Category: Kidnap drama

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.

French Connection II (1975)

French Connection II (1975)

Change of setting isn’t really enough to justify the existence of this half-hearted sequel

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Gene Hackman (Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier), Bernard Fresson (Inspector Henri Barthélémy), Philippe Léotard (Jacques), Ed Lauter (General Brian), Charles Millot (Miletto), Jean-Pierre Castali (Raoul Diron), Cathleen Nesbitt (Old Lady)

Did The French Connection really need a sequel? Friedkin’s original was a self-contained gem, based on a true story, that even ends with a series of “what happened next” captions. But there was enough of a foot in the door for a completely fictionalised resolution to fates left hanging. French Connection II has some similarities with the original, but it’s also a slight film caught even more obviously than the first between documentary realism and trigger-happy actioner.

The whole film feels like it has been assembled in a rush. The plot is incredibly slight. “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) arrives in Marseilles to help the police track drug kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Doyle doesn’t speak a word of French and charges around pissing everyone off and generally making a nuisance of himself. He’s grabbed off the streets by Charnier’s men. To get him to talk they spend weeks force-feeding him heroin until he’s hooked then cut off his supply. They then return him to the Marseilles police who lock him in a cell and help him go cold turkey. When he comes out if Popeye wasn’t mad before, he certainly is now.

That (long) sequence of heroin addiction and painful cold turkey is one of two things that really makes Frankenheimer’s sequel stand out. I think it must be what attracted Hackman to the film. Not only did the liberal Hackman (troubled by Doyle’s slight neo-fascism in the first film) probably enjoy the idea of seeing this guy hit rock bottom, it’s also an opportunity for an acting tour-de-force. Hackman is probably given more challenging material in this largely forgotten sequel than in his actual Oscar-winning role.

Weaned onto the drugs, Hackman’s body language shifts from defiant resistance to despondent, dope-strewn lethargy until he can’t be bothered to record the passing of days any more in his tally chart. He goes from being cuffed and dragged around, to blankly following his captors and rolling up his sleeve to accept another shot. But that’s nothing compared to the cold turkey scenes.

Locked up in a dingy cell under the police station (the French police worried about taking the blame and also feeling a brotherhood with this fellow cop), Doyle goes through withdrawal mourning – anger, bargaining and eventual grief – in a series of calmly shot, claustrophobic scenes that allows Hackman let rip. And he certainly does, deconstructing this proud man’s self-image until he’s a weeping mess, kicking doors, throwing food around and so full of self-loathing, he can barely face himself in the mirror. It’s hard to watch, and something truly unique – a twisted punishment for a drugs cop and a man who defines himself by his lack of reliance for anyone or anything else.

This long sequence takes up the centre of the film – and includes an equally difficult scene to watch, as Frankenheimer stages in (a single take) forensic detail the French police’s pumping of Doyle’s stomach to get a final (deadly) overdose out of his system. It’s quite unlike anything else I’ve seen before in a cops and robbers shoot-em-up (which is what most of the rest of the film, at heart, is) and you can guarantee it’s the one thing people will remember.

The other element that stands out is Frankenheimer’s – a long time Francophile – ability to shoot Marseilles not as a tourist destination, but a strikingly real urban environment. On top of this anti-picture-postcard environment, he stresses Doyle’s isolation. None of the French dialogue in the film is translated, leaving us as stranded as Doyle is in trying to understand what is going on and what people are saying. Doyle clumsily pantomimes for everything he wants, be that information from a suspect (he tries his toe-picking line to no effect what-so-ever) to a drink in a bar (a long exchange until he finally reaches an understanding with the barman on “whiskey”). Doyle, of course, has made no effort to learn any French and blunders about in a city he doesn’t understand, ruining operations and getting himself and others in trouble.

Aside from these moments though – and despite the film being well shot by Frankenheimer, with a nice continuation of the original’s drained out neo-realism – this is otherwise a conventional and unimaginative film that ticks a number of expected boxes. It has an action set-piece at a dry dock that feels unreal (and also copies the central idea of the car smuggling operation from the first film) and concludes in a chase and shoot-out that’s almost a copy of the original’s ending – with an ending even more sudden. For all Frankenheimer’s love of France, the film still has a suspicion for Europeans – be they smooth criminals or obstructive cops.

French Connection II tries a couple of different things, but never really makes a case for itself as a truly stand-alone film. It’s main rivalry between the hero and villain is dependent on having seen the first film and its slender plot veers into the sort of shoot-outs and set-pieces that don’t feel remotely like they are occurring in a ‘real’ world. It deserves credit for the bravery and honesty of its cold turkey sequence, but it’s a sequence caught in a film that otherwise offers little that’s truly unique.

Ransom (1996)

Ransom (1996)

Every parent’s nightmare gets tackled in this efficient, smart (but not quite smart enough) thriller from Ron Howard

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Mel Gibson (Tom Mullen), Rene Russo (Kate Mullen), Gary Sinise (Detective Jimmy Shaker), Delroy Lindo (FBI Special Agent Lonnie Hawkins), Lili Taylor (Maris Conner), Liev Schreiber (Clark Barnes), Donnie Wahlberg (‘Cubby’ Barnes), Evan Handler (Miles Roberts), Brawley Nolte (Sean Mullen), Paul Guilfoyle (FBI Director Stan Wallace), Dan Hedaya (Jackie Brown)

There is no greater fear for any parent than losing a child. Doesn’t matter if you are prince or pauper, the same heart-pounding dread is there. But sometimes the risks are greater if you a prince. Because the more money you have, the more likely a kidnapper might think you’d be willing to swop that money to get your kid back.

It’s what kidnappers decide when they take the son of Airline owner Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson). The kidnappers want $2million and no questions asked, in return for his son Sean (Brawley Nolte). Tom and his wife Kate Mullen (Rene Russo) are willing to pay – with the advice of FBI Agent Lonnie Hawkins (Delroy Lindo). But after the first bungled handover, Tom becomes convinced the kidnappers have no intention of returning his son alive. So, he takes a desperate gamble to try and turn the tables, much to the fury of secretive kidnapper (and police detective) Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise).

Ransom is a change of pace for Ron Howard, his first flat-out thriller. And it’s a very good one. Ransom has a compulsive energy to it, powered by sharp filming and cutting and some impressively emotional performances from the leads. It also takes a number of unexpected narrative twists and turns – before it reverts to a more conventional final act – and manages to keep the viewer on their toes.

Its main strength is an emotionally committed performance from Mel Gibson. Taking a leaf from Spencer Tracy’s book, this is Gibson at his best, very effectively letting us see him listen and consider everything that happens around him. Mullen is a determined man who plays the odds, and cuts corners only when he must – but is also convinced of his own certainty. He applies his own business learning – of negotiation and corporate deal-making – to this kidnapping, which is an intriguingly unique approach. Gibson’s performance is also raw, unnerved and vulnerable and he plays some scenes with a searing grief you won’t often see in a mainstream movie. Russo does some equally fine work – determined, scared, desperate – and their chemistry is superb.

Howard coaches, as he so often does, wonderful performances from his leads and from the rest of the cast. Gary Sinise turns what could have been a lip-smacking villain into someone chippy, over-confident and struggling with his own insecurities and genuine feelings for his girlfriend (a doe-eyed Lili Taylor, roped into kidnapping). Delroy Lindo is very good as the professional kidnap resolver and there are a host of interesting and engaging performances from Schreiber, Wahlberg, Handler and Hedaya. Ransom turns into a showpiece for some engagingly inventive performances.

Howard also triumphs with his control of the film’s set-pieces. The kidnapping sequence is highly unsettling in its slow build of the parent’s dread. The first attempted exchange is a masterclass in quick-quick-slow tension, with Gibson and Sinise very effective in a series of cryptic phone calls. The ransom phone calls are similarly feasts of good acting and careful cross-cutting, which throb like fight scenes. Howard understands that this is a head-to-head between two men struggling in a game of deadly one-up-manship, both of them constantly trying to figure out not only their next move, but the likely reaction of their opponent.

For much of the first two thirds of the film, Ransom is very effective in its unpredictability. There is a genuine sense of dread for how this might play out and the radical changes of plan both sides of the kidnap play out land events in a very different place than you might expect at the start. The more hero and villain try to out-think each other, the murkier the plot becomes.

It’s unfortunate that the final third devolves into a more traditional goody/baddy standoff with guns, punches and our hero reasserting his control (and the safety of his family) through the fist and the trigger. But then I guess in the 90s you couldn’t have a Gibson film without a bit of action. But when the film focuses on the thinking, talking, slow-burn tension and the sheer terror of parents who have lost a child, it’s a very effective and tense film that stands up to repeat viewings.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough are superb in unsettling drama Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Director: Bryan Forbes

Cast: Kim Stanley (Myra Savage), Richard Attenborough (Billy Savage), Nanette Newman (Mrs Clayton), Mark Eden (Charles Clayton), Patrick Magee (Superintendent Walsh), Gerald Sim (Sergeant Beedle), Judith Donner (Amanda Clayton), Ronald Hines (Constable)

Myra (Kim Stanley) and Billy (Richard Attenborough) Savage are a middle-aged couple held together by shared grief for a lost child. Myra works as a medium with the spirit of their son, Arthur, as a spirit guide. But grief has had a damaging impact on them both – and Myra believes her work can bring some life back to their lost son. Keen to gain more recognition – and therefore for their son – she urges Billy to kidnap the daughter of a rich couple, so that she can “discover” the child through her spirit guide. However, events soon spiral increasingly out of control.

Bryan Forbes writes and directs (and produces, with Attenborough) this unsettling and often tense film, which shares DNA with ghost stories (but contains no terrors) and psychological dramas. It’s also a superbly acted chamber-piece, an acute psychological study of two deeply traumatised individuals who have responded very differently to personal tragedy and found themselves locked into cycles of behaviour that are becoming increasingly destructive.

Forbes shoots the film with a fly-on-the-wall intensity, giving the exterior scenes a cinéma verité style, concealed cameras capturing unwitting crowds walking blithely through a kidnap drama. There is a kitchen-sink realism here, and elements of psychological hammer horror, with the viewer never quite sure how far this couple will be willing to go. The eerie score by John Barry, mixes in with hauntingly dominant sound designs (especially of dripping water in the film’s opening moments) to create an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere that leaves you not in the least surprised that the psyche of its two lead characters have been so badly damaged.

That sense of disturbance fits perfectly with the lack of planning around the couple’s entire operation. Despite sparks of ingenuity (many of them dependent on Billy’s bland forget-ability and bank-managerish blending into the crowd), once the child has been kidnapped, they have no idea of the next step or how (or even, it seems, if they want to) exploit the situation. It becomes increasingly clear that the plan is not a grand design, but a final desperate attempt to find meaning in their own lives and (certainly in Myra’s case) to provide some sort of connection to their lost son.

That lost son hangs over the whole film, his pointedly not-real ghostly presence having contributed hugely to Myra’s mental disintegration – and also having crushed the life out of Billy. Myra has clearly never recovered from the shock and grief – more facts of which are revealed as the film plays out, culminating in a scintillating scene of emotional confrontation between the two – and Billy, in a desperate attempt to comfort his wife, has instead become the chief enabler of her fantasies.

It makes for an elegant two-hander of stirring emotion – and requires two actors at the peak of their game. As Myra, the little-known Kim Stanley is a sensation. A Broadway star (the “female Brando”) but with only one film credit prior to this (and only three more after this), Stanley brings a brilliant method technique but also a freshness and theatricality matching perfectly the film’s theatrical roots and heightened sense of reality. Stanley delivers an immersive performance that walks a fine tight-rope between calculation, delusion and psychological collapse. It’s a show-piece role, but Stanley largely avoids overplaying, instead exploring the deep emotional scars in the character with a sensitivity that makes Myra someone to pity as recoil from.

Opposite her, Attenborough delivers one of his finest performances as the complex, conflicted Billy. Seeming at first just a brow-beaten husband, it becomes clear Billy has in fact taken on a great emotional responsibility for protecting and comforting Myra, a dedication that has (step-by-step) led to him catering to her every misguided demand. It’s a generous, very subtle performance, of a fundamentally good man who performs misdeeds because he believes it is for the greater good, confusing love for his wife with refusing to make her confront reality.

These two excellent performers perform a complex dance where our perception of the power dynamics in the relationship constantly shift. At first Myra appears to hold all the aces, brow-beating the meek Billy and lecturing him on everything from the spirit world to classical music. However, it slowly becomes clear – as does Myra’s lack of grasp of reality – that Billy is the quieter but stronger character, whose dedication and strength has kept the couple going.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is at its best when exploring the relationship between these two and provides two fine actors magnificent opportunities which their seize with relish. Its pace flags a bit over the two hours – a tighter 90 minute run time would probably have helped it – and while it’s lack of drive in the plot does reflect the confused ambling scheme at its heart, it does mean the film can drift. But this is a fine psychological study, well-made and superbly performed.

Midnight Special (2016)

Michael Shannon is the loyal dad in Midnight Special

Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Michael Shannon (Roy Tomlin), Joel Edgerton (Lucas), Kirsten Dunst (Sarah Tomlin), Adam Driver (Paul Sevier), Jaeden Lieberher (Alton), Sam Shepard (Pastor Calvin Meyer), Bill Camp (Doak), Scott Haze (Levi), Paul Sparks (Agent Miller)

At some point around its original release, someone attached the label “Spielberg-esque” to Midnight Special. I suppose this may be due to its father-son central relationship and its rough similarities to Close Encounters. But it’s a label that does the film no favours. JJ Abrahms would create a Spielberg-esque film, but Jeff Nichols? Pull the other one. Instead Jeff Nichols creates a sci-fi film that wilfully avoids explanations and turns its back as often as it can on any sentimentalism. It’s more like James Cameron crossed with existential philosophy. It certainly won’t be offering up easy entertainment.

Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) is on the run from the law with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), helped only by his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Alton has mysterious powers – glowing eyes, elements of telekinesis and the ability to intercept electrical signals – that have made him a target for everyone from the government to a cult that has kept him under lock and key for years, believing he holds the key to surviving the inevitable apocalypse. Alton has an aversion to sunlight which means our heroes can only travel at night, heading towards a secret location, trying to stay one step ahead of the dangerous figures following them.

Nichols film is almost too elliptical for its own good. But then I think this is partly Nicholls point. He’s looking to subvert a few expectations here. To create a sci-fi, other-world chase movie that’s wrapped itself up in enigmas. Sadly, I think to have enigmas like this become truly engaging, you need to form a connection with the film itself – and Midnight Special fails too much here.

It keeps its cards extremely close to its chest – it only begins to dive into any sort of explanation about what’s going on over halfway into the film, and even then this is kept vague and undefined. There is virtually no exploration given of most of the characters of their backstory, bar a few key points. It’s a chase movie which frequently slows down to a crawl. It’s a science fiction film that’s largely confined to the ‘real’ world. It’s a father-and-son on the run film, which separates these two characters for a large chunk of its runtime. All this makes it very difficult to form an emotional attachment with, in the way you do with, say, Close Encounters or The Terminator (both of which leave traces in this film’s DNA).

Not that I think Nicholls will mind, as this is an attempt to do something different, more of an existential musing on humanity. Its unfortunate that this was exploration of personal regrets and tragedies against a backdrop of earth-shattering sci-fi revelations was done more absorbingly in Arrivalamong others. Compared to that, Nicholls film seems almost a little too pleased with its deep (and in the end slightly empty) mysteries and its opaque characters, many of them defined more by actions and plot functions rather than personality traits.

There’s strong work from Shannon as a father desperate to do the right thing and Lieberher as young boy who becomes calmer and more in control as the film progresses. But we never quite learn enough – or understand enough – about either of them to really invest in their fates.

And without that investment, its hard to worry in the same way about what might happen to them – or to really care about the revelations they are seeking to discover by the films conclusion. The film could counterbalance this if the ideas behind it were fascinating enough. But I am not sure they are. It touches upon questions of faith, parental love, destiny and human nature – but it studies them like they were under a microscope. Ideas are there to be excavated from it, but that doesn’t always make for great story-telling. Take the cult: there are fascinating ideas about the honesty (and pervasions) of faith, contrasting this perhaps with the overwhelming faith the father has in his son’s fate. The film introduces this – and then doesn’t really give it any depth.

It’s a problem all across the film. It’s partly a meditation on human progress and enlightenment – but the film never makes a compelling case or intellectual argument about it. Again there’s some great opportunities here, not least with Adam Driver’s fine performance as a sceptic turning believer – but it even that plotline eventually gets reduced to simply allowing someone to move from A to B for plot purposes. The film – for all the skill it’s made with and the obvious talent of Nicholls – is cold and distant.

And a cold and distant film is eventually going to get that reaction from a lot of its audience. Those who can see its merits, but never engage with it – or care about it – enough to really seek it out.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

lady vanishes
May Whitty is searched for by Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in The Lady Vanishes

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Iris Henderson), Michael Redgrave (Gilbert Redman), Paul Lukas (Dr Hartz), May Whitty (Miss Froy), Cecil Parker (Mr Todhunter), Linden Travers (“Mrs” Tothunter), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), Basil Radford (Charters), Mary Clare (Baroness), Catherine Lacey (Nun), Googie Withers (Blanche), Sally Stewart (Julie)

In his conversations with Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut declared every time he tried to study The Lady Vanishes, all its tricks and mechanics, he always ended up too wrapped up in the plot to notice them. It’s about as fitting a tribute as a film can get, that it got one of the world’s ultimate film buffs just sit down and enjoy the ride. The Lady Vanishes is Hitchcock’s penultimate British film and it might well be one of the most enjoyable and entertaining films he ever made.

It’s late 1930s in Europe and a group of mostly British travellers have got stuck waiting for a train in the fictional country of Bandrika (but it’s clearly Germany). Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is on her way back home to (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) get married, exasperated by the loud noise made in the room above through the night by folk music expert Gilbert (Michael Redgrave). Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) are cricket obsessives, desperate to get home for the big test match. Mr Todhunter (Cecil Parker) is a lawyer, keen not to draw attention to the fact Mrs Todhunter (Linden Travers) isn’t actually his wife. When the train finally leaves the station the next day, Iris is hit on the head by a plant plot (was it pushed?) that very nearly hits governess Miss Froy (May Whitty). Miss Froy takes care of Iris on the train – but when Iris wakes after a rest, she finds Miss Froy has disappeared and – furthermore – everyone denies she ever existed in the first place. While a Bandrikan psychiatrist Dr Hartz (Paul Lukas) claims she may be suffering from concussion, only Gilbert believes her story. Will they be able to prove Miss Froy is real and rescue her from whatever peril she has found herself in?

Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes shouldn’t really work – not least since it takes nearly 20 minutes before we get any indication that we are watching anything other than a romantic comedy. But perhaps that’s also why it works, because those first 20 minutes are beautifully scripted, with some cracking dialogue and some skilfully drawn character work that invests us in these people long before any danger arises. It also serves as a brilliant counterpoint to the nearly non-stop tension and action that comes in the final hour of the film – who could have believed that all that light hearted banter in a guest house could end in a ruthless shoot out in the woods?

It all seems to change pace on a classic Hitchcock touch – a folk singer is suddenly, violently, strangled by an unseen assailant (why? I’ve no idea. The film doesn’t think you’ll care about the logic gap, and you don’t). But a large part of the film’s success stems from Hitchcock’s collaboration with Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder on script-writing duties. Gilliat and Launder made a number of changes to the original novel, adding a greater espionage element. Even more importantly, they overhauled several of the characters, not least changing the Gilbert character from an engineer into a charming (if eccentric) folk music expert with a deadpan wit. Even more successfully, they introduced the hilarious ultra-British Charters and Caldicott, classic eccentric grown-up public schoolboys with a fascination with cricket (the combo was so popular Naunton and Wayne played versions of these characters another eleven times).

The script’s wit, playfulness and scintillating dialogue is what drives most of the film’s energy – and certainly what helps to make it as entertaining as it is. In particular, the dialogue exchanges between Lockwood and Redgrave hum with the sort of love-them-hate-them banter that wouldn’t seem out of place in a screwball comedy (“You’re the most contemptible person I’ve met in all my life!” “Confidentially I think you’re a bit of a stinker as well”), and the two actors shine in roles that start with classic feuding but subtly and beautifully come together as a romantic couple by the film’s end. Lockwood has pluck, guts and determination, a mix of socialite and head girl determination. Redgrave is superb as Gilbert, showing the sort of matinee idol wit and charm – not to mention an unconventional romantic sex appeal – that he very rarely got to exhibit again (sadly he didn’t get on with Hitchcock, and never worked with him again).

The film is full of wit and invention, but mixes it with a properly engrossing mystery. Every character has very clear reasons for denying the existence of Miss Froy (May Whitty is superb as a seemingly dotty old woman, hiding cunning and an unexpected capacity for action). We know that of course Iris is right – but even so, it’s hard not to begin to suspect that maybe the oily Dr Hartz (Paul Lukas whose professional smoothness neatly tips into cruelty) is right and she is suffering from concussion. The unravelling of this mystery is half Agatha Christie (vital clues pop up here and there), half famous five adventure – but the nearly “real time” playing out of the mystery injects huge amounts of tension and excitement, particularly as the villains start to be revealed.

The film also serves, interestingly, as a plea for British invention in European affairs in the era of appeasement. The train is stuffed nearly exclusively by Brits, most of whom are quite content at first to let things drift and not rock the boat. However, when the chips are finally down and its time to make a stand, the majority of the characters knuckle down and get their hands dirty to fight for justice. Even Charters and Caldicott take up arms (with a typical British reserve) to protect their fellow passengers, while Gilbert has already shown himself capable of being a man of action (as well as a pretty neat impressionist and physical comedian) when called upon. It’s telling that Cecil Parker’s Mr Todhunter is the nearest thing we see to an appeaser on the train (with a fear-and-hope-tinged expectation that everyone is playing by his own antiquated rules), and he’s the only one who angrily questions taking a stand.

It’s not surprising from Hitchcock, who made an even more passionate plea for intervention a few years later with Foreign Correspondent. Neither is it a surprise how superbly the film is made. Hitchcock is at the top of his game here, shooting the train brilliantly (the set was tiny, not that you could tell from the number of angles Hitch finds here). His mastery of the pace and tone of the film is spot on: the second half never lets up, and you never for one minute lose the film’s wit, even while the stakes become more bigger and bigger. The film has possibly the most winning romantic pairing in all of Hitch’s movies, helped hugely by the natural and winning playing of Redgrave and Lockwood. It so successfully builds up the possibility of Iris being mistaken, that it makes the audience start to question what they’ve seen.

It’s a superbly directed film, but above all it’s supremely entertaining in a way few other films can hope to be. Its re-watch value – from hearing the jokes again, to spotting the early clues – means it will be rewarding audiences for decades to come.

Captain Phillips (2013)

Tom Hanks is kidnapped by pirates in Captain Phillips

Director: Paul Greengrass

Cast: Tom Hanks (Captain Richard Phillips), Barkhad Abdi (Abduwali Muse), Barkhad Abdirahman (Adan Bilal), Faysal Ahmed (Nour Najee), Mahat M, Ali (Walid Elmi), Michael Chernus (Shane Murphy), David Warshofsky (Mike Perry), Corey Johnson (Ken Quinn), Chris Mulkey (John Cronan), Catherine Keener (Andrea Phillips), Max Martini (SEAL commander)

The best of Paul Greengrass’ directorial work brings documentary realism to compelling real-life events, laced with tragedy. He’s made extraordinary films about Bloody Sunday and 9/11 and bought his unique style to Jason Bourne and the Green Zone of Iraq. Captain Phillips continues this, bringing to life the true story of the hijacking of the container ship Maersk Alabama and the kidnapping of its captain Richard Phillips. And this is a brilliantly tense and dynamic film which seizes the viewer in a vice-like grip and never once lets up for a moment of its runtime. 

Tom Hanks plays Richard Phillips, dedicated and professional merchant captain, whose ship is eventually seized by four Somali pirates, led by Abduwali Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who landed BAFTA and  Oscar nominations for this work here). Phillips is determined to protect the crew (who are hidden around the ship), while the pirates are desperate for a life-changing score that could free them from lives of crushing poverty in Somalia. With such high stakes to play for, Phillips and Muse find themselves engaged in a battle of wills and wits – but with only one of them armed with a gun.

Greengrass’ film is almost unbelievably tense. From the first appearance of Muse’s skiff off the Maersk Alabama to the film’s end, Greengrass manages to keep the audience on a knife edge for over two hours – this despite it being based on a true story where we know the hero will come out in one piece. Shot in the typical Greengrass style, with an at-times jittery handheld camera – brilliantly shot by Barry Ackroyd, a master of this style – this is an immersive drama to an extreme degree. You really do feel part of the action, with the immediacy of the shooting infecting the entire viewing experience.

This is powered further by Greengrass’s superb work with actors – and he draws some marvellous performances here. Tom Hanks – inexplicably not nominated for an Oscar – gives a near career best performance as Phillips. Hanks’ natural skill at playing regular, relatable guys in impossible situations is perfect for Phillips, but he mixes it here first a slightly stern authoritative distance Phillips has with the crew and a deep sense of duty. On top of which, thrown into an impossible situation Hanks has Phillips walking a tight-rope of being seen to co-operate with the hijackers, while trying to work against them, while simultaneously becoming increasingly frayed around the edges. The final sequences alone – of a shocked and emotionally exhausted Phillips – were deserving of the highest honours, raw and honest work from Hanks who confirms he is a great actor.

To go toe-to-toe in scenes with Hanks would be a challenge for most actors – imagine how difficult it must be for a first time performer. Chosen from thousands of applicants, Barkhard Abdi is superb as Muse. Confident, determined but quietly, unspokenly, out of his depth, Muse is determined not to be taken for a ride, but also desperately improvising – a man who feels he doesn’t have choices in his own life, so must cling to an opportunity no matter how remote it becomes, until the bitter end. Abdi is fierce and strong – “Look me in the eye – I’m the captain now!” he firmly tells Phillips – but as the film progresses, it’s clear his control over the other pirates is loose and, smart as Abdi is, he’s also naïve in how much power he holds against the might of the US military sent to free Phillips.

Greengrass’ film skilfully adds enough beats of the poverty and desperation of Somalia to avoid these pirates ever becoming just faceless heavies and thieves. The group are introduced in a poverty-stricken fishing village, Muse choosing from dozens of desperate volunteers to man his crew. Muse stresses to Phillips that while there may be more choices than fisherman and pirate, in Somalia there aren’t – and that international shipping lines have disrupted the traditional fishing areas around the Somali coast. These are desperate and determined men –not blindly evil – and they need a massive score – the $30k they’re offered from the ship’s safe isn’t going to cut it.

The film brings this intensity into play for every action of the pirates. Early on, the smallness and decrepitude of Muse’s skiff is compared frequently with the height and vastness of the Maersk Alabama, with the pirates’ daring and dangerous boarding of the ship as tensely involving as the ship’s crew’s struggle to evade them and protect their own lives.

The wide open vastness and hide-and-seek of the Alabama is then expertly swopped for the claustrophobia of the escape ship that the four hijackers and Phillips spend the final hour of the film on. Here anger rises within the ship – cramped, hot, low on water, with some of those in the ship badly wounded – while outside, the US military masses to prevent the ship making it to the Somali shore. Any idea that the pirates will triumph is removed – but the tension still exists as to how Phillips himself can survive a situation on his small boat that is spiralling faster and faster out of control.

All this superbly marshalled by Greengrass from start to finish, the film a masterclass in wringing every drop of expectation and investment from a compelling real-life story. With wonderful performances from the two lead actors, the film never once lets up in its electric pace and all-pervading sense of danger. With Hanks and Abdi superb, it’s a film that won’t let you go for a second. Inexplicably, despite a Best Picture nomination, the main elements of its success (except Abdi) – Hanks, Greengrass and Ackroyd – all missed out on nominations. That’s the problem when you are so skilled you make it look easy.

Being John Malkovich (1999)

A portal into the head of a famous actor? What better way to find out what it’s like Being John Malkovich

Director: Spike Jonze

Cast: John Cusack (Craig Schwartz), Cameron Diaz (Lotte Schwartz), Catherine Keener (Maxine Lund), John Malkovich (John Horatio Malkovich), Orson Bean (Dr Lester), Mary Kay Place (Floris), Charlie Sheen (Himself), W Earl Brown (JM Inc Customer)

Is there a more consciously eccentric film ever made than Being John Malkovich? Can you imagine the pitch to the Hollywood suits? 

Our hero, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a weedy, bitter puppeteer (as well as creep and potential stalker), whose wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) fills their house with rescue animals, from talkative parrots to a chimp with PTSD. Needing to make ends meet, Schwartz takes a filing job at a company based on floor 7½ of an office block (it’s a low ceilinged floor built between the other two floors – it’s cheaper on the rent obviously) where he becomes obsessed with his sexy co-worker Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener), who is resolutely not interested. But all this changes one day when Schwartz finds a fleshy, dark tunnel behind a filming cabinet that takes someone into the mind of actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich) – for 15 minutes, before expelling you onto the New Jersey turnpike. Sounds like a business interest for Schwartz and Maxine (spend 15 minutes in someone else’s body!), but the experience of being in someone’s body slowly begins to change Schwartz, Lotte and Maxine – and having his brain invaded has a terrible impact on Malkovich himself.

If that’s not the oddest plot you’ve ever heard, then I don’t know what films you’ve been watching. The film was the brainchild of Charlie Kaufman, who developed from this into one of the most distinctively gifted screenwriters in Hollywood, a master of the quirky and weird, the off-the-wall and the science fiction tinged everyday fantasy, blessed with the ability to mix in genuine human emotion amongst the oddness. 

Being John Malkovich is an inspired idea and Kaufman’s script is ingenious in its structure and progression. Never once does the film settle for the expected narrative development or the conventional structure. It’s a livewire of a film that constantly leaves you guessing, switching tone and throwing logical but unexpected plot twists at every turn. There are plenty of moments where you could expect events to take a conventional turn, but the film never settles for the obvious.

Kaufman’s inspired script was lucky enough to find a quirky visual stylist who was willing to embrace it as much as Spike Jonze did. Jonze’s direction is a masterclass in small detail, slight twists and little touches of invention that never draw excessive attention to themselves but combine to make a thrillingly off-the-wall final picture. 

Jonze knows that the jokes and surrealism of Kaufman’s script are so effective that they don’t need a firm directorial hand to lean the humour on – they work absolutely fine presented almost as written, and make for terrific entertainment. He shoots the low ceiling of floor 7½ with such straightforward confidence that each scene becomes hilarious for its stooped actors and crammed rooms. Jonze can therefore concentrate the flourishes on core moments, from the puppetry that Schwartz and later a Schwartz-controlled Malkovich make their life’s work, to assorted training and educational videos that pepper the film at key moments.

Like Kaufman as well, Jonze’s storytelling works because he inherently understands human emotion and isn’t afraid to throw it into the film alongside the humour. Plenty of directors would have been happy to have all the principals settle into being comic stereotypes, or overplayed pantomime figures. Jonze encouraged the actors to find the depth – and sometimes the darkness – in their characters, to ground the film effectively with touches of real life tragedy and human flaws that give weight to the surreal sci-fi elements – so much so that they start to feel as real as the rest.

John Cusack’s Schwartz is a bitter, increasingly twisted fantasist and dreamer – the sort of guy who believes that his lack of willingness to compromise his art in any way is a strength (his puppetry shows are highly complex, sexualised, high-blown, poetry-inspired hilarious puffs of pretension). Schwartz could have become a joke or a guy with a big dream – but the film increasingly shows him to be a dark, obsessive, cruel even dangerous outsider, who has no problem with harming other people to get what he wants, his moral compass is driven by his self-assessment of himself as a man treated badly by others, so doing what he wants is somehow deserved. It’s an increasingly dark portrait of a man who has more than hint of danger to him.

Keener, as the focus of his obsession, also does extraordinary work as a woman the film is not afraid to present as unpleasant in her selfishness, casual cruelty and greed – but a woman who slowly allows herself to open up and reveal an emotional openness and romanticism someone watching the start of the film would never expect. Similarly Diaz’s downtrodden, sad wife at home flourishes and grows as a person, as she finds in herself a new comfort and ease with who she is, from inhabiting the mind of another person. Both are excellent.

The film explores fascinating ideas of identity – Lotte and Maxine find a freedom and an exciting otherness in being a passenger in another person’s body, and use it as voyages of self discovery for themselves. Schwartz on the other hand sees this body – just as he sees all human beings – as just another puppet for him to control, another way of adjusting the world to match his requirements, rather than change anything about himself. While some lose themselves in Malkovich’s body and find the experience rewarding, Schwartz can only find happiness when bending the body to his own will.

And what of Malkovich himself?  Well has there ever been a braver performance in film? Malkovich is superb as an arch portrait of himself as a rather self-important actor, with an unknowable coolness about him, an intellectualism that makes him a man easy to respect but strangely hard to relate to, a face that is distinctive but a strangely unrelatable style that makes him hard to remember (it’s really an extraordinarily funny and brave performance). As Malkovich realises what is happening to him, the film plays with real beats of tragedy and even horror – what would it be like to be forced into being a passenger in your own head? This is nothing compared to the horror Malkovich encounters when he enters the tunnel himself – to find himself in a world where everyone looks like Malkovich and can only speak using the word “Malkovich”.

Being John Malkovich uses its surreal ideas to explore profound – and even chilling – ideas of control, destiny, personality and identity. With several superb performances, a brilliant script and controlled and intelligent direction, it’s a film unlike any other – and continues to delight and surprise twenty years on from its release.

Missing (1982)

Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek are on a quest for the Missing

Director: Costa-Gravas

Cast: Jack Lemmon (Edmund Horman), Sissy Spacey (Beth Horman), John Shea (Charles Horman), Melanie Mayron (Terry Simon), Charles Cioffi (Captain Ray Tower), David Clennon (Consul Phil Putnam), Richard Venture (US Ambassador), Jerry Hardin (Colonel Sean Patrick), Janice Rule (Kate Newman), Richard Bradford (Andrew Babcock)

Politically motivated American films are few and far between, especially ones that take such a starkly critical view of American foreign policy. So it’s a testament to the respect given to Greek director Costa-Gravas that his first American film is an angry denunciation of America’s attitude towards Latin and South America and a criticism of the cosy assumption of so many of its citizens that the very fact of their being American will open all doors and make them invulnerable to harm. 

Set in the immediate aftermath of Pinochet’s military coup in Chile in 1973 (although for various legal reasons Chile itself is never named), young American journalist and filmmaker Charles Horman (John Shea) goes missing. His wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) is left alone in the increasingly dangerous city, while his father Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) flies into the country. Ed assumes his government will swiftly work with him to solve the mystery, and that his son must have been wrapped up in some dodgy dealings to have gone missing. He is to be brutally disabused of both notions with a painful swiftness, as he finds he and his son are insignificant factors in America’s geopolitical interests.

Costa-Gravas’ film wisely avoids focusing too much on the details of Chilean politics, or the causes of the coup, or even really concentrating on the left-wing politics of many of the American citizens wrapped up in the coup. Instead it zeroes in on the human impact of loss and pain, and by focusing less on the politics of a coup but on the impact of it, it places the audience attention instead on the atrocities that military revolutions bring. Alongside this, Costa-Gravas places front-and-centre of the story not a firebrand liberal, or a left-wing polemicist, but a character who could not be more of a strait-laced conservative, a quintessential American who firmly believes his country is the greatest in the world and heads into a foreign land anticipating doors will be opened for him and his government is here to help. 

It’s vital for the film’s success that it’s the experience of Ed Horman that drives the film narrative. First appearing 25 minutes into the film, the rest of the narrative charts Ed’s growing shocked realisation that his government doesn’t give a damn about his son and, even worse, is more than happy to lie to his face about the level of their involvement. While Ed believes America to be the font of all goodness in the world, he is horrified to discover that it is at the centre of a far more shady world of realpolitik. And that his own complacent belief in the country, and unquestioning assumption that it can do no wrong, is part of what empowers its representatives to back murderous regimes. “If you hadn’t been personally involved in this unfortunate incident, you’d be sitting at home complacent and more or less oblivious to all of this” the Ambassador haughtily tells Ed, after the frantic father has angrily denounced America’s policies. And, from what we saw of Ed at the start, he’s right.

It’s a superb role of growing disillusionment and a stunned realisation that his own home-grown principles and believe in truth, justice and the American Way turn out to be just words. And Jack Lemmon is just about the perfect actor for it. This might be Lemmon’s finest performance, superb from start to finish, a perfect emobodiment of All-American principles that disintegrates into someone angry, bitter and disillusioned. But at its heart as well – and the films – is the very real grief of a father who has lost his son. Worse, a father who only feels he grows close to – and understanding of – his son after losing him. Lemmon’s performances mines every ounce of empathetic sympathy from the role, in a series of heartbreaking moments as Ed begins to realise just how much he has lost in a son he begins to feel he never gave a chance.

This very personal story is at the centre of the film, but Costa-Gravas never for one moment allows us to forget – or avert our eyes – from the horrors coups like this bring. By not naming Chile, it manages to make this the face of all brutal revolutions. As characters move through the streets, or squares, in controlled, carefully framed long-shots and takes we see all around, uncommented on by the camera, unfocused on by the director, the signs of brutality. Throughout the film the background action sees casual arrests, violence, assaults, book burnings, bodies being left in the street or thrown into trucks… All around ordinary people keep their heads down or run for terror. Curfews leave people trapped outside – Sissy Spacek (very impressive) as Beth is caught out and is forced to spend a night hiding in the porch of a hotel, while gun shots ring out around the city (a regular soundtrack for every scene).

The investigation into Charles’ disappearance is pushed forward not the embassy – which presents a series of acceptable faces of the new regime and a smiling reassurance that every thing is being done – but by harried and scared survivors and asylum seekers in European embassies, who tell snippets of the events they have seen, the deaths they have seen glimpses off, the horrors of detention centres. It’s finally dragged home to Ed and Beth as they are taken to an office block with every room containing executed corpses, some identified some not, the bodies piled on every floor of the building. 

In all this America – and shady military and industrial interests – are complicit, and the executions and deaths of citizens of this country (and a few Americans who unwisely mixed themselves up in it) are seen as acceptable collateral damage, the price of doing business to protect American financial interests. The Government is happy bed fellows with murderers and crooked officials, and the idea that the death of one American citizen is going to matter at all is nonsense. Costa-Gravas’ film has a firm point to make – but it makes it within the context of a very human and personal story. “They can’t hurt us, we’re Americans!” are Charlie’s final (on-screen) words: in this attitude he’s as naïve as his father, and he clearly believes just as much in the divine goodness and special status of his homeland. America has no special or outstanding moral character: it’s as mired in dirty world realities as anyone else. This rude awakening will cost the son his life and cause untold grief to his father as well as shattering all his cosy greatest generation idealism.

The Collector (1965)

Samantha Eggar is held captive by Terence Stamp in the unsettling The Collector

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Terence Stamp (Freddie Clegg), Samantha Eggar (Miranda Grey), Mona Washbourne (Aunt Annie), Maurice Dallimore (Colonel Whitman)

A lonely butterfly collector wins the pools. He’s rich, he can have everything he wants – but he’s still an outsider who can’t get a girl. Surely if a woman would just get to know him he’d find love. So the easiest way of doing that is probably kidnapping the woman you had a crush on at school, locking her in a carefully furnished basement in your Tudor mansion house and just wait for her to fall in love with you. Sounds like a perfect plan right?

William Wyler’s adaptation of John Fowles’ best-selling literary first novel sees Terence Stamp as the maladjusted loner and Samantha Eggar as his victim. It’s fascinating reading about the film today and the attitudes and perceptions towards it. Today the film is chilling in the obsessive, dangerous, self-pitying self-justifications of Freddie Clegg. But in the mid-60s a number of reviewers commented on the pity they felt for the kidnapper, and even expressed that in many ways he was acting on fantasies every healthy man has had (they haven’t). Quite rightly the film comes across differently today, a far more unsettling and disturbing portrait than it did at the time.

Wyler’s direction is intimate and a fine mixture of the theatrical – with its often single locations and two-actor scenes – and cinematic, particularly in the way he subtly builds up a Hitchcockian level of tension around the possibility of discovery and escape for Miranda. Sure visually he is a little too much in love with the crash zoom on key items (chloroform for example in Freddie’s car), and devices that seem a little too obvious (like the use of black and white for the film’s only significant flashback) but he mounts the entire film with an unsettling claustrophobia that works very well.

Further he draws out two fantastic performances from the leads. Terence Stamp was not a natural choice for the shy, timid outsider turned abductor – he’s obviously way too handsome and physically assured for the role – but he marshals very well the blinded arrogance of a man who believes the whole world would march to his tune if it only stopped and listened. His Freddie Clegg is softly-spoken, polite and controlled – so much so you almost forget how insane he is. Stamp also does a remarkable physical performance, making himself seem shorter and less dynamic than he really is, his body language having more than the hint of the schoolboy about it. Domineering, controlling, bullying and totally incapable of internal analysis of his actions. 

You realise watching the films events unfold – and Freddie’s inability to analyse the emotional truth behind them – that he is alone because he fundamentally doesn’t understand human relationships. While many of the (male) film reviewers at the time found this strangely tragic, today it’s hard to feel anything but contempt for his cruel self-pity.

The more difficult role falls to Samantha Eggar as Miranda. Wyler’s attempt to get the best performance from here seems pretty kin to the abduction the character goes through in the film – she was kept in isolation on the film set, Stamp was instructed to not talk to her outside of shooting while Wyler constantly held the threat of dismissal over her. More than a few echoes of Hitchcock in that – and Wyler’s praise on the film’s completion for Eggar’s (Oscar nominated and Cannes Award winning) performance as more than a whiff of self-praise to it. But Eggar herself is superb as a woman who oscillates between panic, desperation, ingratiating kindness, anger, contempt and fear. Miranda is a woman who tries everything she can to get out of this situation, only to constantly butt heads against the twin devils of her countryside isolation and Freddie’s own lack of emotional and intellectual intelligence.

Because the film interestingly makes clear what a tedious and not-very-bright monomaniacal man Freddie is, compared with the educated and quick-witted Miranda. When she tries to engage him on a discussion about modern art, he is utterly incapable of beginning to appreciate artists such as Picasso (‘It doesn’t look real’), completely fails to grasp any of the ideas in The Catcher in the Rye (the book she suggests he reads) or their relation to him, and is drawn only towards the blandest, most traditional drawings that she creates while whiling away the time in captivity. He fanatically collects butterflies, rooms lined with framed specimens that he can discuss in detail but with no concept of their beauty. Every time Miranda tries to scratch the surface of Freddie to connect with him she constantly discovers he has no depths at all, he’s a little boy lost in the world who can’t understand why he can’t collect people with the ease he catches and kills butterflies.

Whether the film has some sympathy for Freddie is less clear. Maurice Jarre’s luscious score certainly seems to suggest we should feel something for this misguided guy, but today it’s almost impossible to do so. The film works just as well without those feelings of implied sympathy though, which is a tribute to Wyler’s even-handed and controlled direction. Certainly Miranda’s fear and oppression are easy to connect with.

Is this a Stockholm syndrome film? Miranda – an intelligent and cunning woman – quickly realises that while she is the victim, Freddie’s desire to be seen as sort of chivalric gentleman does give her some power over his treatment of her – he wants her to fall in love for real with him. How much does she start to feel sympathy for this misguided loner? Is there any hint of real feeling at any point in her eventual attempt to seduce him (I doubt it heavily watching the film, but I may be adding a modern perspective, as I suspect Wyler wants to leave a hint there – again the score supports this feeling a bit)? I’m not sure – but the film’s eventual ending does leave little doubt that Freddie is a dangerous man, and the world is a less save place with him in it.

The Collector isn’t perfect – and perhaps its attitudes have dated – but it still has a real skill to it, some wonderful scenes – and two terrific performances from its lead actors, who I think have never been better than they are here. Wyler’s last success – and you can see his debt to the later work of Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock in each frame, even while he fails to match either of them – it still makes for an unsettling, troubling and fascinating watch.