Then Playing — Blithe Spirit; Layer Cake; Algiers

Blithe Spirit (David Lean, 1945). Adapted from Noël Coward’s 1941 play of the same name, Blithe Spirit is a mere wisp of a movie comedy that generates domestic drama from supernatural falderal. Writer Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) invites a daffy local medium (Margaret Rutherford) to a dinner party, asking her to stage a seance largely for the amusement of the other guests. The mistress of the mystic arts unwittingly summons the ghost of Charles’s deceased first wife (Kay Hammon), which leads to lots of bother, especially for the second Mrs. Condomine (Constance Cummings). Blithe Spirit is David Lean’s third film as a director, and it shows no evidence of the grand scale that would soon become his specialty. If the film is visually boxy and drab, it still has the briskness required to make the comedy work. The main appeal is in the performances, with both Hammon and Cummings bringing snappy charm to their roles.

Layer Cake (Matthew Vaughn, 2004). Arriving at the tail end of the spate of angry-cool British crime flicks that started with Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the debut feature from director Matthew Vaughan hits all the expected beats and cymbal crashes. It’s filled with intimidating guys being intimidating, all striding through a plot that’s at once devilishly complicated and completely forgettable. Given all the time that’s passed since the release of Layer Cake, it’s amusing to watch Daniel Craig, in the lead role, establish the type he’d be largely stuck with for the following decade and a half, just as it’s entertaining to see Sally Hawkins in a very different role, that of a panicky gun moll, that her typecasting would eventually allow for. Matthew Vaugh keeps the film’s visuals kinetic and the soul hollow, just as he would across a myriad of headache-inducing franchise fare that he swooped into his basket on the basis of the admirers he earned here.

Algiers (John Cromwell, 1938). In this fine film-noir precursor, a Frenchman named Pepe le Moko (Charles Boyer) rules over the crime scene in the Casbah area of Algiers. He’s pursued by a wily police inspector (Joseph Calleia) and is distracted by his romantic pursuit of an alluring tourist (Hedy Lamarr), partially because she stirs his profound homesickness for the culture and comparative tranquility of Paris. Even though it’s vital to setting up a dandy third act, the love story is far less compelling than rough-and-tumble back and forth between duplicity and scalawag honor among the crooks and the morally slippery police. Working with the exemplary cinematographer James Wong Howe, John Cromwell makes a film of rich, evocative shadows that offer a proper outward manifestation of the murky consciouses of all involved.

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