Category: Small town drama

The Quiet Man (1952)

The Quiet Man (1952)

Ford’s sweet and funny Irish fable is possibly his most purely enjoyable film

Director: John Ford

Cast: John Wayne (Sean Thornton), Maureen O’Hara (Mary Kate Danaher), Barry Fitzgerald (Michaleen Oge Flyyn), Ward Bond (Father Peter Lonergan), Victor McLaglen (Squire Will Danaher), Mildred Natwick (The Widow Sarah Tillane), Francis Ford (Dan Tobin), Eileen Crowe (Mrs Elizabeth Playfair), Arthur Shields (Reverend Cyril Playfair), Charles B Fitzsimmons (Hugh Forbes), James O’Hara (Father Paul), Jack MacGowran (Ignatius Feeney), Sean McClory (Owen Glynn)

John Ford wasn’t born in Ireland, but he loved the place in the way only the child of ex-pats could. The Quiet Man is a loving, romantic, almost fairy-tale view of Ireland, an affectionate feelgood fantasy that transcends any possibility of patronising its subject through its warmth and charm. It’s an unashamedly feel-good film, a delightful fable full of luscious scenery and tenderly sketched characters that plays out like a warm end-of-term treat where we are all invited to the party. It’s possibly Ford’s most purely enjoyable and heart-warming film.

Set in 1920s Ireland, Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returns to his childhood home of Inisfree after growing up and becoming a boxer in Pittsburgh. Sean loves his home country, but with his American upbringing is out-of-step with the customs and traditions of Ireland – something that becomes very clear when he falls in love with Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara), sister of local squire Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen). Their rules-bound courtship – overseen by matchmaker Michaleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) – eventually leads to marriage, but via tricking Will, who withholds Mary Kate’s dowry, the sign of her independence. Mary Kate wants Sean to fight for it – but the former boxer is haunted by the accidental killing of an opponent in the ring and wants to live-and-let-live. Problem is everyone, from Mary Kate down, sees that as cowardice.

Ford was desperate to make The Quiet Man, the rights for which he had paid $10 for in 1933 when the short story was published by Maurice Walsh (Ford ensured Walsh received another $5k when the film was finally made). B-movie studio Republic Pictures was the only one willing to take a punt on it. But, alarmed by Ford’s insistence to shoot in colour and (even more expensively!) on location, they were convinced they had a box office bomb on their hands. They insisted Ford and his cast made a western first – the literally for-the-money Rio Grande – to cover the expected losses. They even demanded Ford couldn’t make it longer than 2 hours. Ford screened the final 2 hours and 9 minutes cut to them, stopping the film on exactly the two hour mark and asking them what they’d cut. They released the film unchanged. The film was an Oscar-nominated smash-hit.

It’s not a surprise why, because the film is a whimsical delight. Ford isn’t often remembered for his sense of fun, but The Quiet Man is unarguably funny. It’s crammed with sight gags – from sly double takes (there is a delightful one from the railway station workers, who watch first a determined Sean then a horse walk straight past them), to Sean and Will grimacing in pain but smiling as they exchange a brutal handshake, to Mary Kate jumping over obstacles as Sean drags her back to the village to have it out with her brother. It famously ends with an extended comic set-piece as Sean and Will launch a mano-a-mano “Queensbury Rules” fistfight that takes most of a day, moves across the whole village, and is interrupted only by a break for a pint.

All of this takes place in an Ireland that, while it never feels entirely real, is drawn with such loving affection and cast with such careful exactitude that it hardly matters. Ford’s insistence on shooting all the exteriors on location paid off in spades. The country has never looked more ravishing than through Winton C Hoch’s technicolour lens. Rolling vistas, gentle brooks, quaint villages, perfect beaches. You totally understand why Sean, on arrival, simply stands on a stone bridge and stares across the valley of Inisfree, lost in memories and his emotions.

Sure, it’s a romantic vision. And 1920s Ireland wasn’t the sort of haven depicted here, where Catholic and Protestant lived in perfect harmony, politics never reared its head and the local IRA man is a jolly joker in the pub. If The Quiet Man had not been so well-meaning, you can imagine people taking offence at a picture of the country full of roguish charm, horse-drawn carriages, drinking and fighting. (You could say The Quiet Man shaped many Americans’ perceptions of what the country is like.) But Ford never makes any of this a subject of humour. In fact, it’s a subject of love. The joke is never on the Irish. Inisfree is in fact a haven of community spirit, a supportive village where its people are wise, caring and decent, tradition is respected and what people say and do matters.

It’s why so many are shocked by Sean’s seeming cowardice at not raising his fists earlier. That’s not what “men” do. John Wayne is very effective as the easy-going Sean, a guy who just wants to settle down to marriage. It’s a decent playing-against-type by Wayne, that balances his quiet sense of dignity with the sort of manly determination we know will eventually come through. It’s easy to see why he and Mary Kate fall in love. Also, why she is both swept up in his masculinity and also enraged that he doesn’t behave enough like a man, by refusing to take a stand to defend her honour and secure that dowry that will make her a true wife.

O’Hara is marvellous in a challenging role as Mary Kate. This is a feisty and determined woman, who knows what she wants but denies to herself what that is. She and Wayne share a striking, windswept early kiss – her mood in it going form surprise, to fascination, to irritation, to surrendering to her own desires. While you could suggest the film’s comic set-piece of Sean dragging her (sometimes literally) back to the village so she can watch him fight her brother the way she’s demanded from the start feels uncomfortable today, but it’s also Sean not only delivering what she has wanted him to do from the start, but also strangely the thing that finally bonds them together.

A bond is what they have, both of them straining against the confines of the courtship rules of Ireland. Together they flee the chaperoned carriage ride Michaeleen (a delighful Barry Fitzgerald) takes them on to ride a tandem through the streets. Mary Kate constantly, bashfully, tries to go after what she wants – and a large part of that is the lurking “bad boy” tendency that she detects under the surface of the quiet Sean. Something her less-bright brother Will can’t see.

Victor McLaglen (Oscar-nominated) swaggers, slurs and puffs himself up as this rough-and-tough, punch-first-think-later bruiser, who constantly thinks he’s being cheated. He and Wayne throw themselves into the long dust-up that ends the film with the same comic energy and enthusiasm they did exchanging handshakes. Part of The Quiet Man’s success comes from the comfort and familiarity the cast felt for each other. The trip to Ireland was like a friends-and-family holiday: old mates like Ward Bond, Ford’s brother, O’Hara’s brother, Wayne’s children – they all round out the cast. It helps build even more the family and community feeling that makes the film a delight.

Above all, The Quiet Man leaves you with a smile on your face. With expertly filmed set-pieces – a horse race, Sean and Mary Kate’s long walk back to Inisfree and the epic punch-up – combined with luscious shooting (also done with wit – a sexually frustrated Sean pounds through the countryside, tossing heavily puffed cigarettes aside, after Mary Kate withdraws favours) – it’s also fast-paced, witty and warm. The cast even effectively take bows as Ward Bond’s (his finest hour) priest delivers a final voiceover. Full of affection and charm, it’s a delight and is perhaps the only foreign “Irish” film that has been embraced by the Irish.

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

Director: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Colin Farrell (Pádraic Súilleabháin), Brendan Gleeson (Colm Doherty), Kerry Condon (Siobhan Súilleabháin), Barry Keoghan (Dominic Kearney), Pat Shortt (Jonjo Devine), Jon Kenny (Gerry), Brid Ni Neachtain (Mrs O’Riordan), Gary Lydon (Paedar Kearney), Aaron Monaghan (Declan), Shelia Fitton (Mrs McCormick), David Pearse (Priest)

Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) are life-long friends on the small Irish island of Inisherin. Until one day, in 1923, Colm bluntly says he won’t speak to Pádraic again as “I just don’t like ya no more”. What on earth has led to this seemingly permanent severance? Did Pádraic do something wrong? The torment of not knowing will create a huge strain on Padraic, who prides himself on “being nice” and can’t understand why the older Colm doesn’t want to chat him. Just as Colm can’t understand why Pádraic can’t leave him alone, especially as he is almost universally agreed to be dull. Eventually this blunt stop to a friendship swiftly escalates out of all control.

McDonagh’s film is packed with the scintillating dialogue you would expect, and he combines it with an intriguing, tragedy-tinged character study where two sympathetic characters tip themselves into destruction through the unwillingness of either of them to compromise. It’s no coincidence that the film is set during the Irish Civil War. Cut off from the mainland on their tranquil island (where life feels like it hasn’t changed for the best part of 100 years), the characters are disturbed from their own civil war, every now and again, by the sound of gunfire and explosions from the mainland. The Banshees of Inisherin can be seen as a commentary on civil wars: don’t they all start, essentially, from someone deciding they have had enough and “just don’t like ya” anymore?

This marvellously rich film boils down a whole country tearing itself apart over what sort of future it wants, into one personal clash over two people’s future. The future increasingly obsesses Colm, a man preoccupied with mortality (who assumes his life can now be counted in years rather than decades), suffering from depression, worried he will disappear leaving no mark. A talented fiddle player, he wants to be like Mozart, remembered decades later – and he can’t do that wasting time every day for hours on end listening to Pádraic talking about his “wee donkey’s shite”.

It’s a perspective on the future, that Pádraic just can’t understand. For him, what does it matter what people you’ll never meet think about you? What matters to him is that the people around him like him and remember him as a “nice fella”. Not in a million years does legacy occur to him: the familiarity of everyday being the same is the most comforting thing, and change a horrific and terrifying thing to be avoided as much as possible.

You can see all this instantly in Colin Farrell’s heart-rending performance as this gentle, fragile but unimaginative soul, heart-broken at the inexplicable loss of his best friend. The film is a striking reminder that, contrary to his looks, Farrell’s best work is in embodying lost souls, the sort of people never ready for the life’s hurdles. Pádraic certainly isn’t, and his attempt to process what has happened defeats him. A man who considers his pet goat his next best friend and is as reliant as a child on his sister, doesn’t have the ability to understand what Colm is driving at about mortality, assuming instead he will stumble across the right words to be welcomed back into Colm’s company. He becomes the unstoppable object, trying to batter down Colm’s wall of silence.

He’s onto a losing battle, as Colm reveals himself to be – either due to his depression or his just not caring any more – the immovable force. Wonderfully played with a tinge of sadness and a depression-induced monomania, by Brendan Gleeson, Colm is a decent guy in many ways but fails to appreciate or consider the effect his actions will have on others. Instead he is focused on achieving at least something notable from his life. It leads to dramatic steps to drive Pádraic away, Colm threatening to cut off one of his fiddle playing fingers every time Pádraic bothers him, a threat he transpires to be more than willing to carry out.

And so civil war breaks out. As well as the parallels with Ireland’s war, I also felt strong echoes of our own poisoned social-media discourse. By his own lights, Colm believes his sudden severing of contact with Pádraic is perfectly reasonable. Many people who have “ghosted” others no doubt feel the same. Colm is reasonable when he explains it, and he still steps in with silent acts of comfort and support when Pádraic falls foul of the island’s brutish police office. But he never considers the traumatic impact this unexplained change will have on Pádraic – or how flashes of kindness can be as cruel as hours of non-acknowledgement.

Radicalism, in civil war and social media, quickly takes hold. What else can you call Colm’s threat to slice off his own fingers (the fingers he needs to live his dream of fiddle-playing legacy)? Just like people blowing hard on Twitter, he needs to deliver or lose face. Pádraic makes angry, passionate condemnations of Colm in the pub, like he’s posting rants online. Things escalate to a point where no-one feels they can step away or backdown.

That’s the tragedy McDonagh identifies here. This one decision of Colm’s – no matter the motives – ends up having disastrous effects on both men. Pádraic changes from a gentle soul to someone capable of wrathful fury and lifelong grudges. Colm literally disfigures himself, guaranteeing he will never achieve the very thing he started this for. Could there be a better parable for the destructive nature of civil combat? Neither Colm or Pádraic are willing to compromise: what if Colm said he would only see Pádraic once or twice a week, eh? Just like Ireland, they burn the world down.

This all takes place in a rich framework, with McDonagh skilfully working in clever, challenging sub-plots. The legend of the banshee, who foretold death and enjoyed watching destruction, is woven throughout, embodied by the sinister Mrs McCormick (a ghostly Shelia Fitton). The most forward-looking person on the island is Pádraic’s sister Siobhan – brilliantly played by Kerry Condon – who finds herself wondering why on earth she stays in such a self-destructive small-world. Barry Keoghan (also superb) plays the universally acknowledged village dunce, who (if you stop and listen to him) quotes French and poetry and (for all his crudeness and lack of social graces) is clearly a man stunted under the heel of his abusive father, the village policeman.

As events escalate and rush out of control – McDonagh’s pacing is very effective here – the film slows for carefully judged moments of emotional power, from the burial of a beloved pet to a character weeping in bed at the painful choices that must be made. McDonagh has created a powerful universal metaphor for the dangers of extreme, definitive choices and a total rejection of compromise by boiling it down to the smallest scale possible.

And your sympathies ebb and flow, due to the beautiful performances from its leads. Farrell is heartbreaking, a memory you carry as he becomes more vengeful. Gleeson is coldly reasonable, even as we grow to understand his crushing sense of mortality and character-altering depression. These two actors power an intelligent and thought-provoking film that achieves a huge amount with subtle and rewarding brushstrokes.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

A small town family is corrupted by a malign force in Hitchcock’s favourite of his films

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Teresa Wright (Charlie Newton), Joseph Cotton (Uncle Charlie Oakley), Macdonald Carey (Detective Jack Graham), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Wallace Ford (Detective Fred Saunders), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton), Charles Bates (Roger Newton)

It’s a surprise to discover Shadow of a Doubt was Hitchcock’s favourite of his films (although the Master of Suspense was a notorious kidder). It rarely makes even the top ten of Great Hitchcock’s and for years was semi-forgotten in his CV. But delve into this small-town chiller and it becomes less of a surprise the master was so fond of it. Hitchcock’s first American-set film (his previous American films being British-set), this takes an idyllic, everyone-knows-your-name, no-doors-locked small town in California and injects into the middle of it a ruthless sociopath, as charming as he is shockingly ruthless. Doesn’t that sound like Hitchcock all over?

That small-town is Santa Rosa in California. There the Newton family is thrilled at the imminent arrival of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) from New York. None more so than his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright), a precocious teenager who shares her uncle’s wit and worldly wisdom. He arrives laden with gifts – but also dragging two police detectives and swirling rumours of terrible crimes. Surely Uncle Charlie – hero to all and idol of his niece – can’t also be the ruthless “Merry Widow” killer, dispatching aged widows for their riches? And, if he is, what on earth will Charlie do about it?

A lot of what would become Hitchcock’s central concerns in his later, darker, mature works make their inaugural appearance in this dark, creeping mystery. Everything in the Newton home is perfect, until they welcome Charlie, whose amiable greed and self-interest tarnishes everything he touches. Despite this, he’s the most likeable, charismatic, charming character in the film. So much so, a big part of us wills him not to be the murderer we can all be pretty confident he is. He’s far too exciting and dynamic for us to want him torn away from us!

The two Charlies are close – so much so Hitchcock would surely have dialled up the incestuous spark between them even further if he had made the film fifteen years later. They have a near supernatural mental bond, seemingly able to predict where and when the other might be. They laugh and flirt. In arguments Uncle Charlie grasps his niece like a frustrated lover, clutching her too him. As well as sharing many character traits (implying it would be easy for Charlie to become like Uncle Charlie) they’re closeness feels as much like a courtship as it does familial closeness. When Uncle Charlie takes Charlie to a gin bar to gain her confidence and support to hide from the cops, the entire scene feels like the appeal of a would-be lover.

It overlaps another theme future Hitchcock have taken further: the thin line between innocence and killer. Uncle Charlie and his namesake have a special bond. They share the same world-view and many of the same ideas. They’re both charismatic and natural leaders. They both feel stifled by this small-town world. They are both ruthlessly determined when roused. One of them might be innocent and one might be good – but how much of a push would it be to turn one into the other?

Hitchcock probes this possibility throughout in a film stuffed with doubles and duality. Both Charlies are introduced with similar shots of them lying in bed, being questioned by others. Later Uncle Charlie will inherit Charlie’s room in the house. Greeting each other at the station, they move towards each with mirroring shots. They share the same name. Twins, doubles, mirrors and the number two abound in the film – a marvellous blog here captures this all in far more detail and insight than I could here.

Uncle Charlie slithers into Santa Rosa like the serpent into the garden of Eden. He offers temptation left, right and centre. The Newton family receive lavish (stolen) gifts. His brother-in-law’s bank gets a investment from the cash Uncle Charlie carries around (he’s old fashioned you see). He laughs and jokes, reminds Charlie’s mother of the joys of her past and inveigles himself into the heart of the family (he even sits at the head of the table). But he’s also a dark, sinister figure, frequently framed at the top of staircases, marching inexorably towards camera and (in one stand out moment) breaking the fourth wall to address us directly while coldly, contemptuously outlining his theory about the pointless burden useless lives have on the rest of us.

He’s played with a charismatic, cold-hearted, jovial wickedness by Joseph Cotton. Cotton is so good as this on-the-surface amiable man, with a soul devoid of any love, it you’ll wish he’d got parts like this more often. Liberated from playing decent best-friends, Cotton dominates the film with a malignant charisma, married with a growing only-just-concealed desperation at the fragility of his fate. Opposite him, Teresa Wright is marvellous as a young woman who finds her sense of morality fully awakened into outrage by this dark presence corrupting everything in her life.

Corruption is central to Shadow of a Doubt – no wonder Hitchcock loved it – with Uncle Charlie turning everything in the simple, honest town into something darker and tainted by his very presence. There is an almost cliched home-spun decency about the town (almost as if co-writer Thornton Wilder was parodying his Our Town), serving to make Uncle Charlie’s modern sociopathy even more of a destructive force.

Shadow of a Doubt is directed with immense care, but a great deal with subtle flourish. Staircase shots abound, to stress sinister motivations, positions of weakness and unease. Characters lurch towards the camera frequently, as if the whole film was hunting us down. An air of menace, lies and danger builds inexorably as Uncle Charlie’s true-nature leaks out. There is also wit: not least from Charlie’s father (a jovial Henry Travers) and eccentric neighbour (a scene-stealing Hume Cronyn) gleefully discussing true crime throughout. There is also Hitchcock’s love of irony, not least in the fact Charlies problems are largely caused by his attempts to conceal a newspaper article that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

Hitchcock makes his cameo early on as a card player on a train journey. He’s revealed to be holding all the trumps. That’s how he likes it: and perhaps explains his fondness for Shadow of a Doubt. Low key but perfectly constructed, it’s a film that latches onto themes of corruption, dark temptation and ruthless violence. Film logic abounds – who cares that the detective’s investigation is so inept they’d never be employed again – and the second half is crammed with murder attempts as unsubtle as they are ingeniously dark. Shadow of a Doubt feels like a prototype for darker themes of obsession and temptation Hitchcock would explore in the future. Perhaps that’s why he was so fond of it: it’s where he started to spread his wings.

Zorba the Greek (1964)

Zorba the Greek (1964)

The popular image of Greece gets largely defined, for better and worse, in this flawed, over-long, tonally confused film

Director: Michael Cacoyannis

Cast: Anthony Quinn (Alexis Zorba), Alan Bates (Basil), Irene Papas (The Widow), Lila Kedrova (Madame Hortense), Sotiris Moustakas (Mimithos), Anna Kyriakou (Soul), Eleni Anousaki (Lola), George Voyagjis (Pavlo), Takis Emmanuel (Manolakas), George Foundas (Mavrandoni)

Basil (Alan Bates) a Greek-British writer, returns to Crete to try and make a success of his late father’s lignite mine and rediscover his roots. Joining him is Zorba (Anthony Quinn), a gregarious peasant, who believes in confronting the world’s pain with a defiant joie de vivre. In the Cretan village, their friendship grows and they become involved (with unhappy results) with two women: Basil with the Widow (Irene Papas), lusted after by half the village, and Zorba with ageing French former-courtesan Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova).

Zorba the Greek was based on a best-seller by Nikos Kazantzakis, directed by Greece’s leading film director Michael Cacoyannis. Matched with Anthony Quinn’s exuberant performance, it pretty much cemented in people’s mind what “being Greek” means. So much so the actual film has been slightly air-brushed in the cultural memory. Think about it and you picture Quinn dancing on luscious Greek beaches. There is a lot of that: but it’s married up with a darker, more critical view of Greek culture that sits awkwardly with the picture-postcard tourist-attracting lens used for Crete.

Nominally it’s a familiar structure: the stuffed-shirt, emotionally reserved, timid and sheltered, is encouraged into a bit of carpe diem by a larger-than-life maverick. As is often the case, he needs t build the courage for romance and work on an impossible dream. Zorba the Greek however inverts this structure: the main lessons Zorba teaches is that you have to meet disaster just as you would meet triumph: with a shrug, a smile and a dance. It’s decently explored – and it lands largely due to Quinn’s barnstorming iconic performance – but also slight message. And Cacoyannis never quite marries it up successfully with the tragic consequences in the film.

Shocking and cruel events happen to the two female characters. The Widow – never named in the film – is loathed and loved by the men of the village, because (how dare she!) she’s not interested in sleeping with them. Played with an imperial distance by Irene Papas, she is condemned as a slut the second she does make a choice about who she welcomes into her bed (Basil, once). Madame Hortense (played with a grandstanding vulnerability by Oscar-winner Lila Kedrova) enters into a one-sided relationship with Zorba. Led to believe (by Basil) Zorba intends marriage, she becomes a joke in the village. Both women’s plot end with shocking, even savage, results.

A braver and more challenging film than Zorba the Greek would have used these events to counter-balance the light comedy and romance of the Greek vistas and Mikis Theodorakis’ brilliantly evocative score, by more clearly commenting on the darkness and prejudice at the heart of the village. In this Cretan backwater, lynching is perfectly legit, women are public property and even our heroes powerlessly accept what happens as the way of things. A smarter film would have pointed out that, in a savage land, Zorba’s ideology is essential or had Basil question his romantic view of Greece once confronted with the barbarism it’s capable of. Neither happens. Instead, the fate of these women is just another of life’s curveballs – the very thing that Zorba has been trying to train Basil to look past. They become learning points on our heroes journey.

Cacoyannis’ rambling script makes a decent fist at trying to capture the mix of Greek life and philosophical reflection that filled Kazantzakis novel. But he fails to bring events into focus or make any real point other than a series of picaresque anecdotes. Tonally the film shifts widely: a boat journey to Crete is played as slapstick, the eventual fate of the Widow chilling horror, the relationship between Zorba and Basil a buddy-movie tinged with the homoerotic. It’s a film that tries to cover everything and ends up not quite exploring any of its successfully.

It’s most interesting note today is homoeroticism. Helped by the casting of Bates, an actor whose screen presence was always sexually fluid (and who is excellent here), it’s hard not to think that Basil and Zorba are most interested in each other. Basil gets jealous, moody and lonely when Zorba leaves for weeks to fetch “supplies” from a local town. Zorba is equally fascinated by the twitchy and shy Basil, coming alive with him in a way completely different to the gruffness he shows to the other characters. Most happy in each other’s companies, there’s a fascinating homoerotic pull here that the film skirts around (not least by making sure both men have female love interests).

Basil is a curious character, strangely undefined and ineffective who listens a lot to Zorba’s messages but seems to learn very little. When the village turns on the Widow he watches like a lost boy. Zorba effectively takes over his home. The one time he tries to live life to the full, it leads to disaster. He remains strangely unchanged by events, which I am sure is not the films intention.

This misbalance is because the film really should be about him and the changes made to his life. It isn’t, because Quinn dominates the screen. A Latin American who most people thought was Italian or Arabic, here becomes the definitive screen Greek. Quinn’s performance here is his signature, grand, performative but also sensitive and strangely noble under the surface, a bon vivant just the right side of ham. He makes Zorba magnetic and hugely engaging and it says a lot that the Greeks effectively claimed him as one of their own. But he does seize control of the film and tips its balance away from its central figure.

Zorba the Greek is a crowd-pleaser, show-casing Greece, that skims on making a more profound impact on how beauty and savagery can live so close together. It doesn’t want to sacrifice the romance too much by staring too hard at the brutality. Tonally, Cacoyannis doesn’t successfully balance the film and its overextended runtime stretches its slight message. But, with its marvellous iconic score and wonderful performances, it’s got its moments.

Peyton Place (1957)

Peyton Place (1957)

Small-town America is the home of hypocrisy in this ridiculously silly soap opera that spawned…a long-running TV soap opera

Director: Mark Robson

Cast: Lana Turner (Constance MacKenzie), Diane Varsi (Allison MacKenzie), Hope Lange (Selana Cross), Lee Philips (Michael Rossi), Arthur Kennedy (Lucas Cross), Lloyd Nolan (Dr Matthew Swain), Russ Tamblyn (Norman Page), Terry Moore (Betty Anderson), David Nelson (Ted Carter), Betty Field (Nellie Cross), Mildred Dunnock (Elsie Thornton), Leon Ames (Leslie Harrington)

Small-town America: what mysteries lie behind those white picket fences? If the small New England town of Peyton Place is a guide, all sorts of terrible things. Why is Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner) so afraid of sex and romance? Could her fear that the slightest kiss could turn her would-be-writer teenage daughter Allison (Diane Varsi) into a slut, be rooted in her own mysterious past? Why does Allison’s friend Selena (Hope Lange) fear her drunken and lecherous step-father Lucas (Arthur Kennedy) so much? Why is Mommas-boy Norman (Russ Tamblyn) so shy?

If that all sounds like the set-up for a great-big TV soap… well that’s because it essentially is. Peyton Place was a huge box-office success in 1957, but you can argue it found its natural home when it later mutated into a long-running TV soap. It’s one long onslaught of high-flung, ridiculously OTT events, all filtered through the sort of dialogue punctured by swelling music to hammer home the feelings. Peyton Place is completely disposable – but also strangely enjoyable, rollicking along like all the best soaps do, so full of events that you don’t have time to stop and realise how silly it is.

Adapted from a doorstop popular novel, screenwriter John Michael Hayes faced quite a task. The original was crammed with sex, foul language and everything from murder to teenage pregnancy, illegal abortions, rape and incest. That’s not exactly the sort of stuff the Hays Code dreamed of. Peyton Place: The Movie is almost a triumph in how much of this stuff it manages to cover, all in a very cunning, under-the-radar way. Sure, the rough edges are shaved off (and, of course, not the hint of a cuss word makes it to the screen) but it still manages to tick a lot of those boxes.

It’s all to hammer home the hypocrisy of small-town America. Curtain-twitching busybodies watch every moment, leaping for their phones at the merest hint of scandal: from kisses out of school to teenage kids skinny dipping (bet they can’t believe their luck when an actual murder happens). Peyton Place follows in Picnic’s footsteps (to which it is vastly superior, equally shallow but much less pleased with itself and far more entertaining) in exposing the hypocrisy of 50s America, where everybody goes to church and no-one practices the good-will and love it preaches (and yes, I know the film is set in the 1940s, but no one told the costume or production designers).

Peyton Place was littered with acting nominations (in a year where 12 Angry Men got none, for Chrissakes!). It’s a little hard to understand why, considering every part fits neatly into a trope. Lana Turner is the nominal lead as the frigid clothes-store owner who hides a secret shame (all about that long-lost husband) that gets in the way of her flirtation with the newly arrived schoolmaster (played with smug dullness by Lee Philips). But that’s only because she’s the most famous actor in it. Her performance sets a sort of template for mothers that would be repeated countless times.

The real leads (both Oscar nominated for Supporting Actress) are Diane Varsi and Hope Lange as the two teenagers at the heart of Peyton Place’s ocean of hormones (although, it being a 50s film, a smooch at a booze-free party is the furthest anyone goes). Varsi narrates most of the film as a precocious would-be writer, with several grandstanding scenes wailing at her mother for being so unfair. It’s a broad but engaging performance and she manages to make Allison not quite as wet as she could be. She also gets a shy romance with nervous Norman Page (a gentle Russ Tamblyn, also nominated): Norman is clearly closeted, struggling with his sexuality in a small town (“I don’t know how to kiss a girl” he says) but the film does its best to overlook this.

More engaging is Hope Lange, who gets the juiciest material to play. The film is surprisingly daring in staging her rape by her boorish step-father (a slightly too ripe Oscar nominated Arthur Kennedy, although still the most memorable male performance). Robson’s camera pans up from her being pinned down, to her raised hands and then finally cuts outside. Lange plays the trauma of this – including an unwanted pregnancy, removed by the Doctor in an abortion the film bends over backwards to make an accident-induced miscarriage – with a great deal of vulnerability and empathy, her shame and desperation rather moving.

It makes her the target for gossip. Peyton Place smugly ticks off small-town America for its gossipy meanness – while still peddling a message that, if we just followed the warmth of the best of small-town values, the world would be a better place – ending with Lloyd Nolan’s doctor delivering a pompous ticking-off to the town (from the witness box during a murder case no-less). Peyton Place at heart is a fairly conservative film, that ends with most people discovering their inner-goodness (apart from a few irredeemable harridans), and all wickedness resolved.

It’s directed with workmanlike professionalism by Mark Robson, but it didn’t need inspiration. It’s odd to consider this had nine Oscar nominations, since it feels like the sort of disposable mini-series Netflix throws together every week. Its main claim to fame might be that its quaint small-town smugness, masking a bucketload of scandal, served as the main inspiration for Twin Peaks (though dialled up to a whole other level of weird). It’s overlong, overblown and very silly, but because it doesn’t take itself seriously (unlike heavy-duty message film that year Sayonara, a silly soap that thought it was Pulitzer material) it’s actually ridiculously entertaining, in a totally trashy way.

Picnic (1955)

William Holden stirs up a small-town – and Kim Novak – in Picnic

Director: Joshua Logan

Cast: William Holden (Hal Carter), Kim Novak (Madge Owens), Rosalind Russell (Rosemary Sydney), Betty Field (Flo Owens), Susan Strasberg (Millie Owens), Cliff Robertson (Alan Benson), Arthur O’Connell (Howard Bevans), Verna Felton (Helen Potts), Reta Shaw (Irma Kronkite)

In a small Kansas town in the early 1950s, everything is sweet as apple pie. But under the surface, tensions bubble – and it only takes a stranger changing the status quo to make them explode. In William Inge’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning play – bought to the screen by original Broadway director Joshua Logan – that stranger is Hal Carter (William Holden), failed sportsman, actor and college drop-out, drifting into town looking for a new start from old friend Alan (Cliff Robertson). But Hal, an amiable screw-up, quickly puts himself in the middle of a love triangle between Alan and his girlfriend Madge (Kim Novak), the local beauty tired of being judged only by her looks.

All this eventually explodes into a series of furious confrontations where the true colours of various participants are revealed. In the 1950s Picnic looked like a criticism of the cosy conservatism of small-town America. But today, it actually feels more than a little nostalgic for the lost innocence of those times. Sure, some people in the town are less than sympathetic, or their lives have been crushed by the expectations of others. But generally, with its pastel colour palette and its generally fundamentally well meaning characters, it now feels a rather reassuring watch.

Like many films that pushed the envelope at the time, it also looks rather tame today. The film is strong on demonstrating the impact of the sexuality of a topless Holden on the women of the town – nearly all of whom go weak at the knees. But generally, the film’s sexual content now looks remarkably safe and gentle. A sense of powerful longing for something missing from their own lives does comes across strongly – Russell’s Mrs Sidney, worse for wear from drink, ends up feebly trying to pull up Holden’s trousers to look at his legs while dancing. But the sexual outbursts largely restrict themselves to that and a few passionate clinches.

Logan’s film throws in a few big visuals (such as the closing helicopter shot as a bus drives out of town) and clearly enjoys its location shooting, but remains stage-bound. Several scenes translate across exactly to backyard locations, the same sets in all but name that appeared on stage. It also struggles to fill the cinemascope screen, for all that James Wong Howe’s photography has a certain Autumnal beauty to it (you won’t see any vibrant greens, reds or yellows). In addition, many of the actors go for somewhere between naturalism and a mannered Broadway show-boating.

Perhaps the main issue is that film dwarves this slight and intimate story. Moments of intimacy that on stage you feel carry impact – heartfelt declarations and tortured confessions – don’t carry nearly so much on screen. In fact, the story ends up feeling rather slight and even predictable: the drifter has depths, but the town unfairly turns against him, the old-maid schoolteacher is deeply frustrated, the local beauty juggles depression, the good natured son of the local bigwig is a self-entitled bully. None of this really feels revelatory and, on screen, easily drifts by with little impact.

Logan’s stagy style also has a mixed impact on the acting with some going for a cinematic underplaying, and others inspired by a theatrical grandness to embrace the big moments. Leading the way in that camp is Rosalind Russell who gives a strong performance as the frustrated schoolteacher, but frequently allows herself to go a little too far in moments of emotional outburst. It’s particularly noticeable as she’s paired with Arthur O’Connell (reprising his Broadway role, and getting an Oscar nomination) who underplays with a quiet wit and honesty.

One of the film’s principle problems are with the two leads. William Holden gives a fine performance – fun-loving and kind but also cutting a rather sad and tragic figure behind the bonhomie – but is blatantly too old for the role. Hal is probably meant to be in his 20s – Holden was 37 and, with his craggy face, actually looks older. While it does add a level of Hal being increasingly irresponsible for his age, the part really means a charismatic youngster dripping sex appeal (think James Dean – Paul Newman was turned down for the part). Opposite him the inexperienced Kim Novak does, at times, give her line readings a striking genuineness but at others comes across as slightly wooden.

A stagy and slightly old-fashioned watch today, Picnic was nominated for several Oscars, but increasingly looks rather like a celebration rather than a gentle criticism of the small-town values it depicts.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

last picture show header
Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybil Shepherd are making the best of small-time life in The Last Picture Show

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Cast: Timothy Bottoms (Sonny Crawford), Jeff Bridges (Duane Jackson), Cybill Shepherd (Jacy Farrow), Ben Johnson (Sam the Lion), Cloris Leachman (Ruth Popper), Ellen Burstyn (Lois Farrow), Eileen Brennan (Genevieve), Clu Gulager (Abilene), Sam Bottoms (Billy), Randy Quaid (Lester Marlow), Gary Brockette (Bobby Sheen)

“Anarene, Texas, 1951. Nothing much has changed…” So went the tagline for Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Change, or rather the lack of it, is the heartbeat of this film. It’s small time (fictional) Texas town isn’t a million miles from the Wild West dustbowls. You feel nothing has really changed for decades, the same faces in the town have just got older. But the tagline suggests that, in many ways, the 1950s were not that different from the progressive 1970s. Sex and scandal lie under the surface of the town, with the inhabitants having little to distract them from boredom other than seducing each other. Unlike the sort of traditional films shown in the picture show – Father of the Bride or Red River – this town is just drifting, a change in America both round the corner but also feeling like something that would slide off the town like water from a duck’s back.

The film largely follows three high schoolers are preparing for graduation. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are on the town’s useless high school football team (a uselessness no-one will let them forget). Duane is dating Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), a woman just discovering the power of her looks – and Sonny longs for her himself. Instead, Sonny starts an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the overlooked, lonely housewife of his football coach. Romantic entanglements abound, but life drifts on with the younger generation thinking sometimes of the future, but really repeating the mistakes of the older generation – people like Jacy’s cynical mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn) and the owner of the town’s pool-hall, cinema and diner, the fading conscience of the town Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson).

Bogdanovich’s film was a sensation when it was released, a key part of the New Wave films in Hollywood. It has lasted, in the way other films from the period haven’t, because it has a subtly simple but compelling story, shot as a perfect fusion of French New Wave styles with John Ford and Orson Welles inspired classicism. Bogdanovich’s film buffery is obvious from every frame – not just from the film posters announcing what is being shown at the picture palace, but also from its loving use of French-style realism and lack of glamour, set and framed in the Fordian style, often stressing isolation, intercut with homages to Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil.

And in it we have a series of young people who seem to have no idea either where they, or the world is heading. Timothy Bottoms acts with such effortless naturalism, it’s easy to forget he is even acting at all. It’s a perfectly judged performance of a very normal young man, low on aspiration and inspiration, selfish in the way the young are but full of passion and regret. Jeff Bridges is similarly brilliant, playing a not-particularly smart (or particularly successful) school sports star in a performance completely free of any condescension or camera winking, but played with a charming honesty. These are supremely normal young men. Generally decent, well-meaning and naïve, not knowing what it is they want or need from life. They would fit as neatly into 1971, with their dreams, as they do in 1951. Especially as Duane packs off to head to Korea (no real difference from Vietnam).

And a lot of these dreams revolve around sex – and often sex with Jacy. Cybil Shepherd was a sensation on the film’s release, seen as the ultimate late-teen temptress and sexpot. But in fact, Jacy is (in her way) as much of an innocent as the others. She’s a woman only just discovering her own passions and longings. Who doesn’t want to become the jaded figure her mother has become – but working out the easiest way to get what she wants (be that a better boyfriend, better chances or even just some attention) is through using her physical attributes. Her sexual experimentation is, in a way, liberating – and just another attempt to find an answer to her own aimlessness. Sure – encouraged by her mother – she doesn’t invest anything emotionally in these entanglements. But is it really all that different from Sonny’s own using of Ruth Popper?

Ruth Popper is emblematic of the sadder older generation in the town. You can imagine they must have had hopes and dreams – or were once as breezily uncaring – as the younger generation. But they’ve found out, just as they will, that things don’t change. That you can blink and find yourself twenty years down the line, unhappy and lonely in a place you can’t seem to escape.

Cloris Leachman is outstanding as Ruth (she won an Oscar), the only person in the all the film’s couplings that we see expressing tenderness and vulnerability (in a film full of sexual encounters, the most intimate thing we see is her combing Sonny’s hair). She dares to slowly open herself up emotionally to believing in Sonny – to seeing their affair as more than just the booty call it starts as, but as something with a future. From the tearful fragility of her first scenes – her buttoned up matronly appearance, making her look far older than she is – she blossoms into a warmer, excited, person. It makes her inevitable betrayal by Sonny all the more heart-wrenching – along with her self-loathing fury that closes the film.

All the adults are drifting through the same disappointing life. Ellen Burstyn (also nominated) is wonderful as Jacy’s mother, who continually defies expectations. This mother is unfazed by her daughter sleeping with her lover, suggests that she might as well experiment sexually so she can find out it’s not all that and carries a revelation of deep loss and personal tragedy that only comes to light late in the film but is there in the character from the start. Other adults seem equally aware of their pointlessness: the coach is a repressed homosexual, the English teacher seems resigned to teaching Keats to bored students, Jacy’ father is a blow-hard nobody, Sonny’s father is a stranger to him. Only Eileen Brennan (excellent) motherly waitress still seems to have some hope.

Sonny’s surrogate father – and the heart of the film – is local businessman Sam the Lion. Johnson is superb, gifted a surprisingly small number of scenes but which establish both his moral force and his position as a link to a halcyon days past in America that might not really exist. Bogdanovich gives Johnson a knock-out speech (surely what won him the Oscar) – an Everett-Sloane-in-Kane inspired remembrance of a relationship from long ago, where the world seemed full of hope and opportunity, that perhaps get closest to defining the film’s sad reflection on how little those two things actually seem to exist in the present.

But it’s also about the temptation of memory. Bogdanovich’s masterpiece (it was all downhill in his career from here), The Last Picture Show knows only too well how quickly we realise life is a confusing, compromised mess. And the film, for all its old-school Hollywood style, is all about the past being just as a confusing, empty, sex-filled place of loss as the present is. Things have always been like this – and they probably always will. Welcome to Anarene. Nothing has changed.

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis hit the road in Thelma and Louise

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Susan Sarandon (Louise Sawyer), Geena Davis (Thelma Dickinson), Harvey Keitel (Detective Hal Slocumb), Michael Madsen (Jimmy Lennox), Christopher McDonald (Darryl Dickinson), Stephen Tobolowsky (Max), Brad Pitt (JD), Timothy Carhart (Harlan Puckett)

Two people on the run, dodging the police and doing what they can to survive. It’s a well Hollywood has gone back to time and time again. But in most cases the people were either two men, or maybe a man and a woman (romantically involved naturally). It was unheard of to make that most masculine of genres, the outlaw road movie, into one led by women. But that’s what we get here, in a movie that has become iconic in more ways than one, Thelma and Louise.

Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) is a tough, independent-minded waitress. Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) is a shy housewife, whose husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald) is a jerk. With Darryl away for the weekend, Thelma and Louise head off for a weekend away together, to let their hair down and feel a bit of freedom. Unfortunately, disaster happens when Thelma flirts with a sleazy guy in a Texas bar (Harlan Puckett), who tries to rape her in the car park. Louise saves her – but guns the guy down. The two women now find themselves on the run from the law, terrified that no one will believe their side of the story. But as the women find themselves on the road, the experience changes them, with Thelma flourishing in an environment where she can make her own choices and Louise becoming more able to open herself up emotionally. But can they stay ahead of the law?

With a terrific (Oscar-winning) script from first-time writer Callie Khouri, Thelma and Louise offers a dynamic and daring twist on the Hollywood road movie. By placing women at the centre of a story like this, a fascinating new light is shed not only on the law, but also on the culture of the American South. It also gives what would otherwise be familiar situations, a fascinating new light as two underestimated people are forced to prove time-and-time again how ahead of the game they are.

Ridley Scott directs the film with a beautiful, confident flourish. The John Fordian iconography of the West is a gift for a painterly director like Scott, and this film hums with the sort of eye for American iconography that only the outsider can really bring. The film brilliantly captures the dusty wildness of the West as well as the neon-lit grubbiness of working class American bars. It looks beautiful, but also vividly, sometimes terrifyingly real. Scott then, with a great deal of empathy, builds a very humane story around this, with two characters it’s nearly impossible not to root for.

He’s helped immensely by two stunning performances from the women in the lead roles. Susan Sarandon’s is perfect for the brash and gutsy Louise, not least because she’s an actor brilliantly able to suggest a great emotional depth and rawness below the surface. Louise is a women juggling deeper traumas – past experiences (its implied a historic rape) that leave her in no doubt that the justice system will not be interested in hearing about a woman’s suffering. It’s the hard to puncture toughness that softens over the course of the film, as Louise becomes more willing to explore her emotions and allow her vulnerability to show.

Particularly so as the lead between the two is slowly taken over by Geena Davis’ Thelma. This is certainly Davis’ finest work, her Thelma starting as a beaten down housewife, just trying to let her hair down in a bar, into a scared victim, a horny teenager lusting over Brad Pitt’s hunky JD then finally into a road warrior who discovers unimagined determination and resources inside herself, toting guns and robbing stores. It’s the sort of once-in-a-lifetime part Davis seizes upon. She’s sensational and totally believable at every turn.

Placing these two women at the centre of a story like this puts the feminine perspective front-of-centre – and it’s alarming to think how little some things have changed. Can we imagine today that there wouldn’t be policemen and lawyers willing to blame Thelma – or claim she asked for it – for her near rape in a bar? Or that there wouldn’t be a fair crack of the whip in the system for Louise for gunning down an unarmed rapist? On top of that, the majority of the police tracking the two women (with the exception of Harvey Keitel’s decent cop – Keitel is very good in this) find it hard to take “these girls” seriously, finding it hard to imagine them being anything other than a joke.

Mind you the attitudes of men are laid bare at every turn. Thelma’s husband Darryl (a very good performance of selfish patheticness by Christopher McDonald) is a waste of skin, a man who can’t imagine a world where Thelma could be his equal. Timothy Carhart is all charm until Thelma denies him the sex he believes he was due for in exchange for a night if flirting and drunks, and promptly turns extremely nasty. The cops – gun totting with itchy trigger-finger – just seem to be waiting for an excuse to throw the ladies down. Even JD (a star marking early performance by a deeply attractive and charismatic Brad Pitt), who seems so charming – and proves the sort of generous and skilled lover Thelma has never experienced in her life – has no qualms about robbing the ladies of their life savings, leaving them hung out-to-dry.

Many men at the time complained (pathetically) about the presentation of men in this film (as if men haven’t had any films where they were sympathetically placed front and centre), but I think it’s a pretty clear judgement that women are not held to the same standards. Khouri’s script shows time and time again the casual sexism (and sexualisation) the women encounter – to the extent that when they finally confront (and pull guns) on the sexist, aggressive truck driver who has been following them for most of the film, you cheer along with them when they shoot out first his tyres, then his oil tanker. We’ve even had a warm-up with Thelma turning a tough intimidating cop into quivering jelly by taking control of the situation.

But that’s what this film is about – the unexpected taking control. Because this isn’t just a feminist statement because it puts women into a male genre. It does so by showing how few choices these women have in their lives before they take into the road and how liberating it is to be able to make their own choices. Because these characters have had all their choices made by men, from Thelma’s smothering marriage to Louise’s undefined past as a victim. And their futures are as much out of the control, likely to find themselves on death row for shooting a rapist. On top of all that, men continue to see them both as sex objects.

How could you not be moved by this? It’s why the films iconic ending carries such impact. These are women discovering they have the power to make their own choices and their own mistakes. It has an undeniable power to it. It’s a power that runs through the entire film, perfectly shepherded by Scott’s astute and sharp direction, with Davis and Sarandon superb. It will still give you shocking insights today into what life is like for women in a world still dominated by men.

More recently its writer and stars pointed out that the film actually ended up changing very little for women in Hollywood. There was no new wave of daringly different female-led movies, with “women’s drama” still mostly restricted afterwards to family drama and romances. There are still few exciting opportunities for female filmmakers. (And it’s a sign of the times back then that the very idea of a woman directing this feminist film was never even raised as a possibility.) Perhaps that’s why Thelma and Louise remains such an icon, because it’s still such a one-off. Either way, it’s a film that hasn’t aged a day since it was released.

The Last Hurrah (1958)

Spencer Tracy runs for office in John Ford’s toothless satire The Last Hurrah

Director: John Ford

Cast: Spencer Tracy (Major Frank Skeffington), Jeffrey Hunter (Adam Caulfield), Dianne Foster (Maeve Caulfield), Pat O’Brien (John Gorman), Basil Rathbone (Norman Cass), Donald Crisp (Cardinal Martin Burke), James Gleason (“Cuke” Gillen), Edward Brophy (“Ditto” Boland), John Carradine (Amos Force), Willis Bouchey (Roger Sugrue), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Weinberg), Wallace Ford (Charles J Hennessey), Basil Ruysdael (Bishop Gardner)

Mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) is running for a fifth term of a “New England city”. Skeffington’s roots lie in the town sprawling Irish population, and has successfully played the game of machine politics all his life. He’s alienated the members of the towns traditional elite – who can trace their ancestors all the way back to the Mayflower – but he’s loved by the regular people of the city. But is Skeffington going to find himself out of touch with a political world starting to embrace populism and the power of television?

John Ford’s adaptation of a hit novel by Edwin O’Connor, is one of his rare “present day” pictures. But it’s a bit of a busted flush. What should have been an exploration of a tipping point in American politics, totally fails to successfully land any of the points it could make. It’s a film that doesn’t understand the Kennedy-esque world America was moments away from embracing, and looks with such ridiculously excessive sentimentality at old-school politics it manages to tell us nothing about the corruption and dirty deals of this sort of machine politics. Effectively it’s a film that takes two long hours to tell us almost nothing at all. 

The film adores two things – and it’s not a surprise in a Ford film – the past and the Irish. Anything from yesteryear is covered in a halo, with the parade of old-school Hollywood character actors from the Ford rep company taking it in turns to denounce and condemn anything and anyone less than 40 years old. Every young person in the film is either a feckless idiot – Skeffington and Cass’ sons are a playboy and an embarrassing moron – or, like Jeffrey Hunter’s Adam Caulfield (Skeffington’s nephew covering the election for the local paper) is there merely to provide doe-eyed adoration. 

As for the Irish, the film loves the grace and charm of this old immigrant community. Skeffington’s Irish political machine is sanitised beyond belief. In the real world these sort of organisations operated on a system of back room deals, intimidation and careful arrangements to deliver set quotas of votes on polling day. Sure many of these politicians also delivered a number of social reforms – as Skeffington does – but any suggestion that any of Skeffington’s dealings could ever be described as dirty are roundly dismissed. Here it’s all about what Skeffington could do for other people, and no mention of the endemic corruption in many politicians like this. Instead Skeffington is presented with nothing but rose-tinted sentimentalism, a respectful widower, a kind man, whose actions are often more about other people than politics.

Former Boston mayor James Michael Curley – who Skeffington was clearly based on – was imprisoned for corruption. No chance of that happening to Skeffington who only uses intimidation and back-street savvy to fight the causes of orphans and widows (literally) and takes nothing at all from the public purse (although he still lives in a lovely big home). By contrast his elite opponents are the sort of scowling, greedy, penny-counters you might find in a Frank Capra film, shameless bankers and newspaper types who care nothing for truth and justice and only their own selfish needs.

Perhaps that’s why Skeffington’s opponent McCluskey (an early Kennedy substitute with his perfect family life, war record and lack of actual accomplishments) is portrayed as such an empty suit, a mindless, grinning yes-man who has nothing to say and no goals to meet. Ford’s contempt for him – and for the new word of television – drips off the screen. The TV shot we see McCluskey shooting is a farcical mess, poorly shot, edited and delivered with stilted artificiality by McCluskey and his tongue-tied wife. Not only is it not particularly funny, the presentation of this just shows how out of touch Ford was with modern America. Two years after this, Kennedy would win an election largely off the back of his ability to present a dynamic image on TV. Skeffington even crumbles in the election due to his traditional, press-the-flesh campaign not competing effectively with TV slots. How can that look even remotely convincing when Ford shows his rival has no mastery of the new media at all? That in fact he’s worse at making TV than Skeffington proves to be?

What exactly was Ford going for? By failing to criticise anything at all about the old-school politics and pouring loathing on the new politics, he ends up saying very little at all. Skeffington is a twinkly angel, but we never understand why so many in the church and the city oppose him – other than the fact I guess that he is Irish. Donald Crisp’s cardinal promises at one point near the end to reveal why he always opposed Skeffington – only to be hushed. If anything bad ever happened, Ford ain’t telling us making this one of the most dishonest of his tributes to Old America.

None of this is to criticise much of the acting, which is great. Spencer Tracy dominates the film with his accustomed skill and charisma, his Skeffington both a twinkly charmer and a practised flesh-presser who manages to subtly pitch and adjust his character depending on his audience and whose physicality helps to assert his dominance in every scene. Pat O’Brien does fine work as his fixer and Basil Rathbone is suitably sinister as a his principle financial opponent. Ford also puts together some memorable shots – especially a long walk Skeffington takes past a victory parade – and scenes, but the film is an empty mess. And, with its extended final twenty minute coda, goes on way too long.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger confront racism In the Heat of the Night

Director: Norman Jewison

Cast: Sidney Poitier (Virgil Tibbs), Rod Steiger (Chief Bill Gillespie), Warren Oates (Sam Wood), Lee Grant (Mrs Colbert), Larry Gates (Endicott), James Patterson (Purdy), William Schallert (Mayor Schubert), Beah Richards (Mama Caleba), Peter Whitney (Courtney)

A slim, tight thriller with a social message, In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture in 1967, beating out Bonnie and Cyde and The Graduate (both films with a revolutionary impact on films making) as well as another Sidney Poitier starrer, the even-more message heavy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. An unflashy, cleanly made, efficient film, In the Heat of the Night is in some ways a surprising winner – but the shocking depiction of racism in the Deep South at the time still hits home today.

In Sparta, Mississippi a wealthy industrialist from Chicago is found murdered in the street. Who committed the crime? Well surely it’s the well-dressed black man with a wallet full of money waiting to get out of town at the train station. The man is hauled in – only for him to reveal he is an expert homicide detective from Philadelphia named Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier). Tibbs is sucked in to assist local police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) to investigate the crime, partly on the order of his boss, partly due to his disgust at the police department’s racism and incompetence, and partly at the pleading of the victim’s widow (Lee Grant) who recognises him as the best officer for the case. But will Tibbs’ expertise crack the case in a town where the idea of a black man in a suit, asking questions and taking no shit, is a still a surefire recipe for a lynching?

Nominally In the Heat of the Night is a murder mystery, but you’ll be hard pushed to remember much about the case after you finish the film. The eventual killer emerges from left field and the steps of the investigation are often unclear. While the film is trim, it does mean the tension around the killer’s identity never really builds up and we never get a real sense of the personality of the suspects (apart from the uniform racism).

Where its real strength is, is in the mis-matched “buddy” movie structure of two men forced to work together, the difference being that both casual and violent racism underpins every interaction Tibbs has in the town. Poitier was seen as a calm and graceful figure, but In the Heat of the Night finally gave him the chance to mix dignity with resentment and anger that had never been seen in a black character on screen before. The film works due to Poitier’s inherent toughness, his lack of compromise and anger at injustice. Poitier was never more hard-edged, defiant and determined to get what he deserves. Unlike Poitier’s other racial buddy movie The Defiant Ones, you can’t imagine Tibbs jumping off the train to freedom to try and save Tony Curtis.

Tibbs isn’t just the smartest, toughest policeman on the screen – he demands to be treated like it. The film’s most famous scene – and shocking at the time – is during Tibbs’ questioning of genteel racist Endicott in his orchid greenhouse. Endicott – whose home resembles nothing more than a plantation, loaded with black workers – is well spoken but inherently racist, and slaps Tibbs when his questions go on too long – only to immediately receive a backhand from Tibbs in return. Endicott is as shocked as audiences were – the idea of a black man striking back was on unheard of.

It’s terrifying and sickening to realise however that the American South at the time was genuinely like this. The slap is a proud moment – but it marks Tibbs for retribution. There is a genuine danger Tibbs will get lynched in this film (twice he narrowly escapes murder at the hands of a gang of furious rednecks). In real life, Poitier was very hesitant to film in the South, and for the brief location shooting in Tennessee slept with a gun under his pillow. The film is littered with casually dropped racial slurs, the politest of which is “boy”. It leads to the famous line from Tibbs that back home “they call me Mister Tibbs” – but you forget that it follows from Gillespie asking him what an n-word copper is called in Philadelphia. And even after that Gillespie only calls him Virgil, as if still not quite able to compute the idea of a black man who can be a “mister”.

The relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie is the heart of the film. And the film is brave to not have this turn into “they were opponents but then they became the best of friends”. Instead there is a sort of grudging respect that grows, even though Tibbs clearly thinks Gillespie is an impulsive racist and Gillespie thinks Tibbs is a stiff-backed but brilliant n-word. Rod Steiger won the Oscar for Best Actor, and he does some fine work as the complex Gillespie. Keeping his explosive energy in check (despite the inevitable outbursts), Steiger sketches out a character who is smart enough to know he isn’t smart enough, who can respect Tibbs’ professionalism and understand on some level that racism is beyond all sense but still drop racial words with an instinctive ease.

Steiger’s Gillespie is a tough-talking, stereotypical cop but he’s also got a sad little hinterland – a late dinner at his home with Tibbs has him confess that Tibbs is his only guest for years – and while he arrests no fewer than three innocent people for the crime, there is no doubting his dedication to justice. Steiger doesn’t apologise for Gillespie’s appalling attitudes, but also does enough to suggest that his racism is learned rather than innate. While never completely sympathetic, especially today, the film lays hints of hope that a racist cop from the South could work side-by-side with a black officer – and that was considerable progress at the time.

But it’s Poitier’s movie, and while in many ways he has the simpler part (and Poitier generously ceded his admiration for Steiger’s skill and craft pushing him to a level he felt he not reached before), Tibbs is the centre of the film. Jewison skilfully shoots Poitier as always the outsider, from his looks and Sherlock Holmes style skills, to the way the camera focuses on his hands touching things – from dead bodies to door knobs – to the visible discomfort of the white men watching him. Tibbs may be arrogant but he’s right and Poitier’s refusal to compromise or offer any concessions is a striking thing – Tibbs is who he is and he won’t change a thing to be accepted by the white man. At the end, he may respect the steps Gillespie has taken – but I doubt he’d consider the man a friend and certainly not a professional equal. 

In the Heat of the Night is still shocking for the openly displayed racism and menace of violence that black people faced in the Deep South in sixties America. Jewison’s film is efficiently assembled and tightly edited – not a single minute is wasted in one of the shortest Best Picture winners ever – and while its mystery is little to write home about, its portrait of racism in America is still shocking and stirring and its two lead performances are things to linger in the memory.