Our Man in Havana

Hawthorne looks on as Wormold demonstrates a vacuum cleaner

A quick look at the list of ingredients and the people involved would probably be enough to convince most people that 1959’s Our Man in Havana was going to be a cracker – but it isn’t. It’s a cake full of good things that isn’t, in itself, a good cake. Pity. The promising components include Graham Greene’s screenplay, the presence of Carol Reed as director – these two had already given the world The Third Man and The Fallen Idol – Alec Guinness in a lead role, plus excellent support players including Noël Coward, Ralph Richardson, Burl Ives and Maureen O’Hara, with location shooting in Cuba just post the Castro revolution and cinematography … Read more

The Scoundrel

Cora is wooed by Anthony Mallare

The Scoundrel is a gift from two great writers to Noël Coward, a chance for the playwright, screenwriter, director, actor and impresario to do his thing in a Hollywood setting for a change, rather than on the stages of Broadway or London’s West End. A highly epigrammatic, almost drawing-room dramedy, it’s high in tone from the opening credits onwards, with the spirit of Oscar Wilde (still a living memory to many in 1935 when this was made) hovering waspishly over the entire production, the tale of an utter scoundrel (Coward) being served. It’s Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur writing, producing and directing. Two of the very greatest screenplay writers, Hecht and MacArthur wrote … Read more

Bunny Lake Is Missing

Ann in a toy hospital surrounded by dolls

Almost everyone is a sexual pervert in 1965’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, a heady and not entirely coherent psychological thriller with melodramatic tendencies and swivelling eyes to match. Directed by Otto Preminger, a man with a love of the lurid, and with American stars in the lead, it was shot in the UK, away from the chokehold of American puritanism. And what a collection of weirdos Preminger puts on screen as he tells the story of the Lakes, a couple whose daughter disappears on her first day at a sweet and twee school in London’s well heeled Hampstead. At any rate Preminger lets us believe they are a couple, man and wife, until … Read more

Design for Living

George and Tom and Gilda

One of those pre-Code 1930s comedies that comes wrapped in an aura, Design for Living can’t live up to the sell. It’s not funny, though there is the odd smirk, nor perceptive, unless a comedy about the fickleness of women is what you’re after The aura comes virtue of the boys in the backroom. Noel Coward wrote the original play, then Ben Hecht came in and threw most of that away while working on his screen adaptation, in the process turning Coward’s urbane posh gents into a couple of impetuous workaday types – the Time Out London review called it a “tea cups to beer glasses” transformation, and that’s a neatly pithy way … Read more

Blithe Spirit (1945)

Rex Harrison, Margaret Rutherford and Constance Cummings

“How the hell did you fuck up the best thing I ever did?” Noel Coward famously asked director David Lean when he first saw the film version of Blithe Spirit, a play that had wowed London in 1941 and went on to do the same on Broadway. We’re now often told the film – a relative flop on its first release – is a classic. It isn’t, but certain elements of it remain quite special, most obviously Margaret Rutherford, who steals the film with a performance of batshit comic gurning so dazzling that the film flags whenever she’s not on stage… set, whatever. “Just photograph it, dear boy” was Coward’s instruction to Lean, … Read more

Brief Encounter

Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter

A movie for every day of the year – a good one 6 April Petrarch first sees Laura, 1327 On this day in 1327, one of the most celebrated romantic sightings in literature happened, when Francesco Petrarca, the scholar, poet and former priest often credited with starting the Renaissance, first caught sight of a young woman called Laura (possibly Laura de Noves) in church. He was immediately smitten. Laura was married and rebuffed his advances. So he poured his feelings into poetry, resulting in a book of 366 poems which later were called Il Canzoniere (Song Book). It is one of the most sustained works on unrequited love in the literary canon and … Read more

The Italian Job

Michael Caine and Noel Coward in The Italian Job

A movie for every day of the year – a good one 21 January Benny Hill born, 1924 On this day in 1924, Alfred Hawthorn Hill was born in Southampton, UK. One of those children who “always wanted to be in showbusiness”, Alfred had managed to become an assistant stage manager in a touring company before joining up to serve in the Second World War, aged 18. He changed his first name to Benny as a tribute to his hero, Jack Benny, though in fact it was the British music hall that really provided the inspiration for Benny Hill’s act. Earlier to understand that music hall’s days were numbered than many of his … Read more