Fire Over England (1937)

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Forgive him, Excellency. His father’s ashes blow in his eyes and he cannot see. Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) is dealing with her country’s deteriorating relationship with Spain. Michael Ingolby (Laurence Olivier), a naval officer whose father was killed fighting the Spanish, volunteers to go undercover in the Spanish court when Hilary Vane (James Mason) is killed while spying but before the names of the conspirators are revealed.  He learns plans are afoot to send an armada to ambush the British navy. Meanwhile, the aging Elizabeth, who has fallen for the dashing Ingolby, struggles with his fixation on one of her beautiful ladies-in-waiting Cynthia (Vivien Leigh). In Spain things get complicated when Ingolby tells Elena (Tamara Desni) of his real identity and she tells her husband palace governor Don Pedro (Robert Newton)… In the Old, power. In the New, gold. The first time that Leigh was paired with Olivier in a vehicle tailored for her by Alexander Korda, this wonderful production is unfortunately shot in monochrome – a shame because the colour production stills of this gorgeous pair in each other’s arms are just swoonsome. Adapted from A.E.W. Mason’s novel by Clemence Dane and Sergei Nolbandov, this has a deal of wit, particularly a wonderful dinnertime disquisition on prudence by Ingolgy. Robson is superb as Queen Bess and Raymond Massey is excellent as Philip II. It’s effectively shot by James Wong Howe and scored by Richard Addinsell but languishes in comparison with the following year’s Technicolor Hollywood production The Adventures of Robin Hood. Directed by William K. Howard. Everybody should come to me first

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Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous (2005)

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I just don’t want to become FBI Barbie again. Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) is Amiable Agent according to the newspapers following her success at the Miss United States pageant but it fouls up her success in the middle of a bank heist. When her romance with a fellow agent ends she spends ten months being made over as the face of the FBI enduring book signings and teamed with bodyguard Sam Fuller (Regina King) who is far from impressed with her celebrity. The pair has to put aside their differences when one of Gracie’s former beauty queen pals, Cheryl Frasier (Heather Burns) is kidnapped with pageant MC Stan Fields (William Shatner) and the FBI is put on the case but Gracie decides this is one for her on her own.  Fuller has other ideas … The face of the FBI uses her words or her fists. Not a chair. And no snorting. Bullock returns a few weeks after becoming runner-up to Miss United States and she’s her old self, just dying to hit somebody except her fame is foiling her effectiveness on the job. Beauty queen rivalry is replaced with her violent new colleague Fuller, which sucks up the energy she used on her departed boyfriend now stationed in Miami. There are fun moments and a nice chase with a supposed Dolly Parton impersonator (with a nice cameo by you know who). Not as charming as its predecessor with more PC marks hit (gay, black, drag, kid, etc) but mildly entertaining. Bullock’s charm carries most of it and there are some good exchanges when she uses pageant clichés in highly inappropriate scenarios. King is good as the tough lady who beats up on anyone – even Regis Philbin and old people looking for Gracie’s autograph –  and it’s nice to see Treat Williams as the Vegas bureau chief and Eileen Brennan as Shatner’s mom but even in a comedy Enrique Marciano’s dimwit agent beggars belief. Great advertising for Vegas though! Written and produced by Marc Lawrence (based on characters by him, Caryn Lucas and Katie Ford) and directed by John Pasquin.  It’s been months since I had a good debriefing although I’m really more of a boxers man

 

 

The Harder They Fall (1956)

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What do you care what a bunch of bloodthirsty, screaming people think of you? Did you ever get a look at their faces? They pay a few lousy bucks hoping to see a man get killed. To hell with them! Think of yourself. Get your money and get out of this rotten business.  After seventeen years reporter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself out of work when his newspaper folds. He’s so skint he agrees to work for the shady boxing promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to help hype his new boxer, the massive Argentinian heavyweight Toro Moreno (Mike Lane). Toro looks the part but he has no actual boxing talent and all his fights are fixed. When he gets a shot at the title against the brutal and sadistic Buddy Brannen (Max Baer), Willis is faced with the tough decision of whether or not to tell Toro that his entire career is a sham as they move eastwards across the country and one fighter is killed in the ring and Brannen wants to fix Toro good … What gives, Eddie? I looked up Toro in the book. There’s no record of him in South America. Famous as Bogart’s final film before his death from cancer, this is a characterful work about ethics from Philip Yordan’s sparky screenplay which he adapted from Budd Schulberg’s novel. Bogart has an admirable arc as he evolves from a cynical sportswriter to the press agent coming to terms with the horrible corruption at the core of his sport:  will he write an exposé and take it down? The pairing of Steiger with Schulberg’s material again two years after On the Waterfront has its own attractions as well as offering an opportunity to see his Method acting stylings clash with Bogart’s classical theatrics. Jan Sterling does well as Bogart’s wife, functioning overtly as his conscience while Harold J. Stone is terrific as Bogart’s colleague, a broadcaster who can’t stand how he’s promoting Toro. Burnett Guffey’s glistening monochrome cinematography gives us some of the best fight scenes we’ll ever see in this tragic epic about life bristling within the ropes. Tough as you like, this was inspired by real-life boxer Primo Canera. Directed by Mark Robson.  Don’t fight it, Eddie! What are you trying to do, hold onto your self-respect? Did your self-respect help you hold your job? Did your self-respect give you a new column?  

Journey Into Fear (1943)

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I’m not indispensable! There are plenty of men with my qualifications! Howard Graham (Joseph Cotten) an American gunnery engineer in Istanbul becomes the target of a Nazi assassination due to his involvement in improving the Turkish navy. With the help of the chief of the Turkish secret police Colonel Haki (an underplaying Orson Welles) who doesn’t want the Germans killing him on his watch, Graham escapes from his hotel where he’s booked in with his wife Stephanie (Ruth Warrick) to board a ship to safety, leaving his wife behind. On board, he encounters a number of passengers, including the dancer Josette Martel (Dolores del Río). However, the passenger Peter Banat (Jack Moss) is not who he appears to be and as we know from the opening scene he’s in Istanbul to carry out an assassination…You’re a ballistics expert and you’ve never fired one of these things?! Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten adapted Eric Ambler’s transeuropean spy novel (with uncredited contributions by Richard Collins) and Welles also co-directed the film (uncredited) with Norman Foster. The protagonist is altered from the novel and there are as many blind alleys as there are red herrings in this confusing mélange but it’s still what Graham Greene would call an entertainment with the Mercury Theater/Citizen Kane crew augmented by the stunning Dolores Del Rio in pussycat headgear. Ah, you have this advantage over the soldier, Mr. Graham. You can run away without being a coward.  There’s a level of wit (including some amusing sound edits and the song I’d Know You Anywhere) in the enterprise which you’d expect from all concerned and a nice role for Everett Sloane as Kopeikin – whoever he might be! Despite its being butchered by RKO (Ambler reportedly didn’t even recognise the story as his own at a screening) and its original narration being removed (restored for a screening at Locarno some years back) there are still enough flourishes to flatter Welles in his detective/thriller-directing incarnation and a very enjoyable high stakes finale. You are going to hospital. You are going to have typhus!

 

A Woman’s Secret (1949)

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I’ll admit mister that I’ve heard stories that make less sense than that. Popular singer Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) suddenly and inexplicably loses her voice, causing a shake-up at the nightclub where she performs. Her worried but loyal piano playe Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas) helps to promote a new, younger singer Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame) to temporarily replace Marian. Susan finds some early acclaim after being coached and improved, expanding her very limited range, but decides to leave the club after a few performances. Soon after Susan quits, she is shot and Marian becomes a suspect, telling the police that she shot Susan in a fury when she told her she was giving up singing, forfeiting the future she herself could have had. Luke counts on Detective Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) being able to prove Marian’s innocence Mrs. Fowler never seems to realise that crime goes on twenty-four hours a day.  Adapted from Vicki Baum’s Mortgage on Life by producer and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, this was Nicholas Ray’s debut feature, although They Live By Night was released first. The constant flashbacks make more of a mystery than there really is, with O’Hara particularly good as the woman who is basically scorned – by another woman. Their contrasting performing styles carry the film. There are some nice visual touches but hardly of the variety that mark out Ray’s later work and this is rather a perverse noir rendered more straight backstage melodrama by virtue of the presence of Douglas who never lets things get too strange. Mary Philips – the first Mrs Humphrey Bogart – is terrific as Mrs Fowler, the person who gets to the bottom of it all in a story that throws up some bright dialogue.  I’ve told you we’re going to keep talking about this until we stumble on something or other that will clear it up

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

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Aka Hollywood’s Brightest Bombshell.  The story of Hedwig Kiesler aka Hedy Lamarr, the daughter of assimilated Austrian Jews who started acting as a teenager; achieved infamy for the Czech film Ecstasy in which she appeared naked and simulated an orgasm; married a Jewish arms dealer who traded with the Nazis; and eventually fled Europe as World War 2 approached. Her dealings with Louis B. Mayer at MGM and the dissatisfaction she experienced at the studio with her roles are offset by the revelation that she kept an inventing kit supplied by friend Howard Hughes (to whom she suggested aircraft design modifications) in her dressing room and at home.  She wanted to help the war effort any way she could. Eventually she would team up with composer George Antheil to invent a frequency-hopping system to make Allied comms elude detection by the Nazis:  the US Navy had already given her idea for radio-controlled torpedoes short shrift. She was told to go out and be a good obedient little woman and sell war bonds instead. It was decades later that she realised the military had taken the idea for wireless communications and ran with it, birthing bluetooth, GPS et al, without giving her credit or a cent. By the time she found out it was outside the statue of limitations;  Antheil had died in 1959. She produced two films with Jack Chertok which was verboten for actors in Hollywood in the immediate post-war period;  both made a small profit. Her marriages to older men repeatedly broke down, she adopted children and gave birth to children, and moved from city to city; her stardom disappeared by the late 1950s and she was hooked on the drugs the studio had been supplying to keep her going for those long six-day weeks. She wound up in court in 1966 for shoplifting $80 of goods – she had $14,000 in her purse at the time. Or rather, she didn’t go to court because her son was injured in a car crash – she sent her body double instead! She then put her name to a memoir she didn’t write and went on the chat show circuit. She was upset by the ‘almost use’ of her name in Blazing Saddles and sued.  She attempted a comeback but it coincided with another shoplifting incident. She was still staggeringly beautiful yet she became a recluse, having more and more facelifts to fix the preceding mistakes boosting her bust and distorting her looks … Alexandra Dean’s film about arguably the most beautiful star in Hollywood is a mixed bag – not in a bad way, but because Hedy Lamarr’s life was complex and interesting with her scientific bent obscured by her beauty and her devotion to her father mirrored in her regular marriages to much older men who abused her. The ease with which she dispatched one adopted son (only admitted  latterly to her daughter who didn’t recognise a boy in a photograph) first to military school and then to a different home is shocking:  they didn’t speak for another forty years but today he doesn’t blame her (albeit he sued to control her estate – he lost). He had hit her across her face and that was that. At that point Lamarr was hooked on the speed the studio had been giving her and it showed in her appearance. Her later years were mired in one cosmetic surgery after another – to repair the previous damage:  but even in this she was on the frontier of change as she instructed surgeons where to make incisions (behind the ear, the knee, wherever there were naturally occurring folds of skin). Her first adopted son transpired to be her actual biological offspring by her third husband, John Loder, whom she married after divorcing then-husband, screenwriter Gene Markey. The first third of the film deals with her background and her years as an actress in Hollywood;  the middle section deals with her inventions. The final third is primarily about the multiple marriages and decline, looking at the way her celebrity was prized by cheap magazines and Andy Warhol and how she was so cruelly mocked by Lucille Ball. The coda to her invention of wireless technology stolen by the US military and now valued at in excess of $35 billion is her son’s appearance at an event in 1999 broken up by her phonecall to him as he accepts an award on her behalf. She declared she had no regrets;  she died shortly thereafter. This, then, was no dumb actress:  a product of a terrible time for women during which she paradoxically found personal liberty by becoming involved in the arts and cinema, she stifled her own true voice as an engineer and inventor and wound up becoming the helpmeet to one incompatible husband after another. She had no idea what she was doing during the shoot for Ecstasy – she recalled being asked to move her arms together over her face. That’s how the director achieved her famous orgasm on film. She was filmed naked on long lenses hidden behind trees. Her son James bemoans the fact that no man was ever worthy of her. Fans of her films will be disappointed at the lack of attention given to her performing style and her impact on cinema outside of her physical allure – we see photo after photo of Hollywood actresses who changed their style after she arrived with such a breathtaking bang in Algiers, a Mitteleuropäische sophisticate from the most elegant city in the world afloat in a sea of shopgirls and waitresses, refusing to sign autographs and happiest on her own. She played historic women with verve and sexual threat – Empress Sissi on the Viennese stage, Helen of Troy, Empress Josephine, Genevieve of Brabant:  it never translated into her place in cinema. Forever a fish out of water, Lamarr was never happy in any of the roles assigned to her, denying her Jewish origins, her true talents and criminally treated by the powers that be who took advantage of her inventions to feather their own research nests. Her ashes are buried in the Vienna Woods:  she finally came home to her beloved Austria, decades after the jackboots had been stopped from stomping all over. In 2014 she was admitted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her creation of broad-spectrum technology. This is a salutary tale, told in a beguiling mixture of photos, newsreel, film clips and interviews, from a solid base of audio recordings with the redoubtable Lamarr herself. It is practically a refutation of the glamour of celebrity and the idea that we can ever truly know the stars of the silver screen. Hedy Lamarr changed the course of the twentieth century and we are only now beginning to catch up with her staggering achievements. This laudable film is just the latest addition to a burgeoning industry of books and shows and movies about a woman who was completely misunderstood in her own time. You could say she was lost in translation.

Pitch Perfect 3 (2017)

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One of the hottest groups on the planet – they are Ever Moist! After the highs of winning the world championships, a capella group the Bellas find themselves split apart and discovering there aren’t job prospects for making music with your mouth. Beca (Anna Kendrick) will not play second fiddle to a dreadful rapper and gives up her producing job.  Inadvertently reunited by Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) who mistakenly believes everyone is happy in their jobs, they jump at a chance to go on an overseas USO tour courtesy of Aubrey’s (Anna Camp) neglectful naval commander father. When they arrive at their departure point they find out from John (John Michael Higgins) and Gail (Elizabeth Banks) who are filming them for a documentary that they are now in a competition once again. They have come together to make some music in some glamorous locations but find themselves up against a group that play instruments as well as sing. Beca still wants to DJ and sees an opportunity when DJ Khaled materialises with his entourage but when Fat Amy’s errant criminal dad Fergus (John Lithgow) surfaces the entire group are put in danger because he wants to access an account she didn’t even know she had … I’ve been a very naughty girl Turnip Top! The relationship between cosy crim and Fat Amy, his every arrival signalled by her pink bunny rabbit, is at the heart of the ‘plot,’ which is otherwise paper-thin if fun. The last in a franchise, this peters out but with some witty moments, usually connected with Wilson and her deadly put-downs. The concluding action sequence is a blast. Naturally the finale is a performance. Despite the wonderful locations, the cinematography feels cheap and doesn’t take total advantage of the visual possibilities, more like a home movie tape of highlights which echoes the rudimentary storytelling, held together by some fun performances. All that’s left is to weigh up how much smaller Kendrick can get, and how much bigger Wilson can become… Written by Kay Cannon and Mike White and directed by Trish Sie.

The Cruel Sea (1953)

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No one murdered them. It’s the war, the whole bloody war. We’ve got to do these things and say our prayers at the end.  Despite his guilt over a recent harrowing sea battle in which many of his men were lost, Lt. Cmdr. George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) is assigned to helm the new H.M.S. Compass Rose with the help of steadfast seaman Lt. Lockhart (Donald Sinden). When the small vessel (a corvette) is sent to escort convoys of ships fighting German U-boats in the North Atlantic, the mettle of the novice crew is tested by the weather, the turbulent sea and enemy attacks in the Battle of the Atlantic, one of which nearly destroys the Compass Rose… Nicholas Monsarrat’s book was hugely meaningful to seafaring folk (like my grandfather) especially if they’d had experiences during WW2. Eric Ambler’s adaptation takes what the author described as ‘a story of one ocean, two ships, and about one hundred and fifty men’ and inscribes more character psychology to make the plot turn. This does not shirk from the terror that invariably affects the men, with Hawkins’ stiff upper lip quivering more than once in the onslaught. The decisions that are made – such as whether to launch depth charges – tear at him. His relationship with Lockhart is the story’s fulcrum: Monsarrat based that character on himself. He had been a journalist before the war and served for four years in the Royal Navy.  Stanley Baker (as cowardly Australian Bennett) and Denholm Elliott (as Sub-Lieutenant Morell) have crucial supporting roles, while Virginia McKenna makes a striking appearance as Julie Hallam, a WRNS officer. There are other well-known faces down the ranks and on land: Liam Redmond, Alec McCowen,  Sam Kydd, Megs Jenkins. The Fifties British war film had a difficult job:  to serve up the realism that the audience deserved while also being mindful of the tricky area of censorship. This is a superb example of a film that does justice to its subject while avoiding some of the book’s elements (sex scenes;  precise details of what happens to bodies split by explosives) that would never make it past the censor’s scissors. Produced by Leslie Norman, Norman Priggen and Michael Balcon and directed by Charles Frend, this is a spirited, harrowing depiction of six years at sea in a war of utter futility that the U-boats were slated to win, a tragic tale of bravery that does not glamorise the combat scenes which end so cruelly for so many. Tremendous.

 

 

On the Waterfront (1954)

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Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up! Hoboken dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) had been an up-and-coming prize-fighting boxer until powerful local mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) persuaded him to throw a fight. His older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right hand man and lawyer. When longshoreman Joey Doyle is murdered before he can testify about Friendly’s control of the Hoboken waterfront, Terry teams up with the dead man’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and the streetwise priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) to do something about the violent gangsters controlling the dock. Terry finally figures out it was Charley getting him to throw a fight at Madison Square Garden that put him in this jam. He decides to go against his advice and testify … Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts. This classic film can never be separated from its origins:  Arthur Miller wanted to write about the infiltration of the dockers’ unions by the Mafia and his project The Hook was brought to Columbia with Elia Kazan as director but Harry Cohn insisted the criminals be called communists instead. Sam Spiegel took it on and Frank Sinatra was tapped to play Terry inintially. Miller gave up on it completely when Kazan testified and named names at the HUAC (if he hadn’t his career was dead, he named people whose names were already known); and fellow friendly witness Budd Schulberg’s screenplay could be partly attributed to a series of articles based on a true story about a longshoreman who tried to do something about union corruption. It didn’t work. (A series of lawsuits arose with the studio because Schulberg had talked to a number of individuals about racketeering and they recognised their story onscreen).  The original ending was rejected because of the censors:  crime could not win. So there is a brutal fight.  Brando’s was not the only influential acting in this film, which is a hymn to mid-century Method style, a kind of heightened reality with actors finding ‘business,’ like the accidentally dropped glove that Brando picked up and stroked, an unplanned incident that adds to the film’s text. And that legendary taxi scene between Brando and Steiger? Brando was a soft guy. He hated the cold. He wanted to be back in his hotel all the time when they were on the docks. This particular scene was shot in the studio and he wouldn’t do the decent thing and do the reverses for Rod Steiger after Steiger had acted his ass off for Brando’s shots. Steiger had to emote to a stage hand reading the script. Brando won the Academy Award and the film got Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actress (for Saint), Art Direction, Editing and Cinematography (for Boris Kaufman.) Leonard Bernstein should have won for Best Score because he makes the big dialogue scenes work. Turns out you can justify anything.  I’m standing over here now. I was rattin’ on myself all those years. I didn’t even know it.

In Which We Serve (1942)

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This is the story of a ship. After the dive-bomb sinking of the destroyer HMS Torrin during the Battle of Crete in 1941, the ship’s survivors including Captain Kinross (Noël Coward), Chief Petty Officer Hardy (Bernard Miles) and Seaman Blake (John Mills) of the Royal Navy recall their tour of duty in flashback – including Dunkirk and their life under the Blitz – while awaiting rescue in lifeboats.  They are still being strafed by German aeroplanes as they cling onto a Carley float in the open waters of the Mediterranean … Inspired by the experiences of Lord Louis Mountbatten, his friend actor and playwright Noël Coward made his directing debut, co-directing with editor David Lean. It’s an outstanding piece of propaganda, delineating the class differences between the different levels of serviceman with Coward a model of condescension, carefully creating scenes designed to unify people. Brilliantly stirring piece of nation-building with a marvellous score and Mills beginning a long career as the embodiment of British Everyman. Shot by Ronald Neame, edited by Lean with Thelma Connell and narrated by Leslie Howard. Shoot when you see the whites of their eyes!