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The iconic shot of Marlene Dietrich

Shanghai Express

A train heads from Peking to Shanghai and a woman from disgrace to redemption in 1932’s Shanghai Express, the fourth collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich. Another transformation is evident, of Dietrich, from the plubby Mädchen in The Blue Angel two years before to the star who’s all cheekbones and chiselled angles. This is the film that gave us the iconic image of Dietrich toplit and eyes imploringly turned heavenward. DP Lee Garmes got the credit for it and won an Oscar for this film’s spectacular lighting but Von Sternberg did almost all of it, according to Dietrich’s biography anyway. Strangely, it doesn’t look like her film at all … Read more
Jenny Lamour and the inspector

Quai des Orfèvres

“Quai des Orfèvres” means “the cops” in France in the same way that “Scotland Yard” does in the UK. So it’s no surprise that this classic from 1947 is a crime thriller. It’s a peculiarly knotty one, directed by the masterly Henri-Georges Clouzot, who also did the adaptation, from Stanislas-André Steeman’s original novel Légitime Défense. Clouzot did not have the novel in front of him as he worked, and had not read it for years, but he took Steeman’s basic idea and fleshed it out using his own characters, getting all sorts of plot details “wrong” as he worked. The result appalled Steeman, who discovered that Clouzot and writing collaborator Jean Ferry had … Read more
A dinosaur with human teeth

Mad God

The work of a genius though not quite a genius work, Mad God is a crazy phantasmagorical ride into a hellish underworld, a stop-motion encylopaedia of styles, some newly minted, others borrowed, which took 30 years to finally finish by its creator, Phil Tippett. If you don’t know Tippett, he’s an animator who’s won Oscars for both old-school stop-motion work and for computer-generated stuff he did after stop-motion fell out of favour. He was head of animation at Industrial Light and Magic in 1978, aged 27, worked on the original Star Wars movies, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Robocop and Starship Troopers. It was while working on the original Jurassic Park that he … Read more
Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff

Shithouse

Shithouse is an attention-grabbing title for a film. It’s a title likely to put some people off, which is a pity because Cooper Raiff’s feature debut is a fantastic film. Writer/director Raiff also stars, as a homesick dorky freshman at university miles from where he grew up. Alex has no friends, is nervous and generally out of his depth. As the film opens instead of being in bed with a girl he’s almost by accident managed to get somewhere with, he’s out on the street having a panicky phone call with his mother. He cries. The baby. Co-star is Dylan Gelula as Maggie, the sophomore Resident Assistant at his dorm block, who Alex … Read more
Miklo, Cruz and Paco in front of an old station wagon

Blood In, Blood Out

Clearly intending to do for Chicanos what Scorsese and Coppola did for Italian Americans, 1993’s Blood In, Blood Out cannot be accused of a lack of ambition. A big, long, zeitgeist-tasting tale of life in and around the gangs inside and outside prison, it follows three East Los Angeles guys on a journey from callow youth to some sort of maturity, each winding up in a place he might not have expected. Miklo, Cruz and Paco are three streetwise Chicanos. Spanish peppers their streetspeak as they swagger around their rough neighbourhood in cartoon exaggerations of masculinity. Cruz is a street artist with ambitions to be something more. Half-brother Paco is a cock of … Read more
Bruce Dern at a graveside

Family Plot

If you were idly flicking through the TV channels on a wet afternoon and hit upon Family Plot, chances are you wouldn’t immediately think it was a Hitchcock movie – it looks more like an episode of Columbo. That bright TV lighting, those mid-range actors who look like they’re trying not to be fingered as this week’s criminal, one who’s once again not as smart as the man in the mac. I’ve looked up Bruce Dern, Karen Black, Barbara Harris and William Devane and not one of them ever did make an appearance on Columbo but they don’t quite fit the standard Hitchcock bill either, or not the bill containing Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, … Read more
Tara King in front of a portrait of Pandora

The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 31 – Pandora

The benign king deceived by his courtiers – a wicked grand vizier, a scheming cardinal, a treacherous brother – is a comforting story told and retold down the ages. The Avengers episode Pandora is Brian Clemens’s version of it: a man grieving for a lost love being fooled by his family into believing she is alive, the better to loosen his grip on the family fortune… Pandora is that woman, dead 50 years but still mourned by maddened recluse Gregory (Peter Madden), around whom a massive deceit is daily confected that out in the wider world the First World War is still raging and Pandora is still alive. All that bad guys Rupert … Read more
Jack Lemmon with drink in hand

Days of Wine and Roses

You might know the title Days of Wine and Roses from Ernest Dowson’s 1896 poem Vitae Summa Brevis – “They are not long, the days of wine and roses/Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream”. Or you might know it from Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini’s Oscar-winning theme song to this film, made famous by Andy Williams, whose lines replay Dowson’s sentiments. “The days of wine and roses laugh and run away like a child at play/Through a meadowland towards a closing door… etc”. If you’ve never actually seen the 1962 film repurposing the phrase, it comes as a shock to discover that the “wine” Dowson and … Read more
Young Siegfried in his room

Benediction

Terence Davies struggled to raise the finance for Benediction, as he does so often with his films. There’s no multiplex demand for Emily Dickinson (subject of his last feature, 2016’s A Quiet Passion) or Edith Wharton (2000’s The House of Mirth), he’s told, and in any case the uncompromising Davies isn’t the sort of writer/director to meet audiences halfway with explication-heavy dialogue. Producers and money men take fright. And yet, every time a new Davies movie does finally make it to the screen, it turns out that there is an audience for it, the people who have some idea who this modernist poet was, or that infamous writer, or want to know more. … Read more
Benno Fürmann, Nina Hoss and Hilmi Sözer

Jerichow

Jerichow is the fourth collaboration between director Christian Petzold and actor Nina Hoss – both names a guarantee of at least a degree of excellence. But before we get there – just quickly skimming through Petzold’s entries on the IMDB (research!) to see which films actually comprise the somewhat disputed “ghost trilogy” (Petzold and Hoss’s first three collaborations), I noticed that someone has added notes to a number of Petzold’s films, under the Trivia section. How closely one film resembles Hitchcock’s Vertigo, another Claude Chabrol’s Que la Bête Meure, yet another Sidney Lumet’s Running On Empty, and so on. And how in all of these cases there is no reference back to the … Read more
Alice masturbates

Yes, God, Yes

Yes, God, Yes – a funny title pithily catching the twin obsessions of this slight but sharp movie. Sex and god. It stars Natalia Dyer, who somehow has managed to fit this in alongside the nine other movies and 30-odd episodes of the Netflix show Stranger Things she’s appeared in over the last six years or so. She was about 24 when she made this, but the big eyes and slender frame mean she can just about get away with playing Alice, a teenager from a sheltered background grappling with the first stirrings of sexuality at the Catholic school that seems almost unnaturally fixated on the carnal. Coming of agers with storylines that … Read more
Cathy Gale assesses John Steed

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 3 – Man with Two Shadows

Shown the same day that RA (“Rab”) Butler made his big pitch to be the new leader of the Conservative party after Macmillan’s shock resignation (Butler’s big speech was a total fail), Man with Two Shadows also plays with the idea of the wrong man – the double being so fruitful a concept that The Avengers would return to it often, as did a lot of 1960s TV. Perhaps the widely prevalent notion of “false consciousness” – there is a right way of seeing things and a wrong way – has something to do with it. Another well worn path is that of someone being killed before the opening credits have rolled. In … Read more

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