When Fact Mirrors Fiction: AGATHA (1979)

agathatposterOn December 3, 1926 the popular mystery author Agatha Christie vanished following an argument with her husband who was demanding a divorce. Agatha was devastated by his decision but he responded to her distress by leaving the lavish home they shared together with their young daughter to meet up with his mistress. No one knows for certain what prompted Christie to pack her own bags and follow him into that cold winter night but the next morning her abandoned car was found with the hood up and the lights on. Christie’s coat and suitcase were still in the car but the author was missing. The authorities were called in while massive search parties were organized and the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie captured the world’s attention. Was it a prearranged publicity stunt? Had she committed suicide? Or had Christie become the victim of a murder plot similar to the crimes outlined in her fiction? Speculation ran rampant in local as well as international newspapers until 11 days later when the missing writer was suddenly discovered unharmed at the posh Hydropathic Hotel in North Yorkshire. Christie claimed she’d suffered a head injury while driving and had temporarily lost her memory but she refused to discuss her disappearance with reporters. And when her posthumous autobiography was published in 1977, the author was suspiciously quiet about the strange event that had captured the public’s imagination some 50 years earlier. So what exactly happened to Agatha Christie in December of 1926? We’ll probably never know the entire truth but Michael Apted’s curiously engrossing film AGATHA (1979) does a superb job of dramatizing this fascinating event.

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Mystery & Melodrama: The Bletchley Circle (2012-2014)

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One of the best things I’ve watched in recent months is the British mini-series THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE, which aired on PBS. This engrossing post-war drama focuses on the lives of a handful of women who served together during WW2 as codebreakers at Bletchley Park, which housed the Government Code and Cypher School. The British intelligence agency was responsible for collecting, deciphering, analyzing, and utilizing the secret war related communications shared between the enemy Axis nations (Germany, Japan and Italy). At the height of WW2 more than 10,000 people were employed at Bletchley Park and women outnumbered the men three to one but their work was highly classified and they were sworn to secrecy. Their friends and families thought that these smart and capable women were merely clerical workers performing mundane office jobs or mechanical tasks and for decades their real work was unknown. In fact, it wasn’t until 2009 that the women and men who labored at Bletchley Park during WW2 were officially recognized by the British government for their service although we now know that their efforts helped shorten the war by two to four years.

With Memorial Day fast approaching it seems like a good time to share my enthusiasm for this fascinating mystery series that borrows generously from classic melodramas made in the late 1940s and gives voice to some of the unsung heroes of World War 2 – the extraordinary women codebreakers and amateur detectives who make up THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE.

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Diamond in the Rough: The Squeaker (1937)

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The Criterion Collection built its luxury brand on an expectation of quality, and its formidable library is stacked with international classics presented in exacting restorations. This is a model without room for beat-up prints of forgotten programmers, though they’ve found a way to smuggle some in through their streaming channel on Hulu Plus (it was just announced that Criterion has renewed their contract with Hulu, so their 800+ films will available on the VOD site for years to come). There are endless independent productions that have been poorly preserved, and are not famous enough to justify extensive restoration work. Hulu has allowed Criterion a place to distribute these orphan titles, those from directors too obscure to even put out in their more budget-conscious Eclipse line of DVD box sets.  As I was idly searching for Criterion titles only available on Hulu Plus’ subscription service, I scrolled upon William K. Howard’s The Squeaker (aka Murder on Diamond Row), a low-budget British mystery produced by Alexander Korda in 1937. Howard raises auteurist alarm bells because he was a favorite of legendary film historian William K. Everson, and was the subject of one of Dave Kehr’s “Further Research” column in Film Comment. A fleet, funny and noir-tinged detective yarn adapted from an Edgar Wallace play, The Squeaker is an unpolished little gem.

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Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be?

jsimmons“Oh dear! What can the matter be?
Dear! Dear! What can the matter be?
Oh Dear! What can the matter be?
Johnny’s so long at the fair.

He promised he’d buy me a fairing should please me,
And then for a kiss, Oh! He vow’d he would tease me;
He promised he’d bring me a bunch of blue ribbons,
To tie up my bonny brown hair. ”
– Author unknown, 1793

British director Terence Fisher is best known for his work with Hammer Films but before he started making movies for the studio that dripped blood, Fisher edited and co-directed a number of films for Gainsborough Pictures. One of his most accomplished early directorial efforts is SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950) starring a very young Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde. This absorbing thriller isn’t available on DVD in the US but SO LONG AT THE FAIR will air this coming Sunday (July 28th) on TCM at 7:15 PM PST and 10:15 PM EST. Fans of well-acted period dramas and good gothic mysteries should consider tuning in but the film will be of particular interest to anyone curious about the origins of modern British horror cinema.

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Someone is Bleeding: Les seins de glace (1974)

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Before Richard Matheson etched out a name for himself as a popular writer of horror and science fiction he dabbled in crime fiction and mysteries. His very first novel was a pulpy noir titled Someone is Bleeding (aka The Frigid Flame or The Untouchable Divorcee) and it features many of the genre’s typical tropes. But Matheson was anything but a typical writer and this psychosexual thriller contains some surprising twists and turns including an ending that would have been right at home in an Edgar Allen Poe story or an EC Comic book from the ‘50s. In fact, after enjoying all the brash and snappy dialogue exchanges in Matheson’s 1953 literary debut you half expect the Crypt Keeper to appear at the end with some kind of funny anecdote to lessen the horror of the book’s final chapter but there’s no simple escape from this grim story. Like many of Matheson’s best tales, Someone is Bleeding leaves readers with an unshakable sense of dread and despair. In Matheson’s imperfect world everyone and everything is suspect. No one is safe and nothing is sacred.

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Derelict Dancers: Gerard Depardieu vs. Roman Polanski

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I’m fond of mysteries that evolve through conversation and unravel in small spaces such as Alfred Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948) and Robert Hosseins DOUBLE AGENTS (1959). The claustrophobia they evoke seems directly linked to our primal fears and primitive suspicions. One of the most interesting films in this vein is Giuseppe Tornatore’s A PURE FORMALITY aka Una Pura Formalita (1994). I recently revisited this opaque thriller after almost 20 years and was surprised by how effective it still was. Even though I was well aware of the surprise twist ending I was mesmerized from start to finish thanks to Tornatore’s deft directing choices, Pascal Quignard’s brilliant dialogue and the masterful performances etched out by two powerhouses of European cinema; Gérard Depardieu and Roman Polanski.

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Lon Chaney Jr. – Lady Killer

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I recently set aside some time to watch all six of Universal’s Inner Sanctum Mystery films starring Lon Chaney Jr. Seeing these relatively short (60-67 minute) B-movies back to back over a couple of days was a joy and I found new things to admire and appreciate about the film’s leading man. But afterward I made the mistake of scouring through various film books and poking around websites looking for background information about the movies and I really shouldn’t have bothered. What I found angered me, then it depressed me and finally it just made me sad so I decided to share my frustration with you, dear readers.
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The Sinister Charm of Simon Ward

One of the strangest aspects of today’s Internet film culture is being bombarded by death notices week after week. No one’s life is unworthy of celebration and onetime television TV actors with a single role under the belt often compete with Oscar winning movie stars for attention after they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.

In the flood of online wakes that seem to accumulate around every actor’s death it has become nearly impossible to overlook anyone’s passing so you can imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that one of my favorite British actors, the talented Simon Ward, had passed away in July following a long illness and I had managed to overlook it. Even more depressing were some of the obituaries I read that glossed over much of his career and seemed to suggest that Ward hadn’t lived up to his potential while completely ignoring his outstanding contributions to horror cinema.

Naturally I felt the urge to rectify this since I had grown up admiring the actor in a bundle of praiseworthy thrillers so October seemed like the perfect month to spotlight Simon Ward’s contribution to a genre that continues to divide critics and audiences.

Simon Ward was born on October 16, 1941. At age 13 he joined London’s National Youth Theater and continued to study at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts,). He started acting in British television productions in the mid-1960s and after taking an unaccredited role in Lindsay Anderson’s IF…. (1967), Ward was offered his first major film role in David Greene’s exceptional British thriller, I START COUNTING (1969). Ward’s boyish good looks and edgy screen presence allowed him to effortlessly transform himself into seductive villains as well as romantic heroes but his chameleon-like abilities may have confused producers who couldn’t easily pigeonhole him and didn’t seem to know how to harness his talent.

The actor went on to appear in many popular and critically acclaimed films including YOUNG CHURCHILL (1972), THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973), THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (1974) and ZULU DAWN (1979) but throughout his career Ward returned again and again to the horror genre. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the best horror films and thrillers he appeared in.

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Going Under: Revisiting COMA (1978)

I spent Labor Day sick in bed. I was feverish, sore and incredibly cranky due to having my weekend plans derailed by a bad cold. On Monday night I began to feel slightly better after binging on Nyquil and chicken soup so I curled up on the couch and turned on the TV. While searching for something to watch I stumbled on the A&E television adaptation of Robin Cook’s 1977 medical thriller Coma.

The new A&E two-part series was directed by Mikael Salomon and produced by Ridley Scott along with his recently deceased brother, Tony. It was a surprisingly entertaining as well as an occasionally batty television movie that featured a solid cast of aging professionals including Ellen Burstyn, James Woods, Geena Davis and Richard Dreyfuss. After its conclusion on Tuesday night I decided to revisit Michael Crichton‘s original 1978 film adaptation of COMA starring Genevieve Bujold, Richard Widmark, Michael Douglas and Rip Torn. I hadn’t seen it in decades so I wasn’t sure what to expect but I had fond memories of the movie. I’m happy to report that Crichton‘s film didn’t disappoint and I actually found COMA even more effective than I had remembered it.

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Sherlock Holmes On Screen

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s crime solving super sleuth has been the subject of numerous films and television shows over the years. How numerous? According to author Alan Barnes, Sherlock Holmes has appeared on big and small screens more times than any other fictional character. In his recently updated book, Sherlock Holmes On Screen, Barnes sets out to solidify that claim by compiling an alphabetical list of the detective’s numerous film and television appearances. But Barnes’ book isn’t merely a list of titles. Each film and television show receives its own write-up with detailed information about the production and its place in the ever-growing Sherlock Holmes’ canon.

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