Formative years: Another Country (Marek Kanievska, 1984)

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If Another Country seems like the backstory for a John le Carré character, this speaks to that author’s espionage experience and knowledge: the film is based on the life of Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Five Soviet spies. Adapted by Julian Mitchell from his own play, it stars Rupert Everett as Guy Bennett, who’s coming to realise he’s not going to grow out of his attraction to other boys. Meanwhile, his Marxist best friend, Judd (Colin Firth), longs for an uprising against the British class system, and their school is unsettled by the suicide of another homosexual student.

Another Country verges on being a slight film, based more on picturesque settings and an attractive cast than anything else. The pace is slow and the story feels play-like, not just because it’s talky, but because its progression and resolution rely more on dialogue than action.

What saves the film, however, is the broader-reaching implications of the characters’ actions. Where these schoolboys remain loyal, compromise their ideals, tread upon others to get their way, or choose to simply conform, they’re clearly displaying the behaviour they’ll carry into their political and beaurecratic careers. When Guy blackmails the students he’s had liaisons with, he’s even fulfilling the fears surrounding closeted homosexuals in the Cold War. These students are Britain’s future.

Guy initially has no interest in Marxism. He’s a selfish character who only turns on Britain when he realises it won’t accept him. Judd is the one who wants to overturn the status quo; his arc is about realising where to be less rigid. He and Guy make for a complementary pair; Guy’s romance with Harcourt (Cary Elwes) has far less depth. Everett superbly captures Guy’s weak and soulful qualities, but Firth (shockingly young) all but steals the film with his dry humour.

Taking a Shot: Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931)

Clarence Brown’s Possessed may not be a great film –it isn’t even the best movie called Possessed that stars Joan Crawford– but it does have one great moment. Crawford plays Marion, a box factory worker who’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve a better life for herself. While walking home one night, a train slows to a halt in front of her, the windows rolling by like a strip of film. The people she sees all seem happier than her, even if we do begin on the lower rungs of the social ladder:

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Marion doesn’t want to be the hired help, of course. She wants to be more like these people:pos6pos3pos4

We don’t need to see Marion’s face to understand how she’s affected by these glimpses of wealthier, more romantic lives.

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When the train finally comes to a halt, Marion encounters her ticket into New York high society. He’s no Clark Gable, but that’s who she’ll wind up meeting, through brazen ingenuity of her own. After that, well, as we watch Marion dealing with her not-entirely comfortable life as a kept woman, we could ourselves be the ones outside a window, looking in.

Olivier vs. Caine: Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972)

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Sleuth is a gimmick movie in which the gimmick actually works. Adapted from a play by Anthony Shaffer, it’s a two-hander between Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Olivier is Andrew Wyck, a mystery writer with too much money and too much spare time who is obsessed with puzzles and games. His estranged wife, Marguerite, is on the verge of marrying Milo Tindle (Caine), a mild-mannered hairdresser who’s the son of an Italian immigrant. Upon learning this, Wyck invites Milo to his country mansion, and their congenial chat turns into a confrontation, which turns into a game, which turns into another game, with escalating consequences. Wyck’s plans for Milo don’t go perfectly, however, and he soon finds himself partaking of a new game, at his own expense.

For the most part, this film only involves two characters. It’s worth seeing simply for how well it manages to do this; it makes sense for most of the action to be contained within one set, and the plot twists keep the story interesting. Even if the audience is a step ahead of the characters, there’s still small details or double meanings to appreciate. There’s also too many clever lines to pick up in one viewing.

Olivier is ideal in the role of an irritating old ham, but handles the weightier moments better than Caine, who at this point in his career was better at yelling than crying. Caine mostly plays to type, but does get to stretch himself. He would return to Sleuth in 2007, playing Wyck this time, opposite Jude Law. The idea is irresistible.

My main issue with this film is that it veers towards being too self-indulgent. It becomes its most stagey when it’s aware of its own gimmick, and allows Olivier and Caine to perform and show their interplay rather than pushing the story forward. The dialogue can become too dense, with a feeling that the film is running on the spot. It’s 133 minutes long; although it does a remarkably fine job of being engaging despite its narrow focus, it could have been better with the script edited down.

Still, Sleuth is near-essential viewing for how well it succeeds at its gimmick. Two guys in one house, talking for more than two hours? It can be done.

Stagey and striking: The Petrified Forest (Archie Mayo, 1936)

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Between the wordy dialogue, which often involves characters detailing their entire autobiographies, and the studio set, its walls wrapped around with a painted facsimile of Arizona desert and sky, The Petrified Forest is clearly adapted from a play. I would say, however, that this is not an overwhelming drawback. The Petrified Forest succeeds because it maintains its tension throughout and proceeds at an energetic pace, helped by snappy editing. It’s also remarkable for its uniformly strong performances, including those from Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and, most of all, Humphrey Bogart, whose career was launched with his portrayal of desperate gangster Duke Mantee.

Mantee is on the run, and seeks refuge in the remote Black Mesa gas station. Among his hostages are Gabby (Davis) and Alan Squier (Howard). Waitress Gabby is as ambitious as Squier is aimless. He’s British, and an intellectual, and though he’s seen parts of the world Gabby longs to visit, he doesn’t know where to settle himself. Gabby is a painter and, seeing that Squier is more cultured than the average visitor to the station (owned by her father), quickly falls for him.

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Mantee does not appear onscreen for more than half an hour, but the characters follow his flight from the law on the radio. When he does arrive, he doesn’t disappoint. Through Bogart’s glowering, shown as much with his body as with his face, he is constantly a threatening presence. Mantee is no thug, however; his mind is clearly ticking over at full speed. And when Bogart needs to show hurt, he can really show hurt. The actor was in debt, suffering personal hardships, and his career seemed to be going nowhere; he needed success, and this role got him noticed by critics and by audiences, for all the right reasons.

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Howard makes Squier the quintessential old world intellectual, a man whose time has passed. He has a ghostly pallor from the beginning of the film, and at times an unearthly, insightful glint comes into his eye. He’s more set upon grander goals than matters of life and death, and finds them, uncalled for, in this hostage situation.

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Mantee and Squire are vividly contrasting figures. However, there’s an unlikely connection between them. No wonder that Howard fought hard for Bogart to join him in reprising their roles from Broadway; the two are a large part of why The Petrified Forest is such a striking film.

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Davis makes a strong contribution through her performance, too. At the time, she was as ambitious as Gabby, bent on achieving on higher quality roles than those her studio had been giving her. (A rare such role was in 1934’s Of Human Bondage, which also starred Howard.) Here, she is lively without being restless, forceful without being exaggerated. Gabby does not seem much like a Davis-type role, and so could probably have been well-played by any number of other actors, but that only makes Davis more interesting here.

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This film shows America at an uncertain point in its history. The remnants of the Wild West still remain: old man Gramp Maple (Charlie Grapewin) often reminisces about nearly being shot by Billy the Kid, and there’s a photo of someone who looks very much like Wild Bill Hickock on the wall. The expansion is over, however, and where to from here? And what needs to be left behind? These questions are examined through the characters’ interactions, which makes the film work on a thematic level, while it maintains enough pacing and tension to keep from feeling stuffy. It helps that in its criticism of America’s treatment of women and black people, the film is well ahead of its time.

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The Petrified Forest would make for a great double (or triple) feature with a couple of other Bogart films. In The Desperate Hours (William Wyler, 1955), he once again played a criminal on the run, with a group of hostages to keep the police at bay – only this time, the setting is American suburbia, bringing the social criticism even closer to home. In Key Largo (John Huston, 1948), it was Bogart’s turn to be the hostage, and the gangster was played by the man who came close to portraying Mantee on film: Edward G. Robinson. Just as a dust storm heightens the tension in The Petrified Forest, the characters in Key Largo are trapped by a hurricane. The similarities and differences between these films, and Bogart’s performances, are fascinating. All three are also well worth watching for their own merits. The Petrified Forest, though, must receive special note for the way it defined Bogart’s career, and the films that followed it.

The air heavy with greed: The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941)

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The Little Foxes is the third of three films that William Wyler made with Bette Davis, and that represent some of her best acting. It followed 1938’s Jezebel, a sweeping southern drama, and 1940’s The Letter, a Singapore-set film noir. Though The Little Foxes has some strong merits, it never escapes its origins as an adaptation from the stage play by Lillian Hellman. Wyler opens up the story as best he can, but its dense dialogue keeps it from feeling cinematic. Furthermore, an oppressive atmosphere is inherent to this story, which gives the film some stuffiness that is entirely appropriate, but may deter the viewer.

Set in 1900, The Little Foxes is about a family in America’s Deep South, some of whom are hungry for money at any cost. The most ambitious of them all is Regina Giddens, played by Davis. Though Tallulah Bankhead had great success as Regina on Broadway, Davis scored the role when it was put to film, which certainly didn’t help the relationship between the two women. More importantly, there’s a significant difference between the conceptions each actor had of the character: Bankhead played Regina as a woman trying to survive in a man’s world, but Davis was convinced that Regina is simply evil.

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While Regina uses every talent she has to gain control over her family, Davis herself controls every frame she’s in. Clothed in some of her most flattering costumes, she projects such reptilian malevolence that she becomes as beguiling as a cobra. She’s also not afraid to show ugliness, which benefited this and many of her other roles.

Most interestingly, Davis is always using her wardrobe to express Regina’s character. In one scene, she’s tossing back her gown’s improbably long sleeves; in another, she’s lifting the hem of her gown, with a clenched fist, so she can climb a flight of stairs; in another, just before she commits her most abhorrent act, she lifts back her veil and takes down her hat, which is topped by a dead bird. Regina wants to own things, and this desire restricts her. Her interactions with the things she wears show her anxiety, emphasise her ability to be alluring, and indicate when we are seeing her true face.

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Three of the men in the Hubbard family are just as rotten as Regina. Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) is the source of the family’s wealth, which he earned by marrying Birdie (Patricia Collinge), an aristocrat. Birdie’s reward is physical and emotional abuse, and a responsive alcoholism. Ben (Charles Dingle), meanwhile, is a jovial man to whom cruelty comes easy. He may well be a match for Regina.

Even if Davis is playing Regina as full of venom, it’s still plain to see that the character is responding to the challenges she faces as a woman, including the way her brothers treat her. Ben tells her that she’d get more from men if she used a smile, which is not only patronising, but is also a lie. If she let her brothers walk all over her, they’d do it in a second. Unfortunately for Ben and Oscar, they need her husband, Horace Giddens (Herbert Marshall), to invest in their scheme. So, they need her to convince him, and she takes full advantage of this.

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Oscar and Birdie have a son, Leo, who is played by Dan Duryea, making a distinguished film debut. Oscar and Ben plan to marry him off to Regina’s daughter, Xan (Teresa Wright). This is bad news for Xan, and not just because they’re first cousins. Leo is entirely vapid, unremittingly stupid, and so lazy that he can barely seem to expel enough air to speak. The only thing that gets him energetic, apart from fearing that Ben and Oscar’s plans might go awry, is thinking about what he’d like to do to a woman.

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Xan is actually the film’s centre. Her real name being Alexandra, she is clinging to childhood in an effort to avoid facing what’s going on around her. She is aided by Birdie, who does everything she can to prevent Xan’s life becoming like hers, a family servant, Addie (Jessica Grayson), who offers perspective on how the Hubbards effect their town’s poor, and David Hewitt (Richard Carlson). David is a socially conscious writer who flirts liberally with Xan, but can’t stand her near-sightedness.

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Xan will be most influenced by her father. He’s a decent man, but a severe heart condition leaves him weak. Much of the film’s tension comes from watching Horace attempting to fight as well he can. Regina responds by spitting at him, “I hope you die. I hope you die soon. I’ll be waiting for you to die.” The moment is shocking not just for Davis’ performance, but for how undeserving Horace is of such hate.

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Wyler has clearly attempted to make this story visually interesting. He often uses reflections to open up the interiors, or to show what the characters are feeling. He also shoots the primary set, the Giddens house, from a variety of angles. The staircase in particular often emphasises the power dynamics at work. At a couple of points, Wyler has characters move into the frame while remaining unnoticed by the others. However, he doesn’t often put the camera in motion, which adds to the film’s static nature.

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The Little Foxes is not shot as though it’s a play, but the dense script keeps the film feeling heavy and uncomfortable to watch. However, the story itself is not meant to be pleasant. With many fine performances and masterful writing, The Little Foxes shows us what it is meant to show: a parable about how petty greed is, and how easily it hurts people who aren’t guarded against it. The Hubbards are one small family, but the world has plenty of their kind.

Worth it for the cast: Twelfth Night (Trevor Nunn, 1996)

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When I had to study Twelfth Night in high school, I quite enjoyed Trevor Nunn’s adaptation. Rewatching it now, however, I’m disappointed by its choppiness, particularly some scenes after Sebastian reappears, and everything before the opening titles. There’s probably not much Nunn could do about that if he was trying to show the major plot points while keeping the film to an accessible length. I do think, though, that it could have been better if they’d tried to incorporate the material in the first nine minutes’ disparate scenes, which involve a fair bit of exposition, into the rest of the film. It could be inferred through dialogue, or maybe in a few flashback glimpses. In fact, the shot of Cesario/Viola moving the fencing instructor’s hand off her chest tells you right away that this is a woman disguised as a man. It might be interesting to have a hint of mystery about who Viola is and where she’s come from.

Still, the uniformly strong cast makes this adaptation delightful. Olivia and Cesario’s first scene is the best in the film, with amazing interplay between Helena Bonham Cater and Imogen Stubbs. And although the yellow stockings scene isn’t as funny it’s supposed to be (I just don’t think I have it in me to find Shakespeare truly funny), it’s great to watch Nigel Hawthorne showing Malvolio’s dignity unravel when he finds the letter.

I like how this story remains cheerful and yet is bent on reminding the audience about the impermanence of happiness and youth. Aside from our leads, a lot of people are hard done by at the end. Richard E. Grant makes Sir Andrew so dully sweet that it’s impossible not to feel badly for him. And although Antonio probably has a life to get back to, the film makes it look as though he gets consistently shabby treatment from the twins.

The aforementioned choppiness is perhaps unavoidable when compressing the play, but stops it from being an excellent adaptation. However, the location filming makes great use of the castle, cliffs, and the topiary gardens. This, along with some evocative sets, creates a cohesive setting. The costumes are well chosen, with some beautiful dresses and nice character touches, and you’re in good hands with this cast. Not essential, but fun regardless.

Contrived but gripping: Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967)

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In Wait Until Dark, three crims search for a heroin-stuffed doll in a blind woman’s apartment while trying not to alert her to what they’re doing. The premise needs some contrivances to get going, and the story’s origin as a stageplay is obvious, but the film is still a tense and affecting thriller.

Audrey Hepburn immediately establishes Susy as an endearingly sweet and kind woman. She has a couple of moments of hysteria as she grows to understand what is happening around her, and I would have much preferred to see these underplayed. Her moments of terror when being cruelly menaced, however, are totally convincing. But don’t think Susy is weak; her survival depends on her recognition of her own strengths, and her relationship with the strange girl who lives upstairs.

As Roat, the most deadly of the three baddies, Alan Arkin chews little scenery, betraying little emotion except when he is endangered. His apparent lack of enjoyment (or any other feeling) while toying with Susy makes these moments all the more chilling. All three crims are interesting for the ways that they play into Susy’s blindness, acting with their voices but not their faces when around her. Roat most monstrously devises ways of tormenting her in ways that she cannot anticipate because she cannot see him.

Most memorably, the film’s climax plays on the viewer’s own visual perception. I’d very much like to see it at a cinema or on a stage, because this would be the best way of experiencing it, I think, with a more immediate and inescapable effect.