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

 

Wild Rose (2018)

Wild Rose.jpg

I’m not a criminal though, I’m an outlaw. Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), an aspiring country singer and single mother of two from Glasgow is released from prison after a twelve-month sentence for attempted drug smuggling. She goes to her boyfriend’s council flat and has sex with him before reuniting with her mother Marion (Julie Walters) who’s been taking care of her young daughter Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield) and son Lyle (Adam Mitchell). She learns that she has lost her job in the house band at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry, as a result of her stint away. Marion encourages her to give up her dream of becoming a musician to focus on more practical matters and take responsibility for her family:  Rose-Lynn has never stuck at anything, can’t play an instrument and has never written a song. She takes a job as a cleaner to wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okenedo) who hears her singing and promises to sponsor her to get Rose-Lynn’s hero BBC DJ Bob Harris to listen to her and fulfil her fantasy en route to the real Grand Ole Opry in Nashville … That’s the end of cleaning floors for you.  From a screenplay by Nicole Taylor, this is implausible, irritating and overly generous to its protagonist. In other words, it’s a lot like a country song (not a country and western song, as she has to keep reminding people in her thick Glaswegian accent) and the minutes occasionally drag like hours.  It’s hard to watch a woman be so cruel to small children who she had as a promiscuous teenager and proceeds to ignore even after a year in the slammer. In a film that can’t make up its mind whether it’s a social realist drama (her bed is even shot to look like it’s in a prison cell) or the biopic of a music legend (like all country movies to date) who actually isn’t one, even in her own house, it mints a jawdropping black saviour trope, although Susannah’s streetwise hubby sees through Rose’s act (literally) and hearing some home truths snaps her out of her daydreaming. This feckless girl is such a screwup she even gets pissed on the potentially life-changing train journey to see ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris at the BBC in London and has her bag and money stolen. Perhaps it’s meant to be colouring in her shady character but it’s a damning indictment of people who put themselves ahead of their kids despite the logic. Dramatically and emotionally this is deeply troublesome. Even basketcase Juliet Barnes in TV’s Nashville is better to her daughter. Buckley just looks morose when the script is giving her nothing to play. There are some nice moments towards the end when Walters cracks and a kind of rapprochement is achieved but it’s thin gruel. I blame reality TV:  in an extraordinary admission a few years ago one of these ‘talent’ show’s producers in the UK let slip the astonishing statistic that “80 per cent of our applicants are illegitimate.” Attention-seeking is a way of life for the working classes, innit. Saints preserve us all from delusional aggressive karaoke queens but this has the narrative shape of those bios, which makes the country angle feel tacked on. Herself a reality show graduate, Buckley has an easy charm, a lopsided mouth and can sing the bejesus out of anything but the narrative falls far short of what it should have been and the fantasy ending is built on air, the fish out of water premise turned on its head, back in Glasgow.  She didn’t earn it, actually. Beats mopping floors, I suppose. The score is by Jack Arnold and the songs covered include everyone from Primal Scream, actress/singer Mary Steenburgen and Anna McGarrigle. Directed by Tom Harper who previously directed Buckley in BBC’s adaptation of War and PeaceYou never stick at anything

Highlander (1986)

Highlander colour

There can be only one! Swordsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) from the Scottish Highlands known as the Highlander is one of a number of immortal warriors who can be killed only by decapitation. After initial training by another highly skilled immortal swordsman and metallurgist, Ramirez (Sean Connery), MacLeod lives on for several centuries, eventually settling in New York City, managing an antiques shop. After watching his first wife Heather (Beatie Edney) grow old he is unable to fall in love again however in 1985, he encounters police forensic scientist Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart). He also finds out that he must face his greatest enemy, the brutal barbarian Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who wants to kill MacLeod and obtain ‘the Prize’ – a special ability given to the last living immortal warrior: vast knowledge and the ability to enslave the entire human race. They play cat and mouse through the centuries until destiny arrives in a fight played out on NYC’s Silvercup Studios’ neon sign  … You won’t drown, you fool. You’re immortal! Music video director Russell Mulcahy made the transition to features with this deliriously nutty actioner, a time travel fantasy that seamlessly moves through the ages, imbued with the tropes of Arthurian myth, a beautiful woman handy in each of the three main centuries/locations, a supposedly Spanish-Egyptian Connery speaking in his usual cod accent, brilliant one-on-one combat and wonderfully cartoony car chases. Then there’s the odd impressive visual transition (Lambert’s face morphing into an NYC Mona Lisa mural); and a mini-pop video to soundtrack band Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever telling the story of Lambert’s relationship with Scots wife Edney until her demise, in a film that references everything from Citizen Kane to The Duellists and Star Wars. There are incidental pleasures, like spotting familiar faces such as James Cosmo and Celia Imrie. Some head shearings plus a sex scene put this out of reach of the kids but it’s fabulous fun and spawned any number of sequels and spinoffs. Written by Gregory Widen as a class project at UCLA, this had a rewrite by Peter Bellwood & Larry Ferguson. You only have one life

Death Defying Acts (2007)

Death Defying Acts.jpg

We had a real double act, my mam and me.  It’s 1926. Upon arriving in Edinburgh, Scotland for a series of mind-boggling performances, master illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) offers an impressive cash reward of $10,000 to any supposed psychic who can accurately tell him his beloved late mother’s exact last words. Gorgeous local swindler Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) rises to the challenge and together with her streetwise daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) leads Houdini on in a dangerous flirtation that blurs the line between reality and paranoia –  but she has reckoned without the machinations of his canny manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) who knows a con when he sees it but has his own reasons to let this Oedipal obsession play out in the world of spiritualists, fake or not … Nothing in this world’s free. It’s an engaging premise and well staged but this drama of who’s-fooling-who sadly won’t hoodwink the audience. Pearce is hardly Houdini although he’s a charmer whether tied up underwater or on the surface, and Jones’ and Ronan’s lively performances as grifters are marvellous but can’t conceal the dramatic deficit at the centre of the narrative. It looks wonderful and is beautifully staged but never really takes off, the mystery of Houdini’s personality is never convincingly exposed and of course as we know it ends in tragedy. Written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, directed by Gillian Armstrong. I used to be a nice man you know. Do you believe me?

 

The Vanishing (2018)

The Vanishing 2018.jpg

Aka Keepers. In 1900, three lighthouse keepers, James (Gerard Butler), Thomas (Peter Mullan) and the newcomer Donald (Connor Swindells) depart for their six-week long sojourn at the remote Flannan Isles lighthouse. After a storm, they find a boat with an apparently dead man who’s been flung out of it. But when Donald tries to winch up a heavy trunk that’s fallen out, the man rises out of the water and tries to kill the youngster – before he defends himself. Thomas is the first one to open the trunk and finds it filled with gold ingots. Then the dead man’s friends Locke (Søren Malling) and Boor (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) turn up … Written by Joe Bone and Celyn Jones, and adapted from a true-ish story of the disappearance of three men from Eilean Mor Lighthouse, this admirably dour outing has a surprisingly effective psychological mechanism, one that was used to similar effect by John Huston decades earlier in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, itself a masterpiece of greed, guilt and amoral behaviour. It has that and old-school brutal violence going for it in a narrative stripped to the bone. The landscape may be different but the murderousness is of a highly vicious quality. Shot around the Mull of Galloway, Port Logan harbour, Killantringan Lighthouse near Portpatrick and Corsewall Lighthouse  near Stranraer.  Directed by Kristoffer Nyholm.

Circle of Danger (1951)

Circle of Danger.jpg

It doesn’t do to go around sobbing and putting up monuments. American World War 2 veteran Clay Douglas (Ray Milland) arrives in London to find out how his little brother was the only casualty in a British commando operation in occupied France. He follows the trail to Scotland where he meets platoon officer Hamish McArran (Hugh Sinclair) who informs him that most of the men are now dead and he provides him with information to contact the few survivors. Clay encounters children’s novelist Elspeth Graham (Patricia Roc) who meets him again back in London where he starts to track down the remaining commandos and uncover what really happened while the pair begin a very uneasy romance …  If I were you I’d spank the little bastard – hard. Shot by the great British cinematographers Oswald Morris and Gilbert Taylor, this is a handsome production adapted by Philip MacDonald from his own novel. What it lacks in thrills it makes up for in a deceptive charm and there’s a good twist. Along the way we have a cold/hot/cold romance with Roc, whose motives remain a little clouded. Nonetheless it’s an interesting insight into necessary deaths in wartime, with the guy Peter Bogdanovich once called the roadshow Cary Grant acquitting himself well in the lead, working with director Jacques Tourneur to turn a vengeful character into a more understanding one. It doesn’t stand with Tourneur’s best work but there are nice supporting performances by Marius Goring, Naunton Wayne and Dora Bryan.  I think Hank was murdered by one of the other commandos in that raid