Posts Tagged ‘Cult classics’

Richard’s Things (1980)

Dir: Anthony Harvey | Cast: Liv Ullmann, Amanda Redman, Tim Pigott-Smith | UK Drama, 108’

Despite the fact that Liv Ullmann is the older woman in this psychodrama about a recently widowed woman’s relationship with her late husband’s mistress, she looks pretty much as one is used to seeing her in her films with Bergman. Amanda Redman as the mistress, however, is so much younger than we are used to seeing her (complete with an “introducing” credit) – as well as being a brunette – it’s like watching a different actress in this virtual two-hander between the two of them. The other reminder throughout of the age of this film is the distinctively touching sound of the late Georges Delerue on the soundtrack.

Adapted for the screen by Frederic Raphael from his book, the story pans out in so many unexpected ways I’ll avoid discussing what follows other than to say that despite the handsome photography by Freddie Young in and around parts of London that would probably now be prohibitively expensive for the people living there (as usual the women are all elegantly dressed and nobody seems to have any money worries) the number of scenes simply depicting two characters earnestly chattering immediately marks it out as a TV production. @RichardChatten

 

Donovan’s Brain (1953)

Dir: Felix E. Feist | US drama 1953, 83min

Adapted earlier by Republic as a low-budget Von Stroheim vehicle, Curt Siodmak’s cult novel was transformed again with streamline efficiency by Felix E. Feist into a classic of Fifties sci-fi, and an off-beat climax of the long line of mad scientist fantasies that stretch across the Golden Age of the B-film.

The star of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is teamed with the future First Lady (who shared her future husband’s and the industrialist W. H. Donovan’s hostility towards taxation) in this lively version which offered the sci-fi genre one its most enduring images, that of a brain in a fish tank.

The most unlikely scene in an already tall tale is actually where they’re lounging about in their living room reading up on Donovan since they’re doing so from actual back numbers of of old magazines when in reality it would probably just be photocopies.

Veteran actor Lew Ayres gives Dr. Kildare dignity to his portrait of a scientist whose zeal for extending life leads him far down the dark path to perdition when he reanimates the powerful brain of a ruthless billionaire killed in a crash only to be made victim to the pulsing organ’s uncanny powers of mind-body control. Ayers’ turn into a hardened billionaire remains remarkably contemporary, with his strange lust for ludicrously expensive and ill-fitting suits predicting Paul Manaford, among other power hungry tycoons. Almost subversively, the supporting actors also seem to be rendered wooden and possessed by unnamed forces, with Gene Evans entirely unconvincing as either an alcoholic or a scientist and Nancy Davis locked into a stunned expression, giving equal affection to the latest test monkey as her traumatized husband. (Haden Guest) @RichardChatten

Man Hunt (1941)

Dir: Fritz Lang | Cast: Walter Pigeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy McDowell | By 1941 the unnamed quarry in Geoffrey Household’s 1939 could finally be explicitly identified as Hitler, but since America still hadn’t yet entered the war this was still a bold film to make.

Treated by director Fritz Lang as a bit of a lark Man Hunt sees British big game hunter Thorndike (Pigeon) chancing upon Adolph Hitler’s retreat while vacationing in Bavaria, and taking aim at the dictator with a high- powered rifle. It succeeds beautifully simply as entertainment; set in a fog-shrowded London of pearly kings and wing collars with a creepy pair of villains played by George Sanders and John Carradine (the former in a monocle, the latter – described by young Roddy McDowall as a “walking corpse” – in a wing collar), and a newly brunette Joan Bennett as a tart with a heart with a cockney accent that would have made Dick Van Dyke blush in the first of a quartet of roles for the director. @RichardChatten

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Elephant Walk (1954)

Dir: William Dieterle | Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Dana Andrews, Peter Finch, Abraham Sofaer | Drama

One of several films Elizabeth Taylor made where as much drama went on behind the camera as it did on the screen; a sort of ‘Rebecca’ written by Maugham, complete with a hostile Miss Danvers in the form of Abraham Sofaer. Taylor replaced a stricken Vivian Leigh only after Jean Simmons, Olivia de Havilland and Katherine Hepburn had politely said ‘no’.

It follows a similar plot arc to The Naked Jungle, with the radiant young Liz mistreated by a boorish Peter Finch until all their problems are rendered irrelevant by the double whammy of cholera and marauding heffalumps, and ironically concludes with Sofaer declaring “The time will come when the people will not fear inoculation. They will learn”. @RichardChatten.

Dual Alibi (1947)

Dir: Alfred Travers | Cast: Herbert Lom, Phyllis Dixey, Terence de Marney, Ronald Frankau | UK Drama

A typically offbeat British National production produced by the ill-fated Louis H. Jackson (the company went bankrupt the following year) and directed by the mysterious Alfred Travers with a plot that feels like a silent continental melodrama. James Wilson’s low keyed photography suits the drab, sordid nature of the story as well as enhancing the believable interaction throughout the film of twin brothers both played by Herbert Lom; achieved with the aid of nimble use of a stand-in, skillful editing and the occasional unostentatious use of trick photography.

Lom’s compelling portrayal of two identical but distinct twin brothers made him a star. Terence de Marney is such a skunk as he gets away with shameless daylight robbery (which the law predictably proves complacently powerless to redress) that I felt even the drastic reprisal taken against him let him off lightly. Holes can doubtless be picked in the plot, but it delivers powerful drama right up to the (very) bitter end.@RichardChatten

The Locked Door (1929)

Dir: George Fitzmaurice | Cast; Rod La Roque, Barbara Stanwyck, William ‘Stage’ Boyd, Betty Bronson | US Thriller

Don’t be taken in by the rollicking opening sequence full of sweeping pans and tracks and hard-boiled dialogue set in an offshore speakeasy; the remaining hour (with one exception, which I shall come to) is strictly canned theatre.

Based on Channing Pollock’s 1919 Broadway play ‘The Sign on the Door’, already filmed with Norma Talmadge under its original title in 1921 (a print of which happily survives in the Library of Congress), there are actually two locked doors in this production, both of them central to the plot.

Locked door number one is on board the boat when slimy lounge lizard Frank Devereaux (Rod la Rocque) pockets the key to the door of the cabin he has taken Ann Carter (Barbara Stanwyck in her first credited screen role) downstairs to for lunch all the better to force his attentions upon her when it’s time for desert. Locked door number two prevents Ann from making a discreet exit from the hotel room where she sees Devereaux deservedly shot 18 months later; and it’s at this point that the need on her part to improvise a plausible explanation for her presence there alone with Devereaux’s body brings the film briefly to life.

The settings are handsomely designed by William Cameron Menzies, but after the opening sequence cameraman Ray June’s only other opportunity to add a little atmosphere to the proceedings comes with the noirish lighting of the darkened apartment after Devereaux’s shooting. And when the lights go back on and the talk resumes, the interest dissipates again.

This film is only remembered today as the talkie debut of the great Barbara Stanwyck; but for devotees of silent cinema there is also the bonus of Mack Swain and Zazu Pitts as the manager and telephonist of the hotel where the final leg of the film takes place. Harry Stubbs’ amusing turn as the obtrusive waiter on the boat, however, has been surprisingly little remarked upon by previous reviewers, particularly considering the revelation about his character that comes late in the film, which probably worked better on stage than here under director George Fitzmaurice’s pedestrian guidance. @RichardChatten

 

Too Late for Tears (1949)

Byron Haskin | Cast: Lisabeth Scott, Don DeFore, Dan Duryea, Arthur Kennedy | US Noir 99’

Don’t expect the tear-jerker the title might lead you to anticipate. To paraphrase Godard, all you need for a film noir is Lizabeth Scott with a gun in her handbag, and that’s what you get here.

Visually the film isn’t actually terribly noirish, since much of the action takes place in the modest but well-lit little apartment occupied by honest working stiff Arthur Kennedy and his wannabe Queen Bee wife Lizabeth Scott. However, since Ms. Scott’s extraordinary face framed by a sleek blonde bob is a prominent visual motif throughout the film, there are enough images of her framed by cameraman William Mellor in a succession of chic high-collared suits to inspire plenty of paintings by Richard Hamilton.

In a narrative that anticipates Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, Kennedy and Scott have predictably differing ideas about what to do with a suitcase containing $60,000 in untraceable notes that unexpectedly lands on their car seat. Not long afterwards Dan Duryea at his scariest wearing an obnoxious little bow-tie comes calling wanting his money back, before learning too late – like Tony Perkins in ‘Pretty Poison’ – that he’s in way out of his depth with a true criminal sociopath like Ms. Scott.

There’s a lot of talk; but as scripted by Roy Huggins (who later created ‘The Fugitive’ and ‘The Rockford Files’) it’s good talk, and the interaction and development of the characters builds to a most satisfyingly conclusion to which little clues have been discreetly sown along the way. The characters of the man introducing himself as Kennedy’s former war buddy, and Kennedy’s sister herself who lives across the landing – played by Don Defore and Kristine Miller – don’t at first seem terribly interesting but grow to confound expectations.

All the acting is good, with the possible exception of Ms. Scott herself, who’s a bit one-note, but isn’t really required to do much except look like Lizabeth Scott, which she does to perfection. Aged only 26, she already looks as if she’s had her face lifted about half a dozen times; but on her it looks good @RichardChatten

NOW ON BFI PLAYER

Cry of the Werewolf (1944)

Dir: Henry Levin | Cast: Nina Foch, Stephen Crane, Barton MacClane, Osa Massen, Blanche Yurka | US thriller 63’

The rather unlikely directoral debut of Henry Levin, Cry of the Werewolf (a title not echoed by anything that actually happens in the film) is a quickie detective/horror hybrid from Columbia that owes more to Val Lewton’s films at RKO than Universal’s Wolf Man.

Borrowings abound from The Cat People, such as the click of high heels pursuing the hero below stairs at the funeral parlour. Lewton, however, would shrewdly have avoided showing us as much as the animal as we see here, which obviously isn’t a genuine wolf; and John Abbott’s vivid description on the soundtrack of the “master’s mangled body, over him stood a terrible animal, with flaming dripping jaws” is completely undercut by the inoffensive-looking doggie woggie we see nonchalantly padding off in the accompanying flashback.

The luxurious main set, lit with his usual aplomb by L.W.O’Connell, was probably recycled from an earlier production, along with the main theme from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s score for The Return of the Vampire. As a pair of matriarchal lycanthropes, Nina Foch and the enjoyably malevolent-looking Blanche Yurka wouldn’t have looked out of place as members of the Palladists in The Seventh Victim, while – probably intentionally – far more electricity is generated between the remarkably youthful looking Miss Foch (who gets preposterously little screen time) and Osa Massen than between either of them and the incredibly boring hero Stephen Crane. Barton MacLane as a tough, no-nonsense detective conducts himself as if marauding werewolves are all in a day’s work for cops on the New Orleans beat. @RichardChatten

 

Cloak and Dagger (1946)

Dir: Fritz Lang | Cast: Gary Cooper, Robert Alda, Lilli Palmer, Vladimir Sokolof, US 106’ Thriller

Made during that brief period just after the war before commies took over from nazis as Hollywood’s enemies of choice; when leftish sentiments penned by scriptwriters Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner (both soon blacklisted) could still be expressed onscreen by Gary Cooper (schooled in Dunstable and soon to be a ‘friendly witness’ before the HUAAC).

Anticipating Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain by twenty years, Coop plays a scientist sent into enemy territory to pick the brains of a top physicist (presumably based on Lise Meitner); aided on the ground by Robert Alda (father of Alan) and Lili Palmer (the latter making her Hollywood debut and receiving “and introducing” billing despite having been busy in British films since 1935).

It lags a bit during the second half but picks up with another sequence anticipating ‘Torn Curtain’ when he and a fascist fight dirty to the death. @RichardChatten

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This is My Love (1954)

Dir: Stuart Heisler | Cast: Linda Darnell, Dan Duryea, Rick Jason, Faith Domergue | US Drama 91

Just as birds descended from dinosaurs, so the film noir of the forties morphed by the mid-fifties into the women’s picture; the histrionics of the Technicolor ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ (1945) evolving into Douglas Sirk’s throbbing fifties melodramas.

Occasional additional forays into Technicolor along the way in crime dramas like ‘Desert Fury’ (1947) and ‘Rope’ (1948) gave hints as to the way colour could embellish thriller material; and the fuzzy Pathécolor employed on ‘This Is My Love’ – along with the incredibly stagy sets – draws us gradually into what initially seems to promise to be a rather bland romantic drama, but proves anything but.

The presence of Dan Duryea warns us that peril lies ahead – and the fact that he’s in a wheelchair, in which he proves a pretty nifty mover – simply heightens the pent-up menace he brings to his part. (And wouldn’t you know it, he depends on medication administered by his long-suffering wife and sister-in-law to keep him alive?)

Practically everybody in the film turns to be nursing bottled up emotions threatening destructively to burst their banks in true 50’s style, and… but I won’t spoil it for you. @RichardChatten

Within our Gates (1920)

Dir/Wri: Oscar Micheaux | US Drama 79′

In his provocative 1980 article in ‘Film Comment’, ‘Bad Films’, James Hoberman concentrated almost exclusively on Oscar Micheaux’s thirties sound films in painting Micheaux as a sort of black Edward D.Wood Jr. When Hoberman wrote that “the longer Micheaux made films, the badder they got,” the 1993 Library of Congress restoration of Within Our Gates was still several years away, but – possibly because Micheaux was free of the later encumbrances of dialogue and sound film technology – manages accurately to bear out his statement, since it stands up extremely well.

The fact that nearly a hundred years ago this film was made at all is remarkable enough; that it’s actually survived (in Spain, of all places) is miraculous, particularly as Micheaux’s final film, the three hour-long ‘The Betrayal’ (1948) – made over a quarter of a century later – is ironically lost. In addition to its indictment of institutionalised racism in the United States – where in the South any available negro could be lynched just for the hell of it – Within Our Gates is also remarkable for criticising bible-thumping snake oil salesmen like the black preacher Old Ned, who exhorts his congregation not to bother themselves with the injustices of this world as their reward will come in the next.

Micheaux not surprisingly gives short shrift to the American South, where the poor white trash are depicted as being treated as contemptuously by the land-owning classes as their black brethren (the identical appearance and beards worn by a trio of yokels suggesting in-breeding), and titles are written in dialect to lampoon the Southern drawl, rather than just black speech as tended to be the custom in silent films. The cross-cutting between a lynching and a rape attempt by a white man near the film’s conclusion serves as a well-aimed raspberry at the equivalent sequence in D.W.Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’; although the abrupt uplifting speech about America by the handsome Dr. Vivian at the film’s very end feels extremely tacked on. But Within Our Gates has already hit home with enough ugly home truths by then.

American women, incredibly, still didn’t have the vote when Within Our Gates was made; and Micheaux equates women’s suffrage with black civil rights, in the process marshalling a cast of formidable female characters, both black & white. In one of several elaborate narrative strands that the film packs into less than eighty minutes, black heroine Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) is taken under the wing of wealthy white philanthropist Elena Warwick, whose friend Geraldine Stratton is a rich Southerner and “a bitter enemy of woman’s suffrage, because it appalls her to think that Negro women might vote.”@RichardChatten

 

Zenobia (1939)

Dir: Gordon Douglas | US Drama 99’

This unusual title – aka Elephants Never Forget – is familiar to most cinephiles as Oliver Hardy’s one starring vehicle of the sound era without Stan Laurel; and aided by an excellent supporting cast he carries the film extremely well. Playing the beloved local doctor of the fictitious town of Carterville, Mississippi in 1870, the Southern setting well suits him, and provides him with a context in which to exhibit the same Southern courtliness without being the pompous buffoon he usually was when teamed with Stan Laurel. He gives a performance of grace and charm, even dancing a few steps with spouse Billie Burke, and shows a concern for the underdog that extends to the little black kid played by Philip Hurlic that is reasonably lacking in condescension for 1939, let alone 1870. While it doesn’t even attempt to be as funny as Hardy’s work with Laurel, the film is however characterised by the charm and lack of sentimentality which remain one the principal reasons that Laurel & Hardy’s work has worn so well to this day compared to that of Chaplin.

When you see Step’in Fetchit billed with his name ‘humorously’ spelled thus in the credits you fear the worst, although in the film that follows his mistress Billie Burke is actually dafter than he is. Hardy’s comments about Southern segregation are later underlined without labouring the point by a fleeting shot of Hurlic, Fetchit & Hattie McDaniel watching the trial through the courthouse window rather than from the public gallery. This film is often spoken of as an ersatz Laurel & Hardy film with Harry Langdon filling in for Laurel, but Langdon’s is really only a supporting role, although he acquits himself well, the old gestures from his silent films are still there, and it’s interesting to both see and hear Langdon for once. Both he and Hardy look remarkably comfortable around Miss Zenobia, who plays the title role. @RichardChatten

The Last War (1961)

Dir: Shue Matsubayashi | Japan Sci-fi, 110’

Made the year before the Cuban Missile Crisis; even in the dubbed and abbreviated version I’ve just watched on YouTube (the original was half an hour longer, and has been reedited so that the story is now told in flashback) this remains a mighty powerful piece of filmmaking. With America and North Korea currently rattling sabres at each other it has still, alas, not yet lost its relevance to a 21st Century audience. An elaborate production by Toho in Eastmancolor and TohoScope with special effects by ‘Godzilla’ regular Eiji Tsuburaya, it was Toho’s second highest grossing film of its year, but never released theatrically in America.

Much of this film (whose Japanese title ‘Sekai Daisensō’ translates literally as ‘Great World War’) is taken up with domestic scenes which would not have been out of place in the contemporaneous domestic dramas of Yasujirō Ozu, from which a number of cast members like Chishū Ryū and Yumi Shirakawa would have been familiar to Japanese audiences at the time; while Nobuko Otowa – who plays the mother – had nine years earlier featured in her husband Kaneto Shindo’s anti-nuke drama ‘Children of Hiroshima’.

As these people continue to plan for the future, back at the silos we twice see catastrophe narrowly averted until eventually the Sword of Damocles falls for real and Tokyo is shown convincingly raised to the ground, followed in short order by shots of the Kremlin, New York, Tower Bridge and the Arc de Triomphe going up in smithereens which more than atone for the unconvincing model work elsewhere in the film. Almost as an aside we are at one point informed that in one of the earlier engagements one side has resorted to “a low level napalm and strafing attack”; a disturbing harbinger of the tactics used by the United States in the proxy war that actually took place in Asia during the coming years. @RichardChatten

 

Absolution (1978)

Dir: Anthony Page | Cast: Richard Burton, Dominic Guard, David Bradley, Billy Connelly | UK Drama 95′

You never knew during his later years whether Richard Burton was going to just walk through his part with a faraway look in his eyes and simply collect his cheque, or pull his finger out and actually give a performance worthy of his reputation; and this is one of those occasions when he’s actually rather good as a flint-hearted Catholic priest who has plainly spent his entire life studying the scriptures without ever absorbing one iota of their meaning.

A sort of cross between Hitchcock’s I Confess and Sidney Lumet’s Child’s Play, in which the unlovely central character is mischievously manipulated as in scriptwriter Anthony Shaffer’s earlier classics Sleuth and The Wicker Man (Burton’s face when he first takes young Benjie Stanfield’s confession is truly a picture!), it’s basically a two-hander between Burton and Dominic Guard for much of its duration, with fine actors like Andrew Keir and John Nettleton given remarkably little to do in brief supporting roles, indicating quite a bit of paring back in the cutting room.

The presence, however, of Dai Bradley and Brian Glover further evokes the harrowing picture of school life painted a decade earlier in Kes @RichardChatten

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Crisis (1946) Bfi player

Dir/Wri: Ingmar Bergman | Cast: Inga Landgre, Stig Olin, Marianne Lofgren, Dagny Lind | Drama, 63′

Ingmar Bergman’s directorial debut was according to him “a bona fide fiasco” on which everything that could go wrong did, but none of this is apparent in the finished product. It just seems rather average.

Since few English-speaking viewers have ever seen a forties Swedish potboiler, it’s difficult to know how Crisis compare with its contemporaries, but it looks good (as I imagine most of the rest do), aided by Arne Åkermark’s art direction and Gösta Roosling’s photography. The over-emphatic music by Erland von Koch ironically demonstrates how discreet Bergman’s use of music would be in his heyday.

Considering that it was purely an assignment, its interesting how woman-centred it is, like some of Bergman’s more auspicious later projects. The most involving of various plot strands is that concerning Dagny Lind as the young heroine’s adoptive mother. @RichardChatten

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Canyon Passage (1946)

Dir: Jacques Tourneur | US

Jacques Tourneur’s first film in Technicolor won praise from Martin Scorsese for its use of colour. Set in Oregon in 1856, the obvious studio sets contrast badly with the majestic location work; but are mitigated by Tourneur’s Germanic lighting, mise en scene and elegantly mobile camera.

In the lead Dana Andrews is (constantly) addressed as and referred to just as ‘Logan’ (his full name is actually ‘Logan Stuart’). Most of the interesting supporting cast are given little to do, with the notable exception of Ward Bond as a particularly brutish heavy, and Hoagy Carmichael dressed as Mr Macawber, who gets to drawl ‘Ole’ Buttermilk Sky’. Richard Chatten

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The 400 Blows | Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959)

Dir.: Francois Truffaut; Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy, Guy Decomble, Patrick Auffay, Georges Flamant; France 1959, 100 min.

Francois Truffaut was banned from attending the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 but that didn’t prevent him from winning Best Director for Les Quatre Cents Coup, paving the way for other “Cahiers du Cinema” critics like Godard, Rivette and Chabrol to follow in his wake – et voilá La Nouvelle Vague was born.

Dedicated to the eminent French critic André Bazin, who had “adopted” Truffaut and died just before shooting began, the over-literary translation ‘Raising Hell’ would have certainly been appropriate given the startling nature of this bitter coming-of-age story fraught with poverty, institutional repression and parental neglect and centring on Jean-Pierre Léaud’s pre-teen Antoine Doinel.

Victimised at school, Antoine’s home life is no better, his mother Gilberte (Maurier) and stepfather Julien  (Rémy) neglect him emotionally in their cramped Parisian apartment where he is forced to sleep in the hallway. Escaping this nightmare environment is the only answer: Antoine will play truant at school with his friend René (Auffay), sneaking into cinemas and a fairground, and hiding in René’s flat where his parents make it nearly impossible for the two to meet. A huge, stuffed horse dominates the bedroom, a metaphor for the absurdity of their marital life.

At school Antoine is the scapegoat of an obnoxious French teacher (Decomble) who regularly picks on him. When a photo of a pin-up girl is passed round under the boys’ desks naturally Antoine is caught in the act, painting a moustache on the woman’s face. Later, Antoine paraphrases a Balzac text for an essay and is accused of plagiarism – the writer is his hero, he even has an altar with a candle for him, almost burning down his parent’s flat.

Worse is to come: Antoine gets caught out lying about his mother’s ‘death’ until both parents turn up at the school, alarmed by the boy’s behaviour. Antoine sleeps rough, steals a typewriter from his step-father’s office, and ends up behind bars with robbers and sex-workers. Later Antoine is transferred to a juvenile detention centre, where he absconds during a football match – eventually ending up on the beach  – his dream of freedom comes true.

The humour is always harsh, even Antoine’s close friendship with Rene is turbulent – but at least he has a decent home. Truffaut explores the emotional affects of Antoine’s homelife through a psychologist at the detention centre, who asks him: “how do you feel, not knowing who your biological father is”. Antoine’s answer is cutting: “I always thought my mother was not my real mother”.

Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Leaud’s collaboration on the film led to a close friendship that would continue until Truffaut’s early death. DoP Henri Decaë sums up the cultural wasteland of the 1950s with this dispiriting picture of a Paris of grey facades. Black-and-white images are for once not poetic nor illuminating, just simply bland – ugly even. There is no compromise possible: family and institutions are the enemy of liberty and creativity in Truffaut’s mind. His debut would be his masterpiece. AS

Opening at BFI Southbank, HOME Manchester, Ciné Lumière, Broadway Nottingham and selected cinemas UK-wide on 7 January 2022

 

Opium (1919)

Dir: Robert Reinert | Silent film

Siegfried Kracauer – who hit thirty the year this feature came out – was able personally to recall the  film’s first release which ran in an expensive Berlin movie theater with the house sold out for three weeks. Of course, one avoided being seen on such occasions”!

With prescription of addictive opiates currently causing a panic in Britain it’s timely to see again this dire warning against the perils of opium a hundred years on; restored to its former glory with magnificent tinting, handsome exteriors and an involved plot starting in China and concluding in Europe.

With so much going on the plot thread involving opium is easy to lose track of, and director Robert Reinert is for the most part content to let his cast mug to the camera (Werner Krauss both looks and acts like Moore Marriott as the leering Chinese villain Nung-Tschang, who keeps magically popping up whenever the action relocates) and let the plushness of the production take care of itself. There are a couple of interesting camera tricks that anticipate Vertigo but Reinert more often favours scenes of Satan cavorting with nymphs to create the atmosphere he’s after!

Although he (eventually) makes an impressive entrance, Conrad Veidt isn’t actually in the film for very long, and the cast member who makes the most sympathetic impression is probably doe-eyed Sybill Morel in a double role as mother and daughter. Richard Chatten

The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927) Blu-ray

Dir.: G.W. Pabst; Cast: Edith Jéhanne, Udo Henning, Fritz Rasp, Brigitte Helm, Adolph Edgar Licho, Eugen Jensen; Germany 1927, 100 min.

Austrian director G.W. Pabst (1885-1967) was the leading proponent of interwar German cinema, along with his countrymen Lang and Murnau. But Pabst did not settle abroad, returning to Germany in 1939 where he became a pawn in Dr Goebbels’ empire. The move discredited his oeuvre, even though he tried to make amends after the war.

The Love of Jeanne Ney is based on the novel by Ilya Ehrenburg (1891-1967), a Soviet journalist and author who spent time in Paris before leaving for the USSR. Written by Vadislav Vadja and Rudolf Leonhardt, Pabst’ UFA feature is a lighter version of Ehrenburg’s tonally rather grim novel; Pabst having been told by the UFA to make a feature in the ‘American style’. He certainly obliged.

In the Crimea, the Civil War is about to be decided in favour of the Red Army. We watch the libertine Khalibiev (Rasp) getting drunk while the White Russians stage a debauched party. Pabst having encouraged his cast of real soldiers from the White Army, to imbibe freely for the endeavour.

The film centres on Jeanne Ney (Jéhanne), daughter of French diplomat Andre Ney (Jensen) and in love with Red Army soldier Andreas Labov (Hennig), a spy for the Bolsheviks. In the novel, he shoots Jeanne’s father – she forgives him immediately – but in the film, the murderer is a friend of Andreas’. Jeanne then flees to Paris where she works for her uncle Raymond (Licho) in his shady detective agency. When the two lovers meet Andreas is in the midst of organising a strike on behalf of the communists. But Khalibiev is also in Paris, and has his eye on Jeanne while making do with Gabrielle (Helm). But he is persistent in pursuing Jeanne, one scene sees him caressing Gabrielle, while at the same time trying forcefully to kiss Jeanne. He steals a valuable diamond, making Andreas look like the thief. Jeanne lets him have his evil way in the novel, but in Pabst’s feature she resists and we get a happy-ending in a train scuppering the torrid ending of Ehrenburg’s novel.

DoPs Frit Arno Wagner and Robert Lach work with natural light, the camera roving around freely and catching the protagonists in perpetual motion, along with an editing style that described “their very order re-enforcing the realistic illusion”. Film critic Iris Barry remarked: “In the scene where Khalibiev sells the list of Bolshevik agents to Jeanne’s father, it lasts about three minute, though one is scarcely aware of a single shot, there are forty in this short scene – needless to say, the director cut and edited the film himself.”

As Kracauer put it: “Pabst permanently discredits his daring attitude as in Joyless Street. The imaginative way he satisfies UFA’s craving for melodrama, confirms the strength of his own tendencies in this direction”. In the final three films that Kracauer called the “Stabilised Period”, Pabst retreated from reality and the social scene to indulge in “the secrets of the soul”. But he would return to the social whirly again with West Front 1918, Comradeship and The 3 Penny Opera, three of the most important features of the period before Hitler came to power in 1933. This makes the director’s later alignment with the Third Reich even more surprising. AS

NOW ON BLURAY COURTESY OF MASTERS OF CINEMA | DECEMBER 2021

 

Maytime in Mayfair (1949)

Dir: Herbert Wilcox | Anna Neagle, Michael Wilding, Peter Graves, Nicholas Phipps, Thora Hird, Desmond Walter-Ellis | UK Drama 94′

The reference to Sir Stafford Cripps in the opening foreword passes for satire in so light a confection; but also reminds us why there was a need for this sort of escapist fantasy seventy two years ago, with ‘Mr. Austerity’ in No.11 Downing Street.

Ravishingly shot in Technicolor and with clothes (designed by Hardy Amies, Norman Hartnell, Creed and Worth) probably consuming much of the film’s budget ; it’s otherwise played out in sets by William C.Andrews that look as if they’d fall over if you blew on them (it relocates to Paris for a few minutes courtesy of one hotel room and an incredibly phony-looking ‘outdoor’ restaurant), and the wind never disturbs the branches of any of any of the trees that adorn the very occasional studio exteriors.

Never mind, material this slight doesn’t offend the way that Wilcox’s flat-footed direction of more ‘serious’ subject matter does. Michael Wilding is fun overacting like crazy as a conceited jerk, Thora Hird is permitted to look incredibly glamorous as Neagle’s secretary; and it provides a unique opportunity to see “our old friend” Tom Walls in Technicolor playing an Irish police inspector presiding over a station so minimal it could have been designed for ‘Dr Mabuse’. @Richard Chatten

House of Secrets (1956)

Dir: Guy Green | Cast: Michael Craig, Julia Arnall, Brenda de Banzie, David Kosoff, Barbara Bates | UK Drama 97′

The words “A British Film” ironically appear at the start over a shot of the Arc de Triomphe; and it’s Harry Waxman’s atmospheric fifties Technicolor photography and the Parisian locations that keeps you watching through the rather garrulous film that follows, based on Sterling Noel’s novel Storm over Paris, and enlivened by some violent deaths for the period and with a memorable finale on board an airplane.

The other perk is the novelty of seeing British ‘B’ movie stalwarts like Anton Diffring and Eric Pohlmann (all immaculately dressed, of course) in colour along with Gallic thespians Jacques Brunius and Gerard Oury. And Brenda de Banzie – who was then enjoying plum roles following her success in Hobson’s Choice and turns out to be the most glamorous of the three females that share star billing in the credits with the young Michael Craig. Richard Chatten

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch; Cast: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut, Felix Bressart, William Tray; USA 1940, 99 min.

“The American movie-going public has the mind of a 12-year old child; it must have life as it isn’t. (Ernst Lubitsch)”

Of all Hollywood’s immigrant filmmakers, German born Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) was the most successful in serving his new audience, adapting well to the change-over from silent to sound. The “Lubitsch touch” became a trademark, success was guaranteed, he reeled off classic Hollywood comedies like Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka or To Be or Not To Be. He would have churned out even more, but for a heart condition which slowed him down in final years of his life, succumbing to it whilst shooting That Lady in Ermine.

The Shop Around the Corner is based on the play ‘Parfumerie’ by Miklos Laszlo, adapted for the screen by Lubitsch regular Samson Raphaelson (Heaven Can Wait), with some uncredited work by Ben Hecht. Whereas most of his comedies played out in world of the idle rich, The Shop is set in a working environment, taking him back to his father’s tailoring business where he did the accounts as he took his first steps as a stage actor.

The setting is a leather-goods and novelty shop in Budapest (via Hollywood), run by the imperious Hugo Matuschek (Morgan), whose bark is worse than his bite. His deputy is Alfred Kralik (Stewart), a likeable but air-headed man and the day unfolds amid bickering with new shop assistant Klara Novak (Sullavan). Little do they know that after office hours they are falling in love through the post as each other’s anonymous pen pal.

When the great day arrives for the ‘lovers’ first meeting in a local cafe, Mr. Matuschek orders his staff to stay late for an inventory, and then later fires Kralik suspecting him of having an affair with his wife. The real culprit will be soon be revealed. Off to his meeting Kralik looks through the window and, to his horror, sees Klara reading Tolstoi at the cafe table. He enters, talks to her, but does not reveal his true identity. Meanwhile, Mr. Matuschek is saved from suicide by the apprentice Pepi (Tray) who is promoted, as is Kralik who then becomes the manager.

The film positively glows in fluffy fairy-tale black-and white by William Daniels (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof), Lubitsch again ducks the censors by talking sex, but only showing a perfunctionary final kiss. The director might have been inspired by the relationship of Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette McDonald who played love birds in numerous features, despite oathing each other off screen. Lubitsch directed McDonald’s debut (and also his first sound feature) alongside Chevalier in The Love Parade (1929). Often remade with disappointing results – with Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998) the latest offering, Lubitsch’s The Shop is from another universe: A true classic.AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 3 DECEMBER 2021

The Astonished Heart (1950)

Dir: Anthony Darnborough Terence Fisher | Cast: Celia Johnson, Noel Coward, Margaret Leighton, Joyce Carey  UK Drama 85′

Like Brief Encounter based on one of the theatrical pieces that comprised ‘Tonight at 8.30’, this reunion of that classic’s writer and star is an equally garrulous but far more grandiose affair that failed as spectacularly as their previous collaboration had succeeded (although the scenes depicting the neuroses exhibited by Noel Coward’s patients are still haunting after the film is over; particularly the scene where John Salew is challenged to read a certain word Coward claims to have written down for him to look at.

All involved were as genuinely unhappy making this epic folly as they looked acting in it; Coward having taken on the lead only after Michael Redgrave took one look at the rushes and walked.

After lumbering through the wreckage like Frankenstein’s monster (Alan Strachan later observed that “Coward’s performance of ravaged heterosexual ardour is riotous”) the star subsequently found himself a far more congenial niche making guest appearances in other people’s films. @Richard Chatten

The World Ten Times Over (1964)

Dir: Wolf Rilla | Cast: Sylvia Syms, June Ritchie, William Hartnell | UK Drama 93’

After over fifty years this film has been rescued from near oblivion because the lesbian subtext has led to it being dusted off by the BFI in celebration of sexual diversity. Shot towards the end of the famous winter of ’63 (the snow was gone by then but the Serpentine and The Long Water in Kensington Gardens are visibly still both frozen over), the record it provides of London in those far-off pre-Profumo days gives the film the usual lustre possessed by films from that era.

Despite much emphasis on the sex-crazed mood of its time, the film is really about money rather than passion. Billa (Sylvia Sims) and Ginnie (June Ritchie) are a pair of nightclub ‘hostesses’ wholly dependent for their livelihood on men; and the men in this film are a pretty unlovely bunch. The nearest thing to a conventional romantic relationship depicted is that between Ginnie and Bob Shelbourne (Edward Judd); but he’s portrayed as a weakling whose most attractive quality in Ginnie’s eyes is the enormous fortune owned by his controlling tycoon father.

It becomes pretty clear as the film progresses which side Billa actually bats for from her butch leather overcoat and boots and the high necked pullover she wears when not uniformed for work in cocktail dresses. Her infatuation with Ginnie becomes more and more evident as the film progresses, but ironically she’s the one who gets pregnant. The future doesn’t really seem to hold much chance of Billa settling down for good with a self-absorbed drama queen like Ginnie, whose rejection of men may owe more to her only being interested in those with the money to shower her with gifts than authentic sapphist inclinations. The final scene resolves nothing, although it would be interesting to speculate where they would have been ten years later, or (for that matter, Sims and Ritchie both still being alive and well as I write this) now. @RichardChatten

Ilsa She Wolf of the SS (1975) Amazon

Dir: Don Edmonds | US Drama

The commonly made observation that a particular old film today looks tame by modern standards always depresses me, representing as it does, a reflection on how debased modern tastes have become: and becoming more debased by the minute. For that reason it comes as something of a relief that ‘Ilsa’ still looks pretty revolting today, even if it doesn’t begin to compare with the sheer relentless nastiness of nihilistic shockers like Kōji Wakamatsu’s Violated Angels (1967) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo (1975), and is partially rescued by the childish sense of glee that makes the films of the late Herschell Gordon Lewis bearable.

Two distinguished Polish feature films have depicted the experience of women held in Nazi concentration camps, Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (1948) and ‘Andrzej Munk’s Passenger (1963). Over the years there has been occasional trash with pretensions set against the backdrop of The Holocaust, such as Roger Vadim’s soporific Le Vice et la Vertu (1963) and Liliana Cavani’s sleazy The Night Porter (1974). And then there is simple trash like ‘Ilsa She Wolf of the SS’.

Less cheesy looking than anticipated, and with professional-looking photography, generally good acting and unpleasantly convincing special effects by Joe Blaso, the film is shot on the sets left over from the production of the TV series ‘Hogan’s Heroes’. ‘Camp Nine’ only seems to be holding about a dozen prisoners, and George ‘Buck’ Flower as Dr.Binz could easily have wandered in from an episode of the original series.

The character of Ilsa herself is loosely based upon the genuine antics of Ilse Koch (1906-1967), the wife of the commandant of Buchenwald best remembered for her taste in lampshades. She makes love to male inmates like a praying mantis until the unprecedented staying power of – guess what! – an American, sends her to hitherto undreamt of heights of ecstasy and exposes her Achilles heel. Ilsa has a theory that women are capable of enduring more pain than men; a theory that if proved will result in better use of the so far underused resource of German womanhood on behalf of the war effort. Nobody who has read the relevant section in William Shirer’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ will, alas, be surprised at anything they come across in this film (such as the decompression chamber, immersion in water and deliberate infection of prisoners in order to test medical treatments). The sequence when Ilsa is alone with The General (as she refers to him throughout) also indicates that someone involved in the film was aware of the gossip concerning the Führer’s own personal sexual predilections.

Set in the very last days the Third Reich in 1945, it goes without saying that no serious attempt has been made to get the period right, but even so Ilse’s rather ugly seventies hairstyle is distractingly anachronistic, especially worn loose as it is when she’s in uniform (all her other female staff have their hair more plausibly tied back in buns) and if she’d just let it down occasionally during her more – er – unrestrained moments the contrast could have had more visual impact. The late Anne Ridler looked more authentic to the period – and was far hotter – in her brief role as an SS torturer in 633 Squadron (1964).

Many will find simply discussing such a disreputable trivialisation of Nazi atrocities so nonchalantly grossly offensive. But as an earlier user has pointed out, Nazi-porn pulp novels known as ‘Stalags’ were popular in 60s Israel; and this movie’s portrayal of the Nazis as sadistic perverts would probably offend most Holocaust deniers too. (Although an American-German production, the film was of course banned in Germany.)

NOW AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

The Bamboo Saucer (1968)

Dir: Frank Telford | Cast: Dan Duryea, Lois Nettleton | US  Fantasy Sci-fi 100’

The Bamboo Saucer attempts far more than its obviously tiny budget can manage, and at 100 minutes takes much too long to deliver too little. Writer-director Frank Telford’s garrulous script feels like one written in the fifties that took ten years to get made – so was then brought up to date by making Red China rather than the Russkies the heavies. A competent cast led by the late Dan Duryea does their best, and Lois Nettleton as a hot Russian scientist with lovely blue eyes gamely spouts some particularly atrocious dialogue. (There’s a lot of Russian dialogue in the script; and it would be interesting to learn what a native Russian speaker makes of her accent and how convincing the dialogue spoken by her and the other actors playing Russians actually sounds.)

Competently lit in an overlit TV movie sort of way by twice Oscar-winning Hollywood veteran Hal Mohr, the ‘Chinese’ locations resemble an episode of Star Trek and the Chinese church where much of the action is played out is presumably a standing set from something made earlier. But where the corner-cutting really shows is in the dreadful music score and the perfunctory special effects. The score is obviously carelessly selected odds and sods taken from a library when a halfway decent score would have generated a bit of much-needed atmosphere to make up for the slack pacing. And the special effects are spectacularly inadequate.

The budget evidently didn’t exist for the design and construction of a full-sized flying saucer exterior for the studio scenes, so we instead get a flatly lit superimposition that looks even worse than Edward D. Wood Jr’s notorious hub-caps of ten years earlier. When the thing finally takes off, the flight to Saturn and back (aided by shots of outer space, the Moon, Mars and so on presumably lifted from other films) certainly makes for a final ten minutes that is fascinating for what it attempts with so little. @Richard Chatten

Don’t Take it to Heart (1944)

Dir: Jeffrey Dell | Cast: Richard Bird, Edward Rigby, Esma Cannon, Ivor Barnard | UK Drama 90′

Jeffrey Dell’s best remembered credit as a director is probably Carlton-Browne of the F. O., which he co-directed fifteen years later with Roy Boulting; and which looks like Ken Loach compared to this frenzied exercise in garrulous lunacy set in Chaunduyt (pronounced ‘Condit’), a fictitious rural community with an inbred population whose surnames tend to be either ‘Bucket’ or ‘Pail’.

Richard Greene is just a hole in the screen as the supposed ‘hero’ (compensated for by a very young Patricia Medina as a button-eyed socialist in jodhpurs). However, it looks good and has a typically wondrous supporting cast of the period. But it’s never actually as funny as it should be (despite the exclamation mark in the title and the soundtrack’s strenuous efforts to convince us how hilarious this all is), and the interminable courtroom section that takes up much of the second half of the film is a pale (or should that be ‘Pail’?) echo of the equivalent sequence in Passport to Pimlico.@Richard Chatten

 

Rendezvous in July (1949)

Dir/Wri: Jacques Becker | Cast: Daniel Gelin, Brigitte Auber, Nicole Courcel, Pierre Trabaud, Maurice Ronet | France, Drama 102′

One of Jacques Becker’s most financially successful films, this exhilarating slice of postwar Parisian life isn’t quite the first ‘slacker’ film (that distinction probably belongs to Val Guest’s Give Us the Moon five years earlier) – but its freewheeling portrait of the young at play around Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Latin Quarter, aided by tremendous photography by Claude Renoir, vibrantly captures the look and feel of a Paris only recently freed from the dead weight of the Occupation and discovering jazz (and amphicars!).

Strongly anticipating later ‘youth’ subjects like Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953) and Marcel Carné’s ‘beat’ film Les Tricheurs (1958), a full ten years before the Nouvelle Vague Becker’s film also discreetly employs the whimsical archaism of irises in and out that later became one of the hallmarks of the new kids on the arrondissement during the early sixties. Among the attractive cast of newcomers, watch out for veteran Gaston Modot playing a professor. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON AMAZON

The Brothers (1947)

Dir: David MacDonald | Cast: Patricia Roc, Will Fyffe, Maxwell Reed, Finely Currie | UK Drama 98′

It’s hard to tell if this barnstorming adaptation of L. A. G. Strong’s novel is ‘serious’ melodrama or a spoof until John Laurie (already rolling his eyes like he was on something) turns up in another even more eccentric additional role in whiskers and pebble lens glasses looking like Corporal Jones’ elderly father as ‘Alistair McDonald’, when you realise the humour must be intentional (although the late Will Fyfe, who compares the heroine to “a daffodil growing on a dung heap” seems the only cast member actually in on the joke).

Maybe the authorities thought it would reconcile audiences mired in drab postwar austerity by showing the Isle of Skye nearly fifty years earlier more visually majestic but less fun to actually experience. (Stephen Dade’s camera – noisily pursued by Cedric Thorpe Davie’s’ music – creates majestic exteriors and interiors worthy of a German silent film).

Arriving at this sty of “crossbred pigs” (where the ratio of males to females already seems unhealthily high) young Patricia Roc finds Scotland even more of a trial than Nova Pilbeam did Wales a year later in The Three Weird Sisters. @ Richard Chatten

 

 

Picture Mommy Dead (1966)

Dir: Bert I Gordon | Wri: Robert Sherman | Cast: Don Ameche, Martha Hyer, Susan Gordon, Zsa Zsa Gabor | Fantasy horror, 82

“The Past is Like a Tiger, and No Matter How You Pet It or Pretend That It’s Tame One Day It Will Turn…”

If I’d missed the start and hadn’t caught the director credit, I would have taken this for the work of William Castle rather than sci-fi and horror specialist Bert I. Gordon briefly venturing into Psycho/Baby Jane territory. The production values are in fact rather more impressive than one would have got with Castle. Greystone, the Beverly Hills mansion in which most of the action takes place is well served by Ellsworth Fredericks’s elegant photography, which gives the film the feeling of an Italian ‘giallo’ (complete with spooky close-ups of dolls, portraits and various childhood relics) produced as a glossy sixties TV movie. Unfortunately, shorn of Castle’s gimmicks Gordon’s direction manages to be even more pedestrian than Castle’s would have been; and fails utterly to energise a talky script in which things are constantly spelled out through dialogue rather than conveyed visually.

In an interesting cast of has-beens, Ameche is wasted as the heroine’s weak and corrupt father; but as the ghastly stepmom – who having already maxed out hubby’s nest egg is now making absolutely no secret of her desire to have her stepdaughter committed so she can gets her mitts on HER inheritance too – Martha Hyer rises to the challenge of convincingly playing a wife even more high maintenance than her predecessor Zsa Zsa Gabor must doubtless have been. (If she hadn’t been busy at the time making ‘Green Acres’, it would have been interesting to see Zsa Zsa and her sister Eva in the role played by the not dissimilar Hyer squaring up against each other in the same movie.) Signe Hasso pops up ominously in a nun’s habit, Wendell Corey is obviously drunk (he died from cirrhosis of the liver two years later) but enjoyably intimidating as the family lawyer; as is Maxwell Reed, who does justice to some wonderfully fruity dialogue as a male Miss Danvers. Anna Lee’s role as a family friend promises to be nicely bitchy too, but she unfortunately disappears almost as soon as she appears. @Richard Chatten

 

 

The Naked Kiss (1964)

Dir/Wri: Sam Fuller | Cast: Constance Thomas, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante, Virginia Grey | US Drama 90′

It was always hard to tell if Sam Fuller was pulling your leg or in earnest in his 1964 follow up to Shock Corridor another potent psychodrama. Female lead Constance Towers (who had recently featured in two productions for John Ford) is yet another otherwise little-known actress only fleetingly given the opportunity to show on screen just what she was capable of. As late as 1994 she still brought a glacial elegance to the role of a sophisticated older woman in an episode of ‘Frazier’, and as photographed by Stanley Cortez in Fuller’s last film in black & white, thirty years years earlier, she is amazing; entirely worthy of Cortez’s previous collaborations with Orson Welles & Charles Laughton. The Naked Kiss resembles a silent film, and parts of it an underground film of the 1970s; (and like them the supporting cast includes a former silent star, in this case in the form of Betty Bronson, who forty years earlier had played Peter Pan).

The Naked Kiss continues to divide the relatively small number of those who have actually seen it. Some consider it a masterpiece, others an utter bore. That said, it remains ahead of its time while exuding retro glamour (especially when Virginia Grey turns up in a beehive and business suit playing a madam). Rejected by the British Board of Film Censors in 1964 it would probably continue to encounter censorship problems today. @RichardChatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Catch Us if You Can (1965)

Dir: John Boorman | Wri: Peter Nichols | Cast: Dave Clark, Barbara Ferris, David Lodge, Robin Bailey, Clive Swift, Marianne Stone, Ronald Lacey, Yootha Joyce, David de Keyser,

John Boorman’s calling card for Point Blank wasn’t a straight-up musical biopic of the famous early 1960s band (whose 1964 hit ‘Glad All Over’ knocked the Beatles off the top of the UK Singles Chart) but something altogether more interesting, the DC5s music providing the score for a ‘Youth Culture’ escapade. Taking its title from another band hit Catch Us if You Can starts in London then broadens out into an eventful auteurish travelogue of the West Country in an E-type Jag, captured by Manny Wynn’s evocative black and white camerawork. There are some memorable turns – particularly from Barbara Ferris as a model running away with a stuntman (played by Clark) while filming a promo for an ad agency – who then capitalise on the caper. The Five boys don’t have the chops, but they certainly held the tunes – and add a certain cocky verve as ‘Beatle competitors’, and Ferris is amusingly perky as Dinah. Watch out for Yootha Joyce, Clive Swift, Michael Gwynn, Peter Nichols (who wrote the script) and a mellow David de Keyser (who is still with us) as the quintessential Sixties adman adding a touch of edgy class. MT

NOW OUT ON BLURAY, DVD, DIGITAL PLATFORMS – 5th April 2021

Night Games (1966)

Dir: Mai Zetterling | Cast: Ingrid Thulin, Keve Hjelm, Lena Brundin, Jorgen Lindstrom | Sweden, Drama 105′

Even in her days working in the Hollywood mainstream as Danny Kaye’s leading lady Mai Zetterling always had an air of menace about her; which she more than amply confirmed when she finally got behind the camera herself. Night Games was in its day considered the last word in shocking, but is today largely forgotten; and it’s hard to figure out just how seriously we’re supposed to be taking it all until the Hal Roach-style slapstick and music behind the end credits finally clinches it: we’re not.

Zetterling’s second feature film as a director evokes Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) both through its elegant shifts back and forth between the hero’s childhood and adulthood; and by the presence of Ingrid Thulin as the hero’s long-dead mother whose hedonistic lifestyle has left him marked for life, and of Naima Wifstrand (who had played Isak Borg’s terrifying mother in Wild Strawberries) as Jan’s dotty old aunt (while Jörgen Lindström, who plays the young Jan, had been Thulin’s nephew in Bergman’s The Silence).

Most of the mother’s entourage disport themselves more like characters out of TV commercials than recognisable human beings; recalling the orgiasts of late Fellini and the decadent weirdos who invade Tony’s home at the conclusion of Joseph Losey’s The Servant. For good measure, the final sordid scramble for expensive goodies resembles the conclusion of The Magic Christian; before Jan finally purges himself once and for all of a lifetime of Oedipal baggage by dynamiting the palatial family home to kingdom come. ©Richard Chatten

 

Chinese Cinema Season | February to May 2021

The first wave of titles have been announced for the first edition of the Chinese Cinema Season. spooling out over the next three months and kicking off on 12 February (Chinese New Year) all over Europe.

The longterm festival will showcase UK Chinese language premieres and highlight overlooked gems and classics to cinema-lovers in the UK and Ireland. New films will be added to the party, along with the usual Q&As and panel discussions with industry professionals, filmmakers and actors, and academics.

Over 50 films will be on offer over the course of the season all available on VOD, along with themed mini retrospectives. Along with Coronavirus this is ‘a love letter’ from China.

Popular films such as festival favourite Youth are available along with a Shanghai Animation strand featuring 10 films from 1950s to the present day. Studio Ghibli is possibly more widely known for Anime titles, but Ghibli’s Hayao Miyaki visited the Shanghai studio back in 1984 setting up his own studio a year later. Features include the delightful Lotus Lantern (1999) a UK premiere.

Documentary wise there will be a chance to see DOUBLE HAPPINESS (2018), A YANGTZE LANDSCAPE (2017) and DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (2019). 

Double Happiness Limited

Taiwanese director Shen spent seven years detailing eight couples’ lives from falling in love, getting married and having children, getting them to ask each other questions that they would not touch on in their daily lives, and leading the audience to reflect on their own definition of marriage and happiness.

A Yangtze Landscape

Setting off from the Yangtze’s marine port, passing Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, the huge Three Gorges Dam, and Chongqing, all the way to the Yangtze River’s source in Qinghai/Tibet over thousands of kilometres, this unique work of sound and vision utilizes the “Yangtze”, in the director’s words, as a metaphor of the current chaos in China.

Bazzar Jumpers

Three Uyghur friends in love with parkour fight prejudice and family opposition to train for China’s most popular and dangerous parkour event in Beijing.

Daughter of Shanghai

A waltz through the life of Chinese English actress Tsai Chin: the daughter of the Peking Opera master Zhou Xinfang, the first Chinese student at RADA, and the first Chinese Bond Girl. The director Michelle Chen is confirmed to do a Q&A with other contributors TBC to celebrate the premiere of this film.
.
FIRST FILM SPOTLIGHT

12 February to 12 May

This section introduces contemporary Chinese directors and their striking debuts. Three films will be shown in the opening month: A First Farewell (2018) by Lina Wang, The Crossing (2018) by Bai Xue, and The Silent Holy Stone (2006) by Pema Tseden. Encompassing Mandarin, Cantonese (The Crossing), Tibetan (The Silent Holy Stone ) and Uyghur (A First Farewell )dialects and cultures, these films reflect how diverse life can be in the different regions of China.

A First Farewell * UK PREMIERE *

Isa Yassan, a young Muslim boy in Xinjiang Province, balances caring for his ailing mother, schoolwork, and farm duties, soon experiences “the first farewell” in his life – as his father decides to send his mother to a nursing home and they leave the village. Lina Wang, from Xinjiang, wrote and directed this film, which won the Crystal Bear and Special Prize of the Generation Kplus International Jury at Berlin International Film Festival, as well as several other awards at Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong film festivals

The Crossing (above)

Sixteen-year-old Peipei crosses the border between mainland China and Hong Kong every day, customs officials waving her through with just a glimpse of her high school uniform and innocent face. She joins a gang to earn quick money by smuggling iPhones across the border, but soon finds herself in way over her head. The debut from BAFTA Leading Light writer-director Bai Xue, was nominated for Best First Feature Award and Crystal Bear at Berlin International Festival, won the NETPAC Award at Toronto International Film Festival, and best first film awards at Pingyao, Hong Kong, and Dublin Film Festivals.

The Silent Holy Stone

A young Tibetan monk returns home for the New Year and discovers a television which he intends to bring to the monastery and show to his master. Tibetan director Pema Tsedan’s debut, immediately preceding his recent feature Balloon (2019), shows how the director established his personal style from the very beginning.

DOMESTIC HITS
12 February to 12 May

In recent years, the world has witnessed the rise of the Chinese mega-blockbuster and the seemingly unstoppable rise of the film industry in China. this section features commercial films that triumphed at the domestic box-office with relatively high production value. For the opening month the following are showing: Sheep Without a Shepherd (2019), Youth (2017), and The Captain (2019).

Sheep Without a Shepherd

Lee (Xiao Yang) and his wife Jade (Tan Zhuo) run a small
video business in Thailand. They have two lovely daughters and live a happy life. However, when his eldest daughter kills a schoolmate in self-defence during a sexual assault, Lee has to bury the body and cover the truth, to protect his daughter and families, Lawan (an impeccably steely Joan Chen, The Last Emperor, Lust, Caution) is the feared head of the regional police, and she is dying to find her missing son. The contest between Lee and Lawan is beginning. The battle of wills between Lee and Lawan begins. The film’s box office reached more than 1.2 billion RMB in China ($185m), even as the start of the pandemic cut short the film’s release. The film is based on the 2015 Indian box office hit, Drishyam.

Youth

Directed by China’s most famous commercial director Feng Xiaogang, Youth takes a look at the lives of the members of a Military Cultural Troupe back in the 1970s Cultural Revolution, exploring their friendship, love, dreams, and devotion to their beloved collective and career. The storyline, to a large extent comprised of the director’s personal memories and nostalgia, also resonates with a generation in China who sacrificed their youth to the country and the ideology.

The Captain

One of so-called “main melody” films, stemming from a true story, The Captain demonstrates a breath-taking moment: a commercial pilot and his crew try to save passengers and land their plane safely while the plane shatters at 30,000 feet in the air. Its box office reached more than 2 billion RMB in China (over $300m).

Upcoming Sections

Lou Ye Mini Retrospective

As one of the “Sixth Generation” directors, Lou Ye has been regarded as a “true artist”, an “authentic filmmaker” and a “constant fighter” of censorship. Despite the controversies, he achieved great success both in China and worldwide. He was nominated and won numerous awards owing to his unique editing style and camera movement, as well as his sharp observations and narratives about marginalised people and typical, but often undocumented, social phenomena in China. In this section, we will premiere Lou Ye’s penultimate film, Shadow Play, which took two years of editing to get the greenlight from authorities.

The platform is powered by Shift 72 (Cannes Marché du Film, SXSW, Macao IFFAM, Tallinn Black Nights) and tickets can be purchased here 

Girl on Approval (1962)

 

Dir: Charles Frend, Wri: Kathleen White | Rachel Roberts, James Maxwell, Annette Whiteley, Ellen McIntosh | John Dare | UK Drama 75′

Sandwiched between Rachel Roberts’ roles in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life. This sensitive little drama in a minor key reminiscent of Ealing Studios’ Mandy would make the first half of an interesting double bill of films with Annette Whiteley; the second being The Yellow Teddybears (1963) marking her graduation from problem 14 year-old foster child who can’t be left alone with sharp objects, to fully fledged sex delinquent.

Backed by a melancholy score by veteran composer Clifton Parker and atmospheric location photography by up-and-coming cameraman John Coquillon, director Charles Frend’s own plight reflected that of most of Ealing’s other talents released like his young heroine into the harshness of the big wide world to fend for himself. Richard Chatten.

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES | PRIME VIDEO 

Strange Holiday (1945)

Dir: Arch Oboler | Cast: Claude Rains, Bob Stebbins, Barbara Bate Gloria Holden | US War Thriller 61′

Despite starring Claude Rains this dream-life dystopia about the Land of the Free coming under the jackboot remains so obscure Andrew Sarris doesn’t even include it in his Arch Oboler filmography in ‘American Cinema’ (despite him italicising Oboler’s semi-remake ‘Five’).

Arch Oboler (1909-87) hailed from Chicago and was particularly noted for his radio dramas, scripts and the suspense-horror series Lights Out. He directed, along with Robert Clampett, the first 3D movie in colour Bwana Devil (1952) that went on to won the Guinness World Record in that year.

Strange Holiday is based on his radio play This Precious Freedom in a storyline that became almost commonplace during the Cold War; most notably Ray Milland’s Panic in the Year Zero (1962), which also depicts a foreign attack on the United States while a family guy is vacationing out of town.

One potentially fascinating scene finds examiner Martin Kosleck – who had already played Dr Goebbels in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) – now in charge. The potentially provocative idea that he was just an opportunist newly emerged from the woodwork to do the New Order’s bidding raised the intriguing question of where he had been before Rains’ vacation is unfortunately promptly undermined by the speech he then launches into in which he declares “We who believed in our destiny hid and waited”. So he becomes a fifth columnist rather than a collaborator. Richard Chatten

Arch Oboler (1909-87)

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

Curse of the Cat People (1944) **** BBC iPlayer

Dir.: Robert Wise, Gunther von Fritsch; Cast: Ann Carter, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Simone Simon, Julia Dean, Elizabeth Russell, Eve March); USA 1944, 68 min.

The Curse of the Cat People launched Robert Wise and Austro-Hungarian Gunter von Fritsch as directors. Wise would make a further 38 features in a career which went on until 1989, winning two Oscars for Sound of Music and West Side Story. Von Fritsch, would be less prolific: he managed to complete half the film in the allotted 18 days of the schedule, but would only occupy the director’s chair on three more occasions before a TV career beckoned, and retirement in 1970.

Most people agree that not calling the feature The Curse of the Cat People and selling it as a sequel to the classic Cat People (1942), would have enhanced the fantasy thriller’s reputation. But it was an opportunity for Val Lewton to re-unite writer de Witt Bodeen, cameraman Nicolas Musuraca, as well the actors Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph and Elizabeth Russell from Cat People so the outcome was a done deal:  Hollywood’s way of selling sequels was already long established. The Curse references events from Cat People, but is anything but a horror movie, even though it drifts that way in the end. Overall Curse is much nearer to Lewton’s production of Ghost Ship, and ironically was set in a place called Sleepy Hollow.

Curse begins seven years after the tragic events of Cat People: Oliver Reed (Smith) and his workmate Alice Reed (Randolph) have a six-year old daughter Amy (Carter). The family lives in rural New England, where Amy is at prep school. She has the tendency to daydream, rather like his first wife Irena whose traumatic death still haunts him.  And Irena becomes Amy’s imaginary friend, after Oliver burns her photos to obliterate his past. Amy wanders into the gloomy mansion of ageing actor Julia Farren (Dean) and her daughter Barbara (Russell), and befriends them after being rejected by her school chums. But Julia had trouble in excepting that Barbara is her daughter, showing more empathy with Amy, and causing Barbara to mutter “I will kill the brat, if she appears again”. After the Amy gets her first (off-screen) ‘spanking’ from her father over her fantasy of Irena (Simon) appearing to her in the garden, the little girl runs away into woods and meets Barbara who is only too willing to make her promise come true.

DoP Nicholas Musuraca creates a parallel universe to that of Cat People. Although the panther scenes there intrude into a world of hyper-realism shared by Oliver and Alice share, that leaves Irena as the outsider. Curse shows a family which looks perfectly normal to the outside, but is crippled by Oliver’s inability to come to terms with the past. Then, there is the voice of reason that comes courtesy of Amy’s teacher Mrs. Callaghan (March), Oliver rejecting her rather modern approach. Irena is much more benign fantasy than Cat People‘s Panther. In analytical terms, Irena is a much better mother than the rational Alice, who, like her husband, has not worked through the events leading to her marriage with Oliver: she is deeply suspicious that Oliver is still under Irena’s spell, and therefore punishes Amy, just to show just the opposite. Furthermore, the Irena sequences in Curse are the total inversion of its predecessor: Irena here is about peace and harmony, while her Panther ego was just the opposite. Curse also demonstrates that Oliver has not learned very much from his experience with Irena: he still  not able to show empathy for those who do not share his “pragmatic” approach to life. His inability to realise that emotions are the most important qualities human’s possess, costs Irena her, and now threatens that of his daughter.

When all is said and done, Curse of the Cat People is anything but a sequel to Cat People: it’s a story about loneliness, repression and denial – both the Farrens and the Reeds have much more I common than at first glance. AS

NOW ON BBC iPlayer

 

    

The Velvet Touch (1948) **** BBC iplayer

Dir.: Jack Gage; Cast: Rosalind Russell, Leo Glenn, Sydney Greenstreet, Claire Trevor, Leon Ames; USA 1948, 100 min.

This is certainly a collector’s item: The Velvet Touch was a one hit wonder from Jack Gage (1912-1989). He spent the rest of his career in TV (Jane Eyre 1952), having started as a dialogue coach in Hollywood where he met Rosalind Russell, during the shooting of Mourning becomes Electra, persuading her to star in The Velvet Touch, based on script by Leo Rosten and Walter Reilly.

Valerie Stanton (Russell) is a comedy actress Broadway where her lover the impresario Gordon Danning (Ames) made her a star. But when she falls for British architect Michael Morrell (Genn), who encourages her to play the title role in Hedda Gabler, fostering her dreams of succeeding on the stage. But Danning won’t let Valerie go, and during an angry scene in her changing room, she accidentally kills him with one of her award trophies. Earlier in the day Danning had had a tiff with his ex Marian Webster (Trevor), who is now the number one suspect – or is the police detective Captain Danbury just playing a clever game to flush out the real killer?. Valerie is taken to hospital in shock while Captain Danbury (Greenstreet) interrogates everyone who had been there the night before in theatre. After visiting Valerie, Marian takes her own life. But on the night of the premiere of Hedda Gabler, the story takes an unexpected turn and one that reveals Valerie’s true colours.

Sidney Greenstreet steals the show: his presence alone is enough for him to dominate the proceedings. We are never quite sure if he knows the truth from the beginning, toying with Valerie like a cat with a mouse. DoP Joseph Walker (His Girl Friday, Only Angels have Wings) uses the theatre as a brilliant background for intricate black-and-white images, and  Russell manages some emotional depths, Gage directing with great flair. The Velvet Touch is a sparkling gem, and certainly one of the more memorable noir-films of the genre’s hayday. AS

NOW ON BBCiPlayer       

Don’t Look Now (1973) *****

Dir: Nicholas Roeg | Writers: Alan Scott, Chris Bryant | Cast: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania | Fantasy Horror, UK 110’

Nicolas Roeg based his achingly tragic supernatural drama on a short story by Daphne du Maurier. It sees a grieving couple burying their sorrows in Italy after their small daughter drowns at home in Suffolk, wearing a shiny new mackintosh. John, an architect, has been commissioned to restore a church and Venice is eerie and beguiling in the out of season mists. But soon a doom-laden warning from a two English women, one of them a blind psychic, takes them off guard shrouding their bereavement in fear and but bringing Laura (Christie) a strange sense of hope in the shape of premonitions. But soon further torment seems unavoidable as the past and the future collide.

 As a wave of killings haunts the city, Laura returns to England to visit their son after an accident at his school. But the premonitions don’t stop: John suffers a near-fatal accident high on the church scaffolding, and then he glimpses his wife, supposedly hundreds of miles away, on a private launch flanked by the two mysterious sisters. The local police are intrigued by and even sympathetic to his story, but cannot help. As Venice and his fate closes in on John, illusion, reality and sudden terror spiral the story to its grotesque climax, as the design in director Nicolas Roeg’s mosaic becomes unforgettably clear.

Don’t look now is a richly romantic and deeply sorrowful story of love, longing and quiet desperation Imbued with ominous motifs and Roeg’s evocative visual style. Fate seems inescapable in this  dreamlike place where time stands still and unsettling silence is occasionally broken by a bird in flight or a banging door. A whiff of atavistic evil lurks at every lonely corner undermining the power of love and casting a dark pall over the couple’s attempts to discover the truth as they are gradually drawn into a web of mystery and horror. It’s a dignified, discreet and well bred terror, but it’s terrifying all the same.

Christie and Sutherland exude a captivating chemistry drowning in this kindgom of the senses the mood gradually escalating in into a mood of horror and disbelief surrounding their dead daughter. MT

4K ULTRA HD RESTORATION BACK IN CINEMAS JULY 5 COURTESY OF STUDIOCANAL | AVAILABLE ON BLURAY, DVD, COLLECTOR’s EDITION and EST JULY 29

https://youtu.be/xXP8OaJGxrM

Jean-Pierre Léaud | Tribute | Bergamo Film Meeting 2019

Jean-Pierre Léaud (*1944) is widely known as the face of the French Nouvelle Vague. During his impressive career he made seven film with François Truffaut and eight with Jean-Luc Godard. But the indie directors of the 1990s have continued to fascinate him and more recently he has appeared in Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre (2011) and Ming-liang Tsai’s Face (2009) and the upcoming comedy from Walter Veltroni C’e Tempo (2019).

Leaud’s transition from juvenile hero to mature character actor is quite amazing: his performance as the dying Louis XIV in Albert Serra’s La Morte du Louis XIV (2016) is stunning, and the antithesis to his very beginnings. Whilst avoided the glitz of international stardom, he has enchanted six centuries of European filmmaking.

After his debut as Pierrot in Georges Lampin’s King on horseback (1958), he was to meet François Truffaut: an encounter which would change both their lives. The sly rebel, as Truffaut called himself, had met the revolutionary of the frontal attack. After filming wrapped on Les Quatre cents Coups (400 Blows) in 1959, Truffaut took charge of Léaud who was fast becoming a social outcast. The young man had been expelled from school, his parental home and a foster family. And this trauma feeds into the narrative of 400 Blows, a black-and-white hymn to adolescence. Léaud’s Antoine steals and lies his way through a drama which  ends on the run-away Antoine facing the sea. It’s one of the most impressive finales in film history. The pairing of Truffaut and Léaud would manifest itself best in the Antoine Doinel trilogy – Baisers Volés (1968), Domicile Conjugal (1970) and L’Amour en fuite (1979), both men growing up together in a strange sort of way.

In 1966 Léaud would star in Godard’s Masculin, feminin: 15 Faits Précis, winning a Silver Bear for Best Actor at the Berlinale for his role as Paul, who is in a ménage-a-quatre with three women in a contemporary Paris. Loosely based on Maupassant’s short stories, this feature was the beginning of the break Godard would make with narrative cinema. Also called The Children of Marx and Coca Cola (an inter-title of the feature), sex and politics are at the core. Léaud is fragile, and the lighting shows him as beautiful and vulnerable as the three women, Madeleine (Chantal Goya), Catherine (Isabelle Duport) and Elisabeth (Marlene Jobert). All four main protagonists have very different plans for the future, when their agendas collide. There is immense elegance and beauty here  (DoP Willy Kurant), and Godard treats his actors (perhaps for the last time) with more care than in the verbal politics of later films. Pauline Kael called it “that rare achievement: a work of grace in a contemporary setting” and for Andrew Sarris it was “the film of the season”.

A year later Godard would cast Léaud as part of a group in La Chinoise (1967), this time surrounded by two women and two men, but with a very much harsher political focus. Based on Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, this was Godard’s first adventure into Maoism. Léaud is Guillaume, in love with Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky), who has a much stronger personality than him, and will finally leave him. Kirilov (Lex de Bruijin), is the weakest of the trio and he will kill himself, as in the novel. Léaud’s Guillaume is in love with Veronique, but he is very much a man of clever words, but little action. Veronique on the other hand, is much braver, and decides in the end to assassinate the Russian Cultural minister on a visit to Paris. But he mixes up the numbers of his hotel room, and kills the wrong man. Wiazemsky, the grand daughter of novelist Andrew Malraux, then the Gaullist minister for Culture, fell in love with Godard, and the couple married after the shooting. As an in-joke, Godard casts Francis Jeanson in the film (Wiazemsky’s philosophy lecturer at the Paris 10 (Nanterre) University) having a debate with Veronique while on her way to assassinate the minister.

Pier Paolo Pasolino’s Porcile (1969) tells two parallel stories. The first is about a young cannibal who has killed his father. The second features Léaud as Julian Klotz, the son of German entrepreneur (Alberto Lionello), who is part of the German economic miracle after WWII. Julian’s fiancée Ida (Wiazemsky) is very much an early version of the Baader Meinhof Group, and tries in vain to agitate him. But Julian can’t stand people in general. He prefers the company of pigs, who will be his downfall. Léaud is again the angelic outsider, treating society with avoidance. He is so much more feminine than Ida, that the role reversal is quite breathtaking and Léaud carries his limited part with great sensitivity.

Truffaut’s 1973 outing La Nuit Americaine (Day for Night), is essentially about filmmaking, showing Léaud as the weak and self-obsessed actor Alphonse. During the filming of Je vous présente Pamela , a conventional weepie, he fancies leading lady Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset), who has recently had a breakdown. Out of pity she sleeps with him but Alphonse then ‘phones her analyst, Dr Nelson (David Markham), who has left his own family to live with her, and spills the beans on their fling. Léaud plays the histrionic weakling with great skill. And Truffaut, playing himself as the director, assumes the role of his protector – much as in real life. Godard, who by now had broken with his ex-friend Truffaut, called Day for Night “a big lie” – later the two founding fathers of the Nouvelle Vague fought over  Léaud who somehow survived the acrimony and went on to work with another enfant terrible, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki.

I hired a Contract Killer (1990) was one of Kaurismaki’s first English language films and he made a beeline for Léaud in the lead role. The gamine actor of Day for Night had since changed dramatically. His slight, almost feminine appearance was gone, and he’d put on a substantial amount of weight – his acting too was from another dimension. He plays Henri Boulanger, an English Civil Servant, who is sacked after fifteen years of service due to privatisation. With no life outside his work, he tries – in vain – to commit suicide. Then asks a contract killer (Kenneth Colley) to step in. But Margaret (Margi Clarke) gives his life a new meaning. With time running out, Henri tries to contact the killer, to reverse the order. Léaud is totally morbid and emotionally reduced, the environment is straight out of the 1950s, the colours pale, bleached out by wear and tear. Léaud’s agile friskiness has been replaced by gentle placidness, making him look much older than forty-six. But his acting had matured too, and he slips easily into character roles nobody would have expected from him in his New Wave days. AS

BERGAMO FILM MEETING | 9-17 MARCH 2019

 

 

Scarecrow (1973)

Dir: Jerry Schatzberg | Wri: Garry Michael White | Cast: Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Dorothy Tristan, Anne Wedgeworth, Richard Lynch, Eileen Brennan, Penelope Allen. Richard Hackman, Al Cingolani | US Drama    112mins”

It’s easy to see why Hackman and Pacino were drawn to this screenplay: it leaves so much scope for the actor to act. Indeed, Hackman cites Scarecrow as his favourite piece of work. The two of them are given full licence to get in some serious character work and went hitchhiking through California in hobo gear to scope out their roles.

The two hander is very much about their interplay, and the chemistry sparkles as this latter day ‘odd-couple’ busk their way across America, via goods trains, casual labour and hitching rides in open trucks.

Vilmos Zsigmond (The Deer Hunter) provides the cinematography, much of it beautiful long lens stuff extracting the max from the fabulous vistas the journeying buddies find themselves oblivious to.

Hackman’s Max is an ex-con hoping to get across to Pittsburgh to pick up a stash he salted away and set up in the carwash trade. Like tumbleweed, he bumps into ex-Sailor Francis (Pacino) on a dusty, windswept California road, waiting patiently for a ride into town. Any town. Sure enough their individual stories soon get spilled as there’s precious little else to do but talk to each other.

Chanelling Five Easy Pieces and Midnight Cowboy, it’s the story of a difficult mission promising nirvana at the rainbow’s end but although the performances are exemplary from two bonafide character actors in the finely observed minutiae of hobo life. There are several great scenes but all this cannot quite compensate for the lack of a plot and distinctly underwhelming ending.

Interestingly, the film did far better abroad than at home, where it tanked at the box office. That said, it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Best Foreign Film at Bodil and at the prestigious Tokyo Kinema Junpo Awards; foreign audiences more accepting of this unorthodox, meandering approach to storytelling. What plot there is comes in the final third and, without giving anything away, isn’t in keeping with what we’ve already seen.

Already a big star for the likes of The French Connection and The Poseidon Adventure among many others, Hackman was sincerely disappointed by the film’s performance and vowed henceforth to do more commercial fare.

A great many of us look back at the Seventies through rose-tinted specs, but that isn’t to say they didn’t make the odd star-laden misstep, even then. Without Scarecrow’s undeniable star power, it would never have been considered for the award season. Accordingly, there are perhaps other more worthy 35mm sparklers sitting in cold, dark archives. Let’s hope they get an airing too. Worth seeing then, for vistas, scenes and perfs, but by no means a classic. AT

SCARECROW IS now on AMAZON PRIME

 

 

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Dir: Frank Capra | Script: Francis Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra | Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson | USA  1946 130mins Comedy Drama

History might argue this was not his finest film, as Capra bestrode the 1930’s like a colossus, previously winning Best Director at the Academy Awards no less than three times, but going away empty handed from this one, despite five nominations. Indeed, it was perceived as something of a flop upon its release, making a loss at the box office and marking the end of an extraordinary run of hit films and indeed an era, for Frank Capra. What however cannot be argued now, is the nascent and evergreen popularity of It’s A Wonderful Life for filmgoers now.

Now an Christmas chestnut, it is only since the early Seventies, when Wonderful Life fell into the public domain, that Capra’s unerring ability to portray emotional truth coupled with his absolute mastery of filmmaking as a craft enabled it at last to finally find its audience.

Quite aside from it being a staple Christmas movie and epitomising all that America stands for, what underlies is a Capra standard through and through containing surprisingly dark undertones for the day: A man George Bailey decides his life isn’t worth living seriously and contemplates suicide but his guardian angel then leads him through what life in his home town of Bedford Falls would have been like if he hadn’t existed. Tying this story in with the concept that any one person can effect change for the better in the face of overwhelming odds, and you have both a Capra classic and the recipe for some serious ‘feelgood’.

In interview, Capra stated that he was against: “mass entertainment, mass production, mass education, mass everything. Especially mass man. I was fighting for, in a sense, the preservation of the liberty of the individual person against the mass.”

Capra was born in Sicily in 1897 and came over to America penniless, in the stinking bowels of a ship at the tender age of six. He worked very hard, under terrible privation for many years; his father dying in a dreadful factory accident when he was just 15. But he also studied hard against the wishes of his parents, it must be said, but made good and then worked as writer, as an editor and even as an extra on many films, before finally getting a go at directing. He described filmmaking as akin to drug addiction; once it was in your bloodstream…that was it.

And a brilliant filmmaker he was. He made some extraordinary documentaries during the war and a string of feature hits, working with the biggest actors of the day, from Frank Sinatra to Clarke Gable, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck and of course the great Jimmy Stewart. But he was also directly responsible for dragging the medium of film forward; just as the silent era was ending, he was changing the way films were conceived and shot, jumping characters in and out of scenes instead of waiting for them to walk in and out of rooms. Of overlapping dialogue to make it feel both more natural, but also picking up the pace of storytelling and again, moving away from the staged play. The Directors Guild of America voted him a lifetime membership in 1941 and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1959.

Capra will always have his detractors; those that saw his brand of filmmaking too saccharine, but as he saw it, life was tough and cinema was the perfect place for escaping, if only for a short while. And it was by his focusing on the emotional and moral issues his protagonists faced; conflict between cynicism and the protagonist’s faith or idealism, that has made this film in particular endure for so long with audiences. Well, that and Jimmy Stewart.

In short, be unmoved by this film and there has to be something wrong with you. AT

NOW ON

 

Room 237 (2012) MUBI

Dir: Rodney Ascher | Cast: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner | US Doc, 103mins    

A documentary about conspiracy theories surrounding THE SHINING (1981)

In the grand firmament of filmmakers, there’s no one director that inspires more awe, more frowning or hushed tones than the legendary Stanley Kubrick. The man. The myth. There is also nothing quite like a Kubrick standard to bring the geeks, the nerds, the conspiracists and the plain unhinged out from under their desks, their rocks and their bunkers to superimpose their own interpretation of what this film is about, confident in the knowledge that Kubrick has indeed put layers in there, and is happy to play around with an audience, giving them licence to postulate and reinterpret, ad infinitum.

Kubrick was a great director for a good many reasons: from his sheer invention with the camera; to production design; shot composition; edge of frame detail; colour; costume;  editing; and with the strength of his ideas and concepts, he still allowed the actor the freedom to improvise. That is genius.

But it’s highly unlikely that he meant for The Shining to be watched literally frame by agonising frame in an attempt to uncover hidden meanings. Or, for it to be run backwards, superimposed simultaneously over itself running forwards. If you’re going to look hard enough for long enough and with any sort of allegorical agenda, you probably could find the deeply sinister in a daytime TV weather report.

Room 237 is one such endeavour, (it’s a film about genocide); it lurches from the considered through to the improbable and the downright risible, with a certain panache. Too often, the talking heads of the five various Shining experts leave Rodney Ascher with precious little to go on, so we are left perusing images from any number of, not only Kubrick’s films, but a big clutch of others.

The diverse theories begin to stream thick and fast, some start on the basis of illustratable plausibility, only to lose their way. Others starting from a point of implausibility, never even to attempt to find something resembling sanity; undoubtedly a genius then, but quite how Kubrick ‘photoshopped’ his own image into the clouds a clear ten years before Photoshop was even invented, beggars belief.

All in all, Room 237 is a befuddling and for the most part interminable exercise, albeit sprinkled with a few interesting moments. It may leave you frustrated, and looking forward to substantive insight.  It will certainly make you revisit The Shining again and gain.

Room 237 is like going out for a promising evening, only to end up trapped in the corner with the comb-over, who simply won’t shut up. And therein lies the point. The Shining itself is endlessly entertaining, haunting, emotive, disturbing, unquantifiable…  a true classic and should be enjoyed as such. By dissecting anything, all one does, by definition, is reduce it. Ask any frog. AT

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