Movie of the Week: His Girl Friday (1940)

Howards Hawks directs Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy in this screwball comedy where a newspaper editor connives to win back his ex wife and star reporter on the eve of her second marriage.

The fastest talking movie ever made. The patter is witty and unmerciful. You’d probably need to watch it three times in a row to catch all the gags. The costumes are stunning (check out Russell’s chevron patterned travelling suit!) and Hawks throws a lot of balls, red herrings and salt in the air. Now, not all of it lands, or is given a chance to hit its mark… that script is purposefully too busy, on the right side of chaotic. This is probably the least romantic romantic comedy to be considered a classic. Russell and Grant have to get together as Grant is a savvier, sexier, suavest star than Ralph Bellamy. Not because he is kinder, more loving or even a better match. Blunt Hollywood politics, his Walter will continue to be a terrible husband but he has the better tan and zingers so he wins the girl. That lovey dovey stuff is muted though precisely as it is secondary. Russell’s immaculate Hildy Johnson is the best at what she does, simple as. The most natural reporter to all the men around her. She can coach a condemned man into a better defence during one brief interview, smell out the truth in another journo’s hack job, rat-a-tat those words out like she was typing Pulitzer prose with her lips. Cary Grant doesn’t seduce her. Her job does, her purpose does, her superiority does. Grant’s trickster ex is just the Cupid who makes her fall back in love with it again. In His Girl Friday, the true victory is a lady lead wins back her career… the headlining man on her arm at the finish is a bonus prize. Progressive for a 1940s movie, progressive even for now.


My Top Ten Romantic Comedies

1. When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
2. Say Anything… (1989)

3. The Quiet Man (1952)
4. Sleepless In Seattle (1993)
5. It Happened One Night (1935)
6. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
7. Jules Et Jim (1962)
8. Groundhog Day (1992)
9. The Apartment (1960)

10. Amelie (2001)

The Set-Up (1949)

Robert Wise directs Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter and George Tobias in this boxing noir where an over-the-hill longshot tries to win a fight, unaware his bum manager has taken a bribe from a gangster for him to lose on purpose.

Pessimistic, urban and stark; this primecut film noir doesn’t give its sucker a chance. From the outset even if he wins, he loses. The backstreets and nightlife of a seedy city are captured perfectly. The background characters’ universal zeal for riches, glory and blood is amplified in downbeat visual judgement. The greasy Greek chorus of sluggers, trainers and spectators witter on in that hard boiled streetslang – half poets, half lay preachers, all mopes. The real time storytelling gives the narrative a pull of relentless inevitably. We watch Ryan’s palooka fight and struggle in the moral quicksand, every effort and moment of hubris making his comeuppance a little more tragic, a lot more unavoidable.


The Survivalist (2015)

Stephen Fingleton directs Mia Goth, Martin McCann and Olwen Fouéré in this low budget, post-apocalyptic thriller where a lone farmer begrudgingly lets a pair of women into his fiercely guarded allotment.

Mad Max in a potting shed! Like The Rover or Children of Men this imagines a future of desperation and scarcity that might not have biker chases and chainsaw fights but is equally as terrifying in it stark practicalities. The wooden cabin is a rickety defence, only really effective as rampart in its undetectable smallness. There are moments when it is besieged by crossbow wielding Parker hoodies but the real threat is the mistrust and hunger of our central three. Human contact gives way to supplies dwindling, allegiances shifting and vulnerabilities exposed. Our lone shotgun wielding hermit might crave Mia Goth’s sexy malnourished body, but she sees his strength and guile as a shield from the rapists and marauders. Her “mother” trades her daughter’s youth and looks for shelter and supplies but harbours her own deadly plans. The economy of this ravaged community is blunt, brutal and uncaring. Any glimmer of humanity shown is a kill point exposed, even a corpse has utilitarian benefits. The film has a lush wet greenness, overgrown scrubland and rain soaked forest clearings. It makes for a unique setting, one fully exploited. Grim yet gripping, small yet special, The Survivalist is quite the treat.


American Ultra (2015)

Nima Nourizadeh directs Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Connie Britton in this small scale, colourful, glib and quirky action comedy that asks “What if Jason Bourne was a stoner convenience store clerk?”

Answer: You’d send Walton Goggins maniacally giggling lobotomised killer to find him.


Major Dundee (1965)

Sam Peckinpah directs Charlton Heston, Richard Harris and James Coburn in this western where a Unionist Major leads a squad of Confederate prisoners after a marauding tribe of natives.

The director. The cast. It certainly is manly. Just not very memorable. Heston convinces as a “good tyrant”. Not much of Peckinpah’s later trademark ultra violence and chickensweat fatalism finds a purchase here. Some good trad action though.


47 Metres Down (2017)

Johannes Roberts directs Claire Holt, Mandy Moore and Matthew Modine in this survival thriller where two tourists find themselves trapped on the ocean floor in a rusty shark cage, their oxygen running out and the predators circling.

So I watched this mainly for Claire Holt who impressed in the TV show Aquarius. She doesn’t get much chance to shine here, being stuck behind scuba gear for the bulk of the running time and behind Mandy Moore’s character in the writers’ affection. It struggles to fill its short running time, delivering almost precisely what you’d expect from seeing the trailer with little deviation. Claustrophobic thrillers like this are hard to pull off and this is adequately inventive in keeping things ticking along and busy… The Shallows did it better, with a stronger lead and that still wasn’t exactly brilliant. Passable.


Murder By Death (1976)

Robert Moore directs Peter Falk, Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers in this parody of a murder mystery where the world’s greatest detectives (all strangely familiar) find themselves trapped in a murder mystery mansion.

I had high hopes for this but Clue did it all better 10 years later with a lot less talent. The humour is very Carry On-ish – bad puns, worse innuendos and lazy slapstick. The plot is too tiresomely random to care about. Sellers and Guinness have the funniest characters but 45 years down the line politically sensitive people will find them very troubling totems. A relic, probably best for the trivia blast of its starry ensemble.


Permanent Vacation (1980)

Jim Jarmusch directs Chris Parker, Leila Gastil and John Lurie in this low budget indie where a dispossessed hipster wanders a broken New York.

The opening credits of an ignored busker playing the mean streets is the highlight. Then… nothing happens slowly. There are flashes of wit and madness and decayed beauty. Smithereens did this better a year later, Slacker filled the void this cinematic form leaves with more captivating voices. Of interest only to Jarmusch completists or people who like grainy footage of Manhattan being mooched about in.


The Aftermath (2019)

James Kent directs Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård and Jason Clarke in this post-war romance where the troubled marriage between a grieving officer and his beautiful wife catches the attention of the Hamburg architect who loses his stately home to them.

Who doesn’t like a glossy period romance? This ambles along beautifully. It is also far less distasteful than the similarly pitched Suite Francaise. Here every character is given a delicious blur of humanity and shadow. All actors inhabit their roles with bold, sexy star power. The Nazi youth subplot and sympathetic look at life in the ruins of occupation for the defeated Germans adds bite. The wrap-up is unexpected yet hopeful. Better than you’ve been led to believe, if not quite the classic it wants to echo. Brief Encounter, Casablanca, A Foreign Affair are all cribbed from though it never reaches any of those giddy heights. The costumes are particularly lovely… yet how a resplendent Keira Knightley managed to cram quite so many dresses and skirts into her little red suitcase, as seen at the start, I’ll never know?


High Flying Bird (2019)

Steven Soderbergh directs Andre Holland, Sonja Sohn and Bill Duke in this basketball drama where a sports agent tries to break up a negotiation deadlock threatening his rookie player and company.

Steven Soderbergh wanted to make Moneyball at one point. And he wanted to make it with the real baseball players. This is the compromise. A digital Jerry Maguire clone with points to score about the exploitation of young black athletes and the game changing potential of streaming services. It is a film that has corporate buzz terms like “game changer” and “disruptor” dripping from its lips like scraps from a rich man’s feast. As if the technologies and distribution systems Soderbergh suggest will rebalance the finances of sport are not already in the control of the same predatory class that command the sports leagues. But Soderbergh presents it as a heist, only one where the scam is obvious from the get-go. The wordy, erudite dialogue has force, flow and punch. The ensemble all impress. This is mature, playful, gripping drama. The conclusions though are facile.