Police Story

Jackie Chan in Police Story

 

 

 

There are plenty of people who think of Jackie Chan as a brilliant martial artist who has squandered his gifts on silly comedy. Even they, the Chan purists, acknowledge the brilliance of Police Story, Chan’s best film. And now that we’re in 2013 and Chan is nudging 60 years old, he’s never going to trump it. From the opening scenes in which Chan hangs on to a double decker bus with an umbrella as it careens around Hong Kong, to the final sequence in a shopping mall during which he smashes through glass, hops from one escalator to another – not forgetting the most gob-smacking of all, the downhill drive through a shanty town in a car, demolishing most of it (the town, not the car) en route – Police Story has the stunts.

Chan had already almost single-handedly revived the Hong Kong movie industry, after a decade of too many kung fu films that didn’t star Bruce Lee. He’d actually appeared in a couple of Lee films. He was an extra in Enter the Dragon and Fist of Fury. But it was another film star that provided him with inspiration – Buster Keaton. For sure, Chan’s insistence on acting as if the talkies hadn’t yet been invented, doing semaphore with his eyebrows, can be infuriating, and Keaton must take some blame there. But it’s also worth remembering that Chan spent ten years as a youth at the Peking Opera School, which had a tradition of turning out performers of martial arts on stage (Chan’s fellow Peking Opera School buddy Sammo Hung has the same “who, me?” style which can be seen from the back of a stadium).

Which is another way of offering an apology for the performances in Police Story, as broad as the Yangtze. The plot isn’t much either, with Chan playing a supervirtuous cop out to clear his name after he is framed for murder by a drug lord. But who needs plots when you’ve got stunts, and who actually needs the film when you have the blooper reel, which is one of the most spectacular you’re ever likely to see, full of stunts gone wrong, including the one that sent Chan off to hospital with two fractured vertebrae.

Chan has returned to Police Story again and again, most recently in 2004 with New Police Story, and is set to return to the franchise yet again with Police Story 2013. Should be interesting.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Police Story – at Amazon

 

 

Persuasion

Ciarán Hinds and Amanda Root in Persuasion

 

 

Before popping up seemingly out of nowhere when he directed Notting Hill, Roger Michell had had a successful career as a theatre director, at the groundbreaking Royal Court Theatre in London with Samuel Beckett and John Osborne (where he also met Danny Boyle), then on to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) before switching to directing for TV. Persuasion was his second gig for the BBC, and considering that stories of difficult love (Notting Hill, The Mother, Venus) would be his future, and the theatre was his past, it’s a perfect melding of the two. His cast for Persuasion is theatrical through and through, Amanda Root (an RSC stalwart) playing Jane Austen’s spinster heroine Anne Elliot, a woman coming up to a slow boil on the flame rekindled by Captain Wentworth, the recently returned suitor she was persuaded to reject years before. Wentworth is played by Ciarán Hinds, also an RSC old hand. His is a knockout Wentworth (no wonder Hollywood spooned him up), a bluff old sea dog now reconciled to a life on his own, in the same way that Elliot has also come to terms with the prospect of being, without a husband, a social nobody. From these two unlikely characters, using actors Hollywood would never cast in the roles (ie they’re good looking but they don’t set your pants on fire), and carefully fanning one of the spinsterish Austen’s most passionate, personal works, Michell slowly builds a stressful, uncertain romance that will have you digging the fingernails into your palms – it would certainly make sense for these two lonely individuals to fall for each other, but they’ve got to do it for all the right reasons, not just because they’re both available, right?

Look down the cast list, from Corin Redgrave and Fiona Shaw to Samuel West and Simon Russell Beale – Michell has A-list British theatrical talent to work with. Another weapon in his armoury is the film’s production design, by William Dudley, who shows us the 18th century as it really might look – lived-in, scuffed, possibly in need of a lick of paint here and there.

The result is a film of great subtlety and believability, made for TV but gaining a theatrical release in the US (which doesn’t happen often), a simmering romance that sneaks up unawares, Michell catching the characters’ turbulent inner feelings without ever getting the megaphone out. In its own quiet way it is, as Miss Austen would doubtless say, kick-ass stuff.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Persuasion – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The 39 Steps

Madeleine Carroll handcuffed to Robert Donat in The 39 Steps

 

 

There are several filmed versions of John Buchan’s novel. The other two notables have Kenneth More and Robert Powell in the lead. But this one, in spite of its antiquity, is the best. It stars debonair, pencil-moustached Robert Donat as the innocent man forced into going on the run after accidentally getting caught up at the wrong end of someone else’s spying caper.

The “innocent” theme was something Alfred Hitchcock was already comfortable with in 1935 and one which he’d return to repeatedly, most notably in North by Northwest. If you’ve read John Buchan’s original book, you’ll know The 39 Steps is a taut thriller full of derring-do, a rattling good read even today. It was this astute choosing of good source material, often by his wife Alma, that marks out Hitchcock’s mature work. That period had really only kicked off with The Man Who Knew Too Much (also an “innocent man” film) the year before, even though all of Hitchcock’s bravura camera movements and other lessons learned from the German expressionists had been informing his work since 1927’s The Lodger. It’s a MacGuffin film too – the plot serving to do little more than keep the ball in play while Hitchcock delves into the psyches of his characters. It’s also a “blonde” film, with glamourpuss Madeleine Carroll playing the woman Donat is handcuffed to for large swathes of the chase action round the Scottish highlands, a woman who seems more sexually knowing than the plot strictly requires. And it’s a “set piece” film – kicking off with the Mr Memory music hall sequence which will also provide the film’s thrilling climax.

It’s all here, in other words, all the big Hitchcock tropes. And what really stands out on watching it again is the sheer pace of the thing; it belts along in a way which few films since have managed, and even takes a breather halfway through – in the stifling croft inhabited by John Laurie and Flora Robson, yoked together in unhappy domesticity – as if to give us a minute to stand back and marvel. Nearly 70 years later the same formula – innocent man, shady organisation, chase, blonde – would be served up again as the Bourne films. Here we have Hitchcock perfecting it.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The 39 Steps – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

 

 

Based on the breakthrough novel by former spy John Le Carré, shot in black and white to suggest that espionage is unglamorous, dirty work and starring a hollowed out Richard Burton, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is as far from James Bond as it’s possible to get – further, even than Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer of the Ipcress File. Telling the story of a jaded spy who is busted to a desk job in London and then recruited by East German intelligence – or that’s what they think – it’s a bleak marvel, as redolent of the drab side of the 1960s as the smell of a wet duffel coat. Martin Ritt directs, and you’d not guess from the portrait painted of life behind the Iron Curtain that he’d been blacklisted in the US, for supposedly having Communist sympathies. Mind you, the picture he paints of life in Britain, just emerging from economic lockdown after going broke fighting the Nazis, is hardly sympathetic either.

Though critically rated, the film did not do overly well at the box office, the public being still in the first flush of love with 007 and finding the lack of car chases, gadgets and no-strings sex something of a letdown. And Ritt’s determination to keep the boomy theatrics out of the performances by Burton and his co-stars (including Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner and Peter Van Eyck) probably didn’t help sell it to the glamour-hungry either.

Not everyone loves this film. Some find it too dark, too grey. But in its depiction of an almost heretical character – the spy who seems ambivalent towards his country – it takes a type established by Graham Greene and adds several dollops of bleak. Le Carré, Ritt and Burton know exactly what they’re about, and they’re all facing in exactly the same direction.

 

 

PS

Trivia hounds might like to note that the film also features the first screen appearance of Le Carré’s most famous creation, George Smiley (played here by Rupert Davies), who’d go on to be played in later films by James Mason, Denholm Elliott, Alec Guinness and, most recently by Gary Oldman.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Song of Summer: Frederick Delius

Max Adrian as Frederick Delius in Song of Summer

 

Any follower of British arts programmes on TV, from the South Bank Show backwards, will be aware of the bleating of Ken Russell and his ilk that no one really makes ’em like they did in the Sixties, when clever chaps freshly down from Oxbridge would be sent out with a curmudgeonly working-class crew and instructed to make films on anything that took their white-shirted fancy. Well, I have to report that Russell’s 1968 B/W film on Delius does back him up. Detailing the strange five-year relationship between Eric Fenby, the young amanuensis who helped blind dying syphilitic Frederick Delius complete some of his most noted works, it is very good indeed.

Russell wasn’t in fact an Oxbridge boy, he was more a self-made maverick, though he did benefit from the BBC system of sending out trainees with seasoned techies. The result was a string of accomplished films on the arts, Russell’s 1962 film on Elgar (called Elgar) being the one that made his name. But it’s this Delius film that will probably endure. Russell believed it to be his best work and it’s tempting to see it as at least partly an expression of his own persona – Delius the romantic, impetuous and dreadful genius figure foreshadowing the cantankerous old devil that Russell would become. Shot in expressive monochrome, it’s beautifully played by a hawkish Max Adrian (as Delius), Christopher Gable as the quivering prudish devotee Fenby and Maureen Pryor as Delius’s wife Jelka, a woman who had given her life to her husband, only to be told by him “It is only from art that you’ll find lust and happiness.” Russell is clearly siding with Delius and the art-is-everything bohemian idea which took root in the early 20th century and more or less held sway right to its end.

Later in his career Russell would get the budgets that would let him increasingly abandon reality in his portraits of composers, as he did in his films of Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Liszt. Here he’s restrained by Fenby – who collaborated on the script, doing for Russell what he’d done for Delius – and isn’t allowed to splurge. With the Delius film we see Russell kneeling before a man he considered an artist, before he fell for the grandiose idea that, since he was an artist himself, whatever he produced must be art.

© Steve Morrissey 2001

 

 Song of Summer: Frederick Delius – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Jazz On A Summer’s Day

Anita O'Day in Jazz on a Summer's Day

 

 

Back when cats wore hats, stills photographer Bert Stern, fresh from his famous shoot with Marilyn Monroe in the buff, went off to the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and made a film about Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, George Shearing, Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day, Mahalia Jackson, Jack Teagarden, Gerry Mulligan, and even Chuck Berry, as they displayed their formidable talents and charismas for the moneyed and honeyed of Rhode Island. It is the only film Stern ever made and the result is a colourful impressionistic blur – the musicians are at their relaxed best, and the audience is no less entertaining, decked out in what looks now like the finest retro-chic hip, all digging that jazz vibe, daddio. Meanwhile, in the background and adding another layer of cool and cash, the America’s Cup is being raced just off the coast.

The title is a lie, incidentally, since the film was shot over a weekend, but what’s the odd day or so when you’re talking about the best jazz film ever made, which is how Jazz on a Summer’s Day is frequently described. And that’s probably for two reasons – because of Stern’s eye for an image and because of the musicians on display. We’ll never see their like again.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Jazz on a Summer’s Day – at Amazon

 

 

 

Nosferatu

Max Schreck as Nosferatu

Murnau’s 1922 silent expressionist classic is one of defining moments in movie-making. It borrowed its story wholesale from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, gave it the lightest of resprays and hoped no one would notice the theft. Bram Stoker’s widow noticed and sued for breach of copyright, won the case and had all the prints of Nosferatu destroyed. But the film refused to die, and rose from the undead.

Its star, who plays Count Orlok (aka Nosferatu), is one Max Schreck, “Schreck” being the German word for terror. Maximum Terror – and you thought modern Hollywood had a lock on this sort of thing. Adding to that in terms of myth-making, it was always rumoured that Schreck was in real-life a vampire too (something Willem Dafoe had a bit of fun with when he played Orlok in 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire). Whether Schreck sucked blood for fun or not in reality, his Orlok is a very unsavoury piece of work. A long way from the urbane Dracula, habitué of velvet-draped boudoirs, Orlok is bat-eared, bald and has two ratty fangs in the middle of his maw. And as he seeks a place to rest his head in Bremen, spreading plague as he goes, we’re given the distinct impression that this is one deeply troubled soul (if a vampire can be said to have a soul) for whom existence is a curse.

Director FW Murnau’s techniques in the film are noteworthy. Notice how as the action switches between desolate Carpathia and urban Bremen, Murnau on a couple of occasions intercutting the action in the two locations in montage sequence. This is routine today, but back in 1922 Murnau was one of the first to do it. What we’re watching is the book on film language as we understand today being written on the hoof.

Adding to Murnau’s technical mastery is his flair for the theatrical. Considering how quickly horror films go off the boil in terms of shock effect, the sequence where Orlok rises from his coffin while being shipped to Europe – pivoting from the feet like a man attached to a plank (surely that’s how it was done) – is remarkable for its ability, even now, to generate a “wow” if not a shudder. Back in 1922 it scared the shit out of people. Though Nosferatu can’t lay claim to being the first vampire film ever made – the Hungarian Drakula Halála beat it to the post one year before – in terms of sheer atmosphere it’s still one of the best. Maximum Terror indeed.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Nosferatu – at Amazon

 

 

The Matrix

Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves, The Matrix

Who has not seen The Matrix? It’s the Gone with the Wind and Star Wars of our era, a phantasmagoria in black leather open to multiple readings that was already being described as mind-bending and complex before it even debuted. From this distance it all seems as clear as water – Mr Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a disaffected slacker/hacker is invited to visit another plane of awareness, from which vantage point he can see that the plane he once inhabited, what he thought of as the “real” world, is in fact a construct, assembled by a computer program. Strip away the program and in the real “real world” humans are being grown in tanks and harvested like battery chickens. This, Mr Anderson realises, is a bad thing.

 

The Matrix isn’t difficult in terms of plot – an eight-year-old can grasp it with ease – but it’s its openness to interpretation that gives it its power. The notion of the real world being a construct is familiar to anyone who’s read Marxist theory – it’s the idea of “false consciousness”, that we can’t see the world for what it is because we are labouring with the wrong set of ideas. “It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth,” as Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the guide to this new way of seeing things, puts it. Add to the philosophical interpretation the religious one, with Mr Anderson aka Neo (an anagram of One) as Jesus, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) as his Mary Magdalene embarking on a “look but don’t touch” relationship with the saviour. Then again there are the obvious parallels with Alice in Wonderland – Neo in a world turned upside down, “tumbling down the rabbit hole” (Morpheus again). While we’re about it, let’s just mention in passing that Morpheus is the god of dreams from the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses – his Book of Transformations. And now, years later, with the revelation that one of the film’s directors has changed name from Larry to Lana and is identifying as female, the whole aspect of Neo’s reprogramming, the chasteness of Neo and Trinity’s relationship, their similarity in looks suggests yet another interpretation – that they might indeed be a gender-flip of the same person? No?

Fanciful or not, it’s The Matrix’s openness to re-interpretation that keep it watchable. It’s as easy to pick holes in the film as it is with The Wizard of Oz (another fable of transformation and awakening) – the strangely slow speech of Morpheus and Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith, for instance, or the fact that, at bottom, The Matrix is an adolescent wish-fulfilment fantasy complete with portentous, “and then I save the world” plotting. Yes it is a fantasy, but the fantasy is perfect, complete – Neo quite literally goes on a journey from total ignorance of the world he lives in to complete knowledge of the entire universe. As for the sequels – they were made for financial reasons rather than artistic ones. The computer program got the upper hand there.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Matrix – at Amazon

 

 

 

Colonel Redl

Klaus Maria Brandauer as Colonel Redl

 

 

 

Colonel Redl is an adaptation of John Osborne’s play A Patriot for Me and charts the rise and fall of a soldier with opportunism where principles should be. It’s a sumptuous affair set in the dog days of the Austro-Hungarian empire and builds slowly towards a painfully frenzied climax, as did the previous collaboration between director István Szabó and actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. And as in Mephisto we’re following a man of few scruples making his way from relative obscurity to the top of his tree – the secret service in this case. Redl was a real man, an officer in the espionage wing of the Austro-Hungarian army who sold his country’s war plans to Russia on the eve of the First World War, thereby condemning thousands of countrymen to their deaths. The Hungarian Szabó doesn’t set out to condemn a traitor. Instead he’s delineating the mindset of someone who doesn’t know who he is. Szabó claimed in interviews when the film first debuted that his reason for making the film was that identity was one of the key drivers of the modern psyche – Redl is ashamed of his homosexuality, his poor background, his ethnic outsiderdom. But Szabó must also have been thinking about identity closer to home – the ethnic fallout from the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian empire was yet to produce the war in former Yugoslavia but the tensions were already there (and still are, all over the former empire).

After Mephisto, made four years earlier, Brandauer had seemed set for international superstardom. He’d turned up as the stooge husband to Meryl Streep and Robert Redford’s lovers in Out of Africa. And he was a Bond villain in Never Say Never Again. Between then and now he has regularly popped up in English language films, often playing the villain, but has seemed happier to work on a broader canvas in German-speaking countries. It’s our loss. Here, as in Mephisto, his performance is a thing of wonder. He conveys every turn of the coat by Redl with a subtle shift of demeanour. If Szabó has given Brandauer all the canvas an actor could want, Brandauer has responded by delivering a beautiful performance of sympathetic villainy – not a white cat in sight. Szabó’s film is undoubtedly a masterpiece and Brandauer is one of the key reasons why.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Colonel Redl – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Finding Forrester

Sean Connery in Finding Forrester

 

 

A young ghetto kid (Rob Brown) breaks into the local recluse’s house only to discover it’s his literary hero, an author whose one novel has been followed by nothing except a mysterious silence for 40 years. The gruff old codger doesn’t bark at the kid and send him on his way. Nor does he shoot him with the gun he keeps on his bedside table. He doesn’t do either of these things because we’re in master-and-protégé territory, a fact which director Gus Van Sant cunningly seems to have made us fully aware of before the film has announced that that’s what it is. And he’s done that maybe to dial down our expectations.

This is not an action movie, not a plot-driven film either, it’s an exercise in gentle elegiac storytelling, a soul-warming stew concocted from muted visuals, a plaintive jazz soundtrack (lots of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman), bucketloads of Americana and as much sentiment as the body can tolerate. It’s also, like Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, the story of a gifted young person being encouraged to let their light shine. Speaking of which, Matt Damon turns up in a small role, part of a useful and eclectic cast including F Murray Abraham, Busta Rhymes, Anna Paquin and Michael Pitt. In the role of the aged writer is Sean Connery, who gives it all the leather and walnut of a stately civic library. He’d only make one more film after this before retiring, and that was the relatively disastrous The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Here, playing what everyone fancies is a crypto JD Salinger, is late-era Connery at his best.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 Finding Forrester – at Amazon