Laura (1944)

Laura

I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom. Manhattan Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder by shotgun blast to the face of beautiful Madison Avenue advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) in her fashionable apartment. On the trail of her murderer, McPherson quizzes Laura’s arrogant best friend, acerbic gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) who mentored the quick, ambitious study; and her comparatively mild but slimy fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), the kept man of her chilly society hostess aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). As McPherson grows obsessed with the case, he finds himself falling in love with the dead woman, just like every other man who ever met her when suddenly, she reappears, and he finds himself investigating a very different kind of murder... I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes.  A rough around the edges cop falls in love with a dead woman who isn’t dead at all. What a premise! Vera Caspary’s novel (initially a play called Ring Twice for Laura) is the framework for one of the great Hollywood productions that started out under director Rouben Mamoulian who was fired and replaced by the producer, Otto Preminger. The screenplay is credited to Jay Dratler and Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt while Ring Lardner Jr. made uncredited contributions. I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor’s children devoured by wolves. The haunting musical theme complements the throbbing sexual obsession that drives the narrative, a study of mistaken identity on every level with a sort of necrophiliac undertaste. It’s a great showcase for the principals – Webb as the magnificently scathing epicene Lydecker (a part greatly expanded from the source material);  Tierney in the role that would become her trademark, a woman who couldn’t possibly live up to her reputation;  and Andrews, who would collaborate many times with his director as the schlub who refers to women as ‘dames’.  Few films boast this kind of dialogue, and so much of it: I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm. So many scenes stand out – not least McPherson’s first encounter with Lydecker, resplendent in his bathtub, typing out his latest delicious takedown; and, when McPherson wakes up to find Laura’s portrait has come to life, as in a dream. In case you’re wondering, in a film that should have a warning about exchanges as sharp as carving knives, this is where Inspector Clouseau got his most famous line: I suspect nobody and everybody. The portrait at the centre of the story is an enlarged photo of Tierney enhanced by oils; while the theme by David Raksin (composed over a weekend with the threat of being fired by Twentieth Century Fox otherwise) quickly became a standard and with lyrics by Johnny Mercer a hit song by everyone who recorded it. The cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is good enough to eat. A film for the ages that seethes with sexuality of all kinds. Simply sublime. You’d better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll finish up in a psychiatric ward. I doubt they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

Love is a Many Splendored Thing

Our gorgeous lie did not even last the night. Hong Kong 1949. American journalist Mark Elliott (William Holden) is covering the Chinese civil war. Undergoing a trial separation from his wife, he meets beautiful Dr. Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones), a widowed Eurasian physician originally from mainland China. As the pair fall in love, they encounter disapproval from both her family, his friends and Hong Kong society about their interracial romance … I have my work and an uncomplicated life. I don’t want to feel anything again… ever. This outrageously beautiful melodrama lingers long in the memory for its Widescreen Deluxe images, shot by the great Leon Shamroy, including two weeks on location in its Hong Kong setting; and its cast. Adapted by John Patrick from Suyin’s 1952 autobiographical novel it’s a pulsatingly lush romance, played to the hilt and given gravitas with its issues of race against a background of the war in China leading to a takeover by the Communist Party. The subject matter meant there was trouble getting it off the ground in those censorious days. The production was no less troubled, with the stars eventually coming to loathe each other. None of that matters because the performances sing in a carefully dramatised story that boasts some of the most romantic scenes in either of their careers. All those love letters, kissing on hilltops, swimming … it’s a spectacular and vivid epic, sad and tender. And was there ever a more impressive hunk of sexy mid-century masculinity than Holden?! There is a strong supporting cast including Torin Thatcher, Murray Matheson and Isobel Elsom, rounding out a snapshot of colonial life in those post-WW2 days. Ornamenting the gorgeous score by Alfred Newman is the title song by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, one of the great movie themes, and it’s sung by The Four Aces. It was an enormous hit, just like the film.  Patrick would write another Hong Kong-set romance starring Holden, The World of Suzie Wong. Directed by Henry King, who had a knack for making beautiful films, with second unit location work by Otto Lang, who is uncredited. Love is nature’s way of giving a reason to be living, The golden crown that makes a man a king

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

Radio Days (1987)

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Who is Pearl Harbour? Narrator Joe (Woody Allen) tells the story of two burglars in his childhood neighbourhood of Rockaway Beach, NY, who get caught when they answer the phone to participate in a live radio competition back in the medium’s golden age. The songs trigger childhood memories and we are taken back to his life as a child as Young Joe (Seth Green) immediately prior to and during World War 2 where his mother (Julie Kavner) served breakfast listening to Breakfast With Irene and Roger and his father Martin (Michael Tucker) keeps his occupation a secret from the family until Joe finds out he’s a taxi driver when he hails a cab.  Joe’s favourite show is The Masked Avenger so he has a healthy fantasy life but when he spots a Nazi submarine on the shoreline he fails to alert anyone because he thinks they won’t believe him. Unmarried Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) lives with them and is constantly going out with losers. Joe has heard stories about radio stars and we learn about Sally White (Mia Farrow) a hatcheck girl with acting dreams and a bad accent who sleeps with big names including Roger to get ahead but always gets left behind until she gets her big break when she witnesses a murder … He’s a ventriloquist on the radio! How can you tell he’s not moving his lips? As any fule kno, Rockaway Beach is one of the most inspiring spots in New York. Winning, winsome and witty, this series of vignettes is stitched together with what can only be described as love with nods to famous radio stories including Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, here interrupting a fogbound assignation. One of the funniest tales involves a sportscaster prone to melodrama regaling his audience with the story of a blind one-legged baseball star. Farrow and Wiest get two of the best character arcs, the former’s Singin’ in the Rain-ish storyline turning her from squeaky-voiced trampy wannabe actress to Louella Parsons-type gossip columnist via a run-in with a sympathetic mob hitman Rocco (Danny Aiello) from the old ‘hood; while the latter is terminally disappointed in love including a necessarily brief romance with a white-suited Tom Wolfe lookalike bemoaning the loss of his fiancée who turns out to have been a man called Leonard. Music and songs churn and curdle the endless embarrassment and kind hearted acts as friends, family and neighbours get on with their daily lives when war breaks out. Memories of Annie Hall abound in the voyeuristic kids whose new teacher Miss Gordon (Sydney Blake) turns out to be the exhibitionist they’ve been watching surreptitiously when they were out spotting German aircraft. Brimful of nostalgia and told with fond humour, this concludes on a bittersweet note as these little lives filled with crazy incidents and relatable attitudes acknowledge that they exist vicariously through what is the soundtrack of their lives, driven by the music of all the era’s greats with everyone from Artie Shaw to Duke Ellington and Xavier Cugat featured in the world of this kaleidoscopic narrative, like a lovingly reproduced living postcard. A beautiful, intensely funny and deeply affectionate work of art. I wonder if future generations will ever even hear about us

Le Mans ’66 (2019)

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Aka Ford V Ferrari. You’re gonna build a car to beat Ferrari with… a Ford. American automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and fearless British race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary vehicle for the Ford Motor Company under the guidance of Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) taking orders from Henry Ford 2 aka The Deuce (Tracy Letts) in a fit of pique when Ferrari use Ford to up a bid from Fiat to in a corporate buyout. Together, the maverick drivers plan to compete against the race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966 but Miles’ difficult reputation as a ‘pure racer’ is not what the traditional carmaker wants … Suppose Henry Ford II wanted to build the greatest race car the world’s ever seen, to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. What’s it take? The US title is somewhat misleading because this is much more about Ford and its internal politics, business model and sales than it is about the legendary red cars – but for all that, it’s Enzo Ferrari that gives Miles the approving nod at the film’s conclusion when the appalling politicking engineered by Ford exec Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) creates a result that literally nobody wants. Damon is an almost good ol’ boy, camped out half cut in his trailer, Miles is the happy go lucky Brit with an understanding wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and a dazzled son Petey (Noah Jupe) and his accent zips along up and down the M1 between Ringo Starr and Ozzy Osbourne and back again while he Method-fidgets his way through his appealing character. Damon is the reactive agent to his stinging chemistry, the peacemaker to his troubling perfectionist, the admiring and trusting innovator to his speed demon. This is a stunningly beautiful film, shot by Phedon Papamichael in burnished yellows and oranges allowing the vintage metals and icons to shine. The supporting cast is superlative, doing exactly what is required when sometimes only a mere hint of a glance speaks a thousand words and the moment 96 minutes in when Henry Ford 2 finally gets to ride in his $9 million racing car and express everything the film is about is worth the price of admission:  he has never felt anything like it and he gets it. Because this film is all about feeling. What it’s like to drive when a car is at 7000 RPM. What it’s like to barely be able to see in the horizontal rain, when another car collides with you, when dust fills the screen, when someone hits a barrier in front of you, when the brakes fail, when the bloody door won’t shut. It’s a Zen state that the film revisits, over and over, until finally a body doesn’t get out. There’s a lot of funny dialogue, good scenes in the garage, brilliant ideas about replacing whole braking systems mid-race, immaculate recreations of Daytona and the titular competition, some telling remarks about WW2 – Miles got a broken down tank over the Channel and all the way to Berlin and does not want to drive for Porsche.  It’s also about friendship and trust and betrayal and fathers and sons. And the coda is superb. Someone turns on a car engine and the revs increase and he can feel again. There has rarely been a film to so directly express the chemical practically mystical connection between man and machine and the sense of infinite well-being it induces. Quite literally sensational. Written by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, this is directed by James Mangold.   It isn’t about speed

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

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Aka Die Ehe der Maria Braun. I don’t know a thing about business. But I do know what German women want. You might even say I’m an expert on it. Near the end of World War II, Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch), who is immediately sent off to battle at the Russian front before the marriage can be consummated. When the war concludes, Maria believes that Hermann is dead. The new widow tries to make a go of life on her own and she starts working at an Allied bar, where she meets black American GI Bill (George Byrd). They start a relationship that is interrupted when Hermann returns unexpectedlyyy. During a scuffle between the men, in the heat of the moment Maria accidentally kills Bill. Hermann takes the blame and goes to jail, while Maria begins a hard new life and builds an empire of her own … He kept me warm on those cold nights after the war. Practically a German take on Mildred Pierce with the miraculous Schygulla giving Joan Crawford a run for her money (Fassbinder had intended the role for Romy Schneider) in the post-war noir-ish businesswoman stakes, this is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fiercely sardonic take on marriage and money set in a new kind of Germany with a nod to Brecht. Life for women involves transactional sex which is justified as the ultimate practicality: I don’t care what people think. I do care what you think. And you’re not having an affair with me. I’m having an affair with you. The entire text bleeds fascism – how politics is funneled through culture to create a political landscape, whether we like it or not, infecting everyone who inhabits it.  This is the first of Fassbinder’s three Wirtschaftswunder films and is a key work of the New German Cinema with an ending that literally detonates before your eyes. Eva describes herself as the Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle and this dissects desire in all its forms. The screenplay is by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Mörthesheimer who also wrote the dialogue with director Fassbinder, based on his outline (and he plays a small role in the drama).  It’s a perfect blend of subject matter, realisation and performance, graced with stunning cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. Reality lags behind my consciousness

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

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Aka Island of the Burning Damned/Island of the Burning Doomed. We must avoid injecting fear into an already dangerous situation. Novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson) run a pub called The Swan on the island of Fara, on the English coast.  Jeff hires former lover Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow) as his secretary and she arrives in the middle of an unseasonal and stifling heatwave – it’s winter, yet unusual things are occurring with cars stalling and TVs blowing up and sheep are dying inexplicably. Scientist Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee) arrives and rents a room at The Swan, setting up motion sensor cameras and taking soil samples and Jeff confronts him about what might really be happening and discovers that extra-terrestrials are in their midst so it’s time to get local doctor Vernon Stone (Peter Cushing to lend assistance as the temperatures rise and everyone seems to be losing their mind and what on earth is down in the gravel pit? … If the heat goes on like this it could very likely drive us insane!  Adapted by Ronald Liles from John Lymington’s novel, this had previously been adapted for broadcast by ITV in their Play of the Week slot in 1960 and Doctor Who husband and wife screenwriting team Pip and Jane Baker were hired to do this rewrite. This Hammer Films iteration has the key players in the studio and is all the better for it: that alien protoplasm ain’t got nothing on these guys, living in a pressure cooker of sex and fear. It’s nice to see Patrick Allen – that terrifying voice that so dominates my childhood memories is actually quite the thesp:  hark at him explain to his wife what the deal is with the smouldering minx Angela:  I wanted her! I wanted her body! It was completely physical, I promise you! while Lee is his usual earnest self as the de rigeur scientist, completely rational for a change, with Cushing, as ever, battling evil.  Merrow is marvellous as the vamp, going crazy, like everyone, in the sweltering heat. Satisfying sci fi very well handled by Terence Fisher. He’s a peculiar chap – but he’s got guts

 

Deadline USA (1952)

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A journalist makes himself the hero of the story. A reporter is only a witness. New York City newspaper The Day is in money trouble. Even though editor Ed Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart) has worked hard running the paper, its circulation has been steadily declining. Now the widow (Ethel Barrymore) of the paper’s publisher wants to sell the paper to a commercial rival, which will most likely mean its end. Hutcheson also worries that his estranged ex-wife Nora (Kim Hunter) is about to remarry. His only hope of saving the paper is to increase the numbers by finishing his exposé on a dangerous racketeer Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel) before the sale is made final after a reporter is badly beaten up investigating the murder of a girl called Bessie Schmidt who may have been Rienzi’s mistress while her brother Herman (Joe De Santis) had dealings with him... Stupidity isn’t hereditary, you acquire it by yourself. Twentieth Century-Fox and writer/director Richard Brooks were a good fit:  a studio that liked pacy stories paired with a filmmaker whose toughness had a literary quality and a fast-moving narrative style.  Both parties wanted message movies and the message here is A free press, like a free life, sir, is always in danger. The newspaper is broadly based on New York Sun which closed in 1950 (and it was edited by Benjamin Day) although according to Brooks’ biography it was more or less based on New York World which closed in 1931. The casting is great with Bogart excellent as the relentlessly crusading editor who acts on his principles while all about him tumble to influence and threats, trying to peddle the truth rather than the expeditious. Barrymore towers in her supporting role as the publisher and their conflict with her daughters is the ballast to the crime story, with the marital scenario giving it emotional heft. Jim Backus does some nice work as reporter Jim Cleary:  For this a fellow could catch a hole in the head. A cool piece of work, in every sense of the term. Watch for an uncredited James Dean as a copyboy in a busy montage. That’s the press, baby. The press! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

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I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400

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