20,000 Leagues Under The Sea 1954 *****


A good few decades have passed since I first saw this at my local flea-pit, and now the Disney+ catalogue provides a chance to look again at Richard Fleischer’s robust adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic story. I saw this on a revival at my local fleapit at the age of six, and was impressed by the Gothic design of the Nautilus ship, by the dynamic lead performances, and the impressive physical effects, not least the giant boggle-eyed squid that was worth the price of admission if paying to see fighting squids is your thing.

Disney’s adventures in live-action haven’t always been successful, but with an expensive, state-of-the-art Technicolor/Cinemascope pedigree, this is one old movie that comes up looking pretty spruce. Sure, there’s a few dated process shots, but there’s also some stunning glass paintings, notably Captain Nemo’s volcanic base, and lots of well–integrated hydraulics and clever model-work. When I was a kid, this movie was all about the monster, but the plot and character development still made an impression, and while the submarine effects are still cool, it’s the acting that really seals the deal on classic status here.

Was there ever a better leading man that Kirk Douglas? Often shirtless, resplendent in his earring, never short of a sea-shanty (A Whale of a Tale!) or a cheeky rabbit-punch in the melt for those who annoyed him, his Ned Land is a rambunctious creation, and the fore-runner of many inferior action heroes to come. He’s perfectly matched in James Mason’s Captain Nemo, who comes on all saturnine charm, but the veneer soon gives way to intense philosophical wrestling about the current state and vexed future of mankind. Nemo is an ambiguous character, the very opposite of Ned’s two-fisted, straight-up heroism, and yet the two men play off each other perfectly.

Ned eats with his hands; he’s ‘indifferent to utensils’ and unimpressed by Nemo’s sophisticated, evolved diet, which serves up ‘milk of a sperm whale’ and ‘sauté of unborn octopus’. Their struggle, narrated by the wonderfully bug-eyed Peter Lorre, is that of the heart and the brain, yet both men have each quality in abundance and this isn’t a shallow story of good and bad but does justice to Verne’s loftier ideas. Ultimately, 20,000 Leagues is the yardstick by which Disney/family films should be judged; yes, there are attractive carnival elements like Douglas serenading a seal or fighting off cannibals, but 20,000 League Under the Sea delivers when it comes to story, dialogue, acting and overall bonhomie; it’s a cinematic game-changer of its day that still comes up fresh as paint today.

The Trials of Oscar Wilde 1961 ****


…is a neat title, because we’re not just talking about one trial here, but several, and these court-room appearances are indeed a trial to Oscar Wilde himself, so exhausting that the great man is a somewhat broken figure by the end. Still, Ken Hughes’s 1961 film is pretty much a success in terms of bring the story of Oscar Wilde to the big screen in the most direct fashion, demonstrating ably how a failed libel on Wilde’s part led him into a trap laid by the authorities.

The Trails of Oscar Wilde is more than watchable fare today, largely because it carries forward a certain theatrical strength derived from source play The Stringed Lute by John Furnell. Also elevating the action is the casting; Peter Finch is one of the acting greats, and although Network saw him pull out all the stops to ground-breaking effect, he absolutely submerges himself in Wilde, bringing the bon mots into play with great skill, and always making Wilde more than just a quote machine.

John Fraser is a pretty fine Alfred Douglas, and the scandal around their relationship is all the more dramatic because the ‘love that dare not speak it’s name’ is never defined by any action; this is 1961 after all. That evasive quality, missing from Stephen Fry’s Wilde or Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince, both excellent films, is centre stage here, and adds greatly to the effect; much as the lack of overt homosexuality pervades Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, it makes sense in Hughes’s film that because Wilde’s sexuality is not defined, it makes him vulnerable, a decidedly modern way of seeing it given that Wilde is the clear and unmistakable hero here.

If the lengthy running time is a little too much, it’s hard to know what to cut; Finch dispensing Wildean words is a pure pleasure, and seeing him grandstand in the courtroom opposite James Mason is something of a joy in terms of old-school performances; as Sir Edward Carson, Mason gives a great rendition of a sharp mind of sense blood in the water. Bond duo Albert R Broccoli and production designer Ken Adam do a great job of creating wide-active frames for old-world London, and the whole production is sharp as a tack. Wilde is a great subject for a film, and there’s quite a few notable entries, but The Trials of Oscar Wilde is worth casting to see Finch in full flow, bringing a character to life in a way that reminds you how life knocked the stuffing out of Oscar Wilde.


A Star is Born 1954 ****


With 2018’s remake still ringing in our ears and a Renee Zellweger biopic opening soon to kick off the coming 2019 awards season, this 1954 comeback for Judy Garland is essential viewing, even if the running time of the restored version is a punishing three hours plus. Garland has become known as a gay icon, but she meant a lot to a mainstream audience, and George Cukor’s musical drama gives her plenty of opportunity to belt them out, notably the celebrated and extended Born in a Trunk number. Given her own issues with alcohol and drugs, it’s tricky to watch Garland as the upcoming ingénue while Mr Norman Maine (James Mason) falls apart; with only one musical feature after this (the maudlin I Could Go On Singing), A Star Is Born marked peak Garland, whereas Mason had highlights like North by Northwest and Lolita to look forward to as well as a career stretching out to the 1980’s.

Garland doesn’t always look comfortable here; one of the ironies of the A Star is Born films is that the leads are never ingénues, but established divas, and Garland seems more on message as Vicky Lester than Esther Blodgett. This restored version, with still frame sequences and alternate versions, gives the impression of a chequered production, with Cukor not involved in several sequences; as in the 1936 version, Hollywood is seen as somewhat venal, and the way that business interferes with private life is well caught. All four A Star In Born films have their merits, but taken as a quadrilogy, it’s interesting to see how they reflect the changing nature of male-female relationships. Normal Maine does not snort coke, ride a motorbike, play Glastonbury, attend SNL or urinate in his own pants, but he’s still a toxic male, even when played with enormous charm by Mason. And this is Garland’s show; fans of Judy will want to see her swing successfully for the fences here in a performance that fascinates because of how it does, and does not, reflect the truth of her troubled career.

The Seventh Veil 1945 ***

Something of a sensation back in 1945, The Seventh Veil is a fairly straightforward drama, with new fangled psychiatry centre-stage. Ann Todd plays Francesca, a concert pianist seen attempting suicide in the opening scenes. Compton Bennett’s film then slips back in time to see her education at the hands of guardian Nicolas (James Mason), a hard taskmaster who blocks her relationships with various suitors. Francesca’s story is uncovered by psychiatrist Herbert Lom, intent on lifting the seven metaphorical veils which conceal her secret. What The Seventh Veil says about male-female relationships is probably a moot point; Nicholas pretty much dominates Francesca, and as her second cousin, he’s a strange romantic choice for her. As one of the ten most popular films ever released in the UK, The Seventh Seal owes its reputation largely to the music, and to Todd and Mason, both of whom still shine even when the mechanics creak.

The Fall of the Roman Empire 1964 ****

HD TV’s bring new life to old epics; Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire hasn’t look so good since it was released in 1964 to not much love. Restored and freed of grainy pan-and-scan, the huge size and scale of the production is revealed, with the set for Rome still inspiring awe. The box-office failure may be attributed to the lacklustre central performance of Stephen Boyd, filling a role that both Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas passed on. But the support is A-list all the way, with James Mason, Alec Guinness and Christopher Plummer all nailing their characters with bite, and Omar Sharif and Sophia Loren taking care of the glamour. The final act ties the film in neatly with the action of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator; for anyone seeking a different take on the reign of Commodus, Mann’s sprawling, vivid epic is a neglected benchmark for thoughtful, epic cinema.

The Blue Max 1965 ****

The old maxim ‘they don’t make them like this anymore’ applies nicely to John Guillermin’s 1965 action drama; it’s hard to imagine this getting made now, and it’s not even clear why this was green-lit in 1965. George Peppard stars as Bruno Strachel, a German Colonel who realises that wars are not won in trenches; they’re won in the air, and circa 1918, he’s going to lead the charge against the British from his biplane. Strachel is something of a cold fish, nursing grievances against the aristocracy while desperate to start scoring kills that will lead him to the Blue Max medal. Watching Strachel shoot down British planes isn’t particularly crowd-pleasing, but there’s also long stretches without action as Strachel resents being used for propaganda purposes by Count Von Klugerman (James Mason) and enjoys some bedroom encounters with Ursula Andress. While the back-projection isn’t great, the actions scenes are amazing, with real planes rather than models, and great photography by Douglas Slocombe. Complete with a downbeat ending, The Blue Max is a smart, bitter war film that has plenty of big ideas to unfold over a considerable 156 minute run-time. Bonus points for whoever designed the link below, complete with the cheeky Mad Max 2 style font.

Frankenstein: The True Story ***


Amazon Prime could surely have sourced a better print that the rather grainy one chosen to reflect this mid-1970’s US tv version of Mary Shelley’s classic story. Not only that, but this shortened feature-length version is clearly and dramatically cut to a degree which renders several scenes and characters laughable. It’s worth complaining about, because Jack Smight’s re-telling of the Frankenstein story is highly original, and those who claim it’s the best version to date aren’t wrong. Writer Christopher Isherwood was responsible for the genesis of the musical Cabaret, and radically re-noses the story to focus on the close relationship between Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) and Dr Henri Clerval (David McCallum). Other innovations include a new character, Polidori (James Mason), a moustache-twirling villain who dominates the second half of the story. And there’s an innovative twist, taken from the book itself, that the monster does not initially appear hideous, but deteriorates as his ills increase, and the monsters mate storyline is also carried over, with Jane Seymour the improbable result. Frankenstein; The True Story has a variable production and a weak lead, but it’s a literate, clever adaptation that makes the ancient story come up in a fresh and dynamic way.

Murder By Decree 1979 ***


The concept of Sherlock Holmes solving the Jack the Ripper murders is an enticing one, fully developed in Bob Clark’s unfairly forgotten 1979 film. Perhaps the shooting of Alien on the stage next door heralded the different kind of thrills audiences were looking for; Murder By Decree’s pleasures may seem stuffy in comparison, but they’re genuine. Christopher Plummer plays Holmes straight as a die, with James Mason an argumentative Watson. Approached by a group of local businessmen whose trade has been decimated by the prostitute murders, Holmes and Watson uncover a conspiracy with the help of Donald Sutherland as a psychic, Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade, and a few other well-placed stars. While the model-work is poor, the acting is first class, and the conspiracy notion later featured in From Hell; whatever liberties Clark’s film takes with history are secondary to a ripping yarn, told with deadly seriousness.

Salem’s Lot 1979 ***


While Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining proved to be a hugely influential horror film, there’s many who would argue that Tobe Hooper’s TV miniseries, released in Europe as a feature, had more scares to offer. The town of Salem’s Lot has a population of 2013, but not all of them are alive; novelist Ben Mears (David Soul) moves into town, and teams up with local boy Mark (Lance Kerwin) to fight against the vampires who are taking over. James Mason plays Richard Straker, whose Marsten House hides the secret. The sequence in which the vampires hover outside the windows of unwary teenagers is the stuff of pure nightmares; Reggie Nalder’s Kurt Barlow is an equally disturbing apparition to behold. Kenneth McMillian, Ed Flanders, Bonnie Bedelia and Fred Willard are amongst an accomplished cast.

The Last of Sheila 1975 ****


It’s hard to imagine Stephen Sondheim getting behind the typewriter alongside Psycho’s Anthony Perkins, but they share the writing credits on Herbert Ross’s playful take on an Agatha Christie who-dunnit. Millionaire Clinton Green (James Coburn) invites a group of friends to holiday on his yacht, including Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Mason, Raquel Welch and Ian McShane, and they are presented with nightly mysteries to solve, but the real intent is to uncover the culprit of the murder of Sheila. Cannon’s character is based on famously tough Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, and there’s plenty of in-jokes and references to enjoy. It was Sondheim and Perkins’ interest in puzzles and games that inspired the film; The Last of Sheila’s twist and turns are a joy to unravel.