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.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969) *****

Fans of reality television shows will be only too aware how participants volunteer for ritual humiliation, but swallowing a few locusts and being stuck with a couple of snakes has nothing on the realities facing individuals during the Great Depression who would literally dance non-stop for days on end with a ten-minute break every two hours. It’s impossible to imagine that anybody could think of dreaming up such a degrading circus to take advantage of the desperate. But then this is America, land of opportunity and the MC Rocky  (Gig Young) continues to spout aphorisms and continues to promote the American Dream even as it disintegrates in front of him.

When the partner of Gloria (Jane Fonda), out-of-work actress and one of the more physical and cynical of the candidates hoping to scoop the $1,500 first prize (no prizes for coming second, of course), is ruled out through bronchitis – in case he passes it on to others rather than more any humane consideration – she pairs up with dreamer Robert who initially wanders in as spectator rather than participant. Glamorous platinum blonde aspiring actress Alice (Susannah York) is already coming apart. Sailor (Red Buttons) is a former war hero and James (Bruce Dern) drags his heavily pregnant wife (Bonnie Bedelia) around the dance floor.

There is not a great deal of story except to watch everyone grow mentally and physically incapacitated. There is betrayal and lust and survival instinct leads characters into sexual situations. When Alice seduces Robert, in retaliation Gloria dumps him and then has sex with Rocky, while attempting to retain control of that situation, but clearly needing at the very least consolation and confirmation of her attractiveness and at best some sign of favoritism.

As well as non-stop dancing, Rocky throws in stunts to keep the audience, who can sponsor a pair, interested. So there are 10-minute races, the last three to be eliminated. So determined are some of the competitors they will even lug their dead partner over the finishing line. Another of Rocky’s wheezes is to have Gloria and Robert marry, worth $200 in terms of the gifts they will receive from a sentimental audience, in the middle of the dance floor.

They are literally dancing for hours, over 1,000 in over 40 days so gradually the dance floor becomes less crowded as dancers collapse from exhaustion or cannot take it anymore. The spectators, we are reminded, are only there because “they want to see someone worse than them.” Just when you think nothing can shock you any more, it is revealed that the first prize is minus the cost of feeding, sheltering and looking after the winner.

Those who think they are tough find that the demands of mental and physical endurance are beyond them. This is a shocking film and there’s no doubt it will stay with you for a long time. I saw it first when it came out but not again until now and thank goodness for forgetfulness otherwise I doubt if I would have chosen to sit through it again.

It’s doubtful if any actress had achieved such a speedy transition from glamorous leading lady to serious actress as Jane Fonda. From stripping in space in Barbarella (1968) to stripping away the last vestiges of her humanity here. Suddenly, she appears in a brand-new screen persona with the grating voice, the chip on the shoulder, the feistiness and worthy inheritor of father Henry’s acting genes. It’s also a bold role for Susannah York, in an extension of the weak character she essayed in Sands of the Kalahari (1965) but far more delusional, believing in a rainbow that will never appear. Michael Sarrazin (In Search of Gregory, 1969) initially appears out of his league but his character calls for a gentle innocence that is well within his scope.

Gig Young steals the picture, offered the opportunity to bring alive a multi-faceted character, as big a spiel-merchant who ever crossed the screen, but engaging in a marathon of optimism, and at some points, such as when coaxing a demented Alice out of the shower, earning our sympathy.  Red Buttons (Stagecoach, 1966), Bruce Dern (Castle Keep, 1969) and Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard, 1988) also put in sterling work.

The movie received nine Oscar nominations but was ignored in the Best Picture category. Only Gig Young won for Best Supporting Actor.  Jane Fonda and Susannah York both received their first Oscar nominations, for Fonda the first of many, for York the one and only. It was also a debut nomination for Pollack, a future winner.

Sydney Pollack directs with simplicity, concentrating on the indignities of the event and focusing mostly on the personalities draining away, and even the drama is undercut, most of those scenes directed in straightforward style. However, Pollack plays around with the innovative fast forward – flashes into scenes that have not yet taken place. James Poe (Lilies of the Field, 1963), at one time down to direct, and Robert E. Thompson, a television writer making his first venture on the big screen, wrote the screenplay from the Horace McCoy novel.

Topkapi (1964) *****

The mother of all heists directed by the father of all heist pictures.

Films as diverse as The Italian Job (1969), Mission Impossible (1996) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001) owe director Jules Dassin a massive debt since he pretty much invented this genre with the French-made Rififi (1955). But that involved professional criminals. Outside of masterminds Elizabeth (Melina Mercouri) and Walter (Maximilian Schell), this crew are amateurs, deliberately chosen for their lack of criminal records and with a mind to the specific tasks required. So we have acrobat Giulio (Gilles Segal), upper-class English gadget inventor Cedric (Robert Morley), strongman Hans (Jess Fisher) and driver Arthur (Peter Ustinov).

The target is the impenetrable, complete with sound-sensitive floor, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul where they plan to steal a priceless emerald-encrusted dagger. The plan is ingenious. Arthur is initially only hired to smuggle the weapons essential to the audacious heist across the border. But when he is caught and forced to cooperate with the Turkish secret police, he is enlisted as a replacement for Hans. Minus the rifles and grenades which at first appeared indispensable to the plan, the thieves come up with an even more inspired alternative involving among other things scampering across rooftops, abseiling, a parrot and slowing down the revolutions of a lighthouse.

Originally intending to betray his colleagues as soon as possible, Arthur falls under the seductive spell of Elizabeth and finds himself recruited as the replacement muscles. Elizabeth exudes such sexuality she has the entire gang in her thrall and makes the cowardly, weak, acrophobic Arthur believe he can overcome all his fears. Like current television sensation Money Heist, Walter engages in a cat-and-mouse game with the police, always one step ahead, with a bagful of red herrings at his disposal, eventually giving the pursuers the slip during a wresting competition held in a massive outdoor arena.

Interestingly, too, this doesn’t have the trope of gangsters at each other’s throats, planning to double-cross one another or bearing old grudges. Nor is this the last robbery for anyone prior to retirement. Equally, nobody challenges the leader. In fact, the entire crew could not be more docile, content to sit at the feet of Elizabeth and Walter, lapping up the former’s flirtation, wondering at the latter’s skill, as if they are all honored to have been chosen.

The climactic heist, carried out minus music, and lasting over 30 minutes is absolutely superb, setting a very high bar for future imitators, and there is a twist ending. Dassin mixes light comedy and high tension with the sultry attractions of Elizabeth to produce an at times breathtaking picture. As well as the heist itself, the wrestling sequence is stunning and the transition of Arthur forms the acting highlight (he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar).

But all four main stars are superb. Audiences accustomed to a more uptight Maximilian Schell (The Condemned of Altona (1962) will have been surprised by his charming performance. Melina Mercouri (Oscar-nominated for Never on Sunday, 1960) is the archetypal blonde bombshell, liberal with her favours but careful not to favour just one. Although Walter devises the plan, she is actually the criminal supremo, selecting the targets, and then delegating to ensure the tasks are carried out. Robert Morley is having the time of his life. Akim Tamiroff (Lord Jim, 1965) has a cameo as a chef.

A film noir star after Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) Dassin’s Hollywood career collapsed in the wake of the anti-Communist McCarthy hearings and he was blacklisted. Rififi opened few doors but even the success of Never on Sunday (1960) brought negligible offers. Despite returning to the mainstream with such elan through the conduit of Topkapi, albeit with a European cast, he remained on the Hollywood periphery and although the American-set Uptight (1968) – previously reviewed in the Blog – involved another heist that was primarily the wrapping for social documentary.

More at home with comedies screenwriter Monja Danischewsky (The Battle of the Sexes, 1960) draws out more humour than the source material, Light of Day by noted thriller writer Eric Ambler, would ostensibly suggest.

A delight from start to finish, the crème de la crème of the heist genre, this is unmissable. Dassin can lay claim to being the John Ford of the crime picture.

Titane (2021) *****

Perhaps the most unforeseen development of this startling picture is that ruthless serial killer Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) develops a caring relationship with an anguished fire chief father (Vincent Lindon) when masquerading as his long-lost son.  Even when it becomes increasingly clear he is harbouring an imposter his naked need for familial intimacy forces continued acceptance. Of course, given Alexia has been impregnated by an automobile, the cinematic wild ride is hardly over. Not just that the father is inclined to pump himself full of steroids to maintain his failing virility and the firemen let off steam by dancing, with no homoerotic overtones, of dancing among themselves.

But tension never slackens due to the off-the-wall off-the-scale opener that saw her enter the realms of the serial killer and the fact that her nipples start leaking oil. A relationship that could have been creepy and/or unbelievable becomes incredibly tender especially when the so-called boy, as teenagers will, causes his father major embarrassment only this time by revealing a more feminine side to his dancing.

While exploring similar territory to David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), this shifts into a completely league. With the exception of what she undertakes to create the transformation into a boy, binding her breasts and breaking her nose, the violence is less about self-harm  than straight-out murder, weapon of choice being a handy hatpin. The most bizarre aspect about the enterprise is not the victims mounting up, but the hilarity the film engenders. When Alexis discovers that she has chosen the wrong locale for one of her killings and with a shrug of frustration has to embark on hunting down an entire household you can’t help but laugh. And the meet-cute with a female model is one of the funniest ever put on the screen.

We never find out what has turned her into a murderer especially as she is not gender-specific in this department. A car accident as a child that resulted in her being fitted with some metal has clearly created some affinity with vehicles and she earns a living as a bikini model who drapes herself over motors at car shows to the delight of leering men. Automobiles are more generally seen as expressions of male eroticism so it’s something of a twist that Alexia takes such love to the ultimate extreme.

Outside of superhero and fantasy movies, it’s rare to find a picture that creates its own world and maintains it in consistent fashion. What we learn about this vicious killer is that she needs care as much as anybody else. As the movie shifts from her selfish enjoyment to filling a gap in the fireman’s life it takes us on quite a different journey to that initially suggested.

Director Julia Ducournau (Raw, 2016) presents an unflinching vision that may be too brutal for most tastes. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but looks like being ignored by the Oscar fraternity. But the surface is deceptive. If the ending comes as a shocker then you haven’t been paying attention because enough hints are provided as to the potential outcome. And it also means you’ve been ignoring the film’s development which is heading in the direction of togetherness and paternal understanding rather than individual insanity.

In her movie debut Agathe Rousselle is quite astonishing, giving herself up to the needs of a picture that forces tremendous physical demands. It’s a tour de force in what it means to be a committed actor, action driven by character. Oscars have been handed out for a lot less and what makes her characterisation stand out is the transition from woman trapped by a fetish whose only emotional outlet is murder to someone accepting love without question or vicious rejection.

Vincent Lindon (Rodin,2017)  is at the other end of the career scale, with nearly three decades in the business, highlighted by a previous Cannes and Cesar win for The Measure of a Man/ La Loi du Marche (2015). His is a thankless role, at the very least a willing dupe, as much a self-harmer judging from the bruises on his exterior, as likely to be lost and flailing in his jab – a sequence of a forest fire is outstanding – as in his empty emotional life. Hats off also to Lindon, as one of France’s biggest stars, for supporting this project. Without his involvement, funding would have been more difficult.

Titane is a true original with surprising emotional depth.

The Rock (1996) *****

Amazingly, there’s been no 25th anniversary razzamatazz for this pulsating piledriver of an action movie, a stone cold classic. Instead of the standard breaking out of Alcatraz, a brilliant reversal sees a crack military team of U.S. Navy SEALS trying to break in to stop maniac martinet General Hummel (Ed Harris) devastating San Francisco with stolen missiles containing nerve gas. Notwithstanding his iconic turn as James Bond and Oscar acclaim for The Untouchables (1987), this is surely Sean Connery’s best, if not boldest, performance, the calm at the heart of the storm, exuding a riveting screen persona. No other star of his calibre would have allowed themselves to be seen at the start with such lack of dignity, not just shackled but with dirty exceedingly long hair.

Not only is it a brilliant entrance but such is director Michael Bay’s mastery of his material that he makes audiences wait 25 minutes for it while he sets up the terror that awaits the city from a rain of terrifying gas, Hummel as a ruthless legendary officer with a point to prove and allows Nicolas Cage to break out of his initial geek. Backed by a classic battering ram of a score by Hans Zimmer and Nick Glennie-Smith and an outstanding battalion of supporting players, Bay never lets up the high-pitch tension, finding his stylistic way with slo-mo, helicopters swaying in the sky, brutal stand-offs.

Former British spy John Mason (Connery), the only man alive who has broken out of Alcatraz, is released from prison to lead the break-in, Hummel holding hostages as well as his weaponry. Never has a star done so much with so little, using a coin to discover his nemesis F.B.I. director Womack (John Spencer) and with nothing more than a piece of string engineers his own escape from a San Francisco hotel that leads to a riveting car chase ending in wanton destruction and a touching scene reuniting Mason with a long-lost daughter (Clare Forlani). That such a cracking movie bothers with emotional hooks –  academic FBI chemical expert Stanley Goodspeed also has his girlfriend in harm’s way – shows the screenwriter skill in bringing greater character depth. Except for his daughter, Mason would have made another escape from Alcatraz at the first opportunity.

What appears mission impossible becomes mission impossible too far when Hummel’s men slaughter the military invasion leaving the unlikely duo of Mason and Goodspeed to save the city – and their own lives when the equally ruthless operation overseers determine it’s better to completely liquidate Alcatraz rather than risk the missiles being fired.

And without Cage as the mild-mannerd scientist stepping up to the action plate, this would be a different picture, over-dominated by Connery. Cage delivers a multi-layered performance, from the emphatic strum of a guitar string to his flickering fingers and the brilliant delivery of the humdrum line “in the name of Zeus’s butthole.” He shifts from fearful geek who has left his gun behind to determinedly hunting down Mason in a car chase and then finding a true action mojo on the rock.

Given this top-notch performance, it’s proof of Connery’s star power that he easily steals the picture. Suspicious, clever, ruthless, soft-hearted when it matters, he mentors Goodspeed, though not always gently, “losers always whine about their best, winners go home and f*** the prom queen.”

Odd as it might be to say about a Michael Bay picture, this is layered too. From the conflict between Mason and Womack, the nuanced performance by the essentially honorable Hummel, brilliant character development –  like Hilts in The Great Escape Mason the loner eventually persuaded to help the general cause –  the transition of Goodspeed from goofy oddball to saviour, speedy edits, some cracking images, a script dipped in paranoia (references to Roswell, the Kennedy assassination, black ops and secret military slush funds)  and a stack of one-liners. All this delivered in passing as this high-speed train of an action blockbuster thunders along the line.

The whole enterprise is bolstered by a top-notch supporting cast led by the Mason-hating John Spencer (stepping up from a supporting role in L.A. Law, 1990-1996), David Morse (The Green Mile, 1999), eternal heavy William Forsythe (J. Edgar Hoover in The Man in the High Castle, 2018-2019) getting the chance to lighten his load, Michael Biehn (Aliens, 1986), John C. McGinley (Any Given Sunday, 1999) and Bokeem Woodbine (Queen and Slim, 2019). Two young actresses show tremendous promise – Clare Forlani capitalised on this break with Meet Joe Black (1998) but it proved less of a Hollywood calling card for Vanessa Marcil (Goodspeed’s fiancé), her best work coming in television (Las Vegas, 2003-2008). This was Mark Rosner’s only screenplay from a story by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg. who collaborated on Double Jeopardy (1999).

It was also Michael Bay’s calling card to enter the high-octane world of big-budget blockbusters like Armageddon (1998). While his career had as many ups as downs, this is unquestionably his action masterpiece, a no-holds-barred non-stop adrenaline spike.

Dr No (1962) *****

Minus the gadgets and the more outlandish plots, the James Bond formula in embryo. With two of the greatest entrances in movie history – and a third if you count the creepy presence of Dr No himself at the beds of his captives – all the main supporting characters in place except Q, plenty of sex and action, plus the Maurice Binder credit sequence and the theme tune, this is the spy genre reinvented.

Most previous espionage pictures usually involved a character quickly out of their depth or an innocent caught up in nefarious shenanigans, not a man close to a semi-thug, totally in command, automatically suspicious, and happy to knock off anyone who gets in his way, in fact given government clearance to commit murder should the occasion arise. That this killer comes complete with charm and charisma and oozes sexuality changes all the rules and ups the stakes in the spy thriller.

 Three men disguised as beggars break into the house of British secret service agent Strangways (Tim Moxon) and kill him and his secretary and steal the file on Dr No (Joseph Wiseman). A glamorous woman in a red dress Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) catches the eye of our handsome devil “Bond, James Bond” (Sean Connery) at a casino before he is interrupted by an urgent message, potential assignation thwarted.

We are briefly introduced to Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) before Bond is briefed by M (Bernard Lee) and posted out immediately – or “almost immediately” as it transpires – to Jamaica, but not before his beloved Beretta is changed to his signature Walther PPK and mention made that he is recovering from a previous mission. But in what would also become a series signature, liberated women indulging in sexual freedom, and often making the first move, Ms Trench is lying in wait at his flat.

In another change to the espionage trope, this man does not walk into the unknown. Suspicion is his watchword. In other words, he is the consummate professional. On arrival at Jamaica airport he checks out the waiting chauffeur and later the journalist who takes his picture. The first action sequence also sets a new tone. Bond is not easily duped. Three times he outwits the chauffeur. Finally, at the stand-off, Bond fells him with karate before the man takes cyanide, undercutting the danger with the mordant quip, on delivering the corpse to Government house, “see that he doesn’t get away.” 

Initially, it’s more a detective story as Bond follows up on various clues that leads him to Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), initially appearing as an adversary, and C.I.A. agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) before the finger of suspicion points to the mysterious Dr No and the question of why rocks from his island should be radioactive. Certainly, Dr No pulls out all the stops, sending hoods, a tarantula, sexy secretary Miss Taro (Zena Marshall) and the traitororous Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) to waylay or kill Bond.

But it’s only when our hero lands on the island and the bikini-clad Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) emerges from the sea as the epitome of the stunning “Bond Girl” that the series formula truly kicks in: formidable sadistic opponent, shady organization Spectre, amazing  sets, space age plot, a race against time. 

It’s hard not to overstate how novel this entire picture was. For a start, it toyed with the universal perception of the British as the ultimate arbiters of fair play. Here was an anointed killer. Equally, the previous incarnation of the British spy had been the bumbling Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana (1959). That the British should endorse wanton killing and blatant immorality – remember this was some years before the Swinging Sixties got underway – went against the grain.

Although critics have maligned the sexism of the series, they have generally overlooked the reaction of the female audience to a male hunk, or the freedom with which women appeared to enjoy sexual trysts with no fear of moral complication. Bond is not just macho, he is playful with the opposite sex, flirting with Miss Moneypenny, and with a fine line in throwaway quips.

Director Terence Young is rarely more than a few minutes away from a spot of action or sex, exposition kept to a minimum, so the story zings along, although there is time to flesh out the characters, Bond’s vulnerability after his previous mission mentioned, his attention to detail, and Honey Rider’s backstory, her father disappearing on the island and her own ruthlessness. The insistently repetitive theme tunes- from Monty Norman and John Barry – were innovative. The special effects mostly worked, testament to the genius of production designer Ken Adam rather than the miserable budget.

Most impressive of all was the director’s command of mood and pace. For all the fast action, he certainly knew how to frame a scene, Bond initially shown from the back, Dr No introduced from the waist downwards, Honey Rider in contrast revealed in all her glory from the outset. The brutal brief interrogation of photographer Annabel Chung (Marguerite LeWars), the unexpected seduction of the enemy Miss Taro and the opulence of the interior of Dr No’s stronghold would have come as surprises.

Young was responsible for creating the prototype Bond picture, the lightness of touch in constant contrast to flurries of violence, amorality while blatant delivered with cinematic elan, not least the treatment of willing not to say predatory females, the shot through the bare legs of Ms Trench as Bond returns to his apartment soon to become par for the course.

Future episodes of course would lavish greater funds on the project, but with what was a B-film budget at best  by Hollywood standards, the producers worked wonders. Sean Connery (The Frightened City, 1961) strides into a role that was almost made-to-measure, another unknown Ursula Andress speeded up every male pulse on the planet, Joseph Wiseman (The Happy Thieves, 1961) provided an ideal template for a future string of maniacs and Bernard Lee (The Secret Partner, 1961) grounded the entire operation with a distinctly British headmaster of a boss.

The Cincinnati Kid (1965) *****

Steve McQueen had little trouble identifying with this role. He was the Hollywood contender, trying to knock current kingpin Paul Newman off his perch, and in Norman Jewison’s tense, often heart-stopping, drama he has the ideal vehicle. For the most part this is a winner-take-all face-off, as much a showdown as any western shootout, in darkened rooms under the harsh light of a New Orleans poker table between a rising star always referred to as The Kid (Steve McQueen) and the unofficial world champion, the urbane cigar-smoking Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson).

Broadened out in the initial stages to include scenic diversions – the Mississippi at dawn, a cockfight, some jazz – plus romance and intrigue, this is essentially pure sport, a game of stares, where bluff holds the ace and women exist on the perimeter only to fill in the time before the next hyped-up encounter. There’s no trophy to be won, not even glory, just the right to call yourself “The Man.” The Kid feels the pressure of punching above his weight, Lancey of getting old.

Farmer’s daughter and arty-wannabe Christian (Tuesday Weld) is the Kid’s main squeeze until she gets between him and his game. When she takes off, he makes do with Melba (Ann-Margret), girlfriend of dealer Shooter (Karl Malden) who was somewhat preoccupied with giving the Kid more than a helping hand to satisfy the vengeful Slade (Rip Torn), a rich businessman.

Although it finally comes down to a confrontation between the Kid and Lancey, subordinate characters like sweating poker player Pig (Jack Weston) and stand-in dealer Ladyfingers (Joan Blondell) help dissipate the tension. But in fact anything that occurs only seems to increase the tension as it comes down to the one big final hand. 

This is McQueen (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) in transition, from the loner in The Great Escape (1963) to an actor exuding charisma and on top of his acting game. While on the face of it little more than a sporting lug, the Kid is an appealing character, engaging with a little shoeshine boy, winning over Christian’s truculent parents with what appears a card trick but is actually a demonstration of the phenomenal memory necessary to excel in his chosen field. There’s a winsome child in there among the macho persona. The poker face that McQueen developed would become one of his acting traits over the years.

Edward G. Robinson (Seven Thieves, 1960) gives a rounded performance as the reigning poker champ accepting emotional loss as the price for all his financial gains. Tuesday Weld is an appealing waif. Karl Malden (Pollyanna, 1960) essays another tormented soul and Rip Torn (Judas in King of Kings, 1961) a sleazy one. Also look out for a host of great character actors including Jack Weston (Mirage, 1965), Oscar nominee Joan Blondell (Advance to the Rear, 1964) and Jeff Corey (Once a Thief, 1965) plus composer and bandleader Cab Calloway.

Ann-Margret, all eye-shadow and cleavage, is in her best man-eater form. But, thankfully, there is more to her character than that. It is unclear whether she simply latches on to a potential winner or is pimped out by Shooter, but just hooking up with that older man (i.e. Shooter) makes her interesting, since looks are far from his attraction. Her ruthlessness is spelled out in simple fashion. She is determined to win, cheating at solitaire and she slams the wrong pieces into a jigsaw just for the satisfaction of making it look complete. You can sense a depth in this character which the film does not have time to fully explore.

Although often compared to The Hustler (1962), and in many eyes considered both its inferior and a crude rip-off, this is in some respects a greater achievement. At least in The Hustler, there actually was action, players moving around a pool table, clacking balls racing across the surface.  Poker is all about stillness. Any gesture could give away your thoughts. Unlike any other sport, poker requires silence. There is no roaring crowd, just people dotted round the room, some with vested interest if only through a wager, some wanting to say they were there when a champion was toppled.

So the ability to maintain audience interest with two guys just staring at each other, interspersed with minimal dialog, takes some skill. Building that to a crescendo of sheer tension is incredible.

The first four pictures of Canadian director Norman Jewison (Send Me No Flowers, 1964) did not hint at the dramatic chops, confidence, composure and understanding of pacing required, especially as he was a last-minute replacement for Sam Peckinpah, to pull this off. That he does so with style demonstrated a keen and versatile talent that would come to the boil in his next three films: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).  

The former blacklisted Ring Lardner Jr. (Tracy-Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year, 1942) was credited with his first screenplay since The Forbidden Street in 1949 and he shared the chore with another iconic figure, Terry Southern (Dr Strangelove, 1964), basing their work on the original novel by Richard Jessup. Not sure who contributed the classic line: “Read ’em and weep.” Mention should be made of a terrific score by Lao Schifrin.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) *****

A mighty cast headed by John Wayne (True Grit, 1969), James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965), Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) and Vera Miles (Pyscho, 1960) with support from Edmond O’Brien (Seven Days in May, 1964), Woody Strode (The Professionals, 1966), Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) and Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1967) do justice to John Ford’s tightly-structured hymn to liberty and equality and reflection on the end of the Wild West. So tight is the picture that despite a love triangle there are no love scenes and no verbal protestations of love.

The thematic depth is astonishing: civilization’s erosion of lawlessness, big business vs. ordinary people, political chicanery, and a democracy where “people are the boss.” Throw in a villain with a penchant for whipping and a lack of the standard brawls that often marred the director’s work and you have a western that snaps at the heels of Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948) and The Searchers (1956).

The story is told in flashback after Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and wife Hallie (Vera Miles) turn up unexpectedly in the town of Shinbone for the funeral of a nobody Tom Donovan (John Wayne), so poor the undertaker has filched his boots and gunbelt to pay for the pay for the barest of bare coffins. Intrigued by his arrival, newspapermen descend and Stoddard explains why he has returned.

The backstory unfolds. Arriving on stagecoach, novice lawyer Ransom is attacked, beaten and whipped by outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He is found by horse-trader Donovan (John Wayne) and taken to a local boarding house-cum-restaurant where Hallie (Vera Miles) tends his wounds. With a young man’s full quotient of principle, Stoddard is astonished to discover that local marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) has ducked out of responsibility for apprehending Valance on the dubious grounds that it is outside his jurisdiction and that Valance has so mean a reputation he has the town scared witless. When Valance turns up he humiliates Stoddard and only Donovan stands up to him, rescuing an ungrateful Ransom, who detests violence and any threat of it.

Stoddard soon turns principle into action, setting up his shingle in the local newspaper office run by Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) and on learning that Hallie is illiterate establishing  a school for all ages. In the background is politics, but the push for statehood is inhibited by big ranchers who employ Valance to intimidate. Despite his aversion to violence and insistence that due legal process will eliminate the law of the gun, Stoddard practices shooting. When Donovan gives him a lesson and, to point out his unsuitability to confront such a mean character as Valance, covers him in paint, Stoddard floors him with a punch.  

That principle I mentioned has something in common with Rio Bravo (1959) – Howard Hawks’ riposte to High Noon (1952) – in that Stoddard, determined to fight his own battles, refuses to ask for help when targeted by Valance. The inevitable showdown is extraordinary, not least because it takes place at night and Ford, a la Rashomon (1951) tells it twice from different points of view.   

Precisely because it retains focus throughout with no extraneous scenes as was occasionally John Ford’s wont, the direction is superb. As in The Searchers, to suggest emotional state-of-mind, the director uses imagery relating to doors. This time the humor is not so broad and limited primarily to one incident. Both main male characters suffer reversals, in the case of Stoddard it is physical but in the instance of Donovan it is emotional. Either way, action is character. In the romantic stakes, they are equals, dancing around their true feelings.

Upfront there is one storyline, the upholding of law and order whether against an individual such as Valance or against the attempts of big business to thwart democracy. But underneath is a subtly-told romance. Donovan and Stoddard are allies but in terms of Hallie they are rivals. Neither have an ounce of sense when it comes to women. Neither actually protests their love for Hallie. Although Donovan brings her cactus roses and is, unknown to her, building an extension to his house to accommodate what he hopes is his future bride, his idea of romance is to mutter, in patronizing manner, the old saw of “you look pretty when you’re angry.”  He would have been wiser to have taken note of her spunk, because she can be more than direct if need be.

Stoddard isn’t much better. Despite her growing feelings towards him being obvious to the audience, he assumes she prefers Donovan. Action drives the love element, the need to save or destroy.

All three principals are superb. This may seem a typical Wayne performance, a dominant figure, comfortable with a gun and his abilities, but awkward in matters of the heart. But he shows as great depth as in The Searchers and the despair etched on his face at the possibility of losing Hallie eats into his soul. Stewart combines the man-of-the-people he essayed for Frank Capra with some of the toughness he showed in the Anthony Mann series of westerns. Vera Miles tempers genuine anger with tenderness and practicality. Unlike many Ford heroines she is not a trophy wife, but a worker, mostly seen running a kitchen. Lee Marvin cuts a sadistic figure, with an arrogance that sets him above the law, his tongue as sharp as his whip.

As well as Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Edmond O’Brien and Lee Van Cleef, you will spot various members of the John Ford stock company including Andy Devine (Two Rode Together, 1961) as the cowardly gluttonous marshal, John Carradine (Stagecoach), John Qualen (The Searchers) as the restaurant owner and Jeanette Nolan (Two Rode Together) as his wife.

The boldest part of the picture, however, comes at the end, when the director dismantles the myth built up around Stoddard and which the politician has used to create a career that spanned two terms as a Senator, three terms as a Governor and been the American Ambassador to Britain. So be warned, if you ain’t seen the picture, this is spoiler alert. In some respects, Ford was way ahead of his time. The twist at the end where the good guy is revealed as the villain of the piece is more of a contemporary trope. There were plenty of pictures where the villain appeared to have gotten away with it only to be caught out at the very last minute. This is not that kind of movie. Stoddard gets away with it for the simple reason that he fits the heroic mold.

“Print the legend” is very much the standard American attitude to myth. Dig deeper and what you find is hypocrisy. Man-of-the-people Stoddard’s life is based on bare-faced fraud. He took the glory for an action he did not commit. Of course this was in the days before newspapers found that bringing down politicians sold more papers than building them up and these days I doubt if such a scoop would be ignored.

Nor for all his upstanding image does Stoddart show the slightest sign of remorse – until now when he must know his confession will never see the light of day. (Maybe, if he had gone to the New York Times but not the Shinbone paper). He built his entire career on this violent action, the antithesis of his supposed stance on process of law.  He takes all the plaudits and fails to acknowledge Donovan, except when it’s too late, and Donovan has died a pauper, his rootless life perhaps engendered as a result of losing Hallie. Hallie’s character, too, is besmirched. She chose Stoddart precisely because he was a man of principle who risked his life to tackle – and apparently kill – Donovan. Those two elements are indistinguishable. Had she know Stoddart had failed and was only saved by the action of Donovan it is questionable whether she would have chosen the lawyer.

There are a couple of other quibbles, not so much about the picture itself, but about other quibblers, commonly known as critics.  Alfred Hitchcock famously came under fire for the use of back projection, not just in Marnie (1964) but other later films. That spotlight never appeared to be turned on the at-the-time more famous John Ford. The train sequence at the end of the film uses back projection and the ambush at the beginning is so obviously a set.

Don’t let these put you off, however, this is one very fine western indeed and fully justifies its growing critical status.

CATCH IT ON THE BIG SCREEN: By the way, if you live in Italy you can catch this on the big screen in Bologna where it is showing at Il Cinema Ritrovato – Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna on July 20-27, 2021.

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