Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Pride and Prejudice, Gene Clark, and John Ford returning to Ireland - Reviews #197

Hello, how are you? Great, me too! Reviews:



Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947) - A stunning, staggeringly cynical melo-noir-ma about an amoral carnival huckster (Tyrone Power) using everyone he meets as he cuts a rapid path to the top. Gripping from first frame to last, it's simply one of the best of its decade: richly atmospheric, incisively intelligent and both fatalistic and unpredictable in the best tradition of the genre.

From the quasi-religious Jules Furthman script to Lee Garmes' gloriously textured cinematography, everything here works, and the performances are an absolute treat, with pin-up Power exhibiting his dazzling charisma, Helen Walker matching him as a shrewd psychologist with a fiercely jutting chin, and Joan Blondell threatening to steal the show in arguably her greatest performance, playing a horny, big-hearted mind-reader with a lush for a lover. (4)

***



Adventures of Don Juan (Vincent Sherman, 1948) - Errol Flynn’s first swashbuckler for eight years, and the last one he ever made, has him as an older, wiser version of his familiar, sword-wielding lothario, reforming in the face of love. Well, reforming a bit.

He plays Don Juan – in the immortal words of Shaggy, “a Mr Lover Lover” – who marauds around Europe, leaving a trail of breathless women, furious husbands and severe diplomatic incidents in his wake. In the film’s classic opening scene, he scales a balcony in the old John Barrymore manner, seduces an old flame, humiliates her groom-to-be using a sword and a chicken, and then rides away. Delightful.

Then he returns to Spain, to find there are serious social wrongs that need to be righted, putting him at odds with the Duke de Lorca (Robert Douglas), but winning him the favour of Queen Margaret (Viveca Lindfors), a big-hearted, big-eyed monarch somewhat troubled by his dignified, offhand smouldering.

In a way, I’d have liked for the film to crack or puncture Flynn’s irresistible persona, but it’s still a magnificent movie, and strikes a good balance, playing along with Don Juan’s incorrigibility, while asking him to truly care and feel. In his (preposterous) autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Flynn seems proud only of his breakthrough film, Captain Blood, and a couple of late ‘50s efforts. I’d argue, though, that this is probably the best performance he ever gave – funny and athletic, yes, but also tender, conflicted and sincere – even if it is housed in the most roistering entertainment.

He’s helped, no doubt, by having words put in his mouth by two of the finest writers ever to hit Hollywood: George Oppenheimer – the creator of high-concept nonsense like A Yank at Oxford and A Yank at Eton, as well as gems like Libeled Lady and the magnificently-titled Slightly Dangerous – and Harry Kurnitz, who wrote the 1938-9 ‘Fast’ trilogy, a Thin Man cash-in that nevertheless included one absolute gem, Fast Company.

The pair were chief writers on just two films together: I Love You Again, a spectacular comedy film that’s comfortably among the four or five funniest I’ve ever seen, and this one. Right from the off, their quality is apparent. There’s a little clunky exposition here and there, and the character of a dwarfish courtier is frankly unnecessary, but Flynn has an almost constant supply of devastatingly witty, still modern one-liners, and his scenes with Lindfors are subtle, heartfelt and credible, deftly dealing with that old love-in-a-hopeless-place scenario that is the commoner-and-Queen romance. There’s also at least one completely unacceptable ‘swordsman’ gag that got past the censors. I presume that was these two – additional material was by B-movie director and committed orientalist Robert Florey, and William Faulkner!

I also Vincent Sherman’s handling of the often boisterous action sequences, Max Steiner’s Korngold-ish score, and the photography by the incomparable Woody Bredell: there’s one particularly brilliant shot during the fencing demonstration, the camera passing through the flashing blades as it zones in on the proud, trim Flynn, bedecked in blue and gold. On one level, it’s just nice that there are films out there that are this funny and charming and romantic, with such a dash of quality in their action choreography. It’s more than that, though – and it isn’t all in the subtle writing or the heartfelt playing. There’s something slightly sad about the ageing, once-beautiful Flynn: a little dissipated, a little melancholic, a little greying beneath the dye, that gives this added pathos for anyone invested in his life and career. Is that something you can praise the film for? Perhaps not, but it elevates it further for me: a film about an ageing lothario trying to reform, starring an ageing lothario who never did, and shuffled off this mortal coil aged 59, alienated from his family and friends, pretty much alone.

Fun film though. (3.5)

***



*MINOR SPOILERS*
Make Me a Star (William Beaudine, 1932)
- An extraordinarily sweet-natured film in the popular '30s vein, serving as both a hymn to and a satire on the movie industry, as an earnest hayseed (Stuart Erwin) turns up in Hollywood with stars in his eyes, has the stuffing knocked out of him, then makes good - but perhaps not in the way he expected.

In plot terms, it's reminiscent of King Vidor's Show People, and almost identical to the Harold Lloyd film, Movie Crazy - released a few months earlier - but it's far more touching than that work, considerably lighter on the slapstick and delivers for the fan magazine crowd (i. e. me), with some fun cameos from a couple of massive stars, and an entertaining look at Paramount Studios in 1932.

At times, Erwin seems a little too one-note as the slow, simple and folsky hero - who haunts the casting office, sleeps rough on the lot, then gets the lead in a film he doesn't know is a comedy - but there is something extremely attractive about his guileless character, and the actor is astonishingly good in the film's final and most important scenes, particularly the closer, which is an absolute classic.

As his leading lady, the immortal Joan Blondell is simply as brilliant as ever, playing a wise, protective and not unattractive old hand showing the rural dope the ropes - shades of Jean Arthur in Capra's seminal Mr Smith.

Based on a play by George S. Kaufman - still one of the finest writers ever to pick up a pen - this gentle, enjoyable and very moving comedy-drama is one of the best Hollywood-on-film pictures of its era, an era when more were made than at any other time, its sporadic uncertainty about tone and theme giving way to several sequences of breathtaking sincerity.

The short scene in which Erwin confounds the cast and crew who are busy stitching up, by delivering a teary, tender talk to his horse, is a little beaut. And that ending? Wow. (3.5)

***



Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story (Alex Holmes, 2014) - A straightforward but extremely accomplished telling of the Armstrong story, with few revelations for those already acquainted with it, but a fine selection of interviewees, an excellent score and a veritable treasure trove of archive footage, edited with rare confidence and skill.

Unlike Alex Gibney's film, The Armstrong Lie, the subject granted no access to the director, so he has little chance to retroactively justify his actions - or to endear himself to the filmmaker.

As a result, everyone's favourite cycling sociopath comes out of it far worse, thanks to an abundance of damning detail about his political power and various nefarious bully-boy tactics.

I personally prefer it to the Gibney film, as though it's somewhat simpler, it's also more coherent, complete and compelling - if somewhat rushing its conclusion. For such a nasty, dream-crushing tale, this one's a very entertaining ride. (3.5)

***



Love Is a Racket (William Wellman, 1932) - Blessed Event, Advice to the Lovelorn (!), Okay America!... In 1932 and '33, the American screen was saturated with films in which sarky, hard-boiled newspaper columnists - invariably patterned after gossip peddler Walter Winchell - locked horns with slimy Pre-Code gangsters. I'm not complaining, that is literally the best premise for a movie ever. And here's another.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is our hero, a debonair, slightly effete man-about-town, dining at Sardi's, nursing hangovers and writing up Broadway rumours for a New York paper. His comrades-in-arms are my favourite actor of all time, Lee Tracy - who was very soon to make the part of an unrepentant smear-factory his and his alone - and Ann Dvorak, the sparky secretary who's pining after Doug Jr. Sadly he's got his eyes on someone else, a spoilt, superficial actress (Frances Dee), who's naturally caught the eyes of a Brylcreemed hoodlum (Lyle Talbot).

As so many of these films do - it seems only Blessed Event was exempt - it begins in a comedic vein, with Doug Jr cracking wise and Tracy doing the ice-bucket challenge, before shifting into less persuasive melodrama. But it's sharp and funny most of the way, with a rich early-'30s flavour, a magnificent supporting performance by the outrageously talented, uniquely expressive Tracy (check the way he uses his hands to articulate Fairbanks' probable fate!), and a quite brilliant ending redolent with those twin joys of Pre-Code film: smirking immorality and unabashed sex. (3)

***



*MINOR SPOILERS*
The Rising of the Moon (John Ford, 1957)
- John Ford, the greatest American director of them all, often unwound after intense, ambitious and draining moviemaking experiences by creating something gentle, easy and laidback. Following his landmark Cavalry Trilogy, it was the beautiful, semi-musical oater, Wagon Master: still his most underrated and overlooked film. And after The Searchers, that monumental exploration of racism, redemption and Western mythos, he did The Wings of Eagles (perhaps his purest, most self-indulgent work) and then this - a lighthearted, patronising but extraordinarily heartfelt paean to his parents' home country of Ireland so rose-tinted that it makes The Quiet Man look like Calvary.

Made by the director "for fun", as well as to promote filmmaking in the Emerald Isle, it was shot quickly and cheaply - at odds with the director's initial plans for a Technicolor opus filled with star names - on Irish locations and using a homegrown cast, telling three comic stories: each introduced by Tyrone Power, Ford's old Irish-American buddy (and possibly lover, depending on who you ask), who that year made his last notable contribution to the US screen in Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution. The script came from his regular collaborator Frank S. Nugent, who wrote many of the director's best - though of course Ford would re-write, re-tool and at times just literally through away pages of dialogue.

While all three films are intensely 'Fordian', 'Fordian' means a great many things - starting with sentimental, timeless, moving and, at times, full of iffy, overbearing comedy - and this one is stuffed to the gills with his singular concerns.

After a heartstoppingly poignant credits sequence soundtracked by the revolutionary song of the title, we begin with the best of the three tales, The Majesty of the Law, an amusing, beautifully rendered version of a story by popular Irish author Frank O'Connor. Telling the tale of a police inspector (Cyril Cusack), a warrant hanging heavy in his breast pocket as he visits an old acquaintance (Noel Purcell), it starts in stunningly poetic fashion, unwraps its story through delicate touches slipped into old-fashioned (perhaps overly talky, static) Blarney, then produces three external scenes of rare quality and emotional resonance, finishing as only a Ford film can. It's a deeply personal work, dealing with a pet Ford theme of personal honour, and manages to be both extremely understated and remarkably powerful, the director exhibiting an effortless lyricism.

The second story, A Minute's Wait, is the weakest of the three, a rather obvious, overbearing segment about a provincial railroad, with a train pulling up at Dunfaill station, and various 'characters' pouring into or out of it for a good half hour, to the sound of people yelling, "One minute's wait!" There are some good jokes amidst the caricaturing, but it's Ford at his broadest, and we know how broad that is. The director's strong suit was never comedy, no matter how he might have fancied that it was (even his bleakest and most complex works feature people being hit in the face and/or arse), and there's precious little heart here, just a lot of noise - some of it from a typically stupid, snobby and spoilt English couple, who get their comeuppance for having the temerity to attend a wedding.

Our final chapter falls somewhere between the first two (though chronologically after them, hence it being the final chapter): a film of shifting tone, ostentatious camerawork (with avant garde angles courtesy of Third Man photographer Robert Krasker) and contentious Republican sympathies, which probably works best if you're familiar with Ford's other treatments of the Troubles, particularly The Informer, the movie which won him his first Oscar, and which is cheerily subverted here. Updating Lady Gregory's one-act play, The Rising of the Moon (itself named after an old rebel song), to the Irish War of Independence - and renaming the piece 1921 - Ford casts largely from the rep company at Dublin's famous Abbey Theatre, and tells the story of a revolutionary (the very Irishly named Donal Donnelly) awaiting execution by the British occupying forces.

But what's this? A nun-related escape plot? A plan to evade the police by walking around town singing folk songs and leading a donkey? And a sentimental old duffer of a policeman (Denis O'Dea) conveniently positioned at a prized place along the waterfront? Stylistically it's full of pointless and pretentious touches (more Four Sons than The Fugitive), thematically and narratively it's like The Informer's cheeky little brother, if you can imagine such a thing, but if not a complete triumph, it is very Ford-y, and so is the whole of Rising of the Moon. If you're not a fan, it will drive you up the wall - particularly if you're an Irish person who finds the stereotyping of your national character somewhat annoying. If you are a fan, it's simply a must: distinctive, at times powerful, at others trivial, but always overflowing with a genuine and rhapsodic love of Ireland; its language, its mores and its peculiarities of character. An Ireland that may never have existed but forever will on film. (3)

***

I'm starting a bit of a Barbara Stanwyck season, on account of SHE'S AMAZING:



*MINOR SPOILERS for this film and You Belong to Me (1941)*
The Bride Walks Out (Leigh Jason, 1936)
- This is an underrated romantic comedy with a rather daft, dated overarching story - about model Barbara Stanwyck resenting having to jack in her job when she weds hard-up engineer Gene Raymond - but some wonderfully tender moments, and a few delightful details.

There's Stanwyck silently crying to Auld Lang Syne, the room lit by lanterns; Helen Broderick breaking down in tears as she realises she truly loves taciturn beau Ned Sparks; and Robert Young's fascinating, very unusual supporting character: a drunken millionaire who adores the married Stanwyck and acts as her secret, silent benefactor. I'm not really a fan of Young, beyond his excellent performances in King Vidor's memorably mature, intelligent drama, H. M. Pulham, Esq., and the seminal noir Crossfire, but it's a very well-conceived part and he does a decent job.

Amidst much bickering and broad comedy, there are also some flashes of quality in the humour, with two cleverly inserted one-scene wonders: one a kid who keeps saying that his brother could beat up Raymond, and another a chauffeur who has never started a fight before (Irving Bacon); plus Stanwyck excitedly assisting a cop in the execution of his notepad-based duties. And then there are the little touches that lift pedestrian passages out of the ordinary: a gift-laden street-side waltz and a watch-and-learn dance diversion shot through with joie de vivre.

The film is liable to offend anyone with a feminist bent, due to at least three wife-beating gags and an ultimate belief that a woman's place is in the home, but it does have moments of real heart and humour, and at least gives Stanwyck a chance to put her case, even if in the end we know she's never going to win (and wouldn't win five years later, facing a similar problem in You Belong to Me).

I rather disliked Stanwyck when I first got into old movies, but Meet John Doe showed me some of what she could do, before Remember the Night and Ball of Fire revealed a certain something that no other actress has ever really had: a beguiling sincerity that can take the breath away. I'm not saying she couldn't be annoying - in something like Lady of Burlesque she's harsh and grating - but when she was allowed to unlock that softer side, the results were unfailingly remarkable. Here she's working with erratic material but that unique sensibility shines through - perhaps especially when her character recalls a youth of poverty and want: the actress herself was orphaned at four and grew up destitute in innumerable foster homes. She always played those scenes with a desperate, heartbreaking vulnerability. (3)



*MINOR SPOILERS*
Annie Oakley (George Stevens, 1935)
- This 1935 biopic of the backwoods sharpshooter is barely mentioned today, existing as it does in the shadow of its musical update - Annie Get Your Gun - but it's great entertainment, if not really a great film.

The incomparable Barbara Stanwyck is the titular heroine, who shoots to fame after facing off against celebrity marksman Toby Walker (Preston Foster) and ends up as the star attraction of Buffalo Bill Cody's travelling Wild West show.

For an hour it's just a solid crowd-pleaser: useless as history, but full of homespun charm, touches of Americana and old-fashioned romance. Then the writers realise that they've forgotten to include any real dramatic tension, and so contrive some, which wasn't a very good idea.

Lucky then, that Stanwyck is in that rare form which for her wasn't so rare, her mesmerising sensitivity in full effect as she waxes poetic about Walker in a room full of his enemies.

Then director George Stevens completely loses the plot - almost literally - with an idiotically conceived comic subplot featuring Chief Sitting Bull (Chief Thunderbird - yes, that is his name), before finally wrestling it back through a rather delightful little closing scene.

Annie Oakley isn't in the same league as Stanwyck's best - or Stevens', for that matter - but for all its flaws, it's an enjoyable watch, with another of the star's apparently endless supply of indelible characterisations. (3)



The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1933) - Interesting, erotically-charged drama about the strange, intense relationship between a Chinese warlord (err, Nils Asther) and the American missionary he's sort of kidnapped (Barbara Stanwyck).

It's oddly paced, light on actual incident and might have worked better with someone more innocent and refined in the Stanwyck part, but the leads are both very good (she has one great speech about God), Capra's soft-focus, epic rendering of China is effectively done, and the subject matter is often fascinating, with a sensitive approach to inter-racial attraction that would soon be prescribed as verboten by the censorship clampdown of 1934.

That wordless scene in the train carriage is basically a threesome in which only the eyes make contact.

This one would also make a fascinating companion piece to Lewis Milestone's magnificent 1936 film, The General Died at Dawn, a sumptuously-photographed story that exists in a similar realm, but takes fewer chances with its central story. (3)

***



Molière (Laurent Tirard, 2007) - Ou "Shakespeare in Love à la Français", as Romain Duris - kitted out like Russell Brand - offers a somewhat cartoonish approximation of the legendary Gallic playwright, who learns to live thanks to the love of a married woman (Laura Maurante), then channels his new-found feelings into his work.

For the most part it serves up a pleasant but unremarkable mix of broad farce, self-reflexion and heartfelt yet not entirely on-the-level romantic expression that recollects both 1999's Best Picture winner and the fitfully fine '30s film, The Great Garrick. Indeed, it isn't until the final five minutes that Duris' dramatic talents are properly called upon - and while he's adept at the wordplay elsewhere, the broader, slapsticky parts of the material leave him wanting.

For the rest of the time, it's Fabrice Luchini who dominates - playing Molière's idiotic, self-serving "employer", who secures the writer's services under duress as he seeks to woo a young widow - with Edouard Baer offering consistently funny support as his raffish, incorrigible and entirely unscrupulous fellow philanderer.

It's fairly good fun, there are a few big laughs ("Your eyes make me die of love"), and Molière scholars will probably get more from it than I did, due to the wealth of in-jokes apparently peppered throughout, but it's ultimately too broad, predictable and insubstantial to fully score - an affliction that's alarmingly obvious from the first 10 minutes. (2.5)

***



Err, yes.

The Return of Doctor X (Vincent Sherman, 1939) - This much-maligned non-sequel to that Pre-Code curio, Doctor X, is actually quite good fun, with smart-alec reporter Wayne Morris and surgeon Dennis Morgan investigating a string of murders in which the culprit drains his victims of blood.

It's all highly silly, but there are some fun twists and turns, and it all moves at a fair clip. The real selling point, though, is its achilles heel: a notoriously and hilariously miscast Humphrey Bogart as an evil, anemic and transparently embarrassed henchman (with a very funny secret), who comes complete with a vivid blonde stripe through his jet black hair, some unforgivable wire-framed glasses and a pet rabbit. His entrance and his final line deserve an entire cult around them - let's see if we can start one.

See also: This is the final film in the Hollywood's Legends of Horror box-set I wrote about here.

***



The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark (Jack Kendall and Paul Kendall, 2013) - A disappointing doc about the mercurial Byrd, who never attained the success his unique talents deserved - largely because he refused to play the publicity game, and kept on pushing the self-destruct button.

There's great music to spare (much of it played distractingly under the interviews), but the film is shallow and poorly-paced, racing past triumphs like Clark's 70s triumphs White Light and No Other, then dwelling on the McGuinn, Clark and Hillman era - illustrating a point about his abilities as a live performer by showing footage of him miming listlessly on a TV show - and crawling through his prolonged decline.

The interviews are also a mixed bag: Clark's wife, two of his 12 siblings and several noted collaborators turn up, but few have anything insightful to say. Fellow Byrd and noted Gram Parsons cohort Chris Hillman is the best of the bunch: extremely thoughtful and eloquent, while David Crosby should be shown to schoolchildren as an example of what drugs to your brain.

It's nice to see one of the most important and consistently overlooked musicians of the rock era afforded the documentary treatment - I think I'm the only one of his 10 fans who isn't interviewed - and there are a few nice moments, including a beautiful passage about Clark's divine creative process, but the film ultimately becomes a little boring, the one thing you could never say about his glorious, glorious music. (2)

***


"At this moment it's difficult to believe we are being asked to read this dialogue."

Pride and Prejudice (Robert Z. Leonard, 1940) - A lot of dismissive words have been written about the 'Hollywoodisation' of classic plays and novels, when in reality the studio system often made a decent job of adapting them, especially when producers like MGM's Irving Thalberg and Fox's Darryl F. Zanuck were in charge.

The 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, though, seems to bear out every criticism ever levelled at the Californian trivialisation of great art, with none of the wit or nuance of Jane Austen's peerless romantic comedy, and only about half the story. It's OK to make changes if they serve the contrasting demands of the medium, but here every decision MGM made seems to be wrong, from the dubious, artificial sets and costumes, to the safe, dull and wrong-headed characterisation.

Greer Garson is completely miscast - but considering that, quite good - as Elizabeth Bennet, the sparky, funny heroine of the 1812 novel, with Laurence Olivier, a year on from Heathcliff, recruited to play another dark, brooding heartthrob, albeit one of finer lineage. You'd think he'd be perfect, but his character is rendered almost unintelligible by the artless compression of the story. The whole point of Darcy is contrast: how his principles are transformed by love. Here he's shown to be noble and incongruously charming far too early in the story, and directly in Elizabeth's sight, so the tension between them either doesn't exist or else doesn't ring true.

Mr Bennet also gets a raw deal, his reaction to Lydia's husband changed by the Hays Code (which presumably thought audiences had gotten more sensitive in the previous 122 years) from absurd delight to stern disapproval, Miss Catherine De Bourgh becomes a sponsor of the central romance - which makes no sense, further undermines Darcy's character and takes us off into the realms of fantasy - while Melville Cooper plays Mr Collins far too aggressively, accompanied by an idiotic theme tune. Worst of all is Mary Boland's infernal, grating Mrs Bennet, giving way to every scenery-chewing impulse the actress ever had.

The only characters that really work are Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane (a nonsensical early dissing of Darcy aside) and Bruce Lester's avuncular Bingley - both pleasantly restrained and in keeping with what Austen intended.

It's strange to learn that the book was adapted, via a stage play, by Aldous Huxley (!) and the co-writer of The Women, Jane Murfin. It's perhaps not the easiest work to transfer to the screen: set in a world of now defunct rules, often dealing in thoughts and feelings, and with several key passages of the book presented in vague reported speech - a challenge to any writer, if a welcome one - but the version they delivered was just far too simplistic, to the extent that we even get the following abysmal exchange between Lizzy and Darcy:

“At this moment it's difficult to believe you are so proud.”
"At this moment it's difficult to believe you are so prejudiced."

I mean, really?

Ironically, the film seems vastly more dated than the novel it's based upon, a loud, cloying, annoying and superficial rendering of a masterpiece, its only saving graces a handful of Austen's timeless lines and a couple of passable performances. (1.5)

***



Als ich tot war (Ernst Lubitsch, 1916) aka When I Was Dead - The earliest surviving film by the master of the romantic comedy is, well, a bit crap really. Director Ernst Lubitsch (looking a lot like The Count from Sesame Street) plays a chess-loving husband whose all-night matches are mistaken for infidelities. After being stitched up by his mother-in-law and turfed out of the house, he returns one Paul Weller wig better off, masquerading as a valet. Lubitsch would indulge his fascination with disguise and masquerade across three more decades, with often dizzying results. This one's just silly - if inoffensive - has no real story or ending, and doesn't seem to contain any jokes. But who cares? He made Ninotchka. (1)

***

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Mad Love, Greta Garbo, and the good Scarface - Reviews #196

PLUS: The Sex Pistols, Lubitsch falling off his mantle and me (sort of) hanging out with Michael Caine.



Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, 1926) - This is a staggering silent melodrama, with a luminescent Garbo bewitching two formerly inseparable soldiers (John Gilbert and Lars Hanson) amidst the lamplight, mist and falling snow.

The story is short, slight and so fatalistic that it's largely predictable, but that's rather beside the point. The point? That this may well be the lyrical apogee of silent cinema, with a look, a feel and an arsenal of visual innovations that set it apart from - if not above - those other wordless hymns to jawdropping imagery that dominate the landscape of the late silent era: films like 7th Heaven, Sunrise and The Docks of New York.

In any other movie, the silhouetted duel - like one of Lotte Reiniger's animated shorts - or Garbo's sacreligious communion would be the sequence you couldn't wrench from your mind for a week afterwards, but Flesh and the Devil goes one better, with that heart-stopping moment when our hero spies his fatale across a ballroom floor: twice there, twice obscured, then back in sight, then in rapturous, seductive close-up. It's one of the most extraordinary things I've ever seen on screen, and call me a hipster idiot, but I made a Vine of it: vine.co/v/OA5KpeM6XEY

As you might have guessed, it's a film that's at once entranced by and terrified of sexuality, a duplicitous relationship that rather works in its favour, as the story throbs with self-righteous fury, then gets periodically sidetracked (like Gilbert) by Garbo's ravishing sensuality.

She overplays a couple of moments near the end, mixing welcome realism and maniacal gesticulation, but is largely excellent, working with her favourite Hollywood director, Clarence Brown, and exhibiting most of the subtlety and all of the star quality that made her a legend within her lifetime. The much-maligned Gilbert is also pretty good in the top-billed part of a happy-go-lucky kid driven to distraction by love lost and lust, with Hanson faring the weaker of the two as his comrade-in-homoeroticism. Barbara Kent - who only departed this realm last year - rounds out the central foursome as Hanson's sister, who adores but doesn't idealise grumpy Gilbert, but can't keep pace with her more illustrious love rival.

It's narratively simplistic, then, erotically confused and perhaps a little erratically played, but it's a visual feast like little before or since, and a fitting showcase for one of cinema's most beguiling, singular performers. (4)

See also: I wrote a bit about Garbo's maligned swansong here.

***



Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932) - I love it that this was made in 1932 and it's still a 15.

It's an undisputed, bullet-riddled classic of the crime genre, and certainly the most violent, unsentimental and realistic of the '30s gangster cycle - which also produced films like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties. It's also a hell of a lot better than De Palma's laughable '80s retread: an exercise in excess, especially in regard to how excessively long and boring it is.

The story has Italian immigrant Tony Camonte taking the Chicago underworld by force, whilst chatting up fickle peroxided floozie Karen Morley, but mostly just fancying his own sister (Ann Dvorak), who has her own eyes set on his right-hand hitman, coin-flipping heavy, Guino (George Raft).

Scarface was principally the brainchild of three men, and each brings something punchy and powerful to the table. Producer Howard Hughes was a rebel, an anti-authoritary figure who sided with the outsider, and had yet to permit his life-wrecking OCD to commandeer his films (his later works were damagingly in production for up to eight years).

Having apparently buried the hatchet after suing and counter-suing one another the previous decade, his director was Howard Hawks, the aristocratic filmmaker who made tough movies about tough men and women, with a style and economy that had made him one of the hottest properties in Hollywood. And writer Ben Hecht, an ex-crime reporter, contributed not only his street smarts, but an understanding of how gangsters spoke, behaved and ran their business.

Despite some heavy-handed moralising and a pussy-footed ending enforced by the censorship code, Scarface is a film that revels in wrongdoing, delivering a visceral excitement in those scenes where Camonte kicks the living shit out of the city. That excitement also comes from Hawks' consummate style and effortless ease: he kicks off with a mesmeric tracking shot, kills most of his victims off-camera in various imaginative ways, and - with cinematographer Lee Garmes - makes use of light and shadow in a way that would have impressed future noir pioneers Nicolas Musuraca and John Alton, particularly in the St Valentine's Day Massacre sequence, which is every bit as good as the one in Some Like It Hot - high praise indeed. There's also that first shot of Muni, his scarred face emerging from under a hot towel, and the amazing PoV in the First Ward Social Club, where you first see what Camonte is up against, then later how he intends to deal with that.

Finally, Hecht's dialogue is salty, earthy and entirely potent - there's little of the flowery, sardonic noir poetry here. Camonte is a thug who never got an education; he's not thick, he's smart in his own way, but he doesn't talk like a Hollywood screenwriter, he talks like he was raised on the streets, and intends to stay there - just in luxury.

This was former Yiddish theatre actor Muni's greatest year on screen - he would make the definitive social drama, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang right off the back of Scarface - and he's simply sensational, a brutish, bruising monument to obsession who flits from charm to malice in a flicker. Speaking with an accent every bit as contrived as Brando's in The Godfather, he nevertheless seems utterly real, immersed in the character from first frame to last.

Raft is more well-used than he is acting well, and Boris Karloff is oddly cast as a rival ganglord, but the two female leads both score big. Morley is suitably flighty, flirtatious and scurrilous as an actress turned on by power and bloodsheed, though it's only Dvorak who can really keep pace with Muni - and arguably surpass him. Her character, Tony's horny, repressed 18-year-old sister, could have come across as forced or spoilt or annoying, but Dvorak is absolutely dynamic: hitting every note flawlessly, whether playing frustrated or sexy or vengeful. Even, in fact, when doing an impossibly dated tap routine outside a nightclub at an uncomfortable George Raft.

Scarface is undeniably imperfect: it doubtless lost something (and gained some unwanted things) during its extended battle with the censorious Hays Office, and has a few more easily avoidable problems, including a saggy mid-section dragged down by Vince Barnett's pointless comic relief, an inclusion as incongruous as if Michael Corleone banged his balls on the door handle after the restaurant scene in The Godfather, and turned to the camera, going: "Ooooooof."

It's also, though, a landmark of the gangster genre, with an energy, a ferocity and a commitment to both reality and grown-up subject matter, as opposed to Hollywood convention, that's still exciting to behold today. If you are 15 or over. (3.5)

***



The Filth and the Fury (Julien Temple, 2000) - In 1979, Julien Temple made The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle: a fictionalised retelling of the story of the Sex Pistols - the most important British rock band of the 1970s - which spouted the party line of manager and all-time bullshitter Malcolm McLaren, suggesting that he alone was responsible for conceiving of, sculpting and defining the group.

Twenty-one years later, the director kindly followed it up with this definitive documentary, which is funny, ferocious and ultimately extremely poignant, whilst telling the truth about where the band came from, what they stood for and why they fell apart. "Never mind the bollocks," you could almost say, "here's the Sex Pistols."

They weren't just about spit, vomit and saying "fuck", any more than the Beatles were about mop-top hair, Scouse accents and saying "oooooh" - that is to say, they did do those things, but they did a whole lot more besides. Paul Cook was a generic drummer, Steve Jones a horny kleptomaniac, Glen Matlock a competent if boring bassist and melody-writer, and Sid Vicious a posturing, talentless replacement who got hooked on smack and promptly fell to pieces.

But Johnny Rotten? He was something special.

A lot of rubbish is spoken about Rotten (aka John Lydon) today - that either he reneged on his punk principles or was never that great to begin with. Nonsense. He was a poet, a menace, a social pariah, an amateur working class historian and a rough-edged polemicist, who almost single-handedly invented the iconography of punk, whilst waging war on the entire British establishment. In two-and-a-half years. He is that important to British cultural history. But how do you follow that? And how is someone like that supposed to grow old - especially when left bankrupt, blacklisted and bereaved by their own 'success'.

He talks a bit of shit in the film - he always did - but who else would you want to guide you through the story - his story? Cook and Jones are good comic value (I love Cook's one-liner about his first encounter with Nancy Spungen), and the archive footage of Vicious is sort of fascinating, but it's Lydon who leaves the indelible impression - wise, legitimately bitter and ultimately broken-hearted, as he recalls Vicious's sad demise, and you realise that, in the shadows, he's crying. Amongst the wealth of archive footage, there's also a brilliant sequence in which the band hold a benefit for the children of striking firefighters in Huddersfield, doling out cake to the kids, most of which they throw at a delighted Rotten.

As a film it has a few flaws - its political contextualising is shaky, the editing is annoying, and, most damagingly, there's no live music to go with the live footage - but it's a movie with a great deal of personal significance to me, one I've watched a lot over the past 15 years, and as good a film as we'll ever get about the Pistols. (3)

***

Initial experiments with the Hollywood's Legends of Horror box-set:



Mark of the Vampire (Tod Browning, 1935) - This highly-rated ensemble horror from Freaks director Tod Browning is occasionally sublime but more often silly, and hamstrung by some very obvious pre-release butchery.

When a prominent aristo is found dead and drained of blood, sceptical cop Lionel Atwill, vampire expert Lionel Barrymore and several people not called Lionel try to get to the bottom of the matter. Cue Bela Lugosi and the unearthly Carroll Borland stalking the environs, accompanied by mist, eerie soundscapes and a multitude of amusingly unrealistic bats. But cue also all manner of plot contrivances, draggy dialogue scenes and acting as wooden as a stake through the heart (excepting, of course, the kindly, twinkly-eyed and always excellent Jean Hersholt).

Perhaps the problem is that there’s no reason why this film should only run an hour, aside from commercial concerns, making the narrative seem quite absurdly choppy, as we scoot forward in time, fade out during significant moments, and get less Lugosi than anyone could possibly want.

There’s oodles of atmosphere, a handful of memorable images courtesy of James Wong Howe, and Elizabeth Allan's lovely English voice, but with a story this daft and unconvincing – and nominal star Barrymore barely bothering to vary his line readings before returning to his trailer – it just doesn’t really work. Regardless, Browning was a very talented filmmaker, and his movies still cast a long shadow – this one’s DNA is unmistakably present in the work of ‘40s horror pioneer Val Lewton, which really is as good as its reputation suggests. (2)



Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935) - A top-notch little horror, with Peter Lorre in scintillating form as a bald, brilliant surgeon driven mad by his love for actress Frances Drake, who just doesn't see him as boyfriend material.

It doesn't always have time to explore its various competing story threads, and might have worked even better without the dated comic relief from May Beatty and Ted Healy, but it's imaginatively plotted - with a nod or two to Frankenstein, as that film's dodgy doctor (Colin Clive) is taken over by a criminal body part - nicely co-filmed by a young Gregg Toland, and quite exquisitely acted by the star, who's enjoyable when playing it big, and quietly devastating when turning those huge, uneven and expressive eyes on his inner tragedy.

He's helped by some unusually incisive writing for what is just a low-budget B-movie, as well as the inventive, intelligent handling of genre specialist Karl Freund, who shot films for Fritz Lang and Murnau, made Dracula with Tod Browning, and directed The Mummy. This was his last film as a director, with MGM instead putting him to work as a specialist cameraman on prestige productions, but it's one hell of a sign-off.

Mad Love has one of my favourite trailers ever too, with a lounging, charming and fully-haired Lorre cooing into his phone as a 'fan' waxes lyrical about the actor's recent starring part for Hitchcock.

I can never see Clive without thinking of Mae Clarke's comment that he was "the handsomest man I ever saw - and also the saddest". (3.5)



The Devil-Doll (Tod Browning, 1936) - This is the sort of film you might see as a kid and subsequently wonder if you'd imagined, with Lionel Barrymore as a vengeful banker (and prison escapee) who dresses as an old woman, shrinks dogs for fun, then enlists a pair of microscopic, voodoo minions to paralyse his old adversaries.

It's a baffling collision of Tod Browning horror and sentimental melodrama (Barrymore has a daughter who's disowned him, played by Maureen O'Sullivan, best known as Tarzan's Jane) that never gels, but is as difficult to forget as it is to fully embrace.

My favourite thing about it - and there are several good things, none of which are Barrymore's 'old woman voice' - is the enormous set that Lachna (Grace Ford) clambours over on her way to multitudinous wrongdoing - an ingenious bit of filmmaking far more special than the other effects on display.

The Devil-Doll is no classic, but it rarely bores, and is - for all its daft interludes and concessions to eye-rolling hamminess - quite unlike anything I've ever seen before. Very interesting ending too. (2.5)



Doctor X (Michael Curtiz, 1932) - If you love film history, don't miss it. If you don't, don't watch it.

The story - about an unhinged medical professor stalking a Gothic house - is ludicrous, and the acting from a cast that includes Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and the incredible Lee Tracy is surprisingly dodgy, dogged by creakiness and plenty of fluffed lines, presumably because the two-strip Technicolor they were shooting on was so expensive.

But the eye-popping sets, the casting, the Max Factor make-up and that experimental black-and-white-and-red-and-green-and-sort-of-yellow palette still amaze. The film is notable too for its populist flourishes, like having the reigning Scream Queen, Wray, enter the film screaming for absolutely no reason. (2.5)

***


It's all downhill from here. Which is a pity.

Billion Dollar Brain (Ken Russell, 1967) - I sat in on a Newsnight interview with Michael Caine the other day, as he was doing a show at the concert venue where I work.

One of the fascinating things he talked about - which didn't make the edit - was this ludicrous idea that he just plays himself on screen. Rather, he said, he's a bit like Fred Astaire: "You see Gene Kelly running up the walls and you say, 'I couldn't do that', but then you watch Fred Astaire, and he makes it look so easy - and you think, 'I could do that'. Trust me, you couldn't. And that's the same with my acting. 'I could do that.' Trust me, you couldn't."

That's true of his effortless, offhand performance in Billion Dollar Brain - the third instalment in the Harry Palmer series, which began with The Ipcress File (partly filmed outside the Hall!) in 1965 - lending a wit and subtlety to a film that starts with an utterly sublime scene nodding to classic noir, before declaring open war on our good will.

Part of the problem is the script, which features some fine speeches and delightfully sardonic Palmer zingers, but frequently introduces characters by having Caine simply say their name, too often plays for laughs, and has absolutely no substance: just a shrill, endless merry-go-round of double, triple and possibly even quadruple-crosses.

The cacophonous, bombastic music score doesn't help, either, especially when contrasted with John Barry's magnificent work on Ipcress, and Ed Begley's massive performance as a psychotic religious zealot can be safely filed under 'shit'.

It's sort of interesting, though, for director Ken Russell's familiarly frenzied, sexualised and operatic visual sense, some astute verbiage, and Caine's agreeable underplaying. You couldn't do that. (2)

***



Nancy Goes to Rio (Robert Z. Leonard, 1950) - In this film, Jane Powell uses the word "jinkies" to express surprise.

It's a grindingly dull, often quite irritating retread of the Deanna Durbin film, It's a Date (Powell's mentor was producer Joe Pasternak, who had also discovered Durbin), with a poor screenplay, a weak performance from Barry Sullivan as the love interest, and some awful comedy from Louis Calhern, who I much prefer as a Pre-Code baddie.

Powell's songs are pleasant, though - if never the match of Durbin's - and the dress rehearsal scene, in which we discover just how talented her stagestruck kid really is, works very well. There's also fine support from Ann Sothern as her mother - who doubles as her professional and romantic rival - and Carmen Miranda turns up to sing a song, which is exactly the same as all her other ones, and thus boring.

That's doomed former child star Scotty Beckett as Powell's goofy suitor. (1.5)

***



Madame DuBarry (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919) - Stodgy, sub-par Lubitsch: a plush but joyless, disappointingly straightforward melodrama about DuBarry (Pola Negri) and Louis XV (future Oscar winner and head of the Nazi film unit, Emil Jannings), with little of the director's famous "touch", and all of that confined to the first 20 minutes.

Negri does look quite cool masquerading as a soldier, as Lubitsch briefly explores his famous fondness for roleplay, but the master of the rom-com has little flair for action scenes, and surprisingly little chance to inject his sly sexual politics into this rigid, overblown film. (1.5)

***

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A Separation, Bing Crosby and seductive vigilantes - Reviews #195

More tales of sitting in a darkened room, with your host, R iCk bURi

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A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011) - An Iranian couple, refused a divorce by the local magistrate, instead begin a separation, setting in chain a series of tragic events that leaves no-one in their vicinity uninjured and untainted.

This bristling, brilliant drama is bleak as hell but simply one of the best movies of recent years, offering rich characterisation, a vivid portrait of Iran's religious, male-dominated society, and a gripping, revealing and constantly surprising narrative that throbs with anger and anguish as bitter recrimination consumes its protagonists, colouring them in the eyes of their children, fast shedding their innocence.

There's not a false line or gesture here, in a searing examination of contemporary morality that offers no easy answers and passes no shallow judgements on its damaged characters, instead giving us something akin to real life, albeit in a world that often seems so very far removed from our own. (4)

***



Kes (Ken Loach, 1969) - Ken Loach's second - and still best - feature is this stunning translation of the Barry Hines novel, with David Bradley perfect as malnourished Barnsley school leaver Billy Casper, who escapes the drudgery of pit village life through his friendship with a savage, graceful hawk.

The hawk represents hope, freedom, aspiration and poetry - none of which are allowed to survive in a Britain that kicks the shit out of its working classes, breeding only vicious alpha males peddling mundane brutality and sadistic teachers blinkeredly hurling their young charges onto the scrapheap.

Though it's lit by frequent flashes of wry humour, glorious music and cinematography, and moments of transcendent escape redolent with rare beauty, it's ultimately a chilling depiction of utter hopelessness; one that packs a devastating emotional wallop, tha knows. (4)

***

"You do swim?"
"Oh yes, almost as well as I dance."
"Then you'll drown."



Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936) - This is my ultimate comfort movie: I must have seen it 50 times.

Aside from one broad slapstick set-piece, a dated Chinese valet and Tracy's competent but uninspired performance, everything works. Loy and Powell simply sparkle together - she at her most arch, warm and beautiful, he turning every line into a mellifluous wonder - while Harlow is in unmissable screwball overdrive, displaying what a truly superb comedian she'd become by this time.

Snappily, imaginatively directed by Jack Conway, it's highly quotable, richly romantic and intensely, intensely funny. In fact, it's just about as good as movies get. (4)

***

Bing Crosby triple-bill



Rhythm on the River (Victor Schertzinger, 1940) - It's lovely to find a gem like this, as sometimes I start to wonder if I've exhausted the '30s and '40s' supply of quality musicals.

Bing Crosby plays a composer who ghost-writes tunes for superficially charming songwriter Basil Rathbone. Due to some fun contrivances, he happens upon Rathbone's secret lyricist - Mary Martin - and the two fall in love. A clever premise, and when you learn that it came from Billy Wilder, that makes perfect sense.

The production is handsome - full of gleaming white sets - there are some fun cameos and in-jokes (like a lovably grouchy Oscar Levant slagging off his own book, and bits for Crosby cohorts John Scott Trotter and Ken Carpenter), while the story is pleasant and quite nicely developed, if cluing in its characters surprisingly early, but where this one really excels is in the music.

The songs by Johnny Burke and James V. Monaco are just brilliant, particularly the moving, timeless Only Forever - sung by Crosby at the piano - and the star clearly knows it, approaching each one with the emotional and artistic commitment it deserves, and investing it with a deep and enduring inner beauty, or a palpable excitement.

Though Bing's jazzy posturing and mannered jive-talk ("Oh make me realise it, Wingston!") during the title track is easy to mock - which is why I've just done it - his vocal and rhythmic, pre-synced drumming is first-rate; Dixieland jazz was the star's overriding musical passion, and it shows.

Martin, who was the lifelong partner of one of my most cherished actresses - Janet Gaynor, vintage gossip fans - also contributes one show-stopping number, a sensational version of Ain't It a Shame About Mame that's flirtatious, funny and quite outrageously enjoyable. (3.5)



Birth of the Blues (Victor Schertzinger, 1941) - Or Cultural Appropriation: The Movie, as Bing Crosby and Brian Donlevy - who's frankly incompetent at miming the playing of a cornet - get the Dixieland jazz bug from the African-American community, and proceed to take it to the (white) masses.

But whereas the ghastly New Orleans - which cast Billie Holiday as a maid - had a certain inherent nastiness about it, and could hardly wait to get to a posh hall where white folks could play jazz to other white folks, here the treatment is more respectful, if still hamstrung by Hollywood cliché and racist censorship, paying tribute to real-life musicians of both colours at its close, which is a nice touch. (For his part, it's worth mentioning that Crosby himself saw racial divisions as ridiculous, performing with black musicians as readily as white: for him it was just never an issue.)

The (fictional) story is unfortunately an unmitigated shambles, taking in a tedious love triangle (hello Mary Martin), incorporating an allegedly cute kid, and having the band terrorised by a gangster, played by the chameleonic J. Carrol Naish.

Where it scores, though, is in that score. The music here is just great, from hot jazz numbers to ballads, including an irresistible version of Melancholy Baby which an overly literal Bing sings to a sleepy child. There's also the immortal St James Infirmary, The Waiter and the Porter and the Upstairs Maid - a tuneful, jaunty effort about poor people having the most fun, featuring the mellifluous tones of Jack Teagarden - and Ruby Elzy's glorious St Louis Blues (provoked by one of the most arbitrary plot developments of all time), the camera rudely wandering away from the African-American vocalist, before deciding that, yes, that's actually amazing and we should go and listen to it.

As a historical piece about the birth of the blues, it's blinkered and racist and basically just a big fib, and as entertainment it's patchy, but it'd make one hell of a CD, and here you get to see Donlevy actively wishing that he'd been paying attention when they told him how to hold a cornet. (2.5)



Rhythm on the Range (Norman Taurog, 1936) - This is another of the '30s' endless It Happened One Night rehashes, with society girl Frances Farmer (of Nirvana namecheck notoriety) falling in love with rodeo bum Bing Crosby while riding a boxcar to the West.

It's a solid if familiar story then, there's one stunningly lit shot of a cigarette-shrouded Farmer pulling on a very '30s hat, and Crosby makes the utmost of a thin song score, but the dialogue and characterisation is trite and the frequent comedy interludes are desperately unfunny, making a promising supporting cast look positively idiotic.

At one point, Samuel Hinds says Martha Raye is the most annoying person he's ever met, which seems fair.

As for Farmer, she's a little better than most of these identikit blondes who made 15 or 20 appearances as leading ladies, but undeserving of the cult attention that has attached itself to her as a result of a troubled life, a fraudulent biopic and a superb Cobain lyric. (2)

***



"Why does he make us feel the questions if he's not gonna give us any answers?"
A Serious Man (Joel Coen, 2009) - The Coens' film about a good man looking for answers as his life falls apart has a superb prologue, two terrific early comic scenes featuring an angry Korean student, and sporadic insights (or non-insights) concerning the meaning of existence. It's also nicely shot by the great Roger Deakins, and accompanied by some nice Jefferson Airplane songs.

But the writer-directors' treatment of the material, for all the originality of its setting - an orthodox Jewish community in the late 1960s - suffers from the age-old Coen problems. Any semblance of sentiment is always just the set up to more nastiness and nihilism, which in this context is frankly baffling, and ultimately both wearing and eye-widening - the cynicism of the ending every bit as unnecessary as the heartless pay-off to their take on True Grit. On one level, I'm intrigued by that approach, but it makes the film dreadfully hard to like. The overall effect is as if Wes Anderson had left the last 10 minutes off The Royal Tenenbaums, and then announced that Royal's illness was real.

On a more prosaic level, it's also quite bitty, but my real problem with A Serious Man is that coldness, that aloofness, the sense that it's laughing at its protagonist, as his world is tipped unceremoniously and brutally upon its head. It's a sad, cynical film, one allergic to genuine catharsis.

***



The West Point Story (Roy Del Ruth, 1950) - Jimmy Cagney reunites with his old comrade-in-arms Roy Del Ruth for this puttin'-on-a-show musical, but sadly the old magic just isn't there.

Cagney's a wisecracking former Broadway big-shot - working his way to the bottom of the ladder, betting on horses all the way - who gets a shot at redemption, in the shape of a revue at the army's West Point College. His covert mission, should he be blackmailed into accepting it, is also to put stars in the eyes of silver-tonsiled soldier Gordon MacRae.

It's a clumsy melange of star vehicle, cartoonish '50s comedy, sentimental drama and puff piece for the military, which reaches a particular nadir with a fascistic salute to the titular college - and the nation's armed forces - that would have made Leni Riefenstahl blush.

Doris Day and hoofer Gene Nelson both have their moments - the former bouncing around like a Duracell Bunny on benzedrine, the latter doing a neat routine with canes and hats - and it's fun to see Cagney sparring with his White Heat and Love Me or Leave Me leading ladies: Virginia Mayo and Day.

But the star seems all at sea with the spotty material, going too big too often, and as a film in itself, it's not nearly as great as it should have been, or as it promises to be in that opening reel.

See also: Lady Killer works in spots, while Del Ruth's Blessed Event - with Lee Tracy in the role originally intended for Cagney - might just be my favourite comedy film of all time.

***



The Saint’s Vacation (Leslie Fenton, 1941) - The bland but affable Hugh Sinclair takes over from George Sanders for this mediocre, visually threadbare series entry, co-written by creator Leslie Charteris.

It starts promisingly, and there are some ingenious touches and nice lines alongside a fair portion of convolution and silliness, but it all begins to drag a long while before its hour is up, with the (alleged) comic support from Arthur Macrae proving particularly irritating.

The first of the series remains by far the best: The Saint in New York, with a white-suited Louis Hayward playing Templar as a seductive vigilante killer. (2)

***



Against All Odds (Taylor Hackford, 1984) - The greatest film noir ever made becomes surely the worst neo-noir, in this staggeringly awful reworking of Out of the Past, with Jeff Bridges in the Mitchum role - reimagined as a beardy, leaden-witted American Football player.

The cast includes James Woods, Richard Widmark and Jane Greer - who played the femme fatale in the exalted original - but almost none of it works, due to the hideous '80s stylistics and one of the most abysmal scripts ever brought to the American screen.

In mild mitigation, Woods does his best, there's one neat (though completely incongruous) car chase and the theme song by Phil Collins is actually quite good, though I prefer the Mariah Carey version. Shut up. (1)

***

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