Harper (1966)

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Why so fast, Harper? You trying to impress me? Struggling private eye Lew Harper (Paul Newman) takes a simple missing-person case that quickly spirals into something much more complex. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), recently paralysed in a horse-riding accident, wants Harper to find her missing oil baron husband Ralph, but her tempestuous teenage stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) thinks Mrs. Sampson knows more than she’s letting on… The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise. Brilliantly adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 mystery The Moving Target featuring private eye Archer, renamed here because Newman believed the letter ‘H’ to be lucky following Hud and The Hustler. With that team you know it’s filled with zingers, like, Kinky is British for weird. Macdonald’s roots in the post-war noir world are called up in the casting of Bacall, who reminds us that it was The Big Sleep, among other films based on books by the great Raymond Chandler, that brought this style into being. Of course Macdonald’s own interpretation is consciously more mythical than the prototypical Chandler’s, with allusions to Greek tragedy in its familial iterations but it continues in that vein of a ferociously stylish, ironic, delightfully cool appraisal of California’s upper class denizens and their intractable problems. Newman is perfectly cast as a kind of wandering conscience with problems of his own, while Janet Leigh as his ex-wife, Robert Wagner as a playboy, Julie Harris as a junkie musician, Shelley Winters as a faded movie star, Robert Webber as her criminal husband and Albert Hill as a lovelorn lawyer, all add wonderful details to this portrait of a social clique. A flavoursome, perfectly pitched entertainment with lovely widescreen cinematography by Conrad Hall and oh so wittily and precisely staged by director Jack Smight, underscored by the smooth Sixties jazz orchestrations of Johnny Mandel with an original song by Dory and Andre Previn. I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test

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Labyrinth (1986)

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You remind me of the babe.  Bratty 16-year old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) must find her young brother Toby (Toby Froud) whose crying is driving her crazy and whom she has wished away to the Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), a character in the play she’s rehearsing. To find him she has to enter a maze and has just 13 hours to do so or have her baby brother transformed into a goblin at midnight. With the help of a two-faced dwarf called Hoggle she negotiates all the tests and obstacles including a talking worm, creatures called Fireys who try to remove her head, and a goblin army on the march…  I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave. Nutty enchantment in a musical fantasy collaboration between puppetmaster Jim Henson and illustrator Brian Froud with Monty Python’s Terry Jones providing the screenplay (although other writers were involved:  George Lucas, Laura Phillips, Dennis Lee, Elaine May… and it owes a deal to both Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak) which got a roasting upon release but has proven its credentials with the passing of time and is now a determined cult and kids’ classic. Beautifully imagined and executed with a wicked stepmother, a baby in peril and toys that come to magical life in an ancient labyrinth and wicked creatures in the woods, this is just a perfect film fairytale, a story enabling a child to do battle with the grown ups in her life, a darkly romantic and dangerous outside world never far from her door. Bowie’s performance is of course something of legend, while Connelly and the puppets are the mainstay of the ensemble. Do you dare to eat the peach in this phallic kingdom of the subconscious?! Puppetry:  puberty. Discuss. Quite wonderful. You have no power over me!

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

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Villainy wears many masks, none so dangerous as the mask of virtue. in 1799 New York Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is an annoyingly methodical policeman sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the decapitations of three people, with the culprit being the legendary apparition, The Headless Horseman. He finds himself completely out of his depth in the New England town where the supernatural competes with real-life wickedness as Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon) tries to divert the earnest interloper’s scientific approach elsewhere yet his daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci) takes a fancy to Ichabod and tries to interest him in spells … It is truth, but truth is not always appearance. Depp makes for a wonderfully squeamish Crane as he bumbles through an assortment of seedy pantomime characters (Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Jeffrey Jones and a one-eyed Michael Gough) decorating Andrew Kevin Walker’s adaptation of the Washington Irving classic.  Director Tim Burton has a whale of a time in this dank Gothic landscape devising more ways to behead the victims. Not scary at all! Will you take nothing from Sleepy Hollow that was worth the coming here?

Double Indemnity (1944)

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It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets roped into a murderous scheme when he falls for the sensual Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who is intent on killing her husband (Tom Powers) by arranging his ‘accidental death’ and living off the fraudulent accidental death claim. Prompted by the late Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), insurance investigator and Neff’s mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) looks into the case, and gradually begins to uncover the truth… Staggering film noir, this early masterpiece from director Billy Wilder boasts a screenplay co-written (sort of) with Raymond Chandler, adapted from the James M. Cain story Three of a Kind. Rarely has the sensibility of a filmmaker been so attuned to the material in such crystalline fashion:  in this treatise on corruption, crime, sex, adultery and murder the casting plays to all the character strengths with Wilder seeing in the light actor MacMurray something infinitely schlemiel-like, sleazy and vulnerable.  It is literally picture-perfect, offering us a visual and psychological template for noir, a story told in flashback, shot on location all over Los Angeles, from Jerry’s Market to the Chateau Marmont, Glendale Station to the Hollywood Bowl, with venetian blinds, curling cigarette smoke and tilted fedoras filling out the emotional space shot by DoP John Seitz. Did a city ever feel so lonesome? Stanwyck was never better – dolled up in a blonde wig with bangs and an ankle bracelet begging to be opened, this is one of the fatalest femmes ever on screen. Robinson is fantastic as the fatherly man who unravels this story of these blackest of hearts, while this study of behaviour is decorated with the kind of dialogue that you savour forever. How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Classsic Hollywood, in every possible sense of that term.

St Elmo’s Fire (1985)

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How can I be so tired at twenty-two? I just don’t know who to be any more.  Seven recent Georgetown graduates hang out at St Elmo’s Bar.  Alec (Judd Nelson) is a political wannabe dating architect Leslie (Ally Sheedy); along with Washington Post writer Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), banker and party girl Jules (Demi Moore) and law student/waiter Kirby (Emilio Estevez) they’re waiting to find out how their friends welfare clerk Wendy (Mare Winningham) and former frat boy and reluctant new dad, sax player Billy (Rob Lowe) are following a car accident.  Kirby takes a fancy to ER doctor Dale (Andie McDowell) whom he’s liked since college… The quarter-life crisis wasn’t even a thing when this was made and the critics slaughtered it but for me I guess it pretty much looked like what would happen to me eventually! Half of The Breakfast Club love, live, have sex, split up and get high and come down again to a horrifying David Foster soundtrack that just screams mid-Eighties. I love it. So sue me. Written by Carl Kurlander and director Joel Schumacher.

The Furies (1950)

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I have no stomach for the way you live. It’s the 1870s. Widower T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) rules his sprawling New Mexico ranch with an iron fist, a born-again Napoleon who pays with his own currency, TC’s. But his authority doesn’t extend to his strong-willed daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), who both hates and loves her father with equal ferocity. He abandoned her mother for an inter-racial affair and she died at The Furies, her bedroom a mausoleum left precisely as she left it with Vance fiercely guarding it. Tensions rise when Vance falls for bad boy saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), whom T.C. buys off. But the family conflict turns violent when T.C. decides to marry Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) and evict Vance’s childhood friend Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) from his land… Charles Schnee adapted Niven Busch’s novel and Anthony Mann does quite an exquisite job of staging the action, with his customary mountainous settings providing an objective correlative for a literally furious woman to take revenge. The interiors are no less impressive with the Gothic trappings enhancing the Freudian subtext with both Oedipus and Electra active in the arena of gender identification. There is a mythical quality to this classic narrative and the visuals reinforce a sense of homoerotic voyeurism in a film which constantly veers toward the psychosexual. Stanwyck is magnificent in one of the key roles of her career and the first of her seven western parts in the 1950s which laid the groundwork for her Big Valley matriarch a decade later. There is a domestic scene of horrifying violence that is for the record books. Rivalry was rarely so vicious. Notable for being Walter Huston’s final film performance.  It was shot by Victor Milner with uncredited work done by Lee Garmes and Franz Waxman provides the aggressively tragic score. I write about Stanwyck’s Fifties Westerns  in Steers, Queers and Pioneers, which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/stanwyck-part-1/.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Happy 80th Birthday Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)!

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Walt Disney’s extraordinary feature animation debut premiered eighty years ago today. Adapted from the Brothers Grimm fairytale, it is the benchmark for all animated films and remains a firm favourite. One of the most beautiful films ever made, it was my first film at a cinema on one of its many re-releases over the years. What a thrilling introduction to the wonderful world of Disney. Happy Birthday!

Possessed (1947)

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Beautiful woman. Intelligent. Frustrated. Frustrated like all the other women we see.  A woman (Joan Crawford) is found wandering around LA. She appears to be catatonic and when injected with a miracle drug by a psychiatrist is jolted into telling her story, relayed in a series of melodramatic flashbacks. She is Louise Howell, who previously worked as something of a psychiatric nurse to an invalided woman in the home of Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). She was in love with a neighbour across the lake, an engineer called David Sutton (Van Heflin) who dumps her because of her obsession with him and the idea of marrying him. When Mrs Graham drowns there is an inquest and the outcome is undetermined – did she commit suicide or did someone kill her? Louise is persuaded to remain at the DC home to look after the Graham children, a little boy called Wynn and Carol (Geraldine Brooks) who is at college. When Graham asks Louise to marry him she reluctantly agrees after a bruising encounter with David, who is doing some work for him. Then David falls for Carol and Louise starts hallucinating about doing harm to her … A fascinating portrait of a guilt-ridden woman who is steadily becoming unhinged which stands out in that group of late Forties psychological noirs in a drama that owes a lot structurally at least to Mildred Pierce.  Crawford is superb in a role which demands a lot of overwrought acting paired with more subtle intimations of the female experience and she’s matched very step of the way by Brooks as the stepdaughter who gets in the way. The story by Rita Weiman was adapted by Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall, and directed by Curtis Bernhardt who knew a thing or three about how to do a woman’s picture since he had just made the wonderful A Stolen Life with Bette Davis (and reportedly kept calling Crawford ‘Bette’). The sound effects add a marvellous frisson to proceedings and the glinting night light on the lake is something you won’t quickly forget. And Franz Waxman’s reworking of Schumann makes this so atmospheric. Quite the movie!

Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)

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Why is it rich girls are always flat chested? Millie (Julie Andrews) arrives straight off the bus in 1920s NYC and determines to immediately transform her chance of winning a rich husband by becoming a flapper and taking an office job and determining to marry her handsome boss Trevor Graydon (John Gavin). She befriends innocent new arrival orphaned Miss Dorothy (Mary Tyler Moore) at the rooming house run by Mrs Meers (Beatrice Lillie) who is very busy with her Chinese staff running back and forth to a laundry. Paperclip salesman Jimmy Smith (James Fox) meets Millie at a friendship dance and is immediately besotted. But Millie wants money and only has eyes for Trevor. When Jimmy takes her and Dorothy to a rich friend’s house on Long Island where they meet the eccentric widow Muzzy (Carol Channing) Millie believes she’s falling for him – and then sees him in what appears to be a rendez vous with Dorothy. Meanwhile, Mrs Meers is plotting to kidnap Dorothy and sell her into white slavery – the latest in a series of such orphans that go missing … How can this be 50 years old already?! It moves and looks as clean as a whistle. Adapted by Richard Morris from 1956 British musical Chrysanthemum, this exercise in nostalgia is a great showcase for Lillie and Channing in particular. It’s a splendidly cheery and eccentric excursion into The Boy Friend territory which revels in very un-PC swipes at the Chinese, avaricious women and the vanities of the rich while singing them up a storm. Director George Roy Hill has fun with silent movie tropes including a Harold Lloyd-like skyscraper sequence and makes great use of amusing intertitles explaining Andrews’ thoughts with new songs from Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn alongside 20s numbers which greatly embellish this story of disguised identity and screwball romance. It’s much too long but is tremendously enlivened by the unique talents of Channing whose Academy Award-winning performance includes the showstopper Jazz Baby. Yeah!