The 39 Steps (1959)

The 39 Steps 1959

If you’re looking for Richard Hannay this is the man you want. Freshly returned to London, British diplomat Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) goes to the aid of a nanny ‘Nannie’ (Faith Brook) in a park only to discover there is no baby in the pram and follows her to a music hall where he watches Mr Memory (James Hayter). She goes back to his flat and reveals that she is a spy working for British intelligence looking for the organisation The Thirty-Nine Steps who are after information on the British ballistic missiles project. When she is murdered in his flat he goes on the run, encountering a bevy of schoolgirls on a train with their teacher Miss Fisher (Taina Elg) who reports him to the police but he jumps off the vehicle on the Forth Bridge and hitches a ride on a truck driven by ex-con Percy Baker (Sidney James) who advises him to stay at The Gallows Inn run by occultist Nellie Lumsden (Brenda De Banzie) and her husband who help him escape during a cycling race.  He approaches Professor Logan (Barry Jones) only to find the man is in fact the leader of the spy ring and he must keep running … I’m not having a Sagittarius in the house tonight! Hitchcock was responsible for the first adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy-chase thriller and this is a more or less straight remake, with the romance-chase narrative lines crisscrossing pleasingly as per the generic template established by The Master. More may be a slightly ridiculous hero but this is played for comic effect and its Hitchcockian homage continues in the casting of De Banzie who essays a knowing spiritualist in her crofting cottage. It has the advantage of location shooting, a winning plot, doubtful romantic interest, a deal of suspense and a collective tongue planted firmly in cheek. Directed by Ralph Thomas, written by Frank Harvey and produced by Betty Box. Keep out of the woods. Especially in August!

Torn Curtain (1966)

Torn Curtain

How do you like playing the dirty defector? During a trip to Copenhagen, American physicist and rocket scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) is attending a conference with his lab assistant and fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) and he picks up a telegram and tells her he is going to Stockholm. She follows him as he travels to Berlin where he publicly announces he is defecting to pursue his research for the Soviet Union. During a trip to a farm Michael meets a ‘farmer’ contact (Mort Mills) and it is clear that he is on a secret spying mission for the US. At the farmhouse he is watched by his official guard Herman Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who suspects what he is doing and Michael and the farmer’s ‘wife’ (Carolyn Conwell) are forced to kill him. He travels to Leipzig and tells Sarah what is really going on. He goes to the University in an attempt to persuade Professor Lindt (Ludwig Donath) to share his secrets but the man realises Michael has little to share and calls the authorities and the chase to catch him with Sarah commences … I forbid you to leave this room! A Hitchcock film in which various getaways are staged using bicycles, buses and boats, this is the one that forced him to conclude he no longer wished to work with stars. And what stars! Newman, who had already played a variation on this role in The Prize and Andrews, the world’s favourite actress at the time. They were not the choice of the director but of moneyman Lew Wasserman who probably played too large a role in his career and contributed to what could be described as his decline in the Sixties. And it’s true that they are weirdly mismatched. Nonetheless there is ample opportunity for local actors, Lila Kedrova, Tamara Toumanova and Ludwig Donath to shine. Peter Lorre Jr even has an uncredited role as a treacherous taxi driver! Many feel this is one of Hitchcock’s lesser films and one might ask, given that he had originated the Cold War spy thriller genre with a masterpiece, North By Northwest, why he felt he had to make another one. But we forget how fascinating the Iron Curtain was, and not just to filmmakers. What an opportunity to look at a society where spying on people wasn’t confined to Government but permeated everyday life – most Germans were snoops and tattle tales, and not in a good way. The landscape is another reason – all that flat land. (A reminder of the crop dusting scene…). The opportunity to kill someone in virtual silence because there’s a taxi driver outside the door – and what a sequence that is, using whatever comes to hand in a farmhouse kitchen.  Hitchcock told Truffaut in their famous interview that the point of that was to demonstrate how hard it actually was to kill somebody, something that the conventions of the contemporary spy thriller avoided. There is a sense in which Hitchcock is playing his greatest hits – the set pieces are fun and  quite reminiscent of ones he did earlier. Perhaps that’s understandable given that this was his fiftieth film and projects he felt more deeply about had failed to get off the ground. Despite being inspired by the defections of famed British traitors Burgess and Maclean the script originally focused on the female character and so Irish writer Brian Moore whose gynocentric novels were so acclaimed did the original draft. At that point Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant were Hitchcock’s dream cast – a replay of old attractions. But when that changed he got Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall to rewrite and the story was radically altered but Moore still got sole credit. (Moore repaid the slight by caricaturing Hitchcock in his novel Fergus). There are some horribly clunky visuals that make it obvious this was shot on the Universal lot – very unlike a director who should have been at the peak of his powers. Is he deliberately making the artificiality of the genre more transparent?! Even more oddly, Hitchcock dumped Bernard Herrmann’s unsatisfactory score (which you can find on the DVD and watch it again) and commissioned John Addison to do the version used on the theatrical release – viewing this with a different musical accompaniment alters the affect (something that a Channel 4 documentary demonstrated twenty-plus years ago). Fascinating, suspenseful and altogether necessary and not just for Hitchcock completionists. You told me nothing! You know nothing!

Dorian Gray (1970)

Dorian Gray

Aka The Secret of Dorian Gray/Il dio chiamato Dorian/Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray. One day when even you’ve become an old and hideous puppet this will still be young. London student Dorian Gray (Helmut Berger) is the subject of a portrait by society painter Basil Hallward (Richard Todd) whose clients hedonistic aristos Lord Henry Wotton (Herbert Lom) and his wife Gwendolyn (Margaret Lee) take a fancy to him. Meanwhile he has fallen in love with aspiring actress Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl) as she rehearses Romeo and Juliet. She makes him think about someone other than himself for a change. As Basil completes his portrait Dorian finds himself obsessed with his painted image and swears that he will trade his soul to remain young. His relationship with Sybil grows complicated and argumentative and she is killed when she is knocked down by a car. Dorian is heavily influenced by Henry who has him sleep with Gwendolyn and Dorian then becomes immersed in society as a kind of gigolo who makes other people famous, be they men or women. However as the portrait begins to reveal his age and escalating depravity he hides it away from sight where it changes appearance and becomes ugly and Dorian ends up killing Basil when he says he’s not responsible for the alterations.  Dorian is conscious of the peril of his situation, particularly when Henry introduces him to Sybil’s double, a woman married to a scientist embarking on research into rejuvenation … Everything is yours. Take it. Enjoy it. The most beautiful man of this or any time stars in a European co-production of the greatest work of literature by the greatest Irish author and it’s updated to the flashy, groovesome Seventies. What bliss is this?! With equal parts tragic romance and fetishistic kink it easily falls into the category of trash yet the moral at the centre – the idea that youth is beautiful in itself, not just for what it can obtain – gives it a lingering value. The god-like Berger is perfectly cast as the impossibly erotic creature who transitions from youthful selfishness to graceless decadence, and his sleazy polymorphous journey through the fashionable world of swinging London is both quaintly dated and oddly touching, principally because of the relationship with Liljedahl (best known for her soft-core films in her home country of Sweden) and Berger’s consistent performance, beset by narcissistic fascination, bewildered by loss. It is precisely because this plugs into the truly pornographic ideas behind the 1890s textual aesthetics that it seems oddly perfect as an adaptation despite the occasional surprise – a bit of S&M in a stables, plus it’s not every day you see Lom approach a beautiful young man to have his wicked way with him. The screenplay is credited to giallo director Massimo Dallamano, Renato Romano, Marcello Coscia and Günter Ebert, from  Oscar Wilde’s indelible novel. The contemporary score is composed by Peppino De Luca and Carlo Pes. Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff and Harry Alan Towers for American International Pictures. You only have a few years to live really fully

The Pumpkin Eater (1964)

The Pumpkin Eater

You should see the way men look at me. They still look at me. Jo (Anne Bancroft) leaves her second husband Giles (Richard Johnson) with whom she has five children in the countryside where they live in a rundown ramshackle barn and marries his screenwriter friend, Jake Armitage (Peter Finch). She moves with six of her eight children to his big house in Hampstead while her eldest are at boarding school. She soon finds that Jake doesn’t want more children and is playing around, including with Philpott (Maggie Smith), a young woman lodging with them. When he impregnates Jo, she doesn’t tell him but reveals it to her mother at her father’s (Cedric Hardwicke) funeral.  Her mother (Rosalind Atkinson) subsequently tells Jake and he asks Jo to have an abortion. Afterwards she is approached by his colleague Bob Conway (James Mason) who informs her that his wife is now pregnant by Jake …… Perhaps sex is something you feel you must sanctify by incessant reproduction. Harold Pinter’s scrupulous adaptation of Penelope Mortimer’s landmark semi-autobiographical novel is scalpel-sharp, lethally aimed at men who are never satisfied with women – when they have children, when they have none. And the men take no responsibility for the situation, either way.  Everything is the woman’s fault. The picture of fathers is damning but fascinating, as Hardwicke and Alan Webb’s (as the elder Armitage) scenes demonstrate. This battle of the sexes drama seems relentlessly classist yet is a universal story with a terrible message for the female of the species, forever destined to be deemed slatternly mother or hopeless whore. Bancroft is harrowing and superb as the vulnerable protagonist, but so too is Finch as the self-justifying philanderer. And what startling scenes there are – Jo being confronted by a total stranger (Yootha Joyce) in the hairdresser’s after her photo is featured in a magazine; her meltdown, in Harrods, of all places!;  her mother revealing in her bereavement to an unwitting and horrified Jake that Jo is pregnant yet again;  the meeting with Conway at the zoo when he reveals that while she was having her abortion and being sterilised Jake had impregnated his wife in yet another of his endless infidelities. The sleight of hand never stops; the loneliness and emotional violence of a fecund marriage is stripped bare; while living with someone is dramatised as a gaslighting paranoia-inducing nightmare of betrayals, lies and extreme humiliation in a society where femininity is medicalised, motherhood a branch of psychiatry, civility a very thin veneer over insecurity and terminal delusion. Eric Porter as the psychiatrist to whom Jo pours out her supposed problems has a great scene, culminating in Bancroft advising him to steer clear of Tenerife for his water-skiiing holiday. It’s absurd and ridiculous and brilliantly Pinteresque. Still a deeply disturbing narrative of men and women in what is indubitably a man’s world, equality a fairytale ending never to be. Directed by Jack Clayton. All she wants is to sit in a corner and give birth

 

What A Carve Up! (1961)

What a Carve Up

Aka No Place Like Homicide! Ring up Madame Tussaud’s to see if anyone’s missing. Inoffensive Ernie Broughton (Kenneth Connor) is summoned to an isolated rural mansion to spend the night at his family’s ancestral home following the death of his uncle Gabriel. He is accompanied by his gadfly friend Syd Butler (Sid James). They arrive in the fog where they encounter a spooky butler Fisk (Michael Gough) and other members of the squabbling family:  cousin Guy (Dennis Price), lovely Linda (Shirley Eaton), Malcolm (Michael Gwynne) and eccentric aunt Janet (Valerie Taylor).  Sinister solicitor Everett Sloane (!) (Donald Pleasence) reads the will – which has a big surprise. As the night wears on, they find themselves targeted by a killer who seems determined to pick them off one by one until finally a police officer (Philip O’Flynn) arrives from the nearest village … Kindly lower your voice to a scream at least. Almost better known now as the inspiration for Jonathan Coe’s novel of the same name, this cult item from the Carry On team is overshadowed by the legendary Carry on Screaming! five years later but is still nutty fun. You’d expect that from a screenplay co-written by farceur Ray Cooney with Tony Hilton, adapting The Ghoul by Frank King and the only surprise is that the director is the venerable documentarian Pat Jackson.  Indebted to the Ur-narrative of The Cat and the Canary we know that there can never be a reading of a will without a body count and there are lots of cheap laughs as well as well-placed thrills. Connor is terrific as scaredy cat Ernie and there are nice touches, like giving him squeaking shoes when he’s meeting his upper crust family for the first time: Wish I was back in the flat reading The Case of the Battered Blonde. James is good for a dirty laugh – as ever. Lots of fun.  I really must insist on your staying here tonight

 

They Met in the Dark (1943)

They Met in the Dark

Aka Dark End. An old friend of mine. Met him this morning. When Navy Commander Richard Heritage (James Mason) is cashiered by Commander Lippinscott (David Farrar) after accidentally revealing important manoeuvres during World War 2 because he’s been framed by Nazi spies, he recalls how his troubles began.  He sets out to clear his name by seeking out Mary (Patricia Medina) the Blackpool-based manicurist with the charm bracelet who set him up by stealing Allied secrets for a ring of Fifth Columnists led by theatrical agent Christopher Child (Tom Walls). But she is found dead at the rural cottage of two old mariners by their niece Laura Verity (Joyce Howard) who’s visiting from Canada.  When Richard shows up looking for Mary they immediately suspect each other and wind up in the local police station. The pair’s stories are not believed by police and they team up, on and off, as well as trying to avoid each other, criss-crossing the country to uncover the involvement of several of the agency’s performers including The Great Riccardo (Karel Stepanek) who are part of a well run organisation communicating in musical notes … I’m in command again tonight. Brittle dialogue, charming actors and a narrative regularly interrupted by song performances make this a quaint excursion into wartime espionage activities in that unique Venn diagram crossover area of showbiz and the British Navy with an almost satirical edge. It’s overly long and rather uneven in mood but the shifts from dangerous to jaunty are so much fun as they seem to forget the plot and go up another entertaining alley that you’ll enjoy the variety, from the monocled Fritz Lang-a-like farceur Walls essaying his Nazi agent; to an occasionally dubiously motivated Mason and very charismatic and resourceful Howard who make for a Hitchockian couple in a film that has several scenes harking back to both The Lady Vanishes and The Thirty Nine Steps with a very effective scene in a tunnel. Phyllis Stanley has some rare lines as singer Lily Bernard and there’s a terrific ensemble to enliven the action. You’ll forget about Mason’s comedy beard which is cleverly (and thankfully) removed in the second scene in the hotel spa where the suspense plot all begins. Fun, with a cast list as long as your arm to the extent that the opening credits conclude etc etc etc.  Adapted from Anthony Gilbert’s novel The Vanished Corpse with a screenplay by Basil Bartlett, Anatole de Grunwald, Victor MacLure, Miles Malleson and James Seymour. Directed by Karel Lamac. She’s not just a starstruck young girl, you know

Tawny Pipit (1944)

Tawny Pipit

This is meat and drink to me. Fighter pilot Jimmy Bancroft (Bernard Miles) is recuperating from injuries sustained during WW2 in a Cotswolds village. He and his nurse Hazel Broome (Rosamund John) come across two rare birds they find nesting in a wheat field and have to stop two evacuated boys from stealing the eggs. Together with Colonel Barton-Barrington (Bernard Miles) and others in the local community they band together to save the area from roads development that would encroach on the nesting place, stopping army tanks from crossing the field and getting a boost from a visiting Soviet sniper Olga Bokalova (Lucie Mannheim) …  Most people have to start from the bottom and work up. We’ll start from the top and work down! Written and directed by star Miles and Charles Saunders, they created a rare propaganda picture of the bucolic home front during World War Two. Not only that, it dares to paint a portrait of deep eccentricity, silly officialdom and a bizarre scene of a female Russian soldier who inspires a moment of flag-waving solidarity between Britain and the Soviet Union. And in the middle of this romance about birds is an affecting narrative about a pilot getting better from his war wounds by saving those feathered creatures while developing a relationship with his nurse. The link between the thriving pipits and his successful mission is encapsulated in the final images of his aeroplane Anthus campestris swooping over the village’s church tower. Barmy and lovely, with beautiful cinematography by Eric Cross and an uplifting score by Noel Mewton-Wood. These eggs are yours and mine and his and his and his … they belong to England!

Lost (1956)

Lost film

Aka Tears for Simon. I didn’t neglect my baby. U.S. Embassy employee Lee Cochrane (David Knight) and his wife Sue (Julia Arnall), receive a shock when they discover that their 18-month-old son, Simon, has disappeared in London from Kensington Gardens. He was last seen with their nanny, and the couple seemingly have no leads that might help police Detective Inspector Craig (David Farrar) in his investigation but the pages of a popular novel might provide a useful lead that involves several staff members to look for a clue. The media sensationalises the incident, causing an unnecessary distraction as the couple prepares to confront the culprit face-to-face when they get a series of phonecalls despite warnings not to give a ransom as time is running out … Can a career woman be a mother as well? That’s the tabloid headline screaming from a newspaper article that Sue agrees to be interviewed for in order to secure publicity for her missing son – and that’s what a woman journalist writes about her. The screenplay by the estimable Janet Green never ignores the gender-baiting of the era in this punchy thriller which allows ample time for Sue to shed tears and do anything she can to save her child while she loses it psychologically too. Farrar is his usual tough and brusque character but there are some good jibes about his bachelorhood in an office boasting a female Sergeant (Meredith Edwards). Everley Gregg (a favourite actress of Noël Coward) has a great bit as a Lady who likes cars; while Thora Hird, Mona Washbourne, Joan Sims, Joan Hickson, Barbara Windsor and Shirley Anne Field all make appearances. The parallel investigation narratives – by the police and the parents – are well intertwined and converge in literally a cliff-hanging ending. Shot by Harry Waxman, edited by Anne V. Coates and directed by Guy Green. You have a genius for the obvious

Wonder (2017)

Wonder

There are no nice ones. After two dozen surgeries to get 10-year old August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) seeing and speaking he’s still terribly disfigured but mom Isabelle (Julia Roberts) has decided it’s time for him to go to regular school after years of educating him at home. It’s the first time he’s gone out without wearing his astronaut helmet. Dad Nate (Owen Wilson) and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) help out but it’s mainly been Isabelle who’s done the heavy lifting and Via has been left out and retreats to her estranged grandmother (Sonia Braga) in Coney Island when she needs attention. Auggie meets the wise and kind school principal Mr Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) who has him introduced around the school by some kids but Auggie still gets bullied terribly. He wins over some students through his smarts, especially at science where he’s top dog. However when he wears a different Halloween costume than the one his friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) expects, Auggie overhears him saying something terrible and it seems like everything is lost … Not everything in this world is about you. A film about facial disfigurement that manages to be truly humane without ever stooping to the mawkish or trite? Surely some mistake. And maybe it’s Mask. Well, that was then, this is now. This adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel is a kind of miracle of text and performance and not just by that fine young actor Tremblay. Everyone here gets their moment in a family that has other problems – sister Via is overlooked, Isabelle doesn’t speak to her mother, the marriage is strained because of the constant caring needed for Auggie. Isabelle had a promising career and was mid-thesis when Auggie came along and her life was put on hold. Roberts never looks for pity in the role and the plot keeps everyone afloat.  Even Daisy the dog needs more from the family members than they realise. That’s good writing. The screenplay is by Jack Thorne, Steven Conrad and director Steven Chbosky, who knows something about young people as we know from that other marvellous film about kids, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on his own book. Right here the issues of middle school, our responsibilities to others, competitive friendship and rivalries are nailed with precision. Auggie can’t change the way he looks so maybe we can change the way we see