That Hamilton Woman (1941)

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Aka Lady Hamilton/The Enchantress.  They told us of your victories but not of the price you paid!  When small-town courtesan Emma Hart (Vivien Leigh) finds herself married off by her indebted uncle to British Ambassador to Naples, elderly widower Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), her world is turned upside down. Just as Emma is finally settling into her new life as Lady Hamilton, she meets British naval hero Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) who vociferously opposes Napoleon’s growing empire and the two fall madly in love. However, their forbidden romance is soon threatened by the ever-growing shadow of the Napoleonic Wars... What a century it’s been: Marlborough rode to war, and Washington crossed the Delaware. Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette. The last of the Stuarts. Peter the Great. Voltaire. Clive of India. Bonaparte. The framing story of this famous propaganda work created by producer/directorAlexander Korda is that of Emma Hamilton ensconced in debtor’s prison in France, regaling her incredulous fellow prisoners with her incredible life story and her grand romance. That this involved once notorious real-life lovers, then married couple, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier (reunited by Korda from Fire Over England), must have been catnip to audiences. Indeed the film’s tagline boasted,  The Year’s Most Exciting Team of Screen Lovers! Its role in attracting the US into a total war nobody wanted is debatable. In fact Korda was accused of espionage, a charge he only escaped because his hearing coincided with Pearl Harbour:  special relationship?! There are always men, who for the sake of their insane ambition, want to destroy what other people build. The screenplay by Walter Reisch and R.C. Sheriff (with two of Nelson’s speeches contributed by Winston Churchill) condenses a lot of historical material and Olivier is perhaps a bit too slow but this is compensated for with the range of emotions Leigh explores to charismatic effect. Shot in the US, it looks gorgeous courtesy of Rudolph Maté’s intricate cinematography and the sumptuous design by Vincent Korda and Lyle Wheeler, with beautiful costuming by René Hubert,  while the romantic score is composed by Miklós Rózsa. There is no ‘then’. There is no ‘after’

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The Victors (1963)

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The whole world is full of love. A group of American soldiers manages to survive over the course of World War II, from the Battle of Britain, moving up through Sicily and France and Germany to the fall of the Third Reich and a station in occupied Berlin in the war’s aftermath. Along the way, a number of unfortunate incidents occur:  white soldiers violently abuse fellow black soldiers, a deserter is executed on New Year’s Eve and a sergeant takes advantage of a shell-shocked French woman. War is hell for the winners and the losers in this episodic meditation on the horrors that exist on and off the field of battle… Have a good time tonight? Find someone to rape? Irony is writ large in this film – starting with the title. These guys victors? God help us all. What they do to a little dog following Peter Fonda as he leaves camp doesn’t bear a second viewing. They are racist, vicious, narcissistic thugs. But hey, they’re ours! That’s really the point of this anti-war anti-blockbuster from auteur Carl Foreman, the formerly blacklisted screenwriter who gave us the joyous Guns of Navarone. So we see Vince Edwards make nice with young Italian mother Rosanna Schiaffino, Eli Wallach generously gives widowed Jeanne Moreau a break from the bombs in exchange for food, George Hamilton falls for the duplicitous musician Romy Schneider and George Peppard has an unpleasant encounter with Melina Mercouri. There is a bitter conclusion in the post-war experience as drunken Russian soldier Albert Finney in a very showy role exercises the ultimate droit de seigneur of the fatal variety. Interspersed with newsreels and taking us through the entire WW2 as a series of personal vignettes, we are oddly removed from any kind of empathy because these really are not nice guys. We get it:  nobody’s a winner. The snow field execution while Sinatra croons Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is duly horrifying. Adapted by Foreman from the novel The Human Kind by Alexander Baron who himself served in Sicily, Normandy and Belgium through D-Day.  Directed by Carl Foreman and shot by the great Christopher Challis.  I don’t think I can ever be frightened again

 

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister… and you murder your queen!  Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Catholic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne with the aim of also taking the English throne which is her birthright, guided by her adviser Bothwell (Martin Compston). However, Scotland and England fall under the rule of her cousin, the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Each young Queen beholds her ‘sister’ in fear and fascination. Mary has to deal with the ambitions of her bastard half-brother James Murray (James McArdle) and succumbs to the charms of the bisexual Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) in order to become a mother but his father (Brendan Coyle) has designs on power. Her reign attracts the hatred of Protestant reformer John Knox (David Tennant) who stirs up the natives against their tolerant Catholic ruler and calls her a whore. Elizabeth’s adviser Henry Cecil (Guy Pearce) carries out her bid to assist in driving a civil war designed to remove Mary from the throne… Do not play into their hands. Our hatred is precisely what they hope for. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you. Adapted from John Guy’s biography by Beau Willimon, it may seem hasty to declare that despite its raft of historical inaccuracies this still has a lot to recommend it, even if its PC multiverse of many races and choose-your-own-perversion plays into the right-on millennial world rather than the well documented dour backdrop of sixteenth-century Scotland (things are ever thus there…). Willimon is of course responsible for Netflix’s House of Cards and knows his way around politics and other games of thrones so the focus on the women struggling against the counsel of conniving men drives the drama forward while the plotting literally gallops apace. With Tennant doing Knox as the Comical Ali of fundamentalist Protestantism the odds of us supporting the bastard English Queen are low to zero, despite the crosscutting suggesting links both emotional and physical between these young rivals. The Virgin Queen is in fact more in touch with the reality of both of their situations, surrounded by controlling men, as the fabricated meeting between them (a liberty also taken in the 1971 version) clarifies: she recognises that Mary’s beauty, bravery and motherhood are both her greatest assets and her deepest flaws and have led to her downfall. She herself is more man than woman, she declares – her reign has made her thus. Ronan plays Mary as a variation on Joan of Arc – a sharp military mind with a conscience as transparent as her pallor and bright blue eyes (albeit Willimon writes her as a feckless Marie Antoinette a lot of the time), while Robbie’s Queen is the one beset with the miseries of the pox and a devious court craven by her power. They are both tremendous but this is really Ronan’s show, as the title suggests. Pearce, Lowden and Compston are particularly good in their treacherous sideshows. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see two of the best young actresses in the world leading a film of such affecting performances.  The final contrasting shots of Mary’s meeting with destiny and Elizabeth’s costumes and cosmetics literally solidifying into a stony inhuman edifice linger in the mind.  Directed by Josie Rourke. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you

The Light Between Oceans (2016)

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You only have to forgive once. Shellshocked WW1 vet Tom (Michael Fassbender) gets a job as lighthouse keeper off the coast of Australia. On the mainland, he encounters the lively Isabel (Alicia Vikander) who proposes to him. She’s desperate to have a baby but suffers two brutal miscarriages which affect her state of mind. Her prayers for motherhood are finally answered when an infant girl washes up on shore in a rowboat with a dead man inside. Tom thinks they should notify the authorities but ultimately gives in to Isabel’s wish to keep the girl. Fate strikes when Tom sees Gwen (Rachel Weisz) on the mainland at her husband and baby’s grave when they bring the little girl Lucy to be baptised. Three years later they meet again and Tom makes a decision that will upend the family they have made with another woman’s child and Isabel takes revenge …Adapted by Derek Cianfrance from the novel by M.L. Stedman, this looks very pretty indeed. It is however a dangerously nutty maternal melodrama that proves what we have always known – women with children suffer from a very specific derangement and women who lose them are crazed, as the parallel actions of the very different mothers prove – because when Gwen decides Tom isn’t guilty of her husband’s murder she will hand back Lucy (or Grace, as she was originally christened) to the woman whom Lucy truly loves – as long as Tom goes to the gallows for a non-existent crime. Isabel was intent on punishing him for losing the child she persuaded him to steal. Has she gone too far? Do you think?! So we are pulled to the brink of madness and then – and then … Like a toddler pulling on your little finger, you’ll be tugged into this bizarre story that is performed with alarming conviction by all concerned. Thank goodness Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown are at hand to push things back, just a tad. Everyone looks like they’re straight from the pages of a Boden catalogue. Know that you have always been beloved

The Senator (2017)

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Aka Chappaquiddick. To Ted. And the White House in ’72. On July 18, 1969, following a party with RFK’s secretaries (the Boiler Room Girls), his cousin Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms) and the attorney general for Massachusetts Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drives his car off of a bridge into Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island. The accident results in the death of his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), a 28-year-old campaign strategist who worked for Kennedy and who had quit as Bobby’s secretary in the wake of his death and whom Ted is attempting to woo into a relationship. He rushes back to the beach house they’ve rented and asks Gargan and Markham to help him see if Mary Jo is alive and when they can’t retrieve her from the upended car he persuades them to say nothing while he claims he will report the accident. The following morning word is out that the car has been found while he enjoys breakfast at a local diner and Gargan and Markham discover he didn’t report the incident and his bedbound father mutters the word alibi in a phonecall … I want you to know that every effort possible was made to save her. The patina long having slid off the Kennedy family’s halo, this is far from a hagiography yet it still leaves many unanswered questions. The long shadow of his brothers –  Joe was the favourite one, Jack was charming, Bobby was brilliant and I’m stupid – hung over Ted Kennedy, the boy who cheated at school, on his wife and then finally did something so horrifically spineless a year after RFK’s murder it destroyed the hope that this papa’s boy would become the second President in the family. I can be charming. I can be brilliant. I’m the only one left! There is nothing new here but what is interesting structurally is how this is bookended by a TV interview which Ted departs when the reporter introduces the subject of JFK’s legacy;  and concludes in his onscreen admission of guilt in Kopechne’s death while Joe watches from his sick bed and the public in Massachusetts are asked in a live vox pop how they feel about him potentially becoming President:  television’s role in politics was ingeniously utilised by the photogenic JFK and its influence seized upon by his wife when she decided to do some home decorating. The shadow not just of JFK but of TV news haunts Ted a week later when he and his kids sit around watching the moon landing and his young son reminds him all this space exploration is down to his dead uncle. No wonder Ted didn’t have a decent bone in his body:  imagine being the least promising son of a philandering billionaire bootlegger bully with political power who dallied with the Mafia (allegedly). The tragedy that this recounts of course is not that of the Kennedys but of the Kopechnes, whose daughter was made of such stern stuff that she quit politics when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and on 18 July 1969 she fought valiantly for her life, probably for hours, eventually succumbing to underwater suffocation evidenced by the post mortem foaming from her nostrils dramatised in some very distressing but necessary crosscutting – while Ted and his friends began the misguided cover up, subsequently engineered at the behest of a mostly mute stroke-afflicted Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) by the henchmen led by Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) and Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) who had been at JFK’s side when he took the 1960 election.  However the Kopechnes didn’t utter a squeak of protest. Nobody cared about Mary Jo or who killed her. There is little insight beyond the usual cod Freudian clichés of what made Ted tick.  Perhaps the post hoc paradox is that he went on to become just about the best legislator the United States Senate ever had, leaving a far more tangible legacy in his wake than that bequeathed by his charismatic but corruptible murdered brothers. A sobering portrait of the power wielded by the Kennedys on those in their immediate circle and those who should have resisted their supposed charm, this incomplete work was written by Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen and directed by John Curran.  I could have got her out of the car in 25 minutes if I got the call but no one called

Ludwig (1973)

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Ludwig. He loved women. He loved men. He lived as controversially as he ruled. But he did not care what the world thought. He was the world. Munich 1864. Young Ludwig (Helmut Berger) is crowned King of Bavaria and sets up financing his composer friend Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard) whom he hopes will be his intimate friend. When Wagner betrays him with married Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano) he leaves Munich but Ludwig continues to support him. Ludwig’s cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider) wants to set him up with her sister Sophie (Sonia Petrovna) but it’s Elisabeth that Ludwig wants. He retreats into the world of imagination, soundtracked to Wagner’s compositions, even when the 1866 Austro-Prussian war happens and his brother Otto (John Moulder-Brown) and cabinet cannot persuade him to take a side. Despite his burgeoning homosexuality he is persuaded to marry Sophie by his advisor Count Durckheim (Helmut Griem). Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 when Bavaria loses a deal of sovereignty to Prussia, Otto is hospitalised to treat his declining mental health. Ludwig is absorbed by his extravagant building projects including Neuschwanstein Castle and becomes involved with actor Josef Kainz (Folker Bohnet) and starts hosting orgies. He ignores Elisabeth. Word of his behaviour spreads to the Bavarian cabinet so that by 1886 it’s time to draft in the doctors … Mad, bad and dangerous, that was Ludwig’s reputation and Luchino Visconti’s lush, beautiful account doesn’t exactly clarify matters about his decline and mysterious demise even though it creates a fully fleshed world, dictated by the preferences of the protagonist himself. Partly the confusion has to do with what version you have the opportunity to watch. With five different cuts varying from two to four hours in length (I have watched two, the latest being the 226 minutes version as Visconti intended) this is something of a frustration in anyone’s language;  and, at the point in Visconti’s career where decoration was slowly supplanting dramatic tension, the joy in seeing Berger and Schneider exchanging sweet nothingness is replaced by a kind of exhaustion. Beauty can do that to a person. Breathtaking? It’s all that. And less, and less, if you see the shorter cuts with some of the gay stuff removed for censorship reasons. To the detriment too of dramatic logic. Yet this is quite a rounded vision of Germany’s intellectual and cultural aspects in the latter half of the nineteenth century, bristling through a nation-state’s growing political personality as a kind of warped belle époque happens. Visconti had a stroke after filming which led to all manner of issues for a production that happened when his long-cherished Proust project failed to come to fruition.  It’s a tribute to his protegé Berger really, who totally inhabits the role from boy to man with remarkable, emotive physicality in this inscription to a sorrowful life (the Italian dub is voiced by Giancarlo Giannini); while Schneider was returning to the role of Sissi (which had made her famous throughout Europe in a series of much-loved films) as a favour to the director.  Written by Visconti with Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, this was shot on the original locations, which adds immensely to the overwhelming spectacle, a great immersion into big characters and the way they made their lives matter.

The Damned (1969)

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Aka Caduti degli dei or Götterdämmerung. It does no good to raise one’s voice when it’s too late, not even to save your soul. Wealthy industrialist family the Essenbecks have begun to do business with the Nazi Party.  The family patriarch Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schoenhals) is murdered on the night of the Reichstag fire and the anti-Nazi vice president of the company Herbert Thalmann (Umberto Orsini) is framed. His wife Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling) and their children are taken by the Gestapo. The family’s empire passes to the control of an unscrupulous relative, the boorish SA officer Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff). Waiting in the wings are his son Günther (Renaud Verley) a sensitive and troubled student, and his nephew Martin (Helmut Berger), an amoral deviant playboy who molests his young cousin as well as a Jewish  girl. Martin is dominated by his possessive mother Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) the widow of Baron Joachim’s only son, a fallen WW1 hero. Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde) an employee of the family firm and Sophie’s lover, ascends in power despite his lowly social status, thanks to Sophie’s support and the SS officer and family relation Aschenbach (Helmut Griem) who pits family factions against each other to move their steel and munition works into state control … This is the secret Germany. Nothing is lacking. The dissipation of a wealthy German dynasty becomes an arc for the destruction of Germany and the rise of Nazism:  offset by a backdrop of decadence and perversion, Visconti’s operatic portrait of society gone rotten makes him the principal chronicler of that history in an Italian-German co-production. The cast is stunningly gorgeous – just look at Rampling! – enveloped in the exquisitely accessorised sets. The startling cinematic arrival of the equally lovely Herr Berger (who was seen briefly as a waiter in Visconti’s segment of Le streghe) in full drag as Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel is not to be quickly forgotten;  nor his incestuous sex scene with his mother. He embodies the narcissistic amorality at the core of the work which despite its luxuriousness is a critique of bourgeois collaborators standing by while their country is jackbooted. It is an explicitly Freudian work and transformed Bogarde into a European star. Written by Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli and Visconti, this is the first of what is known as the director’s German trilogy, comprising Death in Venice and Ludwig, collectively a subjective account of that country’s terrible history told in devastating, beautiful imagery. Hugely successful and influential in its day, despite the horrors, you will gasp and swoon in equal measure at the shocking sumptuousness. Nazism, Gunther, is our creation. It was born in our factories, nourished with our money!

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

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On the screen you get ’em all, what about off? It’s pouring rain at the funeral of Hollywood screen star, the Spanish sex symbol Maria Vargas, and we learn about her life from the men who became beguiled by her … Washed-up film director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) is on the outs but gets a second chance at stardom when he discovers stunning peasant Vargas (Ava Gardner) dancing in a nightclub in Madrid. Goaded by his megalomaniac producer, strong-arming Wall Street financier Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), Harry convinces Maria to screen test for, and then star in, the next film he will write and direct. Publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) makes sure she’s a sensation. But as Edwards’ possessive nature and the realities of stardom weigh on Maria, she seeks a genuine lover with whom she can escape and takes refuge with a wastrel playboy Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring) before true love rescues her arriving in a white automobile … I waste my money with pleasure but yours is just a waste. Writer/director (and producer) Joseph Mankiewicz joined the ranks of those filmmakers (Wilder, Minnelli) who turned on Hollywood for this baroque exploration of directors looking for inspiration:  when all else fails, eat yourself, as Sunset Blvd. and The Bad and the Beautiful demonstrated. Despite the casting and the setting (the cinematography doesn’t come across well at this juncture) this doesn’t quite click in the first part: it isn’t as sharply attractive as those productions, with Bogart perhaps a little too laconic as the narrator of this introductory section which is all exposition and caricature. But Mankiewicz made Letter to Three Wives so he knows how to make things interesting and he plays with the narration. The entire mood lifts with the shift to the voice of brash publicist Muldoon explaining life in Hollywood, before moving back and forth to Harry; and then to the lover and husband Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi),  the Italian count who is last in his line and fails to declare a terrible secret, dooming their union. The overlapping and conflicting accounts combine to create a clever, arresting portrait of the industry and stardom after the first few story missteps, with Gardner ultimately endearing as her enigmatic character develops, desperate to find her true love when the fairytale disintegrates and her humanity destroys her. Naturally she looks utterly stunning in this vague take on the career of Rita Hayworth with touches of King Farouk, the Duke of Windsor and Howard Hughes figuring amongst the male ensemble. How much more like a dream can a dream be?

Rocco and his Brothers (1960)

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Tomorrow? Tomorrow? There is no tomorrow.  Widowed Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou), an impoverished Italian mother, moves north to Milan with her close-knit family of five sons to find opportunity in the big city where oldest son Vincenzo (Spiros Focas) is getting engaged to the lovely Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale). But the two mothers dislike each other and the marriage is off.  A heated rivalry begins when two of Rosaria’s boys, soft-spoken Rocco (Alain Delon) and brutal Simone (Renato Salvatori), fall for Nadia (Annie Girardot), a beautiful prostitute with whom each has an affair. As each pursues Nadia, tension between them threatens to tear the family apart … Always at the movies! He lives on bread and movies. In a stunningly stylish and tragic epic portrait of Italian society after the boom, Luchino Visconti brings his preoccupations together – visually operatic, violent romanticism, literary and post-war realism, with brilliantly conceived characters finding their destiny against a backdrop of poverty and desperation. Time flies when every day’s the same. Wouldn’t seem so, but it’s true.  Written by Visconti with Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli and Massimo Franciosa, from a story by Visconti, d’Amico and Vasco Pratolini, inspired by Giovanni Testori’s novel Il ponte della Ghisolfa, this is an intense, overwhelming masterpiece, beautifully performed. See it and believe in cinema. What was beautiful and right has become wrong

The Harder They Fall (1956)

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What do you care what a bunch of bloodthirsty, screaming people think of you? Did you ever get a look at their faces? They pay a few lousy bucks hoping to see a man get killed. To hell with them! Think of yourself. Get your money and get out of this rotten business.  After seventeen years reporter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself out of work when his newspaper folds. He’s so skint he agrees to work for the shady boxing promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to help hype his new boxer, the massive Argentinian heavyweight Toro Moreno (Mike Lane). Toro looks the part but he has no actual boxing talent and all his fights are fixed. When he gets a shot at the title against the brutal and sadistic Buddy Brannen (Max Baer), Willis is faced with the tough decision of whether or not to tell Toro that his entire career is a sham as they move eastwards across the country and one fighter is killed in the ring and Brannen wants to fix Toro good … What gives, Eddie? I looked up Toro in the book. There’s no record of him in South America. Famous as Bogart’s final film before his death from cancer, this is a characterful work about ethics from Philip Yordan’s sparky screenplay which he adapted from Budd Schulberg’s novel. Bogart has an admirable arc as he evolves from a cynical sportswriter to the press agent coming to terms with the horrible corruption at the core of his sport:  will he write an exposé and take it down? The pairing of Steiger with Schulberg’s material again two years after On the Waterfront has its own attractions as well as offering an opportunity to see his Method acting stylings clash with Bogart’s classical theatrics. Jan Sterling does well as Bogart’s wife, functioning overtly as his conscience while Harold J. Stone is terrific as Bogart’s colleague, a broadcaster who can’t stand how he’s promoting Toro. Burnett Guffey’s glistening monochrome cinematography gives us some of the best fight scenes we’ll ever see in this tragic epic about life bristling within the ropes. Tough as you like, this was inspired by real-life boxer Primo Canera. Directed by Mark Robson.  Don’t fight it, Eddie! What are you trying to do, hold onto your self-respect? Did your self-respect help you hold your job? Did your self-respect give you a new column?