first non-Western. It was a huge hit, as was the soundtrack album and is a genuinely thrilling musical which will give real fans immense pleasure. There’s a great final scene with that little brown jug. Gulp. Written by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper.

The Boys from Brazil (1978)

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Will I be plagued till my dying day by that infernal Jew? Keen young Nazi hunter Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) contacts the renowned Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) from South America with the startling news that Nazi war criminals are gathering in Paraguay under the aegis of Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck). As he phones him a recording of a meeting detailing a strange plan he is killed and Mengele realises someone knows something they shouldn’t…. In Vienna, Lieberman opens a packet of photos Barry sent him and tries to make sense of what he’s heard – why must 94 sixty-five year old male civil servants in several different countries be killed by a certain date? After speaking to Nazi guard Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen) in prison he finds out that several male babies were adopted in the Sixties by women who were 23 years younger than their husbands. After speaking with biologist Professor Bruckner (Bruno Ganz) he discovers that cloning is indeed possible and not necessarily from living donors:  Mengele has bred mini-Hitlers and is having them raised in conditions akin to those in which his glorious leader lived (his father was a civil servant who died before the boy was 15). Lieberman must stop the plot to rekindle the Fourth Reich. Ira Levin’s speculative fiction is probably closer to happening now than it was in the Seventies – since which time IVF, cloning and three-parent babies are a mere thought away from what Mengele was doing in his horrifying twins experiments in Auschwitz. So this is a lot less like science fiction than it is science fact. It plugs into the real-life work of Simon Wiesenthal (with Olivier perhaps atoning for his sins in Marathon Man!) when real-life Nazis were still relatively young and of course a huge number of high profile SS men were known to be living freely in sympathetic countries like Brazil and Argentina (never mind running Austria and Germany). It also uses the Lebensborn project as a basis for what is now entirely feasible – apparently. James Mason plays Eduard Seibert, the man who comes to rain on Mengele’s crazy rainforest parade but not before Mengele makes his way to Lancaster Pennsylvania to murder Wheelock (John Dehner) the father of the fourth cloned Hitler (Jeremy Black) a child who is as obnoxious and snotty as his copies in London and elsewhere but has a crucially murderous nature which Lieberman discovers after the boy sets the family’s Doberman’s on Mengele. There is a fight to the death – but whose?  This is literally sensational and for connoisseurs of Nazi villains (in cinema) it’s bizarre to see the great liberal actor Peck have a go at Walter Gotell whom he thinks is betraying his plan for world domination. Didn’t they meet in The Guns of Navarone?! Bizarre also to see Bruno Ganz pontificating about clones when his own resemblance to Hitler meant he would play him years later in Downfall. Most bizarre is the fact that Mengele was still alive (for at least another year, possibly longer) when this was released. And for all we know all those Germans in South America (and Europe) have already got their fortysomething men waiting in the wings. Adapted by Heywood Gould and directed by Franklin Schaffner, this had 25 minutes cut for theatrical release in Germany. Poor things! When will everybody stop talking about the Third Reich already?! In the words of the great Dr Henry Jones Jr., Nazis, I hate these guys.

Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

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I was being romantic then you go and disturb me with your kinky fuckery.  Sex is ever thus. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is assistant to a fiction editor Jack Hyde (!) (Eric Johnson) at a publishing company and he has designs on her. She bumps into Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) at an exhibition where her friend’s giant photos of her are the star attraction – and he’s bought them all. He inveigles his way back into her life, screws her, has her boss fired after he comes on to her, and then she gets his job. Only trouble is a girl is following her – subplot one. It’s Christian’s previous submissive – who bows before him causing Ana to have a crisis of at least two minutes because she knows she will never kneel down when he tells her! Then Christian asks her to move in and he instructs her once again. Then he nearly dies in a helicopter crash – except he doesn’t. At his birthday party he announces their engagement and the woman who introduced him to S&M (Kim Basinger) gets teed off and his mom (Marcia Gay Harden) hears about it and banishes her. Like the one night stand that stays for breakfast, this nonsense will just not go away and they even had the cheek to include Jeff Buckley and The Police on the soundtrack. Ms Johnson’s clothes slip off as regularly as Dornan’s accent and it’s all as smooth as those Ben Wa balls. Allegedly not as filthy as the books by E.L. James this is still shit. Barely plotted, it was adapted by Niall Leonard (her husband). Directed by James Foley.

A Month by the Lake (1995)

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My father taught me it’s better to observe than to be observed.  It’s 1937. Miss Bentley (Vanessa Redgrave) is making her annual pilgrimage to Lake Como, the destination she frequented with her late father. She’s an unmarried woman of a certain age, the sporty delight of gorgeous young Italian men and a jolly hockey sticks type who fraternises with the ladies of the establishment (mainly Alida Valli). Then she spots a newcomer, Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox) with whose ears she becomes obsessed and whom she attempts to attract while beating him at tennis and making him miss the steamer back to the hotel. When a young Italian family employ a new American nanny Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman) straight out of finishing school he mistakes the girl’s earnest gesture upon his early leavetaking – and returns. The complications that arise are gently dramatised and the unfolding romances culminate in a broadcast that reminds us that this is the last such summer for several years… This is a charming and subtle comedy of flirtation, manners and misunderstandings. H.E. Bates’ novella gets a thorough treatment from Trevor Bentham and is really well acted by Redgrave who channels her inner Joyce Grenfell, fusing boyishness with withheld emotion:  she has a particularly funny scene when handsome young gun Vittorio (Allesandro Gassman, son of actor/director Vittorio) attempts to seduce her. She conquers him with the camera she carries everywhere. Produced by Fox’s younger brother Robert (previously married to Redgrave’s daughter, Natasha Richardson) this almost-family affair was filmed around Varenna, Bellagio and Lierna and it looks utterly splendid. A lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon – or indeed a month. Directed by John Irvin.

The Hatton Garden Job (2017)

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The way I see it this is an old school gig that needs an old school crew. This interpretation of the notorious 2015 jewellery/safe deposit box raid in London worth £200 million tips its hat to any number of heist thrillers and one senses that with a bit more money (ironically)  and a few more smartly shot scenes it might have made a bigger impact. A bunch of ageing East End and Kent crims  (Larry Lamb, Phil Daniels, David Calder, Clive Russell) are assembled by anonymous younger cohort (Matthew Goode) to carry out the audacious robbery, assisted by a crooked copper and the most powerful woman in Europe, Hungarian queen pin (Joely Richardson). The gang, the process itself and the compromises in its wake are kept ticking over by a committed set of performances and an energetic soundtrack which is all about One Last Job.  There is an aspect to this which makes me think of The Ladykillers – there is more than a sense of caper and farce, introduced when Phil Daniels comments there’s old school and then there’s just old, a comment that has a neat payoff in the middle of the robbery that should have ratcheted up the tension a zillion degrees (or 200 million…) More could have been made of London and the action better managed – Rififi showed us how to make real drama out of detail –  but this is also beholden to a contemporary geezer style:  let’s call it le cinema de Guy Ritchie which damages it because these are essentially nice guys who are neither threatening enough nor funny enough – so the stakes are raised in the wrong way. But then it has a bit of sense and puts together an ending reminiscent of The Usual Suspects. So this falls between two stools but it’s not awful, Guv!  Written by Ray Bogdanovich, Dean Lines and director Ronnie Thompson.

Stand By Me (1986)

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Did your mother have any kids that lived?! The Writer (Richard Dreyfuss) is returning to Castle Rock, the small town in Oregon where he grew up. He’s got a newspaper in his hand announcing the death of one of his childhood friends and recalls the summer that everything changed when they and two other twelve year old boys went on an odyssey to view the body of a kid hit by a train passing through several miles away. It’s 1959.  Gordie (Wil Wheaton) is the neglected younger son in a family after his older brother (John Cusack) was killed on the way to basic training. His best friend is Chris (River Phoenix) who’s got a bad name because he comes from a criminal family. Teddy (Corey Feldman) is the abused child of a mentally ill man who claimed to be a WW2 hero. And Vern (Jerry O’Connell) is the chubby kid who overhears about the whereabouts of a missing boy when his older brother talks about it on the porch. They pretend they’re going on a camping trip and learn more about each other than they ever knew as they dodge death on a railway bridge, deal with leeches and a mythical killer dog and Gordie entertains his chums with the Barforama story to beat them all.  Then the older boys come a calling to retrieve the dead body … Wise, witty, sad, moving and hilarious, this is such a true story of friendship and family and is told in a brief 83 minutes, not a moment of which is wasted. The adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body (in Different Seasons) by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans is canny and kind, balanced between comedy and drama and utilising the flashback structure (there are flashbacks within the overall flashback narrative) to illustrate the experience and the effects of the incident very well (it’s quite complex within the novella). Beautifully played sense of time and place, with the interactions between those talented boys utterly believable, this is a modern classic. I never had any friends later in life like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone? Absolutely wonderful. Directed by Rob Reiner.

Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967)

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It’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Not often do you hear a line from Milton at the movies, certainly not in a biker film. But this was in the vanguard of that cycle (!) in the late 60s and took the lead from the previous year’s Wild Angels and ran a little farther with Sonny Barger himself on the sidelines. Poet (Jack Nicholson) is pumping gas when he joins Buddy (Adam Roarke) and his gang after having his sickle damaged by one of them and then getting set upon by a bunch of sailors. The Angels take to the road and Buddy’s girl Shill (Sabrina Scharf) becomes the main attraction for this new ‘prospect’ as they ride around and provoke violence among hapless bystanders. This was written by R. Wright Campbell (who wrote a handful of screenplays for Roger Corman) and directed by Richard Rush whose decided distaste for the material is evidenced in a variety of contrasting setups lensed by Leslie (Laszlo) Kovacs who comes into his own with the handheld photography. It starts promisingly, with a riff on Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and there are some quite bizarrely languid pastoral interludes in the breaks between outbursts of violence, which are designed and shot rather amateurishly. It will all end in flames with that woman and those guys involved … It certainly looks like a lot of kicks were had vrooming around CA pretending to be violent while the real Hell’s Angels filled in the bike seats as extras. This is notable as one of those early-ish Nicholson performances where he seems to be almost horizontal in contrast with the perpendicular effortful grimacing of those around him, particularly the leading man, Roarke. B movie directors Jack Starrett and Bruno VeSota appear respectively as the policeman and priest who cross the gang’s path.