Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1890s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1890s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1890s

1 - Sherlock Holmes-Game of Shadows

1. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (2011) – Guy Ritchie directed this excellent sequel to his 2009 hit, in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson confront their most dangerous adversary, Professor James Moriarty. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law starred.

2 - Hello Dolly

2. “Hello Dolly!” (1969) – Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau starred in this entertaining adaptation of David Merrick’s 1964 play about a New York City matchmaker hired to find a wife for a wealthy Yonkers businessman. Gene Kelly directed.

3 - King Solomon Mines

3. “King Solomon’s Mines” (1950) – Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and Richard Carlson starred in this satisfying Oscar nominated adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel about the search for a missing fortune hunter in late 19th century East Africa. Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton directed.

4 - Sherlock Holmes

4. “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) – Guy Ritchie directed this 2009 hit about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson’s investigation of a series of murders connected to occult rituals. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law starred.

5 - Hidalgo

5. “Hidalgo” (2004) – Viggo Mortensen and Omar Sharif starred in Disney’s fictionalized, but entertaining account of long-distance rider Frank Hopkins’ participation in the Middle Eastern race “Ocean of Fire”. Joe Johnston directed.

6. “The Seven Per-Cent Solution” (1976) – Nicol Williamson, Robert Duvall and Alan Arkin starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Nicolas Meyer’s 1974 novel about Sherlock Holmes’ recovery from a cocaine addiction under Sigmund Freud’s supervision and his investigation of one of Freud’s kidnapped patients. Meyer directed the film.

Harvey Girls screenshot

7. “The Harvey Girls” (1946) – Judy Garland starred in this dazzling musical about the famous Harvey House waitresses of the late 19th century. Directed by George Sidney, the movie co-starred John Hodiak, Ray Bolger and Angela Landsbury.

6 - The Jungle Book

8. “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book” (1994) – Stephen Sommers directed this colorful adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of short stories about a human boy raised by animals in India’s jungles. Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes and Lena Headey starred.

7 - The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

9. “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003) – Sean Connery starred in this adaptation of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s first volume of his 1999-2000 comic book series about 19th century fictional characters who team up to investigate a series of terrorist attacks that threaten to lead Europe into a world war. Stephen Norrington directed.

8 - The Prestige

10. “The Prestige” (2006) – Christopher Nolan directed this fascinating adaptation of Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel about rival magicians in late Victorian England. Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine starred.

10 - The Four Feathers 1939

Honorable Mention: “The Four Feathers” (1939) – Alexander Korda produced and Zoltan Korda directed this colorful adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a recently resigned British officer accused of cowardice. John Clements, June Duprez and Ralph Richardson starred.

“THE BUTLER” (2013) Review

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“THE BUTLER” (2013) Review

When I first saw the trailer for “THE BUTLER”, I resisted the urge to see it. I have nothing against films about the African-American experience. I could not wait to see Quentin Tarantino’s pre-Civil War opus, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. But there was something about the trailer for “THE BUTLER” that turned me off. It had that dignified, pretentious aura that marred “THE KING’S SPEECH” and “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” for me. I was determined to avoid it. But thanks to my family, I could not avoid it in the end. 

Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Danny Strong, “THE BUTLER” was loosely inspired by the life of former White House butler, Eugene Alley. Now, when I say “loosely inspired”, I meant it. Contrary to what many have claimed, the movie was not based upon Allen’s life. Actor-turned-screenwriter Danny Strong read an article in the The Washington Postcalled “A Butler Well Served by This Election” by Will Haygood. Inspired by Allen’s 34 years as a White House butler, Strong created the character of Georgia-born Cecil Gaines, who witnessed the murder of his sharecropper father by the plantation owner who also raped his mother. The estate owner’s elderly mother reassigns Cecil to being a house servant. Another decade pass before Cecil decides its time to leave the cotton plantation. He makes his way for parts unknown, but the Great Depression in the form of hunger and unemployment leads him to break into a pastry shop for food. The shop’s servant, Maynard, helps him get a job and later, recommends him for a job at a Washington D.C. hotel. During his two decades at the hotel, Cecil marries a woman named Gloria and they conceive two sons, Louis and Charlie. Then in 1957, Cecil is hired for a butler position at the White House and spends the next three decades working there. His job not only gives Cecil the opportunity to meet seven U.S. presidents, but also threatens his marriage to Gloria and creates tension between him and his activist older son, Louis.

In the end, I am glad that I saw “THE BUTLER”. It turned out to be a lot better than I had assumed. I have to give kudos to Danny Strong for creating a fascinating story that mingled history with personal drama. And Lee Daniels did a fabulous job of transforming Strong’s tale to the screen. More importantly, “THE BUTLER” managed to avoid that annoying and pretentious air that have tainted a good number of historical dramas in the past. Except in perhaps two scenes. Watching “THE BUTLER” reminded me of an old NBC miniseries that aired back in 1979 called “BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE”, which told the story of a mother/daughter pair named Margaret Rogers and Lillian Rogers Parks, who worked as White House housemaids between 1909 and 1961.

What really impressed me about the plot for “THE BUTLER” is how Cecil’s past and profession had such an impact upon his adult life. Witnessing his mother’s rape and his father’s death seemed to have an impact upon Cecil’s psyche. In a way, these events led him to develop an obsequious personality that served him well,professionally. But his obsequiousness also led him to fear and oppose his son Louis’ participation in the Civil Rights movement for many years. I must admit that those sequences featuring Louis’ involvement with the Freedom Riders during the early and mid 1960s struck me as both fascinating and harrowing. Cecil and Louis’ estrangement deepened when younger son Charlie was killed during the Vietnam War . . . and Louis failed to appear at the funeral for personal reasons. And as I had earlier pointed out, Cecil’s job also had an impact on his marriage to Gloria. She resented how his profession kept him away for long hours, leading her to contemplate an adulterous affair with a neighbor.

As much as Daniels and Strong emphasized the impact of Cecil’s job upon his private life, they allowed the audiences glimpses of his interactions with not only the presidents who occupied the White House during his tenure, but also with his fellow servants – especially Carter Wilson and James Holloway. The movie featured interactions between Cecil and five U.S. presidents – Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. If I had to select my favorite presidential segment, it would have to be Cecil’s interactions with Johnson, whose penchant for the occasional racial slur I had learned about, years ago. I found those scenes hilarious and sardonic – especially Carter’s sarcastic reaction to Johnson’s announcement about the Civil Rights bills. There were three scenes I found particularly interesting – Cecil’s eavesdropping of Reagan’s discussion with GOP politicians regarding South Africa’s apartheid policy, Kennedy’s revelation of his knowledge regarding Louis’ arrests and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement; and Nixon’s appearance (when he was Vice-President) in the servants’ work room in an effort to recruit their votes during the 1960 Presidential Election. I also enjoyed the private moments between Cecil and his two colleagues that eventually spread to his home, when they began spending off hours with him and his family.

Production-wise, “THE BUTLER” is a beautiful movie to behold. Andrew Dunn’s photography provided sharp and colorful images of Cecil’s life throughout the 20th century. Tim Galvin’s production designs certainly benefited from Dunn’s work. Then again, Galvin did a superb job in recapturing those 80-odd years of Cecil’s life with great accuracy. This was especially apparent in the period featuring Cecil’s first decade as a butler for the White House – between the late 1950s and early 1970s. I can also say the same about Ruth E. Carter’s work as the film’s costume designer. Not only were they beautiful to look at, I was also impressed by how she recaptured the fashion styles of each period featured in the movie. Here are a few examples of Carter’s designs:

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As much as I had enjoyed “THE BUTLER”, I cannot deny that it had its share of flaws. Earlier, I had complimented the movie for its lack of pretentiousness – except in two scenes. One of those scenes that seemed to reek of pretentiousness featured Cecil’s interaction with President Eisenhower. The scene began with Eisenhower ordering the U.S. Army troops to protect the lives and rights of a group of African-American high students integrating a Little Rock, Arkansas high school. The scene eventually segued into Eisenhower reminiscing about his late father to Cecil. And although the scene’s drama was portrayed in a straightforward manner by Forest Whitaker and Robin Williams, it seemed to reek of sentimentality and pretentiousness that I found annoying. Another scene that I found off-putting proved to be Cecil’s encounter with President Nixon in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. The entire scene seemed to have come straight from Cinematic Nixon 101. It featured a slightly drunk Nixon, lounging on a White House sofa, while spouting self doubts about his political abilities and integrity. I found the scene boring, pretentious and very unoriginal. In fact, I would swear I had seen similar views of Nixon in at least two other films.

I would even go as far to say that the movie’s main weakness seemed to be its portrayals of the U.S. Presidents featured. For some reason, most of the actors who portrayed those presidents in the movie seemed to be miscast. I had nothing against Robin Williams’ performance as Dwight D. Eisenhower. But I took one look at him and was reminded of the character’s predecessor – Harry S. Truman. Really. Liev Schreiber struck me as being at least ten to fifteen years too young to be portraying Lyndon B. Johnson. And yet . . . he did such as great job as Johnson that I am willing to allow the issue of his age to slide. John Cusak was not only too young, but also too slender for his role as Richard M. Nixon. In my opinion, he was definitely the wrong actor for the job. As for Alan Rickman . . . hmmm. Well, if I must be honest, I found his portrayal of Ronald Reagan very effective in a subtle way. The only other piece of casting that seemed to be spot on proved to be James Marsden as John F. Kennedy. Not only did he give a pretty good performance, but his Boston accent seemed decent. “THE BUTLER” also featured the appearances of two First Ladies – Minka Kelly as Jacqueline Kennedy and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Kelly did a solid job as Jackie Kennedy, especially in one scene that featured the First Lady’s return to the White House after the death of her husband. And Fonda gave a very entertaining performance as the ambitious and slightly controlling Nancy Reagan.

Since I am on the subject of acting, I might as express my views on those performances by the main cast. “THE BUTLER”featured some solid work from cast members such as Colman Domingo, who portrayed the White House maitre d that hired Cecil in a rather funny scene; Clarence Williams III, who gave a poignant portrayal of an elderly man who first trained Cecil to become a professional waiter; Yaya DaCosta, who did an excellent job of developing the character of Carol Hammie (Louis’ girlfriend) from a college student to a hardened activist; Vanessa Redgrave, who gave a brief, yet memorable performance as the elderly mother of the elderly plantation owner who caused havoc within the Gaines family during the 1920s; Alex Pettyfer, as the temperamental landowner, who managed to be effectively scary with very little dialogue; and Mariah Carey, who was surprisingly effective as Cecil’s victimized mother. It was great to see Cuba Gooding Jr., who gave a very entertaining performance as the fast-talking White House head butler Carter Wilson, who becomes a long-time friend of Cecil’s. Lenny Kravitz gave a subtle performance as Cecil’s other White House colleague, the more educated James Holloway. And Terrence Howard gave an excellent performance as the Gaines’ somewhat sleazy neighbor, Howard, who becomes interested in Gloria. He was especially brilliant in one scene in which his attempts to seduce Gloria into having an affair with him.

But in my opinion, the best performances came from the movie’s three leads – Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo. This is the third or fourth time I have seen British-born Oyelowo portray an American character. And I am still amazed at his grasp of an American accent. More importantly, he did a wonderful job in his portrayal of Louis Gaines, Cecil’s older son who becomes hardcore activist over the years, aging from 17 years old to a man in his late 60s. While watching “THE BUTLER”, I found myself wondering how many years have passed since Oprah Winfrey had a major role in a movie. The last major role I could recall was her performance in the 1998 drama, “BELOVED”. Watching her portray Cecil’s strong-minded wife, Gloria, reminded me how much of a superb actress she really is. There were two scenes that reminded me how skillful she really is – her bedroom rant against the demands of Cecil’s job and her angry response to Louis and Carol’s derogatory comments about actor Sidney Poitier. I really do not know what to say about Forest Whitaker’s performance in the title role. Personally, I feel that if went on about Whitaker’s performance in this movie, this article would stretch even longer. The man was brilliant. He really was. Whitaker did a superb job in developing Cecil from the 35-40 something obsequious butler to the 90 year-old man, looking back on his life and career. And I believe that Cecil Gaines is one of the best roles of his career. It would be a crime if he never receive an Academy Award for his performance.

I have noticed that “THE BUTLER” has received some mixed reviews from the movie critics. And most of these reviews seemed to be in the extreme from high praise to accusations of clumsy direction from Lee Daniels or equally clumsy writing from Danny Strong. I am not going to pretend that “THE BUTLER” is a perfect movie. It has its flaws. But I feel that its virtues more than outweighed its flaws. And thanks to Daniels’ direction, Strong’s screenplay and a superb cast led by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, I feel that “THE BUTLER” is one of the best historical dramas I have seen in years.

Ten Favorite SHERLOCK HOLMES Movies

Below is a list of my favorite movies featuring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes: 

TEN FAVORITE SHERLOCK HOLMES MOVIES

1. “Without a Clue” (1988) – I still love this spoof of the Sherlock Holmes stories in which the real detective is Dr. John Watson, who has hired an unemployed alcoholic actor named Reginal Kincaid to satisfy the public’s demand for a real Sherlock Holmes. In this film, the pair investigate the disappearance of Bank of England banknote plates and a printing supervisor. Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley are magic under Thom Eberhardt’s direction.

 

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2. “Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows” (2011) – Guy Richie made this second film about the Sherlock Holmes character and the latter’s conflict with his worst nemesis, Professor James Moriraty and his attempt to stop a major assassination. I loved it even more than Ritchie’s 2009 film. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law starred as Holmes and Watson.

 

3. “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) – Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of Doyle’s character about Holmes’ conflict against a nefarious aristocratic with plans to assume political control of the British Empire has become a major favorite of mine. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, along with Rachel McAdams and Mark Strong star.

 

4. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) – I am a big fan of this adaptation of William Gillette’s play about Sherlock Holmes’ investigation of a series of death threats against a well-to-do London family. This is the second film to feature Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Dr. Watson. Directed by Alfred L. Werker, the movie co-starred Ida Lupino and George Zucco.

 

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5. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” (1976) – I have always enjoyed Herbert Ross’ adaptation of Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel about Holmes and Watson recruiting Dr. Sigmund Freud to guide the detective in overcoming his cocaine habit and investigate a nefarious kidnapping plot. Nicol Williamson, Robert Duvall, Alan Arkin, Vanessa Redgrave and Laurence Olivier starred.

 

6. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1939) – This is my favorite adaptation of Doyle’s novel about Holmes’ investigation of an English family’s connection to a “demon” hound and a Candandian heir to the family’s fortunes. This is the first film to feature Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Dr. Watson. Sidney Lanfield directed.

 

7. “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985) – Steven Spielberg produced and Barry Levinson directed this fanciful imagining of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting as adolescents at a prestigious boys school, as they investigate a series of suspicious suicide deaths. Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox, Anthony Higgins and Sophie Ward starred.

 

8. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1988) – This is my favorite adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels featuring Jeremy Brett as the detective. Edward Hardwicke co-starred as Dr. Watson. The movie was directed by Brian Mills.

 

9. “Murder By Decree” (1979) – Directed by Bob Clark, Holmes and Watson investigate the Jack the Ripper murders. Excellent, although a bit bloody for my tastes. Christopher Plummer and James Mason co-starred as Holmes and Watson.

 

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10. “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (1970) – Billy Wilder directed this tale about a bored Sherlock Holmes, who eagerly decides to investigate the attempt on the life of a woman with a missing identity. Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely starred in this entertaining, yet flawed movie.

Top Ten Favorite AGATHA CHRISTIE Movies

About two years ago, I had posted my ten favorite movies based upon some of Agatha Christie’s novel. Two years later, my tastes have changed a bit. Here is my new list: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE AGATHA CHRISTIE MOVIES

1. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his debut as Hercule Poirot in this intriguing mystery about the detective’s investigation into the death of a wealthy Anglo-American bride on her honeymoon, during a cruise down the Nile River. Directed by John Guillerman, David Niven co-starred.

2. “Evil Under the Sun” – Peter Ustinov portrays Hercule Poirot for the second time in this witty and entertaining mystery about the detective’s investigation into the murder of a famous stage actress. Guy Hamilton directed.

3. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – Poirot investigates the 15 year-old murder of a famous, philandering artist in order to clear the name of his widow, who had been hanged for killing him. David Suchet and Rachael Stirling starred.

4. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this classic, all-star mystery about Hercule Poirot’s investigation of the death of a mysterious wealthy American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

5. “A Murder Is Announced” (1986) – Joan Hickson stars as Jane Marple in this superb adaptation of Christie’s story about an unusual newspaper announcement that leads curious village inhabitants to a supper party and a murder. John Castle co-starred.

6. “After the Funeral” (2006) – When a man disinherits his sole beneficiary and bequeaths his wealth to others just prior to his death, Poirot is called in to investigate. David Suchet and Geraldine James stars.

7. “Towards Zero” (2007) – Geraldine McEwan starred as Jane Marple in this excellent adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel about the investigation of the murder of a wealthy, elderly woman.

8. “Sad Cypress” (2003) – Poirot races against time in this haunting tale to prove whether or not a young woman was responsible for the murder of her aunt and the latter’s companion.

9. “Cards on the Table” (2005) – In this fascinating mystery, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a mysterious dinner host named Mr. Shaitana, in which four of the suspects may have committed a previous murder. David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker starred.

10. “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980) – Four years before she stepped into the role of television sleuth Jessica Fletcher, Angela Landsbury portrayed Jane Marple in this entertaining mystery about a visiting Hollywood star filming a movie in St. Mary’s Mead. Guy Hamilton directed.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974) Review

Below is my review of the 1974 adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels – “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”:

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974) Review

Whenever the topic of Agatha Christie novels pop up, many critics and fans seem to rate her 1934 novel, ”Murder on the Orient Express” as among her best work. This stellar opinion seemed to have extended to the 1974 movie adaptation. After all, the film did receive six Academy Award nominations and won one. Is  “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” the best adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Is it my favorite? Hmmm . . . I will get to that later.

But I cannot deny that the movie, also produced by John Bradbourne and directed by Sidney Lumet, is a first-class production. One could easily see that Bradbourne and Paramount Pictures had invested a great deal of money into the production. They hired the very talented and award winning director, Sidney Lumet; along with an all-star cast led by Albert Finney; cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth; production and costume designer Tony Walton; and Paul Dehn to write the screenplay.

One of the most unique aspects of this particular movie is that it started with a haunting montage featuring newspaper clippings and newsreel footage of a tragic kidnapping of a three year-old girl from a wealthy Anglo-American family named Daisy Armstrong. The kidnapping of young Daisy would end up playing a major role in the true identities of the murder victim and the suspects. The movie soon moved to Istanbul, five years later, where famed Belgian-born detective, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), is about to journey back to England via the Orient Express. Despite the unusually heaving booking in the train’s Calais coach, Poirot manages to secure a berth aboard the train thanks to an old friend, Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam), who happens to be a director for the Orient Express’ owner – the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. After the train departs Istanbul, a mysterious American art collector named Ratchett (Richard Widmark) informs Poirot that someone has been sending him threatening notes and asks for the Belgian’s protection. Due to Poirot’s instinctual dislike of Rachett, the detective refuses to help. And after the train finds itself snowbound in the Balkans, Rachett is stabbed to death in the middle of the night. Signor Bianchi asks Poirot to unearth the murderer.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” turned out to be the first screen adaptation of a Christie novel to feature an all-star cast. One that only included screen stars such as Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York and Jean-Pierre Cassel. The cast also included stage luminaries such as John Gielgud (who was a bigger star on the stage), Wendy Hiller, Denis Quilley and Colin Blakely. And all of them gave solid performances, although I do have a few quibbles about a few members of the cast.

Critics had been especially impressed by Finney’s interpretation of the Belgian detective and Ingrid Bergman’s role as a shy and nervous Swedish missionary. Both received Academy Award nominations and Bergman won. Personally, I am not certain if both actors deserved their nominations. They gave pretty solid performances. But I found nothing extraordinary about Bergman’s Swedish missionary. It was a first-rate performance, but not worthy of an Oscar nomination, let alone an Oscar. And although he gave a superb performance, there were times when Finney seemed to drift into some kind of parody of the Continental European. This is why I believe that actors with strong European backgrounds like Peter Ustinov and David Suchet should portray Poirot. But . . . I cannot deny that he gave a very good performance. And he also conveyed certain aspects of Poirot’s personality that I have never seen in Ustinov or Suchet’s portryals – one of them being a talent for manipulating others into revealing themselves during an interrogation. I also enjoyed his brief scene with Jeremy Lloyd, who portrayed an obsequious British Army officer that served as Poirot’s escort during the crossing of the Bosphorus Strait.

And there were times when some members of the rest of the cast seemed to be in danger of drifting into hammy acting. Sean Connery sometimes came off as heavy-handed in his British Army officer routine. And Anthony Perkins’ parody of his famous Norman Bates role irritated me to no end . . . especially since the literary version of his character – Hector McQueen – came off as a completely different personality. However, Perkins had one really good scene that featured no dialogue on his part.  But three performances did strongly impress me – namely Jean-Pierre Cassel as the rail car attendant, Pierre Michel; Rachel Roberts as a German lady’s maid named Hildegarde Schmidt; and Colin Blakely as Cyrus Hardman, an American detective masquerading as a talent scout. Unlike some members of the cast, these three managed to give subtle, yet convincing performances without sometimes careening into parody. And Blakely provided one of the most poignant moments in the film when Poirot revealed his character’s (Hardman) personal connection to the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping case.

As for the movie’s screenplay, I must admit that Paul Dehn and an uncredited Anthony Shaffer did an excellent job in adapting Christie’s novel for the screen. They managed to stay true to the novel’s original plot with very few changes. Their only misstep was in making the Hector MacQueen’s character into a parody of the Norman Bates role from”PSYCHO” (1960), due to Perkins being cast into the role. Or perhaps the fault lay with Lumet. Who knows? However, I cannot but express admiration over the brilliant move to include the montage that featured Daisy Armstrong’s kidnapping and murder at the beginning of the film. It gave the story an extra poignancy to an already semi-tragic tale. Despite these changes, Dehn and Shaffer basically remained faithful to the novel. They even maintained the original solution to the mystery. Granted, the solution made”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” one of the most unusual murder mysteries in the history of Hollywood, let alone the literary world. And although the revelation of the murderer(s) came off as somewhat inconceivable, it made the movie memorable . . . aside from the flashback that revealed Rachett being murdered. That seemed to last longer than necessary. I also have a different opinion regarding the fate of the murderer(s). When I had been younger, it never bothered me. Now . . . it makes me slightly uneasy. If you have read the novel or seen the movie, you will know what I am talking about.

Richard Rodney Bennett had received a great deal of praise and an Oscar nomination for his score. I thought it meshed beautifully with the scenes featuring the Orient Express’ departure from Istanbul . . . and its continuing journey at the end of the film. However, there were times when I found it a bit over-dramatic and slightly out of place for a murder mystery. I really admired Tony Walton’s production designs for the movie. I thought it truly invoked the glamour and magic of traveling aboard the Orient Express in the 1930s. And it also conveyed the claustrophobic conditions of traveling by train, beautifully. Surprisingly, he also designed the movie’s costumes. I can only assume he was trying to adhere to Sidney Lumet’s desire to recapture the old Hollywood glamour from the 1930s. Unfortunately, I felt that Walton’s costumes for most of the characters seemed a bit over-the-top. But I must admit that I admired his costumes for Jacqueline Bisset, Ingrid Bergman and Vanessa Redgrave’s characters.

In the end, one has to give Sidney Lumet high marks for putting all of this together to create a classy adaptation of an unusual novel. Granted, I have a few qualms with some of the performances, characterizations and the plot’s resolution. And there were times in the middle of the movie when Lumet’s pacing threatened to drag the film. In the end, Lumet’s direction managed to maintain my interest in the story. And ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” remains a favorite movie of mine after 35 years.

“ATONEMENT” (2007) Review

“ATONEMENT” (2007) Review

Based upon Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel, ”ATONEMENT” told the story about how the lies and misunderstandings of 13-year-old girl from a nouveau-riche English family affected the romance between her older sister and the son of the family’s housekeeper. The movie starred James McAvoy, Keira Knightely and Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan.

Comprised in four parts (like the novel), ”ATONEMENT” began with the 13 year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring novelist with a crush on Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the family’s housekeeper. Robbie, along with Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) have both returned for the summer in 1935, following their education at Cambridge. Although both Robbie and Cecilia have been aware of each other at Cambridge, neither have not bothered to acknowledged their romantic interest in each other until recently. Also at the Tallis home for the weekend are Briony and Cecilia’s cousins – the 15 year-old Lola Quincey (Juno Temple) and her younger twin brothers – and their older brother Leon’s friend, the owner of a chocolate factory named Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch).

After Briony had witnessed several disturbing scenes – at least in her eyes – between Robbie and Cecilia, she comes to the conclusion that Robbie might be a sexual threat to Cecilia. Matters worsened when Briony joined the rest of the household in the search for Lola’s twin brothers, who had ran off in protest against their parents’ upcoming divorce. During the search for the twins, Briony witnessed the rape of her cousin Lola on the family estate by a man in a dinner suit. In the end, Briony claimed that the man she saw raping Lola was Robbie. Aside from Cecilia, the rest of the family believed Briony and Robbie ends up being sent to prison. At the outset of World War II, the British government released Robbie from prison on condition that he enlist as a private in the British Expeditionary Force. The rest of the movie, set during the early years of World War II, featured Robbie’s brief reunion with Cecilia – who had become a nurse – before his journey to France and the now 18 year-old Briony’s (Romola Garai) experiences as a wartime nurse.

”ATONEMENT” turned out to be a first-rate film about the destructive consequences of lies and illusions. Both director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton structured the movie in an unusual way in which not only did they allow moviegoers different conflicting perspective on certain incidents in the story – a prime example would be both Briony and Robbie’s different points-of-view on an incident regarding Cecilia’s retrieval of a broken vase from the estate fountain, but also quite cleverly hinted that certain aspects of story – especially the World War II segments – may have been colored by Briony’s own emotions and imagination. Also, Wright, along with art directors Ian Bailie, Nick Gottschalk and Niall Moroney; and production designer Sarah Greenwood did an excellent job in re-creating the rich atmosphere of Britain in the mid-1930s and 1940 and especially the Dunkirk expedition. I also have to commend Paul Tothill for the film’s superb editing. Tothill managed to give”ATONEMENT” a rhythmic style that matched the sound of a typewriter that added an illusionary sense to the unfolding story. In other words, by editing the story in a way that allowed certain scenes to be told from different points of view and added a sense of illusion, Tothill’s work gave the audience a false sense of illusion – at least for those who have never read McEwan’s novel.

I do have one quibble about the movie’s production . . . and I have to place the blame on Wright’s direction. I am referring the sequence that featured Robbie’s arrival at the beach at Dunkirk. At first glance, I was struck by the spectacle of Wright’s direction and Seamus McGarvey’s photography of the entire montage. Like I said . . . at first. Unfortunately, the montage ended up lasting several minutes too long. Not much time had passed when I found myself longing for it to end. I realized that Wright wanted to reveal the horror and chaos of war in all of its glory. But in the end, he simply went too far.

I must admit that I was not as impressed by most of the cast of ”ATONEMENT” as most critics and moviegoers. There was nothing earth-shattering about most of the performances . . . just good, solid work. Many moviegoers and critics had been surprised when both James McAvoy and Keira Knightley failed to earn Academy Award nominations. After watching the movie, I am not really surprised. Mind you, both gave very competent performances as the two lovers – Robbie and Cecilia But I had two problems with McAvoy and Knightley. One, their screen chemistry was not that explosive, considering the heated romance of their characters. It took a love scene inside the Tallis library to truly generate any heat between them. And two, I think their performances were hampered by Wright’s decision to allow the characters to speak in a staccato style that was prevalent in the movies of the 1930s and 40s in both Hollywood and Britain. I hate to say this, but McAvoy and Knightley never really managed to utilize this speech pattern with any effectiveness. There were times when their attempts to use it threatened to make their performances seem stiff and rushed. Perhaps they were simply too young and inexperienced.

On the other hand, I was very impressed by the three actresses who portrayed Briony Tallis at different stages in her life. Legendary actress Vanessa Redgrave portrayed a 70-80 year-old Briony, who had not only wrote a novel based upon the events surrounding Robbie’s arrest, but also confessed to the mistake she had committed decades earlier. And Romola Garai portrayed the character as an 18 year-old wartime nurse. Both actresses did an excellent job of portraying these older versions of Briony. But it was the young actress Saoirse Ronan who stole the movie as the 13 year-old Briony, whose naivety, jealousy toward Cecilia and Robbie’s budding romance and penchant for illusions led to devastating consequences for the romantic pair. Unlike McAvoy and Knighteley, Ronan gave a superb and natural performance as the confused and emotional Briony. It is not surprising that her work eventually earned BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress.

Before I end this review, I have to point out something that trouble me about ”ATONEMENT”. I might as well admit that I have never read McEwan’s novel . . . which is why the following storyline left me feeling confused. From what I have read about the film and the novel, Briony’s cousin, Lola Quincey, had been raped by the Tallis’ guest, Paul Marshall. And yet . . . she married the man, five years later. Why? Was it because she never knew that Marshall had been the one who had raped her? But judging from the hostile look she had given Briony at her wedding, Lola seemed well aware of that fact. Did Marshall actually raped her? Or had he seduced her that night the twins disappeared and Robbie was arrested? Perhaps the novel made the details of Lola’s storyline clearer. The movie left it murky. At least for me.

In the end, I must admit that ”ATONEMENT” proved to be one of the best movies released in 2007. Was it the best movie of that year? I have no idea. I have not seen ”NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN”. At least not yet. But despite some of the movie’s flaws, director Joe Wright managed to lift the usual Merchant Ivory façade of Britain’s past and create an emotionally dark film from Ian McEwan’s novel.