Marlene Dietrich at Universal 1940-42

Where’s it on? Blu-ray

Big boxes of Blu-rays gathering up a star or director’s work at a particular studio during a set period are manna for cinephiles. Hot on the heels of Indicator’s Marlene Dietrich at Paramount doorstopper comes this BFI set bringing together Dietrich’s work at Universal in the early 1940s. Included are 4 films made away from the influence of her longtime Svengali, Josef von Sternberg, which found her slowly slipping the moorings of her vampish image. She’s a trouble-attracting torch-singer getting deported from one South China Seas island to the next in 1940’s fantastic Seven Sinners; a gold-digger posing as a lady in 19th-century Louisiana in The Flame of New Orleans (1941); a saloon singer in gold rush-era Alaska in The Spoilers (1942); and caught in the feud between 2 coal-miner friends (John Wayne and Randolph Scott) in 1942’s Pittsburgh. These are under-seen chapters of the Dietrich legend, without the perverse charge of the von Sternberg pictures, but each provides an irresistible reminder of the ready wit and visual grace of the studio system in its heyday.

The Train (1964)

Where’s it on?  BBC2, Sunday, 2.45pm

The Train (1964)

John Frankenheimer had quite the run in the early 1960s. Like Sidney Lumet, he was one of those modernising forces for American film who had come up through television. In films like The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964) and Seconds (1966), his work played lightning rod for the political and social anxieties of the Cold War’s most volatile period. Coming in the middle of these, 1964’s The Train, which BBC2 is dusting down this weekend, is a less paranoid proposition, a project he took over from fellow TV alumnus Arthur Penn. It’s a wartime thriller inspired by a book by French resistance fighter and art historian Rose Valland and hinges on attempts to foil a Nazi colonel’s efforts to take a loot of priceless art treasures back to Germany before the Allies liberate Paris. Paul Scofield is the Nazi, Jeanne Moreau the curator, and regular Frankenheimer collaborator Burt Lancaster plays an SNCF worker-stroke-resistance cell leader. It’s excitingly done on location in France, and in those steel-grey widescreen frames that were Frankenheimer’s signature at the time.

Assassins (2020)

Where’s it on? BFI Player and other digital platforms

Here’s one of those stranger-than-fiction true-crime documentaries that you watch with your jaw slowly sinking to the carpet. News junkies may recall the odd circumstances surrounding the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017. In broad daylight, 2 women – one Vietnamese, one Indonesian – approached their target and rubbed the deadly chemical VX on to his face, an attack that was widely assumed to be on the orders of the North Korean leader. Yet in the subsequent murder trial, the women claimed that they believed they were only carrying out a prank for a Japanese web series and hadn’t realised the substance was lethal. Ryan White’s film plays out like a spy thriller, joining the duo’s legal teams as they attempt to piece together what really happened via a breadcrumb trail of social media posts, CCTV footage and outlandish testimonies. 

Millennium Actress (2001)

Where’s it on?  Blu-ray

Satoshi Kon left behind only 4 feature films, but they’re all anime classics. Released in the same remarkable year as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Millennium Actress is steeped in Japanese film history, bearing comparison with other millennial movies – like David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) or Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) – that feel haunted by elegiac memories of their own medium. A venerable film studio is being demolished, prompting 2 documentary makers to go in search of a reclusive actress who used to be the studio’s biggest star. As they interview her about her life, reality, fiction and memory merge as the filmmakers enter into scenes from both her movies and her past. We never have a firm handle on which is which, though Japanese cinema lovers will recognise bits of old Kurosawa and Godzilla movies in the slipstream. The actress character was inspired in equal parts by Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine, long-serving favourites of directors Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse respectively. 

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

Where’s it on?  Talking Pictures TV, Saturday, 2.10pm

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

The huge losses of the Second World War gave rise to a cycle of films on both sides of the Atlantic in which the afterlife or benign hauntings offered a balm of fantasy. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946) would be the most famous examples. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is an early film from Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who’d later become noted for the barbed literary wit of pictures like All about Eve (1950). But this is a romantic fantasy in an altogether softer register – one of those 1940s productions that atmospherically conjures a windswept stretch of English coastline without the crew ever having left California. Gene Tierney plays the widowed Mrs Muir, who takes up residence in an apparently haunted cottage on the Dorset coast sometime in the year 1900 and is soon striking up a friendship with the spectre of the house’s former tenant – a salty sea captain played with whiskery charm by Rex Harrison. Bernard Herrmann’s score and Charles Lang’s misty-eyed photography dignify proceedings with a mournful romanticism.