The Swimmer (1968)

2015 #122
Frank Perry | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Magnificently strange film about a man (Burt Lancaster) who decides to ‘swim’ home through his friends’ pools. It becomes clear they know something he’s forgotten…

A strange air means this quickly begins to feel like a Twilight Zone-esque mystery, but it’s actually something else entirely… though to reveal too many secrets would spoil it. Lancaster is fantastic as an ultimately complex character, there are good supporting turns, and Frank Perry’s direction is evocative, though Sydney Pollack helmed one vital scene.

Now obscure and consequently tricky to see, The Swimmer is a forgotten gem that’s worth unearthing if the opportunity arises.

4 out of 5

I only know of The Swimmer thanks to the ghost of 82. His appreciation is very much worth a read.

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Local Hero (1983)

2014 #75
Bill Forsyth | 111 mins | download | 1.85:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

Local HeroGentle comedy in which Peter Riegert’s middle-management American oil exec has to persuade the residents of a Scottish village to sell up, unaware that they’re only too keen — for the right price. One of Quentin Tarantino’s Coolest Movies of All Time (seriously).

It’s a funny one, lacking some structural focus and, being independently produced, able to eschew expected endings and pat resolutions. The cast make it, particularly Denis Lawson as the town’s publican/hotelier/solicitor/leader and Burt Lancaster as a beleaguered CEO.

A more acquired taste than you might expect, Local Hero is lightly, loosely likeable. But cool? Hm.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

2011 #32
Anatole Litvak | 85 mins | TV

Sorry, Wrong NumberA film noir screenwritten by Lucille Fletcher, “based on her famous radio play” — I love how old movies have credits like that. It sounds like pure hyperbole, but in this case seems to be justified: the original play was broadcast in May 1943 but was so popular they chose to re-stage it with the same lead, Agnes Moorehead, a total of seven times up to 1960. Seven!

It’s easy to see how it would work on radio: the plot is primarily characters talking on the phone, though in this case there are flashbacks and visuals to flesh it out. And there are flashbacks within flashbacks too, just to keep us on our toes. Naturally it’s based around a series of mysteries related to our bed-ridden heroine, who overhears a threat on someone’s life and begins to wonder if it’s actually about her. So we wonder, what is her illness? Is it relevant? Is her paranoia a symptom? All are well played, mixed up with possible reasons and motives for her being murdered, which also shift around neatly.

Barbara Stanwyck portrays a not-very-sympathetic lead character, which makes the viewer question how we feel about her possibly being murdered. We should be against it, but she’s not nice, but she is ill, and her whole life’s falling apart down the phone… Please hang up and try againAs if keeping us guessing wasn’t enough, our feelings are shifting in this respect too. Arguably it unravels a little late on — when Evans is explaining his part to her, it’s getting a bit implausible — but it’s all redeemed by the finale.

The film concludes with a hair-raising final sequence. I reckon it must be among the most tense, scary and chilling sequences in all of cinema, certainly that I’ve seen. It’s not so much the performances, or the shadow on the wall, or the screeching music — though they all contribute — as the fear of the actual situation: your home, your personal, private, safe space, being invaded, and the first you know of it is an all-too-solid shadow on the wall, coming up the stairs to get you… It’s horridly brilliant.

Most of Sorry, Wrong Number is very good. If that wasn’t enough, the finale cements it as a memorable must-see.

4 out of 5

Brute Force (1947)

2009 #73
Jules Dassin | 94 mins | TV | 12

Brute ForceJules Dassin’s prison-set noir concerns a group of inmates trying to escape from the cruel regime of a vicious warden, allowed free reign by an ineffectual governor and target-driven bureaucrats (nothing changes, eh?)

Tonally, it’s varied. Early on it’s quite humourous, with a weak warden, jaunty calypso-singing inmate (who occasionally threatens to tip the whole thing over into a musical) and amusingly drunk doctor. Then there are the flashbacks to the outside world, laden with undercooked romance and awkward dialogue. In the final act it turns decidedly grim: warden Munsey lives up to his lowly reputation, goading one prisoner to suicide and beating another close to death, while the other wardens listen on from outside; one of the good guys betrays his mates, ultimately leading to wholesale slaughter as the escape plan goes awry. A balanced, varied tone is not necessarily a problem, but the flashbacks are almost uniformly unwelcome asides and, by separating the distinctly comical from the resolutely grim by placing them firmly at either end of the film, they don’t quite gel as a whole.

Still, the climactic prison break — including the build-up — is a brilliant extended sequence. Tense, epic and exciting, it concludes with a fantastic action sequence. It also delivers a powerful moral message, underlined by its direct delivery from a prison staff member rather than an inmate. It goes some way to make up for the earlier flaws, like the dialogue that’s occasionally typical of the period’s worst — “I’m just a guy who… explained his entire backstory in one slightly long and unwieldy sentence to someone who already knew it”.

What gets forgotten in all this, perhaps most depressingly, is the fate of those on the outside. We’re told early on that Collins’ love is refusing treatment for her cancer until she sees him again. This seems ready-made to provide justification for a prisoner to escape; indeed, the whole film is skewed this way, as we never discover many of the inmates’ crimes, and those we do hear are either done for good reason or not that bad. But it toes the more obvious moral line by having no one escape, and while the cancer isn’t mentioned again after the slaughter, it leaves what might otherwise seem a morally justifiable cheat (the prisoners are the good guys here — we expect and want them to triumph — but that they don’t is ‘correct’) with a bitter taste.

3 out of 5