20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

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Got a whale of a tale to tell ya lads! It’s 1868.  Professor Pierre M. Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) are stuck in San Francisco because of a disruption in the Pacific’s shipping lanes. The US invites them to join an expedition to prove it’s due to a sea monster. On board with them is the whaler Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) and they find that the creature is actually a submarine, the Nautilus, piloted by the rather eccentric Captain Nemo (James Mason). The three get thrown overboard and end up joining Nemo, who brings them to the island of Rura Penthe, a penal colony, where he and his crew were held prisoner. When they are stranded off New Guinea the men are allowed ashore where Ned almost gets caught by cannibals. When a warship finds them the Nautilus plunges underwater and there’s an amazing battle with a giant squid. Then Ned entertains us by playing music to a sea lion. Nemo says he wants to make peace but tries planting a bomb at the ships’ base … Wildly exciting, funny, dramatic adventure adapted by Earl Felton from Jules Verne’s novel and Richard Fleischer directed for Disney and stages it brilliantly. Marvellous and gripping pre-steampunk stuff!

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Dirty Harry (1971)

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You’ve got to ask yourself a question.  ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk? When a serial killer calling himself Scorpio menaces women in San Francisco cop ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is assigned to track him down. He’s involved in a cat and mouse chase that sees him racing all over the city in pursuit even dragging a school bus with children into the fray and bringing him into disrepute by questioning suspects’ Escobedo and Miranda rights. This starts by honouring the institution of policing and ends very firmly on a note of critique – with a move by Harry that is replicated by Keanu Reeves in Point Break twenty years later (albeit Harry gets his man). This starts in such an astonishing fashion, with the camera at the killer’s shoulder when he takes aim with a sniper rifle at a woman swimming in a rooftop pool:  it sutures you directly into his point of view and makes you question everything you see. There is an undertow of satire (and a string of murders) that secures your sympathy for Harry’s unorthodox approach. The story by Harry Julian Fink and R. M. Fink was vaguely based on the Zodiac killer terrorising young women at the time (and later the subject of another brilliant film) and was rewritten by John Milius and Dean Riesner (and Terrence Malick did an early draft), and the end result is tight as a bullet casing. Milius said it’s obvious which parts of the screenplay were his – because for him Harry is just like the killer but with a police badge. It’s directed in such a muscular way by Don Siegel (who had just made The Beguiled with Eastwood) and characterised so indelibly by Eastwood there is only one word to encapsulate it – iconic. Much imitated (even with four sequels of its own) but never equalled, with a moody empathetic score by Lalo Schifrin. What’s weird is that the killer was played by unknown actor and pacifist Andy Robinson – who replaced war hero Audie Murphy following the star’s death in a plane crash before he signed on the dotted line.

Lady of Deceit (1947)

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Aka Born to Kill. Stop that phony intellectual patter you climbing faker! A cult item this, a film noir with a distinctly nasty undertow of viciousness and some droll lines. Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) is freshly divorced in Reno and finds the body of another woman and her boyfriend in her boarding house. Returning on the train to her wealthy foster sister’s home in San Francisco she’s accompanied by the ambitious thuggish drifter Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) who murdered the couple. Their attraction is obvious but he marries her sister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long) and introduces his sidekick Marty (Elisha Cook Jr) to the mix. When philosophical private eye (Walter Slezak) turns up to investigate the Reno murders it transpires he was hired by the victim’s landlady Mrs Kraft (Esther Howard, always a joy) whose alcoholic inclinations won’t stop her from doing a Miss Marple. Helen inadvertently leads the older woman into a murderous situation engineered by Marty. Trevor’s byplay with Tierney is really something and the awfulness of everyone concerned is heightened in their verbal interactions. What this lacks in pace it makes up for in sheer psychopathy. A thoroughly febrile post-war film directed by former editor Robert Wise. It was adapted by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay from the 1943 novel Deadlier Than the Male, written by that fascinating screenwriter, novelist and producer James Gunn, who specialised in the hard-boiled pulps so familiar from the period.

Basic Instinct (1992)

 

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I think she’s the fuck of the century.  Paul Verhoeven’s film was notorious even prior to release – 25 years ago! – when word of the highly sexualised story got out.  Then it caused an uproar with a shot of Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs:  she’s not wearing any underwear. And the gay community in San Francisco in particular (where it’s set) didn’t like the portrayal of a psychopathic bisexual writer Catherine Tramell (Stone) – albeit we don’t know if it’s her, or her former and slighted lover, police psychiatrist Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who’s the murderess in this tricky, explicit neo-noir. That sub-genre really had a moment in the 90s, with this and the films of John Dahl – remember Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction?! Wow. Stone goes all-out here as the millionaire authoress whose books have a basis in true crime. Michael Douglas is the controversial ‘shooter’ detective Nick Curran who’s assigned to investigate the violent death of an old rock star – a murder we see in the opening scenes, bloody, sexy and ending with an ice pick applied to his neck. It’s the plot of one of Catherine Tramell’s lurid thrillers – she writes them under the surname Woolf.  Everything points to her being the guilty party. Now she wants to study him too. He got his nickname after accidentally killing tourists while he was high on cocaine. Catherine hangs out with jealous girlfriend Roxy and an old woman called Hazel Dobkins. Both of them have an interesting past. After Nick avoids being killed by Roxy when she sees him and Catherine having sex, he finds out she killed a bunch of kids when she was 15. And Hazel?  She murdered her children and husband back in the 50s. The fact that she’s played by Dorothy Malone gives you the meta-picture here:  this is practically a dissertation on the Hollywood blonde, a Hitchcock film with extra sex. Nick’s also been involved with the police psychiatrist who it turns out knows Catherine too, from when they went to college together a decade earlier.  And they may have had a relationship. This knotty tale of seduction, deception, copycat killing and betrayal leads cleverly to two very clear – and alternate – conclusions. It’s wrapped in extraordinarily beautiful and brutal imagery and the narrative ambiguity merely compounds its legend. Written by Joe Eszterhas in 13 days it earned him a record-breaking $3 million.  Yet as he stated so lucidly in his memoir, he is a militant screenwriter-auteur and the most memorable bit of the film was shot without his knowledge – and apparently Stone’s. Interpret this how you will. Some people might say that the real crime here is one against fashion – Douglas’ v-neck at the club is really something. Stone is stunning: she’s something else!

High Anxiety (1977)

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Mel Brooks’ Hithcock spoof is great fun, in fits and starts, and in those sequences where the laughs are thin, the action is silly, which is pretty good too. Look out for wholesale ripoffs (okay, homages to) of Psycho, Vertigo, Spellbound, The Birds, Notorious, The Wrong Man, and, oh a pile more. Mel’s the renowned psychiatrist deployed to an Institute for the Very, Very Nervous where his own fear of heights is treated and he becomes aware of long-term patients who, on the face of it, are pretty sane. Until Dr Hedley Lamarr puts in his wolf-teeth. Mel sings, Madeline Kahn swoons and Mrs Danvers-a-like Cloris Leachman administers Nazified S&M (but mainly S). There’s even a spoof soundtrack, with John Morris riffing on Herrmann’s classic swoops. Co-written by Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca and Barry Levinson, all of whom appear in small roles. Dedicated to Hitchcock, who sent Brooks wine and a note that read, “A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this.”

Bullitt (1968)

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Steve McQueen. A Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback. The greatest car chase ever filmed (until The French Connection). Jacqueline Bisset as the beautiful and intelligent love interest.  A fairly routine police procedural adapted from the novel Mute Witness was elevated to something approaching mythic precisely because McQueen’s innate cool transforms the material by virtue of his being allowed to be himself under Peter Yates’ careful direction. He’s up against a senator (Magnificent Seven co-star Robert Vaughn) with an agenda to shut down a Mafia investigation while Steve has to keep his witness hidden and find out what’s really going on. Adapted by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner from the novel by Robert L. Fish (or Pike!). Just listen to Lalo Schifrin’s score! Truly iconic.

Payment on Demand (1951)

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Bette Davis was reunited with her A Stolen Life director Curtis Bernhardt for this divorce drama that sees her screen persona keenly picked apart and reconstituted as she squares off against husband Barry Sullivan. She’s the San Francisco socialite who’s worried about her daughter’s relationship with a lower class guy when hubby arrives home to tell her he wants to split. Perfectly judged flashbacks reveal the dissolution of their relationship from its earliest days in hardscrabble families through marriage, business, children and society, until the dread day when she is told by her friends that her beloved has been carrying on with a woman and “she’s not even young!” That woman is Frances Dee, a university professor with interests and taste until the private eye’s flashbulbs intrude. Davis goes hell for leather for the money she helped hubby make. The screenplay by Bernhardt and Bruce Manning cleverly interpellates the journey from brittle/skittish to brutal/scathing, a diad that the audience knew characterised Davis’ own growth as a star and her capacity for both vulnerability and cruelty. She plays it to the hilt with good support from Sullivan and in the film’s most potentially mawkish scene she is brilliant – with her back to camera. This encapsulates Davis’ acting persona and it’s a winner. For more on her dualistic performances you can see my essay on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/double_life_part_1.

The Graduate (1967)

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It was Mike Nichols’ second film and his second adaptation, this time with Calder Willingham and Buck Henry translating Charles Webb’s brilliant satirical short novel. Willingham did the first draft, which Nichols discarded in favour of a rewrite by Henry. The Writers Guild determined the shared credit. And yet if you read the novel you can see that it’s a pretty straight lift and most of the film’s acclaimed dialogue is right there! Nichols had learned all he knew about making movies from watching A Place in the Sun one hundred and fifty times or more plus three days of tuition in lenses from Haskell Wexler on the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Billy Wilder gifted him with his supervising editor to put this together but he quit in high dudgeon because Nichols didn’t follow his theoretical scheme – he couldn’t because he simply didn’t understand it. He needed to edit according to where he felt the camera should be. His brother had sent him a copy of an LP by a duo called Simon and Garfunkel and he played it each day in his apartment before he went to the shoot then he had a lightbulb moment and Sounds of Silence became the movie’s soundtrack after he used it to pace the editing, but it needed a new song about Mrs Robinson. The performers huddled in back of the studio for a few minutes and came back and performed their famous paean – it transpired that Simon had been working on something called ‘Mrs Roosevelt’ and they just changed the words. Dustin Hoffman is panic incarnate, Anne Bancroft’s role was offered to Doris Day but she turned it down and Katharine Ross is the lovely Elaine (sigh!). Everything Nichols had learned from George Stevens is on the screen:  the framing, the size of the shots, timing, placement, staging, the immaculately sustained tone, the perfectly judged performances that seem to radiate ordinariness and yet are precisely its opposite, these are all here in just the right measure in the story of returning college grad Benjamin Braddock and his affair with the mother of the girl he thinks he loves. This is so brilliant it simply has to be seen, again and again.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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What a colourful poster for a movie whose heart is as black and enamelled as the shiny falcon at its story’s centre. This was one of my favourite movies when I was 11 and I’ve seen no reason since to alter my opinion even if there are times when different elements stand out. It’s now 75 years since it was released and it was immediately appreciated as a masterpiece of the hard-boiled style, yet to be christened film noir (a few years later, in Paris, bien sur).  It marked writer John Huston’s directing debut and Humphrey Bogart’s finding an extraordinary avatar in the character of Sam Spade. Dashiell Hammett’s novel had been filmed twice before but this is the Real McCoy, with Huston making very few alterations and giving the ensemble of bizarre characters a chance to shine – the effete Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) making an admirable sidekick to the Fat Man, Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet); Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr) is the perpetually useless hitman and Mary Astor gives it her all as the astonishingly duplicitous femme fatale Ruth Wonderly aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Yes it’s all about a caper concerning a black bird but does it matter?! There are so many great scenes but the cinematography (Arthur Edeson) and editing (Thomas Richards) constantly reveal new levels of aesthetics – dontcha love the scene when Sam moves in on Brigid during her confession and the net curtain blows open to reveal Wilmer standing at the ready under the street light down below? Oh! There’s nothing fake about this. I can practically smell the gardenias! Unforgettable.

Nine Months (1995)

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I can’t stand babies, pregnant women repulse me and being forced into watching childbirth has horrified me since inadvertently seeing a gruesome ‘educational’ programme with the neighbourhood kids when I was eight years old. Way too much, too young. So why revisit a film I saw with a gang of medical student guy friends when it came out – a short while after Hugh Grant was found with a tranny hooker on Sunset? Well, that’s the reason I first saw it, the guys hated it, and Grant’s charms were pretty much lost on me at the time – he reminded me de trop of a certain kind of West London banker I worked with once upon a time … So when long-time galpal dancer Julianne Moore announces the surprise pregnancy after celebrating 5 happy childless years in a relationship this (irony alert) children’s psychotherapist crashes his fabulous new sports car headlong into a truck. Good friend artist Jeff Goldblum is the brother of nauseatingly happy mom Joan Cusack and her huge brood with bombastic car dealer hubby Tom Arnold – whom our lovely couple have had a run-in with on the beach.  Life lessons about compromise are learned – get rid of the cat? Are you kidding?! –  while Julianne leaves Hugh and he fails utterly at playing the field despite Jeff’s best efforts. Joan is knocked up too so you can guess who winds up simultaneously in the delivery ward after a madcap RV trip, with crazy Russian doctor Robin Williams in attendance, an ob-gyn whose speciality is malapropisms. Oh how wearying. But San Francisco looks pleasant if you exclude all the baby stores… Adapted from French movie Neuf Mois by writer/director Chris Columbus and the only interest now is seeing some people prior to the ravages of age/plastic surgery (be it ever so subtle). What was that hooker’s name? Ah yes, Divine Brown. Some things really are best left behind.