Category: Murder mystery

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.

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.

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.

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

Cryptic puzzles abound in Greenaway’s debut, a striking, oblique country house murder mystery (with bodily fluids)

Director: Peter Greenaway

Cast: Anthony Higgins (Robert Neville), Janet Suzman (Virginia Herbert), Anne-Louise Lambert (Sarah Talmann), Hugh Fraser (Mr Talmann), Neil Cunningham (Thomas Noyes), Dave Hill (Mr Herbert), Michael Feast (Living statue), David Meyer & Tony Meyer (Poulenc brothers), Nicholas Amer (Parkes), Susan Crowley (Mrs Pierpont), Lynda La Plante (Mrs Clement)

Peter Greenaway’s work often feels more like complex, intellectual art projects than films. They are dizzying, mystifying morasses of symbolism, veiled hints, numerical games, puzzles and oblique references, all wrapped up in a stunning visual originality that speaks volumes for Greenaway’s instincts as an artist. All of which means to say, don’t come to a Greenaway film expecting such comforting things as plot or characters. The Draughtsman’s Contract was his first ‘narrative’ feature film and is still (perhaps) the finest example of his complex, challenging (and often, let’s be honest, frustrating) style. Constantly keeping you in your toes, there are few films like it out there.

Its 1694 and famed draughtsman Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins) is approached by country lady Mrs Hebert (Janet Suzman) to create twelve drawings of her husband’s expansive house and gardens, while her husband is away in London. Neville is less than interested in the commission – until Mrs Herbert agrees to his unusual terms that he will have complete control over the house and access to her person at any time that he wishes to “take his pleasure”. Neville sets about his drawings with the detailed fanaticism of a man determined to capture reality exactly as it is: but strange items and objects keep appearing in his panoramas, dutifully reproduced in his drawings. Mrs Herbert’s daughter Mrs Talmann (Anne-Louise Lambert) inveigles Neville into her own ‘contract’ for ‘taking her pleasure’. Is there is something going on in this house that Neville is unaware of?

Greenaway described the film as, in part, an Agatha Christie style murder mystery, with the unloved, bullying husband Mr Herbert as the victim. But then, in true Greenaway style, he also stated any explanation of the identity of the killers, their motives or indeed anything that could explain the crime was unnecessary because the clues were all there and any half-way intelligent viewer could figure them out. In many ways it’s a huge pleasure to have a director who treats his audience with such respect. It’s also an indication, perhaps, that plot was also the thing he was least interested in.

The Draughtsman’s Contract is a fascinating, immersive, coldly intellectual but endlessly puzzling film. Visually it’s like an art-history banquet. Images inspired by a host of the greats (and some lesser knowns) abound. From the film’s opening with its Caravaggio candle-lit interiors to its Hogathian interior shots, it comments throughout on the differences in art between representation and imagination. Neville believes art to be defined by its ability to capture reality: the idea of creation and invention is almost anathema to him, his art a careful preserving of events. It’s why he controls the conditions he paints in so absolutely and why he powerlessly includes the random pieces of clothing (among other things) that appear in his tableaus.

What is happening here? It’s clear something is going on. What slowly becomes clear to us as well is, that for all his slightly repellent arrogant and confidence, Neville has no idea what it is, or even perhaps that anything is happening at all. For all his bragging of his magnificent eye and ability to immediately perceive the smallest change he pretty much misses everything of consequence in the film. He detects no real ulterior mystery here because he seems to lack the imagination to grasp one, so preoccupied is he with his arrogant enjoyment of his commission’s benefits.

Greenaway presents Neville as the sort of pedestrian, camera-obsessed film-maker I imagine he scorns. Neville sets up his easels and perspective device (which even has a viewfinder) like a movie camera, obsessively fiddling with its set-up with never a thought for the deeper truth behind his striking images. Is this a comment on the lack of imagination in film-makers? Is Greenaway saying they are as bluntly obsessed with the beautiful cross-hatching of details stops them from creating something truly visually striking, or discovering the “spiritual truth” behind the details?

It’s that failure to pick up the spiritual truth that is Neville’s downfall. Slowly we realise the house’s owner is unlikely to return alive. The curiously artificial behaviour of everyone in the house, their sterile, detailed lives and obsessions with form, becomes overwhelming sinister. Neville however, charges about, aggressively pushing Mrs Herbert through sexual encounters (she even vomits after their first one – no Greenaway film is complete without every excretion the human body can produce), provoking her impotent son-in-law Mr Talmann (a vilely aristocratic Hugh Fraser) and endearing himself to no-one. It never occurs to him he might be being used.

Very few answers are spoken in the film. It’s left to us to figure out who might have committed the murder, and largely to surmise why two childless women allow Neville to take such liberties with them at a time of strict inheritance laws that denies rights to childless women. An elaborate trick is being played on Neville, dependent on his arrogant assumption that he is in charge. In fact, in his black clothes, loud voice and lack of over-elaborate hair and make-up, he is an out-of-his-depth outsider, even as he behaves with the rumbunctious confidence of a man at the top of the hierarchy.

Greenaway’s film is full of small curiosities that largely go unnoticed. Small details in the house are clearly out of period. A small boy sketches what looks like spaceships. Above all, the house’s grounds are populated by a nude living statue (played in a performance of physical dexterity by Michael Feast), painted grey, who seems to see and hear everything but is invisible to all. As to what this means, who can really say (Greenaway ain’t telling), although in true Greenaway style we get to watch him piss. Is it perhaps a comment on the increasingly obvious things Neville is missing? Or a sort of holy fool or Puck-figure, observing the mayhem with fascination?

This is a film that can get frustrating as its oblique conversations work overtime to obscure their meaning and intent. But it’s so marvellously, and intricately, assembled it just about gives you enough to fascinate to balance. The painterly shooting style – often with a static camera – is visually striking, as is the overblown grandeur of costume and design. Michael Nyman’s score – a remix of Purcell – is astoundingly good, subtle themes accompanying each action. The film descends into a bleakly terrible ending, that could sit comfortably in the worst kind of folk horror, as Neville discovers just how little he really saw while he was looking.

But it’s really an experience more than a film. Like a slice of recorded life carrying a deep allegorical message of mankind’s darkness in a way Greenaway, bless him, has the confidence we will get. There is a magnetic performance from Anthony Higgins, whose bombast and pride still somehow makes him just-about-sympathetic. An oblique commentary on art and life, The Draughtsman’s Contract offers no easy answers (or any answers at all really) but is full of images, moments and concept that will fascinate, appal and certainly stick with you long after it’s blackly nihilistic ending.

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.

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922)

Cinematic vampires are established – along with most of the finest horror filmic ideas – in Murnau’s iconic and masterful silent epic

Director: FW Murnau

Cast: Max Schreck (Count Orlock), Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter), Greta Schroeder (Ellen Hutter), GH Shnell (Harding), Ruth Landshoff (Ruth Harding), Gustav Botz (Professor Sievers), Alexander Granach (Knock), John Gottowt (Professor Bulwer), Max Nemetz (Captain)

Dripping with menace, a ghastly figure rises to spread his influence across the whole world. In a similar way, FW Murnau’s Nosferatu has wormed its way into the public consciousness, with its iconic film-making beauty, laced with menace and horror – and its iconic vision of the vampire as a creature of disgusting, animalistic viciousness still carries a ghoulish impact on vampire movies today. Murnau’s film is an extraordinary piece of bravura film-making, a breath-taking example of pictorial beauty, crammed with nightmarish imagery that cements itself into your brain.

If the plot sounds familiar, you share the view of Bram Stoker’s widow. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is arrives in Transylvania to finalise a land deal with Count Orlock (Max Schreck). But, staying in Orlock’s terrifying castle, Hutter starts to dread that his nocturnal, deformed host with the long teeth and nails might have more to him than meets the eye. Orlock wants to move to Hutter’s home in Wisborg to put himself out in the world – but increasingly also due to his fascination with a picture he finds of Hutter’s wife Ellen (Greta Schroeder). Leaving Hutter imprisoned, Orlock (coffins and rats in tow) climbs on board the Demeter and sets sail. Any wonder Florence Stoker sued?

It’s nearly a miracle we even have Nosferatu today. Florence Stoker won every single court case she ever fought against the filmmakers, with the verdict almost invariably being that the negative should be destroyed. Thank goodness we do have it though, as this is not only the finest adaptation of Dracula ever made but also a landmark horror film whose reputation has only grown. Murnau created a film that is darkly insidious, worming its way inside your head just as Orlock inveigles his way into Wisborg, marking forever everything it touches.

It’s remembered often as the height of German Expressionism: but really Murnau’s film is one of classical, painterly beauty. Although he can certainly use the power of montage effectively when he wants to – witness the thrilling cross-cutting as both Hutter and Orlock race back to Wisborg, one by sea, one by land – Murnau’s real power here is in his compositions. Few people could shoot vistas – be they town or country – with soulful searchingness like Murnau. From its opening shot of the Wisborg square, through its haunting visions of the Transylvanian countryside (shot with slow pans that drip with unease), this is a film that finds unsettling tension in the beauty of our surroundings. Throw in compositions inspired by painters like Caspar David Friedrich and (in a group of scientists gathered around a corpse) Rembrandt, and Nosferatu takes its place in the story of art.

But it also has a place firmly in the story of terror. That’s due, above all, to the terrifying design of Orlock himself. Played with a rigid unknowability by Max Schreck – the mystery of what motivates Orlock remains exactly that – Orlock looks like something out of the deepest reaches of our subconscious nightmares. Rat like, wizened, with ghastly elongated nails and teeth and a stillness that feels both hunched and rigid all at once, he is a natural predator. It’s surely no co-incidence that he resembles the rats that travel with him in the Demeter, and the interpretation of his attacks by the townspeople link us to what this spirit is: death itself, unreasonable and unstoppable.

Murnau often frames him in arches and doorways, as if he was constantly positioning himself in coffins. There are innumerable flourishes to cement the awful terror he carries. In one sinister sequence, he seems to rise, utterly straight and rigid, from his tomb. He appears to a sailor on the Demeter like a nightmarish transparent figure. Hutter opens his door at night in the castle to see Orlock standing outside, like a wolf waiting to strike. In one chilling sequence, the camera watches up from the hold of the ship as he haltingly walks, framed by the rigging, to consume the unseen ship’s captain. Ellen will stare out of her window at night to half see him in an upper corner of the building opposite, watching her. Orlock’s claws reach into everything from The Exorcist to BBC adaptations of MR James ghost stories.

There is seemingly nothing human about him. At night he transforms into a wolf – and Murnau went to great lengths to secure not a wolf, but a hyena as this night-time abomination, its twisted, grinning features and distinctive face reminiscent of Orlock’s own dreadful form. What motivates him? We are given no insight into what might influence or inspire him, the way we are with Dracula. Unlike Dracula he lives alone in his castle – no brides for company here. His victims are consumed and die: none turn. He expresses no interest in the wider world and seems focused on people solely as commodities to consume.

The one difference might just be Ellen. As Orlock goes to kill Hutter on his final night at the castle, Ellen awakens thousands of miles away in Wisborg, as if she knows her husband is in danger. And Orlock seems to sense it too. In a beautiful example of cross-cutting, Ellen is at the right of the frame starring to the left in Wisborg, while Orlock is at the left of the frame starring back to the right in Transylvania. It feels like they are looking at each other, even though of course they can’t be – and it forms a link between them whose motives are kept deliberately unclear. Does Orlock want to consume or ravish Ellen? Is she repelled or intrigued by this monster? While the film downplays the sort of sexual fascination that later Dracula films (and the novel itself) would play to the hilt, there are touches of it there (not least in the strangely chaste marriage between the Hutters).

Murnau experiments beautifully with the burgeoning language of cinema. The frame is given a tint at every shot to tell us when in the day we are: daylight is tinged in yellow, dusk and dawn in red and Orlock moves freely in the blue-tinged night-time. The camera is frequently fluid. There are some quite gorgeous – and terrifyingly unsettling – shots of the Demeter sailing, seemingly uncrewed, at sea (its sails filled with Orlock’s monstrous breath) then drifting controlled but abandoned into Wisborg harbour. As Hutter rides to Orlock’s castle the screen shifts to photo negative, as if he is crossing some terrifying boundary. Only one invention doesn’t pay off today: to Murnau, sped-up film was disjointed, unsettling and terrifying. To us it’s Keystone’s Kops stuff: watching Orlock’s carriage speed around is likely to raise a surprised titter, rather than a gasp of terror.

Other elements of Nosferatu have also not aged as well. The acting is frequently performative and stagy and varies wildly in style. Von Wangenheim and Schroder strike poses, Granach’s Renfield-like Knock goes wildly over the top. Shreck’s work is often done by the make-up, although his chilling stillness carries strength. It also takes surprisingly little from Dracula in terms of themes: any references to technology, the key weapon against the count, are dropped – even van Helsing is turned into a clueless dolt; the Lucy Westerna figure is little more than an extra; the victims are almost exclusively men and the response to Orlock’s ”plague” is medieval terror not modern reason.

But Nosferatu rides above this because it is such a chilling, elemental film about death and oblivion. It can only end with that as two characters are absorbed into a dance of death that closes the film (Murnau even stages what looks like a literal dance of death at one point, as enraged townspeople chase an escaped Knock, convinced he is to blame). The association of Orlock specifically with a plague, rather than a homicidal or sexual threat, is telling: this is vampirism as a destructive danger that strikes without reason, and leaves nothing (not even a dark afterlife) in its wake. It feels like a very post-World-War-One vampire story, where whole communities are left destitute by a terrifying event outside of their control.

Nosferatu looks simply sublime, and is the work of a master-director using his craft for the first time to make something truly unique, magical and genre-defining. Horror would wear a different face after Murnau’s masterpiece: a drained, pale, toothy grin that stares fixedly at us from across the void of our nightmares.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Luscious visuals, hilarious gags mix with an air of sadness and regret in Wes Anderson’s masterpiece

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (M. Gustav), Tony Revolori (Zero), F. Murray Abraham (Mr Moustafa), Mathieu Amalric (Serge X), Adrien Brody (Dmitri), Willem Dafoe (Jopling), Jeff Goldblum (Deputy Kovacs), Harvey Keitel (Ludwig), Jude Law (Young Writer), Bill Murray (M. Ivan), Edward Norton (Inspector Henckels), Saoirse Ronan (Agatha), Jason Schwartzman (M. Jean), Léa Seydoux (Clotilde), Tilda Swinton (Madame D), Tom Wilkinson (Author), Owen Wilson (M. Chuck)

I wrote recently I could forgive the flaws I’ve found in Kurosawa’s work, for the majesty of Seven Samurai. I can totally say the same again for Wes Anderson. He is a director I’ve sometimes found quirky, mannered and artificial – but God almighty he deserves a place in the pantheon for directing a film as near to perfection as The Grand Budapest Hotel, a delight from start to finish, as beautiful to look at as it is whipper-snap funny, as heart-warming to bathe in as it is coldly, sadly bittersweet. After three viewings I can say it is, without a doubt, a masterpiece.

Like many Wes Anderson films, its storyline is eccentric, halfway between fantasy and absurdity. In 1932, in an opulent hotel, The Grand Budapest, concierge Monsieur Gustav (Ralph Fiennes) is the pinnacle of his trade: precise, fastidious, perfectionist, he can fix anything anywhere – opera tickets, the perfect table placement and a night of passion at any time for the elderly widows who visit his hotel. When one of them, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies leaving him a priceless painting, Boy with Apple he suddenly finds himself framed for her murder. Only his ingenuity, and the dedicated help of his protégé, best friend and surrogate brother/son, lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) will save him.

You can’t escape on the first viewing that The Grand Budapest Hotel is an extraordinarily funny film. Crammed with superb one-liners, it’s a showcase for a breathtakingly, blissfully funny performance from Ralph Fiennes whose comic timing is exquisite and whose mastery of the perfectly structured monologue of flowery language is as spot-on as his ability to deliver a crude punch-line. Anderson fills the film with clever sight-gags, bounce and a supreme sense of fun. You’ll laugh out loud (I frequently do, and I remember most of the gags) and wind back to watch them again.

But what lifts this is the wonderfully evocative, elegiac piece this beautiful film is. For all its comic zip, it unfolds in a romanticised past already a relic in 1932. We can’t escape the rise of Fascism that fills the film. Jack-booted soldiers accost and hunt Gustav and Zero. Adrien Brody’s furious heir to Madame D looks like a Gestapo officer, and his vicious heavy Jopling (Willem Dafoe so weathered, he looks like he’s been beaten by a carpet duster) has a stormtrooper menace. En route to Madame D’s funeral, Zero is nearly dragged off the train to be lynched by fascist thugs for being an immigrant and The Grand Budapest is taken over by this dreadful movement, filled with Mussolini-inspired ZZ insignia and blackshirts.

Under the jokes, the world Gustav represents has already died and been buried. We are never allowed to forget we are marching, inexorably, towards a very real-world war that will rip apart this fictional country and leave millions dead. Gustav’s gentile old-school charm ended with 1920s: and he sort of knows it. Fiennes, under the suaveness, conveys a man who falls back into potty language when he can no longer maintain his assured confidence that a straight-backed, polite assurance will solve any problem or a poetic reflection will allow them to put any unpleasantness behind them. Those days are gone and it makes for a deep, rich vein of sadness just under the surface.

It’s particularly acute because it’s made clear this is a memory piece. Anderson constructs the film like a memory box. It has no less than three framing devices. It opens and closes with a young woman in 2014 visiting a monument to a great writer, the author of the book The Grand Budapest Hotel. From there we flash back to the author (a droll Tom Wilkinson) in 1985 recounting how he met the man who inspired the novel, before heading again to a flashback to the 1960s where the young author (Jude Law) meets the man we discover is an older Zero (F Murray Abraham) who recounts the story we then watch. Each layer of the film descends deeper into Anderson’s artificial, carefully structured visual style, with its heightened sense of reality.

Old Zero – beautifully played by F. Murray Abraham – is introduced as a man of acute loneliness and sadness, who tells us early on the woman his young self loves, Agatha (a radiant Saoirse Ronan) will die and shuffles around the nearly abandoned The Grand Budapest (now a concrete nightmare of Communist architecture) with only his memories for comfort. No matter how jovial and bright the events of the 1930s are, we can’t forget that these are the reflections of a man full of regrets.

When old Zero’s narration turns to remembering Agatha, the lights around him dim: Agatha even enters the narrative almost by the side door: Gustav is arrested and imprisoned before she appears, along with a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks to Zero and her meeting and her first meeting with Gustav, as if Zero had to steel himself to remember her (as reflected in Abraham’s tear-stained face). Later, when remembering the fates of Gustav (his best friend) and Agatha (the love of his life) he almost draws a veil over it (even their final scenes in flashback play out in monochrome). There is a deep, moving sense of humanity here, a powerful thread of grief that adds immense richness.

But don’t forget this is also a funny film! Anderson is an inventive visual and narrative director at the best of times, and here every single beat of his playful style pays off in spades. The entire 1930s section of the film (the overwhelming bulk of the narrative) plays out in 4:3 ratio, which to many other directors would be restrictive, but seems a perfect fit for a director who often composes his visuals with the skill of an expert cartoonist. The frame is frequently filled in every direction when within the grandeur of the hotel, but then feels marvellously restrictive for Gustav’s prison cell or the train compartments that seem to constantly carry Zero and him to disaster.

Anderson’s wonderfully precise camera movements also reach their zenith here. His camera is deceptively static, often placed in a series of perfectly staged compositions that places the characters at their heart, frequently looking at us. But then the camera will turn – frequently in a fluid single-plain ninety degrees to reveal a new image of character. There are Steadicam tracking shots that are a dream to watch. It’s combined with some truly astounding model shots (parts of the set are not-even-disguised animated models and miniatures, adding to the sense of fantasia) and the detail of every inch of the design (astounding work from Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock) is perfection. The film is an opulent visual delight.

It’s a film of belly laughs and then moments of haunting sadness. But also, a wonderful celebration of friendship. The bond between Gustav and Zero is profound, natural and deeply moving – grounded, fittingly, in adversity from the agents of a hostile, oppressive state – and carries real emotional force. Newcomer Tony Revolori is hugely endearing as naïve but brave Zero, making his way in this new world (fitting the theme, he left his homeland after his family was destroyed by war) and sparks superbly with Fiennes and Ronan.

There is a wonderful beating heart in The Grand Budapest Hotel, amongst the farce, perfectly timed gags and cheekiness, that makes it a rich film you can luxuriate in. Anderson’s direction is faultless, Fiennes is a breathtaking revelation, both hilarious, affronted, decent and fighting the good fight. Gorgeous to look at, thought-provoking and laugh-out loud funny it’s a dream of a film.

All This and Heaven Too (1940)

All This and Heaven Too (1940)

Illicit romance, murder, scandal… it should all be so much more exciting than this film makes it

Director: Anatole Litvak

Cast: Bette Davis (Henriette Deluzy-Desportes), Charles Boyer (Duke Charles de-Praslin), Barbara O’Neil (Fanny Sebastiani de-Praslin), June Lockhart (Isabelle de Choiseul-Praslin), Virginia Weidler (Louise de Choiseul-Praslin), Jeffrey Lynn (Reverend Henry Martin Field), George Coulouris (Charpentier, Harry Davenport (Pierre), Montagu Love (Army General Horace Sebastiani), Helen Westley (Mme LeMarie), Henry Daniell (Broussais)

In the 1840s, Henriette (Bette Davis) arrives as governess at the home of the Count de-Praslin (Charles Boyer). She’s calm, collected, patient and caring: in short she’s everything that the count’s wife Fanny (Barbara O’Neil) is not, and it doesn’t take the count long to work it out. With Henriette swiftly becoming a second mother to his four children, the count and Henriette find themselves falling, unspokenly, in love. But Fanny isn’t fooled – and neither is the gutter press – and as scandal brews, the count takes drastic action to stop his wife, leading to a legal case that will shock France.

All This, and Heaven Too was conceived as a sweeping romance to rival Gone with the Wind. Money was lavishly splashed on sets and costumes (Bette Davis has no fewer than 37 costumes in the film, averaging at one every five minutes). Based on a famous murder case – that some felt had contributed towards the anti-monarchy atmosphere that led to the revolution of 1848 – All This, and Heaven Too had everything on paper to challenge Gone with the Wind in romance stakes. So why doesn’t it?

There is something too restrained, too slow and controlled about the film. It’s overlong – the original cut was over three hours, reduced to 2 hours 20 minutes – and takes a very long time to get going. The two stars underplay very effectively – with Davis cast very successfully against type as a mousey, rather timid Jane Eyre-ish figure – but it also means that the sort of grand romance the film is aiming for never quite takes fire, for all the careful shots of burning flames between the two lovers as they discuss their romantic predicaments in roundabout terms.

Litvak’s film saddles itself with a framing device that, while accurate to the real-life story, adds very little. The film opens with Henriette teaching children in America – children who have no respect for her, having heard whispers of her scandalous past – which leads into her telling the story to them (and us) about her past. The film returns to this framing device at the end, but as a whole it provides very little insight or interest to the core thrust of the film’s action. The film also wastes time on Jeffrey Lynn’s Reverend (Heinrette’s future husband), a relationship that seems largely in there to absolve Henriette of any possible indirect responsibility for the murder (she can’t be a hussy, she marries a man of the cloth!).

A large chunk of the film is designed to minimise what was a major scandal that rocked French society. This was a (possible) sexual affair between an unhappily married aristocrat and the governess to his children. It culminated in the countess being stabbed and beaten to death and her blood-stained husband found on the scene, claiming he had fought and chased away an intruder (which, writing it down, is basically the plot of The Fugitive). He never confessed, but committed suicide via arsenic in prison a few months later. Henriette was arrested as an accessory (presumably for encouraging the count to kill his wife) but released.

This should have been racy, racy stuff – but the film shies away from it. It’s probably linked to the expectation that the Hays Code would never accept the idea of Henriette as an adulteress who never goes unpunished. The possible Therese Raquin style set-up is instead translated into a more Jane Eyre model, with the employer in love but the servant too noble to act on her feelings and expose herself to disgrace. The film does pull no punches in making clear that the count committed the crime (the camera zooming in on Boyer’s starring eyes as he advances on his pleading wife) but since he was always destined to meet a historical punishment (he helpfully absolves Henriette on his deathbed) there were no concerns there.

All This, and Heaven Too can’t have a passionate, lusty drama so it avoids any overt spark between Boyer and Davis. Both actors play this unspoken attraction extremely well, but the film has to work overtime to get drama out of their several scenes of standing carefully apart or side-by-side, talking about everything except their own feelings. Boyer, as ever, is first class: his expressive eyes and beautiful ability to listen and react is as perfect for an unspoken romance, as it is for a man who becomes convinced murder is his only escape. Davis’ meeker, Joan Fontainesque role suits her extremely well, even if it disappoints those expecting fireworks.

Those fireworks come from Barbara O’Neil instead, raving and unreasonable as a woman driven to the edge by this semi-imagined affair, in an energetic performance that gained one of the film’s three Oscar nominations. But the film’s strange momentum affects her too: she is left to repeatedly hit the same notes over again, as the film repeats its established set-up over and over for 90 minutes before she is murdered (then squashes everything connected to the historical scandal and the murder trial into the final 40 minutes).

It’s productions standards are high and it’s well shot by Gone with the Wind cameraman Ernest Haller. There is some beautiful use of shadows and several ball scenes are expanded with some gorgeous use of mirrors. It ticks many of the boxes you expect a period romance to have, but is fatally hampered by its caution and by its restrictive narrative choices. It ends up feeling long and drifts too often through its build-up, forcing it to rush its pay-off. All of this contributes to its lack of challenge to GWTW in the romance stakes.