All About Eve (1950)

When it’s on: Saturday, 30 December (3.20 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Over the holiday period the BBC are screening Feud, the Fox series that dramatises the ‘rivalry’ between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. As a pair of veteran, Golden Age dames, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are spectacular in their respective roles, particularly the latter who essentially looks as though Davis herself has somehow walked out of time to appear personally. To tie in with the series, we are getting a short season of films starring the two old greats, and in All About Eve we have an opportunity to see the role that remains perhaps Bette Davis’s best remembered, an acting tour de force that’s so well performed and came at such a perfect time in the actor’s career that it’s possible to believe she was just playing herself.

While the film’s called All About Eve, it isn’t really. Its heart lies with two characters whose wit and cynicism provide the film with its soul – Davis’s ageing Margo, and the Sahara-dry theatre critic Addison DeWitt, who’s brought to sardonic life by George Sanders. Its four female stars were all Oscar nominated, and none of them won, the feeling being that their presence in lead and support categories split the vote, while Sanders ran away with the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. It’s an appropriate merit for someone who gives the impression of having built up to this moment throughout his career. DeWitt is razor sharp, one step ahead and lights up the screen whenever he appears on it. Though his relationship with Eve suggests a marriage of convenience between friendly critic and rising star of the stage, the implication being that both are in fact gay and have united for mutual benefit, several scenes make it clear that he has her number and can always put her in her place, which adds a destructive and rotten note to their partnership.

All About Eve takes place in flashback, as Anne Baxter’s title character is receiving a prestigious honour and the film’s other main players are all present at the ceremony, recalling their memories of Eve. They remember the first time she entered their little company, appearing at the theatre where Margo stars and telling them of her hard luck history, and the hope inspired by seeing the play every night. All are charmed. Karen (Celeste Holm), Margo’s close friend and wife of the play’s writer, Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), takes to Eve immediately and commits to helping her, encouraging the star to employ her as a private secretary. Margo agrees, and over time Eve becomes an essential member of her staff. Then the doubts start creeping in.

Margo’s maid, Birdie (Thelma Ritter), suspects that Eve’s humility and willingness to do anything for her employer is a sham, that she spends all her time studying Margo, as though working ultimately to become her. This is a feeling Margo begins to share as the ‘perfect’ Eve anticipates her every whim a little too well, and her concerns grow when Eve talks Karen into letting her be an understudy to Margo’s new starring role. On the play’s first night, Margo is unable to make it to the theatre in time and can only sit, stranded, as her understudy takes over, arranging for the press to be present and giving a sublime performance, eventually landing the star-making part for herself. Before long, Eve is making moves on Margo’s boyfriend, Bill (Gary Merrill), and then it emerges that she and Karen cooked up a plan to ensure the play’s star was away on its opening night…

One of the film’s main themes is age. Margo, an established star, is 40 and still forced to take roles that are younger than she is, while Bill is eight years her junior. The suggestion is that her resentment of Eve boils down to the latter being just the right age to take over the lead roles she is used to performing, as well as being young, beautiful and ambitious. Before Eve’s duplicitous nature emerges, it’s implied that Margo’s suspicion of her is basic jealousy, something Margo exacerbates through acidic wit and sly put-downs. DeWitt is part of the problem, ever in search for a  new star to write about and promote. In an early scene, he seems to have discovered his muse in Miss Caswell, a young actress he brings along to the party Margo is throwing for Bill, but it transpires her radiance isn’t matched by talent, a vacuum that is waiting to be filled by none other than Eve. Miss Caswell is played by Marilyn Monroe in an early appearance; her scenes highlight her beauty and the way the men fall around her, something else for Margo’s insecurities to fixate upon. The party starts well but turns bitter as Margo drinks heavily and her tongue becomes caustic, lashing out at everyone around her before she retires and everyone else shuffles home. The stars, it turns out, might  be drawn to Miss Carswell and Eve, but they’re in a fixed orbit around Margo.

As Eve, Baxter is not as good as Davis and perhaps that’s entirely the point. The issue isn’t so much her talent as an actor, but her willingness to scheme and plot with no scruples, as part of an industry that in its women prizes youth over experience and ability. She’s worth following however, especially in the film’s earlier scenes when, as Birdy suggests, she does indeed spend her time on screen watching Margo like a hawk, studying her every mannerism. Also very good are Ritter and Holm in their supporting roles, though rightly it’s Davis who the camera loves and indulges, and she is good value in every second she’s on the screen, still a captivating presence despite the perceived diminishing of all those miles on the clock.

Personally, while I have no trouble admiring All About Eve, its acerbic dialogue and finely drawn characters, it isn’t a title I especially enjoy. There’s something about it that’s a bit too clever, too knowing, at the expense of elements like pace, a build of suspense. For me, the same year’s Sunset Boulevard has everything this one lacks. It’s better constructed, like this one telling a complicated story in flashback (and for added value, they’re the memories of a dead man) but building up to its finale in a dizzying, compulsive way that Eve, for all its smartness, never matches. Perhaps the fault lies in the identity of the directors. Sunset Boulevard was a Billy Wilder film, from most points of view a seal of quality, whereas Joseph L Mankiewcz directed All About Eve. With a background in writing and production before he took to ‘the chair’, Mankiewicz had an efficient eye and clearly no problem with bringing written dialogue to life, but the film seems happy moving from scene to scene without ever fully joining the dots.

What remains is a technically fine film, featuring some truly great performances and a haul of awards, indicating that in my mixed reaction I’m most probably wrong about it. Certainly it’s a celebrated piece of work, routinely occupying spots near the top of most lists and remaining an important touchstone in the career of Bette Davis, even if Sanders deserves more praise than he generally receives in a sea of acclaim for its complementary female performances. There’s even a very nice coda to the film that suggests it’s all cyclical, and that Eve will come to suffer the same fate as the one she inflicted on Margo.

All About Eve: ****

Advertisements

Scarlet Street (1945)

When it’s on: Friday, 29 December (8.55 am)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

Some time ago on these pages, I covered Ms Joan Bennett and her luminous starring role in Max Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment. Both in real life and on screen, Bennett was a compelling and fascinating lady, capable of adapting her talents to various guises just as her world away from film spun through a series of controversies and scandals. You can imagine her acting ability being put to good use as she switched from delicate victim to femme fatale, always with her survival instinct present and correct.

Before Ophuls cast her as a compromised middle class housewife in his 1949 movie, Bennett was perhaps best known for the two films she made with Fritz Lang in the middle of that decade, The Woman in the Window followed by Scarlet Street. Both feature the same cast members – downtrodden, broken Edward G Robinson and thuggish spiv, Dan Duryea – but it’s Bennett who takes two very different parts. In the earlier film she’s classy, but in Scarlet Street she plays Kitty, a low rent tramp, tied to petty conman Johnny (Duryea), who she loves despite suffering physical abuse from him. Though the script never states it Kitty is almost certainly a prostitute, or at least ‘fallen’ enough to use sex casually, and as a consequence she’s beautiful, brassy and in her manner and speech as pure as the driven slush. It would take a true sap to see anything in her beyond irredeemable white trash, and into her world slopes Chris Cross (Robinson), middle-aged, subservient, his soul crushed by life, and yet hopeful.

Through Dudley Nichols’s screenplay, Lang’s direction and a top notch performance by Robinson, Chris is one of those characters who appears to have stumbled into the film from bitter reality. He represents everyone’s broken dream. His lowly cashier’s job pays little and offers nothing, and yet he’s just completed 25 years’ service. He’s married to a lady who dotes on her former late husband, his portrait hanging in pride of place within the parlour to put Chris squarely in his place. Chris works and does the domestic chores while spending his scraps of spare time painting, a release from the dirge that offers him some tiny sense of pleasure. He knows his attempts at art aren’t very good, but that isn’t the point – he loves doing it, despite his harridan wife (Rosalind Ivan) complaining about the smell of paint and threatening to throw all his work away.

In Kitty – who he chances across one night – he sees a chance to turn his life around. She seems to show an interest in him, and that morsel of attention is enough to compel Chris to begin lavishing her with money and gifts, but the entire relationship is based on misconceptions and assumptions. He refuses to let the shades fall away and see her for what she really is, choosing to ignore shady Johnny who always appears to be around while claiming to be just a friend. As for Kitty, her initial meeting with Chris happens when he’s returning from a night out – he’s dressed opulently and is taking about £50,000 art purchases, which suggests to her he’s loaded, a big shot. Johnny tells her to exploit this, which she does half-heartedly. She doesn’t want to take their plan of swindling Chris out of his money too far, but it isn’t long before she’s in over her head. While Johnny starts selling Chris’s paintings to make a bit on the side, the pair have no idea that his largesse is coming from robbing the work safe, that he thinks it will all be worth it because it will ultimately lead to marriage with Kitty and some half grasped happily ever after.

The result of all this scheming and dreaming is an inevitable spiral towards destruction and doom for Chris, Kitty and even Johnny. Each character is punished in some poetic fashion, and while The Woman in the Window came with a final twist that suggested redemption and lessons learned, there’s no such optimistic coda to be found here. It’s as though Lang was robbed of taking his earlier feature to its natural conclusion by a studio fearful of such downbeat storytelling, but was allowed free rein on Scarlet Street and seized the opportunity, handing his characters their just desserts in various degrees of bleakness. As a cruel irony, Chris’s paintings happen to be spotted by a prestigious studio and go on to sell for thousands, though thanks to Johnny’s machinations by then the pictures bear someone else’s name. It’s a satirical note, a comment perhaps on the whims of fate, or a wink back in time to the director’s own early years as a struggling artist before entering the German film industry and becoming part of the Expressionist movement. In any event it shows the possible ‘happy ending’ Chris wishes for, but has long since pulled it from beneath him.

Scarlet Street builds to one of the most pessimistic and indeed depressing finishes I remember seeing on film, certainly where romantic Hollywood cinema is concerned. It brings a European ethos to bear, the sensibility that stories in which people do bad things won’t necessarily lead to an ending where the characters are compensated but instead face ruin, whether through death or forced to live, destroyed morally and haunted by the ghosts of the past.  It isn’t an easy film to stomach, but it successfully holds a mirror to the attitudes of the period, the Noir ethic reflecting society’s sense of uncertainty as the horrors of war and endings that held no satisfactory note were all too real. There’s a hint of unfairness about Chris’s fate, that his only real mistake was to fall in with a ‘bad crowd’ and allow himself to be duped, but hey, bad things happen to people who don’t necessarily deserve it and Chris, who lets himself be manipulated and has no right to imagine a future with Kitty, sort of has it coming. While Lang does offer a note of pity in his instance, it doesn’t really amount to much and the character, shattered and in the grip of a complete mental breakdown, is left to shuffle off into the void of his own making.

So why watch it at all? The reality is Scarlet Street is masterly film making and that ought to be reason enough. Lang was a perfectionist, slave driving his cast and crew to put his personal vision onto the screen, and in this film he spared no effort in capturing it. Milton Krasner, the cinematographer who would be rewarded with an Academy Award for Three Coins in a Fountain a decade later, applied Lang’s visual language with some stunning imagery. The way Chris sees Kitty, bathed in white and angelic, utterly at odds with reality but emphasising his ironic perception, is bathed in soft white light. Later, as our ‘hero’ embarks on his walk of ruin, the shadows creep into the frame more. He’s living in a pathetic hovel, light offered harshly by a neon sign outside the window, which leaves most of his room shrouded in darkness. Chris hears the voices of Kitty and Johnny, his ‘Hello, Lazy Legs‘ and her whispered, sexy ‘Jeepers Johnny, I love you‘ taunting him, presumably for the rest of his days, and the camera all but suggests that those black corners contain their spirits.

Robinson is absolutely believable as the film’s victim, to such an extent in fact that when I picture him it’s as this character, all those years playing hoodlums and the likes of Keyes in Double Indemnity playing support to his role in Scarlet Street. The same with Bennett. Lang saw in her the beautiful woman who has lived and those years of blows, bad choices and bitterness have created the jaded character of Kitty, in her own way every bit as pathetic as Chris, trapped within a destructive relationship and heading in just one direction. There aren’t very many film roles, especially for females, from the classic period that hinted at such a complicated back story for their characters, honing them into the people they are in the movie, but Scarlet Street suggests exactly that and without slapping minutes of exposition onto the screen. The result is a pessimistic work, but a masterpiece in the telling and execution.

Scarlet Street: *****

Holiday Inn (1942)

When it’s on: Thursday, 28 December (5.40 am)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

There are several reasons why they don’t make films like Holiday Inn anymore. First, let’s get this out of the way – the Abraham song, performed on Lincoln’s Birthday (a Bank Holiday in Connecticut, where the film’s largely set) by Bing Crosby and his band in blackface, adding a ‘comedy’ black intonation to his lyrics. I don’t want to dwell on it because of the time when the film was made, but it’s there and unavoidable. Second, consider the big musical movie hit of the last twelve months, La La Land, its plot focusing on the rather chaste and sweet-natured romance and relationship between two characters, who then suffer the strain of their professions taking them in separate directions. Now, here’s a summary of Holiday Inn’s story:

Bing Crosby is engaged to Virginia Dale, his singing partner. However, the third member of the act, Fred Astaire, steals her away, leaving Bing to move to his farm in Connecticut alone. Recovering from his broken heart and turning the farm he’s unsuited to running into the eponymous Holiday Inn (so called because it’s only open on public holidays), Bing begins experiencing success again and sparks a cautious romance with Marjorie Reynolds, who he employs to sing with him. But then Fred turns up, having lost Virginia to a millionaire, likes the look of the winsome Marjorie and spends the rest of the film trying to snatch her away for marriage and the formation of a new dancing partnership…

That Fred Astaire – what a bastard, right? Some pal he turned out to be! Of course, in a plot that serves to link the songs together it’s all portrayed as innocent, knockabout fun, all’s fair in love and war, etc, and while Astaire essentially destroyed Crosby’s life in the opening act the pair remain friends. With the focus more on the talents involved in the picture, it’s up there with the best of them. Irving Berlin’s songs, 14 of which are used, are exquisite. Crosby and Astaire are both in top form, their abilities as the pinnacle of their individual crafts shown off to stunning effect, and there’s a chocolate box sheen to it that’s never less than warm and fuzzy. Holiday Inn itself, frequently shown wreathed in pristine, virgin snow, is the sort of venue you dream of staying at, and indeed inspired Kemmons Wilson to start his own chain of ‘Holiday Inn’ hotels – there are now over 1,000 of them worldwide. There’s even an oblique breaking of the fourth wall, when Crosby goes to Hollywood to see the production of the film based on his little hotel being shot, and discovers in a studio the perfect replica of it. It’s a wink to the audience, an acknowledgement of Holiday Inn’s sense of artifice, but without overstating the point it’s a nice little touch that’s only there if you want it to be.

Holiday Inn was directed by Mark Sandrich, best remembered for the hit movies he made with Astaire for RKO in the previous decade. Sandrich knew how to work with a supreme talent like Mr ‘Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little‘ and how to create the confectionery worlds of their films, which ever projected untroubled fantasies and emphasised the showcasing of Astaire’s act over the drama. Consider Top Hat, their best known and probably best collaboration, and its aim to dazzle viewers with Astaire’s dancing genius and make them forget about the Depression era taking place outside the cinema, and you get why these films were such a hit and changed the face of the Hollywood musical. Sandrich insisted on hiring Astaire for Holiday Inn, despite Paramount’s misgivings over the film’s rising production costs, though the director appreciated the obvious – that having Astaire and Crosby performing Berlin’s musical waxings was a direct translation into beautiful cinema. Watching it now, it’s near impossible to argue against this.

The studio saved a little money on using a relative unknown like Reynolds as its female lead. The ‘Saddle Cinderella’ was little known outside Westerns produced by Poverty Row studios and represented a cheap hire over Sandrich’s casting suggestions of Rita Hayworth and even Ginger Rogers, both of course prior on-screen dance partners for Astaire. Reynolds never used her appearance in Holiday Inn as a springboard to real stardom, but she’s perfectly sweet and charming in the film, holding her own against her male partners. One sequence really shows off her abilities. Performing a dance number with Astaire, the pair’s brief is to minuet romantically for Washington’s Birthday. But Crosby, aware and fearful of the spark of romance between them, sabotages the moments when they pause to kiss by changing the tempo to a frenetic jazz number, prompting the pair to switch to a faster paced dance routine, before reverting to the original music. It’s a complicated scene that must have been hell to film, and your eyes are on Astaire as he has to both switch seamlessly between dancing style while scowling his rising exasperation to Crosby, but Reynolds has to perform it also and never falters.

Astaire’s work was designed to stretch his talent, the product of an admirable work ethic that insisted he pulled off multi-layered turns that had never been seen before, when of course he could have produced more of the same to earn his money. This is displayed to best effect in the firecracker dance. Reynolds has failed to show for a number the pair are meant to perform for the Independence Day celebration, so Astaire is told to ‘improvise’ a solo routine, which he does with an energetic number that features him setting off firecrackers exploding in time with the beat. It took two days and multiple takes to get the sequence right, which makes it a real salute to Astaire’s sheer dedication to his craft.

Next to it, the best known moment is almost certainly Crosby’s performance of the song White Christmas, as a trivial side note written for this film rather than the more obvious White Christmas. Crosby plays it with absolute simplicity, sat at his piano within the snowbound confines of his charming hotel, and that combination of the setting, the lovely sentiments of the lyrics and naturally the star’s velvet vocals are more than enough to transform it into a classic, indeed the song has gone on to join an exclusive club of the 13 singles that have sold 15 million or more copies worldwide.

As cinema, Holiday Inn is the equivalent of comfort food, the dramatic tensions suggested by its plot never amounting to more than the next song and dance number, the inimitable winning qualities of Louise Beavers’s house servant, the many screwball comic moments, the warm hug of Berlin’s music. Certain elements ensure that it’s utterly of its time, such as the tribute Crosby performs to America’s armed forces as the country entered World War Two. Ultimately Holiday Inn is rooted in a more innocent and less knowing cinematic era, but even now there’s little here that isn’t simply enjoyable. The two main stars are at the height of their powers, and the talent they bring to the film make it a real joy to watch.

Holiday Inn: ****

The Red Shoes (1948)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 27 December (12.10 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

These days we just get to enjoy the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who seemed to spend their working lives together crafting esoteric, whimsical and often fantastic British movies that were spinning off on tangents all of their own. The rest of the world did its thing while the pair ploughed their own creative furrow, resulting in a unique body of work that includes some of the most interesting films made at the time. There’s the love letter to England that is A Canterbury Tale. Forces from the afterlife debate the future of David Niven’s soul in A Matter of Life and Death. In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, British attitudes to war are covered, to unsparing and cynical, yet ultimately celebratory, effect.

At the time audience reactions to their films were a mixed bag – some were loved unreservedly, others had an alienating effect on viewers, and it’s only with the passing of time that we have learned to appreciate fully their dreamlike wonders, and to be grateful that they were allowed to get away with it again and again. Churchill famously loathed Blimp. People were baffled by A Canterbury Tale. And The Red Shoes, which was criticised for choosing a topic no one wanted to see on the screen, took some time to really find commercial favour. Once it did then it really did, becoming a major hit and claiming a couple of Oscars, but the initial feeling was less than fulsome, and you can imagine the public wondering what the hell all this was about.

Certainly, there are elements of The Red Shoes that are very daring, especially for the time it was made. Gene Kelly made a success of the in-film sequence where the plot is put to one side in favour of an extended dance sequence, yet it was a fresh idea when Powell and Pressburger inserted a 17 minute ballet sequence into the middle of their movie. Imagine the dream scenes from Hitchcock’s Spellbound being left uncut by the disparaging, controlling hand of Selznick, so that you see the full, disturbing vision instead of a short highlights reel, and you come close to what was committed to the final cut here. Essentially, we get a vision of The Red Shoes as envisioned by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, and brought to life by Julian Craster’s bewildering score and the dancing of Victoria Page. The ballet is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and teases out the nightmarish, psycho-sexual overtones of the girl who gets the red shoes she wants, but can’t control them and the shoes keep dancing long after she’s reached the point of exhaustion. As the shoemaker is portrayed in increasingly Guignolian tones, Page is still dancing as her pretty dress turns into dirty rags and the community turns her away, ignoring her plight. The painted backdrops take on a more sinister edge. The set dressings become elaborate, impossible to really be there on the stage and you realise it’s as much the product of someone’s imagination – Page’s own? The audience’s? – as it is clever stage design, Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and the production design work of Hein Heckroth building a bizarre and unsettling claustrophobia of limited space, through which Page pirouettes in ever more desperate and frantic circles, the need to rid herself of the shoes urgent and yet impossible.

The Red Shoes is the sad tale of Page (Moira Shearer), the dancer who gets her opportunity to shine when the company’s prima ballerina announces her marriage. To impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), there is no room for love in the life of a ballerina. ‘The music is all that matters‘ he tells her, a fateful warning as she beings a romance with the composer, Craster (Marius Goring) and this threatens her dancing future. Page ultimately is forced to choose – a career in Lermontov’s company, which is demanding yet professionally rewarding, or ‘earthly’ happiness with Craster, a dilemma that has tragic consequences.

As the single-minded Lermontov, Walbrook plays a monster. Dismissive of anyone who doesn’t share his vision and enforcing a work ethic that is nothing short of punishing, Lermontov is at his worst when Page’s relationship with Craster means she will never be fully his and his mood spills over into rage, a professional resentment as he found his muse and has had her snatched away. Goring, impressive in A Matter of Life and Death, gets the more straight role as Craster, asserting his musical talents and coming to love Victoria. Much of the cast was filled with real ballet dancers, which is how Moira Shearer came to the role. She had little love for the demands of working on film and would go on to make fleeting future appearances, though there’s little doubting her impact on The Red Shoes, notably in the signature ballet sequence that lays all her talent bare on the screen, the emotion and longing expressed through sheer movement. It took Powell a year to entice Shearer for the part, and she was unimpressed with his efforts to direct her and her fellow dancers, feeling he didn’t ‘get it’ and tried to treat them like any normal actor.

The picture has an overall dreamlike feel. This is partly achieved through some incredible use of Technicolor, lending everything a lush, glossy sheen. Much of the action takes place in Monte Carlo, which adds to its fleshy air of romance. Craster and Page are shown chatting on their hotel veranda; a train passes below, blowing plumes of  smoke that surround them, as though enveloping them in cloud. It’s a mirror held to the conceits of ballet, the artifice and implied sexuality displayed through dance. Shearer might have been right in sensing Powell and Pressburger were not qualified to work with dancers, but they knew how to create a mood, and the ethereal one they generated for The Red Shoes – made, lest we forget, during the difficult, lean years following World War Two – is powerful indeed.

To modern viewers, it’s impossible to ignore parallels with Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 entry about Natalie Portman’s dancer working to earn the lead role in a prestigious production of Swan Lake and the toll it takes on her very sanity. The similarities are easy enough to see. Both films are about the strains made on ballerinas, their efforts to reach the heights of performance clashing with the other demands on their lives, but the newer film has more obvious leanings in the horror genre, the obliquely expressed challenges for Victoria Page made frighteningly stark in Portman’s case. I know which of the two I prefer. The Red Shoes is powerful, beautiful and its sense of longing present yet elusive. In many ways it’s a companion piece to Black Narcissus, one of my favourite Powell and Pressburger productions, another story of earthly pleasures encroaching on a world where they have no place. By the film’s close, Victoria has become the real life wearer of the red shoes, compelled by them to dance, and dance, and dance to destruction, and watching her do so has an absurd and enchanting quality that makes the film hopelessly compelling. By the finish, just like Victoria I have surrendered to the power of the red shoes.

The Red Shoes: *****

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 26 December (11.55 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

“Do you often see your father?”
“No, actually, we’re just good friends.”

Congratulations to BBC2 for screening one of the very best musical comedies starring real-life rock stars – A Hard Day’s Night, which is 89 minutes of riotous fun and great songs. Watch it and you get what the fuss over The Beatles was all about. For any of us too young to have been around when the band was still together, what we’re left with is the music and overly reverential memories from those ‘in the know’, too often focusing on the heritage they left as song writing geniuses. But the film shows us the other side, the energetic, cheeky, charming and winning personalities of the lads, which helped to turn them into enormous stars who were well worth being relentlessly chased by screaming hordes of fans. They’re an irresistible force of nature, something the film captures perfectly.

Director Richard Lester was a rising star himself at the time, and chose to shoot A Hard Day’s Night as a TV documentary, filming in crisp black and white and purporting to depict a typical day in the life of the Fab Four as they were tipping over into outright megastardom. Together with writer Alun Owen and producer Walter Shenson, Lester spent a little time with the group before the script was put together, and the dialogue Owen came up with was inspired very much by these meetings, attempting to reflect their individual personalities and allowing for a certain amount of ad-libbing. In the end, only John Lennon veered off-script to a significant extent, but the ‘freewheeling’ filming style and natural acting talent of the band members suggests successfully that the cameras were switched on in the boys’ presence and simply followed them around.

A Hard Day’s Night was filmed over a six week period in early 1964, shot as though ‘on the run’ and had a budget of less than £200,000 to play with, a slim pot that reflected United Artists’ unwillingness to invest significantly in a band that might have faded as quickly as it rose to prominence. The plot follows the Beatles as they arrive in London to play at a televised concert. Dodging their fans and trying to run away from the demands of their beleaguered manager, played by Norman Rossington, the action follows them at home, and at play in London clubs, at work attending press junkets, and ultimately performing before a theatre of hysterical youngsters. There’s a sub-plot that tracks Paul’s Grandfather, played by Wilfrid Brambell, described by everyone he meets as ‘very clean’ as a play on his famous ‘dirty old man’, Alfred Steptoe, in Steptoe and Son. Later, Ringo walks out on rehearsals for the show to enjoy the sights of the city on his own, an effort that gets him into trouble with the law, which leads to further high jinks.

Mostly however, what makes the film special and unique are the vignettes focusing on the lads’ throwaway humour, their endless reserves of charm and charisma, an intrusive peer into the perceived lives of four young men whose love for life comes across vividly on the screen. The pressures of being pursued by fans, the grind of performing on the road, the sense of rarely being allowed to stop being ‘in character’ as their professional presence took over their lives… All this was in the future when A Hard Day’s Night was filmed. At this stage, they’re very much in thrall with all the attention and happy to indulge, and that comes across in the film to delightful effect. Being a Richard Lester film, the gags come thick and fast, generally filmed as though it’s all off the cuff rather than carefully scripted. The relief after all those ‘rock star’ movies starring the likes of Elvis and Cliff, in which the delicately managed productions were mirrored in movies that lurched into fantasy, is palpable. While A Hard Day’s Night no doubt contains its own levels of artifice – check out the scene where the boys are playing cards on screen, then a song starts (I Should Have Known Better) and they’re next shown playing their instruments – its unconstrained style of filming lends it an air of authenticity that is only broken several times, and it’s all the better for that.

The film’s title and its accompanying track were eleventh hour decisions. A Hard Days’ Night was filmed as simply The Beatles, before the band and Shenson were discussing alternative names and an off-hand remark by Ringo was considered. Lennon wrote the song overnight and the following morning it was performed as a finished piece, the genesis of an iconic work that accompanies the film’s opening scenes. In it, the band are shown running away from their fans. But it’s a happy moment; the lads are laughing. George Harrison falls over and Ringo turns to laugh at him. This moment could have been reshot but Lester kept it in, as he did other gaffes – George knocks over his own amp during a recording session – to depict the Beatles’ sense of childish exuberance and knockabout fun.

Watched now, it’s the kind of film I want to start again as soon as I’ve finished it. With each viewing I pick up fresh gags, little gems like Lennon pretending to sniff from a bottle of Coke while Norm lectures the band about their responsibilities. Its sense of youthful rebellion, while clean and innocent enough, is ever present, a reflection of sniffy ‘adult’ attitudes towards their success and the concerns expressed by Lennon that the project had to essentially be on their side. He needn’t have worried. A Hard Day’s Night is a classic.

A Hard Day’s Night: *****

The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

When it’s on: Monday, 25 December (2.10 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

I confess I had never heard of The Holly and the Ivy before watching it for this piece, and it’s easy enough to see why the film slipped gently into obscurity. Its British middle class setting has little resonance in an era that was being taken over by the kitchen sink, while World War Two, though mentioned in the film, was better remembered in a string of compelling releases throughout the 1950s. Moreover, it’s an adaptation of a play by Wynyard Browne, ensuring the story takes place for the most part in a confined set and focuses on characters talking at the expense of any real action. Relatively short at little more than 80 minutes in running time, there’s an air of lightness, even of whimsy, and a suggestion that the film is inconsequential and eminently missable.

My main reason for acquiring a copy was for the presence of Celia Johnson, one of those actors whose name on the bill guarantees my interest. I haven’t seen many films starring her, principally because she made limited appearances on celluloid and favoured the stage, however she’s always a treat. Best known for Brief Encounter, Johnson was the epitome of that tragic English lady, saddled with duty and what’s expected of her while her emotions and longings are buried as well as they can be. In her case, the feelings would be expressed in her lamplight eyes, the little jawline set as she looks on to some distant horizon to which her dreams are vanishing, wanting to follow and knowing she cannot. In The Holly and the Ivy, she plays Jenny, the eldest daughter of Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson), trapped in a life of serving him dutifully while wanting to marry David (John Gregson) and go with him to his job in South America. The contract runs for five years, which means if she doesn’t go then her opportunity for wedded bliss will be over. It’s the quintessential Johnson role in other words, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Her story is one in a sequence of dramatic threads that play out over the course of the narrative. The family is returning for Christmas to the little Norfolk town where Martin lives in his parsonage. For some, like Aunt Lydia (Margaret Halstan, reprising her role in the play), it’s a reprieve from her widow’s existence of living in hotels. To others, the cossetted little world to which they return holds little meaning, as it does for Margaret (Margaret Leighton), Martin’s other daughter who works as a fashion journalist in London. Margaret appears to be the the classic ‘flown the roost’ child who’s moved on to bigger and better things, but she carries a dark side, lapses into alcoholism, which has its origin in a devastating secret that she’s kept for some years. As the family gathers for a happy time together, the demons and resentments they carry will be prised out, and reveal much about how everyone is playing a part so that they don’t upset the Pastor in his Christian and supposedly limited world view.

The comment on tensions between family members at Christmas strikes a note that can resonate with everyone, and there are references to the time it was made that add to the charm. The Holly and the Ivy is set in early 1950s Britain, still an era of post-war austerity that affects everyone, even this middle class family that can’t afford the services of a housekeeper for Martin, in which post-dinner cigars are handed out as a rare treat rather then the norm. Martin’s son, Michael (Denholm Elliott) is in the army, a temporary move he has made to put off his decision over whether to go to Cambridge University, which he knows will be costly. The family’s relationship with their head of the household Pastor is one of falseness, a series of bland pleasantries in which their paramount sensibility is not to upset his beliefs and values, yet withholding information from him is doing him a disservice. As Michael points out, his role isn’t only to provide sermons but to help people, and that includes his own family.

The story therefore builds up to a happy conclusion of sorts, one in which the sources of stress are largely resolved and point to a more hopeful future. In that sense it’s a little pat. The most tragic element of kitchen sink dramas is that there was often no happy ending. No matter what was overcome during the course of the film, the troubles of a difficult working class life remained and always would, so the neat climax as shown in The Holly and the Ivy was simply one battle won in a war of endless attrition against poverty and privation. And in that sense, you can see how this one carries little that can be identified with. That however isn’t the fault of the film, which is set within its own circumstances and remains a nicely acted drama, its characters largely drawn well and calling on memorable turns notably from Johnson, Richardson, Leighton, and Maureen Delaney as a caustic, well meaning Scottish Aunt, played largely for comic effect.

It’s certainly worth a watch, for its ultimate message of hope and its fine acting, also because it’s been very nicely restored and looks good. Fans of Celia Johnson will have much to enjoy; I know I did. As a drama it’s refreshingly adult in tone, one that dwells not at all on fantastic elements or those appealing to children, but rather on the theme of Christmas as a family time, with all the problems and potential for optimism that comes with it.

The Holly and the Ivy: ***

Just to wish everyone who reads these pages a very happy Christmas! Thank you for your support and for reading – love and peace to you all 🙂

Gone with the Wind (1939)

When it’s on: Sunday, 24 December (9.00 am)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Gone with the Wind is a film lover’s film. There’s much about it that’s flawed and certainly a very great deal of material that appears woefully out of date. It’s too long, overly melodramatic, glassy eyed about a semi-remembered past that was far from happy for everyone involved, and its main characters aren’t even especially likeable. And yet, for all its shortcomings it may very well be the last word in romantic Hollywood movie making. Production levels were about as lavish as it was possible to get. The performances are universally fantastic, particularly the leads. The use of Technicolor is nothing less than exquisite, notably in the film’s first half bathing the Old South in soft, fleshy tones that give way to the red and orange tinted violence of the approaching Civil War. Clearly, making the picture was the definition of a labour of love, a drive by all involved, from producer David O Selznick downwards, to honour Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel in suitable fashion, and the result is a feast for the senses.

A couple of years ago I got the opportunity to see it on the big screen. For once, it was the chance to catch a movie like Gone with the Wind in the way it was meant to be exhibited, with all those real life  problems left outside the cinema and escaping into the idealised world presented to us… Of course it should always be like that, but this is one of those films in which you can really lose yourself. It’s nearly four hours long, much of it scored by Max Steiner’s elaborate music, which weaves in a string of tunes recalling the patriotic surge from the American Confederacy prior to and during the Civil War.  The production is sumptuous from start to finish, whilst its narrative can find resonance with just about every viewer, in particular the main plotline depicting the fall and rise of its ‘heroine’, Scarlett O’Hara, all her imperfections laid bare on the screen as her innate indomitability prevents her from falling into despair and ruin, and makes her a character just about worth cheering on. Watching Scarlett in self-absorbed action, you know Melanie is the film’s real champion, that Rhett deserves better and that a future with Ashley would be no future at all, yet she’s performed with such gusto and the camera loves her to such an extent that you end up cheering on this really quite awful woman as she pushes, schemes and cheats her way towards some ever-elusive goal. She might, to borrow a quote from Oliver Stone’s Nixon, be the darkness reaching out for the darkness, but rarely has ‘the darkness’ been this much of a joy to watch.

Mitchell’s original novel was a saga about well heeled families in Georgia on the cusp of the Civil War, the conflict that ruins their wealth and way of life, and what happens next. It was a runaway hit, optioned by Selznick as soon as it was published (despite Val Lewton, then a staff member at the studio, saying it was a bad idea) and taking three years to bring to the screen. The book was so popular that speculation about the adaptation was an ever present companion. Fans followed the tales of endless casting sessions, the search for the perfect Scarlett that seemed to take in just about every young actress available at the time, the knowledge Selznick carried that Gone with the Wind was a potential millstone – get it wrong and feel the wrath of millions of readers. For such a notable perfectionist the production could have killed him, Selznick’s notoriety for constant revisions and meddling coming to the fore as he struggled over all aspects of its development. Writers came and went. Sidney Howard earns the main credit for the script and wisely refused to leave his farm in putting it together, putting him at a merciful distance from Selznick’s orbit, but this was a screenplay that kept being dabbled with, leading to the near chaos of Selznick making further amendments while filming took place. George Cukor was the original choice as director. He would be replaced with Victor Fleming, who ended up being one of a number of unit directors as the production had so much to shoot in its race to be completed.

And then there’s the casting. Clark Gable was the early favourite with book readers for the role of Rhett Butler, its morally ambiguous yet charismatic anti-hero, but he had major misgivings about accepting the part and only came fully on board with the recruitment of Fleming, a ‘man’s director’ who in sensibility was a close call for Butler himself and who put the actor instantly at ease. Vivien Leigh’s recruitment as Scarlett took the most convoluted of developments. Numerous A-List actors were considered – Bette Davies, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn were the best known – and fascinating footage remains of the test screenings made with various people. In an alternative reality Scarlett could have been played by Lana Turner, whose test shows just how far she was from possessing the command required to fill the shoes of such a big character. Leigh was a relatively late consideration, due no doubt to the lack of knowledge about her in America. Her background, patrician English after a wealthy upbringing in colonial India, was about as far from Scarlett O’Hara as it was possible to be, and yet Leigh’s star was on the rise. A success on stage and making a fine transition to the screen in Fire Over England, she was just as famous for her real-life romance with Laurence Olivier, which would lead to the pair becoming for a time the world’s most famous couple. As difficult as it might be now to imagine anyone else playing Scarlett, for some time Leigh was an obscure outside bet, yet in hindsight most certainly the right choice and worth the Herculean effort they made in working towards her.

I’m not going to spend too much time here talking about what happens in the film. It’s one of cinema’s best known entries, something enjoyed by millions of people and while adjusted for inflation all-time box office lists throw up any number of variations, Gone with the Wind is invariably near the top.  Chances are you have already seen it, and if you haven’t then you’ll know Tara’s Theme, ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn‘ and be likely to have a good impression of its arcs and themes – it is that famous. For many viewers it may be their favourite slice of cinema, an opinion I don’t share, indeed I wouldn’t even call it my choice of the year – in fairness, 1939 was famously a banner year for cinema, with the likes of Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr Chips and The Hound of the Baskervilles up there as personal selections.

It was certainly an enduring winner with audiences and the Academy however, until Ben-Hur remaining the record holder for the most Oscars won, a reflection of the sheer human and technical achievement it represents, and certainly on the latter score it’s a marvel. The fire in Atlanta, heralding the arrival of Sherman’s Union army, was achieved when the crew burned down sets and props from previous MGM productions; that enormous structure collapsing in flames was in a past life the massive gates from which Fay Wray was tied up in anticipation of King Kong‘s arrival. This was shot months in advance of the rest of the production, the scenes featuring the actors added in later. One of the film’s most enduring scenes shows Scarlett staring aghast into a street filled with injured and dead Confederate soldiers, thousands of them, a moment demanding more extras than the production could source, meaning some of the wounded were dummies with limbs that could be artificially moved. The complicated crane shot had to pick up the sea of human victims and come to rest with the tattered Confederacy flag in the foreground, ensuring that none of Culver City, which lay just beyond the set, was accidentally shown. Occasionally, the technical trickery doesn’t quite work. One shot has party-goers driving in their coaches along the long drive to the Twelve Oaks ranch, but they start to vanish and become translucent as the footage is spliced into the the separate image behind.

The film isn’t without its controversy, especially for current audiences. The Old South was notoriously a slave-owning culture, and its ‘darkies’ can be seen happily at work, almost certainly a depiction of the good treatment meted out at Scarlett’s home of Tara but giving little impression of the horrors suffered by slaves as a matter of routine. Scenes depicting the Klansmen were edited out, avoiding comparisons with the difficulties watching The Birth of a Nation and certainly a good thing. Selznick ordered a production that was for its time sensitive to black people, though it still leaves an uncomfortable taste, notably in its setting of Scarlett’s world as a lost paradise, an idyll that can never return in the aftermath of the Civil war, while clearly it wasn’t so for all its denizens. In the film’s favour, this is the South as seen from its heroine’s perspective, a young woman who in its early scenes is very much still a child with a lot of growing up to do, and her feelings about Rhett are also made clear here. While everyone grows excited about the prospects of war and the opportunities for gallantry it represents, only Butler, hardened and cynical, says openly that the Union will win. It’s a jaded, real world view that’s obviously right, backed up with cold facts rather than romance and honour, but it jars with the audience and with Scarlett, who’s both fascinated with Rhett and repulsed by him.

The work by Leigh and Gable aside, there’s some excellent support from Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel. The former eschews much of the glamour and beauty associated with her usual roles to play the delicate, ailing Melanie, Scarlett’s love rival for the favours of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). As Mammy, Tara’s house servant and peddler of pearls of earthy wisdom, McDaniel is absolutely memorable, with a tough veneer that cracks sparingly but those moments, when they come, are earned. Thomas Mitchell is reliable and idiosyncratic as Scarlett’s father, doomed to madness as his safe world collapses around him, and there’s a sensitive performance from Ona Munson as Belle, in the film’s early scenes a ‘fallen woman’ who secretly loves Rhett and would probably have made the better match with him, if he hadn’t in turn spent the film’s running time chasing Scarlett in this ever-spiralling game of ill-fated loves and obsessions. If there is a duff note then it’s Howard’s Ashley, not a fault of the actor but a role in which he’s tasked to play the stolid, spectacularly dull symbol of the South’s virtue. Unlike Leigh, Howard does little to cover his British accent and in terms of raw charisma and spark is effortlessly relegated into second billing by Gable. This makes something of a mockery of Scarlett’s enduring obsession with him – he just doesn’t stand up next to the mustachioed main man, but then Gone with the Wind is a film of tragedies and this is just one of them.

In the end it’s possible to see it as both a long-winded and a very long bore. It tells of a world that no longer exists, told at a time that similarly belongs in the past, and a number of the concerns expressed in the film have little relevance today. And yet it’s the sort of picture that demands that everyone watches it at least once. The first reason is for its rightful status as a cinematic landmark, something that utterly captivated contemporary audiences and is still exhibited on big screens, particularly in its ‘home town’ of Atlanta, which is no mean feat for a work that’s pushing eighty years old. There’s also a timeless quality to it, a strange statement to make of a story about the long lost Old South, yet the characters of Scarlett and Rhett, both selfish and far from heroic, have swathes of fascinating nuance, look great, and are perfectly played. Finally, for film lovers there’s simply too much to enjoy here. If for no other reason then for those iconic shots of characters in silhouette, filmed against the kind of painterly vanilla skies you never see in real life, it’s a beautiful looking movie, a testament to Fleming’s direction and the painstaking production values by Selznick. The latter, credited for a number of wildly successful film offerings and remembered as a neurotic meddler in his studio’s projects, was never better rewarded for his relentless work ethic and eye for detail than he was here, and when it comes to rendering personal visions onto the grandest stage possible that’s something worth celebrating.

Gone with the Wind: ****

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

When it’s on: Saturday, 23 December (6.45 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

I posted a comment about The Bishop’s Wife as part of an extended ramble last Christmas on these pages. It was the first time I had seen the film, which felt like an enormous oversight because it came across as almost a perfect seasonal offering, and I was happily swept along with it. That said, in the UK at least there’s one classic slice of Hollywood melodrama that beats all others when it comes to Christmas films, so looking beyond It’s a Wonderful Life can be difficult. The Miracle on 34th Street gets a look in, though the number of people who think the Attenborough remake is the definitive version is a concern, but there’s little attention paid to the likes of The Shop Around the Corner, which is a beautiful piece of work that deserves more love, while the charm of Bing Crosby tends to sidelined into the ‘Musicals’ category rather than celebrated for its seasonal cheer. So then you get the various adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and a gem like The Bishop’s Wife is relegated to the early hours of a Yuletide schedule as opposed to the frequent theatrical exhibitions of It’s a Wonderful Life that show the extent to which it’s celebrated.

The Bishop’s Wife was an RKO picture made on the back of The Best Years of Our Lives, a box office bonanza and Oscar winner for Samuel Goldwyn, who ordered a Christmas movie for 1947. At the time, It’s a Wonderful Life was a commercial failure, so the project was something of a gamble, and things got worse as the A-List cast of David Niven, Loretta Young and Cary Grant clashed on set. Part of the trouble was resolved when its male stars swapped roles, and watching the film it’s tough to picture Niven in any other part than that of the troubled bishop, a soul-troubled character whose personal demons too well reflected the recent real-life bereavement he had suffered. Young and Grant took umbrage against each other all too often, falling out over the latter’s perfectionism that slowed down the filming and the fact both preferred to be shot from the same side, making a challenge of the many scenes when they were facing each other. It’s a credit to both performers that the chemistry between their characters was intact throughout, indeed the sparks possibly helped the jarring, ‘not quite right’ on-screen relationship that depicted his romantic overtures she was unwilling to reciprocate.

In the film, Grant plays Dudley, an angel who gets assigned to help a young bishop, Henry Brougham (Niven). The bishop is striving to have a cathedral built in his town, a task that depends on the patronage of the local matriarch (Gladys Cooper), but her interest depends on his agreement that it will be an edifice to her late husband. This troubles his pure motives for building the cathedral, but the bigger issue for him is the time he’s spending on the planning, which is distancing him from his wife Julia (Young) and their daughter. Dudley reveals himself to Henry, who has natural doubts about his angelic status but nevertheless agrees to take him on as an assistant. This introduces Dudley to Henry’s entire world, not just his project but all the people in it, including his family and house staff, as well as their friends within the community. Increasingly, while the bishop attends endless meetings Dudley’s role becomes that of companion to Julia, and the pair grow closer, much to Henry’s dislike who can see the effect on his wife all this attention is having.

The romantic triangle at he heart of the film isn’t its most interesting dimension. As enchanted as Julia is by Dudley’s attentions, her heart very clearly belongs to Henry, who is portrayed as having lost his way, and then not in a way that leads him to committing any evil. He certainly doesn’t deserve to lose his wife, who gives every impression of understanding his preoccupation with the cathedral, and as a result the hints of Dudley’s efforts being to do more than ease Henry’s soul don’t really amount to much. Of far greater value is the effect his presence has on everybody else. Monty Woolley’s broken History Professor, a kindly man who has for years been devoid of inspiration for writing his book about Ancient Rome, regains his impetus thanks to Dudley’s gentle prodding. Cooper’s status in the film as its potential ‘Mr Potter’ is unmasked when the angel intervenes and gives her a glimpse of the humanity in her life that its been lacking. His interaction with the staff at the bishop’s house, notably Elsa Lanchester’s blousey maid, is quite heartwarming, and in the film’s most touching scene, he persuades cabbie Sylvester (James Gleason) to join Julia and himself in an impromptu ice dancing adventure. The scene is intended to hint at the developing feelings between the stars, but it’s Sylvester, recapturing a joie de vivre through his moment of sheer childlike joy, which leaves the most lasting impression.  It’s lovely, innocent stuff.

Of course, by the movie’s end everyone is in ‘happily ever after mode, just as they should be, and Dudley leaves having completed his mission, albeit after almost undermining it at the climax. For me, it’s a note that jars ever so slightly, the idea that an angel would gain feelings for a ‘mortal’ just because he’s played by classic romantic lead Cary Grant and he has to have that storyline, but it’s not enough to ruin the overall sentiment that’s been created. If The Bishop’s Wife has a core message, it is that everything will turn out all right in the end, and I think a Christmas picture can have no better one. It was directed by Henry Koster, who replaced the original choice and pretty much restarted the shoot from scratch, capturing the whimsical tone that had been missing from its initial filming. Whether this or 1950’s Harvey is the better of his light fantasies is entirely up to the individual viewer, but both have unmistakable charm and never fail to entertain.

The Bishop’s Wife: ****

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: ****

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exodus: Gods and Kings: ****