Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

The Double

Director Richard Ayoade Stars Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn UK 2013 Language English 1hr 33 mins Colour

Darkly (literally and metaphorically) comedic

Clanking and clanging. Whirring and wheezing. There is a lot of noise in The Double, all the way through, allthough it peaks when the main character, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), is trying to overhear a conversation across the other side of a restaurant while being foiled by loud music and two blenders at once.

The people he wants to hear are Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the co-worker and neighbour he is obsessed by, and James Simon (Eisenberg again), who looks just like him (right down to the same suit and shirt) but is as suave and confident as Simon is hideously self-effacing.

The world this takes place in, that clangy, clanky world, is one of those that doesn’t quite map on to our history - it has the look of the 1940s with a technology roughly like that of the 1980s, plus a wonderful soundtrack of vintage East Asian pop that further makes it harder to place. The film itself has a look of a retro-minded movie from the ’80s or early ’90s, with echoes of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Delicatessen, the Coen’s Hudsucker Proxy, early David Lynch and Aki Kaurismaki. It’s as claustrophobically atmospheric as any of them.

The story starts off with Simon’s painfully inept attempts to attract the attention of either Hannah or his bosses, and then takes a turn with the arrival of James, who manages both effortlessly (literally, to some extent, as he gets Simon to do all the work at work). Simon treats James as a threat, but James suggests that their uncanny resemblance - ignored by their colleagues -  could make them an effective team.

The story this is based on is by Dostoyevsky, but the writer brought to mind by Simon’s nightmarish existence is Kafka, or at least cinema’s borrowings from Kafka, plus the German cinema of his time - there’s plenty in the way of shadows and fog here.

Richard Ayoade seems to be a popular chap. As well as drawing a couple of at least indie-big international stars in Eisenberg and Wasikowska, he’s packed the film with familiar faces – the great Wallace Shawn, Raging Bull’s Cathy Moriarty, one legend of British cinema, a couple of the director’s TV mates and most of the main cast of his debut, Submarine, including a very enjoyable cameo from Paddy Considine.

What’s never in doubt is that Ayoade knows exactly what he’s after here, and he achieves it. The result is a beautifully shot, dark, funny, smart and enjoyable film.

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Veronica Mars

Director Rob Thomas Stars Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni, Krysten Ritter USA 2014 Language English 1hr 47mins Colour

 Teen noir TV series gets a big screen resurrection

 Or: ‘A long time ago, we used to be friends…’

It’s as simple as this: if you are unfamiliar with Veronica Mars, the fairly short-lived US TV drama that owed an equal debt to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, then this film is of no possible use to you. Oh, there is a long opening montage and monologue filling in the story so far, but I suspect that is for old fans who haven’t found the time to rewatch the show before seeing the film.

But if you are a fan, this does the job splendidly. Rightly so, I guess, because the fans made this possible by stumping cash up on Kickstarter. In return, the show’s creator, Rob Thomas, has given them what presumably most of them wanted – a film that rewards loyalty, one that is rich with in-jokes both within its fictional world and about the making of the movie, his own name, the star’s apparently more ample chest… The more love you bring, the more you’ll receive, in this case at least. On its own peculiar terms, the Veronica Mars movie succeeds impressively.

In the unlikely event you’ve read this far and never watched the show, here’s what you need to know. Like Buffy, Veronica was a popular high school blonde who lost her social status* but found her soul and her calling. Veronica’s fall from grace occurred with the murder of her (very rich) best friend and her sheriff father’s politically suicidal attempts to solve the case. He was left to struggle as a private investigator and she got a taste for the family business, while replacing her elitist old chums with the new black kid in school, a female computer geek and a Latino biker. Plenty of murder, blackmail, sex crimes and political nastiness followed over three seasons – VM didn’t just nod to noir because it had an old-fashioned voiceover from our teen PI, it was a noir because it unearthed all the bad shit was happening in this starkly class-divided California town.

The other noir element, the thing that the writers struggled most with, was the show’s homme fatal, Logan Echolls, the bitterly wisecracking rich kid and frequent police suspect whom Veronica repeatedly falls for. That unshakable attraction is what starts off the movie – seven years after we last saw her, Veronica (Kristen Bell) is being interviewed for jobs at top law firms in New York. Then Logan gets arrested for the murder of his pop star girlfriend – also one of their schoolmates. That brings Veronica home, just in time for her Neptune High 10-year reunion.

Thomas makes sure that Veronica gets to meet up with as many old faces as possible as she sets off again to prove Logan innocent, despite her father, her nice-guy boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) and the law firm trying to get her back to New York. But where’s the fun in that?

So it looks like a TV movie, and it has a transparent crowd-pleasing agenda, but saving the day is terrific writing. Thomas does a smart job of when he brings in old characters, and how, which much of the time is very funny. There are a lot of laughs here, although not at the expense of the moodiness that was also always a component of the show.

I mentioned Ross Macdonald earlier - the class system of California is superbly explored in his novels. It’s something of an obsession for Thomas too – I think it’s series 2 of the TV series that explains in some detail about incorporation, the tactic by which wealthy American communities set themselves up as new cities, relieving themselves of fiscal responsibility for their poorer neighbours. And in the movie, topically, developers are aiming to reclaim the once rough bits of downtown, aided by the corrupt sheriff’s department. There’s a political edge here, which of course makes Veronica’s dalliances with Logan all the more of a headfuck for her.

The cast all look comfortable picking up these characters again, especially considering that the film was made in a hasty 23 days. Special praise is due to Ryan Hansen, still funny as hell as Logan’s bozo spoilt surfer dude bud Dick.

I’m not sure I liked the ending**, or the resolution to the case, and looking back, Logan is fairly passive beyond his initial call to summon Veronica – but then maybe he always was. Those are all minor grumbles, though, because the quality of Thomas’ writing means that spending time with these characters again is a real pleasure.

*Incidentally, the film makes me think of something I only half-noticed about the show: although she’s a weirdo and an outcast to her many of her peers, in her crime-solving exploits, Veronica has no doubts about attractiveness to older boys and (ahem) men (That Bell wasn’t actually a teenager, just playing one, maybe made the network OK with this). (A girl’s confidence in her effect on males of course in no ways assumes she’s comfortable as a sexual being, obviously, as the show made clear). This matches up with how several women I know remember their own teen years – people rarely fit neatly into boxes.

 **SPOILER ALERT: Possibly again fan-driven, the ending reflects the TV view of character determinism, made most explicit on the Friends ‘what if?’ double episode The One That Could Have Been – ultimately, you are who you are, no matter what you try to do to change that, and you can’t escape your fate. So, ‘down these mean streets a woman must go…’

 

 

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Howl

Directors Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman Stars James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn USA 2010 Language English 1hr 24mins Black & white and colour

Fact-based account of Ginsberg’s poem, its legal troubles, and his life

I’ve always struggled with poetry - maybe I don’t have the ear for it, maybe the mind to unwrap allusions, unfurl metaphors into images and emotions. Maybe I just lack imagination.

The funny thing is that the difficulty of grasping a poem was one of the central questions in the obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, a court case that is one of the main elements of this film. And yet Howl And Other Poems is the only book of poetry I’ve bought of my own volition, and I’ve never found the title piece baffling (although I prefer America in the same collection).

I first read it in the school library, drawn in a typical teenage way to the idea of the beats. On The Road, which I read not long after, I found tremendously disappointing, but Ginsberg I liked from the start. Crucially (for me) he was funny and Kerouac wasn’t. (And because I do care about these things, it probably helps that the school library edition and my one, bought some years later, and those seen in the film, are all the same little City Lights: The Pocket Poets Series Number Four volume).

This curious little film entirely uses existing words for the script: the poem itself, the trial transcript, and interviews with Ginsberg at the time of the trial. We get Ginsberg (James Franco) reading the poem in public in San Francisco in 1955, plus animation illustrating the words, while the interview bits cut from showing us Ginsberg talking in his apartment to flashbacks of what he’s remembering, but the soundtrack is still him speaking. The trial sections - with David Strathairn as the prosecutor and Jon Hamm as the defence lawyer - are the most dramatically conventional parts of the film. Inconveniently, Ginsberg wasn’t there - Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights, the publisher, was the man on obscenity charges, and Ginsberg claimed his own presence would be unhelpful.

Franco is absolutely terrific as Ginsberg, and the interview segments breathe life into the off-told tale of Allen’s relationship with Kerouac and Neal Cassady (although I wondered whether in the end he ever grasped how much more talented he was than either of them).

It looks great too, both in the 1957 colour sections and the lovely black-and-white of anything that happens earlier. The animation I could happily live without, and I think it sells short the power of the poem itself – we don’t need the pictures if it’s creating pictures in our heads.

For all that it is a pleasant meander (and a fairly short film), the rising of the tension during the summing-up of the trial is a reminder of why movies generally do have plots, and how dramatic situations get our attention in the way things just happening don’t.

But still, it’s an intriguing tribute to a fascinating man and his most famous work, and a sturdy defence of the right to free expression. And I love the fact that it ends with the real Ginsberg singing one of his poems.

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Shadow Of The Thin Man

Director WS Van Dyke Stars William Powell, Myrna Loy, Donna Reed USA 1941 Language English 1hr 37mins Black & white

Enjoyable later outing for Nick and Nora

People are always moaning about the number of remakes, sequels, copycat movies we get these days, but ever since Hollywood has existed, it has loved a winning formula. It’s a fact often repeated (by me, at least) that the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart Maltese Falcon from 1941 was the third movie adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s book, which had only been published in 1930…

Which brings us to Shadow Of The Thin Man, which was the fourth in the series inspired by another great Hammett novel. Hammett had come up with the stories for the first two sequels, but for this one he’s just credited with having created the characters. They are, if you’ve never seen one of the films or read the book (and do read the book), Nick and Nora Charles. Nick (the brilliant William Powell) is a former private eye, friends with all sorts of dodgy characters, who has moved up in the world since marrying heiress Nora (Myrna Loy, every bit Powell’s match). They both drink, a lot, an awful lot – Nick never orders one cocktail when he can have two, and probably three. Somehow, despite being constantly sozzled, they consistently solve crimes ahead of the police.

By the fourth film, they, and their terrier Asta, have been joined by Nick Jr. Nick Sr’s struggles with fatherhood are the source of a fair number of the gags in this one, especially when he is forced to go on a merry-go-round when, if anything, even more pickled than usual.

As I mentioned in my review of the superficially similar Star Of Midnight, one of the interesting things about the Thin Man series is that the crime plots are played straight. There are no funny bits involving the bad guys, often a standard bunch of B-movie lowlifes. That leads to a weird fluctuating of moods – and in this film more than ever, because someone is found hanged, which is for some reason rather more sobering than a shooting.

The plot this time involves the death of a jockey, some shady types who run a wrestling arena and a crusading sports reporter. The Charleses manage purely by chance to be on hand when all the drama takes place – ‘Funny how I meet you at all my homicides,’ mutters Lieutenant Abrams of the SFPD (Sam Levene). He’s the one, though, who insists that Nick has to help him crack the case.

There’s a huge food fight, a running gag about a fancy hat, and a probably slightly overlong gathering of the witnesses at the end. I’m not sure it adds anything the previous films were lacking – unless you’re particularly tickled by the idea of a functioning alcoholic as a dad – but it’s still very funny, and Powell and Loy are great together. One word of caution: the film does have repeated gags built around the idea of the easily confused fat black maid, which make uncomfortable viewing these days.

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Only Lovers Left Alive

Director Jim Jarmusch Stars Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright UK Germany France Cyprus USA 2013 Language English (with a little bit of Arabic and French) 2hrs 3mins Colour

Jarmusch does vampires

So from the moment I saw the poster for this, the question was, ‘Is this going to be a load of goth bollocks?’ Because it looked like goth bollocks, and god knows the world doesn’t need more goth bollocks. And this was worrying because ever since I saw Down By Law way back when, I’ve bought into the whole Jim Jarmusch thing. I know that – and can understand why – some people find his films slow and unnaturalistic and contrived and reliant on the whole ‘hey, I like this obscure cool old stuff – do you dig it, too?’ angle. But I’ve always found his work funny and charming, and, yes, I do like a lot of the stuff he’s referenced and used in his films – from the stuff I knew about (the Rza’s soundtrack to Ghostdog: The Way Of The Samurai) to the stuff I didn’t (Ethiopian jazz in Broken Flowers). I’ve never really struggled with any of his movies, not even the critically reviled The Limits Of Control.

But the vampires worried me. Not that vampires are necessarily a problem – vampires can be done well. But skinny, long-haired, languid posh British vampires? That – and the title – made it feel like this would be revisiting people I knew back when I was a teenager, the kind who had red light bulbs in their rooms and knew the address of Robert Smith’s mum’s house.

I shouldn’t have stressed so much. It’s not the film I feared. It’s, well, it’s something with a mood of its own. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) have been married for over a century – she’s a few hundred years older than him. She lives elegantly in Tangiers, mostly alone with her books, occasionally hanging out with her vampire chum Kit (John Hurt, exactly as you’d expect). Adam, meanwhile, is over in a wrecked mansion in crumbling Detroit, hiding from the world and only dealing with his dealers – Ian (Anton Yelchin), who sorts him out with rare guitars and other bits of old gear (very Jarmusch, that), and nervy Dr Watson (Jeffrey Wright), from whom he gets medical-grade O Neg. Concerned about her ‘suicidally romantic’ (she blames his old pal, Shelley*) spouse, Eve reluctantly flies over to Detroit. Later, they’re joined by her wilful, immature sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). And that’s about all the plot you can expect in a Jim Jarmusch movie.

The main roles are well-cast – for a start, it is no struggle to believe that these two are vampires. I like that it’s Hiddleston, younger in real life and by a few hundred years in the film, who plays the world-weary one; Swinton’s Eve is more resilient, practical. Their worlds are nicely put together, too – Adam’s accumulation of old tech appealing rather than clangingly retro-chic, although his shrine of pictures of his heroes (he keeps insisting he doesn’t have heroes) is maybe a self-indulgence too far by the director, including at least a couple of his now-deceased stars (Joe Strummer, Screaming Jay Hawkins) and his old film teacher (Nicholas Ray).

Ray would have surely appreciated one of the best aspects of the film – a couple of great (night-time, obviously) drives through the wreck of Detroit, an astonishing filmscape that has been underused.

Jarmusch is such a distinctive filmmaker, it’s worth noting that he hasn’t stood still all these years. The static cameras of the early years are long gone. And where he once used musicians in the main roles because they didn’t act like actors, and likes actors for whom English is a second language, this film has a musician played by Tom Hiddleston, your actual British Shakespearian thesp. Mostly that works OK – there’s just one moment where John Hurt milks it in a way that previously Jarmusch stars wouldn’t have.

Only Lovers Left Alive very funny in places, although more laughs would have been nice. And at two hours, it drags a bit – a couple of things happen, but not that much. But it looks lovely and it’s kind of moving and the soundtrack, as ever, is terrific. On balance, Jarmusch has taken on the vampires and survived.

* Some people have complained about the name-dropping. I didn’t mind – but then I’m a notorious name-dropper myself.

 

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The Good German

Director Steven Soderbergh Stars George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire USA 2006 Language English, German, Russian 1hr 45mins Black & white

Clooney adrift in the wreck of Berlin

There are films that I hear about when they are being made, very much look forwards to, and then by the time they come out, the word is bad and seeing them seems less urgent. In the case of The Good German, enough to mean I didn’t see it until seven years after its release.

I know why I was interested in the first place. I love film noir, and Steven Soderbergh always seems an interesting figure. So the idea of Soderbergh shooting a 1945-set noir as if it had been made at the time sounded intriguing, if risky.

The setting is promising. It’s Berlin at the time of the Potsdam Conference between Stalin, Truman and Churchill. The war in Europe has barely ended, and the war in Asia and the Pacific continues. If during World War II the question of why we were fighting (to which Frank Capra was assigned to respond in a series of films) was fairly easy to answer for the vast majority of Brits and many Americans, the way that war was conducted was as morally messy as any other war, and once Hitler had fallen, things got really complicated.

The story begins with journalist Jake Geismer (George Clooney) flying in to cover the conference, and meeting his army driver Tully (Tobey Maguire). Tully’s (typical Maguire) ‘oh, gee’ persona covers up for the fact that he is ruthless black marketeer selling to the Russians and using the profits to enjoy all wrecked Berlin has to offer, including Lena (Cate Blanchett), an aristocrat reduced to prostitution (how unpleasant is Tully? He dismisses a Holocaust survivor who has no legs with the words ‘Everybody’s got a sob story.’)

The situation soon gets dangerous, as Geismer, despite his experience of Berlin in the 1930s and the war itself, continuously underestimates how far both individuals and the US government will go in pursuit of their own interests. ‘You’ve been wrong every step of the way,’ he’s told, correctly, late in the film.

The sets, filming and (in theory) the acting are all meant to be authentic to 1945. It’s not only in a vintage aspect ratio, but is in the kind of black and white that really looks black and white, as opposed to the soft greys we got get in the batch of b&w films that were released in the last couple of years (the cinematography is by Soderbergh himself, using the name Peter Andrews). The exception is the language, both in the use of obscenities and open discussion of subjects including rape.

The Good German got some fairly rough reviews when it was released. I don’t think it’s a bad movie as such – it looks good, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into in terms of both plot and history. One of the problems is that it’s openly taking on some great films: there’s a key scene that essentially a big nod to Casablanca. The black market in a city occupied by the four Allied powers inevitably brings to mind The Third Man. I thought too of Samuel Fuller’s superb House Of Bamboo, set in Tokyo under US military governance. Geismer’s blind march towards a horrifying truth recalls another Jake, in Chinatown. And although it’s resolutely studio-bound and a genre film, the moment in which it is set has The Good German tussling with the ghosts of Roberto Rosselini’s filmed-on-the-spot Rome Open City and Germany Year Zero.

Soderbergh knows his film history. That’s the challenge he’s chosen to take on, as well as trying to make a movie that, considering the politically and emotionally charged subject matter, has to be more than a loving pastiche. And that’s the nub, because if you weigh all that up, you’d be looking for a better film that this.

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Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan Stars Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan, Firat Tanis Turkey/Bosnia And Herzenogivina 2011 Language Turkish (with English subtitles) 2hrs 30mins Colour

Bleary-eyed shaggy dog story

Some years ago, a film called Uzak came out. It got great reviews, made several end of year lists. So I saw it, and was left baffled and angry. Baffled because I couldn’t see what anyone could have liked about it. The characters were unappealing and dull, nothing happened, it looked early ’80s European TV drama. Angry, because I felt swizzed. Worse, I felt like a Daily Express columnist, the kind convinced that critics only pretend to like this foreign toss while watching Richard Curtis films when no one is looking.

So anyway, time passed and the director of Uzak, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, had another film out that was lavishly praised. Not wanting to be suckered twice, I avoided Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. But lots of sane people liked it, including some who assured me they had hated Uzak, too, and now I’ve finally watched it.

And two-thirds of turns out to be very good indeed. It starts out as a macabre shaggy dog story, two cars and a jeep driving endlessly around the empty Anatolian landscape looking for the body of the murder victim. Each time they stop and come up empty handed, the main suspect changes his description of the place slightly, and they’re off again.

We travel in the car with Kenan (Firat Tanis), the suspect; Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), the volatile police chief; the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner); Arab Ali, the put-upon driver (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan); and one other cop. What we get is the mixture of banter and squabbling you would expect of any bunch of tense, tired people stuck in a vehicle for hours. At times it reminded me of Homicide: Life On The Streets or even the Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos. The one who doesn’t talk much is Kenan, often haloed by the lights of the car behind so that he looks like a Byzantine icon.

The other main character is the preening prosecutor (Taner Birsel), proud of his resemblance to Clark Gable and wearing the sharpest coat this side of Michael Fassbender in Shame.

Deep into the night, the whole team descends on the home of a village mayor, a sequence in which – by candlelight after a power cut – weariness slips into drowsiness into dreams…

For almost two hours this film is dark and funny and hypnotic. Without pushing it, Ceylan nudges us to noticing how weird digital cameras and laptops can seem in a place that feels like time has stopped for hundreds years. The idea of an area so rooted in the past might feel powerful and moving, but in practice, as the mayor says, it means that most of the people at all capable of so doing left for Istanbul or Germany decades ago.

The problem with this film is one it shares with many noisy Hollywood blockbusters – it doesn’t stop soon enough. If it ended as the cars come back into town, it would almost flawless. Unfortunately, the final section is a huge letdown. Instead of it being an ensemble piece, the moody doctor – the big city guy exiled in the sticks – is suddenly the central character. Worse, various things the characters hinted at, out on the road, in the dark, are clangingly made explicit, with Ceylan grasping desperately for the BIG POIGNANT MOMENT. And trying to balance that with a classic arthouse end move. It’s not good, not good at all.

So here’s what I suggest – do watch this film, even if you saw Uzak and hated it as much as I did. But turn it off the moment they hit town. You won’t miss anything worthwhile, I promise. You’ll only gain.

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A Damsel In Distress

Director George Stevens Stars Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Joan Fontaine USA 1937 Language English 1hr 38mins Black & white

Burns & Allen meet Fred Astaire in a castle

If films were like Fantasy Football, and the name of the game was simply to accumulate the maximum amount of talent you can afford, then A Damsel In Distress would be one of the greatest films ever made. Ladies and gentleman, the man with the gravity-defying feet, Mr Fred Astaire! America’s premier male-female comedy duo, Burns & Allen! The charming Miss Joan Fontaine [but note that fourth spot in the cast]. Written by Britain’s funniest wordsmith, Mr PG Wodehouse! Original songs by George* and Ira Gershwin! Plus the finest supporting character actors RKO has at hand!

Ah, but… do those elements mix seamlessly? Not exactly. Miss Fontaine (only 19 at the time) is pretty and sparky as an independently minded English rose, but the studio soon realised she wasn’t much of a mover. So she only has one dance with Fred, wandering through the woods – his big set pieces are with George and Gracie instead. And endearing as he is, if Fred can’t seduce a girl manoeuvring her effortlessly across the floor, then he’s just a funny little chap with a huge forehead.

Miss Fontaine’s second problem comes from Mr Wodehouse’s plot. In his work, girls are always ending their engagement with one chap and promising themselves to another later that afternoon. Which is fine when the story has to end with the preservation of the Wooster-Jeeves household, but not so much in a Hollywood romantic comedy, where the heroine should (hopefully) be more than a gear in the plot mechanism.

So, that plot: it’s driven by Albert (Harry Watson**), a scamp working for the aristocratic Marshmorton family, who is determined to win the sweepstakes on who Lady Alyce (Fontaine) will marry. He’s got Mr X – i.e. anyone not yet mentioned – and so does his best to ensure Alyce follows her whims rather than get hitched to Reggie Byng (Ray Noble***), as favoured by her domineering aunt (this is Wodehouse, after all) Lady Caroline (Constance Collier), despite his jazz-loving tendencies. Alyce, pursued by Albert and Keggs the steward (Reginald Gardiner) nips off to London to meet up with her secret boyfriend, an American ski instructor, but accidentally ends up in the cab of visiting star Jerry Halliday (Astaire). Jerry has a reputation as a lothario that’s been entirely fabricated by his press agent, George Burns (er, George Burns). Albert contrives for Jerry, George and Gracie (Gracie Allen) to turn up as paying visitors at the Marshmorton’s Tottney Castle and we’re off…

There’s a lot for the film to accommodate – a hectic plot, dance sequences and sizable chunks of Burns & Allen’s routine. The idea is that Gracie says lots of clueless things, but occasionally reveals herself to be sharper than she normally lets on. Gracie: ‘It’s lots of fun having fun even if you don’t enjoy it.’

and

Jerry: ‘I can’t go now, she needs me. She’s in trouble.’

Gracie: ‘Oh, Jerry, don’t be pessimistic – maybe she’ll still be in trouble when you get back.’

Sometimes, they are funny, other times it just seems like their vaudeville material has been crammed into the film and slows it down. They could dance, though – George (pretty unrecognisable for anyone who only was aware of him during his late career boom) especially keeps pace with Fred. The three of them share the film’s centrepiece, a big dance sequence in a funfair (through the hall of mirrors, down slides etc) – it’s terrific.

A Damsel In Distress is a film with lots of good stuff in it, not least a what would become a couple of the Gershwins’ best-known songs, Nice Work If You Can Get It and A Foggy Day In London Town, but it’s also a bit of mess, thoroughly unbalanced by Fontaine’s inability to dance and the effect that has on everything else. The early scenes are very clunky, although it does better as it goes on. I enjoyed it**** but I’m a real sucker for this stuff. Better Astaire films are available.

*Just in case you were wondering, because I did, George Gershwin had been dead for four months by the time the film was released.

**Move over Dick Van Dyke – Watson’s attempt at an English accent is genuinely baffling.

***Noble? He wrote Love Is The Sweetest Thing. As I said, the level of talent involved in this movie is staggering.

****Even so, an additional warning that the sound quality in the first quarter was bad in the version I saw.

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Suspicion

Director Alfred Hitchcock Stars Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce USA 1941 Language English 1hr 39mins Black & white

Could Cary kill?

Born To Be Bad

Director Nicholas Ray Stars Joan Fontaine, Zachary Scott, Robert Ryan, Mel Ferrer USA 1950 Language English 1hr 34mins Black & white

Beware the butter-wouldn’t-melt blonde

It was while I was watching Born To Be Bad that I learnt that Joan Fontaine had died a couple of days earlier, at the age of 96. She had been one of the last stars left from Hollywood’s golden age*, but she still didn’t manage to outlive her bitterest rival, her older sister, Olivia de Havilland. So in her honour, I’m taking a look at a couple of her films.

Fontaine’s most famous performance is as the second Mrs de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, made in 1940. A year later, she was back together with the director for another story of an insecure young woman in the world of the English upper classes. Here she’s Lina McLaidlaw, bookish and romantically inexperienced. A chance encounter on a train (the film’s best scene) brings her into contact with Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant), a posh but penniless rogue. She’s soon aware of his bad rep (but not of his parlous financial state), but that doesn’t put her off. Very quickly they’re a couple, with Johnnie disarming Lina by being apparently truthful. When she asks if he’s kissed many girls before her, he says:

‘I’m afraid so. Quite a few. One time when I couldn’t fall asleep, I started to count them – you know, the way you count sheep jumping over a fence. I think I passed out at number 73.’

They elope, and she starts to grasp quite how unreliable he is. That begins to shade into a fear that his financial chaos is going to encourage him into doing something very bad indeed, and the film reflects her mindset – Johnnie keeps looming darkly into view, large and menacing. It’s clear Lina is losing her grip, whether her husband is a killer or not…

Grant playing a potential wife-murderer was both then and now the main selling point of the film. It’s not enough – he’s fine, Fontaine is good, as is Nigel Bruce as Johnnie’s easily steered best friend, Beaky Twaite, but it’s all pretty slight, and – something I rarely think – could have done with another plot twist or two. It’s an awfully long way from the greatness of the other Hitchcock/Grant collaborations (Notorious, To Catch A Thief and North By Northwest).

Considering the apparent age of the characters she plays, Fontaine should have made Born To Be Bad before Suspicion, not some nine years later. In practice, now blonde and fuller of face, she doesn’t look any older. This, in turn, was her chance to try to escape typecasting as a psychologically fragile good girl. The title suggests a film noir, a genre director Nicholas Ray was certainly comfortable with. But although some of the elements are there, this isn’t a thriller. Fontaine plays Christabel, an orphan from a powerful family who has been living in a dull small town with an elderly aunt. Now she’s arriving in big, exciting San Francisco to stay with her uncle’s PA Donna (Joan Leslie). It turns out that this innocent-seeming young woman from the sticks is a fast learner, hooking up first with macho novelist Nick Bradley (a perfectly cast Robert Ryan) and then making moves on Donna’s wealthy fiancé, Curtis (Zachary Scott). Hovering around them all is artist Gobby Broome (Mel Ferrer), a friend of the ladies rather than a ladies’ man**, who says things like, ‘I have no friends, only creditors.’

Probably the best reference point is All About Eve, with its scheming anti-heroine and epigrammatic dialogue. Slightly surprisingly, the bulk of the good lines go to Ryan’s Nick: ‘How many times do I have to tell you how much you love me?’ and ‘Someone should’ve told the birds and the bees about you’ being just a couple.

Fontaine is good as the outwardly simpering but heartless Christabel – in fact, the casting all round is terrific. And it’s definitely entertaining – it probably has suffered critically because the film Ray had out next was In A Lonely Place, which is astonishingly good. I liked Born To Be Bad, and I’m going to make an effort to watch some more Joan Fontaine films.

*When Elizabeth Taylor died in 2011, a lot of ridiculous newspaper stories mourned the passing of the final star of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Obviously, Taylor was a big star in the movies and an absolutely massive star in the wider media (by which I mean that like Angelina Jolie today, she was famous to lots of people who had never seen one of her films). But Taylor was a child star at the very end of the classic Hollywood era, and outlived by two of her much-bigger-at-the-time contemporaries, Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney, plus those who been grown-up stars of the late ’30s and early ‘40s like Fontaine and De Havilland, huge if not that well-remembered now box-office draws like Esther Williams, and Lauren Bacall. And if you’re talking the peak of Taylor’s adult career, the ‘50s into the early ‘60s, then we still have with us (at time of writing) Kirk Douglas and Sidney Poitier, plus massive international stars like Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot (both just two years younger than Taylor).

**For those interested in the gay presence in old Hollywood movies, both films are worth seeing. In Suspicion, Lina and Johnnie go to a dinner hosted by what it is pretty impossible to view as anything other than a lesbian couple (the younger one is wearing a tie, for christsakes). As for Gobby in Born To Be Bad, if he isn’t gay, the way all the other characters treat him makes no sense at all.

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The Fallen Sparrow

Director Richard Wallace Stars John Garfield, Maureen O’Hara, Walter Slezak USA 1943 Language English 1hr 34 mins Black & white

Nazis agents loose in NYC!

Meet Kit McKittridge. His body is back from the war more or less intact, but his mind may not be. Out in Arizona trying to heal, he learns that his best friend has died. Suicide is the official theory, but he knows better, and comes home to NYC. He’s an unusual chap, this Kit, a fast-talking tough guy who knows how to dress for dinner, product of an accidental social experiment: ‘I was a mug until I was 14, then they made me a gentleman, then some of the boys made me a mug again.’ His father was a cop who left the force and made it good. Played by the great John Garfield, he’s a fairly compelling character, an interesting variant on the damaged war vet, which became a noir staple a few years later.

The difference here is that this film came out in 1943 and is set in 1940. Kit isn’t back from France, Italy or the Pacific, he’s back from Spain, where he was captured and brutally tortured by the Germans. Almost 3,000 Americans fought during the Guerra Civil in the (Communist Party-affiliated) Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and it’s hard not to suspect that one of the subtexts of this film is saying, ‘Some of us knew we would have to take on the fascists long before Pearl Harbor’. Garfield would become one of the most high-profile victims of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s Hollywood witchhunt, and died of heart attack at only 39.

Anyway, so Kit’s suspicions quickly fall on a group of posh refugees who have been warmly embraced by his Manhattan high-society chums. He decides that the weak link might be Toni (Maureen O’Hara), and in one of the film’s best scenes, turns up at the exclusive hat shop where she works as a model and makes her try on an endless series of fancy headwear until she finally agrees to talk to him.

She’s one of three dames he (in true noir fashion) is both attracted to and yet suspects might be involved in the murders. He’s as brusquely effective with them as Bogart’s Marlowe in The Big Sleep. To one, he says, ‘You’re a pagan and always have been.’

‘Don’t talk like that.’

‘There’s only way to talk to you,’ he replies, and kisses her brutally. Of course!

But although Kit tends to storm into rooms, he’s not sure he’s in his right mind. Everywhere he hears the shuffling sound of a foot being dragged he associates with a terrifying Gestapo officer in Spain, and he needs to crack the case before he unravels entirely.

The Fallen Sparrow is all intensity, and little coherence. The plot races ahead, and then everything stops several times for Kit to give an extended speech. Director Richard Wallace has no grasp of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin theory, and wrenches the plot into all sorts of odd shapes for something that only needs to be a mechanistic device. Or maybe he’s trying to say Kit really is unhinged… The film is based on a novel by Dorothy B Hughes – another of her books was adapted for the stunning In A Lonely Place, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

Maureen O’Hara is miscast as a mysterious European aristocrat – it’s just not her. Garfield, on the other hand, is terrific, especially in scenes with women and with the cops, and there’s some fine German Expressionist-influenced camera work from Nicholas Musuraca, who also shot The Cat People and the film a lot of people reckon is the best noir of all, Out Of The Past. All of which is enough to make this plenty enjoyable, if not quite as good as Garfield’s presence deserved.

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