Film Reviews by CH

Welcome to CH's film reviews page. CH has written 293 reviews and rated 303 films.

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Keeper of the Flame

The Gathering Storm

(Edit) 20/04/2024

Spencer Tracy. Katherine Hepburn. George Cukor. Donald Ogden Stewart. As one comes to Keeper of the Flame (1942), such a quartet might make one expect the mixture as to come. This film, as it opens with a car crash, a montage of newspaper headlines and gathering crowds might, though, put one more in the mind of Citizen Kane than those sparring comedies. That effect is compounded by the return from Europe of reporter Tracy who is on a quest for the dead man, Robert Forrest. What’s more, Forrest lived with a now-elusive wife (Hepburn) in a gothic house on the edge of a town which adored him and his good works.

Come Tracy’s bold arrival there, many an interior has the sumptuous deep focus of Kane - and hints grow, as the weather worsens, that the dead man had an ulterior life. This impression is heightened by the distractory efforts by the man’s over-sedulous sidekick (a wonderfully creepy Richard Whorf who sports tight suit, Crippen spectacles and all). Such a sight contrasts with Hepburn’s emergence from the shadows, long hair trailing as much as her gown which would not have looked out of place on Garbo by such candlelight.

To add to the gothic creep there is another building with sinister staff, home of Forrest’s mother, played with all the terrifying allure she bought to Cagney’s Ma at the end of the decade in White Heat.

It does not give much away to say that, before long, it is not so much the Hearst behind Citizen Kane who comes to mind as Charles Lindberg. Here was a time, Pearl Harbor recently attacked, when there were still forces at play not only to keep America out of the European war but were admiring of those dictators.

Naturally, even in a situation removed from those usually favoured by Cukor, he does not use a broad brush. This is no tract but is taken by screenwriter Stewart from the 1942 novel by the fascinating, much-travelled Ida Wylie who, a keen Suffragette, has slipped from the sight she deserves (the eponymous man in her memoir My Life with George - 1940 - is in fact her subconscious). She had a Hollywood presence from its early days, and to find her name associated with Keeper of the Flame must lead one to a tale filmed a decade later as Phone Call from a Stranger with as storied a cast as this one.

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Twentieth Century

Lonesome whistles

(Edit) 15/04/2024

Much of what happens in Twentieth Century (1934) takes place aboard the eponymous train between Chicago and New York. Apart from providing a timescale in which pell-mell events take place this does not make it exactly a train movie. Despite a few exterior shots against a fast landscape, and the presence of some other passengers including a fraudster, the carriages are so lavish that it might almost be taking place in a series of rooms.

The time spent aboard the train contrasts with the three years traversed by the opening of a film which has seen John Barrymore lift Carole Lombard from advertising-model obscurity to a sensation upon the Broadway stage - something which has also led to their becoming lovers. Such is his overbearing manner that she has fled both bed and stage for Hollywood success, and he has gone into a decline.

Her chancing to be aboard the train brings him the chance to woo her back. From the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, it is sometimes called the first screwball. If not as freewheeling as later films, including those also directed by Howard Hawks, it has the requisite madcap quality to carry it across quieter moments - and indeed the raucous ones to which both stars are given.

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Cast a Dark Shadow

Beyond the Front

(Edit) 13/04/2024

Dirk Bogarde was among those who divided his films into those made for Rank during the Fifties and those with Losey, Visconti and others in subsequent decades. This was to simplify matters. His earlier work is more varied, and complex, than such a reductionist approach suggests.

Take Cast a Dark Shadow (1955). From a play - Murder Mistaken - by Janet Green a few years earlier, it opens with Bogarde and Mona Washbourne upon a ghost train at the end of Brighton’s Palace Pier with some seafront scenes afterwards. All looks to be the stuff of light comedy until the scene moves inland, to a large house with a gravel path on which their impressive car comes to a halt.

For all the smooth talk, it is clear that he is a wide boy who has married this older women with any eye on inheritance, a process which he, shall we say, accelerates, and escapes prosecution but does not ease her lawyer’s suspicions. Such apparently practised ease soon finds him back in Brighton and making the acquaintance of sharp-talking former barmaid Margaret Lockwood who herself has come into money.

They join nuptial forces, their life together still under the innocent gaze of his housekeeper Kathleen Harrison. All this could spring from the novels of Patrick Hamilton, and Bogarde delivers a terrific performance as an increasingly troubled chancer. No need to say more about the way in which events turn out. Director Lewis Gilbert handles it all with eighty minutes’ aplomb. There are some who automatically reach for the word stagey when a film is based upon a play. Much of this one does take place inside but Jack Asher’s cinematography makes these dark spaces feel as infinite as the mind itself can become.

Badinage, and brusquer, finds its place in this but the real fascination is in the way the ground is crumbling beneath them all. Asher is adept at catching facial expressions as they change from moment to moment - it can almost appear Expressionist as darkness takes over on the final day.

It was far safer on the ghost train.

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Public Eye: The ABC Years

Setting a Marker

(Edit) 17/03/2024

The four episodes on the first disc are from the mid-Sixties, about a small-time private eye called Marker, and they get better (not many survived). Well worth watching. Avaiable for renting are only this two-disc set and those from 1975, when it was coming to an end.

The third of these epsodes is particularly good, about an apparently missing husband. Small casts, fifty-minutes' running time and mostly interiors. All well done, unpredictable.

The second disc contains only one episode - about an exhibition of paintings in a public library which is linked with a blackmail case. Another ingenious episode. The disc also includes on an-location interview with Marks at the time, and it is a surprise to find that his own voice is very different from the one he brings to the character Marker.

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Poor Things

Life of Brain

(Edit) 07/04/2024

Earlier reviews here, as elsewhere, show that this is a film which divides opinion.

And so, I come to this from a different angle (and it is a film which use a fish-eye lens many times). From scene to scene it is engaging, fascinating, outlandish and all the other adjectives which can be applied to this magic-realist take on late-nineteetn-century scientific experiment run riot. And yet, do these cohere into as satisfying a film as it could be?

For all this, it is opulently staged in its various cities and abroard ship, so much so that one might be distracted from the narrative into applauding the scenery - and wondering whether there has been a spraying from the cgi device behind those involved (and the acting is often remarkable). It turns out that these real sets were created for it. As such, the film deserves to be seen on a large screen.

And one should celebrate its success at a time when the multiplexes have been swamped by endless sequences of the Marvel crowd and their ilk.

Small wonder that a first edition of Gray's novel - published three decades ago - commands a fair sum now.

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Classe Tous Risques

Women and Children First

(Edit) 31/03/2024

The geekish among us might know that Classe tous risques and Au bout de souffle appeared in the same year - 1960 - and even that both feature prolific newcomer Jean-Paul Belmondo; extreme geekdom vocalises their having appeared within a month of each other that late winter. The result was that Classe tous risques fell under the long, continuing shadow of its accomplice which was to be influential part of the New Wave.

Directed by Claude Sautet, Classe tous risques is also a tale of life on the run with many an urban scene, all bright sky, and troubled nights - both with voitures as curving as the women invited aboard them. Despite a speedboat and a motorcycle hoving into the lens as bullets splay, its pace becomes different, redolent of an earlier French style.

True, it has begun in Milan with a long-wanted criminal (Lino Ventura) on the run with an accomplice played by Stan Krol (who himself had met the author of the original novel, José Giovanni while in gaol). They make bold - rashly - to return to France where lurks Ventura’s former gangster milieu, some of them behind respectable façades.

So much for a familiar set-up. Also here, however, are Ventura’s two young children and their mother.

To fund this misbegotten journey, another heist is necessary. It can only go wrong, as it does, and have them sought out again. A matter of chases and roadblocks, death looms.

The children are spared, and the odyssey continues as the sirens fall ominously quiet while the film moves into a different, quasi-domestic gear. Ventura’s hopes of a safe passage are thwarted despite the Parisian mobsters’ despatch of Belmondo to help. In parallel with this, a romantic element is provided, not all together plausibly, by giving a lift to a hitchhiking stage aspirant (Sandra Milo).

Here is tremendous stuff. Even if so many wonderful scenes do not cohere, the film keeps one, shall we say, engagé as its Godard’s continues to do.

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Innocent Sinners

In the Shadow of War's Aftermath

(Edit) 25/03/2024

Too little known, Innocent Sinners depicts a London more than ten years after the war - when its effects are still visible.

Amidst a bomb site, a young girl June Archer is moved to alleviate both that and her fraught home life by creating a flower garden. This is vandalised but one of the gang is moved to help her restore it in the shadow of the ruined building's inevitable demolition. A counterpoint to her home life and the threat of being despatched to a communal , religious one, here is drama of high order excellently played by all - the young and such stalwarts as Flora Robson.

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The Trollenberg Terror

An Unpretty Pass

(Edit) 23/03/2024

A sultry presence in The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Janet Munro had appeared a little earlier in The Trollenberg Terror. She is a mind-reader able to detect the presence of one-eyed alien spirits who are descending in the clouds upon a Swiss mountain pass visible from the observatory headed by one of the country's seemingly mad professors - none other than a Warren Mitchell whose wire spectacles appear to have crept from within his face.

Put like this, the film sounds preposterous. Of course it is, but this is done with such panache, and a relish of backdrops and model sets, that one soon becomes absorbed in the yarn even if it is not a match for Janet Munro's other tale of the planet under pressure. And if there are regrets at the vanishing of the television series from which it sprang, these are perhaps eased by the thought it is better at eighty minutes than drawn out further.

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Threads

Mushroom on the Menu

(Edit) 18/03/2024

With the world in ferment, it is an urgent matter to watch this film made four decades ago, around the time of Protest and Survive.

It depicts an England, in particular Sheffield, in which one thing and another has led to a nuclear bomb being dropped.

Events are shown in all its terror as bodies moulder, buildings fall, rats roam and food is so scarce that those in search of it are shot on sight. A situation made none the easier by the local Council's Chief Executive trying to organise the place with such staff as he has been able to cajole into a bunker - not the best place for team-building, for rancour is top of the agenda.

Grainily filmed, rapidly moving from scene to scene, with some focus upon two families, including a woman about the give birth, here is a kaleidescope which goes by quickly while making one marvel ay the managing of a cast which, per force, includes many crowd scenes.

Written by Barry Hines, who is best known for Kes, it is something which draws upon, and stands out from, the tropes of dysptopian fiction, a form which aspires to truth - and one can only hope - nervously enough - that the world does not unravel as it does here.

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Too Many Crooks

Money with Violins

(Edit) 11/03/2024

Although the opening scene of Too Many Crooks (1959), very well shot, has all the dark pace of a noir, this is soon revealed to be stuff of comedy when the truck in question crashes directly into a jeweller’s, and there tumble from and under it such hapless stalwarts of farce as Sid James (whose character is once again called Sid as that it what people call him anyway).

He is one of a group of crooks - including George Cole and Bernard Bresslaw - with ideas above their abilities. What’s more, this being late-Fifties England, it is scarcely surprising that along the way suave businessman Terry-Thomas’s eyes stand forth almost as often as moll Vera Day’s breasts.

Crudely put as that might sound, this is all in fact a blow for women’s rights - as befits a script by Michael Pertwee which was in fact built upon a story co-written by Christiane Roochefort, whose left-wing upbringing informs her novels and other writings (and she managed the linguistic feat of translating John Lennon’s books in the Sixties). The plot is readily summarised. The gang hits on the idea of kidnapping the daughter of Terry-Thomas who has made his pile by building nefariously upon his wife’s initial money; less than grateful to her, he proves thankful when the gang kidnaps her - a hearse and chloroform to hand - by mistake.

There is an expression known as a Sam Kydd moment. He frequently pops up effectively for a few seconds in films at this time - and never finer than when he stirs from an early-morning bench only to see a driverless hearse head his way, then crash, with which a shrouded figure rises from the now-vertical coffin and sends him running.

Restored to life, the wife joins forces with the gang to bilk Terry-Thomas of even more than the ransom he had proved far from willing to pay.

Chases, a convenient fire, an outlandish scene in front of a magistrate, impersonated officers from Scotland Yard, not to mention the stock-in-trade of a violin vase and such lines as “what’s in that cigar? Congo rat?”, here is diversion more skilfully managed by director Mario Zampi than anything the gang itself hoped to pull on the Great North Road

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Britannia Hospital

It's The Scientist's Round

(Edit) 11/03/2024

Artificial Intelligence. The brain is becoming burdened by the phrase. Little noticed, though, has been the third film, Britannia Hospital (1982) in the series by Lindsay Anderson and David Sherwin about Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) up against the world.

This time, the camera turns to health, in particular a research hospital which is preparing for a Royal visit while staff are on strike and a mob gathers outside to protest about the private wing in which a dictator has fetched up with his retinue (there is a terrific scene with them and an orange in his ante-room).

And what a cast is gathered here. Anderson was able to draw upon his familiar faces, including Alan Bates who was content to be glimpsed as a corpse. Mona Washbourne, Arthur Lowe, Joan Plowright... they are all here. As is Graham Cowdon, familiar from O Lucky Man as a crazed scientist who experiments with animals. Out the back at the Hospital he has now progressed to humans, and his own sampling of”delicious” brain (made into what would later be called a smoothie) is but a starter.

Protestors and Royal alike find themselves in the audience for a lecture about the culmination of all this, a large, mechanical/electronic creature which recites an obvious enough speech from Hamlet - capped by Cowdon’s remark that, come the end of the century, all that will be contained within something the size of a matchbox.

As we know, a quarter of the way into the next next century, this Intelligence occupies even less space.

Could any machine manufacture a script to rival this one? True, it can sometimes feel as if several elements have been yoked together, even a touch of Carry On, but the same could be said of the previous two in the series. The mob - such a crowd of extras - is unleashed, and there is a controlled anarchy to the film itself.

Why is it not more widely known?

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Born Yesterday

Bille and Holliday

(Edit) 10/03/2024

As usual with Garson Kanin and Geoge Cukor, here is elegance and style,. It is a mileu into which there enters a mobster who soon realises that his gal Billie Dawn (played by Judy Holliday) needs educating in a way that he himself is incapable of doing. And so, she is entrusted to a bespectacled William Holden and, along the way, has frequent recourse to a large dictionary which has a stand to itself.

For anybody familiar with the Pygmalion myth, the course of events is predictable enough. Feistily done, even if Billie's voice can be hard to take, here is diverting comedy a notch or two below the very best.

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Iris

...and Nowhere to Go

(Edit) 09/03/2024

With Iris Apsel's recent death at 102, this was a chance to see the documentary about her which Albert Mayles made a year before his own death. At first, it is a welcome sight, this colourfully decorated New York woman who, never opting for grey, sported all manner of clothes - and their accessories, mutiple bangles and all, by which she always set as much store.

Trouble is, it lasts more than ninety minutes. Long before this - shuttling between Florida and Park Avenue - it has become yet another foray to a shop and a rummage for unexpected items, whether in a thift store or more gilded a setting (she gets an exhibition of all this at the Metropolitan Museum when it had a sudden gap to fill). One soon asks, what else is there in the life of her and her husband (he died not long after). What does all this dressing up bring with it? There is no reference to books, plays, music - to anything else in Manhattan. Without wishing to impugn her, one cannot help but say the documentary feels hollow.

Not the film for which Mayles will be best remembered, although one is glad of the chance to see it, even if balking at the extra on the disc which is a fifty-minute interview with her by a fashion editor at the time of the film's release here.

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In a Lonely Place

All the Bulls of Bashan

(Edit) 04/03/2024

INT. DAY.

Man sits at desk and writes a screenplay by hand.

If the script for In a Lonely Place (1950) fell open at that page, any producer might snap it shut and pass on it with a droll aside or two redolent of Humphrey Bogart. This was an unlikely reaction, for the very man with a pen in hand is a sultry-lit Bogart in this wonderful variant on noir.

Directed by Nicholas Ray with a script by Andrew Solt from Dorothy B. Hughes’s contemporary novel, here is something in which no bullets fly - there would hardly be room for them amidst the one-liners, which do, however, make way now and then for a well-aimed punch or two (even Bogart’s bespectacled agent - Art Smith - does not escape his knuckles).

The origins of all this are simple enough. They always are. Screenwriter Bogart is assailed by somebody at a smart restaurant because he has not given his view about a novel’s screen potential. As chance has it, the cloakroom girl (Martha Stewart) has almost finished doing so in between handing the coats to and fro. Bogart asks if she would come home and tell him the plot. Uneasy, she breaks a date to do so, and afterwards - which was all this side of innocent (“I didn’t say I was a gentleman - I said I was tired”) - she leaves to get a taxi at a nearby junction.

That is the last seen of her, until a front page appears with news of her strangulation soon after, body at the roadside.

What with his hot temper, Bogart is a prime suspect, hauled in at 5 a.m., and soon gains something of an upper hand with the evidence of his neighbour Gloria Grahame who, hungry for him and dextrous with her eyebrows, has a view into his place.

How will it all go? Well, at first Gloria Grahame says of Bogart’s face, “I said I liked it, I didn’t say I wanted to kiss it.” All of which bears out a later observation, “a good love scene should be about something other than love.” There are more references to film-making along the way (“they’re not hot on arithmetic but they know how many minks make a coat” and “you keep making the same film, you’re a popcorn salesman”).

All light and shade (mostly shade, some of it provided by the inevitable venetian blinds), the narrative’s turns do not let up, matched by George Antheil’s score (which gives way to a nightclub scene with then-popular singer Hadda Brooks at the piano, who had a Nineties revival and here gives a wonderful scowl at the possibility of Bogart’s interruption).

As for grapefruit and film, any word-association challenge is likely to bring a reply of James Cagney pushing one into Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy two decades earlier. If there is an allusion to that, it comes here at breakfast after the night before, when Bogart goes into the kitchen and struggles to cut the fruit while Gloria Grahame enters and asks, “what happened to the grapefruit knife?” “It was crooked and so I straightened it.” A shame he does not also offer her coffee: it would make a contrast with Gloria Grahame’s encountering a strong brew in The Big Heat three years later.

“It’s much harder to come back than it is to arrive,” says a rugged Hollywood type at one point. In the case of In a Lonely Place, it was not a public success in its time - but it has come back, something not to be missed. And let us raise a glass to the uncredited Ruth Warren who plays an unfazed cleaner whose hands are as attached to the vacuum as a cigarette is to her lips, even when she retorts after Bogart’s complaint about the machine’s noise, “she can’t hear it, she’s taken those pills.”

As far as the title of this piece goes, it highlights an exclamation in the film - quite possibly the only time the Biblical allusion has been made on screen.

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Metropolitan

Address Codes

(Edit) 04/03/2024

Jeunesse dorée. Gilded youth has been a part of every generation. Over thirty years ago, in Metropolitan (1990) some of those on Manhattan’s Upper East Side were back from college for the Christmas vacation, their haunts various bars and sofa-laden apartments. Here is much talk less profound to anybody listening in than to those sparring with one another to appear informed and languid.

Written and directed by Whit Stillman, it was made on a small budget, and met with success. Audiences divided into those who saw it as a latter-day incarnation of Scott Fitzgerald and those who thought it bluntly indulged those who vapoured on about lives which turned in and around dating.

It is not so much a comedy as a mood, even perhaps a short story which has become unduly elaborated. At its core is somebody (Edward Clements) who has come in their orbit despite living in a small place the other side of the Park. He forms something of a friendship with bespectacled Chris Eigman who elaborates his theories of class distinction while in the room there come and go women talking of Jane Austen - and there are more references to critic Lionel Trilling than is is good for the soul.

For all the panoply of romance, the essence of the film is that disappointment beckons. Men as much as women are shaken when realising that not only putative love but groups of apparent friends are a staging post. The horses are untied and the caravan goes separate ways.

Others will have found the same after coming of age and more in the decades since their infancy at the time of the film’s release - and even made films about it.

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