World Cinema

Saturday (23/7)        23:15    Film4    Sputnik (2020). Not seen this, but I want to. I like Russian science fiction. One of my little projects is to acquire the film of Zamyatin’s extraordinary We, which was the first book censored by Lenin after the Revolution. Sadly, the cultural boycott has made doing business with Russia rather tricky. Odd that the boycott doesn’t seem to apply to Film4 showing this Russian film. Maybe it’s about who you know.

This 107-minute space horror (nothing to do with the tiny satellite that scared American half to death) seems to be a kind of riff on Alien, with a cosmonaut inadvertently bringing back an alien inside his body and a sexy earth scientist trying to disentangle them while running foul of the apparatchiks. Tim Cogshell, who does a NPR show in LA said ‘It has the sensibility of [Andrei] Tarkovsky, but it also has the rage and thriller aspects of Ridley Scott.’ That sounds a mixed blessing to me: expect leisurely story-telling and impressively slimy extraterrestrials. (JM)

Monday (25/7)         01:20    Film4    The American Friend (1977)

Wim Wenders great arthouse neo-noir reinvents Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game with tremendous visual style and the inspired if unlikely pairing of Dennis Hopper, as Highsmith’s anti-hero sociopath Tom Ripley, with the great German actor Bruno Ganz. The seemingly outlandish premise has Hopper/Ripley recruiting an ailing German picture framer and family man (Ganz) to carry out contract killings. This leads to gripping if offbeat action sequences and complex psychodrama. There’s also a superb score by Jürgen Knieper and eccentric cameo appearance by two other Hollywood mavericks, directors Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller. Don’t miss it. (SF)

Major Discovery

A new category introduced by Stephen, so a bonus point for that.

Wednesday (27/7)     02:30   Talking Pictures    The Incident (1967). Fascinating semi-lost film from an era when New York City was a byword for feral criminality (maybe it just has better PR these days). It looks interesting to me, though apparently crudely shot and somewhat obvious in its plotting. A couple of angry young crims (Martin Sheen and Tony Musante) get into an underground train and terrorise the honest citizens who are just trying to get on with their normal commuting nightmare. Roger Ebert said that ‘the point is pretty obvious: The average American, of whatever walk of life, class, race or religion, doesn’t want to get involved. Perhaps that is not quite true, but there are enough true stories like the fictional one in “The Incident” to suggest that sometimes it might be. That is probably the source of the fascination in this movie and the reason it works even though it isn’t done very well.’ (JM)

Stephen’s selection                 

Sunday (24/7)             22:00   Talking Pictures    Room at the Top (1959)

Room at the Top, directed by Jack Clayton, was one of the first films in the social realist style, also often called “kitchen sink drama”, which emerged in the late 1950s. Social realism in British culture was initially a literary style and film makers were really riding on the coat-tails of novelists and playwrights as the majority of their films used plays or novels as source material. The genre is characterised by dealing with the domestic and working lives of people in industrial towns. The main protagonists, usually men, are dissatisfied with the status quo of the social structure (except when it applies to the status of women) and rebel against the Establishment in their own particular ways. The works explored themes which were seen as controversial, even taboo, at the time: adultery, sex outside marriage, abortion, single parenthood. And, shock horror, the characters in the films spoke in regional accents.

Room at the Top, from the 1957 novel by John Braine, Is set in the late 1940s and so the aftermath of World War II is a significant presence. It is the story of Joe Lampton, a young man determined to climb up the social scale, who leaves his small hometown for a larger town, where he has a pretty mundane job in local government. He is pleased to find that his lodgings are in the better part of town, known as T’Top. He joins the local amateur dramatic society to widen his set of acquaintances and two of the women he meets there affect his life profoundly. In order to advance his social standing he begins a relationship with Susan, the daughter of a local industrialist, but also becomes intensely involved with an older woman, Alice, played superbly by Simone Signoret, the unhappy wife of a local solicitor. The intricacies of these relationships and the conflicts between love, lust and ambition are played out within the constraints of a provincial town, where everybody knows everybody else’s business. It is difficult to like the character of Joe, who is fundamentally weak, despite the bravado and ambition, but the film shows the snobbishness and cruelty of post war society, where men like Joe are adrift from their working class roots, yet not quite acceptable in a middle class milieu.

Much of the film was shot on location, in Halifax and Bradford, which gives the film authenticity. My personal view is that Lawrence Harvey was miscast as Joe – altogether too suave and urbane looking. Apparently the first choice for the part was Stewart Granger, but I don’t think that would have worked either. Since you ask, my choice would have been Tom Bell. Despite the underlying misogyny of the text, one of the strongest roles in the film is that of Alice Aisgill and for once, the US Academy, Bafta and Cannes all got it right by giving the Best Actress Award to Simone Signoret.

Jack Clayton went on to have a long, if somewhat patchy career in film and TV as producer and director. Room at the Top was his first full length feature film and the other features he directed were all based on novels, including The Innocents, from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. (PW)

Monday (25/7)           23:15    BBC2                     Revolutionary Road (2008) 

Sam Mendes tackles another slice of Americana in his adaptation of this novel about thwarted middle class aspiration, the debut by Richard Yates, a successful 1960s writer who is little known to modern readers.  

Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet, Mendes’s then wife, are Frank and April, who move to Revolutionary Road in the comfortable Connecticut suburbs with their two children and high hopes. Frank works in tech sales, April is a former drama student, and the film begins with her appearance in an amateur production, which doesn’t go well. The course of their fragmenting marriage is charted, a key component being their joint dissatisfaction with the American Dream. They hatch a plan to move to Paris, which Frank has visited in the past and felt inspired by, but when Frank is offered promotion and April becomes pregnant again, things spiral out of control. A chorus of other characters observes their progress: Helen their estate agent friend (Kathy Bates), neighbours Milly and Shep Campbell (Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour), Frank’s work colleagues and Maureen (Zoe Kazan), a secretary Frank toys with. Helen’s son John (Michael Shannon), a mathematician with mental health problems, proves to be a disruptor, challenging the couple while also seeming to understand their dilemma perfectly.  

Mendes carefully curates the 1960s suburban milieu and Roger Deakins’s cinematography is beautiful. Thomas Newman’s subtle score recalls his earlier work in Road to Perdition and The Green Mile.  Di Caprio is incendiary as you might expect, while Winslet is more nuanced, as befits a would-be actor trapped in a role she hates. Shannon is excellent as the unlikeable but insightful John. Nominations for numerous awards followed and Winslet won Best Actress at the Golden Globes. Todd McCarthy in Variety felt it was ‘a near perfect case study of the ways in which film is incapable of capturing certain crucial literary qualities, in this case the very things that elevate the book from being merely an insightful study of a deteriorating marriage into a remarkable one’. He also felt the TV series Mad Men handled the issues of conformity, frustration and hypocrisy ‘with more panache and precision’.  (And of course it featured Christina Hendricks). 

You can read a Boston Review article about Richard Yates here.    (JR)

Wednesday (27/7)     18:25   Talking Pictures    The Finishing Touch (1929)  (also Friday 14:15)

Laurel & Hardy for the Hal Roach studio. The duo are hired to build a house in a day. In fact it’s all over in 19 minutes. Brief joy. (JM)


19:15   Film4                      Addams Family Values (1993)  

Sequel to the Raul Julia / Angelic Huston live-action version of the cartoon and TV series. This time the couple have a new child, more monstrous than earlier models. Joan Cusack arrives as a nanny and bad stuff happens to her. Well-liked by some but not all. Here’s a snippet o of a review by Quentin Crisp (yes, that one) in Christopher Street, the San Francisco gay magazine of that era: ‘It tries too hard. As with Hocus Pocus and Dracula, every frame is a climax. The net result is tiring rather than exciting.’

Friday (29/7)              22:40   Sky Arts                  Elvis on Tour (1972).

What is says on the tin. Elvis’s final cinematic outing, a documentary about his 1972 American tour. More weight than heat, you might say.

Other modern films of interest

Saturday (23/7)         23:35   BBC1          The Bling Ring (2013)

Sofia Coppola’s fact-based drama about a group of vapid Hollywood teenagers who follow celebrities online so they can use the information to rob their houses. Mixed reviews. A lot of people found it dull and pretentious, but Deborah Ross in The Spectator liked it: ‘It’s taut, makes its point without hammering it home, well acted (particularly Emma Watson; I know!) and visually delicious. The Louboutins! The Birkins! The Rolexes! Sometimes I think I would like to have a go at the empty celebrity lifestyle, but then I remember I don’t have the time, and have to go get the car MOT’d or go to Sainsbury’s or something. Pity, that.’ I have nothing against Ms Coppola but I do wonder whether going into the family business was entirely wise. She could have tried something else, like being an aerobics instructor. (JM)

Sunday (24/7)            22:30   BBC1           The Mule (2018)

Legendary actor come filmmaker Clint Eastwood continues his late career flourish of very accomplished storytelling and once again directs a well made, impressively effective, admirable thriller with considerable skill and restraint in his trademark economic style. This time he stars as Earl Stone, an elderly man duped into drug running for the Mexixan cartel. He looks innocent to the patrolling cops, so has some success whilst also trying to rekindle ties with his estranged family. (MH)

Monday (25/7)          21:15   Sky Arts       Runrig: There Must Be a Place (2021). Documentary about the Scottish band Runrig, which naturally acclaims their mystical Gaelic schtick as a force for Hibernian national self-confidence, etc. Apparently they were together for 45 years. And yet, I can only remember one little snippet of their dirge-like music. Enough rockumentaries already. (JM)

Wednesday (27/7)    23:40   Film4           Skin (2018).

A young white supremacist changes his mind and tries to leave his violent gang. The gang aren’t happy. Starring Jamie Bell, once Billy Elliot.

Thursday (28/7)         01:00   Sky Arts       B.B. King: The Life of Riley (2012)

Thorough British documentary about the veteran bluesman, born Riley B. King. The B.B. bit apparently was a shortened version of ‘Beale Street Blues Boy’, the name he acquired when he played in the famous Memphis street. Includes the usual guff from fans, rivals and friends, but not much music.


Sunday (24/7)         00:35   BBC2                      Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

This late 1970s classic gives an in-depth, engrossing portrayal of prison life, following new fish Frank, played by Clint Eastwood. He is moved to the infamous top security island and told that nobody has ever escaped. So, as desperation builds, he dedicates his considerable intelect to breaking out, coming up with a daring and ingenious plan. Certain story elements will be familiar to fans of the genre high watermark The Shawshank Redemption – which has a very similar storyline º but this focuses more on the mechanics than the character dynamics. (MH)

08:55    Talking Pictures   Jubal (1956)

A melodramatic Western, directed by Delmer Daves, with Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine, Rod Steiger and Valerie French. A cowboy gets involved with a rancher’s two-timing wife. A jealous cowhand causes mischief.

14:00    BBC2                     Reach for the Sky (1956).

I may have watched this film more than any other. I have no idea why. Kenneth More pays the RAF pilot Douglas Bader, who lost his legs in a pre-war flying accident but nonetheless returned to fly a fighter and lead a squadron in the Battle of Britain. Lots of interesting nuances about the War. Bader is given a squadron nobody wants: they are Canadian. There is a touching tea-shop romance with Muriel Pavlow, who, despite her slightly exotic name, was born in Lewisham, like my big son Ed. The film was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who was part of a family music-hall act at the age of five, directed his first film (an official documentary about the building of prefabs, of which Cheltenham has a surprising number) in 1945 and went on to make several Bonds, Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine.

20:00   Sky Arts                 Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Back For Christmas (1956) (also Thursday 23:00) 

From Hitch’s American TV series. A man tells his wife he’s building a wine cellar. In fact he plans to kill her and bury in the concrete.                                         

Monday (25/7)        21:00   Talking Pictures    Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

In director Elia Kazan’s first ‘Issue’ movie, journalist Phil Green (Gregory Peck) accepts a commission from a liberal magazine and goes “undercover” as Jewish to expose the genteel but insidious anti-semitism of middle-class New York.  

Scripted by Kazan and the eminent Broadway playwright Moss Hart, the story is an adaptation of a best-selling novel of the time by leftwing Jewish writer Mary Z Hobson. Both novel and film struck a nerve in a heavily segregated society whose major civil rights struggles were still to come. An irony here is that Hollywood films of the 1940s were rife with racial stereotyping, mainly of African American characters. But Gentlemen’s Agreement is a more progressive Hollywood asserting itself.

While there is perhaps a “white saviour” element to the narrative, the project was triggered by a real life experience of non Jewish producer Darryl Zanuck. He was refused entry to a Country Club, as he was thought to be Jewish (shades of Groucho Marx, not wanting to be admitted to any Club that would have him as a member). And the device of Green simply adopting a Jewish identity and then finding himself for the first time in his life stigmatised – as if he has suddenly developed a bad smell – offers the audience (even now) a surprisingly visceral experience of what anti-semitism might feel like. The sense of some inherent taint that exists only in the dysfunctional mind of the bigot, but is then projected externally, onto the perceived Other. See the Nazis, and all forms of racism and xenophobia. Oh, and Brexit, anyone? 

If anything, though, we are shown too little of this actual ‘investigation’,  and the main focus is on a romantic relationship, and the pressures the deceit places on Green’s liberal but compromised fiancée Kathy (a very good performance by Dorothy McGuire). Into this mix arrives the forceful Jewish actor John Garfield, playing Phil’s best friend, Army Captain Dave Goldberg. (Garfield accepted a supporting role as he wanted to be involved, though he shared top billing.) Dave, who has had to deal with antisemitism all his life, then acts as a catalyst for subsequent learning experiences. Well, this is Hollywood. 

Inevitably all this feels quite dated and preachy at times, particularly by the end, and the narrative is painfully slow to get going. However, it is still recommended. As a bonus, there is some great location filming in 1947 Manhattan in early scenes, and Celeste Holm is great as the magazine’s free-thinking Fashion Editor.

An ironic postscript here: by the late 1940s America was consumed by anti-Communist hysteria. In Hollywood this took the form of blacklists, and the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC. Many of the leftwing actors, writers and directors who fell foul of HUAC were Jewish, and among them was John Garfield. He strongly denied he was a Communist but courageously refused to ‘name names’ – unlike the sadly compromised and non-Jewish Elia Kazan, also blacklisted. Garfield’s film career ended. He died of heart failure in 1952 aged just 39, with these events felt to be major contributory factors. Nazism takes many forms. 

For a more contemporary fictional take on historic US antisemitism, I would recommend Philip Roth’s brilliant 2004 novel The Plot Against America.  (SF) 

Thursday (28/7)      21:00   BBC4                      What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) 

Robert Aldrich’s overheated sibling rivalry melodrama, from Henry Farrell’s novel, about two sisters living in a Hollywood mansion and not getting on too well, as the lead women did not.  Blanche (Joan Crawford) is a successful actress now confined to a wheelchair after a car accident.  ‘Baby’ Jane (Bette Davis) is a former child actress who went out of fashion and is now Blanche’s carer.  She is also psychotic, so the arrangement could work better.  When Blanche decides to sell the house, Jane suspects she will end up in a psychiatric hospital, so she takes matters into her own hands. It’s quite long and gruelling but hard to forget.  TV Guide said ‘If it sometimes looks like a poisonous senior citizen show with over-the-top spoiled ham, just try to look away’.  (JR)

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