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Action/Adventure British

Treasure Island

Yarrrrrrrrrr! Movie pirates didn’t have heavy West Country accents before Robert Newton’s famous turn as Long John Silver in the 1950 version of Treasure Island. Disney’s first-ever live action film is aimed squarely at school age boys, but is also pleasant for grown-ups to revisit on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The film’s production values hold up well even 60 odd years on, and, while even older, R. L. Stevenson’s 1883 story (with some amendments) retains its charm and excitement even for modern audiences.

The story opens with young Jim Hawkins tending the bar in his mother’s inn (She herself nor any other significant female character appears in the film, so we are truly in boyland here). In comes Black Dog, a menacing Pirate in search of Captain Billy Bones, who is hiding out at the inn. After Black Dog leaves, Billy Bones gives young Jim a treasure map and tells him to flee before the pirates return. Jim confides in two honorable adults, Squire Trelawny and Dr. Livesy. Our heroes set sail in search of pirate treasure, not realizing that the old sea dog they have hired as the cook is the dread Long John Silver, and most of the crew are his own bloodthirsty band of brigands! Thems that die’ll be the lucky ones, arrrrhh!!! Adventure, thrills and some welcome moments of humor and humanity ensue.

Treasure Island - Is Treasure Island on Netflix - FlixList

The emotional heart of the film are Long John Silver (Robert Newton) and Jim Hawkins (Bobby Driscoll). The good adults led by Squire Trelawny are uniformly noble and brave, the pirates (other than Long John) are uniformly nasty and craven. With that as a flat background, Silver and Hawkins really come to life. Long John is the only adult of complex character in the story, being in some ways cunning and greedy but in other respects moral and kind. And because Jim is the only character who travels between the worlds of the oh-so-good-heroes and the oh-so-evil pirates, he becomes a finely shaded character too, particularly as he learns to appreciate that his sometimes-friend Silver is neither a thoroughgoing villain nor a worthy role model.

Newton’s flavourful acting makes this film hum and is worthy of admiration. A less professional actor would have condescended to only a half-hearted or one-dimensional performance, seeing a “children’s film” as beneath him. But Newton goes all in, bless his cotton socks. He will likely always be cinema’s iconic Long John Silver and Silver will certainly always be his most famous role even though he turned in many strong performances in his career (e.g., as Bill Sykes in David Lean’s fine adaptation of Oliver Twist). Newton never makes Silver so evil that the audience can just hate him outright (as hammier actors have in other adaptations of Stevenson’s novel), but neither does he minimize the cruel aspects of the character that make him scary and thereby provide much of the tension of the story.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

The Long Good Friday

British film director John “Frenzy” Mackenzie directed another of my recommendations, Unman, Wittering and Zigo, but will be best remembered for the thrilling, brutal gangster classic, The Long Good Friday.

Many American viewers struggle with the opening scenes of this 1980 film because the slang comes fast and some of the Cockney accents are thick. Also, the film’s only significant flaw is that its opening scenes are confusing as characters and plot elements are thrown at the viewer one after the other in overly rapid succession. (Indeed, even at the end, as with The Big Sleep, it is hard to tie up every loose end in your mind).

But you will forget all that the moment that Bob Hoskins arrives — or rather, explodes — onto the scene accompanied by Francis Monkman’s pulsating score. As mobster Harold Shand, Hoskins dominates his scenes, projecting power, ambition and the ever-present threat of violence. And he’s far more interesting than the typical mobster in that he fantasizes about being a captain of legitimate industry. Seeing his speech about the planned development of the Canary Wharf area as his boat moves down the Thames, his head framed perfectly by the Tower Bridge in the background, is like watching James Cagney play Margaret Thatcher.

Helen Mirren in The Long Good Friday (1980)

The other thing that makes Harold interesting is that his gun moll is no dim-witted tart, even though her part was written that way in the original script. Helen Mirren is at her very best as the smarter, classier half of the criminal couple at the center of the movie. Thankfully the filmmakers realized that casting Mirren just for her looks would have been a gross under utilization of her intelligence and acting skills. She has a meaty, fascinating part and she makes the most of it.

As the film opens, Harold is trying to launch a legitimate business empire but is thwarted when his criminal empire suddenly comes under attack. But by whom? He has already killed everyone who could take him on, right? Or has he somehow created a powerful new enemy?

This is the best British gangster film since Get Carter and it’s even better the second time through once you understand the labyrinthine plot. Note for trivia fans: this was Pierce Brosnan’s first film – he had no lines and didn’t even meet the stars (He’s looking at the camera in the back seat, not Hoskins, in those knockout final scenes).

p.s. Like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, this film only made it to theaters through the support of rock legend George Harrison!

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama Mystery/Noir

Get Carter

How appealing an actor is Sir Michael Caine? Put it this way: While watching him play Colonel Steiner in The Eagle Has Landed, a lot of otherwise sensible film goers find themselves rooting for the Nazis.

In the classic 1971 Brit gangster film, Caine’s likability and magnetism are in full flower, as he somehow makes us care about and even identify with Jack Carter, a thoroughly nasty mob enforcer bent on revenge. In the dreamlike opening of the film, we learn that Carter works for some sleazy, Kray-esque London crime lords who discourage him from investigating the death of his brother in Newcastle. Jack wasn’t close to his brother — indeed as the film progresses we find out he treated his brother horribly — yet something in Jack can’t accept his sibling’s mysterious death.

He heads to Newcastle on his own, a very risky proposition given the rough criminals who run the city (led by John Osborne — yes THAT John Osborne, in a quirkily effective performance). But it’s no more risky than seducing and planning to run off with his boss’ girlfriend (A stunning and believable Britt Ekland), which Carter is also doing as he tries to determine how and why his brother died. Indeed, Carter seems drawn to danger: The more threats he receives to drop his investigation the more determined he becomes to pursue it to its conclusion.

Carter also has to contend with an old rival named Eric (Ian Hendry). As a Newcastle criminal with “eyes like piss holes in the snow”, Hendry well portrays a mixture of fear and loathing of Carter, which is apparently what he felt for Caine. On the set, Hendry was sometimes drunk and openly bitter about Caine’s greater success as a star, and those emotions come out to advantage in the two men’s performances.

The other star of this film is the City of Newcastle, which is dear to me both because I lived there and because I grew up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at a time when it too was a struggling industrial city on the skids. Newcastle is bleak and tough, but also has character and spirit. The feeling Geordies have for Get Carter is remarkable. A group of them even tried to stop the city from tearing down an old car park because it appeared in one of the movie’s many memorable confrontations (photo above) between Carter and the gangsters of Newcastle.

A young Mike Hodges came out of nowhere to brilliantly direct this gritty and involving film, one of only two great movies he made in his long and uneven career (the other is Croupier). Many directors would have overdone the violent scenes, but Hodges clearly understood that fewer and less graphic scenes actually have more impact, especially with a star like Michael Caine who can go from controlled cool to pure savagery and back at the drop of a hat. It makes his character, and the film, fraught with electrifying menace.

The clip I am posting is not strictly speaking a trailer. Rather, it’s the great Roy Budd playing his super-cool theme music, accompanied with scenes from the movie. If you have seen the film before, look fast for an important co-passenger on the train with Carter as he heads north.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

If I were BBC Director-General, and had been granted only 24 broadcast hours to make the case to the nation and its elected officials that my organisation was capable of greatness, I would immediately fill the first 315 minutes of my schedule with 1979’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

This is what a television mini-series can do that is virtually impossible in the movie theater: Tell a long, complex, intimate story over a series of episodes that hang together, and in which the audience being forced to wait for the resolution adds to the exquisite tension of the tale. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is also the apotheosis of what BBC can do better than any other organisation when it sets its mind to it: Trawl through the British theater for stage-trained, perfectly cast actors to play parts large and small, give them a quintessentially British script, and spend a TV-level budget in just the right way to get the sets and production that are “tailor made” (sorry, couldn’t pass that up) for the story. The result is BBC television magic.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy | From I, Claudius to This Country: the ...

The plot: The aging head of the British Secret Service, dogged by a series of espionage failures and declining health, sends out a trusted agent on a mission to Czechoslovakia that will help smoke out a high-level mole who is working for the Soviets. The mission goes horribly wrong, almost as if the enemy knew of it in advance. A different group of agents ascends to control of the service, and casts out along the way faithful, long-serving head of personnel George Smiley. But the politician who oversee the service believes the mole is still active, and recruits Smiley out of retirement to covertly investigate his former colleagues. With glum professionalism, and the aid of an embittered assassin who has been demoted, he slowly draws on the loose strings that he hopes will lead him to the mole’s identity.

I am no expert on John le Carré, but his passionate fans embraced this production as assiduously faithful to the book. Indeed, the man himself said that after viewing the mini-series, he could no longer think about Smiley without visualizing Alec Guinness.

Many people say Sir Alec was “born to play” spymaster George Smiley. But people said that about many of the parts he played in his career, a tribute to his genius as an actor. I love all the small things he does in this movie: Wiping his glasses on his tie, locking his flat door behind him without looking, wincing almost imperceptibly at the mention of his wayward wife. And he never commits the dramatic error of trying to make Smiley normal or likable. As his former wife says to him in the crucial final scene, he doesn’t understand life very well at all, he is strangely emotionally detached and not someone you’d want to have over to dinner. Unlike many of the people around him, he still seems to hold his country in some regard, but even that explanation doesn’t seem to fully explain why he takes on the difficult mission which he is assigned.

I frankly think this movie is no less enjoyable if you know in advance (from the book or from prior viewings) the mole’s identity. The story is about institutional rot, collective lassitude and endemic careerism. Yes, one man is particularly guilty but in various ways, every one of the key suspects has much of which to be ashamed.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) - Ian Richardson - He Was Shot ...

Director John Irvin was at the peak of his skills in the late 1970s, helming this series and The Dogs of War immediately afterwards. His career seemed to stall after those two triumphs, but he certainly delivers the goods here. Irvin had a champagne cast with which to work, not just Guinness. The actors are so uniformly fine that it seems an injustice to single out particular performers, but I will nonetheless take the risk to applaud Ian Richardson as Deputy Director Bill Haydon, who defeats Smiley in bureaucratic battles and does something even more horrid to him on the home front. How in the name of The Queen, St. Michael and St. George was this magnificent actor never knighted? Perhaps it was the suddenness of his death when he seemed in rude health…if so that’s a case for honoring people when they deserve it rather than waiting until they are “old enough”.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a million miles from the heroic James Bond-sort of secret agent picture. There are no car chases, fist fights or explosions. There instead is the gritty, slimy work of espionage, the grind of a meticulous investigation and the guessing and re-guessing of who can be trusted and who is a villain. Yet even with a running time of more than 5 hours, it never loses the viewer’s interest. Indeed, I would not be surprised if some people who own it on DVD devour it in one or two sittings.

p.s. I am given to understand that the US rebroadcast version of this mini-series is shorter than the UK original and also makes some narrative changes. Not having viewed it, I do not know how it compares to the version I review here.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama

The Claim

Mark Twain said that “A ‘classic’ is a book that everyone praises and nobody reads”. I suspect that Thomas Hardy’s novels fall into this category. Admittedly, I think that because my dear mother suggested that I read “The Return of the Native”. After I finished it, I asked her why she recommended such a lousy book and she sheepishly confessed that she’d actually never got round to opening the copy she’d bought 40 years ago in a fit of high-mindedness.

But, whatever you think of Hardy’s “classic” novels, it’s hard to deny that they have resulted in some fine film adaptations. One of these is Michael Winterbottom’s 2000 Western The Claim. Loosely based on “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, the film tells the story of the Mayor of the town of Kingdom Come (a glum, effective Peter Mullan) whose considerable fortune and power derives from one awful, hidden sin early in his life. Fate comes to call in the form of the woman from his past (Nastassja Kinski) and her daughter (Sarah Polley, in an award-winning performance). Meanwhile, the Mayor must handle his tempestuous mistress (Milla Jovovich, who has sex appeal to burn) and the railroad engineer (Wes Bentley) who will decide whether the new line will run through Kingdom Come or not.

The tragic story the film tells may play out a bit more slowly than some viewers would prefer, but this gives the time and space for the strong cast to show us the multiple facets of their characters. Some people are worse than others, but no one in this movie is one-dimensional, which adds real psychic weight to the proceedings. Moreover, this is a staggeringly beautiful film at which to look, thanks to the Alberta scenery and Alwin Kuchler’s cinematography. Michael Nyman’s rich musical score also adds to the sensual pleasure.

Indeed, I liked The Claim so much that I forgave my mother for her book recommendation and let her watch my copy. She liked it too, even though I am pretty sure she never read the Mayor of Casterbridge either.