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Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)
Woman On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown
Perhaps the only thing stopping this film from being considered part of the British New Wave "kitchen sink drama" is that its lead actor isn't an outspoken, idealistic, go-getting younger man. Instead we get middle-aged office manager Anthony Quayle who lives with his slovenly, scatterbrain wife Yvonne Mitchell, never out of the dressing gown which gives the film its title and young adult son Andrew Ray in their never-tidy flat where she always has music blaring just to add to the maelstrom. Ironically, a kitchen sink is in view in the claustrophobic scenes set in the family's flat, but it's always full of dirty dishes. Quayle's Jim Preston's head is turned by his pretty young secretary Sylvia Sym, whom he illicitly meets on Sundays before heading back to his depressing family life back home. When we join the action he has just decided he will finally tell his wife he will leave her and finally, after an aborted first attempt and emboldened by Sym's prompting, he breaks the news to her. It's fair to say she doesn't take it well.
Bearing the legend on its poster that no one will be allowed entry inside the last ten minutes, the emotional climax reached is credible and understandable if perhaps slightly predictable. The drama really just revolves around the four principals and especially Mitchell's Amy. She never suspects her husband's infidelity thinking that he is content with her and the ramshackle life they have, she just cannot see that her own slatternly ways are driving her man to a younger, prettier, better dressed and organised woman.
Of course this is the U.K. in the 50's where a woman's place for the large part was in the home, the dutiful housewife, whose tasks boil down to getting the nightly family dinner ready, tidying the house and making herself herself presentable to hubby coming in from work. Amy doesn't or indeed can't seem do any of these things but because Quayle's Jimbo as she irritatingly calls him with almost every utterance she makes to him has seemed to accept her as she is for so many years, his request for a divorce still hits her like a bolt from the blue.
Mitchell really is excellent in the title role, often wheedling and pathetic she can seem like a figure to be pitied. One can only feel for her as we follow her attempts to smarten herself up, swigging copiously from a freshly bought bottle of whisky to garner some courage for the showdown she calls for with Quayle and his mistress. I'm not sure I agree however with her being made to be such a helpless victim.
Anyway, the film is an interesting and engrossing peek into the lives of the working class in "You never had it so good" Britain to paraphrase then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan's phrase of the day. I have my reasons for disagreeing with the denouement but this was still a well acted, tightly directed contemporary melodrama and quite as good in its way as any of the recognised breakout films to come out of the U.K. just a few years later.
Happy Land (1943)
Papa Don't Weep
An old-timer comes down from heaven and walks a despondent middle aged family man from Anytown U.S.A. through his memories after the latter has suffered a major setback in life so that by the end his peace of mind is restored. Sound familiar? Well, "It's A Wonderful Life" it isn't but this is still a pleasant enough fantasy feature obviously made to bolster the war effort and act as a consolation to those families who lost their sons and daughters in the fighting.
This time there's no angel seeking its wings, popular drug-store owner Don Ameche's accompanist is his old, long-dead father who fought in the First World War. Gramp, (Harry Carey Sr.) as he's called obviously can't stand to see his son lose the will to live and so pays his ailing boy an extra-terrestrial visit in particular to reconcile him with his grief after Ameche's only son Rusty has fallen in battle trying to save another man while serving in the Far East with the Navy.
There are no real special effects to speak of and the story doesn't have the dramatic arc of Capra's classic, as we tag along with Ameche and Carey's gentle walk around their old town and their remembrances of the much loved boy, the point having been made earlier that the boy came into the world pretty much as his grandad was leaving it, so even though they hardly met, there is also an emotional connection between grandfather and grandson.
There's a nice coda to the piece when Rusty's Navy mate, played by a young Henry Morgan of TV's "M.A.S.H." fame, calls on his late buddy's parents and finally convinces them, especially the formerly morose father, that their son's sacrifice was worthwhile and that they can move on with their lives while still cherishing his memory.
Although not much happens between Gramp's arrival and departure, this is still an amiable feature with its pleasant reconstruction of small town life during the war with the drugstore and its attendant soda fountain a vibrant meeting point for the townsfolk young and old.
Personally I think a little more fantasy and perhaps a brief "return" by the son at the end might have proven slightly more satisfactory, in terms of content but this was a pleasant well-meaning morale-boosting piece which achieved its brief.
High Flying Bird
Elton John the recording artist played a big part in my teenage soundtrack years, encompassing his classic years from 1971-1976 so the music from this fantasy bio-pic certainly hits the spot. I've also seen him live more than once and can testify that he's a dynamite live performer. This film acknowledges both of these things but also seeks to portray Elton the human being, the repressed young gay man, born of difficult parents who discovers he has an innate talent for playing the piano and writing melodies for songs. Once he hooks up with his "brown dirt cowboy" lyricist Bernie Taupin and after the two of them struggle for a few years as hack songwriters at the beck and call of old-fashioned impresario Dick James, Elton's alter ego, the flamboyant Captain Fantastic showman duly lands and makes him the biggest act in America covering those golden years.
That success however came at a price as the lonely superstar, still struggling to come to terms with his sexuality and mind-blowing success, duly heads for the overload and binges out on drink, drugs and success. The film ends with the at last reformed John belting out his survival song "I'm Still Standing" and exorcising most of his demons although if you've ever seen the subsequent infamous "fly-on-the-wall" TV special "Tantrums and Tiaras" he's obviously still a spendthrift and subject to mood swings.
No saint is our Elton then but it is possible to feel understanding and even sympathy for the poor little mega-rich boy portrayed here. Director Dexter Fletcher is undoubtedly on John's side as evidenced by the timespan selected here, but still the film and its portrayal of superstar excess seemed a bit shallow and obvious to me.
I liked the over-the-top introduction to the movie as Elton in full regalia crashes an A.A. meeting, at which his confessions and recollections director Fletcher conveniently uses to tell his rise and fall. Never mind that the time-line is frequently skewered and liberties are taken with the detail, the film is principally out to showcase John's extensive musical library and certainly does this with sometimes mixed results.
Taron Egerton doesn't really look or sound a lot like Elton but he wholeheartedly throws himself into the part and just about carries it off. Richard Madden gets a fairly meaty part as John Reid, Elton's cold, controlling manager and for a time, lover, Jamie Bell is okay as Bernie Taupin, but none of his great band get named in the movie and neither is any credit given to the producer of all his early records, Gus Dudgeon or his orchestrator Paul Buckmaster, which I thought somewhat remiss.
Fletcher directs the musical numbers with some flair, occasionally adapting the song lyrics to fit the screenplay, but is less certain in depicting the dramatic episodes in the singer's life, which too often flirt with cliche.
The film is certainly flash, brash and loud and Elton would probably admit that these adjectives accurately described him at the height of his success but trying to encompass so much into a mere two hour film, just too many short-cuts are taken with a different song to fit in every ten minutes or so, the characterisations, particularly Elton's rarely run deep.
Still, the film was a good reminder of his glory days and just how high-quality his music was at that time but unfortunately I got the sense that the Elton John here lived up more to his tabloid image than his real self.
Nuclear power games
Everybody it seems is talking about this series being the must-watch show of the year, plus it sits at number 1 on the IMDb TV chart which would tend to indicate it is something special.
With an absence of really well-known actors in the cast, it has to be all about the drama and on that it certainly delivers. It starts off with the mysterious suicide of a middle-aged man living in a nondescript flat in Russia who secretly posts away some dictated cassette tapes before doing the deed. From there we are taken back to the terrible events of 1986 when a mixture of human traits such as ignorance, conformity, parsimony, bullying and misplaced ambition combine for the catastrophic explosion to occur at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Although the narrative occasionally drops back and forth in time to present different perspectives on events, it pretty much takes us through the natural timeline leading up to the incident itself including its aftermath so that by the very end we know the identity of the dead man and just what was on the tapes.
The depiction of the drama in the control room where a succession of errors leading up to the blast is shown twice, once at the beginning for dramatic effect, the second, at the end where each mistaken communication is highlighted and explained in detail to confirm seemingly beyond doubt that this was no system or hardware failure, every component in the disaster was attributable to human failing..
Three main characters emerge to attempt that near-impossibility in late 1980's Soviet Russia, namely to expose the truth even when that truth points back at failings at governmental level. The State, you see, is above criticism and to point this out, (with diagrams!) as Legasov does at the official Russian enquiry is to place yourself at the mercy of the KGB, which is of course, no mercy at all and so Legasov loses his career and even his academic legacy as he is reduced to impoverished near-anonymity in his seedy little flat. Behind him is the deputy Soviet leader Boris Scherbina who changes from dedicated apparatchik to truth campaigner, especially when he too exhibits symptoms of the life-shortening radioactive poisoning which will claim him and thousands of others long before their time over the succeeding years. The third campaigner is a composite character Uyuna Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson, a fact-finding scientist who interviewed everyone in the control room that night to arrive at the incontrovertible truth.
The recreation of the incident both inside and outside the plant was wholly convincing. Those brave men who either went down to turn on the hydraulics, move the radioactive waste from the roof, work underground or reverse the cooling rods are suitably shown as the unselfish heroes they were, even if most of them were obligated to follow orders and so didn't really have a choice. Of the five episodes, only the fourth seemed overlong and unnecessary as it showed a kill squad patrolling the evacuated city exterminating the pet dogs and cats left behind.
The ensemble acting was first rate and completely subsumed to the documentary realism effect sought for by the director. By the end, I was the better for understanding more the enormous risks mankind takes when seeking to harness nuclear power and while there is throughout the piece implied if not overt criticism of the Soviet system of cost-cutting , KGB surveillance and blind subservience to the State one remembers too that the same thing nearly happened in America at Three Mile Island and of course there was the more recent incident at Fukushima, to make one realise that these events can happen anywhere and anytime.
One can't help but wonder if at the time of the next nuclear calamity there will be anyone around afterwards to make a cautionary film like this about it or indeed any viewers here to watch it.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Hungary for love
A delightful, warm-hearted what we'd now call romantic comedy from the Hungarian maestro Ernst Lubitsch. Set in Budapest although neither lead, James Stewart or Margaret Sullavan even begins to attempt a local accent, the narrative concerns the lives and loves of grumpy but paternal gift shop boss, played by Frank Morgan and his employees. While there is plenty of local colour with locations, names and sometimes accents, the action could probably have easily been staged in a 5th Avenue store.
There are a number of intertwining plot strands, principal amongst them being the romantic, incognito pen-pal correspondence between Stewart and Sullivan, who in real life bicker constantly on the shop floor and old shop owner Morgan's worries over his spendthrift wife's marital fidelity. In addition there are important supporting characters like the kindly if timid old-timer salesman played by Felix Bressart, who tries to play peacemaker to all and sundry, William Tracy as the ambitious young errand boy Pepe whose timely intervention later saves the day and Joseph Schildkraut as the toadying shop assistant with ulterior motives.
The plot moves gently back and forward with some light comedic touches interspersed with others reflecting everyday normality and one moment in particular of near tragedy, before things get back on track in time for a Christmassy happy ending for all the principals.
Stewart and Sullavan made four movies together and I'd like to check out some of the others on the evidence of this. There's good support everywhere else in the cast especially Bressart as nice-guy Pirovich. The direction is deft, sophisticated and engaging, the famed Lubitsch Touch very much in evidence.
A little shop of delights you won't be disappointed to visit.
Rio Grande (1950)
The Grande Old Duke Of Yorke
The third of Ford's celebrated Cavalry Trilogy, if not perhaps the strongest of them. "Fort Apache" the first of them was most notable for the conflict between Henry Fonda and John Wayne's contrasting characters, "She Wears A Yellow Rinbon" had colour of course and while "Rio Grande" has Maureen O'Hara as the romantic interest to Wayne's dominating Colonel Kirby Yorke character, for me it had a little less to commend it.
Possibly over-familiarity was breeding a little contempt for seeing the same actors, such as Wayne, Victor McLaglen and Harry Carey Junior, playing stock characters and putting them in predictable settings and situations. After "Fort Apache's" more humane treatment of the Apaches in the earlier movie, it was also a bit disappointing to see them portrayed as very much the baddies here, even stooping so low as to kidnap the cavalry families' children, the rescue of which forms the climax of the movie. There's also the oddity of a travelling troupe of regimental singers, in real life The Sons Of The Pioneers group, popping up to stop the action periodically with another old-time sentimental song.
There are some good points however, Wayne and O'Hara are great together, Wayne, moustachioed and made up appreciably older to play his part, O'Hara, the overly-protective mother, who can't resist her attraction to her old estranged husband. There are good sub-plots too, one involving Ben Johnson's drawling on-the-run renegade Travis Tyree character, who gets and takes his shot at redemption at the film's climax, the other concerning Wayne and O'Hara's still teenage son who rebels against his mother's wishes by joining the cavalry, unaware it's his old barely-remembered dad Wayne who's the company commanding officer.
I fairly enjoyed the movie but didn't consider it as exciting or engaging as previous Ford movies I've seen, never mind that my expectations were already slightly reduced when I saw it was a Republic Studios, low-budget, black and white production.
Still, the camera work is fine, as are the story telling and action sequences, especially the stunt-riding scenes at the beginning, but acceptable as it is, on the whole it doesn't quite stand comparison with other of the great director's western movies.
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
The Kindness Of Strangers
A quite remarkably candid and perceptive examination of parent-children relationships towards the end of one pair of elderly parents' lives. When the five adult, middle-aged Cooper siblings and their spouses assemble at Ma and Pa's New York house expecting confirmation and reassurance about their inheritance prospects, they are all shocked to learn that their folks finances have come unstuck and that their only major asset, the family home, is due to be repossessed by the bank within days. Whilst not completely unsympathetic to their plight, not one of them is prepared to step up and take in the obviously still devoted but soon to be homeless couple. Instead, they're separated between a selected but rather unwilling two of them while the others in different ways shy away from adopting them at all.
The awkwardness of the two old timers trying to blend into the lives of two of their own children's established family lifestyles is sometime painful to watch. Importantly, neither mum or dad is presented as angelic, naturally set in their ways and wanting only to be with each other, they unknowingly irritate their offsprings with their opinions and mannerisms, no matter how slight, even when just sedately rocking in a squeaky chair.
When both households not so gently or subtly edge the respective boarding parents towards their separate out doors, the solutions they propose will separate them even more by shunting one of them to California and the other into an old folks home. And so, decisions made for Ma and Pa, the children regather and invite them to join them for a farewell dinner before the old ones exiles must begin. Ma and Pa, however, well aware of what is going on and how their children are letting them down, have other ideas and decide to spend their likely last time together by doing the town in a bit of style, helped in this by the kindly acts of a new car salesman, the hotel manager at the scene of their honeymoon fifty years before and even the bandleader there who good-manneredly stops a modern up-tempo number to instead play an old-fashioned tune for them to enjoy a last waltz together. From there, its downbeat ending is as effective as it is unsurprising, given what has gone before.
Prefaced by the legend "Honour Thy Father and Mother", director Leo McCarey provocatively makes the case that the best test of a son or daughter is how they treat their parent or parents when the latter are in decline. We're all someone's daughters, we're all someone's sons as the popular song goes and it doesn't seem like a lot to repay the first quarter of our own lives to adult maturity by sacrificing probably a lot less years than that to help ensure that one's parents can see out their days in peace and comfort. Perhaps the point about strangers showing the old couple due respect and consideration is a little heavy-handed and there's a bit of over-sentimentality here and there but otherwise director McCarey does a fine job marshalling a cast devoid of well-known stars, which makes it easier for the public to identify with the family effectively outcasting their own parents.
I'm sure we all want our own parents to live long, healthy and independent lives but for those that can't, this film with its evergreen subject matter both entertains but at the same time makes the viewer think hard about their own family responsibilities.
Fort Apache (1948)
Ford's Army Escort
The first of Ford's celebrated Cavalry Trilogy appears to take for its story the foolish, reckless and thoughtless bravery of George M Custer who led his small band of U.S. cavalrymen to their deaths at Little Big Horn against all received wisdom at the time. Here, Custer's character is converted to another headstrong, if less handsome and dashing career soldier in the guise of Henry Fonda's Owen Thursday, who takes over the command of a troop at a frontier outpost and who clearly sees it as a stepping stone back up the ladder of the army if he can find a way into battle to impress the top brass.
With him is his young daughter bearing the unlikely name of Philadelphia, played in her first adult role by Shirley Temple, who subtly tries to assuage her father's remoteness and stuffiness but without success, indeed she only exacerbates his haughtiness by falling for a keen young officer under dad's command. Thursday is clearly spoiling for a fight with the neighbouring Apache Indians who promptly give him the justification he needs by slaying two of his men in a local skirmish.
Thursday's chief subordinate officer, Kirby York, played by John Wayne, has a working relationship with the great Indian chief Cochise and believes he can stop a war between the two sides by finding the root cause of their grievances and sure enough the finger of blame is pointed at the corrupt manager of the Indian Reservation, a wheedling parasite called Meacham, whose incompetence, personal greed and general mistreatment of the Apache has enflamed their rebellion. When York's parleying with Cochise brokers a possible truce, the headstrong Thursday however sees this as weakness and opportunity and so decides to take on the Indians. However without any tactical, logistical or numerical appreciation of the situation, he leads his loyal and brave band of men into an avoidable massacre, with a mutinous York forced to helplessly watch from safety and years later print the legend of Thursday's bravery, this so as not to denigrate the status of the army down to Thursday's vainglorious and calamitous mishandling of the original situation.
Ford again shows his mastery of frontier story-telling, this time giving the army wives and lovers on the sidelines due prominence as well as ennobling the Indian enemy as a people wrongfully dispossessed of their native rights, shamefully treated by their white so-called superiors. Naturally too, Ford again celebrates the comradeship and bravery of soldiers as well as peppering the narrative with romance, principally between Miss Thursday and John Agar's newly commissioned young officer (indeed he outranks his crusty old sergeant major dad, Ward Bond, in the same regiment) and humour particularly surrounding a drunken gang-of-four underlings who are in and out of the doghouse more than Huckleberry Hound.
I must confess I'm a sucker for Ford's established mixture of sometimes flawed heroism, male camaraderie, sentimental romance and bawdy humour and so I loved this feature, even if others might cry cliche, formula or even blarney. As usual old Pappy is helped by his stock acting troupe led by Fonda and Wayne both at their best as the main protagonists here. I was pleasantly surprised too by the naturalness of Agar and Miss Temple as the young lovers (although she does look very young), while noting that they were in fact married at the time. The black and white photography in and around Monument Valley is excellent and the action scenes are superbly realised, especially the climactic showdown in the hills.
For all its use of familiar locations, actors and themes, Ford was invariably good enough at story-telling to carry them all off, as he surely does here.
Stage Fright (1950)
Exit stage fright
Hitchcock's first film of what was to prove a brilliant decade for him was this, his last British production until "Frenzy" in 1972. It's a combination thriller / comedy, which of course he'd shown a mastery of before ("The 39 Steps" for one) and after ("North By Northwest" for another) but struggles to consistently blend here. I think the problem is the pacing where for long periods the movie just sort of pooters along without any real sense of danger before coming to life briefly in the last five minutes.
Famous, or infamous for the initial extended flashback scene where the story related to Jane Wyman's rather mousy Eve Gill by on-the-run boyfriend Richard Todd's Jonathan Cooper character turns out to be false, it seems that audiences of the day thought this was a trick too far by Hitchcock which contributed to its failure at the box office. Seen today, it seems to me more like innovation than manipulation.
It does have some other good things about it, the Master's familiar tracking camera shots are well in evidence, including one clever scene where Wyman times her walk down a staircase behind two exiting policeman which with a reverse zoom could almost be taken for the memorable shot of Jimmy Stewart doing something similar in "Vertigo". I also liked the simple shot where Wyman's view dims as as she puts on a pair of out-of-focus glasses and the climactic scenes between Todd and Wyman under the theatre are also dramatically lit.
Marlene Dietrich is beautifully shot throughout as befits her diva status and gets to sing a wry Cole Porter number on stage, Alastair Sim is on winning form as Wyman's eccentric father while Joyce Grenfell gets in a nice turn as the "Lovely Ducks" barker at a fete.
However there really is too much faffing about with Wyman's character's subterfuge involving her impersonating Dietrich's maid, with a "Dick Van Dyke" Cockney accent to match and her slow-slow genteel romance with detective Michael Wilding.
Occasionally "Stage Fright" sparks to life but it's a fitful watch, lacking real dramatic tension throughout. It would take a more permanent return to Hollywood starting with his next film "Strangers On A Train" to reignite his artistic renaissance which saw him go on make some of the best films in movie history.
Up the Junction (1968)
I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea
So I was listening to Squeeze's brilliant "Up The Junction" single and thought to myself, I have to go to the source to maybe appreciate how the song came about. Chris Difford's lyric condenses the action far better than I ever could (although it doesn't slavishly follow the film's plot anyway) but I'll have a go. I've also not seen Ken Loach's earlier BBC TV adaptation of the original play, although I understand it dispenses with the central character of Suzy Kendall's mixed-up rich girl from the other side of the river who we see over the titles, walks out of her privileged world to literally see how the other half lives. Shallow and condescending as this might seem, sure enough she walks straight into a job at a sweet packaging company, where the all-female employees have an uncomplicated, enthusiastic approach to life which immediate appeals to her. There she falls under the wings of two very dissimilar looking sisters, Maureen Lipman as the older of the two, already married, separated and had an abortion, she's protective and cynical but still young enough to look to have a good time, while Adrienne Posta is her 17 year old sister, hormones flaring but with a selfish, bullying streak to her as we see when she publicly "makes over" one of her shop-floor colleagues, a shy girl possibly with learning difficulties.
We follow the three of them as they have a lark at work break-time and then at night hook up with some lairy young men at the local pub, where the sisters belt out a song with the pub group. Kendall herself meets a young delivery boy for a second-hand furniture shop from where she's buying for her cheap and cheerful flat and things you might think will continue on this bright and breezy road until the end when things take a darker turn. We see the older sister beaten up in the street by her drunken ex-husband but there's worse in store for the younger sister who falls pregnant, gets a back-street abortion which goes terribly wrong. Finally, to cap it all, the boyfriend who impregnated Corri dies in a motorbike crash, all of this with Kendall as sort of the first person witness to all of it. She wanted to see how the poor live and now she most certainly does.
The film finishes with a concentration on Kendall's new romance where he feels he's punching above his weight and is forever trying to drag her out of seedy Battersea to posher Belgravia not appreciating that she's already rejected that mode of life. However catching her on the rebound from her emotional involvement over Posta's botched abortion, he turns up in a flash car, whisks her away to the seaside to a posh hotel, takes her to a fancy restaurant and eventually proposes to her. That's when we learn that the two of them are pulling in opposite directions, he wants out of the struggling, hard-up life amongst the poor working-class world he inhabits and doesn't care how he does it, while she seems to have found herself by rejecting the privileged upper class life he craves. It's nicely encapsulated in a scene where she craves a bag of cockles at a street vendor much to his disgust.
Class consciousness was a big deal in the 60's and drove many of the kitchen-sink dramas which emerged in the British cinema of the day. Whilst that argument is over-simplified here and one can't imagine too many mummy and daddy's little girls like Kendall's Polly slumming it like this, there's definitely pathos in the portrayals of her poor workmates, although we never actually get a glimpse of the monied life that Polly's escaping.
With good use of real-life locations, fine naturalistic acting especially by Lipman and Posta in support, empathetic direction by Peter Collinson and a bright, psychedlicised soundtrack by Manfred Mann and Mike Hugg, although inevitably dated by its attitudes (it seems to be accepted that men can slap women about or leave them to deal with an unplanned pregnancy) "Up The Junction" still stands as a reasonably accurate and authentic snapshot of the travails of the working classes, especially women in the mid-to-late 60's.
Under Capricorn (1949)
A Dandy in Aus Pic
Hobbled for years by lead actor Joseph Cotten's retitling of it in his autobiography to "Under Corny Crap", "Under Capricorn" can be seen now for what it truly is, Hitchcock's parting gift to one of his favourite leading ladies, Ingrid Bergman. The first of only two films made by his newly formed production company, Transatlantic Pictures, ('Stage Fright" was the second), Bergman is very much the pivot around which the admittedly rather slow action revolves.
A period costume melodrama with some dark overtones, set in the early 18th Century colonial outpost of Australia, the film is beautifully shot in luminous colour and features the Master's usual fluid camera-work, occasionally employing the long takes he'd started using in his previous film "Rope". However, the film does for long periods lack real suspense and it's obvious that Hitch isn't completely at home with this very stagy material.
Still, once you get used to the slow pace and rather theatrical acting there are things to enjoy, besides just the camerawork. Bergman, although acting a part she'd played before of a psychologically troubled woman as in "Gaslight" and "Notorious", is radiant as the conflicted lady wife of jumped-up stable boy Cotten's brusque Sam Flusky character, who starts to get her strength and sanity back with the encouragement of her old boyfriend from old Ireland, the dandy-esque Michael Wilding's Charles Adare.
As dark secrets and hidden emotions come to light, involving Flusky's jealous and controlling house-mistress Milly, waspishly played by Margaret Leighton, there's a reasonably tense climax to proceedings before the expected happy denouement.
Ingrid's acting is like her Irish accent throughout the film, in that it comes and goes, Cotten doesn't have to do much other than pace about and look stern but future husband and wife Wilding and Leighton are better in their admittedly slightly meatier roles.
Hitchcock buffs will do the read-across from this film to others in his oeuvre which we always do looking for related themes, characters and scenes and here you'll find echoes of "Rebecca" with its designing housekeeper, "Notorious" with its vulnerable, conflicted female lead and "Rope" with its extended tracking shots.
I think old Joe was a little harsh in his judgement, for while "Under Capricorn" isn't as good as any of the three films I've just mentioned, it's still a stylish and well-made, if uneven movie, just crying out for a bit more grit and action to set it off.
The Central Park Five (2012)
Set Up And Let Down
I came to this 2012 Ken Burns documentary after watching the 2019 high-profile Netflix TV series "When They See Us" which dramatised the actual events related here. Told mainly through the testimony of the five young men wrongly incarcerated for the rape and vicious attack on a female jogger in Central Park in 1989, it naturally eschewed any dramatic reconstruction of the events, instead letting actual words and contemporary newspaper and TV reports of the time carry the story.
Made not long before the city of New York, without admitting any wrongdoing on its part, made a multi-million dollar settlement to the five, I would like to think this film helped that decision, incomplete as it is, to be made as well as perhaps inspiring the TV show. The documentary obviously has an agenda to clear the boys, the logic of which is irrefutable, but fails to interview any of those who supported and indeed still stand by the original decisions at the two separate trials which put the boys away, such as prosecutors Fairstein and Lederer and a certain, since elevated, property tycoon who from his ivory tower, paid for full-page newspaper adverts demonising the defendants.
The five, only four of whom allowed themselves to be filmed, speak eruditely and passionately about their shared experiences and relate in detail the terrible treatment they received and the awful miscarriages of justice which befell them. Not all of them appear to have come through unscathed.
Grim and depressing to watch for the most part, one only hopes that like the unfortunate victim herself, they come through this terrible experience and live something approaching a normal life from now on and that the railroading tactics employed here by people in authority who should have known better are never repeated, although I have my doubts about that.
When They See Us (2019)
And Justice For None...
My wife and I were recommended to watch this Netflix TV series by a black friend of ours otherwise we might not have caught it. Watching it was at times very hard, as you grasp the scale of the injustice perpetrated on these young boys by the callously self-serving methods of the state prosecutors and their NYPD cohorts who without any meaningful evidence coerced the Central Park Five as they became known to sign wildly conflicting confessions which somehow proved enough to get them convicted in a court of law. A heinous attack on a defenceless young female jogger had been carried out in Central Park the same night the youths were also in the park as part of a larger group of young mixed race males allegedly taking part in "wilding" offences against passers-by. Detained by the police on the night, the five were arraigned on charges of gang rape and through methods involving separation from adult family members, sleep and food deprivation and downright bullying and physical intimidation they all put their names to concocted admissions of guilt just so they could all end their ordeals and go home.
As many have said, one could just about imagine such blatantly racially-motivated policing and court mistrials occurring in the Jim Crow era but it's truly astonishing to realise these trials occurred in the America of 1989. Hailed at the time as an example of the justice system working, in truth it palpably failed these young men who lost their early adulthood due to at best over-zealousness and at worst lazy racism on the part of the prosecutors, police officers and detectives who took them down.
Spread over four episodes of varying lengths to let each strand run its course, the first concerning the night of the attack and then arrest and charging of the five, the second the trial and convictions of the five, the third covering the four under-sixteens time in youth correction facilities and their difficulties in settling back into society on their release after seven years and the fourth and final chapter concentrating on the most desperate case of Korey Wise, just old enough at 16 to be put straight to an adult prison and for a longer sentence, before the true perpetrator finally came forward after a chance encounter with Wise in prison, to this time truthfully confess to the crime.
None of the prosecuting personnel come out well, although only the two female prosecutors, the indignantly gung-ho Linda Fairstein and more passive, jobsworth Elizabeth Lederer are raised to prominence here. One wonders about the identities of all the conniving cops who heartlessly forgot their training and stitched up the five teenagers.
Tautly and humanely written and directed, well acted by the ensemble cast, my only quibbles might be a bit too much concentration on the characters' rehabilitation attempts even as I appreciate their importance to the story, the over-cinematic use of dream and vision sequences at key points in the boys' struggles and for me at least an ongoing soundtrack of hip-hop and rap music, which I hate but appreciate was very much in the air for young black kids of this generation.
One might hope that America might learn something about the perceived fairness and impartiality of its protection agencies from this series but sadly events in recent years seem to show that too often black kids get the wrong end of the stick when confronted by policemen, lawyers and judges.
It also has to be said that the case was busted wide open not through any ongoing detective work by the police but by the surprise emergence of the real attacker or that New York City then took twelve further years after that to financially compensate the victims. Both these things do not reflect well on the prestige of the Big Apple. At least two of the now Exonerated Five as Oprah Winfrey terms them, still seem very much damaged by what they went through despite the large financial settlements they belatedly received. Perhaps some contrition on the parts of Ms Fairstein and Ms Lederer, not to mention the bandwagon-jumping New York real estate magnate of the time, who whipped up public opinion by taking out newspaper ads aimed at demonising the defendants and who of course many years later rode a populist wave all the way to the White House, might have helped.
My wife and I ended our viewings drained but better informed about a case which should never be forgotten, sadly for all the wrong reasons.
A Foreign Affair (1948)
Marlene Before The Wall
Lesser known Billy Wilder movie which saw him lure Jean Arthur out of retirement to star alongside Marlene Dietrich and the lesser known John Lund in a tale of post-war intrigue set in war-torn Berlin. Arthur is the prissy, by-the-book Congresswoman who arrives with a group of visiting colleagues to spearhead the search for a high-ranking former-Nazi. To get to her prey, she seeks out the undercover U.S. soldier believed to be romancing the Nazi's former-girlfriend, nightclub singer played by Dietrich.
Lund plays the American paramour of Marlene, as we've already learned right at the start of the movie and naturally events transpire to throw the three leads together, sometimes in different combinations before some surprise revelations emerge for the denouement. The film takes in some witty comedic scenes, particularly Lund's seduction of ice-maiden Arthur by way of overcoming her hastily created, unlikely barrier of sliding-open filing cabinets, (possibly satirising Hitchcock's doors-opening love scene between Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman in "Spellbound"), itself neatly inverted in the final scene when she charges through a row of intervening chairs to get to him and there are some pithy topical one-liners probably lost on today's audience.
Another highlight is Dietrich getting to sing three excellent, apposite and witty songs by her long-time songwriter Edward Hollander trading on her long-established vamp-persona, even if this time she's dressed more in keeping with her age, her classy rendition of which is later contrasted with Arthur's klutzy version of her Iowa state song when inebriated at the same club.
While both Dietrich and Arthur can seem a little long in the tooth to be playing parts they each first acted some fifteen years ago, they both just about pull it off. I also smiled as I recognised the "Ninotchka"-like twist in proceedings with this time a starchy American female politician "going native". By the time the conclusion is reached and the hunted Nazi is duly flushed out by all the machinations, the only surprise was that Lund should make the choice of woman he does at the end.
Wilder apparently bemoaned having to accept Lund in place of his preferred lead Cary Grant, although ironically his actor comes off more as a mini-Clark Gable both in appearance and delivery. I didn't really see the chemistry between him and Arthur however and both are outshone by the sultry Dietrich even if again she seems a little old to be throwing herself at a G.I.
Despite the interesting subject matter, good use of location filming in the city's rubble and some amusing situations, this isn't quite in the top-drawer of maestro Wilder's best work, but stands as a watchable curio and an entertaining latter-day juxtaposition of two very different female stars from vintage pre-war Hollywood.
John Schlesinger's film of Frederic Raphael's screenplay is as cerebral, intense but ultimately hollow as that particular combination might suggest. Charting the inexorable rise of Julie Christie's Diana Scott, the attractive young wife of a nondescript husband, her pretty face becomes her fortune as a chance vox-pop appearance on live television brings about a liaison with well-connected arts T.V. presenter Robert Gold, played by Dirk Bogarde.
From there, the only way is up as Darling Diana makes it to the very top, rising from lowly commoner to titled Italian princess, but at what cost to her personal happiness. The film could indeed have been called "Will Success Spoil Diana Scott And Will She Find True Love?" The movie ends with something of an affirmation of the first question and a firm rejection of the second.
Possibly the bigger question is does the viewer care anyway? Every major character in the movie is either unfaithful, libidinous or selfish and in Scott's case all three, but in the end nobody wins, least of all the original Princess Diana herself, who once she tires of the celebrity sex-go-round, personified by Laurence Harvey's vapid, moveable feast character, in the end does a Grace Kelly by becoming married to a dull, older but fabulously wealthy Italian prince to whom she becomes his trophy wife.
With the 60's in full swing and Hollywood in thrall to London's vibrant scene, it's easy to see this movie pushing the right Academy buttons which duly saw it garner Oscar success for Christie for her acting in the lead role. For me though, I found her performance to be too self-consciously mannered so that it elicited not one scintilla of sympathy from me for her poor little rich girl predicament at the end after she finally meets karma at the hands of her one time lover Bogarde.
As for the direction, Schlesinger titillates with scenes of sex-parties, homosexual liaisons and even a symbolic strip to nudity by Diana as she sheds all that money has given her in a bid to recapture her lost innocence. Of course, this is one thing that she can never reclaim, but by the time of the odd ending when a far-from-nightingale sings in Trafalgar Square I found myself repelled by pretty much all the major characters depicted and was quite content that they all seemed by the end to have ended up with nothing to show for the heartache and disarray they bestowed on those beneath them whose orbit they briefly inhabit.
I'm a fan of the new wave of British cinema which emerged in various guises in the early 60's and of which this was one of the later examples, but with its dull John Dankworth soundtrack too, I just didn't warm to this ice-cold study of the rarified life at the top. Perhaps it's just me but maybe I prefer kitchen-sink to gold-tap stories such as this.
Made in between his two Beatles films, this is Richard Lester's film adaptation of the hit U.K. play of the day. A sex comedy aimed at the youth audience it's very much a four-hander revolving around country-girl-come-to-the-city Rita Tushingham, gauche young teacher Michael Crawford, his lady-killer tenant Ray Brooks and flighty young Irishman Donal Donnelly.
Crawford's Colin imagines a coterie of beautiful girls hanging around Brooks's Tolen character's room upstairs and longs to be as confident as him around females. Also on their different ways to Colin's run-down flat are Tushingham's mildly rebellious but sexually repressed Nancy and Donnelly's mad painter Tom (literally a painter not an artist, he just wants to paint over anything brown).
To a usually jeering background chorus of the censorious older generation, the four intermingle in ever more absurdist situations. The first of these occurs when Colin, with Tom, tries to take home an old four poster bed collected at a scrap heap (because he thinks having a double bed will solve his problems with the ladies) they pick up Nancy on the way and literally ride it through the streets and even on water back to his flat, where of course they can't manage to get it up the stairs and into his room.
There they encounter the handsome, suited and booted, super-smooth Tolen who immediately starts to put the moves on the mousy Nancy initially for Tom's benefit but when he later tries to lead her upstairs himself, she throws a fit, strips naked, locks herself in the room and then for the last fifteen minutes or so runs out into the street to a public park screaming rape to all and sundry.
It's really all very haphazard and strange, the stranger, at least to me, for being written by a woman. The references to rape I found distasteful and difficult to excuse even allowing for the swinging times in which the film was made and ultimately I couldn't clearly see the point or points it was trying to make. Generation gap, sexual permissiveness, the treatment of women, masculinity mores, well maybe, but with the unnatural dialogue and unfunny slapstick situations depicted I never once caught on to the message, rhythm or attempted humour of the piece.
Crawford frequently exhibits the physical comedy and child-like innocence for which he later became famous on TV in the 70's, Tushingham is Sphinx-like in her passivity, Donnelly is plain eccentric with his disjointed conversation about lions, paint and tea and Brooks projects a glib and self-confident persona until exposed for the fraud he is but all mixed together with Lester's trick-bag of eccentric camera-work with sped-up, backwards-running, subtitled, you-name-it sequences, I was just confused and irritated to the point of willing it to finish.
Perhaps it served as a rallying point for sexual freedom or youthful expression back in the heady days of 1965, but for me, it all looked very staged, awkward and dated.
Hatton Garden (2019)
When thieves fall out....
Delayed from transmission for two years due to legal complications, this four-part dramatisation of the Hatton Gardens heist which according to different reports cleared between £14,000,000 to a mind-boggling £200,000,000, the events depicted, from what I've read up in the background, appear accurate and true to life.
Carried out at the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit location in London's "Diamond District" over the Bank Holiday Weekend in May 2015 by a gang of elderly career criminals dubbed the "diamond wheezers" by the press, doing "one last job" the series concentrated more on the planning and carrying out of the robbery than the police operation which eventually caught the gang and brought them to justice.
There were bound to be few surprises in the cast with familiar faces from the old-boys network like Timothy Spall, Kenneth Cranham, Alex Norton and David Hayman to the fore and even if some of the broad Cockney accents were tricky to decipher, there's little doubt that the production here played it straight and scored points by deviating little from the well-known facts of the case, right down to the painstaking recreation of the actual underground crime scene itself.
The robbery itself was no Topkapi piece of silent, smoothly executed theatre. It was loud, messy and at times chaotic, with the initial six-strong gang having to abandon the operation on the first night due to their being unable to clear away nailed-down cabinets blocking entry, two members including the planner and ringleader Brian, played by Cranham, quitting the enterprise rather than go back the second night to try again and almost unbelievably, new boss Timothy Spall's Terry character keeling over with a diabetic episode mid-job.
And yet they somehow pulled it off, but squabbling over "divvying-up" the proceeds, especially when Brian comes back around sniffing for a share of the loot, saw the gang make the elementary mistake of not lying low for a time before being stung by a police operation which eventually netted the lot of them, including the elusive sixth man Basil, if not anywhere like the whole proceeds of the crime.
With such a reliable cast, respect for the source material and a commendable lack of sensationalism, it all made for strong viewing, even if the outcome was never in doubt. I particularly appreciated the invention of a composite character to stand in for the affected victims of this so-called "victimless" crime and the way his honesty and humility ultimately shamed the perpetrators own naked greed. I might quibble about some of the P.C. casting decisions with some of the peripheral characters and didn't like the loud guitar music used in the background, but with the experienced Spall and Cranham in particularly good form, this unglamorous depiction of this headline case ultimately proved worth the wait from production to transmission.
All That Money Can Buy (1941)
Devil to pay
An atmospheric and entertaining dark fantasy feature inventively directed by William Dieterle and starring those two old stagers Walter Huston and Edward Arnold in the title roles as they fight over the soul of a young man, Jabez Stone, in this adaptation of the Faustian legend.
As the film opens, we're introduced to struggling young farmer Stone and his family in mid 19th Century New Hampshire, his stern but supportive old mother and his meek, pious wife, who, at the end of his tether after a string of bad luck, invites the devil into his life by offering his soul for two cents if only his luck would change. Enter Huston as Old Nick, or as he's called here, Mr Scratch, in an eerily arresting scene, the first of many in the film, to take advantage of Stone's weakness to promptly sign him up to seven years of prosperity in return for his soul to be delivered up when that time is up.
Sure enough, Stone's prospects immediately turn for the better, but at the expense of his own Christian good-nature as he binds his fellow farmers to him in usury, hardens against his wife and mother and even condones the conduct of his openly rebellious young son as he defies his mum. In this he's helped by the chilling presence of Belle, a wild beauty, inserted by Mister Snatch into Stone's life by means of another startling introduction scene, almost immediately the baby is born. As the seven years tick by, with Scratch and Belle leading Jabez to perdition, there seems to be only man who can come to Stone's rescue, the good-natured, upstanding Daniel Webster, the future presidential aspirant for New Hampshire and it's to him that Stone's wife turns as a last resort to beg him to try to prise her husband from the Devil's grasp. Thus, in a titanic trial by the damned, convened by Scratch in Stone's mansion with the ghosts of bad men from American history, traitor Benedict Arnold most prominent amongst them, presiding, Jabez's fate is decided.
Huston is terrific as Mr Scratch, playing his character almost like a demented leprechaun at times, but still with a steely eye for his business with Arnold a good foil for him once they join battle. Simone Simon plays her role of temptress with demonic relish while James Craig and Anne Shirley shine as the young couple at the centre of the storm, although if Craig says "Concarn it!" one more time, I think I'll throttle him. The special effects are excellent, especially one concerning a flying axe and it's all helped by an early Bernard Herrmann soundtrack.
All in all, a suitably spooky, thought-provoking morality tale and as for that cheeky finishing shot, just watch out, Mr Scratch could be coming for you next time...
They Won't Forget (1937)
Forget me knot
While not in the same class as Fritz Lang's "Fury", (one of my favourite movies) on the same subject as mob rule, "They Won't Forget" for all its faults still makes a strong case against lynch law, which has to have been director / producer Mervyn LeRoy's primary intention here.
I understand that the prejudicial case against the defendant in this film was watered down to a simple North / South divide, when the actual source case on which the film is based was against a Northern Jew. I personally found it hard to credit that Yankee / Confederate bias alone could motivate so many of the locals to overlook the skimpy evidence raised against Edward Norris's Robert Hale character as to firstly convict him and then snatch him from the train taking him to prison to ruthlessly hang him themselves.
Interestingly, the film doesn't choose to resolve the question of who actually murdered young Mary Clay, which only helps to reinforce the anti-lynching message as the now dead man's widow's condemnatory words are the last spoken, leaving them ringing in the ears of the prosecuting District Attorney Claude Rains and hell-raising reporter Allyn Joslyn.
I found LeRoy's direction to be of mixed quality. On the debit side, he allows Rains to shout and point like a preening peacock, especially with his over-the-top grandstanding in the extended courtroom scenes, uses awkward devices like cutting to a screen-filling megaphone to commentate on the trial's progress and worst of all stereotypically treats a key witness, a black janitor, as a cringing, spineless simpleton, completely at the mercy of powerful white men. To his credit though, he effectively puts over Hale's destruction by metaphorically cutting to a speeding train snatching the night mail from a gallows-like stand and hey, he does discover Lana Turner, who in her brief screen time, makes a big impression as the unsuspecting young victim.
I wondered the whole length of the movie about the film title until that final scene when the distraught widow delivers the eulogy to her late husband's blinkered accusers which seemed to make clear to me the film's message was as much against capital punishment as lynching. Rains' overacting besides, there are better, more restrained performances in his considerable wake by the hapless young couple caught up in the maelstrom, Edward Norris and Gloria Dickson, Otto Kruger as the powerless defending attorney and a young Elisha Cook Jr as the victim's disgruntled boy-friend. The girl's two brothers and cousin who head up the mob however would give the Three Stooges a run for their money with their taciturn obtuseness.
Like I said, a movie of mixed quality but the central message struggles its way through and for that at least, director LeRoy is to be commended.
Treachery, troubles, tribulations and Trumbo
I have lately been reading up on and listening to a lot of podcasts on the Blacklist and so inevitably came to this recent biopic of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, whose eventual accredited work at the end of the 50's on the major films "Spartacus" and "Exodus" is generally accepted as effective proof that the Blacklist had at last been broken.
Starring Bryan Cranston in the title role as the charismatic, principled writer, it tells his rise, fall and rise again story amongst those of many others in the era, so positing the contrasting points of view and political stances taken by many of his contemporaries, many of them famous, during this troubled time in American history.
No one film can take in all of the different stories and nuance all the different shades of opinion of the day and so this one concentrates its focus on major characters such as of course Trumbo but also his fellow travellers such as left-leaning actor Edward G Robinson, fellow banned writer Ian McLellan Hunter and the opportunist low-budget film producers the King Brothers who took advantage of the sudden availability of quality writers at cut-price rates to churn out screenplays either uncredited or under pseudonyms for their trashy but profitable low-budget features. Railed against Trumbo and his cohorts on the side of the House of Un-American Committee are numbered the influential harridan gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Mr American Hero himself, John Wayne, although on both sides I didn't understand or approve of the use of fictional composite characters like Arlen Hird, standing in for important individual writers like Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson and Samuel Ornitz or major studio producer Buddy Ross for Dore Schary and Walter Wanger. Whilst I understand the need to reduce the headcount in telling a story involving so many different people, I still felt that this downplayed and ultimately denigrated the contributions of important individuals, especially that of Maltz who completely disagreed with the forgiving tone of Trumbo's valedictory speech in 1970 at the end of the film while accepting an important industry award where he exonerates his accusers in the same sentence as their victims.
Anyway, putting verisimilitude to one side, difficult as that maybe in such a representation of history, the film certainly gripped and entertained from start to finish. It showed Trumbo as the swimming-pool radical he was, happy to espouse Communist views even as he lived a luxurious lifestyle with his wife and young family and didn't flinch from showing his own dramatic fall from grace particularly when he is incarcerated in prison, his only comfort being that this ironically turns out to be shared with his also now imprisoned main accuser, disgraced H.U.A.C. leader J Parnell Thomas. I certainly savoured Trumbo's withering put-down of Thomas when they meet inside that at least Thomas was behind bars for actually committing a crime (tax evasion), almost as much as his riposte to the hectoring bluster of all-American Wayne by asking him where he served during the war.
Cranston is excellent as Trumbo, highlighting the man's contradictions but ultimately the courage of his convictions as well as his crankiness towards his supportive but neglected family unit. The sense of time and place is effectively rendered with fine cinematography and a subtle jazz-flavoured soundtrack.
The film I believe pretty accurately portrayed the events of the time and while of necessity telescoping events for the sake of brevity, nevertheless shed further light on a disgraceful episode in the entertainment industry of the time. If nothing else, it made me re-appraise my opinion of till now one of my favourite Golden Age Hollywood actors Edward G Robinson. Wayne's hypocrisy, on the other hand, I was well aware of.
The Front (1976)
Black to Front
Or the blacklisters' revenge. Written by formerly blacklisted screenwriter Howard Bernstein, directed by another formerly blacklisted director Martin Ritt and starring a number of formerly blacklisted actors, most prominently Zero Mostel, in his final screen role, "The Front" must have been one of the first Hollywood features to openly portray the events of that most tawdry episode in Tinseltown's chequered history, the Hollywood Blacklist of the late 40's and 50's.
Woody Allen is the designated front-man for at first just one blacklisted screenwriter friend, a downtrodden cashier with a gambling problem, but attracted by the earnings potential of fronting for other struggling writers, as well as the fringe benefits of a boost in personal status and I suppose inevitably for any Allen starring film even when he hasn't written it himself, a pretty young woman who falls for the writer in him, he's soon submitting any number of scripts to a hungry TV producer taking 10% off the top for himself.
The tone of the movie is somewhat light and not as dark and scathing as I might have expected or indeed wished. Too much is made of Allen's pat neurotic characteristics, as we see in his early scenes with his businessman brother who bales out his debts and later his relationship with the attractive but principled younger script editor played by Angela Marcovicci, who he's soon prising away from her steady boyfriend, mainly due to her admiration for his written work, which of course he's not penned.
That said, there is a powerful second plot around Zero Mostel's character, very obviously I'd imagine a self-portrait of the man's own younger self, a loud and lairy comedian who sees his work dry-up due to his youthful flirtations with leftist politics and who is pressured by the suits representing the FBI and the House of Un-American Activities Committee to cooperate and name names, most prominently Allen's rising star.
The film climaxes with both Allen and Mostel's ultimate reactions to this pressure, one tragic, the other in its way noble, although immediately Allen delivers his John Garfield-ian response to his questioners, he's feted by the public as a hero and falls into Markovicci's waiting arms to the soothing strains of Sinatra's "Young At Heart", which while contrasting with Mostel's fate, still seemed too simplistic and gratuitous to my mind, even as I appreciate he's heading off to jail as he does so.
Still, if this is how actual Blacklist participants, Bernstein and Ritt, wished to portray events which affected them personally at the time, who am I to argue, only, having recently read up on and listened to a number of blogs on the subject, I think I'd have preferred a harder-hitting, bleaker expose of those troubled times and probably with a different actor in the lead role.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Possibly the best screwball comedy of them all, it's amazing to realise that "Bringing Up Baby" wasn't that great a success on initial release. Grant and Hepburn had appeared together before (they eventually made four films together), but not under the frenetic direction of Howard Hawks. Of course there are so many great ingredients besides, all combining to make it the recognised classic it is today, like May Robson as Hepburn's giddy aunt, Charles Ruggles as a less-than-intrepid big game-hunter and Ward Bond as the bemused local sheriff trying to bring order to the continuing chaos that happens around Grant's mild-mannered palaeontologist David Huxley and Hepburn's kooky, party girl, Susan Vance. That's not to mention two leopards, one bad, one good, a mischievous pooch and a brontosaurus skeleton.
The viewer is raced through a succession of hilarious comedic situations right from the start when we first meet Grant as the timid, bespectacled professor, keenly anticipating his wedding nuptials the next day to his so-serious fiancée and the arrival of the last bone, the oft-mentioned intercostal clavicle, required in the reconstruction of the museum's prize brontosaurus exhibit. His last task, also on his busy wedding day, is to schmooze a $1,000,000 donation from an elderly, wealthy widow's legal advisor over a friendly game of golf which is where he accidentally runs into Hurricane Kate's dizzy character.
From the golf course, to the car park, to a high society dinner where Susan tears his tail-coat and then loses the back of her dress, to her apartment where we meet the docile pet leopard shipped over for her to deliver to her aunt, to said aunt's country house and her bone-loving pet dog, where we get probably the film's most celebrated moment when an end-of-his-tether Grant jumps up in the air wearing a woman's bathrobe crying "I just went gay all of a sudden!", I'm almost breathless just writing this down.
Anyway, when a second, rogue leopard is introduced to proceedings, via a local circus, things spiral even more out of control as one by one the leads all end up in jail giving Hepburn the chance to deliver a hilarious turn as a hard-boiled gangster's moll, before the climactic final scene where the two by-now lovers seal the deal over a collapsing dinosaur skeleton.
Peopled besides by a supporting cast of loveable eccentrics, with Grant and Hepburn in rip-roaring form throughout and directed at breakneck speed by Hawks, "Bringing Up Baby" is about as good as film comedy gets.
If this doesn't tickle your intercostal clavicle, then you're probably deader than the brontosaurus in Grant's museum.
Man of Steel (2013)
The most recent Superman reboot until the next one comes along, as it surely will, especially now that Henry Cavill has quit the title part. I'm old enough to remember the Christopher Reeve portrayal of old Supes and it was far more entertaining than this. Yet again, the viewer has to sit through another destruction of Krypton prologue with a big name actor in the part of Poppa Jor-El, who with his wife Lara send their newly born boy Kal-El to Earth where our yellow sun will give him "super" powers, also another big-name couple playing Ma and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) during young Clark's boyhood, before the meat of the story appears, or rather reappears in the form of General Zod, a fellow Kryptonian exiled to the Phantom Zone for an attempted coup and murder of Jor-El. However the problem of pitting two super-humans against one other as the film's finale does make for a really boring match-off as they knock each other into the middle of next week, destroying buildings and cars by the score before an admittedly surprise code-breaking conclusion came literally as the end.
The whole "with great power comes great responsibility" schtick was really done to death as we're asked to believe that our hero would just let old Pa Kent sacrifice himself for the sake of keeping Clark's identity secret, as if life preservation wasn't our hero's chief modus operandi, at least the way I read the original comics.
The SFX were just CGI overkill, not helped by Hans Zimmer's ear-bashing soundtrack. For me Cavill gave me nothing new in the titular role, despite his Mr Universe physique, likewise Amy Adams as a decidedly unsexy Lois Lane and Laurence Fishbourne in his P.C. turn as Perry White. Michael Shannon merely blustered as Zod, although I did think that Russell Crowe passably represented Jor-El although how he ended up getting more screen time after his demise really stretched artistic licence.
With no Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang or Lex Luther either, it did seem as if characterisation lost out out in favour of the old crash-bang-wallop of interminable fight sequences, indeed you knew you were in trouble early on the moment peace-loving scientist Jor-El makes like a ninja when he encounters Zod early on in the movie. There was zero humour either, no real pacing and very little engagement in the story-telling.
Listen I know that a lot of success in comic and film adaptations in recent years has come from re-imagining the character's origin story but this one seemed boring and shed very little new light on old red and blue. By the finish, my eyes and ears were black and blue from the unwelcome sensory assault I encountered here.
The More the Merrier (1943)
Room for improvement
A rather gentle wartime comedy set in Washington where a housing shortage sees citizens encouraged to make room to share their accommodations and a male shortage sees eight women to one man all over town.
When he finds his booked hotel reservation unavailable, retired millionaire Charles Coburn's Mr Dingle character decides to make a little mischief by queue-jumping the sublet of an apartment occupied by Jean Arthur's accounts clerkess Connie Milligan and then a little more by subletting his own sublet to Joel McCrae's soon-to-go-overseas soldier, Joe Carter, without asking Connie's permission.
With old Dingle pulling the strings, the already engaged Connie and free and easy Carter are gently drawn together, at the same time disentangling her from her 22 month betrothal to her older, stuffed-shirt fiancé whom she still addresses as "Mr".
Although it has its screwball moments, particularly the extended opening scenes where well-organised Connie lays out a rigorous morning timetable for old Dingle to follow, later complicated when he is joined in the cramped apartment by McCrae, the three's comings and goings are neatly choreographed into a series of slapsticky near-misses until the younger couple finally encounter each other.
Perhaps I prefer my vintage comedies to be just a little bit more madcap than this but for me the film lacked big laugh-out-loud scenes and I wasn't even sure I liked Coburn's interfering old curmudgeon-come-matchmaker character and all that "Damn the torpedoes" stuff. That said, McCrae and Arthur are good, especially in their scenes together, as the film drifts merrily but a little blandly towards its unsurprisingly upbeat but sentimental and somewhat overdone ending.
For me, the movie, while mildly entertaining, lacked the spark and sparkle a Hawks or Capra would have lent to this sort of material and won't stay long in my memory I'm sure.
A Place in the Sun (1951)
Monty gets another raw deal
Top notch thriller drama featuring Montgomery Clift in the lead role as the young man for whom the American Dream turns to American Tragedy. Not that he doesn't contribute to his own downfall. When he's plucked from family poverty by his distant uncle to work in the latter's factory, basically packing boxes, the largely female-populated workplace helps him to overcome his basic shyness around people. It's not too long before he's found a kindred spirit in workmate Shelley Winters' Alice Tripp character and they drift into a relationship until that is his uncle then introduces him to the super-rich Vickers family and all their entourage.
There he's swept up into a lightning romance of heightened passion with the beautiful young queen of the society set, Miss Angela Vickers, played by Elizabeth Taylor in one of her first more adult roles. Then, just as Clift's George Eastman character seems to be fitting into this new world to the extent that he wins Angela's father consent to become engaged, Alice drops the bombshell on him, that she's now pregnant. Talked out of an abortion by a sympathetic doctor, she demands that George marry her to legitimise the baby and just maybe, she hopes, kickstart their fading relationship.
However, George is now clearly Infatuated with Angela and enticed by the prospect of an easy life at the top, he now sees the clinging Alice as the one, or more truly one and a half obstacles to his future prospects. A dark plan occurs to him but from there it all goes wrong for the three principals in different ways as the film moves towards its tragic conclusion.
Director George Stevens controls the narrative masterfully and garners great performances from all the main cast, particularly Clift and Winters. Deliberately filmed in black and white as befits the bleakness of the subject matter, Stevens composes many of his scenes masterfully, using extreme close-ups, always edging the story forward one dread step at a time. Amongst many memorable scenes there's one where the news of Alice's death is heard in broken fashion from a radio on the ground as the beautiful young people, George and Angela amongst them, gad about in a speedboat around the bay, Taylor's terrific dead faint reflected on a massive mirror and the final walk of Eastman, comparable in its understated effect to Cagney's contrasting cry-baby exit in "Angels With Dirty Faces" years before.
In fact the only section of the film that really jarred with me a bit was the extended courtroom scene where Raymond Burr's prosecuting D.A. goes over the top to get his man.
That apart this movie was gripping all the way through, stays in the memory afterwards and rightly in my opinion saw Stevens win the best director Oscar that year.