Category: Crime drama

Dance with a Stranger (1985)

Dance with a Stranger (1985)

Hell is other people in this Satresque version of the life of Ruth Ellis

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Miranda Richardson (Ruth Ellis), Rupert Everett (David Blakely), Ian Holm (Desmond Cussen), Stratford Johns (Morrie Conley), Joanne Whalley (Christine), Tom Chadbon (Antony Findlater), Jane Bertish (Carole Findlater), David Troughton (Cliff Davis)

Hell is other people. Dance with a Stranger is the tragic story of how Ruth Ellis (Miranda Richardson in an electrifying screen debut) became the last woman hung for murder in Britain. But it’s also a terrible Satre-like tale of three people stuck a destructive cycle, loathing each other but unable to imagine their lives apart. Ellis is fanatically, obsessively in love with feckless David Blakely (Rupert Everett) who blows hot and cold on her and is nowhere near consistent in his feelings as middle-aged Desmond Cussen (Ian Holm), s so besotted with Ruth (who treats him like a benevolent uncle) that he drives her to her assignations and pays rent on the apartment where she sleeps with Blakely.

All three cause each other immeasurable harm in Newell’s cool, bleak, well-made true-crime story that is far less interested in the moments of violence and retribution, than the sad and sorry cycle that leads to them. Tellingly, we never see a single moment of the trial or punishment of Ruth and the film effectively concludes in long-shot as we watch the fatal shooting of Blakely from afar. But who needs the close-up of this inevitable ending, when we’ve had front row seats to the catastrophic relationships that led up to it.

Like many British films, it’s at least partly about class. In 1950s London, we’re still on the cusp of the sort of cultural levelling out of the 1960s. This is a post-war, Agatha-Christie-like London. Blakely and his friends are Waughish Bright Young Things, living on Trust Funds and driving racing cars for fun. Their evenings are spent in drinking clubs aiming for glamour, staffed by those yearning to jump up a notch on the ladder like Ruth Ellis. Such women are of course for dalliances (and casual screws) not for marrying. Ruth’s back-up lover Desmond is an RAF-veteran who misses the war, an overgrown besotted schoolboy and middle-aged bachelor who accepts he is only worth other men’s cast offs.

Blakely’s friends encourage him to mess Ruth around because she’s a working-class strumpet. Ruth is at least partly willing to forgive him because marriage could lift her once and for all out of the working classes. Desmond is of less-interest, because a loveless middle-class marriage of sexual duty simply isn’t as attractive. Neither does Ruth love – or lust after – him the way she does the dynamic, sexy, little-boy-lost Blakely. A man she finds herself so uncontrollably drawn to that, no matter what he does – not turn up, mock her in front of his friends, push her down the stairs or punch her in the face in public – she comes crawling back. Often with Desmond in helpless tow, ignoring his adoration while demanding he drive her to another confrontation with the selfish Blakely.

Dance with a Stranger finds intense sympathy, to various degrees, with all three of its leads. But most strongly it turns Ruth Ellis, who could be a historical statistic, into a figure of real tragedy. Richardson is superb as a woman who is confident, assertive – even arrogantly dismissive – in so many areas of her life except one: her compulsive, obsessive and destructive love for Blakely. Dance with a Stranger charts effectively her mental collapse: from a woman who flirts confidently in a bar, to a quivering, weeping mess standing in the streets staring up at her lover’s window, screaming abuse, smashing up cars and babbling incoherently and inconsolably.

The film charts the same deadly cycle, showing Blakely’s ill-treatment and selfishness having ever more deadly impact on Ruth’s mental well-being. In it all, Blakely isn’t always malicious, more immature and easily led. Everett’s performance is perfect at capturing this playboy easiness under a fundamentally weak personality, a man who has been handed everything on a plate and is unable to respond in any adult way to Ruth’s love for him. Nevertheless, his stroppy behaviour gets her fired from her job and his behaviour fluctuates from gifts of framed pictures and promises of devotion, alternate with angry outbursts and emotional and physical violence.

And Desmond Cussen picks up the pieces time and again. Ian Holm is wonderful as this hen-pecked sadomasochist, impotent and all-too willing to debase himself, hurt time and again by seeing Ruth returning time and again to the dismissive Blakely. Holm makes Cussen small, weak, moody and frequently pathetic. He limply follows where she leads and suffers with weary, besotted patience every one of her preoccupied complaints against Blakely. This is man who almost sado-masochistically puts himself in painful situations, can’t be angry with Ruth for more than a few minutes and gets into impotent scuffles with Blakely outside pubs.

But it’s also Cussen who has the gun – and the film at least suggests the possibility that his openness about its location might well have been a factor in Ruth’s later decision to use it. The killing is, deliberately, the least interesting part of the film. What matters is the mental state that led Ruth to this killing. The self-delusion and desperation to believe that she could form a relationship with Blakely, the same obsessive blind-spot that leads to her closing the film writing a condolence letter to Blakely’s mother. Ruth is a victim here as much as him (perhaps more?) a mis-used woman who cannot give Cussen what he wants and can never get what she needs from Blakely.

Newell’s direction is sharp and sensitive and while the film’s cycle of destructive behaviour – Blakely and Ruth row, break-up, Cussen picks up some pieces, rince and repeat – can become overwhelming, it is partly the intention. And it cements the feeling for the audience of being as much trapped in this hell as everyone else. Holm is superb, Everett perfectly cast but Richardson is mesmeric as Ruth, vivid, vibrant, vivacious, vulnerable and victimised in a film that goes a long way to humanise the suffering behind what seem open-and-shut cases.

Decision to Leave (2022)

Decision to Leave (2022)

Obsession, murder and romance combine in this stunningly made inventive romantic film noir

Director: Park Chan-wook

Cast: Tang Wei (Song Seo-rae), Park Hae-il (Detective Jang Hae-jun), Lee Jung-hyun (Jung-an), Go Kyung-pyo (Soo-wan), Park Yong-woo (Im Ho-shin), Kim Shin-young (Yeon-su), Jung Yi-seo (Yoo Mi-ji), Jung Young-Sook (Granny Hae Dong), Yoo Seung-mok (Ki Do-soo), Park Jeong-min (San-oh), Seo Hyun-woo (Sa Cheol-seong “Slappy”)

Death from dizzying heights, a mysterious femme fatale and a detective who tips into unhealthy, romantic obsession. Sound familiar? Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave is an enticing spin on Vertigo, but also a beautifully made marriage of Park’s visually dynamic style with classic Hollywood film noir. Decision to Leave is soaked in the sort of atmosphere you’d find in Laura or Double Indemnity and is a breath-taking marriage of half-a-dozen genres, from noir to romance to tragedy. It rotates continuously, no matter how much we observe and watch people, on how little we understand them – and how little we understand ourselves. It’s a stunning piece of film-making.

Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is a high-flying Busan murder detective, the youngest senior investigator on the force. He’s also a reserved man, crippled with insomnia and weighed down with guilt over cases he failed to solve, conducting a long-distance marriage with Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun) a scientist at the nuclear plant in distant Ipo. He’s called into investigate the death of a civil servant and keen climbing enthusiast, who fell to his death from his favourite climbing spot. His much younger Chinese wife Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei) is strangely unmoved by his death and becomes the investigation’s focus. She also becomes the focus of Hae-jun’s sleep-deprived obsession as he stakes out her home. Gradually Seo-rae and Hae-jun form an intimate but unromantic relationship as they discover a deep bond between them. But does that mean that Seo-rae isn’t a murderer?

Questions of motivation and the reasoning behind decisions is central to Park’s film. At its heart is Seo-rae, a woman constantly unreadable, as hard to distinguish as her turquoise-tinged clothes are between blue or green (depending on who you talk to). A Chinese woman in South Korea, her Korean is formal and perfectly phrased but she relies on Google Translate to render more emotive sentences into Korean. She nurses ageing women in their homes, showing them care and attention. She might also be a murderer several times over, for motives that are impossibly unreadable.

It must be particularly unreadable for a detective whose mind is clouded by lack of sleep. Hae-jun’s eyes in his lined, weary face are frequently blurred by eye drops (the same eye drops covering POV camera shots). As a detective he’s prepared for everything. He wears trainers, constantly prepared for sudden sprints after criminals (one of these sees him pounding up the side of Busan’s mountain – both he and the suspect collapsing, wheezing for breath, at the top), he has specially tailored coats filled with any object he might need, from tissues to aspirin to a knife glove for hand-to-hand combat. He is calm, unruffled and ready for anything. He’s also a man who struggles with knowing who or what he wants and has placed such pressure on himself that insomnia feels like his body telling him sleeping is irresponsible in a world where there is so much to fix.

Decision to Leave revolves around the fascinating dance between these two characters, a Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, who recognise on some-level they are kindred spirits. Both are quiet, dedicated observers of people. Both have the ability to zero in on details – its telling that Seo-rae is the only one who can help Hae-jun begin to crack his old cases and that Hae-jun is the only one who delights in every detail of Seo-rae’s careful, formal Korean. Neither are exhibitionists, both quest obsessively because they feel they must for others: Hae-jun for the victims of crimes, Seo-rae to reclaim the Korean land her grandfather had been forced to leave behind when he fled to China.

But yet… these are also people seemingly determined to manipulate and entrap each other. Sae-jae’s growing closeness with Hae-jun is also a way to get closer to the case, to follow Hae-jun’s progress and to nudge (or outright shove) it in certain directions. Her motives and decisions remain unclear. When they go on a tenderly chaste date to a Buddhist temple, is their connection and intimacy genuine for her, or is she ruthlessly playing a lonely man for advantage?

Because Hae-jun defines himself as a detective – after all, he will chase cases to the end long-after his bosses have demanded he file it. Decision to Leave explores how far this will affect Hae-jun: how far will he go to protect someone he suspects might be a killer? If he helps Seo-rae, how much would he grow to hate himself for doing it? Or to put it another way – is there a greater expression of love that a Holmes is capable of, than to help his Irene Adler get away with it?

These dizzying themes interweave with fascinatingly oblique motivations in this endlessly rewarding puzzle-box of a movie. It’s also clear to see the Vertigo parallels, as manipulators fall in love and stalkers try to shape people and events to meet their desires. It’s second act, set in Ipo, as the characters come back together after a time-jump is a brilliantly engaging dance between two people who might be deeply in love and might be doing their very best to manipulate each other. Here acts of love include reading seized phone call transcripts or draining a swimming pool of bloody water.

It’s extraordinarily shot by Park chan-wook – this is the sort of film that makes you want to run out and see everything else he’s ever made straight away. Decision to Leave is more classical and reserved than his other ‘cinema of cruelty’ films. But that isn’t to say it’s not crammed with endless inventive flair. Camera angles plumb every depth of imagination – from vertigo-inducing heights to shots that seem to place the camera inside phones, their graphics superimposed across the screen.

As Hae-jun imagines Seo-rae’s actions or stakes out her home, he is visually inserted into her memories or placed in the scene as a witness as he deduces how she may have killed her husband. As this dedicated, obsessive watcher – who can’t leave his fascination with the case alone – watches her home, Park suddenly places Hae-jun inside Seo-rae’s home, sitting alongside her on a sofa. Scenes replay from multiple angles to show us new perspectives, and the characters blur and switch roles as Seo-rae stakes out Hae-jun in Ipo, noticing how his smart shoes (not suitable for running) are in fact a sign of his collapse in confidence.

Decision to Leave gains hugely from Tang Wei and Park Hae-il’s superb performances. Tang Wei is utterly unreadable, her motives and emotions discernible moment-by-moment only in micro-clues – but by the film’s conclusion you feel you finally have an understanding of her tortured, confused emotions. Park Hae-il drips crumpled loneliness and sadness under a professional demeanour, his emotional vulnerability becoming more and more apparent, his job a fig leaf to give his life definition. The chastely, strangely innocent, intimacy between the two of them has profound emotional impact – this is a classic romance, about two people far closer than sex could make them.

Park’s direction of all this is perfectly paced – for a slight plot and an extended run-time, this feels like a film where not a moment is wasted. Like Vertigo every moment fits together into a complete whole which might only be understandable when you step back and look at. Visually, it’s a treat – inventive but not flashy, unique but not overbearing. And it builds a carefully modulated and deeply moving spiritual romance at its heart. It’s a beautiful slice of film noir, rung through with poetry. It’s a marvellous film.

The Virgin Spring (1960)

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Revenge, violence but also a touch of hope abound in Bergman’s haunting Oscar winning classic

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Max von Sydow (Töre), Birgitta Valberg (Märeta), Gunnel Lindblom (Ingeri), Birgitta Pettersson (Karin), Axel Düberg (Thin Herdsman), Tor Isedal (Mute Herdsman), Axel Slangus (Bridge-keeper), Allan Edwall (Beggar), Ove Porath (Boy)

Spoilers: If you can spoil a Bergman classic, the full content of the film is discussed below

If a film cemented Bergman as the master of misery, it was his Oscar-winning The Virgin Spring. On the surface, a grim fable of rape revenge shot in wintery horror, it’s hard to imagine most people nerving themselves to watch it based on a synopsis. But they would be missing out. The Virgin Spring is, for all its hard-hitting violence and cruelty, a surprisingly hopeful film. Like the best of Bergman, it’s profoundly challenging, searching and operates on multiple levels – but rewards the viewer with splashes of strange optimism that feel a world away when it opens. It’s one of his truly great films.

Set in medieval Sweden, Töre (Max von Sydow, magnificently, chillingly grief-stricken) is a prosperous and devotional Christian farmer, in a cooling marriage to Märeta (Birgitta Valberg). The light of his life is his daughter, the beautiful Karin (Birgitta Pettersson). One day, Töre tasks Karin to travel to the Church (half a day’s ride) to deliver some candles. She travels with Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom – bitter, damaged and brilliant), a pagan servant girl, heavily pregnant and resentful. Along the way they two are separated and Karin meets with three peasant brothers in the forest, who share her meal with her before the two adult brothers (Axel Düberg, Tor Isedal) rape and murder her. The brothers walk on and take shelter that night in Töre’s hall. When he discovers their deed, he murders them all (even the innocent youngest brother, a boy) then, horrified, pleads to God for forgiveness. At which point a spring, bursts forth where Karin was killed.

Not exactly a bundle of laughs. But this is powerful, compelling film-making from Bergman. His influence on horror has been overlooked, but The Virgin Spring show how much he inspired everything from shlock to The Exorcist. This is a tense, unbearably so, film which twice draws out the long build-up to shocking violence in a way that would make Sergio Leone proud. Played out in a beautifully moody, bleakly cold and wintery visual style from Sven Nykvist (his first collaboration with Bergman) and often in an atmospheric mix of silence and natural sound, you can feel your stomach knot as the inevitable transgressive act looms ever closer.

The film pulls no punches, while never being exploitative. The rape and murder of Karin (excellently played with just the right mix of innocence and spoilt certainty by Birgitta Pettersson) unfolds with a cold matter-of-factness, as she slowly realises these men are far more dangerous than she imagined. The event is hard-to-watch for its simplicity rather than its graphicness, and for the cold indifference of its perpetrators who act on a whim. It takes place almost in silence and the killing (mercifully off-camera) is more because they don’t know what to do next. Mix that in with the terrified stares of Ingeri from afar, and the shell-shock of the younger brother (who vainly tries to bury Karin with dirt before running away), makes a scene devoid of sensationalism but terrible to watch.

It’s reflected in the film’s later act of violence. The brothers having tried to pass off Karin’s blood-stained dress as their (imaginary) sister’s, sell it to Märeta (who instantly recognises a garment she stitched herself, even as she’s asked to admire the handiwork), are locked in the hall while they sleep. Töre’s slaying of them, however, never feels triumphant. Instead, the Christian Töre abandons his faith to embrace pagan revenge. Like a priest before a blood sacrifice he dresses himself in butchery gear, discards a sword for a smaller knife, carefully prepares the room for the brothers to wake and then sits, idol-like, in his chair waiting. This is a damning ritualistic insight into how our faith – the faith Töre was so proud of – can drop away to reveal our vengeful simplicity below.

The fight that ensues feels like something from the nether-regions of hell. One brother is skewered, arms wide, to Töre’s chair. Another is stabbed under Töre’s body weight – shot in a way reminiscent of Karin’s rape, with the flames of the fire dancing between them and the camera – his body left to burn in the fire. Their brother – a child – runs to Märeta for protection, yet Töre hurls him against the wall breaking his neck. There is no triumph. Töre speaks not a word – the brothers die having no idea who he is. Töre is left starring at his trembling hands in shock, as if waking from a dream not recognising the man he has become who turned his back on every article of faith he held dear.

It’s a film that shows the impact of grief and trauma. From the terrified face of the youngest brother – shovelling dirt on a dead body with tear-stained eyes – to Töre’s shell-shocked realisation his daughter is dead. Deep down, people blames themselves. Märeta believes she is being punished for envying Karin’s closeness to her father. Ingeri believes she has cursed Karin to suffer the same shame as her. Töre, perhaps, feels guilt at his own semi-incestuous closeness with his daughter. Why else does he struggle to bring down with his bare hands a new-planted birch tree (in beautifully haunting medium shot), cutting branches from it to flay himself in a sauna before he takes his revenge? It’s both punishment for past and future sins.

This is also a film that challenges us to decide whether brutal revenge is justified. The build-up to the murder of the brothers is very similar to the murder of Karin. A long meal, shared, even with similar food – so similar that the innocent younger brother vomits at the memories it brings back. This young boy is the death of innocence in this world. Betrayed into crime by his vile elders then forced to pay a terrible price for a deed he was powerless to stop and left him deeply distressed. How can we really triumph in Töre’s killing, when we see it performed so violently at such a price?

Bergman tests throughout how far faith goes, and questions what power God has. The film opens with two pleas, to two very different Gods. Ingeri pleads to Odin to punish the virtuous Karin, who in Ingeri’s eyes is a working rebuke for her wedlock-free pregnancy. Töre prays to a Dürer style carved cross for God to keep their household safe. Only one deity delivers: and rightly Töre will plead at the film’s end “You see it God, you see it…you allowed it. I don’t understand you.” Töre has even mirrored the rapists, in murdering an innocent. He repents later, but is a heathen in the moment.

Paganism is strong in The Virgin Spring. But it is not good. Ingeri separates from Karin when she meets a half-blind bridge-keeper, in a house full of ravens, in the wood. The man ticks every box for representing Odin and conveys dark promises of powers beyond mankind. But he is a vile, Devilish figure who takes an impish delight in cruelty and mischief. Ingeri’s departure from him coincides with Karin’s encounter with her killers – as if these demonic sprites had been conjured up by Odin to punish Ingeri by providing her with exactly what she asked for.

Why then is a film so grim, so cold, so difficult and challenging also feel strangely hopeful? Odin has won and Töre has turned his back on Christian faith to embrace cold, merciless, pagan violence. But as Töre pleads for forgiveness a spring bursts forth from below the point where Karin’s head lay. Suddenly, water pours out of the ground. Light bathes the clearing from above. Ingeri washes her face and hands, cleaning symbolically the parts of her that made those pagan pleas. Suddenly, from nowhere, the film presents an intense moment of spiritual hope that I found surprisingly moving. Rarely has something so grim, felt so cleansing at its close. Perhaps viewers need the simple, honest refreshing splash of water to help themselves after. That’s what helps makes The Virgin Spring difficult, uncomfortable but essential.

Misery (1990)

Misery (1990)

Obsessive fans wanting to control the narrative is nothing new in this tension-filled King adaptation

Director: Rob Reiner

Cast: James Caan (Paul Sheldon), Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes), Richard Farnsworth (Sheriff Buster), Frances Sternhagen (Deputy Virginia), Lauren Bacall (Marcia Sindell)

“I’m your number one fan”. Do any other words strike more fear into the hearts of celebrities? Stephen King’s Misery feels more and more ahead of the time. We live in an era where obsessed fans frequently take to YouTube (or obscure blogs – oh dear…) to shout their fury into the ether about how their beloved franchise has taken a wrong (i.e. counter to their head cannon) turn. Stephen King wasn’t a stranger to this: he’d already had fans in the mid-80s lambast his non-horror books. Misery takes it all a step further.

Successful novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has written a series of Mills & Boon style Victorian romance novels about a character called Misery Chastain. Wanting to restart a career as a serious novelist, Paul retreats to the depths of Colorado to put the finishing touches to his new non-Misery novel. Driving back to New York, he has a car accident. With two broken legs and fractured shoulder, he is dragged from his car by nurse and fanatic Misery fan Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). Annie tells him not to worry: the phone lines will be back up soon and until then he can stay at her home. Until she discovers Paul has killed off Misery in his recently published book. A furious Annie makes it clear no one knows he’s there and that, if he ever wants to escape her secluded home, he’ll write a new Misery book to Annie’s personal specifications.

Misery is part horror, part deeply black comedy – a heightened fantasy of increasing paranoia powered by a superb performance by Kathy Bates that walks a fine line between grand guignol, farce and deluded tragedy. In many ways Annie, monstrous in her obsession, is a superb dark comic creation. She has an anorak-level obsessive knowledge about her passions, litters her speech with prudish replacement swear-words (“cockadoodie!”), bounces around the room with schoolgirlish excitement at having Paul in her presence and adores her pet pig (named, of course, Misery). Bates is energetic, wide-eyed and times kind of sweet.

But she’s also a chillingly ruthless and capable of great outbursts of rage and fury at the slightest provocation. A lonely woman with clear signs of being either bipolar or deeply depressed, sinking at times into “black dog” moods, stuffing herself with junk food in front of trashy TV, she relies on Paul’s books to give her a slice of the romantic, exciting life she feels she has missed out on. Like the most toxic fans today, she feels such emotion for the Misery books, she believes they belong to her personally – and if they deviate from what she wants it’s a personal affront. She is also so desperate to love and be loved, she takes a brutal control of the world around her, convinced that if she just works really hard the object of her admiration will admit he feels the same.

Bates is extremely good in a performance strikingly similar to Hopkins’ Lecter a year later (also, of course, Oscar winning). It’s a masterclass in actorly tricks, all deployed with triumphant expertise to create a character who is both darkly funny and terrifyingly controlling. Annie is so twisted that, in a way, doping Paul up on drugs and smashing his legs with a sledgehammer is like an expression of love. If he really understood what she was trying to do for him, how she knew the sort of books he should be writing, he’d never want to leave anyway right?

That leg smashing scene – and God it’s almost impossible to watch – is the height of Reiner’s taut direction that brilliantly makes this an endlessly tense chamber piece. The camera frequently shoots Annie from Paul’s prone position, meaning we are craning our heads up to look at her in exactly the same way he is. Later sequences, where Paul finally works out how to pick the lock of his room and explore (in his wheelchair) Annie’s kitsch-filled house with its shrines to her favourite celebrities, also place us on his visual level. Several scenes use tension effectively – you’ll catch your breath at the dropping of a model penguin, clench as Paul hides pills and knives around him for future escape attempts or sweat as Paul rushes to return to his room when Annie arrives home suddenly. But Reiner also threads in Hitchcockian wit throughout, amongst the tension.

It also gains a great deal from James Caan’s measured performance as Paul. Caan was last in a longlist of male actors offered the role (a sharp change from those days when Caan turned down roles that went on to win other actors Oscars) but willingly plays the passive, scared Paul with a low-key humbleness that works very well. He becomes someone who it is easy to root for.

Misery explores the lengths obsessive fans will go to to own their passions very well. Annie rejects Paul’s first attempt at humouring her with a new Misery book for its inconsistencies with previous novels (she clearly knows way more about it then him). That’s not even mentioning she demands he burns the (only) copy of his new non-Misery novel because “it’s not worthy of him” (being full of naughty words). It’s so good – and in a way prescient of where fandom is heading – it feels a cheap cop-out to also reveal Annie is a serial killer. Far more interesting is how quickly an unhealthy fixation could tip a maladjusted person from demands, to threats, to leg smashing fury.

Misery also fits a little too neatly into a trend – common at the time – of “regular guys” having their lives turned upside down by dangerous, deranged women (there are more than a few nods to Fatal Attraction and it’s not a surprise to hear Michael Douglas was offered the role). For all the dark skill Bates plays Annie with, we are rarely invited to sympathise with or understand her (she’s cemented as a freak with the discovery of her killer past) – again, how more interesting (and prescient) would it have been to just have a woman driven to extremes by obsessive monomania?

The film works best as a chamber piece. So much so, that any scene outside of the house feels superfluous – despite the excellent work from Richard Farnsworth as the local sheriff investigating Paul’s disturbance. Misery, with its abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, is sometimes a little too open in its huge debt to Psycho. But it’s ahead of its time in understanding the obsessive anger that lies under the surface of the darker elements of fandom – so much so you wish it had stuck to that.

Eastern Promises (2007)

Eastern Promises (2007)

Brutal violence in London’s underbelly in Cronenberg’s formal and chilling dark fairytale

Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Nikolai Luzhin), Naomi Watts (Anna Ivanova Khitrova), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Semyon), Vincent Cassel (Kirill Semyonovich), Sinead Cusack (Helen), Mina E Mina (Azim), Jerzy Skolimowski (Stepan Khitrov), Donald Sumpter (Inspector Yuri), Raza Jaffrey (Dr Aziz), Josef Altin (Ekrem), Tatiana Maslany (Tatiana’s voice)

Big promises shipped back to Russian villages, telling women about dreams they can make reality in the bright lights of London. Those are Eastern Promises – but the reality, of sexual slavery and abuse in Russian Mafia controlled houses is horrifyingly different. Set in an underbelly of London just under grand restaurants and red buses, Eastern Promises is a typically tough and bloody gangster fable from David Cronenberg, which plays out like a nightmare fairytale.

It’s the nightmare of midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts). When a pregnant Russian teenager dies giving birth, the only clue she has to who her daughter’s family might be is a Russian diary and a business card for a Russian restaurant. Anna – whose family are Russian immigrants – is offered help by grandfatherly restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Seymon is all pleasant insistence that he can help, even as asks after every detail of her life. Because Seymon is a ruthless Mafia kingpin, with a hapless son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) leaning on the emotional and practical support of his imposing, heavily tattooed driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). As Anna is pulled further and further into Semyon’s deadly world of death, could she have a surprising saviour?

Cronenberg’s film, sharply scripted by Steven Knight, is shot with a traditional stillness and a palette of strong colours – all of which reassuring visual language is utterly at odds with the skin-slashing violence at its heart. Eastern Promises opens with a Russian gangster practically having his head sawn off with a switchblade, in the hands of a mentally-handicapped nephew of a minor Turkish gangster. There isn’t a single gun in Eastern Promises – after all that would be breaking British law! – instead violence is meted out with the violent intimacy of a knife across the throat.

The film’s formal structure and framing – angles and cutting are kept simple, almost static – works brilliantly. As we watch throats slashed, grim sexual encounters or moments of imposing menace, the matter-of-fact presentation of these become more-and-more chilling. Eastern Promises feels like a bogey-man fable. Seymon’s restaurant – all class and bright red walls – an ogre’s cavern that leads us into an ever-grimmer world of violence and mayhem.

It’s a world Anna is unprepared for. Determined and resilient, Naomi Watts’ Anna is also undone by her politeness. How can she refuse an offer to help from someone as polite as Seymon? Watts does extremely well with a slightly under-written role, a woman on a quest who slowly realises how terrible the world she is peeking into is, but stop from trying to force through what she believes is right. Her disbelief – and out-of-place semi-innocence and sense of moral duty – make her stand out all the more in this terrible underbelly world, full of ogres and secret codes.

At the centre of is a monster. Armin Mueller-Stahl looks like your favourite uncle, but he quietly exudes cold, remorseless villainy. He’s the sort of man who delights in cooking the finest borsch, playfully teases his granddaughter’s violin playing and doesn’t bat an eyelid about ordering a rival to be dismembered. Mueller-Stahl is terrifying as this man the audience instinctively knows is dangerous and will stop at no moral boundaries to get what he wants (watch the steely eyed kindness he asks Anna where she works, lives and who she knows during their first meeting).

The obvious moral void in Seymon makes the unreadable Nikolai even more intriguing. Played with an extraordinary physical and linguistic commitment by Mortensen, Nikolai’s body is a tattooed walking advert of his past and capacity for violence and he’s the sort of relaxed heavy who is as unfussed with stubbing a cigarette out on his tongue as he is with snipping fingers off a corpse. Mortensen’s skill here is to make us constantly unsure where the moral lines are for Nikolai. He is a confirmed killer, but he takes an interest in Anna. Is this sexual or protective? What does he make of his bosses’ brutality towards women? What does he think of his direct superior Kirill?

Kirill is played with a larger-than-life weakness by Vincent Cassel in a thrilling performance that constantly shifts expectations. At first, he seems like a drunken blow-hard with a capacity for thoughtless violence. But Cassel makes clear he is a weak man with some principles, bullied by his father (to whom he is a constant disappointment), desperate to prove he is more capable than he is. He has an emotional reliance on Nikolai laced with sexual fascination (he can barely keep his hands off him).

Nikolai seems to accept this. But we don’t seem to know why. His actions are constantly open to interpretation. Ordered to have sex with a prostitute, he almost apologises to her after – left alone with her after Kirill has watched their sexual encounter, he’s strangely tender. He urges Anna to keep her distance but follows orders with calm disinterest. How far will he go? What moral qualms does he have, if any? Mortensen’s carefully judged performance is a master-class in inscrutability in a film that plays its cards very close to its chest as to why he (and others) do the things they do.

Cronenberg’s entire film is structured like this. Is the dragon a dragon or a potential knight? Can Anna emerge from this semi-Lynchian nightmare world and return to normal life – or will everything connected to her be destroyed by this world. Cronenberg’s study of this shady, heartless world is masterful. The “rules” and code of this brutal Russian Mafia world are excellently explored. And the film’s formal style culminates in a stunningly violent but beautiful (if that’s the right word) fight between a nude Mortensen and two knife-wielding Checians in a Turkish bath that is a brutal model for how these things can be done.

Eastern Promises resolves itself, after twists and turns, into something more comforting and traditional than you might expect. But is it a fairy tale ending to a nightmare? Either way, Cronenberg’s mix of formality and unflinching gore is masterful and in Mortensen it has a performance both relaxed and full of tightly-wound violence. Tough but essential.

Croupier (1999)

Croupier (1999)

Slow-burn delight in this low-key but compelling British crime and gambling drama

Director: Mike Hodges

Cast: Clive Owen (Jack Manfred), Alex Kingston (Jani de Villiers), Gina McKee (Marion Neil), Kate Hardie (Bella), Nicholas Ball (Jack Manfred Snr), Nick Reding (Giles Cremorne), Paul Reynolds (Matt)

The last thing would-be writer Jack (Clive Owen) wants is to be sucked back into the grimy underbelly of the casinos where his father (Nicholas Ball) made his living. Jack fears his addiction to the places. But his buzz is not the gambling or the chance of raking in cash himself. Nah, his particular hit is the cold voyeuristic delight of watching others lose. The greedy, the arrogant, the clueless, the desperate: he gets the same buzz from sweeping their chips away from the table in front of them. Jack knows you play, you only guarantee you will lose: but will glamourous South African Jani (Alex Kingston) persuade him to join her in another game against the casino?

Mike Hodges’ fascinating crime drama struck out of the blue to restore Hodges from yesterday’s man – the forgotten master of Get Carter – as a vibrant voice in British cinema. Typically, of course, this was only after the film had been all but ignored in Britain but became a hit in America. An Oscar campaign was planned but cancelled when it emerged a single screening on Dutch TV before its release in LA made it ineligible. Nevertheless, the film’s cold, arch mix of distance, cool and menace was a keen reminder of what a great director of mood and intention Hodges could be.

Hodges also has the perfect actor in its lead role. Clive Owen’s precision, quiet exactitude and mastery of the micro-expression is perfect for a man as distant, observant and (at times) uncaring as Jack. Only someone as effortlessly cool and striking as Owen could have made us like Jack as much as we do, a particular challenge as he is a cocky shit with an almost sociopathic coldness, viewing the creep of the voyeur who loves control. Owen captures all this perfectly, his voice rarely rising, his life lived to a sort of bizarre samurai code where he the only person he needs to impress with his superiority is himself.

Hodges film is one of mood and sensation rather than plot. Events unfurl with an increasingly dream-like logic, dictated by Jack’s noir-like voiceover as he slowly turns his life and experiences in the casino more-and-more into fiction. Sections of the film are divided into chapters in voiceover and Jack’s arch commentary exposes his views of those around him (communicated only by the most micro expressions on Owen’s face). Jack dreams of publishing a novel that will worm its way inside people: it’s the yearning not of the artist but the control freak, as excited by the sensation of knowing his words can guide people’s reactions and feelings just as a flick of his wrist at the card table or the roulette wheel can enrich them or drive them to destitution.

Jack’s control makes him a perverse stickler for rules. Jack’s professional croupier life – slicing money with a thunk down a pipe to the cashier or sweeping lost chips into a count-up oblivion (Hodges’ eye for the brutality and violence in the mechanisms of gambling is matched by his brilliance in demonstrating the businesses cold-eyed indifference to short-tern winning and losing) – is one of masterly control. His personal something else. The drama comes from wondering how far he will stick to that when offered the temptation, not of wealth but of proving he’s smarter than anyone else. There he allows himself the risks that he would never take when working.

Three women rotate around Jack. Gina McKee has the most thankless role of the three, a cop turned store detective who seems to be propping up the initially bohemian (a blonde, porkpie hatted Owen) Jack but offers the sort of dull, parental support lacking in his life. Two other women appeal to different parts of him. Kate Hardie’s Bella – a fellow croupier as chillingly professional as the DJ-suited Jack – is a sort of half-mirror image, bubbling with temptation (and very appealing to an egotist like Jack, who would like nothing better than to sleep with himself). Most striking of all is Alex Kingston’s erotic punter Jani, a mysterious South African who attempts to both seduce and bring out the protective side in Jack. Jack may never gamble his money, but risk in her personal life seems a harder dodge. He sleeps with women, gets in fights – which he engages in with a terrifying capacity for violence – and casually seems to invite dangers to drop into his path.

Spontaneously taking Jani to a weekend at the country-house of a would-be publisher, Jack mixes his buzz of voyeuristic control with the temptation of doing something wild and dangerous. He agrees to join a late-night card-game as dealer only – and promptly uses his card shark skills to deal out a series of progressively brilliant hands to the players in the final game. He then goes to bed with Jani, doesn’t touch her but quietly listens to her offer of ten grand in return for his aid in stealing from the casino. This is not the behaviour of a normal man.

If the film has a flaw, it’s the almost indifference with which Hodges wraps up most of these plots. There is a shock death, but the impact of it is almost deliberately passing and the heist of the casino is as laughable in its amateurishness as it is sudden in its resolution. Is it because we have moved from the real world to Jack’s noirish I, Croupier novel without realising it? You could imagine, as the film grows more dreamlike, that at some point we shifted from Jack’s reality to the constructed one he has formed for his novel. What better thrill for a control freak than to become ‘God’ of the narrative. After all Jack dreamed of his novel climbing inside people’s brain and infesting their thoughts.

Jack ends the film the smartest, most well-adjusted addict you could ever imagine, The short-term job at the casino is something he cannot let-go and Hodges’ shooting of this den of addiction, this theatre of destitution turns it into a mirror-lined sess-pit of human frailty, reflecting vice back into itself, presided over by a man who delights in weakness. More money is swept, triumphantly, from the table by Jack and its clear being there for him is the real triumph. Atmosphere, style and vicarious thrills. It’s these chilling things Croupier finds so thrilling, enticing and fascinating.

The Menu (2022)

The Menu (2022)

Dark satire is mixed with intelligent character work and a challenge to our assumptions in this intriguing film

Director: Mark Mylod

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Julian Slowik), Anya Taylor-Joy (Margot Mills), Nicholas Hoult (Tyler Ledford), Hong Chau (Elsa), Janet McTeer (Lilian Bloom), John Leguizamo (Famous Actor), Reed Birney (Richard Liebbrandt), Judith Light (Anne Leibbrandt), Paul Adelstein (Ted), Aimee Carrero (Felicity), Arturo Castro (Soren), Rob Yang (Bryce), Mark St Cyr (Dave)

A dash of Succession. A soupcon of Hannibal Lector. Lashings of The Most Dangerous Game. All these ingredients are mixed to delightfully dark comic effect in The Menu, a sharp and tangy assault on class and modern society which leaves an unusual but satisfying taste in the mouth.

First those touches of The Most Dangerous Game. Julian Slowick (Ralph Fiennes) is a restauranteur so exclusive, his restaurant is based on a private island. Each course, of each menu is part of an overall story that forms the meal. For the story of the meal he is currently preparing, Slowick has selected an exclusive guest list of the rich and famous: businessmen, the rich, movie stars, food critics – the elite, the snobbish, the 1%. And the story he is serving up is one of increasingly grim retribution for this table-load of takers not givers. The only unexpected figure there is Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), last-minute guest of obsessive food purist Tyler (Nicholas Hoult). How will this unexpected fly in the soup affect Slowick’s plans for the evening?

The Menu in many ways is a revenge satire. Slowick does not hold back in his increasing fury and bitterness at the people he serves without appreciation or gratitude in return. His customers are interested only in food if it costs a lot and is exclusive. They have no interest in his actual skills, in the staff (whose names they do not remember), the food itself or anything beyond their own desires. Many of the customers – most hideously a trio of “bro” investors (played with slapable smugness by Castro, Yang and St Cyr) – flash their jobs and cash expecting these to ensure their every whim is met. To them the world is like dough to be shaped into whatever bread they want it to be.

The film – with glee – exposes the hideous selfishness of the rich customers. A rich couple (Birney and Light) who have attended Slowick’s restaurants several times yet remember nothing about the food or the staff. Janet McTeer’s elite food critic, who practically scratches marks into her pen to mark the restaurants she has closed (she’s accompanied by a fawningly obsequious editor, played by Adelstein). A famous actor (John Leguizamo) who has long-since sold-out and treats his fans with contempt, joined by his spoilt rich-girl assistant/girlfriend (Aimee Carrero). Each of them is deconstructed in turns by Slowick over a series of courses parodying the snobbish bizarreness of high-class dining.

And here is where those touches of Succession make themselves known in the flavour. That series – and Mylod is a veteran (and its finest director) – also presents the ghastly shallowness and greed of the super-rich to expert comic effect. But what that show also does – and what Mylod brilliantly manages here – is make what could be two dimensional monsters sympathetic. The Menu presents these dreadful people with honesty; but, as the punishments – cruelly personal reveals, psychological torture, a finger cut off here, a man hunt there – pile up, you start to wonder if the punishment is too much?

The “bro” investors may be dreadful selfish, arrogant, dick-swinging morons: but they are also immature idiots who have never really grown up. The rich couple might treat places like this elite restaurant as a God-given right, but does that really deserve death? The food critic is harsh and arrogant, but is writing cruel words a mortal sin? The actor loathes himself for selling out his talent to make money and his girlfriend has simply been born into money and never wanted for anything. Do these people really deserve the monstrous ends Slowick has planned for them?

It’s the smartness of The Menu which could easily have invited us to just enjoy the rich and powerful being exposed, humiliated and punished. Instead, this is a smarter, more intelligent dish. The lower-class restaurant staff should be the people we are rooting for. But Slowick runs the restaurant like a cult, the staff near-robotic automatons that follow Slowick’s orders without question, intone their “Yes, Chef!” answers like a religious chant and snap to attention as one. Slowick’s number two Elsa – superbly played by Hong Chau – sums them up: all of them are desperate to become her boss and will follow Slowick to hell and back without a murmour and their heartless, personality free cruelty makes them very hard to root for.

As does Slowick himself. Here comes that sprinkling of Lector. Played with a superb, chilling intensity by Ralph Fiennes at his most coldly austere, Slowick could have been a character who swept us up in his intelligent superiority. But there is not a hint of joy in Slowick, only a vast, bubbling anger and resentment under a coldly precise exterior. Who on earth could look at this near-psychopath and think “I’d love to be him”? Slowick’s service is dryly, terrifyingly funny but you’d certainly not be left wanting to leave him a tip (unless it was your only way of getting out alive).

Instead, we gravitate towards the odd one-out. Anya Taylor-Joy is excellent as Margot, the unexpected guest who finds herself the only person unprepared for by Slowick, who is neither a member of the super-rich, but too free-spirited and independent minded to join the Slowick cult. Dragged along by Tyler – a hilarious performance of over-eagerness, snobbish elitism and stroppy self-entitlement by Nicholas Hoult – The Menu revolves more and more around the dance of death between her and Slowick. Like the audience, Margot is invited to pick a side to sympathise with.

It makes for a rich, lingering dish with an intriguing after taste, far more developed and better cooked than the sloppy revenge saga or re-heated leftovers it could have been. It left me wanting a second course.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)

Johnson’s playful Agatha Christie tributes continue to delight in this affectionate homage

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig (Benoit Blanc), Edward Norton (Miles Bron), Janelle Monáe (Andi Brand), Kathryn Hahn (Claire Debella), Leslie Odom Jnr (Lionel Toussaint), Kate Hudson (Birdie Joy), Dave Bautista (Duke Cody), Jessica Henwick (Peg), Madelyn Cline (Whiskey), Noah Segan (Derol)

Johnson’s Knives Out reminded Hollywood that people love a good whodunnit. Netflix purchased two more films from the franchise after the first’s success: Glass Onion is the first, a wild, enjoyable and deft mystery, crammed with enough jokes, puzzles, side-mysteries and actors having a good-time to become a perfect Christmas treat.

Set in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic – and how unusual again to see everyone wearing a facemask during the first meeting of its characters – it revolves around a weekend get-away at the Greek island mansion of a billionaire, its elaborate design centred around a huge Glass Onion dome. A stack of personalities from wildly divergent backgrounds, thrown together in a secluded location with murder on the cards? You couldn’t get more Agatha Christie unless Hercule Poirot turned up. Instead, we get Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, as outrageously Southern as ever and seemingly invited by mistake to take part in billionaire Miles Bron’s (Edward Norton) murder-mystery weekend for his close friends.

Those close friends are a smorgasbord who all seem to have as much reason to hate Bron as they do for being in debt to him. All are in hock to Bron’s company Alpha and its quest to create a new hydrogen super-fuel. The guests? Kathryn Hahn’s governor of Connecticut (reliant on Bron for funding), Leslie Odom Jnr’s scientist (reliant on Bron for funding), Kate Hudson’s fashion editor (reliant on Bron for her job), Dave Bautista’s influencer (reliant on Bron for Likes), and Janelle Monáe as Bron’s ex-partner, cheated (perhaps) out of the company they co-founded. Will the murder mystery party turn into murder mystery reality?

Johnson’s playful, loving homage to Agatha Christie successfully carries over its tone and sense of fun from Knives Out, delighting in its conventions even as it subtly inverts some of them, and building a classic murder mystery in a very modern skin. It’s possible that no-one is better at this than Johnson, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing something as fun as this so straight. For all the jokes, it never sneers at its material or looks down on the classic Christie model. Instead, it feels like a lost Christie making its way to the screen with a solution that the author would love.

Glass Onion does make part of its effect work by concealing information from the viewer for as long as possible – some characters here are not as they appear and some know much more than they are letting on. It’s not quite the characters you might expect either, who are playing their cards close to their chest. The film dips into a non-linear structure, progressing us through to a killing before winding back to retell all the events we have just witnessed from another perspective. It’s a brilliant way of keeping us on our toes – and most successfully, never feels like cheating but a deliberate bit of rug-pulling to keep the fun going.

It also reminds us to question everything we are seeing as the film unfolds. Like an intricate onion, there are layers upon layers – and like glass when the light reflects right, it suddenly becomes transparent. Everything in Glass Onion is meant to only really become clear by its conclusion – although Johnson drops plenty of hints of what’s going to be important, not least the swiping sound of the protective glass shield that snaps down over Bron’s displayed Mona Lisa (the real one) that he pretentiously shows off to his friends.

Pretentious and self-satisfied showing-off is meat-and-drink to Bron, played with a hugely enjoyable smug smackability by Edward Norton (having the time of his life channelling every arrogant billionaire you can think of, not least Elon Musk). Irritatingly new-age in his ostentatious wealth, every act of Bron (no matter how generous it seems) is laced with self-serving. He delights in (and feeds) his reputation as an eccentric genius and the film’s elaborate set is a testament to Bron’s classless grandiosity.

His hangers-on share deeply mixed feelings about this generous man who demands (with a wining smile) that they dance to any tune that he plays. Even his murder mystery weekend is designed around a chance for him show off (his balloon being well-and-truly burst by Blanc early in the movie is one of its greatest laugh-out-loud moments). Hahn, Odom Jnr, Hudson and Bautista have huge fun with four characters all larger-than-life in their own ways. But Janelle Monáe is the film’s most striking performer: as Bron’s cast-off former partner she gives a performance brimming with complexity and hidden depths.

In all this colour and old-school mystery razzle-dazzle that Johnson serves up, it’s very easy to forget what an essential role Craig plays in holding it together. Blanc remains a loving Poirot tribute, inverting that character’s bizarre accent, dandyish clothes and exactitude but still capturing Poirot’s essential kindness and humanitarianism. Craig quietly carries a lot of the film here, while ceding much of the most striking material to his “guest stars”. It’s fine work.

Johnson’s film is a superb entertainment, the sort of film you can imagine people saying of it “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”. It works as extraordinarily well as it does because it manages to be both cool and catchy and hugely old-fashioned. It’s an unabashed entertainment, that wants to puzzle and entertain you. It succeeds at both.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry Rides Again (1939)

A gun-shy sheriff needs to clean up this town in this delightfully funny semi-comedy Western

Director: George Marshall

Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Frenchy), James Stewart (Tom Destry Jnr), Mischa Auer (Boris), Charles Winninger (Washington Dimsdale), Brian Donlevy (Kent), Allen Jenkins (Gyp Watson), Warren Hymer (Bugs Watson), Irene Hervey (Janice Tyndall), Una Merkel (Lily Belle), Billy Gilbert (Loupgerou), Samuel S Hinds (Mayor Hiram J Slade), Jack Carson (Jack Tyndall)

There’s a new deputy sheriff in town! Son of a wild-shooting, hard-as-nails lawman, Tom Destry Jnr (James Stewart) is surely the man to bring justice to Bottleneck. Or at least that’s what everyone thinks until his carriage arrives and out steps an aw shucks slouching drawler, carrying a parasol, who loves a homespun yarn and – worst of all! – doesn’t see the point of carrying guns. Surely, he’ll be a push-over for Kent (Brian Donlevy), the corrupt saloon owner who runs the town? Guess again. Tom will soon change all sorts of minds, not least Kent’s gal, glamourous singer (and card sharp) the improbably accented Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich).

George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again is pretty much a delight from start to finish. It combines rich comedy and Western satire, with genuine sharp-shooting thrills, and showcases a host of actors at the top of their game. It’s crammed with excellent jokes, shrewd observations and some moments of truly affecting tragedy. It’s the finest film Marshall, otherwise a journeyman, directed with confidently handled, crowd-filled set pieces and a wonderful sense of pace.

It’s hard not to fall in love with a man who doesn’t care what people think of him but, when push comes to shove, could beat them all in a game of quick draw. It helps abundantly when he’s played by James Stewart at his most boyish and lovable. Tom is determined to prove the law can be done another way: that escalating things by pulling a firearm only leads to trouble (“You see if I have had a gun there, why, one of us might have got hurt – and it might have been me”). Tom is quick-witted and confident enough to face down crises without a gun – putting him years ahead of the townsfolk who judge everyone by their ability to hit a target.

In fact, Destry Rides Again in its opening hour really commits to the idea of Tom as an ahead-of-his-time pacifist, who thinks through events with the grace of a chess-master. We’re constantly encouraged to delight not only in his smarts – the incriminating traps he lays for all around him, the skilful way he defuses situations – but also respect for his cool and guts (you need to be damn sure of yourself to order a glass of milk in Kent’s no-holds-barred saloon).

Tom eventually of course has to give them a show – his pin-point accuracy with a pistol leaves the town gasping, and a group of would-be trouble-makers lamely muttering how sorry they are to have disturbed the peace – but he’s far too brave to need to prove himself. Real courage is not caring what people think of you, and real smartness is being happy for others to call you a knabby-pabby yellow-belly. After all, they’ll only underestimate you – and make it even more likely Tom’s methodical, law-following approach will yield the right results.

Marshall mines gallons of fish-out-of-water comedy from Tom’s willingness to look the fool. From his arrival at the town clutching the parasol of a fellow passenger – his shoot-first-and-second-think-third fellow passenger Tyndall (Jack Carson) is mistaken for him because he matches the bill of what the town expects – to his passion for whittling napkin rings and his calm aw shucks good humour when handed a mop and told to use that to “clean up this town”. But we are never left with a doubt that Tom is the bravest, smartest, toughest guy in the town – and that he doesn’t need to constantly proof it to himself and others.

It eventually sinks in as well to glamour madam, Frenchy. Marlene Dietrich had not only never appeared in a Western before, she’d been declared “box office poison” just a few months earlier. In the public mind she was associated with glamour, distance and von Sternberg majesty. All that was to change with Destry Rides Again, where she was lusty, earthy but still with a touch of class. Who would have imagined Sternberg’s muse engaging in a no-holds barred cat fight with Una Merkel’s domineering housewife (a brawl that trashes most of the bar)?

Dietrich is quite superb in the role of this enigmatic madam. Her distinctive singing is used liberally throughout the film. Which fits nicely with Frenchy’s role in the town as the glamourous distracting agent for the crimes of Kent (a smugly grinning Brian Donlevy). Not that she’s an innocent: she swipes cards from punters in crooked card games and knows full well Kent sends “out of town” anyone who crosses him. But there is something in Tom she finds intriguing, perhaps because he’s smarter, more interesting and different from any other an in this benighted outlaw stop-off.

It helps as well that there is a clear magnetic attraction between the two. Not to mention between Stewart and Dietrich – it’s no surprise, watching the film, to hear they had a passionate affair during its making. Stewart has never really felt sexier than here with Dietrich, while Stewart helps Dietrich feel warmer and more approachable than she ever did with Sternberg. The dance (literally at one point) between these two, captures in microcosm the struggle for the town’s soul: will Tom win them over, or will the gun-totting baddies?

Marshall doesn’t quite cap the film off as well as you might hope. Eventually, Tom is left no choice but to pick up his guns. The film does present a final shoot out quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before – ending in a battle-of-the-sexes brawl in the saloon, shot with an immersive comedy. But it doesn’t change the fact that Destry Rides Again can’t in the end square its circle: Tom may preach stern words over violence, but when push comes to shove only guns solve problems.

But you forgive it because this film is a hugely entertaining delight. There are a multitude of delightful supporting roles. Best of all are Mischa Auer is extremely funny as a Russian would-be-deputy who (literally) doesn’t wear the trousers in his marriage and Charles Winninger as the town drunk turned sheriff, who has a secret heart of gold even if he can’t tuck his shirt in (there is a lovely, late, call-back to this mannerism in the film from Tom that is genuinely moving). Destry Rides Again manages to be both a sort of spoof, but also a very real genuine Western, with a near perfect mix of jokes and action. It doesn’t quite manage to deliver on its concept, but it does more than enough.

She Said (2022)

She Said (2022)

Earnest, well-meaning but not entirely dramatic recounting of the New York Times investigation into Weinstein

Director: Maria Schrader

Cast: Carey Mulligan (Megan Twohey), Zoe Kazan (Jodi Kantor), Patricia Clarkson (Rebecca Corbett), Andre Braugher (Dean Baquet), Jennifer Ehle (Laura Madden), Samantha Morton (Zelda Perkins), Ashley Judd (Herself), Zach Grenier (Irwn Reiter), Peter Friedman (Lanny Davis), Angela Yeoh (Rowena Chiu)

In 2017, the New York Times published revelations about Miramax kingpin Harvey Weinstein that shocked the world. Weinstein had used his position to force his sexual attentions on anyone from aspiring actresses to employees, with a rap sheet of crimes ranging from gropes to rape. It shook Hollywood to its core. She Said is the dramatization of the investigation carried out by reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) who sought out the victims, won their trust and pushed the story through despite threats of legal action.

She Said is a worthy, well-meaning film. It has moments of genuine power and its recreation of the testimony of the victims is tragic and heart-rending. But yet… I didn’t find it dramatic. I was left wondering, why did this true story of journalistic tenacity not carry the same impact as Spotlight or All the President’s Men?

Perhaps it’s because the film doesn’t really cover this story as an investigation. There isn’t the sense of facts slowly emerging to form a horrifying picture, or one small incident ballooning into an earth-shattering scandal. Instead, Twohey and Kantor are certain they have the basic facts from the start, with the film being instead a reveal of how many cases there are, rather than an expose of a wrong. While this is still important, it isn’t necessarily always dramatic and, eventually, She Said starts to feel every minute of its two-hour-plus run time.

The real focus of the film probably should have been the journalists’ determined work to win the trust of the principal witnesses – in particular Jennifer Ehle’s Laura Madden, whose whole life has been partially in the shadow of Weinstein’s assault in the 90s. Kantor – played with an empathetic richness by Zoe Kazan – worked night and day to encourage these women to bring their stories to the public. Instead, the film gets distracted with trying to cover too much, both the famous and the unknown victims, and the peripheral presence of Rose McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd (playing herself) unbalance the movie away from the difficult, challenging – but more dramatically rewarding – work exploring office workers called into meetings to “massage” their gross boss.

It’s a shame the focus gets pulled away from these unknown women, who were little more than teenagers when Weinstein abused them in the 90s, since the sequences where they tell their stories are the ones that carry the most impact. There are superb cameo appearances from a trio of great actors. Ehle is superb as a woman resigned to trying to put things behind her, Morton brilliant as another prickling with rage and resentment, and Yeoh very good as a woman who never really managed to process her trauma. The careful, respectful, but deeply sad recounting of these women’s experiences by this trio are the film’s highlights.

Too much of the rest of the film gets bogged down in editorial procedure and the flat collecting of facts. It’s a bad sign when the film has to continuously state the “danger” the characters are facing while investigating and how every wall has ears. While Weinstein was a horrible man, terrifyingly powerful within his industry, I find it a stretch when (unchallenged) a character fears Weinstein will have him killed. I can’t see Weinstein hiring a hitman or utilising the sort of espionage techniques that would make the FBI jealous.

The film also struggles to get to grips with the depressing limits to any struggle for justice in the field of sexual harassment and assault. It starts by depicting Twohey’s investigation into Trump’s “locker room” pussy-grabbing “banter”, which peters out into a total failure to have any real impact at all. While the film suggests this as a motivating factor for the journalists to “get it right” this time, it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the limits of #metoo. It’s clearly very different to get Hollywood to clean out its house, compared to taking on someone with real power. Equally, the film gives no space to attempting to understand why Lisa Bloom, who represented victims of Bill O’Reilly and Trump, went to town defending Weinstein. There are interesting topics to explore here, but She Said wants to simplify its narrative down to goodies and baddies.

Time is also given over to the journalist’s home lives, none of which adds much to the overall narrative. Kantor’s relationship with a 10-year-old daughter just beginning to understand words like “rape” never quite solidifies into a thematic motivator. Twohey’s struggles with post-natal depression are bravely raised, but effectively disappear from the film (which makes me feel even a feminist film is squeamish about saying anything except motherhood is the dream for all women).

The final arc gets equally slightly bogged down in the fact-checking procedure. At times, the film has a little too much of a documentary feel, as if drama might have got in the way of the message. Despite this, there are some very good performances, with Kazan and Mulligan concealing mounting outrage under professional, dispassionate cool (Mulligan gets an outburst at a harassing bar patron, which does feel like too much of a “for your consideration” moment), even if we get little sense of who they are as people.

She Said is a very worthy look at a seismic news story, which never quite translates its coverage of impactful events into a truly compelling narrative.