Tag: Michael Lonsdale

The Remains of the Day (1993)

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Hopkins and Thompson are marvellous in this masterful adaptation from Merchant-Ivory

Director: James Ivory

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Mr Stevens), Emma Thompson (Miss Kenton), James Fox (Lord Darlington), Christopher Reeve (Congressman Jack Lewis), Peter Vaughan (Mr Stevens Snr), Hugh Grant (Reginald Cardinal), Michael Lonsdale (Dupont D’Ivry), Tim Pigott-Smith (Mr Benn), Ben Chaplin (Charlie), Patrick Godfrey (Spencer), Lena Headey (Lizzie), Pip Torrens (Dr Carlisle), Paul Copley (Harry Smith) Rupert Vansittart (Sir Geoffrey Wren), Peter Eyre (Lord Halifax), Wolf Kahler (Ribbentrop)

Kazou Ishiguro’s Booker-prize winning novel The Remains of the Day is one of my all-time favourites. So, it’s not a surprise I’m a huge fan of this masterful adaptation from the House of Merchant Ivory. I’m certain this is the apex of the team’s work. Mike Nichols had originally planned a film but, wisely, recognised when it came to making movies about repressed 1930s Brits, one team had a monopoly on how to do it best. Beautifully adapted by their regular screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, The Remains of the Day is a wonderfully involving and deeply moving film.

Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is a butler in a British country house purchased in 1956 by American Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve). Keen to solve staffing problems (and for no other reason at all), Stevens journeys to the West Country to recruit the 1930s housekeeper, Mrs Benn nee Kenton (Emma Thompson). During the journey, he remembers his service for the previous owner, Lord Darlington (James Fox). An impeccable gentleman, Darlington dedicates himself to reconciliation between Nazi Germany and England, eventually tipping into an unwise dalliance with fascism and appeasement.

Stevens had no views on that though. In fact, he prides himself on his anonymity. The goal of his life is to maintain a dignified unobtrusiveness, ensuring the smooth operation of everything, leaving as little a mark as possible. Nothing can intrude on that: not his own feelings, the illness and death of his under-butler father (Peter Vaughan) and, above all, the unspoken romantic feelings between himself and Miss Kenton. The Remains of the Day is about duty and obsession and how a fixation on both can leave someone with little to show from a long life.

Stevens is living the lessons he learned from his father, an ageing powerhouse masterfully played by Peter Vaughan, who undergoes a physical collapse (from dripping nose to dropping trays) and bouts of forgetfulness, eventually dying on a night Stevens is too busy seeing to the sore feet of an illustrious French guest to spare a moment to visit him. It tells you everything about his character that this stiff-upper lipped commitment to duty is a source of pride to our hero.

There are few as curiously blank ‘heroes’ in literature than Stevens. The narrator of Ishiguro’s book is a dull, fussy, unbelievably cold man who has dedicated himself so fully to duty that he has let any emotional life wither and die on the vine – something he only realises far too late. It’s an immensely challenging role, bought to life masterfully by Hopkins. Hopkins astonishing skill here is to play all that repressed coldness on the surface, but also constantly let us see the emotion, longing and regret he is subconsciously crushing down play in his eyes and the corners of his mouth. Is Stevens even aware how much self-harm he is causing? It’s an astonishingly subtle performance.

So subtle in fact that the books conclusion – Steven’s tear-filled confession to a stranger late at night of all the mistakes he has made – was filmed but cut for being superfluous. Hopkins had done the lot, all the way through the movie, through acting skill. You can’t miss the struggle within him, not least the desperate, powerless longing he feels for Miss Kenton that, for oh-so-English reasons he can never admit to himself. Hopkins has the vocal and physical precision, but every gesture tremors with unspoken, barely understood longings. In fact, it’s a shock when he exclaims an angry “Blast” after dropping a bottle of wine (the real cause of his outburst being, of course, Miss Kenton’s announcement that she is getting married)

He and Miss Kenton conduct a professional relationship that blossoms into something like a friendship – but he consistently rejects her polite efforts to take it further. In the film’s most powerful scene, Miss Kenton enters his parlour and playfully tries to see the title of the novel he’s reading (a sappy romance). The playfulness tips into agonisingly awkward tenseness as Hopkins’ Stevens seems paralysed, his hand lingering inches from her hair but unable to bring himself to break decorum and fold her in an embrace – all while Miss Kenton continues her increasingly desperate semi-flirtatious banter. It of course ends with Stevens dismissing her: just as later he will take a snap of frustration as a signal to irrevocably cancel their late-night cups of cocoa together.

Emma Thompson is wonderful as a woman only marginally more in touch with her feelings and longings than Stevens is: aware that she, eventually, wants more from life, but unable to find the way of communicating the love she clearly feels for Stevens in a manner he can respond to. Instead, the two of them oscillate between a friendly, affectionate alliance and a discordant arguments (their only outlet for their passion), rooted in their inability to admit their feelings for each other. To further stress the point, both of them mentor young staffers (played by a very young Ben Chaplin and Lena Headey) who have the youthful “what the hell” to jack in all this for love.

Ivory’s wonderfully subtle film makes clear this is a turning point in history, the final hurrah for the this sort of deferential hierarchy. Stevens is the last of a generation of butlers, convinced that what their employers got up to had nothing to do with them – views not shared by Tim Piggot-Smith’s more grounded Benn, who chucks in his job working for a bullying blackshirt (who else but Rupert Vansittart?). Throughout the 1950s storyline, Stevens is constantly asked if he knew the infamous Lord Darlington (a sort of Lord Londonderry figure, hopelessly taken in by Hitler) – in fact, like Paul, he twice denies ever having known him.

And you can understand why, as the film has sympathy for Lord Darlington. As his decent, liberal god-son Reginald Cardinal (an excellent Hugh Grant) says, Darlington is a great asset for Germany precisely because he’s honest, well-meaning and motivated by a desire for peace. The fact that his leads him to consort with a host of Nazis, Blackshirts and the most appalling anti-democratic vestiges of the upper-classes (at one point, Stevens selflessly gives a performance of geopolitical ignorance so as to help demonstrate why men like him shouldn’t have the vote) is an unfortunate side-effect.

Played perfectly by James Fox, Darlington is misguided but genuine. As war approaches, he leads an increasingly hermit like life – camp-bed and paper-strewn, messy library – hosting conferences denounced by Jack Lewis (a fine Christopher Reeve) as a host of amateurs talking about a world they no longer understand. Beneath it all, Darlington is guided by fair play. So much so, it’s almost distressing to see him (under the influence of an attractive German countess) reading anti-Semitic pamphlets and sacking two refugee Jewish maids – an act he later regrets (far too late). This moment also reinforces Stevens’ compromised pig-headedness (not his place to judge!) and Miss Kenton’s fear to act (she’s horrified, but to scared of unemployment to hand in her notice).

All of this culminates in a series of scenes where emotions pour out of the actors, even while their words are banal and everyday memories and reflections. Ivory was never more confident and skilled behind the camera, and the film is a technical marvel, beautifully shot with a wonderful score from Richard Robbins. Hopkins is phenomenally good, simultaneously pitiable and smackable, Thompson is wonderful alongside him, Fox and Grant perfect – it’s a very well-acted piece. And a wonderfully perfect capturing of a classic modern British novel. No doubt: the best Merchant Ivory film.

Munich (2005)

Eric Bana leads a team of Mossad agents in Spielberg’s uneven terrorism drama Munich

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Eric Bana (Avner Kaufman), Daniel Craig (Steve), Ciarán Hinds (Carl), Mathieu Kassovitz (Robert), Hanns Zischler (Hans), Geoffrey Rush (Ephraim), Ayelet Zurer (Daphna Kaufman), Mathieu Amalric (Louis), Michael Lonsdale (Papa), Marie-Josée Croze (Jeanette), Lynn Cohen (Golda Meir)

At the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were murdered by a Palestinian terrorist cell, Black September. The world was shocked and appalled. Israel responded with a hard-line anti-terrorist campaign, that saw Mossad teams traversing the globe, assassinating Palestinian leaders involved with Black September. They learned not only was terrorism a hydra, but that the moral high-ground erodes quickly when the shooting starts. Can terrorism be defeated by violence? Munich argues not: instead suggesting violence is a beast that feeds itself – an argument that, in 2005 in the fourth year of the War on Terror (the film ends with a shot of the World Trade Centre) was increasingly relevant to another country, traumatised by the slaughter of innocents.

Adapted by Tony Kurshner and Eric Roth, it’s based on a book Vengeance by George Jones about the man who claimed to be the leader of the Mossad cell (whether that is true or not is debated). He’s fictionalised here (to side-step that issue) as Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana). His team consists of driver Steve (Daniel Craig), explosives expert Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), forger Hans (Hanns Zischler) and clean-up man Carl (Ciarán Hinds) with Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) as their handler. The team hunt down and eliminate their targets – but as the mission goes on they pay a heavy cost, both in their eroding of their own moral certainties and in blood as they become targets for repercussions.

Spielberg’s film is his least flashy, least sentimental and (I suppose) most mature film, a cold-eyed, even-handed look at the Middle East conflict that acknowledges faults and consequences on all sides, draped in the muted colours and bleached out photography of 1970s conspiracy thrillers. It’s also a very long and very self-consciously important film, that makes mis-steps and at times is crudely obvious as well as being more interested in posing questions than presenting any answers. Where it is at its best, is demonstrating how campaigns like this are tasks worth of Sisyphus.

Munich takes a long, hard look at the cost of violence – both on its victims and its perpetrators. Death in this film is slow, painful and frequently disturbing. Shot people stagger and slump in drunken shock, dying slowly. Bomb victims are ripped apart, recognisable limps left hanging from walls and ceilings. Machine gun bursts tear bodies apart. The cost of inflicting this violence leaves increasingly deep psychological violence on the team (we don’t get to see if it does on the Palestinians, a limit to the films even handedness), as it becomes harder and harder to treat those they kill as faceless monsters, rather than men with families of their own.

Spielberg reconstructs the horror of the killings in Munich with a documentary realism, not shying away from the horror. It follows the appalling opening moments of the attack, with the athletes taken hostage and the shocked world media reaction. Spielberg returns later in the film to restage the final murder of the athletes at the Munich airport with sickening detail (perhaps too much – but more of this scene later).

Showing the impact of violence from both sides, Munich strains at always being even-handed (despite this both sides attacked it for bias). It’s an Israeli story so we mostly see the psychological impact of carrying out the violence on the Israeli team, and little of the Palestinian perspective. But the film throws in a chance meeting between Avner and what-could-be his Palestinian equivalent, where Avner is brutally told that, when fighting for their home, the Palestinians will never give up, and consider any price worth paying – attitudes he can’t help but recognise as he fights for his own home. The film has clear sympathy with the sufferings of the Jewish people, and their need for a home of their own – but wonders if this is the right way to defend it. Spielberg is a friend to Israel – but wants to be an honest one.

What starts out as clear and simple (a campaign against terror) becomes morally complex. The team’s first targets are sympathetic, family men. When Avner talks to a later bomb victim, he’s friendly and welcoming. A Palestinian cell they (accidentally or maliciously) end up sharing a safe house with, thanks to their mutual French contacts, are surprisingly relatable. The mission’s accomplishments are unclear – the targets are killed, but all that happens is more people take their place. Worse, those that do are only more infuriated by the campaign of violence.

That’s the question – how do you fight terrorism? It breeds on a belief of injustice and persecution – and Spielberg’s film suggests, all the campaign does is pour petrol on that fire. Avner becomes a paranoid psychological wreck by the end of the film, plagued with a loss of moral certainty. The film argues that the only result of all this has been the price he and other have made – an end to the violence is further away than it was at the operation’s beginning.

Spielberg’s film is strong on showing the pointlessness of this campaign. What it’s less strong on is answers. In many ways, the film boils down to a simple “deep down we are all the same, why don’t we just get along” message. While handsomely filmed and daring in its questioning about the futility of anti-terrorist (and indeed terrorist) action, it’s a simplistic film, largely lacking nuance. The characters are ciphers – Bana, for all his skill, plays a shell of a character, designed to make statements, who is alternately ruthless or questioning as the plot demands. Because the film strives so hard to remain even-handed, it brings little to the table itself in terms of proposed solutions, merely focusing on telling us what we know: an eye for an eye eventually makes his all blind.

It’s also a film that has more than its fair share of clumsy mis-steps. It’s view of the world is picture post-card in is simplicity. First thing we see in Paris, is a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Go to London and it rains. First shot in Holland is our characters on bikes. Its characters are largely plot devices, well played but rarely fleshed out in people who feel like human beings, more like mouthpieces to express viewpoints.

Most atrocious of all, the film concludes with a penultimate sequence staggering in its misjudgement. Retired and living in America, Avner makes focused, vigorous love to his wife intercut with the showing of the final deaths of the athletes in brutal detail. It’s tasteless, ill-judged and horrendously unclear. I suppose we are meant to think Avner is purging himself of his burden of guilt – but the scene is so appallingly done, so grossly detailed it comes across as both offensive and insultingly twee in using the deaths of real people (staged in detail) to help our lead character feel better about himself. When Spielberg does sex, he invariably gets it wrong – and does again here.

Munich is a very worthy film, but it’s too-long, dramatically simple, for all its daring commentary on the war on terror. It’s well-acted – Michael Lonsdale and Matthieu Almaric are very good as Avner’s French contacts, while Hinds is a stand-out among the team – but the characters are ill-formed and the entire film takes a very long time to make a very simple point. Well-made but a film trying a little too hard to always be profound.

The Name of the Rose (1986)

Sean Connery taps into his inner Sherlock Holmes in The Name of the Rose

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

Cast: Sean Connery (William of Baskerville), F. Murray Abraham (Bernardo Gui), Christian Slater (Adso of Melk), Michael Lonsdale (The Abbot), Helmut Qualtinger (Remigio de Varagine), Elya Baskin (Severinus), Volker Prechtel (Malachia), Feodor Chaliapin Jnr (Jorge), William Hickey (Ubertino de Casale), Michael Habeck (Berengar), Urs Althaus (Venantius), Valentina Vargas (The Girl), Ron Perlman (Salvatore)

Umberto Eco’s erudite medieval murder-mystery was about the wonderful power of books, as much as murder mayhem in a medieval abbey. A surprise bestseller, the story is a perfect mix of intellectual playfulness and Agatha Christie whodunit, with suspects left, right and centre and bodies piling up faster than you can count. Jean-Jacques Annaud fought for years to bring the book to the screen, and his vision of it might well sacrifice much of the depth of the original (it even cheekily refers to itself as a “palimpsest” of the original novel – something reused but still bearing traces of the original) but brings enough to the table to have its own life.

In 1327, monks and high churchmen assemble at a Benedictine abbey in Northern Italy, famed for its voluminous library. However, all is not well at the Abbey with one monk already dead in mysterious circumstances, and soon many others join him in death, each of the later victims with mysteriously blackened fingers and tongues. The Abbot (Michael Lonsdale) asks renowned Franciscan monk William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) to investigate – and his efforts will reveal the dark truths at the heart of the abbey and place him and his novice Adso (Christian Slater) on a collision course with Inquisitor Bernardo Gui (F. Murray Abraham) who sees not a human hand, but the hand of Satan, in the murders.

Annaud’s film perfectly captures the mud and grime of the medieval world, with its murky visuals of the cold and damp in a building like this in winter. To be fair, the film is helped in its sense of oppressive medievalism by its frequently choppy editing and less-than-obvious camera angles (at times making it hard to tell what is happening), while James Horner’s score may hit its notes hard at points, but does sound like a successful pastiche of choral music of the time and creates an ominous air.

Annaud searched far-and-wide for his ideal cast to populate the monastery – and he seems to have assembled actors based on the closeness of their resemblance to Holbein, Bosch and Brugel grotesques. The monks are a distinctive set of oddball weirdos, often pale of face (non-more so than obese albino Beringar, whose effete campness tips a little uncomfortably into homophobia today), with oddly tonsued facial hair, and prominent facial features. To be honest it makes the movie-stardom of Connery (and Slater) stand out even more, as practically the only members of the cast who don’t look like they could audition for the Addams family. Ron Perlman in particular labours under such carefully applied make-up, matched with a faultlessly committed performance of physical and verbal childishness mixed with animal instinct, it was a shock to find out from other films that he was not hideously deformed!

William of Baskerville, as imagined by Eco, was a mix of William of Occam (him of Occam’s razor) and Sherlock Holmes (hence the Baskerville) – the book even matched almost word for word, Watson’s first description of Holmes from A Study with Scarlet with Adso’s first description of William. (Adso himself is also basically W-atso-n). The film is at its strongest when focused in William’s deductions, his lightening intellectualism and his ability to bring even the smallest fact or note to bear in order to shape a conclusion. The film front-and-centres William’s investigation over and above the other themes of the book (around faith, books and intellectual freedom), but this works for the requirements of a film’s narrative.

t also helps that William is played by Sean Connery in one of his finest performances. Heading into the film, Connery’s career was in a seemingly terminal decline (indeed the Great Scotsman was seen as such box-office poison, a Hollywood Studio pulled their funding after he was cast). Connery had to work hard to persuade Annaud – but thank god he did, as he plays on his fatherly and intellectual strengths here. In real life a committed autodidact, Connery perfectly captures the curiosity and love-of-learning of William, and also invests him with a profound moral sense, shaded by his guilt at past failings and playful understanding of how the moments when we fail to live up to expectations do not mean we are damned. It’s one of Connery’s finest performance – and unarguably changed his career, as he headed into a five year purple patch of increasingly impressive performances. 

Connery’s compelling performance is the real meat of the film, and he creates a character who feels warm, rounded and a perfect mix of contemporary and of-the-period. He’s also well supported by a young Christian Slater as his sidekick novice, who also gets a surprisingly raunchy sex scene. It’s unfortunate the rest of the cast don’t get as much to play with. The rest of the monks are oddballs, or drift out of the film as the plot requires (Michael Lonsdale’s abbot simply disappears, despite hints of a darker role in the plot early in the film).

In particular F Murray Abraham devours most of the impressive set as a lip-smackingly cruel inquisitor who delights in handing out the judgement of God. The film repositions him as a hissable villain, and reduces his impact accordingly, including placing him in an “you’re off the case William!” role. The final, murkily done sequence (featuring fires, heretics punished and a couple of nasty accidents) does tip into the sort of Grand Guignol gothicness that the book itself more or less avoids. But then it’s part of the general boiling down of the novel – making it that palimpsest – and also part of Annaud’s Euro-epic style, with its melting pot of accents and touches of clumsy editing and filming.

The balance of the original novel between ideas and sensation gets more or lost in sensation here – indeed the book that all this murderous behaviour is all about gets rushed over and its impact poorly explained, as are the motives of the eventual killer – but it all still kind of works because it looks more or less perfect and because of that Connery performance. Annaud was probably not quite the director to successfully marry the two parts of the book – and his direction is adequate in many places rather than inspired, with too many awkward handbrake turns – but this is still a film I have enjoyed many times over and will do so again.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

Edward Fox takes aim as suave assassin The Jackal

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Edward Fox (The Jackal), Michel Lonsdale (Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel), Terence Alexander (Lloyd), Michael Auclair (Colonel Rolland), Alan Badel (The Minister), Tony Britton (Inspector Thomas), Denis Carey (Casson), Cyril Cusack (Gunsmith), Maurice Denham (General Colbert), Olga Georges-Picot (Denise), Barrie Ingham (St. Clair), Derek Jacobi (Caron), Jean Martin (Wolenski), Ronald Pickup (Forger), Anton Rodgers (Bernard), Delphine Seyrig (Colette de Montpellier), Donald Sinden (Mallinson), Timothy West (Commissioner Berthier)

The definition of lazy criticism is to say a story doesn’t work because we know the outcome. If that was the case, no production of Hamlet would ever work, and no adaptation of a best-selling book would ever find favour with an audience. We’d be bored by films based on history and we’d be even more indifferent to the hundreds of films made every year that follow accepted narrative structures. What makes a film compelling is often not the destination, but the journey. How do we get there? What do we learn? How does it make us feel? All of these things are keenly observed throughout Fred Zinnemann’s masterful adaptation of The Day of the Jackal.

The year is 1962 and the French President Charles de Gaulle is blamed by many for weakening France by granting independence to Algeria. The Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) hire an English professional assassin known only as The Jackal (Edward Fox) to assassinate De Gaulle. When word of the target leaks to the panicked French Government, Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) is given an impossible task – identify a man of whom the government knows nothing and stop him from carrying out a plan only he knows the details of. Meanwhile, the Jackal relentlessly goes about his meticulous planning.

So anyone with passing familiarity with history will know that de Gaulle was not assassinated in the early 60s. Watching The Day of the Jackal, you know that the Jackal will fail. But that’s not the point of the film. Instead it’s a masterful, streamlined thriller that completely understands how much we can invest in watching someone go about a job with calm, cool professionalism. It’s the ingenuity and meticulousness that makes the film compelling, the way each angle of the Jackal’s plan is carefully considered and information slowly delivered to the audience. In some areas we are a couple of steps ahead of Lebel’s search. In others we are as far behind as he is: we may know the weapon and the Jackal’s secret identities, but we know as little about his final plan as Lebel does – it’s only when it’s revealed that all the pieces we’ve seen make perfect sense.

It’s a film that has been assembled with all the grace and skill of a master clockmaker. Zinnemann’s direction and Kenneth Ross’ taut screenplay make every second count. There isn’t a single piece of flab on the bones of this movie, every scene carries a piece of vital information that contributes to the overall picture. Zinnemann sprinkles the film with careful passing shots of calendars and clocks, making the sense of a countdown towards the Jackal’s strike hang intimidatingly over the whole film. The film is gripping, right from its opening reconstruction of the almost-successful OAS assassination attempt on De Gaulle in 1962. Everything feels perfectly interlinked and connected, each scene brilliantly builds on top of the ones before.

This is quite simply an unshakeably brilliant engine of a film, a relentless ride with tension and excitement dripping from every frame. It’s not afraid to be cruel or dangerous – and some of the victims are truly blameless – and it’s not afraid to show that violence and cruelty are weapons as much for the authorities as the Jackal (the cruellest act, after all, is committed by the French Army on poor loyal Wawlinski).

A large part of the success of the film rests on Edward Fox’s performance in the lead. Fox gives the Jackal an unshakeable, public-school, confidence, an attractive resolve that sees him meet every obstacle with a cool elán, resolutely unperplexed by anything that he encounters. Fox’s superb performance succeeds in making you engage with (and even root for) a man who is a cold-blooded professional killer, who commits murder (when provoked) without hesitation. How does this happen? Again it’s his efficiency, his expertise. The film totally understands how engrossing watching talented people go about their work can be.

The film makes the minutia of setting up an operation immensely compelling. In careful detail, we see exactly how the Jackal goes about getting a false passport from the authorities. How he scopes out a potential place to conduct the assassination. His careful preparation of disguises and fake identities. In one gloriously done scene, we see him practise using his specially constructed rifle on a melon at a huge range. Carefully he takes a series of shots at the melon, adjusting the sight each time to make the weapon as accurate as possible. The scene is a showcase for the Jackal’s meticulous professionalism (you can see why the producers were outraged when the scene was cut from a TV screening in the 1980s – it’s practically a highlight of the movie).

Similar investment, however, is made in the detailed footwork involved in tracing and detecting the Jackal by the French and English police. Michael Lonsdale is a perfect foil for Fox’s urbane cool, with his dour, grey, crumpled Label, a man selected somewhat unwillingly for a mission but who slowly reveals the cool head and nerves of steel that made him perfect for the job. The police-work used to try and close the net on the Jackal is as intricate as the hitman’s own work – careful plodding through files and methodical calculation and educated guesswork. It’s as far from the rush and tumble of Hollywood as you can imagine – but somehow, because it feels so real, every discovery against the odds by the authorities becomes hard-won and exciting. The sense of a net being skilfully built also serves to make the Jackal’s skilful evasion of each trap all the more compelling.

And the tense race against time lasts for the whole of the film. The film brilliantly keeps this cat-and-mouse game alive, with the police and the Jackal constantly leap-frogging each other to stay one step ahead. Each move and counter-move has all the intricacy of a chess game. There are enough twists and turns to keep every audience member gripped. The eventual assassination attempt itself is built up to beautifully – a wordless, tense but brilliantly assembled montage of liberation day celebrations keeps both the police and the audience on their toes as to where the Jackal will strike from. The finale of the film turns on a twist of fate that is simply a brilliant coup de theatre. There is even a droll little coda that deepens the mystery of the Jackal even further.

Zinnemann’s direction throughout is flawless – calm, measured and methodical, and never allowing flash or bombast to drown out events. It’s helped as well by the wonderful cast of actors – a real who’s-who of British and French character actor talent, with Alan Badel’s smooth Interior Minister, Eric Porter’s cool but fanatic OAS leader, Cyril Cusack’s quiet gunsmith and Derek Jacobi’s eager young detective particular standouts. I also have a lot of time for Olga Georges-Picot’s quietly moving performance of a woman pushed to extreme actions by grief.

The Day of the Jackal is another of those near perfect movies. Everything it sets out to do it does perfectly, and it rewards constant viewing. It’s got some terrific unflashy performances and is a perfect demonstration of why professionalism and expertise can be so engrossing. It wraps this up into a deliciously tense confection, where every scene bubbles with undercurrents of drama and danger. There is not an off-beat – instead it’s a brilliant piece of pulp cinema that transcends itself into being something truly adept and dramatic. You can’t take your eyes off it for a second. I don’t hesitate for a second in saying it’s one my favourite thrillers.

Ronin (1998)

Robert De Niro takes aim in super cool car-chase classic Ronin

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Robert De Niro (Sam), Jean Reno (Vincent), Natascha McElhone (Dierdre), Stellan Skarsgård (Gregor), Sean Bean (Spence), Skipp Sudduth (Larry), Michael Lonsdale (Jean-Pierre), Jonathan Pryce (Seamus O’Rourke), Jan Triska (Dapper Gent), Féodor Atkine (Mikhi)

Sam (Robert De Niro), Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), Spence (Sean Bean) and Larry (Skipp Sudduth) are ex-intelligence operatives from the Cold War (or “the late unpleasantness”). Now working as mercenaries, they are hired by IRA operative Dierdre (Natascha McElhone) to steal a mysterious case. The operation becomes increasingly complex as trust is betrayed, new competitors emerge, and a stream of gun battles and car chases soon bursts out.

I don’t think there are enough words to say how much I love this film. I have seen it I honestly don’t know how many times. Some films just connect with you, or something about them so completely works for you that you can’t help but enjoy them. Ronin is quite simply one of my favourite ever films – others may poke at it, but to me I think this is a perfectly structured piece of film-making, a 1970s-style thriller produced in the 1990s, the last flourish of old-school, Cold War spy film-making. In fact, I genuinely think the further we move away from the bombastic 90s, the richer this film looks. It’s becoming less and less of a guilty pleasure and more and more of a pleasure.

First and foremost you have to talk about what Ronin is most famous for: its jaw dropping car chases. What’s particularly exciting about these is that everything you are seeing was done for real. There is barely a spot of trickery in this – they simply hired the best stunt men in the world, got hold of some cool looking cars, and let them go to town all over France.

Of course, watching cars going round and round in itself isn’t massively interesting: what makes it compelling in Ronin is the skilled story-telling. Not only do we always know what’s going on, but the characters are kept in the forefront (most of the actors’ terrified faces were real, as they tore round the streets of Paris for real at 90+ miles an hour). In addition to that, the editing and shooting of these scenes is simply superb. The film gets a perfect balance of sound effects and musical cues: the soundtrack of the final car chase is split 50/50 between revving engines and music. A combination of low angles (putting us practically on the front of the car) and medium and long shots keep the visuals of each chase fresh. You’d actually have to be without a pulse to not be gripped by these sequences. These are without a doubt the best car chases ever committed to screen.

But it’s not just about car chases. This is a brilliant mood piece, filmed in a drained out colour palate that makes the whole thing feel like the characters have been transplanted intact from the 1970s. Frankenheimer’s direction is crisp and cool, and he has an eye for an excellent shot. He also allows plenty of subtle character and mood building to counterpoint the action, as in the excellent, almost wordless, opening sequence following De Niro’s arrival at a café. Carefully he cases the joint while the others arrive, putting in place a possible escape route (we later discover) before heading in. Later, the film builds a moment of exquisite tension and excitement about a drawing on a board and the colour of a boat house. We even get a scene where De Niro guides some of the characters through performing surgery on him to remove a rogue bullet.

The whole film is packed full of excellent vignettes like this: I love the moment when De Niro pretends to have lost his nerve and carelessly knocks a coffee cup off a table to see how Skarsgard’s slightly sinister Gregor may respond (he catches it before it hits the ground and then immediately looks sheepish as if he has given something away). The film also sprinkles dark hints throughout of a wider world (“Where do I know you from?” “Vienna” “Of course…” an example of exposition-free dialogue that establishes a back story), while the characters’ backgrounds and their recruitment by “the man in the wheelchair” remain deliberately obscure.

It’s also one of the best Macguffin films you are going to see ever. What’s in the case? Who knows? Who cares? The film’s structure totally understands that it doesn’t matter to us what’s in the thing at all. It’s only important in that it matters to the characters: and that most of them are willing to go to any lengths to secure it (preferably for free).

The other major strength of the film is its cracking dialogue, the work of an uncredited David Mamet (allegedly pissed off that the Writer’s Guild of America declared he had to share billing). The dialogue is endlessly quotable, and deftly sketches out character: for instance, we understand immediately De Niro’s cool confidence and Bean’s blustering faux machismo from exchanges like this: 

Spence: You worried about saving your own skin?
Sam: Yeah I am. It covers my body.

That only scratches the surface of the film’s dialogue, which crackles – this exchange between Vincent and Sam sums up its wit, and lived-in quality:

In fact the film is full of cool lines like this that seem to carry a flavour of working in intelligence, and stick in the imagination (“The map is not the territory” or “Either you’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution or you’re just part of the landscape”). The best moments sizzle with an effortless cool, with dialogue that you find yourself (or I do anyway) regularly dropping into everyday conversation. It also helps to slowly build relationships within the film, with Sam and Vincent’s dialogue quickly finding itself in sync, a clever little indicator of their building friendship.

The relationship between Sam and Vincent is in many ways the heart of the film – while other characters fall by the wayside, events ruthlessly exposing their weaknesses, it’s these two who form a close bond. Vincent may believe “Everyone’s your brother until the rent comes” but their friendship develops a real warmth and trust – they are the real romantic link in the film (despite a flirtation with Natasha McElhone’s steely IRA gun runner Dierdre).

All this content comes together brilliantly into a tightly contained and carefully paced thriller. It’s also strikingly well-acted in a tight, stripped down manner. This is probably the last engaged, “serious” role De Niro did before his career drifted into decades of self-parody. He gives Sam a brilliant lived-in quality, with a wry sense of humour. Jean Reno is equally well cast as the laconically cool Vincent, while Natasha McElhone is engaging and intriguing as Dierdre. Stellan Skarsgård is a stand-out as the ice-cool Gregor. Of the no-less than three Bond-baddy actors, Michael Lonsdale probably has the best part as a model-building fixer, though Sean Bean does decent work as twitchy poseur. Jonathan Pryce is, I have to say, not completely convincing as an IRA heavy, but does a decent job.

Okay I’ll concede the final reveal and resolution of the film’s plot is not the best moment (a particularly heavy-handed, plumbily voiced BBC radio voiceover explains much of the ending), but that’s a bump in the road of gripping, smart and old-school thriller. It’s accomplished in its filming, and its mood sizzles from the screen. The car chases are edge-of-your-seat gripping, and there is barely a false beat in acting or dialogue. The direction is full of character and has a brilliant eye for little details. Above all else, I really love this film – probably more than is healthy – and I have seen it a crazy number of times. I can’t imagine not enjoying watching it – and I don’t think I ever haven’t, even though I must know it frame-by-frame. Brilliant stuff!

Moonraker (1979)

Roger Moore is James Bond…IN SPACE!!!!

Director: Lewis Gilbert

Cast: Roger Moore (James Bond), Lois Chiles (Holly Goodhead), Michael Lonsdale (Hugo Drax), Richard Kiel (Jaws), Corinne Clery (Corinne Dufour), Bernard Lee (M), Geoffrey Keen (Defence Minister), Desmond Llewelyn (Q), Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny), Emily Bolton (Manuela)

After The Spy Who Loved Me, the Bond producers had finally found a format that suited Roger Moore’s take on the role:  a comedic, tongue-in-cheek style, with Moore leaning on the fourth wall, winking at the audience. In fact, SWLM made so much money that this one feels almost like a remake rather than a new film – it’s got the same basic concept, the final sequence is pretty similar, the opening sequence again revolves around a daring parachute stunt, even Jaws pops up again. For a film that heads into truly unchartered physical territory for Bond (space!), it’s as familiar and derivative as Bond gets.

Bond (Roger Moore) investigates Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), a shady businessman whose operations are expanding into space. After a string of exotic locales (a chateau in France! Venice! Mexico City! Brazil!) an evil scheme to destroy the world from space clicks into place. Bond has to take to the stars to take down Drax. Despite the criticism that will follow, this is probably near the end of Moore’s high point in the role – and in none of his future films was he quite as debonair and dashing as he is here.

If you ever needed evidence that the James Bond franchise looked at whatever was popular in the cinema at that moment in time and then ripped it off as quickly as possible in their next film, then it’s Moonraker. Surely never in anyone’s lifetime would they expect to see a film that could be tagged “James Bond…in SPACE!” but after the success of Star Wars that is exactly what they were served up. The idea is so completely silly that people wonder if you’ve made it up.

But, sigh, that’s what we get here. And it is beyond silly. The film climaxes in a space battle between the NASA Marines (don’t ask) armed with laser cannons (yes you read that right), duking it out with Drax’s own personal guard also armed with cannons (it really is as silly as it sounds). All this against a backdrop of Drax’s own personal Death Star. Afterwards, Bond has to shoot down three deadly missiles that will wipe out the population of the Earth. Naturally, his targeting computer doesn’t work for the final one, so Bond has to basically “use the force” to target and shoot it down. Star Wars in all but name right? Had the producers no shame?

It doesn’t help that Moonraker amps up the already jokey tone of SWLM to an overbearing degree. At least it was a formula that works with Moore, but so little is treated seriously that when they do something violent it sticks out tonally like a sore thumb. This is probably the only film I can think of in which a woman is ripped apart (off screen) by a horde of hounds, followed shortly afterwards by a pigeon performing a comic double take after an amphibious gondola sails through the middle of St Mark’s Square (don’t even ask). It’s a film that has no discipline, no control and no real consistency. It dances all over the place with no logic at all. It gets the balance wrong and instead of being tongue-in-cheek often comes across as overblown, heavy-handed and ludicrous.

In fact the plot, such as it is, is hard to follow because it’s almost an afterthought. It’s effectively a reheat of SWLM (repopulate the planet with a chosen elite), while the space battles are similar to the slow motion fights of Thunderball. Bond moves from location to location with only the barest logical links. Drax identifies Bond as a threat early on – but then continues to pull out a series of bizarre and unreliable schemes to eliminate him. The action sequences feel like versions of previous films in the series – and don’t get me started on the fact Bond still hasn’t learned that punching Jaws in his metal mouth is a bad idea (he does it three or four times in this movie). Everything moves forward with a restless momentum that never allows us to connect with anything that happens.

There is some decent potential here. The fight on the ski lift is pretty good. Michael Lonsdale has a psychotic chill about him that, in a better film, might have made him a memorable villain. In fact, Lonsdale is so grounded as a villain he feels wrong for a film that’s so silly. And it’s all the more surprising he has such an outlandish scheme – or that he hangs around with such a pantomime villain as Jaws. Jaws clearly returns due to popularity – and has been thoroughly neutered as a threat here. Even before he falls in love with a girl with pigtails and switches sides, he’s already an almost comic buffoon – even bashful about knocking off a Bond aide in front of witnesses.

It’s a film that can’t decide if it’s a thriller or a comedy. It probably leans more towards comedy – which is a shame as it’s not that funny. The hideously overplayed gondola sequence tells you everything you need to know about the film’s lack of wit. Its comedy is as overplayed and heavy-handed as some of the action can be – more likely to get you rolling your eyes than holding your sides. Saying that, it does have possibly the best final punchline of any of the films (“I think he’s attempting re-entry sir”) – the sort of joke you probably didn’t get when you first watched the film aged about 10. Other than that it’s like a series of gags told by people who aren’t really that funny.

Moonraker is the sort of bizarre freak of nature that you almost can’t believe exists. Leaving aside its amping up of the tongue-in-cheek formula into the realms of the bizarre, it’s basically a bit too stupid and unbelievable for even this franchise to pull off. Lasers? Space-stations? Space marines? Bond in space? I mean really? As a rip off of Star Wars it leaves a lot to be desired – and so long as these films take place in a world that is even vaguely linked to our own, plots like this just have the stench of bullshit.