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Watching the Detectives: Basil Rathbone is Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon February 28, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Thriller, War , 2 comments

Holmes does his bit for King and Country as he endeavours to keep a new bombsight out of German hands and once again faces his nemesis Professor Moriarty.

This second Universal Holmes movie is far more entertaining than its predecessor, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. Rathbone, sporting the same windswept hairstyle as he did in the earlier film, seems to be enjoying himself far more here, no doubt resigned to the fact that the Universal were never going to match the two Fox films for class. Nigel Bruce’s Watson seems to get dumber and yet more lovable with each film, you get the feeling he’d fall for the old “your shoelace in untied” trick, and not just once either. Of course the fact that Holmes puts his life in the hands of the bungling Doctor and the equally incompetent Inspector Lestrade at the films conclusion shows a level of trust that’s hard to qualify given what’s gone before.

The Holmes/Moriarty confrontations are a joy as Lionel Atwill gets to ham it up as the Yin to Holmes Yang. The film even manages to squeeze in a reference to Sherlock’s drug habit with Moriarty quipping “The needle to the last, eh, Holmes?” as Holmes details how, were he in the Professor’s shoes, he’d drain his blood in order to prolong his suffering.

The film finishes with Rathbone quoting Shakespeare - “This fortress - built by nature for herself; This blessed plot, this Earth, this realm, this England.” – and thanks to Universal Holmes would continue to do his patriotic duty for another ten films.

Literally Speaking: The Night of the Generals February 6, 2008

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A murder mystery that starts in German occupied Warsaw in 1942 and ends in Hamburg in 1965, and along the way encompasses Operation Valkyrie, theplot by top German officers to assassinate Hitler, and the inspiration for the forthcoming Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie . But it’s the murder of a prostitute that occupies Major Grau, an intelligence officer with an abiding desire to see justice done, no matter how low the victim or how high the culprit. Grau’s three suspects are Generals Kahlenberg, von Seidlitz-Gabler and Tanz, and each has something to hide but which is the Nazi equivalent of Jack the Ripper?

There isn’t really a star in Night of the Generals, even though the film has a pretty starry cast, with the film’s focus shifting at different points. Omar Sharif is Grau who provides the thrust of the story, but other than a disinterest in the Hitler assassination attempt, a liking for French wine and a dogged determination to see a job done, we don’t really find out anything about him. In the role of Kahlenberg, Donald Pleasence brings some humour to the film but again we don’t really find out what makes him tick.

The two most fully developed characters are General Tanz and Corporal Hartmann. Peter O’Toole gives a faultless performance as Tanz. Tyrannical, eccentric and filled with self loathing, the General is a psychopath with control of a large army, surely a metaphor for Hitler. O’Toole’s blue eyes have never been so cold and filled with madness as they are here. If Tanz represents the insanity of war than Hartmann is the antithesis, a decorated hero who seeks to avoid combat for the sanest of reasons – he doesn’t want to die. Tom Courtenay is the yin to O’Toole’s yang; a decent guy caught up in a conflict he can’t escape, a lover (of General von Seidlitz-Gabler’s daughter) not a fighter. He’s forced into being Tanz’s tour guide around Paris by General Kahlenberg, an order that leads ultimately to the films satisfying conclusion.

The Night of the Generals is very much an actor’s film, bar one scene of the destruction of Warsaw by Tanz there isn’t much action. It relies on the performances to carry it and director Anatole Litvak gets the best out of his big name cast, Sharif covers the lack of character depth with star power and O’Toole gives us a truly memorable madman, only Christopher Plummer as Field Marshal Rommel disappoints, but with little for him to work with it’s hard to fault the actor.

The film works as both war movie and murder mystery and is well worth a look if you’re a fan of either genre and it’s a must see for O’Toole fans.

Literally Speaking: The Four Feathers (2002) January 30, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Drama, War , add a comment

Given the tragic death of Heath Ledger last week this film sort of picked itself out of the pile of DVDs I‘ve got lined up for this series. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Ledger’s work, of the seventeen films he made (eighteen with The Dark Knight) I’ve only seen eight and, while he was certainly a good actor, he was often overshadowed by his co-stars – Mel Gibson in The Patriot, Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball and Paul Bettany in A Knight’s Tale – but I’ve yet to see his most acclaimed performance in Brokeback Mountain.

A.E.W. Mason’s novel has been filmed no less than seven times but I’d only seen the classic 1939 version with Ralph Richardson and John Clements prior to watching this. Given that the film has an Indian director in Shekhar Kapur it would be fair to expect a slightly different take on this tale of love and daring-do in the days of the British Empire than previous versions, and, in that regard, the film doesn’t disappoint.

While it shares the central love triangle with previous takes, this isn’t a film about heroics but rather the horrors of war, with the British no better than The Mahdi and his followers, and certainly more arrogant. Rather than being about Harry Faversham’s quest to regain his honour after his friends brand him a coward, the film uses that as a devise to show the suffering war brings and how it brings out the worst in men.

Given the horror it shows us, the film still manages to look beautiful, with Oliver Stone’s cinematographer of choice, Robert Richardson, doing a fine job capturing the spectacle of the battles and the majesty of the desert. It’ll make you thirsty just watching it.

Of the three leads Ledger shines the brightest, with Wes Bentley giving a restrained performance as befits the stiff-upper- lip part he’s playing, while Kate Hudson doesn’t have to do much more than look pretty in period costume (she puts on a decent accent though). It’s Ledger who carries the film, getting stuck in during the battle scenes and showing what a capable horseman he was. His friendship with native Abou Fatma, played by Djimon Hounsou, is far more interesting than his bond with his English cronies and the film contrasts the judgmental nature of his so called civilised friends with the honest comradeship of this Black man.

The film doesn’t really work as a love story, there’s no real chemistry between the leads but the big problem is that the tale it’s telling doesn’t really fit the message it wants to get across. Kapur would have been far better served by an original story set in the period than trying to mould this tale of honour and redemption to fit his needs. History even gets a rewrite, with the outcome of the battle of Abu Klea revised so the British get a pasting.

Not a bad film, but one that’s aspirations are never fully realised, The Four Feathers won’t be the film Heath Ledger is remembered for, even though he’s the best thing about it.

Literally Speaking: The Quiet American (1958) January 23, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Drama, War , add a comment

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel is a love story with a political backdrop. Michael Redgrave plays the bitter and cynical reporter Thomas Fowler opposite Audie Murphy’s idealistic young American with the pair competing for the affections of beautiful Vietnamese girl Phuong, played less than convincingly by Giorgia Moll.

This love triangle is mixed in with the First Indochina War fought between the French and Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh over Vietnamese independence. Apart from providing an interesting and unusual setting, it also anticipates American interference in the region which would lead ultimately to the Viet Nam War.

Despite all that though the film is at heart a love story, with our lead protagonists all doing what they do for love. The contrast between seasoned pro Michael Redgrave and Murphy, who stumbled into the profession after his World War II heroics got him noticed by Hollywood, mirrors their onscreen characters.

Few actors have been as convincingly world weary as Redgrave is here, there’s a hopeless desperation about Fowler, you get the feeling that his love or desire for Phuong is all that’s keeping his from a total breakdown. Yet given how things play out it’s hard to feel sympathy for him.

The boyishly handsome Murphy can’t really compete in the acting stakes but he doesn’t show himself up either. The American is a slightly ambiguous character; we’re never sure if he’s just the do-gooder aid worker he paints himself as or if he’s secretly working for the US Government. This must have made a pleasant change from the B western heroes Murphy usually played.

As the cause of the film’s strife, Giorgia Moll, is sadly found wanting. It’s not that we can’t believe that two men could be in love with her; she’s beautiful and has an innocence that’s alluring, no the problem is she isn’t, and doesn’t look, Vietnamese (she’s from Italy which is where the film was shot). As was the norm of the time we have a Western actor playing an Asian character, with John Huston’s The Barbarian and the Geisha, made the same year, one of the few exceptions.

Giving the films best performance is Claude Dauphin as the cop investigating the American’s murder (the film is told in flashback with Murphy dead at the start). He’s got a real living-in kind of face, like he’s seen it all before and nothing surprises him anymore, and it suits the character, who’s one step ahead of Redgrave at the films downbeat finale.

The film may be adapted from a book but is has a stagey quality to it like a play, perhaps not surprising given how talky it is. Joseph L. Mankiewicz had a knack for turning plays into decent films, prior to The Quiet American he made Julius Caesar and he’d go on to make Suddenly, Last Summer, The Honey Pot and Sleuth. Here he uses that ability to keep the viewer hooked, even though the film features very little in the way of action, for the full two hour running time.

Recommended for those who like their love stories with an air of fatalism.

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