Hitch's greatest chiller still has the power to disturb
JOHN GORE, founder of StokeScreen Film Club, with his latest pick of the films coming to a TV near you (from Jan 9).
Twelfth Night (or What you Will) is passed. Our baubles are battened in their boxes for another eleven months and we can look forward to the hangover which is January in lockdown. Thin gruel and no alcohol until the kilos recede. It looks as though the TV schedule is following a similar trajectory, with a few notable exceptions.
The recent films were all spent in the orgy of viewing that is the festive season, so I shall be trawling through a few rather interesting classics, a number of which I have not seen, so shall be talking authoritatively about stuff of which I know nothing. So, little change there, then! Happy New Year.
We recently lost John Le Carré, master of the spy thriller. Most of his work has been adapted for the screen in either film or TV format. BBC4 is currently rerunning The Night Manager, (Sun 22.00) a later
work about a hotel manager in Cairo, recruited to infiltrate an arms dealing ring. Tom Hiddlestone, Hugh Laurie, Elizabeth Debicki and Olivia Coleman lead a strong cast in this handsome six-part TV production.
It is supplemented this week, by perhaps Le Carré’s best known work, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 2011 (BBC2 21.30 Sat 9 Jan), in which Gary Oldman plays the enigmatic George Smiley, rooting out a double agent in MI6, and A Most Wanted Man 2014 (Film4 23.45 Mon 11 Jan) which finds the magnificent and much missed Philip Seymour Hoffman as handler for a Chechen refugee in Hamburg, trying to unearth the activities of an international terrorist group.
Le Carré wrote his novels as the antithesis of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. This is a dull world of research, observation and interrogation, neighbourhood cafes and lonely bedsits. Not a cocktail or tuxedo in sight. Many of his characters bear an air of eternal anxiety, which suits the likes of Hoffman and Olivia Coleman. He also wrote books in proper chapters, unlike the authors of airport novels who write by scenes, presupposing their adaptation for the screen. He did, however, love the idea of his work being performed and recorded the audio books of his work in a variety of his own voices. He was a very interesting man whose work transcends the constraints of genre.
We have two classic films by another master in evidence. The Shadow of a Doubt 1943 (Sony Action 21.15 Wed 13 Jan) was the first Alfred Hitchcock film I saw on the big screen, back in the student days of hair and flares. Joseph Cotten, a rather ambiguous figure, favourite uncle of a family in Middle America arrives in town under a great plume of demonic black smoke, charms his way into the heart of the community, but then suspicions arise that he may be a notorious serial murderer, The Merry Widow Killer. Fuelled by a sense of wartime unease, Hitchcock turns the screw of suspense with deft skill.
The other film is one of Hitch’s most notorious and challenging. Psycho 1960 (Sony Classics 21.00 Fri 15 Jan) was shocking when it was first released and still disturbs, however often you have seen it or however often it has been copied or parodied. As with the best of his work, the story is simple: a secretary (Janet Leigh), pictured above, embezzles the deposit for a property sold by the estate agent for whom she works and skips town, resting for the night at the Bates Motel in Nowheresville. There she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins in the role which established his career, and blighted him for the rest of his life) and the focus of the story shifts from her to him.
There is little dialogue in the film and it betrays Hitchcock’s origin as a film maker from the silent era: why describe when you can show. It boasts one of the greatest and most chilling soundtracks in all of cinema, courtesy of Bernard Herrmann. Hitchcock uses prominent object and point of view (POV) shots to tell a grisly tale. This is sublime film making; a forerunner to the films of the independent film makers of the 1960s with a low budget, lesser-known cast, controversial subject matter. It was one of a handful of shocking films that emerged in 1960, including Michael Powell’s equally voyeuristic and unsettling Peeping Tom. Here is a film that you really should have seen.
In timely fashion, an earlier Michael Powell film is showing, after the TV remake which ran over Christmas. Black Narcissus 1947 (BBC2 13.15 Sat 9 Jan) is set in a convent in the Himalayas where obsession and hysteria (as it was known at the time) sets in. Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons and a magnificently deranged Kathleen Byron shine amidst the lush Technicolor glory of the Indian landscape (of Hertfordshire!).
From the 1960s comes another Paul Newman starrer (that I have not seen), Hombre 1967 (Talking Pictures TV 18.45 Tue 12 Jan), an early example of the revising of the relationship between Native Americans and the white settlers. Newman plays a man who was raised in a native family, travelling through disputed territory in elevated company. They soon come to learn that he has his uses in a time of crisis.
Another formative movie about race from the same year is In the Heat of the Night 1967 (Sony Classics 21.00 Sun 10 Jan). Norman Jewison, who never shied away from the hot issues of the day, directs a seminal story of a black cop. Sidney Poitier, of course, is assigned to investigate a murder in a segregated Southern town where he runs into the ingrained racism of the community and local police chief, Rod Steiger. It won Best Film Oscar in 1968 and best actor for Rod Steiger but, curiously, nothing for the iconic performance by Poitier. They call me MISTER Tibbs!
From 1981, we have Reds (Talking Pictures TV 21.00 Sat 9 Jan) directed by and starring Warren Beatty as John Reed, the journalist reporting on the Russian Revolution, whose report was to be published as Ten Days That Shook the World. This walked off with the Best Film and Best Director Oscars in 1981 but I have yet to see it. It divided critics at the time, so I shall look forward to catching up with it, at last. At three and quarter hours, you may need to take your sandwiches in with you but here is a chance to see Diane Keaton post Annie Hall, and Jack Nicholson playing playwright Eugene O’Neil.
We have a couple of classic comedies from the era of Ealing: Whisky Galore 1949 (BBC4 22.00 Thu 14 Jan) based on a true story of a shipwreck off the Hebrides during WW2 with wily locals conducting a salvage operation to help keep up morale. There is also Peter Sellers’ much loved The Mouse that Roared 1959 (Sony Classics 06.00 Thu 14 Jan – yes, that is 6.00 am!) a satire of a small, impoverished nation that declares war on the USA in the hope of being defeated and receiving loads of foreign aid. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan.
Britfilm of the week would be Midlander Shane Meadows’ 2004 thriller Dead Man’s Shoes (Film4 23.05 Sat 9 Jan): a story of vengeance sought by a soldier returning home to find his brother has been brutalized by local thugs. It’s a sort of Western from Worksop.
Still circulating and worth watching are: End of Watch 2012 (BBC1 00.40 Sun 10 Jan) with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena playing newly qualified cops in downtown LA. This is a taut cop thriller that suffered in comparison to the expansiveness and eloquence of The Wire, which was on TV at the time and shared many of the same issues but had the scope to go into them in greater depth.
The Big Short 2015 (BBC2 23.30 Sat 9 Jan) is as lucid an explanation of the dubious dealings that led to the US mortgage bubble and subsequent financial collapse of 2008 as you are likely to find, with some persuasive and surprising performances from Christian Bale, Steve Carrell (who plays straight roles surprisingly well), Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt.
The Dressmaker 2015 (Channel4 23.40 Sun 10 Jan) is back on our screens again. Kate Winslett returns, like Clint Eastwood in The Good the Bad and the Ugly, to her hometown armed with a sewing machine and Parisian Haute Couture knowhow, to wreak revenge on them what dun her wrong. Judy Davis, as her mum, is outstanding.
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