The Naked Spur (1953)

High in the Colorado Rockies, bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart) pursues killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), enlisting the help of craggy prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and Roy Anderson* (Ralph Meeker), a cavalryman dishonourably discharged, whom he encounters along the trail. The trio succeed in capturing Ben and his ward Lina (Janet Leigh) and set off home to Abilene, Kansas, intending to collect their reward and see him hanged. Ben, however, delights in sowing the seeds of discontent among his captors, exploiting the tensions within the group to play the men off against one another as they cross perilous Blackfeet Indian country.

Showing at the BFI Southbank as part of the venue's psychological Western season, Ride Lonesome, The Naked Spur was the third of Stewart's Oater collaborations with director Anthony Mann and stands as one of the darkest in its genre. Clearly an ancestor of Scottie Ferguson, Kemp suffers delirious night terrors over the memory of a woman who once betrayed him, selling his land out from under him while he was away at war. Scarred and embittered, Kemp hopes to use the bounty on Ben to buy back what was once his, kicking over the ashes of his path, ideally with Lina as his new ranch wife. A tormented and not especially likeable hero, Kemp proves to be the lesser of two evils when the chatty and jovial Ben finally reveals himself to be every bit the vicious, nihilistic murderer we'd been expecting. Ryan is magnificent as Vandergroat, relishing the mind-games with his would-be jailers - cheering on Anderson's lechery towards Lina and preying on Tate's greed to lure him to his death.

The interplay between the five actors is magnificently handled by Mann, whose deft hand teases out the subtleties in Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom's Oscar-nominated screenplay. Leigh suggested that the naturally conflicting personality types among the cast, stranded in the wilderness together on a tough location shoot, did much to boost the film's intensity. William C. Mellor's bright Technicolor cinematography likewise accentuates the sublime scenery, its majesty in contrast to the hardscrabble lives of Mann's flawed and desperate characters. A riverside shoot-out at the finale makes the most evocative use of violent gushing rapids this side of Deliverance (1972) or The Revenant (2015).

*Not to be confused with the deliciously deadpan Swedish director of A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (2015), a delightful if, admittedly, irrelevant coincidence.


Yellow Sky (1948)

William A. Wellman's Yellow Sky is currently showing in London as part of the BFI Southbank's Shakespeare On Film season to mark the quatercentenary of the Bard's death and is well worth seeking out if you're in the vicinity.

Very loosely based on The Tempest (1610), as Fred M. Wilcox's sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956) would be eight years later, Wellman's Western is taken from a novel by pulp maestro W.R. Burnett and tells of bank robber James "Stretch" Dawson (Gregory Peck) and his gang, who wind up in the titular ghost town and become embroiled in the affairs of its only residents, an aged prospector (James Barton) and his tough granddaughter, known as "Mike" (Anne Baxter). Given the dilapidated state of Yellow Sky, the men realise the only reason Grandpa and Mike have stuck around is to safeguard the former's secret stockpile of gold. Dawson fancies a share of the spoils but struggles to rein in his ill-disciplined crew, at least one of whom lusts after Mike. Matters come to a head when dandy killer Dude (Richard Widmark) emerges as a serious challenger to Stretch's authority and an army of drunken Apaches appear over the horizon.

Reaction to Yellow Sky was highly positive upon its initial release, with the New York Times's Bosley Crowther noting thematic similarities with the previous year's Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (apparently Darryl F. Zanuck had the same idea and originally envisioned Walter Huston as Grandpa). Variety was also keen, praising the "earthy" script for demonstrating "an understanding of the hungers of men".

Yellow Sky is certainly surprisingly upfront about gang member Lengthy (John Russell) and his intention to rape Mike at the first opportunity, a constant threat hanging over the narrative from the moment he sets eyes on her. We have little doubt that Mike can handle her own and don't have to wait long before she floors Dawson with a jab to the jaw and wrestles him to stand-still in the dirt. She later brawls with Lengthy in a creek as it becomes clear that this "he-girl" in jeans has had to adopt a tomboy act in order to survive the West. Her falling for Dawson, ultimately a rather principled chap, is a matter of easing the repression of her femininity and learning to trust someone other than her elderly guardian in order to realise her true self and blossom. This process is capped, quite literally, at the film's close after the bad guys have been routed and Dawson has gone straight: he presents her with a floral bonnet, a gift she receives with delight. Civilisation has dawned on Yellow Sky and the future looks bright.

Wellman's film is crisply shot by Joe MacDonald - who would also serve on another Western reworking of Shakespeare, Broken Lance (1954) - and contains a number of memorable images: the gang's escape across the salt flats, starved of water; a toppled roulette wheel in the ironically-named Eldorado saloon spinning to a stop as Dude is killed; the pouch at his belt "bleeding" gold dust like the sands of time; Stretch's reverse bank robbery to square his debt to society.

The ever-underrated Baxter is especially lovely here as a gun-totin' Miranda and Peck as staunch and stoic as you'd expect. Widmark, of course, brings effortless menace, as the Punch cartoon above nicely conveys. Was there ever a leaner heavy?


Holiday Inn (1942)

The picture that gave the world Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas', this musical caper starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire is actually a far more erratic and frankly odd affair than you may remember.

Crooner Jim Hardy (Crosby) is heart broken when his fiancée Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) ditches him for their co-star Ted Hanover (Astaire), preferring to carry on with her career rather than retire with Hardy to the isolated Connecticut farm he's just acquired. Hardy himself quickly becomes overwhelmed by the workload at his new ranch and decides to reinvent the venue as a nightclub, open only 15 times a year on public holidays. Meanwhile, Hanover is in turn dumped by Lila and follows Hardy to the Holiday Inn, where he encounters the latter's new protégé Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) and duly falls for her too, much to Jim's horror. The pair bicker over Linda, the competition escalating from Valentine's Day to Easter to Independence Day, before matters come to a head when Hanover finds himself in a position to advance Linda's career in Hollywood.

The Berlin songs are solid - from the aforementioned signature theme to 'You're Easy To Dance With' - the staging is charming and the leads are on fine form. I particularly enjoyed Crosby's bebop patois approach to slang: "Take a slug from the mug", he advises a hungover Astaire, brandishing a coffee pot. Walter Abel also makes an impression as the duo's cheerily manic manager Danny Reed.

However, there's something weird going on with Holiday Inn. Firstly, there's the ill-judged blackface number for Lincoln's Birthday, which is often scrapped from modern television broadcasts of the film despite its necessity to the plot - the greasepaint providing a ruse to disguise Linda and thus keep her out of Ted's clutches. Like any minstrel bit in old musicals, the scene is patronising and irredeemably ugly to modern eyes but would have been recognised as a common vaudeville trope at the time. Equally jarring is the July 4th fireworks party in which Crosby, dressed as Uncle Sam, introduces a montage of stock footage illustrating US military-industrial might. This may have been made in wartime, but the decision to include such brazen patriotic tub-thumping is surely at odds with the otherwise dreamy, escapist tone of the piece.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Mark Sandrich's film though is that it casts Astaire in a rather unflattering, predatory light, his Ted Hanover a disloyal and self-interested wolf who routinely trashes the romantic life of his best friend and business partner without a thought for the latter's welfare. A New Year's Eve duet with Mason in which Astaire dances blind drunk to the delight of his fellow revellers falls flat, unsettling and unfunny because it's depression that's driven him to this boozy stupor. The dynamic Astaire's character establishes in turn forces Crosby to play the melancholy loser, a creative sadly noodling away at his piano while his showbiz pals and rivals make off with the spoils. Not a good look for the less naturally starry of the leads.

For all that, Holiday Inn creates a toasty wintry mood and is an altogether pithier and breezier enterprise than White Christmas (1954), Michael Curtiz's Technicolor remake again starring Crosby, this time joined by Danny Kaye, which is probably the more often revived. That Holiday Inn's most enduring legacy should be giving its name to an international franchise of affordable hotels is an appropriately peculiar coda for this all-year-round Christmas comedy.


Remember The Night (1940)

Before Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray became embroiled in murderous insurance fraud, they were paired together in this pleasing seasonal screwball scripted by Preston Sturges.

Stanwyck plays Lee Leander, a shoplifter arrested in the run-up to Christmas for filching a $5,000 bangle. MacMurray is John Sargent, the prosecutor at her trial who realises that juries are prone to be more forgiving than usual around the holidays so connives to get her case postponed until the new year. Feeling guilty about his actions condemning Lee to Christmas in jail, Sargent secures her bail and befriends the girl, learning that she too hails from Indiana and offering to drive her home to restore relations with her estranged mother. When this venture proves a disaster, Sargent invites her to spend the season with his own family where, naturally enough, they fall in love. But what to do about her legal battle?

Sturges' script - his last to be directed by someone else, Mitchell Leisen in this case - follows the screwball comedy playbook to the letter, sending a mismatched pair out on the road as in It Happened One Night (1934) and revolving around a very Capraesque romantic thawing, as Stanwyck's tough gal learns to put aside her well-worn cynicism and believe in the simple homespun decency of her foil. The Indiana Christmas scenes around the Sargent hearth are especially heart-warming, however, and nicely contrasted with the grim Gothic melodrama of Lee's unhappy return to the cruel matriarch she deserted years before. There's also some lovely interplay between Beulah Bondi and Elizabeth Patterson as Sargent's gently sparring mother and maiden aunt respectively, the pair bickering over burnt biscuits and quietly conspiring to bring the young lovers together. There's something oddly moving about these women awaiting the return of their adored golden boy, the absence of Sargent's late father never mentioned but still clearly felt around the dinner table.

Other nice character business comes from Willard Robinson as Lee's attorney, a frustrated thespian quite spellbound by his own rhetorical brilliance, and from John Wray as a mean Midwestern dairy farmer who takes exception to the travellers parking in his cow pasture and embarks on a citizen's arrest. Not all country folk are sweet, it seems: some are every bit as venal, resentful and vindictive as New Yorkers, a fine lesson from the inimitable and deeply wise Sturges. His own pithy summary of the film? "Love reformed her and corrupted him."


The Holly & The Ivy (1952)

This unjustly forgotten British Christmas picture from Alexander Korda's London Films proves to be astonishingly fresh 63 years on - thematically speaking, at least - and well worth a revisit.

Directed by George More O'Ferrall from a hit West End play by Wynyard Browne, the film tells of Norfolk parson Martin Gregory (the great Sir Ralph Richardson), whose brood of disgruntled children return home for the festive season. Alcoholic fashion journalist Margaret (Margaret Deighton) and wayward soldier Michael (Denholm Elliott) privately resent their father's neglect in favour of his parishioners and the years they've spent shielding him from the complications of their adult lives. They also blame the widower for failing to look after himself, requiring their self-sacrificing old maid of a sister Jenny (Celia Johnson) to stay on at the vicarage as his unofficial housekeeper at the expense of her own happiness. The siblings, however, underestimate the old man's capacity to understand their respective angsts, the latter proving to be a great deal more worldly than the hapless, irrelevant, bookish caricature they treat him as.

Hardly like to win favour with a generation who insist on Die Hard (1988) as their go-to Christmas classic, The Holly & The Ivy may be genteel and fustily old fashioned but nevertheless has much to say about veiled resentment and its corrosive impact on grown families that should chime with audiences today. Adapted by Russian writer Anatole de Grunewald to bring a Chekovian psychological rigour to Browne's original, there's a proto-Kitchen Sink grit about Margaret's backstory concerning the death of a child born (shockingly for the period) out of wedlock, the reason for her morose drinking bouts. The success of this bold and unflinching scenario is due to the considerable emotional pull of Margaret Deighton's tough performance, down but not out. As with the recently revived Brief Encounter (1945), the fate of Celia Johnson hangs in the balance and again we fall for it thanks to the actress's understated loveliness.

It's Richardson though who really sells the thing, giving a typically affecting performance of enormous charm and subtly. His misunderstood man of god railing against the vulgar commercialisation of Yuletide and expression of profound doubts over whether or not he's valued by his community or has succeeded at all in making a meaningful contribution to their lives ensure that The Holly & The Ivy remains prescient and interesting, even if the world it seeks to depict has largely vanished.

Sure, O'Ferrall's film is a more than a little creaky and stagebound in its execution and the snowy rural England it depicts the preserve of cards and chocolate box lids only, but it's a lovely bit of work all the same. I'd put it right up there with It's A Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947) and Scrooge (1951) among seasonal comforts.


LFF: The End Of The Tour (2015)

Fans of David Foster Wallace were in uproar when Jason Segel was cast in this biopic of the cult author, horrified that someone known for Judd Apatow bromances should play the troubled genius behind Infinite Jest (1996). They needn't have worried. Segel is utterly superb, bringing charm and real insight to James Ponsoldt's account of the final days of Wallace's cross country tour to promote that novel, a mammoth 1,079 page tome (excluding footnotes) about addiction, pleasure and loneliness set in and around an elite Boston tennis academy.

The writer was being shadowed at that time by Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and the screenplay by Donald Margulies essentially comprises one long conversation between these two men as they travel across the Midwest from one promotional appearance to another. Lipsky, a published novelist himself, is envious of Infinite Jest and pushes his editor for the assignment, keen to find out what sort of person could possibly have written such an extraordinary work. Arriving at Wallace's home, "a bookish frat" overrun by two portly black Labradors named Jeeves and Drone, Lipsky is astonished to find an affable, softly-spoken soda drinker with an Alanis Morissette poster on his wall. A friendship quickly develops, the pair enjoying each other's company, finding shared interests and exchanging ideas. The intensity of Lipsky's scrutiny never lets up, however, his barrage of questions, ever-present tape recorder and determination to test the limits of Wallace's "regular guy" persona eventually coming to irritate his subject. The writer's anxieties about Lipsky's motives and the forthcoming profile also begin to surface: he fears falling victim to a hatchet job, is bothered by the invasion of privacy and worries that engaging with publicity duties at all might contradict and undermine the points he's so carefully made about consumer culture in Infinite Jest. At one point, Wallace takes against Lipsky flirting with one of his ex-girlfriends and chastises him, exhorting him to "just be a good guy". A game of trust, with neither party ever entirely willing to show their hand, their encounter makes for fascinating and rewarding viewing.

Segel, the right physique to play the towering Wallace, will win all the plaudits for his deft impersonation, capturing the twitchy self-awareness, generosity and busy hyper-intelligence of the man. He's great - and the sight of him dancing in a Baptist church a joy - but Eisenberg has rarely been better than he is here. Not afraid to be unlikeable, his performance raises interesting questions about how far Lipsky's intense and sustained inquiry into Wallace is about professional diligence and genuine interest. It's possible he's instead enacting a revenge on some level, jealous of a rival's success and painfully aware that he is the lesser artist. Wallace teasingly introduces him to production staff at a Minneapolis public radio station as, "my amanuensis, Mr. Boswell", a joke we're not at all sure Lipsky takes kindly to, the subtlety of Eisenberg's performance leaving the uncertainty hanging in the air. A later scene in which Lipsky replays his old tapes soon after learning of Wallace's suicide in 2008, a single tear streaking down his cheek, is, meanwhile, incredibly moving, finally letting us into Lipsky's heart.

In addition to its excellent leads, The End Of The Tour has strength in depth with Joan Cusack, Anna Chlumsky, Mickey Sumner, Mamie Gummer and Ron Livingston all appearing in brief but telling supporting roles. Ponsoldt's camera marches after the men in documentary style and makes good use of the snowy Illinois and Minnesota landscapes.

Ultimately, what he's given us is a film about two smart dudes talking books. What's not to like?


LFF: Carol (2015)

There's a sly reference to Patricia Highsmith's pseudonymously published 1952 novel The Price Of Salt, on which this latest prestige picture from Todd Haynes is based, in AMC's Mad Men (2007-15). Prior to her ill-fated marriage, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) lives with a timid female roommate who, it transpires, is secretly in love with her. Her name? You guessed it. A background detail, barely a sub-plot, but typical of series creator Matthew Weiner's shrewd good taste.

Visually, Mad Men is an obvious reference point for Haynes' lesbian love story, which matches its all-conquering television counterpart in sumptuously recreating post-war New York City, a world of men in grey flannel suits, vexed wives in furs and inviting bars lined with half-consumed Old Fashioneds, amber and ice cubes shimmering in the dark. Haynes of course has form in this field, having directed Julianne Moore in the Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven (2002) and Kate Winslet in an HBO serialisation of Mildred Pierce (2011). His latest neo-Women's Picture stars Rooney Mara as shopgirl Therese Belivet, who, after a chance Christmastime encounter, falls helplessly in love with the titular housewife, whose marriage is already crumbling due to her husband's suspicions about the extent of one of Carol's close female friendships. As their mutual attraction grows, the girls escape the city and head out on a road trip through the wintry Midwest, staying in motels and enjoying a taste of real freedom. Their happiness cannot last. The lovers are pursued by brutish and uncomprehending masculine disapproval at every turn, a pressure that jeopardises their relationship and threatens to separate Carol from her young daughter.

Blanchett, appearing in her second Highsmith film after Anthony Minghella's equally spot-on The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), is superb here, the part a much better use of her considerable star power and elegance than Woody Allen's ludicrously over-praised Blue Jasmine (2013). Never less than captivating, the actress looks as though she's just stepped out of an Edward Hopper painting: she could be the woman leaning alone in the aisle in 'New York Movie'. Mara is also winning as the intense, conflicted Therese, although the character has been toned down in the writing to make her more palatable. Highsmith's Therese actually follows Carol home, standing across the street and marvelling at the shallow perfection of her object's suburban life, an incident spun from the behaviour of the author herself. Doing away with this creepy element of voyeurism makes for a more straightforward romance but loses some of the murky moral ambiguities we come to Highsmith for. Director Jamie Thraves shot the novelist's similarly themed Cry Of The Owl (1962) with Paddy Considine and Julia Stiles in 2009, which successfully recreated that Peeping Tom theme if, sadly, little else.

Blanchett and Mara are complimented by deft supporting terms from Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson in a production so polished and moving it's hard to find fault with. Haynes' hopeful resolution leaves us begging for the flicker of a smile to cross Mara's lips as Therese confronts Carol in a restaurant, appealing for a fresh start. When it arrives and is returned, the effect is like winter sunshine breaking through the clouds.