A Star is Born 1954 ****


With 2018’s remake still ringing in our ears and a Renee Zellweger biopic opening soon to kick off the coming 2019 awards season, this 1954 comeback for Judy Garland is essential viewing, even if the running time of the restored version is a punishing three hours plus. Garland has become known as a gay icon, but she meant a lot to a mainstream audience, and George Cukor’s musical drama gives her plenty of opportunity to belt them out, notably the celebrated and extended Born in a Trunk number. Given her own issues with alcohol and drugs, it’s tricky to watch Garland as the upcoming ingénue while Mr Norman Maine (James Mason) falls apart; with only one musical feature after this (the maudlin I Could Go On Singing), A Star Is Born marked peak Garland, whereas Mason had highlights like North by Northwest and Lolita to look forward to as well as a career stretching out to the 1980’s.

Garland doesn’t always look comfortable here; one of the ironies of the A Star is Born films is that the leads are never ingénues, but established divas, and Garland seems more on message as Vicky Lester than Esther Blodgett. This restored version, with still frame sequences and alternate versions, gives the impression of a chequered production, with Cukor not involved in several sequences; as in the 1936 version, Hollywood is seen as somewhat venal, and the way that business interferes with private life is well caught. All four A Star In Born films have their merits, but taken as a quadrilogy, it’s interesting to see how they reflect the changing nature of male-female relationships. Normal Maine does not snort coke, ride a motorbike, play Glastonbury, attend SNL or urinate in his own pants, but he’s still a toxic male, even when played with enormous charm by Mason. And this is Garland’s show; fans of Judy will want to see her swing successfully for the fences here in a performance that fascinates because of how it does, and does not, reflect the truth of her troubled career.

The Seventh Veil 1945 ***

Something of a sensation back in 1945, The Seventh Veil is a fairly straightforward drama, with new fangled psychiatry centre-stage. Ann Todd plays Francesca, a concert pianist seen attempting suicide in the opening scenes. Compton Bennett’s film then slips back in time to see her education at the hands of guardian Nicolas (James Mason), a hard taskmaster who blocks her relationships with various suitors. Francesca’s story is uncovered by psychiatrist Herbert Lom, intent on lifting the seven metaphorical veils which conceal her secret. What The Seventh Veil says about male-female relationships is probably a moot point; Nicholas pretty much dominates Francesca, and as her second cousin, he’s a strange romantic choice for her. As one of the ten most popular films ever released in the UK, The Seventh Seal owes its reputation largely to the music, and to Todd and Mason, both of whom still shine even when the mechanics creak.

The Fall of the Roman Empire 1964 ****

HD TV’s bring new life to old epics; Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire hasn’t look so good since it was released in 1964 to not much love. Restored and freed of grainy pan-and-scan, the huge size and scale of the production is revealed, with the set for Rome still inspiring awe. The box-office failure may be attributed to the lacklustre central performance of Stephen Boyd, filling a role that both Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas passed on. But the support is A-list all the way, with James Mason, Alec Guinness and Christopher Plummer all nailing their characters with bite, and Omar Sharif and Sophia Loren taking care of the glamour. The final act ties the film in neatly with the action of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator; for anyone seeking a different take on the reign of Commodus, Mann’s sprawling, vivid epic is a neglected benchmark for thoughtful, epic cinema.

The Blue Max 1965 ****

The old maxim ‘they don’t make them like this anymore’ applies nicely to John Guillermin’s 1965 action drama; it’s hard to imagine this getting made now, and it’s not even clear why this was green-lit in 1965. George Peppard stars as Bruno Strachel, a German Colonel who realises that wars are not won in trenches; they’re won in the air, and circa 1918, he’s going to lead the charge against the British from his biplane. Strachel is something of a cold fish, nursing grievances against the aristocracy while desperate to start scoring kills that will lead him to the Blue Max medal. Watching Strachel shoot down British planes isn’t particularly crowd-pleasing, but there’s also long stretches without action as Strachel resents being used for propaganda purposes by Count Von Klugerman (James Mason) and enjoys some bedroom encounters with Ursula Andress. While the back-projection isn’t great, the actions scenes are amazing, with real planes rather than models, and great photography by Douglas Slocombe. Complete with a downbeat ending, The Blue Max is a smart, bitter war film that has plenty of big ideas to unfold over a considerable 156 minute run-time. Bonus points for whoever designed the link below, complete with the cheeky Mad Max 2 style font.

Frankenstein: The True Story ***


Amazon Prime could surely have sourced a better print that the rather grainy one chosen to reflect this mid-1970’s US tv version of Mary Shelley’s classic story. Not only that, but this shortened feature-length version is clearly and dramatically cut to a degree which renders several scenes and characters laughable. It’s worth complaining about, because Jack Smight’s re-telling of the Frankenstein story is highly original, and those who claim it’s the best version to date aren’t wrong. Writer Christopher Isherwood was responsible for the genesis of the musical Cabaret, and radically re-noses the story to focus on the close relationship between Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) and Dr Henri Clerval (David McCallum). Other innovations include a new character, Polidori (James Mason), a moustache-twirling villain who dominates the second half of the story. And there’s an innovative twist, taken from the book itself, that the monster does not initially appear hideous, but deteriorates as his ills increase, and the monsters mate storyline is also carried over, with Jane Seymour the improbable result. Frankenstein; The True Story has a variable production and a weak lead, but it’s a literate, clever adaptation that makes the ancient story come up in a fresh and dynamic way.

Murder By Decree 1979 ***


The concept of Sherlock Holmes solving the Jack the Ripper murders is an enticing one, fully developed in Bob Clark’s unfairly forgotten 1979 film. Perhaps the shooting of Alien on the stage next door heralded the different kind of thrills audiences were looking for; Murder By Decree’s pleasures may seem stuffy in comparison, but they’re genuine. Christopher Plummer plays Holmes straight as a die, with James Mason an argumentative Watson. Approached by a group of local businessmen whose trade has been decimated by the prostitute murders, Holmes and Watson uncover a conspiracy with the help of Donald Sutherland as a psychic, Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade, and a few other well-placed stars. While the model-work is poor, the acting is first class, and the conspiracy notion later featured in From Hell; whatever liberties Clark’s film takes with history are secondary to a ripping yarn, told with deadly seriousness.

Salem’s Lot 1979 ***


While Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining proved to be a hugely influential horror film, there’s many who would argue that Tobe Hooper’s TV miniseries, released in Europe as a feature, had more scares to offer. The town of Salem’s Lot has a population of 2013, but not all of them are alive; novelist Ben Mears (David Soul) moves into town, and teams up with local boy Mark (Lance Kerwin) to fight against the vampires who are taking over. James Mason plays Richard Straker, whose Marsten House hides the secret. The sequence in which the vampires hover outside the windows of unwary teenagers is the stuff of pure nightmares; Reggie Nalder’s Kurt Barlow is an equally disturbing apparition to behold. Kenneth McMillian, Ed Flanders, Bonnie Bedelia and Fred Willard are amongst an accomplished cast.