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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Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Dumbo (2019)

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You should listen to your kids more. Struggling travelling circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists a former equestrian star, WW1 amputee Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and son Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for Dumbo, a baby elephant born with oversized ears to Mrs Jumbo. When the family discovers that the animal can fly, it soon becomes the main attraction — bringing in huge audiences and revitalizing the run-down circus. His mother is separated from him leaving him distraught then his magical ability draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life entertainment venture Dreamland where he intends his spirited  Parisian trapeze artiste Colette Marchant (Eva Green) will use the little fellow in her act…  You have something very rare. You have wonder. You have mystique. You have magic. In this latest pointless live-action remake of Disney’s brilliant animated features, Ehren Kruger’s screenplay (welcome back to the big leagues) has to tread a fine line between the exigencies of the House of Mouse with its unadulterated classic sentiment and the Gothic flourishes and flawed excesses of director Tim Burton who reassembles some of his usual actors (DeVito, Green, Keaton) alongside Disney’s latest humanoid fave, Farrell. Dumbo is the greatest animation ever made and a personal favourite, an utterly beguiling story of grave majesty and emotionality. This is never going to reach those heights no matter how many high wire acts, freakshows and armless motherless humans are dramatised as reactive tropes, how many of the circus’ darkest inclinations are exhibited, how many cartoon baddies (with Afrikaaner accents) are on standby, how good Keaton (as the anti-Walt Disney!) and DeVito are, how sweet the family message. The Art Deco interiors and production design are splendid, there is real jeopardy and the CGI elephants are beautiful, but you don’t need elephants to save your blank-eyed expressionless soul (Parker has no acting ability whatsoever) which is this film’s message. It expands on the original adaptation of Helen Alberson’s book and it’s not the anticipated travesty that  the horrific Alice in Wonderland was for the same auteur pairing but that’s not saying much.  If you really want to do something for the plight of their species stop all those vile African natives and American trophy hunters from brutally killing them and ensuring their imminent extinction. Back to the drawing board. Fly, Dumbo … fly

 

The Lost City of Z (2016)

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You’re a long way from Government now. At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is encouraged by his superiors to redeem his family name following his father’s dissolute actions, ruining the Fawcett reputation.  Although married to the supportive Nina (Sienna Miller) with a young son and one on the way, he journeys across the Atlantic to South America to carry out a survey of the Amazon in order to help adjudicate borders and to establish national territories.  On board the ship he encounters Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson)  a man who knows the rainforest. He joins the party which includes aide-de-camp Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and they go into the Amazon, where they experience the surreal pleasures of an opera in the middle of the jungle and discover evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation that may have once inhabited the region, triggered by stories told them by their guide. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment back in London when he reports his findings, which contradicts their bias against indigenous populations as savages, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, Costin and Manley, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. After another set of discoveries he is challenged by biologist James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) who falsely claims they left him for dead so Fawcett leaves the Royal Geographical Society. He is injured on the Somme when he fights in WW1 but in 1925 when his son Jack (Tom Holland) grows up he wants to help his father pursue his obsession and find the City of Z that Nina found out about in a conquistador text at Trinity College Dublin... To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? It comes off a little like Fawcett of Amazonia at first but then this James Gray film establishes its own insistent rhythm with a hallucinatory bent that comes first from obsession and then with repetition. Indeed one is forced into a world recognisably that of David Lean but also Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (quite literally, at the opera) and perhaps Conrad. However the difference is in the doggedness and the feminine element – here Nina plays a crucial part in Percy’s evolving obsession when the document she finds fuels the fire in his belly and ironically leads to increased separation. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, this has some of the usual flaws besetting Gray’s films – a kind of muted incompleteness or psychological lack and a physical darkness – but the facts of the story, the deadly nature of the pursuit and the fascinating history compensate and it has a decent pace. Hunnam grows into the role as the story progresses, caring about slavery and native peoples and expressing proper awe at the sight of sculptures and ancient artefacts; and Miller is fine as the proto-feminist who reads from the letter she wrote when she thought she wouldn’t survive childbirth:  as she tells her husband, “You haven’t even seen it for two minutes,” when he protests the jungle is no place for a woman and takes off yet again leaving her pregnant. It’s an admirable corrective to the standard male-oriented expedition narratives, with an amazing coda. In the end, this is actually spellbinding. There is great irony deployed: Fawcett meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Ireland and years later in South America he sees the story about his assassination and is told it will trigger a great war:  his escape across the Atlantic was precisely to avoid conflict and now he is going to be catapulted back into something quite dreadful.  He has a wonderful wife and happy domestic life yet he is truly at home in an utterly alien environment where the natives happily shoot poison arrows. He goes back, again and again, despite ridicule and disputes. He has a higher aim and it becomes something verging on mystical. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and score by Christopher Spelman are quite wondrous at times. Executive produced by Brad Pitt. There is no going back. We are already here

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

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Do you remember, Clive, we used to say: ‘Our army is fighting for our homes, our women, and our children’? General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), who’s overseeing an English squad of the Home Guard in 1943, is a veteran leader who doesn’t have the respect of the men he’s training and is considered an old duffer who’s out of touch with what’s needed to win the war. But it wasn’t always this way. Flashing back to his early career in the Boer War and World War I, we see a dashing young officer whose life has been shaped by three different women (all played by Deborah Kerr), and by a lasting friendship with German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) as he rises through the ranks of the British Army but now uncomfortable with the modern concept of ‘total war’… In Germany, the gangsters finally succeeded in putting the honest citizens in jail. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s portrait of a lovable man at sea with contemporary combat was incredibly contentious, disliked by Churchill, and cut to pieces so that it’s very rare to see it as it was intended by the talented pair whose satirical but sympathetic bent is at full tilt over 163 minutes with Livesey giving the performance of his career, ageing and irascible, but once a dashing young blade with the world at his feet. The character was created by David Low in his comic strip but Powell and Pressburger claimed this narrative grew out of a scene dropped from their previous film One of Our Aircraft is Missing and editor David Lean said it would be a good idea for a film. Beautifully shot, designed and told, with Kerr impressive (and credited for her three separate if complementary roles) as iterations of the ideal woman. The unlikely friendship between two honorable military men even as their countries are at war is distinctive and moving, commencing with a duel and then years later, when Theo seeks asylum from the Nazis he appeals to his friend, now a high-ranking officer in England. Possibly Powell and Pressburger’s greatest work, certainly their most ambitious, etched in compassion. Restored by Martin Scorsese and Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. Clive, my English is not very much but my friendship for you is very much

The Light Between Oceans (2016)

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You only have to forgive once. Shellshocked WW1 vet Tom (Michael Fassbender) gets a job as lighthouse keeper off the coast of Australia. On the mainland, he encounters the lively Isabel (Alicia Vikander) who proposes to him. She’s desperate to have a baby but suffers two brutal miscarriages which affect her state of mind. Her prayers for motherhood are finally answered when an infant girl washes up on shore in a rowboat with a dead man inside. Tom thinks they should notify the authorities but ultimately gives in to Isabel’s wish to keep the girl. Fate strikes when Tom sees Gwen (Rachel Weisz) on the mainland at her husband and baby’s grave when they bring the little girl Lucy to be baptised. Three years later they meet again and Tom makes a decision that will upend the family they have made with another woman’s child and Isabel takes revenge …Adapted by Derek Cianfrance from the novel by M.L. Stedman, this looks very pretty indeed. It is however a dangerously nutty maternal melodrama that proves what we have always known – women with children suffer from a very specific derangement and women who lose them are crazed, as the parallel actions of the very different mothers prove – because when Gwen decides Tom isn’t guilty of her husband’s murder she will hand back Lucy (or Grace, as she was originally christened) to the woman whom Lucy truly loves – as long as Tom goes to the gallows for a non-existent crime. Isabel was intent on punishing him for losing the child she persuaded him to steal. Has she gone too far? Do you think?! So we are pulled to the brink of madness and then – and then … Like a toddler pulling on your little finger, you’ll be tugged into this bizarre story that is performed with alarming conviction by all concerned. Thank goodness Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown are at hand to push things back, just a tad. Everyone looks like they’re straight from the pages of a Boden catalogue. Know that you have always been beloved

The Rake’s Progress (1945)

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Aka The Notorious Gentleman. The private life of a magnificent heel…who brought out the woman in women! Posh boy Vivian Kenway (Rex Harrison) is sent down from Oxford after putting a chamberpot on a beloved statue. He is known as a cad, a playboy and a scoundrel. Seducing his best friend’s wife Jill Duncan (Jean Kent) and his father’s (Godfrey Tearle) secretary Jennifer Calthorp (Margaret Johnston) before ultimately marrying for money may be considered reprehensible and foolish. But when his questionable behaviour results in his serving in the Army during World War II, his actions and decisions just might lead him to redemption after being challenged by his conscience … Eton’s no joking matter old cock. Half the war cabinet came from there.  Zippy, funny and snide, its conclusion may be affected by the recent days of war, but this is a superb entertainment mostly set between 1931-1938, with a raft of comments about class, conduct and notions of masculinity. Harrison is ideally cast in a screenplay written by director Sidney Gilliat with his usual partner Frank Launder and Val Valentine. Harrison’s wife at the time, Lili Palmer, appears in the supporting cast. There’s a wonderful score by William Alwyn. Fast and rather furious about a lot of things.  It’s just that you’re the last straw that’s all. I’m sick and tired of teaching their jobs to gilded youths backed by influence and class privilege, and then watching them end up with better positions than my own

Nurse Edith Cavell (1939)

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How can we stop? British nurse Edith Cavell (Anna Neagle) is stationed at a private hospital in Brussels during World War I. When the son of a former patient escapes from a German prisoner-of-war camp, she helps him escape to Holland. Outraged at the number of soldiers detained in the camps, Edith, along with a group of sympathisers, devises a plan to help the prisoners escape, assisting hundreds of men. As the group works to free the soldiers, Edith must keep her activities secret from the Germans but the investigation closes in… The law which is good enough for Germans is good enough for these people.  Adapted by Michael Hogan from Dawn by Reginald Berkeley, this is straightforwardly filmed but no less affecting for that. The true story of a nurse tried by secret German military tribunal, refused legal counsel and condemned to death on the word of a child is another instance of German treachery in wartime. A key film in the career of Anna Neagle, she is directed here by future husband Herbert Wilcox (who had previously directed a version of this starring Sybil Thorndike) alongside George Sanders as Captain Heinrichs, Edna May Oliver as local noblewoman Madame Rappard and Zasu Pitts as Madame Moulin.  An impressive production, nicely photographed by Freddie Young. I have seen death so often it is no longer strange or fearful to me

Fame is the Spur (1947)

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Did God ordain it, this contrast between sweat and ease, between want and luxury, or is it the product of man’s will, of greed of selfishness?  In the late nineteenth century in the English North Country, young Hamer Radshaw (Michael Redgrave) commits to help the poverty stricken workers in his area.  He takes as his Excalibur a sword passed down to him by his grandfather from the Battle of Peterloo, where it had been used against workers. As an idealistic champion of the oppressed, he rises to power as a Labour MP but is seduced by the trappings of power and finds himself the type of politician he originally despised, his liberal leanings compromised as he becomes more and more conservative to his wife Ann’s (Rosamund John) disgust … Nigel Balchin adapted Howard Spring’s 1940 novel and it’s superbly directed by Roy Boulting (and produced by his brother John), a vivid depiction of a politician who rises from poverty through sponsorship to become one of Britain’s leaders up to and after World War One. It’s widely assumed to be a take on Ramsay Macdonald and Redgrave inhabits him wonderfully, but he is matched all the way by Rosamund John, who goes to prison for her suffragist beliefs.  Her hunger strike triggers her early death, leaving her corrupted husband to bemoan his choices and the deviation from his original spur to action. A bristling, busy story that must have had huge resonance for post-WW2 British audiences:  the violence used by the police against protesters still has the power to shock. There are wonderful stylistic flourishes and transitions that make this a lesson in visual storytelling. Quite the surprise package, leaving an indelible impression. Even among a very impressive cast that includes Carla Lehmann (in her final screen performance), Bernard Miles and Hugh Burden, Redgrave is simply rivetting as the principled man who rises from obscure origins to lead his country and loses everything decent and liberal about himself on the way to the top where it is very lonely indeed. Power corrupts…

Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures (2004) (TVM)

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 It was such a time to be alive. You could be anything, and biology would do the rest. In 1962 an elderly Agatha Christie (Anna Massey) is attending a party at the theatre for a decade of The Mousetrap. Questions from journalists spur memories of 3 years ago when as a younger woman (Olivia Williams) attending a psychiatrist (Stephen Boxer) she is hypnotised into recalling why she disappeared four months earlier triggering a police search … Richard Curson Smith’s docudrama is based on the intriguing real-life case of the famous author’s apparent fugue state when she was located at a spa in Harrogate, having signed in under the name of the mother of her husband’s mistress. The title alludes to the means by which the doctor engages with Christie to start the story: as a young girl (Bonnie Wright) whose father’s death changes the family dynamic, particularly when her older sister marries. She has been haunted for years by a mysterious character whom she calls The Gunman and many men of her acquaintance transform into this figure when she is under stress. Her marriage to soldier Archie Christie (Raymond Coulthard) is met with disapproval by her mother, who encourages her to write. Her time nursing wounded soldiers introduces her to Belgian refugees, one of whom inspires Hercule Poirot and her first novel. She has few memories of times when she is happy, the catalysts for unhappiness make her focus on what may have occurred to prompt her flight – her discovery of her husband’s adultery with Nancy Neele, a secretary … The use of photos, pastiche photographic studios and fake home movies and newsreels gives this a patina of realism which is visually impressive. This is territory previously explored by the film Agatha and Kathleen Tynan’s book, and more recently in a faction novel by Andrew Wilson. Williams gets the lion’s share of the scenes, as a morose young woman who must confront her husband’s extra-marital liaison and his wish to end their union. Even her little daughter says it’s her mother that’s the problem. The older Christie is wiser and happier following a long marriage to a younger man, archaeologist Max Mallowan (Bertie Carvel) whose work on sites in Syria and Iraq literally takes Christie out of herself and England and also inspires some of her best books which she then produces annually. There’s a terrific scene when she comes up with the idea for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which is the book that made her know she was good. There are some technical issues with the sound mixing (you can hardly hear Massey, and some dialogue is drowned out with incidental music) but it’s a thorough and thoughtful account of an episode that’s as mysterious as any of Christie’s novels, supplying psychology to the central character in a way that the Queen of Crime disdained.