Monday 31 March 2008

Below the Sea (1933)

It's 1933 and filmmaker Albert Rogell begins by showing us a German U boat in 1917 loaded with gold bullion. The Germans even speak German, which is an improvement on All Quiet on the Western Front, only three years earlier, and they're believable too. They take out a Norwegian ship but get suckered by an American one and sunk. Down goes the U170 and all its gold with it. There are two survivors, quickly to become one survivor because of the power of gold.

Twelve years later, the captain is back under the pseudonym of Karl Schlemming with a sneaky plan to recover the gold. He's financed by Lily, a harbourfront madam played by Esther Howard, and he relies on the deep diving skills skills of Steve McCreary, played by Ralph Bellamy who isn't just completely unlike his decent but boring heroic character who lost the leading lady in what felt like every film he was in for the next two decades, he also sounds a little like Bogie when he has a pipe stuck in the corner of his mouth. Naturally everyone is completely underhand about everything. Backstabbing is most definitely the name of the game with every end being played against every middle all the way through.

The real star though is Fay Wray, who doesn't appear for quite some time but makes herself known when she does. She was having rather a good roll, having ended 1932 with Doctor X and The Most Dangerous Game and kicked off 1933 with The Vampire Bat, Mystery of the Wax Museum and a little known picture by the name of King Kong. Following up what is really the original and arguably still definitive scream queen performance was never going to be an easy task but she takes a solid stab at it here.

She's Diane Templeton, a wealthy heiress who has got hooked on the undersea world and finances an expedition to see plenty of it. She's after adventure and she gets it, though not quite as she expects with Captain Schlemming and Steve McCreary as her key partners and Lily finding her way on board too. It's very strange seeing Ralph Bellamy playing something other than a Ralph Bellamy role, but he has fun with it and so does Fay Wray. She's interested in human beings, she says, and she wants to take him apart to see how he ticks. She gets a whole slew of great lines to throw at him and she savours them as much as her many sly grins and sideways glances.

She's also an awesome precode heroine. She's completely independent in spirit as well as wealth, free with her affections and without any hesitation in following them. She's willing and even eager to try anything at least once. She doesn't just finance the voyage, she travels on board and even takes a couple of trips underwater in the deep sea gear. She knows how to handle slides and lab gear and she's just as competent in the dark room. She's the sort of female character who isn't interested in sexual equality per se, she doesn't even give the concept of inequality a second thought. She's also delightfully contrary. My favourite line of many must be: 'He hates having his picture taken. Let's take it.' Best of all, she's willing to admit when she's wrong.

The film itself is interesting for more than just Fay Wray and Ralph Bellamy. There's a very effective storm at sea that takes down the Lily financed voyage. There's some underwater photography, including a crab camouflaging himself with rocks, which is all cool for 1933 but rather sparse in its use. The best shots come with an octopus attack which is tacky but fun, with some obvious use of models. It calls for an inevitable rescue mission with Ralph Bellamy and an underwater blowtorch rescuing a glistening Fay Wray, which has to be good, and she had to be the victim at some point, even if she doesn't get to scream! It's a hokey film but it's got plenty of joy if you know Bellamy and Wray.

Sunday 30 March 2008

The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)

Ralph Gower is a ploughman working in 1670s England when he turns up some sort of fiendish corpse in the ground. It's not human but it's ore than animal. When he fetches the local judge to see it, it has mysteriously vanished with only the local curate in sight, chasing his pet snake. Peter Edmonton is of a higher class than a mere ploughman but he plans to marry a farmer's daughter. He brings her home, but bizarre things are happening in the attic. When she sleeps there she goes insane and when he sleeps there he's attacked by some sort of animal. Meanwhile the youths of the village are being gradually converted over to satanism and witchcraft, led by a young lady named Angel Blake.

This is a pretty effective little historical witchcraft chiller. It doesn't just put everything in a black and white context and the fact that we know many of these actors well from non-horror settings helps to ground what has become a highly fantastic genre and it becomes a strong parallel to how we do many things today. It shows how those who follow Satan can make their cause attractive to everyday people and change the way that they think, feel and act. Linda Hayden as Angel Blake is understandably evil, but Margaret, one of her key followers, is played by Michele Dotrice, best known as Betty from Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. Seeing her believable in a witchcraft thriller is what makes this work. How she's handled reflects how many cults operate today.

Much of the rest of the cast were key players in Doctor Who, like most English actors. Reverend Fallowfield, who is set up as a paedophile by Angel Blake, is played by Anthony Ainley, the most famous and well regarded actor to play The Master. The assumption of his guilt and the way it is treated is a close parallel to the witch crazes in Scotland in the 1990s and for much of the blind trust we put in children today. Effectively then and now certain things are seen as so abhorrent that we convince ourselves that the conviction of innocent people is a small price to pay to pretend that a particular evil is being vanquished.

Cathy Vespers, a young girl raped and killed by Angel's gang, is played by Wendy Padbury, best known as Zoe, assistant to the second Doctor. Even seeing her in a film like this shocks the senses, let alone being stripped to be raped. Barry Andrews and Simon Williams also had notable recurring roles on Doctor Who.

Saturday 29 March 2008

Sh! The Octopus (1937)

Here's a real guilty pleasure and a personal favourite. Made in 1937 and only 54 minutes long, it has no pretensions to grandeur. It's a hokey B-movie that entertains through sheer energy and satisfaction at being what it is. Everyone in the film knows how hokey it is and they all have fun with their roles and the fact that it's so thoroughly jam packed full of every component part of thirties pulp mystery/horror stories that you don't have time to blink before something else happens.

We're in a lighthouse, one that hasn't been owned for twenty years. It's apparently deserted, abandoned and safe as houses, which is why 'peace loving artist' Paul Morgan buys it. However for a deserted, abandoned and safe as houses lighthouse, it's about as busy as Grand Central Station and there's the prerequisite storm raging outside. There are a couple of caretaker types: Captain Cobb and Captain Hook, and yes, Captain Hook has a hook for a hand and turns homicidal whenever he hears the ticking of a clock. There are hidden panels, hidden passages, hidden everything, out from which eyes gaze, tentacles wave and blood drips.

There are a couple of off duty detectives from Precinct 49, who are driving past when a tyre blows. They're Detectives Kelly and Dempsey and they're reading about the new police commissioner who has declared war on 'the octopus of crime' when the police band tells them about a drifting schooner, a mysterious submarine and a sighting of an octopus. These cops are bumbling cops, played by Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins, so they haven't got a clue what any of it all means and so associate the two statements. They think they can make a name for themselves by catching the Octopus, who they think is some master criminal.

Seconds later a girl screams and runs out of the bushes into the storm. She's Vesta Vernoff and she's the daughter of a scientist who has invented a radium ray so powerful that everyone is seeking it so they can take over the world. She's also being chased and tells stories of a murder in the secret basement of the lighthouse. When everyone gets there, they find a murdered man hanging by his feet from the roof. Given that it's a very high roof, being a lighthouse, and there are no stairs, this would seem more than a little mysterious.

Oh, and we're now about ten minutes in. Whew. For a hokey B-movie, that's already more setup to the story than most movies have story, and it doesn't even stop there. Vesta talks of a mysterious plot, mysterious phone calls and mysterious messages. She even gives the cops a mysterious note signed by the Octopus. Then there's terrifying laughs, shipwrecked women, giant spider webs, murder attempts, blackouts, poison gas... I don't think there's anything that isn't in this film! Naturally nobody is who they seem or even who they say they are and everyone is trying to doublecross everyone.

The cast are hardly stars but they have a riot. Hugh Herbert was a popular comedian of the thirties, who jittered, stammered and floundered around exclaiming 'woohoo' at everything. I'e seen him in many films of the era, probably most notably Merry Wives of Reno, which is another screwball riot of a comedy that most people have never heard of. Allen Jenkins was everyone's sidekick: not just to Herbert in 11 films (5 in 1937 alone) but also to James Cagney (5 films together), Humphrey Bogart (7 films together), Edward G Robinson (4 together plus the much later Robin and the 7 Hoods), seemingly anyone who starred in a Warner Brothers film of the era. My favourites are when he teamed up as a double act with Frank McHugh (13 collaborations, including the outrageous Swing Your Lady).

Marcia Ralston has the last of the three lead credits. She was the first wife of Phil Harris, who memorably voiced many characters in Disney films such as Baloo in The Jungle Book, Little John in Robin Hood and O'Malley in The Aristocats. Marcia didn't have as memorable a career but she made a string of movies over a decade and a half. I'll be seeing her again shortly in Men are Such Fools with Humphrey Bogart (and Hugh Herbert).

Then there's the octopus and an effects job that rings so stunningly true I haven't forgotten it from my last viewing two years ago. A nice old lady turns into a witch in a few frames of film and I still haven't worked out how they did it. I did another set of rewinding, frame advancing and trying to fathom it and the only thing I can think is that they touched up the film itself, by playing with the negatives or something similar. But this is a low budget B movie from 1937. Why would they choose to do that? I still don't get it.

Thursday 27 March 2008

Near Dark (1987)

I don't know how anyone could not like a movie in which Lance Henriksen is a confederate vampire. This particular one also has Tim Thomerson and Bill Paxton, and just to add to the good reasons to see it there's a score by Tangerine Dream. The real lead is Adrian Pasdar, playing a young buck from the backwoods of Oklahoma called Caleb Colton, who is unfortunate enough to be attracted to a free spirited vampire called Mae. She's pretty and everyday and different all at once and she's played very nicely indeed by Jenny Wright, who was shaking off the Brat Pack connections with a role this dark.

I'm sure it'll be no surprise to find out that she turns him into something like her. The real catch is that it's nearly dawn and his truck won't move so he gets to walk across the fields while the sun rises and starts to slowly burn him to death. He gets home, after all he's only just been turned, but just as he does, slowly melting, he's grabbed by Mae's memorable pack of vampires in their camper van right in front of his dad and little sister. He gets to start adjusting to his life of night while his dad searches for him.

Memorable is a perfect word for Jesse Hooker's vampires. This is 1987 and vampires were being reinvented in every medium there is. It's far enough back to have been released the same year as The Lost Boys but this plays a lot more seriously. There aren't any Frog brothers here, but there's crazy Bill Paxton as Severen, very 80s looking Jenette Goldstein as Diamondback, Joshua John Miller (half-brother of Jason Patric from The Lost Boys) as a child vampire: big on the inside but small on the outside. And then there's Jesse Hooker himself, played by a wild looking Henriksen who fought for the south.

What makes them special is that they're a solid extrapolation of what vampires would be like. They don't turn into bats, they can't fly, they don't wear capes, they don't sleep in coffins, they don't rise from the dead and keeping out of the sun is a serious problem. They're also far from heroes but that doesn't mean they're the distillation of pure evil. They're people who are different. This approach is one of the key reasons that the film is so successful at what it does: as unearthly as these characters are, they're real right down to the dirt, the lack of makeup on any of them and the matter of fact reactions they have to things that would certainly not be matter of fact to us. The story is courtesy of Eric Red, who also wrote The Hitcher, and director Kathryn Bigelow, who also made Blue Steel and Strange Days. It gets better every time I see it.

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003)

Somewhere in Thailand is a village called Nong Pradu and every 24 years there's a festival dedicated to Ong-Bak, a statue revered in the village. Part of the festival includes a race up a tree to capture a flag, and it's a particularly brutal race between a whole host of young men coated in mud who aren't held back from throwing each other out of the tree. Winner of the race is Ting, played by Tony Jaa, and when the head of Ong-Bak is severed and stolen a couple of weeks before the key ceremony, it's up to Ting to travel to Bangkok and retrieve it before the village dries up and dies, just like the equivalent village did in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom without their sacred stones.

Tony Jaa is the western name of Panom Yeerum, who became a sensation through worldwide circulation of this film. It doesn't take him long to get into a fight in Bangkok but he denies us a long drawn out battle by taking the opponent down with one very heavy hitting Muay Thai move. It doesn't take long for him to be back in the action again, handling stunts and fights with equal aplomb. He gets to team up with another Nong Pradu villager, Humlae, who is running scams in the capital with a sassy female sidekick called Muay Lek.

Jaa runs like Jackie Chan and especially handles stunts in a similar way. There's one long chase a third of the way in where he shows us what he can do: hurdling cars, leaping between panes of glass, through loops of barbed wire, you name it. Very impressive indeed, and Petchtai Wongkamlao, who plays Humlae, is the Sammo Hung to Jaa's Chan. The instant replay are very Jackie Chan too, but there's more than Jackie in the fighting: Jaa has an economy of movement that reminds a lot more of Bruce Lee but in a very different style. There's some Jean Claude Van Damme, some other western fighters and a lot of what I guess we'll now refer to as Tony Jaa.

There is a story in here but it's pretty routine. Once we're established, it's on with the stunts, then the fights, then the fights that include stunts, and the stunts that include fights, because after all that's what the film is about. The story really doesn't matter. Jaa and his cohorts hit hard and we really feel the blows connect. Ouch! And I really mean OUCH! It's been a while since I've seen a martial arts film where I've reacted to the blows the way I did here. Respect to the new man.

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Man Bites Dog (1992)

Directors: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde
Star: Benoît Poelvoorde

Here's a completely unique film that I haven't seen in far too long. It arrived at the same time as other films exploring the modern culture of violence like Bad Lieutenant and Natural Born Killers. However those were American films made by directors and starring actors we've actually heard of, so were promptly either banned outright in England or handed a long delay before eventual release. Man Bites Dog is a Belgian film made by a bunch of film students, shot in black and white and in French, so naturally it was released uncut with an 18 rating and nobody noticed except some very obscure film fans like me.

It begins as it means to go on, with a brutal garrotting on a train. The killer is Benoît Poelvoorde, one of the writers/directors of the film, who like most of the characters in the film has the same name as the actor. He's the subject of a documentary, being made by the directors of our film, again using their real names. He's a cheerful and sociable chap, who just happens to be a serial killer. He happily explains the details of his business to the camera, while he's going about it. He explains his formulae for weighing down different types of bodies in preparation for dumping them. He explains how and why he picks his targets and his techniques and tools of the trade. In between murders, he waxes lyrical about life and love and everything else from race to architecture to poetry. He doesn't tend to hide much, for a serial killer, visiting the crew back to meet his family, to watch him accompany a musician friend on piano or even to the home of a prostitute he visits.
The point of course is to explore, in the structure of a dark comedy, modern culture's obsession with an glorification of violence and killing along with an important question: how far can journalists go in reporting something without becoming part of what they're reporting on? In this case not very far. For the first killing we see, the camera crew merely shoot the action. For the second, they help to light the scene. Soon they're financing their film from money stolen from the homes of elderly victims. It doesn't take too long before the production crew's sound man gets to be accidentally added to the death toll.

It all highlights the doublethink very well indeed. Rémy eulogises Patrick the sound man, obviously broken up by his death and deeply concerned for Patrick's pregnant girlfriend. He explains how it's hard to talk about the death of his friend, seemingly completely oblivious of the fact that he's been making a film in which his subject has been happily killing people. Eventually of course the crew assist in the killing itself, thus becoming literally part of the crimes. It's a stunning film, not just during the film and during the silent end credits where you get to reflect on what has gone before, but later as time goes by and it starts to come to mind while watching other TV shows, documentaries or news footage. And other, more obviously fictional films too...

Manhunter (1986)

With the plan of watching The Silence of the Lambs tomorrow night and reviewing it for my book on the IMDb Top 250, it seemed like an appropriate thing to watch Manhunter tonight. I love everything about this film, have seen it a number of times and have introduced it to many people. I also firmly believe that not only is the film better than The Silence of the Lambs, which I also enjoy and admire, but Brian Cox's performance as Hannibal Lecktor is better than the Oscar winning turn of Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. The only thing I haven't done is watch them back to back to be sure. After all both are true classics.

We start with Dennis Farina trying to coax William Petersen back into working for the FBI in order to catch a serial killer that already has two families to his credit. He's working on a lunar cycle and they're running out of time before the expected next victim. Petersen is the best but he's also retired, after serious mental trauma incurred catching Hannibal Lecktor. Farina and Petersen are hardly minor names in the business, though this dates back to 1986, well before Petersen would become Grissom in CSI. Naturally he takes the bait and becomes far more entangled in the search for the Tooth Fairy than he ever intended to be.

Petersen is simply awesome here. Every time I see the movie I see new facets of both his performance and those of other members of the cast and crew and find myself grinning in admiration all over again. He's very matter of fact, very capable, very professional, but also very different from anyone else investigating the case. They're cops, they're investigators, but Will Graham is there because he has an understanding of why insane people do what they do, what makes them tick, but he can't go too far down that path without feeling some of what they feel. That's why he needed psychiatric treatment after Lecktor.

The film is gorgeously constructed and gorgeously shot. Michael Mann is very inconsistent with his films, but when he gets it right he's a genius. He got it right in Heat and he got it incredibly right here. He may well have got it right in The Insider too, but I haven't caught that one yet. On the hand he certainly didn't get it right in The Keep. Here I'm seeing a lot of obvious skill, in composition and choice of architecture but a lot of subtle work too. It's in the way the camera moves; when it pans and when it jumps and when it switches back and forth from person to person; how the scenes transition. It's in the speed things move, not just the camera but the conversations.

There's so much subtlety throughout the whole first conversation between Graham and Lecktor that there should be cinematic textbooks written about it. There are subtle signals to show who has the upper hand at every step, how and when it switches, when control is gained and lost. It's genius acting, writing and directing and it's about as perfect a scene as I think I've ever been privileged to witness. Petersen is amazing here but so is Brian Cox as Dr Lecktor. Hopkins was great but Cox to me will always be Lecktor. Hopkins gave an awesome performance but Cox went beyond that in my mind, from playing a part to being Lecktor. For him not to be recognised as a genius for this performance is truly outrageous. He is hardly in this film but he's amazingly memorable.

There are four genius performance here on screen, not that anyone in the entire film lets the side down. The third is Stephen Lang who plays Freddy Lounds, a tabloid journalist for The Tattler, and he's a totally sleazy yet very believable piece of work. I've seen him elsewhere and couldn't even recognise him. That's a really good sign of a really good actor. The fourth is Tom Noonan, playing the Tooth Fairy, Francis Dollarhyde. We don't even see him until over half the way through the movie and when we first see him, we only see the bottom half of his legs, and we're still impacted. When we finally see his face and Noonan says 'Here I am' and puts a gap between the second and third word, we're sold. Further scenes just amaze, including a very strange love scene. Ralph Fiennes in the dire remake Red Dragon doesn't even come close.

At one point Francis Dollarhyde tells Freddy Lounds that he owes him awe. That's what I feel when watching this movie, even though I've seen it many times before. I'm awed at the achievement.

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Spring Fever (1927)

Before Our Dancing Daughters Joan Crawford was still working in supporting roles. Here she is with the second credit but not a lot to do. Fourth on the bill George K Arthur is far more important. He's Mr Waters, who runs some shipping line or other and who far prefers the game of golf. The catch is that dreaming of holes in one doesn't make him a good golfer in the slightest and he has a job hitting the hole on the putting green that takes up most of his office. Luckily for him, his shipping clerk Jack Kelly is a superb player, which he discovers when firing someone.

Instead of getting fired himself by chipping something through a glass window, Kelly finds himself teaching the boss how not to slice, right down an aisle full of vases. His reward is two weeks as a guest at the Oakmont Country Club, far better than the Maple Leaf Municipal Golf Links where he has a hard job getting a round in before work starts. Kelly is played by William Haines, which means that this is a formula story that is far more fun than it ought to be.

Haines tended to play characters way too big for their boots, who promptly alienate everyone else in the story, get their comeuppance two thirds of the way through the movie before finally redeeming themselves in the end. Surprisingly here he's far more likeable than he usually is to start out, but soon he's up to par on the obnoxious front with unwanted advice and more than a dollop of laughing at other people's misfortune. His comedown is a little more subtle here than usual but it's there all the same.

Joan Crawford is the love interest, naturally, by the name of Allie Monte. Kelly discovers her at the club when registering, and falls for her hard. It's always fun watching Billy Haines, one of the most openly gay men in the Hollywood of the 20s, pursue the ladies, especially when other ladies are pursuing him. Someone in the scriptwriting department must have had a sense of humour because there are a few jokes in there that take advantage of what the audiences already knew. One minute he's almost tapping another man on the back end, the next he's 'straightening' someone out.

Haines was always fun to watch and he played the talented jerk very well, even when it's plainly obvious that he isn't a great golfer. At least it's more believable than in the few movies where he's supposed to be a great American football player or a tough Marine. One example of that came next for both Crawford, Haines and director Edward Sedgwick: 1928's West Point. This is more believable and at least as much fun. My only problem with it is that it seems to be quite a bit longer than IMDb or TCM say it is, so my recording missed the ending.

Monday 24 March 2008

The Lineup (1958)

A porter throws Philip Dressler's suitcase into a cab down at the docks and the cabbie sets off at high speed before Dressler can get in. A quick couple of collisions and one dead cop later, the cabbie dies too and Lt Ben Guthrie and Insp Fred Asher have an investigation on their hands. The Lineup was a film version of a TV series that run from 1954 to 1960, with Warner Anderson and Marshall Reed reprising their roles. The villains, Dancer and Julian, don't appear in the series, and are played by Eli Wallach, Ugly from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Robert Keith, father of Brian Keith and boyfriend of Peg Entwistle, a failed actress who committed suicide by jumping off the H in the Hollywood sign.

We're in California in 1958, therefore this is a TCM showing courtesy of guest presenter James Ellroy and the whole thing revolves around heroin, the only difference from usual being that this is San Francisco not Los Angeles. Dressler was just one of many tourists fingered as carriers without their knowing it, the bad guys inserting the drugs into merchandise they bought in eastern countries and collecting it from them at a later date, after they'd carried them unknowing through customs.

The story plays very well indeed, very believably alternating between how the bad guys operate and how the cops investigate. I was really impressed with the matter of fact nature of Anderson and Reed, but then they'd been playing these characters for five years and 150 or so half hour episodes. It also plays tough, definitely for keeps and we're left in doubt as to how far people will go to get what they want. There are some brutally hard hits too, for 1958. While you can see more blood and tissue on any random primetime TV show nowadays, this one carried a punch.

Then again it's an early Don Siegel movie, he who went on to such lily livered wimp out movies as Dirty Harry, so maybe that isn't too surprising. I was really impressed about this film version of a TV series that I'd never heard of and really ought to seek out the series.

Sunday 23 March 2008

The Bad Seed (1956)

My better half knows Patty McCormack from a whole host of TV shows and I think I only know her from last year's Psycho Hillbilly Cabin Massacre!, a fun little film that I saw as part of a horror shorts collection at the International Horror & Scifi Festival here in Arizona. My lass also knows this film, as a childhood favourite, but she hasn't seen it in years. It leapt out of the aisle at Fry's at her so we get the rare opportunity of watching an old black and white movie on DVD for a change.

At 11 years of age, McCormack debuted here as eight year old Rhoda Penmark, though she had made a couple of appearances at the age of six. Rhoda is the angelic child of the Penmark household, blonde haired and blue eyed and all sweetness and light. She's the pride of Col Kenneth and Christine Penmark, but mom still worries a little. She's not sure that Rhoda should be quite so grown up at eight and there are some powerful tantrums. Then Claude Daigle, the boy who wins the school penmanship contest over Rhoda, turns up dead by drowning at the school picnic and with every additional snippet of information that comes to light, Christine Penmark can't help but suspect her own angelic daughter.

Films like this seem to me to be very American, because my wife knows all the actors from their respective cultural contributions, just as I do in similar ways with many English films. There's Jesse White, who's just another actor to me but to my wife he's the original Maytag repairman. There's William Hopper as the father of the household but she knows him as Paul Drake to Raymond Burr's Perry Mason. There's Paul Fix, who I know now from Night of the Lepus but my wife knows as the sheriff from The Rifleman. There's Frank Cady, who I've seen in a few films but not enough for him to stick, who my wife knows as Sam Drucker from Green Acres.

The only name I know really well is that of the director, Mervyn LeRoy. He was one of the key filmmakers at Warner Brothers, with his classic perhaps I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. This is my fifteenth of his films and by far the most recent, the closest being Any Number Can Play from 1949. The earliest I've seen date back to 1931 including such luminaries as Five Star Final and Little Caesar, which started the whole gangster genre of the early thirties, but his career ran from 1927 to 1968 and was notable in every way except that he never won an Oscar.

Eileen Heckart won an Oscar, in 1972 for her supporting work in Butterflies are Free, but it wouldn't have been out of place here either. She's the mother of Claude Daigle, deceased, and she gets a couple of long scenes of drunken honesty that ring very true, true enough to win her a Golden Globe. She did get a Oscar nomination too, as did Patty McCormack and Nancy Kelly as Christine Penmark. A fourth Oscar nod went to Harold Rosson for Best Cinematography, but the film didn't win anything. As it's really a psychological horror movie, that may not be surprising. After all, only four years later, Psycho got four nominations and lost in all of them too.

Acacia (2003)

Dr Kim Do-il and his wife Choi Mi-sook are apparently unable to have children, so they decide to adopt. Actually Mi-sook takes some convincing but when she sees some artwork on the wall of the adoption agency they visit, she's all for it and quickly finds an affinity with young Lee Jin-sung, soon to be Kim Jin-sung. He's quite the budding artist and he has an affinity of his own: with trees. He draws them all the time and even seems to talk to them, including one in the back yard. Soon we discover that he's an orphan because his mother died and Jin-sung believes she turned into a tree.

Things seem to go pretty well for a while, though Mi-sook's mother is rather brutal in her rejection of the adopted son, but then Mi-sook becomes pregnant for real so there's a new member of the household. To say the least, Jin-sung does not take this well and does what he can to remedy the situation. Given that this is a horror film, albeit of the school of slow and creepy rather than rapid fire grossout, you can imagine what that means. And then he disappears and as even more bizarre things start to happen the strain begins to have an effect on those he leaves behind.

Six year old Oh-bin Mun gives a powerful performance as Jin-sung in what may currently be his only film. He would be a good candidate for a Korean remake of The Omen, but of course the trend is the other way round. We're busy remaking their films, not vice versa. The parents are both solid too, combining well conflicting emotions or characteristics: loving but hateful, conscientious and neglectful, decent but drawn to extremes.

Help! (1965)

While the Beatles were one of the most influential groups in musical history, I hadn't realised just how much they'd contributed to the world of film. Help! is a surreal romp that directly predates things like the Monkees' film Head but also has a solid slot in the progression of British comedy after the Goons and especially Spike Milligan but before Monty Python's Flying Circus.

The story here has to do with a Kali worshipping cult run by Leo McKern who are unable to continue their human sacrifices because they are no longer in possession of the necessary sacrificial ring. It seems that nobody can be sacrificed unless they're wearing the ring, but the victim sent it in a fan letter to the Beatles and it now adorns the finger of Ringo Starr. So the leaders of the cult travel to England to retrieve the ring, and potentially use Ringo as their next victim. A couple of rogue scientists join the chase too so that they can rule the world using the power of the ring.

What makes the film so enjoyable is the surreal lunacy of the whole thing, especially while the Beatles themselves remain completely matter of fact about everything, even when they're in mortal danger or theyr'e discussing the advisability of just cutting off Ringo's finger. Interspersed are a number of Beatles performances from an era before rock videos. Everyone is obviously having fun and that's certainly the way to see the film. Enjoy the songs, the lunacy, the camera angles, the locations and enjoy the thought that was given into the surreal traps. Danger Mouse was definitely paying attention.

Ride Him, Cowboy (1932)

A Four Star western featuring John Wayne and Duke, it's Duke the horse that finds himself on trial at the beginning of the film outside the Maricopa County Courthouse. Henry Sims is a decent man about town, or at least he appears to be, and he claims that Duke is a wild spirited murderous horse that needs to be killed to protect the safety of the townsfolk. In reality, Sims is the Hawk, notorious local criminal, and Duke is the first character to ever thwart him. Wayne plays John Drury, a Texan arriving in town, and he saves Duke from death by becoming the first man to ride him (hence the title). His next challenge is to save the town by catching the Hawk.

It's been a while since I worked through the 17 early westerns in an irresistably cheap 20 film John Wayne DVD box set and learned what sort of production he tended to be in at that point in time. They date from 1933 to 1937, primarily from 1933 to 1935 and they were low budget productions for sure, with Wayne the actor learning his ropes as an established B movie western lead but hardly yet a star. They were rarely any good but were usually passable entertainment, routine B movie westerns, and Wayne was the best thing about them.

Surprisingly this one actually predates those, being from 1932, making it the earliest Wayne I've seen yet, before his appearances in non-westerns like Baby Face and Central Airport. It's also a better film than most of those, though it's still certainly a very obvious formula story with comic book dialogue. Wayne is fine but he doesn't actually get to do much at all, given that Duke steals much of his thunder, saving his life and doing more intricate work than most of the actual people in the film. He was often known as Duke the Wonder Horse which is hardly surprising given what he gets up to here.

Beyond Wayne and Duke, there are other names I've heard of but know little about. Ruth Hall is the love interest and she's capable though her diction is far too correct for the surroundings and she has a hard time with the dialogue. Harry Gribbon does some painful clowning around as an inept and cowardly sheriff's deputy. Otis Harlan is far funnier as the judge and sole inhabitant of a ghost town called Desolation. Frank Hagney is the epitome of the serial villain and I'm guessing he'd been doing it for a long time. Certainly his filmography would suggest it, with silent film credits like 'Murdering' Mooney, Bob Blake the Villain, Knockout' Riley, 'Pug' Brennan or White Snake. Then again there are a few credits in there as Sheriff too.

Saturday 22 March 2008

Our Blushing Brides (1930)

After Our Dancing Daughters came Our Modern Maidens and now it's Our Blushing Brides. With the years of release being 1928, 1929 and 1930 respectively, you could be forgiven for thinking they were made back to back but this was the era when stars built up their filmographies as fast as supporting actors, so there are plenty of other films dotted in between. However the ladies remain consistent: Joan Crawford is the star of all three, with Anita Page backing her up. Dorothy Sebastian only missed the middle one. Oh, and there's one huge difference here: this one's a sound film.

Here, the trio work at Jardine's department store where they have a knack for attracting the eyes of the family whose name hangs above the front door. Writing the logic tree of the relationships is far more awkward than drawing a diagram, but I'll give it a try. Crawford plays Gerry March who models lingerie and gets chased by Robert Montgomery as Tony Jardine; Page is Connie Blair who works on the perfume counter has been romancing Tony's brother David, played by Raymond Hackett; and Sebastian is Franky Daniels who doesn't get a lot of male customers in the blanket department but still catches the eye of John Miljan as Marty Sanderson. Whew.

Our Dancing Daughters was a real peach of a silent movie, giving us something new and making Joan Crawford a star in the process. Our Modern Maidens was a pale shadow, running over a lot of the same ground but with only a fraction of the style. Luckily this one is a vast improvement over its predecessor though it isn't a patch on the first. At least there's a different story this time, though it's hardly a happy one. The three girls land their men, but don't quite get what they expect.

I'm not sure what the moral is. Surely it can't be that women trying to land wealthy men is fine but wealthy men not being honest isn't. Then again this is the Hollywood that put the word 'gold diggers' into a series of movie titles. The last ten seconds of the film notwithstanding, nobody wins. Even the only really decent person in the entire film, played by Edward Brophy, doesn't win either. Maybe that's the point. Life sucks and everyone in it sucks, but there's ten seconds at the end where everything's joyous.

A Modern Musketeer (1917)

Y'all remember D'Artagnan, one of Alexandre Dumas's musketeers? Well Ned Thacker of Kansas did in 1917, having grown up on them, and our film begins with his dreams of being that hero, battling a tavern full of swordsman, swashing buckles and leaping around like an acrobat, all to rescue some lady's handkerchief. We quickly find that he gets up to the same sort of thing in real life, back in Kansas, eager to be the hero but getting himself into all sorts of scrapes in the process. As the title card says: always chivalrous, always misunderstood. Arriving in the world during a cyclone which destroys the town he's born into, he has a restless spirit that only someone like Douglas Fairbanks could play.

As always, Fairbanks astounds. Much of it has to do with his age in all the meanings of that word. He was 34 when he made A Modern Musketeer but he looked like 44 and acted like 24. Amazingly, he hadn't even reached his heyday yet, which wouldn't arrive for another three years in the form of the 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro and continue on through The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, The Thief of Bagdad, The Black Pirate, The Gaucho and so on. By the time he played D'Artagnan for the second time (the third if you count the dream sequences here) in 1929's The Iron Mask, he was 46. Given that it's astounding what he gets up to at 34 vaulting horses, climbing church steeples and standing on his hands on the edge of the Grand Canyon, it's no surprise he was such a knockout a decade later.

Anyway, he soon finds that Kansas doesn't understand him, so he heads out west to his find his chivalrous place in the world. What he finds is Marjorie Daw, playing Elsie Dodge (Dorothy in the IMDb listing), a young lady whose mother has effectively set up her with a wealthy suitor to accomplish the goals she never accomplished herself. The wealth suitor is Forrest Vanderteer, who can't see the value of anything if he can't buy it, thus setting up an intriguing rivalry. There's also a further rival in a Navajo 'king' called Chin-de-dah. Just as Vanderteer buys whatever he wants, Chin-de-dah takes whatever he wants and he wants Dorothy.

At one point in this film Elsie is in the front seat of a car travelling along railroad tracks when they have to stop for a mule who is blocking the tracks. Fairbanks asks her if she can speak mule and they shout 'Hee-haw!' at the creature. Given that the American actress Marjorie Daw is absolutely not the source of the nursery rhyme, this can't have been anything but a deliberate play on it. Hee-haw, Marjorie Daw could have been a hilarious alternative.

But back to the film itself, it's little more than an excuse for Douglas Fairbanks to strut his stuff, especially given the sheer volume of stuff he has to strut. Nobody else really gets to do anything much at all and the ease with which Fairbanks seems to do anything makes the thin plot look even thinner. It looks great though and it's a fun ride, all the more surprising for the fact that it was made in 1917.

Our Modern Maidens (1929)

Our Dancing Daughters proved a hit, unsurprisingly given its quality, so a year later many of the same folks are back for a film unrelated but for the similar cast, the similar title and the similar plot. Joan Crawford is back, of course, playing a young lady called Billie Brown who gets engaged at the beginning of the film to Gil Jordan, up and coming diplomat played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. It can't have been much of an act, because Crawford and Fairbanks were married in a publicity campaign for the movie. Anita Page and Edward Nugent are back too and they're joined by Fairbanks, Rod La Rocque and Josephine Dunn.

Needless to say Crawford's character is the bright and breezy one. Billie is the daughter of the delightfully named B Bickering Brown, prominent something magnate and she's a headstrong soul who plays up to Glenn Abbott, noted diplomat, in order to land a plum position for her fiancee Gil. In the meantime Anita Page's character falls hard for him and so the race is on to see if she can steal him away. The tragedy at the end is different, so there are variations here but they don't add up to much, except a different 'modern' ending.

Crawford gets the wild dance scenes again because that's how she was being pushed at the time, especially after Our Dancing Daughters. She even gets a bizarre ballet number early on in a very memorable dress. Fairbanks gets to strut his stuff, doing impersonations of John Barrymore, John Gilbert and his own father. Bizarrely the best one is the Barrymore impression! I wonder if he was playing safe when playing his father on purpose.

There's a heavy overuse of soft focus here and focus is something very needed in this film, not just visually but in the storyline too. It worked in Our Dancing Daughters because it was new and done very well indeed. This is what can only be termed a ripoff, made a single year later with a storyline that's tweaked only slightly and many of the same people play the same characters, merely with different names. It's very clearly a lesser rerun of the same material, which is a little unfair on some of the people involved. Both Fairbanks and especially Rod La Rocque give performances worthy of a much better film.

Thursday 20 March 2008

Strange Justice (1932)

Rose Abbott is a hat check girl for whom extravagant banker Henry Judson has fallen quite hard. She refuses to take advantage for herself even when offered plenty but she does get her ex con boyfriend Wally a job as Judson's chauffeur. Now Judson seems to be on the up and up but he's been fleecing his bank dry for a long while in order to finance his lifestyle, and his calculating assistant manager L D Waters blackmails him into continuing and paying out half the profits to boot. The only way Waters gives Judson to get out but to keep suspicion away from the bank is to set up a dubious fake murder scheme that will send Wally back to prison.

It's a very obvious story for a precode and there are some notable precode names involved. The leading lady is Marian Marsh, one of the perkiest beauties of the era who made some notable early precodes like Svengali with John Barrymore, Five Star Final with Edward G Robinson and Beauty and the Boss with Warren William. It's always good to see a Marian Marsh movie, as she always appears to me as the epitome of the thirties girl yet somehow also someone far more modern, and she has another intriguing young lady to bounce off here who I didn't know very well at all.

She's Nydia Westman, who tended to play quirky women of more than her own age, and I've seen her in a couple of Bulldog Drummond movies playing the wife of Reginald Denny's character. This was her movie debut and Denny is here too playing Judson. He has to deal with Waters, played by Irving Pichel who had been making movies as an actor since sound came in but was just starting out as a director in 1932, co-helming The Most Dangerous Game, shot back to back with King Kong. Wally is another young director, Norman Foster, best known for having his name on Orson Welles's Journey into Fear, but who made many of the Mr Moto and Charlie Chan movies.

As a movie this is good old precode fun but it's creaky too. A lot of the staging and direction is very flaky and I wonder if the budding directors in the cast took the clumsiness as a lesson for future reference. Given that actors like Norman Foster and Richard Bennett, who plays an Irish lawyer with a knack for losing, have some great scenes but some truly awful ones too suggests that it's the direction more than anything else that's at fault.

What About Bob? (1991)

Bill Murray trying to convince himself that he's good, he's great, he's wonderful is precisely how every comedy should start and it sets the pace for What About Bob? Needless to say Murray is the Bob Wiley of the title and to say that he's a man with issues is about as massive an understatement as you could ever get. Luckily he's about to get help from a new psychiatrist, Dr Leo Marvin. Of course he's handed over to Dr Marvin by his own psychiatrist because he's driving him completely hatstand, so it's hardly a professional gift. Dr Marvin is a little on the egotistical side so can't resist the flattery but after a single introductory meeting he finds that he just can't get rid of Bob, even when he goes on a month long holiday to New Hampshire.

I took a while to take a shine to Bill Murray. I always enjoyed his work, back during the many comedies of the 80s I worked through as a kid, but somehow he was never my favourite. I don't know who my favourite was, but maybe it was Tom Hanks or John Belushi or Dan Aykroyd. It wasn't Bill Murray then, but as time went by I think it became Bill Murray later and this may just be the funniest thing I've ever seen him do. I've seen What About Bob? quite a few times and it gets funnier every single time I see it. Comedies that make me laugh out loud are rare and ones that have me laughing out loud throughout can be counted on my fingers.

It isn't just Bill Murray either. Richard Dreyfuss is awesome as Leo Marvin, though the part was originally slated for Woody Allen. The pair of them bounce off each other so well that they should have been a double act. I may be wrong but I'd bet they had each other and the rest of the cast in stitches throughout. I wonder how many takes every shot took. Amazingly, Dreyfuss has more opportunity to actually act here, as his character goes through seemingly no end of emotions.

His family are all fine too but they have to take a back seat: wife Julie Hagerty, probably still best known for the Airplane films; daughter Kathryn Erbe, now a regular on Law & Order: Criminal Intent and son Charlie Korsmo who may be the only person who ever chose to retire at 13 after a successful acting career to avoid the whole celebrity culture, even though he was being offered a million bucks a part. In fact they take a back seat to the story, the dialogue and the two leads and they're still all great. That's how good this film is.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

The War of the Worlds (1953)

While it would probably be more appropriate to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey on the day that Arthur C Clarke died, a film adaptation of one of the definitive works of science fiction can't be a bad choice. The War of the Worlds was written by H G Wells in 1898 yet deemed so relevant that there were no less than three film versions released in 2005 alone. The most famous version is probably still Orson Welles's radio adaptation, made in 1938, which scared the crap out of a lot of Americans at the time. Like that version, this first film version was updated to a modern setting, the California of 1953.

The story doesn't surprise though. What appears to be a meteor lands outside a small Californian town. Soon it cools and out come men from Mars, conveniently hidden within alien flying machines, horribly beweaponed and highly dangerous. The locals guarding the 'meteor' are quickly disposed of by the aliens' heat ray and the army and the air force fare no better. Caught right in the middle are Dr Clayton Forrester, a renowned scientist conveniently fishing in the nearby hills with an even more convenient geiger counter, and Sylvia Van Buren, a local girl with a major crush on him.

They're played by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson (no, not that one). Barry became something of a star on television after this, as the title characters in Bat Masterson, Burke's Law and The Adventurer. I couldn't work out if he was trying to be Cary Grant here or Victor Mature. Maybe there was a little Clark Kent in there to. Robinson appeared in further films and on TV but ended up reprising her role here in a bunch of future versions: the 1988 TV series, a spoof version called Midnight Movie Massacre in 1988 and another spoof called The Naked Monster in 2005. Both Barry and Robinson appeared as grandparents in the 2005 Spielberg remake.

However in 1953 viewers weren't watching for the actors, and that's a good thing because the acting isn't great, however pleasant Ann Robinson's legs were. It was the special effects that won the film's only Oscar and that's hardly surprising. The story is a patchy modernisation with plenty of hyperbole and deliberate exaggeration, but its great to look at. The Martian flying machines are very cool indeed, and we even get an atomic bomb explosion to gawk at. There are mass evacuations, riots, forest fires, you name it. There are deserted cities and destruction on an epic scale. Some of the superimposition doesn't work too well a half century on but I bet nobody noticed in 1953.

Sunday 16 March 2008

Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966)

Beginning effectively with a nighttime attack on a woman walking alone by an indeterminate number of crazed attackers coming out of the darkness, this soon becomes something else. It's managed very well indeed with some intriguing cinematography, clever use of camera angles and a highly appropriate suspenseful pause, and then fade out to the title sequence, which is again cleverly done with some memorable and unique music by Henry Price (really André Brummer).

From then on out it's an open question what the film really is. A bunch of narrative nonsense introduces a wild rock video with more energy than can be contained on a single screen. I can't wait to see this on the big screen. There's a vitality to it that just can't be ignored, even when it's just one thug trying to persuade his lazy cohorts to go have some fun. Steckler shows us scenes of apparent nothingness like a gardener watering a lawn and we're rivetted to just what's going to burst out of the screen next.

The first half of the film is half maniac stalker movie and half rock video. Carolyn Brandt is Cee Bee Beaumont, girlfriend of rock star Lonnie Lord, and the bad guys stalk her with hammer and chain because they picked her out of the phone book. Ron Haydock is Lord and Titus Moede is the mild mannered retarded when convenient gardener, Titus Twimbly. Halfway through, they become Rat Pfink and Boo Boo, superheroes in terrible costumes who only have one weakness: bullets.

From this point forward, it's a spoof of the Adam West TV version of Batman, which was presumably released halfway through filming, thus prompting Steckler's change of direction for his movie. The question is open as to whether Ron Haydock (appearing under his pseudonym of Vin Saxon) ripped off Adam West or whether West ripped off Haydock as the series progressed. The end result is as confusing as it is infectious, half outsider genius and half sixties precursor to YouTube. Amazing stuff. As coherent filmmaking it isn't even on the map, but as a cult riot it's infectious.

Night of the Lepus (1972)

We open with Criswell introducing stock footage of rabbit plagues across Australia and the American west. Can anything be done about this population explosion? OK, it's not Criswell, but it could so easily have been, and with a source novel titled The Year of the Angry Rabbit, I'm amazed that it wasn't. Actually the quality is a little higher than you'd expect from an Ed Wood film, but not by the amount it should be, even with the quality of the people in it.

We're in Arizona and the rabbits are the bad guys from moment one, because Rory Calhoun playing some moron called Cole Hillman rides his horse a little too fast in countryside obviously riddled with rabbit burrows, and so has to shoot it dead when it breaks its leg. Cole brings in Elgin Clark at the university, played by DeForest Kelley proving that he didn't just play Bones in Star Trek (this was the last time he played anyone else on film). Clark brings in Roy and Gerry Bennett, who don't like poisoning animals and want to find better ways to control populations.

The hilarious thing here is that there's plenty of talk about the risks involved in messing around with the natural order of things (kill off the coyotes, the rabbits take over; kill off the birds, the grasshoppers take over), yet the Bennetts seem completely happy to inject the rabbits with some unknown serum as a test. There idiot daughter swaps rabbits around in their cages, takes one as a pet and then lets a new friend scare it off into the desert, thus introducing the consequences of this unknown serum into the environment to wreak complete mayhem.

Of course when you make a movie about giant mutated maneating fluffy bunny rabbits attacking the neighbourhood, you can't expect too much of a logical scientific approach. Pseudoscience is definitely the name of the game and the film relishes in it. Apparently the serum was hormone based and intended to reduce the breeding rate but hey, whatever. I particularly enjoyed the apparently brutally gnawed corpses that were liberally coated in blood but had no wounds whatsoever. These maneating bunnies massacre families but they don't break the skin, magically making the ripped clothes bleed.

This is even more hilarious than I remember it. I saw it as a kid but only remembered Bones from Star Trek. How could I have forgotten the pounding rabbit feet sounding like voodoo drums? How could I have forgotten a line like 'Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!', as delivered by a sheriff via loudspeaker in front of a drive in movie theatre screen? How could I have forgotten slow motion giant rabbit stampedes to an undulating electronic soundtrack?

This is truly and awesomely bad, so bad that I'm stunned that someone could have been dumb enough to green light the project. They even made the rabbits roar! What seems most amazing is that, while some viewers have suggested that it's a deliberate spoof of fifties monster movies, I don't buy it. There are a couple of lines like the one I quoted above and another delivered by a soldier just ahead of the final showdown that could easily have been inserted by someone wanting to crack a joke but most of it plays too seriously to be anything else. And if it was supposed to be a comedy someone would have written a 'What's up, Doc?' joke for someone to say to Bones.

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

While many of her apparent contemporaries arrived in film at the beginning of the sound era, Joan Crawford had turned up half a decade earlier. This is the fifth and most recent of her silent films that I've seen and they're an interesting and varied bunch, mostly because she was far from the star in any of them. She was Norma Shearer's body double in her first, Lady of the Night, the object of Lon Chaney's desire in The Unknown, love interest to Billy Haines in West Point and the middle of a love triangle in the sea drama Across to Singapore. I have another couple ready to go too, a Harry Langdon comedy called Tramp, Tramp, Tramp and a William A Wellman slapstick called The Boob.

Here though is apparently the first time she really got to strut her stuff and show what she could do. She is certainly believable as a wild flapper though if anything she overdoes it a little and appears almost modern in her lack of inhibitions. It's a powerful performance and she dominates the film completely. She's Diane Medford, who we soon discover is known as 'That wild Diana Medford' or 'Diana the Dangerous' and sure enough, it doesn't take long for her to be dancing flamboyantly on tables at parties and leaping into the arms of many men. All this is apparently with the blessing of her parents who may just get up to a slightly less flamboyant version of the same thing themselves.

At one particularly wild party, Diana meets a football player called Ben Blaine and falls hard for him, either not knowing or not caring that he's wealthy. Unfortunately she has a rival for his affections, another young lady in her circle called Ann, who is her opposite any every way. Her parents treat her very differently, expecting her to behave as a young lady should and follow strict rules of conduct. The thing is that Diana appears to be wild, shocking and uninhibited but is really just full of life, honest with her affections and loyalties; while Bea appears to be virtuous and decent but is really a nasty piece of work, ruthless and amoral gold digger, as trained by her equally nasty mother.

Crawford steals the entire film, the focus of attention even when she's the very furthest thing from the camera lens. It sounds bizarre to say this when talking about a silent film, but she's awesome in the quiet moments as much as the ones that are full of action. She's wild in the passionate scenes and subtle in the quiet ones, thoroughly impressing as she goes. I'm not a huge Joan Crawford fan, partly because she was always better as the star than as the actress, but there are times when her talent did shine through and here is a stunning example. She really looks completely head over heels in love and she really looks heartbroken.

She doesn't leave much room for Johnny Mack Brown as Ben, Anita Page as Ann or Dorothy Sebastian as Bea, but they do get scenes to shine. Bea has done something wrong in her past, presumably sleeping with someone before she got married, and her husband can't quite get over it. Ann has some scenes where she can relish her apparent success in life and some powerful drunken scenes towards the end. There's also Edward J Nugent in a very early role for him that he makes work well halfway through with one facial change and runs with it from there. There's also Nils Asther, Dorothy Cumming, Kathlyn Williams and Huntley Gordon, all of whom do their job admirably.

I wasn't expecting this one to be any good, but it simply shone. Dancing and romantic melodrama are hardly my thing but I was rivetted and I recognised some memorable shots from the intro sequence from TCM's Silent Sundays segment. When I first started watching silents on TCM I only recognised a few of the actors and almost none of the movies in that sequence, but I'm filled in most of them now. This one appears twice and that doesn't seem unjust. Another great silent from 1928.

Attack of the Puppet People (1958)

Dolls Incorporated is a company that, amazingly enough, makes and sells dolls. It's run by Mr Franz, a genial John Hoyt. When a young lady suggests that he treats them almost like people, he's happy to point out that they're his friends. Of course, with a title like Attack of the Puppet People and a director like Mr BIG himself, Bert I Gordon, it doesn't take much to guess at the rest of the plot though the young lady who made the initial suggestion and quickly becomes Mr Franz's new secretary takes a while to find out herself.

Admittedly she's a little wary of the mild mannered Mr Franz when he talks to his dolls, and she's afraid to disturb him when he's in the back room. Admittedly people in the vicinity, like the mailman and the previous secretary, seem to disappear rather often, and when registered letters arrive for these people he signs for them and then destroys them. Admittedly Mr Franz only hires people like her who live alone and have no family. She doesn't even work it out when amorous St Louis salesman Bob Westley takes her to the drive in to see The Amazing Colossal Man, another Bert I Gordon film.

Only when Bob proposes to her but then doesn't turn up to take her to St Louis, yet appears as an amazingly realistic doll in Mr Franz's workshop, does she start to get suspicious. She goes to the police with a story about Mr Franz turning people into dolls but of course doesn't get very far. In fact what she gets is turned into a doll herself.

I must have seen this one years ago but it played fresh and it's not a bad story, just a run of the mill one. The perspective work to make the 'puppet people' appear small is mostly done really well, especially those in the lab. The outside shots are much worse and none of it is a patch on The Incredible Shrinking Man the year before. That was technically superb and highly enjoyable too. My favourite in this genre though is still 1936's The Devil Doll with Lionel Barrymore and Maureen O'Sullivan. It has the effects too, surprisingly excellent for such an early date, but it has a story too that goes a long way beyond the basic one here.

People like John Hoyt, as Mr Franz, B-movie perennial John Agar as Bob and Corman regular June Kenney as the new secretary, Sally Reynolds. All are fine without ever being anything special. Like the movie really.

Friday 14 March 2008

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Here's one I've heard mentioned a lot. It's a film noir, a classic one, and people have raved about it enough to land it on a few Top 100s. It's even popped its way into the IMDb Top 250, though as I write, it's languishing in 250th place. I knew precious little about it but did know a few of the names involved. The stars are Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, who I'm getting to know pretty well. The cinematographer is James Wong Howe and the striking score is by Elmer Bernstein, hardly minor names in the business. The director is alexander McKendrick who made a few of the greatest Ealing comedies: The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers and Whisky Galore!

The story is really about J J Hunsecker, who writes a newspaper column called 'The Eyes of Broadway'. Young and ambitious press agent Sidney Falco calls him the 'golden ladder to where he wants to get' and is perfectly willing to do anything to get in his good books. The immediate problem is that J J's sister Susan has just got engaged to guitarist Steve Dallas and J J was relying on Falco to break it up. Because he fails, Falco's clients are conspicuously absent from Hunsecker's column. Now it's up to him to fix it again.

It's solid for a while with the camera and the script following Falco flustering around. Then we meet Hunsecker at a dinner table and are cold cocked by the dialogue. Hunsecker simply exudes arrogant power and the words that describe him are not polite. There are many of them too. Even the senator he's dining with comments that everything he says sounds like a threat and he's not mistaken. One long scene and Burt Lancaster is gone again but he's not forgotten for one moment, his shadow looming strong over everything else that goes on.

Lancaster is truly awesome here, a really towering presence. He dominates the film while appearing only in key scenes, reminding of both Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins in different Hannibal Lecter adaptations, especially as he's also inhabiting a world of his own creation. He's gifted with some even more awesome dialogue but amazingly he wasn't nominated for anything for his trouble. It certainly deserved something more than just people fifty years on keeping his performance and the film itself alive.

Curtis, in a career making role manoeuvering around every twist and turn in the book, was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Foreign Actor. It's a peach of a part but he makes the most of it, reaching the success he so wanted but finding it isn't what he expected to be. He and supporting actress Barbara Nichols, who has a small but highly memorable role early on, both received nods for Golden Laurels, but that was it for the film. There wasn't a single Oscar nod, not even for the script which is blistering.

Then again 1957 seems to have been the biggest year ever for film on a global scale, mirroring Hollywood's golden year of 1939. Ernest Lehman (who also wrote the source novelette) and Clifford Odets co-wrote a gem here but they were up against things like Paths of Glory, Nights of Cabiria, Run of the Arrow, Night of the Demon, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Witness for the Prosecution, Elevator to the Gallows, The Cranes are Flying, The Incredible Shrinking Man... and that's just a list of other films that weren't nominated either. The winner for best adapted screenplay was The Bridge on the River Kwai, beating such others as 12 Angry Men. What a year!

There is a good guy in the film, though it's certainly neither character played by Lancaster or Curtis or even the cop in the picture, a sleazy corrupt cop played by Emile Meyer. The only one with honesty, integrity and old fashioned goodness is Steve Dallas, the young guitar player who ends up on the wrong end of everyone else's stick through nothing more than falling for the wrong girl. I didn't recognise him at all, either by looks or name, though my wife knows him well. He's Martin Milner, here credited as Marty, and she knows him from a series called Adam 12, which I haven't heard of either. I've seen him before, in things like 13 Ghosts but didn't remember him. He fits his part here wonderfully and so does Susan Harrison, Sam Levene and everyone else in the film. What a gem.

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Underworld USA (1961)

Harry Sukman is an unfortunate name to be lumbered with but his music is immediately striking and sets the scene nicely for a Sam Fuller crime drama. It's New Year and 14 year old Tolly Devlin soon forgets about hustling drunks when his father is brutally beaten to death by mobsters in impressive silhouette outside Sandy's Elite Bar. He sees enough to recognise one of the perpetrators but doesn't tell the cops because he wants to take care of things his own way, outside the law.

Of course when he gets to Vic Farrar's house, he finds that he's been locked up for life and circumstances prevent him from being able to pursue his goal for years. He has a heck of a one track mind though, reminding of Mandy Patinkin's character in The Princess Bride. By the time he gets to him, he's dying in prison and I half expected him to come out with, 'My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!' He manages to get the names of his compatriots though, so his quest for vengeance continues.

The film is impressive from moment one, but that's hardly surprising to me now that I have a few Sam Fuller movies behind me. There's some awesome cinematography and camerawork for what of course was no budget. Fuller never had much budget to play with but he certainly made the most of it. The only name I recognise here is Cliff Robertson, who plays the adult Tolly Devlin, but I recognise faces. Paul Dubov, for instance, was a regular for both Fuller and Roger Corman and I've seen him in a few films. I wouldn't be surprised if Alan Moore didn't base a lot of the character and look of the Comedian in Watchmen on his part here. Robert Emhardt plays the head bad guy like a cross between Boss Hogg and Sidney Greenstreet.

Both are fine but most notable here may be Beatrice Kay who does a great job as Sandy, his mother in all but fact. She isn't quite Thelma Ritter just as the film isn't quite Pickup on South Street, but both are still well worth watching. The former Mrs Franchot Tone, Dolores Dorn, is very pleasing on the eye and hers are very expressive too. The real star is the story though, which is detailed and well thought out. It's a little slow in places but it carries a lot of weight and a whole slew of double crosses as Devlin wreaks his vengeance. There's also some awesome use of posters and signs.

Monday 10 March 2008

Female (1933)

Michael Curtiz gets full credit for this version of Warren William's Employees' Entrance though he only directed extra scenes after both William Dieterle and William Wellman had had a go at it. Playing Warren William's role is the excellent though hardly prolific Ruth Chatterton, playing opposite her real life husband of the time, George Brent.

She's Alison Drake of the Drake Motor Car Co and she runs the whole place with emphasis. She also gets up to the sort of philandering that Warren William was so good at, neatly hooking her employees by having them visit her place to talk through sales proposals over dinner and then throwing cushions at the bed and smiling invitingly. When he secretaries get jealous she dismisses them with the same line she dismisses everyone else. 'That'll be all,' she says, and has them reassigned to Montreal.

There's much to enjoy here. It's all very precode, not just having a female CEO or making her work her way through her workforce but in the way she deals with business too. 'Unethical? What's that got to do with business?' she says, and like all the best precodes, I marvel that this was made in 1933. When she gets bored with easy conquests she heads out into the night to pick up one who doesn't know who she is, and accidentally tries it on with the new mechanical genius she's just hired sight unseen.

Naturally this is George Brent, and their first few scenes are genius, but unfortunately the film then cops out with the dynamic and very sure Miss Drake melting away into submissive womanhood in his presence. None of her wiles work on him so she becomes completely lost on how to deal with him and has to respond to his strength by becoming weak. He even gets to bitch at her for refusing a marriage proposal by telling her that women are for making babies and she falls for it. Luckily there's Ferdinand Gottschalk as her right hand man Pettigrew to put her right. Unluckily he can't seem to do it for long enough.

Havana Widows (1933)

If this one wasn't made specifically for me I don't know what was. It's a precode for a start, and that's a good start. It stars Joan Blondell, who never failed to delight and who always brought a touch of class to proceedings. She's backed up by Glenda Farrell, another favourite of mine, and those favourites just keep on coming: Guy Kibbee, Allen Jenkins, Lyle Talbot, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly. They keep coming so long that they run past the opening credit screens with pictures and onto the also starring list.

We begin on stage with the chorus line of Iwanna Shakitoff, Russian burlesque girl, which is full of young ladies in outrageous costumes cracking wise and not getting paid much, including our heroines, Mae Knight and Sadie Appleby. Then a former colleague turns up made of money because she's been to Cuba where everyone seems to be a millionaire ripe for picking by local lawyer, Duffy. Needless to say quicker than you can blink the girls are off to Havana to find a rich sugar daddy of their own.

They find an awesome target on day one sleeping in their bed, of all places, believing it to be an empty suite. He's Guy Kibbee, of course, playing a horse breeder called Deacon Jones but Mae falls for his son, Bob, who doesn't have a dime to his name. It's far too long since I've seen a Frank McHugh movie and he's joyously drunk for the entire thing as Duffy the lawyer. Even with a substandard script (lots of laughs but lots of misfires) he's a riot. It also doesn't take long for him to share scenes with Allen Jenkins, playing Mae's sort of boyfriend Herman Brody. He financed the trip to Havana on forged checks so soon has to escape the country himself, naturally ending up in exactly the same place.

Chaos ensues, I think are the next two words expected, but the chaos is pretty tame, the madcap laughs not particularly madcap and the ending rather mild. Still, the pairings of Blondell and Farrell, McHugh and Jenkins, and Kibbee and Donnelly just can't fail, even when the material isn't up to what they do with it, so this ends up being another fun but inconsequential comedy precode.

Sunday 9 March 2008

Shaolin Master and the Kid (1981)

This film starts so quickly and with such fast paced editing that I thought it was a trailer. There's no speech, no attempt to explain who anyone is or what they're doing. There's just fast editing and a kung fu fight in near darkness that ends with a man with a memorable facial tattoo being executed. I watched three times before working out that Nan Kung Sow captured the man and on returning home after the execution finds his family massacred and his sister kidnapped.

The only survivor is his young nephew, who has hidden in a well and who he attempts to leave with a friend before resigning his post and heading out on his quest for vengeance. As this is a very obvious copy of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, that doesn't work out to well so the kid follows on and the two make their quest together, merely with a trolley pulled behind him instead of a baby cart pushed in front.

There are villains everywhere of course, more than eager to take Nan Kung Sow's head, and there are some memorable ones here. One is set up with red facial hair: eyebrows and long party wig to match. Another pair wear blackface and whiteface makeup respectively. There's a nasty one done up like Zorro with wide brim hat. Possibly the most interesting is the one who's really a good guy but who needs the money so takes on the task anyway.

There's a bunch of wirework and fast editing to simulate fast attacks with triple fire crossbows, but this is 1981 so you can imagine how well that went. The inclusion of an eagle attack that turns into a freshly plucked chicken adds insult to injury, but fortunately the kung fu itself is light years ahead of things like that. All in all, this is a decent and fun kung fu movie but nothing to knock your socks off.

Thursday 6 March 2008

H (2002)

Someone working on a rainy landfill site discovers a couple of corpses: a mother and new born baby. The mother apparently gave birth herself, cut the umbilical cord with her teeth and died of blood loss. Four days later, another corpse of a young mother is discovered on a bus, this time with the baby still holding onto life. There is a precedent for these murders, but the killer is in custody: a young man named Shin Hyun gave himself up ten months earlier after murdering six women, bringing the last with him in a bag as proof of his guilt. Is there a copycat or has Shin, who is on death row, hired a follower to continue his work and satisfy his particular urges by proxy?

Three detectives are assigned to the case, including Kim Mi Yeon, an intense young lady whose fiance had committed suicide after capturing Shin but letting him go, and Kang Tae Hyun, a headstrong and emotional young detective working his first murder case. Kang visits Shin a number of times in prison in scenes that were obviously inspired by those between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, but Shin's blissful calm is more reminiscent of Kevin Spacey's John Doe in Se7en, probably a much better comparison given the direction the plot takes. It's a memorable performance from Cho Seung-woo, affable and insightful for a young serial killer.

Kim is played by Yeom Jung-ah, a powerful young actress who won various awards for her next film, A Tale of Two Sisters, which I have on DVD and need to move up my priority schedule. She's a very capable lead, who knows she can command attention by effectively doing very little and reserves more revealing behaviour for more appropriate scenes. Kang is Jin-hee Ji, doing a decent job in his debut movie. His enthusiastic acting isn't a patch on Yeom's deliberate underacting though. The real counter to Yeom is Detective Park, the third man on the case. He's a wonderful drunk and a fun interrogator and he's played by Ji-ru Sung, the eldest of the three.

The story itself is the point though. It's an interesting one though it does stretch a little. The ending isn't entirely unsatisfying but it's a very eastern concept that completely wouldn't pass in the west. Here's one eastern film that at least won't get remade in Hollywood. The behind the camera work is capable though far from overdone. There are some very nicely shot scenes: plenty of both style and substance which is refreshing, but it doesn't shine as brightly as it could.

Sunday 2 March 2008

The Boondock Saints (1999)

As if to highlight that we're dealing with Irishmen here, we start off in church in Boston on St Patrick's Day. Two men, obviously religious, mumble into their rosaries, walk up to pray at the altar and kiss the feet of the statue of Jesus. They even have matching tattoos of the Virgin Mary tattooed on their necks. Then they leave, even though the service is still running, light up their cigarettes and put on their shades, get into trouble at work and end up in a pub. They're brothers Connor and Murphy MacManus, played by Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus and what else they are is the point of the film.

They aren't the only two in the pub, needless to say, though it looks scarily empty for a St Patrick's Day evening in Boston. There's a barman with Tourette's, who has to hand over the bar at the end of the week. There's David Della Rocco, someone in the Italian crime syndicate, who seems to be a friend. There's Ivan Checkov, someone in the Russian crime syndicate, who seems to be a foe, wanting to take over the pub early. Next morning there are two Russian mobsters dead in the alley and flamboyantly gay FBI agent Paul Smecker gets to investigate.

On the TCM Underground series, director Jack Hill talked about cult films and how filmmakers don't make cult films, audiences make cult films. I buy into that concept to a huge degree but not entirely. There are people who revel in the idea and the fact that they want to make cult films doesn't mean that they don't succeed. The Boondock Saints is a cult film but I get the impression that's not by accident. I'm convinced that writer/director Troy Duffy had exactly that aim in mind and what he really achieved has a lot to do with perspective.

To my perspective there's good and bad, though not a whole heck of a lot of good. There are some really great lines for sure, but some really bad ones too. Willem Dafoe also has a field day in a gift of a part, and so do Billy Connolly and Ron Jeremy of all people, though unfortunately neither appear for long. I could have watched both of them for hours, but the MacManus brothers are just annoying badly written pains in the ass. There's so much slow motion used that I don't want to see any in another film for another decade. I'm sure it's all supposed to look cool but it's just really tired and tedious, nearly as much so as the fadeout effect from scene to scene that's also overused to a painful degree. There's a hip soundtrack that had me almost turning the sound off and switching to subtitles. There's a huge amount of annoying constant camera movement that isn't enough to be handheld but way too much to be clean and artistic. Given that there are scenes with great camerawork later on, it has to mean either the cinematographer got changed partway through filming or the idiot thought it was cool.

Then there's the whole premise of the story. The entire film hinges on the fact that a couple of Irish kids from Boston speak Russian and have the same dream at the same time. They're seen as saints in the papers and are obviously meant to be seen that way by Troy Duffy but they're really just arrogant kids having a ball. They're supposedly religious but they run round killing anyone that they feel like. They're supposedly decent people, less evil than those they slaughter, which is a manifesto but a highly dubious one (and one from which Duffy wimped out on with what he put in over the end credits). They also get their arms from the IRA, which makes this entire film completely offensive to anyone from my country, which is stunning given that the script is full of racial slurs yet none are anti-British. The fact that the biggest racial slur isn't even deliberate says plenty for the ineptitude of the filmmakers.

Is this a cult classic? I don't think so. I think it's something that twelve year olds think is cool and they haven't a clue why. They think it's cool because there are guns and drugs and swearing and cool dialogue. It's Tarantino without any talent. If Eric Cartman was an Irish filmmaker, this is what he'd have come up with. Oh dear.

Marathon Man (1976)

It's Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. One old man in New York puts something into a safety deposit box and another has to get to Queens. soon they both hit a fuel tanker and that's the end of them. Jogging nearby is a graduate student called Thomas Levy, played by Dustin Hoffman, and he's the marathon man of the title. The link between the two is that the first old man (who in real life had the bad luck to be called Ben Dova, the good luck to surive the explosion of the Hindenburg and the bad luck to be suspected of causing the explosion) is the brother of notorious Nazi Christian Szell, handed over something to Henry Levy, Thomas's eldest brother, played by Roy Scheider.

The trail quickly leads to murder, bombs and intrigue. It doesn't take long for an attempt to be made on Henry Levy's life and it doesn't take much longer for a second and a third. All are powerful, believable and very nicely shot. As you'd expect, given that Hoffman is the star of the film, the problems spread from Henry to Thomas, who gets mugged by henchmen of Christian Szell. With the loss of his brother, Szell deliberately travels from safety into danger, stopping at nothing to get what he wants. Given that he's played by no less an actor than Laurence Olivier his search gets seriously intense, that intensity including the notorious dentist scene which is certainly powerful but not as nasty as I expected it to be.

The real intensity comes later for me, towards the end of the film, with a notorious Nazi from Auschwitz wandering around the Jewish diamond markets of New York. These scenes are pure genius, amazingly intense and the stuff that only the very best thrillers are made of. Here's where Olivier's awesome talent shines through. It's also a real slice of life in the seventies: traffic problems, street musicians, organised protests, bad manners, baggage handler strikes, you name it. Actors like William Devane even have seventies faces, half sleazy politician and half future Grecian 2000 commercial.

I've been catching up on seventies thrillers over the last few years and I've been mightily impressed. I've seen many of them before but only as a kid, often so young that I can't even remember which I've seen and which I haven't. I'm finding that many of them are real and believable and the product of people who knew what they wanted to put on the screen. I don't really know which films are the product of the studios admitting that they didn't have a clue any more after the end of the Production Code and which are the studios starting to get a clue again.

Much of the credit has to go to William Goldman, one of the biggest screenwriters in the business, who wrote both the story and the source novel it's based on so he knew exactly what he wanted to see on the screen. The director is John Schlesinger, a major name in the seventies who had already helmed a few classics including Midnight Cowboy starring Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman, always a method actor, went to great lengths to be believable, as demonstrated in major scenes like the bathtub scene or the running scenes, but also in smaller touches like the way he keeps his tongue moving over his teeth or the look he gives Szell when he knows what's about to come. He may just have been outshone here though by Olivier and his scenes in the diamond district.

Saturday 1 March 2008

Pulse (2001)

Something weird is going on with Taguchi. He isn't answering the phone and he has a deliverable so Michi heads over to see him and pick up the disk he owes them. She's shocked to find his corpse, which has apparently been that way for a while, presumably through suicide, but she's even more shocked because he appeared very alive when they had a conversation together a couple of minutes before in the very same apartment.

Something weird is also happening on the internet. A student called Ryosuke Kawashima signs up for the first time through an ISP and finds his machine hijacked. It shows him a series of images, invites him to see a ghost and after he's switched it off, dials back in again without his help. He brings in help from a girl at the computer lab at the university, who seems very eager because of an existing interest in ghosts and a computer program written by a grad student. She sees the two as somehow tied together.

These two stories are not initially connected but they gradually come together. Ghosts appear, move freakily as they always do in Japanese films, disappear. People just disappear, in growing numbers, or commit suicide, always leaving behind a sort of Hiroshima shadow. The web pages seem to proliferate too, each with different people. There's also a room at the plant company Michi works at that people call the Forbidden Room, which is sealed off with red tape around the edges of the windows and doors.

The word that describes this one best is 'freaky' and that's hardly a bad word for a movie to be associated with. It deals with themes like isolation and loneliness but has a fascinating way of depicting them. However it's easy to get lost in the plot strands and there's some insanely dubious logic. Here are a few peaches: everyone dies therefore ghosts exist, ghosts can't die so wherever ghosts are must run out of room sometime, or everything after death is eternal emptiness and so that must be life too.

I'm not sure how that logc could really make sense to anyone, and if that's the basis of the story no wonder it all gets confusing. I think I need to rewatch sometime to focus in a litle deeper on the message because it's obviously there, it's not just obvious. It is refreshing though. I thought initially it was going to be another eastern horror movie based around technophobia (beware the website, beware the mobile phone, beware the whatever), but it's something very different. I'm just not sure what it is. Technology breeds isolation? I dunno.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

In August 1962, the OAS were really not happy with Charles de Gaulle, the president of France, partly because he'd allowed French colonial Algeria its independence, and the film opens with an assassination attempt. Needless to say, they fail: de Gaulle lives, the would be killers are rounded up and the leader of the OAS is executed by firing squad. The remaining members are scattered, the organisation is riddled with informers and the new leaders have been forced abroad into Austria because their faces are too well known. While unsuccessful, they are hardly entirely inept and they realise that the only real chance they have is to hire a professional hitman from outside the organisation.

That man is codenamed the Jackal and he's played superbly by Edward Fox. He's at once memorable to us but nondescript to those around him. He's a professional who works with professionals when needed but does much of the work himself. We get to see a huge amount of that because the film is designed around the preparation for a job like this. We seem him select a fake identity, forge official documents, nest the trail, design a custom sniper rifle, adjust his telescopic sights, duplicate a key, change appearance, cover his tracks, even deal with people who know too much. The detail is admirable and it gives us our tension, because as we know de Gaulle was never assassinated we know the Jackal will fail and the story becomes one of wanting to find out how and why he fails.

One chief reason is because the people working on the opposite side, the French security forces, are no fools themselves. They know the OAS remain a danger and do a fine job of trying to work out what they're up against. Unlike what we would perhaps expect from government, they put the right people on the job and the right people know what they're doing. The chief players on this side come in once the ministry of the interior have worked out that there's the likelihood of a foreign hitman, but that process is efficient and deadly.

Michael Lonsdale is Deputy Commissioner Lebel, the detective who heads the inestigation from that point who tracks down potentials through the old boy network and the paper trails of authority. The other important thing is that, unlike the usual movie depiction of policemen, these people are intelligent and yet it isn't just intelligence that does the job. It's perseverance and the efficiency involved in dotting every i, crossing every t and thoroughly following all those paper trails all the way down the line. That's all very refreshing indeed, and yet even more refreshing is that that still isn't enough. One moment of decision and one unforeseen incident play a huge part too.

Lonsdale is excellent, efficient in his duties but believably tired and overworked because of what those duties call for, nervous in the presence of the French ministry yet perfectly willing to make his point to them. Like Fox, he appears very real and believable and completely unlike a movie star appearance. There are other major names hiding in here and all fit the same bill: Derek Jacobi as Lebel's assistant, Donald Sinden as a British official, Cyril Cusack as the gunsmith, Delphine Seyrig as a rich woman he meets in a hotel, Maurice Denham as a French general; yet they all admirably fade into their roles just like actors do and stars don't. It's as refreshing as the ending, which is real, believable and right and yet unlike anything Hollywood would do. Thank goodness this was a British film.

The most important name behind the camera though, beyond Frederick Forsyth who wrote the source bestseller, is American director Fred Zinnemann, a name I've known for a long time without having really known why, possibly because, like Lewis Milestone, his output is so varied and hard to categorise. I've rated four of his films before this one, and I gave three of them classic ratings; the very different films High Noon, From Here to Eternity and A Man for All Seasons. There are other major films I haven't got to yet: Julia, The Sundowners and Oklahoma!, for instance, but I don't recognise anything from his first two decades of output. Admittedly many of these are shorts from series like Passing Parade, Crime Does Not Pay or the Pete Smith Specialties but I'm still guessing he's going to be a name I need to start looking out for.