Thursday, 28 January 2021

Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)

David Niven and Cantinflas head Around the World in Eight Days in this Oscar-winning epic

Director: Michael Anderson
Cast: David Niven (Phileas Fogg), Cantinflas (Passepartout), Shirley MacLaine (Princess Aouda), Robert Newton (Inspector Fix), Charles Boyer (Monsieur Gasse), Joe E. Brown (Stationmaster), John Carradine (Colonel Proctor), Charles Coburn (Steamship clerk), Ronald Colman (Railway official), Melville Cooper (Mr Talley), Noel Coward (Roland Hesketh-Baggott), Finlay Currie (Andrew Stuart), Marlene Dietrich (Hostess), Fernandel (Paris coachman), Hermione Gingold (Sporting lady #1), Cedric Hardwicke (Sir Francis Cromarty), John Gielgud (Foster), Trevor Howard (Denis Fallentin), Glynis Johns (Sporting lady #2), Evelyn Keyes (Paris flirt), Buster Keaton (Train conductor), Beatrice Lille (Revivalist), Peter Lorre (Steward), Victor McLaglen (SS Henrietta helmsman), John Mills (London coachman), Robert Morley (Gauthier Ralph), Jack Oakie (SS Henrietta captain), George Raft (Bouncer), Frank Sinatra (Piano player), Red Skelton (Drunk), Harcourt Williams (Hinshaw)

In the 1950s, cinema struggled to encourage people to come out of their homes and leave that picture box in the corner behind. Big technicolour panoramas and famous faces was what the movies could offer that TV couldn’t. This led to a trend in filmmaking that perhaps culminated in 1956 with Around the World in Eighty Days triumphing among one of the weakest Best Picture slates ever seen at the Oscars. Around the World had everything cinema knew it could do well: big, screen-filling shots of exotic locations filmed in gorgeous colour; and in almost every frame some sort of famous name the audience could have fun spotting. It’s perhaps more of a coffee table book mixed with a red carpet rather than a narrative film: entertaining, but overlong.

Faithfully following Jules Verne’s original novel (with added balloon trips), Phileas Fogg (David Niven) is a punctilious and precise Englishman of the old school, whose life is run like clockwork and whose only passion is whist. Nevertheless he accepts a challenge from his fellow members of the Reform Club (among them Trevor Howard, Robert Morley and Finlay Currie) to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days or less. Setting off with his manservant – the recently hired, accident prone Passeportout (Cantinflas) – Fogg races around the world, from Paris to Cairo to India to Hong Kong to Japan to San Francisco. Along the way he rescues Princess Aouda (Shirley Maclaine) from death by human sacrifice in India and has to confront the suspicions of Inspector Fix (Robert Newton) who is convinced that Fogg is responsible for a huge theft at the Bank of England. Can Fogg make it back to the Reform Club hall on time to win his bet?

Around the World was the brain-child of its producer Michael Todd. A noted Broadway producer, Todd had been looking to make a similar splash in the movies. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he decided the finest way to do this (after the mixed success of a movie version of Oklahoma) was to produce something that‘s pretty much akin to a massive Broadway variety show. Around the World – as you would expect – is an incredibly episodic film, seemingly designed to be broken down into a number of small sequences either to showcase the scene’s guest star or to provide comic opportunities for Cantinflas to display his Chaplinesque physical comedy.

That and lots of opportunities for some lovely scenic photography. Nearly every major sequence is bridged with luscious photography capturing some exotic part of the world – from the coast of Asia to the Great American Plains. It’s pretty clear this is a major attraction of the film: come to the movies and see those parts of the world you’ve always dreamed of, just for the price of a movie ticket! Surely introduction of a hot air balloon to allow Fogg and Cantinflas to travel from Paris to Spain was purely to allow lovely aerial shots of the French countryside and chateaux. It’s the sort of film that proudly trumpeted in its publicity the number of locations (112 in 13 countries!), the vast number of extras (68,894!) and even the number of animals (15 elephants! 17 fighting bulls! 3,800 sheep!). It’s all about the scale.

That scale also carries across to the guest cameos. Between enjoying the scenic photography, viewers can have fun spotting cameos. Can that really be Noel Coward running that employment agency! The chap who owns the balloon, I’d swear that’s Charles Boyer! Wait that steward: that’s Peter Lorre! Good lord that’s Charles Coburn selling Fogg tickets for the steamer! Oh my, Buster Keaton is helping them to their seats on the train! Marlene Dietrich is running that saloon – and good grief that’s Frank Sinatra playing the piano! Most of the stars enter into the spirit of the thing, even if they frequently start their shots with backs to the camera, before turning to reveal their star-studded magnificence. Sadly time has faded some of the face recognition here, not helped by David Niven (perfectly cast as the urbane and profoundly English Fogg, so precise that his idea of romantic talk is to recount past games of whist) probably today being one of the most famous people in it.

Todd marshals all this with consummate showman skill. It’s handsome, very well mounted and generally entertaining – even if it is painfully long (it’s not quite told in real time, but can feel like it at points). The film is nominally directed by Michael Anderson. However, I think it’s pretty clear his job was effectively to point the camera at the things Michael Todd had lined up (be they location or stars) – Todd had already dismissed the original director, John Farrow, after a day’s shooting for not being sufficiently ”co-operative”. To be honest it’s fine as this is an entertainment bereft of personality, instead focused on being “more is more”.

Part of its extended runtime is due to the long comedic sequences given to Cantinflas. A charming performer – and possibly the most famous comedian in Latin-America at the time – Cantinflas can be seen doing everything from bicycle riding, to bull fighting (for a prolonged time), to gymnastics to horseback riding. (Far different from the unflappable and spotless English gentleman Niven is playing.) Your enjoyment of this may depend on how far your patience lasts. I’m not sure mine quite managed to last the course. Sadly one of Cantinflas’ greatest comedic weapons, his Spanish wordplay, was completely lost in translation.

There are some decent sections. The iconic balloon flight is well mounted and gives the most impressive images (the famously vertigo-suffering Niven was replaced by a double for much of this). Others, like the bullfight or an interminable parade in San Francisco go on forever. The casting of Shirley MacLaine as an Indian princess is an uncomfortable misstep (even at the time MacLaine felt she was painfully miscast), made worse by an offensive “human sacrifice” storyline – that got cut when the film was screened in India. Robert Newton though is very good value as the misguided but officious Inspector Fix.

Around the World in Eighty Days is grand, handsomely mounted entertainment. But to consider it as a Best Picture winner feels very strange. It’s not a lot more than an entertaining variety show, its plot impossibly slight (made to feel even more so by its vastly over-extended run time). While you can enjoy it in pieces, it finally goes on too long for its own good. Entertainingly slight as it is, it’s still one of the weakest Best Picture winners ever.

Monday, 25 January 2021

The Searchers (1956)

Jeffrey Hunter and John Wayne on a long search, in John Ford's exploration of racism in the West The Searchers

Director: John Ford
Cast: John Wayne (Ethan Edwards), Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley), Vera Miles (Laurie Jorgensen), Ward Bond (Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton), Natalie Wood (Debbie Edwards), John Qualen (Lars Jorgensen), Olive Carey (Mrs Jorgensen), Henry Brandon (Scar), Beulah Archuletta (Look), Ken Curtis (Charlie McCorry), Harry Carey Jnr (Brad Jorgensen), Hank Warden (Mose Harper), Dorothy Jordan (Martha Edwards), Walter Coy (Aaron Edwards), Pippa Scott (Lucy Edwards)

John Ford’s career was a long tribute to the decency of the regular American. How fascinating then that one of his greatest films is in fact a dark investigation into the dangers of obsession, vengeance and prejudice in ordinary Americans. Working with his regular leading man, John Wayne, together they created a character who shared many qualities with Ford’s other leading men – a rugged, determined, taciturn man of the wilderness – but laced him with deeply negative attitudes and a horrendously damaged psyche. The Searchers becomes a masterpiece, presenting how narrow the line between hero and villain can be while – in an admittedly very gentle way – posing questions about the claims of the settlers to moral superiority.

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother’s homestead from an unspecified (though clearly morally questionable) career as a gun for hire after fighting for the confederacy (a cause he sees no reason to disavow). He’s an awkward presence, with an unspoken love for his brother Aaron’s (Walter Coy) wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and a racial hostility towards their adopted son Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) who is one-eighth Cherokee. Shortly after his arrival, an Indian raid draws him and most of the local men on a futile chase. While they are gone, the Edwards’ homestead is destroyed, with the family all murdered except daughter Debbie. Ethan and Martin begin what becomes a five-year quest to find her and bring her home – although as he discovers Debbie has become wife to her kidnapper, the war chief Scar (Henry Brandon), Ethan’s aim shifts from rescue to executing Debbie for racial disloyalty.

Racism is what lies at the heart of The Searchers and around discussions of the film today. Firstly, let’s acknowledge how brave the film is in presenting Ethan’s racially motivated rage without excuse. This was after all John Wayne, the straightest shooter of the lot. Here, in no doubt his greatest ever performance, Wayne’s Mount Rushmore-like qualities are inverted into a bitter, lonely man whose murderous rage against the Native Americans is extreme, even within an environment which sees the tribes as a dangerous “other”.

Edwards’ racism tips into everything and is there right from the start: “I could mistake you for a half breed” he scowls at Martin. Later he will prevent Martin drinking alcohol – a clear reference to the belief among settlers that one drop of alcohol turns Indians into savage beasts. One of his first actions on the trail is to desecrate the buried corpse of an Indian, shooting out his eyes (condemning him to walk sightless in the afterlife). In a gunfight he has to be stopped from shooting retreating Indians in the back. Later, in a crazed fury, he guns down buffalo simply to deny them as food to the tribes. That’s not to mention his disgust with every trace of indigenous culture.

What’s striking watching the film is that, even though he’s the central character and is played by John Wayne, Ethan may well actually be the villain of the piece – or at best an anti-hero wild card. Our actual hero is the kindly, decent and brave Martin Pawley, played with a slight nervousness by Jeffrey Hunter. Martin is appalled by Ethan’s violence, his anger and above all by his plan for enforcing racial harmony by exterminating the niece he sees as a race traitor. It’s not just the fact he has Cherokee blood that makes Martin appalled by the danger in Ethan. It’s the simple fact that he’s just a decent guy, who recognises that good and bad isn’t a question of race but a question of people. And his presence on the quest, it’s made clear, is as much about protecting Debbie from Ethan as it is finding and rescuing her.

You can see these attitudes quite clearly late in the film, where the pair encounter white women who have been recovered from Indian kidnappers. These women are confused and traumatised. But while Martin attempts to communicate with and comfort them, to Ethan they are worse than nothing now. “They ain’t white anymore” he scowls at a soldier. Leaving them, Ford holds the shot on Wayne who turns to look back at them with a face dripping with such disgust and loathing, it sears into the memory.

Does the film condemn these attitudes? You can argue that the film plays into a racial nightmare – white women kidnapped and violated by savage tribesmen. But Ford is, I’d suggest, presenting racism here – and going as far as he could in the 1950s to attack it. Ethan and Martin encounter an Indian settlement that has been attacked by the cavalry. The settlement is a burnt-out husk, with Indian women and children among those indiscriminately slain – visually it is immediately reminiscent of the burnt-out Edwards homestead. Another later cavalry charge against the Indians will again see panicked women and children flee in terror. Even Scar, the villain of the piece, is motivated just like Ethan by anger – his actions are a response to the murder of two of his children. And his scalping, rape and murder don’t look so different from Ethan, who shoots people in the back, plans to murder his niece and later scalps a dead man.

The Searchers takes a slightly nihilistic view that the West was a violent place – for all the beauty Ford discovers in his crisply sublime shots of monument valley – and that many of the people in it had questionable motives and principles. A ”hero” for this time might well be Ethan, a sullen and violent man under a veneer of gentlemanly politeness, clearly motivated from the start far more by a desire for revenge for the murder of the woman he loves. Ford, Wayne and Jordan establish this love between Ethan and Martha subtly but unmistakably – the opening scenes are littered with moments of the two of them sharing glances and a hesitant but unmistakeable physical intimacy.

Again, a lot of the quality of this comes back to the wonderful work Ford draws from Wayne, helping the actor to find the cracks and flaws in this marble bust of Americanism. Wayne’s Ethan is awkward, angry, distant, difficult, cruel – a natural outsider, who has grown bitter against the world. Discovering Martha’s body, Wayne also allows Ethan to crumple into the sort of grief that translates within seconds into an iron loathing for the world and everything in it. He talks of the certainty of finding Debbie – but it’s a certainty born more of his idea of his own superior (white) determination rather than any faith (for all the language could suggest that). Ethan is in fact hostile and contemptuous of faith of any sort.

Ford frames Ethan frequently as an outsider, often framed uncomfortably in doorways, darkened walls seeming to close around him. Nowhere is this more beautifully done than in the film’s final shot which finds Ethan alone and forgotten outside the Jorgensen homestead, a man who has no place in the civilised world of family and friends, but an outsider with no place anywhere who must return to the wilderness. Wayne does this with a quiet, deflating gentleness – a beautiful suggestion of Ethan’s knowledge that the world is leaving him behind. Ford frames this beautifully in mid-shot to create one of the iconic images of cinema.

The Searchers
isn’t perfect. There is a prolonged, slightly comic, sub-plot around Martin’s marriage to Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles in a thankless part), which culminates in the sort of fisticuff based comic stuff that looks more suited to The Quiet Man than here. The beautiful shots of monument valley are brilliantly done – but they also serve to point out the odd decision to shoot many of the exteriors on such obviously fake soundstages. While the film questions the attitudes and assumptions made about the Native American people in Hollywood films, the violent figure of Scar is the only Native American character given any real screen time (Martin’s accidental “wife” Look is treated as a joke, right up to her surprisingly tragic fate), making it easier to still see the tribes as an existential threat to civilisation, for all that Ford tries to contrast their suffering with the death of the settlers.

But Ford was trying to sneak something in here under the wire, at a time when people would only accept straight-forward stories of goodies and baddies in the West. He did this by turning Wayne for a pillar of taciturn goodness into someone who is almost a mirror image of his nemesis Scar, both men motivated by racial hatred. He parallels the violence of the Indians with the cavalry. He suggests in fact that there was good and bad on both sides. And I can’t think of another film where the viewer is convinced for a huge portion of the runtime that our hero intends to carry out an honour killing. The Searchers presents a man who holds racist views and trusts that we are smart enough to see the danger in Ethan’s extremism. Thankfully most of us are. 

Friday, 22 January 2021

Ice Station Zebra (1968)

Rock Hudson takes command in the rather turgid cold war thriller Ice Station Zebra

Director: John Sturges
Cast: Rock Hudson (Commander James Farraday), Ernest Borgnine (Boris Vaslov), Patrick McGoohan (David Jones), Jim Brown (Captain Leslie Anders), Tony Bill (Lt Russell Walker), Lloyd Nolan (Admiral Garvey), Alf Kjellin (Colonel Ostrovsky)

Rumour has it that Howard Hughes loved this movie so much, he insisted on the Las Vegas TV broadcaster he owned to screen the film over 100 times. For most of the rest of us, once will probably be enough to take in all the fun that can be pulled out of this sub-par Alistair MacLean Cold War thriller, a poor relation to The Guns of the Navarone and Where Eagles Dare

It’s the middle of the Cold War and US submarine commander Jam
es Farraday (Rock Hudson) is ordered to the North Pole to rescue a British scientific team. However that mission is just a cover for the real goal – something to do with retrieving a top secret gizmo from a crashed satellite. Farraday is ordered to transport British intelligence agent “David Jones” (Patrick McGoohan) to the Pole, who has bought Soviet defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) along with him. En route, sabotage nearly downs the sub, and on arrival the base has been nearly destroyed. Looks like there is a traitor on board – but is it Boris or recently arrived marine Captain Leslie Anders (Jim Brown)? Who can tell?

To be honest most people watching the film. It’s one of many not-particularly-intriguing mysteries in a hopelessly over-extended film that takes nearly two hours to get going, and then crams its paper-thin characters into a series of adventures that bounce from dull to cliché with giddy haste. Directed with a professional lack of engagement by John Sturges (who could believe the director of Bad Day at Black Rock and The Great Escape could have made something as flat as this?).

It’s a film that mistakes lack of explanations and rushed conclusions for intriguing mystery. There is barely enough actual plot here to sustain an hour and a half let alone the nearly two and a half hours the film takes to get nowhere in particular. The middle of the film is given over to a series of submarine escapades that would have already felt familiar at the time from The Enemy Below and have been bettered since in countless submarine films. From deep dives to furiously leaking compartments, there isn’t anything particularly new here.

When we finally arrive at the polar base, there is finally some decent mystery – as well as a haunting atmosphere – as the characters explore the badly damaged base and its traumatised residents (You can see how this film influenced John Carpenter as he directed The Thing). Sadly, what the film hasn’t managed to do up to this point is make us care at all about any of the characters. Rock Hudson, never a particularly inspiring performer, makes a dry and unengaging lead (first choice Gregory Peck would have made the world of difference). Patrick McGoohan does his best as the mysterious British agent, but the character is so lightly written that you never really feel particularly intrigued by his mystery. Ernest Borgnine chews the scenery as the ex-Pat Soviet while Jim Brown is serviceable as the marine captain. Virtually no other character makes any real impact.

The film culminates eventually in a confusing stand-off between the Americans and the Soviets, until the villains reveal themselves and a détente that doesn’t end up destroying the world is revealed. That’s about the sum total of interest the film can spark. Other than that, it’s slow pace, unengaging characters, uninvolving plot and unoriginal action make it a great deal of fuss about nothing in particular. Howard Hughes may have wanted to watch it a hundred times. You probably won’t want to.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Cate Blanchett returns as Elizabeth I in the slightly underwhelming Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Director: Shekhar Kapur
Cast: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth I), Geoffrey Rush (Sir Francis Walsingham), Clive Owen (Sir Walter Raleigh), Abbie Cornish (Bess Throckmorton), Samantha Morton (Mary Queen of Scots), Jordi Molla (King Philip II), Susan Lynch (Annette Fleming), Rhys Ifans (Robert Reston), Eddie Redmayne (Anthony Babington), Tom Hollander (Amias Paulet), David Threlfall (John Dee), Steven Robertson (Sir Francis Throckmorton), Adam Godley (William Walsingham), Laurence Fox (Sir Christopher Hatton), William Houston (Guerae de Espes)

Its 1585 and the reign of Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) has seen England enter a Golden Age. But tensions are rising with the Spanish and their king Philip II (Jordi Molla). The Spanish plot to replace the protestant Elizabeth on the throne with the catholic Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), sending their agents (including the likes of Rhys Ifans and Eddie Redmayne) to England to ferment rebellion. Can Elizabeth’s trusted advisor Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) root out this potential rebellion? Or could this be a trap to lure England into a naval war with Spain and its chilling armada of ships?

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a late sequel to the more influential Elizabeth, which mixed in the ruthlessness of The Godfather, with a sprinkling of sex in a darkly tinged Elizabeth England which seemed to drip conspiracy (setting the tone for costume dramas for the next ten years at least). Compared to its original, Elizabeth: The Golden Age seems a much more traditional piece of filmmaking. It’s luscious and handsomely filmed, with the darkness and oppression of the original replaced with golden hued lighting, sumptuous (Oscar-winning) costumes and some very impressive set-designs, all of which help to point up the glamour of the past in a way that seems much more similar to a 1970s epic than the more inventive work of the original.

It’s a part of the film’s idea of the country now enjoying the glory Elizabeth’s reign has bought, with the dark corridors replaced by the bright lights of peace and opulence. The film’s reimagining of Tudor history does still present some interesting perspectives, not least in the character of Elizabeth. Now firmly in middle-age – and committed to a life of celibate singledom – Cate Blanchett’s regally imperious Elizabeth is still emotionally vulnerable with a deep sense of longing in her. Unable to live the life of romantic freedom she could in her youth, she now lives an emotional life vicariously through her ladies in waiting, particularly Abbie Cornish’s sharp and knowing Bess Throckmorton.

This focuses on Elizabeth alternating between encouraging and discouraging (due to her own half-realised romantic longing) a romance between Bess and famed explorer Walter Raleigh. Played by Clive Owen at his most buccaneering (with an accent that playfully lies between Norfolk and New England, suggesting the American accent came from Raleigh), Raleigh bewitches the Queen with exciting tales of abroad – but with her unable to flirt with him fully as she wishes, Bess is encouraged to dance intimately with him among other romantic gestures. The most important thing throughout for Elizabeth is that it is she controls and dictates the relationship – and when the couple start to make their own decisions, it leads to disaster.

It’s all part of Michael Hirst’s (here sharing script writing duties with William Nicholson) imaginative reinvention of Tudor history (remixed into an exciting version of what could have happened). This also comes together very nicely in an interesting conspiracy thriller take on the Babington plot and the goals of the Spanish to use it to manipulate both Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. The film is at its strongest when playing with historical expectations.

However, too often it plays into the sort of “Britain Triumphant” nonsense that made Michael Gove on release (and you imagine Laurence Fox today – here popping up as Christopher Hatton) thrilled. The British characters – Elizabeth, Raleigh, Walsingham – are brave, charismatic, ingenious and attractive. The villainous Spanish are thick-lipped, spittle flecked, bad-haired meanies with Philip II literally a sinister limping hunchback. No scene in Spain is complete without dark lighting, chanting monks, massive crucifixes and a general air of oppression. When ships sink, the camera doesn’t miss the chance to capture a crucifix sinking to the bottom of the briny. The Babington conspirators plot out of a dyers shop, where blood red dye drips all around them. The plot culminates in a “just missed her” point blank gun confrontation (the film’s most silly flourish). Subtle it ain’t.

And also it feels a more Little Englander. Whereas the first film saw as much darkness and dirty dealing among the British as it did Europe, this film feels like a “Britain Stands Alone” against treacherous, lecherous, sanctimonious (or all three) Europeans. Sure the Armada was a terrific win for Britain – here with much of the credit reassigned to Raleigh who steers fire ships into the path of the Spanish ships (Drake is reimagined as a lumpen bureaucrat dazzled by Raleigh’s pizzazz) – but it owed as much (as even the Tudors themselves admitted) to the weather and luck as it did bravery and skill. Unlike the first film, Elizabeth: The Golden Age seems determined to define European and Catholic as suspiciously “other”. It makes for a less rewarding film.

And a less interesting one. For all its playing with psychology, this is a very much more traditional costume drama, celebrating Merrie Olde Englande in a way the original film challenged us to question our expectations. Kapur and Hirst settle for spectacle and style, over drama and truth. Blanchett is impressive as always – and the rest of the cast very sound – but this is a sequel that only lives as a counterpoint for the original.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Morocco (1930)

Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper romance in the heat of Morocco

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Cast: Gary Cooper (Legionnaire Tom Brown), Marlene Dietrich (Mademoiselle Amy Jolly), Adolphe Menjou (La Bessiere), Ulrich Haupt (Adjutant Caesar), Eve Southern (Madame Caesar), Francis McDonald (Sergeant), Paul Porcasi (Lo Tinto)

Josef von Sternberg was one of the greatest directors of early cinema – and Marlene Dietrich was his muse. Or was he her Svengali? Either way, they first worked together on German film The Blue Angel and such was the impression made by Dietrich, Hollywood was desperate to get her and von Sternberg together for a new picture that would channel her star power into ticket sales. Morocco is the picture they come up with, a romance tinged with heartbreak set in French occupied-Morocco around a Foreign Legion troop passing through town.

Dietrich was Amy Jolly, a woman of uncertain and shady past, new in town and making a living as a night club singer. There here routine encompasses everything from erotic singing in top hat and tails (complete with a bisexual vibe – you can tell this is pre-Code Hollywood?) to an apple selling singing routine. She’s loved by La Bessiere (a rather bland Adolphe Menjou), a stuffed shirt rich guy. But her heart belongs to man’s-man legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), a toughened old soldier with a girl in every barracks town. Who will Amy end up with? Will she follow her heart or her head? Can she bear to live the life of a soldier’s mistress amongst the camp followers?

Writing it all down, there are probably few mysteries about the resolution you get from Morocco, which even at its 90 minute run time feels like an impossibly slim piece of fluff. But that hardly really matters when von Sternberg shoots the film with a romantic flourish and with Dietrich and Cooper as such compelling leads. It’s odd to think, looking at it now, that Morocco was acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made on release (it’s not even the best or most lasting Dietrich/von Sternberg Hollywood collaboration of which there were five more to come).

But it lasts in history because it introduced Dietrich to the wider world. Von Sternberg took control over every aspect of her image to best present her to the world – including a torturous 45 takes of her first line (because after all the first line was the one that will make the first impression on an audience). Von Sternberg and cinematographer Lee Garmes choose lighting methods and angles that would enhance her features, and shot huge parts of the film to favour her (much to the annoyance of Gary Cooper, who resented von Sternberg’s shunting of him to the sidelines).

Von Sternberg was determined that Dietrich would make an impression: and she certainly did with her cabaret act, still probably the film’s highlight. Dressed in a striking male garb, her rendition of When Love Dies is sold on her confidence, sexual allure and tinge of bisexuality (viewers were scandalised and titalated that the routine ended with Dietrich playfully kissing a woman in the audience) to make a lasting impact. Von Sternberg lets the tension build as well by holding the camera calmly on Dietrich (in drag) while the audience at first boo before silencing and then being swept up in her performances. This is the approach taken for the rest of the film – and its rather weak plot – focusing on the a magnetic quality, the indefinable star quality some people have to just make you watch them.

It’s recognised by von Sternberg, who builds the film around her. It’s tempting to see Adolphe Menjou – the jilted would-be husband, in awe of the star – as a von Sternberg self-portrait, dressed as he is to resemble the director. But von Sternberg felt so confident over his control of Dietrich and her career, I suspect there is actually far more of him in lothario Tom Brown, the sort of man who may love a woman but also very much likes her to submit her will to his own. Brown may have his moments of decency – he wants Amy to have the best chance in life, which is clearly with La Bessiere rather than him – but he’s also an at times ruthless opportunist and adventurer, with a string of broken hearts behind him. Interestingly, considering their later films and her reputation, Dietrich’s Jolly is actually a fairly passive figure throughout the film, to whom events happen and who never feels in charge of her destiny. Perhaps more than a little of life drippling through to the screen?

Saying that the film has some bite in it, with the dialogue from Jules Furthman often rich, rough and ready, creating characters who speak at times bluntly but with a sort of urban poetry. Sadly, the dialogue scenes are often frequently the dullest in the film. Von Sternberg was still at the time a natural director of silent film, not the talkies. Hollywood itself had still not really learned how to do record dialogue and do camera movements at the same time, so most of the dialogue scenes are visually flat and rather forced (not helped by the storyline itself being often less then enthralling).

Where Morocco really comes into its own is when it falls back on visuals. As a director of pictures, von Sternberg is outstanding. The camera perfectly captures the bustle of the Moroccan market town. There is a beautiful sequence where Amy raises through a seemingly never-ending row of soldiers to try and find Tom. The Morocco in this film may bear almost no resemblance to the real Morocco – it’s clearly a Hollywood fantasy land – but it also looks at no time like it was shot on a Hollywood backlot. Tom Brown’s slow and sad browse through Amy’s dressing room, before deciding he should leave for her own good is hauntingly well done in near total silence, matched with beautifully empathetic camera moves. The final imagery, as our heroes head out into the sands of Morocco, is marvellous, a perfect collection of shots and reactions leading to an image for the ages.

And Morocco is a film of images strung together with a rather dull plot and a very stilted scenes of dialogue. Marlene Dietrich is at the centre of many of these images. This was her only Oscar nomination – but it’s not her finest performance. She’s still learning her craft and – above all you feel – still very much an elaborate prop for von Sternberg. The more they became something like equals the stronger the pictures would become. Gary Cooper was unhappy on the film – but actually his performance is remarkably strong and assured, dripping sexuality (von Sternberg also works a lovely little scene that pokes fun at Cooper’s height).

Morocco seems like a landmark of cinema that is of greater academic interest at times than it is dramatic. But when the dialogue fades away and the film is able to relax into the series of arresting images that make up most of it, it’s still a marvellous and intriguing work.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Mank (2020)

Gary Oldman excels as Herman J Mankiewicz in David Fincher's bitter Hollywood epic Mank

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Gary Oldman (Herman J Mankiewicz), Amanda Seyfried (Marion Davies), Lily Collins (Rita Alexander), Arliss Howard (Louis B Mayer), Tom Pelphrey (Joseph L Mankiewicz), Charles Dance (William Randolph Hearst), Sam Troughton (John Houseman), Ferdinand Kingsley (Louis B Mayer), Tuppence Middleton (Sara Mankiewicz), Tom Burke (Orson Welles), Joseph Cross (Charles Lederer), Jamie McShane (Shelly Metcalfe), Toby Leonard Moore (David O Selznick)

It’s 80 years old, but age has not dimmed Citizen Kane’s mystique, still one of the greatest films ever made. The story of its creation has intrigued generations, a fascination only increased by the larger-than-life personalities involved, from Orson Welles downwards. David Fincher’s lovingly made, but bitingly shrewd deconstruction of classic Hollywood, explores the creation of the film by focusing on its credited co-writer Herman J Mankiewicz, the film neatly intercutting between the alcoholic Mankiewicz drafting the screenplay while in enforced retreat and Mankiewicz’s prime years as a long-standing writer-for-hire to the major Hollywood studios of the 1930s.

Mankiewicz is played by Gary Oldman (at 62, already seven years older than Mankiewicz was when he died). A noted wit, Mankiewicz makes an excellent living running the writers’ room at Louis B Mayer’s (Arliss Howard) MGM. Mankiewicz views the work of writing films as slightly beneath him, easy money (“Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots” he cables Ben Hecht). Mankiewicz’s sociability eventually finds him an informal role as “court jester” to newspaper tycoon (and MGM bank roller) William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and he builds a warm friendship with Heart’s shrewd mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). The relationship sours, not least as Mankiewicz grows disgusted by the dirty tricks campaign MGM and Hearst launch against the left-wing candidate for governor in 1936. In 1939 Mankiewicz works on the script for Citizen Kane, hired by Orson Welles (Tom Burke) with the support of an assistant Rita (Lily Collins) who helps him craft the words and stay sober long enough to type them.

Fincher’s film can easily be seen as a loving homage to old-school Hollywood. Certainly, Fincher fully embraces creating an impression of a film shot in the era it covers. From the carefully crafted period credits to the slightly distorted sound that apes the echoey on-set recording of classic Hollywood, this is a technical masterpiece. Beautifully shot in a series of sultry black-and-white images, with several visual references to Citizen Kane, it looks simply marvellous. The musical score is a brilliant mixture of Herrmannesque notes and classic Hollywood symphonic music with an edge. Even the casting has a slight old-school Hollywood unreality about it, from Oldman being at least 30 years too old to Amanda Seyfried being too young. Fincher embraces every flourish and stylistic tic from the Golden Era of Hollywood.

But the film is about as far as you can get from wearing rose-tinted glasses. Instead this is a vicious, almost angry, look at Hollywood’s corruption, that owes as much to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Hollywood is a carnival of greed and abuse of power, where art takes a second seat to cold hard cash (“This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That's the real magic of the movies!” Louis B Mayer exclaims). It’s a world where power is abused, lies are peddled to the public (Upton Sinclair, the Democratic candidate for governor, is subtly savaged by MGM-propaganda films) and the rich shamelessly steal from the rest. 

The film doesn’t give a pass to the “talent” either. Mankiewicz and his writers’ room – a who’s who of greats, from Ben Hecht to George S Kaufman, SJ Perelman and Charles MacArthur – are blasé and spend almost as much time playing cards and seducing broads as they do scribbling ideas. Mankiewicz sets the tone, a super-smart wordsmith who thinks the movies are a joke and never invests himself in any of his work, happy to simply pick up a pay cheque. Mankiewicz doesn’t care about the quality of his work, and completely misses (or perhaps doesn’t even understand or care about) the power movies have to enthral people. Anyway, his judgement is terrible, denouncing The Wizard of Oz as an epic disaster in waiting and never bothering to ensure his work receives credit.

Oldman perfectly captures the shambling, slightly rotund and scruffy disdain of Mankiewicz, as well as brilliantly suggesting that the booze and cigarettes are really an aid to try and forget his own disgust and self-loathing. With Oldman’s verbal dexterity triumphant (Mankiewicz actually carries more than a few echoes of his Winston Churchill), Mankiewicz’s real gift (and reason for living) is a clubability and skill at getting on with everyone. He’s the ultimate insider in a profession he thinks is an unworthy joke. It’s what gives him the ability to drop perfectly formed, biting bon mots at the drop of the hat – and this devil-may-care attitude also amuses William Randolph Hearst (a chillingly still and powerful Charles Dance who can turn from congenial to menacing in a moment).

It’s also what wins the friendship of Marion Davies, who Mankiewicz recognises as almost a kindred spirit, a woman of intelligence and sensitivity who is playing a role in an industry she seems to hold in uncertain affection. This is terrific work from Amanda Seyfried in a career best performance, as she invests Marion with both intelligence, but also a touching vulnerability. However, unlike Mankiewicz, she is happy in the role she has been ‘cast in’. It would never occur to her to launch the sort of scathing attack on this gilded set that Mankiewicz’s script for Citizen Kane becomes.

The film is in fact less interested in the writing of this masterpiece than you might expect. Tom Burke makes a wonderfully detailed Orson Welles, but the film shows very little of the conception of creation of the film. It does however make sure to invest most of the credit for story and dialogue with Mankiewicz, with Welles reduced to a petulant tantrum (the inspiration for Kane’s room wrecking) when Mankiewicz demands credit. (The film is in effect a dramatization of Pauline Kael’s Raising Kane essay, which attempted to shift the key creative contribution to Mankiewicz in place of Welles). But then perhaps Mankiewicz has finally realised that films can be a vehicle for work that is worthy and respected.

That is surely the lesson that Mankiewicz learns from the 1936 Gubernatorial campaign. An offhand remark from Mankiewicz inspires MGM to refashion its news reel department into a propaganda machine. Mankiewicz is plagued by guilt, self-loathing and disgust for his employers over this cynical and destructive abuse of power – but also perhaps by his own failure to exploit his skills and talent to be in a position to really make a difference, other than just be an uncredited hired hand (in a way his brother Joseph manages to do).  Again, Fincher’s intelligent and beautifully crafted film leaves all this lingering in the mind, its initial impact only growing over time as you digest its complexities.

However, it is a film perhaps a little absorbed in its detail to keep an eye on the heart. There are several scenes that feel missing. The film needs more of Mankiewicz as the court jester at Hearst’s. It needs more space to allow us to understand where Mankiewicz’s rage and bitterness really comes from. It needs more time to tackle his mixed feelings about his work. More exploration of the foundations of Citizen Kane would not go amiss. The pace sometimes flags and it’s a cold and admirable film rather than one that can be loved, that occasionally feels a little pleased with itself (with its deliberately scuff-marked film and burned reel marks). I can well imagine some people using the dreaded word “boring” and it’s really a film for the cine-buff more than the casual viewer.

The main flaw in this film – and it might well be a big one – is that there isn’t enough focus really given for what motivates Mankiewicz to turn so completely against the gilded in crowd who feted him for so long. And, in fact, even when haggling over the credit with Welles, Mankiewicz still points out that he (unlike Welles) is a Hollywood insider and will win any arbitration. But the motivations of the film are hard to find amongst the skilful recreation of its design. The characters at times seem a little to artificial and lifeless to really care about.

But it has a host of other positives, all superbly marshalled by Fincher’s pitch perfect direction. The cast is superbly led by Oldman. Among the rest, Arliss Howard is terrific as the venal and hypocritical Louis B Mayer, Tuppence Middleton very affecting as Mankiewicz’s put-upon wife and Lily Collins charming as Mankiewicz’s assistant Rita Alexander. With its evocation of Hollywood style spot on, Fincher’s film also brilliantly deconstructs the dark, corrupt heart of Hollywood where powerful producers and money men are more focused on their own ends to the exclusion of all else. Shown through the eyes of one disaffected insider, it makes for a film-buffs delight and an intriguing if sometimes cold viewing.

Friday, 15 January 2021

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face-off in famous interviews in Frost/Nixon

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Frank Langella (Richard M Nixon), Michael Sheen (David Frost), Kevin Bacon (Jack Brennan), Rebecca Hall (Caroline Cushing), Toby Jones (Irving “Swifty” Lazar), Matthew MacFadyen (John Birt), Oliver Platt (Bob Zelnick), Sam Rockwell (James Reston Jnr), Clint Howard (Lloyd Davis)

If there is a bogeyman in American politics, it will always be disgraced President Richard Nixon. Because, however divisive Donald Trump is, Nixon will always be the king who was toppled, the man some consider a crook and a war criminal, others a gifted politician and negotiator. The truth is somewhere, as always, in the middle – but what seems inarguable is that Nixon was a man of deep personal flaws, which contributed considerably to his fall. Peter Morgan’s play explored the complexities of Nixon’s character through his famous TV interviews with British talk show host David Frost, a man with a few chips of his own. Ron Howard takes what was already a fairly cinematic script by Morgan, and produces a smoothly professional, entertaining and very well acted film.

After Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) has been forced into resigning, he is in the political wilderness. Watergate engrossed the world, with hundreds of millions of people tuning in to follow every detail. Who in television could resist those numbers? Certainly not David Frost (Michael Sheen), who believes if he can secure an exclusive interview with Nixon he could have a television package that could pull in millions of viewers, make Frost a fortune, and catapult him into the front ranks of TV interviewers. Slowly the project comes together. But both participants have a lot to prove: for Nixon this could be a chance of redemption; for Frost to prove he is more than a chat show host better suited to grilling the Bee Gees than the President. With both men underestimating each other, who will emerge on top in the interviews?

One of Ron Howard’s greatest strengths as a director is his ability to elicit fine performances from good actors. This is the real bonus he brings to this faithful adaptation of Morgan’s award-winning play. He presents it with a highly skilled professionalism and a refreshing lack of distraction that allows the audience to focus on the acting and the dialogue, its real strengths. Frost/Nixon is sharply written – with Peter Morgan’s expected mix of careful research and dramatic licence (most especially in a late-night phone call between the two men before the final day’s filming) – crammed with fine lines, well drawn characters and fascinating insights into both politics and television.

Perhaps Howard’s finest decision was to ensure the two stars of the play (in both the West End and Broadway) were retained for the film. Langella and Sheen’s performances – already brilliant in the stage version, which I was lucky enough to see – are outstanding here, both of them completely inhabiting their characters. The comfort and familiarity between the two performers are crucial – and ensure that the vital scenes between the two characters carry an electric charge.

Langella brilliantly captures the physicality and voice of Nixon, but also finds deep insights into the President’s tortured soul. He communicates Nixon’s sense of inadequacy and bitterness, his resentment at having to fight all his life for things others have been gifted. He balances this with Nixon’s pride and paranoia that constantly leads him to cheat others first. Langella’s Nixon, lost and bored in retirement, is desperate to regain his statue, but also tortured by a guilt and regret he can hardly bring himself to name. Under his robustness and confidence, lies deep shame and sorrow. It’s a brilliant capturing of perhaps the most psychologically complex leader America ever had.

Sheen is just as superb as Frost. As you would expect from an accomplished mimic, the voice is almost alarmingly accurate (he makes a better Frost than Frost did!). But just as insightful is his understanding of Frost’s psychology. Just like Nixon, Frost is a hard-working lad from a poorer background who has had to fight for everything he has. Sheen’s Frost is a phenomenal hard worker – producer, financier and star of his own career – who works hardest of all to appear an effortlessly confident dilettante. Sheen’s Frost balances immense pressures – facing personal and financial ruin – with an assured smile, keeping every plate spinning by never allowing a moment of doubt.

It leads into fascinatingly different attitudes to the interviews themselves. Nixon prepares in detail – and determines his best strategy is long winded answers that present his case and prevent attack. Frost is so focused on delivering the interviews that he sacrifices his actual interview preparation (certainly more so than he did in real life). Morgan uses the conventions of boxing dramas – corners, breaks between ‘rounds’, advice from their trainers – to capture a sense of gladiatorial combat.

However, the play is more complex than this. The reason why Frost struggles to land a glove on Nixon in earlier interviews on his domestic and foreign policies is that Nixon genuinely believes he is in the right – but (perhaps as Frost understood) the final interviews based on Watergate will see a more vulnerable Nixon as on that subject he knows he’s in the wrong. I suspect the real Frost knew that to get to Nixon on that final topic, he needed to be ‘softened up’ first to feel comfortable and produce a revelation.

Because the film is refreshingly positive in its view of television. A medium that films often attack for being trivial and boiling things down to soundbites and snippets, here acknowledges the strengths that can bring. A single snippet of an apologetic and crushed Nixon is worth thousands of words – and small moments can turn a TV programme from a failure to an event. Howard uses the power of the close-up at these moments to demonstrate how TV can zero in with a merciless gaze on a single moment. It’s a defence of the power of TV and its ability to reduce things down to moments.

Howard’s understanding of the strengths that lie at the heart of the play – and to tell the story simply – is what makes an already cinematic play translate wonderfully to the screen. With Langella and Sheen outstanding (with the supporting cast all equally excellent), the film entertainingly demonstrates the preparation and delivery of the interviews, while offering shrewd psychological insights into two men who had a lot more at a stake – and in common – than at first appeared. Professional, handsome and captivating, this is Hollywood movie making at its best.

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Harrison Ford goes in search for treasure in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Paul Freeman (René Belloq), Ronald Lacey (Major Arnold Toht), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Denholm Elliott (Dr Marcus Brody), Wolf Kahler (Colonel Dietrich), Anthony Higgins (Major Gobler), Alfred Molina (Satipo)

Indiana Jones is now one of the most beloved – and instantly recognisable – film characters ever created. So, it’s strange to think that Raiders of the Lost Ark was released to such little fanfare. That soon changed when the film came out. In some cinemas it was so popular it played for the whole year. It became a box-office smash, turned Harrison Ford into Hollywood’s leading movie star for the next 20 years, and made Steven Spielberg Hollywood’s leading director. And it did all that because I’m not sure there is a more entertaining, tightly made, funny, thrilling and (at times) scary adventure film out there. Spielberg and producer George Lucas may have wanted to make a film that aped B-movie adventure serials – but they ended up reinventing an entire genre.

It’s 1936 and the Nazis are in search of occult relics. Their latest target is the Ark of the Covenant, which Hitler believes will make his armies invincible. What chance is there of stopping him finding it? Well obviously the US government must put its trust in Professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), one of the world’s leading archaeologists who also (fortunately) is pretty handy in a fight. Not only that, but his ex-girlfriend Marian Ravenwood (Karen Allen), daughter of his former mentor, holds one of the keys to finding the Ark. Indy and Marian end up on an adventure that crosses continents, taking on the ruthless Nazis and mixing with profound mysteries that man is not meant to know.

Hollywood wasn’t happy about Spielberg making the film. His previous film – the war comedy 1941 – had bombed, losing millions. The studio was insistent with producer George Lucas: if he wanted to see his dream of making an old-fashioned B-movie with his friend Spielberg come true, then he would need to stick tightly to a budget. After all, Spielberg had a reputation for delivering films overtime and overbudget. Our heroes stuck to this deal – and Spielberg has said it was a blessing, as it forced him to keep the film lean, tight and, above all, free of indulgence. Spielberg’s direction is perfect, so good in fact that he set the template for nearly all big-budget directing (in terms of tone, pace, mood and tempo) to come. Every action film since owes something in its DNA to Raiders.

Raiders is far more entertaining – and brilliant – than it has any right to be. It’s effectively a series of set-pieces, threaded together by screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan into a plot. Kasdan’s dialogue though was spot-on – like the film, lean, tight and perfectly focused. With exceptional brevity and focus it brilliantly creates a small core of characters, and then gives them room to bounce off each other. Its dialogue is quotable, fun and punchy. He – with Lucas and Spielberg – also crafts a central character who is flawed but deeply likeable, and a heroine who is independent and dynamic. The script is a big part of the reason why the film is a success – it makes us care deeply for the characters as they get involved in the death-defying stunts and action set pieces that make up a lot of the film.

And we don’t follow any character more than Indy himself. Thank God Tom Selleck had to withdraw at the last minute. George Lucas had resisted casting Harrison Ford as he was worried about the overlap with Han Solo. But the part fits Ford like a glove. Sure, it comes from the same wheel-house as Solo – although Indy is more taciturn, intellectual and a degree less cocksure than Solo, more a man reluctantly forced into danger than a swaggering pirate – but Ford’s skill is faultless. Ford has an everyday quality to him, and he brings a world-weary tiredness to Indiana. He has the confident grin, but he’s just as likely to see that switch to concerned desperation (there is a perfect moment of this in the opening sequence, when the vine he is grasping on a cliff top suddenly works loose). He may be a bit of a rogue (not averse to shooting a swordsman) but he’s also a good man, with the street smarts of a ruffian, who is frequently exasperated by the errors of his sidekicks. This is the sort of man that men want to be and women want to be with – an impossibly difficult trick to pull off.

We relate to Indy because he’s vulnerable. He’s an underdog. The outstanding opening sequence – basically a little mini-movie in itself – showcases this. As Indy heads into a hidden temple for an idol (dodging spiders, bottomless pits, arrows from walls and most famously a huge boulder – a stunt Ford did for real) we get his entire character showcased. He’s astute, resourceful, trusting (sometimes too trusting) and ingenious. But he also takes a hell of a physical pounding, gets scared and above all goes through huge danger only to end up empty-handed. And of course, we find out he can cope with all this, but definitely not snakes (is there a better action set-piece punch line than “Grow a little backbone, will ya!”). It sets the tone for the rest of the film – in fact with the first five minutes alone, Raiders is already better than 99% of all other adventure films.

But then this is a director working at the top of his game. All the elements come together perfectly here: Spielberg always knows when to keep the tempo up, cuts the action superbly and also presents us with a brilliant mixture of tension, excitement and awe. He and Lucas brilliantly understand the power of images – there is a reason why a rolling boulder has become part of cinema’s language. The design of Raiders (one of its five Oscars) is absolutely perfect. Nothing like these temples could really have existed in real life – but as an evocation of 1930s adventure serials they are perfect. Mix that in with that brilliant sound design (those whip cracks for staters) and John Williams’ majestic score (from the classic Indy march to the haunting strains that tie in with the Ark) and this film is a masterclass for affecting the senses.

Then those set-pieces are told with just the right balance between thrills and wit. Again, Harrison Ford is a big part of this: he’s never smug, his trademark furrowed brow suggesting stress as much as his grin communicates relief at surviving. The truck chase – which sees Indy move from horse to truck, to under a speeding truck to back in the driving seat, half the time with a bullet in his arm – is a masterclass in thrills and superb editing. It’s such damn good fun that the film even gets away with a nonsensical beat where a car-load of Nazis is pushed off a huge cliff (the first and last indication that we are anywhere near a cliff in the whole scene!). Just like the opening sequence our hero’s combination of ingenuity, never-say-die determination and vulnerability is what makes it compelling (the Williams score also plays a huge part in building both the excitement and the triumph).

The whole film is a series of triumphant set-pieces. Spielberg also tinges the film with just enough darkness as well. The Nepal gun battle carries a real sense of danger, Indy’s fight with a tough Nazi air mechanic culminates in a quite gruesome death (although the fight beforehand has plenty of wit to it, as Indy is hopelessly outmatched physically by this giant). That’s all before the film’s famous closing sequence as the Ark finally opens up to reveal the power of God – bad news for the assembled Nazis crowded around it. The face-melting horror (and it’s hard to imagine any action adventure film doing something this horrific today) is impossible to forget, brilliantly executed and carries just the right amount of dread.

The darkness though is counter-balanced throughout by sly wit and a sense of fun. Wonderful jokes – from Major Toht’s nunchucks that become a coat hanger to an exhausted Indy responding to Marian’s kisses by falling asleep – pepper the script. The cast are fabulously chosen. Karen Allen is perfect as the independent Marian. Paul Freeman is chillingly austere and charmingly amoral as Indy’s rival Belloq. Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody is excellent as an older, wiser version of Indy very different from the comic buffoon he would become. The same can also be said for John Rhys-Davies Falstaffian but shrewd and loyal Sallah.

Raiders of the Lost Ark sees every element come together perfectly. Spielberg’s direction – the film did come in on time and on budget, going on to be the biggest success of its year – is completely perfect. Ford creates a character who from his first appearance is iconic (the zoom to introduce him is a wonderful tip of the hat to John Wayne’s classic entrance in Stagecoach – continuing the homages, the final shot is also a lovely nod to Citizen Kane). Every action set piece is a brilliant mix of thrills, danger, triumph and even a touch of horror (be it gruesome deaths or dreadful beasts). It’s a film that can not fail to entertain, raise a smile – and still have you hiding behind the sofa at points. Lucas and Spielberg wanted to make a film that would remind them of the adventures of our childhood. They were so successful that their film ended up defining the childhoods of millions of us.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Peter Cushing is the great detective in The Hound of the Baskervilles

Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing (Sherlock Holmes), André Morell (Doctor Watson), Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville), Marla Landi (Cecile Stapleton), David Oxley (Sir Hugo Baskerville), Francis de Wolff (Dr Mortimer), Miles Malleson (Bishop Frankland), Ewen Solon (Stapleton), John Le Mesurier (Barrymore), Helen Gross (Mrs Barrymore)

Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous story hardly needs introduction. In 1959 it was told with a Hammer Horror twist. With its demonic dog, fog covered moor and blood-laden backstory surely no Sherlock Holmes story could be better suited to the studio. The film is fairly faithful to the basic outline of the original, although with added tarantulas and (more controversially) a new villain.

But it all works pretty much a treat, largely due to the performances of Cushing and Morell as Holmes and Watson. Cushing’s Holmes is sharp, analytical, has bursts of energy mixed with impatient distraction. Cushing went back to the stories and threw in many small details – from lines from Doyle to physical moments such as securing notes to the mantelpiece with a knife. His Holmes also uses rudeness in a Doylesque way he rarely does in film. Cushing has the intelligence and dynamism of the Detective – he’s one of the more overlooked actors to play the role – and had been determined to be faithful in his interpretation (sadly sequels were not forthcoming, although Cushing played the role several more times on the BBC).

Morell also returned to the novels to present a Dr Watson who was smooth, professional, assured and competent if uninspired. It’s was a far cry from the blundering buffoon which – thanks to Nigel Bruce – the public expected from Holmes’ faithful Boswell. Morell’s more patrician style made him a fine contrast with Cushing’s bohemian tinged Holmes. The two actors also spark beautifully off each other and create a feeling of a genuine friendship, underpinned by affection and loyalty, frequently showing genuine concern for each other’s safety.

Aside from these two excellent performances in the leads, the film is a solid if not spectacular adaptation, competently filmed. Terence Fisher’s direction sometimes struggles to cover the cheapness of the enterprise and some sets convince more than others. For a film that is quite short, the pace sometimes slackens (the Baskerville legend in particular gets far too much screen time, probably connected in part to the presence of the buxom servant girl Sir Hugo is planning to bed). Moments such as an attempt to assassinate Sir Henry via tarantula in London (which makes no sense at all) provides decent moments of tension but are basically filler.

The film does manage to address some of the problems of the novel by introducing a greater sense of mystery, in particular by providing motivations for several characters. Saying that, just as in the novel (where the mystery is solved by Holmes travelling to Scotland and reading some records – not good drama), here much of the mystery is resolved by Holmes carrying out an off-stage conversation with convict Seldon. Much as in the book, Holmes travelling to the area incognito doesn’t really add much to the story other than providing a late reveal.

Better invention however comes in the introduce of a femme fatale in Marla Landi’s Cecile Stapleton, here re-imagined as a sexy, wild girl of undefined (and nonsensical) European origin. She sparks off a neat chemistry with Christopher Lee’s Sir Henry – here playing for the only time in his career not the villain but the romantic lead! – and her development late in the film presents a fresh take on the resolution.

It’s certainly a little more fresh than the eventual scuffle with the dog – which to be honest doesn’t look either that intimidating or convincing. The dog itself is rather underwhelming, and more threat is actually conveyed by the moor itself, a mysterious stretch of land coated in fog covering treacherous bogs.

What Fisher and Hammer do really well is atmosphere, and the gothic feel of the piece is pretty much spot on. There is the expected claret red blood – and a suggestion of something really grotesque which befalls a victim on the moor – mixed in with sexy ladies. It’s an exploitation twist on Holmes, but then the novel itself was basically pretty much a B-movie in text. And the fundamental story is largely unchanged, with both the virtues and vices of the book captured.

The finest thing about it is the acting. Several scene-stealing actors chuck in neat cameos. Le Mesurier is perfect as the reserved butler Barrymore. De Wolff is a sharp and arrogant Mortimer. Malleson steals his scenes as an absent-minded Frankland (here re-imagined as an eccentric cleric). Christopher Lee relishes the chance to play against type, making Sir Henry a pillar of upright, honest decency. But the real delight is Cushing and Morell as Holmes and Watson, a brilliant combination.

Friday, 1 January 2021

Spotlight (2015)

Ruffalo, McAdams, Keaton and James head up the investigation into the church in Spotlight

Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Michael Keaton (Walter “Robby” Robinson), Mark Ruffalo (Michael Rezendes), Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeiffer), Brian d’Arcy James (Matt Carroll), Liev Schreiber (Marty Baron), John Slattery (Ben Bradlee Jnr), Stanley Tucci (Mitchell Garabedian), Billy Crudup (Eric MacLeish), Jamey Sheridan (Jim Sullivan), Paul Guilfoyle (Peter Conley), Len Cariou (Cardinal Bernard Law), Neal Huff (Phil Saviano)

True villains are hard to spot: those clothed in good deeds are particularly well hidden. Few clothe themselves in good deeds more effectively than priests – and the small minority who use their positions of trust and power to abuse vulnerable children. It’s an unforgiveable, abominable betrayal that has ruined the lives of thousands of victims around the world. This century, the Catholic Church was rocked by a scandal: many in the church hierarchy were all too aware of these appalling acts, but protected priests from exposure rather than submitting them to well-deserved punishment. It took the work of crusading journalists to lift this veil and force the Church to begin to change its policy from protecting priests to protecting children.

The story was bought to wider attention by the dedicated work of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team – the US’s finest investigative journalist team, a small team of reporters who work for months at one story. Boston is a firmly Catholic city, where the Church still holds a huge influence over the lives of its population. For years, faint suspicions of misconduct from any of the nearly 1,500 priests in the city was hushed up. It takes the arrival of an outsider at the Boston Globe – the paper’s unassuming new Jewish, Floridian editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) – to push the Spotlight team to delve deeper into this story. He finds plenty of support from the team – respected editor “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the passionate Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), dedicated and empathetic Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and increasingly disgusted Matt Caroll (Brian d’Arcy James). Using tried-and-trusted journalistic methods, passionate investigation, archival work and winning the confidence of survivors, the team piece together a systematic cover-up by the Catholic Church that extends all the way to the Vatican.

Spotlight scooped the Oscar for Best Picture (along with an Oscar for its brilliantly researched screenplay). It feels like a late Oscar partly awarded in memory of All the President’s Men, the film that Spotlight bears the most relation to. But, even more so than Pakula’s film, this is a low-key, reserved but strikingly effective and engrossing film that takes an almost documentary approach to the patient work required to uncover a story (no Deep Throat here) and the grinding shoe leather needed to get there. Fittingly, given the tragic story the team were reporting on, Spotlight is almost totally devoid of histrionics (there is at best one scene where a member of the team gets angry – only to be met with a quiet “are you done?”), instead being a tribute to the professionalism and integrity of journalists powered, but never overwhelmed by, their anger.

McCarthy’s film is refreshingly free of flourish or over-emphasis. It’s brave enough to let the story speak for itself, and trusts the viewer to understand both the emotional weight of abuse and the feelings of those involved without resorting to dramatic speeches or tearful dialogue. The details dominate – searching through archives for old newspaper clippings, waiting for access to court papers, days spent reading over a decade of parish records. Nothing is earned cheaply: every revelation the result of patient leg-work and following where the story leads without agenda or bias.

Agenda is something these journalists are deeply aware of. All of the team were raised in the faith to one degree or another, with strong roots in a community. The team’s leader, Robby, is an esteemed alumnus of a Catholic school one of the guilty priests worked at when he was a child – a revelation that quietly leads him to question both his implicit turning of a blind eye, but also how only a single man’s choices prevented him from becoming a victim. There is discomfort throughout the Boston Globe at the story – assistant Editor Ben Bradlee Jnr (a fine performance from John Slattery), while supportive of the team, is prickly at revelations that the Globe had previously not followed up reports of abuse and is deeply unhappy at the thought of accusing the Church itself.

The power of the Church in communities like this is subtly, but brilliantly, depicted. The film opens in the 70s with a paedophile priest having his actions being quietly hushed up by the police after the intervention of an ADA. Virtually every important person in the city is a Catholic and, like Robby, has been bought up and schooled in the Church. In exterior shots, McCarthy’s camera constantly frames churches on the edges of shot, their spires visible over residential blocks. The scale of the power of this institution – its reach and influence – is constantly demonstrated. It’s a big challenge for the team to take on – and one which they are not even sure their readers are ready to read about.

But McCarthy’s film isn’t crude. It’s made clear that these priests are a minority – 6% – and the anger is not with faith itself, but with the flawed and wrong decisions taken by men (the psychologist the team consults, an ex-priest, makes clear his faith is not shaken by his discoveries, only his trust in the institution). Equal care is given to the victims themselves. Their stories are reported by two characters in the film, each time with a careful lack of over-emphasis and a quiet, yet emotional, honesty. No attempt is made to sensationalise any of this.

And the film also makes clear that everyone is in some way complicit in this. The Globe has failed to report it. The police and government have covered it up. People might whisper about it – or say a particular priest is “dodgy” – but no one has made an effort to rock the boat and find out about it. Instead, victims are paid off, priests are moved to new parishes and everyone tries to carry on as normal. It’s a grimy and quiet conspiracy – miles away from the Grisham-esque danger the film’s trailer suggested – rather a collective failure of moral responsibility.

The film’s low-key approach, professionalism and absorption in how people do their jobs is deeply engrossing. Few things, after all, are as involving as watching highly professional people execute their jobs flawlessly. The performances are superb. Michael Keaton gives possibly the finest performance of his career – surely connected to it being his most restrained – as the team’s leader, whose sense of personal guilt and regret quietly build along with determination. Ruffalo (Oscar-nominated) is fantastic as his passionate, committed colleague (he gets the one shouting scene). McAdams delivers quiet empathy and powerful intelligence. Schreiber confounds expectations as the numbers man who emerges as a dedicated searcher for the truth.

The truth is exposed – but it’s just a tip of the iceberg. The story might be out there, but as the film shows in its coda, the struggle goes on. Crusading maverick lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci, very good) can’t celebrate the story’s publication – he’s got two child victims he needs to talk to. Cardinal Law (a fine performance of assured, misguided, certainty from Len Cariou) is promoted to the Vatican. Similar scandals emerge across the world. But the problem doesn’t go away. Just as the story needs time and work, the same qualities are needed to reform the Church.

Spotlight is quiet, engrossing and finely moving and triumphant film-making. It focuses brilliantly on professionalism and dedication producing results and shows that hyperbole and embellishment are not needed for outstanding drama. Told with documentary realism, acted with reserved grace and skill, McCarthy’s film is a call-back to 1970s film-making in the best possible way. A deserved winner and a small triumph.