Mostly Links – 3 February 2012

by Mostly Film

Meeting people is easy: Mostly Links on his monthly outing

Contrary to what you might expect, Mostly Film has a life outside blogging. Disguised as a perfectly normal human being (only a bit squintier), Mostly Film sometimes even leaves the house to meet other people, and has tea with them, or dinner, or a drink. You may even have sat next to Mostly Film on a bus and not realised it.

Mostly Film also has opinions about things that aren’t film or telly. They aren’t always grown-up or fully formed opinions – they tend to involve the words ‘aspect ratio’, whatever the topic – but they’re definitely opinions. Just ask, next time you’re sitting on a bus next to a perfectly normal human being (only squintier).

For instance, yesterday Mostly Film heard US Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney say that this year’s election run-in is going to be “the most vitriolic, spiteful campaign in American history.” Now, is that a threat, a promise, or a plea for mercy? Might it even be a request for advice? Mostly Film has chosen to believe it’s the last option, so this week’s Mostly Links is all about the dirtiest elections in screen history.

Mitt Romney is unlikely to have seen A Very British Coup, but it begins like his worst nightmare of the Obama administration. Harry Perkins, a hard-Left MP from Sheffield, is elected prime minister on a platform that involves the renationalisation of industry, the break-up of newspaper monopolies, and unilateral nuclear disarmament. Based on a 1982 novel by political diarist and former MP Chris Mullin, A Very British Coup was originally premised on the now faintly ridiculous idea that Tony Benn – or someone like him – could become leader of his country. Romney is likely to be more solaced by the stirring rearguard action taken against this Benn-alike by the hereditary Right: up to and including the threat of a military coup.

Two-term presidents are popularly supposed to change course in the interval between their first and second terms, but Gregory La Cava’s Gabriel Over The White House (1933) has the president change political course by the sterner means of a near-death experience. Formerly a dutiful party hack, President Judson C. Hammond (Walter Huston) wakes from a coma with a head full of new ideas. These involve the revocation of all civil liberties, the permanent suspension of the constitution, the nationalisation of alcohol production, and the death penalty for pretty much everything. Surprisingly – and hearteningly – he manages to bring about world peace. Forever.

Gore Vidal will tell you that America has been going downhill since 1776 or the extermination of the bison, depending on his mood. But at least the bison never had politics, which is Vidal’s secular version of Original Sin: necessary, but necessarily tragic. The Best Man (1964) is a twisty-turny talkathon on this narrow idea of tragedy, set during the presidential primaries. Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson are, respectively, the intellectual and the populist, locked in a duel to decide who will become the more successfully irrelevant. The film comes alive during its convention scenes, when the bitter rivalry between the two men is revealed as being the summit of civility compared to the win-at-all-costs mentality of the conventioneers.

Frank Sinatra embroiled in a plot to kill the president? No, it’s not that one. Suddenly (1954) is a rather less psychedelic and paranoid affair, and it has an almost nihilist edge that The Manchurian Candidate lacks. There’s no brainwashing or global conspiracies here: Frank Sinatra’s John Baron is going to kill the president half because he’s been paid to, and half because he really likes killing people.

It isn’t true to say we’ve never had an answer to the question of who killed JFK. We’ve had hundreds. William Richert’s wonkily comic and melancholy thriller Winter Kills (1979) may be unique in crediting all the answers at once. Everyone was in on it. But everyone, in this case, was in the pay of someone: the lobbyists! Oh, how novel and cynical that must once have sounded. But which lobby was it who sabotaged Winter Kills on its initial release? Watch the documentary above and find out!

Next week on Mostly Film, we’ll have actors who write, Poirot’s last cases, dispatches from the far frontiers of Japanese cinema and the 70th anniversary of a very famous hill of beans.

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