The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) attends the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in a small Western town. Flashing back 25 years, we learn Doniphon saved Stoddard, then a lawyer, when he was roughed up by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). As the territory’s safety hung in the balance, Doniphon and Stoddard, two of the only people standing up to him, proved to be very important, but different, foes to Valance. Stoddard opened a law office over the offices of the Shinbone Star, the newspaper which is run by a steadfast editor determined to expose the reality of the violence terrorising the territory and preserve the freedom of the press. Both Doniphon and Stoddard are in love with the same woman, Hallie (Vera Miles) who cooks in her immigrant parents’ restaurant and whom Stoddard teaches to read and write. When the newspaper prints a (mis-spelled) headline declaring Valance is defeated, he takes revenge – and then the peace-loving Stoddard takes up a gun … This is a film of polarities, exemplified by the civilising influence of Ransom opposed to Valance and Doniphon’s own belief in the power of the gun (which ironically opens up the possibility for bringing law and order to the place). Vera Miles is splendid as the illiterate love of both men:  What good has reading and writing done you? Look at you – in an apron!  An eloquent essay on the genre itself, this was not received warmly upon release. And yet its entire narrative provides the content for soon to be popular structuralist analysis of the western:  the East versus the West, old versus new, the wilderness versus civilisation, violence versus law and order, reality versus myth, the desert versus the garden. Never was a cactus rose deployed to such symbolic effect! John Ford made one of the great films but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch up. Adapted from Dorothy Johnson’s short story by producer Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah .

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Paddington 2 (2017)

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Exit bear, pursued by an actor. Paddington is now settled with the Brown family and wants to earn money for a beautiful pop-up book of London which he finds in Mr Gruber’s antiques shop as a gift for Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday. He takes a series of odd jobs which all end up more or less in chaos. When the family attend a funfair opened by thespian neighbour Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) he lets slip to the self-absorbed one about the book and nobody notices Buchanan’s interest. Paddington then disturbs a burglary at Mr Gruber’s and gets put in prison after chasing the thief and being charged himself:  the pop-up book was stolen, leaving far more ostensibly valuable items behind. The family work to get Paddington out of prison, with Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) doing artist’s impressions of him from witness descriptions. She can’t convince Henry (Hugh Bonneville) of Buchanan’s guilt – he’s too preoccupied by his own midlife crisis. Buchanan has the book and dons a series of theatrical disguises to follow the clues around great city landmarks to an immense treasure. Meanwhile, in prison, Paddington has convinced the brutal cook Nuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) to make marmalade sandwiches and change the menu and get the prison warder to read everyone bedtime stories:  everyone is his friend … This is a fiendishly inventive and funny narrative whose winning spirit is in every frame. Grant has a whale of a time as a splendidly awful actor who now does dog food commercials (his agent Joanna Lumley explains he can only act on his own) while the Brown family’s attempts to prove Paddington’s innocence rely on each of their particular talents:  Judy (Madeleine Harris) writes her own newspaper while Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) aka J-Dog is intimately acquainted with steam trains. Mary’s in training for a cross-Channel swim which comes in amazingly handy. Fizzing with irreverent whimsy, dazzling production design, joyful exuberance, sorrow, good manners, respect and – gulp – love, this is, in the words of choreographer Craig Revel Horwood (responsible for Grant’s incredible jailhouse hoofing in the credits), Fab-U-Lous.  Adapted by Simon Farnaby and director Paul King from those unmissable books of my childhood by Michael Bond. This little bear is the best superhero ever. Just wonderful.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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You sit here and you spin your little web and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Up in Heaven Clarence (Henry Travers) is awaiting his angel’s wings when a case is made to him about George Bailey (James Stewart) who’s thinking about jumping off a bridge and into a wintry river at Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve 1945. Clarence is told George’s story: as a young boy rescuing his brother Harry from an icy pond, to his father’s death just when his own life should have been taking off and he winds up staying in this loathsome little town running the bank and having his honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) ruined when there’s a run on the bank’s funds … and losing himself amid other people’s accidents, deaths and rank stupidity while the town runs afoul of greedy financier Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George is such a great guy with dreams of travel and adventure and the truth is he never leaves home and becomes a martyr to other people. I’ve always found this immensely depressing. What happens to him – the sheer passive aggression directed at him and the loss of all of his ambitions in order to satisfy other people’s banal wishes at the expense of his own life’s desires  – is a complete downer. Reworking A Christmas Carol with added danger it feels like a post-war attempt to make people feel happy with their very limited lot. Which is why I watch this very rarely and with complete reluctance precisely because its petty moralising is achieved so beautifully and rationally … So sue me! Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling and directed by Frank Capra.

Houseboat (1958)

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Try to be a parent, not a policeman. When newly widowed Tom Winters (Cary Grant) arrives back to the home of his sister-in-law (Martha Hyer) he finds his three kids in understandable disarray and doesn’t want to leave them in her care. But they don’t fit easily into his life at the State Dept. in Washington.  Younger son Robert (Charles Herbert) takes off at a classical concert with the grown up daughter Cinzia (Sophia Loren) of a renowned visiting conductor who returns him to the family’s apartment the following day. Not knowing who she is, Tom asks her to be the family’s maid. She’s unhappy tagging along with her father so she joins them, dressed to the nines. He decides to remove everyone to Carolyn’s guesthouse – which is destroyed by a train when the tow truck driver Angelo (Harry Guardino) is distracted at the sight of Cinzia en route to the new location. He gives Tom his neglected houseboat as compensation. Unable to cook, launder or sew, Cinzia miraculously brings Tom together with his lost children as the houseboat lurches, cuts loose and gradually settles into metaphorical balance. She has to avoid the leers of Angelo while Tom is rationally persuaded into proposing marriage to freshly divorced Carolyn who’s been in love with him since she was 4 and he married her older sister:  he is blissfully ignorant of Cinzia who desperately craves his attention …  There’s so much music in this very fun romcom it might as well be a musical:  from the orchestral pieces to Sophia’s regular songs – Bing! Bang! Bong! being the most popular on a very bouncy soundtrack. Gorgeous stars, funny kids, agreeable supporting performances and a good setup combine to make this a delightful, charming ode to simply being: dolce far niente, as Loren urges. I couldn’t agree more! There’s a great scene in a laundromat when Grant gets embroiled in women’s gossip. Written by Jack Rose and director Melville Shavelson, with an uncredited screenplay by Betsy Drake (aka Mrs Cary Grant) who was supposed to co-star – until her husband allegedly had an affair with Loren on The Pride and the Passion, a liaison long over by the time filming on this commenced. Awkward!

Peyton Place (1957)

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Quality is a very good thing in a roll of cloth but it’s very dull on a big date. Mike Rossi (Lee Phillips) arrives in the small New England town of Peyton Place to interview for high school principal, usurping the favourite teacher (Mildred Dunnock). He drives past a shack where Selena Cross (Hope Lange) lives with her mother (Betty Field), little brother and drunken stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Selena’s best friend is the graduating class’s star student and wannabe writer Allison Mackenzie (Diane Varsi) whose widowed mother Constance (Lana Turner) has a clothing store and immediately attracts Mike’s interest. Allison has a crush on Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) heir to the local fabric mill but he only has eyes for trashy Betty (Terry Moore). Allison confides in Norman (Russ Tamblyn) whose watchful mother has altogether too much to do with her shy son. All of the characters attempt to assert their individuality and grow up but malicious rumours, a rape and a suicide followed by a murder are just around the corner as Lucas forces himself on his stepdaughter and Constance reveals to Allison the truth about her obscure origins; then the newspaper carries a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor … Even decades after Grace Metalious’ novel was published it bore the whiff of scandal and my eleven-year old self carried it as though it were dangerous contraband – which of course it was, for about a minute. Part of its attraction was the back cover photograph of the authoress, a gorgeous young thing with a Fifties Tammy ponytail wearing a plaid shirt, cut offs and penny loafers – it was years before I would learn that this was a model (paid tribute by a shot of Allison in the film) and that Metalious was in reality a bloated alcoholic who died not long afterwards:  not such a role model after all!  The bestselling exposition of a horribly inward looking and vicious group of people in an outwardly lovely small town in Maine gets a meticulous adaptation by John Michael Hayes who was working carefully around the censor yet still managed to craft a moving even shocking melodrama from some explosive storylines arranged through the seasons. Lange comes off best in a film which has some daring off-casting – including Turner as the frigid so-called widow, cannily using her star carnality against the character. (In reality she would encounter her own extraordinary scandal with teenage daughter Cheryl within a year of this film’s release). Lloyd Nolan playing the local doctor has a field day in the showstopping courtroom revelation telling some vicious home truths amid some frankly disbelieving onlookers including the unrepentant gossips. Tamblyn gets one of the roles of his career as Norman, the son who is loved just a little too much by his mom… I hadn’t seen this in a long time but much to my surprise was immediately humming along again with the wonderfully lyrical score by Franz Waxman. In many ways this evocative drama sums up the morality of the Fifties even while being set on the eve of WW2 and the early Forties. A very pleasant, beautifully made and surprising reminder of a book whose opening line I’ve never forgotten:  Indian Summer is like a woman … Ah! The film is sixty years old this year. Directed by Mark Robson.

White Christmas (1954)

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I’m dreaming of a white Christmas with every Christmas card I write. Singer Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) has his life saved on Christmas night towards the end of WW2 (Bing Crosby) by soldier Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) who persuades him to become a double act. Davis fancies Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) who performs with her sister Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and he basically cons Wallace into joining them at a ski lodge in rural Vermont where the girls are going to perform a Christmas show – but they discover there’s no snow and it’s owned by Gen. Waverly (Dean Jagger), the boys’ commander in World War II, who, they learn, is having financial difficulties; his quaint country inn is failing. A season without snow could be a disaster. So what’s the foursome to do but plan a yuletide miracle: a fun-filled musical extravaganza that’s sure to put Waverly and his business back in the black! Then Betty figures Wallace isn’t the guy she thinks he is and abandons ship … Christmas is coming and this is as much a part of the celebration as that vat of cocoa and egg nog I’m currently drowning in as I watch the snow coming down. Originally intended for Fred Astaire opposite Crosby (who’d already had a bit of a hit with that little title tune in their smash movie Holiday Inn…) Astaire dropped out when he read the script so it went to Donald O’Connor. Then Crosby’s wife died and he went into mourning before coming back to it when Danny Kaye got involved and, well, here we are. There are nice jibes about showbiz, a nod to what retired people are supposed to do with their time when their faculties are still intact, and not a few great songs which are only written by the legendary Irving Berlin. With dance numbers to die for, romantic confusion and some crisp witticisms delivered with style – with a crew like that, would you expect any less? – this is tremendous, sentimental entertainment.  Shot in VistaVision (Paramount’s version of widescreen) this has some of the most gleaming reds you’ll see in cinema:  no Santa suit will ever match up to what these guys and gals wear for the ultimate seasonal singalong. Written by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank and directed by Michael (‘Bring on the empty horses!’) Curtiz. Look fast for George Chakiris in the dance troupe. 

Evita (1996)

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Statesmanship is more than entertaining peasants. 1952 Buenos Aires: a film in a cinema is stopped by the newsflash that Eva Peron (Madonna) is dead. Flashback to years earlier: a little girl running into a church and placing flowers on the body of the man who was her father before she is hustled out. 1930s:  Eva Duarte is sleeping with a tango singer Magaldi (Jimmy Nail) before making her name as a radio actress and then befriending a powerful man Colonel Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce) at a fundraiser following an earthquake. She becomes his mistress and encourages and hustles for him as he parlays his way to power, using her broadcasting nous to raise support for him during his imprisonment by political rivals who fear his rise. Throughout this larger than life musical drama (entirely sung through) Che Guevara (Antonio Banderas) is the shapeshifting commentator on the sidelines, positioning us in the narrative, until the final – unthinkable – departure of Evita. This is a robust, admirable adaptation by director Alan Parker and Oliver Stone of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice behemoth that bestrode theatre in the 1970s after its introduction as a concept album – a musical drama that deconstructs the life of the Argentine bastard who became an actress and whore before marrying the dissolute Peron and utilising her powers of demagoguery to help him and his Nazi thugs to Government. All of this is contextualised under the guise of sympathy for the impoverished masses of which she believed she was one because she was the illegitimate offspring of a married middle class man.  The story problem here is the persona of Evita herself – she’s a narcissistic exhibitionist whose principal passion is herself and this presents the issue of empathy for the viewing experience. It’s an epic political pageant but it’s politics as psychodrama:  you can admire the scale but it’s a mirthless spectacle about horrendous people. Madonna does an excellent job with the songs but her limited technical acting abilities aren’t helped by the parameters of the role itself, which is primarily declarative in function. The first opportunity she really gets to properly emote is on her deathbed: everything else is essentially a con job of presentation, inherent to the character herself. Banderas and Pryce are commentators and therefore essential to the interacting of the personal with the political on a broad canvas shot in muted amber tones which is admittedly captivating and occasionally jaw-dropping in ambition. There are some wonderful visual flourishes and pastiche references to classical filmmaking (Parker even makes a cameo appearance). At its heart this is a vengeful journey into fascistic madness framed by two funerals.  It’s certainly interesting to see this again (in any form) in the week in which the Perons’ successors are finally sentencing the pilots who carried out the murders of tens of thousands of dissidents by dropping them in the shark-infested Atlantic 40 years ago rather than wasting time torturing them – so many people had already invested their energies doing that and it was obviously tiring them out. Can you imagine what these toxic avengers would have done if they’d been allowed on the Falklands? Oh what a circus, oh what a show.

Union Pacific (1939)

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First time I’ve discarded aces for a queen! President Lincoln signed off on the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act to authorise pushing the Union Pacific Railroad west across the wilderness toward California. However now that Lincoln is dead financial opportunist Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) hopes to profit from obstructing it. Chief troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) has his hands full fighting Barrows’ agent the gambler Sid Campeau (the wonderfully devilish Brian Donlevy). Campeau’s partner veteran Dick Allen (Robert Preston) is Jeff’s war buddy and rival suitor for Irish rail engineer’s daughter Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck). Who will survive the effort to push the railroad through at any cost? And who will win Molly? Cecil B. DeMille’s rousing, sprawling western was in the vanguard of historical tales bringing together the rival attempts at forming a national history – and this all culminates at Promontory Point Utah when Leland Stanford drove a ceremonial spike to unite this with the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. Filled with great starry performances this is history on a human scale. Despite Stanwyck’s typical luminosity and McCrea’s decency and likeability,  it’s probably Preston who comes off best, even photographically, in his showy role. Filled with fighting, shooting, murder, building and dismantling, Indian attacks, drinking, gambling, love and death, with one killing from the window of a train that is shocking to this day, this is truly a film for the ages. A splendid, zesty example of the power of classical Hollywood. Written by Walter DeLeon, Jack Cunningham and C. Gardner Sullivan, adapting Ernest Haycox’ novel Troubleshooter. This is the first ever winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes – awarded in 2002 due to the debut Festival’s cancellation following the outbreak of WW2!

The Spoilers (1942)

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A woman doesn’t run out on the man she loves, she sticks with him through thick and thin. It’s 1900 and Flapjack (Russell Simpson) and Banty (George Cleveland) arrive in Nome, Alaska to check up on their claim to a gold mine. Saloon owner Charry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) knows that Bennett (Forrest Taylor) and Clark (Ray Bennett) are plotting to steal their claim. The new gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott) is part of the corrupt scheme as is the territory’s judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S. Hinds) whose niece Helen (Margaret Lindsay) has a thing for Cherry’s old flame Roy Glennister (John Wayne), fresh from a trip to Europe. Roy makes the mistake of siding with McNamara which damages his relationship with longtime partner Al Dextry (Harry Carey).  Roy realizes he’s been deceived as McNamara and Stillman prepare to steal at least $250,000 while the mine’s case awaits appeal. Helen is now in love with Roy, who begs Dextry’s forgiveness and persuades him to rob a bank to take back the wealth stolen from them. Both Glennister and Dextry don black faces to disguise themselves during the heist. The Bronco Kid (Richard Barthelmess) kills the sheriff but Roy gets the blame. He is arrested and a plot forms to kill him – permitting him to escape then murdering him on the street – but Cherry comes to his rescue, breaking Roy out of jail. A spectacular train derailment occurs during his fight for freedom. Then a fierce fistfight with McNamara results in Roy getting back his mine and his girl. A great starry cast play brilliantly off one another in this spirited adaptation of the novel by Rex Beach, adapted by Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed. The tone is set from the start with a shootout in this muddy town and Dietrich beats a path to the dock to greet old love Wayne. She doesn’t sing but wears several sparkly numbers in this monochrome delight. Her byplay with romantic rival Lindsay is a wonderful contrast in performing styles and her scenes with Wayne positively crackle The frequent references to Robert Service’s works are done with a nod and a wink to his own appearance as The Poet. Directed by Ray Enright who brings everything to a rousing conclusion with one of the longest fistfights ever filmed – and it’s all over the saloon! Wonderful fun.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

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There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is the creme de la creme of Hollywood directors, maker of such fine escapist fare as Ants in Your Pants of 1939. The audiences love him! But he wants to make a social contribution and desires more than anything critical favour and socially relevant material. His butler (Robert Greig) and valet (Eric Blore – how I love him!) deplore the idea. He is followed by a fully-staffed double-decker bus provided by studio boss Lebrand (Robert Warwick) should his needs demand anything solid like a bed or food. He fails first time out but second time he determines to dress up like a hobo and find out what real life is like for the working man. He encounters a waitress known only as The Girl (Veronica Lake) who takes pity on him and he ultimately realises – after serious trials – that making ordinary joes laugh and relieving their impoverished misery is far better than any serious-minded nonsense like his planned adaptation of that crack preachy serious novel, O, Brother Where Art Thou?  McCrea is superb and Lake is stunning as the super-sweet girl who falls for this man who’s supposedly hit hard times. As if! Was there ever a finer Hollywood satire? Hardly. From the camera-stylo de Preston Sturges whose favourite players are all over the cast. He’s the only filmmaker whose office I tried to locate on the Paramount Studios tour. Oh! The hilarity! Sheer, unadulterated genius.