Drácula (1931, George Melford)

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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: Castle Dracula in Transylvania; aboard a ship on the open seas; London. Renfield mentions that he was called to the bar in 1928, so we’re in the 1930s.

Faithful to the novel? The story of the production of this Universal Pictures film is both famous and fascinating. It’s a Spanish-language movie produced at the same time and on the same sets as the more famous English-language version starring Bela Lugosi, with this movie’s crew working at night while the main unit slept. Doubling up like this was an occasional practise in the days before post-dubbing dialogue was possible and it allowed the studio to release the same title in different territories. Using the same script and sets, therefore, the Spanish film Drácula has the same storyline as the English version; both were adaptations of the Dracula stage play so the plot only loosely follows Stoker’s book. See my earlier blog here for more details.

Best performance: Eva Seward (played by Lupita Tovar, an actress who lived to be 106 years old, dying only in 2016) is a noticeably more spirited and charismatic character than her counterpart in the Lugosi movie.

Best bit: During production, the Spanish version’s crew kept a keen eye on what the other team were doing and often saw ways of improving the action. One example comes when Van Helsing realises the mysterious foreigner newly arrived in London is a vampire. In both films, the doctor spots that Dracula has no reflection, but look at how the two shots work compositionally. In Tod Browning’s English-language version (left), the debt owed to the stage play is obvious: we’re looking at flatly arranged actors, the mirror is small in the shot and actor Edward Van Sloane has to turn away from the camera to look at it. However, when the same beat was filmed for the Spanish film (right), we can see the shock on the face of Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) and at the same time the mirror is large and significant in the frame.

Review: If you know the Bela Lugosi movie, it’s an uncanny experience to see different actors performing the same actions on familiar sets. And in some ways the comparison does the more famous film no favours. This lesser-seen Dracula is visually more competent and ‘modern’; the action flows a bit more smoothly and the creepy scenes get under your skin (often by using silence to generate tension). But while director George Melford was popular with his cast, the fact he himself didn’t speak Spanish can’t have helped with the performances, which to this non-Spanish-speaking reviewer sometimes seem stilted and uncertain. One exception is Carlos Villasias, who is effective as Conde Drácula. Uniquely among the cast he was allowed to watch footage of the other film because producers wished him to imitate Bela Lugosi. In the end, he maybe gives the better performance.

Eight London newspapers that apparently print their front-page stories in Spanish out of 10

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My 10 favourite James Stewart films

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James Stewart – perhaps Hollywood’s best ever ‘everyman’ actor – had a film career of over half a century, from a supporting role in 1935 crime movie The Murder Man to a voice part in 1991 animation An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. In between he starred in some of the biggest and most important movies around, so on what would have been his 111th birthday, here’s a list of his 10 best.

10. Destry Rides Again (1939, George Marshall)
James Stewart appeared in several Westerns throughout his career; it was a genre he especially enjoyed. This was his first – and it’s often played like a comedy. He stars as Tom Destry Jr, an unconventional lawman who takes on a criminal gang but refuses to carry a gun. Marlene Dietrich is top billed as the local saloon owner and gets as couple of songs to sing. Other decent Westerns starring James Stewart include two films directed by Anthony Mann – the episodic Winchester ’73 (1950) and the predictable but well made The Man from Laramie (1955) – as well as…

9. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, John Ford)
A classy team-up with director John Ford and his favourite star, John Wayne. In the late 19th century, US Senator Ranse Stoddard (Stewart) arrives in a low-key town to attend a funeral. The bulk of the film is then a flashback to 25 years later, showing Stoddard’s first visit to the town during which he encountered and stood up to a savage local thug. There’s a good supporting cast – Vera Miles as the love interest, Lee Marvin as the heavy – as well as effective themes about how memories and myths can’t always be trusted.

8. No Highway in the Sky (1951, Henry Koster)
A character part for Stewart here, as he plays an aviation engineer who fears that a new fleet of commercial aircraft will fail. His character, Theodore Honey, has a razor-sharp intellect and a passionate determination – but is also a befuddled widower who forgets where he lives. This fun British film has a smart, understated script and some terrific production values. Marlene Dietrich, Glynis Johns, Jack Hawkins and a young Janette Scott co-star.

7. Harvey (1950, Henry Koster)
A delightfully breezy comedy about a man who has an imaginary friend in the form of an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit. Elwood P Dowd (Stewart) is a benign eccentric, but his sister attempts to have him committed – which leads to a farce-like plot of misunderstanding, whimsy and humour.

6. Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939, Frank Capra)
This social satire sees Stewart as a naïve man elevated to the US Senate by cynical political operatives; they think they can manipulate him into voting their way, but don’t count on his guile and decency. The plot peaks with a grandstanding sequence where Jeff Smith (Stewart) filibusters for 25 hours to block a dodgy bill passing through the Senate, but there’s also lightness and romance along the way too. (This was the second of three times Stewart worked for director Frank Capra.)

5. Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)
The highlights of James Stewart’s career were often his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock; the two men made four films together. In the decent The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Stewart plays one of his classic everyman roles – a husband and father who gets caught up in international espionage. But his first character for the Master of Suspence was Rupert Cadell, a sly university professor who attends a party hosted by two of his former pupils. Slowly it dawns on Cadell that the men have done something dreadful: they’ve murdered a friend as an intellectual exercise, hidden his body in a trunk, and then invited his loved ones round for drinks… The movie, famously shot in long takes, is absolutely gripping throughout. Click here for a full review.

4. Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger)
A courtroom drama shot like a film noir with a jazz score by Duke Ellington. Stewart stars as Paul Biegler, a small-town lawyer who takes on the defence of a man accused of killing a love rival. It’s a dark film, cynical and seedy at times, but so engrossing that its long running time (160 minutes) is never an issue. Part of the reason for its success is, like all great legal dramas, the details of the case are investigated with such precision; part of the reason is the strong cast (George C Scott as the prosecution lawyer, Ben Gazzara as the defendant, Lee Remick as the defendant’s girlfriend); and part of the reason is Stewart’s endlessly watchable performance as Biegler, a melancholic character who likes fishing and playing the piano.

3. Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
Stewart’s second role for Hitch was, like Rope, in a concept film. This time he plays LB Jefferies, a photographer who’s housebound due to a busted leg. During a heat wave, from his apartment window, he watches life going on outside – and then comes to belief that he’s seen his neighbour committing murder. The camera never leaves Jefferies’s side, so we see events totally from his point of view. It’s a spectacularly effective piece of filmmaking. Click here for a full review.

2. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
For a long time, there was a cliché that was often pedalled about It’s a Wonderful Life: that it’s an overly sugary, sentimental film without much depth – the very model of a ‘feel-good’ movie. But it’s now become just as much a cliché to point out that that’s not the case. Yes, there’s a stunningly upbeat ending – an explosion of joy and positivity and happiness that has no equal in cinema. But before we get there, this is a dark, shaded drama about a good, decent man who’s driven to the point of suicide. Stewart excels as small-town guy George Bailey, a role that allows the actor to display his astronomical charm and comic timing but also show us what a great dramatic performer he was. George is in virtually every scene and you feel every setback, every dent to his dreams.

1. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
James Stewart’s final role for Alfred Hitchcock was in a movie that has sometimes – such as in Sight & Sound’s most recent big poll of experts – been called the greatest ever made. A twisted, seductive story about obsession, Vertigo sees the actor as Scottie Ferguson, a retired cop who’s hired to keep an eye on a troubled woman. When she dies in front of him, Scottie is racked with guilt. He then becomes unhealthily focused on the dead woman, and later happens to see another woman who looks uncannily similar… Alfred Hitchcock shows a masterful command of both form and feeling; Stewart carries off an enormously complex performance throughout.

Ten Things I Love About Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is an intoxicating neo-noir mystery story, a masterpiece of art direction and cinematography, and one of the best examples of science-fiction in any medium. It also, however, feels like a self-contained piece of work – a glimpse into a world that is all the more fascinating because we only spend two hours there.

So producing a sequel 35 years later was something of a risk. Scott himself has recently directed two follow-ups to his other sci-fi classic, Alien (1979), and both fell a very long way short of that movie’s seductive terror. Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049 is *at least* the equal of the 1982 antecedent. Made with an understanding of the original’s power but also with a distinct voice by director Denis Villeneuve, it’s a big film, a difficult film at times, but an engrossing and hugely rewarding experience.

There are a multitude of reasons why it’s quite so wonderful. Here are just 10…

1. Connections
A sequel can do several things. It can go down the James Bond route of presenting another adventure involving the same character/s; essentially a new self-contained story. Or it can be more like the films in the Godfather or Star Wars series, which are discrete units but also work to develop an ongoing narrative. In other cases, ‘sequels’ actually have precious little to do with their originator – see Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which takes place in a different continuity, or The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), which presents a whole new cast. But the latest Blade Runner film goes down its own path. It’s set 30 years after the events of the original movie and focuses on new characters. But its storyline is inexorably linked to the first movie; it could not exist without it. It is a sequel, there’s no denying that. But it might be more useful to think of 2049 as a companion piece to Ridley Scott’s film; an extension; a development. It’s not just the literal narrative that’s being picked up and run with. It’s also the themes.

2. K
The story’s lead character is a replicant (a human-like synthetic lifeform) played by Ryan Gosling. The actor has recently developed a brand of impressively impassive acting that says nothing and everything all at the same time. He glides through this film, outwardly not emoting much or reacting very demonstrably to anything. But Gosling, whose wonderful deadpannery can also be enjoyed in great films such as Drive (2011) and The Nice Guys (2016), has grown into one of the best *movie actors* of recent years. Knowing his face will be enormous when viewed on a cinema screen, he’s able to convey curiosity, anger, frustration, excitement and especially melancholy with remarkable restraint… The slight rise of an eyebrow, an adjustment of the mouth: these moments always tell you exactly what his character is thinking and feeling. Like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in the first Blade Runner, KD6-3.7 – K for short – is an LA cop who tracks down and deals with renegade replicants. (We still don’t get told why they’re called Blade Runners.) When he stumbles across some bones buried under a tree, however, he discovers a volatile secret: replicants can procreate. Knowing this information could cause widespread panic and unbalance society, his boss Lt Joshi orders K to find the child and ‘retire’ it – in other words, kill it. K’s gumshoe storyline also leads him to remember details from his own childhood, and he starts to wonder if *he* is the missing child…

3. Pace
In 1930, the average length of an individual shot in an American film was about 12 seconds. By the start of the 21st century, this had decreased to just 2.5 seconds. Coupled with the increased running times of movies in recent years, and that can mean an awful lot of shots. (Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong, for example, has over 3,000 of them. It’s a decent film, but no one would disagree with the notion that a few trims would help.) Many people point to the influence of television, music videos and services like YouTube as the reason for this increase in cutting speed. The idea is that we’re all losing the ability to pay attention. But there’s actually no evidence for this. Studies have shown a steady decrease in shot length across the decades, irrespective of other media. (It’s probably more down to the development of user-friendly technology in editing rooms.) However, in an era of non-stop cutting and a fear that audiences will get bored if you linger on one image for too long, Blade Runner 2049 is pointedly slooooow. It’s more deliberate than your average blockbuster and it *takes its time*. The rhythm of the storytelling feels old-fashioned – joyfully so – and allows the plot, the characters and the world to just *be*, to exist and develop. The film seduces you, grips you, and doesn’t let go. It’s lyrical, cerebral and beautiful. If most sci-fi films are rock songs, this is a symphony.

4. Joi
K leads an empty life, alone in a small apartment in a seedy building full of thugs. His one source of solace comes from an ersatz girlfriend – an artificial-intelligence hologram called Joi, played by Ana de Armas. It’s fair to say that this film has come in for some criticism around the character, given that she’s essentially a spin on the ‘sex robot’ cliché. She’s a mother/lover totem who switches from domestic goddess to flirty girl in the flick of a hologrammatic beam; she’s artificial and has been programmed to serve and ‘love’ anyone who buys her. But does this miss the point? The central theme of the Blade Runner films is ‘What is life?’ (The novel that the original movie was based on, after all, was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Here, a pointedly provocative character is being dramatised so we can question what it means to be alive. K is ‘artificial’ too, after all: he’s a replicant. But he’s capable of emotion and independence and sentience. We don’t question his right to life or to be treated with respect. We accept him as a character worth investing in. Why is Joi any different? At several points in the film, she seems to make complex and human-like decisions out of genuine love – she even sacrifices herself to save K. We later see a giant, 3D advertisement for her model and it presents a crasser, more sexualised version. ‘Our’ Joi had broken away from this cliché and become a unique personality. Doesn’t that make her ‘alive’? Joi has been programmed, yes, and has pre-set parameters that control her actions and ‘feelings’. But how is that any different from a human being? Our personalities and psychologies are shaped by natural characteristics, our upbringing, our surroundings and a host of other factors outside of our control. It doesn’t stop us being us.

5. Visuals
Cinema is imagery. If it were just people talking, it would be a radio play. And Blade Runner 2049 understands the beauty and power of visual images better than any other Hollywood movie of recent years. Just like in the 1982 original, both the physical world and the cinematography are *achingly* wonderful. Production designer Dennis Gassner and director of photography Roger Deakins (who both have Coen brother and Bond movies on their CV) create something that feels 360-degree real, 100-per-cent immersive, 3D vivid. It’s a logical development of the neo-noir LA we saw in Ridley Scott’s original – there are still cluttered streets and smoggy atmospheres and dramatic skyscrapers and neon adverts and dangerous shadows. But 2049 also moves the world on: America is now more Brutalist than Deco; more straight than curved; more scathing than seductive; more stark than sleazy. (Tellingly, director Denis Villeneuve’s keyword when trying to convey the film’s tone to colleagues was ‘brutality’.) There’s also still the Japanese influence we saw in 1982 (the bad guy’s lair is based on Kiyomizu-dera, an ancient temple in Kyoto), while several scenes take place away from urban sprawl: on a desolate farm, in sandblasted ruins. Each location has its own identity – a cold and sterile police station, the ethereal, golden offices of the Wallace Corporation, a cyberpunky brothel alley, an industrial factory, the faded, entropic ruins of Las Vegas – but they all feel part of the same whole and they all contribute to telling the story. There’s also a constant sense of size and scale: Blade Runner 2049 takes place in an enormous, wide-angle fictional world. Deakins rightly won an Oscar and a Bafta for his work on this film; Gassner was nominated at both ceremonies. The craft and skill involved in producing something so wonderful beggars belief.

6. Luv
If there’s perhaps one blemish on this film it’s the lead antagonist. For the character of Niander Wallace, an eccentric, blind businessman who runs LA’s most powerful conglomerate, Villeneuve initially hoped to cast David Bowie. ‘He embodied the Blade Runner spirit,’ the director said. But then Bowie died. It would have been an interesting piece of casting, given the associations the actor would have brought from other roles and his career in general. Sadly, Jared Leto – an acquired taste of an actor – is a poor second choice. The character has a plan to steal the bones that K has discovered, because he wants to learn how replicants can conceive and then use this to expand his business empire. But Leto plays Wallace in such an affected and theatrical way, especially in a perverse scene when he kills a naked replicant, that the character teeters on the edge of silliness. He doesn’t fit with the movie’s mood or world. Thankfully, much more watchable is Wallace’s second-in-command, Luv, played with icy control by Sylvia Hoeks. She’s essentially the film’s ‘heavy’, who acts as Wallace’s proxy because he’s too important/lazy/scared to leave the sanctity of his palatial building. Luv carries out his orders and kills mercilessly when needed.

7. Music
The first Blade Runner movie has a famously good score, so 2049 had a lot to live up to. Much like the look of the film, Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s incidental music manages to both honour what came before *and* push things forward. The score begins with ominous, reverb-heavy noises that echo Vangelis’s music from the first film, but this is no empty copy. Zimmer has become Hollywood’s premier composer over the last 25 years or so, known for music that feels enormous but which still has telling emotional weight. His work with Wallfisch on Blade Runner 2049 is no different.

8. Names
K’s boss at the police station is Lt Joshi, played with intelligence by Robin Wright, and she’s one of several characters in Blade Runner 2049 with an intriguing name. In Japanese, for example, jōshi with a long ‘o’ sound (上司) means boss while joshi with a short ‘o’ (女子) means female. Elsewhere, K’s single-letter moniker is a nod to Philip K Dick, the man who wrote the story on which the original Blade Runner movie was based. Niander Wallace’s name is a pun on Homo Neandertalensis, a now-extinct species of humans (suggesting he is destined to be superseded by replicants). Ana Stelline (played by Carla Juri) is an enigmatic woman who designs complex fake memories for replicants, and has a name that refers to anastellin (a natural substance that suppresses tumour growth and metastasis – ie, she keeps things alive). The implication of Luv’s name when said out loud is obvious… but if you don’t understand why Joi’s name has that spelling, ask your older brother.

9. Deckard
In recent years, Harrison Ford has been reprising the roles that won him such a venerated place in genre cinema history. In 2008, he got out his archaeologist’s hat and whip for a fourth time in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Seven years later, he returned to the Star Wars universe to give Han Solo one last Kessel Run round the block. Then he completed the hat-trick of heroes in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049… Rick Deckard doesn’t appear on screen until after 100 minutes, and for anyone who’s seen the poster or DVD cover and knows he’s on his way, this delay gives his return to the two-film narrative a huge amount of significance and weight. A trail of clues has led K to the post-apocalyptic ruins of Las Vegas, where he encounters his Blade Runner predecessor. ‘You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you?’ asks Deckard. It’s a quotation from Treasure Island, a book about a young man on a dangerous, revelatory quest for an enormous prize. The line is said by Ben Gunn, a pirate who has been stranded alone for a long time – in much the same way as the isolated and bitter Deckard. After a punch-up that plays out against the gleefully absurd background of a stop-start hologrammatic Elvis Presley concert – another masterpiece of lighting from Roger Deakins – the two cops discuss the case. Ford is sombre, soulful, sanguine; there are decades of anguish carved into his granite face. (Commendably, this film maintains the original Blade Runner’s ambiguity over whether Deckard is himself a replicant. Evidence weighs towards yes, but it’s not conclusive.)

10. Rachel
As well as Deckard, two other characters from the original movie have presences in Blade Runner 2049. Edward James Olmos returns for a one-scene cameo as Gaff, the prissy detective with a fondness for the multi-lingo Cityspeak. K visits him in a retirement home when he’s trying to track down Deckard. It’s a scene that could have been cut: precious little information is learnt and it’s largely a geek-pleasing moment (Gaff even does some origami – tick!). Much more significant is the reappearance of Deckard’s late lover – the replicant Rachel. She’s died in the decades since the first film, but makes a haunting cameo when Wallace taunts Deckard by presenting him with a facsimile of his lost love. In the finest use of computer-generated imagery yet seen in any film, the character appears exactly as she did in the original Blade Runner. Sean Young, who played Rachel in 1982, advised body double Loren Peta how to move and stand, then the latter’s face was replaced digitally. This kind of thing has been done a few times recently, most notably in the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One (2016). But Blade Runner 2049 exceeds anything done in that film or elsewhere. It’s a stunning moment, full of awe and wonder. If Blade Runner 2049 is about anything – and actually, it’s about a lot of things – then it’s a movie built on memories. K questions his own recollections, searches for his real history, and tries to create new memories with Joi. Ana specifically designs artificial memories for other people. Deckard, meanwhile, is haunted by the past – and Wallace knows that. The latter takes the former prisoner because he needs to know what happened to his and Rachel’s child. He taunts Deckard by playing him an audio recording of his first meeting with Rachel, then offers an incentive to talk… ‘An angel, made again,’ says Wallace as a millimetre-perfect recreation of Rachel sashays into the room. ‘Did you miss me?’ she says, totally believable. ‘Don’t you love me?’ Deckard is stunned by being confronted by something so beautiful, that he loves so much, but that he thought long gone and that has been made anew. So are we.

Ten wooden horses out 10

The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

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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.

On a train journey across Europe, a young woman begins to panic when a fellow passenger goes missing without a trace…

Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes is an adaptation of the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – and it’s breezy, confident and a lot of fun. Four decades later, there was another film adaptation of the same book, this time directed by Anthony Page and made by Hammer Films. Inevitably it’s tempting to view the two movies in direct comparison, so let’s do just that and see how they match up.

Story

Both films follow largely the same plot. A motley gang of passengers – a beautiful fiancée, an eccentric older woman, a couple having an affair, two cricket-obsessed men and others – board a train in central Europe, heading west. The young fiancée befriends the older woman, but is shocked when the latter goes missing… and her anxiety only increases when no one else on board seems to remember ever seeing the woman. The fiancée’s only ally is a charming young man who helps her search (perhaps more because he fancies her than he believes her story). After they spot a bandaged patient being brought aboard the train at the next station, the fiancée suspects that the older woman has been switched for the patient – and it turns out she’s right! A group of bad guys have been hunting the older woman because she’s actually a secret agent carrying a coded message back to London. Eventually, the train is surrounded by gunmen and the fiancée, her male friend and others passengers are besieged – they must hold off the bad guys until the older woman can sneak away to continue her quest…

Time

1938: Hitchcock’s film is set contemporaneously to when it was made, so the story takes place in the late 1930s.

1979: We’re in the late 1930s in the Hammer version too – an on-screen caption tells us it’s August 1939. But because these filmmakers had the perspective of 40 years, their movie has an extra level of political context. It’s the month before Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War, and Nazis have taken over the picturesque town where the story begins.

Place

1938: Hitchcock’s film gets underway in the fictional central-European state of Bandrika (‘one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners’), starting at an alpine inn and then following the train as it crosses the countryside. One of the stops the trains makes is at the similarly made-up town of Morshkan.

1979: The action begins in the landlocked German state of Bavaria. The passengers then board a train for Basel in Switzerland.

Heroine

1938: The lead character is Iris Henderson, who we first meet in the inn staying with two friends. One night she complains about noise coming from the floor above and has the man creating the racket kicked out of his room. Brazenly, he then walks into her room while she’s in bed and attempts to share it. The next day Iris leaves for London to get married, but we suspect that her heart is not really in it. She soon bonds with another guest from the inn, a kindly older woman. But after Iris wakes from a nap, the woman has disappeared – and Iris gets increasingly manic when no one else on the train remembers seeing her… Iris is played by Margaret Lockwood, who is a British take on the idea of a ‘Hawksian woman’: a type of female character popularised by director Howard Hawks who is both movie-star beautiful and sassy-smart. Or as Hitchcock put it when discussing Lockwood: ‘She photographs more than normally easily and has an extraordinary insight in getting the feel of her lines, to live within them.’

1979: In the later film, Iris’s equivalent is ‘madcap’ heiress Amanda Metcalf-Midvani-Von Hoffsteader-Kelly, whose introduction into the story comes when she does a daring impression of Hitler… while drunk… and wearing a slinky and revealing evening gown… in front of dozens of Nazi shits in a hotel bar. She’s nearly 30, enjoys marrying people for money, and is American rather than English, but like Iris is on her way to London for a wedding she’s not too enthusiastic about… Cybill Shepherd plays her character with a fast-talking energy and the air of someone who’s used to getting her own way. The actress had burst onto the scene with an amazing performance in drama film The Last Picture Show (1971), then starred in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976.

Hero

1938: The man causing the noise above Iris’s hotel room is musicologist Gilbert Redman, who spends the whole film with a carefree, cheerful attutide. He’s a cocky individual, but as he’s the only passenger on the train willing to help Iris she’s forced to spend some time with him. He’s deflated when he learns Iris is returning to London to marry, then like so many of Hitchcock’s mismatched partnerships of the 1930s – The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent – they almost imperceptibly start to fall for each other. Gilbert is played by Michael Redgrave, a member of the famous Redgrave acting dynasty (he was the son of stage actor Roy Redgrave; the father of Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave; and the grandfather of Natasha Richardson, Joely Richardson and Jemma Redgrave). The Lady Vanishes was his first big film role, but he was an established theatre actor and brings a knowing wit to the part.

1979: Gilbert’s equivalent in the second adaptation has also has his nationality switched to American. Robert Condon is a photojournalist rather than a music expert, so we get a more subdued meet-cute than in 1938. There’s no ruckus in the bedroom above; instead the two characters simply get chatting outside their hotel. But, like Gilbert, Robert soon falls for the film’s leading lady – the fact Amanda spends the entire story in a flimsy dress and no bra is probably part of the reason. Elliott Gould, an actor who’d had a very good 1970s thanks to films such as M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, A Bridge Too Far and Capricorn One, gives Robert a different kind of light touch from Redgrave; less smug, more affable. His Jewish heritage also adds another level of meaning to the film, of course.

Lady

1938: The eponymous character of the story is the kind-hearted and inoffensive Miss Froy, a woman in her 70s. She claims to be a governess who’s lived and worked in Bandrika for six years; she says she loves the place. But we later learn that she’s an intelligence agent who’s been tasked with delivering a message to London – the information has been coded in the form of a musical tune, which she heard from an undercover spy in Bandrika. (As Hitchcock himself later chuckled, why don’t they just send the message via carrier pigeon?) Miss Froy is played with old-woman twinkle by May Whitty, a woman who was born in the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

1979: When we first glimpse Angela Lansbury’s Miss Froy in the 1979 film, she’s whistling a tune as she tramps down an alpine valley (so therefore already has the coded message as the film begins). She doesn’t meet Amanda until they take their seats on the train; the former helps the latter wash off her Hitler moustache, which she hasn’t had time to deal with since her drunken night in the bar. Lansbury was only in her early 50s when making this movie and plays Froy with a more lively eccentricity than Whitty.

Charters & Caldicott

1938: Two of the other passengers on the train are a pair of unflappable, unruffled Englishmen called Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne). They’re the story’s comic relief, and an early gag has you wonder if they’re secret agents – they say they need to race home because England is ‘on the brink’. Is this a comment on the rising threat from Nazi Germany? No, the two men are actually cricket obsessives and are talking about a Test match at Old Trafford. The characters are all the more amusing because the actors never go for ‘funny’ – they play everything dry, calmly; with a straight bat. (One comedic scene has them sharing a bed, Morecambe & Wise-style.) Radford and Wayne were so successful as supporting characters in this movie that they reprised Charters and Caldicott in three further unrelated films – Night Train to Munich (1940), which also co-starred Margaret Lockwood, Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943). They also played suspiciously similar double acts in eight other films of the 1940s and various BBC Radio comedies.

1979: The 1979 versions of Charters and Caldicott are also entertaining and are played by Arthur Lowe, who’d spent the previous decade playing the self-important Captain Mainwaring in BBC sitcom Dad’s Army, and Ian Carmichael. In their opening scene, the men ask a German officer when a train is due to leave and are rather affronted that he doesn’t speak English. Later, the 1938 gag about needing to race home because ‘England is on the brink’ is repeated, but has added weight here because we know war really is imminent. After this film, Charters and Caldicott featured in their own TV spin-off, produced by the BBC in 1985 and starring Michael Aldridge and Robin Bailey. The characters were missing, however, when the Beeb made their own version of The Lady Vanishes in 2013. In that adaptation of the novel, their role in the story was given to female characters played by Stephanie Cole and Gemma Jones.

Production

1938: Hitchcock made his film entirely in London studios, but opened up the fictional world via rear-projection screens for the train windows, stock footage of moving locomotives, and – most appealingly – some beautiful model shots. The best of the latter is the film’s opening image: the camera pans across a charming, train-set model village covered in snow, tracking in towards the window of the inn. The film is in black and white, like all Hitchcock movies before 1948, and was made before the advent of widescreen cinema.

1979: Shot attractively in Panavision’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in colour by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Hammer’s version contains plenty of location filming in Austria. Scenes aboard the train were recorded at Pinewood Studios, but the scenery passing by the windows is faked very well.

Review

Cinema was born with short films made by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and projected to paying audiences in the 1890s. One of their earliest works, first screened in January 1896, was a 50-second single take called L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. It showed – at a daringly oblique angle – a train pulling into a station, and the probably apocryphal story goes that audiences fled in terror, assuming the train would burst through the screen and into the room. So trains have been a part of the movies since the very beginning, and as the art form developed into complex narratives, they were soon being used as both plot devices and settings. Think of silent-movie clichés and you’ll probably list a scene where a woman lies on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. (It did happen, of course: in a 1905 film called The Train Wreckers, for example, or in 1911’s The Attempt on the Special. But the cliché actually predated cinema, and the few silent films that featured such a moment usually did so as a spoof.) Elsewhere, trains cropped up in some vastly significant films: DW Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911), one of the earliest movies to cut between different locations rather than stick to a single setting; Buster Keaton’s innovatively filmed Civil War comedy The General (1926); the British action thriller The Flying Scotsman in 1929, which featured actors risking their lives by hanging off the side of the speeding locomotive; and Shanghai Express, the seductively noir-ish thriller directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1932. (And it wasn’t just cinema, of course. Agatha Christie published her novel Murder on the Orient Express – a masterpiece of a mystery story set almost entirely on a train – in 1934, just two years before Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins.) Hitchcock had got on board with the idea too, featuring trains in films such as The 39 Steps and Secret Agent. But his adaptation of The Lady Vanishes takes things to a whole new level. The dialogue sparkles like a screwball comedy, but the director never forgets that this is a thriller and he keeps the plot speeding along with such confidence, such aplomb. Things take a dark turn when Miss Froy disappears and an added element of pleasure comes from the sophistication of the script: the characters who claim they never saw the old woman each have a plausible reason for lying. This gives us, the audience, more information than Iris, allowing us to both enjoy and sympathise with her plight. The 1979 version, meanwhile, is an efficient film in its own right, if flatter and more conventional. Shepherd, Gould and Lansbury are all good value. Nevertheless, it was made with a certain disdain for the first adaptation. ‘Hitchcock’s film had some brilliant things in it,’ intoned writer George Axelrod. ‘But as a whole picture you’d have to admit it’s pretty creaky. The four or five things people remember from the original receive a homage in our version.’ What a strange thing to say: aside from the new political context, almost every good idea in the Hammer remake is a direct lift from 1938.

1938: Nine men at Waterloo station out of 10
1979: Seven poker games with Karl Marx and Jean Harlow out of 10

Acknowledgment: This blog post was helpful with details about trains in silent cinema.

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

SoloStarWars

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ten years before his encounter with Luke Skywalker in a cantina, Han Solo becomes embroiled in a job to steal a valuable fuel source for a gangster…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one.

GOOD GUYS:

* When we first meet him, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is hot-wiring a land-speeder in a rusty, rundown city on his home planet of Corellia. It’s a place dominated by crime lords, even though the fascistic Empire are technically in command. Han – a young man in his late 20s – is scratching out a living for himself and girlfriend Qi’ra. He’s accumulated enough cash to buy their way out of the ‘control zone’, but while attempting to escape the planet Qi’ra is arrested by the authorities. Needing to hide, Han hits upon the idea of joining the Imperial military. When the recruiting officer asks his name, Han admits he doesn’t have a family and therefore no surname, so the officer plucks one out of the air: ‘Han… Solo.’ Three years later, Han is an unhappy grunt in the Imperial infantry. However, backchat to superior officers leads to him being thrown into a punishment pit with a ‘beast’. The monster actually turns out to be a sympathetic creature called Chewbacca, and rather than fight to the death the pair collude to escape their prison. (Handily, Han speaks a bit Chewy’s language.) Fleeing the army, Han and his new pal hook up with a criminal called Beckett, whose crew are planning to steal some valuable fuel from a speeding train. This opportunity pleases Han because his long-term goal is to earn enough money to get home to Corellia and save Qi’ra. However, despite Han getting to show off his piloting skills, the heist goes wrong: Beckett’s lieutenants are killed and the loot is snatched by a third party. So Beckett and Han must go cap in hand to Drydon Vos, the crime lord who hired them and the leader of a terrorist organisation called Crimson Dawn. On board Vos’s palatial Art Deco yacht, Han is stunned to bump into Qi’ra – she escaped Corellia on her own, and now works for Crimson Dawn. He then cuts a deal with Vos to steal the loot from somewhere else. This involves travelling down a dangerous space route known as the Kessel Run (take a gulp if you’re playing the drinking game), but for this they need a fast ship. Luckily Qi’ra knows a guy who has one. At first, Han attempts to win the craft in a card game – but the cad with the transport, a slick fella called Lando, beats him and insists on a cut of the take for the use of his ship. When Han then sees Lando’s vehicle – the Millennium Falcon, a disc-shaped Corellian YT-1300 – he goes all misty-eyed and mentions that his father helped build this brand of spaceship. The gang travel to the planet Kessel, where they steal the coaxium Vos wants, then flee via the Kessel Run. Lando’s pilot was killed during the job, though, so Han must take the controls of the Millennium Falcon – he actually completes the run faster than anyone ever before. Meeting up with Vos, Han is betrayed by both Beckett – who attempts to steal the loot for himself – and Qi’ra, who chooses a dark path. So as the film winds down, Han and Chewy seek out Lando again, and Han wins the Falcon from him in a rigged card game. They then head for the planet Tatooine, where they’ve heard a crime lord is putting together a new job… Charged with the task of taking over such a venerated character, Ehrenreich is absolutely terrific. He brilliantly evokes Harrison Ford’s smirky charisma but never resorts to a hollow impression. Actor and script capture the tone of the Han Solo we know – the swashbuckling heroics, the playful cheek, the romantic streak, the hubris and failure – but as this is a younger Han, he’s also more optimistic and idealistic. (Fun fact: Alden Ehrenreich was given his first name in honour of family friend Phil Alden Robinson, the director of Sneakers and Field of Dreams.)

* Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) seems initially to be an infantry officer in the Imperial Army, but soldier Han quickly deduces that he’s an imposter: a thief for hire who pulls off jobs with a couple of cohorts. After allowing him to join his crew, Beckett becomes a kind of father-figure type for Han – offering advise, encouraging him, all that. This doesn’t stop him betraying his protégé, however, when he steals the coaxium for himself. Han gives chase and, before Beckett can talk his way out of it, shoots him dead. (Han shoots first, you see.) Harrelson is typically watchable.

* Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau) is Beckett’s pilot: a small, monkey-sized, multi-armed Ardenian with a sarcastic manner and a New York accent. The character is *in no way* a blatant rip-off of Bradley Cooper’s Rocket from the Guardians of the Galaxy series. He dies during the train heist.

* Val (Thandie Newton) is Beckett’s partner, both professionally and personally. A spiky, entertainingly rude character, she also dies attempting to steal the fuel – which is a real shame, as Newton is a fun presence while she lasts.

* Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) is a 190-year-old Wookie – a seven-foot-tall, furry alien – and has been locked up by the Empire, who are treating him like a savage animal. When we first see him, his fur is matted and he’s in an understandably bad mood. Han soon wins him round, though, especially by speaking to him in his own language, and the pair not only escape the Empire but become quick pals. During the Kessel Run, Chewy jumps into the Millennium Falcon’s co-pilot seat, establishing a spaceship-flying partnership with Han. At one point, we also learn that Chewbacca is searching for his lost family. Presumably, he’s referring to the Wookies seen in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. (A sad side note: I was doing a final pass on this blog when I heard the news that Peter Mayhew had died at the age of 74. He played Chewbacca in five Star Wars movies from 1977 until 2015 before passing the baton on to Suotamo.)

* Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman) initially seems to be the leader of a gang of pirates. She and her pals – one of whom is Warwick Davis’s Weazel, a character who first appeared in 1999’s The Phantom Menace – beat Beckett and co to the loot during the train heist. They must be crims, then? No, when Nest shows up near the end of the story we discover that she’s actually the leader of a nascent rebellion against the evil Empire. She asks Han to join their cause, but he declines. Kellyman, who only appears without a facemask in the final third of the film, is a bit earnest.

* Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) is said to be the best smuggler around, and is a dashing, louche, cape-wearing smoothie who enjoys cheating at card games and being economical with the truth. He signs up to Beckett’s mission to steal some coaxium, but wants 25 per cent of the take. However, after completing the job and running into more trouble, Lando leaves his new comrades behind and sneaks away with his ship. Later, Han tracks him down and suggests another game of Sabaac… Glover is tremendous value, echoing original actor Billy Dee Williams but bringing his own brand of swagger. (He also pronounces Han’s name with a short A, to match Williams in The Empire Strikes Back.)

* Droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is Lando’s first mate. She’s a vaguely human-shaped robot with an oversized head (all the better for containing, as Lando points out, the best navigational database in the galaxy). She’s also a fierce defender of ‘droid rights’, and is first seen pleading with other mechanical life to stand up for themselves. Despite being in a permanent bad mood, she has a thing for Lando (‘How would that work?’ asks a dubious Qi’ra) and maybe he has one for her too… On Kessel, she’s movingly upset by the sight of droids being held as slaves so incites a revolution – but then is fatally shot during the ensuing combat. Lando is *distraught*. (So are we.) L3’s navigational database is then uploaded into the Millennium Falcon’s computer… She might be a CGI creation, but you wouldn’t know that from the absolutely seamless way the character interacts with the actors and the physical sets. (Technology has moved on A LOT since Jar-Jar Binks, hasn’t it?) Waller-Bridge’s voice work is really brilliant: very funny and full of sass.

BAD GUYS:

* When Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) returns to the story on Crimson Dawn’s luxury yacht, she’s clearly a changed woman. She’s harsher, colder, and now a gangster’s moll-cum-advisor. But she’s also genuinely pleased to see Han again, and when the old flames travel to Kessel together they actually share a kiss in Lando’s cape room. (Yes, Lando has an entire room to store his capes. He’s *that* cool.) ‘Am I interrupting something?’ says a cockblocking Beckett, who’s not sure his new protégé should be cosying up to Drydon Vos’s aide. Qi’ra helps on the Kessel Run scam, pretending to be an Imperial official with Han as her shackled prisoner – then late in the film she turns into a samurai-sword-wielding badass, kills her boss and takes over his criminal empire. She then contacts his shadowy benefactor… This is a tough role for Clarke, who filmed Solo in-between seasons of Game of Thrones. Qi’ra may as well have a neon sign above her exceedingly pretty head that reads ‘I’m not who Han thinks I am’, but the actress disguises it as much as she can by using natural charm.

* Lady Promixa (voiced by Linda Hunt) is a giant slug-type creature who rules the underworld of Corellia with an iron tentacle. Early in the film, Han is taken to see her when it becomes clear he’s been ripping her off. The character is a nice reminder that the original Star Wars movies were no strangers to bizarre and even risible aliens. Nevertheless, it’s quite a relief that she doesn’t last very long in the story. To escape her oily clutches, Han pretends to have a thermal detonator (a grenade, essentially). Proxima is not fooled: ‘That’s a rock!’ she says. ‘And you just made a clinking sound with your mouth.’ (More than a decade of story time later, Princess Leia will use the same gag in an attempt to save Han from a different alien gangster.)

* One of the Imperial officers in the warzone scenes looks suspiciously like the late actor Don Henderson. Presumably he’s meant to be a younger version of Henderson’s character in the original Star Wars film.

* Drydon Vos (Paul Bettany) is the leader of Crimson Dawn, so therefore is the man Qi’ra now works for. He’s an arrogant, maniacal loon with a violent streak, a love of pithy threats and a scarred face. He also makes an obscure reference to having a sinister boss… After Beckett and co have brought him the coaxium he wants, Vos suffers a double-cross as Qi’ra kills him and takes over his organisation… Michael K Williams was cast in the role, but was then unavailable for some reshoots so Bettany took over. At the same time, the character went through a rethink: he was originally a CG creation resembling a humanoid lion. Whatever the visuals, he’s a bit of a rent-a-bad-guy.

* In a shock twist held back from all the publicity and trailers, Darth Maul (Ray Park; voiced by Sam Witwer) appears late on. He’s the real power behind Crimson Dawn – oh no! We only see Maul as a hologram when he FaceTimes Qi’ra, but we can tell he has robotic legs (in his last appearance, remember, he was cut in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi). Maul summons Qi’ra to come and see him and tells her they’ll be working more closely from now on… This is just a cameo, meant to set the character up for a sequel that will now probably never happen because Solo “only” took $392 million at the box office (ie, the smallest gross of any live-action Star Wars film). Peter Serafinowicz was originally hired to reprise the voice of Maul from The Phantom Menace, but then the strange decision was made to use someone else.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The action is uniformly great in this movie, whether it’s the chaotic trench warfare scenes, or the slick, wind-machined train heist, or the multi-character punch-up on the planet Kessel. Especially impressive is the dieselpunk chase sequence on Corellia with Han and Qi’ra in a land-speeder, a kind of floating car. Unlike most CG-heavy action scenes, this one feels totally real and heavy and locked into gravity. Solid, metallic vehicles career round corners and skirt past palpable obstacles. You feel the speed and the thrill and the danger. It’s like something from a Mad Max film.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Solo’s original directors were Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team behind the far-better-than-you-think-it’s-going-to-be comedy 21 Jump Street and the everything-is-awesome Lego Movie. But they were fired during production – reportedly for trying to make the film too much of a comedy. Nevertheless, even with the more serious-minded Ron Howard taking over, Solo is still often very funny. L3 is a hoot (‘Is there anything you need?’ ‘Equal rights?’), meaning this is the second Star Wars spin-off running with a comedic droid (cf Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO in Rogue One). Lando as played by Donald Glover is so watchable he *needs* a film all of his own (check out the throwaway moment when we glimpse him recording a vainglorious diary entry). Geeks all over the world will have smirked when the infamous Imperial March music cue is used in-story, as the Empire’s army-recruitment theme tune.

MUSIC: The score is utterly superb, feeling thoroughly and joyfully Star Wars-esque but having a life of its own too. Whether the scene is action or romance or melancholy or humour, John Powell’s incidental music adds a huge amount. Old John Williams themes are quoted if appropriate, such as a 1977 motif when Han first sits behind the controls of the Falcon, but the new stuff is always memorable and engaging. (Williams made a contribution too. He wrote a new theme called The Adventures of Han, which Powell then incorporated into his work.)

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film on 6 June 2018 at the Everyman Canary Wharf in London with my old pal Fraser Dickson. Unlike the December releases of the previous three Star Wars films, Solo came out in the UK on 24 May. WHY NOT MAY THE 4TH?!

REVIEW: This was a huge ask. Huge. To take such a famous and beloved character and *recast* him could have gone catastrophically wrong. Thankfully, both lead actor and the film as a whole are wonderful, vibrant and entertaining. Not that anyone’s going to claim Solo is rewriting the rules of cinema. Being a prequel, for example, it goes down the predictable route of ticking narrative boxes – we learn how Han gained his surname, how he met Chewbacca, how he met Lando Calrissian, how he first encountered the Millennium Falcon, how he gained his gun, why he claims in the original Star Wars that he did the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, even how long he’s owned a pair of gold dice that featured beyond fleetingly in the 1977 film then became a plot point in 2017’s The Last Jedi. This kind of dramatised backstory – simply filling out the spaces between established facts – could of course become boring very quickly. Solo, however, has more than enough zip, panache and style to sidestep the issue. It’s full of vivid characters, exiting sequences, humour, romance and adventure. It’s a caper movie, a heist movie, a Western in disguise. It’s enormous fun. It’s Star Wars. 

Nine spice mines of Kessel out of 10