Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Wind, Kurt Vonnegut and public shaming - Reviews #217

I also saw Bob Dylan twice.

FILMS:



CINEMA: The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928) - One of the high watermarks of silent cinema: a stunningly atmospheric drama ignited by a tour-de-force performance from the incomparable Lillian Gish, who plays a tormented, tortured waif driven to madness as she’s buffeted by a desert wind and by unfettered male sexual aggression (I don't think the film is intended as an allegory, but it certainly works as one).

I saw this old favourite at St John’s Church in Notting Hill, London, accompanied by a live organ score, and it was a magical experience. Former Leicester Square Odeon accompanist Donald MacKenzie’s improvised score drew memorably on old Western songs, while effectively resolving one of the film’s main two problems: the comic relief character, Sourdough (William Orlamond).

Rather than accentuating his bumbling idiocy, as the great Carl Davis did during a rare misstep in his Thames Silents series, MacKenzie underlined the pathos inherent in this perpetually unlucky character, changing his interludes from incongruous interruptions to almost complementary asides.

The other potential problem, as you may have heard, is the rather fanciful ending, which was not added by a nervous studio after test screenings, as Gish always claimed later, but which is rather abrupt, no matter how glorious her evocation of her character's new-found emotions.

Everything else about the film is close to perfect, from Sjöström's imaginative use of montage and symbolism (compensating for a somewhat static camera in the era of Murnau) to superb supporting performances from Lars Hanson and Dorothy Cumming, and Gish's near-mythic central turn.

Scalded, burned and almost blinded on the set by wind machines and sulphur pots, she reaches a sustained but subtly modulated melodramatic pitch unlike anything in her career after the legendary (though deeply flawed) Broken Blossoms, fashioning a character in the familiar Gish tradition - poor, pure, persecuted - and yet utterly new; unforgettably heightened but unremittingly real.

This troubling, difficult film was dumped on an unimpressed public by an uncaring MGM more than a year after it wrapped, and proved to be Gish's silent swansong. Bad decisions, bad timing and bad luck meant that she never became the sound-era actress that she might have. The Wind shows what the movies missed out on when it lost both her and its vow of silence, retaining its ability to shock, disgust and enthrall some 87 years later. (4)

***



The Girl of the Golden West (Robert Z. Leonard, 1938) - A charming, textbook Singing Sweethearts musical, this time set in the Old West, with tuneful saloon keeper Jeanette MacDonald unwittingly falling in love with faux-Mexican bandit Nelson Eddy.

It's not as powerful or as fresh as Naughty Marietta, but there are great musical moments, and the film hits all the right notes in terms of emotion, with some suitably moving revelations buried beneath the surface, ready to detonate and do damage to your tear ducts.

There are also pleasant supporting bits for Buddy Ebsen, Leo Carillo and the reliably excellent H. B. Warner, as well as an attempt to replicate the success of Fred and Ginger's 'announce a dance craze' shenanigans, in the shape of a lavishly mounted Mariache number.

Really it's all about the leads, though; it always was. MacDonald is in strong dramatic form - photographing far better than in the pair's garish Technicolor outings - while her chemistry with her mellifluous co-star is absolute.

There are few couples in movie history as simpatico as these two, and when their voices are intertwined, as on the standout Who Are We to Say, it's a simply extraordinary thing to behold. (3.5)

***



The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955) - An unusually thoughtful, well-scripted Western about nation-building, moral duty and, yes, violence, as Yankee veteran Glenn Ford tries to avoid being drawn into a range war with a crippled pioneer (Edward G. Robinson) and his avaricious wife (Barbara Stanwyck).

Written by Harry Kleiner, who scripted Sam Fuller’s classic House of Bamboo, the incoherent ‘60s cop drama Bullitt and the Arnie vehicle Red Heat (!), it has an offbeat approach to its subject matter that reminds me a little of Four Faces West – that ‘40s sleeper in which not a single shot is fired – dealing not in platitudes and cliches but in real characters, original ideas and unusual action set-pieces. While it leans initially on a stock genre trope, the peace-loving man who must pick up a gun in the name of right, it then has this supposed hero mastermind a cold-blooded ambush, while allowing Robinson to paint himself not unconvincingly as a defensible man of destiny, whose blood is in the very soil he treads.

That’s about the only stand-out moment Eddie G has: though he and fellow studio-era heavyweight Stanwyck may appear the more obvious draws, Ford is by far the best thing on offer here, with a charisma, complexity and dynamism that arrests your attention at every turn, his conflicted ex-soldier losing a little of his humanity while never trading in the vicious deconstructionism later realised in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West and Clint’s Unforgiven.

The film is also very nicely, expansively shot: despite an ugly, artificial interior scene early on, it exists mostly in the open: the mountains and valleys of Lone Pine vividly photographed in Cinemascope for Columbia’s debut foray into the new widescreen format (oddly, though, the camera does sometimes create a weird ‘boxing’ effect that I haven’t seen before: flattening part of the image during pan shots). The overall effect is a cynical spin on George Stevens’ Shane that even a rose-tinted coda can’t take the edge off. (3.5)

***



Rosalie (W. S. Van Dyke II, 1937) - A jaw-droppingly opulent MGM musical - from the Dream Factory at the peak of its powers - boasting Nelson Eddy's vocals, Eleanor Powell's dancing and a clutch of new Cole Porter songs.

And for three-quarters of an hour, it's utterly charming - as soldier and football hero Eddy romances incognito princess Powell - then it falls off a cliff, consisting of little but gloomy back-biting and bloody awful comedy from Ray Bolger and the usually reliable Frank Morgan. It tanked at the box office and helped put pay to Powell's hopes of being a leading lady - a shame when you see how well she handles the battle-of-the-sexes stuff early on.

It's worth seeing the film once, though, for that spirited opening, and worth persisting with for two absolutely dazzling tap routines in the second half that shine like beacons amidst the fug of disappointment. The first, in which Powell hoofs atop a series of massive drums before ripping holes in cellophane circles as she spins like a dervish, is an absolute gem.

Not that the music accompanying her is terribly inspired. It sounds like Porter either had writer's block or wrote most of these songs in his lunch break. (2.5)

***



The Card (Ronald Neame, 1952) - What on paper promises to be a rather charming offering turns out to be simply a bad film, with no point, no purpose and no proper characterisation, just a handful of straining ciphers stumbling through a series of generally mirthless episodes.

The great, chameleonic Alec Guinness is ‘Denry’ Machin, a lazy, perma-smirking ideas-man who works his way up through the ranks of Edwardian society, whilst enjoying barely credible, barely coherent relationships with three very different women: a countess (Valerie Hobson), a lying, husky-voiced flirt (Glynis Johns, playing like a toneless, Welsh Jean Arthur) and a wet blanket who hasn’t been written properly (Petula Clark).

The first 15 minutes aren’t bad, the football section plays to my own particular interests and there’s a fun surprise cameo at the end, but I found the movie irritating in the extreme, with a good cast wasted on a weak, smug script. Incidentally, if you were wondering how it can be written by Cruel Sea author Eric Ambler and yet not be set on a boat, I can reassure you: there is a bit set on a boat.

Happily, Guinness and director Neame would re-team to glorious effect eight years later, on the bleak, fascinating movie, Tunes of Glory. (1.5)

***

BOOKS:



A Man without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut (2003) – Vonnegut’s final work is sad, familiar and essential for fans, a loose memoir dealing with his life, his work and the world in which he finds himself as an 82-year-old: George Bush’s America. Some passages are fascinating – did you know Marx’s line, “religion is the opium of the masses”, was alluding to painkillers, not addiction – others aren’t quite so convincing (surely not all Bush’s advisers are simply psychopaths) and several have appeared elsewhere in similar or identical forms, but this short, spare work is a vivid portrait of the author as an old man. Tragically, he claims to have lost not only his country but his famed sense of humour, beaten down by too many disappointments, too many deaths, but every so often that light shines through, and his blending of satire, sentiment, righteous rage and historical detail is invigorating and moving to read. (3.5)



Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut (1990) – Vonnegut’s last will and testament, at least until he decided he had a little more to say with 1997’s Timequake, is a state-of-the-nation polemic about education, law and order, and the flogging of America’s national assets, as a prisoner looks back on his life – a la 1969’s Mother Night – and tries to figure out how and why it all went wrong. It isn’t as good as Mother Night, that rollicking shot of pitch-black entertainment on the subject or mortality. Nor does it endure like his best two books, which dealt with war (Slaughterhouse-Five) and capitalism (God Bless You, Mr Rosewater), and seem more coherent, perhaps because they’re simply better-written or perhaps because they’re more universal and their lofty subjects remain unchanged, whereas this one has been somewhat left behind by history; I don’t doubt that it read superbly in 1990. It’s more akin then to Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions, two much-lauded works from what's broadly regarded as Vonnegut's peak period; it too has a pungent, powerful and hilarious first half, wobbles in the second with excessive repetition and some thematically muddled diversions, then lands superbly. It’s a great time capsule, with several enduring arguments and inspired ideas – calling WWII “the Finale Rack” is a hint of the sporadic wonders within – even if its genius isn’t ultimately sustained. (3)



The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (1914) – Tony Benn’s favourite book, and one of the key socialist pop cultural touchstones, is a frustrating, stodgy, nasty, repetitious, anti-everything diatribe that plays like a tedious, English Grapes of Wrath (some 25 years before the fact), and never really reaches a dramatic peak of any sort. Where it does excel, is in painting such a complete picture of working class life, as it chronicles a year in the life of a group of builders beaten down by poverty, fear and a complete absence of self-worth. It also acts as the primer on socialism that Tressell intended, as a pinko within the group, Frank Owen, tries to educate his colleagues as to the realities of life – and the joys of left-wing politics – only for his ideas to be met with contempt, mockery and rage. Sadly its realism and value are both undermined by a hysterical approach that, while fired by fully justifiable anger, is a drain to read, hammering away endlessly at the same points, and resulting in caricatured, one-note villains who are simply beyond parody (like a boss who spends every scene crawling around houses, trying to catch people not working, so he can sack). Its arguments for socialism, too, are generally so tied to the industrial era that they’re hard to relate to the modern world, though the first part of the book – dealing with the way that immigrants and the poor are blamed for economic problems – remains timely, and the manner in which the media and the right ultimately seek to silence socialist argument is still startlingly and depressingly relevant. (2.5)



So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (2015) – A short, funny, clever, wise, far-reaching and deceptively important book that prizes incision over depth, as Ronson makes the case against public shaming on social media, by meeting the publicly shamed, the shameless, a group advocating complete honesty and a company that repairs damaged reputations online. A joy to read, but terrifying with it – and making a powerful polemical point. I loved it. (3.5)

***

THEATRE/COMEDY:



Farinelli and the King (Duke of York’s Theatre) is a sort of music therapy origins story which borrows heavily from The Madness of King George, as Madrid-based monarch Mark Rylance is awoken from his madness by a mellifluous castrato, and goes to live with him in a forest. Rylance is good, and the final scenes are genuinely moving, but they’re also rather without foundation, the play never laying the requisite groundwork, as we’re asked to be nostalgic about events that weren’t that good at the time. There’s also a problem that seems to arise with a lot of new work at the moment: the play gets most of its laughs by injecting modern, sweary colloquialisms into the dialogue, but these are cheap laughs, and their basic incongruity undermines the whole. It’s also staged in a curiously flat, inauspicious manner: the actors just stood in a line (recalling Joseph McBride’s vivid complaints about how Mervyn LeRoy directed Mister Roberts), the low-hanging chandeliers blocking their faces from the Upper Circle. I was a latecomer to the Rylance love-in – his performance in this year’s TV adaptation of Wolf Hall is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen – and while the material doesn’t fully exploit his mercurial gifts, his effete prowling and quicksilver mood shifts lend it a certain quality that isn’t there on the page. (2)



John Finnemore’s Souvenir Cabin (Shaw Theatre) – A shambling, good-humoured live show from one of the best comic writers in Britain, displaying a little of Finnemore’s signature genius – in a Famous Five sketch, a new Cabin Pressure monologue about bears, some delightfully absurd ad-libs and the deliriously odd Thank You, Captain Dinosaur closer – as well as the distinct impression that he was very nervous and his co-star Margaret Caborn-Smith hadn’t really done any rehearsal. (3)



Guardian Live: Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci in Conversation (Central Hall, Westminster) – It took a while to get going, but this spotty chat between two famed collaborators – a razor-sharp comic mastermind (Iannucci) and a more thoughtful, introspective character actor (Coogan) – was full of charm and insight, as well as a few stories Coogan has told at least once before. I found the Q&A session at the end genuinely mortifying (I usually do), an experience alternately compounded and alleviated by Iannucci’s delight in tormenting his interrogators. And obviously at the end some twat asked a question that was basically about themselves and gave Coogan a script. (3)

***

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Ten things I love about Kiss Me Kate


Can we just ignore this and enjoy the rest of the film, please.

Call me Old Man McBorefest, but I’m retreating into the past as far as my movie-watching is going. 17 of the best 19 films I’ve seen this year have been things I’ve seen before, and the only movie I got out of bed for during this year’s London Film Festival was made in 1953*. In 3D, I should add, which is why I just couldn’t miss it, attracted – as the film’s marketeers intended back in 1953 – by the chance to experience something that a TV screen just can’t deliver.

That film was Kiss Me Kate, which I think is ultimately my favourite of MGM’s many, many Golden Age musicals, because of its ingenuity, imagination and electrifying energy, typified not by its leads – the charming, tuneful Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson – but by its author and its supporting artists. I love Broadway Melody of 1940 for its tap battle and Preston Sturges gags; I love that near-mythic semi-musical, A Star Is Born, for giving Judy Garland her greatest role, and breaking my heart; and I love Singin’ in the Rain, because I am a person.

This, though, elates and excites me in a way that no other offering from the Dream Factory quite manages. It has an odd dry-spot an hour in, there’s a slight disconnect between its central story and its subplots, and the costumes are frankly inexplicable (while Singin' in the Rain’s remain the apogee of cool), but it’s a simply monumental achievement, and the LFF screening was one of the defining cinematic experiences of my life so far. Now stop calling me Old Man McBorefest.

Here are the things I love about Kiss Me Kate:

1. The 3D

Like the now ubiquitous widescreen, 3D was a gimmick intended to drag audiences away from their accursed TV sets and back into cinemas. It worked a little, but not a lot. On this evidence, you wonder what else Hollywood could really have done: it's delightfully executed (well, except for in the final scene, where it totally breaks down) and augments a bright, showy musical in a fun, showy way. Fuck art, look how many things they’re flinging at us.

2. Too Darn Hot

Ann Miller’s Bianca auditions for a part in Cole Porter’s new show by arriving in what is essentially her underwear, tapping her toes on anything that’ll move and chucking any and all superfluous clothes directly at the camera. I’d never fully embraced this number, but experienced with an audience, on the big screen and in 3D, it’s simply one of the most extraordinary sequences I’ve ever seen, an exhilarating, intoxicating, uproarious and hilarious showstopper that ticks every box going, draws a few more, and then ticks those too.

3. Porterian rhymes

This is the film in which Cole Porter rhymes “Padua” with “cad you are”. At another point, it’s “ruins” and “scandalous doin’s”. Later, “Gable boat” and “sable coat”. Man, I love Cole Porter.

4. Porterian smut
The stuff Porter managed to sneak past the censor here is genuinely astonishing. When he was asked to remove a line about puberty, he changed the next one so it was about fingering. There’s also Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore threatening to kick someone “right in the Coriolanus” and Ann Miller just shouting: “I’ll take a Dick” over and over and over again.

5. Porterian post-modernism
Backstage drama, on-stage drama: a stage drama that’s Shakespeare but with songs by Cole Porter – the same Cole Porter who appears in the opening scene, but played by someone else – where actors’ backstage dramas intrude on the drama unfolding, and the (hideously dated) spanking scene is provoked by those backstage dramas, but is also a part of the text of the drama they’re playing. Try to spot the joins: I bet you can’t.

6. Miller bringing it

The exuberant, delightfully wordy Tom, Dick and Harry number has other glories too, perhaps the greatest of which is Miller’s first: “any Tom, Harry or Dick”, the drum starting to bang as the beat quickens and she begins to stomp, injecting a raw sexuality into what until then has just been three men describing themselves in oddly verbose terms.

7. Tommy Rall

He's just superb. His acting’s as broad as Gene Kelly’s, but his athleticism and dynamism are comparable too, and it’s a wonder watching this that he wasn’t a bigger star. If you do like seeing him spar with Bob Fosse here, then check out MGM’s 1955 musical remake of My Sister Eileen, which sees them engage in a stunning challenge dance.

8. From This Moment On
This number wasn’t in the original play, but a discarded piece from a 1951 offering added at the 11th hour. It’s a heady concoction that captures Porter’s mix of cynicism, sentiment and wit, while providing a dazzling showcase for Miller and her three suitors: Rall, Fosse and Bobby Van, whose contrasting styles are exhibited to stunning effect. From that glorious opening melody, every frame of the number hums with invention, imagination and sheer, unbridled energy, with one segment so startling that I’ve given it a section all its own...

9. Bob Fosse reinventing dance in just over a minute

Legendary dancer, choreographer and director Bob Fosse had only just pitched up in Hollywood when he was cast in Kiss Me Kate. After a dazzling but conventional supporting part in a charming, neglected B-musical, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, he properly announced his arrival here, with 64 seconds of finger-clickin’ goodness. Accompanied by regular co-conspirator Carol Haney, his angular, overtly sexualised routine turned everything on his head, winning him the chance to choreograph new Broadway show The Pajama Show, and launching the Fosse legend. I was joking when I said “fuck art”, as this is one of the greatest pieces of art I’ve ever seen. I often just watch this scene on YouTube if I’ve got a minute.

10. Keenan Wynn (right)

I’m not a big fan of this journeyman comic, but as a well-mannered gangster with a love of the theatre, he transcends his usual limitations – and perhaps even the material itself. No doubt this was what Woody Allen had in the back of his mind when he wrote the Chazz Palimenteri part in Bullets on Broadway.

Do you like Kiss Me Kate? TELL ME YOUR OPINIONS.

*I would also have been to see Terence Davies’s Sunset Song, but I was double-booked

***

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Review: Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet

Friday, 2 October 2015
at the Barbican Centre



Hamlet was fairly good, but no better than that: a curious, tonally awkward production that accentuated the absurdism of the character's descent into madness, drawing attention to the play’s odd lurches in mood, which doesn’t always play well to a modern mind.

Benedict Cumberbatch, of course, is the sweet prince who becomes markedly less sweet upon learning of his father’s murder: as the king was poisoned, now his son’s mind is poisoned: flitting from revenge fantasies to abusive rants to (in this adaptation) playing in a toy castle. The show begins with him listening to Nat ‘King’ Cole’s Nature Boy on a gramophone, before the curtain rises to reveal a stunning set depicting a castle hall and centring on a banqueting table set at an angle, guests descending a stately, statuesque staircase along one wall. It’s a magnificent moment, but it soon becomes clear that the film has traded a basic, thrilling intimacy for these fleeting instances of theatrical splendour, as everyone is just rather far away. And for some reason that one could probably imaginatively justify at a stretch, but which I’m not going to, the table is littered with the antlers of recently deceased deer. In another curious bit of staging, the set also goes way, way back. It’s a design pregnant with possibilities, but it’s not generally used as imaginatively or intelligently as it might be: mostly for chase sequences or to suggest the size of the building. Indeed, the only moment when it really comes into its own is during Ophelia’s touching departure from this planet.

That’s also the only part of the play in which Ophelia works as a character, since Sian Brooke has apparently never encountered a mentally ill person before, or, indeed, a person. Her wretched, inane twitching is like every stylised approximation of madness you’ve ever seen, but somehow worse. The rest of the supporting cast struggles too (though not quite so much), aside from Ciarán Hinds’ dangerous, repentant, rather bluff Claudius, Karl Johnson – an effective ghost, particularly when appearing within the players’ stage – and Matthew Steer, an amusingly apprehensive, confused Rosencrantz. I don’t know why Kobna Holdbrook-Smith was cast as Laertes: there does seem to be a tendency in London theatre to incongruously bestow black actors with traditionally non-black roles to which they’re not very well-suited; and unless I’m missing something, it’s not done for purely artistic reasons.

At times, though, this adaptation really does work. “What a piece of work is a man” remains one of the most remarkable speeches ever written, with a vast scope and an overpowering emotional pull, and Cumberbatch draws out much of its haunting power. He’s good, throughout, actually: less drenched in spit-flecked venom than Maxine Peake’s recent genderblind characterisation and lacking her manic, vituperative if one-note comic energy, but committed to the legendary role, finding flashes of anger and shards of sorrow that illuminate the stage, and drawing the eye even when the action is elsewhere on that rather cavernous stage. Having said that, I’m not sure that what he offers us is Hamlet: it’s more a fusion of the character and his stock persona, which can be a little too knowing and in control to suggest true pain, true passion and true madness.

He’s also undermined by an oddly silly, adolescent touch in which people act in slow motion while he delivers his solliloquys, an approach that distracts from several of the play’s most important moments. That kind of am-dram silliness is one reason that this production is unlikely to satisfy Shakespeare buffs, but then neither is what I’m about to say, which is that a lot of Hamlet is quite silly. I wouldn’t actually mind some judicious cutting of the text and not just for reasons of length: keep the killer dialogue, but dump the signet ring, the poisoned blade and the comic longeuers in which Hamlet turns into a kind of wankerish clown. Doubtless some pseud will tell me that Shakespeare is subverting the very nature of plotting (just like he’s a feminist and not an anti-Semite), but I really think that if someone made a TV drama that hinged on these self-same elements, everyone would say it was shit.

The play probably will appeal to Cumberbatch fans, though, as it’s as close to a star vehicle as a Shakespeare play is ever going to be, and because he gives them what they want: charm, charisma, effort and Sherlock-ish comedy, dressed informally or in mocking, post-modern military garb, striding around a stage on which no expense has been spared – would that similar effort had been spent finding a cast – and interspersed with a handful of knockout moments. The most notable of all is a magnificent pièce de théâtre at the end of the second act, which informs the impractical but intriguing staging of the rest of the play. It’s an effect that I won’t spoil for those likely to see it: a very exciting, engaging bit of theatre in a schizophrenic, ultimately disappointing production. (2.5)

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Joel McCrea, The Night of the Hunter, and feminism - Reviews #216

I've been busy writing and with work, but here are a few things I've watched or read lately. I also saw (and met!) Dave Gilmour, which was amazing. I'm listening to Dark Side of the Moon as I write this.



*SOME SPOILERS*
The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
is one of the great films, a beguiling, bewitching, sometimes bewildering collision of Gothic horror and fairytale, a haunting, hypnotic vision of pure evil, of goodness, of redemption, of innocence lost and perhaps regained, of greed and guilt, loss, delusion, sexual obsession and puritanical perversion. It has some weak acting, wild lurches in tone and even a little Schufftan silliness, and yet also many of the most striking, magical sequences of its era, climaxing with a half-hour confrontation between good and evil that is amongst the most indelibly artistic and impossibly moving passages of pure cinema ever put onto celluloid.

Robert Mitchum is a psychotic, phony preacher on the hunt for a $10,000 stash hidden away somewhere by a recently hanged bank robber (Peter Graves). Inveigling his way into the lives of Graves’s widow (Shelley Winters) and two children – John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Anne Bruce) – he seduces her, charms their friends at the local ice-cream parlour and a picnic in the park, and terrorises the young ‘uns, convinced that they know where the money’s hidden. Which they do. It’s in Pearl’s dolly.

Laughton, a famed stage and screen actor directing his first and only film, drew on the then-derided medium of silent film for his visual inspiration, basing his visuals primarily on the work of German Expressionist director F. W. Murnau: the early sections draw transparently on Nosferatu and Faust, the later ones on Sunrise and particularly City Girl. He’s helped, immeasurably, by Stanley Cortez, who had shot arguably the most ambitious and attractive film of the previous decade, Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, before it was unfortunately slashed to shreds by a bunch of dicks. Almost literally.

Mitchum was one of the best actors of his generation, and a favourite of David Lean, but he got most of his power from underplaying, in movies like Out of the Past, The Lusty Men and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. In a role of this kind, that approach simply wouldn’t work, and so he plays it big: at first brilliantly – the ‘story of left hand, right hand’ is a dazzling set-piece – but then increasingly as a sort of satanic panto villain, hamming it up outrageously, and even growling in a way best filed under ‘extremely silly’. Laughton and Cortez use him superbly, as does the story, but I don’t see his performance as one of his best; in fact, not even close.

There are also weaknesses in the children’s performances: Bruce’s line readings are mostly exactly the same as one another, while Chapin alternates between articulating resourcefulness and stoic belligerence and just acting quite poorly: as in that moment where he blurts out something ill-advised and then belatedly gasps and clutches a hand to his mouth. At other times he’s spot-on, but essentially playing the Bobby Driscoll part from The Window, you can see the gulf in class between the two.

And yet despite those shortcomings, it’s never less than utterly astonishing, creating a seductive, artistically enriching world so rich with symbolism, so blessed by love, craftsmanship and even - dare I say it - genius that you can’t help but be enraptured. There’s the stunning, eerie use of wholesome American song. The shot of Mitchum framed as if in a chapel, as he clutches skywards, channelling his God. Winters in the water: one of the most astounding, unforgettable images in all of American film. The entrancingly beautiful boat ride, entirely fresh, yet utterly timeless.

And then, just when you think it can’t get any better, silent screen icon Lillian Gish turns up, armed with the only truly worthy role of her sound career: an aged version of the heart-rending heroines she played in Griffith’s rural tone poems, Way Down East and True Heart Susie, with so much love to give and so much empathy for the meek, the weak and those children who “abide and they endure”. It is as good a performance as I have ever seen in a movie, for once conceived and shot with as much intelligence and reverence for an actor of Gish’s mercurial, majestic gifts as she deserved; and every time she opens her mouth, I want to cry. The only other performance that has ever had that effect on me is Wendy Hiller’s Major Barbara: both performances are true and both characters are gentle and selfless, but have a rod of sheerest steel at their centre.

I must have seen the film 30 times and there are still new things to enjoy, to marvel at, to be astounded by: like the little tell-tale paper figures blowing unseen past Mitchum’s feet. But it’s the old things I love the best, particularly that incomparable scene in which Mitchum once again commandeers that wondrous hymn, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, to creep the hell out of Chaplin and Bruce. But this time Gish, in silhouette and cradling a rifle as she sits in a rocking chair, joins in, her voice rising and harmonising, in perfect tandem over his haunting, horrifying vocals. He’s not on top any more – in the story or in the film – because Lillian Gish is here. (4)

***

Joel McCrea Westerns, because why the hell not?



Border River (George Sherman, 1954) - Everyone has comfort movies. Mine are mostly old rom-coms, and '50s B-Westerns starring Audie Murphy, Randolph Scott or particularly Joel McCrea - the only one of the three who could actually, like, act.

This McCrea oater is better and better-funded than most, with a nice balance of intrigue, action and romance, as his Confederate bank robber turns up in a Mexican town, attracting the attention of merciless mercenaries, a slick crime kingpin with his own private army, and the kingpin's girlfriend (Yvonne de Carlo), who likes money, but likes McCrea more.

There are some pleasant if sparing location shots, several unexpectedly fantastic lines - as well as a couple of sillier exchanges, including one about a pig - and plenty of plot twists, even if a few could be seen as mildly convenient. And though it wobbles a tad in the final third under the weight of a frankly ambitious number of subplots, the climactic set-piece delivers, with one fantastic stunt, and a fascinating piece of off-kilter imagery.

I doubt the film would work half as well without the effortless charisma, lovely voice and leathery tanned skin of McCrea, one of the most likeable and - within his limitations - underrated actors ever to grace the American screen, but with him in the saddle it's fine if admittedly flawed fun. (3)



Wichita (Jacques Tourneur, 1955) - A po-faced, pastel-shaded and action-packed Western about the cleaning up of Wichita, featuring a Wyatt Earp who's a little too good to be true. It's great fun, though, despite its artificiality, with plenty of incident, a fine cast led by Joel McCrea, and a theme song that works as a lovely motif, once shorn of its extremely silly words. There are also some cracking visual compositions, right from the get-go, and weightier observations than you might expect about gun control and law and order, the film rather more progressive on the former than the latter. (3)



Stranger on Horseback (Jacques Tourneur, 1955) - A sensational little Western about the coming of law and order, with gun-toting circuit judge Joel McCrea trying to bring the son of a powerful pioneer to justice.

Made by McCrea and director Jacques Tourneur the same year as Wichita, it's a vastly superior outing in every way: a tight, slim oater that does wonders with a tiny budget, boasting a riveting story, a crackling script that includes a superb monologue for villain John McIntire and a stunning climax making full use of whip-cracking desert dominatrix Miroslava. There's also a colourful supporting part for long-faced John Ford favourite, John Carradine.

McCrea's Westerns are one of my enduring cinematic pleasures, but they're rarely as good as this intelligent offering, one of the few as impressive as his central characterisation: which here is assured, multi-faceted and effortlessly imposing. The only real downsides are a couple of duff effects and the fact that no colour negative for this film still exists, so the existing print looks a little odd and oversaturated.

In creating a chamber Western that's credible, invigorating and constantly keeps you guessing, Tourneur and his writers effectively anticipated the 'Ranown' cycle: the Budd Boetticher movies starring McCrea's contemporary and rival, Randolph Scott, which kicked off the following year with the astounding Seven Men from Now. The two stars were eventually united in Sam Peckinpah's second and greatest film, Ride the High Country. (3.5)

***



Séance on a Wet Afternoon (Bryan Forbes, 1964) - A dark, atmospheric thriller about false-nosed asthmatic Dickie Attenborough being forced to kidnap a child by his wife, a terrifying, chameleonic psychic played by Kim Stanley.

It's extremely well-acted, with superb use of sound - augmented by John Barry's syncopated score - and one notably fine sequence making the most of London's Underground.

For all that, it's not exactly enjoyable, and while the shifting dynamics and periodic revelations keep you guessing, the forced withholding of information, Gothic-lite back story and excessive use of interiors prevent it from scaling the heights it otherwise might.

As ironic pay-offs go, though, that last line is very deftly done. (3)

***



Bitter Sweet (W. S. Van Dyke II, 1940) - Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald's seventh of eight films together is no match for their early classics - Naughty Marietta, Rose Marie and Maytime - with a poorly-paced story, unmemorable songs and an interminable gypsy opera finale.

It's set largely in Vienna, with exactly the supporting cast you'd expect (Felix Bressart, Sig Ruman and Herman Bing), as well as George Sanders proving comprehensively that amongst his considerable arsenal was not the ability to do accents.

The film starts quite well and thereafter occasionally sparks into life, courtesy of the Singing Sweethearts' singularly evocative harmonising or a funny scene with Bing that riffs cleverly on the absurdity of their image, but mostly it's distressingly mediocre, with barely any story at all - and then much too much. It's also somewhat garish and flatly directed by Woody 'One Take' Van Dyke, despite rather hilariously - in the wake of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind - being billed as "Technicolor's greatest spectacle".

Noel Coward was reportedly so outraged by the changes made to his play that he never let Hollywopd touch another one; the result is a reheated reimagining of Maytime with little of the sweetness and none of the peril or intense romantic feeling.

Eddy and MacDonald's movies are often (and unfairly) dismissed nowadays as kitsch or camp, but at their best they do as good a job as any of crystallising the extraordinary escapism that MGM was capable of crafting: the Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life sequence in Naughty Marietta remains perhaps my favourite scene of the studio era. (2)

***

BOOK:



A Book for Her by Bridget Christie (2015) - A shocking, impassioned, insightful, incisive, passionate and hysterical* book about where comedy and feminism intersect**, from the most blistering, blissfully funny talent on the current stand-up scene. It notably overuses one joke format, is occasionally unfocused and has more than its fair share of typos, but I loved it to pieces. Give it to the feminist in your life. Or to the unreconstructed sexist prick. Either works. (3.5)

*as in 'funny'. I'm not saying Bridget is hysterical, or that all women are. Though they are. **this is a pun about intersectional feminism. Hear me roar.

***

THEATRE:



Hangmen (The Royal Court Theatre)
- In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh returns to the London stage with a killer new play about the country's second best hangmen (David Morrissey) - on the day that hanging is abolished. It's both perilously dark and astonishingly funny, McDonagh weaving together his comic and thriller-ish strands with utter majesty, as a mysterious blonde stranger appears in Morrissey's Oldham pub, setting in motion a truly grisly chain of events. After the partial misfire that was his Hollywood debut, Seven Psychopaths, this is a stunning, seamless return to form from one of the sharpest, wittiest and most interesting writers working today, a work so incredibly entertaining that it's only when the dust settles that you realise there was real meat on these bones. Perhaps its ending is telegraphed a little too clearly considering the near-constant surprises served up beforehand, but it's a must-see for anyone who loves the stage, with a superb ensemble, a couple of dazzling coups de théâtre and the best new material you'll hear this year. (4) (Also in the interval I met Kate Tempest and she recommended me an early McDonagh play. I love Kate Tempest. I'll let you know when I've read it.)



The Play That Goes Wrong (Duchess Theatre) - A neat idea that doesn't quite work in practice, as we watch an am-dram production fall to pieces in a litany of minor ways. It's too slapsticky, its farcical elements don't make sense and too many of the running performances and running gags are unforgivably broad* (a sound engineer who loves Duran Duran? I mean, really?), though there are a few jokes that really land - including a killer one about improv - and the way that James Marlowe's incompetent thespian repeatedly breaks the fourth wall with his bashful grin is rather delightful. (2.5)

*unforgivably in a transitory theatrical context, I have forgiven them all now

***

Thanks for reading.