Take Five: Happy New Year!

A Happy New Year to all readers of my blog, and thanks very much for your support, visits, comments and ‘likes’ during 2014. I’m hoping to post a bit more regularly here over the coming 12 months, so watch this space.

A while back, I launched a series of mini-reviews mentioning 5 films on a particular theme – I’m now resurrecting the idea for a quick look at some movies about New Year, in no particular order.

Cavalcade 81. Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd, 1933): I’ve just got round to watching this pre-Code, an adaptation of a stage play by Noel Coward which revolves around a series of tableaux centred on momentous events in British life. It begins with New Year’s Eve at the dawn of the 20th century, and runs through to New Year’s Eve 1933.  The way it blends together the story of two families above and below stairs clearly shows the way forward to TV series such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, while the intensely-felt central performance of Diana Wynyard as an aristocratic mother at times reminded me of Celia Johnson in Coward’s later classic, Brief Encounter. I really enjoyed it, despite the fact that many people don’t. Anyway, yes, it is episodic, but what great episodes. Also, the music is excellent, especially Ursula Jeans’ performance of Coward’s song Twentieth Century Blues – even if you don’t want to see the whole film, just treat yourself to this clip!

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Bunny Lake Is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965)

This is my contribution to the Diamonds and Gold blogathon, which is looking at actors and actresses later on in their careers. Please do visit and read the other contributions! This piece is also the (somewhat belated) launch of my projected series of reviews about films starring Laurence Olivier – I aim to write about a few more between now and early May.

Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley

Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley

When it comes to his film career, Laurence Olivier is of course best known for his classic roles, including his great Shakespearean performances. He’s certainly not the first person you’d think of to play an ageing police superintendent in a 1960s thriller set in swinging London, and featuring a pop group like The Zombies! However, that’s just what he does in Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, a  compelling Hitchcock-style thriller in black and white which had me on the edge of my seat. I won’t be giving away any of the later plot twists in this review, as it is the sort of film where the shocks are all part of the experience. (Preminger copied Hitchcock with Psycho by decreeing that nobody could be admitted to the cinema after the film had started.) As well as featuring Olivier, it also has highly enjoyable late-career performances from Noel Coward and character actress Martita Hunt, best-known for her portrayal of Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations. Yet another plus is an early role for Anna Massey. The film is available on DVD in both region 1 and region 2

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Margaret Rutherford in Blithe Spirit (David Lean, 1945)

Margaret Rutherford on her bike

Margaret Rutherford on her bike

This posting is my contribution to the Funny Lady blogathon being organised by the Movies, Silently blog. Please do visit and read the postings on a host of actresses from different eras.

If there’s a film moment that sums up Margaret Rutherford’s screen personality, it is probably the opening glimpse of her in David Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s great comic play, Blithe Spirit. She is seen on her bicycle, doggedly riding up a hill as her cape billows out around her. Somehow the image is both hilarious and poignant, and it gives the essence of the character she plays in this movie, one she originally created on stage, eccentric medium Madame Arcati.

Rutherford does not get top billing in this film and isn’t given all that much screen time, even though she makes such a vivid impression. The star with his name above the title is Rex Harrison, who plays Charles Condomine, a crime author looking for a sensational new story idea. He invites the village mystic to his cosy Home Counties cottage, assuming that when she organises a séance the whole thing will be a con trick, and provide him with a generous helping of material.

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Brief Encounter (1974)

I was slightly surprised when I heard there had been a Brief Encounter  remake, because the 1940s original (which I reviewed here recently) is such a masterpiece. (The 1990s movie Falling in Love, which I’ve also seen recently and like very much, isn’t really a remake, but a new film loosely inspired by the story.) However, having watched the version from 1974, a TV movie which stars Sophia Loren and Richard Burton, I now feel it is a tribute to the earlier movie – and a re-imagining of what it would be like if a couple faced the same dilemma in the 1970s.

briefencounterburtonThis is not a classic which will endure and endlessly fascinate as the Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard film has done. But, for all that, I think it is an interesting, if flawed, movie, in its own right, and deserves better than to be dismissed out of hand.

Director Alan Bridges has also made many TV costume dramas, including BBC adaptations of classics dating back to the 1960s, and at least  two movie period dramas which I loved, The Return of the Soldier, based on the Rebecca West novel, and The Shooting Party, from Isabel Colegate’s novel, so he does have a real love for material which looks back to the past.  I don’t know much about John Bowen,  the scriptwriter who has heavily reworked Coward’s plot and words,  but he did write a number of TV plays and adaptations.

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Brief Encounter (1945)

Although I’d never seen Brief Encounter in full, I thought I knew what it would be like. I’d seen various short clips, and gained an impression of the impossibly posh, clipped voices, the emotional repression and the strained nobility of behaviour. I’d also seen the scene in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys   which gently mocks the poignant final moments.

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard

However, none of this gets anywhere near the experience of watching the film as a whole. This year I went on a visit to Carnforth in Lancashire, where the famous railway scenes were filmed. I  saw the opening scenes of the film on a large screen in the waiting room at the museum there, where it  seems to be shown on a loop – and, getting hooked on the story within minutes, quickly realised it was very different from the impression of it I’d acquired.  I now have the DVD (the region 2 version which sadly doesn’t have a commentary, though it does have a featurette going behind the scenes), have watched it in full a couple of times, and am full of admiration.

David Lean’s direction and Noel Coward’s script, adapted from his play Still Life, are both great, and the dark, austere scenes, always full of the wartime atmosphere though the war is never mentioned, linger in the memory long after watching.

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