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 Sea Wolves (1980)

The Sea Wolves

It’s insane and you know it. Put together a plan! During WW2 German submarines are sinking British merchant ships and Intelligence Services believe the information is being radioed from a transmitter on a German ship interned in Goa, Portuguese ie neutral territory so any attack has to be done unconventionally. The Special Operations Executive approach the Territorial Unit of British expatriates – the Calcutta Light Horse – who are all military veterans mostly deployed in civilian life. They are led by Col. Lewis Henry Owain Pugh (Gregory Peck), Col. W.H. Grice (David Niven) and Captain Gavin Stewart (Roger Moore) and they recruit a number of their former colleagues who require a brief training course to reacquaint them with combat before they can hijack and down the ship in question. Jack Cartwright (Trevor Howard) is in no condition to join them but he persuades them and he’s the first to realise that Stewart’s romantic interest ‘Mrs Cromwell’ (Barbara Kellerman) is not who she claims to be. The men’s quarry is the German known as ‘Trompeta’ (Wolf Kahler) and to get to him requires infiltrating diplomatic circles and avoiding being murdered before finally launching a raiding party from a decrepit barge … He was about to kill me – or you. That’s the sort of thing that tends to make me impulsive. What appears to be the first geriaction movie long before the term came into popular usage is actually a true story. This adaptation of James Leasor’s faction book Boarding Party by Reginald Rose takes some liberties and conjures some fictions but it’s all in the name of entertainment. It might seem like the boys from Navarone have been reassembled but eventually it’s Moore who comes to the fore and it’s only a matter of time before he dons a tuxedo and reverts to Bondian type doing a fine job of espionage while romancing the attractive German agent out to kill him (a character created for the film). There’s a gallery of familiar faces, many of whom appeared with Moore in The Wild Geese, from Patrick Macnee and Michael Medwin to Glyn Houston and Terence Longdon, with Faith Brook having a nice bit as Niven’s wife. After the initial setup it’s a rollicking actioner and a fascinating portrait of the colonial life during a war taking place on other territories and is wonderfully shot by Tony Imi on location. The score by Roy Budd has fun with military motifs while the theme song is an arrangement of The Warsaw Concerto by John Addinsell with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and it’s performed by the redoubtable Matt Monro. Incredibly this was made with the assistance of German survivors of the sunken ship! Dedicated to Lord Louis Mountbatten. Directed by reliable action helmer Andrew V. McLaglen. It starts off like an Hungarian omelette

The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972)

The Magnificent Seven Ride

Aka The Magnificent Seven 4Seven’s always been my lucky number. Former gunslinger Chris Adams (Lee Van Cleef) has put his rowdy days behind him, settling down with new wife Arrilla (Mariette Hartley) and serving as the sheriff of his town in the Arizona territory. When his old pal Jim Mackay (Ralph Waite) asks for help defending the border town of Magdalena, Mexico, from a marauding bandit named Juan De Toro (Ron Stein) and his 50-strong band of outlaws, Chris refuses. Arrilla persuades him to reluctantly release teenage bankrobber Shelly Donovan (Darrell Larson) but Donovan and his gang kidnap and hang her after they rob another bank and wound Chris in the getaway. He then enlists a cutthroat gang of prisoners led by Mark Skinner (Luke Askew) to help him get revenge, pursuing De Toro into Mexican territory and helping a town of women who’ve been raped by the marauding men, including widowed mother Laurie Gunn (Stefanie Powers), while newspaper reporter Noah Forbes (Michael Callan) accompanies him to document the latest events in his storied career out West as he kidnaps De Toro’s woman (Rita Rogers) setting up a shootout to even the score … There sure has been a lot of killing since I met you. With Lee Van Cleef in the saddle as the redoubtable Chris, you know you’re in good hands. If it never feels exciting, exactly, there’s a decent plot by Arthur Crowe that turns the screws more than once, it has pretty good roles for two of my favourite actresses and it’s all set up well visually by director George McCowan and cinematographer Fred Koenekamp. And there’s still the variation on that legendary score by Elmer Bernstein anchoring the action which is pretty much nonstop. Don’t die just ridin’, that’d be a real anti-climax

First Blood (1982)

First Blood theatrical

Killed for vagrancy in Jerkwater USA. Former ‘Nam vet, Green Beret John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) arrives in a small town in the Pacific North West looking for his former colleague whom he discovers has died from a cancer caused by Agent Orange. Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) doesn’t like the look of him and tells him to get out of his town but Rambo is hungry and comes back because he just wants something to eat. Teasle cites him for vagrancy and hands him to his colleagues to teach him a lesson. Rambo has flashbacks to his torture at the hands of the Viet Cong and beats up his assailants before escaping into the local woods where he is hunted by the police and then Teasle gets unwanted help from Rambo’s senior officer, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), who declares of the war hero, God didn’t make Rambo – I made him. He contacts Rambo by radio and tries to reason with him, promising him an escape route. But Rambo has a score to settle, escaping from the cave where he has secured a hiding place and confronting the National Guard before he has his revenge on Teasle  … I’m going to pin that Congressional Medal of Honour to his liver. It may lack the irony and subtlety of the original 1972 novel about PTSD by David Morrell but it makes up for it in the pure thrill of pursuit, sustained justifiable violence and its morality narrative about what really separates the men from the boys:  war. Let it go. Let it go! Crenna’s almost paternal pride in his killer progeny is laugh out loud enjoyable, Stallone’s ingenuity at survival is a must-see in these lockdown self-sufficiency days and the overall affect is one of sheer unadorned (but not unmotivated) violence. It’s wonderful when the police realise, He’s hunting us! Gripping and visceral by turn, it’s short, sharp and brilliant with a couple of really smart scenes between the marvellous Crenna and the late great Dennehy, who really doesn’t understand what he’s dealing with. People start fuckin’ around with the law, all hell breaks loose. A young David Caruso has a good role as a policeman disgusted by his co-workers’ attack on Rambo; while if you look quickly you’ll notice Bruce Greenwood as a Guardsman. Stallone rewrote the original screenplay by Michael Kozzoll and William Sackheim to make the protagonist more sympathetic and you truly empathise with this misunderstood soldier. There’s a notable score by Jerry Goldsmith with a theme song that enhances Rambo’s persona as more victim than villain. It’s all directed by Ted Kotcheff. The first of three in the series, this is iconic. Nothing is over. You just don’t turn it off

Return of the Seven (1966)

Return of the Seven

Aka Return of the Magnificent SevenWe got to stand along side of ’em so that someday they can stand alone. Fifty gunmen force all the men in a small Mexican village to ride off with them into the desert. Among the captured farmers is love-smitten Chico (Julián Mateos), who three years before was one of seven hired gunslingers responsible for ridding the village of the tyrannical bandit, Calvera. Chico’s wife, Petra (Elisa Montés), looks for the only other members of the band to survive: Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Robert Fuller). She begs them to save the village once again. To replace the deceased members of the group, Chris buys the release of a brooding gunman Frank (Claude Akins) and famous bandit Luis (Virgilio Teixeira), held in the local jail, and recruits two more: sharpshooting ladies’ man Colbee (Warren Oates) and young cockfighter Manuel (Jordan Christopher). The men discover that the missing villagers are being used as slave labor to rebuild a desert village and church as a memorial to the dead sons of wealthy and psychotic rancher Francisco Lorca (Emilio Fernándes). In a surprise attack, the six gunmen force Lorca’s men to leave and prepare for a counterattack with Chico. The cowed farmers offer no help but the seven defenders successfully repel Lorca’s initial attack. Lorca then gathers all the men on his land to rout the seven men. The situation seems bleak until Manuel discovers a supply of dynamite which the seven use in a counteroffensive… Sure Chico is a friend of mine. But, hell, I don’t even know his last name. The first sequel to The Magnificent Seven is written by one (future) auteur, Larry Cohen and directed by another, Burt Kennedy, who already had form with a series of superb screenplays starting the previous decade.  This is his fourth film as director and unfortunately he does not marshal the drama in the exciting way you’d hope. Part of the miracle of the legendary first film was the spot-on casting but only Brynner makes the cut here, and despite more or less the same premise and setting, with location shooting in Spain, Fernando Rey as the priest, and a rousing score – a re-recorded version of the original from Elmer Bernstein – this never hits the same notes of of empathy or sheer bravado even with a wealth of decent banter and action. The avengers may have reassembled, but Fuller is no Steve McQueen and Mateos is no substitute for Horst Buchholz.  What they really need is Eli Wallach to return as the consummate bad guy. In all the years I made my way with a gun, I never once shot a man just to see him fall

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The Man Who Knew Too Much 1934

Let that be a lesson to you. Never have any children. On a family holiday in Saint Moritz, Switzerland, Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his wife, Jill (Edna Best), become friendly with Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) who is staying in their hotel. He is assassinated in their presence, but as he is dying manages to passes along a secret to Jill, asking her to contact the British consulate. To keep the pair silent, a band of foreign assassins kidnaps their teenage daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Offered no help by the police, Bob and Jill hunt for their daughter back in London as they try to understand the information that they have before tracing the kidnappers and once again encountering the cunning Abbott (Peter Lorre) in very compromising circumstances while an assassination is due to take place during a concert at the Albert HallYou must learn to control your fatherly feelings. Providing a template for much of director Alfred Hitchcock’s subsequent career, this is written by Charles Bennett and D. B. Wyndham Lewis with a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlinson (and additional dialogue by Emlyn Williams) and it’s a gripping and blackly comic suspenser with a simple lesson – if a gun goes off in the first act it’s bound to go off again in the third, in order to bring things to a pleasingly grim conclusion in an extended siege and shootout. Hitchcock’s experience in German cinema is telling in terms of editing and design (for which Alfred Junge is responsible) and it moves quickly and effectively, suiting his talents far better than the slow-moving melodramas he made after the coming of sound, with nary a moment to contemplate some of the zingers which particularly work for Lorre’s sly delivery. Above all it’s a fascinating portrait of subversives in the seedier parts of London, influenced by the 1911 Sidney Street siege, a Conradian subject of anarchy to which Hitchcock would soon return. You’ll be agog at the gathering at the Tabernacle of the Sun and amused by Banks and his mate Clive (Hugh Wakefield) singing out instructions to each other to the tune of a hymn. Hitchcock’s future assistant and producer Joan Harrison has a small uncredited role as a secretary but it’s Best you’ll remember as the brilliant sharpshooting mother – you don’t want to mess with the woman. Don’t breathe a word!

Legal Eagles (1986)

Legal Eagles

Objection, your honour. The defence has just fondled one of the jurors. Divorced New York City assistant District Attorney Tom Logan (Robert Redford) is busy alternately fighting and flirting with his defence lawyer adversary Laura Kelly (Deborah Winger) and her unpredictable artist client Chelsea Deardon (Daryl Hannah) who is on trial for a murder she did not commit and wraps Tom around her little finger as the case against her builds … I’m not going to lose him. Where is he? Truly a star vehicle from writer/director Ivan Reitman with Redford in his once-a-decade comedy but armed with a really good supporting cast too including Brian Dennehy, Terence Stamp, Christine Baranski and Davids Clennon and Hart. Styled as a Tracy-Hepburn battle of the sexes comedy it lacks the quickfire dialogue you’d expect and Winger plays her role kind of soft but Redford is really charming. The leads are slightly overwhelmed by Hannah, cast on point as the kooky performance artist in a story which recalls the scandal that descended upon the estate of Mark Rothko. The screenplay is by Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr., that powerhouse screenwriting partnership, from a story by Reitman and the screenwriters. It’s a bit overloaded for such lightweight fun but it does have a lovely sense of NYC and if you look quickly you’ll see a bottle of Newman’s Own salad dressing on Winger’s dining table. Do you always cross-examine people?/Only when they lie to me

Venetian Bird (1952)

Venetian Bird

Aka The Assassin. A thousand lira should take care of your ethics. English private detective Charles Mercer (Richard Todd) is deployed by a French insurance company to find a brave Italian war hero who is to be rewarded for his assisting of the Allies in WW2. But from the moment Mercer arrives in Venice his first contact is murdered in a shop and he finds himself on the wrong side of the law – he’s the prime suspect. After enquiring about the mysterious Boldesca (Sydney Tafler) at a museum where the art department  is run by the lovely Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok) the trail leads to a glassblowing factory at Murano where he discovers he has wandered into the plot of a coup d’état run by Count Boria (Wolf Rilla) and Lieutenant Longo (John Bailey) and it turns out that the supposedly dead mystery man Uccello (John Gregson) is very much alive and well and ready for action with an important figure visiting the city the following day … There is nothing for you in Venice. Adapted by Victor Canning from his novel, this has the impression of a Third Man-lite and if it doesn’t have that film’s canted chiaroscuro angles or shooting expertise it has an interesting location and an engrossing if initially confusing scenario. Todd (who was Ian Fleming’s preferred choice to play James Bond) acquits himself well in a narrative which involves a lot of running and jumping and standing still behind statues;  Bartok is suitably enigmatic as the woman with a secret;  and Margot Grahame gets some fantastically dry lines in her role as Rosa, a woman of a certain age:  I have never kept a man under my bed in my life. There are sly laughs to be had at the wholly incongruous casting of Gregson and Sid James, of all people, as native Italians. Directed by Ralph Thomas, but one is left wondering how a film of this ambition would have turned out if a master stylist like Carol Reed had taken hold of such promising material:  instead of a nighttime chase in the sewers of Vienna, we have a daytime chase across the rooftops of Venice; and there is another political theme that was groundbreaking. The score is by Nino Rota. Produced by Betty Box. Out of weakness and confusion we shall create division and strength

Elephant (2003)

Elephant

Get the fuck out of here, shit is going to happen. John (John McFarland) is being driven through the suburbs to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms). Alex (Alex Frost) is a talented pianist being bullied at Watt High School, Oregon. He and his best friend slacker Eric (Eric Deulen) play video games, watch a documentary about Nazis, have sex in the shower and load up on guns. On their way into the building wearing camo gear and carrying black bags, Alex warns John not to go in. Elias (Elias McConnell) goes round the hallways photographing other students before going to the school newspaper office to develop his pictures. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field with girlfriend Carrie. Bespectacled outcast Michelle (Kristen Hicks) runs through the corridors and escapes to the library to avoid sports. Three bulimic girls gossip and end up in the Ladies’ Room. When the boys fail to explode propane bombs and prowl the corridors and library shooting everyone on sight, Acadia (Alicia Miles) freezes and Benny (Bennie Dixon) helps her escape through a window … Damn, they shot him. Gus Van Sant’s meditative exploration of the moments leading up to a Columbine high school-like massacre looks and feels less assured than it did upon release. Perhaps because unlike its source material (Alan Clarke’s BBC film Elephant, which was about sectarian politics in Northern Ireland) it is politically rootless unless you regard teenage alienation as justification for genocide and the inclusion of a TV documentary about Nazism adequate as rationale for unleashing senseless violence upon your contemporaries. Perhaps that is the point – that children and guns are just not a good mix, teenagers are unknowable and basically ungovernable, allowing them too much time on their own is a really bad idea because literally anything could happen in those burgeoning adults. The over the shoulder tracking shots down the school corridors and their repetitive nature bring us back to the same moments again and again giving the narrative a poetic rhythm and spatial familiarity, as does the auditory track which occasionally lapses into silence and then white noise, particularly when Alex is sitting in the cafeteria and we get a hint of the killings to come. There is no doubt that the very boring nature of the scenario and the real-time pacing lends an incremental tension to the situation. The biggest problem here is that the affectlessness of the protagonists means a conventional drama cannot be constructed and a moral is hard to discern while the filmmaker is attempting to get into these boys’ brains. That is the core of the story: there are things that people simply cannot get to grips with. The moment when a teacher approaches a student who’s just been shot dead at a classroom door and treats it as if it’s normal is simply staggering. Screenplay by Van Sant with controversial ‘memoirist’ JT LeRoy and Diane Keaton credited as producers on a project that started life as a documentary. Most importantly, have fun

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

John Wick 3

John Wick, Excommunicado. In effect, 6:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. After gunning down Santino d’Antonio, a member of the shadowy international assassins’ guild the High Table, hit man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself stripped of the organisation’s protective services. There’s a $14 million bounty on his head and he is on the run in New York City, the target of the world’s most ruthless killers and he tries to locate the Elder (Said Taghmaoui) the only person above the High Table empowered to take the price tag off his head … He shot my dog/I get it. Starting quite literally from the last shot of the second film in the trilogy about the world’s calmest hitman, this is breathless action fare that starts in New York Public Library of all places setting things in motion with a crucifix necklace and a medallion. What better storage facility for your jewels? Then things get seriously international and move to Morocco and the desert as this violent quest for a kind of redemption gets underway while John reconciles with his origins: he is actually Jardani Jovonovich of Belarus, which we learn courtesy of a drop in at Anjelica Huston’s ballet school. Reeves is as Zen-like as ever even when offing everyone in sight and his dog is the dog’s, as they say, although he mostly keeps out of trouble by residing at the Hotel Continental. A sinuous exercise in ultraviolence, this is actually very beautiful to watch. With Ian McShane back as John’s dubious caretaker Winston, Halle Berry sharing his love canines and Laurence Fishburne giving this a Matrix-y feeling, this has a lot of good moments bookended by two extraordinary sequences of skillfully choreographed action with – what else – a cliffhanging ending. Written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams, based on a story by Kolstad. Directed by Chad Stahelski. It wasn’t just a puppy