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1008 reviews in total 
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Complex plot to outwit a master criminal, danger everywhere, 21 May 2016

This film by Sheldon Reynolds is not a bad thriller. It has the advantage of Joan Hackett as the female lead. Two years before she had made a big impression in Sidney Lumet's THE GROUP and here she is, aged 29, being a charming love interest for the tough investigator Patrick O'Neal in a high-octane thriller set mostly in Switzerland. Vicious people keep killing non-vicious people, something called 'the way of the world'. Herbert Lom is a real bad guy who orders people to be assassinated with the insouciance of somewhat flicking ash from a cigar. Poor Peter van Eyck does not last long. Oskar Homolka is a Swiss police chief who bides his time. John Gielgud plays the ultimate king of the baddies, ensconced in a palatial mansion high in the Alps, enjoying the view and behaving with perfect manners. It is all entertaining stuff.

Waving hello as the long goodbye returns, 18 May 2016

Raymond Chandler purists did not like this film because it was a very comprehensive update from the 1940s to the 1970s. Philip Marlowe became a 1970s person, and so did his ambiance. The director Robert Altman reconceptualised 'the whole Chandler thing', and I believe he pulled it off. The film is based on Chandler's novel of the same title, but with many updated touches added. Marlowe now lives in a penthouse apartment overlooking L.A. and beside him there is an apartment full of what used to be called 'ditsy girls', who are 'spaced-out' (another obsolescent term) on 24 hour drugs. They like parading themselves topless on their balcony and doing somersaults in a semi-naked state. They are merely a backdrop to the film and are never fully explained, except that Marlowe does once say that they own a shop selling special scented candles somewhere (which can hardly explain where the money comes from to pay their rent and the fact that none of them has any kind of job). When one of the girls asks Marlowe to buy her two boxes of brownie mix, we are meant to be aware of Alice B. Toklas's recipe for marijuana brownies and know why she wants to make brownies. Altman must have his little jokes. Another is that a minor character in the film is called Miss Tewkesbury, a tribute to his friend Joan Tewkesbury, who had been a townsperson in Altman's MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971) and was during the filming of THE LONG GOODBYE writing his next film THIEVES LIKE US (1974) and the following year also wrote NASHVILLE (1975). She also acted in both those films. So much for 'in' jokes. For the new model Marlowe, Elliott Gould was the perfect choice. As Altman himself liked to say, 80% of his success was due to his casting. Nina van Pallandt was also perfect as the scheming, glamorous wife of an alcoholic writer who has writer's block, played by Sterling Hayden (another example of perfect casting). The ending of the film differs from that of the book in a significant way which I cannot reveal because of IMDb rules, but I think it works very well. The film reeks of the atmosphere of the now long-vanished 1970s, just as Chandler's books reeked of the atmosphere of his own earlier era. Since so much of Chandler depends on atmosphere, one has a choice either to replicate the original faithfully or do an entire conversion job. Altman chose the latter course. The story of suspicion, betrayal, lies, murder, evasion, flight, and fear transfers perfectly well to a newer era. One could even do it all over again, and place it in the present era, if one were a genius like Robert Altman, that is. If one is not a genius, then watch out. The contemporary issue of the DVD has an excellent 'extra' of a documentary profile of Altman, in which he gives extensive interviews, with clips from his films, and, yes, Miss Tewkesbury is there as well. No escaping her. Alan Rudolph has a lot to saying the documentary about his mentor and master. He was second assistant director on THE LONG GOODBYE. Watch this, and let it all hang out. But don't eat the brownies.

Low budget Korean War film about a struggle against the odds, 17 May 2016

Samuel Fuller had fought in the Second World War and put his field experience to good use in directing this low budget film set in Korea during the Korean War. The story is simple. A major general in charge of an American division is forced to order a tactical retreat of his division across the only existing bridge over a major river, which he will then blow up behind him. In order to avoid the enemy massacring his 15,000 troops as they slowly make their way across that choke-point, the general decides to leave a small platoon of 48 soldiers behind, commanded only by a lieutenant, to make a lot of noise and fire a lot of weapons so that the enemy will not know for some time that the division has pulled out. This platoon, known as a 'rear guard', will thus buy time for the division, and then they can follow after a certain number of days, if they can. The action is set in the snow-covered and freezing mountain environment of that terrible war. (A friend who fought in it told me the worst thing was the cold, far worse than the fighting.) The action of the film is thus circumscribed within this narrow story, in a small mountain pass where 48 men face an entire enemy division complete with artillery. Richard Basehart plays a corporal who, as fourth in line of command, ends up becoming the commander of the platoon when the three men outranking him are all killed. He has an inner struggle about responsibility, and that part of the film is a psychological profile of a man who fears command and also cannot bring himself to fire a gun at another human being. So Fuller is driving home some important truths about what war really involves, namely killing people (a point often forgotten by politicians in their bubbles!) There is a tense scene where Basehart has to walk into a minefield to rescue someone, trying to feel gently through the snow with his boots where the mines might be. (The medic who had proceeded him in this effort had already been blown up by a mine.) I had a friend named Michael Scott who during the Second World War went into a minefield to save his friend Carlos Blacker, and lost an eye, so I have heard some first-hand accounts of this tricky subject. Early on in the film, when the enemy are firing artillery at the platoon, they blast away at a cliff and a rock-fall reveals a handy cave, in which the platoon is able to shelter from the cannon fire. I winced as I saw the soldiers knocking the stalagtites down inside the cave, despite one of the soldiers saying it had taken 2000 years for them to form. I know it was only a set, but the idea of damaged stalagtites offends my geological sense of the proprieties. This film was 'suggested by' a novel by the British author John Brophy. Brophy was from Liverpool, who also wrote a novel and screenplay for the film entitled WATERFRONT (1950), which tells a tragic tale of the Liverpool slums, from which Brophy presumably came himself. There is some good acting and a lot of grit in this simple war film, which concentrates on this small body of men and their struggle against the odds. The film has been restored and included in the 'Maters of Cinema' series on Blu-Ray, as part of the current revival of the films of Samuel Fuller, whose PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953) is probably his best known film. I need hardly point out that 'fixed bayonets' refers to the time when close combat is at hand, and soldiers have to fix bayonets to the ends of their rifles to defend themselves against the enemy, as firing is no longer possible because the enemy is only a few feet away. Bayonet fighting is probably every soldier's worst nightmare, and it is not much different from what warfare was like a thousand years ago, i.e., two men struggling against each other to the death with only sharp blades to decide who lives and who dies. Makes you want to join the army, doesn't it?

An impeccable telling of a tragic tale, 15 May 2016

This is a film of the first two volumes of a planned five-volume novel by Irène Némirovsky (aka Irina Lvivna Nemirovska, born in Kiev), born 1903, died in Auschwitz on 17 August 1942. Némirovsky was a successful Jewish writer living in France who in her lifetime published three novels, all of which were filmed: David GOLDER (1931, filmed a second time in 1950) and LE BAL (1931, filmed a second time in 1993). In 2015 a film was made in France of her novel DEUX. She was arrested as a Jew by the Gestapo just after finishing volume two of her final novel. The manuscript remained in a suitcase and was not looked at until 1998, when it was rediscovered and published in France to great acclaim. The female lead in this film is played by the amazing Michelle Williams, one of our most talented film actresses in the world, whose work I have previously had occasion to praise to the skies, as for instance in LAND OF PLENTY (2004, see my review) and INCENDIARY (2008, see my review). In this film she has a rather subdued role, of a young woman who is shy and emotionally suppressed, living under the tyrannical eye of an authoritarian other-in-law, played sternly by Kristin Scott Thomas. The other spectacular performance in the film is by Matthias Schoenaerts, He is a Belgian actor (his name is Flemish). He plays the polite Lieutenant in the Wehrmacht who is billeted in Michelle Williams's house. He is not only a classical pianist but a composer. The music he composes while he lives in the house he names 'Suite Francaise', hence the title of the film. It is a very pleasant piece of music originally composed for the film by Alexandre Desplats, the French film composer. The film is superbly directed by Saul Dibb, who also jointly wrote the screenplay. The story is extremely sad and full of pathos. It shows clearly the bombing of the columns of civilian refugees from Paris by the psychotic pilots of the Luftwaffe. As we now live in an age of refugees once again, it is possible to appreciate more fully the horrors experienced by the French refugees shown in this film. We have the usual sadistic Nazi assassination of a Mayor as a reprisal to the inhabitants of a small town. Such films serve to remind us always of what happened under Nazi rule. But the biggest revelation is the avalanche of letters informing on people, a massive betrayal by the French against themselves, eager to settle scores with their neighbours by turning them in to the Nazis, not bothering much whether the information provided is true or lies. We also see the Mayor openly collaborating with the occupiers (before he is shot, that is). The film is very powerful and emotionally upsetting, and an excellent cinematic achievement.

Mr. Holmes (2015)
An elegant film, 13 May 2016

This is a superb example of British film-making at its best. The film is set in 1947, when Sherlock Holmes is aged 93. It takes courage to make something like that. Ian McKellen has never been better than as Holmes at 93. Really, now that McKellen is older, he has matured like fine wine. And the other star of the film is Milo Parker, the little boy who was so charming in THE DURRELLS. The two of them dominate the screen in turns, and play well together. Laura Linney plays the mother of Milo, an embittered, lonely and desperate woman who is the housekeeper for Holmes. Holmes is succumbing to dementia and has to write the names of people on his cuffs and glance at those surreptitiously. Every day he fails to remember more and more things. But while this is happening to him, he is haunted by his last case, attempting to remember it clearly and write his own story about it. The little boy Milo reads it and helps him with it. Hattie Morahan is very good as the fascinating young woman Holmes is struggling to remember, and whom we see in extended flashbacks. The story is very cleverly constructed and is based on a novel by Mitch Cullin. Bill Condon, known for his previous film THE FIFTH ESTATE (2013), does an excellent job of directing. This really is a very worthwhile cinematic experience, and McKellen's performance is probably the best starring role by a very elderly actor since Edith Evans in THE WHISPERERS (1967, see my review).

Charming old-fashioned German-Hungarian romantic comedy, 13 May 2016

I have seen this film from a print in the German language, with Czech subtitles. That print shows that the title under which it was issued in Czechoslovakia was, translated from the German original, SCANDAL IN THE Atlantic HOTEL. The Atlantic Hotel in the film is a grand hotel in Budapest where much of the action takes place. The film is a romantic comedy interspersed with occasional songs. It is interesting to see what kind of light and harmless entertainment the Germans and the Middle Europeans enjoyed just before the Nazi Era. One could describe it as good, frivolous fun. The story is based upon a play by the Hungarian playwriting partners, Sandor (aka Alexander) Farago (1899-1957) and Aladar Laszlo (1896-1958). Little seems to be recorded about Farago, who apparently fled to Sweden before the Nazis came, dying at Stockholm in 1957. His friend Laszlo fled instead to the United States and became an American citizen. The famous Hollywood film TOP HAT (1935) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers was based upon another play written jointly by Farago and Laszlo. Laszlo wrote the original story for the Hollywood film BLONDE CHEAT (1938, see my forthcoming review), with Joan Fontaine. But Laszlo's initial Hollywood project was to allow his friend Ernst Lubitsch to direct a film from a play he wrote alone, the film being another famous one, TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932), with Miriam Hopkins. (For that he was credited as Aladar Laszlo because the Hungarians, like the Chinese, put surnames first.) But back to Budapest, birthplace of the two playwrights. The story of the film concerns the charming ingénue Eva Balogh, played impishly and delightfully by the young Hungarian actress Franciska Gaal (then aged 29), mistaking a famous concert pianist for someone else and publicly slapping his face on the grand stairway overlooking the lobby of the Hotel Atlantic. Everyone in the crowded lobby gasps and stares, and this becomes (ironically) known as the 'Scandal in the Atlantic Hotel', as the newspapers call it the next day. The pianist Paul Murray (pronounced comically in German as 'moorai') is played by the German actor, born in Budapest, named Paul Hoerbiger, who in the same year also appeared in Schnitzler's LIEBELEI (1933) directed by Max Ophuls, a story I know well, as I have translated that Schnitzler play. He later appeared as Harry Lime's porter in THE THIRD MAN (1949, see my review) and acted in an incredible 263 films. This film was produced by the Romanian Joe Pasternak, who being Jewish as was his protégé Franciska Gaal, they fled together to America, where he became the mentor of Deanna Durbin and went on producing Hollywood films not unlike this one, in other words, light romantic comedies interspersed with singing. If the Nazis had not gone, the delightfully mischievous Gaal could have gone on to become a really famous German star in Europe. The closest thing to her in the English-speaking world was Clara Bow. Gaal died in New York in 1973, having made her last film in 1946. In the story, naturally, having met with a slap in the face, Murray and Eva inevitably fall in love. But she is temperamental and when she slaps him again in a fit of picque, the journalists present see a re-enactment of the famous scandalous slap. There are various comic misunderstandings in the story. Gaal is brilliant at doing bits of mischievous business. In the hotel lobby she naughtily steals a biscuit from a man reading a newspaper, and then cheekily eats it while reading his newspaper over his shoulder and munching in his ear. In anther scene she sings a song while seated in a chair which has the absent Murray's jacket wrapped round the back. She puts her left arm into the left sleeve and puts it round herself, caressing her hand as if it is his, and feeling 'his' arm romantically. The clever director of all this was Istvan (aka Steve) Sekely, who also ended up in Hollywood, where his first English language film was MIRACLE ON MAIN STREET (1939, see my forthcoming review). His best known film was perhaps the sci fi picture, THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1963). In this film there is a wonderful bit of business at the beginning of the film where Gaal gallops on horseback and outraces the local steam train (this is in the countryside where her parents live). Near the end of the film, when she is despondent about her love affair, this scene is reprised and there are comical moments when the driver and coal man on the locomotive throw their hands up in dismay when they see her riding beside the train but ignoring its presence, lost in thought and failing to do her usual out-racing. This film set in Budapest and the Hungarian countryside is obscure and long forgotten, but it is interesting to trace the numerous progeny of the film and their works in later years. The pianist's manager is cheerfully played by the Hungarian Jewish character actor S. Z. Sakall (aka Szoke Szakall aka Sandor Gaertner), who also fled to America to avoid Hitler and appeared in many Hollywood movies, including CASABLANCA (1942, in which he played Carl) dying in 1955. Joe Pasternak certainly put together a lot of talent for this film, which was a kind of rehearsal for what might have followed. He seems to have been trying to create a team of 'regulars'. One can only imagine the wonderful films that would have followed, but for political events. Instead, the entire 'team' fled the country to save their lives and dispersed, though many of them led somewhat secondary existences in America, where at least they were still working and could pay the rent, even though they could never rise to the heights which would have been possible in their native land. We see how much Europe lost in terms of culture when it lost its Jews.

Portrait of the early Heathrow Airport and Its Staff and Passengers, 11 May 2016

This is a fascinating ensemble piece, well directed by Basil Dearden, which creates a combination of personal dramas involving pilots, passengers, and airport personnel and shows how their stories cross and intermingle. Robert Beatty plays an ex-pilot who has become the head of operations at the airport, but hates being on the ground and longs to get back to his old job of flying over the Atlantic. But the doctor will not pass him. James Robertson Justice is an experienced pilot who repeatedly refuses to take off in a plane because he rightly says he hears something wrong with one of the four engines. Sid James has a bit part. There is a touching love story about two young people (played by David Knight and Margo Lorenz) who meet at the airport while waiting for their delayed planes to take off in opposite directions. The film works very well dramatically, but its chief interest today is the extraordinary portrait of Heathrow Airport as it was in the mid-1950s. In those days you could drive a car right onto the tarmac. Ah, those were the days, before everybody got up tight. Anyone interested in the history of commercial aviation needs to see this film, it is a 'must'. And it is very entertaining as well. It is not done in a semi-documentary style at all but is entirely done as a dramatic film which incorporates the details of the airport and shows how everything works.

The sequel to ROOM AT THE TOP carries the story forward, 5 May 2016

Lawrence Harvey continues his portrayal of the character Joe Lampton, at a time which is meant to be ten years later. For some reason Heather Sears does not appear again as his wife, and a harsher and older Jean Simmons takes her place, which is not entirely satisfactory casting, though she does her best. Jack Clayton did not direct this sequel, instead it was directed by Ted Kotcheff. He also is very good, but not as brilliant as Clayton. The other characters continue to be played by the same actors, although of course Simone Signoret does not appear, because her character is dead. In her place, to fill the carnal void left by Jean Simmons in Harvey's life appears a femme fatale played excellently by Honor Blackman. The Honor Blackman character is very subtly conceived and written, and she is the type who challenges a man to leave his wife and start a new life with her, and then when he unexpectedly does so (as Harvey does), she dumps him, leaving him high and dry and desolate. Prior to this experience, Harvey has discovered that life at the top is not at all the bed of roses he had imagined in his dreams. 'Marrying a million' does not mean he has a million, and even his car is a company car and he is not even a joint owner of his own house, and in fact he is a prisoner in a gilded cage. As his father in law, played as waspishly as ever by Donald Wolfit, says: 'I bought him for my daughter.' This film is excellent, and if it is not quite on the same level as its illustrious predecessor film, it is still a worthy sequel well worth seeing.

One of the most important films of its time, 4 May 2016

This film won an Oscar, as did Simone Signoret for best actress and the screenwriter Neil Paterson for best screenplay. It made a huge hit when it was released, and it had a major social impact in Britain as well. Based on the best-selling novel by John Braine, the film dealt with the aspirations of the working class to rise in the world, and the intimidation they felt from the rich upper middle class, in this case a Yorkshire mill-owner, played with ruthless honesty and typical Yorkshire bluntness by Donald Wolfit. The hero, or I should really say anti-hero, of the story is Joe Lampton, played by Lawrence Harvey. His desire to get on in life is all-consuming, and he is desperate to escape the row cottage in the small Yorkshire mill town where he has grown up with his widowed mother. He was in the RAF in the War, but was only a sergeant, and spent most of the War as a POW. It is 1947 and he has now returned to civilian life and has to decide what to do. So he moves to a larger mill town, which is not an entirely working class location, and gets a job in the offices of the local textile mill. On his very first day, he sees the pretty young daughter of the mill owner and decides he is going to 'get' her, both because he wants her and as a means of advancement. He is brutally frank about wanting to 'marry a million pounds'. He wants to get to the 'top'. Wolfit\s daughter is played by the young Heather Sears. It is a great pity that she did not appear in the sequel film LIFE AT THE TOP (1965, see my next review), and that she was replaced with Jean Simmons, who was not right for the part, and the difference in tone destroyed much of the continuity. Heather Sears was absolutely perfect. She played the daughter as a sweet, dreamy, but spoilt and wilful creature lost in her romantic notions. She is completely dazzled by Larry Harvey and in love with him, and keeps saying to him as things work out for them: 'Isn't it wonderful?' For her, she is living out a romantic dream. But she is far from a passionate creature in the carnal sense, which is essential to the story. For that side of things, Harvey has his own passionate love affair with the woman who is to be the one true love of his life, played by Simone Signoret with overwhelming soulful intensity. Signoret could say more with her bedroom eyes than almost any actress one can think of. You can see her thinking, and what is more, you can see her feeling. That takes some doing in moments without dialogue. She certainly deserved her Oscar. Larry Harvey's performance is wonderful and dominates the film, as indeed it should. The film is magnificently directed by Jack Clayton, and is one of his finest achievements. The cinematography by Ossie Morris is even better than his usual superb standard, with Brian West as operator. I knew (at a later date, not when this was made) so many people connected with this film, not least Larry and Jack. Alas, I never met Signoret. That would have been something. This film is a real classic, powerful, emotional, upsetting, compulsive viewing, and deeply tragic. It is what can be called without hesitation 'the real thing'.

Black Sea (2014)
Superb submarine suspense and action film, 3 May 2016

There have been many submarine films in the past, but the genre seemed to have died out, until this one appeared. The two most famous submarine films ever made were DAS BOOT (1981, 293 minutes long in the original uncut version) and ON THE BEACH (1959, see my review). In the latter film, the submarine was incidental to the story but much of the time was spent in it. Of the many wartime submarine dramas of earlier years, I remember UP PERISCOPE (1959, with James Garner), SUBMARINE COMMAND (1951, with William Holden), and others the titles of which I have forgotten. Others include MYSTERY SUBMARINE (1963), SUBMARINE D-1 (1937), John Ford's SUBMARINE PATROL (1938), S.O.S. SUBMARINE (1941), SUBMARINE SEAHAWK (1958), SUBMARINE ALERT (1943), SUBMARINE BASE (1943), SUBMARINE WARFARE (1946), PIRATE SUBMARINE (1951), and so on. (I refrain from listing the many earlier films about World War I submarines, some of which were silent films.) Somebody ought to hold a submarine retrospective film festival one day. Claustrophobes, be warned! All the films could be watched through periscopes. Probably the last high-profile submarine film until now was THE HUNT FOR RED October (1990, with Sean Connery), which made a big splash at the time (pun intended). This new one stars Jude Law, who is excellent, and rather scary, in the lead role as a very rough Scottish character. I learn from IMDb's invaluable trivia that he affected an 'Aberdonian' accent, i.e. one from Aberdeen. It sounded like George Galloway to me, and he is from Dundee, but whatever it was it was entirely convincing, so well done, Jude. The film was directed by a Glasgow lad named Kevin Macdonald, well known for his earlier THE LAST KING OF Scotland (2006) and for STATE OF PLAY (2009, see my review). He certainly has directed a high-intensity film with this one. The story involves a group of treasure-hunters acquiring an old Soviet submarine to search for gold in a sunken Nazi U-boat in the Black Sea, and much of the film was shot inside a real one, the old Soviet submarine moored at Strood in Kent. So there is plenty of authenticity about the film. As for the gold, the film story is that Stalin ordered two tonnes of gold to be sent to Hitler during the Stalin-Hitler Pact, but the submarine carrying it sank in the Black Sea. The gang of desperadoes gathered together by Jude Law for his madcap expedition includes jailbirds, a homicidal psychopath, a boy of 18 with a subnormal IQ, and a shifty representative of a crooked business concern. Half the crew have to be Russians because the sub is Russian and only they can operate it. Jude Law is the commander, with a handy translator standing beside him. The Russians are all colourfully rough, grumbling characters cursing everyone and everything in Russian like disorderly Cossacks looting a town and arguing over who gets to rape which girl. So there is endless tension, conflict, and enough confined atmosphere to drive any claustrophobe crazy with anxiety. The good news is that they find the gold. But there is some bad news. Watch and sweat.

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