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The Heavenly Body (1944)
This is such a ridiculous and silly film that I found it impossible to watch all of it, as it was simply too exasperating and irritating. MGM must have realized they had a turkey on their hands because they employed seven screenwriters, including even the British novelist Michael Arlen, and hired a second (uncredited) director, namely Vincente Minelli, to try and save the film. But all failed. William Powell and Hedy Lamarr were the stars, and they did very well. But their valiant efforts and those of the seven screenwriters and two directors, were all for nothing. The fact is that it was a ludicrous project commissioned by idiots. The main theme of the film is that William Powell, an observational astronomer working at a big telescope (clearly mean to be Mount Palomar), has a beautiful but pin-headed wife who takes astrology so seriously that she will not let him touch her on Tuesdays and according to her chart she must leave him for another man she does not know. The irony of having Hedy Lamarr, probably the most intelligent female star in Hollywood, play the stupidest woman in the history of films, is extreme. The film is an absolutely disgusting attempt to make a comedy based upon the premise that women are unspeakably stupid. One does not have to be a feminist to want to throw up.
Jeder stirbt für sich allein (1976)
An intensely harrowing German classic set in 1940-1941
Hans Fallada was one of the most famous German authors of the 20th century. When his novel KLEINER MANN, WAS NUN? (LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?) appeared in English in 1933, Fallada achieved fame in the English-speaking world. But after that, his memory faded, though there has been an attempt at revival of some of his works in English in the past few years. LITTLE MAN was filmed in 1934 in Hollywood by Frank Borzage, with Margaret Sullavan, and has been filmed in German in 1933, 1967, and 1973. This story was the last novel which Fallada wrote before he died prematurely in 1947. Its German title, and the original title of this film, are JEDER STIRBT FÜR SICH ALLEIN. Sometimes it is called in English EVERY MAN DIES ALONE, and sometimes EVERYONE DIES ALONE. It was originally filmed in German for television in 1962, then filmed again for German television in 1970. Then finally it was made into a full feature film with a proper budget in 1976, which is the film reviewed here. At the moment, the novel is being filmed in English under the title ALONE IN BERLIN, with Emma Thompson in the lead, directed by the French director Vincent Perez, for release in 2016. This 1976 film is devastatingly effective and brilliantly done. It succeeds largely because of the astonishing bravura performance in the lead role of Anna Quangel by Hildegard Knef. Knef (who died in 2002, aged 76) was very famous in her day. She appeared in 65 films. She commenced her acting career in 1945 as a young beauty. By the 1950s she had caused something of a sensation in America, appearing in such films as DECISION BEFORE DAWN (1951), DIPLOMATIC COURIER (1952, see my review), THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO (1952), and Carroll Reed's THE MAN BETWEEN (1953). Americans in those days used to speak of 'Hildegard', not bothering with her surname, and everyone knew whom they meant. In this film, she was 51 years old and very much a middle-aged actress who could not rely upon looks but had to deliver a powerful performance. And that she did! It was one of the finest roles she ever played, full of the most astonishing intensity and anguish. So powerful indeed is her performance that one imagines her having to lie down and recover after each take of several of the more demanding scenes. Emma Thompson certainly has a big challenge ahead of her if she is to come close to equalling Knef's performance as Anna Quangel. This 1976 film is one of the few German classic films to be available in English as well as German. It does not have subtitles, but is dubbed. Knef dubbed herself, which was essential and makes it work. The other dubbing is so carefully done that it is a highly superior job and does not grate on the ear. The Germans have methodically ploughed through their classic authors, filming everything with their trademark Teutonic thoroughness. Often these take the form of television series or miniseries. They rarely bother to make them available with subtitles, and foreigners never buy them and subtitle them, so a vast library of fabulous drama sits in the German vaults and is known only to the Germans themselves. They have produced far more in quantity of classic drama than the BBC, but nobody knows about it except for the Germans themselves. That seems to suit them just fine. After all, they've got their wurst and their sauerkraut, they keep all their best Rhine wines and do not export them, so who needs the rest of the world? Angela Merkel, privately known to all European diplomats as 'die Kaiserin' (female form of Kaiser), controls Europe by wagging her little finger, so the Germans really do not need to worry about the outside world, since alles ist in Ordnung. Their currency is strong, their cars are fast, and they certainly know how to 'chop the mustard', as they eat it every day. Meanwhile, so many amazing novels and stories by Thomas and Heinrich Mann, by Leon Feuchtwanger, by Stefan Zweig, by Jakob Wassermann, by Hermann Hesse, und so wieder, have been filmed with loving care, but we just don't know it (though Hesse's STEPPENWOLF with Max von Sydow has been released in an English version). As Hans Fallada might have said, 'every film is watched by Germans alone'. But back to this one. The story is an astonishing perspective of Nazism as perceived early in the War by the Germans themselves. Knef plays a woman whose son has died in the invasion of France in 1940. Until then she has been a more or less loyal supporter of Hitler, like her husband and all her friends. But then the worm turns. She begins a campaign of writing treasonable messages such as 'Hitler killed my son' on postcards which she leaves to be found in public places, until she has flooded Berlin with 221 of them. The Gestapo are jumping mad and see this as a major threat to the Hitler regime's image of total control. Someone is making monkeys, or should I say lizards, of them. And it has to be stopped at all costs. The tension mounts and mounts and mounts. The investigations intensify, the anxieties rise to a hysterical pitch. The story is a combination of a morality tale, a political satire, and a gruelling human tragedy. The film really is amazing, but you have to be strong to watch it and have nerves that can withstand the pressure. As everything becomes more and more desperate, Hildegard Knef ratchets up her emotional charge to a level where you think all the circuits will blow. Can Emma Thompson possibly equal this? This 1976 film may easily be ordered from German Amazon as a DVD, and in order to switch it to the English language soundtrack, you need to click on 'Einstellungen', which means 'settings'.
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
A perfect romantic comedy
I thought it was time to see this again after all these years, and it is just as fresh and wonderful as it was when it came out, like the smell of bread just taken from the oven. It is an exhilarating and essentially perfect romantic comedy. It comes off so wonderfully because of the central casting of the irresistibly charming Sandra Bullock. Whatever she lacks in Vogue cover beauty, she makes up for in tsunamis of personality. Who could say no to her? All she has to do is just smile or just look at you. Well, Bill Pullman certainly can't resist her in this film. And neither could his family. This film is so famous that most people know the story, which is the ingenious notion that Bullock saves the life of a handsome young man, played by Peter Gallagher, who is mugged and falls unconscious onto an overground subway track in front of an oncoming express train in Chicago. Bullocks leaps down, rolls over with him, and they just make it. She goes with him to the hospital but they won't let her follow him in because she is not a family member, so she pretends to be his fiancée. Then the story takes place while he is sleeping. i.e. in a deep coma, where Gallagher's family accept him as his fiancée and she is in countless comedic situations of having to pretend to know all sorts of things about him. In fact she had been in love with him for a long time, but they had never really met. It is a great idea, and it works to absolute perfection. There are many, many laughs. The film was magnificently directed by Jon Turteltaub (which means 'turtle dove' in German, just in case you wondered), who came from the unlikely background of having previously directed (gasp, gulp) 3 NINJAS (1992). Believe that if you can. This film is the only listed writing credit for Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric LeBow. What happened to them? Surely they should have gone on writing stuff of this calibre. Did a hole in the earth open up and swallow them? The story and script are absolutely brilliant. Bill Pullman is also perfectly cast as the brother of Gallagher who falls in love with Bullock but nobly refrains from doing anything about it. Jack Warden provides heavyweight backup as family friend 'Uncle' Saul. The dotty family are all marvellous. Everybody is marvellous, everything is marvellous, the film is marvellous. Get the picture?
Some Came Running (1958)
Shirley MacLaine's fantastic performance
This film is based upon a novel by James Jones of the same title. He was the author of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, filmed five years before this by Fred Zinnemann. Vincente Minelli's attempt here to make a James Jones blockbuster did not have quite the impact of the former film, but Shirley MacLaine's performance is such a masterpiece of pathos that from one end of America to another at the time of this film's release, no one could easily wipe away the tears after seeing her portray Ginnie Moorehead, with her small, struggling brain, but her heart the size of the world. This was the film that revealed Shirley MacLaine as one of the most brilliant young actresses in American cinema, a view amply confirmed a few years later when she appeared in THE APARTMENT (1960). MacLaine's spontaneity, vividness, warmth, and intuitive understanding of her character make this film a classic, whatever else it may have or lack. Martha Hyer also gives a splendid performance of great complexity as a woman who prefers the dreamworld of literature to real life, and when faced with a marriage proposal from an author whose works she adores, obstinately refuses to leave the dream for the reality. Frank Sinatra is the unexpected choice to play Dave Hirsh, a novelist of great talent not only with the pen but with the bottle, lacerated by self-loathing and equally keen to remain in his dream of being a bum and a self-destructive drunk. When Fred Zinnemann rescued Sinatra from the scrap heap and cast him in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, it electrified everyone, because the washed-up crooner from Hoboken suddenly showed everybody he could act. Nobody had ever expected that of him, as he was thought to be merely a singer who excited the 'bobby-soxers', as teenage girls were then known, of the 1940s and who had passed his sing-by date. And so his second career as a superstar unexpectedly began, hence his casting in this second James Jones film. He does a very good job of acting here too, but at the cost of some subtlety to the story. I have not read the novel, but I doubt that Jones's anti-hero was meant to be quite as coarse as Sinatra naturally was. At the beginning of the film, Sinatra returns to his small town home in Indiana beside the Ohio River (which is seen in great panoramic location shots from hilltops) after four years in the Army, checks into a hotel, and is seen unpacking novels by John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe. No matter how hard one stretches one's imagination one cannot visualize Frank Sinatra reading any of those! In other words, more subtle casting of the main character would have made for a much better film. The character as portrayed by Sinatra arouses not the slightest hint of sympathy in the viewer, and he is merely a rather disgusting and self-pitying lush and womanizer with the coarse manners of a street urchin. Hence this could never be great cinema, despite all the efforts of MacLaine and Hyer to raise it to the higher level of a genuine tragedy. There is no doubt that Sinatra is watchable, but then Bob Hope playing Hamlet would also be watchable, wouldn't he? If Sinatra had betrayed the slightest hint of human compassion in his role (and it would seem, would it not, that that must be a prerequisite for someone who is supposed to be such a marvellous novelist himself?), then this film could have coalesced into the vision its author must have intended. Oh well, flawed projects litter the highway of the cinema, like wrecked cars. Some of themes of this story became over-familiar through the years. I am referring to the talented writer who 'can't come home again' as Thomas Wolfe put it. They returned to their small towns in the American hinterland and found that they were alienated from those surroundings because their horizons had become too expanded, and they came up against an insuperable barrier, what is often called 'the small town mentality'. Of course, these days there is no such resonance, since American small towns have largely ceased to exist in the sense that they once did. They are no longer self-contained, their Main Streets are deserted and all their former shops, once filled with throngs of locals buying the necessities of life, are now charity shops, all the shopping has moved to the malls, all the townspeople have become obese mountains of wobbling human flesh who cannot get out of their cars to walk down a street because of junk food, and outsiders dash in and out on the interstate highway system, heedless of local traditions and caring nothing for where they are, other than as a temporary convenience before they move to the next town. The small towns are gone, except as skeletons like those of the dinosaurs in the natural history museums, and stories like this are thus historical tales dating from a vanished age when they really mattered. All of the angst suffered by the James Joneses and Thomas Wolfes trying unsuccessfully to return home to their small town origins are as far from contemporary reality as the voyages of Odysseus (Ulysses) as he struggled to return home to Ithaca. It is thus that a lot of the 'zing' has gone out of this film because younger people cannot 'get it'. They no longer know, and if they did, they would no longer care, what the attempt to 'come home again' to the small town once meant for sensitive souls who had outgrown the chrysalis. Now there is no Home anymore, there is only Facebook. And there is never any trouble returning to Facebook, for your 1000 best friends are there waiting to ignore you and will not bite back. In fact, people like Frank Sinatra are welcome, since on the internet you cannot smell whisky on people's breath.
Quai d'Orsay (2013)
Merriment without laughter, wit without guffaws
It is odd how the French talent for satire can sometimes give rise to no actual laughter. This film is one of those strange examples. The original French title is QUAI D'ORSAY, and for those who are unfamiliar with the meaning of that, it does not refer to the Musée d'Orsay so dear to all art lovers (which is inside a converted former railway station on the Quai d'Orsay beside the Seine) but to the French Foreign Ministry. Because of its address, the Foreign Ministry has throughout the whole of modern times been referred to by the French as well as all foreign diplomats simply as the 'Quai d'Orsay'. This film is a wildly satirical spoof on the lunacy that the French imagine (and who can say they are wrong?) takes place inside their Foreign Ministry. The Foreign Minister is played with rampant satirical flair and panache by Thierry Lhermitte. He portrays the Foreign Minister as a charming lunatic who constantly contradicts himself, and never, never, never stops talking. He is constantly quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus (whose work survives only in fragments, many of which make great quotes), but rarely with relevance. The comedy is enhanced by the film containing many inserted full screen cards giving spoof quotations from Heraclitus which are, of course, nonsensical. If only this film showed the subtlety of satire at which the British excel, but it is too 'in your face' and slapstick. They are just trying too hard to be funny, and although they certainly succeed at being most amusing, I did not laugh once, whereas at a British film of that type I would undoubtedly have laughed often. (As for the Americans, they have never heard of subtlety in satire, and true satire is largely unknown to Hollywood, and is better found in a performance by the Second City group, who have never made it to the screen and remain firmly onstage as satirists.) The finest performance in this film is certainly by the wonderful Niels Arestrup, who despite his Danish name (his father was from Denmark) is as French as they come. He calmly runs the Foreign Ministry and deals with the continually recurring international emergencies amidst all the chaos around him, while his incompetent minister and the other hopeless staff run around in circles like mad dogs. No one ever notices that he is doing this. Let us hope that there is at least one Niels Arestrup in every French Government ministry, for otherwise the country could collapse under the weight of its collective political idiocy. And speaking of idiots, lest we forget the current President Hollande, his girl friend Julie Gayet appears in this film as one of the Foreign Ministry staff, though she makes no big impression. But then perhaps that is because I do not have a motor bike and have never learned her finer points. (Now that is subtle satire for you!) The omnipresent Jane Birkin has a good cameo in this film as a Nobel Prize-winning authoress whom the Minister wishes to meet and takes to lunch but talks so much himself that she does not get a word in. And for Jane not to get a word in is something! Hardly likely in real life. The director of this confection is the distinguished and well known Bertrand Tavernier. I wonder whether the French themselves laughed out loud at this film, and that my own laughless and wholly silent appreciation of it was merely a cultural artefact. Do I lack a Gallic organ? Such thoughts haunt me at nights.
Better than usual British B mystery of the early fifties
There are lots of interesting location shots in this film showing early fifties London, with the scars of bombing still apparent. 'Flannelfoot' is the name given to a jewel thief because he makes no sound with his feet as he slips in and out stealing priceless gems. No one knows who he is, except that he is 'one of us', i.e. of the smart set. There are lots of red herrings, some darker red than others, swimming around in this story, where we are kept guessing until the last. My goodness, the manners and mores of yesteryear! There is one hilarious shot where four men in white dress scarves and black overcoats, clearly men of fashion out on the town for an evening, say 'We had better not call attention to ourselves,' as they seek to investigate the mystery incognito and mix with ordinary folk. Calling Michael Arlen! But this film is amusing and worth watching for those interested in old British movies and what things were like back then.
Female on the Beach (1955)
Steamy stuff, and way over the top
Well here goes Joan Crawford being passionate, and wearing high-heeled shoes as she walks along a California beach, with each step stabbing the sand with intensity, just to let us know how much her relationship with romantic hunk of the time, Jeff Chandler, really means to her. In the fifties, when the producers wanted melodrama, they really laid it on thick, and the audiences loved it, because they did not yet have television soaps to get stuck into. In this film, Joan Crawford is genuinely hard to get, but when she falls, she really falls. Jeff Chandler does a very good job of acting in this film where he plays a scheming toy boy who marries older women for their money, and has accomplices who facilitate and fund his predations. Usually, Chandler got less demanding roles in films, and had less chance to show acting skills other than being manly. Joan Crawford is truly in her element here and plays it for all it is worth, and more. Jan Sterling is very good playing a hard-bitten real estate agent who is more than she seems, and whose crush on Chandler has, like the storyline, gone way over the top. Everybody must have had a lot of fun making this kitsch picture. And Chandler seems to have survived repeatedly kissing Joan Crawford without having his tongue bitten off. I suppose her mind was really on her swishy skirts. Joseph Pevney directed, immediately after directing Jeff Chandler opposite Jane Russell in FOXFIRE, an interesting film which made a much bigger hit with the public in 1955 than this one did. Two years later, Pevney would direct perhaps his biggest hit of all, the now-forgotten but then dearly loved TAMMY AND THE BACHELOR (1957), starring Debbie Reynolds.
How Paris was saved from total destruction at the last minute
It is amazing how few people seem to be aware of how near Paris came to total destruction just as the Nazis were pulling out in August, 1944. Hitler gave the order to the military governor of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, to raze Paris to the ground and kill as many of its 1.5 million inhabitants as possible, just as the American troops were approaching the city. Hitler threatened to kill von Choltitz's wife and children if he did not carry out the order. Von Choltitz had only been in place for two weeks, and his predecessor had just been executed and his family killed because he had displeased Hitler. So all the major monuments and all the bridges except for the Pont Neuf were mined and ready to be blown up. The whole of the Marais and the Bastille would have been flooded in water 30 feet deep. The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, everything of note, was ready to be blown up. All the explosive charges were in place. But then the Swedish Consul, Raoul Nordling, intervened and managed to persuade von Choltitz at the last minute not to destroy the city. Why is this hair-raising story not better known? The story was made the subject of a play, DIPLOMATIE (DIPLOMACY), by Cyril Gely, and now this has been intensely and brilliantly turned into a film by the genius Volker Schlöndorff. He has chosen two fantastic actors to play the two leading characters. Niels Arestrup plays General von Choltitz with such iron conviction that you really do believe he is about to blow up Paris and nothing can stop him. And Nordling is played by André Dussollier, with equal effect. The two of them play psychological chess with one another and eventually Paris is saved, but only just. There is a lot of genuine archive footage of the Liberation included in the film. This is a magnificent bringing alive of a turning point in history. All young people should be made to see it.
Brilliant suspense film by Jerzy Kawalerowicz
Jerzy Kawalerowicz (pronounced 'cavalerovitch', 1922-2007) was one of the most talented Polish film directors. His films are insufficiently known outside of Poland but are slowly being revived, with English or German subtitles, so that this Polish master of cinema technique becomes familiar to wider and newer audiences. I have already pointed out the sheer genius of his film NIGHT TRAIN (aka POCIAG, 1959, see my review), which may be the best 'train film' ever made. In fact, there are hair-raising and wonderful train episodes in this film as well. Kawalerowicaz was obviously a great lover of trains and knew how to get the most out of them cinematically. This film is listed on IMDb by its Polish title CIEN (pronounced 'tsyen', because a 'c' in Polish when on its own is always pronounced as a hard 'ts' sound). That means either THE SHADOW, as the English subtitles put it, or simply SHADOW, as the DVD box says. The reference is to a line spoken by a policeman in the film where he says 'you can always find a man from his shadow'. This is a mystery and suspense film of enormous power and dynamism, due to the cinematic techniques of the director. He specializes in shooting upwards close up to strong, Slavic faces, and his actors, all having lived through the War and Stalinism, did not need acting lessons in how to convey fear and desperate anxiety. Considering how bland, soft and pampered modern Western faces are, these gaunt Polish faces of the 1950s are a true history lesson in themselves. The stories and screenplay are by Aleksander Scibor-Rylski (1928-1983), who later wrote Andrzej Wajda's two famous films MAN OF MARBLE (1977) and MAN OF IRON (1981). CIEN was his very first screenplay, but already it was something of a masterpiece. The story consists of strands of remembered flashbacks from different people threaded together on an investigation of a mysterious death. We see episodes from 1943 when Warsaw was occupied by the Germans, and even more harrowing episodes from 1946 during the struggle for control of freed Poland. These all relate to the events of the mid-1950s when the film begins. Kawalerowicz is especially strong on powerful and dynamic moving shots, shots which are either driving towards something or fleeing away from something, or otherwise following something. This film is far from being static or stagey, it is always on the move. The train episodes in the latter part of the film are simply amazing, and the actors risked their lives by doing all the stunt work themselves. This film is concerned with duplicity, treachery, identity, and has a mood of loss and sombre sadness about it. The various searches for people who can never again be traced reminds one of the many novels of Patrick Modiano, and the same pathos at the irrecoverable past and the hopelessness of ever explaining its lingering mysteries runs through the entire film like a pungent trail of smoke from a fire of sad memories. The atmosphere is so strong, the acting so good, and the direction so inspired, that this film ranks with the best American noir films, alongside its even more dazzling successor three years later, NIGHT TRAIN. If non-Polish people could only pronounce his name, Jerzy Kawalerowicz would probably be really famous round the world by now.
This is one of those rare and wonderful family films which is destined to become a classic, and which will be seen again and again by successive generations over the decades to come. It is so magnificently done, that one has to struggle to find new words of praise for it. The first thing, I suppose, is to point out that the special effects, and in particular the facial expressions of Paddington the bear, reach a new height of perfection for the cinema. How marvellous it is to see special effects put to a pleasant use for a change, instead of purveying horror, violence, murder, destruction, the end of the world, and all that sort of thing which one usually sees depicted by special effects. PADDINGTON is a reminder that there are still a few sane people making big budget movies, even if they have to go under the cover of making children's' films in order to produce something wholesome. The acting by all the humans is superb. Particularly inspired is the performance by the wonderfully fey and smiling Sally Hawkins, who is perfectly cast as Mary Brown, the mother of the family who take in the refugee bear. (Strange to think that last year she was also in a monster movie remake of GODZILLA, which I shall skip seeing.) She played Jasmine in Woody Allen's failed film BLUE JASMINE (2013, see my review). This charming actress really ought to be seen more often in prominent roles, for although she has made 45 films, her name does not spring to the tongue all that readily. High Bonneville does very well at playing her husband in this film, and although looking and sounding very like Colin Firth, he does better than Firth is doing these days (see my reviews of the collapse of Firth in MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT and BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, both 2014, in which Firth subsides into inanity and inertness). The film is brilliantly directed by a young chap named Paul King (see the interview with him in the DVD extras), who was a main writer on the screenplay also. The main character of Paddington Bear is of course a creation of the author Michael Bond, in his numerous famous children's books. And it seems that there is a PADDINGTON 2 coming, so we can all look forward to that. Let us hope that Paul King remains at the helm of the sequel. The story of this film portrays the adventures of the young bear of a rare species from the jungles of 'darkest Peru', whose name is unpronounceable by us stupid humans because we cannot growl properly. He manages to find his way from Peru to London where he is named after Paddington Station. (No, he was not trying to get to Somerset, he just happened to be there when the Browns got off their train at that station.) Well, why tell the story, as it spoils all the fun. The film is so enjoyable that kids will doubtless watch it over and over again. And it has a lot to offer to adults, especially those who like bears and lots of laughter. (Humourless people need not apply.)