Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

The Narrow Margin

Image result for 1952 the narrow margin

In an era of hundred-million dollar movies that suck, I increasingly appreciate the craft and inventiveness of filmmakers who quickly turned out high-quality films on a tight budget. To supplement my recommendations of B-movie gems like My Name is Julia Ross and Plunder Road, I hereby endorse a nail-biting noir with a no-name cast that was shot in two breathless weeks in 1950: The Narrow Margin.

Based on a story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard, with a screenplay by Earl Fenton, the movie has a simple, much copied plot premise: Police detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) has to make a perilous journey while protecting a former gun moll named Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor) so that she can testify against the mob. Far from being grateful, she’s mouthy, sleazy, and denigrating…why can’t she be more like the goodly wife and mother in the next train car who catches Brown’s eye (Jacqueline White)? And how will he manage the heavies on board who offer him silver or lead?

This film is a triumph for then unknown director Richard Fleischer, who pulled off two impressive feats at once. First, no real budget meant no real stars, yet he got strong performances from the cast end to end. Second, despite 90% of the film being set on a train, it’s consistently kinetic and arresting when it could easily have been stagy or dull.

Of the main performers, Marie Windsor, soon to be known as “The Queen of the Bs” makes the strongest impression as a sexy, tough, bad girl. On the surface her character is reminiscent of Vera as played by Ann Savage in another famous low-budget noir that Goldsmith wrote, Detour. But Frankie has more dimensions to her nature than did Vera, as revealed in an intriguing plot development well into the movie. Of the smaller parts, Peter Brocco stands out as a businesslike gangster.

George Diskant masterfully handles the technical challenges of shooting a picture in tight spaces (I also liked his work during the tense opening sequence as Frankie and Walter encounter an assassin before they get on board). Diskant spent his career almost entirely in television and never photographed an A-movie, which is too bad given his fine work here as well as in another well-shot low budget film, Kansas City Confidential (My recommendation here).

After completing this movie so quickly for RKO in 1950, it drove Fleischer crazy that legendary weirdo mogul Howard Hughes became obsessed with it and would not at first release it as shot. Hughes’ proposed changes included reshooting the whole movie over again with bigger stars in the lead parts! He finally relented in 1952. Well-received upon release, The Narrow Margin’s reputation has only grown since, earning the film a place in every discussion of the best movies ever made on a shoestring.

Image result for 1952 the narrow margin

p.s. Peter Hyams’ 1990 remake is an above-average film, but still a comedown from the original.

Categories
Comedy

The Castle

Image result for the castle 1997

The Australian coat of arms has an emu and a kangaroo upon it because neither animal ever takes a backwards step. That Australian spirit suffuses Director/Co-Writer Rob Sitch’s hilarious 1997 film The Castle.

The plot: Daryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton) is an honest, happy, tow truck driver who heads a close-knit family. He adores his wife Sal (Anne Tenney) and four children and takes tremendous pride in the rambling, partially completed house he built next to the airport, underneath power lines, and on top of some toxic waste. The Kerrigans’ serenity is shattered when the airport authority announces plans to expand the runway, forcing all the families in their neighborhood to sell their properties. Outraged by the threat to his home and family, Daryl teams with a third-rate lawyer (Tiriel Mora) to fight back, on the grounds that the forced sale violates “the whole vibe” of the Australian Constitution. It’s an uphill struggle against wealth and power, but before you can say deus ex machina, Daryl befriends a retired, kindly constitutional scholar (Bud Tingwell) who sees in the Kerrigans a cause worth fighting for.

No movie I watched during a year of COVID-inspired lockdown more thoroughly banished the blues than The Castle. In part it was how hard and loud and often it made me laugh. It was also the way it made me laugh. It’s pretty easy to make an audience laugh with surprisingly funny line. What Caton is so good at here is harder: Making the audience laugh even though it’s obvious what his funny line will be. If you saw Last Cab to Darwin, you know Caton can do heavyweight drama too, but here he shows comic timing and delivery at the Redd Foxx/Jeanne Stapleton/Bob Newhart level. Under Sitch’s direction, the rest of the cast acquits themselves nearly as well.

Abundant humor is only part of what makes this film so delightful: it’s also endearingly warm and upbeat. Daryl and his clan are inspiring in their ability to derive joy from simple things: a day trip to Bonnie Doon, their favorite television show, a bargain in the classified ads, or a decent meal. And most of all, they unreservedly love and admire each other. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to root for this family as they fight for what’s right.

The Castle is for many Australians the quintessential expression of their culture, and some national catchphrases flowed from the witty script. But it’s in no way culture-bound: I’ve spent less than 2 months of my life in Australia, and I appreciated every moment of this winning movie.

p.s. The Kerrigans would have appreciated the business aspects of this film. Shot in less than 2 weeks on a small budget, it was a smash hit in Australia that returned more than ten-fold its investment. What a bargain, and I’m not dreamin’.

p.p.s. Keep your eyes peeled for Bryan Dawe, half of the brilliant satirical team Clarke and Dawe.

Categories
British Drama

Last Orders

Last Orders (2001) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

How many movies have featured a group of old friends coming together and reflecting on their lives because one of their circle has died (e.g., The Big Chill, Husbands)? And how many times have Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Bob Hoskins, and David Hemmings portrayed British blokes like themselves who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths? And how many times has Hellen Mirren played an intelligent, sensual woman with a mixture of strength and vulnerability? Did writer/director Fred Schepisi really think audiences would fall for a movie that recycles all that for the umpteenth time? Bless his cotton socks, he did, and the result is a quiet cinematic gem from 2001 that deserved a bigger audience than it got: Last Orders.

The plot: Three long-time friends gather in their Bermondsey pub with the cremated ashes of their mutual friend Jack (Michael Caine). Jack was a butcher and the son of a butcher, who leaves behind his wife Amy (Helen Mirren) and his adopted son Vince (Ray Winstone), who refused to follow Jack into the family business and instead opened a car dealership. Amy and Jack’s also have another child, June (Laura Morelli), who was born with profound intellectual disabilities. Jack refused contact with her, but Amy has been dutifully visiting her daughter at a group home once a week for 50 years. Jack left instructions for his ashes to be scattered into the ocean at Margate. Amy doesn’t wish to go, so his four friends set off without her, with Vince driving them in a Mercedes from his lot. The friends are Ray (Bob Hoskins) who served with Jack in World War II and has a talent for picking horses, Vic (Tom Courtenay) who runs a funeral home with his sons, and Lenny (David Hemmings) a boozy and somewhat irascible ex-boxer whose daughter Sally (Claire Harman) was long ago wooed and then abandoned by Vince. As the men travel to fill Jack’s last request, we learn about their lives through their interchanges at various stops along their journey as well as from flashback scenes of their younger selves.

Schepisi did a remarkable job fashioning this script from Graham Swift’s novel, incorporating just enough remembered and experienced action and conflict to keep this from becoming dull and overly talky. He was aided immeasurably by his experienced acting ensemble, who evidence that characteristic British willingness to share the stage that American movie stars often lack. Each uses the time Schepisi gives them to create a believable character with defects and virtues. The younger performers in the flashback scenes are also fine; casting director Patsy Pollock deserves credit for finding newcomers who look remarkably like the older stars. Brian Tufano’s cinematography and Paul Grabowsky’s music are also significant assets.

Last Orders (2002) - Rotten Tomatoes

Schepisi delves into existential questions about love, family, trust, betrayal, grief, and friendship but to his credit he doesn’t offer pat answers. Some people’s lives (e.g. Vic’s) work out pretty well for them and theirs, others (e.g., Lenny’s) far less so, and in the end we don’t really know why. Marriages can be terribly disappointing in some ways and extremely enriching in others. People can love each sincerely yet also let each other down. And through it all, we have keep buggering on.

I appreciated this movie as an affecting drama, but also admired it as a piece of sociological history: it’s a vivid adumbration of how a particular generation of British men of a particular social class travelled through life. And who better to bring this across than Caine, Courtenay, Hemmings, and Hoskins, who opened up British acting to lads who weren’t born to the purple?

p.s. Some Americans too whom I have recommended this film struggled to make out some of the accented dialogue, so if that’s likely to be a challenge for you, you may wish to stream it with English subtitles.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Horror/Suspense

Seven Days to Noon

I make no secret of my disdain for flabby filmmaking. Many modern movies (e.g., almost every superhero movie of recent years) would be significantly better with a merciless edit of tiresome exposition, distracting subplots, saggy scenes, wordy dialogue, soulless CGI, and other forms of artistic bloat. I can hear the whines already “But I need that 30 minutes to show how the hero’s motivation goes back to his childhood trauma, to explain that his energy blaster works on the principle of microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, and to have the authority figure character explain what the film is really about in his closing speech”. Stuff and nonsense. When films had smaller budgets and shorter shooting schedules, their makers were more economical in their storytelling by necessity, but the result was better rather than worse cinema. If you want a demonstration of that principle as well as an utterly gripping cinematic experience, check out the 94 thrilling minutes of fat-free brilliance in Seven Days to Noon.

Based on an Oscar-winning story by Paul Dehn and James Bernard, this 1950 film has a simple and terrifyingly realistic premise: a once-reliable military scientist could lose his head and decide to steal a powerful weapon. Said scientist, Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones, offering a compelling mix of threat and vulnerability), believes he can promote world peace by threatening to set off a powerful bomb in the heart of London in seven days if the government doesn’t renounce weapon building. A dedicated member of Special Branch (the ever sturdy Andre Morell) recruits Willingdon’s daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) to aid him as he coordinates a national manhunt. But Willingdon is a crafty adversary, and hides in plain sight by taking rooms under an assumed name with a brassy London actress (a terrific Olive Sloane). Nail biting suspense and existential themes follow.

Seven Days to Noon (1950) - Cinema Cats

Roy Boulting and Frank Harvey’s tight script combined with the Brothers’ Hitchcock-level use of pure cinema, make this a truly breathless thriller, one of many that would channel post-war nuclear anxieties. The hero has no backstory because he doesn’t need one. The precise mechanics of the McGuffin are never laid out – it’s a bomb and we all know what a bomb is, so why bother? Willingdon doesn’t really explicit his motives until 75 minutes in, and even then there’s not an excess word in them. And many plot developments unfold entirely through a series of images or through effective quoting of superstar composer-to-be John Addison’s first score. At times it feels like watching the best of the silents, and I mean that as the highest of compliments.

The Boultings avoided casting big stars, used some real locations, included colorful snippets of Londoners, and did not tart up the sets to look like anything more than battered, post-war London (Similar to what Sir Carol Reed had done the year before in Vienna while making The Third Man). This at times gives the movie, particularly the daytime scenes, the feel of Italian neorealism or an American police docudrama. But with its air of impending doom and Gilbert Taylor’s night time cinematography, it at other times has a more stylized, film noir feel. Of Taylor’s many arresting visuals, I will not forget any time soon the shots of Willingdon praying alone on his knees in a bomb-shattered cathedral. The realistic and stylized elements work together beautifully, recalling another brilliant “dangerous man on the run” movie from this period, He Walked by Night (recommended here).

I have recommended the Boulting Brothers’ tough film noir Brighton Rock and their sidesplitting I’m All Right Jack, but for me, their most remarkable achievement remains Seven Days to Noon. This film riveted me and at other times made me say “Wow” out loud. That the Boultings could make such different movies so skillfully is why they, while less famous than the legendary Powell and Pressburger, rank among the best British filmmaking partnerships of the 20th century.

Seven Days to Noon Blu-ray Release Date November 5, 2019

p.s. Gilbert Taylor lived to be nearly 100 and nearly three decades after this, was the cinematographer for Star Wars.

Categories
Action/Adventure

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure

Many film critics, directors, and actors have been asked in interviews to discuss their “guilty pleasures” meaning movies they liked but “really shouldn’t have” because they didn’t raise deep existential questions, explore morally elevated themes, or break new technical or artistic ground. Pretentious codswallop, that. No one should feel guilty about having a good time watching a movie whose sole purpose is to make two hours of life more pleasant. In that spirit, I once recommended the giant spider sci-fi flick Tarantula and will now endorse another think-free Saturday afternoon matinee: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.

Little-known producer Sy Weintraub had a penchant for breathing new life into classic adventure series. In the 1980s, he made worthy television adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories starring the magnificent Ian Richardson (The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles). Prior to that, he made a sustained, largely successful effort to class up the hoary Tarzan movie franchise with bigger budgets, better scripts, first-rank actors, and on location filming. This included letting Tarzan do something he did in the books but not in films of the 1930s and 1940s: speak in complete sentences! Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, made in 1959, was the first of Wentraub’s tarted up Tarzan films and is arguably the best.

Tarzan's Greatest Adventure | Trailers From Hell

The very simple plot: Kenyan villages are being terrorized by a ruthless gang of British and German diamond seekers led by a tough career criminal named Slade (Anthony Quayle). After a violent raid during which Slade’s men steal gelignite, Tarzan (Gordon Scott) bravely sets out alone to bring them to justice. Under pressure from The Ape Man as well as their own greed and envy, the gang tries to stop feuding with each other long enough to defeat our hero. A chase up a mighty river, well-staged action sequences, and intrigue ensue.

Realism is obviously not at a premium here. Diamond mines are strangely well-lighted, the stock footage of African animals will not fool anyone, and everyone’s hair stylist is apparently just off-camera. But you came for thrills, not cinéma vérité, and director/co-writer John Guillermin’s movie consistently delivers on that score. The sequences where Tarzan traps the villains’ boat with falling trees as well as the climactic battle between him and Slade are particularly well constructed and executed. And devotees of the series get their full quota of Tarzania, e.g., vine swinging, crocodile wrestling, and jungle tracking. It’s also welcome that the bad guys are white Europeans out to rape the continent of its resources instead of being backward, violent, African stereotypes as in some of the earlier movies.

GREAT OLD MOVIES: TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE

Weintraub’s investment in name actors paid off particularly well in the case of Quayle, who is physically imposing enough to be a believable combatant for Tarzan while also being intelligent enough to create a rounded character. Slade is domineering in some respects, but overly lenient in others, and the revelation of his complex motives helps keep the viewer engaged. As an ex-Nazi, Niall MacGinnis gives a strong supporting performance (as usual, see my recommendations 49th Parallel and Curse of the Demon) as he artfully stirs up conflict among the gang for his own purposes.

The film also benefits from embracing the erotic vibe of the series, which has been present from its pre-Hays Code commencement. Boys in the 1930s fantasized about being Tarzan, but their sisters and mothers were thinking their own thoughts about sweating, loin cloth wearing beefcakes like Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, while, according to Michael Caine’s autobiography, Maureen O’Sullivan cast her own lust-inducing spell on the audience. Without ever lapsing into tastelessness, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure follows in that tradition, with the physical powerhouse Gordon Scott as Tarzan, a young Sean Connery as the villainous O’Bannion, the exotic Scilla Gabel as Slade’s lover, and the elegant Sara Shane as Angie Loring, a spunky aviatrix who wants to monkey around.

So throw away your thinking cap, relax in your easy chair, and enjoy this exciting, entertaining film, which could leave you yelling “Aahuaaa uaaa uaaaaaaaa!”

Tarzan's Greatest Adventure | Trailers From Hell

Categories
British Comedy

School for Scoundrels

Film - School For Scoundrels - Into Film

As an ex-academic, BBC comedy writer, and member of The Savile Club, Stephen Potter had ample opportunity to observe all the ways British culture provided to “win without cheating”: the perfectly timed cough when your golf opponent is about to tee off, the lightly dismissive remark that flusters a fellow diner in the midst of his lengthy anecdote, the artful humblebrag that reduces listeners to simpering admiration. It’s all part of what we now call “gamesmanship”, a neologism Potter popularized in 1947 in the first of several best-selling parodies of self-help books. In 1960, Hal Chester, Patricia Moyes, Frank Tarloff, and Peter Ustinov (the latter two uncredited) fashioned Potter’s works into the script for a quintessentially British comedy: School for Scoundrels.

The plot: Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael, made for these sorts of roles) is the ineffectual inheritor of his father’s company. Though Henry is ostensibly the boss, his employees do not respect him, and neither for that matter does anyone else. His life as a polite doormat takes a sudden turn when something very good literally falls into his path: the utterly lovely and charming April Smith (a winsome Janette Scott). But he soon has a romantic rival in the form of ultra-smooth cad Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas, made for those sorts of roles), who dazzles April and consistently gets the better of Henry. In desperation, Henry enrolls in a “School of Lifemanship” overseen by Headmaster S. Potter (ahem). This cynical, crafty instructor (Alastair Sim, always a joy) teaches Henry gamesmanship, oneupmanship, and woomanship. Thus fortified, he returns to seek revenge on Raymond and win April’s heart.

A British Cinema Blog | William hartnell, Sims, Scoundrel

The director’s credit for this little comic gem reads Robert Hamer, who made the hilarious Kind Hearts and Coronets as well as a trend-setting noirish kitchen sink drama I recommended, It Always Rains on Sunday. Unfortunately, by 1960 his alcoholism was out of control and he was fired in the middle of this film. He never directed again and died a few years later. Hal Chester and Cyril Frankel are said to have to directed the remaining scenes.

Having three directors would ruin most movies. But the professionalism and experience of the cast shines through despite at all, with all the leads doing well, especially Terry-Thomas in perhaps the best performance of his career. The talented supporting players include many staples of British comedy such as John Le Mesurier, Hattie Jacques, Irene Handl, Dennis Price, and Peter Jones.

The other enormous virtue is the mordant script which sets up numerous funny scenes in which characters find ingenious ways to get the edge on each other. The humor is sometimes farcical and at other times subtle, a mix that may not be to all tastes but that I found most pleasing. If not at the level of the most lauded British post-war comedies, School for Scoundrels still delivers many laughs as well as a surprisingly sweet romantic resolution.

p.s. Janette Scott is the daughter of British television legend Dame Thora Hird.

Categories
Action/Adventure Romance

The Sea Hawk

The Sea Hawk (1940) - Turner Classic Movies

There’s an old jibe that “They don’t make movies in Hollywood, they remake them”. But sometimes they remake them so bloody well that audiences can’t help but stand up and cheer (see for example my recommendation of the Casablanca recycle job To Have and Have Not). A pluperfect example is the 1940 swashbuckler The Sea Hawk.

Let me clarify what was really being remade. Rafael Sabatini’s novel had been filmed before under the same name in 1924. That silent classic featured purpose built, full size replicas of battling sailing ships that were so realistic that they were spliced into many subsequent movies, including this one. But the origin of the 1940 adaptation of The Sea Hawk lies with a 1935 adaptation of a different Sabatini book, Captain Blood (my recommendation here). That film made Errol Flynn a superstar and Warner Brothers a mint, so they immediately planned to rework roughly the same story elements into a new pirate movie again starring Flynn, co-starring Basil Rathbone (though he declined the role), and directed by Michael Curtiz. The studio had a script draft as early as 1936, but Flynn was committed to a long line of films at that point, a number of them directed by Curtiz (including my recommendation The Adventures of Robin Hood). It was thus several years before Flynn and Curtiz could make The Sea Hawk, but it was well worth the wait.

The Sea Hawk streaming: where to watch movie online?

The plot: Unlike Captain Blood, in which Flynn starts out as a slave, becomes a notorious pirate, and then has a climactic tussle with his enemies, in this film he starts out as a notorious pirate, becomes a slave, and then has a climactic tussle with his enemies. Also unlike Captain Blood, in which he had an achingly unconsummated extended flirtation with a beautiful, high-born, English woman, in this film the woman is only half-English. You get the idea.

More seriously, there is one big difference between the two films, which resulted from the start of World War II. In the Sea Hawk, Hitler is thinly veiled as the King of Spain, a ruthless seeker of global domination. And in the movie’s best performance, Dame Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth gives a rousing speech about defending freedom that could have come out of Churchill’s mouth.

The Sea Hawk (1940) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

Brenda Marshall plays the love interest this time around, but the film didn’t launch her to stardom as did Olivia De Havilland’s pairings with Flynn (Though one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors, William Holden, clearly took notice: they married the following year). Marshall isn’t given a lot to do beyond looking lovely. If you want to see a movie where she gets a chance to show off her acting ability, check out my recommendation Strange Impersonation.

Claude Rains and Henry Daniell fare better as a couple of rotters, each played in their signature style, more charming for the former and more menacing for the latter. In the part that Rathbone declined, Daniell is just as good except that he couldn’t fence at all (Rathbone was a master swordsman). A double was smoothly spliced in for his extended duel with Flynn and it works just fine.

As for Flynn, he’s okay here but seems a tad less energetic than he was only a few years before; perhaps his health, never as good as the publicity machine made Americans believe, was starting to fade. But he certainly has enough gusto to keep the audience engaged, and he gets expert supporting help from many solid character actors, including Alan Hale, Una O’Connor, and Gilbert Roland.

Of course a swashbuckler lives and dies by its action scenes, and The Sea Hawk’s are epic in scope and brilliantly executed. The big budget shows as does the ability of the autocratic Curtiz to get armies (er, navies) of actors to do his bidding. Cannons boom, swords flash, buccaneers swarm, and ships cavort on the high seas. The Sea Hawk is a ripsnorting adventure, the fact that it was another trip to the same well notwithstanding.

p.s. My recommendation is based on the 127 minute version. Shorter versions sometimes appear on television.

p.p.s. In case you are tempted to adjust your screen settings, the sepia tint in the scenes in Panama was in the original film.

Categories
British Comedy

I’m All Right Jack

I'm All Right Jack (1959) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

The hit British comedies of the 1950s and 1960s don’t age consistently well. Just about everything from Ealing Studios holds up today, but outside of that, it’s hit or miss. I don’t doubt that the The Knack…and How to Get it and the comedy-drama Billy Liar made audiences roar with laughter at the time (at least to the extent British audiences ever roar with laughter), but for me at least, they don’t generate more than the occasional smile. In contrast, I laughed out loud repeatedly while watching the film that was number one at the British box office in 1959: I’m All Right Jack.

Based on Alan Hackney’s comic novel, the film stars Ian Carmichael effectively playing (what else?) a well-meaning innocent baffled by the people and world around him. His Stanley Windrush is a kind but rather useless upper-class chap who longs for a meaningful job after his father (Miles Malleson) retires to a nudist colony. Following a series of amusingly disastrous job enquiries, Stanley’s uncle and two old army friends (Charming rogues Dennis Price, Richard Attenborough, and Terry-Thomas) get him a factory job. His Aunt Dolly (that acting treasure, Dame Margaret Rutherford) is none too keen on Stanley mingling with the working class, but he enthusiastically plows forward nonetheless. His work ethic at the factory, far from being appreciated, generates a furious reaction from shop steward Fred Kite (Peter Sellers) and his fellow work-to-rule layabouts. Stanley is not sure he’s cut out for life in a unionized workplace, until he meets Fred’s curvaceous daughter Cynthia (Liz Fraser) who toils in the plant as (cough) a spindle polisher. Hilarious machinations by slimy corporate executives, soft-headed labor activists, and a romantically inclined Stanley ensue.

Carry On Blogging!: Carry On Faces in Different Places: I'm All Right Jack

In the 1950s, Peter Sellers was a radio star from The Goon Show, but had only played small parts in movies (e.g., The Lavender Hill Mob). At the decade’s close his cinematic career suddenly went into orbit with the release of The Mouse That Roared and I’m All Right Jack. Verbally and visually, he’s as funny as you would expect here, but he also creates a complete character. His Fred Kite is forceful and confident outside the home but lost and helpless within it, with a wife (Irene Handl) and daughter who run rings around him. Sellers also appears as Sir John in a funny opening bit unrelated to the main story, presaging a number of other films in which he skillfully played multiple parts.

I'm All Right Jack review – Philip French on the Boulting brothers' biting  state-of-the-nation satire | DVD and video reviews | The Guardian

This light-hearted film was made by the Boulton Brothers, and is a million miles from their famously nasty 1947 noir Brighton Rock (my recommendation here). Beginning in the 1950s, they made a series of popular comedies lampooning the British Establishment (e.g., academia, the military, the legal profession). The brothers were committed socialists, but clearly not of the pious and scowling sort: I’m All Right Jack satirizes trade unions as effectively as any movie in British cinema history (not that management is spared a skewering). With lines like “We can’t concede the principal that a worker should be fired for incompetence, that’s victimization” this film feels a bit like a precursor to Monty Python’s immortal People’s Front of Judea. The Boultons were particularly gifted at overtly lionizing institutions while implicitly making them ridiculous, as in the sequences here that mime the self-serious “British industry leads the way!” style narration used in newsreels of the period.

p.s. This is actually a sort of sequel to Private’s Progress, a prior Boulton Brothers adaptation of Alan Hackney’s writings in which Carmichael, Price, Thomas, Malleson, and Attenborough all played the same characters. It’s an entertaining flick, but I’m All Right Jack surpasses it.

Categories
Drama

Body and Soul

Body and Soul (1947) John Garfield , Anne Revere, Film Noir, | Film noir,  John garfield, Iconic movies

Many fine movies have been set in and around the boxing ring. Most of them borrow from the subgenre’s touchstone: Body and Soul.

The hero of this 1947 classic is up-from-nothing Charley Davis (John Garfield), a scrappy boxer looking for a shot at the championship. Unfortunately, that means throwing in with the criminals who control the whole rotten enterprise and exploit everyone in it. As celebrity and money go to his head, Charley is drawn away from the decent values and people from his old neighborhood and towards the glamorous but amoral people who spend their lives in society’s upper echelons. Charlie thinks he is on top of the world. But then the bosses order him to throw a big fight so that they can cash in by betting against him, pushing Charlie to the point of emotional and ethical crisis.

This movie suffers a bit in the same way as many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films: Its elements have been aped so many times in subsequent movies that they may come across to modern viewers as clichéd. But try to get past that unfair but understandable reaction and feast yourself on a sharply-written, unforgettably photographed and acted piece of cinema.

The rewards for viewers are many. Garfield is superb as Charley, bringing alive his character’s mix of toughness and boyish vulnerability. It’s a complex performance of impressive maturity from a fairly young actor (who unfortunately never got to become an old one, he died just a few years later). Abraham Polonsky’s memorable script creates a triangle around Charley, with the other two points being strong, well-rounded female characters: Charley’s long suffering fiance Peg and his mother, Anna. These roles are brilliantly essayed by Lili Palmer and Anna Revere, respectively. In particular, the scenes of the three of them together in Anna’s house are absolutely riveting. These confrontations are also beautifully blocked and lit as the three performers move from the kitchen in the foreground to the small bedroom in the background which has a window where there really ought to be a wall (Unrealistic architecture, but the effect is so striking that you will not care).

Wrap Shot: Body and Soul - The American Society of Cinematographers

This film is also justly legendary as a showcase for my favorite cinematographer, James Wong Howe. The boxing scenes are astonishing in their vividness (Robert Parrish and Francis Lyon’s Oscar-winning editing is priceless). Until I saw the above photo I wondered if it were just a Hollywood legend that Howe shot them on rollerskates! Howe also shines outside the ring, given the viewer a gritty, realistic cityscape in which this dark story unfolds.

Although on the surface this movie is of course about pugilism, at a deeper level it’s about low-income outgroups (Jews and Blacks) trying to make good in a corrupt, oppressive and money-grubbing system. Virtually everyone involved in the production were members of the hard left and would soon be persecuted by McCarthyites as a result. But they had a free hand here for their pro-underdog politics, and they pulled no punches.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Tightrope

Tightrope (1984) - Moria

Long before Louisiana started offering massive tax credits to attract Hollywood productions, the state was a popular setting for crime dramas. Some played off the haunting atmosphere of the bayous (e.g., the mediocre adaptations of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, Heaven’s Prisoners and In the Electric Mist) whereas others were built around New Orleans’ pervasive corruption (e.g., The pretty good Dennis Quaid-Ellen Barkin romance/thriller, The Big Easy). The underappreciated 1984 Clint Eastwood vehicle Tightrope effectively exploits (in every sense) a different local cultural feature, namely the sleazier side of the sex trade that has existed in New Orleans long before Storyville because a synonym for a red light district.

The plot: Police detective Wes Block (Clint) has been unmoored since his wife abandoned him and his daughters (Jenny Beck and Clint’s real life daughter, Alison). Loving and attentive with his daughters by day, at night Block has for reasons that he can’t fully understand begun visiting prostitutes that he can sexually dominate. Block’s psychological turmoil takes on new dimensions when he is assigned to catch a serial killer who takes his fetish to deadly extremes. Meanwhile, a strong, intelligent, women’s rights advocate (Geneviève Bujold) pressures Block to respond more effectively to the threat the killer poses, and unnerves him in other ways as well. A brutal crime story and descent into emotional darkness follow.

The “cop in crisis” has been done a million times before, and is usually short-handed in a fashion that will not alienate the audience, most commonly by showing him drinking too much. “We are not so very different, you and I” is another movie staple, for example showing that both the lead police investigator and the master criminal are both smart, obsessive people. If that’s all this film had done, it would have been a serviceable but unremarkable crime drama. What makes Tightrope special is Clint Eastwood’s willingness to challenge his millions of fans by having his character wallow in muck: He’s not just drinking too much, he’s handcuffing prostitutes so that he can control them during sex. And he’s not similar to the killer only because both are smart and obsessive, but because both of their heads are psychosexual snake pits. The only parallel level of risk taking by a major international star I know of along these lines is Sean Connery’s stellar work in another of my recommendations, The Offence.

The legendary William Goldman said that a basic rule of screenwriting was that “stars will not play weak and they will not play blemished.” But every rule has exceptions. Going as far back as the flawed but intriguing 1971 film The Beguiled continuing through the multi-Oscar winning Unforgiven and up to the present day (e.g., Gran Torino, The Mule) Eastwood has never been afraid to “play blemished.” That’s a key reason why his career has been so much more artistically varied and impressive than all those Hollywood actors who only portrayed strong-jawed paladins.

Tightrope (1984) – 80's Movie Guide

The other thing that raises this film about countless other police thrillers are the female characters and the high level at which they are written and performed. Alison Eastwood isn’t just the star’s kid, she’s a fine actress and her scenes with her father have authentic emotional power. They also fill out the character of Wes Block by showing that while he’s not different from the killer in having hostile feelings towards women, he is quite different in also experiencing more tender emotions towards them. Bujold, who appeared in too few films for an actress of her talent, is also excellent here. Because she is strong enough to vulnerable with Block, and sees his own fear of being hurt, she gets under his skin in a way nothing else does. I also love that rather than portraying her as a damsel in distress, the script makes her heroic in her direct confrontation with the killer.

Richard Tuggle’s script has a few missteps here and there but is generally first-rate, putting a fresh spin on the tropes of the genre. He also got the screen credit for director, but this sure looks and feels like an Eastwood film. According to Richard Shickel’s biography of Eastwood, Tuggle had never directed a movie before and was extremely tentative on set, leading Tuggle and Eastwood to amicably work out a co-directing arrangement. Whatever precisely happened in that regard, the result is compelling.

Reaction to Tightrope was mixed when it played in theaters, with some people finding it too seedy and dark (literally and figuratively) but others appreciating the strong acting and neo-noir tone. I am very much in the latter camp, and would put Tightrope up there with Bronco Billy as Eastwood’s best work of the 1980s.