I Confess (1953)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Will a priest break his sacred vow when he’s accused of a murder committed by one of his flock?

Filmed in black-and-white, often on real locations in Canada, I Confess has a low-key feel. Lauded at the time of its release by New Wave critics in France, who swooned over its film-noir aesthetic, it now comes off as a bit artificial. This is an undemonstrative film, which lacks the usual Hitchcock X factor.

The incident that ignites the slow-burn plot is the death of a dodgy lawyer called Villette. Soon afterwards, the German immigrant who tends to his garden, Otto Keller, asks to speak to the local Catholic priest. Father Michael Logan takes Keller’s confession and is shaken when the man admits that he’s accidentally killed his employer. Due to the priestly oath of the confessional box, however, Logan cannot reveal this information to anyone. And that becomes a major problem when, due to circumstantial evidence, the police suspect that Logan may be a murderer. He’s eventually put on trial but still refuses to speak, even though it may lead to his conviction…

The priest is played by Montgomery Clift, who gives a decidedly un-Hitchcockian performance. Introverted and quiet, he underplays everything to such a degree that it’s questionable whether it still counts as acting. Clift was a pioneer of the Method school, an acting technique that’s been called the ‘art of experiencing’ (rather than pretending to experience something), and he employed it in Hollywood before the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean. When Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of Clift, you do get a sense of the character’s turmoil. But he mostly remains a distant figure. Compared with the emotional weight on the shoulders of, say, James Stewart in Vertigo or Tippi Hedren in Marnie, and Logan seems bland and unsympathetic. Hitchcock certainly didn’t enjoy working with an actor, who didn’t respond well to direction and required multiple takes. ‘Too obscure,’ was his pithy assessment.

The director also objected to having to use Anne Baxter as Father Logan’s old squeeze, Ruth, who’s now married to a politician and was being blackmailed by Villette. (The backstory of Logan and Ruth’s relationship is revealed in a long, overly romantic flashback – one of the odder sequences in Hitchcock’s canon.) Swedish actress Anita Björk was initially cast in the role but then let go due to a minor scandal, so Baxter was a last-minute, studio-suggested replacement and Hitchcock thought she was miscast. (Perhaps he got on better with Keller actor OE Hasse, who began his career with a small role in the German classic The Last Laugh (1924) – a film that the young Alfred Hitchcock had witnessed being made while working at a studio in Potsdam.)

But whatever the respective merits of the actors, they’re fighting a losing battle in I Confess. All great Hitchcock films are told from specific points of view. In Psycho, for example, we follow Marion Crane; in Dial M for Murder, we spend the bulk of the story with would-be killer Tony Wendice; in Rebecca, the unnamed female lead is our eyes and ears. Movies don’t have to stick to just one character – Psycho, of course, switches perspective after its most famous scene – but I Confess goes too far in the other direction. We flit about all over the place, at various points experiencing the story via Logan, Keller, Keller’s wife, Ruth and Karl Malden’s classily played Inspector Larrue. There’s no fluidity to these switches and therefore we never really empathise with anyone too deeply.

Another issue is the key fact that the movie is built on a theological quandary, which obviously will have differing levels of resonance for different viewers. Hitchcock himself summed up the issue when he said, ‘We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists and the agnostics all say, “Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.”’ Perhaps. However, the script and its treatment seem to *assume* the viewer will care about Logan’s plight, rather than justifying it. After all, stripped of its religious implications, this is a story of man protecting a selfish killer.

The plot then concludes with a tacked-on chase scene and a convenient climax as Keller’s guilt is revealed. But the resolution lacks any punch or grace. At least lessons were learnt: almost every aspect of the movie – the noir-ist photography, the vérité locations, a decent man being accused of a crime and reacting stoically, the stroke-of-fate ending – would be repeated by Hitchcock three years later, in the much more interesting, entertaining and powerful The Wrong Man.

Five men walking down the street out of 10

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40 years, 40 films…

Today (Saturday 16 March 2019) is my 40th birthday, so I thought it would be an interesting challenge to see if I can nominate my favourite film from each of the previous 40 years. ‘Favourite’ is the key word here – they’re not necessarily what I think is the *best* movie (though in many cases that means the same thing). They’re the films I love the most, the films I most enjoy going back to again and again.

Narrowing it down was a really tough task, and I’ve had to exclude so many movies that are precious to me – the first two Aliens, A Christmas Story, Return of the Jedi, the first two Terminators, Clue, Withnail & I, Die Hard, DOA, Heat, Seven, 12 Monkeys, Fargo, Grosse Pointe Blank, Jackie Brown, Edgar Wright’s last three films and many, many more.

Here’s my roll call of favourites…

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

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The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)

WarGames (John Badham, 1983)

Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)

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Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)

The Living Daylights (John Glen, 1987)

A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)

Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989)

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The Hunt For Red October (John McTiernan, 1990)

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson, 1992)

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

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The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)

From Dusk til Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996)

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

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Timecode (Mike Figgis, 2000)

Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002)

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinksi, 2003)

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

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Serenity (Joss Whedon, 2005)

Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007)

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Star Trek (JJ Abrams, 2009)

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Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010)

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)

The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski, 2013)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014)

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, 2015)

The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016)

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard, 2018)

Now I’ve completed the list I can see trends: a dominance of Hollywood; a childhood love of films with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg connections; teenage years dominated by crime movies; a recent affection for big-budget escapism; a recurrence of James Bond.

Let me know in the comments section below if I’ve picked something you love too (or hate!)…

The Predator (2018, Shane Black)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When an alien crashes to earth, the authorities want to capture it for investigation – but then another alien creature arrives, hunting the first one…

The cast: Our lead is a rather underwhelming action hero. We’re told that army sniper Quinn McKenna (played by Logan bad guy Boyd Holbrook) has PTSD, but he generally seems unaffected and has no problem killing and running into danger and quipping like it’s the 1980s. After a surprise jungle encounter with an alien recently crashed on earth, Quinn is interrogated by his superiors then shuffled out of the way so he won’t blab. But he’s already posted some key alien tech to his family back home (as you do). His estranged wife is a nothing part played by Yvonne Strahovski, and they have a young, bullied, meek but very clever son called Rory (Jacob Tremblay); the latter accidentally ends up with a predator mask and uses it as a Halloween disguise. When it becomes clear that aliens have landed on earth again, the government calls in evolutionary biologist Dr Casey Becket (Olivia Munn), who has a look at a captured predator and realises its significance, but then must go on the run with Quinn and others when it escapes and goes on a rampage. In a less sexist world, Becket would be this film’s central character – she’s smart, sexy, sassy in the usual Olivia Munn style, and even goes all Sarah Connor when the plot requires. (Why a university professor is so proficient with machine guns and high-octane combat is not addressed in the finished film. A sequence showing her out jogging, which maybe would have implied her physical aptitude, was famously cut out after Munn learned that the other actor in the scene was a registered sex offender.) As the story develops, Quinn and Becket hook up with a group of prisoners being transferred by the army; all have psychological problems as a result of their service, and they’re one of the highlights of the film. Gaylord ‘Nebraska’ Williams (Trevante Rhodes) is a cool, laidback ex-Marine and the de facto leader of the team; Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key) is a course joker and another Marine vet; Baxley (Thomas Jane) has Tourette’s and, we eventually learn, is in a relationship with Coyle; Lynch (Alfie Allen) is a quiet Irishman who doesn’t make much impression on the film at all; and the sweet Jesus look-a-like Nettles (Augusto Aguilera) is a former chopper pilot who suffered a head injury in a crash. The collective are, for long stretches, being hunted by a human as well as the predator: Sterling K Brown’s constantly chewing Will Traeger, who runs the Stargazer Project, the secretive organisation that investigate aliens incursions. He’s a bit of a cartoon villain.

The best bit: Thirty-eight minutes into the film, Quinn, Nebraska, Coyle, Baxley and Nettles have escaped the army base, evaded the predator, and are holed up in a motel room. They’ve saved Becket from being killed for what she knows about the alien, but she’s out cold on the bed. What follows is a highly comedic scene. We see the guys nervous about how to wake Becket up; she then regains consciousness and immediately reaches for a discarded shotgun; and the guys howl with laughter because they’ve placed bets on how she’d react. The plot is discussed and moved forward, character detail is revealed for several people, and there are many genuine laughs. If only the whole film was as good as this.

Crossover: A weapon from Alien vs Predator is glimpsed in the lab sequence, and we get many subtle nods or explicit references to the first two Predator movies. (As it’s set on another planet, 2010’s Predators isn’t mentioned.) One of the most grin-inducing is the appearance of a scientist called Sean Keyes (the son of Predator 2‘s Peter Keyes) played by Jake Busey (the son of Gary Busey, who played Peter).

Review: Writer/director Shane Black has made so many wonderful films over the last 30 years that there were understandably high hopes for this relaunch of the Predator brand. His style of witty, cynical, pulling-the-rug-from-under-you storytelling works so well in an action-movie or thriller context, whether it’s in Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scount or Iron Man 3. He also had a pre-existing connection to the series: he played a small role in the 1987 original, cast essentially so he could be on set to do some dialogue punch-ups. However, we didn’t really get the film we were expecting… Things take quite a while to get going, for example. The opening third of the movie feels by-the-numbers – there’s little humour, little charm, and none of the Shane Black sparkle and fizz. It gets better, though, once Quinn hooks up with Casey and the ragbag group of prisoners, most of whom are distinctive, memorable and oddly likeable. The gag rate rises appreciably, the pace also picks up, and you even start to enjoy the movie’s weirdly flippant tone. All this helps distract from the unimaginative storyline, the hollow father/son subplot and some distastefully callous humour such as when Quinn murders someone in front of young Rory and then makes a joke about it. Fun at times but too often unsatisfying.

Six alien Whoopi Goldbergs out of 10

Sabotage (1936)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The police have a terrorist under surveillance as he and his cohorts plan an attack…

A young boy called Stevie (Desmond Tester) has been given an important errand. He’s been asked by his elder sister’s foreign husband, Karl Verloc (Oskar Homolka), to deliver a package to Piccadilly Circus. Stevie thinks the bundle is made up of just film cans – the family run a cinema, after all – but what he doesn’t know is that Karl has included a bomb. Mr Verloc is a terrorist, under orders from a shadowy network of foreign agents.

It’s a shame Homolka gives such a limp, unsure performance as Karl. The character should dominate the film: he’s the threat, he’s the danger. But the actor is so poor he sucks the life and tension out of his scenes. Around the time this film was made, Hitchcock worked twice with another actor from central Europe, Peter Lorre – and it’s difficult not to imagine him in the part, making Karl both scarier and more sympathetic.

As he travels across London, Stevie realises he’s running late. It’s the day of the Lord Mayor’s Show and the city is buzzing with crowds and the streets are choc-a-bloc with traffic. So he jumps on bus, using his cheek to get past the conductor who points out that celluloid is flammable and isn’t allowed on public transport. But the bus moves slowly, struggling through the throngs and past the shops and markets and parade. Stevie nervously taps his leg and repeatedly glances out of the window. We see his point of view as the bus crawls past various clocks hanging above shop fronts, emphasising how time is getting on.

He’s jittery because he’s going to be late – Verlock insisted that the cans are delivered by a specific time. We’re frantic with worry, meanwhile, because we know the bomb is set to go off at 1.45pm.

The editing gets quicker and more urgent and more intense. And then… boom. The bus is ripped apart by an explosion. All the passengers are surely killed, including innocent Stevie. It’s one of the more shocking moments in Hitchcock’s canon. In a morbid joke, the director then cuts to a scene of Stevie’s sister, oblivious as to what’s happened and laughing with her husband…

Hitchcock later said that he regretting killing Stevie – though not from any moralistic motive. It was because, he believed, that he’d fumbled the film’s sense of suspense. ‘That was a big error,’ he said 30 years after making the movie. ‘The bomb should never have gone off. If you build an audience up to that point, the explosion becomes strangely anti-climactic. You work the audience up to such a degree that they need the relief. One should have done the killing a different way, off the screen or something. I shouldn’t have made a suspense thing of it.’

However, it’s worth emphasising that Sabotage works so well precisely because a sympathetic character dies so horribly and in such a way that defies expectation. There are countless movies that set up a tragic death like this and then cop out at the last minute, allowing the kid to survive. Sabotage goes for the jugular. The explosion also motivates the remainder of the story: the character arc of Stevie’s sister, an American ex-pat played well by Sylvia Sidney, wouldn’t make sense without her devastated grief. As Hitchcock himself said, ‘The boy had to be killed for the sake of the story.’

The bomb sequence is also one of Hitchcock’s most stunning moments on a technical level. The director had recently been introduced to the wonders of Soviet montage – a revolutionary editing technique that had developed in Russia in the 1920s – by Ivor Montague, a communist writer who worked on several Hitchcock films as a kind of associate producer. It puts meaning not only into individual shots but, crucially, into the relationship and connection between them. Cutting to a new camera angle or a new scene or a new location is not just a matter of seeing something new: the edit also gives viewers extra information. In its simplest terms, if a movie cuts from one character looking longingly off-camera to an image of another character, we understand that the former is looking at the latter and is in love. We don’t need to see both at the same time nor we do we need to be told what’s happening. (Montage has become so mainstream it’s one of the bases of Western narrative cinema. But we must remember that the art form didn’t *need* to develop in this way.)

The cutting between innocent Stevie, the film cans, the bus, the crowds, the clocks, the traffic lights and all the rest leaves us in no doubt what’s about to happen – the sequence has real power. The technique appears elsewhere in the film too. After learning of Stevie’s death, his devastated sister sees taunting visions of him alive and well – a palpable and effective dramatisation of grief made possibly by cutting together different shots with real skill.

This awareness of cinema also extended to the film’s setting. The Verlocs live above an urban cinema, which allows Hitchcock to have some self-referential fun. One scene takes place behind the screen while a film is being projected; as discussed, the plot’s most shocking moment involves a boy carrying the film cans of a two-reeler called Bartholomew the Strangler. A clip from Sabotage was even reused 73 years later in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds: the moment when a bus conductor tells Stevie that carrying film cans in public is a fire risk features in an explanatory montage. 

Eight men crossing the road out of 10

The Living Daylights, GoldenEye and what they say about James Bond continuity

Ever since its lead character was first recast in the late 1960s, the James Bond film series has had an odd relationship to the idea of a consistent fictional universe. Taken at face value, every movie from 1962’s Dr No until 2002’s Die Another Day chronicles the life of a British intelligence agent called James Bond. We’re meant to buy the idea that these 20 films are instalments of one long-running story. The canon was then reset to zero with 2006’s Casino Royale, which definitively ignores all the previous adventures and starts the exercise again. (By the way, this article is concerned only with the Eon Productions film series, so we’re ignoring the 1967 comedy Casino Royale and the 1983 movie Never Say Never Again, which were made by other people.)

But of course there are problems with this reading. An obvious one is the age of the central character. If we assume that each Bond film is set in the year of its release – dates are rarely used on screen or in dialogue, but it’s a fair assumption – then the first incarnation of James had a remarkably long career. When we first meet him, he’s an established, experienced secret agent in his early 30s (actor Sean Connery was 32), so he should be in his 70s by the time of Die Another Day… but then-current actor Pierce Brosnan was only 49. (In fact, going by the actors’ ages, Bond in 2002 was eight years *younger* than he had been in the mid-1980s!)

Clearly, we need to do one of two things. We can do what most people do: we can simply ignore the issue. It isn’t important and it doesn’t distract from how entertaining the movies have been for more than half a century. But if we allow ourselves to indulge a trivial theory, we could question whether Casino Royale is the only time the James Bond series has been rebooted…

For 25 years, the ages of the actors playing Bond seemed reasonably plausible. Sean Connery (born 1930), George Lazenby (1939) and Roger Moore (1927) were just about close enough in age that you can believe these three men are all playing the same character. There are also some in-story reasons why we should assume that the first 14 Bond films form one continuous fiction. For a start, there are other regular characters who also age consistently – the spymaster known by the codename M, secretary Miss Moneypenny and gadget-supplier Q. (The only one of these three who was recast before 1987 is M, due to the death of original actor Bernard Lee. But his replacement, Robert Brown, was visibly in the right age group. He might also be playing a different man: Brown had already appeared in the series so perhaps his Royal Navy admiral from 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me has been promoted into the late M’s vacant job.)

Additionally, there’s the spoilerific ending of George Lazenby’s only Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (Stop reading now if you don’t know that movie’s plot.) The next entry in the series, Diamonds Are Forever (1971), begins with 007 seeking revenge for the death of his wife in On Her Majesty’s, while two later Roger Moore films (1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me and 1981’s For Your Eyes Only) pointedly refer back to that death. One scene even shows her grave, dating her murder to 1969 – the year George Lazenby played 007.

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But hang on, there’s a problem with all this, isn’t there? Mention of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – one of the most unfairly maligned Bond films there’s yet been – will automatically bring to mind a gag in its opening sequence. Having saved a woman from drowning and from several henchmen, Bond unusually doesn’t end up with her in his arms. Instead she drives off, leaving him alone on a beach. “This never happened to the other fella,” he quips – clearly refencing the fact that he’s now played by someone who isn’t Sean Connery. But that’s the point: it’s just a joke. It’s a brief fourth-wall-breaking aside. It’s not meant to imply – as some people have argued down the years – that the Lazenby Bond is a *different person* from the Connery Bond, any more than Moonraker‘s jokey use of a musical motif from sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind is meant to imply that aliens exist in 007’s world.

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So, we can safely run with the idea that the James Bond series was presenting us with a single lead character played by three actors. Admittedly, he grew more rakish and flippant as he approached middle-age, but perhaps this was a reaction to the trauma of being a widower. (His accent also drifted from Scottish to English via a kind of light Australian, but let’s not get bogged down by that at the moment…)

However, our rolling-narrative theory hits a real problem with the casting of Timothy Dalton for 1987’s marvellous The Living Daylights. Dalton was born just seven years after Lazenby, which actually means they’re closer in age than Lazenby and Moore were. But Tim was only 40 when cast, and he was replacing a manifestly middle-aged Roger. James Bond was now markedly a younger man, and played by someone who had been just 16 years old when the series began.

So how about the idea that The Living Daylights is a true reboot of the series and that we’re supposed to discount the events of the previous films? Let’s look at the evidence.
* The new Bond’s boss, M, is still played by the actor who appeared in the late Roger Moore movies, while ally Q is still played by Desmond Llewelyn, who’d only missed two films since the series began. A way of reconciling this with the new, younger Bond in The Living Daylights is to argue that M and Q *are* new versions of the characters. They just happen to be played by actors who have played previous incarnations. After all, the same principle applied two decade later when Judi Dench retained her role of M despite her fifth film, Casino Royale, being Bond’s ‘first case’.
* Dalton’s second movie, 1989’s extraordinary Licence to Kill, has an oblique reference to Bond being a widower. But it doesn’t have to literally mean the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This new Bond simply has the same backstory as the previous one, in the same way that unconnected tellings of the Robin Hood myth having him returning from the Crusades.
* As well as 007, supporting character Miss Moneypenny has been recast in The Living Daylights with a much younger actor. After 14 appearances, Lois Maxwell (born 1927) gave way to Caroline Bliss, who featured in both of Dalton’s Bond movies. Bliss was born just one year before the fictional events of Dr No – so clearly she’s not supposed to be the same woman as the one Maxwell was playing.

The implication of all this is clear: The Living Daylights is asking us to accept that Timothy Dalton is playing a *different man* from his predecessors. It’s a reboot.

All this then leads us to GoldenEye, the 17th James Bond film, which was released in 1995. (Warning: plot points from the movie are about to be revealed.) By the time it came along, the Bond series has been away for six years due to some legal disputes. So the film had the task of reintroducing concepts and characters to a world that had changed. Since 1989’s Licence to Kill, the Cold War had ended and Bond-style spectacle had become the norm in Hollywood action films such as True Lies.

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If similar circumstances occurred now, rebooting the series with a new cast, a fresh approach and an ad campaign that highlighted the film as a starting-on point for new viewers would be shoo-in. However, perhaps surprisingly, GoldenEye is demonstrably a *sequel*. There may be a new actor in the lead role in the form of Pierce Brosnan, but the film is littered with evidence that this is a continuation of an existing story rather than a fresh fictional start.
* Bond has an established flirtation with Moneypenny and a chummy rapport with Q. There’s also mention of M (Judi Dench in her first appearance) being new to the job and having a predecessor, which we’re meant to assume is the character played by Robert Brown in the Dalton films.
* The film actually starts with a prologue set nine years before the bulk of the story. If we stick to our theory that Bond films take place in the present, that means the first 10 minutes of GoldenEye actually happen before the two movies starring Timothy Dalton. (In a nice bit of postmodern fun, 1986 was also the year Brosnan was originally cast as 007 before he had to pull out because he couldn’t get free from a prior booking. Surely the date was chosen deliberately.)
* That prologue introduces a fellow secret agent called Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), who we – and Bond – initially think is killed off. When Alec shows up alive and well much later in the movie (spoiler: he’s the villain), he taunts Bond and mentions Miss Moneypenny. It’s clear from the context that Alec knows her from his time at MI6, so she must have been there in 1986. (The part of Moneypenny was recast again for GoldenEye, with Samantha Bond taking over.)
* The film also introduces a new semi-regular ally of Bond’s: a CIA agent called Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker). But wait a sec – didn’t the series already have a semi-regular ally of Bond’s who was a CIA agent? Felix Leiter (played by about 700 actors over the years) had been seen on and off since the first film, so why introduce Wade? Because Leiter was brutally attacked in the previous film, Dalton’s Licence to Kill, and has now presumably retired – hence Wade’s introduction.

The implication of all this is clear: GoldenEye is asking us to accept that Pierce Brosnan is playing the *same man* as Timothy Dalton. It’s not a reboot.

So let’s develop a theory. In the 57-year history of Eon Productions’ series of spy movies, there have actually been three lead characters.
* Secret agent James Bond 007, played between 1962 and 1985 by three actors: Sean Connery, George Lazenby and Roger Moore.
* Secret agent James Bond 007, played between 1987 and 2002 by two actors: Timothy Dalton and Pierce Bronan.
* Secret agent James Bond 007, currently being played by Daniel Craig, who debuted with 2006’s Casino Royale.

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Easy Virtue (1928)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A woman tries to move on from a disastrous relationship, but her past catches up with her…

A silent film based on a play by Noel Coward is obviously going to be missing the rather important element of his witty dialogue. So while Easy Virtue may have title cards, it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock’s visual invention where the real interest lies. An early courtroom scene, for example, features the joyfully brilliant moment when a judge raises a monocle to his eye to look at one of the barristers. The shot is from the judge’s point of view, so we see the monocle rise in the frame, magnifying what’s behind it. There are a few other clever shots dotted around too; later, we also get some location filming in the South of France.   

The plot follows Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans), who divorces her boorish husband after a tragic incident in which a painter was killed over a misunderstanding. Fleeing to the French Riviera and changing her name, she meets a man called John Whittaker (Robin Irvine), falls in love and returns with him to England. But Larita constantly fears that her murky past will be discovered – especially when she meets John’s frosty mother, who recognises her from *somewhere*.

In many ways, all this is a strange precursor of Hitchcock’s later film Rebecca. That 1940 gem also features a nervous woman in the south of France who meets and falls for an Englishmen but then faces resentment when she goes home with him. Both movies also change tack when there’s a key revelation. In Easy Virtue, the shift comes when Larita’s secret is rumbled – an old photo of her appears in a newspaper and John’s friends and family learn who she is. But sadly the drama is nowhere near as gripping.

The marriage quickly peters out, as does the film. Larita leaves, but not before telling John’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Enid Stamp Taylor) that *she* should have married him instead. The moment is tender and almost Sapphic but also – like a lot of this film – quite melodramatic.

Five men walking past a tennis court (possibly: there’s doubt over whether it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock) out of 10

NOTE: Easy Virtue was lost was about half a century before a print was discovered in Austria in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it’s still not in a great shape archivally speaking. The copy I watched for this review was a terribly damaged, shaky and tatty video on YouTube. When the BFI attempted to resurrect the movie as part of a restoration project in 2012, they hit several problems – as detailed in the following press release: ‘[The film] survives only in a number of more or less identical 16mm projection prints, all in very poor quality and considerably abridged. The original running time of the film at 7390 feet – amounted to approximately 94 minutes depending on running speed. What survives is equivalent to 5434 feet a mere 69 minutes. We don’t know if a major section is missing or if (more likely) there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of little trims. We hoped at the beginning of the project that more or better material would turn up, but this has proved elusive. We will of course continue to search. The international search for this Easy Virtue has brought in prints from the US, Australia and the Netherlands as well as the UK. Unfortunately, all the existing copies are 16mm prints that have been much projected, resulting in surface wear and tear. All the copies derive from the same source and contain the same printed-in damage. The biggest problem is the underlying picture quality which, thanks to much duplication, is lacking in resolution. Working from such limited material, the best that we can do is to minimise scratches and damage and remake the intertitles. We have chosen the best source and replaced several shots from a second print where they helped to improve quality. All the main titles and intertitles were reconstructed using the original fonts, as in the other Hitchcock restorations.’

Rebecca (1940)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A secretary marries a widower, but finds life difficult when they return to his ancestral home…

A ghost story without a ghost in it, Rebecca begins with a spooky, eerie sequence that reveals the mysterious Cornish country house of Manderley. It’s a horror-movie opening, full of fog and forests and foreboding. We know we’re heading into a story where the past will never quite let us go…

In Monte Carlo, a shy young woman (Joan Fontaine) is working for a rich harridan as a secretary/travelling companion/general dogsbody. But when she meets a widower called George Fortescue Maximilian de Winter, aka Maxim (Laurence Olivier), they fall in love, she quits her job, and they quickly get married… The unnamed central character was not Fontaine’s only Hitchcock role – she returned the following year to play another woman whose marriage is not what she expected in Suspicion. She gives a fine performance here as a woman whose happiness is short-lived.

After their honeymoon, the pair travel to Manderley, a house deep in the West Country woods. It’s near the sea and seems to have its own weather system (rain begins on cue as they approach). It’s a Gothic pile of unused wings, huge, echoing rooms and too many servants. But despite the vast interior, the new Mrs de Winter quickly feels suffocated – especially when Maxim’s relatives and creepy housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson, giving a performance that has become a movie standard) keep mentioning the former lady of the house.

The character of Rebecca, Maxim’s late wife, never actually appears on screen. We don’t even see a photograph of her. But she hangs over the whole story, casting a shadow on Fontaine’s character, who can’t escape the implication that she’s not up to the job of replacing this saintly woman. What started out as a romantic melodrama in the south of France becomes a Victorian horror. Our lead is metaphorically trapped in a castle-like prison, friendless and hopeless. Maxim begins to feel more and more like a villain. The paranoia builds, the menace rises, the swirling, romantic score turns mysterious.

But then the myth of Rebecca is shattered when Maxim reveals how she died: despite everything we’ve been told, their marriage was anything but idyllic and he accidentally killed her during an argument. The captivating revelation scene sees Hitchcock’s camera move around the room as Maxim recounts what happened – if it were following a ghostly Rebecca recreating her final moments. It’s also one of several examples of the director’s amazing command of the material. Throughout the film, he artfully shifts the tone from light to dark, comedy to tragedy, suspense to shocks. Because of this authorial control, the story seduces you and never bores you, even though for long stretches nothing much actually happens. It’s absolute magic.

The effect perhaps has a wobble during the final third of the movie, in which plot starts to dominate mood and when Rebecca’s cousin/lover Jack (George Sanders) takes focus and fails to convince. Fontaine also fades away into the background, which is a real shame. But nearly 80 years after it was released, this film is still casting its shadow.

Nine men near the phone box out of 10

Young and Innocent (1937)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Accused of murder, a man escapes custody intent on clearing his name – and his only help comes from the daughter of the local police chief…

No one – well, no one who expects to be taken seriously – is going to pretend that every Beatles song is a classic or that Agatha Christie never had an off-day. However, with these cultural geniuses, even ‘lesser’ works are interesting, sometimes engaging and often entertaining. The same is true of Alfred Hitchcock. He may have been the film director who made more great films than any other, but that doesn’t mean they’re all venerated in the same way.

Young and Innocent, for example, is an enjoyable, diverting and likeable film. Yet it’s rather fallen through the cracks of popular culture, becoming so relatively obscure and forgotten that the DVD used for this blog review gets its title wrong on the menu screen.

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The story is a Hitchcock standard: a man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit so goes on the run. The director rehashed this core idea several times during his career, and for audiences in 1937 this movie must have felt oddly reminiscent of the classic The 39 Steps from just a couple of years earlier. But Young and Innocent is done with enough fun and pace to distract you from the similarities.

The young and innocent man of the title is Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney), who discovers a murder victim on a beach but is then suspected by the police when it’s revealed she was killed using his belt. Fearing that circumstantial evidence may convict him, Robert goes on the lam. He hopes to track down the real murderer and soon forms a partnership with the daughter of the local chief constable. At first Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam) helps unwillingly, but then – as is the way with these types of stories – a romance starts to develop…

The pair have chemistry, but if the film has a failing it’s the same one that coincidentally blighted Nova Pilbeam’s previous Hitchcock picture, 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. In that film, she’d played the kidnapped child of a married couple who never seem overly concerned that she’s missing. Now 17 years old and playing an adult, the actress must perform opposite a colleague who similarly underplays the danger and threat. Robert has been accused of a capital crime, but Derrick De Marney is too flippant, too light. 

Nevertheless, Robert and Erica chase down leads to prove that someone else is the killer, and along the way there’s a lot of fun: encounters with ruffians, relatives and a kids’ party, really cute model shots of a train yard and an action scene of a car falling into a collapsing mineshaft. Unlike the source novel, which is whodunit, Hitchcock’s film reveals the killer in the first scene – and it does this because he’s not important. The film isn’t about him or why he strangled the woman. It’s about Robert and Erica and the ‘fun’ of the chase. It’s a shaggy-dog story – the enjoyment is in the telling, not the substance. 

In fact, murderer Guy (George Curzon) doesn’t reappear until near the end of the story when we get the movie’s most famous moment – a dazzling piece of storytelling. Erica and a witness called Old Will (Edward Rigby) are in a posh hotel, keeping their eyes peeled for the man Will saw near the scene of the crime. Their only clue is that the man has a noticeable twitch.

Then in a shot that predates a similar moment in Hitch’s film Notorious by nine years, the camera swoops high above the busy hotel ballroom. It’s a God’s-eye view as we take in the huge space and see the dozens of people dancing and enjoying themselves – is the murderer among them? The camera drifts and drifts and we eventually catch sight of the band playing on the stage – how are they involved? We don’t stop moving. Slowly, methodically, Hitchcock picks out the drummer at the back of the stage – is he the killer? We push in and in and in, and the shot ends with the man’s eyes *filling* the frame. He twitches – we’ve found our man.

Eight guys with a camera out of 10

The Wrong Man (1956)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

January 1953. A struggling musician is accused of being a criminal…

The Wrong Man is a rare thing indeed: an Alfred Hitchcock film based on a real-life incident. The tale of a man accused of a crime he didn’t commit must have appealed to the director for at least two reasons. Firstly, it gave him a chance to retell his favourite plot: an innocent man being caught up in events beyond his control. But perhaps this movie is also Hitch exorcising a peculiar episode from his childhood.

In the first decade of the 20th century, when Hitchcock was a small boy, he misbehaved. So, wanting to teach him a lesson, his father sent him to the local police station with a note asking the coppers to lock young Alfred up in a prison cell for a few minutes. The scary experience had a long-lasting affect. Even in his advancing years, Hitch was recounting the story in interviews, saying it had given him a healthy fear of the police and of being deprived of his freedom. It’s this fear that powers The Wrong Man.

In need of some cash to help his wife pay a dentists’ bill, jazz bassist Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) visits an insurance company’s office to enquire about taking out a loan against her policy. Unfortunately, the women who work there are convinced – incorrectly – that he’s actually a man who robbed them a few weeks previously. It’s simply a matter of mistaken identity, but soon the police pick Manny up off the street and take him in for questioning…

Henry Fonda plays an excellent everyman and elicits a huge amount of sympathy out of Manny’s plight. Early on, we see him flirt with his wife and spend time with his two sons. We quickly, economically see that he’s a good, unpretentious guy. (There is never any suggestion, by the way, that the film is setting up a switcharoo twist. You never doubt Manny’s story.) It’s all the more effective, then, when one evening he’s suddenly arrested and dragged away from his family. Manny helps the police and is accommodating and calm, but he becomes increasingly numb as he’s shuffled through all the legal protocols – being interviewed, being charged, being searched, being locked up, attending a bail hearing, being transferred to a prison, being tried. His sense of hopelessness and fear is enormous.

Crucially, there’s a kind of grim realism going on here that you don’t often get in the razzle-dazzle world of Hitchcock. Rather than rant and rave, or act flippantly, or leap over a barrier and go on the run, Manny does what most innocent people would do when accused with a serious crime: he freezes, he goes pale, he becomes consumed with the dread of what might happen next. Also, the lead police detective (Harold J Stone, excellent) is not a movie-thriller dullard or a ‘bad guy’; he’s a smart, fair man doing a decent job. It’s not his fault that several (misleading) pieces of evidence suggest Manny is guilty. Likewise, Manny’s lawyer – the real-life Frank O’Connor played by Anthony Quayle – feels like a person who exists on his own terms rather than a theatrical character.

The plot also has a very affecting impact on Manny’s family. In the second half of the film, as he prepares for the defence at his trial, his wife suffers a breakdown. Rose is played by Vera Miles, who had most recently been spirited and likeable in John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers (1956). She is the film’s secret weapon, providing a subplot you don’t see coming and which ratchets up the stakes without any melodrama. Hitchcock was so impressed with her turn in The Wrong Man – especially her haunted performance once Rose can’t cope with the pressure and starts to shut down – that he gave her a five-year contract and cast her as the lead in his next movie, Vertigo (which she didn’t end up doing, but that’s another story).

All these cliché-avoiding choices give the film a depth and a breadth that the genre doesn’t usually demand. We also get a lot of real locations, rather than the artificial world created on Hollywood sound stages. Doubly real, in fact: not only are they not movie sets, but several places – the Stork Club, a prison, a sanatorium – are where the actual events really took place.

The movie’s refusal to glam up the story even extends to the resolution, which comes suddenly and fortuitously. A shot of Manny crossfades slowly to a shot of character haven’t seen before. As the man walks towards the camera, his face lines up with the fading image of Manny’s – and we realise that this lookalike is the real crook. When he attempts another robbery, he’s apprehended and arrested and Manny is off the hook. Maybe it’s fate; maybe it’s his Catholic prayers being answered. But he finally has his freedom back.

Nine Alfred Hitchcocks actually appearing on screen at the start of the film to tell you that The Wrong Man is based on a true story out of 10

Son of Dracula (1943, Robert Siodmak)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Contemporary America.

Faithful to the novel? This is the third movie in Universal Pictures’ Dracula series, following the Bela Lugosi original and its 1936 sequel. So we’re a way past the plot of Bram Stoker’s book (which actually exists in this story). The enigmatic foreigner Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr) has been wooing an American heiress called Kay (Louise Allbritton) and arrives at her New Orleans plantation just before her father dies. Suspicion obviously falls on the mysterious visitor, with Kay’s sister (Evelyn Ankers) and local doctor Harry Brewster (Frank Craven) especially keen to work out what happened. (Brewster had already clocked the oddity that Alucard’s name spelt backwards reads Dracula. The film presents conflicting evidence on whether the character is meant to be the Dracula from the original film resurrected or – as the title suggests – his descendant.) Before they can crack the case, however, Alucard marries Kay and takes over as master of the plantation. Then, in a rage, her ex-boyfriend Frank (Robert Paige) attempts to shoot Alucard but accidentally hits Kay – and seemingly kills her. When she later turns up, we realise that she’s been turned into a vampire…

Best performance: When Universal first put a Dracula movie into production, horror icon Lon Chaney was their first choice to play the vampire. However, he died of cancer in August 1930 and Bela Lugosi was cast in his place. Now, Chaney’s son – who was then well known as The Wolf Man in another Universal series – takes over the role. Sadly it’s a pretty neutral performance, lacking either menace or romance. He wears a cape but doesn’t attempt an eastern European accent. Much better is Frank Craven as Dr Brewster. He’s the story’s Van Helsing equivalent, the man who takes up the challenge of investigating and defeating the vampire threat. As he doesn’t have Van Helsing’s prior knowledge of the undead, he calls in a Transylvanian called Professor Lazlo (J Edward Bromberg) to provide the plot exposition.

Best bit: There are several instances of Dracula or Kay morphing into or from the form of a bat or a cloud of smoke. The special effects are very impressive.

Review: The functional direction and under-rehearsed performances are a shame, as the story has the potential for Gothic grandeur. A mysterious outsider enthralling a vulnerable young woman and taking over her family’s rambling estate could be straight out of a Victorian melodrama. But rather than tension or drama, most of the movie’s atmosphere comes from Hans J Salter’s stirring incidental music. In the film’s favour, a nice twist comes when we learn that, rather than a meek, naïve victim, Kay has been manipulating Alucard. She pretended to fall under his spell so he would turn her and grant her immortality, then her plan was to dispose of the Count and live forever with her true love, Frank.

Six earthbound spirits whose bodies comes to life at night and scour the countryside, satisfying a ravenous appetite for the blood of the living out of 10