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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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 from Colorado (1948)

When it’s on: Thursday, 8 September (4.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The Man from Colorado is set at the close of the American Civil War. Glenn Ford plays Owen Devereaux, a Union Colonel who is appointed Judge for his region in Colorado. His right hand man in the army, Del Stewart (William Holden), becomes Marshal and his second in command. Justice under Judge Devereaux is swift and brutal. He orders hangings on the flimsiest of evidence. Death is pronounced as a matter of course and with a straight, unscrupulous face, but Stewart knows better. He remembers an episode shortly before the war ended, when Devereaux’s detachment trapped a Confederate force into offering terms of surrender and, despite waving the white flag, the Colonel gunned them down. Devereaux gives instances of insight into his own condition, writing after the slaughter that he has no idea what’s happening to him, but the rough justice continues and drives an irreconcilable wedge between Stewart and himself.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has existed for as long as human beings. Since ancient times there have been investigations taken into the psychological effects of war, clearly one of the most stress-inducing human experiences, and as long ago as the Civil War formal medical studies into the condition were undertaken. PTSD as a consequence of World War One, especially the experience of living for weeks in trenches, was known as ‘shell shock’, a term redefined as ‘battle fatigue’ in the global war that followed. The shattered mental states of soldiers returning from Germany and Japan in 1945 spilled over into popular culture, notably in Film Noir, in which PTSD became a prominent player in attempting to explain the rationale of its damaged heroes and their struggles to adjust to civilian living. Westerns too chose contemporary issues for storylines transposed into the Old West, and in The Man from Colorado Devereaux is an obvious sufferer. One of the film’s neater themes is that lack of understanding from other people to his psychological state. Stewart recognises his friend’s ‘sickness’ and urges him to take a break from his duties, but his is a lone voice and otherwise everyone is unaware of the particulars of Devereaux’s malaise. You can imagine it really being like that, a PTSD sufferer resorting to almost psychopathic levels of violence without the realisation from him or anyone else of the reasons for his behaviour.

The best thing about Ford in his performance is that Devereaux’s countenance is precisely the same as in his heroic roles – resolute, fixed, always with that undercurrent of violence behind the eyes but maintaining a sense of control. It’s terrifying at times, the sense that to some degree Devereaux thinks he’s dong the right thing, the part of his personality that caused him to question himself eradicated and leaving those around him to challenge his behaviour. The real-life friendship between Ford and Holden spills over into their acting, their ease in each other’s company and the latter’s air of disillusionment as he finds Devereaux taking a path he can’t follow. The clash and split between these two veterans who we are led to believe have been through the horrors of war together and survived should be devastating enough, yet the film adds an unnecessary extra dimension in Ellen Drew’s Caroline, the love interest for both men. Drew’s fine in the part, but the plotline seems thrown in to add a conventional layer of romantic added tension, which isn’t needed. The exploration of PTSD and its effects is enough.

A cool $1 million was lavished on The Man from Colorado, the sum showing in the film’s sprawling township set, part of which was destroyed in the climactic fire scene. Production problems were reflected in the recycling of directors, Charles Vidor being replaced by Henry Levin, which caused the shoot to be extended and costs escalating as a consequence. Whereas the former carried the more celebrated body of work, turning out the classic thriller Gilda two years earlier (which also starred Ford), the latter was a sure hand and developed the film as a Western with Noir themes, helping to show the genre as a format for reflecting prevalent issues within contemporary America. The result is a fine, tense drama, perhaps not quite all it could have been yet well paced and certainly entertaining.

The Man from Colorado: ***

Footsteps in the Fog (1955)

When it’s on: Thursday, 18 February (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Footsteps in the Fog is one of those apparently British films that’s actually backed by American money and therefore plays up to elements of UK life and culture that has a particular fascination for US audiences, most particularly the class system. At one point in the film Stewart Granger tells Jean Simmons that there are no class differences in America, a bit of an eye-popping statement in truth but in the world of the story it’s the essential difference between upstairs folk and ‘them downstairs’ that drives the plot. Had this one been made in the States, it would undoubtedly have emerged as film noir. Transported to Victorian London, all the external action taking place through clouds of pea-souper fog (another tick in the box to meet viewers’ expectations), it becomes instead a slice of Gothic melodrama.

Granger and Simmons were established as major Hollywood stars when it was made, and also made for a real-life couple at the time. Homesick and wishing to take advantage of a trend for films being made in Europe, the pair was shown a script for Footsteps in the Fog. Based on a short story by W W Jacobs, the malevolent and duplicitous characters appealed to Granger and Simmons, who oversaw a string of rewrites before filming commenced. The couple felt less appreciation for the choice of director, Arthur Lubin, in the 1950s best known for directing a series of light comedies about a talking mule, the Francis series (he’d eventually transfer the format to television in the shape of Mister Ed), however Lubin was also a consummate professional with countless credits already to his name including a successful adaptation of Phantom of the Opera in 1943. It’s a combination of the director and cinematographer Christopher Challis we have to thank for some delicious shots, including the principal characters framed below the portrait of Granger’s murdered wife to serve up all the major plot points in one scene.

Granger plays Stephen Lowry, a London society gentleman who at the film’s opening attends the funeral of his wife. She’s passed away at the end of a long fight against illness, but what no one knows is that Lowry has in fact been slowly poisoning her in an effort to take over both her money and status… No one, that is, apart from the house’s maid, Lily (Simmons). At the film’s start, Lily is the lowliest of the house’s servants, according to Marjorie Rhodes’s awful Mrs Park a ‘guttersnipe’ who’s up to no good. Her fortunes improve when she confesses to Lowry that she knows what he did and uses this knowledge to get the rest of the staff sacked and herself installed as Housekeeper. Lily is fatally in love with Lowry. She happily becomes his bed partner as well as the sole member of his staff, believing her logical end to be the future Mrs Lowry. What she fails to come to terms with is her master’s complete absence of morals. As soon as he realises that Lily effectively holds him in her power, Lowry attempts a botched and very public murder against her that fails. Having killed the wrong woman, an innocent police constable’s wife, and been eyewitnessed at the scene of the crime, only Lily’s alibi saves him from further trouble. But Lowry sees himself getting married to the beautiful and eligible Elizabeth Travers (Belinda Lee) rather than Lily, wanting nothing further to do with his useful but redoubtedly working class servant, and plans further machinations to rid himself of her.

One of the fine aspects of the film noir style was the attempt to build characters into more than plot drivers, giving even the most fatale of femmes genuine motives for the dark deeds with which they became involved. Footsteps in the Fog attempts the same, with varying results. There comes a point when you as the viewer realises that Lowry and Lily are made for each other. Neither sees tricky concepts like right and wrong getting in the way of the things they want, which should make theirs the start of a beautiful friendship. The fatal flaw of class difference takes sway, though. To Lowry it’s an impassable barrier, ensuring Lily can never be anything more than a plaything, a distraction, whereas for her there’s a fleeting moment of happiness when she’s at her most intimate with her master, filmed in a post-coital glow having enjoyed his attentions. Despite the murder that kicks off the plot, you hope they can make it work – perhaps Lowry will journey with her to America where the class system (apparently) doesn’t matter, and these amoral yet attractive people can enjoy the fruits of their grubby labours. But of course that doesn’t happen. Lowry, who in a nice little irony ‘married up’ in becoming the member of society’s elite that he now is, simply can’t see beyond his trappings and Lily therefore is an obstacle to his fortunes.

The film varies as a success because there’s little depth to Granger’s character. He’s just not a very nice piece of work and thoroughly unworthy of the rapt Lily, who is guilty of loving him beyond any sense of reason. Her character’s tragedy is her willingness to become his accomplice, even when she makes the fateful testimony that acquits him of the murder she knows was intended for her, and all this is beautifully performed by Simmons. Her greatest noir role was as the eponymous Angel Face, for Otto Preminger playing a seemingly sweet and innocent young woman who is anything but when the surface is scratched away. Lily is not quite as evil but she’s dangerously amoral, which naturally leads to tragic consequences. One of the film’s great shames is that you come away barely remembering any characters beyond the main pair. To an extent that’s fair because Footsteps in the Fog was transparently a vehicle for Granger and Simmons, but everyone else in the film is two dimensional, existing solely to jog the story along. That said there’s a neat supporting role for William Hartnell as a Cockney grifter; Bill Travers on the other hand, who plays Lowry’s friend and his love rival for Elizabeth, isn’t very memorable.

Footsteps in the Fog regularly appears in Film4’s schedule, nearly always in its early slot reserved for throwaway classics and that’s probably about right. It isn’t especially significant and its stars are much better known for roles elsewhere, but it is entertaining.

Footsteps in the Fog: ***

The Two Faces of January (2014)

When it’s on: Sunday, 31 January (9.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Several years ago I tried following a published list of great novels, the aim being to read and then blog about my own findings. The project didn’t last, but before giving up I managed to take in Strangers on a Train and that led to a bit of a love affair with the work of Patricia Highsmith. The piece is here, by the way – it’s a bit of a rambler, but that’s nothing new from me. Getting through the book was easy enough; after all, I love the film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock and it turned out that he’d cherry picked from the text. In the novel, both ‘strangers’ become mired in guilty acts whereas the film diverts from this path, making Guy into a fairly straightforward hero who never quite falls into Bruno’s trap. The book, told largely from Guy’s perspective, gets into its villains’ heads and actually generates some sympathy for these people who have committed evil acts and the guilt that completely ensnares them by the close. It’s definitely worth a read, if for no other reason than for the appearance of a hangdog detective who surely helped to create the template for the long-running Columbo.

The Two Faces of January is a less celebrated Highsmith, but it explores many of the same themes as covered in Strangers on a Train and is no less fascinating. That it took fifty years for the 1964 novel to be adapted for the screen is a little curious considering it won awards at the time, but script writer Hossein Amini had always wanted the job and got to do it for his 2014 directorial debut. The story is classic Highsmith. Set in Greece, the narrative follows three characters, none of whom are especially nice, on a doom-laden descent. Rydal (played in the film by Oscar Isaac) is a petty young grifter, based in Athens and hiring himself out as a tour guide, seducing young women and using his Greek language skills to weasel shoppers who don’t understand the currency exchange rate out of their money. He comes across Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), on the surface a pair of easy marks, wandering the Acropolis, well dressed, affluent and floating through their holiday. Rydal makes their acquaintance and finds them to be pleasant company, particularly the lovely and apparently guileless Colette. But then the action starts following the couple, back to their hotel room where Chester is disturbed by a private investigator. Money is demanded from him on behalf of some swindled investors. We learn that Chester has gone under different aliases, that the cash he throws around might come from unsavoury business practices. A fight breaks out and the dick is accidentally killed. Chester tries to hide the body and Rydal turns up to help him, from then on becoming the couple’s accomplice as they attempt to flee the scene of the crime and relocate to Crete. As Rydal and the MacFarlands journey across the island, trying to avoid any collision with the authorities and waiting for the fake passports that are being arranged by the young man’s shady Greek contacts, their friendship begins to crack. Chester turns increasingly to drink, and Colette becomes closer to Rydal who is nearer her age. Jealousies and tension threaten their relationship, all of which comes to a head as they’re stuck in the Minoan ruins at Knossos.

While the story could take place any time, Amini stays with the novel’s early 1960s setting, giving his film a period feel and pacing it in contemporary style. The sexual tension, while present as Chester starts suspecting his wife and Rydal of sparking an affair behind his booze-soaked back, is more oblique than shown and is actually toned down from what takes place in the novel. A key scene, in which Chester sleeps off his hangover with sedatives leaving Colette to make herself available to Rydal, is cut at the exact moment when it appears she’s moving in for a kiss. Does anything happen? The film implies yes, but it’s an unreliable narrator and you’re left wondering about the exact truth, whether Colette is a flighty piece of work or it’s all part of Chester’s mounting paranoia, which leads to him getting soaked and taking to the streets in a drunken, attention-grabbing pursuit.

Reviews have compared The Two Faces of January to The Talented Mr Ripley, another Highsmith adaptation that came out in 1999. If anything though, Amini appears to stick closer to Strangers on a Train and makes a film with definite shades of Hitchcock, Alberto Iglesias’s violin-driven score carrying heavy overtones of Bernard Herrmann as the suspense mounts. It’s lusciously filmed, the Greek scenery looking like an earthly paradise as a backdrop for the film’s dark deeds. Amini was fortunate enough to be given the rarely granted permission to film at the Acropolis, and at times had to stop shoots due to nearby riots taking place over the Greek government debt crisis.

At its heart, the film works on the performances of its three leads. I’ve been a fan of Mortsensen for some time, though I did get the initial impression his casting was a bit off the mark given Chester is written as a well fed, middle aged drunkard and the actor seems to have far too much charisma to make it work. In fact it’s just fine. Mortensen channels the spirit of Joseph Cotten in his playing, especially his tendency to mumble through some of the character’s drunker moments, and he even gets to copy Cotten’s malicious tone from Shadow of a Doubt when passing on some cynical life lessons about jaded maturity to Rydal, who transforms into a kind of spiritual son. As Chester’s veneer of easy charm cracks, his descent into drink and delusion is terrifying and Mortensen gets it across perfectly. Kirsten Dunst made little impression on me until her work in Melancholia, perhaps a case of waiting for the right and more mature roles to come along. The duplicity of her character, and her willingness to use beauty to switch her allegiances from Chester to Rydal as she realises the former is going down, is really well conveyed, suggesting a somewhat seedy back story of how she married the older man in the first place. And then there’s Oscar Isaac, an actor who has become ubiquitous with the last few years and in great form here. Rydal isn’t an especially great guy, but the personal tragedies that have relocated him from America and the fact he finds himself out of his depth as his fate intertwines with the MacFarlands makes him an engaging third lead, not so much a hero but certainly the least guilty of the three.

Made like a classical thriller, a bit like Mad Men in its decision to keep sex scenes and gaudy violence mostly off the screen, the Two Faces of January is a film I really enjoyed and I was disappointed that it vanished almost as soon as it appeared. It certainly warrants another look, especially with Highsmith’s work once again being promoted as the more personal Carol does the rounds and its performers receive recognition in Academy circles.

The Two Faces of January: ****

The Reckless Moment (1949)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 5 January (2.25 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Recently, I’ve taken the opportunity to watch a couple of Max Ophuls’s films from his American period. He reminds me a lot of Douglas Sirk, his fellow German director who came to the USA and, in his work, showed a mirror up to society and found it wanting. There was Caught, Ophuls’s study of the capitalist American dream, Barbara Bel Geddes achieving it when she marries Robert Ryan’s millionaire. It quickly becomes apparent that Ryan’s a rich asshole, a megalomaniac who’s surrounded himself with sycophants on the payroll and, in his eyes, Bel Geddes carries exactly the same status. So she runs away, into the arms of James Mason’s kindly and understanding doctor, and the film’s dilemma becomes one of choosing true happiness on modest means or an empty life of wealth.

Mason’s services were retained for The Reckless Moment, a title that makes better use of his talents as it was frustrating to see an actor of his intensity and range taking on a straight role in Caught. In this entry, the character he plays is complicated and interesting, a blackmailer who falls in love with the victim because she is from a level of society to which he can never aspire. The romantic undertones between him and Joan Bennett are palpable, but I’m not sure ‘romance’ is the appropriate word; instead Mason’s character slips from turning up on her doorstep with the aim of extorting money from her to helping around the house, carrying her groceries and interacting socially with her family. His effort to impress himself on a middle class family is quietly heartbreaking. You wonder what he’s experienced previously to give up on his lot in chasing a clearly lost cause.

And that’s just one element of a great thriller that takes a step into nightmarish Noir territory, presenting viewers with the sort of unresolvable dilemma that keeps the suspense ticking until its close. The central plot hook is familiar territory to Joan Bennett, who starred in The Woman in the Window five years earlier. When not walking around in daring see-through blouses, Bennett’s character became embroiled with Edward G Robinson when the pair accidentally murder someone and then attempt to cover their tracks, something you know will be a hopeless exercise because in these films, crime never pays. Just like in The Reckless Moment, she’s blackmailed for $5,000, five gees, an impossible quandary that feels like the start of a slide into despair and ruin.

The character Bennett plays in The Reckless Moment is very different from her glamorous role in Fritz Lang’s entry. Here she’s Lucia Harper, a respectable housewife living in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Balboa. It’s a typical 1940s small community, where everyone knows each other and added to that each other’s business. The world is presented as idyllic, though the Harper family, once you peer beneath the surface, is dysfunctional and far from perfect. Mr Harper works away from home, in West Berlin, and won’t be home for Christmas. While Lucia’s son, Tom (Henry O’Neill), is just an over-exuberant teenage lad, her daughter, Geraldine Brooks’s Bea, is a different prospect altogether. She’s chosen art school over going to college and here she has hooked up with older man Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick). Believing the age gap between Darby and Bea is intolerable, Lucia goes into the city to tell him to stop seeing her, only to get an insight into his true character when he says it will cost her, five gees to be precise. Lucia refuses and returns home, but Darby follows her and meets Bea in the boathouse. Bea’s been clued in by Lucia about his blackmail attempt and brushes him off, but a tussle ensues and only finishes when she runs off and Darby is inadvertently killed. Early the following morning, Lucia discovers the body and the anchor he’s collapsed upon. You or I might contact the authorities at that point, but instead she tries to spare her daughter and the family’s reputation and dumps the corpse in some nearby swamps.

End of the matter? Yeah, course it is. The body’s discovered and the police start searching, though it’s clear that only a staggering leap of logic would lead them to the Harper’s door. Unwisely though, Darby’s loose and fast lifestyle led him into building a string of debts. He owed money to Nagel and Donnelly (Mason), and in collateral they possess a number of love letters Bea had written to Darby. The letters are incriminating, evidence of the link between the Harper family and Darby, and Donnelly turns up to see Lucia and demand five gees for their return, or he’ll take them to the authorities. Lucia flusters; she doesn’t have that kind of money. Her inability to just get rid of Donnelly is horrifying. When other family members show up and invite him for dinner or some chatter about the ‘old country’ (he’s Irish, like Lucia’s father), two things become transparent – the easy sociability of the household, in which people can only ever be there if they’re friendly, and Lucia’s rising sense of shame. And then something else – Donnelly responds. At first it feels like a ploy, as though he knows he’s an embarrassment to her and plays up to the family’s good-natured attention in order to turn the screw, but as the days pass it transpires his feelings run deeper than that. He buys her a gift when they meet at the shop. He pays and serves coffee to her at a moment of tension. Donnelly steadily becomes the husband figure in her life, ostensibly protecting her from the tougher partner, Nagel (Roy Roberts), but in truth serving as surrogate in the absence of Mr Harper. The lengths he goes to in order to protect her become pivotal when Nagel shows up and he’s forced to decide between the racket and Lucia.

It’s a fascinating study, part affection (Lucia’s a beautiful woman) but almost certainly more to do with the world she represents, a cosy and friendly environment that is obviously alien to the hard knock life he knows. This was early in Mason’s career as an American film star (he was a major British player, with certain wartime titles going on to be among the country’s most profitable at the domestic box office), but already he was establishing himself as a mature actor, lending credibility to his character and the relationship he establishes with Lucia. What could have been a straight melodrama gains heft as the dilemma they share is dealt with, as far as possible, in a relatable, adult fashion.

But it takes two, and Bennett as Lucia is simply electrifying. Having enjoyed some delicious femme fatale roles earlier in the decade (the character she plays in Lang’s Scarlet Street, again opposite Edward G Robinson, ranks among the screen’s ultimate honey traps; it’s very dark) as well as dominating the gossip columns with endless details about her private life, this role was a real gift. As a housewife for whom the family means everything, she readily shoulders responsibility for disposing of Darby’s body, deals exclusively with the blackmail levelled against her daughter (about which Bea knows nothing), maintains a busy and disorganised home, and frets over the household bills. Knowing she has to raise the five gees, she take it upon herself to visit pawn shops and loan offices, the latter almost a comic situation as she’s shoved inside a glass booth, this respectable woman, whilst in other booths we can see little episodes of anonymous financial desperation play out. She does it all practically, just because that’s her role and it what she does. There’s no collapsing under the strain; the only time we see her cry is at the film’s close when she’s been released from her predicament. Incidentally, there’s a great piece on Bennett’s real-life shenanigans over at Shadows and Satin; it’s well worth a read, particularly as it makes a refreshing change to find that she had the last laugh.

The Reckless Moment was not a success upon its release, and there’s a sense of it being hopelessly ahead of its time, its psychology too sophisticated for the audiences to whom it played. Ophuls responded by returning to Europe (he was a Jew who fled his native Germany when the Nazis arrived, and then moved across the Atlantic when his new home in France fell in 1940) and enjoyed arguably his most impressive creative period, certainly the most celebrated. The tendency to sidetrack the four films he directed in America is natural enough, but wrong. The Reckless Moment is brilliant cinema.

The Reckless Moment: ****

Shutter Island (2010)

When it’s on: Saturday, 12 December (11.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

I am yet to cover a Martin Scorsese picture on these pages, which seems a ridiculous oversight considering his films are rotated frequently enough and there’s always something worth saying about them. Perhaps the problem is that many are undisputed classics, and all I could add is that yes, indeed, they’re very, very good. Personally, I would far rather cover one of the less screened works, like The Last Temptation of Christ or Kundun, because for me they’re really interesting pieces of work that are a little off Scorcese’s beaten track.

And then there’s Shutter Island, his 2010 release that harks back to his clear love for genre cinema, in particular Film Noir. It’s a great example of ‘Neo Noir’, with its 1950s setting and the typical trope of a hero battling personal demons that are just as prevalent as his actual objective. I think these films are fascinating. Whereas movies made in the fifties could do little more than hint at the dark deeds taking place on the screen, by now almost anything goes and Shutter Island can depict all the gore, nudity and bad language that simply was verboten back then. Sometimes that can be a double-edged sword. Scorcese’s remake of Cape Fear surprisingly lost some of the original’s power because it unflinchingly showed Cady’s nastiness in a way that the 1962 version only suggested, failing to understand that the ‘suggestion’ expanded the character’s power and sadism in the minds of the audience. You end up knowing precisely what Robert De Niro is capable of in the update, whereas the original’s Robert Mitchum was a proper bogeyman, with untold depths of horror lurking off the corner of the screen, your imagination filling in the blanks, and then some.

The other element of noir that matters here is length. The economical storytelling that resulted in films rarely capping the 90-minute mark was almost miraculous, something that has tailed off in the modern era with running times longer than two hours seen as quite normal. One of the major criticisms of Shutter Island was that it took so long in reaching its conclusion, to those clever viewers who ‘got’ where it was heading making for an interminable waiting time. I can understand that point of view, though personally I was happy enough to be swept along by the plot and Teddy Daniels’s investigation. There’s always something going on, for instance Scorsese dragging out the tension of entering Shutter Island’s Ward C for the longest possible moment because Daniels, the director and the viewer knows that whatever’s in there is going to be awful.

Shutter Island is an island in Boston Harbour that is the location for Ashecliffe Hospital, a home for the criminally insane. It can only be accessed by ferry, and the region’s frequent storms make it possible for anyone visiting to be trapped there. The year is 1952. Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a US Marshall who, along with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) is investigating a woman who’s gone missing from the hospital. The patient, named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) is there because she killed her three children, but in her delirium refuses to acknowledge her crime. The trouble for Daniels is that there’s no easy way she could have escaped. The door to her cell was locked and Rachel would have had to slip past numerous people before making her way out, and that’s before taking the treacherous climate of the island itself into account. Meeting the lead psychiatrist, Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Daniels finds him to be less than completely helpful and ever so slightly cryptic in his answers. Daniels’s own state of mind comes increasingly into account also; he suffers flashbacks in which he returns to the Dachau concentration camp, a place he helped to liberate at the end of World War Two, and to visions of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams). His ulterior motive for visiting Shutter Island is that it houses Andrew Laeddis, the arsonist whose fire starting antics killed Dolores. If he can find Laeddis and confront him then he reasons he’ll find peace of mind.

One of the biggest reasons the film works is that it introduces its horrors slowly. For some time, things go as expected. Teddy and Chuck talk about the case, the hospital is exactly what it appears to be. Certain facts are denied to the Marshalls, including access to the personnel files, which is important because there may be a doctor on the staff who can reveal more about Rachel’s condition. Then Daniels’s flashbacks start. He begins seeing Dolores, along with a pale little girl. The German psychiatrist (Max von Sydow) seems antagonistic , a red rag to Daniels whose terrible memories of the war make him naturally ill disposed to people from that country. And is Cawley all that he appears to be? Despite appearing every inch the humanitarian who cares for the welfare of his patients, there’s something not quite right, an unease amongst the inmates, rumours that the island’s lighthouse is the scene for experiments on the brain. As Daniels’s paranoia rises he finds himself isolated, even from his partner, and begins to investigate alone.

DiCaprio, who by now was established as a regular collaborator with Scorsese, makes for a fantastic Teddy Daniels. At first he’s stable and professional, but it doesn’t take long before the cracks start to appear and the fact he’s barely holding it together is reflected in a great performance in which his sense of guilt steadily rises to the surface. The next best performance is by the hospital, hardly a slur on the other actors but established as a place that despite the best of intentions is the site of waking nightmares and terror, all dark corners and gloomy metallic walkways.

Neither do I hold with the viewpoint that the film’s entirely about the twist and that’s it. A key speech at the end reveals everything about guilt and using delusions as a masking agent. This tiny moment, delivered after all the movie’s revelations have apparently been laid bare says it all about the motivation of the characters and the willingness of the human mind to shield itself from horrific truths, to show the thin line between sanity and madness. To say more would be to give the game away, but I really enjoyed getting to the end and never felt that the point was too stretched out. For fans of Noir in general, and especially those who enjoyed the likes of Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, to which Shutter Island has strong links, it’s recommended.

Shutter Island: ****

’71 (2014)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 November (9.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

A Freeview TV première that’s showing on Film4, ’71 is a very tense drama set during the Troubles in Belfast, a period of almost unbearable unease thanks to the sheer number of political factions involved and the incapability – at least at the time depicted in the film – of the small British army to handle itself within a hostile environment. There’s an element of confusion over who can be trusted, the shifting of allegiances that seems to turn on single events, and this environment adds to the film’s overall tone of disorientation. Into this mix is tossed Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a young private who gets cut off from his unit and left to fend for himself. As local Nationalists try to find and kill him, and the army just tries to find him, Hook is stuck on the back streets, terrified and bewildered, and much of the story tracks his efforts to get back to base.

Viewers are invited to watch ’71 as either a political drama or a thriller, though it works better as the latter, the events at their dizzying finest as the camera tracks Hook scrambling forlornly for safety. O’Connell, increasingly established as a rising star when he featured in this, is fantastic in the lead role. Early scenes show him larking around with his little brother, who’s in a care home, the antics of the pair suggesting Hook is little more than a child himself, albeit one with a gun as he enlists with the army. His character is never portrayed as a hero, and rightly so. Hook gets lost, panics, has strokes of good and bad luck, is badly hurt, and becomes lucky to survive. His first slice of poor fortune is to be sent to Northern Ireland rather than West Germany. It’s clear the army is out of its depth, pushing raw recruits like Hook and his comrades into the scene of a street riot, the unit led by a typical posh boy (Sam Reid) who has as little clue as anyone about how to handle the situation.

Overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the people closing in on them, the unit departs quickly, leaving Hook and a comrade behind, the latter shot dead simply because he’s confronted by a young man (Martin McCann) with a gun in his hand. Hook bolts. The man, Haggerty, chases, loses him, and takes to the streets with Quinn (Killian Scott) and a boy called Sean (Barry Keoghan) in a car, searching for the lost soldier. They represent a more youthful and militant branch of the IRA, incessantly violent, and in conflict with older heads represented by Boyle (David Wilmot) who’s in contact with the British counter insurgency unit, which has a typically grizzled and jaded Sean Harris at its head. All are looking for Hook, who makes friends with a Loyalist boy, only to find the pub he’s taken to blown up thanks to a makeshift bomb going off. By now seriously injured, he’s picked up by a Catholic ex-army medic, Eamon (Richard Dormer), who does his best to repair the damage and then contacts Boyle to help get him back to his barracks. But Boyle’s being tracked by the younger men, who converge on Hook’s position, forcing him back out into the open.

’71 was directed by Yann Demange, better known for his work in television and relishing the opportunity to make a sharp thriller. Sheffield was chosen for filming as it looks more like the downtrodden Belfast streets of the early 1970s, most of which have since been pulled down. The washed out palette adds to the sense of dourness, a poverty stricken and desperate community that’s at war with itself. Kids play in the streets, mess around with fire. Guns are stored beneath the floorboards of bedrooms. Much of the shooting is done using a handheld camera, as though audience members are running alongside Hook, adding a kinetic and fast-paced energy to the action. It’s as good a chase scene as they get.

The film’s attempt to grasp humanity emphasises the violent showdown between Hook and Haggerty, a sequence that ends with the two holding hands as one of them dies, sharing sympathy even though they’re enemies. There’s no attempt to highlight anyone as a villain or hero, just people with goals and jobs to do. The only ‘good guy’ is Eamon, and even he’s motivated by a mixture of fear and cynicism, the doubts in his mind teased out by Dormer’s great performance. Harris is good also, the man who can see the big picture but with the knowledge that there’s little chance he will be able to influence it. It’s such an authentic performance that you can imagine him walking straight off the actual streets of Belfast and onto the set. And then there’s O’Connell, carrying ’71’s energy as he continually tries to evade danger. There’s a reason he’s so highly regarded. He’s electrifying. As is the film itself, which stuffs swatches of authenticity and action into its running time to produce a mix that is quite intoxicating.

’71: ****

Halls of Montezuma (1950)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 6 October (4.20 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli,
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea.

We tend to think of films illustrating the pity of war as a very modern invention. One is drawn to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, with its slick editing and lives cheaply thrown away on the Normandy beaches as the ultimate statement. Or how about the Oliver Stone directed Vietnam movies and their visceral, angry message making? But it’s not the case, of course. Hollywood has been making features carrying an anti-war message for as long as it’s been in business. The director of Halls of Montezuma, Lewis Milestone, scored a considerable hit and won Oscars for his 1930 entry, All Quiet on the Western Front, a powerful piece of work about the horrors of the western European trenches during World War One, told from the perspective of ordinary German soldiers. Perhaps the message of these films got a little lost when the cinema of war became all about the action adventure, the sight of Clint Eastwood joyously gunning down countless oncoming Nazis in Where Eagles Dare that drowned out the pacifist message told elsewhere.

Halls of Montezuma was billed as a paean to the glory and endeavour of American marines, fighting in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War, but it’s a far more complicated work than that. True, there are successes as the Japanese (in a sign of the times, they’re referred to constantly as ‘nips’) are pushed back, the film showing an example of how that happened. But there’s also a toll, an ever present price to pay, as the men commanded by Lieutenant Carl Anderson (Richard Widmark) are decimated, and not for the first time. The routine story of the marines’ efforts to take a Pacific island from their enemies becomes a highly personal tale, vignettes that explore their lives away from the front giving us a precious insight into their characters, their hopes and fears. Anderson was a Science teacher before enlisting, and helped a student (Richard Hylton) to overcome his debilitating stutter. Years later the kid, Conroy, is in Anderson’s platoon, but struggles with panic attacks about going into battle, forcing the pair to remember their previous encounter. To his men, the Lieutenant might appear to be a stolid commander, yet he suffers from terrible migraines, and ‘Doc’ (Karl Malden) holds the tablets that will help him, which makes him recall when he first took on the job of dispensing them.

The difficulty of each mission is made clear to the men as they disembark from their ships and make for the beaches in their landing crafts. They look ruefully back at the relative safety of the ships receding into the distance, before the guns open up to clear their passage onto the shores. Everyone knows the Japanese are tough fighters. What they don’t know is whether they’ll make it back off the island, and the film shows their acknowledgement of this horrible reality. Once on land, the job takes on extra levels of impossibility as the marines come under attack from a hidden missile silo. Their only chance of success is to discover the location of the base and order the aircraft to destroy it; otherwise their attack will be halted.

The plot takes in the interrogation of captured Japanese soldiers, daring incursions into enemy territory and the deaths of much of Anderson’s platoon. That he survives and indeed prevails is presented as a bittersweet notion, not only for him but also Jack Palance’s cynical Pigeon Lane, who’s faced up to death many times and despite protecting the redneck private, Pretty Boy (Skip Homeier), is unable to save him. In Halls of Montezuma, war is hell, a necessary hell but always a struggle against the conditions, enemy soldiers and internalised stresses. It foreshadows the HBO mini-series, The Pacific, with its sobering look at what life at the front was really like, and serves as a neat counterpoint to the number of Film Noir entries being made at the time. It’s very easy to imagine Widmark’s emotionally wrecked Anderson as a Noir character once he returns home, wrestling with the guilt of all those dead comrades that he’s doomed to bear for the rest of his life.

Halls of Montezuma was a lavish production, utilising the co-operation of the United States Marine Corps and filmed in and around Camp Pendleton, which remains the USMC base just outside San Diego. The filming of battle scenes was compiled with stock footage of actual landings, which jars a little now as the ‘joins’ are obvious but was standard practice at the time. Its focus on the people rather than the action makes for refreshing viewing, its message of real lives being spent on strategically important spits of land coming across very powerfully, its values writ large. Amidst a good cast, I was impressed strongly with Widmark’s performance. Here playing the film’s hero, he nevertheless managed to develop a complex, multi-dimensional character rather than a straight, square jawed lead, clearly feeling every casualty for which he feels responsible.

Halls of Montezuma: ***

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 5 August (3.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Like many people, I first got into Anime after watching Spirited Away in 2002. I was 30 and it was sort of a kids’ film, but the animation was so gorgeous and the story so universal that it didn’t matter. I instantly started hunting down other films, discovering a vast library of titles, the cream directed by Spirited Away’s Hayao Miyazaki but with a string of utterly worthy releases from others within the studio. That widened into a brief flirtation with TV series and even Manga books, the massive back catalogue of offerings churned out in Japan and more widely available in this country, also the realisation that many animated shows I’d enjoyed as a child had in fact been made first for Japanese audiences.

My obsession has diminished over the years, boxsets of classics like Akira and Ninja Scroll on the shelf and dusted off for an occasional watch, but still DVDs featuring Miyazaki’s name remain regular staples in this house. The Castle of Cagliostro, his first cinematic release, is an incredibly entertaining piece of work, channelling the spirit of swashbucklers coupled with the antics of Tintin and James Bond. It’s a little rougher than later offerings. Miyazaki’s staples of woodland spirits and environmental friendly messages – prevalent within an industrialised country that nevertheless uses the natural world in a unique and special way – clearly came later. The Castle of Cagliostro aims to be nothing more than a fun adventure yarn, and in that sense ticks all the right boxes.

The film’s central character, master thief Arsene Lupin III, was no stranger to Japanese audiences when he took the starring role here. Featuring in Manga regularly since 1967, his capers had also been made into a television series and a movie before Miyazaki took over for this 1979 release. Together with his henchman, the chain smoking marksman Jigen, fedora always covering his eyes, Lupin was a well known figure but his character was modified to fit the story. Less apathetic, his trademark leeriness reduced to good-natured cheek, Lupin was remodelled to fit the confines of a film aimed at family audiences, Miyazaki crafting a world of singular European beauty in which the story to take place. When you see Cagliostro you think of San Marino or Monaco, a tiny yet significant principality with years of history behind it and little more than a grand palace to fit within its borders.

The villainous Count is set on arranging a marriage between himself and the winsome Princess Clarisse. He has little interesting in uniting their houses, more in cementing his power in the region and using her to unlock Cagliostro’s largest secret, a fabled ancient treasure trove. Nothing seems to stand in his way, nothing that is apart from the intrepid Lupin and an ingenious mind and array of devices that keep him one step ahead. The story becomes a race over who captures Clarisse – the Count and his army of sinister minions, or Lupin and the intervention of his plucky friends. There’s also the little matter of uncovering the source of the Count’s personal fortune, a vast printing press that’s used to run of countless counterfeit banknotes in all denominations. In finding this, Lupin enlists the most unlikely ally, his own dogged pursuer Inspector Koichi Zenagata, who’s been after the thief for years.

It’s good fun, Lupin coming across and foiling a series of traps, falling into others that lead him into the depths of the labyrinthine castle and stumbling across skeletons of medieval burrowers from years ago. There are breathless chases over the rooftops, through waterways and secret passages, Lupin normally – not always – coming out on top yet remaining determined to win the day. The character comes with a nice singularity of purpose, at odds with his credentials as a modern Robin Hood (without the ‘giving to the poor’ part, in fairness) and making clear a history between himself and the Princess that is teased out over the course of the film.

No doubt about it, Miyazaki’s made better films. The Castle of Cagliostro isn’t a patch on his various paeans to childhood, the pastoral wonders of My Neighbour Totoro, the coming of age story presented in Kiki’s Delivery Service, for me culminating in the towering brilliance of Spirited Away. Those three films didn’t really have villains and focused more on the indefatigability of lead characters learning life lessons as they grew up. In contrast, this is a straightforward adventure caper, which should appeal greatly to fans of Tintin; the little journalist often ended up in similar scrapes as he searched for buried treasures and secrets. The artwork isn’t as sublime as it would become in later years, but the scope is already present and correct, the castle at once imposing and beautifully splendid, the animation smooth and packed with character. It’s a fine introduction to one of the world’s great animators, and in its own right makes for 100 minutes of laughs and action, featuring a winning lead who remains the focus of attempts to keep him on the screen, more than 35 years down the line.

The Castle of Cagliostro: ****