Rampage (1963) ***

A more misleading title you’d struggle to find. There’s no sign of a rampage until the last 20 minutes, and even then it plays out on a rooftop in a city. Not a patch, action-wise, on Howard Hawks’ Hatari! the previous year, but sharing the female lead Elsa Martinelli. More romantic drama than jungle adventurer, and not much Malaysian jungle at that given Hawaii was the stand-in.

Big on metaphor, women viewed as trophies to boost the male ego or requiring male protection. Surprisingly contemporary with reference to the grooming of young women. Though Hatari! went down the same line, hunting animals for zoos rather than sport, this again take  contemporary approach, animal conservation seen as a battle of cultures, between men for whom shooting an elephant or a rhino reinforces their macho tendencies, and those who want to preserve rare wildlife for future generations.  

Trapper Harry (Robert Mitchum) and hunter Otto (Jack Hawkins) team up to capture for a German zoo two tigers and a legendary panther-like creature known as “The Enchantress.” From the outset, sexual tension sizzles between Harry and Otto’s young partner Anna (Elsa Martinelli). Although Otto is possessive, he permits Anna to take male companions on the assumption that she will always return to him.

Anna’s not quite as submissive as Otto would like to believe and she puts Harry in his place more than once. There’s a 35-year age difference between Otto and Anna. But Harry is disturbed at how they became lovers, persistently asking how soon, after the older man saved the orphaned girl from poverty, he seduced her.

The love triangle is set against a more primitive background where women have no rights and are as likely to be offered up to any passing male. Native guide Talib (Sabu) feels duty-bound to pass his wife onto to Harry. The wife not only acquiesces, but is insulted when the American refuses.

The men represent different cultures, Otto a marksman who prefers to bring his trophies back dead, hanging his virility on every scalp, Harry more emancipated for whom capture is enough. There’s a stand-off with a local tribe when Otto is too hasty with his rifle.

Martinelli does better here in terms of panther, the creature in the film was
more of a leopard with some red marks.

Given the lack of budget and the consequent lack of action, it’s no surprise that the drama revolves around whether Anna will betray her lover. Despite his apparent laid-back approach, Otto watches Anna with an obsessive eye, her potential loss deemed a blow not just to his esteem but a sign of approaching death.

What sets this aside from the submissive female trope is that the decision rests with Anna. Harry certainly doesn’t push his luck and until his pride is dented Otto allows the situation to play out. The shift in Anna’s feelings is discreetly rather than dramatically handled. The traditional bathing scene is used to reveal that Anna is not actually married and therefore neither committing adultery nor under legal obligation.

When we finally get down to some action, the build-up is interesting, Harry using beaters to nudge tigers towards his traps, but, unfortunately the majority of these animals are a disgrace to their wild forefathers, on the whole appearing pretty obliging if not outright dumb. There’s one charging rhino and, heaven forfend, Otto commits the cardinal son of requiring two bullets to finish it off.

The movie picks up when they encounter “The Enchantress,” by a long way the smartest beast in this particular animal kingdom, who enhances her mythical status by hiding in a cave, clash of personalities between the alpha males triggering the movie’s final, more dynamic, phase, Anna coming into her own not just as a crack shot but as an independent woman, Otto making Harry his prey.

More interesting as an examination of contemporary mores, not quite as sexist as initially it appears, and nudging in the direction of a woman attempting to attain independence, and in discussing the issues surrounding conservation. Just as bold is the questioning of Otto’s motivation is saving Anna from poverty, an act of kindness or grooming? You might wonder how much better off Anna would be with a man two decades older rather than one three decades older, but nobody goes there.

The acting is uniformly under-played. Elsa Martinelli is given a better showcase for her talents here than in Hatari! and this is Robert Mitchum (Five Card Stud, 1968) at his laid-back best while Jack Hawkins (Masquerade, 1965) keeps his simmering under control until the end.

Without the budget to ape Hatari! director Phil Karlson (The Secret Ways, 1961) has no option but to focus on characters rather than animals, but finds interesting ways to put various messages across. Marguerite Roberts (Five Card Stud) and Robert I. Hope (White Commanche, 1968) based their screenplay on the novel by Alan Caillou a.k.a Alan Lyle-Smith.

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

What is it about the British, hardly renowned these days for cinematic output, that they can confer late-onset stardom on hitherto supporting player?

To a list that now includes Olivia Coleman (The Favorite, 2018)), Lesley Manville (Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, 2022) and Jim Broadbent (The Duke, 2020) we can now add Bill Nighy best known for a rumbustious turn in The Boat That Rocked (2009).

And in a movie that is so slow, so bereft of any action, it goes in the polar opposite direction to current Hollywood offerings. Worse, it’s set in moribund England of 1953 and almost wilfully ignores that year’s great event, a hook that would undoubtedly have attracted The Crown crowd, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, whose funeral barely a couple of months back generated record global television audience.

The new movie does steal this seminal image from the original “Ikiru.”

The characters all exist in that worst of all English cliches, the pin-striped bowler-hatted stiff-upper-lip brigade who exist in a world so far removed from American enterprise and vigor  that the hardest work they do is to avoid responsibility for any decision with an almost Brazil-type ability to pass the buck to another department.

And it is all done so beautifully. It’s not only the role of a lifetime for Nighy but his first leading role and he manages without once resorting to his trademark chuckle.

There’s no plot to speak off, just a gradual awareness by long-widowed civil servant Williams (Bill Nighy) that he has disappeared into a soulless existence, lacking any spark, easily matching the soubriquet “Mr Zombie” given by cheeky assistant Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood).

On receiving the news that he is dying of cancer, his reaction is to attach himself to livelier characters, Sutherland (Tom Burke) and Margaret, in the hope that by osmosis some of their joie de vivre will rub off, his attraction to the girl bordering on infatuation, which given the age gap, he luckily realises and pulls away from in time.

Unlike most downtrodden characters seeking redemption, he doesn’t immerse himself in a murder mystery, or race to someone’s rescue or confront the town villain, instead, almost secretly, devoting himself to building a playpark on behalf of downtrodden mothers who have no chance of beating the system on their own. In fact, there could not be a greater act of class rebellion for a middle-class Englishman than to connive on behalf of the lower classes to beat the Establishment.

His tiny action is against the background of a ruling middle- and upper-class who enjoy lives in the leafy suburbs far removed from the inner-city deprivation of London.

Screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, 1993) – adapting Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) – has form exploring English emotional repression, with the most delicate of touches shedding a light on the incipient hierarchical pecking order. New recruit Wakeling (Alex Sharp) is kept in his place by the slightest touch of an umbrella. And in echoes of the inmates scurrying away from the approaching Nurse Rachet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Williams nearly hugs the wall, head bowed, hat in hand, to allow boss Sir James (Michael Cochrane) to pass in the corridor. Another colleague is “ashamed” to see Williams beg a superior to reconsider an adverse decision, as if this was not just a dishonorable action for Williams but a humiliation for himself to witness.

Only a hint here and there is required to draw other characters, William’s son’s harpie of a wife, and Williams’ colleagues not only forced to work at the same desk all day but crammed into the same (first-class) railway carriage for the journey home.

This could easily have gone down the more aggressive narrative route of Williams kicking up a stink and confronting those creating obstacles in other departments, there could have been stand-up rows, and defeat followed by celebration, but then that would have not been British. And while Hollywood might have revelled in the creation of another champion of the common man (or in this case, woman), instead director Oliver Hermanus (Moffie, 2019) has taken the much quieter approach, much to the film’s benefit.  

There is only one directorial trick that will stop you in your tracks and a couple of lingering images, but the movie is all the better for the director restraining the impulse to go in more heavily.

Aimee Lou Woods easily makes the transition from television (Sex Education, 2019-2021) in an interesting part where her initial involvement as confidante turns into a more challenging role.

An industry, bewailing the post-pandemic absence of the older generation, will hopefully be sensible enough to accord this a platform release – word-of-mouth might even attract a younger audience – and come Oscar time Bill Nighy should be in with a shout.  

Circus World / The Magnificent Showman (1963) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Bookended by disaster – a ship turning turtle, fire raging in the big tent – and kept aloft by giddy circus turns this long-ignored movie in the John Wayne canon is ripe for reassessment. In more down-to-earth mold, with no villains to rein in, no gun-toting required, this calls upon something more basic from the actor, the dramatic skill required to make the audience fix on a strong character within a spectacular screen event.

Presented in stunning Super Technirama, the swansong of maverick producer Samuel Bronston (El Cid, 1961), and mistakenly viewed as little more than a travelog or a compendium of circus acts, this dwells instead on transition and loss as Matt Masters (John Wayne) struggles to allow adopted daughter Toni (Claudia Cardinale) to grow up and to come to terms with the part he played in the romantic calamity – father a high-wire suicide, acrobatic mother Lili (Rita Hayworth) fleeing to Europe – that left her parentless.  

It’s no coincidence that sending his three-ring circus cum Wild West Show on a lucrative tour of Europe in the early part of the 20th century provides an opportunity to hunt for Lili, the love of his life. But the circus ship capsizes in Barcelona, leaving Masters penniless, forced to  work for a rival European promoter until he can scrape together enough dough to start again. Masters uses the opportunity of traveling through European capitals to scout new acts, including clown Aldo (Richard Conte), a lion-tamer turned tiger-tamer Emile (Hans Dante), and ballerina Katharyna (Giovana) who performs on the high wire while Toni wants to chance her arm against Matt’s objections as an acrobat and flex her romantic muscles in romantic dalliance with Matt’s new partner Steve (John Smith).

The subplots add dramatic heft, the lion-tamer is frightened of tigers, Aldo has vengeance in mind, so in between the scintillating circus acts the storyline is compressed around the drink- and guilt-sodden Lili and conflict on several fronts with Toni while old retainer Cap (Lloyd Nolan) is on hand to pep up or challenge Matt.

You wouldn’t be allowed to make this kind of film these days so it’s worth glorying in the glory days of the circus – dancing horses, lions, tigers, elephants, acrobats and genuinely hilarious clown sequences. It being a three-ring circus there’s always something going on, plus the Wild West element which comprises a stagecoach being attacked.

John Wayne is as befuddled as ever in romance, restricting his trademark double take to astonishment at Tony’s transition to womanhood. There’s an occasional reversal but mostly  it’s a battle against the odds, potential triumph leavened by gritty loss.

A modern producer would have switched the disasters – it didn’t really matter how Matt got into a fix. But the capsizing, appearing so early the effect is stunning, is brilliantly handled, not just the rescue of people and animals but Matt in lion-taming mode and ending with a clever coda. In every photograph Lili’s face has been scratched out but in among the saturated notes of Matt’s vital cash box is a picture of her.

Some critics have suggested John Wayne (In Harm’s Way, 1965), recovering from his own financial debacle caused by over-investment in The Alamo (1960), took the role for financial expediency. But I can see the attraction, as I’m sure the actor did. This is a far more rounded character than anything since The Searchers (1956) and he can’t even find redemption from a six-shooter. He’s more protective than aggressive, paternal instinct triggering character reaction, and it’s more of a James Stewart type of role, coming back from adversity, and nothing straightforward about a man whose love affair caused marital disaster.

Critics have also taken pot-shots at Claudia Cardinale (The Pink Panther, 1963) as if she was not already an accomplished actress (a favorite of Visconti, for example) in a compelling role and competing on even terms with a star of John Wayne’s charisma without being able to fall back on the old saw of the romantic interest. Although playing a character nearly a decade younger, Cardinale  brings an earthy feistiness to a character with a bucket of decisions to make, turning on its head her relationship with Matt and going through the dramatic hoops with Lili.

Rita Hayworth (The Happy Thieves, 1961) has shucked off the glamor, a worn-down relic of her former self, turning to drink and religion in equal measure in vain hope of finding peace. Veteran Lloyd Nolan (The Double Man, 1967) and Richard Conte (Assault on a Queen, 1966) hold their own, but John Smith (Waco, 1966) does not. Look out for former British star Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965).  

Henry Hathaway (5 Card Stud, 1968) does a terrific job marshalling all the elements, containing the core family drama within the wider action-oriented structure. While there’s never a dull moment, in among all the spectacular scenes are some exhibiting a particularly sensitive directorial touch such as when Matt discovers Lili’s hotel room and reflects on his own misdemeanors.

There were almost as many writers as circus performers – James Edward Grant (The Commancheros, 1961), Ben Hecht (Spellbound, 1945), Julian Zimet (A Place for Lovers, 1968), Bernard Gordon (55 Days at Peking, 1963), Nicholas Ray (The Savage Innocents, 1960) and Philip Yordan (El Cid).

Come at it from the fun perspective and you won’t go wrong. John Wayne completists will adore it.

I was lucky enough to see this is full glorious widescreen at the cinema where it was the Closing Film at this year’s  Widescreen Weekend in Bradford. What a way to end a show!

My Policeman (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Understated love triangle set in the 1950s with perfectly-pitched performances and punctured by reticence, repression and regret. Not that I check reviews before I venture into a cinema but I gather this has been poorly-received, perhaps because it’s funded by Amazon, which has no great record in making movies, and partly, I guess, because it’s headed by pop star-turned-actor Harry Styles, credited with giving Don’t Worry Darling (2022) an unexpected, and for some, unfai, box office push.

But I found this to be solid stuff and despite the tragic outcome no overtly dramatic acting (unlike Emily for example), the whole enterprise pared down, soulful more than anything, and all the better for it. Mostly, it takes place in flashback.

In the 1990s, a stroke-ridden Patrick (Rupert Everett) is given accommodation in the household of married but childless Tom (Linus Roache) and Marion (Gina McKee). Tom resents the intrusion although they were all best pals back in the day. Gradually, we find out why, but the movie begins in low-key fashion, the young Tom (Harry Styles), a policeman, and Marion (Emma Corrin), a teacher, hooking up with all the innocence of that era at the beach. Tom teaches her to swim, she introduces him to art.

Turns out Tom has an arty buddy, Patrick (David Dawson), the slightly older museum curator. Soon they are a threesome, attending concerts and eating out, and while Marion appreciates Patrick’s appreciation of the finer things in life, she’s more at home with the more ordinary Tom. While he’s a bit hesitant about making advances towards her, eventually he plucks up the courage to ask her to marry him.

The movie flips between the 1990s featuring the older trio and the 1950s with young bucks in love. And part of the movie’s attraction is the innocence, it takes a while to work out what’s going on, or more correctly for the audience to be told what’s going on, which is that Tom has fallen in love with Patrick. But he is also in love with Marion and wants children and a proper family, so the suggestion that in marrying her he is seeking the perfect disguise for his sexuality is never pointedly made. Mostly, we get his confusion. Remember this is the 1950s when homosexuality in Britain was a crime that could result in a stiff jail sentence.

Gradually, Marion begins to suspect Tom has leanings and there’s a wonderful scene where she confesses this discovery to her best friend only to be told the friend is a discreet lesbian. Does this suddenly make the friend a completely different person, Marion is asked.

Of course, it’s only going to end in tragedy, and even then it’s an ongoing one, the older Tom unable to admit his preferences, married to the stoic Marion, and clearly agonising over the life he could have led had he been bolder earlier on.

I thought this was very delicately done. The scene where Tom shows his true feelings by his finger almost absent-mindedly stroking Patrick’s neck and his subsequent awkwardness at what then transpires as he comes to terms with his own suppressed emotions is subtly done.

I’m surprised Harry Styles has had such a rough ride over his performance. Perhaps I was out of the loop in the brouhaha of expectation. I thought he captured very well the character’s uncertainty regarding his sexuality, the knowledge that career (bachelors found it hard to get promotion in the police) and marriage could be jeopardized by an illicit action too many. This could not be a more different performance than the alpha male of Don’t Worry Darling. From his initial behavior I half-expected a rom-com where shyness is gradually overcome, but the implicit danger ensures we steer clear of such territory.

Emma Corrin (Netflix’s The Crown) comes across very well as the equally shy young woman of her time, anxious to appear not too forward, unaware of what to expect from the sexual side of marriage, remaining innocent until her wrath takes hold, and clearly willing to make do for the sake, in that very English manner, of appearances. David Dawson, in his first starring movie role, is excellent, rarely letting anguish get the better of him but far from the camp cliché.

Rupert Everett (The Happy Prince, 2018)  is the surprise turn, the virtually mute stroke victim, enduring the torture of living in the same house as his former lover who consistently ignores him. Gina McKee (Lies We Tell, 2017) and Linus Roache (A Call To Spy, 2019) are good as the mismatched couple, though I’m not sure I believed in her final action, a shade too romantic a gesture for a wife who one way or another has kept her husband in thrall for 40 years.

Michael Grandage (Genius, 2016) should be applauded for his sensitivity, for coaxing superb performances from his younger actors, and for falling into the trap of overloading the picture either with a sense of doom or of overplaying the dangers of the lifestyle. Ron Nyswaner (Philadephia, 1993) adapted the book by Bethan Roberts.

Well worth seeing and at last Prime might have something decent to watch.

Last Year in Marienbad / L’Annee Derniere a Marienbad (1961) *****

Six decades later this miraculously emerges as a compendium of contemporary themes. Starting off with “my truth,” and segueing through unreliable narrator, false memory, parallel universe, stream of consciousness, dream vs. reality, repetitive voice-over, and still the most tantalising – or infuriating – movie ever made. A cinematic jigsaw with every piece of the puzzle highly stylized.

People have shadows but not the trees, the interpretation of a statue is disputed, characters in backgrounds are as frozen as mannequins, there’s a game you cannot win, no one has a name, and every now and then a row of men as if choreographed by Busby Berkeley wivel in turn and shoot at targets. Set in a huge baroque chateau with fabulous meticulous grounds, this fantasy building proves the ideal locale for an endless discussion of reality. And whatever happened last year in Marienbad could have occurred instead  in a number of other locations.

The trees have no shadows. These days CGI would rid trees of shadows but in those days it was the other way round and the shadows of the characters
were painted on the ground.

Two men, a prospective lover (Giorgio Abertazzi) and potentially a husband (Sacha Pitoeff), buzz around a woman (Delphine Seyrig). The would-be lover conjures up a tremendous amount of detail about when he met the woman, only for her to deny all knowledge of the incident, to the extent of failing to recall the reason they are meeting again, one year on. According to him, she had refused to enter into an affair the previous year but vowed to consider his ardent proclamations of love a year later. He has come to claim his reward.

That plot, slim as it is, is all you’re going to get. The movie goes all around the houses trying to establish not only was such an agreement actually struck but also whether she has ever met him at all and where exactly this supposed event might have taken place.

And were it not for the hypnotic tone, the mastery of camerawork, the cleverness of the situation, and the long tracking shots – for me an enormous plus – you might have given up the moment the man repeats, with mild differences, sentences he has already uttered. It’s the equivalent of the crime novel’s closed room mystery, except there is no solution.

So you either dismiss it as a typical French New Wave farrago, fall out with your friends over its meaning, or just sit back and enjoy it, as I did.

For a start, it’s one of the best films ever made in black-and-white, the contrast between the two so striking, the white glowing, the black occasionally ethereal, the lack of dialog almost insisting this is in reality a silent film. There are all sorts of pieces of experimental cinema, flash cuts in conflict with the languorous stately progress of the tracking camera, the aforementioned shadows and mannequins, greater emphasis given to the ceilings and corridors than to the people.

Time and place are distorted, different versions of events presented, the initial story given substance by the husband attempting to put the lover in his place by continuously beating him at an obscure game of cards (the Japanese Nim). And much to my astonishment, just as I was well settled in to letting the director take me where he wanted and expecting no conclusion, there is a climax of sorts that may point the audience in the direction of the correct reality.

By that point, did we even care, the whole essence of the movie being the inability to detect truth, the slipperiness of meaning, the elusiveness of intent and the certainty that what was clear one year is not the next. Cinema is built on conflict, and the most obvious one is difference of opinion. What one person regards as fact, the other dismisses as supposition. This could have been played out in dialog, endless discussion about meaning and veracity, we see it all the time in crime pictures and romance, what exists in one mind not having the same resonance in another, but instead we are treated to one long glorious cinematic essay.  

Director Alain Resnais had already set cinema alight with Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and there can have been few artists who hit the arthouse ground running in such style. That the script had been written by eternal bad-boy and future director Alain Robbe-Grillet (Trans-Europ Express, 1966) ensured that it was always going to be controversial. Unusually, Resnais, apparently, stuck very close to the script, so in that sense it was a collaboration rather than the usual loose interpretation of a screenplay.

The stars all took different subsequent routes. Delphine Seyrig, in her debut, would go on to become an arthouse darling in Accident (1966), Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (1968) and Jacques Demy’s La Peau Deuce/Donkey Skin (1970). Italian Giorgio Albertazzi did not become an arthouse darling, more likely to turn up in bit parts in a historical drama like Caroline Cherie (1968) or in a supporting role in giallo Five Women for the Killer (1974). You might remember Sacha Pitoeff from The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968) and he, too, headed down the support/bit part route.

You might end up resistant to what you see, but everyone with an interest in cinema should see Last Year at Marienbad at least once.

Psyche 59 (1964) ****

This is a low-budget gem, an exploration of the psychological consequences of grooming. You can probably guess from the outset where it is headed but simmering tension has rarely been handled so stylistically.

With the exception of Patricia Neal, an unexpected Best Actress Oscar-winner for her previous film Hud (1963), there were no stars in the cast. Curd Jurgens was only beginning to play characters for whom a German accent was not essential, Samantha Eggar one movie shy of her breakout picture The Collector (1965), Ian Bannen, essentially a character actor, building on his success in Station Six Sahara (1963).

Blinded after an unexplained psychological trauma, Allison (Patricia Neal) welcomes back, over the objections of husband Eric (Curd Jurgens), her much younger sister Robin (Samantha Eggar) to the family home. Family friend Paul (Ian Bannen) cares (possibly overmuch) for Allison while hankering after Robin. The screenplay by veteran Julian Zimet (Saigon, 1947, with Alan Ladd) is taut as a drum, every line a threat, suppressed emotion or piece of exposition that could bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.

The blindness is exceptionally well handled, Allison’s need for physical contact with her husband sensual in its expression. Though she can a ride a horse, her vulnerability is implicit; as she is led across a beach you wonder what would happen were she to be abandoned. What she cannot see becomes central to the movie. That Robin – vivacious but damaged – clearly has some hold over Eric is demonstrated in a tete-a-tete between them but as tensions mount such scenes cannot be kept secret. When Eric grabs Robin’s hair and she retaliates by jabbing him with scissors, neither party emits a sound, leaving Allison oblivious to it all.

Robin takes delight in exposing what has lain on the surface for too long. When Paul begins to fall for Robin, the younger woman astutely remarks to her sister: “Am I taking him away from you?”  Allison, however, is self-aware, convinced she could see if she wanted to, if she was prepared to lift the psychological barrier that keeps the past safely hidden. “I’m afraid to see,” says Allison, “there’s something I’m scared to look at.”

Given the period when it was made there was a lot that could not said – or shown – and even so the film was censored prior to release, but it is the direction by Alexander Singer (A Cold Wind in August, 1961) that lifts the picture up. An acolyte of Stanley Kubrick, the movie teems with imagination, close-ups and extreme close-ups are balanced by long two-shots, a conversation in a car between Eric and Paul mostly direct to camera a prime example.

Emotion is captured at every turn and Singer avoids the cardinal sin of treating Allison like an invalid or focusing on her reaction to what she cannot possibly see, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses for much of the time. Levity is provided by Mrs Crawford (Beatrix Lehmann), Eric’s sci-fi-reading horoscope-obsessed mother and by a couple of excitable children.

The grooming is in the past but the after-effects are very real. In a film like this it is tempting to consider that certain attitudes are dated, but it is clear from this film that nothing has changed, that men believe they can take what they want regardless of the impact on their victims.

Mrs Harris Goes To Paris (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

How is that the British, way down now in the rankings of global movie production, have come up with a successful genre all of their own – the national treasure. Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren to be sure first came to prominence in the same year, 1969, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Age of Consent respectively, but whereas Hollywood has turned its back on the ageing female contingent, the British film industry has wrapped its most famous stars in cotton wool and proceeded to give them roles they can take to the Oscar bank.

Mirren was in her early 60s when she romped home in The Queen (2006); you only have to say Downton Abbey and Smith, already two Oscars to the good, is regarded as screen royalty. And that’s before Judi Dench enters the equation, a few years older than Mirren when she nabbed the Oscar for Shakespeare in Love (1998). You can pretty much count on getting funding for any picture if you can rustle up any of this trio. Want to bring back the older crowd? Dangle these carrots!

Elevated into this category now is Lesley Manville, the 66-year-old star of the delightful Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. While largely escapist, there’s enough of a contemporary vibe, a Paris redolent of filth, the downtrodden going on strike, to provide an edge, and a narrative that continually punctures dreams any time fantasy looks like running away with itself. Set in 1950s London and Paris where the poor know their place, and are rigidly kept in it by the arrogant rich, but where aspiration can at any moment take flight.

Cleaner Mrs Harris, dreaming of buying a £500 dress – we’re talking the best part of £14,000 these days – scrimps and saves, and through a couple of more than fortuitous events, finds her way to the House of Dior where she is despised by haughty manager Claudine (Isabelle Huppert), adored by philosophic model Natasha (Alba Baptista) for having such aspirations, and manages to cast a spell, although not for the reasons expected, over rich widower the Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson).

There’s not much plot. She has to remain in Paris for a fortnight for fittings and whiles away the time helping along the romance between under-manager Andre (Lucas Bravo) and Natasha, assisted by their existentialist leanings, eventually overcoming hostility and putting everything to rights in the Dior empire. But you don’t need plot when you’ve got charm. The English notion of fair play initially comes a cropper when facing French egalitarianism out of whack, when the rich can jump the queue and basically make everyone jump to their tune. But when a character like Mrs Harris settles for second best you can be sure she’ll come up trumps. Whether it’s icing on the cake or to make a rubbish-strewn Paris more palatable, there’s a good ten minutes of oo-la-la devoted to parading the latest fashions.

Not content with conquering one city, Mrs Harris developed sequelitis and headed for New York.

And there’s not just a philosophical undertone – people not what they appear on the surface – but a feminist one, women holding the world together while men whistle. But by and large it’s joyous entertainment, a confection straight out of the Hollywood top drawer, a poor woman having her day in the sun through sheer strength of character.

Unless you’re British or a big fan of arthouse director Mike Leigh or noticed her Oscar  nomination in the largely unnoticed The Phantom Thread (2017) Lesley Manville will probably have passed you by. She nabbed a cult following as the dumped-upon lead in comedy series Mum (2016-2019) and picked up a wider audience as Princess Margaret in The Crown, but mostly she’s known for a certain kind of acting, where she can change expression 20 times in a minute without ostensibly doing anything different. Just like her predecessors, Smith, Dench and Mirren.

You can’t take your eyes off her, which is quite feat when she’s up against French screen royalty (perhaps a “tresor national”) Isabelle Huppert (Elle, 2016). Alba Baptista (Warrior Nun series) could well be the breakout star here though Lucas Bravo definitely runs her close. I saw Bravo in Ticket to Paradise (2022) and the characters there and here could not be more different. Ellen Thomas (Golden Years, 2016), Lambert Wilson (Benedetta, 2021), Anna Chancellor (For Love or Money, 2019) and Jason Isaacs (Operation Mincemeat, 2021) have smaller roles.

Director Anthony Fabian (Skin, 2008) adds deeper issues to a movie that was crying out to be all surface. He co-wrote the screenplay with Carroll Cartwright (What Maisie Knew, 2012) based on the classic Paul Gallico novel.

Never Take Candy/Sweets From a Stranger (1960) ****

Banned in the U.S., box office flop in Britain, consigned to the vaults for over three decades,  and when revived and you wonder how everyone could have been so wrong. A sensitive portrayal of a family caught up in local Canadian politics when their daughter accuses a dignitary of molestation, it carefully avoids the exploitation trap. At times tense, thrilling and heart-rending, with dynamic use of sound – sirens, footsteps, tracking dogs – it’s probably the best Hammer picture of the decade.

Young Lucille (Frances Green) takes her new friend Jean (Janina Faye), daughter of newly-arrived immigrants Peter (Patrick Allen) and Sally Carter (Gwen Watford), to visit an old man Clarence Olderberry Sr (Felix Aylmer). When the child returns home, not initially perturbed by what occurred, it transpires that, in return for a handful of candy (sweets in British parlance), she danced naked.

Sally’s mother Martha (Alison Leggatt), conscious of the disruption accusations might cause, tries to play it down. Sally reports the incident to the police chief Hammond (Budd Knapp) who is reluctant to pursue a case against the town’s most important person. Clarence Jr. (Bill Nagy) warns Peter of disastrous consequences. Lucille’s parents send her away so she cannot back up Jean’s story.

There follows trial by town, the whole family receiving the enmity of the local populace, while Jean is destroyed in the witness box by the prosecutor (Michael Gwynn), ending up so distraught her parents throw in the towel, the accused walking released scot free. Rancour is such Peter quits his job but as they prepare to quit the town, Jean goes off playing in the woods again with Lucille.

Stalked by the old man, they race terrified through the woods and into a rowing boat on the water only for the assailant to grab the tow-line and pull them back.

Movie tie-in by the author of the original play.

What could have easily pandered to the worst possible taste is incredibly well done. Strangers arousing the ire of a local populace is a trope as old as the hills so none of the consequence of their action was surprising. Nor, for the time, was the disgust expressed that such an accusation could be cast, not even if the old man has a history of mental illness, a voluntary patient whose records have conveniently vanished.

Whether the son has any inkling of the truth, or whether he is equally appalled, is never made clear as he is in any case duty bound to defend the family’s good name.  But compromise is the name of the game. And whereas you can understand Lucille’s father not wanting to risk his job, Sally’s mother falls into a different category, the uptight Englishwoman who dare not challenge the existing order. There’s a terrific scene when she is suddenly made aware that she is in the wrong but is too frightened to admit it.

Jean’s experience could easily be repeated today, thousands of women refusing to accuse in case they end up slandered or defamed, or find themselves taking on powerful men with powerful friends. We all know how easy it is for an unscrupulous lawyer to embark on witness character assassination. Initial corruption of innocence can be heightened by testifying in a witness box.

The sub-text of the film, while never remotely explicit, is that adults were only too aware of the existence of paedophiles, regardless of trying to write them off as harmless as Martha does, and it was virtually impossible is those more innocent times to explain to a child the dangers of taking candy from a friendly stranger.

Director Cyril Frankel (Operation Snafu, 1961) has done an excellent job of opening up the stage play by Roger Garis, and yet imposed quite a claustrophobic feel to the enterprise. Having escaped a potential captor, Jean is a prisoner of consequence, initially disbelieved, paraded in front of a hostile town, belittled by the prosecutor, despised by the jury, and let down in the end by her fearful parents who, having put her through the court ordeal, decide it is too much. And when she is free it is only to fall prey once again.

Patrick Allen (The Traitors, 1962) is custom-made for this kind of principled role, but Gwen Watford (Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970) makes the most of a rare top-billed part, caught between conscience and status quo, battling an entrenched male hierarchy, undone by her own mother. Janina Faye (Day of the Triffids, 1963), only a couple of years older than the character she was playing and hopefully had little knowledge of the background to her role, is excellent as the young girl who discovers that innocence has a guilty side.

Well worth a watch with, unfortunately, a story that still rings true today.

S.O.S. Pacific (1960) ***

There’s a whole book to be written about poster deception. But this plays with audience expectation in an unusual manner.  Here it’s a case of duping by billing. The top-billed Richard Attenborough (Only When I Larf, 1968) disappears in the last third, John Gregson (The Frightened City, 1961)  spends most of the time out of it and the bulk of the heavy lifting is done by fifth-billed Eddie Constantine (The Great Chase, 1968).

That’s no bad thing because Constantine, self-deprecating tough guy in the Lee Marvin mold, does pretty well in this survival picture, airplane crashing in the Pacific, a motley bunch stranded on an island. And with the bonus of Attenborough and Gregson, typically of the English stiff-upper-lip persuasion,  playing against type.

Alcoholic Jack (John Gregson), piloting  a seaplane on its last legs, is ferrying wanted smuggler Mark (Eddie Constantine), handcuffed to cop Petersen (Clifford Evans), along with shifty witness Whitey (Richard Attenborough), stewardess Teresa (Pier Angela), physicist Krauss (Gunnar Moller), sparky spinster Miss Shaw (Jean Anderson) and the “loaded with sin” Maria (Eva Bartok).

When Mark attempts to put out an electrical fire on board he accidentally kills co-pilot Willy (Cec Linder) and with Jack out cold the plane heads for the drink. Luckily, there’s a deserted island nearby. Unluckily, it’s next door to a nuclear test site.

Meanwhile, Mark, emerging as the hero, is soon fighting off the attentions of Maria and Teresa, Jack’s girlfriend. Whitey, who pointed the finger at Jack and not wanting to be stranded on the same island as him, steals the cop’s gun, puts a hole in one of the two dinghies and sets off to sea on the other. On discovering lead-lined housing, Krauss is able to work out the nuclear issue. With barely five hours to detonation, Mark elects to swim two miles in shark-infested water to the tiny island housing the nuclear device, armed only with a few rudimentary tools.

There’s a surprise waiting for him of course. Should he succeed in his enterprise, there’s reward too because Jack, in best Scott of the Antarctic form, has sacrificed himself to the sharks to give Mark a chance.

There’s some good stuff here, namely seeing Attenborough as a snivelling spiv complete with dangling cigarette, and Gregson as a self-pitying drunk, killing his career one bottle at a time, an airsick cop, the doughty Miss Shaw still fancying herself as a femme fatale, some well-scripted dialog between bad guy Mark and bad girl Maria, and a host of twists.

Contemporary audiences will feel let down by the ending. If only it was as easy to prevent nuclear catastrophe. But on the other hand it is one of the first films to take the issue of the atom bomb seriously, Jack’s self-destruction the result of witnessing at first hand the devastation of Hiroshima.

Yank Eddie Constantine, hightailing it to France to improve his career prospects in the 1950s, and becoming a B-movie star, was still largely an unknown quantity. He had top-billed in French and German pictures and was the male lead to Diana Dors in Room 43 (1958). This should have kick-started a Hollywood career or at least a British one.

A potential inheritor of the Humphrey Bogart mantle, the tough guy with a soft centre, snappy with the one-liners, in this outing willing to go with the flow, confident he will end up back on his feet, if not at least enough appeal to have dames falling at his feet.  But, probably, he would have had to work his way up again, which might be a slow business, whereas in France scripts were being written to suit his screen persona. If you’re interested check out his turn as Lemmy Caution in Your Turn, Darling (1963) and his outings as secret agent Jeff Gordon and private eye Nick Carter.

Eddie Constantine played by far the most interesting character here, and except for Jean Anderson (Solomon and Sheba, 1959) the women were underwritten, Pier Angeli (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) and Eva Bartok (Blood and Black Lace, 1964) there mainly to polish the hero’s ego.

Robert Westerby (Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, 1963), television writer Gilbert Thomas and Bryan Forbes (Station Six Sahara, 1963)  had varying hands in the screenplay.

Director Guy Green (The Magus, 1968) does a good job of marshalling his box of tricks, keeping tensions – whether romantic, criminal or survivalist – high especially as he had to find a way round the unexpected climax, and once you accept that neither Attenborough nor Gregson are going to leap to the rescue quite easy to get on the Eddie Constantine wavelength. Not in the class of The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) or Sands of the Kalahari (1965), and lacking their character complexities, but not far off.

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.   

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