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Rare Orson Welles thriller gets an airing

JOHN GORE, founder of StokeScreen Film Club, with his latest pick of the best films coming to TV (from Saturday, March 6).

Just when you thought you knew it all, life (and the Radio Times) finds the capacity to bite you on the bum.

As a student of film in the 1970s, I was led to the shrine of deities of directors and taught the canon of works of the greats: Hitchcock, Ford, Hawkes and Orson Welles among a few others. So it comes as something of a surprise to me to encounter a title by Welles that not only have I not seen, but of which I was not even aware. The Stranger 1946 (Film4 14.45 Mon 8 March) only gets a passing reference in my text books. It appears to be his first feature after the War and revolves around the hunt for a Nazi war criminal in Connecticut. Welles is joined, in front of the camera, by Edward G Robinson and Loretta Young (pictured above). It is clearly a much scaled down production compared to its predecessors, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. It will be interesting to see whether he had artistic freedom enough to continue his ground-breaking techniques of long single takes and deep focus photography. I suspect he was indebted to the studio for his previous epics and seeking a way to stage his own independent productions. He struggled to raise funding for his production of Macbeth (1948) and just about everything else thereafter.

So, in a less than spectacular week of films, I thought it would be worth rummaging through the silt to see what else we might find there. After Apocalypse Now last week, there is a far less distinguished courtroom drama by Francis Copolla, The Rainmaker 1997 (5Star 21.00 Fri 12 March) in which ‘an underdog lawyer’ (of course) takes on a fraudulent insurance company (tautology?!). John Grisham, who wrote the original novel, is clearly well informed about the legal system but the plot is unexceptional. The casting, however, is interesting and breathes more life into the film than you might expect. Matt Damon, Danny De Vito and Claire Danes come as no surprise, but there seems to be a campaign to resurrect the 1970s and 80s with John Voight, Mickey Rourke and Roy Scheider (Jaws) putting in significant performances.

Raising Arizona 1987 (Sony 19.05 Sun 7 March) was the second feature by the Coen Brothers (Fargo, The Big Lebowski). It is an account of the kidnapping of a baby played as a screwball comedy with Nicholas Cage as an ex-con and Holly Hunter (The Piano), an ex-cop, as the abductors. This was an opportunity for Cage to flex his muscles as the frenetic, manic protagonist which has provided him with a lucrative career ever since. The film has enjoyed cult status over the decades but is my least favourite of the Coens’ films. I have always found the humour too broad. They have subsequently honed their work to an equally eccentric but more nuanced shape. Maybe it is time to revisit it.

Margin Call 2011 (BBC1 23.30 Sat 6 March) was the debut feature of J C Chandor, protégé of Robert Redford. This was the first film that tried to explain, in layman’s terms, what happened in the 2008 financial collapse. Zachary Quinto (Star Trek), Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Irons are the key figures in an investment bank on the eve of the crash. It may feel a bit like a lecture at times but it is compelling stuff. It gave Chandor the exposure to go on and make All Is Lost with his mentor, and A Most Violent Year, which is also measured in tone, and perceptive, with low-key but powerful performances.

Margin Call is a fine ensemble piece. One of the most memorable examples of this format is Lawrence Kasden’s The Big Chill 1983 (Sony Classics 23.35 Tue 9 March), in which university friends reunite 15 years on, older, better dressed and possibly a little wiser. The film reviews the passions and indulgences of the 60s through a lens of a decade and a half of change. Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jo Beth Williams lead the cast in what now - probably - looks quite quaint and naive. But when it was released, it spoke very clearly of the passing of an era. It also assembled a number of the ‘A-listers’ who were to reign over Hollywood in the next decade.

Then, there is Ruth and Alex 2014 (Sony Movies 16.55 Wed 10 March), a quiet and charming drama of a mature couple (Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman) addressing the increasingly alarming prospect of moving home in New York. Cynthia Nixon (Sex in the City) plays the brusque daughter. Ruth and Alex is directed by Richard Loncraine (Richard III, Finding Your Feet) who seems rather adept at making engaging dramas about ‘people of a certain age’, in which very little actually happens but still manages to keep us engaged and caring. This came as a breath of fresh air but got limited distribution in cinemas at the time.

So, on to the Brits. We had a mini season of films by women directors last time. Foolish chap that I am, I had not acknowledged that Monday, 8 March, is International Women’s Day. To mark the occasion there is a screening of Amma Assante’s (A United Kingdom) first feature, Belle 2013 (Film4 18.50 Mon 8 March). Set in the time of Jane Austen, it tells of the mixed race child of an affluent merchant. Although she is raised as a lady by her grandparents in Regency England, she still has to contend with the social oppression and suspicion she incurs because she is black. It is interesting to see the familiar conventions of the costume drama examined in a more modern context.

NEDs 2010 (Film4 01.25 Wed 10 March) is the second feature by actor turned director Peter Mullen. The Non Educated Delinquents of the title refers to gangs of boys in Glasgow, growing up in poverty. The film is the story of a previously studious boy drawn into gang culture. The strong, young cast make this convincing and compelling stuff. Mullen is a skilled director who also made Magdalene Sisters which is even more impressive and includes one of the finest sequences in British cinema. I will let you know if it appears in the TV schedules.

In marked contrast, there is another chance to see The Remains of the Day 1993 (Sony Movies 03.05 Wed 10 March), on the face of it, the story of a lovelorn butler in a stately home in the years before the outbreak of WW2. Adapted from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and directed by James Ivory, it looks at the social divisions and hints at the degree of support that existed for Hitler and Nazism in the ranks of the upper class. Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are outstanding leads of the below stairs community.

I have a pair of Elizabeth Taylors to show you. In The Taming of the Shrew 1967 (Sony Classics 14.10 Mon 8 March) she teams up with Richard Burton as the bickering Beatrice and Benedict of Shakespeare’s comedy. Later that evening she stars in Suddenly Last Summer 1959 (Sony Classics 23.35 Mon 8 March), a high melodrama of dark secrets and lobotomy by Tennessee Williams, in which Ms Taylor is well supported by Montgomery Clift and Katherine Hepburn.

If that were not enough, there is further Tennessee to see: This Property is Condemned 1966 (Talking Pictures TV 01.25 Thu 11 March), is a Depression era doomed romance with Natalie Wood and Robert Redford. How neat and tidy all this has become!

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