Upon America’s entry into war in 1917, two young men from the same small town enlist to become combat pilots: David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), whose family is one of the wealthiest in town; and Jack Powell (Charles Rogers), who has been raised by his widowed mother. Even before this, David and Jack are rivals for the affections of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who loves David but, on the eve of his departure for war, cannot bring herself to repulse Jack and leaves him misunderstanding her feelings towards him. Meanwhile, Jack is oblivious to the love of Mary Preston (Clara Bow), who seizes the opportunity to follow him to Europe when there is a call for female ambulance drivers. During their gruelling training, Jack and David turn from enemies into close friends; particularly after the death in a training-crash of their comrade, Cadet White (Gary Cooper). Their training completed, the two young men ship out for the airfields of war-torn France… The film which won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture – the only wholly silent film to do so – Wings is an extraordinary achievement. Believed lost for decades, the film underwent restoration after the discovery of a print in the early 1990s, and can now once again be appreciated for the technical marvel that it is. Forget about the plot, which is as creaky as a rusty iron gate (and was considered so in 1927): under the direction of William Wellman, himself a WWI flier, the production design, the staged combat scenes, the aerial photography and the special effects, including sound effects, combine in an astonishing display of the film-maker’s art at the pinnacle of the silent era. The film eventually builds to an extended climax featuring a mind-boggling recreation of Battle of Saint-Mihiel, which took place during September of 1918. All this was not achieved without cost, however: sadly, one of the film’s stunt-fliers was killed and another was injured in separate accidents. With the focus in Wings so thoroughly on the production side, it is not altogether surprising that the acting is only adequate—which fortunately is good enough in context. Richard Arlen is pretty wooden as David; Charles Rogers does better as Jack, although the character is rather a dick; and Gary Cooper has a star-making cameo as a doomed young flier; while Henry B. Walthall – who I don’t seem to be able to get away from at the moment – appears as David’s father. Clara Bow, meanwhile, positively burns up the screen as Mary—assuming we can swallow her as “the girl next door”. (Jack’s obliviousness to her doesn’t give us much of an opinion of him!) Alas, despite her top-billing, Bow is really only a supporting player here, and we do not see as much of her as we might wish…though we do see more of her than we probably expect. Wings is, after all, a pre-Code movie—and may well elicit gasps from modern viewers in a few brief touches: a glimpse of a lesbian couple in a Parisian nightclub; rear male nudity during the enlistment medical; and a quick flash of Clara’s boobs. There is also a considerable amount of male kissing which, though non-sexual in nature, is considered to have helped loosen up prevailing attitudes.
Heroes For Sale (1933)
During WWI, an act of heroism by Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) is usurped by his hometown friend, Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott), after Tom is shot and nearly killed. When the war ends, Roger goes home to a hero’s reception; Tom is released from a German POW camp with a bullet still in his back and an addiction to pain-killers. After losing his job and undergoing a long and painful rehabilitation, his mother dying from grief and shame while he is away, things begin to look up for Tom: he finds a tiny apartment, gets a job, and falls in love with Ruth Loring (Loretta Young). Tom’s business sense attracts notice from the laundry’s owner, Mr Gibson (Grant Mitchell), and he finds himself on the road to success. He and Ruth marry and have a son, and their circumstances continue to improve. However, when Mr Gibson dies, the laundry’s new owner installs automation that allows him to fire nearly all of his employees, Tom included. The result is a riot for which Tom, though trying to stop it, is blamed—a misapprehension which plunges his life into disaster… While we tend to think of the Production Code in terms of sex and violence, social criticism was every bit as offensive to the powers-that-be; and in fact, you could reasonably argue that it was not Mae West who provoked the enforcement of the Code from mid-1934 onwards, as legend would have it, but William Wellman. In 1933, Wellman delivered a one-two punch in the form of his twin movies, Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys Of The Road, both of them examining in shocking detail the effects of the Depression, and offering angry criticism of a society the director believed was turning its back on its own people. In Heroes For Sale, via “everyman” Tom, Wellman touches upon a wide range of social including the treatment of returned servicemen, the responsibility of employers to their employees, police brutality and corruption, political persecution in “the home of the free”, and the miseries of the unemployed—harassed and abused, dismissed as “bums” and “tramps” and “freeloaders”. Like Wild Boys Of The Road, this is an angry, critical movie; also like it, it finds a glimmer of hope towards its conclusion in the form of the New Deal—although this time around, it promptly undercuts that glimmer by having Tom’s citing of FDR followed by him and his companions being turned out of their shelter into the rain and forced to take to the road once again. Richard Barthelmess is effective as Tom, and Loretta Young gives good support as Mary; however, the film’s outstanding performances is that of Aline MacMahon as Mary, their friend, who is in love with Tom but quietly steps aside when Ruth appears on the scene, and whose courage and steadfastness in the face of adversity make her the rock to which others cling.
Arabian Nights (1942)
Through ambition, and his passion for the beautiful dancing-girl, Sherazade (Maria Montez), Kamar (Leif Erickson) rebels against his half-brother, the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid (Jon Hall). The rebellion fails, and Kamar is sentenced by law to the ‘slow death’, suspended by ropes and left without water. After several days, Haroun discovers that Kamar is still alive and orders his sentence commuted over the protests of his law-giver. However, Haroun’s visit to the rooftop site of punishment coincides with an attempt by some of Kamar’s followers to rescue their leader. In the ensuing fight and chase, Haroun falls and is seriously injured; while the rebel chasing him is killed when a dislodged block of stone crushes him. This episode is witnessed by Ali Ben Ali (Sabu), a member of the troupe of acrobats and dancers to which Sherazade also belongs. Quickly, he takes the Caliph’s ring from his hand and places it on that of the dead man, whose injuries render him unrecognisable. He then convinces Sherazade and the troupe’s leader, Ahmad (Billy Gilbert), to take in and nurse the “stranger”—although without revealing his identity. With Haroun presumed dead, Kamar seizes the throne—and immediately seeks out Sherazade, to make her his queen… Arabian Nights was the first of a rush of “exotic” adventure films made in America in the wake of the success of The Thief Of Bagdad, and also has the distinction of being the first film produced by Universal to be shot in Technicolor. As far as these sorts of things go, the film is sufficiently enjoyable, with all the usual elements: a comic-book version of the Middle East, much dashing back and forth across the desert, and plenty of colour and movement. The most interesting thing about it is the screenplay by Michael Hogan, which is not only more complex than you might expect, but perhaps more than was actually realised. As things play out, Kamar is really only the Bad Guy because IITS©: a little tweaking, and this could easily be the story of a justified revolt against a brutal ruler (and in fact, we have no idea what kind of ruler Haroun is); and even as it stands, the real Bad Guys are Kamar’s underlings, his ambitious Grand Vizier, Nadan (Edgar Barrier), and his Captain of the Guard (Turhan Bey), who are only using Kamar to further their own ambitions. Since the last thing they want is an heir to the throne, when Kamar’s first order of business as Caliph is to find and marry Sherazade – for whom his love is certainly genuine – Nadan has the dancing-girl and her companions sold into slavery… Arabian Nights was the first co-casting of Jon Hall and Maria Montez (the latter called “Scheherazade” despite the missing syllable in the written version of her name), both of whom look very beautiful in colour; however, as is usual in these things, the film’s real star is Sabu as Ali Ben Ali, who plays Deus ex machina to the romantic leads. Meanwhile, in perhaps the film’s oddest touch, amongst the members of Ahmad’s troupe are both Aladdin (John Qualen) and Sinbad the Sailor (Shemp Howard!!): the former gets little to do, but the latter is presented as a sort of Munchausen figure, always boring his companions with tales of his impossible adventures. Arabian Nights was successful enough for Universal to follow up with a series of further exotic adventures featuring much of the same cast, most importantly (from a certain perspective, at least) 1944’s Cobra Woman.
It’s A Great Feeling (1949)
When Warner Bros. producer Arthur Trent (Bill Goodwin) is unable to find a director willing to take on the filming of “Mademoiselle Fifi“, he reluctantly decides to allow actor Jack Carson to direct himself and Dennis Morgan in the film. Morgan, however, wants nothing to do with it, and makes plans to head east to Broadway. In desperate need of money, and willing to do anything to ensure the production goes ahead, Carson convinces commissary waitress and aspiring singer-actress, Judy Adams (Doris Day), to pose as his pregnant wife. A tearful scene later, and Morgan has signed a contract to do the film—only to discover the truth immediately afterwards. Initially Carson has no intention of keeping his promise to Judy of a part in the film, but as leading-lady after leading-lady rejects the script, he and Morgan begin to toy with the idea of casting Judy in the lead: an idea they feel better about after discovering that she is a talented singer, at least. But they cannot cast her without approval from Arthur Trent. Knowing that Trent likes to discover his own new talent, Morgan and Carson arrange for him to “stumble across” Judy in a variety of roles and guises—but all the producer sees is a ditzy blonde… Not known for their comedies, Warner Bros. went all out in It’s A Great Feeling, involving a goodly number of the studio’s stars in this spoof of the Hollywood system; with only Doris Day and Bill Goodwin (and one other person who shall remain nameless) playing someone other than “themselves”. The plot is entirely negligible, but who cares when we can enjoy appearances from Raoul Walsh, King Vidor, Michael Curtiz and David Butler (who did direct); musical director, Ray Heindorf; and, in addition to Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, cameos from Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Sydney Greenstreet, Edward G. Robinson, Danny Kaye, Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman (and their then-eight-year-old daughter, Maureen), Patricia Neal, Eleanor Parker—and of course the voice of Bugs Bunny. (Joan Crawford, who rarely got to be funny, has a lovely bit as she goes all “Mildred Pierce” on Morgan and Carson.) Despite the presence of Morgan and Day, the film isn’t really a musical, although inevitably both of them sing; meanwhile, all we know of the intended version of Mademoiselle Fifi is that (far from the wartime drama produced by Val Lewton) it includes an “Apache” dance—allowing for a take-off of Gene Kelly and Vera Ellen in the “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue” sequence in Words And Music. Though it will certainly hold the interest of any film-buff, It’s A Great Feeling does drag the joke out for longer than necessary and finally gets a little tiresome—but if you do watch it, make sure you watch it right to the end, where it offers one of the all-time great film punchlines.
The Woman On Pier 13 (1949)
Self-made millionaire Bradley Collins (Robert Ryan) is on his honeymoon after his whirlwind courtship and marriage to Nan Lowry (Laraine Day) when he encounters photographer Christine Norman (Janis Carter). Though Nan sees clearly enough that Christine is an old flame, she does not guess the real connection between her husband and Christine: that many years before, it was she who inducted him into the Communist Party; though he soon left the organisation, making a new life for himself under a different identity. Christine’s appearance is followed by a visit from Vanning (Thomas Gomez), head of the San Francisco cell, who tells Collins he has full evidence of his true identity as Frank Johnson, of his Communist past—and of his involvement in a man’s death… Though he is prepared to deal with having his early politics exposed, the threat of a murder charge forces Brad to do as he is ordered: to wreck the ongoing negotiations between the unions and the shipping owners, and bring the San Francisco docks to a standstill… Produced and originally released as I Married A Communist – the title was changed after it tested poorly, which was a hint no-one took – this melodrama was devised by Howard Hughes as a kind of loyalty test, and may have told him more than he wanted to know, inasmuch as thirteen different directors rejected the project before the British Robert Stevenson agreed to take it on. Meanwhile, the film also served as an “out” for star Robert Ryan who, unlike his less fortunate (and more Jewish) colleagues, received no more than a slap on the wrist for his political activities, despite being up to his eyebrows in what were considered questionable causes. As with so many of the anti-Commie films of the time, The Woman On Pier 13 ultimately fails because it loses its political nerve. It isn’t his Communist past that brings Brad Collins down, or even that makes him vulnerable – Collins is quite prepared to call Vanning’s bluff and take his chances on that point – but the fact that, as a violent, hot-tempered young man, he killed a man during a riot. To save his own neck, Collins submits to blackmail—ruining the good understanding that previously existed between the company heads and the unions and causing untold damage to both industry and jobs. Meanwhile, an absurdly unconvincing romance develops between Christine Norman and Nan’s younger brother, Don Lowry (John Agar), who is seduced into becoming a Party stooge. We are to understand that, during the negotiations which Collins is tasked with sabotaging, Don becomes a Commie rabble-rouser, spouting the rhetoric he has been fed by Christine—but we’ll have to take the film’s word for it, because at this point there is a rather cowardly retreat into silent montage. We are left to ponder whether the film-makers were afraid to sully the audience’s ears with the Communist line, or whether they were afraid the arguments presented might sound reasonable. The Woman On Pier 13 manages some effective sequences, mostly through presenting the Party just like any other criminal mob; while its one real grace is the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca; but ultimately, the film fails because of its timidity and because all the characters are either selfish or stupid—or both. Collins seems to be getting what he deserves, as does the over-hormonal, under-brained Don; while the message we are finally left with has nothing at all political about it—but is, rather, “Don’t marry a man you’ve only known for a week.”
Home At Seven (1952)
Bank official David Preston (Ralph Richardson) returns home, as always, at seven o’clock to find his wife, Janet (Margaret Leighton), close to hysterics. At first he scoffs at her insistence that he has been missing without notice for twenty-four hours, since he remembers perfectly going through the usual routine of his working-day; but when she shows him the evening newspaper dated Tuesday instead on Monday, and the morning paper which he did not take to the office because he was not home to do so, he grows alarmed. Janet calls in Dr Sparling (Jack Hawkins) who, upon listening to the Prestons’ stories, agrees that David has had a memory lapse, possibly as a result of a lingering war-time trauma. David is naturally disturbed by his missing day—and all the more so because he has no idea where he spent the hours in question, or what he did. Worry becomes panic, however, when David learns that the social club of which he was treasurer has been robbed; that the club’s steward told its president, the Prestons’ neighbour Major Watson (Michael Shipley), that he saw David at the safe; and that the steward has since been found murdered… Based upon the play of the same name by R. C. Sherriff, Home At Seven is the only film ever directed by Ralph Richardson. As the leads, he and Margaret Leighton are both sympathetic (although David’s initially condescending attitude to Janet is exasperating); and they are surrounded by a number of effective supporting performances—in particular those from Campbell Singer as the intelligent Inspector Hemingway, and Meriel Forbes as barmaid Peggy Dobson, who has a crucial piece of evidence in her keeping. Rather than being a crime drama as such, Home At Seven is really about the impact of the situation upon David and Janet. The majority of scenes play out in their suburban house, a natural consequence which helps disguise the story’s stage-origins. Nevertheless, there is a steady build-up of suspense over the course of the film, not only because of the circumstances that make David a suspect in the robbery-homicide, but because of his growing doubt of himself. He did need money, having devoted much of his adult life to paying off his father’s debts; and he did hate the dead man, Robinson, an antipathy that extended to making various attempts to get him dismissed from the social club on flimsy pretexts. Is it possible that, under these joint pressures, he committed a heinous crime—and is now hiding from himself in a state of amnesia? Questioned by the police, merely as a witness, and understandably reluctant to explain about his amnesia, David covers his inability to produce an alibi with an impulsive lie—and so promotes himself from witness to prime suspect…
There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)
Despite his professional success and apparently ideal home-life, toy-manufacturer Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) is unhappy and dissatisfied, feeling ignored and unappreciated by his wife, Marion (Joan Bennett), and children Vincent (William Reynolds), Ellen (Gigi Perreau) and Frances (Judy Nugent), known as Frankie. After his plans for Marion’s birthday are summarily dismissed in favour of Frankie’s ballet recital, Clifford is eating alone when he receives an unexpected visit from a former work-colleague, Norma Vale (Barbara Stanwyck), now a New York-based fashion designer. The two make use of Clifford’s unwanted theatre tickets, then visit his place of business to talk over old times. Learning that Norma is in town to speak at a conference in Palm Valley, Clifford gets the idea for a weekend away with Marion at the Palm Valley Resort. At the last moment these plans fall apart when Frankie sprains her ankle. Clifford travels to the resort anyway, as he has arranged to meet a potential buyer there; however, this meeting too is cancelled. At a loose end, Clifford is delighted to discover that Norma has treated herself to a few days’ holiday after her conference. After a pleasant evening dining, talking and dancing, Clifford decides to stay for the extra day—and finds himself having fun in Norma’s company as he has not done in years. However, this innocent interlude sets painful events in motion when Vincent drops in at the resort—and puts the worst possible construction on what he finds there… There’s Always Tomorrow is another of Douglas Sirk’s sour dissections of the American Dream, this one pushing back against the frequent dismissal of Sirk as a maker of “women’s films” by focusing predominantly upon the frustrations and disappointments of his male protagonist. As always with Sirk, the film’s production design (by veteran Alexander Golitzen) becomes an expression of his characters’ state of mind: the brilliantly structured Groves house, all jutting panels and internal walls, repeatedly severs the alienated Clifford from the rest of his family. This is an uncomfortable, ambiguous film, which provides no easy answers to the questions it raises about what its men and women “should” want and how they “should” be happy. It builds itself around a central irony, with divorced career-woman Norma looking with dewy eyes at Clifford’s home-life, his beautiful house and beautiful wife and three children, even while Clifford himself is becoming increasingly desperate to escape the domesticity which he has come to feel is smothering his soul. Meanwhile, the audience is left to make what it can of both Vincent and Ellen’s eagerness to believe the worst of their father, and of Marion’s obliviousness to – disinterest in? – Clifford’s needs, and her active determination to reduce herself to hausfrau-dom—absurdly rejecting a dress offered by Norma as a gift as, “Far too young for me”, and constantly thwarting Clifford’s plans for the two of them. At the same time, we might question whether Clifford’s detachment from his family is really all their fault: how did he not know that Frankie had a recital? – and if he did know, did he really expect Marion to abandon the girl at the last moment? (We gather that fathers were not expected to attend such events.) However, while in this instance Marion’s choice is both inevitable and correct, overall her constant privileging of the children over her husband is tacitly criticised by Douglas Sirk. In this respect, There’s Always Tomorrow makes a perfect companion-piece for the previous year’s All That Heaven Allows, which likewise features a selfish and judgemental younger generation that feels entitled to dictate its parents’ lives. This was the fourth and final screen pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, and there is a bittersweet quality to their characters’ self-evidently doomed almost-romance. Actually—scrap that: there’s very little sweet about it. On the contrary: There’s Always Tomorrow closes with an almost textbook example of the “Production Code ending”, one which overtly upholds conventional morality and “family values”—and in doing so, deliberately leaves a very bitter taste in the viewer’s mouth.
Diamond Head (1963)
Having just announced his Senate candidacy on a platform of a unified Hawaii, magnate Richard “King” Howland (Charlton Heston) is forced to confront the falsity of his stance when his young sister, Sloane (Yvette Mimieux), announces her engagement to Paul Kahana (James Darren). Unable to persuade or threaten Sloane into breaking things off, Howland tries to recruit Paul’s mixed-race half-brother, Dr Dean Kahana (George Charkiris), to his cause but, while agreeing that the marriage is unwise, Dean refuses to be Howland’s tool. He does privately speak to Sloane, however—a conversation made all the more difficult by the memory of Dean’s rejection of her some years before. Despite his feelings about mixed marriages, Howland is having an affair with Mai Chen (France Nuyen). In the face of Howland’s outrage over his sister’s engagement, Mai Chen cannot bring herself to tell him that she is pregnant… The Hawaiian community holds an engagement party for Paul and Sloane, which Howland reluctantly attends. It is disrupted by Mai’s brother, Bobbie (Marc Marno). Headed off and forced outside by Howland, Bobbie comes back armed with a knife—and an altercation ends with the knife in Howland’s hand, and Paul Kahana dead… Based upon the novel by Peter Gilman (though it was much changed by screenwriter Marguerite Roberts) and directed by Guy Green, Diamond Head is one of those teeth-clenching films of its era that thinks it is being both provocative and broad-minded on the subject of race relations but comes across as patronising and timid instead. To see everything that is wrong with it, we only have to contemplate the casting of the film’s “Hawaiian” characters: Italian-American James Darren as full-blooded Paul, Greek-American George Chakiris as mixed-race Dean (who is, by the way, referred to as “the half-breed” on the film’s box-poster!), and Aline MacMahon – in brown-face – as Kapiolani, their mother. In addition, the Chinese Mai Chen is played by French-Vietnamese France Nuyen. And even if we can overlook this raft of racial impersonations, we are still left with the fact that Diamond Head is the kind of film that thinks rich white people are inherently fascinating, and that a rich white guy not rejecting his own baby – eventually, and only after he loses almost everything else in his life – constitutes a happy ending. In fact, there’s no reason to care about any of this film’s frankly awful characters—with the sole exception of Mai Chen; guess what happens to her? Howland is an egotistical, hypocritical bigot, Sloane is an entitled brat, and Paul is a waste of space; even Dean, presented as the face of “modern Hawaii”, and supposedly the film’s voice of reason, sleeps with Sloane when his brother is barely cold—and then slaps her around the next morning. (She was “asking for it”, you understand…) There’s a certain satisfaction to be gained from the step-by-step destruction of Howland’s political ambitions and private life, but the fact that we’re apparently supposed to feel some sympathy with him at the end undermines most of what has come before.
Ali Baba And The Seven Saracens (1964)
Original title: Simbad contro i sette saraceni (Simbad Against The Seven Saracens). The right to rule over the Saracens is to be decided via a tournament in which a nominated warrior from each of the eight tribes will fight to the death, with the last man standing winning the right to ascend the Golden Throne. Nevertheless, the tyrannical Omar (Gordon Mitchell) has already assumed extensive power over the region, and carries on a bloody war against the Maurizi, a rebellious slave-tribe led by Ali Baba (“Dan Harrison”, aka Bruno Piergentili). Ali Baba is wounded when the rebels are ambushed by Omar’s men, but manages to get away. He is discovered by the Princess Fatima (Bella Cortez), who hides him from his pursuers. She is horrified to discover that Ali Baba is of the Maurizi, but cannot help falling in love with him. Omar’s lover, Farida (Carla Calò), grows jealous of his interest in Fatima, and has her watched. In this way, Fatima is discovered with Ali Baba: the two are captured and condemned to death. However, Ali Baba is to represent the Maurizi in the tournament, and therefore may not be touched. Omar vows to kill him during the meeting, and to make Fatima watch… While there is no doubt about the damage done to this film by the cutting and dubbing perpetrated upon it by American International Television (the opening scenes seem to be out of order, for one thing), it is hard to imagine that Ali Baba And The Seven Saracens wasn’t always one of the weakest of the Italian adventure films of the 60s. The tournament that you would imagine should be the film’s focus is set aside while various palace-intrigues and attempted escapes develop and then sputter out; the romance between Ali Baba and Fatima is absurdly perfunctory even by the standards of the genre; we learn nothing of the other six tribes or their representatives, despite the film’s title (which makes even less sense in its original form, since Simbad / Ali Baba is not “against” anyone but Omar, except via the vagaries of the tournament); and Omar’s determination to exterminate the Maurizi goes unexplained, as does the tribe’s slave-status. (If this is a “caste” thing, as Fatima’s first reaction to Ali Baba suggests, how can a Maurizi vie for the throne?) It turns out I was right when I suggested, re: Atlas In The Land Of The Cyclops, that Gordon Mitchell (and his weird grin) would do better in a villainous role: his Omar is properly hateful as he revels in his own evil. The film makes the most of the physical attributes of Bella Cortez and Carla Calò—and, inevitably, arranges a climactic cat-fight for the two. Also inevitably, there is a little person in this story – Franco Doria as Jukki – and despite being (also also inevitably) the comic relief, he gets one of the film’s better moments when Jukki insists upon being treated with respect, like any other man. However, Bruno Piergentili is weak and unconvincing as a rebel-leader, and most of all as a hand-to-hand fighter. (The film all but acknowledges this, in its final disposal of Omar.) There are a few amusing touches in Ali Baba And The Seven Saracens: the rent-a-crowd that attends the tournament; the “band of rebels” that consists of twelve men in total; the fact that Omar actually forgets to make Fatima watch the tournament as threatened; and above all an astonishing dance sequence that comes across as the male counterpart to Corinne Capri’s dreadful offering in Colossus And The Headhunters; but they’re not enough to make this worthwhile viewing.
A power failure throws a New York office building into chaos. David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) finds himself in a darkened stairwell, talking to a woman he does not know but who insists she knows him. When she flees he follows her down four flights of stairs to a sub-basement: he cannot find her and, a little later, he cannot find the stairs again either. When he emerges from the building, Stillwell sees the police and a crowd milling around the body of a man who has fallen from a high level of the building; the dead man is later identified as internationally famous peace advocate, Charles Stewart Colvin (Walter Abel). Strange events continue to dog Stillwell, including people he knows well behaving as if they have not seen him for years. At his apartment, Stillwell is accosted by a gunman (Jack Weston), who speaks – as did the woman in the stairwell – of someone called “the Major” – and orders him to prepare for a flight to the Bahamas: confusing Stillwell by speaking of the airport as “Kennedy” instead of Idlewild. Stillwell manages to overpower the gunman and save himself, but when he goes to the police to report the incident, basic questioning makes him realise that while he remembers the past two years of his life as a cost-accountant for the Garrison Limited corporation, he has no memory at all of his life before that time… After writing the screenplay for Charade in 1963, Peter Stone followed up with this likewise Hitchcockian thriller, an adaptation of the novel Fallen Angel by “Walter Ericson” (Howard Fast); but while Charade was emulating Hitch-lite films such as To Catch A Thief, in Mirage we have numerous references to the director’s darker works—most obvious Spellbound, with Gregory Peck once again suffering traumatic amnesia and fearful that some terrible act of his own commission is responsible. But this Edward Dmytryk-directed thriller is also a Cold War paranoia-film, with the political material lurking on the edges in the subplot of the death of Charles Colvin suddenly taking centre-stage at the film’s climax. Mirage is a confusing film, largely intentionally of course; though it is arguable whether the eventual explanation provided really fills in all the gaps. Gregory Peck is effective as Stillwell, trying desperately to put the pieces of his fractured memory together before the people in pursuit of him catch up, and finding rejection, scepticism and further danger as he turns for help first to an indifferent police lieutenant (Hari Rhodes), then to a scornful psychiatrist (Robert H. Harris), and finally to tyro private investigator, Ted Caselle (Walter Matthau). Meanwhile, the woman from the stairwell, identifying herself only as Sheila (Diane Baker), continues to dog his steps… Despite its credibility issues, Mirage is an engaging thriller that makes splendid use of its New York locations (there is an extended chase through Central Park), and boasts excellent black-and-white cinematography by Joseph MacDonald and a score by Quincey Jones. The cast is also fabulous, including in addition to those already mentioned Leif Erickson as “the Major”, Kevin McCarthy as one of Stillwell’s colleagues, and George Kennedy as a bespectacled assassin. However, Walter Matthau steals the film as Caselle, whose interaction with Stillwell is both funny and touching.
Death Is A Woman (1966)
Also known (rather bizarrely) as Love Is A Woman. On a Mediterranean island, British undercover agent, Dennis Parbury (Mark Burns), poses as a tourist with a gambling habit while investigating a drug-trafficking ring. His investigation hits a wall when first one of the gang’s suspected heads, Blake (Jim O’Brady), and then his partner, casino-owner Malo (William Dexter), are murdered. The latter is found dead shortly after Parbury visited his apartment, and only the fact that, mysteriously, the chain-lock was still in place when the body was discovered prevents Parbury’s arrest by Costello (Mark Singleton), head of the local police. Since he has no official status, Parbury does not reveal his true identity but, with fellow agent Priscilla Blunstone-Smythe (Wanda Ventham) posing as his fiancée, pursues his remaining suspect, the seductive Francesca (Trisha Noble)… Death Is A Woman is a tepid crime drama that signally fails to live up to the promise of its confronting opening scene, in which Blake is brutally murdered by Francesca and her lover-partner, Joe (Shaun Curry), while Malo watches through a peephole. From there it simply goes through the motions, with its not-exactly rapid-fire pace slowed to a crawl by a series of, sigh, scuba-diving scenes. The only interesting thing about this film is the tension between its irreconcilable elements, with an old-fashioned locked-room mystery blending uneasily with would-be “mod” interludes; as does its casual sex and nudity with bloodless murders and a prim refusal to refer to the drugs being trafficked as anything other than “the stuff”. Meanwhile, Mark Burns swans around in a white dinner-jacket doing a cut-rate Bond impression; while the viewer – when not distracted by Wanda Bentham’s truly frightening leathery-brown suntan – passes the time by trying to decide who, exactly, is the more incompetent: the criminal gang, the police, or the world’s most obvious “secret” agents. Australian singer-actor Trisha Noble made her film debut as femme fatale Francesca, and if she’s not terribly good, she’s still easily the best thing about this rather dull film—coolly pulling off murder and betrayal while showing off her assets in body-hugging evening-gowns, skimpy bikinis, and black silk sheets; and coming accessorised by a weird (and weirdly sympathetic) theme-song. Otherwise, the only worthwhile aspect of Death Is A Woman is the location-shooting in Malta.
Five Golden Dragons (1967)
After a man is thrown to his death from a high-rise apartment building in Hong Kong, the police led by Commissioner Sanders (Rupert Davies) and Inspector Chiao (Roy Chiao) discover that the dead man left a note to be delivered to an American tourist called Bob Mitchell (Robert Cummings). Chiao tracks Mitchell down at his hotel, where he is making time with sisters Margret (Maria Perschy) and Ingrid (Maria Rohm). Mitchell insists he knew the dead man only slightly, and has no idea what the contents of the note – “Five Golden Dragons” – mean. Mitchell meets up again with the sisters, only to find himself on the run with them from the dangerous Gert (Klaus Kinski) and his Chinese henchmen, one of whom is killed during the chase. After evading their pursuers, Mitchell and Margret meet in his hotel room, where she confesses that she once worked for a criminal syndicate called the Five Golden Dragons, which controls much of the international gold trade, and is now in fear for her life after trying to break away. She adds that she cannot go to the police police because she does not know who the syndicate heads are; nor in fact are they aware of each other’s true identities. When the police arrive next morning to question Mitchell about the dead Chinese man, they find that he has spent the night on the couch in his sitting-room. He tries to dissuade them from entering his bedroom—an act which they misinterpret when they find Margret dead in his bed… This tepid comedy-thriller written and directed by Harry Alan Towers has a couple of things going for it—first its location work in Hong Kong (the interiors were filmed at the Shaw Brothers Studios); and second – typical of Towers – its cast, which also includes Margaret Lee as a nightclub singer and, as four of the five Dragons, Dan Duryea, Brian Donlevy, George Raft and Christopher Lee; although, alas, these gentlemen’s roles are only glorified cameos. Otherwise, Five Golden Dragons is pretty painful, mostly thanks to the black hole at its centre. Even aside from the fact that he’s much too old for the part he’s playing, Robert Cummings plays Mitchell as a grinning, gum-chewing, fatuous idiot, who keeps up a stream of inane chatter that is apparently supposed to make him funny and charming, but is just excruciating. Of course it is eventually revealed that Mitchell is not a tourist at all, but an agent of the US Treasury on the trail of the gold syndicate…which hardly explains why he continues to behave like a fatuous idiot both when in contact with the Hong Kong Police (he thinks saying “Ciao” to someone called Chiao is just hilarious) and when he is alone. Though loosely – very loosely – based upon a story by Edgar Wallace (explaining why Rupert Davies’ character is called “Commissioner Sanders”), the plot of Five Golden Dragons makes almost no sense, but does allow its characters to wander all over Hong Kong. Mitchell’s “investigation” both involves him with Margret’s sister, Ingrid, and eventually leads him to a nightclub where Margaret Lee, as “Magda”, gets to sing two songs, and the film offers its artistic high-point in the form of an appearance by Japanese singer, Itô Yukari. Eventually Mitchell learns that the mysterious fifth Dragon does not actually exist; instead, he is a front for a criminal gang of which Magda and her apparent employer, Peterson (Sieghardt Rupp), are members. When a final meeting of the Five Golden Dragons is called, at which the winding-up of the operation and a division of the spoils is to occur, it is necessary for a fifth Dragon to put in an appearance. Consequently, Magda and Peterson kidnap Ingrid, in order to force Mitchell into a dangerous impersonation…
The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
Driving from his London office to his home in the suburbs, Harold Pelham (Roger Moore) is suddenly overtaken by an impulse to begin speeding. After recklessly weaving in and out of traffic, Pelham loses control, and his car crashes and rolls. He survives the crash but, while on the operating-table, must be resuscitated by his doctor—who notices that, briefly, Pelham seems to have two heartbeats. As he recuperates, Pelham’s attention is at first concentrated upon a possible case of industrial espionage within the electronics firm of which he is one of the senior directors—but soon he is distracted by a series of strange incidents, in which friends and colleagues claim to have seen him places he knows he has never been, doing things that are entirely out of character… Apparently Roger Moore’s own favourite amongst his films – for, so he used to say, actually giving him a chance to act – The Man Who Haunted Himself is a flawed but disturbing psychological thriller. The film’s main shortcoming is that it gives the viewer no chance to know Pelham before his accident—to understand the state of his marriage, or to recognise that his uptight, buttoned-down persona is not just a persona. It takes longer than it should, therefore, to convey that the issue is not that Pelham is doing things he shouldn’t, but that he never would. Likewise, we do not know what prompts Pelham’s dangerous driving, which brings about his accident; why the strange force should have emerged at just that moment, rather than (as we might otherwise assume) being unleashed by the accident itself. Indeed, in a sense the opening scene gives the viewer the wrong impression about what kind of film The Man Who Haunted Himself actually is, since it suggests that Pelham is being attacked from without, rather than from within. However, once the film settles down it becomes a creepy exercise in mounting paranoia—the kind of paranoia that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. The screenplay by Basil Dearden, who also directed, maintains a fine balance, so that the viewer is kept in doubt about whether all that is happening is simply in Pelham’s head, or whether he does indeed have a mysterious double taking over his life. In this respect, though the narrative eventually builds to a climax in which the two sides of Pelham’s nature confront each other (it is easy to understand why Roger Moore was so fond of this film), the film’s most unsettling scene is an earlier one at Pelham’s club, in which he dashes from room to room, repeatedly hearing that he only just left… Meanwhile, the willingness with which everyone else accepts the new, improved Pelham – including his wife and children – effectively turns this from a thriller into a horror movie. The Man Who Haunted Himself is necessarily dominated by the central performance(s) of Roger Moore, but he receives good support from Hildegard Neil as Pelham’s frustrated wife, Eve, and Anton Rogers as his increasingly suspicious colleague, Alexander. Freddie Jones has a supporting role as an eccentric but caring psychiatrist.
Death Of A Corrupt Man (1977)
Original title: Mort d’un pourri, also known as The Twisted Detective and To Kill a Rat. Xavier Maréchal (Alain Delon) is woken very early one morning by his close friend and business-partner, Philippe Dubaye (Maurice Ronet), who tells him that he has killed Serrano, a corrupt politician involved in racketeering of all description, and who had gained leverage over Dubaye in his own political career. Xav immediately agrees to help Dubaye by providing him with a false alibi, and offers to go to the crime-scene as his representative. Once there, he presents the alibi to Commissaire Pernais (Jean Bouise) and Commissaire Moreau (Michel Aumont), who show very plainly that they do not believe it. They question Xav about Serrano’s diary, showing scepticism again when he insists he knows nothing of it. This time, however, he is telling the truth: Xav confronts Dubaye, who admits he killed Serrano to gain possession of the file, which contains incriminating records of Serrano’s many corrupt dealings with politicians and other leaders—including Dubaye himself. He tells Xav that he has left the file with his mistress, Valérie Agostinelli (Ornella Muti). Before going to get it, Xav takes the precaution of asking the concierge of his apartment building, Kébir (Abder El Kebir), to borrow an unfamiliar car for him. He does so, also acting as Xav’s driver—only for the two to be run off the road. Kébir is critically injured, but Xav gets away. He barely has time to warn Valérie of the danger, and to hustle her and the file out of the service entrance to her apartment, before his pursuers arrive. Xav flees the scene and returns to his office, where he is struck down by an unseen assailant. When he regains consciousness, he finds himself lying next to Philippe’s dead body… Based upon a novel by “Raf Vallet” (Jean Laborde), Death Of A Corrupt Man is a typical 70s political thriller in many ways, steeped in violence and cynicism; yet with additional disturbing aspects informed by the prevailing political climate in France, and Europe generally. Xav is likewise a typical anti-hero, his own hands by no mean clean, yet in comparison with those around him, almost an angel of light. Untouched by the political implications of the situation, Xav’s only motivation is loyalty to his murdered friend, whatever that friend’s own transgressions; yet – as Commissaire Pernais eventually points out to him – his own behaviour, in providing a false alibi in the first place, is partially responsible for Dubaye’s death; while his dogged pursuit of the killer not only puts himself and Valérie in extreme and imminent danger, but results in an ever-escalating body-count left in their wake. Pursued simultaneously by the domestic police over the murders, the federal police over the whereabouts of the diary, and several different political and business factions determined that the diary will never see the light of day, Xav and Valérie have only their mutual commitment to Philippe to sustain them—and must finally ask themselves whether it is all worth it; and, worse, whether their defiant stance will ultimately achieve any positive result at all… Death Of A Corrupt Man is a long and sometimes confusing thriller, suffering somewhat from (at this late date) its presumption of audience understanding of its politics, and its tendency to throw new characters at the viewer without clarifying their identity. However, much of the film is also interesting and suspenseful. Alain Delon, who also produced, makes Xav a problematic character—the closest thing we have to a hero, but also reckless and selfish in his willingness to put others at risk for his own ends. The gorgeous Ornella Muti is effective as Valérie, as are Jean Bouise and Michel Aumont as the cops on the case. Klaus Kinski has a supporting role as the head of one of the factions, and Stéphane Audran appears as Dubaye’s alcoholic wife.
The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992)
Pregnant with her second child, Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra) has a first appointment with a new doctor, Victor Mott (John de Lancie)—and comes away from her examination feeling that she has been molested. Supported by her husband, Michael (Matt McCoy), Claire lodges a formal complaint. When this encourages other women to come forward, Dr Mott kills himself. In the wake of her husband’s death, and faced with the prospect of losing everything in looming law-suits, Mrs Mott (Rebecca De Mornay) collapses—subsequently losing her baby… After the birth of their son, Michael suggests to Claire that they hire a nanny to help out with Joe and young Emma (Madeline Zima). Claire is unimpressed with the first applicants, but finds herself drawn to a young woman who introduces herself as Peyton Flanders. After being hired, Peyton moves into a basement-room in the Bartel house—from where she begins an obsessive campaign to ruin Claire’s life and take her family… One of a clutch of the-sanctity-of-home-is-threatened thrillers that appeared in the wake of Fatal Attraction, this Curtis Hanson-directed film is finally effective for a lot of the wrong reasons. At the outset we are led to expect a more thoughtful and complex film than eventually emerges, with the counterpointing of Claire’s disturbing examination with Peyton’s bloody miscarriage, during which the medical staff talk about her and over her but never acknowledge her or her tragedy. The film’s central act of betrayal – Peyton’s secret breast-feeding of baby Joe, which leads him to reject his mother’s nursing – is also brilliantly unsettling. Disappointingly, however, these moments become lost amongst the numerous contrivances which set the main plot in motion, starting with the Bartels’ self-evidently unnecessary hiring of a full-time, live-in nanny; this bookended by a news report after Dr Mott’s suicide that both shows Claire’s picture and gives her name, and by Claire’s hiring of a randomly encountered stranger to look after her children. From there things play out as expected, with Peyton setting about alienating Claire and her children, undermining her marriage, and attempting to seduce Michael. What isn’t so expected is how sympathetic towards Peyton The Hand That Rocks The Cradle seems to be—or, more correctly, how unsympathetic towards Claire. Without actually being told from Peyton’s skewed perspective, which would explain / excuse such a choice, the film is constantly, tacitly critical of Claire—showing her spending hardly any time with her children, while focused upon her botanical interests; at one point leaving Emma unattended in a fully open car; and coming to believe that Michael is unfaithful on flimsy circumstantial evidence. These plot-choices are supported by the way the two leading characters are presented: De Mornay never looks less than immaculate, while Sciorra is photographed more and more unflatteringly as the film goes along. (That said, we don’t believe for a moment that either of these women has recently had a baby: one of the film’s negative highlights is an unwise glimpse of Sciorra’s dead-flat, rock-hard abdomen.) This is, finally, one of all-too-many films of this time – and, alas, even much later – whose underlying argument is that a woman who takes an interest in anything outside of her husband, her children and her house can expect to lose all three. Of course, Claire finally learns her lesson on these points; and the film builds to a wholly predictable take-that-you-bitch ending. Despite its plot-failings, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle has its virtues, including its Washington State setting and thoughtful use of contrasting colours in its production design. It also offers some inadvertent amusement – at least to this viewer – in its complete misunderstanding of the career chosen for Michael, who we are supposed to believe is a scientist. (The salary! the labcoat! the smoking! the research proposal!) Matt McCoy is ineffective as Michael, and Ernie Hudson rather embarrassing as mentally challenged handyman, Solomon; however, the film’s women do much better. Annabella Sciorra is ultimately defeated by the screenplay, but Rebecca De Mornay is deliciously nasty as Peyton, toggling between ice-cool control, sweet-as-pie niceness, and full-on psycho. The film’s best surprise, though, is an amusingly brittle supporting performance from Julianne Moore as Marlene, a friend of the Bartels, who first suspects Peyton—and who gets a traditional “reading newspapers on microfiche” scene (YES!!) as she follows up her suspicions. Marlene is married but childless, a high-powered real-estate agent earning big money and seen bossing her underlings around, so no prizes for guessing how her plot-arc ends in a film like this—although there is a certain mordant humour in the fact that this career-woman is literally taken out by the glass-ceiling…
The Serpent’s Kiss (1997)
England, 1699. Wealthy ironmonger Thomas Smithers (Pete Postlethwaite) is persuaded by his wife’s cousin, James Fitzmaurice (Richard E. Grant), to ensure his posterity through the construction of an extensive and elaborate garden designed by Dutch landscaping expert, Meneer Chrome (Ewan McGregor). The garden is part of a scheme of revenge by Fitzmaurice upon Juliana (Greta Scacchi), who once rejected him because neither had any money, and who he both loves and resents as a consequence: his plan is to bankrupt Smithers, so that Juliana may either live in poverty with her husband or run away with him. Unbeknownst to Smithers, “Chrome” is an imposter, a young Scot who has all of the real landscaper’s talent but none of his fame. Threatened with exposure, he has no choice but to go along with Fitzmaurice’s plan by encouraging Smithers to spend more and more money on his garden. However, the plan begins to fall apart when Juliana is drawn to the young man, and Chrome in turn is attracted to the Smithers’ daughter, Anna (Carmen Chaplin), who is considered mentally disturbed because of her twin passions for the natural world and the poetry of Andrew Marvel… This English-French-German co-production was filmed on location in Ireland, with French cinematographer, Philippe Rousselot, making his directorial debut: a pedigree which conveys at least some of the oddness of The Serpent’s Kiss. It is difficult to imagine what the target audience was for this period drama, which plunges the viewer into the world of late 17th century England and Europe with barely a hint of historical context offered. Those without sufficient background knowledge may well be entirely lost, while even those familiar with the period will probably find the first twenty minutes or so bewildering. However, once the narrative settles down to focus upon the construction of the garden – and the brutal destruction of the previously untouched countryside which proceeds it – The Serpent’s Kiss becomes a rich and visually sumptuous piece of cinema, full of fascinating detail, particularly with respect to the landscaping practices of the time; though nature-lovers may well suffer along with Anna through the 17th-century equivalent of paving paradise and putting up a parking-lot. The cinematography, art direction and costume-design are all gorgeous, and the cast is generally excellent, although Carmen Chaplin is somewhat problematic—though this is due more to how the character is written than to her performance; as well, again, to perhaps too much knowledge being presumed in the viewer: I for one do not as much about Marvel’s poetry as the screenplay by Tim Rose Price requires. At the same time, and on a lighter note, everyone has a great deal of fun with the script’s numerous gardening metaphors (Juliana must fan herself whenever Chrome launches into one of his speeches about “propagation”). One odd touch, though: everyone treats “Meneer” as a first name instead of what it presumably is, an English rendering of the Dutch title, mynheer.
Nightmare Street (1998)
Trying desperately to save her young daughter, Emma (Lauren Diewold), from being run over, Joanna Burke (Sherilyn Fenn) is herself hit by a truck. She wakes up in hospital, concussed but not otherwise seriously injured, to find everyone referring to her as “Sarah Randolph”. In her purse she finds a driver’s license with her own picture but the same name; while a photograph of Emma changes into one of a young boy. Joanna’s doctor, Matt Westbrook (Thomas Gibson), tells her that her sister has been called—though Joanna has no sister. Penny (Rena Sofer) takes Joanna, not to her own suburban home, but to an expensive high-rise apartment. Joanna later visits her house, only to find it occupied by a different family. Concerned when Joanna misses an appointment, Dr Westbrook tracks her down and, though he does not accept her story of two lives, is sufficiently intrigued to help her investigate. As she tries to understand what has happened to her, Joanna becomes aware that she is being followed; when she tells Penny, she learns to her bewilderment that the man is Detective Miller (Steve Harris), and that she – or rather, Sarah Randolph – is a suspect in the murder of her own child… This quasi-supernatural thriller has some good ideas, but is lacking in execution—and explanation. A few throwaway references to fugue states and the potential non-linearity of time are all we get by way of the latter, which might have sufficed if there was any indication of why Joanna has – as we eventually gather – swapped lives with Sarah Randolph specifically. Did something happen simultaneously to Sarah, so that she and Joanna “crossed lives”? Or has Joanna been cosmically tasked with resolving the mystery of young Eric Randolph’s death? Sherilyn Fenn works hard in the dual roles of Joanna and Sarah, but is undermined by the irritating convention that insists on perpetually perfect hair and makeup—whether she is getting hit by a truck, lying in the emergency-room with a head injury, being grilled by a homicide detective, or confronting herself as a possible child-murderer. Rena Sofer does well as Sarah’s hostile but dependent sister, but as, respectively, Sarah’s (inexplicable) love-interest and her main antagonist, Thomas Gibson and Steve Harris struggle with their thankless supporting roles. (It is one of the film’s most obvious absurdities that neither an emergency-room doctor nor a homicide detective seems to have anything else to do but tag around after Sarah.) The constant back-and-forth and the emerging murder mystery keep Nightmare Street watchable, and it has a couple of worthwhile touches – the stone-cold resolution to the subplot of young Eric Randolph’s death, in particular – but in the end there are just too many unanswered questions and plot-holes for it to really work.
(After The Night Of The Generals and Saigon, another instance of accidental cinematic doppelgängers…this time actually about doppelgängers! It was weird watching this in conjunction with The Man Who Haunted Himself. And likewise the paired amnesia-dramas, Home At Seven and Mirage…)
Red Eye (2005)
Returning to Miami after her grandmother’s funeral in Texas, Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) is one of many held up at the airport because of bad weather. As she waits for her flight, Lisa encounters fellow-traveller, Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy), with whom she flirts a little; when they are finally called onboard, she is surprised to discover that they are seated next to one another. Soon after take-off, Lisa’s previously friendly interaction with Rippner takes a very dark turn, as he quietly reveals himself as involved in a planned assassination of the Deputy Director of Homeland Security, Charles Keefe (Jack Scalia), who will be staying at the luxury Miami hotel where Lisa is assistant-manager. To Lisa’s horror, she learns that one of Rippner’s associates has her father, Joe (Brian Cox), under observation, and that unless she helps to carry out their plan, he will be killed… No-one loves a plane-film more than I do, but this one just doesn’t work. Though running only eighty-odd minutes, Wes Craven’s Red Eye feels more like a padded-out TV episode than a commercial thriller, with several of its set-pieces dragged out to unnecessary length: the initial cute-meet in particular, but also the semi-climactic airport-chase. Its main issue, however, is that it fails the suspension-of-disbelief test: there is barely a moment here where you can’t think of a better / easier way for either the good guys or the bad guys to have gone about things; plus, the plot requires everyone else on the plane to be blind, deaf and stupid (except, of course, the unaccompanied minor who no-one will listen to). These irritations eventually reach critical mass, making it hard for the viewer to play along. The film’s final set-piece, the cat-and-mouse chase through Lisa’s childhood home, works better partly because of the way it exploits her intimate knowledge of the premises, and because the partial incapacitation of Rippner makes it a reasonably fair fight. Even here, though, we have to accept the obliviousness of Joe’s neighbours to shots fired and a car plowing into the front of a suburban house, and the exceedingly tardy arrival of the police (who should either have shown up a lot earlier, or not at all). This is basically a two-person play, and both Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy do a decent job, even if they cannot overcome the contrivances of Carl Ellsworth’s screenplay.
House Of Darkness (2016)
In an effort to save their marriage, Kelly (Sara Fletcher) and Brian (Gunner Wright) leave behind their city life, buying an isolated country house where Brian can set up his carpentry business, and planning a sibling for their young daughter, Sarah (Mykayla Sohn). Almost immediately, however, things begin to go wrong for the couple: Kelly begins hearing noises and seeing things in the house; Brian neglects his wife for long nights in his workshop, and displays groundless jealousy over Clark (Raphael Thompson), their good-looking neighbour; while Sarah’s complaints that her pet birds are keeping her awake at night end, to everyone’s horror, in the birds’ bloody demise. Kelly’s sister, Jamie (Brittany Falardeau), and her young son, Mason (Thomas Rand), come for a night to see the house. Jamie sees immediately that things have only gotten worse between Kelly and Brian; while Sarah demonstrates for Mason an area of the house where objects can move by themselves. Later, Kelly sees two small figures in costumes she at first assumes are the children playing a prank—only to discover Sarah and Mason sleeping peacefully in their room. The growing tension between Kelly and Brian is interrupted when Sarah disappears. The investigating police officers finally discover her within a sealed room hidden in the basement—one with no obvious means of entry, and with walls covered with arcane symbols. A dazed Sarah insists she has no memory of how she got there. This incident prompts Officer Hicks (James Tucker) to tell Kelly about the house’s tragic history… In various of my Et Al. posts, I’ve defended Lifetime against the accusation that all their films are about saintly, suffering women and unreliable-to-dangerous men, but I won’t be doing that here. House Of Darkness is a Lifetime Movie in the worst sense of that descriptor—and the network’s half-hearted attempt to build a horror movie around its default framework only underscores the fact. House Of Darkness carries no credit for its screenplay and, incredibly, the film’s production company – the all-too-accurately titled Painless Television – has admitted that this was literally a case of writing by committee. But whoever the unnamed writers may be, we do know this about them: that between them they’ve seen Halloween, The Shining and The Amityville Horror—leading to some pretty shameless riffing which served to keep me mildly amused, at least. The film manages a few creepy moments, mostly with respect to its child-spooks, but it is obvious that no-one on the production side really knew what they were doing—at least in respect of making a horror movie; when it comes to depicting the crumbling of the central characters’ marriage, and the sufferings of wife-and-mother Kelly, it’s another story. It is only one of the many shortcomings of House Of Darkness that we get no sense of the family being any different before they came under the malevolent influence of the house: Sarah, apparently, always looked like a Japanese ghost-girl, with dark circles under her eyes and her hair hanging in her face; Brian was always the kind of man you can picture snapping and axing his family to death; and Kelly was always the kind of idiot who thinks that having a baby with a violently jealous workaholic is going to “fix things”. After being alternately terrorised by her husband and the house, Kelly must go it alone to get to the bottom of the mystery—a process which, sadly, does not involve newspapers on microfiche at the library, but rather an info-dump from the helpful Officer Hicks, a prison-visit to one of the house’s previous occupants, and a warning from a psychic… From the absurdly unconvincing (and wholly unnecessary) video-journals kept by Kelly and Brian, to Gunner Wright’s hilariously awful Jack Nicholson impersonation, to its moronic kicker-ending – they rebuilt the house!? – House Of Darkness is a deeply stupid film—but if you’re in a forgiving mood, you may find it stupid enough to be entertaining.
Viceroy’s House (2017)
In February 1947, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) arrives in Delhi to take up his appointment as the final Viceroy of India, and to oversee the transition from British rule to Indian independence. As his wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), and daughter, Pamela (Lily Travers), attempt to build new bridges with the Indian people, Mountbatten confronts the enormity of the task ahead of him—in particular, the difficulty of maintaining a united India against the increasing push for the creation of an independent Muslim state. As negotiations with the local political leaders begin, tensions rise among the five-hundred-strong staff of the Viceroy’s residence, themselves a mixed population of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal), newly appointed to Mountbatten’s personal staff, feels the conflict on two levels: he is from the Punjab, one of the states being threatened with division; and he is in love with Aalia Noor (Huma Qureshi), a Muslim. Faced with intractability on all sides, Mountbatten finally accepts that partition is inevitable; and, in the face of escalating violence, concludes that bringing it about as swiftly as possible is the only way to avoid civil war… Co-written and directed by Gurinder Chadha (who had a very personal stake in the story, as the end credits reveal), Viceroy’s House is difficult to assess: it offers an important story, well-told – as a film – while taking liberties with history. For the former, it offers a coolly critical picture of the last days of the Raj, and illustrates the absurd and tragic reality of partition, in the dividing up of everything, from people’s entire lives right down to minor household items like the cutlery. It also sets out clearly, if perhaps in overly-simplified terms, the opposed positions of Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani), leader of the Indian National Congress and subsequently the first Prime Minister of India, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), leader of the All-India Muslim League and the first Governor-General of Pakistan, and highlights the radical solution to the stand-off offered by Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi): that Jinnah should be invited to form the first government of a united India; a suggestion set aside by all other parties as the situation deteriorates. However, the film’s handling of the British involvement in partition is contentious, to say the least. Viceroy’s House starts out by offering an almost absurdly idealised portrait of the Mountbattens, and exempts them from culpability in the escalating violence by positing Mountbatten himself as an unknowing tool in a political plot intended to secure British interests in the area, regardless of the damage done (an idea emanating from a book by one of Mountbatten’s staffers, which was one of the film’s sources). History has been a harsher judge—indicating, rather, that Mountbatten’s refusal to share the details of partition until after the handover, in order to keep a focus upon the British-staged celebrations, significantly contributed to the widespread confusion and fear that ended, inevitably, in violence; and that his own desire to get out of India and back to his naval career was largely responsible for the unconsidered rush to partition – the timetable was shortened by nearly a year, with only five weeks given to the drawing of the boundary lines – that ultimately displaced fifteen million people and left one million dead. In light of this grim reality, Viceroy House‘s main failing may be, not its skewed history, but the Romeo-and-Juliet subplot of Jeet and Aalia, the inclusion of which does not lighten, but rather trivialises a human catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions.