Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

The phenomenon of the 90s, this charming comedy still (rightly) lies in many people’s soft spot

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Hugh Grant (Charles), Andie MacDowell (Carrie), Simon Callow (Gareth), Anna Chancellor (Henrietta), Charlotte Coleman (Scarlett), James Fleet (Tom), John Hannah (Matthew), Kristin Scott-Thomas (Fiona), David Bower (David), Rowan Atkinson (Father Gerald), David Haig (Bernard), Sophie Thompson (Lydia), Corin Redgrave (Hamish Banks), Simon Kunz (John), Rupert Vansittart (George)

It’s 1994 and love really is all around. It certainly felt like it in the UK, as Four Weddings and a Funeral went from small Brit rom-com to national phenomenon. It was number one at the box office for ten weeks and Wet Wet Wet’s Love is All Around felt like it was number one for the whole year. The film was a huge international hit, the sort of once-in-a-lifetime movie for everyone involved, culminating in an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. For anyone who went to the movies in the 90s, it feels like an old, familiar friend. And, leaving aside the inevitable backlash, it’s still witty, charming and fun today.

Based on writer Richard Curtis’ experience of attending a never-ending parade of weddings one year (we’ve all been there), we follow Charles (Hugh Grant) through a series of disastrously different weddings (and, of course, one moving funeral) while he tries to deal with the fact he’s fallen in love with American Carrie (Andie MacDowell) – and one of the weddings he attends is hers. Around him float a phalanx of loyal friends: gregarious Gareth (Simon Callow) and his loyal, utterly reliable partner Matthew (John Hannah), dimly posh Tom (James Fleet) and his arch sister Fiona (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and zany Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman). But, when the time comes for Charles to head down the aisle, who will he find waiting for him at the end?

Four Weddings works because it’s blessed with a series of talents at the peak of their powers. Richard Curtis has never written a film script that balances so perfectly excellent one-liners, sharply sketched, engaging characters and a perfect mix of pathos and belly-laughs. Mike Newell balances the comedy with just the right touch of drama, never allowing events to tip into sitcom territory. The cast are all pretty much selected perfectly. And above all, it turned out Hugh Grant was placed on earth to play the lead roles in Curtis comedies.

Before Four Weddings, Hugh Grant was almost completely unknown: a Merchant Ivory supporting player at best. After it, he would be almost indistinguishable in the public’s eye from Charles (he’d effectively play the same role three times again for Curtis). What Grant does in this film is simply phenomenal. Curtis’ dialogue and rhythm fits his style like a glove: not since Rowan Atkinson (who delivers a Peter Sellars like performance as a nervous and shy vicar at the other end of the comic spectrum from Grant’s mix of comedy and pained earnestness) had an actor clicked so much with Curtis. There is, perhaps, no skill harder than light comedy, but Grant is a master at it.

He turns socially awkward comedy into a thing of beauty (trapped at a table with a series of ex-girlfriends, he lets the smallest inflections telegraph his desire for the earth to swallow him). He has the subtlety to not overplay pratfalls or physical gags (look at the minimalist simplicity which he plays being trapped, hiding, in a cupboard while a recently married couple have noisy sex in the same room, his face a mix of pained embarrassment and longing for escape). Grant captures better than almost any actor alive a peculiar, self-deprecating British sense of humour, the quiet rabbit-in-the-headlight horror of saying the wrong thing. He even makes you love Charles (who, in many ways, is a self-obsessed git) because Grant is so effortlessly likeable, emitting rays of little-boy lost charm.

It also works because the film crams into it a hinterland of friendship and warmth. The chemistry between the company is pretty much spot-on – you never for one moment doubt these people are lifelong friends, despite the fact we learn nearly nothing about any of them over the course of the film (even Charles – what other film would not even tell us his job?). Each of the actors seizes their role with relish. Simon Callow got to explode with red-faced bonhomie and shaggy-faced camp in a way you suspect he had been dying to do his whole career. Kristin Scott-Thomas’ arch dryness and icy posture was leavened with just the right touch of romantic yearning and wit.

In fact, the whole cast were so perfectly cast they almost became destined to spend their whole lives struggling to break out of the moulds Four Weddings placed them in. James Fleet was so skilled at nice-but-dim sweeties like Tom, he had to grow a huge beard to get serious roles. John Hannah (extremely good, with the films much touching WH Auden inspired moment) took on playing a posh twit in The Mummy. Anna Chancellor was so born to play the strangely needy ‘Duckface’, Charles’ ex-girlfriend she jokes the first line of her obituary will be “Duckface dies”. Callow and Scott-Thomas would play versions of these roles several times over – and even being arrested for picking up a sex worker wouldn’t break the public perception of Grant being Charles.

Which is all a round-about way of saying everything works here, the magic alchemy of everyone being in the right place at the right time, and every single risk paying off. You can be slightly churlish and say Andie MacDowell lacks some of the charisma and comic skill the role of Carrie needs (it’s a Meg Ryan role), but her innocent Southern exterior is needed to make the scene of her recounting her serial shagging to Charles over a restaurant table land with as much comic force as it does.

That’s one of many comic set-pieces that just plain work. From the “fuck!”-filled opening montage, which sees Charles hare, late, to a wedding where he is the best man, via the film’s many social faux pas (“She is now my wife” has never been funnier), Atkinson’s malapropism-stuffed wedding service to the film’s final comic denouement at Charles’ wedding, it’s packed with laugh-out-loud moments. But, because the characters are so well-drawn, with just the right amount of reality, we also care as well. The funeral carries real emotional impact – not least due to Hannah’s beautiful delivery of the eulogy (and let’s not forget, few other mainstream movies were as open to homosexuality at the time as this one). And every character has moments of depth: even dim Tom has flashes of real emotional insight.

You can mock it in retrospect for moments like “is it raining, I hadn’t noticed” – but films like this don’t stumble into becoming cultural phenomena. They get there because, for one glorious moment, everything comes together the way it was meant to be. A great script got just the right approach, from a series of actors perfectly cast and marshalled by a director towards warm, genuine comedy. That’s why people continue to watch – and quote it – thirty years later and it still feels like love is all around it.

Wilson (1944)

Wilson (1944)

Well-meaning if slightly dry hagiography that struggles to turn history into drama

Director: Henry King

Cast: Alexander Knox (Woodrow Wilson), Charles Coburn (Professor Henry Holmes), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Edith Wilson), Thomas Mitchell (Joseph Tumulty), Ruth Nelson (Ellen Wilson), Cedric Hardwicke (Senator Henry Cabot Lodge), Vincent Price (William G McAdoo), William Eythe (George Felton), Mary Anderson (Eleanor Wilson), Ruth Ford (Margaret Wilson), Sidney Blackmer (Josephus Daniels), Madeline Forbes (Jessie Wilson), Katherine Locke (Helen Bones)

Darryl F Zanuck had a passion project: a biopic of the 28th President Woodrow Wilson. It would be both a tribute to a man, he felt, was overlooked and also a homage to current President Roosevelt – and a warning for the future. Like FDR, Wilson had introduced a raft of reforms and led the country in wars – and Zanuck was worried America would fudge the peace, just as Wilson had failed to get the Senate to endorse the League of Nations, leaving it a toothless lion.

Zanuck’s no-expense spared approach gives us a laudatory biopic that lavishes Wilson in euphoric praise, smooths off all his edges and presents him as a visionary and a near-flawless leader. The money was thrown into building elaborate sets and costumes – vast swathes of the White House and the Place of Versailles were re-built on the sound stages of 20th Century Fox – and the script repackaged a series of major events interspersed with Wilsonian speeches. It was launched to a fanfare, was nominated (largely due to Zanuck’s influence) for ten Oscars (winning five) and was a box-office failure.

But is it a good movie? In truth, not quite. Despite the lavish production values, this is a dry, unimaginative and stately progression through its subject’s life. Henry King marshals events with the professionalism of an accomplished journeyman, but little inspiration. There is nothing striking, original or brave in a single minute of Wilson, but everything is perfectly framed and (considering its immense length) well-paced. King uses a series of low-angle shots to hammer home the magnificent detail of the sets and Alfred Newman’s score remixes a series of patriotic scores and heavenly-sounding choirs to build the impression of Wilson as secular saint.

But Wilson remains a largely undramatic movie, with an (Oscar-winning) script by Lamar Trotti that fails to inject drama or skilfully convey information. The warning signs are there in the film’s opening, with a group of New Jersey Democrats arrive to recruit Princeton head Wilson to run for Governor and clumsily give each other a potted precis of his CV and academic achievements while they wait for him to join them. Dialogue frequently info dumps historical research in our ears. Newspapers bluntly tell us in crude headlines what’s happening. Poor Thomas Mitchell’s entire role seems to be made up of running into rooms clutching telegrams announcing major events.

In amongst all this research though, we get very little idea of what Wilson actually stood for. There is virtually no time spent on his Governorship of New Jersey, other than a two-scene disagreement with the Democratic bosses whose power he breaks. On becoming President, his major legislative reforms are covered in a less-than-a-minute montage of signed bills. He consults his cabinet once or twice and, when war comes, walks a fine line between preserving American strength and not rushing into war. The final act of the film covers his failed battle for the League of Nations, the only policy the film invests any time into explaining.

For much of the rest of the time, this hagiography concerns itself with down-playing or skating over anything in Wilson that could be perceived as a flaw. Wilson here talks a good game of reform, equality and rights for all. In real life, he was a dyed-in-the-wool segregationist, sceptical about women’s suffrage as well as being an intellectually arrogant elitist who, later in his Presidency, began to see himself as a sort of vessel for God’s policies. While he was undoubtedly a highly effective moderniser and legislator, none of his faults make it to the screen.

Other areas are also carefully removed. Wilson was often accused of being heavily under the influence of advisors like “Colonel” House – House gets a one-scene cameo here. He ran for re-election in 1916 promising to keep America out of the war – this unfortunate broken promise is repackaged as Wilson sitting in the White House deeply regretting the campaign the party is running for him but stating there’s nothing he can do about it. His controversial re-marriage in 1915 to the much-younger Edith Galt (only two years after his wife died) is excused by his wife informing his daughters on her death bed that Wilson must marry again as he needs a wife. Wilson’s incapacity after a stroke in 1920 is down-played, while Edith (who effectively took over running the country for her husband in a constitutional scandal that would never stand today) states “I never made a decision without your knowledge and consent” while sitting with a sturdy Wilson.

All of this is played out in parallel with making Wilson’s rivals in the Senate mustachio-stroking schemers. None more so than Henry Cabot Lodge (well played by Cedric Hardwicke) who begins a career of animosity against the President after being made to wait for a meeting at the White House. In real life, Wilson refused any compromise offered by Lodge to get the League approved by the Senate, but here Wilson is a noble crusader foiled by political pygmies.

Saying that, the film benefits hugely from a very strong performance from Alexander Knox as Wilson, who not only looks and sounds exactly like the President, but perfectly captures his mannerisms. It makes you regret though the film is so little interested in Wilson’s personality or in building any picture of the humanity behind this leader. The rest of the cast have little to do other than state historical facts or stand to listen to Knox masterfully delivering Wilsonian speeches.

Wilson has a historical interest for Presidential buffs and, while it downplays the negatives around Wilson, it makes a very effective case for the President as a visionary leader (he was undoubtedly right about the League of Nations – even if his stance here is restructured into an FDRish self-determination for all nations). But this is a dry, stately film that never manages to turn the march of time into the thrust of drama. The Oscar-winning sets and photography look impressive, but its simplistic and hagiographic presentation of events eventually shakes your interest.

Manhunter (1986)

Manhunter (1986)

Mann’s visually striking thriller doesn’t have quite the dark subversiveness it needs but is an unsettling thriller

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: William Petersen (Will Graham), Kim Griest (Molly Graham), Dennis Farina (Jack Crawford), Brian Cox (Dr Hannival Lecktor), Joan Allen (Reba McClane), Tom Noonan (Francis Dollarhyde), Stephen Lang (Freddy Lounds)

Before The Silence of the Lambs, there was an earlier attempt to bring the twisted world of Thomas Harris’ gothic thrillers to the screen. Michael Mann’s Manhunter has grown in reputation since its release, along with an increased regard for the visually stylised and cold modernism of Mann’s work. Truthfully, Manhunter lacks the Hitchcockian dark wit, and is far less effective at exploring the dark links between investigator and psychopath, than Silence of the Lambs. But it remains an intriguing – and often disturbing – curiosity.

FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) is called out from extended leave by Agent Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) to investigate chilling serial killer, the Tooth Fairy. The killer breaks into family homes and brutally murders the occupants, leaving bite marks and broken mirrors behind. Graham has an empathetic gift for understanding the mindset of killers, something he used to capture cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), now imprisoned in a mental institute. Graham’s quest to catch the Tooth Fairy leads to him becoming ever more obsessive, including reconnecting with Lecktor to help profile the killer. Meanwhile the Tooth Fairy, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), a lonely photo developer obsessed with William Blake’s Red Dragon and desperate to ‘become’ something greater begins his first meaningful relationship with blind colleague, Reba (Joan Allen).

Manhunter is set in a crisp, modernist world of clean, soulless buildings, glass fronted houses and offices and precise, featureless rooms. Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinnotti film everything with a series of tinges – strong, cool blues, drained out and striking whites, murky greens. All is designed to give the film a deliberately forensic feeling, like we watching something play out in a crime lab. It fits with a film that is fascinated with the procedures of investigating and profiling and delights in the intuitive, deductive leaps Graham makes.

Mann’s film attempts to draw parallels between Graham and Dollarhyde, both men uncomfortably in touch with their darkest, twisted impulses. As Hannibal Lecktor observes, Graham can so completely inhabit the interior world of killers, because he secretly longs for the buzz of killing himself. That’s easy to see in William Petersen’s focused, intense performance. Reluctantly dragged back in, Graham is noticeably unphased by the horrific crime scenes he witnesses (however much he is furious at the loss of life) and becomes ever more fixed and lean as the hunt continues, increasingly more-and-more like the obsessive prey-hunting psychopath he is investigating.

In doing so he sidelines his family – even putting them in danger – and increasingly cuts off human connections to feed his laser-focused quest. This contrasts him with Dollarhyde, a damaged, isolated and self-loathing man who flirts with the last vestiges of humanity. A man who sees nothing in himself that anyone could love, Dollarhyde becomes as giddy as a schoolboy when Reba sees him as a kind, attractive and decent man. Behind his eyes, Tom Noonan shows a quiet struggle between the obsessive monster, driven to destroy, and a man considering changing his path. This intriguing contrast between the family-man who leaves tem to hunt killers and the killer who flirts with settling down is a thread you wish the film had more patience to explore among its neon-lit, filtered style.

But Mann doesn’t quite have the patience to draw these threads together. Perhaps not helped by, skilled and intelligent as Noonan’s performance is, always presented Dollarhyde as an imposing, Frankenstein-monster style heavy rather than someone we invited to feel the sort of twisted empathy for that the film needs. We should be feeling something of what Graham says when he talks about feeling pity for the abused child and disgust for the twisted killer that child grew up to be. We never truly do.

Perhaps that’s partly because Dollarhyde is a character the film can never build up the same interest in, as it does with the looming shadow of Hannibal Lecktor (the spelling was unique to this film). Appearing only in three scenes, Lecktor dominates the film. Basing his performance on Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel, Cox brings the part a chillingly studied delight at his own intelligence with an air of quiet politeness which only vaguely masks his malice and cruelty. A ghost of a smile is behind every cruel, hurtful word and action he carries out and his every action is motivated only by a desire to harm. It’s a mesmerically terrifying, low-key performance that overwhelms the film.

It contributes to the film’s second half never really matching the first. As Lecktor recedes and Graham focuses on the Tooth Fairy, the lack of personal connection between hunter and hunted (and the film’s unease to draw too distinctive a comparison between them) makes the final hunt less compelling ironically than when the Tooth Fairy was an unknown, unseen adversary. Noonan’s most effective scene is his terrifyingly soft-spoken interrogation of smart-aleck reporter Freddy Lounds (a braggart Stephen Lang), but the film isn’t brave enough to give him enough potential humanity to make the character really interesting – or the Satanic charisma that Lecktor has.

Manhunter culminates in a disappointingly run-of-the-mill shootout (edited with a curiously ham-fisted jaggedness) and an unsatisfactory Graham family reunion that feels like it hasn’t got the energy or desire to explore any of the lasting impact the darkness we’ve discovered in our lead character would surely have. Manhunter not only changes the title of Harris’ book (there was fear that Red Dragon was too easy to mistake as a martial arts film), but it also benches the emotional and psychological obsession of Dollarhyde (even the character’s famous tattoos don’t appear in the film). It becomes a strikingly shot, intriguingly fast-paced thriller which doesn’t manage to make the psychological complexities its striving for either as fascinating or unsettling as it should. It has plenty to haunt you – its creepy POV home-invasion opening is nightmare-inducing – but Harris was better served by Lambs mix of playful dark-horror and focus on acute psychological insight.

Macbeth (1948)

Macbeth (1948)

Welles first Shakespeare film is a bizarre mix of inspiration and amateurishness

Director: Orson Welles

Cast: Orson Welles (Macbeth), Jeanette Nolan (Lady Macbeth), Dan O’Herlihy (Macduff), Roddy McDowell (Malcolm), Edgar Barrier (Banquo), Alan Napier (Holy Father), Erskine Sanford (Duncan), John Dierkes (Ross), Keene Curtis (Lennox), Peggy Weber (Lady Macduff), Lionel Braham (Siward)

Macbeth was Welles’ last hurrah in Hollywood before decades of self-imposed banishment and exile. He arrived at Republic Pictures – proud creator of B-movie Westerns, although also the home of a few John Ford classics most notably The Quiet Man – who were delighted to sign up a deal for a literary classic directed by America’s leading man of the theatre. What they ended up with was a film that’s such a bizarre mish-mash of brilliance, originality and amateurishness nonsense, that they were basically befuddled.

Welles shot the film, as contracted, within 23 days on old Westerns sets, with a budget od spit and boot polish. Welles was focused, more than any other film he’d worked on to that point, on visual imagery and total control of sound and audio. So much so he wasn’t fussed about recording any sound on set. All the actors pre-recorded their dialogue, under Welles’ strict instructions, and then silently lip synched while shooting the scenes. This gave Welles the freedom for a host of expressionistic, shadow-filled shots where the actors faces and mouths were frequently unseen – or longer shots where it was impossible to clearly see lips moving. It also made some truly rigid, uncomfortable performances (Jeannette Nolan was granted permission to record her sleepwalking scene ‘live’ so she could perform it with some semblance of conviction).

Macbeth was set in a Scotland somewhere between a fiercely traditional high-school production and a hodge-podge of influences from Celtic wizardry to Mongolian hordes. It’s shot on a dust-lined, cavern-filled panorama that frequently looks like a giant theatrical set or an empty multi-purpose wall-lined amphitheatre, with only a few scenes exchanging this for mist-filled heaths or low-ceilinged caves. The costuming and design is an eclectic mix: the murderers look like cavemen, some thanes wear kilts, Malcolm and his soldiers dress in medieval armour, Macbeth and Banquo look like fur-coated renegades from Genghis Khan. Welles himself would regret a bizarre crown which made him look like the Statue of Liberty.

There is a feeling that every idea was grabbed and thrown at the wall, in the expectation (hope?) that some of them would stick and lead to cinematic magic. There is a vague attempt to suggest Scotland is at war between Christianity and Paganism. A composite character, the ‘Holy Father’ parades around – chasing away witches, leading prayers for Duncan, taking dictation for Macbeth, warning Lady Macduff, rousing Malcolm – but with very little real sense that this ever adds up to anything logical or thematically clear. Welles merrily re-writes and transposes dialogue. Some works well – Banquo here seems far more of a potential partner than usual – others less so (Lady Macbeth turns up at the murder of the Macduffs for no clear reason).

But the stuff that works really works – and most of it is visual. The witches are shadowy figures, whose voices alter in cadence and pattern from scene to scenes (Welles had mixed male and female voices together to create an unsettling rhythm), their faces never seen. Inspired by his famous “Voodoo Macbeth” stage production, they craft muddy statues of Macbeth which they crown with a crude coronet. In one of the encounters with Macbeth, the camera pulls away to isolate Macbeth, lit in misty isolation. More Voodoo touches are seen in the hammering drum beats that greet Duncan to Macbeth’s castle.

Mist and expressionistic images dominate. Malcolm’s army urges from among the fog, carrying their branches from Birnam wood. The final battle is a series of isolated shots of characters, often the camera craning up to them or seeing them march towards it. Macbeth is frequently shot from below, to heighten his sense of being almost an ogre. When first seen as king, he sits, isolated and drunk at the top of a flight of stairs, making him seem less imposing and more weak from the start of his reign. He is haunted not only by Banquo’s ghost, but Duncan’s as well, Welles camera cutting to reveal his cavern dining room empty of everyone but the Macbeth and the ghosts of murdered friends, the camera tracking the shadow of his fingers along the wall to reveal the bleeding Banquo.

The entire production becomes like a drug-induced fantasy, something a near-catatonic Macbeth might just be imagining as his dreams are crushed by the cruel fate he feels destined to follow. Welles establishes a now popular idea of the play being a huge cycle: at this death, the witches announce “Peace, the charm’s wound up” the camera catching a sight of Fleance who seems destined to repeat the chaos. (“The charm’s wound up” not indicating an end, as often mis-interpretated, but a readiness to be enacted.)

The camera, freed of the need to capture dialogue on set, flies around roams around or moves with swiftness. Characters walk into shadows. Sequences – such as the murder of the Macduffs – are met with a parade of fast cuts and actors charging towards the camera. Music cues are carefully repeated, and lines carry across transitions. There are plenty of striking images, from a mass crowd praying for Duncan to a low-angle camera tracking a worried Macbeth in the aftermath of the murder.

But yet… this is also a curious dog’s dinner of a film. For every great idea, others (like the Holy Father) either don’t land or make no sense. Macbeth’s seduction of the murderers, interestingly shot over his shoulder at an imposing distance from his servants, is followed by a laughably badly acted and staged murder of Banquo. The actors all perform in, pretty much across the board, dreadful cliched Scottish accents. This accentuates the problem of lip synching on set, which renders nearly everyone in the film flat and strangely lifeless, stuck to replicating a performance from days ago.

This includes Welles himself. Macbeth is, by some distance, his least interesting film Shakespeare performance. His Thane is all surface and no depth and Welles’ decision to play him as a slave to destiny, frequently renders him catatonic, reading the lines with a Scottish lilt that travels by way of Dublin, with plenty of pace but no depth. Jeannette Nolan struggles slightly with Lady Macbeth, a decent match with Welles but lacking presence. There is barely a performance of merit among the rest of the cast: McDowell is dreadful, O’Herlihy all at sea, Barrier out of his depth. The bulk of the cast look and sound – in their traditional costumes and awkward, unconvincing accents – like high school students staging “the Scottish play” in the most “Scottish” way possible.

Welles, naturally, having shot the film promptly disappeared to Europe leaving notes and memos from a distance about how it should be assembled, some of which were promptly ignored by a supportive studio turn exasperated. Those in Europe were more respecting of the results, praising Welles for re-imagining the text and its expressionistic, fluid shooting style. In America, these elements were condemned a mess. Macbeth is a bit of both: good ideas sitting alongside amateurishness and nonsense. It’s most interesting by far as a silent film: there are images here that linger, from the witches mud statue to Lady Macbeth’s plumet to death. But as an overall package Welles would dwarf it with Othello and Chimes at Midnight, which combined good Shakespeare and good film-making. Macbeth is a struggle to marry expressionist film-making and literary grace that doesn’t always succeed.

Further reading:

The Band Wagon (1953)

The Band Wagon (1953)

The delights of putting on a show come to life in a hugely enjoyable Freed musical

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Cast: Fred Astaire (Tony Hunter), Cyd Charisse (Gabrielle Gerard), Oscar Levant (Lester Marton), Nanette Fabray (Lily Marton), Jack Buchanan (Jeffrey Cordova), James Mitchell (Paul Byrd), Robert Gist (Hal Benton), Ava Gardner (Herself)

Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) has a glorious career behind him. Famed for top-hat-and-tails dance numbers (hang on, this is ringing some bells…), he can now ride the train unknown and contemplates retirement. But he leaps at the chance to perform on Broadway with a new script by husband-and-wife writing team Lester (Oscar Levant) and Lily Marton (Nanette Fabray) – themselves self-parodies of non-married writing team Betty Comden and Adolph Green. He’ll co-star with ballet dancing sensation Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) and the show will be produced, directed and co-star British impresario Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). Problem is Jeffrey wants to turn their light musical into a heavy-handed, over-produced Faust drama. Will audiences say ‘That’s Entertainment’ or will they prefer the musical? And will Tony and Gabrielle’s mutual hostility turn to love?

If you have any doubt about the answer to either of those questions, then I have to ask “where have you been and have you never seen a movie before?” The Band Wagon is the Arthur Freed machine at its peak. You get the sense that, by this point, it really was as smooth as getting the guys back together and throwing on a show. It’s what lies behind the immense charm of the film: for the majority of its run-time it’s basically people who really know what they are talking about chronicling the backstage friendships and rivalries, technical hiccups and clashes of vision when passionate, talented people get together to put on a show.

In fact, everything in The Band Wagon wants you to relax and to make sure you don’t worry or be anxious that everything isn’t going to turn out okay. It’s kind, decent and zeroes in on the glorious camaraderie of theatre. For starters, Tony Hunter is a thoroughly good-egg. Played with glorious charm and a wonderful light-tough by Astaire, he’s patient, relaxed about his declining fame and a very willing collaborator. His (very gentle) arguments with Gabrielle are based around their mutual intimidation at each other. He always feels like a regular Joe who has become a star but would be just as happy in the chorus line.

Around Astaire, a bank of cool, calm talent is called on. Minnelli was already an absolute pro at pulling spectacles like this together and The Band Wagon mixes together the deceptive simplicity of his compositional eye with a host of wonderfully designed sets. The script is full of great gags and beautiful one-liners and, while the story is effectively a remix of elements from half-a-dozen Freed movies prior to this one, it demonstrates aptly that if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The bright and breezy fun stretches over the good-natured kindness of the script. There are no real villains: Jeffrey is over-ambitious and a touch pretentious, but when push comes to shove he does what’s best for the show. Even Gabrielle’s choreographer boyfriend is an honest professional whose main offence (other than not being Fred Astaire) is being snobby rather than mean.

The Band Wagon gets a great deal of comic mileage out of the over-blown ideas of Jeffrey Cordova. Hilariously played by Jack Buchanan with a burst-out-of-the box enthusiasm, his conversation is full of grandiose bombast, spraying ideas around and re-shaping everything in the play to match his own impressions of high art. A gentle egotist – the poster for his Broadway production of Oedipus Rex credits him no less than four times (producer, director, adapter and star) and Sophocles not at all – he is the sort of force-of-nature who wins over backers for the production by acting out the entire play in a drawing room, playing all the parts and supplying the sound effects.

The production he shapes allows Minnelli to gently parody some of the excesses of his own productions. The set is a hydraulic nightmare, with multiple platforms rising up and down from scene to scene. Needless to say, at the tech rehearsal, this turns into an obstacle course that leaves Jeffrey dangling from the ceiling by a microphone cord. At one point in rehearsal, Tony and Gabrielle have to perform a ballet (he as Faust) while endless pyrotechnics explode around them, constantly forcing them to jump out of the way. Every inch of the dialogue is re-written and (in one hilarious rehearsal scene) Tony is pushed into performing a mundane scene with ridiculous over-emphasis.

Parallel to this, we have of course the romance. Rather sportingly, the age difference between Tony and Gabrielle is not only acknowledged, it becomes a focus of their initial discomfort. Comdon and Green script a particularly juicy exchange between the two, that riffs on the subject culminating in Gabrielle bluntly telling Tony he should audition her grandmother as co-lead because “She’d be just about right for you”. Astaire actually takes a great deal of good-natured ribbing here for being past it and over-the-hill (“times have changed and you have not changed with them” Jeffrey tells him in the height of misguided enthusiasm), but there is a charming decency as he declares himself not Nijinsky or Brando but “Mrs Hunter’s little boy, song and dance man”.

And that he is. Astaire and Charisse get several show-stopping numbers, the finest being a graceful, gorgeous balletic number in the park as they ice finally melts between them, a perfect, beautifully choreographed number that sees their bodies in perfect unison. The dancing is of course flawless throughout: Astaire early tap number on getting his shoes shined is charming and when we see snippets of their professional work on stage it’s deeply impressive.

If The Band Wagon has a flaw, it is that the last twenty minutes – which shows snippets of the final show being staged across the country – has a bitty, disjointed quality to it. It’s very hard not to notice that the plot has been completed and what we are left with are a series of non-too-catchy numbers and non-too-memorable set-pieces (except for the sight of Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan as adult babies which to be honest I wish I could forget). The final film-noir spoof ballet that ends the ‘show within the show’ (and God knows what that show, a bizarre, disjointed cabaret night as far as I can see is even about) is well-staged but lacks spark.

But The Band Wagon is still enjoyable, charming and above all fun – and if you can watch it without a smile breaking across your face (particularly if you love the theatre) then there is something wrong with you.

Nil by Mouth (1997)

Nil by Mouth (1997)

Gary Oldman’s passion project is a punishingly raw, unforgettably tough drama of marital abuse

Director: Gary Oldman

Cast: Ray Winstone (Raymond), Kathy Burke (Valerie), Charlie Creed-Miles (Billy), Laila Morse (Janet), Edna Dore (Kath), Chrissie Cotterill (Paula), Jon Morrison (Angus), Jamie Foreman (Mark)

Gary Oldman called it his Lamborghini. Where other stars poured money into fast cars, Oldman pumped millions into this passion project. Writing and directing, Oldman’s film was not autobiographical, but an exploration of working-class themes that had surrounded him during his life. Nil By Mouth is a punishing look at the self-destructive cycles of some working-class lives, trapped in ruts with little opportunities or aspirations, tinged with humour but smothered in an aggressive and toxic masculinity where women so often become the victims.

Raymond (Ray Winstone) is married to Valerie (Kathy Burke). They live in a council estate in London, along with Valerie’s junkie brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles). Raymond makes a living in casual crime and carries a seething, barely controlled temper that explodes at the slightest provocation. Often that comes from his own family and his shocking and brutal capacity for extreme, vindictive rage will leave physical and mental scars on all around him.

Oldman’s Nil By Mouth doesn’t really have a plot as such. It’s more a ‘slice of life’ film – or a kitchen-sink drama, but one where the sink is ripped from the wall and used to smash someone in the face. Nil By Mouth is visceral, difficult to watch and relentlessly, almost overwhelmingly, powerful in its grimness. Oldman doesn’t allow a shred of romance about working class life. There is no nobility inherent in poverty, and for every piece of human decency there are those stuck in self-destructive cycles. Often this means men barrelling around causing pain, while women pick up the pieces.

Oldman shoots the film with an alarming immersiveness. Handheld cameras, awkward turns and a deliberate shunning of the careful and conservative distancing of two-shot set-ups, makes the viewer feel uncomfortable close to the characters in all their exceptionally flawed whole. The film is designed to make us feel as much in the room as possible, an increasingly helpless witness to the aggression and violence that bubbles under the surface of every moment. Just like Valerie’s young daughter, who watches everything with a mute silence, we are helpless witnesses.

Working-class London is an overwhelmingly male – and toxic – environment. No one can go more than a few words without effing and blinding. All the male characters guard their personal space like pit bulls. The slightest accidental touch can be met with nose-to-nose spittle fuelled fury. While there is a homespun humour to some of the conversations, the content is pitch-black. Anything that could even be vaguely interpreted as weakness is aggressively shunned.

It’s clear that all the man are emotionally stunted, frightened little boys behaving with the aggression of angry teenagers and the muscles of fully-grown men. Oldman’s gift with the film is to look at some of the most appalling people, with an understanding that never tips into sympathy. None more so than wife-beater Raymond. Raymond is a monster. A bleeding fist of anger, who sheds self-pitying tears in the aftermath of the latest atrocity he has inflicted upon his wife (“I do it because I love you”). Raymond sees himself as “the Daddy” but is actually a weak-willed bully, drowning in self-loathing and crippled by misdirected anger and grief at his own bullying father.

None of this excuses the appalling, terrifying behaviour he dishes out to Billy and Valerie. He nearly bites Billy’s nose off in an incandescent fury when Billy steals his drugs. That’s nothing to the jealous beating he meets out to Valerie when he witnesses her playing pool with a man. This shockingly violent outburst of kicks, punches and stamps to the prone and weeping Valerie is impossible to watch (mercifully Oldman keeps it mostly off camera). It’s felt inevitable: Raymond looks on the edge of handing out a beating every time we see him.

But then, Oldman is making the point, it’s inevitable to the characters as well. None of Valerie’s family are surprised by it – even if there is a vague attempt by her mother Janet (played excellently by Oldman’s real-life sister Laila Morse) to accept Valerie’s detailed story of a hit-and-run leading to her disfiguring injuries. Raymond is translating the pain handed out him onto his own family, dishing out treatment he received from his father but a hundred-fold worse. Just as his mother accepted treatment like this from his father, so Valerie will accept it from him. Her daughter will see this behaviour, and likely accept the same from her husband in the future.

Why do women accept it? Because what choice do they have? There is so few opportunities. Aspiration hardly comes into it – even if it clearly doesn’t exist for many – because quite simply the idea of there being another way of living your life than this just seems impossible. Women are there to pick-up the pieces. Janet has been doing it for years, nursing her son through a drug-habit with cash when he needs it (all of which goes into his arm). They need to keep the family, dysfunctional as it is, strangely functional. To let the dust settle, to welcome the abuser back in when he promises to change, give the junkie who has robbed them one more chance.

Nil By Mouth is at its strongest when it implies this terrible cycle. This can’t be the first time Raymond has struck Valerie (there is mention of an earlier estranged marriage, which presumably ended for the same reason). The film comes full circle to the family back together again – but no problems have been solved, no changes made, no revelations made. People have simply come together because, at the end of the day, what other choices are there?

Nil By Mouth isn’t perfect. Its grim power is sometimes overstretched at its two-hour plus run time. Much of the first half hour focuses on Billy, with Oldman’s camera a little too in love with the observational tragedy of this slightly shallow character (Creed-Miles does a good job, but the character is never quite interesting enough to sustain his screen-time). This is particularly obvious once the focus returns to the raw, unwatchable power of Raymond and Valerie.

Here Oldman also shows his strengths as a director of actors. Winstone – who a year before was making episodes of One Foot in the Grave and Murder Most Horrid – saw his whole career change with a performance of such stunning intensity, commitment and sheer visceral horror matched with self-pitying weakness, that he makes Raymond one of the most pathetic monsters of cinema. Kathy Burke is astoundingly good as Valerie, suffering, patient but unable to conceive of a change to her life. Both have never been better, turning a domestic tragedy into something of elemental force.

Oldman’s film is hard, grim, difficult viewing – but also essential. It marks him, after Laughton, as one of the greatest sole-directing credit actors (so far!) ever. Nil By Mouth, once seen, is impossible to forget.

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Carry on Henry as Korda’s comedic historical epic cements the popular perception of the monarch

Director: Alexander Korda

Cast: Charles Laughton (Henry VIII), Elsa Lanchester (Anne of Cleves), Binnie Barnes (Katherine Howard), Merle Oberon (Anne Boleyn), Wendy Barrie (Jane Seymour), Everley Gregg (Catherine Parr), Robert Donat (Thomas Culpeper), Franklin Dyall (Thomas Cromwell), Miles Mander (Wriothesley), Laurence Hanray (Thomas Cranmer), John Loder (Thomas Peynell)

“A Great Guy With His Chopper” was the tag-line for Carry On Henry starring Sid James as a smirking, rogueish Henry. But it might as well have been the tag-line for this Oscar-winning film, that pretty much cemented the public’s perception of Henry VIII as a lusty, fun-loving king, chucking chicken legs over his shoulder when he wasn’t busy marrying wives. Korda’s handsomely filmed Tudor epic is more knock-about farce than history but was the then most successful British film ever (the first to be nominated for Best Picture) and scooped an Oscar for Laughton as the Merrie Monarch.

The Private Life of Henry VIII skips over the meat of most Henry flicks. Catherine of Aragon is dead (the films comment on her in the opening credits describes her story as being “of no particular interest”, news to scholars of the English Reformation) and with Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) prepping for her head to be lopped off with a sword. From there history is left firmly behind as Bluff Hal flirts with Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) – who has eyes for his pal Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat) – marries Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester) who uggs up to get out of it – and ends up as a hen-pecked old guy under a blanket, bossed around by Catherine Parr (Everley Gregg).

For those interested in history, don’t expect to find out anything here. Despite walk-on parts for the headline names of the Henrician reign (Cromwell, Cranmer and others dance around the margins) and some impressive sets and Holbein-influenced costumes, this is really a cheeky-comedy, popping gags at the monarch’s famed lothario. Just as well then that the gags are all pretty good, the pace kept up and the energy of all involved adds hugely to the sense of fun.

A lot of that is, of course, led by Laughton as Henry VIII. Laughton charges around, hand on hips, legs splayed and peppers every other line with outbursts of crude laughter and childish tantrums. Laughton, in short, has a whale of time, piling into every scene with lusty relish. There is a twinkle in his eye throughout even the film’s most laboured gags (the sequence of Henry spitting and throwing food over his shoulder while bemoaning “There’s no delicacy nowadays…Manners are dead!” would easily outstay its welcome without his delighted playing of it).

What’s also striking about Laughton’s performance is the depth he gives it under the humour. Korda’s film wants us to enjoy the outlandish, larger-than-life qualities of the king, but it’s not afraid to look at the darker soul below the surface of the man many call “England’s Stalin”. Laughton’s Henry is a man who greets news of Jane Seymour’s death with a few brief seconds of sadness, before a shrug of the shoulders and a cheerful enquiry about his son. His tantrums and egotism constantly dance on the edge of tyranny. He manhandles lords and servants, screams and stamps when he doesn’t get his own way and shows not a jot of remorse or guilt at the deaths he causes (he’s even seen impatiently tapping a window waiting for the sword to fall on Anne).

Despite this though, you still sort of end up feeling sorry for him. Perhaps because Laughton manages to also make him feel strangely naïve and trusting for all his school-boy bluster. Henry is torn apart with grief at the betrayal of Catherine and Culpeper (something he really should have spotted as it is almost literally going on under his nose). Korda presents a few fairly serious scenes, after a lot of comedic banter, with Henry first assaulting those bringing him the news and then collapsing into a shuddering mess of tears. A beautifully-framed shot in his chapel, shows Henry berating himself for the faults of Catherine, Laughton’s tear-stained face communicating his “mea culpas” with a soft, regret-filled quietness.

But what’s stuck in the public perception is the comedy. The film’s finest – and central – sequence covers the short marriage with Anne of Cleves, inevitably played by Elsa Lanchester. She delivers a superb performance of physical and verbal comedic charm. Henry famously was ‘unattracted’ to Anne (I’ve always believed this syphilitic, obese, gouty man just couldn’t blame himself for his inability to get it up so claimed it was the woman’s fault). Legend of Anne’s ugliness have cruelly stuck, but the film presents it as a rather amusing pantomime of fake stumbles and gurning faces used by Anne to save herself from one-day heading to the block under this tyrant.

Laughton and Lanchester’s natural chemistry (the first of their multiple collaborations on screen) sees the real-life husband-and-wife at complete ease and the wedding-night game of cards are the most relaxed and hilarious in the whole film. “The things I do for England…” Henry mutters, but there is a suspicion these two are much better suited than history assumes.

Korda pulls this altogether into a true crowd-pleaser. There is a farcical energy to the crowds providing a wry commentary on the executions. The film is crammed with some gorgeous sets – Laughton’s first entrance is a straight-restaging of Holbein. A sequence where Henry utterly fails to sneak into Catherine Howard’s bed-chamber (due to guards announcing “the King!” around every corner) is quite wonderfully staged. The cast are very fine: Merle Oberon makes a huge amount of Anne’s shrewdness (in the film’s most historically accurate sequence), Robert Donat is very charismatic as Culpeper, Binnie Barnes suitably flirty and empty-headed as a sex-pot Catherine Howard (even if she is considerably older then the real Catherine).

The Private Life of Henry VIII pulls all its material together into a luscious farce, with the odd serious moment, that might not make any sense at all when compared to history but makes a lot of sense when you compare it to stage farce. This was the first – and best – Carry On Henry.

Ivan the Terrible Parts 1 & 2 (1944/46)

Ivan the Terrible Parts 1 & 2 (1944/46)

Eisenstein’s final film sees him bravely turn Stalin’s dream project into a criticism of his whole regime

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Cast: Nikolay Cherkasov (Ivan Vasilyevich ‘the terrible’), Serafima Birman (Efrosinia of Staritsa), Pavel Kadochnikov (Vladimir of Staritsa), Mikhail Zharov (Malyuta Skuratov), Amvrosy Buchma (Alexei Basmanov), Mikhail Kuznetsov (Fyodor Basmanov), Lyudmila Tselikovskaya (Tsarina Anastasia), Mikhail Nazvanov (Prince Andrew Kurbsky); Andrei Abrikosov (Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow)

The Soviet Union is at war, but Sergei Eisenstein is riding high. Fully restored to favour with the powers-that-be in the USSR with his flashy-but-traditional propaganda pic Alexander Nevsky, the master-of-the-montage was personally selected by Stalin to direct a three-part epic on the dictator’s hero, Ivan the Terrible. (You might wonder what attracted the paranoid, bloodthirsty dictator to a strong man Tsar best known for ruthless purges…) Stalin wanted an epic painting Ivan as a hero, who sometimes did bad things for the right reasons, all wrapped up in a neatly accessible package.

And he almost got it. Part 1 was met with acclaim and the Stalin Prize. Presenting Ivan as a successful politician and soldier, a true strong man binding the nation together and winning the admiration of his people, outfoxing his enemies at court (even though they successfully secretly murder his wife Anastasia), who retreats into Cincinnatus-like retirement only to be dragged back to save the country. It was the General Secretary’s wish-fulfilment wet-dream. Then came Part 2.

Part 2 was was immediately locked away in the vaults and all work on Part 3 ended instantly (every frame of footage shot was burned). If Part 1 was the dictator’s ideal Ivan-as-Stalin, then Part 2 was Ivan-as-Stalin that he definitely didn’t want to see. Now Ivean was ‘the Terrible’ doubling down on his nickname. Even worse, he did this while appearing unhinged, paranoid or (worst of all) manipulated by his poisonous advisors, none more so than jovial Beria-like Malyuta Skuratov (Mikhail Zharov). This Ivan rubbed out opponents, used terror as tool and focused all his anger and vengeance on those around him. Not something Stalin wanted to see, or he was going to let anyone else see. Part 2 only emerged in 1958 ten years after Eisenstein’s death and 5 years after Stalin’s.

What the world ended up with, after they were allowed to see it, is a strange and hard-to-categorise film which has divided opinion for decades. To some it’s an artistic masterpiece, a triumph of symbolism and suggestion, with every shot crammed with intelligent and informed call-backs to artistic, psychological or sociological thinking. To others, it’s a somewhat turgid, hard-to-follow mess that serves as final expression of Eisenstein’s lack of interest in plot and character, not helped by his directions to the cast to echo Japanese theatre Kabuki style acting full of striking poses.

But you can’t deny the courage it must have taken Eisenstein to make this film. To have the guts to present something that deviated away from what history’s most ruthless dictator wanted and try and locate in it an unavoidable (if soft-pedalled) criticism of Stalinism. And can you blame Eisenstein if he tried to hide some of this behind art references and psychological games? Ivan the Terrible isn’t exactly easy – or fun – watching, but sometimes you just need to tip the hat to someone who has the guts to do things like this.

And there is plenty to admire in it. Eisenstein isn’t always recognised for his ability with the composition of shots – after all he’s the fast-cutting director’s dream – but Ivan the Terrible plays right back to his roots as a painter and designer. There are gorgeous shots here, my favourite being a looming close-up of Ivan’s face while behind him a never-ending procession of Russians slog through a white-out landscape to beg him to take back the throne. Ivan’s palace is a subterranean series of mole-like caverns, lavished with truly striking (and highly symbolic) devotional art. Firey angels are plastered across the walls above Ivan while plotting Boyars are shot huddled under mighty frescos of Death. The shadow work is extraordinary: light casts imposing, monstrous, giant black curtains. Astrolabe shadows dominate walls and advancing figures cast mighty shady pools in front of them.

Eisenstein takes his montage and arty suggestiveness of his editing work in Battleship Potemkin and October and translates it into images. The images do the work his banned formulist leanings had. Every image is rigidly thought-through and designed to make a specific implication or inference. It turns Ivan the Terrible into something ripe for analysis and exploration, the sort of film you could happily spend hours deconstructing.

It’s a film crammed with symbolism – some of it, if I’m honest, a little too clever-for-its-own-good. There are references to the work of Holbein, Botticelli, Rublev and a host of mythological figures. Sexual imagery is thrown in with blasting cannons at the siege of Kazan. It uses mirroring and contrasts throughout. Ivan’s coronation that opens in Part 1 will be echoed in a mock coronation of his would-be successor Vladimir (a fine performance of child-like simplicity and sweetness from Pavel Kadochnikov) in Part 2. As a child, Ivan will witness the death of his mother caught in the light of the doorway, very similar to the light in the doorway Vladimir will walk through to his death.

Characters are constantly positioned in framing that suggests (or hammers home) their characters, motivations and desires. Vladimir will be cradled in his arms in a confessional Freudian clinch with first his mother and then (in an identical shot) with Ivan. The mock jovial Malyuta is given the physicality of the faithful dog he claims to be, while the villainous Efrosinia (a pantomimic, hissable Serafima Birman) rises from the ground like the serpent she feels like in almost every scene. Most of these characters are drawn in the broadest, most unsubtle strokes. It makes for some laughably unsubtle moments, but also a sort of primitive energy.

Unfortunately, it is also a film that dumps traditional narrative and characterisation for something highly stylised and impressionistic. Nowhere is this clearer than in Nikolay Cherkasov’s performance as Ivan. Constructed of a series of wild-eyed poses that would not look out of place in a silent movie, this is an over-the-top performance of hyperbolic mannerisms that probably has to be seen to be believed. There is nothing natural about this at all. It is all deployed to create a series of artistic poses and effects: what it is not designed to do is create a character we can relate to or understand.

Maybe this is how Eisenstein hoped to get away with implicit criticism of Stalinism? Ivan endorses the purges that happen, but we don’t seem him organising and initiating them. Was that, to Stalin, the worst crime of all – after all a strong man leads, even if his leadership is cruel. It’s also why, perhaps, he turned Malyuta into a jovial fixer (nevertheless Mikhail Zharov gives the film’s finest performance) rather than the ruthlessly ambitious killer he was. Part 2 shows an Ivan who allows executions not just out of ruthless paranoia but also a weakness of personality. If all things, Stalin couldn’t take that.

Ivan the Terrible rockets along with very little sense of time, narrative or coherent, logical sense. Between the first and second scenes not only do years go by, but Cherkasov’s appearance changes so much it will take the viewer a few minutes to work out who he is. Characters sometimes go several scenes without being named. There is a Shakespearean pace to the narrative, even if it frequently flies over events, motivations, timescales and locations so quickly it’s hard to follow. It’s highly stylistic acting styles frequently make it hard for modern audiences not to raise a snigger.

Eisenstein was perhaps a little too keen to be seen as an artist, and Ivan the Terrible is at times – a bit like October – watching an overly enthusiastic art student showing you just how clever they can be. But, for all that, it’s intriguing and even if it’s not exactly entertaining, it offers many opportunities for intriguing analysis. And the very fact he dared to make a film that criticised Stalinism and then show it to Stalin is always going to be worth something.

Dark Victory (1939)

Dark Victory (1939)

Bette Davis almost single-handedly lifts another tear-jerker into something grander

Director: Edmund Goulding

Cast: Bette Davis (Judith Traherne), George Brent (Dr Frederick Steele), Humphrey Bogart (Michael O’Leary), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Ann King), Ronald Reagan (Alec Hamm), Henry Travers (Dr Parsons), Cora Witherspoon (Carrie Spottswood), Dorothy Peterson (Miss Wainwright)

Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) is vivacious and fun-loving. From her grand Long Island home, her days are taken up with racehorses and fast cars, her nights with parties and booze. No wonder she keeps having headaches and making those small falls, right? Pushed to check it out at the insistence of her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald), it doesn’t take long for brain specialist Dr Frederick Steele (George Brent) to diagnose a brain tumour. An operation is a short-term success, but Judith’s condition is terminal. At best, she has a year to live. Steele and Ann decide to keep the news from Judith – but when she discovers the truth she decides to live life to the full with Frederick, the man she has grown to love.

Watching Dark Victory is a reminder of the sometimes-limited opportunities for women in Hollywood at the time. If an actor as radiantly talented as Bette Davis were a man, she would have been playing earth-shattering roles in stirring dramas. This was when Tracy, Muni and March were playing explorers, scientists, world leaders and campaigners. Davis, like other women, saw the vast majority of strong roles for women centred on screwball comedies or as loving wives and mothers. As such she made a career propping up effective, sentimental twaddle like Dark Victory.

Which is to be a little harsh, I will admit, on a fine if unambitious tear-jerker. Dark Victory had been a Broadway play – and a flop. The stage had exposed a little too clearly the blatant emotional manipulation of the story of a woman who falls in love in the final year of her life then facing death with self-sacrificing fortitude. On film though, it could be made to work, not least through the full-throated commitment and intelligence of Bette Davis’ acting.

Davis is too often button-holed into the “camp icon” bucket, but Dark Victory – much like Now Voyager – sees her real strong suit, turning ordinary women, tinged with sadness, into portraits of deep tragedy and emotional self-sacrifice. Davis evolves Judith from a shallow, fun-loving playgirl into someone thoughtful, caring and empathetic. Davis avoids almost completely the obvious histrionics you could resort to playing a woman dying of a terminal brain tumour.

Instead, she meets her diagnosis with a carefully studied casualness that hides her fear, confronts the realisation that she has been deceived with a betrayed disappointment rather than carpet-chewing fury, and faces death with an unselfish concern for others (a physical tour-de-force as Davis acts blind – the final stage of her condition – but hides this from her husband so as not to cause him to abandon a medical research conference he has postponed frequently for her sake).

It’s all, of course, very standard material for a tear-jerking “woman’s picture” of the 1930s. A flighty woman finds love, happiness and inevitable tragedy. Davis fizzes around much of the film’s first 30 minutes with a Hepburnesque energy and wit, jodhpurs and champagne glasses abounding. A great deal of sweet charm brilliantly adds to the poignancy as, in her first consultation with Steele, she fails to identify blindfolded the same object being placed in both hands (a dice, a pencil and a piece of silk, all instantly identified in her left are met with confused incomprehension in her right). This is highly skilled, emotionally committed acting that pays off in spades as the gentle, thoughtful, caring woman underneath is revealed.

It helps that Davis has a trusted director in Edmund Goulding. Never the finest visual stylist or most compelling technician, Goulding’s great strength was his finesse with actors. He worked especially well with Davis, his careful focus on performance over technical flair giving her an excellent showpiece for her skills. Davis paired again with George Brent, a solid but generous actor (with whom Davis started a long-running affair) never better than when breathing humanity and life into an on-paper stiff roll as a noble surgeon who falls in love with his patient.

Brent and Davis’ chemistry and comfort with each other squeeze out all other potential romantic sub-plots, despite the actors in the roles. Lord knows what the Irish Republican Brent made of Bogart’s bizarre Irish accent as Judith’s roguish horse trainer. Bogart looks hilariously uncomfortable, his accent coming and going and he lacks affinity for the role or the film. He still comes off better than the rather wet Ronald Reagan as Judith’s playboy friend. Instead, the film’s finest supporting performer is the wonderful Geraldine Fitzgerald, sparky, firm-jawed and endlessly loyal while torn up with grief for her friend.

Dark Victory, though, rises and falls on the success of Davis’ performance. It certainly makes no secret of the fact that we are heading towards a tragic ending. A parade of doctors emerge to confirm to Steele that, yes, the disease is terminal. When Judith uncovers her case notes, she flips through an army of letters from eminent surgeons repeating the phrase “Prognosis: negative” – she even then asks Steele’s secretary to explain the wording. We are building up constantly towards a show-stopping, three-hankie, climax of Judith’s inevitable decease.

And yet the film still manages to get you. Again, it’s the low-key but honest performance of Davis that makes this. The moment of tragic realisation that death is arriving, then the studied determination to carry on regardless and to spare her loved ones as much pain as possible. It’s the self-sacrificing decency and honour of the very best of the “women’s pictures”. Davis delivers on it so utterly successfully, it does make you wonder what triumphs she might have had if she could have played the sort of roles males stars played, as well as breathing such conviction-filled life into gentle weepies like this.

Beau Travail (1999)

Beau Travail (1999)

Denis poetic, art-house classic is intense, searing and transformative, crammed with beautiful images

Director: Claire Denis

Cast: Denis Lavant (Adjudant-Chef Galoup), Michel Subor (Commandant Bruno Forestier), Grégoire Colin (Légionnaire Gilles Sentain), Richard Courcet (Légionnaire), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Légionnaire)

I think it’s fair to say Beau Travail will not be to everyone’s taste. For every person (a bit like me) who comes out of the film humming ‘Rhythm of the Night’, they’ll be another who will never have made it far enough into the film to even understand why anyone would. Denis’ poetic film, shot like a combination of art project and choreographic exercise almost wilfully foregoes plot and character in favour of experience. Framed around a voiceover that could be almost anything from a diary, to a letter to a suicide note, Beau Travail is a film that wants you to be as uncertain about its aims and intents, as its lead character is about his own.

Denis’ film is a remix of several literary sources, most notably Melville’s Billy Budd – though you can also make a case that there is more than a trace of Othello in there. Set in a French Foreign Legion unit based in Djibouti under the command of veteran Forestier (Michel Subor), our focus is his Adjudant-Chef Galoup (Denis Lavant). Galoup is a rigid stickler for duty and an obsessive legionnaire, distant from those around him. He takes an almost instant, irrational, dislike for new recruit Sentain (Grégoire Colin) who can form easy rapport with those around him. Galoup schemes to destroy Sentain. In a framing device, Galoup recounts the story having left the Foreign Legion.

It should probably be restated that this brief summary of the plot pretty much covers every detail in this brief but poetically open-ended film. It takes over a third of the film’s runtime for the unexplained conflict at the film’s heart to even begin and Denis scrupulously avoids anything you could categorically call an answer. Which in a way is an answer in itself. Because Beau Travail is, it is easy to forget, a memory piece. It’s framed with Galoup remembering his career in the Foreign Legion, and everything we see in the film is filtered through his recollections. How reliable are these? How much do the strangely intricate, beautifully choreographed desert training sequences reflect reality and how much are they the result of an unreliable narrator?

Perhaps Galoup’s motiveless loathing for Sentain is rooted in his own inability to understand himself and his own longings. Embodied in a performance of immense physical exactitude by Denis Lavant, Galoup is a tightly drawn spring, a mass of careful, well-chosen movements. He’s naturally content with the labours of the French Foreign Legion: scrupulously ironing creases into his clothes, making his bed with careful perfection, striding through the desert wilderness. At the nightclub with his men, he’s a distant observer – he can’t even really take part in their campfire sing-alongs. He only finds physical ease in their ritualised training sequences.

These training sequences are extraordinary, more like Gene Kelly dance sequences than anything you might associate with training. While in the dance clubs the men are awkward movers, on the training field they have sinewy grace. Ritualised fight training sees their bodies move through pre-set positions with a striking, musical beauty. Even back and leg stretches see twenty men moving with perfect co-ordination in the desert sand, leaving matching trails in the dust.

There is a reason why the title translates as Beautiful Work. The film is a continual stream of military tasks in the desert, most of which seem pointless. Camps are built, holes are dug, rocks are smashed. It’s combined with a series of domestic tasks treated with an equal almost fetishistic relish. Men whip water from their laundry as they peg it up to dry. In unison they iron their shirts into a perfect finish. Potatoes are peeled with casual ease. The training they undertake, powering through assault courses, sees them move with a graceful physical ease. There may never seem to be a point to all the things they do but it’s done with a real beauty. You can totally imagine this idealised vision of unison is exactly how Galoup would want to remember his days in his beloved Legion.

Denis’ transformation of Galoup’s memories of the Legion’s work into unspoken dance sequences, also points towards the increasing homoerotic undertone. This feels like more than a clue about Galoup’s undefined hostility to Sentain who is in many ways a spiritual brother-in-arms. But Lavant’s simmeringly intense, buttoned-up (literally) Galoup could never express such feelings. Is that why some of these training sequences that he remembers feel oddly sexualised? A wrestling practise session, bare-chested, feels like nothing less than aggressive competitive hugging. In one training session Galoup and Sentain walk around in an ever-decreasing circle in what feels like the entrée to a tango or a romantic clinch.

It’s not just Galoup. Michel Subor’s professional soldier Forestier watches the topless training sessions with an unspoken (unrealised) fascination. Galoup’s idolisation of his commander – he even carries a dogtag bracelet of Forestier’s in his exile like a totem – is another motivation, jealousy clearly on his mind as his commander takes a shine to the brave new soldier. Galoup it’s suggested is a man who barely understands himself, let alone others, lashing out with violence and aggression at others due to longings he barely feels or understands in himself.

All of this plays in Denis’ slow, observant, film full of carefully composed cross-cuts taking us in and out of the camp and nearby town and throws up a chorus of Djiboutian women who observe the men and interject at crucial points. Beautifully shot by Agnes Godard, it’s a film of striking images often beautifully composed into intriguing montages that go from nightclubs, to deserts, to seemingly abandoned military vehicles. It is I think vital, at every point, to remember that everything we are seeing is being framed through the memories of a man who, Denis implies, is deeply repressed in (possibly) several ways.

Frequently we see scenes Galoup can have no knowledge of. Others– like Sentain finally provoked into striking his senior officer – are played out with a near-dream like unreality. The eventual fate of a character in the desert could be wish-fulfilment for Galoup – after all he could have no idea. Does he imagine his Legionnaires singing to him as he boards his flight to exile? Above all, as he wanders without purpose through the streets of Marseilles, what is he intending to do? Why is he writing his reflections (if you can call such vague narrative interjections that)? Is it an elaborate suicide note?

All of this comes to a head in Denis’ fascinating and beautifully striking final scene. As Galoup lies on his bed – perfectly made – gun in hand, the camera pans across his body to focus on one of his arm muscles twitching rhythmically. Then we cut to Galoup in that Djubati nightclub: but now he looks like a different man, casually dressed, relaxed – and he explodes into a no-holds-barred dance to Rhythm of the Night, full of the frentic, effortless, improvisationary energy he’s denied himself utterly. Is he imagining a fraction of the life he could have had if he was able to embrace feelings and emotions in himself he can barely understand? (A critic observed, Galoup may be so repressed the closest he can get to imagining being gay is relaxed dancing.) Denis told Lavant to dance ‘as if between life and death’. Is this his idea of an afterlife?

Beau Travail won’t be for everyone – and even at its slim 93 minutes, it’s refusal to interject much in the way of pace or characterisation (aside from Galoup, almost every other character is a cipher and Galpoup has crushed almost any trace of personality in himself). But go into it expecting not a throbbing tragedy (as I did at first) but instead something almost akin to a half-remembered dream and it will provide an experience you will be eager to revisit and explore.

Further reading