Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Come Back to the Five and Dime

It is real. It’s just deceiving to the eye, that’s all. On 30 September 1975 to commemorate James Dean’s death, the former members of The Disciples of James Dean gather in the small Texas town at the Woolworth’s store where twenty years earlier they formed a fan club after Giant was filming in the nearby town of Marfa. Juanita (Sudie Bond) prepares for another day on the job and calls for Jimmy Dean by name. One of the Disciples, Sissy (Cher) comes in late after helping out at the truck stop.  Another two Disciples, Stella Mae (Kathy Bates) and Edna Louise (Marta Heflin) make their way to the five-and-dime, bringing a red jacket that the club used to wear. Mona (Sandy Dennis) joins them and explains that the bus she was riding on broke down and had to be repaired. She’s worried about her son Jimmy Dean whom she has always said was fathered by the star. A window shopper, Joanne (Karen Black) driving in a Porsche sports car has arrived in McCarthy thanks to an old highway sign promoting Dean’s son at the store and there’s something about her that makes Mona think she knows her but can’t quite figure it out …Unlike apparently all of you, I have undergone a change. Ed Graczyk adapted his own play for director Robert Altman who spent the Eighties directing stage plays for the screen following the grandiose flop Popeye and he applies his usually imaginative technique to this single-set production. He uses a mottled old mirror as a means to transport the action to twenty years earlier, a device which not only brings the underlying tenets of the story to life but also functions as an uncanny reflection and a means of transmitting the distorting tricks of memory. Dean’s death (which features in a broadcast announcement in a flashback) creates a bereavement trigger, making the frenemies confront their inadequacies, deceptions and delusions. The performances are startling and true:  Dennis (recreating her stage role) is her usual nervy self and plays the mother of James Dean’s son to the hilt, the (expected) revelation about the fathering stunningly revealed;  Black is a joy as the person nobody can quite recognise, with more than one shocking story to tell; Cher has to confront her own demons. Bates is a ball of energy and Bond makes for a very sceptical proprietor. Worth seeing for the lively, powerhouse performances by a wonderful collection of actresses at the top of their game, treated wonderfully well by a sympathetic director. The first of five Altman films to have Canadian cinematographer Pierre Mignot as DoP. Catch the documentary Children of Giant if you can as it makes for a great companion piece. We can make them change. Jimmy Dean has shown us how

Captain Boycott (1947)

Captain Boycott

I simply can’t understand a man like that. In 1880s Ireland Charles Stewart Parnell (Robert Donat) makes a rousing speech against the villainous property thefts by the British in Ireland but urges passive resistance, shunning rather than killing landlords. In a Mayo village, British landowner Captain Charles Boycott (Cecil Parker) dispossesses the townspeople who are being charged extortionate rents as his tenants and uses police and army to evict them, leaving them without hope. But when a passionate farmer Hugh Davin (Stewart Granger) creates an organised and nonviolent rebellion against the oppressor and falls in love with a beautiful newcomer Ann Killain (Kathleen Ryan) he proves that the Irish people are willing to fight for their rights ... You can’t make British soldiers fight for what any fool can see is an unjust cause.  Wolfgang Wilhelm’s screenplay makes light work of the systematic property rout and starving of Irish citizens described in Philip Rooney’s source novel, weaving a skein of complicity, action and politics that rings true. Co-written by director Frank Launder, with additional dialogue by Paul Vincent Carroll and Patrick Campbell,  the location shooting (with Westmeath standing in for Mayo) adding immeasurably to this history lesson about the infamous land agent who entered the lexicon because of the campaign of ostracising that brought him recognition. The cast is a Who’s Who of the British and Irish acting contingent of the era including the genial Noel Purcell playing Daniel McGinty a teacher who is also a crafty agitator, Mervyn Johns as a sneaky property dealer, Alastair Sim as a Catholic priest, Father McKeogh, and Maurice Denham as Lieutenant Colonel Strickland who is inclined to attribute Boycott’s conduct to a kind of personal pig-headed eccentricity rather than Anglo rule. Granger has a good role and is up to the witty and lively construction of this typical Launder and Gilliat production. William Alwyn’s spirited score captures the mood of the rebellion very well. Can you count pain – suffering – hunger – wretchedness?

Road to Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition

Where would this town be without Mr John Rooney? In 1931 Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hitman and enforcer for Irish-American mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) in the Rock Island area. His son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) hides in the car one night after the wake for one of Rooney’s henchmen and sees his Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) administer a shot in the head to the dead man’s brother Finn (Ciarán Hinds) who talked too much at the event; while he understands for the first time what his father does for a living when he witnesses the bloodshed. Rooney sends Connor to kill Michael and the boy but Connor instead kills his wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and other son Peter (Liam Aiken) in cold blood and Michael goes on the run with Michael Jr in an attempt to gain revenge for his family’s murder. He finds that he has no friends and no protection and is advised by Mafia man Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to give up. He reckons without a freelance corpse photographer Maguire (Jude Law) following him and thinks that by uncovering Connor’s theft that Rooney will accept him as the son he never had … A man of honour always pays his debts and keeps his word. I like this far better now that years have passed, Newman is gone and what I originally thought of as directorial heavy-handedness is more readily recognisable as a comfort with the excessive expressionistic qualities of the source material. Hanks’ doughy face with its deep-set eyes seems peculiarly unsuited for this kind of role but paradoxically lends the performance an unexpected quality. His six-week road trip with his son gives him an opportunity to impart lessons and learn about the boy for the first time. He makes us know that Michael Jr is not to follow him into this deadly business. His scenes with Newman are marvellous – a kind of trading off in acting styles, one legend passing on lessons to the next, borne out in the storytelling. What Michael doesn’t know is that blood means more than sympathy, no matter the horrors involved in being part of the Rooney family. Of course Connor would betray his father;  and of course his father knows. It’s a hard thing to watch Michael learn the truth. Loyalty sucks. This is a gallery of masculine roles – Craig as the ever-smiling psychotic son, Law as the rotten-toothed shooter masquerading as the photographer of death – a correlative of the film’s own morbidity; Hoechlin as the boy learning at his father’s elbow as the guns go off. Hinds impresses in those early scenes, quietly seething then mouthing off at his brother’s wake, a crime which will  not go unpunished. Dylan Baker’s accountant Alexander Rance has a decidedly old-fashioned homosexual taint of prissiness. This is a linear story of fathers and sons, cause and effect, crime, punishment and revenge in an Oedipal setting dictated by the rules of inevitability that can be traced to Greek tragedy. There are no surprises but the pleasures of the production design by Dennis Gassner, the cinematography by Conrad Hall (who earned a posthumous Academy Award) and the performances make this worth a re-viewing. Screenplay by David Self from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers

To Each His Own (1946)

To Each His Own

Are you proud of your life? In World War 2 London, fire wardens Josephine ‘Jody’ Norris (Olivia de Havilland) and Lord Desham (Roland Culver) keep a lonely vigil. When Jody saves Desham’s life, they become better acquainted. With a bit of coaxing, the ageing spinster tells the story of her life, leading to a flashback of her life in upstate New York town where is the daughter of pharmacist Dan (Griff Barnett) and she is proposed to by both Alex Piersen (Philip Terry) and travelling salesman Mac Tilton (Bill Goodwin) but she turns them both down. A disappointed Alex marries Corinne (Mary Anderson). When handsome US Army Air Service fighter pilot Captain Bart Cosgrove (John Lund) flies in to promote a bond drive, he and Jody quickly fall in love, though they have only one night together. Months later she gives birth to his son in a New York hospital and her plans to adopt the baby by stealth go wrong when Corinne’s newborn dies and she and Alex take in the child, known as Griggsy.  Bart has died in the war and then Jody’s father dies and she has to sell up. She starts up a cosmetics business in NYC under cover of Mac’s former bootlegging enterprise and reveals to Corinne she’s been propping up Alex’ failing business and will continue to do so but she wants the baby – her son – however the boy misses his ‘mother’ … You sin – you pay for it all the rest of your life. A morality tale that doesn’t moralise – that’s quite a feat to pull off but master producer and screenwriter Charles Brackett (with Jacques Théry) does it. This miracle of straightforward storytelling never falls into the trap of over-sentimentality and is helped enormously by a performance of grace notes and toughness by de Havilland, who won an Academy Award for her role as the unwed mother who through the worst of ironies loses access to her own baby when a finely executed plan goes wrong. Her ascent through the business world is born of necessity and grim ambition to retrieve her son – and the scene when she has to admit there’s more to parenting than giving birth is one of the finest of the actress’ career. Just bringing a child into the world doesn’t make you a mother … it’s being there … it’s all the things I’ve missed. The subject of illegitmacy is handled without fuss and de Havilland is surrounded by fine performances, acting like a sorbet to her rich playing of a woman whose coldness is pierced by the thoughts of her lost son: Culver is excellent as the no-nonsense English aristo who engineers a reconciliation; Anderson is fine as the flip rival who gains the upper hand while knowing her husband still loves his childhood sweetheart; and Lund scores in his debut in the double role as the flyer chancing his arm at a one-night stand and then as his own clueless son twenty years later, wanting nothing more than a night with his fiancée. A refreshing take on that strand of stories known as the Independent Woman sub-genre. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.  I’m a problem mother

 

Mr Jones (2019)

Mr Jones

The Soviets have built more in five years than our Government has in ten. In 1933, Gareth Jones (James Norton) is an ambitious young Welsh journalist who has gained renown for his interview with Adolf Hitler. Thanks to his connections to Britain’s former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), he is able to get official permission to travel to the Soviet Union. Jones intends to try and interview Stalin and find out more about the Soviet Union’s economic expansion and its apparently successful five-year development plan. Jones is restricted to Moscow where he encounters Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) a libertine who sticks to the Communist Party line.  He befriends and romances German journalist Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) who reluctantly sees him follow the path of murdered journalist Kleb in pursuit of a story. He jumps his train and travels unofficially to Ukraine to discover evidence of the Holodomor (famine) including empty villages, starving people, cannibalism, and the enforced collection of grain exported out of the region while millions die. He escapes with his life because Duranty bargains for it on condition he report nothing but lies. On his return to the UK he struggles to get the true story taken seriously and is forced to return home to Wales in ignominy … They are killing us. Millions.  Framed by the writing of Animal Farm after a credulous commie-admiring Eric Blair aka George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) expresses disbelief that Stalin is anything but a good guy, this is an oddly diffident telling of a shocking true story that’s art-directed within an inch of its life. Introducing Orwell feels like a disservice to Jones. Norton has a difficult job because the screenplay by Andrea Chalupa is too mannerly and the film’s aesthetic betrays his intent. Director Agnieszka Holland is a fine filmmaker but the colour grading, the great lighting (there’s even a red night sky shot from below as Jones and Brooks walk through Moscow) and the excessive use of handheld shooting to express Jones’ inner turmoil somehow detracts from the original fake news story. It happens three times during food scenes including when he realises he’s eating some kids’ older brother. Shocking but somehow not surprising and amazingly relevant given the present state of totalitarian things, everywhere, in a world where Presidents express the wish to have journalists executed and some of them succeed. Some things never change. Chilling. I have no expectations. I just have questions

City That Never Sleeps (1953)

City That Never Sleeps

I could make a big man out of you. Disillusioned Chicago cop Johnny Kelly (Gig Young) wants to quit the force and make a new life with strip tclub performer Sally ‘Angel Face’ Connors (Mala Powers), leaving wife Kathy (Paula Raymond) who tells her father-in-law, Sgt. John Kelly Senior (Otto Hulett) she suspects Johnny might be planning on leaving the Chicago PD and believes he can’t stand being outearned by her. Johnny meets big wheel corrupt DA Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold) who blackmails him into transporting former magician now thief Hayes Stewart (William Talman) after a setup later that night across state lines into Indiana because Johnny’s little brother Stubby (Ron Hagerthy) a former bellboy is now involved in his rackets. What Biddel doesn’t know is that his wife Lydia  (Marie Windsor) and Stewart are having an affair and he is being set up instead with Stubby being used as his accomplice in that night’s theft. When John Sr takes Johnny’s call he ends up getting caught in the crossfire …. What he needs is a lesson in ethics. An awesome cult item full of bruised poetry, astonishing camera setups by John (Psycho) Russell, surprising plot twists and pleasurable performances. There are self-conscious references to The Blue Angel; a voiceover out of Dragnet from Chill Wills, Young’s insightful partner for the evening; and Young’s own ‘sour’ character tipping into masochism and creating a bristling set of disarming consequences for all concerned. The screenplay by Steve Fisher has the tropes of a police procedural but it reaches into the gutter and exposes the viscera of desire in the most amazing ways with a Mechanical Man (Wally Cassell) bearing witness to murder from a nightclub window and a chase to the death along the Chicago El. What a film! Directed by John Auer. Restored by Martin Scorsese and shown by that invaluable channel, Talking Pictures. You are sick inside Johnny. Something inside you is all fouled up

Above Suspicion (1943)

Above Suspicion

Her conception of foreign affairs derives directly from Hollywood. In 1939 just prior to WW2 honeymooning couple Oxford professor Richard Myles (Fred MacMurray) and his new bride, undergraduate Frances (Joan Crawford) are recruited to spy on the Nazis for British intelligence. Initially finding the mission fun the trail gets them in real danger as they try to interpret their encounters with contacts.  They then realise a fellow guest Peter Galt (Richard Ainley) at their holiday destination is actually a hitman on a mission of his own and his girlfriend has been murdered at Dachau after the Brits let them take on a job without informing them how bad the Nazis really were … Here we have an iron maiden, also known as the German Statue of Liberty. Crawford may have railed at the preposterous plot in TV’s Feud:  Bette and Joan and it would be her last film at MGM but the fact is Helen MacInnes based her excellent wartime novel on something that actually happened to herself and her husband. Crawford has several good moments – and a ‘bit’ involving what happens her ankle when she’s nervous – including when Conrad Veidt inveigles his way into their museum visit and shows her an instrument of torture which she describes as a totalitarian manicure. It’s a preview of coming attractions. She and MacMurray have chemistry and there are terrifically tense musical moments with some remarks that just skid past innuendo regarding their honeymoon. Fact is, they’ve been dumped in a really dangerous situation and now don’t they know it and the mention of concentration camps proves beyond reasonable doubt the Allies had a pretty good idea what was going on despite post-war claims. There’s an assassination that will only surprise someone who’s never watched a film. A sprightly script by Keith Winter & Melville Baker and Patricia Coleman (with uncredited work by Leonard Lee) keeps things moving quickly in Hollywood’s version of Europe, circa, whenever, and who can’t love a movie that reveals suave Basil Rathbone in Nazi regalia? Directed by Richard Thorpe but it should have been Hitchcock, as Crawford herself stated. Typical tourists – above suspicion

Appointment in Berlin (1943)

Appointment in Berlin

That’s the whole point of Secret Service – to prevent people suspecting. In 1938 disillusioned and recently disgraced RAF officer Wing Commander Keith Wilson (George Sanders) risks his life in Berlin by broadcasting pro-Nazi propaganda as a cover for counter-espionage. His broadcasts have a military code enabling British manoeuvres. He falls in love with Ilse (Marguerite Chapman) sister of a high-ranking Nazi Rudolph von Preising (Onslow Stevens) and forges links with journalist Greta van Leyden (Gale Sondergaard) who is actually a spy as well and when a message needs to be taken to Holland he’s the only one left standing … If you are going in at the deep end you may as well do it for England. In a rare tragic role, Sanders scores as the officer whose disgust at Britain’s politically neutral stance prior to WW2 leads him to become a pariah – lending him handy cover when England expects. The question of identity hovers over every scene here as Ilse’s transformation is nicely nuanced whereas Sondergaard’s situation is more extreme and her ending is well staged. There’s an amusing double act from a pair of American neutrals whose constant haranguing of supposedly treacherous Wilson adds humour to proceedings – inevitably they assist in his time of need. Nice references to Goebbels and his role in the manufacturing of truth. An interesting propaganda picture of pre-war problems and the reason why cross-border co-operation was required. Michael Hogan and Horace McCoy wrote the screenplay based on B.P. Fineman’s story.  Directed by Alfred E. Green. It’s finally happened

Happy 60th Birthday Psycho (1960) 16th June 2020!

Psycho theatricalJanet Leigh in PsychoPSYCHO shower scene stills

The film that changed everything premiered on this day at the DeMille Theater in New York City sixty years ago. From its mordant premise to its stunning performances and exquisite mise-en-scène, the cod Freudianism and the cutting – culminating in the shower scene, that masterpiece of montage, this is Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. Happy birthday to Psycho!

Mask (1985)

Mask

I look weird but I’m real normal. Azusa, California. It’s 1978. Roy ‘Rocky’ Dennis (Eric Stoltz) is an intelligent, outgoing and humorous teenager who suffers from a disfiguring facial deformity called “lionitis” and has now outlived his life expectancy:  he’s always being told he’s got 6 to 8 months. He’s happy go lucky and indulges his passion for baseball card collecting. His single mother Florence ‘Rusty’ Dennis (Cher) struggles to fight for his acceptance in the mainstream public school system, where he proves himself to be a highly accomplished student at junior high and wins friends by tutoring them. Though Rocky endures ridicule and awkwardness for his appearance, and the classmate he’s sweet on has a boyfriend, he dreams of travelling to Europe with his best friend Ben (Lawrence Monoson). He finds love and respect from his mother’s biker gang family the Turks and particularly likes Gar (Sam Elliott) who eventually reconciles with Rusty and moves in, frequently acting as peacemaker between mother and son. He even experiences his first love when he is persuaded to volunteer at a summer camp for blind kids where he meets Diana (Laura Dern) but then her parents try to keep them separated and Ben lets him down when he says he’s got to move to Chicago ... I want to go to every place I ever read about. Absurdly moving, this wonderfully sympathetic evocation of real-life Rocky Dennis and his mom benefits immensely from being simply told, allowing the characters and the performances to do the heavy lifting. Stoltz has such a tough role but carries it with dignity and aplomb; while Cher is a revelation as the mom whose tough love and wild lifestyle add up to a complex emotional picture. Beautifully written by Anna Hamilton Phelan and sensitively directed by Peter Bogdanovich, this is a life-affirming story of real courage and love. When something bad happens to you you’ve gotta remember the good things that happened to you