Oliver Twist (1948)

May 3, 2009

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It’s difficult to know what to mention first- Lean’s masterfully clear narrative structure or Guinness’s incredible prosthetic nose (what is it about Lean putting Guinness in mad costumes?); Robert Newton’s eyeball-rolling losing-it-rapidly Bill Sykes or Guy Green’s wonderful almost Expressionistic camerawork; the atmospheric opening or the delicious scenery-eating of Francis L. Sullivan- this is a very rich film.  I love the performances, the pace, the storyline and dialogue (though most of the credit there goes Boz, obviously) but most of all I really love the look of the film.  The stark monochrome contrast and wonderfully deep set locations in scenes like Sykes’ rooftop escape or Twist’s flee through the London streets leave an indelible impression on the watcher.  This looks more like the London of Dickens’ novels than any film I’ve seen- it is authentic and haunting.

I don’t want to say too much, I want to surprise myself when I see it again.  Everyone knows the story but this retelling of it is still surprising. Superlative, better even than Lean’s Great Expectations.  10/10.

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Spellbound (1945)

March 28, 2009

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Hitchcock was such an ‘of-the-moment’ film-maker that there aren’t many who compare with him today in terms of using or risking their status to try and push the audience into new and uncomfortable territory.  Some of his work ends up being timeless as a result (Vertigo is a great example, North By NorthWest being another) and some is pretty badly dated.  Spellbound with its then novel and now well-worn themes of psychoanalysis and Freudian guilt falls into the latter category sadly.  I’m not sure that it’s really fair to judge a film on the basis of how well the basic premise has stood the passing of over six decades, how was Hitch to know that daytime TV would be filled wall-to-wall with cod-psychology and blithe misreadings of Freud and Jung reducing everyone to the role of pseudo-shrink?  That said, I am really only interested in how the film entertains or informs or affects me and so, fair or not, I’ll judge it on its merits in my opinion.  There’s probably a deep psychological meaning behind that too.

And Spellbound is very good, especially when it gets going.  The opening has been a little too successfully aped by Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety for me to be really swayed by it, sadly (High Anxiety by the way, is the opposite of Spellbound as it falters after a promising start).  Opening with Ingrid Bergman analysing the neurotic, misanthropic Mary Carmichael (played with relish as a latter day Countess Dracula by Rhonda Fleming) we learn about Bergman’s emotionless professionalism and you just know that her icy exterior is long overdue for being thawed by the right man.  At this point Gregory Peck enters the fray- it is a wonderful set-up, the only disappointment being that the on-screen chemistry between them doesn’t match that between her and Bogey or her and Cary Grant.  Now, you can be churlish and criticise the idea of them falling in love in less time than it takes me to choose what socks to wear on a given day, but what’s the point?  I just consider that you accept it and see where the movie takes you and- if it is a flop- use it as a stick to beat with later.  And so the scene where Peck and Bergman first meet sees them both in close-up; her in soft-focus him depicted with the hard lines of a real man, Miklós Rózsa strikes up the string section and the whole thing is sorted in the minds of the audience.  I would usually hate this but what I find forgivable about it- praiseworthy even- is that Hitchcock is simply getting the romantic interlude out of the way as efficiently as possible in order to get on with the thriller.  The scene proceeds to do just that as a neurotic and agitated Peck- who has already been depicted as “much younger than I imagined” and being very vague on the subject of his most recently published book- overreacts furiously to Bergman drawing a picture by tracing her fork upon the table linen.  There you go in one scene Bergman and Peck have fallen in love and Hitchcock has flattered the audience that they’re so smart knowing that he isn’t who he says he is.  Brilliant.

The plot proceeds apace, frosty analyst turned giddy schoolgirl Bergman is enraptured by Peck (has anyone in celluloid history attempted to say the word ‘liverwurst’ seductively before?) and they kiss in his room.  Now, I’m a little uncomfortable with one of Hitchcock’s conceits here- close-ups of his eyes and then her eyes are followed by a graphic of doors opening.  It’s all just a little too literal, or is because of the intervening years?  Have I been conditioned to demand more subtlety when that kind of pellucidity was precisely what contemporary audiences needed?  I’ll let it slide.

Right, so it becomes clear that not only is Gregory Peck not Dr Edwardes (odd spelling that) but that he may even have murdered Dr Edwardes and taken his place.  Peck disappears but leaves a note under Bergman’s door leading to a brilliant scene where several policemen and psychiatrists are standing just inside her doorway on the note which she can see but they haven’t yet noticed.  The tension is maintained superbly for what seems like an age before Bergman is able to retrieve the note- unbearably it is handed to her by Dr Murchison (Leo G. Carroll)- and follow Peck to a hotel in New York.  From there, in typical Hitchcock fashion, the chase is on.  Peck and Bergman are always- by design or by good fortune- half a step ahead of the police as she tries to break through his psychological blockages and prove his undoubted innocence (“I couldn’t love a man who is capable of such crimes” she says, well that’s all there is to it then).  At the same time Peck has no real belief in his innocence and while the audience can’t really believe he did it- he’s the hero for crying out loud- it is the most obvious and likely explanation for it all.  And to amplify that doubt Hitchcock shows us flashes of Peck’s temper, frames him with a cut-throat razor and a zombie-like stare and casts doubt upon his story left, right and centre.

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Bergman takes Peck to the home of her psychoanalytical mentor Dr Brulov (Michael Checkov, the best performer on show by a country mile) and while they wait for him to return with two strangers it becomes apparent that the men are policemen investigating the death of Edwardes.  Trapped, unable to even communicate both are struck dumb with terror as the policemen chat affably throwing their unease into even sharper contrast- it is the best sequence of the film- and the tension continues until Dr Brulov returns.  The policemen, it transpires, are unaware of Peck and Bergman’s supposed implication in the murder and are merely there to investigate the professional tension between Brulov and Edwardes which had almost escalated ino violence recently.  Now this is really clever, if this was a whodunnit the smart money would be straight on Brulov- especially when it becomes clear that he knows far more about Peck and Bergman’s arrival than he had initially indicated.  Seeing Peck with the razor Dr Brulov talks to him calmly and offers him a glass of milk.  He’s drugged him- with milk!  As if he was B.A. Baracus or something.  Brilliant.  “I ain’t getting on no psychoanalyst’s couch fool!”.

When Peck awakes, he recounts his dreams for the two Doctors to analyse and here we enter the most famous (and most unaccountably derided) sequence of the film- the Hitchcock/Dali dream sequence.  Okay, so a four year old could analyse the ‘hidden’ meanings (whoever could the mysterious ‘Proprieter’ be?) it doesn’t matter- what is important is the beauty of the sequence and, most importantly of all, the sheer chutzpah of its inclusion.  I’d defend this until my dying breath- if only more filmmakers had Hitchcock’s balls!

The climactic sequence of the film is filmed dramatically as Bergman desperately tries to undo her act of inadvertently convincing Peck and the policemen of his guilt- she is shown in stark monochrome uplit against dark backgrounds frenzied and hopeless.  And then, when all hope is lost, the truth falls into her lap by chance.  Agatha Christie once said “if you want to know who the murderer is in any crime novel, pick the most unlikely character.  He did it” and that holds true here.  Admittedly it isn’t the most unlikely person on screen, the fat cockney feller getting out of a lift in a brief cameo has absolutely no chance of reappearing, it is a convincing and plausible ending which gives Hitchcock an excuse for one last piece of bravura film-making, the big hand.

Oh it isn’t a perfect film, the ski-ing sequence (for example) is dreadfully executed and a lot of the great things here- especially the framing of Gregory Peck as a did-he didn’t-he murderer would be far better realised in Psycho but for the tension, for Rózsa’s great score (love that theremin work), for the brief-but-brilliant childhood memory sequence and for the breathless and intriguing narrative I loved it.  8/10

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Great Expectations (1946)

March 27, 2009

On his fourteenth birthday young Pip (Anthony Wager) informs the reclusive Miss Haversham (a great Martita Hunt cameo) that he can no longer visit her and play as he is now of age to be apprenticed to the blacksmith, his uncle the kinder-than-credible Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). Six years later, so the first-person narrative tells us, we see young Pip hard at work at the forge.  Young Pip, twenty years old at this point, is played by John Mills; a fine actor no doubt, but clearly middle-aged.  With that in mind it would be impossible for this film to be rated at 10/10 no matter what else happened- the casting of your central character is pretty bloody pivotal to the success of a film and the transition of Pip from a callow country lad to a snobbish city gentleman cannot be portrayed convincingly by a man in his forties no matter how fucking good an actor he is.

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But everything else in the film; every single other aspect is an absolute delight.  From the brooding and atmospheric churchyard opening- all creaking branches, angular trees in silhouette, dark shadows and a tremendously sinister convict on the run (Abel Magwitch played wonderfully by Finlay Currie)- to the closing sequence with Pip returning to the house where so many of the defining moments of his life have been played out (the voices from every corner) and his confrontation with the haunted Estella (Valerie Hobson) there isn’t a pause or a wasted moment. Remarkable.

I love Charles Dickens and I do get really precious about adaptations of his work- perhaps a bit unfairly- because they necessarily chop things from the text and as I love everything in the text I find myself grimacing.  Watchmen fans might have some sympathy with this.  But this adaptation, though it does strip out from the book (not least the Miss Haversham/Compeyson twist) simply feels comprehensive.  So much is included and, to make that possible, it moves at great pace- which I love- and the brilliant minor characters like Mr Wemmick and the Aged P, Herbert Pockett, Uncle Pumblechook, Bentley Drummle and Mr Jaggers all make the most of what little screen time they have.  It isn’t a case of peripheral actors hamming it up and hogging scenes either, Lean simply creates the opportunity for each of them to create a distinctive and interesting role.

Great Expectations also looks great.  I don’t know enough about cinematography to discuss his use of deep focus or back-lighting or all of the other technical things that may make it work, but I do know that it works.  The monochrome is made to work brilliantly, contrasting the gloom of Miss Haversham’s huge house with the bright homeliness that Joe and Pip share with Biddy.  I even loved the soundtrack, the way it enhanced the drama and injected humour in parts (the musical accompaniment to Mrs Joe calling for Pip and Joe to return is hilarious).  The up-tempo music accompanying Pip’s journey to London reflects his excitement and supports the unusually rapid cutting employed at that point to build that atmosphere of immature anticipation.

If only the twenty year old Pip wasn’t played by a man old enough to be his father this would be flawless, it’s still a strong 9/10 though.

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His Girl Friday (1940)

March 24, 2009

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It’s the sheer relentless pace of the film that astounds you.  The overlapping dialogue and fast-paced narrative leave you breathless as the scoop changes from minute to minute.  This is hilarious stuff.  The Coen Brothers, talented as they are, tried the same hectic screwball style with The Hudsucker Proxy– Jennifer Jason Leigh basically does a Rosalind Russell impression throughout- but came up well short of this level.  It’s a testament to the genius of Howard Hawks.

Suave as ever, even in a double-breasted suit that most men would look a chump in, Cary Grant plays newspaper editor Walter Burns the ex-employer and ex-husband of Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson.  She is to remarry Ralph Bellamy’s nice-but-dim insurance man Bruce Baldwin and drops by Grant’s office to tell him just as a big news story breaks.  This sets off a fantastical chain of events where everyone conspires and plots against everyone else all to get their big share of the pie- Grant has Bellamy thrown in prison three times in a day, Russell assists a death row prisoner in making sure that his insanity hearing sees him cleared, the Sheriff unwittingly helps the prisoner escape, Grant has Bellamy’s mother kidnapped, Russell hides the fugitive from the police, the Mayor and Sheriff (Clarence Kolb and Gene Lockhart) bribe a messenger to withhold the prisoner’s reprieve and order their men shoot to kill, newspaper men hounding a witness for information make her jump from a window…  So much happens so quickly and all of it is so unreal that considerations of taste and decency are irrelevant, this is suspension of disbelief time- an exaggeration, a distortion under the microscope.  When Cary Grant describes Bellamy to a girl he is sending to distract him with the words “he looks like that Hollywood actor, Ralph Bellamy” or says “the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach” (his own real name) then these are clear signals that it is all a big joke.  And it truly is great fun.  It isn’t a kind look at the journalistic trade (Russell says: “A journalist! Peeking through keyholes — running after fire engines — waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them if they think Hitler’s going to start a war — stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that got chased by apemen! I know all about reporters — a lot of daffy buttinskies going around without a nickel in their pockets, and for what? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives will know what’s going on!“) but it does make it all look such dastardly fun that you can’t help but envy them all their unscrupulousness, wit and camaraderie.  Howard Hawks could make road-sweeping look like a barrel of laughs!

The two lead performances are mesmerisingly good, Grant plays with great charm despite the frantic nature of his role and Russell is superb as the ballsy, headstrong ‘newspaper man’.  This is dynamite. The dialogue is fantastic and so pacey that you can barely pick up on it.  As the story breaks Grant is on the phone to his sub-editor to clear the front page “That’s what I said — the whole front page!  Never mind the European war!  We’ve got something a whole lot bigger than that… What Chinese earthquake?  I don’t care if a million people died, the deuce with it… Take the President’s speech and run it on the funny page … Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page too” it is hilarious stuff watching the whole thing spiral out of control with Grant and Russell continuing two, maybe three conversations at a time. The direction allows us to keep pace superbly- the plot is never confusing, the narrative is clear despite the breakneck speed and the sheer volume of characters involved.  A fantastic achievement.

Oh I loved it.  As Rosalind Russell says to Cary Grant “you’re wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way” – 10/10.


Rope (1948)

March 22, 2009

Having watched a good but disappointing Hitchcock, I followed it with an underrated one.  To reaffirm my faith in the bloke.  Or just to watch a great film, I suppose. Reputedly Rope is a film without cuts; a stage play filmed by a moving camera in real-time and that’s almost true.  But not quite.  There are eight ten minute takes neatly edited to look seamless.  I only spotted a couple of cuts – though I wasn’t especially watching for them- most notably on 33 minutes when a shot of John Dall cuts directly to James Stewart, which is the only one there’s no attempt to disguise.  But that’s most likely to do with the impossibility of filming the whole thing on one reel as opposed to any ‘cheating’.  The film does run in real-time and is, as near as makes any difference, a one camera one take film.  It’s a tremendous technical achievement in my eyes even with the odd trick.

And it’s simply so dramatic- from murder to conclusion in about eighty minutes of intense dialogue and psychological cat-and-mouse.  The impossibility of an unhappy ending in I Confess isn’t replicated here, there’s every chance that the protagonists of “the perfect crime” here may evade detection.  The tension, present from the opening death-scream, never relents.  Hitchcock marshalls the audience superbly in this film, ratcheting up the tension discretely- a pointed comment, a panicked look, the foregrounding of the cabinet and so on.  Truly this one goes right up to eleven.

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The protagonists whose attempt to commit that “perfect crime” are documented here are Farley Granger’s Philip Morgan who is completely under the spell of John Dall’s Brandon Shaw.  Shaw is himself besotted with James Stewart’s Rupert Cadell- the murder is done simply to impress him- and the whole thing is charged with an electric homo-eroticism.  Each of them clearly has something going with the other- whether a history or an infatuation- and their range of mannerisms (affectations would be a better word) are clearly intended to suggest homosexuality: Granger- five years on from his similarly homo-erotic relationship in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt– is sissyish, John Dall is preening and Stewart bitchy.  The play was, I understand, based on a real-life case involving homosexual partners and the original cast was to include Montgomery Clift (gay) and Cary Grant (reputedly bisexual) which would have made the matter even more blatantly obvious than the coded, allusive nature of it’s suggestion here- the dialogue about Dall and Stewart having both seen Granger ‘strangling a chicken’ would have been as risque as it was possible to get past the 1948 censors.

Aside from the nerve-jangling tension and the technical excellence (see the night sky become dusk before your eyes) and the intriguing undercurrents and the audacity of the whole project then, what has Rope got to offer?  Well, there is a fantastic Jimmy Stewart performance.  The keenness of Cadell’s intellect is obvious in every measured comment, every searching look, every pause in the dialogue and yet to see the certainty and arrogance he has displayed throughout crumble almost instantaneously during the climactic sequence is astonishing.  In a second you see the man’s world turned on its head.  Superb stuff.  John Dall (who couldn’t look more like Ben Affleck even with the help of CGI) and Farley Granger are also really good, but not in Stewart’s league.  The dialogue is fantastic, full of pointed lines (Kentley to the strangler Morgan: “these hands will bring you great fame” as he plays the piano, for example).  Also, while not being as densely layered as his absolute finest films like Rear Window, Vertigo or Psycho this still raises questions about the capacity for murder- the distinction between the mens rea and the actus reus if you like.

Really, it is a very interesting piece and deserves a much better reputation than just being an experiment in film-making, it is simply a fine film. 9/10

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Whisky Galore! (1949)

January 22, 2009

I’ve always felt that ‘Whisky Galore!’ gets a little unfairly overshadowed by ‘Kind Hearts And Coronets’ and ‘The Ladykillers’ in the Ealing canon.  They’re both marvellous movies but without the lightness of tone that makes this film- and ‘Passport To Pimlico’ to be fair- such perfect entertainment.  Alexander Mackendrick- who I lauded recently for his ‘Sweet Smell of Success‘- directs and the cast are on great form.  Especially Basil Radford as the uptight Englishman Captain Waggett who has great fun with lines like “They don’t do things for the sake of doing them like the English”. And where else will you see the wonderful James Robertson Justice as a Doctor who not only recommends that his bedridden patient smokes, but furnishes him with a pipe to do so when he learns that the patient has none?

One of the things that I really love about Ealing comedies, which this film demonstrates perfectly, is the way that they pit a small group of like-minded individuals against intransigent bureaucratic obstacles and see them come out on top.  The film generates a real sense of them and us with Captain Waggett as the pompous, blustering stuffed-shirt who follows a legally right, morally wrong path that leads him into conflict with the islanders with genuinely hilarious results.

And there’s that word- hilarious.  This film is at times laugh out loud funny- most famously in the narrated introduction where a description of the Island of Todday (where the film is set) recounts how there is no cinema and no music hall but describes the islanders as “A happy people, with few and simple pleasures” just as a family of about thirteen small children come running out of the house.

Charming, funny and genuinely heartwarming with interesting characters and great comic performances.  In many ways this is a perfect comedy movie, I absolutely adore it- 10/10.


Black Narcissus (1947)

January 12, 2009

An amazing film.  This is a true horror film.  It is a haunted house story, with the place of the ghosts taken by human fallibility. 

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is placed in charge of a newly-opened convent high in the Himalayas and the repsonsibility is clearly too great to bear from the outset.  Her responses are confused and well-meaning but desperate.  Once we begin to learn of her life before taking up her vows, it becomes clear that her faith is not as strong as might have been presumed.  Indeed of all of the Nuns, only Sister Briony (Judith Furse) appears to have the same faith and devotion at the end of the film that she did at the start.

The stand-out acting performance, though, is given by Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth- cracking under the pressure of her orders, the isolation and suppressed lust.  She is magnificent and, in a flash of her eyes at Sister Clodagh, registers so much hatred and jealousy that it speaks more than mere words could.

I specified that hers was the stand-out acting performance, as the stand-out performance here must surely go to cinematographer Jack Cardiff.  Using (well-designed) sets, he frames an epic film beautifully.

Powell and Pressburger have created here a dramatic, engrossing and thoroughly believable psychological thriller that is years ahead of contemporary standards of daring and innovation.  As the film progresses, each layer of intrigue builds relentlessly.  This is an absolute masterclass in film-making.

Like many great films, I’ve little doubt that this would improve with repeated viewings (even if some of the casually racist sentiments expressed by the characters are distasteful).  10/10.