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

Against All Flags (1952)

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I don’t like the cut of your sail!  In 1700 British officer Lt Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn) on the British ship Monsoon infiltrates a group of pirates led by Roc Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn) located on Libertatia on the coast of the island of Madagascar  He poses as a deserter and falls in love with pirate captain ‘Spitfire’ Stevens (Maureen O’Hara). He proves his worth and is aboard Brasiliano’s vessel when they loot a Moghul ship and kidnap a harem of women protected by their chaperone Molvina MacGregor (Mildred Natwick) who hides the identity of Princess Patma (Alice Kelley). Meanwhile, Hawke is gathering information through his romance with Spitfire to attack the pirate base …  You’re a real rooster, aren’t you!  Nobody is who they claim to be here in a movie that’s full of rousing action, furious innuendo and Taming of the Shrew-ishness. O’Sullivan is resplendent as the pirate queen and Flynn gets one of his last good action roles (and his final pirate part in Hollywood) although a life of excess had already taken a toll on his glorious looks. They have great fun knocking sparks off each other, particularly when he’s training her to be a lady and instructing her in etiquette. The moment when O’Hara, all decked out in her piratical duds, outbids Flynn for Kelley at a slave auction and says to Flynn, I think I prefer you as a bachelor is just a preview of coming attractions:  she then pulls back the girl’s veil, sees how beautiful her new possession is and observes to Flynn, Curse me if I can blame you too much! One for a queer film compilation for sure. Written by Aeneas MacKenzie as a vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks Jr. it was then rewritten by Joseph Hoffman, and directed for the most part by George Sherman but when Flynn broke his ankle production was postponed, Sherman moved on and Douglas Sirk took over a further ten days’ filming upon Flynn’s eventual return. It looks stunning thanks to Russell Metty and Hans Salter handles the boisterous score. Lambasted by the critics, this made a shedload of money in its time. When he comes back with blood on his hands then he can hoist his own black flag but not before!

St Agatha (2018)

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Your name is … Agatha! In October 1957 pregnant con woman Mary (Sabrina Kern) leaves her boyfriend Jimmy (Justin Miles) when a scam goes wrong and takes refuge at an isolated Georgia convent but soon finds out that things are not quite as they seem and has to escape before Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennessy) and her cohorts harm her and her baby … Get your hands off me you bitches! This hopped-up interpretation of what Catholic nuns do to single mothers starts with a claustrophobe’s nightmare – being locked in a coffin: so as someone who baled on my last MRI scan, I was duly entrapped in a story which is a very twisted take on Christian origins. Shot beautifully by Joseph White with gauzy filters lending the convent’s surrounding forest an air of supernature and the entire production an atmosphere which sustains the suspense with the backstory dropped in to illustrate Mary’s family issues. These bewitching scary nuns sure know how to welcome strangers – Mother Superior declares that she too was an unwed mother (the Senator dumped her!) and the scratching sounds in the attics and the bizarre bird-feed vomit in the coffin treatment just confirm Mary’s suspicions that all is not quite right. With its dense flock wallpaper and red lights in the basement this place resembles a brothel. Soon Mary aka Agatha recognises a fellow con in Mother Superior. When Jimmy shows up to try to get Mary back she finds the nuns have guns and they won’t stop short of murder to save the babies to sell them to donors! The books must be balanced and the story takes off. There is quite literally a twist ending when you can take succour from the uses to which you can put a freshly cut umbilical cord:  a logical conclusion to the mediaeval torture that is childbirth. All hail virgin martyrs! Written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Michaels, Sara Sometti Michaels and Clint Sears.  Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. You’ve seen what I’m capable of. What kind of mother would I be?

The Kremlin Letter (1970)

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You’re a fool.  What’s worse, you’re a romantic fool. When an unauthorised letter is sent to Moscow alleging the U.S. government’s willingness to help Russia attack Red China, US Navy Intelligence Officer Charles Rone (Patrick O’Neal) has his commission revoked so he can do an extra-governmental espionage mission.  He’s speaks eight languages fluently and has a flawless photographic memory. He and his team are sent to retrieve the letter, going undercover and successfully reaching out to Erika (Bibi Andersson), the wife of a former agent now married to the head of Russia’s secret police, Kosnov (Max von Sydow). Their plans are interrupted, however, when their Moscow hideout is raided by cunning politician Bresnavitch (Orson Welles) and Rone finds himself being played by a network of older spies seeking revenge .My father says bed is integral to this and one must be good at it. Adapted by director John Huston with his regular collaborator Gladys Hill (who began as dialogue director on Welles’ The Stranger) from Noel Behn’s 1966 novel, this complex canvas of betrayal, treason, murder and double cross is in a line with Huston’s film noir period with a soupçon of Beat the Devil‘s absurdism. Its convoluted plot is best appreciated in response to the hijinks of Bond with its determinedly low-key approach allowing the banal thuggery of the spy master to be revealed. The cast is astonishing – Richard Boone as Ward, the peroxide instigator capable of literally anything, sadism, torture and murder;  two Bergman alumni united in transcontinental jiggery pokery; George Sanders playing piano in drag at a gay nightclub and worse, with a penchant for knitting; Barbara Parkins as Niall MacGinnis’ safe-cracking daughter; Vonetta McGee as a Lesbian seductress;  Nigel Green as The Whore, another old spy keen on playing dress up; Lila Kedrova as a Russian brothel keeper;  and Welles’ Gate Theatre mentor Micheál MacLiammóir shows up – in fact he’s the first character we encounter. A crazy cast in a fascinating Cold War timepiece that requires keen attention. Even so, it’s a stretch to have dour O’Neal pose as a gigolo to win Andersson’s affections. Still, Ted Scaife’s cinematography is a thing of beauty. Never mind the story, feel the wit. Huston appears early as the Admiral who gives Rone his marching papers. If you believe in a cause no danger is frightening

Night and Fog (1955)

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Alain Resnais is unique in the French New Wave. He was the sole enquirer into the Holocaust. Every other filmmaker camouflaged and did away with political analysis in favour of winsome, humorous cinematic style and a rhetoric lacking in nerve. Perhaps it was due to the level of collaboration with the Nazi regime and the Vichy government that formed so much of the recent past.  This is not a pretty history. With a script by Mauthusen-Gusen survivor Jean Cayrol and Chris Marker, voiced by Michel Boquet, and a deceptively urgent score by Hanns Eisler, we are brought into the realm of German horror, a genocide manufactured at the behest of Amin al-Husseini. Integrating newsreel footage with contemporary colour film shot in Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland by Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny this is a solemn narration of a true crime made all the more significant in a restive period of anti-semitism. This week alone saw the remains of six nameless victims of the concentration camps buried in England, given a dignity they never had in life;  and a cross-party coalition in the Irish Republic brought the Occupied Territories Bill before Parliament in a stark reminder that anti-semitism is overt, the territory of braggarts, and there are many in positions of power who would deny Jews their right to exist and the right of Israel to flourish.  A few years ago the Irish government voted to support the administration of Hamas – an Islamist extremist group whose constitution includes the admonition It is the duty of all Moslems to kill Jews on sight. Israel is rapidly becoming a safe haven for European Jews as Islam’s tentacles reach further afield. It is spreading in Europe courtesy not only of the pernicious Eastern Europeans assimilating in their millions in the British Isles but also because of the unstoppable immigration problem from North Africa and the Near East, with millions flooding in, urged on by a Germany that is constantly on the rise and currently in charge of Europe. Today is the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Let us never forget. L’chaim.

Unsane (2018)

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As soon as the insurance runs out you’ll be cured. Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a troubled woman who moves 450 miles away from home to escape a stalker. She is still triggered by interactions with men as a result of her experiences and makes an appointment to attend a counsellor at Highland Creek Behavioral Center. She unwittingly signs a release voluntarily committing herself to a 24-hour stay. She calls the police but they do nothing when they see the signed release. After physical altercations with a patient and a staff member whom she recognises as her stalker David Strine (Joshua Leonard), Dr. Hawthorne says she is being kept for seven more days  during which fellow patient Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah) reveals the insurance scam lying behind her incarceration and which even her mother Angela (Amy Irving) cannot do anything to change when she calls her on Nate’s smuggled cellphone …You unlocked something inside me that day, something I didn’t even realize was there. And right then, I knew that nothing in my life was ever going to be the same. In that moment, I was transformed permanently. You did that. Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer.  Notable not just for being shot (and edited) pseudonymously by director Steven Soderbergh but because he did it on the iPhone Seven Plus and it sure ain’t purty. It’s a flawed but interesting genre piece, another thriller that’s actually an investigation of medical (non-)ethics (after Side Effects, and TV’s The Knick) providing further evidence that Soderbergh is happiest when making B movies, dramatising feisty female characters driven to the point of paranoia, generally hovering on the edges of commerciality and making films that verge on the experimental. The efforts to make TV star Foy a movie personality are interesting.  My job is to access and interpret data to produce analytical results. I did that job

The Exception (2016)

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I may not rule in Germany but by Christ I rule in my own house! It’s 1940.  German soldier Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) goes on a mission to investigate exiled German Monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer). The Kaiser lives in a secluded mansion (Huis Doorn) with his wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) in the Netherlands, and as Germany is taking over the country, the authorities are concerned that Dutch spies may be watching the Kaiser. As Brandt begins to infiltrate the Kaiser’s life in search of clues, he finds himself drawn into an unexpected and passionate romance with Mieke (Lily James), one of the Kaiser’s maids who is concealing the real reason for her own presence in the household… Remember, at the age of four he bit the Duke of Edinburgh on the leg. The soldier is earnest, the Kaiser is sly and the maid is sultry – and each of them has a conflict of interest:  plum roles nicely played by a game cast with Ben Daniels lending good support as the Kaiser’s assistant.  Each of the leads has a big scene in which they reveal what they’re really about and Plummer is particularly impressive as the wily old king who seems to be losing his marbles but as he points out at a crucial moment, he is not a hypocrite.  Courtney is haunted by images from his nightmarish experiences in Poland where he saw what the SS was really about.  James has lost her husband and family to the Nazis. This is a bizarrely appealing, sexy film (James immediately strips for Courtney when they first encounter each other – and why not?) that answers the question nobody ever asks:  where on earth did the Kaiser go when the Nazis jackbooted Germany into submission? If it weren’t for the full frontal nudity this might almost fit into the genre of films made during WW2 itself while reminding us that the German army was not necessarily united in support of the SS or any other wing of the Fuhrer’s movement. The facial reactions to Himmler (Eddie Marsan!) and his shocking storytelling over dinner are priceless.  And who can argue with a secret message from Churchill? You’ll find yourself thinking vaguely of The Remains of the Day but this is a tasteful entertainment of a different variety with the rather odd effect of having you sympathise somewhat with a known anti-semitic emperor. Adapted by Simon Burke from The Kaiser’s Last Kiss by Alan Judd, this is the debut of David Leveaux and very picturesque it is too. They are the rule – you are the exception

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

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I know a sure cure for a nosebleed: a cold knife in the middle of the back. A mysterious fellow, Tim Foster (Preston Foster) contacts a trio of criminals Pete, Boyd and Tony (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef) to help with a bank heist. The four wear masks and remain strangers to each other, planning to reunite in Mexico to divvy up the loot. Joe Rolfe (John Payne), a down on his luck former GI and ex-con trying to go straight that they framed to take the heat, gets his charges dropped, and the police offer him a reward if he can help recover the cash. But only after they beat up and torture him. He agrees, and when one of the thieves meets his end, Rolfe assumes his identity to catch the crooks… What’s waiting for you, Harris? The chair, the gas chamber, or just a rope? Like all good little noirs, there are lessons to be learned and a steep moral curve is there if you’re looking for it but mainly this is a well managed, pacy heist movie with bristling dialogue. Star Payne and director Phil Karlson did uncredited work on the sharp script attributed to Harold Green and Rowland Brown (story) and George Bruce and Harry Esssex (screenplay). Payne was once famed screenwriter Robert Towne’s father-in-law and had an interesting career, mainly a song and dance man and mostly famous for appearing in Miracle on 34th Street, but then becoming an interesting character actor. This particular production was part of a seven-picture deal with Pine-Thomas Productions to which he eventually obtained the rights. He had showed his dramatic chops paired with Claudette Colbert in Remember the Day and later in The Razor’s Edge and this particular cycle of action/crime films would conclude with Technicolor noir Slightly Scarlet. He then had his own western TV series, The Restless Gun, which ran for two seasons, in which daughter Julie appeared. Her daughter Katharine Towne is now an actress too, carrying on the family tradition. This is an effective thriller, briskly directed by Karlson and performed to the hilt by an ensemble to beat the band – some of those lowlifes are among my favourite character actors, with Coleen Gray and Dona Drake in nice supporting roles. The armoured car heist is superbly simply done in a tough as nails actioner that must have inspired Reservoir DogsIt don’t take no big thinking to figure a couple of guys like us ain’t in this bananaville on a vacation!

Navajo Joe (1966)

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Aka Un dollaro a testa. A man who knows what he wants is worth a lot. After carrying out a massacre on a peaceful Indian village, scalping the inhabitants for a dollar apiece, outlaw (and half-breed) Vee Duncan (Aldo Sambrell) finds his band of cutthroat brothers falling victim to a solitary rider, the warrior Navajo Joe (Burt Reynolds). Joe saves three prostitutes who have overheard Duncan plot with Lynne (Peter Cross aka Pierre Cressoy) the town doctor, to steal a Government train full of half a million dollars cash. Joe steals the train back from Duncan’s gang. He asks the townspeople of Esperanza to pay him to protect them from Duncan, making an offer: I want a dollar a head from every man in this town for every bandit I kill. The townspeople reject him, as they don’t make bargains with Indians. Lynne’s wife Hannah (Valeria Sabel) persuades them otherwise. Joe sets a trap for Duncan, but is caught and tortured; Lynne and Hannah are killed. Rescued by an old man from the saloon, Joe again steals the train and kills Duncan’s gang. There is then a showdown in an Indian cemetery, where Joe reclaims the pendant that Duncan stole from his wife when he murdered her. As Joe turns, Duncan shoots Joe with a hidden gun. Injured, Joe grabs a tomahawk and throws it, hitting Duncan square in the forehead. With Duncan dead, Joe sends his horse back to town, carrying the bank’s money… Burt Reynolds used to say that when Clint Eastwood came back from Europe on the heels of his Dollars trilogy with Sergio Leone, he too jumped at the opportunity of a good payday with a terrific director called Sergio when he came knocking. Then he arrived in Spain to find he was working with Sergio Corbucci! The wrong Sergio. And decked out in a wig that made him look like Natalie Wood he made a very violent film that netted him a cool $350,000:  not too dusty. He said of the experience, Of course when you play a half-breed you have to be stoic – and you can’t get funky – and you have to have a deep voice. Apparently there are no Indians with high voices. And you have to shave your arms all the time. It’s easy to get the left but just try and reach the right. In fact producer Dino DeLaurentiis had told Corbucci that Marlon Brando would be the lead – and cast Reynolds because he resembled him.  Brando couldn’t stand Reynolds – he had played a parody of him in a 1963 Twilight Zone episode (The Bard) and called him a narcissist!! This is in fact an iconic work with an extraordinary score by Ennio Morricone (credited as Leo Nichols):  its bones rattle throughout the culture and were hugely influential on one Quentin Tarantino (named of course for Quint Asper, Reynolds’ character on Gunsmoke) who would use some of the music in Kill Bill Vol 2. We are presented with a world of violence, cynicism and amorality with a deal of surrealism thrown in for good narrative measure and the action sequences are fantastically effective with the landscape being used superbly:  canyon, wilderness, cliff face, they are all part of the unfolding story. The Big Silence might be his masterpiece and Django (which he also made in 1966) his most renowned protagonist (and wasn’t he a gift that would go on giving and giving) but this is a loud war cry from the land of spaghetti. Reynolds is just dandy as the anti-heroic brave pushed to his limits (like Billy Jack?) in a film that was setting new sadistic boundaries for the genre:  the composition of the violent scenes manages to astonish. This sits right on the divide between art house and exploitation and the opening scene announces a text of brutality. It also has a sociopolitical basis with commentary about race that is rare in the genre – apparently it was DeLaurentiis’ idea to have an avenging Indian as protagonist. There is also care and attention to the women, which you don’t find in Leone’s work. For every sadist there must be a masochist and Joe really suffers here so you don’t wince at the prospect of violent revenge, you relish it.  Reynolds is brilliantly physical in a way that Eastwood never was – and as for Brando … His role may have filled him with regret but he’s a convincing man on a mission and there would be many imitators (pace Rambo) in the years to come. There’s a nice supporting performance by Nicoletta Machiavelli as Estella, Mrs Lynne’s half-Indian maid and Fernando Rey is typically good as the town’s priest, Reverend Rattigan but it’s Sambrell you’ll recall – and you’ll shudder at the memory of this horrific villain. Written by Piero Regnoli and Fernando di Leo from a story by Ugo Pirro.