Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2020 - Eric Hillis ""

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Film Discoveries of 2020 - Eric Hillis

Eric Hillis is a freelance film critic and editor of
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London Belongs to Me (1948) Dir: Sidney Gilliat
Sidney Gilliat is best known as the writer of such British classics as Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich, but his own directorial career has gone somewhat overlooked. His 1948 film London Belongs to Me is a tribute to the community spirit of a London trying to rebuild itself out of the rubble of WWII. When Richard Attenborough's young mechanic finds himself facing a death sentence when a female passenger in the car he stole is killed, the tenants of his boarding house come together to raise money to hire a lawyer to plead his case. Alastair Sim adds a comic presence as a neighbour who claims to possess psychic powers.

Endless Night (1972) Dir: Sidney Gilliat

Gilliat's final film as director reunites Twisted Nerve leads Hayley Mills and Hywel Bennett for another psycho-thriller. Bennett plays an ambitious working class man who sees a chance at the good life when he marries American heiress Mills. When the newlyweds move into a decrepit Victorian mansion on the English coast, things beginning taking a dark turn as rumours of a curse on the land surface. This one takes a typical thriller plot and adds in a heavy element of folk-horror, keeping us guessing throughout. Sean Durkin's recent movie The Nest feels like it's heavily influenced by Gilliat's film.

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945) Dir: Robert Siodmak

Much like Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window, Siodmak's 1945 film has a production code enforced ending that may prove a leap too far for some viewers. If you can ignore its unconvincing coda, there's much to enjoy here. Cast against type, George Sanders is charming as the avuncular nice guy Harry, who lives a routine New England with his two sisters until he falls for newcomer Ella Raines. When the pair are wed, Harry's possessive sister Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald) takes drastic measures to end the marriage.

One Way Street (1950) Dir: Hugo Fregonese
In 2020 I found myself on a major Dan Duryea kick and tried to fill in my Duryea film noir gaps. One of the best I discovered was this 1950 chase thriller. James Mason plays a doctor who rips off Duryea's mobster and flees for Mexico with both the mobster's lover (Marta Toren) and $200,000 of his money. Mason and Toren build a cosy new life in a Mexican fishing village, but word of their location gets back to Duryea, and the last person you want on your tail is Dan Duryea!

Chicago Calling (1951) Dir: John Reinhardt
Chicago Calling stands out among Duryea's noir roles as he's not playing the usual villain but rather the hero of the story. I use "hero" loosely, as his Bill Cannon is a pathetic wretch of a man. Due to his alcoholism, Bill loses his wife and young daughter, who get into a car accident on the way to live with his mother-in-law. Bill is expecting a phone call to learn of their fate, but when the telephone company cuts him off for unpaid bills, he finds himself racing across the city in an attempt to raise enough money to get reconnected in time to receive the fateful call. It's a desperate, sweaty precursor to the films of the Safdie brothers with Duryea at his most empathetic.

Platinum High School (1960) Dir: Charles Haas
Duryea is back to his villainous ways in this drama from director Charles Haas, best known for the series of teen movies he made with producer Albert Zugsmith. The high school of the title is a military academy where a pupil has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Mickey Rooney shows up as the dead boy's father in search of answers. He meets a wall of silence but is determined to learn the truth before he leaves. This is one of those movies where Rooney gets to show his tough guy side, and he's genuinely intimidating. Check out the scene where he takes on a bunch of military instructors, each a foot taller than him – it wouldn't be out of place in a Jack Reacher movie!

Faceless (1987) Dir: Jess Franco
At a certain point in the late 1980s, the films of prolific Spanish sleaze merchant Jess Franco became largely unwatchable. Perhaps his last great trash classic is 1987's Faceless, another reworking of Eyes Without a Face. When his sister is disfigured, plastic surgeon Helmut Berger searches out young women in search of a suitably attractive face to transplant. The doctor seems to have an incestuous level of interest in making his sister as hot as possible and what better face to slice off than that of Caroline Munro, whom he imprisons in his facility while he prepares the operation. Telly Savalas appears in what was clearly an afternoon's work as Munro's father, who hires detective Chris Mitchum to find his daughter. Add in Jean Rollin muse Brigitte Lahaie as the surgeon's assistant, Anton Diffring in yet another of his signature Nazi roles, and a truly awful theme song that's so annoyingly catchy I've been using it as my ringtone ever since.

The China Lake Murders (1990) Dir: Alan Metzger
Set a movie in a dusty desert town and I'm instantly hooked. This one falls into what I like to call the "homme fatale" sub-genre of movies where a man's life is upended not by an attractive woman but by a charismatic man. In this case it's small town sheriff Tom Skeritt who is won over by vacationing highway patrolman Michael Parks. What Skeritt doesn't realize is that Parks is actually the serial killer responsible for a series of slayings in the vicinity. This TV movie is an expansion of an earlier short by Robert Harmon, who would go on to direct one of the great desert thrillers in The Hitcher.

Rolling Vengeance (1987) Dir: Steven Hilliard Stern
Alexa, show me what action movies were like in the mid 1980s! This one has it all. When his mother and two sisters are killed following dangerous road games with the local troublesome clan led by Ned Beatty, Don Michael Paul builds a monster truck complete with giant drill and flamethrower and sets out for some good old rolling vengeance. Beatty is having an absolute ball getting to play a badass villain here, and what makes the movie so much fun is how it plays its barmy premise with a completely straight face.

Nothing Underneath (1985) Dir: Carlo Vanzina
In the mid '80s, the giallo enjoyed something of a short last gasp, bowing out with the 1987 double whammy of Argento's Opera and Soavi's Stage Fright. Less known is Carlo Vanzina's 1985 thriller Nothing Underneath, a deliriously enjoyable giallo set in the Milan fashion world. Tom Schanley plays a very Golly Gee American innocent who travels to the cutthroat world of Milan to track down his missing model sister. Aiding him is Donald Pleasence as a local detective with a decidedly unconvincing accent. It's trashy as hell but it looks fantastic and boasts some killer tunes on the soundtrack. Vanzina appears to have remade his film in 2011 with Richard E Grant among the cast members. Have any RPS readers seen it?

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