Old Henry

Tim Blake Nelson as Old Henry

Suddenly everyone wants a very particular set of skills. Old Henry is the latest in a line of movies where the hero turns out to be capable of things he initially appears not to be capable of at all. Before Bob Odenkirk did it in Nobody. Before Keanu Reeves in John Wick. Before Liam Neeson got the current phase underway in Taken. Before all of those there was Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, reluctantly strapping the guns back on and doing what a killing machine does. Since then Marvel and DC have reminded us of the type with many variations of the same thing – the mild mannered type who’d rather not fight, but if he/she is forced to… then, prepare for whacks, as the Thing used to say.

The bleed-across from superhero movies is obvious, but Old Henry owes more of a debt to Eastwood, since it’s a story of a gentle but severe widower raising his son in hardscrabble isolation in the Old West until one day he stumbles across a near-dead man and a big satchel of cash. Having taken the man in to his house, and stashed the cash, it isn’t long before the loot has attracted unwanted attention of a badass called Ketchum, who claims to be a lawman, though an opening sequence in which Ketchum has shot, stamped on and then hanged a man begging for mercy does seem to situate him on the other side of the divide. He looks like a wrong’un too.

So on one side Ketchum and his two “deputies”, as he calls them. On the other Henry, his son, Wyatt, a teenager anxious to be taken seriously as a man, and the wounded Curry, all three of them useless – one too old, the other too young, the third too sick.

Classic underdog stuff. Writer/director Potsy Ponciroli keeps an extra trick up his sleeve almost till the last minute but drops hints early on that Henry may turn out to be more than a meek farmer – that stash of weapons hidden from his son, for instance.

Stephen Dorff as Ketchum
Stephen Dorff plays Ketchum

It would be all a touch too much of a cliché if Tim Blake Nelson weren’t the lead. His face already something straight off a 19th-century Wanted poster, and adorned with a droopy moustache, Nelson is exactly right here, suggesting Henry is lither and slightly more physically adroit than you might expect in someone labelled “old”. It’s also a very nicely cagey performance. The exterior says “farmer” but Nelson has nailed the manner of a man who knows when he smells trouble, and has a vision of how best to deal with it.

Ponciroli also gives us enough of the inside of Henry’s homstead – an oil painting, decent chairs, subtle lighting – for us to start asking questions about what sort of a man this is. Jordan Lehning’s soundtrack, meanwhile, growls away, reminding us that no matter how sophisticated the interior decor, there’s something nasty brewing somewhere.

For all the setting up of Henry, his kid, the stranger, the bad guys, the interior of Henry’s house and so on, when the shooting does eventually start (surely no spoiler), it does feel like it’s happening too soon. As if we haven’t found out quite enough about the various characters to be fully invested in what’s about to happen to them. The son – played as petulant rather than thwarted by Gavin Lewis – is a particular problem. The stranger, Curry, is another underwritten character and Ponciroli can’t seem to decide whether he’s part of this story or not. Stephen Dorff makes some headway as the lawman who isn’t, by now in his career having almost entirely erased the memory of when he used to play handsome leading-men types.

You say cliché, I say genre trope – Old Henry has classic status in its sights and Nelson does his best to help it along but its pacing is a touch off. What it needs, perhaps, is a little more room to breathe early on and a bit less time to catch its breath towards the end.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

While the City Sleeps

Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell and Ida Lupino sitting at a bar

While the City Sleeps is one of the great noir titles. Which is not the same as saying it’s one of the great noir movies. In fact it’s barely noir at all.

Though it does start off looking like it might be. A lurid murder before the opening credits, then titles that come blaring at us in gigantic white letters, while Herschel Burke Gilbert’s title music of clarion brass and shrill strings suggests a great noirish feast is about to be served up. The director’s name – Fritz Lang – also promises the same. He’d done Scarlet Street and The Big Heat, after all, noir lodestones.

There’s been a murder and the murderer has left behind a message scrawled in lipstick on the wall of the apartment where he killed the unlucky woman. “Ask Mother,” it reads, leading us into what actually turns out to be one of the great prototype serial killer movies – Seven takes quite a few of its cues from While the City Sleeps. The murderer who loves to leave a clue, who taunts the police, who acts out of a kind of demented sense of destiny, is a twisted ball of mother-love.

There are three stories in one here. The serial killer story, with Dana Andrews as the crusading journalist Ed Mobley. A love story – of sorts – in which Ed tries to get sexy newspaper secretary Nancy (Sally Forrest) into bed, while she tries to get him to the altar, that’s if hard-bitten hack Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino, laying on the Hedda Hopper) doesn’t peel Ed off first for some booze-soaked sex. And weaving between these two stories is the actual driver of the plot, a neat bit of inter-media rivlary in which the section heads of the gigantic Kyne media conglomerate – a newspaper business, a newswire agency and a TV station – all vie for an editor-in-chief position after old man Kyne dies and his feckless son (played by Vincent Price) takes over.

“While the city sleeps” is when newspaper guys (and they are guys) do their work and this is one of the great heroic-journalism movies, set in a world full of people desperate for a scoop and going into battle armed with the conviction that newspapers are a public good. The days of big bad MSM and fake news are way, way in the future.

The drinking is also heroic and Andrews – who has to play drunk a couple of times – was apparently drunk through the entire shoot. It’s one of his best performances, humane and sparky where he can sometimes be a bit bloodless and flat.

Great performances all round. Thomas Mitchell as the grizzled old editor of the Sentinel, a newspaper guy to his fingertips, George Sanders as the oily boss of the wire service, James Craig grabbing the short straw in an underwritten role as “Honest” Harry Kritzer, the lothario head of pictures who’s also secretly having an affair with the new owner’s hot wife (Rhonda Fleming).

Vincent Price as Walter Kyne
Vincent Price as Walter Kyne

There are three noir females – women who get what they want by manipulating men – Lupino, Fleming and Forrest all coming at the femme fatale from slightly different angles, Fleming as the most overtly wanton, Lupino playing the boozy dame who grabs her kicks where she can and Forrest’s Nancy at the Doris Day end of the spectrum. Perky. And she has been dressed so we notice just how perky.

Lang is an in-camera director, as usual, preferring to do with crane, dolly and track what other directors achieve with an edit in post production. It makes for a gloriously fluid film and the longish takes give his actors something to chew on. Ernst Laszlo, one of the great directors of photography, does a fine job but only really gets his head in the scenes towards the end when Mobley is chasing the serial killer down some subway tunnels lit in a style reminiscent of The Third Man.

The whole serial killer angle is a bit of a feint, really, and John Drew Barrymore (father of Drew) is wheeled out to sweat and boggle his eyes only as and when the other elements of the story, which are doing perfectly well on their own, need a bit of a breather.

For all the many claims to greatness, this is a bit of a potboiler, albeit one done with plenty of craft polish and with a lot of fine actors giving it their best. Having virtually created the noir genre in the mid 1930s, Fritz Lang is effectively bringing it to an end in the mid 1950s with this film and its follow-up, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, a noirish courtroom drama that’s also a bit of a genre mishmash.

Neither is a classic but then the genre, like Lang himself, was exhausted.

While the City Sleeps – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022


Mother and daughter cower

Settlers is a sci-fi film so far away from what people usually term sci-fi that it barely qualifies. In fact it opens looking like a western – big craggy mountains in a dusty landscape – and then plays out like a wildlife documentary.

The sort of wildlife documentary where a new male lion arrives on the scene, kills the old leader of the pride and then moves in with the lionesses who were already there. It’s the law of the savannah.

In this scenario the existing cubs usually get killed, a fact innately understood by young Remmy (Brooklynn Prince) after new male Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova) arrives at their remote settlement, displaces dad (Jonny Lee Miller) and starts making a move on her mother Ilsa (Sofia Boutella).

Until the arrival of the stranger this was a happy family of three trying to carve out a new life on Mars, where, it’s suggested, a bit of tinkering with the atmosphere has made the planet habitable if not entirely hospitable.

Now, with dad out of the way, mother and daughter are part of a new trio, one in a state of permanent tension – Jerry wants Ilsa, Ilsa wants Jerry dead, though being an attractive woman of a certain age, and Jerry being an attractive man of a similar age, a bit of propogation of the species might not be entirely off the cards. Remmy, stuck in the middle, looks on with trepidation, tending to the family’s pig and becoming fascinated with a robot that Jerry’s brought with him. It’s the sort of low scuttling boxy bot that might have escaped from 1972’s Silent Running. Think R2-D2 with fewer communication skills, or a small fridge on legs. Sci-fi freaks, that’s your lot so make the most of it.

Ilsa and Jerry in a darkened room
Something’s gotta give, right?

Writer/director Wyatt Rockefeller (he’s one of those Rockefellers, but let’s not hold it against him) runs through the permutations with this cast of characters and squeezes the maximum amount of tension out of early scenes where tentative, potentially dangerous human relationships act as a metaphor for space exploration (or vice versa).

Sofia Boutella has a savagely beautiful face and as casting decisions go, she’s majestically right. A proud lioness. Is Ilsa scowling at Jerry or pouting at him? Brooklynn Prince does with old fashioned acting what Boutella can do with presence alone, and in the scenes where mum and new guy Jerry look like they might be edging towards carnality she runs through a range of emotions – alarm, disgust, horror, resolve – in short order and helps give the film an emotional resonance it wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s Remmy who’s in danger here; her mother is protected by her desirability and everything in Prince’s performance suggests that Remmy absolutely knows this in her bones.

The tension does not hold to the end, and without getting too spoiler-y, the film suffers from the lack of Boutella once her character recedes into the background, and throw more emphasis onto Cordova, who has struggled to find coherence in Jerry’s character. This becomes most obvious in the culminating powerplay between Jerry and an older and so sexually partnerable Remmy (now played by Nell Tiger Free) that’s a replay of the earlier one between Jerry and Ilsa. What sort of a man is Jerry? All instinct? Just keep the human race alive? Entirely selfish? It’s hard to say.

It’s all done on a tiny budget, I’m guessing, though the technical skills are high. Cinematographer Willie Nel shoots it all in various shades of ochre, dust in every fold of skin and settled in every crack and corner – the rust-coloured landscapes of South Africa make a passable Red Planet. Nitin Sawhney’s score is simultaenously gorgeous and spooky, helping build the tension and atmosphere with its hovering melodies and its barren electronic drones.

If hard sci-fi is all about interplanetary tech and contact with alien species, this is sci-fi at its very softest – a story about human beings doing the things human beings do when they’re not held back by the norms of civilisation. It’s Rockefeller’s feature debut. He’s done a good job.

Settlers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Fallen Angels

Charlie Yeung and Takeshi Kaneshiro

Fallen Angels was originally meant be the third part of Wong Kar-Wai’s previous film, 1994’s Chungking Express, but Wong realised he’d told his story already in the two separate but interlinked stories he already had in the can. No third part necessary. And so here it is, all on its ownsome, an expanded reworked standalone, released in 1995.

Stylistically it’s similar to Chungking Express – lurid lighting, whipcrack edits – but Wong and DP Christopher Doyle this time use very wide lenses held very close up, rather than the much longer ones of Chungking Express. A wide lenses give everything a stretched, in-your-face immediacy. Everything is tightly on and about the person in shot, backgrounds and surroundings recede nightmarishly, though Wong and Doyle nevertheless deliver a few picture-postcard vistas early on, to help reinforce the feeling that this is a graphic novel that’s somehow escaped its covers.

Unlike Chungking Express, which told two stories with very obviously different personalities at their core, in Fallen Angels Wong’s people are almost interchangeable. Again, two separate stories. In the first a hitman is in a relationship of sorts with a young woman who seems to do little more than clean his room and pine for him extravagantly and decorously in various empty Hong Kong locations. In the second another young man, mute since a childhood accident, prowls the city by night taking over other people’s businesses – a butcher’s, a laundry, an ice cream van – and runs them as a nocturnal Lord of Misrule, an updated Harpo Marx.

Leon Lai and Michelle Reis
Leon Lai and Michelle Reis: the hitman and her

Things become dreamlike, as if Wong were remaking Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage as a feverish neo-noir – Scenes from Several Wonky Relationships, perhaps – with all the action taking place at night, giving the whole thing a purgatorial, unsavoury buzz.

1990s Hong Kong produced some remarkable looking movies and Fallen Angels – largely thanks to Doyle’s traffic light colours and pools of noirish light – is one of them. Good looking people (though the lenses often make them look like Pinocchio, Doyle later conceded) in stark, garishly lit settings. Smoking done to an insane degree – one woman holds a cigarette in one hand while masturabating with the other; an old guy spoons ice cream into his mouth with a cigarette in the same hand. Massive Attack turn up on a soundtrack that’s been threatening all along to break into one of their tunes. Is there anything more 1990s than Massive Attack?

Leon Lai plays the hitman as a likeable guy caught in a state of arrested development, while Michelle Reis is sensationally sexy as the remote, distraught “partner” he is barely in any sort of relationship with. Takeshi Kaneshiro, who played Cop 223 in Chungking Express, plays the Harpo-like Ho, and puts on a clownish performance of such athleticism that it eventually becomes almost possible to ignore how irritating Ho is.

The film is full of disconnected characters, with jobs or conditions that push them even further out of the common run of humanity, trying to find meaning and connection in a city that’s also working against relationships of any sort. There’s not much in the way of empathy, which is how Wong wants it, but it makes for tough viewing.

Like one of those experimental novels where all the leaves can be assembled and read in any order, Fallen Angels is full of scenes that could be played in any order. And increasingly the characters, whether male or female, feel as if they could be swapped about too. Eventually a character from the hitman’s story winds up in Ho’s and it feels perfectly OK.

Nutshell verdict: it doesn’t work as well as Chungking Express, which operates in a similarly disengaged way but then brings everything together in a cathartically emotional finale. There is no such release here, a hint of something in the final shot, maybe, but let’s not get too carried away.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Human Capital

Quint and Drew face off

First-world and real-world problems collide in Human Capital, which started life as an American novel, became an Italian movie (Il capitale umano) in 2013 and then returned to the US in 2019 for this English-language version. How best to describe all three? Bonfire of the Vanities meets The Ice Storm will about do it. In other words a broad spectrum portrait of modern life, with a narrow focus critique of the elite at its core.

It starts, as Bonfire of the Vanities did, with a car accident, and then plays and replays the story from the point of view of each of the characters involved. Not the same events, exactly, but a “how did we get here?” summary.

First, the accident, a waiter cycling home after a hard shift is clipped by a speeding Jeep and goes flying into a thicket. Is the waiter dead? Who was driving the car? The film returns to these questions as its focus moves between the characters involved.

What a cast. Liev Schreiber as Drew Hagel, a try-hard real estate broker and ex gambler with a new wife, Ronnie (Betty Gabriel) now expecting twins, who borrows money he doesn’t have to place a stake with the hedge fund of big swinging Quint Manning (Peter Sarsgaard), his daughter’s boyfriend’s father. Without that family connection Quint wouldn’t even have given Drew the time of day, a fact the supercilious Quint doesn’t fail to make abundantly clear.

Quint’s wife, Carrie (Marisa Tomei), is the sort of pampered creature who needs a project and so she buys – or gets her husband to buy it for her – a rundown movie theatre. Drew’s daughter, Shannon (Maya Hawke), perma-pissed off with dad, about to leave home for good, dallying with Quint’s son Jamie (Fred Hechinger) possibly because he’s loaded, possibly because she believes him to be gay and therefore easy to deal with. Off to the side is Ian (Alex Wolff), a troubled teenage client of shrink Ronnie, who catches Shannon’s eye. See The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield for further details.

Maya Hawke as Shannon
Maya Hawke as Shannon

That’s the neatly dovetailing roster of potential hit-and-runners. Really, though, this film plays out through the eyes of Drew (suffering as the “dead cert” bet goes wrong), Carrie (distraught over the power asymmetry of her relationship with Quint) and Shannon (fearful that the relationship she wants with Ian won’t happen). Sweaty, tearful and moist respectively.

There are no bad performances in this film but the leads are particularly good, especially Hawke (daughter of Ethan and Uma Thurman), who has the extra challenge of playing a character in flux and does it well and with a breezy light touch. Oren Moverman wrote the screenplay and has an ear for the different ways the characters talk, while keeping everything inside a ballsy, recognisably Mametian universe.

A screen version of the Great American Novel is the intention, and Human Capital is happy to sit right in the middle of that tradition, making no mistakes but taking no big gambles. Unusually, and unsettlingly, Quint Manning is not the bad guy. He’s just a rich asshole being a rich asshole. None better than Sarsgaard at playing this level of entitlement. The fool, the one who gets his comeuppance, is Drew, rewarded for the biblical sin of covetousness.

When fate comes swinging at you, make sure you’re ready and not over-exposed. Which is a hard sell for anyone watching who’s mortgaged to the hilt, or scraping by month to month. At the other end of the telescope, meanwhile, the question has to be asked: whose story is this? Drew’s, my little precis would seem to suggest, but Moverman and director Marc Meyers seem to want to spend more time with Shannon, leaving Liev Schreiber and this potentially fascinating drama slightly hanging in the wind.

Human Capital – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Stranger

Mr Wilson with Mary

The Stranger is an entertaining enough noirish thriller but the real fun comes from watching it as a contest between a maverick director and a studio that wanted their hireling to turn out Hollywood product rather than a grand auteurish statement.

The director is Orson Welles and the year is 1946. Welles was at a low ebb. He hadn’t been let near a feature film on his own for four years. 1941’s Citizen Kane had flopped and the follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, had gone so far over schedule and over budget that the studio had taken it off Welles, cut an hour and reshot whole chunks of it. It also bombed.

Future generations might think of Welles as a genius, but Hollywood at the time treated him as a bumptious pest. So here he is, chastened and behaving himself, being kept on a tight leash by producer Sam Spiegel as he knocks out a regular-folks movie, having signed a contract that gave Spiegel the last word in the event of any artistic differences of opinion. Spiegel also installed Ernest Nims as editor, whose job was to remove Welles’s signature flourishes.

Welles countered by shooting as much of the film as possible in continuous, uneditable long takes. Nims, undeterred, still hacked away, and you can see the results of it in the opening sequence, where a husband and wife are introduced. It looks like they’re going to be a substantial part of the film. They arrive. They speak. They disappear, bizarrely never to be seen again, the result of Nims having removed what was 16 pages of screenplay from the beginning of the film.

The woman, incidentally, ended up being killed by wild dogs in the original treatment, which might not seem to have much relevance to what follows, but it set a tone, and in The Stranger mood was meant to be everything. As Welles observed, Nims “believed that nothing should be in a movie that did not advance the story. And since most of the good stuff in my movies doesn’t advance the story at all, you can imagine what a nemesis he was to me.”

Welles’s 16 pages of (deleted) mood-setting out of the way, he opens his story proper with an establishing shot of the door of a US war crimes agency taken from a very low vantage point, and then follows up with another establishing shot, this time from very high up, of the story’s hero, Edward G Robinson’s investigator Mr Wilson, a mild-mannered penpushing kind of Mr Average, the sort of gradualist implacable nemesis Robinson had perfected in 1944’s Double Indemnity. It could almost be the same person.

Off the story hurtles. Wilson’s plan is to release a known Nazi and follow him as he flees across America. He does so and the trail leads to a picket-fence small town – perfect in its cuteness – where it’s soon established that Professor Charles Rankin (Welles) is a particularly nasty Nazi in hiding, and one about to embed himself even further in US society by marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a liberal judge and a pillar of society.

The rest of the film, again in a manner reminiscent of Double Indemnity, consists of the patient Mr Wilson flushing out Rankin, who Wilson suspects almost from the off.

The long takes make it an elegant journey, and the cinematography of Russell Metty means it’s a good looking one. Metty had worked (though not as DP) on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and would later be Welles’s DP on Welle’s Touch of Evil. He’s no slouch here – high key lighting for exteriors, high contrast for interiors – though his deep focus imagery isn’t quite up there with that of Greg Tolond (who’d done Kane).

The fugitive Nazi makes contact with Prof Rankin
The fugitive Nazi makes contact with Prof Rankin

Even so, Welles hated The Stranger more than any of his other films, partly because he was ashamed at having sold out, and also, surely, because Nims’s incessant snipping (he excised another 16 pages through the rest of the film) left Welles’s acting looking foolish. Welles was after something that was overall sinister and gothic, and acted accordingly – rolling his eyes and twirling the metaphorical baddie moustache – but without the mood-setting, the result resembles something much more like a confused smalltown murder mystery. Critics at the time found it a poor second best to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, which the truncated version does resemble.

Nightmares still haunt the edges. Checkers-playing drugstore owner Mr Potter (Billy House), who spiderlike never stirs from behind his cash register, gets far more screen time than his character should, igniting speculation as to what Welles really had planned for him (Potter is almost entirely his creation). Prof Rankin is obsessed with clocks and almost at one point launches into a variation on Welles’s speech on cuckoo clocks as Harry Lime in The Third Man. When we learn of Rankin’s precise contribution to Nazism, it makes more sense, but even so, Nims has robbed this metaphor of much of its power.

Loretta Young is singing from the same hymn sheet as Welles – histrionic, almost silent-movie-esque – leaving Edward G Robinson to walk away with the honours as the utterly watchable Mr Wilson.

Though made in 1946 it’s obviously part of the project of wrapping America up in the affairs of Europe – look! even in this small town Nazis lurk! Welles’s inclusion of footage from the death camps emphasises the stakes but also works like a doomed attempt to add bottom to something that’s largely operating at the light entertainment end of the spectrum. Again thanks to Nims.

But. It was a hit. The only film of Welles’s to make proper money when it was first released. Maybe that’s really why he hated it so much.

The Stranger – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Lucy and Desi

Desi licks chococlate off Lucy's face

Amy Poehler’s debut documentary Lucy and Desi wants to tell the story, not unreasonably given its title, of both titan-of-TV-comedy Lucille Ball and her husband, business partner and co-star Desi Arnaz. Immediately there’s a problem. Lucy was a genuine star, Desi was not. Whatever his many talents behind the scenes, first as a musician then as a producer, they didn’t translate to the screen, and even a cursory glance at any one of Desi’s many appearances alongside his wife reveal a man who looks like he’s eager to get out of the bright lights. Not everyone can be a gifted comic actor, or wants to be. This asymmetrical twin focus is tough enough, but Lucy and Desi also wants to take in both the life and the work of the two parties. A documentary trying to head in four unequal directions at the same time is the result.

Poehler has a point. As Ball showed repeatedly in a string of sitcoms bearing her name (chiefly I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy, though there were more in her remarkable run from the 1950s to the 1980s), Ball’s strength was her collaborative practice as well as her combative instinct (translation: not easy to work with). To Poehler’s credit, she gets about as far along her chosen fourway street as you can imagine anyone getting.

But back to the beginning. Lucille Ball was born into a family of modest means in 1911, took her first job in “showbiz” selling hamburgers at an amusement park before heading to New York aged 15 to make her way. A “dud” (her words) showgirl, she became a model, got spotted on the street and became a Goldwyn Girl in a string of movie musicals, fell in love with Hollywood and, saying yes to everything – “I didn’t care what I did… they didn’t have to ask me twice to do anything” – gradually started making a name for herself.

Desi, a Cuban exile, got his break playing in Xavier Cugat’s band and came to Hollywood via Broadway, where he learned how to turn on the charm as a conga-playing showman. Desi and Lucy met on 1940’s Too Many Girls, fell in love and married. Matched in their work ethic, both saw their early underpaid/overworked years as an apprenticeship. They were grateful for whatever came their way. Lucy’s estimation of herself was harsh – “not beautiful and not too bright” and “not a funny person” – but it made her work like a Trojan to compensate.

If you’ve seen any of the films she was in (1947’s Lured is a good example), Ball was a fine actress with a lot going for her, but she was never going to be a leading lady. And so “the Queen of the Bs”, as she was becoming known, filled in on radio. And from there she made the leap to TV, taking with her the writers and storylines that had made My Favorite Husband a radio hit and transforming it into I Love Lucy en route.

The interesting bit starts here, as Desi and Lucy set up their own production company, Desilu, to produce the show. Open to innovation, ready to grab any idea in the wind, they decide a) to shoot their show in front of live audiences (TV shows at the time generally used canned laughter) and b) to shoot them on film, to improve the quality (TV shows at the time generally went out live on the east coast, with a poor quality kinescope copy for the west).

Lucy and Desi at home
Lucy and Desi: happy ever after?

Both choices necessitated coming up with completely new ways of working. They used three cameras – also unheard of – with studio sets next to each other. Desilu had inadvertently invented the modern TV sitcom. Shooting on film also made re-runs viable, something CBS overlooked when it inked the deal. And here is where Desilu cleaned up. They’d not only invented the modern TV sitcom but modern TV’s income model – syndication.

By 1957 Desilu had bought RKO’s studio complex – as sure a sign of TV’s ascendancy over the movies as any – and together Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz set out to show they were astute entertainment professionals with sound business brains. It was Desilu that produced Star Trek, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible.

Along the way, Poehler drawing a slight veil over Arnaz’s womanising, the two of them divorced, though on the evidence of their daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, remained devoted to each other to the end.

Poehler has a wealth of taped audio interviews to draw on and gets useful contributions from the few talking heads she uses. Both Carol Burnett and Bette Midler benefited from the mentoring Ball gave them early on in their careers and repay her with affectionate and astute comments. Norman Lear (looking amazingly good for a man edging towards 100 years old) fights Desi’s end, to an extent, with observations on the racist reaction to a white woman marrying a Cuban, and the impact on Desi of the “dominant woman” character Lucy represented. But mostly Poehler uses clips from the old shows themselves to add commentary – when Lucy and Desi divorce in real life there’s a scene from I Love Lucy of a downcast Desi saying goodbye to his screen wife etc.

This tension – the wife as the boss – is explored and much is made of Desi’s contribution as the driving force behind Desilu but, as on screen so in life, Desi trailed along resentfully in Lucy’s wake.

The film does too, a bit. More Lucy, less Desi, I kept thinking, perhaps uncharitably, as Poehler tells the story of her and him, and how their personal and professional lives meshed. This collaborative angle – not just Lucy and Desi, but the writers and supporting stars – has been Poehler’s tentative thesis throughout. But it struggles every time Lucille Ball gangling goofball appears on screen.

Lucy and Desi – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Cop au Vin

Lavardin eyeballs Lavoisier

Bienvenue à Cop au Vin, a rare example of a French film that didn’t use its original title (Poulet au Vinaigre) in English-speaking territories when it was released in 1985 but instead went for a different French title. Poulet is slang for cop. Cop in vinegar? Shrug.

Actually, it’s everyone else who’s in vinegar in this superficially straightforward policier set in a charming French provincial town where a trio of local notables are trying to corner the market for real estate and now just need one family to agree to sell up.

Director Claude Chabrol opens the film with a quick scene at a party, which introduces the action. It drifts by but don’t let it – there is vital stuff in here, right at the beginning, in classic whodunit/thriller style.

After that we meet the bullies – local butcher Gérard Filiol (Jean-Claude Bouillaud), big noise Hubert Lavoisier (Michel Bouquet) and local notable Dr Philippe Morasseau (Jean Topart). Against them are wheelchair-using, neurotic Mme Cuno (Stéphane Audran) and her much-harried son, Louis (Lucas Belvaux), the local mailman around whom everything spins.

It’s the Cuno house that the first three want, but Madame isn’t selling up no matter how much is offered. She’s attached to the house in a way that’s possibly not good for her mental health and has a similar relationship with Louis, who she accuses of trying to do indecent things with whichever local “slut” is in her field of vision, including the doctor’s wife, Delphine (Josephine Chaplin) and the big noise’s mistress, Anna (Caroline Cellier). What Mme Cuno doesn’t realise is that it’s Henriette (Pauline Lafont) at the local post office who she needs to keep an eye on. Henriette is blonde, buxom and clearly ready to drop her clothes for Louis whenever he asks.

As an unlikely sleuthing partnership develops between Louis and Henriette, Chabrol paints a semi-comic and largely affectionate portrait of life in a chokingly cosy French provincial town. It’s a portrait that isn’t particularly disfigured by the death, in semi-comic fashion, of butcher Filiol, and even remains charming when the doctor’s wife becomes entirely incinerated in a nasty car accident. And at around the same time Anna also goes missing. All three cases seem completely separate, but this being a whodunit, conventions seem to dictate that they aren’t.

Henriette and Louis
Sleuths Henriette and Louis

Louis is a useful figure – a mailman goes everywhere, knows everyone – and Belvaux plays him as the good-looking young man whose charm and naivety opens doors. It’s a good cast all round, though – too good for something this slight, you might think. Bouquet and Audran are Chabrol regulars (Audran was married to him at the time) but had no troubled getting work. Bouquet with Jean Anouilh in the theatre and Alain Resnais and François Truffaut on screen, Audran for Sam Fuller, Luis Buñuel and Bertrand Tavernier.

They’re useful and add weight to a production that’s so lightweight, such a standard policier, that it almost feels as if it’s been run off a photocopier. The lighting is TV-bright, as if Jessica Fletcher was about to make an appearance on screen any second.

The Murder, She Wrote comparisons end not long after Inspector Jean Lavardin (Jean Poiret) arrives on screen. Initially a quixotic, amused presence, Lavardin starts out as the standard screen cop in something like the Columbo mould – asking apparently harmless questions that appear to be going nowhere – until suddenly Chabrol seems to flick a switch and Poiret comes into his own.

Cops are usually fallible beings whose imperfect understanding of a situation is what drives them on. Not so with Lavardin, who seems to know exactly what’s going on in this small town from the moment he arrives. His “investigation” is not so being carried out to find the guilty party, or parties, but to assemble evidence to prove what he already knows to be true.

“I can see things,” Lavardin tells Louis at one point. “Even at night.” An omniscient/omnipresent being, this is the cop as god (albeit in a nice pullover), and an Old Testament god when necessary. Wrathful too, as Louis finds out to his cost when Lavardin asks him a question and Louis responds with a lie. Later, Hubert Lavoisier also tries lying to Lavardin and Lavardin responds by trying to drown him in a washbasin.

Lavardin turned out to be a popular character – Chabrol brought him back for another film (1986’s Inspecteur Lavardin) and for a short TV series (1988’s Les dossiers secrets de l’inspecteur Lavardin). He is the making of what would otherwise be a very unremarkable film.

Cop au Vin – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

After Yang

Colin Farrell in a dark room

Philosophical (ie moody) sci-fi movie After Yang picks up on Philip K Dick’s sci-fi reflections on the possibility of consciousness in bots. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and all that. Dick’s stories tends to arrive on screen dark – Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report – but director Kogonada decides to go one better than any of those with a film that is almost stygian in its gloom.

No matter which way you come at this movie – soundtrack, acting, delivery of speech, clothing, cinematography, framing, screenplay – that doomy, gloomy mood is there. It makes for a meditative experience, if you’re up for something that could also be bracketed with Solaris, another one for lovers of the underlit corner.

As the action opens we meet Jake (Colin Farrell), Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and Yang (Justin H Min), a family set in some indeterminate future where everyone wears natural fibres, there’s barely any plastic, cars drive themselves and communication happens via life-size hologram.

They’re having their photo taken by Yang, who turns out to be a “technosapien”, a bot with smarts, who suddenly, within seconds of the movie kicking off (it’s not a spoiler) stops working, plunging young daughter Mika into despondency. She loved him like a brother.

Technosapiens appear to be contain some organic element, and so as dad Jake drags Yang from repairers official and corporate to backstreet and grungy, a clock is ticking (or whatever they do in the future). Unless he can be repaired quickly, Yang will soon start to decompose.

But before he does so, tech-sceptic and old-school guy Jake (he runs a failing business selling proper tea) discovers that Yang’s “core” contains a memory stick, part of a long abandoned experiment by scientists to see which memories technosapiens might consider important and worth saving. And as Jake starts to review what’s on the stick, the movie reveals what it’s about.

Can people form relationships with bots? Since people will form relationships with stones, the answer is obviously yes. But how about – can bots form relationships with people? Are their relationships based on love or is it transactional? What is love at this level? Does the ability to feel love arrive at the same time as consciousness? Are they the same thing? Can bots ask philosophical questions like these? More importantly, can they be troubled or changed by any conclusions they might come to?

A happy family photo
Happy times: the familiy photo

Kogonada gets visual with Yang’s memories. A montage. People. Places. Mika as a baby. A toad hopping. A butterfly. A pretty young woman (Haley Lu Richardson), who will feature later on. Wind chimes. Jake and Kyra sharing a moment of tenderness. It is like an Instagram page specialising in wellness, though these moments could also be nods back towards the pillow shots of the Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu. Which would seem like a fanciful suggestion, except that Kogonada is not this director’s given name – that’s a bit of a mystery. He’s half-borrowed it from Kôgo Noda, Ozu’s regular screenwriter. So maybe?

This is your multi-ethnic family, and though nothing is made of the fact that Jake is white and Kyra is black, much is made of the fact that Mika is ethnically Chinese. Yang was bought (second hand) specifically to give her some connection with her “roots”, even though Yang (in flashback) doesn’t seem to have got much further in his assignment than sharing a few “Chinese Fun Facts”. Quite how much Kogonada (and writer Alexander Weinstein, on whose short story Saying Goodbye to Yang the film is based) are trying to explode the notion of ethnicity-as-identity is unclear, but there’s obviously something absurd about a robot being ethnically “Chinese”, even if it rolled off a production line in the People’s Republic (if that still exists in this indeterminate future).

As said, Dark. Dark Dark. Everyone speak sombrely, with pauses between sentences… and words. The soundtrack, by ASKA, operates as if peeping over the back of the sofa – a squeak here, a murmur there. Benjamin Loeb’s mournful cinematography is on some sort of a dare to see how many lights can be turned off. That shot of the family in the garden above is entirely unrepresentative of the film. The shot of Jake (Farrell) up top, that is.

The whole thing lacks urgency but it’s meant to. It floats, in limbo, as Yang does, between life and death, knowingness and nothingness. There are things going on below the surface that never cause a ripple above. After Yang takes sci-fi about as far as it can go down a road of wistful speculation and contemplation.

After Yang – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Sorry, Wrong Number

A fearful Leona on the phone

Sorry, Wrong Number, made in 1948, is a superbly melodramatic drama taking the brittle, “dangerous dame” image of its star, Barbara Stanwyck, for a protracted ride.

Four years earlier Stanwyck had starred in Double Indemnity as the manipulative minx persuading poor schmuck Ed McMurray to kill her husband, and here she is in Sorry, Wrong Number as a victim, a bed-ridden rich woman who, on a crossed line while telephoning, overhears two men discussing a murder they’re going to commit later that night. The servants have been given the night off, her husband is away, but Leona Stevenson (Stanwyck) isn’t initially that worried. But as the night progresses and as she makes and receives increasingly agitated phone calls – to the operator, the police, an old acquaintance of her husband, a mystery man who tells her eye-opening things – Leona becomes convinced that the mystery person who’s going to be killed is none other than Leona herself. If only someone would believe her. If only her husband would come home.

Burt Lancaster plays Leona’s husband, Henry, and if our feelings for Leona morph as the 90 minutes of this taut drama play out, our attitude to Henry also alters. He starts out as the poor guy who marries a rich man’s daughter, is completely dominated by her and her father and then, in an attempt to mark out his own territory, starts to do things he shouldn’t.

We’re on Henry’s side, initially at least. And it’s easy to side with him. Leona is controlling, belittling and even after she’s been struck down by a heart condition that confines her to bed, a real piece of work.

Leona and Henry
Till Death… Leona and Henry

The film can be divided up into two spheres of operation – the bits where Leona is in her bedroom, all shot chronologically from soup to nuts in an exhausting 12-day splurge – and the rest of it, which consists of flashbacks (and even flashbacks within flashbacks), detailing how Leona and Henry got to where they are now.

Each time the action dissolves back to Leona in her bed our feelings towards her have changed, sometimes hardening – you mean the illness mightn’t be physical at all!? – but mostly becoming more sympathetic to her situation and fearful about her prospects.

Stanwyck, a proper lip-quiverer who could do hand-wringing histrionics like almost no one else, grades her performance carefully, building towards the brilliant climax when events and sympathies spill into each other in one of Hollywood’s most dramatic climactic moments.

There’s neurosis, paranoia and naked fear on display in Sorry, Wrong Number, and both Stanwyck and Lancaster get their opportunity to emote – though this is her show not his – while Franz Waxman’s score never leaves us in any doubt where we need to be on the emotional scale. Waxman is particularly good as Leona starts to work out that she’s the target, filling in gaps in the plotting with surging music that’s doing our thinking for us.

The DP is Sol Polito, a fantastically versatile cinematographer as adept at full-spectrum Technicolor (The Adventures of Robin Hood) as he was with subtle monochrome (Now, Voyager). He’s subtle here, with lighting that’s also emotional in intent – that cosy pool of light around Leona’s bed, shading out to darker unknowns.

The story was well known at the time, having been a famous radio play in the days when radio was king, and had already been a TV movie in 1946. It’s been remade at least ten times since – there are Hungarian, German, Swedish, Finnish and British versions – but none of the remakes has got anywhere near the impact of the original. Everyone here is at the top of their game.

Sorry, Wrong Number – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022