Film Reviews by Steve

Welcome to Steve's film reviews page. Steve has written 937 reviews and rated 8035 films.

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Time Without Pity

Interesting Losey.

(Edit) 09/02/2024

Minor but engaging film noir loosely adapted from Emlyn Williams' unsuccessful stage play. The premise is familiar from many postwar British thrillers; a desperate arrival at Heathrow has 24 hours to save an innocent man from the gallows. But Joseph Losey lifts it above the ordinary with some visual style and multiple thematic layers.

Michael Redgrave is an alcoholic novelist who was in detox while his son was tried for the murder of his unfaithful girlfriend. But the youngster resents his old man and seems to have accepted his fate. And while the writer investigates, he must deal with the withdrawal symptoms that trigger hallucination and memory loss.

The father searches for redemption to make good on years of drunken neglect, and Redgrave is poignant in a characteristic portrayal of a weak, traumatised man. There is also vilification of the death penalty, and Losey, in exile from McCarthyism, takes care to disapprove of every facet of the English establishment. Particularly the hostile capitalist.

Having seen this plot repurposed repeatedly, perhaps Losey's most impressive achievement is to tell the story so well. Not just coherently, but to create tension out of such commonplace situations. The clocks! Renee Houston catches the eye in a small role as a boozy freeloader. It's not peak Losey, but still an interesting British noir.

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This Sporting Life

Northern Grimness.

(Edit) 09/02/2024

Rugged and emotionally rancorous social realism, adapted by David Storey from his own debut novel. This is one of the key films of the British New Wave; a raw, dour account of a violent and immature outsider who makes a career in Rugby League rather than go down the pit. It was shot on location around Wakefield with a documentary approach.

Storey had been a miner and a rugby pro, and there is an impression that he knows his territory. And for the first hour while the film plugs away at rendering the lawless violence on the field of play as an allegory for a wider presentation of a hard knock life, this works well, boosted by Richard Harris' candid performance as the angry young man.

If it ultimately disappoints, the responsibility probably rests with Lindsay Anderson, who directs his first feature film. The drama eventually congests with humdrum, sclerotic dialogue which pads out the characters, but has no real dramatic purpose. In the later scenes Harris is allowed to perform an incongruous tribute to Marlon Brando.

And it goes on way past the final point of interest. The jumbled up timeline stifles the momentum. There is some good photography, and a memorable performance from William Hartnell as the scout who discovers the rugby star, but is soon forgotten. It's pretty stodgy, though sure to be of interest to fans of sixties kitchen sink realism.

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Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde

Interesting Switcheroo.

(Edit) 09/02/2024

A plot switch so ludicrously gratifying that it's astonishing the public had to wait 75 years after the publication of Robert Louis Stevenson's short gothic novel to see it. Henry Jekyll uses female glands in his basement experiments to extend the human lifespan. So, of course, when he drinks from the exploratory elixir himself... he turns into a sexy woman.

Much of the film's attraction lies in the perfect casting of Martine Beswick as Edwina Hyde. She had been a Hammer glamour girl, and got the part because of a resemblance to Ralph Bates' mad doctor. They are so right together. Maybe it's a shame that Brian Clemens' script didn't make more of the gender themes, but this is Hammer Studios, not Virago Press.

Instead, we get brief nudity. The foggy East End of Victorian London is constructed on elaborate sets. There's plenty of period atmosphere and historic folklore, including skilfully working Jack the Ripper and Burke and Hare into the narrative. There is some gore, and big shock moments and some episodes feel quite transgressive.

So the studio brings its usual virtues to the demented premise. There is too much clumsy innuendo, and the suspense unwinds towards the end. But director Roy Ward Baker assembles each scene with considerable craft. It's not as good as many faithful presentations of Stevenson's classic, because the original story is immortal. But it's a satisfying alternative.

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The Wooden Horse

Great Escape.

(Edit) 08/02/2024

Landmark prisoner of war film from a novel by Eric Williams, based on his real life escape from Stalag Luft III in Germany in 1943. It splits into two equal parts: the breakout from the camp, by audaciously digging a tunnel under the cover of a vaulting horse; and the journey by land and sea to neutral Sweden.

This is where the WWII escape film began, and much of it would be imitated over the years. But a couple of incidents remain personal to this story: the ingenious plan which involved laboriously carrying out the gymnastic apparatus each day and afterwards disposing of the soil; and a poignant episode in Denmark when a frightened local girl gives them shelter.

This scene conveys a powerful tremor of authenticity. And establishes how much these plans relied on the bravery and kindness of strangers. And some good luck. As usual Jack Lee directs with a documentary style detachment, but there are a few odd impressionistic moments too. The performances are all understated, in the  British tradition.

Leo Genn and Anthony Steel play the phlegmatic escapees, and they are so natural in the roles they hardly seem to be acting. The script sometimes reflects on the experience of being a prisoner, or a fugitive, but is not philosophical; this is a realistic plot driven action film, invigorated with many moments of suspense.

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Pool of London

London Heist.

(Edit) 08/02/2024

This crime B feature is distinguished by the b&w footage shot in the historic Pool of London, which stretches east from Tower Bridge through the capital's (former) dockland. Now the film survives as a photographic document of a district which has mostly been swept away. Everything else feels secondary to the location.

This is social realism and it allows the director Basil Dearden to address contemporary issues, particularly the subject of race. And the film is significant as the debut of the leading black actor in British films over the next decade, Earl Cameron.

His will they/won't they flirtation with Susan Shaw is way ahead of anything in a fifties Hollywood film, and allows the character to reflect on his status as a social outsider. Cameron plays a sailor with two days shore leave. The film dwells on his friendship with a shipmate (Bonar Colleanno) who gets sucked into a diamond heist.

Which sets in motion a police investigation. The crime is really a subplot. The relationships matter more, but Dearden stages the heist and chase sequences with expertise and flair. It's a minor, low budget production with no stars, but an interesting curiosity which features many resonant performances in minor roles.

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The Pumpkin Eater

Classic Drama.

(Edit) 08/02/2024

Profound psychological drama adapted from Penelope Mortimer's autobiographical novel. While Jack Clayton's illustrative direction is deeply artistic and intelligent, the frame is dominated by Anne Bancroft's formidable and complex Oscar nominated performance as a depressed wife, increasingly isolated within her marriage and large family.

The film and the book came at the start of the feminism movement in the UK, and it is now impossible not to see the film in those terms. The mentally unstable middle class wife and mother is damaged by her father and her unfaithful husband (Peter Finch), and then her (male) psychiatrist pathologises the female identity that society expects.

Clayton's impressionistic approach (and Harold Pinters' screenplay) insinuates that the woman's mental health is far worse than we see. There's a startling and excoriating scene when a stranger (Yootha Joyce) berates Bancroft in a hair salon. But there is an implication that this is a conflict within the main character's psyche, savagely attacking herself.

Time and visual realism are subtly distorted to illustrate the unreliability of how the woman sees the world. So an interior tracking shot is shown backwards. Whether sound, photography or set design, this is a haunting work of cinematic art. It makes demands on attention. And it is too unsettling to be entertainment. But it lands a huge emotional punch.

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H.M.S. Defiant

Sea War.

(Edit) 08/02/2024

Salty sea adventure set during the French Revolutionary Wars. The narrative is spliced into the 1797 naval mutinies at Spithead and Nore, but this is mainly an acting duello between Alec Guinness as the experienced and relatively liberal captain of the ship and Dirk Bogarde as the aloof, cruel disciplinarian who seeks to take command.

Bogarde's villainy sometimes drifts into the cartoonish, though there is a psychological logic to his brutality. But he unbalances the film, because he makes the justified concerns of the crew more about personalities rather than the institutional barbarity of the navy. The uprisings did actually lead to some minor concessions.

Still, this is a genre picture about life at sea in wooden ships under sail. The story begins with the pitiless pressgangs, then the ruthless oppression of the crew enforced by social class and the lash. And concludes with a sea battle against the French. The men are so harshly treated, they may as well surrender and hope for better conditions under the revolution.

But of course they rally round the flag. The wonderful support cast of wormy sailors is stoutly led by Anthony Quayle as an honourable mutineer. There's an abundance of studio set ups and painted backgrounds, so it doesn't feel realistic, but there's plenty of period atmosphere. It's an interesting twist to a familiar story which gets a boost from its stars.

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The Franchise Affair

Angry Locals.

(Edit) 08/02/2024

Unassuming but suspenseful thriller adapted from a novel by Josephine Tey, who often based her stories on historic cases. This is taken from an infamous controversy from the 18th century, but updated to an English country town after WWII.

A teenage girl goes missing for two weeks. On her return she claims to have been kidnapped and beaten by a pair of unpopular outsiders. The angry locals believe her story and wage a campaign of hate against the middle aged spinster (Dulcie Gray) and her waspish, elderly aunt (Marjorie Fielding).

Gray's real life husband Michael Denison plays the solicitor who kindly investigates. The mystery rather disappointingly unravels with the testament of a couple of convenient strangers during the climactic court case, but most of the way this is a intriguing premise. And there is real suspense while we consider who is telling the truth.

It opens like film noir with a breathless girl in a thin dress running down an A road in the rain, but settles into a whimsical rural comedy-mystery, populated by bumpkins and their well spoken betters. Kenneth More plays mankind's poshest mechanic. It's a minor film, but quietly captivating, with some wonderful dialogue.

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Die! Die! My Darling!

Flamboyant Horror.

(Edit) 08/02/2024

Gloriously baroque comedy horror which crosses the Hammer studio's run of sixties psychological thrillers with the psycho-granny trend that followed the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. In this case, the former golden age star is Tallulah Bankhead as a deranged older lady with unusual plans for her dead son.

And she is fabulous. She's funny and just creepy enough too. Her cherished child was killed in a car crash after he was dumped by his American fiancée (Stefanie Powers). So the female heartbreaker is invited to the isolated family home and held hostage while her soul is prepared for eternal marriage. Of course there are implications of incest, and his homosexuality.

Hammer usually managed to transform a modest budget into a sumptuous production, and they excel themselves. The luscious colour is unorthodox for sixties psycho-horror. The story is conventional but the actors coax the melodrama and dialogue to a delicious ripeness. Peter Vaughan and Yootha Joyce are menacing as the crazy servants.

Though this is set in England, it feels like American gothic. There is the old dilapidated ancestral estate with the dark family secret. It's an utterly immoderate black comedy, with little subtlety. Stefanie and Yootha even engage in an extended wrestling bout. And the legendary Tallulah is extraordinary in her final screen role.

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Barry Lyndon

Costume Epic.

(Edit) 08/02/2024

Epic comedy-drama adapted from the satirical novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, published in 1844. It's a picaresque adventure story which follows Barry Lyndon from his beginnings as a nondescript ruffian in Ireland and via many escapades in the armed forces during the Seven Years War, to a propitious marriage with an English aristocrat. And his eventual downfall.

It's a long journey and Ryan O'Neal is on screen all the way, giving a numb, blank performance which matches the detached, tranquillised feel of the film. It is celebrated for the artistic set design and innovative photography which was inspired by contemporary painting. The score uses period classical pieces and folk songs.

So there is a powerful impression of Europe in the mid-to-late 18th Century. The story moves on sedately, offering familiar incidents like a highway robbery, the vogue for gambling, a couple of duels, and romance whether for love or advancement. There is a droll quality of comic irony which sustains the action most of the running time.

But going into the third hour, there grows a sensation that the narrative has wandered and we are just watching the splendid costumes and furniture. And when the tone darkens, even the roguish whimsy is gone. The disengaged performances are unable to come to the rescue and the script is flat. It's a critical landmark. But maybe not a crowdpleaser.

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The Jessie Matthews Revue: Vol.3

on Head Over Heels.

(Edit) 08/02/2024

Frothy musical romcom which stars Jessie Matthews still at her absolute zenith, though there are signs that Gaumont Studios are in decline. Compared with her previous few films, there is a lesser director, as husband Sonnie Hale takes charge for the first of three screen collaborations..

This looks like a low budget musical, but Hale actually directs pretty well. And there are excellent songs by a duo of Oscar winning Hollywood composers. The script is witty, with authentically funny Music Hall style gags. The support cast is capable, featuring real-life American aristo Whitney Bourne, who brings some icy blonde glamour.

Of course, this is primarily a vehicle for Jessie, and she sparkles, particularly at the screwball comedy. Her dated singing style is still fine, and she's a quality dancer, even if the the choreography is scaled down. The plot is pure frou-frou. A Parisian nightclub performer must choose between two men. Who both live in a garret...

Louis Borel and Robert Flemyng contrast nicely as the lovers and there are some cute insights into the nature of romantic love for women in the thirties. Matthews plays quite a headstrong woman... But this isn't Ibsen! While it might not compare with thirties Hollywood's musical comedies on resources, Jessie's star quality still makes it special.

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Whisky Galore!

Ealing Drollery.

(Edit) 07/02/2024

This was the first Ealing comedy to be a big success in the US, but it had quite a troubled production and was initially buried by the studio. It was Alexander Mackendrick's first film as director and he was dismissive of its chances, and felt it would only be of interest to students of anthropology...

And during the first half of the film it's easy to understand his gloominess. There is a lot of background about the Outer Hebrides. It was shot on the remote island of Barra, off the north west of Scotland, and the locals performed as extras. Though this is still interesting, especially as their way of life is now long gone.

But then the film comes alive. It is based on an incident during WWII when a cargo of whisky lost in a shipwreck off the western isles was seized by the thirsty locals. In the film, a cast of Scottish Ealing regulars hide the booze from the officious Home Guard, played by Basil Radford; surely a model for Dad's Army's Captain Mainwaring...

The later scenes are fine, whimsical entertainment as the community is revived by their good fortune. It's the classic Ealing scenario of the underdogs standing up to the bumptious official. And it must have resonated during rationing. Mackendrick came from advertising, and the entire film feels like a promotion for the Scottish national drink! Cheers!

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Dark Journey

Northern Romance.

(Edit) 07/02/2024

Espionage romance set in World War I and released shortly before conflict resumed in 1939. So the Germans are still the enemy, but there isn't yet much propaganda. It's a slow, slightly creaky melodrama but full of atmosphere and uncertainty and suspense. And Victor Saville directs with a little style.

 Vivien Leigh is a French spy in neutral Sweden with a front as a dress shop owner which conveniently takes her into Paris to liaise between the underground and the British. Conrad Veidt is the head of German intelligence who is trying to shut down her network by any means.

Naturally, they fall in love. Veidt isn't much of a romantic lead, but can play mysterious German spies all day long. The role of the Stockholm based secret agent would have been ideal for Garbo. Still, Viv is enigmatic and glamorous enough while giving her most accomplished performance prior to arrival in Hollywood.

And she is photographed beautifully... But will they betray their homelands for love? Veidt would more or less repeat the denouement at sea two years later in The Spy in Black. Back in the golden age this was conventional genre material. But now it feels wonderfully exotic. A crackly relic of a time when cinema knew how to do romantic intrigue.

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Anne of the Thousand Days

Political Romance.

(Edit) 07/02/2024

Long, evocative adaptation of a play from 1948 by Maxwell Anderson about the constitutional storm caused by the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. There's an acting head to head between Richard Burton and Geneviève Bujold who were among ten Oscar nominations. The one win for costume design was well deserved.

The script is pretty strong stuff, so perhaps changes in censorship were necessary before it could reach the big screen. And though it is sometimes a bit fanciful, this is a provocative interpretation. It is a tragedy; Anne is destroyed by her own hubris. But the king is so crazy that there is no escaping his capricious, intractable cruelty.

This Henry is a full on monomaniacal psychopath, and the representation of the monarchy is of a terrifying dystopia. And it excels as a vivid historical spectacle, in Panavision and stunning Technicolor. The sets and locations are outstanding, and complemented by the period score of fanfares and ballads.

Despite the Oscar activity, it sold few tickets. There were many blockbusters about the English throne in the late sixties. Maybe this was the one too many. But it is the most handsome of all and Burton and Bujold give the roles a credible vitality. There will be too much melodrama and too little politics for experts, but it's still fine entertainment.

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Villain

Cult Crime.

(Edit) 07/02/2024

Violent but irresistible gangster film scripted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais which contains so much comedy that it sometimes feels like a Spinal Tap spoof of The Sweeney. Its premise is that these crooks have the same humdrum concerns as everyone else, they just happen to be in organised crime. Where only the most ruthless and grotesque get to the top.

In an astonishing performance, Richard Burton plays a psychopathic cockney gang leader, modelled on both of the Kray twins. So he's a mother-fixated homosexual in a sadomasochistic relationship with a bisexual Ian McShane. He's a complete dunce, but not quite as witless as the rest of his gang. This stuff is as extraordinary as it sounds.

It's a cult film. The violence makes it a guilty pleasure, but the nasty stuff takes place off camera. It captures grubby London in that post industrial period when it felt like the country was in steep decline and nothing worked anymore. So, a lot like now. It's a city of derelict warehouses and ugly new concrete by-passes.

A decade earlier this would have been a B film in b&w, but this is in Technicolor and Panavision and features a real star. Wearing aftershave and a polyester shirt! Changes in censorship permitted new levels of brutality and swearing. It wasn't a hit but found an audience on tv. Who surely wondered what on earth they had just seen.

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