Category: Conspiracy thriller

Mulholland Dr (2001)

Mulholland Dr (2001)

Surrealist, dream-like images fill a film that’s wilfully complex, perplexing and probably Lynch’s masterpiece

Director: David Lynch

Cast: Naomi Watts (Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn), Laura Harring (Rita/Camilla Rhodes), Justin Theroux (Adam Kesher), Ann Miller (Coco), Mark Pellegrino (Joe), Patrick Fischler (Dan), Michael Cooke (Herb), Dan Hedaya (Vincenzo Castigliane), Angelo Badalamenti (Luigi Castigliane), Michael J Anderson (Mr Roque), Monty Montgomery (The Cowboy), Lee Grant (Louise Bonner), James Karen (Wally Brown), Chad Everett (Jimmy Katz), Melissa George (Camilla Rhodes), Billy Ray Cyrus (Gene), Lori Heuring (Lorainne Kesher)

Spoilers: I’ll be discussing in detail the plot (if you can call it that) including its final act reveals which are crucial for understanding the film. So watch it first!

Where do you begin? Mulholland Drive feels like the culmination of Lynch’s work, a perfect boiling down of Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet into a surrealistic meditation on Hollywood, wish-fulfilment, dreams and reality. It’s both wilfully inaccessible and surprisingly clear, both coldly cruel and achingly tender, full of hope and devoid of happiness. It’s tough, cryptic, engrossing viewing and unpeels like an onion (and likely to have the same effect on you as that vegetable). Every scene may mean everything or nothing, but there is not a moment of it that isn’t darkly, thrillingly engrossing.

It starts with a car crash on Mulholland Drive – but not before a stream of seemingly disconnected images that only later reveal their importance, including a women on a bed and a dizzying array of disconnected jittybug dancers drifting across the screen like paper cut-outs before a purple background. The car crash involves a mysterious woman ‘Rita’ (Laura Harring) who narrowly escapes being murdered but is left with amnesia. She stumbles to the house of Betty (Naomi Watts), a newly arrived girl in Hollywood, eager to become an actress. With only a bag of money and a mysterious blue key to go on, Rita and Betty search to find out who Rita is. Meanwhile, director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) finds his film (which Betty wants to audition for) being taken over by gangsters. Did I also mention an incompetent-but-brutal hitman, a supernaturally omniscient albino cowboy and a monstrous goblin-like hobo who lives behind a diner and can kill on sight?

Mulholland Drive grew out of Lynch’s plans for a new Twin Peaks style TV series. He shot a pilot, the footage from which takes up much of the first two thirds. Like Twin Peaks it was full of mysterious alleyways to be explored: it’s amnesiac lead, mysterious money and blue key, shadowy gangsters (even led by Twin Peaks veteran Michael J Anderson, here in a Red Room style hide-away, his head attached to a prosthetic body), creepy supernatural nightmare elements. Alas, the executives hated it (it wasn’t exactly Desperate Housewives), but French investors stepped in to fund Lynch turning it into a surrealist movie, with an additional half an hour of footage to an ending (of a sort).

A sort of ending is what we get. Mulholland Drive is a famously confusing, impenetrable film. But to me it seems clear. Lynch’s solution was to turn all the pilot footage into a bizarre and terrible dream – and latch on an ending set in the ‘real world’ which re-presents characters, events and throwaway moments in surprising new lights, leading us to radically reinterpret everything. Effectively, the first two-thirds are the guilt-ridden nightmare of Diane (Watts again), a failed actress in Hollywood who paid for a hit on a star actress Camilla (Harring again) who she believes seduced and spurned her. In her dream, Diane reimagines both herself and Camilla exactly as she wishes they were: herself unspoilt by Hollywood with preternatural talent, Camilla as an amnesiac utterly reliant on her.

What we have here is dreams as wish fulfilment: and what city is more about that, than Hollywood? Mulholland Drive plays as the dark underbelly of Sunset Boulevard (pretty dark and bitter already!). Lynch’s Hollywood is a vicious, heartless, bloody place, where cruelty and death are commonplace. In ‘the dream’ the gangsters – terrifying cameos from Hedaya and composer Badalamenti, the latter dribbling inadequate coffee from his mouth during a meeting in a grotesque power play – call the shots. Reality might be worse. This heartless factory of dreams chews up and spits out innocents like Diane, turning her from naïve and optimistic into  bitter, twisted shell, emotionally maladjusted, locked in her apartment tearily in thrall to her worst instincts.

It makes sense in a way that the film is dominated (probably) by a dream. Hollywood is the town of stories, and it’s perversely logical that the unreality should feel so detailed, engrossing and narratively compelling while what is (probably) reality is fragmented, mundane and laced with cruelty. To the people of films, stories are richer and more freeing than anything that happens in real life and infinitely more comforting.

Comfort is what our dreamer wants. Naomi Watt’s Betty seems like a cliché of a small-town girl, swept up in the big city. Full of aw-shucks charm, the eagle-eyed will spot little moments of strength that feel out of character. There are micro-flashes of anger and she’s determined to break into a mysterious, abandoned house to find a clue when Rita runs. She’s a gifted actress, turning a mundane script in an audition (a script she and Rita laugh at) into a simmering performance of sexual control that stuns the room. But this is a multi-layed performance, just one facet of a whole.

Because Betty’s talent is recognised in the way her ‘real-world’ counterpart Diane – stuck in small supporting roles, gifts from Camilla – never is. There are touches of this in that audition: the director is the least involved and speaks only in vague bullshit. Its not just that talent recognition: in the dream she can turn her lover Camilla, an independent and (perhaps) selfish figure, into someone so dependent on her that she literally doesn’t even know who she is. She even turns the man Camilla leaves her for, into a deluded, humiliated cuckold in thrall to gangsters.

Lynch’s crafting of this dream is flawless. He can mine tension from even the smallest moments. Innocuous events – two men sitting in a diner, a kind old couple in a cab, a business meeting, a singing audition – drip with menace and unknown horror. His camera frequently, almost imperceptibly weaves, as if held floating in space. Logic jumps and sudden transitions abound. Lights flicker and time never obeys rules. He is also a master of black humour: a hit-job gone wrong (with bodies and a vacuum cleaner joining the carnage) is hilarious, as is Kesher’s unexpected arrival home to find his wife in bed with a muscular pool cleaner.

Mulholland Drive is also a sensitive and highly emotional romance story between two lost souls. Betty, naïve and helpful and Rita, who clings with gratitude and adoration to the woman who helps her. Moments of sexual tenderness between these two are shot with erotic beauty: contrasted sharply with the more sordid, aggressive couplings between them in ‘reality’.

But these mix with moments of chilling, unspeakable horror. The hideous goblin living behind a diner, an embodiment of all that is cruel, evil and twisted, later clutching a box the releases the furies themselves seem to leap from. Is this a dark expression of the dreamer’s own guilt (which seems to be transferred to “Dan” a man we see literally dying of fright in a diner that becomes crucial later)? The Cowboy, who may or may not be of this world, glanced at two dreadful moments (just as he promises) seems to guides the dream. And the Silencio club, a theatre of the bizarre, disturbing auditory and visual twists and turns that serves as the gateway between dream and reality – something Betty subconsciously knows, vibrating in terror in her seat, knowing this fantasy she has crafted is under siege from dark elements of the truth demanding she acknowledge them.

Mulholland Drive deconstructs itself at every turn, aided by Lynch’s wonderful, hypnotic surrealistic touches. What’s beautiful about it, perhaps, is it leaves it very much up to you. For me, the desire for dreams to be fulfilled is crucial. It’s all captured in Watts and Harring’s multi-layered performances, their versions of the same women contrasting and complementing each other. Lynch allows their personalities to blur both in character and in visuals (Rita ends up in a matching wig in touches of Vertigo while the film’s blurring of two personalities echoes Bergman’s Persona, including a homage via a shot where both faces seem to merge into one).

An intense, fascinating dream-like exploration of several classic Lynchian themes, Mulholland Drive is his finest, most rewarding film. One which, whatever interpretation you place on its events, grips and challenges you at every moment, full of scenes which spark a mixture of imagination, horror and intrigue. Powered by two wonderful performances at its lead, both with just the right mix of reality and fantasy about them, it’s an extraordinary film.

Hell and High Water (1954)

Hell and High Water (1954)

Action below the waves in this dutiful, for-the-money thriller from Samuel Fuller that lacks imagination or freshness

Director: Samuel Fuller

Cast: Richard Widmark (Captain Adam Jones), Bella Darvi (Professor Denise Gerard), Victor Francen (Professor Montel), Cameron Mitchell (“Ski” Brodski), Gene Evans (Chief Holter), David Wayne (Tugboat Walker), Stephen Bekassy (Neumann), Richard Loo (Hakada Fujimori), Wong Artarne (Chin Lee), Henry Kulky (Gunner McCrossin)

Few films start with a bigger bang than Hell and High Water: a nuclear explosion. What caused it? The film winds back to tell us. Retired submarine captain Adam Jones (Richard Widmark) is hired by a cabal of intellectuals and scientists working to maintain world peace. Somewhere on an island off Japan, the Commies are working on a secret nuclear bomb. Jones – in return for a fee – will shuttle Professors Montel (Victor Francen) and Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi) to investigate. Cue submarine duels, personality clashes, romance and shoot-outs.

To be honest, nothing in Hell and High Water lives up to that bang at the start. Samuel Fuller took on the film as a favour to producer Darryl F Zanuck, but had a low-opinion of the result (labelling it his worst film). Fuller rewrote the script, added a lot of his compulsive drive to the direction and handled it well – but it feels like a “gun for hire” film. Goodness only knows what Fuller made of Spielberg telling him in 1979 he loved it so much he carried a print of it in his car (perhaps “Have you not seen Pickup on South Street?”)

Hell and High Water is a serviceable men-on-a-mission film that sneaks in a few interesting beats, but otherwise goes for well-shot action and predictable events over invention and insight. It’s anchored by a grumpy Richard Widmark (who thought the script was crap and co-star Darvi couldn’t act) as a hard-to-like hero. Never-the-less Jones’ ruthless mercenaryism is the film’s most interesting beat – even if it is a repeat of the same actor’s attitude in Pickup on South Street, right done to mouthing almost the same contemptuous line about ostentatious flag wavers. Jones does his job professionally – and he’s got no truck with his country being dishonoured or attacked by Commies – but his main concern is always the $50,000 fee he’s been promised.

Also paid off are the whole crew who, in the film’s other interesting beat, are a regular united nations all of whom treat each other with equality and respect (the only people not represented here are Black people). We’ve got a German, a Japanese, a Frenchman, several Americans – considering only nine years previously all these nations had been working over-time to kill each other, it’s great to see the team on the ship working as a tension free-unit. We even have a Chinese sailor – who entertains his fellow crew with improvised ditties – becoming a crucial hero.

Fuller also shoots the sub action – a mix of models and trick photography – very well. The angles he uses of the subs underwater, in particular their turns, and the sweaty look of those underwater (and the increasing tensions) influenced several future films. All the submarine lingo you’d expect is trotted out with real commitment (“Right full rudder!”) and every box is carefully ticked, from sinking the bottom, to the costly rush to close a bulkhead. The torpedo fights are well-staged and whenever the film dives it’s at its best.

Where it is less so is whenever the film dwells on its characters. It tries to push the envelope a bit by introducing a female professor who is assured, competent, super-smart and gets stuck in with helping out when things go pear-shaped. She’s played by Bella Darvi, a protégé (and more) of Zanuck, who he was determined to elevate to stardom. Despite Widmark’s criticism, she’s fine here, even if she struggles to convey the charisma the role needs, often falling back on slightly grating over-earnest, head-girl smartness. What fails is the complete lack of chemistry between her and Widmark, their half-hearted, dutiful romance (probably mostly Widmark’s fault).

You’ll feel sorry for her though as the crew – and Jones – eye her up like a piece of meat when she arrives. Of course, this dated sexual leering is par for the course, but is still more than a little uncomfortable. But this is still the era when a sailor taking his top off to push his tattoos into a woman’s face was funny rather than a crime. The film does gives Darvi’s Professor a lot of proactivity and does generally take her side – even if she, inevitably, needs to learn our hero knows best.

Hell and High Water charges through to a decent ending, with just the right mix of self-sacrifice, tension and pay off. Victor Francen gives the films best performance as an illustrious, brave French scientist. But it never feels like anything more than a dutiful, for-the-money film. There is none of Fuller’s fire or feeling here, no real imagination or freshness in the ideas or concepts. It hits all the beats, ties things up with a bow and sends you home – but its very hard to really remember anything distinctive about it when the credits roll.

The Fugitive (1993)

The Fugitive (1993)

An innocent man goes on the run in the one of the finest thrillers of the 90s

Director: Andrew Davis

Cast: Harrison Ford (Dr Richard Kimble), Tommy Lee Jones (US Marshal Sam Gerard), Sela Ward (Helen Kimble), Joe Pantoliano (US Marshal Cosmo Renfro), Jereon Krabbé (Dr Charles Nichols),Andreas Katsulas (Fredrick Sykes), Daniel Roebuck (US Marshal Bobby Biggs), Tom Wood (US Marshal Noah Newman), L Scott Caldwell (US Marshall Erin Poole), Johny Lee Davenport (US Marshall Henry), Julianne Moore (Dr Anne Eastman), Ron Dean (Detective Kelly), Joseph Kosala (Detective Rosetti), Jane Lunch (Dr Kathy Wahlund)

I think there are few things more terrifying than being accused of something you didn’t do. How can you hope to prove your innocence, when no one listens and there isn’t a scrap of evidence to back up your story? How dreadful again if the crime you are accused of, that everyone thinks you are guilty of, is the brutal murder of your wife? The double blow of everyone thinking you guilty, while the real killer walks free. What would you do to clear your name? And how much harder would that be, if you were also on the run from the law who are eager to prep you for the electric chair?

It’s the key idea of The Fugitive, adapted from a hit 60s TV show, and undoubtedly one of the best thrillers of the 90s. Harrison Ford is Dr Richard Kimble, on death row for the murder of his wife Helen (Sela Ward). In transit to prison, an accident caused by a convict’s escape attempt gives him a chance to escape. Returning to Chicago, Kimble is determined to hunt down the mysterious one-armed man he knows murdered his wife and work out why. Problem is, he’s being chased down by a team of US Marshals led by the relentless Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), who’s not interested in Kimble’s guilt or innocence, only in catching him.

The Fugitive is propulsive, involving and almost stress-inducing in its edge-of-the-seat excitement. It’s a smart, humane and gripping thriller, both a chase movie and an excellent whodunnit conspiracy thriller. It’s one of those examples of Hollywood alchemy: a group of people coming together at the right time and delivering their best work. It’s comfortably the finest work of Andrew Davis, a journeyman action director, who delivers work of flawless intensity, perfectly judging every moment. It’s shot with an immediacy that throws us into the city of Chicago and its surroundings (Davis was a resident of the city and worked with photographer Michael Chapman to bring the real city to life on screen) and the film never lets up for a moment.

It gains hugely from the casting of the two leads. No actor can look as relatably harassed as Harrison Ford. Determined but vulnerable – there is a marvellous moment when Ford squirms with suppressed fear rising in an elevator filled with cops – Ford makes Kimble someone we immediately sympathise with. He’s smart – evading police, forging IDs, inveigling himself into hospitals to access amputee records – but constantly aware of the danger he’s in, brow furrowed with worry, narrow escapes met with near-tearful relief. Ford excels at making righteousness fury un-grating – the film makes a lot of his boy-scout decency – and never forgets Kimble is a humanitarian doctor, putting himself frequently at risk to save lives, from pulling a wounded guard from wreckage during his escape or saving a boy from a missed diagnosis in the hospital where he is working as a cleaner.

You need a heavyweight opposite him, which the film definitely has with Tommy Lee Jones. Jones won an Oscar for his hugely skilful performance. It would have been easy to play Gerard as an obsessed, fixated antagonist. Jones turns him into virtually a dual protagonist. Much as we want Kimble to stay one step ahead of the law, we respect and become bizarrely invested in Gerard’s hunt for him. Jones is charismatic as the focused Gerard, but also a man far more complex than he lets on. He genuinely cares for his team, takes full responsibility for their actions and finds himself becoming increasingly respectful of Kimble, even entertaining the idea of his innocence.

Not that an unspoken sympathy will stop him doing his job. When Kimble pleads his innocence at their first meeting his (iconic) response is “I don’t care”. Later, he doesn’t hesitate to fire three kill-shot bullets at Kimble when nearly capturing him in a government building – Kimble saved only by the bullet-proof glass between them. Jones never loses track of Gerard’s dedication above all to doing his job (the investigation he starts into Kimble’s case is motivated primarily by it being the most efficient way to work out where Kimble might go). But the edgy humour and pretend indifference hide a man passionate about justice and with a firm sense of right and wrong.

These two stars make such perfect foils for each other, it’s amazing to think they spend so little time opposite each other. Davis makes sure those few meetings have real impact, starting with their iconic early face-off at the top of a dam. A gripping chase through the bowels of this concrete monster, it’s also a brilliant establishing moment for how far both men will go: Gerard will continue the hunt, even after losing his gun to Kimble in a fall – because he has another concealed, ready to hand; Kimble won’t even think about using a gun and will go to the same never-ending lengths to preserve his chance at proving his innocence, by jumping off that dam.

The film implies they recognise these similarities in each other. Perhaps that’s why Kimble even eventually bizarrely trusts Gerard as a disinterested party – even while he remains terrified of Gerard catching up with him. The unpicking of (what turns out to be) the conspiracy behind Helen’s death is carefully outlined and surprisingly involving (considering it rotates around sketchily explained corporate shenanigans) – largely because Davis has so invested us in Kimble’s plight.

That’s the film’s greatest strength. Everything draws us into sharing Kimble’s sense of paranoia: that one misspoken word or bad turn could lead to his capture. Scored with lyrical intensity by James Newton Howard, it’s tightly edited and only gives us information when Kimble gets it. We only learn information about the night of the murder as he remembers or uncovers it. Davis twice pulls brilliant “wrong door” routines, where both editing and the careful delivery of information to us at the same time as Kimble makes us convinced that raids are focused on him, when they are in fact looking at someone else entirely.

This sort of stuff makes us nervous, worried for Kimble – and hugely entertained. I’ve seen The Fugitive countless times, and its relentless pace, constant sense of a never-ending chase and the brilliance of its lead performers never make it anything less than utterly engrossing. There is barely a foot wrong in its taut direction and editing and it’s crammed with set-pieces (the dam face-off, a chase through a St Patrick’s Day parade, a breathless fight on an elevated train) that never fail to deliver. It’s a humane but sweat-inducing thriller, a near perfect example of its genre.

The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Conspiracies, lies and dirty politics surround a politician who definitely isn’t Blair in Polanski’s superb thriller

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Ewan McGregor (The Ghost), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Tom Wilkinson (Professor Paul Emmett), Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll), Jon Bernthal (Rick Ricardelli), Tim Preece (Roy), Robert Pugh (Richard Rycart), David Rintoul (Stranger), Eli Wallach (Old Man), James Belushi (John Maddox)

An American publishing company is in dire straits. They’ve paid a fortune for the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), once seen as a visionary liberal idol but now blamed for a deeply controversial war in Iraq (sound familiar?). Problem is his trusted aide Mike McCara – who is actually writing the book – has been found drowned on Martha’s Vineyard where Lang, his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and staff are staying. The book needs to be finished in a month – but it’s in an unpublishable mess. Who ya gonna call? A Ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) of celebrity memoirs to finish the job of course. But will the Ghost resist trying to investigate whatever McCara uncovered in Lang’s life that may have led to his suspicious death?

Adapted from a novel by Robert Harris – who turned from a strong supporter of Blair, to terminally disenchanted – The Ghost Writer comes to the screen as a superbly controlled, perfectly placed piece of tight-wound tension from Roman Polanski, that mixes wonderful elements of Hitchcockian menace and Seventies conspiracy thriller, not to mention lashings of his own Chinatownbut here switched to the doom-laden drizzle of New York, rather than the sunkissed glory of California.

Set on a grim, grey and foreboding Martha’s Vineyard (although, for obvious legal reasons, actually filmed in Potsdam), Polanski lets every scene grow in unsettling tension. Very little explicit is every said, but danger from unknown, unseen forces is a constant presence. Accompanied by a Herrmann-esque score from Alexandre Desplat (also with a hint of a twist on Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Chinatown), this is film made with such calm, patient authority that its exudes engrossing tension. Polanski employs some beautiful touches, worthy of Hitchcock: from the Ghost, uncertain if he is being followed when boarding a car ferry, making a desperate run for freedom; to a wonderful tracking shot at a book launch that follows a note containing a vital reveal, passed from hand to hand through a crowd to the guilty speaker.

The Ghost Writer also has neat moments of dark comedy which also feels reminiscent of Hitchcock’s ability to mix dark chuckles with oppressive tension. The Ghost’s recruitment as a writer – and his hilariously frank suggestion that political memoirs are boring beyond belief – is a lovely lightly comic entrée that completely fails to prepare us for the conspiracy thriller that follows in all the right ways. Stuck in Lang’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, the Ghost tries to secretly download a copy of the memoir he is only allowed to read under supervision: his attempt coincides, to his terror, with what turns out to be a test of the alarm system. In the background of a shot during a monologue from Lang, a worker struggles with wearied patience to clean the wind-filled grounds of leaves, constantly, dutifully, collecting them back up as they blow away.

These moments of lightness make the dark even blacker. We are constantly left guessing as to who knows what. Was McCara murdered? What mysteries lie in Lang’s university past that McCara considered so important? Lang and his wife oscillate from welcoming to coldly distant. Particularly so with Ruth Lang, a superb performance from Olivia Williams. Ruth has, quite possibly, been the power behind the Lang throne, but now seems less sure of where she stands. She’s tense, without making clear why and at times painfully blunt. Suffering no fools, brittle, sharply intelligent, coldly determined, her surprisingly vulnerability draws the Ghost in, despite him knowing its “a bad idea”.

But then The Ghost makes more than a few bad ones. Perhaps because he gets fed up with people thinking he’s stupid and is too keen to prove them wrong. Ewan McGregor is wonderful as a man who spends most of his time wearily ignoring digs at the fact he’s best known for ghosting the autobiography of a celebrity chef. The Ghost – as in Harris’ book he remains un-named, suitable for a man whose job is to pretend to be his client – seems to be a disconnected observer, but emerges as a dogged detective – even if he is painfully out of his depth and acting way beyond his expertise. He becomes increasingly panicked at the terrifying world of international politics and espionage, like a beginner swimmer dropped in the deep end, while unable to stop himself digging further, like picking at a scab.

The film picks at its own scab with the legacy of Blair. Brosnan’s confident, charismatic performance captures an impression of Blair while never trying to be an impersonation. He perfectly conveys the easy charm and casual but shallow warmth of the professional politician, but the slightest scratch of the surface reveals a man who feels hard-done-by and undervalued and sick of being judged for making the tough calls. Polanski allows him moments of sympathy: it’s hard not to see his point when he makes the case for what many would call intrusive security and the self-righteousness of his persecutor, former foreign secretary Ryecart (Robert Pugh, channelling Robin Cook) hardly warms the viewer (or the Ghost) to him.

The Ghost Writer manages to make its political parallels – especially about Iraq – pointed but not too heavy handed. (There is a lovely performance from David Rintoul as a calmly spoken former-army type who turns out to be a rabid anti-war protester). It imaginatively fictionalises a version of history, humanising characters who could otherwise be crude caricatures. The cast are wonderful and this is an intelligent, gripping, classic conspiracy thriller. Mastered by Polanski, who assembles the film with such control that it takes a cold grasp of your heart without ever seeming to overwork itself. As the credits roll, Polanski having left us with a poetically tragic image of pages blowing emptily in the wind on a London street, you’ll realise how the quiet doom so expertly built could only have led to one thing. The Ghost shoulda forgot about it: its Chinatown.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Shailing into Hishtory! The Hunt for Red October is the finest Tom Clancy adaptation made

Director: John McTiernan

Cast: Sean Connery (Captain Marko Ramius), Alec Baldwin (Jack Ryan), Joss Ackland (Ambassador Andrei Lysenko), Tim Curry (Dr Petrov), Peter Firth (Ivan Putin), Scott Glenn (Commander Burt Mancuso), James Earl Jones (Admiral James Greer), Jeffrey Jones (Skip Tyler), Richard Jordan (National Security Advisor Jeffrey Pelt), Sam Neill (Captain Vasily Borodin), Stellan Skarsgård (Captain Viktor Tupolev), Fred Dalton Thompson (Rear Admiral Joshua Painter), Courtenay B Vance (PO Jones)

“We shail into Hishtory!” It’s the film that launched a thousand Sean Connery impressions. Only Connery could get away with playing a Soviet submarine captain with the thickest Scottish accent this side of Lithuania. He only took the role – from Klaus Maria Brandauer – at short notice, but he’s a pivotal part of the film’s success. The Hunt for Red October is a superb film, the finest Tom Clancy adaptation ever made and one of the cornerstones of the submarine genre. It expertly mixes beats of conspiracy, espionage, naval adventure and even touches of comedy, into a superbly entertaining cocktail.

Connery is Captain Marko Ramius, the USSR’s finest naval captain, given command of The Red October on its maiden voyage. The Red October is equipped with a technical miracle: a “caterpillar drive” that uses a water powered engine to run silently, making it invisible to sonar. So why is the entire Russian fleet being scrambled to find and sink the submarine? Could it be, as the USSR tells the US, that Ramius has gone mad and plans a nuclear strike? Or is it, as CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) argues, because Ramius plans to defect and bring the technological marvel with him?

Of course, we know Connery plans to defect. After all, we’ve already seen him murder shifty political officer Ivan Putin (Peter Firth – to whom alphabetical billing is very kind) and tell his handpicked crew of officers, led by loyal second-in-command Borodin (Sam Neill, so dedicated to affecting a Russian accent it’s as if he felt he needed to do in on behalf of himself and Connery) that there is no turning back. The film’s expert tension – and it rachets it up with all the precision of a well-oiled machine – is working out how. How will Ramius evade the Russian fleet? How will he manage to arrange his defection without communicating with the US? And will he and Ryan – unknowingly working together – persuade the US not to blow The Red October out of the water?

With McTiernan, in his prime, at the helm it’s not a surprise the film is expertly assembled. The parallel plot lines are beautifully intercut. Our two heroes, Ramius and Ryan, face very different obstacles (dodging Soviet torpedoes vs patiently making his case to sceptical superiors mixed with risky long-range travels to far-flung US subs) but somehow seem to be building a bond before they even meet. Ryan is an expert on Ramius and his career, while his thoughtful, good-natured decency is exactly the sort of American Ramius tells his crew they need to meet (as opposed to “some sort of buckaroo” – a word Connery relishes).

McTiernan isn’t just an expert mechanic though. There are lovely touches of invention and magic here. The Hunt for Red October has possibly one of the finest transitions ever. Connery, Neill et al start the film speaking in Russian. Ramius meets with Firth’s Putin (great name) in his quarters to open their orders. The two chat briefly in Russian, then Putin reads from Ramius’ copy of the Book of Revelations. As Firth reads (in fluent, expertly accented Russian), McTiernan slowly zooms in on his lips until he reaches the word “Armageddon” (the same in both languages) – the camera then zooms out and both Firth and Connery continue the scene in English (Firth switching mid-shot from Russian to English without missing a beat). It’s a beautifully done transition, rightly a stand-out moment.

But then it’s a film full of them. Many rely on Connery’s performance, superb as Ramius (this was his career purple patch, where one effortlessly excellent performance followed another). Ramius has a grizzled sea-dog charm and a twinkle in his eye, but he’s also nursing a private grief and pain that motivates his defection. He can be demanding of his men, but also inspires loyalty – that “We Shail into Hishtory!” pep-talk speech is delivered perfectly (and McTiernan makes Soviet sailors singing the Soviet anthem a punch-the-air moment even though (a) we know they are technically the bad guys and (b) we know Ramius is lying through his teeth in his speech). But he is always a commander, Connery investing him with every inch of his movie star cool.

Ramius is also an interesting reflection, in a way, of Ryan. Played with a great deal of young-boy charm by Baldwin (and also wit, Baldwin dropping impersonations of other cast members into the film – including a stand-out Connery), Ryan is brave, determined but also slightly naïve and out-of-his-depth. But like Ramius he respects his “enemy”, is open to negotiation, thinks before he acts and wants to save lives. The two even share similar upbringings. The film triumphantly shows a desk man, spreading his wings and doing stuff he couldn’t imagine: the guy who tells an air hostess in an early scene he can’t sleep on flights due to fear of turbulence, will later have himself dropped into the sea from a perilous helicopter flight, steer a Russian sub and duke it out with the last Soviet hard-liner standing in The Red October’s missile room.

McTiernan shoots Ryan’s conversations like combat scenes: quick reversals and cross shots and even whip pans and zooms. It ratchets up the tension and drama in these sequences – and allows him to play it cooler in the sub shots which (with its more constrained set) where patient studies of tense faces follow sonar reports of the approach of torpedoes or enemy subs. Sound is a triumph in Red October – every ping or sonar shadow is sound edited to perfection, with much of its tension coming from their perfect rising intensity.

It builds towards a superb resolution as several plot threads come together in a dramatic face-off that gives us everything from sub v sub to gunfights, with tragedy and triumph all mixed in. It’s a perfect ending to a film that is a masterpiece of plotting and construction, acted to perfection by the whole cast (Connery and Baldwin, but also Jones, Neill, Glenn – perfect casting as a no-nonsense naval captain – and several reliable players in smaller roles). McTiernan directs with exceptional pace and excitement, it’s sharply scripted and technically without a fault – from its gleaming Soviet sub (with church like missile room) to brilliantly edited sound-design. It’s a joy every time I watch it.

Murder by Decree (1979)

Murder by Decree (1979)

Sherlock Holmes investigates Jack the Ripper in this overlong but enjoyable Doyle pastiche

Director: Bob Clark

Cast: Christopher Plummer (Sherlock Holmes), James Mason (Dr John Watson), David Hemmings (Inspector Foxborough), Susan Clark (Mark Kelly), Frank Finlay (Inspector Lestrade), Anthony Quayle (Sir Charles Warren), Donald Sutherland (Robert Lees), Geneviève Bujold (Annie Crook), John Gielgud (Lord Salisbury)

In the world of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, it’s a popular sub-genre: Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper. How would Holmes have taken on the murderer who has baffled generations since those brutal Whitechapel killings in 1889? Murder by Decree explores the idea, mixing Conan Doyle with a deep dive into (at the time) the most popular theory in Ripperology, the Royal Killings (Murder by Decree indeed!).

It’s all pulled together into a decent, if over-long, film, shot with sepia-toned stolid earnestness by Bob Clark. With its fog-ridden Whitechapel sets (carefully built but always strangely empty), heavy-duty actors sporting large sideburns, wavy-screen flashbacks and carefully unimaginative framing, there is something very old-fashioned about Murder by Decree. That also extends to its Ripper theory, steeped in a very 70s class-conscious conspiracy. The film pads out its two-hour run time with many a POV shot of the Ripper prowling the streets, which bring to mind Jaws and slasher horror films of the time.

Where Murder by Decree does stand out is in its imaginative characterisation of Holmes and Watson. They are presented as affectionate friends – Mason’s older Watson has a sweet indulgent elder-brother feeling to him, giving Plummer’s sparkly Holmes plenty to tease and bounce off. They split the casework between them – Watson is an equal partner, even if Holmes does the brainwork – and use their strengths to complement each other (notably, Watson frequently distracts people so Holmes can interrogate a witness more closely). They genuinely feel like long-term friends (there is a delightful sequence where Holmes is so distracted by Watson’s attempt to fork a pea, that he squashes it onto the fork – to be met with a forlorn “you’ve squashed my pea” from Watson, who likes the peas intact so they “pop in my mouth”).

They are dropped into the middle of a very much of-its-time Ripper theory. Murder by Decree centres on the theory that the murders were ordered (the film reluctantly suggests tacitly) by the establishment to cover up the secret marriage of Prince Edward, Duke of Clarence to a Whitechapel woman, Annie Crook. This alleged marriage produced a baby, and a royal doctor, sheltered by a Masonic conspiracy, sets about eliminating everyone who knows the truth. Of course, it’s almost certainly bollocks – but with its mix of secret societies, Royals, a lost heir and the rest, it’s an attractive story.

It gains a lot from the performances of the two actors. James Mason flew in the face of then popular perception by presenting a quick-witted, assured Watson, more than capable of looking after himself (he bests a blackmailing pimp in a street fight and is very comfortable with guns – far more than the reticent Holmes). He’s still the classic gentlemen, who loves King and Country, but also shrewd, brave, loyal, able to win people’s trust and look at a situation with clear eyes.

With Christopher Plummer, Murder by Decree has one of the all-time great Sherlock Holmes. Plummer’s Holmes is refreshingly un-sombre, twinkly with a ready wit, who loves teasing Watson (cleaning his pipe with Watson’s hypodermic needles) and delights in his own cleverness. But Plummer takes Holmes to places no other film Holmes goes. The case as a devastating effect on him: he weeps at the fate of Annie Crook (consigned by conspirators to a slow death in an asylum) and furiously attacks her doctor. When the conspiracy is unmasked, he emotionally confronts the Prime Minister and berates himself for his failures. There is a depth and humanity to Plummer’s Holmes unseen in other versions, a living, breathing and surprisingly well-adjusted man, unafraid of emotion.

Sadly, the film takes a little too long to spool its conspiracy out. Rather too much time is given to an extended cameo by Donald Sutherland as a pale-faced psychic who may or may not have stumbled upon the killer. There are a lot of unfocused shots of that killer, all swollen black eyes and panting perversion. It relies a little too much on a Poirot-like speech from Holmes at the end explaining everything we’ve seen. But there are strong moments, best of all Geneviève Bujold’s emotional cameo as the near-catatonic Annie Crook, cradling in her arms a memory of her stolen child.

There are many decent touches. The film is open in its depiction of the filth and squalor of life in Whitechapel – a pub is an absolute dive, and the women pretty much all look haggard and strung out. It has a refreshingly sympathetic eye to the victims, with Holmes denouncing the attitudes of both Government and radicals (looking to make political hay from the killings) who see them as lives without intrinsic worth. Holmes places no blame or judgment on them, or the choices life has forced on them, which in a way puts him (and the film) quite in line with modern scholarship (even if there is the odd slasher-style shot of mangled corpses).

The main issue is the film never quite manages to come to life. It’s a little too uninspired, a bit too careful and solid where it could have been daring and challenging. There are good supporting roles: Finlay is a fine low-key Lestrade (at one point persistently raising his hand to ask his superior permission to speak) while Gielgud sells the imperious Lord Salisbury. There is enough here for you to wish the film just had a bit more of spark to lift it above its B-movie roots. But in Plummer and Mason it has a Holmes and Watson to treasure – and for that alone it’s worth your time.

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

Obsession and grief come dangerously into play in one of the greatest films ever made

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: James Stewart (John “Scottie” Ferguson), Kim Novak (Madeline Elster/Judy Barton), Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge Wood), Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster), Henry John (Coroner), Raymond Bailey (Doctor), Ellen Corby (Hotel manager), Konstantin Shayne (Pop Leibel), Lee Patrick (Car owner)

Spoilers: Vertigo was controversial at the time for revealing its twist, three quarters of the way through the film. I might well do the same in the review – although this is possibly a richer film if you know the twist going in

In 2012 Vertigo dislodged Citizen Kane at the top of Sight and Sound’s decadal “Greatest Film” poll, after 50 uninterrupted years for Welles’ classic. It’s an astonishing turn-around for a film which was a box-office disappointment and first met with reviews that called it “long and slow” and complained that Hitchcock had “indulged in such farfetched nonsense”. (Welles also hated the film – bet he’s even more pissed off at it now.) This is partly because Vertigo is a fiercely, almost defiantly, complex and cold film that defies easy characterisation and flies in the face of the fast-paced watchability of most of Hitchcock’s popular films. But it’s still a haunting and fascinating masterpiece, which has its greatest impact when you reflect on it days after it has finished.

Its plot is both complex and slight. John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is an ex-police detective, his career ended by crippling acrophobia bought on by powerlessly watching a fellow officer fall to his death. He’s hired by old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow Elster’s wife Madeline (Kim Novak). Madeline is in the grip of an idée fix that she is an incarnation of Carlotta Valdes, a woman who committed suicide in 1857. Scottie follows her – and develops an idée fix of his own for the beautiful Madeline. When his acrophobia prevents Scottie from saving Madeline from jumping to her death from a bell tower, he suffers a near-breakdown. Then he catches sight of Judy Barton (Kim Novak again) who has a chilling resemblance to Madeline. And Scottie tries to turn her into just that.

Vertigo is a dizzying film of monomania and obsession, something you are immediately plugged into with its beautiful Saul Bass opening (swirling spirals, reflecting the circular nature of the obsessive) and its hauntingly mesmeric and off-beat romantic theme from Bernard Herrmann (possibly his greatest work – and he also scored Kane!). More than any other Hitchcock film, Vertigo places us firmly into the POV of its lead character, who is in all but three scenes and whose perceptions and observations we not only share but which totally guide our understanding of everything we see in the film (until that twist, when suddenly we shift to knowing more than he does).

Hitchcock’s technique is truly masterful here. There isn’t the flash of something like North by Northwest, but the sort of chilling control that builds tension and unease that also marks out films like The Birds or, to a degree, Psycho (although that’s much more of a black joke, where Vertigo is terrifyingly serious). Hitchcock uses a huge number of POV shots, alternating with shots of Stewart’s reactions (at times these are disturbing in their fixed intensity) building a subtle momentum that reflects the character’s obsession and further filters everything we experience from his perspective.

That would be the perspective of an ever-more obsessed man tipping steadily into stalkerish territory. Few films have so clearly drawn the link between the private eye and the voyeur. As Scottie silently prowls the streets of San Francisco, observing every inch of Madeline’s actions – and Vertigo has long, worldless stretches of what Hitchcock called “pure cinema” – the disturbing pleasure and control that following brings you becomes more and more clear. It’s certainly giving a sense of masculinity back to Scottie, introduced to us hanging helplessly from a ledge and then so hamstrung by his condition he can’t even climb a step ladder without collapsing.

Judged from this perspective, Scottie is one of the most darkly disturbing characters in film. Rescuing Madeline from the Golden Gate (where she has jumped in) he takes her home, undresses her and puts her in his bed – hardly normal behaviour. It’s not long from there before he surrenders to his romantic obsession (feelings Madeline perhaps returns), that eventually leads him again to be a powerless witness as Madeline plunges to her death right in front of him.

Catatonia and mental collapse follow – but really it’s perhaps just a continuation of the same obsession in another form. Because after a stay in a sanatorium, Scottie is back on the streets again, prowling for something – anything – that could make him feel closer to Madeline again. Which is how he spots Judy, the woman who reminds him of the woman he’s lost. Scottie doesn’t so much woo Judy as seemingly browbeat her into a bizarre (joyless and sexless) relationship and undertake a terrifyingly grotesque remodelling exercise, designed to make her into a carbon copy of Madeline.

This sequence is probably partly at the heart of the film’s fascination for critics and film historians – even more so since we’ve learned about Hitchcock’s manipulative, controlling relationship with his blonde female stars. Here we have Scottie instructing his love interest how to dress, walk and cut her hair – all while telling her it’s for her own good and she’ll like it – his voice with the breathless longing of a closeted pervert (that is when Scottie manages any sexual yearning to Judy, who he treats more like a treasured exhibit). This is Hitchcock dramatizing his own hang-ups, presenting them as creepy and dangerous, making Vertigo partly as well a fascinating psychological study of its director. Did Hitchcock know that his controlling relationship with women was wrong? And, in real life, could he not help himself or did he not care?

Vertigo is a perfect exploration of obsession. But it also pulls the rug out from us – and rewards constant reviewing as a result – because the film reveals there was a whole other level going on. Scottie may seem the Hitchcock substitute, but the in-film Hitch figure is actually the amiable Gavin Elster. Because the entire action of the film is carefully stage-managed by Elster to manipulate Scottie (and us!): Judy and Madeline (as Scottie has met her) are in fact the same woman, a doppelgänger for Elster’s wife. The real Madeline – who Scottie never sees or meets – is murdered by Elster at the top of that tower, and Judy/Madeline was helping build a backstory to have this murder written off as suicide, with Scottie’s acrophobia perfect to make him a powerless witness.

Here comes that pleasure for rewatching: because now when Scottie rescues “Madeline” from the river, then spends the next day with her, we thought at first he knew more than she. Now however, we understand he’s always been a patsy who knew less than anyone else. We’ve been manipulated by Elster, the master director, pulling the strings and building horrors for us. That’s Hitchcock.

The film reveals this in one of the few scenes told from Judy/Madeline’s perspective – and means we then watch Scottie actually craft a woman who actually is the woman he’s obsessed with into his memory of that very same woman. (Get your head around that!) And she allows it, because she seems as desperate as he to recapture the passion of those brief days together – but cannot tell him the thing that would help to do that. It all leads, of course, to Scottie’s destructive obsession leaving him once again to being a helpless witness as another victim plummets to their death.

Vertigo is effectively a two-hander, and most of the focus usually lands on Stewart. He is chillingly dead-eyed in this, his crazed hunting after something he doesn’t even understand capturing the controlling horror behind some romance. In many ways though, Kim Novak has the more complex part. She doesn’t speak for almost 45 minutes – she spends it mostly in long shot performing Elster’s play for Scottie (and us) of the mentally disturbed wife. But when Novak does take centre stage, this is a complex multi-layered performance, carefully modulated throughout to communicate (in advance) Judy’s vulnerability and love for Scottie, without ever letting us realise she is anything but the death-fixated “Madeline”. Novak marries two contradictory characters into one with a simple and convincing aplomb. Equally good is Barbara bel Geddes, in almost the only other named role, as Scottie’s one-time fiancée now best friend, all too aware that her feelings are not returned.

Vertigo will never match the likes of Casablanca or North By Northwest – on a list of films truly popular with audiences. It’s been described as the ultimate critic’s film: a cool, chilling, brilliantly filmed, psychological thriller that quietly exposes the mechanics of film, the manipulation of story-telling and the dark psyche of its director. In many ways initial reviews were right: on first impression, the film is cold and slow, with characters it’s hard to relate to. But it has a truly haunting quality few others can match. And it constantly presents us with a clear image, while never allowing us to guess we are seeing only part of the overall picture. It can leave us as dizzy as Scottie is, hanging from that ledge and staring down at doom, the camera zooming inside his head and showing us his terrifying POV. You need to work at it, but this is a film to value.

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Tom Clancy’s door-stop thriller is turned into an involving conspiracy thriller that makes masterful use of Harrison Ford

Director: Philip Noyce

Cast: Harrison Ford (Jack Ryan), Willem Dafoe (John Clark), Anne Archer (Dr Cathy Ryan), Joaquim de Almeida (Colonel Felix Cortez), Miguel Sandoval (Ernesto Escobedo), Henry Czerny (Bob Ritter), Harris Yulin (James Cutter), Donald Moffat (President Bennett), Benjamin Bratt (Captain Ramirez), Raymond Cruz (Domingo Chavez), James Earl Jones (Jim Greer), Tim Grimm (Dan Murray), Hope Lange (Senator Mayo)

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has always been the All-American hero (his slimy, besuited CIA rival even frustratedly snarls “you are such a Boy Scout”). Ryan is almost too-good-to-be-true: pure as the driven snow, incorruptible, a success at everything he does and a devoted family man. What chance does someone like that have in Washington? In Clear and Present Danger, Ryan is dragged into the War on Drugs, unwittingly becoming the front man for an illegal military assault team against the Columbian cartels, ordered by a US President on a vendetta for the death of a friend. When the truth comes out, you’ve got one guess who takes it on himself to save the soldiers who are hung out to dry by the suits in Washington.

We know he’ll do the right thing as well, because he’s played by Harrison Ford. Ryan is basically a blank slate as a character, so Ford’s straight-of-an-arrow everyman decency does most of the heavy lifting to establish who he is. As an action hero, Ford has the chops but his real strength is his ability to look frazzled, scared and muddling through – rather like the rest of us would. Ryan gets in some real scrapes here, from dodging missiles in an attack on a diplomatic convoy to desperately fighting for his life in a timber factory. Ford’s strength as an actor is to be both authoritative and also vulnerable – his willingness to look scared but determined works wonders.

Clear and Present Danger also gives plenty of scope for Ford to employ his other major empathetic weapon: the clenched jaw and pointed figure of moral outrage. He does a lot of both here, a central scene seeing Ryan confronting besuited rival Ritter (played by a weaselly, bespectacled Henry Czerny, the polar opposite of Ford’s clean-cut everyman-ness) earnestly telling him he broke the law and is heading to jail (laughed off). There can’t be an actor more skilled at getting you to invest in someone, to both simultaneously worry about him while being confident he will do the right thing. It’s a rare gift, and Clear and Present Danger exploits it to the max.

Ford is the centrepiece – and main strength – of a competent, well-made conspiracy thriller, directed with a professional assurance by Philip Noyce. It makes a good fist of translating Clancy’s doorstop novel – with its huge complexities – to the screen (although you might need a couple of viewings to work out the twisty-turny, backstabby plot, where wicked schemers turn on their own schemes). Noyce has a special gift for keeping dense technical and exposition scenes lively. At one point he cross-cuts a parallel investigation into a fake car bombing between Ryan (who flicks doggedly through textbooks) and his Cartel rival who employs gadgetry and computers. Plot heavy scenes like this are well-shot, pacey and capturing plenty of reaction shots, even if they only feature characters messaging each other on clunky 90s computers or walking-and-talking in shadowy metaphors.

Clear and Present Danger also successful juggles its Washington shenanigans, with parallel intrigue in its Columbia setting. There ruthlessly charming Cortes (played with a wonderful cocksure suaveness by Joaquim de Almeida) is scheming to takeover his boss’ (a blustering Miguel Sandoval) operation. These plot unfold both together and in parallel, allowing for a little bit of neat commentary contrasting the cartels and Washington. The film manages a bit of critique of America’s thoughtlessly muscular intrusion into the affairs of other countries, with a President turning a blind eye after passing on implicit instructions (but still with a boy scout hero who will sort it all out).

Noyce also pulls out the stops for a couple of brilliantly executed scenes. Great editing, sound design and committed acting makes a scene where Luddite Ryan races to print off incriminating evidence from a shared drive while technically assured Ritter deletes the files, edge-of-the seat stuff. Never before has racing to fill a printer with paper seemed more exciting.

That pales into significance with the film’s centre piece, a genuinely thrilling Cartel ambush on a US diplomatic convoy, with Ryan stuck in the middle. With perfect build-up – from James Horner’s tense score to the skilful editing – the attack (with Oscar nominated sound design) is hugely tense, leaves our heroes terrifyingly powerless and is flawlessly executed by Noyce and his crew. It makes the whole film a must watch all on its own.

It’s surrounded by several other well-handled action set pieces, featuring the Marines sent on a covert mission (and then hung out to dry). As the operation leader, Willem Dafoe plays very successfully against type as a (ruthless) good guy, as Clancy’s other regular character, uber-fixer John Clark. Dafoe also has the chops to go toe-to-toe with Ford, and like de Almedia’s charmingly wicked Cartel-fixer also serves as another neat contrast to Ryan’s decency-with-a-fist.

The film is rounded out by a troop of reliable actors. Anne Archer has little to do as Ryan’s supportive wife, but Donald Moffat is good value as the shifty President (communicating both intimidating authority and Nixonian survival instinct), Harris Yulin perfectly cast as a President-pleasing apparatchik and Raymond Cruz as an ace but naïve marine sharp-shooter. Clear and Present Danger has few pretensions to be anything other than an involving thriller – but that also helps make it a very enjoyable one.

House of Gucci (2021)

House of Gucci (2021)

Ridley Scott’s bizarre film is half-pantomime, half true-crime drama

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Lady Gaga (Patrizia Reggiani), Adam Driver (Maurizio Gucci), Jared Leto (Paolo Gucci), Jeremy Irons (Rudolfo Gucci), Al Pacino (Aldo Gucci), Salma Hayek (Giuseppe Auriemma), Jack Huston (Domenico De Sole), Reeve Carney (Tom Ford), Camille Cottin (Paola Franchi), Youssef Kerkour (Nemi Kirdar)

There are few juicier combinations than glamour, money, fashion and true crime. Scott’s House of Gucci taps into this with a film that’s somewhere between pantomime and tragedy. Full of actors giving their very best “Mamma Mia!” Italian accents and shrugging shoulders, it oscillates wildly from scene-to-scene between black comedy and operatic high drama. It’s a strange mixture, with House of Gucci becoming some sort of bizarre treat, like an end-of-year treat for cinema viewers to unwrap.

The film follows the disastrous marriage between Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). Patrizia, a ruthlessly ambitious gold digger, zeroes in on the shy Maurizio, heir to 50% of the Gucci fashion fortune, and marries him. This is all to the horror of his father Rudulfo (Jeremy Irons), who (correctly) identifies Patrizia’s ambitions, and cuts them off. Taken under the wing of Rudolfo’s brother Aldo (Al Pacino), Patrizia pushes Maurizio into a management role in the company – and down a slippery slope that will lead to forgery, betrayal and eventually murder.

House of Gucci feels like it might have existed more comfortably as a ten-part TV drama. It’s essentially a big, brash version of the Emmy-award winning The People vs. OJ Simpson, but told in about a quarter of the time. What this basically means is that any subtle character work and detailed story telling is sacrificed, with the focus firmly on the salacious and entertaining drama. The overall effect is a swift rush through a story that becomes a series of sensational, almost comedic, clashes between larger-than-life personalities squabbling over a huge pot of money. Like Dallas on the big-screen, it’s all scored with a series of funky pop tunes, adding to the sense of pantomime.

It’s an odd outing from Scott, with (it felt to me) little of the individual stylistic touches that he has bought to other projects. In fact there’s very little of his stamp on it: it’s Scott as professional craftsman. He and the film feel very confused by the tone. Mostly the film doubles down on black humour and show-casing big, brash performances. Then it might acknowledge briefly that there were real victims here, which it wants to treat with a level of respect. By and large, the film is like a glossy magazine article, with Scott nudging you as you turn each page and saying “you will not believe what happened next!”

I suppose House of Gucci probably could have explored more the personal and emotional hinterlands of its characters. Relationships shift dramatically from scene-to-scene, with Maurizio and Patrizia’s marriage souring over-night, for no clear reason. Pre-existing family rivalries and politics could have been explored more: it’s heavily implied Aldo and Rudolfo are already engaged in a struggle of ideals (Aldo wants commercial expansion, Rudolfo to remain an elitist fashion house). Drama could have been made of the attempts by both brothers to use other members of the family as pawns in this feud. But then, a film that dived into the psychology of the players might well have ended up being more about business and less about the entertaining ruthlessness of the rich and famous.

The performances are wildly different in tone. Lady Gaga effectively holds the film together as an ambitious woman who is only partially aware (at first) of what a ruthless gold digger she is. Devoid of any interests other than being rich (“I’m a people pleaser” she tells Rudolfo when asked what her interests are), Patrizia is the sort of monster of ambition who would fit comfortably into an episode of Desperate Housewives. Setting her cap at Maurizio with a laser-like focus and shafting everyone left, right and centre (although Gaga does hint at her deeply repressed insecurity) it’s a performance that walks a fine line between OTT and human. The film has a lot of fun at her amoral certainty – she sees no problem with forging Rudolfo’s signature on some vital papers after his death (the film even sets forgery up as Chekhov’s skill in its opening scenes) and Gaga enjoyably plays the outrage that only someone convinced they never wrong can feel.

Opposite her, Driver plays Maurizio as a timid, easily seduced young man, pushed into taking a leading role in a business he has no real interest in (or aptitude for). Driver is softly spoken – and gives the most restrained and grounded performance in the film – and frequently meets another demand from his wife with a chuckle and a reluctant “Patrizia…”. House of Gucci steps carefully around Maurizio, sometimes playing him as an innocent abroad, at others as a man corrupted by his wife into a creature of ambition.

Most of the rest of the cast go for a broad style which, while fun to watch, only adds to the sense that we aren’t supposed to be taking anything too seriously. While many of the Gucci family probably were larger-than-life personalities, I’m not sure they could have been the cartoons they are here. Irons goes for a waspish Scar-like mastery of the cutting remark. Pacino doubles down on his shoulder-hunched energy, with added shouting. Hayek gives a performance that’s a near master-class in Vampish camp, plotting murder from a mud bath.

Towering above them all is Jared Leto, who seems to be in a film all of his own, with every scene another clip for his “for your consideration” show-reel. Buried under a mountain of latex that transforms him into a clone of Jeffrey Tambor, Leto goes all out as the passionate, ultra-stereotypical-Italian Paolo Gucci, in a performance that’s either a shameless parade of showing off or somewhere near a stroke of genius. It works because, beneath all the hammy exuberance, Leto make’s Paolo a desperately sweet guy, the only real innocent in the film. Leto and Pacino in particular feed off each other – a late scene between the two is hilarious (I’m not sure in the right way, but who can tell what these actors are aiming for sometimes) in its joyful overplaying.

Perhaps joy is the one thing House of Gucci needs a little bit more on. I wonder how more entertaining again it might have been if the film had really gone all out on being a camp classic. It shies away from this, wanting to leave some vestige of respect for the dead and not lose its true-crime-roots. But, I wonder if a director more suited to this material than Scott – who struggles to stamp his personality on it – might have done more to make this into a cult classic.