The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

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Fear in the Night (1972)

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Aka Dynasty of Fear/Honeymoon of Fear. Your pretty little brand new wife.  The fragile wife Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson) of teacher Robert (Ralph Bates) is attacked in the bathroom of her boarding house by a man with a mechanical arm but nobody believes her and she is briefly institutionalised prior to his taking a job at a small prep school outside London run by Michael Carmichael (Peter Cushing) a mysterious figure whose wife Molly (Joan Collins) Peggy instantly dislikes. Soon Peggy identifies Carmichael’s arm from the earlier attack and left alone by Robert one evening takes out the shotgun to exact revenge when Michael is visiting her but for some reason he can’t be killed. When Robert returns a plot is revealed in a school that isn’t open at all  … I spilled something. The contours of this resemble another school thriller, the French classic  Les Diaboliques, which director (and writer/producer) Jimmy Sangster had already transposed into a Hammer film for Seth Holt in A Taste of Fear a decade earlier. The marital triangle contrived here with co-screenwriter Michael Syson is more straightforwardly adapted in this version, with the relentless pressure on Peggy like a time bomb waiting to go off in the audience as well in what is also an alternate take on Gaslight. The very ordinariness of the physical situation somehow makes it horribly plausible and Geeson’s torment is clarified in her impressively detailed performance. It’s a fantastic role for her but Collins doesn’t get enough to do (even as a trigger happy sculptress!) and never shares time with Cushing, her screen husband. There’s an excellent use of flashbacks and a wonderful plot twist. And there’s a shot of Cushing – when he’s shot! – that I’ll never forget. Never mind his arm, what about those spectacles … I’ll find Michael. And if he’s still alive I’ll kill him!

The Drowning Pool (1975)

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Swimming’s a good way to relax but I know a better way. LA based private detective Lew Harper is hired by old flame Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward), who is being blackmailed about an extra-marital affair she says never happened. He travels down to Louisiana to investigate, but things take a turn for the worse when her mother-in-law (Coral Browne) is killed and her nymphet daughter Schuyler (Melanie Griffith) appears to be involved with the family’s disreputable ex-chauffeur Reavis (Andrew Robinson) who Iris believes is responsible for the blackmailing … I ran a check on you, Mr. Harper. You are not stupid. Adapted by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Walter Hill and Lorenzo Semple Jr. from Ross Macdonald’s titular 1950 novel, this rather laidback followup to Newman’s previous outing as Lew Harper a decade earlier relocates him from his familiar California setting and the New Orleans and Lafayette backdrops provide an easy atmosphere for this most likable of PIs. Beyond the visual attractions of the bayous and plantation home shot by Gordon Willis, there’s the spectacle of real life husband and wife Newman and the marvellous Woodward sharing screen time, Griffith as the jailbait daughter with the squeaky voice, Murray Hamilton as crazed oil magnate J.J. Kilbourne, Anthony Franciosa as Police Chief Broussard and Richard Jaeckel gets some very good moments as a corrupt police officer. You’ll recognise Robinson as the shooter from Dirty Harry. Less deftly plotted than Harper, it’s rounded out with a score by Michael Small arranged around the liberal use of the modern classic, Killing Me Softly, an exceedingly apt choice considering the denouement. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Harper, you’re not such a tough guy

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?

Jeune et Jolie (2013)

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You have an adventure but ultimately you’re alone. Seventeen-year old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) decides to lose her virginity to Felix (Lucas Prisor) while on summer holiday. But she wants more sex and takes up a secret life as a prostitute, having encounters in hotels with older men, some more sordid and cruel than others. She meets elderly Georges (Johan Leysen) regularly but he dies during one bout and the police inform her mother (Géraldine Pailhas) about her underage daughter’s dangerous lifestyle …  She’s bad to the bone. This frank exploration of female sexuality by auteur François Ozon pulls its punches somewhat – being on the one hand an erotic drama; the other, a piquant coming of age story with an especially feminine twist albeit through the male gaze, until the tables turn. It lacks the acerbic wit of the mordant thrillers Ozon makes but there is a marvellous change in the bourgeois family dynamic when this beautiful girl asserts her female power. Who knows why a lovely girl would do this? Does she know herself? We are left with no clear idea but this boasts a kindness towards the protagonist, emblemised by the use of the poem No One’s Serious at Seventeen by Rimbaud and a soundtrack dominated by the songs of Françoise Hardy. The film ends on a mysterious smile worthy of the Mona Lisa herself. You know what they say – once a whore, always a whore

The Deadly Affair (1966)

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I’m a socialist capitalist.  MI6 agent Charles Dobbs (James Mason) is shocked to discover that a Foreign Office official Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) whom he knew has committed suicide following their meeting in a park after which Dobbs cleared him of charges that he was a Communist spy despite his past activities at Oxford as a student. Suspicious circumstances soon point to the death being a murder, and Dobbs investigates further, contacting the victim’s wife, Elsa Fennan (Simone Signoret), a Jewish survivor of a concentration camp. At home his Swedish wife Ann (Harriet Andersson) is carrying on another affair under his nose and this time he doesn’t want to know who it is because when he asked before about her arrangement with his work colleague  it wasn’t to his advantage. One afternoon he arrives to find Ann has a visitor: Dieter Frey (Maximilian Schell), whom he trained years ago and who is now selling chocolate for a firm in Zurich. Ann admits she’s sleeping with him. Despite pressures from senior officials to leave the case, Dobbs continues, hiring veteran cop Inspector Mendel (Harry Andrews) to dig deeper. But Dobbs is being followed and winds up being injured while Mendel is querying a lowlife garage proprietor Adam Scarr (Roy Kinnear) in a pub and now Dobbs is keen to land his prey which involves a trip to the theatre …  I’ve never held your appetites against you. The unaddicted shouldn’t blame the addicted. Adapted by Paul Dehn from John le Carré’s Call for the Dead, the character of Dobbs is actually George Smiley, altered for rights reasons. Sidney Lumet produced and directed this downbeat English-set thriller which is dedicated to procedure, detail and an incredible conflation of the personal and political told across two marriages, unwittingly linked.  Mason is remarkably affecting as Dobbs/Smiley. When his wife confesses the identity of her current lover the ever tolerant Dobbs says he loved him too so he understands completely. There’s a reservoir of hurt in that admission. When you see what he can do with a broken hand to the same man when the chips are down you understand the character’s power and drive. And also the anguish. Ann screams at him, How can you be so aggressive about your job and so gentle about me? Just who is he?!  This truly is the flipside to Mason’s Vandamm. It’s quite bizarre seeing Andersson as his feckless promiscuous wife, living up to everyone’s belief about Swedes, never mind Bergman heroines. Flemyng had played the director of MI5 in the previous year’s spy spoof The Spy With the Cold Nose and had a decent role as Rushington in The Quiller Memorandum the year before that Signoret is hard to watch – a solidified pudding of historical damage. There are recognisable backdrops shot by the gifted Freddie Young – not just the West End where the penultimate setpiece takes place at the Aldwych Theatre but in the bus trips and the docks and the ‘burbs and dull interiors barely enlivened by two-bar electric fires.  There’s a line about a clearly epicene MI5 boss Morton (Max Adrian, who is fabulously OTT) that lands rather too sharply nowadays if you get it: Marlene Dietrich but there’s fantastically good byplay between Dobbs and Mendel particularly when the latter refuses to stoop to an assumptioin and nods off whenever Dobbs talks hypotheticallyStrangely enough, this casting is a link with Mason because Adrian had a role in The Third Man TV series which Mason had turned down and he also had a role in Alfred Hitchcock Presents the same year Mason worked with the director on North By Northwest. You could say there’s a twist ending – as it transpires, and like a lot of le Carré, the entire plot is a twist and it’s unbelievably satisfying.  Lumet and Mason work so well together – the director knew just what Mason could give to this role as they had done three TV plays together in the US. Whatever you gave to him he would take it, assimilate it and then make it his own, Lumet said of the star who was in the ascendant again with this and Georgy Girl – whose breakout star Lynn Redgrave features here, as does her brother Corin.  The final scenes from Peter Hall’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Edward II starring David Warner are a great record of the theatre scene of the time not to mention excruciating to watch (the rectal insertion of a red hot poker:  do keep up) and an utterly drab variation on a Hitchcock thriller’s choreography yet yielding an equally desperate conclusion in the cheap seats. The amusingly intrusive bossa nova score is by Quincy Jones and the mournful theme song by Astrud Gilberto is utilised to cheeky effect in a scene between Mason and Andersson. This is Sixties spycraft at its finest.  It’s not a woman’s play

 

 

Comanche Station (1960)

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A man does one thing, one thing in his life he could look back on… go proud. That’s enough. Anyway, that’s what my pa used to say. When solitary cowboy Jefferson Cody (Randolph Scott) hears tales of a white woman living as a captive of the Comanche tribe, he rides deep into the tribe’s territory to exchange goods for her freedom. As Cody escorts the captive woman away, he learns that she is Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates), and that there is a sizable reward offered by her husband for her return. Cody and Mrs. Lowe must brave ruthless bounty hunters led by Ben Lane (Claude Akins) greedy for the reward, as well as the now-warring Comanches, to make it to safety but the reward for Mrs Lowe is ‘dead or alive’ … If they cut our track, it’s gonna put us between a rock and a hard place. The final collaboration between director Budd Boetticher with writer Burt Kennedy and star Scott, this has all the tropes of their previous work, including the marvellous setting of Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills in California. Scott is taciturn, the action is confined and taut, the mountainous locale expressive, the jeopardy well maintained and there’s a marvellous final twist in this particularly twisty tale about very different men who think they can change their lives if only one financial element is altered. The final film in the Ranown cycle. A lot of money has a way of making a man all greed inside

The Sting (1973)

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I don’t know enough about killin’ to kill him. In Depression-era Chicago following the murder of mutual friend Luther (Robert Earl Jones), smalltime grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) teams up with old pro Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to take revenge on the ruthless crime boss responsible, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) from whom Johnny unwittingly steals. Hooker and Gondorff set about implementing an elaborate scheme, one that involves a lot of other con artists and so crafty that Lonnegan won’t even know he’s been swindled. As their big con unfolds, however, things don’t go according to plan, requiring some last-minute improvisation by the undaunted duo… It’s not like playing winos in the street. You can’t outrun Lonnegan. This unofficial followup to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was huge in its day, just not in my house where I smelled the phoniness as a small child and have to admit despite several efforts over the years never made it through more than the first 25 minutes of this any time it was on TV – until today! So I finally broke my duck. This is gorgeously mounted and the relationship between Newman and Redford plays as well as you’d expect, with a lovely meet-cute – Newman’s face pressed against a wall, asleep, dead drunk. They’re still outlaws, of a sort. The twist is terrific, the long con well staged with lovely silent movie-style inter-titles and the occasional trope from the era for instance a polychromatic montage done to the famous Scott Joplin ragtime adapted by Marvin Hamlisch as The Entertainer, but, but…  I cannot shake what I felt as a child despite everything I know about the movies – it’s just – fake. I cannot take it remotely seriously (I blame Redford, don’t ask me why, I don’t know) despite the performances big and small with some terrific character work by Ray Winston, Charles Durning and Eileen Brennan. And Shaw is fantastic as the nasty crim. As ever! Directed by George Roy Hill, an alumnus of Trinity College Dublin where he trained as an actor with Cyril Cusack.  He would work again with both Redford and Newman, but separately – with the former in The Great Waldo Pepper and the latter in Slap Shot, a personal favourite of this movie maniac. Written by David S. Ward who did a follow up with a different cast. Ho. Hum. Sit down and shut up, will ya? Try not to live up to all my expectations

Arizona (1940)

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Did you ever see a man’s stomach tore open by a shotgun? Phoebe Titus (Jean Arthur) is the only woman in 1861 Tucson, Arizona and after falling for Peter Muncie (William Holden) who’s passing through, offers him a job in the freight company she’s just set up with Solomon Warner (Paul Harvey) the local storekeeper but he wants to see California and promises to return. Then charming southern dandy Jefferson Carteret (Warren William) shows up as the Civil War breaks out and coerces Phoebe’s main competitor Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall) into joining in with undermining her business while pretending to be her friend. He bribes local Indians to attack her wagon supply and meantime the Confederate troops secure local allegiance but are called away and Tucson is in trouble when Peter shows up with Union soldiers …  Gets on my dander how a doggone war interferes with the plans of people who want to mind their own business. Adapted by Claude Binyon (better known for romcoms and musicals) from the 1939 Clarence Budington Kelland novel, this was shot around the Sonoran Desert and takes a male genre and turns it into a battle of the sexes story with a distinct feminist twist. That makes sense when you have Arthur as the protagonist – with that can-do attitude and the gurgle of a voice, she’s perfectly cast and knew the territory after playing Calamity Jane in DeMille’s The Plainsman. Plus Binyon and director Wesley Ruggles had previously collaborated on a number of films presenting women in a great light, including the great screwball comedy True Confession (starring Carole Lombard) as well as the previous year’s collaboration with Arthur, Too Many Husbands, a version of the Enoch Arden story (by Somerset Maugham) trumped by My Favorite Wife at the box office. The personal touch abounds in this epic, the central asymmetrical romance with Holden (years younger than Arthur, who never looked her real age) matched by the villainy of William.  While we bide our time waiting for the sublime twist ending, played beautifully by Arthur, there’s lots of shoot ’em ups, murders, wartime action and a fantastically shot cattle rush. The film was made in blistering heat which added horribly to the discomfort and budget. Nonetheless it’s a great showcase for Arthur who revels in the situation and the witty lines gifted this pioneering frontier woman. She’s one tough cookie! The music by Victor Young is a series of  inventive orchestrations of and variations on Stephen Foster’s Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.  If this is what it’s like to be in love I’m glad I’m only going to love once

The Skeleton Key (2005)

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The thing folks just don’t understand about sacrifice… sometimes it’s more of a trade. Twentysomething Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson), a good-natured nurse living in New Orleans feels guilty about not being around for her father’s death while she was on the road working for rock bands. She quits her job as a carer at a hospice to work at a plantation mansion in the Terrebonne Parish for Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), an elderly woman whose husband, Ben (John Hurt), is in poor health following a stroke. When Caroline begins to explore the couple’s rundown house where Violet bans mirrors, she discovers strange artifacts in a locked room at the back of the attic and learns the house has a mysterious past to do with servants from the 1920s, Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott) and the practice of hoodoo. She realises that Violet is keeping a sinister secret about the cause of Ben’s illness and wants to get the old man out of there. When she appeals to their estate lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) for assistance she finds that he’s not quite what he seems to be …  It gets harder every time. They just don’t believe like they used to. Gotta get ’em all riled up. An immensely appealing excursion into folk horror that is as much about the history of Louisiana and race relations as it is a genre exercise (though it’s a fairly efficient suspense machine too). Beautifully staged and atmospherically sustained by that very stylish director Iain Softley, it’s written by Ehren Kruger, who burst on the scene with the surprising Arlington Road, another look at Americana (of the homebred terror group variety) who has spent his time since this either a) making a shedload of money or b) squandering his immense talent (take your pick – perhaps both?) making the Transformers films. Hudson is very good opposite screen great Rowlands while Hurt spends his time silenced by the stroke, emoting with his eyes and making a failed suicide attempt off a roof. That’s how badly he needs outta here. Gorgeous location shooting around New Orleans and Louisiana make this a feast for the eyes and the twist ending is very satisyfing, cherI don’t believe I don’t believe I don’t believe