Category Archives: Film

The Little Foxes, 1941 – ★★★★½

This rarely seen Bette Davis drama is the ultimate study of greed within a family, with the monstrous Regina (Davis) plotting the life and fate of her winsome daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright, making her screen debut).

This story of the old South does not move much from its stage origins – in which Tallulah Bankhead played Regina. It cries out for colour but with Gregg Toland’s camera work and William Wyler’s direction it looks fairly sumptuous as it is.

A fizzing plot keeps this family saga going, and when the estranged and ill man of the house (Herbert Marshall) comes back we can sit back and enjoy a couple of stars at their best.

Davis was Oscar nominated for her turn as the austere, white-faced matriarch plotter, but lost the big prize to Joan Fontaine, who won for Suspicion .

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West Side Story, 1961 – ★★★★★

UK viewers, this is on right now on My5. So if you haven’t seen it, tune your television this minute!

Romeo and Juliet in New York. Natalie Wood wasn’t Puerto Rican, nor could she sing (she’s dubbed by Marni Nixon), but she’s, as her character Maria tells us ‘so pretty’, she falls in love so sweetly, and her last sentence is absolutely heartbreaking.

Richard Beymer couldn’t sing either (he was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant) but his Tony is chiseled perfection, the gang member who would rather have a job, who grows up but still stands up for his best friend Riff (the Mercutio of this tale, played by ever-acrobatic Russ Tamblyn), and in doing so, pitches both sides into tragedy.

Leonard Bernstein provided the music, a fusion of Latino with street slang, and a young Stephen Sondheim started his lifelong flirtation with wordplay on the lyrics. Jerome Robbins did most of the choreography, and directed key pieces although Robert Wise gets the credit. Robbins did ‘The Jet Song’, ‘America’, ‘Cool’ …

Tucker Smith plays Ice, and he also sings for Riff in the opening number, and his flicked hair and pale blue eyes make you look out for him in scenes. Eliot Feld, a glorious dancer, is Baby John, and just watch him go in the ensemble numbers. Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, real-life lovers in 1961, sizzle as Anita and Bernardo, both gaining Best Supporting wins at the Oscars for their trouble. Moreno is a sensation in the role most comparable to Juliet’s Nurse.

Then there’s the song ‘Maria’. Maria, Maria, Maria. The most beautiful song for the most beautiful girl sung by the most beautiful boy after their eyes have locked across a crowded dance floor and everyone else melts away to blurs. It’s a shout-out of love and joy and one of the greatest musical movie moments ever put on the screen.

Tony and Maria in the wedding scene, in the bridal shop, in the evening. Doc (Ned Glass) in the Friar’s role, letting the lovers meet even though he knows and understands the dangers. The tenements that gleam when they should be downtrodden. John Astin trying to keep order at the dance, while the boys and girls spit and hiss at each other, sometimes with hate, sometimes with lust.

Susan Oakes as Anybodys, who might just be the first musical depiction of a trans boy. Gina Trikonis as Riff’s girl, Tony Mordente as Action, David Winters as A-Rab. Maria wanting her neckline lowered just a little bit, just a little bit, as she is no longer wanting her dress for playing.

The perfection of ‘A Boy Like That/I Have a Love’, where Anita glimpses the rumpled bed and where Maria asserts her newly found knowing-ness. Love is love is love even after the unthinkable has happened, and Anita in her grief can help or hinder just anything.

Jose DaVega is Chino, and he’s a decent sort, but he will cause us to cry by the end, and even sarcastic Lieutenant Schrank to take a breath, just a little. That ending, the saddest of all endings, but a glimmer of hope, just maybe, before we switch to the graffiti inspired credits.

Did I mention how much I love this film?

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Sense and Sensibility, 1995 – ★★★★

Watched for Valentine’s Night, of course!

I remember very clearly going to see this at the cinema twenty-two years ago.

It was the evening of ‘sighs’ with three factions of female viewers, interested in either Hugh Grant (Edward Ferrars, the nice brother of the ghastly Fanny Dashwood, whose selfishness has turfed the second family of the dead Mr Dashwood from their family home), Greg Wise (the gentleman cad John Willoughby, who sets aflame the youthful heart of silly Marianne), or Alan Rickman (the solid, dependable and quaintly romantic Colonel Brandon).

This adaptation of the Jane Austen novel was scripted by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee, and does its best to cover the emotional ground of the story within a couple of hours. The Dashwood sisters are played by Thompson herself (Elinor), a youthful and rather delightful Kate Winslet (Marianne), and Emilie François (Margaret).

Aside from the burgeoning romances (which are beautifully done) there are lots of simple pleasures: Robert Hardy’s blustering cleric, Elizabeth Spriggs’ gossip, Imelda Staunton’s twittering gossip’s daughter, Gemma Jones’s stately widow, Imogen Stubbs’s scheming fortune-hunter and Harriet Walter’s awful snob do great supporting work in bringing Austen’s strong characterisations to life.

All is well that ends well, of course, and off the screen, too, as Thompson and Wise started their own romance which has endured since then, while Richard Lumsden (who plays Fanny and Edward’s brother Robert) married Thompson’s actress sister Sophie.

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The Cuckoos, 1930 – ★★★½

“I love you so much, I can’t conceal it. I love you so much, it’s a wonder you don’t feel it.”

This film adaptation of the 1920s stage musical The Ramblers was the second teaming of the vaudeville comedy team Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, and their first as the stars, following their successful supporting turn in Rio Rita the year before.

The team’s brand of cross-talk, cutesy spiel, and musical routines may look a little clunky now, but before RKO launched their series of musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, these two were the biggest money-spinners for the studio.

I personally enjoy them very much, and here there is the benefit of some scenes in two-strip Technicolor, plus the kewpie doll Dorothy Lee and the statuesque Jobyna Howland in support. Hugh Trevor and June Clyde play cloying young lovers who are secretly engaged, but the real interest as ever is in seeing Bert and Dottie find their way through tentative flirting.

Raymond Maurel leads an opera chorus, while there are fiery Gypsy routines in front of an admittedly static and stage-bound set. This musical comedy is sparky, cute, fun and leaves you with a smile on your face, if you’re so inclined.

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Her Man, 1930 – ★★★½

A nice restoration for this Pre-Code film, directed by Tay Garnett and showing at the BFI Southbank as part of a season curated by Martin Scorsese.

Ricardo Cortez is the psychopathic Johnny whose girl, Frankie, the sad-eyed and down at heel thief who entices chaps in the bar with promises of gin and companionship, dreams of a new life away from the filth and grime of the island on which she was born and is trapped.

James Gleason and Harry Sweet provide the comedy, in a long running gag about an one-armed bandit game and the fey Franklin Pangborn’s hat.

Hot Toddy (Thelma) isn’t a blonde for a change but she’s bad through and through, while Dan the hero sailor, played by a singing Phillips Holmes with ever increasing holes in his shirt, charms Frankie, eventually replacing her worn old shoes and praying next to her in church.

Dark as pitch in places (Johnny’s knife throwing, and glowering watching of Frankie), with clever sand and sea wave titles, this has a nicely done if obvious drunk old broad routine from Marjorie Rambeau, whose cackling laugh in the film’s closing scene is oddly moving.

Perhaps not a lost masterpiece, but certainly worth a second look.

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The Tragedy of Hamlet, 2002 – ★★★★

Peter Brook adapted two Shakespeare plays for the screen, and both are very interesting experiments. The 1971 ‘King Lear’ with Paul Scofield is perhaps the best known, but this version of ‘Hamlet’ is my favourite of the two.

Pared down to two and a quarter hours, with a third of the text removed and other passages moved around, characters cut, and with a multi-ethnic cast (black Hamlet and Ghost/Claudius, Indian Laertes/Ophelia, Oriental Player King, white Polonius/Horatio), this is a minimal production, sparsely staged, but with weight on the words without distraction.

Adrian Lester plays the Dane, and he is every inch the bleakly indecisive student. This was an early role for him but he ranks with the best of interpreters of this greatest of Shakespeare leads. Natasha Parry (Brook’s wife) makes a stately Gertrude, but without the artifice or middle-aged lust other actresses have given her. She is a tragic by-product of the dark court of Denmark.

Scott Handy is Horatio, and his verse-speaking is excellent, as befits a regular cast member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Last seen in the TV series ‘Hunted’ and ‘The Village’ he is the blank canvas on to which Hamlet can project his angst and dissatisfaction; he is the devoted friend who will not question even the madness that seems to afflict the Prince, causing his cruelest actions and thoughts.

This is not a starter Hamlet for those new to the play; rather one for those who are familiar with the piece and open to see it tweaked and explored for a new audience.

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Remember the Night, 1940 – ★★★★

Everybody’s favourite Stanwyck (to Letterboxders, anyway), and one I hadn’t seen until today. Putting aside the fact that bits of it remind me of ‘The 39 Steps’, others of ‘Susan Slept Here’ and others of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and ‘Mr Deeds Goes To Town’, I have to add my praise to that of the general majority.

Barbara Stanwyck is Lee, a jewel thief (must be something in the air, as yesterday I was watching a film with Myrna Loy in a similar profession), and here she is teamed for the first time of three with Fred MacMurray, here playing a prosecuting attorney, John, who succeeds in getting her trial postponed for decision til after Christmas, and ends up taking custody of her over the festive season instead.

MacMurray isn’t one of my favourite actors, but he’s very good here, and Stanwyck is in good form as the career criminal who opens proceedings in the court by watching her defence lawyer with barely-disguised amusement.

She’s no victim here, and in fact she is perhaps better than she was in femme fatale mode in ‘Double Indemnity’. Her gift for fun eventually paid off as Preston Sturges, screenwriter here, went on to write and direct ‘The Lady Eve’ for her, which gave her a chance to broaden her range.

Willard Robertson’s speech as the flowery defence chap is hilarious, and even more so when you note in real life he gave up a career in law for the stage. Sterling Holloway, always fabulous, and with the weirdly musical voice, is fun as a cousin of MacMurray’s. ‘Snowflake’ Toones plays John’s slightly slow servant but he isn’t quite as daft as he first appears. And Beulah Bondi ages up yet again to play MacMurray’s mother.

This is a romance, a festive one, and a courtroom drama, and succeeds at all of them. What a happy discovery!

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Whipsaw, 1935 – ★★★½

Spencer Tracy had switched studios from Fox to MGM in 1935, and this role has more in common with his tough guy programmers than the more sophisticated fare his new studio would eventually offer him.

This is a fairly minor crime picture but it’s lifted by the sparkling chemistry between Tracy (as a G-man posing as a crook) and Myrna Lou (as a hard-boiled jewel thief). They positively crackle in their scenes together, which makes this film a pleasure to watch.

Director Sam Wood is content to let his stars just do their thing, and they do it well. Romance beckons by the halfway point, and the whole story of the stolen pearls sinks into second place.

A happy discovery, currently available on YouTube.

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Whistle Down the Wind, 1961 – ★★★★★

“I said yeah. You’ll hear about me again.”

I gave this just shy of a five star score last time, but now I can’t find any fault with this film.

Fourteen-year-old Hayley Mills is absolutely superb as the girl who thinks she has discovered Jesus living in her barn, and Alan Bates (in his first starring role) matches her scene for scene as the convict whose desperation, fatigue and confusion leads him to play the part she has created for him.

The joy of this film is the simple allegory about Christianity and the evolution of the young girl who finds herself attached to the mysterious man, and the huge group of children who become his followers.

Filmed in Clitheroe and Burnley in Lancashire, largely using local children, this showcases the performance of young Alan Barnes as Charlie, who brings an innocent and deadpan humour to the situation.

Magical, moving, and just as relevant to an audience of adults as it is to children (I first saw it aged about eight, and I’m watching it now more than thirty years later), this is one of Brian Forbes’ best films, beautifully directed and photographed.

This is a film which gives back more with each viewing. Quite simply one of the perfect examples of British cinema of the 1960s.

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The 39 Steps, 1935 – ★★★★½

#38 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

John Buchan’s novel puts our hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) in mortal danger when a mysterious female spy in black finds herself with a dagger in her back, in his flat, shortly after he has met her at the music hall.

On the run, he meets sulky blonde Madeleine Carroll on a train, but has to break and escape when she threatens to give him away. Events across the country conspire to reunite them, though, where they eventually become handcuffed together to their mutual discomfort – and the audience’s amusement at that scene with the stocking.

This is such a rich film, with a wide array of characters populating the fringes (notably Peggy Ashcroft as the unhappy crofter’s wife, dreaming of the well-dressed ladies in town, but cowed by her Bible-bashing and domestically violent husband – played well by John Laurie).

It’s a wrong man theme, and one which Hitchcock referred to again and again over the years. Donat gives Hannay an air of strictly English bewilderment at his predicament while keeping a sense of amusement.

The scene where Hannay addresses a political rally due to a mistake of identity prefigures Holly’s book club appearance in Reed’s ‘The Third Man’.

Incidentally the bad guy’s distinguishing feature has been used several times in lesser films which followed this, while the Mr Memory close (not in the novel) is a clever twist, and the spy theme cropped up in comic fare such as ‘Let George Do It’ (1940) and ‘The Goose Steps Out’ (1942).

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The Scarlet Tunic, 1998 – ★★★

A disappointing adaptation of one of my favourite Thomas Hardy stories, ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’.

The love story between the lonely German hussar and the girl trapped into an unwanted engagement should simmer with passion as it moves to the eventual tragedy, but this all feels just a bit too chocolate box and safe.

Emma Fielding, as the girl whose head is turned, looks and sounds too modern and isn’t my idea of the character of Frances at all. Jean-Marc Barr is slightly better as Matthaus. There are character actors a-plenty in the cast: Simon Callow (too much bluster), John Sessions, Jack Shepherd, Lynda Bellingham, Gareth Hale, Andrew Tiernan.

Perfunctorily directed by Stuart St Paul, best known for his 1980s pop videos and as a stuntman, this was an attempt to cash on the period boom which followed ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but it failed to provide the requisite happy ending – there are few of those in the works of Hardy.

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Wuthering Heights, 1967 – ★★★½

I’m giving this an extra star on today’s rewatch as it is a lot better than I remembered. The outstanding performance in this is that of the late Angela Scoular as Cathy, who is quite remarkable in her hysteric passion for the Gypsy boy Heathcliff (a smouldering and petulant Ian McShane).

The Lintons are a bit dry (Edgar, played by Drewe Hedley, and Isabella, by Angela Douglas, although she has a moment or two of presence) but play their part in this tragic tale. William Marlowe’s Hindley is more roundly characterised than usual and his grief at the death of his wife is well portrayed, as is his eventual drunken collapse.

Directed by Peter Sasdy (who directed Countess Dracula, the Adrian Mole TV series and the creepy Viktoria for the ‘Supernatural’ TV anthology), and adapted by Hugh Leonard (who also dramatised the 1978 version of this story), this is a superior television drama which benefits from being one of the last shot in black and white, giving the wild moors and dour Yorkshire setting a focus you might not have got in colour.

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Two Sundays – ★★★★

Two Sundays’ is Simon Gray’s companion piece to ‘Plaintiffs and Defendants’ – both were presented in the Play for Today series in 1975, with roughly the same casts.

Some characters are mirror images of those they played in the earlier play, some lines appear in both works, and there are areas in which they – the characters and the situations – overlap.

This play involves flashbacks into a past which two middle-aged friends can’t quite acknowledge, as well as some more mundane family things with wives and children. Memories fade into each other, thoughts bring back things which are buried.

Really, this is a two-hander between Alan Bates as Charles, with a pregnant wife but putting his guilt at a wasted life into a first novel, and Dinsdale Landen as Peter, a boozy, bored, adulterous executive who can’t quite reconcile what he was with what he is.

Of the two plays, this is the most accomplished, although as a pair they are very interesting. And with support from Georgina Hale, Simon Cadell, and others, it has a cast which keeps you watching through its tight one-hour running time.

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Plaintiffs and Defendants – ★★★½

‘Plaintiffs and Defendants’ was the first of a pair of plays written by Simon Gray for the Play for Today series in 1975. Both plays share the same casts but in different roles, some mirroring each other – a fascinating idea.

This play introduces us to Peter, a solicitor who is embroiled in a case of child custody. His wife Hilary is remote and irritated with him and their life together with teenage son Jeremy, while out of hours Peter has been carrying on with the unstable Joanna. The other characters are Charlie and Alison (who we don’t actually see as such), friends of long-standing of Peter’s, and Sallust, a quiet and dour legal pupil of Peter’s who can easily beat him at squash.

In a wordy 60 minutes, we find out about the state of mind of Peter and about things in his past that have impacted on his life – it is one of those plays which includes the type of conversations you’d only ever find in plays and not in real life. This being so it still feels very real and the characters stand up as fully-rounded.

Alan Bates (Peter) and Joanna (Georgina Hale) are probably seen on screen the most, although Simon Cadell (Sallust) and Dinsdale Landen (Charlie) also make a memorable impact. This is a tale of lost opportunities, of giving up things and starting them again, of boredom and routine, and it is played extremely well.

Followed by ‘Two Sundays’ in the same series, although the two plays can stand as separate works as well as a linked pair.

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Gigi, 1958 – ★★★★½

One of my favourite musicals, and MGM’s last great hurrah of their Golden Age, this Lerner and Loewe score might suffer in places by not having traditional singers, but makes up for it by the charm and exactness of the casting.

Leslie Caron is a girlish delight as the would-be courtesan, being coached by her grandmother (Hermoine Gingold) and aunt Alicia (a spirited Isabel Jeans) to become the passive sport of kings. Louis Jourdan is the attractive leading man, Gaston, full of ennui and a lack of interest in the glorious females at ‘Maxim’s’ – his rendition of the title song is a high point of many in the film.

The film still belongs to that glorious Gallic ham, Maurice Chevalier, though, still playful and sparkling into his seventies (even though according to Caron in an interview I saw her give at the British Film Institute some years ago he was ‘grumpee’ throughout filming). His Honore welcomes us into a Paris full of lovers, thanking heaven for little girls, and he’s adorable.

Many have said this film is problematic because of its attitude towards women, and indeed perhaps creepy in its pursuit of the young, but I let that pass. I like to watch Chevalier and Gingold as they ‘remember it well’, and see Gigi’s blossoming from a sulky young thing into a beautiful woman, and the excellent score, even when it is mangled by talk-song.

Directed by Vincente Minnelli for the Arthur Freed Unit, in vibrant Metrocolor, this is well worth watching, and deserved the eight Academy Awards it was given.

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The Imitation Game, 2014 – ★★½

I doubt very much that the Spartacus-like scene which appears halfway through this film: ‘if you fire Alan, you’ll have to fire me too’ really happened.

However, I have visited Bletchley Park and I have become quite familiar with the story of Alan Turing, who was probably our cleverest scientist here in Britain in the war, and who fell foul of the indecency laws in place in the time against practising homosexuals.

The story was covered in an earlier play for television called ‘Breaking the Code‘ – itself adapted from a 1986 stage play – in which Derek Jacobi played Turing, and in which his eventual death was definitely flag-posted as suicide.

Here, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing in his usual detached and mannered style, and the chronology hops and skips from glimpses of Turing as a child, of his war work at Bletchley, and of his eventual persecution by the police (who initially believe him to be a spy).

Some of the artistic licence is ridiculous though – Turing was not a solo worker at Bletchley, nor was his machine creation named after a childhood friend he had a crush on; there was no conflict with commanders who wanted to fire Turing and his collaborators; his relationship with Joan Clarke was not a romantic one; Turing was not autistic (perhaps Cumberbatch is so stuck on his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes he got confused?); no-one ever thought he was a spy; and it is by no means clear that Turing’s death was suicide, despite it being stated as such here.

Perhaps the worst changes to the historical record are the blackmail plot involving John Cairncross (now thought to be the fifth ‘Cambridge spy’) and the depiction of Turing’s mental deterioration following his chemical castration. These are regrettable, but the fact that a major film was produced about a major LGBT figure and received Oscar nominations should be cause for celebration.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing, for what it is worth, is a better performance than that of Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, which was the winner of the Best Actor prize in competition.

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The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934 – ★★★★

#39 in Reverse Hitchcock project.

A handful of Swiss maps. A slimy and snake-eyed Peter Lorre in fur coat and hat. Leslie Banks and Edna Best are the couple in the Alps (good use of back projection in the absence of location work), with their growing daughter, Nova Pilbeam.

You may know this film title better by its remake over twenty years later, and by Hitch’s remark that the earlier version was the work of ‘a talented amateur’ rather than the 1950s ‘professional. In that, Doris Day saved the day by singing ‘Que Sera Sera’ to locate her kidnapped child. This time, the corresponding character uses the skills she displays early on in sport to dispatch the bad guy, again using the iconic setting of the Royal Albert Hall.

Here, there’s a lighter touch from the start, with the dancers trapped by a wool thread leading quickly into something much darker (a dance rather than a market scene as in the remake). There’s more inventiveness, too, with a smashed window and a mysterious message.

Leslie Banks would work for Hitch once more, as the wild and violent smuggler in ‘Jamaica Inn’, and you may recall him from his pivotal role in ‘Went The Day Well’, directed by Cavalcanti, or as the police inspector in ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’.

Here he is far more British and reserved than James Stewart was in the same role, hesitatingly requesting the presence of the British Consul, and getting flustered in a dinner jacket. He’s more convincing in the role of someone getting tied up in international problems than any American would be.

Edna Best (and what a sequence where she spins, faux faints, and pitches a vital clue into the fire is) was a fairly pretty girl who had an undistinguished career, better known these days as one of the wives of actor Herbert Marshall, who had also collaborated with the Master in films. She does well enough in her only Hitchcock appearance, and is perhaps the first of the classic blondes.

This film has such an array of interesting shots and flourishes – a model train set, camera angles looking down, looking up, smoke filled rooms, the sun-worshippers’ temple – but the stand-out performance is from Lorre, in his first English-language film following his emigration from Nazi Germany.

He is a skin-crawling, repellent, borderline evil character; from his work in Germany, especially in ‘M’ (1931), he demonstrates a wide range which was not always apparent away from the Continent, but here he is well-cast as the ringleader of a deadly murderous plot.

Even when speaking his lines phonetically, having little command of English, he dominates the sequences in which he appears. He would be far less restrained in his second Hitch film, ‘The Secret Agent’.

I prefer this film to its remake as it has less gloss and more intriguing plot, not to mention a particularly nasty dentist, many years before Laurence Olivier’s ‘Is it safe?’.

At seventy-five minutes, it is a lean example of a superior British thriller, and a good example of the Master of Suspense in embryonic form.

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Waltzes from Vienna, 1934 – ★★★

#40 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

What’s this, a curious observer may ask. It is a romantic musical comedy directed by … Hitchcock?

A bit of explanation might be necessary. In the 1930s there was a real vogue for operetta in British film, many of which started leading lady Jessie Matthews, who also appears here. So it would not be unknown for a rising director to be assigned a film like this.

It was Hitch’s only project during 1934, and he has said he only made it in order to keep working. However, together with his wife and constant collaborator Alma Reville, he still worked out a meticulous shooting schedule and screenplay, including the inclusion of musical interludes.

Music matters in this surface biopic of the creation of Johann Strauss II’s seminal ‘Blue Danube’ (in an elaborate and comical bakery scene). It isn’t just there for pretty scene accompaniment, but also for dramatic effect here and there. And of course, being Strauss, the music is fabulous.

A note on the casting – the aforementioned Matthews is a spirited Resi, Edmund Gwenn (in his second appearance of four for Hitch) is an effective if brusque Strauss the elder, while Esmond Knight is almost unrecognisable – being so young and before he was partly blinded in the Second World War – as a floridly romantic Strauss the younger.

In terms of a successful biopic, ‘The Great Waltz’ (1938) covered similar ground (and was even sillier – a horse and carriage ride provides musical inspiration), and as a Hitchcock film, this could be filed under ‘minor’, but I enjoyed watching it again.

Watched on the French DVD (Le chant du Danube) released in 2005, which has better picture and sound quality than the one in Network’s Jessie Matthews series.

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Mad Jack, 1970 – ★★★★★

“I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”

The first half of a double bill at the BFI Southbank of TV dramas directed by Jack Gold, this one focuses on poet-soldier Siegfried Sassoon and his 1917 declaration that he wishes to serve no longer in the British Army, risking disgrace and court martial.

In Tom Clarke’s excellent play, Michael Jayston (a man who in his youth had a beautifully expressive face, described in a contemporary review quoted in the notes at the cinema today as ‘sensitive yet masculine’) is note-perfect as Sassoon, a man of bitter conscience who sees the first-hand waste of men under his command, and the fallacy of the reasoning behind continued conflict, despite being awarded the Military Cross himself.

Much of the play is a solo effort, where Jayston recites poems of Sassoon’s in voiceover, either over scenes of otherwise contemplative quiet, or over conversations.

One particularly good juxtaposition is over a scene between Sassoon and a senior officer played by Clive Swift, while the poem (I think, ‘The General’) plays over the event; and another is where the poem ‘Does It Matter’ is heard just after the ill-fated Ormand, who dreams of a return to a life with no surprises, a wife, three children and a job as a bank manager, gives the matter-of-fact revelation that he has seen a man shot by his own officer ‘just to get the others out of the trenches’.

There are other character parts who do less: David Wood as Ormand (who has a fun singing number in the mess); Michael Pennington as a brother officer, Cromlech, who has a hang up about class; Jonathan Cecil as a waspish Lytton Strachey; Donald Sumpter as the stammering, piano playing Wilmot; and a lively bosom-bouncing Ann Beach as a music-hall artiste who recalls Maggie Smith’s turn in the film ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’.

The play does not shy away from the horrors of trench warfare – there is a prolonged sequence in which Sassoon and Cromlech head out to the barbed wires where dead comrades are stripped of their greatcoats, trousers, and boots (Sassoon dislodges one man’s leg during this operation and is promptly sick), and other dead men are seen rotting in the open, or floating under water with staring eyes.

It also makes clear the cost of any loss of courage, quoting and showing a notice which describes, dispassionately, the execution of three deserters.

Sassoon’s statement of defiance is only précised here, although it is quoted in three different points throughout the film.

Our sympathies are purely with him, although his motivation is less clear than it may appear – is a personal, emotional, matter as Cromlech alleges, or is he indeed insane due a nervous breakdown as the Army supposes in order to quiet any insurrection from the ranks?

This is an excellent piece of work, which may benefit from some knowledge of the subject and his poetry, but which stands alone as a document of anti-war drama.

Gold directs well, with many scenes of Jayston in shadow, or on deserted beaches, or simply reacting in close-up to memories or thoughts in his head. Jayston is one of our best actors (these days you’re more likely to see him in a guest role in one of our medical or crime dramas) and in the 1970s he did some genuinely excellent work, of which this is a prime example.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title, Sassoon was called Mad Jack by his men because he was reckless, and one assumes, indeed courageous.

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Faith and Henry – ★★★★★

The second film on the BFI Southbank double-bill of TV dramas directed by Jack Gold, this is a charming tale of Lancashire lad Henry (John Baron, last seen in a bit part in ‘When The Boat Comes In’) and his growing friendship over a walk home by the canal with Jamaican girl Faith (Hilary Baker, who seemed to appear only once more on screen, in ‘Short Cuts’ in 1976).

What it catches perfectly is the more innocent days where children could walk through fields and do simple things like toss stones in streams, look at the view, jump across streams and where young lads go skinny dipping. It’s a time I remember well.

It is a nostalgic piece in which a world we have lost is closely depicted, and in its young and untested cast it has a pair of performances which show a growing friendship.

In 1969 attitudes to immigrants from the Caribbean (Faith’s father is a bus driver) were not entirely positive, which makes the acceptance of the girl by Henry, and of Henry by her parents, all the more surprising, but refreshing. (Incidentally Henry’s home has central heating which, in a 1960s Lancashire, must have been unusual indeed!).

This aside, it is a touching and well performed tale, and the location work gives the sense of an industrial and natural landscape (the rocks on which Henry and Faith first sit at the top of the hill are ‘chemical waste’ he informs her in a matter-of-fact tone) which has long gone.

There’s a running joke around a 9lb piece of cheese Henry buys from a shop shortly after the two leave school (having lived above a butcher’s shop for years, his family cannot abide meat), and around the smells of the landscape (cheese and molasses).

Aside from Faith and Henry, we meet both sets of parents – Faith’s loving couple who call each other ‘lover’ and ‘queenie’, she does evening classes and revises for her O levels while cooking fried herring for tea’; Henry’s middle-aged pair who still enjoy a bit of loving flirtation which bothers their maturing son.

Julia Jones, who plays Henry’s mother Ada, wrote this perceptive and interesting play, which is quiet, gentle, and very successful. Notably Faith is not destined to be a housewife but dreams of being a pilot; she’s very much her own woman, declining to be Henry’s ‘girl’ but instead offering to be his ‘friend’.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


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