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Monday, 30 July 2012

Classic Film Review: Conspiracy of Hearts (1960)

Nuns, Nazis and children - you'd be forgiven for mistaking this for one of my favourite films. What Conspiracy of Hearts is, however, is a painful reminder of wartime interspersed with some heart-warming moments and a dash of sentimentality.

A convent has been helping to smuggle children out of a nearby concentration camp in Italy. German officers have been brought in to control the situation, making the work more difficult and dangerous. Despite advice, Mother Katharine (Lilli Palmer) refuses to accept that God intends them to leave the children in the camp and continues to put herself and her convent at risk. She is supported by most of the nuns with the exception of Sister Gerta (Yvonne Mitchell) who feels the lying to hide the children is a weight on her conscience. When a nun is shot during an escape attempt, the German officer brought in begins to become more suspicious and the film builds to a suspenseful conclusion with the nuns at risk of being executed and the latest batch of children in serious trouble.

Beginning with a news bulletin recap of events in Italy was perhaps useful but distracting to the film as a whole. The wider context didn't need to be understood; just the fact of Mussolini falling would've been information enough. However, from then on we are pushed straight into the endeavours of the nuns. There's very little dialogue at the beginning and this works to accentuate the danger. Later, as the nuns smuggle a rabbi into the convent (literally over the walls) to perform a ceremony for the children, the viewer is aware that the secret is out and the soldiers are on the way to retrieve the children. It builds the tension up to unbearable levels and leaves you seriously wondering whether the nuns will survive.

Lilli Palmer is wonderful as Mother Katharine. Her innate warmth and humour that I've noticed in other roles shone through perfectly in this one. Yvonne Mitchell demonstrated Sister Gerta's conflicts well from the beginning and her change of heart is one of the film's more endearing moments. Novice nun, Sister Mitya (Sylvia Syms), wants to devote her life to the convent but her heart had been captured by Major Spoletti (Ronald Lewis). Spoletti is the 'careless' Italian major who has turned a blind eye to the escape plots. He is forced to comply with the new strict rules until he's faced with watching Sister Mitya be attacked on German orders. The film paints a good picture of the Italian soldiers, though the Nazis are mostly framed as just that - Nazis.

Some of the scenes with the children do get a little sentimental but that would be difficult to avoid. Perhaps the most important thing about this film is that it builds ever gently to a suspenseful climax without resorting to too much melodrama. Definitely worth a watch if you want to see war from a different angle and if you're a Lilli Palmer fan.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Classic Film Review: The Ladykillers (1955)

This Ealing Studios black comedy is about a group of robbers who pose as musicians to landlady, Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), while they pull off a job at Kings Cross. Their plan involves using Mrs Wilberforce to travel unknowingly with the stolen goods back to her house, foxing the police who would expect them to be taken straight out of the station by train. It's ingenious, really, but they underestimate the difficulty of working with Mrs Wilberforce. When she uncovers their plot she insists they turn themselves in - the gang know they have to act but who will get the job of keeping her quiet permanently?

The gang are 'Professor Marcus' (Alec Guinness), 'Major Courtney' (Cecil Parker), 'Mr Harvey' (Herbert Lom), 'Mr Robinson' (Peter Sellers) and 'Mr Lawson' (Danny Green). Guinness is perfect as the creepy and unnerving leader whose facial expressions are a cross between hilarious and horrific. I'm gaining quite a liking for Cecil Parker - this is the third film I've seen him in lately (the others being Indiscreet (1958) and The Admirable Crichton (1957)) - and this performance cemented it. The rest of the gang are perfect for their parts but I have to say that Katie Johnson absolutely steals the film. From her initial appearance at the police station to tell officers that her friend didn't see a spaceship after all, she is the focal point for the action. Forgetting her umbrella at the station during the transportation phase almost puts the gang's plan in jeopardy but it's her reaction when she sees a fruit seller (Frankie Howerd) trying to stop a horse eating his fruit which is the major problem - her indignation very nearly causes a riot as she attacks him with her umbrella. In addition to Mrs Wilberforce herself there are her three birds to add to the gang's problems. When General Gordon (parrot) flies off the gang have to pursue it onto the rooftop.

Mrs Wilberforce's decaying house is wonderfully portrayed. The pictures don't hang straight because of the subsidence and when you want water you have to bang on the pipe with a mallet first. Her living room is an excellent turn of the century abode and she fits in it perfectly. There is also an excellent use of music throughout the film - from both string recordings to the comic theft music that plagues the gang as they commit their robbery.

This is a dark comedy, make no mistake. If you're adverse to the kind of 'accidents' that happen on railway tracks then don't watch this but if you like your humour black then this one's for you.


Thursday, 26 July 2012

Classic Film Review: Death on the Nile (1978)

This adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel certainly has a cast beyond compare. With all this talent on show you have to wonder whether the actual result will be disappointing under the weight of expectation. It isn't though: Death on the Nile is an excellent adaptation of an excellent mystery.

Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot is played here for the first time by Peter Ustinov. Poirot is in Egypt about to take a trip down the Nile on the same boat as rich heiress, Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles), who has gathered quite a few enemies through her lifetime. She has recently married Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale) but stole him from his fiancée, Jacqueline (Mia Farrow). Jacqueline has decided to make their honeymoon hell, following them from place to place, even surprising them on top of a pyramid. Also on the boat are Mrs. Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) and her daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey) - Linnet is embroiled in a legal battle with romantic author Mrs Otterbourne after she made some defamatory remarks about her in print which makes enemies out of mother and daughter. There's also Mrs. Van Schuyler (Bette Davis), who has taken an interest in Linnet's pearls, and her companion Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith) who has an ancient grudge to settle with the Ridgeway family, whom she blames for her current dependent position. To round out the list there is Linnet's lawyer, Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy), who has been embezzling his client's funds and risks discovery now she's married; her maid, Louise (Jane Birkin), who has been seeking Linnet's permission to marry for years; Dr. Bessner (Jim Warden) who has been on the receiving end of slander by Linnet and socialist, Jim Ferguson, who believes she should be shot as a lesson to the 'others'. This makes for quite a list of motives when Linnet is killed and almost all of passengers had the opportunity. Poirot, with the help of Colonel Race (David Niven), sets out to discover the culprit but it isn't long before the bodies start piling up.

It could be said that this one takes a while to get going. The murder certainly doesn't happen immediately but this allows the viewer to grow intimate with the various suspects. The various introductions are well-paced, not overwhelming, and impart just enough information without overloading the audience. The writing is superb, which it should be given its origins, and the Egyptian scenery is absolutely breathtaking. You don't just get a formidable cast, you get it against the backdrop of some of the most majestic scenery in the world. Most of the cast getting on camels and donkeys was a sight to see also!

In all honesty, I think Angela Lansbury stole the show as drunk novelist Mrs. Otterbourne. If an actress draws your attention to her in every scene she's in, if she can play someone flamboyant to the point of invoking utter frustration in those around her and if she can scare David Niven's character just by dancing with him... Well, you've got a scene-stealer on your hands and that's no small feat alongside such an excellent cast. Bette Davis also has some stinging lines and her scenes with Maggie Smith (mainly in suits!) were pure gold. Their final exchange merits repeating: Mrs. Van Schulyer: "Come, Bowers, it's time to go, this place is beginning to resemble a mortuary." Miss Bowers: "Thank God you'll be in one yourself before too long you bloody old fossil!" Watching this film did nothing to dim my adoration of either Lansbury or Smith - in fact, it increased it which was damn difficult to achieve!

And what of Ustinov as Hercule Poirot? He was so perfect that he doesn't really merit discussion. He played  Poirot as he should be played - calculating, manipulative when necessary, amusing in his own way. There was nothing wrong with his performance, only his height. The moment where he faces off with a cobra in his bathroom is incredibly tense. That brings me to my final point: I was exceptionally impressed about how the directors weren't afraid to use silence when necessary. They seemed to accept that it ramped up the tension more than any words could. When an attempt is made on Linnet's life by a stone dropping from the top of some ruins, the viewer is alerted to what is going on by a silent look round at the suspects as they meander through the ruins then we're aware of someone climbing lots of stairs, only distinguishable by their breathing. This and the snake scene amongst others were perfect examples of how you don't need continuous noise to keep the audience on the edge of their seats - you just need something at stake. A perfect lesson to storytellers everywhere.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Classic Film Review: Indiscreet (1958)

I find it odd that Indiscreet was billed as a comedy as well as a romance. Although it has a few comic moments, it's a generally emotional film about actress Anna (Ingrid Bergman) who meets her brother-in-law's potential colleague, Philip (Cary Grant), after coming back unexpectedly from a trip. There is an immediate attraction and Anna accompanies them to the dinner where Philip is giving a speech. When they are left alone later, Philip admits he's married but Anna wants to go out with him anyway. Philip accepts a job in Paris so he can see Anna on weekends and they begin a romance. Unfortunately, Anna finally discovers Philip's deceit - Philip isn't married, he just doesn't ever want to get marriage and so lied about his situation. She then puts on the performance of her life in order to punish him.

There are some beautiful moments in this film. One that stands out for me is when Anna and Philip are reluctant to part after their first date. Philip sees her to the elevator, then into the elevator. As the attendant stands with his back to the camera there is a long look between Anna and Philip - nothing is said but the emotion between them is evident. Bergman and Grant make a perfectly believable couple and there is another wonderful split-screen scene when they are both in their beds talking to each other over the phone. Their romance feels real, which makes Anna's reaction to his marriage all the more explosive.

Special mention must go to the supporting cast in this one. Phyllis Calvert is superb as Anna's sister, Margaret, while her husband is played with a light comic touch by Cecil Parker. In addition, Anna's hired help - husband and wife team (played by David Kossoff and Megs Jenkins - are important to the later plot. There are no superfluous characters which allows the focus to rest on Bergman and Grant throughout. One final note: Anna's apartment struck me as one of the most elegant sets in film, perfectly suited to the character and well utilised for all the important scenes.

This was a beautiful romance with a kick and, as my first introduction to Ingrid Bergman, it was very good. Recommended and not only because Cary Grant dancing is hilarious.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Classic Film Review: Doctor in the House (1954)

Perhaps the most important flag to wave about Doctor in the House is that it is very British. Of course, I don't mean that as an insult but just as a warning to those who prefer their humour with more oomph. This is funny, yes, but there are few moments of physical humour.

Simon Sparrow (Dirk Bogarde) is starting medical school. He falls into an already-established group of men who have been there some time: Richard (Kenneth More), Tony (Donald Sinden) and Taffy (Donald Houston). Richard is easily the most vivid of these three - he was given an allowance in his grandmother's will as long as he remained a medical student so, naturally, he's not keen to graduate. Unfortunately, his girlfriend has issues being the wife of a perpetual student and threatens to leave if he doesn't knuckle down. As the years of their training progress, the group get into scrapes and are faced with real-life patients, not to mention the nursing staff. Lothario Tony gets himself into a little trouble and they all get into a lot of trouble when they pursue their stolen mascot in a stolen ambulance.

There were some genuinely funny moments in this, many brought about by the incomparable Kenneth More. In addition, Sir Lancelot Spratt played by James Robertson Justice is a wonderful character, given some of the best lines and the memorable moments in the film and brought by him and More. That isn't to say that the rest of the cast is inferior - Bogarde and the rest gelled perfectly as a team. However, my main problem with this one was the fragmentation. While it fits neatly with the premise (potential doctors have a lot to learn), it does mean that scenes often come to nothing and they can feel rushed and incomplete. For example, the title comes from a comment made by Sparrow's landlady but he only lives there for a very short time before moving with the group. Also, while Sparrow's false starts with two women were amusing to watch, I would've liked to have seen more of the interactions but maybe that's just me.

This is a good film to while away an afternoon with. I think my ambivalence can be summed up in one sentence: I enjoyed it but I won't be rushing to watch the numerous sequels.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Book Review: Troubles by J.G. Farrell

Troubles tells the story of Major Brendan Archer, a soldier who survived the trenches, who travels to Ireland in 1919 to 'claim' the fiancée he acquired on leave a few years earlier. In truth, he wants to break the engagement off but when he arrives at the dilapidated Majestic hotel he finds that easier said than done. He finds Angela, yes, but is also rapidly sucked into the lives of her father, brother, twin sisters, deaf grandmother, the assortment of guests and servants, not to mention the breeding cats that have taken over the Imperial Bar. And it doesn't help that Ireland is simmering with violence either.

Perhaps the first thing to acknowledge about this novel is how well-written and evocative it is. It's teeming with wonderful sentences and alarming images as the Major becomes accustomed to life at the unconventional hotel. You get a taste of this early on, as he returns to his room on his first night there:

"Then he noticed again, more strongly than before, the sweetish, nauseating odour he had decided to forget about earlier. It was an awful smell. He could not stand it. But the thought of opening the window to more moths made his skin crawl. He took a slipper from his suitcase and stalked the fluttering moths. But after he had splattered one or two against the wall he stopped, his nerves jangled by remorse, and wished he had left them alive. So while the others continued to whiz and circle around the electric light he started to search for the source of the smell, looking in cupboards, sniffing the washbasin, peering under the bed (none of these things, as it happened, smelled very savoury).

A small cupboard stood beside the bed. He wrenched open the door. On the top shelf there was nothing. On the bottom shelf was a chamber-pot and in the chamber-pot was a decaying object crawling with white maggots. From the middle of this object a large eye, bluish and corrupt, gazed up at the Major, who scarcely had time to reach the bathroom before he began to vomit brown soup and steamed bacon and cabbage. Little by little the smell of the object stole into the bathroom and enveloped it." (p43-44)

This is the first of many memorable scenes within the novel, which spans a few years until the Major is forced from the Majestic by events beyond his control. The Major is the sense within a situation plagued by nonsense. The hotel is quite literally disintegrating around him and the Spencer family is no better. He becomes the patriarchal figure within the hotel as the owner, Edward Spencer, slowly descends into his own world. Matters, however do come to a head, in a bloody and unexpected (though actually inevitable) manner.

I can't emphasise enough how much I enjoyed reading Troubles. It's exquisitely written and conveys the unsteady situation in Ireland at the time while not focusing specifically on it. By looking at how events overtake a ragged collection of hotel workers and guests, the story is a much more personal one. It's also very funny. There was rarely a section where I didn't laugh at least once, even if what I was laughing at was rather macabre. Also worth a mention is the array of peripheral characters - they all had their quirks that reoccurred and added to the story as a whole. Padraig and his (initially enforced) cross-dressing; Mr Norton with his debauched life and interest in the young twins; the old ladies who inevitably melted into one but each had their own personalities.

This is a rich novel for so many reasons. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it, though there is a substantial amount of the grotesque which may not appeal to all.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Two Classic Film Events I'm Participating In

Just wanted to draw your attention to these two excellent events that I'll be participating in during the coming months. The first is the annual writing contest hosted by There are four categories to choose from (and only thirty writers slots available) but I'm probably going to end up in the 'Film Review' category. I could tell you what my topic is but then I'd have to kill you. It's going to be new and in-depth though! The deadline for submissions is 27th July but the judging is a fairly rapid turnaround - well done to them for that!

The second event is the 'What a Character!' blogathon hosted by a trio of sites. This is an event dedicated to those unsung heroes of Hollywood, the character actors whose names have largely disappeared from the Hollywood dictionary. My topic for this one is the marvellous Majorie Main and I'm looking forward to writing about her in three of my favourite films! The schedule on this one is a little more spaced out - the actual blogathon takes place in September so there's still plenty of time to get in on this one if you want to.

I'll keep you posted on how I get on with these but I'll looking forward to reading some fantastic entries about my favourite eras of film.

Television Review: Case Sensitive S2

My review of series one can be found here.

In all honesty, I remember very little about the Sophie Hannah book this was adapted from, despite enjoying it so much! That meant that I again came into watching this with something of a fresh mind but it also means I can't point out discrepancies between the book and adaptation. No matter - this stood up well as a piece of drama in its own right once more.

Olivia Williams and Darren Boyd return as DS Charlie Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse. Charlie's new acquaintance, Ruth (Eva Birthistle), mentions that 'a friend's' partner has claimed to have hurt someone in the past. Charlie's astute enough to know Ruth's talking about herself and stubborn enough to check out the man she thinks she's talking about - Ruth's husband, Jason. Unfortunately, when she pokes around Jason's house she finds his dead body there and a murder investigation begins. Prime suspects are Ruth and her new partner, Aidan (Theo James), a talented pianist but with the mysterious past he half-confided in Ruth.

I won't, of course, ruin the ending. However, I will say the whole arc was masterfully put together. One particular aspect that shone for me was the use of music - linked primarily to Aidan's piano skills - which provided the backdrop to some of the tense moments throughout the two episodes. I also appreciated seeing some of the lost sets from The Bill being used again, though it did make me miss it more. There were some moments that deliberated detached from reality - as Ruth watched the world go by in the police station for instance - but they were sparse and worked when used.

And what about the personal relationship between Charlie and Simon? Well, it certainly moved on a bit. Both parties experienced a bit of jealousy, Charlie when Simon seemed overly interested in DC Amber Williams (Christina Chong) and Simon in his roundabout way at various points. As I noticed in the first two-parter, Olivia Williams and Darren Boyd have a definite connection as Charlie and Simon. It's a partnership that works, even if Charlie - and the viewer - want to bash his head against a brick wall on occasion. I think it's difficult to sympathise with Simon as much as you do in the books because Charlie's viewpoint is the predominant one. That said, more scenes focused on Simon would be scenes of no movement. Boyd plays him to perfection, hovering just on the boundary between genius and irritant.

There was tension simmering throughout this one - both crime related and personal - and I'm already hungry for more. I do hope ITV don't disappoint me...again.

Friday, 13 July 2012

A Classics Challenge: July Prompt

I've been rather absent from this challenge recently (you can read my January and February responses, also on Dickens!) but I'm ready to participate again. The prompt for July is: What is a moment, quote, or character that you feel will stay with you? Years from now, when some of the details have faded, that lasting impression the book has left you with... what is it? --or why did it fail to leave an impression? I chose to consider The Old Curiosity Shop, reviewed in full here.

It may be an odd choice for me to say that Richard Swiveller from this novel will stick with me for quite some time. Although he doesn't have the presence within the story as, say, Daniel Quilp, his evolution through the novel is as memorable as anything else. Originally introduced as something of an accomplice to Fred Trent's plans to get his hands on money he perceives his grandfather to have, he is nudged towards a marriage with Nell Trent and is forced to sacrifice the affections of Miss Sophy Wackles as a result. He's manipulated by Quilp after the loss of an inheritance forces him to look for a job and ends up working at Quilp's behest for a lawyer and his sister, Sampson and Sally Brass. Poor Richard is then manipulated by them!

What I liked about Richard was the fact that he originally entered the novel as a potential villain (albeit a dim-witted one) and ended it as one of the chief saviours. Although he is struck down with a fever, it's his previous kind attentions to the 'Marchioness' which bring about the climax of the novel and the end of Daniel Quilp. My favourite paragraphs pertaining to Richard are those which summarise his life after the novel:

"Mr Swiveller, recovering very slowly from his illness, and entering into the receipt of his annuity, bought for the Marchioness a handsome stock of clothes, and put her to school forthwith, in redemption of the vow he had made upon his fevered bed. After casting about for some time for a name which should be worthy of her, he decided in favour of Sophronia Sphynx, as being euphonious and genteel, and furthermore indicative of mystery. Under this title the Marchioness repaired, in tears, to the school of his selection, from which, as she soon distanced all competitors, she was removed before the lapse of many quarters to one of a higher grade. It is but bare justice to Mr Swiveller to say, that, although the expenses of her education kept him in straightened circumstances for half a dozen years, he never slackened in his zeal, and always held himself sufficiently repaid by the accounts he heard (with great gravity) of her advancement, on his monthly visits to the governess, who looked upon him as a literary gentleman of eccentric habits, and of a most prodigious talent in quotation.

In a word, Mr Swiveller kept the Marchioness at this establishment until she was, at a moderate guess, full nineteen years of age - good-looking, clever, and good-humoured; when he began to consider seriously what was to be done next. On one of his periodical visits, while he was resolving this question in his mind, the Marchioness came down to him, alone, looking more smiling and more fresh than ever. Then it occurred to him, but not for the first time, that if she would marry him, how comfortable they might be! So Richard asked her; whatever she said, it wasn't No; and they were married in good earnest that day week, which gave Mr Swiveller frequent occasion to remark at divers subsequent periods that there had been a young lady saving up for him after all." (p541)

It may seem a strange thing to enjoy - a girl growing up under the benevolence of a man then marrying him - but Dickens has hinted at such a final solution through all their previous interactions. He offers it with dignity, as Richard educates her, almost beggaring himself in the process, and makes their marriage an equal - and more morally decent - one.

Book Review: The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

The Old Curiosity Shop is another Dickens novel that revels in an expansive cast of character whilst still giving a sense of there being 'central characters'. One of these is undoubtedly Nell Trent, the most famous character from the book. The story begins with a look at Nell and her grandfather, who has been secretly gambling to try and create a fortune he believes Nell deserves. She, however, has always been content with very little. Nonetheless, his actions lead to them losing everything and they sneak out of the clutches of evil Daniel Quilp in the dead of night. They then begin a trek to find safety, encountering a variety of interesting characters along the way.

It's difficult to convey the scope of this novel. Who are the characters we care about? Nell, her grandfather, Kit, his mother and two brothers, Richard Swiveller, the unnamed schoolmaster and, on the villainous side, Sampson and Sally Brass and Daniel Quilp himself. These are just the main ones but they offer a good overview. While Dickens takes Nell and her grandfather off into the countryside, he doesn't neglect the tribulations of those back at home, in particular Kit and the rather dim-witted Swiveller. Quilp's maliciousness touches every life, especially when he decides to punish Kit for simply getting in his way.

Although the ending of this novel is well-known, I won't spoil it for anyone who has managed to avoid it. Even knowing the ending, though, doesn't diminish the quality of the story and comic effects of the various characters. The Old Curiosity Shop is a Dickens book through-and-through with my edition containing the original drawings by Phiz and George Cattermole. The depiction of Quilp in these drawings isn't something easily forgotten.

I do have some slight criticisms though. The tactic of introducing Nell and her grandfather via an unnamed narrator who wanders straight out of the story afterwards irritated me a little but it's a common feature of Victorian fiction. There were enough characters to get my head around without an additional one at the beginning! Also, the title quickly becomes redundant as the story spans far beyond the shop itself. These are slight criticisms, though, and I don't really have a bad word to say about the plot, characters or setting. The use of the river throughout leads to a suitably grisly climax and the plethora of unnamed and unexplored characters add to the depth of the novel.

I had my favourite characters, of course, and my favourite scenes but I can't list them all here. Anything involving Kit or Richard Swiveller could probably be on it, though most of Quilp's scenes were memorable enough to live with me after reading them. I won't forget his hideous little shack with a ship figurehead inside which he mutilates any time soon, that's for sure.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Depths of the Library

Level 3B. It sounds like somewhere Buffy would go to vanquish some mutant creatures but, no, 3B is a level of one of the libraries at the University of Sheffield. For two years I've avoided going down there, despite knowing that's where all the obscure books that may have relevance to my thesis live. These are the books that are so old they're falling apart, that seem to have rested unopened for fifty years, that have taken over the basement of the library and made it into some sort of book breeding ground. In fairness, it sounds like it should be my idea of heaven - but it wasn't.

I reluctantly took my book list down with me. There were four books to start with, all with the dreaded preface '3B'. First off, I only went down to level four after I stepped in the lift. I think that was my subconscious telling me I really didn't want to go any further but if I start listening to my subconscious I'll never do anything. So I pressed the button for the lift again and accidentally brought up the book lift instead. After ascertaining I couldn't fit in, I tried again. 

So down I go. While there had been one person on level four there was no one in sight on 3B. The lift seemed three quarters towards the top end of the building and I had to go around it either left or right to reach the books. And, yes, there were lots of books. Dozens of lengthy rows of shelves stretching across the building with barely enough room between for someone to shimmy through the gaps. I set off walking, trying to find the pattern of shelving. I doubled back on myself when I realised I was going in the wrong direction then walked into a wall when the shelves ran out without taking me to my destination. Then I found myself in a bit of a quandary. I had no idea where the shelves would start from next. 

I walked down (further away from the lift) and found myself in a slightly wider middle section, where encountering someone quietly reading scared the hell out of me. She shot me a dirty look and I escaped, not caring in what direction. Consequently, I was completely lost. I walked a while then veered left and hit the back wall. At least in that situation I managed to find the lower numbers where one of my books was housed. So I grabbed that and made a note using the wall that another one was best read in the library because it was so short (an overview of the periodical press in Victorian England if you were wondering). At some point, probably when I was replacing my nice Parker pen into my bag, it escaped from my clutches. So, yes, the library ate my pen amongst other things. 

I was close to giving up. It was gloomy down there, quiet and my propensity to panic was kicking in. But the library trip had been a pain in the neck already - I had to go home with some spoils. I wandered around a little more and stumbled across my section completely by accident. Grabbing three more books (and noticing an ancient edition of Edmund Yates's Black Sheep nestled next to the two volumes of his memoirs) I somehow found my way back to the lift, all the while muttering to myself to keep myself calm. 

The relief I felt when the sunlight of the main hall washed over me was unbelievable. My brain told me never to go down there again but, alas, the best books are all down there. Besides, I think that place deserves to be immortalised in a story. As does the girl who gave me a death glare. So I'll be going back down there for two types of research. 

But not any time soon. 

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Classic Film Review: I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

Perhaps the most irritating thing about this film is the flippant title! I Know Where I'm Going! tells the story of a middle-class woman travelling to a remote Scottish island to marry a rich man. The title hinges on the fact that she has, amazingly, always known where she was going and the film sets out to change her perceptions of her future, however much she fights the change. I think the title obscures a good film, betraying too little of the story.

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) travels to Scotland during wartime by various different means but finds herself stranded just out of reach of her island destination. Alongside her is Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), a Navy man who also happens to own the property her future husband is renting. As the days go by, she realises that her plan for life may be falling apart as she develops feelings for the Scot and she'll stop at nothing to get to the island she's to be married on.

There are numerous wonderful things about this film. The Scottish scenery, for starters, is beautifully shot and adds atmosphere to every scene. First the fog and then the wind put paid to Joan's hopes of getting across to the island, making the mountainous terrain as much of a character as Joan herself. Equally, the supporting characters each have their own little role to play, however small that may seem. One of my favourites was a young Petula Clark, who beguiled me the few minutes she was on the screen. Hiller portrayed Joan's various difficulties very neatly and the whirlpool scenes towards the end of the film were remarkable for 1945. The use of a curse to frame parts of the story was perhaps a little contrived but everything - including an eagle named after Torquil - played its part in the film. Most events felt completely incidental, perfect for a film about things not working out as expected.

My one bugbear about the film was, I'm sorry to say, the leading man. Livesey, although he portrayed the Scot well enough, didn't exude the kind of presence necessary for the role. Joan's struggles about where her life was going would've been more poignant with a different co-star, I feel. In his interactions with other characters, the character of Torquil worked very well but I just didn't buy his affection for Joan.

That said, this is an excellent film for other reasons. The plot is one thing but the life it depicts is quite another. Worth a watch, if only for the special effects.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Classic Film Review: Do Not Disturb (1965)

This is apparently one of the films that Doris Day didn't want to make but found herself contractually obliged by then-husband and manager, Marty Melcher. That gives Do Not Disturb a slight tint to it even before you start watching but, certainly, it's not a Day classic by any stretch of the imagination.

Day stars as Janet Harper alongside Rod Taylor as her husband, Mike. The pair have just moved to London so that Mike can run a failing woollen company. Janet wants to live in the country and rents them a house, owned by the stately Vanessa Courtwright (Hermione Baddeley). When Vanessa sees Mike in a restaurant with his secretary, Claire (Maura McGiveney), when he's supposed to be having dinner with his wife, she relates the tale to Janet and advises that she do something to make Mike jealous. Janet refuses but Vanessa begins to send cards and presents from a mystery lover and an unfortunate mistake with antique dealer, Paul Bellari (Sergio Fantoni), complicates matters further. Soon it certainly looks like Janet's having an affair - and she's still not so sure about Mike and Claire either.

As you can tell, the plot's a little convoluted. The film does feel a little all over the place, with constant cuts between what's going on with Janet and what's going on with Mike. The leading man and lady spend remarkably little time together, which was fine for me because I didn't really see any chemistry between them. They felt like sparring partners rather than a loved-up husband and wife. Day, despite her objections to the film, played the part as best she could. There were some memorable scenes - mostly occurring alongside either Baddeley or Fantoni - and a few laughs but very little truly comic material. The scene in a Paris pub where Janet gets drunk, ends up leaving and making conversation with a horse is rather funny. Equally, the scene where she rescues a fox from hunters is mildly amusing but there is an inexplicable goat called Wellington hanging around the house as well. Mike asked what the goat was doing in the house and, to be fair, I'd like to know too!

There are several flaws with this film but it still remains a reasonable Doris Day comedy if you're at a loose end. Don't expect something in the vein of That Touch of Mink (1962) or Pillow Talk (1959) but it's got some good moments peppered about. Watch out for Doris Day kicking a football around for starters.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Classic Film Review: A Double Life (1947)

A Double Life stars Ronald Colman as Anthony John, an actor who has a habit of allowing the characters he plays to get under his skin. He frequently stars opposite his now ex-wife, Brita (Signe Hasso) (they divorced during Chekhov), whom he's still in love with. She refuses to marry him again because of his acting habits and is oblivious to the growing feelings of publicist, Bill (Edmond O'Brien). When Anthony reluctantly takes on the role of Othello opposite Brita as Desdemona his paranoia and jealousy come to the fore. Both Brita and a waitress he meets by accident, Pat (Shelley Winters), are in danger as the film progresses.

The concept of this certainly appealed to me. In order to get the full effect of Anthony's paranoia we have to submerge ourselves in Othello too. While the beginning of the film seemed to drag a little, as soon as he donned the costume and began talking about the various stages of acting in a voice-over there was acute tension in the piece. The stage presentation within the film works well, particularly the recurring motif of the finale which is obviously important both to Othello and Anthony. Since the events take place over a couple of years, the jealousy doesn't seem as contrived as it otherwise might. We see Anthony struggling with his demons, battling them away, then finally allowing them to take over his body on a few dramatic occasions. The film built to these climaxes but didn't really fade away afterwards - the last third of the film was one big climax.

There were some wonderful performances. Ronald Colman submerged himself as much in Anthony John as Anthony submerged himself in Othello. His scenes are consistently intense while the love Anthony has for Brita shines through. I hadn't come across Signe Hasso before but she put in a solid performance as Brita. Shelley Winters was lightly amusing as Pat was sucked into a situation she didn't understand but pulled off dramatic when it mattered and so did Edmond O'Brien for that matter. My favourite supporting performance probably came from Millard Mitchell (of Singin' in the Rain fame) as a wily journalist who makes the connection on a case to the recent production of Othello. 

This film isn't for everybody. It did take a while to get moving and there's little comedy to speak of, except in the opening scenes where Anthony and Brita finish their run in another play. It's very intense, though, and utterly captivating in places. Definitely worth a watch if you like psychological films but make sure you don't mind Othello - that comes into it rather a lot!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Classic Film Review: Sabrina (1954)

Sabrina is one of those films that most people rave about so I was left wondering whether I'd be underwhelmed by it. However, far from being disappointed, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Audrey Hepburn plays Sabrina Fairchild, the daughter of the Larrabee family's chauffeur. She has been in love with younger brother, David (William Holden), for as long as she can remember. David has been through three wives already and hasn't done a day's work in his life, much to the exasperation of older brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart). Sabrina is sent to a cookery school in Paris and comes back a much more refined and elegant woman. David doesn't recognise her at first but soon falls head over heels in love with her. Again, this infuriates Linus - he's arranged another marriage for David which will actually benefit the company this time. He takes it upon himself to make Sabrina fall in love with him, planning to ship her back off to Paris. Unfortunately, his master-plan didn't include his own feelings towards Sabrina changing.

My niggle out of the way first: I wasn't keen on Hepburn's voice-over at the beginning of the film explaining who everybody was. However, perhaps it was necessary to get the film moving swiftly. After that I really have no niggles at all. Despite disliking William Holden in Picnic (1955), I've come to the conclusion that he was miscast in that role because he was wonderful as David Larrabee - just the right side of sleazy with an excellent comic aspect to his personality. Bogart, although he was a late choice for the role, really made it his own. It's very difficult to imagine anyone else playing Linus with the seriousness required whilst still being able to demonstrate a change under the surface of the character. Hepburn demonstrated the various facets of Sabrina's personality - from mournful youth to self-assured lady - with aplomb and the early suicide attempt where a puzzled Linus rescues her from the garage is probably my favourite scene of the film. That said, I enjoyed the musical themes running throughout: 'Isn't It Romantic?' for David and 'La Vie En Rose' for Linus. Sabrina's brief singing of the latter while she drives with Linus is another favourite moment for me, and leaves me wondering yet again why her singing voice was dubbed in My Fair Lady (1964).

Alongside the leads, there were also some amusing performances from secondary characters. Walter Hampden as the Larrabee patriarch offered some light entertainment, hiding his cigars and trying in vain to get olives out of jars. Special mention should also go to Ellen Corby as Miss McCardle, Linus's secretary. Although it was a tiny role she made a very favourite impression on me.

All in all, a brilliant film that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. I'm amazed it took me this long to get to it myself.

Monday, 2 July 2012


When I type 'overture' into my iTunes search box it comes up with 44 songs. There are a mix of stage productions and film productions, with a couple of concerts thrown in there for good measure (Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, John Wilson). Now, I have to face it, some overtures are a lot better than others. Some seem to give a perfunctory nod to the best songs of the piece ahead and finish quickly. However, some composers utilise the form properly, conveying the essence of the show in one simple orchestral piece. The best overtures are works of art in their own right, giving potential enjoyment to people who don't give a damn about the musical whilst pleasing fans immensely. Or is that just me? Am I the only one who gets overexcited at the three overtures I've picked as my favourites?

Mack and Mabel was a commercial flop for Jerry Herman but still contains some of the best songs he's ever written. Both 'I Won't Send Roses' and 'Time Heals Everything' come from this musical and the original cast of Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters conveyed them beautifully. However, I love the overture to bits. From the first bars of 'Movies Were Movies' the energy smashes into you then it trips into the delightful 'Look What Happened to Mabel' which fades into 'I Won't Send Roses'. I always get to that part and wonder how Herman can drag the listener out of the sudden doldrums but 'Wherever He Ain't' offers a wonderful brief contrast before the jazzier 'Big Time' enters the fray. 'When Mabel Comes in the Room' has always been one of my favourites from this musical and the overture makes good use of it. It ends with a brief reprise of 'I Won't Send Roses' but it's always interesting to note which songs weren't used in an overture. 'Time Heals Everything' was perhaps too much like another dip in the high energy but what's the reasoning behind leaving 'Tap Your Troubles Away Out'? Seems bizarre but I don't love the overture any less for that oversight.

My second favourite is another Jerry Herman, though this one was a phenomenal success. Mame starred Angela Lansbury and, again, is full of great individual songs. The overture ties them all together with a similar energy to that managed by Herman in Mack and Mabel. It starts off with a teaser of the title track before going into a light energetic version of 'Open a New Window' which then blends very briefly into 'My Best Girl', perhaps one of the lesser-know tracks from the show, then straight into 'If He Walked Into My Life'. Then we get the jazzy 'That's How Young I Feel', which invariably has me dancing, followed by the title track which takes us right to the end in classic Herman style.

Perhaps my all-time favourite overture is this last one. Jule Styne wrote the music for Gypsy and what a job he did. This overture has everything and, for whatever bizarre reason, I normally end up laughing halfway through at the sheer brilliance of it. It begins with the famous 'dream' bars then pushes on into 'Everything's Coming Up Roses'. Next up is the lighter 'You'll Never Get Away From Me' then we get a short tease of 'Small World' followed by a longer spell. Then all hell breaks loose as the tempo builds to the 'Gypsy Strip' number which blends into the equally energetic 'Mr Goldstone'. The final notes are a reprise of the beginning with a tremendous finish. If I heard this in a theatre I'd be tempted to go home from exhaustion before the curtain even rose.

Am I alone in my love for these overtures? And have I missed any classics? Slap me with a fish if I have.