The Two-Headed Spy (1958)

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A man cannot control the circumstances of his birth but he can make a choice. In 1939 Alex Shottland (Jack Hawkins) has been embedded as a British agent at the highest levels of the German military since WW1 and is tiring of his role but is urged to continue by his fellow agent Cornaz (Felix Aylmer) who is posing as an antiques dealer. They carry on their meetings under cover of Shottland’s purported interest in clocks. The revelatioin of Schottland’s half-British origins raises the eyebrows of the obsessive and creepy Lt. Reinisch (Erik Schumann) who works as his assistant and he alerts Schottland’s superiors about a potentially traitorous connection to the enemy. Schottland falls in love with singer and fellow spy Lili Geyr  (Gia Scala) whose melancholic songs carry coded messages across the airwaves to the Allies.  Reinisch suspects their relationship is a cover just as the Battle of the Bulge is getting underway and Schottland struggles to communicate the plans to his real superiors I’ll come to your place any time you want me to and spend the night. The amazing true-ish story was based on J. Alvin Kugelmass’ book Britain’s Two-Headed Spy and although A.P. Scotland was an adviser on the production it’s not based on his real escapades. The screenplay is notable for being written by not one but two blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson and the uncredited Alfred Lewis Levitt. Hawkins is excellent as the net seems to be closing in and he has to endure Cornaz being tortured to death;  while Scala impresses as the slinky songstress with espionage at her heart. There are some terrific scenes at Berlin’s highest table with Kenneth Griffith emoting unseen as Hitler.  Taut storytelling, excellent characteristation, glossy monochrome cinematography by Ted Scaife and an urgent score by Gerard Schurmann combine to make this an enthralling spy thriller. Look quickly for Michael Caine as a Gestapo agent while Geoffrey (Catweazle) Bayldon is Dietz. Directed by André De Toth. Truth is allegiance

Noose for a Lady (1953)

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We’re all of us a little delicate these days. Margaret Hallam (Pamela Alan) is sentenced to death for murdering her manipulative husband and her cousin Simon Gale (Dennis Price) arrives from Uganda determined to prove her innocence with only seven days to clear her name. He works with her stepdaughter Jill (Rona Anderson) to investigate all lines of enquiry including everyone in Margaret’s immediate circle of family, friends and neighbours.  He encounters a situation that could implicate any one of their number because the victim knew each of their past indiscretions and was practising extortion. Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the hangman’s noose awaits but as Simon closes in on the real culprit they start tying up loose ends …  Let’s stop theorizing. A decent B-movie whodunnit, Price sleuthing Poirot-style with the theatrical touch that he gathers all possible suspects at the beginning so that we then follow each plot thread with a little foreknowledge until the twist ending. The revealing of a slew of personal secrets gives a melodramatic spin to things, making it logical that each character has skin in the killing game – except of course more lives are at stake. There’s a shifty housekeeper (Doris Yorke), a man with a sleeping pill habit (Charles Lloyd-Pack), a woman with an illegitimate child (Alison Leggatt), a nasty old gossip (Esma Cannon) and so forth. To heighten tension, the policeman (George Merritt) is given a spot of insight that you’d think would be attributed to Price, whose usual villainous edge is toned down to permit him to play decent and enjoy a spot of romance with Vanessa Lane (Melissa Stribling). The gang is assembled again at the climax, Christie-style and even if you see the outcome telegraphed in advance, it plays very well and there are some good exchanges. Adapted from Gerald Verner’s novel The Whispering Woman by Rex Rienits and stylishly directed by the prolific writer Wolf Rilla in his debut:  this was the first of four features he made in 1953 alone. Shot at Merton Park. So much for Chesterton. This is a miracle that isn’t going to happen

Destroyer (2018)

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Silas is back. As a young cop, Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) went under cover with colleague Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate a gang in the California desert – with tragic results. Sixteen years later, a prematurely aged, alcoholic and divorced Bell continues to work as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, but feelings of anger and remorse leave her worn-down and consumed by guilt. She has to deal with her trampy truanting 16-year old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) shacked up with a hoodlum (Beau Knapp) while in the custody of her ex-husband Ethan (Scott McNairy). When Silas (Toby Kebbell) the leader of the old gang suddenly re-emerges, Erin embarks on a quest to find his former associates, bring him to justice and make peace with her tortured past but the implications for everyone connected with her could prove terminal ... I’ve got good news and bad news. There’s nobody fucking watching. But I see who you are. Kidman is absolutely rivetting in a narrative that is all about backstory and how it plays into the present – great writing by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi with a marvellous reversal of the usual gender expectations, Kidman giving us her version of Bad Lieutenant. This is relentlessly tense but also touching – who couldn’t feel desperately sad when Shelby shows up for an attempt at conciliation by her mother – accompanied by the twentysomething junkie gangster who’s having sex with her? Dreadful. Emma’s demons are internal but they’re also familial, professional, external. It’s probably Kidman’s greatest performance but it’s brilliantly conceived and executed in terms of how it looks (shot by Julie Kirkwood), how it feels and how it plays, with a raft of detailed, memorable character performances by a cast that includes James Jordan, Bradley Whitford and Tatiana Maslany. A tour de force by director Karyn Kusama, and all who sailed with her. Outstanding. What if I know who did it?

 

The Irishman (2019)

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It is what it is. In 1975 mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives are on an east-west roadtrip, their ultimate destination Detroit for the wedding of Russell’s niece. An elderly Sheeran tells the story of their association as a meet-cute when he was driving a meat truck in the 1950s and his rise through the ranks, his appointment to a Teamster position under Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the union supremo with deep Mafia ties. It becomes apparent that there is an ulterior motive to the journey and their role in America’s evolution particularly with regard to the Kennedy family is traced against a series of hits Sheeran carries out that reverberate through US history… What kind of man makes a call like that. Not so much Goodfellas as Oldfellas, a ruminative journey through midcentury America via the prism of a violent hitman who allegedly befriended and later murdered infamous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. This is toned-down Scorsese, with muted colours to match the readjusted and very mature framing of Mafia doings in terms of the impact it has on family, chiefly Sheeran’s sensitive daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult) whose mostly silent presence functions as the story’s moral centre:  her horror of Bufalino is a constant reprimand. Steven (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses is not for the fainthearted:  its overlength is sustained mainly by performance with a powerhouse set of principals (plus Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale et al) battling against a lot of unmemorable and somewhat repetitive dialogue (but when it’s good, it’s great), under-dramatised setpieces and a fatally bloated midsection (as in life, so in narrative), much of which is spent in courtrooms. Every time there’s a lull in the action someone needs Frank to off the source of their discontent and sometimes this is handled with straightforward exposition, sometimes in a montage of Frank disposing gun after gun off a bridge. That’s the story punctuation. Mostly however the issue is with DeNiro’s dull and wearying voiceover. This is not the funny jive kick of Ray Liotta in the aforementioned 1990 classic, it’s a man utterly comfortable in his killer’s skin who doesn’t defend himself because it’s who he is and he is not given to introspection, a flaw in the anchoring perspective. If we’re seeing it, we don’t need to be told too. The de-ageing effect is jarring because we don’t see the DeNiro of Mean Streets, rather a jowly preternaturally middle-aged man who shuffles in an old man’s gait. While Pesci is calm and chillingly content in his own position as a capo, it’s Pacino (in his first collaboration with Scorsese) who lifts the mood and fills the air with punchy, positive ions, giving the movie a much-needed burst of energy. But even he seems to be circling the wagons around his own self-satisfied persona as the same story/work-life issues repeatedly arise. It’s a big movie about nasty men who (perhaps) played a huge role in the shaping of their country and the hierarchies of cultures and ethnicities are regularly invoked in a tale which may or may not be true. There are some potentially amusing gatherings of men in black suits at family events. But funny they ain’t.  It’s sad perhaps that Scorsese didn’t make this for cinema and after three weeks on limited release it is fated for eternity on a streaming service:  a sign of the times and perhaps the swansong of a major filmmaker at the end of the 2010s. The nail in the coffin of an era? After this we might be asking not just who killed Jimmy Hoffa but who killed the mob movie. Late Scorsese, in more ways than one. They can whack the President, they can whack the president of the union

The Tenant (1976)

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Aka Le locataire. If you cut off my head, what would I say… Me and my head, or me and my body? What right has my head to call itself me? Shy bureaucrat Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is a Polish-born French citizen who moves into an apartment whose previous female tenant an Egyptologist called Simone Choule threw herself out a window and is dying in hospital, never to return. As his neighbours view him suspiciously, he becomes obsessed with the idea of the beautiful young woman and believes that her friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani) is planning to kill him … These days, relationships with neighbors can be… quite complicated. You know, little things that get blown up out of all proportion? You know what I mean? We know how claustrophobic apartments can be from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. This apartment is in Paris and it is the centre of the neighbours’ gossip and pass-remarkery, those objects of fear for someone who doesn’t wish to be found out, Gérard Brach and Polanski’s adaptation of Roland Topor’s novel Le Locataire Chimérique, turning a suggestive thriller into a paranoid fantasy with a sort of macabre chalky undertaste. Trelkovsky’s introduction to the apartment and view of the lavatory opposite is brilliant and the meet-cute with Stella over the gaping Munchian maw of a moaning mummified Simone is unforgettable. It may not be as beautiful as his other apartment movies but Polanski’s intent is quite clear with the regular reminders of toilet functions and the running gag about cigarettes.The casting is superb: Melvyn Douglas is great as Monsieur Zy, Lila Kedrova as Madame Gaderian with her crippled daughter are spooky while Shelley Winters excels as the concierge. On the one hand, it’s a dance of death bristling with atmosphere and Polanski is its fulcrum, revealing Trevolsky’s gender slippage as surely as he sheds his masculine outerwear while simultaneously descending into the brutal, funny depths of psychological disintegration.  On the other, it’s a perfect film about how lonely it can be a foreigner in the big city and how easy it is to lose oneself while others are watching you. For total trivia fans, the continuity here is done by Sylvette Baudrot who did that job for that other master of apartment movies Alfred Hitchcock on To Catch a Thief.  It’s a wonderful, scary funny Kafkaesque nightmare portrait of Paris and the ending is awesome:  talk about an identity crisis. I am not Simone Choule! 

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

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We’re the Avengers not the Prevengers. Twenty-three days after Thanos (Josh Brolin) used the Infinity Gauntlet to disintegrate half of all life in the universe, Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) rescues Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) from deep space and returns them to Earth, where they reunite with the remaining Avengers – Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) – and Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Locating Thanos on an otherwise uninhabited planet, they plan to retake and use the Infinity Stones to reverse ‘the Snap” but Thanos reveals he destroyed the Stones to prevent their further use. Enraged, Thor decapitates Thanos. Five years later: Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) escapes from the quantum realm and at the Avengers compound, he explains to Romanoff and Rogers that he experienced only five hours while trapped, instead of years. Theorising that the quantum realm could allow time travel the three ask Stark to help them retrieve the Stones from the past to reverse Thanos’s actions in the present… He did what he said he would. Thanos wiped out 50% of all living creatures.  After the devastating events of Infinity War the Avengers reassemble to reverse Thanos’ actions and restore balance to the universe. With Thor drunk and disorderly doing a Lebowski among refugees in New Asgard, Tony Stark happily married to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and father to a daughter, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) has to deal with the loss of his own family, Nebula has seen the light and turned to the bright side, the Guardians of the Galaxy crew are incorporated into the vast narrative, etc etc, the gang has moved on and grown up in varying states of development. Along with every single character from every Marvel franchise movie making an appearance there’s the first gay man (played by co-director Joe Russo) and Stan Lee’s final (and digitally ‘de-aged’) appearance, in a scene from the 1970 time heist sequence, as a cab driver in New Jersey. Some of the films have been too long, some of them have been a real blast but it’s finally over in a seriocosmic epic that justifies the hype in a thrilling blend of action, comedy, tragedy, daddy (and mommy) issues and pathos with loves lost and regained and noble sacrifices and sad leavetakings. It’s satisfying enough to fill that space-time continuum hole in the comics universe. Not only is resistance futile, it’s no longer necessary, at least for this viewer. The screenplay is by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely who are indebted to the 14 others who preceded them. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. I am inevitable

Greta (2018)

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It’s not harassment if it’s in a public place. Young waitress Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) finds a handbag on the New York subway and promptly returns it to its Brooklyn owner Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert) an eccentric French piano teacher and former nurse who loves tea and classical music. Having recently lost her mother and with her Boston-based father (Colm Feore) consumed by his work, Frances strikes up a seemingly harmless friendship with the lonely and kind widow who enjoys her company, her own daughter seemingly away studying in Paris. But when Greta’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and obsessive, Frances does whatever it takes to end the toxic relationship before things spirals out of control and attempts to get the police involved. She reckons without Greta’s persistence… The crazier they are the harder they cling! Ray Wright and director Neil Jordan wrote the screenplay from Wright’s original story and it’s a pulpy thriller whose plot twists are signalled from the get-go.  Pure stalker territory it might be but by simple expedient of voicemail messages the sinister nature of Greta’s pursuit of Frances is soundtracked as surely as a spider spins a web around its prey. Nonetheless Huppert and Moretz give highly committed performances with Greta’s room mate Erica (Maika Monroe) offering wonderfully comic sidelong observations all the while, and Stephen Rea playing a private eye on nutty Greta’s trail. What Huppert does when she loses a finger has to be seen. Although set in a scary NYC a lot of shooting took place in Toronto and Dublin, Ireland and the fakery adds to the camp fun. Everything has its end even company

The Sentinel (1977)

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I find that New Yorkers have no sense for anything but sex and money. Troubled New York City model Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) decides to make some changes in her life. She breaks up with her boyfriend Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) and after being advised by realtor Miss Logan (Ava Gardner) of an apartment in Brooklyn Heights moves into a brownstone with a great view of the city where the only other tenant is a withdrawn blind priest Father Halliran (John Carradine). Then she meets another neighbour Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) who invites her to his delightfully devilish cat’s birthday party and encounters there a lot of other neighbours not supposed to be in residence. After experiencing several strange occurrences she informs the slippery Michael who works with NYC police detectives Gatz (Eli Wallach) and Rizzo (Christopher Walken) to uncover the origins of these people.  Alison begins to realise why the holy man is there – the building has an evil presence that must be kept in check at all costs and it’s somebody else’s turn to keep the devils out ... It’s all right. Listen, listen. I know everything now. The Latin you saw in that book was an ancient warning from the angel Gabriel to the angel Uriel. Personally I always thought my old apartment was the gateway to Hell but that’s another story. All I can say is I wasn’t expecting Gerde’s (Sylvia Miles) galpal Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo) to masturbate fully clothed in front of her houseguest while awaiting afternoon tea. Not exactly good etiquette. Some Lesbians do ‘ave ’em, eh?! There’s a birthday party for a cat (hip hip hooray!), crazed Catholics,  demons, induced suicides – just your usual sociocultural cross-section in a city apartment block, all helpfully revealed by creepy Perry (William Hickey) who says, I just open doors. This is filled with those lovely women that seemed to be everywhere at a certain point in the late Seventies/early Eighties – Raffin, Raines, Miles and the stunning Gardner and it effectively rips off all the Satanic horrors to date, from Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist under the guise of property porn. And there’s Arthur Kennedy as Monsignor Franchino, an unholy priest and Jerry Orbach as a horrible director. And look out for Jeff Goldblum while even Richard Dreyfuss shows up on the sidewalk. SighNutty, derivative, terrible and horrible, a travesty, an insult to the God-fearing, a twist ending you could see coming – I couldn’t take my eyes off it. And no matter what, I am never asking Ava Gardner to be my realtor. Peak Seventies cult. Fabulous. Adapted from his novel by Jeffrey Konvitz with director Michael Winner. All killers, all dead. She went to a party with eight dead murderers

Damascus Cover (2017)

 

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When missions go bad, there’s only one rule – protect your partner.  Following the murder of his colleague in Damascus by Syrian Secret Police Chief Sarraj (Navid Negahban) Israeli agent Ari Ben-Sion aka Hans Hoffman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is deployed to Syria by his overseer Miki (John Hurt) to exfiltrate a spy and his family and runs into American photographer Kim (Olivia Thirlby) with whom he becomes involved before realising she is part of a much bigger plot and the real target of his mission is an entirely different individual in deep cover but hiding in plain sight … It’s a real maze. Adapted by director Daniel Zelik Berk and Samantha Newton from Howard Kaplan’s 1977 bestseller this is updated to 1989, the year of revolutions, so that the action happens in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall (although they’re not exactly celebrating Christmas here). The characterisation is undercooked and the storytelling is a little clunky – you feel that Hans/Ari should have figured out a lot quicker that something bigger is going on than his purported task. It’s the textural matters that are more interesting – the maze-like construction of a city where Jews are only permitted to leave their quarter one at a time, where streets lead you to dead ends like a rat; the depicting of the secret police under the original Assad; the post-war Nazis doing business in an Islamic haven (the role of Moslems in the Holocaust has yet to be dramatised); the issue of identity in a region where anti-semitism is writ large: when Ari enters Syria he is asked, Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine? He is already displaced in Israel after moving from Germany as a child and is suffering the bereavement any father would following the breakdown of his marriage in the wake of the death of his young son (although we don’t know how that happened, there are several shots of children at play as well as his haunting nightmares about the boy).  He doesn’t exhibit true emotion until he’s engaged with Kim who herself has issues with being distanced from her young son and who has a father whose actions for his Syrian overlords has resulted in his death.  She appears to be repaying a debt to the intelligence service, willingly or not. Berk is the former talent agent who introduced John Travolta to Quentin Tarantino for which we are all truly grateful and this has a slick look and a trim running time. It’s beautifully shot by Chloë Thomson.  Despite the welcome complexities in Ari and his mistakes, and the issue of Syria versus Israel, it doesn’t plumb the resonant depths of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the echo casting of John Hurt in the perfunctory but dramatically significant role of Miki has a sorrowfulness because it is that great actor’s final part. It is fitting therefore that he should have the last word in the film’s signing off, Goodbye my friend

Address Unknown (1944)

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The quicksand of despair – and just before we died a man pulled us out. When Martin Schultz (Paul Lukas), a German expatriate art dealer living in the US, visits his homeland, he begins to get attracted by the Nazi propaganda and breaks ties with his close Jewish friend, Max Eisenstein (Morris Carnovsky) whose daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens) an aspiring actress is engaged to marry his son Heinrich (Peter Van Eyck) and she has accompanied Martin to Munich to pursue her career for a year. But Martin is swiftly recruited by Baron von Friesche (Carl Esmond) to work in the Culture Ministry with devastating repercussions … You can’t sit on two stools at once. At least not here in Germany. Kressmann Taylor’s 1938 novella sounded a gunshot over the ramparts about the dangers of Nazism and the screenplay by Herbert Dalmas does it justice – and then some. Director William Cameron Menzies deploys the style of German Expressionism (shot by Rudolf Maté) in the service of all that is decent and the escalating tension is brilliantly paced. The near-lynching of Griselle at the theatre is shocking and concludes in the tragic manner you know to expect. The atmosphere of intimidation and dread is expertly sustained while Lukas’ encroaching guilt over his role in the desperate developments in Germany grinds to a logical conclusion in the form of coded communication as the visuals veer from film noir shadows to straightforward horror mise en scène. A superb evocation of how two intertwined families suffer in the murderous Nazi terror. The old Juncker spirit and German arrogance are gone