Monday, 19 January 2009

The Day Will Dawn (1942) and Secret Mission (1942)

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Director Harold French’s duet of derring-do both features the little-remembered but blatantly cool Hugh Williams; Williams, who made a mark playing the Byronic Steerforth in David Copperfield (1936), usually played a slightly more upper-crust, but still recognisable, versions of the urbane, slick, glib but essentially tough Londoner types that Dennis Price and Michael Caine would later inhabit. French’s films are quick-moving, funny, a bit ludicrous, and of some importance for marking an intermediary from the pre-War, John Buchan-type of thriller, and the Hitchcockian brand, whilst looking forward to the blockbuster thrill-ride, in laying out the blueprint for Alistair MacLean’s yarns, the James Bond films (and books), through to Star Wars, and any other film where a band of brothers defy the forces of evil to pull off an impossible mission: indeed, one of the writers of Secret Mission is Terence Young, who later as a director would lay the foundations of the Bond series with Dr. No and From Russia With Love.

In The Day Will Dawn, Williams plays an indolent sports journalist (his speciality of picking winning horses is a recurring joke through the film) who, constantly threatened with the sack and challenged to do some real journalism by his mate Ralph Richardson (who must have been getting sick of playing noble victims by this point), soon finds himself bouncing Candide-like through the invasion of Norway and Dunkirk. He learns just enough about German plans to build a submarine base in a fjord where his fisherman friend Finlay Currie and his tomboy daughter Deborah Kerr live, so that he’s sent back to arrange to pinpoint the base for a bombing raid; that’s successful but Currie is killed and everyone else is caught and sentenced to death by firing squad; but the cavalry in the form of a commando raid saves them all. The Day Will Dawn is a near-remarkable film for managing to contrive such a far-ranging plot; it’s almost a history of the war up until the day of its making as well as being a ripping yarn.
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In Secret Mission, which could almost be a sequel, Williams is now in charge of an MI6 unit that is landed in coastal France to collect information and search for an underground control bunker that looks uncannily like a hangout for Ernst Stavro Blofeld. With a tighter but less expansive plot than Dawn, Secret Mission is close to being a screwball comedy war film, as the heroes pretend to be German wine merchants and walk right into Wehrmacht HQ. The Germans’ utter and incalculably deviant villainy is established immediately when the heroes land, and see an armoured car that blares out Wagner at all hours drives by. “Have I been drinking?” questions the ever-droll Roland Culver.
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Williams is also joined by young actors who did not remain sidekicks for long: James Mason, Michael Wilding, and Stewart Granger. Mason plays a Free French officer – yeah – whose home makes a convenient base of operations, and whose comely sister Carla Lehmann provides love interest for Williams when she’s not venting her frustration at the war making things inconvenient for her preening narcissism.
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Wilding is a comic Cockney who dreads returning to France because he’s married to an innkeeper there, and Granger makes a short appearance as a submarine captain. The finale once again is a last-minute intervention by commandos.
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Despite these early glimmerings of the modern blockbuster in their make-up, these films are chiefly enjoyable for their mix of hype and modesty: on their cheap sets, between the action, there’s always time for a bit of dry humour, a dumb sex joke, some comradely banter, or casual bit of love-making.
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I’ll Get You For This (1950)

Middling George Raft vehicle plays like washed out noir (would that then be gris?), based on a James Hadley Chase novel. Raft plays an American gambler who comes to play in a small Italian seaside casino town, and soon finds himself being used as a patsy in an attempt to cover up a counterfeiting racket, made to look like the murderer of an undercover US Treasury official. Colleen Gray plays a wannabe artist, who is asked to pay off a debt she can't cover at the casino by being attentive to Raft; she's soon forced to go on the lam with Raft, hiding out in a splendid location - an entire abandoned town, unfortunately used with no imagination at all. A lot of not very exciting dodging and dashing goes on for the next hour; the finale, in which Gray is rescued by Raft from a fortress prison, does present a very early edition of what would become the women’s prison flick genre, with an icy butch female guard who gets her comeuppance in being stuffed into a cell with some vengeful streetwalkers. An interesting theme of remnant Italian fascism being tied in with the criminality does bubble under the surface. The film is directed with spurts of style and atmosphere by Joseph M. Newman, who later directed The George Raft Story (whether or not it presented the Charlie Kaufman-esque meta-movie insanity of Newman directing an actor playing Newman directing an actor playing Raft in this movie, I don’t know), and the result isn't entirely forgettable, but far from vital either.

The Orphanage (2007)

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Over-rated, merely passable Spanish horror film, no better and no worse than the likes of John Fawcett’s The Dark, the various versions of The Ring, and the half-dozen other overly similar recent editions in the post-The Sixth Sense kids-ghosts-and-scares genre. It’s photographed with class, but Juan Antonio Bayona's directing is not especially good, full of pointless lapses in camera perspective that disperse the remote threat of its spooks. The mildly compelling story is finally ruined by plot holes you could steer a supertanker through, with story integrity and continuity sacrificed a little too cavalierly for dramatic convenience. Why is everyone completely unaware that several kids disappeared back when? Where’s the flock of reporters after their remains are found? Why - so we’re informed by dialogue – some six months after the heroine is injured, is she still wearing a leg cast in one scene and limping along, but free of it and walking fine a couple of scenes and a few days later? Really half-hearted bus scares and gore effects conjure nothing but reminders of Bayona's lack of skill. Nor does the film ever find a clear focus for its proliferating elements of infanticide, lingering guilt, childhood anxiety, mother-love, rationalism vs irrationalism, ills-of-institutions, etc, which means the film finally says nothing about any of these, chucking it all for a terribly unconvincing swing from attempted creepfest to warm-and-fuzzy uplift. The key creepy image, of the boy with a bag on his head, proves eventually to be not so much a grim totem but a cheap fright gimmick. A brief shot in the arm from Geraldine Chaplin, who's always a welcomely grave presence these days, but otherwise a major "meh" from me.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Eight Miles High (Das Wilde Leben, 2007)

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Well-directed but utterly shallow biography of '60s model, hanger-on, and faux-radical Uschi Obermaier, who flees her home town and noxious parents, moves into Kommune 1, an experimental radical living space, and then becomes a super famous beautiful person and spends the rest of the film…well…reaping the rewards and negatives of that.

This film might have had unique things to say about German radicalism and the nation’s youth’s attempts to reinvent the national character after the Nazi and reconstruction eras. Na. This is a hymn to Uschi’s overpowering coolness and the right to ignore the world once you become rich enough. Crammed with sex, drugs, reasonably obscure rock'n'roll (except for Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" again: please, filmmakers, stop using it), a couple of Swedish guys playing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (alright, one's Swedish, the other's German), rifle-wielding mustachioed German nightclub owner-adventurers (specifically, Dieter Bockhorn, played by David Scheller), endless boob shots (those of lead actress Natalia Avelon mostly) and plenty of penises too (penii?).

Eight Miles High evokes the decadent side of the ‘60s with glee and atmosphere, and also the preening self-righteousness of some of the radicals, especially in Uschi’s first boyfriend Rainer Langhans (Matthias Schweigh√∂fer) and the Kommune 1 crew; and there are some neat observations on hippie-sexual double standards, but also repeats the same scenes over and over (Uschi's boyfriend du jour gets dick sucked by someone else. Uschi gets angry. Fight. Make up. Repeat.) Somehow it needed five screenwriters to concoct this eye-catching bit of fluff.

Monday, 5 January 2009

None Shall Escape (1944)

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Surprising late WW2 propaganda film has a unique hook: it’s set after the war, during anticipated war crimes trials. On the stand is Nazi bigwig Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), and people in his life testify and help chart his career back to the end of the Great War, when he was a lowly German schoolmaster teaching in a small west Polish town. He has come back from service with a limp and a chip on his shoulder, despised by some of the more chauvinistic locals, and he slowly alienates those who still respect him, including his fianc√© and fellow teacher Marja (Marsha Hunt). The film’s first interesting touch is to portray Grimm as a victim of PTSD, behaving erratically and self-destructively, giving into the temptation to take his rage out on the world. He molests one of his teenage female students in revenge for another student’s insults, and the girl then commits suicide. He is arrested, and loses an eye when a stone is thrown his way. When he’s let off from lack of evidence, the village priest (Henry Travers) and rabbi (Richard Hale) give him money to escape to Germany. There, he’s taken into the house of his socialist brother (Erik Rolf), just at the same time he’s becoming involved with the Nazis. He’ll eventually betray his brother when, in 1933, he plans to flee the country: Wilhelm sends him to a concentration camp, and adopts and tutors his nephew, Willie (Richard Crane) to become his SS underling. Finally, when Germany invades Poland, Wilhelm takes great delight in pillaging the village he once called home, repaying the kindness shown to him by the rabbi by rounding up his flock and shipping them out, and prostituting the village’s daughters to his soldiers.

The film’s attempts to build a psychological portrait of a mass-murderer are broad but detailed: Knox offers a terrific portrait in intelligent, resentful sullenness that turns by shades into iron-hearted megalomania. Grimm’s life story seems to have been cherry-picked out of several Nazi leaders (Hitler’s rootless early life; Heydrich’s sexual transgressions) to encapsulate the appeal of a philosophy of brute force and table-turning. The melodramatic story refrains hinder it (it’s not so far from an Edna Ferber-esque tale where anti-hero loses girl, goes away, becomes powerful, returns to see history repeat in next generation, leading to tragedy), but even here it has a kind of uniquely merciless quality, as Grimm consumes the lives of everyone around him with demonic totality. Willie romances Martja’s daughter Janina (Dorothy Morris), who then dies at the hands of another officer, causing him to reject his uncle’s creed – and his uncle promptly shoots him in the back. None Shall Escape is impressive in the detail it offers for its time of Nazi repression, climaxing in the startlingly grim sequence when the rabbi calls for revolt as his people as they’re being loaded into cattle cars, only to see them machine-gunned down, in a massacre scene quite amazing for its time (it’s interesting to note though that though the filmmakers’ understanding of what was going on is almost dead on, in the film Jews are generally being killed by starvation: the idea of the gas chamber was too obscene to be believed even here). Andre de Toth directs with his customary vividness and unflinching feel for violence: his work here excels the likes of Jean Renoir's rhetorical This Land Is Mine. The very end of the film is a bit cute – a direct-to-camera appeal by the judge of the court calling for the judgment of all the peoples of the “United Nations” – but also prescient.
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