Walls have ears, and Wall’s have sausages – W-films, Part 4


At long last, the third volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Oliver Cromwell seems about to be published.  The Mantel piece Wolf Hall was dramatized by the BBC; and the sequel The Wolf of Hall Street was made into a film by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Henry VIII.  Scorsese also made a film out of Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Bringing Out the Dead, with Nicolas Cage.

Sorry, I may have got a little confused there.  I meant to start with Wall Street, which comes with the usual approach by director Oliver Stone: crash-bang, excellent.  The film opens on to a lost world – New York cityscapes dominated by the Twin Towers, those icons once of capitalism, attacked for being such and turned now into an absent symbol of loss; this is coupled with views from offices out across Manhattan, showing the routes the planes came in – the use of then-state-of-the-art now-out-of-date technology underpinning this sense of shift.

What intrigued me on re-watching it is the extent to which Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko really is supposed to be a wholly villainous creature: or is he, alternatively, an American dream to many Americans (if not to Stone) – ignoring regulation as an irrelevance much in the same way that local or federal law is not significant in Westerns, a self-reliant operator whose ambitions for success are normal within that culture?  Part of the difficulty is that the insider-dealing that aids the initial success of Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is not negatively marked – he benefits from what his father knows, and ‘no-one gets hurt’.  It’s only when the father’s company is genuinely threatened that Gekko enters into full villainy, and is undone by a different kind of insider knowledge.

So the Blue Star dénouement is complex: what is the moral? That capitalism is fine as long as you’re actually creating something (like flights?? or films??), and not just speculating? That it’s all OK as long as it’s not your father’s firm you’re asset-stripping?  Logically all of capitalism is about greed, and this is about an extreme form, and it’s not more logical to say that greed is OK up to a point than it is to envisage being a bit pregnant.  But logic was never Stone’s long suit – compelling film-making is, and it has to be all the more stylish and involving precisely because of the shaky theoretical backdrop.

Stone makes good use of Martin and Charlie Sheen (the latter moving into his pad to the strains of This Must Be The Place by Talking Heads); Douglas fils is here perhaps following in his father’s footsteps as his career shifts more towards playing villains; Sean Young plays Mrs Gekko; Daryl Hannah emerges finless from the sea and significantly throws her lot in with Gekko; the standard vacant Terence Stamp Englishman.

In the sequel The Wolf of Wall Street Scorsese largely emulates Stone’s high-octane approach, thanks to DiCaprio’s full-on performance as Jordan Belfort – and also picks up the theme about the money-men not actually creating anything.  But there is little here about how their activities affect ordinary workers, and not really very much either about the plight of gullible small investors.  There’s an interesting sub-text of references to The Graduate – when seduced by Margot Robbie, DiCaprio is pictured with her bare Mrs Robinson legs in the foreground, and when Kyle Chandler has got his man he looks around the subway train, with its defeated people, much as Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross do on the bus after the wedding; and Mrs Robinson itself is on the soundtrack here.

There are good scenes when DiCaprio’s first wife discovers his infidelity; and when he attempts to drive home when literally paralytic on Quaaludes.  Rob Reiner plays the hilariously bipolar father; Joanna Lumley looks like Bill Nighy; Steve Buscemi is seen in a clip from The Equalizer: Re-Entry.  As always with Scorsese, there’s a great soundtrack (overseen, as so often, by Robbie Robertson from The Band).

Walls have ears, and Wall’s have sausages

Pink Floyd’s The Wall

Walls have ears, and Wall’s have sausages.  For other film Walls, avoid Pink Floyd: The Wall.  It’s pretty dreadful, bordering on unwatchable, with its bombastic, thudding messages; the undistinguished music and lyrics were only ever enough to sustain perhaps two four-minute pop videos.  The themes of war, stardom and madness, and Englishness are treated so much more effectively and sparely on The Dark Side of the Moon.

The Wall – Doug Liman

Instead try the 2017 film The Wall.  Maybe the best thing about this Doug Liman effort is the distinctive light of the Iraqi desert, a tone familiar from a number of other films set in the theatre of recent Western interventions (Armadillo, The Hurt Locker, Jarhead, Kajaki).  It recalls that other type of Western, with the protagonists imperilled and facing their destiny without external help; but it’s also not a million miles away from Phone Booth, with the hapless victim pinned down behind a disintegrating wall, at risk of being shot if he moves, and having to engage in conversation with his enemy.  The problem here is that that conversation with the educated Iraqi sniper, which becomes the main focus, seems highly improbable and, despite the friendly-fire back-story, is in any case much less compelling than the proper action: that action in the initial set-up is good, but its drama is only really replicated later when the wall starts to collapse and in the slightly unsatisfactory ending.  It boils down to one treacherous and sadistic foreigner against two brave and resourceful Americans (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena), and the pre-climax and the actual finale are both quite limp.

To get back to Hilary Mantel, you will all have seen Wolf Hall, one of those brilliant, really top-notch BBC productions they can do when they put their mind to it.  Mark Rylance (Paul Whitehouse) is excellent as Thomas Cromwell (even surpassing the performance of Kenneth Williams as that character in Carry On Henry).  Rylance captures the adventitious eye for the main chance, the love of Wolsey, the recklessness in search of the administrative desideratum, the attention to detail.  Damian Lewis is fabulous as Henry.  Saskia Reeves is spot-on, with little to work with.  And Joanne Whalley, of all people, as Katherine the Arrogant.  I was in a clear minority in finding Claire Foy a bit meh (leading me to wonder why, if she speaks such good English, she always struggles with Cramuell, and why, if she’s French, she’s unable to pronounce prophétie): until she nails it in the excellent beheading scenes.  There’s good support from Jonathan Pryce as Wolsey, deluded in thinking that he is the fixer; Mark Gatiss as Stephen Gardiner; Bernard Hill, Anton Lesser; and Thomas Brodie-Sangster, from Love Actually, as Rafe.

Director Peter Kosminsky has a large number of hand-held shots, with faint wavering – although in episode one this is a little distracting, and you wonder what the exact point is, you fail to notice this again as the drama sweeps on.  And eventually you realise that much of the point, alongside the almost painterly composition of some of the scenes, is either to replicate for you the view that Cromwell has, or to mesmerise you with the absorbing sight of Rylance himself at the top of his game.  It’s a nice touch that Cromwell’s gaze in the Holbein portrait doesn’t reflect the scheming that it’s conventionally associated with, but rather that he’s looking at the Antwerp tapestry and remembering his long-lost love.

Arguably the best film with wolves is The Grey, with Liam Neeson, but I’m prevented from writing about that here under ‘W’ (it’ll have to wait until after I do XYZ, and then numbers, and then begin again with more A-films (starting not with any of the at least four films called Aardvark, or various others with shorter Aahs, like Aaahh! Real Monsters, but with Aaaaaaaah!, which with its eight ‘a’s is surely going to be the first on any comprehensive alphabetical list (if no other))).

Wolf Creek

I’ll have to make do with Wolf Creek, one of many films ‘Based on actual events’ (here not least those caused by Backpacker Murderer Ivan Milat – around this time, too, Bradley John Murdoch was being tried for the murder of Peter Falconio) and set against a background of disappearances being apparently common in Australia.  And Greg McLean’s film certainly has its moments, although in the last analysis it is a bit patchy and doesn’t quite sustain things at the high level it sometimes reaches.

A hedonist trio (two allegedly English girls Liz and Kristy (actually played by Australians Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi), one gravitating towards the Aussie man (Nathan Phillips)) drive from the beach towards the meteorite crater that is Wolfe Creek, and the atmosphere is initially part road-trip and part travelogue (emus; kangaroos later), going from the glorious seaside into the breath-taking interior.  Toxic masculinity emerges first as they stop in Emu Creek, and is not met with the response you crave from having seen Natural Born Killers (where essentially all the chauvinists are brutally murdered); and soon, like in those Westerns, the protagonists find themselves far from the protection of the law or indeed civilisation (the film is early enough not to have to explain why mobiles don’t work).  It’s nice that the relationship between the two youngsters is gentle and barely emerging, rather than characterised by the casual sex that is so often the prelude to slasher gore.

The initial peril is teased to come from UFOs, with watches stopping and the car malfunctioning, before the bluff, kindly predator Mick Taylor – played with brio throughout by John Jarratt – offers to lend a hand to resolve the situation that, as we later learn, he himself had engineered.  It’s the youngsters who first feed him the line ‘that’s not a knife, this is a knife’, ridiculing him as a Crocodile Dundee figure, but he’d obviously been up to no good anyway.  It’s still something of a coup when Liz wakes up bound, and as the proper horror unfolds, the terror and the tension is exquisitely managed in its first act as she frees herself, witnesses the torture of the other girl amid previous corpses, shoots him but doesn’t finish him off, has to return to get his keys, evades his shotgun, and there’s a car-chase ending with the two girls atop a cliff like in Thelma and Louise; they push the truck off but he’ll know they’re not dead and so they’ll have to go back to get another car.

It doesn’t work quite so well from then on.  We learn that Ben is alive; and see more evidence, including video, of previous victims and his modus operandi, and Liz finally finds a car – and just as you thought that she, the resourceful one, is in peril because he’d hear it, he’s in the back seat already and can rerun the knife joke, chopping off her fingers and leaving her as a head on a stick with a severed spine.  Kristy flees and her rescuer turns out not to be him; but his shotgun intervenes, before and after another car-chase, and that’s her done.

The third act also starts promisingly, with Ben tearing himself free of his crucifixion and finding his way to the crater – but tails off even more limply as he’s simply found and flying-doctored out, the true horror here being supposed to be that the guy got away with it and still walks free.

In my last article my quiz question was which ironically black-and-white Sherlock Holmes W-film features not only Moriarity but the equally misspelt London thoroughfare Edgeware Road?  This is The Woman in Green, a fairly late example of the Sherlock Holmes 1940s series featuring Basil Rathbone.  It’s really not the best subject for a monochrome film, and it’s not without its ponderousness – starting with the poor voiceover offered by Matthew Boulton as Inspector Gregson (referring to, but bafflingly replacing, the canonical Lestrade).  Director Roy Ward Neill pulls off a number of inventive shots, though – an exterior down into street early on; floating flowers in reflecting water, repeated; a split screen of Holmes and Watson in their Baker Street rooms; a close-up two-shot with new client Eve Amber; and up-shots of the imposing Holmes.

What makes it, though, is a very decent performance from Henry Daniell (who’d played other roles earlier in the series) as Moriarty, not hanged in Montevideo after all, and behind murders, mutilation, mesmerism, and blackmail (including of the similar-looking amnesiac Paul Cavanagh).  Holmes and Moriarty show their usual inability to resist each other in the intrigue, which culminates in the death-plunge of the villain shortly after Holmes finds himself in similar peril (a trope reprised in Sherlock).  It’s underpinned, as ever, by the terrific Nigel Bruce as Watson – nicely dismissive of hypnotism until he’s mesmerised into taking his shoe and sock off; Holmes on the other hand manages to avoid the cannabis troponica administered by the eponym, played by Hillary Brooke.

It’s telling, of course, that you can name umpteen films whose titles begin with The Man …, but that if pressed you might only be able to come up with The Woman in Red.  But there are some others: Jean Renoir’s melodramatic effort The Woman on the Beach is perhaps most notable for the nightmare/flashback sequences in which the improbably mounted coastguard Scott (Robert Ryan) in his post-traumatic stress relives his wartime torpedoing and near-drowning – scenes that are underwater and are cinematically overlaid with surreal, watery special effects.  Ryan is reliable as ever, and Joan Bennett is good as Peggy, the eponymous wife of the cantankerous blinded painter who from the start is well aware of their mutual attraction, despite Scott’s homely fiancée.  Peggy is a ‘tramp’ with previous, having beguiled another local, but the focus is more on the men – Scott’s slightly bizarre obsession with whether the painter really is blind, leading to a cliff-plunge; and the painter’s obsession with his wife – ending in a rather unsatisfying and generally overwrought way in his burning of his old paintings.  Perhaps from the son of a painter, in a film about a painter, you expect something more like Bergmanesque black-and-white beauty: the images you get are picturesque enough, but no more than that.

The director of The Woman on Pier 13, Robert Stevenson, went on to do Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, after a long TV career – but before that he directed the Orson Welles Jane Eyre and this snappy, didactic, but interesting anti-communist effort.  Here’s Robert Ryan again, an American success story, having just married the boss’s daughter (Laraine Day from The Locket) and now trying to broker sensible relationships between management and unions in San Francisco; except that in his previous life, under another name, he was a card-carrying member.  Now the party is trying to use him again, and ruthlessly blackmails him to stymie the parleys in order to close down the waterfront, with the help of his commie ex-squeeze photographer (Janis Carter), who has personal and political reasons to get back with him or at him and who romances and indoctrinates his brother-in-law (John Agar) – adding sex to the political infamy.

The Communists are portrayed almost like the Mob, well-resourced, highly organised (under baddie Thomas Gomez), and particularly murderous (binding a man’s arms and feet and throwing him in the docks; running the brother-in-law over (the deed done by William Talman in an early role – he is later The Hitch-hiker); throwing the photographer out of the window); and there’s a particular emphasis not only on the complicity of well-meaning liberals but also on how the party subverts decent unions and will dispense with them when it gains power.  It builds up into a rather helter-skelter and contrived shootout, but despite the tendentiousness born of a particular era it’s eminently watchable.

Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window is interestingly constructed and reasonably intriguing, and has a nice twist, but at times seems a little pedestrian and not entirely for the reason that is revealed at the end.  Reflecting Hollywood’s fascination with psychological theory, Edward G. Robinson is cast as Richard Wanley, the appropriately named mild college professor in that discipline, lecturing on the motivations of homicide with Freud’s name spelt out on the blackboard behind him; and then seeing off his family for a holiday and going to his club and talking to his friends about middle age, fantasy, and adventure.  The camerawork here is staid, the scenes lacking dynamism, to echo the solid life-style – although some later sequences are also oddly static and slow, despite the action ratcheting up into true noir content.

There’s a rather implausible set-up to the next phase of the narrative: emerging befuddled from the club Wanley meets the glamorous woman whose portrait is in a nearby window (Joan Bennett again, who occasionally slows the pacing by doing no more than looking languidly fatale).  Back at her place her murderous jealous lover fetches up and the other two combine to kill him as he tries to strangle Wanley and they decide to cover it up, inevitably leaving clues.  Wanley’s friend DA Raymond Massey is on the case, talking to him about it (rather as Robinson’s Keyes discusses the Dietrichson murder with Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity) – although this is rather coincidental, it’s an effective way for us to get the police procedural while not leaving Wanley’s side.  But the focus does then shift – the victim had a bodyguard who now tries blackmail; with leisurely logic the pair decide to kill him too, using a powder flagged up earlier.  The blackmailer sees through it but is coincidentally gunned down by the cops and fingered for the murderer just as Wanley kills himself, looking nicely into the camera at us as he passes.

And then the twist – it was all a dream that he had been having while asleep at the club, which explains the unreal nature of the encounter with the woman, and indeed the pace, and the coincidences, particularly as he has imported into the dream, as the two murderees, the hat-check guy and the porter at his club (in the same way that Dorothy converts people she knows into characters in The Wizard of Oz); nicely leading us back towards what there might be in Wanley’s sub-conscious that was being suppressed by the superego or whatever.  The more you think of this conceit as driving the whole thing, rather than a last-minute way of creating a happy ending, the better the film appears to be, converting the occasional lack of zip into helpful underpinning.  The boy scout who finds the first body is played by George ‘Spanky’ MacFarland from Our Gang/The Little Rascals, this his last child role.

More recently we’ve had The Woman in the Fifth, another French film from a Douglas Kennedy book like L’Homme Qui Voulait Vivre Sa Vie: this time the largely introspective main character is played by Ethan Hawke, looking like Tom Cruise’s older brother.  Again the emphasis on such a character makes it a bit forbidding, and there’s not enough of Kirstin Scott Thomas, but there are things here to admire in what seems to me to be typically Polish film-making – nicely constructed, scenes well punctuated, some evocative external shots.  But it’s those elements that make it rather fall apart – the introspection and the scenic realism make the mystery of what is actually going on rather annoying, down to what exactly it is that is happening to the apparently lost, apparently not little girl in the Don’t Look Now red plastic coat.  Director Pawel Pawlikowski went quickly on to truly great things in Ida and the wonderful Cold War.

Despite their titles, the women in these films are often not the main protagonists but rather, as so often in other films, secondary appendages.  Which takes me finally on to The Wife.  The highlight here is a great performance by Glenn Close in the title role, matching the content by easily outdoing husband Jonathan Pryce.  There are some moments where the camera cuts to her, expecting her at the very start of the shot to portray various emotions, and she just nails them straight off simply by the way she composes her features.  The storyline is over-blown, though: not only is her husband a successful author, he’s getting the Nobel prize; he’s not just difficult, he’s had various affairs and is still incorrigibly annotating walnuts as tokens for the latest target, as he had done down the years; he’s not just ailing, he’s going to die of a heart-attack; he doesn’t just have a daughter about to give birth, he has a son who’s an aspiring writer.  More than this, though, the wife doesn’t just sacrifice her life, or her literary talent, to his; she’s actually doing eight hours of writing for him every day (although vaguely he’s the one with the ‘big ideas’).

Although there is one moment where the husband amusingly misses the relatively straightforward point about a bit of the wife’s writing, the supposed mechanics of their ‘collaboration’ don’t really convince – initially she offers to ‘fix’ his lame draft (this is her younger self, played by Close’s daughter Annie Starke), as if she’s more like the editor that she later accuses him of being; she’s somehow turned his affairs into her plots.  This aside, the extreme nature of the conceit undercuts any more general message about gender: it’s as if it’s only because she really is one of the world’s greatest writers that there’s an issue about how he takes all the credit while relying on her support.

Christian Slater does reasonably well as the inquisitive, would-be biographer – despite looking like Vic Reeves; Elizabeth McGovern has a good turn as an embittered woman writer (and the film is good about the difficulties they have making their way); Karin Franz Korlof is a bit shoe-horned in as the photographer/sex-interest.  It’s competently directed in authentic Stockholm by Björn Runge.

And really finally, your next quiz question: Michael Crawford, Shirley Anne Field, Bernard Braben, Bert Kwouk (Kato from the Pink Panther films), André Maranne (André from the Fawlty Towers Gourmet Night episode) – but also Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner.  Which W-film?

Source: Film Buff