The Long Goodbye 1973 ****

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Robert Altman’s take on Raymond Chandler and Phillip Marlowe wasn’t a box-office hit, but it did capture a mid-70’s zeitgeist; arguably hit TV shows like The Rockford Files lift tonally from the so-laid-back-he’s horizontal presentation of the LA private eye. Purists seemed to feel that Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett had somehow defiled the memory of the writer and his creation; by 2020, when we’re used to regular reboots, re-nosing and retconning, this version of Marlowe seems to be a defiantly original fusion of the original writing and Altman’s patented fragmentation bomb. Which is a long way around the block to say that The Long Goodbye is pretty good.

Elliot Gould was the essence of an unlovely man in the 1970’s, but Altman’s M*A*S*H* helped make him a star, and he has an off-beat charisma here. Marlowe is presented in a lengthy scene organising pet-food for his cat, a scene so detailed you’d swear it got revamped in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Marlowe agrees to help out an old friend Terry Lennox (Jim Boulton) by driving him to the Mexican border, then takes a case in which missing writer Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) is traced to a private health-care facility. Meanwhile various parties want to locate missing money that Lennox knew about, and Marlow has to try and uncover exactly who is zoomin’ who.

Critics called The Long Goodbye plotless (it’s not) and that the central character was hopeless, and yet Marlowe seems to have a savvy grip on exactly what’s happening around him. The atmosphere of Malibu, usually glamorous, is rather seedy here, and so is the action; a startling act of violence hangs over the movie, and the finale is shocking because it’s out of character for both character and film. Never without a lit cigarette, Marlowe is presented as a man out of time, with hippies, drugs and parties all going on, but elsewhere, with Marlowe left to take the fall for all manner of bad behaviour.

There’s tonnes to enjoy in the Long Goodbye, from John William’s ingenious score, reworking the same theme as everything from a doorbell to a passing funeral band, and a brief but memorable de-clothing of future Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Vilos Zsigmond does a great job of making LA locations look striking and fresh, with Marlowe’s elevated pad was quite a find for the production team.

The Long Goodbye is a classic 1970’s film; unique, individual, downbeat and scuzzy; pretty much exactly what the subject demands. There are plenty of other Phillip Marlowe’s for purists to enjoy, but the 1973 vintage has gained in authenticity with age, and The Long Goodbye is good value for Altman and detective fans alike.

 

Dark Waters 2019 ***

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This film remains in a UK slot selected to take advantage of an Oscar campaign, a campaign which never actually materialised; that’s a big shock in that director Todd Haynes has been an awards darling via I’m Not There or Carol. Critics seem to have turned up their noses at Dark Waters because it doesn’t feature the director’s usual extravagances; the lush 1950’s period detail of Carol, the off-beat asides about Oscar Wilde and aliens in Velvet Goldmine. But Haynes has a pre-occupation with alienation and the environment that runs back to 1995’s Safe, and just because he’s fused these concerns with a tried and tested Erin Brockovich-type detective story doesn’t mean we should relegate Dark Waters to the status of a minor work.

The Spotlight producers are at work here, as is the same star, Mark Ruffalo, who plays Robert Bilott, a lawyer who gets wind that there’s something in the water in his West Virginia hometown. He travels back, and runs foul of various authority figures who don’t want word getting out that the something in the water is created by the manufacture of Teflon, and careless dumping procedures have affected a whole generation. Bill Pullman does a great job as the chemical-plant baddie, while Anne Hathaway doesn’t have much to do as Billott’s long-suffering wife.

As with Spotlight, much of the film is spent watching Ruffalo looking through large piles of paper, yet break-throughs are fewer and further between. But the star is good as always, and the point of the film, that criminal activities go on in plain sight until we make a point of investigating, is worth considering. It’s frustrating that when Haynes wants to depict literary or cultural figures, the world pays rapt attention, but when he has something to say about genuine issues ie the environment, pundits seem to think he’s treading water. He’s a big-name director, and even if this film is a little dry, it’s a modern, meaningful film about a genuinely concerning issue.

Marathon Man 1976 ****

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‘A thriller’ was how the posters humble-bragged the content of John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man back in 1976; there is a sense in which this William Goldman scripted film is the ultimate in thrills, since cinema turned abruptly towards family fare post-Star Wars. Goldman’s book was clearly designed with the big-screen in mind, and producer Robert Evans pulled all the strings to make Marathon man a real event picture; Schlesinger re-united with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman, plus Roy Schneider from Jaws, and with a villainous turn from Laurence Olivier as the Nazi-war criminal Szell.

One critic described the result as a ‘Jewish revenge fantasy’, which seems in line with the Seth Rogen line from Knocked up that Munich was ‘Rambo for Jews’; Marathon Man might seem pulpy, but it’s got dark undercurrents. Babe (Hoffman) is a history student whose father killed himself as a result of McCarthyism; the weight of history is heavy on his shoulders as he jogs around the Central Park reservoir in NYC. Babe has no concept that his brother Doc (Scheinder) is involved with the CIA, but also, crucially, has no idea that American intelligence might be aware of the activities of WWII Nazis, specifically Szell, and might be complicity working with them. Goldman’s script suggests that such an alliance occurs because ‘business is business’, but his disapproval is obvious. Szell comes to NYV to retrieve diamonds after his brother dies, but thinks babe has information that he needs to collect, and the stage is set for a cat and mouse chase between the guilty Nazi and the innocent Babe.

William Devane was not the big draw here amongst the acting heavyweights, but he’s got a crucial role as Peter Janeway; the ‘is it safe?’ torture scene is legendary, but part of it’s power comes from Babe getting rescued by Janeway, without reasoning that Janeway’s friendly behaviour is as much part of the torture as Szell’s drilling. Thus, audiences who felt that they, like Babe, had escaped the worst, found themselves plunged back into a nightmare of raw nerves and bloody sinks. That visceral charge is real, but springs from a political pivot that suggests that money and morals don’t mix well.

Marathon Man is a class act, for the acting, sure, but also for early Steadicam use on the streets of New York, some excellent location work, and Schlesinger’s eye for detail, which makes the thriller elements all the more powerful. The ending is botched, as is the key scene in which Doc faces off with another assassin; Doc loses some of his complexity, and babe is denied his revenge. Both sets of changes weaken the film, but Marathon Man has style and content to burn. Goldman suggests that no-man can escape history, and worries away at the notion that capitalism’s rewards are desired by the moral and immoral alike.

The Bounty Hunter 2010 ***

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It’s hard to believe, but we are currently approaching the ten year anniversary of the release of The Bounty Hunter; how are you planning to celebrate? Taking a second look at this widely maligned rom-com, it’s something of a time capsule; yes, everyone has mobile phones, and the internet exists, but Andy Tennants’s film seems to hark back to screwball comedies of the 1930’s, or even road movies from the 1970’s.

Andy Tennant is something of a secret success; between 1995 and 2010, he made a series of rom-coms which made a billion dollars worldwide, despite the fact you could sit next to the director in an airport lounge and be unaware of his presence. And yet his films are not anonymous, and somewhere between Sweet Home Alabama and Fools Gold, there’s an emerging interest in character and story that serves him well. Working from a script by Sarah Thorp, he mines a scuzzy yet homespun appeal from two popular leads here.

Gerry Butler, of course, is bounty hunter Milo Boyd, seen interrupting a Fourth-of July parade in an all-action opening that sees him at work, chasing down a perp just as he used to do when he was a cop. But that was a while ago, when he was married to Nicole (Jennifer Aniston), who has divorced him with extreme prejudice. She’s got some traffic violations and has neglected to lawyer-up appropriately, so Milo is delighted to have the fun of tracking down his ex-wife. But he doesn’t reckon of the case she’s investigating as a journalist, which involves her with all kind of nefarious characters.

And of course, Milo and Nicole fall in love, while bullets fly and SUV’s coast through the air. There’s old school support from Carol Kane and Christine Baranski, and an early, creepy turn from SNL’s Jason Sudeikis. Butler hasn’t yet developed his gruff exoskeleton, and plays vulnerable to good effect, but Aniston is the wheel the whole operation pivots on. With her TV smarts, a film career has seemed somewhat effortless, and yet films liken The Good Girl and Cake demonstrated that she could push the Americas sweetheart act in diverse ways.

The Bounty Hunter is the kind of film cineastes reject and audiences lap up without a thought. The thriller mechanics are nothing new, and the film relies of the slippery exchanges between Butler and Aniston, who both have a good measure of the material. Sometime you just need to chill while a movie does the work for you; The Bounty Hunter aims for the low-hanging fruit and doesn’t miss.

Who Dares Wins 1982 ****

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What better film to watch on Brexit day, or indeed any other day, than Ian Sharp’s Who Dares Wins? A low-budget British thriller that somehow cracked the annual top ten movies at the box office, Sharp’s film did Dunkirk numbers back in 1982, and yet is unknown in most territories world-wide, even under an alternative title, The Final Option. Producer Euan Lloyd noted that it had become unfashionable to fly the flag by the early eighties, but Who Dares Wins caught the kind of rare jingo-istic wave of enthusiasm that a muddled retreat via Brexit has failed to engender. Whatever ones makes of the film’s politics, which range from quite right-wing to rabidly right-wing, Who Dares Wins was and still is a British movie worth getting nostalgic about.

Of course, it’s not for everyone. As a kid, I was mystified by Leonard Maltin’s tv guide and his one-star reviews of Clint Eastwood films; the author wasn’t a fan of the star’s politics, and therefore was churlish about such robust crowd-pleasers as Magnum Force. To this critic, cinema is a broad church, and many opinions can be housed within four-walls; we’re reviewing films, not the political views of the makers. Most action films are fantasy, right or left wing is just the flavour you choose. Lloyd made all kinds of blood-and-bullets action movies, notably 1978’s The Wild Geese, but the siege of the Iranian Embassy in 1980 inspired him to tackle the SAS, the Special Air Service that successfully liberated the embassy. The SAS play themselves in the brief, exciting action scenes that climax the film after a long, slow burn.

Of course, it wasn’t enough just to kick the asses of some random foreigners on-screen. Lloyd ramped things up by casting around for his villains; not only are they foreign terrorists, but they’re in league with the  CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and other beardie-weirdy liberals, and they enjoy something called ‘the arts’, so there’s simply no redeeming these people and death can only be a relief. A surprisingly large part of the film features arty-farty performance-musical critiques of American foreign policy, including a live-set by musicians identified only as Metamorphosis, the kind of avant-garde band who use their brand of incendiery rock to warm up for a sermon from a bishop from the Church of England (Kenneth Griffith) who is, in turn, interrupted by unruly skin-heads out to create a riot.

Truly, the unholy stew of Britian in the eighties is a pestilent place, but there’s one man to sort this mess out, and what a man he is. Peter Skellern was the name of a rather old-fashioned British crooner of sincere power-ballads, but it’s also the name of the SAS captain played by Lewis Collins in this film and he’s the epitome of colour-supplement cool. Swaggering through street-markets in a black polo neck and pure white raincoat, affecting quilted blouson jackets; there’s no end to the sartorial style offered by Collins, who was already a household name due to his work on ITV espionage series The Professionals. Re-united with director Sharp from that show, Collins was clearly auditioning for James Bond here, and got his audition, only to fall out with the producers at the final hurdle. If the Bond movies had doubled-down on seriousness post-Moonraker, Collins would have been a strong Bond in the Daniel Craig mode, but twenty years earlier.

Any film that opens with a cross-bow through a throat sets out a stall, and Who Dares Wins also has a pungent, transgressive narrative, which sees Skellern seducing a CND activist Frankie (Judy Davis). Frankie is also a terrorist sympathiser because, in Lloyd’s book, they’re pretty much the same thing. Undercover investigators sleeping with suspects is a hot-button topic today, and it’s interesting to see the subject covered with so little thought here; casually bedding Frankie is all part of Skellern’s macho humble-brag. Frankie is so impressed with Skellern that she somehow brings him along as a support animal when her pals take over the US Embassy, taking hostages including imported US stars Richard Widmark and Robert Webber. Their plan is to blackmail the UK government into firing a nuclear weapon at Scotland, something that most UK governments would not require much persuasion to do. Of course, the cavalry arrive in the form of the SAS who chopper their way in, blow the corners off the doors and sort it all out in time for scones and tea. As one character notes; ‘When the SAS is called upon to do what we’re trained to do, we have been likened to a surgeon cutting out a cancer. It’s a filthy and difficult job. We don’t like doing it, but it’s our duty…’

There’s tonnes of non-PC content here, from Hammer Horror star Ingrid Pitt’s Helga, a thin-lipped trainer of the bad guys to Skellern’s mountain-range yomping expidition that seems like a thin justification for personally-motivated torture. Randoms caught up in the melee include top cop Edward Woodward, wine expect Oz Clarke, Anna Ford reading the news and a final scene involving Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Paul Freeman; a quick look at the fantasy of Who Dares Wins would stir the patriot in even the most lily-livered, church-loving, arts-affiliated liberal.

 

Golden Rendezvous 1977 ***

goldenThere are reasons for liking something other than it being ‘good’; this 1977 thriller based in a 1962 book by Alistair MacLean is perfectly awful in many ways, but somehow these flaws only make it more endearing. “Everyone was drinking on that movie, we were all so f**king miserable’ explained star Richard Harris in a magazine article, defending his consumption of a bottle of vodka every day while re-writing the script. If you want to understand what drinking a bottle of vodka every day does to your writing process, try watching Golden Rendezvous; director Freddie Francis and Christopher Lee abandoned ship while the film was in production.

For a great bad movie, several things have to go wrong at once, and replacement director Ashley Lazerus’s film hits the wrong note from the opening scene with a fabulously inappropriate swirling synth score by Jeff Wayne, one which mimics his War of the Worlds hit. Meanwhile John Carter (Richard Harris) stands around on an quay with a clipboard, bad hair-cut and milk-bottle spectacles looking about as officious as a lolly-pop man while various characters scuttle on-board the liner and floating casino Caribbean Star. These characters include the ancient John Carradine, sporting the look of a man freshly embalmed, the comparatively youthful Burgess Meredith hamming it up as a gambler, old favourites Dorothy Malone and Robert Beatty, David Janssen, who appears to have a glass of whiskey glued to his hand, Harris’s real-life wife Susan Beresford (Ann Turkel), and John Vernon as Luis Carreras, a man with a nuclear bomb. Vernon left the set to play Dean Wormer in Animal House, and was probably not the ideal casting to portray genuine menace, but that’s just one of the problems here.

Many films have issues with consistency, but Golden Rendezvous suggests that Harris’s idea of a rewrite was to throw the script in the air and re-arrange the pages where they fell. Carreras’s men take the ship over and brutally machine gun the crew, and yet Carter and Beresford are more preoccupied with whether to re-ignite their relationship. ‘I was wondering, should we bury the hatchet?’ he muses coyly while the bloody corpses pile up on deck and the clock on a nuclear bomb ticks down; it’s the kind of narrative dissonance that Team America nailed, but no less funny to discover in latent form here.

Given the film’s preoccupation with money, specifically gold bullion, it’s also notable that court cases subsequently proved that Golden Rendezvous was largely financed by South African government with money that was intended to be used to help black film-makers. Certainly, the acting, action, music and the entire production are verging on criminal, and yet there’s some fun in a film written and performed by practicing alcoholics on peak booze-cruise. There’s something admirable in characters who, on discovering that terrorists have boarded their ship, take action by throwing a cocktail party to flush them out via social chit-chat. Ideally seen with a glass of something 40 per cent proof in one hand, Golden Rendezvous’ hackneyed heroism and jauntiness in the face of terrorism make it a classic re-watch for those who love the idiocy of bad movies. This film was never issued on DVD in the US, but was broadcast on Scottish television on what seemed to be a continual loop during my childhood.

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Treadstone 2019 ****

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“This is war, and the human mind is the new battlefield,’ explains one character in Treadstone, which takes its name from the sinister black-ops operation featured in Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels and films. After being brought to the screen as Richard Chamberlain in some 1980’s tv movies, Jason Bourne was successfully rebooted in the form of Matt Damon for The Bourne Identity, before Paul Greengrass took things to another level for Supremacy and Ultimatum. Things flagged when few of the creative team returned for the shonky Bourne Legacy, and even the re-teaming of Damon and Greengrass couldn’t spark life into the redundant reprise Jason Bourne.

It’s obvious that audiences dig the Jason Bourne universe, though, and this USA Network tv show, now steaming widely, manages to expand the universe without making much use of Bourne himself, mentioned in the opening scene-setter and discussed once. Tim Kring’s ten-episode thriller wraps around the original story by showing the roots of Treadstone in a 1973 narrative that features Jeremy Irvine as a spy who has his mind thoroughly messed with, and a number of 2019 stories in which various sleepers awake in Korea, Greece, Kentucky and Moscow. Most of these narratives are compelling enough; the notion of activation, as featured in The Manchurian Candidate, makes for some good twists, and the level of action, whether fights or car chases, is efficient and effective, if not quite rising to the operatic heights of the original trilogy of movies.

The titles of each episode are amusingly retro; The Berlin Proposal, The Paradox Andropov and, cheekily, The Seoul Asylum, as is arguably the central character, Petra, played in older and modern timelines by Emilia Schüle and Gabrielle Scharnitzky. A veteran operative who survived the deadly games, she makes a different kind of focus to Jason Bourne, and a morally ambivalent one; the universe is a reassuringly complex one, and pulling in big name directors like Brad Anderson helps to keep the diverse threads alive.

Treadstone doesn’t blow the Bourne films away, but doesn’t try to; as an act of universe expansion, it’ll provide fans of the franchise with some welcome service in the form of tit-bits of information, as well as filling in some fringe narratives in a way that’s far more stimulating than the treading water featured in the last two movies.

Death Train 1993 ***

deathThe Alistair MacLean cycle of blockbuster action/espionage movies had well and truly run its course by the time 1993’s Death Train came along, dropping this thriller into the dustiest distribution hole imaginable until the internet came along and offered salvation. The YouTube copy of Death Train under review has a cool 4 million viewers; using Netflix’s famously shonky calculator, on a $20 a ticket multiplier, that’s equal to an $80 million opening, bigger than Bad Boys for Life or any 2020 release so far. Presumably your friends, workmates and family have been sneaking off and covertly watching this engagingly hokey film without telling you. Either way, it’s time for you to take a free ride on the Death Train, also known by the equally duff title Detonator.

A tv movie with a script based on a novel based on a screenplay sounds less-than-promising; this is a vague sequel to 1980’s laughable Hostage Tower, and features UNACO, the United Nations Anti-Crime Organisation, on the trail of a stolen nuclear bomb held by terrorists on a German train. No longer played by Billy Dee Williams, CW (Clarke Peters) is left to interrogate the scientist who built the bomb for a rogue Russian General (Christopher Lee). Centre-stage are Malcolm Philpott (Patrick Stewart) and his old chum “Mike’ Graham, played by Pierce Brosnan and introduced sympathetically throwing a motorbike-race to avoid running over a bunny-rabbit.

The terrorists in David Jackson’s thriller are led by The Silence of the Lambs’ Ted Levine who plans to smash his way through to Iraq and force the Russians to invade, creating a new adversary for the US. There’s a quite exciting action scene about twenty minutes in when Graham and his team try and board the moving train; MacLean never saw a helicopter he didn’t like, and the lack of CGI leaves space for some decent stunts. The plot is kind of ridiculous, and resolves itself rather predictably; Maclean seems to have enough access to imagine a nuclear crisis, but the mechanics by which things are resolved are Boys Own stuff.

Death Train is no masterpiece, but it’s undemanding, slump-in-your-chair stuff. It just about manages to entertain, mainly by casting a few well-kent faces most of which went on to bigger things, and also by dint of some decent sub-Bond second unit action. If nothing else, the Siberian locations, hopefully labelled either Kentucky, Germany or Russia, provide some mirth, as does the glimpse of LaGuardia airport in New York, which looks remarkably like an empty stretch of Eastern European airstrip. And the title on the version reviewed comes up as ‘Death Train Hollywood Action Movie Action Thriller Hollywood Cinema’, which is probably an apt description of the shenanigans contained.

When Eight Bells Toll 1971 ****

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The title is from a sea-faring term; Alistair MacLean’s adaptation of his own novel makes appropriately salty use of the author’s own experience in the navy. Filmed in and around the Scottish coastal village of Tobermory, here fictionalised as Torbay, Etienne Perier’s actioneer was intended to spark a new series to rival if not succeed the James Bond films, which were in mid Connery/Lazenby contractual free-fall when this was being made. Alas, no other film featuring Phillip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) were made, but this gives a good flavour of what a potential franchise might have been like.

Calvert is introduced storming a hi-jacked ship; he’s a professional secret agent for the British Treasury, and clearly knows his stuff. MacLean gives Calvert plenty of animosity against his London-based superiors, notably Robert Morley as Uncle Arthur, Calvert’s handler and a man who seems more consumed with the availability of egg sandwiches than solving the mystery of the missing gold bullion. The nearby boat of shipping magnate Sir Anthony Skousas (Jack Hawkins) suggests who might be responsible, but Skouras’s wife Charlotte complicates things by getting attached to Calvert.

There’s a couple of duff-process shots, but for a film made in 1969, When Eight Bells Toll looks amazing today, with great location work in and around the Isle of Mull, terrific use of boats and Westland helicopters, and action that derives directly from the narrative, rather than feeling tacked on. The way Calvert attaches a live grenade to a rope and swing-balls it backwards into his enemies during the final confrontation is genius; without being a super-hero, he’s an ingenious, likeable hero.

When Eight Bells Toll is surprisingly modern in outlook and scope, and the presence of Hopkins, a versatile and thoughtful leading man, lends it a real sense of gravity. This is derring-do and Queen and Country stuff, but leavened with a healthy air of cynicism; enjoy a grand old action movie that still works in 2020.

 

Puppet on a Chain 1971 ****

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There’s a whole lot of puppets and a whole lot of chains in Puppet on a Chain, a tight little thriller based on a novel by Alistair MacLean. MacLean was the kind of writer who, like Ian Fleming, wrote about what he knew, and when that ran out, just about managed to write about more fanciful worlds he was less familiar with. Thus, MacLean became something of a magnet for zeitgeist, and this 1971 thriller has a whiff of The French Connection and other, more reactionary drug-fuelled dramas of the time.

Puppet on a Chain’s reputation is largely based on an extended chase sequence in which speedboats navigate the canals of Amsterdam in a deadly cat and mouse game; functioning much like the car chase in Friedkin’s film, it’s a late-in-the-game show-down between the hero Paul Sherman (Sven-Bertril Taube) and his quarry Meegeren (Vladek Sheybal, from From Russia With Love and The Apple). With his pure white suit and cowboy hat, Meegeren is anything but a low-key dealer, and it’s easy to see why large crowds of gawping spectators are visible as the action unfolds. This hugely impressive stunt-show led directly to the boat chase in Live and Let Die, and a general vogue for extended action that infused both Bond and 70’s cinema.

The always impressive Don Sharp contributed the sequence to Geoffrey Reeve’s film, and while it’s a stand-out, the location work, atmosphere and generally attitude of Puppet on a Chain are all to be commended. The view of drugs in Amsterdam is somewhat alarmist, but backed up by a rather squalid plotline, complete with children’s dolls used to smuggle heroin, and the same dolls being symbolically hung with chains as a threat.

Sure, the leads are rather anonymous, although Patrick Allen does a nice supporting turn, but that anonymity works for the film; Puppet on a Chain feels both generic and authentic, written while MacLean still had a knack for story and theme, but hadn’t yet diluted his own experience with silly and extravagant plots. Even if you’re only there for the action, Puppet on A Chain delivers genuine thrills when it comes to the big aquatic showdown.