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

Havana (1990)

Havana theatrical

Now I want a shot. One shot. At a game I could never get in before. Christmas Eve 1958. On the eve of revolution, Navy veteran and professional high-stakes gambler Jack Weil (Robert Redford) arrives in Cuba seeking to win big in poker games. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Bobby (Lena Olin), the wife of a Communist revolutionary Arturo Duràn (an uncredited Raul Julia) and gradually becomes convinced that the anti-Batista campaign is a cause worth fighting for… Nobody should be here. Redford’s seventh collaboration with director Sydney Pollack is their final work together and is a rather uneven experience once it veers away from its inherent genre identity of romantic melodrama. Perhaps the problem is inherent in the premise linked to previous Redford characters and his meta perception as an enigma:  the lack of commitment to a cause which reeks of Casablanca.  In truth it’s a problem with the screenplay which takes too many stances too quickly. This also suffers somewhat in comparison with treatment of broadly related subject matter in The Godfather Part II with Mark Rydell making an appearance here as Meyer Lansky and that film’s outrageous sex show is in another dimension from the tame act Redford brings American tourists Diane (Betsy Brantley) and Patty (Lise Cutter) to see, the foreplay to their inevitable threesome. In fact the role of ‘Rick Blaine’ is actually split between Redford and Alan Arkin who plays Joe Volpi, Lansky’s front guy. Then Arkin gets to essay a variation on Claude Rains in the penultimate scene with Redford adopting a more straightforward heroic stance, not that that was ever in any doubt because of how the story begins. It starts out with an ill-advised voiceover by Redford and gets right into action which involves his going out on a limb for no perceptible reason to help a total stranger escape the attentions of SIM (Batista’s secret police) onboard the Cuba-bound ship, forcing the meet-cute with Olin. Olin’s character is an out of work Swedish actress who was inspired by Garbo – shouldn’t it have been Bergman?! – while her former husband, a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter got her exiled to Mexico and then marriage to Duràn, son of a well-connected Cuban family (we’re non-torturable, he explains). There’s talk about American citizenship. A lot of talk about moving to Miami. There’s a great character – a ‘fake fairy food critic’ called Marion Chigwell (Daniel Davis) and he is – what else – a CIA spook. Somewhere here there’s a great movie but it’s badly organised and the sub-plot with the journalist friend Julio Ramos (Tony Plana) seems under-explained. There are great poker scenes with the military chief Menocal (Tomas Milian) who of course is not what he appears. After Olin’s character loses her naturalistic diffidence in the first two-thirds it shifts into a different and more convincing gear. Even if we never believe Redford is in real trouble. Despite this there is an uncannily evocative atmosphere throughout and some great lines. Pollack was an inveterate messer with scripts, perhaps that explains it. There are major compensations in Owen Roizman’s cinematography (of the Dominican Republic, where this was shot) and the dreamy production design by Terence Marsh is something of a miracle. Written by Judith Rascoe (from her original idea) and Pollack’s usual collaborator, David Rayfiel. A fascinating work for students of Hollywood stardom as Redford edged into his mid-fifties. History is overtaking us

Manhunter (1986)

Manhunter

You want the scent? Smell yourself! Former FBI Agent Will Graham (William Petersen) is called out of early retirement by his boss Jack Crawford (Denis Farina) to catch a serial killer.  The media have dubbed him The Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan) because he kills random families in their homes. Will is a profiler whose speciality is psychic empathy, getting inside the minds of his prey. The horror of the murders takes its toll on him. He asks for the help of his imprisoned arch-nemesis, Dr Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) who gets to him like nobody else and nearly murdered him years earlier yet has insights into the methodology of the killer that could unlock the case… He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks. The mindbending antics of Thomas Harris’ narcissistic creation Lecktor were first espied here but it’s really Will Graham’s story and what a surprise casting choice the introspective pigeon-toed Petersen seemed.  He carries this oppressively chilling thriller where he is the masochist to his targets’ sadistic mechanisms. The dispassionate style, the modernist interiors, the internal machinations of the protagonist’s obsessive inner voice while he inhabits the minds of his relentlessly morbid prey, lend this a hypnotic mood. As the action increases in intensity the colours and style of cinematographer Dante Spinotti become cooler and more distancing. The diegetic score by bands including Shriekback and The Reds is an immersive trip into the nightmarish vision. An extraordinary spin on terror that is as far from the camp baroque theatrics of The Silence of the Lambs as it is possible to imagine, this masterpiece has yet to be equalled in the genre and feels like a worm has infected your brain and is burrowing through it, out of your control, colouring your dreams, imprinting you with a thought pattern that may never depart. A dazzling exercise in perspective and perception, this is a stunning work of art. Adapted from Red Dragon by director Michael Mann. Does this kind of understanding make you uncomfortable?

First Blood (1982)

First Blood theatrical

Killed for vagrancy in Jerkwater USA. Former ‘Nam vet, Green Beret John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) arrives in a small town in the Pacific North West looking for his former colleague whom he discovers has died from a cancer caused by Agent Orange. Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) doesn’t like the look of him and tells him to get out of his town but Rambo is hungry and comes back because he just wants something to eat. Teasle cites him for vagrancy and hands him to his colleagues to teach him a lesson. Rambo has flashbacks to his torture at the hands of the Viet Cong and beats up his assailants before escaping into the local woods where he is hunted by the police and then Teasle gets unwanted help from Rambo’s senior officer, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), who declares of the war hero, God didn’t make Rambo – I made him. He contacts Rambo by radio and tries to reason with him, promising him an escape route. But Rambo has a score to settle, escaping from the cave where he has secured a hiding place and confronting the National Guard before he has his revenge on Teasle  … I’m going to pin that Congressional Medal of Honour to his liver. It may lack the irony and subtlety of the original 1972 novel about PTSD by David Morrell but it makes up for it in the pure thrill of pursuit, sustained justifiable violence and its morality narrative about what really separates the men from the boys:  war. Let it go. Let it go! Crenna’s almost paternal pride in his killer progeny is laugh out loud enjoyable, Stallone’s ingenuity at survival is a must-see in these lockdown self-sufficiency days and the overall affect is one of sheer unadorned (but not unmotivated) violence. It’s wonderful when the police realise, He’s hunting us! Gripping and visceral by turn, it’s short, sharp and brilliant with a couple of really smart scenes between the marvellous Crenna and the late great Dennehy, who really doesn’t understand what he’s dealing with. People start fuckin’ around with the law, all hell breaks loose. A young David Caruso has a good role as a policeman disgusted by his co-workers’ attack on Rambo; while if you look quickly you’ll notice Bruce Greenwood as a Guardsman. Stallone rewrote the original screenplay by Michael Kozzoll and William Sackheim to make the protagonist more sympathetic and you truly empathise with this misunderstood soldier. There’s a notable score by Jerry Goldsmith with a theme song that enhances Rambo’s persona as more victim than villain. It’s all directed by Ted Kotcheff. The first of three in the series, this is iconic. Nothing is over. You just don’t turn it off

Live and Let Die (1973)

Live and Let Die

Whose funeral is this?/Yours. James Bond (Roger Moore) is sent to New York to investigate the mysterious deaths of three British agents. The Harlem drug lord known as Mr. Big plans to distribute two tons of heroin for free to put rival drug barons out of business and then become a monopoly supplier is also in New York, visiting the United Nations. Just after Bond arrives, his driver is shot dead by Whisper (Earl Jolly Brown) one of Mr. Big’s men, while taking Bond to meet Felix Leiter (David Hedison) of the CIA. Bond is nearly killed in the ensuing car crash. Mr. Big is revealed to be the alter ego of Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) a corrupt Caribbean dictator, who rules San Monique, a fictional island where opium poppies are secretly farmed. Bond encounters voodoo master Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) and tarot card reader Solitaire (Jane Seymour) who soon becomes a romantic interest. Bond’s fight to put a stop to the drug baron’s scheme takes him to New Orleans … What are you? Some kinda doomsday machine boy? Well WE got a cage strong enough to hold an animal like you here! A jazz funeral in New Orleans. Voodoo. Tarot cards. A crocodile farm. A shark tank. An underground cave. An awesome car and boat chase across the bayou. A cast of black villains worthy of a blaxploitation classic. A villain who is less megalomaniacal than usual who would really like to be James Bond’s friend. A redneck sheriff (Clifton James) to beat all redneck sheriffs, as director Guy Hamilton bragged. A morning ritual cappuccino preparation instead of a martini, a little nod to Harry Palmer, perhaps. And this was Roger Moore’s debutante appearance as the suavest double Oh! of them all, entering the picture in the arms of a beautiful brunette spy in dereliction of her own duty. And his only weapon? A magnetic watch! Come on! It starts in Jamaica, home of Goldeneye, author Ian Fleming’s long-time residence, where he wrote a novel between January and March every year between 1952 and 1964 and it concludes on a train, in homage to Dr No. That’s before we even mention the incredible song composed by Paul and Linda McCartney and performed by Wings. McCartney was so thrilled to do it he paid for the orchestra himself and hired George Martin to do the arrangement. It’s breathless escapism with action sequences moving seamlessly one unto the other, interrupted only by some hilariously silly lines uttered by the urbane agent. Effortlessly performed. Written by Tom Mankiewicz, who even remembered to include some of the original novel’s elements. It made its UK TV premiere in 1980 and remains the most viewed film on British TV . He always did have an inflated opinion of himself

Lord Jim (1965)

Lord Jim

What storm can fully reveal the heart of a man? Midshipman Jim Burke (Peter O’Toole) becomes second in command of a British merchant navy ship in Asia but is stripped of his responsibilities when he abandons ship with three other crew who disappear, leaving the passengers to drown.However the Patma was salvaged by a French vessel. Disheartened and filled with self-loathing, Jim confesses in public, leading to his Captain Marlow’s (Jack Hawkins) suicide and he seeks to redeem his sins by going upriver and assisting natives in their uprising against the General (Eli Wallach)… The weapon is truth. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel by writer/director Richard Brooks, this perhaps contains flaws related to the project’s conscientious fidelity to its problematic source. Overlong and both burdened and made fascinating by its pithy philosophical dialogue, O’Toole is another cypher (like T.E. Lawrence) burning up the screen with his charisma but surrendering most of the best moments to a terrific ensemble cast. The psychology of his character remains rather impenetrable. There are exchanges dealing with cowardice, shame, bravery, heroism, the meaning of life itself and the reasons why people do what they do – and the consequences for others. There is guilt and there is sacrifice, the stuff of tragedy, in a film bursting with inner struggle, misunderstandings, romantic complications and the taint of violence. Shot by Freddie Young, who does for the jungle what he did for the deserts of the aforementioned Lawrence of Arabia. When ships changed to steam perhaps men changed too

Showdown (1963)

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Aka The Iron Collar. Maybe together you might make one good man. Chris Foster (Audie Murphy) has to get $12,000  in stolen bonds from the ex-girlfriend Estelle (Kathleen Crowley) of his partner Bert Pickett (Charles Drake), or the gang holding him hostage led by wanted outlaw Lavalle (Harold Stone) will kill him. When Chris tracks Estelle down singing her last song in a saloon before catching the stage out of town it seems she has other plans for the money … Seems to me you’re more cat than kitten. An efficient tale dressed up with some unusual levels of violence and occasionally ripe dialogue – Stone gets to expound on his love of oysters which might put you in mind of a certain monologue authored by Gore Vidal in a rather different setting. Strother Martin has a good role as the town drunk while Crowley looks great and gives some odd line readings in a story that is piquant and threatening, with some nice black and white shooting done around Lone Pine, CA.  Written by Bronson Howitzer (aka TV western scribe Ric Hardman) and directed by R.G. Springsteen.  Most of his friends grow well in the dark

Ma (2019)

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Sometimes you want something so badly and suddenly you don’t. Newly divorced Erica (Juliette Lewis) returns to her hometown in Mississippi and works in a casino while her 16-year old daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) starts hanging out with the cool kids at high school led by Haley (McKaley Miller). Middle-aged veterinary assistant Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) befriends them when they’re trying to score liquor at the store and decides to let them party in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober, don’t curse, and never go upstairs. They must also refer to her as Ma. But as her hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, Ma starts stalking the kids on social media and her place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on Earth as it is revealed that these are the offspring of the high school bullies who subjected her to terrible sexual humiliation and she has decided upon a path of bloody revenge decades later ...  How is it on the outside looking in? Director Tate Taylor established a kinship with acting (and producing) powerhouse Spencer on The Help so it’s logical that they would follow through on another collaboration. But a horror? Definitely not what one might anticipate and in spite of that mouthwatering prospect in an era which has upended that genre in many recent outings (with comments on race which are touched upon here), this is twisted in all the wrong ways and is poorly paced. It gives Allison Janney a cursory role as the veterinarian who gets hers; Luke Evans is the sex god from high school; and Taylor himself plays an unfortunate cop. Torture is the order of the day in this high school revenge story gone awry that never properly capitalises on its themes. A bizarre tale that takes a decided left turn for camp which surely means it is destined for that shelf designated Cult. Written by Scotty Landes. I am not weak.  I am not my mother!

 

 

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

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