Retro Review: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Written and directed by Preston Sturges, and starring the great combination of Joel McCrea and the beautiful Veronica Lake, this comedy gets little mention today, and is worth revisiting.

McCrea plays film director John Sullivan, famous for his popular comedies. But he feels that his work has no significance, and yearns to make socially-important documentaries. With this in mind, Sullivan dresses as a tramp, and sets off on a road trip, intent on discovering how hard life can be for the lowest in society. His studio boss arranges for a bus to follow him, containing his usual luxuries, as well as a butler and valet. But Sullivan is unhappy with this arrangement, choosing to go off alone, and to travel by hitch-hiking.

On the way, he meets a girl, (Lake) a failed actress trying to return home. Believing him to be down and out she pays for his breakfast, and he is so touched by this, he takes a car from his own luxury home, in order to give her a lift. But his staff are unaware of this, and report the car stolen, resulting in Sullivan and the girl being arrested for stealing the vehicle. The girl then discovers his true identity, and decides to accompany him, dressing as a boy to blend in.

Eventually, the pair discover just how hard life can be, sleeping in homeless shelters, and eating free food from soup kitchens. When Sullivan is seen to be handing out $5 notes to help other tramps, he is beaten and robbed for the money. More confusion reigns when Sullivan forgets who he is after the beating, and attacks a railway guard, getting him a term in a prison camp. When his memory returns, he is unable to convince anyone who is really is, and why he got there, but during his time in prison, he finally learns that comedy films and laughter actually mean a great deal more to those unfortunates than any serious documentary ever could.

When his photo hits the front page of the newspapers, the girl remembers him, and his plight is publicised, leading to his release from prison.
Everything ends well, for all concerned.

This sounds lightweight, I know. But it is a real tale of morals, greed, privilege, and discovery. At times very funny, and at others poignant indeed. If you have never seen it, I recommend it for being something very different, with a great cast of actors delivering completely convincing performances.

Just been watching…(100)

The Girl On The Train (2016)

***No spoilers***

I haven’t read the best-selling novel that this film is based on, so cannot comment on whether or not it is a good adaptation. Despite being nominated for a BAFTA film award, the film received mixed reviews on release, most of which I avoided reading, so I would not see any spoilers. I waited until it was shown on TV to watch it, as is it not one of those films you need to see on a big screen.

The story is set in America, in an affluent area close to New York City. Regular train commuter Rachel, (Emily Blunt) watches the world go by from her train window, focusing on the lives of a few families in one particular street she can see from the tracks. We learn that one of those houses is where she used to live, and is now occupied by her ex-husband Tom, and his new wife and baby. His wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) employs a nanny, Megan, who is also the wife of a near-neighbour. There is some physical similarity between these two women, something which becomes integral to the plot.

Back-stories and flashbacks abound, telling us that Rachel is a bitter alcoholic who is stalking her ex, and experiencing blackouts. Megan’s husband is violent and controlling, and Anna is a lazy mother. The film makes frequent use of captions, such as ‘A week ago’, or ‘Four months earlier’, to do this, so you have to be sure to keep your eyes on the screen at all times, or risk confusion.

Rachel’s constant bothering of Tom’s new family attracts the attentions of the police, and she is warned off by female detective Riley. (Alison Janney) With her drinking getting completely out of control, Rachel begins to alienate everyone around her, including the friend she shares a house with. And the viewer is supposedly left wondering if any of her fears are real, or just drunken fantasies.

Meanwhile, Megan is undergoing therapy, and becoming attracted to her psychiatrist, Dr Abdic. She is hoping to escape her controlling husband by beginning an affair with the doctor, and also resigns as the nanny for Anna’s baby.

Are you with me so far?

So we have a sort-of psychological thriller involving three women who are all connected by the same location, and the relationships they once had, or have now.

Then Megan goes missing, and is feared dead. Rachel becomes a suspect, and Megan’s husband becomes a suspect too.

Then it all gets rather silly, to be honest. Clumsy twists, unbelievable coincidences, clueless cops accepting the obvious, and a drunk woman who seems to be the only one who knows what is actually happening. Secrets are revealed in flashback, and the eventual denouement becomes an ‘Oh really?’ moment.

This film is nowhere near as good as it thinks it is. Usually reliable actors choose hysteria over nuance, and the criss-cross timeline is neither arty, nor well-handled. We have seen many similar films before, and all of them are better than this one.

I can only hope that the book was better.

Retro Review: Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

Unlike many crime thrillers and police procedurals seen in Britain at the time, this big-budget film came at the genre with a stellar cast, and high quality black and white location filming in London. It also boasted an A-list director in Otto Preminger, and the screenplay skills of writer John Mortimer. The story also dealt with certain ‘issues’, a theme popular during the 1960s. These included a single parent, a hint at incest, and psychiatric illness.

Following another 60s trend, the main protagonists are American citizens, out of place in an unfamiliar London. This would have also guaranteed an audience across The Atlantic, which the film would hardly have enjoyed otherwise. They are portrayed as edgy, complex, and often aggressive in nature. The British people they interact with remain solid, traditional, and not at all prone to excitement. The stereotypes are therefore cast in stone, as the action plays out.

Single mother Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) has arrived with her small daughter. She intends to live with her brother Steven (Keir Dullea) in London, where he is working as a journalist. On her moving day to a new home, she drops her child off at school, and goes to the apartment to see in the removal men. After getting some shopping for later, she returns to the school at lunchtime to collect her daughter, Bunny. But nobody at the school recalls seeing Bunny. They have no record of her attending, and the child cannot be found anywhere in the building. Presuming a kidnap has taken place, Ann calls the police, much against the wishes of the school staff.

Cue Sir Lawrence Olivier, arriving as an unlikely police superintendent to take charge of the case. After some initial investigations, he begins to suspect that Bunny may not exist at all, and is merely a figment of Ann’s imagination. Nonetheless, he takes his job seriously, delving into the backgrounds of the school staff, as well as Ann’s landlord, the lecherous poet, Horatio Wilson. (Played by the rather grand Noel Coward.)

As Ann searches for any clues to prove that her daughter actually exists, the story becomes less credible, appearing to go for some last-minute shock value to provide a rather unsatisfactory ending. With changes to the original book, and some cast members (especially Olivier) looking very uncomfortable throughout, it is a far from satisfying film, simply remaining an oddity of the period.

Despite that, the London locations and 1960s feel were very interesting to me, and Lynley does her best with the role of the distraught Ann.
But it shows that throwing a big budget and high-profile cast at a film is no guarantee that it will work.

Retro Review: The Killing (1956)

This is a late entry in the American film noir genre, notable for being directed by Stanley Kubrick. In a running time of less than ninety minutes, this crime thriller packs in the lead up to an audacious robbery, the event itself, and the aftermath. It is from a time when most cinemas showed two films in a programme, and there was little time for self-indulgence, or unnecessary navel-gazing on the part of film-makers. Audiences expected to be entertained, and not challenged by psychoanalysis or surreal imagery. You can almost sense the director just ‘getting on with it’.

Like many similar films, it employs the use of an unseen narrator to take us right into the action. Johnny (Sterling Hayden) is fresh from prison, and determined to carry out one last big job that will bring in enough cash to allow him to run off into the sunset with his loyal girlfriend, Fay. (Coleen Gray) He plans to steal the takings from the nearby racetrack, on the biggest day of the horse-racing season. But he needs the help of a mixed bag of associates, including a bartender, a track betting window teller, a corrupt cop, and an old friend who is putting up the start money.

We get to see each of the characters back-stories, in the build-up to the fateful day. The Teller has an attractive but unfaithful wife, Sherry. (Marie Windsor) She wants to move in with her young lover, Val (a pre-Ben Casey Vince Edwards) so tells him about the job. The bartender has a sick wife, and the corrupt cop is in debt to the mob. Then Johnny has to pay a sharpshooter to kill the champion horse, so as to create a diversion on the day, and a wrestler to get arrested after causing a fight with the bartender. If all goes well, everyone will be looking at the track, and all the racetrack cops will be tied up having to deal with the bar fight.

But this is film noir, so not everything goes as planned.

Nonetheless, after escaping with the huge amount of loot, Johnny thinks things might just work out for him after all. Back at the Teller’s apartment, Val arrives, intent on stealing the loot, but not reckoning on the anger of the mild-mannered cuckold. To say things go badly wrong would be a classic understatement.

This is a really good film, with a cast of recognisable faces all doing an excellent job. Hayden is perfect as the tough guy with a heart, and other names you might know include Jay C. Flippen, Elisha Cook Jnr, and Joe Turkel. (He was Tyrell, in Blade Runner.) Kubrick’s direction is neat and effective, and the script leaves out many of the cliches of the genre. Kubrick also wrote the screenplay, and packs all we need to see and know into those 85 minutes. Nicely shot in black and white, with excellent lighting and camera angles too.

Book Review: The Dry

This murder mystery by Jane Harper won the Sunday Times Crime Book Of The Month in 2017, and it is easy to see why. It thrusts the reader straight to the heart of small-town life in Australia, during one of the longest droughts and heatwaves known in that country. And into a community that has been outraged by a terrible triple murder.

There is no slow build up, as Melbourne detective Aaron Falk returns to his old home town for the funeral of a friend, exposing old wounds from his past, and revisiting old enemies and friends alike. The arid heat of the outback literally glows off of the page, as we follow his investigation into the death of his former friend, and the unsolved mystery from his own teenage years too.

A family has been killed, and the regional police have written off the case as a murder/suicide, by a struggling farmer. But that local farmer was once Falk’s best friend, and with the help of the local country cop, he sets about investigating the background to the case, stirring up a hornet’s nest of resentment and bitter memories along the way. Falk is no swaggering hero, and he also has to overcome the prejudices of narrow-minded small town people as he tries to solve the case.

Much of the story is told in flashback, but it is never confusing to the reader. The descriptions of the characters and the harsh environment are so well done, I could almost picture myself walking around with Falk, as he views the dilapidation of the town he once called home. Lots of potential suspects are on offer, with the usual swings and roundabouts accompanying a murder investigation with witnesses unwilling to help, and scant evidence to go on. And with his efforts frustrated at every turn, Falk is tempted to abandon it all, and return to his police role in the big city.

But he doesn’t of course, and his doggedness eventually wins through.

This book is 381 pages long, and was remarkably cheap on Kindle when I bought it for just £1. I found myself staying up late to read it, and walking around with my Kindle during the day to occasionally catch another chapter. As a result, I finished it in two days, not bad going for me. So it is very good, make no mistake about that, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys crime thrillers and murder mysteries.

However, I did guess the identity of the killer, and before the halfway point too.

But maybe I have just watched too many films…

Here’s a link.

Book Review: The Story of the SS

This non-fiction book is something of a niche interest, to say the least. Most of us will know something about the German SS, whether the battlefield atrocities they committed, how they served in concentration camps, or the combat exploits of the Waffen SS. This long book (384 pages) examines the formation, background and organisation of the Nazi SS in great detail.

Starting shortly after the end of WW1, the rise of Hitler’s National Socialist Party is covered, as well as the creation of the SA, which led to the offshoot organisation, the SS. All the leading political figures of the day are examined, as well as many minor officials and their roles in the building of the controlling Nazi state that followed. The book goes on to discuss the roles that SS figures played before and during WW2, adding some photos and background details about the war in general, and specific events like the invasion of The Soviet Union, in 1941.

The use of SS units to execute prisoners, kill civilians, and fight partisans is contrasted by the political machinations of their members on the home front, and in the countries occupied by Germany. We also learn about the collaborators, the foreign volunteers, and the often brave and distinguished combat units that fought to the very end, in 1945. Then the author goes on to look at those who escaped justice, and those who faced trial for their involvement in the SS, and its actions.

Much of the book contains lists of units, with the German names translated for the benefit of non-German readers. Numerous individual characters are highlighted, from the top leaders of the organisation, down to some who were little more that murderers in uniform. Chilling totals of the deaths they were responsible for, and the crimes committed in both concentration camps, and after battles in the field.

This is not a book for everyone of course. But given the current world political situation, it serves to remind us just what ‘ordinary’ men can be capable of.
As an historical record, it has great value.

Here is an Amazon link.

Book Review: Race Against Time

Remember when the world was supposed to end, in 2012? It didn’t of course, and this novel by fellow blogger Jack Eason offers a fascinating theory about why there was no Mayan Apocalypse.

Combining archaeology with adventure, then adding a touch of science fiction, this enjoyable roller-coaster of a story packs in a host of fascinating characters too. From eminent academics, to the Russian Mafia, Vatican cardinals, and even a beautiful female alien, everyone in this book is wonderfully described, until you can picture them all on their hazardous quest.

Using a theory of how Earth was once populated, and protected from natural disaster, we are taken on a world tour of interesting ancient archaeological sites. Each one holds part of the key that will save mankind from destruction, and our heroes must combat not only a secret organisation, but also the ancient demon it serves. This is not ‘Raiders of The Lost Ark’, but it has equally exciting elements, and a tension that endures right to the last of its 158 pages.

The author undoubtedly knows his stuff, and compliments that knowledge with detailed research, convincing geographical detail, and a wide understanding of travel by sea and by road. And he also knows when to insert the required action, so that no chapter is ever dry, or feels dull to read.
I finished it in just two sessions, keen to discover the fate of the characters that I had readily invested in.

This is ‘old-school’ adventure, in a very good way, brought up to date by ecological issues, and a theory that is all too easy to believe.

Here are some links to the book on Amazon.

And here is a link to Jack’s own blog.