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Evil Under The Sun (1982 with Peter Ustinov and Diana Rigg)

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UK / 1982

Director: Guy Hamilton
Writer: Anthony Shaffer, based on the novel by Agatha Christie

Cast: Peter Ustinov, Diana Rigg, James Mason, Maggie Smith, Denis Quilley, Jane Birkin, Nicholas Clay, Colin Blakely, Roddy McDowall, Sylvia Miles, Emily Hone, John Alderson, Paul Antrim, Cyril Conway

Director Guy Hamilton follows the tradition established in previous films such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, by taking a an Agatha Christie novel and adapting it for an all-star cast. Peter Ustinov again takes the role of the fussy Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, this time investigating the mysterious death of bitchy actress Diana Rigg on a remote holiday island.

On the island, which is run by failed actress turned proprietress Maggie Smith, Ustinov meets the assembled cast – most of whom have a reason to do in the ineffably unpleasant Rigg. Smith is in love with Rigg’s frequently cuckolded husband Denis Quilley. There’s also James Mason, who is a theatrical entrpreneur threatened with ruin if Rigg doesn’t star in his show, Roddy McDowall, a writer to whom she agreed to give her life story, a deal she later reneged on. Then there’s Nicholas Clay, who is having an affair with Rigg, and Clay’s shrinking violet wife Jane Birkin, who is aware of the situation but seemingly powerless to do anything about it. In addition, there’s Emily Hone, Rigg’s step-daughter to whom she is insufferably horrid and Colin Blakely, an industrialist who has given Rigg a jewel of great value and now wants it back.

As is inevitable in a Christie mystery, Rigg is done away with (this time via a blow to the head) and Smith implores Ustinov to solve the crime before the authorities arrive at the island and close down the hotel. Naturally, though, Ustinov only has to throw a stick at the guests to hit someone with a motive for committing the heinous crime. Taking painstaking time over each of the guests’ alibis, Ustinov recreates the crime time and again – trawling for and discarding each of the many red herrings – until he asks all the guests to join him in the drawing room where he will provide the denoument to the wicked tale.

Scriptwriter Anthony Schaffer plays to the brittle humour of the ’30s high society while director Hamilton (who had previously directed the Agatha Christie mystery The Mirror Crack’d) keeps the action moving along swiftly, playing again to the humour of the characters but keeping the movie from descending into farce. Both Schaffer and Hamilton realise that the fun of the film comes in the interplay of personalities and Poirot’s deconstructing the mechanics of the crime – no matter how implausible – rather than emphasising the social realism of the times.

Variety singles Ustinov out for praise, commenting on the greater degrees of warmth he brings to the Poirot character and then goes on to say: “Next to Ustinov, Maggie Smith shines as the hotel proprietress in love with the murdered woman’s husband. The latter is another nice-but-worried character played with quiet gusto by Denis Quilley. Diana Rigg as the stage star makes it believable in one short song and dance scene that she really is a star… Roddy McDowall is clearly enthusiastic about playing the clown for a change. Jane Birkin is thoroughly convincing as the withering maiden wife of Nicholas Clay, as she is when later emerging as a fashion-conscious beauty. She does some quite funny turns as an actress, too.” For Video Movie Guide, it is a “highly entertaining mystery.”

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California Split (Columbia 1974, Elliott Gould, George Segal)

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California Split

California Split is a movie about the adventures of two card players, and it stars two of 70s-era Hollywood’s most prolific male actors. Elliot Gould (M*A*S*H, 1970) plays Charlie Waters, a small-time card player who has the charisma and moxie of someone who’s way better at the tables than he actually is. Alongside him is George Segal (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1966) who plays Bill Denny, a magazine writer who moonlights as a casual player. Charlie and Bill meet in a California poker parlour game that turns heated over a dealt card hitting the floor, raising concerns of cheating. Despite this, the game continues, and one of them wins. This leads to the two players getting mugged by one of the game’s sore losers, giving them an experience that’s worth bonding over. The two become fast friends and this starts them off on a poker adventure that will test and reveal their true spirit.

In a 1974 review, Roger Ebert called California Split a “magnificently funny, cynical film”, which is probably the best way to describe the succeeding events following Bill and Charlie’s meet up. Regarded by many to be one of the best poker movies ever made, California Split is a quirky but ultimately realistic and darkly comedic look into the life and mind of card players. Despite this, you don’t really need to know a thing about poker beforehand in order to enjoy the movie. It’s a classic American adventure movie that has inspired countless other road trip movies and casino films.

From start to finish, California Split follows Bill and Charlie through the race tracks, seedy bars, private poker parties, Vegas’ second-rate casinos, treating bruises with hot shaving cream, waking up to massive hangovers, and even another mugging in which their instincts are put to the test. The result is less of a movie with careful exposition, and more of what feels like an inside look into the hilariously nightmarish world of America’s casino scene. The Telegraph calls the film one of Robert Altman’s best out of his extensive catalogue. It is brilliantly pieced together by his signature subtle visual prose, realistically overlapping dialogue, and the bravely understated introductions of his many quirky characters, California Split is one of the 70s’ definite must-see adventures. Such was the film’s realism that PartyPoker state that legendary player Thomas Austin Preston Jr. aka ‘Amarilo Slim’ had a small part. In his time Slim was known as one of the greatest ever poker players, winning 4 WSOP bracelets, and would have been an inspiration for the two main characters.

California Split is definitely a treat not just for card players, but for anyone who likes well-crafted movies about friendship and the makings of the American Dream.

main stars
George Segal, Elliot Gould Ann Prentis, Gwen Welsh, Edward Walsh, Joseph Walsh, Bert Remsen

crew details
Director: Robert Altman
Producer: Joseph Walsh, Robert Altman
Director of Photography: Paul Lohmann
Editor: O. Nicholas Brown, Lou Lombardo
Composer: Phyllis Shotwell
Screenwriters: Joseph Walsh
Production Designer: Leon Ericksen

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House Of Secrets (1956, Michael Craig, Julia Arnall)

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House of Secrets

When Michael Craig got his big break in the movies, he was the last actor to be contracted to the Rank Organisation and was receiving £30 a week for his efforts. His break arrived – almost a decade after his brother, John Gregson, appeared in Saraband for Dead Lovers – in House of Secrets (aka Triple Deception), a forerunner to the James Bond movies that would later become British cinema’s most successful franchise.

Based on Sterling Noel’s novel Storm over Paris, Craig stars as Larry Ellis, a naval officer who bears such a resemblance to a counterfeiter that he’s mistakenly arrested by the French police. When the real counterfeiter, Chancellor, is killed in a car crash, Larry is asked to impersonate the dead man with the aim of capturing the rest of his gang and the head of the illegal operation. Luckily, there is some help in the form of a British police inspector, Burleigh (Geoffrey Keen). With a tense denouement set on board a plane in mid-flight and boasting a fine use of its extensive Parisian locations, House of Secrets is a gripping, ripping spy yarn.

Michael Craig (arguably best known for his performance in Yield to the Night, also 1956) makes the most of his opportunity to shine, while Gerard Oury also stands out as Pindar, one of the duplicitous gang leaders. Director Guy Green went on to collaborate with Craig four years later on The Angry Silence.

UK / 1956

Director: Guy Green
Writers: Robert Buckner, Bryan Forbes (based on the novel by Sterling Noel)

Cast: Michael Craig, Julia Arnall, Brenda De Banzie, Barbara Bates, David Kossoff

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When Eight Bells Toll (1971, Anthony Hopkins, Corin Redgrave)

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When Eight Bells Toll

In When Eight Bells Toll Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) is a rough-and-ready naval secret service agent called in by controller Uncle Arthur (Robert Morley) to solve the piracy of a fortune in gold bullion. With sidekick Hunslett (Corin Redgrave), he follows the trail to Scotland and the yacht of Greek millionaire Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins), who’s accompanied by his wife Charlotte (Nathalie Delon). As the action mounts, the double-crosses increase and the bodies pile up, is Calvert on the right track or is Skouras innocent?

Made in the decade when Bond was the height of cinematic popularity, Perier’s film is tougher (he hints at more than a professional relationship between Calvert and Hunslett) but just as thrilling, with stunts and explosions galore. Hawkins, whose voice had to be dubbed due to the throat cancer that would kill him two years later, and Morley provide excellent support, the latter offering light relief while Nathalie Delon, making a rare appearance in an English-speaking role, supplies the suitably enigmatic and glamorous love interest.

UK / 1971

Director: Etienne Perier
Writer: Alistair MacLean

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Corin Redgrave, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Nathalie Delon

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