Frenzy (1972): Cleaning Up The Streets

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There we are gliding across the River Thames making our way toward the regal facade of Tower Bridge. Where’s one apt to find a more picturesque view of London? It’s definitely an auspicious return to his native land for the Master of Suspense.

Frenzy is without question a singular Hitchcock movie taking him back to his roots in the ’20s and ’30s — not just the days of Stage Fright (1950) or The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) — something like The Lodger (1927) or Sabotage (1936) springs to mind.

Of course, it’s a different England. It’s gotten bitten by the bug. Certainly one of them was Swinging London and The Beatles, but even as the old world, the small-town world continues to pass away, there’s a sense this same progression is being documented in Frenzy.

The characters knock around town at all the pubs, street corner grocers, and everywhere else in Convent Gardens — what’s left is a remnant of Hitchcock’s boyhood world. The director’s father was a grocer, and thus, it’s a return to his roots in the most Hitcockian way possible: replete with murder.

A charismatic civil servant stands atop his soapbox with a rapt audience rallying the people they’ll soon clear the rivers and canals of society’s refuse — pollution will be banished — and right on cue, there’s an interruption from the masses. He gets preempted when an onlooker realizes something bobbing in the river: A woman’s body with a tie twisted around her neck.

Irony notwithstanding, it causes a surge through the crowds as gossip about the rash of necktie murders throughout town. In this way, the traditions of Jack the Ripper have been modernized and remain alive and well in contemporary London.

It’s not only these onlookers but acquaintances in pubs and any other random passerby who all have a callous, morbid curiosity about them — their conversations are overwhelmingly about the killer — and they come off darkly cynical.

The men from New Scotland Yard for their part are on the lookout for a sexual psychopath and a social misfit who might be easily categorized. Because what better way than to put criminals in a box to understand them?

Right about now we must introduce our protagonist, who also becomes the obvious target of all this foreshadowing. We are led to believe Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) an acerbic ex-RAF man who is the obvious culprit, although, for the time being, he’s unsuspected.

Still, after his ex-wife, who runs a new-fangled matrimonial agency is brutally murdered, unbeknownst to him, the forces of the plot are already out of his control. It’s as if the film is cruelly conspiring to ensnare him like all the most crippling of Hitchock’s man-on-the-run thrillers.

The police are looking for a fugitive with a tweed jacket with patches on the shoulders and elbows. It’s true all pieces of circumstantial evidence, motive, and eyewitness accounts point to Blaney. At every turn, he looks to be guilty and he does very little to help his case. A hotel bellman tips off the law, and then the testy bar owner (Bernard Cribbins) he used to work under accuses him further.

He does have several allies in the generally morose landscape. One is the local barmaid Babs (Barbara Massey), who stands by him in his innocence. Another is Johnny Porter, a buddy who gives Richard asylum, despite the chastisement of his suspicious wife.

Although Johnny feels like a far too convenient character — he implicates himself in a potential crime quite readily — but let’s not allow this to detract from the story. Dick does have one other friend: a local grocery worker named Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), who gives him free handouts and tips at the races, among other things.

Frenzy is the most visually grisly and unnerving Hitchcock picture with a kind of in-your-face depiction of the murders. In this regard, it seems uncharacteristic of the man who often seemed the king of simulated gore and suggested horror.

The Shower Scene in Psycho is the unadulterated pinnacle of this. Where the intensity comes in the layering and total manipulation of all the formalistic elements. Frenzy is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum showing everything far more explicitly. It almost seems to lack the elegance of a Hitchcock picture — Blaney and Bob are earthier types than we’re used to.

Still, in one of Frenzy’s most telling shots, Hitch literally pulls the camera down the stairs out into the street just as we recognize that the dastardly deed is being done. It’s a second murder, and he makes us painfully aware of it without ever putting us inside the room. The same cannot be said in the other instances.

However, what truly sets the picture apart is how Hitchcock scrapes the dividing line between psychotic killer and despicable human being so close that nobody wins. Because Dick’s yet another man on the run framed by fate. The only difference is he’s a wholesale cad. Whether he’s innocent or not is immaterial here. He might be The Wrong Man, but he’s no Henry Fonda and he’s certainly not Cary Grant.

The movie wraps up briskly and abruptly. There’s hardly time to catch our breath though Hitch does put us out of our misery. Our “hero” is exonerated, and the police apprehend the criminal, all in a matter of seconds. All this might be true, but it doesn’t make the world any more livable. There’s still refuse in the waterways and rubbish in the streets. Not only is the nostalgic world Hithcock knew disappearing — this is sad in itself — it does feel like the world itself is a tawdry, cynical place.

To be fair, this might not be the director’s perspective — he holds a far more perverse sense of humor than mine — but when I look at this world it’s far from comforting. I’m a bit of an anglophile so there’s an appreciation in seeing familiar faces like Clive Swift (Keeping up Appearances) or Bernard Cribbins (Doctor Who), but maybe I’ve been watching the wrong things.

Then again, Hitchcock always did suggest the dark desires and inclinations of society conveyed through this lens of macabre amusement. Now his depictions are simply sharper and more direct.

In other words, the legacies of Jack the Ripper or Jekyll & Hyde aren’t dead. Over time, we just got better at trying to dissect them, and we’ve become increasingly more numb to their depravity. Could it be presumed innocence no longer matters? We’re all on the run. We all go a little mad sometimes. We’re all guilty of something.

3.5/5 Stars

Blow-Up (1966): A Mystery Dissolving Before our Eyes

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With time it’s become more and more ironic that Blow-up, the film having become synonymous with the Swinging London scene of the 1960s, came from two Italians: Carlo Ponti and Michelangelo Antonioni.

In the picture, Antonioni casts David Hemmings as a kind of snarky, scruffy hero of the London street scene. He’s a fashion photographer armed with the testosterone-fueled vigor of a 25-year-old. Without mincing words, he’s a bit of a hedonistic brat.

We soon come to understand his day job has a volatile intimacy to it as he shoots gorgeous models up close and personal, barking orders at them, commanding their every movement, all so he can capture their look.

But if we give him a long hard look, his heart isn’t in this kind of glossy mainstream work. He’s intrigued by the art, and it’s hinted at that this is the kind of lucrative crud he takes on to fuel his passion project. So he is a true artist. After all, commerce fuels art. However, Blow-up is hardly a commentary or a simple mediation on the artistic experience. So what is it about?

Perhaps we’ll get our answer when Thomas takes a fateful detour to an all but deserted park. Although both of these descriptors might give the wrong impression. It’s fateful in as much as it takes over his thoughts and the consciousness of the movie. It’s also not entirely deserted; there’s a couple making out, and he starts wildly flashing photos of them like a voyeuristic maniac, leering from behind fences and trees. It’s almost compulsion that draws him in.

Finally, the girl (Vanessa Redgrave) chases after him desperately wanting them back — could they be compromising to her career? He gives her a vague promise to give them back. Still, he needs them for his passion project.

If it’s not obvious already, every so-called expositional answer is evasive — about wife and kids or anything personal — and so all we have to go on is the visual depictions, although eventually, even these will begin playing tricks on us too. For the time being, the woman appears at his apartment unannounced, and he’s intrigued by her, slightly obsessed.

He complains to her “even the beautiful girls you look at them and that’s that. I’m stuck with them all day long.” Like a calling card of the old noir archetype, his mysterious woman all but evaporates. He blows up the images of her and her man in his darkroom and pastes them up all over his studio to study them frame by frame.

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Has he uncovered a plot? Somebody was trying to kill someone else. The images are so blurry we can’t possibly tell with any definitive proof, though Thomas tells a friend over the phone, “I’ve saved someone’s life.” He seems to believe it wholeheartedly even as Antonioni’s movie starts dissolving as fast as it formed.

The young photographer returns to the scene — he feels scared (maybe implicated), and flees as quickly as he arrived. Back at his flat, he flies around, snacking and grabbing and whipping around — there’s an almost animalistic fight or flight to his every movement. This frantic energy carries throughout his performance, and it’s extremely telling.

So much of the movie is built out of the pace of Hemmings’s footsteps. Because certainly you have the striking images and Herbie Hancock’s jazzy compositions, but the movie is indebted to its use of sound.

Hemmings and Sarah Miles, his neighbor, have a curious relationship fraught with a kind of disaffecting malaise. I’m reminded of the scene where he admits to her he’s seen a murder. “Shouldn’t you call the police?” she inquires. And already distracted he wonders why they shot the man. There’s a kind of spellbinding inaction to them. It’s either apathy or helplessness or a bit of both.

Instead of facing the circumstances, Thomas runs away again. This time down into a basement concert with a bunch of similarly catatonic youth imbibing the Yardbirds (Jimmy Paige and Jeff Beck both rocking away) complete with a Pete Townshend-inspired guitar demolition.

It sends the entire room into a mad frenzy of emotion. Thomas races away from the mob clutching the remnants of the guitar — making it back out to the street — and then proceeds to drop the guitar neck on the street corner. Suddenly, it’s become a piece of junk again, another meaningless token, in another meaningless sequence, in another meaningless life.

It’s at this point where dialogue is little more than ambiance. Take as a fitting example the party Thomas shows up at acknowledging his acquaintances and making his way through the rooms, eyeing all the people. I’m not sure if there’s one word of intelligible dialogue, but it gives us a sense of the environment full of strung-out dead heads. So he goes to meet his colleague.

At first, it seems like he’s looking to fess up — they’ve got to go back and find the body — still, not to tell the police, but to take more photos of it! This insanity too falls on deaf ears. It’s yet another dead end. So Thomas returns to the park alone — no one prepared to support him or corroborate his story, we never see neither hide nor tail of the woman again, and now the body (if there ever was a body) is gone. Again, the whole plot has literally degenerated in front of our eyes. We have crossed over into an entirely new stratum.

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If his dilemma wasn’t plain already, our hero resigns himself to watching a pair of Mimes playing tennis, eventually losing their ball over the chainlink. He goes to fetch it for them with nothing left to do but dissolve into the background himself. It’s become evident reality as we know it has totally disintegrated. It’s a terrifying thought and you can either fret or blindly make peace with it.

One of the taglines for Blow-up is surprisingly apt. It goes like this: “Antonioni’s camera never flinches. At love without meaning. A murder without guilt.” If you think about their essence, romantic love is a very comforting force because we can make it into a kind of ultimate thing that can fill the void — making us complete in some manner — whether this is entirely practical or not.

Then, we have the narrative construction of murder mysteries. There’s something satisfying about them because we know the culprit will be found out. There’s closure and some form of justice, a reestablishment of order in an inherently disordered world.

Antonioni is not having any of that and his explanation of Blow-up — this metaphor of photographed images extended to life — proves a telling way to make sense of what he is doing on a very conscious level. He explained his ambitions the following way:

“By developing with enlargers…things emerge that we probably don’t see with the naked eye….The photographer in Blow-Up, who is not a philosopher, wants to see things closer up. But it so happens that, by enlarging too far, the object itself decomposes and disappears. Hence there’s a moment in which we grasp reality, but then the moment passes. This was in part the meaning of Blow-Up.”

Photography, Swinging London, models — all these things become immaterial — the film’s not really about any of them at all. It’s about how all truth, all meaning, whether subjective or objective, has dissolved in front of our eyes. By the end of the film, there is nothing of the sort. The murder is a figment of his imagination. Love as a romantic concept with any real sway is also dead. Frankly, it sounds terrifying.

Because films cannot be totally stripped away from their worldview, and they become one and the same. Either you agree with them, you disagree, or they can become a kind of trojan horse entering into your psyche. But Blow-up leads us right into the middle of the modern man’s dilemma. At this point, it feels like more than a mere cultural artifact. It calls for some ideological response from every viewer.

4/5 Stars

Black Narcissus (1947): Another Archers Masterpiece

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Under their collaborative umbrella, The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger formed one of the most mystifying and extraordinary partnerships within the annals of British cinema history. Black Narcissus is just one of the many enchanting jewels in their collective crown.

Part of the acclaim must be heaped on Jack Cardiff because there’s little doubt; his compositions are absolutely stunning front to back. It starts with this gorgeous even intoxicating brand of Technicolor mingling the real and artificial in a manner on par with anything Hollywood was cranking out at the same time.

Whether through miniatures, grandiose matte paintings, or Pinewood Studio sets, it creates a spectacular illusion as a cinematic representation of the Himalayas. In perfect juxtaposition are the sculpted interiors with columns and facades bathed in this equally mesmerizing patchwork of glowing light and meticulous shadows. Not in the sleazy low-grade setups of film noir, but rather like the Rembrandts and Carravagios might have done it in their Baroque works.

One of the earliest images to leave an impression comes from the POV of two nuns as they gaze down at a cruciform table with nuns moving about for their daily meal.

Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh comes off somehow regal in her white habit, proud and imperious, even as she sets out assiduously to manage the task at hand. The Sister Superior divvies out her allotted help scrounging up a task force of sorts, within the convent walls, to send out into the world and form a community.

Admittedly, the veteran sister has her doubts about the youthfulness of her counterpart, chiding her pupil, “The superior of all is the servant of all.” This is her word of admonition as they head off to face the unknown set before them.

I’ve never fully considered the methodology of the habit and yet purely from a cinematic perspective, what it does is put all the focus on an individual’s face — their features and, thus, their emotions speak for them. Then, of course, hidden under the garb is their heart and this is the seat of all their actions whether sympathetic or callous. Otherwise, they might all look the same. But of course, the head and the heart are what set us all apart.

While they are nestled in the Himalayas, there is some mention of Darjeeling, India as a stepping stone to civilization, and yet otherwise they are quite secluded. Still, they make it clear they are not merely looking for a place of solitude to live out a reclusive existence.

Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the knowledgeable yet resident cynic, is meant to be their point of contact to help them settle in, but his brusque often insinuating comments lingering in the air don’t begin the relations in a cordial manner. The fact he’s a handsome, strapping young specimen creates yet another layer of unspoken tension.

He explains the local General used to keep his women there — his concubines and wives — in a place where the nuns have plans to turn into a medical dispensary with a school and a space to minister to the needs of the local populations.

But there are numerous reasons to be uneasy. The people pile into their compound with their sick and old overwhelming the newly installed outpost. There’s also the wind, altitude, and disease which have a curious joint effect on the new transplants still trying to gain their legs.

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The sisters find everything distracting, even disturbing, and Sister Clodagh, for the first time in ages, finds her mind clouded by past memories — triggering flashbacks from her former life. Could it have been a mistake to join the order? Are these her nagging regrets come back to haunt her? She yearns for the liberation of a normal life, and she’s not the only one.

Likewise, the best encouragement she can muster against the elements and spiritual forces working against them is to, “work hard, work until you’re too tired to think of anything else.” She hasn’t been equipped by any other means, and it becomes obvious she will not be able to succeed with such a plan.

At the same time, they receive requests to take in a local outcast Kanchi (a bedazzled and brown-skinned Jean Simmons) known for her meretricious ways. Also, a young prince (Sabu) inquires about being a pupil within the establishment, which normally only caters to women and children.

We see the remnants of imperialistic disdain especially in Sister Ruth (a wildly manic Kathleen Byro). Far from being all marked with the image of a higher being, she sees the indigenous people around her as lesser beings whom she deigns to help in all their ignorance. It is this relationship between the enlightened few on Christian mission and the impoverished heathens.

We must come to terms with this complicated relationship even with Sabu playing opposite the Anglo Jean Simmons in brownface. Effectively a cross-cultural attraction forms between them even as he is her social and patriarchal superior within the storyline.

The aftermath of WWII also meant many displaced people groups were readily available to serve as extras in the picture, and in this regard, the film is blessed with some genuine sense of authenticity around the edges to counteract the whitewashing represented by Simmons, Edmond Knight, and May Hallat.

The film implicitly dances around these ideas. One moment the fiery-eyed Sister Ruth dismisses the young general as vain and black like a peacock. Although she does seem utterly tantalized by his lavish clothes and his pervasive scent: the titular black narcissus.

He’s also the one who on Christmas night says with all candor, ” I am very much interested in Jesus Christ.” Sister Clodagh extends him some leniency for speaking of their Lord and Savior with such familiarity. Ironically, it is the half-drunk Mr. Dean who chastizes her in the very same moment: “He should be casual and as much a part of life as your daily bread.” Truthfully, she doesn’t like it; it hits far too close to home, especially from a man of such ill-repute.

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While not quite the same sentiment as Luis Bunuel, there is something about the movie that proves unsettling in a religious context. There’s some unseen force, whether merely ill-fortune or closer still spiritual warfare, taxing them and splintering their meager enclave apart.

The two defined poles have been made obvious. Either you give yourself up to the world like Mr. Dean or live like the Holy Man. Neither will do for the Nuns who are stuck in the middle as the emblem of Christ in this far-off land.

After, the locals are scared off by the death of one of their infants and leave the Sisters all alone, hysteria sets in. With time, the impending psychological drama fills the world with unease. It has all these unnerving undercurrents accentuated by Cardiff’s own striking palette bursting with this vibrant even violent color scheme.

Mr. Dean matter-of-factly notes there is “something in the atmosphere that makes everything feel exaggerated.” The comments feel strikingly self-reflexive of the film’s own art direction burning images deep into our retinas.

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Still, the sisters are left drifting and dreaming through the world. It matches the, at times, hypnotic often queasy psychological torment in Hitchcock’s Vertigo to the point it pulls you in and wears on the psyche. That’s before even getting to the climax, which coincidentally also relies on a bell tower. It manages so much out of the very fact it is being manufactured to create a heightened impression of reality by manipulating the audience.

Even in the final scene, as the clouds envelop the castle high above and the Nuns are led off dejectedly in their little caravan, there’s nothing but this residual innervation. They must give up their mission and be humbled knowing they will be sent to other lowly assignments having failed by the world’s standards.

While India isn’t central to this story there is this lingering sense of colonialism as missionaries were often tied up with this since they were such a staple of the British Empire. There are enough movies to suggest this is true including The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Keys of The Kingdom, and 6 Women.

The rain starts to pour down in sheets as if signaling the end of something — something being totally overrun. Could it be the British Empire collapsing right in front of us? If you were curious like me, India officially gained independence in August 0f 1947. This was after Black Narcissus‘s release in the U.K. and during its run in the U.S.

Somehow they feel interlinked even as this story bursts out of the confines of reality under the exhilarating vision of The Archers. It remains an astounding feat in cinematic magic verging on the otherworldly, positively possessed by color. Like all the most enduring films, it stays with you long after the credits roll like a bewitching fragrance.

5/5 Stars

Stage Fright (1950): Hitchcock and Dietrich

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It’s true that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” However, dress it up with murder and life becomes a series of stages and varying performances you’re putting on for different audiences — trying your best to play your audience — while not giving yourself away.

Stage Fright feels very much like Hitchcock getting back to his roots; there’s something simpler and yet still charming about the milieu he’s able to drum up evoking the British Isles. In reality, it was a convenient excuse to spend more time with his daughter Patricia currently away at school in the U.K. She even earned a small role. It’s also propitious he seems to be having good fun with the conceit: the combination of play-acting and murder with actors trying their hands at amateur sleuthing.

We are thrown into an almost instantaneous thriller. It dispenses with the lead-up altogether by showing a couple on the run in a car. A fledgling actress, Eve (Jane Wyman), is the complicit accomplice and Richard Todd is a man fleeing the authorities. Through an extensive flashback, he relates how he was pulled into the web of murder spun by his lover — the famed and gorgeous prima donna Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich).

He tries to touch up the crime scene she’s left behind only to get spooked by her maid turning up on the scene. The murder investigation commences in earnest including a respectable detective named Smith (Michael Wilding).

Eve sets the fugitive up with her father, out of harm’s way, before turning right around and hatching a plan to get to the bottom of the whole thing. One minute she’s trying to get close to the aforementioned policeman to somehow pump him for information with her damsel in distress act. The next moment, she’s putting her thespian training to good use posing as a cockney maid (and temporary replacement) for dame Charlotte herself.

It has some of the dynamics of an All About Eve between actresses though it’s admittedly hinging on cloak-and-dagger antics opposed to true backstage drama. Because it’s on this plane of performance that Hitch seems most intrigued — where acting becomes a conduit for understanding the mystery at the core of this movie.

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If there were any undisputed secret weapon, my bet is up for Alistair Sim. He was always a mirthful co-conspirator if I’m to recall a movie like Green for Danger. He’s eminently likable, though the spark in his eye suggests he’s ever prone to mischief. This accords him all the prerequisites to play a fine father figure opposite Wyman if only for the primary reason they both seem to relish the game and being a part of it together.

They have the most instantly vibrant relationship within the picture, and they give it the comic underpinnings one comes to expect from the director. Sim himself meets the macabre of Hitchcock thanks to a bloodstained dress on a carnival doll used to shock Dietrich out of her performance of “La Vie en Rose.” It mirrors the ugly token of her secret transgression.

In another sequence, the wanted man shows up during her performance — a particularly saucy rendition of Cole Porter’s “The Laziest Gal in Town.” Before this interruption, the scene is pulled out of the Hitchcockian world momentarily. It’s an individual moment where an auteur like Hitch gets totally overpowered by Dietrich or, in many ways, he acquiesces allowing her to be her scintillating self in the golden limelight before the mechanisms of the plot are meant to take over once more.

Stage Fright feels perfectly comfortable being so theatrical. However, the ideas never feel fully wrought; it’s a bit scattered and inconceivable — nor is Jane Wyman the most compelling Hitchcock lead. Mind you, I’m not expecting her to be a Hitchcock blonde or Ingrid Bergman, but she’s not quite on par with even someone like Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt.

Likewise, the theater finale is terribly abrupt though it functions on the tenets of many of Hitchcock’s grandest setpieces by taking a novel environment and turning it into a thrilling locale for drama (Donen would rehash a similar sequence in Charade). The scenes in the build-up are of all shapes and sizes as Wyman rather coincidentally juggles a double life. It’s all highly circumstantial.

As it turns out, the lynchpin scene is right at the very beginning. Of course, we don’t realize that until the end, but right there is Hitchcock’s point. To see it any other way is a mistake. Because obfuscation and chicanery are the building blocks of not only acting but murder as well. Perceptions can change so quickly, and he was one of the greats at visual audience manipulation. In Stage Fright he takes it a step further. He lies to us outright on the screen.

3/5 Stars

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947): Drizzly British Noir

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“Lovely weather for a manhunt.”

Childhood vacations to England have given me a lifelong cache of fond memories of the British Isles. Tea and scones conjure up only good things as do Cathedrals and cobblestone streets. Somehow even the daily drizzle, when it feels quintessentially English, is something I don’t altogether mind. It has to do with it being novel as I always came from sunny California. We romanticize it.

However, It Always Rains on Sunday is nothing like that. It is a film generally for people who have lived in these locales all their lives. The novelty quickly dissipates; it’s always dreary, dismal, and damp. They have their slickers turned up and their Wellington boots on, if they have any. Of course, in a cinematic sense, rain functions as instant atmosphere. It sets a very specific tone while being an evocation of England through and through. It proves to be an ongoing theme.

Furthermore, the picture was produced by Ealing Studios, that British film institution, known for their Alec Guinness comedies of the 1950s and, subsequently, directed by Robert Hamer, most well-remembered for helming one of those Guinness’ comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets.

But with It Always Rains on Sunday (the title fits the weather and therefore the environs), they found themselves crafting a proto-kitchen sink, day in the life drama that really dug into a community of post-war Britain. We get everything from the daily grind, the mundane activities, and the dodgy dealings playing court with everyday life.

As the rain pours outside, perpetually, men have their papers open. The front pages are plastered with the biggest headline: Dartmoor Escape. Escaped criminal Tommy Swann (John McCallum) is on the run! Coincidentally, three cronies are milling about. Could it be they have something to do with this man or maybe a load of rollerskates that were nicked?

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A typical British family becomes our anchor and Hamer is constantly drawing the story back to them. The husband is a generally benevolent chap content with his morning newspaper and the breakfast at the kitchen table. He’s remarried to Rose (Googie Weathers), a former bar hostess, who is not altogether horrid, but there’s an undercurrent of this being a marriage of convenience — at least for her. It becomes most transparent in her sometimes callous dealing with the step-children.

Two daughters, one dutiful the other blonde and bodacious, when it comes to the boys, and a young son bent on getting some extra spending money to buy a new mouth organ. She doesn’t seem to have any maternal concern for them even as she dutifully runs the house.

The question remains how these seemingly disparate strands might possibly be tied together. But this is a day in the life long before the Beatles ever cornered the market. We come to understand It Always Rains on Sunday is this type of story. It readily covers the beats of the city with all its shadings. This is the joy of the picture, especially all these decades later. It envelopes us in the highly colorful world of the East End, with its smells, markets, fish shops, and pubs.

The local policeman, Inspector Fothergill, goes about his usual business, making his rounds, followed by a cheeky journalist ready to pounce on a scoop. He’s looking for any news on Swann that might be of interest to him.

The best human interest story of the movie is actually behind the scenes romance. Because, upon meeting one another on the set of this picture, Googie Weathers and John McCallum would fall in love and get married soon thereafter. Their union lasted over 60 years, well into the 21st century.

The crucial reveal is that the current Mrs. Sandigate knew Thomas Swann in her previous life. Now he comes calling for a favor since he has nowhere else to turn, setting up a chilling reunion. For now, all we have is in front of the camera. It certainly heightens the available stakes as she harbors the wanted man, and he looks to coax her to remember the former life they had together. It’s obvious the situation can only end in some form of tragedy.

Simultaneously, one of the local gangsters, the angular-faced Mr. Hyams, checks in on one of his game parlors and offers a job then flowers to Doris Sandigate — claiming there are no strings attached though she unsure — he’s just feeling charitable.

Coincidentally, he also catches wind of some roller skates on the market, but he’s already had his hand in fixing the local fights. The dirty money is already being siphoned off from somewhere else. His generosity continues when he donates a large sum of money to the local gymnasium to counteract his shady dealings. One questions the state of affairs when we must turn to criminals as a primary source of charity.

In another vignette, a record store shopkeeper is caught kissing with one of his pretty clients, this time Vi Sandigate, who can’t stay away from any handsome face. He dishes out a pair of mouth organs to keep the blackmailing tykes quiet — including Vi’s baby brother Alfie. They proceed to stomp around town to the tune of “Colonel Bogey’s March.”

The music store owner’s wife Sadie is not stupid. She arrives at the local bar one day to let him know definitively, she’s walking out on him. In response, her weak-willed philandering husband goes scampering after her. Far from feeling like a sordid love triangle, it’s a pointless mess with at least two out of the three lives ruined for good (if not all of them).

Implicit to the movie is this context of a Godless nation. At least no one goes to church or has the normal Christian view of the world you half expect in mid-century Britain. However, given the context of the hell they went through during the war (and even after), I’m not sure the change is unwarranted.

One resident yells at the boys to pipe down with their infernal racket because they are desecrating the sabbath. Then, we see the priest running the orphanage in another scene. But these are isolated almost unimportant moments in a broader narrative.

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Otherwise, this world feels devoid of such religiosity. Maybe it’s simply from coming from an American perspective, but in films of the 40s and 50s, there’s a commonplace aspect to God in some way, shape, or form. Here such ritualism feels almost absent, if not done away with altogether. If nothing else, it does speak to something about our characters and the lives they lead.

It’s based on currencies of love and money. But everyone seems dissatisfied and always longing for something better. And to be completely clear, there is reason to gripe with the world set before them. America, more than possibly any nation, could recoup from the war without a physical need to regroup. Britain did not have such a luxury.

And while the police chase after a fugitive across brick-paved streets, train tracks, and train yards, not unlike the pursuit of Harry Lime, it all feels indicative of a broader problem. I’m not sure if we ever get to it. We are left with a climax and a conclusion that’s stirring enough. But the tale nevertheless leaves so many of its narratives in a state of indefinite suspension.

A lot like life, we do not know how or where they will fully resolve themselves. This illusion is powerful. Not only that, the stories extend outside the confines of a film, but also a happy ending, as it were, is not going to be handed to us blithely.

In short, It Always Rains on Sunday deserves to be named among the best of British noir alongside titles like Odd Man Out and Brighton Rock. The key comes with integrating the everyday occurrences with the criminal element. It makes us aware of how closely related they are. It’s pointless to try and pull them apart.

4/5 Stars

Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939): Championing Education

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“Chips” of Brookfield School is a bit of a human institution. Now over 80 years of age and retired from his esteemed post at the school, he still is afforded a decent bit of celebrity. The years have not slowed down his wit nor the warmth behind his words. His full life has been a testament to both.

Thus, in his waning days, as he sneaks onto campus for convocation, against doctor’s orders, or takes a restful snooze in his parlor, there’s little sense of regret. The world around him is full of traditions and lineage. After all, Brookfield is a boys’ school with a certain classiness and pedigree. Reflected by the fact the professors dress in the garb we now only wear once in our scholastic career. They can be found in a cap and gown every day.

Likewise, the students are held to a certain standard of dress and expected to address their teachers in a manner customary in such environments. Still, the trilling voices of a boys’ choir hearken back to those days of yore when I was afforded the opportunity to enter such rapturous cathedrals as Canterbury, York Minster, and Lincoln. The impression they left on me is indisputable.

If we were to be critical, we might label it one of those stodgy, medieval institutions of a bygone era best forgotten in the contemporary world. Even Repton School, which served as a filming location, demonstrated long-ingrained toxic traditions of discrimination and bullying.

However, with all things, there is good to be gleaned and chaff better left on the threshing floor to be disposed of.  To be sure, the world depicted is open to such criticism, but if there is any form of antidote or satisfying counterargument it would be our unsung hero.

Because the disarming allure of this story is indebted to Mr. Chips (Robert Donat) and how he reflects all that is admirable about education. He singlehandedly removes it from a context we can never know first hand and makes platitudes and lessons universally understood. Progeny like Dead Poets Society are much the same. The time period does not matter so much as the message being preached.

The narrative succeeds in running the course of the years from his first day as a master at Brookfield up until his last, and this fluidity of time and space allows it to tell something as close to the scope of a real-life as is possible, within the time frame of two hours.

We come to realize Master Chippington was not beloved overnight. It was an arduous process full of failures and missteps. However, he does end up gaining the admiration of the boys in his stead, who were initially drawn to gags and partaking in their favorite blood sport — the undermining of their betters.

From the outset, as antiquated as these forms of British education are, we can immediately draw a bisecting line cutting straight through to the present. Because as long as there have been students and pupils, a war for supremacy has always been waged until the day where some form of mutual respect is settled upon. The struggle hasn’t changed so much as it’s evolved within new contexts.

In this age, it’s a world defined by caning for bad behavior and the promising glories of cricket cups, making all boys want to ditch their arithmetic and pointless studies for something of real substance – bragging rights out on the pitch.

Down the road, further still, he has a fresh mustache and years of experience under his belt. The boy he once consoled on the train years before is now a grown man returning to the stomping grounds of his youth; he is more an equal than a pupil. However, even someone as beloved as Chips is passed over for a promotion for housemaster. It’s the closest thing to an impediment in his career.

Gearing up for the second half, Goodbye Mr. Chips could very easily be a stuffy old drama under the watchful, if often moribund eye of Sam Wood. With leads so winsome and spry as Robert Donat and the ever effervescent Greer Garson, there’s little danger of such a grisly fate.

It’s true you only need one or two stellar pictures to have a career worth remembering for the ages. So it is with Donat. Despite being plagued by terminal asthma and dying fairly young, he stringed together several prominent roles, including Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, all but canonizing him as one of Britain’s finest leading men of the 1930s.

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Meanwhile, Greer Garson still boasted a scintillating career ahead of her all through the 40s and 50s. The key to her enormous allure is on display front and center in Mr. Chips. She’s likable in any manner of speaking, gaining the immediate endearment of the audience, and never doing anything to alienate them thereafter.

But one is led to ask, in all of this vocational work in a boys’ school, where is one to happen upon Ms. Garson? The Alps, of course. What a lovely treat to have them both together propped up in the foggy mountainside sharing an amicable chat. There is still a certain propriety upheld when a man happens upon a woman. This is maintained and yet Katherine at the same time manages to be highly enlightened. Heaven forbid, she rides a new-fangled bicycle contraption in a dress (not side-saddle) and even holds aspirations to vote one day.

Regardless, she is a sanguine spirit who injects Chip’s vocation with a newfound idealism (even bestowing him with his apt nickname). She makes it exciting and heroic, breathing new life into his seemingly humdrum position, and it bleeds into the entire institution.

But first, there is the hesitant romance born while dancing the Waltz in Vienna. With Greer Garson in arm, any man would fly at the chance, and Chippington does his due diligence, dusting off his college dance moves. The marriage proposal in the wake of a departing train is the delightful capstone to the courtship. There are more joys to come.

The newly minted Mrs. Chippington brings the teachers’ room to a standstill with her utter radiance. In fact, it seems to happen just about any time she walks into a room or interacts with anyone. Garson leaves you glowing just being in her mere presence. They’re stupefied Chipping could have such good fortune, and yet they deeply deserve one another. She grants his life a newfound warmth and levity…

What a life it is — even in the cinema — where times at once so vibrant can be so unceremoniously quashed by adversity. It’s affecting in a very concrete manner. What’s even weightier is how time marches ever onward without much fanfare.

The indiscriminate carnage of WWI is felt within the halls of the school — it’s youthful ranks all but decimated by the bloodshed. One also recognizes Chips has witnessed so much. Generations, entire families, having passed under his tutelage. It is one of the wonders of education because I had the pleasure of having such a teacher in my life.

Being the youngest of three siblings, not everyone knows you as an entity connected with family. He might as well be our Mr. Chips, teaching at our high school for well nigh 50 years. The institutions of education have changed, but the merits of them have not. They become far more than facts and figures. They are a place to mature, cultivate character, and encourage individual thinking and fresh ideas to impact the world for the better.

Can we claim all of this is directly connected directly to education? I’m not sure, but I do know quality teachers have an immeasurable impact even as mediocre ones kill the same fertile grounds of knowledge. As the world changes, the need for excellent teachers is no less vital for the upkeep of our society at-large.

In his final hours, the frail Master Chippington is pitied for the lonely life he had. It’s true he lost loved ones. He beget no children of his own, and yet he peacefully asserts he engendered thousands of children. Because every lad from the ubiquitous Colley family (all portrayed by Terry Kilburn) and every other Tom, Dick, and Harry, whoever came through the halls of his school, was like a son. It’s not a mere sentiment. In his heart of hearts, he knows it. They do too. A life only has consequence based on how it is able to bless others. Mr. Chips understood this fact only too well.

What an amiable movie Goodbye Mr. Chips is championing pleasantness over any strain of abrasive negativity. It’s hardly fashionable, provocative, or radically cutting-edge. Then again, maybe a dose of chipper, idealistic entertainment goes against the grain in this often disillusioned world of ours. It has the power to melt your heart in the best possible way. In its place is left a warm smile.

4/5 Stars

Note: Goodbye Mr. Chips features a special dedication to producer Irving Thalberg who died suddenly in 1936. His impact on pictures such as this one cannot be understated.

Two For The Road (1967): A Rom-Com for a New Era

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“If there’s one thing I despise it’s an indispensable woman.” – Albert Finney

The world seemed a very different place in 1967. It had changed and with it, love and the romantic comedy underwent a transformation of its own. Because, in some sense, humanity had reached a new tipping point. It’s easy to make assumptions: to cite Vietnam, social unrest, student protests, racial violence, any number of issues. There was this underlying implication the 50s and the early 60s (before November 22nd, 1963) were a time of hope and promise — surplus naivete.

Even the films had changed. Just look to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde. Then, there was a new batch of progressive works like In The Heat of The Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Two for The Road must fit into this puzzle as well, though it’s place is more difficult to explain and thus, we might wager a guess why it’s not often voiced in the same company. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with it being a weaker movie. Still, because it doesn’t capture the “moment” as much, it cannot easily be rewarded for being cutting-edge.

And yet, in its own way, it was of its time and representative of this ongoing form of change. Because it is a mature romance. Audrey Hepburn — the movie-watching world’s darling — has had her heart broken, been trampled on, and done some irreparable damage of her own.

This was not just make-believe, mind you. Reality and the theatrical overlap closer than we probably realize (Hepburn’s marriage to Mel Ferrer was sadly on a fast decline). However, Stanley Donen, coming from his pedigree as a musical maestro, never quite lost the sense of romanticism — his belief in magical things.

You could say Audrey Hepburn was one of the perfect embodiments of his beliefs because she was so sweet, demure, and beautiful. We can all imagine her at the center of romances galore — she was in some of the most iconic, after all. And yet amidst the lingering illusions of Hollywood, there is this sense of something more heart-wrenching and hard.

Albert Finney might be the finest vehicle to acts as an opposite force of nature — larger-than-life, barrel-chested, and in many ways the utter antithesis of Audrey. He came of age in the resurgence of Britain’s gritty kitchen sink dramas. He was by no means a counter-cultural figure, but he has the gusto of a Brando and his disciples — a bit of the cocky bravado that’s nevertheless disarming. In no small way, they make the perfect couple in cinematic terms, sitting at the crossroads of the decade. Somehow they’ve met and found themselves on near equal footing.

The story itself, by Frederic Raphael, is ambitious as it skips and jumps through a love story, a constant exercise in cuts and whip-fast transitions. In fact, you might say Two For the Road is won in the editing room even more so than most films because it builds peaks and valleys with both a frenetic pace and constant changing snapshots of life. It resonates on these levels without ever feeling turgid. If it does turn on a dime, then it gives the freedom — the necessary space — for leeway and visual connections between past and present.

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It commences at the beginning of the end. The husband and wife slump in a car, watching cynically as a pair of newlyweds walk out of a church. They see their youth reflected back at them. But there were happier times once, what now seems like many eons ago.

The adolescent days full of sun-soaked afternoons and equally idyllic intentions. The French countryside was ripe with promise. Open-air automobiles and “thou” was all that necessitated a contented life. Of course, those were the days when “thou” meant a happy companion. Riding in the MG with a persistent “donk” in the engine only facilitated moments to look back on and laugh.

Finney is constantly mislaying his passport, chomping through apple scruff, and doing his Bogart impressions. One of his finest hours is strolling into a ritzy hotel that they can’t afford, his coat bulging with the edible spoils from the outside — only to drop them all over the lobby.

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Hepburn is clothed in red, hair free, and alive on so many levels. Picking up a ride as a hitchhiker a la Claudette Colbert. Seeking shelter from the rain or frolicking in the shallows without a care in the world. It’s an extension of her earlier personas from Roman Holiday and Funny Face.

Then come the spirals charting the bitter dissolution of a marriage as it crumbles into fractured pieces of apathy. Affairs follow on both sides, involving a cajoling lady motorist and a supremely confident French romantic. We cannot help but feel they are pale imitations of the real thing. They are only a momentary antidote. They cannot truly satisfy and repair the wounds.

The paradoxical aspect of love is evident with time. Yes, the honeymoon is over, the nagging begins, the arguments, raised voices, life gets in the way. And yet somehow it seems true that you often only know you love somebody else after the speed bumps and roadblocks. Closer still, you love them in spite of them.

Henry Mancini’s score is one of his most lastingly melancholy, striking the notes back and forth between a whirly gig warmth of summer carnivals and then the summers after when you’ve fallen out of love. The repeating string motif continually reinforces this feeling even as he reaches out for lingering bits of nostalgia.

Because there’s a playfulness dancing within the frames just as there is elegance. How can it not be with Audrey Hepburn? So, while we have a sense these are movie stars — glamorous, richly-attired, all the superlatives — their love affair is besieged with the slings and arrows aimed at each of us.

Petty squabbles. Tedium. Poor communication. Evaporating memories. Jobs and families. Reprioritized lives. Most important of all, falling back in love — even if it’s only the hint of a spark — sometimes it’s enough. So have Audrey and Donen grown into a new decade? We must admit they are different, wiser, wounded even, but the great gift is how Two for The Road still leaves some space for love to exist.

In the midst of a myriad of distractions and messy lives between flawed people, it really is a miracle. It is romance coming to terms with changing times and yet not quite giving up on the ideals of romantic commitment.

4/5 Stars

The Man Who Would Be King (1975): Starring Sean Connery & Michael Caine

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There is a sense that John Huston is on a tear to prove he can outdo David Lean. However, this might only be an observation based rather unfairly on circumstance. Because Huston purportedly meant to make the picture at numerous junctions in his career, though it never got off the ground with any of the dynamic duos originally put to the fore.

There was Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable at first. Then Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. It could have even been a reunion for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969). Ultimately, none of these pairings came to fruition.

Finally, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, it was given a new lease on life. Regardless, of your personal affinities, it ends up being an unmitigated success given their instant camaraderie even beyond any amount of action, intrigue, or world-building.

Connery is one of the great action icons, partially thanks to Bond, and Caine is very much his equal for a string of iconic roles of his own. It’s no coincidence they both have a “Sir” before their names and still remain two of the most beloved actors in Britain to this day.

Following in the mythic footsteps of Alexander Great, Daniel Dravot (Connery) and Peachy Carehan (Caine) aspire to be the first Europeans to rule the isolated territory of Kafiristan in centuries. In all fairness, The Man Who Would Be King is as much about two lunatics as it is men of valor, soldiers of fortune, and brothers in arms. 

Their venture has them fending off local bandits, crossing the frozen deep, and looking to influence the local lords with their modern weaponry. It’s one step on the long road to becoming immortalized. With the fortuitous help of their translator Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey), a Gurkhan lone survivor of a British outfit, they now have a mouthpiece to pass down their will to the local populace. 

They make liberal efforts to lean into the god complex in order to have an easier time subduing the people and subsequently, mobilizing a personal army. However, in crossing paths with the much-revered spiritual leaders, they find it’s just as providential to be Freemasons. Some brotherhoods are universal.  

It is actually Dravot who is perceived as a god and soon his head gets overblow with his personal ambitions to have a queen and a kingdom with bridges and infrastructure to connect the entire territory.

He is looking to fulfill all the hopes of his protectorate as a divine answer to their prayers. It’s his buddy Peachy, the mere mortal who knew him well before he became a god, trying to show him how nutty this is. It also proves fatal. 

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Michael Caine’s performance, in particular, is broad, overblown with vigor. Is he putting too much gusto into it? Given the stakes of the material and how it plays, he probably does it just right. Because we half expect our characters to be blustering and larger-than-life giants.

One can imagine not only Huston but his actors as well would have relished the material for these very reasons. It really digs into this sense of adventure while giving them parts to grab hold of. This is on the most visceral level; we see it playing out on a grand scale. Still, the picture has a certain intimacy worth expounding upon.

Because while it’s easy to refer to pictures of old as references, say Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or even The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) or Gunga Din (1939), what sets The Man Who Would Be King apart is the simplicity of the principal relationship.

The beats of the plot are nothing altogether new and novel; it makes sense as Rudyard Kipling’s original novella came out in 1888. However, strip everything away and what are we left with? It really is nothing more than a buddy film.

Certainly, it becomes complicated by all sorts of issues and yet what remains the common denominator as the story unfolds? It’s the relationship between our two leads. Hence the potential ties to Butch Cassidy being somewhat telling. Having a pair of charismatic anti-heroes to cheer for makes it extremely easy on the audience. It takes very little to ask for investment.

Above all, it reminds me of those aforementioned tales of old. They weren’t abashed about having a good time and giving way to adventure in the absence of social significance. There seems to be very, little apart from the actors, who place the movie in the 1970s.

After all, Huston was himself an old boy coming from a different generation altogether. Being the maverick and gargantuan personality of machismo in his own right, it seems fitting he would gravitate toward such a tale. Where the bonds between men speak volumes as do their unquenchable cravings for wealth and glory, verging on the obsessive.

Huston is provided his inroad through a real historical figure. Again, the idea of having an author like Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) be the inception of the story is not a new device. We have Somerset Maugham utilized in The Razor’s Edge for instance and the most obvious might be the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Except this movie is Heart of Darkness in some inverted world where the dark jungles of Africa are replaced with the golden plains of an equally harrowing Middle East. The constricting dankness is substituted with the dangers of the great unknown, wide-open spaces with their own share of pleasures and subsequent perils.

Once more we cater to analogous themes of human avarice and cravings to be made a deity over other human beings. Where setting oneself up as a king of a nation is more of a dream — the ultimate prize in obtaining power and glory — there is no dark underbelly initially.

One cannot help in drawing parallels to The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948) where the lust for all the riches the world has to offer rarely avail themselves without cataclysmic implications. Even as it can be riveting to watch such a big-screen adventure, we must check ideas of superiority or superman complexes.

While The Man Who Would Be King comes to accept this colonialistic world order rather than subverting it, at the very least it does imply the flaws in such a dogma. We’ve continued to see the fruit of such ideologies well into the 20th and 21st centuries.

4/5 Stars

Sleuth (1972): Starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine

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I don’t play games. Many of my long-suffering friends would attest to the fact that this statement is only semi-facetious. Perhaps it must begin with what games are used for. They are recreational, diversions meant to be enjoyable so that two or people might gather together and have a memorable evening.

Except for me, games always have a habit of bringing out the sides of people I never much like. The overly competitive ones who have no sense of the rules; there’s no sportsmanship or any seemingly rational concept of fair play. Either that or they care too much about them — tooth and nail.

The moderately well-adjusted people I seem to know and love, all of a sudden, become animals tapping into their primordial proclivities toward the survival of the fittest.

Another reason I don’t play many games is a reflection on my own poor attitude. I don’t like games much because I’m never very good at them. I’m the victim. The one always losing and getting beaten and putting on a fine face until the next debacle. And why waste my time doing that when I could be doing something far more constructive with my time like say, watching a film…

With this long-winded subtext, I’ve tried to make it apparent why Sleuth might already be rough going for a bad sport like myself. It’s tapping into a world that I already abhor.

Thus, it’s a pure testament to how fine a cast and crew we have to say my opinion of the picture cannot help but be complimentary. Ironically, it readily leans into the issues I have with games to create an engaging conflict.

By the 1970s, Joseph L. Mankiewicz feels like a bit of a bygone relic leftover from the 1950s and some of his finest achievements like All About Eve. It might sound like a harsh observation, but even his greatest film noted the inevitable waning of a once illustrious career.

Thankfully Sleuth is still a credit to his name and how could it not be, bolstered by excellent material by Anthony Shaffer (based on his play) and two certified British treasures in Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier?

They meet in the middle of a maze that reminded me of one summer day on a vacation to Hever Castle. It’s the first in a whole host of games with Michael Caine bemusedly attempting to make his way to the voice emanating from the very center.

Finally, he gets there only when the hidden entrance is revealed to him — the first in a line of wry twists. It’s a portent of the forthcoming recreations.

For a good bit, we don’t what the business at hand is meant to be. Then as they wander through a parlor in the midst of small talk about trinkets and the usual pleasantries, Olivier gets right down to business. The other man wants to marry his wife. Instantly we have the conflict and the basis for our entire film. It doesn’t take much to see why.

You could rarely pay for a better two-man show though there are a few others who drift in and out of the conversations carrying their own importance. Namely, the woman they are both fighting over or the no-nonsense Inspector Doppler (played by Alec Cawthorne) who pays a housecall. Even these characters rely wholly on the mystique created by our leads. (They are indebted to them more than we initially realize).

Obviously, the blocking of scenes is crucial, but it also relies readily on the stars and they oblige, aided by the witty material. The best part about it is the very fact there is this sense of freedom. The house is a centralized space and yet they are given free rein of it, and they’ll readily go tromping around doing just about anything they please. Digging around for old costumes. Ransacking rooms. Blowing up safes.

There’s is very little that feels homey about the antiquated interiors, seemingly possessed by all manner of automatons. At first, it feels like the perfect lair from which Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) will lure his unsuspecting prey into a duel of wits for his wife’s hand.

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They thrust and parry like gentlemen, and Olivier is having a real fine time with the theatricality, vaulting between manic fits of imagination conceived by an authorial mind and then the verbose orator with an affinity for showmanship. It’s all about games and parlor tricks and misdirects, easy enough to get carried away with.

One moment it’s a competition, then a mystery, then a murder. A farce, a set-up, an in-house theater company, a revenge yarn, and another murder. The mechanisms of the plot become less important as it becomes a Columbo episode. How will our culprit, who shall remain nameless, be caught? Except this too is another ploy.

If it’s not apparent already, Sleuth is this maddening game of emotional whiplash as new wrinkles are revealed from start to finish. These revelations are what also keep it quite gripping. Folding over again and again and again as the duo oscillates between cat and mouse, vying for the upper hand. Vaulting into each man’s corner to play the villain and the victim, the mark and the conniving mastermind.

We have such disparate images as Caine running for his life at gunpoint. Then Olivier knee-deep in a coal heap while Caine coolly notes no one of a darker complexion ever manages to make it into Wyke’s fictitious fantasy world. The rival even jeers his finest literary creation, the aptly named  St. John Lord Merridewe.

These are only slight proddings, ploys in a vast web of interconnected stratagems. Of course, this is only a movie so no real people were harmed in the making of this scenario.

The only people who get played are those of us sitting in the dark (both figuratively and literally). One of the greatest joys of the charade is guessing one ploy only to be ambushed by a flurry of new wrinkles.

For it to function, Sleuth must work in a manner of parity, and thankfully Caine is more than up to the challenge. It’s by no means actor and understudy or the opposite even, the old stalwart displaced by the youthful newcomer.

They do feel like partners with equal footing in this game. Here lies the key. So if playing along with Olivier and Caine is the punishment I must resign myself to, I will take it compliantly. There are far worse ways to while away an evening. However, I still don’t play games if I can help it.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

Accident (1967): A Study in Middle Class Malaise

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There’s little quibbling over what the inciting action in this film might be. It’s titled Accident for a reason. The serenity of an English home is disrupted by screeching tires and then a horrendous, blood-curdling crash following in its wake.

But the sequence is as much indebted to silence as it is noise. All the time director Joseph Losey chooses to immediately call on his audience’s sense of imagination. All we see is the home. Not the car, not the circumstances; at least not initially.

The opening is a textbook example of using what’s not there to his advantage. Because instead of showing the grisly accident, Losey stays neatly framed on this grand manor. Compositionally, he knows full well what he’s doing.  We can trust we are in capable hands from thenceforward.

While the title might be easy, the rest of the picture is a hard-fought, slow-burning exercise in destructive relationships. Though this is a study of the middle-class malaise, it’s indicative of an entire society — even an entire world — disillusioned by the way history has turned.

The aftermath of the car crash is all we are allowed. A man (Dirk Bogarde) — we can gather the man of the house — wanders out to find a car flipped on its side. I’m admittedly not well-accustomed to Dirk Bogarde. I am predisposed to believe him to be out of the mode of James Mason, perhaps slightly more maladjusted — still, his elder fell for a younger girl in Kubrick’s Lolita as well.

The other figure of interest is a young woman (Jacqueline Sassard), nearly catatonic, first climbing out of the car, treading on the face of her dead companion, then slumping her way across the front lawn. We have yet to fully comprehend the dramatic situation nor how these people relate to one another.

The film’s screenplay is realized by famed playwright Harold Pinter though adapted from someone else’s work (Nicholas Mosley). As distilled by his pen, it is all about subtleties and subtext. The performances, as a result, are so restrained — even painfully so — and they fit a world without dramatic musical cues and few cathartic moments of emotional release.

Likewise, it enlists a morose, often drab color scheme of mostly cool blues and grays, highlighted every now and then by lacquered wood desks and door frames. As the film progresses into more mundane scenes, I almost want to compare them with Yasujiro Ozu’s whether drinks or bottles placed in a room or shots of color drawing one’s eye. There is a pleasing attention to detail in such scenes which for all other reasons are the height of banality.

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This is, of course, a story rooted in the past where context can come into play to help elucidate the present. It feels all but necessary. At an earlier time, we meet Stephen (Bogarde), an academic and well-regarded tutor. His pupils include the charming William (Michael York) and the strikingly beautiful heir to Austrian royalty, Anna (Sassard). There’s little question love is in the air. At this point, it feels youthful and innocent.

Likewise, the professor returns home for evenings reading stories to his two adorable children as his gently ribbing wife (Vivien Merchant) works nearby, currently pregnant with their third child. There is a sense this family represents all that is fine and upright about the British middle class.

The film continues to remain minimalist and casually laid back. What follows are moments on a punting expedition which are nevertheless injected with a sleepy sensuality playing out between the trio: the tutor and his pupils. Next, they’re over for lunch and the prospect of a lazy afternoon of lounging and tennis.

Stephen’s dorky and slightly conniving colleague, Charley (Stanley Baker), invites himself along for the festivities. There’s a sense he wants to be in on this, and he proves to be hardly as innocent as he lets on. But we have yet to realize exactly why.

Instead, we can content ourselves with what Losey is building around us as we watch. One particular technique is to start in a close-up only to pull back on that space which instantly becomes a focal point of a far larger canvass. Not only is it slightly disorientating but it does very intentionally guide our focus. It cannot help but direct our eyes.

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There must come a point of no return as the picture enters its most stylish and enigmatic phase, which subsequently becomes the most devastating. With his wife away having the baby, Stephen inexplicably meets an old flame (Delphine Seyrig) and proves himself to be a closet cad, confirming our earlier suspicions.

Except the scenes with the other woman — the daughter of the Provost — extend the sense of dream-like reverie by foregoing typical back and forth dialogue over images. Instead, their patter is conceived in voiceover — nonchalant and smooth. Perfect for denoting the falsity of such a romantic fantasy. It cannot last.

Then, he comes home to find quite the jarring surprise but resorting to its usual tendencies, the ousting of Charley and Anna in a tryst results in less confrontation and even fewer emotions.

It’s like they are constantly being drawn further and further in, cold and impregnable. Stephen’s own detachment might come from catching them in a situation that he just experienced himself. He’s no innocent bystander. There can be no surprise or condemnation because it’s just like looking in the mirror. All he can do is resign himself to passive receptivity.

The depressive atmosphere of this world is irrepressible, reflecting the privileged elite with their frivolous diversions and usual lethargy mixed with deleterious desires. Thus, Accident is distressing, not due to any matter of pacing as much as it is the intentions of the characters themselves. The male characters in particular.

Jacqueline Sassard, as beautiful as she is, does feel mostly like an object of affection in the vein of a Vertigo or other such pictures. Where all the men are ogling over her, secretly dreaming of time spent with her alone. This is indicative of the poison going through the majority of their romantic relationships. If youth has yet to be sullied, as represented by the callow Michael York, middle-age has certainly tainted masculinity.

To the very last zenith, Accident remains the epitome of a slow, torturous burn of a movie that by some form of insanity, manages to end just as it began, almost as if nothing has happened and no change has been enacted. Because what is insanity if not something horrendous happening and then nothing being done to prevent it from happening again? It’s a mad spiral of destruction.

The only thing that makes it worse is the lack of concern. There is no emotional well to be dug into. It’s simultaneously the most perturbing and compelling element of Losey’s work here. It says so much by saying very little at all.

4/5 Stars