High Noon (1952)

When it’s on: Thursday, 2 April (11.30 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I’ve said before on these pages that I came pretty late to the Westerns party. In an effort to catch up, I scoured the ‘top’ lists and sought out the greatest offerings from the genre, a pretty tall order because everyone has their own individual favourites, but as far as I’m concerned anyone who puts the effort into writing about films they’ve especially enjoyed deserve to have them seen by others and that’s just what I’ve tried to do. From list to list, certain titles invariably come out on top again and again, and High Noon is one of them. This 1952 offering, directed by Fred Zinneman and starring Gary Cooper, was one of the big winners at the Academy Awards, inexplicably losing the Best Picture accolade to The Greatest Show on Earth, but handing Best Actor to Cooper whilst it also won in the editing and music categories.

So I’ll just put it out there right now – since watching High Noon, it has clearly become my favourite Western, in fact forget the Westerns part, it’s up there with my all-timers. After finishing it the first time, I had the strong urge to play the whole thing over again. Seeing it ahead of this review was just a pleasure, and I’ve no idea how many times I have dug out the disc since buying it. It’s just one of those titles, I guess; I don’t get bored of it and find myself getting caught up in the film’s ratcheting tension with each and every viewing. Irrational aside – there’s a small part of me hoping, this time, that Cooper will forget his obligations to Hadleyville and keep that wagon rolling, enjoy the company of the lovely Grace Kelly in whatever life they choose instead of turning around in order to face Frank Miller. Just keep going, Gary – they don’t deserve you!

In the interests of putting together enough material for a balanced critique, I jotted some bullet points as the film was playing. Here’s what I produced:

I hope you can read that – if not, here’s a larger version that will open in a new tab (I can’t do anything about the bad handwriting, sorry). Don’t worry; I’m not about to go into each and every point here, but I would like to start by eulogising Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, in particular the High Noon ballad that opens the picture, as the credits roll and Miller’s compadres assemble in readiness for their showdown. If there’s one single element that draws me back to High Noon, it’s that simple song, with its melancholic Tex Ritter vocals about Cooper’s character, Marshal Will Kane, begging for his new wife Amy (Kelly) not to forsake him while he meets his destiny against Miller. It’s lovely and haunting, and it follows Kane about for the next eighty five minutes as he prepares for his fate, indeed much of the film’s score is a riff on the ballad.

Stripped back, High Noon is a fairly straightforward and even standard Western story. Kane is the Marshal in a little backwater town named Hadleyville. It’s his last day in the job before standing down, and he’s getting married in a little Quaker ceremony to Amy. As he’s preparing to leave town for good, he learns that a dangerous gunslinger called Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been released from gaol and is on his way back; his train will arrive at noon. Years earlier, Marshall was a troubling presence in Hadleyville before Kane apprehended him and oversaw the delivery of the death penalty by Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger). With Miller gone, Hadleyville grew in peace and prosperity under Kane’s marshalship, but he and the judge both recall the villain’s portentous words of vengeance when he was convicted, and in the meantime his date with the noose was prorogued to a prison sentence. Kane’s torn between skipping and leaving Hadleyville to its fate, or staying and fighting Miller. What he doesn’t count on are the feelings of the town itself, the community of friends that steadily deserts him as the clock ticks down to noon, not to mention Amy’s vehement disagreement with his decision to remain.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. The story opens at around quarter to eleven and the events building up to Miller’s arrival play out in real time, meaning that over the next hour Kane comes to realise that he has to stand up to him alone. The ticking of the clock, revisited often with the minute hands progressing inexorably, generate instant suspense as Kane is refused again and again by people he thought of as friends.

There’s tones of plot getting peeled away as the clock ticks down, and it’s a product of the slick editing by Elmo Williams and Harry W Gerstad that a raft of stories connected to so many individuals are outlined or even hinted at. By the end, High Noon feels like a much longer film than its running time due to the sheer swathes of clever characterisation and plot developments that are being rolled out all the time. One of the principal sub-plots involve Ellen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), owner of Hadleyville’s drinking hole and hotel. It emerges that she was Miller’s girl once upon a time, before turning her affections to Kane and finally to his young Deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges). Her ‘previous’ is a great source of tension between Kane and Pell, the way she’s a lot wiser than the latter and still harbours feelings for Kane, knowing – and teling Pell – that he isn’t half the man the Marshal is. Moreover, Ellen develops into the town’s heart. She knows exactly what will happen, that Kane will be abandoned by the community, and quickly sells her business and packs to leave as she understands that the day’s events will mark the end of Hadleyville as she knows it. The contrast between her, Kane’s ex, and Amy, his present, is irresistible, even down to the black clothes Ellen wears jarring with the bride’s virginal white dress. For much of High Noon, its emotions are firmly in tune with Jurado’s character, plain speaking, passionate and beautiful, against the callow Amy, who only comes into her own at the end.

And Ellen’s only the highlight. Bridges teases all the resentment and jealousy out of Pell, loathing Kane’s status and wanting his job, whilst knowing deep down that he’ll never measure up the same. Lon Chaney Jr puts in an appearance as Hadleyville’s former Marshal, broken by thankless years of service and seeing nothing but doom in Kane’s sticking around. Mayor Jonas Henderson is played by Thomas Mitchell, who reveals the town’s yellow heart during an impassioned speech to the church congregation, arguing they’re all better off without Kane because they might get left alone by Miller if he isn’t around, in the course of which exposing the tissue-thin extent of his friendship with the Marshal. There’s also the town barber who orders more coffins to be built when he hears Miller is approaching, the weasly hotel clerk who has nothing good to say about the Marshal, Kane’s friend Sam (Tom London) who’s too terrified to help out and gets his wife to make his excuses, the young lad who’s devoted to him and Kruger’s judge who knows exactly when he needs to move on.

You guessed it, Hadleyville is stuffed with a rogues’ gallery of selfish and greedy people, happy to be sheltered by Kane when it suits them but quick to turn their backs when the going gets tough. Towering above them all is Kane himself, wandering the dusty streets with that Tiomkin ballad playing in the background and looking more hopeless and solitary with each passing minute. Gary Cooper wasn’t the first choice for the role. Acting in movies since the early 1920s, Cooper was entering his fifties when High Noon was released and looked more like Grace Kelly’s father than her groom. Other names included Gregory Peck, who was concerned about how it would play against his previous Western The Gunfighter, and would later admit that turning it down was one of the worst career decisions he made. To add to Cooper’s problems, he was ill at the time, suffering from a variety of debilitating ailments, though in the film this all worked to his advantage as he was so convincingly able to convey the physical toll on Kane and needing little in terms of make-up to replicate the character’s hardships.

High Noon’s deeper subtext is a reflection of the time in which it was made, when the House of Un-American Activities Committee was fixing its gaze on Hollywood and blacklisting many of its major players. One such was the film’s writer, Carl Foreman, a former Communist who knew his time in the American industry was up, despite Cooper’s defence of him before the Committee. Foreman turned in a script about one man fighting the forces of ambivalence alone in a way that apparently mirrored his own plight. Zinneman, who won two Academy Awards for direction, was only nominated here, but made his Western as a taut thriller, with some brilliant shots – those close-ups of the town’s faces and of Miller’s gang staring menacingly right into the camera, the railroad filmed from the tracks themselves (which as the train neared almost did for Zinneman and his cameraman as they didn’t realise until the last moment that its brakes were failing), the zoom out from a beleagured Kane as he’s left utterly alone on the deserted streets.

John Wayne, a supporter of blacklisting, disliked the film and made Rio Bravo with Howard Hawks as a riposte from the more conservative perspective. Over the years, it’s become something of a tradition to fall either on one side or the other. The difference is that in the Hawks-Wayne movie the emphasis is on togetherness, the banding of ‘brothers’ (Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo) against a common enemy, It’s a warmer message, certainly, and I refer you to Colin’s excellent review for more on this affirmed classic of the genre, but like him I tend to strip away the politics (the benefit of being born much later than the sociological drivers behind both films) and look at the end products, the pictures we’re left to admire today, on their own terms. I like Rio Bravo, but for me High Noon represents something of a pinnacle, a film I enjoy and am gripped by with every viewing. From my point of view, it’s perilously close to perfection.

High Noon: *****

10 Rillington Place (1971)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 31 March (10.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

- I don’t know, Mr Christie.
– Well Tim, if you haven’t got complete confidence in my abilities…
– I trust you, Mr Christie, of course I do.

I think I was seven when we went on a family holiday to London. One of the attractions we visited was Madame Tussaud’s with its Chamber of Horrors, and inside, amidst the medieval torture devices was a gallery of notorious serial killers. One of these was a rather unassuming middle-aged, balding man, alone in a room, paste brush in hand whilst behind him one of the walls was covered with freshly laid wallpaper. This turned out to be John Reginald Christie. The surface over which he’d so recently papered was a covered up alcove, and inside were the bodies of three murdered women.

It was this alcove that ultimately did for Christie. Shortly after concealing his crime, he sub-let his flat and left, living rough and sleeping in doss houses. In the meantime, the new tenants arrived, complained about the smell and discovered the makeshift tomb. When the police turned up, a further corpse, that of Christie’s wife Ethel, was found beneath the floorboards, along with the remains of two further women buried in the garden, a femur bone being used to prop up a fence. Later, Christie would be accused of killing Beryl and Geraldine Evans, the wife and baby daughter of Timothy Evans, who himself had been hanged for the crimes several years earlier whilst occupying the same building. Three years on from Evans’s death, Christie faced the noose.

What struck me about the waxwork model was the apparent ordinariness of the murderer. In films and on television, there’s often some obvious sign that marks someone out as a serial killer, some indefinable thing that marks them out as psychologically unbalanced enough to commit such heinous crimes, but Christie looked so normal, which of course made the whole affair so much more chilling, the idea that you can’t tell, you really can’t tell.

It’s this quality that Richard Attenborough brought to sinister life when he played Christie in 10 Rillington Place, the address of the residence where the murders happened. I’ve always admired Attenborough more as an actor than for his directing. The films he’s helmed too often appear to me to move at a pace slightly slower than stately, whereas on the other side of the camera he can produce really haunting performances across a wide variety of roles. Christie’s one of his best, something he also acknowledged, the murderer who projects a veneer of outward genteel respectability so convincingly that he can get murderously close to women whilst shifting the suspicion onto others. On the surface, his Christie appears to be just another man on the street, nothing to see here, but it’s all in the restless shifting of his eyes, his habit of peering out of a gap in the drapes as though sensing the knot of suspicion closing around him, the soft spoken Yorkshire dialect that comes across as warm and genial.

The story focuses on the murders of Beryl and Geraldine, and the implication of Timothy as their killer, a fabrication weaved by Christie. At the time 10 Rilington Place was made, Evans had already been pardoned for the killing of his wife though not his daughter, the crime for which he had actually been convicted in the first instance. Whilst the matter of police misconduct during the investigation was still undecided, the film based itself on Ludovic Kennedy’s book, Ten Rillington Place, which argued that the investigation had been flawed and Evans innocent. In the film, Evans is played by the BAFTA nominated John Hurt as a working class Welshman with a seriously low IQ, meaning he can be easily influenced by Christie. Judy Geeson plays Beryl, Evans’s pretty young wife, who becomes pregnant for a second time. This is a worry for the couple. They can barely afford to make ends meet and their flat in 10 Rillington Place is small and squalid enough to begin with. Christie, who was able to meet many women during the war as a backstreet abortionist, offers his services to the Evans couple and they agree. What they don’t realise is that it’s an excuse to gas Beryl into a state of unconsciousness and then rape and strangle her, which is exactly what he does. The tools of his trade, the pipes that hook up to the gas supply, supposedly benign medicinal mixture, and rope, are kept under lock and key in a little medicine cabinet, and his retrieval of these items is a sure precursor to murder.

Evans goes to work, comes home and Christie tells him there’s been a complication in the abortion and Beryl’s dead. By simple persuasion, he argues they’re both guilty and offers to get rid of the body if Evans will leave for a while. He even says he knows a couple who’ll take Geraldine in, which seems to solve all the young man’s problems at once. Of course that’s a lie and Evans is no sooner on the train to Merthyr than Christie’s taking his tie upstairs in order to deal with the baby. Back in Wales and racked with guilt, Evans hands himself in to the police. Events start to spiral out of control as the investigation and the ease with which they wring a confession out of him turn the case into a fait accompli. Crucially, Christie distances himself completely from the murders. Ethel (Pat Heywood) backs him up, though there’s a sense she suspects something isn’t right. Evans, unable to read the confession he’s signed, hopelessly out of his depth and only realising at the end that he’s been stitched up, begins repeating ‘Christie’s done it’ but it’s all too late and he has an appointment to keep with the hangman.

It’s a brilliant study by Hurt, the youthful bravado he shows whilst drinking with his mates at the pub falling away once he realises he’s in desperate trouble and relying on entirely the wrong man to help him. It becomes apparent quickly that he’s just the wrong man, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he doesn’t come close to appreciating the man into whom he’s placed his trust is the wrongest of all the elements. Geeson’s great as the innocent and hopeful Beryl, and there’s a small part for Isobel Black as her best friend, who for her own sake is probably fortunate to vanish from the picture when she does.

10 Rillington Place was directed by Richard Fleischer, a flexible filmmaker whose previous work covered on these pages are a far cry from the subject matter here. Fleischer had made films about real-life serial killers before, notably The Boston Strangler, starring Tony Curtis, but he brought a real documentary sensibility to this project, feeling rightly that the subject matter was horrific enough without the need for added melodrama. As far as it was possible to do so, the script by Clive Exton copied real, recorded speeches from the characters. The scenes at Rillington Place were filmed in Rillington Place (which has since been knocked down and completely remodelled as part of Notting Hill’s subsequent gentrification – this YouTube video speculates on the most likely location); the residents at number 10 wouldn’t allow their home to be used, so the crew worked across the street in number 7 instead, capturing starkly the slum conditions that framed the ghastly events, the poverty of the intransigent residents, the relative ‘four to a room’ destitution within which Christie operated. The murders, when they take place, are shown graphically, and whilst little is made of the killer’s motives, the signs are there in Attenborough’s performance. Most chillingly of all, it’s the ease with which he commits his crimes that are the most shocking element, the absence of guilt as though it’s all a normal part of his working day.

It’s a difficult film to recommend as entertainment, though it’s certainly worth seeing not least as a study into the machinations of a real life killer, told largely without embellishment, also the shaky police work that led to Evans’s hanging. In 1965, several years before 10 Rillington Place was released, the death penalty in the UK was suspended, largely because of the horrible potential of wrongful convictions. There was a large swell of support for its return, before people saw the film and appreciated the consequences of getting it wrong.

10 Rillington Place: ****

Apocalypto (2006)

When it’s on: Saturday, 28 March (10.50 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Recently, I’ve been catching up on History Channel’s Vikings, which isn’t quite as visceral as it might be but is cracking drama all the same. One of the things I like best about it is the interaction between the Vikings and Anglo Saxons. When we’re focusing on either group exclusively, they all speak English, but on the occasions when they communicate with each other then the ancient Nordic and Old English languages come out to illustrate the barrier that separates them. I love hearing those ancient ‘tongues’ brought back to life, even for the sake of screen drama; I’d be lost without the subtitles, obviously, but there’s something ‘earthy’ about the long lost dialects, a connection between the people and the land they inhabit that brings out the harshness of the Vikings’ way of speaking, the Latin and German influences on those old Britons, the occasional word that has made it through the ages and is still in use today.

There’s something of that spirit in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, in which the characters speak Yucatec Mayan throughout. You might see that as a gimmick. The counter-argument is that it adds to the film’s sense of authenticity, the way you can almost picture the language growing from the jungle environment and lack of contact with the outside world. Similarly, the film works hard to build the Mayan ‘world’. Based on existing sights that are still in existence, with a level of imagination thrown in, the aim of the film is to create a place you have never seen before, a civilisation that is now buried in history but once thrived and grew strong.

Much of the film’s point is that even those good times are in the past. The Mayan culture depicted in Apocalypto is dying, suffering from seasons of drought and, unable to explain what’s happened beyond the anger of their gods, they start offering human sacrifices in an attempt to regain divine favour. The film follows Jaguar Paw (Rudy Younglood), a young hunter who’s part of a peaceful Olmec tribe living in the Mesoamerican forests of Mexico. His is presented as an almost paradisaical existence, dependent on hunting tapirs and other jungle animals yet happy in his little tribe, where everything is based on families and the circle of life. One night, his village is raided by Mayan warriors, and Jaguar has just enough time to get his heavily pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and young son, to safety inside a deep vertical pit before he’s captured. Tied to a pole alongside other survivors whom the raiders haven’t killed, he’s led across country to the teeming Mayan city, where they’re all to be sacrificed by having their hearts cut from their bodies and then beheaded. A resigned Jaguar Paw is led to the chopping block, but before he can be killed a solar eclipse occurs, which the Mayan priests interpret as a favourable sign. The remaining Olecs are no longer needed and led to the warriors’ training area to be slaughtered. Jaguar Paw manages to escape and makes it back into the jungles, pursued hotly by a band of fighters, led by the legendary Zero Wolf (Carlos Emilio Baez). As the wounded hero starts a desperate race back to the remains of his village, it starts to rain, and the water levels in Seven’s pit rise.

The attention to detail in Apocalypto is simply outstanding. Considering it’s a film costing a comparatively modest $40 million, they create an entire city featuring thousands of extras, all wearing costumes and hair decorations that make clear their status in society, from the King with his enormous, feathered cape, through to the poor clad in rags. The contrast between the pastoral Olmec village and the city is also stark. Whereas the former depicts a real community in which everyone knows each other and laughs together, the city is a decadent ruin in waiting, overcrowded, motivated by selfish desire and with a pall of sickness surrounding it. The overall effect is astonishing, a riot of colour and endless sights, so vivid that it’s almost possible to smell the food, blood and sweat.

All the more impressive considering that Apocalypto, at heart, is an old-fashioned action adventure, an almighty chase through the jungle that never lets up. It works because the odds against Jaguar Paw seem so high – the calibre of those pursuing him, being in the middle of nowhere, the fact he’s taken an arrow wound before he even starts. Zero Wolf makes for a brilliant warrior; there’s a genuine sense of elation about his pursuit because he actually has something worth chasing for a change, not just rounding up miserable villagers for the sacrificial block. True, Jaguar Paw has killed his son when beginning his escape attempt, but it feels like this is subservient to the sheer thrill of the chase, the opportunity to prove himself as a high calibre hunter at last. And yet it emerges the fleeing hero is just as capable in his environment, using all manner of natural resources to deal with Zero Wolf’s men; at one thrilling, albeit gory stage a Jaguar is involved.

I admit I was thrilled from the start of the chase, overwhelmed by the visual treats beforehand. The heel turned out to be Gibson himself. Involved in a string of discrepancies and saying some very unfortunate things in the build-up to Apocalypto’s release, the director’s character was a divisive element in his own film’s success, ensuring its share of awards and box office were not all they could have been. Arguments have been posited that the film is entirely allegorical, returning to themes that had been explored in his previous The Passion of the Christ and suggesting a unhealthy level of anti-Semitism. I suppose those elements are present if you want them to be; personally, I didn’t get any of that and suspect there’s an element of digging too deeply into the alleged meanings behind what is a reasonably straightforward story. An altogether sad turn of events because Apocalypto, almost unique and at times savage, is a blast.

Apocalypto: ****

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 March (9.00 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

In an effort to properly research The Devil Rides Out, one of the jewels in the crown of Hammer Studios, rightly or wrongly, and a first visitation from this site to the Horror Channel, which is now available on Freeview, I went back to the source and read Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel.

I recall seeing rows of Wheatley’s paperbacks on my parents’ bookshelves as a child, usually with the lurid cover art featuring scantily clad women cavorting around a stern looking goat-man. This no doubt is a reflection on the author’s massive popularity, which lasted into the late 1960s, and reading The Devil Rides Out now, I can see why that must have been the case. Essentially, it’s a bit like Agatha Christie, replacing murders for Occultism, but still featuring upper class heroes and villains and presenting the inter-war years as a kind of Home Counties arcadia where society was deferential, everyone knew their place and the only thing wrong was those damned Devil worshippers. I enjoyed it immensely, racing through the novel in a few days thanks to some brisk pacing and a genuine atmosphere of unease created by Wheatley. There’s an argument for saying it’s an updated Dracula, which I get. Critics pointed out the long periods of exposition, endless scenes of two posho’s discussing the history and nature of Satanism; personally I found all this to be quite riveting. I learned, for instance, that World War One didn’t come about as a consequence of the collapsing Great Powers system of diplomacy, but because Grigory Rasputin used an arcane talisman to unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There was also some love for the Swastika, rightly cited as an ancient good luck charm before it was appropriated by the Nazis. Understandably, the Swastika does not put in an appearance within the film.

It was a most entertaining read, though I could tell that with novels like Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and the subsequent film adaptation, bringing tales of Devil worship firmly into the modern world, time was up for Wheatley’s cognac-quaffing heroes. There’s talk even now of further reworkings for the screen, both large and small, and I wonder how that would work. When I read a book, I try and visualise the action, imagining how it would play; it’s just something I’ve always done, and try as I might there seemed to be too many good reasons to forget revisiting these old adventures and let them fade into memory.

It was a different story in the 1960s, when Wheatley was still a bestselling author and had a good friend in Christopher Lee, one of Hammer’s main stars. The studio had owned the rights to The Devil Rides Out for some time and submitted a draft screenplay to the censors in 1962, only to be told in no uncertain terms that Satanism was not an appropriate subject for the movies. Later in the decade, restrictions were lifting (though nothing like to the extent they would later) and the project was revisited. Hammer put a lot of money behind their adaptation, recruiting the services of their A-list director, Terence Fisher, placing Lee in the starring role and commissioning no less a figure than Richard Matheson to update the script. The legendary writer took the hatchet to Wheatley’s book, chopping much of the Occult-related dialogue but otherwise turning in a treatment that was rather faithful, even keeping certain lines intact – ‘You fool! I’d rather see you dead than meddling with black magic!’ might sound a bit laughable now, but it was powerful stuff back in the day, especially when delivered with Lee’s baritone voice.

The result was a somewhat refreshing change from the endless Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy sequels, made to order but working as crowd pleasers rather than offering anything new. Even an old Hammer apologist like me can look back with a furtive wince at yet another Dracula flick in which the Count goes through the motions, Lee acting almost from a horizontal position as he found the business of donning the fangs to be increasingly tiresome. There’s none of that here, Lee in lithe, commanding form as the Duc de Richleau, an amateur expert in black magic who realises quickly that one of his best friends has succumbed to a circle of Devil worshippers. Alongside Rex (Leon Greene), de Richleau works hard to keep Simon (Patrick Mower) on the side of good. But he’s made powerful enemies, none more than Mocata (Charles Gray), Satan’s High Priest, who’ll stop at nothing to ‘baptise’ Simon and the willowy Tanith (Niké Arrighi), for whom Rex harbours romantic feelings.

The film, set in the late 1920s and featuring a fine convoy of vintage cars, turns into a cat and mouse effort as the Duc and his friends try and get the better of Mocata, who can command all manner of dark forces to work for him. This culminates in a brilliant scene where the Duc, Simon and two further friends (played by Paul Eddington and Sarah Lawson) are at siege, trapped in the library and protected only by a pentagram chalked on the wooden flooring, as Mocata sends vision after vision to terrorise them into submitting. The special effects of the giant tarantula and later the angel of death riding into the room look tame now, but the build-up to their appearance is taut and terrifying, punctuated by long silences and shadows creeping across the walls. Lee’s character is superb, feeling every ounce of fear that the film is trying to convey and trying to maintain a sense of authority.

Despite Lee’s excellent performance, he’s matched by Gray as Mocata. Many times in his film appearances, particularly in the limp Diamonds are Forever, Gray had a tendency to descend into campness, but here the role is played completely straight, the actor channelling both Mocata’s latent evil and his lazy charm, which works really well, even if he doesn’t look much like the bulbous fallen Priest who appears in the book. When Mocata visits Lawson’s character to demand the return of Simon and is made to leave, he pauses long enough to say ‘I shall not be back – but something will’, the malice dripping with relish from his tongue. Mostly, it comes from the eyes, Fisher doing a great job of emphasising the icy blue in Gray’s eyes to suggest a constant power of hypnosis and persuasion.

Over the years, The Devil Rides Out has dated. Arguably, it already appeared so at the time of its release, coming out in the same year as the contemporary Rosemary’s Baby, the latter holding back none of the nudity or blood where Fisher’s work shows restraint. No question about it, Polanski’s film is better, delivering more effectively on unsettling chills, whilst The Devil Rides Out’s period setting gives it the feel of something more suited to the past. And yet it was a daring move by Hammer, a fine effort and an important change in direction at a time when the studio itself was starting to look out of step with audience tastes, and for that it deserves some appreciation. The only sad postscript is that they didn’t return to Wheatley until eight years later and 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter, too late to save the studio and a mixed, unhappy effort for all concerned.

The Devil Rides Out: ****

Backdraft (1991)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 24 March (11.00 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

At some point in the 2000s, Ron Howard became a darling of the awards industry. Beforehand, he’d directed a string of unpretentious, successful entertainments, the sort of films with one word titles that equally needed a single word to describe exactly what they were about e.g. Splash concerns MERMAIDS!, Cocoon = ALIENS!, Ransom = er, RANSOM! I’m not even being sniffy; they were perfectly fine, diverting efforts, a couple of hours where you could sink into your seat and enjoy what was happening on the screen – nothing wrong with that. It was only with the worthy and rather fine Apollo 13 that Howard starting tackling meatier subjects, and then he came up with A Beautiful Mind, which scooped four Academy Awards, including one for the director. Based on its entertainment value, I didn’t mind the film; as a biopic I loathed it, especially for the way it treated its central subject, the mathematician John Nash, transforming him into a romantic, tortured genius just for the sake of creating a sympathetic hero.

But that’s one for another time. Today’s entry is Backdraft, which is about fire (FIRE!), and indeed fire is the star of the film. Despite assembling a cast that would be the envy of any picture from the early 1990s, the strongest memories come from those scenes that show the inferno in all its forms. Beautifully shot and moving almost seductively across the screen, fire steals the show. At one point, Robert De Niro’s character tells us we have to see fire as something that’s living and that’s exactly what the film tries to do, even adding sound effects to suggest an angry god at work in the background, possibly one with the demanding intonation of Arthur Brown.

Elsewhere, Backdraft is a bit of a mess, somehow running over two hours long thanks to confused plotting and the attempt to wrong-foot viewers. There’s a point when watching it is a spotter’s reference guide to other movies (Top Gun and The Silence of the Lambs spring immediately to mind), and you could almost invent a drinking game around the number of clichés that mount up, starting with the opening scene in which a fireman is killed in an explosion and a charred helmet drops to the feet of his watching son.

One plot strand follows the relationship between fire fighter brothers Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin). It’s their father who died and they’ve followed in his footsteps. The older Stephen has turned into a macho hero, working for the toughest fire fighting unit and being committed enough to the service to alienate his wife (Rebecca De Mornay) into separation. Brian has just entered the service and joins Stephen’s team, much to his chagrin. From the start, he’s belittled by his brother, made to stay by his side and wear protective gear whilst Stephen doesn’t even bother to don his mask. Ultimately, he leaves to join Donald ‘Shadow’ Rimgale (De Niro), who investigates the causes of fires breaking out and is currently looking into a series of similar deaths caused by ‘backdraft’ explosions.

That’s the second strand. Rimgale and Brian’s sleuthing leads them into the orbit of Alderman Swayzak (J.T. Walsh), a Chicago mayoral candidate, along with his glamorous assistant and Brian’s old flame, Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The backdraft killings appear awful and planned carefully, victims opening a door to find themselves facing an unstoppable torrent of fire heading in their direction. Who’s responsible? Finding out lands the pair into the company of Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland), an insane, convicted arsonist who knows enough about fire to deliver an important clue.

Getting to this stage takes a long time, a long and unnecessary amount of time as Bartel points out the obvious to Brian – connect the victims and work out who benefits. Sutherland is one of many talents in the film that is wasted, forced to channel the spirit of Hannibal Lecter in terms of only giving up what he knows in exchange for details of Brian’s personal life. Similarly, Leigh has little to do apart from have a sex scene with Brian (on top of a fire engine, which of course sets off on a job halfway through their business!) and then deliver some important information to him at a key point. De Niro practically plays himself.

At least Kurt Russell is good value. He’s perfectly cast, effortless in fact as the hero fireman who puts his life on the line with every mission for no better reason than to experience the rush. Few did this kind of thing better, and playing it completely straight so that his character becomes almost fascistic in his dedication, not to mention blinkered to the feelings of his co-workers, led by Scott Glenn’s world weary veteran of the force. Baldwin, who’s kind of slipped off the radar following some major roles in the nineties, isn’t bad either, and there’s some nice interplay between the pair. They’re ideally cast even physically, Baldwin lanky and a little awkward besides Russell’s beefier classic leading man.

A shame that more wasn’t made of this and that some of the less important and jumbled plot contrivances didn’t have to be shoehorned in. There’s a very good ninety-minute movie somewhere in the mix, but amidst all the superfluousness it gets lost. Great fire effects though, and it was for these the film received several Oscar nominations.

Backdraft: **

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

When it’s on: Saturday, 21 March (5.40 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

When I was a kid, any film featuring the work of Ray Harryhausen was a typically Bank Holiday treat. It didn’t matter that the stop motion animation he perfected to painstaking effect always looked artificial – that was just part of the fun, and besides the creatures he brought to life on the screen were often fantastical to the extent that I, like many others I’m sure, just loved the outburst of imagination they represented. If I have an ultimate favourite among his creations, it’s almost certainly Talos, the giant statue from Jason and the Argonauts that comes to terrifying life, moves with the yell of rusty joints that haven’t needed to be used in untold aeons and threatens the entire ship of heroes. But I was fortunate enough to see the final feature with which he was involved, Clash of the Titans, as it was intended on the big screen, and despite advances in special effects there was nothing more frightening than Perseus trapped in the lair of Medusa, a last hurrah for the brilliance of the man’s art as the breathlessly sublime combination of lighting, sound and animation brought the monster to hideous reality.

Harryhausen was a big fan of dinosaurs, using his technique to put them onto the screen in various movies. Whilst the likes of Jurassic Park pretty much consigned his work into the annals, there’s something undeniably fantastic about his effort to revive these long extinct animals, and besides whilst CGI can serve up photo realistic dinosaurs well enough, it’s a rare film indeed that can inject its monsters with the sense of personality Harryhausen gave to his creations. Compare The Valley of Gwangi with something like the Tyrannosaurs in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. In the latter, there’s a point to which those dinosaurs are there simply because they can be, present for no other reason than to provide a threat to Kong and Naomi Watts. Gwangi, the perpetually irritated lizard that’s forced into the civilised world, with obvious consequences, always has motivation, a reason for being and doing the things it does. No amount of new technology can make that happen; it takes heart.

Released in 1969, The Valley of Gwangi was a flop at a time when Warners felt audiences cared little for this sort of thing and consequently barely promoted it. Taken as a whole, it’s far from the best action-fantasy caper, with its slight plot that is little more than window dressing for the opportunity to bring Westerns and dinosaur flicks on a collision course, the sort of cross-genre nonsense that I can’t imagine fans of either clamouring for. It takes a while for the creatures to appear, but when they do the film suddenly becomes a real thrill ride. The effect of cowboys trying to lasso Gwangi (for the record, it’s sort of a cross between a Jurassic Allosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex from the later Cretaceous period, and I for one love that Harryhausen grab-bagged from both to create Gwangi because, you know what, it’s just fantasy!) looks amazing, human actors and stop motion creature interacting seamlessly, though of course it was a scene that took months to perfect. The actors had to throw their ropes around a pole erected on a jeep, and then Harryhausen overlaid the film with his creature, ensuring the strings around its neck were synchronised with the men’s actions so that the illusion wouldn’t be shattered. Genuinely astonishing work.

Gwangi and his stop motion mates are undoubtedly the stars of the show, which basically means it’s Harryhausen’s film. The director and cast are subservient, and only Jerome Moross’s rabble rousing score, like a rehashing of the brilliant music he produced for The Big Country, really stands out.

Our hero is Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus), a cowboy working for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century. I remember Franciscus best from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where his role was basically to reprise Charlton Heston from the first film, which he did to largely anonymous effect. Here, he has more upon which to chew; his character, Tuck (named after the friar?), is essentially on the make. Despite breaking the heart of T.J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) previously, he wants to buy out her struggling show, shrugging off her reticence, not to mention her rather obvious personal dislike. T.J. thinks she’s found the answer to all her problems, a miniature horse that appears to be a throwback to the prehistoric Eohippus, an ancestor of the modern horse when they were the size of small dogs. Its origins are identified by Sir Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith), a paleontologist who’s digging away in the nearby desert. A group of gypsies, led by the reliably demented Freda Jackson, kidnap the Eohippus and try to return it from whence it came, via a tiny crack in the side of a mountain. But Tuck and crew discover the crack, realising it leads somehow into a hidden place, the Forbidden Valley, and break through into a land where prehistoric animals still roam.

Naturally, as soon as he comes across Gwangi, the opportunistic Kirby sees money, the prospect of exhibiting a dinosaur as part of his show and rake in the millions. So far, so King Kong, which is what The Valley of Gwangi becomes. Unsurprisingly, the film started life as a project by Willis O’Brien, the predecessor in many ways to Harryhausen, who worked on the stop motion effects for the original King Kong and the 1925 version of The Lost World, and saw Gwangi as an amalgamation of both. For Warner’s, it must have felt like a no-brainer to put the money into production, but Harryhausen’s work took a long time to reach fruition, two years in fact, during which time audience tastes had moved on and a lightweight matinee flick, which this is, held dwindling appeal. It doesn’t help that the hero isn’t especially likeable, just coming across as greedy without appearing to gain much in terms of a conscience as his plans for Gwangi naturally turn to disaster. That said, it’s a film that never outstays its welcome, particularly once the dinosaurs turn up, and there’s a cheerful rush towards the climactic scenes that’s missing from more ponderous epics. The end for Gwangi, staged inside a Gothic church, is very impressively done and shows a nice clash between the raw power of the dinosaur and human structures.

The Valley of Gwangi: ***

A shameless plug now for Multitude of Movies, a new film magazine created and edited by two very good friends of mine. I’ve just bought the first issue, which is reminiscent of the legendary We Belong Dead and features articles on Labyrinth, Beach Party flicks, Christopher Walken, Pale Rider, Disaster Movies from the 1970s, Enter the Dragon, John Saxon, Indiana Jones, Margot Kidder, and so much more! I’ll be contributing to the second issue, but even without that dubious pleasure the first is a delicious treat, beautifully put together and deserving of your support. For further details on the magazine, who’s involved, what they cover and how to buy your copy, please visit their website.

The Battle of the River Plate (1956)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 17 March (10.45 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

The account of the German cruiser ship, Admiral Graf Spee, is a genuinely riveting yarn from the early months of World War Two. As a popular story, it hasn’t survived the years, probably because it didn’t lead to enormous levels of human sacrifice and the Germans involved weren’t senseless monsters, but it is good stuff and worth recounting here. For those who haven’t seen The Battle of the River Plate, bear in mind that the film follows the factual events very closely.

Following Germany’s defeat in World War One, the Treaty of Versailles imposed strict limitations on the size of warships it could build, the aim being to deny it the opportunity to compete with Britain in terms of constructing titanic Dreadnought style boats. The Deutschland-class Cruiser, of which Admiral Graf Spee was one, had various innovations designed to keep it within weight restrictions and as a consequence developed a superior vessel. The British dubbing of these ships as ‘pocket battleships’ might suggest some little tub with firepower, but Graf Spree was formidable, armed with powerful guns, fast and highly maneuverable. In short, the perfect ship for attacking merchants carrying supplies to Britain. Shortly before war broke out but with the declaration imminent, Graf Spee slunk out of its German port and into the South Atlantic, from where it could prey on shipping. This it did, racking up an impressive record of sinkings and remaining elusively at large.

Its captain, Hans Langsdorff, was a fascinating figure, a tactical genius who pulled every trick in the book to escape capture and to make the threat of his single ship look as though an entire convoy of warships was out there. In addition he was a humanist, insisting that merchant ships were ordered to send their crews across to the Graf Spee before they were sunk. Langsdorff’s attitude was that the war was on Allied shipping, not the sailors, who would be held as prisoners and treated well.

Graf Spee’s success alerted British ships of war, which made searching and destroying it their highest priority. The ‘hunting group’ that came across and battled it was led by Commodore Henry Harwood, a seaman as tactically astute as Langsdorff and with acute knowledge of the South Atlantic. Harwood guessed the pocket battleship’s movements correctly, a dazzling insight that seems to have emerged wholly from calculated guesswork, and his three ships engaged Graf Spee on the River Plate, the massive estuary leading from South America into the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the German boat’s better guns, it was eventually out-maneuvered and crippled, leaving it with no choice but to head for the nearest port and make repairs.

This happened to be at Montevideo, the picturesque capital of Uruguay. The two remaining British ships waited outside for Graf Spee’s re-emergence, aware that Langsdorff was perfectly capable of escaping somewhere along the estuary because of the size of the area they had to patrol. Engaging the services of British diplomat Eugen Millington-Drake, attempts were made to shorten the time Graf Spee needed to be fixed – Langsdorff wanted two to three weeks; he was given four days. In the meantime, the British Foreign Office, knowing fully that their phones were being tapped by German agents, put it about that further ships were massing in order to deal with it, whereas in reality only one was close enough to help. The overall effect of all this pressure was to compel Langsdorff into scuttling Graf Spee, turning the episode into a major British success story. It was also a big deal in Montevideo itself, locals clamouring to follow the news of what would happen next and reporters covering the story gaining minor celebrity status.

Little wonder that this suggested great cinematic material, and even better that it was made for the screen by the dynamic creative force that was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The pair hit upon the idea whilst attending a film festival in Argentina and getting the details, seeing it as the ticket to reviving the ailing fortunes of their production company, The Archers. British and American ships were hired and deployed in the Mediterranean in order to give the film some authentic boats to photograph, whilst some of the best models available were built for the scenes where ships are suffering heavy damage.

In order to convey the character of Langsdorff (Peter Finch), many of the film’s early scenes are between him and a captured merchant captain, played by Bernard Lee. As Lee’s Captain Dove is treated with every courtesy by the German, he comes to respect and even admire him, though it doesn’t stop him and his fellow captives from cheering on the British when they open fire. Harwood is a never more charismatic Anthony Quayle. John Gregson plays Captain Bell (and wore a specially made wax nose for the role, in honour of the real life captain, who was affectionately known as ‘Hookie’ by his men), in charge of the Exeter, the British light cruiser that took the heaviest damage and suffered the most casualties. In many ways, Gregson’s is the choice role as he gets to rally his troops, make quick decisions and score a decisive blow on Graf Spee.

However, the moments when Bell is racing around his ship, sometimes literally fighting fires, are by some distance the most exciting scenes in the film. For the most part, it’s a well crafted but ultimately highly ‘talkie’ picture, filled with characters discussing their strategies with a brief reprieve for bits where big ships fire upon each other. The actual battle takes place in the film’s middle; following is the lengthy aftermath in Montevideo, the British efforts to bluff Langsdorff into giving up and ending the fighting. It’s fine, but it isn’t thrilling, though there’s a nice sense of the excitement it causes in the city, including a very young Christopher Lee playing a Uruguayan bar owner who gets increasingly exasperated with all the attention.

Christopher Challis was the Director of Photography responsible for bringing to life those highly impressive battle scenes, the smooth maneuvering of massive ships preparing for conflict. It’s a beautifully shot film, unfortunately it’s one of those rare instances of the actual events being a lot more exciting than those committed to celluloid (there’s a great episode of Timewatch covering the story available on YouTube). The post-battle scenes remain somewhat anti-climactic, even with the closing money shot of Graf Spee on fire and sinking.

All the same, it was Powell and Pressburger’s biggest hit at the box office and a late success for the partnership. A happier ending than that met by Langsdorff himself. In the film, he meets Dove for a final chat that makes clear the respect he’s earned. In reality, having ensured that no further lives were lost (despite the misgivings of Hitler, who wanted him to continue the fight) and overseeing his crew’s transfer to Buenos Aires, he took his own life.

The Battle of the River Plate: ***

Licence to Kill (1989)

When it’s on: Sunday, 15 March (3.40 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The 1980s were troubled times for James Bond. There was a pervading sense that the gentleman spy was past his sell-by date, that he’d had his best years. The fag end of the Roger Moore era did him no favours, despite the three 007 films he made across the decade attempting to bring his stories back to earth following the high concept nonsense of Moonraker. And then there’s Timothy Dalton. I’m a big fan of The Living Daylights, his harder edged debut in the role, which added some much needed realism and grittiness to a character that was tipping over into utter silliness beforehand. But it left many audiences confused. This wasn’t the James Bond they knew, Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang from the endless circulation of his films on ITV, who walked away from situations that put both himself and the world in peril with little more than a hair out of place.

Licence to Kill was a further retraction from the Moore years, indeed entering new territory by compelling Bond to go ‘rogue’ in his pursuit of a drug baron. Adjusted for inflation, it’s the least successful of the series, and with The Living Daylights also at the foot of the rankings it pretty much did for Dalton’s tenure. Too convoluted. Difficult to follow. Too arsey a Bond. It seems strange now, with Daniel Craig lending many of the same qualities to the character, to find how little it appealed to viewers. Looking again at the profitability rankings, we find Skyfall is right at the top. Perhaps it was simply the case that Dalton’s take on 007 came too soon. As a consequence, the following decade gave us the Pierce Brosnan entries, a return to the fun escapades at the expense of any real substance.

Not that Licence to Kill is a masterpiece. John Glen directed all the Bond entries from the eighties and did so efficiently. This one carried the lowest budget of any 007 film for some time and was filmed mainly on location around Florida and in Mexico to cut down on the costs of shooting at Pinewood Studios. But there’s also a flatness to his direction, the lack of great cinematography that was traditionally used to fine effect in opening up those glamorous exotic climes where the action took place. There’s nothing especially wrong with it, but then there’s very little to wow viewers either. Even the stunts have a degree of predictability about them, excepting some rather thrilling car chase scenes towards the end that involve massive Kenworth trucks crashing into each other along tight hairspin bends on remote mountain roads. It’s as though the director was uninterested in any of this, preferring Licence to Kill to stand primarily as a character study, that character being Bond and the things he gets up to when he’s no longer working for Queen and country.

The premise is certainly absorbing enough. Licence to Kill opens with Bond celebrating the marriage of his best friend, Felix Leiter (David Hedison). But then things go horribly wrong. Before the wedding, they’ve apprehended that classic scourge of the 1980s, a South American drugs baron, Frank Sanchez (Robert Davi). He escapes from incarceration, with the help of an avaricious agent, played by Everett McGill, and then takes a terrible revenge by murdering Leiter’s wife and then literally feeding him to the sharks. Bond in turn demands retribution, but is told in no uncertain terms that he’s needed elsewhere and has to give up his pursuit of Sanchez. And so, in a thrilling decision, the agent does what we would all like to see him do and turns rogue, losing his ‘licence to kill’ and going after Sanchez his way.

What follows is quite different from the usual fare. The plot follows Yojimbo, the classic Kurosawa tale that’s been much copied since about a samurai who wanders into a town and plays two rival gangs off against each other. Here, Bond steadily infiltrates Sanchez’s circle and gets close to the man himself, feeding him details that lead to the drugs lord killing many of his own henchmen. It’s good stuff, quite gripping to find 007 coldly directing Sanchez’s actions, whilst getting inevitably close to his girlfriend, played by the lovely Talisa Soto. Meanwhile, he’s helped out by Q (Desmond Lleyweln), who’s ‘on vacation’ and, delightfully, gets far more to do than his usual shtick of supplying gadgets, along with agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), one of those rare Bond girls who is a lot more involved in the action than finding herself in trouble and simpering into his arms. There’s some great interplay between the pair, both seeing themselves as the ‘senior’ partner and Bond having to take charge because they’re in South America, a man’s world.

Davi plays a good villain, and the film gives him an opportunity to show both ruthlessness and the easy charm that would justify his character having the capacity to make it to the top of his particular tree. Amongst his henchmen is a young Benicio Del Toro in his first major, big screen role.

All told, it’s a better film than the insipid box office and reputation of the time would suggest, and whilst it’s too flawed to deserve the same revisionist love as a classic like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, there’s plenty to like about it, not least its aim to try things with the character that had never previously been done. There’s a sense that Ian Fleming might, for once, have been pleased with the character in this one. Whilst Licence to Kill follows the same basic plot as many 007 films, it’s really interesting to see Dalton take his character down a darker path, one reflected in its ’15’ rating (though in truth, it’s at the lower end of the certification).

Ultimately, a sad end for the actor’s brief association with 007, and it would take six years for him to return in Goldeneye, his licence returned but much of the fire restrained. Even my DVD copy (I own the Special Editions, which are packaged in a very nice tin case) is an apologetic, limp affair, featuring a somewhat ‘soft’ transfer that has all the feel of a ‘just one for the completists’ attitude towards it. The ‘Making of’ documentary is quite a fun watch, particularly the crew describing their adventures during shooting on the remote Mexican roads, which had been closed to public use due to the sheer number of accidents and fatalities it had claimed. By all accounts, they came across a number of ‘apparitions’ and spooky episodes, vehicles moving of their own accord and the like, and of course the famous photograph one crew member took of an explosion, his still picking out a hand in the flames. Spooky…

Licence to Kill: ***

Enigma (2001)

When it’s on: Saturday, 14 March (10.45 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

In the build-up to this year’s Academy Awards, I managed to catch a screening of The Imitation Game and enjoyed it very much, in fact second to The Grand Budapest Hotel it was the entry from which I derived the most pleasure. It tells the story of troubled genius Alan Turning with surprisingly little sentiment, letting the facts of his oddities and homosexuality speak for themselves whilst making clear to viewers the extent of his achievement in cracking the Enigma code. Great work from Benedict Cumberbatch, the sort of actor who, for me, was yet to live up to all the hype, until this at any rate.

The film does a very good job of cancelling out any impact made by the more fictional Enigma, a movie released in 2001 and based on the novel by Robert Harris. It tells much the same story, but replaces Turing with a romantic, straight hero, played by Dougray Scott, and throwing in a plotline about uncovering traitors within the heart of the Bletchley community, a crew of clever people brought together in order to work on breaking encrypted Nazi communication. Doing so makes for a decent thriller, but excising Turing altogether leaves a sense of shame. Would telling the true story of the man behind the code have made for a lesser film? Clearly not, though it’s heartening to see public exoneration In recent years of a man who individually did more for the war effort than pretty much anyone. Certainly, the city of Manchester has done much to apologise for its part in his shameful early demise.

In Enigma, Scott plays Tom Jericho, a highly intelligent mathematician who has previously designed a sophisticated machine to crack the German cipher used on its Enigma machines. At the same time, he’s fallen in love with fellow Bletchley worker Claire (Saffron Burrows), the glamorous blonde who leaves him broken hearted and is partly to blame for his nervous breakdown. Semi-recovered, he returns only to find Claire has vanished, her steps being traced by shadowy intelligence agent Wigram (Jeremy Northam), whilst the U-Boat attacks have started to increase as the Nazis have changed one of their reference books, leaving the code-breaking team to go back to work before more convoys crossing the North Atlantic are destroyed. Searching for Claire, Jericho enlists the help of her housemate, the altogether frumpier Hester (Kate Winslet), and together they piece together her movements before she disappeared. Evidence suggests Claire had something to do with the Germans discovering their codes had been broken, possibly that she was a traitor feeding information to the enemy. As Jericho begins to relive his brief affair with Claire, he remembers her going through his stuff, pressing him for the secrets he possessed. Was she using sex as part of a double agent’s work?

The peeling away of revelations is quite well told, with the characters given great lines by writer Tom Stoppard to emphasise the high IQ levels floating around Bletchley, but at the centre of it all Scott does something really interesting as Jericho, playing him as essentially exhausted. The juxtaposition between the present man and the younger guy falling in love is brilliantly told, those earlier scenes bathed in sunlight and Jericho appearing optimistic and highly alive, as opposed to the jaded, post-breakdown character who can hardly be bothered to lift his head when merchant ships and thousands of lives are in danger of being lost. All he cares about is Claire, the pain of losing her clear to see and made worse because he realises that whether she’s found or not, her exit from his life is permanent.

Elsewhere, Winslet is a bit of a surprise in her dressed down part, but has no trouble nailing the cleverness and latent sexuality of her character. Northam is fantastic, one of those smooth, reptilian performances that reveals nothing about himself whilst projecting out onto other people. As Claire, Burrows has little to do but show why men fall madly in love with her, which they do easily enough. There’s a great supporting cast of emerging British actors, including a very fresh faced Tom Hollander and Matthew Macfadyen. Danish actor, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, currently stealing the show in Game of Thrones, is present as one of the Bletchley code breakers, somehow looking great despite all those sleepless nights working through page after page of encrypted messages.

Director Michael Apted had been directing since the early 1960s, best known for his work on the Up series of television documentaries whilst bringing an eclectic body of cinematic work to bear. His is a sure hand, lending the film a slow burning tension, a steady unraveling of the secrets locked within Bletchley, which is about right for the material. Clues, when they emerge, are hard earned and have consequences. It’s not the best tale for those who like their thrillers to come with high concept spills; one glance at the knackered looking Scott should put paid to that. Even the film’s biggest action set piece, a car chase along English country roads, appears to be running at half the speed of your average Hollywood caper. But it’s well acted, nicely spun together and ends on an appropriately bittersweet moment.

Enigma: ***

Malta Story (1953)

When it’s on: Thursday, 12 March (1.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Clearly I like Malta because I’ve twice been there on holiday. It’s a fascinating set of islands. For such a tiny place, a pinprick in the Mediterranean Sea, it’s been at the hub of civilised history since there was such a thing and it’s stuffed with attractions, from Neolithic temples to walled medieval cities and Baroque cathedrals, dating from the time when it was owned by the Knights of St John. Malta’s record during World War Two is something of a footnote within the grander scheme, but it was a key strategic location. Occupied by the British, it was pivotal in supplying and disrupting the war effort for either side in the North African theatre. As a consequence, it was heavily bombed by the Axis powers, flying night and day bombing raids from Sicily, ahead of a likely invasion that, if successful, would almost certainly have led to victory in Egypt for Rommel and the closing of the Suez Canal to the Allies.

One of the stranger things to visit in Malta are the Lascaris War Rooms. This is the British control centre from which the war effort was conducted. It might have changed a bit in the seven years since I went, but I remember struggling just to find it, the path taking me down, down down, through tunnels and gangplanks as though descending into some netherworld. Eventually, I emerged into a clearing, the city of Valletta far above, a somewhat plain door before me representing the museum entrance. I wasn’t sure what I expected when I entered, but the nondescript whitewashed tunnels and unassuming doors were probably about right for this place, with its grim purpose and teeth gritted lack of decoration. Still, really interesting stuff. I was given a walkman, which related the story of the war rooms and indeed the conflict as a whole whilst I wandered through the control rooms, stared at the enormous Mediterranean wall charts and the ‘battle boards’ upon which they would move pieces representing ships, planes, thousands of lives. I’d recommend it as a change of scenery, a reminder of one of the more crucial yet far less celebrated moments in Malta’s history.

The Lascaris War Rooms, along with Valletta itself, feature strongly in Malta Story. Brian Desmond Hurst was a director from East Belfast who had scored a considerable box office success in Britain with his adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge, in 1951, now routinely considered to be the best version, but his career stretched back to the 1920s, back when he was working for John Ford on Hangman’s Horse. It was Ford who persuaded Desmond Hurst to take the job of directing Malta Story, cannily seeing it as ‘right up your street,’ and so the production moved to Valletta to begin filming. It was the director’s second visit to the island, his first coming in 1915 when he stopped off with his Irish Rifles regiment on their way to a fateful engagement at Gallipoli.

The film focuses principally on the Axis attacks on Malta, the struggle to fight off enemy bombers, the desperate need for supplies to make it through, the toll it takes on the Maltese who shelter from the ceaseless raids, cope with dwindling food supplies and listen to exhortations from Radio Rome on the wireless that beg them to surrender. The latter are represented by Melita Gonzar (Flora Robson), the matriarch who sees first hand the effect all this is having on her family and who lives in a bittersweet relationship with the British, the cause of their suffering. No Britons on Malta, no more war. When her son, who she believes has been captured and imprisoned on Sicily, emerges as a spy working for the enemy, the pain it causes her is excruciating. It’s a great role, wonderfully understated and surprisingly dignified, amidst the bombast of all those scenes depicting bits of the island being blasted. Much of the footage is carefully edited stock from the historical archives, mixed in with shots of the three Spitfires that were loaned to the production flying out in retaliation. It doesn’t matter. The scenes contain their own power. We know all about the London Blitz, but war was hell everywhere, no more so than on embattled Malta. When the island is collectively awarded the George Cross, in recognition of its suffering, it comes across as a curiously half-baked gesture.

These bits, spliced to give the film a documentary film, are Malta Story at its best. Jack Hawkins is on reliable form as the stoical British commanding officer, every decision given heft by the sense of realism over what failure will amount to. Wing Commander Bartlett is played by Anthony Steel, at the height of his fame following The Wooden Horse but nothing like a leading man. Despite that, there’s a touching element to the romantic storyline he shares with Renee Asherson’s operations room worker, like both are thrown together in an effort to find some personal happiness in the thick of the struggle.

The tale is told nominally from the perspective of Flight Lieutenant Peter Ross (Alec Guinness). A photo reconnaissance pilot, used to flying high over the enemy in order to take shots of potential targets, is on his way to Alexandria but finds himself stranded in Malta when the carrier plane transporting him is hit by a bomb. Ross does his work out of Valletta instead and comes across a train carrying glider parts into Sicily, elements proving there will be an imminent attack. Showing himself to be useful, he also comes a Maltese girl, Maria (Muriel Pavlow), Melita’s daughter, and the pair fall in love, though their relationship is played against cultural clashes between the British and the island’s natives, and worries over what they will do when the war is concluded.

Guinness specifically asked to play Ross, asking Desmond Hurst to be allowed to take on a romantic lead due to being ‘fed up with playing funny little men’. Better known on screen as a comedy actor, there’s a reason why he got few parts of this type. The actor’s scenes with Pavlow are strangely uncomfortable, lacking in chemistry and played very stiffly, whereas when he takes to the skies he appears much more at home. Little wonder perhaps, that Ross simply disappears from the film for large parts when there’s all that juicy war footage to focus upon. He should be the heart of the film; instead, he’s its weak link.

Malta Story: ***