Archive for September, 2014

Director: Márk Bodzsár

Writer: Márk Bodzsár

Country: Hungary

Runtime: 100 mins

Cast: Márk Bodzsár, András Ōtvös, Roland Rába, Tamás Kerezstes, Sándor Zsótér, Natasa Stork

 

A tragi-comedy that’s as dark as double espresso

Sometimes it doesn’t help to read the film festival programme notes. The Raindance Festival introduction to Heavenly Shift refers to the obvious influences of Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, which led me to expect scintillating dialogue, fast pacing, and a particular kind of visual style. Márk Bodzsár’s first full-length feature has plenty going for it, but about 20 minutes in I found that I needed to adjust my expectations. I was watching a different kind of film to the one that I’d anticipated.

Heavenly Shift is a very dark tragi-comedy that features the kind of characters and situations that could well come from a Tarantino or Anderson film, but the story develops at a steady, gradual pace and the dialogue is mostly low-key. The main protagonist is Milan Kolvarov (András Ōtvös), a young conscript who deserts his side in the Bosnian conflict of the early ’90s because he doesn’t want to kill. He crosses the border into Hungary, leaving behind his fiancé Tanya (Natasa Stork), who is a nurse trying to save the lives of the injured at a Kosovo hospital. Milan needs to raise enough money that he can smuggle Tanya across the border to join him.

Circumstances lead Milan to find work as a paramedic, where he is teamed with world-weary but genial Vinnai (Sándor Zsótér) and the chain-smoking psychotic Kistamás (Tamás Kerezstes). Vinnai and Kistamás turn out to be involved in a people-smuggling gang. When their patients die the transportation of their bodies is used as an excuse to smuggle living people back across the border, and the paramedics get paid for every body they deliver. Milan falls in with this scheme, but is initially perturbed when he discovers that his colleagues don’t always make every effort to resuscitate patients whose hearts have stopped. He is even more shocked to find that live patients are occasionally nudged along their way with an injection of potassium. Nonetheless, his desire to be reunited with Tanya increases along with his jealous suspicions about her relationships back in Kosovo, and so he lets his own principles be compromised as he tries to raise the money to bring Tanya across to Hungary.

As comedies go, this is about as dark as double espresso, and just as strong. The cinematography emphasises this in literal terms. When we see Milan’s desertion at the start of the film, it is in daylight hours, but once in Hungary everything takes place during the hours of darkness. Although it is perhaps not a film to get too philosophical about, the ambulance scenes do provoke a few thoughts about the value of human life, not to mention the decisions faced by paramedics. The finale, when it comes, has a nice kind of poetry about it.

Rating: 7/10

Heavenly Shift was shown as part of the Raindance Film Festival, 24th September – 5th October 2014.

Pride_poster

Director: Matthew Warchus

Writer: Stephen Beresford

Country: UK

Runtime: 120 mins

Cast: Bill Nighy, Dominic West, Paddy Considine, Jessica Gunning, Faye Marsay, George Mackay, Ben Schnetzer

Pride is a wonderful comic drama, based on true events in 1984-5, about a group of striking Welsh miners who find themselves being supported by a gay and lesbian organisation in London. In the tradition of British movies such as The Full MontyBilly Elliot, and Brassed Off, this film is about downtrodden people fighting back against the odds in mid-eighties Thatcher’s Britain, except that in Pride the politics is much more to the fore rather than treated as background context for a feelgood triumph.

Ben Schnetzer plays Mark Ashton, a gay activist who identifies that gays and lesbians have a common cause with the striking miners in battling against a hostile government. He sets up a group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), consisting of a small group of friends who congregate at Gethin’s bookshop. However, having collected money for miners they struggle to find a mining community who will talk to gays and lesbians. Eventually, a volunteer at Onllwyn Miners Welfare Hall in South Wales takes a telephone message and, in due course, miner Dai Donovan (Paddy Considine) turns up in London, completely unaware of the nature of the people he is meeting. He gets on well with them, though, and gives a friendly and gracious speech at a gay club.

But things do not go so smoothly back home in Onllwyn, where the usual practice is to invite support groups to come and socialise. Even though LGSM has collected more money than any other group, most of the union committee do not want to be associated with them, and it takes a miner’s wife, Sian (Jessica Gunning), to browbeat the men into extending an invite. Mark and the LGSM travel to Wales and, after an initially hostile reception, the barriers between the two groups gradually start to come down.

Perhaps appropriately for a film that is about group solidarity, Pride doesn’t feature one main protagonist and over the course of the film we get brief glimpses into the lives of several characters, though this broad approach means there is no exploration of backstory for any of them. One gay man reconciles with the mother from whom he has long been estranged, whilst another character breaks away from the parents who can’t accept his homosexuality. Inevitably, one of the miners’ committee comes out as gay, whilst others notice that girls are impressed by the dance skills of gay men, and ask for lessons. Several issues are also briefly touched upon but not pursued: the separate age of consent for gay men, women’s representation in decision making, and HIV/AIDS.

This sweeping approach works well, because any deeper focus on these issues would have threatened to derail the main story, whilst at the same time we are reminded of the many important problems that gay men and women have had to face. This is also at heart a feel-good movie with a very witty script, and many memorable lines, but the interjections of character conflict and the issues mentioned above prevent the story from tipping over into schmaltz. Indeed, not every inhabitant of Onllwyn has abandoned their prejudices by the end of the film and there is no ignoring the fact that the miners themselves were defeated. However, Pride also serves as a reminder of the good things that can be achieved when people stand together in solidarity.

There are excellent performances all round, but for me the one actor who really stands out is Bill Nighy. As the quiet and diffident Cliff his performance is a million miles away from the confident and slightly louche characters we are so used to seeing him play.

Pride is a must-see film for the autumn.

Rating: 10/10

The Maltese Falcon

Director: John Huston

Writer: John Huston (from the novel by Dashiell Hammett)

Country: USA

Runtime: 100 mins

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr.

Taking film-noir to a whole new level

If the superior 1940 B-movie Stranger on the Third Floor can lay claim to being the first true film noir, then John Huston’s first directorial film, The Maltese Falcon, decidedly an A-movie, took the genre to a whole new level. A distinct visual style, a complicated plot, a hard-boiled private eye, a femme fatale, a cast of colourful supporting characters, and crackling dialogue, this film has them all.

The story (actually the third filmed version) is based on the novel by former Pinkerton agent, Dashiell Hammett, and features Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade. This prefigured by five years Bogart’s performance as Raymond Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe, in The Big Sleep.  There are resemblances between the two, not least because Chandler himself was undoubtedly influenced by Hammett, and wrote approvingly of his detective fiction in the 1950 essay The Simple Art of Murder. However, Sam Spade is actually a grittier and more cynical character than Philip Marlowe. When, at the start of The Maltese Falcon, he learns that his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) has been murdered, Spade barely reacts; shortly after this we discover that he is having an affair with Archer’s wife. The day after Archer’s death, Spade tells his secretary to have his partner’s name removed from the office signage.

The story begins with Spade being hired by beautiful Brigid O’Shaughnessy (a.k.a. Miss Wanderley) to find her missing sister. However, she is really hunting for the Falcon. Whereas femme fatales typically cause disaster for the leading man, in this instance Spade has her measure right from the start, taking her money but not believing her story. This does not stop him falling for her, and she apparently for him. The combination of love and lying makes for an intriguing cat-and-mouse game between the two.

Also hunting for the Falcon are Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). Lorre gives another superb performance as the (understatedly) gay Cairo, and probably relished this role, coming as it did in the wake of his nine performances as the Japanese detective Mr Moto. Lorre’s opening scene is a masterpiece in how to grab an audience’s attention. It was Greenstreet, though, who got the Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. At the age of 61, it was the first screen role for this 20 stone performer. As Kasper “the fatman” Gutman, Greenstreet is a perfect combination of urbanity and amorality. Gutman is what economists would call a rational actor. He is only interested in what is good for himself. Other people matter only insofar as they have something to offer him and, consequently, he is continually weighing advantages and disadvantages, and is willing to shift alliances when circumstances change. Moreover, he is quite open about all this. When the time comes for him to sacrifice his hired gun, Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), he tells the young man “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon”.

Lorre and Greenstreet aren’t the only actors turning in top performances here. All the key figures are superb. For Bogart, the role of Sam Spade was an opportunity to break away from the bad guys he had been so used to playing, and to portray a rather more nuanced character; Spade is tough and flawed, but beneath it all there is a kind of rough integrity. Mary Astor is delightful to watch as she acts the innocent, vulnerable woman, whilst spinning a bunch of yarns to Bogart. Also turning in a fine performance is Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer, the young tough who is continually undermined by Sam Spade (Cook would later appear with Bogart in The Big Sleep).

Rating: 10/10

Shown as part of the BFI’s Peter Lorre season, September – October 2014.

Strangeronthethirdfloor

Director: Boris Ingster

Writer: Frank Partos

Country: USA

Runtime: 64 mins

Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Charles D. Warde, Elisha Cook Jr.

A noteworthy B-movie that is widely credited as being the first true “film noir”

I have always enjoyed old black-and-white Hollywood movies, even those that aren’t terribly good, and it is always a pleasure to discover pictures that I wasn’t previously aware of. Stranger on the Third Floor is a noteworthy, and rather good, B-movie that is now widely credited as being the first true “film noir”.

The film begins with reporter Michael Ward (John McGuire) preparing to testify in the trial of Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.), who has been accused of murdering a coffee shop proprietor. Ward’s fiance, Jane (Margaret Tallichet), is extremely fretful that Briggs might be innocent, and when he is found guilty Jane’s distress puts something of a strain on her relationship with Ward. Returning home from the trial, Ward notices an odd-looking stranger (Peter Lorre) on the steps of his lodgings. Later, he discovers the stranger inside the building and challenges him, but the man runs away. Aware that he can’t hear the usual snoring from the annoying busybody next door, Ward first begins to worry that he might be dead. Then he falls asleep and dreams that he is being accused of the man’s murder.

Upon waking, he goes into his neighbour’s room and discovers that he has indeed been murdered. Ward’s first inclination is to run, but Jane persuades him to go to the police because the victim was killed in the same way as the coffee shop proprietor, and this connection could get the verdict against Briggs overturned. However, Ward then finds himself suspected and the stranger is nowhere to be found.

Stranger on the Third Floor is a good illustration of how story and plot are not the same thing. The plot here is remarkably simple and not enough to sustain the film by itself. However, the viewer’s interest is sustained principally through Ward’s paranoid interior monologue and the splendid noirish cinematography. The camerawork and lighting was courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca, who had already worked on a hundred films by this time, and went on to shoot the celebrated 1947 Gothic thriller Cat People. Other important contributors were Vernon L. Walker for special effects, and Van Nest Polglase for art direction. The highlight of the film is Ward’s dream sequence, which features various distorted perspectives, including huge courtroom interiors, and imposing shadows.

Top billing for the film was given to Peter Lorre, although he is only onscreen for a relatively short period of time. His performance is essentially a reprise of the child killer in Fritz Lang’s classic M. However, he once again gives an impressive demonstration of how easily he can switch between menacing and kindly (in one sequence, he raises our fears by ordering raw burgers in a restaurant, but then it turns out that he wants to feed a stray dog; shortly after this act of compassion he then menaces Jane).

The dramatic finale, when it comes, is perhaps over a little too quickly. I felt that the suspense could have been extended a little further. However, for a B-movie this is definitely above par. Although Stranger on the Third Floor received rather mixed reviews upon release I think this film deserves a rather more positive reevaluation.

Review: 7/10

Shown as part of the BFI’s Peter Lorre season, September 2014.

Secret_Agent

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writers: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Alma Reville and Jesse Lasky Jr.

Country: UK

Runtime: 86 mins

Cast: Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud, and Robert Young

Secret Agent is something of a hiccup in Hitchcock’s development, but entertaining nonetheless

Loosely based on Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories (but also drawing on other sources), Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936) came a year after his classic The 39 Steps and two years later than The Man Who Knew Too Much. It features actors from both those earlier films, Madeleine Carroll from the former and Peter Lorre from the latter. However, whilst entertaining enough Secret Agent fails to match either of those previous efforts.

Set in 1916, it is a story of three British spies who are sent to Switzerland to locate and assassinate a German agent. This is somehow crucial to the success of the British campaign in Palestine. The three agents are Richard Ashenden (John Gielgud), Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), and a Middle Eastern character called The General (Peter Lorre). Ashenden and Carrington are to pretend to be married, though there is a sort of subplot concerning an American (Robert Marvin, played by Robert Young) who is trying to charm Elsa Carrington. However, Ashenden and Carrington fall for each other in reality and then start to have moral qualms about the job they are doing, especially after The General kills a man they believe to be the German spy, only to find that he was innocent.

In the preface to his screenplay for North by Northwest (1951), Ernest Lehman describes how that story was devised as a way of linking some set pieces that director Alfred Hitchcock already had in mind (the United Nations, crop-duster and Mount Rushmore scenes). Many Hitchcock films also revolve around set pieces, and Secret Agent is no exception, but in this instance the linkages seem somewhat mechanical and some of the scenes themselves do not ring true. For instance, the film’s opening scene has a group of dignitaries paying their respects before a flag-draped coffin, watched by a one-armed veteran. Once the dignitaries have left, the veteran attempts to lift the coffin from its mountings only to have the box crash to the ground, revealing that it is empty. That is obviously what Hitchcock wanted to show to us, but why would a one-armed man be trying to lift a coffin?

Likewise, there is a later scene where Ashenden and the General visit a remote Swiss church to make contact with the organist, supposedly a friendly agent but one whose loyalty is in question. Upon arrival they can hear that a single continuous note is emanating from the organ. You might think that they would quickly have suspected the truth – that the organist is lying slumped, dead, over the keyboard. Yet it takes them a good two minutes before they make their way across to him.

In terms of the actors’ performances, Madeleine Carroll is fine but the relationship with John Gielgud completely fails to achieve the magic of Carroll’s pairing with Robert Donat in The 39 Steps. The weak link is Gielgud himself, who just doesn’t work as a romantic lead or an action hero. He also suffers in the scenes with Peter Lorre, as the latter acts Gielgud off the screen in his role as the womanising, ruthless, and slightly crazed General. However, apparently audiences in 1936 also had some difficulty with Lorre’s character, as his performance as one of the “good guys” was not very different from his performance as the villainous Abbott in 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Rating: 6/10

Shown as part of the Peter Lorre season at the British Film Institute, London Southbank, September 2014.

Director: Robert Flores

Writers: Paul Jarrico & Allen Vincent (from a radio play by Thomas Edward O’Connell)

Country: USA

Runtime: 69 mins

A tour de force of acting from Peter Lorre as a tragic immigrant whose life is changed by a fire

According to the British Film Institute’s programme notes, Peter Lorre didn’t think much of the script for The Face Behind the Mask. He would often be the worse for the drink in the afternoon, leading director Robert Flores to get as many as possible of his scenes shot in the morning. It is therefore all the more remarkable that Lorre gives an utterly sublime performance, ranging from happy and innocent through to mean and ruthless, and ultimately loving and tragic.

Adapted from a radio play by Thomas Edward O’Connell, the story concerns Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre), a newly-arrived Hungarian immigrant in New York. Happy and optimistic, he makes the acquaintance of police Lieutenant James ‘Jim’ O’Hara (Don Beddoe), who helps him find accommodation. But disaster strikes: there is a fire in the hotel and Janos’s face is badly disfigured. Unable to find work because of the way he looks, Janos finds himself helped and befriended by Dinky (George Stone), a crook with gang connections. Janos doesn’t want to become involved with the gang, but when Dinky is too ill take take part in a job Janos takes his place out of loyalty. Through his earnings from crime Janos is able to purchase a fairly lifelike mask so that people can bear to look at him. However, surgery to repair his face his still beyond his means.

A watchmaker, Janos turns out to have technical skills that are valuable to the gang. By dint of his intelligence and ability he leads the gang on more jobs and rises to become the leader, deposing the former boss Harry (Stanley Brown). However, money can’t buy everything and the doctors tell him his face is effectively beyond repair. But then Janos meets Helen (Evelyn Keyes), who is blind, and the two fall in love. Janos decides to put the world of crime behind him, but his past catches up with him when Harry gets the idea that Janos has betrayed them.

The one weakness of the film is right at the start. The events leading up to Janos’s disfigurement are a little too pat and rather rushed. However, once these scenes are out of the way the pacing improves and the story settles down. The relationships between Jarnos and Dinky, and between Jarnos and Helen, are deftly handled and convincing. But more than anything else, it is impossible not to be impressed by Peter Lorre’s performance. It is hard to think of another actor who, in the space of a single movie, could move so convincingly between comically naive innocence and frightening menace. The end of the film, when it comes, is truly touching.

Rating: 8/10.

Shown as part of the Peter Lorre season at the BFI Southbank, London, in September 2014.