It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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You sit here and you spin your little web and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Up in Heaven Clarence (Henry Travers) is awaiting his angel’s wings when a case is made to him about George Bailey (James Stewart) who’s thinking about jumping off a bridge and into a wintry river at Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve 1945. Clarence is told George’s story: as a young boy rescuing his brother Harry from an icy pond, to his father’s death just when his own life should have been taking off and he winds up staying in this loathsome little town running the bank and having his honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) ruined when there’s a run on the bank’s funds … and losing himself amid other people’s accidents, deaths and rank stupidity while the town runs afoul of greedy financier Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George is such a great guy with dreams of travel and adventure and the truth is he never leaves home and becomes a martyr to other people. I’ve always found this immensely depressing. What happens to him – the sheer passive aggression directed at him and the loss of all of his ambitions in order to satisfy other people’s banal wishes at the expense of his own life’s desires  – is a complete downer. Reworking A Christmas Carol with added danger it feels like a post-war attempt to make people feel happy with their very limited lot. Which is why I watch this very rarely and with complete reluctance precisely because its petty moralising is achieved so beautifully and rationally … So sue me! Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling and directed by Frank Capra.

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Houseboat (1958)

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Try to be a parent, not a policeman. When newly widowed Tom Winters (Cary Grant) arrives back to the home of his sister-in-law (Martha Hyer) he finds his three kids in understandable disarray and doesn’t want to leave them in her care. But they don’t fit easily into his life at the State Dept. in Washington.  Younger son Robert (Charles Herbert) takes off at a classical concert with the grown up daughter Cinzia (Sophia Loren) of a renowned visiting conductor who returns him to the family’s apartment the following day. Not knowing who she is, Tom asks her to be the family’s maid. She’s unhappy tagging along with her father so she joins them, dressed to the nines. He decides to remove everyone to Carolyn’s guesthouse – which is destroyed by a train when the tow truck driver Angelo (Harry Guardino) is distracted at the sight of Cinzia en route to the new location. He gives Tom his neglected houseboat as compensation. Unable to cook, launder or sew, Cinzia miraculously brings Tom together with his lost children as the houseboat lurches, cuts loose and gradually settles into metaphorical balance. She has to avoid the leers of Angelo while Tom is rationally persuaded into proposing marriage to freshly divorced Carolyn who’s been in love with him since she was 4 and he married her older sister:  he is blissfully ignorant of Cinzia who desperately craves his attention …  There’s so much music in this very fun romcom it might as well be a musical:  from the orchestral pieces to Sophia’s regular songs – Bing! Bang! Bong! being the most popular on a very bouncy soundtrack. Gorgeous stars, funny kids, agreeable supporting performances and a good setup combine to make this a delightful, charming ode to simply being: dolce far niente, as Loren urges. I couldn’t agree more! There’s a great scene in a laundromat when Grant gets embroiled in women’s gossip. Written by Jack Rose and director Melville Shavelson, with an uncredited screenplay by Betsy Drake (aka Mrs Cary Grant) who was supposed to co-star – until her husband allegedly had an affair with Loren on The Pride and the Passion, a liaison long over by the time filming on this commenced. Awkward!

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.

Tarka the Otter (1979)

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Henry Williamson resisted Walt Disney for years and eventually succumbed to having his nature classic adapted by wildlife documentary maker David Cobham when he was persuaded by his son Harry, a musician. Narrated by Peter Ustinov from a script co-written by Gerald Durrell we are presented with the life cycle of an otter:  from his birth, through the death of his father, separation from his mother, the gruesome death of his sibling in a trap, mating with White Tip who is the mother of his pups, to an epic conclusion against the otter hound bent on his death. We see Tarka through the seasons and experience the world from his perspective, a kind of anthropomorphism that Williamson resisted. As my own little Tarka (named after this wonderful hero) slept on the couch throughout, I wept.

From Russia with Love (1963)

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It seems like an opportune time to revisit Cold War cinema, since winter is coming round again in the political world, as they (sort of) say in Game of Thrones. Guns, gals, trains, violence, it all seems like simpler times in this tale of James Bond (Sean Connery) going after a cryptography machine before SPECTRE gets hold of it. Naturally SPECTRE want revenge for Bond killing Dr No. Do keep up. There’s high jinks in Istanbul, murder on the Orient Express and sexy time with Daniela Bianchi who makes for a very convincing conflicted action heroine and a great title song sung by Matt Monro. Every inch of tension is squeezed out of Fleming’s second novel, adapted by Johanna Harwood and written by Richard Maibaum and superbly directed by Terence Young (himself not totally unfamiliar with the world of action, serving as a tank commander in WW2). Lotte Lenya is unforgettable as the sadistic Lesbian killer with those kinky shoes. It was edited by Peter Hunt, who went on to direct many afficionados’ fave, OHMSS. This was the second in the series, when Bond was great.

 

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

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Most remakes are redundant. Philip Dunne did a cracking adaptation (1936)  of this captivity tale, the second of the Leatherstocking series by Fenimore Cooper that has occupied the minds of so many children. Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe took this classical Hollywood adventure and brought it up to date for the Nineties without losing any of its great elements – and adding an eroticism that is modern and eternal plus a portrayal of violence that is truly gruesome in its realism. It’s the middle of the eighteenth century and the Anglo-French wars are underway in the Colonies. Colonel Munro’s daughters Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) are being escorted to safety by Cora’s wannabe beau Major Heyward (Steven Waddington) through the Adirondacks when they are set upon by a Huron war party led by French scout Magua (Wes Studi). They are rescued by Nathaniel ‘Hawkeye’ Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis), adoptive son of the last of the Mohicans, Chingachgook (Russell Means) and brother to his son Uncas (Eric Schweig). They return them to Munro at Fort William Henry, under siege from the French and Cora and Hawkeye consummate their overwhelming attraction to one another. Munro wants Hawkeye hanged for sedition after Heyward lies about what they’ve seen done to a settler family whom Hawkeye knew well. Hawkeye is imprisoned. The French offer a peaceful and honourable surrender, having intercepted a message from Fort Webb stating that no English troops are coming to the aid of the garrison. But Magua has sworn revenge against Munro and raids the departing troops, carrying out his threat to take out Munro’s heart – while it’s still beating. He also wants to kill his seed because of what Munro did to his tribe, his wife and his family.  Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas rescue the women and take off in a canoe, catching up with Heyward, who has taken off without them. Their escape to a cave and waterfall leads to an inevitable outcome, Heyward continuing to wish Hawkeye hanged, jealous of what he deems to be Cora’s infatuation, with Magua and his men fast upon them … This is simply stunning. The cinematography (Dante Spinotti)  brings together a palette of scarlet uniforms in bright, musket-fired daylight with autumnal daubs appropriate to a landscape of the period; there’s a pulsating, throbbing score (by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman) that tightens the vise-like effect of the narrative; and there is a devastating eroticism between Day-Lewis and Stowe the likes of which hasn’t been seen this side of Garbo and Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil. Have there ever been more romantic lines than those of Hawkeye to Cora, No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you?! Beautifully made and performed, this is brutal, brilliant filmmaking from a master director at the height of his considerable powers. See it on the biggest screen you can. Breathtaking.

 

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

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The wilderness is the location chosen by the titular character to recover from what we would call PTSD nowadays as Robert Redford has had a bad war in Mexico and needs time away from everything. He lives in the Rocky Mountains, keeping himself in food by trapping and enduring a horrendous winter, resorting to fishing by hand from mountain streams. He finds a rifle in a dead man’s hands, meets Bear Claw (Will Geer) who mentors him, and has repeated encounters with Paints-His Shirt-Red (Joaquin Martinez) from the Crow tribe. He takes in a boy he names Caleb (Josh Albee) whose mother has gone mad, then rescues Gue (Stefan Gierasch) who’s buried up to his neck in sand by the Blackfeet, then he marries into the Flatheads to save his own. He’s pressured to lead US troops to a wagon train of settlers through burial ground and is seen:  he returns to find his squaw and Caleb murdered and he takes revenge… The biography of Liver-Eating Johnson  and a book called Mountain Man were adapted by John Milius in a project originally intended for Sam Peckinpah with Lee Marvin replaced by Clint Eastwood. Eastwood and Peckinpah did not get along, so it was acquired for Redford, who persuaded Sydney Pollack to come on board to direct – they had worked together well on This Property Is Condemned. Pollack was a meddler with writers;  Edward Anhalt and David Rayfiel did rewrites but Milius was brought back, repeatedly, to do the dialogue, for which he had such an uncanny ear. If you want to know how Milius got his reputation, watch this. The budget was so constrained that Pollack mortgaged his home to get through production, an arduous seven-month shoot in Utah, Redford’s adopted home. Weather conditions meant more than one take was rarely possible. The changing seasons are beautifully captured by Duke Callaghan, in this splendidly judged, humane, funny, touching piece of work. Redford turns in a very well honed performance and the ensemble are brilliant. Quite the best wilderness film you’ll see, probably, with a marvellous soundtrack composed by actors Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein.

River of No Return (1954)

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Marilyn Monroe didn’t want to make this. Director Otto Preminger didn’t want to direct it. They both had contracts to fulfill at Twentieth Century Fox under Darryl F. Zanuck and he brooked no opposition. Monroe believed she was better than the material but weirdly had no confidence in her acting abilities – she wanted a coach at all times;  paradoxically DFZ had more belief than she did. She wanted to be taken seriously, he thought Cinemascope and Technicolor showed her to great advantage. We see both sides of this argument. There was trouble on set but Mitchum knew Monroe through her first husband during WW2 so he at least was a friend. She has several songs – one forgets that she sang so much in her films.She’s a saloon singer whose fiance Rory Calhoun wants to make good on a gold claim that’s not his and he leaves her with settler Mitchum and his young son, with whom he’s been reunited, who knew her from the mining camp. Indians burn them out and they take off on a raft downriver to find the welshing no-good  SOB and MM fibs about her intentions and just might know more about Mitchum than she’s letting on …Monroe’s costumes and makeup were a source of concern (but boy does she fill a pair of Levis) and she looks ill at ease in the big dialogue scenes but holds her own despite the ludicrous enunciation which drama coach Nathasha Lytess insisted upon and hurts her performance:  Preminger was shooting wide and didn’t break up the shots. Some of them are plain odd. The more you look at Monroe’s filmography the more you realise how narrow her roles were and even as Fox’s biggest moneymaker she was refused a Star dressing room. Just what did she do to deserve that?

GI Blues (1960)

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Elvis was the US Army’s most famous conscript so it only stood to reason after his career was so drastically interrupted that the situation be turned to everybody’s advantage. Location shooting in Germany was done before he got out of his service, the interiors were shot back at Paramount when he got out. He’s Tulsa, planning on opening his own club back home but needing cash. He and his bandmates make a wager about spending the night with a girl. She is dancer Lili (Juliet Prowse), an ice queen who turned down one of their colleagues. He takes her for a trip on the Rhine and she starts to melt but when she gets wind of the bet there’s trouble on the horizon … Presley’s slide into a kind of fatal sentimentality really began here – there’s an unfortunately all-too-real in-joke close to the start when a drunk puts Blue Suede Shoes on the juke box to drown out Tulsa.  This began as Christmas in Berlin, then it was known as Cafe Europa before Edmund Beloin and Henry Garson’s script was finally called GI Blues. There are amazing songs and the standout scene is Presley with the puppets singing Wooden Heart. The sensational Prowse, most famous for being affianced to another singer, Sinatra, for a spell in 1962, and shocking Soviet leader Khrushchev with her routine in Can-Can, won the role after (Sister) Dolores Hart, Joan Blackman and Ursula Andress tested. Presley is good – so much so this caused a riot in Mexico City  – but you can’t help but wonder what might have been after this became the go-to formula following the relative failures of Flaming Star and Wild in the Country. Hmm.

Brandy for the Parson (1952)

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Author Geoffrey Household described himself as “sort of bastard by Stevenson out of Conrad” and this was evident in his most famous works, Rogue Male and A Rough Shoot, in which landscape and an upright sort of  Englishness are so important. This is one of his milder stories from Tales of Adventurers, and it has a terrific piquancy about it. Bill (James Donald) and his fiancee Petronilla (the immensely stylish Jean Lodge), head off on their sailboat off the Kent coast where they bump into a young man Tony (Kenneth More) , literally, destroying his boat in the process. They agree to take him to France where unbeknownst to them he’s smuggling back kegs of brandy to a vintner’s in St James’ London (I guess with Brexit this sort of thing will be happening again in a few years!). A pre-dawn collision with a female yachter up a creek leads a customs man to start following them as their collective plans to sell the cargo get more and more complicated and knotty and more people are involved:  boy scouts, a laundryman, a circus, a farmer, a pub landlord. More is the least likely spiv you’ll ever meet, which is a lot of the fun here, as he leaves Bill and Petronilla to lead packponies up a Roman road to their chosen meeting point.Charles Hawtrey, Michael Trubshawe, Frederick Piper and Alfie Bass round out a wonderful ensemble in a film which makes brilliant use of locations.  Adapted by John Dighton and Walter Mead with additions by associate producer Alfred Shaughnessy, who was married to the impressive Lodge. There’s an unexpectedly exciting score by the brilliant John Addison, who would later win the Academy Award for Tom Jones. (He also scored another Kenneth More film, Reach for the Sky.) A different kind of afternoon delight! Who knew? (And the title is from Kipling.)