Category Archives: ★★★

Heatwave (1982, Phillip Noyce)

Heatwave is not a film noir. It seems like it ought to be one, but it’s not. It’s got all the pieces to be a film noir, but the way director Noyce assembles them doesn’t result in noir. There are occasionally these heavily stylized slow motion sequences. Sometimes Noyce and editor John Scott emphasize relief, sometimes violence, sometimes heat. The film’s narrative distance isn’t noir enough. It’s a really cool narrative distance, but it’s not at all noir. It’s a breakneck paced thriller, only with two protagonists who don’t realize they’re in a thriller. They think they’re in entirely different stories.

Second-billed Richard Moir (who’s actually the lead) is an architect whose big new project is running into some snags. The project is a futuristic condo, made mostly of glass (Noyce never gives the model a close-up so nothing’s too specific), with trees inside and natural lighting and so on. To get the project built, the developers are going to kick out the working class residents and tear down their homes. The project is called “Eden”; Heatwave is perfectly matter-of-fact with quite a few things. It barely runs ninety minutes and has a bunch of characters, lots of story; Noyce and co-writer Marc Rosenberg never waste time, they’re pragmatic to the point of obvious but it works because Moir’s astoundingly naive. So long as he doesn’t have to compromise his designs, Moir doesn’t really care about anything. Wife Anna Maria Monticelli, who also works with him in some unexplained capacity, is a social climber. Moir’s from a working class background, Monticelli’s a blue blood. She wants to show the world her man’s made good. He’s indifferent but happy to play along; he’s getting recognized for his amazing architectural designs, everything else is gravy. But not even gravy worth caring about too much.

Then there’s top-billed Judy Davis. She’s a blue blood who went to college, got radicalized, now tries to help the working class with their plight. She works for independent, crusading journalist Carole Skinner. Skinner’s not a blue blood and she lends Davis some cred. There’s a non-subplot about Skinner and Moir being good friends before Moir went to the U.S. to study architecture and get better indoctrinated with capitalism. When he got back they weren’t friends any more. Or so the movie says. Moir’s got zero reaction to Skinner’s eventual mysterious disappearance. Notice I just gave Davis’s paragraph away? Gave it to Moir? Because the movie does the same thing, over and over.

It’s fine, it works out. But Moir’s nowhere near as interesting as Davis. At least in terms of performance. Moir’s just aloof and naive. Kind of pseudo-preppy. He’s constantly tagging along with the real alpha males, developer Chris Haywood and lawyer John Gregg. Davis gets to do a lot more. Even when Moir gets interested in Skinner’s disappearance, it’s only because he’s not cool with how scummy Haywood and Gregg are willing to go evicting residents. And because not-independent newspaper reporter and fun old guy John Meillon wants Moir to get involved.

Moir does stay involved for his own reasons… primarily Davis. He’s got the hots for Davis because she says and thinks all the things he didn’t know he kind of wanted to say or think. As for Davis… her being interested too is one of the film’s plotting efficiencies. Maybe one Noyce should’ve taken more time with, but Davis is always getting shafted on story time.

She gets a decent amount of action, but she also ends up with a bunch of the exposition. Noyce has this great device for exposition—characters sitting, listening to the radio. Because it’s too hot to do much besides sit and listen to the radio. Heatwave takes place during a winter heatwave. The film starts before Christmas, ends on New Year’s. Everyone is miserably hot, visibly miserably hot, no one ever complains, they just endure it as best they can. It’s a great built-in constant, agitating the plot whenever needed.

Heatwave’s efficient to a fault.

Excellent performance from Davis, really good one from Moir. Haywood’s good, Gregg’s good. Meillon’s decent. He’s functional for the script more than anything else. Meillon’s able to imply depth; the script doesn’t want it from him. It would be really nice if Gillian Jones were able to imply depth. She’s got a small but important role and… it’s not a good performance. Might not be Jones’s fault, given her character and the character’s writing. But still. That aspect of the film being better might have brought it up to another level.

Then again Jones is one of the noir pieces and Heatwave isn’t a noir.

Great photography Vincent Monton. Good music from Cameron Allan. Ross Major’s production design is another plus. Noyce’s direction is extravagant but never self-indulgent.

Heatwave is a rather good stiflingly hot Christmas, not noir but noir-y, stylish conspiracy thriller.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Phillip Noyce; screenplay by Noyce and Marc Rosenberg, based on a story by Mark Stiles and Tim Gooding; director of photography, Vincent Monton; edited by John Scott; music by Cameron Allan; production designer, Ross Major; produced by Hilary Linstead; released by Roadshow Film Distributors.

Starring Judy Davis (Kate Dean), Richard Moir (Stephen West), Chris Haywood (Peter Houseman), Bill Hunter (Robert Duncan), John Gregg (Philip Lawson), Anna Maria Monticelli (Victoria West), John Meillon (Freddie Dwyer), Dennis Miller (Mick Davies), Carole Skinner (Mary Ford), Gillian Jones (Barbie Lee Taylor), Frank Gallacher (Dick Molnar), Tui Bow (Annie), and Don Crosby (Jim Taylor).


This post is part of the Hotter’nell Blogathon hosted by Steve of MovieMovieBlogBlog II.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)

The longest continuous stretch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about fifteen minutes (the film runs eighty). Small California city doctor Kevin McCarthy and his long-lost lady friend Dana Wynter have just spent the night holed up in his office, hiding from their neighbors, who have all been replaced by “pod people.” The pods are giant seedpods. They birth human facsimiles, down to scars, memories, and current injuries. They just don’t have any emotion. The evening before is another lengthy sequence, but not continuous like this fifteen minute one, which comes at the end of the second act. It doesn’t exactly end the second act because the third act is really wonky (Body Snatchers had just about as much studio post-production interference as a film can have, down to the studio literally cropping director Siegel and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks’s framing by ten percent).

After a big hint McCarthy and Wynter consummated their reuniting—it’s a shame McCarthy doesn’t get to talk about it, from his third scene in the film he’s constantly chatting up the ladies—the bad guys arrive and give McCarthy, Wynter, and the audience an information dump. It’s all about where the pods come from—outer space—and how McCarthy and Wynter are just going to love being passionless. Despite being a tell-all moment, the dump doesn’t feel like one. Daniel Mainwaring’s script is great—especially when characters get to monologue (save when Wynter gets lovey-dovey in an even more panicked moment)—and the actors’ not quite emotive enough delivery is perfect. Siegel does a great job directing his actors; at least the actors who matter. The occasional gas station attendant gets a pass.

As McCarthy and Wynter are faced with their loveless (sexless?) future, they start to break down before thinking their way out of the situation only to end up betrayed by their humanity and on the run into the mountains surrounding the town and, presumably, the third act.

But that third act is the wonky thing I mentioned before. See, Body Snatchers has a framing device—McCarthy telling disbelieving doctors and state troopers about what’s going on in his hometown. The pods have taken over, they’ve got to believe him, it’s almost too late to save everyone from being the same! Okay, he probably doesn’t say the thing about being the same at the beginning because part of the wonkiness is how much Body Snatchers just gives up on internal consistency. There’s three layers to the narrative. McCarthy on screen in the framing, McCarthy on screen in the flashback, McCarthy narrating the flashback (from the frame). The third, the narration, proves the most problematic in the third act. There are plot holes to jump over or at least to address and the narration plows over them instead. It’s a big missed opportunity, especially since it takes the film away from omnipresent protagonist McCarthy at the end.

Though it doesn’t help the frame already forces a protracted distance from McCarthy, which the narration and the actual story help to correct. Right up until the third act smacks it even further away than before.

The entire thing hinges on McCarthy. Body Snatchers isn’t about the fear of being replaced, it’s about the panic of being in danger. When the film starts and McCarthy is hearing about all the slightly weird stuff going on in town, people desperate to get an appointment then cancelling, kids not thinking their parents are their parents anymore, the opening has the audience primed for how it’s all going to play out. It plays out gradually, with recent divorcee McCarthy pursuing even recenter divorcee Wynter as fast as he can. He literally can’t keep his hands off of her. There’s the lovey dovey in the script and there’s some chemistry thanks to the direction, but you know McCarthy’s crazy about Wynter because McCarthy appears to be uncontrollably crazy about Wynter. And their romance subplot introduces some more information about the goings on before the first pod person shows up.

McCarthy’s pal, King Donovan, ruins their date because he’s found what appears to be a body and wants McCarthy to take a look at it. For a while, Donovan and Carolyn Jones (as his wife) are the main supporting leads. Because they’re panicked and they’re active so they end up around McCarthy. When it seems like Wynter isn’t going to be part of this core, McCarthy brings her into it. Very smart script, plotting-wise. Once McCarthy and Donovan start investigating, they’re going to discover missing bodies, strange gatherings in suburbia, and what’s better than dry martinis for putting on the steaks.

Because even though they’re in danger of being replaced by the pod people, they’re not going to miss out on steaks and martinis. It’s the fifties and they are Americans, after all. Panic can only drive you so far. If you skip martinis, the pod people win. And, somehow, magnificently, it all works. When Body Snatchers is being quiet about the culture it’s portraying, it excels. When it tries to explain what that portrayal means… the opposite. Are the “pod people”—who are without love, desire, ambition, faith—stand-ins for communists? Stand-ins for McCarthyists (no relation)? McCarthy (actor Kevin) apparently thought it was a comment on “Madison Avenue”-types. But it seems like something, only it’s really unfocused and the narration plays directly against what’s described and portrayed in the action. By the end, McCarthy is just ranting nonsensically, not because he’s panicked, not because he’s exhausted, but because the script doesn’t have the answer.

Excellent acting from McCarthy throughout, with really strong support from Donovan and Larry Gates. Jones is good. Wynter is… often good, sometimes thin. She’s got too much of an English accent, which the film explains by her living in England for five years but… really?

Jean Willes and Virginia Christine are good in the other two biggest roles. Most of the townsfolk, pod or not, are background.

Great direction from Siegel. You wish you could see the other ten percent of his framing. There are a lot of night exteriors and Fredericks’s photography on them is glorious. Fredericks’s photography is superb throughout, but those night shots are exceptional.

Good enough score from Carmen Dragon, good enough editing from Robert S. Eisen.

Great production design from Ted Haworth.

Even with the three times clunky finish—even without the framing device, it’s impossible to imagine what the film would play like without the added narration and since that narration screws up the third act, there’s not a lot going right outside the spectacular technical filmmaking-Invasion of the Body Snatchers is exquisite. It’s a step higher than almost great (so pretty great?). It just should and could be better. And—rather frustratingly—would have been better, had the studio just kept their hands off it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, based on a story by Jack Finney; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Robert S. Eisen; music by Carmen Dragon; production designer, Ted Haworth; released by Allied Artists.

Starring Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Miles J. Bennell), Dana Wynter (Becky Driscoll), Larry Gates (Dr. Danny Kauffman), King Donovan (Jack Belicec), Carolyn Jones (Teddy Belicec), Jean Willes (Sally Withers), Ralph Dumke (Police Chief Nick Grivett), Virginia Christine (Wilma Lentz), and Tom Fadden (Uncle Ira Lentz).


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Secret People (1952, Thorold Dickinson)

Secret People is a very peculiar propaganda picture. It’s mostly set in 1937, almost entirely involving Italian immigrants, and it’s very pro-British. The film downplays the idea fascist regimes are dangerous (fascist regimes in 1937, remember) while getting behind the idea of doing whatever the British government says, even if what they say is appease. Or don’t not appease. Secret People, if it had been made in 1938 and not 1951, would have been very pro-Chamberlain. Only it’s not from 1938, it’s from 1951 so there’s seemingly got to be a reason director and co-writer Dickinson is so wishy-washy. Because the propaganda of Secret People isn’t about a fascist Italian general (Hugo Schuster) killing an Italian Gandhi-type, but about how anti-fascist groups are bad and you should rat them out to the cops. The cops who will then use you as bait to catch the anti-fascists and almost get everyone you know killed because they kind of meander when it comes to dangerous work. Literal tea time and that sort of thing.

So it’s weird propaganda. And the finale is problematic. Dickinson desperately tries to go for melodrama and heart strings and kind of fails at both. It’s a strange failure too because the direction’s nothing special. Dickinson and cinematographer Gordon Dines fill the relatively mundane film with a bunch of great sequences, only to screw up the most important one. It needn’t be the most important sequence of the film; it’s the script’s most important moment (and the script fails) because the last third of the film is a bit of a mess. But even that messy third, right until the last scene, is at least rather well-made. Dickinson knows how to direct the script, he just doesn’t really know how to write it. And he’s got a great cast.

The film opens in 1930, with Italian immigrant to Britain Charles Goldner finding out his old friend, the aforementioned Italian Gandhi-type, is sending his daughters to Goldner for their safety. Turns out news of their father’s execution beats them to England, they just don’t know. So very, very heavy stuff, with Goldner doing a great job comforting mostly older sister Valentina Cortese. The younger sister, as soon as the film jumps ahead, is going to be Audrey Hepburn. Until then, the younger sister is pretty much off screen.

The time jump is seven years. It starts with Cortese, now working in Goldner’s cafe (and helping make it more successful), and Hepburn, now Hepburn (and, we’ll soon find out, an aspiring dancer), getting their legal British citizenship status. Like good immigrants. There’s even a line about how British only like good immigrants who don’t start trouble. At the time, it seems like the guy saying it is supposed to be a xenophobic dick but maybe he’s not? At least, not on reflection after watching the rest of the picture.

Anyway, Cortese sees a poster advertising Schuster coming to the UK on a speaking tour. Got to hear both sides of the fascist nationalist debates, after all. Again, at the time, it seems like Secret People is anti-Schuster, anti-fascist. Because, after all, he did murder Cortese and Hepburn’s wonderful dad.

Goldner sees Cortese is upset and decides—thanks to them being legal residents—it’s time to go to Paris for the weekend. In Paris, Cortese runs into her old paramour (Serge Reggiani) who has become a dashing international journalist. Only he’s not really a journalist, he’s an anti-fascist resistance fighter. And he tells his people he can get Cortese to help them assassinate Schuster.

Meanwhile Cortese just thinks she’s found the love of her life again and Hepburn is about to break out in at a society function doing a dance solo. Goldner, however, he can tell there’s something up with Reggiani. And so begins the thriller. It turns out to be a very different kind of thriller, a deliberately paced one, with some great direction from Dickinson and some fine writing. But the picture’s all about Cortese and her performance. It’s phenomenal. Until the third act when everything gets a little too silly, then it’s just good but they’ve also taken the movie away from her so whatever she can do is something.

For most of its runtime, Secret People doesn’t just succeed in spite of its weird propaganda elements, it excels, all thanks to Cortese’s performance, the peculiar plotting, the strong direction. But Cortese holds it all together. The other performances are all strong, they just don’t make the film work. Cortese makes the whole thing work, whether it’s her romance with Reggiani, her protective and supportive sister stuff with Hepburn, her vulnerable but not relationship with Goldner; all of it.

Goldner’s good, though he gets less and less to do as the action moves on. Hepburn’s good; she gets some great moments, but not a great character arc. At least not on screen. Her strongest scenes are when her mostly off-screen arc breaks through to the main action. She doesn’t really get to do much character development; after all, she’s just going to be caricatured so Dickinson can get the ending he wants.

Reggiani’s uneven, but convincingly horny as he’s always trying to seduce Cortese until it’s time to give her a bomb. In a better version of Secret People, Reggiani’s character would be just as important as Cortese’s. But in this one, he’s not. So the uneven rarely matters.

Megs Jenkins is great as Goldner’s live-in cafe employee and maybe housekeeper. It’s unclear what she does in either the cafe or the living quarters, but Jenkins does all of it rather well.

Secret People is shockingly good, considering all its big problems; sometimes excellent direction from Dickinson, the surprising storyline, and the leads’ acting makes the difference.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Thorold Dickinson; screenplay by Christianna Brand, Dickinson, and Wolfgang Wilhelm, based on a story by Dickinson and Joyce Cary; director of photography, Gordon Dines; edited by Peter Tanner; music by Roberto Gerhard; produced by Sidney Cole; released by General Film Distributors Ltd.

Starring Valentina Cortese (Maria), Serge Reggiani (Louis), Charles Goldner (Anselmo), Audrey Hepburn (Nora), Megs Jenkins (Penny), Irene Worth (Miss Jackson), Reginald Tate (Inspector Eliot), and Hugo Schuster (General Galbern).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE AUDREY AT 90: THE SALUTE TO AUDREY HEPBURN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY JANET OF SISTER CELLULOID.


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The Scapegoat (1959, Robert Hamer)

Despite Bette Davis playing a French dowager countess, The Scapegoat always feels very British. It’s probably exaggerated a little because it takes place in France, features mostly British people (save American Irene Worth) playing French people. Nicole Maurey is the only actual French person in the film, certainly the only one with a French accent. It draws some attention to her and how little she fits with the rest of the film, but it somehow works pretty well, which the film acknowledges enough to take for granted.

Scapegoat is also a little strange because it’s a character study of lead Alec Guinness, who’s in the middle of a peculiar mystery. The film opens with Guinness arriving in France on holiday; he’s a bored bachelor school teacher who’s given up on doing anything but teaching French to rich little British snots. He goes to France every year for the holiday and this time he’s thinking of just staying. He gets his wish in the form of… Alec Guinness. See, turns out Guinness has a French double and his double is a French nobleman who’s got land, title, and a whole bunch of debt. French Guinness is also at least a sociopath and always up to some kind of no good, having—it turns out—just ducked out on wife Worth after she’s suffered a miscarriage, but he also skipped out on mistress Maurey. Neither woman ends up getting an explanation because when Guinness gets home to his estate, he’s not French Guinness, he’s British Guinness. The double got him pass out drunk, switched places, disappeared.

Going forward—British Guinness is always going to be Guinness and French Guinness is always going to be French Guinness. So Guinness doesn’t really get particularly interested in why French Guinness has changed places with him, as life on the estate is an unhappy mess. French Guinness had left under the pretense he’d had a schizophrenic mental breakdown and needed to go to Paris to party. As much as any Alec Guinness, French or otherwise, is going to party. All by himself. No families, mistresses, doctors. And nobody except daughter Annabel Bartlett really seemed to care. But Guinness Guinness is overwhelmed at all the double has around him. He’s got a great kid, a sympathetic wife, a mistress, an estate, a failing but beloved business, and a cranky but not actually dangerous bedridden mum, Davis. Guinness tries to fix French Guinness’s life, which is the character study. But there’s still the mystery. Even if Guinness doesn’t acknowledge it.

That mystery comes back in the last twenty minutes of the film. The first twenty minutes are kind of slow, the next fifty breeze, the last twenty are a little awkward. Guinness is never appropriately suspicious, there’s not enough with Bartlett in the finale, and the resolution is too abrupt. Those reasons, more than everyone speaking with a British accent save Maurey, are why the film feels so British. It’s almost like director Hamer is trying to direct a slightly different, more comedic mystery script while the script is actually trying not to be comedic or mysterious. Only Hamer wrote the script; based on a Gore Vidal adaptation of the novel. So I want to assume it’s Vidal who turned it into this character study but who knows. Because, based on a summary, the novel sounds a bit more melodramatic.

It works out pretty well in the end, all things considered, but just makes it.

Guinness is phenomenal. The script gives him these great quiet reflection scenes without any narration—his narration is always matter-of-fact and goes away after a while; his reflection scenes are always beyond subtle. He’s exceptionally patient. Then as French Guinness, he’s got this subtle character arc, which the script sort of hints at but Guinness takes it a different direction. It’s rather good.

The special effects putting Guinness on screen twice are all good. Hamer never goofs off too much with it. He’s got an enthusiastic workman quality to his direction here, with cinematographer Paul Beeson helping a bit, and the special effects scenes are just the same. It’s not a gimmick, it’s a scene.

Of the supporting performances, Davis’s is the most fun. She’s got maybe three scenes and manages to imply a character arc. Bartlett’s performance is the most important because she’s the reason Guinness gets so interested. See, French Guinness—despite driving her into town each week for a music lesson (but really so he could go see Maurey)—he always wanted a boy. Guinness has no such prejudice. He also doesn’t have any animosity with Worth, which French Guinness seemed to have cultivated. Worth’s fine. She rarely gets time enough to develop her character. Pamela Brown has a really good scene opposite “brother” Guinness (she’s otherwise background). So all the acting is good or better.

The Scapegoat just has tone problems the conclusion doesn’t resolve satisfactorily enough, which… seems very British to me.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Hamer; screenplay by Hamer, adaptation by Gore Vidal, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier; director of photography, Paul Beeson; edited by Jack Harris; music by Bronislau Kaper; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Alec Guinness (John Barratt), Annabel Bartlett (Marie-Noel), Nicole Maurey (Bela), Irene Worth (Francoise), Geoffrey Keen (Gaston), Noel Howlett (Dr. Aloin), Peter Bull (Aristide), Pamela Brown (Blanche), and Bette Davis (The Countess).