Don’t Worry Darling (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Rejoice: a star is born. But it’s not Florence Pugh (Black Widow, 2021). It’s my habit going to the cinema to sit close to the screen in order to avoid the audience. This time I couldn’t help but noticing the streams of young women, often in large groups taking up an entire row. Out of curiosity, I chatted to quite a few at the end, imagining they might be turning up to support director Olivia Wilde’s new picture. Nope, they were here to see Harry Styles (Dunkirk, 2017). That’s what you call star power.

And he certainly has something. A screen charisma, an electricity, and without going too overboard, something akin to the danger of an early Michael Caine or Sean Connery, other British exports. When he was in a scene, it was easy to forget Florence Pugh. You knew what she’d be doing, emoting like crazy, but he was unpredictable, exactly what the camera adores.

Anyway, what we have here is a throwback, a slow-burn paranoia thriller in The Stepford Wives utopia vein with a dystopian twist. But the ending is a let-down, the kind of baffling logic Christopher Nolan often gets away with, and a rather worn trope of male supremacy.

Happily married couple, still going at sex like rabbits, Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) live in a stylized isolated 1950s community where husbands depart for work every morning and wives stay home to do the housework or endlessly shop and gossip. Every need, basic or more luxurious, is taken care of. The men are employed by the mysterious Victory Project, run by the charismatic and fun-loving Frank (Chris Pine), and beyond their housing estate is a forbidden zone.

But strange images keep zapping into Alice’s head. Eggs crumble into nothing and wrapping Saran Wrap/clingfilm round her mouth is not an acceptable lifestyle choice and when the suicide of neighbor Margaret (Kiki Layne) is denied, and she sees a plane crash into the hills, she decides to investigate. Exactly what she discovers we are never told, but her behavior becomes more paranoid, and men in red overalls are likely to scamper out of the woodwork at the hint of any threat along with a bogus psychiatrist only too keen to prescribe pills.

And although it turns out Jack is willing to try his hand at cooking, Alice is jeopardizing their relationship and without the cunning to outwit the devious Frank.

From the outset you were waiting for this fantasy to unravel, although Alice was a shade too overcooked too quickly, and there was no explanation for some of her terrors, being trapped by a sheet of glass for example, and the ending will far from satisfy. But I found the movie suspenseful overall, enough doubt sown to seed the growing tension, the characters by and large well-drawn, otherwise confident men kept insecure by jostling for recognition from boss Frank, and the playfulness occasionally teetering into the acceptably hedonistic.

However, once Alice got the bit between her teeth, there was too much teeth, flaring nostrils and general over-acting. The cooler Frank achieved more with very little.

Generally, though, quite enjoyable, although if director Olivia Wilde (Booksmart, 2019) intended making wider feminist comment, it’s too facile by far. The something that doesn’t add up emanates from the storyline for otherwise the picture is pretty well done, including a car chase and the sinuously sneaky Frank controlling and destroying lives.

As I said, I felt Florence Pugh was too over-heated but she was also let down by a screenplay by Katie Silberman (Booksmart) that failed to come up with any real answers. Harry Styles stole every scene he was in and Chris Pine (Wonder Woman, 2017), playing against heroic type, was excellent. Although there has been criticism of Styles’ performance, bear in mind that screen stardom has been built on less and it would give the industry a shot in the arm if a new star came out of nowhere. The women I encountered in the audience would certainly agree with giving him a bigger role.

From opening week box office, this looks as if it will do well enough to sustain Olivia Wilde’s career, as here her confident direction and visual skill proves she can handle a bigger budget.   

Blonde (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Stream of consciousness reimagining of Marilyn Monroe’s life mainlining on celebrity, identity, mental illness and vulnerability and held together by a mesmerizing performance by Ana de Armas. Director Andrew Dominik’s slicing and dicing of screen shape, occasional dips into black-and-white and a special effects foetus won’t work at all as well on the small screen. Monroe’s insistence on calling husbands “daddy” and letters from a never-seen potential father that turns into a cruel sucker punch, threaten to tip the picture into an over-obvious direction.  

A very selective narrative based on a work of fiction by novelist Joyce Carol Oates leaves you wondering how much of it is true, and also how much worse was the stuff left out. As you might expect, the power mongers (Hollywood especially) don’t come out of it well, and her story is bookended by abuse, rape as an ingenue by a movie mogul and being dragged “like a piece of meat” along White House corridors to be abused by the President.

A mentally ill mother who tries to drown her in the bath and later disowns sets up a lifetime of instability. Eliminated entirely is her first husband, but the scenes with second husband (Bobby Canavale) and especially the third (Adrien Brody) are touchingly done, Marilyn’s desire for an ordinary home life at odds with her lack of domesticity, and each relationship begins with a spark that soon fades as she grapples with a personality heading out of control.

That she can’t come to grips with “Marilyn,” perceived almost as an alien construct, a larger-than-life screen personality that bewitches men, is central to the celebrity dichotomy, how to set aside the identity on which you rely for a living. It’s hardly a new idea, but celebrity has its most celebrated victim in Monroe.

According to this scenario, she enjoyed a threesome with Charlie Chaplin Jr (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr.  (Evan Williams) but otherwise her sexuality, except as it radiated on screen, was muted. The only real problem with Dominik’s take on her life that there is no clear indication of when her life began to spiral out of control beyond the repetition of the same problems. She remains a little girl lost most of the time.

I had no problems with the length (164 minutes) or with the selectivity. Several scenes were cinematically electrifying – her mother driving through a raging inferno – or emotionally heart-breaking (being dumped at the orphanage) and despite the constant emotional turbulence it never felt like too heavy a ride. But you wished for more occasions when she just stood up for herself as when arguing for a bigger salary for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

I wondered too if the NC-17 controversy was a publicity ploy because the rape scene is nothing like as brutal as, for example, The Straw Dogs (1971) or Irreversible (2002), and the nudity is not particular abundant nor often sexual. That’s not to say there is much tasteful about the picture, and you couldn’t help but flinch at the rawness of her emotions, her inability to find any peace, the constant gnaw of insecurity, and her abuse by men in power.

Ana de Armas (No Time to Die, 2021) is quite superb. I can’t offer any opinion on how well she captured the actress’s intonations or personality, but her depiction of a woman falling apart and her various stabs at holding herself together is immense. The early scenes by Adrien Brody (See How They Run, 2022) as the playwright smitten by her understanding of his characters are exceptional as is the work of Julianne Nicholson (I, Tonya, 2017) as her demented mother. Worth a mention too are the sexually adventurous entitled self-aware bad boys Xavier Samuel (Elvis, 2022) and Evan Williams (Escape Room, 2017).

While there are no great individual revelations, what we’ve not witnessed before is the depth of her emotional tumult. Apart from an occasional piece of self-indulgence, Andrew Dominik, whose career has been spotty to say the least, delivers a completely absorbing with an actress in the form of her life. Try and catch this on the big screen, as I suspect its power will diminish on a small screen.

Triple Bill Blues: Fall (2022) ***; The Forgiven (2021) **; Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

You may be aware that I am partial to a triple bill on my weekly Monday trip to the cinema. I’m rather an indiscriminate cinemagoer and generally just see what’s available, though it’s true return trips to view Top Gun: Maverick have helped paper over cracks in the current distribution malaise. Sometimes a triple bill can reveal unsung gems, sometimes I am rowing against the critical tide in my opinions and sometimes, not too often thank goodness, I end up seeing movies with few redeeming qualities. That was the circumstance this week.

FALL

So now I know. If I need to get a mobile phone dropped 2,000 feet without it breaking into pieces, the thing to do is stuff it inside a cadaver. That’s one of the more outlandish suggestions in this climbing picture two-hander that for most of the time is quite gripping.

So as not to have to spend the first anniversary of her husband’s death sozzled in booze and despair, Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) agrees to partner YouTube click-hound Hunter (Virginia Gardner) in scaling an extremely high disused radio mast. Becky, a mountaineer, had watched her husband fall to his death, so is pretty iffy about the expedition. When they reach the top they can’t get down again since the ladder they climbed has disintegrated. Although there was mobile phone reception at ground level, there’s none this high up. Hunter has 60,000 followers and reckons if only her phone reached the ground it would automatically activate so they toss it down in a shoe stuffed with a bra.

That doesn’t work nor does firing a flare pistol to alert two guys in a nearby RV – all they are alerted to is the girl’s vehicle which they promptly steal. The girls are trapped without water or drone, both stuck 50ft below on radio dishes. At one point you think this is going to go in an entirely different – murderous – direction after Becky discovers Hunter had an affair with her husband. But they manage to get over that hiccup. Recuing their water and drone results in Hunter being out of action as far as further climbing goes and it’s up to Becky to reach the top of the mast and recharge the drone from the power there, fending off a passing vulture.

There’s definitely one weird bit where it turns out that Hunter, who you imagined was up there all the time supporting a defeatist Becky, is already dead. But, luckily, the corpse provides the cavity in which to bury the mobile phone. I’m not sure much of a human body survives a drop of 2,000 ft, certainly not enough to safeguard a phone, but that’s the way this plays out.

A great mountaineering film is always a welcome find in my book. This isn’t great but it’s certainly passable. And while Becky is more interesting than the gung-ho Hunter, the pair, emotions almost spinning out of control, make a very watchable pair.

Grace Caroline Curry aka Grace Fulton (Shazam!, 2019) does well in her first starring role and Virginia Gardner (Monster Party, 2018) is as convincing. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Rampage, 2018) has a small role. A novel take on the mountaineering sub-genre, it’s kudos to director Scott Mann (Heist, 2015) – who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Frank (Final Score, 2018)  that I spent a lot of time wondering just how the hell they managed to make it look so realistic.

THE FORGIVEN

Note to studios, no matter how much you plan to tart up a modern version of Appointment in Samarra – aka a tale of unavoidable fate – you ain’t going to get anywhere if it’s filled with entitled obnoxious characters. The worst of it is this is well-made.

Functioning alcoholic doctor David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) knocks down and kills young Muslim boy Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) while on the way with wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) to a hedonistic weekend party in Morocco hosted by Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his partner Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). There are hints that Driss was planning to hijack the tourists, but while his death is deemed an accident by the local cops, David agrees to go back with the boy’s father Ismael (Abdellah Taheri) and observe the local funeral rites and possibly pay the father off.

While her husband is away Jo has a one-night stand with serial seducer Tom (Christopher Abbott) while the rest of the party – including Lord Swanthorne (Alex Jennings) and assorted beautiful men and woman – trade bon mots and make racist and sexist remarks. While the arrogant David changes his perspective and accepts his fate, there is not, himself included, a single likeable person in the whole of the tourist contingent which makes it impossible to care what happens to anybody. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (Calvary, 2014) it spends all its time trying to make clever points, not realizing the audience has long lost interest.

THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING

Note to studios, if you’re going to indulge an action director in a vanity project, make sure he hires actors who don’t just drone on. It might also help if the director could decide what story he wants to tell, and not essentially present a voice-over narrative of stuff that happened in the past, no matter how exotic the timescale.

I was astonished to discover there actually is a job called narratologist. Alithea (Tilda Swinton) is a dried-up old stick of a narratologist who summons up the dullest genie/djinn in movie history known – no names, no pack drill – just as The Djinn  (Idris Elba) who proceeds to bore the audience to death with his stories of how he came to end up in a bottle.  

There’s a bundle of academic nonsense about storytelling, a swathe of tales that sound like rejects from The Arabian Nights, and a lot of unconnected characters. The invention of director George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015) just isn’t inventive enough and the visuals just aren’t arresting enough. I’m assuming this got greenlit on the basis Miller would turn in a couple more in the Mad Max franchise.

Tunes of Glory (1960) ****

Fans of Succession will appreciate this power struggle in a Scottish army regiment set in 1948. In a reverse of The Godfather (1972) where the Corleones complain about needing a “wartime consigliore,” here the powers-that-be have decided this unnamed distinctly Highlander company requires a commanding officer with skills more appropriate to peace time.

Major Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) has been in charge of the battalion since the North Africa campaign in World War Two when the original commander was killed. But he has never been promoted to full Lt. Col. Naturally, having been in charge for six years, he feels the job should be his. At a time when the currency of command was wartime experience he’s less than pleased when he loses out to Col. Barrow (John Mills) who spent most of the war as a Japanese POW.

It doesn’t help that they are complete opposites. Sinclair is a tough, hard-drinking, attention-seeking Scotsman who enlisted as an ordinary soldier and rose through the ranks winning two medals for courage during the conflict. Barrow is Oxford-educated English upper-class, a lecturer at Sandhurst Military Academy, and recalls his war experience with terror rather than the braggadocio of Sinclair. Worse, he doesn’t drink.

It doesn’t take long for the pair to clash. Sinclair, who has ruled as much by preying on weakness as force of personality, is quick to start to look for flaws in his opponent’s make-up. Barrow feels discipline has been slipping and enforces tougher measures. That might make him unpopular but an army is built on discipline so soldiers can hardly complain.

But Barrow slips up by misreading the men. He chooses the worst of all issues to make a stand. For the first post-war official barracks party, Barrow insists the soldiers embark on traditional Highland dancing in regulation fashion rather than in their normal exuberant, not to say rowdy, manner. The soldiers are infuriated when Barrow insists they take lessons.

He has just lit the fuse. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan. Barrow is humiliated, Sinclair triumphant. But victory does not turn out the way Sinclair expected.

Somewhat cynical rebranding of the film in Italy as “Whisky and Glory,” possibly trying to cash in on the success of “Whisky Galore” and also misleading in suggesting actual conflict with the fighting in the background.

The main thrust of the narrative, as you might expect, is the stand-off between Sinclair and Barrow and the tensions felt all round, as would be the case in any business (Succession, now, of course the classic example) when a new boss takes control. While everyone might expect, and perhaps fear, change, in the military (as in the navy) there is always the danger, should the new broom try to sweep too clean, of mutiny.

This might not amount to a raising of arms. But there are other effective methods of mounting opposition – laxity, questioning or outright refusal to obey orders – or giving the new chief the cold shoulder. Here, in the background, are other simmering tensions. Not everyone is comfortable with Sinclair’s very laddish approach to command, the back-stabbing and double-dealing Major Charles Scott (Dennis Price) ready to pounce at any opportunity.

Sinclair is also having to deal with his daughter Morag (Susannah York) asserting her independence, having the temerity not just to take a boyfriend, Corporal Fraser (John Fraser), but one from the ranks rather than the officer class. And he feels the harsh tongue of his own paramour Mary (Kay Walsh).

Emotional isolation is rarely commented upon in matters of the armed forces and yet it is so much a driving force. If not adequately compensated by camaraderie, a man at the top can be very lonely indeed, and prone to the most vicious self-torment.

Director Ronald Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) superbly invokes an army atmosphere away from the more usual battleground backdrop. The picture is anchored by brilliant performances all round and a roll-call of strong supporting characters. An unflinching look at power, especially leadership and the personal toll it takes. And it was astonishing that the movie could hit the target so well without relying on the usual round of sex, violence or that old stand-by the comic subordinate. It also probes the issues of what happens – in any industry – when the wrong person is put in charge. No less an authority than Alfred Hitchcock called it “one of the best films ever made.”

The sparring between Oscar-winning Alec Guinness (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) and John Mills (The Family Way, 1966), who won the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival for this role, is of the highest quality. Dennis Price (The Comedy Man, 1964) is the pick of the support while Susannah York (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) makes an auspicious debut.

Few films could boast a better supporting cast: former British leading lady Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965), Gordon Jackson (The Ipcress File, 1965), Duncan Macrae (Best of Enemies, 1961), John Fraser (Tamahine, 1963), Gerard Harper (Adam Adamant Lives!, 1966-1967, TV series) and Peter McEnery (The Moon-Spinners, 1964).

James Kennaway (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on his own novel.

Morituri / Saboteur: Code Name Morituri (1965) ***

For a film that staggered around trying to find a plot to justify its tale of moral ambiguity during World War Two the final third is surprisingly potent. Featuring two good Germans and a bunch of bad Yanks ostensibly it’s a straightforward story of a saboteur trying to prevent a German cargo ship captain from scuttling his ship should it come under attack from the British determined to lay their hands on its vital supplies of rubber.

Supposed German pacifist Robert Crain (Marlon Brando) – actually a coward – hiding out in India is blackmailed by British Col Statter (Trevor Howard) into posing as a high-ranking SS officer on the German ship in order to prevent it being sunk by Captain Mueller (Yul Brynner). After his last command ended in drunken disgrace, Mueller assumes Crain has been sent to keep an eye on him. So Crain spends an almighty time down in the engine room and various below-decks spots defusing the wiring that would cause the ship to blow up at the touch of a button by the captain.

Mueller’s second-in-command Kruse (Martin Benrath) is suspicious of the cosmopolitan art-loving Crain but it’s a renegade band of criminals, led by Donkeyman (Hans Christian Blech) forced into armed service, who rumble Crain. But he talks them into mutiny. The ship avoids detection by disguising itself as a neutral Swedish freighter. Mueller’s attitude to Crain changes when the latter prevents him hitting the self-destruct button as a British destroyer seems poised to attack, changing its mind at the last minute.

Meanwhile, a group of American prisoners, from a ship sunk by a Japanese U-boat, come on board, including Jewess Esther (Janet Margolin). Surprisingly, Mueller steps up to the plate, protecting her from his crew, providing her with a private berth and permitting her to eat in the officer’s mess. On board the submarine are Admiral Wendel (Oscar Beregi), who commissioned Mueller, and a German counter-intelligence officer and, surprised to find Crain on the cargo ship, challenge him. Crain calls their bluff, but when the Admiral leaves he plans to radio Berlin to check Crain’s credentials, information passed on to Crain, who now has a very short deadline to organise mutiny, take over the ship and sail it to safety.

To do that, the mutineers require the support of the prisoners, a task detailed to Esther, who can only achieve that mission by surrendering her body to the prisoners, in much the same way as she has done previously to the Gestapo.

Mueller goes to pieces on hearing that his beloved son, also a ship’s captain, has been given a medal for sinking his fifth enemy vessel – only this time it is a hospital ship. After Mueller drinks himself unconscious, and Kruse assumes command, Crain fails to enlist Mueller to the mutiny which then begins. The surprise ending is both brutal and poetic.

But despite almost capsizing under the weight of an unwieldy cargo of plot and double-plot, the picture finally makes its points, that in war, ambiguity reigns. Mueller, who hates the Nazis but stoutly defends his Fatherland, proves to have the highest moral standards, agreeing to help Esther when they reach their destination, and preventing further molestation of her while aboard. Crain, purportedly the good German, has no compunction about sending Esther to do his dirty work, knowing the risks a sole woman faces in a hold of desperate sex-starved men. The good Yanks turn into rapists at the slightest opportunity, every bit as heinous in their depredations as their enemy.

That the movie stays afloat for so long is largely down to the excellence of Marlon Brando (The Chase, 1966) and Yul Brynner  (The Double Man, 1967). Brynner’s magisterial presence, chest out, legs apart, serves him well, and the ongoing duel with Brando is an acting treat, though Brynner has the best scene, the look of anguish on his face when he realises what his son has done. Brando, reprising the silky German accent of The Young Lions (1958), is very convincing as the dilettante pressed into service, negotiating his way round the recalcitrant Brynner, and living on his wits when faced with the criminals and then the  Admiral. And while Janet Margolin (Nevada Smith, 1966) is little more than a symbol, she invests the role with terrifying humanity, a woman reduced to being a sex object, utter submission her only way to achieve temporary reprieve. Most of her best acting is just with the look on her face.

In his Hollywood debut Martin Benrath appears just a standard German until his mask slips and we realise how much he covets the captain’s uniform. Wally Cox (The Bedford Incident, 1965) is another compromised by immoral behaviour, the doctor who steals the ship’s supply of morphine. Hans Christian Blech (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) excellent as a vengeful mutineer. You might also spot William Redfield (Fantastic Voyage, 1966). Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express) is only there at the outset.

Austrian director Bernhard Wicki (The Visit, 1964) does his best with a plot bursting at the seams, but the scenes of sabotage are well done, and he does recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of a ship, and the final sequence is worth waiting for. Daniel Taradash (Castle Keep, 1969) wrote the screenplay.  

Hellfighters (1969) ****

I’m sticking my neck out on this one – under-rated would be an understatement – and primarily because it’s the Duke’s most intriguing film of the decade and possibly ever. For a start we have John Wayne The Quitter (the hell you say!). Then he ducks out of the picture for a full quarter of an hour (he does what?). Fast forward a couple of years and this would have led the disaster cycle pack – a little tinkering with the structure and you would have all four principals fighting fires in South America in the middle of a revolution (beat that, The Towering Inferno.) But most enthralling of all this is a family drama masquerading as an action picture.

And it led me to thinking if True Grit (1969) had not landed on Wayne’s doorstep whether he would have continued down the dramatic rather than the action road for the tail end of his career. He had just collected his first million-dollar fee so in box office terms he was untouchable. And just for the record, the action scenes, especially given the absence of CGI, are terrific. Sure, the oil’s a little bit too thin to pass for real oil, but it does gets sloshed over all concerned, including the Duke, by the bucketload.

And it might be a shade on the episodic side, Chance Buckman (John Wayne) and compadres racing from one hellish event to another, but it’s wrapped around a tight dramatic core, Chance vs independent daughter Tish (Katharine Ross), Chance vs one-time sidekick and now Tish’s husband Greg (Jim Hutton), Chance vs. Tish’s mother Madelyn (Vera Miles) and Chance vs. all the dimwits on the board of the company he quit his own operation to join.

Chance is based on the real-life Red Adair, an oilman who had invented the extremely scientific but extremely dangerous method of putting out oil-well fires. When a gazillion gallons of oil spurting unchecked out of the ground catch fire you’ve got a helluva problem on your hands. A gazillion gallons of water ain’t going to cut it. The only solution is to cut off the oxygen supply long enough to cap the well. Red Adair’s technique: blast the oxygen out of the way. He’d attach drums filled with massive amounts of nitro-glycerine, roll them into the blaze on the end of cranes, hide behind nothing more resilient than hazard suits and shields made of corrugated iron, and detonate them. The resulting explosion did the trick.

The picture opens with this stunt, although after being accidentally injured, Chance is hospitalized, bringing estranged daughter and ex-wife into the dramatic frame. After a pretty frosty meet-cute,  Tish and Greg hit it off and get married, forcing Tish to confront the fear that drove Chance and Madelyn apart, that, like the wife of a Formula One driver, she never knows if her husband will come back. This bothers the feisty Tish a lot less than the weary Madelyn. And she even ignores all protocol and rushes to her husband’s side, regardless of the danger.

Meanwhile, Chance decides not only has he had enough of dicing with danger but he can leave his company in the safe hands of Greg. His life now on a more mundane keel, Madelyn is attracted back. But of course it wouldn’t do for Chance to live out retirement with nothing more testy than board meetings so he comes back into the fray during a rebellion in Venezula and both women have to confront their true feelings.

The action, considering the lack of CGI, or the kind of budget available to The Towering Inferno, is first-class. This is the ideal movie reversal. Instead of running away from a fire, these characters race towards it. There are some hair-raising moments. At one blowout, gas is leaking from the ground, poisoning everyone in sight, Greg is trapped underwater. And should complacency sneak in, fire, being on the unpredictable side, is prone to sudden explosion.

John Wayne (The Undefeated, 1969) has always excelled at restrained emotion and here he gets both barrels. Having got rid of the over-protective wife he’s now saddled with a daughter he’s desperate to protect from the hell he put his wife through. He’s faultless here, given considerably more acting scope than normal and not, as in McLintock (1963), just able to tan a woman’s backside, presenting a more contemporary male, perhaps as puzzled by female behavior as any of his cowboys, but taking a more modern approach to resolving his feelings.

Katharine Ross (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969) has her best role, not a mere appendage as in her other films of this period, but driving forward the action through her independence. Jim Hutton (Walk, Don’t Run, 1966) is growing on me. I’ve reversed my view of him as a lightweight. Vera Miles (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) does a pretty good job of playing older – she was not yet 40 – and essays a complicated character, more rounded than was often the case with the female lead in Wayne pictures. Veterans Jay C. Flippen (Firecreek, 1968) and Bruce Cabot (The Undefeated) head the support.

The perennially underrated Andrew V McLaglen (The Undefeated) does a pretty good job with the action, as you might expect, but is also savvy enough to let the dramatic scenes flow. Clair Huffaker (Rio Conchos, 1964) penned the screenplay.

Guilty pleasure personified, you might say, but I’d retort that this is a damn fine picture erroneously ignored – rating only two paragraphs in Scott Eyman’s  650-page biography of John Wayne for example – possibly because it appeared in between the critically-reviled The Green Berets (1968) and the critically-acclaimed True Grit.

The Misfits (1961) *****

A knockout. Stone cold five-star gold label classic. It’s rare for a non-western to turn into one of the greatest westerns of all time. Forget The Wild Bunch (1969) and Once Upon a time in the West (1969) and every other paean to the dying of the Old West. This is all you need. A true insight into just what is left for the cowboy once civilization and modernization have run their course.

What’s perhaps most astonishing is that three major Hollywood stars plus a top director and  one of the three greatest American playwrights of all time combined to make an indie. There’s no high drama of the kind Hollywood usually requires, no love dashed, no death or murder, nothing dramatic enough to be called narratively gripping. Made today, it would be the kind of picture that would traipse from film festival to film festival, hoping for a break at Sundance. The cast would be no-namers unless a star, fed-up with actioners, wanted to gain some artistic credibility.

This is as misleading a tag line as you could get. Admittedly, selling the movie’s core sadness
in the early 1960s would have been tough.

By some freak of Hollywood magic this was greenlit. There’s plenty good dialog but nothing that’s going to make it into the Classic Line Hall of Fame and there’s only a handful of finely wrought scenes. So beyond the astonishing mustang sequence, what reverberated was the acting, with each big star producing a scene of the highest quality, for pure emotional impact possibly unsurpassed in their entire careers.

The story itself is pretty slim. Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) in Reno to get a divorce hooks up with washed-up cowboy Gay (Clark Gable) and grieving car mechanic Guido (Eli Wallach). They repair to Guido’s cabin in the country, unfinished after his pregnant wife died because he didn’t have a spare tire. They are joined by hard-drinking man-hungry Isabelle (Thelma Ritter). Roslyn shacks up here with Gay, brightening up the place with decorative ideas and planting vegetables.

At the rodeo they stake drunken Perce (Montgomery Clift), a tough guy with mother issues, self-destructing one rodeo at a time. At various times the trio nurse and console each other, but mostly they get drunk. The three men take Roslyn along to show off their cowboy skills, catching wild mustangs. This is less old-fashioned than you might imagine. It’s more like tracking down the great white shark in Jaws (1975), a primeval battle between man and beast. Man has the advantage of being able to use Guido’s biplane to drive the horses down to Gay and Guido waiting with lassoes.

And tires.

What are the tires for you might well ask? Well, they fulfil the same function as the barrels in Jaws, to weight down the animals so they are easier to track, perhaps exhausting them so much they might just topple over and die. So the odds are not exactly even.

The guys are further disadvantaged by Roslyn’s presence. When she learns of the horses’ fate – not as you might expect to become working horses on a ranch like current television series Yellowstone – she is horrified. The critters will end up as pet food. So much for the Wild West.

This is an absolutely fantastic sequence and I’m surprised it doesn’t turn up on critical lists at all as one of the great western segments of all time. It says more about the end of the West than all the violence of The Wild Bunch or operatic fervour of Once Upon a Time in the West. And it’s a companion piece to The Old Man and the Sea, man, for all his endeavors, ending up with virtually nothing.

There’s a few twists and turns to this sequence so I won’t spoil it for you except to say it is one of the very few sections in movies where character plays out in action.

And this isn’t even Gable’s greatest scene. The moment when, drunken out of his skull already, he bleats in the street about his kids carries awesome power. What he’s saying doesn’t even make a great deal of sense, which is the beauty of it, because what drunk ever makes sense, most of the time he’s effectively addressing the demons inside.

Clift has a horrifically comic scene. His brain is as washed away as his body. He wakes out of a drunken stupor and can’t remember why he has a huge bandage round his head and proceeds to unravel it, again with a monologue that reveals his inner catatonic state.

Monroe is mute in her best scene. She just stares in horror at the mustang incident unfolding. And she has another terrific scene, probably the most ordinary thing she ever did in her screen career, battering a ping-pong.

The title is actually a rodeo term apparently for, unsurprisingly, a horse that was too small or weak to work. I would have preferred something less obvious because it’s quite clear from the outset all the characters are misfits.

This is probably the closest Monroe got to playing a character who reflected her inner turmoil. Roslyn’s beauty brightens up lives but mostly she is depressed, thinking that even when you win you lose, too fragile to cope with reality, and inclined to need consoled as much as she is willing to nurse the others. Gay is a superb creation, who despises men who earn “wages,” that is have a regular job and lose their freedom. Even if freedom means no female companionship and being reduced to catching horses for the few bucks they will bring in from pet food manufacturers, he would rather do that. Perce is just so battered by life he hasn’t a clue what he’s doing. The self-serving Guido whines.

Put all these characters together and they still live in world of their own, and although they occasionally cross the border into another’s existence by and large it is without understanding.

Without John Huston’s empathetic direction it would be unbearably sad, but with virtually nothing in the way of real plot he draws us inexorably in to their small lives. Given its budget and the box office potential of the stars, it was a flop on release. Now it’s a masterpiece.    

However tragic or premature, few Hollywood stars could have gone out at the top with a picture of this quality as did Gable and Monroe. Possibly as a result of his exertions on the film, Gable died a few days after shooting completed, Monroe eighteen months later, but what a final legacy.

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. 

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).

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