Movies I: 1970s and earlier

Mostly older movies, generally from the 1970s and earlier.  For newer movies, see Movie Reviews II, 1980s and Later page. Ratings from zero to four stars.

Johnny Yuma (1966) [D:  Romolo Guerrieri. Mark Damon, Lawrence Dobkin, Rosalba Neri et al] Psycho wife Samantha Felton (Neri)  Psycho wife Samantha Felton (Neri) arranges for the murder of older husband for his money and property, but he had decided to leave it all to his nephew Johnny Yuma (Damon). Samantha and her brother Pedro contract with gunslinger Carradine (Dobkin) to kill Yuma. After many corpses, some of which Yuma emotes over, Yuma survives as owner of the ranch.
     Typical spaghetti western, filmed by an Italian company in Spain. Dubbing into English is below average, which is a pity, as the sparse dialogue propels the plot. Acting so-so, photography varies; the spectacular scenery suffers at low resolution and a small screen. The music insists on signalling who’s a good guy and who’s a bad one. One serious technical flaw: the characters ride their horses at full gallop, under a hot sun, through a very dry desert. A real cowboy would have walked his horse.
     Average, OK for a fan of the genre, for the rest of us a mere *½.

 The Bravados (1958) [D: Henry King. Gregory Peck, Joan Collins, Stephen Boyd et al] Jim Douglass (Peck) drifts into a town to watch the hanging of four men who killed his wife. They escape to Mexico, and Jim leads the posse sent out after them. A few plot twists add interest, and the final twist raises questions that the movie answers badly. An average oater, with Peck playing his version of the stiff-jawed uptight hero. The supporting cast does a good job with a very average script. Competently made entertainment. **

 A Man Called Django (1971) AKA Viva! Django and W Django. [D:  Edoardo Mulargia (as Edward G. Muller). With Anthony Steffen, Stelio Candelli, Glauco Onorato, and a huge cast of extras]. The pre-title sequence shows a home invasion in which a woman is killed. After the titles, we see Django (Steffen) searching for the killers with the help of Carranza (Onorato). A complicated and muddled subplot about gun-running to the Mexican revolutionaries gives occasion for many gunfights, from all of which Django emerges without a scratch.
     A typical spaghetti western. The comments on IMDB imply that it was first released with subtitles. I might have preferred that, as the dubbing was execrable. It sounded like every character was voiced the same actor, inflection and expression was monotonously angry, etc. Visually OK, plot barely workable, gunfights wonderfully silly. Typical of its genre, nothing outstanding about it. *

Big Jake (19710 [D: George Sherman, John Wayne (uncredited). With John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Richard Boone et al]. Big Jake McCandles (Wayne) responds to a call for help after a bunch of nasties led by John Fain (Boone) have attacked his ranch, killed ten people, and carried off his grandson. They demand $1 million ransom.
     There’s unfinished business between Jake and his wife Martha ( O’Hara), and his sons James (Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum). Ferrying the strongbox with with ransom, fighting off a handful of wannabe millionaires, re-establishing himself as the patriarch, and finally rescuing his grandson Litle Jake, takes almost 2 hours of competently made entertainment. Reflection after the movie is over reveals the hokiness of the plot, the simplistic psychology of family dysfunction, and the dangling threads, especially the unfinished reconciliation between Jake and Martha. O’Hara deserves a larger role, perhaps the prducers thought the movie was already too long.
     What saves this merely average Western is the acting. Wayne for once shows a range of facial expressions, and plays his character, not “John Wayne the actor playing a character”. Boone’s evil is understated, which makes it all the more impressive. The supporting roles and bit parts are well played, so smoothly synching their stereotypes with the story that we hardly notice the familiar templates. The photography is very good, but the editing rather obvious. Music never intrudes. Worth watching if you come across it. **½

 Love Affair (1932) [D: Thornton Freeland. Dorothy Mackaill, Humphrey Bogart] Bogart plays Jim Leonard, an aeronautical tech with a dream, who becomes entangled with Carol Owen, a playgirl. Mr Hardy, an investor and money manager, wants to marry Owen. Bogart’s sister Linda Lee is his mistress. And a few other plot complications are tossed in, which is about the only reason I finished watching this lame rom-com. It’s definitely the cheap half of a double bill, slow-moving despite its complicated plot, with limsy characters, writing a grade or two below acceptable, the most obvious camera angles, and sound that keeps reminding us that most scenes are shot on a sound stage with a wooden floor. Interesting only as an early vehicle for Bogart, whom Columbia apparently wanted to groom as another Gable. The two leads try their best to bring some snap into the picture, but the script keeps getting in the way. 1/2

 Terror by Night (1946) A Basil Rathbone - Nigel Bruce flick, supposedly based on a Conan Doyle tale, but it ain’t. Lady Carstairs is carrying The Star of Rhodesia to Edinburgh by its owner, but the jewel is stolen and the owner’s son is found dead. Which of the passengers in the 1st class carriage did it?
     The story uses the usual Holmes tropes, with rather less ratiocination and rather more physical violence than in Doyle’s stories. For several decades, Rathbone was the Holmes to see, but the writing and acting are just a layer or two above 2-D talking cardboard cutouts. The emphasis was on presenting the puzzle and solving it in an hour or so. The movie led a Saturday Matinee double bill with shorts and cartoons. Still, competently made, with the train’s sounds unifying the action, and the story-line clear enough that the casual Saturday afternoon viewer could follow it. That same casualness no doubt prevented them noticing how implausible th thr story and its solution actually are.
     A nostalgia trip for those old enough to recall, or think they recall, seeing these movies many years ago. **

     The Gunfighter (1950) [D: Henry King. Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell] Jimmy Ringo, tired of being a gunfighter, wants to settle down with his one true love. On his way to Cayenne, a silly boy challenges him to a gun fight and loses, of course. His brothers set out to avenge his death. In Cayenne, the marshall (an old friend) wants him out of town by noon. This setup leads into a plot complicated enough to hold one’s interest. Since Ringo was a killer, he must die in the end, but we know he is really a good man. So that’s all right.
     Competent, good acting (Peck is always a pleasure to watch), well paced narrative, good black and white photography, but in the end not quite first class. ***

     Sartana’s Coming, Get your Coffins Ready (1970) aka “... trade your pistol for a coffin”.  [D: Giuliano Carnimeo (as Antony Ascott). Starring George Hilton, Charles Southwood, Erika Blanc] Competent spaghetti western, with atrocious  dubbing, fairly obvious plot twists, and good acting, not that the roles demanded subtlety. The mcguffin is a shipment of gold to be transported for a crooked mining operator who’s been cheating the miners. Fancy shooting, no bar room brawls. Dollops of poetic justice, too. A little better than average for this genre, but it will appeal mostly to fans. **

     Shoot Out (1971) [D: Henry Hathaway. Gregory Peck, Patricia Quinn et al] Peck plays Clay Lomax, newly released from prison after serving 7 years for a bank robbery. He wants to find Sam Foley, his treacherous partner. Foley on the other had wants to know Lomax’s movements and hires a band of psychopaths to track Lomax. Lomax expects some cash from his former lover, but instead Decky Ortega, 7-year-old girl daughter of his former lover, appears on the train. That’s the set up, and the ensuing story has enough plot twists to keep you watching, as well as dollops of sentimentality and pure terror. Another oater demonstrating Hollywood’s skill at turning out reliably entertaining films. Better than average for the genre, despite its wringing every last drop of cuteness from the feisty-little-girl cliche. I liked it, but then I’m a sucker for romance, and I like Gregory Peck. The supporting cast is good but not spectacular, hence only **½

     Vengeance Valley (1951) [D: Richard Thorpe. Burt Lancaster, Robert Walker et al.] Rivalry between a son (Walker, the bad boy) and a foster son (Lancaster, the good boy) drive the story, such as it is. Two nasty guys are mad about their sister’s illegitimate child, and want to kill the father. That complicates the story. Otherwise, a straightforward oater, 80-odd minutes of competently made entertainment. If you like Westerns or Burt Lancaster, you’ll like this movie. Odd fact: Walker died shortly after this movie was made. Available online for download or streaming. **½

     The Devil’s Brigade (1968) [D: Andrew V. McLaglen. William Holden, Cliff Robertson, Vince Edwards , et al.] The movie is based on actual events. Holden plays an American colonel with zero combat experience who must weld a bunch of American dregs and a Canadian unit into a special forces team in preparation for a mission to Norway. When that falls through he persuades a general that his men are ready for whatever mission they undertake. On their first mission they take an Italian town from the Germans, with no casualties. The unit was dubbed “The Devil’s Brigade” by the commander of the unit holding the town.
     On their second mission, they capture a German hilltop emplacement, this time with casualties.  The movie ends with the colonel’s voice-over wondering whether those few acres of rock and scrub were worth the blood spilled to defend and take it.
     A competently made movie, better than average of its type, despite its use of pretty well every cliche in the script-writer’s handbook. **½

     To Walk Invisible (2016) Docudrama about Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Brontë and their brother Branwell. They had a happy childhood inventing fantasy kingdoms ruled by themselves. As a young man, Branwell took up with the wife of his employer, who after he died made it clear that she wanted nothing to do with Branwell. Wainwright invents a will in she inherits on condition that she never marry again; and so he had his revenge. Branwell sank into drink, and eventually died, as did Emily and Anne shortly afterwards. Meanwhile, they had written and published their novels to bring in some money. Charlotte survived, married the curate, published more books, and died from complications of pregnancy.
     The writer-director emphasises the oppressive respectability that limited middle-class Victorian lives, but especially women. She presents a family who love each other deeply and so can barely cope with Branwell’s weakness and self-destructive behaviour. In the end it was the women’s writing that kept them sane. Nevertheless, the notion that all great art rises out of suffering is a subtext in the story.
     Wainwright does convince us of her vision, but biographical facts about Branwell are hard to come by. His letters are unreliable witnesses, since he was given to boasting. Many of the most important events involved people who for their own reasons kept silent, or, as Charlotte did, avoided recording explanatory details. The two eldest sisters died young. Emily and Anne are equally discreet. We’re left with their novels, poems, and letters, which if anything deepen the mystery. Were they happy as authors? I don’t think we have enough evidence to decide or even make a plausible guess.
     The movie is worth watching, even if you aren’t a Brontë fan. Excellent acting throughout, a consistent directorial vision, a narrative pace and rhythm that attracts and keeps attention. Perhaps a touch too much Yorkshire gloom in the photography. ***½

     Red Sundown (1956) [D: Jack Arnold. Rory Calhoun, Martha Hyer, Dean Jagger et al] Gunslinger decides he wants to go straight and join civilisation. Happens upon a range war between a  cattleman and some dirt farmers. Local sheriff deputises him, and the standard Western unfolds. 88 minutes keep the action moving along briskly with minimal pauses for stone-faced reflection on the past, etc. Competently made genre fare to provide the B-movie on a double bill. Western fans will like it, if you’re not a fan, you should probably skip this one. **½

     Dressed To Kill (1946) [D: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce] Three music boxes made by a prisoner on Dartmoor contain the code for the location of the duplicate set of banknote printing plates stolen by the convict some years before. A friend of Watson’s is murdered because he added one of them to his collection, but Holmes already has that one. Another is stolen from the little girl whose daddy bought it for her. The third is bought from a toyshop whose proprietor bought it at the same auction. So that’s the setup.
     The woman mastermind behind the plot fools Holmes, too, but he manages to escape her trap in time to unravel the plot and catch the perps red-handed in Dr Johnson’s study, where the con had hidden the plates. Yes, that Dr Samuel Johnson. Only a a little over an hour long, the movie seemed longer. “Competent in parts” is the best that can be said for it, even Rathbone and Bruce just go through the motions. A couple of the character actors do a better job. A double-bill filler, and good enough for that purpose, I suppose, but not a recommendation for the Rathbone-Bruce duo. *½

     People Will Talk (1951) [D: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Cary Grant, Jeanne Crain] Popular med school Professor Praetorius (Cary Grant) tells pregnant student Debra (Jeanne Crain), whose boyfriend has scarpered, that she isn’t pregnant after all, then marries her. He has to persuade her to “escape” from her uncle’s farm, where she and her indigent father have been living as charity cases. The doctor’s assistant/friend turns out to be a convicted murderer. An envious colleague tries to ruin him. Those are the main plot points, not too plausible, but the writing and acting carry you over the bumps, and all ends happily.
     An interesting movie, aiming for the semi-leisured woman who could afford to take in a movie matinee from time to time. A soap opera, really, with all the virtues and vices of the genre. In 1951, its subject matter (pre-wedlock pregnancy, crime, good vs bad doctors, the malign influence of “the good book”) were controversial but mattered to the target audience. Smooth production, pleasant comic interludes (the Lionel train-set sequence, for example), a “dramatic” argument between Doc and wife when she realises she must have been pregnant after all, all this and more makes for a good entertainment. That the story raises some major questions is a bonus. IMdB rates it 7.5/10, I rate it **½ out of ****.

     Blackboard Jungle (1955; USA) [D: Richard Brooks. Glenn Ford, Anne Francis, Louis Calhern] I'd never seen this film, although I vaguely remember something of the controversy it caused at the time of its release. Still powerful, and it's obvious why the film caused a stir. The cliche characterisations of juvenile delinquents were of course not cliches at the time: this film created the cliches (and Rebel Without a Cause perfected them.) It’s the first modern super-teacher movie, which inspired emulations such as To Sir with Love and Mr Holland's Opus, and of course the TV series Welcome Back Mr Kotter (which, at the time it ran, definitely inspired some kids to act up!)
     These movies are really about class, which in all of them supplies a more or less obvious subtext. Middle class morality is threatened by working class delinquency. (I  think Shaw's Alfred Doolittle has the most cogent comment on this class conflict.)  Rebel without a Cause deviates from this pattern somewhat, since it focuses more on middle class kids, but in that movie the instigators of their bad behaviour are working class kids. Blackboard Jungle is dated in many ways, but it was one of the first to create many motifs of the 60s: freedom, the questioning of a work-oriented life, the generation gap, the immorality of the draft, the importance of music as social marker and statement, etc. It is one of the first films to attempt a straight look at the social realities different from the Reader's Digest vision of suburban America. Worth watching for this reason alone, but still a good movie. ***  (2002)

     The Tango Lesson (1997; USA) [D: Sally Potter. Sally Potter, Pablo Veron, Morgane Maugran] An English film director sees a tango performed in a Parisian variety theatre, falls in love with the dance, takes lessons, and eventually dances in a performance with her teacher, a young Argentinean. They eventually fall in love too, so the film is about love as well as dancing. A gentle, and slow-moving movie that grows on you. **½ (2002)

     Spring in Park Lane (1948; British) [Herbert Wilcox. Anna Neagle, Michael Wilding, Tom Walls] Comedy of manners, nice fluff, with a few bits of sharp satire. The stock characters are well done by Michael Wilding, Anna Neagle, and their fellow performers. Wilding, a lord, pretends to be a footman so he can woo and win Neagle, niece and secretary to a rich art fancier. Enough plot twists (some of the Wodehousian kind) to sustain interest, and enough sentiment to soften the implicitly harsh critique of the English class system (again, a Wodehousian touch.) Fun to watch, dated in style, but worth seeing as an example of a time when movies were made for the whole family to watch. **½ (2002)

     Cinema Paradiso (1988; Italian) [D: Giuseppe Tornatori. Philippe Noiret, Enzo Cannavale, Antonella Attili] A coming of age story, Pablo befriends the projectionist in the cinema of a small, dirt-poor southern Italian town, eventually leaves to make his name as a film director, and returns for his friend’s funeral. The film is one long flashback. An Italian slice-of-life story, beautifully done. Lovely photography, very good acting, and nice rhythm and pacing to the film. The crises just happen, as they do in real life, and it's how people respond to these crises that holds our interest. We borrowed this from Rolf. In Italian with English subtitles. Worth seeing. **** (2002)

     The Doll's House. (1973; British) [D: Patrick Garland. Claire Bloom, Anthony Hopkins] An excellent interpretation. One of the things that has always bothered me in other versions is that Nora seems too strong to be so submissive to her husband. I think this modern interpretation of the play misses too much. We have a tendency to forget that what may look like small steps to us were great triumphs at the time. This is because the oppression of women, although expressed often enough in law and custom, is essentially a matter of relationship.
     And relationships are messy, paradoxical, and anything but logical. To become free means to change the relationship, perhaps to break it irrevocably, and few people have the strength to do that. Even Nora doesn't do so until she can do nothing else. The play is about Nora’s desperate attempts to save the relationship. It's only when Torvald shows that he doesn't value their union, he doesn't even understand it as a union, that Nora finally gives up. She is driven to freedom, she does not seek it.
     This version respects the text and the social milieu  of its time. In this version, Nora is a loving but manipulative wife, smart, but using her smarts to get what she wants. She is clever but unwise, and doesn't fully understand the consequences of her actions. The play is about her realisation of those consequences, and her discovery that her adored husband is a shell of a man. When she's faced with the crisis, her first instinct is to protect what she has. She sees clearly that she has risked a lot by borrowing money from a disgraced book-keeper; she doesn't see that her husband's first concern is for himself. When she realises what a shallow self-centred creature he is, she leaves him, not because she is striking a blow for womankind, but because she can no longer live with what she has now recognised is a lie. Her relationship with her husband, which she assumed to be based on mutual respect and honour, turns out to have been one of mutual exploitation. Her husband's basic weakness, his moral cowardice, prevent him from acknowledging this. If he had, they could perhaps have rebuilt their marriage. As it is, it's over.
     The acting is very good, and makes what could be merely a soap-opera or a tract into a believable near-tragedy. The acting is occasionally too single-note emotionally, but otherwise this is a near perfect film. ***½ (2002)

     Lost in Austen (2008) [TV mini-series written by Guy Andrews. Amanda Rooper, Elliot Cowan, Hugh Bonneville]
     Amanda Price, fan of Pride & Prejudice enters the the fictional world through a door in her bathroom, exchanging places with Elizabeth Bennett. Wikipedia has a plot summary.
     Question is, does this pastiche work? I think so. Andrews has rewritten Austen’s romance as a modern novel: the characters are more complex, they have back-stories, they react rather more like real people than genre characters. There is a consistent theme: these people are playing parts assigned to them by social constraints and rules. Amanda upsets this, primarily by insisting that the characters behave as prescribed in Austen’s novel. She too is trying to play a part: the observer. But she’s actually a participant, and in her unwillingness to accept this messes things up, but good. People seek her advice, which she frames in terms of Austen’s book, not in terms of character and personality. “Destiny” is her buzzword, but she’s blind to the changes in destiny created by her entry into a fictional world. (Or is it fictional? Andrews leaves that question hanging.)
     Almost all the characters reveal their true selves at different times. Caroline Bingley admits she is a lesbian, but will endure marriage for propriety’s sake. Lady Catherine reveals herself as conforming to rules and roles prescribed by her status; but she knows that Amanda is not what she seems, and so is not bound by status. She has seen that Amanda is afraid of what she really wants; and her last remark to Amanda is she wishes Amanda were her daughter.
     Wickham acts the cad but is really a deeply honourable man: he’d rather be hated by Darcy than betray Georgiana’s adolescent crush. Bingley eventually acts on the love he really feels for Jane instead of following Darcy’s advice to preserve his social status.
     Mrs Bennett finally revolts against the socially submissive role her status assigns, and instead of kowtowing to Lady Catherine, throws her out of the house. This reminds Mr Bennett that she is his wife, and his admiration for her long-suppressed spunk, as well as the realisation that he has dodged his duties as husband and father, move him to offer to sleep in the marital bed again, an offer that Mrs Bennett is delighted to accept. And of course Darcy will follow his heart rather than his social pride, and Amanda will accept her destiny.
     We spent four pleasant evenings watching this series on TVO. It is not the best Austen pastiche I’ve come across, but it’s still well above average. ***

      Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993) For more on the TV series look here
     David Suchet as Poirot is always a treat, even when (as here) the characterisation is so well established that the editor for the American version has snipped almost everything except the plot-related shots. We don’t get that luxuriating in character-revealing digression that makes British TV such a pleasure to watch. That being said, this episode is as usual made to a very high standard. The wife of an oilman, who’s up to no good in the Argentine, dies in an apparent suicide, but Poirot is not allowed to investigate. Now two years later, the whole scene will be restaged “in memory” of the dead woman. Her sister is the target of the murderer this time, but Poirot prevents the crime. If you are a fan of David Suchet as Poirot, this will be worth another viewing or two. If not, it’s still worth a first look. First class entertainment, a good example of its genre. **½

      The Shipping News (2001) [D: Lasse Hallström. Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, Julian Moore, Cate Blanchett, Gordon Pinsent] I wasn’t going to watch this, but after the first couple or five minutes I was hooked. Story is simple: shlemiel Quoyle hooks up with and, after she become pregnant, marries Petal, a “free spirit”, who despises him and sleeps around. His parents die, and Petal’s killed in a car crash with her latest lover, leaving him to look after their daughter Bunny. His aunt Agnis shows up and persuades him to take her to Newfoundland, where she wants to get back to her and his roots. He gets a job at the local newspaper, reporting the “shipping news”, which he develops into a kind of local history column. He also discovers unexpected strengths in himself, as well as a rather surreal and occasionally brutal family history. The movie ends with an expectation of a marriage, several reconciliations, and a general feeling of “What the hell, life is a gamble, and you have to make the best of what you’ve been dealt.”
     The movie’s based on Annie Proulx’s book, which is not a recommendation for me. I’ve tried reading several of her works, and bogged down within a few hundred words every time. I don’t know exactly why, but I dislike the film of portentous meaning that she overlays on everything, so maybe that’s the reason. As with many other writers, translating the work into another medium clarifies it, and adds gentle strokes of nuance where the original clobbers your imagination with a sledge hammer.
     So why did I like the movie? Mostly I think because of the matter-of-fact filming. There are few fancy shots, the story-telling is visually simple and straightforward. The actors are very good, presenting the most outlandish actions as logical common sense. This shoves the movie towards absurdity, and I suppose some people would argue it’s crossed well into that territory. But I don’t think so. Ordinary life as I have observed and occasionally experienced it descends into a bathetic soap opera often enough, so a movie that presents life as merely surreal and absurd has the ring of truth. Besides, there’s a nice little love story in it, and I’m a sucker for romance. As well, there’s the affirmation of second (or 3rd or 37th) chances. We can, and as old photographs may remind us, we do change.  Worth watching at least once. ***½

     Tuesdays with Morrie (1999) [D: Mick Jackson. John Lemmon, Hank Azaria] Made for TV, won four Emmys. Based on the book recounting a student’s (Mitch) reconnection with his professor (Morrie Schwartz), who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Tuesdays were office hours, so Morrie and Mitch meet on Tuesdays. Mitch must also fix his relationship with his lover Jeannine, who wants marriage and a family, something that Mitch is afraid of. This works out, too.
     It’s a straightforward movie, very competently filmed and acted. This movie depends on its premise, that the dying professor has wisdom to impart, and that his former student needs to learn the lessons. It succeeds in fulfilling that aim, albeit with a little too much sentiment; but it’s an American movie, and Americans like a little sugar with their medicine.
     And what is Morrie’s lesson? “We must love one another, or die”, quoting a line from Auden’s “September 1, 1939". True; and a hard lesson it is to learn. It’s the lesson all the religions and philosophies teach, and after 6,000 years of teaching most of us are still afraid to learn it, and even more afraid to live it.
     Good movie. Marie said it was better than the book. ***

     Men in Black (1997) A secret agency monitors the aliens that use earth as a "neutral zone", and occasionally have to go up against the bad ones. This time it's a bug who's come to earth to steal a weapon.
     I've seen this movie four or five times now, and if anything, I enjoy it more every time. What in the first viewing were lovely surprises and twists (tabloids used by aliens to disseminate news about each other?) have become familiar punctuation marks, markers of the rhythm of the narrative. I also appreciate details that I almost missed in other viewings, such as the party-animal aliens buzzing on nicotine and alcohol. Or the “Sorry” appended to one of the Arquillian warnings that Earth will be destroyed pretty soon.
     Apart from some of the most wonderfully gross special effects ever created, the swift pacing of the story, the precise (if limited) characterisation, I most admire the writing. Very few movies are as tightly plotted as this one, multiple story lines are interleaved so well that we never lose track of the story. We know of course that Agents J and K will win their conflict with the bug, and we know how, but it’s still fun to see how they figure out what they need to know. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, which may tempt one to ignore its lessons: live your life; love matters; there are more things to be known than we can ever know.
     I suppose that the pleasure of seeing this movie again harks back to the pleasure we experienced as children hearing a familiar story over and over again. If you’ve never seen it, watch it soon., If you’ve seen it, watch it again. You don’t have to be a science fiction fan to enjoy this movie. ***½

     Bullitt (1968) [D: Peter Yates. Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bissett] This is a noir film in colour. The situation is simple: protect a mobster who will give evidence at a grand jury hearing. An ambitious D.A. wants to ensure he gets credit for bringing down “the organisation”. But the man is killed, and Bullitt knows something is seriously wrong. The dead man was not in fact the mobster, so Bullitt has two tasks: to find the killers, and to find the real witness. He must also fend off both the ambitions politician (played creepily by Robert Vaughn) but also the mob (who want the victim truly dead).
     Bullitt’s an honest cop who doesn’t like being pushed around by VIPs. He goes his own way to find his quarry, but knows how to work with his team. At the turning point, he sees he’s being followed, so he dekes up a side street and begins to follow the car that pursued him. It turns into a deadly chase, one that film makers have studied and borrowed from ever since. I recall seeing it on a large screen. It looks pretty good on the smaller TV screen, too. It really is one of the best ever filmed. Many of its tricks have become standard, so anyone seeing this movie for the first time would probably be somewhat blase about the car chase.
     The plot is intricate but clearly delineated, step by procedural step. Steve McQueen’s Bullitt is laconic, unwilling to show his deeper feelings (there’s a perfunctory love subplot), and he’s finally worn down by the violence he must perforce witness and commit. The final act shows us another classic sequence, a chase across the runways of the airport at night.
     A good movie, well worth seeing again, or for the first time. ***
     Rear Window (1954) [D: Alfred Hitchcock. James Stewart, Grace Kelly] I remember hearing about this movie while we were in England for a couple of months before coming to Canada. For some reason, I was not supposed to see it, and I never did. Instead, my siblings and I went to the Cinema Club on Saturdays, which offered a serial, a short feature, a couple of cartoons, and one or more documentaries, along with an opportunity to buy a Walls Ice Cream bar. Did I miss much? Yes, it’s a very well done movie, and I would have enjoyed it a lot, even though I would have missed a lot of the adult jokes and innuendos. In the intervening years I’ve seen hundreds of movies, I’ve learned to “read” a movie very quickly, and the stories of these old ones from the 50s and earlier seem slow-moving, and their tropes and conventions quaint. But I’ve also learned to see how a movie is constructed, and to appreciate the skill with which it’s put together. Hitchcock was a master, no question. It’s a pleasure to see him give us the impression of a busy, crowded almost-community of apartment-dwellers who share a courtyard. The secondary stories also help to extend what would be a very short featurette into a full-length movie.
     The main story is quite short: L B Jeffries, convalescing from a leg injury, amuses himself by watching his neighbours from the rear window of his two-room apartment. He becomes convinced that a salesman living opposite has killed his nagging invalid wife. He’s proven right, but nearly loses his life when the killer comes to his apartment and demands an explanation. Only the last-minute intervention by the police detective who initially disbelieves his story saves him. On this simple tale  Hitchcock hangs enough complexities that we enjoy watching the movie for its almost two-hour length.
     The movie was skilfully restored in 1988, well before digital technology was available, and looks very good. Yes, it is slow compared to today’s movies. Yes, it is a contrived story. But the acting is superb. We know we are in the stylised universe of pulp fiction, but Hitchcock was always able to get the kind of performance out his actors that make us believe the characters were real people. ***½

     Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall (2011) As in Doyle’s original tale, Sherlock Holmes falls to his death, while Moriarty dies. But at the end, we see that Holmes has survived. Otherwise, a wonderfully realised series of new twists, with more insight into Holmes’ character (who in this version is emotionally much more complex). Moriarty is shown as a psychopath who has despaired, decides to suicide, and has arranged to use psychological pressure to force Holmes to jump. This insight, based on modern insights into this type of personality, makes Moriarty an almost tragic character.
     What else can I say? It’s not often that re-imagining of a character is as well done as here. The creators have conceived of this as a video series, not a text, and that makes all the difference. They also rely on our ability, well-trained in watching movies as we are, to follow jump-cuts, montages, multiple exposures, shifting camera angles, layered sound, and very fast and minimal narration in brief snatches of dialogue. They also expect us to watch this movie, our grasp of the narrative depends on the visuals.
     These movies are like collages, they create the illusion of a far more complex world than any one of their elements can induce. But in a well-made collage we see that complexity more clearly. Summarising this movie is difficult in text, I won’t attempt it. If you can see a rerun, watch it. I intend to do so. It also helps to have a large screen and large sound.
     Afterthought: we need a word for a fictional character who has become a part of our culture as much as any real person has. ****   

       Raising Arizona (1987) [D:Joel Coen. Nicholas Cage, Holly Hunter] An early Coen brothers movie, this demonstrates their clear-eyed gaze at ordinary people, and genius for making the ordinary strange and the strange ordinary.
     Nicolas Cage is H. I. McDonough, a small-time crook who likes to hold up convenience stores, using an unloaded gun. He falls for Edwina (Holly Hunter), the mug-shot photographer. They marry, but she can’t conceive, so they steal one of a set of quints because their parents say five babies is more than they can handle. Just the kind of story that makes the News of the Weird (, in fact.
     As you might guess, the results are a wonderful mix of the funny, the sentimental, the cruel, the kind, the logical, the silly. Complicating factors are a couple of prison escapees, H. I.’s friends, and bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall Cobb). Great chase scenes, spectacular fights, and every character has enough hints of a backstory that we feel ourselves living in a real world. After all, we don’t know much more about our neighbours than we learn about the secondary characters in this (or any) movie. Everything ends well, since this is a comedy, not just a funny movie. We thoroughly enjoyed it. I found our VHS copy at a yard sale, but can't recall when or where. ***

      The Eagle Has Landed (1976) [D: John Sturges. Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Donald Sutherland] Well done adventure romance (“action movie”) about a Nazi attempt to capture Winston Churchill. IOW, a fantasy. Caine plays the leader of a paratroop unit tapped for this crazy job, Duvall the Colonel who backs the plan, Hagman a crazy Texan who itches for combat, Sutherland a much too pleasant IRA member, and Pleasence is Himmler.
     The set-up gives us the back-stories: Caine is a romantic, with far too much sense of honour. An intervention in the deportation of Jews earns him a court-martial, but he’s too skilled not to be called on for this job. Duvall is a cynical careerist, who accepts what fate serves up to him. Pleasence sees a chance for additional glory and approval from the Fuehrer. Sutherland wants to go home to Ireland. The English village is a backwater that has so far escaped the war. The Germans pretend to be a unit of the Free Polish army on manoeuvres. This works well until one of them jumps into the mill-race to save a child, and loses not only his life but most of his Polish uniform, revealing his Wehrmacht colours underneath. At this point, as things begin to go wrong, and the writer’s problem is to make the consequences seem both inevitable and controllable, and to mix in as many possibilities of reversal as possible. Random factors of course always intervene, but the outcome, as expected, is much death, and the failure of the mission, with credit for heroism and honour about equally divided between the Germans and the Allies.
     Well-plotted, well-paced, stereotyped characters, pop-history level, with the odd touch of realism to temper the fantasy. The Wehrmacht characters are too good to be true, but Pleasence does a very nice interpretation of Himmler. The most realistic parts  take place in Nazi Germany, with a nice mix of bureaucracy, careerism, cynicism, and paranoia. ***

      Starting Out in the Evening (2007) [D: Andrew Wagner. Frank Langella, Lili Taylor, Lauren Ambrose] Heather Wolfe (Ambrose) approaches Leonard Schuller (Langella) because she wants to write an M.A. thesis about him, bring his books back into public notice, and by so doing create a career for herself.  She flatters him as a writer and a person, and “brings some excitement into an old man’s life.” Schuller suffers from an inability to finish his novel (which will likely not be published anyway). Meanwhile, Leonard’s daughter Ariel (Taylor) has biological clock and relationship problems. The movie explores these relationships, and makes us care about the old man. Heather’s questions reveal both the insight of an intelligent reader and naivete about the creative process. Schuller’s answers display an old-fashioned dignity and reticence about personal matters. Ariel and her lover are caught between principle and love.
     It’s a complicated mix, which the movie presents rather than explores. It does so with sudden cuts, and slow narration of each scene, expecting us to have the patience to discover its place in plot and theme. Langella’s performance is rivetting, and saves the film from teetering over the edge into sentimental suffering-artist romanticism.
     The slow pace also distances us from the characters by giving us plenty of time to become aware of our responses. Paradoxically, this also gives us time to consider the questions answered in hints rather than revelations, and realise that people will make the best of what they have. Problems are either abandoned, or resolved through compromises.
     Leonard suffers a stroke, which changes all his relationships. When Heather visits, and patronises him by suggesting that “she has good feelings” about his unfinished novel, her patronising tone provokes the only unkind outburst by Leonard: a slap in the face. She walks out of his life into what will likely be a life of satisfying moments as a writer or academic. Ariel and her partner may or may not have the child that Ariel desperately wants: at 40, the odds are against her, but her partner has accepted that he must agree to participate in the hope of a child. Leonard has given up on his novel: the characters haven’t done anything interesting, and will never do so. But he must write or die. The movie ends with Leonard sitting at his typewriter and starting a new book.
     It’s an oddly compelling movie. ***

     Margaret (2009) This is not The Iron Lady, but a docudrama following Margaret Thatcher’s last few weeks in power. It was made by the BBC well before The Iron Lady went into production. I think it’s a very good movie.
     The depiction of political infighting is very well done, especially the dialogue freighted with multiple meanings, the body language, the covert glances. It seems Thatcher succumbed to the leader's sickness: she saw herself as indispensable. She wasn’t, of course; worse, she had become a liability. There have been few political leaders who went quietly. My cursory examination of the evidence suggests that the more ideology figures in a leader’s political ambition, the less likely (s)he is to depart willingly. The extreme case is of course the dictator, most of whom seem to have begun as ideologues. There is also narcissism, which in Thatcher’s case was stoked by Dennis Thatcher's unapologetic admiration and uncritical support. It’s only at the end, when he sees how much she will be hurt if she is ousted, that he tries to persuade her to step down.
     I don’t know how accurately the movie portrays Thatcher’s character, nor do I know what the narrative omits or skews, but it has the ring of truth. The Brits have always been very good at capturing the meanness of political infighting.  ***

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