Love Actually (2003)

Curious medley of vignettes linked by theme, intended to offer a broad overview of the nature of romance in the twenty-first century, but constrained in its aim by writer (and debuting director) Richard Curtis's noted insularity of perspective. Some parts work better than others, but schmaltz is ladled over all; performances range from the affecting to the ripely self-indulgent.

The Wicker Man (1973) *

Oddball melodrama, indecisively vacillating between satire, occult thriller and an oddly bogus celebration of pagan life and custom. The climax, though much admired and certainly devastating first time out, is creatively speaking a most shameful cop-out. Screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, an amusing performance from Christopher Lee and more songs than many a musical round out the eccentricity.

Alien (1979)

A sci-fi horror about slimy aliens that incubate in people's stomachs and then burst out of them: strictly on those terms, well - if portentously - done. Thousands of sequels.

The Thing (1982)

Derided on release for its capitulation to excess by a director who earned his reputation through his unfashionable rejection of it, this has grown in stature over the years, but never comes close to displacing memories of the original.

Return of the Jedi (1983)

Star Wars part three: yet more laser guns, robots and Muppets, spiced with the now expected soap operatics. (This time the hero and heroine learn they are brother and sister, and the baddie repents and turns goodie on his death bed!) It seemed to finish off public interest at the time, but in the years that followed the series grew into an unaccountable international cult, and the films were periodically re-called like old cars, tinkered with an re-issued in new versions. Somewhere in the course of this process the three episodes were absurdly re-designated episodes four, five and six, paving the way for not one but three prequels that duly appeared over a decade later and with all-new players, to widespread incredulity. (In the face of such inanity, Mel Brooks's attempt at parody stood no chance whatever of drawing blood.) And as I write, still more adventures are planned, this time utilising the creaking remnants of the original cast. May the force be with them.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Star Wars saga continues with a most curious mix of fantasy, sombreness of tone and daytime soap opera plotting: at the end the hero learns that the chief baddie is his long-lost father!

Star Wars (1977) **

Simple, fun outer space adventure for children.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) **

Labouring under one of his most overt give-up titles, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is  a slightly unusual but smoothly accomplished Woody Allen trifle, and his third film with Scarlett Johansson.
They seem to have a genuine two-way appreciation of each other's talents, so her Cristina comes alive a little more solidly than your average twenty year old girl written by a seventy year old man. The same goes for Vicky, played by Rebecca Hall, an English actress with a faultless mastery of Allen's own New York rhythms. Hers is actually the main role, though she's dwarfed in the advertising by Scarlett and Penélope Cruz (the latter fine too in another of Allen's big, showy monster roles, albeit one who doesn't turn up until the film is half over. Just as well; a little goes a long way with Allen's hysterics).
The plot is the usual impossibility-of-finding-true-love and art-versus-life malarkey he's been serving up since Manhattan, and peopled by characters who are as always products entirely of his world rather than their own. Nothing in the film says 2008; there is no hint of contemporary issues or of a culture that has changed in any obvious ways since the late seventies. This is not a bad thing, by the way, it just means that it is not real: the older Woody gets, the more he is kind of in his own little dream world. This is good. I like A Countess From Hong Kong very much, too: I like it when a distinctive film-maker with a unique voice sets their work apart from the temporary obsessions of the year in which it was made. Allen's got his eye on the retrospectives, not the weekend figures.
It's a pretty inconsequential film, but pleasant, and certainly more relaxed and assured than Allen's other director-only meditations on these subjects, which tended to come across as unduly earnest filmed theatre. This is his most liberatedly cinematic film in God knows how long, and his most visually sumptuous certainly since A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, perhaps ever. It's a reminder of how much fresher he can be as a film-maker when he forces himself outside of his autopilot zone. The characterisation runs true to form, however, and some of that loaded dialogue comes off heavily when there's no Allen to give it a punchline, but the golden photography and beautiful locations (neither a traditional source of pleasure to Allen) make this a very easy film to watch.

Born To Be Bad (1934) **

A hypnotic curiosity from the tail-end of pre-Code: less than an hour in length and mad as a march hare, with Loretta Young and Cary Grant, both cast fantastically against type.

 Actually, Grant is still in his pre-Code years before his type had been properly established, years that usually found him at Paramount, being disreputable in a tuxedo. Here he's given a normal, real-life type of role, and watching him struggling with it, trying to pretend that he's not Cary Grant, even before he or anyone else really knew who Cary Grant was, is fascinating. He's called Malcolm Trevor and he's the big cheese, so to speak, of Amalgamated Dairies. Meanwhile Loretta makes an equally vivid surprise, especially if your abiding memory of her is of the host of her eponymous tv series, or of the woman who Joan Crawford quipped left the mark of the cross on her seat when she got up. A gum-chewing tramp in a leopard-skin coat, in sole charge of a son she is raising to lie, cheat and steal... out with a different man every night and lounging around her apartment in her lingerie all day... yes, truly, this is Loretta Young.
If it resembles any other movie I suppose it's Baby Face, in which Stanners learns similarly how a girl from the wrong side of the tracks gets ahead. In both films the girls seek frequent counsel from a benevolent but disapproving old man: in Loretta's case, Fuzzy, played by Henry Travers; in Barbara's, Alphonse Ethier's Adolf. But far more than it resembles any other film, Born To Be Bad is unlike any other film. It's a film lost in time. Loretta's kid gets knocked down by one of Cary's milk vans, and even though he's not hurt she opts to take Cary to the cleaners by pretending he's crippled for life, enlisting the help of a crooked lawyer played with his customary effervescence by the great Jewish comic actor Harry Green. (Apparently, Green really did practice law before opting to try showbiz.)
But this Fortune Cookie-style scam comes to nothing when Cary has the boy surreptitiously filmed bombing about on roller skates. The suit is dismissed and the court takes Loretta's son away from her, banging him up in a reformatory! From here, the film skids into a parallel universe. First Loretta turns up at Cary's office and pulls a gun on him, threatening him that if he doesn't get her son back she'll kill him. Then Cary decides to adopt him himself, and takes him to live at the mansion. He soon rather takes to the high life, but when Loretta comes to visit she convinces him to attempt a break-out, locking Mrs Cary in a cupboard and helping himself to some of her silverware en-route. (Cary doesn't even get cross about this, just explains to the lad that he's only really stealing from himself.) But Loretta's not finished. Next she decides to seduce Cary and capture the conquest on a concealed home-recording phonograph record, in order to blackmail him. The very essence of a decent, upstanding milk tycoon he may be, but even Malcolm can only hold out so long against Loretta in a series of slinky cocktail dresses... Still, Hollywood is Hollywood, and by the end, she has tearfully decided that the kid belongs with Cary after all.
More happens in 58 minutes of this than in the complete works of Ross Hunter.

This Is The Night (1932) ***

As general familiarity with the Paramount house style recedes further into prehistory, the critical standing of this film sinks ever lower. No mention of it fails to dismiss it as an imitation of Lubitsch, as if any Paramount film of this time was anything but! Yet even on these terms I find it every bit as delgithful as the master's own work.
In fact directed by Frank Tuttle - whose films always give good value - it was, among other things, Cary Grant's first feature film. He gives a very funny, totally untypical performance as an Olympic javelin-thrower who catches his wife - Thelma Todd! - in the act of planning a dirty weekend with her lover - Roland Young!!! - forcing Young to invent a fictitious wife whom he must then hire an actress to impersonate. Charlie Ruggles is around too, effortlessly hilarious as ever, Lily Damita is the hired wife, and the whole thing plays out as a series of beautiful farcical episodes in Venice and Paris.
As with Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight and several other Paramount films around this time there are some absolutely wonderful sequences in which characters drift in and out of song, songs are passed around from character to character and extra to extra, and ambient noise becomes subsumed within the music. Grant's first appearance as he catches Ruggles attempting to deliver the tickets for Thelma's tryst is played hilariously in part-spoken, part-sung dialogue and there is a glorious opening sequence where Todd's dress is caught in a taxi door, stripping her to her underwear, as the watching crowd launch into a jaunty number called 'Madame Has Lost Her Dress' ("Whoops! In stepping from the car her dress caught / I only wish that I were Madame's escort!")
Variety, at least, got the hang of it, calling it a "smartly produced and directed Frenchy bedroom chase" even though in its "satirical application of music to comic situations and the tongue-in-cheek treatment from start to finish, Frank Tuttle's meg work cannot escape comparison with Lubitsch brand." The paper went on to note, in its own evocative vernacular, that "dialog on the whole is spicy for the screen, with a strip that's somewhat Minsky by Miss Damita, and some leg stuff for comedy and other purposes boosting the s. a. total... Thelma Todd is tall, blonde, stunning and perfect. It's hard to tell about Cary Grant in this talker due to limitations of his role, but he looks like a potential femme rave."

I Thank You (1941) ***

Probably the best of the Arthur Askey vehicles created expressly for him, basically a sitcom but with several breaks for revue turns from the supporting bill. (Lily Morris, who plays a stuffy aristocrat all through the film steps out of character at the end for a lap of honour rendition of “Waiting At the Church”.)
It fudges the decision of what Arthur the film character actually does by making him a theatrical; many of the later films falter in their efforts to account for this essentially impossible personality in reasonable narrative terms. No such trouble here, though: this is – for the last time, really – Askey at the height of his powers. The first scene, with him waking up in Bond Street tube station and singing “Hello To The Sun” must have had an incredible impact at the time – and not even Formby could have pulled it off quite so infectiously. (A fascinating weird joke, too, as Arthur spots a dead ringer for Hitler among those sleeping, and is visibly relieved to discover he has a copy of the Jewish Chronicle.)
It’s also the best-proportioned use of Askey, Richard Murdoch, Graham Moffat and Moore Marriott as a four-man team. There are some good lines for all of them, but more importantly, this is the film in which they really spark visually. They look like a team, not least in a large-scale slapstick scene, strong in both idea and execution, involving tins of brown paint and several dogs. All this and the sheer joy of Askey and Murdoch singing "Half of Everything Is Yours" together at the piano. Then just when you think it can’t get more enchanting, they both tap dance. (Stinker’s really good.)

I Married a Witch (1942) ****

Rene Clair, French master behind Le Million, came to America in the forties and by some oversight was actually given worthwhile things to do. This could be the most delightful Hollywood comedy of the decade, with Veronica Lake in the role she was born to play: a Salem witch putting the hex on aspiring politician Fredric March. First class whimsy, with Lake at her most iconic, March delightfully on-key (despite reported friction behind the scenes) and front-rank support from Cecil Kellaway, Susan Hayward and Robert Benchley.

House of Frankenstein (1944) **

A convenient quick fix of Universal monsters that seemed to me pretty much the most perfectly conceived and executed film ever when I first saw it at the age of ten, and if I'm honest pretty much still does. Many others will find it silly, regardless of whether or not they are fans of Universal horror per se.
In the space of one hour and eleven minutes mad scientist Boris Karloff and hunchback assistant J. Carrol Naish break out of a lunatic asylum, strangle George Zucco and steal his travelling Chamber of Horrors show, revive Dracula (John Carradine) and set him loose on a killing spree, discover the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange in the first of his Karloff-equalling three turns in the role) frozen in blocks of ice, thaw them out and set them loose on killing sprees. At the end Naish gets thrown out of a window and Karloff is sucked down in a bog. But I'm telling you the plot. Sig Rumann is in it, too.

This Day and Age (1934) ***

An early DeMille talkie altogether different from the wildly imaginative material that had been preoccupying him hitherto: it sticks to a single course, a single narrative and a single style.
It is deadly serious, playing somewhat in the manner of politically conservative populist melodramas like Gabriel Over the White House, The Beast of the City and the early Capra films, and then some. In it, a group of high-school students kidnap a gangster (Charles Bickford) and force him to confess to the murder of a Jewish tailor after a jury release him for lack of evidence.
There is a mesmerising sequence (usually dubbed morally 'disturbing' or even 'terrifying' by pious critics) in which the villain is suspended by ropes over a pit of rats which is plainly, if not openly, inspired by the kangaroo court scene from Fritz Lang's M, made a couple of years earlier. But Lang's film is made morally ambiguous by the fact that that the vigilante court trying Peter Lorre's child murderer is comprised of professional criminals; Lorre's objection that they are knowingly immoral whereas he is to some extent a victim of impulses he loathes but cannot control carries some weight. Here, the inquisitors are clean-cut heroes and the defendant the equivalent of Lang's jury: DeMille allows for no ambiguity of interpretation. We are expected to approve of this act of vigilante justice, and of course we do.
The scene, and the whole film, is utterly thrilling: thrilling dramatically, cinematically, emotionally, and in the sheer unusualness of its stance. Of course, modern critics affect to be shocked by the film’s political message: it is, they say, fascist. As Michael Winner remarked when the same tag was applied to Death Wish: "People bandy this word around as if they knew what it meant."

Four Frightened People (1933) **

Though considerably less exuberant and excessive than his earlier talkies, this satire on how the smart set conduct themselves in the wilderness, is equally perfect a snapshot of its time.
It is another of DeMille’s weird 'anti-genre' films, part survival melodrama, part sex comedy, part action film, and part parody. In plot it looks back overtly to Male and Female, but with a much less didactic and more playful agenda. Instead of allowing the shipwreck to reorder the power structures within the escapees, it instead acts as a Freudian liberator, releasing sexual jealousies within the men and turning Claudette Colbert's prim, horn-rimmed schoolmistress into a vampish jungle goddess. With each successive day in the jungle, and as each layer of clothing is jettisoned and replaced with animal skins, the true natures of the characters are more and more revealed.
The film seems to take its inspiration from one throwaway scene in the earlier movie, the one where one-time mistress Swanson and one-time maid Lila Lee kitten-fight first over who has access to the pan they use as a mirror and then over who is going to serve one-time butler Thomas Meighan. The absurdity of the shifting roles, the innate humour of this kind of pettiness thriving in such desperate straits and the suggestion that in everyday society animal passions lie beneath the most fragile of surfaces are what interest DeMille here - that and the skimpy costumes, obviously.
Sadly but usurprisingly the film fell between stools for audiences, who took it to be a rugged survival drama, and were alienated by some of the broad comedy. Not even much-trumpeted authentic location photography and a nude swim for Colbert were enough to make it a hit. Its frivolity is unusual even for a DeMille film of this time, but while it lacks the sheer extravagance of Dynamite and Madam Satan it shares with them an overt exploitation of every license available to the pre-Code filmmaker.

White Woman (1933) **

"You 'avent spent any part of your childhood in the slums have you, your ladyship? Well I have. If it don't take the 'eart out of you I don't know what it does. It makes a blooming king out of you."
White Woman is an extraordinary star vehicle for Charles Laughton; an insane mix of Rain, Red Dust and his own Island of  Lost Souls; at once compendium and culmination of his early American work. His character - Horace Prin, king of the river - is an egomaniac sexual sadist with a Zapata moustache and a natty straw boater, whose sense of invincibility is dependent on having complete control of all who come under his purview. Like Dr Moreau he is lawless lord of all he surveys, a tyrant and oppressor (his slaves not animal hybrids but what he calls 'ostile 'eathens; his staff are criminals on the run over whom he can exercise power like his assistant in Lost Souls). There is Nero from Sign of the Cross here too, not least in the sexual appetites the pre-Code scenario writer need not obscure, yoked to the pathological sexual jealousy of Devil and the Deep's Commander Sturm.
Hard to imagine how the character was written, before Laughton got his hands on him, but he opts to play him as music hall cockney, and to deliver every single line of dialogue sarcastically, as when a member of his blackmailed staff announces his intention of returning to civilisation, to which Prin has seemingly acquiesced: "Well, pleasant journey to you, Hambly. My compliments to your family. You remember Anderson now, don't you? He 'ad to go 'ome, sudden like, just like yourself. Poor chap; he 'ad a bit of business with the crocodiles on the way down. We all missed 'im, didn't we, fellas? You might look in on 'is family, tell 'em how we missed 'im. When you gets 'ome."
There is all you need here already for grim melodrama, especially at a studio with no qualms about supplying the kind of horror imagery American cinema would henceforth be denied for thirty-five years, as when we see in explicit detail a severed head being thrown through a window and rolling across the floor.
But we haven't reckoned on the explosive final ingredient: the white woman herself. She's Carole Lombard, and white she most assuredly is, like a marble ghost. Dressed alternately in white and black sheath dresses she looks almost unhealthily pale (and preposterously so, given the tropic location); the skin is porcelain, the hair is plastic melted to the contours of her head. Only the dark slash make-up of lips and eyes bring definition to the glowing haze. Prin's attitude towards her is difficult to work out: dazzled on first appearance and tempted by the prospect of another over whom he can exercise control (her husband committed suicide after discovering her sexual infidelity; she's now a café singer facing extradition) he offers her marriage in exchange for no more harassment from the authorities. She accepts, but by the time we next see them arriving at his river home a wall of disgust has already risen between them. That Prin wants her principally as a trophy is obvious ("'Ere, you greasy beggars, you 'ave the 'onour of beholding Mrs Prin," he says to his assembled staff; "She's lovely isn't she?") though we are left in no doubt of her responsibilities when he proceeds to order her into the bedroom. Yet his ardour seems to cool almost immediately; though he threatens murder to the men who instantly flock to her, he does so lazily, as if going through the motions merely, and he makes little effort to deny her the opportunity for romantic encounters. (Charles Bickford's bluff overseer is a particular delight: "You can do a lot worse in this hole than give me a tumble," he tells Lombard; "I've watched those big eyes of yours - and other things!")
Prin's end comes through hubris and that speciality of the actor: the slow, painful, visible slide from extreme mental instability to unequivocal madness. So often his characters are not mad but skirtng the condition's edge, only to fall at the last. Think of Sturm in his submarine or, later, Sir Humphrey Pengallon in Jamaica Inn, leaping to his death from a ship's crow's-nest before first informing the crowd below to tell their children they were present when the great age ended. Here, trapped in his fortress home with only Bickford for company and death inevitable, the pair opt to play cards, but when Bickford is killed in his chair by a poison dart Prin sees this as just one more betrayal ("You ungrateful 'ound!"), and ends up screaming in his face: "Soft! That's what you was! All of you! Mush!" Whereupon he calmly steps outside to take a fatal spear in the gut.
White Woman may not have the sobriety of high art, and Laughton may have taken its lead role on in the spirit of a lark, but it is much more than a mere programmer, and Laughton's performance, usually dismissed by his biographers, is amazing.

The Sign of the Cross (1932) ****

Early Christianty, DeMille-style: a feast of perversity and decadence, with a doom-laden atmosphere unlike any of his other movies. If pornography is as much a matter of attitude as degree then surely this is pornography: it is a work of stunning tastelessness filmed with exquisite beauty, descending in its final quarter into voyeuristic sadism that is somehow of a piece with the lurid erotics that precede it.
These two strands of the film are made flesh in the pudgy body of Charles Laughton's Nero, plucking his lyre as Rome burns, almost sliding off his throne with post-coital languor ("My head's splitting; the wine last night, the music, the delicious debauchery!"), and submitting to the political manipulations of Claudette Colbert's Poppaea in exchange for her kneading his flesh like dough. (This is of course the film in which Colbert takes her famous bath in asses' milk, looking straight at the camera as she strokes the breasts that the surface of the liquid can only barely conceal, and which at times – if you pause, reverse, zoom, frame advance, pause again and sit back contentedly to admire your achievement only to realise that your wife left the room ten minutes ago – it cannot conceal at all.)
The pressbook makes the film's focus more than clear: "Beautiful slave girls... courtesans... harlots... their only purpose to outdo each other in the orgiastic rites loved by a lustful Caesar. A flesh-mad emperor... Nero... painting the ancient city red with the warm blood of his victims... just for a sadistic thrill. Naked women... their helpless beauty pitted against the ferocity of frenzied animals... while Nero licks his lustful lips." But the full extent of the film's explicitness was forgotten for decades. For years it was available only in a shortened version prepared for reissue in the early forties, with a silly new prologue and epilogue added set in a warplane flying over Rome, and much of the detail removed to conform with the Hays Code. A far cry from its first run, when Hays himself demanded of DeMille what he was going to do about the film's lesbian dance and seduction scene, and the director replied: "Will, listen carefully because you might want to quote me. Not a damn thing." (His later, more considered explanation - "How are you going to resist temptation if there isn't any?" - is the key that unlocks virtually his entire oeuvre.)
The original, unedited version survived only as single print in his personal vault until its recent restoration. What it revealed is a film like little else prior to Pasolini's Salo in its combination of horror, degeneracy and an all-pervading sense of despair. There is a genuinely apocalyptic feel to the thing. A naked girl is tethered horizontally two feet from the ground as hungry crocodiles scuttle towards her, another is tied to a pole as a gorilla advances, her fate presumably an altogether different one, a battle is staged between gladiators and dwarves, an elephant crushes a man's head beneath its foot, and through it all DeMille cuts to Laughton and the other spectators salivating and laying wagers on the outcome. On a technical level it is superbly put together, with none of the kitsch we might expect of a DeMille epic.

Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1957) *

No Marilyn, admittedly, but how a film directly linked to one of the most popular Hollywood movies of the fifties can be this forgotten remains a mystery. All the reference books write it off as a disaster, and nobody I've ever spoken to has actually seen it.
Part of the reason it got such a bad rap, I suspect, is because it's just not the film people expected it to be, let alone the film they wanted it to be. Unlike the Anita Loos novel from which it blithely and opportunistically takes its title, it's not a sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Jane Russell does not play the same character, or even a similar one: in actual fact she's far more like Lorelei than Dorothy - she's the shallower, ditzier one - and Jeanne Crain is the level-headed half of the team. This is a whole new story about a sister act attempting to make it in Paris, where their aunts - also played by Jane and Jeanne - had been stars in the twenties. And it's a hoot.
The main reason usually given for its lowly status is that the song numbers are subpar, but are they? I enjoyed them all. And the costumes. There's plenty of good jokes, Rudy Vallee plays himself, Jane comes on in old age make-up at the end (it's the sort of corny finale you expect of a Road movie) and the male lead is Wilbur from Mr Ed. It's obviously not a big studio production.

The Mutations (1974) *

Another demented museum piece from Jack Cardiff, and one of the weirdest and scuzziest of all weird, scuzzy 1970's British horror films.
Donald Pleasence plays a scientist and university lecturer trying to cross-breed animals and plants. At one point he is asked if he has had any success. He replies that he most certainly has, and proudly produces a dead mouse with a sprig of watercress sticking out of it. He pays a deformed freak show proprietor called Lynch (Tom Baker drooling and covered in plastic lumps) to abduct girls, and post-experimental rejects are passed on to the freak show. Some of Donald's students (including Jill Haworth and Julie Ege in Man About the House fashions) get a bit too close to the truth; one of them, (played by Savage Messiah's Scott Anthony) is turned into a human venus fly trap.
Yes, it's tasteless, but at the same time, it's a film in which a man feeds a rabbit to a growling shrub. It was also Cardiff's last film as director. I've a feeling it would have been anybody's last film as director.

Girl On a Motorcycle (1968)

The cinematic equivalent of artificial fruit, this is one of a few thoroughly oddball projects directed by master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and disconcerting proof that anything will seem stylish if it thinks it is and you leave it long enough.
In a role originally intended for Susan Denberg, Marianne Faithfull is in and out of a zip-up leather catsuit, while Alain Delon plays a master seducer in bobble hat and sandals. Some ludicrous soliloquies, dopey back projection, and a tragic ending that will keep you laughing for hours.

De Vrais Mensonges (Beautiful Lies) (2010) *

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film featuring a subjective close-up of tears falling on a crumpled love letter. Beautiful Lies is a romantic comedy of confusion, of the sort built around anticipation of the moment when the characters reveal their true feelings for each other. It’s also one of those films that delays the lead characters’ discovery of each other’s true motives: when will a know the truth about b’s feelings for a, and when will b realise that a has done so… As a big tease and reveal tactic this rarely fails, and might be termed the Baxter-Kubelik resolution, after its most perfect cinematic demonstration.
This time round, I thought 'when will a realise the truth about b' was handled rather better than 'when will b realise that a has realised', the latter moment being somewhat thrown away in a rush of last-minute plotting. It's a little long, and on the whole I preferred Priceless, but this is not the kind of film one is supposed to judge on the grounds by which we all tend to judge movies in the home entertainment age, ie: how will it stand up on the 275th viewing? This is a film like a fifties Bardot comedy, to be watched and enjoyed, perhaps just once, and then forgotten about even, but with no hard feelings on either side. Just a movie. Bring on the next. The only difference is that they don’t bring on the next anything like as swiftly and easily as they used to, which is why each new trifle has to be sold as if it were a main course, and on those grounds alone Beautiful Lies might disappoint. But it shouldn’t, and the more people go to see things like this the more of it they’ll make for you. I can think of no higher praise for the film than to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly, and have already forgotten most of it.
Audrey Tautou is on good, typical form, albeit with an audaciously short hairdo and looking far too thin: she spends the whole film in trousers until a very short scene at the end, and her legs are like breadsticks.

Malena (2000) **

Always interesting to see an Italian perspective on World War II; this one is from the Cinema Paradiso fellow, with Monica Bellucci doing her bit to revive the European film industry by walking down the street and having all the young men follow her, just like in those old Sophia movies.
I wish she only made these kind of proper Italian films, instead of naff arthouse and Hollywood things like Shoot 'em Up and Irreversible.

Summertime (1955) ***

David Lean unleashes his magic camera on a fifties Technicolor Venice: the smile takes a few hours to fade, though the scenario would have needed big print to fill the back of an envelope. Technique, and mood, and charm, are all. Katherine Hepburn is to be commended for turning a cypher into a fully rounded character, and for taking a slapstick fall into the canal without stunt assistance. The ultimate travel brochure Venice movie.

Keeping In Shape (1942) **

Men's health tips, Robert Benchley-style, including the all-important how to get out of going to the dentist, and how to rationalise the inclusion of a large pint of beer in your calorie-controlled diet: “It doesn't say anything about no beer. It says no oil on salad dressing, no sugar, no butter... Nothing about no beer. Matter of fact, I didn't get all I was entitled to for breakfast this morning. I was supposed to have half a grapefruit and black coffee and all I had was the black coffee... It's about the size of half a grapefruit...”

The Witness (1942) **

A charming, Walter Mitty-ish diversion: Benchley is reading a newspaper about some “investigating committee and the way they treat those witnesses” before fantasising himself a cocky and recalcitrant witness whose every bombastic retort elicits laughter and applause from the pressmen. We see newspaper headlines reading “Doakes Grills Grillers”, “Crowd Cheers Doakes”, “Committee Baffled” and “Hero Doakes May Get Medal”, before reality intervenes and he capitulates completely under the intrusive questioning of a door-to-door survey-taker.

Nothing But Nerves (1942) **

“The study of nerves and their control,” as Benchley becomes increasingly distressed during an ordinary morning at home by the presence of workmen (one of them abnormally thin and tall), by innocuous voices from an uncertain location, and by the fact that he saw his maid enter the living room closet but didn't see her come out again: “But common sense should tell him that she must have come out and that he just didn't see her, that's all. The maid doesn't live in the closet. There's not enough room in there even for her to sit down and read...”

How To Take a Vacation (1941) ****

Sparkling Benchley, as he and two work cronies take off to a cabin in the woods to reconnect with masculine authenticity, where it rains incessantly and the native Indian guide fleeces them all at poker.
Benchley's narration never loses its enthusiasm, despite the reality of what we see, as when the men eat a meal of sloppy, warmed-up tinned beans: “A man owes it to his stomach every once in a while to feed it as nature intended it to be fed: from nature's own storehouse.”
We cut to Mrs Doakes enjoying a civilised breakfast of toast and eggs, but Benchley is unconvinced: “This is all very pretty, but is it nature? No, a thousand times, no! This is artificial food, food for women. A man needs nobler fare.”

Crime Control (1941) **

A rare return at Paramount to the old 'illustrated lecture' format more typical of Benchley's MGM shorts.
Benchley appears in police uniform, reporting on malicious, so-called inanimate objects, such as the handkerchiefs that begin a night's sleep in the pyjama pocket but which have somehow migrated to the bottom of the bed by the time they are needed. Not one of his very best, but there's a very funny demonstration of how newspapers deliberately resist all attempts to read them on an open-top bus: “Now this man is obviously going about it in the wrong way. He's trying to turn to page seven. The newspaper knows he's trying to turn to page seven. He'll have a long grey beard before he gets to page seven this way. He should make the newspaper think that he wants to turn to page fourteen.”

That Inferior Feeling (1940) ****

One of the best of all Benchley shorts, a study of "that inferiority from which most men suffer which makes them unable to cope with officials or with personal emergencies of any kind", manifested in the inability to ask for assistance at a railway station, or to cash a cheque in a bank without feeling like a criminal.
This is the one where a cocky tailor talks Benchley into buying a white suit, which makes him unable to leave the house without his wife's insistence, whereupon his embarrassment compels him to immediately draw attention to it as he passes the postman:

Benchley (inanely): Well, all in white today!
Postman (confused): What did you say?
Benchley (attempting nonchalalance, and failing): I said I thought I'd throw on my white suit today.
Postman (completely uninterested): Oh. Yeah. Yeah, that's right.

How To Eat (1939) ***

Benchley on the perils of trying to eat out of doors, from a tray in bed ("this is strictly a woman's method of eating"), or in a railway dining car, with the narration alternating between external commentary and internal monologue: "First thing he's got to fight is the stranger sitting opposite him. Right off the bat he doesn't like him because he sits down without asking... Stranger doesn't seem any too crazy about him either. Well what's wrong with my food? Just as good as anybody else's food. All right, take a good look at it. Go ahead, make me nervous."

How To Read (1938) **

Benchley on the hidden dangers of reading, as caused by bedside reading lights, falling asleep while listening to one's wife reading aloud ("a form of reading that is particularly dangerous"), or attempting to read without interruption at one's club:

Clubman: You won't get very far with that, I tried it.
Benchley: Is that so...
Clubman: Yep, I got to the part where the girl shot herself and I says, “Uh-uh, not for Puppy.” I like to get a laugh out of the books I read.
Benchley: That so... there's some funny papers on the table over there (...)
Clubman (tapping Benchley on his shoulder and making him start): By the way, do you see anything of Pinky McDermott lately?
Benchley: No I don't.
Clubman: Say, you know what I think about Pinky?
Benchley: No, I don't.
Clubman: I think he's in love with that girl.
Benchley: That may very well be.

A Night at the Movies (1937) ***

Robert Benchley picked up another Academy Award nomination for this short, a sustained single sketch with no introduction or explanatory narration. Benchley and his wife plan a visit to the cinema (to see “Souls On A Tandem”) but are almost denied admission when he puts his tickets in the entry box for the automobile raffle. Once inside he experiences difficulties with a staring child, begins coughing uncontrollably and accidentally ends up on stage with a chorus of dancing girls.

How To Behave (1936) ***

The first short comedy of Robert Benchley's official MGM series (after the enormous success of How To Sleep the year before) takes up the subject of etiquette, and handles such vexed and thorny matters as how long to remain standing when a woman enters the room if she makes no effort to sit herself, and who to introduce to whom and in what order when the guests are a woman and a church dignitary. Plus the classic 'weekend guest' sequence, with Benchley in plus-fours waiting impatiently for his hosts to rise for breakfast, and accidentally breaking a model ship on their mantelpiece.

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) **

A film that was born to disappoint for all sorts of reasons: because it is always sold as a Harold Lloyd film, rather than a film with Harold Lloyd in the lead (and rarely has such a world of differing expectation been hidden in so linguistically subtle a re-arrrangement!); also because the collision of Lloyd with writer-director Preston Sturges is so very exciting it's galling to settle for anything less than perfection. It doesn't help, of course, that the film seems to want to foster that misunderstanding, beginning with an opening flashback to the end of The Freshman that achieves nothing other than show how good for his age Lloyd was in 1947.
Nonetheless, come at it as a Sturges movie, for which he had the inspired idea of casting Lloyd in the lead (alongside his other rep players: Conlin, Pangborn, Kennedy, Vallee) rather than a Lloyd picture with Sturges directing, and you'll have the best chance of cutting through the decades of accumulated hyperbole and finding instead a simple, funny and characteristic Sturges effort, with an absolutely fascinating one-shot leading performance. Then you might even be able to listen to the dialogue: some of it is wonderful; Sturges at his best, and Lloyd delivers it well.
Never mind the back-projected thrill finale - remember this was the late-forties, and communal film-making genius of the sort that could be commandeered for Safety Last was just a memory now.

The Cat's Paw (1934) **

A conscious effort by Harold Lloyd to try something new.
His character is not called Harold, for the first time in one of his features - and it is also one of the very last Hollywood films to enjoy the liberty of pre-Code censorship (or lack thereof). There's very little of the traditional Harold to be seen here, except perhaps in his obtuseness (that gets more pronounced in the talkies), the sweetness of his naive courting of the leading lady (Una Merkel here: superb as ever), and in an amusing nightclub sequence, that strives for the same embarrassment-at-a-public-event effect that worked so well in The Freshman and Movie Crazy but is chiefly notable here for the eye-opening pre-Code outfits on the girls.
The big reason why the film is so interesting, however, is how it fits into the New Deal era 'Dictator Craze', with Lloyd as a Capra-esque naif accidentally elected Mayor of a big American city, discredited by a fabricated scandal, who decides to become a dictator, rounds up all of the neighbourhood criminals and forces them to confess under threat of decapitation! We get to see a convincing severed head and gory, oozing neck before we are let into the secret that it is all an illusion, a trick to get them to talk... nonetheless, this is one of those 1933-4 pro-Roosevelt movies that today get labelled 'Fascist' - occasionally by people who actually know what the word means. Capra is the film-maker you'd most be prepared to accept was behind the camera of The Cat's Paw if you didn't know better (it's Sam Taylor): it anticipates the screwball mode even while tapping into that Mussolini-admiring era of Hollywood/Washington paternalism that produced Gabriel Over the White House and The Power and the Glory.
And because it's Harold it's really charming and funny too. A true oddity, in fact: endlessly fascinating as a museum exhibit, as well as sufficiently stocked with conventional pleasures.

24 Hours (1931) **

The chief appeal in this morbid dirge (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) is the chance it offers to show two great stars at the height of their powers. (I say two because, likeable as Clive Brook is, he can't really be said to have powers as such: he gives exactly the same performance every time, and it's always one that doesn't require any facial expressions.) Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis would be teamed again, of course, in Trouble In Paradise, but that light and elegant thing is the mirror image of this sleazy slice of New York nightlife.

Miriam, who is murdered just before the halfway mark, plays a trampy nightclub chanteuse, deserving full marks for her untrained but most effective delivery of a number called You're the One I Crave. Kay, from the other side of the tracks, is in Brett Ashley mode, and few actresses of her generation so ably conveyed existential ennui and fatalistic erotic gloom.Watch her in the opening scene especially. She’s at a small party, depressed, bored, incredibly alluring in a very simple white dress, clearly the most fascinating woman in the room, but crippled with dissatisfaction and a physical beauty she carries like a hernia. She says virtually nothing, but every gesture, every movement tells. (You have to go back to Louise Brooks in Germany for anything comparable.)
As the title suggests, the whole narrative unfolds over a single twenty-four hour period; it's all good, gloomy pre-Code Paramount, with infidelity, jealousy, alcoholism, nightclubs and at least one dead body bleeding in the snow.

Daughter of the Dragon (1931) *

Anna May Wong had glamour to spare, and here she is in a pre-Code Hollywood lead, more or less, alongside her future Shanghai Express co-star Warner Oland, playing Fu Manchu for the third time (or fourth if you count the very funny sketch in Paramount on Parade). But it's a cameo only, presumably because Oland had already embarked on the Charlie Chan series and had no further use for the character.
Here, then, he dies about ten minutes in, and hands on the family business to Anna as his daughter Ling Moy. (Those familiar with Fu Manchu only from the later Karloff movie, or the even later Christopher Lees, will be surprised to see that the character here is not a torture-crazed megalomaniac master-criminal but a rather sad individual, driven merely to avenge himself against the man he deems, wrongly, to have been responsible for the death of his wife and son during the Boxer rebellion.)
Wong probably hated making this nonsense, but no amount of stereotyped melodrama can diminish her vivid beauty. (Interestingly, the 'Chinese poem' she recites in her appearance in one of the Hollywood on Parade shorts is from here.) It's also a (relatively) interesting role in that she spends most of the film disguising her intentions and pretending to be the damsel in distress, only revealing her true identity at the end, when the hero firmly rejects her attentions and returns to Dracula's Frances Dade, whereupon she reverts to Plan B and straps both into torture chairs. "My vengeance is inspired tonight," she tells him; "you will first have the torture of seeing her beauty eaten slowly away by hungry acid!"
Notable too for an early talkie appearance by silent Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa, and for a blatant dash of pre-Code lavender.

The Front Page (1931) ****

Another Lewis Milestone milestone in the wake of All Quiet: the talkie of the play that invented the talkies. Was ever a better cast assembled for a single film? One of the most important films ever made, though public domain status has diminished it by wide availability in hideous quality dupes. Only a pristine restoration will be enough to stop people yammering about how it's good but His Girl Friday is better. No way. His Girl Friday is just lovely, but this is American history photographed in flashes of lightning, every bit as much as Birth of a Nation. It's also funnier than Birth of a Nation, a film which, for all its points of interest, doesn't have Walter Catlett in it.

Via the army of New York writers brought in to give the new movies a voice, Hecht and MacArthur's script is the prototypical essence of the snappy, New York style of dialogue and situation that were used as the model for talking pictures. From this play, and very often in the words of Hecht or MacArthur themselves, who stayed on in Hollywood, comes every subsequent sophisticated comedy and romantic drama, and comes too the rhythms of Capra and Sturges and screwball comedy.
More tangibly, it gave the movies an abiding interest in the activities of newspaper reporters as surrogates for the audience, mediating between the higher and lower strata of society and standing up for unpretentiousness and common sense. In thrillers and horror films, the journalist tracking down clues along with the cops, often breaking the case, usually a smart aleck, and just as often female as male, became standard: Lee Tracy (from the Broadway cast of Front Page) and Glenda Farrell made careers of it. The Front Page is responsible for the savvy reporters and dumb cops in Monogram horrors of the forties as much as for the brittle society comedies with Carole Lombard or the frank boy-girl banter of It Happened One Night.
The virtues it bequeathed American cinema are all literary virtues, narrative virtues; none of them is cinematic. Making the movie of the play itself seemed almost symbolic, a necessary formality, since by 1931 its influence on the talkies was omnipresent and long-absorbed. I think Milestone got the job because he was one of those directors who had acquired a reputation for specifically cinematic panache, and therefore might find something new and surprising in the property. (He didn’t much, in the event; Rouben Mamoulian would have been the best bet, I think.) Still, in script and performance it remains a terrific movie, as energetic and melodic as it ever was, and the definitive version of the play,even allowing for the clever use of sound effects to obscure the offending language of the play's sensational closing line. (And which would not travel intact to the screen until Billy Wilder's likeable remake of 1974.)
Watch the pressroom scenes here; watch this incomparably impressive ensemble cast, each exactly the right man for the part: George E. Stone, Walter Catlett, Edward Everett Horton, Pat O'Brien, and Frank McHugh (as Mac McCue!), just embarking on a career that would basically be a series of variations on the same role, so indivisible from the character did he seem. Then, of course, there is Adolphe Menjou, an actor for whom précis history seems to have prepared the niche of romantic smoothie-cum-red baiter, but who was in truth one of the most talented actors who ever lived, with a compulsively naturalistic style of delivery and a rare gift for playing unprincipled men of great external sophistication. (Leslie Halliwell, with customary astuteness, calls him "the Walter Matthau of his place and time.") Cary Grant is his usual charming and funny self in His Girl Friday - rarely, in fact, will you find him funnier or more charming - but he's not Walter Burns. This is Walter Burns, right here.
To watch this fizzing, rattling, pirouetting film, its dialogue an endless string of bounces and rebounds in which the ball is never allowed to drop for a moment, is to be in at the birth of something, and only occasionally would the subsequent generations get it as effortlessly right as here.

A Taste of Honey (1960)*** The Knack (1965)** Smashing Time (1967)*

Rita Tushingham was one of the defining faces of 1960s Britain. Far from conventionally pretty, but undeniably magnetic - with straight, dark hair and eyes huge and expressive enough to drown sailors in - she was also an unusual and compulsively watchable actress.
She was just eighteen when she appeared as Jo, the troubled teenager and unmarried mother in A Taste of Honey, a hauntingly beautiful performance in a comparable film, with Dora Bryan equally impressive as her feckless mother. The film was ground-breaking in several ways, with its unflinching focus on such hitherto unmentioned issues as single motherhood, divorce, adultery and homosexuality, and it cemented a new attitude that had been bubbling for a year or two in British movies, helping to make room for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Billy Liar and A Kind of Loving. But while the majority of these films centred around alienated, frustrated - and basically rather boring - male characters, A Taste of Honey was unusual in that its central character was a young girl, through whose eyes the audience experienced the unfolding drama. And there was a sincerity and worthiness to her story that Billy Liar, for all its wit and sharp observation, could never match. The film is not merely groundbreaking; it's genuinely moving, and chief among its attractions was and remains the astonishing freshness and authenticity of Tushingham’s performance. Brilliant, truthful writing from Sheelagh Delaney; fine support from Murray Melvin and Robert Stephens, the latter cast well against type and reveling in it.
By mid-decade fashion in British movies was turning away from kitchen sink realism in favour of something rather more upbeat. Though there had always been an eminently exportable kind of English style, it had been dispensed in the sober tweeds and discreet hipflasks of Herbert Marshall, Leslie Howard, George Arliss. The thing that was new about the 1960s version was its focus on a romanticised version of working class modes and lifestyles, and the celebration (and exaggeration) of an unpolished national specificity that the studios had hitherto sought to iron out. Imperfect beauty, regional accents, gawkiness and eccentricity were all in. So Rita, who might easily have seemed hopelessly out of step in this new and glossier cinema, in so many ways antithetical to the one in which she had risen to prominence, found herself equally at a home as a quirky leading actress and alternative style icon. And it was in this idiom that she gave her other most defining performance: as the gauche provincial girl arriving in London in Richard Lester’s comedy The Knack, alongside Ray Brooks and Michael Crawford. Her performance and image in this film – tweed-capped and dark-mascaraed, clutching a boutique carrier bag and a copy of Honey magazine, struggling with malevolent left luggage lockers and automatic passport photobooths, or travelling through the London streets in a double bed – is as indelible a milestone of British cinema as Jo's melancholy passage through sooty, rainy Salford. The relentlessly frenetic trendiness of the film itself has dated it more than the simple sincerity of Honey, but for those with a taste for these kinds of sixties trifles it is at least among the most energetic and ingratiating.
In retrospect, a clear sense of desperation hangs over Smashing Time, a raucous comedy musical, scripted by George Melly, with Rita and Lynne Redgrave as two North Country girls touring Swinging London and marvelling at the wonderful sights they encounter, several of which inspire them to burst into harsh, untrained song. (Including, of course, Carnaby Street: “The street that is part of the beat that is part of the scene!”) There's even a custard pie fight. Though certainly eager to please, the film was deservedly not a hit: there is something a bit rancid about it, and its boisterousness did not disguise the clarity with which it called time on its era.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) ****

Surely the most humane, moving, profound and powerful film Orson Welles ever made: a story about things ending, and of the need to make our peace with time, the enemy we cannot possibly outwit, which speaks consolingly but not sentimentally, of our need, like the effigy atop Larkin's Arundel Tomb, "to prove our almost-instinct almost-true: what will survive of us is love."
It is not, let me rush to stress, a morose film. There are powerfully moving passages, for sure, but much of it is light; it's very funny in parts, and full of charming social detail. But at the same time, in its very simplicity and reticence it finds its way to a very deep place, and says more about the bonds of family, of the loves we strive for and define ourselves by, and of the passing of the years, than any other film I know.
At one time it was the last film in the world to need trumpeting. It was almost Citizen Kane, not as precocious perhaps, but, except for the effects of studio interference, every bit as good. But it rarely troubles the 100-best lists these days, due in part to the inevitable backlash against Kane itself, now routinely punished for the crime of being so long hailed the best film ever, and in retaliation against its appropriation as shorthand by critics who refuse to look beyond the milestones of cinema history. And as Kane's stock fell, so did the much more basic Touch of Evil's rise, because it’s genre and there’s stranglings and shootings and corruption and you don’t have to think much about it. And while all this was happening, Ambersons seemed to just fall away, like melting snow, or memories of a childhood Christmas.
Kane is a certain tour de force, a technical marvel and a work of great brio, but in its striving for profundity it is clearly a young man's film. Ambersons is a quieter work in its mechanics, but as drama it's streets ahead, because it relies on solider source material (a novel by Booth Tarkington). And as befits the subject, Welles’s work as director is never ostentatious or distractingly showy; it is a far more integrated job of work than Kane, that at all times allows the drama to lead the presentation. (Though when the moment does call for the grand effect, Welles pulls off some of his most impressive: witness the reverse tracking shot through several doorways.)
Welles wrote, directed and narrates the film but does not appear, allowing the other members of his Mercury players their chance to shine, which they certainly do. Agnes Moorehead was never better. I hate to think what this woman could have done in movies and never got to show us. She's like an exposed electric wire one minute, cracked china the next; just amazing. This is my favourite Joseph Cotten performance too: praise indeed for that most reliable of actors. And there are striking contributions too from a very young Anne Baxter and from Tim Holt, who, in a long and busy career, never gave a performance this good again.
Supposedly the film was grievously compromised by a vengefully philistine RKO who, fed up that their much ballyhooed boy wonder had turned into a white elephant almost overnight, hacked at the concluding reels, took out half an hour and re-shot a new, hurried finale. But though the joins show stylistically, and the finale feels somewhat hurried, the new material is in fact truer to the source material: Welles had opted for a more glibly pessimistic denouement that sounds plainly inferior. I hope his version is not found and restored, because what we have here is as close to perfect as makes no matter. No other film has achieved (or perhaps sought) its texture. It starts like a documentary and slowly segues into drama, in which an entire time and place, its rise and fall, is mirrored in the rise and fall of one family, whose members we are carefully introduced to and whose paths we follow in tandem. By the time it has established all of its major themes and characters it has settled into a unique rhythm that is warm, elegiac, delicate in the extreme, but also poignant, cinematically very effective, and quite stunning in its careful but never unnecessary attention to historical detail.
It may be possible, but mistaken, to dismiss the film as an insufficiency of drama in a surfeit of detail. This is because Welles adopts the very opposite approach to most dramatists, who pride themselves on creating human situations that ring true in any surroundings and convey themselves to us with the minimum of effort and adjustment. But the personal dramas here are indivisible from their location and their moment (and so carefully and beautifully are the latter evoked, the film seems often almost eerily like a vanished age come to life). Somehow it uses its specificity of setting and circumstance to reveal its essential truths all the more potently; it reminds us that the universe cares nothing for the complexity and intensity of our lived moments: all we are is the connections we make, and eventually we, and everything we know and see and experience, will be forgotten utterly. Welles achieves this, paradoxically it might seem, by deliberately concentrating on the tiny details rather than the large. His opening monologue pinpoints both theme and era exactly by the seemingly irrelevant distraction of listing various changes in men’s fashion against a montage of Joseph Cotten trying on the different items in front of a mirror. The whole film is built around the same understanding: that a change as seemingly mundane as the transition from horses to automobiles is in fact one that transforms everything and everyone it touches, that instantly ends one age and starts another, and cuts off the former from all possibility of recall. It is by concentrating on the small details that the larger themes come into focus. Thus neither narrative nor backdrop are appendage to or metaphor for the other, rather they are two perfectly integrated halves of the same story. There is a sad wisdom here, never stated outright but potently conveyed all the same. The story of the Ambersons themselves seems inevitable, somehow, in the context of the wider setting Welles evokes for them to reside in.
Great drama, as Hemingway told us, is a matter of truth. The Magnificent Ambersons, never harsh or bitter or neglectful of drama's obligation to enchant, is nonetheless one of the truest films I have ever seen.

Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks (1974)*

Boasting as it does the immortal credit "...and Boris Lugosi as Ook the Neanderthal Man", this is essentially the sheerest tosh, entirely typical of its guiding hand: supreme trash cinema oddball Dick Randall. But there may be slender grounds for meeting it on a level field.
If nothing else, this is a textbook example of Italian magpie horror, boasting that characteristic kind of skittish derivativeness that borrows from so many styles as to emerge almost as something new. Clearly an ersatz-Hammer horror was the general aim, but the half-hearted sense of period (one of the villagers at the beginning is plainly a contemporary extra in jeans and a jumper) and wild plot ideas (there is coincidentally a marauding revived cavemen in the district who does not owe his existence to Frankenstein's activities) make it impossible to take it seriously. There's even a portrait with holes in the eyes for someone to stare through. Set against this, however, are stylish performances from a proper cast (Rossano Brazzi, Edmund Purdom, Michael Dunn and Simone Blondell), a smart music score, attractive photography, and a generally pleasing use of locations, so that it constantly threatens to really work on its own terms, only to then throw in the towel with some fresh infusion of insanity. The combination, of course, makes for a distinctly acquired taste, and the delicate sense of naivety is in any event too often spoiled by over-enthusiastic recourse to exploitation elements. But like the best lunatic horror nonsense it certainly won't bore its intended clientele, and for the most part the thing has the happy eccentricity of a Grimm's fairy tale, or a half-remembered dream.

Portrait of Jennie (1948) ****

The essence of Hollywood at its most uninhibited, self-assured, and perfect, of its every asset and its every excess; the most dazzling, absurd, delirious, intense and beautiful product ever of its golden age, when transcendence was achieved so simply they took it for cheap sentiment. None of this makes sense, and all of it distills emotion with the knowing mass-appeal of a Hallmark card. But was there ever a film more haunting, beautiful to look at, and moving, despite your every fibre screaming that it is sheer manipulative gibberish...? Jennifer Jones, unconvincing but mesmerising, Ethel Barrymore, charm distilled, the great David Wayne, and Cecil Kellaway, the plain-clothes Santa. The visual texture. The music. That finale. That strange song... Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going everything goes. The wind blows, the sea flows, nobody knows. And where I am going, nobody knows... There has never been another film quite like it.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) ***

Anything left to be said about this perennial Christmas favourite?
Everyone knows it, everyone knows what's great about it, everyone knows the story of how if was little-favoured at first but became cherished on tv because it fell into public domain. All I can add is that it's worth noting just how much of it takes place before Clarence turns up: like all Capra films it is structured in his patented unequal-thirds: first long and lazy, second snappy and magnificent, third unduly hurried.
That it is his style seems inarguable - it transcends mere screenwriting credit. Not sure if it's a good thing or not: sometimes it works very well, sometimes - Mr Smith for instance - I really do find myself feeling a little short-changed by the haste with which it pays off our initial investment and says goodnight. Nonetheless, Wonderful Life is an interesting watch indeed if you imagine you have no idea of just what kind of a turn it's going to take at the halfway mark. Are we genuinely engrossed in Bailey's story, or are we just looking for the things Clarence will exploit when he finally shows? My own feeling is that the first half does contain some truly beautiful moments: the dance floor opening into a swimming pool, and the scenes by the old house, in particular. It is precisely because we do feel we are watching a perfectly charming and satisfying film in its own right in this section that the finale plays as powerfully as it does.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958) **

A witchy comedy set in Greenwich Village, pairing Jimmy Stewart with Kim Novak for the second time in a year; and what a relief to see them having some fun after being put through the wringer so resoundingly in Hitchcock's doomy Vertigo.
This one feels a bit flabby, like most late-fifties Hollywood, and certainly does not play as delightfully as Rene Clair's I Married a Witch, to which it looks back, or a really good episode of Bewitched, to which it looks forward. Where it scores over both however is in atmosphere, both witchy atmsophere and Christmassy atmosphere. It looks amazing, as does Novak, in beatnik fashions and frequently barefoot. (But what is it with her and those drawn-on eyebrows? She looks like Mal Arnold in Blood Feast.) Good value support cast, too, including Elsa Lanchester as the obligatory dizzy witch, kind of like Samantha's Aunt Clara, and a bongo-playing Jack Lemmon, just on the brink of stardom.

Irma La Douce (1963) **

Billy Wilder reteamed Lemmon and MacLaine after the success of The Apartment in this somewhat surprising follow-up venture, based on a hit musical from which all the songs have been cut, rambling where its predecessor was tight ,and set in a postcard fantasy Paris rather than a sharply realistic New York. (They were to have been joined by Charles Laughton as Moustache, the wine bar owner and narrator of the story: alas Laughton died, still sporting the large moustache he had grown for the role, before shooting began.)
It is ten minutes longer than The Apartment and perhaps half an hour too long overall. It was Halliwell who perceptively noted that while Some Like It Hot never quite taxes the patience, it frequently threatens to, dragging each idea to the limit before saving the day with something surprising and new. The only element of Wilder's craft that seemed to desert him as he and the golden age parted company, actually, was his mastery of pace and editing: despite their many and varied merits, Love in the Afternoon, The Fortune Cookie, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Avanti and Irma La Douce would all benefit from pruning. Overall this one is Wilder's lighest, least sharply observant comedy since The Seven Year Itch.
But once adjusted to its lesisurely tempo and cheerful lack of import, Irma is fun in an uncharacteristically whimsical vein, with a pleasing sense of wacky farce. In particular it contains one of Wilder's zaniest trademark endings, and a rare case of the fastidious Wilder sacrificing narrative consistency for a gag. The last line of The Apartment remains his finest curtain-closer, much better than Some Like It Hot's more celebrated "nobody's perfect", because it is moving as well as just funny. But this one - a ridiculous invalidating of the entire plot topped by a reprise of the film's running-line "that's another story" - should be enough to bring down any house. (If you love absurd, plot-ruining joke endings, you'll find this one second in greatness only to that of After the Fox.)
Though a little lumpy by comparison with Wilder's own earlier work, alongside other Hollywood comedies of its time it still seems pretty nimble: compare it with the contemporaneous work of Blake Edwards, for example. Anyone coming fresh to Breakfast at Tiffany's on the strength of its reputation will see - and no doubt be surprised by - the difference almost immediately. Hollywood comedy in the sixties was a pretty flabby beast, all exotic location photography in glossy colour, and toothy stars on big wide screens. Lubitsch-style precision is a tricky thing to pull off in such conditions. Wilder was not at liberty to abandon these new imperatives, but he, perhaps alone among directors at work in these years, retained the skills needed to transcend them.

The Apartment (1960) ****

Perhaps Billy Wilder's masterpiece: though there are at least a half-dozen more offering strong competition, the combination of mordant, cynical observation and tremendous heart makes this one just about unique.
The superbly witty (and wise) script is played to perfection by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, and without ever losing sight of its primary purpose as comedy grips audiences as firmly as any drama, from the wry voiceover opening to perhaps the best of those all-time great movie endings on which Wilder so prided himself. Hats must be tipped, also, to the beautiful black and white photography of Arthur La Shelle (though essentially a literary film there are still some great visual touches: the opening scenes, reminiscent of The Crowd, of Lemmon's inhumanly mechanical office existence, for instance, or the amazing romantic shot of Maclaine running through the nocturnal streets at the climax).
And points, especially, for having Fred MacMurray play the reptilian Mr Sheldrake: no other director saw beyond his lovable goofy exterior to show us what he might really be capable of. In Double Indemnity we caught a glimpse here and there of the traditional MacMurray, made mercenary by temptation, but Sheldrake is beyond redemption: the embodiment of the mechanistic, inhumane world in which Lemmon's junior executive C.C. Baxter and MacLaine's kooky lift operator Miss Kubelik are stranded, to both of them a malignant Faust who almost succeeds in distracting them from the realisation that their only hope of salvation is each other. Baxter is the kind of role Fred himself might have played in the thirties; it brilliantly underlines the point that Sheldrake is what Baxter might so easily turn into. But he doesn't, thanks to the radiant Miss Kubelik and Wilder's unwavering belief in the redemptive power of empathy and compromise.

The Avengers (1998) *

As an adaptation of the original series, one of the most notorious examples ever of Hollywood getting it wrong, wrong, wrong: fiendishly miscast and missing the point from first second to last. It's facetious and silly; Uma Thurman is bad but riveting as Emma Peel; Ralph Fiennes is just plain bad as Steed, and Sean Connery comes over as a bit of a berk hamming up the villain role.
And yet there's something really compelling about it: it certainly slots comfortably into the top half of my guilty pleasures top ten. The sheer artificiality of it, the superfluity of style, and the way big ideas are introduced and then forgotten about give it a uniquely bizarre flavour. Also in its favour is the 85 minute running time - a clear giveaway of post-production desperation - which ensures it never bores, though God knows it baffles.

Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)

Audacious exercise in Burke and Hare filmmaking, in which Blake Edwards attempts to construct a further vehicle for Peter Sellers literally from beyond the grave, by assembling a selection of outtakes from previous films in a flimsy new plot.
For the first half hour he  actually comes close to getting away with it, but then the clips dry up, Clouseau 'disappears', and the film becomes a ballsaching trudge, with Joanna Lumley as a journalist interviewing his old associates (including a dubbed David Niven) whose reminiscences provide forced segues into clips that everyone's already seen a hundred times. Then there's some new bits purportedly showing Clouseau as a young man. Then it just ends.

Curse of the Pink Panther (1983)

That sequel to Trail of the Pink Panther the world was screaming for, actually largely filmed at the same time, with some mutual cast members in different roles.
No Sellers outtakes this time but a brand new story in which the world's second worst detective is hired to find the still missing Clouseau, encountering all the usual guest stars while walking into walls and falling into their swimming pools. The suicidal star is Ted Wass, and he's okay. Since this is officially the weirdest film ever made it stood no chance whatever of being a critical or a commercial success and it didn't let anyone down on that score. Bizarre but necessary to add, therefore, that it's actually not all that bad, and the notorious finale - in which Clouseau is surgically reborn in the body of Roger Moore - may be one of the greatest ideas in eighties comedy: it's well handled by Moore, too.

Countess Dracula (1971)

One of the more visually arresting latter-day Hammers, with a good sense of period and a nice score, and benefiting also from an above average cast. Not another variation on the studio's recent infatuation with female vampires, it is in fact a fantasy based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, but it's fatally lugubrious, almost sickly in its mood, lacking entirely the thrills or scares expected of a Hammer Horror, let alone promised by the title, and it seems to go on forever.
It's odd to think they got that far and then fudged it: a full-fledged vampire film about an actual Countess Dracula would surely have stood a chance in the age of Yorga and Blacula.

The Damned (1963)

Weird and unreconciled collision of the mutually alienating sensibilities of Hammer Horror and director Joseph Losey, overloading a possibly rather trite tale with allegory, symbolism and a somewhat over-pronounced sense of its own daring.
Fans of Losey, and of that sort of thing, may find much to admire: it's certainly well made and there are many willing to hail it as a lost masterpiece. But it's probably fair to say that it has neither grown nor diminished in the years since it first appeared, when the paying punters near-unanimously declared it not worth the effort of sorting out, and so it's likely the majority verdict would remain unchanged today. I didn't care for it all.

The Sun Also Rises (1957) *

One of the better Hollywood Hemingways, with all the usual faults - overlength, elderly leads, neat and tidy glamour, too much emphasis on grandeur and spectacle and not enough on detail and insight - but some notable compensations, not least a fascinatingly self-deprecating performance from Errol Flynn and a small appearance by Juliette Gréco that hints at how much better it could have been with rational casting. All technical details superior, and a more authentic feeling of pessimism than might be expected.

Vampire Circus (1971)

Hammer horror at the end of the road: an intriguing idea and some stylish visuals lose the fight against puerile sensationalism and a screenplay that gives the impression of having been made up as they went along. Clumsy technical errors, a general air of nastiness, lightweight cast.

Così Come Sei (Stay as You Are) (1978) *

Unhappily married Mastroianni falls for teenage Nastassja Kinski and then learns that she might be his daughter in this formula age gap romantic drama.
Certainly not as a sensationalist as it sounds but developed without surprises, it holds the attention for all that thanks to some nice detail and two very charismatic leads.

Just Go With It (2011)

A comedy, meaning no harm but ultimately no more inspired or memorable than its title, starring Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler, a light comic actor whose true level of popularity I've never quite been certain of, but who, like Aniston, keeps working away in films that rarely seem to hang around long. He's showing his age in this one; getting a bit stocky, and it looks like he's dyeing his hair, but he's quite a nice little actor, albeit not one I would have picked from the chorus line personally.
It's full of references to contemporary popular culture, of which I understood just enough to realise how much of the rest of it went careening over my head, and even when they're not punchlining about tv shows and pop groups I've never heard of, they're talking very quickly, often at the same time, and with a lot of ambient noise. Two surprises though: first, when Nicole Kidman shows up half way through in a funny but basically nothingish guest star supporting role (the best bit, actually, is the hula contest where she and Jennifer try to upstage each other) and then at the end, when I found out it was a remake of Cactus Flower. I'm guessing the original didn't have Ingrid Bergman indulging in bikini rivalry with Goldie Hawn.

The Awakening (2011)

A ghost story with a twenties setting and Rebecca Hall from Vicky Christina Barcelona.
Plot-wise, it's that one again: the one that starts with the uncompromisingly rationalist ghostbuster disrupting a fake seance, then shows them going to a spooky old pile on their next case in the same confrontational frame of mind, only to have their certainties overturned after a few encounters with the other world, before a poignant resolution reveals a) their own personal involvement in the hauntings, and b) the fact that some of the people they had been interacting with throughout were in fact ghosts from the start.
It probably wasn't all that original when James Herbert wrote it up as Haunted 25-odd years ago, and a lot of M. Night Shyamalan has flowed under the bridge since then. (The film they made of Haunted with Kate Beckinsale was even more similar, being set, unlike the novel, in the twenties too.) This one's by Stephen Volk, still plugging away; the usual meticulously maintained period atmosphere and settings knowingly undermined by proudly deliberate anachronisms of characterisation and dialogue, a few good scares, and a made for television look to it.

Atlantic (1929) **

E. A. Dupont ended his days in Hollywood in the fifties, doing The Neanderthal Man ("HALF MAN! HALF BEAST!") and Problem Girls ("Nothing can tame them!"), and doubtless even he had started to wonder if he was the same man whose Variety (1925) had been one of the last towering achievements of German Expressionism.
Yes, times change, and it's not always easy to keep up, and perhaps he consoled himself that Fritz Lang was over there grinding out sausages too, but at least Lang still had a reputation left to squander. Dupont was kind of a forgotten man, which maybe hurts more than being maligned. His reputation drifted away in the thirties, and Atlantic  - the first talking film of the Titanic disaster - was, sadly and unjustly, one of the reasons why.

The film was shot in three versions: English, French and German, and the non-dialogue scenes are the same in all three editions. (As might be expected, the dialogue scenes are reportedly a little more naturalistic in the version Dupont shot in his native German.) It softens the impact of the play upon which it was based, which set the real events and various fictional dramas within a dramatised conflict of world views exemplified by two fictional passengers: a padre whose faith is faltering, and 'John Rool', an atheist novelist.
In the film, the novelist becomes the main figure, and a kind of surrogate for us; he is unable to walk, and so remains in the bar, watching and interacting as the various characters come and go. He ends up dying in an act of exculpation for his earlier cynicism, while the padre is downgraded to one of several equally important supporting characters. We never get any of his crisis of faith, and neither is Rool's atheism spelled out in block letters; the closest we get is a character telling him, "you make fun of everything that everybody else thinks beautiful".
Various other dramas are enacted for Rool and for us, one of them, interestingly, that of a family estranged from their father who is also on board - the central plot of the 1953 Titanic. (Though it would seem that the father in question is this time a renamed J. J. Astor.) Then there is a young married couple, expecting their first child but threatened with eternal separation as the ship goes down, saved by the selflessness of Rool himself, who gives up his own place in the lifeboat so they can all have a future together. Note that the idea of using the disaster as a backdrop to fictional dramas, which swiftly became the standard means of presenting the material, begins here.

As befitting a film based on a play, there is very little action; it's mainly dialogue in a seated posture, cutting between two or three spaces – the first class bar, the deck, the main staircase. But as an adaptation of the Titanic disaster, it is more accurate, and strives more for accuracy, than the above might suggest. The ship is not called Titanic, of course, owing to pressure from the White Star Line, who put considerable effort into protesting and trying to derail the film, but there is a great deal of factual and technical information that reinforces its links with the true story. The other factor, usually cited as anachronistic, that is relevant here is the obviously 1920s setting, as seen in the costumes, stylings and especially the music. But as no date is given, and the ship is not officially the Titanic, presumably the twenties setting is deliberate: it is a contemporary retelling. (This also gave the White Star Line another point of difference as consolation, along with the fact that this time all the real life characters have been renamed.)

The iceberg strikes earlier than any other film (relative to its total length): just 25 minutes into a 90 minute movie. (The berg appears to puncture the ship above the water line, but it does so realistically in terms of the damage created – a series of punched holes, rather than the single gash that had been the orthodox understanding until the ship was discovered many decades later.) There are some very good effects shots to follow, of the main staircase flooding, and of the submerging deck, and especially of the flooded ballroom, seemingly full-size or thereabouts, certainly not a miniature like the one in Night and Ice. But on the whole, Dupont denies us most of the spectacle we have come to expect, and most heretically of all, there is no actual shot of the ship sinking beneath the waves. Debate rages as to whether this has been cut or was never shot, compounded by the confusion caused by some documentaries, which splice together the final scenes of this movie and the submerging shots from the 1953 version. It seems that such a shot was planned, and possibly filmed, but never included in any release print – the decision being that the final horror should be left to the audience's imagination, perhaps understandable in a British production made less than twenty years after the event. But what we have instead is enormously powerful, and one of several moments that give the lie to the standard account of Dupont's inability to use sound film effectively. Through the final scenes, the lights continually flicker on and off as the ship dies, with dialogue continuing in pitch black. Just as the final descent begins, they cut out for good, and so for the last few seconds we see only a black screen. We don't see the ship sink, but we do hear it. It is a brilliant idea. Yes, it's a fairly obvious response to the demands of the new talking cinema, and certainly it's a lot cheaper to shoot it that way. But dramatically it pays its way too: it is eerily effective.
And so, for me, is the majority of the film. 'Stagey' acting is not something I have any difficulty with, and this is an exciting cast by anybody's standards: two stunning Hitchcock heroines: Madeleine Carroll, younger than we’re used to seeing her, and Joan Barry; dapper Italian comedian and director (and Mr Gracie Fields) Monty Banks, Valentine Dyall’s father Franklin as Rool (and if you’re familiar with Valentine’s acting style you can just imagine what his old dad’s like) and that grande dame of Edwardian and Victorian musical comedy, the great Ellaline Terriss, aka Mrs Seymour Hicks, who died aged 99 in 1971.
The lifeboat scenes are excellently directed, and some of the editing is also very fine. The film ends, after the terrible blackness in which we hear the great ship slipping to its doom, on a shot of the morning sun breaking through clouds; it concludes a film that I personally found to be all the things it is said to be not: entirely engrossing, powerful and moving. The recent restoration and reissue of Piccadilly did much to return Dupont to the consciousness of cineastes: when the full revaluation comes, hopefully Atlantic, too, will be fully redeemed.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) *

An early and in many ways defining example of the 1970s disaster movie, benefiting from an irresistible gimmick: a freak tidal wave causes a ship to turn over completely in the water, so the remainder of the film, detailing the survivors' struggle upwards to freedom, is played on a series of amusing upside-down sets.
As the rules dictate, the first half is basically soap opera, introducing a disparate assortment of characters via irrelevant, soon to be forgotten subplots. (We have the usual mix here: a sweet elderly couple, a precocious kid, a no-nonsense cop, a young girl who can and does sing, even a pre-ironic Leslie Nielsen.) Then at the halfway point, disaster strikes, and most of the characters we haven't got to meet yet are killed in grand fashion. Part two details the remainder's attempt at survival, with much ingenuity, self-sacrifice and peril, through the course of which at least two of the characters we're rooting for will also die. The only odd note here is the decision to make Gene Hackman's hero a pretentious, bad-tempered vicar.

Hard to decide what the fundamental appeal of these films was: was the thrill merely one of prurience/sadism, a kind of dramatic ambulance chase, or, more nobly, of enactment, an exercise in preparedness and vicarious survival? Or perhaps it was purely technical, and down to the sheer elaborateness of the special effects carnage? If the latter, this one comes up a little short forty-some years on: unlike the spectacular canvas of Earthquake or The Towering Inferno, most of it is shot in enclosed interior sets, with little real indication that we are in the bowels of a ship. Stock and model shots fill out what little footage there is of the exterior: even at the end, as the surviviors are cut free and helicoptered to freedom, we are denied a long shot, reinforcing the feeling that there is no ship, and minimising the sense of awe that is integral to the formula's effect.

Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) was an unlikely and belated sequel, in which more or less nothing happens.

Piccadilly (1929) ****

The spectacular return to general availability of E.A. Dupont's Piccadilly reveals yet another convenient generalisation to be a myth, in this case that British silent cinema is devoid of surprises or rewards.
The film is a masterpiece on a par with the very best American and international silents while retaining a distinct national identity; it's steeped in the atmosphere of twenties London (as attractive and evocative as the American Jazz Age, but very different) and dazzlingly designed and photographed. Though the latter is admittedly mainly the work of imported co-production Germans, the film is nonetheless vivid, and intense, in a manner we have long been taught not to associate with British films of its time.

The closest comparison would be with Pabst: there is much of Pandora's Box here; but it's even better. Anna May Wong's Shosho should be every bit as iconic and widely-celebrated as Brooks's Lulu: she is as captivating as Louise, as luminously photographed, and fully as modern in her light, naturalistic acting style. (Also giving a quiet little lesson in screen acting is Charles Laughton, in a short featured cameo as a bad-tempered diner.)
It's a film that has to be seen on a big screen: the BFI's DVD is certainly gorgeous (but for Neil Brand's horrid new score), but the detail - especially of the Piccadilly Club itself - is lost on tv. This is a film that truly overwhelms you, in composition, lighting, performance, and in sheer style.

Life Stinks (1991) *

Mel Brooks attempted to break out of the genre parody rut for the last time with this variant on Sullivan's Travels, Trading Places, and all those other films where rich people pretend to be poor for a bet. But what should have been his most interesting film since The Twelve Chairs must ultimately be counted a disappointment, which chokes itself on sentimentality after a generally spirited first half hour. Scattered moments thereafter, and a pleasantly daft finale, make it worth sticking with, and it certainly didn't deserve the drubbing it received at the time.

Gunfight at Comanche Creek (1963)

Standard issue Audie Murphy, with the star as an undercover detective posing as an outlaw to bring a notorious gang of desperadoes to justice. Despite the title, no Indians.

Joe Kidd (1972) *

Pleasingly unpretentious western from the top end of Clint Eastwood's Hollywood career, with Rawhide and the Italians behind him but his mature American persona still to be finalised. All good fun, with premonitions of Unforgiven, a lively ending in which our hero drives a train through a saloon bar, and the expected pictorial strengths.

The Vikings (1958) ***

Sumptuous, glorious tosh, with plenty of blood and thunder and superb location photography. In fact, it is often surprisingly vivid and compelling, at least for as long as its pick and mix assortment cast are not struggling with the dialogue. Then it becomes the Hollywood hokum you expect, but the two halves never drift too far apart, and the whole remains irresistible entertainment - one of the last examples, in fact, of the traditional Hollywood epic working at full blast with neither cynicism nor the itch for reinvention. Kirk Douglas plays a Viking who doesn't want to grow a beard because he didn't want to grow a beard to play a Viking; in perhaps the most famous scene his eye is torn out by a falcon. The climactic funeral is rightly iconic, as is Mario Nascimbene's superb score. Orson Welles narrates.

The Seven Year Itch (1957) **

Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe are very amusing in this laid back and basically inconsequential example of second-drawer Billy Wilder. Of course, even a coasting Wilder delivers more sophisticated fun than many another filmmaker at their best, and though censorship has somewhat robbed this one of its basic purpose there are a few good laughs here, and a lot of pleasant.

Frozen (2013)

Not too bad an example of the new look CGI Disney style, with a few nice effects and moments, spoiled only by the songs and the ridiculously large eyes of the two central characters.

House of Wax (2005) *

Odd but not uninteresting post-Scream slasher horror from the Dark Castle team: probably their most effective since their first, House on Haunted Hill, after a string of disasters (13 Ghosts, Ghost Ship and Gothika)

An original story which references House of Wax and Mystery of the Wax Museum only subtly - a villain called Vincent, the accidental peeling away of a wax face, the wax figures melting in a fire - and concentrates for the most part on Texas Chainsaw-style redneck torture horror, the film is nonetheless more compelling than the average, and just ten years on, so self-conscious is its modernity, it's almost as distant a period piece as the 1932 original. (Doubtless there is a generation already that will need to be told who Paris Hilton is.) Unexceptionally if undeniably nasty, but kept afloat by some superb set design and the fact that wax house settings never fail.

Muppet Treasure Island (1996)

The Muppet Christmas Carol had many followers, but the trick didn't work a second time: this further attempt to give the well-loved puppets a literary adaptation as a framework to play out their antics proved too ill-fitting. There's just too much plot to get through for sufficient opportunities to present themselves, and the spirit (and point) of The Muppet Show are nowhere evoked or recalled, though most of the familiar puppets (some, alas, with decidedly less familiar voices) pass through. Very poor songs and a surprisingly lacklustre human cast finish the job.

Quartet (1948) ****

One of the greatest compliments that can be paid to Quartet is that watching it feels somewhat akin to reading four Somerset Maugham short stories.

And so it should, you snort derisively, because, of course, an adaptation of four Maugham stories is exactly what it is. But films that announce themselves as adaptations of a specific author can rarely be relied upon to adhere with any great respect even to the letter of the originals: capturing their spirit is almost always beyond them. Look at Edgar Allan Poe: he must have been given the possessive name check in dozens, perhaps hundreds of movies, some of them terrible, many good and a few of them certain masterpieces. But how many have any qualities reminiscent of actually reading one of his tales? I'm not sure I can think of any.
Neither should greater than average fidelity be inferred simply from the fact that Maugham felt sufficiently paternal towards this production to give it his personal imprimatur, introducing and closing the film as himself, with endearing nervousness (those fidgety fingers!) in a studio mock-up of his own study that, according to accounts, almost spooked him with its accuracy, the more so when he discovered that a paper knife he took to be his own (he fiddles with it through much of his opening address) was in fact made of papier mache. Many another author had been happy to take the money and run - often as fast as they could - from productions they knew would do their literary reputations no possible good, but, they reasoned no doubt correctly, very little harm either, while swelling their bank balances to a degree that more than compensated for the unmistakable feeling of having joined the oldest profession.
But Quartet really is the exception. There is a profound subtlety to it, a desire to convey in miniatures of gesture, dialogue and event exactly that quality of minute observation that makes Maugham's short stories among the best ever written.
Surprisingly, it is the spirit that is recreated rather more than the letter: the adaptations are not religiously unadorned, and the desire to tidy them up dramatically, particularly in terms of narrative pay-off, is more freely indulged than one might think, especially if you haven't read the stories for a while, and only becomes apparent if you then return to them. It's the capturing of their essence, as I said, that is so striking: that brittle, half-concealed iceberg psychology, where the very scarcity of surface revelation somehow makes naked the vast reserves of emotion and meaning beneath.
The four stories are each beautifully transferred, each establishing a perfect mood, never outstaying their welcome, and varying the bill only beneath the skin: there are no jarring transitions in style or feel; each episode is clearly a part of a perfectly unified whole, and yet one is light and amusing, one tragic, one quixotic, one powerfully moving. The last, 'The Colonel's Lady', feels like the best, but as much because it is a culmination, a drawing together of all the elements of the preceding three, as for its own specific virtues, striking though they are. Fascinating as every moment of this story is (concerning the effect on a staid marriage of the wife's unexpected success with a volume of racy poetry), note just how much is conveyed in the first scene, where nothing much happens at all, but in which we eavesdrop on the couple at breakfast and learn all we need to know about them as individuals and as a couple, simply by observing the bland formality that has taken the place of intimacy between them. (And how much is conveyed by such seemingly inconsequential lines of dialogue as the husband's: "You know I cannot bear to see people cutting string!")

It could be argued that the transition between stories should somehow have been handled in such a way as to allow the viewer time to digest what they have just seen before haring into the next (though I can't think how, other than with three intervals, which actually may not have been all that bad an idea), but the overall effect is hardly lessened by what can sometimes feel a little bit like being ushered around an art gallery by an over-officious guide, intent on making you see everything when what you really want to do is stand and contemplate, at your own pace. But that hardly detracts from what is plainly one of the most adult and stylish British films of its era - and rare in any age is a film so happy not to lead its audience by the hand towards its intended effects but content to let them find their own way.
Quartet is a certain triumph, but in keeping with its sources, one perversely incapable of announcing itself thus. It is also one of those rare films that becomes more interesting with repeated viewings.

Chicago (2002) *

While it has been plausibly argued that the pop video style direction of this film's numbers - all micro-second cuts from close-up to odd angle to different close-up to different odd angle - represents a devolution in the art of the movie musical, denying the displays of sheer artistry that the old masters displayed in their long masters and allowing too much room for fudging and faking, this remains as exhilirating as it is dizzying, infectiously energetic and well performed by the whole cast.

Vertigo (1958) **

Strangely underrated on its release, and hysterically overrated thereafter, this oddball melodrama is usually now cited as the greatest of all Hitchcock movies.

I'd choose something slightly more typical myself: this one (though often hailed as quintessential and boasting obvious - if superficially developed - thematic appeal to those whose love of Hitchcock is dependent upon his being acclaimed as an intellectual screen artist) has a strange and intense atmosphere that makes it seem in many ways quite untypical (as does its reliance on plot mechanics for its cinematic effect).
Too long in all, clunkily structured and with a plot that makes no sense, it is nonetheless very impressive and frequently engrossing scene by scene, with uninhibited leads and several bravura sequences and visual touches.

It should be noted, however, that its chief claim to academic veneration - the seemingly necro-erotic sequences in which an increasingly obsessed Stewart attempts to mold Novak into the image of her supposedly dead alter ego - are broadly and hurriedly developed, after more than an hour of the cornball mystery plotting to which they then almost immediately give way again, as the film rushes to its hurried if undeniably effective finale.

Funny Face (1957) *

Weird musical with dull numbers that coasts almost entirely on the easy charm of its leads, but does offer an amusing pastiche of the 1950s existentialist outsider culture.
Viewers are, however, perfectly entitled to find Hepburn vastly more adorable at the beginning, before her capitulation to the world of superificiality for which the film seems intent on soliciting our approval and applause.

The Woman in Red (1984) *

Hard to imagine this film making much of an impact anyone who stumbles upon it now, though it will probably still offer enough easy, sitcomdram-style entertainment to make it worthwhile to any susceptible to Wilder's easygoing charm. (Or to connoisseurs of eighties aesthetics, if such animals exist.)
But at the time it was a big popular success and something of a talking point, while the poster image became briefly iconic, doing for Le Brock what 10 had done for Bo Derek. (Sadly, like Derek, she didn't have the depth or versatility to sustain a career, and after an equally decorative role in Weird Science faded from the scene.) Chances are, anyone around at the time will remember the scene of Le Brock dancing over a subway vent; just as likely they'll remember little else. It's success was further extended by a Stevie Wonder hit single about telephones.

On the one hand it shows just what an interesting and worthy creative figure Wilder was at this time: long having turned his back on the Mel Brooks school that informed his first couple of directorial ventures, he opts here to make a film that is not merely romantic farce but which also attempts to deal with some genuine issues and 3-D characters. (The other thing that comes across, in a film that strives to be alternately gritty and raunchy as well as comic, is the sheer sweetness of the man, and his generosity of spirit.) On the other, it doesn't quite pull it off: the film feels bitty, and too many threads and ideas are developed hastily or abandoned mid-stream, while the characterisation is too often fudged for the sake of narrative expediency.
Still, a point for trying, and for nostalgia.