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Monte Cristo (1929)
7/10
Fascinating exterior footage
4 June 2017
This is one of those pictures where I do find myself wondering what kind of audience they were originally anticipating (and, given the late release date, what sort of audience a two-part silent epic actually managed to garner in 1929). Presumably with a story as well-known as this one, a three-hour-plus running time wasn't felt to be a drawback when it came to getting the punters through the doors...

As for "Gone With the Wind", the BFI gave it a whole-afternoon screening treatment with an interval between the two halves; as with "Gone With the Wind", I felt that the first half was on balance the stronger film. (Any adaptation of Dumas' novel always has to contend with the book's rather unsatisfactory ending; either you change it, or you allow the film to drift off inconclusively. This one attempts both at once!)

As a retelling of Dumas' classic via the language of silent movies, Fescourt's "Monte Cristo" makes for a workmanlike and entertaining outcome (though I was amused by the way that the picture carefully avoids showing the actual figure of Napoleon Bonaparte, treating his brief scenes with the reverential avoidance generally shown for Jesus Christ). I was struck in particular by the extensive use of filming on location (including a brief scene at the Pont du Gard itself) and of genuine nineteenth-century sailing vessels, large and small; given the routine use of tanks and models in Hollywood movies both new and old, it was fascinating to me to see shots of ships that were obviously really sailing.

Jean Angelo (fifty-four when the film was released) and Lil Dagover (forty-two) are both really too old to portray the younger Edmond and Mercedes convincingly, although they undoubtedly have the acting chops to differentiate the two versions of the characters effectively and look very natural in the older roles. But it's interesting to see Edmond shown as a burly Marseilles sailor, rather than the romantic figure often adopted in later adaptations; one can really imagine this version as a capable first mate. And he is suitably implacable in the scenes of revenge -- though I felt that his "count-down" ("That makes one", "that makes two") didn't really work in a version of the plot where there are only two men left to dispose of in the first place.

Pierre Batcheff (as a handsome and sensitive Albert de Morcerf) and Robert Mérin (as a sullen teenage Benedetto far more dangerous than his adoptive father) stood out for me among the younger members of the cast, and Henri Debain does a good job of making his drunken Caderousse an almost sympathetic scoundrel. Meanwhile, Gaston Modot depicts Fernand's shift from jealous Catalan to soldier of fortune and then pompous retired officer with complete conviction.

I did think the film went a bit over the top in its use of flashbacks; it's as if they didn't trust us to remember what had happened a couple of hours earlier, and the result was that the same 'meaningful' bits of film ended up being shown three or four times, e.g. Haydee being dragged off to captivity. (It might have been less irritating so far as I was concerned if they'd managed to show different bits of illustrative footage for each flashback!) On the other hand, the film does a generally good job in condensing the plot of the book into a smaller timespan. I liked what they did to tie together the Benedetto and Caderousse material to make the boy significant from an earlier stage than in the book; I questioned, however, the enormous amount of detail and length they then devoted to some of the surviving subplots using the time saved...

There is some fine imagery in here (I'm assuming the Paris Opera interiors were not filmed on location, but the sets are very recognisable), although Monte Cristo's 'oriental' inhabitation in the caves comes across better when viewed as young Albert's fever dream than when we're supposed to take it literally in the finale. The sinister scenes in Caderousse's inn and the long shots down the weapons gallery come to mind as memorable; apparently the exterior scenes in the Château d'If actually were filmed there for real, which makes for impressive sun and sea vistas.

The film is definitely worth seeing. The version we saw had some slightly idiosyncratic English subtitles, which I would guess probably originated from a French-language translator rather than a native English-speaker, but they suffice. (Ideally you'd be reading the original French title cards, where the language is mostly pretty straightforward.)
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5/10
Tries too hard
31 March 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Just went to see Disney's latest "Beauty and the Beast", which was recommended by everyone from the conductor at our last orchestra rehearsal to the greengrocer, and was very disappointed :-(

Most of the film ranged from mediocre to downright annoying -- I don't know how I would have reacted if I hadn't been mentally comparing it to the animated version of which this was an adaptation, but in comparison with its predecessor I felt it came off very badly. The opening scene wasn't too bad as a fleshed-out live-action version of something that was heavily stylised in the first place, but as soon as we got to "Bonjour!" my heart sank. The busy town scene that was so full of life in its caricatured version was neither realistic nor convincingly stylised. Emma Watson in her liberated modern costumes looked completely out of place (which was only emphasised by the screenplay's attempts to explain this away by telling us that she was ahead of her time), and I felt that an air of nastiness had crept in to both sides of the equation. Belle doesn't just find her home provincial, she scorns it as oppressive; her neighbours don't just see her as a dreamy odd girl, they see her as a dangerous subversive. The days of fairy-tale are over; this film comes across as trying to sell a message -- pump a brand -- create 'Disney princess' material (with all its post-'Frozen' overlays of girl power and empowerment) -- in a way that the original never did.

I remember that sequence where Belle runs out onto the streaming grass of the hill-top and sings of her longing for "the great wide somewhere" away from the cheerful, well-meaning domestic preoccupations of her neighbours as being the great 'lift-off' moment of the animated version; it spoke to everything that I was and everything I hoped for. Here -- not at all aided by the obvious fake 'reality' of the flowers and scenery -- the presentation of it felt thoroughly manipulative and left me unmoved and resentful; that was the moment at which it first began to dawn on me that I might actually come to dislike this version :-(

Feminist Belle turns out to be... inadvertently annoying. Quite a lot of things about this film were annoying, not least its habit of trying far too hard to patch perceived plot holes and deficiencies in its characters by adding vast amounts of laboured backstory. (All that we really needed to know about Belle's missing mother, for instance, was conveyed in the single silent shot of her father at work beneath the painting of his wife and child.) "Tries far too hard" sums it up, really.

The one plot issue that I did feel needed addressing in the original was the improbable timescale of the idea that the Prince had to break the spell before his twenty-first birthday -- instead of trying to explain this one away, very wisely they silently drop the reference. And the additions I enjoyed were the added characters of the musical wardrobe and piano, plus the idea that the characters are not merely doomed to remain cursed, but will become items of furniture for real if it goes on too long. (Although having a lengthy would-be weepy sequence at the end where not only does the Beast actually die -- before being resurrected by the Dea ex Machina -- but all the other characters effectively perish, as well, was a case of over-egging the pudding, which this film does all too often.)

Cogsworth very much seems to get the thin end of the stick in this version, I felt -- in the original, I remember him as a by-the-book stickler of an English butler figure, but with unsuspected moments of dignity and heroism. Here he's basically the cowardly comic relief who is always on the wrong side of every disagreement, and the ending is soured with yet another laugh at his expense when he is restored to the arms of his unpleasant wife.

And while most people who disliked the film seemed to mention the character of Gaston as its one saving grace, I disliked Gaston as well... and not in the enjoyable way you were meant to dislike him :-( The original is handsome, conceited, talented in his own sphere, genuinely convinced that he is the best thing ever to happen to Belle and quite unable to understand why she can't see it. This version, who deliberately kicks mud over the girls who admire him and often seems to need talking down from a psychotic fit, comes across as rather less blindly self-centred and more coldly narcissistic. The original Gaston genuinely didn't seem to understand this unprecedented failure of his charms; this one is a sadist who actively prefers hunting down reluctant 'prey'. In trying (I think) to give him more psychological depth, they've removed the casual swagger of the original and the necessary charisma that would explain why people follow and adore him; he becomes simply nasty from the start.

I had no particular objection to Disney's live-action remake of their "Cinderella", possibly because I barely even knew the original; I saw the remake and quite liked it. With this one they took on the much more risky task of remaking something that was a hit in its own right to begin with, thus giving themselves a much higher bar to pass. (There's an aphorism that it takes a bad book to make a great movie -- something similar may apply to remakes...) The constant over-the-top urge to provide explanations and reinterpretations for every detail of the original by and large just doesn't work.
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8/10
Great aesthetic, neat twisty plot
13 May 2016
Warning: Spoilers
This was one of the Disney films I meant to see during the BFI's all-year Disney-a-week marathon, but managed to miss out on (my enthusiasm had rather flagged by the end of the year). I watched it today under less-than-ideal conditions, on a salvaged second-hand DVD that jammed and skipped, and without actually being able to concentrate on the screen for considerable periods of time, and I liked it a lot: more than "Tangled", more than "Frozen". Loved the Twenties aesthetic (little references like Naveen's ukulele), Tiana's realistic working-class parents, the New Orleans setting, the jazz, the voodoo (the Shadow Man has definite overtones of Baron Samedi). I liked the way that Charlotte, though clearly spoilt rotten, turns out to be a good friend and not an antagonist (and they even manage to make the friendship between the Sugar King's daughter and Tiana the black waitress come across as plausible). The Shadow Man makes an excellent villain. And, although this sounds cruel, I liked the fact that they went so far as to really kill off Ray, instead of pulling off the last-minute magical resurrection that seemed to be on the cards -- though any last words at all were a bit implausible under the circumstances!

I have a bit of trouble swallowing the idea of talking animals in New Orleans in the 1920s -- mainly the idea that the alligator can actually talk to ordinary people as well as to enchanted ones -- although that's a weird sticking-point given that I had no trouble with the idea that frogs can talk to alligators and fireflies... My main beef with the film would be that Naveen didn't really work for me as a character and I couldn't see what someone like Tiana would see in him; Flynn Rider as a similar 'reformed rogue' was much more interesting from that point of view.

Having watched the DVD extras I now gather that he was supposed to be a complement to Tiana's character in that he can appreciate the things of the moment while she is so focused on the future that she misses out on beauty and reality that she's in the middle of -- and that at least one of the jammed/skipped sections was one that apparently made this point :-( However, when I saw the film he came across as rather flat. (And why the French-sounding accent, when he's the one character in New Orleans with no reason to sound French?)

I wasn't especially fond of the songs as tunes -- nothing like as memorable as the numbers from "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Corpse Bride" -- but they work well as spectacle with the accompanying animations. "Friends on the Other Side" reminds me a bit of "Remains of the Day" in that respect, which is perhaps unsurprising! The film scores highly for me in that it repeatedly took completely unpredictable twists: I couldn't see the plot points coming, and yet they generally made perfect sense in retrospect. This is one picture where 'spoilers' are definitely best avoided, and somehow I'd managed to miss hearing any of them in advance :-)

High on the visuals (sorry, but I'm really not that sold on 3D animation), high on the plot, very high on the background and setting. Naveen drags it down a bit, I'm afraid, as I couldn't really get invested in the romance, but overall 8/10. It would bear watching again under better circumstances; I'd have been tempted to hang onto the DVD if it hadn't been damaged!
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7/10
Subversive schoolmaster for Nazi spies
4 January 2016
Loved this -- probably one of the funniest Will Hay films I've seen. I far prefer the pictures he made with Charles Hawtrey to the 'classic' teaming with Moore/Marriott, and an excellent supporting cast here includes Peter Ustinov and Frank Pettingell (of "Gaslight" fame).

I always find Hay funnier when he is being a pompous but resourceful twit rather than simply an arrogant incompetent, and here his schoolmaster character is put up against the Nazis and manages (with assistance) to rise to the occasion... aided by the fact that his opponents half the time are even bigger buffoons than he is. A sharp script relies heavily on verbal humour, with two outstanding scenes that riff on the absurdities of the English language. The invasion plan sequence in which Hay improvises strategy wildly in a cascade of puns while attempting to pick a German general's pocket deserves to be a classic of the genre (take them from the flanks in Lancs to keep the Paras all tied up in Notts... but don't get caught with your Panzers down in the Severn Tunnel).

There is also a clever yet natural-seeming series of gags making use of an asbestos suit, some of which you can see (and enjoy) coming in advance, some of which I didn't! The final reels of the film didn't work quite so well for me, chiefly because I couldn't help but be aware that with all those antics the plane wouldn't have lasted for a minute and had some trouble suspending my disbelief in the name of comedy -- it's always funnier when it's actually physically plausible, however far-fetched. (The ingenious tactic by which Hay contrives to prevent his friend Professor Hoffmann from drinking a glass of poison by triggering his "Heil Hitler" reflex precisely at the requisite moment, for example.) Up to that point I would have rated the film at a definite 8/10; I still rate it a solid seven.

The contrast between English and American propaganda films was never more marked; see also "Night Train to Munich", "Pimpernel Smith" and even "The Lady Vanishes" for Englishmen working against the Nazis who simply don't take themselves all that seriously.
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5/10
Brooding melodrama that I found unsatisfactory
17 May 2015
Warning: Spoilers
I usually like this sort of thing (overwrought melodrama based on long-forgotten bestseller), and Phyllis Calvert's name is one that I know well from English cinema of the era. But this film began to irritate me more and more as it went on.

Partly I think there is just too much in it, an inherent problem with adaptations from novels: either the first or the second half could have stood as a separate film on its own, but tied together they are just too much. Partly I think the problem lay with the source material, as Chris becomes less and less sympathetic, and Kate's unthinking allegiance to him starts to look like an exercise in pathetic self-deception rather than the undying love which it ought to represent. And the final development by which we are supposed to believe that he is a musical genius after all when not being stifled by the deep trauma of his wife's money(!) felt a bit forced. (It would have helped if I had been able to detect any difference between the supposedly derivative and unoriginal concerto, and the "New England Symphony": both sound equally melodious to my uneducated ear!) Personally I feel that it might have been more interesting for Chris to discover in Paris, like "Little Women"'s Laurie in Italy, that talent is not necessarily genius and that early promise is no guarantee of success... however, that's an issue with the novel's plot and no reflection upon the film itself. Rissa's virtually incestuous obsession could also have done with more development and/or clarification, as could the role of Jake, who funds Chris without sympathising with him, and Jake's hinted-at relationship with Kate.

Technically there is nothing wrong with the film (save perhaps a railway scene with the arrival of what is a blatantly non-functional train). It has all the Hollywood production values of what was a big-budget picture for Universal: a high-end musical score, inventive camera handling (for example, we don't actually get to see Chris's face until the moment that he awakes from his coma, although he is the centre of the dialogue and action up to that point), director Siodmak's trademark use of light and shadow, and set-piece scenes with scores of extras in period costume. I just found my disbelief and hence tolerance for the soap-opera antics slipping throughout; the turnaround by which Chris is perceived/portrayed as the sensitive, persecuted protagonist escaping family oppression in the first half only to reappear as a self-pitying failure in the second half could have been a striking development, but instead it came over as rather annoying. As an earlier reviewer says, Gainsborough Films had done this sort of thing more effectively with Phyllis Calvert in England.

John Abbott turns in a memorable performance as the music critic Liebermann, and Ella Raines is notable as the tormented Rissa. As a contemporary reviewer put it in the "Monthly Film Bulletin" for 1947, "the rest of the cast do all that is expected of them", which is no reflection upon the actors concerned.
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Cobra Woman (1944)
7/10
Comic strip come to life
22 April 2015
This is an absolutely unashamed B-movie... and about as sophisticated as can be expected of any picture featuring a beautiful, wicked snake-priestess, human sacrifice into a volcano, good and evil twins separated in infancy, a gigantic mute assassin, a lost heir(ess), a cobra-worshipping cult and a pet ape wearing a skirt for decency! It's technicoloured in more ways than one -- this is the pulp fantasy material of boys' comic papers come to life, and wouldn't be out of place as a lost novel by Robert Howard or Rider Haggard. Just about everyone sports a bare midriff at the slightest provocation, most of the women spend the entire picture clad in a skimpy band of material round their top half, and Sabu wears next to nothing throughout thanks to a magnificent young physique.

As the reader may have gathered, most of it is unabashed fun. There are a couple of suggestions that hint at something deeper: the idea that perhaps Tollea really ought to stay and improve life for her people instead of marrying her rescuer, for example (though the final outcome makes sense -- she was only ever herself a pawn in the hands of the would-be reformers, after all), and, despite the missionary upbringing of the main protagonists, an unexpected treatment of the cobra cult as a genuine religion, where offending the Powers can have consequences and people deserve to worship as they see fit.

The special effects are rather better on the costume front than they are where dangerous items are concerned, although there is a brave attempt at showing an advancing lava front by merely illustrating its effects, which works surprisingly well. The dialogue veers wildly between pidgin and fluent English as spoken by the same character at different times (sometimes within the same speech) -- it would be nice to think that this reflected an attempt to show whether they are trying to communicate in English or addressing others in their own native tongue, but I suspect it wasn't thought out in that much detail! Otherwise, the main criticism I'd make is that the final fight goes on perceptibly too long and in too repetitive a way: it could, with advantage and with more credibility, have been cut by several minutes to provide a more explosive climax.

But the film is thoroughly enjoyable for what it is. It has no pretensions to be anything more, and the characters generally look as if they're having a good time (when not being tortured, threatened with death, etc.) Sabu plays the hero's mischievous sidekick without a hint of embarrassment and tends to steal every scene in which he appears. Lon Chaney Jr has presence. Maria Montez plays a naive South Seas islander and a power-crazed priestess with aplomb and smoulders out of the screen (her snake dance in a scintillating costume is definitely a memorable scene).

Jon Hall makes an engaging romantic lead, though the plot suggests that the character is perhaps more honest than bright: his approach is generally to walk straight into danger and hope that circumstances will work out in his favour. Occasionally they do (this is the sort of film, after all, where you can walk straight into the inner sanctums of the palace after changing clothes with a high official, and nobody so much as notices) but generally he needs rescuing from the consequences!

I wouldn't actually describe this an unmissable camp classic, not because it's too bad but because it isn't. It's a perfectly good piece of entirely escapist entertainment which was never intended to be taken seriously, and while it has zero emotional depth it's easy on the eye.
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Memory of the Camps (2014 TV Movie)
8/10
Bearing witness
13 October 2014
Warning: Spoilers
This is the first time that I can recall that I have ever looked consciously upon the naked or the dead; when such sights are broadcast as news or entertainment, I've always felt that decency forbids us to look too closely. Bodies of strangers deserve some respect.

But here, decency itself obliges us to override that skittering reaction and to bear witness to these unknown thousands and what was done to them -- to the flopping bodies and their pitiful appendages, the calcined corpses that failed to burn and the slack-jawed eyeless masks that are not latex monsters from TV horror shows but people... what becomes of people when they are starved and killed and stripped even of their rags and left to rot. And like the German neighbours who were brought to the camps to see just what had been done in their name, we have no right to look away because it is improper or uncomfortable.

Ironic, since this film was abandoned simply because its message had become both uncomfortable and impolitic. Showings of earlier shock footage to German civilians provoked flat disbelief and had 'unsettled' communities; by the time the slow process of constructing a full-length documentary film in measured and accurate tones had reached its final reel, official policy had moved on from implicating all Germans in culpability of the crimes that had been committed to attempting to reconstruct a country that could be an eventual ally in the nascent Cold War. And Jewish agitation in the Holy Land made it unwise to release footage of concentration camp survivors being nursed back to health from their sufferings, when large numbers of them were then ending up in Palestine.

So the picture that was to have provided a factual record of what was then known about the Nazi concentration camp atrocities was quietly shelved and eventually abandoned. It remains very much a period piece, instantly recognisable as the product of the masterly British documentary movement of its day: understated and dispassionate, flavoured with irony rather than rhetoric, condemning by unemotional fact and asking the implicit question -- how would we have acted, had we been in the shoes of those happy, healthy German girls smiling self-consciously for the camera at Belsen or Ebensee, aware in a general fashion that undesirables were being shipped in to perform hard labour for the good of the nation and not troubling ourselves to enquire too closely as to how this was done...? The film makes a point of illustrating how close these camps were to major towns and cities, and how normal life seemed to the approaching soldiers outside -- save, the commentary remarks quietly, for the smell.

Given the circumstances of the revelations under which it was made, the script actually displays a notable lack of polemic: the facts stand for themselves (although the Imperial War Museum presenter at our screening noted that some of the statistics quoted are now known to be wrong). Despite its original conception as a document to educate the defeated German people, it shows a significant lack of newsreel national stridency: the condemnation is of how bystanders could have failed to rise up "to defend the good name of Germany" despite the likely consequences, and the hope at the end is that Germans will mend what Germans have broken. The moral drawn at the end is for the whole of humanity.

This is not a triumphalist film made by the victors (and one can see why there was a lobby who wanted the raw footage taken away from the Ministry of Information and used for precisely that purpose!) It's an attempt at showing what unspeakable things can occur on a routine, normalising basis along a long slope of acceptance and dehumanisation -- and a warning. It would be nice to think that if it had been released as planned, various modern-day atrocities might not take place... but while the Nazi industrialisation of death remains unique in its insane scope (what did they think they were they going to *do* with all those pairs of scissors, stored up and unused? with the toys of Jewish children, or the sorted sacks of hair?) human nature has not changed in its ability to ignore the uncomfortable where it suits us to do so.

This is a film conducted with a restraint that speaks volumes. It's also one that does not flinch from the depiction of the unspeakable. And yet in addition it does its best to re-humanise those who were imprisoned for extermination -- to show the recovery process of those who lived in addition to the discarded stacks of those who died, and to show the photographs, suitcase destinations (these were men and women who travelled to tourist hotels that would have been known to pre-war British travellers) and the toys of those whose very bodies have been obliterated.

Sometimes we must bear witness to remember that these were people and not just statistics to be argued about in some blame-game. I was reluctant to watch this film not because I anticipated unknown obscenities (I think in Britain we've all 'done the Nazis' at school, with graphic photos) but because it felt like welcoming a potential ghoulish thrill, a tasteless parade of horrors to send a chill up the spine at a safe distance.

But there are some things that should be seen and heeded.
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Judex (1963)
8/10
Beautiful homage to silent serials
4 September 2014
I haven't seen the original Judex, but I've seen Ultus, the equivalent British serial of the era... and I definitely recognise the style here. Multiple disguises, hairbreadth escapes from death, jawdropping coincidences, gadgetry and sleight of hand... and villains who never kill their victims when they ought to!

The print in the BFI National Archive was in beautiful condition (save for some oversized and rather intrusive subtitling), and this film is visually and musically stunning; the Maurice Jarre soundtrack is lovely, fitting and eerie. The morality of the story -- despite its simplistic chase format -- is surprisingly grey, with Jacqueline the only pure innocent (and thus, alas, the least interesting character). It's hard not to sympathise with Favraux in his situation, despite everything that we learn, or with young Morales, caught between the ruthless woman he loves and his long-lost father, and Judex himself finds his self-appointed mission of punishment harder and harder to fulfil.

Scenes like the masked ball (shrouded in almost surreal mystery, since it is not until afterwards that we have any idea what was going on!) and the spider-like climb of Judex' minions to the roof are very memorable, while the film also has a nice line in self-deflating humour, courtesy of the fiction-obsessed detective Cocantin and his rapport with small children. For such a preposterous comic-strip confection the plot holds together quite well, although having displayed such crowning ineptitude in their first attempt to kill Jacqueline (and what happened to the original idea of questioning her first?), it's hard to understand why the plotters don't just make away with her immediately the next time they get the opportunity!

The one thing that really grated, as with all old historical dramas, was the very 'modern' hairstyles and make-up used on all the eye-candy characters in order to make them attractive to a contemporary 1960s audience -- the result now, of course, is that instead of appearing subconsciously appealing they appear distractingly out of period. It's hard to credit a swooning damsel of 1916 when she is made up to look more like Brigitte Bardot...

Casting a professional magician as Judex enables the character to perform some impressive sleight-of-hand, and there are some subtle references to the original era, like the opening iris shot, the super-advanced (and supersized) antique surveillance gadgetry, and the title cards setting the various scenes. But perhaps the most impressive thing is that this is basically played entirely 'straight': it's not a tongue-in-cheek homage to pulp serials, it's presented in its own right as a piece of poetry for us to suspend disbelief -- a 1914 adventure of a mysterious caped avenger, an athletic, resourceful villainess, and a celestial innocent who sought to redeem her father's deeds.
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Madam Satan (1930)
7/10
Has to be seen to be believed
28 May 2014
This is a totally bizarre amalgam of at least three different films: a wisecracking sex-comedy, an unsuccessful operetta, and a bedroom-hopping farce. Add into that mix 'disaster movie' and 'fashion parade', and you get a film that's worth seeing just for its jaw-dropping novelty value alone.

It's actually pretty good: most of the humour is intentional, and some of the rest of it may well be. (I'm not sure quite how seriously the film takes itself: I got the impression that the heroine is pretty much in the know about what is going on, for example, and is simply playing innocent when it suits her... either to get the information she's after, or merely in order to watch her misbehaving husband squirm.) Farce isn't my thing, but those scenes are pretty slickly done, while a lot of the risqué dialogue sparkles.

Sadly the film suffers from primitive sound recording techniques, to the extent that most of the lyrics of the musical sections are incomprehensible -- not too much of a problem for the stand-alone numbers, but a big issue for the ensemble songs that are supposed to drive the later part of the plot. A lot of the verbal punchlines to the visual jokes at the masquerade disappeared into the background fuzz, as well: for example, I still don't know what on earth Bob's costume was supposed to be, because I missed the announcement as he entered.

As a musical "Madam Satan" is not very successful: it's a story of missed opportunities (Cole Porter, Rudolf Friml, Oscar Hammerstein II, Sigmund Romberg and even Albert Ketelbey of "In a Monastery Garden" fame were all considered to write the musical numbers at one time or another, as were Jeanette MacDonald and Gloria Swanson for the lead). The operetta numbers are unmemorable -- the 'popular' numbers from Jack King and Elsie Janis have worn better in performance style, although you still won't find yourself whistling them as you leave.

There are lengthy ballet/costume sequences in the second half of the film that appear to be basically the equivalent of the gratuitous fashion parade colour reels that crop up in various 1930s films -- simply inserted into the story as an excuse to show off the spectacle. They are staggeringly extravagant, but to my taste the display dragged a bit after a while. (Watching all the revellers subsequently attempt to don parachute harnesses on top of these costumes, however, tends to confirm me in my suspicion that the film really doesn't take itself seriously!) And we learn, to my amazement at least, that on a dirigible the parachutes are not actually packed on the wearer's back but attached to casings in the hull itself -- no wonder the harnesses look weirdly skeletal. You can't simply jump free wearing a parachute: you have to be clipped on first...

The parachute sequence is another piece of disaster-comedy that has to be seen to be believed. On the whole I'd say that the film is at least 60% successful: MGM might have done better if they had ditched the musical elements altogether, since this is probably the weakest strand and the box office was saturated by musicals at this point, and gone flat out for shock value. It's certainly worth seeing for sheer bizarreness.
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7/10
Amazing high-quality footage of 1930s-style climbing
13 November 2013
Following in the footsteps of Captain John Noel and his immensely popular documentaries taken on the Mount Everest expeditions of the 1920s ("Climbing Mount Everest"/"The Epic of Everest"), Frank Smythe hoped to help finance his 1931 attempt on Kamet, another Himalayan peak, by bringing back film footage of a successful ascent including summit shots which were at that time the highest ever taken in the world. Like Noel, he shot on full-size 35mm film stock rather than the 16m (or even 8mm) used by the later Everest expeditions -- but he had the benefit of the latest technology in the shape of Bell & Howell's compact 'Eyemo' camera with its clockwork mechanism, which he was able to use to document even the highest stages of the 25,000-foot climb, and the quality of many of these shots is extraordinary. Unfortunately he was unable to get a commercial release for the completed documentary with its recorded score and narrative commentary, and it eventually ended up being distributed in 16mm format as a schools' educational film. Smythe was left cynical and disillusioned by the whole experience, complaining that "photographs of toil and difficulty on the 'Roof of the World'... count for nothing when the 'accidents', 'blizzards' and 'avalanches' can be faked in the studio" and "the public has been so soaked in sensational make-believe that the unvarnished truth is no longer anything but boring".

In fact contemporary reviews suggested that the undoubtedly high-quality footage and dramatic content was somewhat let down by Smythe's commentary, and having seen a screening of the BFI's preserved archive copy I find myself reluctantly coming to agree. It's odd, because Frank Smythe was a prolific and vivid author who would go on to publish many popular mountaineering volumes and had at this juncture already written a highly successful book, "The Kangchenjunga Adventure". But the voice-over he penned to accompany this film (and recorded himself, occasionally with audible 'fluffs'!) is uneven in tone and effect, occasionally very much so: I thought it worked best in the central section of the film and rather less well at the beginning and end. We had the opportunity beforehand of comparing the sound print with an extract from the silent (and evidently slightly shortened) version distributed to schools, which has one advantage in that it is able to use the full width of the frame rather than sacrificing a strip to the soundtrack: a comparison which becomes evident when, for example, a nicely-framed shot of a Gurkha displaying his kukri knife reappeared in the sound print with the left-hand end of the blade truncated.

On the other hand "Kamet Conquered" makes a fascinating companion piece to Noel's artistically more successful "Epic of Everest". It is close enough in date to record what were essentially the same techniques and conditions -- the endless cutting of steps with long-handled ice-axes in the absence of forward-pointing crampons, the multiple layers of woollen clothing and nailed leather soles, the crates carried up to a succession of camps as an ever-decreasing team of porters drop out in exhaustion -- in far more close-up detail than Captain Noel sought or was able to do. It depicts eloquently what it was like to climb in the Himalayas in the 1930s: the achingly slow pace of a high-altitude ascent without oxygen, dwindling to barely 100 feet in an hour, the vertiginous paths along which the yaks and porters had to navigate, the makeshift cooking and eating arrangements, the plodding labour of soft snow, and crippling frostbite through layers of clothing. This is probably the closest we will ever get to seeing what those early Everest expeditions were actually like, when not being 'epic'!

And the ethnographic footage of the villages and pilgrims along the upper reaches of the Ganges is also fascinating: in place of Noel's Tibetan Buddhists, we get contemporary Hindu culture from the other side of the Himalayas. (Although Smythe comments that the Bhotias would happily suit their religion to whichever side of the border they happened to be on...)

Smythe has succeeded in getting some amazingly dramatic footage, whether of icefalls from the hanging glaciers, yaks crossing a raging torrent, or climbers like black specks on the upper slopes of the mountain. The quality of the close-up shots showing the final push to the summit -- with exhausted men labouring up a sheer ice slope or dragging booted and putteed feet over the shelf of a rocky outcrop -- is so high that I found myself ignobly wondering whether Smythe had resorted to later 'reconstruction' at lower altitudes: if this material was really shot on the way to the peak by a cameraman dulled by oxygen deprivation, it is the most incredible technical achievement. As to the panoramic shots taken from the top of Kamet itself, exceeding all previous height records, there can be no doubt as to their authenticity.

For anyone interested in the history of Himalayan climbing, this is unmissable. As a general documentary, it is fascinating: as an art picture it can be astoundingly beautiful. It's just that I can, after all, see why it was not a commercial success.
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7/10
Noel's second Everest documentary
27 October 2013
It was interesting to see this film immediately after Captain Noel's first Everest documentary, the optimistically-entitled "Climbing Mount Everest" covering the 1922 attempt on the mountain. The degree of public interest in the earlier film had prompted Noel into the venture of buying the commercial rights to the film of this new expedition outright, raising the amazing sum of eight thousand pounds in advance; effectively, "The Epic of Everest" financed the 1924 summit bid.

The difference between the two approaches to the same subject is notable. This film runs half an hour longer than its predecessor, but if anything feels shorter: it is constructed as an artistic whole, whereas the first attempt relies much more on the sheer novelty of its subject matter -- both Tibet and the mountain were being filmed for the first time ever -- and in consequence has a certain random "what I did on my holidays" feel to it. On the other hand, it's certainly worth seeing as a companion piece, not least because it explains some of the background detail that appears in "The Epic of Everest": the prayer wheel that we see here, for example, which is otherwise implied to be a musical instrument of some kind. And at least one shot (of Tibetans dancing) has clearly been inserted directly into this film from the 1922 version!

For the "Epic of Everest" Noel makes an attempt to create human interest, introducing individuals and showing us clips of Somervell sketching, Geoffrey Bruce at the typewriter, and Sandy Irvine swinging a thermometer(?): the tale of a newborn donkey provides another minor strand. To modern eyes I think the film would have benefited from more such material, especially given the practical difficulties of filming actual mountaineering (almost all the climbing footage had to be shot via telephoto lens at extreme long range) and the requirement for the photographic party to wait around in camp below to learn the results of each fresh summit bid: shots of camp life on a more human level would have helped bring the realities of the expedition home. As it is, we get little beyond a couple of scenes of the expedition members gathered at table in the open air, and learn nothing of, for example, the relay system of runners that dispatched Noel's precious negatives all the way back to Darjeeling for developing. An even more puzzling omission is the absence in this film of any coverage of the oxygen system eventually used by Mallory, a precursor of which is seen on Finch and Bruce in the 1922 footage.

And because -- presumably -- it was impossible to film in anything other than the most perfect of conditions, we get very little idea of the savagery of Everest's weather, which constantly frustrated the climbers' attempts. Only the billowing of the little Meade tents on the North Col gives any hint as to the conditions that entrapped four porters (and almost exhausted both Mallory and Somervell in a rescue expedition before ever they could make their respective bids for the summit).

But this film is conceived on a more elevated level, with sweeping tinted shots of the mountain and its approaches, the vast bulk of the north-eastern ridge above the cameraman, and the vertical precipices that await the climber who slips. To those familiar with the still photographs of the expedition, perhaps the greatest magic is to see those familiar scenes come alive: to see porters on Irvine's famous tent-peg rope ladder, to see climbers turn and grin at the camera, to see Norton and Somervell's stumbling, blind return from 28,000ft. Perhaps most memorable (and rightly selected by the BFI for their trailer) are those shots of the Himalayan sunset creeping across the folds of the mountain and finally extinguishing the highest peak: both art and metaphor.

In an similarly elevated tone are the intertitles -- although by the standards of silent drama/action films it can be very intertitle-heavy. If only the voice-over had existed for documentaries in 1924...

I was sceptical about the idea of the modern score composed for the film's re-release, but in fact I found that it worked very well. The use of 'found sounds' and natural noise goes some way to substitute for the lack of soundtrack, introducing heavy breathing and harsh winds to restore some idea of the sheer labour involved in those little black dots moving over pristine white, and providing ambient sounds for a Tibetan yak herd or Darjeeling bazaar, while it includes Captain Noel's own recordings of the Tibetan lamas who performed at the film's original London premiere.

Inevitably "The Epic of Everest" is constrained by the technical challenges of filming under extreme conditions -- I wondered also if the relative lack of human-interest footage was dictated by a limited supply of film stock -- and while Captain Noel greatly admired Herbert Ponting's pre-WW1 Antarctic achievements, despite technical advances I'm not sure he reaches the same artistic heights. Ponting's "The Great White Silence" is another film that began as a documentary and had to be re-edited into a memorial to a Great British Failure, and as such is an obvious point of comparison: but it contains some shots of truly jaw-dropping beauty. With the difficulties of altitude and long distance added to that of intense cold, the interest of Noel's film lies to a greater extent in its record of a historic event. I like this score better, though!

For anyone with an interest in the 1920s Everest expeditions it is certainly worth going to see "The Epic of Everest" during its general release; for the more curious, "Climbing Mount Everest" is also available to watch in person via the BFI's Mediatheque screens at various locations around the country.
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Star Trek (2009)
4/10
Galaxy Quest was infinitely superior
10 May 2013
Apparently this is teenage Star Trek, in which the juvenile delinquents take over the starship "Enterprise"....

I am not a particular "Star Trek" fan - my main knowledge of the series was gained by encountering various tie-in novels while devouring the science fiction section of my local library, although I've probably seen half a dozen repeated episodes of the original TV series over the years and watched (and disliked) some of the earlier films when they first came out -- and I know very little about the subsequent spin-off series. All of which goes to say that I didn't have a vast amount of emotional investment to be overthrown when watching this film. I simply remembered that it got good reviews when it first came out, that I'd intended to watch it at the time but never got round to it, and that it might be a good idea to have a look at it now in case I actually wanted to watch the forthcoming sequel.

I was at least expecting decent entertainment...

This film is simply one long string of modern action-movie cliché from start to end, with frenetic camera-work, constant shoot-em-ups and/or punch-em-ups, fights over multi-level platforms (haven't I just seen this same sequence shoe-horned into "The Hobbit"?), supposedly emotional scenes that leave me absolutely untouched and not a little irked at the intended manipulation, and the insistence that any action marginally more intelligent than charging head-to-head with vastly more powerful baddies and hoping for a miracle is simply arrant cowardice. All of which would be bad enough (plus the truly lazy use of time-travel as a deus ex machina for some hand-waving technology), but which is accelerated past the stage of merely being bad science fiction and into the stage of being deeply annoying by the teenage cast.

Presumably this was an attempt to win the vital Young Adult (16-24) market -- however, the scenario where a bunch of space cadets are sent out to save the universe because, whoops, the rest of the navy isn't in port yet, really doesn't hold water. Let alone the scenario where all the famous characters just happen to be the same age and end up on the same ship -- funny, that -- so that the series can be 'rebooted' with a complete cast of photogenic crew members under the age of twenty-two. I may not know much about Star Trek history, but I do have some idea of naval organisation and the workings of seniority! As for Kirk, he is unbelievably annoying -- I felt like cheering when Spock had him thrown off the bridge and off the ship after behaviour that should have got him cashiered. The idea that this delinquent stowaway cadet could commit mutiny via grossly insulting his superior officer and be rewarded for it by appointing himself captain is not only ludicrous but offensive to the intelligence of the viewer: as another reviewer points out, even Dr McCoy was senior to Kirk at that point.

What is -- or should be -- deeply worrying is that "Galaxy Quest", written as a deliberate "Star Trek" spoof, is actually infinitely more effective as straight science fiction than this 'reboot' is. It is perhaps unsurprising that it is also much funnier (what jokes exist in this film tend to fail badly), but the producers should be seriously concerned that the so-called spoof is also far more emotionally involving, more heroic, more exciting, and more scientifically coherent. You actually care about what happens to that crew of washed-up actors and hapless aliens: they face real challenges, evolve real relationships and manage to eat their cake and have it while poking gentle fun at the nerds who ultimately help save the day.

As for this film -- well, I liked most of Spock and what little we saw of McCoy, hated Kirk, found the other 'canon' crew members pretty ridiculous and thought the plot was detestably silly. Again, as another reviewer says, you could plausibly have made it an 'origins' story for Kirk alone (though the character would still have been a complete pain in the neck), but attempting to assemble a complete juvenile version of the crew really stretches credibility. It wasn't just a bad blockbuster: it was a blockbuster that I deeply resented seeing.
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Bomb Girls (2012– )
5/10
It fizzles out in the UK
11 November 2012
ITV chose to show the first series of this Canadian import directly after "Foyle's War", the British-made drama set in almost the same time period -- presumably hoping to pick up some of the same audience. Well, I watched it... but alas, the magic really didn't carry across for this viewer, and the contrast between the two productions was stark to say the least.

Perhaps the most massive difference, apart from the gloss -- the female characters in "Foyle's War" are far less glamorously made-up and dressed, although to be fair the Canadians hadn't been subject to years of rationing -- is the level of sentimentality in the two series. The English are understated, defensive, touchy, sometimes on the make, sometimes self-sacrificing, in some cases both at once -- but they keep just about everything implicit. The first episode of "Bomb Girls" spells everything out in giant letters, from the injured munitions worker whose looks (not life) must be prioritised over the needs of wounded soldiers because "she's a soldier too" to the patriotic declarations of all and sundry and the howls of the woman who learns bad news on the factory floor. Perhaps this reflects a different culture: it certainly reminds me of Hollywood 'home-front' propaganda films of the 1940s, but I found this episode about as unwatchable as that wartime US product and can't see myself bothering with the rest.

"Bomb Girls" covers very much the same material as "Millions Like Us" (1943), in which girls of different backgrounds find themselves thrown together in an aircraft factory. But while the WWII film, conceived as an educational propaganda effort, profited from a Gilliat-Launder script and top stars of the period to become a minor classic, "Bomb Girls" comes across as strictly by numbers. The Radio Times listing advised would-be UK viewers that as a formulaic drama "it could easily be any old soap, any old where": while I was interested enough by the concept that I disregarded this warning, I have to admit that it proved to be accurate enough. I'm not the target viewer for this material.
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5/10
The villains come out top -- but only in the acting stakes
8 November 2012
This film sounded interesting from the subject matter, especially the dance-hall setting: and there is some good acting from the 'heavies', Barry K. Barnes as Paul Baker, the suave, good-looking and dangerous master of ceremonies, and Barry Jones as 'Mr Gregory', the mind behind the scenes. Unfortunately I didn't find the young hero and heroine particularly involving -- they are basically blank spots in the script marked "Generic Virtuous Character" -- and as the plot begins to be twisted in their favour with more and more incredulity-straining coincidences I found my tolerance decreasing. Diana Dors catches the eye in an unbilled (and for all that surprisingly prominent) part as one of the 'professional partners' at the dance hall, and various character actors do their reliable stuff. There are moments of genuine tension: but, alas, for me at least they always involved conflict between the villains rather than the endangerment of Our Heroes which was supposed to provide excitement. I'm afraid I got much more worried by Toni Masters' possible fate at the hands of a psychotic lorry-driver -- since she is a Bad Girl and therefore has some actual character conflict -- than by a punch-up involving Ted Peters, who is bound to win by some total fluke anyhow.

The film looked promising at the start, but I failed to get involved and ended up feeling manipulated instead.
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Jewel Robbery (1932)
9/10
Sparkling, daring and very funny
17 October 2012
Decadent, frothy, amoral and deliciously funny -- sometimes to a rolling-in-the-aisles degree -- this film is likely to make your jaw drop with the delightfully brazen fantasy of it all: there's a real Viennese lightness to the tale of the Countess who longs to become an honest adventuress and the gentleman thief with a /modus operandi/ so civilised that his victims are caught completely off-balance -- it almost makes sense. (I particularly loved the gramophone in a hatbox that he carries everywhere with him, and the accomplice who deferentially presents him with a case containing the gun for use in the hold-up!)

The dialogue demonstrates, not for the first time, that suggestion is far sexier than explicit grunt-and-heave, and the costumes are Hollywood fantasy writ large for the audience's delight. Suavity naturally rules, irony is writ large, and my only complaint was that I inadvertently guessed one of the plot twists a few minutes before the heroine did, thus losing the pleasure of the surprise. I suspect that the Middle-European setting in a famously frivolous Vienna allowed the script to dare even further than would otherwise have been permitted, but basically if you think you hear an innuendo and it's funny then it's probably entirely intentional...

My main fear is that if I ever get to watch this again (probably unlikely, alas) it can't possibly live up to my memories of seeing it tonight, with a full house rocking with laughter and a freshly-restored print on the big screen.
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Champagne (1928)
7/10
The secret of the second negative
1 October 2012
The recent BFI restoration of the Hitchcock silents brought to light the unhappy truth that the negative of "Champagne" held in the National Archive -- which on research proved to be the ultimate source of every other surviving print around the world -- is explicitly labelled as the studio's 'second negative', in other words a substandard back-up copy assembled from the shots that weren't quite good enough for the distribution print. The digitally restored version looks good, and some improvements have been made where shots were obviously spliced out of sequence, but since we now know that there are specific problems in this negative with poor editing/pacing (e.g. shots being held a little too long) and the use of reaction shots that didn't originally make the grade, it's hard to be sure how many of the film's issues are due to this fact and how many to an actually weak storyline. Given that the major problems are the complaint that the film seems to drag and that characters' reactions just don't seem to make sense, I'm afraid that "Champagne" as originally released may well have been substantially superior to the only version that we will ever be able to see :-(

This was apparently a case of a film where the title and star were decided upon in advance, and then a scenario had to be constructed around them! Hitchcock's original plan was for a rags-to-riches-to rags plot (as opposed to the riches-to-rags-to-riches version ultimately used) in which a girl working at a rural champagne plant would go up to Paris and see for herself how the drink fuelled dissipated night-life, only to return disgusted to her poor but honest job. However, it was felt that the great British public would much prefer to see glamour celebrated on the screen rather than have their illusions popped -- cinema was an escapist medium for those whose life was hard -- and so a completely different scenario was developed. (It is interesting to wonder, however, how much of the cabaret sequence derives from this original concept.)

Like most of Hitchcock's early films, this is not a typical "Hitchcock" production -- the director was expected to do his job as paid by the studio rather than provide his own material -- and is of interest to those who enjoy films of the era rather than to those who are looking for traces of "The Master of Suspense". Betty Balfour is the quintessential Twenties Girl here: wilful and bubbly with a Cupid's-bow pout, cropped curls and the ambition to dictate her own life rather than acquiesce to the plans of the male half of the population. The plot is thin and in places rather contrived, but as this is by no means rare in comedies of the period (or later ones...) I think the problem is with the handling of the material rather than with the storyline per se.

The beginning is good (I particularly liked the description of the young man as a 'cake-hound'. a wonderfully period insult), and the wordless comedy of sea-sickness is very well handled without being merely crude: I love the way the Boy veers between outraged determination to confront his supposed rival and qualms from his uncertain stomach.

The concept of forcing the spoilt flapper to fend for herself (echoing Buster Keaton's hapless couple on board the "Navigator") is obviously intended as a major comedy hook for the plot, although it's not played intensively for laughs. I have to say that this is the first time I've ever seen a director actually get comic business out of the actual process of cooking (as opposed to simply miming that the rock-cakes are rock-hard) and did wonder if it reflected an impressive degree of domestication on Mr Hitchcock's (or Mr Stannard's) part!

The main problem with the film is I think the cabaret sequence, and I do wonder if this is a left-over from the original scenario. Instead of developing the comedy inherent in a girl who 'makes a mess of everything she gets her hands on' (including the back of her lover's jacket...!) looking for a job, we are plunged into what turns out to be a rather confusing and portentous sequence of events, as her 'job' at the cabaret seems to get forgotten in favour of sexual innuendo: the prostitutes, the lesbians, the would-be rapist... The plot becomes muddled (not helped by what turns out to be an interpolated dream/nightmare sequence) and ends up with the girl running off to throw herself on the mercy of a man she has previously -- and soon again subsequently -- seemed to be afraid of. Considered dispassionately, much of this section seems to be a digression that neither develops the comedy nor furthers the plot mechanics (although it is probably the most 'Hitchcockian' part of the picture!)

Having contorted the characters into the required situation to create the final comic set-up -- the showdown of mistaken intentions on board the returning liner -- the film concludes fairly happily with some genuine laughter through unforced farce. The acting is by and large good -- save for those moments when it is simply totally confusing! -- and the basic plot is a promising set-up for a typical light comedy of the period, complete with showy costumes for the leading lady and a hint of slapstick. The pacing is just a bit off; and, knowing what we now know, I do wonder if there is missing material -- intertitles, for instance! -- or even excess shots where alternate takes/ideas were *both* included in the compiled negative for a decision at some future point...
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7/10
It's not about the murders
16 September 2012
This "Falcon" entry relocates to Mexico and features all the stock characters and situations that one would expect from Hollywood in that setting - some of which (the repeated footage of songs in the cantina, for instance) is obviously used simply as filler. But what raises the resulting film somewhat above average is the unexpected twist it manages to place on much of its material. Barbara's exotic young stepmother turns out to be genuinely attached to her, for instance, while the grinning, thick-witted Mexican who seems to be playing a part in a bad film turns out to be a very cool bird indeed.

There is some artful photography and some smart dialogue, and while there does seem to be a certain amount of tourist advertising blatantly inserted -- literally, as in photographs of travel brochures -- this film is more interesting than I thought it was going to be. Oddly enough, while it features a number of murders they are all left more or less in the background to the main mystery, which is the question of who faked the stolen portrait... or indeed, if it was faked at all...
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8/10
A recognisably English thriller
11 September 2012
Opinions on this film seem to divide fairly dramatically between those who consider all the English cast to be 'wooden' and implausible and those who find them immediately recognisable and charming: "well-bred, smart, plucky and brave". (Apparently corresponding neither to the generational nor the national dividing lines one would expect, to judge by the comments I overheard at tonight's screening in London.) I would assign myself very definitely to the second camp: these are characters immediately familiar to anyone who knows the films or popular novels of the period, reassuringly akin in their reticence and understated courage and use of humour to defend their deepest feelings (American viewers, think 'hobbits'...). And it's refreshing to see an ordinary middle-aged couple taking a major role on screen rather than heavily glamorised star-types.

Hitchcock's films always benefited from a judicious dose of humour to alleviate the tension, and this one has a light touch with it, along with the usual touch of slight naughtiness (the mattress that is "still warm", for instance...) It manages to wrong-foot both the viewer and/or cinematic conventions a few times (when the villain fires at the hero and actually gets him, for instance, or when it is shown that the Secret Service have -- as of course they would -- ordered an intercept on the phone) although some of the plotting is inevitably somewhat arbitrary in order to force a more exciting set-up. I did feel that Peter Lorre's comic-book-mastermind performance was a bit over the top compared to the other actors (as with his character in "Secret Agent").

I was wondering why the name 'Nova Pilbeam' rang a bell. In fact, this is the same actress who was to give such a good performance as an adult only a few years later in "Young and Innocent". As a child actress she is adequate; she would do better things later.

I found this one of the more enjoyable Hitchcocks so far, probably because I got on with its sense of humour. The villains are just about ruthless enough to be credible (so often with this sort of plot, one is left asking "why didn't they just KILL him?!"), the authorities are less bumbling than convenience often dictates, minor characters are swiftly and vividly created (always a good sign... I loved Mrs Brockett...) and the ending is neatly foreshadowed in the beginning. I do hope somebody remembered poor Uncle Clive though :-)
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7/10
A night out on the London stage
6 September 2012
In producing this brand-new singing, dancing, all-talkie film, British International Pictures inadvertently contrived to preserve a cross-section of the contemporary London stage scene from the West End to the music halls. Sit back in your seat, enjoy the entertainment beamed directly to your home (I had no idea that television existed in the popular perception long before the BBC), and let yourself be carried away back to the days of 1930, flitting from venue to venue to experience a night out in the London of the era. Some of the acts are to one taste, some to another, but you've paid for the programme as a whole so applaud and wait to see what's coming next.

My personal favourite would be the live-wire tapping and jazzy tunes of the Three Eddies' blackface act (especially the skeleton dance!), but while overall I was interested in this revue chiefly for the music -- it features unknown (at least to me) tunes by Vivian Ellis and Ivor Novello, for example -- there's a good deal else that's worth enjoying, and a few tantalising glimpses 'backstage' at the Elstree studios as well.

"Elstree Calling" was edited on the cheap and rushed out in ten days for a hasty release to recoup the cost of production, and it shows. Few of the five or six camera angles filmed on every shot actually got used, for instance, and a number of bizarre choices seem to have been made, such as choosing to show a dance sequence via a camera focused too high and showing a vast expanse of curtain above the performers' heads but cutting off their actual feet -- or a shot that shows the performers disappearing off the left-hand side of the frame while focusing on the empty set centre-stage. Did anybody even take the trouble to screen these clips before attaching them together? (Director Adrian Brunel, who had left detailed directions for the compilation of his footage only for them to be totally ignored, complained in his autobiography "How could the Hulbert-Courtneidge numbers be slung together like that without looking like casual newsreel photographing?")

I was also a bit puzzled by the smoke that appears to be pouring out of the top of the jaw-droppingly gigantic image of 'Little' Teddy Brown in the background of his first musical interlude -- presumably a side-effect of the stage lighting? But it isn't just the editing: certainly in the chorus sequences, the choreography tends to suffer from being cramped onto a film set, while no-one seems to yet have worked out how to avoid having a long line of girls strung out across the middle of a square-format screen. (See, e.g. the chorus sequences in British-Gaumont's "First a Girl" for more sophisticated treatment later in the Thirties.)

Still, I found this glimpse onto the theatre world of the era thoroughly enjoyable: it was particularly interesting after having screened the shorts in the silent "On With the Dance" series of only a few years only, since the styles are very similar but obviously this time with music. Just don't expect cinema: theatre is what is advertised, and theatre is what you will get -- though there is a brief homage to the antics of Douglas Fairbanks in the burlesque "Taming of the Shrew" that closes the act!
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8/10
The English win out
2 September 2012
This is one of the Hitchcocks I've enjoyed the most so far -- possibly because it isn't famous and I had no idea what to expect, but more probably because it has just the right mixture of humour, thrills and sympathy to appeal to me. (In Hitchcock's subsequent "Saboteur", for example, I would end up finding the Hollywood hero so annoying that when the villains' bomb actually went off successfully I found myself cheering...)

A young Joel McCrea is more successful here as the all-American hero -- although Edmund Gwenn easily manages to steal the limelight as 'private detective' Rowley in their few scenes together, and again, I found myself waiting impatiently for Rowley to get his opportunity rather than biting my nails over the American's peril! -- but is, as others have said, a fairly generic light romantic character. He is at his best in the comedy scenes, and there is one hilarious double-act between him and George Sanders at the end of the film in which the two are assiduously 'not' reporting their story down the telephone in a piece of the broadest (deliberate) exposition imaginable.

But it is the English cast who steal the show: Herbert Marshall in a 'Claude Rains' role, likable, resourceful, and surprisingly human for a propaganda piece portrayal, Edmund Gwenn in a bit-part as retired assassin Rowley, and George Sanders simply strolling away with most of the scenes in which he appears -- he comes very near to stealing the entire film with a charismatic, decisive, witty performance that echoes his contemporary roles as "The Saint", minus the languor he brought to that part. Laraine Day gives a charming and sensitive performance, and works together well with Marshall as her father, while Martin Kosleck's striking features can be glimpsed in a bit-part scene in a windmill.

This may not be a great film, but it is an enjoyable one, with genuine thrills spiced up with wry or overt humour: as often with Hitchcock, it probably doesn't pay to examine the plot too closely (and it would be nice just for once to see a film about a *genuine* peace movement: I suppose that would be too boring...), but it's a fun romp, especially if you genuinely don't know what's coming next. A slight unbalance of interest away from the hero, who basically ends up as Sanders' sidekick -- but from the point of view of this member of the audience at least, that was all to the good.
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8/10
A romance, not a whodunnit
6 August 2012
This isn't the 'Alfred Hitchcock thriller' that modern-day viewers may be expecting; and it's barely a gesture towards an adaptation of Josephine Tey's novel "A Shilling for Candles". With detective, murderer, motive, method and all the red herrings stripped from the source, what remains is a handful of character names, a car, and a new film built of this basis -- an enchanting romantic chase comedy.

The shadow of the gallows is, wisely, all but omitted during this pursuit: what counts is the sparring between the two young protagonists, the conflict between the heroine's growing convictions and her family loyalty, and the comic relief that undercuts the tension. The bumbling police have a habit of heading straight for the heroes' secret hideaway: when an express train roars down on an oncoming car, it is played for comedy, not gasps. And when the girl escapes seemingly certain death, she promptly runs back for her pet dog -- and gets caught.

The real achievement of this picture is its winning charm. All too often I find myself resenting the perceived manipulation of romantic comedies, particularly the hackneyed 'they love each other because they hate each other' variety. But here, with the drama of the chase substituted for the required 'will they/won't they' structure, Erica's headstrong loyalties blossom unchecked towards one "so good-looking and so ill-used" (as Tey's sardonic Inspector Grant would gently observe).

Theirs is an unusually equal screen partnership, with Erica taking the lead in scenes up to and including the finale while Robert must perforce keep a low profile; yet we see her co-conspirator also mature from the callow, protesting boy of the opening scenes through flippant youth to the protective and resourceful companion who is ultimately prepared to sacrifice himself rather than destroy her life in a hopeless cause. Nova Pilbeam and Derrick de Marney are both outstanding in their portrayal of the young pair in comedy and in romance, and they make a delightful couple in whom one can believe wholeheartedly.

Notable also is Mary Clare in a small but memorable part as Erica's Aunt Margaret, in whom the family detective instinct clearly runs strong, with a brief appearance from Basil Radford playing 'Uncle Basil' as a well-intentioned ally. Comedian Jerry Verno has a largely 'straight' scene as a lorry driver who provides Erica with a clue (and here, as in moments elsewhere, the repartee is actually lifted directly from the schoolgirl book-Erica). Percy Marmont makes an impression as Erica's father, caught between a wayward daughter and an unsolved murder.

The actual crime and its victim take a relative background position in this story, with the opening scenes -- with their melodrama, consciously arty camera cutaways, and stilted performances -- being the weakest. All investigations lead nowhere, and ultimately the only way to clear the hero's name is for the totally unsuspected villain to confess. This is cleverly managed via a series of coincidences that ratchet up the tension, but even then only a fluke prevents his getting away with it as the protagonists exit baffled: a detective story this isn't! (And it's never explained what earthly motive -- or opportunity -- this man had to steal the coat in the first place...) It does, however, provide the excuse for a mesmerising sequence featuring the hotel band, whose personnel are normally as ubiquitous as invisible as the milkman in "The Thirty-Nine Steps", and a song especially written for the purpose by Lerner, Goodhart and Hoffmann, who were responsible for a number of film hits in the 1930s.

This is an unpretentious and entertaining picture that wears its heart lightly on its sleeve and handles occasional moments both of emotion and of tension with a deft touch. If you can last out through the first few minutes, you may find you have an absolute delight on your hands.
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7/10
Silent film techniques in an aspirational B-movie
21 June 2012
An interesting film that makes a good deal out of a slight scenario. It is only 72 minutes long (out of which the Americans contrived to cut a full twenty minutes for the US release, with disastrous effect) and a good proportion of even that slim running time consists of wordless shots. Greville's claim was that he had used 'silent movie technique', and in fact when you see this picture that style is very recognisable: one frequent trick is to cut from a shot of one object (e.g. a milk bottle being put down on the doorstep) to another object (e.g. a wine bottle being put down in a restaurant) at precisely the same shape and angle -- I found this a little too obvious as a transit from one scene to another, but it's clearly a stylistic decision. A classic silent movie technique is seen in the way that the scene of the girl falling in love is shown as a montage of the couple together throughout the evening, as the camera swirls around the room and the shadow of the singer on the dance floor is overlaid to what will, later in the story, be recalled as "their" song.

The plot is simple but pleasantly unexpected, at least by modern conventions; in the 1930s it may have been a less striking ending. (It is interesting to see a depiction in this era of a 'career woman' obviously struggling with being relegated to domesticity, although this is one element that the plot doesn't really resolve.) The sets (the lab, the 'country house', the pub) look distinctly familiar from other 1930s productions -- although this may simply mean that they were true to life! -- but skillful use is made of the limited space; oddly enough it is the 'external' sequences that look either stagy or simply cut out of stock footage. The film is brought to life with touches of humour, both visual and verbal, and we are allowed to care about all the characters, even poor jealous dried-up Martha.

The three principals are all very good (Miss Travers gives an amusing example of acting 'bad acting' as her character tries to lie to her husband, but is otherwise note-perfect on what could have come across as melodramatic dialogue); Hugh Williams is perhaps the weakest, but then his character is ultimately little more than a cipher to trigger the action. Among the supporting cast, Renee Gadd stood out for me in her handful of early scenes as the heroine's world-weary best friend, while Norman Pierce is somewhat over the top in his comedy part of Mine Host at the country inn.

This is a B-movie with artistic aspirations, which on the whole succeed. It scores on the pared-down script and cinematography fronts, and in particular for its attention to unspoken detail: it is not a great picture, was never aimed to be one and will never be one, but it is memorable among its kind. A solid 7/10, which sometimes reaches to be an 8.
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6/10
Best before the iceberg
22 May 2012
This isn't actually the first "Titanic" dramatisation ever made - the unfortunate actress Dorothy Gibson, who had the misfortune to travel on board the liner, was apparently rushed into a hasty reconstruction almost without being given time to change out of the clothes she had been shipwrecked in - but it is the oldest now surviving. And considered as a drama, it has most of the features that tend to make films of this era heavy going today - title cards that narrate what is about to happen before the cast proceed to act it out for the viewer, windmilling gestures in place of reaction shots (moreover, the director clearly had very little idea what occurred on the bridge of a ship beyond sweeping the horizon with binoculars), and some very primitive special effects.

What makes it interesting is the fact that it was, in fact, made at the era of the disaster, and hence preserves details that other films laboriously reconstruct: in 1912 they *knew* how a trans-Atlantic liner boarded her passengers and loaded her luggage, and what the cast would be wearing - because they were simply their everyday clothes. There are some fascinating pieces of (naturally) German archive footage spliced into the opening of the film, as well, including a shot of a full-rigged ship supposedly approaching the "Titanic". And the contrast between the early exterior shots, apparently using a real ship faked up to resemble the "Titanic" more closely, and the obvious model-work required to represent the iceberg is instructive.

Ironically I found this film to be of most interest before the iceberg came into view, at which point - as a story - it becomes rather ineffective.
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7/10
An exercise in comparison
17 March 2012
Hard to know how this would have come across without having seen the English version first; as a comparison after the recent BBC re-broadcast, I found it fascinating (and was interested to discover at the end that Dennis Potter was apparently responsible for his own adaptation).

It's an exercise in transpositions, from a resonant period in English history and myth (the 1940s) to an equally mythologically resonant American era (the filling station; the desert; the gumshoe; rock'n'roll): a decade later, but it might almost as well be a generation apart. It's hard to tease apart the changes necessitated by Hollywood (younger, prettier, more sympathetic protagonists) and those required by the change of format from TV serial to cinema and the drastic cut in running time involved.

Some changes work better than others. The main plot weathers the transposition amazingly intact, given the necessary omissions: this is achieved both by drastic cuts to the flashbacks (Potter's original tends to flash back to the same scene four or five times before the full sequence of events is revealed) and by excision of sub-plots, both of which can be done fairly painlessly. By moving the sick man to a private room rather than an NHS ward all the material relating to the other patients can be automatically removed, although this does require the relocation of the final shoot-out!

Having young and beautiful protagonists doesn't work so well (apart from anything else we lose the killer plot twist where Nicola is told that she is too old for the part), and a middle-aged dance-hall crooner makes for a more plausible undercover detective than the thrashing lead singer in a boy band. But Los Angeles is a neat fit for London as the city of dreams that symbolises a escape from working-class drudgery, and of course the private eye set-up is heavily drawn from American thrillers in the first place, so the 'mean streets' are simply coming home. I was amused to note that in this version the two hit-men get to enjoy a gun each (cue for much squabbling in the original) -- it being presumably unthinkable for their American equivalents not to be tooled up -- but of course this makes the accusation of 'murder' rather a strained one to sustain in the culminating scene.

I don't think the famous song and dance sequences (in which various supporting characters break into surreal dance routines) work so well in this version, unfortunately. The music may simply be less well suited to the treatment, or the characters more photogenic to start off with and the transformation thus less grotesque. At any rate it wasn't so funny and/or touching and didn't seem so effectively done either: much more obviously mimed.

Robert Downey Jr is nonetheless very effective as the eponymous detective and his alter ego -- and of course we now have fascinating parallels with his recent stint as Sherlock Holmes, of which there are hints in his performance here.
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6/10
Falls off after hopeful beginning
11 January 2012
I'm afraid I find myself agreeing with the contemporary post-war reviewers: compared to the two recent David Lean adaptations of Dickens ("Oliver Twist" and "Great Expectations"), this version of "Nicholas Nickleby" is definitely lacklustre, despite a promising cast (Cedric Hardwicke; Sybil Thorndike; Bernard Miles; Stanley Holloway).

I did feel that the musical score for this production really doesn't help. There's nothing much wrong with it as such, but it is distinctly unsubtle. I found it actively intrusive in a number of scenes, interrupting any atmosphere that was being built up with its blatant attempts to steer audience emotions in the direction it thought they ought to go: pathos, tension, romance all came clumping in and clumping out again, to negative effect.

And matters were not improved by the failure of the two young female leads, Sally Anne Howes or Jill Balcon, to display any dramatic ability in this picture. Miss Howes in particular seemed to spend much of the film with a completely blank expression, even in scenes where she was supposed to be in considerable distress, and the entire storyline involving Nicholas's sister Kate was less compelling than it ought to have been as a result.

It is Cedric Hardwicke as Ralph Nickleby, top-billed above young Derek Bond as his eponymous nephew, who makes the most impression in this version of "Nicholas Nickleby". His is one of the few characters to be given depths beyond a surface caricature, and he makes the most of it in a compelling performance. Bernard Miles as his grotesque clerk Newman Noggs (I was reminded of Jerry Cruncher in "A Tale of Two Cities") is also memorable, and Stanley Holloway makes a typically resonant but all too brief appearance as the theatrical Vincent Crummles, incidentally reminding us of the close links between Dickens' novels and the popular Victorian melodrama, with their blend of pathos and broad comedy.

The opening scenes up until young Nicholas leaves Dotheboys Hall show promise; but after that the film declines into a rather thin series of events. I was interested ahead of time to see what Ealing Studios would make of this uncharacteristic attempt to produce a literary adaptation, but I'm afraid the result probably explains why the studio didn't make a habit of it! Worth watching for Hardwicke's talent, as ever; but not a great screen version of Dickens.

A better adaptation was broadcast by the BBC in 2002, featuring Charles Dance as an excellent Ralph Nickleby.
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