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Thursday 29 March 2007

The Racket (1928) Lewis Milestone

Apparently this is notable for being a Howard Hughes production, but it caught my attention more because it's directed by Lewis Milestone. He initially seemed to me like a one hit wonder because he made All Quiet on the Western Front but seemingly nothing else of consequence. However the more I catch up on his work, the more he seems like an unjustly neglected talent. This is my sixth Milestone and so far only Rain disappointed me, being a notably lesser though still fascinating film. Milestone also made Ocean's Eleven, way later than these films and the wonderful Two Arabian Knights.

Like Two Arabian Knights, this is another opportunity to see Louis Wolheim appear for Milestone before they worked so well together on All Quiet on the Western Front. Wolheim's battered face is perfect for a gangster role and he eats up the part, scowling every time the camera points his way. He plays Nicholas Scarsi, a fully recognised member of the Anti-Liquor League of America, but of course a dangerous gangster behind a respectable front. His arch enemy is James McQuigg, police captain, who Thomas Meighan plays just like someone like Pat O'Brien would a decade later.

There's a wonderfully crafted scene early on that sees Scarsi shoot dead rival Spike Corcoran in a crowded restaurant full of police and gangsters. He gets away with it too, with his ugly mug grinning the way only Louis Wolheim's can. Of course after being on the scene and not just failing to stop the murder but also to catch the killer, McQuigg is quickly reassigned to the remote and unimportant 28th Precinct. However somehow the action catches up to him, however remote and unimportant his new precinct happens to be.

Meighan is technically the star but it's Wolheim's show all the way. He's just too dynamically expressive not to steal any scene he's in. His baby brother Joe, carefully kept away from the rackets, is dynamic too, as he's played by George E Stone, well known much later as the Runt in the Boston Blackie series. The other link between Scarsi and his brother is gold digger Helen Hayes, played by Marie Prevost who is far more famous for starving herself to death and having a Nick Lowe song written about her. She was apparently one of the casualties of the advent of sound, which is a shame because she's someone worth watching otherwise.

As for the film itself, it has a few moments of excellence like the party murder scene but otherwise just sits there as a solid entertaining film that doesn't sparkle as it really ought to given that it was nominated for the first Best Picture Oscar of them all, way back when it all began.

Wednesday 28 March 2007

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) Carl Franklin

Walter Mosley wrote a number of books about Easy Rawlins, black detective in southern California in the era following World War II, and this movie is based on the first of them. It's 1948 and Ezekiel Rawlins is a black machinist from Houston a couple of months behind on his mortgage payments and looking for work. He finds his way into the seedy side of employment through a bartender who introduces him to DeWitt Albright, a man who's in the business of 'doing favours for friends'. This time he needs to find a woman by the name of Daphne Monet, a white woman who prefers the company of those with much darker skin. Naturally he finds plenty more than he thought he was looking for.

Denzel Washington had very much arrived when he made this film, with Malcolm X and Philadelphia behind him, among others. He's very good indeed here, which is hardly surprising now that I've seen a good deal of his other films, somehow at once thoroughly able, ballsy and controlled yet still vulnerable and out of his element. Tom Sizemore may be even better as Albright, not just believably sleazy and open to do anything for a buck, but believably crazy both as a fox and a loon. When things get dangerous Rawlins brings in an old friend called Mouse who matches Albright on the lunatic fringe. There are two mayoral candidates slugging it out and both are looking for Daphne. Terry Kinney plays the one bowing out of the race quietly and suspiciously, half nervous as hell and half the man in charge. Maury Chaykin plays the other reeking awesomely of fake honesty.

This is a film noir through and through, and in fact given the colour of the skins involved this is more of a film noir than any other film noir. It's a good one too: complex, dangerous and ugly, just as it should be. Of course wherever there's a film noir there isn't just ugliness but a beautiful leading lady too and this one is no exception. Jennifer Beals has a few key parts to play in this one and she lives up to all of them. It's Washington's show but the rest of the cast are too fine to let him steal it.

The only other great character here is the subject. There are a lot of race films out there and to be honest most of them overdo the whole thing because they're racial stories. This is a detective story, a film noir, that just happens to be a racial story as well. It all works so much better when it's not being done as propaganda.

Tuesday 27 March 2007

Madame X (1937) Sam Wood

Jacqueline Fleuriot is not having a good day. She's been cheating on her husband, it seems, but feeling bad about it. Before she can finally call it quits and go home, they're interrupted by her lover's wronged woman who proceeds to shoot him dead while Jacqueline hides on the balcony. She escapes and makes it back home only to find her son ill, her husband home and herself out on her ear because he isn't stupid and realises exactly what's gone on.

The husband is Bernard Fleuriot, played by the wonderful Warren William as a fair but very hard man. He doesn't want the shame of it to be reflected on either himself or his son, so cuts her off completely. As far as he's concerned she's dead to him and his son both. Of course when he finally comes around and decides to try to contact her for the sake of decency she's long gone and any attempt to her find her through official channels ends up in misunderstanding. Every policeman that turns up to help her home looks like a cop ready to hang a murder on her.

It also means that William isn't the lead for a change. Gladys George is a superb Jacqueline, finding her way from the glamorous high life along the long road of decline to be a drunken hostess in New Orleans singing torch songs like she was Marlene Dietrich and pressganged into service as a stewardess on some boat travelling the seven seas for ten years. She ends up in Buenos Aires unable to pay her rent and caught up in the schemes of a card shark with a careful ear and big ideas who listens to her drunken ramblings and sees the truth in what she doesn't even realise she's saying.

There are quite a few names in here that I know well: Henry Daniell as the manipulative card shark and blackmailer, Reginald Owen as Fleuriot's friend who persuades him into looking for his wife and George Zucco as the doctor who takes care of the young Fleuriot. There's also a young John Beal trying to be Franchot Tone. He only has a small part here but his performance, overacted but still powerful, enabled him to find his way all the way up to share the limelight in his next film, Double Wedding, with William Powell and Myrna Loy.

It's a very busy cast but there's no taking the spotlight away from Gladys George who proves that she deserved the leading roles up there with Bette Davis and the other greats of the era who were more content to be actors than stars, however much they were both. She isn't afraid to shine or descend into the depths, whatever the role demands, and of course the more the role demands the deeper the depths and the more she can shine. Here she does a lot of descending and a lot of shining.

Sunday 25 March 2007

The Crime Doctor's Strangest Case (1943) Eugene Forde

It's the second time in film for Dr Robert Ordway, psychiatrist of renown. The first film, simply titled The Crime Doctor, was full of background and set the stage for the rest of the series, but this time out Ordway gets a fresh case to look at, the strangest one of all, if the title is to be believed, but the strangest one of two, or even one given that the first was entirely about him. The case has to do with the murder of Mr Burns, which is a little disconcerting to anyone who's seen The Simpsons and knows that Maggie did it with the gun in the pram.

Anyway this Mr Burns is a Walter not a Montgomery and he gets killed with poison, less than an hour before Ordway arrives on the doorstep to talk to him. He was going to ask about Jimmy, newly employed by Burns but who he knows from his days running the parole board. Given that Jimmy was on his radar because he had been previously convicted of a murder by poison, it's pretty obvious who suspect number one is here but of course he didn't do it and Ordway tries to find out who does.

He doesn't have to go far to find suspects, making this a rather complex case. It's rather woodenly acted but very cleverly scripted which makes for a decent though not stunning movie. What seems most surprising is how far down the credits Lloyd Bridges is, not because of the star he would become in later years but because he has what seems like the most screen time of any character in the first half of the film, even over regular Warner Baxter as the Crime Doctor of the title. However he almost entirely vanishes thereafter as the focus shifts to all the other characters and the reasons why they should each be the real suspect.

There's the mysterious cook who's been in disguise for six months, the young trophy wife with a secret, even the old housekeeper who worked for Mr Burns as a dancer before keeping house for him for thirty years, dating back to two years before his previous wife died. She even has nightmares that she's somewhat keen to tell Dr Ordway. There are more characters to keep the thing complex throughout and more deaths and more mystery and more everything, really. The Crime Doctor series does seem to stand out from the rest of the forties B movie mysteries on that front and that bodes very well for the future.

Friday 23 March 2007

Penguin Pool Murder (1932) George Archainbaud

Yes, they were making crime B movies in the precode era, and they even had such wonderful character actors as Edna May Oliver playing the leads. She's Miss Hildegarde Martha Withers, a teacher who has taken her charges to the aquarium, only to catch a pickpocket, lose the same pickpocket, lose her hatpin, find her hatpin and then find a corpse in the penguin pool. The victim is Gerry Parker, a newly broke broker, who has racked up a list of people willing to kill him, many of whom are of course present in the aquarium at the time of discovery. That list starts with his wife who is obviously far more keen on her husband's former money than her husband, her former lover who we've already seen knock out Parker with a swift punch to the jaw, the aquarium director who had invested through him and apparently been ripped off and a deaf mute pickpocket who's caught with the victim's watch.

Edna May is hardly the only character actor or B movie regular here, though she really established herself as a leading actress. Police Inspector Oscar Piper is a lively James Gleason, who is always a pleasure but who is even more dynamic here than usual. Both of them were popular enough to return twice more as the same characters, in Murder on the Blackboard and Murder on a Honeymoon. The victim's wife is Mae Clarke, precode regular and recipient of Jimmy Cagney's grapefruit in The Public Enemy. Barry Costello, a lawyer, is Robert Armstrong, not yet famous for King Kong but already a notable supporting actor or B movie lead. There's also Donald Cook as the former lover, Gustav von Seyffertitz and others.

It's Edna May's show though. She's as wonderfully dismissive as you'd imagine from seeing her in any of her other roles and she has great fun doing so. She's always a joy to watch and that joy is only heightened by the fact that there's far more of her than usual, something that James Gleason obviously agreed with because there are a few scenes where he's obviously trying not to laugh. While it's his investigation, she takes over in true Edna May Oliver style and makes it her own, riding roughshod over everyone and browbeating them all in the process. Now I need the sequels...

Thursday 22 March 2007

Footsteps in the Dark (1941) Lloyd Bacon

Errol Flynn is far from the obvious choice to play the lead in a light hearted detective comedy in the vein of the Thin Man series, but he doesn't do a bad job at all. He is far from being the suave natural that William Powell would have been but he's surprisingly good. He plays Francis Monroe Warren II, some sort of investment banker, but like a secret crimefighter he has a hidden identity, complete with different car, different outfits and a batcave of sorts to switch from one to the other in. His alter ego is F X Pettijohn, bestselling mystery novelist who is upsetting all the ladies in his wife's Thursday Club by writing about their social circle and then sending them all review copies, he even has a sidekick, chauffeur Mr Wilfred who doubles as his writer's secretary.

There's a full compliment of supporting actors here. Alan Hale, here the local chief of police, must have been in more Errol Flynn pictures than Flynn himself. There's Allen Jenkins as Mr Wilfred, whose trademark accent Flynn gets to make fun of; Ralph Bellamy in a small role as a dentist of all things; and Brenda Marshall, fresh from appearing opposite Flynn in The Sea Hawk. There's also Lee Patrick as a burlesque queen, William Frawley, Roscoe Karns, Grant Mitchell, even Turhan Bey playing a turban clad Arab as always. Hiding well beyond the credits are other noteworthy actors like Olaf Hytten as a butler, as always: over a 286 film career he buttled for such luminaries as Philo Vance and Sherlock Holmes.

The story is a battle of wits between amateur detective Warren and chief of police Charles Mason. Mason slates Pettijohn's book on the radio to satisfy the Thursday Club even though he knows the man behind the pseudonym. They each joke about the lack of deductive ability of the other, so end up trying to outdo each other investigating a murder that seems to be an accidental death.

The film is certainly fun but it's very obvious throughout that Flynn is no William Powell and Brenda Marshall is no Myrna Loy. I'm still working out if Warren's undercover act as a rich Texan with a gold mine and a string of oil wells is hilariously bad or just embarrassing. Given his inept attempt to mimic the chimes of a clock, I'm leaning towards the former and that's good. It would just be sad if that's what ends up most memorable.

Monday 19 March 2007

Crime Doctor (1943) Michael Gordon

Herbert Hoover wants to be reelected president, or so the sign says, so you can imagine how far back we're going here. Yet we have a psychologist as the hero, the crime doctor of the title, Dr Robert Ordway. He starts out as Phil Morgan, being thrown out of a moving vehicle and left for dead. Luckily he gets picked up by the next car that comes along and makes an almost complete recovery in the Dr Robert Ordway Memorial Hospital. The one piece of him that doesn't heal is his memory: he's a complete amnesiac case, unable to even remember who he is. He takes the name of the hospital given that the cute buxom nurses have been calling him that anyway, and his doctor, Dr John Carey, takes it upon himself to try to bring back his memory.

When none of the methods they come up with work, he decides to learn the trade and become a doctor good enough to treat himself. He works his way through medical school and an internship at an insane asylum to become Dr Carey's junior partner. As he progresses up to become a notable criminal psychologist and even chairman of the parole board, he comes into occasional contact with people from his past who offer tantalising hints as to who he used to be. The thing is that he doesn't seem to have been a good guy.

This is a fascinating little film that feels way too tight and in depth to be only 66 minutes long. Psychology or psychiatry or any such science wasn't particular evolved in 1943 and it's interesting to see the subject in the forefront of a long running series, one that was apparently a major success on radio before translating into pictures. Warner Baxter is excellent as the title character. I've seen him in a lot of films, mostly from the thirties playing supporting roles, but here it's the forties and he's found a character he can sink his teeth into. He went on to play the Crime Doctor in all ten films in the series and it's going to be fascinating catching up with them all, every Saturday morning on TCM.

However much his nurse, later his receptionist, wants to land him, his leading lady is Grace Fielding, played here by Margaret Lindsay who had warmed up for the role with seven turns as the leading lady in the Ellery Queen series. This series didn't last for her as Dr Robert Ordway seems to have found a new leading lady for each film. Chief villain Emilio Caspari is played by John Litel, another actor who I know far better from the thirties than the forties. He had his own regular role in detective B movies of the era, having played Nancy Drew's father in all four movies, outlasting Bonita Granville herself. I wonder how many people didn't have regular roles in forties detective movies!

Sunday 18 March 2007

Spider Baby (1968) Jack Hill

This one couldn't fail to entertain: it's a 1968 comedy horror written and directed by Jack Hill, who has an awesome list of cult movies to his credit from early horror movies for Roger Corman into the blaxploitation era and some of Pam Grier's best films. It stars Lon Chaney Jr dropping the Jr as he did so often to leech off his father's name and features Sid Haig in one of the first real roles he ever had, linking him with Jack Hill for the first of many films. The film is subtitled 'or, The Maddest Story Ever Told' which isn't far off the truth and was originally titled Cannibal Orgy. Also it's number three on the list of greatest cult films of all time as defined by the 5 Minutes to Live website which is far more accurate than any other such lists I've seen, such as the one done by Entertainment Weekly.

We start out with a terrible introductory sequence that tells us about the Merrye Syndrome, as defined in the Dictionary of Rare and Peculiar Diseases. Restricted to the descendants of the Merrye that gave it its name, it kicks in around the age of ten and regresses sufferers in mental age. Then we get to see the reality of the Merrye Syndrome, ten years before, when there were three Merryes left: Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Ralph (Sid Haig). All are full grown adults physically but children mentally.

We meet Virginia first, playing spider with a visiting mailman who has got trapped in her window, slicing him up with a couple of large knives. Elizabeth has pigtails to emphasise her youth and eats bugs. Sid Haig looks amazingly like one of the pinheads from Freaks, combined with some Uncle Fester and maybe some insane Telly Savalas in there too. Lon Chaney plays Bruno, their chauffeur and caretaker who tries to ensure that they don't get into too much trouble. Somewhere in the cellar behind hidden doors are Aunt Clara, Aunt Martha and Uncle Ned, who are no doubt even further along with the Merrye Syndrome.

The story kicks in about fifteen minutes in when Emily and Peter Howe, cousins to the Merryes come to take possession of the house and custody of the 'kids'. Emily is Carol Ohmart, Miss Utah of 1946 but best known for William Castle's The House on Haunted Hill, and Peter is Quinn K Redeker, whose last film as an actor was The Three Stooges Meet Hercules but who went on to be Oscar nominated for co-writing The Deer Hunter. Emily is a cold hearted mercenary with very nice lingerie while Peter is friendly and happy to flirt with the lawyer's secretary. She's a horror fan who talks horror movies with Peter leading to a wonderful Chaney in joke, which goes a long way to making up for the fact that he's a terrible actor.

It's hard to look at individual performances here because however memorable all these characters are, they're all overshadowed by the film itself. Jack Hill has created a wonderfully twisted picture that takes everything that's acceptable only through strict accordance to the rules but still completely beyond the pale and throws it all together in a joyously camp mix. There are flaws all over the place, not least the way day changes to night and back without any consistency at all, and some of the acting is truly awful, but this is one of the most enjoyably out there movies I can remember seeing. I caught it on TCM Underground but I'll definitely be buying the DVD with the extra documentary with both Hill and Haig. Wonderful!

Saturday 17 March 2007

Phantom (1922) F W Murnau

Here's what is almost a Who's Who of German silent film making. The director is F W Murnau, the genius director behind Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and the original Nosferatu, as well as other important films. The screenplay based on a novel by Gerhart Hauptmann is by Thea von Harbou, wife of another legendary director, Fritz Lang. The lead is Alfred Abel, who I know as the hero's evil industrialist father in Metropolis but who also appeared in other major films like Lang's Dr Mabuse the Gambler. Here he's a town hall clerk called Lorenz Lubota, who tells us through a diary the story of his crimes and atonement.

He doesn't seem much of a criminal to begin with, merely a mild mannered and low paid clerk who prefers the company of books to people and can't get to work on time because he's too busy showing people his poems and browsing the book stands. He lives with his mother, a Les Dawson-esque matron played by Frida Richard who had a busy career in silent film dating back to 1910 playing mutters and Großmutters. I'm sure I've seen her in something, but can't work out what, though she was in such films as Murnau's Faust and Lang's Die Nibelungen. Maybe she just looks like a number of Lon Chaney's characters!

When the film starts, his sister is also at home. She's played by Aud Egede Nissen, a wonderfully expressive Norwegian actress who was also in Dr Mabuse the Gambler and had appeared as the lead in The Phantom of the Opera as far back as 1916. She gets the first great cinematic shots here, posing in front of a broken mirror and she leaves home pretty quickly after a ruckus with her mother who wants to know what she does for a living. Of course she's not going to tell her mother that she's a bar prostitute.

Watching for Lorenz twice every day is his neighbour Maria Starke, who hasn't yet confessed her love for him, though it's pretty obvious, and she's played by no less than Lil Dagover, the Javanese born German actress who even by 1922 had starred for Fritz Lang in Destiny and the Spiders films, as well as the unforgettable The Cabinet of Dr Caligari for Robert Wiene. However Lorenz is more interested in her father, the bookbinder, and the mysterious blonde who knocks him down with her carriage.

She's Veronika Harlan, played as half of a double role by Lya de Putti, and she marks the beginning of his decline. Following bad advice about the quality and potential of his poems he borrows money from his rich pawnbroker aunt, Grete Berger who was in almost all of the films listed above: she was uncredited in Metropolis but had bigger parts in Destiny, Dr Mabuse the Gambler and Die Nibelungen, and was also the Countess in Paul Wegener's The Student of Prague, possibly the first horror film ever made, back in 1913. Anyway, Lorenz is a good man but gets caught up in the schemes of Wigottschinsky, a crook who's out to fleece his aunt dry and who takes up with his sister in the process. Bewitched by Veronika, who is completely out of his class, Lorenz begins to see her in strange dream sequences and pursues both her and her double, the daughter of a parasitic mother out to get all she can. This is Mellitta, also played by Lya de Putti, who ends up with a bigger part, it seems, than Lil Dagover.

The film is a good one but it's slow and subtle and takes its time in showing us its marvels. Especially early on it's a little too slow and subtle. Alfred Abel is excellent in a very different role to the one he played so well in Metropolis. He really sells us on the downward spiral that Lorenz finds himself floundering down and that's the triumph of the film. Grete Berger and Aud Egede Nissen have probably the best roles outside of Abel's and fortunately for us both actresses are more than up to the task. Everyone else involved is fine but they get far less to do because they have far less depth. Frida Richard gets to spend most of the film with her head in her hands so we miss out on her expressiveness. Dagover is the saintly character usually played by someone like Olivia de Havilland and Anton Edthofer plays Wigottschinsky like a slightly restrained serial villain: there's no bad in the one and no good in the other. All in all though, Phantom is another interesting German expressionistic silent movie and every one of those I've seen so far has been a good investment of my time.

Thursday 15 March 2007

The Lone Wolf Takes a Chance (1941) Sidney Salkow

This fourth Warren William Lone Wolf movie starts off with a laugh. A necklace falls onto a cat which walks out of the jewellers right in front of safecracker Michael Lanyard aka the Lone Wolf and Jamison his butler and partner in crime (both retired). In trying to catch it they get caught up in a bank security system and spark off a bet with long term adversary Inspector Crane and his numb brained Sergeant Dickens. Two months salary if Lanyard can keep out of trouble for 24 hours. Needless to say there's not much likelihood of that happening, retired or not. Wherever the Lone Wolf goes there's trouble.

This time there's also Lloyd Bridges who gets held up in the next hotel room while a former private investigator is murdered on the window ledge outside. It all ties up to something or other that Johnny Baker, Bridges's character, has invented and of course there's a girl involved too, a movie star played by June Storey, far better known for the ten westerns she made with Gene Autry. We soon discover that the invention is a extra secure mail car that the government is about to use to transport engraving plates for currency. It's up to Lanyard, Jamison and Gloria Foster, the movie star, to stop the crooks from forcing Baker to crack the safe car.

This one impressed. Warren William isn't as confidently in charge of things this time around but he's still fine. Eric Blore is more restrained and more of a partner, and thus also less annoying and more fun than usual. Similarly the cops are a little more realistic while still keeping very uch true to their characters and that's all to the good. Storey and Bridges don't get much to do, unfortunately, but what little they do get is accomplished enough. Everyone chips in without anyone letting the side down. Probably the best of the first four Lone Wolfs with William and the first one to really compare to his work elsewhere.

Wednesday 14 March 2007

Dick Tracy's Dilemma (1947) John Rawlins

Ralph Byrd returns as Dick Tracy after two films played by Morgan Conway. Byrd knew the character well having played him in Republic serials as the 30s became the 40s. He'd return again for Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome against Boris Karloff and then for the live action TV series in the early fifties. Here he's up against the Claw, a tough villain with a longshoreman's hook for a right hand. The Claw and his cohorts empty a warehouse of expensive furs and take out a night watchman in the process. Tracy does some solid detective work but the bad guys aren't stupid either, contrary to most short detective movies of the era.

There are some great characters here with wild names, as you'd expect from an official entry in the series based on Chester Gould's strip creation. The Claw doesn't just have a claw, he also has a clubfoot, eyes too close together and a dedication that's as admirable as it is deadly. Dick Tracy's eyes on the street are those of a fake blind peddler called Sightless who sells pencils. There's even enthusiastic yet not particularly helpful thespian called Vitamin Flintheart that Ian Keith plays like a cross between Karloff and Vincent Price. Much more helpful is Longshot Lillie the Fence, played by an excellent Bernadene Hayes who reminds very much of a younger Thelma Ritter. A check on her filmography shows that I've seen her in a few movies like Great Guy and The Emperor's Candlesticks but never as a leading lady.

What surprised me most is how tight this one is. Sure, there are highly convenient clues like the Claw leaving scratch marks on the phone dial for Tracy to cut down the possibilities of the number he's calling, but there's also plenty that's far more realistic. It feels a few notches more intelligent than the Charlie Chan I saw last night, however much it's still a flight of fancy. Ralph Byrd is a fine Dick Tracy, though I was never that drawn to what always seemed to be a notably vanilla character, whoever was playing him. Jack Lambert has fun as the Claw but he's no Karloff. This is therefore not up to the next film but works well as a warmup.

Tuesday 13 March 2007

The Scarlet Clue (1945) Phil Rosen

Strange things are afoot on the waterfront. The police are chasing a suspect but when they bring in Charlie Chan, they find that he's been waiting for the suspect to lead him to a mastermind trying to steal confidential wartime radar plans from the government. Of course he turns up dead instead, but Chan has leads to run down that lead him to a radio station that just happens to be on the same floor as a laboratory specialising in radar.

I'm sure I've seen Charlie Chan films before but a long while ago and I'd forgotten about how annoying Sidney Toler is with his bumbling walk and stereotypical speech. It's enough to realise just how much of a point certain elements of the Chinese American community have when complaining about the Chan films. It's not politically correct to see Peter Lorre or Boris Karloff playing Chinese detectives either but both are great actors who instil a respect and authority into their roles. Toler is embarrassing, often painfully so. He's not inscrutable, he's just acting at the level of Tor Johnson.

However this is far from an attack on the Chinese character. Number three son Tommy is played by Chinese American Benson Fong and he's less intelligent but far more fairly played than Chan. Number two assistant and chauffeur is Birmingham Brown, a lively but stereotypical black former crook who is of course great comic relief material. The worst of all, though, is the radio station cleaning lady, a horrendously Nordic stereotype who can't pronounce the letter J yet manages to include one in almost every word. Ouch.

As for the story, it's almost incidental. The only saving graces are a solid and unexpected death scene and a couple of hilarious exchanges between Manton Moreland's Birmingham Brown and a character called Ben Carter, played by an actor called Ben Carter. They're worth the price of admission on their own, luckily so as there's not a lot else to bother with. Charlie Chan gets a few good digs at number three son but otherwise he doesn't do much except unravel a pretty obvious mystery. Nobody else does anything except fill their obvious role. I hope the other Charlie Chans are better than this!

Monday 12 March 2007

The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady (1940) Sidney Salkow

Joan Bradley is about to get married. She has a valuable diamond necklace already but will obtain much more once she's hitched. However there's a former husband who comes back into her life because he wants the necklace. The catch is that they're not supposed to be divorced, he's supposed to be dead, leaving her with a necklace stolen by a dead man, a dead man who does indeed become dead very quickly indeed.

Her one piece of luck is to almost get run over by the Lone Wolf who thus gets involved in the issue. He tries to help her out by setting up her explanation of how she was in the bath when shots rang out and she discovered a dead man in her room. Unfortunately the police don't believe her and so she escapes to find Lanyard, the Lone Wolf. Of course the police follow Joan, who unwittingly follows one of the real thieves, but Lanyard is a master of misdirection with nerves of steel so he hides Joan and obtains the thief a lift with the cops. Now all he needs to do is confirm the real killer and locate the necklace.

As much as the title suggests that we're going to get a major leading lady here, we actually do without one for the first time in three films. Jean Muir gets very little to do and isn't a patch on people like Ida Lupino, Rita Hayworth or even Joan Perry. Warren William however gets far more opportunity to stamp his authority on the role and he relishes all the double dealing, subterfuge and blatant manipulation of the police.

Eric Blore is finding his feet here, half annoying and half hilarious, and the cops have the same effect. Thurston Hall is Inspector Crane for the first time and Fred Kelsey is Detective Dickens for the second; both stay with the series for a while and they certainly have fun here. Mostly though it's just good news for Warren William fans because this is the point at which he gets to be in charge and that's how all Warren William fans like it. He could twirl anyone round his little finger and it's almost criminal to deprive him of the opportunity.

Sunday 11 March 2007

I Bury the Living (1958) Albert Band

Just as Richard Boone was becoming a major name playing professional gunfighter Paladin on Have Gun - Will Travel, he took the lead in an intriguing Albert Band psychological horror flick called I Bury the Living. He's Bob Kraft and he's been unwillingly appointed as the chairman of the Immortal Hills cemetery. The title comes in when he plays with the map on the wall of the cemetery office, that marks all the occupied plots and all those that have been paid for. He quickly discovers that every time he puts a black pin into the map, the owner of the plot dies.

This is really a huge opportunity for some lurid overacting and melodrama, but to the credit of everyone involved that doesn't happen. This is a careful character study of a man who believes he's acquired a power that he didn't want to start with and that he doesn't want now. The progression from accidentally using the wrong coloured pins to selecting a person at random to trying someone who couldn't possibly die within the day and onwards is superbly managed.

It's so easy to suggest, 'Hey, just don't do it any more and you have nothing to worry about,' but it's not as simple as that. It's about Kraft trying to prove to himself and others trying to prove to him that the power doesn't exist In the end he finds he has to stick black pins in the map through majority rule, against his own wishes, but of course the film isn't even about the pins. They're just a tiny MacGuffin just like the power of death over life itself. What the film is really about is what that power does to the man who believes he has it and what it does to those others who believe that he has it over them.

There are a few hallucinatory special effects and a few great power zooms but they're hardly out of place in such a bizarre film. Mostly there's just a lot of coarse but very appropriate acting and a plot that goes exactly where it should go. My good wife and I sat here enthralled in the whole thing, throwing out the next point the plot should go to and waiting for it to happen. Sometimes there was a deliciously long wait but I Bury the Living always obliged our wishes. This was unexpectedly delightful: thank you, TCM Underground!

Abraham Lincoln (1930) D W Griffith

The story of Abraham Lincoln's life had been told before D W Griffith got his hands on it, but by 1930 there was sound and there was Walter Huston. It must also have been special to Griffith himself, as he did more than direct it: according to the credits he 'personally directed it'. It has an epic feel to it, even though it's only just over an hour and a half long and it feels like about ten minutes. Huston is also a logical choice. He was always a respectable sort of actor, unless he chose to go somewhere extreme such as in Kongo; he was tall, powerful and with plenty of presence; and he was very capable of being rough around the edges.

Now I'm English. I really don't have much background with the father of the American nation and thus don't have any real clue about whether this is accurate history or Hollywood hogwash. No doubt it's somewhere between the two, but the longer it ran on in a highly melodramatic manner the more it feels like the latter rather than the former. The first minute does nothing more than see him born, but within five more he's outwrestled the champion of the county, drunk his reward out of the barrel and shirked on his rail splitting duties in order to clumsily woo Ann Rutledge. Now I understand why he's the father of his country and it's got nothing to do with Gettysburg.

As for the film, it's very obvious that it's a 1930 production. It still has many hangovers from the silent era such as the overacting throughout, the title cards and the outrageous makeup plastered all over Walter Huston's face, yet it has sound and such sound that we really have to concentrate to catch, given the poor quality of it. Griffith does a lot better job than many managed in 1930 in his debut sound picture, but he obviously wasn't happy with the very concept of it as he only made one more before retiring. I'm a huge fan of both Walter Huston and Una Merkel but they both sound terrible here, partly because they're having to speak so slowly and surely that they sound like morons. Thank heaven for the rapid advances in sound recording technology that each successive year would bring.

Anyway the film rattles on so quickly that I kept losing track, especially not being particularly knowledgeable about the characters being portrayed. It felt like every scene was a butchered version of one originally five times longer and with the next five scenes missing. Abe meets Ann, starts to woo her and suddenly she's dead. So off he goes into the countryside to mourn but he's immediately found and is instantly on the rise politically. As soon as someone called Mary Todd starts talking about him, he's introduced, they dance and suddenly he's late for their wedding. I started to keep my eyes forced open because every blink must have lost me a couple of years. It cost Lincoln more time to sit and look puzzled after signing something or other at one point than it took for him to become President of the United States.

Only when we reach the American Civil War does it slow down but it slows down so much in comparison to the first fifty years of Lincoln's life that I almost fell asleep. I imagine it's like being in a drag race: breakneck speed for a short period of time and then such a deceleration that it feels like you're not moving any more. I tried to continue to watch intently but I have less idea of how the war really ran than I did before I started watching the film. Judging from this version, nobody wanted the war except Lincoln, who thought it would be over quickly, and when it wasn't he had no clue how to proceed. He threw men and resources at the war and though nothing at all worked, suddenly he won. That doesn't sound particularly realistic to me.

The only time this film seems to have any coherence, for want of a better word, was in the scenes at the front lines which appear precisely as they ought. Griffith was always great at framing his scenes wonderfully when there were so many people on screen that framing scenes wonderfully would appear to be no option at all. Of course many of these scenes would have worked just as effectively without sound, so none of it is surprising at all. Unfortunately there's nothing else here except confusion. Huston really looks the part but he's worse here than in any other film of his I've seen, Merkel is wasted and nobody else is even remotely noticeable except Ian Keith who plays John Wilkes Booth and he's more like a adventure serial villain. As history, I haven't a clue how valid it is; as filmmaking it's a waste of quite a few great talents. No wonder Griffith quit after only one more film.

Rain (1932) Lewis Milestone

Rain really doesn't have much of a clue what it wants to be. It starts out alternating between a beautifully staged and framed silent movie and a musical number that would have been great in Lewis Milestone's great film from two years earlier, All Quiet on the Western Front, if that had been a musical, of course. Then we hit precode realism with the couple who run the general store on Pago Pago: a fat Hawaiian woman and her husband Guy Kibbee, who doesn't seem to be acting the idiot for a change. We're then introduced cleverly to the cast and end up with the important people in the story, reformer Walter Huston and hard boiled prostitute Joan Crawford. We hit social comment with Kibbee bitching about the arrival of Huston and his professional reformer wife. He left Chicago to get away from people like them who want to bring people unhappiness to save their souls, whether they want it or not.

It looks great, powerful in the way only a silent movie could be. For quite a while I wanted to turn the volume down and watch it without sound, but then Joan Crawford and Walter Huston always sounded great in precodes, even when the films weren't up to their performances, as was often in Crawford's case. The scenes between them are good ones but very strange.

Huston is Alfred Davidson, bible thumper, pure and simple, who sees it as his duty to save Sadie Thompson's soul at any cost, even if it takes him to what we might see as evil on his own account to do it. He blackmails and brainwashes to get his way which is hardly Christian in my book. He blunders into her room, tells her she's an evil woman who's headed for doom and destruction and takes the moral high ground in every respect possible. He even persuades the governor, through financial pressure, to order her off the island on the next boat. Because he's Walter Huston, we can almost believe that he's working from high ground, but he gets more and more sanctimonious as each minute runs on. Beulah Bondi plays his wife as a bitter shrew out to ruin everyone else's fun and there's no higher ground obvious, just bitterness and judgement based on class.

Sadie Thompson may be a prostitute but she doesn't seem like a bad sort. She's not being used, unless it's by herself, and she does right by everyone around her. She's honest, open and free to admit what she is. Yet Davidson and his wife judge her because of her class, then by things like the fact that she dances on a Sunday. I realise that it's an old Hollywood movie so a lot of grim reality is hidden from us, but it's also a precode so we still ought to be seeing plenty and we don't. We just see the injustice of people who profess to care and maybe even do. Anyway the film ends up how we're wanting to see it without any real explanation of why.

The Sea Hawk (1940) Michael Curtiz

It's a swashbuckler directed by Michael Curtiz, so of course it's an Errol Flynn movie. It's also 1585 and the Spanish are trying to take over the world. The only thing that stands in the way of their successful advances are the English, and they have plans to take out them too. The Armada is being built but in the meantime King Philip has other ideas and so sends Don José Alvarez de Cordoba across to England as his ambassador. Luckily for the English, the sanctioned pirates known as sea hawks who rove the channel are on the ball and Geoffrey Thorpe and his Albatross take out his ship.

There's some intriguing casting going on here, beyond the fact that Thorpe, the Sea Hawk of the title, is played by an American star who was born in Australia and died in Canada. Most bizarre looking is Don José, played by a moustachioed Claude Rains. Una O'Connor plays a personal maid again, but this time as an Englishwoman working for a Spaniard, Don José's daughter, Doña Maria, played by Brenda Marshall who looks and sounds more than a little like a young Hispanic Norma Shearer. Of course it's good to see someone other than Olivia de Havilland as the leading lady for a change. Marshall didn't make a lot of films but she's fine here. A year later she would become Mrs William Holden, and their tempestuous thirty year marriage obviously took up a lot more of her time and attention.

There are other more traditional roles being filled too, especially Alan Hale as a hearty supporting character on Flynn's ship, who of course gets to fall for Una O'Connor as he did so well so often. He also becomes almost demonic by the finale, making this one of his finest roles. There's old faithful Donald Crisp as one of Queen Elizabeth's ministers and a sneaky Henry Daniell as the other. He's not Basil Rathbone but he comes a close second. Similarly, Flora Robson plays the Queen, only three years after Bette Davis had been so memorable in the same part, and she has a good at making it her own.

The story is pure Hollywood and, like almost every historical film made during the golden age, has very little adherence to history. It has a loose connection to events of the times and some of the characters being played are real people, but anyone with a reasonable knowledge of the era would be able to find inaccuracy in every scene at that, sometimes completely blatant inaccuracy at that. The ship's monkey who gets lost in Queen Elizabeth's courtroom and steals more than one scene is about as realistic as Disney's talking teapots, but it's still probably more realistic than the half flattery, half romance between Elizabeth I and her favourite pirate, obviously based on Sir Francis Drake.

What we need to know is that the English are the good guys, the Spanish are the bad guys and of course there's a traitor on both sides: Wolfingham, the Lord chancellor, on the English side, who is therefore bad, and Doña Maria on the Spanish side, who is therefore good, and hey, she's apparently half English anyway. Anything else is stage managed fun, unashamed romantic adventure, in both the old and new meanings of the word. Thorpe heads off on an unofficial non-state sanctioned mission to strip the Spanish empire of the gold it is about to ship home from Panama. Of course the bad guys find out and send the captain that Thorpe captured early on to get there before him and of course Doña Maria finds that out and goes to tell him but of course she's too late and... well you could write much of this yourself, if not as well.

The thing is that everyone involved knows precisely what they're doing and they could do it in their sleep, from director Michael Curtiz and his crew of costume designers, musicians, cinematographers, fight choreographers and so on, to the cast. I was never a huge Errol Flynn fan and to my mind most of this doesn't reach the heights of Robin Hood, let alone Captain Blood, which is my personal favourite. It's certainly far better than his westerns though, which always seemed like bad ideas. People like Rains, Hale, O'Connor, Daniell, Crisp and Robson are just too good to let the side down on a film like this, and backing them up are others like Montagu Love, Halliwell Hobbes, J M Kerrigan, Julien Mitchell, Gilbert Roland, Edgar Buchanan and Jay Silverheels, who are always reliable, even when they're in parts so small that they're not even credited.

All of this talent in one place means that the film can't help but be massively entertaining, however much it's awesomely convenient nonsense. The reason the film is remembered so well today is because of where it goes. The last half hour or so is Curtiz and Flynn at their very best, fighting adversity against great odds for Queen and country. This is why Curtiz got to make most of Flynn's films and it's why Flynn was so great a heroic leading man in the Fairbanks Sr tradition. It's also where much of the textbook got written and why films like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise are still stealing from it today.

Friday 9 March 2007

The Lone Wolf Strikes (1940) Peter Godfrey

Phillip Jordan owns an incredibly valuable string of pearls but the woman he thinks loves him has merely strung him along in order to steal them. When he discovers this and asks for them back he turns up mysteriously dead. Jordan's partner, Stanley Young, asks the Lone Wolf, Michael Lanyard, for the favour he owes him, so Lanyard investigates, both to recover the pearls and find Jordan's killer.

That's not a huge amount of plot but then this one whistles along to the end in a mere 57 minutes. Warren William returns as the Lone Wolf. This time round he's discovered the wonderful world of fish but is otherwise little different from the previous movie. He's calm and restrained for most of the film, with a few moments of pure William genius. There's no daughter any more and no major female name. The leading lady this time round is Joan Perry, as Jordan's daughter, soon before she became Mrs Harry Cohn, the wife of the man who ran Columbia Pictures. She gets plenty of opportunity to cause unexpected trouble for Lanyard, dropping the wrong names at the wrong times.

The major new name is Eric Blore who spent almost his entire 85 film career playing butlers, valets and gentlemen's gentlemen. He's a much better Jamison, Lanyard's butler, than Leonard Carey from the last movie, and that must have been a common opinion as he continued on the series even longer than Warren William did, ending with The Lone Wolf in London in 1947. He overacts here shamelessly but it brings a lot of laughter, especially when he's being copied eyebrow for eyebrow by the cops chasing him at one point.

The Lone Wolf Strikes is not up to the standard of The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, but I hope that trend won't continue. These are fun fluff but little more than that. They're worthwhile to me because I'm a huge Warren William fan but you'd need an excuse like that to really justify the expenditure of time.

Thursday 8 March 2007

The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939) Peter Godfrey

In the first of many Lone Wolf movies to feature Warren William, he plays the title character whose real name is Michael Lanyard. He's a detective but like the later Boston Blackie, he's a retired safecracker. In fact the film starts off with his forcibly appearing before a mysterious party hiding in the shadows who wants to hire his services. He turns him down and leaves but gets framed for the job anyway. Someone is trying to steal the plans for the new Palmer anti-aircraft gun and the War Department isn't happy about it.

William is a little more restrained here than usual, but then he's being outshone by no less than three up and coming young ladies. Sharing the spotlight on the title card with him is Ida Lupino, playing his girlfriend, Val Carson, and while I always prefer her work as a director to that as an actor she's still a damn fine actor and she's a joy here outdoing William at his own game. His daughter is played by the young Virginia Weidler, who made 44 films by the time she was 17, including a notable turn in The Philadelphia Story. She's a real tomboy all set on killing crooks and practicing on the butler and visiting policemen. The third is Rita Hayworth, right before another great performance in Only Angels Have Wings.

The plot is just cute fluff but then the film is only just over an hour long and this is a B movie detective yarn regardless of who the leading ladies became in later years. The performances are fine, though it does seem strange to see Warren William toning down the charm and letting his daughter and girlfriend steal a good deal of the spotlight, flapping around and shooting people for fun. There's plenty beyond the pair of them to keep our attention though. There's a wonderful surrealistic costume party where people turn up as pincushions or clocks or trees, and a drunk who gets highly confused when Lanyard pretends to be him, to him. Only Warren William could get away with that sort of behaviour in 1939 and still be believable. He does get plenty of opportunities to outsmart the police and his adversaries and that means the Warren William grin gets to come out. Every time that happens is a good time.

All in all this is no classic, but I'm intrigued to see the rest of the Lone Wolf films. There were 24 all told, dating back to 1917 with Bert Lytell as Michael Lanyard. In fact there were no less than seven previous Lanyards before Warren William but he got to play the part in nine films. The character comes from the books by Louis Joseph Vance, a detective writer who met a suitably mysterious end, dying in 1933 of what appeared to be spontaneous human combustion but which was apparently ignited benzene. That's too good a story not to be in the movie...

Wednesday 7 March 2007

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) Mike Newell

Being English, and more than that, an Englishman who married an American lady, I'm not sure how I managed to miss this one for so long. Then again, I haven't seen Brassed Off or The Full Monty yet either. It's the one that made Hugh Grant a star, but I had at least seen him before in lesser films like The Lair of the White Worm. It was Oscar nominated for the script by Richard Curtis, of Blackadder fame, and it's amazingly clever given that most of the first five minutes is taken up by repeated uses of the F word. It rings amazingly true.

Grant is Charles, the best man at the first wedding that opens the film, but he's obviously a little inept as he sleeps in, nearly fails to turn up and then forgets the rings. He also manages to do a huge amount of opening his mouth very wide indeed and inserting his foot. While we can't keep our eyes off the colourful waistcoats and flailing limbs of Gareth, played with wild abandon by the excellent Simon Cowell, Charles can't keep his eyes off the mysterious Carrie, who is new and American and who he almost continuously almost meets. He finally ends up with her for the night, only to find that she's leaving for the States in the morning.

Luckily she turns up at the next wedding he attends, three months later, but unluckily she's got engaged in the meantime. This comedy of errors continues not particularly joyfully for Charles but wonderfully for we the viewers. Just at the second wedding of the four, we get to savour the many mistakes of trainee priest Rowan Atkinson conducting his first marriage, Charles getting lumped into sitting at a table with every embarrassing ex-girlfriend he's ever had and then getting stuck in the bathroom of the bridal suite while the happy couple consummate their marriage.

I wasn't expecting that I'd like it this much, but I thought it was superb. Grant is far less annoying than usual, Andie MacDowell is excellent and the rest of the cast, from Simon Callow, John Hannah and Charlotte Coleman on down, are uniformly interesting, believable and fun. And they're all real, wonderfully real characters, including David, Charles's deaf brother, whose presence leads to some hilarious subtitles. They help to populate a charming, touching and funny film, carried very well and memorably indeed. And in the end the funeral is more memorable than the four weddings. It's a peach.

It also has more than a few surprises, though the biggest one for me was in rediscovering Charlotte Coleman. I thought I recognised her and indeed I did, though she was thirteen and I was ten when I saw her as Marmalade Atkins, the naughtiest girl in the world, on English TV, in Educating Marmalade. The only thing more surprising than that was to find that she died in 2001 of an asthma attack at the age of 33.

Tuesday 6 March 2007

Crimson Tide (1995) Tony Scott

As the film's introductory title card points out, the three most powerful men in the world are the US president, the president of the Russian Republic and the man in charge of a US nuclear submarine. In such a state of world affairs, a Russian extremist called Vladimir Radchenko, obviously a fictional take on ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky stages a revolt that becomes something of a civil war in Russia. When he takes possession of a Russian naval base and nuclear facility that houses ICBMs, Lt Commander Ron Hunter and Lt Peter Ince head back to Annapolis for assignment. Hunter lands the executive officer position on the USS Alabama, serving under Commander Frank Ramsey. Given that Ramsey is Gene Hackman and Hunter is Denzel Washington, you can imagine the confrontations that they're going to end up having.

A few days into their mission into the Pacific they have their first confrontation, after the commander orders a launch drill while there's a fire being put out in the galley. Hunter thinks it's an inappropriate time but Ramsey thinks it's the best time there is. A few days later when the XO witnesses a stupid fight over a comic book argument he asks the captain to give the crew a little morale boost, but Ramsey is far too much of a tough guy to allow that sort of thing. he believes that the best morale boost is a kick in the ass. He's trying to avoid the situation that arises, that when authorisation to launch comes in his executive officer doesn't back him up.

Crimson Tide is a tight little film, around a couple of hours in length but which seems like half that. It's tense precisely when it needs to be, which is pretty often given the circumstances the plot calls for. Hackman was born to play this sort of part, the captain with huge responsibility and a required attitude to deal with it. Washington was also born to play his role, the highly educated, talented and principled officer who only has one thing missing: combat experience. The third real star is the sub itself, the USS Alabama, and how director Tony Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski handle the claustrophobic lack of space.

The rest of the cast are far less important but a few of them have their moments. In particular, Viggo Mortensen as Ince, who has served with Hunter before, shows some highly subtle facial movements that carefully betray the tension. Matt Craven, George Dzundza, James Gandolfini and an uncredited Jason Robards are all solid. What isn't solid is our confidence in the state of the world given the situations we're given. They don't have much of an opportunity to compete with Hackman and Washington though.

The beginning of the film tells us about the three most powerful people in the world. We all know that number one is a moron, the film's entire premise is that number two has been compromised and/or replaced and then it demonstrates to us very well indeed that number three doesn't have control over a damn thing. Life on the USS Alabama quickly becomes something approaching a war in itself. If this is meant to be a reassurance to us that reason and sanity remain triumphant over blind obedience, it doesn't work. What it does is show us that in times of complete chaos we can't rely on anyone to do anything because they're all too busy having pissing contests.

Monday 5 March 2007

Crainquebille (1922) Jacques Feyder

I've seen a surprising number of films directed by Jacques Feyder, given that he was a French filmmaker of the silent era, but this is the earliest of them. He directed a couple of Greta Garbo movies, including her last silent film, The Kiss, with John Gilbert, and the German language version of Anna Christie, which was her first speaking role and notably better than the English language version. He also directed Daybreak, a decent and very European film with Ramon Navarro and Helen Chandler.

This one stars 'Maurice de Féraudy of the Comedie Francaise', which is something of a mouthful, as are the rest of the cast because not one of them follows the French tradition of only being listed by one name. We begin with an excellent quote by Anatole France: 'Justice is the means by which established injustices are sanctioned.' I'll have to remember that one. It refers to the troubles visited upon Jérôme Crainquebille by the system when he's picked up by the police.

At the beginning of the film the authorities are rounding up not just the usual suspects but everyone on the streets at the time, it seems. Once daylight comes they're more selective but they still pick up Crainquebille, who has been selling vegetables on the street from his cart for fifty years. We've watched him on his rounds and he seemed to be an all around good guy, with plenty of regulars and always willing to help out someone in need. However he gets into a contretemps with an inflexible policeman with a hearing problem and ends up spending a few days in jail while awaiting his trial for insulting a cop who he didn't insult.

Feyder shows us some interesting technical ability here, usually perspective shots like views into parabolic mirrors or through keyholes, or camera movements or distortions to denote confusion, along with some surreal visions like moving statues. It all looks very accomplished for 1922. His chief success here by far though is the realism of everything. I haven't seen anything this obviously based on reality as against cinematic art, between the early days of putting a camera on a street corner and filming real life for the length of the reel and the latter movements like the French New Wave a few decades later that aimed specifically to capture this sort of thing. Feyder does it here in 1922 and does a good job of it too. There are real people here, from the streets, all the way down to an orphan looking after a stray dog.

It's also a decent expose of the fallibility of the system, with authority figures either uncaring or not paying attention. The policeman mishears in the first place and presses an issue that wasn't his business, the prison doctor gives him medicine even though he's never been ill, his lawyer advises that he should confess, the prosecuting attorney can't stay awake and the judge leads him into perjuring himself. There's only one witness for the defence, a respectable doctor, but he's ignored along with everyone else, so everything ends up in a really cool slow motion nightmare. So through a complete misunderstanding a man's life is completely changed, everyone thinks that justice has been done and he doesn't really understand what's happened. Very sad, but it's countered joyously by his unexpected salvation.

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (2006) Liam Lynch

Just as I start rewatching This is Spinal Tap during lunch hours, my stepson makes me watch this. To give it the credit that it has due, it contains some clever in jokes for the metal crowd, and Jack Black is damn good at what he does, but this is mostly embarrassing. In keeping with the trend of the times, there's nothing remotely subtle here in the slightest: it hammers every point home with a vengeance and isn't ashamed to do so. When you realise that the band Tenacious D gets its name name from compatible birthmarks on the butts of Jack Black and Kyle Gass, you should get an idea of where this film will take you.

Black is a wannabe rocker from nowhere whose father, played by an uncredited Meat Loaf, hates every thought of it. All these scenes are stolen from the We're Not Going to Take It video by Twisted Sister, but that's probably deliberate. Instead Black leaves for Hollywood and eventually ends up in the real one, where he finds Gass busking on the sidewalk. He hooks up with him to form Tenacious D. There are references throughout to A Clockwork Orange and Kung Fu and Mortal Kombat and The Wiz and who knows what else. Ronnie James Dio appears as himself, Dave Grohl plays Satan and David Krumholtz is just there.

But oh dear. It plays like a cross between a South Park version of This is Spinal Tap, along with a bunch of ideas that sounded really cool when Jack Black was drunk, which include the whole point to the title. The pick of destiny was made from a tooth of Satan by a medieval dark wizard that bestows awesome shred powers and his been handed down through the ages from some dark ages guy on a lute trying to impress his girlfriend to Robert Johnson, Jimmy Page, Angus Young, you name it. Unfortunately I was sober so I didn't care.

Sunday 4 March 2007

Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) Michael Apted

Country music singers seem to live the sort of lives that translate well to biopics. Johnny Cash wasn't the first and while he was a great subject, he may not even have been the best. Tammy Wynette is way up there on that list and Loretta Lynn's not far behind. Born in the mountains where 'you either coal mine, moonshine or move on down the line', she was married at thirteen, pregnant at fourteen, mother of four kids by the time she was seventeen, a grandma at 29 and yet she still found the time to become a major star.

Sissy Spacek is awesome as Lynn. Over thirty when the film was made, she is completely believable as the thirteen year old Loretta Webb and completely believable as an adult; she has the uncanny ability to look rather beautiful or truly ugly without much apparent effort, something she's made good use of throughout her career; and she's versatile enough to sing all the songs here herself. Her husband is a GI who returned from the war to Kentucky with an attitude and obviously something else too, seeing as he heads straight for this thirteen year old girl with a vengeance. He's Doolittle Lynn and he's played by Tommy Lee Jones who at once looks incredibly young and yet exactly the same as I know him from much later films like Men in Black and The Fugitive.

However dubious chasing after a thirteen year old seems, he does get married to her, before even getting her into bed, and they stay together throughout. It's Doo who thinks her singing along to the radio is so good that he buys her a guitar for their wedding anniversary. He sets her up to sing in public, however much she doesn't want to do it and he pays for her first recording session. He takes her picture and mails it out with her record to every country DJ in the book. In short he's the one who sets up her up for the future we all know she did so great in.

The two of them are very good together on screen, which takes a lot given the relationship that they had to portray. Loretta and Doo stayed married all the way down the line, for almost fifty years until Doo's death in 1996. It was a rocky road, with minor league cheating and violence, though the cheating gave her some of her best songs and as she once said, 'he never hit me one time that I didn't hit him back twice.' They also lasted through her mentor Patsy Cline's death, her nervous breakdown on stage and other issues.

There's a lot of humour in here, though it's unfortunate humour. Loretta lived the middle of nowhere in Kentucky, in Butcher Holler, and once married the Lynns lived on a farm in Washington, KY, that didn't have a phone. It sounds rude to say it but she really didn't have much of a clue about anything. She doesn't know what charts are, even though she's number fourteen nationwide with her debut single; she gets one radio station in trouble by describing her husband as 'horny' live on air even though she doesn't know what it means; she doesn't even know what 'dues' are when it's pointed out to her that she'll have to pay plenty of them. She's a backwoods hick for a long, long while indeed.

The film is solid and Spacek's Oscar was well deserved. There's plenty left out though, not least Crystal Gayle, Lynn's sister who isn't even named at any point in the film. There's no mention of her son's drowning of the controversy that many of her bluntly honest songs caused, covering divorce, life under birth control, the loss of teenage virginity and the Vietnam war.

Tommy (1975) Ken Russell

What better to drown out the mariachi music blaring out of the cars outside next door than to throw on a rock opera like Tommy? And who better to make a film about a deaf, dumb and blind kid who plays a mean pinball and becomes a religious icon than Ken Russell, doyen of the sacrilegious. It's not The Devils, nor even The Lair of the White Worm, but it does have plenty of controversial moments. It's also told entirely musically, with no speech at all, just like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Tommy's father is an Air Force pilot who's shot down during the last days of the war, or so we think, making what would be a very short role for Robert Powell if he didn't continue to reappear in hallucinatory dream sequences. His mother Nora, played by Ann-Margret, takes a few years but then remarries Oliver Reed, a holiday camp worker called Frank. Unfortunately a traumatic experience involving a vision of his scarred father bursting into his mother's bedroom leaves him psychosomatically unable to see, hear or speak. He thus misses out on plenty going on around him, such as a bizarre Marilyn Monroe healing cult led by Eric Clapton or Acid Queen Tina Turner turning into a hypodermic laden robot hooker. Unfortunately he doesn't miss out on lunatic Keith Moon playing lunatic Uncle Ernie fiddling about with him though he'll have missed the cartoon sound effects.

By this time, of course, he's grown up to look astoundingly like Roger Daltrey, who is only three years younger than mama Ann-Margret. He follows himself to a scrap yard where he discovers an affinity for pinball on a table that's somehow plugged in and perfectly horizontal even though it's balanced on top of a scrap car. Once the police locate his parents, good old Frank makes a celebrity out of him and he gets to play pinball on stage while Elton John sings about him in trademark huge glasses.

Last time I saw this film I was a young lad who dug the Who and who didn't have a clue what it was all about. Now I get it, though it is a particularly wild trip of a rock video rather than a movie proper. Ken Russell does have fun with this trip and how could we help but enjoy Ann-Margret writhing around in foam and baked beans, straddling a phallic pillow and spinning around in a chair stolen from The Prisoner? Jack Nicholson sounds bizarre with an English accent but Ollie Reed looks perfect in a grey top hat and monocle. Priceless.

Fires on the Plain (1959) Kon Ichikawa

There's not a lot left of the Japanese Imperial army in the Phillipines in 1945. Most are dead and the rest are too busy foraging for food to fight. Private Tamura has been sent to the hospital with TB but sent back three days later, prompting his squad leader to tell him that there isn't enough food, he can't carry his weight and that he should therefore return to the hospital and commit suicide if they won't let him back in. Of course the hospital won't let him in this time either, because as far as they're concerned if he can walk he's too well to be there. They're overflowing with seriously injured men as it is. He takes up with a few others too sick to fight but too well to get into the hospital, which is very quickly destroyed by enemy fire anyway. So he finds himself on his own, unable to go back to his unit and unwilling to kill himself.

This has to be one of the most realistic war films I've ever seen, mostly because the only name I know here, director Kon Ichikawa, who made The Burmese Harp, wanted maximum authenticity, so deliberately starved his cast and barred them from attending to matters of simple hygiene. He did keep a number of nurses on set to protect against serious malnutrition or illness, but I'm sure that his actors hated him for it while probably not coming to an appreciation of what he achieved until later. Then again, The Burmese Harp came three years earlier, so maybe they were merely willing to go through the hardships in order to be in a film by the same director.

There are scenes of great power here, that don't require words and preachiness. When the bombs start falling on the hospital, the doctors run quickly out of there, carrying anything of value, while the injured start rolling out of the hut as quickly as they can which is notably not very quickly. It's all quite pathetic but then again it should be in an anti-war film. A troop of half dead soldiers struggles along the road, all drop when a plane flies overhead and strafes them, then half get up and carry on. There are no theatrics here at all, just people doing the only thing they can: move, drop, move. Don't worry about those who can't carry on, just keep going. When a soldier passes a pair of boots in a puddle, he takes them and leaves his own which are in worse condition, but the next few soldiers to come along do precisely the same thing because theirs are even worse still.

Now I really need to see The Burmese Harp, because if it's better than this it's got to be awesome. This one is unforgettable.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) Russ Meyer

I'm a big Russ Meyer fan and I've long looked forward to watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls again, because it never seemed to fit with the rest of his films. There are the early nudie cuties like The Immoral Mr Teas, which I haven't yet seen; the black and white cult classics from the late sixties like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Mudhoney which feature Meyer's patented large breasted women mostly covered; and the rest of his films, made later and in colour and with far less clothes. And then there's this one. I saw it early on, didn't get it and in hindsight couldn't see how it fit.

Well this time through it makes far more sense and, while it still fits in a category all its own in Meyer's filmography, it doesn't quite stand entirely alone. There's a lot more nudity than I remembered, though it's far from the focus that it would become in later films and the dialogue, particularly John Lazar's, is deliberately outrageously theatrical and often sounds very similar to the narration of later Meyer movies ('And you, the infamous Ashley St Ives, high mistress of carnality, what thinkest thou of our fair minstrels?') There's the wonderful editing that Meyer always excelled at, and early uses of other Meyer fetishes like Martin Bormann, superhero capes and sex amidst the wilds of nature. There are also Meyer regulars like Charles Napier and Haji in small roles and even Pam Grier in a role as a partygoer tiny enough that I couldn't find her.

The film has nothing official in common with Jacqueline Susann's megablockbuster novel and subsequent Oscar-nominated film Valley of the Dolls, but it does feature three young ladies trying to make it in show business. These three are a rock group who head off to Hollywood to make it big as the Carrie Nations. However they are drawn instead into a maelstrom of sex, drugs, violence, homosexuality, rape, abortion , transsexuals, Nazis, wheelchairs and death. That's the sweep of the plot which is far more important than the details.

Delightful red headed band leader Kelly McNamara is the focus for much of it. She starts out the girlfriend with manager Harris Allsworth but once in Hollywood quickly meets Ronnie 'Z-Man' Barzell, the cat who seems to run all the scenes in town, and so gets introduced to golden haired actor, egomaniac and money grabber Lance Rocke who helps her into all sorts of trouble trying to screw her aunt out of half her million dollar inheritance. For his part, Harris gets picked up by porn star Ashley St Ives who wants to screw him everywhere but in the bedroom but ends up attempting suicide on live TV. Neurotic senator's daughter Cynthia Myers who plays rhythm guitar finds the bottle and the pills and a lesbian affair with a fashion designer but still ends up pregnant. Black drummer Pet Danforth falls in love with a decent law student but still ends up in bed with a heavyweight boxing champion who runs over her boyfriend with his car.

Yes, everything happens and that's precisely the point. Meyer and co-writer Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert) didn't write this as a serious drama but as an antidote to all the overblown dramas that were being churned out at the time. The title is very apt indeed, and the script and editing are simply superb. The acting is variable, because half these people aren't really actors anyway. John Lazar (later in Meyer's Supervixens and excellent in Deathstalker II) is the most obvious actor. He's joyously outrageous and appears as I imagine Freddie Mercury might have played Mick Jagger's part in Performance.

The Carrie Nations are Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers and Marcia McBroom. Dolly and Cynthia were Playboy Playmates and Marcia was a fashion model. They all appeared in other films but never as the focus. Harris Allsworth was David Gurian's only film appearance but he made the most of it. However many of the rest of the cast were already or would become Meyer regulars. Edy Williams, who plays the porn star, was Meyer's wife at the time, and this wasn't her only film credit for him, just like Erica Gavin, Charles Napier, Haji, Henry Rowland and many others. If only Roger Ebert had become one of those regulars too.

Saturday 3 March 2007

The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) Anthony Minghella

I knew The Mysterious Yearning Secretive Sad Lonely Troubled Confused Loving Musical Gifted Intelligent Beautiful Tender Sensitive Haunted Passionate Talented Mr Ripley, to give the film its full title, starred Matt Damon, so I'd successfully avoided it before now. I know he's an Oscar winner but that was for a screenplay, so hardly indicative of his acting ability. He was nominated for that too, for the same film, but then again Marky Mark and the Funy Bunch as nominated too, so I can safely ignore that as well. Yet here he is, surrounded by a whole slew of names I had no clue were associated with the film. Had I known I'd have seen it earlier.

It's directed by Anthony Minghella, who made The English Patient, and he also wrote the script, which is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, author of such other filmed novels as Strangers on a Train. It might star Matt Damon as Highsmith's regular character Tom Ripley, as compared to someone as truly talented as Alain Delon, who played the role in 1960 in Purple Noon, the first version of this novel, but there are other real actors here. How about Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett and Jack Davenport for starters, and then add Philip Seymour Hoffman as well. Suddenly Matt Damon is a little forgiveable.

The transitions during the title credits are as annoying as Ripley's canary yellow swimming trunks in the first scene that he meets Dickie Greenleaf, but everything else is solid. He's been sent to Italy by Greenleaf's very rich father to bring him home, as all he does is spend his father's money, play jazz and sail his boat. Jude Law is a superb Dickie Greenleaf, half human and half rich playboy brat. He is truly at home in the playboy lifestyle while not having a clue how to be anything else, while Tom Ripley seems acutely uncomfortable in his role.

The thing is that it's all an act, as is everything that Ripley does, because Ripley is a chameleon. He reminds me in many ways of Theresa Russell's title character in Black Widow. Incredibly talented, as the title suggests, his chief talent is becoming other people. He researches every detail, picks up any talent required and takes on their personality. At the beginning of the film he takes the part of a pianist who has broken his arm, just for one appearance, but he obviously has the will to make it work for a much longer period. Needless to say he fails to persuade Dickie to come home, so becomes Dickie instead.

The script is pretty tight and I'm sure the novel is, but I don't buy Matt Damon in the role. Talented or not, I just don't see how Damon's version of Tom Ripley could have kept things going the way he does. I don't see how everyone around didn't see his obvious slew of issues. That lapse of judgement on everyone's behalf aside, Law is superb, Paltrow and Blanchett solid, Hoffman awesome and Davenport not bad at all. That leaves Damon seriously letting the side down. Now I want to see other Ripleys: Alain Delon (Purple Rain), Dennis Hopper (The American Friend) and John Malkovich (Ripley's Game) especially.

Divorce, Italian Style (1961) Pietro Germi

In the Sicilian town of Agromonte, Baron Ferdinando Cefalú's family are faded aristocracy. However he doesn't care anywhere near as much about how his father has squandered the estate as he does about his young cousin Angela. He's been married to Rosalia for twelve years but he lusts after Angela, who is half his age, gazing at her in church, sneaking into the bathroom at night to look out into his cousin's window opposite and see her sleep. Soon he discovers that she dreams about him too, through her father discovering her diary in which she describes the completely chaste encounter almost like sex. He is livid and fetches in the midwife to check that she's still a virgin, but Ferdinando realises the truth at least before she's sent back to the convent.

The film unfolds like an Almodovar movie. Ferdinando sees inspiration in the trial of Mariannina, who gets eight years for the killing of a man who dishonoured her, and starts working out how he could kill his wife and yet still get a lenient sentence. He's been conjuring up all sorts of visions of his wife's death all along and now he starts conjuring up what the oratory of Mariannina's eloquent lawyer would sound like in his theoretical case. Like the most obvious comparison, Kind Hearts and Coronets, it's a deliciously dark comedy that looks at just how far one man is willing to go to achieve his heart's desire.

Marcello Mastroianni is excellent in the lead, just as calculating though not as clever as Dennis Price's character in that other film. Unfortuantely there's no Alec Guinness to dominate the rest of the cast, the remaining actors being decent but not stunning in support. The screenplay won an Oscar and there were two nominations, for Mastroianni as Best Actor and Pietro Germi for Best Director. Those are major categories to be sure, that highlight how well received this Italian film was with the powers that be in Hollywood. In comparison, Kind Hearts and Coronets won a National Board of Review award for Alec Guinness and nothing else. It didn't get a single Oscar nomination, and while this one is certainly a decent film that I thoroughly enjoyed, I couldn't help but compare the two films throughout and this one came off second best in every regard.

Paisan (1946)

Paisan begins like a war documentary, with an American narration over an animated map, and it carries on like an American film with soldiers arriving in an Italian village. Soon though we hear the locals speak in Italian and one of the soldiers translate, and we realise that it's really an Italian film and a notable one at that. The screenplay was Oscar nominated for the six writers, one per sequence, and they include names like Federico Fellini and director Roberto Rossellini, hardly minor names.

What it shows is the other side of war, the story of people rather than grand beliefs, and how we don't really understand each other. The first section is all about misunderstanding. An Italian girl guides a group of American soldiers out of her village, but ends up dead and unfairly unmourned. What must be half of the piece is taken up with a conversation between one soldier and the girl, with the soldier speaking English and the girl speaking Italian. They understand almost nothing of what each other say, but find a bond, and when the GI is shot by the Germans, she revenges him. But when the American's colleagues check out the shooting they believe her to have done it. It's a tragedy wrapped up in a very small parcel but it's probably a decent microcosm of the war as a whole. The Americans, Italians and Germans are just people and none of them really have much of a clue about what the others are on about.

The second deals with a black American military policeman who doesn't want to go home and an Italian kid who steals to survive. The MP berates the kid, who is stealing from the back of a military truck, ad asks him why he has to steal. Of course the kid doesn't understand a word of it. When the MP realises that it's the same kid that stole his shoes while he slept, he tells him to take him to his home to talk to his family, only to discover that his parents are dead and he lives in some sort of overcrowded quarry or mine. His driving away symbolises the advent of understanding.

There's understanding later on in the other four stories, and hope and humanity too, along with tragedy on a personal level and a whole range of other emotions that fit a country so recently at war. There are points where people of different nationalities are able to communicate with each other, but plenty more where that is merely a sad wish. In and amongst the war films where the good guys heroically kill the bad guys, here that's far from the point. The point is that people die, whichever side they happen to be on, and people lose their families and homes and lives. It's a very potent film, deliberately raw and unpolished but all the more real for that.

In Cold Blood (1967)

Based on the book by Truman Capote, this is a legendary true crime story and one of the few that survived the transition to the big screen. In fact it probably stands above all the rest. We're on the road to Kansas City and we're waiting for something to happen, something that we would know was bad even if the legend hadn't preceded the film because of the wonderfully dark and claustrophobic cinematography by Conrad Hall and the awesomely tense and menacing score by the maestro of mojo, Quincy Jones.

Perry Smith is a nervous, hesitant and obviously troubled traveller who has already broken parole by quitting his job but he's about to make it much worse. He meets up with his friend and fellow parolee Richard Hickock who has a plan: to head 400 miles west to Holcomb and blow the safe at the Clutter place where a friend of Hickock has seen $10,000 in cash. Hickock is lively and hopeful but Smith is out there. He goes into a trance when he looks at himself in the mirror and tells his friend all sorts of bizarre stories. The studio wanted Paul Newman and Steve McQueen to play Smith and Hickock but they were busy doing other minor films like Cool Hand Luke, Hombre, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt, so Columbia ended up with Robert Blake and Scott Wilson instead. I can see the far more famous actors in the roles but these two are great not just through their performances but through being less easily recognisable.

The story is told wonderfully. After the intense buildup, we skip over the crime completely, merely hearing about it via John Forsythe's character, who's running the investigation. He explains the evidence clinically and we quickly discover that all four members of the family were left dead: all tied up and shot in cold blood, though Mr Clutter's throat was also cut. The Clutters had no money, not even a safe, so the whole thing got Smith and Hickock nothing but a radio, a pair of binoculars and forty three bucks. So much for listening to cellmate's stories.

After not seeing the murders, we watch the story in an innovative manner. Smith and Hickock head onwards, not remorseful but gradually dealing with what they had done. The police are on the trail and we alternate between the murderers and those chasing them. We also alternate current events with those from the past, especially Perry's, often merging into the same scenes where the past confronts the present. It explains plenty, never judging but merely demonstrating all sides of the picture. There's joy of sorts in the present and pain in the past, never enough to justify but enough to go some way to explain. I'm sure a lot of that came from Capote's book which I really need to read.

Wilson and especially Blake are simply superb, never showboating but really letting us into the depth behind these characters. The cops are deliberately far more two dimensional, almost Terminator like in their persistence of pursuit, single track minded all the way and without any of the personality you'd expect from cops in a show like, say, CSI that brought Wilson back to Las Vegas where his character here was finally arrested for driving a hot car. He was a rich casino owner with serious mob connections in that show, while for Blake's part, he went on to play on the other side of the law: Detective Tony Baretta on TV and Big John Wintergreen in the awesome Electra Glide in Blue.

When the crime comes, it's completely unlike any similar crime in a movie: it's beautifully and cinematically shot, a masterpiece of direction, yet it's also completely unsensational. It's at once brutal, pathetic, powerful, yet never sensational. It's superb and different, just as the way this story is told is always completely different. We see it differently to how we usually see it. There's little more of the trial here than there is in 12 Angry Men, but we see all we need to see, and it's easy to wish that most of the law shows and films we get nowadays showed us just as little. Their life in prison is again completely different from what we're used to seeing, but again it shows us exactly what we should see. All the way to the inevitable and yet amazingly sudden end, it's a piece of genius in exactly the same way that the original crime of killing the Clutters wasn't.

Friday 2 March 2007

I Vitelloni (1953)

We're watching five men watch the crowning of a local beauty queen, Miss Mermaid 1953, but it soon gets rained off by a storm. Everyone crowds indoors and Miss Mermaid faints, becoming the centre of attention, so you'd be forgiven for not realising the film is really about the five men: Moraldo, Alberto, Fausto, Leopoldo and Riccardo. Fausto wants to split for Milan because he's got Moraldo's sister Sandra pregnant, but of course he marries her instead. Riccardo, played by director Federico Fellini's brother Riccardo, is a jovial tenor who seems to sing on every occasion, but who quietly watches his gut grow. Leopoldo is the intellectual of the bunch: he's a playwright living with his aunts. Moraldo wanders the streets after everyone else has gone to bed and thinks. Alberto worries about his sister who's seeing a married man.

In short, all five of them are young but certainly old enough: thirty or so. They're at the point in their lives where it's time to work out who and what they want to be, but they're all clinging on to their childhoods a little too strongly. Our film is how they go from one to the other, and it's hard to really sum it up any better than that because it's the sweep of it that works rather than the details: it's the why not the what. Fausto gets a job working for his in-laws' best friend, but tries it on with his boss's wife and gets fired; Riccardo gets drunk and depressed while dressed up as a woman for Carnival; Leopoldo gets to read his play to a great visiting actor. The details don't matter so much as the progression of the characters as people.

When I first started to watch Fellini I really didn't get it. I was all wrapped up in what seemed to be plots that didn't go anywhere, but the more I watch the more I understand how much he just tells us about life, in a uniquely and highly cinematic way. His films change each time I see them and are infused with a sense of what cinema should be about. They're about the grand topics like truth and beauty and they teach us without teaching. It becomes difficult not to watch just for the joy of it, and all the typical reasons to watch movies be hanged.

Thursday 1 March 2007

Arizona (1940)

A single year after John Ford's Stagecoach launched John Wayne into superstardom, it seems strange that someone as experienced in westerns as Wesley Ruggles should choose to direct a western with a female lead. After all, he'd directed one that won an Oscar, the astoundingly average Cimarron in 1931, and in that Irene Dunne was very much a supporting character to manly man Richard Dix. This one has the forty year old but still highly desirable Jean Arthur playing a rough and tough frontier woman called Phoebe Titus who, in the tradition of Jean Arthur characters, has more balls than most of the rough and tough frontier men. Of course, also in the tradition of Jean Arthur characters she's as funny as she is serious. She's more sassy than native.

She runs roughshod over an almost unrecognisably young William Holden who is only 22 years young. He's Peter Muncie, who has travelled into Tucson from St Louis, MO on the way to the fabled California, but after he serenades her overnight, she ropes him into working a new business she sets up shipping freight across country. That's dangerous business in the Arizona of 1860, given that Tucson has no law, no manners and not a lot else and plenty of dangerous Indians, lowlifes and outlaws to deal with.

Ruggles tried very hard indeed to make this look authentic. He didn't want to film on a set, so he built a town from nothing and it's still around today, known as Old Tucson. It was used in films like Rio Bravo, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Death Wish, The Cannonball Run, The Bells of St Mary's and Tombstone, along with a wide range of fifties and sixties TV westerns. Now the town looks awesome but it's pretty hard to believe in the story which is more than a little too sentimental, convenient and nice. The sweep of the story is fine but the details let it down.

Jean Arthur is a joy to watch but she's a good part of what makes the film difficult to believe. She's better in westerns than Jimmy Cagney or Humphrey Bogart but she was made for other material. Far more believable are regular western supporting actors suchas Edgar Buchanan and Paul Harvey. Warren William is as great as ever, arriving out of nowhere and enforcing his way by sheer force of will. I don't think he knows how to give a bad performance and when he's being a sleazy character who can switch between two different faces in the blink of an eye, he's unmatched.

The biggest problem of all is the fact that Wesley Ruggles chose to make a western with a female lead, a rough and tough female lead, and then turned her into a complete wussy girl. It could have been so special but it ended up wasted. Phoebe is a great character for half an hour but gradually gets more and more stereotypically treated until the point that she's nothing. What a waste.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Robin Williams, even today, is a comedian in my eyes, just like Tom Hanks or Will Smith. However many serious roles they rack up and however many Oscars they win doesn't alter the fact that they're damn fine comedians and I have trouble not laughing when they do their thing. Here he's doing what he does best: make us laugh while being serious. I wish Hanks and Smith would learn that lesson. He's an English teacher, John Keating, at a high class prep school in the fifties, upsetting the apple cart just as well as, though in a very different way to Adrian Cronaeuer in Good Morning Vietnam. He's expected to tow the line but he has his own thoughts and ideas about what constitutes good education, even though he himself graduated from the school he's teaching at, Helton.

When he starts his first lesson by walking through and out of the classroom whistling Tchaikovsky, none of the all male class has the faintest clue what he's doing. Things go on along the same lines. He asks them to call him 'Captain, my Captain', and they smirk. When he asks them to rip out the introduction to Understanding Poetry they look on horrified, but they can't help but pay attention, which is entirely the point. They don't get it and Keating sees it as his mission in life to make them get it. He wants them to seize the day. Carpe diem. When they look him up in his old annual and finds him listed as 'man most likely to do anything', they are intrigued, especially when they ask him about the Dead Poets Society, which he ran. Naturally, they end up creating their own version.

Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke are the nominal leads, behind Williams of course, who dominates, and it's Leonard who has the biggest part and in many ways he's the focus of the story. He plays Neil Perry, son to Red from That '70s Show, who was always great at being a forceful son of a bitch. Here he has struggled to give his son every opportunity, but in the process has mapped his life out for him, in a direction that he doesn't want to go. He's got him into Welton and he'll get him into Harvard and on to medical school to be a doctor and achieve to a greater degree than he could himself. Of course he doesn't want any of it and, after having his eyes opened to life by Mr Keating, finds the will to try to find his own way and finds his own calling as an actor. It's a great part, underpinned wonderfully by Kurtwood Smith as his father, and he makes the most of it.

Gale Hansen, who is male despite his name, is superb in a smaller part as the first to pick up on Keating's teachings. At the Dead Poets Society meetings he becomes a beatnik character, sneaking in girls, playing the saxophone and preferring to be called Nawanda. Josh Charles shines as Knox Overstreet, possibly the most eager devotee of Keating's carpe diem philosophy, who learns the confidence to be who he wants to be and to be with who he wants to be with. Hawke is good as the shy type who finds his voice.

In fact all the students are excellent, and given that the film is really about who they are and who they become that's a must for the film to work. Because they aren't just good, they're great, they breathe life and something very special indeed into the story and the film becomes a true inspirational classic. It doesn't take anything at all to admit that I had tears at the end at the humanity of it all and as I'd seen it before, I knew exactly what was coming. Why is this not in any of the Top 100 lists I'm working through?