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Sherlock: Undercover Dog (1994)
An amusing dog film
This dog film is amusing, but not because of the dog. Huey, the name of the dog who plays Sherlock, is not attractive and he can do little. His voice is also silly and under par. The reason why the film is amusing is because of the people. A very good casting choice of a ten year-old boy was made to be the lead in the film, Benjamin Eroen, who I see from IMDb never appeared in any other film. This is the only film ever directed by Richard Harding Gardner, a British actor. (That would explain why the dog in the film speaks with a Scottish accent.) The film is entirely set and filmed on location on Santa Catalina Island, or simply Catalina Island as it is generally called, which is off the coast of California. It must be the only film ever made there. The island today has a population of less than 4000 people, is 22 miles long and 8 miles wide at its widest point. It is one of eight islands in a chain which constitute the Channel Islands of California. These islands have many examples of unique flora and fauna. Perhaps because I have always wanted to visit those islands since I was a teenager, but never found the opportunity to do so, I found this film so interesting, as it shows a good deal of the island and satisfied some of my curiosity about the place. The island atmosphere of people living in a place cut off from the outside world in many ways is well conveyed. It is an 'everybody knows everybody' place, and they are always interesting to visit. It used to be possible to go to those islands to eat abalone, long ago before the California abalone were all fished out. However, abalone have now made a seasonal comeback in Paris, and at the correct time of year you can get a steaming dish heaped with the most wonderfully delicious abalone (called in French 'les Ormeaux') at the Dome Restaurant (formerly the famous café of the 1920s) in Montparnasse. The story of this film is incredibly silly and nonsensical, as are some of the characters. But that is all clearly intentional. Some rather silly 'baddies' are engaged in drug smuggling, though who their customers could possibly be is vague, to say the least. Sherlock is a police dog who talks, and he becomes separated from the detective who is trying to arrest the smugglers. He is rescued by the little boy, who is delighted to discover that the dog talks, but only to him. Yes, that is all completely ridiculous, I know, and there are no special effects to aid the movement of the dog's mouth as there are in contemporary talking dog movies. So it cannot be said that there is anything in the film that is remotely convincing. You just have to be willing to watch a movie where everything is simply silly. What a silly fellow I must be, as I enjoyed the movie.
La nuit du carrefour (1932)
The first filmed Simenon novel and the first Maigret film
This dreary film was a bad start for Simenon on the screen. Surprisingly, it was directed by Jean Renoir, who could rise to such heights as a great director, but here sank to unparalleled depths of mediocrity and dullness. It was not as if Renoir was new to directing, for he had already directed several films before this one. So there is no excuse. Because the action of the film largely takes place at night (as the title indicates), the film is literally very dark indeed. The lighting is terrible, and as it was such an early sound film, the sound is not much better. But the greatest disappointment of all is Pierre Renoir, older brother of Jean, in his role of Commissaire (Inspector) Jules Maigret. He is dull, dull, and duller. Many will remember him fondly from the later film LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS. But he was no good as a Maigret. He gives the character no personality whatsoever. A golem could have done a better job of it. Those of us who appreciate Jean Gabin and Bruno Cremer as Maigret can only sink into a slough of despond at the sight of this lifeless first screen incarnation of our hero. The Danish actress Winna Winifried, in her first screen appearance, attempts to inject some mystery into the film by her extraordinarily louche and languid performance, a deeply weird portrayal which if better exploited and directed could have worked very well indeed. She ceased work in 1940 with her seventh film, and as far as IMDb is concerned, vanished from the world after that. I wonder if the Danes could tell us more. She must have fled the Nazi invasion of Paris in that year, and who knows what might have become of her after that. She had made four French films and three British ones, none of which seems to be particularly known today, and only one has been reviewed by a single specialist reviewer, except for this one, which has been revived recently. As for the story, it is a rather meandering and feeble one, involving the smuggling of cocaine in automobile tyres. Perhaps that is why the action appears to go round in circles. Jacques Becker (father of Jean Becker), who three years later was to begin his directing career, was Production Manager. A third member of the Renoir family also worked on this film, Claude Renoir, who was focus puller. Three years later, he commenced his career as cinematographer, and only retired in 2010, after 86 films in that job. Truly the Renoir family have made their mark on French culture. Claude Renoir's most spectacular success as a cinematographer was probably, and most appropriately (considering who his grandfather was), the magnificent film about another famous painter, LE MYSTÈRE DE PICASSO (1956), directed by the brilliant Henri-Georges Cluzot. He was also the cinematographer for his brother Jean's magical and evocative film THE RIVER (1951), a classic made all the more memorable by Claude Renoir's fine work in capturing the atmosphere of India on location. It is such a pity that all these talented people could not have done a better job on this particular film, but there is no use pretending that they succeeded, because they did not. I agree with another reviewer who says that this film is 'awkward, amateurish and even inept'.
One of the finest British comedies of the 1990s, a pure delight
I just saw this film again after many years, and enjoyed it even more this time. It is so delightful and refreshing, that it is a complete gem. It ranks with the wonderful whimsical comedies made by Sandy Mackendrick, such as WHISKEY GALORE (1949). The film is directed by Christopher Monger, who also wrote the screenplay, based on a story published by his father Ifor David Monger, who in turn heard the story from his own father. It seems that the story is essentially true. Considering how astonishing the story is, that really is remarkable. The film is set in 1917 in South Wales, just north of Cardiff, in a village with a long name which only the Welsh can pronounce. The Mongers were Welsh and so was Kenneth Griffiths, whose performance as the Methodist minister Robert Jones is spectacular and inspired, one of the best-honed comic performances in a British film for decades. He was 73 at the time. The humour of this film is the gentle, gnomic and teasing humour which the English use when they are making films about how charming, but deeply odd, either the Welsh or the Scots are. In this case it's the Welsh. I am very fond of the Welsh and have spent a great deal of time in South Wales, and I love the sing-song accent of the Welsh. I think most English people are fond of the Welsh, looking upon them as a quizzical species inhabiting the far west of the island, whom they wish they could understand. There is nothing the Welsh like better than half-teasing and half-insulting Englishmen, and there is plenty of that in the film, all hilariously funny of course. And when a Welshman gets stuffy, he may have a friend say to him, as happens in this film: 'Stop being so English.' Well, it is wartime and young Hugh Grant has just recovered from shell shock after taking part in the battle of Verdun, and is travelling on an assignment for the Ordnance Survey with a much older man, played by the totally hilarious Ian McKenzie. The humour in this film is all well-judged, and never over-played, though they come near it many a time. The Welsh in this village are very proud of the fact that just beyond their village is 'the first mountain in Wales', after which the mountains continue to rise up and define northern Wales. McKenzie and Grant have come to do an official survey and determine the height of the little mountain. McKenzie announces in the pub that if the mountain is less than 1000 feet high, it will be reclassified on the official maps as a hill. All of the villagers are deeply shocked, and are full of apprehension that their one claim to distinction will be taken away from them. When McKenzie and Grant are able to measure the height they find that it is 984 feet, and the mountain is therefore a hill. The whole village goes into shock, and they determine to take measures to save the reputation of their mountain. So they form chains of people to carry soil up to the top and raise the height of their hill so that it can become a mountain again. All the goings-on are so wonderfully funny and complex that they defy summary, but this film is certainly a chuckle-a-minute, punctuated by one's guffaws. About half way through the film the pretty girl, Betty, enters the story. She is played impishly and naughtily by Tara Fitzgerald. Tara and I were once 'sport champions' together in an episode hilarious enough to be in the Welsh film. My wife and I were staying with our friends the Hitchings for Christmas at Swalcliffe, and Tara was with her friends the Harrises, next door at Swalcliffe, when we all came together for purposes of merriment with a considerable amount of hearty drinking for an evening. Tara was determined to play a game of hockey, despite the fact that it was dark outside and very cold, and insisted on playing hockey on the Harris family's tennis court, which was beside their house. I had never played hockey, but because Tara is very bossy and readily takes charge (even aged 14), she soon set me straight. It was enormous fun playing hockey on a tennis court, lit only by the light that came from the windows, and with wisps of snow drifting across the court. Tara and I won a heroic victory and were much toasted. She is one hell of a gal, and as determined as they come. She always adds a note of piquancy to any film she is in, including this one. Hugh Grant was at his very best in this film, and it was only much later that he irritated everyone by becoming too self-regarding and pompous with his Hacked Off campaign. Who cares if Hugh Grant's phone was bugged? I don't. He probably only talked a load of rubbish anyway. But in this film he is perfectly charming, so all is well, because he was still young and unspoiled. The film really is a marvel. If only there were more like it.
Trust Me (1989)
Curious survival from the 1980s
This is a strange and somewhat amateurish film starring the even stranger person who calls himself 'Adam Ant'. Adam Ant, born with the normal name of Stuart Goddard, formed a pop music group called Adam and the Ants, and then he decided to joint the ants by actually becoming one himself, proudly displaying the fact by means of his new moniker. The pop group had many hit songs and established a name for themselves in the music scene and in the eyes of that section of the public who have suitably entomological inclinations. By the time he starred in this film, Adam Ant had already been appearing as an actor in films and television for 12 years, so he had plenty of acting experience. In this film, he plays an unscrupulous art dealer who has discovered that he can raise the value of the paintings he exhibits by murdering the artists, since it is well known that an artist's prices go up as soon as he is dead. Makes sense, no? The film is really a very savage satirical attack on the art world, and God knows that is a subject which well deserves such treatment! Unfortunately, the film is not entirely successful. One fault of the film is the bad music composed by the normally adequate Elmer Bernstein. I was really surprised! Also, either the sound mixing was hopeless or it was just the ancient 1989 video going wonky, but the music drowned out a lot of the dialogue, and it was as if some outside broadcast were suddenly breaking in, for without warning and without any apparent justification, one would suddenly hear some Mozart playing. It was as if there were someone next door turning up his stereo, if there had been anyone next door, that is, which there is not. So it was an odd ant-like experience watching the film, never knowing from one scene to the next when the next Mozart interlude would suddenly occur and be entirely inappropriate. (Query: was Elmer Bernstein really Mozart?) A very good performance as the ingénue of the story was delivered by Talia Balsam (daughter of Martin), who is now so well known for being married to one of my favourite actors from MAD MEN (2007, see my review), John Slattery, who plays Roger Sterling. And in that series, Talia plays his wife, Mona Sterling, so there you go. Strange coincidence, that. (I noticed also that John Slattery directed some of the episodes for MAD MEN. He must be some mover and shaker, and one wonders whether Talia Balsam is both shaken and stirred as a result of all that energy her husband apparently has.) So the film creaked and groaned under the weight of its 25 years of antiquity and was not that strong to begin with, but was nevertheless a curiosity worth examining by the art collector and definitely a film to avoid if you are an art dealer who might be too sensitive to bear the burden of the odium. (I love the word odium, but rarely get a chance to use it.) It's interesting in its way, trust me.
Sharon Stone as a 'broad'
'Broad' as an American slang word for a woman must be pretty out of date now. I wonder if anybody still talks about either 'broads' or 'dames', as perceptions of women have moved on a bit. I don't believe they are 'chicks' or 'birds' anymore either. They also aren't any longer 'skirts' because so many don't wear them. All of these terms were somehow derogatory. 'Birds' were to be 'pulled', 'broads' were to be 'laid', and so on. In retrospect it is clear that these were all slang terms for women used by men, as put-downs to reduce women to objects of lust. It was OK to 'pull' a 'bird', but you can't linguistically speaking properly 'pull' a woman. So by reducing women to linguistic categories designed to diminish their worth, they could then safely be exploited without troubling one's conscience. A 'woman' still has some dignity, so in order to be exploited for purposes of lust, she must first be reduced in status to that of 'broad' or 'bird'. The reductionist urge to diminish women linguistically is equivalent to the use of the word 'untermensch' ('sub-human') by the Nazis to diminish the Jews so that they could kill them. Killing, 'laying', 'pulling', are all different destructive modes applied to linguistically diminished categories of humans specially targeted but who first need to be placed into special categories where it is OK to do anything to them that one wants. I say all of this because there is one remarkable moment in this film where Sharon Stone says of herself: 'I've always been a broad'. She has spent her life as a mobsters' moll, and in her moment of self-realization, freely confines herself to the category of 'broad' in recognition of her lifelong willingness to allow herself to be a lust-object for hire, to sleazy men who go around killing people. Sharon Stone is eerily convincing at being a 'broad' and she has the New York accent of a 'broad', and such a 'broad's' attitudes and mannerisms to perfection. So hers is a stunning performance in the central role of Gloria. The mobster whose moll she has been most recently is played by Jeremy Northam. For an English actor he did amazingly well at speaking like a New York gangster. He must have studied hard with his voice coach to pull that off! His casting is a typically inspired example of lateral thinking, doubtless by Sidney Lumet, the director. Lumet was such a thorough pro that he pulls off this film (please note that 'pulling off' is not related to the 'pulling' above mentioned, nor does it have anything to do with pulling off a jumper; are these linguistic notes becoming tiresome?) with his usual aplomb. The previous mobster whose moll Stone had been is called Ruby, and is played with unrivalled brilliance by George C. Scott, who oozes the most charming form of evil out of his eyes like lizard gall bladders being squeezed in a juice bar. And it glistens! Stone has just come out of prison after serving three years for something Northam had done. She comes to claim her money which was their 'deal', but Northam reneges, and the broad realizes she has been a chump. (Do people still say 'chump'?) And that is when the story really begins. Northam has just 'bumped off' (that euphemism is still in use) a family of Puerto Ricans in Washington Heights because the man had stolen a computer disc listing all the criminal contacts of the mobsters, such as which police officers and judges 'and even a congressmen or two' are on the mobsters' payroll. But the six year-old son of the Puerto Rican has escaped with the disc. Northam captures him and he is sitting in Northam's apartment where Northam is in dispute with a subordinate who wants to bump him off but Northam says: 'I won't kill a kid.' And that is when Stone turns up. Through complex circumstances, Stone and the kid (brilliantly played by child actor Jean-Luke Figueroa, who was actually nine but looked six) go on the run together. It gets more and more complicated. Stone has never liked kids or had any maternal instincts, and the film is largely about the transformation of her character through the enforced proximity to the kid. She starts to go all gooey, and the kid adopts her as his new mother, and it thus becomes a psychological drama. Lumet keeps this on an even keel and the film works because he was such a pro, and the same goes for Stone. The film could easily not have worked in lesser hands. But because it was done so well, the film is worthwhile, surprising, and very engrossing to watch. I noted that John Cassavetes was credited as co-writer and then discovered that he first directed the film GLORIA in 1980 with Gena Rowlands playing Gloria. I was unaware of that Cassavetes film and will now try and see it for comparison. Some have said it was far superior to Lumet's remake of it, and I would not be surprised. Gena Rowlands is respected on all sides for her great talent, and must have been stunning as Gloria. Certainly Rowlands was so overwhelming in Cassavetes's OPENING NIGHT (1977, but my rave review of it mysteriously disappeared from the IMDb website long ago), that I have no hesitation in pronouncing her a genius. So we shall see, but meanwhile, this film is very good regardless and should not be denigrated even if its predecessor were superior to it. Good remakes are very rare, and this certainly is one of those. Let's be fair.
Far from the Madding Crowd (1998)
Excellent and authentic, an extended film of the Thomas Hardy novel
This superb extended film, or mini-series (which may have been its format when originally broadcast), of the famous novel by Thomas Hardy was made for British Independent Television and deserves to be much better known. It is greatly superior in authenticity and detail to the 1967 John Schlesinger film, with its prominent stars and large budget, and vast media coverage at the time of its release. This film runs 3 hours and 21 minutes and is thus able to include much material necessarily omitted from shorter films of the novel (a new one is being shot at the moment, presumably for 2015 release). This film also contains an extraordinarily high level of authenticity. The characters speak in genuine local dialect, much of Hardy's original dialogue is retained in all its piquancy and 19th century eloquence, and the farming scenes are very accurate. (Now we know all the details of how to save a hay rick in a storm, how to shear a sheep with the old clippers before electricity came in, how to persuade a reluctant new-born lamb to suck, and how to sharpen our shears on a rotating whetstone without cutting our fingers.) The atmosphere conveyed in this excellent production is therefore just what Hardy wished us to experience. The story is set in the 1850s and early 1860s. The young independent farmer (an aspiring yeoman) Gabriel Oak is ruined by the loss of his entire herd of sheep and has to go in search of a farm labourer's job to survive. He is excellently played by actor Nathaniel Parker. He has just the right blend of solid character, patience, devotion, rectitude, and generosity of spirit. Even more brilliant casting was Nigel Terry as the tragic character Farmer Boldwood, whose emotional loneliness haunts him nearly to madness in his fine manor. He conveys the silent suffering of the character intended by Hardy far more convincingly than the late Peter Finch did in the 1967 film, which I must say, as much as I admire Peter Finch's wonderful work and career. Similarly, Parker exceeds the performance given by Alan Bates in 1967 as Gabriel. But the central performance of all in this film, and its very heart and soul, is given by the actress with the unusual name of Paloma Baeza. She has a Mexican father, hence her name, and an English mother. She perfectly portrays the fiery, almost manically independent, Bathsheba, in a wholly convincing manner. She is a very model of early feminism. Her task was the most difficult of all, and in it she succeeded splendidly. I noticed to my surprise that my cousin Susan Conklin, who is active in American television, was script editor for this film, which was a British-American co-production with PBS and WGBH of Boston. The film was directed by Nicholas Renton, one of British television's most talented directors. The following year, he directed the marvellous mini-series WIVES AND DAUGHTERS (1999, see my review), in which he found another extraordinary young woman, Justine Waddell, to create a memorable and unforgettable central role. Certainly one might say that the late 1990s appears to have been Renton's creative golden age. If he had done nothing else in his career (which is far from being the case), Renton could rest on the laurels of this film and that other series as crowning achievements, sufficient to carve his name in the stone of memory. Anyone who wants to know and experience the real Hardy on screen, and to see what life was really like in Hardy's 'Wessex', need look no further than this authentic, heart-breaking saga so brilliantly produced, acted, and directed, with all its emotional intensity. In our age of falsities and simulations, we get further from real life every day, and so far from the earth and the land, the beasts and the fields, that we live increasingly in a kind of Truman Show where everything is artificial. Now everyone has a thousand Facebook friends whom he or she has never actually met. Why not see what it was like to live in a small isolated community with only a few people and the urgencies of Nature on every hand at all times, the social difficulties and confining circumstances of traditional rural life, and see something of Real Life as lived by our species for most of its history. In those days, you could not escape reality, no matter how deeply you wished to do so, and that is the precise opposite of large numbers of lives today, which are devoted in so many ways to an escape from reality. In the 'old days' shown here, characters might become desperate or even deluded, but even the delusions then were real. Whereas today, so much reality has ceased to be real that the word has nearly lost its meaning. We need wonderful films like this to give us back our perspective and to remind us of what humans were, until now.
The Accidental Tourist (1988)
A sensitive study of subtle flaws and eccentricities of character
I decided to watch this film again after many years, and it impressed me more now than it did when it came out. It is a very sensitive film based upon a novel published in 1985 (of the same title) by the well-known American novelist Anne Tyler (born 1941), a denizen of Baltimore. The characters of this novel are also from Baltimore, which some regard as the Centre of the Earth, by which I refer primarily to those innocents who have not seen THE WIRE (2002, see my review). William Hurt gives one of his brilliant performances (which seem to come so naturally to him) as Macon Leary, an up-tight and hopelessly stuffy author of travel guides for Americans who do not like to leave America and wish to travel in their bubble, thus protecting themselves from all contaminating influences such as foreigners or even people from another city such as Philadelphia. But to give an idea of how hopeless an isolationist Leary is, we see him eating disgusting hamburgers at a Burger King in Paris, which he will in turn recommend to his readers. Leary will guide timorous Americans to Burger Kings and other such horrible places wherever they are in the world, so that they need never eat anything strange. In a voice-over in this film, he says of French restaurants and their menus of the day: 'Avoid Prix Fixe. It forces you to eat all those courses you don't want.' One presumes that Tyler is being gently satirical in inventing this character (let us hope he never really existed and is a caricature). Leary's series of books are called 'The Accidental Tourist', hence the title of the film. And as for Leary himself, he is an accidental tourist of Life. Meanwhile, Leary's accidentally toured life has been devastated by the death of his only son, and he has been savaged by grief. His wife, played by Kathleen Turner, leaves him at the beginning of the story to live in a separate flat and go her own way, as she says he has not yet come to terms with his grief and she can no longer live with him. Thus, he lives alone in his house with the most charming actor in the film, a dog called Bud, who plays the dog in the film. I would greatly like to have Bud come and live with me! However, as the film was made 26 years ago, perhaps he is no longer about. I like all dog films, and this to a larger extent than one might imagine is a dog film. It is Bud's lack of good behaviour which brings Leary into contact with the charmingly eccentric character Muriel (whom Leary later describes as 'that odd girl'), who is a dog trainer, and who becomes his romantic muse and saviour. This character is played by the wonderfully odd actress Geena Davis, one of my favourites. The film she made just before this one, in the same year, was EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY (1988, see my review), which I think of as one of the funniest films ever made, and Davis's central performance in it made it work. Never having met Davis, I can only presume that in order to play these wacky and offbeat characters to such perfection, she must be pretty odd herself. However, she rid herself of these anomalies when she played the President of the United States in the excellent TV series COMMANDER IN CHIEF (2005), in which her performance was, well, 'commanding', and it won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV drama. It is a great pity that the rather weird and wonderful Geena Davis has not made many more films than she has, but she won a well deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, which shows that she has been appreciated by her peers (as do her countless other awards). She also resembles the goddess Diana (aka Artemis) in that she is an archery champion, and having been married four times, she clearly takes good aim at the heart. If she were ever to 'come up to see me sometime', I could show her my long bow which my grandfather lovingly carved out of lemonwood from South America because he said it had the best qualities (his idea being that he would be making the Stradivarius of long bows). No mere yew for him! Long bows are so much more romantic than etchings. Another excellent actress who appears in this film is Amy Wright, who does a brilliant job of portraying Leary's eccentric sister Rose. The film is essentially a study of people who 'don't fit'. Sometimes they don't fit in a good way and sometimes they don't fit in a bad way. So Tyler seems to be excavating the American psyche to find divergences from the norm, which is an important thing to do in a country where 'normality' ranks second only the 'the dollar' theologically speaking. This film was directed by the highly talented Lawrence Kasdan, who knows a good nuance when he sees one. And in this film we see plenty of them.
Appointment in London (1953)
A quiet, realistic drama about a bomber squadron during the War
This film was also released as APPOINTMENT IN London. Dirk Bogarde is the stalwart star of this wartime drama centered around the lives of the men of a bomber squadron based at Lincoln. A great deal of original aerial footage is edited into the film throughout, culminating in a huge bombing raid over Germany in the latter part of the film, which shows a genuine squadron flying in formation at night, and features the most astonishing real footage of the roaring inferno produced by such a bombing raid. There are also some shots of London in 1952 showing that there was still almost no traffic. Bogarde plays Wing Commander Mason, who at the beginning of the film has flown 87 sorties over Germany and is being urged on all sides to call it quits, but he is determined to go on until he completes 90 missions, because 'I have set my mind on it'. However, he is getting over-tired and everyone worries that he will make mistakes or simply not make it. My wife likes Bogarde a great deal. She used to be taken by her mother to tea with him and his mother in Denham Village when she was a child, when she became entranced by him and his peculiar charm. His mother was apparently rather butch. I only met him and chatted with him on one occasion, at Shepperton. He was certainly a major figure in the history of British cinema. He could be rather waspish, and was no heterosexual. One old friend of ours unexpectedly turned up on the credits of this film, Cecil Ford. He was credited as Assistant Director. I checked IMDb, and he had already been an assistant director for five years by this time. The next year he moved up to Production Manager. Dinah Sheridan plays the love interest in this film. Although everyone thought she was an English rose, Sheridan was really half Russian and half German. She did very well in the part, showing great restraint as 'a widow since Dunkirk' and not falling for the first airman she sees. Everyone in the film is very restrained indeed, and all the upper lips are stiff in the Old Style. This is seriously traditional British fare. Bryan Forbes does very well as an airman who doesn't make it. His wife is played by the interesting actress Anne Leon, who died long ago and made few films. She was very effective, but as she was no glamour gal, it seems she was not offered many parts. It is always a pity when people of talent are not properly recognised. In terms of names we might recognise today, Nigel Stock is uncredited as a co-pilot, not that you would notice. And that is about it. The film was ably directed by Philip Leacock, who went on to make another film with Dirk Bogarde three years later, THE Spanish GARDENER, and later in life was primarily a director of many popular television series. This film is probably about as realistic as you can get, as a portrait of Bomber Command in operation during the War. But it never sacrifices fiction for fact, and maintains strong story lines and dramatic narrative throughout, with all the accuracy serving to make it more moving and authentic.
Evil Under the Sun (1982)
Peter Ustinov returns as Hercule Poirot
This expensive all-star Agatha Christie film, with Peter Ustinov once again as Poirot, is a better film than its predecessor which was made by the same production team, DEATH ON THE NILE (1978, see my review). This time, the director is Guy Hamilton, and he is an improvement on John Guillermin. Another superior cinematographer is at work this time, Chris Challis, who does ample justice to the spectacular coastal scenery. The film was shot on location in Majorca. That suffices for the novel's location of the Albanian coast of the 1920s. Carrying over from DEATH ON THE NILE as part of the team are Maggie Smith and Jane Birkin, both as new characters of course, but with much larger parts this time. Ustinov is far more polished and confident as Poirot this time around, and has finely honed his mannerisms and pronunciations, interspersed with bits of spontaneously uttered French (one of the many languages in which Peter was perfectly fluent), and every facet of the character is now perfectly polished, and rather dazzling. His irrepressible and constantly displayed sense of humour lends a delightful cloud of whimsy to his every movement and every remark. This time there is only one murder in the story, of an intolerably arrogant and offensive actress played by Diana Rigg. (As one who has found Diana Rigg difficult on numerous occasions, to the point of extreme exasperation, I would say she may have been type-cast.) The Rigg does very well, and is, shall we say, a highly successful portrayal of a version of herself on a bad day (and why did I only ever meet her and have to sit beside her at dinner on those days?) So the Rigg ends up dead on a beach and thus poses a mystery. Who could possibly have killed her? She was one of a group of guests on a private island, hosted by Maggie Smith, where everyone knew everyone, and everyone hated the Rigg. But yet they all have perfect alibis, or as Peter says in a Belgian wheeze: 'halibis'. This film has the most spectacular costumes for the women which can possibly be imagined, designed by Anthony Powell, with fantasy hats made by Freddie Fox and Woody Shelp. Calling all costume designers! You can't miss this! James Mason plays one of his weasel characters, always so effective with him because they are such an unexpected casting against type, as he was in the flesh genuinely the quietly spoken gentleman he more usually portrayed. Colin Blakeley plays a brash self-made millionaire, and in my opinion over-acts, but then so do brash self-made millionaires. Roddy McDowall plays a gay social hanger-on, somewhat unconvincingly. He has written a biography of the Rigg which she refuses to approve by signing a release form, so he is one of the leading candidates for the murderer. How can Hercule solve this one? It eeze so, shall vee say, difficile? So man-ay halibis! But solve it he does, though only with the greatest expenditure of his 'little grey cells'. This film really is a most entertaining two hours and will not disappoint.
Death on the Nile (1978)
All-star whodunit shot on location in Egypt
This was Peter Ustinov's first appearance as Agatha Christie's Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. He had not at this point fully mastered the role, nor did the script and director give him the opportunities to embellish the character which would arise four years later, in his second appearance as Poirot, in EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982, see my forthcoming review). Nevertheless, this is an entertaining and amusing film of a traditional Agatha Christie tale of a group of people all of whom are suspected of some grisly murders, in this case, travelling together on a Nile cruise boat. Jack Cardiff was the cinematographer, and he struggled against the intense sun to get the most out of the exotic locations. Since the action is set in the 1920s, the Nile cruise starts at Aswan, in order for the film to use the old Cataract Hotel there as its period backdrop. (Usually cruises start in the north and sail towards the south, but this one does the reverse, without any suggestion as to how the travellers got to Aswan from Cairo.) For those of us who are familiar with Egypt, it was hilarious to see the young couple at the centre of the story leave the Karnak temple near Luxor and quickly go 'nearby' to Abu Simbel, hundreds of miles to the south. From the dialogue, one gathers that Agatha Christie (who was, after all, married to an archaeologist and could not make such a mistake) had intended them to be visiting the statue of Memnon, but the producers clearly decided that, as the statue of Memnon is not in any great shape, a huge statue of Rameses II near Aswan would look better, and who would know the difference anyway. So that was a quick journey! The wonderful old Victorian paddle-wheel cruise boat is a splendid sight on the Nile. There is still one left of that vintage, and I wonder if it is the same one. The cast includes Bette Davis, who is made up to look much more ancient than she was, for she was only 70, and lived another 11 years and made 13 more films after this. Maggie Smith and Jane Birkin feature in the cast, and they both came back in the next film four years later, as different characters of course. Angela Lansbury play a gauche elderly woman, but 36 years later is still acting and in fact at the moment is playing the lead in a West End play in London. I wonder what Peter (whom my wife and I knew so well) and Miss Lansbury felt when they played numerous scenes together in this film, considering that at an earlier stage in their lives they had been brother and sister in law, a fact little known. Did I detect glints of extreme familiarity in the corners of their four eyes? Mia Farrow plays a hysterical young woman not unlike the woman Woody Allen has accused her of being in real life, and she over-acts shamelessly. But then, Agatha Christie mysteries are not meant to be taken seriously as drama or as thrillers, since they are designed purely for entertainment purposes. Lansbury also over-acts, as does I. S. Johar, the Indian actor pretending to be an Egyptian manager of the tour boat, although he is at least very funny, whereas the humour in Lansbury's performance in lost entirely in sweeping arms, raucous declarations, and trailing necklaces and other such 'appurtenances of the person'. Olivia Hussey as a pale maiden daughter of Lansbury does not have much of a part, and might have been anybody. George Kennedy is very convincing as the fraudulent trustee, but even he, solid old trooper that he is, cannot resist over-acting when he shows his indignation, his anger, and he self-defensiveness. In short, the director John Guillermin has exercised no visible restraint upon his actors and appears to have encouraged them to camp it up. The scenes shot in Karnak Temple, amidst its immense columns reaching to the sky, are most impressive, and are lingered over in a most welcome manner. It makes an excellent stage set for a murder attempt. Lois Chiles is very good as an arrogant and offensive young rich woman. She had made a good impression in Jack Clayton's version of THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) and was still in favour as an impressive ingénue. Despite playing a character with a great deal of venom and vehemence, she does not over-act in my opinion. But of the older players in the film, the only ones who do not succumb to the temptation of over-acting are Peter Ustinov and the remarkably subdued and restrained David Niven, who was already looking gaunt by this time. The other half of the central young couple, playing opposite Chiles, was Simon MacCorkingdale. A few years ago he died tragically young, long before his time. Despite all the flaws which I have enumerated, this is still a most entertaining and pleasant film to watch. After all, there is no point in attempting realism in a film of this kind, which is intended solely as a confection. Too much cream on a cream puff simply does not matter.