Becket (1964) *****

Two stars in impeccable form, an intriguing tale of betrayal and redemption, and a sharp reminder that Britain was once a conquered nation. Given the original play was written by a Frenchman, Jean Anouilh, I wondered how much of the experience of France being occupied by Germany during World War Two informed the work.

Becket (Richard Burton) is dabbed a collaborator for having anything to do with King Henry II (Peter O’Toole), not just in his gainful employ and rising to positions of enormous power, but in accepting his friendship being viewed as a traitor to his countryman. England then, 100 years after the invasion of William the Conqueror, was divided into Normans, who ruled, and Saxons, the indigenous population, who obeyed. The only source of rebellion was through the Catholic Church which could claim, in its prime allegiance to God, to place religion above ruler.

Initially, it’s the story of two unprincipled men, who drink and lust to their heart’s content, until Henry, misreading his friend’s personality, appoints him Archbishop of Canterbury, the most important religious leader in the country, assuming that Becket would continue in his hypocritical ways and bring the clergy to heel. Unfortunately, in taking on the position, Becket takes to heart everything it stands for and instead of extending his power Henry finds it challenged.

It’s classic narrative, fast friends turned bitter enemies, the American Civil War in a nutshell. The more Becket sticks to his guns, the more his life is imperilled. Since the story is based on historical actuality, anyone who saw it at the time would be aware of the famous outcome, but the teaching of history and English history at that, either having fallen in abeyance or being given the revisionist treatment, viewers coming at afresh will be surprised at the political and moral twists and turns.

Nor is it of the “thee” and “thou” school of historical drama. The language is modernised, it is filled with humor, and spiced through with irony. Caught in a downpour during a hunt and sheltering, wet and bedraggled, in a peasant hut in a wood, Becket explains to the king that anyone who dared light him a fire would be hanged for taking precious wood out of the forest, a law laid down by Henry to make more money from his forests.

Likeable though Henry is, full of energy and fun, he is also sly and mean. On the basis of what’s mine is yours, he passes on a peasant lass to Becket, but in demanding the favour returned insists that Becket allow him to have sex with his fiancee, who promptly commits suicide rather than submit.

Henry wheedles as much as he demands, needing to keep his nobles in line if they are to fund his lifestyle and wars. There is always the tricky business of making alliances with untrustworthy rivals. This almost a template for Game of Thrones, the business of ruling as much about the velvet glove as the iron fist, negotiation and concession as important as outright demonstrations of strength.

Even when in an inferior position, there is always diplomatic recourse. The French king (John Gielgud), deliberately keeping waiting a British contingent, explains that the delay will allow them time to be measured for some fashionable French clothing. Now that is a barb served in silk.

It’s possibly as big a surprise to Becket, as indulgent in drinking and whoring as the king, to discover that he has principles. The clergy was known for abusing its power and, despite taking a vow of poverty, living high on the hog. So he stuns both his fellow priests and bishops as much as the king when he gives away all his possessions to fulfil that basic vow. There’s almost an element of naivety. Having played the game so far, suddenly he refuses, to the consternation of everyone in power.

For a time it becomes a battle of wills and that eternal question of who is more important, the invisible God or the human king, and Becket to some extent becomes a pawn.

And it’s brilliantly acted. In his first role since coming to global attention with Lawrence of Arabia (1964) Peter O’Toole creates a more down-to-earth conniving ruthless character. Richard Burton (Cleopatra, 1963), trying to prove he can attract an audience without the help of Elizabeth Taylor, matches him every step of the way. The fiery oratory is replaced by introspection.

Director Peter Glenville (The Comedians, 1967) resists the temptation to open up the stage play, which he also helmed on Broadway (where it won the Tony for Best Play), and for a historical picture set in warring times it’s surprisingly lacking in battles. But it’s easily one of the best historical pictures ever made and it’s a travesty that the Oscar for Best Actor went to neither O’Toole nor Burton, both nominated who split the vote, but to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady. John Gielgud (The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968) was a whimsical quirky delight, so different to his normal screen persona.

Out of 12 Oscar nominations, it won only for screenplay, by Edward Anhalt (The Satan Bug, 1965).

Does what historical movies so rarely accomplish: thoughtful, stylish, brilliantly structured with superb acting and direction.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) ***** Now Officially The Greatest Western of All Time

Having complained about lists and then recanted when one of my favorites got the nod at the top of the heap, I’m doing the same again.

The recent Sight & Sound once-in-a-decade Directors Poll did the unthinkable and placed Once Upon a Time in the West ahead of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) which, virtually since release, had been anointed the top western of all time. The critics who participated in the Critics Poll, which ran concurrently with the Directors Poll, were not, I hasten to add, quite so convinced. According to the critics, the John Ford picture was still top dog, ahead of the Leone masterpiece in second place. But in a battle between directors, who make a living making pictures, and critics, whose only skill is writing about them, I know which side I would come down on. And in any case I had long sided with the directors on this issue.

A masterpiece to savor. The greatest western ever made. Sergio Leone’s movie out-Fords John Ford in thematic energy, imagery and believable characters and although it takes in the iconic Monument Valley it dispenses with marauding Native Americans and the wrecking of saloons. That the backdrop is the New West of civilisation and enterprise is somewhat surprising for a movie that appears to concentrate on the violence implicit in the Old West. But that is only the surface. Dreams, fresh starts are the driving force. It made a star out of Charles Bronson (Farewell, Friend, 1968), turned the Henry Fonda (Advise and Consent, 1961) persona on its head and provided Claudia Cardinale (Blindfold, 1965) with the role of a lifetime. And there was another star – composer Ennio Morricone (The Sicilian Clan, 1969)

New Orleans courtesan Jill (Claudia Cardinale) heads west to fulfil a dream of living in the country and bringing up a family. Gunslinger Frank (Henry Fonda), like Michael in The Godfather, has visions of going straight, turning legitimate through railroad ownership. Harmonica (Charles Bronson) has been dreaming of the freedom that will come through achieving revenge, the crippled crooked railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) dreams of seeing the ocean and even Cheyenne (Jason Robards) would prefer a spell out of captivity.

The beginnings of the railroad triggers a sea-change in the west, displacing the sometimes lawless pioneers, creating a mythic tale about the ending of a myth, a formidable fable about the twilight and resurgence of the American West. In essence, Leone exploits five stereotypes – the lone avenger (Harmonica), the outlaw Frank who wants to go straight, the idealistic outlaw in Cheyenne, Jill the whore and outwardly respectable businessman Morton whose only aim is monopoly. All these characters converge on new town Flagstone where their narratives intersect.

That Leone takes such stereotypes and fashions them into a movie of the highest order is down to style. This is slow in the way opera is slow. Enormous thought has gone into each sequence to extract the maximum in each sequence. In so doing creating the most stylish western ever made. The build-up to violence is gradual, the violence itself over in the blink of an eye.

Unusually for a western – except oddities like Five Card Stud (1968) – the driving force is mystery. Generally, the western is the most direct of genres, characters establishing from the outset who they are and what they want by action and dialogue. But Jill, Harmonic and Cheyenne are, on initial appearances, mysterious. Leone takes the conventions of the western and turns them upside down, not just in the reversals and plot twists but in the slow unfolding tale where motivation and action constantly change, alliances formed among the most unlikely allies, Harmonica and Cheyenne, Harmonica and Frank, and where a mooted  alliance, in the romantic sense, between Jill and Harmonica fails to take root.

There’s no doubt another director would have made shorter work of the opening sequence in Cattle Corner, all creaky scratchy noise, in a decrepit railroad station that represents the Old West, but that would be like asking David Lean to cut back Omar Sharif emerging from the horizon in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Alfred Hitchcock to trim back the hypnotic scenes of James Stewart following Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Instead, Leone sets out his stall. This movie is going to be made his way, a nod to the operatic an imperative. But the movie turns full circle. If we begin with the kind of lawless ambush prevalent in the older days, we end with a shootout at the Sweetwater ranch that is almost a sideshow to progress as the railroad sweeps ever onward.

No character is more against audience expectation than Jill. Women in westerns rarely take center stage, unless they exhibit a masculine skill with the gun. There has rarely been a more fully-rounded character in the movies never mind this genre. When we are introduced to her, she is the innocent, first time out West, eyes full of wonder, heart full of romance. Then we realise she is a tad more mercenary and that her previous occupation belies her presentation. Then she succumbs to Frank. Then she wants to give up. Then she doesn’t. Not just to stay but to become the earth mother for all the men working on the railroad.

Another director would have given her a ton of dialogue to express her feelings. Instead, Leone does it with the eyes. The look of awe as she arrives in flagstone, the despair as she approaches the corpses, the surrender to the voracious Frank, the understanding of the role she must now play. And when it comes to close-up don’t forget our first glimpse of Frank, those baby blue eyes, and the shock registering on his face in the final shoot-out, one of the most incredible pieces of acting I have ever seen.

And you can’t ignore the contribution of the music. Ennio Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in the West has made a greater cultural impact than even the venerated John Williams’ themes for Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975) with rock gods like Bruce Springsteen and Metallica among those spreading the word to successive generations and I wonder in fact how people were drawn to this big-screen showing by the opportunity to hear the score in six-track Dolby sound. There’s an argument to be made that the original soundtrack sold more copies than the film sold tickets.

The other element with the music which was driven home to me is how loud it was here compared to, for example, Thunderball (1965), which as it happens I also saw on the big screen on the same day. Although I’ve listened to certain tracks from the Bond film on a CD where the context is only the listener and not the rest of the picture, I was surprised how muted the music was for Thunderball especially in the action sequences. Today’s soundtracks are often loud to the point of being obstreperous, but rarely add anything to character or image.

If you live in the U.K. you should get the opportunity to see this once again on the big screen because the British Film Institute, which coincidentally owns Sight & Sound, is planning to screen all the 100 films in its latest poll. Other countries might take note.

RRR (2022) *****

It’s unusual for the esteemed New York Film Critics Circle to be taking a lead from me. But, happening upon this, my first encounter with Bollywood, on an otherwise quiet Monday cinema outing, I have been championing it ever since, though not always to an appreciative audience.  So I was somewhat astonished – and rather delighted – to discover that the New York Film Critics has just bestowed its annual Best Director Award to S.S. Rajamouli for R.R.R.

In honor of that achievement I am reprinted my original review below.

Easily the most extraordinary epic I have seen in a long time. Hitting every action beat imaginable, a stunning tour de force that ranks alongside the best Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg can offer. As if Rambo or John Wick had turned up a century ago. If films could go from 0 to 100 in ten seconds, this would be the prime contender. Astonishing sequences include a cop taking on a mob single-handed with only a stick for a weapon, a villager acting as bait for a tiger, wild animals leading an attack on a fort, a savage beating with a nail-studded whip, and the unforgettable image of one man mounted on another spraying bullets with two rifles. 

Following the virtual abduction of a native girl Milla, two friends are on a collision course in the oppressive British regime in India in 1920. Technically, it doesn’t count as a kidnapping because British Governor Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) hasn’t, in his eyes, committed a  crime, merely taking the child as a gift for his wife (Alison Doody). Villager Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) is tasked with bringing the girl back, ambitious undercover cop Raju (Ram Charam) with stopping him. The two men, befriending each other in Delhi, are unaware of the other’s plan. That both are immensely likeable, if quite opposite, characters, creates terrific charisma, and their bromance is entirely believable.

Everything in this picture is big and bold except when it is intimate and small. There is a beautifully-observed romance between Bheema and a kind British woman Jenny (Olivia Morris), the development of which, faced with the obstacle of neither understanding the other’s language, with Raju acting as matchmaker, could have been a film on its own. There are two brilliant pieces of screenwriting, phrases repeated throughout that acquire deeper meaning as the story unfolds. The British continually kill by brutal means rather than waste an expensive bullet; “Load. Aim. Shoot,” is a mantra taught the young Raju by his revolutionary father; both come into play at the climax.

The British are horrific. The Bheema-Jenny meet-cute occurs when the native is beaten for inadvertently embarrassing a British soldier. Lady Buxton is a sadist, determined to see a man whipped till he bleeds to death. By contrast, the two heroes are often far from heroic, Bheema unable to find the girl, Raju forced into terrible violence as a consequence of ambition. And in the midst of all this ramped-up violence perhaps the best scene of all, albeit one of conflict, is an energetic dance-off between the two men and the scions of the British upper class, the fantastic “Naatu Naatu” sequence.

Director S.S. Rajamouli (Baahubali: The Beginning, 2015) makes as bold a use of narrative structure as Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, withholding until the last third of the movie a flashback which tilts the story in a completely different direction. But there is nothing lumbering about this epic, it has an incredible drive, an energy to set your head spinning. Even so, Rajamouli utilises a classic three-part structure and the three-hour-plus running time is anything but sprawling. In among a host of character-driven scenes he knows how to build a sequence, as the heroes successively triumph and fail with every passing minute, and among the introductory sequences for both main characters are some inspired images. Cleverly seeding the story creates a variety of twists, turns and reversals.

I was expecting not to like the traditional dancing sequences, which you would thought ill-fitting in a picture of this scope, but the “Naatu Naatu” sequence is treated as virtually a rebellion with tremendous dramatic impact. Although the two leads are muscular in the Schwarzenegger/Stallone mold it does not prevent them channelling their inner Gene Kelly.

Except that it is set a century ago, this has all the bravura hallmarks of MCU, an exceptional adventure told at top speed that does not put a foot wrong. 

N.T. Rama Rao Jr  (Janatha Garage, 2016) has the more difficult role, in that he switches from full-on action hero to romantic klutz. But the intensity of Ram Charam (Vinaya Vidheya Rama, 2019) should have Hollywood calling. The characters played by Ray Stevenson (Accident Man, 2018) and Alison Doody (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989) are more one-dimensional but no less terrifying for that.

On energy and cinematic imagination alone, this would more than pass muster but S.S. Rajamouli has also created a brilliant piece of entertainment with greater depths than you might imagine.

This movie cries out to be seen on the big screen and maybe, in light of the NYFCC Award, your local arthouse might see fit to re-book it. Otherwise you will cn catch it on Netflix.

The Menu (2022) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

Hitchcock would have adored the apocalyptic flavour of this quasi haunted house psychological thriller. Setting aside its intellectual pretensions this is pure pedal-to-the-metal material. You never know what’s going to happen next in a tense environment created by dictatorial celebrity Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) in whose eyes the entitled are likely to get their just desserts.

In most thrillers of this nature, the assorted bunch of potential victims usually attempt some kind of fightback, and they’re usually younger and sexier, but this crew are trapped in the headlights because they find it impossible to believe they could possibly be in the middle of a revolution.

The beauty of their dilemma is that Chef is trapped, too, by his desire for fame, suffocated by pursuit of perfection, but yet, as they soon come to realise, accepting punishment for his own sins (attempted rape for one). You might be fooled by the trailer into thinking there is a way out, if only a perilous one, but that’s a bit of a red herring, and as the tension grows you realise it’s heading for an incredible conclusion.

Only the rich can afford to visit this expensive restaurant on a secluded island. Most of the guests aren’t even interested in the food – that’s one strike against them – but for the experience of having said they’d been there or to, as is the prerogative of the wealthy, be pampered within a whim of their life, or to find something minute to complain about, a niggle guaranteed to cause grief.

Creepy though they are, Chef’s thunderclapping hands that demand guest attention, the cries of “Yes, chef” from his slave-like adoring workers, the detail of high-falutin’ cooking, history and ecology lessons, a ramrod sergeant-major of a maitre’d Elsa (Hong Chau), and occasional ironic twists – a bread course that contains no bread for example – are mere hors d’oeuvres for the main event.

Chef knows a tad too much about his guests’ peccadilloes – infidelity, financial irregularity – for their liking and as the evening out begins to turn into a cul de sac and shocking incident follows shocking incident, cowardice and lack of the kind of retinue that could come to their rescue, the guests can only watch as they are served up on a platter to a madman’s ideology.

Certainly, the format is exceptionally cinematic, sequences chapterized as menu courses, and the intellectual discussion that divides the world into the servers and the served well observed, but driving the thriller engine is the most refined nutcase this side of Hannibal Lecter, a thin-lipped specter at a feast of his own devising , a creator at the end of his tether, seeking revenge on those who quibble with his talent. And yet there is something  universal about this individual, a man scrabbling so hard to stay ahead of the game that he is almost on a par with Arthur Miller’s famed salesman. Is Chef doing much more than the culinary equivalent of “riding on a smile and shoeshine?”

The guests are the usual high priests of pamperdom, food critic Lillian (Janet McTeer), movie star (John Leguizamo) planning to revive his career by fronting a food show, simulating orgasm with every taste, a trio of young financiers, a couple who have come several times but can’t recall a single dish they’ve eaten, and foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) accompanied by a mysterious woman Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) who turns out to be in a different branch of the service industry.

British director Mark Mylod (Ali G in Da House, 2002, anyone?) has learned from helming episodes of Game of Thrones and Succession how to match reaction to incident. As much as Chef is in control in the restaurant, Mylod is in control of exactly what we see. There is none of the over-acting that appears to come with the territory, certainly no screams or titillation, not a whiff of cleavage, the usual recourse of a horror film run out of ideas, though, as with that genre, it is the sexually compromised who suffer first.

Mylod’s tight rein ensures shock is just an element of the overall effect, rather than its signature dish, and that all the ruffley-truffley culinary dialog only serves to heighten morbid  sensation.

Ralph Fiennes (The Forgiven, 2021) may well have delivered a career-best performance it is so constrained. Given equally little room to manoeuvre, little time for eye-rolling or exacerbated action, Anya Taylor-Joy is back to her The Queen’s Gambit (2020) best, while Nicholas Hoult (Those Who Wish Me Dead, 2021) adds sly deviance to  a screen persona that plays on innocence. It’s an astonishing screenwriter debut for television writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy.

As it happens, I’m very familiar with the lives of chefs, having spent three decades working with them, initially as a cossetted observer, as journalists often are, being the fawned-upon editor of Caterer & Hotelkeeper, the hugely profitable industry trade weekly in Britain, with massive sales at a time when print was the dominant media, so much so that during my time we produced a world record (for a weekly) issue of 524 pages. But when I later set up the Scottish Chefs Association, whose board comprised all the top chefs in the country, and its offshoots the Scottish Chef Awards and a cookery school for chefs, I became privy to the fears and wonders of the cooking business. So I can attest to the fear and loathing for some customers and most critics, who seemed determined in the days before social media to spoil anything they could, or demand preferential treatment.

Certainly, the restaurant is a unique kind of business, food being cooked to order, “a la minute” as the saying went, and customers disrupting a tight ecology by simply turning up late, or early, or not at all. Customers were prone to theft, teaspoons in particular replaced on a titanic scale, and the litany of complaints could outweigh a Bible. Then, as now, reputation was everything, and could be destroyed by a food critic or word-of-mouth. It wasn’t just chefs who sought perfection, but customers, any deviation from expectation harshly dealt with.

Successful chefs with investors would find that somehow they saw little share of the profits. Chefs minus investors lived a precarious existence. Good reviews would  bring in bad customers, the kind who pored over every detail, like Tyler wanting to share their paltry culinary knowledge with the expert, needed extra attention, and came to say they had been there. But I can sympathise with Margot who felt she was being experimented upon rather than fed and can recall several times buying fish and chips immediately after dining in a Michelin-starred establishment.

I remember, too, industry astonishment that celebrity-chef-du-jour Anton Mosimann began the day by walking round the kitchen shaking hands with every chef, no matter their rank, rather than starting off their day with a rant. Kitchens are organised on a brigade system, obedience imperative, no questioning of authority. But rather than derogating talent as occurs here, many top chefs proved apt talent-spotters. The Roux Brothers, for example, created a magnificent template, finding backers among their appreciative wealthy customers for the young talent in their kitchens, which resulted in a new generation of chefs setting up in business without the usual financial woes.

In Britain and Europe, however, perfection could be achieved. If you reached the highest standards set by the Michelin Guide inspectors and were awarded the coveted three stars, the highest culinary accolade that could be bestowed, you had reached the top of the tree. You couldn’t relax because one or more of the stars could be taken away, but the kind of personal obsession that afflicts Chef here would be lessened. However, since very few chefs hit the three-star mark you have hundreds if not thousands beavering away trying to achieve it.

The Demon / Il Demonio (1963) *****

I was riveted. This is one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen. Highly under-rated and largely dismissed for not conforming to audience expectation that horror pictures should involve full moons, castles, darkness, fog, costumes, nubile cleavage-exposing female victims, graveyards, a male leading character, shocks to make a viewer gasp, and the current trend for full-on gore.

So if that’s what you’re looking for, give this a miss. Even arthouse critics, spoiled by striking pictures by the Italian triumvirate of Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni, were equally scornful. For the most part the action takes place in broad daylight, rather than the twilight and darkness beloved of Hollywood (and British) horror.

It is set in an impoverished town in the Italian mountains, where farming is so primitive the soil is tilled with horse and plough and water is collected in buckets from the river.

One of the most striking aspects of the picture is that it creates its own unique universe. The townspeople are both highly religious and deeply superstitious, every traditional Catholic ceremony matched by old-fashioned ritual. Even some of the formal traditions seem steeped in ancient belief, sinners marching up a steep hill with people being scourged or carrying a heavy rock, in a convent the tree of a suicide covered in barbed wire.

Less conformist notions include a wedding night rite involving shoving a scythe under the bed to cut short Death’s legs with the bedspread covered in grapes to soak up evil and discord arranged in the form of a cross to act as bait for bad thoughts and poison them before they can cause the couple harm. When the people run through the town brandishing torches it is not, as would be genre tradition, to set fire to a castle but to vanquish evil from the air.

It is filmed in austere black-and-white. In the Hollywood Golden Era of black-and-white movies, lighting and make-up transformed heroines, rich costumes enhanced background. Here, if the heroine is wearing make-up it’s not obvious and the only clothes worth mentioning are a priest’s robes or a plain wedding dress. Otherwise the most arresting feature is the stark brightness against which the black-dressed figure of the heroine Puri (Daliah Lavi) scuttles about.

And although there are no jump-out-of-your-seat shocks, there are moments that will linger on in your mind, not least the heroine enduring a vicious extended beating from her father, an exorcism that turns into rape and the sight, Exorcist-fans take note, of a spider-walk, the young woman’s torso thrust up high on elongated arms and legs. Virtually the entire success of the picture relies on atmosphere and in places it is exquisitely subtle, the audience only realizes she has been raped, for example, by the look on her face.

The picture opens with a dialogue-free scene of stunning audacity, foreshadowing the idea from the start that image is everything. Puri pierces her chest with a needle, cuts off a chunk of her hair to mop up the blood, throws the hair into the oven and rams the crisp remains into a loaf of bread. Not to be consumed as you might imagine, but as a tool of transport.

Shortly after, having failed to seduce Antonio (Frank Wolff), she tricks him into drinking wine infused with the ashes of her bloodied hair, bewitching him, so she believes, to abandon his betrothed. In an echo of a Catholic sacrament she shouts, “You have drunk my blood and now you will love me, whether you want to or not.” 

The next morning when collecting water at the river she has a conversation with a boy Salvatore only to discover he has just died, his death blamed on her because his last words were a request for water, which she is judged to have denied him. She is beaten by women. She is feared by everyone in the village, her family tainted with the same brush, wooden crosses nailed to their door. She is not a ghostly figure, flitting in and out of the townspeople’s lives, an apparition tending towards the invisible, but fully formed, highly visible in her black dress and anguished expression, doomed by often vengeful action and forceful word.

Much of the film involves Puri being beaten or chased or captured, at one point trussed up like a hog. Attempts to exorcise her, whether by pagan or Catholic means, focus on getting the demon to speak his name. The ritual performed by heathen priest Giuseppe involves blowing on a mirror before taking on sexual aspects which culminate in rape. The Catholic version in a church in front of her family is primarily, as it would be in The Exorcist, a duel between the priest and whatever possesses her.

Movie producers who took one look at the beauty of Palestinian-born Daliah Lavi (Blazing Sand, 1960) and thought she would be put to better use in bigger-budgeted pictures made in color that took full advantage of her face and figure and that stuck her in a series of hardly momentous movies such as The Silencers (1966) and Some Girls Do (1969) should be ashamed of themselves for ignoring her astonishing acting ability.

And much as I have enjoyed such films, I doubt if I could watch them again without thinking what a waste of a glorious talent. This is without doubt a tour de force, as she alternatively resists possession and adores the being who has taken hold of her mind. She dominates the screen.

The rest of the mostly male cast is dimmed in comparison, as if overawed by the power of her personality. Future spaghetti western veteran Frank Wolff (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969) comes off best. Director Brunello Rondi (Run, Psycho, Run, 1968) is better known as a screenwriter for Federico Fellini. He made few films, none matching this in scope or imagination, perhaps as a result of the picture not receiving the praise it deserved. Even now it does not have a single critical review on Rotten Tomatoes.

One other point: you may have noticed that in general the proclivities of male horror characters are never in need of psychological explanation. Nobody considers that the Wolfman must have suffered from childhood trauma or that a vampire drinks blood because he was a rejected suitor. Strangely enough, as would be the case in The Exorcist and other instances of female possession, psychiatry is usually the first port of call and here all reviews I have read implicitly see Puri’s actions as based on sexual inhibition and rejection by Antonio. 

You would need to chase up a secondhand copy to find this, I’m afraid.

How the West Was Won (1962) ***** – Seen at the Cinerama

I’ve got Alfred Newman’s toe-tapping theme music in my head. In fact, every time I think of this music I get an earworm full of it. Not that I’m complaining. The score – almost a greatest hits of spiritual and traditional songs – is one of the best things about it. But then you’re struggling to find anything that isn’t good about it. But, for some reason, this western never seems to be given its due among the very best westerns.

Not only is it a rip-roaring picture featuring the all-star cast to end all-star casts it’s a very satisfying drama to boot and it follows an arc that goes from enterprise to consequence, pretty much the definition of all exploration.

Given it covers virtually a half-century – from 1839 to 1889 – and could easily have been a sprawling mess dotted by cameos, it is astonishingly clever in knowing when to drop characters and when to take them up again, and there’s very little of the maudlin. For every pioneer there’s a predator or hustler whether river pirates, gamblers or outlaws and even a country as big as the United States can’t get any peace with itself, the Civil War coming plumb in the middle of the narrative.

Some enterprising character has built the Erie Canal, making it much easier for families to head west by river. Mountain man fur trader Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) on meeting prospective pioneers the Prescotts has a hankering after the young Eve (Carroll Baker) but as a self-confessed sinner and valuing his freedom has no intention of settling down. But he is bushwhacked by river pirates headed by Jeb Hawkins (Walter Brennan) and left for dead, but after saving the Prescotts from the gang changes his mind about settling down and sets up a homesteading with Eve.

We have already been introduced to Eve’s sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) who has attracted the attention of huckster Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck) and they meet again in St Louis where she is a music hall turn and widow. Her physical attraction pales in comparison with the fact she has inherited a gold mine. He follows her, unwelcome, in a wagon train which survives attack by Cheyenne, but still she resists him, not falling for him until a third meeting on a riverboat.

Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard) wants to follow his father to fight in the Civil War. Linus dies there, but there’s no great drama about it, he’s just another casualty, and the death is in the passing. In probably the only section that feels squeezed in, following the Battle of Shiloh a disillusioned Zeb saves General Sherman (John Wayne) and Ulysses S. Grant (Harry Morgan) from an assassin.

Returning home to find Eve dead, Zeb hands over his share of the farm to his brother and heads west to join the U.S. Cavalry at a time when the Army is required to keep the peace with Native Americans enraged by railroad expansion. Zeb links up with buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), who appeared at the beginning as a friend of his father.

Eve, a widow again, meets up in Arizona with family man and lawman Zeb who uncovers a plot by outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach) to hijack a train. Zeb turns rancher once again, looking after her farm.

But the drama is peppered throughout by the kind of vivid action required of the Cinerama format, all such sections filmed from the audience point-of-view. So the Prescotts are caught in thundering rapids, there’s a wagon train attack and buffalo stampede, and a speeding train heading to spectacular wreck. There’s plenty other conflict and not so many winsome moments.

Interestingly, in the first half it’s the women who drive the narrative, Eve taming Linus, Lilith constantly fending off Cleve. And there’s no shortage of exposing the weaknesses and greed of the explorers, the railroad barons and buffalo hunters and outlaws, and few of the characters are aloof from some version of that greed, whether it be to own land or a gold mine or even in an incipient version of the rampaging buffalo hunters to pick off enough to make a healthy living.

And here’s the kicker. Virtually all the all-star cast play against type. John Wayne (Circus World, 1964) reveals tremendous insecurity, Gregory Peck (Mirage, 1965) is an unscrupulous though charming renegade, the otherwise sassy Debbie Reynolds (My Six Loves, 1963) is as dumb as they come to fall for him, and for all the glimpses of the aw-shucks persona James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965) plays a much meaner hard-drinking hard-whoring version of his mean cowboy. Carroll Baker (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is an innocent not her usual temptress while George Peppard (The Blue Max, 1966) who usually depends on charm gets no opportunity to use it. .

Also worth mentioning: Henry Fonda (Madigan, 1968), Lee J. Cobb (Coogan’s Bluff, 1968), Carolyn Jones (Morticia in The Addams Family, 1964-1966), Eli Wallach (The Moon-Spinners, 1964), Richard Widmark (Madigan), Karl Malden (Nevada Smith, 1966) and Robert Preston (The Music Man, 1962).  

Though John Ford (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) had a hand in directing the picture, it was a small one (the short Civil War episode), and virtually all the credit belongs to Henry Hathaway (Circus World) who helmed three of the five sections with George Marshall (The Sheepman, 1958) taking up the slack for the railroad section.

And though you might balk at the idea of trying to cover such a lengthy period, there’s no doubting the skill of screenwriter James R. Webb (Alfred the Great, 1969) to mesh together so many strands, bring so many characters alive and write such good dialog. Bear in mind this was based on a series of non-fiction articles in Life magazine, not a novel, so events not characters had been to the forefront. Webb populated this with interesting people and built an excellent structure.

I’m still tapping my toe as I write this and I was tapping my toe big-style to be able to see this courtesy of the Bradford Widescreen Weekend on the giant Cinerama screen with an old print where the vertical lines occasionally showed up. Superlatives are superfluous.

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.  

The Ipcress File (1965) *****

Stylish take on the espionage genre when it was still in its infancy and could accommodate stylish directors like Sidney J. Furie (The Appaloosa, 1966). Eschewing the bombastic effects and villains of the James Bond series, relying more on intrigue and the elements of betrayal that other practitioners of the dark arts such as John Le Carre espoused, this is as much a character study and presents in some cases a fairer picture of the class struggle in Britain than most kitchen-sink dramas. So it’s either going to put you off entirely or make you appreciate the film more when I tell you that my favorite scene is the fistfight between Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) and shaven-headed thug Housemartin (Oliver MacGreevy) outside the Royal Albert Hall in London that is shot entirely through the windows of a traditional red telephone box. You can’t say bolder than that.

The credit sequence, more famously ripped off by William Goldman for private eye saga Harper/The Moving Target (1966), is equally inspired. An alarm clock wakes Palmer, he reaches out for the girl who shared his bed last night to discover she is gone and then punctiliously and as if time-shifted to the twenty-first century when it would be the norm proceeds to grind fresh coffee beans, fill a cafetiere with only as much liquid as would constitute a small espresso, dresses and last but not least searches among the disturbed bedclothes for his gun.

Palmer is transferred from dull surveillance duties to a team hunting for missing scientists. Given both his insolent and insubordinate manner, he is not expected to fit in to a service riddled with the upper-classes. His new superior Dalby (Nigel Green), a “passed-over major,” owes his present situation to Palmer’s former boss Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) and both sport three-piece suits, bowler hats and umbrellas and speak in those clipped tones that invariably carry undertones of menace. Where James Bond’s front, the import-export business, is rather more upmarket, here the background is considerably downmarket, Dalby masquerading as the owner of an employment agency and distributor of fireworks. It is insatiably bureaucratic, reams of forms to be filled in. What Palmer has in common with James Bond, beyond fisticuffs, is the ability to think outside the box and in this case picks the brains of a policeman friend to track down the wanted villain, code-named Bluejay (Frank Gatliff)  

As in the best post-Bond espionage, there are traitors everywhere, and the departments employing spies tend to employ other spies to spy upon them, though in this case Palmer has the luck to draw the sexy Jean (Sue Lloyd). When Palmer picks up the trail of Ipcress, the plot thickens. There is no shortage of action, a gun battle, fisticuffs, but it presents a different approach to modern espionage, with a properly rounded hero – one who can cook (as did author Len Deighton who wrote a cookery column) for a start – while the ladies, with whom he shares a roving eye with Bond, are not required to turn up in bikinis.

There is deft employment of that favorite British cultural emblem – irony – and one wonderful scene takes place in a park where Dalby taps his cane in appreciation of a brass band. Throw in a bit of brainwashing and it’s a completely different proposition to Bond who could escape such a dilemma in a trice. There is a clever ending.

Michael Caine (Hurry Sundown, 1967), complete with spectacles, is superb as Palmer, making enough of an impression that the series ran for another  four episodes. The stiff-upper-lip brigade have a field day in Nigel Green (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) and Guy Doleman (Thunderball, 1965), the latter shading it with his purported sense of humor. Sue Lyon (Corruption, 1968) is excellent as the seemingly unattainable gal who falls within Palmer’s purvey but not entirely due to his charm. The villains, too, are not from the James Bond school of cut-outs, but come across as equally human, and the chief rascal you could argue has the most finely developed sense of humor of the lot. Throw in Gordon Jackson (Danger Route, 1967) and Freda Bamford (Three Bites of the Apple, 1967) as the bureaucratic attack-dog Alice and you have a very well cast movie.

Sidney J. Furie divided critics. Some believed he was ahead of his time, others that he was in thrall to arty French directors, and a reasonable number who didn’t give a stuff as long as he delivered the goods. But his predilection for odd angles here proves a strength, his  compositional excellence also spot-on, one scene in particular where in a library Palmer looks down on the villain with Housemartin on a landing between. And he takes great delight in emphasizing the class distinctions, both bosses have huge offices with a small desk in the corner, and when Ross places briefcase, umbrella and bowler hat on the desk of Dalby it could not be a more clear invasion.

And you can’t forget the score by espionage doyen John Barry (Goldfinger, 1964). W.H. Canaway (A Boy Ten Feet Tall, 1963) and James Doran, making his movie debut, adapted Len Deighton’s classy bestseller but a fair amount of polish was added by thriller writer Lionel Davidson (Hot Enough for June, 1964), Johanna Harwood (Dr No, 1962), Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) and Ken Hughes (Arrivederci, Baby, 1966).    

A spy classic.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

A masterpiece to savor. The greatest western ever made. Sergio Leone’s movie out-Fords John Ford in thematic energy, imagery and believable characters and although it takes in the iconic Monument Valley it dispenses with marauding Native Americans and the wrecking of saloons. That the backdrop is the New West of civilisation and enterprise is somewhat surprising for a movie that appears to concentrate on the violence implicit in the Old West. But that is only the surface. Dreams, fresh starts are the driving force. It made a star out of Charles Bronson (Farewell, Friend, 1968), turned the Henry Fonda (Advise and Consent, 1961) persona on its head and provided Claudia Cardinale (Blindfold, 1965) with the role of a lifetime. And there was another star – composer Ennio Morricone (The Sicilian Clan, 1969)

New Orleans courtesan Jill (Claudia Cardinale) heads west to fulfil a dream of living in the country and bringing up a family. Gunslinger Frank (Henry Fonda), like Michael in The Godfather, has visions of going straight, turning legitimate through railroad ownership. Harmonica (Charles Bronson) has been dreaming of the freedom that will come through achieving revenge, the crippled crooked railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) dreams of seeing the ocean and even Cheyenne (Jason Robards) would prefer a spell out of captivity.

The beginnings of the railroad triggers a sea-change in the West, displacing the sometimes lawless pioneers, creating a mythic tale about the ending of a myth, a formidable fable about the twilight and resurgence of the American West. In essence, Leone exploits five stereotypes – the lone avenger (Harmonica), the outlaw Frank who wants to go straight, the idealistic outlaw in Cheyenne, Jill the whore and outwardly respectable businessman Morton whose only aim is monopoly. All these characters converge on new town Flagstone where their narratives intersect.

That Leone takes such stereotypes and fashions them into a movie of the highest order is down to style. This is slow in the way opera is slow. Enormous thought has gone into each sequence to extract the maximum in each sequence. In so doing creating the most stylish western ever made. The build-up to violence is gradual, the violence itself over in the blink of an eye.

Unusually for a western – except oddities like Five Card Stud (1968) – the driving force is mystery. Generally, the western is the most direct of genres, characters establishing from the outset who they are and what they want by action and dialogue. But Jill, Harmonica and Cheyenne are, on initial appearances, mysterious. Leone takes the conventions of the western and turns them upside down, not just in the reversals and plot twists but in the slow unfolding tale where motivation and action constantly change, alliances formed among the most unlikely allies, Harmonica and Cheyenne, Harmonica and Frank, and where a mooted  alliance, in the romantic sense, between Jill and Harmonica fails to take root.

There’s no doubt another director would have made shorter work of the opening sequence in Cattle Corner, all creaky scratchy noise, in a decrepit railroad station that represents the Old West, but that would be like asking David Lean to cut back Omar Sharif emerging from the horizon in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Alfred Hitchcock to trim the hypnotic scenes of James Stewart following Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Instead, Leone sets out his stall. This movie is going to be made his way, a nod to the operatic an imperative. But the movie turns full circle. If we begin with the kind of lawless ambush prevalent in the older days, we end with a shootout at the Sweetwater ranch that is almost a sideshow to progress as the railroad sweeps ever onward.

No character performs more against audience expectation than Jill. Women in westerns rarely take center stage, unless they exhibit a masculine skill with the gun. There has rarely been a more fully-rounded character in the movies never mind this genre. When we are introduced to her, she is the innocent, first time out west, eyes full of wonder, heart full of romance. Then we realize she is a tad more mercenary and that her previous occupation belies her presentation. Then she succumbs to Frank. Then she wants to give up. Then she doesn’t. Not just to stay but to become the earth mother for all the men working on the railroad.

Another director would have given her a ton of dialogue to express her feelings. Instead, Leone does it with the eyes. The look of awe as she arrives in Flagstone, the despair as she approaches the corpses, the surrender to the voracious Frank, the understanding of the role she must now play. And when it comes to close-ups don’t forget our first glimpse of Frank, those baby blue eyes, and the shock registering on his face in the final shoot-out, one of the most incredible pieces of acting I have ever seen.

And you can’t ignore the contribution of the music. Ennio Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in the West has made a greater cultural impact than even the venerated John Williams’ themes for Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975) with rock gods like Bruce Springsteen and Metallica among those spreading the word to successive generations and I wonder in fact how people were drawn to this big-screen showing by the opportunity to hear the score in six-track Dolby sound. There’s an argument to be made that the original soundtrack sold more copies than the film sold tickets.

The other element with the music which was driven home to me is how loud it was here compared to, for example, Thunderball (1965), which as it happens I also saw on the big screen on the same day. Although I’ve listened to certain tracks from the Bond film on a CD where the context is only the listener and not the rest of the picture, I was surprised how muted the music was for Thunderball especially in the action sequences. Today’s soundtracks are often loud to the point of being obstreperous, but rarely add anything to character or image.

One final point, Once Upon a Time in the West was reissued not as some kind of retrospective for the director but in memory of the composer.  

RRR (2022) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

Easily the most extraordinary epic I have seen in a long time. Hitting every action beat imaginable, a stunning tour de force that ranks alongside the best Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg can offer. As if Rambo or John Wick had turned up a century ago. If films could go from 0 to 100 in ten seconds, this would be the prime contender. Astonishing sequences include a cop taking on a mob single-handed with only a stick for a weapon, a villager acting as bait for a tiger, wild animals leading an attack on a fort, a savage beating with a nail-studded whip, and the unforgettable image of one man mounted on another spraying bullets with two rifles.  

Following the virtual abduction of a native girl Milla, two friends are on a collision course in the oppressive British regime in India in 1920. Technically, it doesn’t count as a kidnapping because the British Governor Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) committed the crime, taking the child as a gift for his wife (Alison Doody). Villager Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) is tasked with bringing the girl back, ambitious undercover cop Raju (Ram Charam) with stopping him. The two men, befriending each other in Delhi, are unaware of the other’s plan. That both are immensely likeable, if quite opposite, characters, creates terrific charisma, and their bromance is entirely believable.

Bheema has to connect both ends of the rope in order to keep a tiger trapped.

Everything in this picture is big and bold except when it is intimate and small. There is a beautifully-observed romance between Bheema and a kind British woman Jenny (Olivia Morris), the development of which, faced with the obstacle of neither understanding the other’s language, with Raju acting as matchmaker, could have been a film on its own. There are two brilliant pieces of screenwriting, phrases repeated throughout that acquire deeper meaning as the story unfolds. The British continually kill by brutal means rather than waste an expensive bullet; “Load. Aim. Shoot,” is a mantra taught the young Raju by his revolutionary father; both come into play at the climax.

The British are horrific. The Bheema-Jenny meet-cute occurs when the native is beaten for inadvertently embarrassing a British soldier. Lady Buxton is a sadist, determined to see a man whipped till he bleeds to death. By contrast, the two heroes are often far from heroic, Bheema unable to find the girl, Raju forced into terrible violence as a consequence of ambition. And in the midst of all this ramped-up violence perhaps the best scene of all, albeit one of conflict, is an energetic dance-off between the two men and the scions of the British upper class, the fantastic “Naatu Naatu” sequence, that demonstrates the superior stamina of the natives.

Director S.S. Rajamouli (Baahubali: The Beginning, 2015) makes as bold a use of narrative structure as Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, withholding until the last third of the movie a flashback which tilts the story in a completely different direction. But there is nothing lumbering about this epic, it has an incredible drive, an energy to set your head spinning. Even so, Rajamouli utilises a classic three-part structure and the three-hour-plus running time is anything but sprawling. In among a host of character-driven scenes he knows how to build a sequence, as the heroes successively triumph and fail with every passing minute, and among the introductory sequences for both main characters are some inspired images. Cleverly seeding the story creates a variety of twists, turns and reversals.

I was expecting not to like the traditional dancing sequences, which you would thought ill-fitting in a picture of this scope, but the “Naatu Naatu” sequence is treated as virtually a rebellion with tremendous dramatic impact. Although the two leads are muscular in Schwarzenegger/Stallone mold it does not prevent them channelling their inner Gene Kelly.

Except that it is set a century ago, this has all the bravura hallmarks of MCU, an exceptional adventure told at top speed that does not put a foot wrong.  N.T. Rama Rao Jr  (Janatha Garage, 2016) has the more difficult role, in that he switches from full-on action hero to romantic klutz. But the intensity of Ram Charam (Vinaya Vidheya Rama, 2019) should have Hollywood calling. The characters played by Ray Stevenson (Accident Man, 2018) and Alison Doody (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989) are more one-dimensional but no less terrifying for that. In her movie debut, Olivia Morris is quietly effective.

On energy and cinematic imagination alone, this would more than pass muster but S.S. Rajamouli has also created a brilliant piece of entertainment with greater depths than you might imagine. There’s no other word for it: this is a knock-out.

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