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Capsule Reviews (September 2006)

The Mouse That Roared (1959) Jack Arnold

The Duchy of Grand Fenwick is a chunk of the French alps less than sixteen square miles in size. An English baronet liked the look of the place and moved in a few centuries ago thus leaving it the only country in Europe to English. The only way it makes any money is by exporting a wine to the USA but then the Californians create an obvious knockoff, publicise it like crazy and kill off Grand Fenwick's income stream. With every complaint to the Americans ignored, the prime minister comes up with an intriguing plan: start a war with the US, lose and reap the benefits of the peace. The plan is a good one but it hits an unexpected flaw: they win and suddenly everything becomes very confusing indeed.

Peter Sellers is as good here as he's ever been and that really says something. He takes three roles, just as he would again with Dr Strangelove. He plays the Duchess of Grand Fenwick, still in mourning after 27 years; the prime minister of Grand Fenwick, educated at both Oxford and Cambridge; and Tully Bascombe, mild mannered hereditary field marshal. There are also a bunch of names I know well from English TV: William Hartnell, the first Doctor Who; Leo McKern aka Rumpole of the Bailey; and even David Kossoff, teller of bible stories. The leading lady is Jean Seberg, a year before Breathless.

I was stunned when I went to put in my rating for this film in the BFI Top 100 because it wasn't there. For me, this one ranks up there with Blazing Saddles, Life of Brian, Young Frankenstein or Dr Strangelove as films that, like many comedies, are highly funny first time round but, unlike most comedies, continue to be highly funny with every viewing. I've seen this many times over the years but my belly still ached from laughter this time round too.

Hands Across the Table (1935) Mitchell Leisen

Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray costar again, with Ralph Bellamy, Astrid Allwyn, Ruth Donnelly and Marie Prevost. Lombard is a hotel manicurist and MacMurray is a useless member of a rich family made poor in the crash. Both are looking for money and are quite happy to marry someone to get it. But while Lombard finds and impresses a rich man, she makes such a friend of him that she doesn't even think of marrying him. She aims instead for MacMurray who has roman numerals after his name, not realising he has no money and is in fact engaged to a pineapple heiress. But when the illusions are gone and they can be just friends, they fall in love.

Both the leads are excellent, and this is surely the best of their pairings that I've seen thus far. The young MacMurray looks more and more like the old Tom Waits to me, especially when he's doing bizarre things like playing indoor hopscotch on black and white hotel floor tiles. Of course Lombard looks like Lombard, because dying young seals one in time wonderfully. I'd much rather watch them grow old and make movies for a few more decades. Just think what Carole Lombard could have done if it hadn't have been for that plane crash! Apparently her marriage to Clark Gable made both of them incredibly happy and being married to the king of Hollywood can't have hurt her career either. Sigh.

Anyway, while many of her films that I've seen lately have not been very good, this one is far more attuned to her talents. It's not really an early screwball comedy. Instead it's a more traditional romantic comedy with elements of screwball. Whatever it is, it's excellent. Almost the entire film focuses on the two leads, with only a little time being shared around the rest of the cast, and they deliver great performances. More importantly for me right now, after the agony of We're Not Dressing, the writing matches what they do. It's also much better than Swing High, Swing Low which also saw the pair of them working for director Mitchell Leisen.

Night Nurse (1931) William A Wellman

It's 1931 and it's the earliest I've ever seen Barbara Stanwyck. It's also the ninth of thirteen films Clark Gable made in his first year of sound and this one came immediately after his initial success in A Free Soul. Yet Stanwyck has her name in large letters above the title but Gable is third down on the page of supporting actors, after Ben Lyon and Joan Blondell. The show belongs to Stanwyck and Blondell as nurses who graduate halfway through the film. They're good people but they're hardly great advertisements for the profession, staying out all night, helping bootleggers and frequently stripping down to their undies.

Gable really makes his presence felt, as a chauffeur quick with his fists for both men and women. He's dynamic and highly obvious, though he had as little polish as an actor as a character at this point. Of course he's not the only one who's a little wooden. Ben Lyon isn't wooden but he doesn't ring that true as a bootlegger. Charlotte Merriam is terrible as the alcoholic mother of two mistreated girls, as are many of her party friends. She comes across as a notably lesser version of the early Jean Harlow, and that really says something. I really enjoyed when Barbara Stanwyck got tough with her and her date. This is a precode and they got away with a lot of stuff back then that they couldn't for years, and quite a few of the peaches were Stanwyck movies. I guess her knowing expressions lent themselves to the material. This one's clunky but solid.

In the Name of the Father (1993) Jim Sheridan

I was born in England in 1971 and so grew up being acutely aware of the situation in Northern Ireland. Later on when I moved north I saw a lot of the effects of it. I spent a year working in Manchester and every day walked past the rebuilding of the end of town that the IRA blew up. In Halifax I lived a few hundred yards from where they blew up an army recruitment office. It was hard to miss their effects. Also, working in IT, a lot of my colleagues were ex-squaddies who had served in Belfast so I could see the effect on people as well as places.

And In the Name of the Father rings very true. It's set a little earlier than I knew anything about first hand but it still rings true. It's 1974 and a pub in Guildford has just exploded. Gerry Conlon is in London because it isn't Belfast where he's a thief in trouble with every side. In the opening scenes he's on a roof stealing lead where the British mistake him for a sniper, and in the ensuing riot he escapes through an IRA house causing them to have to move everything. In London he has an invite to stay in a hippy commune but the tension causes them to leave, circumstance leads him to rob a hooker's apartment which gets him back to Belfast. The hippies put the cops on his door and suddenly he's locked up for the Guildford pub bombing. Not a nice situation to be sure.

Gabriel Byrne purchased the rights to Gerry Conlon's autobiography with the intention of playing the role himself, but for some reason let Daniel Day-Lewis do it instead. It's a good thing too because he's superb. I haven't read the book but certainly this adaptation doesn't paint Gerry as a good guy, merely not a terrorist. Day-Lewis has the talent to portray someone who is not a good person but without being what he's accused of. It's no easy balancing act but for this Day-Lewis is a champion tightrope walker. Pete Postlethwaite has his own balancing act to do, as a fundamentally good man who finds himself way out of his depth. The scenes between the two of them are as powerful as anything I've seen in a good while. Emma Thompson, as Gerry's lawyer, has a couple of excellent scenes too, but then she's Emma Thompson and how could it be otherwise?

Father Goose (1964) Ralph Nelson

It's World War II and Cary Grant is an American who really doesn't want anything to do with anyone. He gets drafted as a costal watcher by Trevor Howard, commander of His Majesty's Navy, which means that he gets to become the only inhabitant of a remote Pacific island and watch for enemy planes and boats. Because he doesn't want to do it, Howard finds ways to persuade him and obviously enjoys every moment of it. That's a good deal of the fun of the first quarter of the film as they indulge in a hilarious battle of wits.

Then Leslie Caron finds her way into the picture with a group of schoolgirls in tow and Grant naturally gets lumbered with the bunch of them and there's a whole new battle of wits to fight. This one should fit well with The African Queen and Operation Petticoat, as in many ways it's a cross between the two. Cary Grant is excellent in a role that really doesn't seem like a Cary Grant role, just like Humphrey Bogart's role in The African Queen. Both roles were against type but are likely to be some of the most memorable parts they ever played. Unfortunately people didn't want to see Grant as a character actor so he only made one more film after this. That's a real shame as I enjoyed him a lot more here than in many more conventional Cary Grant performances.

The Gay Bride (1934) Jack Conway

It's Carole Lombard again and she's a beautiful (really beautiful at this point) young chorus girl trying to chisel her way to the top again by marrying someone with dough. The amount of this that went on in the thirties is scary and almost enough to make one cynical. She starts the movie trying to marrying bootlegger Nat Pendleton who's she's made completely daffy about her. It's great to see Pendleton again as it's far too long since I've seen him, but of course he soon ends up dead and she ends up broke so she moves onto his successor.

The constant is Chester Morris, bodyguard/accountant/whatever called Office Boy who she ignores of course because he has no money but ends up falling for. I've seen him before but never been as impressed as here. He doesn't take the role seriously, or at least he takes it a little less seriously than anyone else and the knowing smile on his face really suits the part. He ended up working a long series of hour long detective pictures as Boston Blackie and if those have the tone I think they do he'd be solid as the lead in them.

It's Morris that makes this picture, along with Carole Lombard who is also on top form. The supporting cast are good: Pendleton, along with fellow gangsters Sam Hardy and Leo Carrillo and even Zasu Pitts as Lombard's friend. It's no classic, that's for sure, but it's still great fun in the way that good thirties movies often are. It would go well with Lady By Choice, Lombard's previous movie, but how amazing that it should come from the same year as the abysmal We're Not Dressing!

Fools for Scandal (1938) Mervyn LeRoy

We're in Paris. Rene Viladel is pawned up to his eyeballs and supposedly on his way to Lady Malverton's. However on the way he meets American actress Kay Winters aka Kay Summers who also knows Lady Malverton but is far more keen to pick up some of the local flavour. Naturally she gets picked up instead by Rene who exudes Gallic charm in a French taxi. Kay is Carole Lombard and Rene is somebody called Fernand Gravet, whose name meant nothing to me but who is apparently one of France's most beloved actors of the era even though he was technically Belgian. He reminds me of Tim Curry in Clue.

There's also Ralph Bellamy, managing to not keep Carole Lombard yet again, and the always reliable Allen Jenkins. There are also faces I know even though I don't recognise their names: Lombard's maid is Marie Wilson, not she of the beehive but she of the dizzy blondeness and giggle, and Lady Malverton is the elegant Isabel Jeans who talks with an even more upper class version of Billie Burke's voice. There's even music by Rodgers & Hart including a notably politically incorrect number performed at Le Petit Harlem by a black band and singers.

Lombard is excellent, especially in a particular scene where every nosy character in London just has to pop round to see her first thing in the morning because they've heard gossip about the new cook. She gets many good scenes but this one belongs to Viladel.

Hidalgo (2004) Joe Johnston

At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Viggo Mortensen bought the horse he rode in the trilogy. He's a natural rider which he showed in the films, but in his actions during filming and afterwards he also showed how much he cares for horses. That became even more apparent with Hidalgo, his first choice of film as a real star. I've seen him more and more over the last couple of years, disproving my initial notion that Peter Jackson hired him as an unknown actor, but he was never a star until he played Aragorn. He's obviously a star here.

Of course his horse is the real co-star here, and yes he bought that one too. He plays Frank Hopkins, a real life rider who experienced quite a lot in his time. We get to see a lot of it, from delivering orders to the Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee to riding in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show to the bulk of the film which has him taking part in a 3,000 mile endurance race through the Arabian desert. Of course his horse goes the whole way with him and endures as much as he does. Some of what happens is CGI but to be fair, the scenes in which it's used don't have any real alternative.

There's a lot going on in this film and I wonder how much of it happened. Certainly not all of it, that's for sure, but then again, I fully realise that it's the true stories that sometimes stretch our belief the most. It seems very likely that this has a few grains of truth in there somewhere but this is a Hollywood action film that really seems out of place in an era where Hollywood doesn't understand how to make actions films any more. It felt to me similar in ways to The Last Samurai, in that it's a historical look at a clash of cultures but for all his earnestness, Tom Cruise isn't Viggo Mortensen and never will be.

Beyond Mortensen and TJ the horse, there's also a good amount of Omar Sharif, an intriguing part by Louise Lombard from CSI and even an uncredited cameo from Malcolm McDowell. The rest are completely unknown to me which probably helped, to be honest, but they've probably done plenty that I know nothing about. All are completely solid.

The Purchase Price (1932) William A Wellman

It's a strange concept to open a movie with Barbara Stanwyck singing, because she really can't, but then again this is 1932 so maybe they hadn't quite worked that out yet. Or maybe because it's 1932 and it's a precode so they thought the woman who could get away with everything else could get away with that too.

Anyway, she can't sing but she's trying to leave her torch singing gig where she's stuck with bootlegger Eddie Fields, played by Lyle Talbot, She tries upscale Don Leslie, played by Hardie Albright, but that fizzles out in about ten seconds, so she's back where she was. So instead of settling for the racketeer, she hides out in Elk's Crossing, ND, as a fake bride. The husband is George Brent who's precisely what you expect from a backwoods farmer. They knew each other well as they'd starred together in their previous film, So Big! made for the same director, William A Wellman, and there are definitely similarities between them.

Stanwyck is a little too mild mannered for most of the film, which seems strange for a precode, but then it doesn't seem like this one was intended to be anything standard. In effect it's a romance that stubbornly resists being romantic whenever possible. I've seen so many films lately from the era where the girl gives in to the guy purely because he's not given up chasing her. It's refreshing to see one that works the other way round, even if the ending is sudden. It's like it finishes halfway through.

Don't Look Now (1973) Nicolas Roeg

I've realised that I still haven't even seen half of the British Film Institute's Top 100 film list, even though I grew up in England and lived there until I was 33 years old. It's definitely time for me to resolve this pitiful state of affairs which should be easy enough to do given that we own Don't Look Now on DVD and Brief Encounter is coming onto TCM next weekend.

This is a Daphne du Maurier thriller/horror film that is highly renowned. Du Maurier, of course, also wrote Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds, all effectively filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, so she's hardly new to the genre. However this was filmed after those, in 1973, by Nicolas Roeg, director of such counterculture classics as Performance. He plays with this one too, with lots of the sort of cinematic tricks that I know from graphic novels, such as two totally separate threads running in alternating panels or here in quick but consistent cuts between them.

The key character is Christine Baxter, young daughter of Laura and John, played by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, in one of his patented awful 70s suits. She dies very early on in the film, drowned in a pond outside their home. We next see them in Venice where John is working on some sort of architectural restoration project. They meet a couple of elderly women in a restaurant. The blind one is psychic, sees Christine and scares the crap out of Laura when she tells her details about Christine that she has no way of knowing.

We get to see a lot more of Donald Sutherland's butt than I'd really have liked, but we also get to see a lot of Venice and a lot of things in Venice that we don't understand as we see them. Everything comes together but there were always a few ways it could have gone. This will definitely take another viewing to get everything straight in my head.

The Kennel Murder Case (1933) Michael Curtiz

Here's one that I've looked forward to watching again. This may well have been the first Philo Vance movie I saw and I was knocked out by it. I then saw a whole bunch more and was always impressed but never knocked out. They all seemed to be run of the mill detective stories, if often highly entertaining ones. This has always felt the best of the bunch and by a good margin. Would it stand up on a second viewing, especially in the context of the rest?

Well there's much that impresses. The setup is workmanlike but flawless, the discovery of the body is a peach with a great camera shot through the keyhole of a locked room and the dialogue is top notch. Philo Vance, noted investigator, gets off his boat to Italy because he hears that Archer Coe has committed suicide. He's sitting inside a locked room with a gun in one hand and a bullet in his head, but Vance doesn't believe that he took his own life. Naturally he investigates against everyone else's advice.

Director Michael Curtiz was always dependable but he keeps this one moving at a rate of knots. There's simply no chance to blink because there's always something happening. The plot strands are intricate with plenty of possibilities and there are plenty of them too. Everyone and his dog (literally) have good reason to kill Archer Coe and Vance must unravel each of their stories and match them with their opportunity.

Mary Astor is solid as the victim's daughter and nobody in the cast lets the side down, but the most fun are Eugene Palette in his fifth of six appearances as Heath, the police sergeant prone to jumping to conclusions, and especially Etienne Girardot in his first of three as Dr Doremus, the medical examiner who must have been one of the key influences for Bones in Star Trek: 'I'm a doctor, not a magician!' He's a grumpy old man, chiefly because he gets called out to a murder every time he sits down to eat. And then there's William Powell, a year before he took on the mantle of Nick Charles in The Thin Man. As much as I enjoyed Warren William's take on the role, especially before he got too wild, Powell was born to play an intelligent yet unorthodox detective. He was better as Nick Charles, but he's still wonderful here.

And yes, this stands up to a second viewing. I can see the creaks but they're all due to the lack of budget and running time. Everyone involved works wonders especially given the restrictions they were limited by. It's certainly a B picture but it remains one of the best no nonsense murder mysteries of its or any era.

One Million BC (1940) Hal Roach & Hal Roach Jr

26 years before Raquel Welch found her way into an ample fur bikini, Hal Roach and his son made this similarly titled movie. It has lederhosen clad stars like Victor Mature, Carole Landis and Lon Chaney Jr getting stuck in a cave which just happens to contain both cave paintings and some sort of bearded expert to explain their stories to them. Naturally the story is told with all these people as the actors, so they get double roles.

Victor Mature looks a lot better in a loincloth than lederhosen and wrestling a little plastic triceratops. He's part of the Rock tribe that live on the cliff tops, which isn't a good idea because their easy to fall off. The old men who don't fall off cliffs steal his food instead, even though he caught it in the first place, so he gets upset. He then gets beaten up by an old guy who can't use a stick and a little mastodon throws him off a cliff, which really doesn't make his day. However he washes up in the area of the Shell tribe who live in the lush land by the river. They also have cute blonde girls in their tribe like Carole Landis so it all works out in the end.

Because this is obviously incredibly accurate historical material, the various characters speak in some caveman dialect that could be Hawaiian. Actually to be entirely fair, this does ring a lot truer than if it had Mature beat his chest and shout something like 'Fire! Bad! Food! Mine!' The best thing about the film is that we can create our own dialogue, just like we were the bots on MST3K. We can even create different dialogue each time we watch it, thus extending the pleasure indefinitely.

On a more serious note, it sucks that Lon Chaney Jr could create his own makeup but then not be allowed to use it because of Cosmetician's Union rules, but then I couldn't work out which character he was playing! The special effects are not all great but some were easily good enough to be nominated for an Oscar and to be used again and again in films for another couple of decade. Some of the hunting scenes in particular are seriously realistic which made for a hard time when the film was released in England as it flouted strict animal cruelty laws. However their realism helps One Million BC to be worth far more than it really had any right to be. It's melodramatic and it's hokey and it's cringeworthy but it's actually quite fun.

Spaceballs (1987) Mel Brooks

There's a pretty solid maxim that no genre is really a genre until it's been spoofed by Mel Brooks. This time out he even enlists the aid of George Lucas to send up Star Wars and its ilk. It's war, of course. Planet Spaceball has squandered its precious atmosphere so the evil Dark Helmet is heading off to steal all the air from peaceloving planet Druidia. Naturally he kidnaps Princess Vespa and space cowboy Lone Starr and Barf the half man/half dog have to come to the rescue.

There are some truly classic scenes here in and amongst the terrible puns that had me in stitches. The entire Major Asshole scene is completely predictable but it's quite perfect. Rick Moranis is wonderful as Dark Helmet even though he looks surprisingly like Harrison Ford from quite a few angles, and he certainly gets some of the best opportunities. Unfortunately unlike previous Mel Brooks spoofs which had both great jokes and great plot, this one has a bunch of great jokes but very little plot.

If the gags are enough though, there are some peaches. Quite apart from the general Star Wars spoofing, the best jokes are the Alien spoof with John Hurt, the Planet of the Apes segment and the Transformers bit. Those three are timeless, even in a scifi movie. Spaceballs is a success just for those, but there should have been so much more.

The Covenant (2006) Renny Harlin

I got to see this one on opening night, purely by accident. We were by the movie theatre, we felt like watching a movie and the trailers for Crank looked awesome. Unfortunately we would have had an hour to wait, so rather than just go home we watched The Covenant. The trailers for this looked OK, totally Lost Boys but OK. Why not? Well, if I'd have known that it was opening night and I could buy four tickets seven minutes before showtime I might have had an idea why not.

The one good thing I can say is that what this movie did, it did very well. Unfortunately it didn't do anything I really wanted to see. The plot started off very promising but went precisely nowhere, and made no sense at all in the process. Nobody in the entire film acted, they merely posed for an hour and a half. The effects were superbly done, though the whole ending sequence was unimpressive for content. Two scenes in particular stood out for me: a car hits a truck, disassembles, passes through it and reassembles on the other side. Very nicely done indeed. The other was a spider scene which was handled well with a decent ick factor.

I appreciated the attempt to produce a less standard horror movie, with no gore and no female nudity. There's even a decent sensitivity on the part of some of the leading characters. Unfortunately instead of female nudity we get male nudity, courtesy of a gratuitous shower scene and some seriously revealing swimming trunks. If I was a 14 year old girl I'd probably be drooling for much of the movie, but I'm not. Soap opera relationships on the level of Dawson's Creek don't do much for me either.

At the end, there were more questions than answers. What are Darklings, for a start? Why does all this power work on the lines of trading card hit points? Why are we watching what these kids are doing if ascending takes things to a whole new level? Why should I even care? Maybe that's the best question of all.

The Conspirators (1944) Jean Negulesco

People are blowing up trains and killing people, but these aren't Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. It's 1944 so it's the good guys fighting those wacky Nazis. In this instance it's Paul Henreid, playing much the same role as he did in Casablanca, but this time as the focus of the story not just the reason for it. He's getting out of the Netherlands because the country is too hot for him. He's trying to get out of the continent through Lisbon, the gateway to freedom. Yes, we're very close to Casablanca here, but there's no Bogart, no Bergman and no Rick's Cafe Americain. Henreid is the lead, opposite Hedy Lamarr, who I last saw running around in the nude in Ecstasy, and the nightspot is the Cafe Imperio.

Everything else is the same though. The cafe is full of people trying to find visas to get out of Europe; the Nazis are on Henreid's trail and also hanging around are the best double act of the forties, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. All of these people are excellent, as could be expected. Greenstreet is exuberant though he doesn't get much of a part. Lorre is calm and confident, yet always somehow sinister. He could have done with a bigger role too. In fact that's the biggest problem with this movie: nobody really gets a great role. Henreid is no Bogart and for all her talents, Lamarr is no Bergman. With great roles, maybe they'd have given great performances. Unfortunately we'll never know. The plot's the thing here. It's clever and full of intrigue and it keeps us guessing all the way to the end.

So all in all another solid entry in the Jean Negulesco/Peter Lorre/Sidney Greenstreet series of f\ilms in the forties, but it's no Mask of Dimitrios, let alone a Three Strangers.

Confession (1937) Joe May

Confession, as the introductory title card suggests, is based on what was revealed by legal documents in a sensational European court case in 1930. It's also a close remake of a German film, Mazurka, made two years earlier by Willi Forst with Pola Negri in the lead. While I've seen Kay Francis, the star of this version, before I've never really noticed what she does as until now she's been little more than the nominal female lead in films that really starred other people: King of the Underworld with Humphrey Bogart, Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage with William Powell and even The Cocoanuts with the Marx Brothers, both her and their debuts. This is very much her film though, being an unashamed chick flick sob story and thus exactly what she did and did very well. We can really buy into her turmoil.

We don't know anything about the court case for quite some time and don't even see Kay Francis for nearly half an hour! We meet instead Jane Bryan as a young and naive musician named Lisa Koslov who is caught up in the machinations of concert pianist Basil Rathbone. Basil is exactly as you'd expect Basil to be: dashing but somehow morally dubious and definitely more than a little obsessed. He manages to persuade Koslov into a date at a nightclub but the singer, played by Kay but looking very much like a good transvestite, notices him kissing her, faints and then shoots him dead as he tries to get out of the building.

On trial for murder, she refuses to speak until her suitcase is sensationally brought into court and she capitulates, telling her story in the form of a confession. It's melodramatic but melodramatic done very well indeed. I could see a lot of women bawling their eyes out in the movie theatres of 1937. Francis and Rathbone are both wonderful and Jane Bryan is excellent too.

Spitfire (1934) John Cromwell

Plays translated to the screen by the playwright are usually pretty solid and Lula Vollmer, whoever she is, adapted her own play this time out which had run for 47 nights on Broadway. Unfortunately this is the exception rather than the rule, as after all you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. The star is Katharine Hepburn, who is far from believable as a backwoods hick with a backwoods accent. She plays Trigger Hicks who isn't afraid to throw rocks at anyone with the sheer nerve to walk down the path past her log cabin and is quite happy to steal anything, even if it's Sunday School cards from the preacher.

Sharing the title card, though below the title, are Ralph Bellamy and Robert Young as the foremen on a dam construction project and Martha Sleeper as Young's wife back home. It's Hepburn's show though and she's simply awful in the part. How seriously she took it I don't know but it looks to me like this is a skeleton in her closet akin to Bogart's Swing Your Lady and The Return of Dr X. Quite why anyone thought that she was anything but the last choice to play this role, I really have no clue, but she had to live with it, I guess, in order to be able to take the role in a play she wanted.

For posterity though, plays don't count for much. I can't see the 1933 Broadway production of The Lake, so I don't know if she was any good or not. I'm sure she was a lot better than this because she may just have fit the role. Robert Young and Ralph Bellamy can't get out of their association with this turkey either but at least they didn't have to conjure up such a horrendously variable accent the way Hepburn did. I wonder if there's a bigger skeleton in her closet than this.

Every Girl Should Be Married (1948) Don Hartman

Anabel Sims is a young lady who believes in love at first sight and is just dying to be married. She bumps into Cary Grant at a magazine store and immediately sets her sights on him, but of course he hardly notices her. She instantly turns into a scary stalker, researching him down to the tiniest detail like the colour of his shorts and which year of champagne he prefers and working out his restaurant schedule. Of course this is 1948 so it shouldn't be scary but merely awesomely romantic.

Worst still she's a salesgirl at a department store and she invokes the name of the man in charge, pretending to be his private secretary to book restaurant tables in his name as part of her plan to land Cary Grant, who for some reason doesn't get a restraining order out against her. Unfortunately the man in charge turns up in the dashing form of Franchot Tone and she ends up having to play one against the other to land the one she wants. Naturally it's the one she doesn't want who is most interested in her.

If we can discount the scariness of the storyline, it's done very well. Cary Grant is suitably distraught as the target and Betsy Drake is spot on as the scary psycho woman doing the chasing. Tone doesn't get that much screen time but he is as Franchot Tone as usual and there's really nobody else in the film, with the possible exception of Anabel Sims's friend and co-worker Julie played by Diana Lynn. Her name is on the title card but I'm not sure why. Maybe she was just a bigger name at the time, as this was amazingly Drake's debut film. She's desperately trying to be Lauren Bacall but that's understandable. What's far less understandable is why she only made another eight films. And what's really really scary is that after demonstrating the insanity of emotional women to Cary Grant he married her in real life a year after this movie!

Illicit (1931) Archie Mayo

It's 1931 and Archie Mayo, director of such intriguing early sound films as The Doorway to Hell and Svengali, directed the earliest Barbara Stanwyck film I've yet seen. She looks amazingly young, even to me who knows the younger Stanwyck far better than the later Stanwyck so instantly recognisable to much of America. She's very young, beautiful and obviously enjoying herself. She plays the female half of a young couple very apparently in love, the male half being James Rennie, but the strange thing is that they're not married. He wants to but she doesn't. She believes that all her women friends are either unhappily married or unhappily divorced and blames it all on the institute of marriage.

Then again this is 1931 and the precodes were really starting to explore what could be put onto a cinema screen. Alternative theories on marriage, of all things! It still amazes me that in 1931 a couple in love could talk about the weekend trips they'd illicitly taken together, but they still couldn't be seen in bed together until The Flintstones. Amazing. Of course there's also plenty of blatant flouts of prohibition but there always was. In the movies prohibition was never seen as anything more than a joke or a prop for the unsavoury element in Warner Brothers gangster pictures.

Ricardo Cortez, Joan Blondell and a memorably drunk Charles Butterworth prop up the leads but it's really Stanwyck's show. Rennie isn't bad but I wonder how much he managed to land parts because he was married to Dorothy Gish.

San Quentin (1946) Gordon Douglas

It's strange to see a Laurence Tierney picture introduced by a former warden of Sing Sing, especially one who really can't read a cuecard. But this is a prison movie about how progressive treatment of prisoners can help them become useful citizens and blah blah blah. Yep, it's a propaganda movie and you know how propaganda films go. The weird thing is that of all the people they could have thought of to place in the lead, they picked Laurence Tierney, the wild man of pictures who sent Tarantino up the wall when they filmed Reservoir Dogs. His real life barroom brawls and subsequent arrests are the subject of Hollywood legend. And he's the guy in charge of the Inmates Welfare League, the organisation of inmates who regulate their own environment at San Quentin!

The warden picks Jim Roland, Nick Taylor and Tommy North to speak to a group of journalists about the League. Laurence Tierney is Jim, the good guy, on parole after military service; Barton MacLane is Nick, the bad guy who has pretended his way up the League hierarchy in order to a) get the hell out of San Quentin and b) get revenge on Jim. Robert Clarke is Tommy North who is basically a Star Trek ensign, along just to get shot. And get shot he does as Nick Taylor escapes. Naturally the League comes up for serious scrutiny and Roland goes after him under the thinking that to restore the name of the League, the League has to bring him back.

Tierney is decent playing very much against type, but MacLane is just going through the paces, probably because the material is just so predictable. It tries on occasion to be a little bit more but really doesn't manage it. Even Raymond Burr can't do much as just some small time hood. Definitely for Tierney fans only.

Ladies They Talk About (1933) Howard Shuttleworth & William Keighley

And we're back at San Quentin again, but this side mostly on the women's side of the prison. Barbara Stanwyck is the front lady for a bank robbing outfit and she gets caught. As the cops can't seem to prove it they're about ready to release her in the custody of David Slade, a radio preacher who knew her when they were kids and seems to have fallen for her. Of course she admits her guilt to him and so ends up doing two to five in San Quentin.

As always, it seems, in these early Stanwyck films it's totally her show. She saunters around the cellblock letting everyone know who's boss with that sassy smile and confident demeanour. There are some interesting characters in there with her but none of them get any time to grow, and there's not even Joan Blondell in there to help shake things up.

The plot is at least vaguely interesting because of the cruelty of fate. There are some vicious little twists that are played out well. Really though it's just another excuse to watch Barbara Stanwyck for an hour and a half.

Brief Encounter (1945) David Lean

Noel Coward's producer credit is the final word, even after David Lean's director credit, reminding of David Selznick and the days when the producers were the men in charge. And someone in charge over David Lean must be someone important indeed. Then again, Noel Coward wrote the play upon which the screenplay is based and it's a talky yet incredible tight little thing that I'm not surprised he wanted his name splashed all over.

The music is impressive from the very start and even the font used for the credits is elegant. Elegance is very apparent from then on. We first see our stars without anything except Lean's subtle direction to tell us so. We're happily listening to Stanley Holloway chat with the lady working behind the counter of the train station cafe and then there they are talking quietly in the background but they're far from the focus. Only when a motormouth friend of Celia Johnson's notices her and takes over the conversation do we get introduced to her and Trevor Howard.

There's obviously something between them but there's nothing to suggest what it could be except Johnson's masterclass performance. She tells us so much without all the usual props. There's a narration to cover some of her thoughts but mostly it's subtle movements of face and body, especially the eyes. Gradually we are treated to a fleshing out of these impressions into a real story. Johnson is a happily married woman who meets Howard at the train station. She gets a piece of grit in her eye and he removes it for her, being a doctor, after all. There's nothing special, of course, but they keep meeting in odd places and gradually work from acquaintances to friendship and beyond. He's married too and they do behave but they continue to meet every Thursday.

There's a line that mentions how natural everything seemed, and I have to admit I've never seen anything that felt so real. Both the leads are so natural it's almost impossible to believe they're actually acting, aided of course by Coward's plentiful dialogue. Lean's highly subtle direction helps too and his restraint is admirable. I can't imagine what a modern remake (shock horror) would be like but I know for a fact that it wouldn't have a single instance of Lean's restraint. The supporting cast are equally wonderful. Holloway always could talk the hind end off a horse, but Joyce Carey is a perfect foil. Cyril Raymond manages to find the difficult balance of being the husband Johnson can happily love and adore but still leave room for her thoughts to wander to this strange doctor. Even those characters so unimportant as to have very little, if anything, to do are perfectly cast. The whole thing ends up as one of the most perfectly crafted films I've ever seen. Unlike many of the films there at present, it definitely warrants it's place in the IMDB Top 250.

The Scarecrow (1920) Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline

I've seen this one before but it was very good to see it again. I'm adding up my Buster Keaton's and this still stands above all his other silent films for me with the one exception of his masterpiece, Sherlock, Jr. There are two distinct parts to the film. Firstly, Keaton and Joe Roberts share a small house with only one room and to make optimal use of the space they have devised a whole host of gadgets to serve multiple purposes. For instance the bathtub turns over and becomes a couch, while the water heads outside for the ducks; the gramophone turns into a cooker; the fridge has a bookcase attached to the front; the bed doubles as a piano. The level of invention is high and it's a joy to watch. Of course the physical aspect of Keaton's humour is still apparent as some of the stringed gadgets must have taken some skill to work with.

Then they leave the house and get caught up in a massive chase scene. Both are after a particular farmgirl, and that's part of it, but the rest has a seemingly rabid dog (not foam but cream pie, naturally) chase Keaton. Again it's a joy to watch, as Luke the Dog proves a worthy foil for Keaton, climbing ladders and running round the tops of walls. I've seen a lot of silent slapstick in my time and this is one of perhaps two that stand out above all the rest at present, the other being Larry Semon's The Sawmill with Oliver Hardy.

The Paleface (1922) Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline

Keaton gets all politically incorrect but at least he's on the right side. Evil oil barons have stolen the deed to the Crowfeet tribe's land and gives them a day to get out. They are naturally a little upset and plan to kill the first white man to walk through their gate. Of course that turns out to be mildmannered Keaton, out hunting nothing more dangerous than butterflies. They catch him, strap him to a stake and mean to burn him alive. He escapes, of course, and all sorts of hijinx ensue. It's not his greatest but it's a solid slapstick comedy with a number of great scenes. I couldn't help remember this one when Johnny Depp had to escape his burning alive in Pirates of the Caribbean II earlier this year. There's nothing like having obvious influence over 80 years after original release!

The Toast of New York (1937) Rowland V Lee

Edward Arnold, the bad guy from Mr Smith Goes to Washington, is that very thirties phenomenon, the lovable rogue. He's a good guy, a bad guy, an all round whatever guy. Here he plays Jim Fisk, a real life character, who made a huge amount of money through flimflam and cotton smuggling, and then lost it all through bad speculation. We come in when Fisk and his two compatriots, played by Cary Grant and Jack Oakie, are yankee peddlers just south of the Mason Dixon line at the moment that the Civil War is declared. They realise that the north has all the cotton mills but the south has all the cotton and make a large fortune buying cheap in the south and selling dear in the north. Unfortunately Oakey has turned it all into confederate bonds that are worthless once the war is over.

I looked up Jim Fisk and it's amazing how much his picture looks like Edward Arnold, so it's hardly surprising that he be picked for the role. He does a great job walking that fine line between hero and villain. 'Only little people steal; big people call it borrowing', he says, and he believes every word of it. Cary Grant is a supporting actor here. I've seen him early on in his career but usually still in the lead, merely the lead in a much less important picture. He's fine but there are a lot of points where it's obvious that he hasn't learned the fine art of finesse that would serve him so well later in his career. Then again, maybe it was called for given that he's really a confidence trickster at heart for the whole film.

Outside of Donald Meek who has a great role with a horrendous beard, the other real reason to watch the film is Frances Farmer, who has a serious presence in her role as the love interest. She's elegant and talented and very noticeable. She had an interesting life, that took her in some bizarre directions, including a number of stays in psychiatric institutions mostly caused by her alcoholism. Somehow fittingly, given the false fronts that run throughou this film, a number of fake biographies that led to major films about her life included sensational facts that never happened, such as a notorious lobotomy. I wonder what she could have given us on screen had she not run through such chaos. As it was she only had sixteen films to leave us. This makes one for me and that really isn't enough.

Day of the Fight (1951) Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick's career seems to easily fall into four parts: his work as a still photographer for Life magazine where he learned about photographic art, the three documentary shorts he made between 1951 and 1953 where he learned about the camera, his first two movies where he learned about the art of the feature film, and then genius. Of his features I'm missing only his first but I've seen none of his shorts until now.

For quite some time, it doesn't seem to be much about a fight at all, the narrative notwithstanding. It's all about life: getting up in the morning, walking in the street, crossing the road, receiving communion, eating lunch, playing with his dog. All of it is preparation as it's the long day that he has to work through before he gets to the ring. And then action. There are a lot of shots here that presage later Kubrick, such as the very opening of the first round when we're looking at our subject Walter Cartier through the legs of his opponent's wooden stool. Definitely an interesting start to a legendary career.

Flying Padre (1951) Stanley Kubrick

Given the success of Day of the Fight, Kubrick got the opportunity to make another documentary short. This one follows a priest visiting his congregation over a couple of days. Hardly a startling subject, you'd think, but this particular priest has thirteen churches dotted around a 14,000 square mile parish in New Mexico, so he gets to do his visiting by plane, the Spirit of St Joseph. We see him conduct a funeral, a church service, a telling off of a young 'un, an emergency visit to an ailing baby. All routine stuff if it wasn't for the distances involved.

This time it's the closeups that tell us that there's an artist behind the camera. They are pretty obvious for someone with his background as a notable still photographer, being well framed and well captured. What's missing here is the motion in motion pictures. There are examples of Kubrick's future genius in some of the shots of the plane or in the way he uses the camera to exaggerate speed. Not up to Day of the Fight, but still interesting.

2010 (1984) Peter Hyams

While this may be a sequel story, from the very beginning it is obviously not an attempt to make a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. For a start I think there is more dialogue in the first couple of scenes than there was in the entire two and a half hour running time of 2001. Dr Heywood Floyd talks with a Russian scientist; Dr Heywood talks with his replacement. Lots of words and humour, all sorts of cool stuff to be sure but certainly not the focus of its predecessor. It's all aimed at a much lower threshold.

Even in the little details it can't compare. 2001 paid attention to all the tiniest details down to the little signs and placards and whatever. Yet in 2010, SAL-9000 runs these little screensaver things on its tiny screen. They're all loops and in any other film I wouldn't have cared. Here, though, all I can think is that Kubrick would have noticed and got rid of the loops. That's probably entirely unfair but it's still the case.

There's much to impress here too though, much more than I remembered way back when I was a kid watching it on the cinema screen when it was first released. The acting's solid, the effects excellent courtesy of futurist Syd Mead, and, for what it is, the script is well written. It's just an apples and oranges thing. There is really no way to compare the two films because they were intended to be completely different things.

The Addams Family (1991) Barry Sonnenfeld

It's good to see this again, on a double disc DVD with its sequel for less than tun bucks no less. It's been far too long. Both of these films are wonders, due to some excellent writing and some truly joyous performances. Raul Julia is truly inspired as Gomez; Christopher Lloyd has perhaps only been better as Doc in Back to the Future and Christina Ricci was great as Wednesday. And the biggest star of all is the style. Very much in keeping with Charles Addams's original vision but with a Tim Burton touch (not least the Danny Elfman soundalike soundtrack), it looked completely unlike anything else on show in 1991.

Howard Hawks used to say that a good movie had three great scenes and no bad scenes. This certainly has no bad scenes but I seriously couldn't count the great ones, let alone have enough room here to list them. It's one of those films where everyone has their own favourite scene and even our own can change from viewing to viewing. I'm not even going to try. The only thing that confuses me, and to be honest elates me, is the fact that I always preferred the second one. If it still holds up as being better than this, it's going to be even more than a joy to rediscover.

Addams Family Values (1993) Barry Sonnenfeld

And yes, it's as great as I remember. This is just awesome. There's also more than I remember because so much has happened since. Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd... all awesome; Christina Ricci who went on to great things and Jimmy Workman who didn't... still awesome. Christopher Hart was superb again as Thing, which must have been an incredibly difficult job. But then there's half of the tv show Numbers: not just Peter MacNicol who I remember but David Krumholtz who I didn't because he was so damn young. Krumholtz, the sex symbol mathematician playing the nerdy Jewish kid... it works, of course, and so well.

Best of all is the script. There are twice as many great scenes, twice as many great gags, and the sexy Joan Cusack on top of everything else as the black widow whose next target is Uncle Fester. There's Carol Kane as the new Grandma, Wednesday Addams smiling and Gomez raving at the police, all of which are classic. There are also great dollop of incisive comment: there could be entire essays written about the video torture scene and especially Krumholtz's line, 'But it's Disney...'. Still more could be written about the hijacking of the Camp Chippewa thanksgiving play.

Now my ribs hurt. Hard.

Winchester '73 (1950) Anthony Mann

The Winchester '73 is the gun that won the west. Jimmy Stewart wins this particular one in the Dodge City Centennial Rifle Shoot, but it's promptly stolen by the runner up, Stephen McNally. There was bad blood between them to start with, not that we get much more than hints at the outset, but it isn't all Stewart has to deal with. As the gun changes hands, he has to follow it, and that means getting caught up in Indian attacks and whatnot.

Being a fifties western, though only just, it's a little grittier than the material that went before it, which is never a bad thing. So many thirties westerns were pulp formula things and it took until the fifties to throw some depth into proceedings on more than an occasional basis. I thought Jimmy Stewart did a thoroughly believable job here, certainly better in my eyes than The Naked Spur, also for Anthony Mann, which came so highly recommended on all fronts.

Backing up Stewart is the reliable Millard Mitchell, or so he seems from this film. I've seen him a number of times without really having a clue who he was but I'll watch for him now. Intercrossing Stewart's path on a number of occasions is the young and far more beautiful in those days Shelley Winters, and she has plenty more sass than the average western heroine. The bad guys add up, of course, and include not just Stephen McNally but also Dan Duryea trying to be Henry Fonda. And then, hiding a long way down the cast list are people like Rock Hudson (as an Indian chief no less), Tony Curtis (in his last film as Anthony Curtis) and even James Best (the future Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane).

It's deliciously dark and definitely ahead of its time. My problems with it had nothing to do with the tone or the acting or the direction. I just found that much of it stretched the bounds of credulity just a little too far. Dodge City has a shooting competition for a prized gun but only about five people take part. Many of the key characters come into and then lose contact with each other periodically throughout the movie, as if they're the only people in the state at the time. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it but I didn't buy it.

Band of Angels (1957) Raoul Walsh

Here's an interesting situation. Yvonne de Carlo, justly famed for her black and white portrayal of Lily Munster, is Amantha Starr. Her father is a Kentucky plantation owner and she's busy being educated at a seminary for young ladies and falling in love with the local fire and brimstone preacher. But then her father dies and it turns out that her mother was one of the slaves, making her a chattel and thus eligible to be sold off with all the other chattels to settle her father's outstanding debts.

The lead is Clark Gable, rather memorable in an earlier plantation owning role that nearly won him an Oscar in Hollywood's biggest year. However this is late in his career, a mere four years before his death, and he doesn't even appear until almost half an hour into the film. He makes his presence felt from moment one, naturally, while young Amantha shifts between meek acceptance and half baked defiance. Gable is elegant and sophisticated the way you'd expect someone who'd played Rhett Butler to be. Maybe it's the home territory but he seems a lot less tired than he was a year earlier in his previous outing Run Silent, Run Deep.

Yvonne de Carlo doesn't seem as elegant as I'd have expected her to be. Maybe it's deliberate but she doesn't seem to fit in the role, somehow too tomboyish for the educated young lady but not wild enough for the shecat. She's not as beautiful as I'd have expected, either, for someone so gorgeous in other films and not least as Lily Munster. She comes across more of a cross between Joan Crawford and Jane Seymour but with more of the former than the latter. There's another striking young actor in the film though, an educated negro who works for Gable, almost but not quite a free man. And that's Sidney Poitier, who must surely have made at least one film that wasn't racially centred. This is my tenth Poitier and the only one that doesn't fit that bill was 1992's Sneakers, hardly at the peak of his career.

He Couldn't Say No (1938) Lew Seiler

I couldn't say no either. After seeing Frank McHugh in supporting roles in no less than 26 films, including five classics, I finally get the opportunity to see him in the lead. It's a short little film, clocking in at just under an hour, but these short little films tend to make up for their short little running times by cramming in twice as much material. He isn't just the lead, he's the lead over an emaciated Jane Wyman playing his girlfriend of many years. There's also Cora Witherspoon as her motormouth of a mother, cramming in that twice as much material.

McHugh is Lambert T Hunkins, a mild mannered advertising executive, almost completely dominated by Wyman and Witherspoon, who buys a statue for a hundred bucks at an auction. This becomes the one thing that he won't be dominated over, even when the ladies shout at him and try to drag him out of the auction room. The whole thing grows completely out of hand. A senator tries to bully him into selling, offering him hundreds or thousands of dollars; but his daughter tries in a much more gentle way to persuade him into keeping it. Being a Frank McHugh film from the thirties there have to be gangsters involved.

McHugh was never the greatest actor or even the greatest comedic talent in the world but I find him hilarious. For me it's his sense of timing, his pauses and his sideways glances and his changes of expression. And this fits. It's fluff but it's great fun fluff. How many other films did Frank McHugh make as a lead?

The Case of the Black Cat (1936) William McGann

Harry Davenport is one of the greatest cantankerous old codgers ever to be seen in film. He's rapidly become one of those actors that make me laugh just by appearing on screen. This one may even top The Bride Came COD in my estimations as his greatest appearance, but I'm well aware that 158 feature film appearances may be hiding plenty of other gems. Unfortunately he gets bumped off reasonably quickly, just after rewriting his will with Perry Mason.

We're past the Warren William era so this time out it's Ricardo Cortez in the role and he has just the wry smile for it, especially as his actual client is the black cat of the title, who is really grey and white but who's checking. He's perfectly fine in the part but it was the only time he played it, even though he'd already got Sam Spade behind him in the original version of The Maltese Falcon. He has fun too and looks like he would have had plenty more of it if only he'd been given the part again. Clarence Wilson is wonderfully apoplectic as the rival lawyer but Garry Owen is a dimwitted Paul Drake and Guy Asher is a nondescript DA. In fact that's the biggest problem with the film. Too many of the cast are completely disposable. Clinker the cat may just have out acted most of them.

And there's another major problem: the ending. Perry Mason spins a great tale of how it all happened but doesn't actually prove any of it, but hey, that's all he needs. And what did the cat, black or otherwise, have to do with anything? Lots of loose ends here, folks. Watch it for Cortez and Davenport but not a lot else.

Boy and Bicycle (1965) Ridley Scott

Here's an fascinating debut film from future legend Ridley Scott, starting in his own bedroom and starring his younger brother, future film director Tony Scott. It's very much an experimental film, only 26 minutes long but still crammed full with all sorts of things that Scott was obviously dying to try. There are textures, shapes, angles, all intriguingly shot but yet somehow not working as much of a cohesive whole. The stream of consciousness poetry that passes for a narration highlights that well. It isn't about the whole, which has Tony Scott playing truant from school and heading off around the seaside instead on his bike. It's about the way the sun reflects off puddles; or the way architecture can build patterns, or the way the sea rolls. And on that front it works, just like my mother's samplers worked that didn't do show anything in particular but included a wide range of stitches.

Gigi (1949) Jacqueline Audry

Not having seen the acclaimed 1958 Vincente Minnelli musical version yet with its name stars and its nine Oscars I can't compare it to this original version at all, but that's probably a good thing. It'll give me a chance to see what the original concept was like before big money got its hands on it. It's black and white for a start, with those annoying subtitles that seem to have been painted on the film with white paint and are thus entirely impossible to read when they're on top of a white background. I had the same problem with the version of Breathless I saw.

As for the film itself, it has a lot going for it, but there are some major problems. The editing isn't that great, even to my untrained eye, with quite a few scenes where actors seem to be waiting for their cues. It's not even framed that well. What it does well is provide us with a glimpse into French class and manners, which of course follow completely different rules to manners anywhere else. The real lead seems to be Gaston, a young man bored of the women he dates, who tend to accept strings of pearls from him and then head off for a romantic weekend with their skating instructors. Gigi is a schoolgirl who belongs to a family he hangs out with, and her aunt and her grandma are educating her in the ways of the world while playing their grand game to hook the two of them up.

The performances are solid. Franck Villard is fine as Gaston but he's completely outshone by Daniele Delorme as the young and vivacious Gigi. More notable to my eyes are Jean Tissier as his uncle and Gaby Morlay as her wonderfully dismissive aunt. I don't know either of them though I believe I've heard both their names. That makes some sort of sense at least. But there are still too many white tables and white bedspreads and white dresses at the bottom of the screen, so how much sense there is in the rest of it I really can't say.

The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) Archie Mayo

Marco Polo, as played by Gary Cooper, is the world's first travelling salesman. His father has obtained some wonderful silks and jewels from China and decides to send him to open a trade route. I've seen Cooper in a few films but never quite like this. He's a womaniser on whom the goddess of fortune smiles and of course gets up to all sorts of romantic adventures, in both the older and newer senses of the word. I've long felt that he could prove a deft hand at comedy and hope to discover more of that sort of role, but while this is a comedy pretending to be a drama, it isn't the one I'm looking for.

Maybe because there are so many different adventures in so many different locations crammed into just over a hundred minutes, some of the sets and costumes look notably cheap. It rushes through the story like lightning. I kept feeling that I shouldn't blink because by the time my eyes opened again, Marco Polo would be in a new country having a new adventure. It takes him about ten minutes in China to discover an open minded Chinese gentleman who speaks Venetian, understands Christianity, and introduces him to both spaghetti and gunpowder. There's also a Punch and Judy show going on on the street and I'm pretty sure that that's a very English phenomenon.

The acting is about as believable as the script. There's a serious amount of miscasting going on here. Cooper is completely unbelievable as a Venetian adventurer, but his complete failure of a Venetian accent is still far better than George Barbier's as Kublai Khan. Sigrid Gurie is about as Oriental a princess as her name suggests, and in fact there are almost no Oriental ladies among the Oriental ladies, but then this is Hollywood. And Alan Hale was many things, but a Chinese warlord is really not one of them. Basil Rathbone is a suitably villainous adviser to the emperor but then he could do this sort of thing in his sleep and maybe he did. The best performance comes from H B Warner as Polo's first contact in China, because Warner had an honesty and subtlety that served him well in many diverse roles, from Jesus himself in Cecil B De Mille's King of Kings to one of Gloria Swanson's silent bridge partners in Sunset Boulevard.

There are a few notable people hiding in bit parts. Lana Turner is a maid and still hadn't worked her way out of bit parts and deleted scenes a year or two later. Ward Bond is here as an uncredited guard, but then sometimes it seems that he was in almost every film Hollywood produced in the thirties. Richard Farnsworth is in there somewhere as a stuntman but I haven't a clue where. It's his second film, no less than 61 years before his last, David Lynch's excellent The Straight Story. There's even Jason Robards, though that's Robards Sr of course.

Scarface (1932) Howard Hawks

In catching up with my thirties cinema, I've naturally worked my way through most of the gangster pictures that were so prominent in that era. What surprised me most is that many of the supposed classics didn't impress me as much as some that I'd never heard of. I gave both Little Caesar and The Public Enemy a Good rating for instance. Scarface I gave an Excellent. Yet I loved movies like The Roaring Twenties and 'G' Men, along with more famous films like Angels with Dirty Faces, and White Heat.

It's Big Louie Costillo on top of the world at the beginning, throwing parties till the break of day, but a new breed of gangster is coming in to kick off the gang wars. One of them is the Scarface of the title: Tony Camonte, played by major star of the time Paul Muni. He was known for quality pictures rather than gangster flicks which were generally looked down upon, so he didn't get to do another one. After all this was social statement not low budget entertainment, merely taking its cues from the hits of the previous year. It even started out proclaiming its manifesto of how to deal with the gangs. 'What are you going to do about it?' it asked the government and we the viewers.

Muni is OK, and this repeat viewing helped me to see a little more depth to his performance than I saw last time round. I still find him a little slow and ponderous in his overacting, but then maybe that's the point. Cagney, Robinson, Raft, even regular supporting guy Bogart were far more dynamic if not as vicious or earthy. And they didn't have terrible Italian accents. Then again they didn't have the X on their cheek that got echoed throughout the film, in furniture and shadows and door numbers and anything else that came to mind for Howard Hawks.

Six names down the cast list is George Raft, far more associated with gangsters, both on and off the screen. Here is where he developed his trademark coin flipping habit and he's just as effective as he would continue to be in more and more important roles down the years until the point where he turned all the most important ones down. Eight names down is Boris Karloff, a year after Frankenstein and proving just how he really didn't want to get stuck in the same stereotyped roles that Bela Lugosi got trapped in. Tully Marshall doesn't appear until ten names in. Ann Dvorak is right up there behind Muni, but she has Karen Morley right behind her looking down her nose in exactly the way that Barbara Stanwyck would soon perfect.

It's the script though that is the real star here. More than The Public Enemy or Little Caesar that came before it, this is the one that really defined what the gangster picture should be. It's loud and rough and dirty, with plenty of first examples of what would become cliches. It has a lot of tough guys, a lot of bullets and a lot of corpses. It has a fast ride to power based on guts and guns and a quick fall from grace. Even now, after other movies that turned out to be far better films, this is the one that comes to mind when I think about what a gangster picture should be.

V for Vendetta (2006) James McTeigue

I was always going to be interested in V for Vendetta, as I'm a huge fan of Alan Moore, the comics writer who produced not just this early masterpiece but also The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (far better than the movie version which he disowned) and, above all, Watchmen, which is still one of my favourite books of all time. However, I honestly don't know what the Wachowski brothers, who may not have directed this film but who were certainly the creative minds behind it, intended with it.

A mere five years after 9/11, they've created a film that not only has an unashamed terrorist for its hero but starts off the film by pointing out that the USA has fallen and good riddance to it. Not long afterwards, as our terrorist hero V takes over the emergency British Television Network channel to broadcast to the nation, that contrary to government spin he was the one responsible for blowing up the Old Bailey to the accompaniment of fireworks and the 1812 Overture, he puts part of the blame for the current totalitarian state on the public at large. So in a country where everything bad is labelled with the word 'terrorist', the Wachowskis romanticise terrorism, insult the country itself and then have a go at its people. What were they thinking? And then later still, they have a go at the church, the police and, possibly most telling, they give us a line that it's films that give us real happy endings.

There's a lot of depth here, and not all of it is made obvious. The original graphic novel railed against Thatcherism and certain restrictions of freedom that were created by a government who had no real opposition. The film doesn't say so, but it's pretty obvious that we're in an England where that sort of thing had run rampant. Watching gives us impressions of totalitarian systems we know about, like Communism and Nazism, with their state censorship, control of the media and suppression of undesirables. Naturally, it makes us wonder about our supposedly free and civilised western states such as both England and especially the US and see the same sort of thing going on. Alan Moore's points about Thatcher's England are probably even more incisive when applied to Bush's America. Secret police, political prisoners, government surveillance and all for the greater good, of course.

And yet there's a flipside. As much as we see all the bad things, for the want of a better word, that the government does in the name of the greater good, we are shown in some of the most impactful scenes of the film what our terrorist hero does for the greater good. After being drawn into V's purpose we can't help but reevaluate that after what else he gets up to. Blowing up buildings and killing people is fine, it seems, but lying to a good person isn't. Wow, a film that makes us think! About time too... I have a lot of issues with what V does and why he does it and all the rest of it. It still makes me think though.

Being English and of a certain age means that I see more here than most people who watch the film. I see copies of the Beano and the Hotspur behind glass on V's walls as undesirable material. I know about the Brixton riots because I remember them. I know the Guy Fawkes stories and I've given a penny for the guy. I see the irony of both Stephen Fry, noted homosexual, playing a secretly homosexual TV presenter of note. I recognise the Benny Hill sequence for what it is. I also see the irony of having John Hurt play the totalitarian Chancellor of England, after having played Winston Smith so well in 1984, the granddaddy of all totalitarian stories. I see the historical parallels which are many. After watching Scarface last night, I can't help but see the multiple uses and meanings of V as a parallel to the multiple uses and meanings of X in that film. I wonder if anyone outside a certain English generation would have recognised the use of the opening bars of Beethoven's fifth, for instance.

Next to the plot, which is refreshingly intelligent, everything else is secondary but is thankfully done very well indeed. The name actors are excellent, from Hurt, Fry and Natalie Portman to Stephen Rea, Tim Pigott-Smith and Sinead Cusack. Most notable though is Hugh Jackman as V, because he gives a memorable performance in spite of the fact that we never see his face. Unlike Michael Keaton in Batman Returns or Sylvester Stallone in Judge Dredd, he doesn't take his mask off and thus completely fails to break our belief in him for the sake of vanity. And that one fact underlines the whole purpose of the film. The point is more important than the people in it, and how rarely we see that in film nowadays.

It's not perfect but it's the first film that's really made me think in a long long time, and there's some incredible stuff in there. I have a feeling that as much as Alan Moore gets upset on principle to films made of his work, he doesn't have as much to really complain about here than the way he did about others like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963) Martin Scorsese

TCM's Robert Osborne mentioned this as being Martin Scorsese's first film, though IMDb adds an intriguing one before it, Vesuvius VI from four years earlier, which has no details listed whatsoever. So this is certainly the first film anyone knows anything about and it's an interesting one.

Zeph Michelis light heartedly plays a man who buys a picture which changes the rest of his life. He's a writer but can't get any writing done because the picture comes to dominate everything for him, making normal life impossible. He does get married and everything's fine for a while, but then back comes the picture into the forefront and he's back to where he was.

The story is strange (in a good way) but the way it's shot is fascinating. Scorsese utilises a whole bag of tricks without any of them seeming either out of place or spoiling the effect of the whole. He switches the narrative between different characters, alternates video footage with stills and even jump cuts for effect, like when he populates his studio apartment with possessions. Very interesting film, even more so for being the debut of such a prominent filmmaker.

It's Not Just You, Murray! (1964) Martin Scorsese

This one's a riot, but it loses its way a little at the end. The Murray of the title is a bootlegger, telling us about his life and how he's done so well for himself. What makes the film so successful is that Scorsese shows us in no uncertain terms just how Murray's friend and colleague consistently screws him over without ever showing Murray. Everything that Murray sees as his own success is actually more of a success for his friend.

They have a thriving bootlegging business, but it's Murray that goes to jail while his friend escapes from the building. Murray gets married to a beautiful girl but his friend is the one she cares about and screws around with. Murray gains all this money but his friend obviously gains even more. It's some truly subtle filmmaking that makes this possible, and it's wonderfully done all the way up to the last couple of scenes which I may well have misunderstood but seem to have lost the point to my way of thinking.

The Big Shave (1967) Martin Scorsese

This is a strange one. It's a short film featuring only one actor, one set and no dialogue. A man walks into his bathroom and shaves, even though he doesn't need to. When he finishes shaving, he shaves some more, bringing forth blood that only grows as the shave goes on. That's it.

As can be readily be seen from the subtitle, Viet '67, this is an indictment of the Vietnam War, and I can read something of that into the metaphor. The problem is that it's so vague that I can read almost anything else into it too. I'm all for subtlety and I tend to look down on films that ram the point home but there really needs to be a little more of a point than this. I could probably conjure up a good reason why this is an indictment on the state of children's television or why I should cut my toenails more often. Really not in the same class as the last two Scorsese shorts.

Dr Socrates (1935) William Dieterle

We're in Big Bend, the biggest little city in Wayne County, and everyone's talking about Red Bastian, a local crook on the loose who holds up banks. In that environment Dr Cardwell is nothing, just a small town doctor hiding from his past. His nerves are shot because he lost a patient back in the big city and not just any patient too. He quarrelled with his fiancee who consequently got hit by a truck and he couldn't save her. Of course he ends up being the one to whom Red Bastian and his girlfriend visit for a gunshot wound.

Dr Cardwell is Paul Muni whose subtle accent is far more believable here than in films like Scarface or Black Fury. He's quiet, kindly and seemingly inconsequential, as well as decent, principled and of course far more important than he would initially seem. In all regards, he reminds me very much of Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr Chips, but four years earlier so it's hardly plaguarism. In fact this portrayal is what helps this film to stand out for me more than it possibly should (it's a good solid film all round, but hardly classic material). Muni is just so different here from how I saw him a couple of days ago in Scarface, but that was his talent.

There are plenty of other names I recognise her other than Muni. The crook Bastion is played by Barton MacLane, a regular in Warner Brothers gangster films of the era, and Mayo Methot is his moll. The leading lady is Ann Dvorak, who I've just seen three years earlier as Muni's sister in Scarface. There's Henry O'Neill as the lead G-Man and he's one of those actors who seems to have been in half the films of the thirties.

And here's an incidental note: I noticed that at one point Paul Muni bought The Life of Louis Pasteur from a bookstore. Hardly important, I know, but somehow telling because Pasteur was the next character he played, the same year as this, in The Story of Louis Pasteur.

The World Changes (1933) Mervyn LeRoy

There are a lot of names I recognise here. Following star Paul Muni, there's Aline MacMahon (who I've seen in a few pre-codes), Mary Astor (who does a great job as a pouting snob at looking gorgeous or scary depending on the scene), Guy Kibbee (who is always fun to watch, even when, like here, he isn't playing a halfwit), Margaret Lindsay (who I've seen in a bunch of films from around this time) and then, on the non-photo credit page, Henry O'Neill (playing Muni's father but looking very different from the G Man he played in Dr Socrates, also with Muni), silent legend Anna Q Nilsson and even Mickey Rooney way way down the list. Then again he's pretty young in this one, though he'd already featured in over 70 films!

Rooney is only in it for a couple of scenes, but then he's in the Dakota Territory in 1856 and a few blinks of an eye later we're twenty years on when what started as a single shack has become a full blown town. And that's the point of the film, the passage of time from nothing to something. We focus, as can be expected in a film only an hour and a half long, on the key events, some of which are wonderful. The Buffalo Bill scene is fun and so is the Wild Bill Hickok one, but the best has to be when General Custer arrives to tell the town that the war between the states is over after four years. Nobody in Orinville even knew there was a war on in the first place and that's great fun to watch.

The film is solid even though there are some of the worst rear projection shots I've ever seen. Paul Muni sitting on a horse waving his arms while his Texas longhorn swim his rear projected river does not a believable scene make. What does work is the way that director Mervyn LeRoy marks the passage of time. In the early part of the film there are a few instances where he has to jump a few years ahead in a snap and he does so with finesse. I honestly can't think of another film off hand that does it quite so well except something on the level of 2001: A Space Odyssey where we switch from prehistory to the space age in a single rightly lauded shot where a bone turns into an orbital nuclear facility.

This ought to have been good. Muni came to it from a classic, I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. That was another Mervyn LeRoy, though he had a few other films in between. Mary Astor came to it from The Kennel Murder Case, my favourite of all the early mystery films. The only real fault to the film (other than some costume discrepancies that I'd never have noticed if I hadn't read about them) is the fact that it's only an hour and a half long. It's an epic and epics just can't work unless they're made as epics. This is an epic made as a standard film and given that drawback, it's about as excellent as it could be.

The White Sheik (1952) Federico Fellini

I've seen a few Fellinis in my time, but they're all serious art films about which much could be said in high fallutin' terms. I've enjoyed all of them, La Strada, La Dolce Vita and Fellini Satyricon, in different ways, without being truly stunned, but none of them could remotely be described as a comedy. This is his second film and it's very much that.

Newlyweds Ivan and Wanda Cavalli have just arrived in Rome for their honeymoon. Ivan is all set on his timetable which he has mapped out down to the tiniest detail. It includes as the highlight an audience with the Pope, along with a number of families, needless to say. However Wanda has other plans. Far from being a punctilious clerk like her husband, she is a romantic soul addicted to a romantic photo magazine that she reads all night, dreaming her way through what she feels is her real life. As soon as she possibly can, she visits the magazine's head offices where she hopes to meet her idol, the White Sheik. She had written to him three times, under her pseudonym of Passionate Dolly, and he casually invited her to visit whenever she had the chance.

Brunella Bovo is wonderful as Wanda, moonfaced and starstruck. Leopoldo Trieste plays her husband a little too obviously as comic relief material there to be a contrast. And then there's Alberto Sordi. I don't know him at all, but apparently he was up until this point a serious actor, playing no end of crooks and hoodlums. This was where he became one of Italy's greatest comedy stars. It takes a while for us to meet him but he gets a wonderful entrance, swinging between a couple of tall trees singing his heart out for the sheer thrill of it. He overdoes everything, but then that's precisely the point. He's the hero of a romantic photo strip, after all, but unlike the rest of the cast of the strip, he seems to be exactly the romantic soul that Wanda is.

The film is a joy, a sheer joy, once it gets moving, and to be fair the slow start may well have more to do with my lack of familiarity with the Italian language as Fellini's direction. And as much as it's an earlier, less important, Fellini, it impressed me as much as more famous, more important films of later years. In fact there is one other importance at least to this one, namely that Fellini's wife, Giuletta Masina, plays a street prostitute in Rome called Cabiria. Fellini was so taken by the character after seeing his completed film that he fashioned a complete film around that character, and that became one of his greatest works. I haven't seen Nights of Cabiria yet, but it'll certainly be interesting to see with this one behind me as background.

Vigil in the Night (1940) George Stevens

Here we have Carole Lombard towards the end of her tragically cut short career (only three after it) and Peter Cushing towards the beginning of his highly versatile career (only two before it). We're at the Shereham County Hospital where Lombard is a nurse sitting a vigil at a young boy's bedside in the isolation ward. Unfortunately when her sister Lucy takes over for the next shift and through her negligence, the boy dies. As Lucy is still in training, she takes the blame for her error and moves on.

From that hard start, she manages to acquire a position at a hospital and then it's more and more hard work but she's up to it. It's high drama, and even melodrama on more than one occasion, but it's handled very well indeed and as a tearjerker it can't be far off being unmatched. Carole Lombard is wonderful as the good nurse, and she's matched by a number of others: an uncredited Helena Grant as a sniping old cuss who repents of her ways and especially hard boiled matron Ethel Griffies. Cushing doesn't get much of a role and I'm not sure why he was even credited when people like Grant weren't. Anne Shirley, Brenda Forbes and Brian Aherne may not be up to the others but they're still excellent.

George Stevens is one of the most important American directors of the golden age, but somehow I don't hear his name too much until I dig a little and then it's all over. I've seen a few of his films and appreciated them very much but I'll certainly have to look into his work at a deeper level.

Stromboli (1950) Roberto Rossellini

We start in a displaced persons camp in Farfa, Italy, and there are a whole bunch of women talking to each other in horrendously broken English. One of the better English accents belongs to Ingrid Bergman, who is playing a Lithuanian displaced from country to country during the war until she ended up in Italy. She's trying to get a visa to Argentina but that's a no go so she takes up the offer of the crazy Italian guy in the male camp next door who wants to marry her. This way she ends up with a place to be and that place is the Stromboli of the title, a desolate volcanic island where she feels not at all at home.

This film shook the cinematic world because Hollywood movie stars were expected to behave for the public. They could do all sorts of bizarre stuff behind closed doors but when it came to the public they had to behave. That meant that gay actors like Charles Laughton or Rock Hudson had to get married for the impression it gave, and if they didn't they'd end up like William Haines having to turn from actor to interior decorator. If they had kids out of wedlock they had to keep quiet about it. Loretta Young's daughter didn't know she was also Clark Gable's until she was an adult. So when Ingrid Bergman left her husband for director Roberto Rossellini Hollywood was in an uproar and it took quite a few years for her to be welcome back in the States.

She looks old here but much of that is probably deliberate because she didn't care about keeping up those false facades and the script called for her character to suffer. Initially she seems pretty solid and well adjusted to things but she quickly falls apart on Stromboli and turns into a whining little bitch. She comes round somewhat but there's still an interesting character study going on. And that's what's important here. Stromboli has some striking cinematography going on (I hesitate to say beautiful but it's certainly striking and beautifully shot), but somehow if Ingrid Bergman isn't on screen there's a major gap. The film's story is her story, pure and simple.

The only time the focus really shifts away from her is for a couple of late scenes which are quite breathtaking and extraordinary: the tuna fishing scene and the eruption of the volcano. Much of what Rossellini does, it seems is realism and when we see scenes like this it almost becomes documentary work. I came away from this one wondering why I hadn't been bored. I really should have been, given the fact that this really has a theme rather than a plot, but I wasn't. I guess that makes it a strange sort of success.

Freshman Love (1936) William McGann

Here's a curiosity. There are no stars, nobody at all ahead of the title! From the blurb in TCM's magazine I thought Frank McHugh was the star but he's only third on the list after Patricia Ellis and Warren Hull. I see the point. Who are they? I've never heard of them and I wonder as the opening credits roll if I'll remember them for long after this finishes. McHugh on the other hand is always a riot. I became a fan of his watching him fill comic relief supporting slots behind the real Warner Brothers leads and they really weren't substantial roles in the slightest. The more I see him in large roles the more I'm a fan, even if the material isn't far above nonsense. It's patently obvious that he has huge fun playing these parts and I have to say that I have huge fun watching him.

The actual plot doesn't make much sense. McHugh is Speed Hammond, the rowing coach at Billings and his crew sucks. So he resorts to the subterfuge of Patricia Ellis, daughter of the dean, who is admittedly gorgeous, to hook in the stars for the next season. And that's about it. The point is that the performances are all gems and everyone's having a ball. McHugh is wonderful but that's hardly surprising. His foil for much of the film is the always reliable Mary Treen playing a character called Squirmy of all things. Patricia Ellis is actually really good. She lands these rowing stars with finesse that would have outshone Faceman from the A Team himself. Warren Hull is a suave hound dog but not much more. His screen dad, Joe Cawethorn, is hilarious though with all sorts of high speed spoonerisms. The young and freaky looking George E Stone, orchestra leader, is hilarious too. The whole bunch are a riot.

Give me more Frank McHugh films! Supporting roles are cool but give me his features! There are even a couple of musical numbers, the title song being pretty painful, but I still didn't mind too much. That should say plenty. So should the fact that I can freely admit that this is complete fluff but I laugh more with this than most classic comedies. Oh, and my eagle eyed wife noticed a tiny uncredited bit part by Lloyd Bridges in what seems to be his debut film. Damn those eyes!

Beauty and the Beast (1946) Jean Cocteau

Finally I get to see the most acclaimed fairy tale adaptation of all time! I don't know how many years I've waited to see this after reading about it in Denis Gifford's great retrospective of the horror movie but I was a kid first time I read it for sure. The story is well known to say the least. The kind, polite and down to earth Belle (or Beauty) lives with her two queen bitch sisters who care only about the latest fancy clothes. Unfortunately their father isn't doing too well for himself, gets lost in the forest and ends up

This film looks right, through. I honestly can't remember if I've ever seen a fairytale forest look really like a fairytale forest before. The beast's castle looks and acts like a beast's castle. Never mind Disney's dancing clocks and candlesticks, this castle is alive and we don't disbelieve on sight. Every film that even touches on this sort of material tries to conjure us back to our childhoods when our minds were open and believing of all sorts of things that flew in the face of logic. I can't think of anything else right now that achieves that task like this film. Oh, wow. I knew it was going to be good but this good? It's place in the IMDb Top 250 is well deserved, and it's only its recent attainment of the qualifying criteria that precludes me from writing about it in the IMDb Project.

We meet Belle early on, though only covered as a servant girl would be covered so we don't see her hair. She's a notable improvement on her sisters from moment one but of course she gets better and better throughout the film. Josette Day is a worthy actress for the part and she makes the most of it. Jean Marais, however, is truly striking from the moment we see him, as the Beast. Having costumers like Pierre Cardin really can't have hurt but he makes the role his own.

The biggest star though is Cocteau who conjures up a true sense of magic here. I found myself fighting away tears, not through the harsh storyline but through the sheer beauty of the scenes. When I watched Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings I enjoyed the sheer magic of his scenes and wondered how he had built them. The magic here is that I wondered where Cocteau found his. Breathtaking.

Father Takes a Wife (1941) Jack Hively

Frederic Osborne Senior runs a shipping line, it seems, but he isn't around to launch a new ship, so Frederic Osborne Junior has to do it for him. Junior is John Howard, Senior is Adolphe Menjou, and he's undergoing a major personality shift. He's no longer the serious man who built a seriously large business with seriously large ships. He wants to live, do everything, and as suggested by the title, get married to a volatile actress played by Gloria Swanson.

The script by Dorothy & Herbert Fields is clever with some biting wit, and it's certainly the chief reason that the film is a success. It's not entirely consistent but Menjou and Swanson are obviously having a ball, both when they're making eyes at each other and when they're using those same eyes to throw daggers. John Howard and Florence Rice are solid as Junior and wife. Helen Broderick, mother of Broderick Crawford, is hilarious in the role in the middle who has to field both sides.

Then there's Desi Arnaz, who is delightfully over the top as an egotistical foreign singer who stows away on their honeymoon yacht and gradually takes over all their lives. It's only his second movie, a full decade before I Love Lucy, while it was Gloria Swanson's first film for seven years and her last comeback performance before Sunset Blvd, another nine years on. I don't know why those nine years because Swanson is certainly on form here. Only Adolphe Menjou is more lively and neither he nor his Menjou moustache seem 51 years old.

Europa '51 (1952) Roberto Rossellini

It seems strange to see a Turner Classic Movies film dubbed over the original language. Admittedly it's not the worst dub I've ever seen and Bergman dubs herself, but the very concept still seems strange and I've never seen a dub yet that was better than a sub. Maybe I'm just spoilt by the amount of subtitles and widescreen broadcasts and silent restorations TCM treats me to! Stromboli was the first of six films Bergman made for Rossellini in four years and the only one during which they were not married. Europa was the first they made as a couple, as the scandal had temporarily put a stop to her Hollywood career.

She plays Irene Girard, a society wife and mother whose twelve year old son is obviously not happy with the lack of attention he seems to get. He 'accidentally' falls down the stairs and breaks his hip in a failed suicide attempt, and succeeds on a second attempt shortly afterwards. She is naturally distraught and her quest for redemption and meaning after such a seemingly meaningless act leads her down many paths: the teachings of a Marxist friend to active Christian pastoral work and eventually to a mental institution. After all, her family don't understand.

Once again Rossellini provides Bergman with a deep and powerful role to make her own, and once again she makes the most of it. For most of the film she looks older still than she did in Stromboli, but not at the beginning of the movie. Presumably therefore it's obviously a combination of acting and makeup. Like Stromboli, it can't have been an easy part to play and that's probably why she chose it, but she also can't have had much of a great time being in so obvious anguish for so long. I hope she enjoyed the personal satisfaction of playing a difficult role very well indeed.

And, while the film through it's very subject matter is hardly something that can be enjoyed in the traditional sense, I'd very much like to see it in a version that doesn't have Giuletta Masina dubbed into some New York accent!

Death of a Cyclist (1955) Juan Antonio Bardem

A young couple out driving strike a cyclist and leave him for dead because they fear discovery. They are not, it seems, really a young couple, merely a couple of young people having an affair. She is Maria, a society wife with a rich and powerful husband. He is Juan, a professor. The accident was on a remote road and nobody seems to have noticed. They get away cleanly but there's always the lingering doubt that they might have been seen. Certainly one of their friends, an art critic called Rafa who reminds me of Peter Lorre, knows that Maria is up to something and starts to blackmail her.

This is a very well structured story that unfolds wonderfully, similarly to something like The Tell-Tale Heart. The two characters are so much alike, yet so different. She is afraid of being caught, of losing her position in society. He is far more remorseful for having killed someone but of course is just as responsible. And what do people know? We're constantly asking the same questions as the two leads and we can never be sure of the answers. That's definitely a major success, and all the component parts of the film back it up: the acting, the direction, the scripting, the cinematography. One thing that leapt out at me a few times was how cleverly the editing was done. Scenes move to other scenes effortlessly yet with obvious skill. There's one awesome scene where a huge amount happens in a crowded room, yet it's left to us to follow the eye movements of the principal characters and see if we work it all out correctly.

There's even depth conjured up behind the main story, as Juan discovers much about his own life through his conceptions and misconceptions. And that keeps us on our toes as we realise that what we feel the film is changes over time. I'm really impressed by how much depth there is and how much that depth is hidden below the surface, yet never so deep that it becomes contrived. It reminded me of The Seventh Seal in that it could be watched and enjoyed as a simple story and an onion with different levels of layers if only we look for them. This really should be Top 250 material and I should be writing a much more incisive article on it for my book. Maybe it will be. The average rating at IMDb is currently 7.8 and that's close to the bottom end.

The lead actors are excellent: Lucia Bose and Alberto Closas as the cheating couple, Otello Tosa as her husband and Carlos Casaravilla as the Lorre-esque Rafa. Nobody else lets the side down either, and the only potentially dubious casting choice is that of Bruna Corra as a student. It's not the she isn't up to it as she does an excellent job but she seems to be far older than she should be.

Juan Antonio Bardem apparently got into a lot of trouble while making films in Spain under the dictatorship of General Franco. There was a very strict restriction on the sort of movies that could be made, and this sort of thing didn't fit. This is a game that plays with people's lives, their sins and the consequences and that hardly fits with the sort of historical epic that Franco preferred. No wonder he was in jail when this film won at Cannes.

Gigi (1958) Vincente Minnelli

There are lots of names on the credits that I recognise here, even though I'm far from an expert on musicals. In fact I recognise almost all of them! It's an Arthur Freed production, the man behind Singin' in the Rain, which won him his other Oscar. The stars are Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan, all names I know at least something about and recognise at least a little. There's also Hermione Gingold, always such a great eccentric old lady, and Eva Gabor, Zsa Zsa's more talented sister. The screenplay and lyrics are by Lerner and the music by Loewe, some of the greatest names in musicals. The music supervisor and conductor is no less than Andre Previn. The magnificent costumes, scenery and production design are by Cecil Beaton and they are the chief success in this movie to my mind. Whatever else this is, it looks awesome and benefits no end from the glorious Technicolor. The whole thing is directed by Vincente Minnelli, a great name who I'm finding that I appreciate less and less with each of his films that I see. Undercurrent was wonderful, Father's Little Dividend was excellent (and better than its predecessor) but An American in Paris (an Oscar winner too no less) and Two Weeks in Another Town were stunningly OK.

I know the story to Gigi because I recently saw the original French non-musical film version of Colette's famous novel, directed by Jacqueline Audry. Much of this is a direct translation and I do at least appreciate how much it fills in the gaps I had in the original because of the terrible white on white subtitles. But how is this better? Well, Beaton's visuals for one, lush and lavish and full of marvel. Gigi flounces around her grandma's small kitchen in the French version but it really can't compare to the plush sea of red that Beaton conjures up. The original suffered from terrible editing whereas this is slick and seamless. But furniture, costumes and editing do not a great film make.

It's becoming obvious to me that I prefer Leslie Caron when she isn't singing (not that she sings here anyway: she's dubbed). I didn't appreciate her in An American in Paris and I didn't appreciate her here, though to be fair I appreciated her more than most of the rest of the cast. However I thoroughly enjoyed her in Father Goose pestering the crap out of Cary Grant. Here I kept seeing the original Gigi (Daniele Delorme) and wishing she was here too. Anyway, the real lead was never Gigi, but Gaston Lachailles played here by Louis Jourdan. Give me Jourdan in The Return of Swamp Thing any time though, and yes, I chose that because I'm sure it's pure heresy. Here's some more heresy too: I kept thinking that he looked like Jim Carrey and his performance would have been better if only he would have played it like Carrey. As much as I prefer Carrey when he's not playing a lunatic, maybe that sort of thing would have livened things up a little here. Hermione Gingold is solid but Isabel Jeans isn't a patch on Gaby Morlay in the original.

And then there's Maurice Chevalier. His character's character, for instance, is scary, whereas Jean Tissier's version in the 1949 version was spot on. He's supposed to be an old man with a young heart, which Tissier made me believe. Chevalier does what he does very well, but I can't help but listen to 'Thank Heaven for Little Girls' or much of his dialogue and not see him as a lech and a dirty old man. He's obviously a huge talent with much to offer. Every time I saw him half of me wanted to find some of his albums so I could listen to more of his singing and the other half of me wanted the police to lock him up!

Minnelli must take much of the blame here. He rearranges things so that consequence comes before cause and means that a good deal only makes sense because of my prior knowledge of the original. He completely fails to elicit any of the joy that Audry managed to find in 1949. He introduces some awful rear projection shots. Some scenes he handles with complete ham fists. Worst of all, he turns a story that involved me to the degree that I kept leaning towards the screen to fathom out those awful subtitles into a film I just wanted to switch off. How this won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director I really don't know. I understand why Vertigo, a far superior film, wasn't even in the running, but I've seen two of Gigi's four competitors (The Defiant Ones and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and they are both far superior in every way.

One of the most telling things here is my reaction to it. I freely admit that I'm no great fan of musicals and generally find them as much of a bore as the song here that talks about it, 'It's a Bore'. But I'm trying to discover why I love some of them and fail to love others. 'Fail to love' is a good description. I don't hate Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or An American in Paris, for instance, and I continually wondered why I didn't enjoy them more than I did. This one though is just awful. I didn't even hate Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You as much as this, and I was close to hating that film. Three points for me only here and one of those was entirely earned by Cecil Beaton. Ouch. The worst Oscar winner for me so far, nudging out another Minnelli for that dubious honour.

Orpheus (1950) Jean Cocteau

Here's an interesting one with some very cool visual effects. They must have been stunning in 1950, though from my 2006 viewpoint I can tell how they were done. What's most cool is that even though I can see how I can still admire how well they were put together. Even the scene that obviously works via a rear projection shot is manipulated so magnificently that I can forgive it, and that's the only time I can say that.

Jean Marais, so stunning in Beauty and the Beast, is completely without make up here as Orphee, a famous French poet. He is at a cafe when a brawl breaks out and a young man is knocked down by a car. He is then hauled along on a strange journey by a beautiful princess, who turns out to be Death. It gets stranger from then on, as Death's chauffeur moves in and soon Orphee's wife Eurydice is taken by Death too. It's all about love and who loves who, though that's a little strange because Marais was Cocteau's former lover and Edouard Dermithe, the young man killed at the beginning, was his lover at the time.

Though this is loosely based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, it has a bunch of surreal twists and turns of its own and it really must be experienced. That's the key word here too, as we really do experience it rather than just watch. Marais is excellent here, though it does seem strange to see him in his own form. Eurydice is Maria Dea and Maria Casares plays Death, after both Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo had turned it down. This may well be because nobody was actually paid for the movie up front. Instead they all took a percentage of the profits and did very well for it too.

There's also Juliette Greco, who seems like a fascinating character. She doesn't have a huge role here but I'm intrigued to watch more. Darryl Zanuck apparently chose her as a protegee a decade later; she almost married Miles Davis and was a muse for Jean Paul Sartre and the existentialists. That's an interesting life to be sure.


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