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The Man Who Knew Too Much

Flashes of brilliance, otherwise a potboiler
All through his career Hitchcock did great films; this was not one of them.

A man knows too much, his daughter is kidnapped to secure his silence, and in the denouement all is resolved to the accompaniment of gunfire and rooftop drama.

Anyone who has seen 1930s Fritz Lang films- 'M' comes to mind- will know how far this urban narrative of crime and conscience falls short of what had already been done in that genre at that time. There is an altogether amateurish air about much of the staging and acting which subverts any sense of menace, darkness, and depravity that Hitchcock might have been seeking to instil.

What it is worth watching out for, however, is the sequence associated with the shooting at the Albert Hall. Once that kicks off it is as if the film has been given a blood transfusion. The camerawork is lively, the cuts are interesting, and the way that everything combines to a climax is masterly. Here you can see the future master: Hitchcock effortlessly orchestrate all the resources to impressive and memorable effect: when the scream comes you really feel as well as hear it.

Until They Sail

Excellent ensemble acting with an intelligent script
War starts, the New Zealand men go off to fight, and four sisters are left to cope with that- and the arrival of the American fleet! It sounds like a recipe for the most hackneyed sort of wartime romance weepie, but this film is certainly not that.

First, this is an ensemble movie, where no one 'star' dominates. From Paul Newman (probably the best-remembered name now) on, we are given a whole clutch of accomplished and finely nuanced performances.

The cinematography is superbly judged: this is one of those lovingly observed pictures where a shot of 'two people talking' is rarely just that; the backgrounds and choice of shots are a delight. This must be viewed in the original format, not 'scanned'!

The script is intelligent and daring. Sexual topics such as promiscuity and having children outside marriage are dealt with in a surprisingly straightforward and sophisticated manner for a 1950s movie. And, it must be said, they are dealt with in a human and sympathetic fashion. There is no hint of the lurid sensationalism nor of the tight-arsed repressiveness that films of this era often display when dealing with such subject matter.

In a situation where the old well-patterned expectations have gone by the board, the sisters attempt to keep track of their universe with a wall-map of the world on which they plot where their men are now. The scope of this exercise is enlarged to include the dead, and then American 'friends'. Ultimately, the map is screwed up and thrown on the fire as the old world- including the old moral universe- goes up in smoke.

The only jarring note is the plot device allowing the film to open and close with a murder trial. One of the sisters has married a 'local'- clearly marked as unsuitable by his working class tones and chest hair! The relationship ends in worse than tears. This element of the film has all the sophistication of an Enid Blyton 'Famous Five' childrens book, and sits uneasily in such an- otherwise- intelligent performance!

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

Unintentionally amusing, weak, but look out for the inspector!
When it was shot, the tie up this film made with 'the Arsenal'- using their stadium and some of their players- must have seemed a good idea. Now, sadly, the main selling point that gives the movie is the unintentional humour of the short brilliantined hair and big baggy football shorts.

The less said about the plot and the cinematography, the better!

Leslie Banks as Inspector Slade is, however, another matter. He plays a curious character who we meet rehearsing policemen in full uniform AND tutus for some sort of theatrical performance! Further, he has a large selection of different hats that he self-consciously picks from every time he has to go and perform some task; when he has to delegate an arrest to his sergeant, he even delegates the appropriate (fishing) hat to him also! Altogether, the character played is fascinating and odd: an English eccentric or a (coded- it is 1939!) gay characterization? Either way, it is Leslie Banks' playing that makes this film at all worth watching...

The Mummy

See the promotional preview, the rest of the film adds little!
As is, sadly, too often the case, the promotional previews of this pic contained practically all that was worth watching. There are some lovely moments, nice effects, good sets, and you've seen all that once you've seen the 'come-on' sequences!

There were special effects- tho' not much of an advance on Harryhausen's classics of nearly 20 years vintage, and there were some nice sets. The story itself is, of course, well known to cinema-goers thanks to the whole sequence of 'Mummy' features produced over half a century ago, but what is depressing is that a re-treaded story got such a tired treatment. Even copying what was done in the past, the atmosphere that was then evoked is entirely dissipated by a lack of vision: the film has no clear direction.

'Half-hearted' is a key phrase for this movie, & 'confused' the key word. There is a half-hearted attempt to be sexy, but not too much (because, presumably, we don't want the teens barring from the cinema). There is a laughable attempt to be scary/shocking which just does not do the business. Talking of 'laughable', the attempts at humour in this are frequent and pitiful: more suited to a costume soap on afternoon TV than a movie anyone would want to see! (Some of the sequences on a boat on the Nile were like someone attempting to do a comedy western on the set of 'Showboat'!)

Money has clearly been spent, some of the scenery and sets are impressive, and there are passages of 5-10 minutes which have much promise. Sadly, that promise is all you get.

What a shame! Here is story so meaty and cinematically promising that I could certainly see why it merited (at least one) re-make. Love, damnation, resurrection, bloodshed, exotic locations and 2 historical time frames offer so many possibilities. So many wasted possibilities. Like 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' a few years before it, 'The Mummy' takes a gothic narrative with enormous possibilities and wastes it. What a pity!

The waste is- arguably- all the greater here because, whereas the early 'mummy' films work very well indeed, there has never yet been a satisfactory and faithful filmic adaptation of Dracula (which always strikes me as really odd, for I have never encountered a book more suited to- almost designed for- cinematic expression).

Don't go see this. Buy a video of one of the original 'mummy' films, use the change to buy popcorn and drink, and have a really enjoyable evening instead!

The Birds

Complex, brooding & savage movie, set in sunny rural idyll
Images of birds stay with you, long after the film has finished. Whether sat, menacing, on the school climbing frame, or flying in screeching monochrome against a pallid sky, those birds make a profound impact. What do they mean?

One cannot help thinking of things 'coming home to roost'. Tippi Hedren (playing Melanie), an ex-wild child who enjoyed the dolce vita in Rome- however true the 'naked in fountain' allegations- confesses to trying to 'find herself' via charity work and studying linguistics! In her first film appearance (Hitchcock discovered her in a diet drink commercial) Tippi produces a wonderfully perplexing performance of tight suppression; her hairstyle alone, so smooth and well-polished, indicates neurotically tight personal packaging: when it starts to come unravelled, so does she!

Robert Boyle- the film's designer- claims that the design of the film was inspired by Munch's painting, 'The Scream'. In a direct and visual sense it is hard to see that. But, in terms of this being a film that is about personal anguish and dislocation, there are definite parallels. All is not well in sunny Bodega Bay! Mitch (played woodenly by Rod Taylor) has a dead father, a mother who never got over that bereavement, and an 'ex' who washed up as the local schoolteacher. Via an off-shot TV set we hear about meaningless violence in the outside world.

The scene in the local cafe is pivotal: when, thanks to the birds, the stone of this little community is turned over, all manner of small crawling things emerge. In the cockpit that the diner becomes people turn on each other and (metaphorically) spit as the anxiety gnaws at them. The film is worth watching for that sequence alone.

Hitchcock shows his usual and effortless mastery of the visual. There is the early humorous touch where two lovebirds in Tippi's car sway from side to side as she drives round the curves of the coast road. There is the heavily symbolic 'pieta' scene at the end where Tippi (who has no idea where her mother is, who is dead to the world after being savaged by the birds) is cradled in the lap of Jessica Tandy- playing Mitch's mother, Lydia- who is finally enabled by this new crisis to start to get over her old one (the loss of her husband): the tableau is enormously moving.

It is worth reflecting whether what makes little sense as a straight account of external events doesn't add up a great deal better as an indicative account of internal events. In the cafe scene Tippi is accused of bringing the birds with her and- in this sense- that would be true: her unresolved and pitiless internal landscape is writ large in the skies above Bodega Bay, where she has to fight, suffer, and ultimately be redeemed. Meanwhile the schoolteacher- holding a torch in self-imposed exile- is finally snuffed out.

Oh, and there is the strange case of the dog that did not bark: this is a Hitchcock film unique in that it has no music! How does that affect what it conveys?

Another wonderful feature of the narrative is the ironic inversion between birds and humans it tells of. The petshop where the action opens is full of caged birds. One escapes and briefly flutters round before being ignominiously caught under Rod Taylor's hat and bundled back in the cage. At the height of the action it is people who are caged up in their houses by the birds- to the extent where they are nailing themselves in! Yet, finally, the birds allow the carload of people to leave showing, in this respect, more liberality than their erstwhile captors. One is reminded of what Tippi says in the petshop (to Rod Taylor) "now you know how it feels to be on the other end of a gag"


Sci-fi with guts & imagination.
It is a truism that big-screen sci-fi drags decades behind the written stuff, and even then is so softened and romanticized that it bears little resemblance to it. This is not true of Dune.

Not primarily played for laughs, love interest and- most crucially- not aimed at 12-year olds, Dune is a big film: big in conception; big in execution.

Frank Herbert's Dune novel was a major (and weighty) contribution to the traditional sci-fi genre. Strong narrative combines with novel ideas and strange landscapes to great effect. What is happening unfolds only gradually. Lynch & co have performed an excellent job in translating this so faithfully to the silver screen. Because this is not dumbed-down sci-fi for pre-teens there have been howls of protest that it demands attention to understand what is going on. It does!

Here we have a story on screen that- certainly- features special effects and alien landscapes, but which is also sombre and strange. It is- as the original novel was- packed to bursting with ideas. At the end you are left panting for more, wanting to know where the story will go, what will happen next: all that is how it should be; the shame is that we never saw a sequel.

Carlton-Browne of the F.O.

Classic period English comedy-with scenes to die for...
Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas here vie for the honours in a dated but sparkling piece of bunkum. A comedy that aims at so many targets (the cold war US/USSR rivalry, the UN, the British civil service, 'banana republics'...) normally fails, but this certainly has more hits than misses.

There are two unmissable scenes. The first is a military march-past which is rolling-on-the-floor funny from first to last: the mixed up commentary (note the point when the commentator finally gets a sentence right!); the shenanigans on the parade ground; and the collapsing review stand all combine to excellent effect. Second, a more minor but tasty scene where a table dancer (she is dancing ON the table) distracts Terry-Thomas in the course of his diplomatic discussions- surprising how much eroticism can get through the ludicrously heavy censorship of the period!

John Le Mesurier does an effective job in a 'wicked uncle' role torn straight from the pages of 19th century melodrama. Those who recall him from his small role in Ben-Hur might have cause to reflect that here is a supporting actor who gets about a bit!

Overall, both Terry-Thomas and Peter Sellers have appeared in better films but, in parts, as funny a film as you are likely to find on a wet afternoon.


More truth about northern working-class life than I care to contemplate!
Ken Loach got it right. Slums, slum schools, and a future so limited you might as well call it predestination and have done with it. I was dragged up in the industrial north of England and feel uncomfortable, so closely can I identify with what is portrayed in Kes.

This, mark you, in a film shot in a period generally regarded as prosperous, a period innocent of Thatcher and the way she systematically shut down the mines and the mining towns. In this it characterizes prosperity accurately: a strictly local phenomenon. Not, of course, local to the north of England.

The kestrel dies. This is the central fact of the film. The hope, the freedom, the escape that it represents so well is given a true measure (a truly limited one).

When commentators from London say that the film needs subtitles (because of the thick Yorkshire accents of the participants) they speak more truly than they know: it is, indeed, a film from another country. With the closure of the pits the black perspective offered by this movie all those years ago is, somehow, even steeper and even darker. All those young lads who were fodder for the coal mine are now, simply, fodder for the dole queue.

This always was a film I found painful to watch and, as the political economy of Britain has unfolded over the last couple of decades, it becomes ever more painful to see it. Not because it is a poor or a careless movie, but because it is a good and an accurate one!


Superlative acting, cinematography & direction: what impact!
I cannot find words to fully express how perfectly formed this film is, though I will- of course- make a good stab at it!

I've seen Zulu so many times since it was first released that I have lost count. In the days when you could sit in the cinema and watch a film come round for a second (or even a third) time, I always did this with Zulu. I bought the soundtrack when it came out (on vinyl, of course).

From Stanley Baker & Michael Caine on through the cast list the acting is, quite simply, superb. This is an ensemble piece, and the ensemble gives its all! Photographically, it is beautifully conceived and executed. There is a tendency in 'war' movies to find a couple of favourite types of shot, and then endlessly repeat them, rather like a budgerigar that has learnt how to make his bell ring: no danger of that here; a whole lexicon of camera movements & angles is deployed with consummate skill so that you cannot watch this film without being fully engaged with it.

But, to cut to the chase, what is so striking is that here is a movie that could so easily have been yet another 'duffing up the natives' actioner, and instead becomes a vehicle for all sorts of interesting questions. Questions such as 'what is it to be a man?', and 'what is courage?' are posed and turned into interesting questions with complex and surprising answers.

The way that Zulu culture/social psychology is compared with that of the British soldiers is also deft and insightful. The cry of the drunken pastor- "you're all going to die"- echoes through the rest of the film, as we see how the protagonists face death.

Any review of this would be incomplete without mention of the music, which is so well-suited to the action. It forms a restless, swirling, and sometimes majestic backdrop to what is happening on-screen.

The voice-overs which 'bookend' the film also underline that which is, in any case, clear from the narrative: this film is no apologia for imperialism. Neither does it represent battle as other than bloody and painful murder. What is, perhaps, the most remarkable feature of the film is the way in which it damns war while neither grossing out nor alienating its audience. It is, on the contrary, an enthralling and passionate entertainment.

One memorable visual moment occurs toward the end, when the Zulus appear simultaneously on the skyline all round Rorke's Drift. Compare this with the appearance of the tanks on the skyline in 'The Battle of the Bulge'...

P.S., beware (as you always should) TV showings or videos that are 'scanned' rather than in the original letterbox format: cinematography this good does not deserve to be butchered!

The Bulldog Breed

Enormous fun, marvellous set-pieces, great humanity.
Norman Wisdom is- in all of his films- very human. The puppy-dog eagerness, willingness to do anything set before him, ability to make a mistake and then go on to make it worse- are, of course, the very stuff of the comic character that he sets up for us to laugh at. But his genius lies in the ability to make us identify with him, to 'live the life' with him, even as we guffaw.

In the Bulldog Breed there are stock characters aplenty, and the players act their roles accordingly, but Wisdom- like a wicked imp- seems to dodge and dart round the convention & hierarchy that still- in 1960- characterized much of the English way of doing things. He is like the benign counterpart of a poltergeist: causing disruption, certainly, but not as an alien or supernatural incursion, rather a human intervention into a stiff and inhuman environment. The sequence in which he gets a whole ship's crew into the water is an excellent example of this.

One thing that often goes unremarked in Wisdom's films is the sexual presence there. There is almost always some lubricious lovely in the line-up and, in this case, Wisdom (after some other amorous adventures) ends up on the beach with a girl in a grass skirt, being told to 'carry on'. By contemporary standards what is there is so laughably little that it seems distinctly odd to regard it as 'sex interest' but, in historical context, it is definitely that, and as much a part of the humour as 'dirty postcards' were a part of the English seaside holiday of the time.

Bear in mind, by the way, that in the years running up to the first moon-landing, this film is also a comment on Britain's presence in space!

The Full Monty

Good northern humour, shame about the pulled punches
The key thing about The Full Monty is that it isn't. A group of men undertake to take all their kit off for local fame and fortune, and we (the cinema audience) are invited to travel down the path with them to that destination. But we don't! As the film finishes and the men remove their clothes we are left with a back-view only...

Just as, on this obvious, direct, and central level, the film chickens out, so it does on the equally fundamental- if less visible- issues. The humiliation, exploitation, and anxiety inherent in being unemployed in Thatcher's Britain are made manifest; good gags and excellent acting enable us to look at them: this is an achievement. Unfortunately, the achievement is vitiated by the way we are invited to inspect them. We are shown a picture of exploitation and waste which is lacking any portrayal of the exploiters or the wasters, or of the mechanisms by which these processes happen.

As a result of this, we end up with an image which is ultimately quietistic- what is happening is inevitable. It needn't have been done this way. Compare the film 'Brassed Off', a comedy set in an equally down-at-heel north of England- in this the connections are made: the Thatcherite strategy of closing down the coal industry (and, thereby, large parts of the north of England) is laid bare. Brassed Off manages to be equally humorous, equally insightful into relationships and the realm of the personal, and yet doesn't systematically miss out on the political in the way that The Full Monty does!


Triumph of surrealism, the visual as well accomplished as the script.
Brazil achieves in visual surrealism the same high standard it sets in narrative Kafkaesque claustrophobia. It is 1984 with a banana stuck in some orifice; a fruit you can tell the time by.

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