Kinds Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Kinds Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Murder and amorality abound in the darkest (and perhaps Greatest) Ealing comedy ever

Director: Robert Hamer

Cast: Dennis Price (Louis Mazzini), Alec Guinness (The nine members of the d’Ascoyne family), Valerie Hobson (Edith), Joan Greenwood (Sibella), Audrey Fildes (Mama), Miles Malleson (Hangman), Clive Morton (Prison Governor), John Penrose (Lionel), Hugh Griffith (Lord High Steward)

Imagine you’re Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price). Your mother is the outcast daughter of the d’Ascoyne family (all of whom, male or female, bear a striking resemblance to Alec Guinness), Dukes of Chalfort. These vindictive snobs won’t even allow his mother to be buried in the family mausoleum. However, in the event of a series of unlikely deaths, Louis is the eventual heir to the dukedom. That couldn’t happen, could it? Even if they’re all such stuffy, tedious bores that the suave, sophisticated, urbane and witty Louis feels a lot more like what a duke should be.

What to do? Well, it’s obvious really: Louis will have to murder them. Because Louis wants nothing more than the thing he can’t have. It’s the same with the ladies in his life: his childhood sweetheart Sibella (Joan Greenwood), sensual and manipulative, seems all the more tempting when he’s with the refined and austere Edith (Valerie Hobson) and vice versa. We know that the charming Louis’ murderous career will eventually end at the gallows – the film opens with him writing his memoirs and eating his last meal in prison – but what crime will find him there?

Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the first of the Ealing comedies. It’s also pretty much the one that sets the Gold Standard. I’ll confess I’ve been sceptical in the past, but rewatching it again, its black comic humour, shrewd psychology and delightful amorality delighted me as never before. Kind Hearts is a very, very funny movie: perfectly constructed, gorgeously scripted and supremely sharp, knowing and scintillating. It’s a miraculously marvellous film.

Is there a comedy sharper and more heartless than Kind Hearts? Our hero is, at best, a sociopath who kills without the slightest regret. Murders are frequent punchlines. One of its leading ladies is as selfish, conniving and ruthless as the hero. D’Ascoynes bite the dust regardless of their decency (and some of them are genuinely quite nice). But we don’t care – largely because Louis is such a smoothly charming and amusing person.

Brilliantly played by Dennis Price, even when poverty forces him into the role of draper’s assistant Louis is the genteel duke to his fingertips. His sociopathic focus on his own desires is delivered with such dry wit (“It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms”) we can’t help but like him, even though he is a remorseless killer. Dispatching one d’Ascoyne and his mistress in a river “accident” he only sighs “I was sorry about the girl, but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death.”

Some critics have attempted to position Louis as some sort of class warrior, pruning the nobility. Would that were so, eh? The biggest snob in the film is clearly Louis (compared to him the worst of the d’Ascoynes are more rude and boorish), a man so convinced of his own intellectual and hereditary superiority that even his lowly roots don’t concern him.

Louis really matches our expectations of a duke. He’s refined in voice and manner, dignified in physicality and has the sort of arch wit no one else can compete with (when Sibella tells him her husband wishes to go to Europe to expand his mind, Louis replies “He certainly has room to do so”). He is a million miles from a class warrior: he wants nothing more than to take his place on the velvet cushions of the House of Lords (so much so he insists on being tried there). He’s so convinced of his own superiority, the dispatch of legions of d’Ascoynes cause him to lose not a second of sleep.

He’s also charming, funny and ingenious: we like him. It’s the same reason we like Joan Greenwood’s scheming, sexy and selfish Sibella: what’s more fun than an unashamed baddy? It’s easier to like her more than Valerie Hobson’s staid Edith – though Hobson’s generous performance is spot on for creating the ideal upper-class wife, exactly the sort of refined status symbol Louis would long for.

Hamer’s perfectly paced comedy is largely a triumph of dialogue and characterisation. He shoots much of it in carefully positioned mid-shot. But there are wonderful moments of visual comedy. Who can forget Admiral d’Ascoyne slowly submerging, going down with his sinking ship? Or, best of all, Louis and Edith’s gentle garden conversation about her husband Henry d’Ascoyne’s future while, in the background, over a wall, the small explosion that has just killed him smokes away (“I could hardly point out that Henry now had no time left for any kind of activity, so I continued to discuss his future” Louis observes). But above all, Hamer doesn’t skim on the cold amorality of Louis. While we are never invited to judge him, there are no attempts to hide his sociopathic blankness.

Confronted with real emotion and situations outside his control, Louis is helpless. When his mother dies, he can only mourn her with a flourish straight out of the cheap melodrama he despises. When Sibella’s husband, the dull Lionel, insults his background, he’s reduced to punching him. Caught off guard in his trial, his articulate wit absolutely deserts him. Louis slips on  personae like the fine suits he wears, but his ambitious mind can only travel on his pre-planned route, no others.

But that makes him more than match for the d’Ascoynes. In a masterstroke, all members of this family are played by Alec Guinness, the sort of impish, playful trick Guinness loved. It’s a series of eight distinct comic sketches – to be honest none of them a challenge to Guinness, who is such a great actor that playing these pencil-sketch eccentrics was no-problem-at-all – but still a delightful running gag. His d’Ascoynes include a bumbling vicar, a windbag general forever banging on about his Boer (Bore?) war, a sneering playboy scion, bumbling amateur-photographer Henry (the most sympathetic by a mile), a stuffy banker, an austere suffragette and a bullying duke with a capacity for violence.

Seeing each of these Guinnesses is a neat running joke (not to mention, a little gag at the in-breeding of the upper classes). Price gets in on the act as well, doubling up as Louis’ Italian Tenor father (who dies of shock on Louis’ birth – our hero’s first murder?). But it’s also part of the film’s comedic commentary on construction, duality and falseness. Is it a surprise that the d’Ascoynes are all facets of the same actor, when Louis himself is an entirely self-constructed man, part bitter by-blow, part natural duke? Nothing is ever quite what it seems. Louis lies to everyone he meets, pretends affections he never feels and presents a front to the world totally different from his real self. Even the reason Louis is on death row turns out to be radically different from what we expect.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a perfect display of arch Wildean front, redirected into sociopathic irritation (I can’t call Louis furious – he’s not got enough depth to him for real anger). It’s a jet-black comedy, crammed with superb lines and brilliantly acted, above all by Price whose tortured unknowability behind his Cowardian suaveness is perfect. Guinness went into film legend, Greenwood is fascinatingly vicious and Hobson the embodiment of polite class. Every scene has a great line and the humour is as dark as it comes. It’s one of the greatest of all Ealing’s comedies –certainly the darkest and most vicious – with a hero who looks, acts and talks like a villain.

The Four Hundred Blows (1959)

The Four Hundred Blows (1959)

Injustice, oppression and disregard fill the life of a young ‘Truffaut’ in this marvellous coming-of-age story

Director: François Truffaut

Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel), Albert Rémy (Antoine’s father), Claire Maurier (Antoine’s mother), Guy Decomble (“Sourpuss”, the teacher), Patrick Auffay (René Bigey), Georges Flamant (Monsieur Bigey), Pierre Repp (English teacher), Daniel Couturier (Betrand Mauricet), Luc Andrieux (Gym teacher), Robert Beauvais (School director)

Truffaut’s first film, shot when he was just 26 years old, is not only one of the finest debuts ever, it’s also one of the films most in touch with being a child. Heavily based on Truffaut’s own troubled childhood, it’s a beautifully told exploration of how much children can be misunderstood by adults and what a cage, of circumstances outside of your control, childhood can become.

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a 12-year-old living in a cramped apartment with his parents, who have a tempestuous relationship and alternate between half-interested mateyness and exasperation with their son. Antoine is marked at school as the class trouble-maker and constantly finds himself in scrapes, only increasing the perception of him as a tearaway and lost cause. Eventually packed off to a reform school (basically a borstal), only his imagination and love of books and film (qualities no one sees in him but us) give him any hope.

What’s with that title? In French it’s Les Quatre Cents Coups in reference to the expression “faire les quatre cent coups” which roughly translates as “raising hell”. The alternative English title of Wild Oats (which to be honest isn’t much better) was rejected. But perhaps it’s for the best. The 400 Blows has a poetic gorgeousness about it: it reminds us of Waugh’s powerful quote from Brideshead Revisited about the destructive impact of circumstances and misguided interventions on the tragic Sebastian: “a blow, expected, repeated, falling upon a bruise”. And what is Antonie’s life but 400 blows hammering down, repeatedly and expectedly on the same bruise?

This is a kid who never catches a break. From the opening scene, as the kids pass around a page torn from a naughty calendar, it’s him who gets caught with it – because he starts doodling artistically around her eyes. He’s distracted from his punishment homework by one of his father’s (brief) bursts of friendly interest. Worried, he skips school the next day then invents a ridiculous lie of his mother dying to cover it, cementing the impression he is a habitual liar. When he quotes his beloved Balzac in a school essay competition, he is thrown out of the class for plagiarism. After stealing a typewriter, he’s caught when he tries to return it. The kid cannot get a break.

It’s a hugely sympathetic and moving insight into Truffaut’s own childhood. He too was raised, largely in indifference, by two parents who seemed uncertain they wanted him. Like Antoine, he discovers the man he thinks is his father actually isn’t. He also he spent eight years living with his grandmother, because his mother wanted an abortion not a child, and witnessed his mother’s extramarital romances. Truffaut to spent much of his time with his closest friend Robert Lauchney (here appearing as René Bigey – Lauchney worked on the film’s crew).

But, also like Antoine, Truffaut was passionate about imagination and the arts. Antoine reads Balzac’s Le Père Goriot (smoking an illicit cigarette – after all he’s French) and it makes such a powerful impression he can quote large chunks of it from memory in a school essay and builds a candle-lit shrine at home to the author (with his usual luck, the candle nearly burns down the cramped flat). The cinema is his other big escape. He takes every opportunity to visit, staring at the screen with wonder, stealing film posters (he swipes an image of Harriet Andersson in Summer with Monika) and finding an outlet for his imagination and intelligence that the real world never offers.

This is a child who requires attention, focus and encouragement to bring out his vibrancy and creativity. What he gets are orders to take the bins out and stupefyingly boring lessons of endless repetition mixed with abuse at school. Home life has only flashes of happiness: Antonie’s childish, giggling joy when his parents take him to the film, and laughing in the car as they remember the film on the way home, is the only time he seems to smile in their presence. At others, his mother mixes irritation with sudden bursts of affection that are really bribes for good behaviour.

He is bought to life in an extraordinary performance from Jean-Pierre Léaud. Found from a pool of 200 applicants from a newspaper advert, Léaud transformed Truffaut’s idea of Doinel. Truffaut saw him as more overtly fragile, timid and artistic. Léaud has all of that – but matches it with a defiance, a bravery and a slight resentment that makes his vulnerability all the more affecting. He is the sort of kid you see as a tearaway but, look closer, you’d see the soul of an artist.

Léaud’s performance is guided with a great deal of delicacy and skill by Truffaut – so successfully that he and Truffaut would collaborate five more times on films about Antoine’s future life. His part was largely unscripted, Truffaut outlining the plot and scene and then encouraging him to use his own words. It’s gloriously effective in a beautifully naturalistic late scene, when Antoine (the camera focused solely on him), responds to a series of questions from an unseen psychiatrist about his past, including an abashed cheeky giggle when asked about his sexual experience.

The 400 Blows also helped to kickstart what would become the French New Wave. Truffaut – and cinematographer Henri Decaë – shot the film with an on-the-streets naturalism that gave a large dollop of documentary realism to a narrative film. Decaë’s roving camera, moving easily and naturally through the streets, tracking the movement of the children, is also reminiscent of the very act of being a child, where life is often one of wild drifting and aimless but purposeful running through streets. The wide angles capture the everyday details of the Paris in a way that feels intimate and real, and also manage to hammer home the cramped apartment the Doinels live in (Antonine’s bedroom, Harry Potter like, is basically a cupboard under the stairs next to the bin).

It all builds towards the film’s extraordinary ending. Thrown into a reform school, essentially told by his mother she doesn’t want him to come home, barred from seeing his friend René, asked to choose which hand he wants to be slapped with by the teachers and forbidden access to the books and films he loves, Antoine does what he has done all his life. He runs.

Running from a football match, evading a pursuing teacher, Truffaut gives us two long tracking shots of extraordinary beauty but also profoundly openly to interpretation. Antoine runs through the countryside, the camera keeping pace with him, his feet pounding on the grass and pavement. We are joining him in his flight, running free alongside him. Then he arrives at his destination – and the camera tracks him as he walks across the beach until finally he sees the sea. He wades – and then turns to look directly at us, Truffaut freeze-framing and zooming in.

Are we being challenged? After all, perhaps we are all complicit in the wretched judgement Antonine has faced. Or is this him welcoming us, accepting us, acknowledging us as his co-conspirator and escapee? Who quite knows. What we do know is that The Four Hundred Blows set Truffaut on the path to being one of the world’s leading directors – and is a stunning, sympathetic and heart-breaking insight into the struggles and injustice that childhood can consist of.

Drive (2011)

Drive (2011)

Neon, darkness and shades of grey fills the screen in a film that’s practically the definition of cult

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn

Cast Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene Gabriel), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose), Oscar Isaac (Standard Gabriel), Christina Hendricks (Blanche), Ron Perlman (Nino Paolozzi), Kaden Leos (Benicio Gabriel)

Impassive and supernaturally calm, the Driver (Ryan Gosling) sits with the car engine purring. In this five-minute window he is the get-away driver who will go to any length. Outside of that, criminals are on their own. Its one of the simple rules he lives by. He never compromises. Until, of course, he finds something worth compromising for. That would be his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), trying to make ends meet while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. The Driver helps them – and feels compelled to go on helping them when newly released Standard (trying to go straight) does one more job to get out from under the thumb of his criminal friends. That last job is always the worst one isn’t it? Particularly when crime lords as ruthless as Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) are involved.

Drive won Refn the best director award at Cannes (after a huge standing ovation). It’s not hard to see why. This film is so overflowing with style, uncompromising cool and unreadable enigma it was practically a cult classic before it was even released. Layered in a mix of 70s and 80s chic – with its electric pink titles, John Carpenter-ish Los Angeles visuals and counter-culture smarts – it echoes cutting-edge crime drama from the punk years of Hollywood (it’s practically a remake of The Driver for starters!), by way of touches of Melville crime drama and Spaghetti Western anti-hero. Scored to a mix of ambient beats and electronic rock, it’s the dictionary definition of style.

It keeps you on your toes from the start. Its opening not only explores the Driver’s incredible skills (speed, manoeuvring, ingenious evasions and knowing when to go slow, he can do it all) it also sets us up for the whole film. Shot largely alongside the Driver in the car, we zip through streets and understand the determination (and hints of danger) under his impassive surface. That prologue is the whole movie in capsule – a careful wait, a sense of a fuse being list, touches of humour to distract us (the Driver’s precision with his gloves) and brilliant misdirection when his focused  attention to listening to a football game on the radio pays off in spades when we see his plans revealed.

Much of the first 40 minutes carefully develops the Driver’s surprisingly contented life: his happy acquiescence in the racing dreams of his fixer and mechanic boss Shannon (an ingratiating Bryan Cranston), who the Driver likes so much he doesn’t care that Shannon regularly swindles him; a soft, unspoken half-romance with Irene (Carey Mulligan, truthful and with a strength beneath the vulnerability); and a big-brother bond with her son Benecio. In another world this could have been a film where a loner learns to make a connection and finds love.

But it ain’t that film. The troubles start with Standard’s release from prison. Skilfully played by Oscar Isaac as well-meaning but essentially hopeless, Standard’s problems become Irene and Benecio’s problems. That one last job goes south – as they always do – in an orgy of cross, double cross and increasingly graphic violence. And the burning propulsive energy that lies under Drive, just like that purring engine in the films opening, is let rip.

What we get in the second half is dark, nihilistic and violent. Oh, good Lord, is it violent. Bone crunchingly, skull shatteringly, blood spurtingly violent. Because when gangsters get pissed off, they play for real. And it turns out, when the Driver finds something to care about, he plays for real as well. Refn’s eye for violence is extremely well-judged. We see just enough for it to be horrifying, but the worst is done via sound and editing (the Driver’s almost unwatchable assault on a goon in a lift puts almost nothing on screen, but the squelches and crunches on the soundtrack leave nothing to the imagination).

Refn’s trick is to combine lashings of indie cool and ultra-violence with a deceptively simple story that allows plenty of scope for interpretation. Drive has a sort of mythic, Arthurian quest to it, with the Driver as a sort of knight errant, defending a damsel in distress. But it’s also a grim crime drama, with a man at its centre who brutally kills without a second thought. This all depends on the enigmatic Driver at its heart. No other actor alive can do unreadable impassivity like Ryan Gosling – this could almost be his signature role. He’s ice-cool and professional, but also rather child-like and gentle.

Is he a guy dragged down by his own worst impulses? His jacket has a large scorpion on its back, echoing the old fable of the frog and the scorpion. Rather than one or the other, the Driver feels like both in one. A frog who wants to carry everyone over the river, but whose poor instincts and capacity for violence acts as the scorpion that destroys him. Where does he come from? What is his past? The film ends with a series of enigmatic shots that, to my eyes, suggest a supernatural quality to him. I sometimes toy with the idea he’s a sort of fallen angel, constantly protecting the wrong people like he has a scorpion curse on him. Refn’s gift is to craft pulp with psychological intrigue.

Drive is a very cool film – and Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling’s careful playing gives it a lot of heart, just as Albert Brooks’ marvellously dangerous gangster gives it a sharp, unpredictable edge. It rips its eye through the screen, with pace, speed and iconic imagery, all splashed with a pop art cool. But it’s not just a celebration of style: it’s also a dark romance, a tragedy and an exploration of a character who may be his own devil or may not even be human at all. Either way, its intriguing and exciting. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Nope (2022)

Nope (2022)

Be afraid of looking in Jordan Peele’s puzzling but less enlightening horror suspense film

Director: Jordan Peele

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya (Otis Jnr “OJ” Haywood), Keke Palmer (Em Haywood), Steven Yeun (Ricky “Jupe” Park), Brandon Perea (Angel Torres), Michael Wincott (Antlers Holst), Wrenn Schmidt (Amber Park), Keith David (Otis Haywood Snr), Donna Mills (Bonnie Clayton)

Spoiler warning: Peele loves to keep ALL the plot details on the QT – so I discuss more than he would want, but hopefully not enough to spoil the plot.

Jordan Peele’s previous horror films brilliantly married up genuine chills with acute social commentary. Plot details have often been kept under wraps – after all half the joy of watching Get Out or Us the first time is working out what the hell is going on. Nope continues this trend, but for the first time I feel this is to the film’s detriment. I actually think Nope would be improved if you know going into it that this was Peele’s dark twist on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with added body horror). Instead, Nope plays its enigmatic cards so close to its chest that it ends up never having a hand free to punch you in the guts.

Pensive and guarded Otis Jnr (Daniel Kaluuya) – known, unfortunately, as OJ – and his exuberant wanna-be-star sister Em Haywood (Keke Palmer) are trying (with differing levels of enthusiasm) to keep their father’s Hollywood horse handling business alive after his freak death from a coin falling from the sky (everyone assumes it fell from a plane). The business is struggling, with OJ forced to frequently sell their horses to their neighbour, a former child star turned ranch theme-park owner, Ricky (Steven Yeun). Their lives are altered however when they discover a huge UFO living in a cloud near their ranch, sucking up horses (and other animals) and spitting out any inorganic remains. Seeing this as their path to fortune (and in Em’s case fame) they try and capture the UFO on film.

Nope is all about our compulsive need to look. Nothing draws our eyes like spectacle – and what could be a bigger spectacle than a huge saucer in the sky that eats people? It doesn’t matter if we know we shouldn’t, our eyes are drawn up (now imagine if Peele had been able to call the film Up!). We want to be part of the big event, whether that’s seeing the latest blockbuster at the big screen or rubber-necking at a roadside accident. Nope hammers this point home, when it becomes clear you are only at danger from the saucer when you look directly at it. Spectacle literally kills!

This is all an inversion of the mid-West America that starred at the skies in wonder in Close Encounters. There the Aliens capped the film with a glorious light show with awe and wonder from the humans watching. Here the appearance in the sky is a prelude to sucking you up, digesting you and vomiting out blood and bits of clothing a few hours later. Despite this, Ricky tries to make an entertainment show out of the creature (something he, of course, learns to regret), and OJ and Em find little reason to re-think their attempts to capture the animal on screen.

Peele’s film takes a few light shots at social media culture. Of course our heroes’ first instinct is to reach for their phones (they are looking for that “Oprah shot” that will guarantee fame and fortune). OJ at least is largely motivated by the cash influx his struggling business needs – Em wants the fame. But the film still attacks the shallow “main event-ness” of social media, where having the best and most impressive thing to show off (for a few seconds) is the be-all-and-end-all.

Peele remains too fond of these characters to judge them too harshly. But he has no worries about taking shots at the fame-and-money hungry Ricky, or a TMZ reporter who arrives at the worst possible moment and dies begging to be handed his camera so he can record the moment. Arguably Ricky would have made a more interesting lead: a man chewed up and spat out by the fame machine and angling for a second chance, who thinks he’s way smarter than he actually is.

The film opens with a chilling shot of what we eventually discover was the bloody aftermath of the disastrous final filming day of Ricky’s sitcom from his childhood-acting days, Gordy’s Home. Gordy was a chimp living with an adopted family: until the chimp actor snapped in bloody fury. It sets up a sense of danger, but the plot never quite marries it up with the main themes of Nope. Parallels are thinly drawn with Ricky’s attempt to commercialise this infamous tragedy, but it feels forced: the whole section plays like a chilling short story inserted into the main narrative. And the film never explores in detail the lesson from this bloody tragedy, that we underestimate the dangers animals can pose (despite the film being littered with creatures).

Instead, Peele settles for a stately reveal of his plot. It takes almost an hour for the film’s true purpose to become clear, but it lacks the acute and darkly funny social commentary that made his previous films so fascinating while they took their time showing you their hand. Its main points are Interesting points are made about how black people are (literally) whitewashed out of Hollywood’s history (the Haywoods claim to be descended from the black jockey featured in the first ever moving film made in America). But it’s a political point that sits awkwardly in a satire (about something else!), and Peele overstretches the opening without making the central mystery compelling enough.

There are, however, fine performances from the actors, Kaluuya’s shuffling physique – slightly over-weight, the troubles of the world weighing him down – is matched with his charismatically sceptical looks. Keke Palmer is engaging and funny as his slap-dash sister, and the warm family bond between these two works really well. It never quite makes sense that someone as publicity-averse as OJ would really want to become a social media sensation, but you can let it go.

There is lots of good stuff in Nope – it’s beautifully filmed and assembled and once it lets you in on its plans, it has a strong final act. But its social commentary isn’t quite sharp or thought-provoking enough – people are shallow and love spectacle and social media, who knew – and neither the mystery or the plot are quite compelling enough. It’s told with imagination and Peele has a fascinating and unique voice: but Nope isn’t much more than a solid story well told.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Stealing, swindling and sex abound in Lubitsch’s masterful – and influential – early Hollywood comedy

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Cast: Miriam Hopkins (Lily), Kay Francis (Madame Colet), Herbert Marshall (Gaston Monescu), Charles Ruggles (The Major), Edward Everett Horton (Francois Filiba), C. Aubrey Smith (Adolph J Giron), Robert Greig (Jacques, the butler)

“Ah, that Lubitsch touch!” It was a slogan invented by the studio (probably to help turn Lubitsch into a brand – see also “The Master of Suspense!”). No one has ever been quite sure what it is exactly – but you can’t argue it doesn’t exist after watching Trouble in Paradise. A smoother, more charming slice of Wildean wit mixed with saucy naughtiness you couldn’t hope to find. All put together with effortless, cosmopolitan wit by Lubitsch, where every shot and camera movement has been planned for maximum effect. No wonder it’s one of the great early Hollywood comedies.

It’s Vienna and a Baron and a Countess are sitting down to a wonderful dinner together. But both know all is not what it seems: they’re both professional conmen. The Baron is Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), the Countess Lily (Miriam Hopkins) – and they can pick each other’s pockets as easy as breathing. Falling in love, they team up and head for Paris, there to relieve fabulously wealthy Marie Colet (Kay Francis) of some of her firm’s dividends. Gaston becomes Marie’s private secretary – but don’t you know it, he finds himself falling in love with her. Will he go through with the scam? And will Lily give him the choice? The answer is almost certainly not what you think.

Trouble in Paradise is so swift, smooth and gloriously comically inventive that its very existence is enough proof of that Lubitsch touch. The comic business here is so marvellously done, so hugely influential and inventive, that half the comedies existing owe it a debt. Take a look at that first sequence as the two of accuse each other of being thieves and liars, in between passing each other the salt, with consummate politeness then proceed to take part in a pickpocketing game of one-upmanship (purses, pins, watches, garters, you name it!). All shot and directed with a perfect mixture of one-take dryness, matched with perfectly chosen fluid camera movements that accentuate punchlines.

Then there’s that script (“Do you remember the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople?”). It’s crammed to the gills with sensational bon mots with more than a touch of Wilde or Coward but also a certain emotional truth (“I came here to rob you, but unfortunately I fell in love with you.”). Trouble in Paradise is an intensely suave and sophisticated film that delights in making its characters feel like the nimble-thinking smartie-pants who always know what to say, that you’d love to be, but never quite are.

It’s grist to the mill of Lubitsch, who coats the film in the three things that really makes it work: European sophistication and ruthlessly dry wit; playfully smooth direction; and more than a dollop of sex (and lots of people in this, let’s face it, are pretty impure to say the least). Sex is in fact what’s at the heart of this film: they may be criminals, but Gaston and Lily are at least as interested in getting some of that as anything else and Marie is more than a match for them.

Trouble in Paradise is pre-Code – and far racier than anything we normally expect from Old Hollywood. After all, this is a film that makes a series of perfectly timed punchlines out of a Butler constantly knocking on the wrong bedroom door to find Marie, unaware that Gaston and Marie are “spending time together” elsewhere. Gaston and Lily’s first meeting is capped with a “do not disturb” sign being hung on their bedroom door. The word sex gets bandied about. In case we missed the point, Lubitsch shoots a romantic clinch between Gaston and Marie by focusing the camera on the bed where their shadows are being cast, looking for all the world like they are lying down on it. Later Lubtisch will focus on a clock marching forward in time as we hear Gaston and Marie flirt (and clearly more than just flirt) as the time flows by.

No wonder when the Code was introduced, Trouble in Paradise was slammed on the shelf for years. It’s more than clear that Gaston has it away with Marie and Lily – and, even more scandalously, no one seems to mind that much. There is sexual liberalness to Trouble in Paradise. Marie is happily stringing along two boorishly foolish suitors (Charles Ruggles as a bluff retired major and Edward Everett Horton as a slightly pompous fop, fleeced in the past by Gaston – both very funny). Gaston feels many things, but never ashamed, while Marie seems sexually excited by the idea that he might be a crook. (Their first meeting is a simmering swamp of sexual tension.)

Lubitsch keeps the film flowing so effortlessly, it glides down barely touching the edges. The humour is spot on and perfectly delivered. At one point Lily (still disguised as the Countess at this point) phones her “mother” in front of Gaston. Her conversation is polite and giddy – then Lubitsch cuts to the other end of the call where her crude landlady is prattling bored on the end, and we realise it’s all part of a con. Gags like this have inspired filmmakers for years. You can see the root of half the screwballs that were to come in the love triangle flirtatiousness between Marshall, Francis and Hopkins.

All three of them are excellent. Marshall had few better opportunities to showcase his dry wit and sex appeal (he was so often cast as stuffy, dull husbands), and he’s the ideal arch gentleman here, with a twinkle in his eye at his daring smartness and very sexy in his confidence. (The constant shots of Gaston running up and down stairs is, in itself, a gag – Marshall had only one leg and all that running was a body double). Far from a rube, Kay Francis makes Marie a sexually curious, determined and out-going woman who knows what she wants and happily plays the game to get it. Miriam Hopkins has a punchier feistiness as a woman who can shift personae with effortless ease.

Trouble in Paradise – that Paradise being Gaston and Lily’s natural partnership – slides so smoothly from set-piece to set-piece, each of them shot with superbly smooth camera movements that perfectly accentuate their comic impact, that it continues to offer huge entertainment. Brilliantly acted, packed with superb set-pieces, it benefits above all from that glorious Lubitsch touch. Sophisticated, amoral, naughty but with a touch of heart among all the lying and cheating, it’s very funny and very cheeky and all about sex and stealing. It’s a landmark film.

Il Postino (1995)

Il Postino (1995)

A friendship (of a sort) across the divide in this sentimental, overtly charming romantic comedy drama

Director: Michael Radford

Cast: Massimo Troisi (Mario Ruoppolo), Philippe Noiret (Pablo Neruda), Maria Grazia Cucinotta (Beatrice Russo), Renata Scarpa (The Telegrapher), Linda Moretti (Donna Rosa), Mariano Rigillo (Di Cosimo), Anna Bonaiuto (Matilde Urrutia)

Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) arrives on an Italian island in 1950, exiled from his home in Chile. He brings celebrity to the small community: but also transforms the life of local Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi). Mario, a quiet and slightly lost man who doesn’t want to follow in his father’s fishing footsteps, takes a job delivering Neruda’s mail. He becomes fascinated by poetry and idolises Neruda with whom he forms a friendship, after he enlists him to help woo Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), daughter of the local café worker. Mario becomes more and more influenced by Neruda’s communism and love of language. How will he cope when Neruda’s exile ends?

A massive box office success – one of the biggest foreign language hits in the USA – Il Postino is a film born from tragedy. Troisi had long wanted to adapt the novel by Antonio Skarmeta. So much so, he delayed urgent heart surgery to make the film. With filming due to start, Troisi was so ill he could work little more than an hour a day. Many of his scenes were done in a single take. Radford re-worked scenes to allow Troisi to sit as much as possible, while a body double did all long shots, medium shots and any close-up where Troisi’s face didn’t need to be seen. Troisi recorded all his dialogue before filming – and tragically died the day after shooting completed.

It’s a moving story: and it’s hard to separate your reaction to it from your reaction to the film. Perhaps influenced by Troisi’s illness, Radford turns Il Postino into a quiet, gentle and mediative piece, crammed with restrained camerawork and thoughtful pacing. There is a gentle, easily digestible warmness to Il Postino, with relatable themes around love, friendship and the power of poetry. But you can’t help but feel subtitles made some feel they were watching something arty, rather than something that is essentially a bit of popular fiction turned into a film.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of positives. Radford perfectly captures the warmth and eye-opening wonder of a man discovering intellectual horizons he never imagined. Mario at first seems not particularly bright – but we discover he is simply a man who has grown up without intellectual stimulation of any sort. No one ever leaves his island and the only ambition anyone has is to become a fisherman. Watching a newsreel of Neruda’s arrival in Italy, the villagers seem as stunned by seeing these magic moving pictures as they do the famous poet’s arrival.

Into this tiny world drops a magic figure: someone who makes Mario discover that the functional words that only ever dropped hesitantly from his mouth, can actually be crafted into gorgeously elaborate sentences, full of power and beauty. Poetry at first just seems like a great way to get girls – Mario is stunned by the amount of mail from ladies Neruda receives – but then becomes an end in itself. Slowly Mario appreciates things around him – the moon, the lapping of waves on the shore, the sound of the wind in the hills – in a way he never even thought about before. Similarly, he begins to question the quiet acquiescence the village shows to all-too-obviously corrupt local politician Di Cassimo.

This largely works due to a quiet, unforced and gentle performance from Troisi. Shyly muttering his lines and rarely raising his head up to look directly at the person he is talking to, Troisi’s performance has an unaffected naturalness to it. He’s quiet, abashed and shy, also childlike, worshipping Neruda with a puppy-dog intensity (that never wilts, even after Neruda leaves the island) and reacts to things around him with an awe-filled wonder.

Opposite him, Noiret soaks himself in artistic confidence as Neruda, a man very aware he’s a huge fish in a small pond. Perhaps because he’s lonely, perhaps because he finds Mario’s childlike openness endearing, he indulges and encourages Mario’s attempts to befriend him. But, despite appearances, I’m not sure Il Postino wants to commit to the fact that this is not a friendship of equals. Neruda is fond of Mario – but he never, truly, sees him as an equal. Mario is, at heart, a distraction Neruda is fond of. He indulges Neruda’s clumsy attempts to win his attention, and there is a slight quiet background air of fatherly condescension in his treatment of him.

It means people overlook the more interesting parts of Il Postino. Because, despite the way it’s presented, this isn’t a story of a friendship over a divide. The final act is in fact more interesting in showing, after Neruda leaves, that a relationship that changed Mario’s life forever was just a brief, fond distraction to Neruda. Neruda remains the most important person in Mario’s life – but he wouldn’t even make the top hundred in Neruda’s life. Neruda makes little effort to keep in touch, gets a secretary to write a functional letter to Mario and takes years to even consider a visit.

The real point of interest here is how Mario flew, Icarus like, close to the sun – but found he could only get so close. He will only ever be a footnote in Neruda’s life, while Neruda is his life. Even when faced with evidence of Neruda’s affectionate disregard, he will still insist on naming his child after him. Similarly, poetry is something he can love but never quite master himself. This is interesting stuff. Il Postino avoids it.

Instead, it’s a film that settles on sentiment. You can’t argue with the skill Radford directs the film, or the quiet power of a late sequence when Mario records the sounds of the island for Neruda. Radford’s unobtrusive direction – partly influenced by working around Troisi’s illness – works to wring the maximum emotion from it. But it’s still a sentimental package: a package skilfully presented to Academy voters by Miramax (Luis Bacalov’s Oscar win for score was surely connected to Weinstein mailing a recording to ever member of the Academy) and presents a pleasant fantasy story for the masses, that veers away from its more complex parts to present something far more reassuring and gentle.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

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

Director: John McTiernan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

It seemed like such a good idea at the time… Keanu Reeves wisely passed on Speed 2 – so should you

Director: Jan de Bont

Cast: Sandra Bullock (Annie Porter), Jason Patric (Alex Shaw), Willem Dafoe (John Geiger), Temuera Morrison (Officer Juliano), Glenn Plummer (Maurice), Brian McCardie (Merced), Christine Firkins (Drew), Mike Hagerty (Harvey), Colleen Camp (Debbie), Lois Chiles (Celeste), Royale Watkins (Dante)

In 1996 Keanu Reeves turned down a huge salary for Speed 2. Everyone in Hollywood thought he was mad. On June 13th 1997, Speed 2 was released. On June 14th everyone thought Keanu Reeves was a genius. It’s quite something when one of your best ever career moves was not doing a movie. But God almighty Keanu was right: time has not been kind to Speed 2 – and even when it was released it was hailed as one of the worst sequels ever made. It’s like de Bont and co sold their souls for Speed and in 1997 the Devil came to collect.

Keanu’s Jack Traven is clumsily replaced by Jason Patric’s Alex Shaw – although the dialogue has clearly only had the mildest tweak as Shaw has inherited Traven’s job, friends, personality and girlfriend Annie (Sandra Bullock – elevated to top billing but even more of a damsel-in-distress than in the original). Alex and Annie are wrestling with making a long-term commitment – see what I mean about this script only be mildly tweaked? – when they decide to take an all-or-nothing cruise. Shame the cruise liner is hijacked by deranged computer programmer turned bomber Geiger (Willem Dafoe). With the boat powering through the water towards a collision on shore, can Alex save the day?

You’ve probably noticed the disparity between the title Speed and the setting: a slow-moving cruise liner. At one point, Alex asks how long it would take an oil tanker to move out of a collision course with the liner – “At least half hour – that’s not enough time!” he’s told. The very fact that a debate whether 30 minutes will be enough time in a flipping film about speed shows how far this sequel has fallen. How did anyone not notice this?

Pace is missing from the whole thing. The script is truly dreadful. Paper-thin characters populate the cruise liner, none of whom make even the slightest impression. At one point a character breaks an arm and then immediately shrugs off the injury to steer the ship. The script is crammed with deeply, desperately unfunny “comedy” beats. Bullock’s character seems to have transformed into a ditzy rom-com wisecracker – with a “hilarious” running joke that she’s a terrible driver (geddit!??!) – and, instead of the charming pluck she showed in the first film, is now an irritating egotist. She still fares better than poor Patric, who completely lacks the movie star charisma of Reeves and utterly fails to find anything that doesn’t feel like a low-rent McClane rip-off in his character.

It’s like de Bont forgot everything he knew about directing in the three years between the two films. If anything, this feels like a well below average effort from a novice director. The humour is dialled up with feeble sight gags and the film takes a turgid 45 minutes to really get going (most of which is given over to derivative romantic will-they-commit banter between Patric and Bullock).

de Bont basically flunks everything. He fails the basic directing test of confined-spaces thrillers like this by never making the geography clear to the viewer. I challenge anyone to really understand how characters get from A to C on this boat. The long introductions are supposed to establish these basics (see Die Hard for a masterclass in this), but here you haven’t got a clue about what’s where or why some locations are more risky than others. There is a spectacular lack of tension about the whole thing – it’s not really clear what Dafeo’s lip-smacking, giggling, leech-using (yes seriously) villain actually wants or how his scheme works, and the momentum of the boat towards unspecified destruction is (a) hard to see on the open water with no fixed point to compare the speed with and (b) even when we get that, not exactly adrenalin fuelled anyway.

de Bont’s comedic approach to much of the material might have worked if he had any sense of wit or comic timing in his direction. Or if Patric had been more comfortable with the wit the part requires. Bullock instead feels like she has to joke for all three of them, to disastrous effect. There are a couple of semi-comic sidekicks sprinkled among the supporting players, but none of them raises so much as a grin. The film can’t resist implausible in-jokes, like bringing back Glenn Plummer’s luckless character to have his boat swiped by Alex (they even leave in a mildly altered “what are you doing here?” line, as if they didn’t realise until shooting it that Keanu wasn’t going to be there).

It ends with a loud crash of a boat into the shore which cost tens of millions of dollars (at the time one of the most costly stunts ever) but just looks like a fake boat ripping through a load of backlot buildings. It’s a big, loud, dull, slow ending to a film that looks like it was made by people who had no idea what they were doing but enough power to ignore anyone who might have been able to point out what they were doing wrong. Speed 2 remains the worst sequel ever. Reeves went off to make The Matrix. Who’s the idiot?

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022)

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022)

Questions of intimacy and sex are explored but not in depth in this theatrical two-hander

Director: Sophie Hyde

Cast: Emma Thompson (Nancy), Daryl McCormack (Leo Grande)

A widowed, retired former RE teacher “Nancy” (Emma Thompson), hires a high-class escort “Leo Grande” (Daryl McCormack) to explore the opportunities in life she feels she has missed: namely, any sexual experience that doesn’t involve functional, passion-free couplings with her deceased husband; the positions and acts she’s heard about that he considered “demeaning” to all involved; and, above all, something called an orgasm. Over multiple meetings, the fragile Nancy and the smooth, charming, but personally guarded Leo tentatively explore physical and emotional barriers.

Hyde’s film could very easily be a theatre piece. Largely taking place in a single location – the hotel room Nancy has hired for their meetings – across four “acts”, it’s a film that relies heavily on the skill and chemistry between the two actors. On that front, it’s very blessed to have such skilled performers who play off each other with such generous and dynamic performances.

They’re helped by a witty script from Katy Brand, crammed with good lines. Nancy is a fusspot, sheltered and deeply self-conscious, who approaches everything from a teacherly angle, including drawing up a sexual “checklist” for their session (“attainable goals” as she puts it). Her middle-class, middle-age hesitancy around sex as something to feel ashamed about casts its mark over everything she says and does (“I don’t like anything going in places where things are meant to come out”) and she can’t shake her own shame and fears that she is exploiting someone (she worries she feels like “Rolf Harris” – a reference that hilariously flies over the head of Leo).

It’s a gift of a role for Emma Thompson, who delights in the witty (if theatrical) dialogue, but also sells speeches full of personal discontentment, bitterness and profound regret. Her early nerves – with a little pinch of guilt – at hiring this sex worker, slowly tip into an outpouring of painful regrets. Nancy is a woman who has lived her life by strict rules – rules that have left her deeply unhappy and desperate for a meaningful intimate relationship with someone to confide in.

Thompson, in a way that I’m not entirely sure the film does, also understands that Nancy is not as nice a person as she might believe she is. Her sadness is often counterpointed with bitterness, rudeness and a tendency to judgementalism. It’s a defensive shield for her deep unhappiness within – but it also perhaps suggests why she is as lonely as she is. This is Thompson at the top of her game, effortlessly funny, heart-rending and frustrating almost from moment to moment.

Her unease, and near-Catholic guilt at sexual intimacy and satisfaction, contrasts neatly with the smoothly professional Leo. It can’t be easy for a young actor to go toe-to-toe with a heavyweight, but McCormack plays Leo with a huge subtlety. Eager to put Nancy at her ease in their first meeting, we see him carefully but skilfully move between several different, possible, personas in search of something she will like. Flashes of personal intimacy and friendship he gives her always leave you guessing how much is real, and how much settling on a persona for his client. Brief moments of thoughtfulness show Leo reflecting on his own past – issues that will come to the surface in later sessions. McCormack skilfully walks the tightrope of playing a man with an invented personality, who adjusts his persona from moment to moment to best please someone else.

The main delights of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande are in the (sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes excruciatingly embarrassing) exchanges between these two, as Nancy constantly puts off what she paid for, partly due to not knowing if she wants it and partly being ashamed to ask for it. At its strongest moments the film uses this to explore our own societal feelings about the entwining between sex, shame and guilt.

After all, sex is something we all have very clear ideas about. And, just like we do with our bodies, often end up judging ourselves harshly against some imagined standard. The film gently argues that perhaps a world of high-class, shame-free, professional sex with someone who knows what they are doing – and can help a client enjoy something that many find quite stressful – might not be a bad thing. It says a lot that Nancy’s first assumptions about Leo tie into a fear that he might be being exploited or vulnerable in some way. It’s also interesting that Leo (at least as he claims – he of course may not be telling the complete truth) enjoys his work, because he sees it as a sort of ultimate people pleasing.

It would be a stronger film if it was able to do more of this thoughtful societal commentary. It never quite manages to really grapple with the issues it raises though, partly because it becomes a little preoccupied with the personal hang-ups of its characters (it would have also helped with Leo didn’t have his own past problems to deal with as well, which rather undermine part of the film’s point that we shouldn’t feel ashamed or that choosing a life like this isn’t always linked to past problems).

It also, by making it very clear that Leo is working at the very expensive end of the sex industry, perhaps takes a slightly rosy view of sex work, glossing over the risks and exploitation experienced by others in the industry with a couple of breezy lines. However, it’s also a very strong two hander, well-written with two excellent performances from McCormack and Thompson, both of whom are superb. It just could have been a little more.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Greed is Good? Scorsese’s masterpiece is a heady deconstruction of the excess of white collar criminals

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jordon Belfort), Jonah Hill (Donnie Azoff), Margot Robbie (Naomi Lapaglia), Kyle Chandler (FBI Agent Patrick Denham), Rob Reiner (Max Belfort), Jon Bernthal (Brad Brodnick), Matthew McConaughey (Mark Hanna), Jon Favreau (Manny Riskin), Jean Dujardin (Jean-Jacques Saurel), Joanna Lumley (Aunt Emma), Cristin Milioti (Teresa Patrillo), Christine Eberle (Leah Belfort), Kenneth Choi (Chester Ming), Brian Sacca (Robbie Feinberg), Henry Zebrowski (Alden Kupferberg)

All The Wolf of Wall Street is really missing is an early freeze frame of a coke-fuelled banker slamming the phone down on a closed deal and a wistful voiceover from Jordan Belfort: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be Wall Street trader”. If Goodfellas was Scorsese’s exploration of the attractions – and dangers – of a life in blue collar crime, then The Wolf of Wall Street is its white collar companion piece. The fact that so many viewers find the behaviour of Belfort morally outrageous in a way that no one ever objects about Henry Hill is, for me, an indication of how much we loath these masters-of-the-universe. For all their faults, we’d still rather see a violent criminal as one of us.

Based on Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) autobiography, The Wolf of Wall Street follows his time building a dodgy trading empire and a large fortune. Not that he can remember most of it, as he seems to be on a permanent intoxicated binge of drinks, hookers and every drug you can ever imagine (and some you can’t). The FBI catches up with him eventually, but Belfort learns precious little from his experiences. Other than, perhaps, that so long as you are rich and white in America, you can basically get away with anything.

That’s perhaps the key to Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese may not shy away from the delicious dark comedy of Belfort’s life of excess, but it doesn’t blind him to the shallow awfulness of the man or his unthinking, instinctive greed and self-obsession. You would need to be a pretty shallow person to look at Belfort’s greed, moral emptiness and self-destructive binges and want to ape him. If you think watching DiCaprio literally paralytic on quaaludes is the life you want, frankly there is something wrong with you.

What perhaps made some feel Wolf of Wall Street was oddly in love with Belfort is its electric pace. The film is a brilliant reminder of Scorsese’s faultless understanding of pace. Or one who matches unparalleled cinematic skill with the rambunctious energy of a first-timer allowed to play with his movie toys for the first time. Brilliantly assembled, this is a superb collection of cinematic techniques, from jump cuts to fluid transitions that power through a series of increasingly bacchanalian parties and isn’t afraid to admit that, in the moment, this stuff can be fun (rather like getting the best table in Goodfellas) but ultimately self-destructive. (After all, few know the dangers of drugs like Scorsese.)

At the centre of this whirlwind is a stunning performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. With his still youthful, charismatic handsomeness, DiCaprio only needed to tweak his screen persona to provoke the sort of perverted idolatry Belfort receives from his co-workers. But he goes above and beyond in his transformation in this role. He makes Belfort simultaneously oddly childlike and revoltingly corrupted, someone whom we enjoy spending time with while finding repulsive. He rips through Belfort’s trademark, drug-fuelled motivational speeches, monologues of insanely eye-popping intensity, explosions of off-the-chain wildness. At other times he’ll sulk and whine like a spoilt child. DiCaprio struts across the screen with an unpredictable physicality – his embodying of the physical effects of mind-altering drugs is hilarious and horrifying –in possibly his finest ever performance.

DiCaprio is the raw energy source that helps power the rest of the film. Scorsese matches him blow-by-blow with this dynamic expose of white-collar corruption. Using Belfort as a narrator – which serves to further expose his shallowness, greed and utter inability to learn any sustained messages from the depths he plummets to – the entire film is all about how the flip side of the American Dream tacitly promotes and encourages this sort of behaviour.

Belfort is the rash the system has come out as. In a highly effective early cameo, McConaughey plays Belfort’s first mentor, a coke-fuelled hedonist hooked on the buzz of closing deals, who pushes Belfort towards a career of success (including introducing a brilliant breathing exercise – improvised by McConaughey based on his own warm-up exercises – that becomes a mantra in the film). DiCaprio’s eyes have already lit up at watching a deal closing. Drugs and sex are just an attempt for Belfort to replicate the buzz of the real addiction: money.

Scorsese recognises that we don’t need to know the details of Belfort’s illegal dealings. (In his voiceover Belfort literally tells us it doesn’t matter, all that does is the shitload of cash they were bringing in.) We learn enough about the huge mark-ups (50% of the deal’s value) he can make from selling penny stocks (trades of small public companies) and “pump and dump” tactics to know it’s wrong. I will admit the film does little to show the victims – but then Belfort never cares either, proudly stating at one point he has no guilt fleecing his clients out of cash, because he knows how to spend it, better than they do.

It all pours into a hedonistic, alpha-male environment where the air is as littered with fucks (the film held a record for most use of the word) as the floors and desks of Belfort’s offices are during his hooker-filled end-of-week parties. Wolf of Wall Street is also an expose of toxic alpha-maledom. Bullying, abuse and screaming are ripe, women are basically commodities traded as easily as shares. The only exceptions are those allowed into the boys’ club as either surrogate-male fellow traders or trophies to adorn the arm. Margot Robbie (superb in a star-making role) plays Belfort’s glamourous wife, who knows she needs to use her physical assets to make her way in this world.

The film rips along through a party-deal-party structure. Belfort goes from wowing his fellow penny stock traders by making $2k in two minutes to wrapping the trading floor of his fake-old-school Wall Street firm around his finger in excess filled speeches. He also goes from a charming party animal to an incoherent, rambling, deeply unpleasant and dangerous drunk and drug addict. But crucially, he learns nothing . There is no life-and-soul shattering payback like Henry Hill undergoes. Fault, guilt and consequences roll off his rich, spoilt back. He ends the film still winning the adulation of would-be millionaires, his conscience (if it exists) untroubled by any impact his actions have had on others.

Perhaps Scorsese could have allowed more space to victims – and to Kyle Chandler’s dutiful and dedicated FBI agent who brings him down (our final shot of this character stresses his humble, low-paid status – echoing back to his confession to at times regretting leaving a trading career for a law one). But that’s to criticise the film for not being obvious enough. Of course parties are fun. But each party becomes wilder, more orgiastic and uncomfortable as the film goes on. But if we didn’t understand the fun, we couldn’t understand how people get hooked on this adrenalin fuelled life.

Wolf of Wall Street though is a warning to the curious – if you are smart enough to look. Belfort’s soulless, horrible life is not one to aspire to, and his moral emptiness not one to wish to have. It’s a funny film, but it’s also a dark one. DiCaprio is brilliant beyond belief, Jonah Hill funny and pathetic as his best friend, Margot Robbie becomes a star and Scorsese rips through the film with the energy, passion and dynamism of a much younger director. An outstanding tentpole film in his CV.