The Spiral Staircase (1945)

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Murderer, you killed them. You killed them all. It’s 1906. Helen is a young mute woman (Dorothy McGuire) working in a New England mansion as a domestic to bedridden Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore) who lives with her professor stepson Albert (gorgeous George Brent), a secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who used to be his girlfriend and is now romancing her newly returned son Steven (Gordon Oliver), verbally abused Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood), drunken housekeeper Mrs Oates (Elsa Lanchester) and her husband (Rhys Williams).  A maniac is killing off people with disabilities. After Mrs Warren warns her of the danger to her personal safety she makes plans to leave the dark old house with her boyfriend Dr Parry (Kent Smith), but it is too late. The maniac is in the house, and she is his prey… Mel Dinelli made his screenwriting debut with this adaptation of Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch – the  idea for the staircase came from a Mary Roberts Rinehart novel.  It’s a beautifully mounted gripping Gothic suspenser with an ideal setting, atmosphere and occasional flashes of director Robert Siodmak’s Expressionist roots by DoP Nicholas Musuraca, underscoring the murderousness at its core. Spinechilling from start to finish. 

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Into the Abyss (2011)

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He looked just like a little boy lying on the gurney. Werner Herzog goes to Conroe, Texas to examine the case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, both convicted of a triple murder in 2001. He interviews the men, both of whom blame the other and proclaim their innocence from behind bars. Perry is 14 days from execution and appears to have made his peace with God. Burkett can look forward to eventually getting out. Hence the film’s subtitle:  A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death.  Burkett has married a prison groupie who somehow became inseminated despite there being no situation in which they could have had intercourse.  Herzog is walked around the crime scene by an investigating police officer and part of the film contains the police video of the aftermath. Widowed nurse Sandra Stolter was shot in her house in an expensive gated community as she baked cookies at Halloween. She was dumped in a lake.  Her 17-year old son (actually her older daughter’s illegitimate son, therefore her grandson) was hunted down and killed along with his friend. All of this was because Perry and Burkett wanted the woman’s red Camaro. They were chased for three days until they were caught. The car is in a pound, having been moved from its previous location where a tree grew through the floor. Herzog remains behind the camera and there is minimal voiceover but his solemn, methodical approach and his choice of interviewees buttresses his view that the death penalty is wrong although the film is so carefully constructed there is no real attempt to figure out what happened and who did what. The film is divided into a prologue and six sections. It begins with the prison chaplain whose job it is to comfort men about to be put to death. We see the cemetery where they are buried in their hundreds without their names, just their prison numbers. The former captain of death row Fred Allen finally gave up his job when he had to put a woman to death (Karla Faye Tucker in 1998) and sacrificed his pension:  he talks about living ‘in the dash’ ie the time between life and death as signified on the grave markers. Burkett’s father is himself serving 40 years and is interviewed behind bars, his fifth time inside. He blames his almost permanent absence from home for his son’s actions:  his testimony at sentencing saved Jason from lethal injection. Stolter’s daughter Lisa attended the execution and lets us know that Perry ‘forgave me.’ She laughs through her tears. On the one hand this is a careful indictment of a system of criminal justice which results in capital punishment. On the other, it’s a terrifying examination of broken families and dysfunction and the effects of drink and drugs. The big question here is why anyone kills in the first place – the individual or the State. But it’s still a small story. It’s an utterly tragic account of many lives destroyed in a small Texas town – all because two nasty teenagers coveted a car.

Saddle the Wind (1958)

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I know all about the brother and the sickness inside him. He didn’t get that from Steve, he was born with it.  Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor) is a former gunfighter and soldier who left his violent ways behind him after the Civil War. Since then, he has settled down as a rancher and lives peacefully in a small Western town where he collaborates with Dennis Deneen (Donald Crisp) to maintain order after the man gives him land. His easygoing life is turned upside down when his unstable younger brother Tony (John Cassavetes), shows up with his bride-to-be, Joan (Julie London) and a filed-down sixgun. While Steve has given up his gun-toting ways, Tony has not, and his violent tendencies lead to trouble for the entire town when Steve’s old rival Larry Venables (Charles McGraw) shows up to settle a grudge and a new landowner Clay (Royal Dano) plans to fence off some land … Directed by Robert Parrish from a Rod Serling screenplay (his first, from a story by Tommy Thompson), this was one of two westerns Taylor shot that year (the other is The Law and Jake Wade). This is an arresting picture of family values under threat with a sense of the mature western psychology playing out beneath an ostensibly typical plot. Cassavetes looks nuts as usual doing his no-good Fifties rebel thang and Taylor is a wonderful counterpart:  they are total acting opposites and Cassavetes caused major problems on set with his Acting and mumbling.  Ordinary people try to get on with living and conformism is rife – on and offscreen, apparently. Serling would later claim he gave better dialogue to the horses but there are some good scenes. London sings the title song (by Livingston and Evans), with a score by Elmer Bernstein.

Tamara Drewe (2010)

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Life sure comes easy for the beautiful.  Famous twentysomething journalist Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) returns to the small Dorset town she grew up in and causes a stir. Once an unattractive teenager known as Beaky due to her big nose, she’s had a rhinoplasty and transformed herself into a beautiful girl. She is the object of attention for three different men: Andy (Luke Evans) a local handyman and her former boyfriend who she hires to do up her late mother’s home which he believes was stolen from his family; Ben (Dominic Cooper), a drummer in a rock band she interviews whose girlfriend has left him for the singer; and Nicholas (Roger Allam), the lauded crime writer who along with his long-suffering wife Beth (Tamsin Greig) runs the local writers’ retreat hosting several wannabes and crime writing weekends.  Bored teenagers Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie)  decide to break into Tamara’s fixer-upper and start sending emails in an attempt to make Jody’s idol Ben fall in love with her instead and their interference triggers a disastrous series of events … At once satire, romcom and farce, this sly social comedy works on every level due to fantastic writing and performances. Posy Simmonds’ comic strip (turned graphic novel) reworks Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd in a contemporary setting and tilts its particular irony (and mockery) at several targets. Visiting writer Glen (Bill Camp) has spent a decade writing a book about Hardy and his findings are a commentary on the goings-on as well as providing inspiration for his romantic aspirations leading to a tragicomic conclusion his subject couldn’t have bettered. Well adapted by Moira Buffini, this is smart adult entertainment. Directed by Stephen Frears.

Dave (1993)

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I’m the President, and as they say, the buck stops here. So I take full responsibility for each one of my illegal actions. But that’s not the whole story. I think the American people are entitled to the real truth. Shifty White House chief of staff Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) hatches a scheme to use a double for the president Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) at a public photo opportunity. Smalltown temp agency owner Dave Kovic (Kline) fits the bill, but after the president suffers a debilitating stroke having extra-marital sex, opportunist Alexander arranges for Dave to step in full time without even informing the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) when a scandal threatens to engulf the Presidency. It doesn’t take long before the press, the nation and the president’s wife realize something is wrong because this is a nice conscientious guy and not the lying distant philanderer they all know and dislike  … Practically a White House take on The Prisoner of Zenda, this is an opportunity for some very pleasant if hardly ground-shaking political satire with perfectly timed performances by an engaging cast.  Gary Ross’s screenplay gets nice mileage out of the identical-impersonator scenario but it feels a little dated in the wake of House of Cards not to mention reality. Ivan Reitman makes the most out of the visual jokes.

Psycho II (1983)

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Remember Norman: only your Mother truly loves you.  22 years after he’s been incarcerated in a psychiatric institution Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is back in Fairvale California, only to find his hotel run down under the management of Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz). Despite a new friendship with a waitress, Mary (Meg Tilly) and a job bussing tables at a diner, Norman begins to hear voices once again. Mary moves into Norman’s house as his roommate but no matter how hard he tries, Norman cannot keep Mother from returning and coaxing him to unleash the homicidal maniac within but then it transpires that Mary’s mother is in town – and she’s Marion Crane’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) …Written by Tom Holland, this won’t erase your memories of Hitchcock’s seminal thriller and it stands alone, not adapted from Robert Bloch’s own sequel. It has the courage of its predecessor’s convictions and plays with Hitchcock’s tropes (and his cast) with just the right emphasis. Perkins is the same nervy antagonist and Tilly is an excellent foil. Director Richard Franklin has fun with re-staging some famous scenes and manages to make quite the suspenseful thriller – right until the end! Talk about a twist(ed) conclusion!

Jasper Jones (2017)

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It’s not my brand. It’s the late 1960s in the small town of Corrigan in Western Australia.  14 year old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is the son of writer Wes (Dan Wyllie) whose frustrated wife (Toni Colette) is a restless soul. Wannabe writer Charlie spends his days with his best friend Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Lu), a Vietnamese boy daily confronted with race hate in a place where young men are being sent to Vietnam. Eliza Wishart (Angouire Rice) daughter of the President of the town hall becomes more and more endeared towards Charlie and they bond over their mutual love of books. On Christmas Eve Charlie is unexpectedly visited by Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath) an outcast due to his mixed White-Aboriginal heritage and rebellious lifestyle. Jasper begs for Charlie’s help, and leads him to his private glade where Charlies is horrified to see Jasper’s girlfriend Laura Wishart, battered and hanging from a tree. Jasper, aware that he is likely to be blamed for Laura’s murder, convinces Charlie that they should hide the body, so they throw it into a nearby pond, weighted by a large rock. Jeffrey is passionate about cricket, but his attempts to join the Corrigan team are thwarted by the racism of the coach and other players. Eventually he finds himself batting in a game against a rival town, watched by Charlie, who has befriended Eliza, Laura’s younger sister. As Jeffrey wins the game on the last ball, Charlie and Eliza hold hands and embrace. A search for the missing girl is soon organised, focused on the idea that she may have run away. Jasper is interrogated roughly by the local police, but he soon escapes. Meanwhile tension builds in the town, as parents fear more disappearances, and townspeople search for someone to blame. The tension is funneled into strict curfews for the children as well as racial attacks on Jeffrey’s family. It is revealed that Charlie’s mother, increasingly disillusioned with life in Corrigan and her marriage, is having an affair with the Sarge involved with the investigation into Laura’s disappearance. Jasper believes that Laura’s murderer is Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving) an old recluse rumored to have done terrible things in the past. Jasper determines to confront Lionel on New Year’s Eve, and together with Charlie, goes to his house. Lionel manages to defuse Jasper’s aggression, and the truth comes out: Lionel is actually Jasper’s grandfather who had ostracised his son’s family knowing that he had married with an Aboriginal woman when Jasper was a baby. His daughter-in-law then took care of him, spurring a change of heart towards her. One night, she needed medical attention, and Lionel had attempted to race her to hospital. In his haste, however, he accidentally crashed his car, causing her death. The incident has left him guilty, broken, and ostracized by the townspeople. Ever since, Lionel has been trying to reach out to Jasper and apologise for his actions. On the same night, Charlie comes to Eliza’s window. They go to Jasper’s glade. Here Eliza tells Charlie that she knows everything about Laura’s death and hands him Laura’s suicide note which explains the incestuous rapes to which their father had subjected her and left her pregnant. Eliza witnessed her sister’s suicide by hanging and then Charlie admits to her that he and Jasper got rid of her body. After exacting a revenge on her father the secret remains with Charlie and Eliza and her mother, who destroys the note but Charlie’s own family is broken up when his mother leaves the small town which cannot contain her … Craig Silvey adapted his own novel with Shaun Grant.  Director Rachel Perkins sustains an admirable atmosphere and sympathy in what is essentially a family drama enlivened by what Freud ironically termed ‘romance’ with a supposed murder mystery at its centre. The playing is excellent by actors both young and old with a canny sense of what it is to be young and trying to figure out how adults inflict damage on everyone around them – this is practically a thesis on different models of fatherhood, but it’s so well constructed you don’t understand until the final shot. The mystery isn’t really the point either although there is a deal of suspense. It’s a film that perfectly captures what it is to be young, to love books and to be loyal to your friends and the myriad ways that kids find to survive their parents.  There are echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird and Stand By Me in the themes rendered here but it exists on its own merits as a complex coming of age drama with its distinctive setting and concerns.

Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

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It’s not a hangin’ matter to be young… but it maybe should be a hangin’ matter for a – man of middle age – to – try and steal the youth from a young girl. Especially, a man like me and a – girl like you. You were meant for the wide world, Rose. Not this place, not this. Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) is the daughter of publican Tom (Leo McKern) in a small seaside Irish village during World War One where the nationalist locals taunt the British soldiers stationed nearby in the wake of the failed Easter Rising of 1916. Rosy falls for Master Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum) the local widowed schoolteacher and imagines they will have an exciting life but he has no interest in sex. Major Randolph Doryan (Christopher Jones) arrives from the Front crippled and suffering from shellshock. Rosy assists him when he collapses in her father’s pub and they commence a passionate relationship as Charles becomes suspicious and the local halfwit Michael (John Mills) finds Doryan’s medal and wears it around the village. The Irish Republican Brotherhood want to retrieve arms from a wrecked German ship offshore but while the villagers assist, Ryan tips off the British and Doryan and his men are waiting for them.  When the villagers put two and two together they conclude that Rosy is the culprit and wreak revenge …  In a week’s time it’s the 110th anniversary of the great British director David Lean’s birth and this was released 47 years ago this weekend. It’s almost St Patrick’s Day and in honour of our favourite national holiday it’s time to watch this again, the hugely controversial film which caused his career immense difficulties. The British critics reserved a rare kind of contempt for the directors who mastered the visual – as though it were inimical to the cinematic form:  look what they did to Michael Powell. But this elicited ire from the other side of the Atlantic too – Roger Ebert believed the scale of the production was antithetical to the size of the story (as though one’s feelings are supposed to be as controlled as those in Brief Encounter. Someone should have told Shakespeare.) It’s hard to understand why this should be from this vantage point – it’s a women’s picture, as so many of his films were – it looks wonderful, the acting is attractive even if Jones’ chops don’t match up to his good looks and the scenario of a problematic marriage between a young woman and a much older stick in the mud is hardly unusual. In fact it originated in Robert Bolt’s desire to make a version of Madame Bovary to star his wife, Miles. It was Lean who suggested transposing the idea to a different setting using the same kinds of characters and construction. Perhaps it’s the issue of the gloriously melodramatic backdrop – the impact of the First World War and the British Government on a remote Irish seaside village. Perhaps it was the timing. Or perhaps reports from the set alienated the budget-conscious journos – Lean waited a full year to get the right kind of storm and took the unit to South Africa to film it because it never materialised while on location in Kerry and Clare. However this was big at the box office and there are moments and scenes to savour even if you feel that John Mills’ performance as the cretin can make you wince betimes. Surrender to the tragic romance and the feeling of a love worth fighting for in an epic drama scored by Maurice Jarre. It’s David Lean, dammit!

Run for Cover (1955)

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Do you think putting a gun in his hand will cure what is in his heart? After being mistaken for train robbers and shot and injured by a wrongheaded posse an ex-convict drifter Matt Dow (James Cagney) and his flawed young partner whom he’s just met Davey Bishop (John Derek) are made sheriff and deputy of a Western town. Bishop is deeply resentful of the people who’ve crippled him while Matt befriends and then romances the daughter Helga (Viveca Lindfors) of the recent Swedish emigrant Swenson (Jean Hersholt) who takes in the pair while Davey is getting medical treatment. Then the crime rate surges with the re-appearance of an outlaw who Matt knows from his time in prison where he did six years in a case of mistaken identity …  Winston Miller’s screenplay is from the story by Harriet Frank Jr and Irving Ravetch. It lacks the baroque weirdness of Nicholas Ray’s previous western, Johnny Guitar and the soaring emotionality of his forthcoming Rebel Without a Cause, but it is notable that in a script featuring a mentoring relationship of the father-son type that the focus is on the older  man’s experiences with Derek becoming a substitute for Cagney’s son whose death ten years earlier is not explained. Derek plays a prototype of the aspiring juvenile delinquent character that would be front and centre of Rebel but here he’s the antagonist whose bitterness is supposedly because of being crippled courtesy of the town’s lynch mob but whom Cagney finally realises is rotten no matter what the cause. Not a classic but interesting to look at for Ray’s compositions in an evolving cinematic signature and for the contrasting performances. There are some nice lines too, such as when Matt asks Swenson for his daughter’s hand in marriage:  Ever since you leave she go round like lost heifer. Derek’s role is a pointer to many of the tropes in the JD cycle to come with Cagney very far from giving him soft soap treatment:  Why don’t you stop going round feeling sorry for yourself! Other people have it far worse!

 

Convoy (1978)

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Boy, these lonely long highways sure grind the souls of us cowboys. Trucker Martin ‘Rubber Duck’ Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) and his buddies Pig Pen (Burt Young), Widow Woman (Madge Sinclair) and Spider Mike (Franklin Ajaye) use their CB radios to warn one another of the presence of cops. But conniving Arizona Sheriff Lyle ‘Cottonmouth’ Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) is hip to the truckers’ tactics, and begins tracking them via CB because of a longstanding issue with Rubber Duck. Facing constant harassment, Rubber Duck and his pals use their radios to coordinate a vast convoy and rule the road. En route Rubber Duck teams up with a photographer Melissa (Ali McGraw) driving to a job in her Jaguar XKE and she winds up hitching a ride ostensibly to the airport after a brouhaha in a diner which sees Wallace chained to a stool where Duck’s girlfriend Violet (Cassie Yates) sets him free after the truckers have left. The trucks set off to the state line heading into New Mexico but Wallace has an idea to use their one black driver as bait and more and more drivers join the convoy … Writer Bill (B.W.L.) Norton took his lead from the lyrics of the (literally) radio-friendly novelty country-pop song by C.W. McCall and Chip Davis to write this, which starred his Cisco Pike protagonist Kristofferson, with Sam Peckinpah (who had variously directed Kristofferson, McGraw and Borgnine) drafted in to helm. It seems an unlikely setup for Peckinpah but when you understand its anti-authoritarian drive, the idea that these guys are like modern cowboys pitted against the vile sheriff antagonist, and pair that with the director’s customary robust style (tongue firmly planted slo-mo in cheek) then this isn’t just another one of those late Seventies comic road movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Every Which Way But Loose which I’ve always thought it must have been – it has a strangely operatic confidence and cadence embodied in Kristofferson’s fiercely independent trucker. That’s perhaps another way of saying you shouldn’t look at this too seriously for deep character or narrative sense but it has fantastically sensuous pleasures to enjoy – especially if you’re a fan of Mack Trucks and getting one over on The Man. Thing is, Peckinpah brought in his friend James Coburn (Pat Garrett to Kristofferson’s Billy the Kid) to take care of the second unit and due to Peckinpah’s various addictions Coburn wound up doing much of the movie. The director’s cut was four hours long and the studio took it away from him and put in a bunch of new music.  I have vague memories of this being trailed (inappropriately) before a Disney movie when I was knee high to a proverbial grasshopper and it’s quite bizarre to have finally seen it tonight, with McGraw’s horribly unflattering perm and unsuitable travel clothes ‘n’ all. The landscape of the American Southwest is stunningly captured by Harry Stradling Jr. and there’s a handful of country and western classics on the soundtrack. It’s populist politics put together by a rebel heart with an explosive conclusion and a happily twisted ending. Yee haw!