Happy 90th Birthday Sean Connery 25th August 2020!

Many happy returns to Sean Connery who celebrates his 90th birthday. Some uninspired early casting was followed by the landmark choice as the first big screen James Bond, creating a series that made him world famous. A series of collaborations with director Sidney Lumet gave him great opportunities outside the action heroic mode in The Hill and The Offence, and he did not disappoint:  Lumet took him seriously and Connery responded. Following Bond he came into his own in some historical romantic films, especially The Man Who Would Be King with Michael Caine:  he dumped the toupee and kept his accent and it was the making of him. Thereafter his talent could be seen clearly and he was rewarded with an Oscar for The Untouchables for his Irish-American policeman. Between actioners, romances and playing mentors to equally irascible younger men (including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) in his later career, he is the living embodiment of what twentieth century masculinity aspired to be. What a guy. Happy birthday!

Zee and Co. (1972)

Zee and Co

Aka X, Y and Zee. Quite frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a shit! Middle-aged London architect Robert Blakeley’s (Michael Caine) angry wife Zee (Elizabeth Taylor) finally gets even with him for his affair with young widowed boutique owner Stella (Susannah York) by first attempting suicide and then having a go at seducing the woman herself. And Stella’s past threatens to engulf them all … Come back here, you! I haven’t dismissed you yet! This is Irish novelist Edna O’Brien’s first original screenplay and it was published in advance of the film’s release, with some evident alterations to the source material. Worth watching as an incredible time capsule of the ageing Swinging London set hiccoughing their way into the new decade and with gems of performances from the cast.  Taylor’s flamboyant bisexual complete with Cleopatra makeup flames into violence when provoked by her sly puss of a husband, recalling the best moments of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in this raunchy iteration of the woman scorned. She’s dressed horribly, matched only by fag hag Gladys (Margaret Leighton in an astonishing pink frightwig) who shows up in a gold see-through number. Caine excels as the man who finds himself cuckolded by his victim and goes off the rails pondering whether it’s possible men have nervous breakdowns, chastened by reminders of his wideboy background;  while York gets to have another tilt at the kind of  plaything part from The Killing of Sister George but with a taint of something else – as she says, I’m sick of serenity. It often tips into camp particularly in the with-it party scenes but there’s a truth about the relationships that shears through the trashy affect and all three rise to meet the perversity that haunts them. It’s nicely shot around London by Billy Williams and there’s a sharp score by Stanley Myers which acknowledges the slide back and forth from uxorious romance to self-parody. Look out for a young Michael Cashman as Gavin, York’s design assistant. Filled with sex and spite, this is highly entertaining. Directed by Brian G. Hutton, if you can believe it, in a total change of pace from Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes. But of course! I think I know what she is. She practically told me herself

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

The Party’s Just Beginning (2018)

The Partys Just Beginning

Fuck you for leaving me. Liusaidh (pronounced Lucy) (Karen Gillan) is a 24-year-old woman from Inverness in Scotland. Stuck in a dead-end job selling cheese at a supermarket, she spends her evenings binge drinking and having sex in the alley with strangers. She is coping with the suicide of her best friend, Alistair (Matthew Beard) who died by jumping off a bridge in front of a train almost a year earlier after struggling with his homosexuality and decision to transition to female due to his unrequited love for door to door evangelist Ben (Jamie Quinn). Liusaidh keeps flashing back to the previous year with Alistair. She meets a stranger (Lee Pace) at a bar and has sex with him in his hotel room. He tracks her down and the two have a few more sexual encounters before he informs her that he is returning home and takes a call from his young daughter who lives with his ex-wife. Walking home at night after another night out, Liusaidh passes the bridge where Alistair committed suicide. She is surprised to see the stranger there, apparently about to kill himself, and she manages to talk him down. The two spend time together and though Liusaidh asks him to stay, he decides to leave, this time for real. Before he does Liusaidh tells him her name, and he tells her that his name is Dale. She is fired from her job after she misses several days of work, and spirals further out of control. On Christmas, the anniversary of Alistair’s death, she blacks out and is gang raped by three men after she’s blacked out following a boozy night. She goes home to see her mother (Siobhan Redmond) still socializing with her friends (including Daniela Nardini – so good to see her again). On the phone she talks to the unnamed old man she has been talking to throughout the film, who abandoned his children after his wife died. She opens up about what happened and cries. Her estranged father overhears the conversation, and when she tries to leave for the night he tries to talk to her but she is suicidal … You are literally changing your gender to be with this guy. This occasionally ugly ode to self-harm has echoes of the French New Wave and its focus on the female protagonist specifically reminds one of Agnès Varda’s work but it has a lot of flaws in tone and the lack of plot clarity and spatial distinction reinforces this (I misunderstood the concluding twist which has to do with the house phone being supposedly mistaken as a help line – I think).  Actor Karen Gillan is making her writing and directing debut and she is a fearless performer whose Scottish origins call to mind that great contemporary author Alan Warner who has similarly dealt inventively with bereavement and hedonism in the story of a Scottish shop assistant in Morvern Callar, filmed with Samantha Morton. Gillan is matched by the wonderful Pace as Dale and there are some interesting scenes with Redmond and some ‘amusing’ ones with Liusaidh’s friend Donna who is a truly atrocious stepmother. The pitch from drama to black comedy doesn’t work, but the comedy works better than the drama. However overall it’s let down by a terrible sound mix which is an affliction shared by many recent low budget productions and makes it tough to endure beyond the confused treatment of the subject matter and Alastair’s tragic gay character with Pepijn Caudron’s score blasting us all over the shop and into kingdom come, millennial style.  It’s time to wake up now

 

The Girl With a Pistol (1968)

The Girl With a Pistol

Aka La Ragazza con la Pistola. Her you should kill – not you! In a small village in Sicily, Assunta (Monica Vitti) is seduced by Vincenzo (Carlo Giuffré) after he kidnaps her thinking she’s her fat cousin and takes her to his remote country home. He plans to dishonour her and thereby win her hand in marriage. However she likes sex so much it frightens him and he runs away the day after they become lovers. According to the local traditions Assunta and her sisters are unable to marry unless someone in the family kills the offender and restores the family’s honour. She leaves for England where Vincenzo has fled. Assunta finds herself intimidated by the different culture, but transforms herself into a Swinging Sixties mod and resolutely travels to Edinburgh, Sheffield, Bath, and London in search of Vincenzo in order to kill him. She befriends rugby player John (Tony Booth) in Sheffield and tries to locate Vincenzo in Bath where hospital staff cover for him. After an accident, Assunta is hospitalised; she meets a cute and lovelorn failed suicide Frank Hogan (Corin Redgrave) who takes her blood donation and who advises her to forget about Vincenzo, and to devote herself to him. Dr Osborne (Stanley Baker) takes her to a gay pub and shows him Frank’s cheating ex – a man. She falls for divorced and soon she creates for herself a new and wonderful life in England but there’s still the matter of Vincenzo … The ones who cut their wrists always remember to bring their blood group. Directed by Mario Monicelli, a name not really remembered now but he was a masterful comedy auteur and this was nominated for an Academy Award. Vitti previously performed in his 1964 film High Infidelity and 1966’s Sex Quartet (aka The Queens). Luigi Magni and Rodolfo Sonego’s script capitalises on Vitti’s top comic talent and her glorious beauty:  we really don’t believe she’s a dowdy country girl, do we? Her transformation into a London fashionista is very amusing and her deadpan delivery really works. It’s nice to see some familiar British faces like Redgrave and Booth (with Johnny Briggs making a small splash) and it all looks like a terrific jaunt with good jokes about translation and kilts. And, she gets hers, just not in the way she planned. It’s an interesting companion piece to view alongside her other British film, Modesty Blaise and there’s plenty of nutty, good looking fun even if Vincenzo’s parting comments leave a sort of nasty aftertaste. My aim was not good!

When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

When Eight Bells Toll

Operates best under conditions of extreme pressure. Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) is a tough British Navy secret service agent called in by ‘Uncle Arthur’ (Robert Morley) to track down gold bullion smugglers after two agents are murdered on the job tracking cargo ships that have been hijacked in the Irish Sea. He follows the trail off the Scottish coast to a close-mouthed community where Greek tycoon Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins) has moored yacht off and finds the well-connected aristo is married for the second time to the stunning much younger Charlotte (Nathalie Delon). After his colleague Hunslett (Corin Redgrave) is murdered and he escapes from his Royal Navy helicopter following the shooting of his pilot, who is conducting the heists? … You can’t go round acting like a one-man execution squad. This is England! Alistair MacLean’s 1965 adventure bestseller was eyed up as a potential starter for a series to rival the James Bond franchise but that’s not what happened. Despite ample action, jaw-droppingly witty lines and a lovely lady who may or may not be one of the good guys, this isn’t quite slick enough looking to fit a 007-shaped hole following Sean Connery’s departure. Hopkins is a rather unlikely romantic lead but his scenes with Delon feel like they’re straight out of screwball comedy: The nights would be good but the days would be a drag. Morley is playing a role he’s done before but putting this portly gent out in the field and into a rowing boat is a stroke of genius – literally an outsize fish out of water in water. We’re going to prove that Britannia rules the waves. Every line hits the bullseye. This is a story about class distinction and clubbable men too:  Working-his-way-through-the-ranks type, he comments disdainfully of Hopkins. Any time the action flags a little the robust score by Angela Morley lifts it into another dimension. The only thing they couldn’t alter is the miserable grey sky. We can sympathise with Delon and close our eyes and reimagine this in the Med but for MacLean who adapted his book for producer Elliott Kastner (who had also made Where Eagles Dare) this was of course coming home. An unsung and fast-moving gem of its era with an inventive approach to the enemy lair.  Jack Hawkins had to be dubbed by Charles Gray following the removal of his larynx (nothing to do with the action here however). Directed by Étienne Périer. There’s always peril in the water

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!

Ice Station Zebra (1968)

Ice Station Zebra

We operate on a first name basis. My name is Captain. Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson) captain of the American nuclear attack submarine USS Tigerfish (SSN-509) is ordered by Admiral Garvey to rescue the personnel of Drift Ice Station Zebra, a British scientific weather station moving with the ice pack. However, the mission is actually a cover for a classified assignment and he is obliged to take on board a British intelligence agent known only as ‘Mr. Jones’ (Patrick MacGoohan) and a U.S. Marine platoon; while a helicopter brings them Captain Anders (Jim Brown). The sub is also joined by Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) a Russian defector and spy who is a trusted colleague of Jones. As they try to break through the ice near the Orkney Islands when approaching the last position of ICZ the sub floods in an act of sabotage and it’s retrieved – just. But Lt. Mills (Murray Rose) is killed.  Ferraday suspects Vaslov and Jones suspects Anders. Ferraday orders the Tigerfish to surface and they find the weather station in ruins, the personnel nearly dead and Jones and Vaslov are soon discovered to be looking for something – a capsule, valuable to both sides in the Cold War, because it contains film of missile sites … I’ve saved a lot of lives by teaching men to jump when I speak. Notoriously the favourite film of one Howard Hughes, if ever there were a time to watch a long movie about the Cold War (actualised in freezing temperatures)… it’s now. I hadn’t seen this since I graduated from Jennings and Billy Bunter books to the oeuvre of Alistair MacLean aged  11 or thereabouts, so it’s both a time-warp exercise (when times were good!) and a deviation from a less visible issue tearing at the world’s synapses. (It makes one vaguely nostalgic for good old-fashioned political intrigue). There’s a deal of nudge-wink dialogue of the sticking torpedoes up spouts variety but the also the odd tart line such as Hudson grumbling at a nervous sailor’s prayer, Do you mind son, we’re trying to think.  Hudson is fine as the mariner under pressure but MacGoohan is particularly good in the most interesting role. Alf Kjellin impresses in his necessarily short sequences as Ostrovsky, the head of the Russian paras and it’s nice to see legendary footballer Jim Brown as Anders as well as actor/producer Tony Bill playing the quite showy role of Lt. Walker. Borgnine is much as you’d expect as a villain of sorts, a part intended for Laurence Harvey. There are some good setpieces centering on jeopardy – when the sub floods;  when some men fall into a crevasse once on icy territory; the tussle between Jones and Vaslov at the staion; and the final clincher which is literally a cold war shootout.  There are some clunky visual effects particularly in the latter stages but there are some fantastic underwater scenes too and the atmosphere is well sustained. It gains a frisson of recognition from knowing it’s based on two real incidents that apparently took place a) in 1959 near Spitsbergen, in Norway, involving a CIA/USAF strategic reconnaissance satellite called … Corona!;  and b) a few years later when two American officers parachuted to an old Soviet weather station.  Michel Legrand’s score is particularly effective in a film constricted by those claustrophobic physical locations and then there are those limitations imposed by all that political and generic roleplay. Adapted by Douglas Heyes, Harry Julian Fink and W.R. Burnett. Directed by John Sturges, who was responsible for the earlier MacLean adaptation, The Satan Bug.  I chose my side out of conviction not by accident of birth.

Tell it to the Bees (2018)

Tell it to the Bees

He said this town was too small for secrets. With her failing marriage to her estranged former soldier husband Robert (Emun Elliott) and a curious young son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), Manchester-born Lydia Weekes (Holliday Grainger) does not fit into the small Scottish Borders town where she has ended up. She starts a friendship with the town’s new doctor Jean Markham (Ann Paquin) who has bonded with Charlie after he takes an interest in her bee colonies at the house she inherited from her late father, the town’s former doctor. However, in 1950s rural Scotland, the women’s relationship raises questions particularly because Jean is remembered from a terrible incident involving another girl in her schooldays which prompted her father to send her away.  When Lydia is evicted from her home and loses her job at the local lace factory where her boss is her sister-in-law Pam (Kate Dickie) she goes to live at Jean’s house with Charlie to work as her housekeeper. However they are drawn to each other and start a sexual relationship. Somehow the locals get wind of the arrangement and gossip spreads. Charlie witnesses them in bed together and runs to report to his father. Jean could lose her career if Lydia fights for custody of Charlie.  Meanwhile, Robert’s younger sister Annie (Lauren Lyle), who is friends with Lydia, is happily pregnant by her black boyfriend and the family want her dealt with before the pregnancy becomes public … How do I explain? Jessica Ashworth and Henrietta Ashworth adapted the 2009 novel by Fiona Shaw [not the actress]. What could occasionally be perceived as a contemporary story retro-fitted to critique the insular homophobic values of its Fifties setting, this mostly manages to overcome that fear by reducing the significance of the unlikeable child who is a prism for adult behaviour.  It broaches some tough situations (like a botched home abortion) with the refusing of sentiment and a modicum of unsettling violence. This steers it through the conventional posturing and clichéd setup which is nimbly handled by director Annabel Jankel.  The leads (particularly Grainger) are superb. The cinematography by Bartosz Nalazek is beautiful.  Those sort of people don’t change their minds

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

The World is not Enough.jpg

There’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive. Britains’ top agent James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is entrusted with the responsibility of protecting Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) the daughter of M’s (Judi Dench) college friend, an oil tycoon murdered while collecting money at MI6 in London. While on his mission in Kazakhstan, he learns about an even more dangerous plot involving psychotic villain Renard (Robert Carlyle) and teams up with nuclear physicist Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) while enjoying a romance with the woman he’s been sent to protect … This is a game I can’t afford to play. Brosnan is back and he’s a charmingly effective Bond in a literally explosive set of action sequences packed with non-stop quips, assaults and well-choreographed kinetic adventures commencing with a bomb in MI6 HQ. Marceau is lovely as his marvellously outfitted female foil, Carlyle is a useful if underexploited villain and Richards is perfect as the preposterously beautiful nuclear physicist whose name gives rise to some great puns in the climactic scene. The only inconsistency is M being made a dupe but you can’t fault the transition from Q to R (John Cleese as a Fawlty-ish successor) or the casting of Robbie Coltrane as a bumptious Russian casino proprietor. The screenplay is credited to Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade from a story devised with Bruce Feirstein but weirdly somebody forgot to mention spy mastermind Ian Fleming. The title song performed by Garbage is composed by David Arnold and the legendary lyricist Don Black. The endless fun is directed by Michael Apted. You can’t kill me – I’m already dead