Spies Among Us: Another Country (1984)

ANOTHER COUNTRY (1984) To view Another Country click here.

“And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.”

I Vow to Thee, My Country, Sir Cecil Spring Rice & Gustav Holst

In the early 1930s, a group of upper-class British university students were recruited as Soviet spies. Today they’re referred to as the Cambridge Five although it’s likely that their numbers were much larger. At the time that they became Soviet sympathizers, Britain and Russia were still allies but the United Kingdom was facing a monumental crisis. Millions were jobless and the economy was in the throes of a deep depression while imperialism and fascism were on the rise. The Cambridge Five responded by embracing Marxism, championing the working classes and opposing fascism, which was particularly rampant within the privileged social circles they traveled in. But times changed and as WWII erupted the alliance between Britain and the U.S.S.R. began dramatically shifting and morphing according to the winds of war. The spies were eventually found out and between 1950 and 1980 their crimes made headlines. The news stunned the British public and sent shockwaves through the establishment. What compelled these sons of fortune to adopt Marxism and become spies for Russia? Another Country (1984) scrutinizes the autocratic British school system that may, or may not, have motivated their betrayal of king and country. [...MORE]

Experience Preferred: The Dangerous Dynamic of The Servant (1963)

SERVANT, THE (1963)

To view The Servant click here.

It’s usually compelling for movie fans to see an actor trying to break out of a mold into which they’ve been cast by the public, and few did it so successfully or aggressively as Dirk Bogarde. Though he’d built up a strong reputation among critics and cineastes in the 1960s with darker character work in films like Cast a Dark Shadow (1955) and the daring masterpiece Victim (1961), he was best known to the public as Simon Sparrow, the heartthrob comic lead in Doctor in the House (1954) and four subsequent sequels. Bogarde’s last film in the series, Doctor in Distress (1963), turned out to be aptly named as it came out the same year as the film that would permanently enshrine Bogarde as a major league actor: The Servant (1963). [...MORE]

Quirks, Quips and Q Planes (1939)

CLOUDS OVER EUROPE (1939)

To view Q Planes click here.

Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier had already developed quite the reputation among actors in the 1930s as powerhouses of the London stage. Both had worked together in the West End and had recently worked together on a production of Othello at the Old Vic, with Richardson in the title role and Olivier as Iago. So the fact that their first film together should be a spy comedy seems counter-intuitive until you see it and ask yourself why it didn’t happen more often? Richardson and Olivier, joined by Valerie Hobson, turn out to be one hell of a good comedy team and Q Planes is a comedy so quickly paced and expertly timed, it still seems fresh today.

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The Delightfully Perfect Blithe Spirit (1945)

BLITHE SPIRIT (1945)

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There are countless great movies, but so few are truly perfect. Some of the movies that I consider worthy of the “perfect” designation include Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), Mervyn LeRoy’s Random Harvest (1942) and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). In these films, it’s easy to break down what makes them special: not a single moment is wasted. Every shot, scene, snippet of dialogue, musical accompaniment and actor’s glance is carefully constructed; the result of the intricate work of cinematic masters at the helm. In Notorious, Hitchcock centers his story around two of the most beautiful, talented actors (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman) while masterfully weaving romance, sexuality, political intrigue and an empathetic view of a morally corrupt character. In The Best Years of Our Lives, Wyler authentically captures the complicated nature of veterans returning home and adjusting to civilian life—something that was all too real for Wyler and his fellow World War II veterans. And in The Apartment, Billy Wilder skillfully creates a humorous and heartbreaking glimpse of two lonely people finding love while caught up in the midst of sleazy corporate America.

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Bigotry & Bloodshed: Sapphire (1959)

SAPPHIRE (1959)

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A beautiful young woman named Sapphire (Yvonne Buckingham) has been murdered. Her bloodied corpse was found in London’s Hampstead Heath park. A seasoned detective (Nigel Patrick) and his young partner (Michael Craig) are called on to investigate the case but as they try to piece together the puzzle of this post-war whodunit the mystery only deepens. Behind her tweed skirts and pale complexion, Sapphire was keeping many secrets including the fact that she was the biracial child of a black mother and white father. Did race play a part in her murder? Is a family member involved? Or was she killed by one of her male suitors? Before the killer is unmasked, this curious mystery takes some surprising twists and turns. In the process viewers get a firsthand look at London’s vibrant city streets undergoing a tectonic shift as denizens of white working-class pubs and black jazz clubs mix, mingle and occasionally fall in love. We also get a taste of the revolting racism quietly simmering underneath this modern cultural melting-pot.

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Love and War: The Spy in Black (1939)

SPY IN BLACK, THE (1939)

To view The Spy in Black click here.

“We are at war. Perhaps you forgot that, as I did for awhile. You are English, I am German, we are enemies!”

“I like that better.”

“And I. It simplifies everything.”

That conversation happens late in the 1939 thriller, The Spy in Black, but it strikes at the heart of the movie. The Spy in Black is notable as the first movie that the esteemed filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked on together, though not as co-directors. This first time out, Powell was the sole director and Pressburger, the screenwriter. The movie follows more along the lines of Powell and the duo’s early work, a small, intimate film, high on efficiency, low on bloat. The story is a rather average one (spies fooling each other in an effort to win one for the war effort) distinguished by the performances of Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, and the direction of Powell. But it also distinguishes itself in taking its little story and heaping upon it the moral quandaries of love and death in war, something that quote above speaks to. And in that respect, it is one of the best spy thrillers of the 1930s.

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An Unusual Friendship: Tiger Bay (1959)

TIGER BAY

To view Tiger Bay click here.

Tiger Bay is one of my all-time favorite films that I made. I still can’t get over the thrill I got when I first saw Hayley on the screen, with those wonderful big eyes … She was an ideal little person to work with because you knew … when you just looked through the lens at her that the camera loved her … You just knew that she had such a rapport with the camera and that’s what filmmaking is about – the rapport between the camera and the artist. It’s that magic that you can not explain. You either have it or you don’t. The very best actor or actress in the world, if the camera doesn’t love her, half the performance has gone.” – J. Lee Thompson

Twelve-year-old Hayley Mills made her screen debut in Tiger Bay (1959) playing Gillie, a rambunctious doe-eyed orphan living with her aunt in the British working-class neighborhood of Tiger Bay. When Gillie unwittingly witnesses a Polish sailor (Horst Buchholz) shoot his girlfriend (Yvonne Mitchell), she steals the gun to impress her young playmates and protect the charismatic killer. Over the course of the film Gillie and the murderer develop an unusual bond while trying to evade a determined police superintendent (John Mills) and escape prosecution.

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The History of The History of Tom Jones (1963)

TOM JONES (1963)

To view Tom Jones click here.

It often happens that something comes along, sets a standard, is recognized as being trailblazing, then gets copied and co-opted, until finally we take it for granted and think, “oh, that one’s so overrated.” Such is the case with an adaptation of a novel published in 1749 by the writer Henry Fielding. The title of the book, a comic novel, was The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling but the 1963 movie shortened it to the foundling’s name alone, Tom Jones. With the screenplay adapted for the screen by celebrated playwright John Osborne and directed with flair by Tony Richardson, Tom Jones hit the screen to great notices and, more importantly, a certain amount of awe for its style. A blurb from The New York Times‘s Bosley Crowther, slightly edited for length and clarity (where you see the ellipses), ended up serving as the film’s tagline in its advertisements: “Prepare yourself for… one of the wildest, bawdiest, and funniest comedies… ever brought to the screen.” Thus the adaptation of an 18th century comic novel became a 20th century movie blockbuster, but does it still work today? Indeed it does.

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In Spite of Myself, I Think I Might Like Stewart Granger

SARABAND FOR DEAD LOVERS (1948)

To view the “Early Stewart Granger” theme on FilmStruck click here.

I’ll admit that I’ve always been fairly ambivalent toward actor Stewart Granger (or “the other Jimmy Stewart,” as I like to call him). I’ve never found him, or his films, particularly entertaining. Every once in a while, I’ll find myself in the mood for a fluffy romantic adventure flick like King Solomon’s Mines (1950) or Bhowani Junction (1956), but that’s usually the extent of my Stewart Granger tolerance. If I’m craving a swashbuckling matinee idol, I usually reach for the real deal: Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power. And if I want a little extra sophistication with my swashbuckling, I go for the lush, velvet voiced Ronald Colman. Now, I don’t blame Stewart Granger for my lack of interest in his films. He has all the makings for a remarkable leading man: the requisite tall, dark and handsome physical characteristics; unwavering confidence; a proper British accent; cultured sensibilities; charismatic charm; and a healthy sexual appetite. (This is key for the so-called “bodice ripper” romance films.)

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Cowardice and Colonialism: The Four Feathers (1939)

FOUR FEATHERS, THE (1939)

To view The Four Feathers click here.

The novel that The Four Feathers (1939) is based upon was written by A.E.W. Mason in 1902, just a few short years after the Mahdist War ended. Containing far more detail and side-stories than any film version, its central theme, cowardice in the face of possible death, does rings true in the cinematic adaptations of the story. The primary character, Lieutenant Harry Faversham (John Clements) decides he cannot face the possibility of dying in battle. As such, he resigns from his commission in the army and does not join his friends, Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), Lieutenant Burroughs (Donald Gray) and Lieutenant Willoughby (Jack Allen), as they head off to war. Following his withdrawal, they each send Faversham a white feather, a symbol of cowardice. That’s bad enough but it’s the fourth one that pushes him beyond what he can accept in himself, as a man and a soldier.

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