Oh … Rosalinda!! (1955)

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Once the music is started we can’t talk.  You see the place will be crowded with foreigners. In 1955 Occupied Vienna, black-market dealer Dr. Falke aka The Bat/Die Fledermaus (Anton Walbrook) moves freely through the French, British, American and Russian sectors, dealing in champagne and caviar among the highest echelons of the allied powers. After a costume party, French Colonel Gabriel Eisenstein (Michael Redgrave) plays a practical joke on a drunken Falke, depositing him, asleep and dressed as a bat, in the lap of a patriotic Russian statue, to be discovered the following morning by irate Russian soldiers. Falke is nearly arrested until his friend party-giver General Orlofsky (Anthony Quayle) of the USSR intervenes. A vengeful Falke plans an elaborate practical joke on his friend, involving Orlofsky,  British Army major (Dennis Price), Eisenstein’s beautiful wife Rosalinda (Ludmilla Tchérina), her maid (Anneliese Rothenberger) and a masked ball where no one is what they seem. Complicating matters is American Captain Alfred Westerman (Mel Ferrer), an old flame of Rosalinda’s who is determined to take advantage of her husband’s absence and become her lover once again … Just watch how I get out of my own troubles. One of Powell and Pressburger’s odder productions which elicited little more than critical ire upon release (it was exhibited on a double bill with The Big Combo), it can now be seen as a deliriously eccentric and audacious comic account of the post-war occupied city of Vienna, through the updated lens of Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Strauss’ 1874 operetta, with new lyrics in English by Dennis Arundell. Densely coloured, beautifully designed by Hein Heckroth and performed with gusto by some of the best actors of the era representing the different occupying powers in their nationality and personification while a husband and wife renew their acquaintance in this romantic catch-chase quartet. Quayle is excellent but Walbrook is supreme as the kind of characterful ringmaster he had already essayed in Ophüls’ La Ronde, keen that the occupying powers swiftly depart.  With every component of this indulgent avant garde take on a genre type more or less moribund since the Thirties concluding in a gorgeous masked ball, it’s a beautiful resolutely studio-bound theatrical spectacle. Considered part of a loose trilogy from Powell and Pressburger along with The Red Shoes/Tales of Hoffman even if Redgrave winds up dancing more than prima ballerina Tchérina, at  one point introduced to her own husband as Olga Volga, a star from behind the Iron Curtain. Redgrave, Rothenberger and Quayle sing while all other cast members’ singing voices are dubbed. Look quickly for Arthur Mullard as a Russian guard and future director John Schlesinger in a Jeep. Come a bit closer. Is there anything I can do for you – or you – or you?

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

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I killed someone! I killed someone! Thirty-year old Audrey Stockton (Mila Kunis) is a drab woman living in LA who has just been dumped – by text! – by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux).  Best friend Morgan Freeman (Kate McKinnon) is trying to cheer her up on a night out. They vow to burn the shit he left behind in the apartment the women share. Drew calls her while he’s on a job – which involves killing people. He reappears and admits to Audrey that he’s CIA, it emerges he is a secret agent as bullets fall around them, and with his dying breath after being shot by a Ukrainian that Morgan picked up at the bar, he asks that Audrey go to Vienna to fulfill his mission and save countless lives. He gives her a Fantasy Football trophy and instructs her to meet someone called Verne at the Cafe Schiel in Vienna. The women have never been to Europe and when another secret agent, the dashing English Sebastian (Sam Heughan), gets involved it becomes less clear who the goodies and baddies really are. But the gals have been bitten by the spy bug, and are determined to save those countless lives all the same especially since it means travelling to Prague, Budapest, Paris and Berlin. Inadvertently they find they have skills that come in handy when they’re being tortured by deranged criminals. They are tagged by hitwoman/model/gymanst Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno) who’s umbilically attached to her balance beam and winds up looking like The Terminator … What can I say? I didn’t even know this existed before yesterday and I just saw one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a while. And that includes the slowest getaway in movie history (it’s a stick shift…)  followed by a brilliant car and bike chase that just might the wackiest since … Wacky Races. This starts with a chase in Lithuania and after dirty tricks in LA plays out in Eastern Europe before swiftly migrating to safer soil in France and Berlin – so we’re back in comfortable old Cold War territory. There’s a double-double cross with that suspect but super-handsome English agent and his co-worker Duffer (Hasan Minhaj) and some straight up objectifying adoration of their boss Wendy (Gillian Anderson) by hero-worshipping Morgan who realises she is ‘a little much’. Mother, did you get the two dick pics I sent you? This knows its spy tropes but it also knows female friendship and they’re a contrasting pair: McKinnon is the OTT over-sharing feminist actress (who’s trained in trapeze at the New Jersey Circus School!) to Kunis’ organic food store worker straight woman and she’s kinda great. She gets to act out in a zany way that wasn’t visible in the Ghostbusters retread and makes this work. The more honed script here lets her loose in a controlled and satisfying form that pays dramatic dividends – her action finale is fabulous. Kunis’ role suffers somewhat as a result of the climactic sequence but there’s a payoff in the credits (stay to watch them).  With Jane Curtin and Paul Reiser at the end of a phone to offer endless support to their needy daughter Morgan, an extraordinarily good ‘Edward Snowden’ scene (he had a thing for Morgan back in camp), this has comic chops, a lot of rude elements, actual toilet humour and some very dodgy songs on the soundtrack. It may be a spoof and follow in the big boots left by Melissa McCarthy in the hilarious Spy but it’s the most violent one I can recall and is like the souped-up Interrail trip you really wish you had taken the year you did Yerp. With, y’know, grenades and guns and thumbs and stuff. Completely daft and occasionally hilarious and never, ever dull! Written and directed by Susanna Fogel, with David Iserson on co-writing duties.  Oh my God, it’s a stick shift! Do you know how to drive a stick shift? / No!  / How do you change gear?  / What’s a gear? / Abort! Abort Mission! Go!

Red Sparrow (2018)

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The Cold War did not end, it merely shattered into a thousand pieces.  Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) faces a bleak and uncertain future after she suffers an injury to her leg that ends her performing career. Her uncle Vanya(!) (Matthias Schoenaerts) is deputy director of the SVR and has photos which incriminate her dance partner and rival at the Bolshoi and she inflicts terrible injuries on the pair of them, as he predicted.  He then makes her a deal and she becomes a witness to a state-sponsored killing and either has to die or do what he says.  She needs her sick mother (Joely Richardson) to be cared for. She is sent to Sparrow School, a secret intelligence service set up by Khrushchev, that trains exceptional young people to use their minds and bodies as weapons under the watchful eye of Matron (Charlotte Rampling). Egorova emerges as the most dangerous Sparrow after completing the sadistic training process which turns her into a prostitute for the State, with killer abilities. As she comes to terms with her new job, she encounters CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in Budapest and he tries to convince her that he is the only person she can trust as her mission threatens to undo the security of the US and Russian alike and she agrees to become an agent for the US – or does she? … As the world moves back to Cold War positions, this throwback to that era aims to be a tough sexy thriller but Jason Matthews’ novel adapted by Justin Haythe abounds with clichés which no amount of nudity (gratuitous or otherwise) convince us that this belongs with the great espionage films we all know and love. Long and violent, there are some amusing exchanges, particularly with Putin lookalike Schoenaerts such as when his niece hisses  You sent me to whore school! I thought all Russian women went, but there you go. There are twists upon twists and ultimately they play well, with Lawrence very good in a role which is truly abject and horrible in parts. This is a fast-moving travelogue with a conclusion that is planted well in advance and you don’t need to be a master in spycraft to figure it out. It’s not Graham Greene, but what are you going to do? Lawrence is reunited with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for this walk on the wild side and it looks splendid:  even the torture is shot prettily.

The Boys from Brazil (1978)

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Will I be plagued till my dying day by that infernal Jew? Keen young Nazi hunter Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) contacts the renowned Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) from South America with the startling news that Nazi war criminals are gathering in Paraguay under the aegis of Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck). As he phones him a recording of a meeting detailing a strange plan he is killed and Mengele realises someone knows something they shouldn’t…. In Vienna, Lieberman opens a packet of photos Barry sent him and tries to make sense of what he’s heard – why must 94 sixty-five year old male civil servants in several different countries be killed by a certain date? After speaking to Nazi guard Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen) in prison he finds out that several male babies were adopted in the Sixties by women who were 23 years younger than their husbands. After speaking with biologist Professor Bruckner (Bruno Ganz) he discovers that cloning is indeed possible and not necessarily from living donors:  Mengele has bred mini-Hitlers and is having them raised in conditions akin to those in which his glorious leader lived (his father was a civil servant who died before the boy was 15). Lieberman must stop the plot to rekindle the Fourth Reich. Ira Levin’s speculative fiction is probably closer to happening now than it was in the Seventies – since which time IVF, cloning and three-parent babies are a mere thought away from what Mengele was doing in his horrifying twins experiments in Auschwitz. So this is a lot less like science fiction than it is science fact. It plugs into the real-life work of Simon Wiesenthal (with Olivier perhaps atoning for his sins in Marathon Man!) when real-life Nazis were still relatively young and of course a huge number of high profile SS men were known to be living freely in sympathetic countries like Brazil and Argentina (never mind running Austria and Germany). It also uses the Lebensborn project as a basis for what is now entirely feasible – apparently. James Mason plays Eduard Seibert, the man who comes to rain on Mengele’s crazy rainforest parade but not before Mengele makes his way to Lancaster Pennsylvania to murder Wheelock (John Dehner) the father of the fourth cloned Hitler (Jeremy Black) a child who is as obnoxious and snotty as his copies in London and elsewhere but has a crucially murderous nature which Lieberman discovers after the boy sets the family’s Dobermans on Mengele. There is a fight to the death – but whose?  This is literally sensational and for connoisseurs of Nazi villains (in cinema) it’s bizarre to see the great liberal actor Peck have a go at Walter Gotell whom he thinks is betraying his plan for world domination. Didn’t they meet in The Guns of Navarone?! Bizarre also to see Bruno Ganz pontificating about clones when his own resemblance to Hitler meant he would play him years later in Downfall. Most bizarre is the fact that Mengele was still alive (for at least another year, possibly longer) when this was released. And for all we know all those Germans in South America (and Europe) have already got their fortysomething men waiting in the wings. Adapted by Heywood Gould and directed by Franklin Schaffner, this had 25 minutes cut for theatrical release in Germany. Poor things! When will everybody stop talking about the Third Reich already?! In the words of the great Dr Henry Jones Jr., Nazis, I hate these guys.

The Odessa File (1974)

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The faction novel by Frederick Forsyth has a special place in my heart because it was the first book I borrowed when I finally got a ticket to join the Adult section of my local public library after I turned 12. And it stunned me when I discovered that Forsyth was merely fictionalising in very approximate fashion the story of the Butcher of Riga, Eduard Roschman (Maximilian Schell) who is protected by the Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehoerigen (Former SS Members) in winter 1963. Journalist Peter Milller (Jon Voight) happens upon the story by simple expedient of pulling over in a Hamburg street to hear that President Kennedy has died and then literally chases an ambulance to an apartment building where an elderly Holocaust survivor has gassed himself. A policeman friend hands him the man’s diary and he uncovers the story behind the suicide of Salomon Tauber which contains one gleaming detail:  the murder by Roschmann at Riga port of a colleague who won a very rare German military medal. After meeting many unhelpful people in authority in a Germany still clearly run by the Nazis (there were 12 million of them after all, and they all just returned to civilian life and kept their pensions) he goes to Vienna where he visits Simon Wiesenthal who tells him about the ODESSA. He is beaten up, his dancer girlfriend (Mary Tamm) is threatened by some ex-Nazis and then ‘befriended’ by a policewoman when Miller goes off grid. He’s kidnapped by Mossad agents who want to know who he is and why he’s after Roschmann, supposedly dead almost two decades ago.  Then he dons a disguise … There are a few alterations to the source by Kenneth Ross and George (The Prisoner) Markstein and this is a fairly conventional procedural but still satisfying considering the strength of the subject matter (a topic plundered years later by novelist Sam Bourne aka Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland.) Voight is very good in what could be a difficult part and he gets a superb twist ending – when we learn the deeply personal reason for his search in addition to the quest for a great story. In a nice touch Maria Schell plays Voight’s mother, making this the only time she and Maximilian acted in the same film. The lovely Mary Tamm would later become a notable assistant to BBC’s Doctor Who and would have a good role as Blanche Ingram in TV’s Jane Eyre opposite Timothy Dalton. She died too soon.  There is an interesting score by Andrew Lloyd Webber (you’ll recognise phrases which would appear in the forthcoming musical Evita) with a special mention for Perry Como’s rendition of Christmas Dream and some superb cinematography by the great Oswald Morris and scene-setting by production designer Rolf Zehetbauer in this Anglo-German production – which might just account for the somewhat cleaned-up account of post-war Nazism. As it’s directed by multi-hyphenate Ronald Neame you wouldn’t expect anything less than a great-looking movie.  In another pleasing twist to the narrative, this prompted the tracking down of the real Roschmann to South America. But you’ll have to consult the history books to find out what happened next …

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

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Frederick Forsyth was my gateway drug to faction:  novels based more or less truly on historical incident. You could trust him because he had a long history as a respected and conscientious journalist. And what a way with plot! This story of a 1960s assassination attempt on the despised French President Charles de Gaulle by disgruntled members of the exiled OAS (the militant underground) would seem to have nothing much going for it on the surface:  the outcome, for one. But the trick here is brilliant.  These patriots hire a British hitman (Edward Fox) who is completely unknown to the authorities. And as he gathers the materiel required for such an audacious once-in-a-lifetime évènement and removes all the human obstacles in his path, we realise, at the foregone but nail-biting conclusion, that we know absolutely nothing about him at all.  This is narrative sleight of hand at its best. And it is crucial to the tension that the ruthless professional Jackal remains a complete enigma, a mystery at the heart of a brilliantly staged action thriller with a great supporting cast. His nemesis proves to be a Parisian police detective (Michael Lonsdale) determined to root out this threat to democracy.  Adapted by Scottish-American screenwriter Kenneth Ross who would perform the same miracle with The Odessa File. Gripping outing by director Fred Zinnemann who meshes his predilection for documentary-style realism with all the tricks of a cinema of attractions. Flawlessly executed.

The Third Man (1949)

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Western pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in post-WW2 Vienna at the invitation of old schoolfriend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to find that he is just in time for his funeral. British military intelligence in the form of Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) makes his acquaintance while Holly believes there was a third man present at Harry’s mysterious death and he finds himself falling for Harry’s lover Anna (Alida Valli). There are some films whose imagery is practically enamelled in one’s brain and this is one of them, regularly voted the greatest British film ever (despite the crucial involvement of David O. Selznick) with its unforgettable score, the shimmering rain-slicked streets, the chase through the sewers, the treacherous manchild, the funeral, the theatre, the appalling talk at the British Council, the cuckoo clock speech, the Prater … A combination of spy thriller, spiv drama, film noir, character study, western, romance, this was an unusually brilliant collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, whose friend Kim Philby was a source of much of the story. And this is ultimately a film about stories and storytelling. But nothing can explain this film’s legend – not even Orson Welles’ tall tales – it must be seen to feel that tangible atmosphere, those shadows, the light at the end of the tunnel, those canted angles, that amazing sense of place. My book on its complex origins, production and afterlife in radio and TV is published today on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Trouble-Harry-Third-Man-ebook/dp/B072BTQN48/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1494840986&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon.

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Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

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Stupid teenage girl has a one-night stand with a musician, has his bastard and years later when she approaches him after a concert to tell him their offspring is dying of typhus he doesn’t remember her. No, this is not the sorry tale of some dumb narcissistic rock groupie but a startling adaptation of a novella by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. Lisa writes Stefan a letter following their disastrous ‘reunion’ which he receives on his way to a duel and finally he remembers her from all those years ago. The duel is against Lisa’s husband following her death. He finally remembers the times that they met. Howard Koch’s screenplay manages to elicit an extraordinary response from the viewer, gifted with a most touching performance from Joan Fontaine playing opposite that cad, Louis Jourdan. There is a significant change from the novella, and that’s why this is so emotional. The way turn of the century Vienna is evoked in this one-sided romance is quite unforgettable and the direction by Max Ophuls, who had a talent for making wonderful films about women, is simply classic. A beautiful combination of filmmaking talents. One of the most moving films you will ever see.

The Night Porter (1974)

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We’ve all had our trials. Now we are cured and live in peace with ourselves. The infamous S&M movie about a Nazi (Dirk Bogarde) who posed as a doctor in a concentration camp to take salacious photographs and the young inmate (Charlotte Rampling) with whom he developed a kinky relationship:  they meet by chance in a hotel in Vienna 12 years after the war has ended. He is about to go into a mock trial with his fellow abusers and they find out that the girl, now the wife of a conductor, could be a witness. He and the girl resume their relationship … Max is more than just the past. And therein lieth the knotty problem. We know about the Nazis in our midst, they continue to holiday around Europe in a self-congratulatory orgy  in destinations such as Alicante and Portofino annually, according to Jonathan Freedland. And we found out in the 70s how they organised, thanks to Frederick Forsyth. And there are a fair few of them and their descendants in Argentina, Brazil and Chile. We are loath to admit it, but we also know that they were reabsorbed into German life post-WW2 and the only people who lost their State pensions were anti-Nazis in a regime funded by American money (so much for nation re-building). We also know that Hitler’s backup plan – the Fourth Reich, as it were – was a European economic union governed by Germany. That’s the revolting European reality:  tell that to PIGS. We rest your case. So why does this explicit linking of pornography, violence and Nazism exert such a negative critical energy? Precisely because it is personalised. It is given a name, or rather, two: Max and Lucia. And like it or not, howsoever it was forged, they love each other. Yes, it’s sick. But in that sickness is revealed a truth about human survival. It is also indicative of a truth about every relationship – it’s about power. And control. Director and writer Liliana Cavani took a lot of heat for this but she remains a notable filmmaker and this is a testament to bravery, if nothing else. And Bogarde is fantastic in a deeply troubling role. Rampling was so young and beautiful – she does everything she can. And they must have trusted each other greatly to shoot those scenes together. Screenplay by Cavani & Italo Moscati, with collaboration by Barbara Alberti & Amedeo Pagani from a story by Cavani, Alberto & Pagani. That’s why you’re here, fishing up the past