The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

TheLadyVanishes

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.

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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

Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)

Tallulah Bankhead In 'Lifeboat'

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After a ship is torpedoed by a U-boat, a group of survivors find shelter in a lifeboat – but they also take aboard a German…

Soon after its launch in 1944, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat began to sink. Influential film critics objected to the even-handed depiction of a German character – a U-boat caption no less – and Twentieth Century Fox responded by limiting the number of prints in circulation and soft-pedalling the advertising. The movie actually ended up losing money at the box office.

It was released before the Normandy landings, so perhaps this reaction is understandable in the heightened context of the Second World War (even if, at the time, star Tallulah Bankhead called the critics moronic). But today it’s an unfair critique of a mostly excellent film. The first of Hitch’s single-location experiments (cf Rope, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window), Lifeboat presents an intriguing situation then populates it with memorable characters, plenty of drama and reversals of fortune. It’s a buoyant film, with themes that bubble to the surface. But there are also choppy waters along the way, as well as some dangerous undercurrents…

After an attack by a German U-boat, a passenger ship goes down in the Atlantic Ocean. A small group of survivors – a famous journalist, a couple of seaman, a nurse, a wealthy industrialist, a mother with her baby, a British radioman and a ship steward – find refuge in a lifeboat. They’re adrift, isolated and helpless. Their supplies are low and they have no means of contacting anyone.

The overall tone of the film is gallows humour mixed with a Blitz spirit. Despite the subtext of fear, there’s a real can-do attitude amongst this group. Whether it’s proactively fixing the boat’s damage or cataloguing supplies or playing cards – or working as a team to amputate a gangrenous leg! – these characters come together despite their differences. Every person in the story makes a contribution, even the character with the shortest screentime (Heather Angel’s Mrs Higley, whose baby dies but she’s too catatonic with shock to notice).

The nominal lead is journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), who appears at first to be a thoroughly awful woman, one so selfish that she boasts of the photographs she’s taken of the disaster rather than helping the victims. She starts off as an immaculately turned-out lady of society, but as she sheds clothes and accessories due to the heat and dehydration we get to know more and like her more. She even develops a cross-class flirtation with the rugged John Kovac (John Hodiak), a man who takes his shirt off at the earliest opportunity and flaunts his tattoos.

Elsewhere, there’s the affable but badly injured Gus Smith (William Bendix), the sweet and stoic Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), eccentric, cigar-chewing millionaire Charles J Rittenhouse Jr (Henry Hull), the friendly and resourceful Stanley ‘Sparks’ Garrett (Hume Cronyn, sadly putting on a pretty dire English accent) and the calming presence of ship steward Joe (Canada Lee). But thrown into this mix is an additional survivor, one who threatens to scuttle the sprightly group.

Floating through the wreckage of the passenger ship, they pull a stranger aboard. ‘Danke schoen,’ he says as he regains his breath, and the implication is immediately obvious. He’s from the U-boat, which itself has now sunk. But should our characters help stricken Willi (Walter Slezak)? Or should they just throw him overboard? He’s not an outwardly evil man, even offering help with poor Gus’s busted leg and suggesting the correct way to Bermuda. But he’s still the enemy. The dilemma of what to do with him drives much of the story, creates divisions within the lifeboat survivors, and has a shocking climax…

Based on an original idea by Hitchcock, the script was initially written by playwright John Steinbeck. (Ernest Hemingway had also been sounded out.) However, it was later tinkered with by a number of hands and Steinbeck disowned the project. In many ways, it’s a marvel. The dialogue is punchy yet meaningful and has a pleasing rhythm. The story never flags, despite the single setting. And you always want to know what’s going to happen next. But there is a problem. It’s one of the reasons Steinbeck turned his back on the movie. Lifeboat, regrettably, is lazily racist in its depiction of the story’s only black character.

Given the eras in which he produced movies it’s not surprising that Hitchcock’s diversity record is, by today’s standards, rather appalling. Other than Lifeboat’s Joe, his only other significant non-white character is charismatic spy Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Brown) in Topaz. When black men (never women) are otherwise spotted in Hitchcock movies, they tend to be servile or docile. The plot resolution of Young and Innocent, meanwhile, has a white character hiding under blackface.

At least Joe is played by a conscientious actor who tweaked his dialogue to remove the worst of the clichés he’d been given to say (the yessirs and all the rest). But, sadly, the character still comes across like a second-class citizen who’s there to entertain the others with his flute and sort out their food supplies. He rarely has a voice of his own, he has to ask not to be called by the generic black servant name of Charlie, and other characters initially use the nickname Charcoal.

But if this blemish needs us to turn a blind eye, in its physical staging Lifeboat *excels*. The studio recreation of the rough desolation of the mid Atlantic Ocean is a wonder of filmmaking and gives the story so much texture. It was achieved via a number of methods. Four different boats were built for the production; two were complete, while two were cut in half so the camera could get closer to the actors. A water tank was used for certain shots where a boat could be held in place by wires; another vessel was on rollers to better control its pitch and yaw. Dump tanks and chutes allowed thousands of gallons of water to be sloshed around. Dry ice created hazes of ocean mist and fog. Footage of endless, barren seas off California and Florida was played behind the actors on enormous rear-projection screens. In the final cut, everything is then accompanied by smartly chosen and edited sound effects. It all creates a tremendous sense of place.

Filming might have come at a price. The cast were repeatedly soaked with water and had to contend with motion sickness; Tallulah Bankhead caught pneumonia twice; Mary Anderson fell ill; Hume Cronyn suffered broken ribs and nearly drowned. But their sacrifices were worth it. Lifeboat is worth clinging to.

Nine before and after pictures in a newspaper ad for Reduco weight-loss drug out of 10

NOTE: I cut the following paragraph from the above review because it didn’t really fit into the flow, but the gags are so good I thought I’d add it here as a kind of ‘deleted scene’ extra:

There were moments of levity along the way too. When actress Mary Anderson asked Hitchcock what he thought was her ‘best side’, he said, ‘You’re sitting on it, my dear.’ After being told that Tallulah Bankhead had a habit of not wearing underwear, and this may cause an issue if caught on camera, Hitch is said to have joked, ‘I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up or hairdressing.’ And when the director argued that he didn’t want the film to have a score because the audience would be asking where the music is coming from, a caustic composer commented, ‘Ask Mr Hitchcock to explain where the camera came from and I’ll tell him where the music comes from.’

Rebecca (1940, 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.

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

The Wrong Man (1956, 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.

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

Blake’s 7: Sand (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While on a mission to find out why the Federation is so interested in the planet Virn, Tarrant has an encounter with Servalan…

Series D, episode 9. Written by: Tanith Lee. Directed by: Vivienne Cozens. Originally broadcast: 23 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Servalan (26) has come to the planet Virn to investigate a distress call from a pilot called Keller. He crashed there five years previously and had reported a unique trace of life on the planet. Along with an officer called Reeve (Stephen Yardley), Servalan lands on and walks across the barren, rocky desert to Keller’s prefab base. But it’s not a successful sortie: they get lost, a lackey mysteriously dies, and then they bump into Tarrant. After Tarrant has killed Reeve, Servalan flirtatiously offers a truce – and the enemies investigate the base together. There’s sand inside, the computer system has gone loopy and they find Keller dead, though his body is still warm. The base is then enclosed by shifting sands, trapping them inside…
* Vila (48) gets drunk when things start to go pear-shaped aboard the Scorpio.
* Dayna (22) and Tarrant teleport down to Virn to learn why the Federation expedition has gone there. But Reeve soon spots them and shoots Dayna in the arm, so Tarrant sends her back to Scorpio. Unbeknownst to anyone, she brings some sand up with her on her boots…
* Soolin (9) pilots the Scorpio; tends to Dayna’s flesh wound; and generally stands around looking fiercely sexy with a side-on ponytail.
* Avon (47) is the one who pitches the idea that the team should visit Virn. If the Federation are there, he argues, it must be for something useful – and he’d rather the Scorpio gang have whatever it is. Later, when Avon sees the sand that Dayna has brought up from the planet, he deduces that it’s dangerous and in some way sentient. But he also discovers that liquid can combat it, so he engineers a rainstorm on Virn.
* Once Dayna’s teleported back to the ship, Tarrant (22) encounters Reeve and kills him. After Servalan has revealed that she’s on the planet too, the pair are locked inside the base. They share a meal and flirt. (The fact the characters have barely interacted before this episode doesn’t seem to be important.) Tarrant also realises that the sand is alive – it has the ability to suck life out of people like a vampire and also has the power of reason. For example, it leaves potential couples alive so they can breed and produce more ‘food’. Servalan and Tarrant end up sleeping together, but later – after the rainstorm has dampened the sandy threat – he teleports back to Scorpio, leaving Servalan alone…
* Orac (31) has to be switched off when he’s affected by the goings-on and tells Avon that he loves him.
* Slave (8) also gets some bizarre dialogue.

Best bit: In a rare moment of sincerity and vulnerability, Servalan tells Tarrant that she was once in love with Keller. He left her when she was a teenager and, bitter at the rejection, ‘power became my lover.’ Tarrant later admits that she might have been lying to him as a manipulation, but we viewers know she wasn’t.

Worst bit: While speculating on the plot, Soolin tells the others that she ‘seems to recall you telling me of an alien trying to take over the Liberator through Cally.’ Do we think the others have sat her down and explained the storylines of all the episodes she missed? There were 39 of them, so it must have been a long evening: ‘Then Brian Blessed showed up… There was that time Avon thought he was Columbo… Dayna got menaced by a giant crab-spider-thing-type-thing… We met Cally’s sister and Tarrant’s brother, both of whom looked exactly like them… Did we mention when we got sucked into a black hole?’

Review: This is an episode high on both atmosphere and subtext, and there’s a real richness to the dialogue. It’s also plotted and paced very well and the drama is brilliantly played and directed. Sadly, the production lets the side down now and again. The scenes on the surface of Virn – a jarring, embarrassing clash of CSO, videotape, film and model shots – are pretty naff, for example. But it’s easy to forgive when the story keeps the attention, when the key scenes are so enjoyable, and when Servalan is more than just a Cruella de Vil with caustic quips.

Nine girls next door out of 10

Next episode: Gold

Frenzy (1972)

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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.

An innocent man must go on the run when he’s accused of being a serial killer…

Hitchcock comes home. The opening image of his penultimate film is a long, slow helicopter shot down the Thames and past Tower Bridge. The story then plays out in recognisably London locations such as Covent Garden (filmed just three years before the famous fruit-and-veg market moved out), Oxford Street, Leicester Square and Park Lane.

But this is not Hitchcock giving his hometown a Hollywood sheen. This is the down-and-dirty London of the early 1970s. Perhaps it’s the film stock, or the British weather, or the 1970s fashions, or deliberate choices by Hitchcock and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (A Hard Day’s Night, Dr Strangelove, The Omen, Star Wars) – but whatever the reason, Frenzy is a tough, uncompromising, seedy and vivid film alive with working-class life. You can smell the sweat and feel the grime. This is a world of sex murders and perversion, back-street boozers and alcoholics, fry-ups and fags, roadside cafes and enormous bank notes. It looks like an episode of The Sweeney. It’s absolutely compelling.

The storyline is a Hitchcock standard – innocent man gets caught up in events out of his control – but the movie twists the idea from the playfulness of North by Northwest into a dangerous, threatening and explicit plot about a sadistic serial killer. Former RAF pilot Richard Blaney (an angry but not unsympathetic Jon Finch) is down on his luck. We first see him getting fired from a crummy job by landlord Bernard Cribbins, then when his friend Bob Rusk (an excellent Barry Foster) gives him a dead-cert racing tip, Richard doesn’t have the cash to make the bet. So he goes to visit his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt). She takes pity on him and gives him some money… but that only makes Richard look guilty when Barbara is later raped and strangled by a serial killer known as the Necktie Murderer.

With the police assuming he killed his ex, Richard goes into a panic. Bob offers help, as does former colleague Babs (Anna Massey) and an old pal from his RAF days (Clive Swift, with a terrifically tart Billie Whitelaw as his wife). But the circumstantial evidence against Richard begins to mount up – and then Babs is also found raped and strangled.

By this point, the real killer has been revealed to we viewers… Earlier, Bob Rusk visits Barbara in her office. At first all charm and friendliness, he begins to get more and more lecherous and aggressive. Telling her he’s locked the front door, he rapes her and strangles her to death. The two actors, working with understandably challenging material, make the scene easily the most harrowing moment in Hitchcock’s filmography because of its awful verisimilitude. It’s very difficult to watch. Rusk’s second attack in the film is shot more obliquely, but is no less terrifying. Playing the harmless friend again, he lures Babs up to his flat. But the camera doesn’t follow them inside. Instead, after he closes the door, it slowly retraces its steps down the stairs, out of the hallway and into the busy Covent Garden streets. Life is going on as normal, unaware of the monster under their noses.

Frenzy is a dark film, there’s no getting away from it. But there are also flashes of gallows humour and whimsy, as you’d expect from Hitchcock. A sustained scene of absurd grimness comes when a frantic Bob must wrestle with Babs’s corpse in the back of a potato van because he’s left some vital evidence on her. The copper on the case, meanwhile, is Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McGowen) who précises the plot while attempting to eat one of his eccentric wife’s pretentious dinners.

These moments are vital. They give the film extra life and a dynamism that would otherwise be missing. They also show a playwright’s hand at work. Based on a 1966 novel, the script was written by Anthony Shaffer (who also wrote The Wicker Man). His attitude to dialogue – an attention to the rhythm of everyday speaking – gives a real sparkle to everything, which means you’re gripped from the first moment. Hitchcock makes sure you never lose interest.

Nine men listening to a political speech out of 10

Blake’s 7: Terminal (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon reroutes the Liberator to a mysterious location but refuses to reveal why. When the ship arrives, he finds a surprise waiting for him…

Series C, episode 13. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 31 March 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (38) has set a new course and has been monitoring progress on the flight deck of the Liberator for more than 30 hours. But he won’t tell his colleagues where they’re going or why. In fact, when a frustrated Tarrant confronts him, Avon coolly pulls a gun and warns him off. Eventually, the ship arrives at Delta 714, a star on the edge of Sector 6, and orbits a 411-year-old artificial planet codenamed Terminal. After ordering the others not to follow him, Avon teleports down. He finds a bunker staffed by scientists so sneaks in and sees an image of Blake on a screen. ‘So Blake’s alive,’ says Avon. He’s then suddenly hit by a tranquiliser dart. When he wakes, he escapes and explores some more. In a room, Avon finds a bearded Blake hooked up to a life-support machine. ‘Well,’ says his former colleague, ‘you certainly took your time finding me.’ Avon says he’ll help him get out, but Blake replies that he wouldn’t survive being moved. Then Avon is clobbered by the scientists and taken to see their leader… Servalan, who reveals that *she* sent the clues that allowed Avon to find Terminal. He admits he suspected it was a trap, but given that the carrot was the long-lost Blake he had to investigate. She offers to swap Blake for the Liberator – and Avon has no real choice. Then, after Tarrant, Cally and Dayna have also been captured, Servalan admits that Blake has been dead for a year. What Avon saw was an elaborate, drug-induced illusion. She teleports up the Liberator, sending Vila the other way, then our heroes watch on a screen as the ship explodes. They’re now stranded on Terminal. Avon just smirks…
* Zen (33) imparts some information, but refuses to help the others under Avon’s orders. Later, after the Liberator is damaged, Zen suffers a mechanical breakdown… Before his systems totally fail, he apologises, even using a rare personal pronoun.
* Vila (39) is keeping out of Avon’s way as the episode begins – so are the others. But he later spots that the ship’s energy banks are being drained: the self-repair systems are working overtime to combat an aggressive space enzyme that is riddling the entire craft!
* Dayna (13) starts the episode by playing a board game with Cally – the same one seen earlier in the season in Dawn of the Gods. ‘Are you sure you can’t read my mind?’ she asks her opponent. After Avon, Tarrant and Cally have headed down to Terminal, Dayna stays on the ship and helps Vila work out why its systems are failing. (It’s because of a weird space cloud they travelled through earlier in order to reach Terminal as soon as possible.)
* After Avon has left for Terminal, Cally (36) and Tarrant ignore his instructions and follow. They see two local people brutally attacked and killed by primates, then search the bunker Avon found earlier.
* Tarrant (13) ain’t pleased when he learns Avon has diverted the ship without any discussion and badgers his colleague to reveal why. He’s the one member of the crew who’s heard of Terminal, which is an artificial planet that’s been sprayed with organic matter in the hope of creating an environment where life would thrive.
* Servalan (21) is flattered when Avon says he’s impressed with her trap. He thinks it has precise planning, meticulous detail and a general flair. When she has Avon in a bind, she forces him and the others to give up the Liberator – but, as she takes command of the craft, she hasn’t realised that it’s on the brink of collapse. When the ship starts to break up, she races for the teleport machine…
* Orac is seen but not switched on: Vila picks him up before leaving the Liberator for the final time.

Best bit: Gareth Thomas’s appearance as the illusionary Blake. He’s only been gone a dozen episodes, but it’s still a massive moment when the actor reappears. The twist that it wasn’t actually Blake then has real weight.

Worst bit: The surface of Terminal is a bleak, windswept location filming – you really feel the chill and the damp. There’s also a relentless throbbing noise on the soundtrack, which adds to the unsettling air. Sadly, it’s also home to a race of savage primates – in other words, poor actors trying to be menacing while wearing gorilla suits.

Review: The last episode of Blake’s 7 written by its creator, Terry Nation, was planned and made as the last episode ever. Perhaps that’s why is feels so portentously significant. Well directed, with another fantastic Paul Darrow performance, this is a deliberately slow but absolutely gripping episode. A mystery is set up immediately and then eked out for all its worth. Terrific.

Nine directional indicators out of 10

Next episode: Rescue

Blake’s 7: City at the Edge of the World (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Vila is taken prisoner by a notorious criminal and forced to unlock a mysterious door in a ruined city…

Series C, episode 6. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 11 February 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the episode begins, Tarrant (6) has been in touch with a group who want to utilise Vila’s lockpicking skills; in exchange they’ll provide some crystals that will help the Liberator weaponry systems. So he bullies and brow-beats Vila into teleporting down to a planet. Tarrant’s hubris comes back to haunt him, though, when the group kidnap Vila and give the others a booby-trapped box rather than the crystals.
* Vila (32) doesn’t take kindly to Tarrant’s tactics: as he points out, he’s been on the ship longer; he was with Blake. Tarrant isn’t impressed and Vila is guilt-tripped into teleporting down to a planet. Forty-three seconds later, he radios in to say the others can come and collect the crystals. Meanwhile, two mutes escort Vila to a ruined city, where he encounters first an aggressive woman called Kerril, then her boss: the infamous, murderous thug Captain Bayban – aka Bayban the Berserker, aka Bayban the Butcher, aka (by his mum) Baybe. Bayban wants Vila to open a mysterious door, behind which – he thinks – are hidden all the treasures of the planet. Vila sets to work, his fear dissipating as he focuses on the challenge of cracking a complex lock. He also enjoys a bit of flirting with Kerril, who’s starting to warm to him. Eventually, Vila opens the door and he and Kerril enter but are soon teleported to a far-away spaceship. An automated message tells them they are now 3,000 light years away from the planet; the ship has been searching for a new colony for the planet’s inhabitants. Resigned to being trapped, Vila and Kerril have sex – then Vila deduces that the ship has landed. They step outside onto an idyllic planet they dub Homeworld, but then Vila spots expensive crystals lying at his feet – coincidentally the kind needed for the Liberator weapons systems – so resolves to get back to his colleagues.
* Cally (29) follows Vila down to the planet to collect the job’s payment, but find no one there. She spots a box on the floor; fearing it’s booby-trapped, Cally stands back and triggers its explosion from a distance. Realising Vila’s in trouble, Cally and Avon mount a search-and-rescue mission, and are later joined by Tarrant and Dayna.
* Avon (31) won’t let Vila teleport down to the planet without a tracer on his person. Tarrant says he agreed with his clients that Vila wouldn’t be carrying surveillance equipment. “I gave them my word,” he says. “You didn’t give them mine,” replies Avon. But after Vila has gone, Avon realises that he deliberately left the tracer behind.
* Orac (16) tells the others that there are scant records on the planet’s history. But an archaeological survey discovered that its ancient people may have called it Kezarn.
* Dayna (6) gives Vila a gun for his trip to the planet – again, against Tarrant’s wishes. She also declines to back Tarrant when the others tell him he mucked up by risking Vila’s life.
* Zen is mentioned but doesn’t appear.

Best bit: The Vila/Avon dynamic has been great for a long time now. The two characters are like warring brothers: Avon as the cooler, more accomplished, more arrogant, older one and Vila as the cheekier, less responsible, less capable younger one. They spar, they insult each other, they never openly show any affection. And yet, as in this episode, there’s a subtext to it all. Avon challenges Tarrant when he bullies Vila. He warns him off. It’s clearly a case of ‘no one beats up my brother but me’.

Worst bit: The Kezarnians’ plan is utterly bonkers. Thirty centuries ago, a planetary leader reckoned that society was inevitably going to descend into chaos. So he sent a ship, which was hooked up to a teleport machine housed behind an elaborately sealed door, into deep space to look for a new home. Then he recorded an audio message that he somehow knew would be heard by someone in 3,000 years’ time. Riiight…

Review: This vivid episode is alive and engaging in every moment and is powered by some brilliantly rich, razor-sharp dialogue. It’s also a great showcase for Michael Keating, giving Vila his usual comedy and cowardliness but also scenes of ingenuity, smarts and even romance. And there’s a very Colin Bakery performance from Colin Baker as Bayban: highly theatrical, highly bombastic, and highly entertaining. Marvellous stuff.

Nine stupid sons of a slime crawler out of 10

Next episode: Children of Auron

The Post (2017, Steven Spielberg)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Washington, 1971. Just as the owner of a major newspaper is attempting to float the parent company on the stock exchange, its editor wants to publish hugely controversial material…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tom Hanks (here playing legendary Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee) is very watchable as always. But it’s difficult to look past Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham. Graham was the publisher of the Washington Post, an unusual position for a woman in the early 1970s; her father had built up the company’s legacy and she’d inherited her job after the suicide of her husband. So in The Post she’s a woman with a weight on her shoulders. The way Streep plays Graham’s development from someone who nervously fumbles a board meeting to someone who takes brave and bold decisions is wonderful.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The movie is encroaching onto some sacred cinematic ground. In several ways, The Post could be considered a prequel to Alan J Pakula’s masterful thriller All the President’s Men (1976). It’s set soon before the Watergate scandal dramatised in All the President’s Men, features some of the same characters – Ben Bradlee is a big presence in both films – and the two newsroom sets are uncannily similar. The connection is made obvious in the final scene of The Post, which Rogue Onestyle leads directly into the opening of the earlier film. And as in All the President’s Men, the sequences in The Post that feature journalists working on their stories are thrilling. Whether they can – whether they should – publish the expose is the central question of the film and, even if you know the real history, it never loses its jeopardy.

Review: A mid-range Spielberg film is still a thing to behold. It’s doubtful that, in years to come, The Post will top any polls or be remembered as one of the director’s best. But it’s still an immaculate, impressive and incredibly engaging piece of filmmaking. Rushed into cinemas to capitalise on our current obsession with ‘fake news’, the movie concerns the Pentagon Papers. In 1967, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a study of America’s role in the Vietnam War. He intended it for academic posterity rather than political analysis but it contained some incendiary conclusions, not least that successive Presidents had continued the carnage even though they knew an American victory would never come. The Post tells the story of how the report was leaked and published. The movie ticks all the usual boxes for a film about journalists cracking a massive story, but it ticks them with such a rich, stylish flourish that you don’t mind that things are often predictable and occasionally a bit schmaltzy. The well-cast ensemble is led by Hanks and Streep but contains numerous good performances. The attention to period detail is fantastic. And the script never assumes the audience needs hand-holding. Actually, it’s not just the presence of Bradley Whitford and Sarah Paulson in secondary roles that makes this film remind you of Aaron Sorkin. His TV shows, such as The West Wing and The Newsroom, lived and breathed by scenes of clever and principled people arguing about important issues, and that’s what The Post is all about too.

Nine linotype machines out of 10