Archive for the ‘Noir’ Category

Decision to Leave (2022) Cannes Film Festival 2022

Dir: Park Chan-took | South Korea, Thriller, 138′

Park Chan-wook returns to Cannes after nearly six years and his latest, a dazzling Neo-noir love story spiked with dark humour and enveloped in a crime thriller, has won him Best Director. Decision to Leave is certainly a slick and seductive character drama although the sinuous serpentine plot may cause some frustration in the second half, and at well over two hours it rather overstays its welcome considering Claude Chabrol was making these kind of thrillers – admittedly on a much smaller budget – in a tightly-wound ninety minutes, always leaving you wanting more.

Decision to Leave revolves around an insomniac detective (Park Hae-li) investigating the death of a climber who fell from a shard-like mountain of the South Korean coastal location offering vertiginous contrast to the shadowplay of the more sombre domestic scenes, and adding to the thriller’s sultry allure. Seo-rae (Tang Wei), his Chinese widow, is not overly devastated by the loss of her husband and her blasé attitude leaves the pragmatic and happily married detective intrigued as he is slowly entranced by the widow’s enigmatic personality and beguiling beauty, prolonging the course of the murder investigation in a texturally rich narrative that touches on the enduring power of sex in longterm relationships, and the role of nutrition in healing the body.

The investigation grows more complex Detective Hae woon’s behaviour raises suspicions not only with his wife but also his colleague who questions him about his professional commitment to crime-solving. Meanwhile Seo-rae picks up on his interest in her which goes beyond the call of duty, particularly when he invites her to a lush sushi dinner and also prepares her favourite Chinese food in the privacy of her own kitchen.

Hae-joon and his wife eventually make the decision to move to another part of town to get some distance from a situation that grows more opaque when sinister details about the Chinese woman’s past emerge from police immigration records.

Decision to Leave is striking to look at, and the romantic interplay between detective and suspect offers its strongest moments, Park using his signature subtle wit to explore the sensuous dynamic between the two: the cool and procedural cop who falls victim to love and the geisha girl with a mysterious past. The second half becomes more erratic and loses its grip. It feels like the director finally gave up on his carefully constructed story that implodes in an enigmatic denouement and a captivating last scene on a deserted beach.

A striking and soulful thriller that succeeds largely due to the potent interplay between Tang-Wei and Park Hai Li whose chemistry smoulders in the same way as Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity (1944). But will this South Korean affair still be memorable in another eighty years? MT

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL | BEST DIRECTOR

 

 

 

 

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Dir: John M Stahl | Cast: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jean Crain, Vincent Price | US Noir 110′

I was once asked what the most glamorous film I could think of was; and this sumptuous adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’ best-seller was the title from my video collection I came up with.

Only in the movies could a man find himself being interrogated in court by a district attorney who had previously been the discarded suitor of the woman he married; played, moreover, by Vincent Price with all the vengeful malice he could muster.

Long after his death in 1950 director John Stahl was described by Andrew Sarris as “a neglected pre-Sirkian figure”, and with Natalie Kalmus making sure the images were clean and bright Leon Shamroy’s Oscar-winning Technicolor photography was not then permitted the dramatic high-contrast look Russell Metty created ten years later for Douglas Sirk at Universal (the lens flare at one critical moment probably made it into the final print only because it was in a scene shot on location and Technicolor therefore couldn’t insist upon it being re-shot). But the rich images and Alfred Newman’s magnificent score make it a glorious experience to savour. @RichardChatten

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On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Dir: Nicholas Ray | Cast: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan | US Thriller 82′

Robert Ryan commences in full psycho mode in this further step up in the ascending career of Nicholas Ray. Filmed under the title Mad with Much Heart, it begins as a very noir noir before relocating to Colorado to become a snowswept rural drama, the two halves held together by George Diskant’s photography and by a superlative score by Bernard Herrmann (his personal favourite) which anticipates his later work for North by Northwest.

The presence in the early scenes on the mean streets of Charles Kemper, already dead eighteen months when it finally hit screens in February 1952, shows that like many other RKO productions of the time it spent months on the shelf at RKO while the studio’s new owner Howard Hughes dithered over when finally to release it. @RichardChatten

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Inferno (1953) Bluray

Dir: Roy Ward Baker | Cast: Rhonda Fleming, Robert Ryan | US Western 73′

Although largely forgotten today, this ‘desert noir’ probably marked the early fifties apex both of the 3D film and the sojourn in Hollywood of director Roy Baker, who glowingly recalled it as “a very good story indeed”.

Robert Ryan, however, plainly had this movie in mind when he lamented that Cary Grant got the glamorous parts while he had to make do with “deserts with a dirty shirt and two day growth of beard” (although he forgot to mention also having a broken leg). Rhonda Fleming as his faithless wife, on the other hand, is dressed to kill in expensive finery throughout.

Shot in gleaming Technicolor by ace cameraman Lucien Ballard in Apple Valley on the edge of the Mojave desert, Baker said the idea appealed to him of making an interior film without dialogue. There’s actually a lot of talk in the finished film (including about what a jerk Ryan’s character was prior to the film opening not really bourne out by Ryan’s engaging performance; although those inclined to get sentimental about cuddly wildlife like rabbits and deer are likely to take umbrage at the way Ryan looks upon them purely as food), and in context such comments as “That’s my Rabbit!” and “Want a ride?” really hit the spot. Ditto the closing line. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON BLURAY

In the Mist | I Dimma Dold | (1953) Netflix

Dir: Lars Eric Kjellgren | Cast: Eva Henning, Sonja Wigert, Hjordis Petterson, Dagmar Ebbesen, Georg Rydeberg, Sven Lindberg | Noir thriller Sweden 82′

A valuable collection of films by the Swedish director Lars Eric Kjellgren have recently appeared on Netflix, including this rather stylish arthouse noir starring Eva Henning as the kittenish femme fatale Lora (a Nordic Lizabeth Scott).

Based on his own novel Vic Suneson’s script begins as Lora is driving away from her comfortable mansion where her husband Walter (a rather ghoulish Georg Rydeberg) is later discovered shot dead. But the murderer remains a mystery as the glacially elegant Lora demurely teases a coterie of locals – including an earnest detective (Sven Lindberg) and a ludicrous pair of old biddies, into solving the crime.

Boasting bold black and white photography by Gunnar Fischer (Wild Strawberries) this is a joy to watch as it gracefully combines vivid realist street scenes of 1950s Stockholm with lush interiors culminating in a ‘Cluedo’ style dinner party denouement primped by Erik Nordgren’s needling score. MT

ON NETFLIX 

The Frightened Man (1952)

Dir: John Gilling | Cast: Dermot Walsh, Barbara Murray, Charles Victor, John Blythe | UK Drama 69′

An ultra-noirish cautionary tale (like most Tempean productions superlatively lit by Monty Berman) sternly warning audiences in postwar austerity Britain against the lure of apparently easy money; such as that stands to be acquired from frequent target Hatton Garden in a diamond heist.

Making the most of a meagre budget, John Gilling writes and directs a tighly-plotted and rather unpredicable little heist thriller that sees the profligate Julius Rosselli (Walsh) paying a visit to his adoring, antique shop-owner father (Charles Victor) after being sent down from Oxford University in disgrace. Julius plunders his father’s savings, flirts with the lodger (Murray) and soon falls in with a criminal element in a bid to make money without working for it, in a heist that runs into complications.

The first of two films by Tempean in which Charles Victor played the lead (the second being the title role in The Embezzler) flanked by the usual choice cast many of whom later featured in TV comedy series (Peter Bayliss in ‘The Fenn Street Gang’, Ballard Berkeley in ‘Fawlty Towers’, John Horsley in ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’, Martin Benson in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and Thora Hird and Michael Ward in just about everything else). Richard Chatten.

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO | TALKING PICTURES TV

Blast of Silence (1961) DVD

Dir: Allen Baron | Cast: Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy, Larry Tucker, Peter Clune | US Noir Thriller 77′

The most valuable asset to an ambitious young filmmaker of the 21st Century would probably be a time machine capable of returning you to the year 1960. Clocking in at just 77 minutes but seeming much longer, Blast of Silence is further evidence that in those days it would have taken genius for an independent filmmaker NOT to create a classic city ‘noir’. Just make sure there’s film in your camera and take your pick from all the breathtaking compositions – complete with vintage cars and sharply dressed passers-by – constantly forming around you; even Michael Winner couldn’t fail to turn in a black & white urban gem three years later with West 11 (1963).

It certainly anticipates Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) – but then so do Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss (1955) and Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) – and plenty have been seduced by Blast of Silence’s aura of monochrome period cool into extravagantly overpraising it. Allen Baron’s inexpressive performance as hit-man Frankie Bono (he resembles a young George C. Scott) certainly provides a perfect blank slate on which to inscribe any profundities or angst that grab you. In his capacity as writer-director Baron at some point late in production evidently felt the need to do just that, calling upon two eminent blacklistees whose services at the time would have been available at an affordable price.

The insistent narration reminiscent of Mark Hellinger’s in The Naked City was written under the pseudonym Mel Davenport by Waldo Salt (who later won Academy Awards for Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home), while the rasping voice of Lionel Stander is uncredited but unmistakable on the soundtrack, providing the glue which with Merrill Brody’s photography holds the film together. Unfortunately much of what Stander keeps telling us on the soundtrack doesn’t really need to be spelled out so relentlessly; while Meyer Kupferman’s jazz score is extremely effective in moderation, but gets very noisy in places.

Despite supposedly being such a pro, Frankie Bono’s murder of Big Ralph (played by Larry Tucker, who I recognised from Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor) is remarkably amateurishly executed, his long-anticipated hit of Troiano no big deal, and he proves remarkably easy to ambush at the film’s conclusion. Richard Chatten

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Jungle Street (1960) Talking Pictures

Dir: Charles Saunders | Wri: Alexander Dore | Cast: Jill Ireland, David McCallum, Kenneth Cope, Brian Weske, Vanda Hudson, Edna Dore | UK Thriller 89′

A short-haired Jill Ireland already caught the eye as a dancer in ‘Powell & Pressburger’s Oh…Rosalinda!! in 1955. A few years later we discover her as a glacial hussy flaunting herself in tights in a strip club called the Adam & Eve (along with several other girls, one of them Black) in this vividly sleazy record of a Britain sixty years ago between the end of the Chatterley ban and The Beatles’ first L.P.

Her leading men were later TV stars David McCallum (then looking very lean ‘n hungry and married to Ireland, who later dumped him for Charles Bronson), and Kenneth Cope, introduced in what was then the traditional manner of leaving Wormwood Scrubs.

Noirishly photographed by Walter J. Harvey from a story by exploitation producer Guido Coen, and with an appropriately trashy jazz score by someone called Harold Geller, it vividly evokes a world sixty years ago when £50 was worth committing robbery with violence for, despite it then being a hanging offence. Richard Chatten.

(P.S. Ignore the date given by the IMDb, according to Gifford’s ‘British Film Catalogue’ it was released in October 1961, and 1961 is the date in the credits.)

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In Cold Blood (1967) DVD

Dir: Richard Brooks | Cast: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Tex Smith, Paul Stewart, Jeff Corey, Gerald S O’Loughlin | US Crime Thriller, 130′

Truman Capote’s celebrated reporting of a Kansas murder case, In Cold Blood, is the basis for Richard Brooks’s disturbing docudrama. The film opens as a Greyhound bus roars into the darkness of a desolate prairie night, bound for Kansas City. Black silhouetted figures stand out, one is a man with a guitar. A girl passenger sees a boot with the famous catspaw soles (‘catspaws won’t slip’), and this is the clue that will eventually lead to the murderer – and the Capote’s nemesis.

Formally ambitious yet elegantly restrained the film crisply evokes the small-town Sixties Kansas in Conrad Hall’s stylish black and white visuals with a classy score by Quincy Jones. New Yorker Capote had spent over six months getting to know the Kansas locals for his ‘non-fiction novel’, and one local in particular would be his unravelling. He trusted Brooks to transfer his own ideas to the screen, and they were both sold on black and white, Hall creating a gritty true crime feel, and some stunning Wild West style panoramas, Brooks carrying the authenticity through by filming in the town and the exact house where the murders actually happened, but Capote became mesmerised by one of the perpetrators, Perry Smith.

The events of the case grippingly unfold in a chronological narrative recounting how four members of the ‘God-fearing’ Clutter family were slaughtered in cold blood one night in 1959 by two two ex-convicts looking for cash during a random burglary in the remote  rural property. They stole a radio and a few dollars and left few clues as to their identity, but Brooks shows how Kansas Police (lead by a superb John Forsythe) embark on a lengthy and painstaking investigation eventually catching and convicting the killers and bringing them to justice in 1965.

Robert Blake (Perry Smith) and Scott Wilson (Dick Hickock) are utterly convincing as the ruthless killers. And although we already know that they committed the murders from the early scenes Brooks generates a palpable tension while he fleshes out the investigation and we get a chance to fathom the broken minds of the perpetrators.

At the end of the day, who can really understand why two people only intending to rob the Clutters, and who had not committed murder before, suddenly decided to sadistically murder four innocent people on a quiet night in 1959? And what did the modest Clutters do provoke such vicious violence?

Richard Brooks’s fractured narrative flips nervously back and forth brilliantly evoking both the frenzied minds of the killers and the fervent need of detectives to nail and endite their suspects. Conrad Hall’s noirish visuals re-visit the rain-soaked scene of the crime, the remote locations and the fugitives’ brief escape to Mexico and their chance arrest in Las Vegas, while allowing brief glimpses of the genesis of their disfunctional family stories.

Brooks skilfully avoids showing bloodshed, violence or macabre crime scenes, allowing the terror to haunt our minds rather than the cinema screen. The mercilessness of the intruders and the abject fear and vulnerability of Clutters in their final moments is more evocative than any blood-soaked bedroom scene. By the time we reach the trial and imprisonment, we are glad to be done with these sordid criminals, although Brooks a scintilla of sympathy for Perry Smith who seems to have been led on. Robert Blake and Scott Wilson give chilling and resonant portrayals in the leading roles. MT

ON DVD | REMASTERED COURTESY OF PARK CIRCUS FILMS.

 

The Steel Trap (1952) ****

Dir: Andrew L Stone | Cast: Joseph Cotton, Teresa Wright | US Film Noir, 82′

The thrillers of Andrew L. Stone have still yet to receive their due; those who have seen them are rightly crazy about them, but they remain stubbornly little known to the general public, and very little – although invariably positive – is ever written about them.

The Steel Trap is one of his best; Planes, Trains and Automobiles played straight, with characters you care about and well acted down to the bit players, moments of dry black humour that can make you laugh out loud at the tensest moments, terrific location photography by Ernest Laszlo (this picture really cries out for Blu-ray), and a noisy Dimitri Tiomkin score that adds to the fun (I particularly liked the Brazilian lilt he adopted every time Cotton’s destination in Rio was mentioned).

Partly filmed in New Orleans, Louisiana, it centres on Cotton’s long term Los Angeles banker who can’t resist robbing his own employer and absconding to Brazil with the cash when he discovers there’s no extradition with the US. He clears it all with his wife Laurie (Teresa Wright) and they hatch a plan, leaving his daughter with the mother in law. But it’s not all plain sailing, far from it. A nail-biting ride that sees Cotten and Wright reunited after Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Richard Chatten .

 

Dishonored Lady (1947) ****

Dir: Robert Stevenson | Cast: Hedy Lamarr, Dennis O’Keefe, John Loder, William Lundigan, Morris Carnovsky | US Noir thriller, 85′

The second of two independent productions made by Hedy Lamarr’s own company continuing Hollywood’s forties fascination with psychiatry; with Morris Carnovsky’s benign, pipe-smoking psychiatrist following in the footsteps of Now Voyager’s Dr.Jaquith in curing fur-coated glamour puss Lamarr (“as pretty as a picture and as stubborn as a mule”) of a malaise languidly expressed in chain-smoking and dependence on sleeping pills.

Directed by Robert Stevenson, who later made Mary Poppins, this too concerns the exploits of a career woman in a suit without a woman’s usual fear of mice. She’s not short of suitors (plainly cast with actors intended not to outshine the star; one of them Lamarr’s then-husband John Loder, who courts her to ‘Tristan and Isolde’).

About two-thirds of the way through the plot abruptly changes from Lady in the Dark to Mildred Pierce, with Lamarr a glamorous defendant in the dock in the final third after one of the suitors gets murdered. But I won’t spoil the ending for you..Richard Chatten.

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The Interrupted Journey (1949) ***

Dir: Daniel Birt | UK Thriller, 80′

A title that the producers once thought for The Interrupted Journey is The Cord. And in some ways it better describes this compelling nightmarish noir directed by Daniel Birt. A writer eloping with his lover pulls the alarm cord on a late night train throwing his future into doubt and implicating himself in a murder. But did the man really pull the cord, or was it just a dream?

Richard Todd stars alongside Valerie Hobson in this British crime thriller a follow up to No Room at the Inn (1948). Todd is budding author John North in love with his publisher’s wife Susan (Norden) while still married to Carol (Hobson). At a certain point in their train getaway the communication cord is pulled twice. But mystery surrounds who actually pulled the cord that stopped the train, resulting in a crash, or perhaps only a temporary standstill? And did such a thing really happen after all?

The pulling of that emergency cord is nevertheless pivotal to the storyline and its conclusion. The Interrupted Journey’s dramatic twists or contrived let-downs (depending on your point of view) reveal an intriguing dilemma between the depiction of dreams in cinema, and the consequences for realising a plausible thriller. But does this really matter – if you successfully create your own invented world you’ll carry the audience with you? Hitchcock did this time and time again.

At this point if you don’t want to hear spoilers, then stop reading and head straight to the conclusion. In the meantime, let’s examine the plot. John North leaves his wife and runs away with Susan Wilding. On the train he gets cold feet, pulls the communication cord and leaves the carriage. The emergency stop causes a major collision with another train causing considerable casualties. North confesses to Carol that he planned to leave her for another woman. The police discover that Susan was shot dead before the crash. The authorities try to arrest North. He tracks down Susan’s husband Clayton (Tom Walls) who didn’t die in the collision and is  the real murderer, who then goes on to shoot North. At this point North wakes up on the train to discover it’s all been a very bad dream. Susan realises that John isn’t prepared to leave his wife. She pulls the cord, the train stops, and John returns home to his wife and a potentially happy ending.

Looking through the reactions of reviewers in IMDB there is a clear divide between those who go with the dream theory and those who don’t. So is the film’s finale insipid or intriguing? I’m on the side of an intriguing dream narrative because the film’s sense of reality is constantly being subverted by a nightmarish apprehension. John Pertwee, in a supposed real sequence of events, seeds his script with self-conscious references to dreaming: all these dream pointers become more apparent on revisiting The Interrupted Journey.

“Now I know it’s a nightmare.’ says Carol to John when she realises the police are on his tail. At this point we cut to a strong reaction shot of Carol that conveys a sense of displacement from her surroundings – we leave her home to go to an insert of an ill-defined studio space where she might in fact be dreaming. She then says angrily, “You shouldn’t talk in your sleep”. This refers back to John’s sleep-talking while in bed with his wife. But he’s talking about Susan, having returned from the train crash.

So we have North’s guilt creating a dream within dream. And Carol’s anxiety about the reality she is experiencing. Such ambiguity is subtly drawn and paced by Michael Pertwee’s deft script, Daniel Birt’s fluid direction and Irwin Hillier’s expressive photography.

There are other small details in The Interrupted Journey that make for a dreamlike atmosphere. Just before the runaway couple board their train they order coffee and cakes in the station cafe. Susan notices that the coffee tastes more like tea, and they leave with their rock cakes uneaten. Later at North’s home, the railway official who has come to investigate the crash is offered the rock cakes, with a cup of tea, as Carol remarks– “Well you can’t just throw rock cakes at detectives!” (A memorable line!)  – leftover food and coffee masquerading as tea help to create an uneasy dream-sense of surreal repetition.

Another small detail is the North’s grandfather clock that runs ten minutes slow. This features at the beginning of the film and John casually reminds himself to get it fixed one day. Yet near the climax Carol corrects the time from nine fifty to ten o’clock: a routine reality, hence normality is restored for Carol and John’s relationship. He has arrived home and there wasn’t a crash. But, for a moment, Todd is disturbed by the hooting of the passing train  (a lovely edgy twist here). Was it really a dream? Will reality kick in? It does kick in but not for a crash to happen again but only to create a short halt on the track. John’s relieved and embraces his wife. But there is the small matter of him having (in reality?) mailed Carol a letter explaining his affair with Susan. And that letter will arrive in the morning post – now only in the thoughts of the audience: requiring an explanation, long after the credits have rolled up. But will Richard Todd be able to destroy the letter before Valerie Hobson sees it, as he did, once before, in the bad reality or bad dream he suffered earlier?

Two films, both made in 1945, immediately come to mind as having possibly influenced The Interrupted Journey and they are Dead of Night (1945) and Lang’s The Woman in the Window. (1944). A further link with Lang is photographer Irwin Hillier who worked with the director on M (1931) at the UFA studios and later with Michael Powell supplying luminous photography for Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944), and I know where I’m going. Hillier contributes strongly to the sweaty, expressionist fear experienced here by North, through often beautiful lighting and a palpable subjective camera positioning.

More than likely then that Daniel Birt and Michael Pertwee watched those earlier films – a supernatural chiller and a noir of sexual obsession. In The Woman in the Window a murder, committed by Edward G.Robinson, proves to be a nightmare after his waking up to the chiming of a clock in his gentleman’s club (Fritz Lang has convincingly defended his film’s happy ending, for like The Interrupted Journey, I feel there is a wish-fulfilment fantasy at play here). And in Dead of Night we are left with the cyclic horror of repetition on discovering we will never wake up from the architect’s nightmare – but we will, sooner or later, awake from our train reverie..

The Interrupted Journey may hints at no way out yet never descends into morbid psychological horror. And like Woman in the Window, Birt’s melodrama combines thrills with romantic desire and emotional fulfilment. Underneath the trappings of a brilliantly shot and excellently acted noir, marital longing and rejection flourish in Valerie Hobson’s wonderful performance. She was often criticised for portraying the decent, domesticated wife in British Cinema. Yet here she touchingly plays that role with a warmth and unsentimental honesty that convinces us of her sincere love for the Richard Todd character. The railway official repeatedly says to John North, “Don’t you know you have woman in a million?” And this reminder of Carol’s affection and concern voiced by a stranger who soon turns into a prosecutor intent on extracting not only a murder confession from North, but also an acknowledge of his love for a devoted wife. The Interrupted Journey is never a case of surreal ‘amour fou’, more an intense request for fidelity of an English and very late-forties kind. Think of David Lean’s Brief Encounter rather than Luis Bunuel.

The Interrupted Journey is by no means a masterpiece. Its dream content is never as coherently realised as The Woman in the Window nor does it ever suggest a satisfying Freudian sub-text. It can best be described as a modest, technically astute and enjoyably intuitive but finally not as psychologically complex as the Lang feature. Yet as with Lang the film exudes a confident sense of the working out of fate, alternative outcomes and, unlike Lang, the power and responsibility of love.

Coming straight after Birt’s 1948 films No Room at the Inn and Three Weird Sisters then The Interrupted Journey strongly completes a strange threesome, and is by any standards a remarkable directorial achievement for British Cinema in the post war era. And you can currently join the journey and pull, in disappointment or pleasure, its regulation cord, on Talking Pictures TV or Youtube. © ALAN PRICE

The Prowler (1951) ****

Dir.: Joseph Losey; Cast: Van Heflin, Evelyn Keyes, Emerson Tracey, Wheaton Chambers, John Maxwell; USA 1951, 92 min.

The Prowler was Losey’s favourite among the five Hollywood features he directed before blacklisting forced him to emigrate to Europe. The HU-AC witch hunt also affected the film’s writers Dalton Trumbo, Hugo Butler, PD John Hubley and German émigré writer/director Hans Wilhelm, who co-scripted the project.

The alternative title The Cost of Living, is actually a more appropriate one for this rather nasty little noir thriller that takes its cue from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Losey’s feature has nothing of the grandeur of the Wilder film, being simply a story of mundane greed and lust. Fred MacMurray’s insurance salesman Walter Neff has a a shred of charm and a conscience, even though he ‘mislays’ it. His equivalent here, police officer Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), is just in it for the money and the sex.

LA socialite Susan Gilvray (Keyes, married at the time to co-producer John Huston) has been disturbed by a prowler. Inspector Webb Garwood (Heflin) fetches up at her mock Spanish villa with his partner Bud Crocker (Maxwell) – the good cop – who will shadow his buddy to the bitter end.

Webb is smitten by the lady, but much more impressed by her wealth. Susan is married to William (Tracey)M a late-night radio host who is infertile. After rebuffing Webb at first, Susan falls for him, and they have an affair. Webb then sets up a scene where the “prowler” (who is none other than Webb, having the foresight to use the William’s revolver) shoots the husband dead, grazing his skin.

The inquest is quickly over, but Susan discovers she is four months pregnant by Webb – something the couple clearly need to keep a secret. They travel to a quiet backwater in Yermo, California, to wait for the birth of the child. But complications arise, and Webb fetches Dr. James (Chambers) from LA. Susan, who now knows the truth, is afraid Webb will also do away with Dr. James after he is no longer needed. Webb flees when the cops show up in town, but instead of surrendering, he takes the bullets from his former collegues.

The Prowler is bleak and also rather squalid with its petit-bourgeois values. Webb is corrupt, using his position in society for murder. He is the “typical” victim of circumstances: a former basket ball player, whose career had been cut short by injury. Webb wants to take revenge for his misfortune, and has no qualms about his victims. Susan is a superficial woman, only in the end mustering some moral fibre. This was the last feature for veteran DoP Arthur C. Miller (The Song of Bernadette), who was elected as President of the American Society of Cameramen, dying in 1970.

Producer SP Eagle (Sam Spiegel) had a lot in common with the anti-hero of the piece: making Losey and his writer Trumbo sing for their supper, and in the end having to seek recourse to justice for their fees – including the USD35 Trumbo was paid for giving his voice to the radio host. AS

A GOOD PRINT IS AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE

      

This Gun for Hire (1942) ***** Blu-ray

Dir.: Frank Tuttle; Cast: Veronica Lane, Alan Ladd, Robert Preston, Laird Crogar, Tully Marshall, Mark Lawrence; USA 1942, 81 min. 

Frank Tuttle gives the full film noir treatment to Graham Greene’s themes of guilt and redemption in this highly influential thriller with iconic performances from Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.

Adapting Greene’s 1936 novel of the same name, the action is transported to wartime US where hit man Philip Raven has killed a blackmailing chemist and his girlfriend on the orders of shady operator Willard Gates (Crogar), who is after his research paper on poison gas. Gates works for Alvin Brewster (Marshall), the wheelchair bound Nitro Chemical boss, who wants to sell US secrets to the Japanese. Cat-lover Raven is quietly ruthless swearing revenge when he discovers his pay-0ff is counterfeit.

Nightclub-owner Gates has meanwhile hired magician and singer Ellen Graham (Lane), who, unbeknown to him, is working for a Senate committee on the trail of Brewster. Ellen is also engaged to police Lieutenant Michael Crane (Preston), who is hunting Raven. On a train journey, Raven and Ellen meet by accident, and he is smitten. Gates, who is also on the train, believes Ellen is Raven’s girl and plans to abduct and kill her. But Raven will save her life, finding her chained in a wardrobe in Gates’ mansion where Gates’ servant Tommy (Lawrence) is about to dump her in a river. Ellen and Raven are on the run, trying to nail Gates and Brewster. Meanwhile Crane is hunting the two, unsure if Ellen is still on his side.

DoP John F. Seitz (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The lost Weekend) conjures up smouldering noir settings, among them an underground chase (with shades of The Third Man) in a gas works where Ellen and Raven are fleeing from the cops.  

One of the most revered and successful film noir hits of the 1940s This Gun for Hire would see Lake and Ladd team up again although this remains their standout feature as a duo. Raven is a frightening yet oddly sympathetic hit man, Ladd bringing out his humanity in a breakout debut turn that transformed him into a star. As The New York Times said of Ladd upon the film’s 1942 release, “He is really an actor to watch. After this stinging performance, he has something to live up to – or live down.”

Working with writers Albert Maltz and WR Burnett, Tuttle also underlines Raven’s ambiguity as a broken individual suffering from an abusive childhood. This wariness of people has kept him an outsider, and the narrative revolves round his strengthening relationship with Ellen whose life as a female nightclub-chanteuse also put her in a vulnerable position in the society of the day. And whilst the censors would have insisted on a happy-end for Ellen and Crane, there are moments when Ellen is hard pushed to choose sides. Stunningly cinematic, This Gun for Hire is also a clever character study of forbidden love. AS

ON BLU-RAY | EUREKA CLASSICS RANGE | 14 SEPTEMBER 2020

 

I Walk Alone (1947) *** Talking Pictures

Prod: Hal Wallis. Dir: Byron Haskin. Scr: Charles Schnee. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas, Wendell Corey, Kristine Miller. Crime Melodrama. 98 mins.

Yet another choice rarity unearthed by Talking Pictures. Burt and Kirk’s first movie together belongs to the very brief period when Lancaster (who is for once permitted to tower over Douglas) played bullet-headed, blue-chinned tough guys (here carrying a huge chip on his shoulder having finally emerged from fourteen years in the slammer), and Douglas slick but shifty desk villains.

I Walk Alone is also historically significant as Byron Haskin’s return to the director’s chair after twenty years as a cameraman and special effects photographer at Warner Brothers; but being a Paramount production Edith Head was on hand to slinkily attire Lizabeth Scott. Richard Chatten.

On Talking Pictures at 10.05 p.m. on Wednesday 3 June.

Robert Siodmak | Master of Shadows | Blu-ray release

Dresden 1918, Robert Siodmak left his upper-middle class, orthodox Jewish home in this epicentre of European modern art, to join a theatre touring company. He was 18, and this was the first of many radical changes that would see him becoming a pioneer of film noir, and directing 56 feature films fraught with (anti)heroes who are morose, malevolent, violent and generally downbeat (spoilers).

Robert Siodmak began his film career in 1925, translating inter-titles. Later he learnt the editing business with Harry Piel. In 1927/28 he worked under Kurt (Curtis) Bernhardt (Das letzte Fort) and Alfred Lind. But MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG (1929/30) (left) would transform his professional life forever. Together with Edgar G. Ulmer, he would direct a semi-documentary, social realist portrait that pictured ordinary Berliners, far away from the expensive “Illusionsfilme” (escapist films) of the UFA. The idea was the brainchild of Robert’s younger brother Curt (born in Kracow), who would become a screen-writer and director of Horror/SF films, and follow his brother and Ulmer to Hollywood – along with the rest of the team: Billy Wilder, Eugen Schüfftan, Fred Zinnemann and Rochus Gliese (later art director for Murnau’s Sunrise). Robert Siodmak, Ulmer and Giese would also be part of the “Remigrants”, film makers, who would return to Germany after 1945.

People_on_Sunday_2 copyMENSCHEN AM SONNTAG was filmed on a succession of Sundays in 1929. Subtitled “a film without actors” – which is misleading, since the actors – non-professionals – co-wrote and co-produced the film, had already returned to their day jobs when the film was premiered in 1930. The five main protagonists spend a weekend near a lake in a Berlin suburb: Wolfgang (a wine seller) and Christl (a mannequin) meet for the first time at the Bahnhof Zoo by accident on Saturday morning, Christl had been stood up. On the same evening, Erwin (a taxi driver) and his girl friend Annie have a violent quarrel, tearing up each other’s photos. As a result, Erwin and his friend Wolfgang travel with Christl on the following Sunday to the Nicolas Lake. And here on the ‘beach’ Wolfgang meets Brigitte (a vinyl record sales assistant), the four spend the day together; intercut with images of the forlorn “stay-at-home” Annie. The final scene returns the quartet to the heart of the metropolis: four million waiting for another Sunday. MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG is a chronicle; a document shot against the narrative UFA style of the day. There is no story, just interaction. Even in the complex narratives of his films Noir, Siodmak would always be the bystander, the person who observes much more than directs.

Inquest_2 copyINQUEST (VORUNTERSUCHUNG), Robert Siodmak’s third feature film as a director, produced in 1931, is his first ‘Kriminalfilm” (thriller). The student Fritz Bernt (Gustaf Fröhlich), has a three year-long affair with the prostitute Erna – he also receives money from her. After falling in love with his friend Walter’s sister, Fritz wants to leave Erna. Out of cowardice, he sends Walter to her flat to break the news. But Walter sleeps with Erna’s flatmate and goes for a drink afterwards. When Erna’s body is found the next morning, Fritz is the main suspect. In charge of the inquest is Dr. Bienert (Albert Bassermann), who happens to be Walter’s father. The denouement is a surprise. In many ways, INQUEST is a “Strassenfilm”, Kracauer’s definition of films where the middle-class protagonist is in love with a sexy prostitute, but goes home to roost, marrying a bourgeois girl of his own class. Some of the main scenes of the film are shot in the staircase of the house where Erna lives, the shadowy lighting clearly foreshadowing Siodmak’s Noir period. Sexuality is the enemy of bourgeois society here, and Bassermann’s Dr. Bienert is a blustering patriarch, who would sacrifice anyone to save his son.

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THE BURNING SECRET (BRENNENDES GEHEIMNIS) is based on a novel by Stefan Zweig. Shot in 1932, it was to be Siodmak’s last German film for 23 years. In a Swiss Sanatorium, the twelve-year old Edgar (H.J. Schaufuss) is bored, and pleased to befriend Baron Von Haller (Willi Forst), a racing driver. But he does not know that Von Haller is using him to get close to his mother (Hilde Wagner). Soon Edgar gets suspicious, the two adults always want to be alone. He surprises them in flagrante and runs home to his father, although he does not give his secret away. When his mother arrives, he looks at her knowingly, but stays ‘mum’. Siodmak has sharpened the edges of this coming-of-age story, the novel concentrating more on romantic and psychological aspects. There is real violence between Edgar and Von Haller, and the lovemaking of the adulterous couple, which Edgar interrupts, is more vicious than affectionate. When the film was premiered in March 1933, Siodmak was already living in Paris, and Goebbels denounced the film as un-German, not surprisingly, since both the author of the novel and the director of the film were Jews living abroad in exile.

Hatred_1 copyWhen Siodmak shot MOLLENARD (1937) in France, it would be the penultimate of his French-set features. (In 1938, he would finish “Ultimatum” for the fatally ill Robert Wiene; and in the same year he is credited with “artistic supervision” for Vendetta, directed by Georges Kelber). MOLLENARD (HATRED) is the nearest to a film Noir so far: it is a fight to the death between Captain Mollenard (Harry Baur) and his wife Mathide (Gabrielle Dorziat). Captain Mollenard is a gun runner in Shanghai, he is shown as a hero, a good friend to his crew. When he returns to Dunkirk and his wife and two children, illness renders him powerless to his vitriolic wife, who tries to turn the children against him. Mollenard attempts to use his strength to re-conquer his wife, but fails, unlike during his days in Shanghai. The son takes the side of his mother, the daughter tries to drown herself, but Mollenard saves her. In the end, his crew carries the dying man out of the house, he would end his life where he was most happy – at sea. MOLLENARD is a contrast between utopia and dystopia for the main protagonist: the sea, where he is free (to commit crimes), and the bourgeois home, where he is a prisoner of conventions. He is unable to survive in this which cold, emotionless prison. MOLLENARD is seen as his greatest film in France, a dramatic version of Noir.

Snares copyPIÈGES (1939) was Siodmak’s last French film before emigrating to the USA – and his greatest box-office success of this period. Whilst most of Siodmak’s French films featured fellow emigrés in front and behind the camera, PIÈGES only has the co-author, Ernst Neubach, as a fellow emigré– the DOP, Ted Pahle, was American, and the star, Maurice Chevalier, already an legend was very much a Frenchman: Siodmak had established himself. (A fact, which would count for nothing at the start of his US career.)  PIÈGES is the story of a serial killer who murders eleven women in the music-hall world of Paris. The police, whose main suspect is the night-club-owner and womaniser Fleury (Chevalier), chooses Arienne (the debutant Marie Dea), to lure the murderer into the open. But Arienne falls in love with Fleury’s associate Brémontière, only to find out that he is the murderer. In the end the gutsy Arienne (Dea is a subtle antithesis to the French heroines of this period) has to risk her lift to save her husband Fleury’s. There are more than a few clues to the later “Phantom Lady” in PIÈGES.  Eric von Stroheim is brilliant as a mad fashion czar who has lost his fortune and adoring women.

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SON OF DRACULA (1943) was already Robert Siodmak’s seventh film in Hollywood, his first for Universal. Scripted by his brother Curt, SON OF DRACULA was a great risk for Robert, it was his first outing in the classical Horror genre, not to mention the great ‘Dracula tradition’ started by Ted Browning in 1931. The film is set in the bayous of Louisianna, where Katherine Caldwell has inherited the plantation “Dark Oaks” from her father, who died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. She gives a party, and entertains Count Alucard (Lon Chaney jr.) an acquaintance  from her travels in central Europe. She discards her fiancée Frank and marries Alucard. Frank shoots the count, but the bullet passes through him, killing Katherine. In prison, Katherine visits him as a bat, turning into her human form (a first in film history), and asking Frank to kill Alucard, so they can live together forever as vampires. Frank grants her wish, but also burns her in her coffin. SON OF DRACULA is pure gothic horror, but suffered from Lon Chaney jr. being miscast in a role created by Bela Lugosi as his Alter Ego. Strongest are the scenes in the bayous, where the evil still lurks after the death of Katherine and Alucard: everything seems toxic, the spell of the vampire lives on.

Cobra_Woman_1.jpg_rgb copyCOBRA WOMAN (1943) was Robert Siodmak’s first film in colour, shot in widescreen Technicolor. Its star, Maria Montez, an aristocrat from the Dominican Republic, whose real name was Maria Africa Garcia Vidal de Santo Silas, would later gain cult status after her early death at the age of 39 from a heart attack in her bathtub in Paris. Maria plays Tollea, who is whisked away just before her wedding to Ramu, to her birth island where her evil twin sister Naja (also played by Montez) holds sway. Ramu and his helper Kado follow her, but Tollea has decided to sacrifice her love for Ramu to become the new ruler of the island, so as to prevent an eruption of the volcano provoked by Naja’s sins. COBRA WOMAN is pure camp, Siodmak said “it was nonsense, but fun”.

Phantom_Lady_1 copyIn 1943 Siodmak was on a roll: he would make four film that year, and PHANTOM LADY (1943) was also the most important of his American period to date: the first of a quartet, which would form with The Spiral Staircase, The Killers and Criss Cross, the classic Noir films of their creator.

PHANTOM LADY is based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich (William Irish), a prolific writer, whose novels and short stories were the basis for twenty films Noir of the classic period. They also provided the basis for Nouvelle Vague fare. Pivotal in Woolrich’s novels is the race against time. Scott Henderson, an engineer, is accused of murdering his wife. He proclaims his innocence, but is sentenced to death. His secretary Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines) is convinced he is not a murderer, and together with inspector Burges, she sets out to find the real culprit. Henderson’s alibi is a woman with a flamboyant hat, he meets in a bar, and spends the evening with, while  his wife was murdered – but they promised not to reveal their identities. The mystery woman  is illusive and when Carol tries to unravel her identity, the barman, who to denies having seen her at all, is run over by a car shortly after interviewed by Richman. Another witness, a drummer (Elisha Cook. Jr.), is also murdered, before Richman corners Franchot Tone, an artist, and Richman’s best friend as the murderer: he had an affair with Richman’s wife. German expressionism and Siodmak’s customary near documentary style dominate: New York is a bed of intrigue, where shadows lurk and footsteps signal danger. The majority of scenes could be watched without dialogue, particularly Cook’s drummer solo, which fits in well with the impressionist décor. With PHANTOM LADY, Robert Siodmak had found his (sub)genre.

Christmas_Holiday_10CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944), based on a novel by Somerset Maugham, has a most misleading title and is perhaps Siodmak’s most exotic film Noir. Lt. Mason, on Christmas leave, is delayed in New Orleans, where he meets the singer Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durham) who tells him her real name is Abigail Manette, and that her husband Robert (Gene Kelly) is in jail for murdering his bookie. In a long flashback, we see Robert’s mother trying to cover up her son’s crime. After Jackie leaves Mason, she is confronted in a roadhouse by Robert who has escaped from jail. Before he can shoot her, a policeman’s bullet kills him. Like “Phantom Lady”, CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY is photographed again by Woody Bredell, New Orleans is a tropical, outlandish setting and the film has much more the feel of a French film-noir than an American. Siodmak uses Wagner’s “Liebestod” to frame the love story of the doomed couple.

THE SUSPECT (1944) is one of Siodmak’s less convincing Noirs. Philip Marshall (Charles Laughton), a sedentary middle-aged man, is driven out by his heartless wife Cora, and falls in love with the much younger Mary (Ella Raines). Philip becomes a different person, and thrives with his new love. But Cora finds out about the couple and threatens Philip with disclosure, which would have ruined him professionally. He kills first Cora, then his neighbour Gilbert Simmons, who blackmails him. Inspector Huxley has no proof against him, and Philip could start a new life with his young wife in Canada, but he decides to stay and give himself up, just as Huxley had predicted. Shot entirely in a studio, THE SUSPECT lacks suspense, and is only remarkable for Laughton’s brilliant performance.

The_Strange_Affair_of_Uncle_Harry_3 copyTHE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945) features a semi-incestuous relationship between brother and sister: John “Harry” Quincy (George Sanders) lives a quiet life in New Hampshire with his sisters Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and Hester. When he meets the fashion designer Deborah Brown (Ella Raines), he falls in love with her. Lettie is jeaulous, and feigns a heart attack. Harry wants to murder her, but Hester drinks the poison intended for Lettie, who is convicted for Hester’s murder, but does not give away the real culprit, since she knows that her death will prevent Harry from marrying Deborah. To mollify The “MPAA code agency”, Siodmak found a new ending: Harry wakes up at, having only dreamt the events; producer Joan Harrison resigned from the project in protest. Lettie is a psychopath in the vein of the murderer in Phantom Lady and Olivia de Havilland’s murderous twin in The Dark Mirror. But there is more ambiguity to the narrative than is obvious at first sight: there is a vey clear resemblance between Lettie and Deborah – they might have been exchangeable for Harry. THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY is one of the darkest Noirs, because all is played out on the background of a very respectable family, in small town America.

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THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945) is Siodmak’s most famous Noir, a classic because of its old-dark-house setting and the woman-in-peril theme. In a small town in New England, handicapped women are being murdered. Helen (Dorothy McGuire) is watching a silent movie in town, where a lame woman is strangled. Helen then hurries home, to look after the family matriarch Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), who is bedridden. Since Helen is mute, she is in mortal danger: the killer lives in the house. When Helen finds the body of Blanche, who was engaged to Albert Warren (George Brent), after having left his half-brother Steve, Helen suspects Stephen and locks him in the cellar; then she tries to phone Dr. Parry, but she cannot communicate. Too late she finds out that Albert is the killer, who chases her up the spiral staircase, but his mother gets up and shoots him, causing Helen, who lost her voice after witnessing the traumatic death of her parents, to cry out loud. Very little of the background to the narrative has been mentioned: the theme being eugenics, a concept the late President Theodore Roosevelt was very keen on. Albert Warren has taken this concept a step further; he kills “weak and imperfect” humans because he believes his father would be proud of him. Like T. Roosevelt, Albert’s father was a big-game hunter. In his mother’s bedroom is a poster with a Teddy Roosevelt lookalike and the initials “TR” above an elephant’s tusk. Considering the Nazi Euthanasia programmes, this aspect of THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE has often been neglected by critics.

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THE DARK MIRROR (1946) reflects Hollywood’s interest in Freud. Two identical sisters, Terry and Ruth Collins, both played by Olivia de Havilland, are suspected of murder, when one of the women’s suitors is found dead. Inspector Stevenson is fascinated by the two woman, but would not have solved the crime without the help of Dr. Elliot, a psychoanalyst. He finds out that whilst Ruth is a very adjusted and loving person, Terry is just her opposite: a ruthless psychopath, who fabricates clues, to make Ruth look like the murderess, whilst at the same time is planning to kill her sister, before Dr. Elliot is able to expose her. Siodmak deals with the “Doppelgänger” theme, which was explored as early as in the silent film era of expressionism, by using Freudian theory to explain the perversity of the “evil” sister: rejection, confusion and lastly alienation let her spin out of control, allowing only “herself” to survive. Unlike in The Spiral Staircase, the interior is totally unthreatening, which makes Terry’s murderous lust even more terrifying.

TIme_Out_of_Mind_2 copyTIME OUT OF MIND (1946/7) is more melodrama than Noir. Chris Fortune (Robert Hutton), the son of a heartless and ambitious shipping tycoon, falls in love with the servant girl Kate (Phyllis Calvert). But in 19th century New England, this was not the social norm. Kate encourages Chris to marry a lady of his class, who turns out to be a beast and drives Chris more into alcohol dependency. Chris fancies himself as a composer, but only Kate believes in his talent. The Noir aspect is the family constellation: Chris is obviously weak, and his overbearing father (Leo G. Carroll) rules over his life. More to the point, Chris’s sister Rissa (Ella Raines) seemingly protects her younger brother, but is in reality totally obsessed by him. She represents the semi-incestuous theme running, not only through Siodmak’s, noir films.

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CRISS CROSS (1949) is perhaps Siodmak’s most personal Noir. Reworking elements of The Killers – and casting Burt Lancaster again in the role of the obsessed lover -, CRISS CROSS is the story of an “amour fou”, its emotional intensity on par with Tourneur’s classic Out of the Past. Steve Thompson (Lancaster) is still in love with his ex wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), who now lives with the gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). But when the two of them meet in a bar, the whole things starts up again. Dundee surprises them, Thompson comes up with an excuse: he needs Dundee’s help for an armed car robbery. But Dundee is suspicious: he and his gang kill Thompson’s partner and wound him after the robbery. When Anna goes missing with the money, Dundee suspects the couple have double-crossed him. Dundee has Thompson abducted, but Thompson bribes his captors and finds Anna. She is terrified by the thought that Dundee will find them and wants to abandon the wounded Steve, but Dundee arrives and shoots them both, before running towards the police. The final scene, when Anna’s and Steve’s bodies fall literally into each other, bullets flying as the police siren’s grow louder, is the apotheosis of everything that’s gone on since the scene in the bar. From then on, in true Noir fashion, all is told in flashbacks and voice-over narration. Anna is the quintessential Noir heroine, telling Steve: “All those things which have happened we’ll forget it. You see, I make you forget it. After it’s done, after it’s all over and we are safe, it will be just you and me. The way it should’ve been all along from the start”. CRISS CROSS is my personal favourite: dark, expressionistic, melancholic and wonderfully doomed.

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THE GREAT SINNER (1948/9) is an awkward mixture of high literature and low-brow melodrama. Based partly on Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Gambler” and some autobiographical details of this author, Siodmak struggles to bring this expensive “A-picture” to life. The stars Gregory Peck (Fedya) and Ava Gardener (Pauline Ostrovsky) – in the first of three collaborations – do their best, but Christopher Isherwood’s script is a hotchpotch of the sensational and sentimental, tragic events unfold fast and furiously, logic and characterisation falling by the wayside. Told in a long flash-back, Pauline receives a manuscript from the dying writer Fedya, in which he tells the story of their first meeting in 1860 in Wiesbaden. Then, Fedya met Pauline on a train journey from Paris to Moscow, but follows her to the casino in Wiesbaden, to study the effects of gambling on the whole Ostrovsky clan. When Pitard, a gambler and friend of Pauline, steals Fedya’s money, the latter tries to save Pitard from his fate, and gives him the money so he can leave the city. But Pitard loses in the casino and shoots himself. Strangely enough, Fedya, who has fallen in love with Pauline, also becomes addicted to gambling – but telling himself, that he wants to win the money, so that Pauline’s father can pay back his debts to the casino owner Armand, and thus free Pauline from the engagement to the ruthless tycoon. But after some early success, Fedya looses heavily, tries to in vain to pawn a religious medal, which belongs to Pauline; finally, he wants to commit suicide, before he looses consciousness. Recovered, he finishes his novel and Pauline forgives him. In spite of a strong supporting cast including Ethel Barrymore, Melvin Douglas, Agnes Moorehead and Walter Huston, THE GREAT SINNER flopped at the box-office, having cost 20 m Dollar in today’s money, it lost 8 m Dollar. Siodmak, according to Gregory Peck, did not enjoy the responsibility of the big budget production, “he looked like a nervous wreck”.

The_File_on_Thelma_2 copyWith THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON (1949) Siodmak returned to the safe ground of Noir films. Thelma (Barbara Stanwyck) is unhappily married to Tony Laredo (Richard Rober), but is attracted to his animalistic sex-appeal. When she discusses burglaries at her wealthy aunt’s house, where she also lives, with assistant district attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Correy), the two fall in love. When the aunt is killed, and a necklace stolen, Thelma is the main suspect, because Tony has been away to Chicago. Thelma is put on trial, and Cleve pays her lawyer and plans the trial strategy with him, even though he has learned about Thelma’s past, and is convinced that she is the murderer. The aunt’s butler has seen a stranger at the crime scene, but did not recognise him. Thelma, who knows that the person is Cleve, does not give his name away. She is aquitted and wants to leave town with Tony, when Cleve confronts them. Tony beats Cleve up and the couple flee, but Thelma causes an accident on purpose, in which both are killed – but not before she has confessed to the murder. In spite of this, Cleve’s career and marriage is ruined. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON is a neat reversal on Double Indemnity, which also starred Stanwyck as the Queen of all femme fatales. But here, Thelma and Cleve really love each other, and Thelma pays for her crime with her life, and Cleve will be ostracised by society for a long time. Whilst Wilder’s couple was evil from the beginning, Siodmak gives his lovers a much more human touch. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON was Robert Siodmak’s last American Film Noir. He would later direct two more films, which are in certain ways close to the subgenre; but he would never again achieve the greatness of his American Film Noir cycle, even his directing output would run to another 18 films.

The_Crimson_Pirate_3In the THE CRIMSON PIRATE (1951/2) Siodmak was reunited with Burt Lancaster, who also produced the film. Set in the late 18th century in the Caribbean, Captain Vallo (Lancaster), is a pirate, who tries to make money from selling weapons to the rebels on the island of Cobra, lead by El Libre (Frederick Leicester). On the island, Vallo falls in love with El Libre’s daughter Conseuela (Eva Bartok). Later he has to rescue her father, and support the revolution – even against the wishes of his fellow pirates, who do not see the reason for such a good deed – since it is totally unprofitable! In a stormy finale with tanks, TNT, machine guns and an outstanding colourful airship, our hero, now in drag, wins the revolution and Consulea’s heart. What is most surprising is the humour and lightheartedness of the production. Everything is told tongue-in-cheek, the action scenes are overwhelming and Lancaster (the ex-circus acrobat) dominates the film with his stunts. It seems hardly credible Robert Siodmak, creator of gloom and doom, dark shadows and even darker hearts, would be responsible for such an uplifting and hilarious spectacle, 15 years before Louis Malle’s equally enchanting “Viva Maria!”. Ken Adam, the future “Bond” production designer, earned one of his first credits for this film.

It will never be absolutely clear why Robert Siodmak decided to leave Hollywood after he finished THE CRIMSON PIRATE, to work again in Germany (with a one-film stop in France, so as to repeat his journey of the thirties backwards). In the USA, he was offered a lucrative six-film deal and had shown with his last film, that he could now also handle big productions successfully. There are rumours of pending HUAC hearings, because of his friendship with Charles Spencer Chaplin, but Siodmak himself never mentioned these as a reason for the return to his homeland. Rather like Fritz Lang and Edgar Ulmer, it can only be assumed that “Heimweh” was the reason for Siodmak’s return. True, he lived in Ascona, Switzerland, but he worked nearly exclusively in Germany. What he, and other “Remigrants” did not reckon with, was the political and cultural climate in the Federal Republic of Germany. When these directors had left Germany, the Nazis had just started the transformation of the country. But in the early fifties, the democracy of the country was not chosen, but forced on the population by the Allies. Old Nazis were still in many powerful positions, and the majority of the population still grieved, full of self-pity, about their defeat. The Third Reich, and particularly the Holocaust, were more or less Taboo, both in daily life and in all cultural referenced. The film industry also suffered from the lack of a new beginning; even Veit Harlan, director of Jud Süss, was allowed to restart his career. It is no co-incidence that neither Lang or Ulmer produced anything notable after their return.

The_Devil_Strikes_at_Night_4 copyThe same can be said for Robert Siodmak, with one exception: THE DEVIL STRIKES AT NIGHT (NACHTS WENN DER TEUFEL KAM), which he directed in 1957 was, deservedly, nominated for the “Oscar” as “Best foreign film”. Set during WWII in Hamburg, the film tells the story of the serial killer Bruno Lüdke (Mario Adorf). When caught by inspector Kersten (Claus Holm), the latter’s superior, the Gestapo Officer Rossdorf (Hannes Messmer) points out that another man had already been ‘convicted’: Willi Keun (Wolfgang Peters), a small-time party member, had “been shot whilst escaping” – without informing the population about the murders, since just a monstrous criminal did not fit in with ruling ideology of the Aryan supremacy. Both, police man and Gestapo officer, now have the difficult task to start to convince the authorities that a German serial killer was on the loose for over a decade. Both will be sent to the Eastern front, to cover up the case. The film is based on real events, Bruno Lüdke (1908-1944) was mentally retarded, but may have confessed to more murders than he actually committed – to clear up unsolved murder cases. Siodmak re-creates the atmosphere of his best Noir films: the city is darkened, the image dissolves from an omniscient perspective to a particular one – particularly in the scene where Lüdke is caught in the headlights of a car. Fear and excitement permeate like a black stain throughout. Kesten’s obsession with the case create a fragmented world, where the images seem to splinter. Chaos rules, and nobody seems to be safe: the hunt for Lüdke, which frames the film, is shown like a haunting parable on the destructive nature of the 3rd Reich. Unfortunately, Siodmak fell short of this standard in the other 12 films directed in West Germany between 1955 and 1969.

The_Rough_and_the_Smooth_1In 1959 Siodmak worked in the Elstree-Borehamwood studios, to direct THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH, based on the novel by Robin Maugham. Robert Cecil Romer, 2nd Viscount Maugham, nephew of Somerset Maugham, was the enfant terrible of his family. Socialist and self-confessed homosexual, he was a very underrated novelist: The Servant, filmed in 1963 by Joseph Loosey, with Dirk Bogarde in the title role, is one of the classics of British post-WWII cinema. THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH shows similarities: Mike Thompson (Tony Britton), an archeologist, is engaged to Margaret (Natasha Parry), the daughter of his boss, who finances his work. Mike feels trapped in a loveless relationship, and falls for Ila Hansen (Nadja Tiller), a young and attractive woman. But she has a secret: not only is she in cahoots with the tough gangster Reg Barker (William Bendix), but there is a third man in her life, who has a hold over her. After Barker commits suicide, driven by Hansen’s demands, the latter tries also to blackmail Mike and Margaret. The ending is quiet original. There are very dark undertones, particularly for the late 50s, when Ila comments: “I don’t cry much, I have been hurt a lot”. THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH is a subversive film considering the context of its period. The camera pans over stultified Britain of the last 50s, where there seems to be no middle-ground between boring respectability and outright perversion. When the two worlds collide, the conflict is fought on both sides with grim, violent determination. With THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH, Siodmak, would, for the last time, come close to his American Noir films, for which he was called “Prince of the Shadows”: referring not only to the quality of the images, but also to a society, where, to quote Brecht, “we are only aware of the ones in the light, the ones in the shadows, we don’t see”. Robert Siodmak made sure that the ones in the shadows played the major roles in his Films Noir career. Andre Simonoviescz ©

MASTER OF SHADOWS | A RETROSPECTIVE OF ROBERT SIODMAK

Masters of Cinema home video release of CRISS CROSS; Robert Siodmak’s influential film noir masterpiece; to be released on 22 June 2020.

 

 

 

Angel Face (1952) **** BBC iPlayer

Dir.: Otto Preminger; Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman, Herbert Marshall, Barbara O’Neill, Kenneth Toby, Raymond Greenleaf; USA 1953, 91 min.

Angel Face was director Otto Preminger’s third foray into Noir territory that had started with The 13th Letter and Laura. The temperamental Austro Hungarian director takes us by surprise with a subtle narrative that explores the Electra complex of its central character Diana Tremayne, whose Electra complex threatening to unhinge her family. This melodramatic cat-and-mouse game film is distinctly European in flavour scripted by Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard and based on a story by Hollywood producer Chester Erskine.

Pictured languidly by Oscar winning Harry Stradling Sr. this lustrous black and white feature is bookended by two car scenes featuring the grandiose family home of the Tremayne family. It all starts when a blaring ambulance arrives at night, with paramedic Frank Jessup (Mitchum) jumping out and running into the villa. The end is rather low-key in comparison: a taxi driver in front of house honking non-stop to no avail in the sunshine.

But to return to the beginning, Jesse sprints to the bedroom of Mrs. Catherine Tremayne (O’Neill), the second wife of author Charles (Marshall). Mrs. Tremayne is claiming to be the victim of gas poisoning, but we somehow do not believe her. Anyhow, Frank repacks the emergency gear, and on his way out stumbles over Diana Tremayne (Simmons), the twenty-year old daughter of Charles, who is sobbing hysterically. Frank slaps her, but she slaps him back forcefully, which somehow impresses him. Anyhow, Mitchum’s Frank is quite the womaniser, and with his girlfriend Mary Wilton (Freeman) keen on another ambulance driver Bill (Tobey), he is intrigued by Diana who very much seeks the protection of older men, and Frank fits the bill as her new love interest, soon moving into an outhouse of the Tremayne residence to take over chauffeuring duties. He’s certainly very assured behind the wheel, having been a racing driver before the War and hopes that Catherine will support his business plans with a loan, while teaching Diana how to handle his gears, although an unfortunate incident results in the demise of her hated stepmother. This tragedy calls for the services of the family’s lawyer Arthur Vance (Greenleaf) and Diana gets her moment in court.

There are elements of The Postman always rings Twice, as well as Out of the Past – with Simmons taking over Jane Greer’s role as Kathie, and Mitchum reprising his sinister turn perfected in the Tourneur outing – he will dust it down again for Charles Laughton in The Night of the Hunter (1955). But unlike the scheming Kathie, Diana is more victim than perp: she feels rightly cheated that her father married immediately after the death of her biological mother in the London Blitz. And his punishment – never to write a single word after his second marriage – is appropriate. Diana wants to get rid of Catherine so her father write again. Frank serves the narrative not as her sexual partner but, to assist her in ‘unlocking’ her father’s creativity, so she can be his exclusive muse.

Ironic then that Simmons and Mitchum have a palpable onscreen chemistry, both of them underplaying their characters, and Mitchum hardly moving a facial muscle, even when they kiss. Marshall is his true dependable self, spoiling his daughter (naively?) with the money of his wealthy wife. DoP Harry Stradling, who won two Oscars for The Picture of Dorian Gray and My Fair Lady uses the camera for long tracking shots, in cloudy images that echo Ophuls’ regular DoP Christian Matras.

Laura will always be Preminger’s most famous Noir but Angel Face is inmany ways more delicate and unhurried. AS

NOW ON BBC iPLAYER

 

 

 

                          

       

 

 

The Whistlers (2019)

Dir/Wri: Corneliu Porumboiu | Cast: Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Rodica Lazar, Antonio Buil, Agusti Villaronga, Sabin Tambrea, George Pisterneanu | Thriller, 97′

This Noirish Romanian arthouse thriller is not the first to use whistling as a vital part of its storyline. Last year’s Locarno Critics’ prize winner Sibel showed how vital this ancient style of communication is in isolated parts of the World. And La Gomera is one of them. The craggy hideaway in the Canaries is where a dark and sinuous double-crossing drama plays out. It also travels to the Romanian capital Bucharest, and Singapore. Swinging backwards and forwards in time tense The Whistlers is a rather forboding film with a retro feeling of the Sixties and another saturnine performance from Porumboiu’s regular Vlad Ivanov (who appearing in Tegnap and Sunset).

He is Cristi, a detective under surveillance from his colleagues who is rapidly finds out that this special language from local Spanish-speaking gangsters can keep him under the radar. Porumboiu’s clever lighting techniques and a ravishing score of modern classics and operatic arias keeps the action pumping to a surprising finale.

You may find the plot rather complicated and the crooks hard to identify (I did), but basically it goes as follows: Vast wads of illegal euros are being laundered in a mattress factory outside Bucharest whence they’re transported to the crime ring in Spain and Venezuela. The factory owner and middle-man is a petty criminal called Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) and his girlfriend Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) seduces Cristi in the sexually-charged opening sequence (which takes us back to Basic Instinct). Meanwhile Zsolt’s boss Paco (Agusti Villaronga) instructs another honcho Kiko (Antonio Buil) to teach Cristi the whistling lingo. The place is riddled with surveillance cameras and no one can really be trusted in this edgy atmosphere of uncertainty so the arcane hissing comes in handy as a form of covert communication.

Meanwhile, Cristi’s sidekick Alin (George Pisterneanu) and their boss Magda (Rodica Lazar) make up the Police contingent. All these characters are out for themselves. La Gomera takes a leading role   with its inaccessible stony beaches, crystal waters and dense wooded hillsides. The final coda in Singapore doesn’t quite dovetail into the film and has a whiff of being added just to spice things up for the glamorous reveal in a light show taking place at the Gardens by the Bay.

In true noir style The Whistlers is not a long film and slips down easily – there are no deep messages here – despite its rather intractable plot. An ambitious and intriguing addition to the Romanian filmmaker’s oeuvre. MT

ON CURZON WORLD FROM FRIDAY 8 MAY 2020

 

 

They Live By Night (1948) **** Blu-ray release

Dir: Nicholas Ray | Cast: Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell | US, Film Noir 95′

Legendary director Nicholas Ray began his career with this lyrical film noir, the first in a series of existential genre films overflowing with sympathy for America’s outcasts and underdogs. When the wide-eyed fugitive Bowie (Farley Granger), having broken out of prison with some bank robbers, meets the innocent Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), each recognizes something in the other that no one else ever has.

The young lovers dream of a new, decent life together, but as they flee the cops and contend with Bowie’s fellow crims, who aren’t about to let him go straight, they come to realise there’s nowhere left to hide. Ray brought an outsider’s sensibility honed in the theatre to this debut, using revolutionary camera techniques and naturalistic performances to craft a profoundly romantic crime drama that paved the way for decades of lovers-on-the-run thrillers to come.

Available on Amazon from 20 April 2020

Desert Fury (1947) ***

Director: Lewis Allen. Scr: Robert Rossen. Cast: John Hodiak, Lizabeth Scott, Burt Lancaster, Mary Astor, Wendell Corey. USA 1947, 96 min.

This lush but still obscure Technicolor film noir with an atmospheric Miklos Rozsa score is set (like The Misfits) in Nevada; originally based on a story called ‘Bitter Harvest’ serialised in ‘Collier’s’ magazine in 1945 by Ramona Stewart (whose only other novel to be filmed was ‘The Possession of Joel Delaney’ in 1971).

Described by Eddie Muller as “the gayest movie ever produced in Hollywood’s golden era”, the whole thing makes sense as a menage a trois drama with Lizabeth Scott (dressed to kill by Edith Head and driving a fabulous wood-panelled convertible) coming between gangsters John Hodiak and a debuting Wendell Corey in the face of additional opposition from Scott’s mother, Mary Astor, and local sheriff, Burt Lancaster, (in his early days as a tough guy). Definitely one of a kind! R Chatten

‘Desert Fury’ is now on bluray.

Servants | Sluzobnici (2020)

Dir.: Ivan Ostrochovsky; Cast: Samuel Skyva, Samuel Olakovic, Vladimir Miculcik, Vladimir Obsil, Vlad Ivanov, Martin Sulik, Vladimir Strnisco; Slovakia/Romania/Czech Republic/Ireland 2020, 78 min.

Slovakian director/co-writer Ivan Ostrochovsky creates a Bresson-like study of resistance set in a religious seminary in 1980 Bratislava (which back then was the capital of the Slovak Socialist Republic in  Czechoslovakia).

Shot in luminous black-and-white by DoP Juraj Chipikin in the old-fashioned 4:3 ratio, The Servants is a tightly-scripted Noirish portrait of temptation and belief.

The 1980s was a tough time for the Catholic Church whose religious freedom came under threat from the draconian cosh of the continuing communist regime. The clergy was divided into the regime-critical “catacomb church” which maintains contact with the Vatican and Western media, and the “ecclesiastical hierarchy” which cooperated with those in power and was represented by the state-sponsored priests’ association Pacem in Terris. (1971-1989).

Two young seminarians, Juraj (Skyva) and Michal (Polakovic) enter the Catholic institution in Bratislava to take the priesthood. Each must decide whether to collaborate with the regime or whether to remain faithful to their idealist views, and submitting to the surveillance of the secret police.

Most of the priests in the seminary are members of the Pacem in Terris group. Unfortunately for the two newcomers, their confessor is even worse: not only has he killed a man in a hit-and-ran accident, he is also an informer for the local Secret Service, led by Frantisek (Sulik), a medic who is in league with the Dean, Tibor (Strnisco).

Coufar (Obsil) meanwhile has been disciplined by the authorities but still organises secret meetings with scholars in his house and reports incidents to Radio Free Europe. Frantisek kills him, making it look like a road accident. But nobody is fooled and Michal joins the resistance group. Juraj is then threatened with being drafted into the army by Frantisek, but withstands the temptation. Michal, who does not know that Juraj has been interrogated, posts a leaflet on the noticeboard asking the seminarians to join a hunger strike in support of Coufar’s murder.

Ostrochovsky and his co-writers are particularly scathing about the collaborators in Pacem in Terris. The Dean and Frantsisek have a relationship founded on mutual collaboration – as Frantisek puts it: “if we fail to find the ringleader of the revolt in the seminary, both our heads will roll”. Coufar is the more cynical of the two: he produces Michal’s Secret Police File and tells him “You need to understand that we are not here to be happy”.

This is an austere but laudable drama enhanced by its stunning visual allure: there are astonishing shots of the inner courtyard of the seminary, showcasing an arena which serves both as a football pitch and a place for collective punishment. The Noirish atmosphere prevails, underlined by the protagonists’ long shadows, the night scenes artfully shot with one single light source. Servants is true to the spirit of Bresson whose hero Francois Leterrier from Un Condamne a Mort s’est Echappe is recreated in the resisters. AS

On Curzon Home Cinema on May 14th. As a virtual cinema screenings at HOME Manchester and ArtHouse, Crouch End as well as IFI@Home in Ireland | BERLINALE premiere in 2020

                                    

       

Crime Wave (1953) ****

Dir: Andre de Toth | Writer: Crane Wilbur | Cast: Gene Nelson, Sterling Hayden, Phyllis Kirk, Ted de Corsia, Charles Bronson, Niedrick Young, James Bell | US Noir Thriller 73′

The Cinema Museum’s Kennington Noir thread hits the new year running with this bleak crime drama shot on location in the streets and police stations of L.A. in just 13 days by veteran Hollywood cameraman Bert Glennon.

Crime Wave probably influenced the young Stanley Kubrick, with three of the film’s cast going on to feature a couple of years later in his classic heist thriller The Killing (which is the next film in the season on 19 February; director Andre de Toth’s only other noir – Ramrod – will be shown on 15 April).

But there was a dark side to the story in real life as well as in the film noir itself: both writer Bernard Gordon and Nedrick Young (who plays the ill-fated Gat Morgan) were later blacklisted. But Young would be back – he is credited with co-writing the screenplay for Jailhouse Rock in 1957, which starred Elvis Presley, and went on to win the Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay for The Defiant Ones (1958). R Chatten.

KENNINGTON NOIR SEASON | THE CINEMA MUSEUM | LONDON SE11

 

Femmes Fatales of Fashion | London Fashion Week 2021

The sinister crime-laden dramas that came out of post war Hollywood were the visual expressions of anxiety. Film Noir featured venal antiheroes, mysterious femme fatales, and rain-soaked urban settings where shadows and intrigue played upon the inner consciousness. The tightly scripted stories were also richly thematic, compellingly seductive and wonderful to look at. And that iconic look was often created by women designers. 

Based on hard-edged detective stories from the likes of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich, ‘Crime Noir’ was spiced up by the wartime influx of sophisticated European craftsman such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Jacques Tourneur and Robert Siodmak whose edgy expressionism and Avantgarde lighting techniques added zest to the predominantly black & white post war genre. 

By the mid 1940s Film Noir reigned supreme. Nightly screenings – and each night was different – saw the stars of the day strutting their stuff but also looking amazing into the bargain: Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogarde, Gene Tierney and June Vincent all had their particular allure. And some Noir actors also directed the genre such as The Big Combo‘s Cornel Wilde with Storm Fear (1955). But while the narratives were unsavoury the costumes were quite the opposite: the elegant couture, hairstyles and even jewellery made style icons of these scheming antiheroes, adding charisma to their public profiles in stark contrast to the characters they played. By association, film noir became arguably the most strikingly seductive genre in the film firmament.   

But while the filmmakers arrived from Europe, the costume designers were often American woman with noirish backstories of their own to the bring to the party. Universal’s head of costume design for twenty years VERA WEST (1898-1947), met a tragic death drowning in her own swimming pool, dressed in one of her signature silk dressing gowns (ironically her designs for Virginia Grey had the been the star turn in Charles Barton’s film-noir Smooth as Silk the previous year ). Although the evidence pointed towards suicide as a result of a troubled past, there have since been rumours that her husband was to blame.

West had trained in Philadelphia and worked as apprentice to the pioneering British catwalk designer Lady Duff Gordon (Lucile) before being hired by Stanley Kubrick to create Ava Gardner’s look in The Killers (1946). She also designed for June Vincent in Roy William Neill’s Black Angel (1946); for Teresa Wright in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and the outfits for Lewis D Collins’ Danger Woman (1946). Despite these high-profile commissions, she never received an award until finally winning the Costume Designers Guild Hall of Fame in 2005. 

Another female Hollywood designer shrouded in intrigue was IRENE LENZ GIBBONS – known simply as Irene (1900-1962), whose private life was as colourful as her gowns. A shrewd business woman she ran a series of boutiques and was also appointed head of costume design at MGM, replacing the well-known legend Adrian. Her Noir credentials included couture for Katherine Hepburn, Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum in Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946) based on a story by Thelma Shrabel.

She also was credited for the couture creations in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) where a married Lana Turner and her lover plan to kill her husband (Cecil Kellaway). Other Noir and thriller projects included Roy Rowland’s Scene of the Crime (1949) and Gaslight (1944). Reports of her long-standing love affair with Gary Cooper were never confirmed but she committed suicide after slashing her wrists and jumping out of Los Angeles’ Knickerbocker Hotel a year after his death. 

One of the most successful female designers of film noir was undoubtedly BONNIE CASHIN (1915-2000). Cashin was already making dresses from the age of 8. By 16 her talent was making her a living as designer for the chorus line based in Los Angeles which led her into theatre work in New York. Returning West in the early 1940s she signed with 20th Century Fox where she made a name for herself with the gowns in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945); Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948) – Shelley Winter’s leopard skin coat would have the activists up in arms, but back then it certainly made her stand out in the sleazy night scenes.

Cashin’s style worked wonders for Signe Hasso in Hathaway’s Oscar-winning The House on 92nd Street (1944) and for Gene Tierney in Laura. Nightmare Alley (1947) gave her the opportunity to work with a leading cast of Tyrone Power (as antihero Stan Carlyle), Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Helen Walker. Power’s untimely death of a heart attack aged 44, saw the film gain wider circulation over the years due to his popularity, and Cashin’s costumes lived on into the late 1950s and beyond. MT

London Fashion Week 2021

LAURA is now on Bluray courtesy of EUREKA (MASTERS OF CINEMA) 

Five Films by Samuel Fuller | Bluray release

A towering figure of American cinema, Samuel Fuller was a master of the B-movie, a pulp maestro whose iconoclastic vision elevated the American genre film to new heights. After the major success of The Steel Helmet, Fuller was put under contract by Twentieth Century Fox after being impressed by Darryl F. Zanuck’s direct sales pitch (other studios offered Fuller money and tax shelters; Zanuck simply told him, “We make better movies.”).

Over a six-year period, Fuller would produce some of the best work of his career, (and therefore, some of the best films in American cinema), an uncompromising series of masterpieces spanning multiple genres (the Western, the War film, film noir, the Crime-Thriller) that would establish the director as a true auteur, whose influence continues to be felt today.

Five of the films from this fruitful period, are now presented on blu-ray from stunning restorations. The impossibly tense Korean-War drama Fixed Bayonets! (1951); the outrageous and confrontational spy-thriller Pickup on South Street (1953); the Cold War submarine-actioner Hell and High Water (1954); the lushly photographed, cold-as-ice film noir House of Bamboo (1955/main picture); and the audacious Western with a feminist twist, Forty Guns (1957). Also included is Samantha Fuller’s 2013 documentary, A Fuller Life, featuring friends and admirers of the great director reading extracts from his memoirs.

ON BLURAY | 28 OCTOBER 2019 | EUREKA 

 

Pickup on South Street (1953) ***

Dir.: Samuel Fuller; Cast: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Marvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willies Bouchey; USA 1953, 80 min.

Pick Up is another classic film noir that gained considerably from Fuller being adamant about the female lead. 20th Century Fox wanted either Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters or Ava Gardener for the role of Candy, but director Samuel Fuller not only resisted the three divas on the grounds of them being “too beautiful”, he also threatened to walk off set if Betty Grable (who wanted a dance number for herself) was cast instead of his own choice Jean Peters.

Pickpocket Skip McCoy steals a wallet from Candy (Peters) in a subway train. FBI agent Zare (Bouchey) is tailing Candy, but loses Skip. He then contacts Police Captain Tiger (Vye), who asks his old informer Moe (Ritter) to identify Skip. She agrees happily, and Zare can now go on the hunt for the micro film in Candy’s purse, which she got from her ex-boyfriend Joey (Kiley), a communist agent. He later murders Moe – who had cashed in a second time on Skip’s identity, selling it to her killer. Candy has fallen in love with Skip, but he has no faith in her. Finally, Skip tracks down Joey and the communist ringleader, and starts a new life with Candy.

Samuel Fuller was known as an anti-communist, but Pick-Up, in spite of its topic, is ambivalent about taking sides. As often in Fuller’s films, the American bourgeoisie which had most to gain from the status quo, is ‘saved’ from communism by the down-and-outs of society. Moe, who lives in utter squalor and Candy, the ex-prostitute, are the most violent defenders of the system, Moe does not want to sell her information after she learns Joey is a communist: “Even in our crummy kind of business, you gotta draw the line somewhere”.

Pick Up is first and foremost a gangster film, a milieu which the ex-crime reporter Fuller knew well. Fuller might have been right-wing, but he took very badly to J. Edgar Hoover’s criticism of Pick Up; Skip laughs off appeals to help as ‘patriotic eyewash,’ and only goes after the communists in revenge for the beating they gave Candy – with producer Daryl F. Zanuck backing Fuller up in an acrimonious meeting with the FBI boss. The film was selected for the 1953 Mostra in Venice, where it won a Bronze Lion in a year when the jury withhold the Golden Lion for the ‘lack of a worthy film’, – in a selection which included Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari.  The festival compensated with six Silver and four Bronze Lions.  AS

NOW OUT ON BLURAY COURTESY OF EUREKA

Oldboy (2003) **** re-release

Dir: Park Chan-Wook | South Korea 120′

Many found Korean cult horror outing ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’ too violent, but Oldboy takes the Asian Extreme genre even further.

Don’t be misled into thinking this is about public school boys or even dapper English gents of a certain age. Although on the surface of it, businessman Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik), appears just to be a drunken old bore. We first meet him being mysteriously abducted and imprisoned by nameless villains until he’s released from captivity after nearly 15 years, only to be contacted by his captors and offered a deal: if he can fathom why he was held prisoner in the first place he will get a chance to avenge his captors – if not, the cocktail waitress he has recently starting dating will lose her life. Some price freedom, but Oh Dat-Su is not going to put up with any more threats. Hammer in hand, he embarks on a brutal killing spree fuelled by vehement anger and searing emotional pain. Choi Min-Sik is retribution personified in an extraordinary performance that ranges from abject fury punctuated by bouts of seething humiliation – and we feel for him – aided and abetted by Park’s masterful direction. In the Asian Extreme firmament this is a coruscating Hitchockian-style Neo-Noir. MT

NOW OUT ON RE-RELEASE from Friday

Woman in the Window (1944) **** Blu-ray release

Dir: Fritz Lang | Wri: Nunnally Johnson | Cast: Edward G Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey | US Film Noir 107′

One of legendary director Fritz Lang‘s first noir films, The Woman in the Window is also rightfully considered one of the most important examples of the genre, a landmark movie that became one of the initial representations of noir first singled out by French critics after WWII. A triumph for Lang, legendary writer/producer Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath), and leading man Edward G. Robinson (shedding his earlier gangster roles to portray a love-struck obsessive), the mysterious melodrama remains a classic American nail-biter.

Johnson’s loose adaptation of J H Wallis’ novel Once Off Guard sees Robinson as Richard Wanley, a successful psychiatrist biding his time while his wife and children are on vacation. Lamenting the loss of his salad days, along with his drinking pals Raymond Massey and Dan Duryea, he is surprised and delighted to be picked up in the street by a foxy femme fatale in the shape of Alice (an alluring Joan Bennett dressed by Vogue illustrator and couturier Muriel King), who bears an uncanny resemblance to the subject of a portrait he had just admired in a gallery window. When Richard and Alice retire to her home, her wealthy, jealous boyfriend intrudes, and is killed after a struggle. Alice convinces Richard to cover up the crime, but as Richard’s district attorney friend (Raymond Massey) investigates and the boyfriend’s bodyguard (Dan Duryea) begins to apply pressure to Richard, the walls begin to close in…

With a darkly drôle climax years ahead of its time, The Woman in the Window is suspenseful film noir at its most seductive, elegantly captured and lit by Milton Krasner (who would go on to win the Oscar for Three Coins in a Fountain in 1955), the thriller also serves as an excellent companion piece to the following year’s Scarlet Street, which reunited Lang with Robinson, Bennett, and Duryea in strikingly similar roles.

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (Masters of Cinema) | 20 May 2019 

 

 

 

Out of Blue (2018) ****

Dir.: Carol Morley; Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Mamie Gummer. Toby Jones, Jonathan Majors, James Caan, Jackie Weaver; US/UK 2018, 110 min.

Carol Morley (Dreams of a Life) is a British auteur who brings so much more to her films that just the narrative. Her screen version of Martin Amis’ novel Night Train is a genre hybrid– noir in this case – and existentialism. Out of Blue is as enigmatic as its title and New Orleans is the shadowy setting where detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) investigates the murder of astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Gummer).

Rockwell is found dead in a planetarium where she’d given a speech the day before about Black Holes. Early clues lead to two main-suspects: Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) manager of the site, and Duncan Reynold (Majors), Rockwell’s lover and co-worker. But Hoolihan feels instinctively that the solution to the crime will lead her back into the past where Space will offer clues. A recovering alcoholic with a captivating cat (who steals many a scene) Mike nevertheless loses it completely when cornered by her own past, and performs a drunken semi-striptease on a bar table. Rockwell’s parents are also involved: Colonel Tom (Caan) – who may or may not be the suspect of a past murder spree – and her mother Miriam (Weaver), who has her own dark guilt complex, are not helping Hoolihan, neither are Rockwell’s twin brothers. When the tragedy unravels, more questions emerge, and even physical identities start to look questionable: as Jennifer says in her final lecture “our nose and our hands may not be from the same galaxy”.

The film’s main characters’ identities seem to emanate from a different past, and nothing fits any more. Out of Blue is very much Nicolas Roeg territory: his son Luc is also a producer. Morley’s narrative leads gradually leads us ‘out of this world’, where Rockwell felt much more at home than on this planet – never mind her rather dysfunctional family set-up. And Hoolihan herself is hiding behind her policeman’s (sic) mask, denying both gender and past. DoP Conrad W. Hall’s images play on tones of the colour blue: we race through the film like the night train of Martin Amis’ novel (on which it is loosely based): from the night sky to the cream receptacle found at the crime scene, and the murky metallic-grey of crimes past, everything leads to the indigo blue of cosmic Black Holes.

Morley is clearly interested in the who-done-it, but she also asks questions about human nature; and all her protagonists have something significant to hide. And she never lets them get away with it – the raison d’être of their life (or death) is always more important than the circumstances of the discoveries. To paraphrase the feature title: Blue is the new Noir. The director never gives in or compromises: the existential ‘why’ is her reason for filmmaking, the result may not be to everyone’s taste, but it satisfies an audience hungry for answers outside our immediate Universe. AS

IN ARTHOUSE CINEMAS FROM 29 MARCH 2019 

Phantom Lady (1944) ****

Dir: Robert Siodmak | Wri: Bernard C Shoenfeld | Cast: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Aurora Miranda, Elisha Cook, Regis Toomey, Fay Helm | US Noir Thriller 87′

This was Robert Siodmak’s first American success, a Noir thriller based on a book by Cornell Woolrich who would seed the storyline for a series of similar titles. Woody Bredell’s moody camerawork and Siodmak’s jagged angles echo German expressionism heightening the suspense of this twisty whodunnit. The wife of an unhappily married engineer (Alan Curtis) is murdered and his only alibi is a woman with a distinctive hat who disappears without trace after the two spend an impromptu evening together. But no one can remember the woman after their soiree so Curtis faces the chair, depressed and losing faith in his own judgement. His only hope is his faithful secretary (a vampish Ella Raines).who is determined to save him, along with a cop called Gomez (Burgess) who adds psychological insight into the criminal mind. As they work through the clues and the evidence together, the woman and the hat eventually emerge. Taut and tightly scripted, Phantom Lady seems to pack a great deal into its modest running time. Stylish costumes are by Vera West (Shadow of a Doubt) and musical choices are evocative. There’s also a racy jazz scene, the instruments filmed up close, adding a frenzied feel to the affair. MT

OUT ON BLURAY FROM 4th March 2019 | with extras Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir a documentary with insight from Edward Dymtryk, Dennis Hopper and Robert Wise. 

 

Human Desire (1954) **** Dual Format release

Dir: Fritz Lang | Noir Thriller | US, 1954, 90′

Fritz Lang brings a seething expressionism to this steely hard-boiled Noir. And although Jean Renoir’s 1938 version is better known, Lang’s American remake re-works themes of fear, jealousy and hatred into an equally provocative and suspenseful thriller that translocates the action to a working class New Jersey railroad setting. Loosely based on Emile Zola’s La Bête Humaine, Alfred Hayes script pictures Glenn Ford’s tortured train engineer cum Korean War veteran (Warren) fall for Gloria Grahame’s married femme fatale (Vicki Buckley). Set amidst the bleak monochrome marshalling yards, their doomed love affair is the only spark. Vicki’s abusive alcoholic husband Carl (Broderick Crawford) is fired from his job and blackmails her to stay with him using as his weapon a letter that links her to a jealousy-fuelled murder he committed on a train. He begs Vicki (Gloria Grahame) to speak to John Owens (Grandon Rhodes), an influential businessman. But when her love affair is revealed, it all ends in tears. Oscar-winning cinematographer Burnett Guffey creates a remarkable opening sequence where a train hurtles through the urban landscape. Set to Daniele Amfitheatrof’s rousing score, which primps the highs and lows of the narrative, this is one of the highlights of the mean and moody affair. Meanwhile costumier Jean Louis works his mastery on some seriously well-tailored rigouts. MT

NOW OUT ON DUAL FORMAT RELEASE COURTESY OF EUREKA

 

 

 

My Name is Julia Ross (1945) ****

Dir: Joseph H. Lewis; Wri: Muriel Roy Bolton, Music Mischa Bakaleinikoff, Art Director Jerome Pycha Jr | Cast: Nina Foch May Whitty George Macready Roland Varno Anita Bolster Doris Lloyd | Noir thriller US, 64’

Joseph H Lewis’ tautly tense psychological melodrama runs for just over an hour, yet every minute is packed with seconds with Muriel Roy Bolton’s clever script adapted from Anthony Gilbert’s novel The Woman in Red about a decent girl down on her luck who falls into the clutches of a Machiavellian mother and her disturbed son. 

My Name Is Julia Ross immediately secured Joseph Lewis a place in the noir firmament, and was soon to be followed by A Lady Without Passport and Gun Crazy in 1950; Cry of the Hunted (1953); and The Big Combo in 1955.

The premise is slightly outlandish, but suspend your disbelief and you’ll enjoy this Noirish thriller with its eclectic international cast. Dutch actor Nina Foch plays a secretary who secures a live-in position working for a wealthy English dowager (Dame May Whitty) with a dark secret. It soon transpires that Julia (Foch) has been employed under false pretences, as a shoe-in for the dowager’s dead daughter-in-law. She then wakes the following morning to discover she has been heavily drugged and transported to a Cornish seaside mansion where she is now Mrs Marion Hughes, and married to the dowager’s son Ralph. But that’s not the end of a waking nightmare that sees her trapped by circumstances beyond her control. 

Foch makes for a vulnerable yet stylishly foxy heroine decked out in Jean Louis’s elegant designs. Meanwhile, Burnett Guffey’s subtle lighting and chiaroscuro shadow-play spices up the sinister nature of this sinuous English-set psychodrama. Whitty gives a chillingly commanding turn as the mother, and Macready is suitably convincing as her abusive son. In this first class B movie, Joseph H. Lewis shows that great results can be achieved with a modest budget. MT 

OUT ON Bluray 18 FEBRUARY COURTESY OF ARROW FILMS 

3 Films in praise of Julien Duvivier

Julien Duvivier (1896-1967) was a prominent French film director largely active between 1930-1960 and best known for his early silent films and thrillers such as Pépé Le MokoLa Bandera, Life dances on, and Marianne de ma Jeunesse. He began life as an actor but after a disaster on stage, he moved on to write and direct, later relating the incident in his 1939 film La fin du Jour, with Michel Simon playing his character.

After working for Andre Antoine at Gaumont, Duvivier directed his first film in 1919. His early work was often religious in nature: La Tragédie de Lourdes, and La Vie Miraculeuse de Thérèse Martin which explored the Carmelite saint Thérèse de Liseux. Gaining experience with seminal French directors Marcel l’Herbier and Louis Feuillade, his first successful drama David Golder (1931) was a rags to riches story of an ambitious Polish Jew who falls foul of his wife. In 1934 Duvivier began a collaboration with Jean Gabin that would see them working together in The Imposter (1944), Pépé Le Moko, and La Belle Equipe (They Were Five). Like his countryman Jacques Tourneur, Duvivier moved to Hollywood and enjoyed the experience working with Charles Boyer, Edward G Robinson, Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power. But like Tourneur he eventually went back to France where he often cast Fernandel, Alain Delon, George Sanders and Michel Simon in his dramas.

Revered by legends such as Ingmar Bergman and Jean Renoir, Duvivier is still one of the greatest figures in the history of French cinema and possibly the most neglected, due to the uneven yet thematically varied nature of his work. Critic Michael Atkinson sees the poetic realist pioneer as “a victim of auteurism, ignored for generations by critics who saw…his output as the work of an able journeyman without signature or invention,” Duvivier, Atkinson argues compellingly, “rarely let a dull or unevocative shot pass through his camera,” and his films “fairly leap and swoon with visual cogency, surprising compositional drama, and a quintessentially French embrace of narrative life, equal parts funeral and fete.” Despite all this, his best films are stellar and treasured by cinefiles all over the world. He died in a car crash in 1967.

Julien Duvivier taps into post-war France’s paranoia in PANIQUE (1944), a long unavailable thriller, adapted from a Georges Simenon novel. Proud, eccentric and anti-social, Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon) has always kept to himself. But after the body of a woman turns up in the Paris suburb where he lives, he feels drawn to a pretty young newcomer to town (Viviane Romance), discovers his neighbours are only too ready to be suspicious of him, and is framed for the murder. Duvivier’s first outing after his return to France from Hollywood, sees the acclaimed poetic realist applying his consummate craft to darker, moodier ends. Led by two deeply nuanced performances, the tensely noirish Panique exposes the dangers of the knives-out mob mentality, delivering a pointed allegory of the behaviour of Duvivier’s countrymen during the war.

ON BLURAY AT AMAZON

But Julien Duvivier’s 1956 thriller DEADLIER THAN THE MALE  (Voici les temps des Assassins) somehow manages to outdo them all when it comes to violent women in film Noir: Catherine (Delorme) is the daughter of the drug depending Gabrielle (Bogaert), and tries to escape from the milieu by marrying the restaurant owner Andre Chatelin (Gabin), who has divorced her mother. Telling him that Gabrielle is dead, the scheming Catherine succeeds in marrying the much older man, who soon learns that his wife is lying about her mother. He more or less imprisons her with her mother Antoinette (Bert), also a restaurant owner, who kills her chicken with a whip – which she also uses on Catherine. The frightened woman asks Andre’s friend, the student Gerard (Blain), to kill her husband, but when he refuses, she kills him. Her end – by the fangs of a particular vicious animal – is particularly gruesome. Again, the images of Armand Thirad are undeserving of this blatant ideology.

ON BLURAY AT AMAZON 

The notorious Pépé LE MOKO (Jean Gabin, in a truly iconic performance) plunges into the gangster underworld as a wanted man: women long for him, rivals hope to destroy him, and the law is breathing down his neck at every turn. On the lam in the labyrinthine Casbah of Algiers, Pépé is safe from the clutches of the police–until a Parisian playgirl compels him to risk his life and leave its confines once and for all. One of the most influential films of the 20th century and a landmark of French poetic realism, Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le moko is presented here in its full-length version. AVAILABLE FROM CRITERION COLLECTION | Amazon Prime

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laura (1944) **** Bluray edition

Dir: Otto Preminger | Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson | Film Noir, Mystery | US | 88′

Otto Preminger, the bombastic Austro-Hungarian protegé of Max Reinhardt, trained as a lawyer in his homeland before emigrating to make his name in Hollywood with this glorious Noir love story. A divisive director, he often tackled themes that were taboo during the Hollywood era, such as drug addition (The Man with the Golden Arm 1955) and rape (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959). The project started life with director Rouben Mamoulian in 1944, but Preminger soon took over the reins and Laura gained iconic status due to its sparkling script, adapted from Vera Caspary’s novel, and velvety black and white visuals that won Joseph LaShelle an Oscar at the 1945 Academy Awards. But David Raksin’s soaring score is one of the most memorable things about Laura – and you find yourself humming it long after seeing the film.

Gene Tierney stars as the beautiful New York advertising executive, Laura Hunt, who is mysteriously murdered, raising an investigation by Dana Andrews’ Detective Mark McPherson, who falls in love her, Hitchcock-style. There are also roles for Laird Cregar (The Lodger) who is brilliant as the film’s villain, and Vincent Price who plays Laura’s lascivious boyfriend Shelby Carpenter. Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder was undoubtedly a better crime thriller, as the genre goes, but Laura somehow captures the imagination and lives on in our memories as a lasting classic. MT

BLURAY RELEASE COURTESY OF EUREKA MASTERS OF CINEMA | JANUARY 2019

Budapest Noir (2017) *** UK Jewish Film Festival 2018

Dir.: Eva Gardos; Cast: Krisztian Kolovratnik, Reka Tenki, Janos Kulka, Adel Kovats, Franziska Töröcsik; Hungary 2017, 94 min.

Veteran director Eva Gardos (An American Rhapsody) serves up a slick but conventional noir spoof that offers decent entertainment despite its cliche-ridden script. There are too many holes in the narrative, the brothel scenes are voyeuristic, and without any knowledge of the complex Hungarian history of the era, audiences will find it hard to understand what’s going on. But BUDAPEST NOIR looks simply stunning and serves as a perceptive study of Hungarian fascism and Anti-Semitism.

In October 1936, Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös, had died of cancer in Munich. His body was received in Budapest with full military honours (Gömbös had boasted about his fascist credentials). Crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon (Kolovratnik) meets an enigmatic young woman in a restaurant, who tells the waiter that the journalist will pick up her bill. When he finds her note to him, promising to pay back the money, the womanising journalist’s interest is aroused – only to discover her murdered a few days later. But when her body then disappears from the morgue, Gordon makes his own inquiries against the advice of the authorities. He finds out that the girl in question, Fanny (Töröcsik), is the daughter of Andras Szöllosy, a wealthy Jewish coffee importer with links to the government. He converted to Catholicism, and started a lucrative business with Nazi Germany. Helped by his on/off girl friend Krisztina (Tenki), a photographer who had just had an assignment in a German camp (sic), Gordon finds out that Fanny’s father had driven his daughter into prostitution, forbidding her to see her Jewish boyfriend, because of his fears for her future. But after Fanny had become pregnant in a high-class brothel, her situation deteriorated. And when Gordon finally catches up with Fanny’s parents, he mother Irma (Kovats) reacts dramatically.

Sad to say, Hungarian Fascists were as brutal as their Germans counterparts. The ruling Regent, Admiral Horthy, felt superior to Hitler, who had spent a decade in a dosshouse. Gömbös, Horthy’s Prime Minister, wanted two nations to be more closely allied, whilst Horthy only supported Hitler without reservations after the outbreak of WWII, when Hungarian troops fought on the side of the Axis.

It is ironic that Horthy was deposed by Hitler when it came to the deportation of the 400 000 Hungarian Jews in 1944 – it turned out that the Hungarian fascists (Pfeilkreuzler) and the population as a whole, did not share Horthy’s reservation, they enthusiatiscally assisted the Germans to send the Jews to the death camps.

There are scenes of open Anti-Semitism in Budapest Noir: in one scene, a bar singer croons a song composed by a Jew, and some Anti-Semites in the audience attack him. Gordon stops them, but the real fighter is his Krisztina, who leaves him for London, to show her death camp images in an exhibition “because over there are people who really care”. The Szöllosy’s family history is typical for Jews of the region: many had converted to Catholicism, trying to deny their Jewish heritage, and, like Fanny’s father, would marry their offspring to anybody but a Jew. Gordon represents the cynical by-stander, who is only after a good story, he does not mind taking a beating, but is totally non-committed on a personal and political level. Strangely enough, Budapest Noir is – in spite of its obvious faults – a mirror of a society where the points for the future genocide are being put in place. AS

SCREENING DURING UK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL 2018 |

Three Monkeys (2008) ****

Dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan | Cast: Yavuz Bingol, Hatice Aslan, Ahmet Rifat Sungar, Ercan Kesal | Thriller, Turkey 109′

Three Monkeys is a visual metaphor for anxiety and suspicion, a moody reflection on family guilt after a tragedy under the glowering skies of Istanbul. Three Monkeys is a masterpiece in stylish visual storytelling. Writing with his wife Ebru, Ceylan keeps his plot and narrative ambiguous to focus on an atmosphere seething with angst ridden doubt. His characters make spurious assumptions that eventually lead to their undoing.

The plot is brilliantly simple yet loaded with potential for emotional meltdown: under a cloud of dismay and financial hardship, Eyup and Hacer live in a modest flat overlooking the Bosphorus with their aimless son Ismail, whose brother has recently died. One dark night Eyup’s politically ambitious boss Servet hits a pedestrian on a lonely road. Eyup agrees to take the rap – a short stay in prison – for a chunk of money that will repay a debt he owes his father. While Eyup is away, the feckless Ismail buys a car with part of the money to secure a job as a driving instructor. Hacer then falls for Servet who decides to repay Eyup in full, including the amount Ismail has spent on the car. But Eyup regards his largesse with suspicion and soon puts two and two together.

The sheer intensity of Three Monkeys is captivating – keeping us in thrall as the four main characters gradually unravel in a way that is rare in modern cinema, invigorated by Gokhan Tiryaki’s vibrant images and stunning performances from Yavuz Bingol, Hatice Aslan and Ahmet Sungar whose facial expressions convey all we need to know and more. A simple tragedy leads to a constantly changing dynamic between the central characters who are poisoned by a self-seeking outsider. Pure cinematic joy that deservedly won Ceylan Best Director at Cannes 2008. MT

ON BLURAY/DVD from 11 NOVEMBER at NEW WAVE FILMS 

 

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) **** Bluray release

Dir: Billy Wilder | Writers: Billy Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, Lawrence B Marcus | Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, John Williams, Torin Thatcher, Norma Varden, Una O’Connor | US Crime Drama | 116′

A veteran British barrister takes on a slippery client in Billy Wilder’s twisty courtroom triumph based on Agatha Christie’s international stage success.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is an enjoyable classic masterpiece that blends humour, intrigue and stunning performances from an outstanding cast lead by Charles Laughton as the bombastic diehard Sir Wilfred Roberts (Laughton), who is determined not to be outwitted by his charmingly glib client the putative murderer Leonard Vole (Power) whose steely wife Christine (Dietrich) plays a vixen with a heart of gold. Wilder and his co-writer Harry Kurnitz lace this deliciously intoxicating cocktail with their signature witty one-liners that pretty up this elegantly pleasing theatrical courtroom drama with its robust legal underpinnings and insight into England in the late 1950s, the distant echoes of WWII and Colonialism adding gusto to the storyline.

The film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director and was reportedly praised by Agatha Christie as the best adaptation of her work she had seen. MT

AVAILABLE ON BLURAY COURTESY OF EUREKA MASTERS OF CINEMA FROM 10 SEPTEMBER 2018

Temptation Harbour (1947) ****

Dir: Lance Comfort | Cast: Simone Simon, Robert Newton, William Hartnell, Margaret Barton | Noir Thriller | UK |

The story of Temptation Harbour is straightforward but morally complex. One night a railway signalman on the quay observes two men suspiciously embarking from a ship. Later he witnesses a fight between the men for possession of a suitcase. A man is deliberately pushed into the water and the killer runs off. The signalman retrieves the suitcase to discover it contains £5000 in banknotes. The police are not informed. He hides the case in his house. Conflicts concerning family trust, the appearance of a femme fatale and further violence ensue.

Lance Comfort’s Temptation Harbour (1947) is one of three film adaptations of Georges Simenon’s novel L’homme de Londres: Newhaven-Dieppe. The other two are Henri Decoin’s L’homme de Londres (1931), and Bela Tarr’s The Man from London (2007). The 30’s French version is moody but stolid (An earnest voice-over ‘guilty conscience’ and a chanson-singing prostitute almost sink the production.) The Tarr film is brooding and metaphysical. Brilliantly shot in black and white but mysteriously abstracting Simenon’s story: making it more a Bela Tarr experience than a noir-thriller. Only the British film, Temptation Harbour comes closest to Simenon’s fatalism where his icy sympathy is tempered by the sensitive direction of Lance Comfort. Whilst a sense of the French cinema of the 30s and 40s (Quai Des Brumes and La Bête humaine) aids the atmosphere.

Film noir is a highly influential force in cinema: depicting a treacherous world of darkness and pessimism where characters engage, or deliberately strain your sympathy. Not normally a world in which much compassion is shown to those who do wrong. The word “generosity” doesn’t come readily to mind for its heroes, villains or even victims. Yet the noirish-stained Temptation Harbour has a warmly rounded sympathy for its signalman protagonist Bert Mallinson (Robert Newton) and his involved people, daughter Betty Mallinson (Margaret Barton) side-show performer Camelia (Simone Simon) and “the man from London killer” Jim Brown (William Hartnell). The emphasis is placed on vulnerability, understandable corruption and stress: all are highlighted instead of noir’s usual amorality, obvious greed and sweet revenge.

The degree of tenderness that Lance Comfort brings to this dark melodrama is remarkable. Bert Mallinson, Betty Mallinson and Camelia are played out as subtle variations of innocence and experience. Bert is basically a decent man who holds onto the £5000 realising it would be impossible to earn so much in a lifetime of work. Betty is a kind daughter who (in her father’s eyes) does wrong by stealing some kidneys from the butcher’s she works at – a small misdemeanour, but enough for Bert to momentarily ‘flaw’ her character. Camelia is an unhappy orphan of the war, now trapped into playing the part of a ‘radio-active mermaid’ beauty in a tacky fairground act. She want to escape and tries to seduce Bert, with his suitcase of money, for this is her only means to return to a comfortable life in France. Even the killer Mr.Brown is treated with compassion once we learn the circumstances that led him to crime – a distressed Mrs.Brown (Joan Hopkins) is brought in for questioning by an ex-detective, Inspector Dupre (Marcel Dalio)

Temptation Harbour pays homage to both Jean Renoir and De Sica. Renoir for the film’s overall intense sympathy and De Sica for the lovely attention to detail and atmosphere that Comfort brings to the scene involving daughter Betty as she prepares her father’s breakfast. The camera accompanies her in a manner echoing the long sequence featuring the maid preparing for the day, in De-Sica’s Umberto D.

The film’s father/daughter relationship is handled with tender insight and affection. The rupture of this family bond emotionally breaks the recently widowed signalman, as much as his futile holding onto the money and a final act of self-defence. Robert Newton is excellent as the conflicted father. Margaret Barton (who began her film career as the tearoom waitress in Brief Encounter) gives a superb performance that is both heartfelt and poignant.

Bleak tale though it is, Temptation Harbour has humorous episodes. Irene Handl’s fake playing of the piano at the show and Simone Simon’s bored and detached delivery of her theatrical patter are beautifully comedic. It’s a perfectly cast film but not quite note perfect. There’s an extended voice-over by Robert Newton – the director ought to have trusted his actor to suggest character dilemma through looks. Yet this is a slight flaw in a moving and exciting film.

It seems that betrayal, error and the confused aspiration to a better life spill out from the family to encompass the needs of the other characters. It’s just after the Second World War and people are still poor and desire transformative social change. Lance Comfort and co-scriptwriter Rodney Ackland (author of the play Absolute Hell (1952) set in a club on the eve of the 1945 general election) plant this sub-text into their crime film. A better life, to remain decent people, avoid messes like the one Bert Mallinson has got himself into, and improve themselves, are their aspirations making up a redemptive goal – not in a religious sense – but for a deserved material well being. The urgent need to escape from an austere Britain of rationing and ‘making things do’ hangs over everyone.

“How by 1945, at the apparent birth of a new world, did the ‘activators’ – politicians, planners, public intellectuals, opinion-formers – really see the future? And how did their vision of what lay ahead compare with that of ‘ordinary people?’ The overlaps and mismatches between these two sets of expectations would be fundamental to the playing out of the next three or more decades.” Austerity Britain 1945-51 – David Kynaston

Temptation Harbour works as a social critique; film noir; domestic drama and crime movie. Visually stunning camerawork by Otto Heller creates much fine and appropriate shading of the foggy harbour and the house and hotel interiors. Mischa Poliansky’s music is very effective – particularly in the heart-rending final moments: Father locks up the house and says goodbye to his daughter, the music surges in and up with a Rachmaninov-like tone and power.

Temptation Harbour is rightly regarded as Lance Comfort’s best work and for me should be viewed alongside Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive – also photographed by Otto Heller. It’s fascinating to compare the Fugitive spiv-corrupted London with the dangerous Folkestone of Temptation Harbour, as both were released in 1947. Fugitive has a demobilised RAF pilot Clem Morgan, played by Trevor Howard, drawn into a world of crime. Both Morgan and Mallinson seek justice either in the form of regained dignity (Fugitive) or deserved materialism (Harbour) and are impatient for the new world to deliver. Unfortunately Cavalcanti’s disillusioned ex-serviceman and Comfort’s corrupted signalman are left at the end with their fate uncertain (Only in The Man from London version of Simenon’s novel and L’homme de Londres is Mallinson sort of let off, by the police inspector, from his ‘crime’.)

The film has not been available until recently due to issues with the Simenon family estate, Temptation Harbour can now be viewed on the BFI online player for a small rental charge. I saw it this month at a one-off screening at the Southbank and their beautiful archive print, of what is probably a minor masterpiece, really ought to be released on blu-ray. Alan Price©2018

TEMPTATION HARBOUR IS AVAILABLE ON BFI PLAYER

It Happened Here (1965) | dual format re-master

Dir: Kevin Brownlow/Andrew Mollo | Cast: Pauline Murray, Sebastian Shaw, Bart Allison, Reginald Marsh, Derek Milburn | Drama | UK | 93′

Made on a shoestring budget – and none the worse for it – Brownlow/Mollo’s Neorealist re-imagining of a Nazi invasion of Britain is plausible and chilling: even though the event never happened. Financed by Tony Richardson and his Woodfall Film Production Company, it was shot in 16mm and 35mm, with a mainly amateur cast and incredible attention to detail.

Eight years in the making – Brownlow was only 18, Mollo 16 when they started – IT HAPPENED HERE pictures the whole scenario in the wake of the British retreat from Dunkirk in 1940 where the German army are strongly resisted at first, but finally crushed, lacking outside support. Then in 1944, it reappeared and the result sees history being re-written with Germany winning the Second World War with England under occupation.  MT

SCREENING AT BFI SOUTHBANK ON 23 JULY AT 18.00 FOLLOWED BY A DISCUSSION WITH KEVIN BROWNLOW AND ANDREW MOLLO TO MARK BROWNLOW’S 80TH BIRTHDAY | DUAL FORMAT RELEASE NOW AVAILABLE.

 

 

Secret Beyond the Door (1947) | Bluray release

Dir: Fritz Lang | Noir | US 1947

This domestic noir from Fritz Lang. SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR  stars a luminous Joan Bennett as Celia, a elegant woman who marries a troubled and mercurial architect Mark (Michael Redgrave) with a secret past. Lang himself had started studying the profession in Vienna (his father was an architect). Film Writer Walter Benjamin wrote: “that watching films is a simultaneous and collective effort, therefore architecture is closest to the cinema of all the classical art forms. They are related and they are viewed the same way, but cinema is able to show the masses in their way of life. Film shows us an enlarged, unbelievable new world”.

So Death and architecture are again the themes here, as they were in Metropolis (1927): more than twenty years after Der Müde Tod Lang (1921) Lang again picks one of his favourite combinations. The feature has a layered Russian-Doll like structure, there are continuous flashbacks – optical, verbal and architectonic – including daydreams, hallucinations and phantasies that come to life. All the time, the objects become symbols, which often in a pathological way, transform memories and phantasms into a much more potent layer of consciousness than the real world.

0263_SECRET_BEYOND_THE_DOOR_01The architect Mark Lamphere (Redgrave) has closeted himself in a gothic mansion where he has designed three rooms, filled with furniture from a secret room where a murder had occurred. This room is dedicated to the memory a wife stabbed to death by a husband who thought she was being unfaithful. In the second chamber, a young man tied his mother to a chair, and drowned her. The third room is the copy of the bedroom of Mark’s first wife Caroline (Revere), for whose death Mark feels responsible. He has certainly a very disturbed view of women, and when he shows his second wife Celia (Bennett) the third room, she is stunned to recognize her own bedroom. Since his childhood, Mark had repressed murderous instincts, for which he feels guilty. Celia knows that if her “therapy” is not successful, she will pay with her life.

Lang himself was no fan of this feature –  during the shooting there were many setbacks. “The ending is really ridiculous. Nobody is healed so quickly from traumatic obsessions”. But there is much to be said in favour of Secret Beyond the Door: Silvia Richards’ screenplay, based on the novella by Rufus King, is very tight but also innovative. veteran DoP Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Andersons, Night of the Hunter) excelled with his stylish dissolves and long panning shots and the music of Miklos Roza is haunting, but never competes with the visuals. Lang might not have like the end product, but Secret is a small masterpiece.

NOW AVAILABLE COURTESY OF ARROW ACADEMY FROM 25 JUNE 2018 

 

Tim Robbins | Honoured at Karlovy Vary Film Festival 2018

Oscar-winning Tim Robbins will be celebrated at this year’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival with a Crystal Globe for his Outstanding Contribution to World Cinema as an actor, director, screenwriter, producer and musician. Robbins won his Academy Award for his performance as Best Supporting in Mystic River (2003) and was later nominated for a best director Oscar for Dead Man Walking (1995). 

Tim Robbins grew up surrounded by artists from an early age and began his acting career on the New York stage with the experimental theatre ensemble The Actor’s Gang, which under his guidance earned widespread audience acclaim and more than a hundred critics’ awards. 

This early success led to various roles in TV and a film career that flourished with his performance in Ron Shelton’s popular sports film Bull Durham (1988). Proof of his undeniable talent followed with his role in the drama Jacob ’s Ladder (1990), and Robbins went on to work with legendary indie director Robert Altman – taking the sardonic lead role in Altman’s The Player (1992) which won him a Golden Globe and the Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival. 

Honing his skills behind the camera, Robbins’ directorial debut was the impressive drama Bob Roberts (1992 left) which he scripted, co-scored (with his brother David), and also appeared in the title role, singing many of the songs himself.  And the following year he was back with Robert Altman to film Short Cuts (1993). The ensemble cast won a Special Golden Globe and also took home the Volpi Cup from the Venice Film Festival. 

There followed appearances in the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), another outing with Robert Altman (the comedy from the world of fashion Prêt-à-Porter, 1994), and his work with Frank Darabont on The Shawshank Redemption (1994), which was nominated for seven Oscars. In 1996 Dead Man Walking earned him an Oscar nomination for best director, while his partner Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for best actress. His next auteur outing, Cradle Will Rock (1999) above, which premiered at Cannes, explored the relationship between the individual artist and society during a tumultuous time in the U.S. though this time in another era. As with Dead Man Walking, Robbins produced, and the music was written by his brother David. 

After Stephen Frears’s romantic comedy High Fidelity (2000) and Michel Gondry’s bizarre Human Nature (2001) – based on a script by Charlie Kaufman – Robbins appeared in one of his most successful roles – in Clint Eastwood’s crime drama Mystic River (2004), for which both Robbins and lead actor Sean Penn won an Oscar and a Golden Globe. Recently Robbins has appeared in Marjorie Prime (2017) and HBOs The Brink (2016) and Here And Now (2018). 

KARLOVY VARY FILM FESTIVAL | 29 JUNE – 7 JULY 2018 | TIM ROBBINS WILL PRESENT BOB ROBERTS and CRADLE WILL ROCK and perform with his ensemble The Rogues Gallery Band. 

The Grifters (1999) **** Bluray release

Dir: Stephen Frears | Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening | Thriller |

Directed by British auteur Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons) and producer Martin Scorsese, The Grifters, is a taut thriller that explores themes of seduction and betrayal. When small-time cheat Roy Dillon (Cusack) winds up in hospital following an unsuccessful scam, it sets up a confrontation between his estranged mother Lilly (Huston) and alluring girlfriend Myra (Benning). Both Lilly and Myra are con artists playing the game in a league far above Roy, and are always looking for their next victim. As Roy finds himself caught in a complicated web of passion and mistrust, the question is who’s conning whom? Frears elicits memorable performances from this talented cast in one of the 20th century’s most edgy and memorable cult classics. 
 
Special Features
Brand New Extras
• Seduction. Betrayal. Murder: The Making of The Grifters: A brand new feature length documentary on the film’s production, including new interviews with director Stephen Frears, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, editor Mick Audsley, executive producer Barbara De Fina and co-producer Peggy Rajski.
• Limited edition booklet includes: ‘Jim Thompson, Noir, and the Popular Front’, an essay by David Cochran, and ‘Elmer Bernstein: Grit not Grift’, a review of the legendary composer’s career by Charlie Brigden
101 Films launch their new Black Label with The Grifters and eXistenZ both on dual format on 21 May 2018
 
Pre-order both for £25 direct from 101 Films: http://bit.ly/101BlackLabel  

Dogman ***** (2018) | Cannes Film Festival | Best Actor Award

Dir: Matteo Garrone | Ugo Chiti | Adamo Dionisi, Francesco Acquaroli, Edoardo Pesce, Laura Pizzirani | Drama | 120′ | Italy

The second Italian hero of Cannes Film Festival appears in Matteo Garrone’s terrific revenge thriller that returns to the filmmaker’s own stamping ground of Caserta with a richly thematic and compulsive exploration of male rivalry and belonging in a downtrodden criminal-infested football-playing community scratching a living.

Life has always been tough in this neck of the woods, infested by gangland influences: it is a terrain that Garrone knows and describes well in his 2008 feature Gomorrah. A brutal brotherhood controls this bleak beachside wilderness where everyone relies on each other to survive.

At the heart of DOGMAN is a tour de force turn from actor turned director Marcello Fonte who plays an endearing and diminutive dog grooming supremo who although popular and kind, has formed a toxic twosome with local hoodlum and sociopath Simone, a thorn in his side who is dragging him constantly into trouble. Marcello’s wife has cleared off and he has a young daughter Sofia (Alida Baldari Calabria) to look after –  and dog-grooming hardly makes ends meet, so to keep Simone sweet he supplies him with cocaine and courtesies, though secretly he wishes him dead.

Marcello possesses the same innate goodness as Lazzaro in Rohrwacher’s drama that played earlier in the competition line -up. And he’s gifted and patient with the dogs brought into his shop, and in one scene he actually goes out of his way to rescue a chihuahua who has been nearly frozen to death in a botched robbery. In short, Garrone uses similar ‘good and evil’ theme as Scorsese in his New York street thrillers where one good person is perpetually trying to redeem the others, against the odds and often at his own expense. Marcello is keen on his friends and is popular and wants to keep it that way, but Simone is a liability and one day will lead him to tragedy.

This is a gritty and violent film and often unbearably so, but there are moments of heart-rending tenderness – between his Marcello and his dependants – where tears will certainly well up. Fonte won Best Award at Cannes for his skilful portrayal that switches subtly from sad loner to desperado.

Garrone sets the desolate scene resonantly with his brilliant lighting and inventive camerawork, this time working with DoP Nicolai Bruel, who paints this part of Italy with an almost gothic desperation highlighted by Michele Braga’s mournful musical score. MT

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL  2018| BEST ACTOR AWARD MARCELLO FONTE

Hell Drivers (1957) **** | Bluray release

Dir: Cy Endfield | Writer: John Kruse | Cast: Stanley Baker, Herbert Lom, Peggy Cummins, Patrick McGoohan, William Hartnell. Sidney James | 108′ | Crime Drama

“They fight to the death – and their weapons are ten-ton trucks.” So screams the poster publicity for Hell Drivers. This tough and tautly directed thriller unconsciously echoes the lorry driver tribulations of Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and anticipates the internal combustion engine, as monster, in Spielberg’s Duel. The Wikipedia entry for Hell Drivers actually supplies a credit for the vehicles “The Doge 100 Kew” parrot-nosed truck, with a tipper body.” The trucks are as much a star of this film as are the macho guys who manically drive them, loaded with gravel, on 20 mile round trips.

Tom Yeates (Stanley Baker), just released from prison, gets a job as truck driver after seeing Carley, (William Hartnell) the manager for a local building contractor. He soon meets Red (Patrick McGoohan), the head Irish driver and violent bully. Lucy (Peggy Cummins), the manager’s secretary, is dating driver Gino Rossi (Herbert Lom), but is really more interested in Tom. Red and Tom compete fiercely and dangerously to be the top driver so they can claim a gold cigarette case (their prize and flashy symbol of strength). Meanwhile, Hell Drivers’ sub-plots of managerial corruption, loyal male friendships and the attraction of the hardly conflicted Lucy, all simmer in the pot for this powerful duel.

Hell Drivers is fascinating for its Americanisation of the parochial British thriller of the 1950s. Director Cy Endfield (a victim of the McCarthy purges) is an émigré who directs as if whipping up a posse pursuit in a Western, with a nod to that Warner Brothers melodrama about truck driving: They Drive by Night: all the action being sharply spiked by an angry script about worker exploitation. Yet Hell Drivers seems to address conflicting forms of masculinity rather than small business swindles in today’s climate.

Stanley Baker is outstanding as Tom. It’s a perfect role for his idiosyncratic fiery Welsh temperament. Baker consistently expresses a potent mix of surface menace and suppressed tenderness. He cares, yet doesn’t really care. Baker’s wayward “devil may care” persona was always impatient to get things done and achieve a kind of class justice in a treacherous world. His acting had a fantastic edge. He was at his very best when directed by Cy Endfield and Joseph Losey: exhibiting a Celtic Brando-like power (minus any method acting) that gripped you by the throat and worth a quote from critic David Thomson here.

“Until the early 1960s, Baker was the only male lead in the British cinema who managed to suggest contemptuousness, aggression, and the working class. He is the first hint of proletarian male vigour against the grain….”

Patrick McGoohan was compelling in the role of Red. But unlike Baker he is a bit too self-consciously acting for effect. He was a highly individual and intense performer who was most famous for his TV work on Danger Man and, of course, the iconic The Prisoner. In The Prisoner he was always searching to find ‘No 1’. Whilst in Hell Drivers he is the foreman driver of the ‘No 1’ truck. After several viewings of Hell Drivers I’m beginning to think that Red is just a bit too much of a stereotyped baddie. McGoohan snarls his way through the film as if aping Lee Marvin on a bad day. Or prefiguring an imitation of Eli Wallach in a spaghetti western. Yet in spite of the hugely enjoyable over-acting, Red’s character doesn’t flaw the realism of Hell Drivers: it works to provoke the Tom character to discover some moral virtue behind his gritty attitude.

The third element of masculine force is Gino – finely played by Herbert Lom. Any caricature of an Italian abroad in a rough community, is avoided. True, he does have a Catholic side, in the form of a prayer-room point in the lodging house. But religious sentimentality, mama mias and a love of pasta are absent. Lom touchingly stresses the sensitivity and kindness of Gino. He acts as a feminine catalyst between the opposing forces of Tom and Red: pairing himself up with the tough Lucy (a strong performance from Peggy Cummins).

All the characters in Hell Drivers – including the minor supporting actors, such as a very young Sean Connery – keep testing one another. And not simply on a testosterone tough guy level. They’re challenged by the company’s demand for profit and hence their need for insanely reckless driving. Through an exposure of the cheating management, Red does eventually receive his come-uppance and Tom, a form of salvation, or more specifically he comes to his senses and might be a changed man.

The crisp photography of Geoffrey Unsworth; tight editing; expertly-used locations and a strong pace to the story make for an exciting film. Although the benefits of American materialism hadn’t yet fully hit British society, our cinema was invigorated by the intervention of outsider Cy Endfield (and soon after by Joseph Losey with Blind Date and The Criminal both starring an even more intimidating Stanley Baker). And what with Hammer’s Dracula and the British New Wave waiting in the wings, sedate manners trembled. ALAN PRICE©2018

NOW AVAILABLE ON BLURAY | NETWORK

The Nile Hilton Incident (2017) * * * *

Dir.: Tarik Saleh; Cast: Fares Fares, Maher Kamal, Mari Malek, Ahmd Selim, Hania Amar; Sweden/Denmark/France/Germany 2017, 106 min.

Pre-revolution 2011 and Egypt is a place of corruption, greed and violence – or so Tarik Saleh would have us believe in his bleak neo-noir  that unfurls in Cairo’s shady world of police and state security. In actual fact, Saleh and DoP Pierre Aim transferred the shoot to Casablanca after the Egyptian authorities closed the film down.

In January 2011, Captain Noredin (Fares) is used by his corrupt Cairo Police Chief uncle Kamal (Maher), to cover up a murder in the Nile Hilton, where a young singer had her throat slit. Noredin takes bribes and stores the money in his fridge, but he still has a conscience when it comes to people, and manages to unearth a witness in the shape of Sudanese refugee Salwa (Malek), a maid in the hotel. Noredin is desperate to solve the case, even if it means disobeying his uncle and confronting the prime suspect, property developer Shafiq (Selim), who is also a member of parliament and friend of the president. It turns out that Lalena worked as a singer/call girl for Nagy, an enigmatic Moroccan. When Naredin meets and sleeps with Gina (Amar) who also works for Nagy, and sends the incriminating photos of her clients to state security, Noredin sets up a stream of violent events which culminate with the initial demonstrations that would eventually go on to topple president Mubarak.

Fares’ Noredin is the archetypal noir hero who has given up on life after losing his wife in a car crash. Somehow, the death of another innocent woman (Lalena) reminds him of his duties as a policeman and unleashes memories of his love. He starts a one-man crusade against a system which has degenerated into an evil empire. Saleh shows the exploitation and mistreatment of foreigners like Salwa, whose lives don’t count for much in the local scheme of things. Whilst the upper classes live in Switzerland, ordinary people often lack the basics. Egyptian society is on the brink of revolt, with police and security forces shooting down unarmed demonstrators without a by your leave. This is not a new story, but one that’s well told: the atmosphere alone keeps you in its thrall. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 2 MARCH 2018 NATIONWIDE

Strangled (2016) | Home Ent release


Dir/Writer: Árpád Sopsits | Thriller | Hungary | 118′

For his third feature, director Árpád Sopsits (Videoblues, Abandoned) transports us back to post revolutionary Hungary in this taut and vividly atmospheric historical thriller based on the serial killings of six young women that took place between 1957-67 in the town of Martfű in the South East. The sinister mood of corruption and social unease bleeds into the murder investigation tainting proceedings and forcing local detective Katona (Zsolt Trill) to convict their initial suspect who continued to abused by fellow inmates in prison, while the murders continued.

The tone is cautious and unsettling as gradually events unfold in the industrial town where we first meet unappealing factory-worker Réti (Gabor Jaszberenyi) waiting for his girlfriend, who is later found murdered – but we’re constantly kept unsure of his culpability as he serves his life sentence, remanded from the death penalty, due to his previously clean record. The investigation procedural is complex and fraught with controversy, not least because the head of the inquiry, the rather unsavoury Bóta (Zsolt Anger) is unconvinced they’ve picked the right man, and also fancies Reti’s sister Rita (Szofia Szamosi). Meanwhile factory worker Bognar (Hadjuk Karoly) has been up to no good abusing his wife and attacking other women he meets along the way. His lascivious enjoyment of his victims makes for unsettlingly convincing viewing in Gabor Szabo’s stunning camerawork and lighting, but Sopsits focuses more on evocative sound effects – screams and deep breathing – than vision, keeping us in the dark, quite literally. When Katona’s sidekick Szirmai (Peter Barnai) enters the investigation, scenes of torture and depravity feed into the general atmosphere of corruption, mistrust and unease surrounding the anti-communist uprising of 1956 and there’s much to be admired in Rita Devenyi’s sleek set design. Although overlong, STRANGLED certainly creates an evocative sense of the joyless and sinister era in this small-town microcosm that echoes a wider political landscape. MT

NOW AVAILABLE. COURTESY OF EUREKA MASTERS OF CINEMA | 5 FEBRUARY 2018

Top Ten Indie films of 2017

It’s that time of year again when we take a look back at a year’s worth of indie and arthouse films and remember some we enjoyed most. Meredith Taylor picks her Top Ten releases of 2017.

US DRAMA – CERTAIN WOMEN

The lives of three women intersect is this gracefully understated but convincing drama from US director Kelly Reichardt. Full of subtle insight and lasting resonance. Certain Women Meditates on contemporary life from the female perspective in an utterly enthralling yet low-key, often ambiguous way. Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern star

FOREIGN LANGUAGE DRAMA  – TONI ERDMANN

Filmmaker Maren Ade has created one of the most poignant and refreshingly humorous German arthouse comedy dramas of recent memory – it never drags despite its three-hour running time. Picturing the absurd and often awkward nature of family relationships, this is a life-affirming experience not to be missed, especially at Christmas time. After The Forest for the Trees and Everyone Else, Ade is working her way slowly but surely to the top as most of the most refreshing European writer directors around..

HORROR – THE EYES OF MY MOTHER

This sumptuously crafted thriller is compelling, twisted and terrifying in its quiet and light-footed depiction of loneliness and psychopathy. Nicholas Pesce’s debut is deeply enthralling from start to end (main pic).

UNREQUITED LOVE STORY  – SUNTAN 

There’s something sad and awkwardly compulsive about this cautionary tale of a misguided intergenerational liaison between a lonely man and a glib young woman who meet in an island paradise. One of the best recent dramas about delusional love and its grim aftermath that perfectly epitomises the sinking realisation of being ‘over the hill’ on a holiday fling, while still holding on to the dream . Slim and but beautifully scenic and deeply resonant in its evergreen theme.

ANIMATION – MY LIFE AS A COURGETTE

Claude Barras’ impressive stop-motion animation is a tender tale probing life’s saddest moments: not a kid’s film but one that chimes with the kid inside us. Heart-breaking yet uplifting at the same time, Celine Sciamma has cleverly scripted Gilles Paris’ sombre autobiography that is both a sensitive study in grief and an authentic portrait of children growing up, coming to terms with sadness and learning how to look after each other. A real gem.

THRILLER – HOUNDS OF LOVE

Based on a true story, this tortured and claustrophobic character study of evil and human depravity is set in a quiet middle-class Australian backwater. Showcasing the dynamite duo of Emma Booth and Stephen Curry as real life partners Evelyn and John White, this is a stunning debut from writer/director Ben Young.

LGBT DRAMA – CALL ME BY YOUR NAME 

Despite its awkward title, this charming drama was the breakout hit of 2017 for all audiences not just the gay crowd. Beguiling, mysterious and compelling, Sicilian director Luca Guadagnino conveys the claustrophobic August heat of the film’s Po Valley setting and the chemistry between leads Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet – who went on the win various awards – permeates every scene. This is Oscar material and deserves to be.

UK DEBUT – LADY MACBETH 

It’s rare that a virago creates mayhem and gets away with it in literature or film. But this is exactly what happens with Florence Pugh’s Katherine in theatre director William Oldroyd’s feature debut, based on classic Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In 19th rural England, Pugh plays a young bride sold in marriage who falls desperately in lust with a worker on her impotent husband’s rural estate in North Yorkshire. Oldroyd maintains an unsettling dread throughout in a drama brimming with venomous malcontent.

UK COMEDY – MINDHORN 

If you liked Alan Partridge or Alpha Papa then Mindhorn will appeal. This is a comedy that washes over you like a cloud of laughing gas – if you’re in the right mindset: there are scenes so hilarious it’s impossible to remain dignified; others so cringingly embarassing you will never been seen wearing lycra again – let along tight jeans, or at least in the way Julian Barratt does as the main character Richard Thorncroft in this big screen debut for TV veteran Sean Foley. Thorncroft is a pot-bellied ‘has been’ who lost his acting talent but not his sense of self belief. The Isle of Man is pictured as a rain-soaked backwater full of caravans and twee tearooms.

BEST DOCUMENTARY – WATER AND SUGAR: CARLO DI PALMA, THE COLOURS OF LIFE 

Carlo Di Palma was one of the most influential cinematographers of the 20th century, influencing the careers of Antonioni and Woody Allen with talent, warmth and personal magnetism. His story is told in this memorable documentary that showcases the collaborative nature of filmmaking, showing how Di Palma’s warm approach made everyone he worked with even better.

TOP TURKEY – HAMPSTEAD

Hopkins’ fraud of a film is full of middle-aged cyphers floating around in a fantasy world of the Seventies where they meet for coffee mornings and discuss worthy causes. But in the real place, this lot passed on decades ago to be replaced by the likes of Hugh Skinner’s fundraising nerd or the smiling Romanians touting The Big Issue at every street corner. Robert Festinger’s script teeters from crass to cringeworthy with no laughs to be had, and a score that jars. Hampstead is utterly specious and hollow – even Diane Keaton can’t save it.

BEST CLASSIC BOXSET – FOUR FILM NOIR CLASSICS 

A fantastic box set that brings together dazzling high def print of some of the best films in the crime genre: THE DARK MIRROR (1946) starring Olivia de Havilland; Fritz Lang’s SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR (1947) with Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave; FORCE OF EVIL (1948) directed by the underrated Abraham Polonsky; and Cornel Joseph H Lewis’ THE BIG COMBO (1955); with its terrific score by David Raksin with dynamite duo Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace. The dual format edition comes with a hardback book on the films. MT

ALL FILMS NOW AVAILABLE AT AMAZON, EUREKA MASTERS OF CINEMA, ARROW FILMS & VIDEO, ARTIFICIAL EYE and STUDIOCANAL | all films were shown on general release in 2017 

 

The Big Combo (1955) | Four Film Noir Classics

 

Dir: Joseph H.Lewis | Noir Thriller | US | Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Helen  Walker, Jean Wallace

“I live in a maze, Mr. Diamond, a strange, blind and backward maze. All the twisting paths lead back to Mr. Brown.”

That is platinum blonde Susan (Jean Wallace) delivering Philip Yordan’s deliciously noir dialogue in Joseph H. Lewis’s THE BIG COMBO. Police Lt.Diamond (Cornel Wilde) not only loves Susan but is trying to expose and destroy the “combo”, a money – laundering / lending criminal banking system run by the sadistic Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). And the police’s only hope of evidence for this, and a murder rap, is to trace Brown’s wife Alicia (Helen Walker) now hidden away in a sanatorium under another name.

Susan is not a femme fatale; most of her screen-time she is an observer in a drugged, confused, almost dream-like trance: swaying dangerously between the sexual infatuation of Diamond and Brown, caught as Brown’s mistress, yet never actively Diamond’s lover. Although it is never explained why Susan (a ‘society gal’ and ex-concert pianist) was drawn to Mr. Brown, Jean Wallace’s captivating performance allows us to acutely feel her entrapment and vulnerability. Indeed, although the principal characters of The Big Combo are morally reprehensible, we experience such empathy for them that they retain our sympathy in spite of sleazy and brutal acts of torture and killing.

Take Joe Mc Clure (Brian Donlevy) the ineffectual second in-command of the mob. When he sees that Mr. Brown’s time is over, he thinks he persuades Brown’s hired killers Fante (Lee Van Cleefe) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) to dispose of the boss. But it’s Brown who ends up instructing the killers to make Joe their target. Joe wears a hearing aid that’s pulled from his ear moments before his killing. From his point of view, we witness (in a quasi- surreal shot) the killers letting their machine-guns rip, with the sound now poignantly silenced.

Joseph H. Lewis always sought fresh ways to film conflicts. The Big Combo murder has a dreamy look that is an early throwback to Susan’s expression, before she faints, in the arms of an old music professor. Jean Wallace’s expression, the angle of her body and overall look are suggestive of a Man Ray photograph. Even the film’s opening is executed with style. Susan is not so much pursued by Brown’s men than engaged in a ‘balletic’ struggle paced by David Raskin’s fine jazz music. Proceedings are interrupted by the camera rapidly panning to an outside street diner consciously modelled on an Edward Hopper painting.

These touches probably annoyed Lewis’s producers who never appreciated the ‘fancy stuff’ and just wanted things done cheaply and quickly. Yet what probably disturbed them more were the risqué elements (for 1955) of The Big Combo. Though it is never graphically depicted, oral sex, between Mr. Brown and Susan, is certainly suggested. And the partnership of Fante and Mingo (separate beds in the same bedroom) signals a close gay relationship.

However the most powerful operative auteur in The Big Combo is probably cinematographer John Alton. His work has been praised for its masterly lighting and staging. Big Combo’s torture scene echoes a similar scene in Mann’s 1954 film T-Men (another Alton assignment) and looks forward to the Anthony Perkins cupboard-room interrogation in Welles’s The Trial (1962). Alton provides a menacing and sparsely lit inky darkness that wonderfully heightens the screen violence. The fog sequence at the climax of The Big Combo is probably the most thrilling element here.

Lewis wanted to convey an airport setting. Difficult when confined to a studio and having little cash. So Alton simply told Lewis to drape the whole set in black velvet, create a fog and have a constant revolving light. Critics have remarked that this reminds them of the airport ending of Casablanca. Yes, in black and white cinematography terms it does. But the ending of The Big Combo is anti-romantic, even despairing. The fog scenes it really emotionally connects with are those to be found in Antonioni’s The Red Desert and Identification of a Woman. If there’s a final sense of existential loneliness and uncertainty then the fog metaphor powerfully feeds into Susan’s neurosis that she’d been trapped in a maze created by Mr. Brown. Susan turns the car headlights on Mr. Brown (struggling in the fog) in an attempt to pin him down and free herself from the maze of the Combo nightmare. The fog may eventually clear, but for Lewis and Antonioni the characters remain decidedly shaken and lost.

Lewis’s four late illustrious films The Big Combo, Gun Crazy, The Halliday Brand and Terror in a Texas Town are minor masterpieces of B picture production values, containing a visual density of information worthy of study by aspiring filmmakers, for their mise-en-scene is both emotionally complex and remarkably crafted.

As for aspiring cinematographers, they should examine Alton’s work of the 1950s. Indeed, also read his seminal book on photography Painting with Light. And Richard Conte delivers a ruthlessly intelligent performance that should be a model villain for actors whether in B pictures or blockbusters.

Whilst for all who simply love the dark pull of film-noir, The Big Combo is a brilliant expression of its elements. Arriving near the very end of the classical American noir (Welles’s Touch of Evil is probably that) this is a heady irresistible nightmare that you perversely don’t want to come to an end. Let the fog never lift!  Alan Price©

ON ARROW PLAYER from 1 April 2021 |  DUAL FORMAT LIMITED EDITION: THE DARK MIRROR (1946), FORCE OF EVIL (1948), SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR |

 

Force of Evil (1948) | Bluray release

Dir.: Abraham Polonsky; Cast: John Garfield, Thomas Gomez, Beatrice Pearson, Marie Windsor, Roy Roberts, Howland Chamberlain; USA 1948, 78’

Director/co-writer Abraham Polonsky’s stylish noir thriller is a critique of capitalism and shows how corruption affects nearly everyone in America who strives for financial gain.

Lawyer Joe Morse (Garfield), obsessed by rising from his humble background in the slums, is determined to become indispensable to his gangster master Ben Tucker (Roberts), a numbers racketeer. Morse wants to consolidate all the small-time racket operators into a single powerful organisation. But, his older brother Leo (Gomez) is one of the small and ‘honest’ operators, and he wants things to stay the way they are, rather than dealing with the gangsters who dominate the big-time. Morse must come to a decision. He offers his brother an integration into Tucker’s scheme but falls head-over heals in love with Leo’s secretary Doris (Pearson in her final screen appearance), having fought off advances from femme-fatale Edna (an elegantly poised Windsor), Tucker’s alluring wife. After a struggle, Leo agrees to Morse’s plan but then gets arrested along with Doris. The accountant Bauer (Chamberlain) gets killed by Tucker’s new mob partner, and Joe tries to shoot his way out of a dark room, chased by Tucker and the even more ruthless partner, while Doris wants to save his soul.

DoP George Barnes (Rebecca, Spellbound), who shot 144 features between 1918 and his death in 1953, excels in lighting the different locations in diffuse shades of black and grey: only the exterior shots in New York have some sort of clear light, the rest is all mysterious shadows made even dramatic by David Ruksin’s commanding orchestral score. The highlight, the gunfight in the dark, is symbolic of the merciless pursuit of money that drives the characters forward.

Both, director Abraham Polonsky (1910-1999) and the film’s star, John Garfield (1913-1952) were victims of the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) in the late 1940s. Garfield’s Hollywood career was over and he died, only 39, from a heart attack. Polonsky, who shot a feature in 1957 un-credited, at least made a come-back in 1969 with Tell Them,Willie Boy is Here, before bowing out with Romance of a Horse Thief, a war movie set in Russia in 1905. Had he not been blacklisted, Polonsky may have gone on to have a more prodigious film career. AS

NOW AVAILABLE AS PART OF FOUR NOIR CLASSICS FROM ARROW ACADEMY | www.Arrowfilms.com

Jean-Pierre Melville | Collection | bluray release

Unknown-2Bluray releases to celebrate the artistically ambitious cinema of independent filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) in his centenary year.

France in the 1940s and 50s is seen as a broken nation, where male solidarity – be it in the gangster milieu or the bourgeois living rooms – relegated women as second class citizens– or even worse, as cold blooded killers. But the defeat in the WWII to the Germans on the battlefield, was nothing compared with the moral degradation as the result of the collaboration between the huge majority of French citizens with the Nazis, until their liberation by allied troops in 1944. Much admired by Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino as well as the directors of the French New Wave, it’s chief protagonist Melville was so revered he had a part in Godard’s seminal Breathless (1960).

Unknown-1Melville’s feature-length debut LE SILENCE DE LA MER (1949), is a drama about the Nazi Occupation which was made cheaply and clandestinely, and none the worse for it. Melville’s collaboration with Jean Cocteau on an adaption of the latter’s novel LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES (1950) is a claustrophobic, psychologically astute drama about a sister and brother retreating into an isolated world of erotically charged game-playing. Despite disagreements with the author, it remains one of the finest of all Cocteau adaptations, its keenest admirers having included François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. Though the noir-tinged melodrama WHEN YOU READ THIS LETTER (1953) is perhaps Melville’s least typical film, there’s still much to enjoy both in its depiction of a faintly Americanised Nice underworld and in its psychological ambiguities.

MV5BMTQxNTUxNzM5Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDMwMDkwMzE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956) was Melville’s first script as director and offers a light-hearted portrayal of an ageing criminal whose passion for gambling and women jeopardises his plans to rob a casino. Beautifully shot by Henri Decaë, the film is a love letter to Paris and an affectionate nod to Hollywood heist movies like The Asphalt Jungle. Melville’s homage to America TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN (1959), sees two journalists (one played by the director himself) investigating the disappearance of a French diplomat in New York.  Another German Occupation outing, Léon Morin, Priest (1961) is a study of deception in which an attractive priest crosses the boundaries of his calling in  trying to convert a female member of his congregation. A complex film of ambiguities and ironies, it boasts superb lead performances from Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva.

doulos_le_bfi-00m-pmtOne of Melville’s great thrillers, LE DOULOS (1962), is a dazzlingly intricate tale of deadly suspicion and betrayal starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Reggiani. Establishing an atmosphere of unease, distrust and deception with a beautifully staged opening scene, Melville combines ingenious plot twists with a near-mythic evocation of underworld customs and fashions, and also shows what happens to treacherous women. The gangster Silien (Belmondo), best friend of Maurice (Reggiani) is suspected, to have sold his friend out to the police. But the true culprit is Maurice new girlfriend Therese (Hennesy). And she suffers heavily (and graphically) for it: Silien first beats her up to get the address of a new burglary, than he kills her brutally, making it look like an accident. Later, Melville shows how brave and honorable Silien and Maurice are dying for each other – Nicolas Hayer’s cold, grainy images very adapt to this this drama of male solidarity to the death.

UnknownMelville is probably best known for his artistic crime movies which he made in the latter part of his career, and these feature in Part Two of including LE SAMOURAï (1967), LE CERCLE ROUGE (1970), LE DEUXIEME FLIC (1972) THE ARMY OF SHADOWS (1969) and L’AINE DES FERCHAUX. Melville made meticulously stylised films with an abiding interest in loyalty and betrayal, courage and camaraderie, honour and dignity: themes found not only in his tense explorations of underworld ethics, but in his lesser-known earlier studies of troubled, even perverse relationships.

JEAN PIERRE MELVILLE’S bluray releases are available on Amazon | 4 December 2017

In a Lonely Place (1950)

IALP_3DDir.: Nicholas Ray Writers: Andrew Solt and Nicholas Ray

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Graham, Frank Lovejoy, Martha Stewart; USA 1950, 94 min.

Based on the novel by Dorothy B.Hughes, and scripted by Andrew Solt with collaboration from director Nicholas Ray and producer Robert Lord, IN A LONELY PLACE was the second time that Ray and Santana, the production company owned by Lord and Bogart, had worked together after Knock on any Door. Shot in the autumn of 1949 at Columbia Studios, with only three days location work in LA, IN A LONELY PLACE has become a true Film noir classic for various reasons not least because the marriage of Ray and the film’s leading actress, Gloria Grahame was on the rocks, rather like that of her relationship with leading man Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart).

Dixon Steele, a Hollywood scriptwriter, “whose last success was pre-war”, is an alcoholic, violent and ageing man. In a nightclub, his agent Mel Lippman tries to interest him in an adaptation of a novel. Steele is grumpy and bored, and asks the hat-check girl Mildred Atkinson (Stewart), to come home with him to read the final part of the novel for him while he relaxes at home. Next morning, Steele is visited by his friend and army buddy, Detective Sergeant Brub Nicolai (Lovejoy), who tells him, that Atkinson was murdered on her way home from Steele’s house, and her body thrown from the taxi. Meanwhile Steele has fallen in love with a neighbour Laurel Gray (Grahame), an aspiring actress. He wants to marry her, but after Gray experiences Steele’s violent temper she gets cold feet, only to make him keener with the famous lines: “I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she  loved me”.  Steele, who has made remarks that tie him to the Atkinson murder, is in the end cleared by Nicolai, but Gray leaves him for good.

Shot by legendary DoP Burnett Guffey (Human Desire, Bonny & Clyde and Bogart’s last feature The Harder they Fall), IN A LONELY PLACE evokes the spirit of Scott Fitzgerald in that it is a film about angst and alienation in Hollywood. In the original ending, Steele kills Gray, and is arrested by Nicolai. Ray shot the new ending more or less in secret, being afraid that Columbia boss Harry Cohen would explode at the unhappy ending. But to be on the safe side, Ray directed both final sequences in three days in mid November. One critic wrote at the time of the premiere, that – “not unlike Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Nicholas Ray’s remarkable IN A LONELY PLACE represents the purest existentialist primers”. AS

NOW SHOWING AS PART OF THE BFI GLORIA GRAHAME RETROSPECTIVE | FROM 24 NOVEMBER 2017

 

9 Doigts | 9 Fingers (2017) | Locarno International Film Festival 2017

Dir/Writer: F J Ossang | France/Port | Drama | 99′

Cult French auteur F J Ossang has made a handful of features: L’affaire des Divisions Morituri (1985); Doctor Chance (Locarno/1998; Dharma Guns (2010) and casts a niche selection of French stars for his latest Locarno Golden Leopard hopeful, a Noirish mystery drama with Paul Hamy, Damien Bonnard, Gaspard Ulliel and Pascal Greggory.

9 FINGERS is very much an exercise in style over substance; and if you like Ossang’s style then you will enjoy this enigmatic affair that could easily serve as a metaphor for the crisis-ridden state of the world. Shot in black and white with occasional sorties into the Academy ratio, accentuating the clandestine rather claustrophobic nature of the loose plotline, it follows a character named Magliore (Hamy) who, in the opening scenes, inherits a fortune from a dying man. Kidnapped by a gang after his loot, he then becomes their willing accomplice as they flee an unknown enemy across land and sea aboard a large steamer, beset by a mystery fever which could be typhoid. Utterly pretentious and arcane, this is nonetheless a sumptuously photographed wartime pastiche that feels hollow and bewildering despite the best efforts of its talented cast to breathe life into an episodic, threadbare narrative. Sadly, most of the audience walked out before the end credits rolled. MT

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2-12 AUGUST 2017

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2-12 AUGUST 2017

Victim (1961) | re-release

Dir: Basil Dearden | Writers: Janet Green & John McCormick | Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Syms, Dennis Price, Nigel Stock, Peter McEnery, Donald Churchill, Anthony Nicholls, Hilton Edwards, Norman Bird, Derren Nesbitt, Alan MacNaughton, Noel Howlett, Charles Lloyd Pack, John Barrie, John Cairney, David Evans | UK / Drama / 100min

VICTIM was the second – and achieved by far the greatest impact – of a trio of topical “problem pictures” made by the team of producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden from screenplays by Janet Green. Sapphire (1959) had been about race relations, and Life for Ruth (1962) about religion. Of the three, VICTIM had had the most clearly defined purpose behind it, which was the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 criminalising homosexuality – described in the film as “The Blackmailer’s Charter” – as recommended by the Wolfenden report of 1957.

Janet Green (1908-1993) had read the report, and while the government of Harold Macmillan – for reasons made only too apparent by VICTIM itself – was dragging its heels, she, with her husband and co-writer John McCormick, anticipated Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969) in employing the conventions of a fast-moving, entertaining thriller to make a serious political film that packs a lot into a trim 100 minutes; embellished by handsome London locations and noirish interiors, by veteran cameraman Otto Heller (responsible for the visual impact of other classics like Peeping Tom and The Ipcress File).

It’s easy now to mock VICTIM for being dated, but politicians and other public figures today still dread the power without responsibility triumphantly wielded by our tabloid press. The role of the redtops in the fear and paranoia depicted in VICTIM is occasionally mentioned in passing; and just two years later the field day the Sunday papers had with the revelations that came out in court about the activities of our social betters during the trial of Stephen Ward vividly convey what Melville Farr could look forward to at the conclusion of VICTIM . On 9 November 1998 – over thirty years after decriminalisation – The Sun was still stoking the flames with its classic front page headline “Are we being run by a gay Mafia?”. In the United States VICTIM was refused a seal of approval by the Production Code Administration, and this remarkable passage in Time magazine that greeted its US release in February 1962 is worth quoting at length:

“What seems at first an attack on extortion seems at last a coyly sensational exploitation of homosexuality as a theme – and, what’s more offensive, an implicit approval of homosexuality as a practice. Almost all the deviates in the film are fine fellows – well dressed, well-spoken, sensitive, kind. The only one who acts like an invert turns out to be a detective. Everybody in the picture who disapproves of homosexuals proves to be an ass, a dolt or a sadist. Nowhere does the film suggest that homosexuality is a serious (but often curable) neurosis that attacks the biological basis of life itself.”

VICTIM was released bearing an ‘X’ certificate, and the era it depicts now seems as remote as the war years: a time when the police drove Bentleys and ‘phone boxes still had a button B. But anybody who considers the issues it raises moribund should remember that as I write there are about a dozen countries in the world today where homosexuality is punishable by death. One only needs look at the debate (and the language) the film continues to provoke in forums like YouTube to be reminded of how this issue still polarizes society, and that there are plenty of bigots still out there, irately convinced that they’re being muzzled by political correctness; “our crime”, as Lord Fullbrook puts it, “damned nearly parallel with robbery with violence”. While Eddy complains that “Henry paid rates and taxes…but they knew he couldn’t go out and call the cops”, it’s interesting to be reminded that one of the blackmailers accused the police of “Protecting perverts” even when homosexuality was illegal, and back in 1961 could firmly be of the opinion that “They’re everywhere, everywhere you turn! The police do nothing. Nothing!!”.

VICTIM goes out its way to avoid sensationalism, and it is precisely because it in every other respect so resembles a conventional black & white crime film of the period that one can still feel the shock audiences must have experienced in 1961 when Inspector Harris deceptively casually asks Farr “you knew of course that he was a homosexual?”, followed by the eye-watering statistic that at the time “as many as 90% of all blackmail cases have a homosexual origin”. If it seems too genteel for 21st Century tastes, the scene in which Derren Nesbitt wrecks Charles Lloyd Pack’s shop still provides a literally shattering reminder of the barely contained physical violence always ready to rear up from behind the prejudice now known as “hate crime”.

The casting of Dirk Bogarde makes the film what it is. Several other actors (including Jack Hawkins, James Mason and Stewart Granger) had understandably already turned down the role, but Bogarde accepted without hesitation; and on so many levels the film is inconceivable without him. (Anyone who thinks it was the first time he’d played a homosexual onscreen, however, plainly hasn’t seen the film he made immediately prior to it, The Singer Not the Song.) Almost as bold on Bogarde’s part was that in VICTIM he was for the first time playing his age – 40 – although this is more than compensated for by the fact that he never looked more debonair and distinguished than he does here. The entire cast obviously cared about their roles, right down to the smallest parts (as frequently happened in those days, veteran character actor John Boxer as the amiable policeman attempting to comfort Boy Barrett in his cell, and John Bennett – who in the opening episode of ‘Porridge’ was the prison doctor who asked Fletcher if he had ever been a practising homosexual – as “the bloke in the pinstripe”, make vivid impressions without being included in the cast list at the end). Although the blackmailers themselves are often described in accounts of the film as “a ring” or “a gang”, there in fact turn out to be only two of them; a pair of bloodcurdling ghouls worthy of the Addams family – the grinning, cheerfully amoral Derren Nesbitt and his vengeful associate piously convinced that “Someone’s got to make them pay for their filthy blasphemy.” As Inspector Harris (a superb performance by John Barrie) says to his stern Scottish sergeant (John Cairney), “I can see that you’re a true puritan, Bridie…there was a time when that was against the law, you know.”  Richard Chatten

VICTIM IS NOW SHOWING IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE COURTESY OF PARK CIRCUS

Scribe (2016)

Dir: Thomas Kruithof | Cast: Francois Cluzet, Denis Podalydes, Simon Abkarian, Alba Rohrwacher | Writers: Thomas Kruithof, Yann Gozlan | Thriller | 95min | French

You can’t help admiring Thomas Kruithof’s feature debut. It’s a rather stolid but quality conspiracy thriller starring Francois Cluzet (Intouchables) as a number-crunching former alcoholic who is forced into the shadowy underworld of political phone-tapping, desperate for work after his marriage breaks down. Kruithof is clearly nostalgia for the classic style of Sydney Pollack’s films of the 1970s. SCRIBE also has echoes of The Accountant.

Although thematically rather slim, this slick and stylish affair is watchable largely due to Cluzet’s quiet charisma and a reliably subtle turn from Alba Ruhrwacher who plays Sara, a vulnerable woman also struggling with post-addition. The two become romantically involved while Cluzet descends into a world of intrigue at the hands of his dodgy boss Clement (Podalydes), a man of mysterious motives who clearly has him by the short and curlies in this criminally charged environment.

Written by Kruithof and Yann Gozlan – who also collaborated on another enjoyable retro piece A Perfect Man – this is a noirish thriller that keeps its smouldering cards close to its chest while delivering intermittant bursts of tension, although the narrative is driven forward by unsettling atmosphere rather than plot twists. Stark Gordon Willis-style photography and Gregoire Auger’s terrifically suspensful score sizzles along in the background while Duval goes through his bewildering job often overhearing things he shouldn’t be privy to, such as details of a murder and suggestions of Middle Eastern political undercurrents. Clement’s purported sidekick (Simon Abkarian) drags him into the murky waters of a criminal twilight but Duval keeps on going despite warning signs that he should quit before the going gets dangerous. And eventually it does. SCRIBE is a sure-footed but safe debut. MT

SCRIBE is in cinemas and on demand from 21st July 2017

 

 

 

City of Tiny Lights (2016)

Dir.: Pete Travis; Cast: Riz Ahmed, Billie Piper, Roshan Seth, James Floyd, Mohamed Al Amiri, Cush Jumbo, Hanna Rae, Alexander Siddig; UK 2017, 110 min.

With Raymond Chandler in mind, director Pete Travis (Dredd) and writer Patrick Neate, on whose 2006 novel of the same name the film is based, paint a dark picture of London, in this British Neo Noir, where Private Eye Tommy Akhtar stumbles around finding new violent connections, whilst searching for closure on his own troubled past.

Tommy (Ahmed) runs a seedy detective agency called TA – in his own words, he “discovers and buries secrets”. One day, the prostitute Melody (Jumbo) asks him to search for her co-worker Natasha who has gone missing. Tommy can’t find her but he traces Natasha’s last client: a Pakistani business man, murdered in his hotel bed. Enter Lovely Ansari’, a property developer and pillar of the community who is also a good old friend of Tommy. Soon it becomes clear, that many people are interested in the victim: American agent Regan (Schaefter), the leader of Islamic Youth Centre Al Dabaran (Siddig), and the local cops ever ready to give Tommy a hard time. Not that his life is a bed of roses: his cricket obsessed father Farzad (Seth)  never lets him forget that he wants a much straighter lifestyle for his son, and Shelley (Piper) and her daughter Emma (Rae) share a bond from a past trauma with Tommy. The plot is not much more than a McGuffin, and the all-around happy-ending rings false.

Where it not be for the excellent work of DoP Christopher Ross (Detour), we could dismiss Tiny Lights simply as TV pilot. But the nightime images, mostly shot with natural light, are vey invocative: shadows lurk everywhere, and Tommy stumbles through a urban nightmare like the heroes of Cornel Woolrich, with all the implications of a cliff hangar depending on the exact timing.

Pete Travis tries to refresh the genre with the introduction of an Asian lead and his Bangladeshi father, as the shadow of Islam creeps in with shady clerical activity, the film feels much more at home with Akhtar being clubbed over the head by hired thugs, in the best Robert Mitchum tradition, than it ever does with reflecting the complexities of modern Britain.

Unfortunately, unlike Woolrich, Travis/Neate do not care much for an authentic narrative, and are content with a loose, episodic shape. Full points for atmosphere, but the strong cast could have done with some more structure. AS

OUT ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 31 MARCH 2017

Mother (2016) | Nordic Baltic Film Festival 2016

Writer|Dir: Kadri Kousaar, Tiina Malberg, Andres Tabun, Andres Noormets, Siim Maaten, Jaak Prints, Katrin Kalma, Getter Meresmaa | Drama | Estonia | 89min

Estonia’s official Oscar foreign language hopeful is a sardonic suspense drama that explores themes of responsibility, personal freedom and community in a small town near Talinn.

Described by its prize-winning director Kadri Kousaar as Baltic Noir, it has the dark humour of Aki Kaurismaki and its heroine – a put-upon middle-aged mother (Elsa) forced to care for her comatose adult son – is Estonia’s answer to Kati Outinnen with her own brand of miserable charm. MOTHER also has Kousaar’s regular Finnish cinematographer Jean-Noel Mustonen whose visual style here has a striking resemblance to that of the Swedish breakout hit A Pigeon Sat on a Branch (2014) but the remainder of the crew is female (and blond).

Only a woman can understand Elsa’s life of quiet desperation trapped in a loveless marriage with her avoidant husband Arvo (Andres Tabun) and financially wrung out by her son Lauri (Siim Maaten) who was born when she was only 17, chaining her to domestic drudgery and destroying her dreams of studying in Moscow. Elsa channels her frustrations into obsessive cleaning routines in their cramped cottage, using gardening as a displacement activity for addressing her marital woes with Arvo. To make matters worse, Lauri is now bedridden after a mysterious shooting incident and Elsa is forced to care for his every need. The only glimmer of hope is her secret lover Aarne (Andres Noormets) – Lauri’s geeky colleague from school – who visits at inopportune moments bearing bunches of flowers and sexual favours which Elsa snatches hungrily rather than amorously while fending off a stream of unwelcome visits from Lauri;’s friends, confessors and hangers-on.

All this is treated with a tongue in cheek, toy-town briskness. The crime element of MOTHER is of secondary interest to its fascinating study of small-town social politics: Kousaar uses Lauri’s deaf mute status as a backcloth to expose the possible motives of his would be assassin: with each visit an intriguing story unspools encouraging the viewer to become amateur sleuth in a guessing game: was it his girlfriend, his childhood friend, his mate, or his doting pupil, and why?. It then emerges that Lauri took out a large sum of money shortly before the shooting, so clearly a financial incentive was the motivating factor in the crime. And it appears that several of Lauri’s guests are aware of the money stashed somewhere in the house and furtively look for it while Elsa’s back is turned.

Kousaar certainly takes on some heavyweight issues: her Cannes selected debut Magnus (2007) dealt with suicide: The Arbiter was concerned with abortion and genetics and now MOTHER sees dark comedy in tragedy and female desperation. Performances are strong with Malberg superb is her first lead role and Noormets and Tabun providing suitably insipid male support. But in the end, Kousaar makes fun of her tragic heroine after exposing her bitter hopelessness, and even her pathetic paramour ends up betraying her. Elsa is a sad character but her flaws are understandable and her motives justifiable in the circumstances. Arvo is a cypher whose only regret is that he never got to know his son, not to mention his wife. MOTHER is based on a play by Irish writer Kevin McCann and although Kousaar’s film is an inoffensive domestic drama is offers a rich underbelly of food for thought. MT

SCREENING DURING THE BALTIC NORDIC FILM FESTIVAL | DECEMBER 2016

 

The Ardennes (2016)

Writer|Dir: Robin Pront | Cast: Kevin Janssens, Jeroen Perceval, Veerle Baetens, Jan Bijvoet, Viviane de Muynck | 96min| Crime drama | Belgium

Robin Pront proves that blood is thicker than water, but that love doesn’t conquer all in his feature debut, a hard-edged ‘Flemish noir’ that explores the rift that develops between two petty criminal brothers whose relationship is put under strain after a burglary goes wrong.

The verdant rolling hills of the title give way to the rainy urban setting of Antwerp where their family echoes that of Bullhead – close-knit and protective of their own but always open to internecine resentment and small-mindedness. In fact the films share the same producer Burt Van Langendonck. But the only pâté made here is a by-product of violent head-butting and brutal violence between the males.

After an intriguing opening scene where a man struggles out of a domestic swimming pool, fully clothed and gasping for air through his stockinged hood, it turns out this is Dave (Jeroen Perceval/Bullhead), escaping from the scene of the crime but his accomplice brother Kenny (Kevin Janssens) ends up in the clink serving seven years for burglary. Once in prison, Kenny’s resistance to grass on his brother ends in a poke in the eye when Dave promptly runs off with his trailer trash ex-druggie girlfriend Sylvie (Veerle Baetens), who has aided and abetted the pair’s criminal career.

Kenny is less than pleased, on parole four years later, to discover that Sylvie is pregnant and shacked up with Dave, and it later transpires his former gang have gone straight and teetotal, and his only future lies in manual work. Clearly, these men are meatheads, and even their mother looks like she has had her fair share of punch-ups. THE ARDENNES spends a great deal of time painting a portrait we can already well imagine: grimy sink estates, violent outbursts of machismo, Sylvie vomiting and smoking riffs, and general cries of ‘Gott Verdomt’ but this sordid and repetitive detail adds nothing to a the tension of a narrative whose central thrust is: when is Dave going to spill the beans to Kenny about Sylvie.

The climax eventually comes when Kenny loses his cool and kills the owner of their local, giving Dave the leverage he needs  – assisting with the disposal of the evidence. And this all takes place in the isolated trailer home of Kenny’s old prison roomie Stef (a slimy Jan Bijvoet), deep in the Ardennes countryside where Stef’s transvestite boyfriend cooks up a mean fry- up while Pront gets rounds to delivering the denouement we’ve all been waiting for. This is a decent thriller that could have been a bit tighter in the first two acts but all’s well that ends well, or doesn’t, in this arthouse tragedy that will make you re-think that walking trip to the gentle pleasures of Belgium’s Ardennes. MT

OUT ON RELEASE FROM 9 DECEMBER 2016 courtesy of STUDIOCANAL at CINE LUMIERE AND THE ICA AND CHAPTER CARDIFF FROM 16 DECEMBER 2016 

In the Heat of the Night (1967) Sidney Poitier tribute

Dir: Norman Jewison | Cast: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates | US | Crime Drama | 109min

Directed by Norman Jewison (Rollerball), and scripted by Stirling Silliphant from the novel by John Ball – In the Heat of the Night was shot during the height of the Civil Rights movement and the Anti-Vietnam war protests, in the openly racist Southern state of Mississippi. It was the year before Bobby Kennedy’s murder and Richard Nixon’s victory in the Presidential elections: this was not only a topical, but also a brave undertaking, considering the violent climate in politics which spilled over into the streets.

In the little town of Sparta, Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) waits at the railway station for the next train, taking him on to Memphis. Tibbs is arrested, without reason by the sheriff’s deputy, Sam Wood (Oates) – just because he is black. For Wood and his boss, sheriff Gillespie (Steiger), Tibbs is a godsend: he is the fall guy for the murder of industrialist Colbert who has been killed on the streets of the sleepy town the night before. After Tibbs shows Gillespie his police shield, the sheriff checks his identity with his home precinct, then asks Tibbs to help him clear up the murder, since he has already imprisoned the second wrongly accused man. Against his better judgement, Tibbs takes on the task: his main suspect is the cotton farmer Endicott (Grates), who had a motive to kill Colbert. Endicott slaps Tibbs, who retaliates, making the stunned Endicott cry out “my grandfather would have shot you for this”. In spite of being chased by a deadly quartet of racist killers, Tibbs solves the case, winning finally Gillespie’s respect.

This is not really a whodunit but a portrait of Southern society still living in the days of the Confederation whose flag can not only be found on cars and buildings in this film, but still proudly raised above the Governmental Mansions (and many ordinary houses) in some southern States today. Tibbs is permanently taunted being called “boy”.  Meanwhile other black people in Sparta can’t get their minds round how a fellow black man could be a police officer.

Institutional racism is the order of the day and even the local café waiter ignores him. Verbal and physical threats poison the atmosphere – Tibbs is made to feel like a second-class citizen. The Voting Act of the 60s helped to restore some lawful semblance of order – at least at the polls, but the Supreme Court abolished it before this year’s election – making voter suppression in the South of the USA rife again.

The cast is stunning, but DoP Haskell Wexler is the real star (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Mulholland Falls) is the real star: his images reflect the simmering heat and violence, the evil lurking in the shadows and in broad daylight. His confrontational close-ups of Tibbs and Gillespie show restrained anger confronting bullying prejudice. The seediness of the little town where Wood lurks voyeuristically, looking at naked white women, is symptomatic of the era’s repressed sexuality. Edited by director-to-be Hal Ashby, Jewison has created not only an aesthetically supreme film, but a political document, that is still resonant today, nearly 50 years later. AS

NOW On MGM with Prime Video Channels

Day for Night (1972-3) | La Nuit Americaine

Dir.: Francois Truffaut; Cast: Jacqueline Bisset, Valentina Cortese, Jean-Pierre Aumont) Alexandra Stewart, Jean-Pierre Laud, Francois Truffaut, Natalie Baye; France 1972/3, 116 min.

With DAY FOR NIGHT, his fourteenth feature film, Truffaut wanted to make a break from his earlier work: “I am a French filmmaker, and I have to make another thirty films”. Unfortunately, he would only direct another eight, due to his untimely death at the age of fifty-two in 1984.

DAY FOR NIGHT refers to a technical term in film making, where night scenes are shot at daytime, with dark lenses creating the illusion of darkness. The director Ferrand (played by Truffaut), shoots the film within a film in Nice. There (fictional) shoot proves to be problematic: the director clashes with the producer, the star Alphonse (Léaud) falls in love with the fragile leading lady Julie Baker (Bisset), who calls her husband/analyst to sort things out. Another leading man called Alexandre, (Aumont) dies. Fiction and reality continuously overlap: Harassed by Alphonse, Julie exclaims: “I want to live alone”, only to find the same sentence written by the director in her script for next day’s shooting. Wearing a hearing aid in reference to Luis Buñuel, Ferrand/Truffaut shows himself above crew and cast: he tries to be disinterested, being only in love with cinema itself, and wanting to be loved back by the audience as the only reward. DAY FOR NIGHT is a love letter to filmmaking, traditional and uncontroversial.

The film was used by Jean-Luc Godard and Truffaut to bring their personal relationship to a bitter end: Truffaut even calling his ex-collaborator a “shit”. After all, they had directed Une Histoire D’Eau (1958) together, and Truffaut gave Godard the script to direct “A Bout de Souffle”. Godard started the argument, calling Truffaut a liar, since Ferrand/Truffaut in DAY FOR NIGHT rises above all emotional complications. The real Truffaut liked to sleep with his leading ladies – in common with Godard. As usual, financing was an issue: but this was more about where the two directors were standing in filmmaking terms: Truffaut was going backwards, making exactly the same movies “of qualities and psychology” which he had panned as a film critic; whilst Godard was well on his way to ‘re-inventing’ cinema. When Ferrand/Truffaut comments after the death of Alexandre in DAY FOR NIGHT: “With him we lose a whole epoch of filmmaking. From now on, the studios will be dying, films will only be shot on the streets, without proper scripts”, he echoes Melville’s critic of Godard, whom he once defended against the older filmmaker. In an interview with Suzanne Schiffman, Truffaut’s collaborator for decades, she told me, that “if Truffaut would have lived, he would have only shot in studios, the only place he felt secure”. Interviewed by the German Film journalist Michel Ladiges in February 1974, Ladiges asks Truffaut about his relationship with Truffaut. There seem to be not so much hard feeling, just puzzlement: “I don’t know [about the directions taken by the directors of the Nouvelle Vague], but with Godard, you have to be very careful. He has finished a certain period in his work. Today, he is very much in favour of video, because he believes, this is the future of filmmaking. But he can change his opinion any time, and will return to filmmaking. One can be never sure with him”.

Which proved to be true: Godard would return to directing films in 1975 with Numéro Deux – but comparing this radical portrait of a family with Truffaut’s L’Histoire d’Adèle H., shot in the same year, one has the answer for the spat: it was not so much about jealousy and money, but a parting of the ways: Godard created his own universe, whilst Truffaut, a true romantic at heart, went on trying to please a mass audience. AS

OUT ON BLURAY COURTESY OF CRITERION UK COLLECTION ON 24 OCTOBER 2016

Godless | Bezbog (2016) | Golden Leopard Winner | Locarno 2016

Dir: Ralitza Petrova | Cast: Irena Ivanova, Alexander Triffinov, Ivan Nalbantov, Ventzislav Konstantinov, Dimitri Petkov; Bulgaria/France/Den | drama | 100 min.

The first feature film by Bulgarian director/writer Ralitza Petrova, who studied at the NFTS, won the Golden Leopard at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, and its main protagonist Irena Ivanova, was awarded the prize for Best Actress. Reminiscent of Jim Thompson, this minimalist, small town noir is a stunning debut from an uncompromising talent.

Gana (Ivanova) is a geriatric and dementia nurse in the small Bulgarian mountain town of Vratsa. The young woman seems caring at first, but it soon emerges that she is stealing her patients’ ID-cards. She, and her partner Aleko (Konstantinoiv), a car mechanic, sell the ID-cards to the local police officer Pavel (Triffinov), who runs a money laundering racket. Pavel is also in league with the local judge (Petkov), who makes sure that any complaints are rebuffed by the court.

However, despite all this criminal activity Dana lives a modest existence with her mother in a run-down apartment block, where gun fire is a nightly occurence. Her sexless relationship with Aleko gets by on a morphine addiction, which Gana steals together with other prescription drugs. Her relationship with her mother is equally emotionless, summed up by Gana herself in the words: “I want to love, but can’t. Neither can you. Do you have any pills for it?”.

Unflitchingly grim, this is a drama that delves into the sad deparavity of modern life in this formally Stalinist state where corruption and larceny seems endemic and continues to thrive despite apparent economic improvememts. But there is a chink of light in the darkness that sees Gana redeeming herself in the final act.

GODLESS takes its – ironic – title from a mountain near Vratsa, were a local priest in the middle ages took his flock and was duly massacred by invaders. The cryptic coda of the film might refer to this. Sparse and unforgiving, Godless is a claustrophobic masterpiece. Rooms are narrow and unlit, grimy snow covers a bleak landscape. Even a brothel scene, where the judge and Pavel copulate, is passionless. In her apartment block, Gana finds a young boy alone in the staircase.  He later wanders off  and watches a couple having sex, having left the door to their flat open. Desolate and abandoned, people in post-communist Bulgaria seem to have given up on themselves. DoPs Krum Rodriquez and Chayse Irvin evoke this grim rigour on 35 mm film, transferred to digital. With its opaque conclusion, Petrova avoids any judgemental comment. GODLESS is a cheerless experience – but it is a gem despite its restricted budget. MT

GODLESS HAS BEEN AWARDED THE GOLDEN LEOPARD AT LOCARNO 2016 AND TOP PRIZE AT THE SOFIA AWARDS 2017

 

The Wrong Man (1956) | Bluray release

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Script: Maxwell Anderson, Angus MacPhail

Cast: Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Anthony Quayle, Harold J.Stone, Charles Cooper

US | 105 mins | Drama

Reviewing Truffaut’s monumental book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock in ‘Punch’ in 1968, the late Richard Mallett made the interesting observation that “three-quarters of the way through the book [Truffaut] begins to show a tendency to argue and Hitchcock to contradict”. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the section devoted to The Wrong Man, when Hitchcock is eventually provoked by Truffaut into the rejoinder that “It seems to me that you want me to work for the art houses”.

Despite the extraordinary reputation that Hitchcock’s next film Vertigo today enjoys, relatively few people have even heard of – let alone seen – the far superior The Wrong Man. Superficially it couldn’t be less like what we expect from a ‘Hitchcock’ film (he himself said “it wasn’t my kind of picture”), and its indifferent box office performance led Hitchcock just to shrug his shoulders and “file The Wrong Man among the indifferent Hitchcocks”. Yet it is easily the most frightening film he ever made, and the most single-minded expression of one of his most personal and perennial themes: fear of the police and of arrest.

Countless films end with a character being led away by the cops; but it was a typically bold Hitchcockian reversal that in this film the arrest is simply the starting point. Plenty of films have been compared to nightmares, but of all Hitchcock’s films that description most truly belongs to this one. Sitting through this relentless Kafkaesque ordeal is almost as unbearable to watch as it must have been to experience; and is exactly like one of those awful dreams from which you wake up in a state of panic thinking “Oh, thank God! It was just a dream!”.

Ironically it took the most realistic film he ever made to create the Hitchcock film most like a nightmare. What happened to Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero (1909-1998) actually happened in 1951, and became the subject of an article called ‘A Case of Identity’ by Herbert Brean in Life magazine on 29 June 1953. To create what John Russell Taylor described as “the hallucinatory clarity of a bad dream”, Hitchcock minutely and unsparingly recreates the original events on the actual locations. We see events entirely from Balestrero’s viewpoint as he is spirited away by two strange men at his doorstep, submitted to the humiliation of being stared at during reconstructions of the hold-ups of which he is accused and in identity parades; then bundled into a prison van to be fingerprinted and spend the night in the cells. As he gazes out of the police car he watches other people leading normal lives as he himself had been only hours earlier; but which in an instant now seem like another world.

Although Hitchcock himself later said “I don’t feel that strongly about it”, this certainly isn’t the impression one gains from the film itself. Hitchcock was tiring of being considered merely a purveyor of “glossy Technicolor baubles”, and The Wrong Man was the first of two attempts to make something more astringent in black & white (Psycho being the second). Hitchcock made it for no salary and, minus his usual cameo appearance, appears before the opening credits to introduce the film. As the handsome new Blu-ray edition reveals, he has taken far more effort with the look of this film than he usually did. There is none of the sloppy back projection of exterior sequences that mar so many of his other films since Hitchcock disliked going out on location when he could possibly avoid it; and when his crew arrived to shoot the scenes at the country hotel, swiftly retreated to his limo to escape the cold. Fresh from winning an Academy Award for photographing the French Riviera in VistaVision and Technicolor for To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock’s versatile regular cameraman Robert Burks effortlessly switches to Jackson Heights and the other end of the visual scale; complemented by Bernard Herrmann’s melancholy, low-key jazz score.

The most chilling words in the English language are probably “If you’ve done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear.” And when Balestrero’s wife Rose (a sensational performance by Vera Miles in an already extremely well-acted film) finally completely loses it and proposes that the answer to their desperate situation is to barricade the front door the sheer hopelessness of their situation finally hits you like a thunderclap; for the exquisite irony of the film is that it is the very people whose job it is to protect honest, hard-working citizens like the Balestreros who are doing this to them. Resistance is futile.

As with Kafka there are flashes of very black humour, as in the attempt by the police to put Balestrero at his ease by initially calling him ‘Chris’ (his family and friends actually call him ‘Manny’); and they seem genuinely concerned on his behalf when they say “This looks very bad for you, Manny” when a particularly damning piece of handwriting evidence emerges. (The fact that Manny’s ordeal ends only after he resorts to prayer could be seen as a cynical comment on the fact that man-made justice had so far entirely failed him). The classic Hitchcock device of showing you one thing while people are discussing something completely different is well employed in the scene in which their lawyer (Anthony Quayle) discusses the case while we clearly see his concern at Rose’s deteriorating mental state. Nor does the concluding onscreen caption telling us that Rose made a full recovery square with what we’ve just see with our own eyes in her final scene in the sanatorium; Hitchcock had obviously forgotten that this was how the film had ended when six years later he said to Truffaut that “She’s probably still there”.

This was Henry Fonda’s only movie with Hitchcock. Coincidentally his next film also took a detailed look at the American judicial process, but instead took place in the jury room. 12 Angry Men wasn’t a hit at the time either; but posterity has made better amends to it than it has to The Wrong Man. Richard Chatten.

NOW OUT ON BLURAY FOR THE FIRST TIME at Amazon.co.uk

Ace In The Hole (1951) | Bluray release

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Frank Cady, Porter Hall, Ray Teal, Richard Benedict

11min | Film Noir | US

Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is one of his greatest achievements but also his biggest commercial failure. In Cameron Crowe’s book “Conversations with Wilder,” Wilder states that his films probably contain more irony than cynicism, and then he makes an exception, “Maybe Ace in the Hole. That was the one. It was the way I thought the picture should go.”

Unfortunately public and critics didn’t go along with such a corrosive depiction of media manipulation and its shoving of the public’s face in the dirt. The film was released in 1951. The Korean War was at its peak and many Americans found it disturbingly anti-American, and a few thought it Communist inspired. Paramount’s change of title to The Big Carnival didn’t help its box office performance.

Ace in the Hole tells the story of Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas, at his very best) trying to make his way back up the career ladder as a newspaper reporter. Stuck on an insignificant provincial paper, he yearns for excitement. This comes in the form of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) who gets trapped in a cave looking for Indian artefacts. Tatum sets up a rescue effort in order to prolong the story for maximum exposure. He ruthlessly employs the victim’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), the Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal) and engineer Sam Smollet (Frank Jaquet) to this end. The public flock to witness what becomes an entertainment with a country fair and instant ballad making. Tatum contacts an editor in New York to get the biggest scoop possible. But his vitriolic and scheming plans come horribly undone.

For Ace in the Hole the writing trio of Wilder, Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels provided a scorching script. I could easily spend the rest of this review giving you examples of its acrid and cynical tone. But that would spoil your full enjoyment of the film. A script this good and sharp functions as cinematically as the most dynamic film editing; sweeping you along with a precision that exposes all the characters strengths and weaknesses (mostly weaknesses!).

Billy Wilder has his detractors who claim his words are often made subordinate to his images. Not so. They enhance. And Wilder was never a showy director. Yet when he wants an image to have maximum impact, he delivers. No more so than in the powerful final shots of Chuck Tatum. Yet like the dialogue treats, I wont divulge such a satisfying comeuppance.

Suffice to say if you admire Von Stroheim’s Greed, Scorsese’s King of Comedy
and Nathanial West’s novella The Day of the Locust, then Ace in the Hole joins that
select company as a bitter destruction job on The American Dream. Frighteningly acute in its take-down of the media, public collusion, personal ambition and greed, it is one of the great films of the fifties. Substitute Ace in the Hole’s radio cars and candy floss for an international TV crew; hand out smart phones with cameras, Twitter and facebook and the show still goes on. Alan Price

NOW AVAILABLE ON BLURAY

Mojave (2015)

Director: William Monahan

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Garrett Headlund, Walton Goggins, Mark Wahlberg, Dania Ramirez

93min  Thriller  US

Disenchanted with his charmed life, a Hollywood hipster heads out to the desert where he meets a dangerous drifter with nothing to lose but everything to gain by following him back to his existence home home.

Director and Oscar-winning scripter William Monahan’s noirish thriller occasionally feels rather forced and artificial but his clever casting of Garrett Hedlund and Oscar Isaacs ensures an entertaining ride through contemporary California urging us to contemplate the meaning of fame, love and the ties that bind and asking the question: “When you get what you want, want do you want?”

MOJAVE‘s premise is actually very solid and even a noble one: the world of stardom is full of narcissistic types who can turn extremely dangerous if they don’t get the fame they think they deserve and this kind of twisted psychology runs rife in the concentrated toxicity of Hollywood’s starry Hills. Garrett Hedlund plays Tom, tells us in the opening scene how he’s “been famous since he was 19”. But in his early thirties, this facile success has left him empty and deluded: his English wife and daughter have abandoned him with his part-time lover (Louise Bourgoin) in a bijoux villa with infinity pool, and he is bored with the present and truculent about the future. Casting off to the Mojave desert in his jeep, in the hope of shaking off this ennui, he comes across a well-kemp wayfarer whom success has clearly deluded but whose articulate if embittered patter (“I’m into motiveless malignity”) indicates he’s no fool.

But things turn nasty as Tom immediately spots his alter ego, and after a brutal scuffle Tom takes Jack’s gun and finds refuge in a cave from whence he shoots and kills a federal officer mistaking him for Jack in the half-light of dawn. Tom then destroys the stolen gun and heads back to Los Angeles.  But Jack follows him back and after killing a gay guy who tries to pick him up, he uses his house for a base from which to stalk Tom, as he re-invents himself with a new look. Essentially a two-hander, support comes from Walton Goggins in an campy cameo as his agent and Mark Wahlberg as  his stroppy and petulant producer/partner.

Chocful of witticisms and literary allusions, Monahan’s script makes this desert duo slick and entertaining – but in a way that feels rather overplayed and pleased with itself. Clearly these two are easy on the eye and amusing to be around but Wahlberg’s turn just doesn’t work and is something he will regret in retrospect. These are people we don’t care tuppence for and so the denouement evokes little reaction other than reminding us that Hollywood and Los Angleles are places that echo loudly with an emotional and spiritual void.

Ultimately MOJAVE is a well-paced thriller: over-talky but always entertaining, Oscar Isaacs does his best at being a nasty psychopath but previous roles in A Most Dangerous Year and even The Two Faces of January have suited his talents better. Hedlund’s role is rather one-dimensional, but he plays that dimension very successfully and is mesmerising in each scene. MT

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM MARCH 25 2016

The Beat that My Heart Skipped | Mubi

Director: Jacques Audiard | Cast: Romain Duris, Aure Atika, Emmanuelle Devos, Niels Arestrup | 108min |French

In THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED Jacques Audiard ((Rust and Bone) turns the story of James Toback’s 1978 Fingers into a profound and gritty study of alienation and redemption experienced by Tom (Romain Duris) a petty Parisian crook who is caught up in a web of dodgy property deals, inherited from his father (a masterful Niels Arestrup). Essentially a decent bloke, Tom is desperate to get on the straight and narrow so he can focus on his real dream; that of becoming a concert pianist. Romain Duris is superbly watchable here as Tom, balancing the two sides of his life with tangible nervousness in a drama as taut as the strings of his treasured piano. MT

NOW ON MUBI

 

The Here After | Efterskalv (2015)

Director: Magnus von Horn

Cast: Ulrik Munther, Mats Blomgren, Alexander Nordgren, Loa Ek, Wieslaw Komasa

100min | Drama | Sweden | Poland | France

It’s not easy to forget or forgive the past as a young man discovers in Magnus von Horn’s haunting Scandinavian Polish debut THE HERE AFTER.  Lodz graduate von Horn clearly learnt his stuff in the legendary film school. The strength of his psychological drama is that we have no idea what has happened when John (Munther) is picked up by his father Martin (Blomgren) after serving time in a state institution. Clearly John has a violent past and Martin is a control freak. But John also shows signs of infantile regression when he is with his much younger brother Filip (Nordgren) who seems to be emotionally more mature than his older brother. When John goes back to school, we get an inkling of what might have happened: nearly all his mates are extremely hostile to and the teachers have no success in their arbitration. Then half way through the film, after John is attacked by a middle-aged woman in a supermarket, the audience start to get a clearer picture.

Secretly visiting the house of his victim, John meets Malin (Ek), who joined the school when John was away, and does not know much about the case. Surprisingly, John opens up to her: “They say I was like in trance, but I remember everything about it”. John seems to have had a special relationship with his grandfather (Komasa), but the old man is hardly talking any more and shoots the family dog, instead of calling a vet. When some of the boys throw stones through the windows of the John’s family house, he attacks them, and is brutally beaten up. Losing Malin’s trust after arguing with her, he confronts the victim’s mother in her home.

Instead of showing us the well-known world of Swedish conflict solution by talking and understanding, this is an extremely hateful and unforgiving environment, where only the teachers are ready to preach tolerance. The huge majority of students and their parents want John gone from the moment he returns. As for John, rehabilitation is near impossible: he lives alone with his guilt – his father just wanting to prove a point in having his son back at home, without really loving or even understanding him. His little brother Filip is torn between pity and fear that the shadow of guilt may fall on him too.

Malin is curious at first, but when the pressure of her peers gets too strong, she too abandons him as her ambivalent feelings are not strong enough to sustain a relationship under the circumstances. Using a palette of washed out hues, IDA cinematographer Lukasz Zal works his magic on the Swedish countryside that looks and cold and unwelcoming as the environment John finds at home and at school.  The harsh lighting is a metaphor for the malice-ridden narrative. Munther, a pop star, is powerful in his understatement, and frightening when he loses his temper. THE HERE AFTER is a chilling and immersive account of crime and punishment. AS

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

 

The Last Diamond (2014) | Le Dernier Diamant

Writer & Director: Eric Barbier

Cast: Yvan Attal, Berenice Bejo

108min. Drama. France l Luxembourg

Place Vendôme (1998) was the last memorable Antwerp-set diamond-themed heist thriller – it starred Catherine Deneuve as the wife of a wealthy dealer, played by Jean Pierre Bacri. Eric Barbier updates the genre with this slick and shiny vehicle starring Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) as another glamorous business woman; in control of the world’s most famous diamond.

THE LAST DIAMOND (Le Dernier Diamant), has been hiding its light from UK audiences since its release last year and is now making a sparkling appearance courtesy of Frank Mannion’s distribution company Swipe Films. Yvan Attal (The Serpent) and Bérénice Bejo (The Artist), make for a pleasing pairing in the classically crafted crime caper which provides solid entertainment right up to its final dénouement and is best described as a Gallic Thomas Crown Affair.

While on parole from prison, suave professional safecracker, Simon (Attal) gets dragged into a spot of extracurricular crime with his sidekick Albert (Jean-Francois Stevenin). His goal is the theft of the famous Florentine diamond – purported to be worth €40 million (the real gem disappeared during the Second World War) – he uses his sophisticated charms gain the trust of the wealthy young heiress Julia (Bejo), who has put the diamond up for auction, following  the mysterious death of her mother.

Barbier’s first two acts revolve around well-laid preparations for the heist, as the lead couple’s on screen chemistry builds to a sizzling climax, convincingly creating a subtley nuanced romantic sideshow to the crime caper, as Julia falls for Simon’s cunning dexterity in finding his way first into her boudoir and then into her heart. Meanwhile, the robbery takes place just as Julia is discovering Simon’s duplicity while the plotline twists into unexpected territory providing some tense final scenes. There’s nothing particularly new or daring about THE LAST DIAMOND: what ultimately carries it all along is the piquant romance between Julia and Simon, who, against his better judgement, steadily finds himself involved in a love affair he didn’t quite bargain for. Attal is spectacular as the sociopathic swindler, blending boyish vulnerability with bouts of brutal violence, his cigarette ‘schtick’ adding a certain loucheness to his urbane swagger – Attal is somewhat maligned as an actor despite his excellent chops; (as seen in Leaving, Rapt and Regrets and The Serpent)  and he carries the film here providing sterling entertainment but never over-playing his touch, even when things go awry. Off-screen he’s also captured the heart of Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Cinematographer Denis Rouden’s classy visuals take us on a joyride through the Benelux countries with a sophisticated spin round Antwerp’s upmarket diamond district, thrumming to Renaud Barbier’s upbeat original score. This is a punchy thriller with plenty of heart and soul despite the glib twinkle in its eye. MT

OUT ON RELEASE at SELECTED CINEMAS FROM 29 January 2016.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) | blu-ray release

Director: Billy Wilder   Writer: Charles Brackett

Cast: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson

11omin | Drama  | US

SUNSET BOULEVARD is one of those rare films that you can review without need for a spoiler alert: its protagonist starts the film dead and is still resolutely dead at the end of the picture. We know who shot him: Discovering why is what matters.

A down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is introduced to us as a corpse in the swimming pool of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). In a long extended flashback, Gillis’s off screen narration accompanies his journey to the pool. Gillis’s deathly form of existence (being paid to doctor up a terrible Salome script) and Desmond’s attempt to resurrect her acting career are ghoulishly riveting in this supreme horror comedy.

SUNSET BOULEVARD is satire of the highest order. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script is full of trenchant observations of character, time and place. Hollywood’s a cruel world ruthlessly disposing of its talents and non-talents; where deluded assertions of self-worth thrive. When Gillis talks of a ‘comeback’ Desmond strongly rebukes him. “I hate that word. It’s a return to the millions of people who have never forgotten me for deserting the screen.”

Wilder’s film equally glistens as a film-noir. Joseph F. Seitz’ camerawork showcases the shadowy ‘old dark house’ feel, juxtaposed with the shine of the real fifties Paramount Pictures studio lot that deepens the power of the story as much as its witty screenplay. Gloria Swanson was fifty when SUNSET BOULEVARD was produced. Wilder wanted Seitz’s photography and the make-up department to have her look slightly older to show that her glamour was past its peak.
Near the end of the film, Desmond wants to enter Gillis’s room to ‘comfort’ him (we are made to assume that he’s now her reluctant lover) but pauses to look in a mirror. For me Swanson’s raising of her hands and mesmerised look, as he stares at her image, echoes James Whales’s The Bride of Frankenstein. Slight jerks of the head and preparedness appear Elsa Lanchester-like; the bride looking for small signs of re-created beauty to attract the ‘groom’ (William Holden – often in bought old-fashioned evening dress) and Desmond’s former audience (that Cecil B. De Mille generation when Salome projects were once all the rage.

SUNSET BOULEVARD is a very black film. Yet for all its grotesquery it never topples into camp nonsense. It’s too seriously bitter to ever allow that. Wilder and Bracket cleverly balance BOULEVARD’s light and dark. For the ‘normal’ scenes of Gillis with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a reader at the studio who falls in love with Gillis, are genuinely touching and tender interludes that relieve, but never soften, an abnormal tale. William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson and Erich Von Stroheim (Max, the creepy butler) give brilliantly sympathetic performances. All perfect casting in a film about the vanity of acting out of roles and the writing of stories to maybe please some head of a studio, but never its washed-out Salomes. ALAN PRICE

NOW OUT ON BLU-RAY

The Killing (1956) | blu-ray release | Kubrick’s early classics

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C Flippen, Marie Windsor,

85min   Thriller  US

Kubrick had started his career in the late 1940s as a magazine photographer honing his framing expertise and camera techniques. At 27, THE KILLING was his third feature and another chance to demonstrate his photgraphic skills for this exacting genre. He based his fractured narrative on Lionel White’s book ‘Clean Break’ and called on paperback pro Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me) to help him co-write the script with a documentary style employing a voiceover narration (from veteran commentator, Art Gilmore) to create distance. During the robbery sequence, the action shifts back and forth showing the event from the different perspectives of the perpetrators.

Following on from Killer’s Kiss it was technically his first full feature-length film; the former running for just over a an hour and opens on the New York’s Bays Meadows racetrack as a group of hardened criminals prepare to stage a horserace heist. Sterling Hayden leads as the ringleader Johnny Clay, a glibly handsome and fast-talking pugnacious crook, fresh out of jail.  Elisha Cook Jr’s shifty racetrack bookmaker plays his sidekick George Peatty who’s slightly back-footed by his wife Sherry’s ongoing infidelity. Using his forthcoming windfall as a bribe to win back her affections, he divulges too much about the robbery and Sherry tells her lover who tries to grab a share of the action.

The tone is dark and menacing and pacing echoes that of Wilder’s Double Indemnity ten years previouslycommunicating the urgency, greed and depravity of all concerned and reflecting the country’s nascent economic doom. This richly textured noir thriller contains a scene in local chess lounge (Kubrick loved the game) where Johnny meets the Russian wrestler Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani) who is instrumental in the heist and there is a clever turn from cult actor Timothy Carey as the “paraplegic” man who fires the shot on the racecourse. The clown-like robbers’ masks will appear again later in Clockwork Orange adding a note of cognitive dissonance to the thriller tropes. Kubrick has planned the action in his mind and gradually gives the clues away while the tension tightens until the nail-biting airport climax, which every traveller can appreciate. MT

NOW AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY COURTESY OF ARROW FILM AND VIDEO

Killer’s Kiss (1955) | blu-ray release | Kubrick’s early classics

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Frank Silvera, Irene Kane, Jamie Smith, Jerry Jarrett

67min   Noir Thriller   US

Some directors make perfectly formed debuts: Orson Welles (Citizen Kane); Nicholas Ray (They Live By Night)  and most recently Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul, spring to mindKubrick was not one of them. You would never guess the man who started with Fear and Desire – 1953 a skeleton in his closet – would go on to direct 2001 A Space Odyssey or The Shining but Kubrick was a fast learner and his technique improved in leaps and bounds with, two years later, his superb second feature KILLER’S KISS.

All Stanley Kubrick’s films are about a conflict of some kind and the New Wave Noir thriller KILLER’S KISS centres on a conflicted boxer who falls for a woman whose conflict come from the outside, her employer. With its Times Square setting and unusual naturalistic style, Kubrick’s KILLER’S KISS kicked off the first American New Wave but tighter techniques: perfect framing and velvety black and white visuals that are painstakingly pristine and unmistakably Kubrick – in contrast to the looser more ambiguous style of Godard and Truffaut’s later Nouvelle Vague.

The story follows boxer Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) reminiscing about his past when he meets and falls in love with a troubled dancer Gloria (Irene Kane). She is fighting off the unwelcome sexual advances of her boss, nightclub owner Vincent (Frank Silvera). The film’s visually inventive dreamlike first half tightens up as it gradually becomes a more coherent and eventually mesmerising Noir thriller with a tense ménage à trois developing between the central characters as Davey and Gloria distance themselves from the sleazy clutches of Vincent. A nerve-jangling rooftop chase ends in a showcase showdown in a mannequin storehouse – and finally Kubrick notches up the tension for the compellingly weird fight to the death between the two men, with Gerald Fried’s atmospheric score builds to a climax. KILLER’S KISS may be uneven, but the style and energy emerging here was enough to make audiences want more of this fascinating filmmaker called Stanley Kubrick. MT,

KILLER’S KISS IS AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY COURTESY OF ARROW FILMS AND VIDEO.

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Bridge of Spies (2015) Netflix

Dir.: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Will Rogers, Eve Hewson | 145 min | Spy Thriller | US

The Cold War dragged on from the late 1940s to 1989, creating a new genre: the Spy film. Many of these films were purely propaganda vehicles, or portayed a romantic or nostalgic world devoid of reality. Bridge of Spies focuses on an attempted exchange of two famous captured spies at the height of the Cold War, just after the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and before the Cuba crisis. With Bridge of Spies Steven Spielberg captures a realistic snapshot of an era where angst dominated day-to-day living on both sides. And who better to transmit this feeling of dread and make it compelling and entertaining but Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks in the leads, supported by a sinister Sebastian Koch, an incendiary John Rue and a smirking Alan Alda.

In February 1962, Rudolf Abel (Rylance), a Soviet Spy sentenced to 30 years imprisonment in New York, and the US pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who had been shot down over the USSR. The film gets its name from the Glienicker Bridge in Berlin where exchanges took place during the era. This bridge connected West Berlin to the GDR, the borderline between two systems being the mid-point of the bridge.

Spielberg’s real hero is insurance lawyer James B.Donovan (Hanks) who is tasked with defending Abel and saving him from the death penalty, but his success is somewhat of a poisoned chalice as it makes the Irishman unpopular with both his boss and the American people. Most lawyers experienced in this kind of work had declined to act as Abel’s defence attorney, so Donavan was more or less pressganged by his boss Thomas Watters (a gritty Alan Alda) into accepting the role. But Donovan and Abel (the latter a dedicated painter, and we see his daubing a few canvases in the cutaways), for all their opposed political views, somehow find common ground: and a mutual respect.

Shunned at work, Donovan’s family home is attacked by enraged citizens: his teenage daughter Carol (Hewson) nearly killed in hail of bullets, shot through the window of the family house. In the commuter train, with his photo in the newspapers, Donovan feels the probing stars of his fellow passengers. But this all changes when the CIA suddenly needs Donovan’s powers of negotiation for the exchange. As Donovan had cleverly predicted, sentencing Abel to death would have meant that an American spy, caught in the USSR, would have suffered the same fate. Now, Francis Gary Power, pilot of a secret spy plane, which was was downed over the USSR, was the pawn in the hand of the Soviet negotiators in Berlin, who wanted their man Abel back as badly as the USA wanted Powers. Donovan went to Berlin to start negotiating, making his mission even harder when he insists on having a young American student, Frederic Pryor (Rogers), who was arrested by the GDR authorities, released into the bargain – whilst the CIA and the KGB simply wanted a straight forward exchange between Abel and Powers.

Mark Rylance is the right choice for the role of the enigmatic and likeable spy, Rudolf Abel (the name of a friend in the USSR who died). Born William August Fisher 1903 in Newcastle upon Tyne, Abel was the son of ethnic Germans, who were revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia, Fisher’s father had agitated with Lenin in St. Petersburg. Later the family emigrated to the UK, before returning to the USSR in 1921. Fisher, who was fluent in six languages, became a radio-operator for the secret service (OGPU) in 1927, but was sacked in 1938 during the Great Purge, his brother being a follower of Trotsky. In 1946 Fisher was working again as a radio-operator, re-joining the security organisation, now called KGB. In 1948 he was sent to the USA to build up spy networks.

Obviously Spielberg has build up Donovan’s hero status: his insistence on having Pryor released too does not seem to have been the gamble the film makes it out. The young student, having written a thesis on economics in a socialist country, was in the hands of the Stasi, the East German security services. But the power over all aspects of life in the GDR really lay in the hands of the USSR. Since the KGB was not interested in Pryor at all, but wanted the Abel/Powers exchange to go ahead, one phone call from them was enough to release Pryor. And Spielberg certainly got it wrong when he has Donovan travelling to East Berlin, using the Friedrichs Strasse Control Point. All members of the four Allies powers crossed to the East Sector via Check Point Charlie. Showing East Berlin as a city of ruins and roaming gangs is in the first place an exaggeration, and simply wrong regarding the youths, who robbed Donovan of his coat: the East German police was extremely repressive: gangs, of which ever kind, were simply not tolerated.

But apart from these small details, Bridge of Spies captures the angst of the Cold War era when American children were shown films about nuclear bombs at school, and were asked to learn superfluous precautions for the time after an explosion. Little Roger, Donovan’s son fills the bathtub in his home with water in case he has no time after the attack to store the drinking water. And the wild shots, fired into his daughter’s room, are proof (both sides) could not tolerate sympathy with the enemy – even if it was, like in Donovan’s case, purely imagined.

DOP James Kaminski (War Horse, Lincoln) conjures up many worlds with his images: there is Donovan’s family home, the typical backdrop, where Donovan can relax after his adventures behind the Iron Curtain. Then there is the work environment, in the office (dimly-lit like an English Gentlemen’s Club). The courtroom for Abel’s trial feels undignified, rather like a Roman arena. The presiding Judge is antagonistic towards Donovan, the public gallery wants his head, after Abel is awaits his sentence in an atmosphere that thirsts for blood.

Mark Rylance’s Abel somehow dominating the scenes with his subtle intensity, even though Hanks is nominal the hero and more present on screen: Rylance is resigned, only interested in his painting, having experienced Stalinist terror in the first place, he knows he may be put against a wall on his return, or be celebrated as a hero. Hanks’ Donovan is like a kindly bear, loving the good fight, whoever the opponent; he would later negotiate very successfully with Fidel Castro to release hostages after the invasion of The Bay of Pigs.

Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a triumph; an epic about two men caught in a time of mistrust, violence and overriding paranoia on both sides. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX

 

 

Black Mass (2015) Netflix

Dir: Scott Cooper | Cast: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton, Corey Stoll, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott | 122min  Crime Thriller  US

In Scott Cooper’s Boston gangland thriller Johnny Depp plays vicious psychopath Whitey Bulger who, like his English counterparts the Kray Brothers, was also very fond of his mother.

This is Scott Cooper’s first foray into the big time and he handles it competently – if not a little derivatively – largely due to a strong cast of talent in which Depp is the star turn. This is a saga of multiple murder, revenge and betrayal underpinned by a long-standing relationship between gangland boss Bulger and his childhood mate John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who for many years leads the unsuccessful police investigation into the capture of the arch felon.

With scrappy nicotine-tinged hair, brownish teeth and an icy stare that embodies evil, Depp provides compelling viewing as the terrifying James “Whitey” Bulger, a criminal who menaced everyone who knew him around South Boston from the 1970s until 1994, when he went into hiding for nearly 16 years before finally being run to ground in California. In his weak defence, he claimed to be ‘in league’ with the Feds to rid Boston on the Italian mafia.

The action sequences are intercut with interview testimonials given by members of Bulger’s mob to provide a tightly-scripted and absorbing account of events and add superb structure to the storyline. It emerges that Bulger was a long-term criminal in ‘Southie’ (South Boston) and also served time in Alcatraz. His enemies, the Angiulo family of North Boston, are the reason the FBI, under the auspices of John Morris (David Harbour) and Connolly, eventually persuade Bulger to secretly team up against their mutual enemy and this provides Bulger with an opportunity to flex his muscles largely without interuption until Corey Stoll (a masterful Fred Wyshak) takes over as a federal prosecutor determined to nail Bulger, once and for all.

The ubiquitous but stalwart Benedict Cumberbatch finds his way into the storyline as Whitey’s brother Billy who happens to be Massachusetts’ most powerful state senator. There is also a brief cameo role for Dakota Johnson as his steely wife and mother to Whitey’s only child, a six-year-old boy who dies from an allergic reaction to an injection.

Cooper’s production looks slick and authentic with some excellent interior sequences as well as plenty of shootouts in the rainy streets of a seventies Boston provided by Masanobu Takayanagi’s well-crafted cinematography. In support roles, Adam Scott and Kevin Bacon are stern and long-suffering as federal agents in this war against an enemy which seems to come from all directions. But this is ultimately Depp’s film and he gives a commanding performance that is one of the most convincing of his career. A charismatic seventies score from Jerry Goldsmith or Bernard Hermann would have put some icing on this rather bland cake, but that is sadly too much to expect here. MT

| BLACK MASS IS NOW ON NETFLIX

Un Homme Idéal | A Perfect Man (2015)

Director: Yann Gozlan

Cast: Pierre Niney, Ana Girardot, André Marcon, Valéria Cavalli, Marc Barbé

104min | French | Thriller

with the feel of Hitchcock and Chabrol (remember that scene in Le Boucher when blood drips through the celling?). Yann Goslan’s terrically tense thriller is a delicious treat sumptuously set in the summer heat of a villa in Var. It stars Pierre Niney as a struggling writer, driven to extremes by his desire to produce a decent novel., or at least any novel at all.

Mathieu Vasseur (Niney) first manuscript, The Man From Behind, has been rejected by publishers. Working parttime as a cleaner in the local College near his Parisian bedsit, Vasseur stumbles into a lecture being given by a young woman, Alice (Ana Girardot), on the topic of scent and memory. When he’s hired to clear out the home of a dead man who has no living relatives, Vasseur finds a leather bound tome recounting the man’s experiences in the Algerian war. Vasseur has the brainwave to pass this off as his own work, and before he can say Highsmith, he’s written his perfect ‘debut’ novel.  Soon he’s mixing in the same circles as Alice and when the pair become engaged, they head off to her parent’s gorgeous Villa near Dijon, armed with an advance to work on his second novel.

But Vasseur is somewhat of a slacker And his publisher is breathing down his neck for a few sentences. Meanwhile a friend of the original author also gets in touch and not just for a chat over a cafe creme – he also means business and tries to blackmail Vasseur.  then One of Alice’s exes, Stanislas (Thibault Vincon), arrives at the villa and senses the  the edgy tension in Vasseur.

Niney is perfect as the highly-strung, feline Vasseur, in this follow-up to his role as Yves Saint Laurent. With his sensitive masculinity he makes Vasseur a compelling character both sensual and vulnerable and his chemistry with Ana Girardot is perfectly believable. Vasseur’s nerves of steel make him similar to the famed Mr. Ripley character of Patricia Highsmith, novel.  Gozlan’s crafts a portrait of an intellectual con man who allows his desperation for success to go against his better judgement. Sadly the background of the Algerian war is hardly mentioned and could have provided a rich counterpoint to the narrative that descends into blackmail and eventually murder and a really tragic denouement.

Still, the absolutely brilliant noirish score by Cyrille Aufort (A Royal Affair) and Antoine Roch’s gorgeous cinematography make this a gripping and watchable thriller  for a Saturday night at the movies – or any other night of this week for that matter. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 20 NOVEMBER 2015 COURTESY OF STUDIO CANAL

 

Bili Khmary (1968) White Clouds | UCLSSEES Centenary

Director: Rolan Serhiienko

Cast: Iurii Dubroviv Iurii Nazarov

 65min   Drama  Ukraine

Rolan Serhiienko’s 1968 feature debut is a poetic realist drama that explores a tragic episode of Ukrainian history. Using experiential ethnography to record the effects of the interwar process of collectivization on a family of peasant farmers in Ukraine, this sixties recollection of a time of chaos, widescale suffering and death is a lyrical example of ‘post-memorial’ cinema and offers valuable testament of Stalinism and its effects on the Ukrainian rural population during the 1920s and 30s.

After the Great War, the Soviet Union needed to service the burgeoning nutritional needs of its growing industrial population and these relied heavily on Ukraine’s role as ‘bread basket’ to feed the Bolshevik workers. So, under a policy of forced consolidation, land was collected from the peasant farmers, who owned and farmed it, and redistributed it into Soviet collectives, which would then farm the land under Stalinist run cooperatives known as “kolkhozes”, where strict new laws ensured that grain was handed over to the State. Naturally this rapid process of change and loss caused severe social trauma to the peasant farmers, many of whom preferred to slaughter their animals and eat them, rather than give up their property to the Government.

Based on the recollection of one man, seen from childhood to adulthood, Serhiienko tracks the soulful and desperate experience cinematically, making great use of Ukraine’s panoramic scenery: vast farmlands of swaying corn, orchards, endless country roads and, of course, the magnificent cloudscapes by which his father was able to forecast the weather which was so vital to the liveliehood of crops and animals alike. Soulful, sombre and occasionally sinister in tone: the brief euphoria of contributing collectively to the growth of the nation was rapidly eclipsed by widespread desperation of what enforced strategy implied.

Mykhailo Bielikov’s restless camera hurtles down endless roads to a distant past recording carts and farm animals in motion across the countryside, occasionally looking up from the roadside at passers-by and frequently focusing on local peasants who recount their memories in intimate moments, such as a young woman called Vustia, who eventually breaks down in tears as she reads from her bible. One particularly harrowing scene records a grandmother who appears to be travelling in the passenger seat of a car. In close-up, she talks of her memory of the past and village people she knew back then. But there is an unsettling feel to this scene, almost as if the POV is absent or perhaps a ghost. As the grandmother remembers individual villagers, the narrator explains how they have all died tragically. In Bili Khmary, Serhiienko recalls the pre-birth of cinema photography and how it replaced the Deguerrotype; of Eadweard Muybridge and Juliet Margaret Cameron. Expressionist and impressionist, there is a sense of kinesis that feels both intimate and otherworldly in style.

 The past is often remembered with nostalgia as a time of fruitfulness, fecundity and abundance: long summers; beautiful young people; marriages and births; seeding of crops and fruit particularly, watermelons. But the after being forced to give up their land, often violently and under protest – the memories are of freezing winters, aching limbs, gnawing hunger, tiredness and time poverty. “We have no bread, what shall we feed the children?”

BILI KHMARY is a fine example of ‘postmemorial work’ — Marianne Hirsch’s term to describe the attempt to reactivate intergenerational memorial structures. Screening for the first time ever with English subtitles, it was a remarkable insight into this generation of Ukrainian film-makers and their relationship with the past. Enchanting. MT

REVIEWED AS PART OF THE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON’S SCHOOL OF SLAVONIC AND EAST EUROPEAN STUDIES | BLOOMSBURY THEATRE IN CELEBRATION OF THEIR CENTENARY 1915 – 2015

Sunrise (2014)

Director: Partho Sen-Gupta

Cast: Adil Hussain, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Gulpaz Ansari, Komal Gupta

85min  Fantasy Thriller  India

Exploring the evergreen theme of child abduction and violence towards women, Partho Sen-Gupta’s  third feature SUNRISE is a noirish psychological thriller with a tour de force from Adil Hussain as a social services inspector wracked with guilt over his own daughter’s disappearance, as 60,000 children go missing in India every year.

This richly sepia-tinted arthouse mood piece relies on sound as much as lighting and atmosphere to evoke the feelings of anguish, longing and menace Adil feels as he trawls the rain-soaked streets of Mumbai. During his tireless investigation that visits a lap-dancing club and underage brothels in his search for little Aruna, he shifts between reality and fantasy, although the line between the two is as mysterious and muddled as the labyrinthine streets he searches in the course of his duty.

As Lakshman Joshi he is preoccupied with researching the case of a battered 16-year-old boy, Babu (Chinmay Kambli) and a little girl who has gone missing. Meanwhile his wife, Leela (Tannishtha Chatterjee), appears to be expecting another child and is deeply traumatised by their missing daughter. He soon comes across, 12-year-old Naina (Esha Amlani) and her protector Komal (Gulnaaz Ansari), who is confined to the club’s living quarters with other underage girlss. at one point he appears to be in the exotic dancing venue, having found his daughter, but this is clearly a dream sequence and he nervously awakes.

Spare on dialogue but long of soulful sighs and wailing, SUNRISE is embued with a vibrant palpable dramatic tension. It is a strangely magnetic, dreamlike drama deeply evoking India’s social problems with sumptuous cinematography and a standout turn from Hussain who holds it all together as a perplexed and bewildered man on the edge of desperation.  A delight for cineastes and the arthouse crowd.

REVIEWED DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2015

Just Jim (2015)

Director: Craig Roberts

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Craig Roberts, Nia Roberts, Mark Lewis Jones, Sai Bennett, Richard Harrigan

84min   UK  Comedy Drama

Craig Roberts first surfaced to cineastes’ consciousness in Richard Ayoade’s sweet drama Submarine. A hundred years has passed since O A C Lund’s silent original flashed onto the silver screen and Roberts’ quirkily dark comedy JUST JIM, his debut as a filmmaker, is a fitting tribute to sardonic Swede.

Set in the dystopia of the dull as ditchwater Welsh village, Roberts takes the eponymous central role as a deeply shy and fearful teenager. Success here comes from its 50 retro feel and brilliant cinematography, courtesy of Bafta award-winning lenser, Richard Stoddard, to create a darkly comic vibe with similar framing and attitude to a slow-mo sombre Hal Hartley outing. The humour derives largely from the clever casting of US Emile Hirsh who, as Jim’s American neighbour Dean, injects a much-needed confident noirish swagger into the stultified atmosphere of the buttoned up Welsh backwater. Taking the painfully sensitive Jim under his wing, he starts to re-style the geeky village loser as the hottest thing that ever hit town; both with the boys and the girls. But Dean is not as good as he seems, and gradually Jim comes to learn that, even as his new and cool persona grips the glowering neighbourhood, trying to be special is not always as desirable at it seems.

Scriptwise, things are wobbly though and the entertainment and charisma is largely down to the strong performances of Hirsch, Roberts and his onscreen wannabe pink-haired squeeze, Jackie (Charlotte Randall). Roberts’ direction is charmingly kickarse and buzzes beautifully to Michael Price’s edgy original score. Clever collaborative choices on Roberts’ part makes JUST JIM a stylish and inventive debut MT

ON GENERAL RELEASE

 

Marshland (2014) La Isla Minima | VOD | DVD release

Director: Alberto Rodriguez

Writer: Alberto Rodriguez, Rafael Cobos

Cast: Javier Gutierrez, Raul Arevalo, Antonio de la Torre, Maria Varod, Perico Cervantes, Jesus Ortiz, Jesus Carroza,

105min  Noir Thriller    Spanish with subtitles

Alberto Rodriguez’s Noir thriller is a stylish affair steeped in the traditions of its remote Andalucian location of hostile wetlands that provides a fitting background to the social confusion and mistrust permeating this post-Franco Spain on the cusp of democracy. Captivating aerial images of the sinuous wetlands provide an unsettling tone to a tale whose murky plotlines wade around in the marshes from where they emerged with a predicably macho stance. But dynamite performances and atmospheric cinematography makes this an intriguing ride even though the ending leaves some questions unanswered.

When teenage sisters, Estrella and Carmen, disappear mysteriously in Villafranco de Guadalquivir, the arrival of two experienced detectives is greeted with savage mistrust rather than relief in a community where everyone seems at loggerheads. Pedro (Raul Arevalo) and Juan (Javier Gutierrez) surface during the ‘feria’, but parents, Rocio and Rodrigo, are not celebrating and their marriage is clearly under strain. The cops two have their differences too – Pedro is young and hungry for justice to be served while Juan is hardbitten and prone to violent outbursts. The new case could be linked to some other unsolved crimes in the area and evidence of blackmail – a burned negative showing porno images of the girls found in their bedroom – is handed over to the cops by their downtrodden mother, Rocio (Nerea Barros). Later, the girls bodies are found, strangely mutilated, in a ditch.

A sexy local seducer Quini (Jesus Castro, “El Nino”) with a predilection for teenagers, seems to be linked to the case and he is seen picking up his latest fling on a motorbike but when tested, his DNA fails to match that found on Carmen and Estrella and soon an older girl, Marina (Ana Tomeno), seems suspiciously involved.

MARSHLAND is a deeply unsettling film that works brilliantly as a mood piece: its breathtaking images, rich textural quality and brooding ambience almost hijack the film’s narrative with its broadly-written characterisation and predictable reliance on macho violence towards its entirely submissive female protagonists. Everything and everyone seems to garner suspicion: the classic sleazy hack (Manolo Solo); the playboy Quini, the strict father (a superb Antonio de la Torre), the local factory boss; even a strange psychic fisherwoman with more red herrings in her basket than grey mullet: all are reek of suspicion but none are particularly engaging. A drug-smuggling subplot also gurgles beneath the surface, but never really takes hold. The gripping finale and its dazzling car chase is almost an anticlimax that still leaves us guessing.

The Andalusians are a proud and serious bunch who rarely smile easily, and nowhere less than in MARSHLAND. Pedro and Juan glower menacingly at each other and everyone else, and you come away feeling little empathy or interest in either of them, which makes MARSHLAND a difficult film to love, despite its fabulous sense of place and luscious look of Alex Catalan’s expert lensing. The troubled Franco years are deeply embedded in this staunch and unyielding territory, baked by the sun and drenched by the elements: even at the end MARSHLAND feels impenetrable. MT

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 7 AUGUST 2015 | Altitude Film Distribution release Alberto Rodriguez Marshland (15) on DVD and digital platforms from 14 September 2015

In Cold Blood (1967)

Director: Richard Brooks

Cast: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Tex Smith, Paul Stewart, Jeff Corey, Gerald S O’Loughlin

130min   Historical | Documentary | Thriller  US

Truman Capote’s celebrated reporting of a Kansas murder case, In Cold Blood, is the basis for Richard Brooks’s disturbing docudrama is formally ambitious yet restrained with Conrad Hall’s stylish black and white visuals and classy score by Quincy Jones.

The events of the case grippingly unfold in chronological order recounting how four members of the God-fearing Clutter family were slaughtered in cold blood one night in 1959 by two two ex-convicts looking for cash during a random burglary in their substantial rural property. They stole a radio and a few dollars and left few clues as to their identity but Brooks shows how Kansas Police (lead by a superb John Forsythe) embark on a lengthy and painstaking investigation eventually catching and convicting the killers and bringing them to justice in 1965

Robert Blake (Perry Smith) and Scott Wilson (Dick Hickock) are utterly convincing as the ruthless killers. And although we already know that they committed the murders from the early scenes Brooks generates a palpable tension while he fleshes out the investigation and we get a chance to fathom the broken minds of the perpetrators.

At the end of the day, who can really understand why two people only intending to rob the Clutters, and who had not committed murder before, suddenly decided to sadistically murder four innocent people on a quiet night in 1959? And what did the God-fearing Clutters do provoke such vicious violence?

Richard Brooks’s fractured narrative flips nervously back and forth brilliantly evoking both the frenzied minds of the killers and the fervent need of detective to nail and endite their suspects. Conrad Hall’s noirish visuals re-visit the rain-soaked scene of the crime, the remote locations and the fugitives’ brief escape to Mexico and their chance arrest in Las Vegas, while allowing brief glimpses of the genesis of their disfunctional family stories.

Brooks skilfully avoids showing bloodshed, violence or macabre crime scenes, allowing the terror to haunt our minds rather than the cinema screen. The mercilessness of the intruders and the abject fear and vulnerability of Clutters in their final moments is more evocative than any blood-soaked bedroom scene. By the time we reach the trial and imprisonment, we are glad to be done with these criminals, although a papery vestige of pity remains for tawdry life of who Perry Smith who seems to have been led on. Robert Blake and Scott Wilson give chilling and resonant portrayals in the leading roles. MT

IN COLD BLOOD IS ON LONG RELEASE AT THE BFI DURING AUGUST | THE FILM HAS BEEN REMASTERED COURTESY OF PARK CIRCUS FILMS.

 

Pickup on South Street (1953) | DVD | Blu-ray release

Dir.: Samuel Fuller | Cast: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Marvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willies Bouchey | USA 1953, 80 min.

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is another classic fifties film noir which gained considerable clout from the director being adamant about the female lead. 20th Century Fox wanted either Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters or Ava Gardener for the role of Candy, but director Samuel Fuller not only resisted this trio, on the grounds of them being “too beautiful”, but he also threatened to walk off set if Betty Grable (who wanted a dance number for herself) was cast instead of his choice Jean Peters, whose screen debut was alongside Tyrone Power in Captain from Castile.

In New York, pickpocket Skip McCoy steals a wallet from Candy (Peters) in a subway train. FBI agent Zara (Bouchey) tails Candy but loses Skip. After contacting Police Captain Tiger (Vye), who asks his old informer Moe (Ritter) to identify Skip, she agrees happily. Zare goes on the hunt for the micro film in Candy’s purse which she picked up (unwittingly) from the her ex-boyfriend Joey (Kiley), a communist agent. Candy has fallen in love with Skip, but he has no faith in her. Finally, Skip tracks down Joey and the communist ringleader and a happy ending ensues.

Samuel Fuller was known as a anti communist but Pickup, in spite of its topic, is very ambivalent about taking sides. As often in Fuller’s films, the American bourgeoisie, which had most to gain from the status quo, is ‘saved’ from communism by the down-and-outs of society. Moe, who lives in utter squalor and Candy (an ex-prostitute) are the most violent defenders of the system, Moe does not want to sell her information, after she has learnt that Joey is a communist: “Even in our crummy kind of business, you gotta draw the line somewhere”. Pickup is first and foremost a gangland noir, a milieu which the ex-crime reporter Fuller was well-accustomed to. Fuller might have been an anti-communist but he took very badly to J. Edgar Hoover’s criticism of Pickup – Skip laughs off appeals to help as ‘patriotic eyewash’ and only goes after the communists in revenge for the beating they gave Candy – with producer Daryl F. Zanuck backing Fuller up in a very acrimonious meeting with the FBI boss. Pickup was selected for the 1953 Mostra in Venice, where it won a Bronze Lion, in a year when the jury withhold the Golden Lion for ‘lack of a worthy film’, but compensated with six Silver and four Bronze Lions. AS

NOW OUT ON DVD | BLU-RAY AS PART OF EUREKA’S MASTERS OF CINEMA SERIES | 17 AUGUST 2015 

Still (2014) | DVD release

Writer/Director: Simon Blake

Cast: Aidan Gillen, Jonathan Slinger, Amanda Mealing, Elodie Yung, Sonny Green, Kate Ashfield

97min  Drama | Thriller  UK

The “North London father & son thriller” is becoming somewhat of a sub-genre these days but STILL has Aidan Gillen and Amanda Mealing to distinguish it from the rest of the pack. It establishes the unmarried middle-aged London male as a slick of slime that crawled out from under the promise of youth; lost its way and attached itself to any available female desperate enough to give it house room, due to the dearth of desirable males in the capital.

So having stamped his story with a nicely authentic narrative, Simon Blake sets it in the noirish shadows of Dickensian Islington where our anti-hero, Tom Carver (Gillen), has snared himself an Asian babe in the shape of fashionista Christina, played by sparky newcomer, Elodie Yung. While his intelligent and beautifully-presented ex-wife Rachel (an accomplished Mealing) is bemoaning the dearth of partner material, Carver gloats into his whisky glass; not even having to leave the comfort of his sordid front room to sell his photos, depicting grim views of windswept beaches and street kids – in black and white, wouldn’t you know.

STILL is a tragedy of modern London. This divorced couple, once happy, have now lost their love and their only child under the wheels of a hit-n-run driver and while Rachel mourns her son with grace and philosophy, leaving flowers on his grave; Carver has descended into a smog of self-pity where only the pert-bummed Christina “makes him smile” in his brief periods of sobriety.

Behind their tears of bereavement lies a thinly-veiled well of anger, waiting to wash through the toxic streets of N1. Rachel conceals hers with chippy sardony, while Carver just drinks and smokes into oblivion, hanging out with his well-meaning friend and hack, Ed (an equally low-life Jonathan Slinger) who is trying to raise awareness of the crime by putting a piece together for the local paper, the Police having lost interest in the case. A mixed-race juvenile gang appear to be involved in the boy’s death, and our curb-crawling duo, Tom and Ed, follow these likely lads through the streets, hoping for clues to nail them.

Although well-scripted with some witty dialogue, this slow-burn, rather predictable story lacks the tension to keep us on our toes – playing out as more of mood piece centering on the physical and emotional implosion of Carver – which may have solid appeal to overseas audiences, ignorant of this London species and fascinated to understand how it evolves, but to those of us already in the know, even its short-running time of 97 minutes feels like an angst-ridden tooth-pull. Simon Blake’s sure-footed debut shows promise with his camera angles and expert casting. It will be interesting to see how he handles different material. MT

ON DVD RELEASE FROM 24 August 2015

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Dancing With Crime | Jet Storm | Richard Attenborough Classics | DVD release

JET STORM (1959) 

Written and directed by Cy Endfield (Zulu) this 1959 star-studded aviation drama has Dame Sybil Thorndyke, Stanley Baker, Hermione Baddeley, Paul Eddington, Diane Cilento, Bernard Braden, Mai Zetterling, Elizabeth Sellars.

When Ernest Tilley’s (Attenborough) daughter is killed in a hit-and-run, he’s hellbent on avenging her death. Armed with a homemade bomb, he tracks down the killer to an airport and boarding the same flight, he threatens to be the first suicide bomber. Cy Endfield’s in-jet thriller relies on the dynamite performances to ramp up the suspense and he gets them from a brilliant cast including Attenborough playing against type as a sinister potential killer, driven insane by sadness. Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Hildyard does a great job with the claustrophobic setting (the interior of a Russian Tupolev Tu-104) and Stanley Baker is masterful as the suave captain, who has his own sad history. Elizabeth Sellers is foxy and provocative (and still rocking on at 93); Sybil Thorndyke lightens the mood with a mildly humorous turn and there is also a touching romance between Virginia Maskell and the co-pilot to sweeten things as emotions boil over in this tightly-scripted classic full of interesting texture and superb vignettes, based on a story by Sigmund Miller. MT

DANCING WITH CRIME (1947)

Directed by John Paddy Carstairs (Trouble in Store) makes its much-anticipated arrival on DVD for the first time since its theatrical release in 1947. Filmed at Cromwell Studios, Southall.

In this classic British film Noir, childhood friends and army comrades Dave Robinson (Bill Owen) and Ted Peters (a young and earnest Attenborough at 23) turn out to be very different when they get back from the War. Ted gets an honest job as a taxi driver, and saves for his wedding to his childhood sweetheart (Sheila Sim). Dave, however, is a bit of a geezer who wants easy cash and soon gets involved with a gang. When Dave is found dead in the back of Ted’s taxi, suspicions fly as Scotland Yard investigate the murder. This is schematic stuff but beautifully-crafted with Reginald Wye’s velvet visuals (The Seventh Veil) and enlivened by a score of forties band classics including “Bow Bells” and Ben Frankel’s original score. Vintage pleasure. MT

THIS CULT CLASSIC DUO IS OUT ON DVD FROM 17 AUGUST 2015

State of Grace (1990) | Blu-ray release

SoG_BLURAYStd_3D_HiRes copyDir: Phil Joanou

Cast: Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, Robin Wright, John Turtorro, Burgess Meredith; USA 1990, 134 min.

Director Joanou has a diverse output, reaching from U2 Rattle and Hum to the sporting drama Gridiron. STATE OF GRACE is very much Sidney Lumet/Martin Scorsese territory; Joanou perhaps too much in awe of the two directors.

The violent neo-noir narrative is centred around undercover cop Terry Noonan (Penn), returning to New York’s Hell Kitchen and the Flannery gang, once his pals. Terrys’ best friend Jackie (Oldman) and his brother Frankie (Ed Harris) are leaders of a gang, modelled on the Westies. Terry rekindles his love for his old sweetheart Kathleen, sister of the two gangsters, who later leaves all the violent males. After the psychotic Frankie shoots his brother Jackie in cold blood, Terry throws his badge away, and kills Frankie and two of his henchmen in a pub, whilst Kathleen is watching the St. Patrick’s Parade.

Joanou avoids any sentimentality: his Terry is as violent as the brothers he is fighting, but just on the other side of the track. Ed Harris’s snake-like portrait of Frankie is most impressive – the cold-blooded murder of his brother the highlight of the film. But somehow Joanou lacks the punch of Scorsese and the psychological insight of Lumet, and STATE OF GRACE turns out to be a little much too clichéd and superficial, particularly regarding the Terry/Kathleen relationship. That said, Ennio Morricone’s score and the wonderful work of DOP Jordan Cronenweth (who photographed Blade Runner, and worked in spite suffering from Parkinson’s Disease for 13 years before succumbing during the shooting of Alien III) still make STATE OF GRACE e a watchable film. AS.

NOW OUT ON BLU-RAY

 

The Third Man (1949)

Dir.: Carol Reed   Screenwriter: Graham Greene

Cast: Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernhard Lee, Ernst Deutsch, Erich Ponto, Siegfried Breuer, Paul Hoerbiger

UK 1949, 104 min.

Like many classics, THE THIRD MAN benefited from the director standing up to the producer: Carol Reed insisted on shooting in Vienna (as opposed to an all-studio set), and he also chose Orson Welles to play Harry Lime, whilst (the un-credited producer) David O. Selznick would have preferred Noel Coward. Reed also argued in favour of Anton Karas’ zither music, which carried the film. Finally, Selznick and Reed successfully teamed-up to convince screenwriter Graham Greene to forsake a happy-ending, which would have seen Joseph Cotton and Alida Valli walk out of the cemetery, hand-in-hand.

Vienna in 1949 was a city (like Berlin) divided in four occupied zones, the centre being an international zone where the rule changed monthly between the four powers. Like Berlin, Vienna was a paradise for spies and black marketers; the murky atmosphere producing a background for the beginning of the Cold War. Naïve American pulp fiction writer Holly Martins (Cotton), married to the bottle and always in need of money to sustain his alcohol habit, arrives in the city, because his friend Harry Lime (Welles) has promised him a job. But Holly arrives just in time for Harry’s funeral, where he meets Harry’s girl friend Anna (Valli) and falls in love. Researching the circumstances of Harry’s death, who was supposedly killed in a road accident, Holly encounters three dubious friends of his: Baron Kuntz (Deutsch), Dr, Winkler (Ponto) and Popescu (Breuer), who, it turned out, helped the very much alive Harry in the black market distribution of diluted penicillin. Major Calloway (Howard), all stiff upper lip, shows Holly the victims of Harry’s trade, and hopes to rail him in, to catch Harry. The two friends meet in the Prater’s Ferry-wheel, where Harry gives its famous speech about the Cuckoo’s clock (which was actually not a Swiss, but a German invention), to justify his profiteering, which lead to many deaths. Holly finally gives in and rats on Harry, but Anna warns him, still loyal to the man who saved her life. The rest is (film) history.

Carol Reed, who was a member of the British Army’s Wartime Documentary unit, had DOP Robert Krasker (Senso/Trapeze) shoot THE THIRD MAN like a nightmare vision: instead of the glory of the allied victory, we see bombed houses and equally distraught citizens, who seem to have lost all moral compass. Harry is not alone in his crass materialism, his Austrian helpers, obviously with a fascist past, take full advantage of the new system (democracy), helping themselves to a nice fortune. The shadows are long, images tilt, the light is diffuse and opaque, as are most of protagonists with their shady dealings. But most interesting, is that one of the victims, Anna, a very haughty Alida Valli, sticks to Harry. She sees him as her saviour, never mind the way he made a living. Holly, befuddled, is out of his debt, and in spite of his decision to help the major, hankers after Harry and has lived a much too sheltered live in the USA to even begin to understand Anna – he arrives at a stranger and leaves as one. In The Third Man Reed created the hellish vision of a city between WWII and the Cold War: the human rats crawl in the sewers, morally bankrupt, with no alliances, but surviving at all cost. 
AS

THE THIRD MAN IS ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 19TH JUNE 2015 COURTESY OF STUDIOCANAL

Macbeth (2015) | In Competition | Cannes 2015 |

Director: Justin Kurzel     Writer: Jacob Koskoff

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris, David Thewlis, Paddy Considine, David Hayman

113min |Drama l UK|Australia

Kurasawa, Polanski and Welles have all put their mark on Shakespeare’s Scottish play with its bloody imagery and regal treachery, not to mention the dreaded witches, who bring with them “the filthy air” of ineffable evil striking the tone of sinister foreboding from the outset.  Set in a frighteningly bleak and hostile 16th century Scotland, Justin Kurzel’s glowering screen version is the follow-up to his 2011 debut thriller Snowtown, a breakout hit marking the Australian director as talent in the making.  Kurzel retains the 9th Century feel of feudalism  and danger here but adds some modern styling techniques to make this feel ‘de nos jours’. Judicious casting ensures a range of dynamite performances that, along with stylish sets and a really brooding tone,  Kurzel’s version is a worthwhile addition to the Shakespeare film canon for the Scottish play.

A brilliant pairing of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard ignites this production with a palpable onscreen chemistry; Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth controlling her lust for power both both sensually and emotionally, in a role infused with religious fervour, malicious intent, lustful longing and vulnerability: she appears to die of a broken heart, mourning her first child’s death and ruing the guilt of her treason. Kirzel crucially makes reference in the opening scene to the mossy funeral-byre of the Macbeth’s blue-tinged infant, laid to rest with shells placed over his eyes. The joint suffering permeates their relationship and they are seen as viscerally close: a sexual-charge always jolting their loving gaze.

Kurzel’s adaptation, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, stays fairly close the page with some exceptions – to be expected considering its less than two hour running time – although this is Shakespeare’s shortest play. The narrative consequently has a choppy feel but one omission in particular stands out, the scene with the drunken porter, that in the original play serves to inject much needed levity. This is the only criticism of Kurzel’s version: its monotone brooding which powers on relentlessly and without relief and the dramatic tension would certainly have benefited this light-hearted interlude, which Shakespeare introduced precisely for this reason.

That said, this sleek and pared-down adaptation with its modern sensibilities (Cotillard’s make-up brings to mind Bladerunner) also reflects a God-fearing nature of the era reflected in the religious motifs that run throughout and are shown in the costumes (Lady Macbeth wears shroud-like-calico and is decked in jewelled crosses) and are particularly resplendent in the interior castle scenes. The battle scenes are brutal and strikingly-evoked in slow-mo, to reflect a spectacular sense of place as haunting mists roll in and infiltrate the combat scenes, backlit with their crimson and lucozaid-tinged aesthetic.

The power-fuelled couple express every emotion with a full-throttled yet coldly-cloaked passion: Lady Macbeth is also seen as a religious woman who sets great store in the potent power of prayer. Fassbender grins seditiously and is encouraged by Cotillard’s sensual goading, bringing him to a climax of despotic fervour, as his sanity slowly evaporates despite occasional self-doubt “Come what come may, Time and the hour runs through the roughest day”. Yet the pair retain a strange sense of their character’s humanity throughout. When Lady Macduff (Elizabeth Debicki) and her children are killed, we see them burning at the stake. Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth sheds a sympathetic tear in respect to her own bereavement and her own treachery. In the ghastly dagger scene, she holds court with a solomn soliloquy.

Sean Harris, is supremely sinister Macduff. David Thewlis, as good as ever, is a genuinely lordly Duncan, Paddy Considine superb as Banquo, all feel convincing characters rather than Shakespeare cut-outs. The whole thing reeks of fabulous negativity and regal evil. Thoroughly recommended. MT

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL RUNS UNTIL 24 MAY 2015 | IN COMPETITION | CANNES 2015 |

OUT ON DVD, BLU-RAY & LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY STEELBOOK | FEBRUARY 1st 2016 | STUDIOCANAL

 

Phoenix (2014) |

Director/Writer: Christian Petzold

Co-writer: Harun Farocki    From a novel “Le Retour des Cendres” by Hubert Monteilhet

Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Michael Maertens

98min  Thriller   Germany

Postwar Berlin is the setting for PHOENIX, a noirish thriller and poignant love story from German auteur, Christian Petzold. Rising from the ashes of a devastated city that has nothing left to offer but memories of the past, it stars Nina Hoss (Barbara) as the soulful heroine in a starkly simple yet moving narrative, where less is very much, more. Her character, Nelly Lenz, displays the human face of wartime destruction, in the literal sense of the word: Nelly, a Jew, has survived Auschwitz, her face shattered beyond recognition but her spirit unbroken, held together by hope, a hope that her husband, Johnny, survived too.

Relying on the talents of his regular collaborators, Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, and their earth-shattering chemistry, Petzold strings this smouldering story of desperation and faith towards a harrowing conclusion with co-writer Harun Forocki, cinematographer Hans Fromm and Jerichow production designer K.D. Gruber.

Before the war, we discover that Nelly worked as a nightclub singer, Johnny as pianist. Arriving back in Berlin thanks to her close friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), Nelly is the sole survivor of her family and a large inheritance: enough money to start a new life in Palestine, where many Jews fled after the Balfour Treaty of 1917.  Nelly was, clearly, a beautiful and statuesque woman and the loss of her looks  not only knocks her confidence but robs her of her identity. Plastic surgery will not improve her – she only wants her past back, and her previous life in Berlin. Wrapped in her bandages, Nelly echoes the sinister mother in Veronika Franz’s Goodnight Mummy or even George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, garnering pity and sympathy for this forlorn image of mental and physical fragility.

In a nearby cabaret (also The Phoenix) Nelly eventually finds Johnny (now Johannes) who is working as a part-time pianist and barman. The twist is that Johnny doesn’t recognise his wife due to her facial damage. But as the narrative develops, Lena reveals a twist in this tale:Johnny isn’t the man she thought he was, although he is the man she loved, and she is still in love.; wanting to melt into his arms, be protected by his strong and healthy physicality. He kisses and smells like Johnny, but he is now Johannes, a brutal stranger, both beckoning and repelling her.

When Johnny sees her, still believing his wife is dead, he seizes the moment in a ugly display of opportunism. Inveigling her into a plan of using her likeness to gain control of her family’s inheritance, he subjects her to a rigorous makeover regime. Nelly welcomes this chance to be with him again: after all she’s becoming herself again, just like the old days. There’s a comfort and an excitement here in this inventive yet devious scenario, tinged progressively with the bittersweet knowledge of what Johnny has done under pressure to survive arrest by the Nazis. Working on several levels, Petzold’s clever narrative also reflects the political deviousness of a nation that has tricked its own people to espouse Nazism and undergo years of hardship in the hope of a better and more prosperous future.

Dramatic tension simmers on a knife edge as these two perform a brilliant and subtle dance of wits and emotions: a tour de force of second-guessing. As Nelly’s physical wounds heal, her emotional wounds go deeper until finally she summons the strength to take back her power and re-emerge from the ashes of her past in the devastating finale.  Nina Hoss singing Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” is one of the highlights of the festival. There is no youtube trailer; you just have to see it. MT

PHOENIX IS NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 1 MAY 2015 

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Cry of the City (1948) | Robert Siodmak Retrospective | BFI April – May 2015

Cry_of_the_City_1 copy copyDir.: Robert Siodmak

Cast: Victor Mature, Richard Conte, Fred Clark, Shelley Winters, Betty Garde, Deborah Paget

USA 1948, 95 min.

Robert Siodmak made this noir thriller between THE KILLERS and CRISS CROSS, and although CRY OF THE CITY is not as spectacular, as a study of crime in the city – with the Little Italy being the real star – in all its brutality, photographed in grainy black and white by Lloyd Ahern, this is ultimately a superior film. It does not go for identification with the main protagonist as in THE KILLERS nor does it have the spectacular ending of CRISS CROSS. It is a noir in the true sense of the word, with no borders between police and criminals.

Martin Rome (Conte), a hardened criminal, is in hospital after a shoot-out. The police, led by Lt. Candella (Mature), wrongly suspect him of a jewellery heist where a woman was killed. Rome escapes, fearing rightly that Candella will frame him and his fiancée Teena (Paget) for the robbery. Candella and Rome grew up in the same neighbourhood and Siodmak shows that they are not very different. Rome is helped by his teenage brother Tony (Cook) and an old girlfriend Brenda (Winters in fine form). In spite of being chased by Candella, Rome finds the real mastermind of the jewellery heist, a murderous masseuse (a grotesque portrait by Hope Emerson). When Candella appears on the scene, he is wounded in a shoot-out. But, like Rome at the beginning, he leaves the hospital to hunt his prey, leaving Martin at the mercy of his brother.

The city is permanently present: its sounds, always important in Siodmak’s noir-films, accompany the action and showcase the vibrancy of New York’s Little Italy in the late forties. The clear images of the interaction are always framed by shadows of the environment. Doors in the background and side windows allow the replication of images: pictures of pictures. The cars and the huge crowds engulf the protagonists, very much like “Menschen am Sonntag”. A dominating city is shown in glamorous panorama shots. The narrative is not limited by an inner or outer world: violence is everywhere, and police violence is no exception. This is a cruel and callous environment, everything is played out with murderous hatred in front of witnesses. Italian emigrants in Martin Rome’s family home strive to replicate the emotional closeness and warmth of their homeland but there’s a bitter edge to their hospitality. Nothing escapes the beady eye of the voyeuristic camera, witnessing the action: even an emergency operation in car in the middle of the rush hour is witnessed, portraying a world of murkiness – with nowhere to hide adding texture to the narrative and placing it firmly in the historic context of post war New York. The psychology of ordinary life is subverted by the violence. The real, ordinary world has changed though, it loses its significance, not only for the protagonists, but also for the audience, who had submitted to the same violence of a society in crisis: the depression was not forgotten, and the Second World War had just ended. CRY OF THE CITY is dark and the camera penetrates this darkness – but what it shows is just a human twilight world – bordering on the psychotic. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE HEADLINING A RETROSPECTIVE OF ROBERT SIODMAK IN MARCH 2015 AT THE BFI

The Killers (1946) | Master of Shadows | April 2015

Dir.: Robert Siodmak

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, William Conrad, Charles McGraw

USA 1946, 102 min. (spoilers)

Based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway, THE KILLERS was one of many classic Film Noirs by one of the key Noir craftsman, German born director Robert Siodmak (1900-1973). He was one of the team of filmmakers behind Menschen am Sonntag (1929); his fellow creators and emigrants Edgar G. Ulmer and Billie Wilder would, like him, excel in directing noir-movies in Hollywood, as well as another couple of ex-UFA directors: Fritz Lang and John Brahm. Considering that Robert’s brother Curt Siodmak (1902-2000), who became a busy script-writer in Hollywood, was also involved Noir-films, one can draw the conclusion, that all these emigrant directors transferred the traumatic displacement they had suffered in Nazi-Germany, into their new environment with films, in which everything, from the role of capitalism to gender roles, became questionable.

Robert Siodmak’s list of noir films between 1941 and 1949 is quiet staggering: Flight by Night,  Conflict  Phantom Lady, The Suspect, The Spiral Staircase, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, Criss Cross and Thelma Jordan. Apart from being aesthetically original, these productions were often great successes at the box office, and Siodmak had enough clout with the studio bosses, to cast an unknown debutant in the leading role for THE KILLERS: Burt Lancaster.

The film starts with two psychotic killers Max (Conrad) and Al (McGraw) entering the small town of Brentwood in New Jersey at night, going to the local diner and enquiring about Pete Lunn, called “The Swede”. After being told that he has not come for his usual dinner appointment, the killers terrorise owner and personnel of the diner in frustration, before turning their enquiries elsewhere. Finally, they enter the boarding house where Lunn (Lancaster) lives, shooting him in cold blood. Jim Reardon (O’Brien), an insurance inspector, investigating a life-insurance claim (Lunn had a life-insurance policy, a motel maid in Atlantic City being named the beneficiary), is puzzled why Lunn never ran away, even though he was warned by one of the guests in the diner about the arrival of the killers.

With the help of police detective Sam Lubinsky (Levene), who knew Lunn when he was a young boxer and put him behind bars after Lunn took the rap for a jewel theft for his secret love Kitty Collins (Gardner), Reardon tries to uncover the truth behind Lunn’s suicidal behaviour and finds out that Collins was the girl-friend of Big Jim Colfax ((Dekker), who was in charge of a heist, in which Lunn and three other members of the team successfully robbed a payroll worth $250 000. The jealous Colfax wanted to cut Lunn out of the proceeds, but Kitty warned the latter, and Lunn grabbed the loot and disappeared for good, being hunted in vain by the other gang members. But the more Reardon learns, the less sense it makes…

The narrative is told at first as a series of flashbacks portraying Lunn’s life, before the two killers from the opening sequence make another appearance, this time trying to get rid off Lubinsky and Reardon, setting in motion a series of shootouts. The acting is near perfect: Lancaster’s “Swede” is a naïve, emotionally immature man, who does not even know that Lilly is in love with him – she prompotly marries Lubinsky – whilst Lunn just loves the unobtainable Kitty from afar, only confronting the rough Colfax once before the heist. When Lunn meets Gardner, she is tthe ‘little girl lost” in the company of gangsters, begging Lunn to save her, and Lunn is only too happy to oblige, even if it costs him three years of his life. Their meeting in Atlantic City, when Kitty tells him of Colfax treachery, is the high point of the film: one literally feels the burning lust. Dekker’s Colfax is steely and arrogant – Ronald Reagan would play him in Don Siegel’s remake of 1956 – and Conrad and McGraw are truly frightening in their unrestrained violence. DOP Elwood Bredell plays masterly with shadows and light, creating an atmosphere of violence and repressed lust. The male protagonists are all severely damaged, even Lubinsky is just shown as a cop, who easily sells his friend Lunn out, even though he had the chance to save him; whilst Reardon is just a stupid insurance agent, who risks his life to maximise the profits of his company. Siodmak creates a totally corrupt and amoral world in this near perfect film. AS

SCREENING DURING MASTERS OF SHADOWS: A ROBERT SIODMAK RETROSPECTIVE AT THE BFI LONDON IN APRIL 2015

 

A Second Chance (2014) |

Director: Susanne Bier

Cast: Marie Bonnevie, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, May Anderson, Ulrich Thomsen

Susanne Bier is well known for her stylish if schematic melodramas – along the lines of BROTHERS and AFTER THE WEDDING. A SECOND CHANCE is another enjoyable, if cliched, collaboration with the dogma crew and regular scripter Anders Thomas Jensen (IN A BETTER WORLD).

The impossibly good-looking Nordic couple Andreas (Coster-Waldau) and Anne (Marie Bonnevie) share a designer beach house in the outskirts of Copenhagen with their new-born son Alexander. Meanwhile, Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and his partner Sanne (May Anderson in debut) are slumming it up as intravenous drug abusers in an urban hovel with their neglected bab,y Sofus. However, it’s important at this stage not to draw too many conclusions on the perfect family versus the ‘lowlife’ one.

Police detective Andreas is on a drug-releated hunt for Tristan and is attempting to get Sofus into care, with the help of his partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen). So far their attempts have proved unsuccessful but when tragedy intervenes, Andreas makes an error of judgement changing his life forever.

Motherhood and parenting are always at the heart of Bier’s narratives and A SECOND CHANCE is no different. There’s no harsher judge of women than a woman herself, as Bier proves one again by portraying her female characters as somehow lacking: Although Anne appears to be the perfect caring mother in her softly lit and freshly laundered surroundings, she is also neurotic, self-centred and suffering from postnatal depression and her mother (Ewa Frowling) is not much of a help on the childcare front. Sanne is so angel either, leaving Sofus rolling about in his own excrement as she catnaps through another dose of crystal meth or is it pethidine? Nikolaj Lie Kaas is powerful as an irresponsible dad but also a controlling, abusive husband.

The story really centres on Andreas and his integrity as a man of the law, versus his vulnerability as a new father, desperate to satisfy the woman he loves, his moral compass briefly skewed by the hormonally-charged state of becoming a new father. Strong performances are compelling and slightly manage to counterbalance the narrative’s slow crescendo of doom-laden melodrama, accompanied by a sinister score, gusty winds and the classic Nordic Noir negativity that increasingly threatens disaster in every rain-soaked frame. Even after the initial booboo made by Andreas, it’s clear that life will never be the same in this chilly tale of woe. MT

A SECOND CHANCE IS ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 20 MARCH 2015. SUSANNE BIER IS CURRENTLY WORKING ON AN ADAPTATION OF JOHN LE CARRE’S THE NIGHT MASTER WITH HUGH LAURIE AND TOM HIDDLESTON. 

Katherine Hepburn | Retrospective | BFI | 2015

Christopher_Strong_1 copyKatherine Hepburn was one of Hollywood’s most charismatic female stars. Her career (1907-2003) stretched over fifty years from her debut film BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932), directed by her regular collaborator, George Cukor, who would be in charge of five more of her films and notably, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940). Having spent four successful years in the theatre (where she would return very often), she won her first “Oscar” nomination in 1933 for the role of Eva Lovelace in MORNING GLORY (1933), only her third film. Directed by Lowell Sherman, Hepburn plays a Broadway actress on her way to stardom. Here Hepburn plays the opposite of the scheming title character of All about Eve; attributing her success mainly to hard work despite rather lucky break to help things along. Shot in the same sequence as the script, MORNING GLORY (***) shows Hepburn as a very competent young actress but her wild temperament, which would be so noticeable in further performances, seems to be held in check by the director, who obviously gave the best lines to the two male stars Douglas Fairbanks junior and Adolphe Menjou.

Bringing_Up_Baby_1 copy

BRINGING UP BABY (*****) directed in 1938 by Howard Hawks, though a box office disaster (proving again that Hepburn was box-office poison between 1934-40), is still the ultimate film of all screwball comedies of the thirties and forties. Hepburn plays Susan Vance, a scatterbrain heiress who lures the unsuspecting zoologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) into all sort of adventures – mainly to keep her aunt’s pet leopard “Baby” out of trouble. Huxley’s engagement to his cold blooded assistant, and (in the last scene of the film) his life’s work, the reconstruction of a Brontosaurus, all are destroyed in the name of love – even though for most of the film Huxley is very unaware of any positive affections for Ms Vance. BRINGING UP BABY is the quintessential Hepburn film, before her mature period of “Spinsters and Shakespeare”.

Guess_Who's_Coming_To_Dinner_1 copyStanley Kramer’s GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (****) might not seem very daring today, but when it was released in 1967 interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 (mostly southern) states of the USA. GUESS WHO’S COMING was the ninth and last film starring Hepburn and her long time partner Stacey Tracy, the latter would die 17 days after shooting ended. Their relationship had lasted since 1941, even though they never married – and their relationship was kept silent by the film companies because of Tracy’s marriage. Set in 60s San Francisco Joanna (Katharina Houghton, Hepburn’s niece), invites her black fiancée John (Sidney Poitier) and his parents to meet her own parents (Hepburn and Tracy). She is surprised that her liberal and progressive folks seem not to be overjoyed by the fact that she chose a black man – even though both parents try to camouflage their feelings as well as possible. The delicate subject is treated with some humour, even though harsh words are spoken – Joanna trying to come to terms with the realisation of the massive gulf which exists between her parents general attitude and their reactions to her engagement, so often still the case nowadays.

One year later Hepburn starred as Queen Eleanor in Anthony Harvey’s THE LION IN WINTER (***) together with Peter O’Toole as Henry II and based on a idea by John Goldman. This featured a sparkling debut by Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionheart. Whilst Henry II wants his eldest son, the future King John, as his heir Eleanor prefers their oldest surviving son, Richard The Lionheart. Henry locks all his sons in a dungeon, travelling to Rome to have his marriage annulled. He than sentences them to death, only to let them escape. Whilst going in a barge to prison, Eleanor still thinks that she has future life with Henry. Historically incorrect, THE LION IN WINTER is a showcase for the now mature Hepburn, whose performance carried the film, leaving O’Toole’s Henry II in the shade.

ON GOLDEN POND (***1/2) (1981) was to be Hepburn’s last major film, it won her the fourth “Oscar”, opposite Henry Fonda who also won the award for his last film. Ethel (Hepburn) and Norman (Fonda) Thayer are spending a (last) summer at her cottage near a lake called The Golden Pond. Norman, who is very stubborn and cantankerous, does not get on well with his daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda), or her fiancé Bill. But in spite of their concern, Chelsea and Bill leave his teenage son with the old couple. During fishing trips Norman softens visibly and Billy, who misses his friends, gets used to his new company. At the end of the holiday, Norman suffers a heart attack and decides to die at the lake. Jane Fonda had secured the rights to the play of the same name from Ernest Thompson (who also wrote the screen play), the relationship in the film mirroring that of the two Fondas. Directed by with great sensibility by Mark Rydell, ON GOLDEN POND was the only film to be produced in Hollywood during the screen-writers strike in 1981 – a tribute to Hepburn and Fonda. AS

THE KATHERINE HEPBURN RETROSPECTIVE RUNS FROM 1 February until 19 March 2015 at the BFI Southbank London

Tommy (2014) | DVD blu release

Director: Tarik Saleh

Writer: Anton Hagwall

Cast: Moa Gemmell, Lykke Li, Ola Rapace, Johan Rabaeus, Alexiej Manveloj

93min  Thriller   Sweden

As dark and intransigent as a Swedish January, Erik Saleh’s TOMMY is a moody crime drama which is really all about a brave and beautiful girl and some very nasty men. The girl in question is Estelle, played by Nordic beauty, Moa Gammel, who plays a resilient but vulnerable gangster’s Moll in search of her husband’s share of the loot in one of Sweden’s biggest robberies. For all its arthouse creativity and sumptuous cinematography, Saleh has made an extremely brutal thriller where scenes of terrible torture (involving electric hobs) and sudden violence rupture the dreamlike quality of its atmospheric camerawork in and around a snowswept Stockholm. That said, TOMMY works best in these moments of tension in contrast to the softer scenes with Estelle and her daughter which often slow the pace, making it feel longer than its 93 minutes of running time.

Estelle is on a journey back to Sweden with her husband Tommy’s ashes – in the opening moments we see him being murdered on a beach in Sri Lanka, the victim of his own crime spree. Searching out his co-conspiritors for a share in the proceeds, Estelle pretends to all and sundry that Tommy is still alive and coming home to collect his winnings. But despite her shrewdness and cunning, she cannot compete with the murderous intentions of Steve (chillingly portrayed by Johan Rabaeus) and Bobby (Skyfall’s Ola Rapace) who are hardened criminals with no intention of playing by the rules. Best known for her Swedish TV work and films such as SUDDENLY and LAPLAND ODYSSEY, Moa Gammel’s portrait of fragility contrasting with the venality of the criminal underworld, is compelling from start to finish, marking her out as a sparkling star in the Nordic Noir firmament. MT

OUT ON DVD courtesy of ARROW FILMS

 

Serena (2013) | DVD release

Director: Susanne Bier   Writer: Susanne Bier, Christopher Kyle

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, Sean Harris, Ana Ularu

109min  Pyschological drama

After a long wait, Susanne Bier’s elegantly-crafted, depression-set retro noir makes for an enjoyable watch: there is sparkling chemistry from leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence who flesh out their roles with aplomb, yet feel way too starry for their characters; a glorious setting in the smoky mountains of North Carolina (actually, its the picturesque Czech Republic); darkly humorous turns from the Brits, Rhys Ifans and Toby Jones, hamming up their Southern drawls, and a thoughtful storyline that will appeal to art house audiences but has got caught up in Hollywood spin: as in A SECOND CHANCE Susanne Bier explores the corrosive force of childlessness on a power couple, but wraps it in a rather unconvincing storyline about bribery and corruption, penned by Christopher Kyle from the novel by Ron Rash.

This old-fashioned melodrama has the sinister vibes of Cold Mountain and even The Dark Valley. Bradley Cooper is screen dynamite as a debt-ridden timber pioneer, George Pemberton, who marries for money and falls in love. What he lacks in financial probity he makes up for in style and verve. Kitted out in his well-tailored hunting attire (designed by Signe Sejlund), he glows with vitality, bringing a suave masculine presence to the harsh mountainside community where everyone is down on their luck, until he fetches up with his stylish bride and heiress Serena (a luminous Jennifer Lawrence). Serena is not just a pretty face either: with her business acumen, gleaned from her father’s timber dynasty, she quickly gains respect amongst the locals and also has a winning way with birds; taming an eagle to control the snake population. But her glamour is too much for some: Pemberton’s partner Buchanan (David Dencik) feels threatened, for reasons other than business. Buchanan has a soft spot for George Pemberton, and it’s one that could go hard, given the chance. And a strange dark woman (Ana Ularu) with a baby, keep giving her menacing looks. Rhys Ivans (Galloway) is deliciously sinister as a wayfarer who comes to Serena’s aid when she saves his life in an accident, Toby Jones plays Toby Jones the Sheriff who has an implausible plan to turn the timber yard into a local amenity, but you keep wishing he’s just go away.

Ostensibly the Pemberton’s is a marriage made in heaven: until, that is, she tries her hand a child-bearing. Woody Allen was right when he said: “a relationship is like shark – if it doesn’t go forward, it dies”. And the Pemberton’s inability to create a family is ultimately their downfall. A power couple, figureheads of the community, their fragility and potent egos bound up in success and, in the Twenties, that still meant procreation. George Pemberton is similar to Andreas in A SECOND CHANCE (Bier’s film that releases here in January): they are both masculine men but there is also a vulnerability to them, and that vulnerability is their overriding need to be fathers: Their love for their offspring eclipses that of their wives. But due to his mysterious past, George Pemberton here holds the key to his wife’s undoing: and it’s alive and kicking in the same row of huts, right under their noses.

What fascinates Susanne Bier in this story; how a seemingly perfect love can not only be threatened but also de-stabilised when a woman feels let down by her biology and falls prey to mistrust and nagging self-doubt. And that is really what is crucial to understanding Serena, both the film and woman. The back-story concerning financial fraud is really just window-dressing. With Morten Soborg’s sumptuous camerawork and some great performances from the assembled cast, this is not a weak film but it is film that fails to concentrate and its crucial premise: that the pain and desperation of childlessness can cause mental instability. A that is the stuff of melodrama. MT

SERENA IS ON DVD FROM FRIDAY, 23 FEBRUARY 2015

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The Killers (1946) | Blu-ray release

image014Newly restored High Definition (1080p) presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements by Universal

Dir.: Robert Siodmak

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, William Conrad, Charles McGraw

USA 1946, 102 min.

Based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway, THE KILLERS was one of many classic film noirs by the German born director Robert Siodmak (1900-1973). He was one of the team of filmmakers of “Menschen am Sonntag” (1929); his fellow creators and emigrants Edgar G. Ulmer and Billie Wilder would, like him, excel in directing noir-movies in Hollywood, as well as another couple of ex-UFA directors: Fritz Lang and John Brahm. Robert’s brother, Curt Siodmak (1902-2000), also became a busy Hollywood script-writer in Hollywood involved in noir-films so clearly all these emigrant directors transferred the traumatic displacement they had suffered in Nazi-Germany to their new environment creating films in which everything, from the role of capitalism to gender roles, became questionable.
Robert Siodmak’s list of noir films he directed between 1941 and 1949 is quiet staggering: Flight by Night; Conflict; Phantom Lady; The Suspect; The Spiral Staircase, The Dark Mirror; Cry of the City; Criss Cross and Thelma Jordan. Apart from being aesthetically original, these productions were often great successes at the box office and Siodmak had enough clout with the studio bosses to cast an unknown debutant in the leading role for THE KILLERS: Burt Lancaster.

The film opens with two psychotic killers Max (Conrad) and Al (McGraw) entering the small town of Brentwood in New Jersey at night, where they start at the local diner enquiring about Pete Lunn, called “The Swede”. They get a dusty answer and terrorise  the owner and staff in frustration before turning their enquiries elsewhere. Finally, they track down Lunn’s (Lancaster) boarding house and shoot him in cold blood. Jim Reardon (O’Brien), an insurance inspector investigating a life-insurance claim (Lunn had a life-insurance policy, a motel maid in Atlantic City being named the beneficiary), is puzzled as to why Lunn never ran away, despite being warned by one of the guests in the diner about the arrival of the killers. With the help of police detective Sam Lubinsky (Levene), who knew Lunn when he was a young boxer (putting him away in jail after Lunn took the rap for a jewel theft for his secret love Kitty Collins), Reardon tries to uncover the truth behind Lunn’s suicidal behaviour. But the more Reardon learns, the less sense it all makes…

The narrative is told at first as a series of flashbacks portraying Lunn’s life before the two killers from the opening sequence make another appearance, this time trying to get rid off Lubinsky and Reardon, setting in motion a series of shootouts. The acting is near perfect: Lancaster’s “Swede” is a naïve, emotionally immature man who does not even know that Lilly is in love with him – she promptly marries Lubinsky – whilst Lunn obsesses about the unobtainable Kitty from afar, only confronting the rough Colfax once before the heist. When Lunn meets Gardner, she is “the little girl lost” in the company of gangsters, begging Lunn to save her, and Lunn is only too happy to oblige, even if it costs him three years of his life. Their meeting in Atlantic City, when Kitty tells him of Colfax treachery, is the high point of the film: one literally feels the burning lust. Dekker’s Colfax is steely and arrogant – Ronald Reagan would play him in Don Siegel’s remake of 1956 – and Conrad and McGraw are truly frightening in their unrestrained violence. DOP Elwood Bredell plays it masterly with shadows and light, creating an atmosphere of violence and repressed lust. The male protagonists are all severely damaged, even Lubinsky is just shown as a cop who easily sells his friend Lunn out, even though he had the chance to save him. Reardon is just a stupid insurance agent who risks his life to maximise the profits of his company. Siodmak creates a totally corrupt and amoral world in this near perfect cult classic. AS

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OUT ON 8TH DECEMBER ON BLU-RAY COURTESY OF ARROW FILM

Original uncompressed PCM mono 1.0 audio
Isolated Music & Effects soundtrack to highlight Miklós Rózsa’s famous score
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired
Frank Krutnik on The Killers, a video piece by the author of In a Lonely Street, which introduces the film and offers a detailed commentary on four key scenes
Heroic Fatalism, a video essay adapted from Philip Booth’s comparative study of multiple versions of The Killers (Hemingway, Siodmak, Tarkovsky, Siegel)
Three archive radio pieces inspired by The Killers: the 1949 Screen Director’s Playhouse adaptation with Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters; a 1946 Jack Benny spoof; the 1958 Suspense episode ‘Two for the Road’ which reunited original killers William Conrad and Charles McGraw
Stills and posters gallery
Trailers for The Killers, Brute Force, The Naked City and Rififi
Reversible sleeve featuring one of the original posters and newly commissioned artwork by Jay Shaw
Collector’s booklet containing new writing by Sergio Angelini and archive interviews with director Robert Siodmak, producer Mark Hellinger and cinematographer Woody Bredell, illustrated with original production stills.

AVAILABLE FROM MONDAY 8TH DECEMBER COURTESY OF ARROW FILMS

Cold Eyes (2014) | UK Korean Film Festival

Dir.: Cho Ui-seok, Kim Byung-seo

Cast: Han Hyo-joo, Jung Woo-sung, Sol Kyung-gu; South Korea 2014, 118 min.

As we all know, remakes rarely match the original outing, but Cho and Kim have succeeded in re-planting one of Hong Kong’s most original crime thrillers EYE IN THE SKY from 2007 to a seedy Seoul with their COLD EYES, the original title translating simply into The Surveillants.

COLD EYES is the story of hunters and their prey. All three main protagonists are introduced in a long and rather enigmatic opening sequence set in a high-speed tube train: Tom-boy Ha Yoon-joo (Han) is muttering to herself, her fingers moving seemingly on their own will, whilst she constantly survives (and memorises) the goings-on in the carriage. Middle-aged Hwang (Sol) casts a detached eye on the proceedings: people dropping newspapers, bumping into each other, exchanging looks. Of all the people caught on camera one figure stands out: the grim-faced, soulless James (Jung) who tries to slip into the background, avoiding eye contact. The following scene, in a restaurant, at least solves the identity of two of the trio: Ha is a young police cadet, trying to qualify for Hwang’s prestigious surveillance unit. Needless to say, she passes with flying colours, even though Hwang makes sure that she can see her limits. It’s clear that boss and apprentice have much in common: in their different ways they are obsessed with surveillance work to the point of being slightly insane, having lost contact with the real world.

The unfolding narrative concentrates on the hunt for a gang of criminals led by James, who turns out to be a sadistic killer. After a bank robbery the surveillance unit follows one the participants caught on CCTV: an overweight man, given the code name “hippo” by Hwang, who has also given all his team members animal names; Ha being “Piglet”, somehow not as grand as her own proposed “Reindeer”, eventually proves her self in the impressive denouement.

There are hand-to-hand combat scenes, car chases and long, technical explicit surveillance scenes. The directors show a seemingly endless knowledge of this field. But neither this aspect, nor the fast-forward mode of the action sequences explain the fascination of the film: Ha is dominating the proceedings subtly, a brilliant mixture of vulnerability as well as mental and physical toughness. Like Hwang, she lives in a world of her own, when she is chasing her prey with a viciousness belying her frail but lean exterior. Her eyes seem to have a much more quality than the countless lenses we see in action.

COLD EYES is a playful exercise in over-kill, carried by Ha’s personality. The Seoul settings are changing constantly between the high-tech world of the city and the seediness of the districts – leaving the viewer in no doubt, how these seemingly so different environments rely on each other. Camera work is very innovative, particularly in scenes set at great height; it also gives every member of the team and James their own POV. Whilst the narrative hardly offers any surprises, Ha and the virtuosic photography make COLD EYES a superior action thriller.

Screening at the UK KOREAN FILM FESTIVAL

Mystery Road (2013) | DVD release

Director: Ivan Sen

Writer: Ivan Sen

Main Actors: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten

121 mins Australian. Thriller

At the beginning of Mystery Road, a truck driver stops by the roadside in atmospheric silhouette and, walking further into the darkness of the ominously titled ‘Massacre Creek’, finds the murdered corpse of a teenage Aboriginal girl. Finding the girl’s murderer becomes the first big case for indigenous Australian detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), freshly returned from a jaunt around the ‘big city’. But tracking down the killer within a small community where everyone knows everyone proves surprisingly tricky – not least because no one seems to want the crime solved, not even Swan’s fellow police colleagues. Are they really as understaffed as they make out, or are they part of some conspiracy involving the girl’s death? Or is it simply the case that, for them, life only matters when it’s white?

Mystery Road may be a sun-drenched noir in which an outsider works alone to try and solve a crime, but at its heart there lies some taut social observation. At times, Writer-Director-Editor-Cinematographer-Composer Ivan Sen cuts away as characters talk, showing us other people nearby going about their business. Sometimes these people return later in the story, sometimes not – but the effect is always an increase in texture. It’s at moments like these when the film is at its most interesting, when it feels like the nuances will build to a compelling whole. But, unfortunately, they never do.

In addition to its exploration of ingrained racism, there are flirtations with themes of time, memory and absence, but too often it feels like neither these themes, nor the police procedural plot, are enough to keep interest afloat. Things are buoyed along by some skewered humour, an off-kilter tone, and an excellent supporting performance from Hugo Weaving, but somehow, despite it all, the film simply feels a little too slight to sustain its two-hour runtime. It’s not so much that attention flags, but more that one starts to question the point – something not helped by the film’s unsatisfying conclusion.  With a little more weight to balance our engagement, Mystery Road could perhaps have been great. But, as it is, I fear it may prove to be an enjoyable but all-too-forgettable experience. Alex Barrett.

NOW AVAILABLE ON DVD

 

 

 

Cold in July | Interview with Jim Mickle | DVD Blu release

Filmuforia talked to Jim Mickle about his 80s-set noir thriller adapted on the novel by Joe R Lansdale:

Matthew Turner (MJT): How did the project come about, first of all?

Jim Mickle (JM): I read the book – I picked it up at a used book store – I’d been a fan of [author Joe R Lansdale]’s – read it in one night and fell in love and thought, ‘I want to make a movie that makes me feel how this book feels, this sense of discovering this crazy mish-mash of genres, dark tough guy characters – I want to make a movie like this’.

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MJT: I thought the structure of the film was very interesting, in that it starts as one thing, but becomes something else. How much of that is reflected in the book?

JM: Very much. Very, very, very much. We did it in slightly different ways – at times we had to do a slower transition between things or at times do a more abrupt transition, but it was very much that in the book – that was what I fell in love with, I kept hitting moments where you sort of settle into a story. You realise how interactive watching a movie is, in a way, or reading a book – any kind of receiving a story – when you start to settle into something and think, ‘Great, you know, this is cool, this is Cape Fear, sort of revenge thing, cat and mouse, great, I’m into that!’ And then as soon as that shifts into something else, it just sort of changes all expectations. You realise how lazy I think we are as audience members, because you have expectations and you want things to meet those expectations and when something doesn’t or it shifts it becomes this really challenging experience. But I just loved it and that was something we wanted to carry over into a film.

MJT: Are you worried about film reviewers spoiling too much of it?

JM: Yeah. Yeah. I think there’s a way to talk about it that’s sort of like that, you know, that it starts off as Cape Fear and then becomes two or three other films by the time it stops. I like that, in any reviews I read of any movie, I usually read the first part and then skip the synopsis and go to the end, to sort of see what’s going on. So I hope people stick with that, but for the most part, people have been pretty good about being coy about what they talk about. Except the New York Times- the New York Times gave us this shit review that was just – all they did was just summarise the entire movie, plot point for plot point! It was like, ‘How lazy can you be?’ And then offered no opinion about the movie whatsoever. It was like, ‘Great. So you basically just printed a list of spoilers and called it a review of our movie’. So that can be frustrating, you know.

MJT: This is a hell of a role for Don Johnson. Was that all on the page? How much did he bring to it?

JM: The energy of the character was on the page, much of his dialogue was on the page. Much of it was in the book. We transcribed some of that, or tried to find ways to paraphrase stuff, obviously. And he’s a very talkative character, which doesn’t always work in movies, so we had to pare that down. He added a lot on top of that, so there was a lot where he sort of got into that mode. He improvised a lot and I think that was really strong for comedy – I think when that stuff feels natural and not forced it’s good, so we let him improvise a lot. Some of my favourite stuff in there is him, you know, that line about, ‘I need a goddamn drink, I haven’t even had my coffee yet’. Little asides and stuff like that were all Don. That bit with the old phone – we sort of gave him the phone and said ‘Go’ and he came up with all that stuff, so yeah. It was sort of like, once you have him, you sort of need to capture that larger than life persona and not try to keep it in a box.

CIJ_STILL-400-2 copyMJT: How did the cast all get involved? And did you have them in mind for the parts?

JM: No, not at all. I try not to write stuff or be thinking of stuff with certain people in mind, because you fall in love with stuff too easily. I think it’s better to get the script exactly where it needs to be and then start to think, ‘Alright, who could facilitate the script’ rather than – my writing partner Nick a lot of times will think of people and I think that paints you into corners a lot of times. So, no, I always sort of had this idea of sort of like a Texas Everyman, I kept describing him as like McConaughey in Frailty, like a 35 year old, sort of [blue collar worker], could work as a trucker, could work in a field, who knows where. So [Michael C. Hall] we met at a party in Sundance and at that point he had read the script and really liked the script. So we talked about it at Sundance and I had always pictured – I had always had a hard time accepting Dexter, because I always thought of [Michael] as his Six Feet Under character, so it took a while to really buy that and I thought, ‘I’ll never accept him as this guy!’ And the reality was just the opposite – I think he was highly qualified to play an Everyman because he had spent his entire life playing these dark characters with a lot going on. He got to finally play somebody that was very normal. So we met him at Sundance, sort of fell in love there and then the movie, I think we came to the Cannes Film Festival last year, financing happened, we landed in New York the next day, sent the script to [Sam Shepard] and Don and both of them signed on very quickly after that. After years of having a very hard time finding money and actors who would even read it, all of a sudden it was instantly – everything kind of fell into place.

MJT: Did you encourage the actors to read the book?

JM: I did, yes. I did and then I realised it was probably not the greatest idea, because there are a lot of things where we zig left where the book zagged right. And so I think [Vinessa Shaw] read the whole thing, which is great, because I think she was able to – we had to really pare her character down, which sucked, because her character’s a big part of the book and a big part of the journey they go on. And in order to keep it focused on Michael and to really make it a two hour movie instead of a four hour movie, we really pared it down to more his story, but what was great is I think she read it and really got a sense of who her character was and fill in a lot of the gaps and stuff, so that was really great. Don and Sam did not – I remember Don saying, rightly so, that the book is not the script and the script is not the movie and the movie isn’t the movie until you edit it, which I think is very true. And so he was very careful to make sure that he wasn’t – I think it’s easy to say, ‘Well, in the book, this happens!’, you know, and he would say, rightly so – but that’s not reflected in the movie and so it can be very hard to remember what’s what.

MJT: Johnson’s having this kind of amazing late career resurgence that reminds me a bit of William Shatner, making these kind of iconic appearances. How conscious of that was he?

JM: Good question. He has a very strong sense of self and a very strong sense of who his audience is, who his demographic is. He has a very clear, very accurate idea of how he comes off, which is really great.

[Digi-recorder fault meant that interview cut out at that point. Spotted it a few minutes later and resumed].

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MJT: Did you cut anything out that you were sorry to lose?

JM: There was. In the book, there was Vinessa’s character that I was – there was a really strong sense of the husband / wife journey that happened in that book that we really had to boil down to Michael’s sort of discovery as a man. That, I was sorry to see go, but I don’t think it would have worked in the movie. There’s a lot of scenes with Jim-Bob in the book, he gets introduced in a much different way and he comes in earlier, he’s involved in the digging of the grave scene and that kind of stuff, that was great. Miss a lot of that stuff. There’s about twenty minutes of deleted scenes that will be on the DVD and they’re all great scenes but as much as I love them, there’s always a reason why stuff gets cut. So we just watched some of them to do a commentary on them and as I watched, I thought, ‘It’s so funny that anyone ever thought this needed to be in the movie’, but in almost every case, there were scenes that were like, ‘We can not cut that out of the movie, it needs to be there!’ I just find that interesting, that the things that get cut are the things that, usually, on the page, are the things you think you need the most.

MJT: What was the hardest thing to get right, overall?

JM: Good question. I think the rhythms, because even if something works and has a certain energy and pace and rhythm in the book and even though when they work in a script, once you get to the actual movie experience, there is a different way to ingest that. And so that was something that was constantly being shaped the entire time, you know, how long do you spend here, how quickly do you move through things. And it took a long time of back and forth with a lot of test audiences to really get a sense of when there was too much of something. And I still see people that feel like there’s too much of something and not enough of something else, but that is a tough thing. It’s really hard to stay objective to that when you’re editing something and something you know for that long. So that was always a tough thing.

MJT: Had you seen Blue Ruin? I noticed its director [Jeremy Saulnier] had a thank you in the credits.

JM: Yeah. I love that movie. And Jeremy was there at our first screening. He read the script and gave some really great notes at the script stage and then he came and watched the first cut and I just remember him being like, you know, ‘Take a deep breath – it’s going to get there. This movie isn’t it,  but take a deep breath, it’s going to get there.’ We had met on our first movies in 2007, we were at South By Southwest and we kept bumping into each other at festivals with Murder Party and Mulberry St and then last year, We Are What We Are played Director’s Fortnight with Blue Ruin and we sort of rekindled and met back up. He was very helpful and I think we’re a little bit of a support group for each other in many ways.

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MJT: What makes Texas so perfect for Texan Noir? And why are we seeing the rise of it now?

JM: Well, I think it always was there, I mean, I think there’s a lot of – I mean, even like Jim Thompson’s stuff and Cormac McCarthy is a little bit further east of there, but I think there always was that and I think there’s a sense of nostalgia in America, probably that dates to the cowboys, old west sort of vibe that I think a lot of people link to Texas, even though it was happening in a lot of other places. I think there’s still a strong connection to that and I think there is a lot of leftover nostalgia for those kinds of stories and that sense of morality. I think that happens a lot. And I think there’s a big sense of pride in Texas, both self-pride – I’m always amazed that everyone from Texas has a great sense of self-confidence, in a very cool way. And also a confidence and a pride in their state and I think that makes for strong-willed people and strong-willed characters and I think they’re always interesting, when you put them into these kinds of stories. I think there’s a great sense of lawlessness there that, in society, sucks – in society, Texas is like the state that keeps popping up and causing problems and you keep sort of having to [give them a] smack on the head and keep them in line. But in movies, that’s great, that’s a great character to have. It’s very open, it’s gigantic, there’s a million different areas of it, you know, you have the dusty plains of the west and you have the more sort of Bayou country pine tree green luscious spot like East Texas, where our movie is set, so there’s a lot of interesting thematic stuff and then visually, I think it’s just great. You know, Paris, Texas, Sam Shepard, when you need a story about a guy who’s lost in this open world, you go there.

MJT: That was a happy coincidence, casting Shepard, then?

JM: Yeah, it was, it was. Because originally I had always thought of Cold in July as a sort of 1989 western set in the suburbs, so I would always listen to the Paris, Texas soundtrack, Ry Cooder’s steel guitar, I would always listen to that soundtrack every time I’d read the script and just try to dive back into it, get into the head of it and then it’s one of those happy evolutions is, you know, we ended up being nowhere near that, musically, at the end of the day.

MJT: Do you have a favourite Texan noir movie?

Blood Simple. (1984)

JM: Blood Simple.

MJT: What’s your next project?

JM: We’re doing a TV show called Hap and Leonard, which is a continuation of Cold in July in some ways. Joe R. Lansdale, who wrote that novel, it’s a book series he has of two bumbling idiots who crime-solve in the late 80s in East Texas. So we’re working on that right now and there’s two films that I’m working on right now, one a much bigger film and one that’s sort of a quieter, subtler, sort of Hitchcockian thing. Trying to have a couple of different things out there and see what works first, as opposed to what we did with Cold in July, which was fall in love with one idea and fall into depression when we thought it wasn’t going to work.

MJT: Does that mean you’re sort of moving away from horror movies?

JM: I don’t know ‘moving away’ – I don’t have a strong ability to structure things from the outside, you know? So it’s been now a matter of reading a lot of scripts, reading a lot of books, trying to develop my own stuff and with Nick and it’s really hard to control that. So I’ve been responding to just the best material, whether it’s horror or science-fiction or action or whatever. It’s been really focussing on that and also, I think, being in a weird spot where we’ve done – we’re getting a great release here in the UK with Cold in July, which I’m so thankful for and so thankful to Icon for. And in the US we’ve had a great release, but the whole model of distribution there is changing so much, so we came out Memorial Day weekend, against X-Men, you know, and we came out with zero advertising, on a couple of screens. And that was the movie I thought was going to be sort of our breakout film, it was really going to make some noise. So it’s been like a little bit of an existential thing of, like, what do independent filmmakers do anymore? How do you get stuff out there? Part of that is a move towards television, I think, because that’s a place where you can do things that don’t have to be laden with superheroes in order to make it connect with an audience. But it’s tough, it’s really tough, because I think if you do horror, everyone wants it to be really, really cheap horror, so they can turn it around and make gangbuster dollars – you know, unless it’s Paranormal Activity, it’s not successful. And so I feel like every couple of years, when we start to do the rounds with talking to studios or Hollywood executives, it’s always, ‘It’s very much ‘The Conjuring’, that’s what anyone says that just means, ‘Some people go into a house and some supernatural shit happens’, that’s code for that. It used to be, ‘It’s Paranormal Activity-inspired’, which was everyone’s way of saying it’s found footage. So I think in horror, it’s really hard to do anything different, it’s really hard to do anything that’s challenging in any way. There used to be a little more receptiveness, I think to financiers who were willing to back something like that and I think now we have a lot of ideas of things that we want to do like that, but you need a lot of money to do it, and then once you start talking about that, then you shift very quickly out of those movies and fall into fifty million dollar plus summer blockbusters that have to be remakes or sequels or based on previous intellectual property and that sort of thing. So it’s trying to find what’s going to succeed, what’s going to feel like, yes, it was worth spending two years slaving on this, what’s going to feel sustainable and I don’t know what’s sustainable right now in movies other than television.

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COLD IN JULY IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-ray AND ON DEMAND

We Gotta Get Out of This Place (2013)

Dir: Simon & Zeke Hawkins

Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Jeremy Allen-White, Logan Huffman, William Devane, Mark Pelligrino

USA 2013, 90 min.

In this decent Southern Noir debut, first time directors Simon and Zeke Hawkins have learned a lot from the master of crime pulp fiction, Jim Thompson and the weak, sleazy characters, which populate his novels. To start with, the sheriff is bent, a hallmark of many Thompson plots. Then there are the small time criminals, ready to be gobbled up by the real professionals. And there is also the continued threat to woman by their male counterparts. The woman here is Sue and when we meet her with Bobby for the first time in the café, she tries to interest him in “South of Heaven”, a novel by Jim Thompson, set in 1927 in Texas, at the height of the depression.

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Set in a small town in Texas, the film opens as one member of a teenage ménage-à-trois, carrying the narrative, takes part in a low-key robbery: B.J. (Huffman) empties the safe of his boss Giff (Pelligrino). He is going to spend the money with Sue (Davis) and Bobby (Allen-White), whom are then seen discussing their future at college in a greasy spoon café. Giff, ultra violent, beats his Mexican caretaker half to death in front of Bobby and B.J, wrongly suspecting him of the theft but when Bobby intervenes with his confession, B.J is only too happy to see somebody else taking the rap. But Giff shoots the caretaker, proclaiming him as the guilty party, since he was supposed to look after the funds. However, Giff is not done with the teenagers: they have to rob a depot to steal a much larger sum, so that Giff can pay back Big Red (Devane), a big time gangster, who owns his business. Bobby, being much more rational than the highly strung BJ, goes to the sheriff, to confess, but finds out, that the lawman is part of the Giff’s scheme.

Meanwhile Bobby and Sue have sex, overheard by a very jealous B.J., who left one of the walkie-talkies they are going to use in the robbery, with Sue, and has to listen in his car to the noisy lovemaking of his friends. B.J., who has an inferiority complex, since he will stay behind, not having got his college grades, is planning his revenge, but when Bobby and Sue find an empty safe and two dead people, we know that Giff had set the trio up. But Sue, much cleverer than the boys, has alarmed Big Red, and Giff has not only to face the teenagers in a bloody show down, but also a man much more ruthless and cleverer than himself.

The acting is convincing, and never over the top and the main trio, in particular, is restrained; showing their youthful vulnerability in a corrupt and violent adult world. The camera is particularly efficient in the night scenes, achieving a truly noir character of little light and many shadows. A small, but taut Southern-noir thriller, perfecly set in a time before mobiles and the internet. AS

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

The Lady from Shanghai (1946/7)

Dir.: Orson Welles

Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders

USA 1946/47, 87 min.

Shot between October 1946 and January 1947, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI cost Columbia in the end two million dollars (200m by today’s standards), although it was scheduled to come in after 60 days of shooting, at a cost of 1.25m $. And if Columbia boss Harry Cohn would have had his way, it would have never been seen in cinemas at all (it has its first preview in April 1948).  Having watched the finished film for the first time, he promised “the first person who can explain the plot to me’ a thousand dollars. The famous DOP Rudolph Mate had to do a great deal of re-shooting of Rita Hayworth close-ups at the Columbia studios. Welles seemed not be too sure himself, but later proclaimed the film (rightfully) a masterpiece. That did not stop it flopping at the box office. THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI was Welles’ last film as a director in Hollywood for ten years (he would shoot Touch of Evil in 1958). And it was his very last film with his wife Rita Hayworth: they were to divorce in November 1947. During the hearing Hayworth testified: “Mr. Welles showed no interest in establishing a home. Mr. Welles told me he should have never married in the first place, as it interfered with his freedom in his way of life.” Never mind that the couple had a three-year-old daughter, Rebecca. And whilst nobody can argue with Welles’ genius; his lifelong misogyny was something to behold, as he told the French film historian Maurice Bessy “Women are stupid; I have known some who are less stupid than others, but they’re are all stupid”.

And this opinion is written all over THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. To start with, Hayworth had to loose her long mane, her trademark. Welles and Cohn made it into a publicity show, ordering the hair-dresser Helen Hunt from her honeymoon, so that she could “perform” under the eyes of the press, Welles asking Hunt to cut ruthlessly. Hayworth, now a “topaz blond”, was cast as the most evil and stupid woman on the planet: Elsa is the young and alluring wife of the crippled defence lawyer Arthur Bannister. Holidaying on his yacht in the West Indies, Elsa meets the Irish sailor Michael O’Hara (Welles), and lures him on board. There, Bannister’s partner Grisby (Anders) dreams up a plot to kill Bannister, so he and Elsa can share the insurance money. They set O’Hara up as the fall-guy, but Grisby looses his nerve and kills Broome, a detective hired by Bannister to spy on Elsa. O’Hara is accused of murder and Bannister defends him, to make sure he is convicted. But O’Hara escapes from the court house, is captured by Elsa and her Chinese friends, and ends up in a closed fair ground where he watches Elsa and Bannister shoot each other to death in the hall of mirrors. Elsa begs Michael to save her life, but he wanders off declaring full of self-pity “that I might die trying to forget her”. Male paranoia of women has never been expressed more artfully. AS

ON RELEASE IN A STUNNING NEW 4K RESTORATION IN THE BIF SOUTHBANK AND SELECTED CINEMAS FROM 25TH JULY COURTESY OF PARK CIRCUS FILMS

Keeping Rosy (2014)

Director: Steve Reeves

Writer: Steve Reeves, Mike Oughton

Cast: Maxine Peake, Blake Harrison, Elisa Losowski, Christine Bottomley, Sam Hoare

93min  UK thriller

In this chilly urban thriller Maxine Peake plays a ‘stuck-up, self-centred cow’; but is she? Unlucky in love for sure, and (as it turns out), professionally too. As a hard-working Media boss, struggling with the pain of infertility,  all her efforts have been dedicated to building a Media Consultancy and, despite success (as her magnificent Docklands penthouse portrays), she’s tricked in the boardroom for a slice of the rewards by smarmy colleague Tom (Sam Hoare). Love-rat Tom has recently sired a child with his unsuspecting wife (another colleague) but also wants some action with Charlotte on the side. So it’s not easy to be charitable when her cleaner Mykala (Elisa Lasowski) flagrantly defies her ‘no smoking’ pleas, and then steals an expensive bottle of champagne in a stony-faced act of entitlement and revenge. In a fit of pique the two come to blows, and from there on Charlotte’s shiny-looking life implodes as quickly as a party balloon.

Maxine’s Peake rose to fame as a barrister in the BBC series ‘Silk’ and here again she holds court, navigating the odd pothole in her Roger Vivier pumps with suave cool. Resplendent as the efficient ice maiden, her stoical facade melts into patient tenderness when she meets Rosy, Mykala’s baby. The vulnerable and affectionate little girl brings out the best in Charlotte, showing her ability to love and nurture, as she fights back nobly to gain control of the life she’s tried so hard to build. This is a world where strong, beautiful, successful women are seen as a threat: the males want to bed and destroy Charlotte, the female feel threatened and seek to undermine her.  The psychopathic caretaker Roger, (Blake Harrison) acts greedily to leverage his position of control over Charlotte: his precious CCTV footage showing valuable evidence of the incident with the cleaner. In contrast, Charlotte’s sister Sarah (Christine Bottomley) adds a touch of realism, arriving from Manchester all brash and blowsy, to help out in the crisis.  But the sisterhood rapidly breaks down in the presence of the conniving womaniser, Roger, showing what really goes on in women’s minds when the chips are down. The contrast between these two is startling and demonstrate just how much of a self-made woman Charlotte has become, from their modest beginnings up North.

Keeping Rosy is a slim but workable affair, developed by Reeves and co-writer Mike Oughton from a short film Taking Life (2011). Like Jonathan Glazer (Beneath the Skin) Steve Reeves is best known for his commercials work: his ad for ‘Agent Provocateur’, starring Kylie Minogue, had millions of hits on the internet.  This hard-edged Noirish debut feels contemporary and real – reflecting unwholesome truths about the sort of Britain we’ve become. MT

KEEPING ROSY IS ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 27 JUNE 2014.

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