Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958)

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aka Sleep No More. Kimberley Prescott (Anne Baxter) is the heiress of a South African diamond company and grieving after her father’s recent suicide at the family’s villa outside Barcelona.  She is shocked by the arrival of a man (Richard Todd) claiming to be her brother Ward, believed to have died in a car accident in South Africa a year earlier. Kimberley had identified his body.  He insinuates his way into her home accompanied by a woman claiming to be a housekeeper, Elaine Whitman (Faith Brook) after giving the Spanish maid the weekend off.  Kimberley has trouble convincing her friends and family and the local police inspector Vargas (Herbert Lom) that a complete stranger has taken her deceased brother’s identity and appears to know events of their shared childhood and suspects he is after her father’s estate … Written by David D. Osborn and Charles Sinclair, this highly efficient B thriller is a convincing mix of the paranoid woman’s film and murder mystery, with an enormous stash of diamonds at the centre of the plot. Baxter offers a pleasingly vivid performance as the woman being driven to the edge of sanity with nice guy actor Todd playing it sinister and clearly enjoying himself.  The guitar score by Mátyás Seiber is performed by Julian Bream. Produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and directed by Michael Anderson with cinematography by his usual collaborator, Erwin Hillier.

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The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

 

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I told you he was a spirit. If you’re his friend, you can talk to him whenever you want. Just close your eyes and call him… It’s me, Ana… It’s me Ana… Life in a remote Spanish village in the 1940s is calm and uneventful. Two little sisters see a censored cut of Frankenstein in a travelling cinema, and seven-year old Ana (Ana Torrent) starts wandering the countryside in search of this kind creature after Isabel (Isabel Telleria) tells her the movies are all fake …. Written by director Victor Erice with Angel Fernandez-Santos and Francisco J. Querejeta, this is the classic of Spanish cinema. However it’s very difficult to see why. It’s an allegorical political story set in a non-descript era (actually meant to be the 1940s but who can tell? And how?! The hairstyles are atypical for starters). So this is a coded version of life after General Franco. After a wiltingly slow beginning, Ana locates a soldier in a deserted farmhouse near her home which the girls share with their parents –  scholar father (Fernando Fernan Gomez) whose narrative ramblings about a glass beehive are supposed to signify political turmoil (presumably) and her lonely and permanently sleepy letter-writing mother (Teresa Gimpera). Ana mistakes the soldier for the type emblemised by Frankenstein’s monster. When she goes missing after misunderstanding the notion of ‘spirit’ she inspires a search while Isabel learns the error of misleading her younger sister. Frankly I don’t get this at all:  it clearly had huge significance in Seventies Spain but the references are beyond me. Very little happens. And it feels dreadfully paced. And since so much rests on the shoulders of the child because at its heart it is a story of childhood and innocence and fantasy it doesn’t help that I didn’t like her or the way she was directed.  You could never mistake this very dark little girl for the daughter of the very blond actors playing her parents. The aural link between the girls’ father and Frankenstein’s monster was misguided at best and confuses things.  It doesn’t work at the basic level of narrative. I waited a long time to see this. Oh well.

 

 

Deadfall (1968)

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How do you account for the fact the jewel thief is the one criminal that respectable people sympathise with? Cat burglar Henry Clarke (Michael Caine) checks himself into a Spanish sanitarium for alcoholics to befriend the wealthy Salinas (David Buck) in order to rob his mansion. He is visited in the clinic by Italian beauty Fé Moreau (Giovanna Ralli) and asked to join with her and her much older husband Richard (Eric Portman) in robbing Salinas’ place when he’s attending a concert. As a test run they break into another stately home. After risking his life on a ledge, Clarke becomes so angered by Richard’s failure to crack the safe that he digs it out of the wall and he drags it and its contents out of the house. Fé and Clarke begin an affair, which Richard doesn’t mind because he has a new young male lover. Fé buys a Jaguar convertible for Clarke and tells him the safe contained jewels worth at least a half-a-million dollars. Before the time comes to rob Salinas, Fé travels to Tangier without letting Clarke know she was leaving. Richard then reveals to Clarke that he betrayed his male lover to the Nazis and then impregnated the man’s wife. Their baby was Fé and she doesn’t know the truth. Clarke is devastated and breaks into Salinas’ mansion on his own. Fé returns and is shocked and disbelieving when Richard reveals the truth about their relationship. She races to the Salinas mansion and her arrival alerts a security guard who shoots Clarke coming out a window… Bryan Forbes adapted Desmond Cory’s novel which has the trappings of a Hitchcock suspense thriller but instead turns into a relationship melodrama with a rather disturbing Freudian twist. Forbes made some fantastic films in the Sixties and had previously teamed up with Caine, Leonard Rossiter (as Fillmore) and his wife Nanette Newman (the Girl here) in The Wrong Box but the setup takes too long, the key tryout burglary is crosscut with John Barry conducting a concert which is really strangely shot by Gerry Turpin (imagine how Hitch would have staged it – or just watch The Man Who Knew Too Much) and the strangulated diction of Portman makes you wonder why nobody thought of Curt Jurgens for the role. His dialogue basically states the film’s themes and his enunciation is horrifically enervating: I have no idea how Caine acted opposite him. On the plus side it’s mostly well shot save for that concert hall, Caine looks his beautiful feline best enhanced by the Spanish location tan and Barry’s score is deeply attached to the film’s strange emotions, even quoting himself by using the theme from Beat Girl to stress the decadence. And it’s nice to see the glorious Ralli at work as well as watching the great Catalan guitarist Renata Tarrago play the solo on stage. Clouds, silver linings, etc.

Julieta (2016)

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The abject maternal has long been a strong component of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s oeuvre and in this striking adaptation of three Alice Munro stories from Runaway he plunders the deep emotional issues that carry through the generations. On a Madrid street widowed Julieta (Emma Suarez) runs into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) who used to be her daughter’s best friend. Bea tells her she met Antia in Switzerland where she’s married with three children.  Julieta enters a spiral of despair – she hasn’t seen Antia since she went on a spiritual retreat 12 years earlier and she now abandons lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) on the eve of their departure for Portugal. She returns to the apartment she lived in with Antia when the girl was an adolescent and hopes to hear from her, the birthday postcards having long ceased. We are transported back to the 1980s when on a snowy train journey to a school in Andalucia Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) resisted the advances of an older man who then committed suicide and she had a one-night stand with Xoan (Daniel Grao). She turns up at his house months later and his housekeeper Marian (the heroically odd Rossy de Palma) tells her his wife has died and he’s spending the night with Ava (Inma Cuesta). Julieta and Xoan resume their sexual relationship and she tells Ava she’s pregnant and is advised to tell Xoan. And so she settles into a seaside lifestyle with him as he fishes and she returns with her young child to visit her parents’ home where her mother is bedridden and her father is carrying on with the help. Years go by and she wants to return to teaching Greek literature, which has its echoes in the storytelling here. The housekeeper hates her and keeps her informed of Xoan’s onoing trysts with Ava;  her daughter is away at camp;  she and Xoan fight and he goes out fishing on a stormy day and doesn’t return alive. This triggers the relationship between Antia and Bea at summer camp which evolves into Lesbianism albeit we only hear about this development latterly, when Bea tells Julieta that once it become an inferno she couldn’t take it any more and Antia departed for the spiritual retreat where she became something of a fanatic.  Julieta’s guilt over the old man’s death, her husband’s suicidal fishing trip and her daughter’s disappearance and estrangement lead her to stop caring for herself – and Lorenzo returns as she allows hope to triumph over miserable experience. There are moments here that recall Old Hollywood and not merely because of the Gothic tributes, the secrets and deceptions and illicit sexual liaisons. The colour coding, with the wonderfully expressive use of red, reminds one that Almodovar continues to be a masterful filmmaker even when not utterly committed to the material;  and if it’s not as passionate as some of his earlier female dramas, it’s held together by an overwhelming depiction of guilt and grief and the sheer unfathomability of relationships, familial and otherwise. Suarez and Ugarte are extremely convincing playing the different phases of Julieta’s experiences – how odd it might have been in its original proposed version, with Meryl Streep in the leading role, at both 25 and 50, and filming in English. I might still prefer his early funny ones but a little Almodovar is better than none at all.

Wild Oats (2016)

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Shirley MacLaine is the beloved retired schoolteacher whose husband dies and her insecure unhappily married fusspot daughter Demi Moore (looking about 30 – sheesh!) brings a realtor to the funeral to assess her home for post-mortem sale. MacLaine insists upon staying there and is mistakenly sent a life insurance cheque for $5 million instead of $50,000.  Best friend Jessica Lange encourages her to make off with it and the pair of them embark on the adventure of a lifetime – fetching up in the Canary Islands where they enjoy very different romances. Divorced Billy Connolly hits on MacLaine but all is not what it seems when she wins nearly half a million euros on blackjack and a US insurance investigator turns up to ask about the unfathomably large cheque, encouraging her to bribe him and bolt while Connolly disappears. Is he a conman?! Meanwhile Lange gets involved with a younger man with a Mrs Robinson fixation. Back in the US, another company rep, the wonderfully sentimental Howard Hesseman, pairs off with Moore to bring Mom back home and face justice. It all winds up in a shootout at a winery with the island’s biggest gangster. You have to be there! For armchair tourists – this looks gorgeous and the ladies are quite the heroines. The gray dollar audience is being well catered for. This is better than assisted living! Directed by Andy Tennant from a screenplay by Gary Kanew and Claudia Myers.

Ma Ma (2015)

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A movie about breast cancer? Hardly a seasonal choice. Ever. I had to watch this because it’s made by Spanish auteur Julio Medem, one of my favourite filmmakers in the Nineties (The Red Squirrel, Lovers of the Arctic Circle) and he went off my radar, at least, in the interim. Penelope Cruz is the wife of a philandering university professor who’s spending the summer vacation with another student. She’s left at home with their young son, a talented footballer. She gets a bad bill of health from her gynaecologist and then attends a match where a Real Madrid scout (Louis Tosar) falls over upon receiving the news that his daughter has been knocked down and killed and his wife is in a coma. She takes him to the hospital where her son joins them and while he deals with the inevitable funerals and she with her cancer diagnosis and mastectomy, they end up making a life together. The gynaecologist (a talented singer) is supposed to be adopting a daughter from Siberia and this figure in a photograph on his desk becomes the centre of Cruz’s fantasies as she creates a coping mechanism in a film whose aesthetic belies the misery narrative by utilising a fantastic array of editing techniques to convey a state of mind:  parallel cutting, flash backs, flash forwards, dreams, enhancing the surreal component of illness and the effects it might impinge on a person’s thoughts. Fascinating but uneasy viewing.

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

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Great books should make great films, isn’t that how it goes? That’s how it should go, most people reason. Hemingway’s finest novel (at least at that time, perhaps – some of us might beg to differ) about the Spanish Civil War got the A treatment at Paramount. The author himself hand-picked Ingrid Bergman to play Maria the abused guerilla fighter and Gary Cooper to play Robert Jordan the American college instructor volunteer who is being deployed to blow up a bridge to face off the fascists. The problem is, the screenplay by Dudley Nichols is a rackety thing that doesn’t entirely subscribe to Hemingway’s vision and in this version (130 minutes broadcast edition – there are THREE others!) it takes a whole hour to get going which means the structure is wrong. But then it REALLY gets going and never lets up. The romance between our mismatched pair ratchets several notches – Kiss me!  she dares him. You’re shameless! he retorts. I’ve never been a fan of Bergman but she gains a little in magnificence here. Cooper is probably the perfect Hemingway man. They have a double agent in the ranks and an army to fight off. The direction is okay by Sam Wood, who was directing the second of three (in a row) films with Cooper – the previous was The Pride of the Yankees (Cooper got an Academy Award), the next would be Casanova Brown. But what is amazing is the score by Victor Young which became the first soundtrack album. The strings are sweet and greatly underline the emotions. The Technicolor photography by Ray Rennahan is also notable even if it looks a little off these days. Not really great filmmaking, but eventually worth a look, especially for the pretty thickly cut ham from Katina Paxinou as Pilar the gypsy which earned her an Academy Award. Most people in the film got nominations and it was the biggest box office hit of the year.

Blood and Sand (1941)

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Wonderful old-style melodrama, a remake of the Blasco Ibanez novel that had starred Valentino, a rags to riches tale of illiterate Andalucian matador Tyrone Power, torn between his love for childhood sweetheart and wife Linda Darnell and wealthy mistress Rita Hayworth (on loan from Columbia). When critic Laird Cregar sees Hayworth arrive at the bullring for the first time he declares, If this is death in the afternoon, she’s death in the evening! And so it proves … Gorgeous looking film directed by Rouben Mamoulian with magnificent production design and cinematography influenced by the great Spanish artists, together with stunning costuming – have you ever seen more splendid white dresses on more glorious women?! Mexican Bullfighter Carlos Arruza served as the film’s technical director.Big wow from Twentieth Century-Fox with an effective screenplay by Jo Swerling. Look for Linda praying to La Macarena! And great silent star and producer Alla (Garden of Allah) Nazimova as Power’s mom telling her not to have sons! Power is fabulous in the second of his three Latino roles – after Mark of Zorro, before Captain from Castile. Lush.

 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

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Vicky and Cristina leave the US for a sojourn in Barcelona to, respectively, study Catalan identity (or possibly escape a suffocating engagement) and find something to do, when a newly divorced artist hits on them both. A truly funny adult comedy about sex and marriage and adultery and artists and their muses.(The art is by Agusti Puig.)  One of the later Woody Allen works that came as a total surprise after some serially indifferent work in Europe. This is the first time that Scarlett Johannson seemed like a girl’s girl and Hall is a very fine actress playing a funny role dead straight.(They previously worked on The Prestige together.) Javier Bardem is terrific as the Lothario whose crazy ex (Penelope Cruz) comes back to haunt them all. Allen is so good that we are at risk of underestimating him. This is just great.