The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

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I Know Where I’m Going (1945)

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I haven’t heard any intelligent female nonsense for months. Plucky and stubborn Englishwoman Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) travels to the remote islands of the Scottish Hebrides in order to marry a wealthy industrialist many years her senior. Trapped by inclement weather on the Isle of Mull and unable to continue to her destination, Joan finds herself charmed by the place and becomes increasingly attracted to naval officer Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), who is also marooned in the house of childhood friend Catriona (Pamela Brown).  He holds a secret that may change Joan’s life forever and may make her want her to stay on Kiloran … We live off the country. Rabbits, deer, a stray hiker or two. This Powell and Pressburger production has a kind of mystical aspect that has long made it a cult favourite and turned Mull into an unlikely tourist hotspot for the more discerning film fan. A romcom of a different order with an unexpected cast for such a story, and an appeal that lies directly in something almost erotic that seems to seep up from the very landscape and the misty air. Count them before you go to sleep and your wish’ll come true

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister… and you murder your queen!  Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Catholic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne with the aim of also taking the English throne which is her birthright, guided by her adviser Bothwell (Martin Compston). However, Scotland and England fall under the rule of her cousin, the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Each young Queen beholds her ‘sister’ in fear and fascination. Mary has to deal with the ambitions of her bastard half-brother James Murray (James McArdle) and succumbs to the charms of the bisexual Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) in order to become a mother but his father (Brendan Coyle) has designs on power. Her reign attracts the hatred of Protestant reformer John Knox (David Tennant) who stirs up the natives against their tolerant Catholic ruler and calls her a whore. Elizabeth’s adviser Henry Cecil (Guy Pearce) carries out her bid to assist in driving a civil war designed to remove Mary from the throne… Do not play into their hands. Our hatred is precisely what they hope for. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you. Adapted from John Guy’s biography by Beau Willimon, it may seem hasty to declare that despite its raft of historical inaccuracies this still has a lot to recommend it, even if its PC multiverse of many races and choose-your-own-perversion plays into the right-on millennial world rather than the well documented dour backdrop of sixteenth-century Scotland (things are ever thus there…). Willimon is of course responsible for Netflix’s House of Cards and knows his way around politics and other games of thrones so the focus on the women struggling against the counsel of conniving men drives the drama forward while the plotting literally gallops apace. With Tennant doing Knox as the Comical Ali of fundamentalist Protestantism the odds of us supporting the bastard English Queen are low to zero, despite the crosscutting suggesting links both emotional and physical between these young rivals. The Virgin Queen is in fact more in touch with the reality of both of their situations, surrounded by controlling men, as the fabricated meeting between them (a liberty also taken in the 1971 version) clarifies: she recognises that Mary’s beauty, bravery and motherhood are both her greatest assets and her deepest flaws and have led to her downfall. She herself is more man than woman, she declares – her reign has made her thus. Ronan plays Mary as a variation on Joan of Arc – a sharp military mind with a conscience as transparent as her pallor and bright blue eyes (albeit Willimon writes her as a feckless Marie Antoinette a lot of the time), while Robbie’s Queen is the one beset with the miseries of the pox and a devious court craven by her power. They are both tremendous but this is really Ronan’s show, as the title suggests. Pearce, Lowden and Compston are particularly good in their treacherous sideshows. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see two of the best young actresses in the world leading a film of such affecting performances.  The final contrasting shots of Mary’s meeting with destiny and Elizabeth’s costumes and cosmetics literally solidifying into a stony inhuman edifice linger in the mind.  Directed by Josie Rourke. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you

The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018)

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You left no autobiography but you left this. Writer and filmmaker Mark Cousins was given access to hundreds of paintings and drawings by Orson Welles and he uses these as a prism to gain entry into how the man’s mind worked and discusses how this level of visual creativity was fused with narrative to create his films. This is an intensely personal work:  Cousins addresses Welles in the voiceover, doing away with any sense of chronology, making a mosaic of thoughts, inflections, inferences and putting together a narrative that deals with his films, his politics, his acting, his working methods and his extensive romantic life. This is filmic storytelling of a superior type, stressing the way in which Welles’ designs actively structured his cinematic approach, garnering detailed insights from these previously undiscovered and unsung artistic outpourings to make an intimate free-associating portrait of a fascinating man. This is an utterly unique take on a larger than life character whose indelible performances as an actor (with their king or king-like personae) form a parallel or diptych with his directing work. Welles has never seemed more attractive, more interesting, more Shakespearean in scope, more mysterious and dreamlike or yet more relevant. A seer. Featuring his daughter Beatrice Welles, this is executive produced by Michael Moore. You thought in lines and shapes

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

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Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.  Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) is a free-spirited teacher at a Scottish girls’ school during the 1930s. She encourages her young pupils to embrace romantic ideals, educating them about love and art rather than hard facts.  She instructs them in poetry and literature and femininity and regales them with tales of her lost love, fallen in Flanders. However, her controversial teaching style draws the ire of the school’s headmistress, Miss Mackey (Celia Johnson), and, as Miss Brodie becomes entangled in a love triangle with art teacher Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens, who was married to Smith at the time), her behavior towards her favourite students including the lovely but treacherous Sandy (Pamela Franklin) becomes increasingly manipulative…  That’ll teach you to look at an artist like that. An interpretation of the stage version of Muriel Spark’s novel, this is a straightened-out story jettisoning some of the religious references and making composites of some characters to render the narrative easier to follow. At its heart is a barnstorming, beguiling performance by Smith as the charismatic leader of ‘gels’ hoist by her own sexual petard. Spark’s novels are cunning constructions that seem linear and obvious – until you realise the trick that has been played.  Miss Brodie truly makes people in her own image until she realises too, too late that she was never in control of a simulacrum with bad intentions. Is she being saved from herself? Are the girls being saved from her? The very conventionality of the setting juxtaposed with the fascistic politics has its own dynamic power. It’s witty, ferocious stuff, with a great cast acting their socks off in a brilliant tragicomedy.  This is a masterful technical production that is powered by emotional devastation. Written by Jay Presson Allen and directed by Ronald Neame.  Remember you are a child very far from your prime

Morvern Callar (2002)

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Aka Le Voyage de Morvern Callar. There’s nothing wrong with here. It’s the same crapness everywhere, so stop dreaming.When her boyfriend commits suicide, supermarket clerk Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) passes off his unpublished novel as her own after inventing stories to explain his absence then chopping up and burying him, ignoring his instructions for a funeral.  She gets money from a publisher for the book and departs Scotland to bliss out in Ibiza with her closest friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) on a druggy odyssey but finds she cannot settle…Fuck work Lana, we can go anywhere you like. Lynne Ramsay’s work always has a striking quality, a visual enquiry into the spaces between but also within people. This adaptation of Alan Warner’s 1995 debut novel spans north to south in Europe so that the journey (internal as well as external) is also filled with an increasing but confusing warmth, from Scotland to Spain, from blood seeping across a kitchen floor to dry dusty roads cracking in the sun. The sense of emotion is silently portrayed as a kind of ennui tangled with growing grief, a bereavement that cannot be danced or drugged away, disaffection through a lack of emotion camouflaged with the simple theft of a book. Morvern is no writer, she doesn’t have the poetry: she’s a shop girl. The pictures shimmer and sing while Morton oozes with sorrow in a thriller without tension, expressing the affectlessness of the unambitious passive aggressive Morvern herself, adrift everywhere. Written by Ramsay and Liana Dognini.  Where are we going?/Somewhere beautiful

Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

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Schreck? That’s a German word isn’t it? Means fear or horror. On board a train, fortune teller Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing) uses a set of tarot cards to reveal to his fellow passengers (Christopher Lee, Donald Sutherland, Roy Castle, Neil McCallum, Alan Freeman) what destiny awaits each of them … This town isn’t big enough for two doctors… or two vampires.  The first Amicus anthology film and influenced by the great Dead of Night, combining five stories comprising a vampire, a severed hand, a man-eating plant, a voodoo curse and a werewolf – that’s what you get for talking to the Grim Reaper on the way to work. It’s one of my favourite childhood Saturday night horrors with some nice effects and not a little black humour. Written by producer Milton Subotsky and directed by Freddie Francis. Plant like that… could take over the world!

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)

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To think at a moment like this I’ve no pad and pencil to record it all! Edinburgh geologist Oliver Lindenbroook (James Mason) and his assistant Alec McEwan (Pat Boone) set off on an expedition to the center of the earth. Following directions found in an inscription hidden in volcanic rock, the explorers travel to a volcano in Iceland to begin their journey. Along the way, a widow of a famous scientist Carla Goteberg  (Arlene Dahl) and an Icelander Hans Belker (Peter Ronson) join their party. However, the treacherous terrain and prehistoric monsters are not their only concern when rival scientist Count Saknussemm (Thayer David) is on their trail… With Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch adapting Jules Verne, you know you’re in for a humdinger action adventure fantasy and so it proves, with Mason returning to the author a few years after giving us his anguished Captain Nemo. Even Pat Boone warbling My Heart’s in the Highlands can’t deter us from enjoying monsters, subterranean flora, romancing Scots, an underwater ocean, a rumbling volcano and being sucked into the magnetic vortex that is the core of Earth itself with Dahl going through a virtual orgasmatron at the climax. Quite fabulous. Directed by Henry Levin with a score by Bernard Herrmann.

Local Hero (1983)

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How do you do business with a man who has no door?  Up-and-coming Houston oil executive ‘Mac’ MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) gets more than he bargained for when a seemingly simple business trip to Scotland changes his outlook on life. Sent by his colorful boss Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) to the small village of Ferness, Mac is looking to buy out the townspeople and their properties so Knox Oil can build a new refinery. But after a taste of country life Mac begins to question whether he is on the right side of this transaction …  It’s their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can’t eat scenery!  Writer/director Bill Forsyth’s greatest work will remind you of Ealing Comedy and I Know Where I’m Going: wonderful antecedents and references but not entirely true to the atmosphere of this very magical film, operating with the underlying power of a fairytale. It’s primarily a film about characters and their interactions and it’s absolutely low-key and exact, sidelining whimsy for revelation.  This is truly a fish out of water scenario, about a man learning to live to a different beat in an utterly alien landscape. Lancaster’s inevitable arrival brings a sense of transcendence to the film, augmented by marvellous cinematography courtesy of Chris Menges and a legendary score by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler. I’ve been a fan of Forsyth since I nearly choked to death laughing at That Sinking Feeling so it’s sad that he never had the long career that would have been predicted. This is a romance between people and land and sky and the immensity of living a small life, alive to the wonder. The sun, moon and stars were aligned when they made it.

The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)

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By the way – I’ve brought you the announcement of your death. South African engineer visiting London, Richard Hannay (Robert Powell) gets caught up in an intricate spy plot when a British secret agent Scudder (John Mills) takes shelter in his apartment after witnessing a political assassination. When the spy is killed by a secret organisation, Hannay becomes its next target, and must flee to Scotland, where he may be able to uncover the mystery by locating a black book lost by Scudder.  He is pursued by the police and the killers and it is only when Chief Superintendent Lomas (Eric Porter, Soames from TV’s The Forsyte Saga) gets bona fides from Hannay’s employers that the Government tries to save him – by using him as lure. Aided by the lovely Alex Mackenzie (Karen Dotrice), Hannay figures out the organisation’s sinister scheme to launch WW1 and attempts to halt it… John Buchan’s classic novel has such good bones that any alteration merely enhanced its reputation, as Hitchcock’s adaptation proved. This, the third version, is a different proposition – more straightforwardly faithful and dramatic, less comedic, and very suspenseful indeed. Michael Robson’s interpretation cleaves to the novel and it’s still an exercise in tension using trains, boats, planes, taxis and bikes in a travelogue that spans from London to the Scottish moors. Hannay is a bit of a cold fish to begin with but defrosts when the bullets start skimming his legs and he meets Alex. It’s tautly told and acted and ironically there is a fantastically Hitchcockian climax on the face of Big Ben concluding a literal race against time. Directed by Hammer veteran Don Sharp, with a very tasteful score by Ed Welch.