SJH’S FILM REVIEWS Part 4 M-Q
Work-in-progress Part 4, M-Q
MADAME BOVARY (1949)
Dir: Vicente Minnelli
Superb adaptation of Flaubert’s classic novel. It begins with Flaubert (James Mason) on trial for producing an immoral book, and he is called upon to defend his creation. Mason then narrates the adventures of one of literature’s most famous hussies. Jennifer Jones is great as Emma. This hopelessly romantic girl living in a dream world, unable to adapt to reality. Van Heflin is also outstanding as her poor husband, Dr Charles Bovary, a decent man who strives to understand Emma. His performance at times is little short of heartbreaking. For that reason it’s perhaps hard for me to see Emma as the tragic, misunderstood heroine we are meant to perceive her as. You want to shout at her “can’t you see you’ve got a decent man there, you selfish, shallow cow??” This is a very well-made film, with faultless attention to detail, and it still ranks as the best version I’ve seen.
Dir: David Lean
Often regarded as a rare misfire by David Lean, but I like it. It’s well-made, and captures mid-Victorian life beautifully. It helps that I’m fascinated by the story of Madeleine Smith, the (alleged) Glaswegian poisoner, who was put on trial for doctoring her lover’s cocoa with arsenic. There was criticism of the ending, which Lean wisely left open-ended. Viewers at the time seemed to want a straightforward yes, she was guilty, or no, she was innocent. In actuality, Madeleine was let off on the uniquely Scottish verdict of Not Proven, and people have been arguing as to the truth ever since. Ann Todd garnered heaps of criticism for her ice-queen portrayal of Madeleine. Ann was the classic goddess-like blonde (the sort Hitchcock was obsessed by). The fact that Madeleine wasn’t blonde in real life is of no matter, because Ann’s haughty beauty suits the role perfectly. One critic said “here she doesn’t even try to act”. With respect (or not), he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Also of note is versatile actor Leslie Banks who plays Madeleine’s tyrannical father in a nicely-judged way. He’s cantankerous and dogmatic, but he’s not an outright Mr Barrett Of Wimpole Street-type monster. In fact, I almost found the cross old devil quite loveable really. This is a favourite film of mine, but I appreciate it’s not to all tastes.
Dir: Richard Attenborough
The idea of the evil ventriloquist’s dummy has been done before – most famously in the cult 1945 British horror Dead Of Night, when Michael Redgrave was driven insane by one of the little horrors – but it’s always an intriguing idea. Anyone who’s ever sat through a ventriloquist act (and I have to say they’re not a favourite entertainment of mine) can see it’s a pretty odd set-up. The performer has his/her hand up the back of a doll and pretends to chat/argue with it. In Magic Anthony Hopkins plays a failed cabaret magician desperate for a new gimmick. He gets the idea of combining his act with an obnoxious foul-mouthed dummy, who naturally then begins to take over his life. I’m not usually the sort of person who gets freaked out by dolls, but Fats, the one here, is a pretty evil looking creation. From what I read on Wikipedia the adverts for the film had to be pulled from TV after children had nightmares about the wretched thing. I’ve read criticism of Hopkins for being too “stiff”, but I think he does a decent enough job. The man is such a pro that apparently he even learnt ventriloquism to do the role. Anyway, as I said, an intriguing film, and one I would certainly watch again.
Dir: Andrew O’Connor
I’m in two minds about this film. When I watched it alone I sat through it stony-faced, thinking what a waste of David Mitchell and Robert Webb (whom I’m a big fan of from Peep Show), but then I watched it in company and laughed like a drain. I’m not quite sure what this is supposed to tell you, but perhaps I shouldn’t rush to slate it. I can’t help feeling though that for all the comedic talent involved that this should be better than it is. Also the subject-matter really lends itself to comedy – the stage-acts and talent contests of low-rent magicians – but the cast don’t seem comfortable with it. As if they’re London wine-bar lot slumming it in the provinces.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN DEADLY SINS (1971)
Dir: Graham Stark
Charmless comedy from 1971, which stars a whole host of familiar faces, and yet has a horrible, unfunny feel to it. It’s basically a collection of sketches, each focussing on one of the 7 Deadly Sins. In Avarice, Bruce Forsyth plays the longsuffering chauffeur to a loud-mouthed penny-pinching tycoon. In Greed Leslie Phillips is a man who can’t stop stuffing his face. Lust sees Harry H Corbett as a lonely sleazeball desperately chatting up any woman in sight (the ending of this one is genuinely very sad). Etc etc.
Dir: Ken Russell
I’m a bit ambivalent about Mr Russell’s work. I admired his imagination, but I’m not fond of the films, and I’ve got less so as I’ve got older. Mahler is a good case in point. There’s no faulting the music (naturally), the scenery is breathtaking, Robert Powell is one of my favourite actors, and the fantasy sequence involving Imogen Wagner is darkly fun, but I was left oddly unsatisfied by it. I think the ending didn’t help. It was as if Russell had thought “OK that’s it, I’m getting a bit bored with it now, time to wrap it up” and shoved a quick ending on it. Perhaps that’s the problem. I can never escape the fact that Ken Russell set out to shock people, had some great ideas about how to do so, but seemed to lose momentum along the way. Well worth a watch though, even if it is only the once.
MAN BAIT (1952)
Dir: Terence Fisher
Before Hammer turned to making horror pictures, it churned out several low-budget thrillers. This one, made in 1952, is credited with “introducing Diana Dors”, even though DD had been appearing in films since 1947. In this Diana is a little minx, Ruby, wrecking havoc at a bookshop, as she seduces the owner – by conveniently tearing her blouse on a filing-cabinet – and then using extortion on him. Ruby isn’t an evil character though, she’s at the mercy of her thoroughly unscrupulous boyfriend, and Diana gives her character plenty of vulnerability. Probably not as stylish and steamy as an American low-budget film noir version would have been, but DD is always watcheable.
Dir: Woody Allen
My favourite Woody Allen film. Everyone has their own I guess, and whilst I’ve seen Annie Hall and Hannah And Her Sisters cited as better, this is the one that does it for me. Filmed in black-and-white, and beginning with Gershwin’s powerful Rhapsody In Blue, this is Woody’s love letter to New York. In it he plays Isaac Davies, a TV scriptwriter who is becoming thoroughly disillusioned with the pap which television is putting out. In a brave act of defiance he quits his job, and then – in true Woody-ish style – proceeds to panic on finding himself out of work. His private life is also a tad complicated. His wife, Meryl Streep, has left him for another woman, and is now writing a tell-all book about their marriage. Whilst having an affair with a teenage girl, Tracy (the lovely Mariel Hemingway), Isaac meets Mary (Diane Keaton), an edgy, sniping woman who (just to add further to the complications) is having an affair with Isaac’s married best friend. A lot of bitching has been made about Isaac and Tracy’s spring/autumn relationship in this film, but it’s very touchingly done. Tracy may be much younger, but she is more than a match for him, and she provides the essential fresh-faced innocence to all the sophisticated sniping and continual angst of the older characters. Diane Keaton also does a fine job of making Mary likeable and vulnerable, considering what a brittle character she is. It is a very funny film, and although it’s all about New York, much of the humour feels pretty universal, such as Isaac having to move into a cheaper apartment, and putting up with a noisy lunatic neighbour on the next floor (“let’s go and talk outside, because I think it’d be quieter in the street!”). My favourite though is the fund-raising party, where Isaac tells his chattering class chums that he’s heard that neo-Nazi’s may be about to march on the city. An intellectual friend says “yes, I’m thinking of writing a satirical piece to The Times about it”. “A satirical piece to The Times is one thing”, says Isaac “But I still think we should arm ourselves with a few baseball bats”.
Dir: Dwain Esper
Probably only of interest if you want to see an old 1930s weird exploitation number. It’s abominable. Made in 1934, it still hangs onto old Silents days, by interspersing scenes with lengthy paragraphs, waffling on about different aspects of psychiatric research, accompanied by what sounds like a drunken string quartet. Set largely in a medical lab, where men in white coats indulge in the kind of “bwah-hah-hah!” type of over-the-top maniacal acting which belongs more to a vaudeville stage decades earlier. The acting is atrocious all the way through. When Tod Slaughter went over-the-top, at least he was entertaining, this is just tedious. There are also weird scenes which feel uncomfortable. Such as mortuary technicians slobbering over a pretty young corpse. And a man, screeching with insanity, carrying off a catatonic girl and molesting her outside. The absolute piece-de-resistance (if you can call it that) is when a cat has it’s eyeball pushed out, and the mad doc then swallows it as if it’s some kind of delicacy. And then, (to make sure the director is enjoying himself at least), a lengthy scene involving wisecracking girls strutting around in their underwear. It’s the kind of film which manages somehow to be weird, distasteful and deeply boring all at the same time. “I can’t stand this torture!” one of the mad characters rages. Neither can I. Deeply, deeply peculiar.
THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF (1970)
Dir: Basil Dearden
Roger Moore is one of those actors critics love to hate, and they tend to go to town on The Man Who Haunted Himself, usually along the lines of “the man who can’t play one role, let alone two”. Leave ’em to it, I say. Moore is a better actor than he’s usually given credit for, and although this isn’t a first-class thriller, he still puts in a good job. He plays Harold Pelham, a stuffy but successful City businessman who is nearly killed in a car accident. When he recovers he finds that there’s another Harold Pelham wandering about, a more sassy, unscrupulous version of himself. Colleagues congratulate him on business deals and snooker games he can’t remember doing, and a pretty female photographer claims to be having an affair with him. Of course, naturally, we all assume that Pelham has suffered some mental damage during the accident, but is it as simple as that? The final showdown, with a more emotional Sir Roger than we’re used to seeing on film, shows what he’s capable of. A competent enough little number which should keep you guessing if you’re new to it.
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974)
Dir: Guy Hamilton
A bit of a low point in the entire Bond canon. Even though I have a soft spot for Roger Moore, with the best will in the world I can’t find much to praise about this one. Having said that, I didn’t take to Christopher Lee initially as the villain, but he’s grown on me, to the extent that I wish he’d had a better film to do this role in. Britt Ekland plays the worst Bond girl ever, Miss Goodnight. This isn’t her fault, she tries her best and she looks lovely, it’s entirely down to how the character is written. I’m assuming that they were hoping for a sort of Nick-and-Nora style double-act with her and Bond, the man and the woman sparring off each other. But it doesn’t help one bit that Ekland looks more like his teenage daughter, than a sophisticated woman on his own level. All these years on, the character of Miss Goodnight just looks utterly offensive to any self-respecting woman watching. And I know the British secret service has employed some odd characters over the years, but you’d think they’d draw the line at a complete bimbo like her. From what I’ve read some seem to regard her as the worst Bond girl ever, whilst others say who cares, she looks great in a bikini. The only really cool bit about the entire film is the karate-kicking schoolgirls.
MARIA MARTEN AND THE MURDER IN THE RED BARN (1936)
Dir: MIlton Rosmer
I’ve heard it said that sometimes we like a particular piece of music because we remember when we first heard it. The same can be said for some films. I have a soft spot for this one because I remember watching it for the first time at daybreak on a Summer’s morning. That has nothing whatever to do with the film, I’m just saying why I have an affection for it. It’s old and creaky, and probably only of interest to film buffs who are mad about ancient British films. But it does star the incomparable Tod Slaughter. How on earth do I explain Tod Slaughter to a modern reader who has probably never heard of him? He was a relic of the music halls, who turned to making cheap high-octane little thrillers in the early days of the talkies. His performances were decidedly over-the-top (one Radio Times critic described him as a “performer”, on the grounds that “no one could ever have called it ACTING”), and he relished playing what were effectively pantomime villains. I suppose his acting style was more suited to Victorian vaudeville, but if you’re up for it he’s worth a watch. In this film he takes the legendary, true story of Maria Marten, a village wench (the rat-catcher’s daughter no less) who was killed by her lover in the Suffolk countryside nearly 200 years ago. Yes, it feels almost archaic to 21st century eyes, but it’s quite fun. Strict censorship must’ve been a pain in the nuts though. For instance, one minute Maria is sitting sedately on Tod’s sofa, the next she’s clutching her stomach and being hurled out of her home by an irate father, so we assume she’s in the family way. But this isn’t mentioned or shown, so an awful lot of reading-between-the-lines has to go on. And it’s quite odd how the Suffolk peasants all sound a bit Irish, but there you go. You don’t watch a Tod Slaughter film for its immaculate authenticity I guess.
MARIE ANTOINETTE (1938)
Dir: W S Van Dyke
It’s absurd how hard it is to get hold of a copy of this film these days. I had to order a subtitled one from Spain, sharing a double-billing with Madame Bovary (see above). Ridiculous. Sometimes I wonder where all these classic films are hidden. They rarely come round on television these days. You can’t get them Online, and DVDs are like hen’s teeth. Has some selfish tycoon got them locked up in an underground vault somewhere? Anyway, in this lavish production we have Norma Shearer as the doomed little Austrian archduchess, who is sent to France to become their next queen. This is a glorious confection of a film, only outdone in the extravagance stakes by the exuberant 2006 version (see below). I would argue this one is more moving though, because it takes Antoinette’s story right to the bitter end, and doesn’t finish when she leaves Versailles as the latter version does. Norma is a delight as Antoinette. She’s giggly and silly at first, but desperately well-intentioned. She’s an innocent little girl, hopelessly out of place amidst all the cynical machinations at Versailles, gradually growing into a wiser, but sadder woman. Robert Morley – in his very first film role – is brilliant as poor, clumsy Louis, a decent man, but one not overly-blessed with brains, wholly unable to fend off the approaching storm. Joseph Schildkraut also makes the film for me, as the deeply manipulative Duc de Orleans, a man who certainly knew how to play the game, whichever side he found himself on. A deeply conniving person. He could probably over-take you in a revolving door. One moment he’s a foppish dandy in silk breeches, lipstick and powdered wig, waving a lace hankie around. The next he’s pulling off his wig and siding with the revolutionaries. The scene where he seduces Antoinette at the Artists’ Ball is a favourite of mine. The sets and the costumes are superbly lavish, and I would love to see a colourised version of this. In the final scenes, where Antoinette has been practically broken on the wheel of life, her performance is incredibly moving. She’s been made old before her time, and is bordering on madness. It’s a fine, subtle performance and I can’t praise her enough.
MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006)
Dir: Sofia Coppola
Sophia Coppola had a lot of flak when this film was first released. The French booed it at Cannes, because they didn’t like seeing scenes where their Queen is portrayed in such a raunchy way. Personally, I think chopping her head off was a far more heinous crime, but hey, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Others simply didn’t get it. They didn’t like the use of modern music, they didn’t like the cheeky little anachronisms, such as a pair of designer trainers appearing alongside Antoinette’s extensive shoe collection. I think they’re great. Clearly the director wanted to portray Antoinette as simply another giddy young girl who found herself way out of her depth, and didn’t grow up until it was too late. Kirsten Dunst is spot-on as Antoinette, showing her from empty-headed Paris Hilton clone, to mature, saddened woman, bewildered at having gone from public adulation to universal hatred. When I first saw it I was disappointed that it stopped where it did, but on reflection the imprisonment and execution of Antoinette would have jarred badly with the tenor of the rest of the film. And the modern music works just swell. I can’t hear Siouxsie And The Banshee’s Hong Kong Garden nowadays without immediately thinking of the masked ball. My only grievance is with the actor playing Count Axel Fersen, Antoinette’s great love. He simply looks too slender and boyish to be playing an all-man military officer. But the scene where Antoinette seduces him to the tune of Adam And The Ants’ Kings Of The Wild Frontier is both saucy and hilarious at the same time. (Having said all that, when I watched that clip on YouTube recently, the Comments section was alive with young woman positively salivating over him). Also a word of praise for Steve Coogan, who does an admirably low-key turn as Ambassador Mercy, dumped with the no-win task of trying to get Antoinette to take things seriously before it’s too late. Their final scene together relies on his sad, but pragmatic facial expression. Sort of “I did try to warn you, you silly woman”, but done with great compassion.
MARILYN MONROE – THE UNTOLD STORY (1980)
Dirs: Jack Arnold, John Flynn, Lawrence Schiller
Straightforward biopic of the lovely Marilyn. In spite of the title, anyone familiar to her story won’t find any great surprises here. Her troubled childhood, her relationships, the difficult filming of The Prince And The Showgirl, and Some Like It Hot. Catherine Hicks is captivating in the title role, lifting this above being just another campy, breathy-voiced imitation.
THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)
Dir: Roger Corman
One of the oddest and most memorable of Roger Corman’s series of adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe short stories. The splendid Vincent Price is at his evil best as Prince Prospero, a Devil-worshipping aristocrat, who holes himself up in his castle with a bunch of like-minded chums, to party away whilst the Red Death lays waste to the population in the surrounding countryside. Prospero gets the hots for a simple, God-fearing peasant girl (Jane Asher), and tries to lure her down his dark path. The magnificent bosom-heaving Hazel Court plays his disgruntled mistress, who sells her soul to the Devil to try and get back into Prospero’s good books. Her trippy dream sequence was banned by the censors when the film was first released, although it’s more weird and surreal than anything truly shocking. The film is probably most famous though for the vaguely sinister monks who patrol the countryside in their different-coloured robes, and also Prospero’s suite of rooms, all done out in a different colour. It’s a sumptuous visual feast of a film.
THE MATRIX (1999)
Dirs: Wachowski brothers
It’s hard to over-state how massively popular and influential this film has been in recent years, and yet it bored the arse off me. I don’t find Keanu Reeves exactly scintillating at the best of times, and here he has all the life and charisma of a shop-window mannequin. It’s all so incredibly pretentious, earnest and full of it’s own importance that I actually felt quite repelled by it at times. And the parts where Morpheus, sporting black suit, green tie and tinted glasses, takes Neo (Reeves) into some altered state, feels like a particularly pretentious car advert. It’s full of lines like “What is real?” “how do you define real?” and “welcome to the real world”. David Icke loves it. TRIVIA CORNER: have seen an arch-conspiracy theorist post a message on Twitter that Neo’s passport in this film expires on 9/11 2001, which he seems to think is cause for great excitement. Somebody replied “ever thought it’s just a coincidence?”
Dir: James Ivory
Merchant Ivory turn their attention to E M Forster’s most personal novel, and one which he didn’t want published in his lifetime. It’s a sort of gay version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover I suppose, in that it’s a love story which breaks down the class barriers. Maurice is a stuffy, slightly pompous young Edwardian (James Wilby), who struggles to cope with his homosexual leanings. At Cambridge he befriends Clive (Hugh Grant, goofy and likeable as ever). Unfortunately Maurice finds that his intense feelings for Clive aren’t being reciprocated quite as passionately as he would like. On a weekend visit to Clive’s ancestral pile in the country, young Alec Scudder, the thoroughly rustic gamekeeper (adorable Rupert Graves) catches Maurice’s eye. What happens next is very much a case of star-crossed lovers, and it becomes interminable at times waiting for these two to get together. It’s a lovely film, and a refreshingly different take on the usual corsets-and-parasols-on-the-lawn costume effort.
THE MAZE (1953)
Dir: William Cameron Menzies
Low-budget horror from 1953, which was originally intended to be shown in 3-D. A young woman is concerned about her fiance, who has shut himself away at the old Scottish ancestral pile. So she decides to drop in on him, along with her auntie. It soon becomes clear that there is something hidden away in the attic, which comes out at night and goes for a little amble round the big maze at the back of the house. It would be very easy to sneer at this film (and you could spoof it mercilessly), but it did keep me watching, and the actors all do a fine job of keeping a straight face. The main problem is that … well the monster is a big frog. That is all. TRIVIA CORNER: I do wonder if the director of this had been inspired by the old Monster of Glamis story. It has some similarities.
Dir: Andrew V McLaglen
Featuring the legendary pairing of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, McLintock! was an attempt to bring The Taming Of The Shrew to the Wild West era. I think without Wayne and O’Hara this would have been a horrible little film, but they manage to make it fun. At time it was made it was hugely popular, and was meant solely as light-hearted family entertainment, but the Swinging 60s were kicking in, and it’s theme of the fiery wife who is turned into a placid little doormat after being given a sound thrashing by her husband struck an understandably jarring note. I think all the controversy over the film could have been neatly turned around by just having it made clear at the end that Katherine had only been tamed briefly (which is what Maureen O’Hara tries to make clear in her autobiography). You can be pretty sure that GW (Wayne’s character) is going to be having his ear chewed off again at any moment soon! These days though the pendulum has possibly swung back into the film’s favour. There are also some very funny scenes, particularly the one where GW gets sloshed with his housekeeper Mrs Warren (Yvonne de Carlo), and Katherine. The part where all three of them try to get upstairs in a tipsy state is laugh-out-loud uproarious. For all it’s controversial subject-matter, this is a warm-hearted film. Wayne and O’Hara were great chums in real life, and they clearly enjoyed working together. The film also marked the debut of Stefanie Powers, who plays their daughter Becky. TRIVIA CORNER: When the film was released, the posters showed a saucy Maureen being given a hiding by Wayne wielding the shovel. Public discomfort with this image led to it being changed to him simply spanking her with his hand.
MEET MR LUCIFER (1953)
Dir: Anthony Pelissier
Modern day parable about the potential evils of that new-fangled invention, television. That makes it sound rather dry and pious, but it’s not, it’s an undemanding bit of fun, with a strong nostalgia content to it. Stanley Holloway plays a washed-up pantomime star, bitter and disillusioned at playing to increasingly sparse audiences. During one performance he meets the Devil himself, who offers him a chance to be revenged on the gogglebox which is luring away all his audience. What follows is a gentle portmanteau of stories about the negative effect TV has on the lives of it’s viewers. My favourite is the one where Gordon Jackson plays a lonely bachelor in a bedsit who becomes obsessed with a sultry singer (Kay Kendall). Worth seeing these days for the glimpses of the early days of television (this was 2 years before commercial television started, and the BBC had total domination over the airwaves), including an early cookery show, the Brains Trust, and a snippet of Gilbert Harding, who earned fame in the 1950s for being the rudest man on television. Some familiar faces pop up in bit roles, such as Joan Sims, Dandy Nichols and Irene Handl.
Dir: Fritz Lang
My goodness, the messages that Fritz Lang is handing down to us across the years with this film. Released in 1927, the epic Metropolis is rightly regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. It’s influence is incalculable, and it’s message even more relevant today than it was back then. Set in the future, (2026 to be precise), in a fully automated society, workers are treated like inhuman drones, under the employ of one powerful man, Fredersen. On the side he is building an evil-looking robot in the guise of a lost love. Meanwhile, his workers are coming under the sway of a young woman, Maria, who preaches to them in the catacombs. To destroy their belief in her, Fredersen comes up with a cunning plan to build the robot in the likeness of Maria, to turn the workers against her. The misery of uninspiring drudgery has never been better summed up than in the opening shots of the downtrodden workers shuffling in unison into work. As a child, I was terrified by HEL, the robot, and frankly I still find her pretty scary now. I have to say, when I saw her again on this viewing, I was instantly reminded of Lady Gaga, and so I wasn’t surprised to read she’s been influenced by this film. Apparently, at the time this was released, (according to Wikipedia), H G Wells lambasted it for promoting a negative view of technology and the future. And yet, it strikes a powerful chord these days. I find it impossible not to be reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s “machine men” speech in The Great Dictator. I won’t go all political, as this isn’t the place, but will simply quote a line from the film: “the mediator between the head and hands must be the heart”.
MILDRED PIERCE (1945)
Dir: Michael Curtiz
The film that won Joan Crawford an Oscar. Joan plays Mildred, a hardworking wife and mother, who misguidedly builds her entire life around her spoilt brat of a daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth, who was also nominated for an Oscar). I can’t help feeling that an awful lot of Joan went into this role. The woman from a humble background, sneered at for being low-class and hardworking, tragically wanting her daughter to love her. It’s easy to watch this and think, why on earth didn’t Mildred see through the grasping Veda sooner? But I’ve known mothers like this, so it’s entirely plausible. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Possessed (see below), but it’s still a darn good film. Soap opera at it’s finest, and I’m not being sarcastic when I write that.
Dir: Gus Van Sant
Biopic of US gay rights politician Harvey Milk. Sean Penn rightly won an Oscar for his role here. There was (understandably) some scepticism that rugged Penn, Madonna’s ex-husband, could feasibly play a gay hero, but he does a fine job. He is charming, funny and tragic by turn. Apparently this is the film that made James Randi emerge from the closet in his old age.
THE MILLION POUND NOTE (1954)
Dir: Ronald Neame
Genteel old-fashioned comedy set in the Edwardian era, which gives it an escapist feel, and based on a short story by Mark Twain. Gregory Peck stars as a down-at-heel American sailor arriving in London, and finding himself caught up in a wager between two brothers, Ronald Squires and Wilfred Hyde-White. They hand him an envelope containing a million pound note. It can’t actually be cashed anywhere, but just the mere presence of it ensures that Peck is suddenly the toast of town. Shops, restaurants and hotels vie to give him the best of attention, and charities constantly hound him for hand-outs. It’s a gentle, nostalgic satire on the whole nonsense of big money, about how it doesn’t even have to be real to con people into treating you like a mini-god. (We have a similar thing now, they’re called credit cards). Joyce Grenfell crops up in an early role as a toothy aristocrat.
MILLIONS LIKE US (1943)
Dirs: Sidney Gilliatt & Frank Launder
Enjoyable morale-booster from WW2, focussing, for a change, on the home front. The ever fabulous Patricia Roc stars as Celia, a working-class girl who dreams of a glamorous life in the Forces, or as a nurse tending adoring soldiers. Instead, she gets drafted into a thoroughly unglamorous munitions factory. Will Hay’s chum, Moore Marriott (I didn’t recognise him out of bearded old man character) is fun as Celia’s grouchy father, serving in the Home Guard. The problem with old Wartime morale-boosters is that they can all too often end up being more than a tad patronising, sort of “oh look at all the adorable little people being so brave”. This avoids that, helped by strong characterisation, and tear-jerking sentiment kept to an agreeable minimum.
Dir: Ken Annakin
Delightful British comedy from 1948 which holds up well all these years on. A doctor goes on a fishing-holiday to Cornwall where he winds up hooking an even bigger fish than he bargained for, namely the delectable Glynis Johns as a real-life mermaid. He takes her back to London, where she proceeds to wreck havoc amongst the love lives of his family, friends and staff. Googie Withers puts in a Rosalind Russell-style wisecracking performance as the doc’s remarkably tolerant wife, and Margaret Rutherford is her usual adorably eccentric self as the nurse hired to look after Miranda. Get a load of the 1940s fashions, the feathery hats, shoulder-pads … although you can keep the fur stole with the dead weasel heads hanging from it! Not to mention the satin cushions and the bakelite telephones. Glynis Johns is a joy as Miranda (“you’ve hated me ever since I set tail in this flat”), a sort of British version of Marilyn Monroe in many ways. The film was a huge hit in post-war Austerity Britain. If you can locate the sequel, Mad About Men, showing gorgeous Glynis in colour, you’ll find it a jolly romp too, although it seems to be nigh-on impossible to find these days.
THE MIST (2007)
Dir: Frank Darabont
Based on a story by Stephen King, The Mist is a quality horror about a crowd of people who become holed-up in a supermarket when a mysterious fog envelops their town. In the mist lurk grotesque, murdering monsters. Being a Stephen King story, the characterisation is good, and there is an all-round more thoughtful approach than you often get with this kind of thing. I liked the set-up very much. A bunch of disparate people suddenly plunged into co-operating together in a grim battle for survival. Unfortunately amongst this group is a a Mrs Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden, in a great performance), a religious nut who proceeds to wreck havoc amongst her fellow survivalists. Mrs Carmody certainly pushed all my irritation buttons, reminding me all-to-often of the spiteful “Karma is a bitch” mob I sometimes see on Twitter. I was surprised I wasn’t more freaked out by the monsters. Normally if anything’s going to have me cringing, it’s big spiders, but I was curiously un-fazed by the ones on show here. I don’t want to give away too much about the ending, except that it is astonishingly bleak, and not at all what I was expecting.
Dir: John Ford
Enjoyable 1950s African romp. Clark Gable is an ageing guide escorting a terribly posh upper-class English couple (Grace Kelly and Donald Sinden) on a safari. Also on board is an ex-girlfriend (Ava Gardner) who still hankers for him. The scene is set for heaps of seething unrequited passion set against backdrops of elephants, monkeys and fiery African sunsets. The men are very much set-dressing in this film, the real focus is on the two female leads. Grace Kelly is haughty, prim and icy as the horribly repressed English lady. By contrast, Ava Gardener is so earthy, sexy and wisecracking that you can’t help feeling Gable needs his head examined for yearning after Mrs Prissy-Knickers instead. And I don’t believe anyone else could look as beautiful as Ava in a rain-hat! Donald Sinden has the unenviable task of being the innocent mug who is totally oblivious to all the searing angst going on around him. TRIVIA CORNER: In his book Pole To Pole Michael Palin relates how at the point in the film when Clark Gable shouts “Gorillas!” Kenyans usually burst out laughing, as gorillas are a good 500 miles from that point.
MOMMIE DEAREST (1981)
Dir: Frank Perry
Anyone wishing to make a study of 20th century Hollywood could do worse than to analyse the life of movie-star Joan Crawford. Her career spanned several decades of the century. She began as a flapper in 1920s silents (her name was chosen in a fan magazine competition), and from then on she appeared in nearly every genre there was, musicals, adventure, tearjerkers, film noir, westerns … before winding up in B-movie horror. When she died in the late 1970s she was respected as a great showbiz survivor. And then came That Book. Soon after her death her adopted daughter, Christina, penned a tell-all memoir about Crawford, detailing the years of physical and mental abuse she and her brother, Christopher, had suffered at Crawford’s hands. It was shocking stuff. Naturally a film version was pretty inevitable. Apparently Faye Dunaway begged to be allowed to play Joan, and strange stories of her being haunted by Joan’s ghost appeared. The resulting film tries to be less biased than the book, and some of the more gothic elements were toned down. So we don’t get the constant beatings which Christina relates in the book, apart from the notorious wire-hangers scene. Or Christina being made to wear rags. We do get to understand why Joan was so notoriously driven, and what made her such an impossible control-freak. Unfortunately the high campness of the film is all too often more hilarious than shocking. Take the scene where an hysterical Joan, in full glamour ball-gown, hacks the garden to pieces, ending with “Christina! Bring me the AXE!” It’s not surprising therefore that I read one critic as saying he couldn’t bear to watch this film as Dunaway scared him too much in it! There are other memorable lines such as “Helga, I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the DIRT!” and “Don’t fuck with me fellers!” which are more risible than anything to be taken seriously. Well Joan was a big gay icon I suppose, so it’s understandable that these lines have a screamingly camp feel to them. Anyway, you would think that Crawford’s reputation would have suffered an irretrievable eclipse after the book’s revelations. Not a bit of it. Posterity is being kind to her. Even at the time of the book’s publication many were uneasy about Christina’s motives in writing it, and although I’ve not read anyone exonerating Joan as a bad mother, it is felt that all the blame wasn’t wholly on one side. There are also scenes in both the book and the film which were said to have been made-up. Take the notorious hacking-of-the-garden scene. This happened during World War 2, when Joan had turned the garden over to growing vegetables. There were no ornamental trees for her to hack down with an axe (in her ballgown). In recent years Joan seems to have returned to her place as a respected Hollywood survivor, as someone who was always utterly professional and dedicated to her career. It’s just she probably shouldn’t have been allowed to adopt children.
THE MONKEY’S PAW (1948)
Dir: Norman Lee
Short British filler from 1948, based on the classic story by W W Jacob, about a strange artefact – a mummified monkey’s paw – which can grant anyone who possesses it three wishes. This one is extremely creaky (or at least the copy I saw was), but it stays faithful to the original plot.
MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)
Dirs: Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones
For me, someone saying they hate Monty Python, is on a par with someone saying “I don’t like chocolate”, or “I’m a lawyer”, or “I don’t read books”, I wonder how I can possibly relate to them on a human level. I admit their humour doesn’t always come off, and it’s not to everyone’s tastes, but there’s just something so damn loveable about these guys. After reading Michael Palin’s Diaries: The Python Years, I got an urge to watch this again, as in it he details the making of the film in the Glencoe area of Scotland. I remember several years ago someone saying that the Pythons’ re-creation of the Middle Ages seems more realistic than many so-called serious epics. This is summed up in one bit where King Arthur is striding around. One peasant says “he’s a king”, “why?” “he’s the only one not covered in shit!” If you’re a Python fan, then you can probably already do all the anorak bits, and quote from here until the cows come home (or they get chucked over the battlements). Everyone has their favourite bits. Mine usually involve rabbits (there must be something Freudian there), like Trojan Rabbit, and the deadly bunny which rips people’s throats out. John Cleese interrupting the wedding preparations and causing carnage is also very funny (who is the guy who has the unenviable job of dressing up as the podgy bride?), and the adorable Carol Cleveland is hilarious as Zoot, the guardian of Castle Anthrax.
Dir: Lewis Gilbert
By this point the Bond franchise was spoofing itself mercilessly. Originally, the next film in the Bond canon was supposed to be For Your Eyes Only, but the colossal success of Star Wars ensured that this one was rushed into production instead. This isn’t the best of the Bond films by any stretch of the imagination, even those involved in the making of it seemed to feel it went too far into parody, and yet if you want some good-natured, unchallenging entertainment you can do far worse. Roger Moore seems to be really enjoying himself here, probably because he seems more at home with comedy than with Bond’s more lethal side. Lois Chiles exudes old-school glamour as Dr Goodhead (titter ye not). Soft-voiced Michael Lonsdale gives a flawless performance as Drax. The real star though has to be Richard Kiel as Jaws (“he’s called Jaws, he kills people”). He’s much more than a big hulk with metal teeth. At times he seems like Tommy Cooper playing a hitman. Watch for the scene when Jaws realises he’s about to go over the waterfall. The look on Kiel’s face is pure comic brilliance. There are bits that are embarrassingly bad though. The python-wrestling scene, and the big finale on the space station for instance. The scene where Bond crashes ashore in Venice was reprised from The Spy Who Loved Me, even down to the guy double-checking his wine bottle, which suggests the whole Bond canon was seriously running out of steam at this point. And don’t get me started on the tune from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind being used on the security keypad. Good lighthearted fun all the same. TRIVIA CORNER: Richard Kiel insisted on a love interest being provided for Jaws, as he wanted to show a softer side to him. Unfortunately many critics seemed to be repelled by the whole thing. His little bespectacled bosom-y love interest has become a minor cult figure in her own right though. And quite right too.
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932)
Dirs: Irving Pichel, Ernest B Shoedsack
This may be from the 1930s, but it’s still an enjoyable little adventure. A bunch of people arrive shipwrecked at a remote island to find it being run by some sort of early Bond villain, who likes to regard his guests as human prey, to be hunted all over the island. Leslie Banks proves his versatility once again by playing the villain, and as an adventure thriller it still holds its own.
MRS AMWORTH (1975)
A 30-minute TV film from 1975 based on a short story by E F Benson. Set in a small English village, the Mrs Amworth of the title is a vampire preying on young men. At first I wasn’t sure if I could accept the adorable Glynis Johns as a female villain (she always seems such fun in her films), but she’s great here, not just with her marvellously fruity voice, but some of her physical movements do seem weird and other-worldly. A genuinely atmospheric little number, which I am astonished I only found out about when browsing on YouTube.
MRS BROWN (1997)
Dir: John Madden
Judi Dench plays a widowed and grieving Queen Victoria, who is brought to life again by her plain-speaking friend (and some say lover) John Brown. Billy Connolly makes this film. He is proud, fierce, dignified and yet ultimately vulnerable. Judi Dench stomps around in widow’s weeds, and looks beseechingly at him. It’s a tender love story between people who, in spite of their different positions in life, had far more in common than people probably realised. Neither liked pretension and bullshitters, and both longed for a more solid relationship than the superficial machinations of the Court could provide.
MRS PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE (1994)
Dir: Alan Rudolph
Biopic of one-woman wisecrack machine, and hugely talented writer, Dorothy Parker. Jennifer Jason Leigh is excellent as Dottie. I’ve read some criticism of her affected drawl, and at times it seems to border on parody, yet it’s not really a problem, and it’s worth it to hear her drawl out “you monumental shit” in a thoroughly languid fashion. The film is shown in both colour and monochrome, Wizard Of Oz style, with the 1920s in colour, and Dottie’s later years in black and white. This film has been a bit of a slow-burner for me. I wasn’t that impressed the first time, but it’s grown on me.
THE MUMMY (1959)
Dir: Terence Fisher
Hammer reworking of an old Boris Karloff classic, making full use of Christopher Lee’s magnificent physique, as it largely involves him stomping around covered from head-to-foot in tightly-wrapped bandages. The story is a bit hackneyed, involving as it does Lee as the high priest of the long-dead Princess Ananka, and Yvonne Furneaux as a woman who bears a striking resemblance to her. The plot twist is that if Furneaux appears with her hair hanging down she can get the mummy to do anything. Nevertheless the flashbacks to Ancient Egypt still work surprisingly well, with Lee being incarcerated alive for breaking into the princess’s tomb. Likewise, the shots of Lee emerging from the swamp and going stomping around the neighbourhood still manage to be fairly eerie. I wouldn’t say it was the best of Hammer, but it does a pretty competent job.
MURDER AHOY! (1964)
Dir: George Pollock
The fourth and final film in the Margaret Rutherford/Miss Marple quartet, and the only one which wasn’t remotely based on any story by Agatha Christie. For that reason it’s always had a tendency to get slated, and yet it’s a lot of fun, and Margaret Rutherford is as adorable as ever. This time Miss Marple is one of a board of trustees of a naval cadet training-ship. During a board meeting one of the members takes a hefty slug of snuff and … er … snuffs it. Miss Marple, wearing full naval uniform, high-tails it down to the ship to see what’s going on. Lionel Jeffries puts in one of his enjoyably irascible turns as the ship’s captain (“look at her! Who does she think she is, Neptune’s mother?”), and Stringer Davis – Margaret’s real-life husband – is also on hand as Miss Marple’s loyal sidekick. I’m biased about these films, not just because they still provide harmless entertainment, but because I regard Margaret Rutherford as a bit of a heroine of mine. She had an appalling childhood, and battled mental illness all her life, and yet she has left us, not just with a wonderful comic legacy, but as proof that actresses don’t have to be radiantly beautiful to be popular. If I was to cite a role model for the older woman, I feel the Miss Marple films are a great inspiration. Also contains one of my favourite scenes in the series, when Miss Marple is showing off her formidable collection of detective novels.
MURDER AT THE GALLOP (1963)
Dir: George Pollock
Adapted from a non-Miss Marple Christie novel, After The Funeral, Gallop sees our heroine investigating the death of an eccentric recluse who had a morbid fear of cats. Her investigations take her to a hotel-cum-riding-stables run by loveable Robert Morley, who is obsessed with horses. Margaret Rutherford has a lot of fun dressing up in full riding-habit, and also doing a bit of jiving at the hotel dance. Undemanding entertainment which I never get tired of.
MURDER MOST FOUL (1964)
Dir: George Pollock
In this entry, loosely based on Agatha Christie’s Poirot novel ‘Mrs McGinty’s Dead’, Miss Marple joins a troupe of provincial actors to look into the death of a barmaid who has been indulging in a spot of blackmail on the side. Ron Moody hams it up horribly as an overly-theatrical actor-manager, but in spite of that this is still a worthy entry in the Rutherford/Marple quartet, particularly the scenes in the boarding-house, which do manage to conjure up a certain creepy menace. A young James Bolam appears as an edgy young man with a dark secret, and the magnificent Margaret puts in a showstopping rendition of ‘The Killing Of Dan McGrew’.
MURDER SHE SAID (1961)
Dir: George Pollock
The first in the Rutherford/Marple quartet, and the only one actually based on a Miss Marple story, namely The 4:50 From Paddington. Miss Marple, returning from a shopping trip in London, accidentally witnesses a murder on a train going past in the opposite direction. She traces the chief culprits to a ramshackle country house situated close to a railway line. A lot of fun, and with a fairly spooky storm scene (there’s one to be found in Murder Most Foul too, see above). Richard Briers crops up at the beginning as the longsuffering owner of an employment agency.
MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)
Dir: Frank Lloyd
Excellent adaptation of the legendary story, and without the added “bonus” of Marlon Brando murdering an upper-class English accent, which we had in the 1962 version. Clark Gable stars as Fletcher Christian, who organised a mutiny against the overbearing regime of Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton). Purists have complained about some of the liberties taken with the real story, arguing that keelhauling for instance had been out-moded, even by Bligh’s time. There have been some convincing arguments that Bligh was unfairly demonised, and was discriminated against by the class system of the time. Even so, this is a good film. Gable doesn’t have to do very much except look hunky (which he does very well), the film really belongs to Laughton, who is terrifying. It’s quite a revelation seeing him in this after his turn as a jovial Henry VIII, and as the bluff-Northerner-with-the-heart-of-gold in The Old Dark House (see below).
MY HOUSE IN UMBRIA (2003)
Dir: Richard Loncraine
If you haven’t seen this film, then please do so. It is simply beautiful. Maggie Smith plays a romantic novelist, Emily Delahunty. When she is caught up in a terrorist attack on an Italian train, she takes the survivors who were in her carriage back to her gorgeous home in the countryside, and provides a retreat for them to overcome the horror of their ordeal. It’s not awash with sentimentality, everything is handled with subtlety and care. Dame Maggie is splendid, and she has able support from a solid cast, including Timothy Spall, and Ronnie Barker who is excellent. The house also is everything that you could hope for from a rural retreat. I wanted to wander around it myself, taking in the chairs on the terrace, the candlelit dining-table, the quirky bathrooms. The character of Emily can often be slightly annoying, particularly when she doesn’t realise she is being boring, but you never lose sympathy for her. I just loved Dame Maggie wandering around in her elegant pyjama’s, cocktail and cigarette in hand. (I also covet that vintage record-player of hers). If you’re after a bit of escapism in this troubled world, then this fits the bill perfectly.
THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)
Dir: Michael Curtiz
Early talkie horror from 1933, starring Lionel Atwill as a gifted sculptor who owns a wax museum in London. When his creditors demand that he puts on more sensationalist displays, a fight breaks out and the museum catches fire. Years later the professor reappears in New York. His hands were destroyed in the fire, but he is busy training up ones to do the work for him, in order to open a new museum. That’s not all he’s doing though. Bodies are mysteriously disappearing from a morgue, and some of the exhibits in the new wax museum look disturbingly lifelike … Fay Wray co-stars as the young woman whom Atwill becomes obsessed with, convinced that she would make an excellent Marie Antoinette. Glenda Farrell puts in a robust performance as Fay’s wisecracking room-mate, Florence, who is a hack journalist desperate for a story. Sometimes Glenda’s hard-boiled broad routine gets a bit wearying, but at the same time it’s interesting to see a 1930s career gal in action. The film was re-made 20 years later as ‘House Of Wax’, starring the incomparable Vincent Price.
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011)
Dir: Simon Curtis
Mainly this works as a lovely tribute to a great star. The film covers Marilyn Monroe coming to England, to star in The Prince And The Showgirl, alongside Great Thesp Laurence Olivier. The contrast between Hollywood big stars, and New York method acting, up against old-school British theatre is done brilliantly. There is one part where Kenneth Branagh (top-notch as Sir Larry) rants that Marilyn would never be able to cope with provincial repertory theatre with all her antics! This could so easily have turned into a hatchet-job on Marilyn, but although it doesn’t flinch from showing her being difficult, it also captures the unique magic she generated on screen. Judi Dench is also great fun as Dame Sybil Thorndike, in whom Marilyn found an unlikely, but sympathetic ally.
THE NANNY (1965)
Dir: Seth Holt
Gloomy, somewhat oppressive offering from Hammer. Bette Davis stars as the eponymous Nanny (she never seems to have a name), who works as general all-round treasure to a well-heeled London family. Wendy Craig, in a non-comedic role, is the neurotic, fragile mother, who seems to be wholly dependent on her. Her son Joey (William Dix) hates the Mary Poppins figure though, and suspects her of trying to kill everyone. It’s an understated film, and very different to Hammer’s usual horror offerings. I found it depressing though, and far too slow-burning. Normally I like Pamela Franklin, but the scenes between her and Joey are just tedious. The denouement, when it comes, feels a bit underwhelming, and even the great Bette seems muted. Having said all that, it’s not a bad film at all though. TRIVIA CORNER: in her hatchet-job biography of Bette, her daughter criticised Bette’s insistence on wearing a formal nanny’s uniform for the role. But Bette was right. It helps to emphasise Nanny de-personalising herself in her devoted service to the family (a bit like Anthony Hopkins’ butler character in The Remains Of The Day). She dedicates her life to them, and yet – given half a chance – you suspect they’d replace her with a uniformed robot in a trice.
NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983)
Dir: Irvin Kerschner
I don’t see the point of this film. It’s a Bond film, in that it has James Bond in it, yet it’s not counted officially as part of the Bond canon. It has spoof-ish qualities to it, but it’s not funny enough to be a spoof. It just feels like a big exercise in self-indulgence, and Connery’s smug smirk right at the end only reinforces that. Kim Basinger makes a rather more classy Bond girl than we’re used to, but other than that I’m struggling. Fans of it have said it’s better than Octopussy, which came out the same year, but I like Octopussy. It’s entertaining, it’s got Louis Jourdain as the villain, and it’s got an exciting plot. The plot to Never is basically a rehash of Thunderball, well you might as well just watch Thunderball.
NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA (1971)
Dir: Franklin J Schaffner
Stirring epic detailing the last few years of the tsarist regime in Russia. Based on the acclaimed book by Robert J Massie, Michael Jayston stars as the well-meaning but ultimately weak and hopeless Tsar Nicholas, with Janet Suzman as his unpopular German wife Alexandra. It’s suitably lavish and colourful. There is an all-star cast including Laurence Olivier, Timothy West and Ian Holm. The stand-out part has to be Tom Baker, who is the definitive Rasputin. The scenes amongst the family once they are in Siberian exile are very moving, as they finally have some real family life away from the trappings of the court. And the ending. What can I say? I still found it an emotional experience, even though I’ve seen it numerous times.
THE NIGHT CALLER (1965)
Dir: John Gilling
Atmospheric, odd little British sci-fi from 1965, which is also known as Night Caller From Outer Space. A meteorite lands in southern England, but turns out to be strange glowing orb. Soon after, attractive young women are disappearing, all after answering ads for modelling in Bikini Girl magazine. Turns out an alien is on the scrounge, looking for women to re-populate his infertile planet! If all this sounds like a spoof, well no, it’s all played totally straight (apart from Warren Mitchell’s tiresome comedy turn in the middle). As I said, an odd little number. It plays like a classic vintage sci-fi, but has a crooning title song more suited to a romance, and frankly it’s hard to take the story seriously. Nevertheless, it has a unique atmosphere (helped enormously by being in black-and-white), which can make it all worthwhile.
NIGHT FRIGHT (1967)
Dir: John A Sullivan
Absolutely atrocious effort, the sort of film that makes me wonder if everyone involved in the cinema industry in the mid-1960s was out of their heads on something. There is nothing to merit wasting time on this, it’s not even in the cult so-bad-it’s-good category. It’s so tedious it could actually be used as torture, just keep playing it on a loop. It starts off OK, in fact you could be forgiven for thinking you were in for some classic b-movie fun. A courting couple in a car are interrupted by a news broadcast, which proceeds to give them vague information along the lines of “something we-don’t-know-what has been seen in the sky … um … sorta be careful … um … now let’s play you some late night music”. It goes downhill from there. The acting is appalling, the plot uninteresting. Far be for me to tell you what to watch, but I’m writing this as a warning. Ignore at your peril.
NIGHT GALLERY (1969)
Feature length pilot film for the post-Twilight Zone show, made in 1969. Introduced by the incomparable Rod Serling, with each story centring around a particular painting. Unlike most portmanteau films, where the quality can vary greatly from story to story, each one in this trilogy is a winner. The first, ‘The Cemetery’ – which is greatly reminiscent of M R James’s The Mezzotint‘ – has Roddy McDowell on top form as an evil little snot plotting to get rid of his rich artist uncle. The second has Joan Crawford at her most formidable as a cruel old blind lady, who blackmails a surgeon into giving her her sight for 12 hours. This story, directed by Stephen Spielburg, is truly freaky, and Crawford proves once again how she survived in acting for so many decades. It’s my own personal favourite of the three tales. The third has Richard Kiley giving a faultless performance as a Nazi war criminal, hiding out in south America, who becomes obsessed with a painting of a fishing-boat. The ending to this one is extremely powerful. Brilliant stories, great acting, you can’t ask for anything more.
NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT (1967)
Dir: Terence Fisher
Also known as Island Of The Burning Damned. Made in 1967, Night Of The Big Heat is set on a remote Scottish island, where the weather is unseasonably hot and torrid, and everyone wonders if it’s something to do with the scientists in their midst. Much as I love old British sci-fi/horrors – and if they’re starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee all the better – this one tries the patience. For a start the island doesn’t feel remotely like an island, let alone a Scottish one. There are no Scottish people on it, and the pub looks more like it should be in the Cotswolds (so does the surrounding countryside). And then there is the tedious-beyond-belief subplot of the relationship between author Patrick Allen and his saucy minx of a secretary, Jane Merrow. This takes up far too much time. Patrick Allen may have one of the most familiar voices in British film (particularly as he narrated the old Protect And Survive nuclear war films), but he’s like a poor woman’s Roger Moore, with none of the humour and charm. It’s hard to understand any woman losing the plot over him. We also get the kind of script that seems more appropriate to 1907, than 1967, including Woman Has Hysterical Fit, Man Slaps Her Face, and even utters the words “you little fool!” I hate any film that includes the words “you little fool!” They should be buried in the dustbin of history. Christopher Lee looks grumpy and angry throughout much of the film. I completely understand.
NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957)
Dir: Jacques Tourneur
This is one of those films I’ve seen numerous times, and I love it. Based on M R James’s Casting The Runes, the plot revolves around a skeptical American scientist (Dana Andrews) who comes to Britain to expose a shady, occult Aleister Crowley type, who is up to no good. When the two meet, Julian Karswell (played brilliantly by Irish actor Niall McGuinness) puts a hex on Andrews, telling him he will die in 3 days time. This film has rightly become a cult classic, and I’ve even got a book which is solely about the making of it. Ask me WHY it’s so venerated though and I couldn’t tell you! You either get it or you don’t. It could be some of the spooky moments, such as Andrews hearing the eerie whistling noise in the corridors of his hotel, or the poetic walk through the moonlit woods. The actors are all well-cast. Niall McGuinness plays Crowley (sorry, Karswell) as a mix of sophisticated gent, creepy, shadowy figure, and clownish buffoon. If the Devil were to appear in human form, I suspect he could well be like this. Welsh beauty Peggy Cummins plays a more feisty token female role than would normally have been allowed at that time, (“that quite horribly bright young woman”), determined to try and kick some sense into the stubborn, bone-headed Andrews, and get him to realise that he’s in serious danger. There was a lot of criticism of Dana Andrews in the film. He was hired because in those days no Brit film felt it could stand a chance unless there was an American star in it. Andrews’s star was waning by this time, and he was a drunk. There are a couple of places where he’s noticeably slurring his words, but I thought he did a fine job, and I can’t imagine the film without him. He makes his character seem quite vulnerable in his refusal to see what doesn’t fit his logical view of things. TRIVIA CORNER: There is a lovely anecdote of Andrews appearing in the line-up at that year’s Royal Variety Performance. When the Queen spotted him she said “Mr Andrews, what are you doing here?” Andrews replied that he was in Britain to make a film about witchcraft. “Oh”, said the Queen “We don’t want any of that back!” ADDENDUM: I guess something must be said about the sighting of the demon controversy, which has dogged this film down the decades. MUCH has been made about director Jacques Torneur’s decision to show the demon at the beginning of the film, with many taking the side that it was a big mistake (one reviewer even described the demon as looking a bit like Ernest Borgnine). I used to feel like this, but I’ve changed my mind, and now see the side that says simply “how could he have left it out?”
NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (1962)
Dir: Sidney Hayers
Odd black-and-white number from the early 1960s, in which Peter Wyngarde (always eminently watcheable), plays a university professor with a wife who likes to get up to a little voodoo on the quiet. That’s not the least of his worries. The university secretary (Margaret Johnston) has it in for them, and uses witchcraft to submit the couple to a rash of strange attacks and bad luck. The stand-out sequence in this film, is the superb section where Wyngarde is chased through the university by one of the stone eagles come to life. It is well worth watching just for this sequence alone.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
Dir: George A Romero
It is impossible to overstate just how much this low-budget film from the late 1960s completely revolutionised the whole horror genre. I’ll never forget the first time I saw it (suitably late at night), and being completely absorbed. From the eerie opening scene in the graveyard, when a zombie is sighted stumbling noiselessly through the headstones, to the claustrophobic scenes amongst the bickering survivors in the farmhouse, to the documentary-style newsroom scenes, this is top-notch stuff. I’ve read people poking fun at some of the script (such as “they’re dead, they’re all fucked up”), but I’ll cut them a lot of the slack for the part where one of the newsreaders simply says “we can’t believe we’re telling you this”, and that incredibly chilling line about the dead being brought back to life.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990)
Dir: Tom Savini
When I heard there was to be a remake of NOTLD I was filled with sore misgivings (to coin a phrase). Remakes of much-loved classics all too often tend to be misfires. This is actually a pretty competent effort, which, if it wasn’t for the cult classic of the 1960s, would be better regarded. It’s made in colour, which means some of the peculiar Atmosphere of the original has gone, but we do have a good female lead in Patricia Tallman, who does much more with the character of Barbara, than having her sit around in a catatonic state. Other than that, it doesn’t make much change to the original story, apart from the ending. Comparisons are often odious, and none more so than here. The 1990 ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ isn’t bad at all. It complements the original quite nicely.
NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA (1975)
Dir: Joseph Sargent
Great TV movie which details the notorious Halloween 1937 radio broadcast of H G Wells’s ‘The War Of The Worlds’, made by Orson Welles, which was so convincing that many Americans thought it was real. The film shows the growing concern over events in Europe, and how this was fuelling fear and paranoia in the United States. It’s also a fascinating look at how they did this sort of thing in the days long before computers. Dig the pickle jar being thrust down a loo and carefully unscrewed to simulate the doors of the spaceship opening!
NIGHT TIDE (1961)
Dir: Curtis Harrington
Rarely seen little gem, starring a young Dennis Hopper as a lonely sailor on shore-leave at Venice Beach, California. In a jazz bar he meets an enigmatic young woman called Mora. He finds she lives above the carousel ride, and has a job appearing as a mermaid at a sideshow on the pier … only she might just be the real thing. This might sound silly, but the film is anything but. Shot in atmospheric black-and-white, and on a low-budget, it has a poetic feel to it. Hopper is great as the awkward, unimaginative but ultimately decent young man who is being asked to believe in very strange things. The cast is made up of interesting, offbeat characters, including a plummy-voiced English drunk captain, and an eccentric fortune-teller (mind you, when aren’t fortune-tellers eccentric?). The scene where Hopper sees Mora, in her full mermaid rig-out (her working clothes I suppose you might say) for the first time, is highly effective, giving the whole thing a surreal fantasy feel. I only came across this film by chance, when it was referred to in passing in a chapter about Hopper’s film career. I tracked it down on YouTube, and I’m very glad I did. The film reminds me in essence of the kind of stories Robert Aickman wrote, only the story is more tautly pulled together at the end, whereas Mr Aickman tended to leave us hanging somewhat (not that that’s a bad thing by any means). Well worth a look.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
If this isn’t one of the stylish (if not THE) stylish thrillers ever made, I’ll eat this laptop. This is Hitchcock at the top of his form. He was on a roll at this point. ‘Vertigo’ followed by ‘North By Northwest’, followed by ‘Psycho’, followed by ‘The Birds’. It was an astonishing level of cinematic achievement. In a case of mistaken identity Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a spy, and taken to a mysterious house to be interrogated. There he has booze poured down his throat and pushed behind the wheel of a car. He survives this, only to be pursued across America, involving a number of legendary adventures, such as being terrorised by a crop-duster on a lonely desert road, and a grand climax at Mount Rushmore. This film is practically perfection. In fact the only thing I can find wrong with it (and this is a minor quibble to say the least) is that Thornhill’s mother (Jessie Royce Landis) looks younger than him! Cary Grant is brilliant. Stylish, wisecracking, and yet also showing Thornhill vulnerable and scared. The scene where he finds himself standing at the side of the desert road, facing the weird stranger on the other side, has a very eerie feel to it, almost ‘Twilight Zone’-ish. Eva Marie Saint adds the requisite amount of glacial elegance (the classic Hitchockian blonde). She seems rather too mature and sophisticated to be playing a 25-year-old, but that might be because she was actually 35 at the time! (Or then again, it might say something about 25-year-olds of this era). This should be in anybody’s Top 100 greatest films ever made.
Dir: F W Murnau
“Is this your wife? She has a lovely throat”. Iconic silent movie version of the ‘Dracula’ legend from 1922. It very nearly didn’t see the light of day (I’m not sure if there’s a pun in that or not), as Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, accused the film-makers of plagiarism, and ordered all copies to be destroyed. Fortunately one copy survived. Some of the names of the characters have been changed, for instance Dracula becomes Orlok, and Mina becomes Nina, but the story is effectively the same (although there’s no Lucy, and no Brides). ‘Nosferatu’ is rightly regarded these days as a work of cinematic art, and that is how it really should be approached. It’s not particularly scary any more, in fact Channel 4 here in the UK once showed it at lunchtime, which was a bit odd to say the least, but the climatic scene where Nosferatu scampers upstairs, his shadow thrown against the wall, his clawed hand outstretched, is one of the most memorable images of horror cinema. Both Renfield and Orlok are truly grotesque characters. Renfield with his mad, popping eyes and clown’s hair is repulsive, and Orlok with his general ratlike appearance feels like a peculiar old man haunted by his own perversions … which I guess he is. I often find stop stop-motion sequences slightly unsettling (must be all those weird children’s programmes that were shown when I was a tot!), and it is used to good effect here, particularly in the scene where Jonathan observes Orlok loading a cart with coffins. And dig Orlok’s skeleton clock! The 1979 remake, starring Klaus Kinski, is a moody, ponderous affair, but with highly effective use of music, such as Wagner’s eerie Death Of Siegfried when Jonathan rides into the mountains, and Kate Bush’s ‘The Fog’ to depict the town ravaged by plague.
NOT OF THIS EARTH (1957)
Dir: Roger Corman
Odd little number (as you would expect from Roger Corman), about an alien (Paul Birch) who has arrived on Earth to harvest blood for his people. It must have been made for about 4 cents, and yet it has a strangely compelling feel to it. With his trilby hat, dark suit, dark glasses, and weird, staccato speech, Birch seems an almost perfect illustration of one of the Men In Black, and I do wonder if this film helped to “inspire” that peculiar sub-genre of Ufology. Worth watching for that reason alone.
NUDE NUNS WITH BIG GUNS (2010)
Dir: Joseph Guzman
Well as attention-seeking film titles go, that one takes some beating. It sounds like some cheap exploitation film from the 1970s. It’s actually a more modern revenge flick. A young Mexican nun (Asun Ortega), acting on advice from God, decides to take revenge on those who have abused her. Revenge horrors tend to be deeply unpleasant, and whilst this is by no means the worst of the genre, it’s still a pretty depressing affair. There is one scene, involving the rape of an elderly nun, which I really wish I could erase from my memory banks. If it deliberately set out to sicken, depress and disturb me … well congrats, you succeeded. Go and punch yourself in the face.
NUMBER 13 (2006)
Dir: Pier Wilkie
In the mid-Noughties the BBC did a couple of adaptations of classic M R James ghost stories, very much in the line of the the much-loved Christmas ones from the 1970s. When I first heard about them I had reservations, anticipating some naff updated efforts with obligatory slam-dunk noises, whole parts stolen from ‘The Shining’, and a bit of sex thrown in for good measure. Am very pleased to say I was absolutely WRONG. Although I didn’t find this one quite as scary as ‘A View From A Hill’ (see below), it is still a very credible effort. Greg Wise plays that iconic Jamesian character, the fussy academic bachelor, Professor Anderson, who checks into a small, creaky old hotel whilst he does some research work at the cathedral nearby, only to find himself being disturbed by loud noises from the room next door, No.13. Unfortunately, Room No.13 doesn’t exist …
THE NUN’S STORY (1959)
Dir: Fred Zinnemann
I heard some tale that when the idea for this film was first mooted, it was rejected by Hollywood on the grounds that no one would want to see a long film about a nun. They were wrong. Made in 1957, it features a beautifully understated performance by Audrey Hepburn, as Gabrielle, a young woman who takes up holy orders in the 1920s. It follows her training, her time working at a mental hospital, and then out in the Belgian Congo. When she is recalled to the Mother House in Belgium, she finds she can no longer cope with life behind convent walls. The outbreak of World War 2 only hastens her desire to get back outside. It’s a long film, but if you’re up for it, it draws you in, and delivers a profoundly moving experience. Dame Edith Evans is also perfect as the Mother Superior, with her beautifully delivered words, and her formidable, but kind face. You only see her vulnerable once, when she realises that Sister Luke is determined to leave, and she delivers the beautiful line “when you leave, I shall carry you in my heart”. The final scene, where Sister Luke, changes into civilian clothes, and emerges back into the world, is one of my favourites in all cinema. You want to follow her outside, and see where she goes. I first saw it many many years ago, and it still moves me now.
Dir: John Glen
Some say that the sight of Roger Moore in full clown’s slap and costume in Octopussy signified the absolute nadir of the Bond genre. I disagree. By all accounts, Moore was sick of playing Bond by this time, but he still does a pretty good job here. The film is a strange Bond hybrid in that it has it’s buffoonery, reminiscent of ‘Moonraker’, and yet at the same time can be back-to-basics old-school Bond. As entertainment goes, it delivers the goods. Fast-moving, plenty of exotic locations, a vampish femme fatale in the title role (Maud Adams), and Louis Jourdan as a tongue-in-cheek villain. We certainly get our money’s worth of Sir Roger in this outing. He slides down a bannister, firing off a machine-gun, is hunted through the undergrowth, finds himself on an island populated entirely by beautiful women, dresses up in a gorilla suit, and then gets into the red nose and oversized shoes, before kicking the enemy in the balls. In fact, I would argue that the circus sequence shows Moore at his very best. He can clown it up convincingly, and yet when he has to convince the American that he’s the real McCoy by saying “I’m a British agent” he is deadly serious. Some of the wisecracking is a feeling very tired. Bond whispering “hiss off” to a snake crawling over him is hardly classic Bond wit, but I can forgive the film it’s faults for showing us Louis Jourdain stuffing a sheep’s eye into his mouth, and for one of the glamorous women doing a nifty bit of abseiling off a balcony, using her sari to do so. Plus there’s a thrilling train-top sequence which reminds me of Will Hay’s ‘Oh Mr Porter!’ And that’s no bad thing. TRIVIA CORNER: (or me being a pedant if you like), the scene at the gambling table, where Jourdain icily advises Bond to “spend your winnings quickly, Mr Bond” is actually taken from Ian Fleming’s original novel version of ‘Moonraker’. Just thought I’d throw that in.
OH MR PORTER! (1937)
Dir: Marcel Varnel
Vintage Will Hay comedy from the 1930s, which I have a huge affection for. Hay plays one of his traditional bumbling characters, this time a railway worker who gets packed off to a remote spot in Ireland after causing embarrassment at an official function. There, in the sleepy backwater of Buggleskelly, he teams up with his usual sidekicks, Edward Moffatt and Moore Marriott, to try and turn around the fortunes of it’s rundown railway station. All sorts of comic mayhem ensue, culminating in a showdown with IRA gun-runners, involving some terrific train-top anarchy. There are some great lines, such as “Do you mind if I put my signals up now?” “Well if it gives you pleasure”. Proof indeed that all Will Hay needed to make a good film was “a fat boy and a broken down old train”, as one Grumpy Old Man comedian once put it. TRIVIA CORNER: Barry Norman once included ‘Oh Mr Porter!’ in his Top 100 films of all time. He knows a thing or two about films, does Mr Norman.
THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)
Dir: James Whale
Very creaky, low-budget horror from the early 1930s, and yet, if you’re up for it, it’s great fun. Three people are driving through the Welsh countryside when their route is blocked by a landslide. They seek refuge at a remote house, which has some very disturbing residents. It’s a black comedy, and the cast look like they were having a great time. Gloria Stuart (who would later become Rose as an old lady in ‘Titanic’) looks lovely, although somewhat incongruous, running around a draughty farmhouse in a long satin gown and pearls. Charles Laughton also appears as a bluff, no-nonsense Northern business man with a soft heart. (When I watched the actors’ commentary on this film, Gloria exclaimed fondly “oh there he is! The dear boy!” when Laughton first appeared). And Boris Karloff is the Lurch-like butler. What more can you want really? The dinner-table scene is masterly (“have a potato”), as the group pick black bits out of their spuds and Eva Moore (who had been a leading suffragette activist in real life) greedily spears up the pickled onions, whilst the shadows flicker all around them. There are some great lines in this film. “My sister has been arranging some flowers”, drawls the impossibly posh-voiced Ernest Thesiger, before promptly chucking them on the fire! Film-making must have been a lot of fun in those days, if this one is anything to go by.
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969)
Dir: Peter R Hunt
Most famous for being George Lazenby’s only outing as 007. It’s a fairly decent time-passer, with Telly Savalas as a Bond villain recruiting an army of beautiful girls (including Joanna Lumley) at the top of a Swiss mountain. Diana Rigg is a classier-than-average Bond girl, but I can’t help feeling this film is way beneath her, and she deserved better than this. (Particularly in one scene where she’s punched in the face by her on-screen father). Lazenby’s problem is that he simply lacks any charisma whatsoever. He doesn’t have Sean Connery’s twinkly-eyed menace, or Roger Moore’s affable nonchalance. Still, if you want a bit of undemanding film action, it does the job just fine, and being set at Christmas-time, it makes pretty good festive viewing. TRIVIA CORNER: ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ recently came third in a poll to find out the public’s favourite Bond films, which was a surprise (‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Skyfall’ took first and second places).
ON THE BEACH (1959)
Dir: Stanley Kramer
Often regarded as one of the finest nuclear war films ever made, ‘On The Beach’, based on the novel by Nevil Shute, shows a world where the entire Northern Hemisphere has been wiped out in World War 3. On the south coast of Australia, the inhabitants are aware they’re living on borrowed time, knowing it’s only a matter of months before the radioactive fall-out will drift their way. Featuring an all-star cast (Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins), this is an understandably sombre film, which focusses on the characters’ private lives, as they try to make sense of what has happened, and how to face what is coming. You wish that somehow – by some miracle – a happy ending will occur, whilst all the time knowing that that’s impossible. There are some parts in this that stay uncomfortably in the mind, such as the people lining up (Jonestown-style) for their suicide pills, and Fred Astaire gassing himself in his garage. That is far more poignant than any amount of modern-day extravagant CGI could be. I’ve read some criticism of the book that it depicts people being too stoic, but that was that time, and who knows how any of us would be in that situation? I hope we never have to find out.
ON THE BEAT (1962)
Dir: Robert Asher
“I am Pitkin of the Yard!” I have come across many people who couldn’t stand Norman Wisdom, and yet I don’t understand why. His films are every bit as funny now as they were in his heyday in the 1950s. He is the perfect clown, a worthy successor to Chaplin. Acrobatic, with a dancer’s grace, and a talented singer and musician too. Perhaps the old-fashioned sentiment is not to everyone’s taste, but frankly I am getting heartily sick of so much nastiness and cynicism which is all too prevalent in modern comedy. In ‘On The Beat’ he plays a young man who is obsessed with getting into the police force, to emulate his dad. Unfortunately he’s too short, and has to resort to strenuous means to try and blag his way in. He finally gets his chance when he gets hired to do some undercover work. Nice bit of old-fashioned escapist fun.
ONE MILLION YEARS BC (1966)
Dir: Don Chaffey
Cracking bit of fantasy from the Hammer lot. It plays fast-and-loose with historical accuracy, having humans and dinosaurs living alongside each other, but frankly you’d have to be a right killjoy to work yourself up into a lather about it (I know some do). It begins with a sort of David Attenborough narration, and that’s about the only dialogue in it. A young cave-guy, Tumak, (John Richardson) falls out with his dad and brother, and takes himself off across some hostile wastes, populated by dinosaurs and a giant spider (anyone who doesn’t jump when that damn thing appears is clearly made of a sterner stuff than me). After many trials and vicissitudes he winds up like Michael Palin’s “It’s!” man on a beach, where he is rescued by a buxom blonde Raquel Welch … until a giant turtle appears. Raquel falls for Tumak, much to the disgust of her current boyfriend. Yes of course it’s all nonsense. For a start, Raquel is sporting false eyelashes, nicely-plucked eyebrows and blow-dried hair, but she certainly does the job in her iconic cave-girl bikini (which will be familiar to some from the poster in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’). Plus we have Ray Harryhausen’s monsters, and beautiful location photography in the Canary Islands. A harmless bit of fun.
THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (2008)
Dir: Justin Chadwick
Sadly not the solid BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s bestseller (which as far as I know is freely available on YouTube), but the big-budget Hollywood version. Even for someone like me who loves the Tudor era, this one tries the patience. It’s a while since I’ve watched it to be honest, but my memories of it aren’t of the fondest. Part of the problem for me was the casting of Eric Bana as Henry VIII. He simply has no presence at all, and seems to exist just to cast lascivious looks in the direction of the girls. The Boleyn sisters seem to think they’re in some kind of peculiar chicklit. You get very little idea of the immense power struggles at play here, or how Henry’s obsession with Anne ripped England apart. I’m not going to say any more about this one.
Dir: Franklin J Schaffner
Masterly adaptation of Henri Charriere’s bestselling book about his captivity and subsequent escape(s) from the notorious French penal colony, Devil’s Island. Steve McQueen is brilliant in the title role, being suitably rugged, and yet a sympathetic character, with the occasional touch of comedy thrown in. A beautifully photographed film, with some outstanding sequences, most particularly the leper colony, and Papillon’s marathon stints in solitary confinement. Dustin Hoffman is at his nerdy best as Papillon’s chum, Dega, a man almost too kind for his own good.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007)
Dir: Oren Peli
I know this film has been slated in some areas, but it worked for me. A young couple live in a house where odd, spooky things happen in the middle of the night. They set up cameras to try and capture who is causing the mysterious occurrences. This is classic bump-in-the-night old-school shocks, where we can be spooked by something eerie happening just beyond an open doorway. It’s reassuring that in this day and age, where we see enough graphic horror just on the news, that creepy noises in the night can still cause a shiver. Decent enough twist at the end too.
PEEPING TOM (1960)
Dir: Michael Powell
Hugely respected cult classic, which was slated on release, and destroyed the director’s career. It must have been strong meat for a 1960 audience, considering the subject matter concerns a serial-killer who murders his victims and films their dying moments on a hand-held movie camera. There is no doubting that it’s a disturbing film to watch, even now, and I can understand why it has achieved such a cult status. Carl Boehm is excellent in the title role. The vivacious Moira Shearer also pops up as one of his victims, and this may have contributed to some of the film’s uneasy reception. Moira had been the star of acclaimed ballet picture ‘The Red Shoes’ a few years earlier, and it must have been a shock for the audience to see the graceful red-head being bumped off in a horror film. Watching it again recently, it’s one of those films which I can admire for it’s merits, but it’s still not a favourite by any means. It’s simply too depressing, and the prim Anna Massey is unspeakably dense and irritating as the girl who gets a crush on her enigmatic lodger. It’s one of those films where I can respect the admiration it’s earned, but it’s not one I’m fond of.
THE PEOPLE (1972)
Kim Darby is a schoolteacher who heads to an isolated community in the American backwoods, to find herself. She discovers the villagers to be rather humourless and withdrawn, and prone to wearing demure, old-fashioned clothing. They don’t believe in frivolous conversation, and say things like “we don’t speak, we listen” (they’d get on well with Twitter Inspirational Quotes). No, this isn’t an Amish community, or something like that. Unlike the YouTube site, which gave away all the spoilers of the plot in the description, I won’t tell you anymore. Based on a series of stories by Zenna Henderson, this film is very low-key, with a brooding atmosphere, although I did find it a bit too moody.
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)
Dir: Peter Weir
Intriguing story about how a party of schoolgirls and their teachers vanished from an Australian beauty spot on Valentine’s Day 1900. I’ve seen this story listed as real in some Unsolved Mysteries books, and yet it was based on a novel, and is thought to have been very unlikely to have actually happened. It’s beautifully made, and bumped up Australian cinema as a force to be reckoned with. It might be too slow-moving for some tastes, but the scenes on the rock are magical and hugely atmospheric. I have to say though that I lost interest in it after that, when the action moves back to the school. BUT the story has fascinated people ever since the film’s release, and huge debates have been sparked as to what could have caused the girls to disappear, with some very complex stuff about parallel dimensions and time distortions. As a footnote, I remember reading Ffyona Campbell’s book about her walk across Australia, ‘Feet Of Clay’, and her comments about the spooky feel of walking past the rock on Halloween.
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961)
Dir: Roger Corman
“Maximilian! We must break into the torture-chamber, quick!” Another of the much-loved Roger Corman/Richard Matheson/Vincent Price collaborations from one of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. In this one a young man travels to a Spanish castle, during the time of the Inquisition, to find out what happened to his recently-deceased sister. This is no-nonsense gothic horror, which gets the job done in a fraction of the time that a modern remake would probably manage. Price is top-hole as always, and the castle is suitably forbidding, which is not surprising as most of its bottom half seems to be made up entirely of an extravagant torture-chamber! The scene where John Kerr is strapped to a table, and then has to watch as a giant blade swings hypnotically over him, has to be horror at its most gloriously camp. A sort of precursor to the Bond laser beam really. The very final moment in the film has a horrific, nerve-wrangling pay-off, which I won’t spoil by giving away here.
THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966)
Dir: John Gilling
An eminent doctor, Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell), is summoned to a remote Cornish village to try and find out what the mysterious illness is which is causing the villagers to die off. He arrives accompanied by his sparky daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare), who immediately incurs the wrath of the local fox-hunting toffs by sending them off in the wrong direction after the fox. Sylvia finds that her friend Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) is looking very pale and unwell. Soon they wonder if the mysterious plague could have anything to do with the local lord of the manor (John Carson) who has spent some time in voodoo-ridden Haiti. This is a low-key, but effective zombie chiller, with the memorable scene where the local doctor (Brook Williams) dreams that the dead villagers are clambering out of their graves. It doesn’t have the blood-and-gore we normally associate with zombie flicks these days, but these zombies are still pretty unsettling. It was shot back-to-back on the same sets as ‘The Reptile’, and also using Jacqueline Pearce and Michael Ripper (this time as a police officer). I’m not as fond of it as I am of ‘The Reptile’, but that is just a personal preference.
PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965)
Dir: Mario Bava
Probably best known these days for allegedly being the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Aliens. The original Italian title translated as Terror In Space. Made on a shoestring budget – the director said he literally had only two rocks in the studio to serve as the planet in question – this is certainly no masterpiece, and yet it has an eerie downbeat charm. Spaceships crash-land on a gloomy planet, plagued by whistling winds and flashing lights, which is inhabited by disembodied aliens. These creatures gradually take over the dead bodies of the deceased crew, having them return like the walking dead. It’s quite a good idea, and perhaps should have worked better. The uniforms of the crew look like something from a fetish shop, it’s a slow-burner, even at just over an hour in length, and the acting is uninspiring to say the least, but as I said there is a definite eerie feel to the film.
PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)
Dir: Edward D Wood Jnr
One of those films that’s become more famous these days for it’s reputation, and for the making of it, than the film itself, largely thanks to the excellent Johnny Depp biopic ‘Ed Wood’. Plan 9 is credited with being one of the worst films ever made, and yet, whilst it’s certainly bad, I’ve seen worse. In fact, compared to such horrors as ‘Robot Monster’ and ‘The Creeping Terror’ it’s almost a work of genius! Sadly, it’s probably most famous for being Bela Lugosi’s last film. He died during the making of it, and he certainly deserved a better send-off than this. (His stand-in usually appears with his cape held up to his face). Anyway, the plot: aliens are preparing to unleash Plan 9 on Earth (I’m not quite sure what happened to Plans 1-8), which is that the dead will return to life. The film begins with a rather unctuous narrative by Criswell, aka as The Amazing Criswell, in which he constantly addresses the viewer as “my friends” and tells us what is surely to come to pass, as if he’s flogging us life insurance. We then go to a graveyard, and Bela burying his wife, who then returns as one of the Undead. At the same time Bela gets knocked down whilst crossing the road, in quite one of the most laughable and incompetent bits of film-making I’ve ever seen. He also returns as a Dracula-esque zombie. The stand-out performance (!) has to be from Vampira, who stalks through graveyards with her arms out-stretched, terrifying anyone she meets, and visibly flinching from shots fired at her. You could write an essay on the continuity cock-ups, and the ropey production values. The hub of the evil aliens’ HQ for instance seems to be a curtained cubicle, with a table and chair. Some of the acting isn’t too bad, to be fair, and credit to the actors for trying their best with what they must have known was complete rubbish. TRIVIA CORNER: The Amazing Criswell was a psychic, who wrote books of predictions, detailing all sorts of horrors due to strike Planet Earth in the latter half of the 20th century, including mass cannibalism, and the final destruction of the planet on 18 August 1999.
PLEASE TURN OVER (1959)
Dir: Gerald Thomas
Julia Lockwood (daughter of Margaret) plays Jo, a teenage girl who scandalises everyone by writing a sensational novel about the antics of her family and neighbours. Being 1959, there is a huge innocence to this film, which makes it quite beguiling. And the image of small-town English life seems almost idyllic. The contrast between reality and the fictionalised version of events is very funny. Nice bit of escapist comedy, starring a whole clutch of vintage stars like Leslie Philips, Joan Sims, and Lionel Jeffries.
POOR GIRL (1974)
The second of a pair of ghost stories (the other being ‘The Ferryman’, see above), which was aired by Granada TV over Christmas 1974. This exceptionally well-crafted little dose of eeriness is based on a story by Elizabeth Taylor. Lynn Miller plays Florence Chasty, an Edwardian governess who is hired to look after a precocious little boy called Hilary (Matthew Pollock). It’s impossible not to draw comparisons with ‘The Turn Of The Screw’/’The Innocents’ with this one, touching as it does on the thorny issue of a sexually aware child. Instead of being haunted by depraved old servants though, Florence keeps seeing visions of a young couple in 1920s clothes. Everything about this production was of high quality. The acting, the attention to detail, and the plot. In this strange, uptight but intense household, mousy Florence finds herself becoming more sexually provocative. I never normally think of the 1970s as an understated (particularly where sex is concerned!), elegant decade, and yet this production is undoubtedly that. I don’t even want to think what a dog’s breakfast would be made of this story if it was made now.
Dir: Curtis Bernhardt
Superb black-and-white melodrama starring Joan Crawford as a paranoid schizophrenic, who becomes obsessed with a mathematician. With her fur coats, strappy high heels, and big eyes, this is quintessential Joan. Considering she reputedly terrified everyone with whom she came into contact with in real life, she does a pretty good job of portraying fragile vulnerability on screen. This is an above-average thriller, with plenty of twists, and some great sets, usually featuring extravagant staircases, for people to spy on each other, fall down etc etc. My only criticism (and it’s tiny) is that Joan seems a tad too mature for what comes across a role for a much younger woman. But hey, I’m not really that bothered, because I adore Joan. She was brilliant.
PREMATURE BURIAL (1962)
Dir: Roger Corman
Ah here we are again, back in the territory that vintage gothic fans will love. Edgar Allan Poe, Roger Corman, Hazel Court in a silky nightie, fog-shrouded old house, wisecracking gravediggers, some old ancestors buried in the basement, eerie dream sequence … the only thing that’s missing is Vincent Price. I recently read a scathing review of this film whereby the critic simply couldn’t accept Ray Milland in his place. It’s true that Vincent is missed, but to claim that Milland couldn’t act is just nonsense. He does a fine job here, portraying the sensitive Victorian soul who is obsessed with the danger of being buried alive. He transmits his character’s fear very well, but then can launch into skittish mode when he gets excited showing off his new burial-chamber (yes, you read that right, this is an Edgar Allan Poe story when all’s said and done, people get excited about coffins here). In fact, the whole customised burial-chamber feels like something out of Michael Palin’s ‘Ripping Yarns’ series, complete with escape rope-ladder descending from ceiling! It’s not quite on a par with ‘Fall Of The House Of Usher’, which it strongly resembles in it’s setting, but it still holds up well after all these years.
PREMONITION (THE PSYCHIC) (2005)
Dir: Jonas Quastel
TV movie about a cop (Casper van Dien) who is fatally injured in the line of duty, and then miraculously brought back to life, only to find himself being plagued by violent dreams and premonitions, all culminating in a terrorist attack on his city. There are some interesting ideas in this film, but it’s let down by ropey, stereotyped characterisation (the Russian villain is straight out of panto, complete with ridiculously over-the-top acting), and a frankly dreary central character, who never really wins sympathy. He seems to think that sporting an unshaved face full of stubble is enough to portray someone going through mental trauma. In fact, none of the characters are very interesting. A bit of a lazy effort all-round.
THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969)
Dir: Ronald Neame
This is one of those films that I quite liked when I was younger, but have since gone off it in my middle-age. Personally, I don’t think it’s aged well, though I accept I’m probably in the minority with that one. There is no doubt whatsoever that Maggie Smith gives a tour-de-force performance as flamboyant Scottish teacher, Jean Brodie, training her “gels” to be her vision of “the creme de la creme”. Unfortunately, her romantic visions for them all can only lead to tragedy. Pamela Franklin plays the earnest bespectacled schoolgirl who will eventually cause Brodie’s downfall, and the final scene between her and Dame Maggie is a breathtakingly excellent piece of acting on both parts (“assassin!”). I’m not really sure why I don’t like it any more. It might be the scenes where Pamela poses nude and has an affair with the lecherous artist (Robert Stephens). These scenes, in the light of recent child abuse scandals, feel uncomfortable. Particularly as I get the feeling we’re meant to like and admire this boorish old lecher. No, he’s just an angry, thoughtless, selfish old sod, treating his wife and children indifferently whilst he has it off with schoolgirls, and pines stupidly for their teacher. At the risk of sounding sexist, I will say this is one of those films where the women come off much better than the men, who are all either selfish or weak.
THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1957)
Dir: Laurence Olivier
Marilyn Monroe’s only British-made film, and by all accounts it wasn’t a happy experience, for her or anyone. You wouldn’t think it to watch her here though, as she sparkles delightfully in her role as Elsie Marina, an Edwardian chorus-girl who captures the attention of a visiting Carpathian prince, played by Laurence Olivier, who is in London for the coronation of King George V. It seemed like a good idea at the time to team the King of Theatreland with the Queen of Hollywood, but it wasn’t a great meeting of minds. Marilyn turned up trailing the New York school of Method acting, whilst all Olivier wanted to do was make a lightweight drawing-room comedy. They clashed horribly, and the film was not a great success on release. It doesn’t help that there really doesn’t seem to be any sexual chemistry between them at all, and you would think that would be vital in a romantic comedy like this. The film has generated new interest these days though, thanks to My Week With Marilyn (see above) which chronicled the making of it. Has time been kind to it? In my opinion, yes and no. Marilyn is an absolute delight. She wasn’t in the best of health when she made the film. Her marriage to Arthur Miller was already in trouble, and she was deeply unhappy. It was also rumoured that she suffered a miscarriage during the making of the film. And yet on screen, she is vivacious, charming, and very funny. Without her presence, the film would have been a complete dead duck in the water, and I doubt many would bother with it now. Based on a play by Terence Rattigan, this style of genteel drawing-room comedy was on its way out in the mid-1950s, being taken over by gritty kitchen-sink drama and the era of the Angry Young Men. And at times it can feel as if it’s left entirely to Marilyn to try and inject some life into it, and goodness knows she does her best. Laurence Olivier should also be given more credit than he has often been shown. Yes, his performance is starchy, but that’s the character! Think of Prince Charles, but without his sense of humour. Olivier shows a real knack for comedy (particularly in the theatre scenes at the beginning), but there are times when he seems afraid to let go completely. The first half of the film is enjoyable, particularly in the scenes in the Prince’s private rooms. Marilyn is on top form, sexy and tomboy-ish. It’s hard to believe she was ill when you see her jumping nimbly round the footmen as they set out the supper table. (I kept thinking of her psychiatrist Dr Greenson paying tribute to her after her death, and calling her “a scamp”). Although the parts where the Prince is too busy on the telephone are slightly annoying. He’s got a tipsy Marilyn on the sofa for goodness sakes! The second half frankly is a bit of a drag. We get real Coronation footage, but Elsie’s wonderment in Westminster Abbey feels patronisingly odd and goes on for far too long. Anyway, time comes full circle, and these days The Prince And The Showgirl is an enjoyable bit of escapist comedy from a gentler age, but without Marilyn it would be nothing.
THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (1933)
Dir: Alexander Korda
This may not be the most historically accurate portrayal of one of our most notorious monarchs, but it is the most fun, and Charles Laughton’s dinner scene, where he rips apart a roast chicken with his bare hands, has become one of the most legendary scenes in cinema history. I’ve always loved this film, it just doesn’t give a hang about historical accuracy. Instead it’s clearly decided it’s going to do one thing and one thing only – entertain. So we get Catherine of Aragon being dismissed right at the beginning as too boring to bother with, and we cut straight to the chase of Anne Boleyn’s execution. Jane Seymour is a ditzy blonde (“Henry! You haven’t said a word about my wedding-dress!”), Anne of Cleves is quirky and funny, Katherine Howard is a scheming flirt, and Katherine Parr is a nagging old woman. I’ve read complaints that Anne of Cleves gets far too much air-time, considering Henry was married to her for only a few months. Who cares? Elsa Lanchester is absolutely wonderful, and she and real-life husband Laughton spark off each other splendidly. The wedding-night scene, where they play cards in bed, is still deliciously funny all these years on. And Laughton for me is the definitive Henry. OK the real-life one probably wasn’t anywhere near as loveable (certainly not in his later years anyway), but Laughton stamps around, bellowing, burping and giving hearty shouts of laughter, clearly thoroughly enjoying himself. I also liked the castle scenes, with the flickering fires, twisting stone staircases, and sunlight pouring through huge windows. Incidentally, in the legendary dinner scene, the entire cast were all fed with catering from one of the top London hotels, so no wonder everyone is working so intently at enjoying their food!
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939)
Dir: Michael Curtiz
Quality costume drama detailing the troubled relationship between Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis) and her last great love, the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn). Good Queen Bess is getting old, but she is swept off her feet by the dashing, lively earl. Unfortunately he has ambitions to rule England, and arranges a revolt against her. Bette gives one of the finest big screen portrayals of the great queen ever. Someone once said there isn’t an inch of vanity in her performance. It is a skilful portrait of a lonely older woman, sadder and wiser, and in full knowledge that her legendary beauty has gone. She also brings out Elizabeth’s dedication to her country. By all accounts, Bette wasn’t happy with the choice of Errol for the role of the Earl, and wanted Laurence Olivier. The thought of Sir Larry over-acting all over the place in this makes me shudder. Errol Flynn got some flak for his performance, (mainly that he never stood a chance up against an acting juggernaut like Bette), but I think he does the job just fine. He has the looks, the charm and the swagger to make it convincing that a woman like Elizabeth could fall for him so drastically. A film that is well-written, well-acted, and elegant to look at. It stands the test of time.
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
I saw an American review of this recently which said the film didn’t work for him, as it’s now so famous that you know exactly what’s going to happen, and as such it’s lost it’s shock appeal. Even so, it’s still an absorbing and unsettling offering from the master, Alfred Hitchcock. I have to say though that for me personally it’s the first half of the film I prefer. I was utterly intrigued by the story of Marian Crane (Janet Leigh) who steals 40,000 dollars from her boss’s client, and goes on the run with it … only to wind up at the Bates Motel. And the rest, as they say, is history. Once Marian meets her fate in the most famous shower scene in cinema history, the focus of the film switches to creepy Norman (Anthony Perkins), and the film moves into a different gear entirely. We go from thriller, to outright gothic horror. It’s hard now perhaps to quite grasp just what a shock to the system this film was when it was first released. This was made at the height of buttoned-up 1950s America (don’t try and argue this film was made in 1960, the Swinging Sixties didn’t really kick in until nearly halfway through the decade). And they’re given a film in which the female central character is having an affair with a married man, and then commits theft on top of it. And, to top it all, the villain likes to dress up in his dead mother’s clothes! Perkins is suitably awkward and unsettling as Norman (“everyone likes to go a little mad sometimes”, “a boy’s best friend is his mother”). The scenes around the spooky old Bates mansion are still quite unnerving, and as for the cellar scene … if you haven’t seen it, prepare for a jolt. Heaven alone knows why, but it was remade in the 1990s, in colour. The only things that were added to it were the sound of a couple having sex in the room next to where Marion’s meeting her boyfriend, and Norman masturbating as he spies on her undressing at the motel. Well, to be honest, I think most of us could grasp that was what he was up to in the original, without actually being shown it. Chatting about ‘Psycho’ with an elderly lady recently, she told me that ever since viewing this film when it first came out, she has always been spooked by the shot of one eye. TRIVIA CORNER: ‘Psycho’ was the first film ever to show a toilet on screen. Also, when Hitch was asked what he’d used for the blood in the shower, he replied “chocolate sauce”. The advantages of black-and-white.
QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008)
Dir: Marc Forster
Perhaps it was hard to come to this with an open mind, as I had read so many negative remarks about this film, but that doesn’t always follow, as everyone hated ‘Diana’ and yet I loved it! But, even so, I did find this a pretty dreary follow-up to ‘Casino Royale’. The script isn’t bad, but overall it wasn’t very engaging. The best bits were with Judi Dench in, and I found my attention wandering whenever she wasn’t on screen. Daniel Craig just seems like a grumpy old man. There is also a particularly depressing part where they re-do Shirley Eaton’s iconic death scene in ‘Goldfinger’, only using oil instead of gold paint. I really find it very hard to find anything to say about the film as a whole. Where Bond films go, I would put it on a level with ‘Goldeneye’ for ones I’m not in a rush to see again. A chat-forum on a movie website said this should be put on a level with ‘Moonraker’ and ‘A View To A Kill’ for worst Bond movies. I contend that one. I can watch ‘Moonraker’ and ‘A View To A Kill’ any amount of times. They’re splendid good fun. Whereas this is just uninvolving.
QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967)
Dir: Roy Ward Baker
With any Nigel Kneale script you’re going to get plenty of thought-provoking ideas, and this one is no exception. Whilst digging out a new Underground station, workmen accidentally unearth a spaceship containing some strange locust-like creatures. Stick with it, this is good stuff. Enter Professor Quatermass, played by Andrew Keir, who does a fine job of fighting the British establishment to try and establish the truth as to what has happened. The under-rated James Donald plays a scientist who has one of the most memorable moments in British cinema, when he drives an iron crane into the huge image of the demon looming over London. I particularly liked the idea that the poltergeist-type hauntings generated by the spacecraft were all activated throughout history by “disturbances of the ground”. You’ll never look at workmen in the street in the same light I can assure you.
THE QUEEN (2006)
Dir: Stephen Frears
I brought the dvd of this one as just about everybody was talking about it at the time, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. There is no doubt that Helen Mirren turns in a flawless performance as Her Maj (sometimes I think you could quietly replace the Queen with her, and no one would notice or care very much), and Michael Sheen does his best to make Tony Blair seem endearing, although frankly I preferred him as Kenneth Williams, or Brian Clough in ‘The Damned United’. It’s interesting I suppose, but it’s a heavily sanitised re-telling of That Week in September 1997, when Britain came within a whisper of revolution. My personal feeling is that without Dame Helen in this film, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as well-regarded as it is. Somebody at the time described it as being like one of those glossy biopics you get on the History Channel. Am not arguing with that one.
QUEEN OF THE DAMNED (2002)
Dir: Michael Rymer
A bit of a disappointing follow-up to ‘Interview With The Vampire’. In this we have Anne Rice’s most famous creation, the vampire Lestat, taking a new career direction as a rock star. In all honesty, I found the original book a bit naff, and the film certainly ups the naffness even more. I think the main problem is the casting. Stuart Townsend is goofy and charming as Lestat, but there is simply no dark edginess to him. At times he reminded me more of the loveable Richard Beckinsale as Godper in ‘Porridge’. So it felt like Godper becomes a rock-star vampire (now there’s a delicious thought!). When the fans go wild when Lestat rips his coat off on stage, it was more reminiscent of a Justin Bieber concert, than some hard-core goth band. The rest of the cast also seemed too young to me (must be old age coming on) to feel genuinely weird and menacing. I sort of watch them thinking “yeah it’s just a phase, all this, you’ll grow out of it”. Aaliyah looks splendidly exotic as Akasha, the eponymous Queen, but there’s not really much more she could have done with this role, which is very much pantomime wicked queen stuff. Having said all that, I did find it quite entertaining. It fits comfortably into the Something Undemanding To Watch Late At Night category. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. TRIVIA CORNER: Unintentionally (at least I assume so) scene when Bieb … sorry Lestat gives a press conference in Britain. All the British press are incredibly well-spoken and easily shocked. Yeah right.
QUO VADIS (1951)
Dir: Mervyn LeRoy
Epics don’t come much more epic than this. Incredibly sumptuous movie chronicling the persecution of the Christians under the reign of the Emperor Nero. This is a schizophrenic film in some ways. You have the low-key scenes focussing on the Christians, and the the lavish spectacle surrounding Nero. The trouble is I know which I prefer. Peter Ustinov, as Nero, holds the film for me completely. He’s camp, spoilt, and mad as a box of frogs. This big, overgrown spoilt baby who’s been put into a position of absolute power. He’s ably matched by Patricia Laffan as his wife Poppaea, who looks like the archetypal Wicked Queen, leading her pet leopards around on a chain. Rosalie Crutchley also appears as Acte, the only person who truly loves Nero as a person. With the Christians, we have Finlay Currie as Peter, who gets hailed like a pop star whenever he appears in their midst, and is prone to long rambling reminiscences. Deborah Kerr has a bit of a thankless job as Lygia, because this character is such a too-good-to-be-true milksop. At times she crosses the line into being an insufferable prig. Robert Taylor is the Roman soldier who finds himself falling for her. The photography on the film is awesome, even the quiet scenes, set at the Roman villa, have a great beauty to them. The big show-stopping scenes, such as the fire of Rome, and the final games in the Coliseum are fantastic. Some terrific lines too, most particularly Nero’s death scene: “life will be so dull and tasteless for them without me, how can they bear it!” Somehow I think they’ll manage.