Scrooge 1970 ***

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Christmas films are a mixed bag, reliant on tapping into pre-existing sentiment and beliefs. The best of them, like It’s A Wonderful Life or Love Actually, cast a wide net and hope to engage us with a developed sense of community, raising awareness of the world around us during a time of celebration. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is arguably the most loved and remade Christmas Story that is not overtly religious; instead, there’s a supernatural theme cannily used to uncover a simple but effective sense of well-being.

Coming hot on the heels of Oliver!, Scrooge was expected to cement a new genre of all-singing, all dancing literary adaptations; it did not. Part of that failure was ascribed to Albert Finney’s miscasting as Ebenezer Scrooge, but in truth, he’s offers exactly the kind of weighty, self-important character that a self-absorbed miser might require, and makes his conversion all the sweeter. Less effective is Alex Guinness as proto Force Ghost Jacob Marley, looking something of a sight in chains; even Kenneth More’s Ghost of Christmas Present is somewhat grotesque, and songs like I Like Life are less than classics.

But where Ronald Neame’s film hits the mark is with the song Thank You Very Much, performed twice in the film, once by Tom Jenkins (Anton Rodgers) and then again by Finney, capering down the sets of London streets in his nightgown. Both versions see the inhabitants of London joining in the throng, with street-urchins dancing away their poverty in a way that Monty Python would later parody. Rogers, looking bizarrely like former PM David Cameron, delivers the song with perfect timing, and the artificial sets give it the feel of The Muppets’ Christmas Carol. It’s a show-stopper par excellence.

Scrooge is also a story that works well for various religions in that it depicts a man literally throwing off the restraints of his material possessions in favour of attaining a more developed sense of enlightenment. Scrooge uses his wealth to gratify, not himself, but those who share his universe, and it’s a lesson that he is glad to learn. He recants his errors of judgement, and that ability to see beyond what’s good for ones-self is what makes Scrooge a classic Christmas movie. If you’re reading this review, then all I can say is, Thank You Very Much!

Under The Volcano 1984 ****

‘You can’t apologise for some things,’ mutters Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) after someone explains the murderous plot of the classic horror movie The Hands of Orlac. It’s a key line, repeated later in the film, from Guy Gallo’s adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s novel, that captures Firmin’s guilt and defiance in the face of death. Firmin seems unaware that mortality is catching up with him in John Huston’s stirring drama. Stirring not in the sense of rousing, but stirring up memories of alcoholism and addiction; think of the worst case you’ve encountered, and Firmin matches it. Played with total immersion by Albert Finney, Firmin drinks all day and all night, is rarely sober, and yet is partially protected by privilege. He’s the British consul in a small Mexican town, one which is celebrating the Day of the Dead. It’s a momentous juncture; Firmin’s wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) has just returned, and Firmin has aspirations to get on the wagon, but time is running out. Huston’s late period is dotted with underrated films, and Under the Volcano, despite Oscar nominations, has fallen out of favour; a rebirth on streaming should rectify that, with the new print showing nuances of acting and direction that VHS pan and scan could not capture. The opening, directed by Huston’s son Danny, makes great play of Day of the Dead iconography, and there’s arresting moments such as Firmin’s lament for the ‘beauty of an old Mexican woman and a chicken’. Under the Volcano is a tough watch, but it nails the central character, and Bisset does well to hold her own with Finney when he’s in full tilt.

A Man of No Importance 1992 ****

Albert Finney’s career had phases rather than just a highlights; while his 80’s output was something of an anti-climax for the actor who burst into world cinema in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, by the 1990’s, there were increasing opportunities to see the great man giving it both barrels. In Suri Krishnamma’s charming comedy-drama, Finney excels as Alfred Byrne, a gay bus-conductor who feels forced to repress his sexuality due to the mores of the time. His unrequited passion for fellow driver (Rufus Sewell) remains just so, but Byrne sees an opportunity when the striking Adele Rice (Tara Fitzgerald) gets on his bus. He quickly arranges a performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome with Adele as the star, but emboldened by Wilde’s words, Byrne’s attempts to reveal his true nature end badly for him.  With the atmosphere of 1963 Dublin persuasively caught, A Man of No Importance is one of these lucky films that sees great talent well harnessed; after Finney’s death, this was deservedly mentioned alongside Tom Jones, Under The Volcano and The Dresser as amongst Finney’s best.

Murder on the Orient Express 1974 ***

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Albert Finney was an unlikely choice to play diminutive Belgian detective Hercule Poirot for Sidney Lumet’s 1974 all-star re-enactment of Agatha Christie’s famous who-dunnit, but he makes a decent fist of the role in the heavily-padded style of Brando in The Godfather. Paul Dehn’s screenplay features the murder of Richard Widmark’s Ratchett played out over and over again, allowing each of the stars to been seen holding the knife. Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Rachel Roberts and Jacqueline Bisset are amongst the suspects, and the resolution is strongly delivered through a lengthy exposition by Poirot. Lumet handles his cast well, and Richard Rodney Bennett contributes a notable score; while the mystery isn’t hard to solve, the trappings on this murder mystery make it worth returning to; even Agatha Christie was happy with the result.

The Dresser 1983 ****

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Writer Ronald Harwood evokes the spirit of the ultimate ham actor, Donald Wolfit, in this wonderfully arch character drama from Peter Yates. Known only as Sir, this Shakespearean firebrand is played to the hilt by Albert Finney; an opening scene in which he stops a train by projecting his voice is a perfect illustration of his commanding figure. But his power is fuelled by an unusual relationship, as meek assistant Norman (Tom Courtney) is the wind beneath Sir’s wings. Set during the London Blitz, The Dresser was based on Harwood’s won experiences as a dresser for Wolfit, and while unashamedly theatrical in tone, Yates’s film is peppered with fantastic anecdotes about the bitchy-backstabbing that goes on behind the scenes of a rep company. Sir’s line ; “The critics? No, I have nothing but compassion for them. How can I hate the crippled, the mentally deficient, and the dead?’ gives some idea of the barnstorming style. Nominated for five Oscars, the Dresser is something of a forgotten movie; Finney’s majestic performance makes it well worth seeking out on free-movie channel Crackle.

Gumshoe 1971 ***

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The directorial debut of Stephen Frears, Gumshoe is a clever post-modern take on the detective genre, a passion project for star Albert Finney. He plays Eddie Ginley, a bingo-caller from Liverpool with a penchant for Elvis, comedy, Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. His relationship with his brother William (Frank Finlay), who is married to Eddie’s ex (Billie Whitelaw), inspires him to place a small ad and become a gumshoe, but his investigation leads him over his head in arms dealing and murder. Frears captures a strong sense of late 60’s Liverpool, and there’s a roll-call of support from Wendy Richards, Fulton Mackay and Maureen Lipman, plus some ingeniously brisk dialogue from Neville Smith that both captures the casual racism of the time and sends up the detective genre with knowingness.

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead 2008 ***

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Sidney Lumet’s last few decades were disappointing in view of the consistently excellent quality of his heyday, from 12 Angry Men to Dog Day Afternoon, but his final feature marked a impressive return to form. In a role that takes on uncomfortable resonance since his 2014 death, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy, a drug-fuelled real-estate exec whose marriage is on the rocks, and who convinces his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to help rob his father’s jewelry store. When the heist goes wrong, Charles (Albert Finney) is compelled to investigate the behavior of his own children, and discovers that Hank is having an affair with Andy’s wife (Marisa Tomei). An absorbing crime drama with great performances from a distinguished cast, Hoffman, Finney and Hawke are all at their best, while Tomei excels in a memorable if short appearance.

https://itunes.apple.com/au/movie/before-devil-knows-youre-dead/id505316717

Loophole 1981 ***

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Adapted from a novel by Robert Pollock, John Quested’s forgotten 1981 film is a good example of a no-frills heist movie. Shot in London, Martin Sheen plays unemployed architect Stephen Booker, who gets involved with Mike (Albert Finney) and his plans for an ingenious bank-job. Going in through the sewers, Booker’s knowledge is invaluable, but the plan goes away leaving Mike’s gang in a rat-infested predicament. Loophole’s emphasis on the physical conditions of the raid is refreshingly detailed, and Quested manages to elicit considerable tension. Support from Robert Morely, Susannah York, Jonathan Pryce and Colin Blakley add local colour, making Loophole required watching for aspiring criminals.

Looker 1981 ***

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Writer/director Michael Crichton’s 1981 sci-fi thriller Looker didn’t make much of a connection with audiences, but has a cult reputation which has gained considerably over the years. Albert Finney plays a LA plastic surgeon whose clients are being murdered, with the evidence making police suspicious of him. But could James Coburn’s mysterious Digital Matrix company hold the key to the killings? Crichton always has a big idea at the centre of his thrillers, and Looker has a fascinating position about how a combination of beautiful women, computer generated simulations and commercial television could be hypnotizing the population into submission. The arc of Looker’s plot doesn’t quite match the ambitious idea, but the hi-tech ideas and steely look of the film lend it an undeniably prescient feel.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMKYliwPSOE

Wolfen 1981 ***

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An also ran in the early eighties glut of werewolf movies (The Howling, An American Werewolf in London), Michael Wadleigh’s only non-Woodstock film was barely released, with John D Hancock being brought in to complete the film. Miscast as New York cop Dewey Wilson, Albert Finney takes the lead in this adaptation of Whitley Streiber’s 1978 novel, with Edward James Olmos and Gregory Hines supporting. Wolfen is a muted and occasionally bloody affair, featuring one nasty decapitation, but its earnestness belies the silly subject matter, and the subtext about Indian legends makes it very much of its time (The Shining, Altered States, Poltergeist) Featuring a small cameo from Tom Waits.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Akh4YyakwAY