Hotel Reserve (1944)

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Don’t just stand there – do something! The great novelist Eric Ambler was a screenwriter himself but this time round his Epitaph for a Spy was adapted by John Davenport who turns in a very tense thriller despite the obvious limitations of this studio-bound production. It’s the eve of WW2.  James Mason plays Peter Vadassy, an Austrian medical student (he’s half French!) on holiday on the Riviera. He’s arrested for photographs of a naval base near Toulon that appear to have been taken on his camera – but the police know the truth and need to root out a Nazi spy in the hotel without raising suspicions. Vadassy is keen to assert his French nationality and if he doesn’t go along with agent Julien Mitchell’s plans he might be deported to Germany and face goodness knows what. There follows a positively Christie-esque drama as Vadassy attempts to figure out which of the hotel’s suspect residents swapped cameras with him and it’s not hugely surprising when Herbert Lom tops the list. Better still, his villainous other half is played by Lucie Mannheim. If you’re wondering who the Irish-accented lovely is who has a crush on Vadassy it’s Maureen O’Hara’s sister Florrie Fitzsimons in her sole screen appearance under the name Clare Hamilton. Directed by a trio of men – Lance Comfort, Max Greene (Mutz Greenbaum) and Victor Hanbury – who turn in an atmospheric film that raises questions about Britain’s wartime relations with France which still had that government at Vichy when this was released …

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Allied (2016)

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Different kinds of bad movies are bad for different reasons but we love them just the same. Sort of. Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is the French-speaking Canadian intelligence agent parachuted into occupied Morocco on a mission during WW2.  He arrives in a bar and cosies up to his fake wife Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) who introduces him to her friends. They are all speaking French. Max and Marianne are spies and have never actually met before tonight. Before you can say Operation Desert Storm they’re having it away in a swirl of sand in their car and without even a hint of jeopardy they carry out their ostensible mission to assassinate the local Nazi chief at a lovely party. Then they fetch up in London at their wedding and while the city is bombed Marianne has their baby daughter. A year later Max is working and she’s staying at home and he’s asked to look at the evidence against his beloved – his superiors in the Special Operations Executive claim that he is sleeping with the enemy and the couple are pitted against one another as Max is forced to question everything and has to figure out if he must kill his own wife….  This starts out kinda like Casablanca. Well. That’s to say it starts in Casablanca which is not the same thing at all. But it does end in an aerodrome. The first half hour is in the realm of the ludicrous – perfect design, badly paced, poorly written and wholly unbelievable. The acting is debatable. I suppose there was some.  Marianne criticises Max’s Canadian French (I know – the worst insult I ever had in Paris was that my accent was Canadian – sheesh!). Except that it was a rainy Saturday, that was me. But it actually gets better. There’s something about dull old north London burbs that has a lingering interest and wondering how wicked Jared Harris might be in planting a seed of doubt in Max’s mind about his lovely wife – not that it lasts for long. This is a turkey that mutates into something of a hybrid spy romance melodrama. It wanted to be a classic but refined its ambitions to resemble something like Hanover Street. Oh I’m too kind. More story, less sauce, next time, you naughty boys with your Lesbian antics. Written by Steven Knight and directed by Robert Zemeckis. I know! Can you believe it? Frankly, no.

It’s in the Bag (1944)

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A Gert and Daisy film – which is to say a comedy starring a couple of English vaudeville and radio comic performers (sisters Elsie and Doris Waters) – in which the robust Cockney biddies discover they’ve inadvertently got rid of £2,000 sewn into the hem of their late grandmother’s dress and have to go to all sorts of extremes to retrieve the dress and thereby the fortune. It involves donning masquerade at a theatre to impersonate the snobby Rose Trelawney (Vera Bogetti) who’s trawling protege Peach St Clair (a very young Megs Jenkins) about for his/her nascent stage career. There’s a funny sleepwalking scene  on rooftops, some farcical scenes as they give their military outfit the runaround and the pair bring the house down at the conclusion with one of their (allegedly) typical rousing singalongs, but the ‘social satire’ for which they were acclaimed seems like a very distant relic at this juncture, probably not helped by the ‘lost’ wartime release being cut by something like 20 minutes for DVD with neither titles nor credits. The pair’s brother was Jack Warner, of Dixon of Dock Green fame. Written by Con West, directed by Herbert Mason.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) gets along far better with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than with his parents so when the old man dies, with his eyes missing and a strange creature hiding outside his apartment in the bushes, Jake recalls all the stories he told him about living in a magical place during WW2. After several sessions with therapist Dr Golan (Allison Janney) he convinces his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales where he is befriended by some Peculiars, enters a derelict mansion through a portal in a cave and encounters the very much alive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who lives in this weird time loop with all the weirdly gifted kids whom his grandfather told him about. They have to ward off a powerful enemy who feast on the children’s eyes, led by Samuel L. Jackson who delivers his now customary cod-threatening performance and after taking Miss Peregrine, the children must engage in a final face-off (or eye-off…) in a theatre in modern-day Blackpool. Jake himself has a special power which can save them all … There’s a level of ordinariness to this which is irritating. It’s well set up, with Tim Burton returning to contemporary Florida (remember the achingly wonderful Edward Scissorhands?) and the problematic father-son dynamic that fuels some of his better work. However there’s no real sense of mystery or fabulism that would bring this to a different realm. What is best about it? Probably the Ray Harryhausen-style doll animations. Emotions lie half-buried in the middle of this – about being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, hating your dumb parents and only finding your true family because you possess an understanding of life that other people don’t (seeing invisible monsters is inordinately helpful). Oh well – there’s a good joke about the evil motivations of psychiatrists, though. Adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Ransom Riggs, and apparently a lot of changes took place in the writing. Very, very uneven.

Dunkirk (2017)

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Survival’s not fair. A great disaster. Hundreds of thousands of British and French troops got at from all sides by the Nazis. A young guy Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) running down the streets of Dunkirk shot at from every direction with all his fellow soldiers mown down beside him. Then he gets to the beach and sees what looks like half the British Army waiting … and waiting. And the beach is strafed by German planes. In the clouds Tom Hardy (masked, mostly, like in his last Christopher Nolan outing) is playing cat and mouse in his Spitfire. His fellow pilot is shot down. Back in England Mark Rylance and his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local lad (strange Irish actor Barry Keoghan) take their pleasure cruiser plus dozens of life jackets out with them before the Navy can check them dockside. These stories with their differing timelines (1 week, 1 hour, 1 day) don’t converge until 70 minutes in. In the interim there is a lot of water. – The tide is turning. – How do you know? – The bodies are coming back. Drowning. Suicides. Shootings by the Germans. If you’re afraid of water you will be very queasy. The word for the viewer experience is immersive. Quite literally. The bigger picture is only put in the mouth of Commander Kenneth Branagh in conversation as the safe place for berthing destroyers (the Mole) is being blown asunder when he talks about the war. That’s when we hear about the callout for small vessels to attempt a rescue on the beach. Otherwise we are escaping with Whitehead as he accompanies Harry Styles (in his film debut) and a Frenchie pretending to be English and they have to try to survive in the bottom of a sinking boat being fired upon; Rylance and son and the traumatised man they rescue from the hull of a sunken boat (Cillian Murphy) who tells them to return to Blighty and kills their assistant;  and the pilots – watching one almost drown is quite traumatic.  For all the enormous budget we never get a sense of the enormity or the scale of the enterprise:  far too few soldiers, hardly any boats. The stories are told in convoluted fashion due to the differing timeframes for each of them. So just when you think you’re ahead, you’re catapulted back to an explanation. And then … it’s over. This reminds me of the problem with Inception which it took me a while to work out:  that film is really a video game. This is also that in one significant part – I too have seen those YouTube Battle of Britain videos, Christopher Nolan, and they’re stunning:  I love a good airborne catfight.  And even though we see very little of Hardy, this is the first time I thought he’s a movie star at last. But that’s not it really. This is actually a tone poem. It’s more like a Derek Jarman film than anything I’ve seen since that great visual artist’s death. And that’s an issue presumably for most of the paying audience who like a good yarn. There is some characterisation – there is bravery, cowardice, viciousness, swagger, kindness and terrible suffering. But what little there is cannot make up for the lack of actual dramatic structure and story. And Churchill’s words are said in the most desultory fashion and barely make an impact because of the actor’s speaking voice and the sound mix even if it’s a very canny and surprising move in how it’s delivered.  But mostly there is Hans Zimmer’s astonishing score:  it’s an unforgettable, breathtaking symphony that deserves a better film. There. I’ve said it. Where’s W. H. Auden when you need him? It’s rumoured that Hitler gave the Brits a fighting chance by only allowing the bombing of the beaches instead of launching a full-scale ground attack and invading Britain:  Nolan simply dismissed the vastness of the story and loses its importance in the doing.

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

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Fool’s courage. Operation Market Garden was the code name for the failed attempt to take the bridges around Arnhem in Holland as winter drew in during 1944. The Allies led by Montgomery and Eisenhower had the idea to power through to the damaged German factories on the Ruhr – and a combination of bloody mindedness, poor planning, bad luck and bad weather made it a pretty disastrous sortie and certainly did not end WW2 as anticipated.  The great Irish writer Cornelius Ryan’s stonking blockbuster books about the era yielded this (published in 1974) and Darryl F. Zanuck’s independent production The Longest Day (1962) and his brilliance as a journalist and investigative historian have cleared up a lot of myths about certain WW2 events, this not being the least of them. Both films have an A-Z list of stars in common but Richard Attenborough was the sole helmer here and William Goldman adapted the book, published in 1974.  General Browning (Dirk Bogarde, a real life WW2 soldier) is the man poised to lead Montgomery’s plan but when a doubting Private Wicks (Paul Copley) carries out an extra recce and supplies him with photos of concealed armoured German tanks in the area where the landing is planned he has him put out on sick leave. Bad idea. With seven days’ notice the paratroopers, infantry and air service both US and UK are sent in. It’s well set up with the Dutch underground – a father and son carry out some spying for the Brits on the Nazis assembled in the area – and the putting together of a team of doubting Thomas Allies with Sean Connery in particular being given some great moments as General Urquhart – confessing to air sickness before takeoff;  landing in a forest where the lunatics from the local asylum are literally laughing at him;  and in a lovely touch and a symmetrical moment after the disaster has happened, arriving at Browning’s Dutch HQ being greeted by geese – who are clearly laughing at him too. That’s good writing. Never mind the naysayers, and there have been a lot over the years amongst the critical posse, who probably wish this had had a very different outcome (don’t we all):  this is fiercely exciting, mordantly funny and has memorable moments of sheer bloody minded bravery, not least when James Caan pilots a jeep through a Nazi regiment with the body of a young captain he has promised he wouldn’t let die. If you’re not cheering at this then you’re not breathing, mate. Maximillian Schell is terrific as the German General who applauds his opponents’ courage and hands Anthony Hopkins a bar of chocolate upon capture. After he’s given the order to raze Arnhem. Thrilling, splendid and a history lesson we still need to learn – bad project management, not heeding early warnings and then stopping the Poles from parachuting in because of fog when it was too late to rescue those poor men who were being slaughtered by the thousand. And those bloody radio crystals. Why’d they bring the wrong ones when the drop zone was eight miles from the river? Sheesh. Exciting as hell. And with a bigger body count. Fantastic, with every Seventies star you could wish for, be they given ever so little but with a special mention to little known Paul Maxwell and Erik Van’t Wout. There is an absolutely iconic score by the great John Addison:  hear it and you know exactly where you are. What a shame Ryan didn’t live long enough to see it:  he died two months after the book was published. What a gentleman and scholar he was. His contribution to our knowledge is immense. Just the thing for a rainy summer’s day when you should be watching Wimbledon but they shunted it back by a fortnight. Again.

Valkyrie (2008)

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WW2:  the gift that keeps on giving. I’m sure it was  more than his similarity to Claus Von Stauffenberg’s photo that persuaded Tom Cruise to make this, but that apparently was the raison d’etre for this production about a group of high-ranking German soldiers who wanted to take Hitler out in summer 1944.  Claus has lost his eye in action but he becomes the key to planting a bomb following one failed assassination attempt on der Fuhrer and enacting Operation Valkyrie. With a slew of Brit actors including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard as the High Command running the plot, this never really works in terms of tension or thrills in a conspiracy that was well laid but never got its man. Probably overshadowed by the German version Operation Valkyrie (2004) starring Sebastian Koch. Written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander and directed by Bryan Singer.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

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Judge not, that ye be not judged. Spencer Tracy arrives in the rubble of the great city of Nuremberg after the bombs have fallen:  this is what remains of a once-proud metropolis in the wake of Hitlerism. He’s the chief military judge in one of the trials taking place there in Abby Mann’s adaptation of his TV play and Maximillian Schell replays his role as the German defence counsel. The case involves four judges in the Nazi courts who had people executed and sterilised and otherwise punished for not being Party members: it’s a representative slice of what actually occurred aided in no small part by what we might call stunt casting.  Burt Lancaster is the one judge who acknowledges what he’s done is wrong. Marlene Dietrich is the widow of the man already executed whose home Tracy occupies and after whom he hankers a little. Judy Garland and the incredible Montgomery Clift testify in court. Clift is a former Communist whom one of the judges had sterilised. His scene in the stand is unforgettable. Schell does a great job as the frustrated counsel, eager to prove the overwhelming logic of the judges’ work;  Richard Widmark has his day in court showing the films shot by Allied troops liberating the camps. Naturally the Germans think this is a cheap shot. This film shocked me as a child and it shocks me no less today, particularly when Tracy, having sentenced the men, is asked to visit Lancaster and has to explain to him why he came to his decision. He is our conscience, arguing for the value of a single human life in the face of ruthless German logic. The end credits include the reminder that by the time this film was made not a single Nazi convicted at Nuremberg remained in prison despite life sentences handed down. That’s right, they’re all running the Fourth Reich in a Germany that’s been on the rise ever since. Be afraid. Directed by Stanley Kramer.

The Desert Fox (1951)

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Aka The Desert Fox:  The Story of Rommel. Too soon?! Rommel was admired and feared, a brilliant tactician (see: desert campaign 1941-43) whose reputation even Churchill embellished with his words (quoted at the conclusion) but he was a thorn in Hitler’s side. ‘Victory or death’ really didn’t seem reasonable to the Field Marshal and this version of events concerns the last few months of his life when his position was becoming untenable. When his friend Dr Stroelin persuades him to play a part in the plot to kill Hitler known as ‘Valkyrie’ he agrees but it fails and he is given only one option by the regime – suicide. Narrated by Michael Rennie, this elegant adaptation by Twentieth Century-Fox’s in house master builder Nunnally Johnson of Desmond Young’s biography is defiantly unsentimental, sympathetic and convincing. There is no attempt to do shonky Germanic accents and that somehow just enhances the impression of realism (or true crime, perhaps).  The studio’s use of stock footage to achieve their customary documentary effect is highly effective even if there isn’t remotely enough film from Africa. It might well be propaganda given the timing and the skewed content – it was time to pony up to the new Nazi-forgiving German regime and make trade deals, dontcha know and the military genius who wanted peace talks with the Allies was the perfect foil for this narrative. This is really about the military mindset rather than a political analysis of a landscape forever foreign and anti-semitic. However you view it, you don’t need me to tell you that this is James Mason at his greatest. WW2 – the gift that keeps on giving. Superb. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

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A friend of mine is under the weather at the moment so I prescribed holiday viewing:  The Great Escape and its fraternal twin, this, one of the best men on a mission action adventures to come out of WW2. It’s 1943.  An Allied commando team is deployed to destroy huge German guns on the Greek island of Navarone in order to rescue troops trapped on Kheros. They’re led by British Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle) and include the American Mallory (Gregory Peck), Greek resistance fighter Stavros (Anthony Quinn) and reluctant Brit explosives expert Miller (David Niven). Facing impossible odds, the men battle stormy seas and daunting cliffs. When Franklin is injured, Mallory takes command, and the infighting begins. They have to impersonate Nazi officers and work with local resistance fighters Irene Papas and Gia Scala. There is a spy  in the camp – but who can it be? There’s interrogation and explosives and betrayal and all kinds of good stuff. This is sublime fun and contains probably my favourite movie line of all, from the inimitable Niven:  Heil everybody! Adapted from Alastair MacLean’s novel by blacklisted screenwriter and producer Carl Foreman (who made a lot of changes to the material) and directed by J. Lee Thompson (taking over from Alexander Mackendrick one week before production – that old saw, ‘creative differences.’) Narrated by James Robertson Justice and shot by the peerless Oswald Morris with a majestic soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin. Definitely taking this to the desert island. Or even a Greek one.