Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: In Which We Serve (dir by Noel Coward and David Lean)


“This is the story of a ship….”

The 1942 British war film, In Which We Serve, opens with footage of the HMS Torrin, a destroyer, being constructed in a British shipyard.  When the Torrin is finally finished, the men who worked on it cheer as it leaves on its maiden voyage.  The film then abruptly jumps forward to the year 1941.  The Torrin is sinking, the victim of German bombers.  The surviving members of her crew float in the ocean, holding onto debris and watching as their home for the past few years capsizes and slowly goes underneath the surface of the water.  Even as the Torrin sinks, German planes continue to fly overhead, firing on the stranded men and killing several of them.

As the men fight to survive both the ocean and the Germans, they remember their time on the Torrin.  Captain Kinross (Noel Coward, who also wrote the script and co-directed the film) thinks back to 1939, when he was first given command of the Torrin.  He remembers the early days of the war and the time that he spent with his wife (Celia Johnson) before leaving to do his duty.  As the captain of the ship, Kinross was a tough but compassionate leader.  He expected a lot out of the men but he also came to view them as his second family.  Meanwhile, Shorty Blake (John Mills) thinks about his wife and his newborn son back in London.  Everyone on the Torrin has left their families behind.  Some of them even lose their loved ones during the war, victims of the relentless German Blitz.  But, even as they float in the ocean, everyone continues to fight on, knowing that there will be bigger ships to replace the Torrin and that Britain will never surrender.

In 1942, British film producer Anthony Havelock-Allan approached Noel Coward and asked him if he would be interested in writing the screenplay for a morale-boosting propaganda film.  Coward agreed, on the condition that he be given complete control of the project and that the film deal with the Royal Navy.  Though one might not immediately think that the author of drawing room comedies like Easy Virtue and Private Lives would be the obvious choice to write a war film, Coward’s family actually had a long tradition of serving in the Navy and Coward based a good deal of the film’s action on the wartime exploits of his friend, Lord Mountbatten.  Though there was initially some concern about Coward’s insistence that he should play the lead role on top of everything else, the Ministry of Information fully supported the production of In Which We Serve.

However, Corward knew that he would need help directing the film.  He asked his friend, John Mills, for advice and Mills suggested that Coward should bring in, as co-director, “the best editor in Britain,” David Lean.  Though Lean was initially only meant to handle the action scenes, Coward quickly discovered that he didn’t particularly enjoy all of the detail that went into directing a film.  As a result, David Lean ended up directing the majority of the film.  This would be Lean’s first film as a director and he would, of course, go one to become one the top British directors of all time.

(Also of note, frequent Lean collaborator Ronald Neame served as the film’s cinematographer.  Neame later went on to have his own career as a director.  In 1972, Neame directed another film about a capsized ship, The Poseidon Adventure.)

As for the film itself, In Which We Serve is an unapologetic propaganda film, carefully crafted to inspire the British people to support the war effort and also to win over the sympathy of American viewers.  (During the film’s production, America had finally entered the war but there were still skeptics, at home and abroad.)  Along with being a war film, In Which We Serve is also a rather touching and heartfelt tribute to the strength and determination of the British people.  Though it’s a rather grim film at times and it doesn’t shy away from the fact that lives are going to be lost in the battle to defeat Hitler, it’s also a rather inspiring film.  The sacrifice will be great, In Which We Serve tells us, but it will also be worth it.  The entire ensemble — including future director Richard Attenborough, making his film debut as a frightened sailor — does an excellent job of creating memorable characters, some of whom only appear for a few fleeting moments before meeting their fate.

In Which We Serve was a box office hit in both the UK and the US.  It was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture of the year, though it ultimately lost to another film about World War II, Casablanca.

4 Shots From 4 Albert Finney Films: Saturday Night Sunday Morning, Scrooge, Miller’s Crossing, Skyfall


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Yesterday, we lost another great actor when Albert Finney passed away at the age of 82.

It seems strangely appropriate that Finney’s final film was the James Bond extravaganza, Skyfall.  While Finney himself never played the world’s greatest secret agent, he was still definitely a part of the same British invasion that made 007 a worldwide phenomena.

Albert Finney got his start appearing on the British stage and it was the stage that remained his self-confessed first love.  He started his film career by playing angry young men in gritty films like The Entertainer and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.  However,it was his starring role as a debauched 18th century adventurer in Tom Jones that made him a star.  (Before being cast as Tom Jones, Finney came close to securing the lead role in Lawrence of Arabia.  That role, of course, was played by another young British stage actor, Peter O’Toole.)

Because his focus was mostly on the stage, Finney did not appear in as many films as some of his contemporaries.  When Finney did appear in the movies, it was often as a character actor as opposed to a traditional leading man.  He played larger-than-life characters but he did so in such a way that, regardless of how flamboyant they may have been, they still felt real.  He could play Scrooge and Hercule Poirot just as easily as he could play Tom Jones or a small town lawyer in Erin Brockovich.  Even in his old age, Finney’s acting instincts remained strong.  Just watch him in Big Fish or Before The Devil Knows Your Dead.  Just watch him in Skyfall, giving off a gruff “Welcome to Scotland” after gunning down the assassins that have come for Bond and M.

So, in honor of Albert Finney, it’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Albert Finney Films

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960,dir by Karel Reisz)

Scrooge (1970, dir by Ronald Neame)

Miller’s Crossing (1990, dir by the Coen Brothers)

Skyfall (2012, dir by Sam Mendes)

Albert Finney, RIP.

Recipe for Disaster: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (20th Century-Fox 1972)


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Although 1970’s AIRPORT is generally credited as the first “disaster movie”, it was 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE that made the biggest splash for the genre. Producer Irwin Allen loaded up his cast with five- count ’em!- Academy Award winners, including the previous year’s winner Gene Hackman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION ). The special effects laden extravaganza wound up nominated for 9 Oscars, winning 2, and was the second highest grossing film of the year, behind only THE GODFATHER!

And unlike many of the “disasters” that followed in its wake, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE holds up surprisingly well. The story serves as an instruction manual for all disaster movies to come. First, introduce your premise: The S.S. Poseidon is sailing on its final voyage, and Captain Leslie Nielsen is ordered by the new ownership to go full steam ahead, despite the ship no longer being in ship-shape. (You won’t be able to take…

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A Christmas Film Review: Scrooge (dir by Ronald Neame)


There have been many good film versions of the Charles Dickens novella, A Christmas Carol.  Several of them could even be called classics.  Everyone from Bill Murray to James Earl Jones to Tori Spelling to Fredric March has taken a turn at playing a version of the famous miser who, after being visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve, changes his ways and becomes the most generous man in London.  This holiday season, I watched quite a few old TV shows and I was somewhat surprised to discover just how many sitcoms have featured an episode where one of the characters has A Christmas Carol-like experience.

Though actually, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  A Christmas Carol is a universal tale and it’s one that continues to be appealing 174 years after it was originally written.  You don’t have to be rich, British, greedy, or even a man to relate to what Ebenezer Scrooge goes through.  We’ve all be haunted by the past.  We’ve all wondered what we’re missing out on in the present.  And we all fear how we’ll be remembered in the future.  In fact, I would say that A Christmas Carol is probably as close to perfect you can get.  The only problem is that Bob Cratchit’s son is named Tiny Tim and any work of fiction that features a character named Tiny has to be docked a few points.

With all that said, my favorite film version of A Christmas Carol is the 1970 musical, Scrooge.

Scrooge sticks to the original details of the story.  Ebenezer Scrooge is played by Albert Finney.  (Finney was only 34 when he made Scrooge but was made up so that he looked closer to 120.)  The men, women, and spirits in Scrooge’s life are all played by a collection of distinguished British thespians.  Edith Evans is the stately Ghost of Christmas Past.  Kenneth More is the Ghost of Christmas Present, a decadent figure who drinks wine and travels around with two frightening-looking children.  Alec Guinness is a heavily chained Jacob Marley and he plays the role with just the right combination of sarcasm and concern.  (“No one else wanted to come,” Marley says when he greets Scrooge at the entrance of Hell.)  An actor named Paddy Stone is credited as playing the silent and shrouded Ghost of Christmas Future.  Let me just say that the Ghost of Christmas Future always scares me to death whenever I watch Scrooge.  I imagine little children in the 70s were traumatized by his skeletal visage.

What sets Scrooge apart is that it has singing and dancing!  That’s right, this is a musical version of A Christmas Carol, featuring songs composed by Leslie Bricusse.  Now, the overall quality of the songs is open to debate.  There’s 11 of them and really, only three of the songs are particularly memorable.  (Those songs are: I Like Life, I Hate People, and the Oscar-nominated Thank You Very Much.)  But, honestly, who cares?  The cast performs them with so much energy and enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to get swept up in it all.

(Admittedly, Albert Finney doesn’t really sing.  He just kinda growls the lyrics.  But that’s appropriate for the character of Scrooge.)

Scrooge is an outstanding production of a timeless tale.  It came on TV at least four different times this holiday season and I watched each time.  And I’ll do the same next year!

And as Tiny Tim, who did not die, said, “A Merry Christmas to all!  God Bless us, everyone!”

4 Shots From 4 Holidays Films: Santa Claus, Babes in Toyland, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, Scrooge


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films is all about letting the visuals do the talking.

4 Shots From 4 Holiday Films

Santa Claus (1959, dir by Rene Cardona)

Santa Claus (1959, dir by Rene Cardona)

Babes in Toyland (1961, dir by Jack Donohue)

Babes in Toyland (1961, dir by Jack Donohue)

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964, dir by Nicholas Webster)

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964, dir by Nicholas Webster)

Scrooge (1970, dir by Ronald Neame)

Scrooge (1970, dir by Ronald Neame)

METEOR is a Crashing Bore (AIP 1979)


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American-International Pictures had gotten pretty fancy-schmancy by the late 70’s. The studio was leaving their exploitation roots behind and branching out to bigger budgeted films like FORCE TEN FROM NAVARONE, LOVE AT FIRST BITE, and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, with bigger name stars for marquee allure. Toward the end of 1979 they released METEOR, a $16 million dollar, star-studded, special-effects laden, sci-fi/ disaster film spectacle that bombed at the box-office and contributed to the company’s demise.

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Coming at the tail end of the disaster cycle, METEOR is formulaic as hell. Take a group of well-known stars (Sean Connery, Natalie Wood , Karl Malden , Brian Keith , Martin Landau, Henry Fonda ), give them a disastrous menace to combat (in this case a five-mile wide meteor hurtling toward Earth), add some conflict (US/USSR Cold War relations), and some scenes of destruction, and voila! instant disaster movie! Unfortunately, by 1979 audiences had already grown tired…

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #44: The Poseidon Adventure (dir by Ronald Neame)


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A few years ago, when I first told Arleigh that I had recently watched the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure, I remember him as being a bit shocked and amazed that I had made it through the entire film.  This was because Arleigh knows that I have a morbid obsession with drowning and that the mere sight of someone struggling underwater is enough to send me into a panic attack.

And The Poseidon Adventure is a film that is totally about drowning.  The majority of the cast drowns over the course of the film.  The few who survive spend all of their time trying not to drown.  The main villain in The Poseidon Adventure is the ocean.  The Poseidon Adventure is a film specifically designed to terrify aquaphobes like me.

And there are certain parts of The Poseidon Adventure that freaked me out when I first watched it and which continue to freak me out whenever I rewatch it.

For instance, just the film’s plot freaks me out.  On New Year’s Day, an ocean liner is capsized by a huge tidal wave.  With the boat upside down, a small group of survivors struggle to make their way up to the hull where, hopefully, they might be rescued.  That involves a lot of fighting, arguing, climbing, and drowning.

It freaks me out whenever I see the huge tidal wave crash into the bridge and drown Captain Leslie Nielsen.  That’s largely because it’s impossible for me to look at Leslie Nielsen without smiling.  (I’ve already written about my reaction to seeing him in the original Prom Night.)  When he suddenly drowns, it’s not funny at all.

It freaks me out when the boat turns over and hundred of extras are tossed around the ballroom.  I always feel especially bad for the people who vainly try to hold onto the upside down tables before eventually plunging to their deaths.  (Did I mention that I’m scared of heights as well?)

It freaks me out when Roddy McDowall plunges to his death because who wants to see Roddy McDowall die?  Whenever I see him in an old movie, he always come across as being such a super nice guy.  (Except in Cleopatra, of course…)  Plus, Roddy had an absolutely chilling death scream.  They need to replace the Wilhelm Scream with the Roddy Scream.

It freaks me out when survivor Shelley Winters has a heart attack right after swimming from one part of the ship to another.  Because seriously, Shelley totally deserved the Oscar nomination that she got for this film.

And it really freaks me out when Stella Stevens plunges to her death because I related to Stella’s character.  Stella was tough, she didn’t take any crap from anyone, and she still didn’t make it.  If Stella Stevens can’t make it, what hope would there be for me?

And yet, at the same time, The Poseidon Adventure is such an entertaining film that I’m willing to be freaked out.  The Poseidon Adventure was one of the first of the classic disaster films and it’s so well done that even the parts of the film that don’t work somehow do work.

For instance, Gene Hackman plays the Rev. Frank Scott, the leader of the group of survivors.  And Hackman, who can legitimately be called one of the best actors ever, gives an absolutely terrible performance.  His performance is amazingly shrill and totally lacking in nuance.  When, toward the end of the film, he starts to angrily yell at God, you actually feel sorry for God.  And yet, Hackman’s terrible performance somehow works perfectly for the film.  It’s such an over-the-top performance that it sets the tone for the whole film.  The Poseidon Adventure is an over-the-top film and, if Hackman had invested his character with any sort of nuance, the film would not have worked as well as it did.

And then there’s Ernest Borgnine, who plays Stella Stevens’s husband.  Borgnine spends the entire film arguing with Gene Hackman.  Whenever something bad happens, Borgnine starts acting like Edward G. Robinson in The Ten Commandments.  He never actually says, “Where is your God now!?” but it wouldn’t have been inappropriate if he had.  And yet, again, it’s exactly the type of performance that a film like this needs.

And finally, there’s that theme song.  “There has to be a morning after…”  It won an Oscar, defeating Strange Are The Ways Of Love from The Stepmother.  And is it a good song?  No, not really.  It’s incredibly vapid and, while it does get stuck in your head, you don’t necessarily want it there.  But you know what?  It’s the perfect song for this film.

The Poseidon Adventure is not a deep film, regardless of how many times Hackman and Borgnine argue about the role of God in the disaster.  It’s an amazingly shallow film about people drowning.  But it’s so well-made and so perfectly manipulative that you can’t help but be entertained.

The Poseidon Adventure totally freaks me out.  But I will probably always be willing to find time to watch it.