more UNCLE reviews!
I'm sure we had a dedicated thread round her somewhere...
when you say you "bought two boxes of U.N.C.L.E. dvds", are they both the movies? or did you also get some of TV series?
One box with 5 movies, and one with Season 1 of the series. I've only watched two TV episodes (in glorious b&w!) and one film so far- I'm using U.N.C.L.E as a breather between episodes of Star Trek (Original Series) which I also bought recently.
TRUE GRIT (2010)
There seems little point in remaking classic films and Joel & Ethan Cohen’s revitalisation of True Grit is no exception. I don’t exactly know what they expected or wanted to achieve. For the record, John Wayne gave one of his very best performances as the grumpy yet courageous U.S. Marshall Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn in Henry Hathaway’s marvellous eclectic original adaptation. He was aided by a good script that played to his and the supporting cast’s strengths, some superb photography from Lucian Ballard, a more than decent heroic score from Elmer Bernstein and a crackerjack of a role for Kim Darby as the spirited teenager Mattie Ross, out to avenge the death of her father.
The ingredients worked well together, matching the elder statesman of the western with two younger up-and-coming stars and a rabble of nasties led by Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper. There is something majestic about the 1969 version, the wide open Colorado spaces and the huge imposing performance offered by Wayne. Amazing to think producer Hal Wallis wanted to cast Elvis Presley as the hapless Texas Ranger LeBeouf, a part which just might have finally made an actor of the King of Rock n Roll. We got Glen Campbell instead because Col Tom Parker demanded Presley be top billed. I mean, seriously, that circus promoter was a clown all-round…
Thing is, the Cohen’s remake doesn’t veer too far from the 1968 Charles Portis novel, but then neither did the Hathaway version, so what’s the real point? I watched True Grit 2010 for a second time the other night and all I kept thinking was how much more enjoyable the Wayne - Hathaway version was. Sure, Wayne plays a cantankerous old sod, but at least he’s got a sympathetic personality. Jeff Bridges is merely cantankerous. Matt Damon gives one of his most uncomfortable looking performances, and not just because of the moustache he hides behind, mostly because of the awkward ‘love scenes’ with young Hailee Steinfeld. There is something wholly uncomfortable about that pairing; Damon simply looks too old. In 1969 Glen Campbell still appeared mightily youthful. Ditto Kim Darby, who despite a meowing vocal delivery at least convinced as a teenager. Steinfeld is too modern a heroine by half. She acts about thirty – because she’s being directed that way – and that removes the fairy tale aspect of the original movie, the idea of a waif being saved from the wolves by a tough old woodsman.
Don’t get me wrong, True Grit 2010 is a good movie. Periodically – post Unforgiven and Dances With Wolves – a good western comes along and we can all go ‘ahh’ and remember what it used to be like watching them in the fifties, or in my case on TV in the seventies, probably on Saturday Night At The Movies. Yet there is nothing new here. No new nuances, no reinterpretation of character, not even a change in the action highlights – I mean, come on, you can’t beat John Wayne with the reins in his teeth and rifle in his hand charging at a gang of horse thieves for excitement, so why try? The Cohen’s, for all their skill, are simply copying everything we already saw before. The ending for this one is sorrowful too as it deals with regret, demise and death, which I suppose fits neatly into our less optimistic era. Hathaway and his writer Marguerite Roberts allowed us a joyous coda of reconciliation, understanding and new horizons, and perhaps a little orphan-to-father-figure love. There was something upbeat and enthralling in 1969 which is totally missing in the admittedly polished 21st Century offering.
I’m not sure I’ll watch this again. I prefer the 1969 version immeasurably. Both films have faults, but I think it is telling that while the Motion Picture Academy garnered this film with ten Oscar nominations, it didn’t present it with a single winner. It is a good film, but it isn’t that good, and it doesn’t have a masterful leading player in John Wayne or a director in Henry Hathaway who both understood the western genre and what was required by its central figures.
CROSSFIRE HURRICANE (2012)
Halfway through Brett Morgan’s absorbing documentary about the Rolling Stones c.1964 -1980 the director shifts attention to the opening bars and reels of Jumping Jack Flash, utilising Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s groundbreaking video of the band in war paint make up lip-synching and prancing among a darkened recording studio. I mention this because it comes immediately after the section concerning the Redlands drug bust and Jagger and Richards few hours behind prison bars. The band had been wallowing in an LSD fuelled uninspired musical mud pit when suddenly, bolstered rather than chastened, they embarked on one of the most sustained and artistically satisfying periods of musicianship any rock n roll band has ever provided. There is something devastatingly bitter, angry and murderous about Jumping Jack Flash. This is a band resurrected through adversity. This is a statement song. The blues will reign, perhaps not in the Mississippi fashions of old, but in a brash, vicious, no convicts, no compromise, white man’s blues – songs about injustice, about sex, about political times, of death, rape, murder, religion, antiestablishment cries from the heart and the head, that demanded its audience sit up, stand up and listen. The video is three and half minutes of threatening, violent conduct, where the war paint is a statement of intent, where the music thunders and billows and warns and incites. If ever a slice of 1960s pop culture deserves to be memorialised it is Jumping Jack Flash, Lindsay-Hogg and the Rolling Stones. You can have your Hard Day’s Night’s all you want, but there is a startling, panicked, menacing vitriol to this fledgling pop-promo that demands attention. If there has ever been a more potent calling card for the disenfranchised youth than this three minutes of heavy combustible blues, I don’t know where it is. And in the sphere of Crossfire Hurricane, these few minutes are important as a crossing point between the Rolling Stones failing to be accepted and embracing their unacceptability. Becoming genuine rebels – in music, fashion, behaviour, drugs, tax havens, etc – came to define the band more and more through the late sixties and early seventies, exemplified by the extensive footage from the Altamont free concert, a west coast Woodstock that went fatally wrong.
Early on, Mick Jagger is asked what drives young people to like the Rolling Stones’ music, and he suggest it is a point of freedom, a disenchantment with the previous generation, the people in control. So when he impersonates the devil and demands ‘sympathy, courtesy and taste’ he’s really impersonating those older generations that had it too good – the people who killed the Kennedys, launched the Blitzkrieg and murdered Jesus Christ – the goddamn establishment. Keith Richards suggests that the purest essence of his and Jagger’s songwriting is Midnight Rambler, a mini opera about a serial killer. There’s something dark inhabiting the surrounds of these well-educated London lads of the early sixties. I was struck by how nasty and unforgiving Paint It Black sounds compared to a live rendition of All Down The Line, which morphs into virtually a party anthem compared to the bleakness of the former. Hard to imagine the same two scribes penned the tunes.
Morgan has mountains of film to access and he barely touches the surface of his subject. Good use is made of concert footage and historic interviews, some very familiar. Not much is made of the newer interviews. There’s an undercurrent of narcissism to this documentary, navel gazing in the extreme. I suppose after fifty [now sixty] years the band’s survivors can chortle about the past with whimsical nostalgia, but we don’t learn anything very deep or revealing. It rehashes much of what one might have seen or read about. The Rolling Stones may be the World’s Greatest Rock n Roll Band, but no one’s made a decent documentary about them in the way the Beatles got Anthology. It is almost as if they want to remain partly hidden, partly basking at their own reflected glories.
Still, entertaining and worth it for the classic songs and concert footage.
A KESTREL FOR A KNAVE by Barry Hines (1968)
A modern classic [is late 1960s modern?] concerning a young boy in a northern pit town of England who adopts a wild kestrel as a pet, trains it and discovers something of himself in the process, only to learn his talents come to nothing when confronted by the hardship of real life. Barry Hines was a northern lad himself and utilised true tales both experienced and told to provide a semblance of grit and genuine character into the incidents, locations and persons of his short, eminently readable novel.
Billy Casper is a fourteen year old set to leave school and go straight down the pit. His talent for rearing animals goes completely unrecognised by his drunk louche of a mother and his bullying brother. Only a kindly English teacher notices the boy’s husbandry skills. Everyone else, from his family to his friends, school masters to students, reckon he’s a no-good, no-hope nuisance. To a person they are self-obsesses, indulgent intimidating menaces. It’s no wonder young Billy has been in trouble with the law. He wants to make a go of it, works a job so his mum can go drinking and tries to keep just the right side of the law. His sense of justice – or misjustice – manifests itself in language and actions that provoke rather than placate. Nobody talks to Billy, so he immerses himself in the animal kingdom, but not in some softcore Disneyfied version, no he picks out a wild hawk, suffers the birds scratches and bites, perseveres and rears it into a trained display hunter.
If anything, the business with the kestrel gets in the way of the narrative. Hines uses the wild freedom of the hawk and its environment as a metaphor for Billy Casper himself, dangerous, untamed but trained, wild, hungry, silent, fast, evasive, seeking reward and reassurance. Billy, despite his upbringing, supplies these facets of life to his kestrel, yet nobody does so for Billy, whose life is one of no hope and little joy. When asked to explain his time with his hawk, whom he names Kes, we get a sense of his breathlessness overtaking him, that joy suddenly appears from behind the coal pits and coke piles.
Hines is careful not to make Billy an overly sympathetic character; yes, we empathise, but he is no angel and in a way this endears him to us more. The one-note attitudes of his mother and brother build a picture of a controlling, uncared environment which these days would probably constitute child abuse. There’s a tremendously affecting sequence where he writes ‘A Tall Story’ about a night at the pictures and a chip supper with his dad and mum, a story achingly told as it isn’t such tall tale at all. Later we discover his last memory of his father was following a night at the local cinema, now a derelict husk on the edge of town. It’s as if his life has descended into black tatters along with the fortunes of the Palace Cinema.
A potent novel which addresses the poor state of the British education system of the time as well as the decay of the family unit. While it is set in a northern English working class landscape, and the dialect attests to this, it might just as well have been set anywhere as its message rings through even as Billy Casper evades the calls of his mother and the fists of his brother. It isn’t Billy and his ilk who need to learn, but everyone else around them who need to notice the individual and the talent they possess, to nurture and encourage it like a kestrel feeding from the lure, trained and toughened and understood.
An exceptionally important novel which brought the curtain down on the ‘kitchen sink’ era of British literature. Ken Loach’s adaptation the following year did the same for the ‘kitchen sink’ movie. So it is worth considering the movie alongside the novel, not to see which is better, but to see how they differ.
Loach and his fellow writers Tony Garnett and Hines himself, open out the story to allow a more sympathetic view of Billy’s homelife. We see his brother Jud’s uninspired days at the pit, his nights at the working man’s club where his mum flaunts her new boyfriend. We hear her complain that neither of her sons will come to anything. There’s an air of nothingness pervading the Casper’s house and the town they live in, of greyness and toil. While it is still clear Freddie Fletcher’s imposing Jud bullies his younger brother, Lynne Perrie’s Mother is a more rounded character, battling her eldest son, a man who waits impatiently for an unworthy inheritance.
While the Casper’s may garner a little more of our attention, the schoolroom antics – which grip in the novel – are less successful and occupy the vast majority of the film, as the director forsakes the magical scenes of the kestrel for the drudgery of the playing field and assembly hall. This might be seen as a critique on the education system, but the film is looking far beyond that into the repetitive non-aspirational lives of generations of northern pit workers – and by extension any working class generations – and it is only the free flying kestrel who draws Billy and hence the audience into the world outside the pit, the club, the betting shop and the hand-to-mouth existence.
The film climaxes better than the novel, although with less nuance. In terms of an artistic piece as opposed to a socio-political work, the film is well photographed, well adapted and scripted, has a charming music score and a series of believable performances that interpret Hines’ page-worthy characters excellently. Despite the good points, or perhaps because of them, it feels very dated and less relevant than some of its forebears in the ‘kitchen sink’ oeuvre. David Bradley’s Billy Casper is a slight presence who holds our attention, but Billy doesn’t have the bearing or pivotal heart-change of Burton’s Jimmy Porter or Finney’s Arthur Seaton. He’s even more of a dreamer than his namesake Billy Liar and you wonder if he doesn’t bring disaster upon himself in a similar rose-tinted, self-indulgent fashion. Where the novel made us understand why Billy Casper is as he is, the film misses this point altogether and tries to make villains of what are equally damaged and desperate individuals, his mother and brother.
It's a decent lick, I suppose. I wonder if Kes might have looked better and resonated more in monochrome, those black satanic mills and hills, houses and schools looking more wretched in gloomy black and white, while the open fields would blaze in glorious sunlight.
You can read a lot of good professional reviews of both book and film on Wikipedia and the like.
I've been looking back this week at the great Gene Hackman's roles in two of my favourite movies of his.
Jerry Schatzberg's low-budget film about a pair of drifters who decide to travel together yields showcase performances from Hackman and Al Pacino. Hackman's character Max is an ex-con determined to start up a carwash business in Pittsburgh, while Pacino's character Lion is aiming to make contact with his only child, the boy whose mother he'd abandoned in Detroit while she was still pregnant.
The friendship which develops between the two men is the focus of the movie. Lion tries to teach the pugnacious Max that, when they get in a fix, laughter is always a better way through than brawling; and Max is there for Lion when Lion suffers traumatic experiences towards the end.
It's great to see the young Pacino giving an expansive, often comedic performance here, in between his first two 'Godfather' movies, while Hackman tops the bill with his complete, naturalistic immersion in the Max character, a rough diamond on the road. In a standout scene Hackman acts on Lion's maxim, defusing a tense situation in a bar by doing a spontaneous striptease, with 'The Stripper' playing on the jukebox, much to the consternation and then the delight of the grizzled old coots occupying the bar room.
Pacino's story doesn't end in an entirely satisfying way - his hammy Long John Silver skit is somewhat out of place - but Hackman's final scene, an offhand little sketch in itself, is worth the price of admission alone - or the price of an imported DVD!
I much prefer this film to 'Midnight Cowboy' - to which in some ways it's similar. Also, it owes something to 'Of Mice and Men'.
ThE FRENCH CONNECTION 2 (1975)
Director John Frankenheimer makes a creditable go of following in the footsteps of William Friedkin, whose 'The French Connection' (1971) is indisputably a groundbreaking masterpiece. 2's unflinching focus is on Hackman's established character 'Popeye' Doyle, an abrasive, tough street cop, and his continuing obsession with nailing 'Frog One', Fernando Rey's drugs kingpin, Charnier.
Frankenheimer tries a 'fish out of water' approach by taking Doyle away from NYC and setting the whole movie in Marseille, Charnier's home turf. The notion of letting Doyle loose in a foreign jurisdiction doesn't bear much scrutiny plot-wise, and some of the initial humour centred on the brash American abroad is rather dated; but Hackman's performance is, again, immersive, naturalistic and utterly committed - riveting stuff - and he's well teamed with Bernard Fresson as the lead French cop on whom he's foisted. Some of the shots of Hackman moving around Marseille were apparently captured through secret filming rather than staged, giving the location work a documentary feel. And, apparently, local organised crime syndicates were keen to act as technical advisors on the movie, meaning that the drug factory processes as depicted on screen are pretty authentic.
'Two' wasn't as commercially successful as 1, despite its continuation of 1's central conflict and its gritty, exciting action sequences. I guess 2's relatively modest box office returns may have had something to do with its unconventional structure, which mainstream audiences would have found challenging: the best part of an hour of screen time is devoted to the bad guys pumping Doyle full of heroin, and with Doyle's cold-turkey withdrawal back in the custody of French police. Frankenheimer really takes time to explore this part of the story, suspending the rest of the plot while Hackman does a masterclass job of inhabiting Doyle's illness and suffering. Time is then spent on Doyle's recovery - but he's at it with a vengeance once the hunt for Charnier is back on.
Wisely, Frankenheimer decided not to try to emulate the spectacular car chase which Friedkin had pulled off in 1. Instead he has Doyle pursue Charnier on foot in Marseille, in a brilliantly edited sequence which works well as the movie's climax. Doyle slogs it through the harbour as Charnier makes off in a boat; Popeye finally manages to gun the kingpin down from the harbour as the target stands on deck - the movie ending suddenly, and memorably, on the moment of 'Frog One''s death.
Frankenheimer would deliver 'French Connection'-level car chases late in his career, in Nice and Paris, for 'Ronin' (1998) - a much less satisfying film overall than his 'The French Connection 2', I'd say. (In 'Ronin' it's car-on-car action while in the original 'French Connection', of course, it's a case of car-pursuing-metro train.)
Composer Don Ellis, who'd scored 1 for Friedkin, is back for 2, underlining with ominous horns Doyle's dark obsession and adding excitement to the chases with pacey, jazz-infused music, seventies style.
Thanks @Shady Tree two very balanced reviews
@Gymkata Sure, 'Ronin' is a polished, entertaining and spectacular thriller of its vintage, and it boasts an impressive cast (no fewer than three principal Bond villains among them: Michel Lonsdale, Sean Bean and Jonathan Pryce). But the reasons why I personally prefer FC #2 to 'Ronin' in Frankenheimer's ouevre are Hackman's outstanding performance - Robert DeNiro and Jean Reno, while not exactly phoning it in, do seem to be playing it more by numbers as the leads in 'Ronin' - and because Frankenheimer had the opportunity in the 70s to do all-but-on-the-fly location work, giving FC #2 a gritty, New Wave-inflected authenticity which makes it more engaging to me.
A useful comparison would be the bar scenes in the two movies. The Montmartre bar in 'Ronin' is, and feels like, a studio set, whereas the bar in Marseille where Popeye gets drunk with the barman and tries his luck with a couple of girls is genuine and all the actors are improvising. In 'Ronin' there is moderate tension because every character in the Montmartre bar appears to have a covert agenda - including the barmaid, Natascha McElhone. It's all to do with the plot, with efficiently graduated suspense. But when Hackman and the French barman leave the Marseille bar in FC #2, drunkenly singing a popular song together in the street, it's totally character-driven: the filmmakers didn't even have the rights to the song - the producer had to pay this off subsequently and Frankenheimer got into trouble. I love that!
'Ronin' has many punchy moments. The most disturbing is probably when the ice skater played by Katarina Witt is assassinated on the rink in the middle of a perfectly executed routine. This is supposed to emphasise how ruthless the competing bad guys are. Yet more affecting, for me, is Cathleen Nesbitt's part as the mannered, elderly heroin addict in FC #2. It's quite something how Ms Nesbitt, a grand theatrical actress of the 30s and 40s, was prepared to use her severely rheumatoid hands to make special, and intimate, her creepy scene with Hackman at Doyle's lowest point in the movie, drugged up and out of it.
'Ronin' goes for what was, at the time, a hard-edged topicality by including in its mix a group obviously meant to be the Real IRA. Yet Hollywood mores prevail. Pryce's Seamus is the expendably villainous face of this group whereas McElhone's Deidre is potentially redeemable because she's personally attractive and DeNiro's character is meant to have some kind of chemistry with her. At least Popeye Doyle was upfront as a card-carrying incarnation of reactionary, red-blooded toxicity.
Oh, there's no question it's a good movie. We'll have to agree to disagree on the question of exactly *how* good it is :-)
Opening Channel D....
The Karate Killers (1967)
Messrs Solo and Kuryakin fly to the four corners of the studio in search of a formula developed to desalinise sea water which actually extracts the gold content from it. Along the way they meet innocent bystanders in the U.N.C.L.E. tradition including future Bond villains Curd Jurgens and Telly Savalas (with an outrageous Italian accent) who is playing a Count (!), plus a hell of a lot of rear projection and stock footage but the film is stolen by Herbert Lom as the villain.
Not a lot of karate, though (one scene towards the end).
(If someone could give me a link to the U.N.C.L.E. thread I'll copy & paste this to there)
GENERAL JAMES BOND CHAT/Fleming and The Man from UNCLE
Thank you, cp.
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP (2012)
Almost forty years on from All The President’s Men, Robert Redford as producer, star and director churns out an altogether less interesting political thriller that holds together with very little string and a lot of hope. A long and very assured cast go through their very assured motions not doing very much. Redford seems too old to play the lead part, or perhaps he just seems too old to have an eleven year old daughter, or maybe he’s simply too old, period. The movie is based on a book based on the activities of the true life Weather Underground Organisation, a terror group who carried out a series of bombings in the USA during the late 1970s. I think I would have been more interested in a documentary about the group’s actual activities and political leanings than this throw-away movie that wants to address those issues but ends up being all about self-sacrifice and American family values. The suggestion Redford can convince Julie Christie’s old flame, a die in the wall left wing militant, to do the decent thing just by sleeping with her offers no hope to women of standing anywhere.
FOLLOW THAT CAMEL (1967)
a.k.a CARRY ON – FOLLOW THAT CAMEL
An excellent entry into the Carry On cycle which utilised effectively a guest starring role for Phil Silvers as the Bilko-like Sgt Nocker. Set in a military outpost in Algeria near Sidi Bel Abbes, Jim Dale and his faithful bat man Peter Butterworth enrol in the French Foreign Legion in a misguided attempt to prove he is not a coward. Ripping off Beau Geste and The Four Feathers with liberal sprinklings of British seaside smut, the cast of regulars acquit themselves marvellously, especially considering it was filmed on Camber Sands in a wintery February 1967. You’d barely know it. Lots of fun to be had, never more so than when Bernard Bresslaw first cries “Mustafaleek!” to general bowing and scraping. Or perhaps it’s the hilariously named oasis El Nookie. Or the equally quirky Fort Soixante-Neuf. You know the kind of thing.
I was only half watching this while doing some cleaning around the house, but it kept grabbing my attention by being so wonderfully cynical, alongside a breeziness and brazenness that isn’t always noticeable in the Carry Ons. Phil Silvers is wonderful, bringing a new urgency and edginess to the usual bawdy proceedings. Sid James would never have played the same role with such a desperate, clinging manner. Sadly, the American audiences Talbot Rothwell's script was aimed at didn't get the jokes. Lacking the usual Carry On title, Follow That Camel fared poorly in the U.K. too until it was reissued under the alternate title [above] by which it is now commonly known.
Really, really good.
ELMER GANTRY (1960)
Burt Lancaster’s fallen priest turned failing travelling salesman becomes fascinated with Jean Simmons’ revivalist evangelical and cons his way gradually into her Midwest Bible Belt tent show as well as her bedroom only for a past misdemeanour to catch up with him and wreck everyone’s lives. A veiled attack on the practices of bible thumping ministers, Richard Brooks’ film takes the bones of Sinclair Lewis’s novel and explodes it onto the screen with Lancaster at his most garrulous, toothsome and loathsome. He also displays charm and a hint of menace. You can see why the housewives and store-keeps fall for his patter, less so the Reverend Sharon Falconer and her flock. Lancaster’s performance is the type of over-mannered, commanding role that wins awards, but whether it is any good within the context of its character and the film itself remains open to debate.
Elmer Gantry features Lancaster in almost every scene. He’s colossal when preaching to the enraptured crowds, but you’d expect that. Those scenes veer towards the symphonic, accompanied as they are by Andre Previn’s maniacal music score, so much so the sequences border on the hysterical. He’s far better in the quiet moments, for instance when he persuades Arthur Kennedy’s pessimistic atheist journalist he can’t quote the Bible as fact if he doesn’t believe in it, or when he succumbs to the wiles of Shirley Jones’ bitter prostitute. These moments show how engrossing Lancaster could be when toning down his act. When he goes all Crimson Pirate on us, the effect is so overwhelming you can tell you’re watching an actor acting and hence the film and its story becomes unbalanced.
Good, more restrained, acting from everyone else just about saves it. Like the original novel, the film has ambitious themes for its time. The ambiguity of religious foundations making fortunes by exploiting the poor remains a blurred line today.
I've never seen this movie but there is a story that Elvis wanted to play a part in it and was vetoed by the good ol'Colonel. Chris, you can probably identify the part having just seen the film and I'd be interested to hear if you think he'd have been any good. Personally I think Elvis did manage to be "just okay" in some of his films and reached the heights of "not bad" in a very few eg "King Creole".
@Barbel You may be confusing Elmer Gantry with The Rainmaker, in which Lancaster also plays a conman, this time romancing Katherine Hepburn's spinster. The film was a 1956 Hal Wallis production and Elvis was slated to play one of Hepburn's younger brothers. I'm not sure why the role was turned down or passed over. I believe there were test screenings taken of Elvis in the role. Maybe it is an urban myth, as Elvis was contracted to Wallis and the script and tests may just gave been used to test his screen persona.
@chrisno1, thanks! Yes indeed, you're right. I've never seen either and have obviously conflated the two
I mentioned a few posts back that Elvis was asked to co-star with John Wayne in True Grit and he would have been no worse than the fairly wooden Glen Campbell. Elvis' problem was the material he had to work with. King Creole & Flaming Star both nod to his limited but viable acting ability while GI Blues and Fun In Acapulco are probably the best of his lighthearted family comic efforts. Some if his later roles are more interesting but the standard of script and backroom staff was woeful by then [The Trouble With Girls, Speedway, etc]. I would have liked to see him in non-singing roles, something like the race driver played by James Caan in Red Line 5000, for instance, or a spy caper like Our Man in Marrakesh. I do think the Colonel killed his golden goose - I mean turning down A Star Is Born because Elvis would be billed after Barbra Streisand is completely short sighted and fails to understand the King's broad appeal.
BEAT THE DEVIL (1953)
A barmy caper comedy about a bunch of uranium prospectors holed up in Ravello, Italy, awaiting a steamer to East Africa where they intend to make a fortune. Humphrey Bogart is Billy Dannreuther, an American confidence trickster fallen on hard times whose cynicism seeps out of every pore, and who is in partnership with Robert Morley’s rotund, sweating, irritable yet entirely scheming Peterson. Billy is hampered by a beautiful wife, Maria, played effectively by Gina Lollobrigida, a woman equally adept at fraudulent personal transactions. While Billy attempts to evade the all-too-invasive observations of a quartet of villains, he readily submits to the flights of fancy and obvious intentions of Mrs Gwendolen Chelm, an English woman whose husband intends to purchase the same uranium fields as Peterson. Meanwhile, Billy and Maria learn that the British East Africa consul, Paul Vanmeer, has been murdered and suspicion falls on Peterson’s associate, Major Ross.
John Huston’s film about loveable rogues was dismissed at the time of release and only came up for reassessment thanks to the critic Roger Ebert including it in his book of Great Movies. The film is easy to misconstrue as, while incidents do occur, almost nothing happens of any genuine significance to the plot until the final reel. The film instead concentrates on the interactions between people, the loyalties they form and the company they keep.
Jennifer Jones plays Mrs Chelm with a distracted, over-mannered air which constantly hints at her own ability to deceive and entrap. It is she, along with husband Harry [Edward Underdown] who prove to be the most devious of all the con artists, thieves and laggards on display. Peterson, Billy and their motley crews are small fry compared to the lies spun by Gwendolen and Harry.
“You mean Mrs Chelm is an unqualified liar?” asks Morley’s astounded Peterson, blubbering into his chin. Bogart sniffs: “Let’s just say she uses her imagination.” And he knows it too: during her earliest attempt at seduction he says: “I believe everything you say” to which Mrs Chelm replies: “Do you? Well, you shouldn’t you know.” Billy’s suspicions do not appear to be aroused, but among the bougainvillea he initially forgets Mrs Chelm holds her husband in high esteem: “There are two good reasons for falling in love. One is that the object of one’s affection is unlike anyone else… The other is that he is just like everyone else only superior.” She is referring of course to Harry, not to Billy.
Bogart plays the object of Jones’ supposed attentions with a weary and wary eye, as if he’s seen all this before, yet occasionally he melts and forgets that his prime intention is the pursuit of happiness through financial gain: “Doctor’s orders are that I must have a lot of money otherwise I will become dull, listless and have trouble with my complexion…” [writer Truman Capote’s poke at the movie’s star] “… it’s my expectations that hold me together.”
Billy knows what the English couple are chasing: the same goal as he and Maria. He has gauged them quickly, but falls underneath Mrs Chelm’s spell. She is by far the most preternatural of the cast, believing in witchcraft and spinning desirous webs with her words, lips and arms. When we first meet the English couple, we know there is something sophisticated and knowing about her. “We should beware of those men,” she tells her husband, “they are desperate characters.” “How can you tell?” Harry asks. “Not one of them looked at my legs.” This tiny remark, at once humorous but also intensely perceptive, allows us to enter into her fantastical world. Indeed for much of the drama we see the action unfold through her eyes. For instance, when she plays chess with Harry, she is watching the piazza and, like the audience, is drawn to the associations of Bogart, Morley, Peter Lorre, Ivor Barnard and Marco Tulli. Later, confronted by an imperative Peterson, she turns the tables on the villain claiming Harry is only interested in the philosophical problem of sin: “Isn’t that what we are all most concerned with?” Robert Morley’s expression becomes more bemused and affronted by the second.
What Mrs Chelm doesn’t see is what the second hand’s of these partnerships are doing. Lollobrigida’s Maria tempts Edward Underdown’s supposedly stiff British upper class twit with her low cut dresses, afternoon teas and suggestive descriptions of romance. But he isn’t half the fool Maria thinks, for when she first attempts seduction, he is faking stomach cramps, allowing his wife to accompany Billy alone to an abandoned grand villa. Later, he manipulates a situation specifically so he can be left alone onboard the steamship Nyonga. Harry is a dab hand at escapism and an even better one at acting, for almost his whole demeanour is fake. “The only thing between him and a watery grave is his wits. And I don’t put much faith in them,” utters Bogart’s Billy, entirely taken in by the performance.
If Mr and Mrs Chelm are spinning their form of collective deception, the Dannreuther’s are equally guilty. Bogart’s twisting everyone around his finger, or believes he is. “Nowadays one simply can’t afford to distrust people just because they are not one’s sort,” suggests Harry Chelm. But perhaps they ought to be distrusted because they wear the wrong clothes – Maria sports evening gowns even on the hottest afternoons – and because they have never unpacked their suitcases. Maria conceitedly claims to be English, although clearly she isn’t. Billy is more laconic: “I was an orphan until I was twenty and then a rich woman adopted me.” Climbing the societal ladder has worked well for Billy, opened doors in India, Italy and now Africa, but none of it is his success, he is the receiver of inherited and now wasted wealth.
So where is this wordy adventure heading, pitting as it does one quartet of lovers against another quartet of villains? Well, to be brutal, it doesn’t head anywhere. The steam ship sinks and the motely band are deposited on the North Saharan coast, only to be detained by the local administrator Colonel Ahmed. Peterson has run guns here before and fears for his life. Billy feigns cowardice to ingratiate himself with the Colonel and extract a ransom fee from Peterson, which the two men split. In return, the castaways are deported back to Italy and Ravello where entirely different fates await them all. Do they find the uranium? Do they find romance and fulfilment? Riches and reward? In part, yes, but the movie has lost its literary edge by then and ceases to be as interesting. The death of Paul Vanmeer suddenly becomes very important.
It is perhaps in the casting of the four mismatched villains that the film retains its edge. In 1953 caper films didn’t quite exist as we know them now. The occasional sophisticated technicolour Hitchcock, perhaps. The Hays Code didn’t allow villains to be cheerful and loveable and for good guys to act despicably with a wink in their eye. Here, we have a large pompous Englishman [Billy and the Colonel refer to Peterson as ‘Fat Guts’] who hides a ruthless streak beneath a veneer of respectability; a tall slim impulsive Italian acts like a locust, gobbling up everyone’s lives for his gain; there is a snivelling, lurking, hood-eyed German who goes under the name O’Hara and an upright, straight as a dice killer who impersonates a British military officer, but is in fact a closet extremist, sensing the world order has broken: “Hitler, Mussolini, those were men. Now it’s the age of the barbarians.”
Peter Lorre delivers one of his best ever performances as O’Hara, permanently smoking, skulking the town with weaselly deftness, flatfooted, calm, snakelike, hissing. There’s an early scene where he concludes that “Time is a crook.” Time is the one thing none of the reprobates have. “Why do you always make jokes about my name?” Lorre asks Bogart, letting the audience know his character is a Nazi escapee, permanently on the run, “In Chile, many Germans have come to be called O’Hara.” His moments with Morley or the beanpole thin Marco Tulli are like a little and large show, such is the difference in stature.
It is surprising to see director John Huston always attempting to place the quartet in the same shot, as if to emphasise their differences, their complete incompatibility. By doing so, he actually creates a sense of the mismatch being entirely natural and yet remarkably sinister, played out as it is predominantly in bright sunlight. This reflects too on the other quartet, our nominal heroes, but here it is similarities not of desperation, but as Bogart’s Billy states of imagination.
Beat the Devil is a light-hearted yarn packed full of great dialogue and excellently shot by Oswald Morris. Truman Capote rarely wrote funnier. The performances are super. The film was quickly considered a cult classic – it became a cult hit virtually on release, but has remained one of Bogart’s less often seen films – because it refuses to conform to a stereotypical interpretation of character. While an audience would normally expect the bad guys to be in disguise, here they are totally in the open, motivations and murderous intent available to view from the off. It is the heroes who are in permanent disguise and that perhaps tells us something about real people, their aims and ambitions and emotions. Audiences didn’t understand it. They wanted a fulfilling and honest romance, an exciting climax, a journey into fear, themes which might reflect the misleading publicity poster. They didn’t get that at all: they got Capote’s silky script and John Huston’s cosy direction and a cast acting their socks off. The uranium ore is as inconsequential as the Amalfi landscapes.
A fascinating failure.
THE EQUALIZER 3 (2023)
Where better to transpose Denzel Washington's avenging righter of wrongs, Robert McCall, than to a coastal town in Southern Italy terrorised by the Camorra? Despite his middle age, McCall's killing skills set is as sharp as ever - and the bad guys certainly deserve all that's coming to them. The suffering inflicted by the Camorra on their innocent victims is emphasised to raise dramatic stakes - the villains really 'walk the walk' - making McCall's ultra-violent style of payback seem wholly justified.
That said, McCall moves through the movie at a mostly sedate pace, recovering from a near-fatal wound received at the beginning of the film. Yes, he always steps up to the plate when necessary, swiftly and decisively, but sometimes, now, with a teary-eyed wistfulness. His reasons for purging the town of mafiosa? He wants to free its citizens - his new friends - from extortion, kidnap and violence. He also wants to settle down in that otherwise idyllic place and retire there peacefully. Is he a good man? He isn't sure. According to benevolent local doctor Enzo, it's precisely that uncertainty that makes him good.
Like John Wick, McCall has incredible killer reflexes. His virtually superhuman talents as a trained assassin are an established part of his character, an absurd conceit that audiences not only accept but lap up. But as fans of both The Equalizer and John Wick appreciate, there are big differences in the action aesthetics - not least that the violent episodes here are quickly executed and brief. In fact, long stretches of this movie are about the charm of McCall taking it easy, opting out - whether by savouring cafe culture or visiting a nocturnal food market by the beach with an attractive waitress he's befriended. Director Antoine Fuqua takes time to enjoy the Southern Italian locations with an unashamedly touristic lens, albeit in a way which could leave him open to a charge of caricaturing/ sentimentalising 'the other'. (I remember that a whole episode of 'The Sopranos', 'Commendatori', was essentially a joke about this kind of idealising of Sicilian folk, the crassness of viewing the old country through the prism of 'The Godfather'.)
Dakota Fanning's vocal frying CIA operative comes into the story on account of a 'bigger picture' drugs connection between the Camorra and Syrian terrorists. Tipped off by McCall, she arrives in Italy to imbibe the coffee shop vibes herself and throw around some largely ineffectual CIA weight. When she describes McCall as a person of interest, he wryly replies that no, he's just an interesting person.
A problem with the movie is that McCall never really seems in jeopardy once he's decided to take down villains. He's just too darn good at what he does. Sure, the wound that nearly kills him at the start of the movie is meant to remind us - and him - that he's mortal after all, that ultimately no one's invulnerable; but once he's back on his feet, and in retribution mode, the outcome is a done deal. (I suppose films like 'No Time To Die' and 'John Wick: Chapter 4' create precedents for established heroes to expire - literally - at the end of series. Because of that, Fuqua is able over the course of his movie to tease audience expectations of McCall's fate - a happy retirement or a noble death? - and he takes advantage of not necessarily having to follow suit with those other big-hitters in that regard.)
Denzel Washington is always watchable as The Equalizer. While #1 is still the best movie of the series, #3 adds the context of beautiful, genre-friendly locations. Yet the film is finally rather sadistic: its trajectory is about seeing some nasty villains get theirs. An awkwardly contrived coda notwithstanding, Fuqua seems unsure about where, in the end, to go beyond that low level of gratification.
Thanks for that review. I wasn't a fan of #1, but you have made me wonder if I ought to revisit.
:-) :-) I'll probably buy the inevitable three film bluray set, whenever it's out, to revisit the first two.
CARRY ON CLEO (2008)
Carry On Cleo was Talbot Rothwell’s fourth stab at British cinema’s comedy institution – their tenth overall – and he really hits his stride after the misstep of Carry On Jack and the minor key successes of Cabby and Spying. Cleo is one of the gems of the series and not only because of the vast multitude of double-entendres, sight gags and smutty innuendo, but because the sheer look of the thing is so much better than almost anything the crew ever put together. Utilising sets and costumes abandoned by 20th Century Fox when they upped sticks from London and hopped over to Rome to film Cleopatra, this entry has a gorgeous feel to it rarely replicated […Up the Kyber, perhaps] in their historical satires.
As always Kenneth Williams proves indomitable in the central role of Julius Caesar, hawking up his exaggerated accents with abandon. His now infamous line “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me” is regularly voted the funniest line in movie history – U.S. critics might prefer When Harry Met Sally’s “I’ll have what she’s having”, but we’ll not argue over trophies – but this film is packed with them from every angle and sometimes almost every sentence.
Charles Hawtrey’s flamboyant effeminate seer is a delight [“I had a vision of Agrippa and all his men with their dirty great swords out. Quite something it was.”]. Amanda Barrie’s clueless Cleopatra [“I have a poisonous asp”] proves a more than delectable match for Sid James’ leering Mark Anthony [Anthony: “All you have to do is get Ceasar alone” – Cleo: “Is that what he’s come for: money?”]. Their schemes become progressively more daft as the film moves on, ending up in an attempted assassination of Ceasar during an amorous assignation in the Queen of Egypt’s bedchamber, which ends up more public than private [“Blimey, is she selling tickets?”]. Kenneth Connor gives one of his best turns as the permanently confused and confounded Briton Hengist Pod [Horsa: “Just say we’re eunuchs.” Hengist: “Yeah, after all, what have we got to lose?”]. Jon Pertwee’s cameo soothsayer [“Sooth! Sooth! – Oh, the fires always die down at the best bit”] is a hoot. Jim Dale’s heroic Horsa lends a touch of loose steel to the silliness ensuring at least a modicum of seriousness.
Seriousness. Really? What am I writing...?
Look, it’s almost pointless to carry on.
Cleo is a great slice of British comedy, laid on thick with the silky butter of those Fox cast-offs as a topping. For all the magnificence of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, Burton, Taylor and Harrison don’t prove anywhere near as entertaining as this bunch.
I don't know a lot about Carry On, but .....2008? 🤔
I love the Carry On movies… it should be 1964, though, @chrisno1 was probably working on two pieces at the same time and accidentally used the wrong year, I’m sure he is fully aware of which year it was released.
The infamy, infamy line was actually written by Frank Muir and used some years earlier and Talbot Rothwell asked him for permission to use it thus becoming legendary in movie history.
Duly corrected... oops. I didn't know about that Frank Muir stuff. We live to learn.
Ah, you know what. I can't be bothered. 2008. Let's call it a severe proofing error.
THE REPTILE (1966)
This atmospheric Hammer forerunner of the ‘folk horror’ cycle sees a colonial army officer inherit his late brother’s cottage in Cornwall and, upon choosing to live there with his wife, uncovering a foul pestilence of death and silence surrounding the village of Clagmoor Heath. The local manor house is owned by a sinister theologian, Dr Franklin, who rules his daughter with an iron tongue and severe discipline. A young Jacqueline Pearce is terrific as Anna Franklin, a smallish but very noticeable role. She’s less successful when asked to don an ill-fitting mask to impersonate her evil nemesis, a snake-like reptile. Anna and her father [Noel Willman, also very good] are in thrall to a mysterious Malay, who appears to be a mute servant, but is in fact the leader of a serpent cult. It is here, towards the end of the movie, that delirious antics and ridiculous explanations take over, ruining what had been a tremendous slow burn of a chiller, concentrating as it had done on the Franklin’s abusive yet interdependent relationship. The mist shrouded Cornish moors are well represented by Cobham Common in Surrey and the various maulings, wanderings and exhumations prove worthwhile distractions. The ending is too rushed though and seems not to fit with all that had gone before.
Unlike later folk horror staples, the evil isn’t an incarnation of the generic Christian devil or his satanic worshippers, but an imaginary eastern black magic religion. This isn’t wholly successful, skewing the latent evil from human manifestation or imagination to the inhuman. The Reptile is a decent effort, but not much more. It was filmed back-to-back with the Cornish-set Plague of the Zombies, using much of the same cast, crew and locations.
The Alamo (that 1960 version with John Wayne).
It was better than I remembered, I last saw back in the 90s I have always ranked in the top 10 of classic westerns.
Spoilers: They all die!
Excellent choice, Sir! NBNW must be up there as one of Cary Grants best movies IMHO. I re-watched "To Catch a Thief" this summer and that one is just as enjoyable.