She Died With Her Boots On / Whirlpool / Perversion Flash (1969) ***

Sexual adventuress takes trip to the country with disastrous results. Best described as an early British venture in the giallo mold it lacks some of the style of that genre but is notable for the debut of Spanish cult director Jose Ramon Larraz (Vampyres, 1974). Perhaps as interesting is that it details a nascent killer warming to his task and climaxes in a nihilistic ending. Scoring so high on the sex/nudity quotient in the U.S., it was considered an out-and-out exploitationer.

Wealthy older woman Sarah (Pia Andersson) brings home model Tulia (Vivian Neves) for her protégé Theo (Karl Lanchbury), a budding photographer.  Sarah’s proclivities are apparent from the start, preferring young women though young men will also suffice, a switch in the normal power play of the era (and now for that matter) of rich old men chasing younger women.

Tulia is no innocent, lured or straying into the big dark house, and she’s game for anything, happily participating in a game of strip poker that ends in sex with Theo. However (and striking a contemporary note), he is unable to perform – for reasons that might be similar linked to young people today who suffer from the same condition due to over-exposure to porn – and in Theo’s case because he prefers watching.

Quite how far he is willing to go to achieve his kicks is shown in a scene where he drives Tulia to the woods where she is almost raped by his friend Tom so that Theo can photograph the act. Quite how far Tulia is willing to go is indicated by the fact that, while upset at this incident, she doesn’t run a mile and instead continues to enjoy games of seduction, this time with Sarah, with Theo at first limiting his participating to recording the action but later taking part in a menage a trois.

Meanwhile, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector (Barry Craine) interrogates businessman Mr. Field (Edwin Brown), sugar daddy to missing Irishwoman Rhonda (Johanna Heger), and Field takes it upon himself to pay Theo a visit. Quite how he knows of Theo’s involvement with Rhonda is unclear but he doesn’t accept the explanation that the girl has gone home and hangs around to do a bit of spying. Not such a good idea, because he pays the penalty.

Although it’s a pleasant detached cottage and far from an old dark house, Tulia takes it upon herself to take a look at Theo’s studio where she finds various items of female clothing and photos of an unsavoury nature. A flashback reveals the death of Rhonda, seduced by Tom, then, following the arrival of Theo and his trusty camera, raped by a tramp. But it’s not Theo who kills her. It’s Tom, and largely by accident.

So what’s being set up really is how far beyond his normal games Theo will go, with Tulia providing the test case.

A chunk of the tension comes from having no idea what’s going on beyond Sarah indulging Theo. She appears ignorant of the depth of his perversion. And with Tulia being so complicit initially in the sex it appears to be going down a different route to the slasher pictures like Scream and more in keeping with the giallo which had yet to get into its stride. Tulia is a modern girl for the times, certainly not sexually repressed, which was refreshing, and being a model comfortable with her body. But she would not have been expecting something like this.

Karl Lanchbury (What’s Good for the Goose, 1969) looked like he was perfecting the creepy persona that would carry him through a few more Larraz pictures. Vivian Neves was a model, famous two years later for featuring in the first nude advertisement in The Times, but also a glamour model with pictorials in Penthouse and The Sun, and known as “The Body” a quarter of a century before that title was appropriated by Elle Macpherson, and later set up her own modelling agency. Pia Andersson only made this one picture.

Given he was dealing with so much inexperience and was himself a debutant, Larraz does a pretty good job. He would go on to make another 25 films mostly in the exploitation vein.  

I came across this on YouTube while looking for the Otto Preminger film noir Whirlpool (1950). The version I saw is taken from a very ropey VHS with time codes but there’s a better print on the channel under the title of Perversion Flash.

Harlow (1965) ***

Harlow presents such a convincing picture of Hollywood abuse that I was astonished to discover that it was not entirely truthful where the title character was concerned.

Jean Harlow was a hugely popular star in the 1930s before her untimely death at the age of 36. This film depicts her as a virgin (not true) who turns neurotic (not true) after her impotent husband commits suicide (debatable) on their wedding night (not true) leading to her go off the rails and die from pneumonia (not true). But in terms of the Hollywood system a great deal rings true and if the Me Too movement had existed in the late 1920s the finger would be pointed at a huge number of men.

The film is at its best when dissecting the movie business. A five-minute opening sequence demonstrates its “factory” aspect as extras and bit players clock in, are given parts and shuffle through great barns to be clothed and made up, often to be discarded at the end of the process.

No sooner has this version of Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) been given a small part than she encounters the casting couch, operated by a lowly assistant director, who bluntly offers five days’ work instead of one if she submits to his advances. When she turns him down, work is hard to come by and she resorts to stealing lunch before rescued by agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons). After tiny parts that mostly consist of her losing her clothing, receiving pies or eggs in the face and displaying her wares in bathtubs, she geta a big break only for that producer to demand his pound of flesh – “I’ve already bought and paid for you.” Here she has “the body of a woman and the emotions of a child” and ends up choosing the wrong suitor which leads to a calamitous outcome.

However, the pressures of stardom are well-presented: she is the breadwinner for her unemployed mother Jean (Angela Lansbury) and lazy stepfather Marino (Raf Vallone) and soon box office dynamite for studio chief Everett (Martin Balsam) who sees in her the opportunity to sell good clean sex. The negotiations/bribery/blackmail involved in fixing salaries are also explored.

But the film earns negative points by mixing the real and the fictional. The agent and husband Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) existed but most of the others are invented or amalgamations of different people. MGM is represented as “Majestic” and among her films there is no Red Dust (1932) or China Seas (1935) but lurid inventions like Sin City

Director Gordon Douglas was a versatile veteran, with over 90 films to his credit, from comedies Saps at Sea (1940) and Call Me Bwana (1963) to westerns The Iron Mistress (1952) and Rio Conchos (1964) and musicals Follow That Dream (1962) and dramas The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) and Sylvia (1965) which also starred Baker. The opening scene apart, which is a seamless construction, he is adept at this kind of helter-skelter drama. John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, 1954) has produced a punchy script based on the book by Arthur Landau and Irving Shulman.

In the title role Carroll Baker (Sylvia) has probably never been better, comedian Red Buttons (Stagecoach, 1966) excellent in a straight role while the smarmy Raf Vallone (Nevada Smith, 1966) is the stand-out among an excellent supporting cast that also includes Angela Lansbury (In the Cool of the Day, 1963), Peter Lawford (Sylvia), Leslie Nielsen (Beau Geste, 1966), Martin Balsam (Seven Days in May, 1964) and Mike Connors (Stagecoach, 1966).

Except that virtually none of the movie is true, I would have given it four stars for its portrayal of Hollywood but I have come to expect that biopics, while moving facts around for dramatic purposes, are required to be good more faithful to their subjects than this. 

Nope (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

So I’m going to start with a SPOILER ALERT. To give you a moment to digest that, I’m going to explain that if I included half points in my ratings system, this would be a three-and-a-half rather than a four. But it’s certainly better than a three, so it automatically becomes a four. Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way let’s take the plunge.

After a pretty good build-up, invoking elements of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979) and, yes, Predator (1987), the mysterious spaceship goes from being a cloud that doesn’t move for six months to a flying saucer (yawn!) to a giant stetson with a hole in the middle to the kind of piratical sail that might have been shredded in a storm. And for an alien that’s flown a gazillion miles to get to this spot of wilderness, it’s pretty dumb, falling for the old trick of swallowing a balloon. Yep, didn’t make much sense to me neither.

But that’s most of the downside because it’s anchored by an absolutely outstanding performance from Daniel Kaluuya who is not far off being this generation’s Tom Hanks.

And there’s a lot of pretty neat stuff, a couple of sizzlers of a red herring, some clever moves at the end by our beleaguered team as they turn from hunted to hunters. And there a host of stunning images, blood drenching a house, a pig on a roof, the deflation of inflatable stick figures, a guy wrapping himself in barbed wire, a boy trapped under a table by a chimp terrorizing a television studio, a shoe that stands up on its end, a horse statue rammed through a windscreen, a bug on a camera that might just be the alien and innovative sound effects.

O.J. Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) runs a ranch specializing in supplying horses for the movies. But it’s on its last legs after the mysterious death of his father (Keith David). He’s not helped by his sister Emerald  (Keke Palmer), as wacky as he is sombre. Amateur Ufologist Angel (Brandon Perea) invites himself to the party while sometime cinematic genius Antlers (Michael Wincott) is a late recruit, but in the end a bit too close to the nutters atop skyscrapers in Independence Day (1996) desperate to welcome aliens.

It does veer too often from sci-fi to horror but instead of Spielbergian awe the characters, while intrigued by the prospect of aliens, are just as likely to be shit scared, too worried about consequence to actually come clean about what they may have witnessed. Emerald and Angel are the enthusiasts, OJ the naysayer. Turns out the sassy Emerald, prone to unearned self-importance and acting too often on whims, annoys the alien by planting in a field a statue of a horse, stolen from a Wild West tourist attraction run by Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), a one-time child television star. Turns out Ricky has the same sensitivity to the presence of the cloud as OJ but instead of leaving well alone plans to publicize its existence to help market his ailing venture.

I’m not sure where the rampaging chimpanzee fits into the equation since that incident occurred in 1998 and Ricky was the youngster hiding under the table.

But once the quartet turn their attention to attempting to lure the alien onto a camera, previous efforts ruined by the alien’s ability to knock out any electricity supply, it turns into quite a cinematic spectacle, the kind of equivalent to Apollo 13 (1995) or The Martian (2015) where survivors of catastrophe have to come up with ideas out of left field.

Adding a bit of spice surprisingly enough is some interesting comedy, OJ and Emerald rubbing each other up the wrong way, Angel complaining of being dumped by a model-turned-actress, and some deadpan one-liners.

There’s a certainly a welcome freshness in terms of the characters, all superb inventions, recognisable as only too human, some of the family dysfunction but none of the obsession of Roy Neary from Close Encounters, nor the enclosed world of the space travellers from Alien whose personalities are generally revealed only in relation to their reaction to the predator, and none of the governmental mumbo-jumbo of ID4.

As I mentioned, the acting is a huge plus. Often sci-fi characterisation is paper-thin, the director thinking, wrongly, that audiences just want to get to the monsters. Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, 2017) is top-notch but energy-on-a-stick Keke Palmer (Alice, 2022) runs him very close. Brandon Perea (American Insurrection, 2021) and Steven Yeung (The Humans, 20201) are also excellent, investing their characters with considerable ambiguity, while veteran  character actor Michael Wincott has his first movie outing since Forsaken (2015).

I take issue with the notion that director Jordan Peele (Get Out) has fallen into the M Night Shyamalen (The Sixth Sense, 1999) trap of following an inspired debut with subsequently less inspiring pictures. This is a very bold effort for his third outing and only really let down by the fact that, in carrying out the roles of writer, producer and director, he doesn’t have anyone to rein him in when the ideas go off-piste. Trimming twenty minutes out and losing the self-consciously arty elements and adding a bit more clarity and spending a bit more on CGI and this might have been a real winner.

As it is, worth seeing but with reservations.

Seven Thieves (1960) ****

You wouldn’t figure director Henry Hathaway for a caper movie. He seemed more at home with action, whether that be war (The Desert Fox, 1951), adventure (Legend of the Lost, 1957) or western (Nevada Smith, 1966) although he was a dab hand at film noir (Kiss of Death, 1947). And before the big-budget all-star Oceans 11 entered the equation in the same year as Seven Thieves – and stole much of its thunder – the heist movie ran mostly on B-movie steam such as Rififi (1955), The Killing (1956) and Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958).

And probably judged against other glossy efforts of the 1960s like Topkapi (1964) and Gambit (1967) Seven Thieves would appear on the surface to come up a bit short. No doubt accounting for it being so under-rated. But while this is in itself a neat little thriller the kick comes in the emotional entanglements and a succession of twists at the end that sends it in my book into a higher category.

And it’s so outrageously clever that the mystery of why French-based criminal mastermind Theo Wilkins  (Edward G. Robinson) would reach out across the Atlantic Ocean to recruit former jailbird Paul Mason (Rod Steiger) to spearhead the heist of a cool four million dollars from a Monte Carlo casino is not resolved until the end, and in spectacular fashion.

Technically, there are actually only six thieves, the other is an inside man, Raymond (Alexander Scourby), who has fallen for the seductive charms of nightclub dancer Melanie (Joan Collins). Making up the rest of the septet are safe cracker Louis (Michael Dante) and muscle-cum-driver Hugo (Berry Kroeger) with Poncho (Eli Wallach) playing the key role of the pretend crippled, arrogant, irascible millionaire – and contrary to the claims of one poster he is the decoy not Melanie.

Distrust of his team makes Theo bring in Paul, who ruthlessly knocks them into shape, putting into seamless action the plan devised by Theo. Simply put, Poncho is going to act as a distraction by having a heart attack at the gambling table while Paul and Louis climb out a window along a ledge to the casino director’s flat which provides, by means of an elevator, direct access to the underground vaults. Once they’ve stolen the cash, they clamber back along the ledge and hide in the flat where, by this time, Theo, playing the role of Poncho’s personal physician, has taken him. The money will be hidden in Poncho’s wheelchair and removed to a waiting ambulance.

But Paul is a rather suspicious character and wants to know what he’s letting himself in for so in turn works out the weaknesses of his team. Melanie hides behind a façade of high birth, Pancho is too reckless, “measuring danger only in terms of profit,” Hugo prone to unnecessary violence, while Louis has omitted to mention he is terrified of heights, the ledge on which the operation depends standing on a 100ft high cliff.   

In some posters, this was promoted as Al Capone (Steiger)
vs Little Caesar (Robinson).

The plan relies on Poncho actually appearing to be dead, so dead that the casino director (Sebastian Cabot) will not hesitate, at Theo’s insistence, to shift him out of sight of the rest of the gamblers into his flat. But Complication No 1 is that Poncho doesn’t want to be dead, even if it is a ruse, skeptical of Theo’s plan to convincingly knock him out by means of a carefully measured dose of cyanide. Complication No 2 is that a night club client recognizes Melanie and casts doubt on her credentials as a lady of quality. Complication No 3 is that English physician Dr Halsey (Alan Caillou) questions whether Poncho is as dead as he seems.

But such complications are nothing compared an extraordinary range of twists that raise tension sky-high at the movie’s denouement. I challenge you to guess what these three superbly-conceived twists would be, all of them one by one turning the project on its head, and it rapidly shifts from one direction to another, ending with an unbelievable – and yet so in keeping with the premise – climax.

Attention to character detail lifts this out of the rut, whether it be Theo’s penchant for collecting seashells, Paul resplendent in a white suit, Melanie resisting the blandishments of becoming a kept woman, Raymond trying to climb out the murky depths into which the lure of Melanie has taken him, and a series of subtle relationships, some developing through the robbery, others which began long before the heist working themselves out.

The heist itself is well done, tension kept constant mostly through the failings of the crew and the suspicions of the dupes. All in all an excellent picture.

This was a critical film in the careers of most of the cast. Edward G. Robinson (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) was handed his first top-billed role in four years. It was a deliberate change of pace for Rod Steiger (The Pawnbroker, 1964). For Eli Wallach, best known at the time for stage work, it was the first of three films that year that would launch him into the higher ranks of top supporting stars; it was followed by The Magnificent Seven and The Misfits. After being leading lady to the likes of Gregory Peck and Richard Burton, this spelled the end of Twentieth Century Fox’s belief in Joan Collins’ star qualities while for Michael Dante (The Naked Kiss, 1964) it was a step up.

Wallach and Dante could be accused of over-acting but Robinson, Steiger and Collins all act against type with considerable effect. Hathaway does a superb job working from a script by Sydney Boehm (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) based on the Max Catto bestseller.

Ford vs. Ferrari / Le Mans ’66 (2019) *****

So good that immediately on finishing a screening I pressed the re-watch button. But then this proved such compulsive viewing on original release that I saw it at the cinema four times in as many weeks. High-octane pedal-to-the-metal drama that easily takes the chequered flag from such illustrious predecessors as Grand Prix (1966), Le Mans (1971) and Rush (2103).

Astonishing racing footage is matched by a gripping narrative of ambition and revenge played out at the highest level by a quartet of terrific performances. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), humiliated by competitors in the domestic market and thwarted by his plan to take over Ferrari, decides to steal the Italian giant’s crown at Le Mans, the 24-hour race considered then the pinnacle of motor racing achievement rather than Grand Prix.

He hires Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the only American winner of Le Mans, who now runs a sports racing construction business and in turn he recruits maverick English driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Putting a spanner in the works at every possibly opportunity is oily Ford top executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) who constantly shifts the goalposts because he’s just mean that way or to win commercial advantage. Driven as much by personality conflict as anything else,  the narrative pivots on Shelby shouldering the job of placating both big business and his maniac driver while outmanoeuvring all in sight to achieve his goals.

Jargon overload should be the kiss of death but that bold decision to involve the viewer in the minor and major technicalities of motor sport – proven and unproven techniques such as applying strips of paper to a car or battering the car boot with a hammer to increase its capacity and so comply with an arcane rule – pays off big time so that the picture can actually cover in greater depth the reality of running a racing team. Winning can be a matter of millimetres, tiny alterations amounting to massive differences during a race.

And it helps the narrative thrust that Le Mans is a single race rather Grand Prix or Nascar where over a season inevitably attention and excitement will sag. Other races are easily accommodated because they are vital to the end result, either in personal or technical terms. This is the ultimate battle against the odds, not just novice Americans taking on the big boys  of Italy, but the ageing driver needing to prove himself again and again and the constructor sometimes giving in, sometimes not, to big business.

It’s pretty difficult to retain audience involvement with the competitors masked up but (as Top Gun: Maverick would later prove) little works better than having your half-hidden driver (or pilot) reveal his emotions by talking to the machine, providing a commentary on the action, though Miles’s favoured expression of “giddy-up” may not qualify as a technical term.

Interestingly enough, the principals are all indifferent, not to say occasionally shady, businessmen, Henry Ford II laboring in the shadow of his father, the repair shop run by Miles shut down by the taxman, Shelby selling the same car over and over to multiple buyers. But this is a richness of character rarely seen in action films, flaws usually restricted to sexual or alcoholic peccadilloes. Nor is there any sign of the old trope of wife/lover unable to watch drivers race, and marriages/relationships buckling under that pressure. Instead Miles’ wife Mollie (Catriona Balfe) rejoices in his skills while Henry Ford II clearly has a string of lovers.

The contrast between the romance and the reality of speed is no better expressed than when Ford is taken for a spin by Shelby or between the devil-may-care and the safe than when Shelby takes control of an aeroplane.

So many internal obstacles, Beebe’s manoeuvrings for a start, remain to be overcome never mind complications on the track that it is pretty much one twist after another with one awful ironic twist left for the climax of the race.

Christian Bale (Thor: Love and Thunder, 2022)  picked up most of the acting plaudits, nominated for a Golden Globe, but I thought Matt Damon, Tracy Letts and Josh Lucas ran him close. Damon (The Last Duel, 2021) delivers a restrained performance that occasionally cuts loose to reveal the carefully camouflaged daredevil. Letts (Lady Bird, 2017), better known to me as a playwright, brings the right mixture of arrogance and power. One-time matinee idol Josh Lucas (A Beautiful Mind, 2001) eases back on the shit-eating grin and is one of the most self-righteous business bad guys you could encounter.

Sterling turns also from Jon Bernthal (Those Who Wish Me Dead, 2021) as Lee Iacocca (who later wrote a book about brilliant he was, although there’s little evidence of that here); Catriona Balfe (Belfast, 2021) and Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place, 2018) as her son. Special mentions for Ray Mackinnon (News of the World, 2020) as Shelby’s number two and Remo Girone (The Right to Happiness, 2021) as Enzo Ferrari.

Distinguished career as director James Mangold has enjoyed  – from Walk the Line (2005) and 3.10 to Yuma (2007) to Logan (2007) – this has to be the peak, brilliantly bringing the human side into a movie that could easily have concentrated on the machines. He drew on an equally brilliant screenplay by Jez Butterworth (Spectre, 2015), John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, 2014) and Jason Keller (Escape Plan, 2013).

The Southern Star (1969) ***

There’s a surprisingly good movie here once you strip out the cliché jungle stuff and the racist elements. The diamond of the title is actually a MacGuffin, just enough to get you started on two parallel tales of revenge.

Dan (George Segal) is a mining engineer-cum-adventurer and Erica (Ursula Andress), daughter of mine owner Kramer (Harry Andrews), as far from the traditional jungle heroine (except in one regard) as you could get. She saves him from crocodiles, rescues him from jail and quicksand, swims across a hippo-infested river and is a better shot than him (or anybody for that matter) with a rifle. This is female empowerment with a vengeance.

Suspected of stealing the diamond, he is hunted by ranger Karl (Ian Hendry), Dan’s love rival, who intends to win Erica back using the simple expedient of killing the thief. Lying in wait is all-purpose rogue Plankett (Orson Welles) who seeks revenge on Karl. The second unit had a whale of a time filming anything that moved –  lions, leopards, zebras, giraffes, buffaloes, monkeys, antelopes, the aforementioned hippos and crocodiles and what looked like a cobra – and at one point everything does move in coordinated fashion if you can call a stampede coordinated.

But the main focus is an Erica who constantly confounds Dan’s sexist expectations. Docility is her disguise. Anytime she appears to be doing what she’s told you can be sure she’s planning the opposite. While Dan does have his own specific set of jungle skills, he often looks a fool. But they do make a good screen partnership and their dialogue is lively.

Hollywood spent millions of dollars trying to create screen chemistry between various stars and although it seemed to work very well in the industry’s golden age with Clark Gable and any number of MGM female stars, Bogart/Bacall and Tracy/Hepburn and I guess you could chuck John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara into that particular mix, the formula seemed to have gone awry by the 1960s discounting the Doris Day/Rock Hudson combo, big budget romances like El Cid (1961) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) and an occasional home run with whomever Cary Grant was romancing on screen. So it was usually hit-or-miss whether any sparks flew between the stars.

Andress had certainly been a European femme fatale par excellence as seen in Dr No (1962) and The Blue Max (1966), but it was certainly not a given that she would more than hold her own for an entire picture. Segal was nobody’s idea of a romantic leading man although the notion had been given a tryout in The Girl Who Couldn’t Say No (1968) with Virna Lisi. But here the whole enterprise works in an It Happened One Night vein with the supposedly superior male recognizing that perhaps his companion was more than a match.

Harry Andrews and Orson Welles both try to steal the picture, with polar opposite characterizations, Andrews loud and menacing, Welles soft and menacing. You can tell Scottish director Sidney Hayers (The Trap, 1966) was an editor because he cuts for impact and mostly does an efficient job of sticking to the story. Supposedly, Orson Welles directed his own scenes, but that might be to make sure he got to hog the camera. He has enough choice lines and bits of business to keep him happy and gives his venomous character a camp edge. Matakit (Johnny Sekka), Dan’s buddy, who actually has the diamond, is separately pursued and subjected to racism and being whipped.

Despite my reservations, this is well constructed and keeps one step ahead of audience expectation with plenty twists to subvert those, although the music by Johnny Dankworth gets in the way, offering musical cues opposite to what is required.

As it is a jungle picture there is the obligatory heroine’s bathing scene – and to balance the books on that score Segal does whip off his shirt at one point. Except for the clichés and the racism, it would have gone higher in my estimation for by and large it is well done and Andress is once again (see The Blue Max) a revelation.   

Bullet Train (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

What a blast! What a gas! And what the heck’s wrong with critics? Complaining Hollywood lacks originality and turning their noses up at this helter skelter of a thriller that hits eleven from the outset, maintains a hectic pace, and boasts gut-busting laughs.

The plot’s as complicated as it is simple. A bunch of assassins on a train trying to steal a suitcase containing ten million dollars discover they are taking the ride for another reason. Finding out they have competition, not just on board, but on various train station platforms, lends to the complications as they – and the viewer – try to work out just what the hell is going on. While there’s some great dialogue, for most of these guys fists and guns are their easiest means of communication so cue some fabulous action sequences.

Twin English hitmen Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) are the original messenger boys, tasked with delivering the loot from Tokyo to Kyoto on the titular train along with the son of a notorious gangster. Lemon, not the brightest gun in the arsenal, has left the case on a communal luggage rack where first off it is snaffled by Ladybug (Brad Pitt), as ethereal an assassin as you could wish for, and one in denial, preferring a more spiritual outlet for his skills. But guys who are good at killing people are less efficient at holding onto suitcases.

And so the prize bounces from character to character, including Kimura (Andrew Koji), the Wolf (Bad Bunny), Hornet (Zazie Beetz) and Prince (Joey King). Did I mention there was a deadly snake aboard and that the ultimate gangster going by the moniker of The White Death (Michael Shannon) was lying in wait? No? I didn’t want to overcomplicate matters.

Every time the various assassins, who specialize in different murder techniques, think they are getting to the bottom of the mysterious goings-on the movie virtually jumps track to head down a different route, but it does so with such elan and verve that you can’t wait for the next wrong turn.

The characterisation is as good as anything dreamt up by Tarantino, the oddbeat characters dancing to their own odd beat, the squabbling Tangerine and Lemon almost steal the show from Ladybug who believes he is suffering from a run of bad luck. And like he’s caught up in the wrong movie, Ladybug confides his thoughts to his offscreen handler Maria (Sandra Bullock). Wistful schoolgirl Prince can talk her way out of any situation. But as I said, the others prefer to just beat up their rivals.

So stand by for some of the greatest action this side of Jason Bourne and John Wick. And some of the dumbest moves this side of Dumb and Dumber. You’d think the action/comedy fusion wouldn’t work at all but the way director David Leitch plays with our expectations the whole shebang works beautifully. Though I wouldn’t describe it as such, more like an action picture that happens to make you laugh.

Part of the reason the action is so terrific is Leitch is a former stuntman, who must dream fights in his sleep, because he’s certainly dreamt up some original mano a mano stuff here. But he’s also the uncredited co-director of John Wick (2104) and sole helmer of Deadpool 2 (2018) and Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw (2019) so he’s no stranger to mixing action and comedy. And he takes a fluid approach to narrative.

But the laidback Brad Pitt (Ad Astra, 2019), almost a Bill Murray throwback, is absolutely superb, an Oscar worthy performance, a character re-examining his life in the midst of an assassins convention, and trying not to blame anyone attempting to kill him. Brian Tyree Henry (Joker, 2019) is the pick of the supporting cast. It’s a step up for Aaron Taylor-Johnson (The King’s Man, 2021), who plays the most irascible gangster since Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York (2002). The outstanding supporting cast is mostly made up of up-and-comers  – Joey King (The Kissing Booth 2, 2020), Zazie Beetz (Lucy in the Sky, 2019), Andrew Koji (Snake Eyes, 2021) – plus Michael Shannon (Heart of Champions, 2021) and Sandra Bullock (The Lost City, 2022) and cameos from Channing Tatum (The Lost City) and

The only minor quibbles are overuse of references to British kids fave Thomas the Tank Engine which may not be such a global phenomenon as the director would like, leading I would guess to some audience bafflement in the U.S., as might occasional mention of London soccer team West Ham, both key to the lives of Tangerine and Lemon.

Leitch owes an almighty vote of thanks to screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (Fear Street, Part Two -1978, 2021) who not only pulls the whole package together but springs brilliant lines and situations though how much was lifted directly from the source book by Kotaro Isaka I couldn’t tell you.

Can’t wait for the sequel. Brad Pitt has created a brilliant screen character that deserves a second outing.

Captain Newman M.D. (1963) ****

Somewhat lost in the rush to acclaim star Gregory Peck for his Oscar-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), this bold attempt to tackle mental illness among the armed forces deserves reassessment.

Set towards the end of World War Two, psychiatrist Captain Newman (Gregory Peck) heads up a unit addressing the previously ignored mental health issues of U.S. airmen. One of the first to identify post- traumatic stress disorder, Newman employs a whole raft of unusual techniques such as allowing his clients to tend sheep. And he’s not above using romantic sleight-of-hand to woo Lt. Corum (Angie Dickinson), a nurse in a non-psychiatric department, to join his team. Orderly Corporal Leibowitz (Tony Curtis), more of a con artist than a medical professional, is the other key member of the team.

As you might expect, Newman has to battle superiors to allow him to even attempt to cure any of the men under his care since in standard armed forces opinion they are really just cowards trying to duck out of their duty. Given there’s no prescribed treatment for his clientele, Newman basically improvises on a case-by-case basis to get to the heart of what caused mental collapse.

While the movie motors along nicely on the interplay between these three characters – the potential for real romance between Newman and Corum and Newman’s acceptance of Leibowitz’s alternative, more down-to-earth and decidedly un-medical approach – it focuses on three critical cases. Col Bliss (Eddie Albert) suffers from split personality, Capt Winston (Robert Duvall) is catatonic and Corporal Tompkins (Bobby Darin) too bubbly by far.

In dealing with each, Newman adopts a different persona, occasionally entering into the make-believe world of his clients to expose how much of a fiction they are. Stern with some, he is gentle with others and when he appears to go over the score explains he is not shouting at a person but at his symptoms.   

And while at time it feels like a mental equivalent of episodes of a hospital soap, the underlying drive, the knowledge that men are hiding from the horrors of war or endure guilt over action they may have taken or are unable to face the consequence of orders they carried out takes this into a different level. Almost all suffer from the standard conviction that they must be cowards. Newman’s task is to make all face up to their fears.

Presumably to overcome fears of audience resistance to the downbeat subject matter, the U.S. poster plain misled the public – “love, laughter and tears” were not much in evidence.

And it’s Corum’s self-appointed job to get under Newman’s skin and in so doing get to the heart of the terrible irony of his role. If he fails and men are discharged without being cured they will be returned to their units while mentally unstable and make decisions that could endanger thousands of men. If he succeeds, he sends men back to face potential death.

Luckily, it’s far from dour. Instead of taking the audience down a medical jargon rabbit-hole, the movie sensibly concentrates of character and humanity. It is filled with brilliant dialogue and whenever Newman appears overwhelmed up pops Leibowitz like the self-appointed class clown to bring events to a cheerier conclusion. Up till the end – a Xmas show by inmates and the arrival of a bunch of Italian POWs – the movie steers well clear of sentimentality and delivers a lucid exploration of the effects of war on the human psyche.

Gregory Peck (Mirage, 1965) is outstanding, not just from the way he adapts his character to suit the situation, but because quite a lot of his role is just to react to what is being said. Most stars would run a mile from being on the receiving end of chunks of dialog and insist on altering the script to make them appear more dynamic. Unlike Atticus Finch who is convinced he can find a solution, Newman knows his detection skills are very basic.

Tony Curtis (The Boston Strangler, 1968) might appear as if inhabiting a custom-made role suited to his natural effervescence and charm, but this is a deeper character than initially  seems the case and rather than ride along and enjoy himself he has spells of challenging Newman’s authority. It’s a more subdued role for Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962), too, but she also brings a level of seriousness to the part and is integral to the picture’s success.

Bobby Darin (Pressure Point, 1962) was Oscar-nominated but I found his acting over-the-top. Eddie Albert (Green Acres television series 1965-1971) and Robert Duvall (To Kill a Mockingbird), in particular, were more assured. Look out for James Gregory (The Secret War of Harry Frigg, 1968) and former child star Jane Withers.

David Miller (Hammerhead, 1968) strikes the correct tone, leavening the seriousness with humor, but not avoiding the deeper issues. In their final screenplay assignment Henry and Phoebe Ephron (Carousel, 1956), parents of Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, 1989), teamed with Richard L. Breen (A Man Could Get Killed, 1966) for an intelligent screenplay based on the bestseller by Leo Rosten.

The Chase (1966) *****

Arthur Penn’s movie came with a lot of baggage. Notwithstanding that he was in need of redemption – he was fired from The Train (1964) and Mickey One (1965) had flopped – he virtually disowned The Chase a week before it opened, denouncing Hollywood in the media, complaining that films were being made by committee. Producer Sam Spiegel was desperate to prove he could make big pictures without David Lean, who had decamped to Carlo Ponti and MGM for Doctor Zhivago (1965) and the knives were out, as always by this point, for Marlon Brando.

So it’s quite astonishing that the finished picture carries such visceral power. It’s a rich, meaty movie, part drama, part thriller, part social comment. Thematically it covers racism, power, adultery, civic apathy, injustice and integrity. At the same time it’s action-driven and the acting from a stunning cast is uniformly excellent. Theoretically, covering so much ground, it should be all over the place.

But three elements keep it grounded. The first is Lillian Hellman’s screenplay. Only using the bare bones of the source material (Horton Foote’s novel and play), she creates a fabulous intermeshed canvas wherein every character no matter how small has an integral part to play. As Coppola would do later with The Godfather she employs the device of large gatherings (two parties, in fact, one for the rich and one for the lower classes) to expose frailties.

The second is Brando, in a thoughtful performance, as an ex-farmer turned sheriff who despises the people he represents and battles to maintain his integrity. And third is Penn’s classical direction. Regardless of the interference he detected, nobody told him where to point the camera. It is noticeable that characters are often centered on the screen, rather than the more arty off-center compositions gaining in popularity. This creates an onscreen equality.

Basically, the narrative revolves around a small Texan town’s reaction to the return of escaped prisoner Bubber (Robert Redford), now wanted for a murder he did not commit, which both brings the past to light and exposes existing tensions within the community. That Bubber takes a good while to return allows those tensions to gently simmer. By the time he does the town is at fever pitch.

Meanwhile, his wife Anna (Jane Fonda), taking advantage of his absence to indulge in an affair with millionaire’s son Jake (James Fox), fears her adultery will be discovered.  Timid banker Edwin (Robert Duvall) dreads Bubber finding out that he was initially imprisoned for a crime Edwin committed. Edwin’s sexy wife Emily (Janice Rule) taunts him with her exhibitionism, openly flaunting her affairs. Bubber’s mother (Miriam Hopkins) expects her son’s arrival to bring further humiliation.

Adding further bile to the proceedings are Anna’s venomous stepfather (Bruce Cabot), real estate manager and gossip-monger Briggs (Henry Hull) who preys on adversity, and Emily’s lover Damon (Richard Bradford) who drums up racial hatred against Bubber’s friend. And throw in the distraught Ruby (Angie Dickinson), Calder’s wife.

The incorruptible Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) is faced with keeping the lid on a number of potential explosions.

Hellman’s script and Penn’s empathetic direction prevent it from falling to a swamp of melodrama. All of Bubber’s mother’s maternal despair is captured in one shot of her sitting on a stool. Millionaire Val (E.G. Marshall) is building a local college so “young men do not have to leave here like my son.” The poor Anna and wealthy Jake are genuinely in love but she holds it against him that he married someone else (of his own class) first while she waited “all those bad years.” When Calder imprisons Bubber’s African American friend (Joel Fluellen) for his own protection, he lets him find his own way to the cell and trusts him to lock himself up.

Instead of descending into a ramped-up Peyton Place of the Deep South this tackles serious issues in a gut-wrenching manner. In some ways a modern take on High Noon (1952) with townspeople deserting the Sheriff, and more vicious in its violence this highly-underrated picture (at the time critical response appeared to give too much weight to highly-publicized production problems), develops into a searing drama, with terrific performances all round, especially from Marlon Brando, a slow start building through mounting tension to a blistering finale.

And there even time is an ample wit. A drunk confronts Calder with “the taxpayers of this town pay your salary to protect this place.” The Sheriff’s response: “If anything happens to you, we’ll give you a refund.”

While Brando (The Appaloosa, 1966) is without doubt the linchpin, Robert Redford (This Property Is Condemned, 1966), while relegated to dipping in and out of the story to keep tension high, produces a memorable performance. Jane Fonda (Hurry Sundown, 1967)and James Fox (Tamahine, 1963) are class acts. Martha Hyer (The Happening, 1967) is estimable as an alcoholic wife while Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) extends her acting credentials with an untypical role as a domesticated wife.

John Barry’s score, dismissed by the Variety critic as having “no particular theme that lingers in the ear,” is in fact it is a triumphant piece of work, with a central melody that is in turn jarring and romantic.   

But it is Arthur Penn who brings home the bacon, bringing together a disparate tale in fine style, drawn tight to a stunning conclusion, and proving he had a mastery of both style and material that would stand him in good stead for his next picture Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Lillian Hellman (The Children’s Hour, 1961) wrote the screenplay from the novel by Horton Foote.

 

Lord Jim (1965) ***

What if redemption isn’t enough? When shame is buried so deep inside the psyche it can trigger no release? That’s the central theme of Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel.

The title character’s shame comes from, as a young officer, abandoning a ship he believed was sinking only to later discover it had been rescued with a cargo of pilgrims who point the finger of blame. He is branded a coward and kicked out of the East India Trading Company, plying his trade among the debris of humanity.

You might think he later redeemed himself by foiling a terrorist plot at great risk to his own life. But that cannot erase his shame. Nor can helping revolutionaries overthrow a despotic warlord (Eli Wallach), enduring torture and again at great risk. What other sacrifice must he make to rid himself of the millstone round his neck?

Writer-director Brooks had a solid pedigree in the adaptation stakes – The Brothers Karamazov (1958), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960) and The Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) – but sometimes you felt the writer got in the way of the director. That’s the case here. There was enough here to satisfy the original intended roadshow customers, great location work, grand sets, length, a big star in Peter O’Toole, but there is no majestic camerawork. There are good scenes but no great sweep and the result is a slightly ponderous film relieved by stunning action, some moments of high tension, the occasional twist to confound the audience and ingenious ways to mount a battle.

Hired killer Gentleman Brown (James Mason) has many of the best lines – “heroism is a form of mental disease induced by vanity” and “the self-righteous stench of a converted sinner” – all in reference to Jim. Everybody has great lines except Lord Jim, as introverted as  Lawrence of Arabia, face torn up by self-torture, fear of repeating his original sin of cowardice and convinced he will be cast out again should people discover he had abandoned hundreds of pilgrims.

Apart from the storm at the outset, the central section in the beleaguered village is the best part as Jim finds sanctuary, love and purpose, and conjures up the possibility of burying the past.

Part of the problem of the film is the director’s need to remain faithful to the source work which has an odd construction and you will be surprised at the parts played by the big-name supporting cast of James Mason, Jack Hawkins and Curt Jurgens. Many of the films made in the 1960s were concerned with honor of one kind or another and, despite my reservations about the film as a whole, as a study of guilt this is probably the best in that category, in that this character’s conscience refuses to allow him an easy way out.  

Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962) is chock-full of anguish but finds it difficult to create a character of similar heroic dimensions to the David Lean picture. James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is surprisingly good in an unusual role. Eli Wallach (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) as The General plays a variation of a character he has essayed before.  

This may have been a step up the Hollywood ladder but it was backward move in acting terms given Daliah Lavi’s performance in The Demon (1963) – reviewed here some time ago. Her talent is somewhat wasted in an underwritten part. Also in the supporting cast: Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), Akim Tamiroff (The Liquidator, 1965), Andrew Keir (Quatermass and the Pit, 1967) and Jack MacGowran (Age of Consent).  

Director Richard Brooks was also on screenwriting duties.

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