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3 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Lewton's Western..... and one in the eye for Zulu...., 7 March 2011

During Stanley Baker's elaborate tissue of distortions and downright untruths the defenders at Rorke's Drift break into Men of Harlech as a riposte to their war-chanting opponents despite the fact that they were still an English regiment at the time and the concert never took place anyway. And they sing the song in English, not for the Zulus' benefit presumably but as maybe a concession to the film's American backers. The director Cy Endfield had been an old Hollywood hand until he was blacklisted and it's tempting to wonder if he lifted the idea from an identical scene in what proved to be Val Lewton's final production before an untimely death. I've no idea how true to history is the siege of Spanish Boot by the Mescalero Apaches but the presence of Welsh silver-miners among the population - and they were active in New Mexico and elsewhere - no doubt reflected Lewton's interest in ethnic cultures and traditions. And when the time comes they let rip with Harlech in Welsh which, for a Hollywood movie of its day, is doubly pleasing.

Yet another regime-change at RKO had left Lewton out on a limb after his initial run of success and he drifted unhappily between uncongenial assignments at Paramount and MGM before fetching up at little Universal whose budget-restrictions and thematic preferences he found more accommodating. And for the first time he could use Technicolor though the film commences on a dark interior before a door opens onto the outside world (maybe John Ford had been watching it too). Lewton and director Fregonese craft a sturdy morality-tale about an anti-hero who makes good in face of various forms of prejudice. Gambler Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally) kills a man in self-defence but is sent packing as an 'undesirable' along with the local "dance-hall hostesses" whom he later finds massacred after an Indian attack. A notable Lewton touch involves their dying piano-player (Clarence Muse), his scalping concealed under his derby-hat. (Lewton made a point of using black players in impressive cameos e.g. the vivacious Theresa Harris in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and the little page-boy in BEDLAM.) Sam returns to warn the town but is disbelieved until the stagecoach comes back bristling with arrows. A young townsman rides for help but is found mutilated down a well, polluting the water-supply. Sam leads an expedition for replenishments and the hellfire preacher (Arthur Shields) who had spoken against him comes to his aid when the party is attacked. (Shields virtually reprises his role from HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, the Welsh and the Irish usually interchangeable in matters of casting.) The chief Victorio is wounded and the Apaches withdraw for the time being. Back in Spanish Boot Sam is arrested for having given a beer to Pedro-Peter,the cavalry-scout(Armando Silvestre) during the waterless interim and is handcuffed to the bar-rail in the saloon. The town's mayor Joe Madden(Willard Parker) who's also the blacksmith and horse-doctor has an ulterior motive. Both men are rivals for Sally (Coleen Gray) the boarding-house keeper who's torn between love and security. But when the town is finally attacked in force she helps Sam get free and everyone takes refuge inside the church. The Apaches call for aid for their dying chief and Joe elects to go out to them but when Victorio dies they kill him. When night falls the "ghost dancers" - young painted braves deliberately sacrificing themselves for immortality - launch an assault on the defenders through the high windows in a wonderfully-lit and eerie sequence, the miners do their battle-song (one of them is actor and singer Sheb Wooley, later to add to Gary Cooper's woes in HIGH NOON) and the bigoted Reverend finds accord with Pedro-Peter as they pray together to their Great Spirit. As both sides fight fire with fire in the blazing finale the Cavalry arrive in a briskly minimalist wrap-up, Sam and Sally lead the congregation into safety and a pet donkey's newborn foal runs to its mother for milk. Solid and atmospheric with fine leads and an intriguing blend of the familiar and the unusual it rightly pleased Universal who wanted to keep Lewton on board but he decided to accept an offer to join Stanley Kramer. Sadly fate intervened and he never saw the release of his swansong.

2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Here's looking at you, Angela Vetto..., 11 February 2010

Towards the end of 1951 I turned fifteen, just a year away from legal admittance to an X-film. The new certificate, recently introduced, posed an unwelcome obstruction and a moral challenge though I had few problems at my local 'fleapit' where they didn't always question you. Joe Losey's version of M, Cy Endfield's THE SOUND OF FURY and Russell Rouse's THE WELL were stark compelling studies of civil unrest accentuated by the guilty thrill of the 'forbidden' logo. Up the road at the 'de-luxe' however was a different proposition. Amid much larger, grander and more formal surroundings my soul shrank at thoughts of confrontation, of deceptiveness, of "trouble on the door". Sheer funk kept me away from DETECTIVE STORY even with Kirk Douglas in the lead and I let Brando and STREETCAR rattle by unhailed. But then came the crunch, a moment of truth - Humphrey Bogart in MURDER INC. (as it was known over here). What self-respecting film-nut could let that one get away without a struggle. With a grace under pressure Bogie would have endorsed I faced the big guns - the old commissionaire, the manager, the Lord Lieutenant of Glamorgan, the lot. "What school do you go to ? What form are you in ? And you're 16 ??" I felt like one of the Bowery Boys in night-court. All I wanted was to see the Main Man in action, not study for a life of crime. Hang in there, Bogie, don't start without me. They finally let me in though I don't think they believed me and it was worth every bead of sweat. It was a shock to see Bogie with an X pinned to his lapel but what went on was rather alarming...

It's an odd item in his chronology, a superior B-picture made apparently to wrap up his Warner contract. Relations with the studio that had made him a star (via some lucky accidents) had long been deteriorating and he was already making films for his own company through a deal with Columbia. As the Assistant D.A. doggedly trying to nail a reptilian crime-boss he was not so much the star here as the host, presiding over a series of flashback sequences before taking over command of the climax. He has no romantic interest (all the women in the film are small-part victims) and no 'personal' story is allowed for. His chief sidekick is a burly Police Captain (Roy Roberts), in effect a precursor of all the TV cop-shows waiting in the wings. The Bogart-link reminds us of his Thirties thrillers but there are no flashy nightclubs here, no wise-cracking molls, no cocky chipmunks fighting for territory. The hoods are murky and nervous in an atmosphere of dread akin to a horror-film which suffuses the whole piece. (It certainly felt like an X at the time). A slickly-wrought compression based on real events it introduced the business of "contract-killing" to the screen and never loses its grip. As others have noted it employs a CITIZEN KANE device - the hunt for a vital clue embedded in the past which may hopefully bring about closure and its nicely apt that Everett Sloane (as Mr. Big) appears in both films.

The more extreme violence is always off-screen, no bad thing, but we do get a splendidly-prepared shoot-out at the end when the D.A. rescues his crucial witness (marvellously etched by Pat Joiner) from a stalking hit-man. Real-life D.As probably don't do that sort of thing but this is Bogie going gat-for-gat against Bob Steele, his old adversary from THE BIG SLEEP. It works perfectly and whatever the studio politics that led to it it's a smashing send-off.

1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
cat among the pigeons ?, 4 February 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I have never, so far as I am aware, seen a ghost and don't profess to believe in them but like most of us can enjoy pretending that I do when the right story's on offer, teasing the primal imagination down the dark roads of the unknown secure in the knowledge that I can scoot back to the sunny motorway when I want to. For some this simple premise is not always enough so we invite Dr. Freud along to observe, interpret and suggest, the old spoilsport, that it's all in our heads anyway. Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw has always attracted this kind of dual-response. Are his phantoms 'real' or the product of brain-fever ? Putting it on the screen calls for an interweaving of both ideas so that they come to reflect on and challenge one another. To carry it off with the utmost success needs a poetic singleness of vision that Jack Clayton's film unfortunately lacks. To be sure it draws us back irresistibly into its web with each viewing but its aura of hovering expectation is more interesting to contemplate than to experience. The ambiguities bump and bruise but do not fuse.

A certain conflict of aims is apparent between the director, who favours the spooks, and the writers who struggle with the back-story and the textual detail - and how they struggle. Between book and film there also lies a stage-play and its influence looms far too heavily over the action. When the governess and the housekeeper earnestly confer the film comes to a dead halt and the tortuous revealing of information, one step at a time, feels clunky and unimaginative. And the bland casting doesn't help. Deborah Kerr, much as I loved and admired her, was twenty years too old for her character and her wide-eyed girlish enthusiasm swiftly - too swiftly - turning to hectoring alarm seems misjudged and over-egged right from the start. Megs Jenkins as Mrs. Grose is far too cosy and complacent in the role considering what she's supposed to have been living with. She seems unconflicted and when it comes time for her to divulge the next piece of the jigsaw back comes her answer patly as if it's just occurred to her. And odd that an illiterate character is sometimes given dialogue that makes her sound like a Bronte.

The problematic spectres are seen best at a distance - the film's finest moments courtesy of the cinematographer Freddie Francis, the real star of the show- the first glimpse of Peter Quint on top of the tower in broad daylight like a hallucination brought on by sun-stroke and Miss Jessel's later appearance among the reeds at the side of the lake tap directly into those primal fears of ours, genuinely disturbing, unearthly and in the case of the watching waiting woman blood-freezing. But when the pair start trolling around the house the effects become hokey and conventional and though Jessel's momentary appearance as a sobbing figure in the schoolroom is well handled the scene is marred and the balance upset by having her leave a teardrop behind. This conflict of techniques breaks wide open in a ludicrous episode when we seem to have wandered over to THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL for a spell. The fragrant Deb, candelabra borne aloft, swans around in her nightie checking all is well, accompanied by a full battery of Ghost Train noises, creaking doors, booming voices, mocking laughter, all that's missing is the Skeleton. It's a baffling lapse and quite disgraceful. If it's all in her head God knows, the film's not clever enough to offer the option at this point. Maybe they were trying to outdo Hammer but Hammer at least were never guilty of pretentiousness. All ends in tears and worse with the governess forcing the kids to face the demons - or browbeat them out of their minds, as you prefer - but Clayton finally throws his hat in the ring and gives Quint a full subjective close-up in the garden, the camera peering over his shoulder as he gazes down at his potential victim, all ambiguity abandoned. The children are quite extraordinary and it's a well-meant try but despite its intermittent rewards it's fatally muddled. A clear case of too many witches around the cauldron.

It's interesting to wonder what Lewton, Tourneur and the young Kim Hunter might have made of it.

5 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
The old Lime-light...., 31 January 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A showbiz-mad Jewish schoolkid from New Jersey lands a bit-role, almost by accident, in Orson Welles' chaotically-born but groundbreaking Broadway production in modern-dress of Julius Caesar in 1937. That's the premise of Robert Kaplow's 2003 novel, one of these uneasy conceits that blur fact and fantasy but which Orson himself, with his love of illusion and fakery, would probably have endorsed even if he does end up as the 'heavy'. Richard Samuels, our hero, is also the narrator, Holden Caulfield dramatised by Neil Simon if that idea grabs you. Salinger's just died so we'll never know what he thought of it either. Accordingly Richard is cute, self-obsessed, sexually reticent and a relentless comedian with a smartass reflex in most situations. While rehearsals press ahead under Orson's galvanising tyranny, egos clash and crises are wrestled with, Richard loses his virginity like clockwork to Sonja, the ambitious production assistant he's been fixated on for a whole week. Before taking him to bed she treats him to a teary cringe-making recital of her rackety emotional life, hatred of her mother etc etc and you long to stop wasting time with these bewhiskered routines and get back to the Mercury and originality. But it gets worse. Richard thinks he's found True Love and when he finds out that Orson shares Sonja's favours as a matter of course stops being a cute comic and gets all serious, wounded and self-righteous, almost coming to blows with the Boy Wonder over his marital infidelity as you would of course (who is this kid ?) Though they appear to make up afterwards, once opening-night has been triumphantly achieved Richard finds himself out on his ear. Disillusioned he must learn to lose before he can win and all the rest of it and giving the whole theatrical experience and Mr. Orson Welles the spiritual finger decides to be a writer instead, what a relief. At least he might have better luck with Gretta, his earnest little girl-friend who's just had a short-story published (thanks to his Mercury connection, it must be said). Out they go sweetly to embrace the Big Apple together as a symbolic bluebird flies up into the sky. You couldn't make it up could you ? Well someone did. And I hope it was meant as a parody.

The movie, thankfully, gets us out of Richard's head and by employing a more slimline approach and eliminating some of the excesses (such as Sonja's maudlin confessional) makes for a reasonably buoyant entertainment despite some curious casting decisions. Richard is less irritating in transition but alas no more interesting since Zac Efron, who occupies his space, fails to transmit any discernible enthusiasm for anything around him. He's so cool he's not there. Sonja, who's twenty in the book, is played by a thirty-year-old actress who doesn't quite capture the image of the company's lust-object. Not that the Mercury boys seem too discriminating. They spend more time in locker-room conversations than the business in hand. Joe Cotten and Norman Lloyd are playfully offered as a dirty-minded double-act but George Coulouris, stiff-necked and warning of disaster, has morphed into Vittorio Gassman with a drawl out of Leslie Phillips. Impossible to swallow if you grew up watching the great veteran in forty years of pictures. But soft, who comes here, 'tis Christian McKay.

McKay is himself a good deal older than Orson was at the time. But then Orson always seemed older than he was anyway. His actual precocious theatrical youth is a veiled object to most of the living world now, imagined through the prism of history and his later greater fame, something heard in radio-recordings or glimpsed in photos and the newsreel in which he earnestly 'apologised' for scaring America witless with his Men from Mars. It's still a stretch to consider that he was no older than James Dean got to be when he played Charles Foster Kane. And for AMBERSONS (his best film potentially, I always think, why don't today's movers and shakers club together to track down the missing footage once and for all ?) he declined to appear as Georgie Minafer, preferring to remain unseen as the 'father' of the production. McKay's about the age Orson was when he played Harry Lime, his best-loved part -an impish monster who can sucker anybody into submission because his talent, self-confidence and sheer cheek seem bigger than the world's. And this is exactly what McKay gives us in his splendidly convincing incarnation, he makes you smile with pleasure. And his moments on stage as Brutus are inspired. The Mercury Theatre's first hour of glory is impressively mounted and rendered, for all the fun and fooling. It gives the film stature and is worth remembering. The teenager-fantasy stuff is negligible and its pygmy-darting won't I think hurt Orson's reputation. He was a magnificent magical maverick - even when he failed - and the world was always more exciting because he was out there somewhere beavering away at his visions and it slumped when he finally left it.

Two items of interest 1. I first came across the title-phrase fifty years ago in John Braine's novel Room at the Top when Joe Lampton joins the Thespians. 2. Though Holden Caulfield supposedly hated movies Salinger obviously named his hero from a picture-ad. William HOLDEN and Joan CAULFIELD in DEAR RUTH, Paramount, 1947.

8 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Bonnie Jean, just too beautiful..., 27 January 2010

She died last weekend aged 80, a great star whose career never seemed to find a summit, forestalled by middling films and imprecise casting. While this Edwardian Gothic gave her one of her more intriguing roles I've always felt she was too beautiful for it. If Lily the blackmailing housemaid had been less attractive the dangerous affair with her murderous employer would have felt a lot darker, seamier and her final pathos - the little skivvy whose dream-world collapses around her - more acute. When the Grangers are together they look perfectly suited - a married star-team of their day. Full marks to their performances, though.

While one or two plot-twists are far too facile - the brother-in-law mistaking the barrister for Lowry just because he comes out of a room, for instance - Arthur Lubin's direction gets the points across clearly and efficiently though lacking the Hitchcock intensity and lingering touches which might have made this a minor classic. A solid Technicolor production there's nonetheless a certain aura of rush and tweaking here and there with odd continuity slips and scenes that suddenly trail away in mid-sentence. Some bad processing is evident when the rather wet second-leads go driving together in the new horseless-carriage, which at least provides some topically amusing light-relief. But it's a memorable little show overall, good to watch with a last glimpse of Granger that's quite clammy - and now to be cherished more than ever as another movie-icon slips away from us in the dark.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Anything can happen in the dark..., 29 June 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Trouble is, not a lot really does, in between the absolutely superb set-pieces that distinguish this piece and compensate for its gradually faltering script.. The opening sequences have a classical brilliance. A lame girl is strangled in a Massachusetts village-hotel one thundery afternoon. Seized from behind she does not struggle with her attacker - identified to us only as a Glaring Eye - but is posed strikingly with convulsed hands above her head like a kind of religious sacrifice. Downstairs in the lobby an early form of motion-picture show is also reaching a tragic end. Among the rapt audience sits Helen (Dorothy McGuire) for whom this world that cannot speak has direct relevance. As a child she had witnessed the deaths of her parents in a fire and has been mute from shock ever since. Which puts her high on the hit-list of the Glaring Eye who's already accounted for several young girls with imperfections. The self-important Constable (James Bell) warns her to get home before dark..

She accepts a buggy-ride from the new young doctor (Kent Smith) who wants her to see a specialist and whose interest seems more than professional. When he's summoned on the road to a case she continues on alone through the tingly-tangly woods to the big old Warren mansion where she lives-in as a domestic. Armed with a piece of branch she runs it along the fence like a child whistling in the dark but fails to notice, as the storm breaks, a figure in oilskins watching her from behind a tree along the drive. As she fumbles for her key in the pelting rain it makes to intercept her but she reaches the front door unaware and unscathed. Inside the house, splendid with spacious vistas and shadowy byways, a sly old matriarch (Ethel Barrymore) dominates the scene, ostensibly bedridden but with a revolver under her pillow. Just as well as Glaring Eye's on the premises, scrutinising Helen from the landing as she studies her reflection in the full-length mirror. Her breath on the glass makes her mouth disappear... Things start spiralling down once we meet the Warren children - playboy son Stephen (Gordon Oliver) and his half-brother Albert (George Brent), a stuffy Professor whose beautiful secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming with her old nose) is conducting an uneasy affair with his despised sibling. While this dull trio go through the motions (to increasingly uninspired dialogue) Mrs. Warren keeps warning Helen to quit the house, the tippling cook (Elsa Lanchester) gets drunk and all's set in motion rather too obviously to leave Helen alone with the killer. In all this aftermath four scenes stand out in sharp relief - Helen's daydream of marrying the doc becomes a nightmare, chillingly staged, when she's unable to say "I do" at the ceremony; the murder of Blanche in the wine-cellar, again with disturbingly religious imagery, though prefaced with the hoariest cliché - "Oh it's you !" she exclaims brightly to camera, "You frightened the life out of me !"; Helen's desperate failure to summon help when the Constable calls unexpectedly - and the showdown on the titular staircase, the old lady rising from her bed, gun in hand, to pump some much-needed blood into the climax - and give Helen her voice back...

It was a real treat to discover the source-novel by Ethel Lina White in full online. Set on the Welsh border in the 1930s it has a fuller cast of characters, good conversation and humour, interesting period details, some intriguing twists and turns - and brilliantly extended suspense. And Helen's not mute in the book - a major bonus - and being Welsh (like Miss White) she's got plenty to say for herself.

4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
simply great....., 5 June 2009

By which I mean its virtues are modest, matter-of-fact, understated, its values sprung on practical story-telling, symbolised characters and honest sentiment, it's no dazzling blockbuster or searching biography and its special-effects might be termed 'crude-imentary' - yet its cumulative impact, as a tribute to a hazardous undertaking, is extraordinarily inspiring. R.C. Sheriff's scenario involves two missions, one on the ground and one in the air. Barnes Wallis' battle with the bureaucrats, largely hoked-up (and disclaimed by the man himself) is depicted rather like an Ealing comedy, Redgrave's genius boffin scorned and fobbed off by the Men from the Ministry (with the priceless Raymond Huntley at his supercilious best). Having Wallis explain his ideas to the family doctor in the opening sequence clues the audience in to the venturesome possibilities from a cosy domestic perspective (like sitting in a cinema or watching the telly). His progress along the chain of command after he finally gets the go-ahead is laced with a blithe absurdity - he's unable to tell the mission-leader Gibson (Richard Todd) what the specific target is just yet since Gibson's name's not on the secret-list - British humour beautifully nailed.

When Guy Gibson and his crews climb aboard the lorries taking them to the airfield it's a solemn and moving moment edged now with darkness and apprehension. It's a tad confusing during the raids when casualties start and we're not sure who's behind the masks but next morning all is made clear when the survivors return wordlessly to their quarters and some rooms remain unoccupied, some tables in the dining-hall left vacant. In the final scene Wallis and Gibson meet briefly to ponder the triumphs and tragedies of the night, Wallis exiting soberly while Gibson with "letters to write" strides off into the distance from which he himself is later destined never to return. The film suggests that he saw as an omen the death of his dog just before the raid in a hit-and-run. (The car did stop, in reality, but that would have meant another sub-plot). The flickering regret, the fond memory, the gesture of closure, all are perfectly conveyed and could also reflect his feelings about his own mortality. He appears to be single in the film with just the dog as companion but in actual fact had been married since 1940.

Nxxxer as a pet-name was not uncommon in those days along with Snowy, Rusty and indeed Gyp (would the travelling-community be up in arms over this ?). Black people were not a significant presence here then, to most of us they lived in Africa or were characters in story-books. As a child I remember seeing advertisements in shops selling ladies' gloves etc in a shade known as "nxxxer-brown". It was a fashion of the time borne of distance not hostility. Let the record stand, with explanations if need be. You can't point a lesson by cleaning off the blackboard. If Hitler had conquered Britain - as at one stage he conceivably might have done - multiculturalism could never have flowered. Be thankful there were enough Gibsons out there doing the fighting - and the dying - to preserve the right of future generations to ask questions. Don't sully the brave past with inappropriate slurs. I think we owe him a pet-name or two.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
a canny madness.., 30 April 2009

When James Bond reached the big screen in the early Sixties Ian Fleming's baddies - the Russians - were diplomatically changed into Third Force characters playing off the super-powers against each other usually to rack up loot or feed a madman's ego. In the bristling up-and-atom Fifties it was a different tale. With McCarthyism breathing down its neck Hollywood had a vested interest in slagging off the Reds without fear or favour giving rise to - among others - two fascinating collaborations between Sam Fuller and Richard Widmark. Fuller claimed though to eschew ideology in favour of tough tabloid human-interest while Widmark, a noted liberal but not a 'joiner', ducked and dived in the flow of things to keep his career afloat. PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET was a dark urban thriller in which a pickpocket inadvertently pinches top-secret microfilm. He's not a patriot and his subsequent actions are mercenary but the murder of a friend finally triggers personal revenge. Interestingly the Commie spy's also a mercenary, being easier to combat dramatically, I suppose, than a set of alien ideas.

When HIGH WATER took to the waves CinemaScope was in, spreading its wings on a mushroom-cloud explosion near the Arctic circle, an earnest voice-over suggesting It's All True. A busy reel of 'Scope travelogue zaps us around the world (there's a momentary clip from THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN with Maggie McNamara at the edge of frame) as the media buzzes with the sudden disappearance of Professor Montel, top man in his nuclear field - has he 'gone over' ? "Like something out of Inner Sanctum" ex-Cmdr Adam Jones observes on being summoned to a secret meeting in the dead of night (a nice in-joke: Widmark acted in countless radio shows before movie-fame). Get that name, a potent mix of the First Man and the First American Sea-Dog but like the pickpocket this Jones is no flag-waver. He's hired for cash by a civilian consortium of scientists headed by Montel (he didn't defect) to investigate suspicious activity around said Arctic - the film's crafty way of turning the Cold War hot, potentially, without appearing to do so. No governments are officially represented on this "peaceful expedition" and the only Americans involved are the mercenary Jones and his "key men" from World War II. Even the submarine they're using is an old Japanese "sewer-pipe". Jones does insist, against objections, on arming the vessel - not as a political gesture, you understand, but just to cover everyone's butt. So off we go into a delirious farrago of unabashed clichés - the one girl on the sub, the skipper's guilty past (he lost a ship through disobeying orders), the Chinese equivalent of "the good German" etc. knowingly marshalled by Fuller to lively effect mainly within the boat (just as well as the surface-scenes against lurid backcloths are on a par with the worst moments in BEN-HUR).

Montel's on board as expedition-leader along with his fetching assistant Denise who's rejected at first as a 'jonah' by the superstitious matelots but soon wins them round with a gracious plea for tolerance - the brimming eyes probably did the trick. "That's no female - that's a scientist !" Denise can speak umpteen languages but doesn't know what a 'pass' is. She soon finds out, the sailor-boys lining up to make her acquaintance, the jovial Ski with his fake tattoos and a drunken crewman who gets physical till the skipper knocks him cold. "A last-minute replacement," he tells her. Not one of his key men, obviously. Despite occasional frictions with both eggheads Jones does a nifty job of seducing Denise in a quite sexy bunkside dalliance bathed in infra-red during a cat-and-mouse, no-sounds encounter with a Red sub. Chin Lee the cook (who appears out of nowhere via Central Casting) has no English but entertains the crew with comic parodies of popular songs in fluent pidgin-American. When a Red Chinese officer is captured during a contretemps on their island-objective Chin is enlisted to pose as another prisoner to find out what they're up to. He insists on being beaten up by the skipper in person beforehand to make it more convincing - "It won't hurt if you do it" - something rather dark going on here. He secures the vital information but is killed by the Red. They intend dropping a bomb on Korea and Manchuria from a plane with American markings - as they would, of course. (The ultimate paranoid nightmare). Jones' patriotism surfaces - "They're gonna lay the biggest egg in history and we're taking the rap for it. I don't like that !" Quite so. He thereupon orders up every gun the old bucket can muster to knock the Gooks out of the sky. Montel, the man of reason, protests "this insanity" but knows the movie's got him beat and sacrifices himself for the greater commonsense. "Each man has his own reason for living and his own price for dying." (The script got rather fond of this line and tended to repeat it). Mission completed, the world is saved (for the moment) but not without an extra twist of pathos I won't reveal even at this great distance because it's rather good.

By the Sixties the climate had changed sufficiently to allow the nuclear-disaster cycle where someone presses the button - always by accident or delusion and always from our side - and the world comes apart. Widmark returned to Arctic waters as producer and star of THE BEDFORD INCIDENT in which a hawkish destroyer-captain, like a modern Ahab, obsessively stalks and hustles a trapped Russian sub to the point of no return. No girls here, no jokes, no colour and 'Scope. And this time round absolutely no-one gets to "head for home."

This crazy Limey nobody digs but you've got to admire his sand, 24 April 2009

"What's your favourite film, then ?" A dread unsettling question. But if harried by the Turks, say, I'd probably have to admit to this one - while agonisingly conscious of all the other favourite films being elbowed aside. And I write as one not overly enthused about Lean's other epic ventures. RIVER KWAI I find offensive for its wilful neglect of real p.o.w. horror in favour of smugly cooked-up ironies and hack-platitudes. ZHIVAGO is undermined by hollow leads chosen only for their beauty, RYAN'S DAUGHTER is insanely overblown soap-opera while A PASSAGE TO India collapses halfway through when the thread snaps and we're just watching the actors tread water. But LAWRENCE, for me, is the real deal, a bewitching tapestry so successful at what it sets out to achieve it's almost incredible. Gobsmacking to watch and a delight to listen to it makes you feel thrilled that movies were invented.

Sure, it plays games with history. "It's not the real Lawrence, of course," Lean admitted on the box. Quite so. The real Lawrence would require a mini-series or, at the end, a chamber-drama like Anglia's excellent TV film of the Nineties with Ralph Fiennes. The massive river of events, intrigues and personnel as recorded by Lawrence himself (though questioned in some quarters) has been simplified here, channelled into a tributary of pertinent moments and symbols, a loner's odyssey, with key support figures marginalised strategically along its banks. The true extent of Lawrence's role as an Imperialist agent did not begin to be disclosed, officially, until the end of the Sixties. To suit the film's left-wing leanings and better engage with the mass blockbuster audience he's depicted initially as politically naive, an amusingly bumptious misfit with a classical education packed off into the desert, via a wily politico, partly to get him out of the hair of his C.O. who has little faith in him or his mission to foster Arab unity against their Turkish overlords ("A sideshow of a sideshow !"). That celebrated cut from the blowing-out of a match to sunrise on the desert sweeps us literally into a new world (and still does). Lean's staging, Young's photography and Jarre's surging music combine to breathtaking effect. The winsome weirdo who enjoys preening himself and teasing his own flesh is tested against lethal tribal-rivalry but fires them with a bold vision - the taking of Akaba, a sea-port undefended on its landward side. During the long trek to this objective one of his men is lost in the desert. Lawrence goes out of his way to reclaim him, earning the respect of all and they clothe him in the robes of an Arab chieftain. (In real life this was a more pragmatic suggestion from the Brits). A further rite of leadership arises when he takes it upon himself to execute a man for murder, preventing an inter-tribal war. The man he kills is the man he saved (a deft juxtaposition of two separate incidents in real life involving different people). Lawrence is later to confess to his new C.O. that he enjoyed the experience.

Akaba is successfully taken (in a stunning panning-shot) and Lawrence begins to make a name for himself. He gets promoted and becomes a guerrilla-leader in assaults on the Turkish railway. But a turning-point comes when he's captured by the Turks on a reconnaissance, is flogged and (possibly) raped before being released. His bodily integrity shattered he's further disillusioned to discover (in the film) that the promise of independence he's been peddling to the Arabs is a stitch-up to conceal the colonial interests of Britain and France. The self-hurting he once indulged in now penetrates too deeply and the self-image become abhorrent. His request to stand down is refused, he's too important now, and in bitterness and despair takes part in a revenge-massacre of retreating Turkish troops. When Allied victory is secured he's sent home, leaving the politicians to sort things out. While this makes for a fine symbolical end to the drama it also constitutes the film's biggest distortion of history. Prince Feisal effects to dismiss him in the movie while in real life Feisal needed him more than ever in the battle for nation-rights at the Versailles Peace Conference. Feisal, the real fall-guy, was treated very badly by the Europeans and only Lawrence's active intervention as his spokesman won him concessions. It's good that we now have the Ralph Fiennes film which rectifies the record.

Robert Bolt's quirky brilliant dialogue, for Lean, tends to short-change some of the characters, reducing the stature of Allenby and Sheik Auda in a generally cynical view of motives which spurred their descendants to seek redress from the film-makers. At the same time it's all wonderfully entertaining and impeccably played by a sterling cast. Omar Sharif showed potential he never has since. And though Lawrence was never really an 'innocent' Peter O'Toole riding the whirlwind with his piercing charisma (and newly-sculpted nose) has an iconic power that will live in movie-history forever - like Sir David's film the likes of which cannot be replicated now that computers have taken over much of the adventure and the excitement. One last thought - the real T.E. archaeologist and map-maker was involved in re-drawing the map of the Middle East with all its volatile consequences through the 20th century and beyond. The final irony indeed.

unhappy together and utterly absorbing..., 31 March 2009

A decade ago Kate and Leo helped salvage the bloated monstrosity TITANIC with a magical chemistry that made their love story touching and important. The chemistry sparks anew in their first screen reunion though for the characters they play here the magic has been draining from their lives. Frank and April Wheeler are a middle-class couple living in Fifties Connecticut with their two children. April's the home-maker while Frank is a sales executive with a machine-manufacturing company in New York where his late father used to work. Their early dreams of being something special have failed to materialise. April, increasingly chafing against domesticity, seeks an outlet in amateur dramatics but everything goes wrong on the night and her confidence is shattered. Frank's attempt at reassurance on the way home she construes as condescension and they have a blazing row.. Frank's approach to his job is a mix of detachment and disdain but leaves him too far into his own comfort-zone to want to break out of it and he takes the opportunity to begin an affair with a receptionist. It's his birthday, as it happens, and he gets home late to find that April and the kids have prepared a party for him which pricks his conscience and brings him to tears.

April's last-ditch idea to revitalise their relationship is for them to uproot permanently to Europe where she would get a job as a secretary in a U.S. Government agency leaving Frank time to "find himself". As his own view of what this might entail seems pretty vague he endorses the notion half-heartedly to keep the peace but when she finds she's pregnant again and he's offered a promotion at work the pipe-dream goes the way of all the others. Back in her trap April makes her own opportunity for extra-marital sex with the guy across the way who secretly fancies her. But it's the unwelcome intrusion of another neighbour into their fragile hearth and home which exacerbates a night of crisis for the pair with April staying out in the woods alone. On what proves to be their final morning together she acts out deliberately and calmly the perfect scenario of the dutiful and solicitous wife before Frank leaves for work and she goes on to trigger, with resolution, an appalling tragedy... Richard Yates' densely-analytical novel, first published nearly fifty years ago, gets a bit oppressive and over-written at times in its relentless dissection of motives and self-deceptions to the extent that its characters begin to feel like specimens under a microscope. And I was less than impressed, in both book and film, with the crude device of the lunatic neighbour. John Givings is an institutionalised man who's had shock-treatment and is released part-time to his family. His mother insists on bringing him along on visits to the Wheelers where his increasingly sardonic and tactless observations - like parting a spider-web with a meat-cleaver - cause Frank to finally rear up and give him a roasting. The mother tearfully protests "He's not well, Frank !" which for me tips the thing for a giddy moment into farce because it kept reminding me irrepressibly of dear old Spike Milligan. (He'd wanted "I told you I was ill" written on his gravestone but they'd only allow it in Irish). Spike was off the wall too but he was also a comic genius. This fellow's just obnoxious though some in the audience found him amusing.

This blip apart, Sam Mendes' magnetic film offers us air and space - I loved the image of the commuters in their trilby hats pouring into the streets - while honouring the text with precision and a remarkable subtlety perfectly reflected by the two leads - the ever-present conflict between what they say and what they feel, what they think they want and what they're prepared to settle for - or finally not, in April's case, bringing a climax of almost unbearable poignancy.

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