All the stuff I've been watching lately. I've also been enraptured by Karina Longworth's series on the Hollywood blacklist.
Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, 2016) − Completely fascinating documentary about crusading Democrat and serial dick pic sender Anthony Weiner and his New York mayoral campaign of 2013, which started off promisingly, before the unfortunate surfacing of lots of photographs of his penis.
From a spectacular opening that shows what a barnstorming, populist performer he was in his congress days, through to a desperately and increasingly uncomfortable chance to be a fly on the wall as his marriage falters and his campaign implodes, it's a remarkable portrait − with remarkable access − of a narcissist who clearly cares about ordinary people, and yet is destroyed by his own rampaging demons and a recurrent shittiness in his private life.
It's the opposite, in some ways, of The War Room, Pennebaker's brilliant behind-the-scenes film on Clinton's 1992 presidential bid, in which somehow (through timing, strategy or just dumb luck) a philandering Democrat manages to keep the media focused on his political plan, and so wins the biggest prize in the land. Weiner raises questions about the duality of man: the gulf between our personal and public lives, and whether failings in one should disqualify us from the other. (3.5)
You're unlikely to come out of it with an enhanced regard for its central figure (who I knew mostly from his extremely erudite contributions to the financial crash doc, Inside Job), but it's undeniably a vivid portrait of the man, and has a great deal to say about media, celebrity and hypocrisy in the modern world.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999) − This is such an interesting, well-crafted film, with sumptuous period detail and a rich atmosphere of decadence and desperation, but it’s only about three-quarters persuasive and convincing, due largely – I think – to the way the central character is portrayed.
It’s the mid-1950s, and intense, slippery blue-collar kid Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) travels to northern Italy to bring dissolute playboy Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) back to the bosom of his family. Instead he becomes obsessed with his quarry, leading to tragedy, strategic impersonation and moral turpitude.
There’s so much to like here: Law’s seductively selfish Adonis, Anthony Minghella’s literate script (adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel), and the absolutely stunning editing from Godfather alumnus (and Return to Oz director!) Walter Murch – who takes location footage that could have been mere travelogue fodder, and spins it into something dark, stifling and gorgeous, matching voices and saxes, segueing from introspection to escape, and plunging us into Ripley’s unfolding dream and enveloping nightmare. The film drips with jazz and sex and longing. Dappled sun and toned bodies. Repression, revelation and self-revolution.
Its music is close to perfection, from trumpeter and bandleader Guy Barker arranging old standards (and turning up to play a solo), to a joyous duet between Ripley and Greenleaf, and an Italian boy chorister making his conductor weep through the sheer beauty of his voice. Echoes of The Jolson Story’s sensational opening, the jazz fetish of film noir, the gangster classic Angels with Dirty Faces. Its imagery is beguiling and disorientating: a stone bust beaten to death, Madonnas bobbing in the sea like Fellini at his poetic realist best.
But against this perfectly rendered backdrop, and alongside Cate Blanchett’s astonishing, film-stealing bit as a horny, lonely socialite (shades of Carol), Damon’s characterisation seems vague and unconvincing – a ‘90s movie star doing ‘90s movie star acting, a blot on the landscape. Jack Davenport gets largely past his retroactive typecasting through sheer gentle conviction. Paltrow is uncommonly and unusually good as Greenleaf’s confused, besotted fiancée. Law’s accent slips a couple of times – a failing that does almost nothing to detract from his erratically sensual, brutally real characterisation – and Philip Seymour Hoffman is thrillingly ugly and unwelcome and suspicious as his hellraiser buddy.
But while Damon has effective moments of panic and poetry, his performance keeps us at arms’ length. We’re only halfway complicit in his deception and downfall, and that half comes mostly from the script. Often his rictus grin is the only bit of him acting, except for his hair and glasses. Five years later, he would have been fine (he played a similar part in Behind the Candelabra, and The Informant!, for that matter); here he’s too close to a cipher, oscillating unhappily between two conflicting personas: a Machiavellian manipulator and a hastily improvising toy of fate whose subterfuge is rather too simplistic for the film’s scope.
Elsewhere the film’s flaws are mopped up by people of genius: a shot of pigeons in San Marco suggests that without Murch’s eye for rhythm and juxtaposition this may not have been the hypnotic experience that it is, but neither the script nor the actor quite know what to make of Ripley, his fate or indeed his talent. (3)
Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949) − The reputation of this 1949 film noir has become something of a cause celebre, with the film being hailed as a lost classic after a UCLA restoration, a prohibitively expensive Flicker Alley release and its subsequent appearance on Region B Blu-ray (from Arrow).
There are many lost classics of the genre just waiting for rediscovery: following the rehabilitation of Cry Danger, hopefully Dick Powell’s earlier vehicles Pitfall and Cornered are next, but this isn't really one of them. It's merely another superior entry in the cycle: a sort of pulpy extrapolation of Von Stroheim's Greed, in which housewife Lizabeth Scott becomes so intent on keeping the money dropped into her lap that suddenly everyone is dying.
I’m a huge fan of Scott, who is characterised in the making-of documentary as a ‘sexy June Allyson’, but is perhaps best understood as a less fantastical Veronica Lake, but this isn’t one of her best performances. It lacks the toxic sparkle of her work in Dead Reckoning or the enrapturing warmth she exhibited in Pitfall, it’s simply an exercise in neurotically unpleasant drudgery. She looks knackered and even that incredible husky voice – her dialogue typically filtered through a thousand Marlboros and bourbon shots – isn’t used to full effect. When she’s asked to throb with intensity (never the easiest mode to slip into), she’s caught acting, her eyes flitting all over the place. She isn’t bad: she’s fairly commanding and keeps us on our toes, whether intentionally or otherwise, as we’re left guessing as to whether her character is extraordinarily calculating and malevolent or a mere plaything of chance, but I was expecting the masterclass I’d been promised, and I didn’t get it. Nor does Arthur Kennedy offer anything as her more level-headed husband. I’ve always liked him as an actor, but here he’s almost offensively boring.
As a result, the acting honours are taken by Don DeFore, the year after his best performance – in Andre de Toth’s Western noir, Ramrod – as a jocular, charming mystery man doing his own investigation into what the hell is going on, and by Dan Duryea. Duryea came to Hollywood in 1941 to reprise his role in Lillian Hellman’s brilliant, pungent examination of avarice, The Little Foxes, and by 1949 had already made a name for himself in crime films, most notably as a thuggish pimp in Fritz Lang’s noirs Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window, and as a sweaty, nervy musician in the near-classic Black Angel. Here, his role is really interesting – an apparently cocksure heavy who finds the tables turning on him, and struggles to hold on, his amusing sardonism replaced by a drink-sodden disorientation – and he milks it for all it’s worth, without ever tipping over into excess, the film crackling with life whenever he appears.
Ultimately, I wanted more of that complexity and intensity than I got: either the silkily evasive, seductive Scott of Dead Reckoning, or else a central performance of paint-stripping vigour, such as Ida Lupino would have given. The reality is rather more pedestrian and the film does look a bit cheap (not in the deprived, depraved way that Detour looks cheap), but it’s still entertaining, with an interesting plot, a couple of good performances and the familiarly stylised seediness of the noir milieu: always a fun place to take a holiday. (3)
The Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, 1964) − The first couple of scenes are really great, then it just turns out that this is another entry in Roger Corman's Poe cycle that consists of Vincent Price being weird in a castle. Its main problem − aside from familiarity − is that the pacing is all over the shop, with endless scenes of people just wandering around ominously, but Nicolas Roeg's cinematography is amazing (I love the way he abandons the stately framing for a handheld in the climax, like Scorsese in Goodfellas), there are some interesting if underdeveloped ideas about intellectual evil, and the last 10 minutes is really strong, with a creepy coda that reeks of Bergman. The film also includes a man doing the worst ever impression of a pig. (2.5)
See also: I've reviewed several of Corman's other Poe adaptations: Tales of Terror, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum.
Pierrepoint (Adrian Shergold, 2005) − This biopic of Britain's most prolific and high-profile executioner (co-written by Bob Mills!) looks and sounds like just about every other homegrown film of the past 15 years, but its limited psychological insights are put across fairly well by Timothy Spall (as Pierrepoint) and Juliet Stevenson (as his wife), and its rather cumbersome subplot pays off handsomely with by far the best scene in the movie. For all that, I got a lot more out of Martin McDonagh's recent play, Hangmen, which deals with the (fictional) second-best executioner around, and is fatalistic and blackly funny where this is prosaic and formulaic. (2.5)
Men of Boys Town (Norman Taurog, 1941) − MGM's sequel to its 1938 smash, Boys Town, is an overlong shambles that throws in everything from a miscarriage of justice to brutal reform school guards to Mickey Rooney pretending to "rassle" in slow-motion for what feels like two years.
Spencer Tracy (who won his second Best Actor Oscar for the original film) is Father Flanagan, the Irish-American priest who runs a vast school for marginalised and often criminal boys, with Rooney returning as one of the town's success stories − Whitey Marsh, the subject of the first movie − along with popular child actors of the day like Bobs Watson, who's possibly too old to be behaving the same way he did three years earlier.
The film begins as a rehash of the earlier movie, only with brutalised Larry Nunn needing redemption, before deciding − correctly − that we've already seen this, and just chucking in any other ideas that happen to be around. Some of them work, but mostly it's too sentimental, unbelievable and unrealistic to derive much enjoyment from, particularly when a wise-cracking, pint-sized hoodlum called Flip (Darryl Hickman) turns up, and the film gets very confused as to whether this is a joke or not.
Where the sequences do come off, it's largely due to Tracy (who's effortlessly good) and Rooney, then in the middle of a white-hot streak, and absolutely excellent when he's prevented from mugging idiotically and instead asked to subtly emote. It's basically OK, but reminds me a bit of the Deanna Durbin film, Three Smart Girls Grow Up, which took a beloved original, reunited many of the cast and then delivered something so contrived and pointlessly gloomy that it threatened to torpedo your happy memories of the first film. My tried-and-tested method in this scenario is just to pretend the sequel doesn't exist, so I'm doing that. (2)
Plein soleil (René Clément, 1960) − The first screen version of (The Talented) Mr Ripley is quite different from Minghella's 1999 version (see above), with Alain Delon a much more calculating, straight, French protagonist. It's vastly inferior overall: glossy and stylish but empty, with plenty of dry stretches, though a few fine sequences of surprise and suspense, as well as a nice, spare score from Nino Rota. Delon is, of course, absolutely gorgeous. (2)
Ray Davies & Mark Hamill (Hornsey Town Hall Arts Centre, 28/06/16) − In which we learned (amongst other things) that Davies generally recorded his vocals after laying down the track with the band, in case they thoughts his words were girly (which they were, magnificently). The evening began with us sitting in Hornsey Town Hall, watching a South Bank Show episode showing Davies in the deserted Hornsey Town Hall then, if anything, proceeded to get odder, as Mark Hamill (yes, that Mark Hamill) bounded on stage to interview long-time hero Davies and read bits from his interviewee's autobiography, while Davies interspersed their chat with acoustic versions of his own songs, almost exclusively from Muswell Hillbillies and Everybody's in Show-Biz. It was the first time I'd thought about anything but the referendum result for almost three days and such a welcome break: an insightful, informal, exciting and really quite peculiar evening. I think I may have been the only person there who wanted the pair's 10-minute chat about 1950s movies to carry on. (3.5)
Belle and Sebastian (Royal Albert Hall, 23/06/16) - A delightful evening at work, with a great crowd, a dancing horse and a rare airing for The Boy Done Wrong Again, as one of my favourite bands played their signature album, If You're Feeling Sinister, in its entirety, following by a slew of hits and rarities. (3.5)
Hanratty: The Mystery of Deadman's Hill (Channel 4, 1992)
BBC Horizon: The A6 Murder (BBC Two, 2002)
These two documentaries deal with the notorious A6 Murder (and the rape of the victim's girlfriend), for which James Hanratty was hanged in 1962 − a divisive case that I've been interested in since reading Paul Foot's pieces about it in Private Eye as a teenager (though I was reminded of it by watching Pierrepoint). To some he's a callous killer who wasted his family's lives by asking them to fight on to clear his name; to others (like Foot) he's the victim of an outrageous miscarriage of justice that indicts the entire British legal system. It's certainly true that the furore over the case helped lead to the abolition of the death penalty in Britain. The first of these films was made for Channel 4 on the 30th anniversary of Hanratty's death, and tries to pick the prosecution case to pieces, with archive footage, talking heads and a wealth of recently released papers; it's pretty convincing and very entertaining. The Horizon programme, broadcast a decade later after DNA tests that suggested Hanratty was guilty, is more even-handed, but gives the last word to forensic experts who say there's little doubt that he committed the crime. Viewed consecutively, it's interesting how dissimilar these films are, with different contemporary news reports, different first-hand accounts and critical details shared out fairly evenly between them. The Channel 4 film is better TV − its rival programme has an ugly palette and is padded out with vague, distorted graphics that were then in vogue − but I found the Horizon programme's conclusions more believable, including its main one: Hanratty's DNA could have ended up on critical samples through contamination, but wouldn't there then have been evidence of two people's DNA, rather than just his? The suspect put forward by Hanratty's family, Peter Alphon, is nevertheless one of the creepiest people of all time. (3/2.5)
Thanks for reading.