Where’s it on? BFI Player
By spooky coincidence, 3 films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa arrive on BFI Player over the next few days, less than a week after the prolific Japanese genre master made the news by winning the Silver Lion at Venice for his newest, Wife of a Spy. Creepy, from 2016, saw Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) returning to the kind of acute thrillers of unease – like Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001) – that made his name during the millennial J-horror boom. It finds a criminology lecturer and his wife moving to a new neighbourhood in suburban Tokyo, where they become increasingly weirded out by the manner of their neighbour, an antisocial oddball who keeps his family life veiled in secrecy. At the same time, he finds himself being drawn back into his past as a criminal investigator when an old friend on the force asks him for his input on an unsolved missing-person case. If you’re a David Fincher fan looking to get over the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, here’s a good place to start. You’ll never look at a vacuum storage bag in the same way again.
A Farewell to Arms (1932)
Where’s it on? Talking Pictures TV, Saturday, 12.10pm
This early sound feature from arch-romantic Frank Borzage is a litmus test in literary adaptation on screen. Made just 3 years after the publication of Ernest Hemingway’s First World War love story, it’s not a film for Hemingway purists. Watch this 88-minute condensation of the book and see all your worst suspicions about Hollywood’s tendency for over-simplification and sentimentalisation confirmed. But you can keep your dutiful visualisations of the text, Borzage offers great cinema instead, elevating the affair between an American ambulance driver (played by Gary Cooper) and a British nurse (Helen Hayes) to expressionistic, almost mystical levels. It all peaks in a transcendently absurd and sublime bedside finale, as armistice is declared, bells ring, birds flock across the sky and Wagner crescendoes on the soundtrack. Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms soars with a misty-visioned conviction that only Hollywood in its heyday could get away with.
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Where’s it on? BBC2, Sunday, 3pm
Here’s another wartime romance, set during the stormy period that brewed into the Russian revolutions of 1917. It’s also another literary adaptation, bringing Boris Pasternak’s celebrated novel of 1957 to the screen at extraordinary scale and expense. More than twice as long as Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms at 200 minutes in its full version, this was David Lean’s elephantine follow-up to his Oscar-sweeping Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – doing for snow what that film did for sand, as one dismissive reviewer quipped at the time. It brings together Egyptian star Omar Sharif with Julie Christie, one of the faces of swinging London, as the star-crossed Russian lovers whose intense affair plays out against a backdrop of historical turmoil – the First World War leading to two revolutions leading to civil war. This is the one with that famous balalaika theme by Maurice Jarre, a zeppelin of a film that took flight at the box office at the time and still satisfies viewers with big appetites. BBC2 are giving it a post-roast slot this Sunday.
This Gun for Hire (1942)
Where’s it on? Blu-ray
A very early (if not quite the first) Graham Greene adaptation, this Paramount production also comes right at the start of the cycle of film noir – that shadowy mood and aesthetic that dominated Hollywood thrillers in the 1940s and 50s. Alan Ladd stars as the terse killer-for-hire in trench coat and trilby hat who wanders into trouble when he recovers a stolen chemical formula from a dodgy chemist he’s bumped off. He’s paid for the job in marked bills, which sets the police on his trail, so he in turn goes looking for the double-crosser who set him up. The setting is San Francisco, and America has just entered into the Second World War. Everyone we meet is shady and on the make, and the air is thick with cigarette smoke and glamorous desperation. We’re in Greeneland, above all, with director Frank Tuttle mapping the terrain in a brisk 81 minutes. And the beacon at its centre is Veronica Lake’s sultry nightclub singer – the performance Kim Basinger is riffing on in L.A. Confidential (1997).
Show Boat (1936)
Where’s it on? Blu-ray
A musical saga about a family of actors who travel the Mississippi in their steamer putting on performances wherever they dock, Show Boat had been such a massive hit on stage for Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II in the late 1920s that Hollywood quickly attempted its first version as early as 1929. Nobody was very satisfied with the results, and a few years later Universal Studios producer Carl Laemmle Jr was already planning take 2. Frank Borzage (of A Farewell to Arms fame) was in the picture to direct until Laemmle surprised everyone by appointing James Whale, the British director who’d made the studio a packet with the Frankenstein movies. The results overflow with visual invention, from the opening credits (a pageant of revolving cutouts) to the expressionistic montage accompanying Paul Robeson’s ground-shaking rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’. Show Boat should be approached in the same context and with the same caution as many an antiquated Hollywood depiction of the old south. For its time, however, its theme of racial prejudice and its subplot tackling anti-miscegenation laws were bold.
Originally published: 18 September 2020