Double Indemnity (1944)

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It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets roped into a murderous scheme when he falls for the sensual Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who is intent on killing her husband (Tom Powers) by arranging his ‘accidental death’ and living off the fraudulent accidental death claim. Prompted by the late Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), insurance investigator and Neff’s mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) looks into the case, and gradually begins to uncover the truth… Staggering film noir, this early masterpiece from director Billy Wilder boasts a screenplay co-written (sort of) with Raymond Chandler, adapted from the James M. Cain story Three of a Kind. Rarely has the sensibility of a filmmaker been so attuned to the material in such crystalline fashion:  in this treatise on corruption, crime, sex, adultery and murder the casting plays to all the character strengths with Wilder seeing in the light actor MacMurray something infinitely schlemiel-like, sleazy and vulnerable.  It is literally picture-perfect, offering us a visual and psychological template for noir, a story told in flashback, shot on location all over Los Angeles, from Jerry’s Market to the Chateau Marmont, Glendale Station to the Hollywood Bowl, with venetian blinds, curling cigarette smoke and tilted fedoras filling out the emotional space shot by DoP John Seitz. Did a city ever feel so lonesome? Stanwyck was never better – dolled up in a blonde wig with bangs and an ankle bracelet begging to be opened, this is one of the fatalest femmes ever on screen. Robinson is fantastic as the fatherly man who unravels this story of the blackest of hearts, while this study of behaviour is decorated with the kind of dialogue that you savour forever. How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Classsic Hollywood, in every possible sense of that term.

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The Snorkel (1958)

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You think I’m mad, don’t you? They all thought I was mad when I said he killed my daddy.  Paul Decker (Peter van Eyck) kills his wealthy wife by gassing her in the living room of their luxury Italian villa. He survives in the sealed room by hiding under the floorboards with a snorkel. The police assume it’s a suicide:  Paul has an alibi from a sojourn just across the border in France.  Paul’s stepdaughter Candy (Mandy Miller) suspects he has murdered her mother – she says she saw him hold her father underwater and kill him too. Her dog Toto agitates Paul by playing with the snorkel which he finds in his hotel room and Paul poisons him. Candy is convinced he did it deliberately but her companion Jean (Betta St John) thinks she has a psychiatric disorder. Paul starts to seduce Jean and persuade her that Candy is mad. It’s only a matter of time before Paul tries to kill Candy too … An effective thriller from the House of Hammer, adapted from the story by Anthony Dawson (the crim who gets scissored by Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder) by the man who would become a studio stalwart, Jimmy Sangster (and Peter Myers). The tension is nicely sustained in this slice of Gothic and Miller is excellent as the teen who persists with her suspicions. The dog is great! Produced by Michael Carreras and directed by Guy Green.

Ocean’s Eight (2018)

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A him gets noticed, a her gets ignored. And we want to be ignored.  After she’s been released from prison, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) younger estranged sister of the late Danny, meets with her former partner-in-crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) to convince her to join an audacious heist that she planned while serving her sentence. Debbie and Lou assemble the rest of their team: Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter) a disgraced fashion designer who is deeply in debt with the IRS; Amita (Mindy Kaling) a jewellery maker keen to move out of her mother’s house and start her own life; Nine Ball (Rihanna) a computer hacker; Constance (Awkwafina) a street hustler and pickpocket; and Tammy (Sarah Paulson) a profiteer and another friend of Debbie’s who has been secretly selling stolen goods out of her family’s suburban home. Debbie is after a $150 million Cartier necklace, from the Met Gala in five weeks, and plans to use co-host Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), a dim-witted and snobby actress, as an unwitting mule who will wear the necklace into the gala. After the team manipulates Daphne into choosing Weil as her stylist, Weil and Amita go to Cartier to convince them to let Daphne wear the Toussaint, as well as surreptitiously digitally scan it to later manufacture a zircon duplicate but things start to unravel when the original is delivered on the day … A sequel (and spin-off) of sorts to the enjoyable Ocean’s Eleven franchise, this is produced by Steven Soderbergh who bowed out of directing duties in favour of Gary Ross who co-wrote this with Olivia Milch. Burdened perhaps by the poor reception afforded the all-female Ghostbusters, this is a far more confident and fun piece of work, tightly scripted with few lulls (maybe a short one, an hour in) and great casting, with several celebrity cameos:  even Anna Wintour makes an appearance when Tammy interns at Vogue, a nod to the films within a film (The First Monday in May, The September Issue) and of course Hathaway’s fashion film in which Wintour was played by Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada, so this is a kind of fan fiction on screen at least in part. The heist would be nothing without a revenge motif (Richard Armitage as artist/conman Claude Becker got Debbie put in the clink), an insurance investigation (my heart sank when James Corden appeared but forsooth! he doesn’t ruin it) and a twist ending. Bonham Carter’s turn as a kind of Oirish Vivienne Westwood is somewhat heartstopping but what I really want to know is where Bullock and Blanchett got their skin. Seriously.  A lot of fun, with brilliant shoplifting ideas.

Duffy (1968)

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That stinking operation of yours gets on my wick. Half-brothers playboy Stefane (James Fox) and useless businessman Antony (John Alderton) despise their father, callous and aggressive millionaire Charles Calvert (James Mason) who appears to have made all of his money off their respective mothers. Because Charles refuses to share his wealth with them they ask hip enigmatic American thrill-seeker the piratical Duffy (James Coburn) to help steal the money they believe is their birthright when Stefane’s girlfriend Segolene (Susannah York) recalls his name during a hairdressing appointment. When Charles decides to move a million pounds of his savings from Morocco to France on one of his ships Duffy has an opportunity to stage a daring burglary at sea but he takes some convincing and then it transpires that indeed all is not as it seems …  A crime caper featuring members of the Swinging London set that permits Coburn to do his shit-eating grin seems like a good idea on paper but director Robert Parrish doesn’t really time things as well as he might despite the superficial attractions of the settings and cast.  With a screenplay by Donald Cammell you would think this might be a deal weirder than it actually is, but that would come in a couple of years when he re-teamed with Fox for the penetrating counterculture examination that was Performance.  For now we have to make do with pretty people scamming their pop with an independent-minded outsider in exotic locales and a loopy soundtrack to underline the hip fun in an outing that seems to herald the end of Mod as events take a tricky turn in that destination of decadence and dilettantism, Morocco. Quirky fun.

Let the Sunshine In (2017)

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Aka Un Beau Soleil Intérieur.  Live what you have to live.  Divorced fiftysomething artist and mother Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) navigates a series of unsatisfying relationships with men during a week when her daughter is staying with her ex-husband François (Laurent Grévill) and afterwards, following a brief sojourn at an art exposition in the Lot.  She discusses her relationships with a female friend (Sandrine Dumas) who brags about her own happiness and a male friend Fabrice (Bruno Podalydès) who cautions her to stick with someone from her milieu. She finally consults a psychic (Gerard Depardieu) to see whom she will end up with …  The film opens on a graphic sex scene which certainly perked up my cats. Watching a beautiful woman have a horrible experience with a nasty old fat banker (Xavier Beauvois) is not an edifying experience. You are charming. But my wife is extraordinary, he declares.  Her response to his rudeness in a bar is to be super nice to everyone she encounters in the service industry. She is squirming when she feels compelled to ask her new gallerist Maxime (Josiane Balasko) if it’s true what the banker told her – that she’d had a relationship with Isabelle’s ex-husband. Then she has a one-night stand with an unpleasant actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) with whom she’s considering doing a project – she’s in love, he regrets it. She dances to At Last with Sylvain (Paul Blain) a strange guy in the Lot and sleeps with her ex who tries out a porno move. He appears to be using their daughter as a weapon and keeps the keys to the apartment so he can come and go as he pleases. We are stunned to learn that she is convinced she loves the weirdo from the Lot and another uncomfortable conversation occurs. She is unhappy and cries a lot and pleads with men to stay with her. She produces little art. She wants to be in love but is needy and demanding, but unlike all women deploying their feminine guiles to reel them in, the men are using this older woman and she is getting nothing back. This film by Claire Denis is constructed on the slimmest of threads – what does a woman of a certain age want when the men she attracts are so horrifying? (And why is she wearing thigh-high hooker boots?)  If she’s such a great artist why don’t we see any of her paintings? That’s not the point, of course.  Supposedly adapted by Denis and Christine Angot from Roland Barthes’ 1977 A Lover’s Discourse, this attempts to penetrate the female psyche but what are we to say when Isabelle herself winds up consulting a fortune teller? Only Freud claimed to know what women want but we know he was a fraud. The final twist is that we enter the fortune teller’s storyline before he meets Isabelle. Out of nowhere the narrative is disrupted. Binoche is extraordinary but the psychodrama is as unsatisfying and fascinating as the men are unpromising. Such, alas, is life for women who will of course never be emotionally satisfied by one or any man.  All talk and no trousers, this is also about all the talk about the talking and the not talking. It positions itself as an awkward comedy of manners but plays like a horribly relatable documentary about how awful it is to be female.  Hey, she slept with three men in a week.  C’est la vie, malheuruesement. Customarily rigorous cinematography by Agnès Godard. Open.

Elle (2016)

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Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all. Believe me. Perverse, funny, strange, blackly comic and at times surreal, this is a film like few others. It opens on a black screen as Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped by a masked man. She gets up, cleans herself and bathes and carries on as though nothing has happened. At work she is the one in control – it’s her company and she deals in the hyper-real, trying to make video games more experiential, the storytelling sharper, the visuals more tactile. She is attacked in a cafe by a woman who recognises her as her father’s lure – as a child she her dad murdered a slew of people and he’s an infamous serial killer, turned down for release yet again at the age of 76 and it’s all over the news:  there’s a photo taken of her as a blank-eyed ten year old which haunts people. Her mother is a plastic surgery junkie shacked up with another young lover. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is broke and tries to pitch her an idea for a game. Her loser son has supposedly knocked up a lunatic girlfriend (the eventual baby is not white) and needs money for a home. Elle is sleeping with the husband of her partner Anna (Anne Consigny). She likes to ogle her neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). Now as she gets text messages about her body she tries to figure out who among her circle of acquaintances could have raped her – and then when it happens again she unmasks him and starts a relationship of sorts following a car crash (a deer crosses the road, not for the first time in a 2016 film).  This is where the edges of making stories, power, control, reality, games and the desire for revenge become blurred. Adapted from Patrick Dijan’s novel Oh by David Birke and translated into French by Harold Manning, this is Paul Verhoeven’s stunning return to form, with Huppert giving a towering performance as a wily, strong, vulnerable, tested woman – she owns her own company and handles unruly employees using a sympathetic snitch but cannot control her family members and their nuttiness. You can’t take your eyes off her, nor can the camera.  While she tries to figure out how to regain her composure (she rarely loses it, even while she’s getting punched in the face) she also sees a way in which she might obtain pleasure.  In some senses we might see a relationship with Belle de Jour: Michèle is the still centre of a world in which crazy is normal. It’s shot to reflect this, with the video game and the animation of her made illicitly by one employee the only visual extremes:  the assaults (there’s more than the first, when she gets the taste for it) are conventionally staged. She has turned the tables on her rapist – he is undone by her desire for sex. This is all about role play.  When Michèle finally decides to cut the cord on all the loose ends in her life it brings everything to a satisfying conclusion as she regains her balance – her role as CEO assists her manage her own narrative minus any generic tropes. Now that’s clever. Oh! The audacity! What a great film for women in a very contemporary take on noir and the notion of the femme fatale. Big wow.  I killed you by coming here.

Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958)

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aka Sleep No More. Kimberley Prescott (Anne Baxter) is the heiress of a South African diamond company and grieving after her father’s recent suicide at the family’s villa outside Barcelona.  She is shocked by the arrival of a man (Richard Todd) claiming to be her brother Ward, believed to have died in a car accident in South Africa a year earlier. Kimberley had identified his body.  He insinuates his way into her home accompanied by a woman claiming to be a housekeeper, Elaine Whitman (Faith Brook) after giving the Spanish maid the weekend off.  Kimberley has trouble convincing her friends and family and the local police inspector Vargas (Herbert Lom) that a complete stranger has taken her deceased brother’s identity and appears to know events of their shared childhood and suspects he is after her father’s estate … Written by David D. Osborn and Charles Sinclair, this highly efficient B thriller is a convincing mix of the paranoid woman’s film and murder mystery, with an enormous stash of diamonds at the centre of the plot. Baxter offers a pleasingly vivid performance as the woman being driven to the edge of sanity with nice guy actor Todd playing it sinister and clearly enjoying himself.  The guitar score by Mátyás Seiber is performed by Julian Bream. Produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and directed by Michael Anderson with cinematography by his usual collaborator, Erwin Hillier.

The Apartment (1960)

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Normally, it takes years to work your way up to the twenty-seventh floor. But it only takes thirty seconds to be out on the street again. You dig?  Ambitious insurance clerk C. C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) permits his bosses to use his NYC apartment to conduct extramarital affairs in hope of gaining a promotion. He pursues a relationship with the office building’s elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) unaware that she is having an affair with one of the apartment’s users, the head of personnel, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) who lies to her that he’s leaving his wife. Bud comes home after the office Christmas party to find Fran has taken an overdose following a disappointing assignation with Sheldrake … Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were fresh off the success of Some Like It Hot when they came up with this gem:  a sympathetic romantic comedy-drama that plays like sly satire – and vice versa. Reuniting one of that film’s stars (and a nasty jab at Marilyn Monroe using lookalike Joyce Jameson) with his Double Indemnity star (MacMurray, cast as a heel, for once) and adding MacLaine to the mix, they created one of the great American classics with performances of a lifetime. Bud can keep on keeping on as a slavering nebbish destined to be the ultimate slimy organisation man or become a mensch but he can’t do it alone, not now he’s in love. This is a sharp, adult, stunningly assured portrait of the battle of the sexes, cruelty, compromise and deception intact. With the glistening monochrome cinematography of Joseph LaShelle memorializing that paean to midcentury modernism, the architecture of the late Fifties office (designed by Alexandre Trauner), and an all-time great closing line (how apposite for a Wilder film), this is prime cut movie.  The best Christmas movie of all time? Probably, if you can take that holiday celebration on a knife edge of suicidal sadness and bleakly realistic optimism. Rarely has a home’s shape taken on such meaning.

Anastasia (1956)

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You are an excellent actress, Madame. My compliments. You were very well trained.Paris 1928.  A suicidal amnesiac (Ingrid Bergman) whose resemblance to the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, widely rumoured to have survived the family’s execution in 1918 –  is drawn into a plot devised by the former Russian White General Bounine  (Yul Brynner) and his associates to swindle from the Grand Duchess an inheritance of £10 million. However, the ultimate hurdle to their plan is the exiled Russian aristocracy — in particular the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna (Helen Hayes) who is of course the grandmother of the royal family and whom their handpicked claimant must convince of her legitimacy if they wish for their scheme to succeed. After ingratiating herself with the Dowager Empress, Anastasia aka Anna Anderson (the name Bounine invents for her) is preyed upon by the fortune-hunting Prince Paul (Ivan Desny) and Bounine becomes jealous … Director Anatole Litvak would only agree to making this film if Bergman was cast and she’s ideal in a role that is all about impersonation and performance. It marked her triumphant return to Hollywood following her association with Roberto Rossellini which had her denounced from pulpits. Arthur Laurents adapted Marcelle Maurette’s stageplay (Prince Paul is an invented character) and it’s immaculately constructed with the scenes between this pretender and her grandmother a standout at the film’s centre, the masterful ladies of the cinema facing off in a film that is all about acting. Martita Hunt is a standout in the supporting cast as the Dowager’s lady in waiting, Baroness Elena. Bergman picked up the Academy Award and her place in American cinema was secure. The play is over. Go home.

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

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Murderer, you killed them. You killed them all. It’s 1906. Helen is a young mute woman (Dorothy McGuire) working in a New England mansion as a domestic to bedridden Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore) who lives with her professor stepson Albert (gorgeous George Brent), a secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who used to be his girlfriend and is now romancing her newly returned son Steven (Gordon Oliver), verbally abused Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood), drunken housekeeper Mrs Oates (Elsa Lanchester) and her husband (Rhys Williams).  A maniac is killing off people with disabilities. After Mrs Warren warns her of the danger to her personal safety she makes plans to leave the dark old house with her boyfriend Dr Parry (Kent Smith), but it is too late. The maniac is in the house, and she is his prey… Mel Dinelli made his screenwriting debut with this adaptation of Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch – the  idea for the staircase came from a Mary Roberts Rinehart novel.  It’s a beautifully mounted gripping Gothic suspenser with an ideal setting, atmosphere and occasional flashes of director Robert Siodmak’s Expressionist roots by DoP Nicholas Musuraca, underscoring the murderousness at its core. Spinechilling from start to finish.