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Made in a Bad Cause
19 June 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Besides the difference in their outcomes, there were important differences between the unsuccessful Russian revolution of 1905 and the successful Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. The revolution of 1905 was a popular uprising, and the participants were by no means all Bolsheviks, but were drawn from various leftist and liberal groups. In 1905 the revolutionaries were fighting against Tsarist autocracy, whereas in October 1917 the Tsar's regime had crumbled several months earlier and Lenin was fighting to overthrow Kerensky's nascent democracy, which was supported by many of those who had risen in 1905. Despite these differences, the Russian Communists often tried to claim 1905 as a dress-rehearsal for their own revolution, and it was frequently celebrated in Soviet art, such as Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony.

In 1925 the Soviet government decided to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 revolution with make a grand epic film telling the full story, and Sergei Eisenstein was appointed director. In the event time constraints meant that this film never materialised, and Eisenstein decided to concentrate on one single episode, the mutiny aboard the Potemkin, a battleship in the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

The film is divided into five sections. The first deals with the events leading up to the mutiny, when the ship's crew protested against the rotten, maggot-infested meat they were expected to eat. The second depicts the mutiny itself, when the crew seized the ship from their officers, and the third the funeral of Vakulinchuk, a revolutionary sailor killed during the mutiny. The fourth is the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence, when the Tsar's soldiers massacre the people of the city, who have risen in support of the mutineers. In the fifth the Potemkin puts out to sea to confront a squadron sent against it.

This is, of course, a propaganda film, so some of the criticisms made of it on this board seem rather wide of the mark. Yes, the Odessa steps massacre (if it had actually happened) would have been over much more quickly than the several minutes which Eisenstein allocated to it here, but this was done deliberately in order to heighten its emotional impact. (I say "if it had actually happened" because this event was an invention of the scriptwriters, whereas the rest of the film is based upon historical fact). Yes, the portrayals of the Tsarist officers and the Orthodox priest are exaggerated caricatures, but a film which effectively said "Of course, we need to remember that there were some good things about Tsarism..." would not only have failed in its propagandist purpose but would also probably have earned Eisenstein a one-way ticket to the gulag.

The propaganda message of the film, however, is not simply "Communism good, Tsarism bad!" Marxist historians tended to play down the "Great Man" theory of history, arguing that historical events are brought about by impersonal economic forces rather than by great men, but this did not prevent Soviet propagandists, Eisenstein included, from idolising the Great Men of Communism, not only Marx and Engels but also Lenin and Stalin. "Battleship Potemkin", made a year after Lenin's death, subtly reinforces the idea of the Great Man; Vakulinchuk is portrayed as a heroic, charismatic revolutionary leader, rousing his crewmates to action by his stirring rhetoric. His funeral takes on a quasi-religious character; the Communists might have rejected other aspects of religion but the cult of the martyr was alive and well in Soviet Russia. When the battleship puts to sea in the final scene it is clear that the mutinous sailors are not a disorganised rabble but are able to work together like parts of a machine, something emphasised by shots of the ship's machinery. Someone- we never learn who- is clearly giving them orders. Message to the comrades: "Communism is not about anarchy! We might no longer have a Tsar but we still need leaders!" It is perhaps significant that the actor playing Vakulinchuk combines Lenin's bald head with Stalin's moustache.

"Battleship Potemkin" is often to be found on critics' lists of the "greatest films of all time", and, indeed, has sometimes been ranked at number one on that list, although I suspect that what those critics really mean is that it contains one of the greatest scenes of all time. The Odessa Steps sequence, exemplifying Eisenstein's theories about "montage", is indeed a masterly piece of film-making, heart-stopping and emotionally riveting even if one is aware that these events never happened. The final scene is also well-handled, but there is nothing of similar quality in the first three segments; Vakulinchuk's funeral, in particular, is dull and overlong.

My main reason, however, why I cannot agree that this film is one of the "greatest of all time" is the same reason why I cannot award that accolade to "Birth of a Nation" or "Triumph of the Will". Like Griffith and Riefenstahl, Eisenstein was a highly talented film-maker, but like them he used his talents to make technically accomplished films in a bad cause. In public the Nazis might have denounced him as a "degenerate Jewish Bolshevik", but in private their own propaganda chief, Goebbels, regarded "Battleship Potemkin" as a masterpiece of the propagandist's art. Bad as the Tsarist regime was, it is hard to argue that the Communist one marked a change for the better. The Tsar may have slain his thousands, but Lenin and Stalin slew by the tens of millions. Within a few years of this film being made, the people of Odessa and the rest of the Ukraine would be suffering a famine so severe that they would gladly have accepted the maggot-infested meat which provoked the Potemkin mutiny. 5/10
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The Leopard (1963)
No Longer the Biggest Cat in the Jungle
10 June 2019
"The Leopard" is based upon the celebrated novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which was a massive success in Italy and also brought its author to international attention. A film adaptation was inevitable, but its scale and detailed recreation of 19th century Italy required a bigger budget than the Italian cinema could easily afford. The decision was therefore taken to attract international audiences by casting a big-name Hollywood star, Burt Lancaster, in the leading role, with the well-known French actor Alain Delon in a secondary one. I was interested to learn that not only were Lancaster and Delon's lines dubbed into Italian, but the same was also done with the film's leading lady, Claudia Cardinale. Although Cardinale is normally thought of as an Italian actress, she was actually born to ethnic Italian parents in Tunisia, at the time a French colony, and grew up speaking French and her parents' Sicilian dialect. Her heavily accented Italian was felt to be inappropriate to her character, Angelica, who although of peasant stock has been brought up as a cultured young lady by her social-climbing father.

The action takes place in the Sicily of the early 1860s. The "leopard" of the title is Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, the head of an ancient and illustrious aristocratic family. This is, however, a time of change, because the "Risorgimento", the struggle to unite the network of petty states which made up Italy into a single kingdom, has begun. Early in the story the armies of Francis II of the Two Sicilies are defeated by the pro-unification "redshirts" of Giuseppe Garibaldi, leading the way to the incorporation of the island into the new state.

Lampedusa, himself a Sicilian aristocrat, took a somewhat cynical view of the Risorgimento, even though these events are one of the defining episodes of Italian patriotism. Fabrizio sees the events of 1860/61 as marking the decline of traditional aristocratic values and the rise of a corrupt, materialistic bourgeoisie. The new Italy claims to be a democracy, but this claim is shown to be a hollow one when the new rulers organise a rigged plebiscite to approve the incorporation of Sicily into the new unified Italy. (In Fabrizio's home town 512 citizens out of 515 supposedly vote in favour, with three abstentions and no votes against, a landslide of North Korean proportions). Fabrizio is offered the position of a Senator in the new state, but contemptuously rejects it.

The main representative of the rising bourgeoisie is Don Calogero Sedara, a wealthy, self-made businessman. Like many "new money" men throughout the ages, Sedara longs for social acceptance by the "old money" nobility, and is desperate to engineer the marriage of his beautiful daughter Angelica to Fabrizio's nephew Tancredi. Although Fabrizio was hoping that Tancredi would marry his own daughter, Concetta, he reluctantly gives his consent, knowing that Tancredi (whose own family are aristocratic but not particularly wealthy is not only smitten with Angelica's good looks but also in need of her father's money.

The novel has always been known in English as "The Leopard" (and in French as "Le Guépard"), even though its Italian title "Il Gattopardo" refers not to the leopard (that would be "Il Leopardo") but to two smaller members of the cat family, either the serval (gattopardo africano) or the ocelot (gattopardo americano). Although I can see why the change was made- "The Serval" would mean little to English-speaking audiences unless they were expert in zoology- Lampedusa's title strikes me as somehow more appropriate. By the end of the film Fabrizio seems a diminished figure, no longer the biggest cat in the jungle.

When first released in 1963, the film was a success in Italy and France but not in America, where it was released in an English-dubbed version, cut down to 161 minutes, considerably shorter than Luchino Visconti's 185-minute "director's cut". I have never seen the English-language version, so my comments below are of necessity based upon Visconti's cut. Even if Lancaster did not speak the words we hear in the Italian version, he nevertheless dominates the picture by his very presence. At first he seems a towering figure, a pillar of tradition and aristocratic values, but it eventually becomes clear that the forces of historic change are too strong for him, and if he still remains standing at the end he does so like a pillar which remains upright when the structure it once supported has fallen into ruins around it.

"The Leopard" is an early example of what has become known as "heritage cinema" and, although that genre is mostly associated with Britain it predates what I normally think of as the first modern British example, Schlesinger's "Far from the Madding Crowd", by several years. It is not only a grand epic, very visually striking and making good use of the landscapes and architecture of Sicily and of the costumes of its period, but also a moving meditation upon the forces of history and the process of change. A fine drama. 8/10
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Trying to make a film out of a Broadway flop
7 June 2019
"The Only Game in Town" was the last film to be directed by George Stevens. The theme is a love-triangle with two men in love with the same woman. The woman is Fran Walker, a thirty-something Las Vegas chorus girl. The men are Thomas Lockwood, a wealthy San Francisco businessman and Joe Grady, a lounge pianist. Fran has been the mistress of the married Lockwood for five years, and tired of waiting for him to make good on his endless promises to get a divorce, she drifts into an affair with Joe. Joe's great ambition is to save up enough money to relocate to New York- what he intends to do when he gets there is never made clear- but this seems an impossible dream because he is a compulsive gambler who squanders most of his earnings on the craps tables. When Lockwood abruptly turns up to announce that his divorce has at long last come through, Fran finds herself torn between two lovers.

I have heard it suggested that Stevens did not intend this to be his last film and that he was only persuaded to retire from directing when turned out to be a failure, both critically and at the box office. Watching the film, it was obvious that the film, with its small cast and limited range of settings, was based on a play. What I didn't realise was that the film was based on an unsuccessful play which had flopped when it had had a brief run on Broadway two years earlier. Despite this 20th Century Fox, who had purchased the movie rights before the play opened on Broadway, decided to go ahead with their option and even commissioned the author, Frank Gilroy, to write the screenplay.

They must have rued their decision. Those critics who savaged it were quite right, as were those audiences who stayed away in their droves. Elizabeth Taylor, appearing in her third collaboration with Stevens after "A Place in the Sun" and "Giant", seems badly miscast as Fran. This is only partly because, by 1970, she no longer had a chorus girl's figure. (We never actually see her in her costume). In other respects she remained a beauty, and like other famously beautiful actresses she found it difficult to portray a loser in love. This was a problem which had affected her contemporaries Audrey Hepburn in "Two for the Road" and Grace Kelly in "Dial M for Murder"; both had played women whose husbands had grown tired of them, in Kelly's case to such a point that he was prepared to countenance cold-blooded murder as a cheaper alternative to divorce.

Taylor here is still the woman who, for the past two decades, had been one of the world's great sex symbols; virtually every character she had played had been an irresistible siren. Off-screen she seemed to have the same fatal allure; by 1970 she was on her fifth marriage, and two of her husbands, Richard Burton and Eddie Fisher, had left their previous wives for her, even though the first Mrs Fisher had been someone as attractive and personable as Debbie Reynolds. So why would someone like Tom Lockwood dither for five years about marrying her instead of snapping her up at the first opportunity?

Warren Beatty as Joe is not too bad, even though he was not the first choice for the part; that was Frank Sinatra, who was forced to pull out because of a clash of commitments when filming was postponed after Taylor was taken ill. We cannot, of course, know what the film would have been like had Sinatra played the role, but I suspect that it would have been very different, if only because of the difference of age between him and Beatty. The script tells us that Joe is three years younger than Fran; Beatty was actually five years younger than Taylor. Had the much older Sinatra been cast that line would have had to have been rewritten. In the film that we have Fran is confronted with a simple choice between Joe's youth, charm and good looks and the financial security which Lockwood can provide. Make Joe a man of the same generation as Lockwood, and the whole balance of the story is changed.

Besides the casting of Taylor, there is another reason why the film was not a success, a reason which is rooted in its origins as a stage play. It is talky, stagey and claustrophobic, with little attempt being made to open up the action. Most of the action takes place in Fran's small apartment; there are a few scenes set in the casino, but they never generate much excitement because you can't really turn a game of chance like craps into an enthralling spectator sport. The dialogue shows just why Broadway audiences showed so little enthusiasm for the original play. Trying to make a good film out of even a successful stage play is a challenge for any director. Trying to make a good film out of a Broadway flop was, alas, too much for Stevens. 4/10
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Lady Bird (2017)
Neither the First Lady Nor the Insect
5 June 2019
The "Lady Bird" of the title is neither the insect nor the former First Lady who was married to President Lyndon Johnson. It is rather a reference to the main character, Christine McPherson, who for reasons best known to herself prefers to be known as "Lady Bird". Christine is a teenage schoolgirl at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. I have never been to that particular city, but in the film it is portrayed as one of America's main redoubts of dull, conformist, middle-class respectability.

The supposed dullness of her home town is the main reason why Christine's great ambition is to attend a prestigious university in "a city with culture", preferably on the East Coast. This ambition brings her into conflict with her parents, who are in financial difficulties and would prefer her to study somewhere cheaper and more local. The film also deals with Christine's relationship with her best friend Julie, that with her boyfriend Danny (who turns out to be gay), her attempts to ingratiate herself with the school's "in set", epitomised by "most popular girl" Jenna and upper-class boy Kyle, with whom she has a brief affair. The film ends with an account of her early days at university.

Films about suffering, dysfunctional American families have never really been my favourite genre. There have been some decent ones, such as Robert Redford's Oscar-winning "Ordinary People", but plenty of others which fall well short of this standard, "Lymelife" and "The Lifeguard" being two examples which stay in the mind for all the wrong reasons. Even that master of comedy, Woody Allen, fell flat on his face when he attempted a film of this type, "September" (aka "I Wannabe Ingmar Bergman").

I have to admit, however, that "Lady Bird" is one of the better entries in the "suffering families" stakes. This is partly because the McPhersons are not completely dysfunctional; beneath all their squabbling and bickering there is a genuine reserve of affection and family feeling. There is, moreover, an excellent acting performance from Saoirse Ronan in the title role. For a twenty-something who has lived in Ireland from the age of three, Saoirse makes a very convincing Californian teenager. There are also good contributions from the supporting cast, especially Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts (did his parents want a girl?) as Christine's long-suffering parents. Writer-director Greta Gerwig's script is both humane and literate, creating some well-written, sympathetic characters, making this a very watchable film despite my scepticism about the genre to which it belongs. 7/10
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Tolkien (2019)
The Insight of a Wikipedia Page
3 June 2019
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is not really the most natural subject for a biopic. Apart from his service in World War I, something he shared with most young men of his generation, his was not a particularly eventful life. He went to school where he made some friends, he fell in love, got married and had children. So do most people. He spent most of his life as a professor at Oxford University, not the most dramatic of professions. He also wrote "The Lord of the Rings", one of the greatest works of literature in the English language, but you cannot make a movie about a man sitting at his desk writing. And yet, such is the level of interest in his works, especially since they were filmed by Peter Jackson, that a film like this one seemed almost inevitable.

This is officially an American film, even though it is set in Britain and most of the cast are British or Irish. It is made in the typical British "heritage cinema" style, with lavishly recreated sets and costumes. There are some good acting performances, especially from Nicholas Hoult in the title role but also from Colm Meaney as Father Francis Morgan, a Roman Catholic priest who served as Tolkien's guardian after the deaths of his parents, and from Derek Jacobi as Joseph Wright, the crusty old Oxford don who was Tolkien's academic mentor.

The two most important elements in this film are Tolkien's wartime experiences and his friendship with a group of boys he met at King Edward's school, Birmingham. A third element is his courtship of and eventual marriage to his wife Edith, but curiously little is made of what could in other hands have become one of the main themes of the film, the fact that they were two of the parties to a love-triangle. Edith only married her former boyfriend Tolkien after breaking off an engagement to another man, but her other suitor never even appears in the film and we never learn what he felt about being jilted in this way.

The scriptwriters try to give the film an overarching theme by suggesting correspondences between the events of Tolkien's early life and elements of his work. Tolkien and his three close school friends, two of whom are killed in the war, were a "fellowship" which formed the basis for the "Fellowship of the Ring", the title of the first part of "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. His wartime experiences in the trenches allegedly inspired his descriptions of the Land of Mordor. These correspondences, however, are generally hinted at rather than made explicit, and would probably be lost on anyone not already familiar with "Lord of the Rings". No attempt is made to tie Edith in to this theme; she is said to have inspired the character Arwen Evenstar, but she only plays a minor role in the book.

"Tolkien" is visually attractive and reasonably well acted, but it is rather lifeless and lacks imagination. My feelings about it are perhaps best summed up by the critic who said that it doesn't rise above the insight of a Wikipedia page.

A goof. Professor Wright tells Tolkien that his surname derives from the Anglo-Saxon for "foolhardy". Tolkien himself (plausibly but probably incorrectly) believed it to be a corruption of the German word with that meaning, "tollkuehn". If the name did indeed mean "foolhardy" a distinguished Germanic philologist like Wright would instantly have recognised it as High German. (The Second Great Sound Shift, a series of phonetic changes which separated German from the other Germanic languages, including Anglo-Saxon, means, among other things, that where words in those languages begin with a "d", the equivalent High German form will have an initial "t").
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What Makes This Rage and Spite?
1 June 2019
One day, probably in December to judge by all the Christmas carols we hear, a bunch of armed men storm the headquarters of the American Literary Historical Society in New York and shoot dead all the members of the staff whom they find on the premises.

Why? What makes this rage and spite? What have America's literary historians done to inspire such murderous bloodlust? Have they found evidence that Francis Bacon really did write the plays of Shakespeare, thus earning themselves the hatred of the world's Shakespeareans? Have they infuriated the Janeites by alleging that Jane Austen wasn't a virgin? Have they spoken ill of some other author beloved of the millions?

The truth is rather different. The supposed "Society" is really a secret CIA office. Moreover, the murderers have not been as efficient as they might. There is one survivor, Joseph Turner (codenamed "Condor"), who was actually the killers' real target. (He survived because he was on his lunch break when they struck). At first the motive for the murders is unclear, but it gradually emerges that Condor, a CIA analyst, was targeted by a rogue faction within the organisation because he had inadvertently stumbled across a conspiracy. Something involving Middle Eastern oil, but don't ask me to explain the full details. In fact, don't even ask the scriptwriters to explain the full details.

Not knowing who he can trust, Condor goes on the run. He encounters an attractive young woman named Kathy Hale, holds her up at gunpoint and forces her to take him to her apartment. Now in the real world Kathy would doubtless have taken the first chance she got (and she gets plenty) to contact the police and complain that she had been kidnapped by a lunatic who kept repeating some cock-and-bull story about his being a CIA operative. Except, of course, the film is not set in the real world but in the world according to Hollywood. Kathy never goes anywhere near the police, but comes to trust Condor implicitly and even ends up in bed with him. Even though she already has a boyfriend and even though his girlfriend, Janice, was one of the victims of the massacre. Yeah, right.

There are some films which seem to reflect the spirit of their age, and "Three Days of the Condor" is just about as 1970s as you can get. And not just in its Neanderthal attitude to women. It stars those two quintessentially seventies stars Robert Redford (in one of his numerous collaborations with his friend Sydney Pollack) and Faye Dunaway. The bedroom scene was probably included on the basis of the cynical calculation that audiences would be disappointed if a film starring the boyishly handsome Redford and the slinkily seductive Dunaway did not feature them in bed together at least once. It's also very mid-seventies in its paranoid theme. At one time thriller heroes only had to contend with the criminal activities of gangsters and foreign governments; after Watergate they were frequently shown battling the criminal activities of their own government or of other Americans in high places. A year later Redford was to star in another film of this type, the fact-based "All the President's Men", dealing with the Watergate scandal itself. The "Middle Eastern oil" theme, not found in the film's source novel, was inspired by the oil crisis of 1973.

Some time around the year 2050, when we're all travelling in self-driven electric cars, people will be asking themselves "just what was all that fuss about the Middle East and its oil?" In 2019, however, after the Iranian Revolution, two Gulf Wars and innumerable crises in the region, the film's political elements still seem as topical as they ever did (even if, at the time, Pollack denied that he made it with any overt political purpose).

And yet in other ways the film has not held up well. I did not see the film in 1975, when I was still a schoolboy, but if I had done so I would probably have found it a slick, modern piece of film-making. Today the "paranoid thriller" format has been repeated so often that the genre has come to seem over-familiar. Although it is by no means the worst offender, "Three Days..." has an over-complicated plot which is not always easy for the viewer to understand. The attempt to humanise Max von Sydow's ruthless hitman never really works. At the time the film critics were generally positive about the film, but the critic of "Variety" called it a B movie that was given a big budget despite its lack of substance. That criticism still seems relevant today. 5/10
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Humour is Conspicuous by its Absence
27 May 2019
The late eighties were the age of glasnost when the Cold War was coming to an end and relationships between Russia and the West were gradually improving. Hollywood, however, tended to ignore this welcome development in international politics and continued to churn out films, both thrillers and comedies, in which the evil Russian commies served as convenient villains, "Rambo III" and the Bond film "The Living Daylights" being other examples. (There were occasional exceptions such as "Red Heat" in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a Russian cop who joins forces with his American equivalents to take on the bad guys).

"Young Nurses in Love" is another film which remains loyal to the idea of Russian villainy. The basic idea is that in a hospital somewhere in America there is a sperm bank used to store refrigerated samples from the great geniuses of twentieth-century history- Einstein, Thomas Edison and so on. The Russians are determined to steal these samples to learn the secrets of these great men, so infiltrate a beautiful secret agent into the hospital disguised as a nurse. Once inside, however, she falls in love with a handsome doctor- who just happens to be an undercover American spy in disguise.

The title of the film might suggest either a Mills and Boon type romance with a medical background or (if "love" is taken to be a euphemism for "lust") a softcore porno set in a hospital. I am indebted to the previous reviewer for the information that one of the cast is an "infamous adult-film star", but despite this the film is not really particularly erotic. Nor for that matter is it a romantic love story. It resembles more closely an American version of a British "Carry On" movie. (The "Carry On" team made several films with a hospital setting). Those pretty young nurses all wear rather tight-fitting, revealing uniforms, but they generally keep them on and we do not see any bare flesh. There are certainly no sex scenes.

Sex scenes are not the only thing the film lacks. Humour is also conspicuous by its absence. The script is witless, based around a few clichés which are never really developed- the doctors are all drunk or incompetent and the nurses are all mercenary, hoping to hook up romantically with a high-earning doctor. The acting is equally bad; comedy is harder than it looks, and none of the cast here show any signs of having a gift for it. The "Carry On" films varied in quality from the reasonably good to the terrible, but "Young Nurses in Love" is even worse than the very worst of that series. 1/10
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Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself
17 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
"The Great Commandment" is, like "Ben-Hur", a film telling a fictitious story based around the life of Jesus. The main character is Joel, the elder son of a village rabbi, who hopes that his son will follow him into the rabbinate. Joel, however, is secretly a Zealot, one of a group of nationalistic Jews hoping to lead an uprising to free their people from Roman occupation. He is aware of the teachings of Jesus and believes Him to be the promised Messiah of the Jewish people. Joel hopes that he can persuade Jesus to accept the position of leader of the Zealot cause, and is encouraged by Jesus' disciple, Judas Iscariot, who cherishes similar hopes. A subplot deals with the rivalry between Joel and his younger brother Zadok (another Zealot, even more fanatical and hot-headed than Joel) for the love of the beautiful Tamar. Another important character is Longinus, the Roman centurion who presided over the Crucifixion.

The film was expressly made in order to convey a Christian message. One of the producers, James K. Friedrich, was a clergyman, and the production company was called Cathedral Films. The Great Commandment of the title is the lesson to be drawn from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, "love thy neighbour as thyself". It is hardly surprising, therefore, that it should end with the conversion to Christianity of Joel, Tamar and Longinus. To comply with the requirements of the censors Jesus is not shown directly, only as a reflection in the water, although we hear His voice, provided by the director Irving Pichel.

As well as its obvious religious message, the film may also have had a political message to the America of 1939, the year in which war broke out in Europe. Although the Gospels tell us that Judas betrayed Jesus for monetary reward in the form of his "thirty pieces of silver", it has become something of a cliché in fictional treatments of the Gospel story to depict him as a revolutionary firebrand and his betrayal of Jesus as having political rather than financial motives. This slant on the story appears in the 1961 epic "King of Kings", and it also appears here, probably in the days before it became a cliché. The film draws a contrast between the pacifism of Jesus and another of His disciples, Andrew, and the revolutionary zeal of Judas and Zadok. The film might therefore have been intended to support America's strong isolationist movement by preaching the pacifist message that war, even a war fought in an ostensibly just cause, can never be justified.

Its plot may have some similarities with films like "Ben-Hur" and "King of Kings", but "The Great Commandment" is made in a style which is about as far from the grandiose spectacle of the typical Hollywood Biblical epic as one can get. It was made in black-and-white on an obviously low budget without any spectacular set pieces and without any major stars among the cast. Yet for all its Poverty Row origins the film is made with an obvious sincerity. It preaches its Christian message for its own sake, not as a means of making money by appealing to Bible Belt audiences. If only one could say the same of all big bucks Biblical adaptations. 7/10
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Lady Macbeth (2016)
Not the Scottish Play
15 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Despite the title, this film has nothing to do with Shakespeare's Scottish Play. It is based on the story "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" by the Russian author Nikolai Leskov, which was also turned into an opera by Dimitri Shostakovich. The film, however, transfers the action from Russia to the north-east of England in the 1860s.

The central character, Katherine, is the young wife of Alexander Lester, the son of a well-to-do landowning family who also appear to have interests in the coal mining industry. They live on the country estate of Alexander's father, Boris. (This Christian name, not a common one in Victorian Northumberland, was that of the equivalent character in Leskov's story. In that story the husband was called Zinovy, but the scriptwriter obviously felt that audiences would not accept this for a 19th century Geordie). Katherine's marriage to the older Alexander is a loveless and unhappy one, and she is bored and frustrated by life on the remote Lester family estate. When both Boris and Alexander are away on business she begins an affair with Sebastian, one of the estate workers. When Boris returns home and learns of the affair the illicit lovers are forced into taking drastic action.

A storyline like that, combined with a 19th century rural setting, might call to mind the works of Thomas Hardy, but Katherine is very different from Hardy's heroines, who are generally portrayed sympathetically as the tragic victims of a hostile fate. When Hardy's main characters resort to violence, they normally do so suddenly and on impulse, as with Tess's killing of Alec D'Urberville or Boldwood's shooting of Troy in "Far from the Madding Crowd". Katherine and Sebastian, by contrast, are guilty of several premeditated murders in their attempt to cover their tracks.

The last time I saw Florence Pugh was in "The Falling" when I felt that she was about the only good thing in that otherwise awful movie. To class someone as the best thing about a bad film might seem to be damning them with faint praise, but Florence has now shown that she also has the capability of being the best thing about a good film. She gives an excellent performance here, coping well with the difficult task of portraying a character who undergoes a speedy moral decline. In the early scenes Katherine needs to come across as sympathetic, the victim of an uncaring husband and of a social system which treats women as little more than chattels. In the second half of the movie, however, she must seem cold, heartless and scheming, as bad as, and worse than, the men against whose tyranny she was once rebelling. Florence receives good support from the rest of the cast, particularly Cosmo Jarvis as Sebastian and Naomi Ackie as Katherine's maid Anna who plays a pivotal role in the unfolding drama.

Despite the Victorian period setting, "Lady Macbeth" does not have much in common with the familiar British "heritage cinema" style, which relies upon lavish sets and costumes. The Lesters, although well off, are not fabulously wealthy, upper-middle class rather than aristocracy, and their country manor has surprisingly little furniture and ornamentation by the standards of the Victorian bourgeoisie, whose tastes generally ran to extravagant over-statement rather than elegant simplicity. Possibly the elderly Boris has insisted on furnishing the house according to the simpler tastes which were prevalent in his Regency youth, but the austerity of Katherine's surroundings helps to emphasise the bleakness of her situation.

Transferring the plots of the 19th century classics from one part of the world to another is a device I would more normally associate with Hollywood than with Britain, Alfonso Cuaron's version of "Great Expectations" being a case in point. "Lady Macbeth", however, succeeds where Cuaron's film failed. Cuaron relocated the plot of Dickens's novel not just geographically but also historically from early 19th century Britain to the America of the 1990s, and could only do so by twisting the story to such an extent that it no longer made a lot of sense. Leskov's story, however, works in an English setting, particularly in an isolated part of the north-east. Away from Newcastle and the industrialised south-eastern part of the county, Northumberland is the most sparsely populated part of England, and Katherine's home is in a remote lonely situation, cut off from the nearest towns and villages by endless barren moorlands, so it is hardly surprising that she feels a sense of isolation and alienation. (Relocating the story to, say, the more populous green fields of Hardy's Dorset might have worked less well).

"Lady Macbeth" is a grim but powerful and gripping drama. I had never previously come across the work of director William Oldroyd, but on this evidence he seems to be one to watch. 8/10
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Saraband (1948)
Our Uncrowned Queen
8 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Although Sophie Dorothea of Celle was the wife of a British king, she was never crowned Queen of Great Britain. She was married to her first cousin Prince George Louis of Hanover, the future King George I, but it was never a happy marriage, and was dissolved in 1695 on account of her alleged adultery with an army officer named Count Philip von Königsmarck. Despite his German-sounding name, Königsmarck was Swedish by birth. He disappeared in 1695, probably murdered on George's orders, and Sophie spent the rest of her life under virtual house arrest in Ahlen Castle until her death in 1726, a year before that of her former husband. "Saraband for Dead Lovers" tells this tragic story. The curious title- a "saraband" is a type of dance- is never explained in the film, although it may be in the original source novel by Helen Simpson, which I have never read.

The Act of Settlement, which excluded Roman Catholics from the succession and established George's mother, the Dowager Electress Sophia, as next-in-line to the throne after the future Queen Anne, was not passed by the English Parliament until 1701. During the period in which the action takes place (1689- 1695) there were numerous people alive with a better claim to the throne, but in the film George and his mother are keen to stress their links with the British Royal Family and, inaccurately, talk as though their right to succeed was already a done deal. Perhaps the idea was to further the cause of Anglo-German reconciliation, three years after the end of the war, by stressing the dynastic links between the two countries. The closing titles point out that Sophie Dorothea was the mother of King George II and, through him, the ancestress of all future British monarchs.

Perhaps the weakest part of the film is the confusing sub-plot dealing with Countess Clara Platen, a mistress, or former mistress, of Ernest Augustus. She is in love with Königsmarck but he will have nothing to do with her, leading her to plot her revenge against him. Flora Robson was never really convincing as Platen, depicted here as a faded femme fatale; Marlene Dietrich (who probably would have been a lot better) was considered for the part, but Ealing were not keen on casting big-name Hollywood or foreign stars.

The rest of the cast, however, are much better. Peter Bull's George, for all his royal blood, is a vulgar, boorish bully who neglects his beautiful young wife and betrays her with a series of mistresses. Stewart Granger's Königsmarck is not only handsome and dashing but also sensitive, able to give Sophie the love which her husband denies her. Joan Greenwood makes an enchanting heroine, with her rich, distinctive contralto voice appropriate to Sophie's regal dignity. There is also a good contribution from the French actress Françoise Rosay as the formidable Electress Sophia, a woman whose only concern is to forward her dynastic ambitions and who remains blind to her son's grossness and to the emotional suffering of her daughter-in-law.

This was the first Ealing Studios film shot in colour, and with its elaborate sets and costumes can be seen as a precursor of the British "heritage cinema" style of historical drama. The roots of this style go back to the late forties; the Oscar Wilde adaptation "An Ideal Husband" and even Olivier's version of "Henry V" can be seen as other examples. Perhaps film-makers felt that, at a time of post-war austerity the British people needed something sumptuous to entertain them. Yet there is more to the film than good looks. It is also a moving character study of a doomed marriage and an equally doomed romance. 8/10
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Was the Finland of the 1930s quite such a quaint and Ruritanian place as it appears here?
3 May 2019
"Arctic Highway" is a short travelogue tracing a journey through Finland from Helsingfors northwards to the Arctic Circle and the far north of the country. The film was made in 1939, probably shortly before the outbreak of the Winter War of 1939/40 between Finland and the Soviet Union, as this conflict is not referred to in the film. I use the form "Helsingfors" rather than "Helsinki" for the Finnish capital because it is used in the film itself, as was standard English usage in the 1930s.

When I call the film a "travelogue" I do not mean that it was made to give audiences ideas about where to go for their next holiday. For the majority of British people in the thirties, "going on holiday" meant, at best, a week (or if they were lucky a fortnight) in the nearest seaside resort to their home town. Even the well-to-do minority who could afford foreign travel generally confined themselves to a few Western European or Mediterranean destinations; Finland would have been well off the beaten track. The idea, rather, was to show audiences something of a country most of them could never hope to visit.

Helsingfors emerges from the film as a modern, bustling city; much stress is placed upon its modern architecture, with a then-fashionable Art Deco competing with a severely rectilinear Modernist style. Outside the capital, however, Finland comes across as a much more traditional place, at times almost mediaeval. Only the southernmost portion of the Arctic Highway is actually metalled; most of it is little more than a dirt track. We see a country with no agricultural machinery and where crops are harvested by hand, a place where houses are crude log-built structures, where people still wear traditional folk costumes as their everyday dress and where there is little industry apart from logging.

Was the Finland of the 1930s quite such a quaint and Ruritanian place as it appears here? Quite possibly not, but then the film-makers evidently decided to concentrate on those aspects of Finnish life which they felt would most interest their audiences. A documentary about a far-off, strange and exotic part of the world is always going to be more interesting than one about a foreign country which, apart from the language and a colder climate, does not seem very different from England. Old travelogues like this one are not just interesting for what they can tell the modern viewer about other countries. They are also interesting for what they can tell us about the British themselves and how earlier generations liked to see other countries.
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One of Wayne's Rare Failures
1 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
"Big Jim McLain" from 1952 marked the first film in which John Wayne played a contemporary law enforcement officer, although he had previously played Wild West lawmen; in the 1970s, towards the end of his career, he was again to play detectives in "McQ" and "Brannigan". Jim McLain, however, is not a police officer in the normal sense but an investigator acting on behalf of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He and his partner Mal Baxter are sent to Hawaii to investigate the activities of the American Communist Party which is attempting to infiltrate the local labour unions.

The film was highly supportive of what today would be called "McCarthyism", although Joseph McCarthy himself was a Senator and so did not sit on the HUAC. This was a controversial stance, although possibly less so in 1952, when distrust of communism was widespread across the American political spectrum, than it would be today. The HUAC itself drew its members from both main parties, and for much of its existence the majority were Democrats, as had been its first chairman, Martin Dies. Wayne, of course, was noted for his conservative Republican political views, but one of his co-stars, Nancy Olson, was equally noted as a liberal Democrat, yet presumably had no objection to the film.

According to the film, the members of the HUAC regarded membership of the Communist Party as "high treason". It was, of course, nothing of the sort. Despite the strongly anti-communist atmosphere in America during the fifties, the American Communist Party remained a legal organisation and membership was not even a criminal offence, let alone treason. Big Jim and Baxter, therefore, have to be given something more substantial than mere party membership to investigate, and the scriptwriters come up with everything from insurance fraud to the sabotage of a U.S. naval vessel to a plot to cripple the Honolulu docks.

The reviews on this board would suggest that most people today judge the film according to their political views about communism and McCarthyism, but as has been pointed out the basic structure of the film is similar to that of most films about law enforcement, whatever the activities being investigated. This similarity was recognised even at the time; in some European countries, mainly those with strong local communist movements, the film was retitled "Marijuana" and dubbed to make it look as though McLain and Baxter are investigating drug dealers rather than communists. (The same thing was done with another anti-communist film, "Pickup on South Street", which in France was released as "Port de la Drogue").

Even, however, if one can put one's political prejudices aside and evaluate "Big Jim McLain" as simply another generic crime flick, it does not emerge with a lot of credit. The plot is a banal one and generates little tension, the dialogue is uninteresting, the acting is undistinguished and for the most part there is little attempt at characterisation beyond "commies bad, commie-hunters good". "Pickup on South Street", by contrast, is far stronger in all these departments, making it one of the best films noirs of the period. In the fifties John Wayne could generally do no wrong as far as the box-office was concerned, but "Big Jim McLain" was one of his rare failures. 4/10
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Quadrophenia (1979)
A Slice of Life, Cut from a Half-Baked Pie
30 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
During the 1960s the two major British youth subcultures were the Mods and the Rockers. The word "Mod", short for "modernist", originally denoted a devotee of modern jazz, although they later adopted other musical genres such as soul and R&B. The Rockers, as their name suggests, were fans of rock-and-roll. The differences between the two groups went beyond their tastes in music. Mods dressed smartly in sharply tailored suits, although they often incongruously hid these beneath a "parka", a baggy, shapeless anorak-like garment. They drove Italian motor-scooters, generally Vespas or Lambrettas, and were known for their drug use, especially amphetamines. They often avoided alcohol, preferring coke or coffee, and hung out in coffee bars. Rockers dressed more scruffily in jeans and leather jackets, often with a Pompadour hairstyle, drove powerful motor-bikes and had no objections to alcohol, although they despised illegal drugs. Their favoured hang-outs were transport cafés.

Although there doubtless were respectable, law-abiding Mods and Rockers, it cannot be denied that both groups harboured a substantial hooligan element. The battles which between members of the two rival subcultures, generally taking place in seaside resorts on Bank Holidays during the 1960s, have passed into legend and have been mythologised (and probably exaggerated) in popular culture.

This film helped to spark the Mod revival of the late seventies. (A Rocker revival was to follow in the early eighties). It is set in 1964, the year in which violence between Mods and Rockers reached its peak. The main character is Jimmy Cooper, a young Londoner who finds release from his boring job as a post room boy in an advertising firm and his troubled relationship with his parents by immersing himself in Mod culture. He lives for music, partying, taking amphetamines, riding his scooter and fighting with the Rockers. His two main ambitions are to get off with Steph, an attractive girl who has taken his fancy, and to become a "face", as the most prominent Mods are known.

Like Ken Russell's "Tommy" from a few years earlier, "Quadrophenia" is based on a "rock opera" by The Who. (The largely meaningless title is a play on the word "schizophrenia"; it supposedly denotes a mind split four different ways, but if we needed a word for such a concept it would be "tetraphrenia", not "quadrophenia"). The two films are very different in style. Unlike "Tommy", "Quadrophenia" is not a musical and is made in a relatively sober style based on the "slice of life" social realism of the fifties and sixties, whereas "Tommy" (as one might expect from Russell) was more of a deliriously over-the-top fantasy. The Who do not appear live in the film, although they are referred to and we hear some of their hits. (These references are mostly anachronistic; for example, one of the featured songs is "My Generation" which was not released until 1965, a year after the action is supposed to be taking place).

Some have praised "Quadrophenia" as a celebration of the spirit of youthful rebellion, but I have always had difficulties with this interpretation. The problem is that Phil Daniels's Jimmy is just so unlikeable, the sort of snivelling little Herbert that nobody would want for a son, an employee, a friend or a lover. There is a difference between Jimmy and the angry young men of the British kitchen sink cinema like Jimmy Porter from "Look Back in Anger", Vic Brown from "A Kind of Loving" and Arthur Seaton from "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning", or their American equivalents such as Jim Stark from "Rebel without a Cause". They were also in rebellion against what they saw as the "system", but their rebellion was at least partly motivated by idealism, even if they had difficulty expressing that idealism in words. Jimmy Cooper's rebellion is all about "Me, me, me!" The "angry young man" with whom he has most in common is perhaps Colin Smith from "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner", but at least Colin knew how to speak the language of idealism, even if he didn't mean what he said. None of the other characters, including Steph and Jimmy's Mod friends, emerge as rounded individuals in their own right.

There have been good films made about the Mods and Rockers such as the remake of "Brighton Rock", which transferred Graham Greene's story from the thirties to the sixties, and Julien Temple's "Absolute Beginners" which dealt with youth culture of the late fifties which later developed into the Mods. Those two films, however, both had great plots (doubtless because they were based on novels by great writers, Greene and Colin MacInnes). The plot of "Quadrophenia", by contrast, is not a very interesting one. It might be a slice of life, but it is a slice cut from a pie that was never more than half-baked. 4/10
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Elegant but Insoluble
19 April 2019
Señor Edmundo Nóbile, a wealthy aristocrat, is hosting a formal dinner party for his friends at his luxurious mansion. At the end of the party Nóbile, his wife, their guests and his butler (the other servants have already left) find themselves unable to leave the dining-room, so settle down to sleep on couches and the floor. The following morning they are still in the same inexplicable predicament. The doors are not locked but they are still unable to leave, as if some mysterious force field or psychological barrier were preventing them from doing so. They remain in the house in this state for several days, even though they run out of food and can only obtain water by breaking open a wall to get access to a water pipe. Even when one guest is taken ill, and later dies, they still cannot break out. The police and a crowd of people gather outside the house, but they are no more able to enter than those inside are to get out.

Luis Buñuel was one of the founders of cinematic surrealism, dating back to "Un Chien Andalou", his early collaboration with Salvador Dali, and "The Exterminating Angel" is often described as "surrealist". The surrealism starts with the title, which has nothing to do with anything we see on screen. Buñuel, who acted as both writer and director, explains the strange plight of the guests, either in rational or in supernatural terms. Nor does he provide us with any interpretation of the film's symbolism, leaving such matters for his viewers to interpret for themselves.

That, of course, has not prevented the critics coming up with their own interpretations, and there would not be room to deal with all of them in this review, although Buñuel clearly intended an element of satire at the expense of the upper classes. (It is no accident that the host of the party has the surname "Nóbile"). A popular interpretation put forward by, among others, Roger Ebert is that the film is an allegory of the Spanish Civil War and of the Francoist regime to which it led. (Buñuel himself was, of course, an opponent of Francoism and produced this film in exile in Mexico). Many of Spain's aristocracy and wealthy classes initially supported Franco, and many of them may well have hosted parties like the one we see here to celebrate his victory, but by the early sixties his brutal dictatorship had lasted for a quarter of a century and many Spaniards, even among those who had once supported him, were starting to feel trapped. A flock of sheep plays a part in the story, and these may represent those ordinary Spaniards who supported the Nationalist side in the Civil War, "sheep" being a commonplace metaphor for people who are stupid and easily led. They end up being eaten by the trapped aristocrats.

"The Exterminating Angel" is a film which tends to divide opinion, with some hailing it as a masterpiece and others finding it incomprehensible. I myself tend towards the second position, although Buñuel would probably have said that he never intended it to be "comprehensible" in the sense of having a simple, easily understandable meaning. He probably intended it to be just what it is, an elegant but ultimately insoluble puzzle with no more "meaning" than a Dali painting. 6/10
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Self-Consciously Trying to Make a Masterpiece
4 April 2019
The "conformist" of the title is Marcello Clerici, a member of Mussolini's secret police during the 1930s. He is ordered to assassinate his former college professor, Luca Quadri, who is now living in exile in Paris because of his opposition to the Fascist regime. While in Paris, Clerici pays a visit to Quadri and, even though he himself has recently got married, flirts with the professor's beautiful young wife Anna. Scenes of Clerici's stay in Paris are intercut with flashbacks to his past, including his boyhood and his courtship of his wife Giulia.

The reason why Clerici is referred to as a "conformist" is that he has an intense desire to conform to whatever are the prevailing social and political values. This desire is only partly motivated by careerism. It is also rooted in a psychological need for acceptance to demonstrate, both to the outside world and to himself, that he is "normal" and not an outsider or misfit. He is a cultivated, intelligent and educated man, and is not himself a convinced Fascist- indeed, he appears to have few, if any, political convictions- but has gone along with the regime because, in a one-party state, membership of the sole permitted party is essential to success in one's career and to social acceptance.

Clerici's need to conform goes beyond politics. He does not love Giulia, but marries her because, in the socially conservative atmosphere of Fascist Italy, a traditional heterosexual marriage is seen as the social norm. Mussolini was an atheist, but for propaganda purposes liked to pose as the defender of Catholic orthodoxy, and had his own civil marriage converted to a religious one after becoming dictator. Clerici likewise lacks any religious beliefs, but is prepared to follow his leader's example and have a church wedding. He has no personal animosity against Quadri but is nevertheless prepared to kill him to demonstrate his supposed loyalty to the system. Indeed, one could say that Clerici's conformism functions as his secret weapon. Quadri instinctively, and correctly, senses his former pupil's lack of intellectual enthusiasm for the regime he serves. Unfortunately, this leads the professor to conclude, incorrectly, that he can trust him. Had Clerici been an obvious Fascist loyalist, Quadri might have been more on his guard.

Bertolucci suggests that Clerici's conformism is rooted in his past. He was from a wealthy family but had an unhappy childhood; he was bullied at school and sexually molested by the family's chauffeur, Lino, whom he shot in revenge. His father has now become insane and his mother a drug addict. He seems to be driven by the psychological need to prove that, despite his troubled history, he is still "normal". The Lino episode is related during a scene in which Clerici makes his confession to a priest. This confession is a pure formality; it is a prerequisite to his church wedding. Clerici is not seeking forgiveness from God, in whom he does not believe, but there is an implication that he needs to seek forgiveness from himself.

I have never read Alberto Moravia's novel on which the film is based, but a story like this could have served as the basis for a fascinating movie. Unfortunately, "The Conformist" is not that movie. Jean-Louis Trintignant is not particularly convincing as Clerici; he did not, apparently, speak Italian and his lines had to be dubbed. Using a French actor might have helped the film in the international market- this was officially an Italian/French/German co-production- but I felt it might have been better with an Italian in the role.

The main problem is that too much is left unclear or unexplained. How deep, for example, are Clerici's feelings for Anna Quadri? Does she return his feelings? In a scene towards the end Clerici claims to recognise Lino, now an old man, whom he believes he killed. What is the truth? Did Lino, unknown to Clerici, survive that shooting? Or is Clerici mistaken in his belief that the old man is Lino? Throughout the film Bertolucci seems to be hinting that Clerici's desperate need for acceptance is rooted in repressed homosexuality, implying that at some deeper level he welcomed Lino's advances and shot him out of feelings of guilt, not repulsion. If Clerici were secretly gay, this would explain a number of things, such as his lack of any real affection for the attractive Giulia. This was, however, a theme which needed to be explored in a lot more detail to do it justice; possibly Italian censorship restrictions meant that it could not be.

There are some good things about the film, such as the photography of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who is able to create a sense of space recalling the monumental architecture of the Fascist era; many buildings of the time are featured. Overall, however, I felt that Bertolucci was self-consciously trying to make a masterpiece but never quite bringing it off. 6/10
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The Worst of Everything
29 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
"The Best of Everything" tells the story of three young women who work as typists for the Fabian Publishing Company, a New York publishing house, and who share an apartment in the city. The three are very different both in personality and in their aspirations. Caroline Bender is an upper-middle-class university graduate who aspires to a management position with the firm. April Morrison is a naive country girl from Colorado whose only ambition is to find the right man. Gregg Adams (her parents must have wanted a boy!) is an aspiring actress who has only taken a typing job while waiting for her big break on Broadway.

This is one of those movies which could be subtitled " All three girls have problems with the men in their lives. Caroline's handsome, hunky fiancé Eddie goes off to study in London and, almost as soon as he arrives, telephones Caroline to say that he has married another woman, an oil heiress whom he met in the boat. This does not prevent him from returning to New York and attempting to resume his relationship with Caroline. She at first mistakenly believes that he intends to get a divorce and make Caroline his second wife, an arrangement she would be happy to accept, but is less enthusiastic when she realises that he wants to stay married and keep her as his mistress.

April meets Dexter Key, a handsome, hunky upper-class financier at his country club and becomes pregnant by him. Dexter proposes marriage to her, but it soon becomes clear that this is only a ruse to try and browbeat her into having an abortion, something to which she is resolutely opposed.

Gregg becomes involved with David Savage, a handsome, hunky playwright and Broadway theatre director, and wins a part in one of his plays on the basis of the "casting couch" principle rather than of any actual talent as an actress. When her lack of talent becomes all too obvious, David is forced to demote her to understudy. This leads to the end of their relationship, although Gregg still cherishes the hope that it can be revived.

Completing this rogues' gallery of the male sex is Fred Shalimar (not particularly handsome or hunky, although he may have been so in his youth), the lecherous middle-aged boss of the firm who cannot keep his wandering hands off any attractive female employee. Not every unpleasant character in the movie is male, however. Caroline's boss Amanda Farrow is portrayed as an embittered spinster whose demanding attitude makes the lives of her subordinates a misery.

The film based on a novel by Rona Jaffe published in 1958, only a year before it was made, and the alacrity with which 20th Century-Fox snapped up the film rights suggests that they had high hopes for the project, as do the high-profile names - Joanne Woodward, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Lee Remick, Jean Peters, Robert Wagner- whom they were hoping would star in it. In the event, however, they were not able to attract any stars of quite this magnitude apart from (in a rare instance of her taking a supporting rather than a starring role) Joan Crawford as Amanda. Apparently she was broke and needed the cash.

In 1959 the film was probably intended as something of a feminist statement, highlighting the various ways in which men exploit or take advantage of women, although from a modern viewpoint there are two factors which tend to undermine its feminist credentials. The first is its treatment of abortion, which here seems less like a woman's right to choose than like another weapon of male dominance. The second is the treatment of the character of Amanda, with its implication that any middle-aged career woman, especially if she is unmarried, is likely to end up hard, embittered and unfulfilled. When Amanda jumps at a proposal of marriage from an old flame, Caroline is promoted to take her place, and the question then arises of whether she can meet the responsibilities of her new role without becoming as hard-bitten and domineering as Amanda.

Given the melodramatic nature of the plot, it struck me while watching the film that it might have worked better as a soap opera. Since watching it I have discovered that Jaffe's novel did in fact form the basis of a soap opera in the late sixties, although it does not seem to be a success. Perhaps it was not well-suited to adaptation into either form. The worst of everything. 5/10
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Racist in the Extreme
21 March 2019
Despite their name, the "Seabees" were not some sort of maritime insect. During World War II, the U.S. Navy initially employed civilian workmen to build airstrips and other infrastructure in the Pacific combat zone. Citing international conventions which forbade the arming of civilians, the Navy always refused to arm these men to allow them to defend themselves against the Japanese, even though the Japanese often targeted them because of their value to the American war effort. This dilemma was eventually solved by the formation of Construction Battalions which formed part of the Navy and whose members had received formal military training. As they were officially servicemen, there could be no objection to arming them. The term "Seabees" derives from "CBs", the abbreviation for "Construction Battalions".

"The Fighting Seabees" tells the story of how the Seabees were created, in heavily fictionalised form. John Wayne plays Wedge Donovan, the boss of a construction company doing work for the Navy, who frequently clashes with the top brass over the fact that his men are not allowed to bear arms. The film tells the story of how Donovan and his men are recruited into the Seabees and of how they earn their spurs in battle. There is also a sub-plot involving a love-triangle between Donovan, a naval officer named Robert Yarrow and Connie Chesley, a beautiful lady journalist played by Susan Hayward.

The film was made in 1944, so it is hardly surprising that it tells its story from a highly propagandist angle. As might be imagined, its portrayal of the Japanese is racist in the extreme. Defenders of the film-makers might try and argue that it is unfair to judge by the standards of twenty-first century political correctness, but in fact much of the language used would also have been unacceptable by the standards of the first half of the twentieth century, at least in peacetime. Indeed, I cannot think of any period in history when references to a foreign nation as "bug-eyed monkeys" would have been taken as anything but grossly insulting. To defend the use of such language in wartime ignores the fact that the war was, among other things, a war against the racism of the Axis powers.

One reviewer describes Donovan as being the most unsympathetic character John Wayne ever played, and I can't really disagree with that. Even as a civilian Donovan is an irresponsible hothead whose burning eagerness to get to grips with the enemy ruins a carefully planned military operation and leads to the deaths of several of his employees. As a commissioned officer in the Seabees he displays a blithe disregard of military orders, which he only follows when it suits him to do so. At one point he is threatened with a court-martial by the calmer, saner Yarrow. I can't understand what the lovely Connie saw in him. Mind you, her character is a bit of a makeweight; the whole love-triangle subplot was probably devised to stretch out the film to the regulation length (around 90 minutes seems to have been the minimum length of A-movies) and because the largely young male target audience would have been disappointed had the film not included at least one pretty girl.

With a budget of $1.5 million, this was the most expensive film ever made by its studio, Republic Pictures. Some of that money seems to have been put to good use; the special effects used to create the battle scenes were well done by the standards of the forties, and these scenes are able to generate considerable excitement. They are, however, about the only redeeming feature that the film possesses. Not all wartime propaganda movies were bad. Indeed, some such as the American "Casablanca" and the British "Went the Day Well" must rank as great classics of the cinema. Something like "The Fighting Seabees", however, will never rank alongside them. 4/10
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Belaya Vorona
18 March 2019
The film's title derives from the Russian phrase "belaya vorona", or "white crow", meaning an outsider or nonconformist, a person who stands out from his or her contemporaries in the way that a white crow would stand out from its black fellows. The "white crow" of this film is the Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, a man who had difficulty conforming to the official Soviet system, either in his artistic life or in his personal life. (He was gay at a time when this was neither lawful nor acceptable in Soviet society).

Nureyev shocked the world of ballet when he defected to the West at Le Bourget airport, Paris, in 1961, and the film is built around this incident. His decision to defect was, apparently, a spontaneous one, taken when the Communist authorities, irritated by the fact that he had spent much of his time in Paris in the company of Western intellectuals and concerned by rumours that he had been seen in a gay bar, decided to send him back to Russia rather than allowing him to travel with the Kirov ballet to London, the next leg of their tour. Scenes of Nureyev's stay in Paris are intercut with flashbacks to his poverty-stricken wartime childhood in the provincial city of Ufa and to his time as a ballet student in Leningrad, as St Petersburg was then known.

The film was directed by the well-known British actor Ralph Fiennes, clearly a ballet enthusiast. Fiennes also takes an acting role as Alexander Pushkin- not, of course, the classic Russian author but Nureyev's tutor at the Kirov Ballet. This was, I felt, one of two outstanding performances in the film. Pushkin emerges not only as a visionary who spotted Nureyev's talent when many did not but also as a sympathetic father-figure who provided the young dancer with a kindness and understanding that was otherwise lacking in the rigid, inflexible Soviet system. The other great performance, of course, comes from the young Oleg Ivenko as the conflicted Nureyev himself. On the one hand he is held by a love of his Russian homeland, the land which contains all he knows and all that he has held dear- his family, his friends and his mentor Pushkin. On the other hand, he is drawn towards the West, not only because of the greater intellectual freedom which it offers but also because of a feeling that it is only there that he can fully realise himself as a dancer.

I must admit that I am not a great balletomane myself; I have been to the ballet on only a handful of occasions in my life, and never saw Nureyev dance except on television. Yet there are some films which have been good enough able to hold my attention even though they are centred upon activities in which I would normally take little interest. Like most Britons, I know little about baseball, yet I was enthralled by "Eight Men Out" and "Field of Dreams". I probably know even less about wrestling, but that did not prevent me from admiring the more recent "Foxcatcher". "White Crow" comes into the same category. Those who love ballet will doubtless be enthralled by it. Even those of us who do not will be able to see enough in this movie to understand the enthusiasm of those who do. And both groups will join together in their appreciation of the human drama which lies at the heart of Rudolf Nureyev's story. 8/10
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Just a Little Too Pat
16 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
"The Three Faces of Eve" is one of a number of American films from the forties and fifties dealing with the subject of psychiatry. It is based on a real-life case, that of Christine Costner Sizemore, who at the time was known by the pseudonym "Eve White"; this is the name which is used for her in the film. Like "Madonna of the Seven Moons", a British melodrama from the mid-forties, it deals with a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder.

In the early fifties Eve White is a young Georgia housewife living with her husband Ralph and her young daughter, Bonnie. She suffers from severe headaches and blackouts, and consults a psychiatrist, Dr. Luther, who discovers that she is suffering from multiple personality disorder. In her normal life as "Eve White" she is quiet, meek and lacking in self-confidence, but when her alternative personality "Eve Black" emerges she becomes brash, fun-loving and flirtatious. "Eve White" is completely unaware of the existence of "Eve Black", whereas "Eve Black" knows everything about her life as "Eve White", but nevertheless insists that they are two separate people. In the course of her treatment with Dr Luther, a third separate personality emerges, to whom Eve gives the name "Jane". Because "Jane" is less timid than "Eve White" and less irresponsible than "Eve Black", Luther comes to see her as Eve's "real self", even though "Jane" appears to be a new personality with no memories of life as either "Eve White" or "Eve Black".

Joanne Woodward, previously little known, won the Academy Award for Best Actress, doubtless because the Academy were impressed by her ability to portray three different personalities inhabiting the same body, to be three people and at the same time one. Woodward is certainly good, although I will reserve judgement on the rightness or otherwise of the Academy's decision until I have seen some more of the other contenders for the award. (The two best films of 1957, "Twelve Angry Men" and "Bridge on the River Kwai" are both very male dominated- indeed, Twelve Angry Men" contains not a single female character- and some of the "Best Actress" nominations come in otherwise obscure movies).

There is a strange plot-hole. Eve is sent to a hospital for observation but released when the doctors conclude that she does not present any danger to the public either as "Eve White" or "Eve Black". Really? The reason she was sent to the hospital is because, in her "Eve Black" state, she actually tried to kill Bonnie. How any responsible psychiatrist could have concluded after this episode that she did not pose any danger escapes me.

Apart from Woodward's, the film did not receive Academy Award nominations in any other category, suggesting that it was in most respects a run-of-the-mill movie apart for one outstanding acting performance. Although Lee J. Cobb is reasonably good as Luther, such an evaluation would not be altogether inaccurate. As with a number of the "psychiatric" dramas from this period, the storyline always seems just a little too pat, ending with the psychiatrist-hero curing the heroine of her mental illness by discovering its root cause in a childhood trauma, leaving her sane and happy. There is no attempt to explore the idea that psychiatric disorders might be more complex with multiple causes. (In this case I wondered if Eve's marriage to Ralph, which was clearly not a happy one, might have played a part in her illness). For all the film-makers' insistence that they are telling a true story, backed up by a prologue from the distinguished journalist and commentator Alistair Cooke, I was left with the impression that this was a true story in very simplified form. 7/10
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The longest continuous shot of a carpet in cinema history
11 March 2019
"The Long Day Closes" is set in Kensington- not the ritzy, upper-class district of West London but a run-down working-class quarter of Liverpool. The time is the late forties or early fifties. The main character is Bud, a shy, sensitive 11-year-old schoolboy who lives with his widowed mother and siblings. Bud's family is a loving one who make up for in warmth and spiritual values- they are devout Catholics- what they lack in money, so unlike many tales of working-class life this is not a slice of misery porn. (Apart, that is, from the misery caused by the weather. In keeping with the north-west's reputation as the wettest part of England, it always seems to be raining).

Nor is it made in the "kitchen sink" social-realist style so popular in the British cinema of the fifties. Although some of the interiors recall those seen in kitchen sink films, writer-director Terence Davies was aiming at a poetic rather than a social-realist treatment of his source material. There is no real plot line. Scenes of Bud at home, at school, in church, in the cinema or hanging out with his friends are juxtaposed in a sequence which pays little heed to the demands of strict chronology or of story development. The cinematography is distinguished by the use of long tracking shots and unusual camera angles, including overhead shots. It is said to contain the longest continuous shot of a carpet in cinema history.

Davies's use of music is also important. The soundtrack includes not only the popular music of the period but also jazz and classical tracks, often chosen to enhance the particular mood of a scene. The film's title derives from a poem by the Victorian poet Henry Chorley, which we hear in a musical setting by Sir Arthur Sullivan (of "Gilbert and..." fame) over the closing credits. The poem is ostensibly a description of an evening scene, but like many poems on this particular theme it can also be read as a poetic meditation on death or on the transience of earthly things and was doubtless chosen because it seems appropriate to the film's theme of nostalgia for things past.

This is a difficult film to review because it is so different from virtually anything else I have ever seen. While I can appreciate what Davies was trying to do, this has never really been my favourite film. Its problem, in my view, is its length. Now that we no longer divide films into "A" and "B" movies, it is difficult to get a film shown in cinemas, even arthouse cinemas, if they are not of the regulation feature length, but films which are more marked by poetic or artistic qualities than they are by things like narrative or character development often need to be considerably shorter than the standard 120, or even 90, minute slot. It seems to me that something like "The Long Day Closes" falls into this category. Had it been shorter, say around an hour in length, it would not have outstayed its welcome in the way it does, but Davies would have had problems getting it into cinemas. He might even have had difficulties getting it shown on British television, which can be reluctant to take risks. 5/10
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Enjoyable, if slightly over-ripe, slice of Southern melodrama
8 March 2019
"The Long, Hot Summer" opens with a striking image of a barn bursting into flames and burning to the ground. A drifter named Ben Quick is tried for arson; the prosecution is dismissed for lack of evidence, but such is the feeling against Quick locally that the judge advises him to get out of town without delay.

Quick complies, and eventually fetches up in Frenchman's Bend, Mississippi, where he gets a job working for Will Varner, a local businessman who owns most of the town. Will is an uneducated, self-made man with few social graces, but he has got ahead in life through ambition, drive and ruthlessness, and begins to see in Ben a man after his own heart. He schemes to bring about a marriage between Ben and his daughter Clara so that Ben can become the heir to his business empire. The existing pretenders to that position strike Will as wholly inadequate. Will's son Jody is a spineless milksop who has failed to produce an heir despite several years of marriage to a beautiful young wife, and Clara's existing boyfriend Alan, the son of an aristocratic Southern old-money family, is refined and gentlemanly but lacking in fire and passion.

The film has a complicated literary pedigree. It is officially based on three works by William Faulkner, "Spotted Horses", "Barn Burning" and "The Hamlet", but it also incorporates elements from Tennessee Williams's play, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", especially as regards the characterisation of Will, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Williams's patriarch Big Daddy. Coincidentally a film version of Williams's play, also starring Paul Newman, was to be released later in the same year.

Burl Ives was to win an Oscar for his portrayal of Big Daddy. Orson Welles's Will is in nothing like the same class. He allegedly only took the role because he was in financial difficulties and frequently clashed with the director Martin Ritt, so it is perhaps not surprising that this is far from being his best performance; Will's Southern accent struck me as being over the top, especially in the early scenes when it was so thick that I could not always understand what he was saying. Joanne Woodward as Clara is rather colourless, but Newman is good as Quick, if not quite as good as he was to be in "Hud", a later collaboration with Ritt. I also liked Anthony Franciosa as Jody, initially a spineless character but who is later driven to desperation when he sees his inheritance being claimed by an outsider.

There is a lyrical, evocative title song sung by Jimmie Rodgers. (Seeing that name in the credits made me sit up. My grandfather was also named Jimmie Rodgers). There is also a fine music score composed by Alex North, based around the melody of the song. The film as a whole is not in the same class as the magnificent "Hud", perhaps not even in the same class as "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", but it is nevertheless an enjoyable, if slightly over-ripe, slice of Southern melodrama. 8/10. (7/10 for the film, with a bonus point for the song).
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Green Book (2018)
Most Alright Picture of 2018
8 March 2019
"The Negro Motorist's Green Book", which took its name from its publisher, one Victor Hugo Green, was guidebook published between the 1930s and 1960s. Its purpose was to help black travellers find hotels and restaurants that would accept them at a time when many such establishments, especially but not exclusively in the South, operated a colour bar. (It will probably come as a surprise to younger viewers to realise that, as recently as the sixties and seventies, the words "negro" and "coloured" were still regarded as perfectly respectful ways of referring to black people. Indeed, in some contexts they were regarded as more acceptable than the word "black" itself).

The film tells the true story of a tour of the Midwest and Deep South undertaken by Don Shirley, an African-American musician, in 1962. Although he was classically trained, there was a widespread feeling at the time that classical music was "white man's music" and that the public would not accept a black classical pianist. His recording company therefore signed him as part of a jazz trio. The film is told from the perspective of Shirley's driver Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American New Yorker. Tony takes the job because he is temporarily unemployed from his normal work as a nightclub bouncer while the club is being renovated; the concert promoters anticipate that Don is likely to get into trouble with racist elements in the South and that Tony's skills as a bouncer will enable him to double up as Don's bodyguard.

The plot of "Green Book" is essentially that of "Driving Miss Daisy" in reverse; a working-class white man acts as chauffeur to an educated, well-to-do African-American employer. The relationship is initially a difficult one, although the differences between Don and Tony are dealt with in a largely comic way, reminiscent if the differences between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau's differences in "The Odd Couple". The refined, fastidious Don takes exception to Tony's crude manners and to his standards of honesty, whereas Tony sees Don as a conceited snob. As the tour progresses, however, their relationship becomes a closer one. Tony comes to appreciate Don's skills as a pianist and his literacy, which comes in useful when Don assists Tony with his letters home to his wife Dolores.

Things take a darker turn when the tour enters the South. Don innocently wanders into a whites-only bar in Kentucky and has to be rescued by Tony when he is threatened by a group of angry locals. Tony, whose views on race were previously not particularly liberal, begins to change his mind when he sees the depth of hostility and prejudice displayed by many Southern whites towards blacks. Things come to a head when Tony and Don arrive at their final venue, a country club in Birmingham, Alabama and the management, although happy to allow Don to perform for their guests, refuse to let him eat in their whites-only restaurant.

The film has been praised- in my view rightly- for its acting, with Mahershala Ali, who plays Don Shirley, winning a "Best Supporting Actor" Oscar and Viggo Mortensen (Tony) being nominated for Best Actor. Now I have no problem with the quality of Ali's acting, which was certainly deserving of an award, but the fact that Tony was clearly perceived as the main character suggests there was something odd about the focus of the movie. It suggests that this is a film about racism seen through a white man's eyes, even though black people were the main victims of that racism, and that Don has been relegated to the position of a supporting character in what should have been his own story.

And Don's, I think, would have been the more interesting story. He is an affluent, educated black man whose lifestyle in the cultural milieu of New York has isolated him from the great majority of black Americans- he admits that he has little idea of how they live or of the problems they have to cope with- and yet who is not accepted as an equal by many white Americans. A complicating factor is that he is either gay or bisexual, thus making him a member of two different minorities at a time when prejudice against homosexuals was even more deeply rooted in American society than racial prejudice and was shared by both white and black Americans. Don's sexuality, however, is only mentioned in one single scene, when Tony has to bail Don out after he has been found in a compromising position with a white man in a YMCA bathhouse. During the rest of the film it is not referred to at all. By not pursuing Don's story further, I think that the film-makers missed an opportunity to make a deeper statement about racism and other types of prejudice than they actually did.

This was, of course, the film which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2018. I will wait until I have seen more of the possible contenders before I give my opinion as to which film should have won, but my views about this particular award were summed up for me in the words of the BBC's film critic Mark Kermode. He said that there is nothing wrong with "Green Book", that it is alright. They just don't hand out Academy Awards for "Most Alright Picture". 7/10
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Frolics to You
2 March 2019
Vera-Ellen's cinema career followed a similar path to that of her contemporary Jane Russell. Both women were born in the same year, 1921, and both emerged as major stars in the early fifties when they were in their thirties. Like most thirty-something sex symbols their time at the top was a short one, and both retired from the movies before they turned forty. Their screen personas, however, were rather different. Although Russell in her private life was quiet, conservative and deeply religious, she was normally portrayed on screen as a sultry, seductive sex bomb, whereas Vera-Ellen was more the "girl next door" type. Of the two Russell had a rather greater range as an actress; most of Vera-Ellen's films were cheerful song-and-dance musicals. Her Wikipedia biography accounts for her early retirement in terms of a "decline of the film musical in the late fifties", but as this was the period which saw the likes of "The King and I", "South Pacific" and "Gigi", this supposed decline seems to have gone unnoticed in Hollywood. It seems more likely that (like Russell, who reinvented herself as a singer) Vera realised that being a forty-something sex symbol is a difficult trick to bring off.

"Happy Go Lovely", which provided Vera-Ellen with one of her earliest starring roles, is that rare thing, a British screen musical made in the Hollywood style. An American song-and-dance troupe are performing at the Edinburgh festival, the idea of making them American being to allow the producers to import a couple of Hollywood stars and thus increase the film's appeal in the US market. (Besides Vera-Ellen, Cesar Romero also stars). A rumour starts that Janet Jones, one of the chorus girls, is the girlfriend of B. G. Bruno, a successful greetings-card manufacturer and the wealthiest man in Scotland. Because the producer, Jack Frost, is in desperate financial straits, he makes Janet the star of the show, hoping that Bruno will invest in it. (The show has the rather suggestive title "Frolics to You", but the British censors obviously felt that the concealed double entendre was too innocent to object to. The American censors may have been unaware of the fact that "frolics" rhymes with a vulgar British slang expression).

In reality, Bruno and Janet do not know one another, although she comes to his attention when he receives a bill from the theatre's dressmaker. Going to investigate, he eventually meets her and, this being a romantic comedy, the two end up falling in love, although owing to another misunderstanding she initially believes that he is Paul Tracy, a showbiz journalist who was due to interview her. Bruno might be the wealthiest man in Scotland, but David Niven (despite his own Scottish heritage) plays him with an English accent rather than a Scottish one, possibly another concession to the US market, which has always had difficulties with British regional accents.

Vera-Ellen was a talented dancer and makes a sweet heroine, but Niven tends to stroll through the movie without putting in too much effort (as he often could). The songs are all instantly forgettable and the choreography of the dance numbers lacks sparkle when compared with American films of this period. There is perhaps a reason why the British cinema did not make many musicals. Our transatlantic cousins could generally do this sort of thing better than us, even when we shipped in Hollywood stars. 5/10
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Playhouse Presents: Hey Diddly Dee (2013)
Season 2, Episode 1
An Actor's Life for Me!
27 February 2019
There is a curious theatrical superstition that one should never speak the name "Macbeth" inside a theatre and that ill luck will follow those who break this rule. Among actors Shakespeare's masterpiece is generally referred to as "The Scottish Play", although the late Peter O'Toole insisted on calling it "Harry Lauder" after a once-famous Scottish music hall artiste. O'Toole's scrupulous adherence to the superstition, however, did not serve to avert misfortune; his 1980 production of The Scottish Play was a notorious disaster and was savaged by the critics.

This superstition lies at the heart of Marc Warren's black comedy "Hey Diddly Dee", one of a series of short dramas made for the "Sky Arts" channel. The title is a reference to the song from Disney's "Pinocchio" of which the second line is "An actor's life for me!" although the first line of that song is actually "Hey Diddle Dee Dee". A group of actors are rehearsing for a West End play about the life of the artist Andy Warhol. Johnny James, an aspiring young actor, has been cast as understudy to the star of the show, Roger Kite. Johnny has always admired Roger as an actor, but on meeting him in person admires him far less as a man. Kite is rude, arrogant and treats Johnny as a personal servant, insisting that he should make his coffee and sort out his fan mail. (Kite divides his fan mail into three categories, that from women, that from men and that from Doctor Who fans, suggesting that he is a former Doctor).

A crisis comes when Johnny blurts out how much he liked Kite's performance in "Macbeth", thereby breaching the superstition. Although Kite is not superstitious about other matters- he loathes the sight of the theatre's lucky black cat Diddly- he reacts with fury to Johnny's faux pas, although it is not clear whether his wrath is genuine or whether it is feigned in order to humiliate Johnny, to whom he has taken a dislike. Disillusioned by this vision of his idol's feet of clay, Johnny begins to plot his revenge, aided by Kite's jilted girlfriend Bibbi (played by Kylie Minogue in a rare venture into television drama).

Like a number of very short TV dramas, this one might have benefitted from being longer, but it was still worth watching, if only for the performance of Peter Serafinowicz as Kite. Actors may protest that it is very unfair to characterise them all as self-important, conceited "luvvies", but they still cannot resist sending their own profession up in this way, as Hugh Grant did in "Paddington 2" and Kenneth Branagh did as Gilderoy Lockhart in "Harry Potter". What stands out from Serafinowicz's performance is that Kite is, behind all his arrogance and bombast, deeply insecure and that his resentment of Johnny is rooted in jealousy of a youngster who might just prove to be a pretender to his wobbly throne. Despite the brevity of this play, Warren shows a considerable talent for analysiung character.
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The Lucky Dog (1921)
Famous for an Accident of HIstory
27 February 2019
The date of "The Lucky Dog" is uncertain; it has traditionally been given as 1917, but it has been suggested that it may have been shot as late as 1921. Stan Laurel here plays a down-on-his-luck young man who is thrown out of his lodgings for not paying his rent. He is held up by a robber and twice narrowly avoids being run over by a tram. His only friend is a stray dog who befriends him. The dog, however, proves to be his lucky charm, as it is through the dog that he meets a dog-loving young lady. The dog also saves his life from the girl's jealous boyfriend who is plotting to blow him up with the assistance of the robber.

There is nothing specially interesting about the film, which lacks the inventiveness and the slapstick brilliance of many silent shorts from this period, It has, however, become famous because of an accident of history. It was the first film to star both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, although they had not yet become a comedy partnership. In most of their films they play close friends, work colleagues or business partners, but here Ollie plays the robber who holds Stan up and later conspires with the jealous boyfriend. Had these two not gone on to become the famous duo of Laurel and Hardy, this film would doubtless today be forgotten.
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