British Drama Mystery/Noir

This is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper

It’s challenging to make compelling movies about crimes when almost everyone knows the culprit and many of the facts of the case from the beginning. Yet ITV and producer Jeff Pope took the risk in the aughts to make a trilogy of docudrama miniseries about notorious British murders, with great success. The first has the clunkiest title, but it’s aces in every other respect: This is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper.

The plot is based on the multi-year effort to catch Peter Sutcliffe, a serial killer who attacked his female victims with bestial ferocity in the late 1970s. Unlike many movies of this genre, there is almost no focus on the killer. Instead, we see the reaction of the community (including the then-rising women’s movement, the families of victims, and the countless women who lived in fear) and even moreso the political, emotional, and practical demands on the police and how they handled and mishandled them in an environment of institutitional sexism and intense political pressure. And as in the real case, the police have to struggle whether the taunting letters and cassette tapes they keep receiving from “Wearside Jack” are from the killer or are a cruel hoax.

Viewers suckled on Dixon of Dock Green-style cinema and television will find the conduct of the police here unbelievable, but every blunder happened in the real case. Unlike carmelized portrayals of old-style British policing, Neil McKay’s script is unsparing about the lack of professionalism and lack of capacity that was widespread before some major reforms (some of which were inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper case). Most notably, the lack of computerization meant all leads were kept on a mountain of index cards that literally came close to collapsing the floor of the building, and vital connections between pieces of evidence were missed (in real life, Sutcliffe was interviewed by police 9 times before his was caught). Equally disturbing: the police at one point pressure a suspect with such ferocity that he confesses even though he is innocent.

I appreciated the chance to see Alun Armstrong headline a film. A stage trained actor from County Durham who’s augmented the quality of many films I enjoy (e.g., Get Carter, Braveheart, Our Friends Up North) he also had a wonderful late career revival as an extremely eccentric police detective on the TV Series New Tricks. Here he inhabits the role of the hard-smoking, hard-drinking, grief-wracked as Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, whose health and life are consumed by the demands of leading the investigation. As his right hand man, Richard Ridings is also excellent at portraying a mixture of toughness and humanity. Under David Richards direction, the rest of the cast also acquit themselves well.

There are other touches to admire. Rather than show the Ripper’s handiwork, the camera only shows people looking at it and reacting to it. And we don’t see the killer’s face until the very end, where with the banality of evil he has no particular reaction to being confronted by Oldfield. Full marks as well to Peter Greenhalgh for mood appropriate cinematography that accentuates the emotional impact of this grim but engrossing mini-series.

p.s. This 2000 film ends with a post-script noting that while Sutcliffe was sent to prison, “Wearside Jack” was never identified. But thankfully, five years later he was identified, arrested, and sentenced to prison.

British Drama

The Damned United

I’ve only been to a few English football matches in my life, and like most people who didn’t grow up with it, I don’t find it as engaging as do the locals. Yet one of my all-time favorite sports movies is about English football, which is a testament to the skills of everyone involved in The Damned United.

The plot of this fact-based 2009 film: Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) is a cocky, quotable ex-football star who establishes his brilliance as a manager by leading the once pathetic Derby County club to greatness. Throughout his rise he makes no secret of his contempt of mighty Leeds United and of their legendary coach Don Revie (Colm Meaney) whom he believes snubbed him. In a shocking twist of fate, when Revie departs to coach England’s national team, Clough is tapped to manage the squad he has denigrated, and accepts with the goal of remaking the team in his image and proving that he is superior to Levie in every way. But his arrogance leads him to grossly overestimate how easy the task will be.

Frequent Sheen collaborator Peter Morgan was one of the producers and also wrote the script (They also also made another of my recommendations, The Special Relationship). Based on a novel that many people thought was scurrilous (author David Peace was successfully sued for libel), Morgan’s script makes Clough more sympathetic and integrates many choice quotes that Clough and those around him said at the time. Kudos to Morgan and to director Tom Hooper for their skills as storytellers, particularly in going back and forward in time while never losing narrative momentum. Hooper would win the directing Oscar for his next film, The King’s Speech, but he’s in just as fine form here.

Sheen again shows his facility for playing characters based on real people. He gets Clough’s mannerisms and almost sing-song Northern speech cadence right, and fleshes him out as a rounded person with clear defects and impressive strengths. The supporting performances are excellent, with Timothy Spall being particularly endearing as Assistant Manager Peter Taylor, whom Clough needs to succeed more than his ego can readily concede. Hats off as well to everyone involved in location scouting, set design, costuming, and art direction for visually transporting us convicingly back to the hard-scrabble period that was England in the 1970s.

As I mentioned, you don’t need to know anything about English football in general or the specific events portrayed to appreciate this movie. As long as you appreciate a well-acted, well-told story, with vivid characters, The Damned United is for you.

British Drama

The Deadly Affair

Alec Guinness so inhabited the role of John le Carré’s master spy George Smiley that even the author said he could no longer think of one without the other. But Guinness was not the only fine actor to essay the role. James Mason also had his turn, even though for copyright reasons the character was renamed Charles Dobbs. The resulting 1967 film has been almost completely forgotten, but it more than merits a revival: The Deadly Affair.

The plot: Put-upon and dutiful spook Charles Dobbs is given an assignment that seems a doddle. An anonymous letter has accused a recently promoted Foreign Office official named Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) of being a security risk, based on his long ago flirtation with Communism as a university student. Dobbs’ discussion with Fennan raises no concerns and even seems enjoyable to both men. But Dobbs learns through his “Adviser” (Max Adrian) that Fennan apparently went home and shot himself! When Dobbs interviews Fennan’s widow (Simone Signoret), something strange happens that raises suspicions that things are not so simple, so Dobbs digs deeper with the aid of an aged but reliable copper (Harry Andrews). Meanwhile, on the home front, Dobbs tries to endure the many affairs of his wife Ann (Harriett Andersson), including one with an undercover operative he used to run that he still considers a friend (Maximilian Schell).

As you can gather from the above, there’s a great deal of talent in front of the camera here (And I didn’t even mention Roy Kinnear, who shines here as an underworld figure in a performance with superb physicality). Mason gives more fiery frustration to Smiley than did Guinness, both in his work and in his failing marriage. I also love his artful interactions with Signoret (as good here as I ever seen her) as he steadfastly uncovers the truth. Andrews, a gay man who ironically spent much of his career playing dead butch British military officers and other authority figures, is also terrific in support as a police officer in the twilight of his career but still retaining intelligence and toughness. Because his is probably the most relatable character in the story and his performance of it so assured, the audience is likely to end up caring about him more than anyone else.

The team behind the camera is equally impressive. The superb director Sidney Lumet loved actors and knew what to do with them. The script is by Paul Dehn, who won an Oscar co-writing another of my recommendations, Seven Days to Noon. Dehn made some plot simplifications in adapting le Carre’s novel Call for the Dead, which I imagine makes the film more comprehensible to viewers who haven’t read the novel. Dehn also added in subplots about Ann that make her a much more prominent part of the movie than the book. I thought this worked fairly well but le Carré purists may disagree. The other major virtue of the movie is Freddie Young’s cinematography, which used pre-exposed film to create the drab colors and shadowy streets that reinforce the emotional tone of le Carré’s world.

The only thing about this movie I actively disliked was, surprisingly, the score by the great Quincy Jones. Purely as music, its jazzy and memorable, but as a soundtrack, it simply doesn’t match the downbeat story and meditative visuals. Indeed, the disjunction at times is so jarring that it takes the viewer out of the story.

The Deadly Affair is not in the same league as my other two le Carré based adaptations, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But those are two of the best spy films ever made, and a movie doesn’t need to ascend to such Olympian heights to be watchable and engrossing. The Deadly Affair definitely clears that bar as a grim, effective, translation of the work of a legendary espionage novel writer and a portrayal of his most famous character.

Action/Adventure Drama

The Gunfighter

Westerns became darker after the war, in some cases translating aspects of the urban film noir mood and style to the wide-open spaces. The signature westerns of this type were the eight that director Anthony Mann made starring Jimmy Stewart, including my recommendations Bend of the River and the Naked Spur. But other filmmakers also made major contributions to the rise of the moody oater, including the talented team behind the 1950 classic The Gunfighter.

Written by William Bowers and William Sellers based on a story by the noir-experienced director Andre de Toth, the plot centers on world-weary gunhand Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck). He’s lived a life of violence that he can’t seem to escape. Every town he visits seems to include either a young “squirt” who wants to become the man who outdraws the legendary Jimmy Ringo, or, a vengeful relative of one of the many men he’s killed. But what Ringo wants is to retreat into a peaceful, domestic world by reuniting with his ex-lover Peggy Walsh (Helen Wescott) and their young son (B.G. Morgan). Ringo travels to a small town to reunite with his estranged family, where he camps out at a bar watched over by two other figures from his past, a chatty bartender who seems enchanted by Ringo’s exploits (Karl Malden) and an old running buddy who has gone straight and become a Marshall (Millard Mitchell). As Ringo waits and waits on Peggy’s decision, a crowd grows outside the bar, observing him like a circus animal. And as ever, men with guns are on his trail.

There are some action sequences in this film, but the energy here comes mainly from the excruciation of waiting, much like in another classic western of the period, 3:10 to Yuma (The original, not the disappointing 2007 remake). As Ringo’s penitent wait goes on and danger closes in, the viewer is increasingly, nervously, riveted. And like many of the best noirs, the movie dangles hope for redemption in front of the audience while undermining it with a cynical undercurrent of inevitable doom. The Gunfighter is about the isolating effects of living a violent life, which Arthur C. Miller, one of the most garlanded cinematographers of the period, conveys artfully through deep focus shots in interior settings (like the one at the top of this post) and shadowy wide screen shots in the desolate outdoors.

Director Henry King never quite ascended into the pantheon of all-time great directors, but he was a very good one for a very long time. King was an effective storyteller in multiple genres. And he particularly knew how to make the best use of Peck, whom he directed half a dozen times. As for the star himself, this is one of his greatest performances. He is cold and tough at one moment, vulnerable and warm the next, without making the transitions seem affected. And he makes the audience root for a man who is, let’s face it, a serial killer, even if he never shoots an unarmed man. Peck is well-supported by the rest of the cast, particularly Mitchell and Wescott in the biggest supporting roles (credit to King here too).

This remarkable film includes a few light moments, but an air of sadness prevails. As desperately as Jimmy Ringo wants to escape the life his choices have created, a line of other men desperately want it for themselves. Sometimes we can’t make good our mistakes and are equally helpless at stopping other people from making the same ones. That bleak view of human existence was central to film noir, and gives this noirish western enormous psychic weight

p.s. Intriguing historical note: different sources says that John Wayne either turned down the lead role and regretted it, or was denied the role and resented it. In any event, late in his life he visited quite similar dramatic territory in The Shootist.

p.p.s. William Bowers later wrote a hilarious spoof of the Western genre, which I recommend: Support Your Local Sheriff.

Drama Mystery/Noir

Scandal Sheet

The directors whose work I have praised repeatedly on this site are all household names except for Phil Karlson. He rarely got decent budgets and spent much of his career at studios and in positions that weren’t worthy of his talent. Yet he managed over the years to make some highly compelling movies that conveyed his bleak and brutal perspective on the human condition. I have recommended two of his collaborations with producer Edward Small that starred John Payne Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street. Let me add to those a recommendation of another Karlson-Small collaboration, this one with a bigger budget and a bigger star than the director usually had to hand: The 1952 noir Scandal Sheet.

The plot: Circulation at the New York Express has been soaring since an editor named Mark Chapman (or is he???) converted it into a tabloid full of sensationalist stories, ruffling the feathers of the bluenoses on the board as well as idealistic features writer Julie Allison (Donna Reed). Said editor (Broderick Crawford) is aided in his work by ace newshound Steve McCleary (John Derek), who digs up dirt for his mentor while failing to successfully romance June. But Chapman’s world is upended when a woman from his past re-appears, and he embarks on a series of desperate, violent, actions that McCleary begins to investigate. Noirish themes of moral compromise and inevitable doom ensue.

This film echoes the summit of Crawford’s career, namely the 1949 Best Picture winner All The King’s Men. Again Crawford effectively portrays a domineering yet vulnerable man and again he has a father-son style relationship with a character played by John Derek, although in this case Derek is his mentee rather than literally his son, and the relationship is much warmer. Indeed, the art in Crawford’s performance is how he simultaneously conveys his rising panic that his secrets could come out and his admiration and pride that his protégé is so effectively hunting him down. The other echo of ATKM is the magnificent Burnett Guffey’s cinematography, which combines the look of urban realism (despite this being filmed on the Columbia back lot and using some stock shots of New York City) with a dash of film noir-style camerawork. The opening shot of this movie, as the camera moves over a cluster of fire escapes filled with onlookers and a murder witness, is a clinic by Karlson and Guffey on how to pull an audience in the particular world of a movie right from the first.

John Derek was irresistible to women, but was not a particularly good actor. The quality supporting work here comes instead from Reed, who shows she could do more than be the wholesome All-American mom who serves milk and cookies. Henry O’Neil is also affecting as an unemployed, alcoholic, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist looking for a way back.

Karlson’s serves up a bracing dose of cynicism leavened with glimmers of hope, and manages to maintain tension throughout the story despite the fact that under the conventions of noir, the ending is never really in doubt. The only person who didn’t like Karlson’s adaptation of the 1944 novel The Dark Page was Samuel Fuller, who wrote it. Perhaps it was just vanity that made Fuller resent anyone other than himself adapting his own work, but movie fans were the winner because it inspired him to start making his own films, including classics like Pickup on South Street (my recommendation here).

p.s. Sadly, Crawford’s alcohol addiction kept him from building on his cinematic successes of the late 1940s and early 1950s. But he did have a late-career revival on television, including starring on Highway Patrol and, bizarrely enough, hosting an early episode of Saturday Night Live.

Drama Horror/Suspense

The Man Who Laughs

Blu-ray Review: THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) - cinematic randomness

A woman has seen my face, and yet may love me.

When people recall Universal Studio’s famous run of monster movies, they generally think of the fine films that began appearing in the 1930s (e.g., Dracula, Frankenstein, et al). But those talkies are actually the second generation of what producer Carl Laemmle began in the silent era. The opulent Lon Chaney classics The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera did huge box office telling the stories of disfigured, lovestruck, scary, yet also sympathetic monsters. Laemmle wanted to return to the well one more time with a different Victor Hugo novel as source material. Chaney was tied up at MGM, so Laemmle recruited a German actor (Conrad Veidt) and director (Paul Leni) steeped in that nation’s expressionist film tradition to create a unique treasure of the genre: The Man Who Laughs.

The plot of this 1928 gem: When an English nobleman refuses to submit to the King, he is put to death and his only child, Gwynplaine, is turned over to a horrific gypsy clan (For which Victor Hugo created the term “Comprachicos”) that mutilates the young to turn them into profitable circus freaks. Gwynplaine’s face is carved into a permanent, ghastly, grin and he is abandoned. As he walks alone on a wintry night (This is my favorite expressionist shot in the movie, see below) he discovers a blind baby girl in the arms of her dead mother. Miraculously, the starving and half-frozen children are taken in by a kindly travelling entertainer named Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Grown to adulthood, the lovely, gentle, Dea (Mary Philbin) and Gwynplaine (Veidt) perform in Ursus’ plays, in which Gwynplaine becomes famous as “The Man Who Laughs”. The two also fall in love, but Gwynplaine cannot believe that Dea would want to marry him if she could see his bizarre visage. Meanwhile, a royal advisor (Brandon Hurst in a wonderfully wicked performance) finds out that Gwynplaine is the last surviving heir of a Lord, which presents threats and possibilities for court intrigue, particularly regarding a lustful, wayward Duchess (Olga Baclanova).

the man who laughs

This is a visually stunning film, because of the haunted camerawork of Gilbert Warrenton, the art direction of Charles Hall, Thomas O’Neill, and Joseph Wright, the expressionist sensibilities of Leni, Jack Pierce’s make-up wizardry, and Laemmle’s willingness to open the checkbook for sets, props, and a cast of thousands just as did on his Lon Chaney films. Released at the end of the silent era, this film could easily have been a talkie, except that with his prosthetic teeth and grin, Veidt could not speak clearly. The filmmakers compromised by adding a synched soundtrack with rich music, some sound effects, and a love song to accompany the visuals.

As in another of my recommendations, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Conrad Veidt demonstrates that a great actor does not need words to convey a range of emotions. But that understates his achievement, because Veidt makes the audience feel Gwynplaine’s sadness, love, fear, and self-hatred despite having only half of his face available to him. Of many good performances in the film, many of them delivered by veterans of the Lon Chaney films, the other that stands out for me is Olga Baclanova’s. Her role as a sexually assertive aristo is a reminder that prior to the Hayes Code and the rise of domestic dramas after World War II, movies dealt with women’s sexuality far more candidly than they did for decades afterwards.

A couple of the plot developments aren’t motivated quite convincingly, but J. Grubb Alexander’s adaptation of Hugo’s novel more than makes up for it with its humanity. This is particularly true in a heartrending scene in which the circus performers go to extraordinary lengths to try to convince Dea that Gwyneplaine is still near her when in fact he is imprisoned.

I will close by sharing two other wonderful things to know about The Man Who Laughs. First, it has been beautifully restored. Second, it is in the public domain and you can watch it for free right here.

p.s. One person who took inspiration from this movie was Bob Kane, creator of Batman.

user uploaded image

p.p.s. I wonder if when this film was shown in Britain in 1928, the audience laughed at one character’s expressed outrage at the thought of the House of Lords admitting a clown.

Drama Mystery/Noir

Sweet Smell of Success

Many films deservedly flop at the box office because they simply aren’t any good. But a subset of gems meet the same fate because they are too far ahead of their time, violate audience expectations, or both. On the honorable list of the highest quality box office failures of all time, an unforgettable 1957 movie has a strong argument for top slot: Sweet Smell of Success.

The plot: J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is an all powerful, Walter Winchell-esque columnist who can make or destroy lives and careers at his whim. Every Big Apple press agent wants Hunsecker to boost their clients and spread their gossip, none moreso than the amoral, ambitious Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). But J. J. refuses to carry Falco’s items unless he breaks up the romantic relationship between a clean cut musician (Martin Milner) and J.J.’s sheltered, brow-beaten, younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison). When the young lovers prove determined to stay together, J.J. and Sidney realize that even more ruthless actions will be needed. This comes naturally to both of them, though only Sidney has the self-knowledge to admit it to himself.

sweet-smell-of-success-movie-seven - Vague Visages

Alexander Mackendrick, known for classic Ealing Studio comedies like The Man in the White Suit seems on paper to have been a bizarre directorial choice. But he triumphed with this unfunny, un-British, material including persuading his tempestuous movie star-producer (Lancaster) that the film should end with a confrontation not between the male leads, but between J.J. and his sister Susan, the one person J.J. cared about enough to be damaged by. Mackendrick also cleverly smeared Vaseline on Lancaster’s glasses to prevent him from focusing, giving the actor a terrifying, wall-eyed stare. Lancaster was furious at Mackendrick for the film’s poor box office performance and refused to work with him again, which may have contributed to the rapid decline of the fine director’s career after Sweet Smell of Success. But at least Mackendrick went out on top with his work here.

Mackendrick also had input into the wood-alcohol cocktail script, which was mainly the work of Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. It’s a endlessly quotable work of art in itself; even without the actors’ fine delivery the lines would be brutally effective. The plotting is equally so, most particularly the hard-to-watch scene in which Sidney pimps out a cocktail waitress who needs a favor and becomes an bargaining chip in his dirty game.

Josh Olson Presents SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS - American Cinematheque

Lancaster is effectively malicious here, both in his dealings with Curtis and also with Harrison as his cringing sister (if Sweet Smell of Success has a weakness, it’s that the relationship between Milner and Harrison is the least interesting one in the movie). But Curtis, viewed at the time as a lightweight pretty boy, is a revelation. In his walk, his physical deference to Lancaster, his furtive looks, his desperate patter, and his surface smoothness over underlying panic, he creates one of cinema’s indelible characters. Grasping ambition has rarely been so vividly captured by a movie performer. Lancaster said that Curtis deserved an Oscar for his performance, but the Academy didn’t even grant him a nomination. More fool them.

There is yet more to praise! Elmer Bernstein contributes an energetic jazz score and the Chico Hamilton Quintet not only sound fantastic in their scenes, but also effectively cover over the fact that Milner couldn’t play guitar at all. But even more than the superb music, this movie will always be remembered for its look.

Picking a favorite cinematographer is tough for any film buff, but for me it’s James Wong Howe, in significant part because New York City has never been shot with such luminous darkness as in Sweet Smell of Success. Howe’s shots crackle with the energy of bustling, anonymous, humanity and bring alive the combined menace and thrill that arrives when night falls on a great city. Howe’s photography here is a genius-level blend of the stylized look of film noir and the more realistic urban photography of such films as The Naked City. Howe and Mackendrick also uses camera positioning expertly to convey character and relationships, for example by using low shots to make the massive Lancaster look even more intimidating or coming in close at just the point when someone sells out morally so that you can see it on their face and right down into their soul (presuming they have one).

Sweet Smell of Success | The Soul of the Plot

Why did such a tremendous work of cinematic art not find an audience? After the financial success of the prior year’s Trapeze, which had Lancaster and Curtis swinging through the air in tights (and screen siren Gina Lollabrigida swinging between them), their fans were expecting a chance to swoon again at their gorgeous heroes. Instead, they got a couple of throughgoing bastards in suits in a dialogue-driven story. Tony Curtis’ female fans haunted the set hoping for a chance to glimpse their idol and can’t have been pleased to see him play a character who treats women like garbage. The unremitting cynicism of the movie may also have turned audiences off in 1957, coming a few years after the post-war film noir boom had faded. In the decades that followed, the magnificence of this movie — including the against-type performances of Lancaster and even moreso Curtis — became widely appreciated, including by inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Instead of the trailer, I will close by posting this “three reasons” promotional film put out by Criterion Collection when they wisely reissued a remastered edition of Sweet Smell of Success. Even at a single minute long, it makes clear why you simply must see this classic movie.

British Drama

Chariots of Fire

In Chariots They Ran

Some Best Picture Oscar winner selections are immediately recognized as mistakes by discerning viewers (American Beauty, Crash, Forrest Gump, Gladiator), others seem plausible contemporaneously but the bloom fades from their rose over time (Around the World in 80 Days, Dances with Wolves, Gigi). What a pleasure and a relief it is to revisit a Academy Award winner from 40 years ago and find that it hasn’t (ahem) lost a step: Chariots of Fire.

The plot: In the 1920s, two markedly different British men share a love of running and a desire to make a mark upon the world. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Scottish Protestant who “feels God’s pleasure” when he runs whereas Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) is an English Jew striving to be accepted by the Establishment. Both are seen as misfits in elite circles and struggle to balance their fierce athletic commitment with the rest of their lives and loves, yet both are talented, determined, and full of competitive fire. As opponents and teammates, they bring themselves and their nation to the pinnacle of tension and opportunity at the 1924 Olympics.

REVIEW: Chariots of Fire | The Viewer's Commentary

There are many ways to understand what Colin Welland’s skillfully crafted story is “really about”. Is this film about how sports can ennoble individuals and forge deep friendships? Is it about the changing nature of post-World War I Britain? Is it about how outsiders crave acceptance so strongly that they are driven to magnificent achievements? Is it about how young people find their purpose in life? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. This is a rare film that different viewers can appreciate — even be deeply moved by — for entirely different reasons.

Chariots of Fire is also a notable example of how even a little-known director can have at least one great movie in him. Hugh Hudson has been making documentaries and television commercials for years when he was tapped for Chariots of Fire, his first feature film. That doesn’t sound like a promising backstory, but Hudson proves a masterful storyteller, particularly in how he focuses more heavily on the human experience of athletes than on the races themselves (There is a limit to how intrigued most film goers can be by people running in a circle). Also to Hudson’s credit: There isn’t a bad performance or bad shot in the whole film.

The lead actors make a strong impression, as do the supporting players, including Ian Holm as Abrahams’ coach, Alice Krige as his lover, and Nigel Havers (who anchored another of my recommendations, The Charmer) and Nicholas Farrell as his Cambridge University friends and fellow athletes. The film is also famous for its innovative score by Vangelis…I am probably alone in not caring for it that much, but there is so much else to savor in this remarkable film that this in no way diminishes my admiration for Chariots of Fire.

The film takes some liberties with historical facts: Liddell’s refusal to run heats on Sundays did not create a last-second crisis for the British team at the Olympics because he had months of advance notice in which to prepare for a different event, and Abrahams’ family finding the Establishment impenetrable is hard to square with both of his brothers being knighted in real life. But the film isn’t a documentary, it’s a drama based on real events, and every scene is utterly true in psychological and emotional terms. Sometimes Oscar gets things exactly right.


I Never Sang For My Father

I Never Sang for My Father (1970) - IMDb

Playwright Robert Anderson had a big Broadway hit in 1953 when he drew on his experience of young romance in Tea and Sympathy. He went back to the autobiographical well again with a 1968 play based on his family of origin. In 1970, Anderson and one of the producers of the play, Gilbert Cates, brilliantly translated it to the silver screen: I Never Sang For My Father.

The plot to this film is so spare that it belies the work’s impact. Gene Garrison (Gene Hackman) is a widower in New York City who struggles to connect emotionally with his successful yet domineering father Tom (Melvyn Douglas). Gene wants to move to California to live with his new lover (Elizabeth Hubbard) but feels guilty about leaving his mother (Dorothy Stickney); guilt which Tom actively reinforces. As the family faces a crisis, complications increase with the return from Chicago of Gene’s sister Alice (Estelle Parsons), who was disowned by Tom years ago for marrying a Jewish man. World-class acting and melancholy observations about aging, parenting, and families ensue.

What makes the movie a knockout is Anderson’s realistic, unadorned dialogue and the superb performances by the cast. Melvyn Douglas had a remarkably long career in Hollywood, and it’s easy to see here why he didn’t fade away after his success in the 1930s and 1940s. He doesn’t make Tom easy to hate or to like. Tom has accomplished great things in life, overcame a brutal upbringing, and can be quite charming. Yet he’s fundamentally narcissistic, seeing other people mainly as extensions of his own desires. Tragically, it’s less so unwillingness than inability to genuinely love that brings so much suffering on himself and his children. Hackman is also achingly good here, playing off of Douglas with a look, a change in posture, or a weakness in his voice that tells you everything you need to know about Gene’s relationship with Tom. It’s also terrific to see Hackman working so well with the magnificent Estelle Parsons again, after their star-making roles in Bonnie and Clyde. Her Alice is an anguished figure, who suffered mightily to marry whom she wanted and appears to be suffering since doing so nonetheless.

Gilbert Cates became a personage in Hollywood without making many movies: He directed the Academy Awards’ telecast for many years and was also the founding Dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. Filming a play is hard because if you take an overly static approach, it looks like a play trapped in a movie, but if you overdo camera angles and movement, it can be gimmicky. As producer-director, Cates strikes the right balance, and when a cast gives such uniformly sterling performances, you know the director did their job well. My only gripe about Cates is his choice of music, which is too heavy-handed in places and includes a fairly wretched song early on that would better have been binned.

To close with an intriguing bit of trivia about this quiet gem of a film: You could consider it a credit to Hackman and Douglas that the former was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar even though he was on screen more, while the latter nominated for Best Actor. Too much credit going to the old man, his son’s achievements underappreciated..sometimes performances are so good that Oscar voters mix up actors with the characters they portray.

Drama Mystery/Noir

The Limey

Fresh off his success adapting the Elmore Leonard novel Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh partnered with screenwriter Lem Dobbs in 1999 to produce another strong film that feels like an Elmore Leonard story: The Limey.

The plot: A greying but tough as nails Cockney career criminal known only as Wilson (Terence Stamp) finishes his latest stay in the Big House and comes to sun-soaked Los Angeles to investigate how his daughter Jennifer died (Melissa George). He is guilt-stricken over his considerable failures as a parent but loved Jennifer intensely, so much so that he can’t accept that her death was really due to an unremarkable automobile accident. Wilson’s charm is considerable, and he soon secures the assistance of two of Jennifer’s friends, an ex-con who’s gone straight (Luis Guzmán) and a modestly successful actress (Leslie Anne Warren). From them he learns that Jennifer was in a relationship with a hot shot record producer named Valentine (Peter Fonda), who has a sleazy side hiding behind his perfect tan and aggressively whitened teeth. As Wilson starts to investigate, he finds himself tangling with Valentine’s head of security (Barry Newman), assorted thugs, and federal agents who are also on Valentine’s trail. A noirish tale of vengeance and regret follows.

Steven Soderbergh on the 20th Anniversary of 'The Limey' - Rolling Stone

The Limey can be enjoyed simply as a professionally produced and performed rendition of a familiar movie story line. It includes exciting action scenes and some good dramatic moments. There are also some laughs, the biggest of which comes from Stamp’s theatrical Cockney slang-filled speech delivered to a calmly befuddled Bill Duke (the director of one of my recent recommendations, Deep Cover). There’s nothing wrong with making a purely entertaining movie, but many people, including me, see something more in this film.

What is The Limey “really about”? After Gene Siskel died, Roger Ebert tried out a number of co-hosts on his television show At The Movies, my favorite of whom was B. Ruby Rich (who alas, did not get the job permanently). In their discussion here, Rich sees the movie as being a father-daughter story, whereas Ebert says its about the contrast between the genuinely tough central character and soft Californians who think they’re tough, but aren’t. Those are intriguing takes; personally I saw The Limey as being about the lingering remains of the 1960s.

Stamp and Fonda were both 1960s icons, and seeing them duel it out here in their declining years and come to terms with the harm they did along the way, makes a mournful statement on that era, particularly when Valentine says the 1960s “were just 66 and early 67 — that’s all it was”. Newman, of Vanishing Point fame, another cult figure from that era (There was also a scene with sex kitten Ann-Margret that was cut from the final film) adds to the throwback feel, as does Soderbergh splicing in flashback scenes of Stamp from the 1967 film Poor Cow. Stylistically, the adventurous editing, repetition of key images, and violation of linear chronology recalls the experimentalism of cinema in that era (Even though Soderbergh didn’t add all that in until post-production when he saw that a more conventional structure didn’t work). It all gives the film an elegiac meta-theme on top of that of the main story, making it stick with you for much longer than other films of its genre.

p.s. The DVD release of includes in its special features menu an audio commentary track that is legendary among film buffs. Rather than do the usual dull nodding along saying how great each scene and actor was, Soderbergh and Dobbs argue intensely and intelligently about how the film turned out. It’s fascinating both for what it reveals about them as people and also about how directors and screenwriters think.