Knives Out (2019)

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I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects.  When crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies just after his 85th birthday, inquisitive Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives at his estate to investigate despite the presence of police officers (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan). He sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind the writer’s untimely demise as each of the family members and the immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who cared for Harlan is questioned in turn. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a successful businesswoman with a an unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson) and a layabout son Ransom (Chris Evans). Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing company his father founded for his writing output, but they’ve been fighting. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is an advocate of self-help and has been helping herself to the old man’s money. His ancient mother (K Callan) never seems to die. Harlan’s devoted nurse Marta then becomes Harlan’s most trusted confidante but who hired him in the first place? … This is a twisted web, and we are not finished untangling it, not yet. The closed-room murder mystery is a staple of crime fiction and it’s not necessarily where you’d expect writer/director Rian Johnson to turn after a Star Wars episode (The Last Jedi) although it harks back to his debut, Brick, a take on Chandler/Hammett with teenagers. The touchstones are pretty clear:  Agatha Christie; the game (and film) of Clue(do); Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark; and some of the grasping familial mendacity we recognise from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If truth be told, it’s not very mysterious and barely suspenseful with two big twists a regular filmgoer or mystery reader will see through easily which means that they of course are not the point. It’s the dismantling of those hoary old tropes that provides the narrative motor. Much of the entertainment value derives from game comic playing by an established cast with a soupçon of political commentary provided by the nurse’s immigrant status which leads to a good line featuring Broadway hit Hamilton and everyone gets her native country wrong, one of the running jokes. Another is her need to vomit when telling a lie. The other one is stretching out the syllables in Benoit’s name so it sounds like Ben wa although personally I find Craig more prophylactic than sex toy and his ‘tec is Poirot X Columbo with an affected drawl. It looks quite sober and already feels like Sunday evening TV. For the undemanding viewer. CSI KFC!

Death Goes to School (1953)

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The children must always come first. The body of Miss Cooper a teacher is discovered by a pupil behind the sports ground at Abbotsham all-girls school with another teacher’s scarf cinched around her throat. Scotland Yard dispatches detective Campbell (Gordon Jackson) to lead the investigation along with his assistant Sergeant Harvey (Sam Kydd). Campbell interviews the teachers and pupils, but encounters one major issue: Everybody hated this teacher. This makes narrowing down the suspects rather difficult. But music teacher Miss Shepherd (Barbara Murray) has a very strong suspicion that the killer is a member of the staff and carries out her own investigation in parallel, bringing her to the home of the dead woman’s brother-in-law Mr Lawley (Robert Long) … You’re not like a woman at all. You have a mind like a man. This minor British murder mystery is lent an air of Gothic tension by the protagonist’s voiceover narration, a handsome dark-haired love interest and the use of fetish objects (scarves, shoes, matchbooks). But it’s hardly Shadow of a Doubt. Instead it’s a story of woman crushes, jealousy, suspicion and decidedly unsportsmanlike murder. The mini-drama comes from the grudging admiration between Jackson and Murray, who attributes the Scotsman’s language issues to his not being English. She’s a really good amateur sleuth and the clash is nicely done. She’s always streets ahead, of course. The girls’ school setting with its seething resentments in the staff room (where everyone calls each other Miss) is well established. A fine little suspenser with good performances and great hairdos, shot at Merton Park. Adapted by Maisie Sharman (aka Stratford Davis) from her novel Death in Seven Hours (Miss Shepherd’s alibi!) with director Stephen Clarkson.

Too Late for Tears (1949)

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Just where did you stash my cash? Jane and Alan Palmer (Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy) are driving to a party in the Hollywood Hills when someone in another car throws a satchel into the back seat of their convertible. They open it and find $100,000 cash.  She wants to keep it, he doesn’t. They put it in a locker in Union Station. Then Danny (Dan Duryea) shows up at their apartment when Alan is at work and they scheme to get his money back, a once in a lifetime payoff from a blackmail/insurance scam. Jane persuades him to help kill Alan on a boat trip. She reports Alan as missing. Kathy Palmer (Kristine Miller) suspects Jane has murdered her brother and investigates with a man claiming to be his friend Don Blake (Don DeFore), who look into her dealings. Meanwhile Jane is plotting to keep all of the money for herself …  Looking down her nose at me like a big ugly house looks over Hollywood.  Scott has a great showcase as a ruthless, mutinous femme fatale, a silky smooth siren desperate to shake off the shackles of middle class unease:  the kind of people who can’t keep up with the bills every day and die a little. Duryea is good as the villain/accomplice, like a musical comedy star who’s wandered onto the wrong movie set and likes the fit of his suit but his taste for drink proves his undoing. Miller is particularly good as Kennedy’s sister. It was her second time to be paired with Scott following I Walk Alone; while DeFore proves the magic ingredient that unlocks the mystery of Scott’s first husband’s deathA vicious portrayal of venal post-war Los Angeles society, a cautionary tale laced with venom that is brilliantly conceived, shot and performed with lashings of good lines. Written by Roy Huggins (later famous as TV writer/producer of The Fugitive, Maverick and The Rockford Files) and adapted from his novel which was serialised in the Saturday Evening Post.  Directed by Byron Haskin.  I let you in because housewives can get awfully bored sometimes!

Frieda (1947)

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You can’t treat a human being as less then human without becoming less than human yourself. RAF pilot Robert Dawson (David Farrar) returns home to Middle England from World War II with his new bride, Frieda Mansfeld (Mai Zetterling), the German nurse who helped him escape from a prisoner-of-war camp and whom he has married in Germany during an air raid. Because she is Catholic and they married in a Protestant church they are to marry in his village. In the meantime, Frieda has to deal with the  bigotry of people, including Robert’s family, and his aunt Nell (Flora Robson) whose political career is threatened and who is forced to denounce her future sister-in-law on the hustings. His late brother Alan’s wife Judy (Glynis Johns) is conflicted over her feelings for Robert.  Robert gives up his teaching job when boys drop out of school because of their families’ objections to his associating with the enemy. Six months later and just when the small town’s prejudice against her begins to subside and she agrees to marry Robert in a local Catholic church, Frieda’s brother Richard (Albert Lieven), a closet Nazi sympathiser, arrives for a visit, causing even Robert’s faith in his wife to be tested and leading to a standoff in a local pub when a victim from the camps recognises his tormentor and declares he wouldn’t forget the man who scarred his face in a thousand years.  Robert takes Richard’s word over Frieda’s …  The Germans look so ordinary we forget they’re not like the rest of us. Vividly written, performed and directed (by Basil Dearden), this is an enervating treatise from the house of Ealing on post-war Britain and attitudes to Germans, Germany and Nazism. With the piquant presence of Farrar, whose hyper-masculinity is well used (as it was by Powell and Pressburger) even if the film doesn’t fulfill the role’s promise, this is balanced by the sorrowful acting of a luminous Zetterling and the pivotal role played by Robson, who is not delighted to be proven correct in her suspicions, just gravely pleased that the British are so accepting of foreigners but aware of the price they must pay as a result. She is the force field about whom this revolves. The eloquent screenplay is written by Angus MacPhail and Ronald Millar. Scored by John Greenwood.  Then it does not matter what I am myself. I am German. That is all that counts 

Junior Bonner (1972)

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Rodeo time, I gotta get it on down the road/What road? I mean, I’m workin’ on my first million, and you’re still workin’ on eight seconds. Middle-aged rodeo rider Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen) returns to his Arizona hometown where he reunites with his family, which includes his charming, troublemaker of a father, Ace (Robert Preston), and his ambitious real estate-developer brother Curly (Joe Don Baker). Mom Elvira (Ida Lupino) is estranged from her husband. So while Ace dreams of finding his fortune in Australia, Junior is determined to conquer a tough bull named Sunshine by riding it for eight seconds. Can Junior claim victory over Sunshine and stay in the rodeo business?… Junior, you’re my brother, and I guess I love you. Well, we’re family. I don’t care what you do. You can sell one lot or a hundred lots. I’m just tryin’ to keep us together. Directed by Sam Peckinpah from a script by Jeb Rosebrook, this is a wonderful, warm, sympathetic portrait of a man having issues with ageing, returning home to a scrappy if welcoming family in a changing West and finally figuring out who he is. This is another Peckinpah film about the coming of modernity to the frontier and when we see The Wild Bunch embroidered on a suited-and-booted rider’s saddle blanket it’s just one thread of symbolic commentary in the bountiful narrative. There’s a great use of split-screen for the Prescott rodeo and the performances are memorable in an affecting, compelling film, probably Peckinpah’s most gentle outing with an undertow of violence beneath the gentility and quest for honour. McQueen is brilliant as the cowboy staking his claim. There’s one of him, and one of me

Gumshoe (1971)

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Don’t be embarrassed when we’re out together – I could walk behind you.  Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney) works at a bingo hall in Liverpool, England, but dreams of becoming a stylish private investigator like those he has read about and seen in films – he’s entranced by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. After finally placing an advertisement in a local newspaper announcing his detective services, he receives a mysterious offer from a fat man who sends him a brown paper package containing a gun and he asks him to find a girl called Alison (Carolyn Seymour). His usually estranged brother William (Frank Finlay) offers him money to stop his investigation. He hangs out with his nice sister-in-law Ellen (Billie Whitelaw) but when he’s approached by the mysterious American Mrs Blankerson (Janice Rule) he’s soon in over his head. Even though Eddie is inexperienced and clueless at certain aspects of investigating he realises that he is entangled in a serious case involving drugs, murder and his own family… I sometimes hit below the belt.  Co-produced by Finney with Michael Medwin, this is an oddly charming piece of work, an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s private eye in the North of England with a man trying desperately to be Bogie in a trenchcoat but actually working in a Manchester bingo hall. The initially discomfiting narration in Eddie’s real voice is soon forgotten, aided immeasurably by a decent cast, a good level of mystery and a superbly witty score by Andrew Lloyd Webber whose flair and flourishes are laugh out loud enjoyable (he would re-use some of it for Sunset Boulevard). Finney makes a very game PI, a fish out of water in this dullsville backwater where the biggest crooks are members of his own family hoodwinking the poor putz.  Writer and actor Neville Smith adapted his own novel and it was directed by Stephen Frears, making his debut and the nicely lit location photography is by Chris Menges, sometimes shooting in a Liverpool no longer there.   Keep your guard up, don’t lead with your chin, and keep throwing out those lefts

Psyche 59 (1964)

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It’s the welfare state. Once they nationalised sex people began to lose interest.  Allison Crawford (Patricia Neal) lost her sight in an accident at her home when she was about to give birth. Married to businessman Eric (Curt Jurgens) she is disturbed when he declares her ravishing younger sister Robin (Samantha Eggar) is not welcome at their house that summer following her divorce in America. However it’s too late, she is arriving imminently. At lunch with Robin, Allison tells her that doctors insist her blindness is psychologically induced but she has no memory of the events leading up to the incident, so her condition persists as ‘hysterical blindness’. Robin pursues a relationship with Eric’s employee Paul (Ian Bannen) but a long-buried memory of Eric’s adultery emerges for Allison as the sisters go to their grandmother’s (Beatrix Lehmann) house in the country with Allison’s young daughters, one of whom she has never seen. When Eric and Paul join them there are terrible tensions and Robin acts out and causes an accident that prompts the return of Allison’s vision – a fact that she keeps to herself… Adapted by Julian Halevy (aka blacklisted writer Julian Zimet) from the novel Psyche 63 by Françoise des Ligneris this is a little-seen melodrama that is worth checking out. The violence of the emotions is what is so striking, reflected in some shot compositions in a film that is a psychological drama but operates like a suspense thriller.  The mystery of Allison’s blindness is front and centre and her grandmother’s obsession with horoscopes guides some of the action. How Allison’s senses – particularly auditory – are heightened is compounded by the significance of objects and her perception of people’s conduct. The way her unconscious knowledge of the affair conducted under her nose is unravelled is fascinating:  she is never fully paranoid but the little teasers of other people’s behaviour fit in with what she knows in her heart to be true. Eggar and Neal are very good as the chalk and cheese sisters – Eggar in particular is a revelation as the screwed-up good time girl determined to taunt Jurgens – and the penultimate scene with Jurgens is quite jaw-dropping. Directed with real verve and distinction by Alexander Singer, who is responsible for the wonderful cult entries A Cold Wind in August and Glass Houses, but worked primarily in TV. There’s some terrific photography by Walter Lassally.

The Invasion (2007)

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Civilisation crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation, we are all capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this was not so, where every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence. Well, this is to imagine a world where human beings cease to be human.  In Washington, D.C. psychologist Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her colleague Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) are the only two people who are aware of an epidemic running rampant through the city. They discover an alien virus aboard a space shuttle that crashed during an unscheduled landing attempt that transforms anyone who comes into contact with it into unfeeling drones while they sleep. The government is calling it a flu virus. Carol realises her son Oliver’s (Jackson Bond) immune system holds the key to stopping the spread of the plague and she races to find him before it is too late but his father, politician ex-husband Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) has taken him out of state … The late great Jack Finney wrote some indelible sci fi that could be used to anatomise and exemplify social forces – so The Body Snatchers has had meaning for generation after generation, commencing with its first (quite brilliant) movie adaptation Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is the fourth effort and its muddled birth in some ways tarnished its critical reputation.  Written variously by David Kajganich and the uncredited Wachowski brothers/sisters and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel with uncredited reshoots by James McTeigue, the original story’s clarity is both lost and highlighted in its city setting:  the quick slide into conformity is more obvious than in the 1956 classic simply because there are so many more people whose transformation is visible on the streets.  The central irony – that a woman controlling her patients’ minds and feelings with pharmaceuticals is now objecting to a world in which by the icky expedient of vomiting on someone’s face or into their coffee (nice) everyone can live in peace minus their individuality or expressivity – is straightforwardly verbalised by Carol’s ex. But the quick running time and the conclusion – collective amnesia, luckily administered Governmentally with yet another vaccine – means the bigger picture of mind control by Big Pharma and Bigger Government (a nasty coinciding of socio-financial interests since, oh, the 1990s?) is sort of lost in a mish-mash of action with awkward acting compounding the stiff plotting. There is one really silly flash forward. Metaphor? Metonymy? How would I know? I am on Day 30 of Aussie flu and can’t get a shot to save my sniffles. But if I said I was depressed they’d be racing to inoculate, n’est-ce pas???…!!! Uneven, but relevant.

 

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

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Let me tell you something, no woman is gonna go to bear country with you to cook and wash and slave for seven slumachy back woodsmen. 1850 Oregon. Milly (Jane Powell), a pretty young cook, marries backwoodsman Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel)after a brief courtship. When the two return up the mountains to Adam’s farm, Milly is shocked to meet his six ill-mannered brothers, all of whom live in his cabin and she is shocked to realised she’s basically their skivvy, washing and laundering and cooking and cleaning. She promptly begins teaching the brothers proper behavior, and most importantly, how to court a woman. But after the brothers kidnap six local girls during a town barn-raising, a group of indignant villagers tries to track them down and Milly splits from Adam then there’s an avalanche and the pass is blocked for months … Husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and Dorothy Kingsley adapted Stephen Vincent Benet’s story The Sobbin’ Women. It’s one of the most spectacularly staged Fifties musicals but the usual versions are panned and scanned and the colour hasn’t been graded correctly for current enjoyment. Nonetheless, Michael Kidd’s great choreography, the humour (some quite daring) and the relationships are nicely done and the songs are wonderful. Directed by former dancer and choreographer Stanley Donen. Bless your beautiful hide!

Houseboat (1958)

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Try to be a parent, not a policeman. When newly widowed Tom Winters (Cary Grant) arrives back to the home of his sister-in-law (Martha Hyer) he finds his three kids in understandable disarray and doesn’t want to leave them in her care. But they don’t fit easily into his life at the State Dept. in Washington.  Younger son Robert (Charles Herbert) takes off at a classical concert with the grown up daughter Cinzia (Sophia Loren) of a renowned visiting conductor who returns him to the family’s apartment the following day. Not knowing who she is, Tom asks her to be the family’s maid. She’s unhappy tagging along with her father so she joins them, dressed to the nines. He decides to remove everyone to Carolyn’s guesthouse – which is destroyed by a train when the tow truck driver Angelo (Harry Guardino) is distracted at the sight of Cinzia en route to the new location. He gives Tom his neglected houseboat as compensation. Unable to cook, launder or sew, Cinzia miraculously brings Tom together with his lost children as the houseboat lurches, cuts loose and gradually settles into metaphorical balance. She has to avoid the leers of Angelo while Tom is rationally persuaded into proposing marriage to freshly divorced Carolyn who’s been in love with him since she was 4 and he married her older sister:  he is blissfully ignorant of Cinzia who desperately craves his attention …  There’s so much music in this very fun romcom it might as well be a musical:  from the orchestral pieces to Sophia’s regular songs – Bing! Bang! Bong! being the most popular on a very bouncy soundtrack. Gorgeous stars, funny kids, agreeable supporting performances and a good setup combine to make this a delightful, charming ode to simply being: dolce far niente, as Loren urges. I couldn’t agree more! There’s a great scene in a laundromat when Grant gets embroiled in women’s gossip. Written by Jack Rose and director Melville Shavelson, with an uncredited screenplay by Betsy Drake (aka Mrs Cary Grant) who was supposed to co-star – until her husband allegedly had an affair with Loren on The Pride and the Passion, a liaison long over by the time filming on this commenced. Awkward!