Superman Returns

Superman, the last surviving alien from the planet Krypton with god-like powers, has left the city of Metropolis that he has protected for decades to return to the last known whereabouts of his destroyed planet. Upon discovering nothing to be found where his planet used to be, he returns back to Earth, and re-assumes his alter ego of Clark Kent, a mild-mannered journalist for The Daily Planet. He attempts to rebuild his relationship with Pulitzer-prize winning co-journo Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), but is annoyed to discover that not only is she engaged to their boss’ nephew (James Marsden), but she has a son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). Meanwhile, having recently been released from prison, Superman’s former nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is busy hatching a plan involving crystals found in Supe’s mysterious Fortress of Solitude.

I’m not a fan of Superman. There, I said it. I remember half-watching the 1978 Christopher Reeve version when I was younger, but I can tell you literally nothing about it, and I remember watching Superman Returns a few years ago, but I couldn’t remember too much about that either, other than the shot of Bosworth’s Lois ascending in an elevator, Spacey’s Lex Luthor being near water at some point and the shot of Superman being shot in the eye that was in the trailers. To be fair, that viewing was overshadowed by a rather eventful mid-film pee break.
I remember the rest of the day clearly. It was pretty much the first time I’d tried Pick’n’Mix sweets (I was aged 19 I think), and all I’d consumed so far that day was strawberries with orange juice for breakfast, a couple of glasses of Coca Cola, and several fistfuls of Pick’n’Mix. My student days were not necessarily the healthiest of times. About halfway through the film, buoyed by the saccharine high of the tooth-rotting goodies  I’d consumed, I desperately need a wee. So i nipped to the loo, and mid-stream I passed out, and woke up face down on the toilet bowl. This is a very unusual place to regain consciousness, and needless to say, once I re-entered the lounge and joined my housemates watching the film, I didn’t take too much of the rest of the film in, hence why I remembered so little. I promise that I don’t make a habit of passing out during films, although later that day something similar occurred during an advert break in The Long Kiss Goodnight, this times resulting in my collapsing face-up (again mid-urination), still clutching the 2″ thick acrylic shower rail I’d previously been using to steady myself, that had now been sheared from the wall. Don’t worry, other than my recent Looper adventures, the only other time I’ve passed out was last year, again during a period of relieving myself, but was not halfway through a film. It did require the purchasing of a new toilet brush holder, as apparently the one we used to own wasn’t designed to withstand 15 stone of unconscious man falling onto it. 

Anyway, me fainting halfway through the first time I watched the film has nothing to do with whether I like it or not, I just enjoy retelling overly personal stories from my life that are at best tangentially related to the film I’m reviewing. No, what I don’t really like about Superman is that he’s just too powerful. His powers are seemingly beyond limit, with the only things he cannot do being the ones he hasn’t tried yet. He has flight, x-ray vision, super speed, strength, laser-eyes, time-travel, advanced hearing, super-whistling, fucking everything. And he only really has one weakness; Kryptonite; an extremely rare green rock. Which basically means that if people don’t know about this weakness, or there isn’t any of the super-scarce emerald stone around, there’s pretty much nothing in the way of Superman saving the day. I never really got into Smallville, even though I was pretty much slap-bang in the target demographic when it came out, and I can’t even get excited about next year’s Man Of Steel, even with Zack Snyder directing and Christopher Nolan producing. Needless to say, this film was going to have it’s work cut out if I was going to be impressed by the end of the viewing.

Initially I was intrigued by the film, as it has an interesting and somewhat eclectic cast. Kevin Spacey is perfect as Luthor, taking over from Gene Hackman. Spacey is his usual dependable self, and it at his best when in full-on bad guy mode, which is most certainly the case here. Elsewhere, Eva Marie Saint was a nice touch as Martha, Clarke’s adoptive mother, though disappointingly she doesn’t really get a lot to do, as is also the case with Frank Langella’s Perry White, Clarke and Lois’ boss. James Marsden once again plays a man caught on the cold side of a love triangle between the film’s hero and heroine (see also The X-Men trilogy, The Notebook, Enchanted), and Parker Posey is always a welcome addition to any cast, here playing Luthor’s sidekick/partner/main source of annoyance. Oh, and Kal Penn’s there too, but I’m fairly sure he never actually says anything, and [TINY SPOILER] is given a terrible cop out death with Luthor’s other two goons at the end [END OF TINY SPOILER].

Where the casting really falls down though is with the leads. Kate Bosworth, aged 23 when the film was released, looks far too young to play a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and seems dwarfed even by her own clothes. She also displays practically no likable qualities – she frequently dissolves into childish hissy-fits and strops whenever she (justifiably) doesn’t get her way. Brandon Routh, on the other hand, looks the part of both Superman and his public identity, but whenever he tries to act he appears to be made more of wood than the steel of his nickname. And in the many, many CGI shots of him flying or in danger, the film seems to become a late 90s video game, so terrible are the graphics. Most egregiously, the film’s final shot is one such diabolically bad render. Even in some of the non-CG shots Routh appears to have a plastic-like finish, possibly to make him look more similar to the computer generated bits.

Another part that really bothered me was that the film is clearly set in modern times, with space shuttles, airplanes, videocameras etc. all being integral to the plot, but the architecture and fashions all seem to be stuck in the 1920s, up to the point of large sections seeming like they were shot in sepia. This is none more clear than in Parker Posey’s outfit in the car sequence. Adding the newspaper-room setting reminded me heavily of The Hudsucker Proxy, a film I liked a great deal more than this one, and which inspired me to suggest Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lois, although Amy Adams’ casting is possibly the only thing I approve of for the next film. I can see where director Bryan Singer was coming from with the mix of old and new styles, but it never really worked for me, and I found the whole thing very jarring. The overall plot was mostly just silly too, and various minor plotlines – the one involving Lois’ son for instance – felt unsatisfying and, at times, just plain stupid. The first 60% of the film seemed to drag too, as Lex’s plot is kept a mystery, and there doesn’t seem to be too much for Superman to really fight against. And part of the finale, in which lives hang in the balance of a fax machine’s volume, is not quite dated yet, but will be very soon. And who the hell puts a snooker table on a boat? Seriously.

There were some nice touches though. I approved of the little in-jokes for superhero fans (a news reporter mentions that they’ve received a message from Gotham), and the moment where Clarke pretends to be a bit confused and muddled to but Lois off the scent was good. The shoehorning-in of the “It’s a bird, it’s a plane…” line was clumsy, but still managed to raise a smile from me, even if it was accompanied with an eye-roll. The destruction of a model railway town may not sound like the grandest action set-piece in a film, but for me it was the highlight here, with it being shot in a similar fashion to a Roland Emmerich film. That one short sequence was more entertaining than the entirety of 2012, I can tell you.Elsewhere, some camerawork really disappointed me – a shot heading over a balcony and down, to focus on Lex reading a newspaper felt clunky and jerky – but this was more than made up for by the visually stunning space-set opening.

The viewing of the film was worth it to finally discover the origin of two Adam Carolla Show sound effects (“Wrong!” and “You’re losing your hair,” for fellow regular listeners), but sadly other than this point I was thoroughly underwhelmed by the whole thing. All being well, my low hopes for the upcoming Man of Steel may result in me being pleasantly surprise. Here’s hoping.

Choose life 4/10

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Gimme Shelter

I was quite looking forward to this film. Although I’m not a massive Rolling Stones fan, I can often be found listening to their greatest hits, amongst which there are many songs I’m rather partial to, in particular Paint It Black, You Can’t Always Get What You Want and Honky Tonk Women, and I haven’t heard too many of their songs that I’ve particularly disliked. Also, the only music documentary I’d seen prior to this was Anvil, which is pretty good if you ask me. 

The film follows the Rolling Stones on their 1969 US tour, culminating in a massive free show at Altamont Speedway, San Fransisco. The events of that show have gone down in history, remembered as the moment the 60s ended when a concert-goer was stabbed and killed by the Hell’s Angels, who were hired as security for the event. Many other audience members were beaten or injured during the concert, which was rife with drug abuse, nudity and people giving birth, making me all the more grateful to have been born long after all that free thinking and spirituality was around.  

Before getting to the Altamont, we see various other performances throughout the tour, including a terrific rendition of Jumpin’ Jack Flash at Madison Square Garden, and footage of the band listening to their music in hotel rooms, and watching the editing process of this very film in the editing bay. We are given a bit of an insight into the band’s personalities (Mick Jagger comments that “It’s nice to have a chick [perform with them] occasionally” after Tina Turner belts out I’ve Been Loving You Too Long), but for the most part I was sadly bored, despite Jagger’s relatively engaging presence. He always seemed fairly unsure of where he was or what he was doing (can’t think why), and he had an air of someone who couldn’t quite understand exactly how he’d gotten to where he was, and just generally dicked about on stage whilst the other band members were concentrating on getting the job done. What I expect from music may not be the same as other people – I tend to prefer a good quality recording rather than atmosphere and ambiance, hence why I rarely go to musical events – and I imagine I’d have been severely disappointed had I attended any of the gigs on the Stones’ tour.

The only interesting segments were about the organising of the free concert, having to arrange a venue to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of audience members, but this was overshadowed by the impending on-camera death of Meredith Hunter, an audience member who attempted to mount the stage. I do not relish the opportunity to watch an actual death on screen, and I did not feel comfortable watching what is essentially a scene from a snuff film. I get the feeling that had this event not taken place on film, then this documentary would probably not appear on the 1001 list. It’s only really worth watching for the stellar soundtrack.

I get the feeling I’ll track down Martin Scorsese’s Shine A Light documentary eventually, because, y’know, it’s Scorsese; but sadly all this film left me with was an increased desire to re-watch Spinal Tap.

Choose life 5/10

The Shining

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a writer suffering from writer’s block. He takes a job as an off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, deep in the Colorado Rockies, where he will stay for five months with just his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son, Jake (Danny Lloyd). Whilst at the hotel, all three members of the Torrance family experience otherworldly visions that slowly send Jack insane. Meanwhile, Danny’s ‘gift’ of the shining – the ability to see and hear things that haven’t happened yet or that happened a long time ago – grows stronger.

The Shining is widely regarded as a terrifying film, one of the best horror films made in the past 40 years, but to me it holds a deeper terror, not just because it’s the first truly scary film I can remember watching (and being far too young to watch it when I did). You see, I’ve seen The Shining twice, and both times I’ve watched it have been shrouded in a very real death of someone I know. The first time I saw it my best friend’s brother’s best friend was found dead the next morning. This time, I was interrupted about halfway through the film with a phone call from a friend, informing me that a mutual friend of ours, who neither of us had seen for a while, had been killed in a motorcycle crash. Basically, this is possibly the scariest film I know of, because I can never watch it again for fear of someone I know dying. This adds a whole new dimension to a film that’s scary enough to begin with.

On the surface, there isn’t a lot of traditionally scary elements to The Shining, especially not by modern horror standards. Instead, there’s more of an increasing sense of unease and mental disturbance as Jack descends into the horrors of his own mind, assisted by the various terrifying images thrown up by the hotel. Like the young twin girls Danny sees around the hotel, the elevator erupting with an ocean of blood, or the beautiful naked woman in room 237, who becomes a scabbed and putrid hag in Jack’s arms. And of course there’s the questionable shot of the man in a business suit, probably receiving a favour from a man dressed as a bear, that I’m sure his wife and kids would not be too happy to find out about.

As horror films go, this is impressively effective without having to resort to cheap jump-scares or a monstrous killer on the loose. I’m not often scared by films, but this one has left me a little off ever since, and not just for the personal reasons mentioned earlier. I’m a big fan of how the original protagonist – Jack – eventually becomes the antagonist once perspective focuses more on Jake and Wendy. If I were to pick a fault though, it might be that there’s a few too many elements taking place simultaneously. Firstly, the hotel was apparently built on an Indian burial ground, thereby adding an explanation to the ghostly goings on. This should have been enough, but there’s also Danny’s psychic abilities, which he shares with the hotel’s chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Cruthers), who has the most absurd pictures on his bedroom wall. Then there’s the mysterious suicide of the former caretaker, who killed himself with a shotgun after axing his family in the winter of 1970. And Danny’s finger is his imaginary friend, Tony, who talks to him and tells him what to do. Personally, I think Jack would have gone insane with just the intense writer’s block and having to be locked up with Shelley Duvall and an insane child for 5 months.

The film is pretty much perfectly cast, and Nicholson gives one of the most defining performances of his career. He shows real potential here for his future role as the Joker in Batman, especially once the madness sets in and his maniacal grin and eyebrows take over his face. Elsewhere his prominent brow and bright, glaring eyes are well used to strike fear into all who watch. Duvall is well cast too, though this isn’t a compliment as I think her character is supposed to be supremely annoying, and she succeeds in spades. It’s not often that you root for the axe-wielding psychopath over the innocent damsel in distress in a film, but I have absolutely no qualms about doing so here. 

This being a Kubrick film, it’s a given that a certain amount of flair has been utilised in the cinematography. The most famous example, and my personal favourite, is the long tracking shot following Danny as he wheels around the hotel on his tricycle. Infamously the camera was turned upside down to get it closer to the ground, offering a lower-than-child’s-eye perspective that really adds to the sense of dread, as does the incessant squeaking of the wheels as Danny follows an impossibly labyrinthine path around the hotel, a theme that recurs throughout the film.

The film is rife with too many unanswered questions and unquestioned answers, but due to Kubrick’s meticulous nature these can be assumed as being deliberate, present not only to infuriate the audience, but to keep them discussing the film forever more. Add to this some great quotable lines (“I’m not gonna hurt you, I’m just gonna bash your brains in.”), some of the most famous scenes in cinema (“Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!”), stellar performances, stunning visuals and a truly haunting score, and you’ve got not just a great horror film, but a great film in any genre. It’s just a shame I can’t watch it ever again.

Choose film 9/10

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht

As opening shots go, footage of dead, decomposed babies and children, their faces contorted into richtuses of terror and howls of pain is probably one of the clearest projections for the tone of the ensuing film that I’ve ever come across. Couple this with slow motion shots of bats flying in the dark (used repeatedly throughout the entire film whenever director Werner Herzog takes his fancy, regardless of it’s relevance to the plot) and a woman (Isabelle Adjani) waking up screaming to said bat flying around her window and you’re left with no uncertainty that this isn’t quite your average vampire film.

And that’s OK, because as I’ve discussed before, the tale of Dracula is fairly well known, even if you’ve never seen any of the many, many adaptations. This is my fourth Herzog film. I liked but was relatively underwhelmed by Rescue Dawn, couldn’t get my head around Aguirre and thought Bad Lieutenant was a good fit for Nicolas Cage’s own brand of insanity, but I understand that he has a reputation for being, well, a nutbag. That’s exactly the kind of approach you need to take with such a well versed story, and I approved of the inclusion of some new material. 

The story, in case you’ve been living in a soil-filled coffin for several centuries, concerns Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), who is sent to Transylvania to organise a land deal with Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski), a mysterious recluse who terrifies the locals and has an obsession with the neck of Jonathan’s fiance, Lucy (Adjani). Kinski’s Dracula is a wonderful creation, far more haunted than haunting. He is a very pitiable creature, paper-white with deformed ears, needle-sharp teeth, a bulbous bald head and rat-like claws, as much tormented by his curse as he is a danger to others. His face is often all that can be seen, with his body and black silk robe shrouded in complete darkness. During dinner, when Jonathan cuts his thumb, Dracula is unable to stop himself from stalking over and sucking upon it. The scene is rivetting and unbelievably tense, with utter terror in the eyes of Jonathan. Similarly, Jonathan waking to Dracula in his doorway, slowly advancing upon him, is downright horrifying. Kinski may not be as effective a Dracula as Max Schreck, but he’s still bloody good.

I especially appreciated the switch in focus upon Dracula’s inevitable arrival at Jonathan’s hometown of Wismar. Instead of centring merely on the havoc caused by the presence of a vampire in their society, the attention is paid more to the rats he brought with him aboard his boat, and the plague that lays the town low. I think this is new to the story, and was a nice addition in my opinion, although the group of people enjoying a meal in the village square, over-run by rats to which they are oblivious because they’ve caught the plague but are planning to enjoy themselves regardless was perhaps a bit much.

The role of Van Helsing (Walter Landengast) has been severely reduced from what I expected, but his final moments are genius, plot-wise. The best shot, however, has to be the creative use of a vampire’s innability to appear in mirrors, as Lucy sits brushing her hair, gazing at her reflection. We see in the mirror a door behind her open and close – with the obligatory ominous creak – and a bald, taloned shadow creeping up on her, until claws appear beside her face. It’s brilliant. Roland Topor is also good as Harker’s boss Renfield, doing an impression of both Peter Lorre and Pee-Wee Herman simultaneously.

Something did feel a little off with the setting though, as if the people were walking around the modern day (or the 1970s, at least) and just happened to be wearing period garb. It was a while before I could shake this feeling, and I still can’t put my finger on where it came from. Maybe the locations, especially of Wismar, felt a bit too modern in comparison to the costumes and dialects. My favourite thing about the film? The assistant director is called Remmelt Remmelts.

Choose film 7/10

Top 5… Dinosaur Movies

Dinosaurs! It’s no surprise to anyone that I love me some prehistoric beasties. I can probably trace my love of dinosaurs back to the child I’ve never really stopped being, but there’s something about the fact that these giant, terrifying creatures once ruled the very land we walk upon that captures my imagination. Sadly, dinosaurs have become somewhat scarce out in the real world in recent millenia, so the best place to see them at their finest is in the movies. This list is probably one of my least surprising, especially the top 2, as they’re films I rarely go a day without mentioning, but the list was an inevitable one, and I was at a loss for what else to do this week, so here it is:
 
5. Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
I think the Ice Age movies have been cruelly ignored, deemed ‘lesser animation,’ and basically dismissed by many people who haven’t seen them. Whilst they’re certainly nowhere near as good as most of Pixar’s output (but then, what is?), the Ice Ages are actually worth your time. Part three, The Dawn of the Dinosaurs, though not technically historically accurate, is probably my favourite of the bunch (I’ve not seen part four, Continental Drift, yet), and whilst including dinosaurs probably didn’t hurt it’s cause, the main reason I like it most is Simon Pegg’s deranged one-eyed ferret Buck. I’d also like to use this opportunity to complain about Ice Age 2: The Meltdown. At one point, the herd (comprised of Ray Romano’s Manny the mammoth, John Leguizamo’s Sid the sloth, Denis Leary’s Diego the sabre-tooth tiger, Josh Peck and Seann William Scott’s possums Eddie and Crash and Queen Latifah’s Ellie the mammoth-who-thinks-she’s-a-possum) encounters an expanse littered with erupting geysers. Manny wants to cross, but Diego warns him that “It’s a minefield out there!” The one part of this film’s suspension of disbelief – of which quite a lot is required – that I just cannot overcome is how exactly does Diego know what a minefield is? Small gripe, I know, but it never stops annoying me whenever the film is on TV.
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Hell Is For Heroes

1944, Montigny, France. At a rest area near the Siegfreid Line, Sergeant Larkin (Harry Guardino) is desperately trying to find a pen amongst his small band of men. Everyone is either using theirs, sees no need for one, sells dodgy ones or are in a similar state of searching for a writing implement. This scene, which does a good job of introducing the main characters and their various skills, roles and personalities, is one of very few scenes that sets it apart from essentially every other war film ever made.
There’s Private Corby (Bobby Darin), the guy who knows how to get things, but they won’t necessarily work and will cost you a price, and Corporal Henshaw (James Coburn), the bespectacled guy who can’t help tinkering with anything that moves, even fixing a car that was just sat nearby. Private Cumberly (Bill Mullikin) is an amiable chap, but seeing as he’s devoid of too much of a personality, you can go ahead and consider him German cannon fodder, and the young Homer (Nick Adams), a Polish kid looking to get a ride to America when the troops are shipped home. Add to this bunch Steve McQueen as Private Reese, transferred to the company the day before they’re shipped not home, as they’d been led to believe, but back to the front.

The main story – the small band of American WW2 soldiers are tasked with an almost impossible mission – has since been far-bettered in Saving Private Ryan. In fact, the main story here is the defending of a post against a German pillbox, which here lasts 90 minutes, but was deftly handled by Spielberg in just one, very memorable, scene that isn’t even the best in that film. However, even without Ryan this wouldn’t be a very memorable film anyway, as for the most part it’s fairly dull, and none of the roles are given much characterisation other than being good, or bad, at a specific thing. It’s such that when any of the men are slain, the impact is only really felt because there are so few of them in the first place, rather than because we’ve grown to love them.

The action is widely spaced out, and when the big climactic advance takes places, it’s mostly in almost total darkness, until Coburn picks up a flamethrower and sets about with it, but even that’s not for long enough. The mine-sweeping scene is admittedly very tense, but alas the outcome is fairly predictable, and its just a matter of waiting for the inevitable to occur. There’s also a nice early scene in a bar between McQueen and a woman in a bar, but once over it’s forgotten, which is a shame as it’s probably the best scene in the film. The camera following a dying man on a stretcher as it’s bearers strive to reach safety for him was a nice touch too, but sadly was lost amidst a sea of unoriginality.

The main focus of the film was on a relatively interesting subject – a small group of men trying to convince a large unseen foe that there were far more of them than in actuality, and they used some ingenious methods to do it, but other than the actual ideas on display I was far from entertained or engrossed. There are far more, and far greater, war films in existence, and I’m hoping the remaining three on McQueen’s resume are superior (I know The Great Escape is).

Choose life 5/10

North By Northwest

This is the last review I’ve got left unposted from the recent reviewing competition at the Lamb, I hope you enjoy it.Is it really possible for North by Northwest to live up to its hype? It’s rare to find a Top Films list deprived of its inclusion, it features scenes that have become the stuff of legend, that also tend to top Best Scene lists, and it’s one of the greatest movies ever made by one of the greatest directors who ever lived.

If you haven’t seen it yet, then I strongly advise you to stop reading anything about it and go and watch it now, for North by Northwest is truly a tremendous film that is best enjoyed with as little outside knowledge as possible. When Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill quips shortly after being kidnapped into the back of a car, “Don’t tell me where we’re going, surprise me,” this is not merely Hitchcock’s intentions for Thornhill, but for all of us watching as well.

There’s really no weak link in the film. From the opening Saul Bass title sequence, utilising the receding parallel lines of a Madison Avenue skyscraper’s windows to perch the credits atop as they rush off into the distance, down to the ever so cheeky closing train tunnel metaphor, every second oozes entertainment. Alfred Hitchcock’s longest film, and his fourth and final with fellow English-born collaborator Cary Grant, is also his most unashamedly fun. There are many people who have an issue with some of the more fantastical elements of the plot – to be fair, a cropduster is hardly the most effective method of assassination – but these people are preventing themselves from what is a truly thrilling experience. And after all, who is watching Hitchcock for realism? The master has always admitted that, whilst some films are a slice of life, his tend to be a slice of cake, and this one has the richest, creamiest filling, not to mention icing, a cherry and some rainbow-coloured sprinkles to boot.
Cary Grant is on his finest, suavest form as New York ad man Roger O. Thornhill, stepping straight from Mad Men into a classic Hitchcock mistaken identity caper. Thornhill is an egotistical chauvinist, totally in control of his superficial advertising world, yet within Grant’s capable hands he remains not simply likable, but enviable. Who wouldn’t want to fill out a suit like that, and have such a wide and successful array of quips and zingers at their disposal? For though he is constantly befuddled and bemused by the adventure he has innocently become swept along in, there is no circumstance that leaves him wanting for a one-liner. Here, Grant perfects the art of the stern expression and the furrowed brow, eternally caught between confusion and frustration, with merely a hint of excitement as his journey takes him across America in the effort to clear his name of a wrongfully accused murder. The role was originally offered to Hitch’s other great collaborator, James Stewart, after the two did such sterling work on Vertigo together, but as soon as Grant became available Stewart was dropped, in favour of a man Hitch believed would not be dwarfed by the extraordinary events going on around him. Whilst Stewart has often been remarkable in his everyman roles, it’s fair to say that Thornhill would not have been the right fit for him.
Such a masculine protagonist would be lost without a suitably feminine love interest, and Eva Marie Saint fits that job nicely as Eve Kendall, a typically beautiful Hitchcock blonde whose porcelain doll exterior hides her ability to use sex like some people do a flyswatter, and she holds her own against the likes of Psycho’s Janet Leigh, Rear Window’s Grace Kelly and Vertigo’s Kim Novak as she dabbles in some of the most forward repartee since Bacall taught Bogart how to whistle. Hitch always preferred the more beautiful but subtly sexy female leads, as he took great pleasure in uncovering their more alluring qualities than he would have with the more self-promoting individuals like Monroe. As with all of Hitchcock’s birds (pun intended) Saint is meticulously and beautifully dressed in every scene. Legend has it that the great director paid her wardrobe so much attention that Grant petulantly demanded advice on what he should be wearing, and was simply told to “Dress like Cary Grant.”
Released three years before Dr. No, this film clearly set the template for almost every Bond movie. With its dashing, smooth talking hero with an easily recognisable voice, the woman who falls for him within seconds of meeting, a villain’s lair in an impressive yet remote location (here James Mason’s Vandamm lives in a condo atop Mount Rushmore), an evil sidekick (Martin Landau, with a severe case of Henchman’s Eyebrow) and a fast-paced, stunt-riddled adventure taking in major cities around the world (or at least central and north-east USA). Thornhill even has the ability to make perfect strangers throw themselves at him; just wait for the reaction from the woman in his neighbouring hospital room. It’s no surprise to learn that Grant himself was an original candidate for what was to eventually become Sean Connery’s Bond.
Even from the trailer, this is one of the most comical of Hitchcock’s endeavours. Speaking directly to the audience, Hitch himself appears, advising the viewers on how to take the perfect vacation without leaving the cinema, keeping his tongue firmly planted in his cheek throughout (“You don’t find a tasteful murder on every guided tour, do you?”). It’s on Youtube, go check it out. Ernest Lehman’s Oscar-nominated script (tragically losing out to Pillow Talk) is full of far too many quotable lines to give justice to here, but it contains more than enough for even three films. My personal favourite? Saint declaring she’s a big girl, followed by Grant’s perfectly timed, effortless rebuttal of “and in all the right places.” The police station phone call is yet another example of solid gold. Occasionally the steady slew of insinuations and double entendres becomes a little cringeworthy, especially when Grant tells Saint he likes her flavour, but that’s a rare misstep for a script that otherwise never puts a foot wrong. There’s far too much excellence on hand to make you forget these, and the film will never fail to raise a smile with every viewing.
It isn’t just the dialogue though; the scenes without any discussions are often just as amazing, if not more so. Early on, after being forcibly imbibed with the best part of a bottle of bourbon, Thornhill is unleashed behind the wheel of a car, in an attempt to instigate his demise. Upon realising what’s going on he awakes in a drunken stupor and does his utmost to keep his car on the increasingly blurred and merging roads in front of him. Grant makes for an amusingly intense drunk, persistently blinking, squinting and staring bug-eyed at the cars he races past, made all the more dramatic by Bernard Herrmann’s  stupendously engaging score. Of course, there’s also the hallowed cropduster chase, as Thornhill, having been lured to the middle of nowhere to meet the man he’s been accused of being, finds himself battling the more painful end of a plane’s propeller. One of the few scenes not set to music – to better emphasise the relentless whirring of the plane and the lack of assistance Thornhill is likely to receive with the matter at hand – the scene is worth watching as a standalone segment. Equal parts exhilarating, terrifying and fun, it’s made all the more hilarious for the entire time Grant dives through dirt and hides amongst crops he is wearing his increasingly worn yet perfectly tailored grey flannel suit, clean shaven and with immaculate hair.
Hitchcock’s regular cinematographer, Robert Burks, excels himself in a manner that by this film is surely only to be expected. The shot of Thornhill fleeing the UN building to a waiting cab is stunning, captured from high above and angled down the side of a skyscraper, a shot I’d happily have framed on my wall, and the revealing shot of a gun hidden in a purse is sly enough to almost go unnoticed, but is sure to pay off later. Hitch ticks off almost all of his standard tropes – a wrongfully accused man on the run, maternal issues (Jessie Royce Landis, who plays Thornhill’s mother, was in real life only 8 years older than Grant), spies, deception, train journeys, height-based peril, an all-but-unnecessary MacGuffin (a statue full of microfilm), bumbling policemen, a tense finale set atop a famous landmark and, of course, an icy blonde. All that’s missing is a self-deprecating scene in a cinema.
When compared to modern day blockbusters, this picture more than holds up. Its unstoppable, kinetic nature will keep fans of both classic cinema and present day fare glued to the screen and on the edge of their seats for the entire 136 minute runtime. Filled with glamour, wit, excitement and big scenes on a large canvas, there’s something here to please everyone, as long as they like really great films. Does it live up to the hype? Yes, and more so.
Choose film 10/10