The Unfinished Task / I’ll Give My Life (1960) ***

Complete your Angie Dickinson collection with his long-lost number. Almost unrecognizable as a brunette, she carries much of the emotional weight of this tale about an outsider rejecting a chosen career. Hollywood pictures about creative outsiders such as artists and writers relied on charismatic actors – Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life (1956), Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) – to bring the project to life. Similarly, you might think, in movies about another type of outsider, of the religious variety, having the likes of Gregory Peck (The Keys of the Kingdom, 1944) or Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944) goes a long way to giving such ventures audience-appeal.

Here, Jim (John Bryant), the son of a successful construction tycoon, having completed a degree goes against the wishes of father John (Ray Collins) by becoming a minister instead. In due course he is sent overseas to a mission in New Guinea, and like Father Stu (2022) contracts a deadly disease. Jim is far from charismatic, just a plodding ordinary guy who has found “something more important than building skyscrapers.”

The story is instead told through the eyes of John, resentful of his son’s decision, and his girlfriend/fiancée/wife Alice (Angie Dickinson) who, expecting marriage to a wealthy engineer, instead has to set aside her own ambitions and go along with her husband’s wishes, this being post-WWII America, and independence hardly a prerequisite in a wife, never mind a woman.

This poster does not do the film justice. It’s nothing like as “heavenly” as that. Howco was an exhibition company that entered distribution in order to provide enough product for its cinemas.

But if this is a story of a conversion – as was the case in Father Stu – it’s about the conversion of the father and Alice and the bulk of the story hinges upon their reactions to the path taken by Jim rather than him taking center stage. So it’s cleverly done, and whether this is due to budgetary pressure, or creative decision, it proves the right choice. John is the kind of self-made man who would dominate any stage, forever making plans, spinning the world as he would like it to be. In Alice’s eyes we see nothing but her weighing up Jim’s choices, sometimes accompanied by shock, occasionally elation, but mostly resignation and infrequent resentment as she, too, is parted from family to follow her husband into an unknown in which she had considerably less faith.

Unlike Father Stu, conversion does not come easily. Jim is long dead, two-thirds of the way through the picture as it happens, before John comes to realize that his son’s demise should not be in vain and that he left behind “an unfinished task” for his father to complete, namely raising awareness of the power of missionaries to improve the lot of the miserable and poor in foreign parts. Bear in mind the era in which this was made, so there are some attitudes that will make you wince, but generally it is well done, not weighted down with platitudes and, in concentrating on the doubter, brings alive a difficult subject.

And although this was before questions were asked about the sexual corruption of priests and ministers, men who followed religion were still not as easily accommodated in the general community, seen as overly pious and, to the businessman, existing in a vacuum. The idea that the Church, of various kinds, had not done enough to ease global suffering, is continually raised and nobody here is giving themselves a pat on the back.

Alice is actually given more screen time than Jim, his father using her as a sounding board, and, while Jim is off in New Guinea, enjoying herself with the firm’s resident beau, Bob (Jon Sheppod), and finally taking on motherhood and coping with the premature death of her husband and still fighting to open the father’s eyes to the good being done.

Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) gives a very good account of herself, especially as the narrative restricts her to the kind of wifely 1950s role rather than the frisky sexuality she exhibited in the 1960s. Her acting skill saved her from being lumbered with portentous dialogue since she could portray her feelings more easily with her eyes.

Ray Collins (famed for a running role in the Perry Mason series) is excellent as the father confused by his son’s decision, fighting him every inch of the way. John Bryant (The Bat, 1959), it has to be said, does not light up the screen, lacking the magnetism of a Peck or a Crosby but in some regard this kind of straight playing suits the film, since the character is not meant to be out of the ordinary.

William F. Claxton (Desire in the Dust, 1960) directed from a script by Herbert Moulton, better known as a producer of shorts. Although this film was released in 1960, it appears to have been made before that, some suggest as early as 1955. Given it was funded by the Lutheran Church, the script does not make heavy weather of the religious elements and John’s resistance to his son’s vocation reflected that of any father to a son embarking on as shaky a career as painting or writing.

You can catch this on YouTube, though it’s not a great print. And, yes, that is Angie Dickinson sitting demurely at a desk.

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

Hugely enjoyable fast-paced romp with clues, ancient maps, sunken treasure, double-cross upon double-cross, action and twists all the way in what could be the next major franchise. Barman Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) teams up somewhat unwillingly with  unscrupulous Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) and Chloe Frazer (Sophie Ali) to find $5 billion in gold. In their way: the ruthless Santiago Moncado (Antonio Banderas), henchperson Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) and assorted roughnecks.

Confession: I’ve no idea what computer game sparked this movie so come with no preconceptions. History lesson: the gold was lost by Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan, the first guy to sail round the world, while Sir Francis Drake was the first Englishman to do the same.

Two outstanding action sequences top and tail the movie, the first a battle in a cargo plane that is dumping its cargo, the second, just astonishing in its virtuosity, a duel between airborne shipwrecks. In between are a scramble in an art gallery and a roofotop chase. And to keep the audience on its toes all kinds of relics are brought into play as well as hidden tunnels, churches and chambers complete with the usual Indiana Jones-style booby traps, never mind a ton of bullets, and a bunch of clues to be deciphered from maps and walls not to mention postcards and trees. Part of the fun is that the gang don’t get it right all the time with alarming consequences.

It’s all done with such verve and although it’s certainly a close relative to the Indiana Jones series it’s minus their mystical nonsense while the characters certainly are not called upon to do good for their country or save the world from any dictatorships. The guys just want to make money. And what’s wrong with that? It lends the movie a certain solidity. And the fact that none of the characters trusts the others ensures that the status quo never remains quo for long and that swift change is going to be the order of the day.

Tom Holland (Spider-Man: No Way Home, 2021) bulks up and seizes the opportunity to become a major star outside the comic book hero. Too often franchise pictures have produced wallpaper stars, attracting audiences in the tight confines of their multiverses but failing to add any box office muscle to other projects. This character proves an inspired choice. Holland gets to be athletic, as well as the young guy making his bones in a cut-throat (pardon the pun) world, holds up his side in the edgy banter with Wahlberg, and rounds out his personality by being a prize thief and vulnerable guy who misses his lost older brother.  

Mark Wahlberg (Infinite, 2021) hasn’t had this good a role since Patriot’s Day (2016) and since he’s not relied upon to carry the picture can get up to all sorts of shenanigans, which he’s usually knee-deep in, much to his apparent enjoyment. Antonio Banderas (Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, 2021) for once has a legitimate reason to use his Spanish in a Hollywood movie.

Sophie Ali (Truth or Dare, 2018) and Tati Gabrielle in her movie debut rock as female actioners, extremely convincing as mean gals, and should have been shuttled into any number of female-led action movies of the last few years that failed to bring the requisite bite. Both muscle their way into the game and refuse to be muscled out or, by dint of romantic entanglement, lose their edge. There’s a nice cameo – and a running joke – by Steven Waddington (The Imitation Game, 2014) as an incomprehensible Scotsman.

Reuben Fleischer has taken the directorial cojones he displayed in Gangster Squad (2013) and Venom (2018) and squeezed the life out of them to keep this little number zipping along, scarcely stopping to take a breath, never finding itself in a dead end, and holding enough marvel back to pull off  the audacious ending of the flying shipwrecks, on a par with any image Steven Spielberg ever pulled out of his locker. Rafe Judkins, another movie debutante, and the partnership of Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (Iron Man, 2008)  assembled the screenplay from the Playstation game.

As I said I’ve no idea what were the ingredients in the original game and whether the writers have played fast and loose with the concept but all I can say is it’s a helluva movie.

The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) ***

In her first top-billed role Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) delivers a strong performance as an American nurse/missionary in the Belgian Congo at the start of the Second World War. The usual Hollywood trope of “heathens” needing to be educated by imperialists – from The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) through to The Nun’s Story (1959) – was to some extent turned on its head here.

Just as Rachel Cade (Angie Dickinson) arrives at a hospital in a small village, resident Dr Bikel  (Douglas Spencer) dies. Not only does the hospital have no patients, the local Belgian commissioner Col Derod (Peter Finch) wants her to leave, believing her presence will act as provocation to the local high priest Kalanumu (Juano Hernandez) and witch doctor Muwango (Woody Strode). After standing up to all three, Rachel embarks on refurbishment of the hospital aided by assistant Kulu (Errol John).

Patients remain non-existent until she cures a small boy of appendicitis, as a result of which Muwango places a curse on her that she will lose her Protestant faith and promises the local god will take his revenge on anyone who supports her. Of course, her skills are not infinite and not only is there another boy who dies in her care but she cannot cure – and does not attempt to cure – the infertile third wife of the local chief.

While she warms to her patients and they to her, she cannot come to terms with their acceptance of incest (if a husband is called away, his brother must make love to his wife), polygamy, vaginal mutilation, the sexuality of their dancing and the fact that sin does not exist in their culture. Meanwhile, she distrusts the visions seen by the most convinced of her converts, Kulu.    

When the sexually repressed Rachel rejects Derod’s advances in favour of the  dashing but money-oriented Dr Paul Winton (Roger Moore), thus violating her own teachings, she becomes enmeshed by the principles she holds so dearly and which the Africans refute. A twist in the tale pivots the picture on whom she will marry, the sensible Derod, the cavalier Winton, or retain her own independence in defiance of the standards of the time.  

A battle of the hierarchies – the female nurse and her supporters versus male supremacy – maintains the tension but underneath is a philosophical struggle between the two faiths. The Christian religion which boasts of forgiveness is in the end unforgiving of those who break its moral code, while the African religion does not force onto its believers such ludicrous rules. On top of that is Rachel’s acceptance of her own passion, the realization that love cannot be restrained by commandment, and that men are more likely to betray her.

The reality of imperialist rule is not underplayed but since this predates the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s that precipitated widespread rebellion and Derod can call on soldiers for protection in the Belgian colony and is in fact a generally tolerant (though at times patronising) overseer, political issues remain in the background.

Angie Dickinson gets the movie star build-up in this British trade advertisement.

Director Gordon Douglas (Claudelle Inglish, 1961) keeps the focus on the transition of the naïve American while not ignoring nor appearing to ridicule the rituals and beliefs of the tribe – although a cynic might consider that the sexuality of the dancing, while repellant to Rachel, might be included more with an eye to attracting an audience. Overall, it appears an honest even-sided presentation, with the high priest getting the better of Rachel in arguments over the frailties of Christianity. Angie Dickinson brings conviction to a role that sees her start out a shade saintly until brought back down to earth by human weakness. Peter Finch, by coincidence the leading man to Audrey Hepburn role in The Nun’s Story, fills out his normal stoic screen personality with touches of grief. Roger Moore (Vendetta for the Saint, 1969) had not yet mastered the art of the raised eyebrow and so brought a more rounded performance to his role and is entirely believable as the lover with the mercenary streak.

The pick of the supporting parts is Mary Wickes (Sister Act, 1992) as Derod’s wisecracking housekeeper. Woody Strode (The Professionals, 1966), Scatman Crothers (The Shining, 1980),  Juano Hernandez (The Pawnbroker, 1964) and Errol John (The Nun’s Story)  provide stiff opposition for the incomers.  Edward Anhalt (The Satan Bug, 1965) based his screenplay on the bestseller by Charles Mercer.

CATCH-UP: Featured in the Blog so far are the following Angie Dickinson pictures: Ocean’s 11 (1960), A Fever in the Blood (1961), Jessica (1962), The Chase (1966), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and Point Blank (1967).

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

It’s rare to see an actor’s screen persona complete disappear when playing a role but that’s what Jessica Chastain achieves in this potentially Oscar-winning performance as the wife of television evangelist fraudster Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Responsible much of the time for holding Bakker together when he was falling apart, backing diversity at a time when it was anathema to any organised religion, although a fool for love and with an appetite for self-deception that would have floored a rhinoceros.

A fascinating docu-drama into how an opportunistic couple became the fatted calves their religion deplored. The movie doesn’t delve too deeply into the fund-raising activities of the couple any more than The Two Popes spent time wondering who funded the Vatican. Instead, it’s a character-driven study. There’s no doubt Bakker and Faye delivered on the motivational front to their legions (20 million subscribers at their peak), preaching about God’s love rather his downside of Hell and damnation. The fact that Faye got to sing and become an adored television personality was the least of it.

In keeping with a lot of modern biopics, it races through the years, new characters introduced with screen titles as we move from the trudge of freelance missionaries to low-grade television performers until, at Faye’s instigation, they set up their own television station. However big the bucks that roll in, it’s never enough, Bakker constantly in hock and coming up with more grandiose schemes to bankroll his grandiose schemes. It’s hard to say how much they actually achieved, since the film skips over this until Bakker is brought up on major fraud charges. 

Instead what we have is a four-ring circus, Faye happily getting richer but missing out on the expected sex life that goes with it, excoriated for nearly having an affair, Bakker playing fast and loose with male and female but his transgressions not coming to light until much later, rival preaching kingpin Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) stitching them up when they fall, and Faye’s tight-permed thin-lipped mother Rachel (Cherry Jones) herself a “fallen woman.”

Although falling into the “Stand By Your Man” cateogory, Faye’s continued effervescence in the face of mounting scandal is astonishing, lack of fear of male hierarchy (calling Falwell by his Christian name instead of his title, going against inbred conservative politics) and her genuine desire to help those eviscerated by the world, namely AIDS victims, would have set her up almost for saintood had the pillar on which she depended not been made entirely of salt.

The movie is a fascinating insight into how slick evangelism parts people from their bucks, almost a masterclass in maximizing frailty and playing the victim – more money rolls in when they confess infidelity and weakness than when playing superheroic good guys.  Forget the hypocrisy with which it paints the television evangelist and the viewers (i.e. suckers) keeping the enterprise afloat, the Catholic church made a mint from its parishioners, anybody who sought comfort in religion had something wrong with them as was pointed out to Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby.  

As I knew nothing about any of the background and was only vaguely familiar with the real-life characters, I thought it was superb, but mostly through the acting. I have rarely seen an actor play vulnerability so well without an eye to self-pity. It’s ironic of course that Faye is so in favour of love when she is denied it first by her mother and then by her husband. Only an adoring wife would fail to see the weasely character she married.

Chastain transitions from giggly teenager, too enraptured by passion, to the self-possessed puppet-master and from thence to the all-engulfing stardom to which they have opposite responses, he overwhelmed by being found out, she believing every word he says and living the dream as if she was the original Kardashian. Garfield channels inner entitlement, entirely convincing as the ultimate salesman with the ultimate item to sell to a more than willing set of loyal customers, happy to sacrifice his wife’s shame at the altar of mammon while hiding his own indiscretions. But he’s also the preacher as businessman, learning from his predecessors, planning to out-do his rivals, praying that he can keep the devil at bay.

And that’s not forgetting an excellent turn by Cherry Jones as the repressed mother who would have been disowned by her own church except they had no one else to play the piano, fearful but never tearful, her only criminal act holding on to a cherished fur coat that should have been surrendered to the law. Vincent D’Onofrio relishes playing the sanctimonious thug, wooed by politicians, kowtowed-to by preacher underlings, with a whole pile of machinations up his sleeve.

Chastain’s performance belongs to those larger-than-life real-life characters imbued by Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich, 2000) and Jennifer Lawrence  (Joy, 2015) who turned their fragility on its head and fully deserves her Oscar nomination. A fascinating film with terrific performances, and enjoyable with it.

Belfast (2021) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

Except for people trying to kill him, this would be a heart-warming tale of young Buddy (Jude Hill) growing up in a tight-knit community in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. In the vein of John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987) with war – civil war in this case – seen through the eyes of a child, instead we witness how religious differences taken to the extreme tear neighbourhoods apart.  

With violence taking up so much of the foreground, there was a danger the lives of the characters would be solely dictated by their reaction to the conflict. But, in fact, a whole world of family comes very much alive, mostly in understated and often subtle fashion, with Buddy very much on the fringes of the adult world. Just as a film about childhood it is simply marvellously evocative, the boy wanting to join a secret gang, stealing from a shop, playing in the street, going to the pictures, agog at old westerns on television, dressing up as someone from Thunderbirds. On top of that you had to somehow accommodate the deranged habits of teachers that you accepted without question, priests that scared you half to death and trying to work out in your head the insoluble problems of a universe nobody can understand anyway.

Buddy is at just at the right age of wide-eyed innocence before teenage problems take their toll and his wee romance with the girl he fancies is as cute as this rough-edged movie gets. Romance is a big thing here. Clear-sighted romance, not the kind that sends characters spinning off into passionate delirium or screaming at their partner non-stop. His mother (Catriona Balfe) is a vividly-drawn character, mother most of the time while her husband (Jamie Dornan) is away working, the kind of mother who is forced to be stoic, with bills mounting up, and yet high on romance when the opportunity arises, the Everlasting Love sequence a stand-out.  

The father, except for not paying his taxes, is almost a Gregory Peck of a father, an upright, stand-up type of guy, a fount of wisdom for a son, and yet as a man never backing down. And any grandfather (Ciaran Hinds) that has the savvy to continue a half-century of romance with his wife (Judi Dench) by singing the love song from Camelot will rise in anyone’s estimation. In some senses, this is simply a rite of passage picture, Buddy engaging in first romance, doing some good things and some bad, encountering the death of a loved one.

Some of the scenes of violence are stunning, the tanks rolling through the streets, men patrolling at night with flame-lit torches, the riots. But you are more likely to remember the moments of tenderness and the family coming together whether opening presents at Xmas or thinking they are going to hurtle over the cliff along with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang though you were more likely to be interested in duelling dinosaurs at that age than Raquel Welch at her most “Raquel” (One Million Years B.C).

And all of this gets you asking: Kenneth Branagh, what have you been doing all this time? Almost two decades of throwing away your directorial talent and only Hercule Poirot memorable on the acting side. This is a brilliant autobiographical story with a crisp script with superb performances all round.

But why on earth was it in black-and-white? Directors film in black-and-white due to a) artistic pretension b) shortage of money or c) because they disdain the mass audience. Sticking on a few minutes of touristy Belfast stuff in color at the start in order to satisfy the funders seems bizarre. My hope is that worth of mouth will bring it the audiences it deserves and that people are not put off by the arrogance of a mainstream picture being made in black-and-white.

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