The 2020 List: June

Well, there goes June. Wish I could say the same about Covid 19 but that sucker’s sticking around like Nicholas Cage and Dominc Cummings, two blokes I’d be quite happy never seeing or hearing of again. At least they stopped that strange daily late-afternoon serial about politics and viruses and horrible statistics, although I’m mildly concerned we’ll be getting a reboot or surprise second series.

Moving away from television (although I did manage two series and a three-part drama) I went back to basics this month with a return to watching movies, and eleven of those were black and white, a result of consciously leaning towards films of the 1940s/1950s. Tellingly, on the whole those older films were better than the newer, more recent films (although honourable mention to Spring there, which was great (and still due a Blu-ray release in September, just hope they include the extras from the international release)) –  as usual, the new films may be more colourful and more spectacular, but they often lack stuff like powerful drama and demanding performances thanks to their lacklustre, often suspiciously ticking-the-boxes scripts that give actors little to do other than join us in gawping at the visual effects. Yeah, Gemini Man. I spent so much time gawping at the awesome CGI creation of a young Will Smith that I found myself missing the important plot-points (only to realise later that there were no important plot points, and little by way of plot, really). I’d post a review of that one if I could think of something to write about other than those effects.

So what sent me scurrying to Talking Pictures and catalogue films on disc? Undoubtedly Killers Anonymous, which is without doubt the worst film of the month and what I hope will prove to be the worst film I shall see all year. Actually, I’m pretty certain it is the worst film of the year, because the next time I realise I’ve sat down with such a foul-smelling celluloid turkey I’ve got the option of the Abort Button; life is just too short (and getting shorter) to be wasted on rubbish like that.

Overall, though, June was a pretty strong month- I even managed to watch 4K UHD’s of Jaws and The Empire Strikes Back, after all, to demonstrate that the format is still going strong, particularly with catalogue titles (indeed it seems Universal are bringing us 4K discs of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Rear Window and Psycho in September, which will be great).

Next month: The Criterion Six, The Invisible Man, and hopefully some nice surprises, perhaps even the return of the Shelf of Shame (got my eye at long last on Betty Blue- its been seven years since I bought that darned thing). I’ve also got the prospect of the 4K UHD of Stanley Kubrick’s Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus if the release schedule holds.

TV Shows

103) Curb Your Enthusiasm Season Ten

106) Killing Eve Season Three

108) The Salisbury Poisonings


87) The Vast of Night

88) Spring

89) Tolkien

90) Crawl

91) Killers Anonymous

92) Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

93) Les Miserables- The Staged Concert (2019)

94) Turn the Key Softly

95) The Trollenberg Terror

96) The Strange World of Planet X

97) The Whole Truth

98) Bunny Lake is Missing

99) Night and the City

100) Night of the Eagle

101) Waterfront

102) Gemini Man

104) Laura

105) The Price of Silence

107) Anatomy of a Murder

The Abort Button

none! (so I must have chose wisely, per the Grail Knight in a certain film)


The Criterion Six

criterion6I don’t really write much about disc purchases too often of late. Its true that I’ve even tried to limit those purchases, mainly because I’ve so many discs now, too many double-dips across so many formats over the years (even for a film-lover that can be wearing) and too many on the shelf still unwatched. There’s only one thing worse than spending too much money on films I only watch once, and that’s films I still haven’t gotten around to watching at all.

In any case, sometimes sales get the better of me, and in the past week or so a sale on Criterion discs across most vendors here in the UK has just proved too much to resist, especially as I’ve recently been turning my attention to older films that I’ve missed. So here is the Criterion Six- six films that I have bought in the past two weeks while the sale was running. I’m intending to make a point of both watching and reviewing these films to justify, well, buying them.

I tried to be a bit canny choosing the films- indeed I actually struggled to pick six (the offer was two films for £25 so I had to pick films in pairs) as some films in the offer I already owned and I wanted the ones I chose to be films I was really curious to watch, rather than films that might just end up on that shelf. Naturally another thing was to choose films I hadn’t seen before (although one slipped through that net) so that nixed the temptations of the Criterion Solaris and Stalker. So anyway, a few notes about the films I chose:

c6cranesThe Cranes Are Flying: This is a film/release that exemplifies what is so great about boutique labels like Criterion, Arrow etc: up until about a week ago, I didn’t even know this film existed. The beautiful cover art on the Criterion caught my eye first (so yeah, good graphic design still matters!), and then investigating it, the film became irresistible to me. A Russian film from 1957, its described as being beautifully shot and powerfully affecting, and someone online reckoned it was similar in theme and mood to Legends of the Fall, only better. That’s a hell of a bait to someone like me, and got to be worth what amounts to a £12.50 punt: blind buys can be exciting and so rewarding. Besides which I really don’t see enough World Cinema, so should be a welcome change of pace.

c6kissKiss Me Deadly: The first thing I looked for when going through the Criterion’s in the offer was film noir, because that’s what I’ve been settling into the past few weeks (blame Covid 19 I suppose) and a genre I’ve always found enjoyable: pretty much a safe bet for a blind buy. As usual I’ve avoided any details and dodged the trailers, but it looks pretty wild from what I’ve seen of it.

Anatomy of a Murder: This is the film that got me onto this Criterion deal in the first place, so has a lot to answer for. Bunny Lake is Missing and Laura brought me to this one, as its directed by Otto Preminger, and I seem to be going through his filmography at the moment. The fact that it starred one of my favourite actors, the great James Stewart sealed the deal and had me looking for another Criterion to go with it. I actually watched this last night and really enjoyed it, so review coming soon: I will just say that this film is so morally obtuse it should have been re-titled Fifty Shades of Grey.

Detour: Another film noir and one with quite a reputation by all accounts, and another one of those films that I had no idea even existed a few weeks ago. Its cheaply made on half a shoestring and perhaps as a consequence of that is very short (69 mins, crikey) and used to be available only in horrible prints, apparently, but this release followed an extensive restoration. Really curious about this one, but I have the feeling I need to wait for the right night to watch it (suspect its absolutely a late-night experience like most, if not all, film noir but maybe in this case especially so).

c6kluteKlute: I’ve heard about this one but never seen it. I’m a big fan of 1970s American Cinema and love the frequent sense of paranoia that infects so many films of that era (The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor etc). I’ve never really had much time for Jane Fonda in films, no doubt one of the reasons I’ve never seen this before, so I’d be pleasantly surprised if her turn here impresses me, but I am a fan of Donald Sutherland so hopefully worth the punt at the price being asked. I’m reminded however that I never bought Three Days of the Condor on Blu-ray, so if this reignites my penchant for 1970s American Cinema it could turn out be more expensive a purchase than initially thought.

c6failFail Safe: The one film of the six that I have seen before- once, and many years ago: late at night on BBC2 when it blew my mind. It used to be so great, watching late-night films, its something nobody seems to do anymore on the network channels. Anyway, I’m looking forward to watching this again after so many years in a much better presentation than all those years ago.

25th June

signdeluxeI had intended to post on Thursday (June 25th) about a number of things- firstly the fact that it was the 38th Anniversary of the release of both Blade Runner and The Thing in America. Just imagining those two classic films being released on the same day is pretty wild- studios seem much more cautious these days about releasing tent-pole films at the same time, preferring to allow each other at least a week or two for each such release to dominate screens/recoup costs before the next big release comes along. Just imagining genre fans over in America being able to go to the cinema and watch both films on that opening weekend, or even on the same day, rather blows mind. Just imagining it was 38 years ago blows my mind too, but for all the wrong reasons.

Simultaneous international releases were simply not a thing back then, so over here in old blighty we had The Thing in August and Blade Runner a few weeks later in September (I was too young to get into a screening of The Thing, eventually watching a pirate copy on VHS later that Autumn, but did indeed see Blade Runner on its first weekend- the rest, as they say, is a well-documented history here on this blog).

On Thursday I also wanted to comment on the official announcement that day of Prince’s classic album Sign o’ The TImes getting a Super Deluxe release. Widely rumoured over the weeks prior, the announcement set in stone the contents and packaging, both of which was subsequently scrutinised and deliberated on forums worldwide. On the whole, the track contents are excellent with very few glaring omissions, and I’m particularly pleased to see All My Dreams (a wildly bizarre track only Prince could come up with) and two versions of Witness 4 the Prosecution (the kind of funky classic that only Prince could create and then shelve) included- these are two of my favourite Prince songs that have appeared on bootlegs. As with last year’s 1999 Super Deluxe, the fact that I have heard most of the vault tracks listed for Sign o’ Times Super Deluxe in bootleg form in the years since Prince’s passing seems a double-edged sword; on the one hand the prospect of hearing what I know are really great songs in better quality is really exciting, on the other hand, the sense of discovery most fans will experience hearing these vault releases for the first time is something I’m quite envious of.

Of course there are many tracks included I haven’t heard before either, and some bootleg material from that period apparently missing but hopefully planned for the Parade Super Deluxe that is already being worked on – indeed originally this was actually intended as the follow-up to 1999 Super Deluxe but rights issues for Warner caused a rethink, as the label owns Parade material (and that of other film-related Prince material like Purple Rain and Batman) in perpetuity but the non-film albums move to Sony from next year. So Warner obviously figured that if it wanted to profit from a deluxe edition of what is widely considered Prince’s finest album/period, it had to do it now, and leave the other albums for 2021/2022. I think that’s fair enough, considering all the work the label did for Prince during that period of his career. No doubt we’ll also get a ‘proper’ Purple Rain Super Deluxe after those, too (for the 2024 anniversary?). The bitter irony that it took Prince’s passing to enable these releases to ever surface is not lost on me, indeed, its never far from my mind when getting excited by these releases.

Hopefully we fans will benefit from the oversight of both the Parade and Sign o’the Times Super Deluxe projects being worked on pretty much at the same time, ensuring a wealth of material between them- on the evidence of the Sign o’the Times release, that seems pretty likely.

Regards the packaging, it does seem a bit of a shame that the Estate hasn’t been able to ensure that all the CD versions of the Super Deluxe releases match each other in design, but the 12″ format of the Sign o’ The Times release means we get a lovely, impressive-looking 120-page book as part of the package. Its large size hopefully means that I’ll find it easier to read. I liked the compactness of the 1999 Super Deluxe and that it fits on my shelf with other CDs but my word, my eyesight has failed over the past year or two on the evidence of how I struggle with that boxes booklet. It should come with a magnifying glass or something. Hopefully when Sony takes over for other Prince Super Deluxe releases perhaps they will maintain this 12″ format (and likewise Warner with its own future releases).



May the 4K be with you: The Empire Strikes Back

esb4kSome twenty years ago, I was on holiday in America, on the West Coast, and it was late at night. We were somewhere near Santa Barbara I think, stopping in a motel overnight, and we went across the road to a supermarket- I think it may have been a Walmart, I’m not sure. We’d gone away with Claire’s folks, and she was with them, looking around, and I’d gone off looking at the electronics/home entertainment section by myself. I walked past some televisions and heard John Williams music for Cloud City. The televisions were showing The Empire Strikes Back (possibly another boxset just recently released on VHS) and it was the scene with Han Solo calling to the pesky Cloud City security that he was looking for Lando Calrissian, and the music swept up as the Falcon flew through those beautiful skies of Bespin and landed. I could have wept. I suddenly had an overwhelming feeling of homesickness. It was so strange. I was in a strange town in a rather odd country on the other side of the world, and while I was enjoying myself greatly, suddenly I was in the midst of the familiar, the comforting- Empire the film felt like home. Nowadays whenever I see/hear that scene, it always throws me into that oddly lonely ‘space’ on holiday in America, go figure.

40 years. Its been 40 years, pretty much, since I first saw The Empire Strikes Back in the summer of 1980. I can so vividly recall the various previews in Starburst etc, the paperback novelisation, the Marvel comics adaptation, the soundtrack album, the Meco album, the poster magazines….

To be clear, my post has as much chance of not being biased as I have of bumping into Ridley Scott in Sainsburys tonight.

So full disclosure: I adore this movie, and consider it the best of the Star Wars franchise. Indeed, to me its more than just a movie, its more an audiovisual experience, amazing imagery with an incredible John Williams score (in my mind the best soundtrack score ever written) and those glorious Ben Burtt sound effects that somehow define the saga to me. Seriously, remove the dialogue track and just play the picture with the music and I’d be a happy camper. John Williams was at the very height of his powers here and this score, from start to finish, is just an extraordinary work. Empire has also got that great, incredibly young-looking cast (some of whom no longer with us, sadly) and that gorgeous cinematography (prettiest Star Wars movie, certainly) and yes, those breathtaking ILM effects. I’m confident the film has plenty of flaws but I can’t see them, don’t think I ever will; I think its perfect.

It also looks pretty amazing on this 4K UHD disc. Sure, I know there are plenty criticising it on forums, but really, I date from an era of b&w mono televisions and VHS and I think that allows a certain reality check; this 4K presentation is absolutely marvellous to me, the best I have ever seen the film, including those first cinema presentations, probably. I wasn’t going to buy this edition, until I caught a review online from someone that stated it was actually very good and nailed the colour grading of the original 70mm showings. Yeah, that got my attention,and I have to say, the author of that review/forum post, whoever he was, was damn right in my book. The Empire Strikes Back looks gorgeous here, the colours all de-saturated and no longer ‘blooming’ crazily as they used to do, even on the Blu-ray edition several years ago: the colour scheme here is much cooler, and looks much more authentic to me. Likewise the detail afforded by the additional resolution (I confess to picking up things I don’t recall ever seeing before) is a pleasure, and the restrained use of HDR very welcome.  I know some will analyse it frame by frame, bemoan things like DNR or crush or grain, but to me its a great film that’s never looked greater. There’s something weird going on in one shot with the Falcon on the landing pad at Cloud City when there’s a flash of light on the platform as the camera pans down, as if catching a flash of reflection that shouldn’t be there, but I don’t care. I had to put up with drop-outs and dodgy tracking and all sorts back in the VHS days and I adored that too. This is better. Its also on a 55″ panel, the biggest I’ve ever owned and possibly ever will (I watched and enjoyed Empire on a 28″ 4.3 CRT years ago so its all relative).

40 years though. I believe I’m getting to that age where some films are just unimpeachable. Its true that contrary to what media claims, Empire isn’t universally lauded as the best of the franchise (some very suspicious individuals somehow prefer Return of the Jedi), and I’m sure someone has written posts raising very good points ripping it apart, but to hell with any of that. To me its… well, I guess nostalgia rears its dangerous head here, but yeah, the film represents a bubble of spacetime, a sense of time and place and mood, the way things used to be, flavoured with that unique period of growing up and all that goes in with that. We identify with certain movies, especially those we grow up with, and yeah, as I found out on holiday back in 2001, they can even feel like home.

June Thorburn and The Price of Silence

price2Its curious, the circuitous routes that steer us to certain films. I was impressed last month by the performance of June Thorburn in Hammer’s The Scarlet Blade, whereupon I learned of her tragic death and a career that never realised its potential. The latter point has come home to me having just seen The Price of Silence, a film that caught my attention only because I saw her name in the credits. Thorburn’s role in the film is as undemanding, underwritten and thankless as one could fear and I imagine that if this is as representative of her filmography as I expect, she must have been feeling quite frustrated and disheartened. She deserved much better than this, but most actresses of her generation likely did, too.

Alas, partly this is no doubt reflective of the times -the film dates from 1960 and is indicative of women’s roles in both film and in society in general. Thorburn’s role in The Price of Silence is little more than a meek, passive (and decidedly wholesome) love-interest for Gordon Jackson’s character, offering him support and driving him around.  Its almost a wonder she didn’t blend into the wallpaper. She’s literally walking her dog and bumps into him as he’s selling the house next door and promptly falls for him- as if she’s living on a desert island somewhere and has come across the first man she’s seen in years. Conveniently she is also rather rich, living alone in a huge house with a second property out in the country- the film is literally that contrived and convenient. She’s got no traction for any drama, so Thorburn just has to be pretty and deferential to her male lead.

None of this is helped by the fact that the film itself is a rather week, and numbingly predictable crime thriller, in which jailed-for-a-crime-he-didn’t-commit Richard Fuller (well, he did do it, but he did it for foolish reasons and was left in the lurch and did the honourable thing etc) is released from prison and finds it hard to get a break on the outside. He resorts to changing his name and hiding his criminal background, finding good work in an estate agents office where he progresses well, until an old lag from stir recognises him in the street and blackmails him, threatening to reveal his true past. Adding to Fuller’s woes is his elderly employer’s decidedly young and flirtatious wife, Maria (Maya Koumani) whose overtures he has to repeatedly resist, a sub-plot that fails to go anywhere until Fuller’s alibi for a murder depends on her.

Gordon Jackson is pretty good as the morally upstanding Fuller, but even he seems to find it difficult to muster much enthusiasm, lacking any chemistry with any of the ladies that are so besotted by him. Jackson just wasn’t that kind of romantic player, so is rather miscast here and the film instead bores when it ideally should simmer. Without that heated sexual dynamic that might breathe some life into it, the whole thing feels neutered and routine and lacks any real drama at all. I like Jackson and in the right role he can be fiery and dynamic but while his leading role here is unusual for him, and therefore has some interest, it sadly doesn’t work. I suppose he’s not helped by the perfunctory and bland  direction, nor the script which is predictable and never really shows any ambition or drive to shake things up a bit, or really even feel the need to convince. Any energy seems reserved for the performances of the dogs in the film.

A pretty poor effort indeed.


laua1Moving backwards in time from 1965’s Bunny Lake is Missing, my delve into the directing work of Otto Preminger now turns to 1944’s film noir Laura, a tale of romantic obsession. In some ways it seems an unlikely film noir: its high society setting of affluent people seems a strange milieu for a film noir, however, and I must confess that I think its a curious entry in that genre. Sure, we have the hard-boiled, world-weary detective and visually many staples of the genre in its expressionistic cinematography, some of the iconography of the film, etc. In some ways, though, the film straddles two, if not more,  genres- a mid-film twist that pulls the rug from film noir tradition and settles into romantic melodrama, if anything. Its a little unsettling and not entirely successful; a romance between detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) and Laura (Gene Tierney) feels too sudden, too melodramatic- not so much McPherson’s fascination with the enigmatic subject of his murder investigation, but rather how Laura suddenly seems to fall head over heels for this cold man she finds in her apartment. Its something that doesn’t really work that feels something more of an idealistic romance picture than a dark foreboding noir. Its the weak element in an otherwise strong picture, for me, and whenever the swooning Laura calls him “Mark” I always felt like it was coming out of nowhere, something that isn’t earned. something almost absurd.

Indeed, part of the fascination of this film is the positioning of Laura as a rather unlikely, and quite unwitting, femme fatale. Usually in these noir, the central femme fatale is a  beautiful and seductive woman using her charms to ensnare her lovers, often leading male characters into a deadly doom or trap. In many ways Laura fits the bill, but she doesn’t seem to knowingly do this: she is the almost helpless subject of male fascination: Waldo Lydecker (an outstanding Clifton Webb) who has moulded Laura into his object of female perfection,  Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) a caddish lothario who is using Laura to climb the social ladder, and Detective Mark McPherson, who becomes far too intrigued by Laura’s portrait and recollections he is told of her. Laura doesn’t really engineer any of this, not in the traditional noir sense, and this makes the film perhaps more interesting think it might be. It reminded me greatly of Hitchcock’s later Vertigo, and perhaps it was an inspiration for Hitchcock. Laura seems rather submissive at times, easily moulded by Waldo, easily seduced by Shelby and suddenly helplessly attracted to Mark: odd ways for a femme fatale to behave in a noir: indeed, she seems more trapped than anyone in some ways.

laura2I suspect that the strange incongruities of logic within the film, may actually make the film more rewarding on subsequent viewings: indeed, I gather the film has become only more successful and highly-regarded over the decades. We are told the story of Laura through a number of different viewpoints, and perhaps all of them prove to be unreliable narrators. Certainly there seems obvious parallels between Laura Hunt and Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks, a wholesome cheerleader to some but someone quite different and darker to others, facets revealed over time as that tv series ran its course. Is the ‘real’ story, or truth of the film, something we discover for ourselves, or is it just the viewer managing the films shortcomings? Maybe I’ll have an opinion on this in a few years time.

I watched Laura on a very fine Blu-ray from Eureka, that comes with two audio commentaries that I really should have on my immediate ‘to-do’ list. Its a very good package and is currently quite cheap on Amazon: alas, my efforts to curtail my spending on discs appears to have been temporarily undone by Laura’s charms- oddly fitting, though, that, considering the subject of the film itself.


waterfI’ve a sneaking feeling that Kathleen Harrison could be the face of 2020 for me, how bizarre is that? Well, here she is again in Waterfront, from 1950. As is quickly becoming usual, Harrison is (apparently) effortless here- she’s clearly one of those character actors that have this natural ease with the camera and makes it all seem so simple, and yet remain so convincing. She clearly wasn’t cast against type, which helps her no end, playing the slightly befuddled but well-meaning matriarch of a struggling single-parent family in times when such things were frowned upon.

Robert Newton features as Peter McCabe, a worthless cad of a seafaring husband who walks out on his young family in 1919 to return to roving as a sailor, leaving his wife and two daughters to fend for themselves in the Liverpool slums near the docks. Making patently false promises to Nora, his eldest daughter, who can read through his lies with ease, McCabe has no intention of ever returning and fulfilling any husband/fatherly duties. Unbeknown to McCabe, his family’s lot is even more tenuous, because his wife (Kathleen Harrison) is pregnant with a third child, delivering a son a few months later, putting even more pressures upon them.

The family manages to struggle through, however, making a go of it through rough times in the slums. Fourteen years later, with the son George Alexander bright enough at school to get a scholarship and the grown girls finding boyfriends (Nora finding a young unemployed sailor struggling for work -played by Richard Burton, no less- and younger daughter Connie unwittingly falling for a lousy cad as untrustworthy as her father), the family is up-heaved by the sudden return of Peter McCabe who has been forced to return through his own misfortune, threatening to wreck the family again.

watrfront2Waterfront is one of those great, old-fashioned human dramas that used to be popular in film but later became ‘relegated’ to television movies and soaps, I suppose, as films themselves turned towards the spectacular in order to distance themselves from the home entertainment on the smaller-screen. Partly a morality play showing good people with very little struggling to do the right thing, and those around them with lesser scruples, its a simple story  about the human condition that is well told. The cast is excellent, really (Avis Scott really impressing as adult Nora), making the story really involving, and from the vantage point of 2020, the setting is utterly fascinating albeit that’s a particular quality unguessed back in 1950. This is a Liverpool that might have been familiar, I suppose, to the boys that became The Beatles when they were growing up, and is a clear reminder of how living conditions for the working-class have improved in the post-war years.

Its a solid effort- nothing astonishing, I guess, but then its not trying to be. There is some lovely location photography and night-time sequences (I don’t know why, but seeing genuinely night-time shooting as opposed to day-for-night shoots always surprises me in low-budget films like this) and other than the odd lack of actual scouse accents (likely the film trying to appease to international audiences) it just feels right. Its just telling a genuinely involving, dramatic story that back in the day might have been mildly shocking, even (one has to mindful of historical sensibilities, I think, with ‘old’movies). I really enjoyed this. The core dynamics and values are universal and timeless, making the film as timely and relatable as it ever was, really, and the previously mentioned appeal of seeing that lost world of post-war Britain is quite sublime; something of a time machine as so many films of that era seem to be.

Appearing on the Talking Pictures schedules, Waterfront is also available on DVD and Blu-ray from Network.


In Brief: Two Nights

nightcity1Quick post regards what I’ve been up to. By weird coincidence (its funny how these things happen) I’ve watched two films that share the word ‘Night’ in their titles: Night and the City, an outstanding film noir set in postwar London starring Richard Widmark and Night of the Eagle, a really effective horror film starring Peter Wyngarde. Both films really were very impressive (Night of the Eagle evoking -yes there’s THAT word ‘Night’ again- the classic Night of the Demon– so much so it’s sent me to the shelf for my copy of that film for a timely re-watch). Although I’d heard of Night and the City a few years ago I hadn’t gotten around to buying the Blu-ray until now (nothing like a sale price to finally swing it), but I don’t believe I’d ever heard of Night of the Eagle before, so that film (another catch on Talking Pictures) proved to be a very welcome surprise. Its just a pity that film hasn’t been released on Blu-ray over here; again, one has to wonder how many of these genuinely great old films fall through the cracks, never get a disc release and seldom get aired on mainstream channels.

I can’t say I ever really warmed to Richard Widmark; I don’t really know why, but I suppose with any actor, part of the process is one of chemistry and empathy. There are actors which, as a viewer, one can instantly strike a rapport with and subsequently enjoy any film they feature in, but at the same time the opposite can be true. In the case of Night and the City, the coolness I feel towards Widmark as an actor likely worked in the films favour, as his character, the hustler/chancer/selfish rogue Harry Fabian is pretty much a contemptible character anyway, so far as me as a viewer was concerned, half of Widmark’s work was done. Perfect casting maybe. To be fair to Widmark, an interview with him from 2002 that accompanies the film on this BFI disc was a bit of an eye-opener for me, gaining me new appreciation for the man and, who knows, maybe his work too. An opportunity for future re-evaluation then.

nighteagAs for Night of the Eagle– what a cracking horror movie. Soon as I noticed that the screenplay featured the work of Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont I guessed that I would be in for a treat. Its a finely wrought script that balances reason with the inexplicable and the film confidently suggests more than it shows (and to be honest, even when it ‘shows’ it does so surprisingly well). The cast, too, are uniformly excellent, I think; Peter Wyngarde is very good but I was particularly impressed by Janet Blair, who played his wife. Yet again, however, I find myself chagrined by being greatly impressed by an actress only to find her subsequent career destined for ill- in Blair’s case, one removed from film pretty much entirely, instead languishing in television guest-star spots.

Real-world issues have impacted my blog-writing over the past few days but I’m hoping to get proper reviews posted for these two, but if not, hopefully these brief notes will suffice until I can.

Bunny Lake is Missing

bunny1This was a strange, weird film – vaguely like Hitchcock, or certainly more Vertigo-like Hitchcock, in that on the surface it seems a psychological thriller but there’s always a feeling (for me, at least) of some murkier subtext underneath, in this case the vaguely incestuous implications of the brother/sister relationship that proves the centre-point of the film. Maybe I’m ‘seeing’ too much into it, can’t tell if the 1960s were more daring or more innocent than now (I suspect the former, it certainly seems of late that you could oddly ‘get away’ with more years ago now than today).

Its the first film I have seen directed by Otto Preminger, whose name is familiar to me from reading about Blu-ray releases over the years. While I don’t expect his other films to be similar to this odd movie, its certainly made me rather curious about seeking some of them out. I was quite impressed by much of the location photography in Bunny Lake is Missing, some of the camera moves were surprisingly mobile and kinetic- not that they took me out of the movie, but quite a few times I noticed a clever camera set-up or framing (albeit I watched the film recorded from the Sony Movies channel on Freeview and it was unfortunately cropped/zoomed in, a practice that I thought had been abolished in these wiser  times). Its a very well-made film, done a disservice by its treatment here (Indicator released the film on Blu-ray awhile ago, I expect it looks much better on that disc).

An American single-mother, Ann Lake (Carol Lynley),  recently settled in England is busy moving house when she hurriedly drops off her daughter, Bunny, for her first day at school. When she returns later that afternoon to pick her up, Bunny can’t be found, and nobody at the school has any recollection of her or record of Bunny being registered there.  The police are called in (a frankly magnificent understated performance by Lawrence Olivier here as the leader of the investigation, Superintendent Newhouse) but their investigations reveal no trace of the girl- indeed, upon further inquiries they find no sign the girl even existed, with no trace of her (clothes etc) at her home, and no photographs of her. Suspicion arises that the girl is only a fantasy of Ann’s, something hinted at by her brother Steven (Keir Dullea, rather removed from the 2001 role of his that I’m most familiar with) seemingly by accident. Is Anne indeed mentally disturbed or is something else going on?

bunny2In what is clearly the genius positioning of the film, the opening sequences are framed and edited so that when Anne is at the school dropping off her daughter, we never actually see her daughter (and to be honest, dumping a girl at a new school without finally saying a goodbye prior to leaving did seem odd) so that when suggestions arise that she ever existed, as a viewer it does seem to become a growing possibility. A few Hitchcockian misdirection’s are scattered through the film- Noel Coward’s mesmerising performance as the frankly unhinged landlord Horacio Wilson offers a few tantalising possibilities, from the supernatural (the spooky African masks on the apartment walls) to the frankly obscene (his frequent touching of Anne, overtures to her and his own flat with objects referencing the Marquis de Sade and torture fetishes etc) and the knowledge that its his apartment that Anne is renting so he has access to it makes him an area of suspicion. Comments from forensic scientists going through Anne’s flat remind us of the grislier possibilities of what happened to Bunny, and there is a frankly batty old lady living above the school full of odd possibilities herself.

It is indeed a very odd and rather fascinating film. When the final twist comes and we realise what is really going on… well, I find the need to be obtuse here, oddly enough, considering that this film is well over fifty years old so unlikely spoiler-territory fodder. But I think its here, when the film falters into traditional genre thriller mode, that it also becomes possibly more interesting, certainly even darker into Vertigo-like territory. Some of it is quite disturbing (there is a scene midway thought he film when Steven is in the bath and Anne walks into the bathroom, casually chatting to him while he’s naked in the bath and she lights him a cigarette, that felt odd to me and foreshadowed the twist).

A nod to Clive Revell here, who would later turn up in one of my favourite films, Billy Wilder’s Avanti!. Actually, overall I’d say the film features a great cast. I haven’t seen much of Carol Lynley before other than her role in The Poseidon Adventure of all things, and appearances in tv show guest spots in the 1970s  but she is very good here- and Keir Dullea really does feel far removed from the cold robot of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. All round a very interesting, even mildly disturbing, film.


The Whole Truth (1958)

wholet1My first comment regards The Whole Truth is my surprise when I saw the directors credit come up on the screen: John Guillermin, who later directed such notable films as The Blue Max, The Towering Inferno and the 1976 remake of King Kong (and, later, its regrettable sequel, King Kong Lives). I assumed, wrongly, that perhaps this 1958 whodunit was one of his first features, but looking it up later, I saw he’d done several before, the first dating back to 1949. Guillermin has a bit of a footnote in my film affections, as a paperback tie-in about the making of the 1976 King Kong that I bought from my local newsagents proved to be my first real discovery regards all the machinations behind the scenes of movies and set me off on the path that leads to, well, me here posting on an obscure blog about films and ‘stuff’. I remember picking it up off the rack 44 years ago, fascinated by the text and the b&w pictures detailing that troubled production (even at the age of ten I reasoned they could never get away with that fake full-size ape and a man in an ape suit, but I guess those were innocent times just before Star Wars shook up the visual effects game). Reading about Guillerman’s tribulations making that film was my first appreciation of the role of directors in film.

I’m not certain anything in The Whole Truth suggests bigger and better things lay ahead for Guillermin, but there are certainly a few good crane shots ambitiously trying to make more of the frankly claustrophobic sets doubling for streets.

The Whole Truth is also notable because it stars the great and beautiful Donna Reed, who I’ve always had a bit of an unrequited love affair with since I first saw her enchanting performance in Its A Wonderful Life. After The Whole Truth, Reed would move over to television where she had huge success with The Donna Reed Show, which ran for several years- I suppose the success of which resulted in her never making any more movies. Our loss, I think. Reed had an enduring presence, albeit sickly wholesome to some I suppose, on screen had the camera certainly loved her. I appreciate I really haven’t seen many of her film appearances, but wonder what she might have done had she opportunity to move away from that wholesome screen image. Wouldn’t surprise me if she felt hampered by it and that was why she ultimately moved away from films. Reed died far too young, just 64, in 1986.

Which reminds me of Yvonne Mitchell, who I saw recently in Turn the Key Softly– Mitchell herself died too young, at the age of just 63, in 1979. I only mention this because its made me wonder about their generation- I suppose they smoked, or lived and worked in smoke-filled places. It just made me think about how people of their generation possibly died too young, simply because of the way society was in their day, with the prevalence and popularity of smoking. It was just the way the world was, I suppose. You’ve only got to watch films of the 1940’s and 1950’s to see it, everybody seems to smoke onscreen or be in smoky places, and its clearly a socially accepted thing, heedless of any health dangers (both women died of cancer).

You may have noticed I’m not writing much about The Whole Truth. To be honest, its because there really isn’t much to say: its pretty average, really.  Stuart Granger plays film producer Max Poulton, struggling with temperamental, hot-headed leading lady Gina Bertini (Gianna Maria Canale) who he had an affair with several months ago. Gina is keen on restarting the affair but Max is trying to save his marriage with loving wife Carol (Donna Reed). When Gina is murdered, Max finds himself the prime suspect, something not helped when his lies about his affair (trying to maintain it a secret from his unaware wife) are uncovered by the police, the lies threatening to cast even deeper suspicion upon him. Max learns that Gina’s husband has engineered the whole thing as an act of revenge and Max has to go on the run to prove his innocence. It probably sounds better than it is- its obviously inspired by the Hitchcock thrillers of that era, but its definitely a poor-mans Hitchcock, if even that.

wholet2Its a bit of a shame- there is a good cast in the film. George Sanders as the victim’s cunning husband proves a slimy scene-stealer, and Granger is perfectly fine albeit largely unsympathetic (which damages the film somewhat). Reed is given little to do in an underwritten role that depends on her wholesome screen persona to carry her through. The film shows all the hallmarks of a rushed, low-budget production, not helped by some pretty poor sets, particularly the street exteriors (‘Murder on the Riviera!‘ proclaimed the films posters, but its as far from the Riviera as a beachfront in North Wales).

Part of my issue with the film might simply have stemmed from its (in my humble opinion) ill-fitting, upbeat Jazzy score that would suit a spy caper better. There are moments of the score when it seems at odds with the scene, almost as if it is source music from a radio- it distracted me often. The film has more problems than just that score, but its what bothered me the most. There’s nothing quite as perfect as a score that perfectly suits its film, easy listening or not, and for me if a score proves ill-fitting its really something of a problem.