The Spanish Main (1945)

The Spanish Main

Consider yourselves not so much my prisoners, but my honored guests. It would please me if you were to recommend my piracy to your friends when you return home. Dutch sea captain Laurent van Horn (Paul Henreid) is shipwrecked off the coast of the Spanish settlement of Cartagena with a boatload of refugees seeking freedom in the Carolinas. After being held and sentenced to death, Van Horn and his crew manage to escape. Five years later, Van Horn has established himself as the mysterious pirate known only by the name of his ship: The Barracuda. After infiltrating the vessel ferrying her to her wedding, they capture Contessa Francisca (Maureen O’Hara) daughter of the Viceroy of Mexico, who has been arranged to marry the corrupt governor Don Juan Alvarado (Walter Slezak) whom she has never met. Wishing to avoid further bloodshed aboard the escort ship, Francisca offers to marry Van Horn if he will spare the escort, to which he agrees. Over time Francisca and Van Horn become attracted to each other and set out to defeat the villainous governor Don Juan Alvarado and treacherous pirates Du Billar (John Emery) and Captain Black (Barton MacLane) raising the hackles of pirate Anne Bonney (Binnie Barnes) who has her heart set on Laurent … All I ever hear from you is that every golden minute has 60 golden seconds. Why does it have to have 60 golden seconds? Why can’t it have 30 golden seconds? And why do they have to be golden? Why can’t they be silver? Actor Paul Henreid was not an entirely happy camper at Warners eternally cast as the suave leading man and would go on to become a director (famously directing co-star Bette Davis in not one but two roles – she plays twins in Dead Ringer). He started out directing in TV, working extensively for Alfred Hitchcock after he was blacklisted for speaking out against HUAC. He wrote up a treatment for this swashbuckling pirate yarn and brought the project to RKO where they hired Aeneas MacKenzie to write another treatment then George Worthing Yates to write the screenplay which Henreid hated. He then hired Herman J. Mankiewicz to rewrite the adventure story. There was some to-ing and fro-ing with the cast, notably with O’Hara who was going to be replaced by Laraine Day. That wasn’t the end of the issues as the script called for a slave revolt and the burning of Tortuga but RKO refused to pony up the money and Henreid’s agent Lew Wasserman advised him against funding it. So the ending changed, so upsetting Mankiewicz he wouldn’t write it. Despite that this is a fun outing with Slezak spouting witticisms like there’s no tomorrow. This is a beautifully made production, shot by George Barnes in a thrilling range of colours, with a memorable score by Hanns Eisler and it’s all done with that delicate attention to performance and detail by that great romantic director, Frank Borzage,  The Spanish Main – cruel, oppressive and ruthless, where power alone was a man’s single title to everything he held dear, including his very life. It was, thus, a cruel fate that a peaceful Dutch pilgrim ship should be driven there by torrential waves – and crash upon the rocks immediately outside Cartagena, its most remorseless citadel.

A Touch of Larceny (1959)

A Touch of Larceny

I was implying I might be a matrimonial hazard if I were wealthy. Rakish former Naval submarine Commander Max ‘Rammer’ Easton (James Mason) realises he needs plenty of cash to win the heart of American widow Virginia Killain (Vera Miles) currently the companion and soon to be wife of his Naval colleague Sir Charles Holland (George Sanders). Max disappears after faking treachery as a Soviet spy, planning to reappear and sue all the tabloids which libelled him so as to win the hand of Virginia but his plans go awry when he really does get into trouble in the Western Isles … One of the hardest lessons in life is to accept defeat gracefully. Adapted by Roger MacDougall, director Guy Hamilton and producer Ivan Foxwell from Andrew Garve’s (a pseudonym for Paul Winterton) novel The Megstone Plot, this sees Mason at his best as the breezy playboy and former WW2 hero who has finally met a woman he can see himself living with – and the sparks fly between him and Miles in a comedy that has wit, guile and surprising wisdom. He sets himself up and then spends a third of the film as a raffish beachcomber listening to rumours of his supposed defection. Sanders feasts on the prospect of revenging the man who appears to have compromised his fiancée, whose intentions are far from clear. You’ll recognise Martin Stephens the creepy boy from The Innocents as Sanders’ nephew. There are good jokes about newspapers and that year’s current scandalous novel, The World of Suzie Wong. Perhaps its occasional moments of true feeling guy the comedy’s intent so that the tone shifts but in the main it’s an impressive production and the performances are terrific. An interesting syncopated beat to Mason’s other Cold War movie that year – North By Northwest. You know Max, one of these days somebody may take you seriously

True as a Turtle (1956)

True as a Turtle

You’re in a taxi rank, skipper! Newly married Tony Hudson (John Gregson) offers his young wife Jane (June Thorburn) a cruise on a yacht as a honeymoon trip with his rich industrialist friend Dudley Partridge (Cecil Parker) who is sailing with his family, insurance man Harry Bell (Keith Michell) and his wealthy landlubber girlfriend Ann (Elvi Hale). Jane suffers from chronic seasickness but agrees and they go on board the Turtle, a fine ketch which initially has difficulty leaving port. A lot of misadventures await – including Partridge’s niece Susie (Pauline Drewett) catching German measles, crossing paths with a counterfeit gaming chip scam when they arrive at the French port of Dinard and then dealing with a real pea-souper fog that just might scupper their return … I hate boats. Don’t you? Jack Davies, Nicholas Phipps and John Coates adapted Coates’ novel, a marital comedy involving a lot of messing about in boats while the newlyweds really navigate their relationship. Gregson’s casting tips the wink that this is a kind of reworking of the beloved Genevieve, with Kay Kendall’s role being taken by Hale; while there are more than a few riffs on the plot of Brandy for the Parson but director Wendy Toye has a light touch and the intrigue and setting give this its own particular charm. It’s nicely shot on location in Dorset, Hampshire, London and France by Reginald Wyer. Look out for Clement Freud playing a croupier. You’ll soon get used to things being wet

Along Came Polly (2004)

Along Came Polly

I’ve found the perfect woman. Risk-averse insurance company risk assessor Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller) takes a chance on marrying his ideal woman, realtor Lisa Kramer (Debra Messing) but she has an affair with nudist scuba instructor Claude (Hank Azaria) on the first day of their St Bart’s honeymoon. His best friend actor Sandy Lyle (Philip Seymour Hoffman) known from his bagpipe-playing role in an 80s teen movie advises him to play the field and at a gallery opening they encounter their junior school classmate Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston) now working as a waitress. He asks her out and finds his life taking a different turn when they date because she’s a kook who tries everything (including Latin dancing and Middle Eastern food) but commits to nothing while his buttoned-up persona descends into a kind of undone madness by association. Meanwhile he has to assess daredevil accident-prone businessman Leland Van Lew (Bryan Brown) who is forever leaving a trail of destruction behind him but represents a great deal of money to the firm run by Stan Indursky (Alec Baldwin). Chaos ensues when Lisa returns to reconcile with Reuben and he has to make decisions that don’t depend on his Risk Master technology … I can’t have thrown up 19 times in 48 days if I wasn’t in love with you. Writer-director John Hamburg was listening in screenwriting class because he pushes every single character to do the opposite of what their nature impels them to – with delightfully nutty comic results in this modern take on screwball, the ill-advised toilet humour notwithstanding (an issue arising from Reuben’s unfortunate Irritable Bowel Syndrome condition). Sure, there are cheap laughs, including Polly’s flatmate – her blind ferret Rodolpho – but all of the character flaws are cleverly turned into neat plot pivots: when Reuben’s silent dad Irving (Bob Dishy) finally speaks he talks only common sense and spins the plot into its final happy resolution, with Sandy letting go of his past and getting his greatest role, posing as Reuben so that Reuben can stop Polly from leaving the country, with Polly committing at last and Reuben ultimately taking a risk. It’s crazy but works because at its beating heart it’s dramatically logical. Great silly fun with Stiller and Aniston making for a tremendously charismatic couple in a story that makes neat references to The Breakfast Club and Friends. What kind of guy are you?

Eureka (1983)

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Aka River of Darkness. Once I had it all. Now I have everything. After 15 years of searching on his own, Arctic prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men when he literally falls into a mountain of gold in 1925. Twenty years later in 1945, he lives in luxury on Luna Bay, a Caribbean island that he owns. His riches bring no peace of mind as he feels utterly besieged:  he must deal with Helen (Jane Lapotaire), his bored, alcoholic wife; Tracy (Theresa Russell), his headstrong daughter who has married Claude Van Horn (Rutger Hauer) a dissolute, philandering, narcissistic social-climber; and Miami mobsters Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci), who want the island to build a casino off the Florida coast but Jack is resistant to gambling and their frontman Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) cannot persuade him to do a deal with them. I never made a nickel off another man’s sweat. When Jack is brutally murdered, his son-in-law, Claude, is arrested for the crime and put on trial … One of Nicolas Roeg’s most underrated achievements, this pseudo-biography is a fascinating portrayal of perversion and power, obsession and dread. The texture of the film, contained in lush colour coding, symbols of the occult and the ever-present stench of sex, oozes corruption and greed, decay and desire. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Marshall Houts’ book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? an account of that real-life murder in the 1940s, in which the author suggests that Meyer Lansky had Oakes killed [Pesci’s role is based on the gangster albeit this carries the conventional disclaimer], this exhibits all the familiar Roegian tropes. It also has echoes of Orson Welles as character, a director who hit the cinematic motherlode first time off the blocks and spent the remainder of his life in a kind of desperation (or so people would like to think). Hence McCann feels larger than life and is dramatised as such with Wagner soundtracking his great – almost psychedelic – discovery and Yukon poet Robert Service’s words Spell of the Yukon amplifying its myth. It isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold The allusions to Citizen Kane are clear and the portentous character of prostitute/fortune teller Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes) would appear to have at least superficial similarities with Oja Kodar, Welles’ last companion. One moment of rapture followed by decades of despair. The first line of dialogue we hear is Murder! and there is a structure which suggests destiny is being fulfilled. This is a story about disparate characters connected by blood and a morbid wish for ecstasy which suggests life but actually propels towards death. Russell’s testimony in court is gripping and Hauer as the playboy driven by the Kabbalah and other elements of the supernatural is just as good. Hackman is Hackman – he totally inhabits Jack, this man whose greatness is envied by all but whose happiest time was in the wastes of Alaska so long ago, basking in heat and light now but longing for snow.  It is this man’s ability to function as a totally singular individual that creates the chasm between himself and others, gangsters or not.  Internally he knows it is Frieda who led him to the gold that made him the richest man in the world but he decries notions of luck or superstition. His murder is an accurate depiction of what happened to Oakes and it’s terribly gruesome – sadistic and heartless. The first part of the film could be from silent movies – and the bizarre aphoristic dialogue is laughable except that it sets up the sense of supernature which dominates the narrative. Shot by Alex Thomson, edited by that magician of jagged mosaic Tony Lawson, and scored by Stanley Myers (including wonderful double bass solos composed and performed by Francois Rabbath), if this sometimes feels that it has not fully committed to the melodramatic mode (there are a lot of genres at work), the threads of gold and blood make it a satisfying and disturbing watch, with some extraordinary performances bolstering the overall effect. This is all about signs and meaning.  A mystery. The end of the beginning

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

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That’s what you call karma and it’s pronounced Ha! In 1979 young Donna (Lily James), Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davis) graduate from Oxford University — leaving Donna free to embark on a series of adventures throughout Europe starting in Paris where she has a one-night stand with Harry (Hugh Skinner). She feels her destiny lies in Greece, specifically on the island of Kalokairi. She misses the ferry and hitches a ride on a boat owned by handsome Swede Bill (Josh Dylan) who drops her off to participate in a race but promises to return. On the island she immediately feels at home and sings at the local taverna. During a storm she seeks help to rescue a horse on the property where she’s squatting and English architect Sam (Jeremy Irvine) comes to her aid. They fall for one another and start a relationship – until she finds a photograph in his desk and he admits he’s engaged. In the present day, Donna’s daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has finished off the renovation Donna always dreamed of but her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper) is doing a hotel management course in New York and a storm threatens the opening party. Her plans to reunite with her mother’s old friends and boyfriends on the Greek island may be scuppered although Dad (Pierce Brosnan) is at hand to help out … Crosscutting between past and present, drawing parallels between the mother and daughter, this aims to fill the awkward moral gaps the first film (and original musical) opened.  It has cinematic ambition its shambolic predecessor lacked and the flaws are more obvious as a result. Written by director Ol Parker with Richard Curtis and using plot from Catherine Johnson’s original this tells a lot of what we know. The choreography is horrible, the laughs cheap and most of the best songs were already used up so we get a lot of lesser tracks only diehard ABBA album owners might know: this really only gains momentum an hour in when Dancing Queen (finally!) gets a run through and the boyfriends in their present-day versions show up – thank goodness for Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard (who gets to wear a fat suit as his twin in a funny scene). Cher’s much-trumpeted appearance as Streep’s mother is brief but frightening – she looks like Lady Gaga (same surgeon, methinks). The Bjorns make surreptitious appearances early on; Meryl Streep’s younger iteration has brown eyes (whoops) but she can sing;  everyone sings, more or less; Andy Garcia is a Mexican managing the Bella Donna and guess who he used to date? And so on. Truly terrible. Resistance is futile.

Knife in the Water (1962)

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You’re just like him… only half his age, and twice as dumb.  On their way to an afternoon on the lake, husband and wife sportswriter Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) nearly run over a young unnamed hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz). Inviting the young man onto the boat with them, Andrzej begins to subtly torment him; the hitchhiker responds by challenging his masculinity and making overtures toward Krystyna. When the hitchhiker is accidentally knocked overboard, Andrzej panics and leaves the boat to go to the police. The hitchhiker appears from behind a buoy where he’s been concealing himself and has sex with Krystyna who’s alone on the deck.  Then she reunites with Andrzej … Roman Polanski’s debut was nominated for the Best Foreign Film at the 1963 Academy Awards and announced a major talent. The imaginative direction of a limited cast in such a confined space led to it being chosen as the still on a Time cover story about international cinema. Tense, psychologically challenging and boasting a pervasive sense of danger and violence, this is a remarkable and occasionally audacious piece of work with a wonderful jazz score by Kryzsztof Komeda. Co-written by Polanski with Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski.

Message in a Bottle (1999)

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Choose between yesterday and tomorrow.  During her morning jog on the beach, journalist Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn) discovers a bottle protruding from the sand. Inside it, she finds a heartbreaking, anonymous love letter. After her paper publishes the letter, Osborne tracks down the letter’s reclusive author, world-weary widower Garret Blake (Kevin Costner), in the Carolinas. But, as Osborne finds herself falling hopelessly in love with Blake, she becomes wracked with guilt over the real impetus for her visit. As she deals with her own marital mishaps and life back in Chicago with her young son Jason (Jesse James) she can’t bring herself to be truthful with Garret, all the while exploiting his personal tragedy for her newspaper… Adapted by Gerald Di Pego from the Nicholas Sparks novel, it took me a while to see this:  it was released February 1999 and I was travelling from N’Orleans to New Jersey and it seemed to me to be always playing a township or three too far to travel that snowy Spring. It was worth waiting for. It’s a gloriously romantic confection, with conflict, high stakes and a guilty secret or two at its core – there are real lessons to be learned here from the grown-ups with mirroring marital and parenting dilemmas. Penn is terrific as the journo who is basically a stalker and Costner is perfect as the romantic foil whose life is much more complex than she suspects. And guess who plays his father? Paul Newman, that’s who. There are nice bits in the office with Robbie Coltrane revelling in the role of editor and Illeana Douglas as her best friend at work while John Savage is impressive as Costner’s brother in law. This works because it’s tough on the characters even through a rose-tinted lens and the ending, well, it’s not easy but it’s immensely satisfying. It was the first Sparks novel to be adapted to the screen. Love letters?  Message in a bottle? A tragic sacrifice? Death? I hear ya. Just gorgeous cinematography by Caleb Deschanel and music by Gabriel Yared. Sniff. Directed by Luis Mandoki.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

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Personally I prefer a girlfriend not to have a husband. An Irish-American seaman Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) becomes involved in a complex murder plot when he is hired by renowned criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan) to work on a yacht after rescuing the man’s wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth) from a disturbing attack in Central Park NYC. He soon finds himself implicated in the murder, despite his innocence. The film is best remembered for the climactic hall of mirrors scene with a shoot out amidst shards of shattering glass…. Orson Welles’ adaptation (with uncredited help from William Castle, Charles Lederer and Fletcher Markle) of a novel by Sherwood King was so confusing that Columbia boss Harry Cohn offered a reward to anyone who could make head or tail of it. Somebody please tell me what it’s about! But the plot of this murder mystery pastiche is hardly the point:  it’s a gorgeously shot tongue in cheek meditation on the games men and women play. Sometimes they wind up in murder. The narration is crucial. The hall of mirrors scene is justly famous. Shot by Charles Lawton (and Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker) with the yachting scenes done on Errol Flynn’s Zaca, this is the one where Hayworth’s fiery locks were shorn into a shockingly short blonde bob and Welles sports a cod Oirish accent presumably culled from his days at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Mad, strange and blacker than black, this is all about shadows and deception and imagery and set-pieces. Stunningly edited by Viola Lawrence. I never make my mind up about anything until it’s over and done with.

The Master of Ballantrae (1953)

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A delightful sanctuary, monsieur. A safe haven for buccaneers! 1745 Scotland. At the Durrisdeer estate Jamie Durie (Errol Flynn), his younger brother Henry (Anthony Steel) and their father Lord Durrisdeer (Felix Aylmer) hear about the Jacobite rising. Their advisor MacKellar (Mervyn Johns) recommends that one son side with the rebels, the other with King George II, thus preserving the estate no matter who wins. Jamie wins to fight in the uprising in a coin toss above the objections of his fiancee Lady Alison (Beatrice Campbell). The rebels are crushed at Culloden and Jamie teams up with Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesey) a characterful Irish adventuring type and they manage to get back to Durrisdeer where they intend securing money and passage to France. Jamie’s mistress Jessie (Yvonne Furneaux) betrays him to the British out of jealousy over his relationship with Alison:  he is shot by Major Clarendon (Ralph Truman) and falls into the sea. Henry becomes the heir because Jamie is presumed dead – but instead he’s wounded and takes off with Burke on a ship bound for the West Indies. There they are betrayed by Captain McCauley (Moultrie Kelsall) and captured by pirates led by Captain Arnaud (Jacques Berthier) a man for whom execution is a spectator sport. Jamie goes into partnership with him and when they arrive at Tortugas Bay, they see a rich Spanish galleon captured by fellow buccaneer Captain Mendoza (Charles Goldner). Arnaud agrees to Jamie’s idea that they steal the ship. But then he turns on Jamie who kills him in a duel and takes command. They sail for Scotland and Jamie returns to the family estate with pirate treasure, only to arrive in a middle of a party celebrating Henry’s engagement – to Alison! He confronts his brother, despite the presence of British officers. A fight breaks out, in which Henry tries to aid Jamie. The unequal fight ends with Jamie and Burke condemned to death. Jessie helps them escape, at the cost of her own life. Henry also assists them. Jamie tells his brother of the location of some treasure which Henry can then use to pay off Jamie’s gambling debts. Alison decides to go with Jamie to an uncertain future and she, Burke and Jamie all ride off together. This Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation isn’t a major pirate film or actioner but it has lots of good things about it – even if the wonderfully charismatic and handsome Flynn was clearly showing signs of premature ageing despite Jack Cardiff’s lovely photography. Livesey (of all people!) has the lion’s share of the fun dialogue as the rambunctious Irishman in a movie that has pretty much everything – dancing, swashbuckling, pirates, Indians, politics, romance and betrayal. What more do you want?! Oh, it’s got a tragic sacrifice by a beautiful woman and a wonderfully jaunty score by William Alwyn. And just relish those fabulous pirate scenes shot in Palermo, standing in for the West Indies. Adapted by Herb Meadow and Harold Medford and directed by William Keighley, whose fourth and final film with Flynn this was and in fact it marked his retirement from the movies.