JamesHitchcock

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Collide
(2016)

Never Judge a Book by Its Cover
Never judge a book by its cover, or a movie by the big names on the poster. My wife and I were reminded of this adage last weekend when we were flicking through the TV schedules and decided to watch "Collide", largely because of the words "starring Ben Kingsley and Anthony Hopkins". Bad move.

The film is about two young Americans living in Germany. Both characters, in fact, are played by British actors, Nicholas Hoult and Felicity Jones, who were cast after Zac Efron and Amber Heard dropped out. (Good move). A young man named Casey meets a girl named Juliette in a bar, but she wants nothing to do with him as she knows that he works for a Turkish-born drug dealer named Geran. Casey is so smitten that he quits Geran's gang and finds more lawful employment. Juliette's prejudices against drug dealers to not extend to those who have retired from the business and the two begin dating and eventually start living together together.

And then Juliette is taken ill, and it is discovered that she needs a kidney transplant. Because of doubts about her immigration status, she does not qualify for the operation in Germany, and she does not have the money to pay for it in America. To raise the money Casey goes back to work for Geran, who wants him for a special job. As this job involves stealing drugs belonging to a much more powerful drug lord named Hagen Kahl, who is noted for his ruthlessness, Casey finds that he has put himself and Juliette in great danger. (This is why Juliette had to be American. Had the character been British she could have returned home and had the operation free of charge on the National Health. So why are so many Americans opposed to the idea of a state-run health service?)

By coincidence, this was one of two modern British crime thrillers made in the late 2010s and set, or partly set, in Germany, which I have watched recently, the other being "The Good Liar". Both films star two senior members of the British acting profession, all of them now in their seventies or eighties, Hopkins and Kingsley here and Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren in "The Good Liar". Of the two, "The Good Liar" is by far the better. It is not a perfect film- the script and plotting leave a lot to be desired- but it does contain two excellent performances from the two leading actors.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for "Collide". It is, by a considerable margin, the worst film I have ever seen starring Hopkins (the previous holder of that title being Oliver Stone's clunking classical epic "Alexander"). It is not quite the worst film I have ever seen starring Kingsley, but it is the worst since the appalling "Harem" from the mid-eighties. Kingsley is admittedly an actor whose work can vary in quality; his career has contained some notable peaks such as "Gandhi", "Schindler's List", "Twelfth Night" and "Shutter Island", but it has also contained some troughs, and the dreadful performance he gives here as Geran must count as one of the deepest of these. Hopkins has generally been more consistent in quality throughout his career, but even he does not shine here. His Kahl is strangely bland and disappointing, insufficiently menacing for a supposedly ruthless drug baron.

The other big problem with the film is that it does not contain any character with whom we can sympathise. Yes, I know we are supposed to be rooting for Casey, but I find it difficult to root for a drug dealer, even a reformed drug dealer who has slipped back into his old ways out of supposedly noble motives. (And Casey did not give up drug dealing out of remorse or conscience; he did so because it was the only way he could get Juliette to sleep with him). The script is badly written and the plot frequently does not make a lot of sense. About the only redeeming feature of this film is that the frequent car chase and car crash scenes are well handled. And with a title like "Collide" that seems entirely appropriate. 3/10

Seberg
(2019)

Radical Chic
This film is based on the life of Jean Seberg, but deals less with her acting career than with her political activism and the campaign waged against her by the FBI. Seberg was a supporter or the black civil rights movement and gave money to the Black Panthers, as a result of which the FBI, then run by J Edgar Hoover, listed her as a dangerous subversive, kept her under constant surveillance and planted false stories about her in the gossip columns. The ensuing bad publicity damaged her film career, at least in Hollywood, although she continued to work in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Seberg was far from the only well-known supporter of the civil rights movement, which even won over otherwise conservative figures such as Charlton Heston. Plenty of white celebrities supported the Panthers, a phenomenon famously satirised by Tom Wolfe in his essay "Radical Chic". There were Hollywood figures who went further in their radicalism than Seberg did; Jane Fonda's notorious trip to North Vietnam came (in the eyes of many conservative Americans) perilously close to treason, yet she was able to continue working in Hollywood throughout the seventies. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Seberg was singled out for special treatment because of her romance with the black activist Hakim Jamal, something which aroused the ire of racist elements within the Bureau.

Kristen Stewart has not always been my favourite actress, but here as the title character she is a lot better than in some of the films in which I have seen her. As played by her, Jean Seberg emerges as someone brave and idealistic but also naïve and vulnerable. The film also raises the question of whether Jean's radical-chic activism actually helped anyone. Besides damaging her own career, it is also arguable that she also ended up damaging the cause she was ostensibly supporting. The Panther movement was always prone to splits and factionalism, and Seberg's involvement with the cause was not welcomed by those elements within it who opposed relying on support from white celebrities. She certainly damaged Hakim Jamal's marriage after the FBI sent evidence of their affair to his wife Dorothy. Seberg's French husband Romain Gary appears to have believed in open marriages and turned a blind eye to her infidelities, but Dorothy was less accommodating.

However naïve or misguided Seberg may have been, nothing can justify the FBI's treatment of her, given that there was no evidence that she had broken any laws. Nothing either can justify their obsessive campaign against the black civil rights movement in general, a campaign which had little to do with combatting genuine subversive threats and a lot to do with bad old-fashioned racism directed towards African-Americans. During the Cold War, much stress was laid upon the differences between Western democracy and the authoritarian police states of the Communist Bloc, but this film suggests that the FBI may have had more in common with the KGB than Americans liked to think. The film, however, does not really analyse why the FBI was so obsessed with combatting the civil rights movement which, far from wanting to subvert American democracy, actually wanted to make the country more democratic.

The FBI men we see are divided into a "good" agent, who has moral scruples about the way the Bureau are treating Seberg and about his part in it, and his "bad" supervisor who, if he has moral scruples about any subject whatever, takes good care to keep them separate from his work. This treatment, however, struck me as overly schematic and as raising more questions than it answered. The film is of interest, however, for the questions it asks about the relationship between the individual and the state and the light it sheds upon a once well-known film star who has faded from the public imagination since her death on 1979. 7/10

The Good Liar
(2019)

What Lies Beneath
Roy Courtney is an ageing con-man who specialises in befriending people so that he can gain access to their finances. His latest target is Betty McLeish, a retired, widowed Oxford professor of history whom he has met through a "lonely hearts" website. The two become close friends and he persuades her to open a joint offshore investment account with him, with the aim of stealing her extensive savings. That, at first, appears to be the plot of "The Good Liar". There are, however, a couple of dramatic plot twists which take the viewer back to Germany during and immediately after the Second World War. (The main action takes place in 2009). These twists reverse much of what we have been led to believe; both Roy and Betty may not be what they seem. I won't reveal what those twists are, but I can say that they make the film far more complex than it initially gave promise of being.

By coincidence, I have recently watched two modern British crime thrillers made in the late 2010s and set, or partly set, in Germany, the other being "Collide". Each of these films starts two senior members of the British acting profession, all of them now in their seventies or eighties, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren here and Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley in "Collide".

"The Good Liar" is by far the better of the two films. Certainly, it is not perfect. The plot, although complicated, never becomes incomprehensible, as happens with some films (including "Collide") which rely upon surprise twists, but some of those twists are far from being plausible. It is never really explained just how "Roy"- that is not his real name- has managed to live under a false identity for so long without anyone cottoning on- apart from "Betty" (not her real name either). For the sake of clarity I will, however, use the names "Roy" and "Betty" throughout.

McKellen and Mirren, however, both give first-class performances. Both Roy and Betty are living a lie. There is a double meaning in the film's title. Roy is a "good liar" in the sense that he is a skilful, practised one. Betty, however, may also be a "good" liar in the other sense of the word, namely that there is a moral justification for the lies she tells.

This means that both actors have to give a double-layered performance, convincingly portraying the exterior which their character presents to the world, while at the same time hinting at what lies beneath. McKellen, in fact, has to give a triple-layered performance, because there are three levels to Roy- the gentle, cultured elderly widower, which is how he wishes to appear to Betty, the heartless and avaricious con-man, and beneath that something even worse- a dangerous criminal who has no compunction about using violence, up to and including murder, to deal with those who get in his way. In "Collide", by contrast, the normally reliable Hopkins gives a disappointing performance, and Kingsley (admittedly an actor whose work can vary greatly in quality) gives one of his worst.

If one analyses "The Good Liar" in terms of plot, it is just another over-elaborate thriller with too many twists. If, however, one looks at other factors, such as characterisation, psychological depth and the skills of the two leading actors, it rises well above that level. 7/10

Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant
(1972)

Filmed Theatre
Although he died at only 37 years of age, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a remarkably prolific individual, working as a filmmaker, actor, playwright, theatre director, composer, cinematographer, editor, and essayist. "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" was originally a stage play, but he later adapted it for the screen. In the 1970s the normal practice when dealing with stage plays, at least in the American or British cinema, was to "open them up" by introducing a wider variety of locations than would be possible in a theatrical production.

The cinema version of "The Bitter Tears...", however, is unusually theatrical and stagey for a film made at this period. It is divided into five well-defined acts and all the action takes place in the title character's apartment in Bremen, mostly in her bedroom, which is dominated by a huge reproduction of Poussin's "Midas and Bacchus". The acting is highly stylised, with the sort of formal dialogue and precise, careful diction more often used in the theatre than in the cinema, where more naturalistic speech is preferred. (Although German is not my first language, I could understand virtually every word even without subtitles, which is certainly not the case with most German films, which use more slangy language and regional accents rather than the "Buehnendeutsch", or Stage German, used here).

Petra von Kant is a successful fashion designer, and the film tells the story of her unhappy lesbian affair with a young model named Karin. Fassbinder was himself gay, and many (although not all) of his films deal with homosexual themes, although here both Petra and Karin are bisexual rather than exclusively lesbian. Petra has been married twice, and has a daughter from her first marriage, while one of the factors in the breakup of the relationship is that Karin is beginning to rediscover her feelings for her own husband, from whom she has previously been estranged. None of the men in their lives, however, actually appear in the film, which has an all-female cast.

Despite its theme, the film does not contain any explicit love scenes. Much of it is taken up with Petra discussing her feelings and relationships, not only with Karin but with her cousin Sidonie, her daughter Gaby and her mother. Another important character, although she hardly says anything, is Petra's assistant Marlene, whom she treats like a servant. There is an implication, never made explicit, that Petra and Marlene are in some form of sado-masochistic relationship and that Marlene willingly submits to Petra's often humiliating treatment of her.

There are fine performances from the two leading actresses, Margit Carstensen as the neurotic, tormented Petra and Hanna Schygulla as the attractive but superficial and self-centred Karin, although those used to more conventional cinematic styles of acting may find their contributions someone mannered. The same could be said of the film as a whole. Anyone whose ideas about the cinema have been formed by a sole diet of Hollywood blockbusters will doubtless find "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" strange and peculiar, even unwatchable. Even to those used to American or British independent or arthouse movies it may come as something of a surprise. Yet it is a film worth watching, even if only to expand our ideas of what the cinema is capable of. 7/10

Holiday Affair
(1949)

The Third Wheel
The title of this film shows just how far we Brits and our transatlantic cousins are divided by our common language. I had expected a romantic comedy entitled "Holiday Affair" to be set in summer and that it would feature the hero and heroine walking in their swimsuits along the beach in some seaside resort. I had forgotten that in Americanese that sort of holiday would be called a "vacation" and that the word "holiday" is often used to refer to the Christmas season.

This is an example of what I have come to think of as the "third wheel" type of rom-com. The basic plot is that a handsome, charismatic stranger (inevitably played by a major A-list Hollywood star) comes into the life of the heroine who is instantly smitten by him, even though she already has a decent, dependable steady boyfriend (inevitably played by a minor B-list Hollywood character actor). Equally inevitably the first name above the title gets the girl, but nobody ever gets emotionally hurt.

The action takes place in New York during one Christmas season in the late forties. The heroine is Connie Ennis, a beautiful young war widow with a young son. The third wheel is Connie's long-time boyfriend Carl Davis, a lawyer, who becomes first her fiancé, then her ex-fiancé, in the course of her film. And the hero is Robert Mitchum, here disguised as Steve Mason, a handsome stranger whom Connie meets while he is working in the toy department of a department store, although his great ambition is to move to California and set up a business building sailing-boats. (Mitchum was not a natural actor in romantic comedy- his more normal fare was film noir, war films and Westerns, but the studio had insisted on his taking the role because they felt it would help rehabilitate his reputation after he had served a jail term for drug offences).

You can work out the bare bones of the plot from the above, although actually there are a few more complications, involving an expensive toy train upon which Connie's son Timmy has set his heart, a necktie, Steve's arrest on suspicion of robbery and an excruciating Christmas dinner in the course of which Steve makes a speech demanding that Connie should marry him, even though her fiancé Carl and her first husband's parents are present. (In real life he would probably have been shown the door immediately. But then this is a Hollywood rom-rom, not real life).

Because of its Christmas associations, the film has taken on the status of a minor holiday classic and frequently turns up on television during the Christmas season (which is when I saw it) along with the likes of "It's a Wonderful Life", "Miracle on 34th Street" and "Meet Me in St Louis". It is not, however, a film I really care for, even though Janet Leigh makes a sweet heroine and Mitchum is better than I thought he would be as a romantic lead. This is probably because I don't really care for "third wheel" rom-coms as a genre, as I know all too well (from bitter personal experience) that this sort of scenario does not generally lead to the sort of "happy ever after" ending which Hollywood would have us believe in. I was one of those rooting for Connie to end up with Carl, who loves her deeply, rather than the charismatic but eccentric Steve who seems to do everything, including proposing to Connie, on an impulsive whim. But what Hollywood scriptwriter is going to write an ending in which the heroine rejects Robert Mitchum for a B-lister like Wendell Corey? 5/10

Damage
(1992)

Getting Back to Basics
During the early 1990s, newspaper headlines in Britain were full of stories about misbehaviour- often, although not always, sexual misbehaviour- by Conservative politicians. The Prime Minister John Major made a now-notorious speech at the party conference at which he called upon people to "get back to basics", by which he meant traditional moral values. The reason the speech has become notorious is that over the next few years Major's government was embarrassed by a series of sexual and financial scandals involving Conservative MPs, both backbenchers and ministers, who had signally failed to take the "back to basics" message to heart. (Unless they thought "getting back to basics" meant "getting down and dirty"). After Major left office, it was revealed that he himself had had an extramarital affair with a parliamentary colleague, Edwina Currie.

"Damage", which deals with sexual misconduct by a British Conservative politician, was therefore a very topical film when it first appeared. The politician in question, Stephen Fleming, appears to be the ideal family man, with an attractive wife Ingrid, an adult son Martyn and a teenage daughter Sally. One day Stephen receives a telephone call at his office from Martyn's girlfriend, Anna, and dashes round to her flat where they have sex. Just like that. No courtship, no seduction, no foreplay even. They don't even get as far as Anna's bed but have sex on the floor in her hallway.

The film then charts the progress of the relationship between Stephen and Anna, which continues even after she has become engaged to Martyn, who remains blissfully ignorant of what is happening behind his back. Ingrid is equally unaware of her husband's misconduct. What the film doesn't deal with in any detail is why Stephen and Anna should have embarked on such a reckless course of conduct which can only end in unhappiness for them both. Stephen is perhaps the easier to understand. He is not the first middle-aged man to make a fool of himself when confronted with a pretty face, and few faces are prettier than Juliette Binoche's.

But Anna? Just what can have possessed her to betray the boyfriend who loves her dearly with his own father? This is a question which the film never really answers. The nearest it comes is to argue that Anna is psychologically damaged (hence the title of the film) following the suicide of a beloved elder brother when both were teenagers, but this never seems like an adequate explanation. There are hints of some sort of incestuous attachment between Anna and her brother and that he killed himself after seeing her with another boy, but the film (which in other respects is very sexually explicit indeed) is never explicit on this point.

The quality of the acting is mixed. Binoche (one of a number of French stars who find it easier to act in their own language than in English) is surprisingly impassive for a young woman supposedly in the throes of a grand passion. Miranda Richardson was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, and actually won a BAFTA for her performance as Ingrid, but the technical quality of her acting cannot hide the fact that she was badly miscast in a role which should have gone to a much older actress. Richardson would have been 34 in 1992, only five years older than Rupert Graves, who plays her son.

Even Jeremy Irons (44 in 1992) was really too young to be playing the father of a 29-year-old man. It was not too long since Irons had been playing the handsome male romantic lead in films like "The French Lieutenant's Woman" or television programmes like "Brideshead Revisited", so when I first saw the film it was difficult to accept him as a dirty old man panting after a lovely young girl. Even without that difficulty, I would not have been impressed by him. He comes across as stiff and inert, which may be appropriate in scenes showing him in his professional life, perhaps also in the scenes with his family, but he even seems wooden in his scenes with Anna, whom he is supposed to love desperately. He is even lifeless in the sex scenes. Irons at his best can be a fine actor, but he is also capable of turning in some very disappointing performances.

The film was directed by Louis Malle, a man with a proven record of courting controversy. (He had earlier made "Le Souffle au Coeur", about mother/son incest, and "Pretty Baby", about a child prostitute). "Damage" was certainly controversial when it came out, partly because in 1992 the British cinema was not as accustomed to this level of sexual explicitness in a mainstream movie as the French or American cinema, and partly because it seemed to have a topical political relevance. Unfortunately, as Malle had already shown with "Pretty Baby", it is possible to produce a film which is both controversial and boring. He achieves this dubious feat again with "Damage". 4/10

Play for Today: Scully's New Year's Eve
(1978)
Episode 11, Season 8

Hiding Their Light Under a Bushel
Alan Bleasdale first created the character of Francis Scully, a rebellious Liverpool teenager, to entertain his pupils while he was working as a teacher. (The name may have been chosen because of its similarity to "scally", Liverpudlian dialect for a young rogue or rascal). Scully became the hero of a series of short stories broadcast on BBC Radio Merseyside; this play, first broadcast as part of the BBC's "Play for Today" series, marked his first appearance on television.

When I was growing up in Kent in the sixties and seventies, Christmas was always the be-all and end-all of the festive season. My family always spent time on the 31st of December with my grandparents, but only because it was my grandfather's birthday. Like many other families in Southern England we never did much to celebrate the New Year itself, an attitude which always puzzled my mother who had grown up in the North where New Year was always an important family celebration, if not quite as important as it was in Scotland. The play centres upon a Northern New Year's Eve family gathering.

Scully and his mate Mooey want to go out and celebrate, but Scully's formidable mother has other ideas, insisting that he spend the evening at the party she has organised for her family, friends and neighbours. (The one relative who has not been invited is Scully's father, from whom she is estranged). Scully is not, however, the only member of the family who is less than enthusiastic about socialising with his nearest and dearest. His eldest brother Henry would rather play with his train set and middle brother Tony's one great obsession is with watching his favourite movie, "High Noon", which is being broadcast that evening.

When the guests begin to arrive we soon realise just why Scully and his brothers were so keen to avoid them; those who are not terminally dull seem terminally weird. The play has something in common with Mike Leigh's "Abigail's Party", which had been broadcast on "Play for Today" two months earlier. Both plays deal with a social gathering which starts off politely enough, but as time passes the strained relationships and hidden resentments become more and more apparent, and in both cases the evening ends in sudden tragedy. One difference between the plays is the social milieu in which they are set. Several of the characters in "Abigail's Party", especially Beverly, are from a working-class background but have aspirations towards what they see as a more genteel middle-class lifestyle. The characters in "Scully's New Year's Eve" are all more straightforwardly working-class.

This is the second of Bleasdale's television plays which I have watched in recent weeks, the other being "The Black Stuff". Both show his talent for characterisation and for writing dialogue which is both credible and entertaining. When I reviewed "The Black Stuff" I described it as a very sharp, bleakly funny black comedy. The same could be said of "Scully's New Year's Eve" except that here the comedy has an even bleaker ending. I understand that this play has not been shown by the BBC for many years. The Beeb really ought to make more use of their treasury of excellent drama rather than hiding their light under a bushel. 8/10

We Were the Mulvaneys
(2002)

Going through the Motions
Michael and Corinne Mulvaney and their four children, Michael Jr., Patrick, Maryanne ("Marianne" in the original novel), and Judd, are the seemingly perfect all-American family living the seemingly perfect all-American dream in a small, rural town in upstate New York, where Michael Sr. has a successful business as a building contractor. The film chronicles the family's fall from grace after Maryanne, at the time a teenage schoolgirl, is raped at a party by a boy at her school. She, however, does not want to give evidence and the police are reluctant to prosecute, possibly swayed by the fact that the boy's family are wealthy and influential. The stresses caused by this incident lead to all four children leaving home and to a greater or lesser extent becoming alienated from their parents, who eventually divorce.

The film is based on a novel written by Joyce Carol Oates, and while I have not read it I am familiar with some of the author's other work. Her novels are normally quite lengthy and complex, with a large cast of characters and several interconnected plot lines, features which would make them difficult to adapt for the screen. (Although one of America's most highly regarded modern novelists, I am not aware of any other films based on her books). I suspect that "We Were the Mulvaneys" is a novel of this type and that the screenplay is based on a very basic filleted outline of the plot, with a lot of the book's complexities going missing in the transition from page to screen. An hour-and-a-half running time- the standard length of TV movies when allowance is made for commercial breaks- would not normally be long enough to do full justice to an Oates novel.

If this is so, it would explain why the film never comes to life, even though it deals with some serious issues. The action supposedly takes place in the seventies and eighties, but there is not much period colour. There are some decent acting contributions, especially from Beau Bridges as Michael Sr., Blythe Danner as Corinne and Tammy Blanchard, an actress I had not previously come across, as Maryanne. Overall, however, I felt that this was a film which did little more than go through the motions and that a better film could have been made from the story. 6/10

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
(1958)

A Soft Spot for a Childhood Favourite
I have long had a soft spot for "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad", and Ray Harryhausen's work in general, ever since I was taken, as a child, as part of a friend's birthday treat, to see the film on a double bill with "Jason and the Argonauts". This would have been in the early seventies, nearly a decade and a half after it was first released in 1958, but in those days children's films seemed to have a longer shelf-life than they do today, and it was quite common for cinemas to wheel out the familiar old classics every school holiday. (My friend's birthday fell in July, so his parties normally included a trip to the movies).

The plot concerns a beautiful princess who has been shrunk to a height of only a few inches by an evil magician. She can only be restored to normal by a magic potion, the ingredients for which can only be obtained by a hazardous voyage to a distant island. Step forward the heroic Sinbad, who has fallen in love with the princess. Once on the island he and his crew must face many dangers, including a cyclops, a dragon and a roc, a gigantic two-headed predatory bird.

This isn't really the sort of film you go to for the acting, so it doesn't really matter that neither the handsome Kerwin Mathews as Sinbad nor the lovely Kathryn Grant (aka Mrs Bing Crosby) as Princess Parisa were the sort of actors who were ever likely to receive Oscar nominations. What matters is that both looked and sounded right in an Arabian Nights fantasy movie.

Monsters were Harryhausen's stock-in-trade, and the monster scenes were filmed using Dynamation, the widescreen stop-motion animation technique which he created. He later worked on two more Sinbad films using the same technique, "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" from 1973 and "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger" from 1977. I have never seen "The Golden Voyage", but by 1977 (the same year as the original "Star Wars") Harryhausen's work, and stop-motion animation in general, was starting to look a bit retro in the age of CGI.

For me, however, the retro look is part of the charm of this sort of film, and we have to remember that in 1958 it was not retro at all, but cutting-edge film technology. It may look old-fashioned today, but "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" still retains its ability to transport the audience into a world full of wonders. And that is the whole point of films like this. 7/10

Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse
(2020)

One of the Better Festive Offerings
This is the second of two films about the life of Beatrix Potter to have appeared in recent years. The first, "Miss Potter", dealt with the early part of her career as a writer and with her romance with her publisher, Norman Warne, a romance tragically cut short by his early death. In "Roald and Beatrix" she is now in her fifties, a successful children's writer living on a Lakeland farm with her lawyer husband William Heelis.

The "Roald" of the title is another famous children's writer, Roald Dahl, although in 1922 when the film is set he was still only a child of six years old himself. The story (apparently a true one) tells of how Dahl, grieving over the recent deaths of his father and sister and rebelling against his mother's plan to send him to boarding school, ran away from the family home in Cardiff intending to make his way to the Lake District to visit his favourite author. His mother followed him, but instead of preventing him from making the journey agreed to accompany him. The film tells the story of what happened when the two met.

Potter is played by Dawn French as a formidable if rather absent-minded old lady, surprisingly unsentimental for someone who made a living writing stories about talking bunny-rabbits; there is a thread running throughout the narrative about her attempts to kill a goose for dinner. (The story takes place over the Christmas holidays). Another plot thread deals with a young woman whom Potter's publishers have sent in order to pass on some suggestions as to how Potter might "improve" her literary style, suggestions that she treats with disdain. The full title, "Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse", refers to this emissary's suggestion that Potter should rewrite the scene in the nursery-rhyme in which the farmer's wife cuts off the tails of the three blind mice, which she claims is excessively cruel. (Did, I wonder this scene actually take place in 1922, a less sentimental period than our own, or was it the scriptwriter's joke at the expense of 21st century political correctness?)

I must admit that, although Roald Dahl was a favourite of mine, I never liked Potter's books as a child. They always struck me (and still do) as the sort of children's books that appeal to adults far more than they do to children. (Some of my friends claimed to like them, but I wondered if they were just saying that to please their parents and teachers). I think that, in my case, the problem was that Miss Potter's language is much more adult than her subject-matter. As a young child I struggled with her unfamiliar vocabulary, and when I was older and could understand her language, her tales of cutesy animals struck me as twee and babyish.

Despite this prejudice, however, I enjoyed "Miss Potter" greatly. "Roald and Beatrix" is perhaps not quite as good, but I nevertheless liked it. French makes Potter a likeably eccentric heroine, even if a did keep hearing echoes of the Vicar of Dibley, and young Harry Tayler is excellent as the young Roald. At nine he is rather older than Dahl would have been in 1922, but I don't think that matters, as it is easier to envisage a nine-year-old than a six-year-old running away from home in this manner. The period is lovingly recreated in best British "heritage cinema" style, and the visual look of the film is very attractive. This was one of British television's better offerings over this year's festive season. 7/10

The Great Wall
(2016)

Very watchable as long as you don't take it too seriously
This is the first English-language film by the distinguished Chinese director Zhang Yimou (although there is also some English dialogue in his earlier "The Flowers of War"). Zhang is noted for his period dramas such as "Raise the Red Lantern", "House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero", which can be seen as the Chinese equivalent of Western "heritage cinema". "The Great Wall" is also set against the backdrop of Chinese history, although unlike the films referred to above it also contains some fantasy and science-fiction elements.

The action takes place in the 11th century AD, during the reign of the Emperor Renzong of Song (1022-1063). A party of European explorers have been making their way to China in search of the secret gunpowder. Nearing the Great Wall they are attacked by a monster and only two, an Englishman named William Garin and a Spaniard named Pero Tovar, survive. Garin and Tovar manage to reach the Wall, which they find garrisoned by a formidable Chinese army awaiting an attack. The enemy they are expecting, however, is no human force but a horde of monsters known as the Tao Tei. (It was a Tao Tei which attached Garin and Tovar's party). We are given to understand that the Tao Tei are beings from another planet, although the Chinese believe them to have been sent by Heaven as a punishment for the greed and cruelty of an Emperor who ruled some 2,000 years earlier. Garin agrees to help the Chinese in their fight against the Tao Tei, although Tovar remains obsessed with the idea of stealing gunpowder and returning to Europe.

Although this was an American and Chinese co-production with a Chinese director and a predominantly Chinese cast, some have criticised it as a "white saviour" movie. That, however, strikes me as a misconception, unless the phrase "white saviour" is interpreted as meaning "Matt Damon or some other major international film star who will save the movie at the Western box office". Although the Chinese admire William's courage and skill as a warrior- he is an accomplished archer- they have plenty of courageous and skilled warriors of their own, and do not need a white man to save them, especially as their military technology and organisation are more advanced than anything which European armies would have possessed at this time.

In some ways, in fact, it is William who is "saved" by the Chinese. Before coming to China he was a mercenary who would only fight for money and who would happily betray his comrades if he received a better offer from the enemy. The Chinese soldiers, however, fight for one another and for their country, and William gradually comes to learn from them that this is something more noble than fighting for purely selfish reasons.

The film is not as visually beautiful as some of Zhang's earlier movies such as "Hero" or "House of Flying Daggers", which both made very subtle and symbolic use of colour, although some of the battle scenes have a certain balletic grace, especially those involving a regiment of women who descend on cranes in order to attack the Tao Tei from above. (Men, we are told, are too heavy for this work).

An important element in the film is the relationship which grows up between William and Commander Lin Mae, the beautiful and surprisingly youthful leader of these female soldiers. This relationship does not, however, develop into the expected romance; at the end of the film William wants to return to England and Lin, who has now been promoted to General, still has important work to do in China. If the two have feelings for one another, they have to put them aside. (I doubt if in real life a society as male-dominated as Imperial China would have employed women in its armed forces, let alone promoted them to General while still in their twenties, but there is a tradition in Chinese martial arts movies of female characters who are not only glamorous but also strong, brave and capable).

The look of the film was undoubtedly influenced by Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (which has influenced most fantasy films made in the 21st century), especially during the battle sequences. It doesn't have the intellectual and philosophical depth of Jackson's masterpiece, or indeed of some of Zhang's earlier films which I would also rank as masterpieces, but it still arouses a good deal of excitement and is very watchable as long as you don't take it too seriously. 7/10

The Law and Jake Wade
(1958)

Not a Masterpiece, but a Very Decent Western
The title character, Jake Wade, is a former outlaw who has not only turned over a new leaf and gone straight but has actually become a lawman himself; he has become the marshal of the town of Cold Stream. Despite his conversion to the paths of righteousness, however, Jake believes that he owes a debt of honour to his former (and still unreformed) partner, Clint Hollister, who once rescued him from jail. When Jake hears that Clint himself has been arrested, he helps Clint to escape.

As they say, no good deed goes unpunished. Clint is not satisfied with being freed from jail; he also wants the loot from the gang's last robbery, which Jake has buried. He tracks Jake down and demands that Jake show him where the money is hidden. When Jake refuses, Clint and his gang kidnap his girlfriend Peggy to force him to comply.

There is a particularly fine performance from Richard Widmark as the villainous, almost psychotic, Clint, a man obsessed with the missing loot who will do anything, up to and including killing, to get it. The other members of Clint's gang are also individualised; Ortero, for example, still retains some traces of decency, whereas Rennie is just as ruthless and sadistic as Clint, if perhaps less willing to risk his own life to recover the money.

Robert Taylor has come in for some criticism on this board, but the role did not call for showy acting, Jake is far from being a clean-cut Western hero. He is a man whose conscience is troubled by his criminal past, especially as a boy was killed in the gang's last robbery. His decision not only to turn his back on a life of crime but to reinvent himself as a lawman, fighting the sort of people he once was himself, is his way of trying to make amends. Yet freeing himself of the burden of the past is more difficult than he imagined. I could imagine this storyline as the plot of one of the Mann/Stewart Westerns, which were noted for their psychological depth.

There is a tense climax to the film when Jake, Peggy, Clint and the gang are ambushed in the ghost town where the money is buried by a war party of Comanche Indians. The final shoot-out recalls that in "Gunfight at the OK Corral", also directed by John Sturges, from the previous year. (In reality that famous shootout was over in a matter of seconds, but Sturges turns it into the drawn-our climax to his movie).

Sturges made some of the all-time great Westerns such as "Bad Day at Black Rock", "Gunfight at the OK Corral" and "The Magnificent Seven", as well as one of the all-time great war films, "The Great Escape". I wouldn't rate "The Law and Jake Wade" quite as highly as any of those masterpieces, but it is nevertheless a very decent Western.

Flaming Feather
(1952)

A New Breed of Western
"Flaming Feather", shot on location around Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona, Arizona, is a good example of a new type of Western which was becoming popular in the early fifties, using striking Technicolor photography of the magnificent scenery of the West as a backdrop to their stories. The Hollywood studios hoped that such films would become an important weapon in their battle against the new enemy, television, which at this stage could only show black-and-white pictures on a small screen.

The story centres upon a mysterious outlaw, known as the Sidewinder (after a species of poisonous snake). Although the Sidewinder is believed to be a white man, he leads a band of Ute Indians who have carried out a number of robberies. A rancher named Tex McCloud and a U.S. Cavalry officer named Tom Blaine both decide to bring the Sidewinder and his gang to justice and make a wager over which will get him first. There are a number of complications to the plot, including an attempt by a saloon entertainer named Carolina to persuade Tex to pursue Lucky Lee, a businessman and mine owner who allegedly owes her $20,000. (We never find out what this debt is for). Other important characters include Lucky's beautiful girlfriend Nora Logan, Turquoise, an Indian woman who is Nora's rival for Lucky's affections, a gambler named Showdown Calhoun and a mysterious figure named Tombstone Jack who is suspected of being the Sidewinder.

Some of the "new Westerns" of this period, such as the Mann/Stewart Western "The Naked Spur" were not just notable for striking photography but also brought to the genre a greater degree of character development and psychological analysis. Others, however, were beautiful to look at but their looks only served to hide a banal plot or second-rate acting. (I am thinking here of something like William Wellman's "Across the Wide Missouri", conceived as a large-scale epic, but so cut by the studio into something resembling a B-movie that Wellman virtually disowned it).

"Flaming Feather" falls somewhere between the two extremes. It does not have the depth of something like "The Naked Spur" or some of the other Mann/Stewart Westerns, but it is well-made and the plot, although complex, is always entertaining. There is no one outstanding star performance, but the acting is generally of a good standard. There is some very fine photography of the Arizona desert scenery. This is not quite in the first class of Westerns, but it is a good example of a second division one. 7/10

Across the Wide Missouri
(1951)

The Mountains Have Laboured and Brought Forth a Mouse
Most Westerns are set during the period 1865-1890, the quarter-century immediately following the Civil War. The settlement of the Midwest during the first half of the 19th century has never been a popular subject, allegedly because the Hollywood-based studios did not want to send film crews so far from home. "Across the Wide Missouri" is one of the minority of Westerns set before 1850; like "The Mountain Men" and the more recent "The Revenant" it is set against the background of the fur trade in the Rocky Mountains during the 1820s and 1830s, long before white Americans began to settle the area.

There is a curious disconnect between the film we actually have and the film which seems to have been planned. Many features of the film are the sort of thing one would expect to find in a major epic- the spectacular Technicolor photography of the Rocky Mountain scenery shot entirely on location, the presence of a major star (no less a personage than Clark Gable, His Majesty the King of Hollywood), the grandiose musical score based upon the folksong "Oh Shenandoah". (The film's title is taken from a line in this song). Yet the film we actually have is far from being an epic. It is little more than an hour and a quarter long, B-movie length, although this was officially an A-movie, and tells a simple story about the romance between Flint Mitchell, a fur trapper, and Kamiah, an Indian princess from the Blackfoot tribe. (The story is narrated by their son).

At this period the Production Code officially forbade depictions of "miscegenation", but an exception was made for Westerns which were allowed to show romances between white men and Native American women. Such romances were common in the Old West, especially among fur trappers who worked in areas where there were few, if any, white women. The actresses involved, however, were not normally Native Americans themselves; Kamiah is played by the Mexican actress María Elena Marqués.

The director William Wellman does seem to have had the ambition to make a large-scale epic, but his footage was severely recut by the studio to produce something much more small-scale to what he had envisaged. Wellman, apparently, was not happy with the way in which his film had been treated and always refused to watch the finished product, saying that it was not his work.

We cannot, of course, know what Wellman's "director's cut" would have looked like, but the film that we actually have is not particularly interesting, with a rather dull story and a star not at his best. The most one can say about it is that it is a small film with a big one trying to get out. The Rocky Mountains have laboured and brought forth a little mouse of a movie. 5/10

The Fabulous Baker Boys
(1989)

The Fabulous Bridges Boys. (And the Fabulous Pfeiffer Girl)
"The Fabulous Baker Boys" of the title are Jack and Frank Baker, two brothers who perform together as lounge pianists in Seattle. (They are played by real-life brothers Beau and Jeff Bridges). Their careers in entertainment seem to be going nowhere so they look for a female singer to revitalise their act. The first few singers they audition- the first thirty-seven to be precise- but the thirty-eighth, a beautiful young woman named Susie Diamond with a voice to match her looks, turns out to be just what they are looking for. With Susie as part of the act, the brothers are able to turn their careers around and start to enjoy success.

Friction grows between the brothers, however, when Jack and Susie fall in love. The cause of the friction is not sexual jealousy; Frank is happily married and has no romantic interest in Susie. The cause is that Frank, knowing Jack's reputation as a lothario, is worried that Susie will end up getting hurt and will want to leave the act. There are also artistic differences between Frank and Jack over the sort of music they should perform. Frank prefers easy-listening standards, whereas Jack, encouraged by Susie, wants to introduce more jazz numbers into their performances. The film charts the growing tensions between the three, especially after Frank's predictions come true, Jack and Susie split up and she leaves to take up another job.

The film marked the debut of writer/director Steve Kloves, still in his twenties at the time. It was acclaimed by the critics and received four Oscar nominations. It was, however, a disappointment at the box office, and Kloves has only directed one film since, "Flesh and Bone". (He has become better known as a screenwriter, especially for his work on the "Harry Potter" films, and producer). "The Fabulous Baker Boys", however, is a fine movie, with excellent acting contributions from the Fabulous Bridges Boys and the Fabulous Pfeiffer Girl.

Beau and Jack bring out the contrasts between Frank and Jack, who are very different in personality. Frank, the older, is married and lives in the suburbs with a wife, children and a mortgage to support, although we do not see much of his living arrangements. He is by nature respectable, cautious and rather fussy, unwilling to take risks. Jack, the younger and unmarried, is more of a free spirit, living in a converted loft apartment in the city centre. He is something of a womaniser, but none of his affairs have led to a serious romance and some have been no more than one-night stands. Apart from Frank, his only real friends are his dog Eddie and Nina, the young daughter of a neighbour. The brothers seem close, but there would have been secret tensions in their relationship even without Susie. Frank is worried that Jack is more of a creative talent than he is, and Jack is worried about being held back by Frank.

As for Michelle Pfeiffer, it is appropriate that she is playing a character named Diamond, because her performance is a glittering one. She received a Best Actress Oscar Nomination, and although she lost, predictably, to the sentimental favourite, Jessica Tandy for "Driving Miss Daisy", she did win a Golden Globe. (She also has a fine singing voice and did not need to be dubbed for her role). Her Susie is a bright, sassy, street-smart young lady, glamorous and seductive, yet with an underlying vulnerability which possibly means that she and Jack (who also has his own vulnerabilities) are not ideally suited to one another.

Another notable feature is Dave Grusin's jazz-based musical score which won a Grammy and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Soundtrack. Grusin here demonstrates that jazz can be as effective as any other musical genre in conveying emotional depths, and as a lifelong Classical devotee that is a big admission for me to make.

Some may find Kloves's pacing too slow, but I would not be one of them; for me this is one of those stories which needs to be told at length so that all its complexities can be appreciated and savoured. 1989 was a strong year in the cinema- the year of films as good as "Dead Poets Society", "Shirley Valentine", "When the Whales Came", "My Left Foot", "Henry V" and "Field of Dreams". "The Fabulous Baker Boys" finds itself in good company. 8/10

Botany Bay
(1952)

The Sort of Historical Drama which Gets Historical Dramas a Bad Name
After American independence the British government could no longer send convicted criminals to the Thirteen Colonies, so decided to send them to Australia instead. (For some reason Canada was not considered). "Botany Bay" is a highly fictionalised account of the voyage of the First Fleet which brought the first convicts to Australia. In reality the fleet consisted of eleven ships, but the film deals with only one of these, the "Charlotte", and gives the misleading impression that the ship sailed on its own. Some of the characters, such as Governor Philip and Captain Gilbert of the "Charlotte", were real historical figures, but others are fictitious. Gilbert's Christian name was Thomas, but here for some reason he is renamed "Paul", possibly in order to distance him from the real Thomas Gilbert, who does not appear to have been the villain depicted here.

This was an American-made film, so there has to be an American hero, Hugh Tallant, a medical student convicted of robbery. He claims that the money he took was rightfully his and was being withheld from him by a corrupt lawyer, a claim which seems to have been accepted by the authorities, because he has been pardoned by King George III. The messenger bearing the pardon, however, does not arrive at the docks until after the ship has sailed. Tallant has already read of his pardon in a newspaper and begs Gilbert to await the arrival of the messenger, but the captain refuses. There also has to be a beautiful heroine, in this case Sally Munroe, a young actress convicted of stealing a necklace. Despite the rigours of a long voyage lasting several months, Sally is just as beautiful, with the same immaculate hair and make-up, when the ship arrives in Australia as she was when it left Britain.

Despite the title, the film deals much more with the voyage than it does with what happens when the ship reaches Botany Bay. Some, observing the similarities between James Mason's Gilbert, who tyrannises over both the prisoners and his crew, and Captain Bligh, have described it as an unacknowledged remake of the 1935 version of "Mutiny on the Bounty", which is perhaps not surprising as the two films were based upon novels by the same authors, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. (Nordhoff and Hall normally collaborated on their books).

I would not, however, rate it as highly as the earlier film, for a number of reasons. Mason could on occasions give decent performances even in otherwise mediocre films, such as "The Reckless Moment", but he is unable to rescue "Botany Bay", which must count as one of his worst films. Unlike Charles Laughton as Bligh in "Mutiny on the Bounty" (or Trevor Howard in the remake), Mason never really makes us believe in Gilbert's cruelty or tyranny, largely because neither he nor the scriptwriters seem able to decide what sort of man Gilbert is. Is he simply a bully? Or a sadist who tries to hide his sadism behind a thin veneer of gentlemanly behaviour? Or a man whose character gradually deteriorates because of the corrupting effect of power? All three interpretations would be possible, but Mason and the film-makers can never seem to decide which one they favour.

The film's main weakness, however, is not so much the characterization of the villain as the characterization of the hero. Or, I should say, of the supposed hero. Tallant comes across as not just a complete jerk but a complete idiot as well. When Gilbert discovers the truth about Tallant's pardon and his medical training he makes him the surprisingly generous offer of the position of ship's surgeon. Tallant, however, is so eaten up with resentment that he refuses this offer and instead makes various foolish and ill-conceived attempts to escape. Worse still, he offers £1000 to any person who will help him in these attempts, which only brings Gilbert's wrath down upon these persons' heads as well as Tallant's own when the attempts inevitably fail. Yet despite this combination of boorishness and stupidity, we are still supposed to find Tallant likeable. Alan Ladd could be a very good actor, as he was in that great classic "Shane", but he could also fall well short of that standard, as he does here.

The film also suffers from historical errors. Gilbert wants to have Tallant charged with mutiny, which would not have been possible, even if the "Charlotte" were a Royal Navy ship, because Tallant is not a person subject to naval discipline. Also, Gilbert has Tallant keelhauled, a punishment not used on British ships. ("Mutiny on the Bounty" also included a historically unwarranted keelhauling incident). Although the film was made at a time when some Hollywood Westerns were trying to get away from the once-common stereotype of Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages, the Australian Aborigines (played by Afro-American actors) are portrayed in precisely that unenlightened way. "Botany Bay" is the sort of historical drama that gets historical dramas a bad name. 4/10

Paper Moon
(1973)

If You Believed in Me
This film is based upon the novel "Addie Pray" by Joe David Brown, but when Peter Bogdanovich adapted it for the screen he changed the title to "Paper Moon". He took his title from a popular song which contains the lyrics "It is only a paper moon/ Hanging over a cardboard sea/ But it wouldn't be make believe/ If you believe in me". Bogdanovich used this as the movie's theme tune, but it also has a relevance to the story, which is all about a man who earns his living by persuading people to believe in him.

The action takes place during the 1930s. The film is shot in black-and-white, an unusual move for the seventies, but as with his earlier film "The Last Picture Show", set in the fifties, Bogdanovich wanted to capture the look of films from the period. The main characters are Moses Pray, an itinerant con-man, and Addie Loggins, a nine-year-old girl who may, or may not, be his daughter. Moses was certainly a lover of Addie's mother, but so were several other men, and Addie's paternity is never definitely established.

The film follows the adventures of Moses and Addie as they drive through Kansas and Missouri in search of victims for their con tricks. Moses' favourite scam is to pose as a Bible salesman and to persuade grieving widows that, shortly before they died, their husbands had ordered a de-luxe edition Bible inscribed with their wife's name. (He has already ascertained these details by reading the obituary columns in newspapers). Along the way Moses becomes entangled with an "exotic dancer" named Trixie Delight and gets into trouble with a corrupt sheriff when he attempts to double-cross a bootlegger who just happens to be the sheriff's brother. (The story is set in the late thirties, after the ending of national Prohibition, but at a time when some states, including Kansas, still imposed prohibition at a local level).

Moses and Addie are played by Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, who are of course father and daughter in real life. Tatum won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, setting a record which still stands as the youngest ever winner of a competitive Oscar. And it is easy to see why. Addie is not a conventionally pretty child, but is nevertheless absolutely irresistible. When we first see her it is a quiet, solemn little waif at her mother's funeral, but she soon reveals herself as worldly-wise beyond her years, quite able to hold her own with Moses and an accomplished confidence trickster in her own right. She is able to get far more for the Bibles than he can, although she is quite capable of giving them away for free if the bereaved family are poor and deserving. Ryan's own performance is a good one, but even he is outclassed by his daughter.

"Paper Moon" is one of two great American comedies from 1973 with a thirties setting, the other being "The Sting". In terms of visual style, the two are very different, the bright colours of "The Sting" making it look very different from anything ever made in the thirties. The two films do, however, have certain things in common. Both make much use of the popular music of the early 20th century, in the case of "The Sting" the piano rages of Scott Joplin and in "Paper Moon", apart from the title song, several other hits from the thirties.

More importantly, the central figures of both films may be con artists who make their living in ways which put them outside the law, yet in both cases those figures are presented as heroes, the ones whom the audience will be rooting for, not as villains. It is significant that the films are both set during the Great Depression, a time when economic hardship had, for many Americans, greatly reduced the possibility of earning a living honestly. The characters played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in "The Sting" are minor-league criminals trying to outwit a major-league one in revenge for the death of a friend. Here Moses is also the underdog in his dealings with the bootlegger and the sheriff, and even though his Bible scheme may be dishonest, it does not really hurt anyone. In the hands of their new owners, those Bibles will become dearly loved mementoes of their departed husbands. And who could help rooting for the adorable Addie and her guardian, even if he is something of a reluctant guardian?

I think that Bogdanovich's decision to film in black-and-white paid off; as in "The Last Picture Show" (set in Texas) he brings a certain monumental grandeur to the flat, featureless American prairies. "The Last Picture Show" is certainly a fine film, but I would rate "Paper Moon" even higher- the narrative, for example, is better handled and the story is easier to follow. It is at the same time an engaging comedy and part of the great American tradition of road movies which tell you something about the country and its people. One of the great American films of the seventies. 9/10

Spellbound
(1945)

New Twist on an Old Theme
Alfred Hitchcock had a lifelong interest in psychology, normally the psychology of the criminal mind as in films like "Psycho". In "Spellbound", however, he explores the world of Freudian psychoanalysis, and the main male character is not a criminal (although he wrongly believes himself to be one). The main female character is Dr Constance Petersen, a psychoanalyst at Green Manors, a psychiatric clinic in Vermont. Constance's nationality is something of a mystery. It is often assumed that she is Swedish like the actress who plays her, but Sweden is never mentioned in the film and Ingrid Bergman was not the first choice for the role, suggesting that the character may have been conceived as American.

When Dr Anthony Edwardes, the young and handsome new director of the clinic, arrives to take up his post, he and Constance fall in love. The only problem is that the man with whom Constance has fallen in love and who has fallen in love with her is not Dr Edwardes. She soon realises that he is an impostor, whereupon he confesses to her that he has killed the real Edwardes and has taken his place. He is suffering from amnesia and does not know his real identity. Constance, however, believes that he is innocent and that he is suffering from a guilt complex brought on, like his amnesia, by some mental trauma. The film tells the story of Constance's fight to prove the young man's innocence, to heal his mind by discovering the trauma which lies at the root of his mental problems, to solve the mystery of his identity (his real name turns out to be John Ballantyne) and to unmask the real killer of Dr Edwardes (who has indeed been murdered).

Despite Hitchcock's interest in psychology, the idea for the film came from producer David O. Selznick, who had himself undergone psychoanalysis. The two clashed (as they often did) over the making of the film, especially after Hitchcock refused Selznick's demands that his mistress Jennifer Jones be cast as Constance. (Selznick and Jones later married). One of their clashes came over the film's famous dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali. As originally filmed this was twenty minutes long, but upon Selznick's insistence it was drastically cut and in the finished film only lasts for around two minutes. (The extra footage appears to be lost).

I was amused by one reviewer's comment that the film is a fantasy, set in a fantasy world where Freudian analysis works as it is supposed to, although I am not knowledgeable enough about the subject to say whether that sarcastic dig at Freud is justified. I did, however, feel that the final solution was rather too neat. Despite its radical shortening, the dream sequence, which represents Ballantyne describing his dream to Constance, is still a key scene in the film. Every detail in the dream has a definite meaning, and by combining these details Constance can work out the cause of Ballantyne's mental illness and solve the mystery of who killed Edwardes, in the same way as a detective solving a crime by combining physical clues. I may not be an expert on psychology, but I know enough to realise that in the real world dreams do not have such a precise, easily ascertainable "meaning" as is suggested here.

It was later revealed that Bergman had an affair with her co-star Gregory Peck while making the film. Both were married to other people, but the affair was hushed up, and their careers were not damaged. (When Bergman had an affair with Roberto Rossellini a few years later and left her husband for him, she was widely denounced by the press, by the public and even by politicians, and her career was almost wrecked). Some of their off-screen passion comes over in their performances here. Both cope well with their difficult roles. Bergman's character is an emotionally reserved young woman who finds herself falling in love for the first time, but who is confronted with the reality that her lover is mentally disturbed and with the possibility that he may be a murderer. Peck has to portray a man who does not know who he is, and who is tormented by the thought that he may be a murderer, while at the same time suggesting an inner decency which reassures us that Constance is right to believe in him.

Another excellent feature is Miklós Rózsa's Oscar-winning orchestral score. Rózsa later rearranged this as a full-length concert piece known as the "Spellbound Concerto". In this film it is a concertante work for piano and orchestra, but the music we hear in the film is purely orchestral without a piano part.

"Spellbound" is not Hitchcock's greatest film, but it is one of his better ones, coming in his career just after "Lifeboat" and just before "Notorious", two other fine movies. He takes one of his favourite themes, that of a young man wrongly suspected of a crime, which he had dealt with before in films like "The 39 Steps", "Young and Innocent" and "Saboteur", and which he would deal with again in the future. He then gives it a new and original twist, developing it with all his skill and ingenuity. 8/10

Countess Dracula
(1971)

Only Skin Deep
In 1610 the widowed Countess Erzsebet (Elizabeth) Báthory, a member of one of Hungary's most illustrious noble families, was accused and convicted of the murder of several hundred young women. Because of her noble status she was not executed but was imprisoned in a room in her family home until her death four years later. After her death the legend grew up that she had killed the girls because she believed that bathing in their blood would restore her youth, although this was not an accusation made against her at her trial.

"Countess Dracula" is a fictionalised version of her story. Here she is known as "Countess Elisabeth Nádasdy"; Nádasdy was indeed the family name of Báthory's husband, but she never used it. (Because her family were Counts and her husband only a Baron, Hungarian custom required him to use his wife's surname after marriage). The film was made by Hammer, a British studio specialising in sensational horror movies, so in this version the legend surrounding the Countess is true; she does murder young virgins to bathe in their blood, and doing so does have the effect of restoring her youthful beauty, although only temporarily, so she is always in search of fresh victims. The girls have to be virgins; when the Countess kills the local prostitute, her blood has no effect.

The rejuvenated Countess passes herself off as her own daughter Ilona; the real Ilona has spent most of her life in Vienna, so nobody at the castle knows what she looks like. When Ilona returns to Hungary, her mother has her kidnapped and held prisoner in a cottage on the estate to ensure that her deception is not unmasked. Eventually, however, people, especially the castle librarian Fabio, who has a knowledge of occult lore, begin to grow suspicious. (Although the Countess is based on a real person, most of the other characters, including Ilona and Fabio, are fictitious).

One thing that nobody, not even Fabio, seems worried about is the fact that even in her younger form the Countess has the appearance of a woman in her thirties rather than the teenager Ilona is said to be. This is because she is played by Ingrid Pitt, who would have been 34 at the time, but in my opinion it was a wise move to cast a somewhat older woman in the part. Some Hammer films were spoilt by casting ravishingly beautiful but talentless young girls in key roles, such as Yutte Stensgaard in "Lust for a Vampire" or Mary and Madeleine Collinson in "Twins of Evil". Pitt, however, managed to combine her good looks with acting ability.

This is perhaps not Pitt's best performance for Hammer; that must be "The Vampire Lovers", which has always been my favourite Hammer film. Her performance here, however, is a decent one, and with the aid of the make-up department she manages to combine the two aspects of her character, the evil, half-demented old crone and the desirable, seductive younger woman. Her character in "The Vampire Lovers", however, is even more complex, being not only seductive but evil but also having something fey and doomed about her. (It is a misconception to believe that horror is a genre which can, and generally does, dispense with good acting. Peter Cushing's contribution in "Twins of Evil" is another example of a subtle and skilled performance in a Hammer movie).

"Countess Dracula" is not a great film, but Pitt and the supporting cast do enough to keep it watchable. I was going to call it "watchable nonsense", but that, I think, would be unfair. There is a difference between nonsense and fantasy, and this film, like most of Hammer's output, is essentially a fantasy, a dark fairy story. And like most fairy stories it has a moral, in this case that beauty is only skin deep. 6/10

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle
(1992)

"For every life and every act, consequence of good and evil can be shown"
The phrase "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world" is often thought to be a traditional proverb, but it is actually taken from a poem by the otherwise obscure 19th century American poet William Ross Wallace. This film is an example of that sub-genre of the thriller which I have come to think of as the "... from Hell" film. The basic plot of such films is that a stranger comes into the life of the hero. At first this stranger seems affable and friendly, but quickly reveals himself or herself to be a dangerous criminal or psychopath, and the hero finds that he is in danger. This basic concept is an old one, but it was given a new lease of life in the late 1980s and 1990s by the success of "Fatal Attraction" (or "One-Night Stand from Hell"). Other examples include "Pacific Heights" ("Tenant from Hell"), "Single White Female" ("Flatmate from Hell") and "Bad Influence", which can be summarised as "Bloke-You-Meet-In-A-Bar from Hell". Like "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle", this last was directed by Curtis Hanson.

Claire and Michael Bartel are the perfect all-American middle-class couple, living the American dream in an affluent district of Seattle. They already have a young daughter, Emma, and Claire is pregnant with their second child. And then their life is turned upside-down when Claire is sexually molested by her obstetrician, Dr. Mott. She reports him to the authorities, more women come forward to accuse him and he commits suicide to avoid trial. Although this development is clearly upsetting for Claire, she eventually recovers, safely gives birth to a boy and hires a young woman named Peyton Flanders as a nanny.

So was Claire right to accuse Dr Mott? This might seem like an absurd question; the answer, in both legal and moral terms, must be "yes". Had she not done so, he would have been free to continue preying on women. Yet, as T S Eliot wrote in "Murder in the Cathedral", "for every life and every act consequence of good and evil can be shown", and Claire's act, however morally justified, has evil consequences which go beyond Mott's suicide. His wife is pregnant, and the shock of his death causes her to go into premature labour and to lose her baby. She also loses her home because all her husband's assets are frozen to compensate his victims. This woman, of course, turns out to be Peyton, who has infiltrated Claire's home to pursue a scheme of revenge.

The "... from Hell" genre can sometimes descend into absurdity, "Bad Influence" being a particularly poor example, and this film has several weaknesses. Annabella Sciorra is not particularly memorable as Claire and Matt McCoy even less so as Michael. A pre-stardom Julianne Moore, here appearing in a supporting role, is memorable mainly for the bizarre way in which her character dies. Ernie Hudson, in an embarrassing performance as the Bartels' mentally handicapped handyman Solomon, is memorable for all the wrong reasons. He seems to have been written into the film as a sort of virtue signalling by proxy. (Aren't the Bartels wonderful to provide work for such an unfortunate person?) The plot starts off as tense and efficient but tends to go downhill towards the end.

What holds the film together is the central performance from Rebecca De Mornay as Peyton. It is a performance which operates on three levels. The first, and most superficial, level is that of the ideal nanny, someone both friendly and capable, which initially impresses the Bartels so much and persuades them to employ her. The second level is the one that the audience see, that of the cold, implacable avenger.

Underlying these two levels, however, is the third, that of the woman who believes herself to have been wronged but who lacks any social or legal form of redress. For the wrong Claire suffered at the hands of Dr Mott, she has clear legal remedies open to her via the courts and the medical authorities. But Peyton? For the wrongs she has suffered she has no remedy at all, not against Claire, not against her husband or his estate, not against society in general. The only advice anyone could give her would be to accept her misfortunes philosophically, which seems woefully inadequate. If Peyton is vindictive and evil, life has conspired to make her so. This is the central issue at the heart of this film, and it is a measure of De Mornay's performance that she allows us to see it. We might hate what Peyton does to the Bartel family. And yet, at the deepest level, we can understand the motives and the reasons behind her crimes. The complexity of her character lifts this film well above something like "Bad Influence", Hanson's other essay in the genre. 7/10

Earthquake
(1974)

Strangely Watchable Even Today
The seventies vogue for disaster movies began with the original "Airport" in 1970, which gave rise to several sequels as well as to films like "The Poseidon Adventure", "The Towering Inferno" and "Earthquake". This was a genre with its own ground rules, the main one of which was to establish human interest by introducing us to a mixed group of people before showing us how they are affected by the disaster in question. This often meant using a large ensemble cast of well-known actors.

"Earthquake" follows this formula faithfully. We are introduced to a mixed group of Los Angeles citizens- unhappily married architect Stewart Graff, his wife Remy, his mistress Denise Marshall and her young son, Remy's father Sam, police officer Lou Slade, grocery clerk Jody Joad, stunt motorcycle rider Miles Quade, a young woman named Rosa Amici, the sister of Quade's business partner, and an anonymous drunk. These people are portrayed by a large ensemble cast of well-known actors, including Charlton Heston as Stewart, Ava Gardner as Remy, George Kennedy as Lou, a pre-"Dallas" Victoria Principal as Rosa and Walter Matthau as the drunk. (He was credited as "Walter Matuschanskayasky" which he told people was his real name. This was a piece of misinformation which he intended as a joke, but it was widely believed and even found its way into reference works. His real birth name was Walter Matthow). Heston and Gardner had earlier starred together in "55 Days at Peking, and by all accounts had taken a dislike to one another, so are all too plausible as a feuding husband and wife, even if some of their scenes together were cut from the finished film.

We then see how these individuals are affected when a major earthquake hits the city. Another standard feature of the disaster movie was the "Cassandra figure", someone who correctly predicts the impending disaster but whose warning is either disbelieved or disregarded for selfish commercial reasons. The "Cassandra" in this film is a young seismologist named Walter Russell who has calculated that Los Angeles is at risk of a major quake but whose warning is ignored. (His superiors are worried that if they cry wolf and no earthquake occurs their finding may be cut).

As in a number of films of this nature we see the ways in which the disaster affects people's characters for better or worse. Stewart and Lou both emerge as heroes, Jody as a villain, although it must be said that the film never really makes us believe in his villainy. Only the drunk remains blithely unconcerned by the mayhem going on all around him.

"Earthquake" was a big box-office success when first released and the third-highest grossing film of 1974. (Number one on that list was "The Towering Inferno", so there was obviously a big market for disaster movies). Despite that success, however, there were plenty of people at the time who were prepared to mock this and similar movies as overblown Hollywood schlock, all flashy special effects and no real substance.

And yet I find that seventies disaster movies remain strangely watchable today, even though the art of cinematic special effects has developed immeasurably over the last forty-odd years, and even though "Earthquake's" main secret weapon, the new "Sensurround" effect, was only available in cinemas and not on television, which is how most people would watch the film today. A director making a modern remake would have much more sophisticated effects at his or her disposal than were available in 1974, and yet the scenes of the earthquake itself remain genuinely frightening. More thought was put into the storyline and the acting than the mockers would have you believe. In an ensemble film like this one there are no real star performances, but some of the actors, notably Heston and Kennedy, are nevertheless impressive. It might be easy to pour cold water on the disaster movies of the seventies, but in doing so we overlook the genuine cinematic skills which went into making them. 7/10

The Black Stuff
(1980)

Sharp, Bleakly Funny Black Comedy
"The Black Stuff", first broadcast in 1980, was recently shown as part of a series on BBC4 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of "Play for Today", although it was not originally screened as part of that series. "Play for Today" was a BBC1 series, and this play was originally shown on BBC2, and although the two channels are both owned by the same corporation, in the seventies and early eighties, a time when Britain still had only three TV channels, they had different identities.

The "black stuff" of the title is tarmac, and the play is about a gang of workers from Liverpool laying tarmac on a road in Middlesbrough. Much of the plot deals with the men's attempts to outwit their foreman Dixie Dean (named after a famous Everton footballer) so they can slope off to "do a foreign", a slang phrase meaning using their employer's tools and equipment to do an unofficial job, in this case laying a track for a farmer, for which they will be paid on the side. The "foreign", however, has been arranged by a crafty pair of Irish gypsies, who are attempting to double-cross the gang. A sub-plot deals with Dixie's teenage son Kevin and his attempts to lose his virginity to a local good-time girl.

The play later gave rise to a television series named "The Boys from the Blackstuff" which followed the later lives of the gang, now unemployed and trying to survive on the dole. The eighties were a period of high unemployment in Britain, and the series became a symbol of the decade, widely seen as an indictment of life in what became known as "Thatcher's Britain". Bernard Hill's character Yosser Hughes, with his catchphrase "Gizza job!" became an eighties icon. Yet the original play shows just why nobody in their right mind would entrust Yosser with a job. He is not only dishonest, playing a leading role in the "foreign" scheme, but also quarrelsome, loud-mouthed and potentially violent. He is also not as smart as he thinks he is, letting the gypsies pull a fast one on him, and an idle worker. Mind you, he is not alone in being idle- the rest of the gang also try and get away with doing the bare minimum of work, and would probably do even less than that if the Clerk of the Works were not keeping his officious eye on them. There are several good performances in the play, but Hill's is probably the best.

It is a long time since I saw any of the episodes from "The Boys from the Blackstuff", so I will not attempt any direct comparisons, but the original play is less directly political. It was, in fact, made in 1978 under the Callaghan government, but for complicated reasons to do with internal disputes within the Beeb it was not shown until 1980, after the 1979 election which brought Margaret Thatcher to power. It is perhaps the lack of overt political content which has meant that "The Black Stuff" is less well known than its spin-off series, but it is in fact it is a very sharp, bleakly funny black comedy which deserves to be better remembered. 8/10

The Terminal
(2004)

Stuck in Transit and Not Going Anywhere
When Viktor Navorski, a tourist from the Eastern European Republic of Krakozhia, arrives at New York's Kennedy Airport, he does not realise that the airport terminal will become his home for the next nine months. While his plane has been in the air, a military coup has taken place in Krakozhia and civil war has broken out. It appears that the American government does not recognise either side in the civil war as legitimate and consequently does not recognise Viktor's passport as a valid travel document. The result is that Viktor is not permitted either to leave the terminal and enter the United States or to return to his homeland.

The film then chronicles what Viktor does during his nine-month stay. He gradually learns to speak English. Although he has no work permit, he finds a job and earns some money helping a team of contractors who are decorating the terminal. (It is implied that Viktor is himself a building contractor in Krakozhia). He befriends some of the workers, including a beautiful air hostess named Amelia. He is harassed by Frank Dixon, the officious head of security at the airport who is desperate to get rid of him so that he becomes someone else's problem. And eventually we learn why Viktor has come to America. (It turns out that his late father was both a jazz enthusiast and an autograph collector, and Viktor needs the autograph of a famous musician to complete his father's collection).

Hanks, Hollywood's resident Mr Nice Guy, makes a likeable hero, and there is a good, if manic, performance from Stanley Tucci, playing Dixon as the sort of heartless bureaucrat who cares less about helping people than he does about impressing his superiors because he is desperate for promotion. Catherine Zeta Jones, however, seemed rather wasted as Amelia. At one time it seemed that the film was going to turn into a romantic comedy and that Amelia and Viktor would fall in love. She is in an unhappy relationship with a boyfriend who is continually unfaithful to her, and we are told that her age is 39, several years older than Jones's real age at the time of filming, a detail which seemed to have been invented to make her seem more compatible with the middle-aged Viktor. (Tom Hanks was in his mid-forties at the time). In the event, however, a romance between the two never develops, Amelia returns to her unsatisfactory boyfriend and fades out of the story.

There may have been a reason why Steven Spielberg did not want to make a rom-com, which would doubtless have ended with Viktor becoming a US resident after his wedding to Amelia. (I doubt if she would have wanted to make her matrimonial home in a war-torn foreign country). Spielberg wanted to get away from the idea (a commonly held one in America) that the great desire of every foreigner is to swap their own citizenship for a US passport and to live the American Dream in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. When Dixon offers Viktor the chance to apply for political asylum, hoping that if he does he will become the immigration department's problem rather than Dixon's, a bewildered Viktor makes it clear that his greatest desire is to get back to Krakozhia.

I did find myself wondering just how plausible the basic scenario behind the film is, even though it is said to be based upon the true story of an Iranian who allegedly spent eighteen years living in Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris. Violent changes of regime are a sadly frequent feature of international politics, but they do not normally lead to nationals of the countries concerned becoming stateless or being forced to stay in airport lounges. And was Viktor the only Krakozhian travelling to New York on that particular day? If not, what happened to the others? Another matter I found implausible was that, despite Viktor's limited knowledge of English, neither Dixon nor the other officials dealing with him ever seem to use an interpreter.

Overall, "The Terminal" is an agreeable enough film, although small-scale comedies like this one are not what I have come to expect from Spielberg, a director I have always associated with more ambitious fare, even if his ambition is not always crowned with success. He himself stated that after "Catch Me If You Can" (which also starred Hanks) he wanted to make another movie "to make people feel good about the world" at a difficult time for the world. (The film came out in 2004, a year after the outbreak of the second Gulf War). To some extend he succeeds in this aim, but too often I felt that the film, like its central character, was stuck in transit and not going anywhere. 6/10

Birdman of Alcatraz
(1962)

Tale of Redemption
In 1909 Robert Franklin Stroud, then aged 19, was convicted of manslaughter after killing a man in Alaska. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison but in 1916, while in Leavenworth Prison, he stabbed a prison guard to death after being refused permission to see his brother, who had travelled a long distance to see him. Stroud was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but after a campaign led by his mother this was commuted to life imprisonment, with the proviso that he was to serve the whole of his sentence in solitary confinement.

Stroud was to spend the rest of his life behind bars until his death in 1963, a year after this film was made. In the early 1920s, to while away the monotony, he adopted an orphaned baby sparrow as a pet. He soon became fascinated by birds and began keeping several in his cell. He read everything he could about birds in the prison library and eventually became a noted expert, especially on the diseases of birds and how to treat them. He even started a business manufacturing and selling bird remedies from his cell, going into business with a wealthy widowed bird-fancier named Della Jones, whom he eventually married. Although Stroud acquired the nickname "the Birdman of Alcatraz", all these activities were carried on while he was imprisoned in Leavenworth. After he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942 he was forbidden to keep birds in his cell.

The film tells the fictionalised story of Stroud's life, His early life in Alaska is omitted, possibly because it would have been difficult for Burt Lancaster, in his late forties at the time, to portray a teenager. Some of the names are changed; Stroud's wife becomes Stella Johnson rather than Della Jones. The guard whom Stroud killed was named Andrew Turner, but here he is renamed Kramer. In the film it is Stroud's mother, not his brother, whom he is denied permission to meet before killing the guard. The most prominent fictional character is Harvey Shoemaker, a blend of several real individuals, who is Prison Warden first at Leavenworth and later at Alcatraz.

The film was originally slated to be directed by the British director Charles Crichton, of Ealing comedies fame, but he was replaced by John Frankenheimer after falling out with Lancaster. (Lancaster had a habit of pulling rank in this way; he was later able to get Arthur Penn replaced by Frankenheimer on "The Train"). Like Lancaster's other collaborations with Frankenheimer, "Seven Days in May" and "The Train", "Birdman of Alcatraz" was shot in black-and-white, even though by the early sixties colour was fast becoming the default position in the American cinema. I think that this decision was the correct one, because the stark monochrome photography is appropriate to the bleak story; there is little colour in a prisoner's life.

There is an excellent performance from Lancaster in the leading role. He is required to portray Stroud at all stages of his life from his twenties to his seventies, but the sense of progression is not just chronological. This is also a tale of redemption, at least in the secular sense of the word. (Some may regard the film as a religious allegory, but there is no explicit religious content). In the earlier scenes Stroud is an angry young man, intelligent but full of rage against the system and against the world, and full of barely-suppressed violence. His work with birds provides him with the sense of meaning which had always been missing in his life, and even after he loses his pets after his transfer to Alcatraz he manages to retain his sanity and avoid falling back into the bleak nihilism of his earlier life. He finds new purpose in writing a history of the American penal system, and by the end of his life, although his applications for parole are always refused, he is at peace with himself and with the world.

Karl Malden is also very good as Shoemaker, a man who is also on a spiritual journey. He starts off as a liberal penal reformer, but loses his faith in liberalism and shifts to a much more hardline position after the murder of Kramer. Shoemaker bears a sense of guilt over this incident because Kramer had warned him about Stroud's violent tendencies, a warning which Shoemaker had ignored because of his liberal principles which told him that no man is incorrigible. The film can be seen not just as the story of Stroud's redemption but also that of Shoemaker's rediscovery of his belief in the possibility of redemption.

"Birdman of Alcatraz" is, in my view, one of the few effective anti-death-penalty films. Fictitious stories are of little use in such a context, and even when films are ostensibly based on true stories their accuracy has often been challenged. In "I Want to Live!", for example, Barbara Graham is portrayed as the innocent victim of a miscarriage of justice, but most historians and criminologists who have studied the case have concluded that "Bloody Babs" was indeed guilty. Similar criticisms have been made about "Birdman of Alcatraz"; fellow-prisoners who knew him have alleged that he remained hot-tempered and aggressive throughout his life, not the reformed character played by Lancaster.

Yet such criticisms are, in some ways, missing the point. The film does not attempt to deny Stroud's guilt in the way that "I Want to Live!" does Graham's. Its argument is that executing Stroud would have been a waste of a human life because even a man with the blood of two others on his hands, a man doomed to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement, can still make a contribution to life and society. "Birdman of Alcatraz" is in many ways a bleak film, but it is also one with a message of hope. 9/10

The Savage
(1952)

One Foot in Each of Two Camps
"The Savage", along with the likes of "Broken Arrow" and "Apache", is one of a number of Westerns from the fifties which signalled that Hollywood was starting to rethink its attitude to American Indians. Its traditional attitude had been one of hostility, a hangover from the nineteenth-century view that Native Americans were bloodthirsty savages who needed to be cleared out of the way so that America could achieve its Manifest Destiny, which was to become a continent dominated by the white man. This view did not entirely disappear after 1950- it is still present in films like "Only the Valiant" and even in John Ford's "Rio Grande"- but increasing numbers of directors and screenwriters were beginning to realise that there was another side to the story.

Like a number of later Westerns such as Ford's "The Searchers", the Paul Newman vehicle "Hombre", "A Man Called Horse", "The Legend of the Lone Ranger" and "Dances with Wolves", the plot revolves around a white character who has grown up among, or lived among, the Indians and absorbed many elements of their culture. (John Huston's "The Unforgiven" dealt with the opposite situation, that of an Indian woman adopted by a white family and raised as white). A young boy named Jim Aherne is the only survivor of the massacre of a wagon train by Crow Indians. He is rescued by a group of Sioux, traditional enemies of the Crow, and adopted by their Chief, Yellow Eagle. He grows to manhood as a member of the tribe, but when war threatens between the Sioux and the white men after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, Jim (or War Bonnet as he is now known) finds his loyalties torn.

This was the period when Hollywood was starting to discover that the magnificent scenery of the American West could be a big box-office draw in its own right. Most early Westerns had been made in black-and-white, but by the fifties many film-makers were starting to switch to Technicolor to show this scenery in its full glory (although some directors, notably Ford, could produce equally unforgettable monochrome images). Here George Marshall achieves some photography of great visual beauty, shot in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This is one Western which was filmed in the area where the action is supposed to take place, something which was not always the case. (Any film buff will be able to think of Westerns where, say, a flat prairie state like Oklahoma acquires lofty mountain peaks or the high plains of Montana bear a suspicious resemblance to the California deserts).

Although this is a comparatively liberal film when compared to something like "Only the Valiant", there are limits to its liberalism. The Sioux are treated respectfully but the same respect is generally not extended to their Crow enemies. (The one thing the Sioux and the whites have in common is a hatred of the Crow). Given his young age when he is adopted, Jim/War Bonnet, by the time he reaches adulthood, would probably identify culturally much more closely with the Sioux than with the whites, and would probably no longer speak English with any fluency. The film-makers, however, rather shy away from this and prefer to see him as a man with one foot in each of two camps. He still speaks perfect English and puts this ability to good use in negotiating peace between the Sioux and the US government, a peace which, it must be said, is very much on the white man's terms. Moreover, this peace is presented to us as something not altogether unjust, and War Bonnet goes so far as to concede that it is only fair that the Indians should make "elbow-room" for white settlers. (The historical reality is that the government was breaking the terms of an earlier treaty with the Sioux and that white settlers would have had little interest in the Black Hills, which are not good farming country, were it not for the gold).

The star of the movie is Charlton Heston, in an early part of his career and not yet the major Hollywood figure he was to become a few years later, especially after the success of "The Ten Commandments". Heston himself did not have a particularly high opinion of the film, writing of it in his autobiography "There was a very good film in there. Unfortunately, we didn't quite find it". Yet "The Savage" starts off as a very good film indeed, promising to be as good as something like, say, "The Searchers"; it is in the second half that it tends to lose its way, and what could have been a first-class Western never quite makes it. 7/10

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