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Sudden Fear (1952)
Jack's not alright
I've lately been listening to a series of blogs on Joan Crawford's career and so was directed to this film noir for which she was Oscar nominated. It turns out to be a terrific thriller with la grand dame Joan in her element as the rich middle-aged heiress who in her spare time knocks out hit plays on Broadway. While casting her new play she rejects for the lead part a young actor (Jack Palance in an early role) much to his disappointment but when they later share a train journey back to San Francisco, romantic sparks surprisingly seem to fly between them and before long Crawford's Myra Hudson apparently has the one thing missing from her comfortable but incomplete life, a loving husband. Or so she thinks. At one of the couple's house parties, an attractive young woman (Gloria Grahame) appears who we soon learn is actually Palance's girl-friend and before long they've cooked up a plan to get rid of the millionairess Joan, leaving all her lovely money to Palance as her grieving widower for them to spend.
Only problem is that Crawford plans to change her will as soon as her lawyer comes back to town after the weekend, donating the bulk of it to charity and so greatly reducing Palance's expected bounty. So Palance and Grahame hurriedly devise a plan to murder Crawford over the weekend but accidentally and inconveniently for them as it turns out, record their plan on Joan's dictaphone recording machine for her to later hear, much to her horror. When she accidentally breaks the recorded disc of the evidence, it seems to her the only way to save herself is to devise a cunning plan of her own to eliminate her would-be murderers. Like the playwright she is, Myra's own plan is carefully crafted but naturally things don't exactly go to plan leading to a tense, exciting dead of night climax on the dark deserted streets of San Francisco.
This is one of those noirs with a too-fantastic plot which could fall apart at any moment but builds up such a head of steam down to taut atmospheric direction, a strong Elmer Bernstein soundtrack and top acting by the three leads (Palance was Oscar-nominated too), that you're swept along with each unlikely turn of events until the fraught conclusion which returns Joan to a darkened apartment with a gun just like it did Mildred Pierce years before only this time she's looking out for herself and not her selfish daughter. She's great in this, her expressive face often shown in close-up reminding us she started in silent movies. Palance is surprisingly good as the fawning, oily-slick husband and Graham as ever is good value as the pushy, tarty mistress egging Palance on.
Making good use of San Francisco's exteriors, Joan's extensive wardrobe and in a key-scene, a mechanical toy-dog, this is a great fast-paced noir led by a star performer in one of her last but best leading roles.
Dark Passage (1947)
It intrigues me how within such a confined genre as noir, Hollywood film-makers contrived so many different ways to keep such movies interesting. One side-road a few notable films went down was in the use of the subjective camera, probably most famously used by actor-director Robert Montgomery in his Raymond Chandler adaptation "Lady In The Lake". Here it's used again for almost half the movie-length by screenwriter-director Delmer Daves although it seems strange to do so when the lead actor and central character in the film is Humphrey Bogart. Sure Bogey narrates his character's observations and emotions so you at least hear him until his face is revealed to us by Bacall in hardly the most suspenseful sequence you'll ever see in films, but you even doubt it's actually him later on when his character's face is swathed in "Invisible Man"-type bandages for several minutes too. I can imagine some film-fans feeling a little short-changed to get only 50% screen-time of the movie's marquee name.
To be fair, it does fit in with the main plot strand of a man on the run suspected of killing his wife, needing to change his appearance by plastic surgery to avoid detection. It is strange however that the man with one of the most distinctive voices in Hollywood makes no attempt at all to change the sound of his speech. After he makes his escape from prison, along the way he encounters a petty criminal whose car he steals but unfortunately his victim isn't a guy who forgets a face (sorry!) as HB finds out later when he's asked to pay a price for the crook's silence.
More helpful to him in more ways than one is the alluring and rich young woman played by Bacall who has taken a personal interest in his case and is determined to firstly harbour and also help him try to clear his name. She however has an older friend Madge played by Agnes Moorehead who keeps coming around to Bacall's posh San Francisco apartment and who also just happens to be an old flame of Bogart's and a key prosecution witness in his trial.
Bogart, sporting his new hairpiece for the first time in movies, is less convincing than usual, indeed you wonder how his inscrutable character, who initially only communicates by writing down sentences in a jotter, could so easily land a beauty like Bacall, especially after his new face is revealed. Bacall however is very good as the strange little heiress who latches onto this man in need and Moorehead too is good value as the dastardly Madge. This is a film peopled with interesting, oddball minor characters. In addition to the blackmailer mentioned above, there's a diner attendant who accidentally gives up Bogart's character to a detective, who himself has an odd line in questioning, the strangely benevolent taxi driver who leads Bogart to a cut-price backstreet plastic surgeon, Bogart's best pal who comes to a sticky end and even Bacall's odd-fish boyfriend Pete who Madge also has dibs on.
With a shocking climax, great location shots of 40's San Francisco and some imaginative camera settings, one in particular showing a corpse as if from a glass ceiling below, this is one of the more interesting noirs I've seen.
In Old Chicago (1938)
The Night Chicago Fried
Really, this feature is so close in content to the earlier 1936 disaster movie / musical melodrama smash hit "San Francisco" it could have been called "Oakland". Like "S.F." it concludes with a famous tragic disaster which decimates the city, featuring an extended spectacular special effects sequence and precedes that with a hokey story involving two feuding men, both rivals over ownership of the seedy but profitable entertainment part of town as well as a female nightclub singer, although thankfully this time not of the highbrow operatic style of Jeanette MacDonald, but in the more entertaining low-brow style of Alice Faye.
At least the film acknowledges the source of the fire as being caused by Mrs O'Leary's cow but then seeks to build its narrative around the whole family, starting with the sentimental sacrifice of Pa O'Leary just as he's leading his young family to a new life in the old town, the rise of Ma O'Leary's laundry business there and the rise to prominence by different means of her two ambitious sons, one, played by Tyrone Power, who is the shady risk-taker, the other, played by Don Ameche, the straight arrow lawyer and later mayor of the town. There is actually a non-entity third brother too who we briefly see ensconced with his Swedish wife (she complete with bangs in her hair and overdone accent just in case you didn't know) but the main story concerns the rivalry between the two older siblings, Power's ruthless ambition contrasted with Ameche's principled altruism, their relationship strained further when they separately cross swords with established gangster and nightclub owner Gil Warren played with Victorian panto-villain exaggeration by Brian Dunlevy.
To be fair, all this is very much grist to the mill, once the fateful cow kicks over the lantern in old Ma's barn setting off a conflagration which soon enflames the whole timber-built poor section of the city the men are feuding about and the SFX used are very effective indeed. Naturally the great fire creates tragedy for the central family but at least it serves to straighten up bad boy Tyrone as his old mum gets to her feet at the end to proclaim that the city will rise again, never kind that it was her negligence which saw it rased to the ground in the first place.
The backstory here is very hackneyed indeed despite the best efforts of an enthusiastic Power, Ameche and Faye, however, how Alice Brady got an Oscar for her terrible acting as the family matriarch is beyond my ken. Director Henry King certainly does a fine job of recreating the spectacle of the fire but before that his work is slapdash and slipshod.
A huge hit on original release it was probably a relief to cinema-goers that there were no other natural or man-made city-destroying disasters in recent American history for Hollywood to dramatise as this one, in the wake of the superior "San Francisco", certainly took the sub-genre down a notch or two in quality.
Hunt the hunters
A confusing, contrived and ultimately uninvolving would-be thriller centring on an apparent long-term serial abducter and killer of young women. It starts off with his latest victim attempting escape in the freezing dead of night, only to end herself when he catches her up. Next, we're introduced to a pretty young girl honey-trapping a convicted rapist now out of jail, her accomplice and the calculating brains of the operation being an elderly former judge with money and clout enough to extract full retribution for the helpless perpetrator's victims by castrating him, clearing out his bank account to share the proceeds with the victims and have him sign a full waiver statement for what's happened to him.
Henry Cavill is the rather unlikely man-mountain cop, all grizzled and mussed up, out to catch the serial killer, who runs into the afore-mentioned vigilante Ben Kingsley and his ward who then promptly turn their attention to the same killer. We've already seen that Henry, a separated dad, is worried about his own teenage daughter and who she might be hooking up with online but when he and his former girlfriend, a former detective turned profiler get who they think is their man, a strange game of psychological cat-and-mouse between they and defendant Brendan Mitchell ensues especially when it seems he has multiple personality disorder.
In fact the solution to the bad guy's M.O. is a lot simpler than that if still highly contrived and after a "Se7en"-type break-out, our crazed killer kidnaps Kingsley's adopted daughter and the profiler setting up a climax which ensues on a thin ice-rink when Cavill finally catches them up.
With much of the action shot in darkness and also poorly recorded dialogue I struggled to make out, never mind join the plot dots in this formulaic would-be chiller. Cavill's English accent chimes in as regularly as Big Ben and he otherwise never seems comfortable in his role while Kingsley is hardly stretched in support. I found the direction haphazard and disjointed, a typical complaint of mine against modern-day Hollywood thriller movies.
Derivative and difficult to follow I just couldn't get into it and in truth wished I'd hunted out another movie instead this particular night.
Boom Town (1940)
Third and final Gable and Tracy co-starrer before Spence's studio demands for top billing clashed with old big-ears' prime status and so nixed any future joint features with the two. Thankfully it's a good film for the partnership to go out on, with Tracy's part now the equal of Gable's, remembering he only got 19 minutes of (Oscar-nominated) screen-time in their first pairing in "San Francisco".
There's strong female support too for the big two, in the forms of the established Claudette Colbert and emergent Hedy Lamarr even if both their parts aren't likely to advance the cause of feminism too much, with Colbert as Gable's too-adoring wife and Lamarr as the younger "other woman" who threatens to come between them. The rest of the main cast is rounded out by Frank Morgan as a blustery rig-equipment manager who has a hate-love relationship with Gable and Tracy and Chill Wills as Harmony, who we first see as the security man on the rigs, shooting in cold blood a petty thief and then later donning an apron to serve up grub and doing housekeeping chores for Gable and his family!
There's a complicated, I would say confused narrative with lots of unbelievable twists and turns along the way as Gable and Tracy fall in and out and in and out and in with each other all the way through, their business relationship strained by their common love for Colbert who starts off as Tracy's girl but is swept off her feet into marriage by Gable. We're expected of course to believe that Tracy could forgive his mate this trumpery with credulity stretched even more as Spencer goes to extraordinary lengths to stop the beautiful Lamarr breaking up Gable's marriage, at one point even offering to pay Hedy to marry him to take her out of harm's way. It all culminates in a big fist fight between the two and a court case where Gable's character is on trial for violating federal anti-trust laws in an effort to save his business, not realising that his mate has engineered it all to reconcile him with his neglected family.
There's a lot of stuff about oil-rig procedures and later on court matters which get in the way somewhat of a straightforward love triangle or quadrangle story played out against the backdrop of gushers and oil-fires. Of course I understand that the real love story is between Gable and Tracy and it's no surprise that the closing shots of the movie see them back where they started, arm-in-arm, on the verge of something big all over again.
Despite some leaks in narrative and character consistency, "Boom Town" is still fiery enough entertainment to make you overlook its faults, mainly due to the buddy-Buddy spark between two of MGM's biggest stars at the time.
San Francisco (1936)
Goodbye Frisco Goodbye
One of the first blockbuster disaster movies? Well, yes it is and its recreation of the 1906 earthquake which devastated the city is certainly the highlight of the film, but it also seeks to combine melodrama and musical light entertainment into the mix, not completely successfully I'd say.
My problem really is I suppose that the light operatic singing style of top-billing co-star Jeanette MacDonald just isn't to my taste, whether in full blown operatic or rousing show-girl mode. I appreciate that she was very popular with audiences at the time and probably helped the movie's stellar box office returns (it was the biggest hit of its year) but I think I could have coped with the absence of the musical angle altogether and the substitution of a better character actress in her part.
There are compensations elsewhere thankfully, Gable is great as the shady but popular nightclub owner Blackie Norton, denying God all the way through until the aftermath of the quake brings him to his knees in divine gratitude for the sparing of him and MacDonald's Mary Blake character. Again though, I considered that the religiosity in the script was a bit overdone as also seen in the near-saintly personification of Spencer Tracy's Father Tim who for the first of three films with Gable acts as the big guy's plain-speaking friend and conscience. Spence is undoubtedly very good however in the brief time he's on the screen (long enough though for him to get an Oscar nomination).
The narrative preamble to the earthquake is a bit hoary, awkwardly creating a love triangle among Gable, MacDonald and Jack Holt as Gable's older, monied Nob Hill rival where we see pure-as-the-driven-snow Jeanette as prepared to go on in tunic and tights at Gable's rowdy joint as ball-gowns and tiaras at the local opera house never mind her switching engagements between her two suitors at the drop of a hat.
Still, it all comes good, or should that be bad, when the disaster comes along in the last twenty minutes. Yes, you can see model work in the long shots but the montage sequence (possibly directed by an uncredited D.W. Griffith?) of the people caught up in the devastation is very effective, in particular, Gable milling through the forlorn survivors looking for Mary while the city is in flames behind him, foreshadowing an even more famous sequence he fulfilled later of course in "Gone With The Wind". I also liked the famous final scene when director Van Dyke shows the new rebuilt San Francisco risen from the ashes of its formerly ruined state.
For me then, Gable and to a lesser extent Tracy do well to carry the film until the special effects kick in before the big finish and as big finishes go, this film has one of the best.
Test Pilot (1938)
Take Me To The Pilot
Entertaining if somewhat cliched action movie with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure too. Gable is the devil-may-care test pilot of new aeroplanes for the U.S. airforce with Lionel Barrymore as his kind of booking agent. Testing isn't really the correct word as it seems that Gable's Jim Lane is required to take his aircraft to beyond its limits so that it cracks up or breaks down at which instant he has to engineer a hasty escape via parachute. On the ground, his lifestyle similarly seems to know no bounds as we see him boozing and partying as if there was no tomorrow, which of course is the whole point. This is a man with no ties and no cares, with a reckless outlook towards living it seems certain will catch up with him.
Until one day, that is, when he touches down his plane in a distant field, owned by a good-natured farmer and his wife, whose pretty daughter, Ann, played by Myrna Loy, comes down out of curiosity to greet the dashing interloper. When she realises he's Gable, of course her initial prickly resistance melts and they marry within days, a bit to the chagrin of Gable's engineer, best pal and conscience Gunner Morris, played by Spencer Tracy, possibly a bit jealous to lose his mate to this new country girl.
The high risk of the job is underlined further during an air race when a fellow competitor is killed in a plane Lane was meant to fly, although it does enable us to see Lane's softer side as he donates half the winning prize money to the deceased's distraught widow.
This sad event accentuates the point that Loy has to settle somehow to the thankless role of new wife to a man who takes his life in his hands every time he goes out to work or somehow change him. Morris soon warms to her but elects to join Lane in his most dangerous test yet as he is commissioned to pilot a new, transport plane loaded to the max and take her up to 30000'.
Gable is his usual testosterone-fuelled self and Tracy is solid as his grease-guy. Loy is bit too fluttery in her part for my taste, but Lionel Barrymore is good as Lane's avuncular taskmaster employer. The public in the 30's seemed to enjoy movies involving aircraft and there's no doubt that the airborne sequences here are exciting to watch and mostly believable.
A fine Golden Age Hollywood adventure movie, light on characterisation perhaps but, with good if sometimes obvious writing and mostly strong acting, it will certainly give you a lift when you watch it.
The Locket (1946)
Having recently watched John Brahms' two preceding movies, both centring on psychologically disturbed men (killers in fact) in period features, here the director presents us with an emotionally unstable woman in a contemporary setting. I enjoyed the two earlier films "The Lodger" and "Hangover Square" and I enjoyed this one too.
The lead character played by Laraine Day, whose beauty attracts men like honey to a bee, although little do they know that she is a closet kleptomaniac with slippery fingers around rich folk's jewellery., her condition traceable to a childhood incident when she covets an expensive locket given to her by the rich little girl whose house her mother serves, but taken back away from her by the girl's mother as too good for her. When the locket later goes missing she is menacingly if mistakenly accused by the mother and given to believe that her shame at this has coloured her future conduct as an adult. Not only do her good looks attract the interest of deep men like Robert Mitchum's artist and Brian Aherne's doctor, it all climaxes in a super-charged betrothal scene to her third beau, the.very rich Gene Raymond whose mother's nuptial gift to her of a locket finally unlocks years of denial and guilt on her part.
I'd have to say that the plot certainly somewhat overdoes the Freudian associations of Day's Cassandra-like obsession with jewellery. I also couldn't quite imagine Mitchum firstly as a tortured artist and secondly taking the extreme action he does as he gives up Day to Aherne, while the final coincidence of the other locket was just a bit too much to swallow.
Nevertheless, it was again stylishly directed by Brahm with strong performances by Day as the beguiling magpie Nancy, as adept at stealing men's hearts as old folk's jewellery, Aherne as the duped doctor and even Mitchum, miscast as he was. The layered flashbacks I found intriguing while the use of dramatic lighting, staging and music added greatly to the suspense.
1940's Hollywood movies were awash with psychologically disturbed individuals in films from Citizen Kane on down and while this particular feature overdoes the angst more than a bit, it was none the less entertaining for all that.
All I Desire (1953)
Douglas Sirk was just hitting his stride in depicting family melodramas with this 1953 feature, produced like all his later major Universal International Pictures Movies in the 50's by Ross Hunter. Although the period setting of turn of the century America might throw the viewing a little off kilter, the familiar Sirk themes of small-town morality, complicated relationships and inter-family tensions are present and correct here.
Barbara Stanwyck is the formerly disgraced wife and mother of meek-mannered Richard Carlson's school teacher and his three children, all with a different viewpoint of Stanwyck's actions years ago when she left them for a life on the stage after a scandal involving another man about town. When the middle daughter, an aspiring actress, sends her adored and revered mother a request to attend her performance in the annual school play, Stanwyck's character, in truth, a hack journey-woman struggling for work, decides to return to her old hometown, knowing her previous infamy will make her the centre of attraction.
All sorts of dynamics are then played out between Stanwyck, her husband and their children, complicated further when the spurned "other man" returns for another bite at the cherry and even if the ending is perhaps unnecessarily upbeat, it doesn't denigrate too much what has gone before.
La grand dame Barbara is in top form as the conflicted central character around whom the whole action revolves, while most noteworthy in support are her "The Big Valley" future co-star Richard Long as her unforgiving oldest daughter's fiancé, at least until he wears his goofy "big R" college shirt near the end and Lori Nelson as the star-struck younger daughter.
Sirk's fluid camera work, particularly his ability to frame and light a scene as well as coax sympathetic and believable work from his cast are well in evidence here. "All I Desire" may lack the emotional wallop of some of his later films and could have dug a little deeper into some of the motivations and desires on display here but is nevertheless a fine stand-alone watch as well as a telling harbinger of better things to come from the producer-director team setting out here.
The Song Remains the Same (1976)
The song remains and remains...
I'm no dyed-in-the-wool Zep fan, but I've been listening to them a bit lately and decided to watch this concert film with its unusual added features of both fly-on-the-wall footage and highly stylised fantasy sequences, the latter focusing on the individual group members' own flights of fancy.
It starts off oddly with the group's "don't mess with me" manager Peter Grant getting to play out his own imagined scenario, re-enacting a gangland shoot-out of a bunch of ghoulish individuals before we see the group themselves en-route to their Madison Square Garden concert series in New York. There they deliver a heavyweight set of barely ten songs some stretched to almost interminable limits with extended soloing which if you're a committed fan, you'll no doubt love, but if a casual acquaintance like me, find simply interminable.
The individual segments are pretty weird too, usually inserted into the middle of one of the expanded songs, and see bassist Jones chase his wife through a dark forest on horseback wearing a fright mask, singer Plant act out a mediaeval play-let, guitarist Page climb up a never-ending hill to meet a white-shrouded ancient version of himself and drummer Bonham's more down-to-earth depictions of himself downing pints, tending his farm or racing a dragster. Make of these what you will, I personally struggled with them, with none of the four pulling off a "Ringo" between them.
Otherwise there was an obvious mis-match between the actual concert footage itself and studio close-ups filmed later on a sound stage (Jones's changing outfits are a giveaway), with elsewhere lots of flashy camera tricks conjured up to no doubt jazz up proceedings.
As I understand it, the group wasn't entirely happy with their own performances and you can certainly hear Plant for one running his voice in on the early numbers, purposely avoiding the high notes until he's well into the gig. Regarding the music itself, some of it was okay, but I just wanted the never-ending versions of "Dazed and Confused" and "Moby Dick" to just, well, end.
Strange also for the movie to be released three years after the concerts themselves, especially as by that time they'd made two further albums, including my favourite the double album "Physical Graffiti". Anyway, it is what it is, a bloated, over-pretentious movie by the biggest band in the world at the time with only some good musical moments. One thing I did enjoy was seeing the original Madison Square Garden venue in its glory, that and John Paul Jones wearing his mum's hair-do throughout!
The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968)
Carry-on up the jungle
I like Chinese food and I also like Italian food and don't even mind if they are cheap, but I couldn't eat both at the same time. That's sort of what you get here in this later instalment in the Fu Manchu series, which marries in unholy wedlock the Eastern intrigue of the menace of Dr Fu Manchu and his number one daughter and a Spaghetti Western interlude involving a gang of Mexican bandits under one Sancho Lopez in this very low-budget would-be adventure feature.
In truth it's more low than high adventure with Christopher Lee almost sleepwalking through his title part and probably happy to take a rest for the middle of the film when the spotlight turns to Senor Lopez and his band of not-so-dangerous men who murder, rape and pillage a small village out in the jungle.
As for the usually pursuant Nayland Smith, he's sidelined by one of Fu Manchu's travelling harem of kissing beauties the touch of whose lips leads to blindness and then death unless an antidote can be found. Besides the tea-loving Dr Petrie and a young girl nurse who's the daughter of a scientist murdered earlier by one of Manchu's assassins, there's a swarthy pretend Indiana Jones archaeologist who joins up with Smith, Petrie and the girl to thwart Fu's nefarious plan for world domination.
Spiced up with numerous shots of scantily clad young women in chains, the director also isn't above exposing a breast or two to shall we say, expand the target audience.
In the end though, it's really a very cheap looking movie, with stilted, often expository dialogue, too many close-ups, lame fight scenes (one of Fu's goons is knocked cold by nothing more than a swift knee to the groin) and wooden acting. Poorly edited besides and with inexplicable jumps in continuity too it's like eating a dish of cold spaghetti and rice, unappetising and bizarre.
The Collector (1965)
Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel
So you win a huge amount of money on the football pools, or if it was today, the lottery, on what do you spend your new found wealth? Well, if you're Terence Stamp's young, socially awkward, bullied-at-work, butterfly collecting bank clerk, you obviously resign, buy an old country pile, convert its underground cellar into a makeshift furnished prison, get a van and then go out hunting for a pretty young girl (Samantha Eggar's art student) to kidnap and make your prisoner, hoping by these tactics to make the girl love you so that you can both live happily ever after in secluded bliss.
Hollywood veteran William Wyler takes this distasteful premise, based on John Fowles' novel and serves up a disturbing psychological thriller with Eggar as the helpless butterfly pinned on a wheel trying everything she knows to escape Stamp's clutches. Stamp in his delusion tries to kill her with kindness, taking her freshly prepared food everyday, buying her a new wardrobe and meekly attempting to make her forget she's a violently abducted kidnap victim and so fall in love with him.
Wyler does a good job of ensuring that the viewer never starts to sympathise with Stamp, despite his downtrodden background, good looks and smart appearance (he's always dressed in a three-button three piece suit). The most shocking part of the main film is when Eggar, after every other escape attempt has been balked, fails in an attempt to seduce Stamp and suddenly realises she's never getting out alive as his psychopathic tendency is fully revealed to her, a chilling scene matched only in the epilogue where we see Stamp cruising for a new victim who will prove to be less trouble to him and who he will force to become the concubine he seeks, no doubt having learned from his study of Eggar's captivity.
Naturally, watched today, the subjugation of a young helpless woman is very difficult to observe especially as it conjures up remembrances of real-life cases like Suzy Lamplugh's but viewed as dispassionately as a piece of cinema it's a compelling watch. Perhaps Stamp's character could have been made to be more physically repulsive to emphasise his otherness but then one recalls that some serial killers, for example, Bundy, were handsome men.
Stamp, with his mechanical, hunched gait and vacant stare convinces in an early starring role but it's Miss Eggar who impresses more as the victim, cut off from society with no hope of escape unless she goes along with Stamp's depraved courtship. With a crystalline soundtrack by Maurice Jarre I didn't really think was sympathetic to the subject matter, director Wyler, while lacking the flair of say Hitchcock or Powell, uses all his experience to deliver a taut two-handed study in evil where only one can win.
The car's the star
A bright and breezy British comedy filmed in glowing colour. "The Great Race" it isn't, as John Gregson and Kenneth More set out on the annual Brighton to London vintage car run, but a little bit of personal enmity between them, arising over More's past relationship with Gregson's wife of three years Dinah Sheridan, sees them privately wager £100 on who can get their old banger back to London first. This despite the fact that man-about-town More has a new girl in tow, glamorous American Kay Kendall. From there on it's a case of those way-out Wacky Races as both of them stoop to conquer, fair play thrown out the window in the quest for success.
I enjoyed the location shooting, vintage fashions and vintage cars, including those from 1953, never mind old jalopies Genevieve and More's Spyker and while Gregson and More are very much upper class toffs out on a jolly (one wonders for example how much the £100 they casually bet then would equate to now?), there's some ribald and even risqué humour as when Sheridan has to have her husband stop the car so she can answer a call of nature or when Kendall reveals to Sheridan that More's only two interests in life are cars and "the other" where it takes a second or two for the penny to drop as to what she's referring.
Otherwise there are plenty of high jinks on the low road all set to a jaunty harmonica-based soundtrack by Larry Adler, taking in encounters with a female shepherd and her flock, a jazz band where little girl Kay gets to blow her horn, an expectant father, two irritable policemen and Joyce Grenfell in another enjoyable cameo as the proprietress of the cheap-as-chips seaside hotel at which Gregson and Sheridan end up.
I have to say in conclusion that I enjoyed tagging along with my four co-passengers for this amiable 90 minute journey down the road apiece. Yes, the characters might have benefitted from being a bit less posh, the triangle with Sheridan, Gregson and More seemed somewhat forced and the situations a little picaresque at times but all in all this was a fun road trip to be part of.
The Cruel Sea (1953)
Captain Courageous and Crew
My old dad regularly gives me pointers on films to seek out and this was his most recent recommendation. I must say for the record he's never given me a bad tip yet and with this dramatisation of Nicholas Monserrat's best selling novel, I have to tip my hat to him again.
Covering the exploits of the crew of HMS Compass Point, a convoy escort boat seeking to protect British freighters in the North Atlantic from the threat of German U-Boats, while the film certainly demonstrates in spades the famed, if often satirised British stiff upper lip against adversity, it doesn't otherwise shy away from a gritty, near documentary realism either.
The main character is experienced captain Jack Hawkins in the role that elevated him to major stardom. To him falls the task of whipping his inexperienced crew into shape and later on take the hard decisions, including the pivotal one where he sacrifices the lives of British sailors awaiting rescue in the sea to drop depth charges on a killer sub he believes is beneath them, but which in fact gets away. In fact in five years of operations, the Compass Rose only takes out two enemy subs which puts into some sort of context the monotony and drudgery coupled with dread and anxiety the shipmates must have experienced all that time.
There are numerous back stories involving the supporting cast, with a smattering of romance for a couple of the men balanced out by death and infidelity and others demonstrating the expected characteristics of camaraderie, courage and sacrifice. I would however have liked to have seen more of Stanley Baker's jumped-up first lieutenant who unfortunately disappears after the first quarter of the movie.
As some critic somewhere has adroitly pointed out, the numerous war movies made by British studios in the post war period perhaps equate to Hollywood's predilection for releasing westerns, in effect demonstrating different personifications of masculinity on both sides of the Atlantic. Yes there are moments which slightly overdo the British compunction for stoicism, such as when a C.O. "comforts" one of his female subordinates, when she tells him her boyfriend was on a stricken ship, with a brisk "Bad luck", but even that is counterbalanced by Hawkins tearful remembrance of his crucial decision which cost the lives of his own helpless countrymen.
Old-fashioned as it may often seem to today's viewer, this was still an admirable and enjoyable example of British war movie-making, efficiently directed and well-acted by all.
The Joker Is Wild (1957)
Pillar to Post
Probably best remembered for introducing one of Sinatra's best 50's ballads "All The Way", "The Joker Is Wild" is otherwise a fairly run-of-the-mill biopic of what turns out to be a pretty unlikeable guy, singer-comedian Joe E Lewis, who, from what we see here, is a moderately successful headliner on the nightclub-circuit with a predilection for getting drunk, gambling, abusing his friends and treating his women shabbily. Sinatra in real life was a friend and drinking partner of Lewis on whose then recent same-title autobiography the film was based, but after establishing some sympathy at the start for the Chicago-based 30's entertainer when he gets badly beaten up and his throat slashed after crossing a big-time gangster's lieutenant (in reality, said gangster was Al Capone) for switching gigs to a competing night club, Lewis from then on comes across as a morose, selfish, self-destructive type who by the end of the movie, seems to have quite deservedly lost all his friends and supporters.
In the movie, Lewis compensates for the early damage to his singing voice by playing up the withering comedy ad-libs he used to link his songs and some of his jokes and put-downs are quite funny, giving Frank the chance to combine his singing with some deadpan humour but without ever really imbuing his character with any redeeming charm. By the time Lewis has at last admitted his own failings to himself in a corny me-and-my-conscience routine at the end, I found I didn't care whether or not he walked under a bus as he made his way back to the nightclub to perform his next act, a supposedly new man.
Sinatra's fair-to-middling but ultimately unsuccessful characterisation apart, I did like Eddie Albert as his long-suffering accompanist and the vivacious Mitzi Gaynor as the show-girl who inexplicably takes in Lewis on the rebound from his failed romance with rich society girl Lettie, played by Jeanne Crain. "All The Way" apart however, the rest of the songs aren't that great and by the end Lewis's "Chicago That Toddling Town" theme song will irritate you as much as his "It's post time" catch-phrase as he downs yet another drink.
I sense a darker treatment was possible of this material as other Hollywood films of the decade about alcoholism showed, so that in different hands Sinatra might have been stretched more, but maybe old Frank was too close to his still alive chum Lewis to appreciate this and dig deeper. Instead, this glossy, shallow screen biography doesn't play with a full deck and is ultimately trumped by its lack of conviction.
Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)
Woman On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown
Perhaps the only thing stopping this film from being considered part of the British New Wave "kitchen sink drama" is that its lead actor isn't an outspoken, idealistic, go-getting younger man. Instead we get middle-aged office manager Anthony Quayle who lives with his slovenly, scatterbrain wife Yvonne Mitchell, never out of the dressing gown which gives the film its title and young adult son Andrew Ray in their never-tidy flat where she always has music blaring just to add to the maelstrom. Ironically, a kitchen sink is in view in the claustrophobic scenes set in the family's flat, but it's always full of dirty dishes. Quayle's Jim Preston's head is turned by his pretty young secretary Sylvia Sym, whom he illicitly meets on Sundays before heading back to his depressing family life back home. When we join the action he has just decided he will finally tell his wife he will leave her and finally, after an aborted first attempt and emboldened by Sym's prompting, he breaks the news to her. It's fair to say she doesn't take it well.
Bearing the legend on its poster that no one will be allowed entry inside the last ten minutes, the emotional climax reached is credible and understandable if perhaps slightly predictable. The drama really just revolves around the four principals and especially Mitchell's Amy. She never suspects her husband's infidelity thinking that he is content with her and the ramshackle life they have, she just cannot see that her own slatternly ways are driving her man to a younger, prettier, better dressed and organised woman.
Of course this is the U.K. in the 50's where a woman's place for the large part was in the home, the dutiful housewife, whose tasks boil down to getting the nightly family dinner ready, tidying the house and making herself herself presentable to hubby coming in from work. Amy doesn't or indeed can't seem do any of these things but because Quayle's Jimbo as she irritatingly calls him with almost every utterance she makes to him has seemed to accept her as she is for so many years, his request for a divorce still hits her like a bolt from the blue.
Mitchell really is excellent in the title role, often wheedling and pathetic she can seem like a figure to be pitied. One can only feel for her as we follow her attempts to smarten herself up, swigging copiously from a freshly bought bottle of whisky to garner some courage for the showdown she calls for with Quayle and his mistress. I'm not sure I agree however with her being made to be such a helpless victim.
Anyway, the film is an interesting and engrossing peek into the lives of the working class in "You never had it so good" Britain to paraphrase then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan's phrase of the day. I have my reasons for disagreeing with the denouement but this was still a well acted, tightly directed contemporary melodrama and quite as good in its way as any of the recognised breakout films to come out of the U.K. just a few years later.
Happy Land (1943)
Papa Don't Weep
An old-timer comes down from heaven and walks a despondent middle aged family man from Anytown U.S.A. through his memories after the latter has suffered a major setback in life so that by the end his peace of mind is restored. Sound familiar? Well, "It's A Wonderful Life" it isn't but this is still a pleasant enough fantasy feature obviously made to bolster the war effort and act as a consolation to those families who lost their sons and daughters in the fighting.
This time there's no angel seeking its wings, popular drug-store owner Don Ameche's accompanist is his old, long-dead father who fought in the First World War. Gramp, (Harry Carey Sr.) as he's called obviously can't stand to see his son lose the will to live and so pays his ailing boy an extra-terrestrial visit in particular to reconcile him with his grief after Ameche's only son Rusty has fallen in battle trying to save another man while serving in the Far East with the Navy.
There are no real special effects to speak of and the story doesn't have the dramatic arc of Capra's classic, as we tag along with Ameche and Carey's gentle walk around their old town and their remembrances of the much loved boy, the point having been made earlier that the boy came into the world pretty much as his grandad was leaving it, so even though they hardly met, there is also an emotional connection between grandfather and grandson.
There's a nice coda to the piece when Rusty's Navy mate, played by a young Henry Morgan of TV's "M.A.S.H." fame, calls on his late buddy's parents and finally convinces them, especially the formerly morose father, that their son's sacrifice was worthwhile and that they can move on with their lives while still cherishing his memory.
Although not much happens between Gramp's arrival and departure, this is still an amiable feature with its pleasant reconstruction of small town life during the war with the drugstore and its attendant soda fountain a vibrant meeting point for the townsfolk young and old.
Personally I think a little more fantasy and perhaps a brief "return" by the son at the end might have proven slightly more satisfactory, in terms of content but this was a pleasant well-meaning morale-boosting piece which achieved its brief.
High Flying Bird
Elton John the recording artist played a big part in my teenage soundtrack years, encompassing his acknowledged classic period from 1971-1976 so the music from this fantasy bio-pic certainly hits the spot with me. I've also seen him in concert more than once and can testify that he's a dynamite live performer. This film acknowledges both of these things but also seeks to portray Elton the human being, the repressed young gay man, born of difficult parents who discovers he has an innate talent for playing the piano and writing melodies for songs. Once he hooks up with his "brown dirt cowboy" lyricist Bernie Taupin and after the two of them struggle for a few years as hack songwriters at the beck and call of old-fashioned impresario Dick James, Elton's alter ego, the flamboyant Captain Fantastic showman duly lands and makes him the biggest act in America covering those golden years.
That success however came at a price as the lonely superstar, still struggling to come to terms with his sexuality and mind-blowing success, duly heads for the overload and binges out on drink, drugs and success. The film ends with the at last reformed John belting out his survival song "I'm Still Standing" and exorcising most of his demons although if you've ever seen the subsequent infamous "fly-on-the-wall" TV special "Tantrums and Tiaras" he's obviously still a spendthrift and subject to mood swings.
No saint is our Elton then but it is possible to feel understanding and even sympathy for the poor little mega-rich boy portrayed here. Director Dexter Fletcher is undoubtedly on John's side as evidenced by the timespan selected here, but still the film and its portrayal of superstar excess seemed a bit shallow and obvious to me.
I liked the over-the-top introduction to the movie as Elton in full regalia crashes an A.A. meeting, at which his confessions and recollections director Fletcher conveniently uses to tell his rise and fall. Never mind that the time-line is frequently skewered and liberties are taken with the detail, the film is principally out to showcase John's extensive musical library and certainly does this although with sometimes mixed results.
Taron Egerton doesn't really look or sound a lot like Elton but he wholeheartedly throws himself into the part and just about carries it off. Richard Madden gets a fairly meaty part as John Reid, Elton's cold, controlling manager and for a time, lover, Jamie Bell is okay as Bernie Taupin, but none of his great band get named in the movie and neither is any credit given to the producer of all his early records, Gus Dudgeon or his orchestrator Paul Buckmaster, which I thought somewhat remiss.
Fletcher directs the musical numbers with some flair, occasionally adapting the song lyrics to fit the screenplay, but is less certain in depicting the dramatic episodes in the singer's life, which too often flirt with cliche.
The film is certainly flash, brash and loud and Elton would probably admit that these adjectives accurately described him at the height of his success but trying to encompass so much into a mere two hour film, just too many short-cuts are taken with a different song to fit in every ten minutes or so, the characterisations, particularly Elton's, rarely run deep.
Still, the film was a good reminder of his glory days and just how high-quality his music was at that time but unfortunately I got the sense that the Elton John here lived up more to his tabloid image than his real self.
Nuclear power games
Everybody it seems is talking about this series being the must-watch show of the year, plus it sits at number 1 on the IMDb TV chart which would tend to indicate it is something special.
With an absence of really well-known actors in the cast, it has to be all about the drama and on that it certainly delivers. It starts off with the mysterious suicide of a middle-aged man living in a nondescript flat in Russia who secretly posts away some dictated cassette tapes before doing the deed. From there we are taken back to the terrible events of 1986 when a mixture of human traits such as ignorance, conformity, parsimony, bullying and misplaced ambition combine for the catastrophic explosion to occur at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Although the narrative occasionally drops back and forth in time to present different perspectives on events, it pretty much takes us through the natural timeline leading up to the incident itself including its aftermath so that by the very end we know the identity of the dead man and just what was on the tapes.
The depiction of the drama in the control room where a succession of errors leading up to the blast is shown twice, once at the beginning for dramatic effect, the second, at the end where each mistaken communication is highlighted and explained in detail to confirm seemingly beyond doubt that this was no system or hardware failure, every component in the disaster was attributable to human failing..
Three main characters emerge to attempt that near-impossibility in late 1980's Soviet Russia, namely to expose the truth even when that truth points back at failings at governmental level. The State, you see, is above criticism and to point this out, (with diagrams!) as Legasov does at the official Russian enquiry is to place yourself at the mercy of the KGB, which is of course, no mercy at all and so Legasov loses his career and even his academic legacy as he is reduced to impoverished near-anonymity in his seedy little flat. Behind him is the deputy Soviet leader Boris Scherbina who changes from dedicated apparatchik to truth campaigner, especially when he too exhibits symptoms of the life-shortening radioactive poisoning which will claim him and thousands of others long before their time over the succeeding years. The third campaigner is a composite character Uyuna Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson, a fact-finding scientist who interviewed everyone in the control room that night to arrive at the incontrovertible truth.
The recreation of the incident both inside and outside the plant was wholly convincing. Those brave men who either went down to turn on the hydraulics, move the radioactive waste from the roof, work underground or reverse the cooling rods are suitably shown as the unselfish heroes they were, even if most of them were obligated to follow orders and so didn't really have a choice. Of the five episodes, only the fourth seemed overlong and unnecessary as it showed a kill squad patrolling the evacuated city exterminating the pet dogs and cats left behind.
The ensemble acting was first rate and completely subsumed to the documentary realism effect sought for by the director. By the end, I was the better for understanding more the enormous risks mankind takes when seeking to harness nuclear power and while there is throughout the piece implied if not overt criticism of the Soviet system of cost-cutting , KGB surveillance and blind subservience to the State one remembers too that the same thing nearly happened in America at Three Mile Island and of course there was the more recent incident at Fukushima, to make one realise that these events can happen anywhere and anytime.
One can't help but wonder if at the time of the next nuclear calamity there will be anyone around afterwards to make a cautionary film like this about it or indeed any viewers here to watch it.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Hungary for love
A delightful, warm-hearted what we'd now call romantic comedy from the Hungarian maestro Ernst Lubitsch. Set in Budapest although neither lead, James Stewart or Margaret Sullavan even begins to attempt a local accent, the narrative concerns the lives and loves of grumpy but paternal gift shop boss, played by Frank Morgan and his employees. While there is plenty of local colour with locations, names and sometimes accents, the action could probably have easily been staged in a 5th Avenue store.
There are a number of intertwining plot strands, principal amongst them being the romantic, incognito pen-pal correspondence between Stewart and Sullivan, who in real life bicker constantly on the shop floor and old shop owner Morgan's worries over his spendthrift wife's marital fidelity. In addition there are important supporting characters like the kindly if timid old-timer salesman played by Felix Bressart, who tries to play peacemaker to all and sundry, William Tracy as the ambitious young errand boy Pepe whose timely intervention later saves the day and Joseph Schildkraut as the toadying shop assistant with ulterior motives.
The plot moves gently back and forward with some light comedic touches interspersed with others reflecting everyday normality and one moment in particular of near tragedy, before things get back on track in time for a Christmassy happy ending for all the principals.
Stewart and Sullavan made four movies together and I'd like to check out some of the others on the evidence of this. There's good support everywhere else in the cast especially Bressart as nice-guy Pirovich. The direction is deft, sophisticated and engaging, the famed Lubitsch Touch very much in evidence.
A little shop of delights you won't be disappointed to visit.
Rio Grande (1950)
The Grande Old Duke Of Yorke
The third of Ford's celebrated Cavalry Trilogy, if not perhaps the strongest of them. "Fort Apache" the first of them was most notable for the conflict between Henry Fonda and John Wayne's contrasting characters, "She Wears A Yellow Rinbon" had colour of course and while "Rio Grande" has Maureen O'Hara as the romantic interest to Wayne's dominating Colonel Kirby Yorke character, for me it had a little less to commend it.
Possibly over-familiarity was breeding a little contempt for seeing the same actors, such as Wayne, Victor McLaglen and Harry Carey Junior, playing stock characters and putting them in predictable settings and situations. After "Fort Apache's" more humane treatment of the Apaches in the earlier movie, it was also a bit disappointing to see them portrayed as very much the baddies here, even stooping so low as to kidnap the cavalry families' children, the rescue of which forms the climax of the movie. There's also the oddity of a travelling troupe of regimental singers, in real life The Sons Of The Pioneers group, popping up to stop the action periodically with another old-time sentimental song.
There are some good points however, Wayne and O'Hara are great together, Wayne, moustachioed and made up appreciably older to play his part, O'Hara, the overly-protective mother, who can't resist her attraction to her old estranged husband. There are good sub-plots too, one involving Ben Johnson's drawling on-the-run renegade Travis Tyree character, who gets and takes his shot at redemption at the film's climax, the other concerning Wayne and O'Hara's still teenage son who rebels against his mother's wishes by joining the cavalry, unaware it's his old barely-remembered dad Wayne who's the company commanding officer.
I fairly enjoyed the movie but didn't consider it as exciting or engaging as previous Ford movies I've seen, never mind that my expectations were already slightly reduced when I saw it was a Republic Studios, low-budget, black and white production.
Still, the camera work is fine, as are the story telling and action sequences, especially the stunt-riding scenes at the beginning, but acceptable as it is, on the whole it doesn't quite stand comparison with other of the great director's western movies.
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
The Kindness Of Strangers
A quite remarkably candid and perceptive examination of parent-children relationships towards the end of one pair of elderly parents' lives. When the five adult, middle-aged Cooper siblings and their spouses assemble at Ma and Pa's New York house expecting confirmation and reassurance about their inheritance prospects, they are all shocked to learn that their folks finances have come unstuck and that their only major asset, the family home, is due to be repossessed by the bank within days. Whilst not completely unsympathetic to their plight, not one of them is prepared to step up and take in the obviously still devoted but soon to be homeless couple. Instead, they're separated between a selected but rather unwilling two of them while the others in different ways shy away from adopting them at all.
The awkwardness of the two old timers trying to blend into the lives of two of their own children's established family lifestyles is sometime painful to watch. Importantly, neither mum or dad is presented as angelic, naturally set in their ways and wanting only to be with each other, they unknowingly irritate their offsprings with their opinions and mannerisms, no matter how slight, even when just sedately rocking in a squeaky chair.
When both households not so gently or subtly edge the respective boarding parents towards their separate out doors, the solutions they propose will separate them even more by shunting one of them to California and the other into an old folks home. And so, decisions made for Ma and Pa, the children regather and invite them to join them for a farewell dinner before the old ones exiles must begin. Ma and Pa, however, well aware of what is going on and how their children are letting them down, have other ideas and decide to spend their likely last time together by doing the town in a bit of style, helped in this by the kindly acts of a new car salesman, the hotel manager at the scene of their honeymoon fifty years before and even the bandleader there who good-manneredly stops a modern up-tempo number to instead play an old-fashioned tune for them to enjoy a last waltz together. From there, its downbeat ending is as effective as it is unsurprising, given what has gone before.
Prefaced by the legend "Honour Thy Father and Mother", director Leo McCarey provocatively makes the case that the best test of a son or daughter is how they treat their parent or parents when the latter are in decline. We're all someone's daughters, we're all someone's sons as the popular song goes and it doesn't seem like a lot to repay the first quarter of our own lives to adult maturity by sacrificing probably a lot less years than that to help ensure that one's parents can see out their days in peace and comfort. Perhaps the point about strangers showing the old couple due respect and consideration is a little heavy-handed and there's a bit of over-sentimentality here and there but otherwise director McCarey does a fine job marshalling a cast devoid of well-known stars, which makes it easier for the public to identify with the family effectively outcasting their own parents.
I'm sure we all want our own parents to live long, healthy and independent lives but for those that can't, this film with its evergreen subject matter both entertains but at the same time makes the viewer think hard about their own family responsibilities.
Fort Apache (1948)
Ford's Army Escort
The first of Ford's celebrated Cavalry Trilogy appears to take for its story the foolish, reckless and thoughtless bravery of George M Custer who led his small band of U.S. cavalrymen to their deaths at Little Big Horn against all received wisdom at the time. Here, Custer's character is converted to another headstrong, if less handsome and dashing career soldier in the guise of Henry Fonda's Owen Thursday, who takes over the command of a troop at a frontier outpost and who clearly sees it as a stepping stone back up the ladder of the army if he can find a way into battle to impress the top brass.
With him is his young daughter bearing the unlikely name of Philadelphia, played in her first adult role by Shirley Temple, who subtly tries to assuage her father's remoteness and stuffiness but without success, indeed she only exacerbates his haughtiness by falling for a keen young officer under dad's command. Thursday is clearly spoiling for a fight with the neighbouring Apache Indians who promptly give him the justification he needs by slaying two of his men in a local skirmish.
Thursday's chief subordinate officer, Kirby York, played by John Wayne, has a working relationship with the great Indian chief Cochise and believes he can stop a war between the two sides by finding the root cause of their grievances and sure enough the finger of blame is pointed at the corrupt manager of the Indian Reservation, a wheedling parasite called Meacham, whose incompetence, personal greed and general mistreatment of the Apache has enflamed their rebellion. When York's parleying with Cochise brokers a possible truce, the headstrong Thursday however sees this as weakness and opportunity and so decides to take on the Indians. However without any tactical, logistical or numerical appreciation of the situation, he leads his loyal and brave band of men into an avoidable massacre, with a mutinous York forced to helplessly watch from safety and years later print the legend of Thursday's bravery, this so as not to denigrate the status of the army down to Thursday's vainglorious and calamitous mishandling of the original situation.
Ford again shows his mastery of frontier story-telling, this time giving the army wives and lovers on the sidelines due prominence as well as ennobling the Indian enemy as a people wrongfully dispossessed of their native rights, shamefully treated by their white so-called superiors. Naturally too, Ford again celebrates the comradeship and bravery of soldiers as well as peppering the narrative with romance, principally between Miss Thursday and John Agar's newly commissioned young officer (indeed he outranks his crusty old sergeant major dad, Ward Bond, in the same regiment) and humour particularly surrounding a drunken gang-of-four underlings who are in and out of the doghouse more than Huckleberry Hound.
I must confess I'm a sucker for Ford's established mixture of sometimes flawed heroism, male camaraderie, sentimental romance and bawdy humour and so I loved this feature, even if others might cry cliche, formula or even blarney. As usual old Pappy is helped by his stock acting troupe led by Fonda and Wayne both at their best as the main protagonists here. I was pleasantly surprised too by the naturalness of Agar and Miss Temple as the young lovers (although she does look very young), while noting that they were in fact married at the time. The black and white photography in and around Monument Valley is excellent and the action scenes are superbly realised, especially the climactic showdown in the hills.
For all its use of familiar locations, actors and themes, Ford was invariably good enough at story-telling to carry them all off, as he surely does here.
Stage Fright (1950)
Exit stage fright
Hitchcock's first film of what was to prove a brilliant decade for him was this, his last British production until "Frenzy" in 1972. It's a combination thriller / comedy, which of course he'd shown a mastery of before ("The 39 Steps" for one) and after ("North By Northwest" for another) but struggles to consistently blend here. I think the problem is the pacing where for long periods the movie just sort of pooters along without any real sense of danger before coming to life briefly in the last five minutes.
Famous, or infamous for the initial extended flashback scene where the story related to Jane Wyman's rather mousy Eve Gill by on-the-run boyfriend Richard Todd's Jonathan Cooper character turns out to be false, it seems that audiences of the day thought this was a trick too far by Hitchcock which contributed to its failure at the box office. Seen today, it seems to me more like innovation than manipulation.
It does have some other good things about it, the Master's familiar tracking camera shots are well in evidence, including one clever scene where Wyman times her walk down a staircase behind two exiting policeman which with a reverse zoom could almost be taken for the memorable shot of Jimmy Stewart doing something similar in "Vertigo". I also liked the simple shot where Wyman's view dims as as she puts on a pair of out-of-focus glasses and the climactic scenes between Todd and Wyman under the theatre are also dramatically lit.
Marlene Dietrich is beautifully shot throughout as befits her diva status and gets to sing a wry Cole Porter number on stage, Alastair Sim is on winning form as Wyman's eccentric father while Joyce Grenfell gets in a nice turn as the "Lovely Ducks" barker at a fete.
However there really is too much faffing about with Wyman's character's subterfuge involving her impersonating Dietrich's maid, with a "Dick Van Dyke" Cockney accent to match and her slow-slow genteel romance with detective Michael Wilding.
Occasionally "Stage Fright" sparks to life but it's a fitful watch, lacking real dramatic tension throughout. It would take a more permanent return to Hollywood starting with his next film "Strangers On A Train" to reignite his artistic renaissance which saw him go on make some of the best films in movie history.
Up the Junction (1968)
I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea
So I was listening to Squeeze's brilliant "Up The Junction" single and thought to myself, I have to go to the source to maybe appreciate how the song came about. Chris Difford's lyric condenses the action far better than I ever could (although it doesn't slavishly follow the film's plot anyway) but I'll have a go. I've also not seen Ken Loach's earlier BBC TV adaptation of the original play, although I understand it dispenses with the central character of Suzy Kendall's mixed-up rich girl from the other side of the river who we see over the titles, walks out of her privileged world to literally see how the other half lives. Shallow and condescending as this might seem, sure enough she walks straight into a job at a sweet packaging company, where the all-female employees have an uncomplicated, enthusiastic approach to life which immediate appeals to her. There she falls under the wings of two very dissimilar looking sisters, Maureen Lipman as the older of the two, already married, separated and had an abortion, she's protective and cynical but still young enough to look to have a good time, while Adrienne Posta is her 17 year old sister, hormones flaring but with a selfish, bullying streak to her as we see when she publicly "makes over" one of her shop-floor colleagues, a shy girl possibly with learning difficulties.
We follow the three of them as they have a lark at work break-time and then at night hook up with some lairy young men at the local pub, where the sisters belt out a song with the pub group. Kendall herself meets a young delivery boy for a second-hand furniture shop from where she's buying for her cheap and cheerful flat and things you might think will continue on this bright and breezy road until the end when things take a darker turn. We see the older sister beaten up in the street by her drunken ex-husband but there's worse in store for the younger sister who falls pregnant, gets a back-street abortion which goes terribly wrong. Finally, to cap it all, the boyfriend who impregnated Corri dies in a motorbike crash, all of this with Kendall as sort of the first person witness to all of it. She wanted to see how the poor live and now she most certainly does.
The film finishes with a concentration on Kendall's new romance where he feels he's punching above his weight and is forever trying to drag her out of seedy Battersea to posher Belgravia not appreciating that she's already rejected that mode of life. However catching her on the rebound from her emotional involvement over Posta's botched abortion, he turns up in a flash car, whisks her away to the seaside to a posh hotel, takes her to a fancy restaurant and eventually proposes to her. That's when we learn that the two of them are pulling in opposite directions, he wants out of the struggling, hard-up life amongst the poor working-class world he inhabits and doesn't care how he does it, while she seems to have found herself by rejecting the privileged upper class life he craves. It's nicely encapsulated in a scene where she craves a bag of cockles at a street vendor much to his disgust.
Class consciousness was a big deal in the 60's and drove many of the kitchen-sink dramas which emerged in the British cinema of the day. Whilst that argument is over-simplified here and one can't imagine too many mummy and daddy's little girls like Kendall's Polly slumming it like this, there's definitely pathos in the portrayals of her poor workmates, although we never actually get a glimpse of the monied life that Polly's escaping.
With good use of real-life locations, fine naturalistic acting especially by Lipman and Posta in support, empathetic direction by Peter Collinson and a bright, psychedlicised soundtrack by Manfred Mann and Mike Hugg, although inevitably dated by its attitudes (it seems to be accepted that men can slap women about or leave them to deal with an unplanned pregnancy) "Up The Junction" still stands as a reasonably accurate and authentic snapshot of the travails of the working classes, especially women in the mid-to-late 60's.