Storylines In Review

A Cynic’s Xmas FilmFest
Below is a select example, for every storyline we cover on this site, of a film or tv drama with a 'Diogenarian' or Cynic[al] aspect. (This usually means a rejection of society's 'civilised' values as hypocritical. See intro blog item for the background on this.)
Storyline: The American Dream Cracks
Selection: No Country For Old Men (2007)
Comment: This Coen brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is set in the 1980s when Mexican drug cartels were extending their influence north of the border. The veteran sheriff and his deputy come across a massacre in the desert, the result of a drug buy gone wrong. “What a mess,” says the deputy. “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here,” replies the sheriff. This proves prophetic for America (cf Sicario). Here, the hunt for the missing valise of drug-buy money leads to a string of pointless murders, which no-one is able to stop, and the sheriff retires disillusioned, the case unsolved.
 
Storyline: The Apocalypse-Survival Story
Selection: Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
Comment: Adapted by director Stanley Kubrick and satirist Terry Southern from the [non-comic] 1958 novel Red Alert by Peter Bryant [=Welsh author Peter George, using a pen name as he was an RAF officer], the story exposes the nuclear ‘apocalypse survival’ scenario as a self-serving official myth. (‘Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Um, depending on the breaks.’) The only group who will survive unscathed are the Pentagon staff and their selected consorts, chosen for breeding purposes in the government's deep underground bunkers, as the fallout will last for decades. The novel's alternate title was Two Hours To Doom, and the events unfold almost in real time, ending with the inevitable string of A-bomb blasts.
Storyline: The Artist In The Making
Selection: 8½ / Otto e Mezzo (1963)
Comment: In this surreal comedy-drama co-written by director Federico Fellini with a team of scriptwriters, Fellini’s fictional standin, maestro director Guido, is at a health spa attempting to clear his head to plan his 9th film, which is an attempt at a synthesis of autobiographical elements, reaching back to his childhood... leading up to a rocket takeoff [!]. Unfortunately, his entire cast and crew, plus his wife and mistress, are also at the spa, and he is unable to get a moment’s peace – in the poetic phrase, the world is too much with him. At the press conference his producer insists on, he seems to commit suicide, and what follows may be a final fantasy of reconciliation.

Storyline: The Away-Break Crisis
Selection: I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)
Comment: Written by the team of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, this charming but unsentimental drama has a determined young woman out to marry an older industrialist for the sake of security. However the intended marriage rendezvous on a Hebridean isle fails due to the weather and in the interim she discovers she is not as certain as she thought about what she wants. While she discovers the country folk know the value of money, they nevertheless have more lasting values. The title comes from an old country air.
Storyline: The 'Best Laid Plans' Storyline
Selection: A New Leaf (1972)
Comment: This black comedy, adapted by director Elaine May from the short story The Green Heart by prolific crime writer Jack Ritchie, was heavily cut by the studio to eliminate the murders of several supporting characters. The plot has a misanthropic wastrel waking up one day to discover his money has run out, and has to quickly marry for money, the plan being to murder his bride and disguise it as an accident, during a trip to the Maine woods. However, as they say, complications ensue, including the protagonist accepting his fate of being married to someone with as few social skills as he has.
Storyline: The 'Between Life & Death' Storyline
Selection: Det Sjunde Inseglet / The Seventh Seal (1957)
Comment: This bleak mediaeval-set parable written by director Ingmar Bergman has its pessimist protagonist, the knight Block, greeted by the monk-like figure of Death just as Block returns from the Crusades to a land smitten by the Black Death. Told by Death his time on Earth is up, he is given a temporary reprieve to finish the chess match he challeges Death to. Block had found the Crusades futile and now finds no satisfaction in the grim religious fanaticism he meets as he journeys home. He struggles to do one positive deed saving others before Death inevitably takes him.
Storyline: The 'Big Night'
Selection: My Dinner With Andre (1981)
Comment: This two-hander drama written by the two actors, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, is one long real-time conversation, about lifestyle choices or risk versus comfort etc (mouse over image for a dialogue quote). Two old friends meet again after a long period of separation for a 'catch-up' evening at the Café des Artistes in Manhattan. Their dialogue is autobiographically based, so that some viewers thought the leads were simply playing themselves. In fact it was all rehearsed and filmed in an abandoned hotel in Virginia by director Louis Malle. A low budget [$475,000] film, its success has been credited with helping launching the US independent film movement of the 1980s.
Storyline: The British Postwar-Adjustment Story
Selection: Last Holiday (1950)
Comment: This satiric drama by JB Priestley has a farm-implements salesman given a false diagnosis that he has only a short time to live, and should take his savings and go off and live the good life while he can. He books into a swanky hotel in the resort of 'Pinebourne'. With a new [actually 2nd hand] wardrobe, he is accepted by the upper-crust guests there as one of them, and due to his plain-speaking manner, is offered everything that eluded him in his unassuming, ordinary previous life - wealth, position, even love.
All this is against a postwar background of sympathy strikes, building materials shortages, people not settling back into civilian life after the war, trying to live off a war record - and is his medical misdiagnosis a mistake by the then new [founded 1948] NHS?
Storyline: The Castaway Survival Storyline
Selection: Never Cry Wolf (1983)
Comment: The original derivation of Cynic and cynical referrred to living like a dog, and in this film, the protagonist has himself dropped off in the wilderness to live among wolves. Adapted by Curtis Hanson, Sam Hamm and Richard Kletter from the autobiographical book by Farley Mowat, with narration by its star Charles Martin Smith, this was authentically filmed in northern British Columbia. The protagonist's mission is to discover if wolves are the savage killers they were long portrayed as, but he finds humans can be more dangerous.
Storyline: The 'Citizens Into Soldiers' Storyline
Selection: Ride With The Devil (1999)
Comment: Adapted by James Schamus from the 1987 Daniel Woodrell novel Woe To Live On, this is a downbeat realist take detailing the complex interrelationships that arose during the American Civil War. Here it is secessionist Bushwhackers versus abolitionist Jayhawkers operating along the Kansas-Missouri border. Neither militia observes rules of war, and the protagonists are not professional soldiers, but take up arms following allegiances to family and friends. One co-protagonist is a former slave now fighting for the Confederacy alongside his former owner. Note there is a longer director’s cut running 148 [v138] minutes.

Storyline: The Civic Disaster Storyline
Selection: The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1960)
Comment: A simultaneous pair of nuclear tests by East and West knock the Earth off course, causing climate change as it gets nearer to the Sun. The protagonists, based at London’s Daily Express, discover the British government is trying to obfuscate the cause but have to come to terms with their complete helplessness. The story is told using a flashback framework (the tinted 'heatwave' scenes right), with an open ending as to a whether a ‘corrective’ pair of A-bomb blasts will put Earth back on course.


Storyline: The Class-Conflict Storyline
Selection: The Magic Christian (1969)
Comment: Adapted by director Joseph McGrath and American satirist Terry Southern from his 1959 novella, with additional scenes by John Cleese and co-star Peter Sellers, this is a series of pranks played by a millionaire on 'respectable' members of British society, to show that anyone can be bribed or influenced by class snobbery. A young homeless man (played by Ringo Starr) sleeping in a London park is adopted by millionaire Sir Guy Grand and given the name Youngman Grand. With the latter as his sidekick, Sir Guy then embarks on a series of outlandish stunts aimed at establishment targets such as art gallery auctions, Crufts Dog show, the Oxford Boat Race, grouse shooting in Scotland, wrestling, the Shakespearian theatre (cf Hamlet's soliliquy is turned into a striptease act) etc.(They then return to sleeping in the park.)
 
Storyline: The 'Code Of The West' Conflict
Selection: Yellow Sky (1948)
Comment: A gang of bank robbers, chased into Death Valley by the US cavalry, stumble thirstily into a ghost town in Apache territory where an old prospector and his tomboy daughter are mining gold. The gang splits over how to proceed to get the gold off the pair, the schisms finally ending in a shootout which leaves the survivors reformed characters who give up their criminal ways. (The story is set in aftermath of the US Civil War, the implication being these are Confederate veterans at loose ends.) This b&w western was adapted by Hollywood veteran Lamar Trotti from a story by another old hand, W.R. Burnett, though the original inspiration is said to be Shakespeare’s Tempest. The 1898 short story The Bride Comes To Yellow Sky by Stephen Crane may be another influence.
 

Storyline: The Coming-Of-Age Storyline
Selection: The Last Picture Show (1971)
Comment: Adapted by director Peter Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry from his novel, this has a group of high school students in Texas in the early 1950s struggle to come to terms with sex and responsibility. This is perhaps the bleakest coming-of-age feature ever backed by a major US studio. It was shot in b&w when all major films were made in colour, with an X or R certificate due to explicit sexual content, a largely unknown main cast, and a running time of over 2 hrs (Columbia cut the excess, since restored). Unlike in other 'teen' dramas, the characters are not simply misunderstood but are all flawed, the one character with maturity and integrity,
Sam the Lion, dying halfway through.

Storyline: The Conspiracy-Uncovered Story
Selection: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Comment: Adapted by George Axelrod from the Richard Condon novel, this involves a political conspiracy so outrageous it borders on satire. The fear, which arose during the Korean War, that Red China was 'brainwashing' assassins and sleeper agents was and is a real one that has never gone away. There are unsubstantiated rumours that the film was withdrawn from circulation for many years as Frank Sinatra felt it was too close to home after the assassinations of JFK and RFK.
Storyline: The Country-Retreat Challenge
Selection: Local Hero (1983)
Comment: Normally, this storyline has the protagonists trying to protect some rural corner from development of some sort. This film turned that inside out. Written by director Bill Forsyth, this 80s counterpart of an Ealing comedy has the villagers (with one holdout) eager to sell their entire village in NW Scotland to an American oil company, and the US representatives the ones who value it as is.
Storyline: The Cross-Border Raid
Selection: The Professionals (1966)
Comment: Writer-director Richard Brooks adapted Frank O'Rourke's novel A Mule For The Marquesa into a self-consciously cynical late western, full of pithy philosophical remarks and ironies about good intentions etc. (Mouse over image for a dialogue quote). Here, a hostage rescue mission across the border into Mexico c1917 turns out something more complex, and the protagonists turn their back on their $10,000 reward to exact some natural justice.
 
Storyline: The Dangerous-Liaison Storyline
Selection: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Comment: Written by director Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, Anderson says this satiric live-action cartoon, about an underage runaway couple who are more mature than the surrounding adults, was inspired by the 1971 British film Melody. The setting here is 1960s New England, and American institutions like the Scouts are affectionately lampooned. The young couple run off to live in the woods, causing the grownups to strain themselves trying to act like responsible adults.
 
Storyline: The Decent Detective storyline
Selection: Sicario (2015)
Comment: The relatively young leader of an FBI hostage rescue team joins an interdepartmental task force with the DOD. She belatedly realises she is simply a rubber stamp for illicit CIA black-ops activity designed to stir up violent divisions within the Mexican cartels. Normally in this storyline, the decent detective prevails, but here she finds herself outwitted and defeated, a pawn in what is 'now the land of wolves' - America's fightback in the drug wars. Written by Taylor Sheridan, the film generated two followups without the female lead character, who presumably gave up her career out of disillusion.
 
Storyline: The Decisive Battle
Selection: Zulu Dawn (1979)
Comment: This is a prequel to Zulu, written by Cy Endfield, the co-writer and director of the '64 film. (The still at right is its opening shot.) Released on the centenary of the Battle of Isandlwana, it covers the main battle fought earlier that day in January 1879, and gives the political background (arrogance and hypocrisy) the '64 film avoided. The epilogue notes this was 'the worst defeat ever inflicted on a modern army by native troops'. It can be considered the British equivalent of Custer's Last Stand, the political shock outweighing the actual casualties.
 
Storyline: The 'Dynastic Intrigue' Storyline
Selection: The Vikings (1958)
Comment: Freely adapted by Calder Willingham and Dale Wasserman from the 1951 novel The Viking by pulp-adventure story writer Edison Marshall, this has the main elements common to this storyline – a slave who is really rightful heir to the throne, a princess betrothed to a cruel despot rescued by the hero, long-lost brothers etc. The approach is unsentimental enough that the slave protagonist’s real identity is not explained to him, but the plot provides the basis for a series of spectacular set-piece action scenes. The 'barbarian' world-view predominates, the idea of 'civilisation' being an anachronism here.

 
Storyline: The 'Dystopian Future' Storyline
Selection: The Time Machine (1960)
Comment: Adapted by David Duncan from H.G. Wells’s 1895 novella, this changes the original premise of a class system that drives workers underground so they evolve into brutes, the Morlocks, while the childlike Eloi become their victims. Here, this is updated into a nuclear-age scenario of two sub-races evolving separately due to some staying underground generations longer than they need to to escape the fallout from a nuclear war that begins in 1966. Despite producer-director George Pal’s enterprising stop-motion effects to represent time travel, the Morlocks costuming and set design elements are not up to modern CGI standards. However this is still a closer adaptation than the 2002 film which uses the Duncan script as well as Wells’s novella.
 
Storyline: The 'End Of An Era' Storyline
Selection: The Jewel In The Crown (1984)
Comment: This 14-part ITV drama serial was adapted by Ken Taylor from Paul Scott’s 1965–75 Raj Quartet novels. It is set 1942-7, when British rule in India (portrayed as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Empire) is weakened by the Japanese threat and Indian nationalist support for it. A disparate group of characters must face the end of their social world, and those who believe in the British ‘mission’ in India must grapple with its underlying realities of class snobbery, racial bigotry, mental illness, suicide, injustice etc. The one character (Guy Perron) who is more modern in his outlook and not caught up in the general belief in Empire appears in the last 5 episodes.

Storyline: The Epic Journey Storyline
Selection: King Solomon's Mines (1950)
Comment: This version of the classic adventure story by H Rider Haggard is chosen as the focus is on the protagonists' own character-development journey: they have no interest in the actual diamond mines the title refers to. (The original 1885 novel helped start the southern-African diamond rush.) MGM backed a big-budget shoot in Technicolor in Africa, but scripted by the scriptwriter and songwriter Helen Deutsch, this is more a post-WW2 'return to life' drama. Instead of protagonists seeking wealth and adventure, we have a world-weary 'white hunter' figure taking one last job to pay for his son's upbringing in England, and a deserted aristocratic wife troubled by nightmares as she is guilt-ridden about her missing husband, who disappeared in pursuit of the mines to find a fortune of his own.
 
Storyline: The Evolutionary Struggle
Selection: The Abominable Snowman / The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957)
Comment: This was a remake by the horror specialists Hammer Films, of a 1955 BBC drama, The Creature by Nigel Kneale, better-known for his 'Quatermass' series. With director Val Guest's help, the original teleplay was trimmed to make it less talky. Kneale wrote SF dramas on humanity as an evolving species. Here, the drama posits the Yeti is really an ancient species wiser than humans, with telepathic powers, which may even take over if humans destroy themselves in nuclear war. The protagonist initially gets caught up in the expedition's American organiser's plan to capture or kill a Yeti as a commercial exhibit, but as he watches the other team members self-destruct, he changes his view to one of denial re the Yetis' existence.

Storyline: The Expeditionary Storyline
Selection: Legend Of The Lost (1957)
Comment: Written by Robert Presnell Jnr. and Ben Hecht,
this example is selected as it repudiates the high-minded goals typically posited for the plot’s expedition. The man sponsoring it says he wants to vindicate his father, a missionary who claimed to have found the legendary Biblical city of Ophir in the Sahara. Its legendary treasure will be used for humanitarian good works. He befriends a pickpocketing prostitute to accompany them. The guide, described by IMDB as a ‘ne'er-do-well,’ only takes on the job to escape debtors’ prison in Timbuktu, and has a jeering boorish attitude towards her (“I like my chippies in a room!”) and the whole trip.
The lost city turns out to be Roman [actually Leptis Magna in Libya] and the father’s remains indicate he murdered his guide and the woman he coveted. History then nearly repeats itself as the sponsor has a mental breakdown.

Storyline: The Family Crisis Storyline
Selection: Le mépris / Contempt (1963)
Comment: Adapted by director Jean-Luc Godard from a novel by Alberto Moravia, this tale of marital breakdown is set in Italy during a production of Homer’s Odyssey. Often in such behind-the-scenes setups, the writer is the figure of integrity. But here, the film’s scriptwriter earns the scorn of his young wife when, evidently for career reasons, he sides artistically with the film’s American producer against the director (they claim Odysseus went off because Penelope was unfaithful!) and seems to encourage the producer to take an interest in her, with tragic consequences.
Storyline: The Fateful Flight
Selection: The Red Tent / La Tenda Rossa / Krasnaya Palatka (1969)
Comment: This fact-based international coproduction (hence its title in 3 languages) deals with the political side of pioneering aviation flights. The ‘Italia’ airship expedition to the North Pole in 1928 was the pride of Mussolini’s Fascist regime – until it went wrong, and the Soviets stepped in to rescue some of the survivors who crash-landed on the ice. Its leader General Nobile allowed himself to be rescued first, and ended up in disgrace. The script, by Ennio De Concini, Richard DeLong Adams, novelist Yuri Nagibin and director Mikhail Kalatozov [plus an uncredited Robert Bolt], has a ghostly court-martial framework where the aged Nobile invites those who didn’t survive the incident (including Amundsen) to judge him. The Soviet 70mm roadshow release was around half an hour longer than the 2-hr international version scored by Morricone.


Storyline: The 'Faustian Pact' Storyline
Selection: The Green Man (1990)
Comment: BBC's three-part TV adaptation, scripted by Malcolm Bradbury, is based on Kingsley Amis's novella. An alcoholic country-inn owner who likes to tell his guests ghost stories about the place discovers he can communicate with a spirit who offers him power over women if he will unearth a certain artefact from his grave.... (Kingsley Amis claimed that after he wrote the story, he was beset by supernatural happenings while staying at a country inn.)
Storyline: The Female-Jeopardy Storyline
Selection: The Nun's Story (1958)
Comment: Adapted by Robert Anderson from the 1956 book by Kathryn Hulme, this dramatised a subtler kind of jeopardy than usually seen in Hollywood melodrama. It was based on the 16-year stint a Belgian nurse put in as a nun. Rechristened Sister Luke, Gaby survived bullying, illness in the Congo, and the rigors of WW2, but left the convent as she felt she could no longer continue subordinating her humanitarian work as a nurse to the endless rituals of the church. It’s said her story inspired many other nuns to quit.

Storyline: The 'Frontiersman Conflict' Story
Selection: Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
Comment: Usually in films, the protagonist caught in the midst of a frontier war, with a foot in each camp, is a scout liaising between the cavalry and the native Americans. But TE Lawrence put himself in the middle of the WW1 conflict between Ottoman occupation forces in Jordan and the British army he represented in recruiting Arab irregular cavalry to the conflict. The achievements seen here, in this epic dramatisation by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, were real; and so was the disillusion that followed. Lt/Major/Col. Lawrence was seriously conflicted about his role, and after the war changed his name and joined the ranks as a private, partly to escape his 'national hero' status.

 
Storyline: The High Society Games story
Selection: L'eclisse (1962)
Comment: Written by Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra with Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri, this was the final part of Antonioni's 'alienation trilogy'. A young woman at loose ends in Rome's well-to-do society meets her mother's young stockbroker and has a brief affair with him, but it is doomed by their own shallowness. They giggle, make faces and hold hands but have no real capacity for adult conversation. Like children playing a game and then quickly losing interest, they simply move on, failing to appear for their latest rendezvous.
The film has a famous final sequence where the characters do not appear and there is a 7-minute montage of the places they met. Some US distributors cut this out, but it reflects the characters' own ephemeral interests, and even hints at a darker reality, the empty streets and growing darkness intimating some impending apocalypse.
 
Storyline: The Investigative Procedural Story
Selection:El Secreto de Sus Ojos/The Secret In Their Eyes (2009)
Comment: Adapted by director Juan José Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri from his novel La pregunta de sus ojos, this has a retired Argentine judicial investigator and his superior reconsidering a troubling case from a quarter-century before. This was the period of Argentina’s 1970s Dirty War, when tens of thousands were ‘disappeared’. The judicial investigation into a rape-murder case leads to a suspect who turns out to be working for the junta’s murder squads, and justice is turned inside out as the investigators have to retreat to safety.
This was a breakout work of Argentine cinema; it is very much part of the legacy of a disturbing political era, and the 2015 US-set remake had to abandon the authentic historical background.

 
Storyline: The Liberating-Relationship
Selection: The Owl And The Pussycat (1970)
Comment: Of the many 'liberating relationship' romcoms, this is selected because the fractious relationship between such opposite characters tears away their society pretensions (complete with stage and pen names) to return to their more authentic selves. Initially announced as a vehicle for Burton and Taylor, it was freely adapted by Buck Henry from Bill Manhoff's 1964-65 two-hander Broadway play.
The ‘pussycat’ is a hooker with claims to be an actress, while the ‘owl’ is a bookstore clerk with writerly pretensions. Events come to a head when she prevails on him to read to her as a bedtime story a chapter of his work in progress, his novel Scream. She takes exception to the metaphor in his opening sentence,“The sun spit morning in Julien’s face.” “Godammit, the sun does not spit,” she screams. The arguments run on until he compares their sexual relationship as no more meaningful than the dogs copulating in the park around them. Finally, they start over using their real names.
 
Storyline: The 'Maverick Detective' Storyline
Selection: Bullitt (1968)
Comment: A San Francisco detective assigned to guard a mafia-boss witness for an important political hearing ends up shooting him after he discovers the man he was sent to guard was a decoy and the whole setup is a double cross. The original novel, Robert L Pike's Mute Witness, was bought to be filmed as a vehicle for an ageing Spencer Tracy. McQueen's company bought the rights and reworked the story with a script by Alan R Trustman and Harry Kleiner to include a set-piece car chase after he saw one in director Peter Yates's film Robbery. (The key dialogue scene where Bullitt turns on the corrupt politician is quoted on our blog-item intro page.)
 
Storyline: The Midwinter Crisis
Selection: Scrooge / A Christmas Carol (1951)
Comment: Dickens’s 1843 work needs no introduction; it has acquired renewed topicality due to official policies of austerity imposed since the Crunch of 2008. There are dozens of screen adaptations but this version, with a screenplay by Noel Langley and starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge, is the favourite of many commenters. (Note that the original is in b&w - be aware there is a digitally colourised version, created for US tv showings, circulating on DVD.)
Storyline: The Modern Misfit Storyline
Selection: Morgan! / Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment (1966)
Comment: Writer David Mercer expanded his script from a 1962 BBC tv play [since wiped] into a surreal extravaganza, with clips from King Kong and old Tarzan films intercut to represent the protagonist's daydreams of living a gorilla-like 'natural' life. Free-spirited artist Morgan was raised as a Marxist by his parents but has forsaken the class struggle, and married a London debutante, and so does not have to work for a living. He now plots to win back Leonie, who is divorcing him over his extravagant behaviour, staging as declarations of love even more outlandish stunts which (unlike in conventional romcoms) fail to achieve the desired result. ("Nothing in this world seems to live up to my best fantasies, except you," he tells her.)
 
Storyline: The 'Monstrous Awakening'
Selection: A Warning To The Curious (1972)
Comment: This was the 2nd of the BBC's annual Xmas ghost stories, from the short stories of MR James, here all shot on location in Norfolk in hazy autumnal sunshine. Adapted by Lawrence Gordon Clark, the story has a London clerk made redundant in the 1929 crash take up his interest in the legend of the three Anglian crowns. These were buried in the Dark Ages to guard the East Anglian shore from invasion. Two have been looted or swept away, but one remains, with the men of a local family tasked with keeping watch over the burial mound. The last of the men has died, but when the crown is dug up, his spirit awakens to protect the site. The protagonist discovers that even reburying the crown will not save him.
 
Storyline: The Outpost Command Crisis
Selection: The Sand Pebbles (1966)
Comment: Adapted by playwright Robert Anderson from the novel by ex ‘China sailor’ Richard McKenna, and made early in the Vietnam War, this 3-hr roadshow production was a harsh look at US interventionism by way of historical precedent. In 1920s China, the US gunboat San Pablo is a floating outpost of empire, steaming the upper Yangtze. The symbolically named Holman, who joined the Navy as an alternative to reform school, does not buy this ‘showing the flag’ nonsense, and contemplates deserting.
 
Storyline: The People's Champion
Selection: The Missing Postman (1997)
Comment: A postman forced to retire early by a 'modernising' Post Office, as he only rides a bike, and doesn't want to work on an automated sorting-office assembly line, decides to personally deliver his final sack of outbound mail to addresses around the country. This is a serious offence (theft of the Royal Mails), and the police pursue him all the way through England to Scotland. But the press turn him into a popular hero, a symbol of fighting back against an uncaring system that lays people off in the name of efficiency. Adapted as a 2-part BBC comedy-drama by Mark Wallington from his 1991 novel.
 
Storyline: The PI Underdog Hero
Selection: The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Comment: Adapted by director John Huston from the Dashiell Hammett novel, this needs little introduction here. It is selected as it shows protagonist Sam Spade playing the role of a crooked PI (or is he?) to outwit a gang of competing interests driven to murder and other crimes by greed to get their hands on a legendary object - 'the stuff dreams are made of.' Spade is no clean-cut hero, and almost everything he does can be interpreted more than one way.
 
Storyline: The Postwar Recovery Storyline
Selection: Europa / Zentropa (1991)
Comment: Written by director Lars von Trier and Niels Vørsel, this avantgarde Danish production is set in Germany just after WW2’s end, when the underground ‘Werwolf’ resistance movement is carrying on the Nazi war effort to sabotage US attempts at reconstruction. A young American pacifist with German roots finds himself caught between the two sides when he takes a job as a sleeping-car conductor. Most ‘postwar recovery’ films made 1945-60 had a positively optimistic outlook, but the depiction here is closer to the bleakness of the so-called ‘rubble’ films made in Europe in 1945-6.

 
Storyline: The Prize Contest
Selection: Bite The Bullet (1975)
Comment: A 700-mile cross-country endurance race, with a large cash prize provided by a newspaper, attracts a varied group in 1906. Writer-director Richard Brooks said he learned his lesson with the commercial failure of his downbeat The Last Hunt (1956) that there are limits to tweaking western-film conventions, and kept the pace fast and the tone upbeat with his hit The Professionals [qv], and here. The main protagonist is called un-American over his disinterest in who wins sporting competitions, but the other co-protagonists end up helping one another out, rather than competing to win.

 
Storyline: The Revenge-Quest Storyline
Selection: Get Carter (1971)
Comment: In this adaptation, by its director Mike Hodges, of Ted Lewis's novel Jack's Return Home, a London-based gang enforcer who returns to Newcastle for his brother's funeral discovers he and his teenage daughter were deliberately victimised by the gangsters who run the town's vice rackets, for a laugh. (The local land-owning villain is played by Look Back In Anger playwright John Osborne.). He goes on a rampage from which there is no coming back, abandoning his comfortable lifestyle to punish every one connected to the conspiracy, male or female, leading to his London boss sending heavies after him for disrupting business. The opening scene shows Jack reading a Raymond Chandler novel; the director said Chandler showed "how to use the crime story as an autopsy on society's ills".
 
Storyline: The Road-Trip Storyline
Selection: Catch Us If You Can / Having A Wild Weekend (1965)
Comment: To emulate the success of the Beatles’ high-energy freewheeling comedy A Hard Day’s Night, Anglo-Amalgamated backed a similarly anarchic vehicle for the Dave Clarke Five, directed by John Boorman (then a tv documentary filmmaker) from a script by Peter Nichols. A poster girl for the meat industry runs off with the head of a stunt team in a sports car, to visit an island off the southwest coast she wants to buy. There is a bleakness behind the hijinks; the couple find there is no escape from corporate clutches; the French release title Sauve Qui Peut seems more apt.
 
Storyline: The Royal Champion Storyline
Selection: The African Queen (1951)
Comment: At the outset of WW1, a female English missionary whose Reverend brother has died after mistreatment by German troops convinces the scruffy skipper of a cargo launch to sail it downriver and, using a homemade torpedo, attack a German gunboat cruising a central African lake. Her king-and-country patriotism goes hand in hand with her religious fervour; his is almost nonexistent, but he falls in with her plan. C.S. Forester's 1935 novel was adapted by film-critic James Agee, director John Huston, John Collier and Peter Viertel as a charming sendup of the royal-champion theme as this odd couple of amateurs succeed in unlikely fashion. Exteriors were largely shot, with great difficulty, on location in central Africa in Technicolor.
 
Storyline: The Secret Agent Champion
Selection: Funeral In Berlin (1966)
Comment: The hero/antihero of the Harry Palmer films freely adapted from Len Deighton's early-60s spy stories is usually motivated by some financial angle. But in this 2nd work in the trilogy, here adapted by Evan Jones, he ends up sickened by the lengths others will go to for money. Assigned to organise a KGB general's defection from East Berlin, he discovers it is all part of a ruse. The scenario has been set up to create a packet of forged credentials which will allow whoever can get hold of them to access a Swiss bank account containing millions stolen from victims of the Holocaust. Everyone has an angle, and as usual, he has to figure it all out for himself and then is left totally on his own to improvise a solution.
 
Storyline: The 'Sinner's Sacrifice' Storyline
Selection: Le Feu Follet / The Fire Within (1963)
Comment: Adapted by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle based on his 1931 novel (inspired by a friend's suicide), this was updated as a work set in contemporary Paris, dramatising the last few days in the life of a world-weary ex-soldier. He has been cured of his alcoholism after being a hard-drinking life-of-the-party type. He now finds his whole world has gone grey - he cannot see any reason to go on living, but makes a last attempt to discover one by leaving the rehab clinic and visiting various friends in Paris. He finds no consolation, and he decides to sacrifice his life rather than go on, drunk or sober. Many 'sinner's sacrifice' stories end with an altruistic, redemptive self-sacrifice, but this is an exception.
 
Storyline: The Submarine Mission
Selection: Das Boot (1981)
Comment: Adapted by director Wolfgang Petersen from Lothar G. Buchheim’s autobiographical novel, this is as bleak a depiction of the storyline as it gets. U96 sets out from its base with high hopes (they have a war correspondent aboard), on what will prove its last mission. Note there is a longer tv serial version as well as the 2hr 29min feature.
 
Storyline: The 'Swan Song' Storyline
Selection: The Misfits (1960)
Comment: Written by playwright Arthur Miller while he was waiting for a divorce in Reno so he could marry Marilyn Monroe, the story has 3 ageing modern-day westerners, who risk injury to lead independent lives, befriending Marilyn Monroe's divorcée Roslyn. They head out into the desert to round up wild mustangs, but Roslyn discovers these are to be killed for pet food.
This was largely the 3 lead actors’ own swan song: Clark Gable died of a heart attack right after filming (possibly incurred by doing his own stunt work); Monroe and Arthur Miller’s marriage didn’t survive the shoot, partly due to her unease at the way he used her as a model for the needy, neurotic Roslyn, and by the time the film premiered they were divorced and she was in a psychiatric hospital. This was her last completed film and she died the next year. This was also the last major work for costar Montgomery Clift, who like Monroe spent his last years battling prescription-drug addiction.
 
Storyline: The 'Treasure Hunt' Storyline
Selection: The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Comment: Adapted by director John Huston and Gladys Hill from the 1888 Rudyard Kipling novella, this has a roguish pair of ex NCOs set out for a legendary kingdom across the Himalayas beyond the Raj in order to live like kings. They succeed up to a point, due to the fact the local priestly rulers are, like them, Freemasons - here depicted as an ancient order going back to Alexander the Great, who founded the kingdom in his travels [!] One of the pair wants to loot all the portable wealth of gold and jewels and flee, but the other wants to wear the golden crown of kingship, leading to an act of hubris which ends their dream.

 
Storyline: The 'War Is Hell' Storyline
Selection: Ulzana's Raid (1972)
Comment: This is a mordantly downbeat, disillusioned take on the cavalry western. Written by Alan Sharp, a Scots scriptwriter who tweaked genre conventions to enhance realism, this drama has a sensibility informed by the Vietnam War, then its final stages. The green young lieutenant in charge of the patrol trying to outwit some Apaches who fled the reservation is advised by the world-weary old scout that there are no easy answers, and every decision is likely to have fatal consequences.
Storyline: The War-Torn Romance
Selection: Ostre Sledované Vlaky / Closely Watched Trains (1966)
Comment: Adapted by Bohumil Hrabal from his novel, this Czech comedy-drama was a subversive approach to an officially approved Soviet-bloc cinema genre, the WW2 film glorifying ordinary people’s fight against Fascism in The Great Patriotic War of 1941-5. By 1966, the Prague Spring was just around the corner, and ‘the people’ are no longer depicted as Soviet propaganda pawns. Here, the youthful protagonist is more interested in losing his virginity, and his involvement in the Czech anti-Nazi resistance is almost unwitting, after his sexual inability drives him to a suicide attempt.
Storyline: The Witness-to-History Storyline
Selection: The Big Short (2015)
Comment: This true-life tragicomedy scripted by director Adam McKay and Charles Randolph is based upon the Michael Lewis book detailing how American corporate greed and chicanery undermined the US (and world) economy in the Crunch of 2008, the consequences of which are still with us. The title refers to the unconventional protagonists’ betting against the market that this collapse was inevitable, and the film itself uses innovative techniques to explain a complex subject.

 
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[c] Storylines In Review 2018