Archive for January, 2012

In this 1976 classic horror movie, Gregory Peck plays American ambassador Robert Thorn, who makes the biggest mistake of his life when his newborn child dies, and he agrees to illegally adopt another baby, whose mother died in childbirth. This is all unknown to Thorn’s wife Kathy (Lee Remick), and for the first few years of their son Damien’s life, everything is great. The Thorns have a healthy, happy child, and a wonderful marriage. Things start to go wrong however, at Damien’s fifth birthday party, when his nanny commits suicide in front of all the guests, and shortly afterwards, a Priest warns Robert that his family’s life is in danger from their son. Strange and troubling events soon start to convince Robert that his child is evil incarnate…

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film – I’m not generally a fan of horror movies, and I wanted to see this one, purely because I am a fan of Gregory Peck. I actually did not find it scary – although there were a few genuinely tense moments – but I did find it riveting viewing. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick are perfectly cast as the Thorns, who come to suspect that their child is not all he seems. Billie Whitelaw is also superb, and genuinely unsettling as Mrs Baylock, the nanny who replaces their ill-fated first nanny. Harvey Stephens, as only a young boy, does a fine job as Damien, although he does not get as much screen time as one might have expected. Excellent support is also given by Patrick Troughton as Father Brennan, the repentant Priest who tries to warn Thorn, and David Warner as a photographer named Jennings, who finds himself drawn into the mystery surrounding Damien.

There is very little gore in this film; rather, it is a case of what you don’t see, i.e., the power of suggestion. This creates a more unsettling atmosphere. Although the film is not as frightening nowadays – and possibly has not aged very well – I can imagine that at the time of its release, it was genuinely disturbing.

It’s well worth seeing, even if you’re not a fan of the horror genre – it’s a film that’s a classic with good reason!

Year of release: 1976

Director: Richard Donner

Writer: David Seltzer

Main cast: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, Billie Whitelaw, David Warner, Patrick Troughton, Harvey Stephens

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This film, set in the Northwest American states, features Robert Mitchum as widower Matt Calder, newly released from prison and hoping to live a quiet life on his farm, with his young son Mark. Gambler Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun) and his girlfriend Kay (Marilyn Monroe) arrive at the farm, racing to get to the nearest town so that Harry can register his claim to some land which he won in a poker game. When Calder refuses to let Harry take his only rifle and his horse, Harry steals and leaves Kay behind with Matt and Mark. Unable to defend themselves against an impending attack by Native Americans, Matt, Mark and Kay are forced to take a dangerous journey down the river, on the raft that Harry left behind. Hostile territory, the ever-present threat of ambush, and a clash of personalities guarantee that this will not be an easy journey…

Considering that this film stars two movie greats – Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum – one might wonder why it is not better known. I suspect that it’s because it isn’t anywhere near the best film from either star. I’m personally in two minds about this film, and would compare it to eating cheap chocolate – you know that it’s not really very good, but you can’t help enjoying it all the same! Because that’s the thing about this movie…despite the hokey storyline, Marilyn’s less than stellar performance, and some very dodgy stereotyping of Native Americans, it is still quite an enjoyable movie. And while it’s not a great performance from Marilyn, it is interesting to see her playing (somewhat) against type. She may be a bar room singer, but she doesn’t play the whole dumb blonde thing here – instead, she’s a resourceful, feisty woman. Robert Mitchum meanwhile, is fine in his role, which is no more than you would expect. Rory Calhoun plays only a small part as Harry Weston, but he makes the most of it, and young Tommy Rettiq is impressive as Mark Calder.

The making of this film was not without its problems. Monroe and director Otto Preminger fell out during filming, and would only communicate through Mitchum (who had originally met Monroe back when she was Norma Jean Baker). Mitchum meanwhile was arrested for Marijuana possession during the filming of the movie (perhaps he needed it because of his role as go-between!)

All in all then, this is certainly not a memorable film, and if you want to watch either Mitchum or Monroe, then there are better films to see either of them in. However, it’s entertaining in its own way, and an enjoyable enough way to fill an hour and a half.

Year of release: 1954

Director: Otto Preminger, Jean Negulesco

Writers: Frank Fenton, Louis Lantz

Main cast: Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, Tommy Rettiq, Rory Calhoun

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This novel is set mainly in Berlin, in the months before Hitler came to power.  Martin Kirsch is a psychiatrist, about to marry into a rich family, but increasingly disillusioned with the path his life and his profession is taking.  When a young woman who Martin met briefly a short time earlier, is admitted to his clinic, with no memory of her own identity or her past, he takes on her case.  The young woman was found semi-naked, and the only clue to her identity is a flier for a lecture given by Albert Einstein.  The press are fascinated by the case and call the woman The Einstein Girl.  Kirsch too is fascinated by the case, but his fascination turns into a potentially dangerous obsession.  As he attempts to unravel the mystery of the woman’s past, he finds links with the eminent Albert Einstein, who is one of the Nazi’s most prominent enemies, and realises that danger could be closing in…

I’m in two minds about this book.  It started very well, and I thought I was going to love it.  However, as the story progressed, it became more and more convoluted, which I think hampered the telling of the story.  Generally speaking, I like books that weave fact and fiction, and this book certainly made me interested in finding out more about Einstein’s life, but even as a character, Kirsch himself often seemed unsure what was fact and what was fiction.  This does seem to be something of a recurring theme throughout the book, because at the beginning of the story is a letter from a character who does feature later on, which suggests that the whole book itself was written as a novel within a novel.

However, I was interested to find out the real identity of The Einstein Girl, which is revealed incrementally throughout the story, although it was never clear until the end as to what was true and what was false.

What I found particularly interesting was the glimpses into (now) outdated beliefs regarding psychiatry and the treatment of psychiatric patients.  Some of the ideas which were invested in, seemed particularly disturbing and there was a general undertone of menace surrounding the whole subject.

As a character, I found Kirsch hard to warm to, although I did feel that he was well drawn, and was believable.  Neither could I find much about The Einstein Girl to invest in (and indeed Einstein himself does not come across as a particularly sympathetic character).

All in all then, there were some interesting aspects to this story, and I would probably consider reading more by this author.  However, I feel that it got a bit too tangled up in itself at times.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This 1937 film is the second adaptation of P G Wodehouse’s novel of the same name, and Wodehouse himself helped write the screenplay for this version.

The films stars Joan Fontaine in an early role, as Lady Alyce Marshmorton, of Tottney Castle, in England.  She must marry soon, and the staff at the castle have a sweepstake on who she will choose.  After the all the likely – and less likely candidates are chosen, young Albert chooses ‘Mr X’, knowing as he does that Lady Alyce is in love with an American man who none of the staff know.

When Alyce goes to London to meet up with her secret beau, she instead bumps into American entertainer Jerry Halliday (Fred Astaire) who is in the city with his agent George (George Burns) and George’s ditzy secretary Gracie (Burns’ real life wife, Gracie Allen).  Jerry immediately falls for Alyce, and is incorrectly led to believe that she feels the same way.  He goes to Tottney Castle to try to meet her.  False impressions and mistaken identities lead to a fine comedy of errors…

This film came after several of Astaire’s pairings with Ginger Rogers, and the public’s enjoyment of Astaire and Rogers together may be why A Damsel In Distress actually flopped at the box office.  Joan Fontaine is no Ginger, and can not really hold her own when dancing with Astaire.  They have just one number together here, and it’s a very simple one.  In fact, while Fontaine looks beautiful, she fails to make much of an impression at all in this film; however, she was right at the start of her career, and she went on to show that she did indeed possess buckets of talent as an actress, in such films as Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941).

Astaire however, is as graceful and entertaining as ever, and of course his dancing is top-notch.  While he is an excellent leading man, the show is almost whipped out from under his feet by the excellent George Burns and Gracie Allen.  Gracie’s one-liners, her perfect delivery and her facial expressions are absolutely hilarious, and Burns is the perfect foil (it was an act which they successfully did together for several years).  Astaire, Burns and Allen together have amazing chemistry, and there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments.

The superb Gershwin score also gives the three of them a couple of terrific dance numbers together.  The first – Put Me To The Test – is a very enjoyable number, but the second – Stiff Upper Lip – was absolutely mesmerising.  Set in a fun fair, this dance makes full use of the sliding floors, rotating surfaces, and distorting mirrors, to produce a fantastic, fun filled dance number, which almost demands repeated viewing.  It truly is a marvellous sequence and one which is surely guaranteed to make the audience smile.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this film – great dancing, lots of zingy one-liners, and a daft but funny plot make this an often overlooked, but worthwhile gem of a film.  Catch it if you can!

Year of release: 1937

Director: George Stevens

Writers: P.G. Wodehouse (book), Ernest Pagono, S.K. Lauren, Ian Hay

Main cast: Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Joan Fontaine, Reginald Gardiner, Ray Noble, Montagu Love, Harry Watson

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This film was directed by Julian Fellowes, who since making it, has made the hugely successful Downton Abbey tv series.  Like that series, this film stars Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville, and they are joined by, amongst others, Dominic West, Pauline Collins and Timothy Spall.

Set in 1940s England, 13 year old Tolly (Alex Etel) is sent to stay with his grandmother (Maggie Smith) at her country home, which she fears she will have to sell due to money problems.  Tolly’s father is fighting in WWII, and is missing in action.  As his grandmother tells him about the history of the house, and Tolly’s ancestors, he finds that he is able to travel back in time to 1805 and discover secrets about his family’s past, which still resonate today…

This film is adapted from Lucy M Boston’s book ‘The Chimneys of Green Knowe’.  I have not read the book, so cannot compare the two, but I did really enjoy the film.  Maggie Smith is as brilliant as ever, as the elderly lady who realises that she may have lost her beloved son, and may also have to give up her lifelong home.  Alex Etel does a fine job as Tolly, and credit should also be given to the supporting cast, especially Pauline Collins and Timothy Spall, as two members of the staff at the house.  Dominic West is great (as ever), although here he plays a particularly unpleasant character – I personally prefer to see him in nicer roles!

There is a parallel storyline;  the story from 1805 – which centres around Tolly’s ancestors, the kindly Captain Oldknow (Hugh Bonneville) and his selfish wife Maria (Carice van Houten) and their children Sefton; a spoiled, selfish young man (Douglas Booth) and Susan, a kindly, blind girl (Eliza Bennett).  Into their lives comes Jacob (Kwayedza Kureya), a former slave who escapes from captivity with the help of Captain Oldknow and joins the household as a companion for Susan, much to the chagrin of Sefton.  The second storyline is of course set in 1940s, with Tolly and his grandmother worrying about what has become of Tolly’s father (and we do find out), while at the same time getting to know and understand each other.

I thought the film was incredibly well acted, and both story lines were very touching.  So much so, that I ended up in tears at the end, which is not something that happens very often when I watch a film.  This was just a lovely film, well acted, well told, and very emotive.  Highly recommended to all fans of period drama.

Year of release: 2009

Director: Julian Fellowes

Writers: Lucy M. Boston (book), Julian Fellowes

Main cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Etel, Eliza Bennett, Dominic West, Timothy Spall, Hugh Bonneville, Douglas Booth, Kwayedza Kureya

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Gene Kelly was in the process of writing his autobiography, but sadly died at the age of 83, in 1996, before completing it.  His widow Patricia Ward Kelly is said to be writing a book about her late husband’s life, but I’ve just about given up hope of it ever appearing.  Until such time as it does however, there are a few biographies of Gene available, and this book by Clive Hirschhorn is widely regarded to be the best in its field.  It is certainly the first place I would direct anyone wanting to know more about Gene Kelly.

There is a mistake right at the beginning of the book however; Hirschhorn gives Gene’s date of birth as 3rd August, when it was in fact 23rd August.  This seems like such an easy thing to have checked that I cannot help but wonder if this was a typo that somehow escaped correction!  I feel obliged to mention it however, because anyone starting the book may wonder if it is going to be filled with other errors – happily, it isn’t.

The book gives a good account of Gene’s childhood, with his strict but happy family life, including the dance lessons which his mother insisted all of her five children take, and the dance school which Gene started, together with other members of his family.  It then describes his move to New York, where he found success on Broadway, and then his film career, starting in the early 40s, when he made his first film ‘For Me and My Gal’, starring opposite Judy Garland.

Overall, the description of Gene’s career is comprehensive, and mentions the high and low points of his career, which not only consisted of dancing, acting and singing, but also directing, producing and choreographing (yes, Gene Kelly was truly deserving of the description ‘multi-talented’).

The book also gives a detailed but respectful account of Gene’s personal life, including his first marriage to Betsy Blair with whom he had a daughter, Kerry, and which marriage ended in amicable divorce; and his second marriage to Jeanne Coyne, with whom he had a son and a daughter, Timothy and Bridget.  This marriage ended in tragedy, when Jeanne died of leukemia in 1973.

Gene himself was interviewed for this book, and there are many, many quotes from him, as well as people he worked with, and members of his family (predominantly Kerry).  The book is interesting, and well written; my interest was held throughout, and although I am a big fan of Gene Kelly, I found out a few things which were previously unknown to me.  Hirschhorn seems to have great respect for his subject, but is still able to be objective.  As well as the many films which Gene starred in, I also found the accounts of his work as a director to be very interesting (in particular, his work on the film Hello Dolly!, which must have been in difficult circumstances, considering that the two main stars, Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau, could barely stand the sight of each other!)  I would have liked to have seen more about Gene’s involvement with liberal politics, and his business relationship with Stanley Donen (which unfortunately ended in a falling out, but while the two men worked together, they certainly produced some amazing films).

Overall, Gene Kelly comes over as I have always imagined him to be; determined, hard-working (in the extreme), a perfectionist, but a very kind, unfailingly honest man, with a strong sense of right and wrong, and a very deep love for his family.

Sadly, as this book was written in the 1970s, it does not cover any of the last 20 years of it’s subject’s life, which is a shame.  It is however, worth mentioning the lovely foreward, written by Gene’s friend Frank Sinatra.  It is a lovely start to the book, and a nice tribute to Gene Kelly. 

Overall, if you are interested in reading about Gene Kelly, or his work, I would certainly recommend this biography.

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This utterly charming and occasionally hilarious film from 1950, stars James Stewart (and really, who can’t be charmed by James Stewart?!) as Eldwood P. Dowd, a genial, mild-mannered man…whose best friend is a giant rabbit named Harvey. Elwood is a great embarassment to his sister Veta (Josephine Hull) and his niece Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), who live with him, due to his insistence on introducing everyone he meets to Harvey!

When Veta attempts to have him placed in a psychiatric institution, a mix-up occurs, and there then follows a comedy of errors, as the doctors try and chase the unwitting Elwood around town. But when they get to know him, they find that Elwood is perhaps not the only person who is charmed by Harvey’s presence…

I liked this film on a couple of levels. It is first and foremost, a gentle comedy, and Elwood is played beautifully by James Stewart. It was impossible not to like the character, and Stewart was an ideal actor for the role. The film also raised the question of whether it is necessary or right to try and cure someone of a condition that makes them happy (for there is no doubt that Elwood enjoyed Harvey’s friendship, whether it was real or not) and does not cause harm to anyone else. By the end of the movie, the viewer questions whether in fact Elwood was the one with the problem at all!

Josephine Hull was great – if a little ‘shrieky – as Veta Simmons, and injected a lot of humour into her role. I found the character of Myrtle Mae a little harder to warm to, but I don’t believe that she was intended to be a sympathetic character.

A lovely film, which will surely make you smile. I definitely recommend this.

Year of release: 1950

Director: Henry Koster

Writers: Mary Chase (play), Oscar Brodney, Myles Connolly

Main cast: James Stewart, Josephine Hull, Peggy Dow, Charles Drake, Cecil Kellaway, Victoria Horne, Jesse White

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Cher is outstanding in this film, as Loretta, a widowed Italian woman in 1980s New York. Her boyfriend Johnny (Danny Aiello) proposes to her, and Loretta agrees to marry him, although she admits that she doesn’t love him (and he doesn’t really seem to love her either). Just after they agree to marry, he flies to Sicily to visit his dying mother, but before he goes, he asks Loretta to contact his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) and invite him to their wedding. Loretta does so, and discovers that Ronny is extremely bitter because he blames Johnny (somewhat unfairly) for the accident which caused Ronnie to lose his hand. But much to the surprise of both Loretta and Ronny, they start to fall in love with each other…

It’s a long time (20 years +) since I’ve seen this film, so I felt as though I was watching it for the first time, and truly I adored it! It has a perfect mixture of romance, comedy and drama, but more importantly it has a LOT of heart. As well as the relationship between Loretta and Ronny, the film concentrates on the relationship between Loretta’s parents, Rose and Cosmo (Olympia Dukakis and Vincent Gardenia).

The dialogue snaps and fizzes, and the chemistry between the actors – who are all excellent – is great. Cher proves (as if there was ever any doubt) that she acts as well as she sings, and Dukakis and Gardenia lend excellent support, as does Feodor Chaliapin as Loretta’s grandfather. Nicolas Cage – who I often find quite irritating as an actor – is also on fine form here, reminding people that when he wants to, he really can act. Despite the 18 year age gap between Cage and Cher, they actually look great together on screen.

The final scene is also an absolute joy and finishes the film off perfectly. And as if it weren’t perfect already, there are five ultra-cute dogs which appear throughout the film.

This is just a lovely feel-good film, and I’ll definitely be watching it again!

Year of release: 1987

Director: Norman Jewison

Writer: John Patrick Shanley

Main cast: Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia, Feodor Chaliapin

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This is a 1946 movie, starring David Niven and Kim Hunter. Niven (who is outstanding here), plays Peter Carter, a British airman in World War II, who jumps out of his burning plane, to – he believes – certain death. In his last moments, he makes radio contact with an American woman (Hunter) working for the American Air Force. When he wakes up, he thinks he is in heaven, but realises that despite the odds, he has actually survived the fall. He meets June, the woman he was talking to on the radio and they fall in love. But in the afterworld, Peter’s presence is awaited – he was not supposed to survive the jump and only did so because Conductor 71 – a being employed to bring souls to heaven – missed Peter. Peter then has to take part in a celestial trial to fight for the right to remain alive and on earth…

The storyline sounds like something straight out of science fiction, and in a way it is, but this film is so much more than that. I was captivated from the start, and will certainly be watching this film again (and again). David Niven is perfect as Peter – conveying his new found love and affection, his utter bewilderment when Conductor 71 arrives to take him to the afterlife (never referred to as ‘heaven’), and his anger at his life being taken away from him just when he has met someone he wants to share it with.

Kim Hunter – largely unknown at the time of this film – is lovely as June. She brings humour to the role, and such vulnerability. Excellent support is provided by Marius Goring as Conductor 71 – who alternates between being hilarious and slightly creepy; and Roger Livesey, as a Doctor who tries to help Peter and June.

The film used colour to great effect – life on earth is shown in normal colour, but the afterlife is shown in black and white. Indeed, the afterlife seems a dull, monotonous place to reside, and the message which I took away from the film was that we should treasure our life on earth while we have it – it’s all we can be sure of, after all.

This film was originally made due to a request from the Ministry of Defence, who wanted to emphasise the importance of British and American cohesion and mutual respect (at the time it was made there was hostility between the two countries, and this does tend to come through in some of the trial scenes). However, it clearly transcended it’s original purpose. This is a lovely moving film, with humour and pathos, and it is very thought provoking; additionally the note-perfect cast make this a joy to see.

If you haven’t seen this film before now, don’t miss out any longer!

Year of release: 1946

Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Writers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Main cast: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Marius Goring, Raymond Massey

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This novel – the first in a series – is set in Victorian London and features as it’s main character, Charles Lenox, an armchair investigator, who sometimes helps the police with their enquiries, although they are never prepared to give him the credit he deserves!  When his neighbour and good friend Lady Jane asks him to investigate the suspicious death of her former maid, Prue Smith, Charles finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue.  There are numerous suspects and motives, and Charles’ efforts seem to be blocked whichever way he turns.  But Charles is resourceful and intelligent – and with the help of his brother Edmund, his friend Doctor McConnell and his trusty valet Graham.

I really enjoyed this book.  It reminded me slightly of Sherlock Holmes, but with the social skills that Holmes lacks!  However, this book did not feel like a poor copy of a Holmes story at all.  Lenox was a terrific character, and carried the story beautifully.  I also liked his friendship with Lady Jane (and hope to see more of her in subsequent books), and especially the friendship and mutual respect that he shared with Graham, who was a great character in his own right.

The mystery element of the book had me guessing all the way.  When it came to the final denoument, I realised that the clues had been revealed throughout the story, but I had missed some of them, and I had no idea ‘whodunnit’, although while reading the book I suspect almost everyone at some point!  Crime fiction used to be a favourite genre of mine – not so much these days, however, but when I read a book like this, it makes me want to pick up more of the same.  If I absolutely had to find something to gripe about, it would possibly be the occasional American speech patterns in the book (“gotten off of” for example, instead of “got off”), but these are honestly so few and far between that they should not impact upon anybody’s enjoyment of the book.

Victorian London is portrayed beautifully, and it is clear that the author must have done a lot of research.  The period detail is second to none, and I loved reading the wonderfully descriptive passages.

Overall, a great debut and a very promising start indeed to a series.  I’ll be looking out for more, and would highly recommend this book.

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