The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

The Spy Who Loved Me

Why don’t you lie down and let me look at it. When a British and a Soviet nuclear submarine disappear off the radar, MI6’s top agent James Bond (Roger Moore) is ordered to find out what has happened. He escapes an ambush by Soviet agents in Austria and goes to Egypt where he might acquire an advanced surveillance system. He meets Major Anya Amasova ie Agent XXX (Barbara Bach) whose lover he unwittingly killed in Austria. They are rivals to recover microfilm and are obliged to deal with hitman Jaws (Richard Kiel) as they travel across the country. Forced to work together by their respective bosses, they identify the person responsible for the thefts as the shipping tycoon and scientist Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens) who is consumed with the idea of developing an underwater civilisation …. There is beauty. There is ugliness. And there is death! Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum’s screenplay may take the title from Ian Fleming’s tenth book in the series but little else. With a son et lumiére show at Giza, a shark tank in the villain’s lair, an MI6 office shared with the Russians inside a pyramid, an astonishing hit man in the form of giant Kiel with his mouth full of metal teeth, a fun relationship between Bond and his Russian opposite number, the wonder was it was made at all, beset as it was by rights issues and production troubles. This includes the replacing of Blofeld as arch nemesis – hence the inventing of Karl Stromberg, a nuke-obsessed Nemo tribute act. Getting a director was another issue, with Lewis Gilbert ultimately taking on the project, returning to the fray ten years after You Only Live Twice, whose plot it mimics somewhat. Gilbert’s influence on the form the film took was profound, notably on Moore’s characterisation in Wood’s draft of the screenplay, which was a return to the humour and tone of the original books, despite the legal issues preventing much of the actual story material being used (and you’ll be hard pressed to see Fleming in the credits). Apparently former Bond scribe Tom Mankiewicz was also brought in for uncredited rewrites on the final draft. Like Connery before him and Craig more recently, Roger Moore’s third foray into MI6 territory would be the most successful with the public, keeping his end up for England. Then there’s the showstopping title sequence with the greatest ski jump ever filmed (performed by Richard Sylvester) with a Union Jack parachute payoff; plus a barnstorming theme song performed by Carly Simon, with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager and composed by Marvin Hamlisch (and the first title song not to be named for the film) who does a minor pastiching of the Lawrence of Arabia theme, making this a home run among Bond freaks. Brit flick fans will get a kick out of seeing Caroline Munro (dubbed, as Stromberg’s sidekick Naomi), the director’s brother-in-law Sydney Tafler (as a Russian ship’s captain) and Hammer Horror vet Valerie Leon (as a hotel receptionist). And that’s without even mentioning the awesome production design by Ken Adam, the Lotus Esprit that turns into a submarine and a Jaws vs Jaws swimoff! A perfect blend of action, thrills, sex, great gadgets, sly wit, astonishing stunts, explosions and pithy banter. It’s lavish, but I call it Bond. James Bond. How does that grab you?

The Brink’s Job (1978)

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You know the trouble with you?  You don’t read the comic books, you just look at the pictures. On 17th January 1950, a group of unlikely criminal masterminds commits what became known as the robbery of the century. Led by petty thief Tony Pino (Peter Falk), fresh out of prison, who accidentally finds out that Brink’s security arrangements are unbelievably lax, and arrogant fence Joe McGinnis (Peter Boyle), who specialises in planning lucrative capers.  Tony recruits his wife Mary’s (Gena Rowlands) thick brother Vinnie (Allen Goorwitz), smooth Jazz Maffie (Paul Sorvino), anxious Specs O’Keefe (Warren Oates) and Stanley Gusciora (Kevin O’Connor). The gang robs Brink’s main office in Boston of more than $2 million. However, things begin to go wrong when McGinnis refuses to hand over the loot and Specs and Stan decide to do some shoplifting. The FBI gets involved, with J. Edgar Hoover (Sheldon Leonard) taking a personal interest and setting up a make-shift office in Boston specifically to investigate the case, while the cops start cracking down on the gang. Specs and Stan get lengthy prison terms for their petty thieving and the goons start pressuring them to talk Aren’t you glad your father caught the boat? Despite the meticulous period reconstruction this never really leaps to life until Warren Oates enters the drama and connects with the story but his melancholy performance as a damaged Iwo Jima veteran unhinges it somewhat.  That’s partly because this true crime story can’t decide if it’s comic or dramatic and lurches tonally like an out of control pendulum, shifting from farce to realism and back again. The surprise is that William Friedkin is the director because it lacks the sure-handedness and energy that characterise his work. It concludes on a jaunty note that somewhat redeems the excursions into betrayal and a postscript informs us that the motley crew got out of prison after 14 years, living comfortably [presumably off the proceeds of the job] while only $50,000 was ever recovered by authorities. Based on Noel Behn’s Big Stick-Up at Brink’s, adapted by Walon Green, this is fascinating for students of Friedkin but disappointing overall with its indecisive style. This joint’s mine. I own this joint!

Turn the Key Softly (1953)

Turn the Key Softly

I’m saying goodbye to regulations. Well-spoken burglar Monica Marsden (Yvonne Mitchell), pretty prostitute Stella Jarvis (Joan Collins) and elderly shoplifter Granny Quilliam (Kathleen Harrison) are released from Holloway Women’s Prison on the same day and venture out in London, meeting up for an early dinner in the West End as they negotiate their first day of freedom. Monica returns to her flat where she promises her friend Joan (Dorothy Alison) not to meet up again with David (Terence Morgan), a ne’er do well for whose crime she took the fall. She secures a job in an office with a start on Monday, despite her prison record. But when she returns to the flat David is waiting for her and wines and dines her, with the promise of a night at the theatre. Stella meets up with her busdriver fiancé Bob (Glyn Houston) and promises to get a room to stay in at Canonbury but spends his money on earrings. meeting up with her former working girl friends. Granny returns to her rundown Shepherds Bush room to her beloved special friend Johnny – who turns out to be a dog – and after cooking him food visits her daughter in the suburbs to the delight of her grand daughter but they weren’t expecting her and she has to return to town where she goes for a posh dinner at Monica’s expense, champagne included. Stella takes off with a man who took a fancy to Monica on the Tube earlier, and Monica leaves in a taxi with David for an evening that she hadn’t counted on … Sooner or later they’re sure to find out. This post-war British crime drama is a fantastically atmospheric show and tell about London society and its war-damaged physicality – between rainy Leicester Square where The Snows of Kilimanjaro is playing (and La Collins would co-star with Gregory Peck within just a few short years) and the council flats sitting cheek-by-jowl with semi-derelict terraces, you can practically sniff the desperation, the spivvery and the desire for something better in the documentary-style location shooting by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Mitchell is the real star here and has the better part of the narrative which turns upon her desire for her dastardly lover who manages to deceive her once again following an afternoon in the sack;  but Harrison has a marvellous role (you just know it won’t end well) and plays it beautifully; while Collins is well cast as the good time girl who has found a decent man and she makes the most of some smartly written moments. When she makes her decision about which way to go in life there’s a decidedly odd shot at Piccadilly Circus with her former prostitute colleague featuring close on camera. It’s a terrific film for women, this exploration of an array of femininity of differing ages and types re-entering the world on its tricky terms. What starts as a kind of melodrama with a social message about stigma turns into a suspenser, high on the rooftops of a city theatre, with a rather tragic ending. Very satisfying indeed. Adapted by Maurice Cowan from John Brophy’s novel, this is written and directed by documentary veteran Jack Lee, the elder brother of novelist Laurie.

 

Venetian Bird (1952)

Venetian Bird

Aka The Assassin. A thousand lira should take care of your ethics. English private detective Charles Mercer (Richard Todd) is deployed by a French insurance company to find a brave Italian war hero who is to be rewarded for his assisting of the Allies in WW2. But from the moment Mercer arrives in Venice his first contact is murdered in a shop and he finds himself on the wrong side of the law – he’s the prime suspect. After enquiring about the mysterious Boldesca (Sydney Tafler) at a museum where the art department  is run by the lovely Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok) the trail leads to a glassblowing factory at Murano where he discovers he has wandered into the plot of a coup d’état run by Count Boria (Wolf Rilla) and Lieutenant Longo (John Bailey) and it turns out that the supposedly dead mystery man Uccello (John Gregson) is very much alive and well and ready for action with an important figure visiting the city the following day … There is nothing for you in Venice. Adapted by Victor Canning from his novel, this has the impression of a Third Man-lite and if it doesn’t have that film’s canted chiaroscuro angles or shooting expertise it has an interesting location and an engrossing if initially confusing scenario. Todd (who was Ian Fleming’s preferred choice to play James Bond) acquits himself well in a narrative which involves a lot of running and jumping and standing still behind statues;  Bartok is suitably enigmatic as the woman with a secret;  and Margot Grahame gets some fantastically dry lines in her role as Rosa, a woman of a certain age:  I have never kept a man under my bed in my life. There are sly laughs to be had at the wholly incongruous casting of Gregson and Sid James, of all people, as native Italians. Directed by Ralph Thomas, but one is left wondering how a film of this ambition would have turned out if a master stylist like Carol Reed had taken hold of such promising material:  instead of a nighttime chase in the sewers of Vienna, we have a daytime chase across the rooftops of Venice; and there is another political theme that was groundbreaking. The score is by Nino Rota. Produced by Betty Box. Out of weakness and confusion we shall create division and strength

Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)

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Aka Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.  The devil assumes many forms. Copenhagen police say otherwise, but amateur scientist Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond) who studies ice crystals in a university lab thinks her young Inuit neighbour Isaiah (Clipper Miano) was chased by an adult before he fell to his death from the roof of their apartment block. The daughter of an Inuit who spent her childhood in Greenland, Smilla learns that the boy’s father died while working for Dr. Andreas Tork (Richard Harris) in Greenland who heads a mining company and she is directed by former accountant Elsa (Vanessa Redgrave) to get an Expedition Report from the firm’s archive.  She asks her father Moritz (Robert Loggia) for help interpreting the information but has to deal with his young girlfriend who resents her interference in their life. After sharing her murder theory with a mysterious neighbour called The Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne) who never seems to go to work, she pursues her suspicions and her life is endangered as the impact of a meteorite hitting Greenland in 1859 is revealed in a reanimated prehistoric worm which proves toxic to human organs Why does such a nice woman have such a rough mouth? Peter Høeg’s novel was very fashionable in the Nineties and encompasses so many issues – identity, language, snow and ice, ecology and exploitation, friendship and bereavement, medical issues, astronomy, being far away from home, being motherless … that you can quite see how difficult it would be to fillet from this a straightforward thriller which is what the cinema machine demands. Ann (Ray Donovan) Biderman does a good job streamlining the narrative threads which form an orbit around Ormond who has a tremendous role here but director Bille August doesn’t really heighten the tensions  sufficiently quickly that they materialise as proper threats. What works as a literary novel seems rather far-fetched on screen when stripped of all those beautiful words. Nonetheless it’s a fascinating story and it’s a shame Ormond’s feature career never had the momentum it once seemed to possess. Costuming by Marit Allen. The way you have a sense of God I have a sense of snow

Night School (2018)

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What’s happening?/Pubes and racism. High school dropout Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart) is a successful BBQ salesman whose life takes an unexpected turn when he accidentally blows up the store where he works just when he’s on the verge of inheriting it and marrying his sweetheart Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Forced to attend night school to get his GED so that he can become an investment adviser alongside his friend Marvin (Ben Schwartz), Teddy soon finds himself dealing with a group of misfit adult students of losers and flakes, his former high school nemesis (Taran Killam) who is the school principal and feisty teacher Carrie (Tiffany Haddish) who doesn’t think he’s all that bright and has no time for troublemakers in a classroom. Teddy starts working behind the counter at fast food Christian Chicken outlet and everyone is flunking. There’s nothing for it but to steal the practice test. … This is a minor setback for a major comeback. Little Kevin Hart’s efforts to emulate Eddie Murphy’s loudmouth hustler shtick continue apace while tumbleweed blows across the screen every time someone opens their mouth. There’s a good prison fight on Skype, though. Written by Hart, Nicholas Stoller, J’Dub (is that a name?), Harry Ratchford, John Hamburg and Matthew Kellard, clearly a group for whom attendance ranks above excellence. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. There’s no cure for what you have

The Train (1965)

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He won’t leave the train. I’m beginning to know him. In August 1944 art connoisseur German Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is planning to take the great art works from the Jeu de Paume gallery under the curatorship of Rose Vallard (Suzanne Flon) out of Paris before it’s liberated. She approaches officials at the SNCF to stop the train crossing out of France and into Germany with some of the greatest paintings ever produced. Labiche (Burt Lancaster) and his Resistance colleagues (Michel Simon, Albert Rémy, Charles Millot, Jacques Marin) do everything possible to keep train no. 40,0444 running late, diverting it through disguised stations and interfering with the tracks but the Allies have a new plan … Keep your eyes open. Your horizon’s about to be broadened. Decades before Monuments Men came this gripping actioner, directed by francophile thriller maestro John Frankenheimer. Scofield and Lancaster are mesmerising as the men who are protagonist/antagonist to each other, with their unreeling taking very different forms. In this scenario adapted by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis and the blacklisted Walter Bernstein from Rose Vallard’s Le Front de l’art, the political just got personal. There’s a deal of portentous and pretentious verbalising about art and its meaning to the nation, but at base this is a great cat and mouse chase and you’ll learn more than you ever knew was possible about rail yards, tracks, lines and switches. Moreau has a nice two-sequence arc as a hotelier who helps out while there are really fantastic smaller roles for a marvellous lineup that includes Franco-Irish actor Donal O’Brien (as Sergeant Schwartz) who would appear the following year for Frankenheimer in Grand Prix and then enjoy a career in Italian spaghetti westerns, horrors and giallos.  Maurice Jarre’s score is intense. And the ending? Straight out of Sartre. Parfait. No one’s ever hurt. Just dead

Rocco and his Brothers (1960)

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Tomorrow? Tomorrow? There is no tomorrow.  Widowed Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou), an impoverished Italian mother, moves north to Milan with her close-knit family of five sons to find opportunity in the big city where oldest son Vincenzo (Spiros Focas) is getting engaged to the lovely Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale). But the two mothers dislike each other and the marriage is off.  A heated rivalry begins when two of Rosaria’s boys, soft-spoken Rocco (Alain Delon) and brutal Simone (Renato Salvatori), fall for Nadia (Annie Girardot), a beautiful prostitute with whom each has an affair. As each pursues Nadia, tension between them threatens to tear the family apart … Always at the movies! He lives on bread and movies. In a stunningly stylish and tragic epic portrait of Italian society after the boom, Luchino Visconti brings his preoccupations together – visually operatic, violent romanticism, literary and post-war realism, with brilliantly conceived characters finding their destiny against a backdrop of poverty and desperation. Time flies when every day’s the same. Wouldn’t seem so, but it’s true.  Written by Visconti with Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli and Massimo Franciosa, from a story by Visconti, d’Amico and Vasco Pratolini, inspired by Giovanni Testori’s novel Il ponte della Ghisolfa, this is an intense, overwhelming masterpiece, beautifully performed. See it and believe in cinema. What was beautiful and right has become wrong

Semi-Tough (1977)

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All you care about is fucking and football. Quarterback Billy Clyde Puckett (Burt Reynolds) and wide receiver Marvin ‘Shake’ Tiller (Kris Kristofferson) are professional football players who share a lush Miami apartment with multiply-divorced Barbara Jane Bookman (Jill Clayburgh), the pretty young daughter of their team’s owner Big Ed (Robert Preston). When Barbara develops feelings for Shake and the two begin a relationship, he insists that she join him at B.E.A.T., a New Age training programme run by the shady Friedrich Bismark (Bert Convy). His conversion to the EST-type belief  gives him more confidence but causes a rift in the cosy ménage à trois and Billy Clyde makes a play for Barbara himself. Meanwhile, there’s a big game coming up … We don’t like football that much. We just like taking showers with niggers. Rowdy, wildly provocative and profane, this satire of the business of football and the men who play it and the people around them stands out in the careers of the cast, the director (Michael Ritchie) and screenwriter Walter Bernstein, adapting Dan Jenkins’ best-selling novel (Ring Lardner Jr. had his name taken off the credits). It’s not all about Burt, but it might well be, even in one of the most likable ensembles you’ll ever see with charm just pouring off the screen. In real life Reynolds was a college ball player when an accident derailed his promising career. He invested in Tampa Bay’s (doomed USFL) team and his characterisation is partly based on Hall of Famer Don Meredith who played for the Dallas Cowboys in the Sixties and became a sportscaster with a taste for double entendres and worked as a TV and film actor. (North Dallas Forty features a quarterback believed to be based upon him). The rhythm of the script plays to Reynolds’ skills – an easy swagger, a  taste for deadly put-downs and immense charisma. The chemistry with Kristofferson and Clayburgh automatically eases the audience into the pro ball world and the ribald humour is offset by inspired slapstick. Preston is tremendous as the addled Big Ed creeping and crawling on the floor in the name of Movagenics, his newfound religion:   You outta line with gravity, Billy Clyde. That’s your trouble! Offensive, wildly funny and masterfully controlled, this is one of the best films of the Seventies and even with that cast (including Lotte Lenya, Richard Masur, Brian Dennehy and Carl Weathers), Reynolds is just outstanding in a story that is hugely generous to its characters. When Billy Clyde assuages the feelings of a matronly woman who thinks her size makes her unattractive to him, he’s so sweet and kind you believe what he tells her: There’s nothing sexier in the world than a woman who knows she’s a real woman. Bernstein, who turned 99 last month and was one of the victims of the blacklist, provides a script that is perfect for the times with the narcissistic worlds of self-improvement and therapy in his sights (the energy field, not just the football field, natch). Directed with verve by Michael Ritchie.

Brubaker (1980)

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That’s murder they’re talking about in there. And if they condone it, how are you gonna turn around and tell these guys why they’re locked up? 1969 Arkansas. Posing as an inmate at Wakefield Prison, the new warden of the penitentiary, Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford), witnesses firsthand the scams and abuse inflicted upon the prisoners by the staff (maggot-ridden food, paying for medical care) and the prisoners upon one another – rape, bullying, violent beatings. After revealing his true identity when a prisoner in the tank Walter (Morgan Freeman) takes another Larry Lee Bullen (David Keith) hostage and threatens to kill him, Brubaker brings much-needed reform to the prison with the help of supporters: trustee (prisoner turned gamekeeper) Dickie Coombes (Yaphet Kotto) and administrator at the board of governors Lillian Gray (Jane Alexander). But not everyone is happy especially not the prison governors who are profiting from years of graft. When the benefactors of the old corrupt system inside the building, like Huey Rauch (Tim McIntire) and Roy Purcell (Matt Clark) are threatened by the changes, Brubaker’s battles really begin and he realises that Dickie is correct to warn him that innocent people are going to die to prove his point … Accomplices to the Crime:  The Arkansas Prison Scandal by Thomas Murton and Joe Hyams was adapted by W.D. Richter (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) and it’s a striking and compelling film of social injustice directed by Stuart Rosenberg, based on Murton’s experiences when he was appointed under Governor Rockefeller to reform an an unprofitable prison.  The inmates were slave labour for local business, the crops on the 15,000 acres were being poisoned, the canned food was being stolen by prison officers and sold on while the inmates starved. When he discovered dozens of men had been murdered and put in unmarked graves he was dismissed. Redford is quite brilliant as the man who is at first in there undercover and then breaks out in order to save an habitual criminal who then becomes a trustee. He understands he has to play the system to make humanitarian gains but finally the demands are too much even when proposed by the woman who wanted him in there, Gray (Alexander). Freeman’s role is small but astonishing – when he sings Respect with David Keith’s neck in his hands you listen. It’s tautly written, brutal and flawlessly staged.  Rosenberg of course is the man responsible for that other great prison movie, Cool Hand Luke. This is a devastating indictment of corruption and graft and there simply isn’t a false moment.