British Films

The Greatest Male Star Meets the Greatest Female Star in Africa… and in Technicolor

Back in 1951 most films were still in black and white, even massively important ones like A Streetcar Named Desire (although, to be honest, that one would have lost a lot of atmosphere if it had been filmed in the era’s color).  Even big-budget megafilms that would have been better in color had certain imitations.  Bulky color cameras meant that taking them on location was a bit of a nightmare.

So imagine taking them to Uganda and the Congo.

The African Queen.jpg

The African Queen is one of those films that everyone’s heard of but that I, for one, hadn’t seen or really knew what it was about.  I knew it starred Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, which are pretty much accepted as the greatest female and male Hollywood stars ever (and voted so by the AFI), so I was expecting to be blown apart by an acting tour-de-force.

The acting, as you can expect, was perfectly fine.  Hepburn acted her role wonderfully and Bogart was Bogart (he might have been an utter-mega star, but as an actor, he always played Bogart).  My wife found the love story very nice, and she enjoyed the chemistry between them.

The African Queen Film Poster

Me?  I loved watching the African countryside roll by as seen in period color.  despite being set during a conflictive phase of the first world war, the feeling I got was one of peace and tranquility, and the color made the scenes more real than anything in black and white could ever manage.  I loved that.

And then they blow up a ship, which is also a plus.

So it’s an enjoyable flick which can be watched by people with different tastes and enjoyed for different reasons.  Sure, most modern audiences would be hard-pressed to give you a plot summary, (before watching it, I thought it would be an exploration film in which they used the ship to search out lost tribes and got attacked by cannibals), but it’s definitely worth watching.

And the acting?  It doesn’t get in the way.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel also takes place in a jungle.  It’s called Jungle Lab Terror, and it most certainly isn’t slow and peaceful.  But if you enjoy a good action story with well-rounded characters and a setting that takes a life of its own, this one just might be for you.  Here’s the Amazon link.

Another British Smash

Once again, we’ve come up on a British film in our viewing of the 1001 movies list, and, just like The Lavender Hill Mob, this one benefits from being British as opposed to a Hollywood product.

I won’t tell you the name of the film.  Instead, let’s look at the elements.  It’s essentially a Greek tragedy of a film, which tells you, from the very beginning, that it ends with the death of the major love interests.  It’s written as a melodrama, and one of the characters, a man in love commits suicide five minutes in… and he’s not even one of the two cadavers from the first scene.

So how would Hollywood have treated this one?  If you said with a heavy-handed dose of melodrama, I’d have to agree with you.

And then the British came in.  For some reason, the Brits seem to be able to take pretty much anything they touch, no matter how plodding and melodramatic, imbue it with a dash of humor and fatalistic acceptance and turn it into a delight.  I kid you not.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman - Ava Gardner and James Mason.jpg

Today’s subject is 1951’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, whose plot stretches the ability for making melodrama bearable to the very limits.  And yet, the film is wonderfully watchable, as if the director had studied the challenge, raised an eyebrow and said “I thought you would bring me something difficult” and then went off to produce a masterpiece.

Every moment of this one flows at exactly the perfect pace.  It’s not a caper film or an action blockbuster, but it keeps you entertained by combining elements of mystery, love stories, beautiful scenery, questionable morals, a major car crash and even a bullfight.  And all along, the actors deliver wonderful performances, understated or overwrought as the case may be.

Of course, it isn’t perfect… the name ‘Flying Dutchman’ is applied to a person and not a ship, which causes some head-scratching (especially for a person who writes and reads as much fantasy as I do), and I, for one, don’t like the framing device of knowing they’re going to be dead at the end.  But even with all of that, I watched, entranced, as the magic happened.  The garish color of the era helped as well.

An aside for the performance of James Mason, who we’d already seen in The Reckless Moment.  Before he became a major Hollywood star, he was apparently typecast as a doomed tragic figure which, given his peaceful delivery and world-weary acceptance is utterly perfect.

Anyhow, very much worth watching.  Find it and see it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans every genre and length. His latest book is, Jungle Lab Terror, a romp through the Darien Gap… with monsters and a mad scientist.  Those who like their 1950’s style b-movie thrills with a dose of 21st century literary quality can learn more here.

When Obi-Wan Kenobi Robbed a Bank

Alec Guinness was an important actor, of course.  He was world famous long before he played that hermit, Old Ben, but unlike many of his great films, Star Wars is still a hugely central part of modern culture.  Perhaps it should have been more important to us that he played several weird roles in the wonderful Kind Hearts and Coronets, but to be honest, it was more mind-bending to see Kenobi robbing a bank in The Lavender Hill Mob.

Audrey Hepburn and Obi Wan Kenobi in the Lavender Hill Mob.png

This is a British caper film classic, in the style of The Italian Job, a nice counterpoint to the dense, grim crime films that were being produced in the US as noir disappeared into its own nether regions.  It’s lighthearted and a joy to watch, and I won’t spoil it for you by telling you the plot.  All you need to know, all anyone needs to know is that Kenobi robs a bank.

Half the time, I was expecting him to do the Jedi hand wave or go berserk with a lightsaber, but he stayed in character and used his mind to run the job.  I suppose that was best for the film.

Several actors that went on to great things got their screen debut in this one, but the two that caught my eye were not on their first film, but still hadn’t played the roles that fixed them in my head.

The first, as you can see from the picture above, is Audrey Hepburn, who has a minor part at the very beginning of the film.  She plays a charming young woman, so no real surprise there.

The second, and much more important in my view is Desmond Llewelyn, who played a tiny, uncredited role in this picture, later went on to scale the heights of movie glory.  Why?  Because he played Q in the James Bond films.

There used to be two film franchises that I would go to the movies for: Star Wars and James Bond.  Star Wars lost that distinction after The Last Jedi (I skipped Solo because I hated the preaching, message-filled stupid of TLJ) and James Bond, which is still attractive (although we’ll need to see if the character, so beautifully neanderthal, survives much longer in this day and age.  While he stays true to the original, the producers will get my money).  So Q is an important figure in my movie-watching.

Anyhow, this is one to watch.  Fun without any ifs or buts.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of a fast-paced thriller entitled Timeless.  If you enjoy your crime modern, edgy and international, then this one is definitely for you – have a look here.

Greatness that Smacks You Right Between the Eyes

Greatness often isn’t recognized in its own time.  Think of all the memorable films that didn’t even garner an Oscar nomination while the Best Picture winner languished in obscurity after a couple of years*.

Other films (the same can be said of books, of course) are slow-burning, becoming classics long after their first run bombed or otherwise made little impact.  A literary example illustrates this beautifully: HP Lovecraft.  He was a minor writer in the literary landscape of the 1920s and 30s, who was recognized after his death as the unrivalled master of a particular brand of fiction.  Hell, as a writer, I’m not entirely certain if we’re allowed to write the word “eldritch” unless we’re doing a Lovecraft pastiche.

But some just hit you between the eyes and you have no question that it’s a great one.  In the Noir Era, The Big Sleep is one that stands out.  There is no doubt that, perhaps without breaking any new ground, it brings a certain type of film to a supremely high level.  I have yet to watch one that I think is better.

Today’s subject is one of those.

The Third Man Movie Poster.jpg

Brilliant from the outset, The Third Man is an atmospheric study of postwar morality and the awful realities of a terrible time but, unlike The Bicycle Thief, it treats the subject matter as a way to tell a great story as opposed to using it as a political canvas.

And the story holds up its side of the film.  This isn’t just an atmospheric crime movie–and it most definitely isn’t noir–but a well-blended mix of high-quality ingredients.  Acting, setting, story and darkness combine to put you in Vienna in 1947.  It is utterly perfect, and quite possibly the film that best uses the fact that it’s black and white… ever–I still have a few of the greats to watch, but color was making strong inroads by the time this one was released in 1949–because it is one of those movies which would have lost a lot if they’d been in color.

So everything comes together beautifully, and the semi-twist ending (I won’t give any spoilers here, even though both film and book are well known, as many people will have forgotten how it ends), as well as Orson Welles’ few onscreen minutes, almost, if not quite, a cameo, make it about as close to the perfect movie as I’ve ever seen.

Also, the book is quite good as well, if I remember correctly (it was assigned reading in the eighth grade, so it’s probably high time I reread that one).  A Graham Greene Classic.

If I had to watch one movie from the forties, and one movie dealing with the effects of WW2, I admit I’d probably go with Casablanca over and over again.

But this one comes dangerously close.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is Jungle Lab Terror (just released–you could be one of the first readers!).  You can buy it here.

 

 

*Which, in the current “politics matter more than quality” climate, will actually happen more often.  I shudder to think of how future generations will laugh at the current Oscar dynamics.

An Alcoholic Romp

Having recently viewed Kind Hearts and Coronets, I was extremely surprised to learn that Whisky Galore (1949) was from the same studio: Ealing.  While the first of these is a meticulously detail-oriented and sophisticated black comedy, Whisky Galore seems to have been filmed by a crew who’d imbibed liberally in the titular beverage.

Whisky Galore film still.jpg

‘Romp’ is the perfect word to describe it.  This is not an understated film.  Every situation is taken to the extreme, and the production teeters on the edge of disaster the whole way through.  It’s a testament to the writers, directors (at least two) and actors that this never quite happens.  The post-shoot editing of this film is reported to have been a fraught affair, and one can see why: getting this one right has to have been a difficult endeavor.

As for how the audience receives it, I don’t recall many of the films on the 1001 movies list to be quite this fun.  Insanity, if held barely in check, is a surefire way of generating effective comedy, and it proves to be the case this time around.

Another thing that makes this one work is that the butt of most of the jokes are hidebound people who obey the rules at all costs, even when the rules are stupid or unenforceable.  In this film, they are represented by an English commander of a Home Guard unit during WWII, but he stands for everyone who upholds boring convention, especially health and safety.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for any appreciable time knows that health and safety freaks are not my favorite people, so I took wicked delight in watching authority get it in the shorts.

I don’t really have a critical evaluation of this one.  It is one to enjoy without overanalyzing it.  So that’s what I’ll do here.  Just get a copy of it, but be careful–there’s a remake from 2016, and one which I’d be leery of.  Much of the comedy in this film is the kind of stuff modern filmmakers are afraid of (you don’t want to fall afoul of the politically correct thought police), so the remake might be a watered-down monstrosity (I hope not, but as I haven’t seen it, I need to issue the warning).

Anyhow, watch this movie.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose debut collection Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places holds a number of slapstick stories in among the spaceship tales.  You can check it out here.

 

Kind Hearts and Black Humorous Brilliance

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started watching Kind Hearts and Coronets.  I thought it would be a historical film–which can often be amazing and equally often be utter tripe.

Kind Hearts and Coronets.jpg

It turns out that this one is actually a comedy, not a drama.  A wonderfully whimsical black comedy of murder and social classes.  I love it when the murderer is a sympathetic man and we’re all rooting for him to win in the end.

I really enjoyed this one, although I’m not sure how well it would play with audiences today.

Essentially, it follows the career of a young man whose noble-blooded mother has been disinherited by her family, and his subsequent quest to murder his way into inheriting a dukedom.  The murders are the funniest part of the film, of course.  Murder, if done correctly, is extremely funny.

Along the way he becomes emotionally entangled with two women and lands on death row for murder.  The murder that gets him locked up, which I won’t spoil for you, is just another piece of delicious black comedy.

This one is seriously old-school, but I think the buttons it presses aren’t the kind of thing that will offend people nowadays (although, to be honest, I have no clue what offends people nowadays… everything?), so I recommend it heartily to everyone.  Go out and watch this one.

If you don’t enjoy it, you’re a humorless twit, and should probably join the nearest holier-than-thou social movement in your neighborhood (does the temperance movement still exist?) at once.

Normal people should love it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer currenly in Covid-19 lockdown like everyone else in Buenos Aires.  Since we’re all staying at home anyway, why not purchase his latest book, Pale Reflection?  If you look in the reviews, you’ll see that it’s been favorably compared to Stephen King.  You can buy it here.

A Fairy Tale as an Excuse for an Art Film

After watching Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death, I was utterly unprepared for what awaited in The Red Shoes, put together by the same creative and directorial team.  Both of their previous postwar films had been slightly odd, yes, but they’d also been very focused on the story.

The Red Shoes 1948

The Red Shoes moves away from that tendency quite hard.  The story and character development are just framing devices for a film where music and dancing take center stage, but which isn’t exactly a musical.  So when the girl becomes a prima ballerina and the boy becomes a composer / director and they fall in love, it doesn’t really matter to the audience, as it seems predestined from the beginning.

Their tale is a vehicle for a visual feast set in the middle of the movie in a virtuoso display of filmmaking prowess in an era half a century before CGI.  The stage becomes a fantasy world that, as intended, makes the viewer question where the line between reality and fantasy runs.  And, as intended, the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale at the center of the story spills out into reality.

Or does it?

Normally, when a film’s plot is paper-thin, I hesitate to send people around to watch it.  But this one is about much more than plot.  The eye candy is worth the price of admission, and there’s not much a reviewer can say other than that.  If you like the kind of film that transports you to a magical place despite the lack of modern effects, this one will make you happy.

So, if the above is tempting, go ahead.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work often explores that region where reality and unreal worlds collide.  The best example of this is probably his novel Outside, which you can purchase here.

Controversial Film is Nothing New

Odd Man Out - Carol Reed - Final Scene

1947.  A horrible war has just ended.  Britain is in the midst of rationing everything from petrol to food.  You’d have to be pretty brave to film a sympathetic (albeit unflinching) portrayal of the IRA just then.  Either that or somewhat mad.

Carol Reed, it appears, was precisely that kind of man, and history has repaid him for his bravery (or madness) by making Odd Man Out his best-remembered film.  It tells the story of how an unnamed (but pretty obvious) revolutionary faction robs banks to finance itself, and of the responses of the members themselves, the people they love and the rest of the inhabitants of the unnamed city as the hunt for the perpetrators unfolds.

Refreshingly (in a world where people are convinced that anyone who voted for the “wrong” candidate in the US elections is subhuman), no one is portrayed as good or evil.  Every character is shown to have their flaws and their virtues.  In fact both are taken to the utter extreme in which the characters become caricatures of themselves without turning one-dimensional in the process.  So the implacable cop does all in his power to protect people from themselves, the insane painter can see the pain of people’s souls, the poor, greedy old man, despite his need and the lack of promises on the financial end, does all in his power to help out.

Perhaps this is the reason that the only objection the censors had to this film was the violence.  The final scenes had to be toned down.  In another era, or in any other country, this one would have fallen at the first hurdle.

Odd Man Out Film Poster

Perhaps this, more than anything, is what saddens me about the current state of political dialogue.  It is important that we understand and accept that others will have different views.  That doesn’t make them less intelligent or subhuman.  Just human.  If you profess to want the best for people and then hate someone just because they voted differently and don’t care about your arguments and won’t change their vote despite all your efforts, they are not the problem… you are.

Quite a good commentary on today, considering the film is seventy years old, huh?

On a slightly geeky note and our unusual fact about this one, one of the characters in this film was played by the first doctor, William Hartnell.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer, author of the popular novel, Siege. You can buy it here.

 

 

The Erotic Lives of Nuns

England in 1947 might not seem like the best place and time to have released a film about the most secret desires of a group of nuns in a convent, but not only did the Archers pull it off, but is was successful at release and no one was lynched in the strait-laced streets of Surrey.

Black Narcissus is an unusual film.  Simultaneously ahead of its time and awfully aged, it relies on underlying themes and use of spectacular color filmography for most of its impact–the story itself is pedestrian at best.  And, of course, in 1947, you couldn’t show any nudity, even in a film about lust.

Without spoilers, a quick synopsis of the film is as follows: a group of nuns under an inexperienced sister superior (played by none other than Deborah Kerr) set up a school and hospital atop a mountain in an old harem house in colonial India which still has much of its original allusive decoration on the walls.

Quickly overcome by the sensuality of the place, the tropical pace and values of life, even the stoutest of the sisters begins to waver and doubt, eventually causing one of them to crack under the strain.

David Farrar on his Pony

Unfortunately, certain elements that would have worked well for audiences in the 1940s have had their impact lessened by time, often becoming unintentional comedy.  The most prominent of these is the initial entrance of the male object of desire.  He enters his first scene and the important agent of the general wearing exactly the wrong length of bermuda shorts and riding a pony.  As an object of female desire, I’m pretty sure this is a look he’d want to avoid in 2018.

Men were luckier.  The female sex symbol in this film was Jean Simmons as Kanchi, a local girl of the lower classes falling into disrepute before our very eyes.  Though her story is a subplot, her presence helps solidify the erotic undertones of the film by including one character whose sensuality is in no doubt.

Jean Simmons as Kanchi

The rest of the interactions occur with a look here, a word there and perhaps the laying aside of practicality for color somewhere else.  It’s done at a slow burn, which makes the suddenly frantic ending all the more satisfying.

In conclusion, this is a decent and surprising film.  It has its flaws and hasn’t aged brilliantly, but is admirable for having done what it did when it did so.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  If you’re interested in eroticism (not quite as subtle as in Black Narcissus, but definitely more in tune with 2018), his ebook story Pacific Wind is available here.

Great Adaptations

Dickens, as has been proven by countless failures of his work on screen and stage, is tremendously difficult to adapt faithfully.  Either critical events get cut from the final version, or the rapid succession of scenes removes any depth from the characters.  Dickens’ magic dies in either of these two scenarios.

In 1946, when the movie we are going to discuss today was released, the consensus was that there had been no good Dickens for the screen.

Great Expectations

Sir David Lean‘s version of Great Expectations changed all that, which is quite surprising, as the original book is a multi-scened doorstop that explicitly exposes much of the introspection of the main character.

In that sense, perhaps the adaptation was doomed from the start.  It most certainly doesn’t manage to transmit the inner thoughts of Pip, and that robs the twist ending of much of its emotional strength.

But that is the film’s only weakness.  It manages to capture the characters emotions beautifully.  Pip’s openness, Joe’s faithful, unconditional generosity and (perfectly, brilliantly), Estella’s cruel aloofness.  It succeeds on both the strength of those portrayals and in the stunning rightness of the sets they used.  The forge, the marsh and especially the decaying mansion, all work brilliantly.

I was interested to learn that the book has been filmed again, as recently as 2012.  Looking over the rankings of the more modern versions on IMDB, I’m not really surprised that most of the newer versions rate much lower than the Lean.  Despite being hampered by postwar shortages and black and white photography (although, to be honest, that seemed just right for this one), the 1946 version is still the definitive Great Expectations.

It’s not surprising, as it’s difficult to improve upon near perfection.

I’d like to take a few more moments to talk about my own experience with the film.  You see, this isn’t my favorite Dickens novel.  Yes, it was better than the maudlin Oliver Twist, but can’t hold a candle to the masterpiece that is David Copperfield (in fact, it seems at times a little like a light, punched-held version of Copperfield).  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching a long period piece in black and white adapted from a book which I didn’t enjoy and whose twist I already knew.

It’s kind of like watching a film version of Murder on the Orient Express.  Knowing how it ends kills most of the magic.

But in the end, I liked it.  It was that good.

Weird stuff, or at least stuff that interested me, abounded in this one.

Kilroy Was Here Marker

First off, there’s a scene in which a “Kilroy was Here” appears drawn in the dust.  It’s in the final scene of the film, but I haven’t been able to get a good screenshot (if anyone has one and can send me the link in comments, it will immediately be placed here!).

Also, there was an Argentine born actress in this one: Martita Hunt.  She is long gone, but we salute her from Way Down South!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.