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Laurence Olivier

Review: Sleuth

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

The only thing really wrong with Sleuth is that it isn’t much much better than it already is and that, by its very nature, it can’t be. On the level of craftsmanship it is an unqualified joy. Anthony Shaffer’s lines are crisp, civilized, cozily cruel. As a sort of literary and sexual Colonel Blimp, Laurence Olivier tries on postures and accents up to and including that of a frontier sheriff and leaves one dumb with admiration of his technique. Michael Caine’s ineradicable cockneyness prevents his being quite acceptable as a semi-Italian hairdresser, but it is simply birth that stands in his way, not any shortage of passion, flair, nuance. The performances and performers are, as one would expect, worth the price of admission. In terms of inventiveness if not of expressiveness, Joseph Mankiewicz probably earned his Oscar nomination: in a play adaptation that takes place mostly in one room, he scarcely employs a single camera setup more than once, yet never succumbs to the surely constant temptation to visual grotesquerie or stroke-my-boom flamboyance as a means of stressing his directorial presence (cf. Peter Medak in parts of The Ruling Class and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg). Moreover, the redoubtable Oswald Morris, who finally won his Oscar for—of all things—Fiddler on the Roof, turns the several sets into unostentatious wonderlands of light, color, unexpected softnesses side-by-edge with unnervingly precise contours and corners.

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Review: Love among the Ruins

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

The first of the best films of 1975 has been and gone, and won’t be back, at least at your naborhood theatre. Love among the Ruins appeared on ABC-TV on March 6; reportedly, an agreement with Sir Laurence Olivier ensures that it will never be released theatrically. One can only hope that the film will soon be leaked quietly to 16mm nontheatrical distributors (as, for instance, is the case with Losey’s A Doll’s House), for it’s a treasure, a shining testimonial to the glories of memory and dreams that deserves better than to become merely a memory itself.

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Videophiled Classics: Otto Preminger’s ‘Bunny Lake is Missing’

Bunny Lake Is Missing (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – In the late 1950s and early 1960s, no American director melded classic Hollywood style and cool modern European elegance better than producer/director Otto Preminger. His handsome films are celebrations of introspection and stylistic remove and his best work defined not by heroes and villains but complex, flawed, achingly sympathetic characters. On the surface, this 1965 mystery is no more than a smartly done, intelligently written thriller but Preminger’s fierce cinematic intelligence guides a fluid camera that effortlessly tracks, glides, and reframes characters as they shift through scenes, shifting our perspective along the way.

Carol Lynley is an American single mother who has just moved to London with her brother (Keir Dullea) and her young daughter Bunny, who we never actually see before she suddenly goes missing. Laurence Olivier delivers one of his best performances as a police inspector full of blank smiles, putting on a mask of practiced civility while investigating the disappearance of a child that no one can remember seeing. Lynley is another of Preminger’s lithe, lovely heroines who finds herself isolated and alienated, a stranger in a culture that feels just slightly off (Noel Coward is particularly unsettling as a landlord with questionable motivations), while devoted brother Dullea supports her through the ordeal. While Lynley’s panic tips into paranoia and makes us question her grasp on reality—does Bunny even exist?—Dullea’s glazed cool and dazed smiles make him a little questionable as well. Like Olivier, Preminger conceals his feelings, wielding the camera like a microscope examining the layers of his characters while setting in motion with a choreographer’s grace.

Please note, however, that the prominent billing of the British rock group The Zombies refers only to a rather contrived appearance on a TV screen in the background of one shot and a song playing on a transistor radio in another. They make no actual appearance in the film as such, yet I can’t help but grudgingly respect Preminger’s purely commercial movie. He made films his way, but as his own producer, he was savvy enough to play the promoter.

It’s a gorgeous CinemaScope movie and Twilight Time does the film up nicely, with a strong transfer of a good-looking HD master from Columbia Pictures, a studio with a superb record of preserving, restoring, and making high-quality digital transfers of their catalog. It’s a reminder that black and white films offer a whole new dimension on good-quality Blu-ray releases, not just added sharpness and clarity but a greater depth of gray scale and shading.

The original Twilight Time model was to provide high-quality releases of films from studio vaults in limited edition runs with minimal supplements beyond an isolated score track and a booklet with an essay by house writer Julie Kirgo. Since their launch, however, they have started including featurettes and other supplements from previous DVD releases where possible, and providing original commentary tracks on select releases. This release offers commentary by film historian Lem Dobbs with in-house historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman (who also founded the label), a trio that has done more than a few commentary tracks together, and their ease gives the track an easy-going quality as they dig into the film and offer historical and critical perspective. Also includes three trailers.

More classics on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Videophiled Classic: ‘Zulu’ and ‘Khartoum’

ZuluThe sun sets on the British Empire and the historical epic in a pair of 1960s productions built around legendary colonial battles of the late 19th century. Legendary to British history, that is. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa and the Siege of Khartoum in Sudan would be all but unknown in the U.S outside of historical societies were it not for Zulu (1964) and Khartoum (1966), both of which debut stateside on Blu-ray from Twilight Time this week.

These films were produced in the wake of Lawrence of Arabia and El Cid and while they revel in the spectacle of battle (that whole cast of thousands thing), they take a more ambivalent view toward colonial adventure. The glory of the British Empire isn’t quite so glorious in these stories of English military might in the name of conquest.

Zulu (Twilight Time, Blu-Ray) is far and away the superior film. Shot mostly on location in South Africa (with some interiors back in the British studio), directed by American Cy Enfield (who moved to England in the shadow of the Hollywood blacklist) and co-produced by Enfield and Stanley Baker, who takes the leading role, it turns a piece of once-obscure history into a riveting drama. A British station with a contingent of about 150 men (including the sick and wounded in the hospital) are ordered to hold their ground when 4000 Zulu warriors, charged up after massacring a force of over 1,000 British soldiers, surround them. The image is chilling: the station—not even a full fort, just a few buildings and a corral—is nestled in a ring of hills and the Zulu soldiers announce themselves by lining up along the rise around them. Psychological warfare at its best.

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Review: The Seven Percent Solution

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Sherlock Holmes is an item nowadays. When Billy Wilder’s exquisitely personal The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes opened at Christmastime 1970, he was such a commercial irrelevancy that the cashiers at the now-deceased Blue Mouse, where the picture was showing, were taking calls for Love Story at their sister theater, the Music Box, across the street (I phoned up one evening to ask when “the show” started, and arrived in midfilm—it had never occurred to the harried phone person that somebody wanted to see the show in her theater; I eventually did see it the next evening, with about eight other people in attendance). While the Wilder picture is well on the way to winning its proper place in the annals of cinema, it’s hard not to resent the fickleness of fate and mass audience tastes—or the commercial inevitability of Nicholas Meyer’s trivially amusing bestseller The Seven Percent Solution finding its luxurious way to holiday screens via a property packager like Herbert Ross. The resultant film is enjoyable enough most of the time—handsome in its production values (Ken Adam has already demonstrated his skill at period reconstruction in Barry Lyndon, and Oswald Morris has been one of the best color cameramen in the business since he and John Huston began remixing the Technicolor palette in Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick), blessed with several appealing, if manneristic, performances, and somewhat more adventurous in its narrative idiom(s) than was Meyer’s novel as a work of literature.

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Review: A Bridge Too Far

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

In the final shot of A Bridge Too Far, a Dutch widow, accompanied by a doctor, her children, and a cart loaded with a few precious possessions, moves slowly across the entire width of the Scope screen, leaving behind her home in Arnhem, ravaged by the worst pocket of the ill-fated Allied sortie into Holland in fall of 1944. One of the woman’s children has fallen behind the group and is playing at soldier, a stick held at shoulder arms. It’s a shot that contrasts sharply with the final shot of Attenborough’s first directorial effort, Oh! What a Lovely War: from a family tending a single grave, the camera cranes back and up, slowly but relentlessly, revealing row upon row upon row of identical white crosses, stretching incredibly away as far as the eye can see. That shot had power without subtlety; the finish of Attenborough’s newest film is subtler but powerless. Both end-shots are representative of the token manner in which Attenborough has come to handle the problem of war.

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Manners, Morals, and Murder: Sleuth and Murder on the Orient Express

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

Sleuth and Murder on the Orient Express. More than puzzles are to be teased out in these two jokey, backward-looking thrillers. Two ultra-British subjects are handled by two very American directors, and whodunit – or whodunwhat – is only one of many queries to be resolved. In essence, each is of a classic English pre-war mystery-thriller type: Sleuth sets us down in our old friend, The Remote Old Country House Where Things Are Not As They Seem, whilst Murder on the Orient Express is a glossy confined-space thriller where The Killer Has To Be One Of A Small Number (all played by famous stars, of course) And Cannot Get Away For A While; the detective, Hercule Poirot, he of the waxed moustaches and the little grey cells, has to trap said killer in the limited space of time before the snow-plough arrives to allow the Orient Express, marooned in snowdrift, to continue its Istanbul-to-Calais route.

Let those readers who haven’t seen the films quit reading now, if they haven’t already. I aim to be so unsporting as to blow the surprise endings, and most of the inner workings of the plot, on both films. Actually, simply what happens isn’t so all-important; if it were, who would want to see either film a second time? And though neither film seems to be realistic, grim reality keeps on creeping in, to the advantage of Sleuth and the detriment of Orient Express. Sidney Lumet, a stern social commentator, or so he would have us believe, in earlier films like The Pawnbroker, The Hill, A View from the Bridge, and, of course, Twelve Angry Men (which has the most bearing here), is revealed by a close examination of Orient Express to be a threadbare moralist indeed; whilst Joseph Mankiewicz, widely regarded as a witticism-churning butterfly too hooked on his own bons mots to be much concerned with Life, or even visual style, has come up with as acute a study of Britain’s steel-trap class system as any native director from the so-called good old days of the island’s filmic new wave.

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Review: The Boys from Brazil

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

“Budt ze prroject vill be ruindt,” complains Gregory Peck, in the worst possible screen-German accent, when James Mason’s SS Colonel suggests that Peck’s mad geneticist recall his squad of assassins, sent out to bump off 94 civil servants throughout the world. It’s a clever way to evoke audience sympathy for the bad guys, because at this point in the film we don’t want Dr. Josef Mengele’s project to be cancelled—not till we can at least find out precisely what it is. How can the killing of 94 low-grade civil servants, aged 65, possibly bring about “ze Fourss Reich”? That our curiosity should be used to ally us with Mengele, even though we already know him to be a heinous villain, is indicative of Franklin Schaffner’s offbeat taste in heroes. Schaffner has wavered between celebrations of mavericks who defy convention (The War Lord, Planet of the Apes, Patton, Islands in the Stream) and confrontations or alliances of two strong-but-flawed characters (The Best Man, Papillon, and the special case of The Double Man in which Yul Brynner played both a CIA agent and a Communist spy). The Boys from Brazil seems to unite the two interests, with Schaffner unable to conceal his fascination for Mengele, quite despite the intentions of novelist Levin and scenarist Gould.

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