From Here to Eternity (1953)

You should know that in the Army it’s not the individual who counts. 1941. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is transferred to Schofield Barracks on Hawaii where his commanding officer Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober) promotes boxers but Prewitt blinded a man in a fight and won’t co-operate. He is bullied until Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) suggests he is given extra duties but gets hazed by non-comm officers. Supported by friend Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), the men go carousing to a private club where Prew falls for Lorene (Donna Reed), a ‘hostess’. Maggio gets into a row with stockade Sergeant ‘Fatso’ Judson (Ernest Borgnine) but Warden intervenes. Warden begins an affair with the neglected wife Karen (Deborah Kerr) of Captain Holmes whose promiscuous reputation hides a tragedy. Maggio leaves guard duty and gets atrociously drunk, ultimately leading to a sadistic beating from Fatso which kills him. Prew decides upon revenge on the eve of Pearl Harbour … A man don’t go his own way he’s nothing. Despite some decidedly uninspired directing from Fred Zinnemann, this tightly scripted adaptation of James Jones’ classic novel by Daniel Taradash skirts a fine line between outright travesty and censor-baiting in a bid to stay more or less faithful to the themes and the melodramatic aspects are saved before the concluding scenes when the Japanese bombers arrive. Clift gets the best of the pithy truisms, which fits the story’s construction, given that he and Sinatra are the doomed pair who have to make the tragic sacrifices and both give stunning performances. The entire cast shines and there are many great scenes, with the usual one on the beach with the crashing surf between Kerr and Lancaster excerpted as an instance of classic Hollywood romance but it’s one with an undertow of sadness, The first-rate expressive acting is what makes this special.  A man should be what he can do

Luce (2019)

Luce

Keep in mind that for her this knowledge is incidental but for you it could be a matter of life and death. A liberal-minded couple, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter Edgar (Tim Roth), are forced to reconsider their image of the black son Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr ) they adopted from war-torn Eritrea after they discover he has written a disturbing essay for his class at school.  A star athlete and debater and the envy of the other black kids who appear to be failing themselves by  becoming stereotypes, he is being challenged by his history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) in this project in which he has adopted the voice of revolutionary Frantz Fanon, appearing to endorse ‘necessary violence’. At the same time Wilson has found illegal fireworks in his locker and she brings it up with the Edgars who decide not to mention it to Luce. They start to doubt their son and look at him as though he is manipulating them and everyone else and reverting to his origins in order to stay on top of the class … I feel like you are all waiting for me to confirm this thing you are afraid to say aloud. Adapted by director Julius Onah from J.C. Lee’s titular stage play, this is a morally-driven effort to interrogate race, tokenism and politics using the higher expectations applied to black kids to raise them up. However the message is confused with the subplot involving Spencer’s mentally ill sister and the framing of a thriller throwing a spanner in the works:  you expect her to turn into Ma again. Watts and Roth end up questioning the choice to adopt when what he really wants is a baby of their own. They called their son ‘Luce’ because she couldn’t pronounce his African name. Then the issue of teenage sex arises with a girl that their son allegedly protected from sexual assault but whom he happens to be dating. There is a raft of possible duplicities which he appears to have practised and carried off with a winning smile. The ending is unsettling and inconclusive and dramatically false. This smug pointless provocation about Great White Saviours and guilt is just annoying and the last shot will just confirm anti-black prejudice whether in America or anywhere else. I wanted something simple and normal. Our lives didn’t have to be a political statement

 

A Touch of Larceny (1959)

A Touch of Larceny

I was implying I might be a matrimonial hazard if I were wealthy. Rakish former Naval submarine Commander Max ‘Rammer’ Easton (James Mason) realises he needs plenty of cash to win the heart of American widow Virginia Killain (Vera Miles) currently the companion and soon to be wife of his Naval colleague Sir Charles Holland (George Sanders). Max disappears after faking treachery as a Soviet spy, planning to reappear and sue all the tabloids which libelled him so as to win the hand of Virginia but his plans go awry when he really does get into trouble in the Western Isles … One of the hardest lessons in life is to accept defeat gracefully. Adapted by Roger MacDougall, director Guy Hamilton and producer Ivan Foxwell from Andrew Garve’s (a pseudonym for Paul Winterton) novel The Megstone Plot, this sees Mason at his best as the breezy playboy and former WW2 hero who has finally met a woman he can see himself living with – and the sparks fly between him and Miles in a comedy that has wit, guile and surprising wisdom. He sets himself up and then spends a third of the film as a raffish beachcomber listening to rumours of his supposed defection. Sanders feasts on the prospect of revenging the man who appears to have compromised his fiancée, whose intentions are far from clear. You’ll recognise Martin Stephens the creepy boy from The Innocents as Sanders’ nephew. There are good jokes about newspapers and that year’s current scandalous novel, The World of Suzie Wong. Perhaps its occasional moments of true feeling guy the comedy’s intent so that the tone shifts but in the main it’s an impressive production and the performances are terrific. An interesting syncopated beat to Mason’s other Cold War movie that year – North By Northwest. You know Max, one of these days somebody may take you seriously

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

Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations 1946

Pip – a young gentleman of great expectations! Orphaned Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip (Anthony Wager) lives with his older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe (Bernard Miles). He encounters runaway convict Magwitch (Finlay Currie) on the marshes and assists him with food and helps him cut himself free. However Magwitch is recaptured when he has a fight with a fellow escapee. An eccentric elderly spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) wants company for herself and her teenage ward Estella (Jean Simmons) a cruel but beautiful teenager who mocks Pip but with whom he falls in love from afar. Pip is apprenticed to a blacksmith when he turns 14 and Estella goes to France to become a lady. Years later Pip (John Mills) is visited by Miss Havisham’s lawyer Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) and he is to be the beneficiary of a mysterious benefactor to become a gentleman of great expectations in London where he befriends Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness) who tells him that Miss Havisham’s life is dedicated to revenge against men because she was jilted at the altar and Estella was brought up likewise. They are reunited when Pip is 21 and he visits Miss Havisham after getting his living stipend of £500 a year and he finds that Estella (Valerie Hobson) is engaged to a man she doesn’t love. Pip is visited by Magwitch who reveals he was his benefactor and that Miss Havisham was using him. He confronts her and she realises the great harm she has done and as Pip is leaving a terrible accident occurs. Magwitch should not be on the territory and is commiting a felony and Pip undertakes to help him escape England … I want to be a gentleman on her account. Director David Lean recalled a perfectly condensed theatre adaptation of the Dickens novel and wrote the screenplay with producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame and Kay Walsh. From its magnificent opening sequence on the marshes (shot by Robert Krasker) and the atmosphere conjured by the decaying mansion housing Miss Havisham, this is a film of such dazzling detail and character, brilliant playing and staging and flawless pacing, as to merit the description perfect. Lean came of age as a director and the cinematography by Guy Green and the soaring score by Walter Goehr pick out, express and complement the heart of the drama. It never dodges the little social critiques (Mills’ reaction to the public hangings) or the touches of humour (Pip popping Pocket in the jaw; his silly fashionable get up) nor the ideas of snobbery, stupidity, guilt or social injustice that characterise the text of the novel. The final scene, when Pip returns and throws light upon Estella is heartbreaking and delightful. A simply bewitching masterpiece. What larks!

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)

The Pink Panther Strikes Again

Do you know what kind of bomb it was?/The exploding kind. Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) escapes from a mental hospital and determines to commandeer a Doomsday machine invented by Dr Hugo Fassbender (Richard Vernon) in order to wipe out the entire world if necessary – just as long as he can kiss his bête noire Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) farewell. He kidnaps Fassbender and his daughter Margo  (Briony McRoberts) and holds them captive in his Bavarian castle but not willing to take any chances, he also hires a series of hitmen (Eddie Stacey, Herb Tanney, Terry Maidment) to help out. Meanwhile, Clouseau is diverted by the attentions of alluring Russian spy Olga (Lesley-Anne Down) …  Now we’ll see who has the last laugh. They’ve all betrayed me, and now they will have to pay. What shall I destroy? Buckingham Palace? Too small. How about London? Not big enough. England! Yes, England. In which Dreyfus becomes a kind of Blofeld-styled criminal mastermind crossed with Count Dracula, the animated titles pastiche so many genres it’s just a shame they don’t get to pay homage to them all (including Edwards’ wife Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music!). Not as well constructed as the preceding films, this genre mashup does pay dividends in the expertly engineered sight gags and one extended action sequence involving Lom, Sellers and the redoubtable Burt Kwouk as Cato. Some might take issue with the scene in the gay club and the crossdressing performers but this is a scenario that Edwards would plunder to astonishing effect in the later Victor/Victoria. There’s a packed ensemble of English actors and it’s only a shame that the great Leonard Rossiter hasn’t more to do as Clouseau’s shocked opposite number. Look quickly for Omar Sharif as an Egyptian hitman while Byron Kane does a Kissingeresque Secretary of State. Lots of fun but not for the purist – even though it had me from the moment Lom’s eye twitched. Written by Frank Waldman and director Blake Edwards. I thought you said that your dog didn’t bite!/That is not my dog

The 39 Steps (1959)

The 39 Steps 1959

If you’re looking for Richard Hannay this is the man you want. Freshly returned to London, British diplomat Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) goes to the aid of a nanny ‘Nannie’ (Faith Brook) in a park only to discover there is no baby in the pram and follows her to a music hall where he watches Mr Memory (James Hayter). She goes back to his flat and reveals that she is a spy working for British intelligence looking for the organisation The Thirty-Nine Steps who are after information on the British ballistic missiles project. When she is murdered in his flat he goes on the run, encountering a bevy of schoolgirls on a train with their teacher Miss Fisher (Taina Elg) who reports him to the police but he jumps off the vehicle on the Forth Bridge and hitches a ride on a truck driven by ex-con Percy Baker (Sidney James) who advises him to stay at The Gallows Inn run by occultist Nellie Lumsden (Brenda De Banzie) and her husband who help him escape during a cycling race.  He approaches Professor Logan (Barry Jones) only to find the man is in fact the leader of the spy ring and he must keep running … I’m not having a Sagittarius in the house tonight! Hitchcock was responsible for the first adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy-chase thriller and this is a more or less straight remake, with the romance-chase narrative lines crisscrossing pleasingly as per the generic template established by The Master. More may be a slightly ridiculous hero but this is played for comic effect and its Hitchcockian homage continues in the casting of De Banzie who essays a knowing spiritualist in her crofting cottage. It has the advantage of location shooting, a winning plot, doubtful romantic interest, a deal of suspense and a collective tongue planted firmly in cheek. Directed by Ralph Thomas, written by Frank Harvey and produced by Betty Box. Keep out of the woods. Especially in August!

Magic Town (1947)

Magic Town

The air becomes charged with electricity around desperate men. WW2 vet Lawrence ‘Rip’ Smith (James Stewart) is looking to find a way to beat fellow pollster George Stringer and his military colleague Professor Frederick Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) tells him about Grandview, a town that offers a precisely representative model for the entire United States. Rip promises a client a result within 24 hours that Stringer has been working on for a long time and he and his team arrive in the town posing as insurance salesmen. He has to deal with Mary Peterman  (Jane Wyman) who is trying to persuade the Mayor (Harry Holman) to build more property and give the town a civic centre – which would alter the demographic. It forces Rip to address the town and they side with him, not Mary who writes an editorial about him in her family newspaper. While they are attracted to each other, he is gathering information as well as coaching the school basketball team. When she overhears him calling a client, she writes another story about the reason for his being in Grandview and a national paper picks it up and Rip’s mission is made known in the ‘public opinion capital of the U.S.’ … Okay now. You’re a typical American – act like it! Robert Riskin’s script is rather reminiscent of a Frank Capra film – but then he wrote most of them, despite Capra’s self-aggrandising public line that his was The Name Above the Title. And yet this isn’t directed by Capra, but by William Wellman. While it readily captures much of the kind of atmosphere and social concerns of Riskin’s pre-WW2 work in that partnership the shifts from comedy to drama aren’t managed in the same way – with Riskin as producer from a story he wrote with Joseph Krumgold and Wellman directing, the sharp ends of the story are confronted directly, suggesting the compromises the screenwriter might have been making prior to this production. Rip wants money, Mary is after a good story with a political edge. This exists almost in inverse relationship to Riskin’s previous narratives, with the kinds of conversations that Capra softened into sentiment given a much tougher emphasis here (underlined by the Roy Webb’s score). So it’s the same type of material as before but given a much different treatment, although it all comes together in the end with the people creating their own destiny.  This as ever with Riskin is a blue-sky picture asking people what kind of country they want the United States to be and to make it happen democratically – but he never takes his eye off the ball, locating the peculiar way in which families run towns and thereby society as a whole. Fascinating as a prism through which to view Stewart’s stuttering post-war career (It’s a Wonderful Life was also a box office failure) as well as clarifying what Riskin had done for Capra now that they were separate entities. That’s Mickey Rooney’s dad Joe Yule as the radio comic. How do you like your fancy beautiful circus of a town now?

Days of Thunder (1990)

Days of Thunder

I don’t expect I’ll see too much of him except in my rear view mirror.  Hot tempered budding stock car racer Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) is recruited by a big brand headed by Tim Daland (Randy Quaid) but meets with an accident which seriously injures his team mate Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker). However, when he returns with the help of his mentor Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) and an attractive young doctor Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman), he has to face an ambitious adversary Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes) who not only wants to defeat but also disable him… He’s destroyed both my cars! The Top Gun team reassembled to bring Cruise’s need for speed to the racetrack which he’d tasted with acting buddy Paul Newman and decided to cement on the big screen with a story he dreamed up with the help of Robert Towne. Hated by critics and not particularly insightful about the motor racing world (and it has to be said that the NASCAR series just doesn’t have the romance of Formula One’s European trackside dramas) this is nonetheless a loud, colourful, fast-moving blast as you’d expect from director Tony Scott. Duvall is superb as the mentor, it’s fun to see Kidman when she still looked like herself (and prior to marriage to Cruise) and the final showdown is well done.  It’s distinguished by Hans Zimmer’s score and the songs which include Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven. Co-producer Don Simpson appears as racer Aldo Benedetti. For fans of this sporting sub-genre, John C. Reilly would get his kicks sending it up with Will Ferrell years later in Talladega Nights:  The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  It may not reach the heights of Howard Hawks’ movies about professional male groups but this marked the beginning of a long collaboration and friendship between Cruise and Towne, which I’ve written about in my book ChinaTowne: https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Screenplays-Robert-Towne-1960-2000/dp/1695887409/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=elaine+lennon+chinatowne&qid=1587925465&s=books&sr=1-1.  You are selfish, you are crazy and you’re scared

Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970)

Little Fauss and Big Halsy

I was going faster than I ever went in my whole life, then I fell off. Pro motorcycle racer Halsy Knox (Robert Redford) runs into amateur Little Fauss (Michael J. Pollard) after a race held near Phoenix, Arizona. They strike up a friendship as Fauss is attracted to Halsy’s carefree lifestyle. But Fauss’s father Seally (Noah Beery Jr.) regards Halsy as a bad influence and refuses to help Halsy when his truck breaks down. Halsy tricks the admiring Fauss into repairing his motorcycle for free at the shop where he works. When Fauss breaks his leg, Halsy, who has been barred from racing for drinking on the track, proposes that they form a partnership in which Halsy would race under Fauss’s name with Fauss serving as the mechanic. Fauss joins Halsy on the motorcycle racing circuit despite his parents’ disapproval. Fauss is constantly confronted with his inferiority to Halsy, both on and off the racetrack. Their partnership is finally broken when wealthy drop-out Rita Nebraska (Lauren Hutton) arrives at the racetrack and immediately attaches herself to Halsy, despite Fauss’ keen attention. Fauss returns home to find his  beloved father has died.  Halsy later visits him and attempts to ditch Rita, who is now heavily pregnant. Fauss refuses to let Halsy pawn her off on him and informs him that he plans to reenter the racing circuit. They race against each other at the Sears Point International Raceway. Halsy’s motorcycle breaks down. As he watches from the side of the track, he hears the announcement that Fauss has taken the lead… Well if that’s friendship, I’m aghast. Screenwriter Charles Eastman is now probably better known for his sister Carole aka Adrien (Five Easy Pieces) Joyce, than anything he himself wrote, including this, one of the more obsure biker flicks despite its big-name star. And yet Redford could say of it, That was the best screenplay of any film I’ve ever done, in my opinion. It was without a doubt the most interesting, the funniest, the saddest, the most real and original. He seems born to play the shirtless, feckless, ruthless handsome womaniser leaving a trail of destruction in his wake who only loses his shit-eating grin when things don’t go his way. I make it a rule to never make promises. Beery and Lucille Benson as Pollard’s parents are like a new generation’s Min and Bill. They’re so good they deserve a whole story of their own. Charles and Carole were Hollywood kids, if hardly upper echelon – their father worked as a grip at Warners while their mother was Bing Crosby’s secretary. Eastman was actually one of Hollywood’s most reliable script doctors through the Sixties, helping out on productions as diverse as Bunny Lake is Missing and The Planet of the Apes. He was something of an eccentric in that brotherhood of writers who wanted to be directors, inspiring people like Robert Towne with one of his unfilmed works which circulated in the Fifties, Honeybear, I Think I Love You. Towne remarked, For me, it was quite a revelation because it was the first contemporary screenplay I had read that just opened up the possibilities of everything that you could put into a screenplay in terms of language and the observations of contemporary life. It was a stunning piece of work, and I think it influenced a lot of us, even though it wasn’t made. Everybody tried to get it made, but Charlie was very particular about how it was going to be made, and in some ways I think he kept it from being made. Charlie was an original, that’s all. He used language in a way that I hadn’t seen used before. Towne speculated that his sister’s acclaimed screenplay for Five Easy Pieces was actually about Charles. Charlie was just one of those shadowy figures that I think cast a longer shadow over most of us than was generally recognised. Eastman would finally make his one and only foray into directing three years after this production with The All-American Boy, a boxing film starring Jon Voight. This is distinguished not just by the performances of opposites (a sexy opportunistic louse taking advantage of an ordinary decent rube) but by the evocative feelings it inspires – you get a real sense of character, predicament and place, indicating what Towne might have seen in Eastman’s writing – a kind of poetry, perhaps. That’s great screenwriting. It ain’t how you do, it’s where you’ve been. It feels as though it’s minting new archetypes it’s so fresh, vivid and affecting. It hits home even further in the special soundtrack of songs performed by Johnny Cash and written by him, Carl Perkins and Bob Dylan – arguably their on-the-nose content is the only thing that dates this, if at all. An unsung Seventies film and Pollard is just fabulous as Little. Sumptuously shot in Panavision by Ralph Woolsey on location in Antelope Valley, Sonoma County and Sears Point Raceway in San Francisco. Produced by Al Ruddy, Gray Frederickson (they would make The Godfather in a couple of years) and actor Brad Dexter – it was one of four films he produced. Wonderfully directed by Sidney J. Furie. What else is there to do?