The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 9 September (4.35 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

You are left to wonder what the Hammer dream team pairing of Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson might have developed into had they been given a series of films rather than just the one. The Hound of the Baskervilles was not a box office success in America, where the studio’s reputation ensured it was marketed as a horror and left audiences confused and disappointed. Perhaps similarly wrong-footed, much of the critical appraisal was equally negative, leaving it to time and re-evaluation for us to come to appreciate it as one of Hammer’s more delicious treats.

Much is retained from Arthur Conan Doyle’s gripping source novel, with several ghoulish embellishments from writer Peter Bryan, including a guest spot from a tarantula and Maria Landi as the film’s femme fatale. Cushing, a consummate researcher and fan of the stories, tried to appear as accurately as Holmes as possible, down to bringing his own costumes to the set, which were based on illustrations from The Strand, and taking on the gaunt appearance of a morphine addict, helped along by a bout of dysentery while on holiday in Spain. The script allows him to be superior, aloof, condescending and lacking in empathy, while Cushing’s energetic performance suggests a detective who is continually thinking twenty things at once and acting accordingly. These contrasts with the far more genial, family friendly Holmes as essayed by Basil Rathbone in a  string of successful Hollywood outings shouldn’t be underestimated. The different approach was clear enough and outlined his Holmes as distinctive, closer in style to Jeremy Brett from the long running Granada series.

Another difference from the earlier films was Morrell’s Watson. While Nigel Bruce played Holmes’s biographer and companion as a bumbler and earned a lot of affection for his easy screen charm and chemistry with Rathbone, Morrell’s is a more faithful portrayal. He’s intelligent, makes useful contributions, and you can picture him standing to one side and making notes of what’s happening for his writing up of the case. Crucially the partnership with Holmes is present and correct, but here it’s more as a pair of equals, Watson’s medical knowledge and warmth filling the gaps for his detective friend, and it’s a great shame we didn’t get to see more of them together (incidentally, Cushing and Morrell were both fantastic in Cash in Demand, a minor yet brilliant Hammer entry that draws on – and is richly rewarded for – the performances of both players). You believe that Holmes is leaving Sir Henry in safe hands when he sends him home in the company of Watson, rather than getting him out of the way while the real detective work goes on.

Of the other players, Hammer used Christopher Lee in a rare ‘good guy’ role as Sir Henry Baskerville. Convincing as the patrician heir to the Baskerville fortune, Lee is allowed to put the heavy make-up to one side and presents us with a very handsome and dynamic Sir Henry. John Le Mesurier plays Barrymore, the butler at Baskerville Hall who carries around an important secret, and there’s a great cameo from Miles Malleson as Bishop Frankland, on hand to provide some brief comic respite and stealing every scene in which he features.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was directed with typical style and economy by Terence Fisher. He starts with a ten minute prologue, setting up the legend of the ‘hound from hell’, an enormous dog that killed the odious Sir Hugo centuries earlier. Not only does the prologue work in revealing Sir Hugo to be a terrible man, an entitled rapist, it’s already laying the breadcrumbs for the story to follow. We then follow Holmes and Watson being interviewed by family friend, Dr Mortimer (Francis de Wolff), who are charged with investigating the recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville and protecting Sir Henry, the last remaining heir. The pair meet the current owner of Baskerville Hall, a scene that works hard to both establish the characters and leave important clues. Watson accompanies Sir Henry to Dartmoor and finds some strange goings on, while also meeting a string of characters who could potentially benefit from the end of the Baskerville line. There’s a stranger loose on the marshes, and then there’s the landscape itself, an eerie, mist-shrouded desolation that’s potted with lethal mire.

Production values are high, despite the relative lack of money spent on the project, and it loses nothing for being the first Baskervilles adaptation shot in colour – the maudlin gloom of Grimpen is just as foreboding as it was in black and white. The only sour note is the hound itself, a trick the crew tried desperately to make work and couldn’t, meaning the beast is kept safely and yet disappointingly off screen for the most part. Cushing noted in his memoir that they attempted to make the hound appear huge by substituting the real actors for children wearing their costumes. In test screenings it was obvious the illusion wouldn’t fool anyone, so as a consequence we get a rather un-ferocious dog pawing at Christopher Lee, who does his game best to look terrorised.

The question remains which is the best version of the tale, this or the Twentieth Century Fox take from 1939 that foisted Rathbone and Bruce onto an unsuspecting world? The latter I own on Blu-Ray, where the sound stages are all too apparent, but the quality of the work shines through. Slightly brisker than Hammer’s version and arguably carrying a greater number of plot-holes, there’s little to beat its effort to replicate Dartmoor as a perma-fogged, unsettlingly silent portent of doom, nor the eternal, never bettered partnership of the two stars, both likeable and perfectly complementing each other, who went on to own the roles for many years. And yet this version runs it close, very close, and remains great entertainment for a dark afternoon. The biggest regret upon watching it is the nagging feeling you get from knowing this is Cushing and Morrell’s one and only outing as Holmes and Watson. The mouthwatering desire for more of their adventures in detection is palpable, but sadly never quenched.

The Hound of the Baskervilles: ****

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Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

When it’s on: Sunday, 3 September (9.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

I love history. This stems in a large part from poring through Bible stories when I was a child. The New Testament was fine enough, but it was the tales of the Old Testament – with its endless wars, suffering on a mass scale, fire and brimstone – that entranced me. God as a character was envious and unforgiving. Entire races of people were enslaved and treated like dirt. Heroes, born to beat insurmountable odds, emerged, and they dealt out death and judgement rather than sacrificed themselves for the sake of others’ sins. None of this led to a belief in Christianity, but it did ferment my supreme desire for a good yarn, and the early books from the Bible were the pages to refer to for exactly that.

It’s no surprise that people have tried to bring Biblical stories to the screen for almost as long as cinema has existed. This stuff is gold. Great tales, and for a long time the sort of fare that audiences just lapped up. Cecil B DeMille adapted the book of Exodus twice, first in 1923 that was much a fable of The Ten Commandments in contemporary life as much as it was about Moses. In 1956, he went for a more straight retelling, pitting Charlton Heston’s Moses against the Pharoah, played by Yul Brynner, to wildly profitable box office returns. I admit it’s probably one of my all time favourite movies, partly thanks to my respect for the vaulting ambition and ego of the director in bringing such a story to the screen in so emphatic a fashion. It’s incredibly powerful. DeMille had the smouldering intensity and mutual resentment between Heston and Brynner, but also storytelling on an enormous scale, and the best special effects of their day, which have of course dated over time but still look impressive now. One scene in particular stays with me. Having suffered a series of plagues, Pharoah is implored once more by Moses to free the slaves, but he’s implacable and orders nothing less than the killing of each Jewish first born son as the ultimate punishment. Unwittingly, it’s a course that rebounds. One terrible night, God takes away each Egyptian first born, his wrath personified by an eerie green mist in the sky, which develops tendrils gliding with ominous silence to earth and stealing the boys’ souls. It’s haunting stuff, a trick repeated in Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt in 1998, where the mist becomes a deadly whirlwind.

Given the above, I’m likely to view Exodus: Gods and Kings with a subjectively kind eye, looking forward to the spectacle and human drama whereas many critics have shown only scorn. Finding reasons for the latter isn’t difficult. The production was dogged with controversy, notably for its ‘whitewashing’ of the main characters. Ramses, Moses and the rest of the cast would simply not be Caucasian, it was argued, so why in a modern movie fall for the classic tradition of casting the likes of Christian Bale and Joel Egerton when more ethnically realistic casting would do? Furthermore, it’s difficult to tell the tale without turning the Egyptians into villains, greedy slavers, and sure enough the film was banned in that country upon its release. Its director, Ridley Scott, retorted that the film would never have been funded without Hollywood stars, and besides it’s only loosely a historical tale. How much truth lies in the book of Exodus is open to extreme interpretation and translating the events as dramatic representations of what actually happened. There’s some evidence that the Egyptian Empire kept the Hebrews as slaves, but nothing is confirmed. The story is wrapped in mystery, and was committed to writing only after centuries of being handed down in the oral tradition. As such it’s as faithful a source as Homer’s The Iliad – no doubt there’s a kernel of truth in there, but it’s blended with mythology and the contemporary audiences for whom it was written in the first place.

Perhaps more pertinent is to question whether the world needed another Biblical epic at all. Noah, released earlier in 2014, had not been received rapturously, more like quizzically, suggesting the clamour for Bible stories was just not there, and Exodus: Gods and Kings was already gaining an infamous reputation for the reasons mentioned above. Hardly the basis for a box office smash, which indeed it would not turn into, though the reality was it had been in the planning for several years and was something of a passion project for Scott. As expected, the devil was in the detail, the crew building sets and using computer effects to create an ancient Egyptian world that is probably as close to the real thing as you will ever see. The word here is scale. Massive statues, glorious decorations, those different coloured tribal banners billowing behind the war chariots, the juxtaposition between Ramses’s palaces and the Hebrew ghetto; it’s all there, on the screen, and it looks fantastic. And yet the concern was never about how the film looked. Scott’s 2010 entry, Robin Hood, reimagined ‘merrie England’ in fleshy, realistic tones, for all intents and purposes travelling back in time for the sake of absolute authenticity,  and yet the movie was a boring clunker, overly serious and its stars uninspiring. Not a lot of fun. Would this fare any better?

One of the biggest issues with Robin Hood was its script, written by Brian Helgeland. For this one, Scott employed Steven Zaillian, the Oscar winner (for Schindler’s List) who was faced with the obstacle of adapting Exodus for a twenty first century audience. How to bring the Pharoanic court of Ancient Egypt to life, to make it feel like a working reality and avoiding polemics? The result is a Seti (John Turturro), the old ruler who oversees the affection between Ramses (Egerton) and his adopted son, Moses (Bale) while recognising the potential for a future rivalry, emphasising their need to protect each other. Made explicit is the throne room as a nest of vipers, high ranking officials who protect their own interests, in the classical style seeing Ramses as their best bet for maintaining the status quo while Moses has a dangerously radical side to his nature. The latter has grounded views about prophecies (they’re hokum), the nation of slaves (they deserve to be treated better), and the prospect that he believes in very little. A portent about the kingdom’s future hints at Moses becoming its ruler, something that results in Ramses discovering his Hebrew heritage and casting him into exile. Moses wanders the desert for a time, before coming upon a remote shepherds’ village and marrying.

Adapting to a simple life in the wilderness, it’s clear Moses’s spirit is restless. He then meets God, personified as a small boy, who tells him to go back to Egypt and accept a mission to free the slaves. Scott made a decision to tell the story of the resulting plagues and Moses’s interactions with God in as realistic terms as he could, suggesting that the former might have been the result of natural causes and the rest exists in the main character’s head, that ‘God’ might simply be the directions of his subconsciousness. When Moses first returns to Egypt he naturally sees his role as that of a military general, harking back to the position he held before his exile. Hebrews are trained to be freedom fighters, a rather clever allusion to the state of affairs in more recently occupied countries within the region. But progress is slow. Ramses responds to the acts of ‘terrorism’ committed by Moses’s underground army by publicly hanging slaves on a daily basis, his brutality increasing with the sedition. This in turn prompts ‘God’ to intervene, via the plagues that might very well have happened without any divine assistance, though it suits the narrative to explain these as more than acts of natural disaster.

Bale committed mountains of personal research into the life of Moses as part of his preparation for the role. His is a very human performance, from the wise leader he plays in the early acts, when his position in the hierarchy is more or less cemented, to the constant doubts he’s plagued with later in the film. When I talked about Kingdom of Heaven elsewhere on these pages, I mentioned the vacuum at the centre of the film that is Orlando Bloom; Bale is far more capable of commanding the screen and forces his character’s human drama to shine through the massive scope of the picture. Egerton and Turturro, while looking nothing like Egyptians, are fine as the two Pharoahs, and there’s capable support in relatively small roles from Sigourney Weaver and Tara Fitzgerald. Ben Kingsley plays the Hebrew elder with typical stoic resolve, and Ewan Bremner provides the film with a slim, much needed sliver of humour.

As with much of Scott’s work, there isn’t much comedy in Exodus: Gods and Kings, though that seems appropriate given the subject matter. What it does have is spectacle, artistry and weighty drama. It looks incredible, with the technical departments firing on all cylinders, and while that’s normally true of films with Ridley Scott’s name attached the narrative and performances are not ignored in favour of the visuals. It’s probably as good as a modern retelling of Exodus could ever hope to be, even if the demand for it just wasn’t there, and that was reflected in its losses at the box office.

Exodus: Gods and Kings: ****

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

When it’s on: Thursday, 31 August (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Race from outer space to seven miles below the sea … with amazing aquanauts of the deep!

Anyone who thinks that movies about freak weather conditions are a recent phenomenon has clearly forgotten the work of Irwin Allen, the disaster flick connoisseur who at the turn of the 1960s was busy serving up Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a science fantasy that revolves around an environmental disaster. Sure, you could pick up any number of elements contained in the film and hold them up for ridicule. Things take place that simply couldn’t (sinking chunks of ice!) happen, but cinema’s sense of licence back then occurs still, as Dara O Briain’s expert deconstruction of the ‘science’ behind 2012 demonstrates. These were just more innocent times, with the movies to match, and personally I have a lot of affection for this sort of caper. It’s gloriously silly. Allen, in conjunction with veteran screen writer Charles Bennett, throws just about every cliche he can dream of at the screen. This means that alongside the tense submarine drama there are collisions with giant octopuses and our heroes drifting into minefields, which presumably had been carelessly left in the middle of the ocean at some point, and yet it’s a lot of fun. I don’t see much wrong with that.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea opens with a title song from Frankie Avalon, the Billboard sensation who also takes a supporting role in the film. Admiral Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) has built a state of the art nuclear submarine, the Seaview, which he is testing in the Arctic Ocean. His captain, Lee Crane (Robert Sterling) is showing a team of visiting delegates around the vessel, including Joan Fontaine as Susan Hiller, a psychologist who wants to review the mental effects of working on a submarine among the crew. Disaster strikes with the revelation that the Van Allen radiation belt circling the earth has been hit by meteors, setting it on fire and heating up the planet. The United Nations boffins, led by Henry Daniell’s German (obviously) physicist, believe the skies will return to normal once it’s burned itself out, but Nelson thinks this is folly and only a hit from one of the Seaview’s atomic bombs, delivered at a precise time and location, can save the world from destruction. Discredited and hounded out of the UN, Nelson guides his submarine towards its date with destiny, pursued by the authorities, which now consider him to be a dangerous renegade, as the crew similarly begins to doubt him.

There’s the germ of a very suspenseful thriller here. Steadily, those working on the Seaview turn against their leader, partly out of a desire to get back to their families – if these are to be their last moments, then they want to spend them with the people they love. Even Captain Crane’s loyalty comes into question as the odds start mounting, and this puts him into conflict with his wife (Barbara Eden) who also happens to be the Admiral’s PA. Only Peter Lorre’s retired scientist remains as a staunch ally, amid concerns that the old man’s propensity for playing with sharks in the sub’s tanks aren’t ovewhelming proof of his sanity. Rumours circulate about a saboteur on board, and then there’s the presence of a new age Christian (Michael Ansara) who reaches for his bag of Bible quotes with every fresh peril, each new portent of doom.

But there wasn’t the sustained interest in turning this into a serious drama. Instead, the film opts for spectacle and matinee thrills, attempting a broad entertainment that by and large works. You know what you’re getting when the Seaview stops on the seabed to attempt a communication with the American president by tapping the Rio-London cable, and falls foul of a squid that is understandably annoyed by having its slumber interrupted and attacks the captain. Later, the crew agree that the solution to being fired upon by an enemy submarine is to dive down into the Mariana Trench, the logic being that only the Seaview can go so deep and not implode due to the pressure. While all this is going on the Admiral and Lorre hole up in his quarters, poring through scientific data and chain-smoking, resolute that their theory is correct. Barbara Eden flits between them and the Captain, tottering around on high heels when not jiving to the trumpeting serenades from Mr Avalon’s firebrand junior officer.

By the end, the sense of astonishment that such a lot has been packed into the film’s 100 minute running time is palpable. A great deal happens, told in an episodic ‘the next damn thing’ way, and maybe the speed of events and the movie’s casual, almost random way of killing its cast members are enough to prevent viewers from thinking too much about the dodgy science behind it all. Certainly, the latter became the subject of many scathing reviews, though this wasn’t enough to put the paying public off. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea made a healthy profit and helped to spawn the successful TV series, which recycled both the plot and many of the film’s sets. In its favour it looks great, L. B. Abbott’s visual effects put to good use in showing us those angry red skies that seem to imprison the Earth and everybody on it. There’s a pleasing mix of contemporary storytelling and grab-bagging from the nautical yarns of Jules Verne, and besides it’s a bit of a treat to watch a film of this kind that doesn’t try to beat us over the head by yelling all this is happening because of mankind’s folly. Instead it’s a romp, a yarn, very much a tall tale, one that wastes half its cast (no really good reason for the presence of Fontaine or Lorre) but aims innocently to please, and for the most part manages it.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: ***

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

When it’s on: Saturday, 26 April (7.20 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit is almost the quintessential Ealing film. It’s very funny. The film was Oscar nominated for its screenplay, which is a supreme example of packing welters of story and characterisation into a script that allows a running time of less than ninety minutes. And it runs breathlessly, introducing its people and mining their nuances for comic effect, which more often than not works. But it’s also a satire, and beneath the fun rather an acerbic one, telling how capitalism pulls rank when faced with the possibility of progress that could halt its drip-feed of money.

Alec Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a labourer in various textile mills around Greater Manchester who also happens to be a brilliant research chemist. His dream is to create an everlasting fibre, but with each job he ends up being sacked because of the materials bills he runs up. While working at Birnley Mill, he manages to land himself a research role (a dream for him, though he blithely ignores the fact it’s an unpaid position) along with the friendship of the propreitor’s daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood). It’s she who persuades her father (Cecil Parker) to fund his research, and after several failed attempts – which result in explosions – he hits success. The fibre he invents is not only virtually indestructible, it can also repel any dirt that comes into contact with it.

Sidney, now hailed as a genius and a revolutionary for the textiles industry, has a brilliant white suit tailored especially for him from the fibre. Due to radioactive elements in the material, it has a luminous quality. But then the trouble begins. Other mill owners get wind of what’s happened and work out the obvious – that Sidney’s invention will spell the end of their industry. Over time, the suppressed workers of the mills realise this too can only have an adverse impact on their jobs. As a result they all try to stifle Sidney, first aiming to persuade him to sell his invention and ultimately resorting to keeping him locked up him before he can reach Manchester’s press offices and turn the miraculous fabric into public reality.

The film keeps its narrative light. Its first half covers Sidney’s determined efforts to continue his research, his tendency to fade into the background so that can avoid detection for as long as possible. When he’s funded, put out fellow researchers are herded into tiny, cramped rooms while he carries on, his experiments blowing up so that he can only activate them while hiding behind sandbags and wearing a Home Guard helmet. Later, as he’s kept under lock and key while the mill owners figure out what to do with them, he escapes and sparks a madcap chase through the working class streets, the night time offering no help to him as his suit glows irrepressibly in the dark. As is traditional with Ealing’s material, nobody ever gets hurt and the conclusion, while bittersweet, contains notes of optimism because it’s made clear the story doesn’t necessarily end here.

Despite that, The Man in the White Suit is a tale of complicated morality and the duplicity of big business. Sidney is portrayed largely as an innocent, devoid of any material ambitions, even to be paid for his work, because his goal is the loftier scientific ideal, and so he clashes irrevocably with the industrialists’ capitalist outlook. For their part he’s a threat, in particular when he makes it clear that he can’t be bought. Mr Birnley is the most beneficient of the mill owners, though to an extent that’s because he sees his company as owning Sidney’s contract. Also involved is Michael Gough, Daphne’s fiance and owner of a rival mill. The industrialists are led by Sir John Kierlaw, a decrepit but ghoulish figure played, in a delight of casting, by none other than Ernest Thesiger. It’s Sir John who outlines perhaps the owners’ darkest scheme, to pay Daphne £5,000 in order to make her seduce Sidney and get him to give up his secret formula. It’s a moment that’s subtly outlined in the film and no one says explicitly what they expect Daphne to do, but the underlying message is clear enough. Daphne plays along but is naturally appalled, not least with her fiance who joins the throng in asking her to go with it, putting his business interests ahead of their relationship. And of course it comes to naught. Sidney is unmoved and Daphne, relieved by his force of will, offers to help him escape.

Joan Greenwood could play morally dubious characters as she demonstrated in Ealing’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, but she’s largely straight edged here, though the glamour and especially the silky voice are present and correct. She easily outdoes the labourer, Bertha (Vida Hope), who through the smoke of Trade Union rhetoric and resentment is just as fascinated by Sidney as Daphne is. As for Guinness, in a standout role he remains single-minded throughout the story, as true to his work as he is to making it public, at no point thinking of himself but about the scientific achievement and its benefits. In some ways he’s the classic ‘little man’ battling forces much larger than himself, but Guinness wasn’t interested in playing Sidney as a straightforward hero, and added layers of nuance to his character. That’s why he can almost hide in plain sight, because he’s isn’t too conventionally good looking and – before wearing the suit – never draws attention to himself. And besides, Sidney comes across as a not altogether nice guy. He gives little back to both Daphne and Bertha, despite their interest in him, and his determination comes at the expense of any thought to others. His conscience is only pricked late in the film when Edie Martin, whose living is made from the banality of washing clothes, challenges him about where his invention will leave people like her.

Whether this is Mackendrick’s best film is tougher to answer. As with much of his disappointingly slim list of directorial credits, there’s a lot going on in The Man in the White Suit, yet it’s possible to enjoy it for its dry wit and the affection it has for its richly drawn characters without worrying overly about the darker elements dancing beneath the surface. While Mackendrick was ever at odds with Ealing Studios, especially as its fortunes faded in the mid-1950s, there’s something innately appealing about the work he did for them, the teasing at humanity, even if it’s shown in glimpses. Many argue that his masterpiece was his one significant Hollywood credit, Sweet Smell of Success, and though I’m certainly a big fan of it I think overall I might prefer the delicate balancing act between cynicism and optimism in the kindness of people that he portrayed in his five Ealing films.

And if all that isn’t enough, then consider that The Man in the White Suit was one big nose poke at the venerable Studio itself. Parker, playing Mr Birnley, was made to look like Ealing head, Michael Balcon, and asked to copy his mannerisms and even use some of his pet phrases.

The Man in the White Suit: *****

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

When it’s on: Sunday, 20 August (8.00 pm)
Channel: London Live
IMDb Link

Roger Moore passed away in May this year, aged 89. It’s a personal regret that I had the opportunity to see him during his recent ‘An Evening With’ tour and turned it down. My feelings about his acting might be mixed, but I have a great deal of affection for the man and very much enjoyed both his autobiography and Last Man Standing, a collection of anecdotes about his peers that verged on the lovably scurrilous. The impression I get is that he was a lot of fun, didn’t take himself seriously and would have been very good value on the stage, recounting memories from his storied days as a major star.

There’s an enormous body of his work from the small and large screen in existence. It’s impossible to get beyond his lengthy stint as James Bond of course, and while I feel his entries have dated rather badly the truth of it is that I grew up with him playing and therefore being 007. Before then, he was probably best known for depicting Simon Templar aka The Saint, though neither role stretched him as a performer and Moore himself noted that playing The Man Who Haunted Himself gave him a lot more to do. It’s certainly a welcome film to write about, and one that hints there was a lot more to ‘Rog’ than a pair of performing eyebrows. As he wrote in My Word is My Bond, ‘I always reflect that it was one of the few times I was allowed to act.’

Moore plays Harold ‘Pel’ Pelham, a stuffy and conservative city worker who, while driving home after work, becomes strangely possessed with a devil may care attitude and starts speeding along the motorway. A strange smile plays on his face as he weaves his Rover dangerously through the traffic. Then he crashes, and it’s serious enough for him to need life or death surgery. During the operation he dies for a moment, and after successfully resuscitating him the surgeons briefly find two heartbeats appearing on the monitor. Pel recovers. He returns to his family, his two young children and his wife Eve (Hildegard Neil), with whom he suffers the middle aged tragedy of a marriage that has long since lost its spark. In work, the business in which he’s a partner, he’s in opposition to a mooted merger, and how much it’s worth depends on the non-revelation of a top secret technical development that he’s working on. But strange things start to happen. Colleagues report on activities they’ve enjoyed with him; he has no memory of them, also they’re completely out of character. He learns that the rival firm in the merger now has his support, and worse still that he’s involved in a romantic affair with a sexy young woman (Olga Georges-Picot). He starts investigating these queer happenstances, finding no answers and only more questions as it appears he’s now leading a double life and the other ‘him’ bears no relation to his habits and attitudes.

What makes it all work is Moore himself, playing against type as an increasingly angst-ridden and bewildered lead, growing more disheveled and distressed. At one point, convinced he is going mad, he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, where he’s treated by Freddie Jones’s offbeat Doctor who tells him his predicament is a result of repressed sexual neuroses. The plot seems to be building to a rational explanation – Pel is ailing from some sort of schizophrenia, or a doppelganger is posing as him and taking over his life. However, it’s to the film’s credit that it’s going exactly in the direction it’s been hinting at all along, leading to a conclusion that is both unsettling and comedic in the blackest sense. Moore essentially takes on two roles, the unhinged man whose closed world is collapsing before his eyes, and the kind of character we’re used to seeing in The Saint, only here he’s sinister because we know something isn’t right. It’s good stuff and the actor is clearly relishing that he gets to put in a nuanced and complicated performance that’s outside his normal shtick. By the end he’s like no Roger Moore we’ve ever seen – way beyond his comfort zone, delirious, on the edge of insanity.

The Man Who Haunted Himself was not a big hit when it was released. It was a product of EMI Studios, made on a £200,000 budget with its cast and crew agreeing to take low salaries in order to reduce costs. EMI boasted about its economical approach to movie making; Moore felt this was as though it was flaunting the film’s cheapness, which served to put off members of the paying public. A shame. While it’s possible to view it as a bit of a schlocker, it’s well made and hosts some fantastic turns from a great ensemble cast – Anton Rodgers plays Pel’s business partner who’s witnessing his friend’s personality changes; Thorley Walters shows up as a bluff old cove, clearly someone Pel has tried to distance himself from previously but is now moving back into his orbit.

It’s directed by Basil Dearden, at the end of his lengthy career serving the British film industry and doing a fine job with the little he had to work with. Dearden shows us much of contemporary London, the faded glories and dark streets of Hitchcock’s Frenzy, and he keeps the action moving at a decent pace, at first just teasing at something being out of place before steadily building up the moments that plague poor Pel. If there are shades of an episode of The Twilight Zone to it all, then that probably harks back to Anthony Armstrong’s source novel, The Strange Case of Mr Pelham, which was adapted in the 1950s for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  It doesn’t suffer for its longer form here. Sadly, Dearden died shortly after making it, ironically in a car crash that took place on the stretch of the M4 where the early scenes of The Man Who Haunted Himself were filmed, these too depicting a near fatal accident.

The Man Who Haunted Himself: ***

Grand Prix (1966

When it’s on: Friday, 18 August (2.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Many moons ago, I wrote a review of Goal! for Digital Fix. My main issue with it was also my problem with almost every sports film. You get either a rags to riches story, or a peek into the lives of the celebrity sportsperson, in other words a cliché you’ve seen many times or the disconnected experience of following individuals whose lifestyle you could never aspire to, therefore cannot empathise with. There are a few noble exceptions, but for every This Sporting Life there’s a slew of titles that conform to the usual tropes.

I thought about Goal! when watching Grand Prix, John Frankenheimer’s epic about Formula One drivers in their contemporary mid-sixties setting. Goal!’s sequel, an entry no one asked for but everyone was committed to making, was subtitled Living the Dream, which also acts as our entry point into the world of motor racing. The four drivers whose tales are the backbone of the story are impossibly rich playboys, indulging their glamorous habits and apparently living the aforementioned dream. As viewers we have very little sense of connection with them, and it’s a three hour movie that, in its lengthy scenes away from the track, drags horribly. As Yves Montand sparks a romantic relationship with Eva Marie Saint’s journalist, their slow burning interludes feel like an extended sequence of scenes from Dynasty, while his cynical comments about the sport that’s made him rich, famous and successful hopelessly foreshadow where his character is heading. Difficult to care.

And yet, it’s impossible not to be sucked into the film’s race scenes, a track side and intimate depiction of the hype, fever, danger and breakneck speeds that have made the sport such an enduring spectacle. Frankenheimer built relationships with the companies, notably Ferrari, sending them footage of what he’d shot in Monte Carlo and in response gaining levels of access that at the time were unprecedented.

Getting Ferrari’s approval was a coup. The oldest and most iconic constructor of them all, with those signature red racers and commitment to quality, gave the film a real sense of authenticity. Actual drivers substituted for the actors in many of the racing scenes. The performers received training, but only James Garner of the principals turned out to show the prowess that allowed him to be filmed while driving. Formula 3 cars were mocked up to look like they belonged on the Formula 1 circuits, and Frankenheimer oversaw the filming techniques that made the races such breathless experiences, notably the cameras mounted on cars that lent viewers a driver’s eye perspective. It’s disorientating and certainly delirious to watch. Cars appear to be hurtling straight for the hoarding before they turn away on a bend at the last minute, and every time you’re wondering if the steering will fail, whether they will burst straight through. Just as good is the sound direction. During the races Maurice Jarre’s sumptuous score gives way to the noise of engines, ear-splitting in volume and lending perspective to the sense of angry speed they’re achieving. Just to emphasise the point, Frankenheimer also used helicopter footage, the sound kept at a distance and the vehicles looking like toys, before cutting back to the cockpit.

In every way, the races in Grand Prix are a delight for the senses, truly wondrous. The sense of glamour is palpable, the drivers at these moments being transformed into super humans as they drive at fantastic speeds. But it also gets across the peril. Safety was not the primary concern of the race back then, and it shows in a number of crashes that result in various casualties. In the film’s opening race, at Monaco, Garner’s car collides with the Williams of his teammate, played by Brian Bedford. The incident is an accident, the result of a mechanical failure, but it ends in Garner ripping through the barriers and straight into the Mediterranean, while Bedford comes off considerably worse, suffering major injuries and bedridden for some weeks. Garner’s sacked from Williams, and spends time as a commentator before being hired by Toshiro Mifune’s Japanese Yamura team. Their fortunes instantly pick up, Garner’s driver points racking up as he catches up to Montand and Antonio Sabato, the men in Ferrari’s cars. Sabato plays a young, spunky Sicilian, filed with self-confidence, while Montand’s ageing pro is a more jaded figure, increasingly conscious of his own mortality, something exacerbated when he crashes in a later race and kills some children.

This half of the plot is compelling enough, though as with any sports flick it falls short of the thrills of real life as it’s clearly contrived and heading towards a scripted emotional punch at the finish. Away from the circuit, things get worse as the soap opera plotting never comes close to matching the drama taking place on the track. Garner gets close to Bedford’s wife (Jessica Walter), who’s grown sick of her partner’s bouts of nervous tension before each race. Montand starts seeing Saint despite his own nuptials, a relationship that feels very under-cooked as the chemistry between them refuses to come to life. That leaves Sabato and his flighty romance with Francoise Hardy. Despite the latter’s easy charms, it’s clear Sabato is in a much richer love affair with himself, which comes with obvious consequences.

But none of this is what you take away from the film, the affairs and romances serving as padding to the main event. If viewers are anything like me, they’re wiling the action to return to the track, to the film’s bittersweet and all too possible conclusion.

Grand Prix was exhibited in Cinerama exhibitions, which must have made for exhilarating watching at the time. The races are an absolute technical marvel, and Frankenheimer and visual consultant Saul Bass pull out every trick to add to the suspense, with frequent montages, split screens, focusing on rivets being tightened, the drivers shown as pensive and resolved. It’s let down by the rest, but when it gets these bits as right as it does then the overall effort is just about worth it.

Grand Prix: ***

Rage at Dawn (1955)

When it’s on: Saturday, 12 August (2.35 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

In the hinterland of British Freeview television, that mid-afternoon space the schedulers have always struggled to fill, the classic Western still reigns supreme. It was like this when I was young, quite some time ago, and it remains so today. Clearly there are viewers who want to watch these movies, and the sheer wealth of titles on offer proves there’s a rich vein from which to mine, certainly where films made in the 1950s are concerned. The ‘Golden Age’ of the Western threw out some unimpeachable gems, efforts that are well worth watching now both on their own merits and as mirrors to the contemporary American society, values and concerns. But they weren’t all greats. For every High Noon, there were numerous offerings like Rage at Dawn, this minor entry from late period RKO that trod well known paths, served as a vehicle for its star name – Randolph Scott – and disappeared as quickly as it hit theatres.

The film makes an attempt to tell the story of the Reno Brothers Gang, an infamous real-life group of outlaws that was renowned for its train robberies. It’s entirely possible that the Renos’ adventures formed the basis for The Great Train Robbery, America’s first action film from 1903 that would have been made less than forty years after the actual events it was depicting and by which stage the protagonists were long since dead, all hanged by lynch mobs in grisly examples of frontier justice. Rage at Dawn does a fair job of recreating their capers, and the efforts by the Pinkerton Detective Agency (renamed Peterson in the film) to bring them to heel.

Scott plays James Barlow, who’s hired by the agency to work undercover and infiltrate the gang. He doesn’t appear until after twenty minutes have elapsed. That time is taken up with our introduction to the felons, the double cross that leads them to exact some pretty brutal revenge, and the suggestion that not all is right in the web of corruption of which they are the centre. The gang lead a torrid home life, holed up in the house of Laura Reno (Mala Powers) and arguing among themselves, treating the Reno sister like a servant. The good brother, Clint (Denver Pyle), wants little to do with any of it, leaving Frank (Forrest Tucker) to effectively run things, to the happiness of nobody.

Once Barlow enters the picture, he takes it over, faking a train heist in order to come into the gang’s orbit while he learns about the crooked town officials they’re keeping sweet, and speaking of which of course becoming sweet on poor, downtrodden Laura. Scott is an old hand at this stuff and plays his part well enough, seeming to realise it isn’t a prestige project and won’t have any lasting effect on the public’s imagination and so putting in a fairly routine performance. The kind of broiling, beneath the surface resentment that Budd Botticher found in his retinue is barely there and Scott plays it straight, easily in command of the proceedings. Charisma and a natural charm come to the surface. Things only ramp up towards the end, when the gang has been caught and townspeople take it upon themselves to do an old-fashioned lynching, which prompts him into action and offers a spark of the bitter anger he was more than capable of showing. The chemistry with Powers is just about present, though it comes with an air of both players being the only attractive performers and so something romantic’s bound to happen eventually. 

It’s all down to a by the numbers script from Horace McCoy, best known for writing the novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and Tim Whelan’s somewhat leaden direction. Whelan was credited as one of the three (named) directors on The Thief of Bagdad, and many years before had written the story that led to Harold Lloyd’s seminal Safety Last!, but made this one as a strictly box ticking exercise, covering the bases but failing to pronounce any of the story’s more interesting elements, such as the corruption angle. The result is a harmless enough matinee flick that could have been much more, indeed I was pulled in by what sounded like a densely layered plot that didn’t amount to very much.

It does look good however, Whelan able to take advantage of Technicolor to produce an Oater that’s altogether easy on the eyes. Scholars of the period have noted that while the action is supposed to take place in Indiana (where the crimes happened) it’s very clearly California. A state flag appears at one point to unfortunate effect, and that’s when the boom mic isn’t dropping into the shot, all of which suggests a briskly made film without much attention to detail being paid. One for the Randolph Scott completists.

Rage at Dawn: **

A Night to Remember (1958)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 8 August (12.30 pm)
Channel: London Live
IMDb Link

You’ve probably heard of James Cameron’s 1997 film, Titanic. All those Academy Awards aside, there were the endless queues of people going to see it – I caught it twice, hopelessly swept up in its sheer spectacle and seduced by the breathless action movie it became after the ship had its fateful meeting with an innocent iceberg. There’s a sense of the film’s second half being told almost in real time, and I defy any viewer not to have their own doubts about the Titanic being sinkable, as for a seductively long time it remains afloat even as the crew are rushing people to the lifeboats and, way beneath the first class opulence, water relentlessly fills the decks.

Possible it is to think of Cameron’s sledgehammer of a movie as definitive. At the time it was by some distance the most expensive ever made and had taken a long time to put together. It took advantage of research undertaken at the actual wreck, underwater exploration – including expeditions taken by Cameron himself – that confirmed the contemporary eyewitness accounts claiming the ship had broken in half moments before it sank completely. The film did all it could to recreate the actual vessel, and while some of the computer generated effects have aged considerably over the two decades since its release there’s an attention to detail that is difficult to argue with. True, the main romantic plot that mops up all the class differences experienced by the passengers feels contrived and heavy handed, but all told it’s a likable piece of populist work that ticks most of the boxes, even if Cameron mashes his points about the social orders home with all the subtlety of a house brick.

And yet it was by no means the first time cinema attempted to recreate the events of 1912 that depicted the Titanic tragedy as a last word in human hubris and folly. A Nazi propaganda film was released in 1943; ten years later Clifton Webb and the unsinkable Barbara Stanwyck starred in a melodrama that used the fateful voyage as the backdrop to their failing marriage. Then there’s A Night to Remember, the 1958 entry that is quite possibly the most accurate version. The title comes from the book from which it was adapted, Walter Lord’s riveting minute by minute account of the sinking that drew on the accounts by survivors he’d spoken to extensively. It was a bestseller and made the film an easy inevitability. Despite the obvious technical difficulties faced by a modestly budgeted British effort and its far from blockbuster returns at the box office, A Night to Remember was universally praised by critics and for viewers it remains a straight choice between this and Cameron’s epic. The fact it can rub shoulders with the second highest grossing movie of all time is testament to its enduring appeal.

Unlike Titanic, it makes a rigid attempt to stick to the facts and tell a straight story, achieving an almost documentary drama atmosphere as the camera moves from person to person, picking out individual tales and predicaments. A Night to Remember features more than 200 speaking roles, or around a tenth of the actual ship’s complement, which is no mean feat. The star is Kenneth More’s Lightoller, Titanic’s Second Officer whose personal drama is told from before he steps foot on the ship to his efforts to shepherd passengers onto the lifeboats in an orderly and typically British ‘women and children first’ manner. But it makes clear Lightoller’s is only one voice among hundreds. There’s Michael Goodliffe as Thomas Andrews, Titanic’s builder and the first to realise the seriousness of their predicament. Laurence Naismith plays the stolid ship’s captain. Honor Blackman and John Cairney take the roles of passengers from first class and steerage respectively, showing how different their experiences of being on Titanic are both normally and when faced with a crisis. The wireless operators are Kenneth Griffiths and a very young David McCallum. Their roles in the unfolding story are crucial but until the collision they’re an afterthought, holed up in their cabin and conveying messages from the passengers that stops them from relaying all the warnings they receive from other ships about ice… In a small and rather comedic role, George Rose plays the ship’s baker, who reacts to the mounting chaos by getting blind drunk. After leaving the ship and treading water in the sea for a time he’s picked up by a lifeboat, the liquor in his bloodstream remarkably keeping him warm and ensuring he feels no ill effects from the freezing temperatures of the water. The crews of other ships near to Titanic are also shown. The RMS Carpathia steams towards it once it becomes clear that it’s floundering, but the SS Californian, only ten miles distant, its lights visible from Titanic, doesn’t respond because its radio operator (Geoffrey Bayldon) has turned in for the night.

The film’s tension is achieved from the sureness of what is about to happen, viewers waiting for the collision and what happens next as Andrews explains Titanic has two hours of life remaining. The unfortunate kiss from the iceberg takes place early, meaning the main running time is taken up with the crew fighting a battle to save as many lives as possible, at first struggling to persuade bewildered people that the ship will sink and they really need to leave, and later making efforts to stop the evacuation from turning into outright panic. It’s impressively told, the sheer number of cast members and the suspense faced by everyone up against the clock ensuring it never loses pace. The film’s director was Roy Ward Baker, later to establish himself on television and as a regular for Hammer studios, and here making full use of his powers to produce brisk and economical storytelling, capable of not short changing his characters while never over-egging their accounts. Of course, this is 1950s British cinema and so the use of models occasionally becomes obvious, but it was a necessary evil and the crew did the best they could with the finite resources available.

It remains to provide a verdict on which is the best Titanic film. The 1997 take is visually stunning and mounted on the grandest scale possible, yet it suffers from some bloat and clearly strip-mined A Night to Remember for numerous images and set pieces. The similarities of the stories being weaved no doubt made this an inevitability, but personally I could do without Billy Zane’s by-the-numbers villain and some unnecessary padding that relates to a mythical lost necklace (a purely fictional device). And that means I prefer the 1958 account, a muscular version that loses absolutely nothing in the way its told, features excellent production values and maximises its massive cast. It’s a watery delight.

A Night to Remember: ****

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

When it’s on: Friday, 14 April (11.05 am)
Channel: London Live
IMDb Link

Over the years A Canterbury Tale is perhaps the Powell and Pressburger film I’ve returned to most often. It’s like a guilty secret, an enigmatic little entry from their catalogue that has wormed its way into my affections against more celebrated works like The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Thief of Bagdad… Not to mention A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going!, Ill Met by Moonlight, and oh you know. All those titles mentioned are fine films, in some instances bloody wonderful slices of cinema magic, and rightly they are revered. And yet there’s something about the unassuming wistfulness of A Canterbury Tale that has made it essential. I think possibly it’s something to do with entering middle age, a time when it becomes permissible to stop looking forward all the time, to reminisce fondly, sometimes about things that never even happened, and engage with the film’s sense of nostalgic whimsy. Or maybe it’s simply top drawer movie making, the brief to make a propaganda piece and instead turning out something altogether more esoteric, a story that explores the links between the present and an eternal past, a love letter to England, albeit one that barely existed at the time it was made. Either way, talking about A Canterbury Tale and what makes it great isn’t easy. I know how it makes me feel, however, and I’ll try and get that across…

It opens with a scene of medieval pilgrims making their way across the countryside towards Canterbury Cathedral. One member of the party lets loose his falcon. He watches it fly, high into the sky, where it suddenly turns into a Spitfire, and when we next see the Falconer he’s become an air raid warden. We’re in wartime England, joining three young people as their train enters the little Kentish village of Chillingbourne. There’s English sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), also a Londoner who’s taking work as a Land Girl, Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), and Bob Johnson (John Sweet), a GI who mishears the station announcer and alights, thinking he’s in Canterbury and off to his posting. Alison falls foul of the ‘glueman’, an impish local troublemaker who pours glue into the hair of English girls who are caught fraternising with American soldiers while their sweethearts are away fighting the good fight. The unlikely trio team up and resolve to discover who the glueman is.

What’s set up as a crime mystery of sorts then takes several swerves to the left. Our three heroes start making friends in the village, from a group of kids who stage war games in the woods through to local workers who find common ground with Bob because carpentry techniques in Kent turn out to be the same as in Oregon. The local JP is Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), who lives in a house filled with antiquities and takes an active interest in uncovering artifacts from the days of the Pilgrim Road. The trio’s suspicion that the glueman is none other than Colpeper himself becomes mired in the reasons for the criminal’s existence, an ignoble effort to preserve Englishness at a time when the country is invaded by friendly soldiers.

And in the end that’s really what A Canterbury Tale is. In terms of plotting, it isn’t about very much and no less a figure than its director, Michael Powell, had concerns about Emeric Pressburger’s script, which he thought was too loose and freewheeling. But that isn’t the point. The film concerns itself primarily with an England that is close to being lost, not from a foreign threat but rather the necessary advance of technology and industry. As Britain modernised rapidly in order to be able to stay in the war, the green and pleasant land eulogised by Shakespeare was being compromised, Kent’s ‘Garden of England’ cut down the middle by a railtrack. Everyone knew this had to happen yet it came at a price. A Canterbury Tale takes place in a rural setting that in reality had all but gone. Chillingbourne, its main setting, was a fictional and wholly romanticised village, various places filling in to provide its pastoral idyll.

Then there are its semi-mystical elements. The Pilgrim Road is mythologised as a place on the hillside that still has links to its past. Alison walks up there one day and hears – or thinks she hears – the distant sounds of hooves, of laughter, and a lute playing. The moment might be a fantasy but the message is clear enough – the route to Canterbury still retains its power. People went there to receive penance and occasionally a miracle, and sometimes it still pulls through for the right people. Sure enough, the trio end up there too, walking the streets (much of it filmed in the real Canterbury, prominently the Westgate that formed the medieval city’s entrance, though the cathedral interiors were shot in a cleverly designed studio due to the real cathedral’s stained glasses having been removed during the war) and finding their own miracles. These range in emotional power and I won’t spoil them here, though the denouement for Price’s Gibbs touched me most. Though it’s never stated, the film suggests that soldiers enter Canterbury because it’s a waypoint before they embark for the frontline. Many of them won’t return. The cathedral thus bestows its beneficence on those who deserve it. Or at least that’s how I choose to see it.

A Canterbury Tale can put people off. It’s unashamedly twee and romantic; like Ealing’s Passport to Pimlico it takes place in a version of England that suits the film rather than reflects reality. I see it as a love letter, one to an undying sense of place no matter what time it happens in, because it endures and so do the people, and to my mind there’s nothing wrong with that. 

A Canterbury Tale: *****

FOTB at the Oscars!

This year I made an effort to see every film nominated for Best Picture before the Oscars ceremony took place. I failed, taking in each title apart from Moonlight, which of course means it will claim everything and leave me wondering. There’s an argument I could make that this is the fault of my local multiplex, its unwillingness to offer a single screening to many of the nominees when there are endless showings of cartoons about singing koalas to accommodate, but in truth I had my chance and missed it. I could have travelled. I didn’t.

Of the rest, the impression I’m left with is that of the Academy so fearing the #OscarsSoWhite mania it ensured race was at the forefront of this year’s agenda. There’s the aforementioned Moonlight, also Hidden Figures and Fences that overtly place issues of race in the limelight. The former I felt was a slight effort with some good performances and an achingly endearing insight into more innocent times. What I took from it was not the personal battles fought by its African-American heroines, more the challenges NASA faced in achieving its goal of sending people into space. The maths involved look mind boggling, the resources available so primitive that I was left wondering how on earth they managed anything. Of the main performers Olivia Spencer is clearly the best; she carries a sort of wounded dignity through the picture that is never less than affecting. Kevin Costner is really good at this kind of thing, and I admit to enjoying Jim Parsons playing basically the same character he always plays, possibly a distant ancestor of The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper.

As for Fences, I was very impressed. The film’s stage roots can’t be denied and are instead embraced, much of the action taking place in the Maxsons’ back yard, banter and arguments taking precedence over the titular fence that stubbornly refuses to be constructed. Denzel Washington has made a career habit of playing bastards and Troy Maxson is a real gem, a monster of a man whose own motivations are teased out over the course of the picture. While Troy rages, his wife – a superb, quietly devastating Viola Davis – suffers, mostly in stoic silence, and if both actors walk away with Oscars tonight then I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Fences has been criticised for playing too much like a filmed stage performance, an issue I don’t fully understand. If the material’s good enough then it’s good enough, and one thing Fences remains is good enough. A triumph, albeit one that’s likely to fade from public consciousness once the awards season dies down.

The main challenger to Washington in the acting stakes is Casey Affleck, who puts in an entirely convincing lead turn in Manchester by the Sea. It’s been suggested that Affleck’s alleged ‘sex pest’ history ought to bar him from winning anything, which has set up an unfortunate sideshow to what is a riveting and compelling job of work in the movie. He plays a man reeling from a past tragedy, one so gross that it’s made him pretty much shut down on the pleasures of life. He lives in a flat that’s as close to a cell as it gets and does menial janitorial work, all to endlessly punish himself for one terrible mistake. When he’s made to return to Manchester (the film was shot in the actual Massachusetts town, and a lovely location it is), his proximity to those past events forces the bitter memories to resurface, which in turn makes him withdraw. His character’s given numerous opportunities to start enjoying life again. He can’t. The most affecting element of Affleck’s performance is his achievement of showing all the pain going on beneath the surface, slumped shoulders and wandering eyes, while he presents a shell to the world, devoid of humanity and any sense of hope. It’s heartbreaking.

Almost as gut wrenching is Garth Davis’s Lion, the true story of a young Indian man who resolves to find the family he was involuntarily separated from years earlier. This shouldn’t work. It’s basically an advert for Google Earth – Saroo, played by the brilliant Sunny Pawar as a little boy and then Dev Patel when he reaches adulthood, uses the software to try to piece together the location of his hometown, a painstaking process as India is such a massive, sprawling country and he only has his childhood memories to work from. It helps that Patel doesn’t play Saroo as a tortured hero; he’s self-absorbed and hits out at those he loves, though you’re with him all the way. Pawar is wide eyed, adorable and five years old when he falls asleep on a train, which then carries him halfway across the country and deposits him in Calcutta. Left to fend for himself in a big city where mean things clearly happen, that he makes it out at all in one piece is reason enough to carry on cheering for the character as he ages. I was very moved, and if there’s one slip in judgement on the movie’s part then it was to promote Patel and Nicole Kidman over Sunny Pawar. The older actors are absolutely fine, especially Kidman in one of her mature, quietly devastating roles, but the film’s heart belongs with that little lost boy.

Hell or High Water is perhaps the surprise entry amongst the nominations. It’s an independent picture, a modern Western that takes place now, and it’s completely absorbing. The film has something to say about difficult times prompting desperate measures, a withering comment on contemporary America being an uncaring country that has no time for its losers, but it can also be viewed more simply as a tale of two brothers who resort to robbing Texas banks in order to save their ranch. They’re played by Ben Foster and Chris Pine, both delivering career best performances and for me effortlessly over-shadowing Jeff Bridges, an Oscar darling who these days seems to specialise in out-mumbling his previous turns. What the film has is effortless tension, not only the law steadily catching up on our anti-heroes but the increasingly erratic behaviour of one of the brothers, clearly losing it as he resorts to spiralling levels of brutality. It’s also beautifully filmed, New Mexico shot as empty expanses of flat wasteland and endless vistas. The sparseness of the location adds to the film’s bleak and unsparing tone. I don’t expect it to win. It was released months before the usual window for Oscar hopefuls, suggesting a surprise hit that entered the Academy’s minds from left field, but it deserves its place and the recognition that comes with being nominated.

Mel Gibson has undergone a kind of cultural rehabilitation that has culminated in nominations both for his latest film, Hacksaw Ridge, and for himself as best director. In truth, I consider this one to be far from his best work. I think it’s a toss-up between The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, both made when Gibson was a pariah and his antics were adding an unfortunate sheen to their worthiness as movies, and yet they’re a pair of visceral glories that deserve to be seen rather than ignored as sideshows to the man’s personal controversies. There’s nothing much wrong with Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of a man who refuses to wield a gun when he enters the armed services, only receiving recognition when he shows undue bravery while serving as a medic in the Pacific theatre. Andrew Garfield is fine as the film’s likeable hero, and once the action moves to the Okinawa ridge it lets Gibson do what he does best, which is to show the horrors of war at their most violent and immediate. But it takes a long time in getting there and the amount of setting up to reach this stage is unnecessarily long and insufficiently captivating. All the same, the war scenes are impressively staged and do all but serve up the heat and sticky aroma in giving us an authentic experience.

Arrival is probably the entry that has most divided my circle of friends. Some think it’s a masterpiece; others have damned it as overly pretentious and pointless, and I can see what they mean. I was happy enough to go along with it, seeing its science fiction plotline as a feint for what turned out to be a very personal and human drama, but even taken on its SF merits there’s a lot to enjoy, not least the decision to try and do something fresh and original with the genre rather than the traditional and rather tired invasion rhetoric. Whether you think Arrival is good or not, surely there’s no comparison between this and Independence Day: Resurgence, released the same year and nullifying me to point of actually falling asleep in the cinema while it played. Sure, there are big holes in Arrival’s plot, and the whole deal of super intelligent visitors from another world turning up on ours without bothering to first learn the lingo is somewhat baffling, but accept this and the film becomes a smart and affecting piece of work. It’s bizarre to me that Amy Adams was missed off the list of nominations, while Arrival has gone on to feature in eight categories otherwise. She’s terrific and pulls off the tricky feat of being the focal point in a film featuring enormous alien vessels.

The most likely winner remains La La Land, despite a simmering of backlash that the film hardly deserves. Sure, it’s less weighty than many of this year’s offerings. It’s unapologetically old fashioned, and the musical aspects seem loaded to win approval from an Academy that has notably favoured these films in the past, but I’ll confess to having a big smile on my face as soon as the freeway scene exploded into a boisterous song and dance number. That smile, or at least a feeling of intense goodwill towards the picture, never left, and if it goes on to achieve glory at the ceremony then I won’t be the least bit disappointed. A movie that’s both a musical and about Hollywood comes with a sense of cynicism, a glimmer of the production team noting down what does well in the Oscars and coming up with something that ticks all the boxes. When the end result is as good-natured and appealing as this, however, such concerns begin to lose any traction. It’s a smashing entry, and several of the numbers have stayed with me weeks after seeing the film.

If I was in charge, I would probably hand my little gold man over to Manchester by the Sea, which stood out for me as the most heartfelt and affecting of this year’s offerings. On the whole though, I’ve been impressed with nearly all the films included and in every instance entertained. Of those not featuring on the list, I would like to have seen a little more love for Silence, which while hard work at times is a gorgeously mounted picture that covers a difficult subject very convincingly. Michael Shannon has been nominated for his supporting role in Nocturnal Animals, but the lack of recognition for his and everyone else’s work in Midnight Special strikes me as a shame. The Lobster features solely in the screenplay category; it deserves better than that, a very bleak and funny piece of work. I should also like to have seen I, Daniel Blake figure – film rarely does something as powerful as this, a little story about a little man trying to survive within a big system that is not allowed to show any human empathy. That said, I can imagine the Academy looking at the politically outspoken Ken Loach as though throwing an angry hand grenade into the Dolby Theatre and deciding it needs not the hassle. That’s to fatally misunderstand Loach, of course, but it’s hardly the first time the Oscars stand accused of playing it safe.