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Written On The Wind (1956 with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall)

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USA / 1956

Director: Douglas Sirk
Writers: George Zuckerman, based on the novel by Robert Wilder

Cast: Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Robert Keith, Grant Williams, Robert J Wilke, Edward C Platt

Years before television offered a waiting world heady drama and high passion among Texan oil millionaires in the facile soap opera Dallas, Hollywood mounted its own glossy and absorbing examination of the same milieu in Written on the Wind. The film, said Motion Picture Herald, “is strong, heady drama, handsomely and often brilliantly handled.”

The pivotal role in George Zuckerman’s involving adaptation of the novel by Robert Wilder went to Robert Stack who, in his autobiography Straight Shooting, described the character as “a tormented man, a dypsomaniac, haunted by fears of impotency.” Introduced by his best friend Rock Hudson to secretary Lauren Bacall, who works for his oil tycoon father Robert Keith, Stack steals Bacall away from Hudson and marries her. His father approves of the match, hoping that marriage will be the making of his irresponsible, hard-drinking son. Hudson, in love with Bacall, is unable to conceal his feelings. Adding to inherent emotional stresses is the fact that Stack’s self-willed sister, Dorothy Malone, worships Hudson while being aware of his feelings towards Bacall. The emotional temperature is further raised when Stack learns from doctor Edward C Platt that he may be unable to have children, which unnerves him and causes him to return to the solace of alcohol once more. And Malone, having at last charmed Hudson into becoming her lover, hints to Stack that Bacall and Hudson are having an affair. When Stack faces Bacall with the accusation, she miscarries and loses her child. Keith dies and then – during a quarrel involving Bacall, Hudson and Malone – Stack is accidentally shot…

Heady stuff, directed with stylish panache by Douglas Sirk, lavishly produced by Albert Zugsmith and acted with a passion that overrode the melodrama and genre cliches. Malone’s performance as the wilful nymphomaniac sister won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and, said Motion Picture Herald, “She sinks her teeth into a role of fiery, exciting potential, and offers one of the stand-out performances of recent memory.” For Variety, she “hits a career high as the completely immoral sister” and CEA Film Report thought her “very good.” Stack succeeded in controlling a role which might otherwise have descended into maudlin melodrama and, said Kinematograph Weekly, “is psychologically sound and wins sympathy.” “Rock Hudson and Miss Bacall are as impeccable as ever in their performances,” wrote the News of the World, “Lauren Bacall contributes an intelligent performance as Lucy, Rock Hudson displays nearly as much brain as brawn,” commented Kinematograph Weekly. Other roles were well taken by Keith, Grant Williams (best remembered as The Incredible Shrinking Man) as “One of Miss Malone’s many motel mates (Variety), Robert J Wilke, Edward C Platt and John Larch.

Russel Metty’s colour cinematography added a sheen to the picture and the title song, sung behind the credits by the Four Aces, earned an Oscar nomination for Victor Young and Sammy Cahn.

Written on the Wind “is well done with an excellent cast,” stated Variety, which also commented that “dramatically deft direction by Douglas Sirk and socko performances by the cast give the story development a follow-through that maintains a strong hold on the viewer.” The News of the World wrote of “heady draughts of exciting melodrama.” “The film is good entertainment,” reported CEA Film Report and, said Kinematograph Weekly, “Its Lyceum-style plot is powerfully portrayed by an all-star cast, its salient situations fairly crackle and its turned-out-nice-again ending neatly contrived. Dazzling bandbox presentation further consolidates mass and feminine appeal. The crowd’ll love it. Outstanding melo.”

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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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Movies

Raising The Wind (Anglo Amalgamated 1961, Leslie Phillips, Sid James)

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Raising The Wind

Raising The Wind, a winner from the Carry On stable, boasts a cast of familiar British comic actors and a surprisingly sharp screenplay by composer Bruce Montgomery, who wrote the music for many of the Carry On films.

Montgomery’s screenplay sensibly stuck to the successful formula established by the Carry On and Doctor film series, focusing on the comic adventures and misadventures of an assortment of impecunious music students working their way towards finals at a London Academy of Music under peppery conductor James Robertson Justice.

There was little straightforward plot; instead, Montgomery provided plenty of splendid comic situations which were played for all they were worth by director Gerald Thomas and his expert cast. Justice, sensibly making his conductor a variation on his celebrated surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt from the Doctor comedies, “bulldozes his way magnificently through the role,” said Variety, and there was well-deserved praise for accomplished film farceurs Leslie Phillips, Kenneth Williams (notably in a hilarious scene in which his orchestra runs away with him), Liz Fraser, Sidney James, George Woodbrige and Jimmy Thompson.

UK / Anglo Amalgamated – GHW / 91 Minutes / 1961

Writer: Bruce Montgomery / Cinematography: Alan Hume / Music: Bruce Montgomery / Producer: Peter Rogers / Director: Gerald Thomas

Cast: James Robertson Justice, Leslie Phillips, Kenneth Williams, Paul Massie, Eric Barker, Liz Fraser, Jennifer Jayne, Sidney James

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Movies

Town like Alice, A (Rank 1956, Virginia McKenna, Peter Finch)

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A Town Like Alice

Nevil Shute’s novel A Town like Alice, from which this film was made, was based to a degree on fact – after the fall of Malaya to the Japanese during the war, European families were split, the men to labour camps, the women and children supposedly to other camps but these were over populated and they spent months on the road, ill-fed and sick, suffering deaths along their tortuous ordeal.

Virginia McKenna plays Jean Paget, who helps her fellow marchers as best she can. She meets Joe Harman, an Australian PoW on transport duties and a spark ignites between the two. But he is brutally punished by the Japanese after stealing a chicken for her and she thinks she’ll never see him again. When their lone guard dies, the women settle down in a small village and the war’s end brings repatriation. Then Jean gets a letter from Alice Springs, Australia…

The film, which saw the two leads win BAFTAs, also saw them at the height of their popularity and the film was a domestic triumph here and in Australia. Full of emotion and drama, Lee never allows the historical sweep to overwhelm the love story at the heart of the film and despite being shot entirely in Britain (doubles were used for McKenna and Finch for scenery shots in Malaya and Australia), it remains faithful to the story from one of Australia’s favourite writers.

UK – Australia / Rank – Vic Films / 117 minutes / 1956 made in black and white

Writers: W P Lipscombe, Richard Mason, based on Nevil Shute’s novel / Music: Matyas Seiber / Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth / Producer: Joseph Janni / Director: Jack Lee

Cast: Virginia McKenna, Peter Finch, Marie Lohr, Rennee Hosuton, Jean Anderson

US title: The Rape of Malaya

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