Malta Story (1953)

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They have many more planes. There’s not much to stop them. During World War II, British archaeologist turned photo-reconnaissance pilot Peter Ross (Alec Guinness) discovers that the Italians are planning a secret invasion of Malta, a strategically important island nation critical to keeping the Allied supply lines open. Though they have few resources left, Peter and his commanding officer, Frank (Jack Hawkins), resolve to fight off the enemy and save the island. At the same time, Peter struggles to keep his relationship with a local girl Maria (Muriel Pavlow) from falling apart. Her brother is discovered spying for the Axis powers and their mother (Flora Robson) is desperate to see him in British military prison …  The convoluted origins of this post-war propaganda outing typical of 1950s British studios lay in a book Briefed to Attack by Sir Hugh P. Lloyd and an idea by original director Thorold Dickinson and producer Peter de Sarigny with a story by William Fairchild (the three had a production company) which became a vehicle for the Ministry of Information:  it was a demonstration of the wartime co-operation between the air, military and naval services and the Siege of Malta was an appropriate backdrop. J. Arthur Rank hired Nigel Balchin to rewrite the script and hired Brian Desmond Hurst. There are some good performances here in what is quite the morality tale – Hawkins in particular has to maintain a stiff upper lip while sending men to their certain death. And all for information about enemy movements. It’s an efficient mix of melodrama and action with romance and espionage, interspersed with very tense newsreel footage and the occasional shock – like the bombing of a local island bus from which some of our protagonists have just disembarked. The spy subplot could have done with more space in the narrative however. It’s nice to at least recognise this vulnerable island, subject as it was to so many Luftwaffe attacks. The final scenes – a death, the emphasis on the decisions required in wartime and the devastation of a loved one lost, are very effective.

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The Night My Number Came Up (1955)

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They kept talking about the mainland.  They were in very heavy cloud.  It kept getting darker and darker … British Air Marshal Hardie (Michael Redgrave) is attending a party in Hong Kong when he hears of a dream, told by a pilot Commander Lindsay (Michael Hordern), in which Hardie’s flight to Tokyo on a small Dakota propeller plane crashes on a Japanese beach. Hardie dismisses the dream as pure fantasy, but while he is flying to Tokyo the next day, circumstances start changing to line up with the pilot’s vivid vision, including the plane they have to take and it looks like the dream disaster may become a reality… R. C. Sheriff’s screenplay is a game of two halves:  what happens in the first leg of the flight, when it doesn’t have quite the quota of components outlined by Lindsay;  but then the second leg has the flashy loudmouth businessman Bennett (George Rose) and all the fears of the passengers in the know about Lindsay’s prophetic dream start to manifest in their behaviour. Then they hit a storm, the wings ice up and they lose radio contact – and are to all intents and purposes lost. There are nice behavioural touches here, as people come to terms with their own beliefs in the supernatural or otherwise. There’s a nice ensemble including Ursula Jeans, Sheila Sim, Victor Maddern and Alfie Bass as a bolshie soldier. Director Leslie Norman found the original story, from the real-life journal of British Air Marshal Sir Victor Goddard in a 1951 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Ealing’s Michael Balcon wouldn’t let him write the script and turned it over to Sheriff whose efforts in the director’s opinion added nothing to the story. However the final twist is quite pleasing. Handled well. Almost as well as the flight itself!

Encore (1951)

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My great aunt Louise very nearly had a man’s mind. She also very nearly had a man’s moustache. Anthology dramatization of three short stories by W. Somerset Maugham.  The Ant and the Grasshopper: Tom (Nigel Patrick) is a thorn in the side of his diligent brother George (Roland Culver) but a chance meeting with a wealthy woman changes everything. Directed by Pat Jackson and adapted by T.E.B. Clarke. Winter Cruise: Miss Reid (Kay Walsh) is boring her fellow cruise ship passengers with incessant talking, so  led by the captain (Noel Purcell) they set her up on a date with a handsome steward (Jacques Francois) that has surprising consequences for everyone. Directed by Anthony Pelissier and adapted by Arthur Macrae. Gigolo and Gigolette: Stella (Glynis Johns) and her husband Syd (Terence Morgan) are professional daredevils, but her worries about the future upon meeting two old troupers with a similarly dangerous act prompt her to risk it all at the casino in Monte Carlo. Directed by Harold French and adapted by Eric Ambler. I’ve always had a taste for Maugham’s stories and this is a pleasingly piquant collection, each introduced by the man himself from Villa La Mauresque, his home on the Riviera, where some of the action is set. Each story has a different rhythm and tone and yet they all coalesce into a solid whole with the obligatory (and rather unexpected) twist ending, giving Glynis Johns one of the best of her early roles. This was the third of a trilogy of films based on Maugham’s stories and it’s a treat.

Cleopatra (1963)

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Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus. The Seventh Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) manipulates and falls in love with both Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) in her ill-fated attempt to save the Egyptian empire from a takeover by the Roman Empire. This love triangle is one of the most famous ever to be captured on film, with betrayal by trusted Octavian (Roddy McDowall), the murder of Caesar, the escape of Cleopatra who has borne Caesar’s son and the final, terrible defeat at Actium in Greece … What gets lost in the palaver about this truly epic historical saga which ruined Twentieth Century Fox for a while is just how good it is:  how it measures the scale of the action to the depth of performance. Elizabeth Taylor is imperious, vulnerable, scathing, dictatorial, brilliant and moving: What can I do? Where can I go in a world suddenly without you? You believe her. And she is matched by the acerbic Harrison, the slyly snide McDowall (we’re a long way from Lassie!), loyal Rufio (Martin Landau) and what about the very sad end of Burton whose line to Octavian makes you gulp with emotion:  Is there nobody who would grant Antony an honourable way to die? Oh! Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by C.M. Franzero and the histories by Plutarch, Appian and Suetonius the much-laboured upon screenplay is by Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, and director Joseph Mankiewicz who certainly suffered for everybody’s art as the man to take over the botched first attempt aborted in London and relaunched at Cinecitta in Rome. As legendary as this is for its effect on Hollywood, what shouldn’t be forgotten is what a brilliant spectacle it is. It’s quite breathtaking.

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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Kong’s a pretty good king. Keeps to himself, mostly. This is his home, we’re just guests. But you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight. Scientists, soldiers and adventurers unite to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. Cut off from everything they know, they venture into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting the ultimate battle between man and nature. As their mission of discovery soon becomes one of survival, they must fight to escape from a primal world where humanity does not belong. Tom Hiddleston is Conrad, the British Special Forces op (retired!) hired by monster hunter Bill Randa (John Goodman) who’s finagled money for the expedition from a disbelieving Senator. Samuel L. Jackson is Lt. Col. Preston Packard, in charge of a special chopper squadron chomping at the bit for a final military excursion. Brie Larson is Mason Weaver (hmm…..) a photographer and anti-war activist. She’s there for the Pulitzer. This is one last op for Nam vets who ain’t too happy at ‘abandoning’ a losing war. A man who believes in monsters. A Bermuda Triangle-type of island where God didn’t get to finesse His creations. Set in 1973, ie the Vietnam era and just before the 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges of the wonderful 1933 classic, this is a kind of gung-ho Apocalypse Now retread with extra monsters and gore. Yeah, right:  if you thought Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) was a gorilla. And there’s more than that because Marlow is played by John C. Reilly and he’s a soldier who’s been hanging on the island for nearly 30 years waiting to be rescued and he knows that Kong is in fact their only hope in this island that is hollow at the centre – and Kong needs to win the turf war against some incredibly frightening creatures who are even worse to humans than he is! So this plugs into modern myths too – all those Japanese soldiers on Pacific islands not aware WW2 ended long ago. The character of Marlow narrates all of Joseph Conrad’s books, including Heart of Darkness, establishing the framing story. Hmm, now you’re talking. With a horrible, unlikeable cast (what is it these days? Why are actors so yucky?) and a screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly you might think at some point someone would have pulled the plug or cast people empathetic enough for an audience to perhaps care if they survive an encounter with a gorilla minding his own business in his own home. Nope. They had to do it. They went there. But it is saved by the built-in snark (okay, self-awareness) that is a de facto part of all action blockbusters nowadays, reflecting from early exchanges in the dialogue the knowledge that the monster is …. us.  Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist till you’re looking for them.  There’s a very high body count and the romance is at a minimum but it looks dazzling and moves quickly – even with a little jungle stealth and camouflage. This takes no prisoners – it eats them. I blame the parents. Golly! Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Scared Stiff (1953)

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– This thing’s dead. – It’s in the right place. Vaudevillian Larry Todd (Dean Martin) thinks he’s killed a mobster in NYC and wants his sidekick Myron Mertz (Jerry Lewis) to get him out of the country on board a ship. Mary Carroll (Lizabeth Scott) inherits her family’s ancestral home on a small island off Cuba and despite warnings and death threats, decides to sail there and take possession of the supposedly haunted castle. Larry sees in a newspaper that he isn’t the killer after all but it’s too late – the ship has sailed. Once on the island the three enter the eerie castle and after seeing the ghost of one of Mary’s ancestors and fighting off a menacing zombie, find the key to the castle’s treasure… The Lewis-Martin shtick may not be to everyone’s taste and in fact they didn’t even want to remake George Marshall’s 1940 Bob Hope hit comedy The Ghost Breakers – because it was just about perfect. But Paramount had their way and it was turned into this (unfortunately monochrome) musical version of the 1909 play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard and adapted by Herbert Baker and Walter DeLeon. Norman Lear got his first screenwriting credit here for some rewriting work and Marshall was on directing duties again. Martin and Lewis purvey their spry act and the scene when Myron has to lip sync to Carmen Miranda’s song Mamae Eu Quero as the record sticks on the turntable is a highlight – her own performances aren’t too bad here either! But things really get going in the haunted house. Silly fun with an unexpected cameo (or pair of them.)

Sabrina (1954)

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Aka Sabrina Fair/La vie en rose – Oh Sabrina Sabrina Sabrina where have you been all my life?  – Right over the garage. Chauffeur’s daughter Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is an ugly duckling who tries to commit suicide in her employer’s limousine because of a bad case of unrequited love for boss’ son playboy David Larrabee (William Holden). He doesn’t even know she’s alive. So when she returns to Long Island from two years at cooking school in Paris a beautiful young woman she immediately catches three-times married David’s attention when he sees her waiting for her proper English father Thomas (John Williams) at the railway station. David woos and wins her but their romance is threatened by David’s serious older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), who runs the family business and is relying on David to marry an heiress Elizabeth (Martha Hyer) in order for a crucial corporate merger to take place. So when David’s back is out Linus tries to distract Sabrina and finds himself falling for her himself  but can’t admit it and plans to ship her back to Paris … This cynical romcom is extraordinary for a few things: its star wattage, its creepy Freudian setup (Bogart looks like Hepburn’s grandfather) and amazing dry wit. Samuel Taylor adapted his stageplay Sabrina Fair with contributions from Ernest Lehman and director Billy Wilder, who was making his last film at Paramount. Bogart behaved badly on set, believing he was miscast (Cary Grant was Wilder’s first choice) and wanting his wife Lauren Bacall in Hepburn’s role. He found Hepburn unprofessional because of her problems learning lines but just read some of the ones they delivered: Look at me, Joe College with a touch of arthritis. Or, Paris isn’t for changing planes it’s for changing your outlook. And, There’s a front seat and a back seat and a window in between. And perhaps its mission statement in a film about class and sex and money: Nobody poor was ever called democratic for marrying someone rich. This is a writer’s movie for sure! It’s really a movie about movies and how they pair off young girls with old men (how relevant is that nowadays with everything in the news?!) But it was the scene of a serious set romance for the blond-highlighted Holden and Hepburn and also the introduction of Hubert de Givenchy’s gowns to Hollywood, credited to Edith Head. When Hepburn walked into his Paris salon he thought he was going to meet Katharine Hepburn. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful screen association:  she is the very epitome of elfin beauty in this film, a duckling who grows into an astonishing swan. And she calls her French poodle David! The fact that she marries the much older, successful brother and heir to the family money isn’t remotely cynical, not at all! There are some very funny scenes, many taking place in the car and some at the boardroom where Bogart gets to fire guns at new plastic inventions. No wonder he apologised to everyone concerned at the conclusion of production. It gave him a role he hadn’t had before – an uptight stick in the mud who turns into a romantic lead – and at his age! 

The Master of Ballantrae (1953)

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A delightful sanctuary, monsieur. A safe haven for buccaneers! 1745 Scotland. At the Durrisdeer estate Jamie Durie (Errol Flynn), his younger brother Henry (Anthony Steel) and their father Lord Durrisdeer (Felix Aylmer) hear about the Jacobite rising. Their advisor MacKellar (Mervyn Johns) recommends that one son side with the rebels, the other with King George II, thus preserving the estate no matter who wins. Jamie wins to fight in the uprising in a coin toss above the objections of his fiancee Lady Alison (Beatrice Campbell). The rebels are crushed at Culloden and Jamie teams up with Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesey) a characterful Irish adventuring type and they manage to get back to Durrisdeer where they intend securing money and passage to France. Jamie’s mistress Jessie (Yvonne Furneaux) betrays him to the British out of jealousy over his relationship with Alison:  he is shot by Major Clarendon (Ralph Truman) and falls into the sea. Henry becomes the heir because Jamie is presumed dead – but instead he’s wounded and takes off with Burke on a ship bound for the West Indies. There they are betrayed by Captain McCauley (Moultrie Kelsall) and captured by pirates led by Captain Arnaud (Jacques Berthier) a man for whom execution is a spectator sport. Jamie goes into partnership with him and when they arrive at Tortugas Bay, they see a rich Spanish galleon captured by fellow buccaneer Captain Mendoza (Charles Goldner). Arnaud agrees to Jamie’s idea that they steal the ship. But then he turns on Jamie who kills him in a duel and takes command. They sail for Scotland and Jamie returns to the family estate with pirate treasure, only to arrive in a middle of a party celebrating Henry’s engagement – to Alison! He confronts his brother, despite the presence of British officers. A fight breaks out, in which Henry tries to aid Jamie. The unequal fight ends with Jamie and Burke condemned to death. Jessie helps them escape, at the cost of her own life. Henry also assists them. Jamie tells his brother of the location of some treasure which Henry can then use to pay off Jamie’s gambling debts. Alison decides to go with Jamie to an uncertain future and she, Burke and Jamie all ride off together. This Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation isn’t a major pirate film or actioner but it has lots of good things about it – even if the wonderfully charismatic and handsome Flynn was clearly showing signs of premature ageing despite Jack Cardiff’s lovely photography. Livesey (of all people!) has the lion’s share of the fun dialogue as the rambunctious Irishman in a movie that has pretty much everything – dancing, swashbuckling, pirates, Indians, politics, romance and betrayal. What more do you want?! Oh, it’s got a tragic sacrifice by a beautiful woman and a wonderfully jaunty score by William Alwyn. And just relish those fabulous pirate scenes shot in Palermo, standing in for the West Indies. Adapted by Herb Meadow and Harold Medford and directed by William Keighley, whose fourth and final film with Flynn this was and in fact it marked his retirement from the movies.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

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My God I’ve never seen anything like it – a gigantic wall of water heading directly for the ship! The SS Poseidon is on its last voyage from New York to Athens before retirement. Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) is a troublesome priest being sent to Africa as punishment. Detective Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-prostitute wife Linda (Stella Stevens) are dealing with her seasickness and a man who recognises her. Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) and her little brother Robin (Eric Shea) are squabbling on the trip that will see them meet with their parents. Manny Rosen (Jack Albertson) and his wife Belle (Shelley Winters) are going to Israel to meet their new grandson. Nonnie (Carol Lynley) is rehearsing songs with her brother in the ballroom for the New Year’s Eve dance. Bachelor James Martin (Red Buttons) confesses his shyness at the captain’s table at dinner. And then a tidal wave (what we now call a tsunami) capsizes the ship and their whole world is upside down and flooding quickly … Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel gets a great adaptation by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes who distill people’s essential characters into pithy exchanges and lines of action – let’s face it in a situation like this there’s no time for sweet nothings. Producer Irwin Allen assembled a star-ridden cast for this disaster movie to end them all. A raft of Oscar winners – Borgnine, Winters, Buttons, Albertson – make it into the final half dozen who swim, climb and beat their way to the engine room on the upturned vessel and the pressure (water, religious and otherwise) is intense as they are led by Scott who is invested with crazed levels of commitment by Hackman. But before they can be saved there are terrible personal sacrifices… And you thought you’ve had bad New Year’s Eves! This is thrilling from start to finish! Directed by Ronald Neame with a lot of interiors done on the Queen Mary docked at Long Beach and a resonant score by John Williams.

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!