For Reel


A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
October 27, 2015, 5:35 pm
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Director: Charles Crichton
3.5 Stars
A Fish Called WandaA Fish Called Wanda pits American brashness against British civility, vulgarity against apprehension. The last film directed by Ealing Studios veteran Charles Crichton (whose The Lavender Hill Mob was a defining masterpiece for that studio), it is a unique artifact that suggests a genre both in transition and one that was battling itself. In the mean-spiritedness of the gags–where humiliation is often key to the humor–Crichton is predicting the Farrelly brothers (a running joke involving dogs being a key example). As a cultural touchstone, then, the film is fascinating, although it often falls short of what one wants it to be. For example, John Cleese’s straight man seems too limiting. His exasperation in Monty Python sketches often generated the biggest laughs, and here he’s reduced to passivity when faced by the biggest moron of all in Kevin Kline’s Otto. And, if Kline’s performance is the most memorable of the film (it is a tremendously accomplished vocal performance–one remembers his exact inflections as much as his physicality), it also comes from a different stratosphere than the rest of the cast. Regardless, there are enough laughs to save the material, and the film’s use of vulgar language is downright masterful.



The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
December 10, 2014, 4:36 pm
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Director: Charles Crichton
4.5 Stars
The Lavender Hill MobAlec Guinness solidified his international stardom with his performance in this amusing heist comedy from director Charles Crichton. He plays a shy, unassuming bank clerk–when his character is called into question, it is reported that he’s not a fellow with much ambition and therefore is not one to worry about. Of course, the mousy clerk takes it upon himself to give himself a bonus by stealing the gold bullion he is tasked with accompanying and smuggling it to Paris. The heist occurs about halfway through the picture and much of the excitement comes in the fallout from it. There’s a tremendous sequence in which Guinness and his partner (Stanley Holloway) visit the Eiffel Tower and pursue a field trip of young girls who have mistakenly got their hands on the smuggled gold. Crichton follows the thieves running down the circular stairway of the tower in a dizzying chaos, creating the most viscerally disorienting aesthetic achievement this side of Vertigo. Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is also masterful elsewhere, with dynamic high-contrast lighting and a camera that is just as interested in following telling gestures as it is in faces.



Dead of Night (1945)
November 4, 2014, 3:29 pm
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Director(s): Alberto Cavalcanti, Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton & Basil Dearden
4.5 Stars
Dead of NightThe enduring reputation of Britain’s Ealing Studios may be inextricably linked to its post-war comedies, but one should not overlook their involvement in the most revered of the horror portmanteau films: Dead of Night. While the picture is not completely humorless (one of the sequences is almost exclusively comedic), the film largely succeeds through its growing sense of dread. In the framing story, a man has the uncanny feeling that he has experienced the happenings of the story before in a nightmare. Usually in this type of narrative, the return to the storyteller relieves the audience of the tension that is built up in each of the episodes. That is, the familiarity of the real, present world is meant to be welcoming. Having the framing plot in this film involve an impending horror–a horror which all of the characters are aware of and openly discuss–means that the tension is unrelenting. In this instance, then, each of the disturbing tales are a distraction from the true horror of the situation. The way that the sense of anxiety escalates in this context is rather brilliant, and the climax that it all leads up to doesn’t let down.