J. Arthur Rank Film Distributors

In the Bleak Midwinter (1995, Kenneth Branagh)

In the Bleak Midwinter is a sweet movie. It’s kind of a Christmas movie–it takes place at Christmas–and it’s this gentle, thoughtful, sweet but never saccharine or even really acknowledging its sweetness sweet movie. Writer and director Branagh puts a lot of work into the plotting of the film, without ever appearing to be putting a lot of work into it because it’s usually in the background. Because Midwinter is an often uproarious comedy and the comedy gets the foreground. But, in the end, it’s pretty clear Branagh’s made a sweet movie. It’s about a production of Hamlet, but the film itself is more akin to a Shakespeare comedy.

The opening titles has some monologue from lead Michael Maloney, then goes to a scene with Maloney–an out-of-work actor–having lunch with his agent, played by Joan Collins. Collins is great in the scene. She shows up more later, but she’s never as perfect as in that first scene. She helps set the first of Midwinter’s moods. The film has different moods and different narrative distances throughout. Usually they don’t change at the same. Maybe never. But as one changes, the other might react, leading to its change.

All right, I need to explain Midwinter. It’s black and white, it’s about a group of actors trying to put on Hamlet while all living together in this ramshackle church they’re trying to save. Their Hamlet is going to save the church. It’s Maloney’s church from childhood. He’s able to put the show on because of Collins.

There’s a funny casting sequence, setting up the eclectic band of actors. Then they all go to the church to prepare. It’s a big cast–nine principals. Maloney keeps the lead just because he’s directing the play. Hetta Charnley is his sister, who is the one who wants the church saved. She still lives in the unseen town with the church in it. Then there’s Celia Irmie as the production designer (sets and clothes). Richard Briers is the angry old actor. John Sessions is the openly gay actor–Midwinter’s 1995 after all–who’s playing Queen Gertrude. Nicholas Farrell, Mark Hadfield, and Gerard Horan are the male actors. Julia Sawalha is the Ophelia. Everyone’s got distinctive story details. Turns out Branagh doesn’t just want his actors doing comedy–including physical comedy–he’s got some character drama.

Midwinter is really well-written through the first half. It’s really funny, it’s really well-directed. Branagh’s not messing around. He and cinematographer Roger Lanser get some phenomenal shots in the black and white. The filming locations, the production design (from Tim Harvey), all great stuff. But then Branagh gets into the characters and all the actors get this revealed depth to work with. Except Maloney, actually. Maloney’s character arc is something else entirely.

And the movie’s only ninety-nine minutes. Branagh does all sorts of narrative moves in this thing and it’s under 100 minutes. The actors all get these great parts, then they get even better arcs and relationships. And all the relationships are building from scratch because the movie starts before they all meet. So Branagh is building all this stuff quickly and profusely. Nine characters he’s building in ninety-nine minutes. Plus Collins.

Over half the actors give great performances. The others give excellent ones. That latter group gets more material but not as sublime material.

Neil Farrell’s editing is a whole other great thing about Midwinter. The comedy, the character drama, every cut is perfect. Even though Midwinter is a shorter film about a rushed Shakespeare production, the sometimes rapid cutting never seems hurried. Farrell and Branagh always give the actors enough time. Then they cut.

It’s kind of a showcase for its actors, actually. A technically brilliant, marvelously written showcase for the cast. In the Bleak Midwinter is wonderful.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh; director of photography, Roger Lanser; edited by Neil Farrell; music by Jimmy Yuill; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by David Barron; released by Rank Film Dists Ltd.

Starring Michael Maloney (Joe Harper), Richard Briers (Henry Wakefield), Celia Imrie (Fadge), Julia Sawalha (Nina Raymond), John Sessions (Terry Du Bois), Hetta Charnley (Molly Harper), Nicholas Farrell (Tom Newman), Gerard Horan (Carnforth Greville), Mark Hadfield (Vernon Spatch), and Joan Collins (Margaretta D’Arcy).


The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, Terence Fisher)

The Curse of the Werewolf has an absurd epic structure. Clifford Evans narrates; he eventually comes into the film, which means there’s no way he’d know about events he didn’t witness except everything does apparently take place in the same Spanish town.

First is the story of a beggar, played by Richard Wordsworth, who ends up the forgotten prisoner of Anthony Dawson’s evil Marques. Wordsworth, who has a bunch of dialogue in the beginning, doesn’t speak at all once he’s imprisoned. The jailer has a daughter who can’t speak, so they form a bond.

Unfortunately, when she grows up and becomes a buxom–and still silent–Yvonne Romain, she spurns Dawson’s advances, ends up in the dungeon with Wordsworth, who’s reverted to some kind of man-beast. He attacks her, then dies. She’s released, kills Dawson, escapes. Six months later, after she’s been living in the forest, Evans finds her.

It’s at least twenty minutes into the movie. Curse spends a lot of time on Dawson’s cruelty and Romain’s suffering. The opening scene has Dawson’s wedding party–it figures into Wordsworth’s story–but there aren’t any women. Just a bunch of British guys pretending to be eighteenth century Spaniards. Right off, director Fisher’s composite wastes the frame. He’s always got the camera too far back, like he’s trying to show off the set instead of the actors. And given the first hour is incredibly talky, it’s not a good device.

None of the plot recap above is really a spoiler because none of it is about a werewolf. After Wordsworth hands the film off to Romain, who hands the film off to Evans, Evans quickly gives it over to his servant, Hira Talfrey. She’d be better at caring for pregnant Romain. That’s right, she’s pregnant. And she’s going to have her unwanted baby on Christmas, which–Talfrey tells Evans–is a big no no. Jesus doesn’t want any bastards born on his birthday, so he’s going to curse them.

And what curse does Jesus give on the baby, played by Justin Walters as a boy and Oliver Reed as a sexy man about town? Why, The Curse of the Werewolf.

Sadly, the film doesn’t end with Reed duking it out with Jesus. Instead, it’s an abbreviated werewolf story. Oh, there’s some stuff with Walters as a werewolf cub, but it just drags things out. Curse of the Werewolf drags. It’s never scary and it drags. It doesn’t even have makeup until the last ten minutes or so. Is it good werewolf make-up? Definitely. Is it worth sitting through eighty boring minutes? No.

Reed is basically okay. Talfrey’s pretty good, if you ignore her working class British accent being a tad out of place in eighteenth century Spain. There are a handful of actors whose dialects are part of their schtick. None of them are appropriate for Spain. Reed might try a Spanish accent once or twice, but not excessively.

Many of the people opposite Reed, including Talfrey, are in old age make-up. Some might even go through a couple rounds of it. It doesn’t help any of the performances, but doesn’t really hurt any (except Dawson’s).

Romain’s good at being terrified. Fisher’s directing for her cleavage, not her performance, which never helps. And screenwriter Anthony Hinds’s decision to make her unable to speak might have been convenient budgetary (though, why) but certainly not narratively.

Evans is blah. He’s not bad, but he does nothing with the part. Especially since he’s tasked with providing Reed a good enough home he won’t turn into a werewolf. Catherine Feller plays the middle class girl Reed loves. Only she can keep the werewolf at bay.

Or not, because the movie’s over once the werewolf shows up.

The Curse of the Werewolf is distressingly mundane.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Terence Fisher; screenplay by Anthony Hinds, based on a novel by Guy Endore; director of photography, Arthur Grant; edited by Alfred Cox; music by Benjamin Frankel; production designer, Bernard Robinson; produced by Hinds; released by J. Arthur Rank Film Distributors.

Starring Oliver Reed (Leon), Clifford Evans (Alfredo), Hira Talfrey (Teresa), Justin Walters (Young Leon), Yvonne Romain (Servant Girl), Richard Wordsworth (The Beggar), Catherine Feller (Cristina), John Gabriel (The Priest), and Anthony Dawson (The Marques Siniestro).


Half Moon Street (1986, Bob Swaim)

Half Moon Street is supposed to be funny, right? No one’s supposed to believe it’s serious, they can’t. Certainly not with Sigourney Weaver’s performance–it’s got to be the worst thing she’s ever done, but it’s amazing because she certainly never gave the impression she’s capable of such an atrocious performance. The script’s full of these silly little lines for her character–a Ph.D. moonlighting as an escort–and Weaver can’t deliver a single one of them successfully. It’s kind of incredible Weaver got an Oscar nomination for Aliens the same year. No one must have seen Half Moon Street.

Technically, I suppose Swaim isn’t a bad director. He’s totally competent–maybe relies on close-ups too much–and he can move the camera with some success. But Half Moon Street‘s as tone deaf as Weaver’s reading of her lines. While she isn’t emphasizing, Swaim doesn’t create any sense of mood for the film. It runs together, quite tediously, without any kind of cinematic connection. The film’s use of music is strangely terrible–even if Richard Harvey’s score isn’t bad at all, though it’s more suited for a rousing adventure film–as is the use of sound. It feels incredibly amateurish.

Some of the problems alleviate when Michael Caine shows up. Caine’s got a quiet British guy role and he’s fine in it. But he’s a movie star. Weaver’s clearly not a movie star in Half Moon Street, which might account for why her performance is such an abject failure. She has almost no presence whatsoever, but then, neither does the rest of the cast until Caine shows up.

Weaver’s so bad, it’s hard to tell if the script’s awful. Caine delivers them fine, as does some of the supporting cast, but it’s entirely possible it’s the script. And Swaim’s direction of actors. I lean toward the latter.

But the majority of the problem is the production itself. Though the source novel was written by a man, maybe the subject of a scholar turning to prostitution to pay her rent would have been better essayed by a woman. The film constantly reminds the viewer Weaver is supposed to be a singular, intelligent and charming woman, but she comes off as aloof and stupid (it’s not like she didn’t know what her job paid, right?). Swaim tries hard to do a montage showing her as a intelligent escort, but it comes off like a “Saturday Night Live” skit. The sequence also is meant to introduce Caine, but because of the editing, it doesn’t work. He shows up at the end like a third piece of bread.

Still, it’s one of Caine’s better mature performances, long before he started cashing in on his “icon” status. It’s too bad he used to be able to do well in tripe and can’t anymore.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Swaim; screenplay by Swaim and Edward Behr, based on a novel by Paul Theroux; director of photography, Peter Hannan; edited by Richard Marden; music by Richard Harvey; production designer, Tony Curtis; produced by Geoffrey Reeve; released by J. Arthur Rank Film Distributors.

Starring Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Lauren Slaughter), Michael Caine (Lord Sam Bulbeck), Patrick Kavanagh (General Sir George Newhouse), Faith Kent (Lady Newhouse), Ram John Holder (Lindsay Walker), Keith Buckley (Hugo Van Arkady), Ann Hanson (Mrs. Van Arkady), Patrick Newman (Julian Shuttle), Niall O’Brien (Captain Twilley), Nadim Sawalha (Karim Hatami) and Vincent Lindon (Sonny).


Suspended Alibi (1956, Alfred Shaughnessy)

Seeing as how I’ve actually written a scholarly paper on the British film industry (not of Suspended Alibi‘s era, but the early silents… and the observations, unfortunately, still hold), it’s sort of nice to be able to put some of the experience to use. As a country, Britain has produced a wealth of fine actors and–in modernity, some great filmmakers–but it’s a shock how awful the British can make films. It’s a question of competence in Alibi‘s case and the utter lack of it in some essential areas.

First, the director. Shaughnessy holds his shots forever, cuts (badly) to atrocious one shots, and makes bad camera moves through the terrible sets. The set decoration, something I almost never notice failing, is terrible. The wallpaper design does not film well on one of the main sets and, as for some of the less used ones, it’s even worse. One of the apartments looks like a hospital room. Amusingly, when they leave the room, there’s a jarring cut as the camera moves to what appears to be a real apartment building hallway. Shaughnessy can’t frame over the shoulder shots and his actors tend to stand around waiting for something to happen–but nothing ever does.

Second, the actor. Patrick Holt has to be one of the worst leading men I can think of (he’s not one of the wealth of British actors). Even though he’s playing an unlikable adulterer, Holt takes it to the next level–the film would have been far better if he’d been murdered instead of his false alibi. The rest of the cast, with some exception, is generally fine. Honor Blackman, as the ludicrously supportive wife, is actually quite good.

The movie opens with a neat trick–Holt’s creeping through the opening credits with a gun drawn only for a curtain to pull and reveal he’s playing cowboy and Indian with his son (in England?)–and I hope a better film stole it because it’s a reasonably deft move. But as far as film noir goes–bad film noir–the incompetent direction disqualifies Suspended Alibi. Even from the label.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Shaughnessy; written by Kenneth R. Hayles; director of photography, Peter Hennessy; produced by Robert Dunbar; released by J. Arthur Rank Film Distributors.

Starring Patrick Holt (Paul Pearson), Honor Blackman (Lynn Pearson), Valentine Dyall (Inspector Kayes), Naomi Chance (Diana), Lloyd Lamble (Waller), Andrew Keir (Sandy Thorpe), Frederick Piper (Mr. Beamster), Viola Lyel (Mrs. Beamster) and Bryan Coleman (Bill Forrest).


Defence of the Realm (1985, David Drury)

Defence of the Realm starts–and spends about a half hour being–a British variation of the Hollywood newspaper reporter story. There’s the story and the reporter’s dilemma about his morality–there’s even the wise old mentor (Denholm Elliot) for the young reporter getting his first big break (Gabriel Byrne). It’s not particularly good, it’s not particularly bad. Never good enough to care about what’s happening, never bad enough to stop watching–even though Richard Harvey’s musical score has got to be one of the worst I’ve heard in recent memory.

Then it turns in to a British variation on the conspiracy thriller, which is problematic, because Gabriel Byrne’s reporter is the stupidest reporter on to a big case in the cinematic history. He knows he’s being watched, so he hides his notes in full view of the people watching him (checking before and after and seeing they’re watching) and is then upset when they’re gone.

I’m trying to remember what happens in between… bad investigative reporting and general stupidity mostly. It seemed less a film and more a bad TV movie–one trying to mimic more popular films (All the President’s Men) and failing. There’s one amazing scene hinging entirely on Byrne’s lack of hand-eye coordination. Second-billed Greta Scacchi (in essentially a cameo role) tries to help, but she too is unable to accurately control her limbs. It’s such a dumb sequence (precipitated by Bryne being a terrible reporter even), it’s marvelous to watch. There’s the pounding, synthesizer music and the stars trying desperately to manipulate their arms in simple motions.

As it nears conclusion, ripping off Murder by Decree, it almost just goes away painlessly… until the ludicrous ending montage, meant to lionize the free press. Amusingly, these heroes were previously shown as cruel, corrupt and generally unlikable.

The acting is questionable all around. Byrne isn’t particularly believable, Scacchi less. Denholm Elliot’s fine until the script turns against him. Roger Deakins shot the film, but it’s plain, like a TV movie… and director David Drury soon ended up in that industry. But the film could have survived all of the previous defects if it weren’t for writer Martin Stillman’s idiotic script, which just gets stupider and stupider as it goes along.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Drury; written by Martin Stellman; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Michael Bradsell; music by Richard Harvey; production designer, Roger Murray-Leach; produced by Robin Douet and Lynda Myles; released by J. Arthur Rank Film Distributors.

Starring Gabriel Byrne (Nick Mullen), Greta Scacchi (Nina Beckman), Denholm Elliott (Vernon Bayliss), Ian Bannen (Dennis Markham), Fulton Mackay (Victor Kingsbrook), Bill Paterson (Jack Macleod), David Calder (Harry Champion), Frederick Treves (Arnold Reece) and Robbie Coltrane (Leo McAskey).


The Heroes of Telemark (1965, Anthony Mann)

I was going to start this post saying I’d never seen Richard Harris so young before, but I guess I have seen The Molly Maguires, which was a little later, but he was still young. He’s larger than life in The Heroes of Telemark, nothing like how I’m used to seeing him. He’s got to be larger than life, just so he can appear visible next to Kirk Douglas (as my fiancée pointed out, during their fist fight, “he expects to beat Kirk Douglas?”). Douglas and Harris play Norwegian resistance fighters in World War II, something I’m sure Norwegians were really happy about back when Telemark came out. It’s a British production too.

When I started watching it, I didn’t know what it was about and my World War II knowledge doesn’t go as far north as Norway, so I’d never heard about Telemark or its heroes. The film’s dedication told me though–that these heroes stopped the Nazis from developing the A-bomb first. Right away, since I knew the heroes would be successful, I didn’t get worried. There’s a formula–Kirk Douglas probably won’t die, Richard Harris might die, and all other good guys are fair targets (especially if their wives are pregnant). I think Anthony Mann realized this predetermination was going to play against him, so he turned the sabotage scene into a tribute of the resistance fighters’ hardships. Long scenes of them cross-country skiing to the target (if anyone is ever looking for good, filmed cross-country skiing, Telemark is the film to see), difficult repelling, rough terrain. The sequence feels long (I didn’t time it) and Mann succeeds… except the resistance fighters don’t.

Since I didn’t know the actual history, just the opening’s recount of victory, I had no idea what was coming next, which is when the film started to get interesting. Douglas, who spent the first half of the film seducing women–the irresistible physicist–starts acting in the second half. Harris, who was good in the first half, unfortunately disappears. The film only gets a little better, but it’s free of its initial expectations, which at least makes it interesting.

When the film started and I saw Anthony Mann’s name, I got him confused with Nicholas Ray. Now I’m looking at their filmographies and both started in noir cheapies, so now I don’t know why I was confusing them… Mann’s all right, but Telemark is from the era when models were out and original footage was in. So instead of model bombers, there’s real bomber footage on different film stock. For some reason, it really bugged me in Telemark, but it often bugs me. The use of that footage draws the viewer out of the film, reminds them there’s something going on besides the film. Never a good thing. (I know why it’s on my mind, Mogambo had the same problem).

Telemark’s storytelling is too formulaic not to be aware its formulaic. There’s an artificial earnestness to the film and it’s hard to take that earnestness seriously, when Douglas is groping every woman in sight… though I’m sure its one of the reasons he took the role. I read his first autobiography, but I can’t remember. As an example of the extinct war thriller genre, Telemark isn’t bad. It’s better than many of them. But, for example, as a Kirk Douglas film, it’s bad. Douglas started making bad films around this point. Telemark’s not the bottom, but it’s on the way downhill.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Mann; screenplay by Ben Barzman and Ivan Moffat, based on books by John Drummond and Knut Haukelid; director of photography, Robert Krasker; edited by Bert Bates; music by Malcolm Arnold; produced by Benjamin Fisz; released by J. Arthur Rank Film Distributors.

Starring Kirk Douglas (Dr. Rolf Pedersen), Richard Harris (Knut Straud), Ulla Jacobsson (Anna Pedersen), Michael Redgrave (Uncle), David Weston (Arne), Sebastian Breaks (Gunnar), John Golightly (Freddy), Alan Howard (Oli), Patrick Jordan (Henrik), William Marlowe (Claus), Brook Williams (Einar) and Roy Dotrice (Jensen).


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