Impossible spies, unconvincing actors: movies viewed

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III (2006) easily surpasses the first and second films in the series, starting with the opening in which malevolent bad guy Philip Seymour Hoffman puts a gun to Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) wife’s (Michelle Monaghan) head and threatens to pull the trigger if Ethan doesn’t deliver the McGuffin. Then we flashback to show how Cruise got married and also returned to the field to rescue protege Keri Russell from Hoffman (it doesn’t go well). Hunt wants revenge; Hoffman wants the McGuffin (in best Hitchcock tradition, we never learn what it is). Trouble is afoot. JJ Abrams directs this as a first-rate thriller, though the villain’s scheme (come up with a casus belli for another Mideast invasion) now feels very right-after-9/11 in spirit. With Laurence Fishburne as Hunt’s superior, Simon Pegg as a techie and Ving Rhames returning as Ethan Hunt’s right hand. “Please don’t interrupt me when I’m asking rhetorical questions.”

STAGE FRIGHT (1950) has aspiring actor Jane Wyman reluctantly agreeing to help former boyfriend Richard Todd save his mistress Marlene Dietrich from a murder rap over the death of her husband. Of course that proves more complicated than expected — and is Todd telling the truth about everything?

This strikes me as switching up a number of Hitchcock conventions: the Bad Girl (Dietrich) is innocent, at least of murder (in contrast to, say, The Paradine Case), while the male romantic lead on the run is guilty as sin (as opposed to Spellbound and multiple other films), though the relationship between Wyman and cop Michael Wilding is much like Shadow of a Doubt.

The movie, as a whole, though, doesn’t work for me. I’m not bothered by the opening flashback being a lie (something which multiple critics complained was a cheat) but Wyman’s a bland kewpie doll here (she’s rarely anything more). While I like the idea of her as the Actor of Justice vs. Dietrich’s Actor of Doom, and the theme that everyone in the movie is acting and posing in various ways, the film doesn’t do enough with it. The best thing about it is the supporting cast of British actors including Alistair Sim as Wyman’s wannabe rogue of a father (“It was only one cask of brandy.”), Sybil Thorndyke as Wyman’s dotty mom and Joyce Grenfell in a bit part at a charity fete. “You’re not by any chance thinking of changing horses in mid-stream?”

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