British Invaders Blogathon: THE SECRET HISTORY OF MI6 is a movie waiting to happen…

This post is part of A Shroud of ThoughtsBritish Invaders Blogathon. Terry has been blogging there for an amazing 10 years. Happy blogaversary, Terry, and many many more!

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As you may know, one of my favorite film genres is the spy picture. I’ve spent enough hours with James Bond, Jason Bourne, Miss Froy, Captain Hardt, Gus Bennett, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, and Evelyn Salt to know a good spy story when I see one, or in this case, read one. And quite appropriately — since Britain’s spies dominate the world’s pop culture consciousness — it’s about as British as you can get.

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I love this cover design by Tal Goretsky, click through to visit his site

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6’s original and still official name) in 2009, its then-chief Sir John Scarlett commissioned Keith Jeffery, a History professor at Queen’s College Belfast, to write a history of the organization from its founding in 1909 through its adolescence in the early Cold War, 1949. The result is The Secret History of MI6, a fascinating tale of dedication, determination, occasional infighting, and patriotism.

Right away, I was surprised to learn that one of the most famous and highly-regarded intelligence services in the world was so underfunded that, at various times until the early 1940s, most personnel were not paid. So only those with sufficient private incomes could afford to work there, which would explain that upper-crust style that has carried through to many of the movies.

Colin Firth looking fine in a three-piece suit in TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY  (2011)
Maybe someone should look into how these guys are paying for their snappy suits…I’m just saying. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011)

Other aspects of the book will seem familiar as well. After all, the two authors who are arguably most responsible for our collective notions of how spies and spying work — Ian Fleming and David Cornwell (aka John LeCarré) — were both employed in British intelligence (Fleming was in naval intelligence, Cornwell in SIS). Graham Greene, another purveyor of espionage tales like Our Man In Havana, was recruited into SIS by his sister, Elisabeth, who already worked there. (His supervisor? Now-notorious double agent Kim Philby.)

For instance…the chief of the Service was always known by a single letter — not M, but C, from the last name of the first chief, Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming. There is an actual Q or Quartermaster Branch, officially known as “Stores and Equipment Administration.” Q Branch’s first project, in 1915, was secret writing ink. Agents were often referred to by numbers, though not double-0s.

From the very beginning, many field agents and “local talent” did (and probably still do) enjoy the high life. As early as 1910, Cumming wrote in his diary that spies always wanted more money than their information was worth and “‘all…without exception make a strong point of [eating and drinking] in the best style and at the most expensive restaurants.'” Cumming himself was “a keen pioneer motorist and a hair-raisingly fast driver,” who helped found a yacht club and got his pilot’s license in 1913 when he was 54 years old.

universalexportsAnd, just like Austin “Danger” Powers, most British operatives conducted their business under their own names, usually with international business cover. Just like James Bond’s Universal Export. (A catch-all governmental office was also invented early on, specifically to provide cover — Passport Control, employees of which all have diplomatic immunity.)

On the other hand, there are the stories I hadn’t heard. Jeffery was faced with a tough task when he agreed to write Secret History. SIS routinely destroyed all its intelligence. Almost as soon as information was received at headquarters and distributed to the relevant department or office, the papers were burned. However, he managed to find material enough for several great movies or mini-series.

One aspect of espionage I never thought of before is the difficulty the British had in disguising the intel they got from the signals interception and decryption at Bletchley Park during World War II. Jeffery illustrates in several instances that If they had acted on everything they knew, it would have been obvious they had broken the code, and the Nazis would have changed it. I wonder if this will be addressed in The Imitation Game, the upcoming movie about Alan Turing.

Another movie-ready WWII story is that of the “Dick Jones” network, which ran very successfully in Tunisia, after a rough start. “Jones” was captured, imprisoned and sentenced when first dropped into the country in late 1942, but was released by the French authorities when the Germans invaded. He had organized well during his stay in prison and by November 1942, his network was supplying information “‘so operationally valuable that First Army were literally hanging on our daily signals to them.'” The network grew with “high grade morale,” which led to “low grade security,” and many were arrested in January 1943. Some were executed and “Jones” himself landed in Colditz Castle as a prisoner of war.

A biography of Cumming, the first chief of SIS, would also make an interesting film. Cumming endured various personal tribulations while fighting to keep the fledgling Secret Service alive and separate from other agencies and branches of government. Now universally acknowledged to have been the perfect choice for the job, he was basically making up the espionage playbook as he went along, and his position was never secure at the time. Aside from fast vehicles, he was fascinated by gadgets and tradecraft, and some of his techniques are still in use today.

The book also includes accounts of British/French espionage successes during WWII. One in particular is that of Marie Madeleine Fourcade, and I hope it gets optioned soon. Fourcade, born the same year as SIS, led the French Resistance network Alliance, which gathered intel about German logistics inside occupied France and transmitted it by various means to Britain. This was incredibly dangerous work, and many Alliance members were captured, tortured, and killed by the Gestapo. Fourcade herself was captured four times. She was released twice, and twice she escaped — once by disrobing and squeezing herself out of a cell window, and once by being smuggled out in a mailbag. She and all her network had animal codenames, thus the title of her book, L’Arche de Noé, or Noah’s Ark.

A few of the faces of courageous Marie Madeleine Fourcade, leader of the Alliance network in occupied France during World War II
A few of the faces of courageous Marie Madeleine Fourcade, leader of the Alliance network in occupied France during World War II

 The Secret History of MI6 is a scholarly work and does sometimes get bogged in bureaucratic minutiae, but the vast majority of it is a compelling read. I do hope there will be a second volume, at least covering the rest of the 20th century.

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Frank McHugh’s Most Important Role

Frank McHugh was perhaps the epitome of a reliable supporting player. You know this guy — you might not know his name, but you know his face.

frank-mchugh-headshotAs a Warner Brother contract player in the ‘30s and ‘40s, no one backstopped stars like Bing Crosby, William Powell, and James Cagney better than McHugh. He was an expert at sheepish expressions, jittery laughs, and screwball action, usually serving as comic relief and providing larcenous or romantic complications when required.

McHugh was born into a stage family on May 23, 1898, and appeared in vaudeville with his siblings Matt and Kitty by the age of 10. Drawn from his stage career by the arrival of talkies, he arrived in Hollywood in 1930, signed with Warner Brothers almost immediately, and appeared in nearly 90 films in his first 10 years with the studio.

He was also known as a central member of the Irish Mafia, the tight-knit group of Irish-American actors that included Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Spencer Tracy, Allen Jenkins, Frank Morgan, and Ralph Bellamy. They preferred to be known as the “Boys’ Club,” and Morgan and Bellamy were actually of German and English/French descent respectively, but these real-life ties translated well onscreen. McHugh and Cagney, for instance, appeared together in 12 pictures; McHugh and O’Brien in 11.

Frank McHugh and James Cagney bottle a little fun in THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939).
Frank McHugh and James Cagney bottle a little fun in THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939).

What you may not know about McHugh is the valuable real-life part he played during World War II.

Like many in Hollywood, he enthusiastically supported the war effort, and joined the Hollywood Victory Caravan in May 1942. This show traveled the United States, featuring performances by the biggest stars, with the ticket proceeds going the Army and Navy Relief Fund.

The star-studded Hollywood Caravan
The star-studded Hollywood Victory Caravan at a stop in Minnesota

Mark Sandrich, director of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films, and Alfred Newman, Twentieth Century Fox’s musical director, organized the Caravan as a musical revue. It featured, at various times, Crosby, Cagney, O’Brien, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, Claudette Colbert, Charles Coburn, Joan Blondell, Joan Bennett, Eleanor Powell, Desi Arnaz, Bert Lahr, and Groucho Marx, along with McHugh (leaning forward in the top row above). In August and September of the same year, he went to England with a USO tour, the American Variety Show.

After those tours, McHugh continued his war efforts, producing his own show and taking it to the troops in Europe two years later. In November and December 1944, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, “McHugh’s Revue” toured the front lines in Belgium, France, Holland, and Germany.

McHugh loved meeting and chatting with the servicemen, and the feeling was mutual. He received a citation from the Army, in which General Raymond S. McLain referred to the Revue as “an oasis in this desert of hardship and suffering….Your show was sparkling, and left a refreshing atmosphere in the spirit of many battle weary soldiers.” This certainly was McHugh’s most important, and possibly most loved, supporting role.

Many materials related to McHugh’s wartime activities, including his own account of McHugh’s Revue, are preserved in the Frank McHugh Papers at the New York Public Library, which I hope to see someday.

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This post is part of the 2013 What A Character! blogathon, co-hosted by myself, Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen. Be sure and check out all the Saturday posts.

31 Days of Oscar: THE TRAIN (1964)

I talk about how much I love The Train all the time, I watch or DVR it every time it’s on, and I really want more people to see it, but I feel like I haven’t really said why. Its premise is deceptively simple: In the waning days of World War II, French railway inspector/Resistance member Labiche (Burt Lancaster) is ordered by Nazi-in-charge von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) to get a train through to Germany no matter what. Which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that nearly every important piece of art left in France is on the train. Von Waldheim has ruthless soldiers at his disposal, but Labiche’s Resistance friends, some of whom actually run the trains, are used to making sabotage seem normal. It’s an unpredictable, suspenseful chess match with French lives staked against the country’s soul.

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Maybe it’s so good because it’s so real. How real? Lancaster did all his own stunts. He even did stunts for another actor. He was injured only once during filming but it had nothing to do with the movie: He sprained his knee while golfing. Director John Frankenheimer covered it by having Labiche get shot in the leg.

Lancaster was actually responsible for Frankenheimer’s presence on set. After the first day of filming, Lancaster didn’t think original director Arthur Penn was emphasizing action and suspense as much as necessary. The actor, who was also producing, had Penn fired and called on his Young Savages/Birdman of Alcatraz/Seven Days in May director, who was happy to help — provided his conditions were met: the film’s official title would be “John Frankenheimer’s The Train;” he would have final cut; and he would receive a Ferrari. The producers agreed to all of it. (Don’t feel too badly for Penn…he went on to make Bonnie and Clyde.)

In addition, when you see trains crashing or derailing, they’re very real, life-sized, often WWII-era, trains — Frankenheimer didn’t use miniatures. In one scene, the production was able to take advantage of the French government’s decision to scrap a railyard by “planting dynamite charges beneath the tracks….According to Newsweek, this brief sequence incorporated 140 separate explosions, 3,000 pounds of TNT and 2,000 gallons of gasoline” [source].

I could write another whole blog post about the filming of these scenes:

and I haven’t even mentioned Jeanne Moreau’s cameo as an innkeeper who may or may not be collaborating with the Nazis, the crazy weather delays and their effect on the film, or the real-life true story that inspired the script — Rose Valland’s autobiographical Le front de l’art: défense des collections françaises, 1939-1945.*

Furthermore, the film can be enjoyed as both a straight-up action picture and as a philosophical exploration of art and war. It asks the questions, “How much does art matter, and is it worth dying for?” and suggests that one’s answer will vary based on class. The Train’s preoccupation with social status is understated, but it reminds me of another film with an ambivalent outlook on war, La Grande Illusion. For starters, both have working-class Frenchmen, Labiche and Jean Gabin’s Lieutenant Maréchal, and aristocratic Germans, von Waldheim and Erich von Stroheim’s Captain (later Major) von Rauffenstein, though their differences are far more prominent in Illusion.

So The Train won a ton of Oscars, right? Not at all. It received one Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen — which it lost, to Darling. Neither film is really all that well-known today, but I confess I have more affection for the somber World War II movie that could.

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This post is part of Week 5 of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, hosted by myself, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen and Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled. Check out past weeks’ fabulous posts as well:   Week 1   Week 2   Week 3   Week 4

* Per IMDB, paintings from the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris “were indeed loaded into a train for shipment to Germany during World War II, but fortunately, the elaborate deception seen in the movie was not really required. The train was merely routed onto a ring railway and circled around and around Paris until the Allies arrived.”

UPDATE: This post wouldn’t really be complete without Frankenheimer’s TCM tribute to Lancaster. The director talks about The Train, including the one-take scene Jack Deth referenced in his comment, here

What A Character: Richard Jaeckel by Jack Deth

by Jack Deth

Greetings, all and sundry! Being more than a fan and somewhat short of a student of cinema, it is not often that I have been granted the opportunity to wax poetic and in detail about the many building blocks and structures of the fine art of visual storytelling. Directors ride herd and guide projects. Writers, of course. supply the words and the mood. Lead actors are often the heroes and the focus of attention. But what about the myriad other familiar faces in the background?

The faces we recognize either right away, or within a few minutes, after one of their limited number of lines. Not necessarily the fresh-faced, too-young-to-shave kid who gets killed in the last reels of a war film, but the other guy.

The guy who nods sagely to the Sergeant’s or Lieutenant’s words of advice. The kid brother who tries to stop his hot-headed older sibling from seeking revenge on a cattle rustler. The always-smiling Army GI who’s young enough and smart enough to jump at the offer to spend some time off the front lines of the frozen Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge. The quiet blacksmith in a dusty, middle-of-nowhere Texas town. Or one of two twin brothers who sign up for the Marine Corps after Pearl Harbor to fight the “heathen Japanese” in the Pacific islands theater of WWII.

Yeah. That guy! Stocky, Not too tall. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Sometimes a quick wit, though more often not. A little headstrong. With good hands that can also be fast and righteous. Made for any number of uniforms. Or jeans, a flannel shirt, and a sweat-stained Stetson or baseball cap. You’ve seen him in many films. And remember him fondly in one or two, but can’t place his name. Well, let me tighten up your memory receptors and critique one of his best and most memorable roles.

Richard Jaeckel: Sgt. Bowren. Top Kick of ‘The Dirty Dozen’.
First seen in full Garrison uniform, pistol belt, sidearm and white MP helmet liner. Jaeckel’s Sgt. Bowren brooks little nonsense when lining up twelve diverse convicts for his new boss, Major Reisman (Lee Marvin). Then introducing the good Major to each after the twelve have dressed and covered according to height. Reading names and sentences that range from decades of hard labor to death by hanging. After a failed attempt at close order drill, caused by upstart Victor Franko (John Cassavetes) and an appropriate thumping by the Major. The remainder show a renewed attention to commands. Giving the first glimmers of light to the possibility that the Major may just be able to pull this cockamamie idea off.

Reinforced a bit more as the Major conducts face to face interviews and asks what Bowren thinks. Sgt. Bowren answers the way he thinks the Major wants, And the Major tells him to try again. Bowren replies, ” I think the first chance one of those lovers gets, he’s going to shoot the Major right in the head… sir.”

The two understand each other a bit more. As Bowren later chastises one of his own MPs for an off color remark made to R.T.Jefferson (Jim Brown). An African-American awaiting the gallows for killing a white man who had tried to lynch him. Then responding to a ruckus between the convicts in the prison gym. Brought on by Maggot’s (Telly Savalas) use of the ‘N word’ regarding Jefferson. Only to be delayed by Major Reisman, who explains that those involved are discussing seating arrangements and place settings. Sgt. Bowren picks up on the implied message and starts an impromptu discussion about baseball as the convicts noisily work their aggressions out.

And Sgt. Bowren begins to slowly evolve into the Major’s bodyguard. Official watcher of the convicts during training and off site compound’s layout and construction. As well as taking on the role of Major Reisman’s unofficial enforcer and Executive Officer. Always close by with his hand covering his flap holstered .45 should things get a little tense between the Major and his convicts. Or to add strength to his boss’s directive that the convicts will no longer shave, bathe or have hot food or hot water, courtesy of Victor Franko. Pointing out that the saved time will be devoted to training and sarcastically coming up with the colloquial, ‘Dirty Dozen’.

About the only time Sgt. Bowren falters is when the convicts are sent to another base for parachute training and Pinkley (Donald Sutherland) embarrasses Colonel Everett Dasher Breed (Robert Ryan). West Point graduate and ring knocker during an inspection of his troops. The Colonel wants to know more after three of his biggest and baddest fail to get answers from Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) alone in a latrine. Jefferson and Posey (Clint Walker) intercede. Jefferson breaks one of the goon’s hand and jaw with his helmet. While Wladislaw and Posey
leave the other two unconscious. The explanation for Wladislaw’s bruises? “He slipped on a bar of soap”.

Infuriated, Colonel Breed and a squad of armed paratroopers storm the convicts’ compound and disarm Sgt Bowren at its drop gate, Though he does get some satisfaction after Major Reisman infiltrates the compound. And stops Breed and his men in their tracks with aimed bursts of fire from an M-3 Grease Gun. Bowren unleashes his convicts to get some payback. Admiring their measured use of force and working as a team as paratroop are left muddied, hurt and their weapons piled neatly out of reach. All prelude to a ‘Graduation Party’ for the convicts, a live fire exercise, attached as an independent unit. Whose objective is capturing Colonel Breed and his staff. And their final mission…

What does Jaeckel’s Sgt. Bowren bring to the film?
A much-needed and well-executed dash of maturity and adherence to rules. As displayed in his well-turned-out Garrison uniform, tie, Ike jacket and bloused, and polished boots. Someone who is proud of his profession and rank. And shows it. Not exactly a ‘Lifer’, but one who adapts to changing situations and keeps ahead of the curve. Until Major Reisman shows up and the twelve convicts are led out to the prison’s small exercise yard.

Sgt. Bowren does what he can to maintain order among the lackadaisical convicts. Who think they have the upper hand until Franko makes a jail house lawyer fool of himself before the unamused OSS (Office of Strategic Services. Forerunner of the CIA) Major Reisman. And every thing changes. Unit cohesion starts to make itself known and Bowren can use that and build on it as he is given more autonomy. Progress is slow and Bowren remains aloof until at least an effort is made to rise close to his and the Army’s standards. Which begins with Franko’s
revolt and its resulting lack of hot food and water. And ends with the take down of Colonel Breed and his troopers.

A small role, but an essential one, to be sure. With time well divided out amongst a grounded, diverse and memorable ensemble cast. In one of the better character driven WWII films of the 1970s. That added another notch on the resume and body of work of one of the late, great, grand masters in the firmament of character actors!

Future Classic Movies: CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH

By Mark

One of the major problems with war movies is they can tend to be a little revisionist – or blatently laced with nationalistic propaganda – to the point that they shouldn’t be taken too seriously by any discerning future filmgoer. Strangely enough, an exception to this rule is an epic Chinese film made in 2009 about a seminal event which took place in the lead up to the Second World War. A masterpiece in every sense of the term, Lu Chuan’s poignant City of Life and Death is a worthy entry in Paula’s Cinema Club’s Future Classic Movies blogathon.

When it comes to military atrocities of the 20th century, not too many can top the brutality of Japan’s invasion of the Chinese city of Nanking during the late 1930s. In the six weeks following Nanking’s capture in mid December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army systematically killed somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 people – including an estimated 57,000 prisoners of war on the banks of the Yangtze River in what has since been coined the Shaw String Massacre.

While this infamous mass murder of unarmed POWs does not occur until a third of the way through City of Life and Death, it more or less serves as a starting point for the remainder of the film’s grim narrative, which concerns itself not only with the plight of Nanking’s remaining citizens as they are forced to endure the barbarous and cruel occupation, but also the reaction of the invaders to their own behaviour while they execute their savage agenda.

As it works its way towards the Yangtze River slaughter, the movie follows the fortunes of two brave soldiers – Chinese lieutenant Lu Jianxiong (Liu Ye) and Japanese super private Kadokawa Masao (Nakaizumi Hideo), both of whom are key figures in a final, but somewhat futile, skirmish before the city’s inevitable capitulation.

The story then focuses on the dismantling of the Nanking Safety Zone – a 3.85 square kilometre refuge that had been set up by a group of foreign interests led by German (and Nazi) businessman John Rabe (John Paisley) just before the invaders arrived – after its inhabitants are betrayed by Rabe’s Chinese business assistant Tang “Mr Tang” Tianxiang (Fan Wei) as he attempts to negotiate his family’s passage to safety. (Interestingly the real life Rabe has been credited with saving 100,000 Chinese lives, putting him in the same league as fellow countryman Oskar Schindler, although the film does not really dwell on this point.)

 

By dividing the film into these two parts, writer/director Chuan convincingly paints a comprehensive picture of war at its very worst – firstly via one of the grittiest combat scenes seen in the cinema since the fight for Ramelle in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and then through the painful depiction of the Japanese occupation in which women are procured as sex slaves and repeatedly raped, prisoners are hung and/or beheaded (or, in one painful sequence, buried alive), a small child is ruthlessly thrown from an attic window, and injured soldiers are summarily executed in cold blood by makeshift firing squads.

Had City been in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, it’s possible that it might not have fully recovered after Jianxiong’s execution, such is the strength of Liu’s opening performance as the battle hardened Chinese soldier who, along with a few others, initially tries to stop most of his comrades from fleeing the city before making a desperate final stand against the Japanese invaders.

There are, however, too many other good things working for the film which keeps it in masterpiece territory for its two hour-plus running time. These include its stunning black-and-white cinematography (by Cao Yu and He Lei), its set design of mass destruction, as well as the strong performances of the supporting cast – perhaps the most noteworthy being Fan (as the hapless collaborator who ultimately redeems himself), Qin Lan (his wife “Mrs Tang”), Gao Yuanyuan (as Jian Shuyun, one of the zone’s Chinese administrators who defiantly stands up to the occupiers) and Japanese actor Kohata Ryu (playing the brutally pragmatic Second Lieutenant Osamu).

If anything, sitting through City of Life and Death is sort of akin to watching an extended version of the sacking of Vladimir by the Tartars in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 classic Andrei Rublev. At the end of the day it’s not so much the human spirit that triumphs, but rather the horror.

Movie Typography: ESPIONAGE AGENT

Joel McCrea is TCM”s Star of the Month for May 2012 and I admit I hadn’t really given him much thought. But sometimes all it takes to appreciate someone’s work is further exposure to it, and so it is with McCrea. He has a mellow, old-fashioned all-American quality that is really growing on me. He is really good in Espionage Agent (1939) as the diplomat whose wife (Brenda Marshall) has been forced into spying for the Nazis in the early part of WWII, before the US entered the war.

The film has the same producer as Casablanca, Hal Wallis, and it shares an anti-isolationist perspective with that picture and with Foreign Correspondent, which also starred McCrea. Agent is like a cross between Correspondent, Night Train to Munich and Confessions of a Nazi Spy. No wonder I really liked it.

What I also really dig about this film is the typography. It’s just really lovely. Espionage Agent isn’t available on video in any format…maybe Warner Archive will release it someday…for now we’ll have to rely on photos of my TV that I took with my phone.

 

 

Gregory Peck Tribute: The Guns of Navarone

Ruth over at Flix Chatter has had another great blogathon idea, this time in honor of Gregory Peck, who would have been 96 (if my math is right) today, April 5. Her birthday tribute post: Beauty is Forever: Happy Birthday, Gregory Peck.
As my tribute, I’ve chosen to review one of my favorite WWII movies, The Guns of Navarone (1961). A lot of my love is due to Peck’s presence. He won his acting Oscar in 1963 playing the world’s greatest fictional Dad, Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, and I believe that his character in Navarone, Mallory, may just be the world’s greatest commanding officer.

The basic idea of the film is that an Allied special forces team is sent to destroy two gigantic Nazi guns high up on a mountainous island in Greece. They must complete their mission in 6 days, before a British navy convoy is due to go through the nearby straits. If the guns are still operational, the ships will certainly be destroyed, and all the men on them killed. The odds, of course, are stacked against the team, and to a certain extent, they were stacked against the film. There were several screenwriters and a few directors working on it, so that the script changed from day to day, until J. Lee Thompson took over direction and Carl Foreman the script. David Niven cut his lip filming the boat scene in the studio water tank and developed a life-threatening infection. (PS: You’d never know the scene was filmed in a tank. Not for nothing did Navarone win the Oscar for Best Special Effects.)

There is a still center in all this chaos, and that is Gregory Peck. His character, Keith Mallory, known as “The Human Fly” for his extraordinary climbing abilities, is hoodwinked into leading the mission by the promise of leave and promotion. That, and the knowledge that if he doesn’t, 2,000 British soldiers will die. Although he states quite plainly, “I think the operation is insane,” he goes ahead with it. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say Corporal Miller the explosives expert (David Niven) is a bit of a malcontent. Greek assassin Andreas (Anthony Quinn) has sworn to kill Mallory after the war, and there’s spies and traitors along the way. Mallory puts up with quite a bit from his team, and the enemy, and only really loses his temper once.

Gregory Peck in disguise in The Guns of Navarone

The decency and authority that Peck brings so believably to the role, two years before Mockingbird, helps to focus attention on the film’s meditations on the nature of war. It isn’t that Mallory won’t kill anyone. It’s just that he won’t do it indiscriminately. His presence throws many questions into sharper relief. Questions like, When is it acceptable to kill someone? Is torture OK? Is revenge? How about executing a female traitor? Is it OK to send men on a suicidal mission? Not that Navarone devotes a lot of time to agonizing over this stuff…it’s an action picture, and Peck handles all of that well too.

Another fun fact I learned while watching this film on TCM…host with the most Robert Osborne recounted Niven’s claim that Peck could drink brandy all day (to stay warm) and “never drop a line.” Niven referred to this talent as “disgusting,” but I think it’s only remarkably appropriate for Gregory Peck.

Bonus video: The Specials — Guns of Navarone:

TCM Week – April 2-8

Monday, April 2
6:45 a.m. Born to Dance (1936)
Eleanor Powell and James Stewart in a good old-fashioned (by that I mean, sorta corny) musical full of mistaken identity and misunderstandings.

8 p.m. Doris Day Block
TCM salutes the Star of the Month Doris Day with 28 movies beginning tonight at 8 p.m. with her musicals. I never knew that Day idolized Ginger Rogers and wanted to become a dancer. She thought her dream was lost when she was injured in a car wreck as a teenager. She learned to sing while recovering and was soon a huge recording star, but she was quite nervous about dancing in Tea for Two because she hadn’t danced in years.
8:00 p.m. The Lullaby of Broadway (1951)
9:45 p.m. By The Light of the Silvery Moon  (1953)
11:30 p.m. My Dream Is Yours (1949)
1:15 a.m. (Tues.) On Moonlight Bay (1951)
3:00 a.m. (Tues.) Romance on the High Seas (1948)
4:45 a.m. (Tues.) Tea for Two (1950)

Tuesday, April 3
9:45 a.m. The Fugitive Kind (1960)
Film version of Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward. A really weird movie.

8:00 p.m. Lover Come Back (1961)
***TCM PARTY***
Tonight’s Doris Day block begins with this ad-biz comedy in which Day and Rock Hudson play account execs for rival agencies. Their work philosophies and client relations skills are drastically, hilariously different (to say the least). Guest hosted by @mercurie80. Find us on Twitter with #TCMParty.

Wednesday, April 4
Doris Day Block
Tonight TCM spotlights Doris Day’s dramatic talents in four films: Midnight Lace (1960), Storm Warning (1951), The Winning Team (1952), and Julie (1956). Disturbingly she is beset by creepers in two of them.

Thursday, April 5
8:00 p.m. Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960)
***TCM PARTY***
A drama critic and his wife have a difficult period of adjustment when they decide to move from New York City into the suburbs. Find us on Twitter with #TCMParty.

Friday, April 6
9:45 a.m. Jewel Robbery (1932)
Don’t miss William Powell as a well-mannered jewel thief who’s fallen in love with his mark (Kay Francis). Their chemistry is pretty close to what he had going with Carole Lombard and Myrna Loy. Did I mention it’s a pre-Code?

12:45 p.m. The Man with Two Faces (1934)
This sounds really interesting. Edward G. Robinson plays an actor trying to shield his sister from her murderous husband, who seems to have her under some kind of hypnotic spell.

Saturday, April 7
3:00 p.m. The Great Escape (1963)
***TCM PARTY***
It is well-known to you all that I have a thing for World War II movies; not all of them are good, but this one is. A bunch of Allied soldiers try to dig their way out of a German POW camp — it’s the sworn duty of every British officer to attempt to escape! Based on a true story, it stars Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. Find us on Twitter with #TCMParty.

6:00 p.m. 4 for Texas (1963)
Rat Pack Western.

Rita Hayworth Block
I’ve seen the first two of these and not the others but I doubt you can really go wrong.
8:00 p.m. Gilda (1946)
10:00 p.m. The Lady From Shanghai (1948)
11:45 p.m. Fire Down Below (1957) With Robert Mitchum and Jack Lemmon. Personally I’d tune in just for that.
2:00 a.m. (Sun.) The Happy Thieves (1961)

Sunday, April 8
TCM features mostly Christian-themed films today. One that caught my eye airs at midnight, Leaves from Satan’s Book (1919), a Danish silent film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. It depicts various historical events from the point of view of the “disheartened” Satan.

TCM Week spotlights a highly subjective selection of the week’s essential or undiscovered films on the Turner Classic Movies channel to help plan movie viewing, DVR scheduling or TCM Party attendance. All times are EST.

 

TCM Week: Feb 13-19

TCM Week spotlights a highly subjective selection of the week’s essential or undiscovered films on the Turner Classic Movies channel to help plan movie viewing, DVR scheduling or TCM Party attendance. All times are EST.

I’m having trouble limiting myself during the 31 Days of Oscar…if I could, I’d call in every day for the month and just watch TCM. But that’s out of the question, so here are my highlights for the week. Remember though, you can’t really go wrong with anything on the channel this month.

Monday, February 13
8:00 p.m. Z (1969)
This French political thriller is a thinly veiled depiction of the 1963 assassination of a Greek pacifist politician and doctor, Grigoris Lambrakis (played by Yves Montand), and the subsequent cover-up by the military dictatorship in power at the time. Any resemblance actual persons and events, the disclaimer reads, is entirely intentional. It has been a while since I saw this, but the questions and fears it raises are still relevant today.

Don't forget...Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did backwards...and in high heels!

Tuesday, February 14
8:00 p.m. Top Hat (1935)
***TCM PARTY***
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ biggest hit is perfect for Valentine’s Day. Mistaken identity leads to true love. It’s also the excuse for great dancing, awesome songs and elaborate sets. Don’t blink or you might miss Lucille Ball in a cameo. Find us on Twitter with hashtag #TCMParty…watch and tweet along!

Wednesday, February 15
1:00 p.m. Air Force (1943)
Just when I think I’ve seen every film Howard Hawks ever directed, I see this in the schedule. And if there ever was a sucker for WWII movies, I am it. With John Garfield and Harry Carey Sr.

I wish I had a better screen cap from Sundown (1941). Gene Tierney second from left and George Sanders on the far right.

Thursday, February 16
9:00 a.m. Sundown (1941)
In Kenya, a couple of British officers are basically sitting out the war, enjoying the “best part of the day, sundown. Nothing more to do in a place where there’s nothing to do anyway.” That all changes when rules-oriented Major Coombs (George Sanders) takes over the casually-run outpost and Zia (Gene Tierney), a beautiful trader, shows up, eventually helping the British fight the Nazis. Known for “the sumptuous [and Oscar-nominated] black-and-white cinematography of Charles Lang” and the nominated score by Miklós Rózsa.

Friday, February 17
10:30 p.m. Gone with the Wind (1939)
***TCM PARTY***
There’s nothing I can say about this film that hasn’t already been said, except that, although parts of it make me very uncomfortable, I really like it quite a bit; that it was my grandmother’s favorite movie so I’ve seen it so many times that I can recite it from memory; and that I was very proud a few years back when a Facebook quiz told me that the GWTW character I’m most like is Mammy, who I think is the only character with consistently good sense. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. Then come back and watch this clip from The Carol Burnett Show (below). I think it was done with a lot of love.  Find us on Twitter with hashtag #TCMParty…watch and tweet along!