The Two-Headed Spy (1958)

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A man cannot control the circumstances of his birth but he can make a choice. In 1939 Alex Shottland (Jack Hawkins) has been embedded as a British agent at the highest levels of the German military since WW1 and is tiring of his role but is urged to continue by his fellow agent Cornaz (Felix Aylmer) who is posing as an antiques dealer. They carry on their meetings under cover of Shottland’s purported interest in clocks. The revelatioin of Schottland’s half-British origins raises the eyebrows of the obsessive and creepy Lt. Reinisch (Erik Schumann) who works as his assistant and he alerts Schottland’s superiors about a potentially traitorous connection to the enemy. Schottland falls in love with singer and fellow spy Lili Geyr  (Gia Scala) whose melancholic songs carry coded messages across the airwaves to the Allies.  Reinisch suspects their relationship is a cover just as the Battle of the Bulge is getting underway and Schottland struggles to communicate the plans to his real superiors I’ll come to your place any time you want me to and spend the night. The amazing true-ish story was based on J. Alvin Kugelmass’ book Britain’s Two-Headed Spy and although A.P. Scotland was an adviser on the production it’s not based on his real escapades. The screenplay is notable for being written by not one but two blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson and the uncredited Alfred Lewis Levitt. Hawkins is excellent as the net seems to be closing in and he has to endure Cornaz being tortured to death;  while Scala impresses as the slinky songstress with espionage at her heart. There are some terrific scenes at Berlin’s highest table with Kenneth Griffith emoting unseen as Hitler.  Taut storytelling, excellent characteristation, glossy monochrome cinematography by Ted Scaife and an urgent score by Gerard Schurmann combine to make this an enthralling spy thriller. Look quickly for Michael Caine as a Gestapo agent while Geoffrey (Catweazle) Bayldon is Dietz. Directed by André De Toth. Truth is allegiance

The Irishman (2019)

The Irishman

It is what it is. In 1975 mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives are on an east-west roadtrip, their ultimate destination Detroit for the wedding of Russell’s niece. An elderly Sheeran tells the story of their association as a meet-cute when he was driving a meat truck in the 1950s and his rise through the ranks, his appointment to a Teamster position under Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the union supremo with deep Mafia ties. It becomes apparent that there is an ulterior motive to the journey and their role in America’s evolution particularly with regard to the Kennedy family is traced against a series of hits Sheeran carries out that reverberate through US history… What kind of man makes a call like that. Not so much Goodfellas as Oldfellas, a ruminative journey through midcentury America via the prism of a violent hitman who allegedly befriended and later murdered infamous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. This is toned-down Scorsese, with muted colours to match the readjusted and very mature framing of Mafia doings in terms of the impact it has on family, chiefly Sheeran’s sensitive daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult) whose mostly silent presence functions as the story’s moral centre:  her horror of Bufalino is a constant reprimand. Steven (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses is not for the fainthearted:  its overlength is sustained mainly by performance with a powerhouse set of principals (plus Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale et al) battling against a lot of unmemorable and somewhat repetitive dialogue (but when it’s good, it’s great), under-dramatised setpieces and a fatally bloated midsection (as in life, so in narrative), much of which is spent in courtrooms. Every time there’s a lull in the action someone needs Frank to off the source of their discontent and sometimes this is handled with straightforward exposition, sometimes in a montage of Frank disposing gun after gun off a bridge. That’s the story punctuation. Mostly however the issue is with DeNiro’s dull and wearying voiceover. This is not the funny jive kick of Ray Liotta in the aforementioned 1990 classic, it’s a man utterly comfortable in his killer’s skin who doesn’t defend himself because it’s who he is and he is not given to introspection, a flaw in the anchoring perspective. If we’re seeing it, we don’t need to be told too. The de-ageing effect is jarring because we don’t see the DeNiro of Mean Streets, rather a jowly preternaturally middle-aged man who shuffles in an old man’s gait. While Pesci is calm and chillingly content in his own position as a capo, it’s Pacino (in his first collaboration with Scorsese) who lifts the mood and fills the air with punchy, positive ions, giving the movie a much-needed burst of energy. But even he seems to be circling the wagons around his own self-satisfied persona as the same story/work-life issues repeatedly arise. It’s a big movie about nasty men who (perhaps) played a huge role in the shaping of their country and the hierarchies of cultures and ethnicities are regularly invoked in a tale which may or may not be true. There are some potentially amusing gatherings of men in black suits at family events. But funny they ain’t.  It’s sad perhaps that Scorsese didn’t make this for cinema and after three weeks on limited release it is fated for eternity on a streaming service:  a sign of the times and perhaps the swansong of a major filmmaker at the end of the 2010s. The nail in the coffin of an era? After this we might be asking not just who killed Jimmy Hoffa but who killed the mob movie. Late Scorsese, in more ways than one. They can whack the President, they can whack the president of the union

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

Happy 85th Birthday Ronald Harwood 9th November 2019!

Birthday greetings to that prolific and gifted playwright and screenwriter Ronald Harwood whose interest in the stage and World War 2 as well as the wider political world has gifted us with such profound work over the past six decades. A brilliant adapter of other people’s work also, his majestic achievement with The Pianist reminds us that he always gets to the heart of the matter. Happy birthday Mr Harwood!

The Weaker Sex (1948)

The Weaker Sex

I wish I didn’t feel so cut off.   Widowed Martha Dacre (Ursula Jeans) tries to keep house and home together for her two serving daughters Helen (Joan Hopkins) who’s involved with radio officer Nigel (Derek Bond) and Lolly (Lana Morris) who’s going out with sailor Roddy (John Stone);  and servicemen billeted on her in Portsmouth, a naval base during WW2. While son Benjie (Digby Wolfe) is away in the Navy she has chosen to stay at home as a housewife, but when she learns that his ship has been damaged during the D Day landings, she regrets not taking a more active role in the war and works in a canteen and as a fire watcher. The family story moves forward from D-Day to VE-Day, the 1945 general election and on to 1948. Martha eventually re-marries to her late husband’s colleague, naval officer Geoffrey (Cecil Parker) who was one of those billeted on her and has become a father-figure to her son and daughters…  Oh dear, who’d be a mother? This British homefront drama was released three years following the conclusion of hostilities so it has the benefit of victorious hindsight as well as expressing the postwar era when everyone was completely obsessed with the lack of food. Adapted from actress Esther McCracken’s 1944 stage play No Medals by Paul Soskin with additional scenes created by Val Valentine to bring it up to the year of shooting, it’s a witty drama filled with resigned Keep Calm and Carry On messages underscored by dissatisfaction at the dreariness of housework and the plight of women whose life is dictated by the unavailability of food which becomes a thoroughly good running joke:  The housewives’ battle cry – the fishmonger’s got fish! cackles housekeeper Mrs Gaye (Thora Hird). Intended as post-war propaganda, a kind of decent British take on Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver (minus the Nazi in the garden) with added politics, it’s smart, unfussy and fair, yet trenchant and involving.  Jeans is terrific as the middle class woman finding herself rather (class) envious of Harriet Lessing (Marian Spencer) living in a serviced flat and volunteering:  there’s humour to be had in a lovely payoff when Harriet gets her public comeuppance after the war as rationing motivates her to head the local Militant Housewives League and she gets caught up in an unholy scrimmage which fetches up on the front page of the papers. Parker is a great casting choice – the guy not ashamed of being seen decked out in his uniform doing the vacuuming who can say unabashed to Jeans, I never had a genuinely platonic friendship with a woman before. Of course we know where that leads. He digs in and gets creative when he’s sick of being starved of regular food – and milks a goat. I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life is duty. There is a great sense of warmth in the family relationships and a scene of remarkable tension when Helen and Martha play a card game awaiting a phonecall to find out whether Nigel has survived a bombing.  Jeans tells herself when awaiting more bad news, I mustn’t back down. I must try to be of some use. Parker responds, This language of ours is so completely inadequate. They are expressing the weariness of a nation almost done in yet somehow dragging itself up to cope with the inevitability of ongoing loss. There are occasional dips into newsreel montages to bring a context to the experiences as the story commences in the run up to D Day, through VE Day, the 1945 General Election, Hiroshima and after, but the footage is smoothly integrated and doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow. Hugely successful in its day it’s a really rather spiffing reminder of how and why Britain came through the war, the importance of family and sadly that tragic deaths don’t just occur in wartime. Crisply shot by Erwin Hillier amid exquisite sets by Alex Vetchinsky and this raft of wonderful performances are very well directed by Roy [Ward] Baker. Shabby perhaps, but not yet shoddy

Au revoir, les enfants (1987)

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I’m the only one in this school that thinks about death. It’s incredible! In 1943, Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is a student at a French boarding school run by Catholic priests. When three new students arrive, including clever Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), Julien believes they are no different from the other boys. What he doesn’t realise is that they are actually Jews who are being sheltered from capture by the Nazis. Julien doesn’t care for Jean at first but the boys develop a tight bond with grudging admiration of each other – while the head of the school, Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), works to protect the boys from the Holocaust.I understand the anger of those who have nothing when the rich feast so arrogantly. Louis Malle’s autobiographical tale of his time at  school in Fontainebleau is an artful depiction of the country’s great shame – the level of collaboration with the occupying Nazis, some of whom are rather sympathetically portrayed. This is a beautifully composed, sensitively handled and measured portrait of childhood with its petty rivalries and quarrels, preceding an act of revenge, accidental betrayal and a chilling climax in an atmosphere of casual spitefulness, denunciations and anti-semitism. One of the very best films of its era, this is a perfect companion to Malle’s earlier masterpiece, Lacombe, Lucien. Those who should guide us betray us instead

Welcome to Marwen (2018)

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Sorry, I don’t speak Nazi. No one expects Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) to recover from a devastating assault by Neo-Nazis that has wiped away all of his memories. In his free time from the diner where he works he creates art installations using photographs of dolls enacting a story. Putting together pieces from the past and present, Mark meticulously creates a Belgian town called Marwen and becomes Captain Hogie, a heroic World War II fighter pilot. His installation soon comes to life with breathtakingly realistic dolls – a testament to the most powerful women he knows including Nicol (Leslie Mann) the woman who moved in across the street to get away from abusive ex Kurt (Neil Jackson) who becomes his fantasy nemesis, Major Meyer. Through this fantasy world, which becomes a kind of therapy, Hogancamp finds the strength to face his attackers who are due to be sentenced …   Like the wise man said, “Our pain is our rocket fuel.” It reminds us of our strength. Written by Caroline Thompson and director Robert Zemeckis, this man-child fantasy drama treads schmaltzy territory to rather indifferent effect despite its roots in the attack perpetrated on the real-life subject and Catskills resident in 2000 who admitted to his penchant for wearing women’s shoes and was almost killed by his assailants. The strength he obtains here derives not just from the fantasy but from his real-world friendships with the women who surround him (played by Janelle Monae, Merritt Weaver, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Stefanie von Pfetten, Leslie Zemeckis and Diane Kruger). Part of its lax storytelling arises from the lack of engagement with the five violent hoodlums who brutally assaulted Mark in the first place and how he has displaced his fears onto this animated iteration making his Neo-Nazis into the ‘real’ thing seventy years earlier enacting retribution in his own back garden. Perhaps less fantasy and more reality could have balanced this difficult narrative ploy. A flawed but interesting work about healing from devastation, high heels intact. I was beaten up because I was different, so I’ve built a place where I can heal

My Reputation (1946)

My Reputation

You have to start being yourself. Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) is a newly widowed upper class mother to two boys Kim (Scotty Beckett) and Keith (Bobby Cooper) with a domineering mother (Lucile Watson). Her estate lawyer Frank Everett (Warner Anderson) dates her casually while her society friend George Van Orman (Jerome Cowan) decides she’d be the ideal mistress. Her friend Ginna (Eve Arden) whisks her away to Tahoe with her husband Cary (John Ridgely) where she meets Major Scott Landis (George Brent) when she’s lost skiing in the mountains. They become close very quickly part badly when he thinks she’s ready to be kissed but then he shows up in her hometown of Chicago where he’s temporarily stationed and she finally allows herself to think of another romantic relationship despite the gossips… The world allows considerable liberty to wives it has never allowed to widows. I notice, for instance, you’re no longer wearing black. One of Stanwyck’s greatest roles, she excels as the rather innocent widow who finally embarks on a relationship with a bluff man who won’t stand for any nonsense from the naysayers in her midst. And who better than Gorgeous George to save her from social suffocation?! Watson is great as the vicious old bat of a mother and Leona Maricle and Nancy Evans are good as the bitchy so-called friends. Arden is in good form as the real friend who does the necessary when Jess needs it. Expertly adapted by the estimable Catherine Turney from Claire Jaynes’ wartime novel Instruct My Sorrows, this plays to all of Warner Brothers’ strengths in female transformation stories – a woman who finds herself again despite a domineering mother, problem sons, pawsy males, social exile and doubt. A gloriously romantic drama with a wondrous score by Max Steiner. Directed by Curtis Bernhardt. I’ll never be lonely again

Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998) (TVM)

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I want to be loved. 1940s New York City: Jacqueline Susann (Michele Lee) is a second-string theatre actress and well-known party girl who turns to journalism following her marriage to press agent turned producer Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though constantly surrounded by the glitterati of the theatre and social scene she doesn’t achieve celebrity status herself and has to endure the tragedy of a brain-damaged son who has to be institutionalised. Then when she’s 47,  she publishes the raunchy bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls. Outwardly committed to publicising her work and involved in regular cross-country media campaigns, she privately battles cancer and constantly questions her troubled relationship with her society portraitist father Robert (Kenneth Welsh) who never got around to finishing her picture …  Everything I do is for you. Everything I make is for you. Treading much straighter territory than Isn’t She Great (the Bette Midler version) this adaptation by Michele Gallery of Barbara Seaman’s biography Lovely Me ironically strays indirectly and presumably unintentionally into camp now and then, and it doesn’t really do justice to the genius of its subject but Lee is excellent as this spiky confrontational woman who did things her own way. For anyone interested in the backstage antics of NYC’s post-war theatre scene with big personalities like Ethel Merman (Gloria Slade), the evolution of publishing and the making of the notorious film of Susann’s most famous novel with Barbara Parkins (Annie Laurie Williams), Patty Duke (Melanie Peterson) and the lovely Sharon Tate (Leila Johnson), there are residual attractions, but the drivers of this biopic are the private tragedies of the woman who revolutionised modern publishing by establishing her own critic-proof brand of sex and sass. Directed by Bruce McDonald. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you never stay in. My life is never going to be dull

Since You Went Away (1944)

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Jane, dear, I’m terribly proud of the way you’ve grown up. I’m sorry Pop missed it. When her husband  Tim leaves to fight in World War II, housewife Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) must struggle on alone to raise their two daughters, Jane (Jennifer Jones) and Bridget (Shirley Temple) in their midwestern town. With a tight budget, Anne is forced to take in two lodgers, elderly ex-soldier Col. William G. Smollett (Monty Woolley) and handsome Lt. Tony Willet (Joseph Cotten), a friend of Tim’s. However, loyal maid Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel) stays on unpaid and the makeshift household pulls together through home front hardships. Jane falls for Tony who is smitten with Anne, but when Smollett’s son Bill (Robert Walker) shows up, despite disappointing his father after failing West Point, Jane transfers her affections to him If only he could have been with me the day I went, all by myself, to the Statue of Liberty and read what it says there for the whole world to see. Do you know it? Anne Hilton, did you ever read it? Adapted by producer David O. Selznick from Margaret Buell Wilder’s eponymous novel, this is a super smooth and overlong helping of Americana from the home front, drenched in detail and emotion and amplified by the luxe shooting style of cinematographers Lee Garmes and Stanley Cortez.  It’s funny and sweet and heartwarming and touches on issues of post-combat injury with its depiction of military casualties. It’s a sweeping portrait of anxiety and unease at a troubling time when everyone is playing the same game of waiting to see if and when men will come home. Colbert does a fine job as the harried mother trying to make ends meet and dealing with the vagaries of fussy Smollett while Tony clearly wants more than friendship from her. Agnes Moorehead is superb as a catty, conscience-free neighbour. Temple is a revelation as the teenager while Jones is the romantic, wavering between crushes and finally falling for someone of her own age, with tragic consequences. Everyone is searching for a meaningful role. Directed by John Cromwell, who would later suffer under the HUAC blacklist, with uncredited work by Edward F. Cline, Tay Garnett and the ubiquitous Mr Selznick, who was also sleeping with Jones whom he later married when she and then-husband Walker divorced. Don’t you want to say good-bye?