Midnight Lace (1960) ****

Works for the very reason that it shouldn’t – Doris Day’s off-the-scale hysteria. The actress junks her usual screen persona of spunky occasionally lovelorn heroine and channels her abundant physical energy into an exceptionally good portrayal of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

And, unlikely as it sounds, this a companion piece to David Miller’s later Lonely Are the Brave (1962),which equally presents a discordant character at odds with their surroundings whose inability to settle into the norm precipitates downfall.

Heiress Kit (Doris Day) is being hounded mainly over the telephone by a creepy stalker with a high-pitched voice, threatening to kill her. Before you can say Gaslight, you are casting a suspicious eye on millionaire businessman husband Anthony (Rex Harrison). But that only lasts for as long as it takes for a whole bunch of other suspects to hove into view.

The sinister man in black hat and coat appears too obvious a contender. Others have something off about them or appear at the wrong time and wrong place. Unemployed ne’er-do-well Malcolm (Roddy McDowell) who sponges off his mother, attempts unsuccessfully to tap Kit for funds and makes it plain he won’t be doffing his cap to her. Builder Brian (John Gavin) is over-friendly and, we overhear, makes a lot of phone calls.

And you wouldn’t count out gambler Charles (Herbert Marshall), an executive in Anthony’s firm, which, by the way, has uncovered a bit of fraud. Nor happily-married Peggy (Natasha Perry), Kit’s friend, who turns up in a bus queue the very moment Kit nearly ends up under the wheels of a London bus. And then there’s Aunt Bea (Myrna Loy) who’s arrived from America and seems determined not to take Kit’s side.

Naturally, nobody can allay Kit’s suspicions. The police are the first to suggest she’s going off her head, seeking attention because neglected by her husband.

But this is so well done, Kit jumping at the slightest noise, that you are pretty much convinced it’s going to be one of those films where every incident is imagined, especially since that would be a helluva coup to have an actress of the lightweight caliber of Doris Day to play her.

Whenever anyone else answers the phone it’s to an innocent caller. And when Kit persuades Peggy to pretend she heard the voice, discovery of that ruse appears to seal her doom.

When we’re not stuck in Kit’s head, there are sufficient tense moments to keep the plot ticking along, trapped in an elevator, shadows on a ceiling, faces glimpsed in windows, voices appearing out the fog, whispers behind her back, friends turning against her, every  police ploy a dead end.

Quite why she’s such a giddy character to begin with is never explained, except of course being a millionairess, three months married, with nothing better to do with her time than waltz around in one stunning fashionable outfit after another, life a succession of expensive treats, and whisked off her feet, when he can spare the time, by adoring hubby.

So maybe it’s something as simple as a loved-up wealthy woman finding cracks appearing in her perfect life and in trying to ascertain the cause whirling round faster and faster. There’s certainly no sense of a solid character who could sit down and give herself a good talking-to or transform herself into an amateur sleuth. When the façade breaks, it’s a dam burst.

If at the beginning Doris Day seems already too-wound-up it doesn’t really matter, her lust for life turns very quickly into abject fear as the terrorization becomes only too real. This is a fantastic performance from the actress, woefully under-rated, and the scene where she collapses on the stairs is only too believable.

Rex Harrison (The Happy Thieves, 1962) is excellent in a custom-made role, handsome adoring husband, but every time he clasps her in a sympathetic embrace, the camera lingers on his eyes showing growing fear at her condition. The roster of supporting stars each brings something distinctive to their role, from the wheedling Roddy McDowell (Five Card Stud, 1968), in only his second movie role after eight years of solid television,  the too-good-to-be-true John Gavin (Back St, 1961) and old-timers Myrna Loy (The Thin Man, 1934) as the doubting aunt and Herbert Marshall (The Letter, 1940) as the impecunious gambler.

Director David Miller (Captain Newman, M.D., 1963) moves the camera in disconcerting fashion. You think you’re settled in for a stage-style scene when suddenly the camera whirls away and focuses on one character. The scene in the elevator is exceptionally well-done as is the finale, but possibly his biggest attribute is encouraging Doris Day to just go for it rather than reining in her character the way Hitchcock did for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

The team of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (Portrait in Black, 1960) put together the screenplay from the hit Broadway play Matilda Shouted Fire by Janet Green.

I came at this with low expectations, not imagining Doris Day could pull off such a difficult role, and I came away wondering why she had not in consequence been given other opportunities to show off her dramatic skills.

Fear No More (1961) ****

Had Alain Resnais taken the paranoia/gaslighting B-movie route for the esoteric Last Year in Marienbad he might well have ended up with a twisty concoction like this. Whereas Marienbad struggles to get anywhere near a third act, Bernard Wiesen’s unheralded under-rated debut thriller has a stonker of one. It’s the last 15 minutes when the unravelling from an unexpected source takes place that makes this well worth watching. So, I’m sorry to say, spoiler alert, as I take you through why this is so good.

It’s a twist to top all the previous twists, of which there have been many. Movies like this generally rely on story much more than character, but here we see the two main characters substantially alter, almost, psychologiclly-speaking, changing places.

Secretary Sharon (Mala Powers) on an overnight business trip by train discovers a male killer and a female corpse in her cabin. Knocked out, she regains consciousness to find herself accused of murder by cop Joe Brady (Robert Karnes). Managing to escape, she is almost run down by handsome divorced Frenchman Paul (Jacques Bergerac), delivering his son back to wife Denise (Anna Lee Carroll), who gives her a lift to Los Angeles.

Paul, an erstwhile alcoholic it later transpires, pursues her with romantic notions in mind, but she gives him the brush-off. Back in her apartment she finds sozzled ex-lover Keith (John Baer). Paul, not the kind to be so easily brushed off, persuades her to go for a coffee but when she returns to her apartment Keith is dead. Chased by the killer, she is rescued by Paul.

Gradually, she reveals that she once had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental institution. But when she goes to see her employer Milo (John Seymour) to explain she has lost the package with which she was entrusted, quite a different scenario awaits.

Brady is there and denies all knowledge of ever having met her. Milo denies sending her on a trip. Worse, Keith is not dead and the package she was carrying contains $3,000 stolen from Milo’s safe, to which she has access.

No wonder the most likely reason for all this confusion is that she is losing grip of her mental faculties. But, if nothing else, Sharon is quick-witted and concludes that too many pieces of this jigsaw are missing and in the absence of Milo’s wife and chauffeur Steve (Peter Brocco) that he has murdered his wealthy partner and is setting up her up to take the rap. That idea only lasts as long as it takes for wife (Helena Nash) and chauffeur to turn up.

Worse, Sharon was committed for killing the woman in her care. She pleaded self-defence and got away with it but her mind crumbled with guilt.

So just when we’re going along with the notion that this is one crazy woman and that “recollections may vary” not as much as she would like and that she is not inhabiting a parallel universe, the Frenchman does a bit of investigating on his own and finds Keith’s corpse.

In more prosperous times in her career, Powers was the female lead here.

Now here’s when it turns very tricky indeed. Although by this point Sharon should be dead in the water, mentally at least, she sparks into life, continues along the line of Milo killing his wife (the body on the train), and begins to point to all the flaws in his plan, beginning with his bungling associates. Milo, who had initially appeared in complete control, now begins to lose his temper and snap at his employees.

Milo and his associates take her to a cabin in the woods. The stronger she grows, the weaker Milo becomes, as she continues her barrage of accusation, picking more holes in his grand plan, until he realises that the police are not going to do his job for him, in condemning Sharon for his wife’s murder. The supposed wife turns out to be Milo’s sister and she, too, begins to crumble with the fear of being found out and her beloved brother going down.

So it’s heading for a complete turn-around, the supposed maniac having been gaslighted, the supposed upright employer turning shadier by the minute and unable to deal with the consequences of an action that has gone so badly wrong. Milo ends up the gibbering idiot with Sharon regaining the faculties she thought she had lost.

The Frenchman comes to the physical rescue and even though at one point the doting sister has the drop on him, she falls to pieces at the thought of what she would have to do to safeguard her deluded brother.

Quite a third act.

But there are a couple of other interesting sequences. When Paul rams on the brakes to prevent his car running over Sharon, that sends his son sitting in the front seat, in the days before seat belts, straight into the dashboard, a rather overly realistic event as regards kids in those days. Picking up Sharon and pacifying his son means Paul is late bringing the boy home to his mother and she lets rip, refusing him any future access. But, unexpectedly, later she turns up in his apartment, asking forgiveness, realising her son was so excited spending time with his father that it would not be right to deny him that.

And with all great B-films this is short and snappy, barely 80-minutes long, and hardly one of those minutes going by without a twist. Sharon is a very interesting character from a psychiatric perspective. Although cleared of killing the woman in her charge, she clearly feels enormous guilt that she allowed it to happen, and once you start falling into a mental trap of your own making it’s pretty hard to get out.

You can always pick holes in movies like this, but the two main characters, Sharon and Milo, seem to me very believable, lost in their own fantasies, especially Milo, who saw his perfect plan falling to pieces.

Unfairly, this was pretty much a dead end for all concerned. Mala Powers (Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, 1969), the object of Cyrano de Bergerac’s affection in Cyrano (1950) and star of Rose of Cimarron (1952), had lost her way in Hollywood and not been in a movie for three years since The Colossus of New York (1958). Despite giving an excellent performance, Fear No More didn’t prove the answer to her Hollywood prayers and she only had three further movie roles in the 1960s.

Jacques Bergerac – better known for marriage to Ginger Rogers – made his final picture in 1966 but didn’t rise much above the likes of Taffy and the Jungle Hunter (1965). Prior to this director Bernard Wiesen was a producer-director on television and after it that’s what he went back to.

Catch it on YouTube.

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

Shaggy dog story wrapped up in paranoia thriller. A shade overlong, with too many characters and too much plot but such flaws should not detract from that rare cinematic animal, a truly original movie. Brilliant screenplay, believable characters and superb acting prove an irresistible combination.

Though you can see why this sank like a stone at the box office, the all-star cast generally acting against type, idiosyncratic director given vast sums to play with, a tale that goes in too many directions at once, and the unconstitutional events of January 6, 2021, bringing this too close to home for fractured American audiences.

You don’t get this kind of writing much anymore. When individuals come together on a project – to save the world the most likely reason these days – their individuality is usually subsumed to the plot. Here, instead, the reactions of the characters remain distinct and no matter what is going on there is always time for individuality. And some of the invention is just deliciously insane, the nonsense songs for example.

Touching on the World War One aftermath of recovering from mental and physical wounds plus profiteering glee, a sense of a country racked by the Depression on the brink, mind-inducing experimentation of the political and pharmaceutical kind. A trio of war veterans, soldiers Burt (Christian Bale) and Harold (John Davidson Washington) and nurse Valerie (Margot Robbie) investigate a mysterious death, an illegal autopsy uncovering poison, only to find themselves framed for murder.

Burt is not a prime-time player according to wife Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough), and her wealthy family had dispatched him to the war in the hope he would return with bankable glory, but generally treat him as an unwanted black sheep. Valerie now makes art out of war debris, bullet shells and shrapnel, her charming brother Tom (Rami Malek) and his wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy) embedded in malevolence. Harold is a lawyer, for whom racism is a constant.

American and British secret service operatives, Norcross (Michael Shannon) and Canterbury (Mike Myers), float in and out. The moneyed business elite, despising White House incumbent Roosevelt, cast envious eyes at the dictatorial economic miracle of Mussolini in Italy.

On everyone’s dance card is General Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro), sought out by our intrepid trio and a mysterious cabal. All he has to do is make a speech at a veteran’s dinner. Make the right kind of speech and the trio are vindicated. Make the wrong kind and he could be assassinated.   

Like Chinatown (1974), Amsterdam is representative, a state of mind, but of freedom rather than endemic corruption. This is an intricate piece and a bit slow for today’s fast-paced generation and with more dialog than might sit well with a modern audience and flights of fancy that are far more original than anything you would find in the MCU. But it’s a hell of an intelligent thriller driven by a bunch of deadbeats.

It never goes down the obvious route. Instead of a love triangle – Valerie and Harold a pair – it’s an evocation of friendship. You don’t need umpteen clues to find the villains, they’re upfront, and they don’t think they are baddies, but cleverer people coming to the aid of the dumb masses putting too much blind faith in democracy. While this is based on a true story, in reality it’s based on the constant of the rich trying to get richer and the wealthy believing they are the best, even if unelected, candidates to run the world.

All that political stuff could have been a big turn-off if it had gone down the preachy route, but it doesn’t, instead it’s almost a miracle that it arrives at any conclusion given in whose hands the narrative has been placed. The Three Stooges would have done a better job of getting there quicker, but then you wouldn’t have had so much fun.

Not only are all the stars on their A-game but acting-wise it delivers some career-reviving turns not least from Christian Bale (Ford v Ferrari, 2019), devoid of a lifetime’s acquisition of irritating tics, John David Washington (Tenet, 2020) called upon to develop a character rather than an action-driven hero. I had to check the end credits to find out it was Mike Myers (Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018) playing the understated Canterbury and hogging the screen with none of the acting pyrotechnics that dogged previous attempts at mainstream work. Ditto Robert De Niro (The Irishman, 2019) and Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), no grandstanding this time round – don’t worry I recognized both from the off – and Anya Taylor-Joy finally delivering on the promise of The Queen’s Gambit (2020).

Margot Robbie (The Suicide Squad, 2021) is already on the rise and this will add to her growing portfolio of fascinating characters. And if you’re fed up watching any of these stars in brilliant form, there are other distractions in the form of Chris Rock (Spiral, 2021), Taylor Swift (Cats, 2019), Andrea Riseborough (The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, 2021) and Alessandro Nivolo (The Many Saints of Newark, 2021).

You often hear the term “visionary director” thrown about with indiscriminate regard, but this is the right kind of visionary, director David O. Russell (Joy, 2015) with his own way of seeing the world, and delivering it in distinctive fashion, with less of an eye on camera movement and more on dialog and motivation and staying true to a coterie of original individuals.  

I guess the money was spent on atmosphere, this is 1930s USA regurgitated in enormous detail. But you’ll forget the background, the costumes and sets, and be dazzled instead by the script and the acting, and the enveloping tale of friendship.   

Enemy of the State (1998) ****

You are the star of the show so the last thing you want is to team up with a scene-stealer, but if you want to work with such an renowned talent, what can you do but let him steal.

It says a lot for Gene Hackman’s legendary status that, long past his box office peak in this fast-paced surprisingly contemporary paranoia thriller, his appearance late in the day turns up the heat on Will Smith at an early career pinnacle and at his charming best. You need someone as easy on the eye as Smith to lead the audience through a tortuous plot, centering on the collusion of big business and government to push through a commercially-motivated U.S. Government Act promoting greater surveillance, and someone as inherently gutsy as Hackman to carry the film over the line.

Ironically, the McGuffin is surveillance of the most benign kind, a camera trained on ducks at a river inadvertently picking up evidence of corrupt politician Reynolds (Jon Vogt) overseeing the murder of Representative Hammersley (Jason Robards) who stands in his way. The tape finds its way to an investigative reporter who, pursued by Hammersley’s goons, drops it into the shopping bag of labor lawyer Robert (Will Smith).

Unaware of the reasons why, Robert’s life unravels, Hammersley’s guys fabricating evidence that he has revived an affair with former lover Rachel (Lisa Bonet) and  is involved in Mafia money-laundering, resulting in wife  Carla (Regina King) throwing him out and being fired from his job. Bank accounts frozen (natch!), Robert turns to Rachel for help and she puts him in touch with her source Brill a.k.a Edward Lyle (Gene Hackman), an undercover communications expert who has been feeding Rachel information. When Rachel is eliminated, Lyle teams up with Robert and together they come up with a daring plan to incriminate Reynolds and absolve Robert.

Although brim-full of twists and turns, and a relentless government hit squad, the real joy of the picture is Tony Scott’s direction. Using his trademark speedy cuts, and scaring the life out of the audience regarding the depth of available surveillance, this is a thriller tour de force. The Top Gun (1986) director is at the top of his game, seamlessly shifting keys, racketing up the tension, the NSA’s encroachment on civil liberty so extensive it appears nobody can escape a web that is inexorably drawn tighter.

And it’s a fabulous double act, the innocent but slick Robert coupled with the world-weary but clever Lyle, the non-stop-talker versus the virtually silent. It’s the cat and mouse game where the mice turn out to hold the aces. Just brilliantly done and at such a speed. A plot that could easily become convoluted is superbly handled.

Will Smith (Independence Day, 1996) is given free rein and he’s good value for money, holding audience attention seamlessly, and until Gene Hackman (Crimson Tide, 1995) enters the frame he is running away with the picture. Their acting styles are completely different and you shouldn’t really be comparing them but when it comes to the crunch Hackman nails it every time and with hardly doing anything. Lisa Bonet (Angel Heart, 1987) makes a welcome return to the big-budget Hollywood scene. Jon Voigt (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) enjoys one of his better supporting roles.

The screenplay by David Marconi (The Dark Side of the Moon, 2015) is quite superb, not just with a whole series of riveting set-pieces and some terrific dialogue, but also with more humane touches, such as Robert’s encounter with his kids or his embarrassment shopping for lingerie in Victoria’s Secret.

And if there were not bonuses enough, there’s a virtual smorgasbord of talent in the supporting cast starting with 26-year-old Regina King (Boyz in the Hood, 1991) through Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan, 1998), Scott Caan (Ocean’s Eleven, 2001), Jake Busey (Starship Troopers, 1997), Jason Lee (Vanilla Sky, 2001) and Jamie Kennedy (Scream, 1996)  all the way to Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects, 1995), Ian Hart (Backbeat, 1994) and Jack Black (School of Rock, 2003).

Stone cold classic not to be missed and worth another watch if you have viewed it already.

The Parallax View (1974) ****

The shocking ending ensures the need to re-evaluate everything you have seen. The middle film in Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy – after Klute (1971) with All the President’s Men (1976) to come – is a dark (in more ways than one) reflection in essence on the John F. Kennedy assassination. The superbly stylish, on occasion over-stylised, cinematography carries an undercurrent of fear.  

Ambitious reporter Joe (Warren Beatty) investigates the notion that too many witnesses, including ex-girlfriend Lee (Paula Prentiss), to a senatorial assassination have been dying. Joe’s boss Bill (Hume Cronyn), while turning up acceptable reasons for each death, reluctantly backs him. Other witnesses such as Tucker (William Daniels) have run for cover. But, as Joe soon discovers, nobody can hide forever.  

Joe’s initial foray leads him to a small-time small-town Sheriff Wicker (Kelly Thorsden) with an unexpectedly large bank balance and murderous intent. Finding a link to a mysterious company the Parallax Corporation, Joe takes a written psychometric test to become a potential recruit for a company that is seeking, apparently, to find the hidden talents of under-achievers. After preventing one attempt on the life of another senator (Charles Carroll), Joe realises Parallax will stop at nothing.

Effectively, it’s a straightforward private eye number, Joe moving from character to character, building up a case. But the way Pakula frames the film, peppered with unusual scenes, turns it into an exercise in tension. One of Joe’s contacts works in a lab that is trying to train chimpanzees to play video ping-pong. Another scene takes place, disconcertedly, on a miniature train. At times we can hear every word delivered, even with the camera far away from the speakers, other times we hear nothing. Ominous music appears sparingly. Every step Joe takes in solving the mystery pushes him further into a corporate heart of darkness.

Beatty in the bar he’s about to wreck after ordering a drink of milk.

Joe believes Parallax are recruiting assassins but in point of fact their aim is considerably more devious. And here I don’t see how I can avoid a SPOILER ALERT. Parallax already have their assassins on board. What they are looking for are dupes, a patsy to take the blame once the killing has been done.

So when you look back from the ending what you find is that the cocky reporter is in fact exactly the kind of under-achiever the Parallax web attracts. There’s no proof of Joe’s editorial pedigree. Bill can point to any number of stories where Joe got hold of the wrong end of the stick. And the audience can see for themselves that he’s not exactly a super-brain. Sure, he can easily, with the help of a psychiatrist, pass the psychometric test, but how is he going to fare when he is linked up to some kind of machine that measures his response to visual imagery?

And you have to wonder what kind of idiot gets on a plane he suspects has a bomb on board  instead of staying off the aircraft and making a phone call. Or how he managed, after surviving an explosion at sea, to swim several miles to shore and land on a beach without drawing attention to himself so that he can masquerade as a dead man.

There’s also a curious section where Joe triggers a fist fight that ends in a John Ford-style saloon-wrecking. After killing the suspicious sheriff and hijacking his car, Joe then, in true French Connection style, sparks a car chase, managing to evade his pursuers by (natch) jumping onto the back of a passing truck.

But for all these flaws, there is something hypnotic about the picture. A camera that moves with snail-like precision from extreme long shot to medium shot or close-up, a reining in of flamboyance in favor of discipline, and shadow given its biggest outing since the film noir golden era. Pakula was trying to make an obvious point about the shady authorities that exercise behind-the-scenes power. The government is either powerless or complicit, various hearings into assassinations discovering zilch. Paranoia is no less prevalent now, of course, but what makes the biggest impact is journalistic entitlement, the reporter who can change things because he is willing to go down those dark streets like an avenging angel, not realizing he is always going to one step behind.

Warren Beatty (Kaleidoscope, 1966) has lost all the acting tics, the mumbling and stuttering he used to inflict on a weaker director, and instead delivers a great performance. Which is just as well because it’s a one-man show. Paula Prentiss (Man’s Favorite Sport, 1964) barely appears before she’s bumped off. William Daniels (Two for the Road, 1967) eschews his normal harassed husband for a well-judged turn.     

David Giler (Aliens, 1986) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Three Days of the Condor, 1975) fashioned the screenplay form the novel by Loren Singer. Also worth a mention is the eerie score by Michael Small (Klute, 1971) who for a time was the go-to composer for paranoia pictures.

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