29/05/2010

Robot Monster (1953)

Geeks tend to fetishise the rubber-suit monster spectaculars of the fifties as cult kitsch and glory in labelling whichever is their favourite, "The Worst Movie Ever Made" (a title usually held by Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space, 1959). Personally, I find this inane, possessive, "so bad it's good" attitude towards old American pop culture to be more than a little smarmy and reductive, not to say patronising and disrespectful. The likes of Phil Tucker's Robot Monster may not be the most technically adept, well-executed or original of films but they do have bags of innocent, unironic charm, an authentic D.I.Y. sensibility and a pleasingly earnest, pretension-free desire to entertain. These films were made as cheaply as possible to draw a crowd and make money during a period when the cinema was beginning to see its supremacy challenged by television. Why not just enjoy them for what they are and in the spirit they were intended?

Director Tucker was only 25 when he made this archetypal space invader B-picture in 3D, taking just four days and for just $16,000. It made a cool $1 million but the young film-maker attempted suicide (unsuccessfully) soon after, becoming depressed after one bad review too many and a contract dispute with Robot Monster's distributor over unpaid royalties. He was later reconciled to the project, however, and recalled: "For the budget and for the time, I felt I had achieved greatness." Er, well...

The plot, so far as it goes, concerns Ro-Man, a coldly logical alien who has wiped out the human race with his "Calcinator" cosmic death ray as part of a plan to conquer earth before humanity can become "too intelligent" and begin the inevitable programme of intergalactic imperialism and enslave his home planet. However, Ro-Man hasn't reckoned on a small group of survivors - a scientist (John Mylong) and his (almost literally) nuclear family, all dosed with an antibiotic serum of the doc's own invention that has made them immune to Ro-Man's weapon. What's more, the space-ape can't help falling in love with elder daughter Alice (Claudia Barrett), carrying her off like a horny King Kong with a TV on his head. Infuriated by Ro-Man's lovesick dawdling and emotional turmoil ("At what point on the graph do 'must' and 'cannot' meet?!"), his supervisor, "The Great Guidance", zaps him dead and unleashes a swathe of reanimated dinosaurs to destroy what remains of earth, only for the whole film to be excused as a young boy's dream. But was it?


There's no Darwinian explanation for Ro-Man being a giant ape in a constantly-slipping helmet with bunny ear antennae. Tucker simply couldn't afford a decent robot costume so instead hired his buddy, George Barrows, who already owned his own monkey suit - a shame, as surely some raving about evolution gone nightmarishly wrong could have been etched in to liven up the premise. The shouty voices for Ro-Man and his angry line manager were actually performed by John Brown but Barrows continued to get regular work as a primate actor for hire, appearing in such other simian classics as Gorilla At Large (1953) and Black Zoo (1963), plus episodes of The Honeymooners (1956), The Addams Family (1964), The Beverley Hillbillies (1966), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1966) and Wild, Wild West (1968). The monster's lair in a Bronson Canyon cave contains some hilarious lo-tech hardware used by Ro-Man for communicating with his superior, including a bedroom dresser with a monitor on top and the "Billion Bubble Machine", a soap-spouting hi-fi mounted on a rickety wooden desk. The moment when Ro-Man, lumbering across the hillsides, runs into and strangles little Carla (Pamela Paulson) is surprisingly abrupt and brutal in spite of its happening off-camera and recalls Boris Karloff's famous turn in Frankenstein (1931). Ro-Man's co-stars are actually rather good and token hunk George Nader went on to have a semi-respectable career at Universal, even if his efforts to save Barrett here are feeble. Composer Elmer Bernstein did even better, going on to score The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960), To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) and The Great Escape (1963). On a sadder note, actress Selena Royale, who played the mother of the surviving family here, had her career destroyed soon after by Senator McCarthy, blacklisted as a communist for refusing to testify before his House Un-American Activities Committee. She would never work again.

Typically, Robot Monster contains some "borrowed" footage in its 62 minute running time - mostly those incongruous scenes involving blasted cityscapes and stop-motion reptiles - spliced in from other movies like One Million B.C. (1940), Rocketship X-M (1950), Lost Continent (1951), Flight to Mars (1951) and Captive Women (1952). It may not be a stand alone masterpiece then but Robot Monster is certainly the sort of thing we should be sincerely thankful for. Tucker's film actually makes a neat job of reflecting contemporary Cold War anxieties, alluding to the fact that much of the destruction wrought upon earth was actually caused not by Ro-Man's ray but by national governments, blaming each other for the sudden spate of explosions and retaliating with h-bombs. A tip of the cap to screenwriter Wyott Ordung for that little detail. Otherwise though Ordung has a great deal to answer for by way of ludicrous dialogue and setpieces (The wedding? The dumb show?) and the fact that the poor heroine gets tied up twice. He might have been trying to say something profound here by drawing parallels between the way Roy and Ro-Man behave towards Alice but it's all too sloppy to tell, not least in the scene when the latter knocks her out cold because he can't work out how to tie a knot.

28/05/2010

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935)


"Whenever an officer fails to win the affections of those who are under his command, he may be assured that the fault is chiefly in himself."
- Robert Southey, The Life Of Nelson (1813)

A jewel in the crown of Louis B. Mayer's MGM from the Thalberg years, this lavish, Best Picture-plundering naval drama starred Clark Gable as Master's Mate Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton as the tyrannical Captain Bligh aboard the HMS Bounty, a real ship that set sail for the South Sea island of Tahiti in 1787 in search of breadfruit trees to transfer to the British slave colonies of the West Indies. Based on a historical trilogy co-written by two US Army Air Service pilots, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, Frank Lloyd's film tells of the appalling conditions endured by the sailors at the hands of Bligh, a remorseless disciplinarian. The crew are lashed, flogged, keelhauled, tied spread-eagled to the rigging, imprisoned in the crow's nest and starved for the slightest "insubordination" until the men are finally forced to rise up against him, with the reluctant Christian seizing command. His idealistic friend, Midshipman and lexicographer Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), is caught in the middle and later returns to England to face a court-martial. Christian meanwhile evades capture by sailing the Bounty off to nearby Pitcairn island, where the remaining mutineers establish a new colony with their Tahitian brides (which actually didn't work out too well in spite of its optimistic presentation here).


Laughton struts and bellows about the deck in some style and Gable is suprisingly well-suited to the English gentleman-of-conscience role, even if his relationship with Tone does become weirdly homoerotic during the shirtless Tahiti sequences. Bill Bambridge is charming as tribal chief Hitihiti and Dudley Digges does well as the aptly named ship's surgeon Dr Bacchus, a rum-sodden, peg-legged old sea dog ("You're a plucky youngster, I'd be glad to cut off your leg anytime"). Overall Lloyd's film nicely conveys the class conflict aboard ship - aristocratic adventurism paid for with the blood, sweat and toil of able seamen - and ends up being a fable about competing management styles and a plea for humane working conditions. Mutiny is a touch flabby and overlong in places but the central tropical paradise scenes do provide some welcome refreshment.


Apparently Lloyd planned to make a sequel with Laughton about Captain Bligh's later career as governor of an Australian penal colony but it never came to pass. Cary Grant and Wallace Beery were the original choices for Byam and Bligh but Grant was under contract to Paramount and unavailable while Beery hated Gable and refused to commit to a long location shoot with him. In the end, producer Thalberg picked out Gable and Laughton to appear together as he believed they would sincerely despise one another, Laughton being a bisexual and Gable a homophobe. Sure enough, they did. A cameraman, Glenn Strong, was killed when a boat ferrying 55 crew capsized during filming in the South Pacific. James Cagney and David Niven are said to have uncredited cameos here as extras but I must admit I didn't spot them.


Other cinematic versions of this weather-worn yarn include two Australian versions: a silent from 1916 and In The Wake Of The Bounty, starring Errol Flynn as Fletcher Christian in 1933. A widescreen, Technicolor remake of Lloyd's film by Lewis Milestone appeared in 1962 with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard, which was in turn followed by The Bounty, a 1984 adaptation from a different account by Richard Hough with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, directed by Roger Donaldson. Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles also took on these meatiest of roles in a radio broadcast for The Campbell Playhouse in January 1939. This latter is especially good but interrupted periodically by imploring announcer Ernest Chappell making the most tenuous connection imaginable between the story and the sponsor's brand of tinned chicken soup.

26/05/2010

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

"The stuff that dreams are made of."

John Huston's directorial debut, an early milestone in film noir and the rebirth of Bogie as a romantic hero after years spent dwindling away his talent on the Warner lot in so-so gangster movies with James Cagney and George Raft as punishment for kicking against his contract.

This was the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled 1930 detective novel in the decade since its serialisation in Black Mask magazine. Roy Del Ruth first tried it in 1931, followed by William Dieterle in 1936, whose light-hearted Satan Met A Lady featured Bette Davis. While their efforts were by all counts pretty forgettable, Huston's stands for all time. Pacy, claustrophobic, snappy and biting, rarely has a better ensemble cast been gathered together in one place, with Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr, Ward Bond, Barton MacLane, Gladys George, Lee Patrick, Jerome Cowan and Sydney Greenstreet (making his screen debut aged 60 and weighing in at 357 pounds), all note-perfect. The pin-striped Bogart in particular, in a role that Raft turned down because he doubted the film would be sufficiently "important", is smart, cynical and just a tad sadistic, grinning through those sharp little teeth as he slaps Lorre around. Greenstreet too is an absolute treat ("By gad sir, you are a character!"). Third time lucky for Hammett, Huston's Maltese Falcon is a true masterpiece.

The plot is ostensibly about San Francisco private eye Sam Spade's (Bogart) involvement with a gang of back-stabbing treasure hunters desperate to get their mits on the priceless statuette of the title. Naturally there's a great deal more to it than that and Huston's film is played out as a lengthy war of words, the protagonists competing with one another through a barrage of rhetoric, manipulation, outright lies, counter-lies, half-truths, accusations, haggling and gunpoint diplomacy, all taking place on a battlefield of cramped little rooms, from Spade's office to Brigid O'Shaughnessy's (Astor) apartment and Kasper Gutman's (Greenstreet) hotel suite.

What this is really about though is Spade's inability to act on his certainty of O'Shaughnessy's guilt over the murder of his partner, Miles Archer (Cowan). As Robert Edenbaum put it, The Maltese Falcon is, "a combat between a villain(ess) who is a woman of sentiment, and who thrives on the sentiment of others, and a hero who has none, and who survives because he has none." Described in Hammett's source novel as "a blond Satan", Bogart's sneering, insolent Sam Spade is in love with Brigid and only at the end wins the battle with his conscience and hangs on to his integrity by deciding to do the right thing and hand her over to the police (Bond and MacLane): "I won't play the sap for you." Spade sacrifices the possibility of happiness for a sure thing because, with Brigid in jail, he can at least be certain this ultimate femme fatale won't one day turn around and plug him in the guts. For Hammett, the universe was a place with no rhyme or reason to it. Spade's work brings meaning to his existence and has taught him to back a dead cert when he sees one, no matter how painful the consequences.

The black enamelled "dingus" itself - a real historical relic gifted by the Knights Templar to King Charles V of Spain for giving them the island of Malta in 1539, which was lost after pirates raided the galley transporting it - finally turns out to be a leaden fake and, in cinematic terms, a macguffin. This further enforces Hammett's theme of the chaotic, meaningless nature of the cosmos. Gutman's 17 year search for this Holy Grail may have been in vain but it was also all he had to live for, so the revelation that his falcon isn't the real one actually comes as a godsend. The ongoing quest can continue to give shape and purpose to the fat man's life and the look of sheer relief on Greenstreet's face as the realisation dawns on him says it all. Nothing could be worse than getting what he wanted. Incidentally, the black bird that appears in the film was made by artist Fred Sexton, a friend of Huston's who was questioned by the L.A.P.D. in 1949 regarding another acquaintance, Dr George Hodel, one of the suspects in the ongoing Black Dahlia murder investigation.

Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) had been a professional private investigator himself with the Allan Pinkerton agency. Signing up in 1915, he was soon drafted to serve in World War One before returning to the beat and working on the infamous Fatty Arbuckle rape case. Other less auspicious assignments included being employed to dismiss a lady's housekeeper, tracking down "a man who once stole a Ferris-wheel" and being asked to assassinate Frank Little, a trade union agitator from Butte, Montana, a job he declined. His greatest triumph was discovering a stash of stolen gold coins aboard a freighter bound for Australia, an incident that perhaps had some influence on the La Paloma sequence in The Maltese Falcon. Ultimately, however, he grew disillusioned with the mundane realities of the business and turned to writing, bringing a new procedural authenticity to crime fiction based on his experiences. Hammett said of the Maltese Falcon's hero in 1934, "Spade had no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would have liked to have been." Brigid O'Shaughnessy though is thought to have been based on a real person, Peggy O'Toole, his secretary from the Pinkerton days. The effeminate, gardenia-scented Joel Cairo (Lorre) was inspired by a forger he picked up in 1920, Wilmer (Cook), the young gunsel, by the "Midget Bandit" of Stockton, California, and Gutman by a suspected German secret agent he once tailed in Washington.

Howard Duff took on the part of Hammett's most famous detective for The Adventures Of Sam Spade on US radio between 1946 and 1950, while Bogie of course went on to Casablanca (1942) and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946). However, Bogart did return for two radio dramatisations of The Maltese Falcon for The Screen Guild Theater on CBS, one in 1943 with Astor, Greenstreet and Lorre, another in 1950 with wife Lauren Bacall. Cecil B. DeMille also produced a version in 1943 for the Lux Radio Theater, starring Edward G. Robinson as Spade.


Here's an interesting shot of a hunched John Huston directing his star on set with his own father, the great Walter Huston, in a cameo as the dying Captain Jacobi. Patrick, playing Spade's loyal secretary Effie Perrine, looks on.

24/05/2010

Carnival Of Souls (1962)


An incredibly eerie, atmospheric little number from Herk Harvey and co-writer John Clifford in which a young church organist, the only survivor of a tragic drag race accident, finds herself unable to connect with other people, haunted by the spectre of a decomposing man and strangely compelled to visit an abandoned fairground pavilion near Utah's Great Salt Lake.

Beautifully shot in an otherworldly black-and-white, Harvey's purgatory fantasy recalls the contemporaneous Twilight Zone (1959-64) TV series and was made for around $33,000, taking just three weeks to shoot. The director, whose day job was making public information films for the Kansas-based Centron Corporation, aimed high, hoping to marry the "look of a Bergman" with the "feel of a Cocteau". The resulting film's success owes a great deal to Gene Moore's gloomy organ score (apparently the only thing on the radio in Utah) and to sensual star Candace Hilligoss, who single-handedly carries the picture. This Method actress has something of the Janet Leigh about her and a nice way with a quizzical raised eyebrow. She gets better as the film goes on when her spooked look, emotional distance and sexual frigidity come to be explained (surprisingly, Hilligoss only ever appeared in one other film, The Curse Of The Living Corpse, 1964). The final chase - in which she is pursued by the spirits of the amusement park and forced to waltz away with them into eternity - is daring and arty but the big reveal that follows won't surprise fans of M. Night Shyamalan, who made his name ripping it off. Hilligoss aside, some of the supporting players are so wooden you could make furniture out of them although Sidney Berger is memorable as a lechy neighbour. Harvey himself played the ghoul who dogs the heroine's every move.



Other classic horrors now in the public domain and available in full on YouTube, thanks to the benevolent Mr Lucky Strike 502, include Robert Wiene's legendary The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920), Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1920) starring John Barrymore, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), Phantom Of The Opera (1925) with "man of a thousand faces" Lon Chaney and George A. Romero's Night Of The Living Dead (1968), which must surely have been influenced by Carnival Of Souls. Also highly recommended is a very early Frankenstein short made by Edison Studios in 1910. Wonderful thing, the internet.

20/05/2010

The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962)


"Like all quantities, horror has its ultimate, and I am that."

Wow. Joseph Green and Rex Carlton's terrific B shlocker, a precursor to Re-Animator (1985), is a riot from start to finish and is actually pretty competently directed. The story concerns Dr Bill Cortner (Jason Evers), a mad scientist and experimental surgeon whose fiancée Jan (Virginia Leith) is decapitated in a car accident (check out the gloriously inept stunt work). Salvaging her head, the deranged doc hurries to his country retreat to try and revive the brain. Naturally, things don't turn out as planned. Jan's head understandably resents not being left to die and soon teams up with the monstrous mutant he keeps locked up in a closet after an earlier experiment went awry. The pair plot to overthrow the unsuspecting maniac, who is by now out curb crawling in search of model bodies he can use in a transplant operation with Jan. A genre classic, step right up folks.


Leith is tremendously unsettling playing a disembodied head and her performance led to the affectionate nickname "Jan in the Pan" among fans of the picture. Evers too is appropriately sleazy but the prize for hammiest oratory must go to Leslie Daniels as Kurt, Cortner's Igor-like assistant with a mouldy withered hand: "The paths of experimentation twist and turn through mountains of miscalculation and often lose themselves in error and darkness!" Adele Lamont also deserves a mention for her vampish turn as Doris Powell, a facially-scarred and embittered lesbian who resembles Betty Page and works as a glamour model and whose nubile form Cortner plans to reuse in his diabolical scheme. I wonder what the queer theorists make of the idea of grafting a heterosexual's head onto a gay person's body? It strikes me as a very B-movie answer to the social "problem" of homosexuality, as controversial a "cure" as you could ever wish to see. Anyway, there's plenty of camp, quotable dialogue throughout, a jazzy soundtrack by Abe Baker and Tony Restaino and it's all shot in a mundane black-and-white that, as Peter Biskind points out, was often used by sci-fi of the period as an, "ironic counterpoint to their alarming premises". What's not to love?

Interestingly, The Brain That Wouldn't Die ends just where the climax of most horrors of this ilk would begin. The hideous freak bursts free from captivity, kills Cortner and leaves the laboratory to burn with the unconscious Doris in his arms. Usually this sort of thing would happen about three-quarters of the way through and would be followed by a call from Washington to send in the army. Instead, Green and Carlton's ending suggests that the real monster is not the beast heroically rescuing the girl from the flames but the egomaniacal Dr Cortner, lying prostrate on the floor. Even more interestingly, the mutant was played by the 7 foot 6 Eddie Carmel, best known as the subject of, 'The Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY 1970' by Diane Arbus (pictured below).

19/05/2010

House On Haunted Hill (1959)


Falling chandeliers, doors creaking closed of their own accord, blood dripping from the ceiling, a severed head in a suitcase, loaded revolvers in mini coffins, a writhing pit of acid. But that plastic skeleton's not fooling anyone.

Schlock ringmaster William Castle's original House On Haunted Hill, from a story by Robb White, is suitably atmospheric and has a few genuine surprise moments going for it but is ultimately too naff for its own good. The decision to use the Ennis House in Los Angeles for exterior shots, a brooding pile of textured concrete blocks designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1923 to look like a Mayan temple, makes for a very original horror setting (compared with, say, the more conventionally scary "California Gothic" house in Hitchcock's Psycho, 1960) but somehow it never quite matches up with the cobwebbed corridors and dungeon-like cellar inside. The no-name cast of sceptical strangers - assembled by Vincent Price's eccentric playboy to spend a night in the titular dwelling for $10,000 - are pretty anonymous, with the worthy exceptions of Carol Ohmart as femme fatale Annabelle Loren and a nervous, boozy Elisha Cook Jr as the property's owner, convinced of the ghostly goings-on (Cook would take a cameo in Rosemary's Baby nine years later, a more ponderous Castle horror production). Unfortunately though, most of Herman Townsley's special effects just look laughable today and, really, it's only Price's easy urbanity and Von Dexter's creepy, kooky, altogether ooky score that make House On Haunted Hill worthwhile. Undeterred, Price, Castle and White would reunite soon after for The Tingler (1959).


For me, the very idea of the "explained supernatural" always feels like a cop-out. I dare say House On Haunted Hill would be more thrilling if one were to see it on the big screen with the "Emergo" gimmick in place, as Castle originally intended. This was a funfair effect in which a complex pulley system was hung up in theatres showing the film so that a glowing toy skeleton could be flown over the heads of the audience on a wire to brush their shoulders at appropriate moments during the screening. The device was soon dropped, however, when teenage vandals began to hear about it and arrived to see the film in droves with their slingshots poised, ready to shoot it down. Cult director John Waters, a great champion of all things trash, remains a vocal admirer of Castle (below) and wrote an article for the December 1983 edition of American Film entitled 'Whatever Happened To Showmanship?' in which he praised the producer and called on modern exhibitors to embrace his ingenious promotional tactics.

Another interesting point about this rather silly B-movie is that it is a rare example of an American film from the fifties in which a psychiatrist turns out to be the bad guy. As Peter Biskind points out in his book Seeing Is Believing (1983), Hollywood had for years been portraying the shrink as a buffoonish academic figure, usually beardo Sigmund Freud types with mock-Viennese accents. Then came the war and Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), which dared take the subject seriously on screen and spawned a decade of mainstream studio films with heavy psychological subtexts. When Vincent Price (again) appeared as a murderous psychiatrist in Alfred L. Werker's post-war suspense thriller Shock in 1946, the film was shouted down by critics like Bosley Crowther of The New York Times who feared, "the basic design of the picture is to create a phobia of psychiatry." 13 years later, House On Haunted Hill returned to the duplicitous psychoanalyst in the person of Alan Marshall's Dr David Trent, apparently only present as the rationalist voice of reason, but who later turns out to be having an affair with Price's wife and plotting homicide. A real throwback to attitudes as old as Dr Caligari.

18/05/2010

Double Bunk (1961)


Sexually frustrated lovers Ian Carmichael and Janette Scott are turfed out of their lodgings in Hammersmith, get married and are then duped into buying an old heap of a houseboat called the "Jasmine Gay" (echoing the "Swiftmobile" from Carmichael and Scott's previous collaboration, School For Scoundrels, 1960). Under the influence of his dodgy mate Sid James (who else?), engineer Carmichael fixes it up and sets off down the Thames in a bid to give his wife a belated honeymoon cruise to Ramsgate. Inevitably, they're joined by Sid and his stripper girlfriend (Liz Fraser) and, perhaps even more inevitably, calamity ensues as the foursome end up breaking their compass and getting lost, a ship of fools drifting across the Channel towards Calais.


A bit of a mess in truth, Double Bunk, directed by Scrooge (1951) cinematographer C.M. Pennington-Richards, suffers from an awkward uncertainty of tone and squanders a wealth of decent comic performers in minor roles. The very game Fraser relaxing on deck in her bikini provokes a certain amount of leering, falling in the water and pre-Carry On bawdiness but it's quite a lot less risqué than, say, a Donald McGill postcard and you're ultimately left feeling the film-makers lacked the courage of their convictions. Meanwhile, the great Miles Malleson, playing an Anglican angler, turns up simply to get splashed, Irene Handl does her usual brief turn as a disgruntled domestic, Noel Purcell is again a drunken sailor and Reginald Beckwith, Naunton Wayne and Terry Scott are all criminally underused. June Whitfield is heard and not even seen as one half of an amorous couple unceremoniously interrupted in their lovemaking under tarpaulin, not once but twice. Only Dennis Price as Watson, the villainous boatyard owner, gets a proper innings but even he looks worn down and uninspired. Scott is plucky enough in the thankless, angry straight-woman role and Carmichael and James just do their familiar bits. The French have L'Atalante (1934) and La Bête Humaine (1938), we have Double Bunk and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953).

I think what's most surprising about the film, a rather forgettable and indeed largely forgotten little caper that plays on misty-eyed nostalgia for the British boating craze of the late Victorian era, is that someone bothered to write a theme song for it. But so they did and it's actually quite jaunty. Written by Stanley Black, Mike Pratt and the appropriately named Jack Fishman, it's sung by James and Fraser and captures the cheery, lightly smutty mood of the film. Not a classic by any stretch of the imagination but a pleasant enough period curiosity, rather like Double Bunk itself.

17/05/2010

Make Mine Mink (1960)

This is a delightfully dotty British crime caper in the spirit of The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) in which the residents of an elderly dowager's Kensington boarding house form an unlikely wild bunch, go on a spree and steal mink coats to give to charity. A retired major (Terry-Thomas), a neurotic china restorer (Elspeth Duxbury) and a burly etiquette tutor (Hattie Jacques) make up the latter day Merry Men under the auspices of Dame Beatrice Appleby (Athene Seyler) and the disapproving eye of her jailbird housekeeper (Billie Whitelaw, an actress best known for her work with Samuel Beckett and her role as evil governess Mrs. Baylock in The Omen, 1976), who just so happens to be dating a policeman (Jack Hedley). Make Mine Mink was directed by Robert Asher and produced by Hugh Stewart - the culprits behind many of Norman Wisdom's big screen outings - from Peter Coke's hit West End play Breath Of Spring (1958), adapted by Michael Pertwee and Peter Blackmore.



As with many films of this period, Make Mine Mink is a beautifully shot document of post-war, pre-Swingin' Sixties London on the cusp of sexual revolution and features a wealth of cameos from the likes of Kenneth Williams, Irene Handl, Noel Purcell and even the late Clement Freud as a croupier. The slightly deranged central quartet make for an endearing surrogate family and it's touching watching these ageing oddballs rediscover their joie de vivre through a series of increasingly daring heists. Jacques in disguise as a voluptuous blonde is an extraordinary sight while T-T has fun reviving his dormant military instincts by re-enacting naval battles in the bath in the manner of Uncle Toby Shandy and gets to do a nice spoof of The Third Man (1949) when out searching for a prospective "fence" in a disreputable Docklands dive, unaware that it has recently been reformed by the Salvation Army. Everyone looks splendid in their Beefeater uniforms in the closing scene where the gang has a crack at the Crown Jewels, a fitting finale to a charming film.


P.S. Here's a real find. This caricature of Athene Seyler in character as Dame Beatrice was drawn while she was appearing in the original touring run of Breath Of Spring in Oxford in June 1959 by my very own great uncle, Gilbert Sommerlad (1904-76). Gilbert was an orchestral pianist and violinist who plied his trade at the Brighton Theatre Royal and then the Oxford New Theatre for over 40 years. He was also a talented cartoonist and spent much of his spare time in the theatre sketching the performers who appeared in the productions he accompanied, building up a collection of some of the biggest stars in British entertainment from the early Thirties to the mid-Sixties. His work features everyone from Sir John Gielgud to Lonnie Donegan by way of Frankie Howerd and the majority were autographed by their subjects, whom Gilbert, a great joker, frequently befriended. The complete portfolio of his sketches was donated to the Theatre Museum in 2002 and is now part of the Victoria & Albert collection. You can view it online in its entirety here.

14/05/2010

M (1931)


Fritz Lang's first sound film was this chilling portrait of a serial killer co-written with his wife Thea von Harbou and based partly on press clippings about the arrest on 24 May 1930 of Peter Kürten, "the vampire of Düsseldorf". Lang relocates the story of a brutal child murderer to a labyrinthine Weimar Berlin whose tenements and alleys are hung with long, shabby stretches of black and stalked by fear. The kinder out playing in the courtyard sing an ominous nursery rhyme akin to the "One, two, Freddy's coming for you" refrain from A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) while frightened mothers run to the windows to shush them. Hysteria rules as Lang's camera lurks over, peers under, stares at and chases after. When Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut) idly bounces a ball down the street, a shadow is cast across a wanted poster, recalling that of Max Shreck in F.W. Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu (both films shared a cinematographer in Fritz Arno Wagner). And like the little girl tossing flowers into the lake in James Whale's Frankenstein (also 1931), we know from this moment on that her fate is sealed. After all, how could an old blind balloon-seller come to Elsie's aid?

The crimes of Peter Lorre's Hans Beckert are all the more horrific for occurring off-screen. We are left to imagine the extent of his depravity by clues in the dialogue and this makes it personal and thus far, far worse. The young Slovak stage actor making his celluloid debut was not the criminal type audiences had come to expect. Instead of the hairy-handed, lantern-jawed evolutionary retrogression popular with Victorian phrenologists of the Lombroso school, Lorre appears as a pudgy, overgrown baby of a man. His bulging eyes, sweating brow and nervous clawing at his own knuckles suggest someone frantic in the knowledge that he is only in control of himself some of the time. Whether he is harmlessly looking at a shop window display, peeling apples or knocking back cognac in a café, Lorre's Beckert positively crackles with inhuman possibilities. The chalk mark of Cain printed on his shoulder uncomfortably anticipates the labeling of "undesirables" under Nazi rule and his final anguished plea, in front of the kangaroo court of his criminal peers (shot with a cast of real felons in a decommissioned zeppelin hangar), shudders through your bones. This climax also recalls Frankenstein, where another monster is cornered and confronted by angry vigilantes. Lorre's performance throughout, particularly his repeated whistling of 'In The Hall Of The Mountain King' from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt (1876), may never quite leave you.


Lang's film is very much about the inadequacies of the rule of law and the fine moral line between the policeman and his prey. With the criminal underworld frustrated by the heightened police presence on Berlin's streets and the frequent raids on their usual haunts, they too join the manhunt for Beckert. Employing the "Beggars Union" (inspired by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera, 1928) as a network of spies and informants across the city, a gang of burglars, thieves and pickpockets led by mastermind Schränker (Gustaf Gründgens) corner Beckert in an office block before subjecting him to a mock trial. Their tactics parallel the official investigation being carried out by the dogged and charismatic Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke, who would reprise his role two years later in Lang's The Testament Of Dr Mabuse). To ensure an authentic portrayal of police procedure, the director spent time at Scotland Yard and Alexanderplatz researching the latest techniques in forensics and finger-printing for M, as well as eight days at a mental asylum to better understand the mind of a murderer. The criminal court argues that Beckert will cynically deploy an insanity plea to escape justice and shirk responsibility, spending the rest of his days living in institutional comfort at the taxpayer's expense before one day inevitably breaking out or being released to kill again. Their conclusion that no man has the right to take a life under any circumstances is surprisingly liberal and tolerant and serves as a profound statement against the death penalty, which was ultimately the fate of Peter Kürten and something Fritz Lang vehemently opposed. For Lang, Beckert is mentally ill, not evil, and thus deserves treatment, not execution.

Thanks to the modern miracle of YouTube, you can watch M in its entirety right here and now without paying a single solitary euro. Do it. This haunting work of art is well worth your time. And, if anything, M is more relevant today than ever in an era when the paedophile has become the all-purpose tabloid bogeyman of choice. The early scene in which a kindly old man is harassed by a suspicious mob for even speaking to a child alone is especially prescient.


10/05/2010

The Rebel (1961)


Tony Hancock stars as a bored city clerk who throws off the shackles of nine-to-five monotony and decamps to Paris's bohemian Left Bank to try his luck as an impressionist painter. Hancock is soon hailed a genius for his pioneering "Infantile" style while his Canadian roommate Paul (Paul Massie), a much more talented artist, eventually becomes jealous and discouraged, leaving town and his canvases behind, only for influential critic Sir Charles Broward (George Sanders) to spot them and assume they are Hancock's. He doesn't deny it and thereafter achieves celebrity and renown but remains secretly racked with guilt about taking credit for the younger man's work.

The opening scenes of Hancock at a Croydon station commuting to work with a bad case of the office drone's ennui are absolutely timeless and probably the film's most successful statement. Everyone must have felt that nagging "Why do I do this everyday?" feeling and Hancock's quiet desperation is beautifully articulated. His bowler hat and umbrella - which have become symbols of oppression to him - may have been part of the contemporary uniform but they are also classically surrealist everyman signifiers as seen prominently in the work of René Magritte. Only Hancock recognises the pure absurdity of mass conformism and the daily drudge all around him for what it is. This is further echoed by the desks of perfectly synchronised accountants matching each other clack for clack, stroke for stroke, page turn for page turn, the workforce as giant bureaucratic machine and a nod to Chaplin's Modern Times (1936).

The coffee shop scene featuring Hancock's regular supporting players Liz Fraser and Mario Fabrizi is also a nice bit of satire and one that has its origins in a 1956 BBC radio episode of Hancock's Half Hour entitled 'Fred's Pie Stall'. Today we're completely acclimatised to high street chains like Caffè Nero, Costa and Starbucks but in 1961 a trendy venue peddling frothy milk and faux-European sophistication would have been alien to the likes of Hancock. His later order of egg, chips and snails in one of Paris's glitziest gourmet restaurants makes a similar point about bourgeois pretensions. The French capital itself meanwhile represents a promised land here just as it did for Gene Kelly in An American In Paris (1951) and just as it does for Jenny in the more recent An Education (2009), in which Carey Mulligan's schoolgirl also longs to exchange drab English suburbia for chic fashions and the Seine.


In truth, the English sequences are the best moments of The Rebel, a film essentially spun off from another old episode of Hancock's Half Hour, 'Michaelangelo 'Ancock'. Director Robert Day and regular writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson spend way too long mocking easy targets like French beatniks and existentialists in black polo necks and matching goatees (although Dennis Price as their leader, a Salvador Dalí figure incongruously named "Jim Smith", is a treat) and not enough deriding the hostile English philistinism represented by Hancock's boss (John Le Mesurier) and hypocritical landlady, Mrs Crevatte (Irene Handl). However, there's elegant support from the always-reliable Sanders and Hancock's hideous sculpture, 'Aphrodite At The Water Hole', is a glory to behold. Brilliantly, it was recreated in 2002, along with the various childlike paintings featured in The Rebel, for an exhibition put on by the London Institute of Pataphysics and purporting to showcase the work of a real artist, sadly unappreciated in his own time, by the name of Anthony Hancock.


The Rebel was released in America as Call Me Genius but was deemed too Anglocentric and failed to make the transatlantic splash its star had been hoping for. Acclaimed painter Lucian Freud, however, apparently once told Galton and Simpson that he thought The Rebel was the greatest film about modern art ever made, which is surely worth something. For those of a morbid bent, the film is what Kenneth Anger would have termed a "double suicide picture" - both Hancock and Sanders would later tragically take their own lives.

08/05/2010

Witness For The Prosecution (1957)


"If you were a woman, Miss Plimsoll, I would strike you!" A Churchillian Charles Laughton threatening former Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester, his real-life lady wife, in Billy Wilder's adaptation of Agatha Christie's hit 1953 courtroom drama. The bullish barrister is busily defending Tyrone Power's American expat against a murder charge at the Old Bailey but hasn't reckoned on the machinations of the boy's femme fatale German spouse, Marlene Dietrich. The lisping vamp gets her contractual cabaret scene in flashback and shows off a pair of still-knockout legs, quite something given that she was pushing 55 by this point.


Dietrich is actually on ripe old form here and does a nice bit of business meeting Laughton's Sir Wilfred Robarts at Euston station where she is completely unrecognisable in disguise and puts on the dodgiest Cockney accent this side of Dick Van Dyke. Power is also excellent, as are John Williams and Henry Daniell in support - all overcoming Christie's wafer-thin characterisation magnificently - but it's Laughton's film from the start. He holds the floor with cantankerous good humour and the very idea of the big man's tailor having to fit him for a new pair of Bermuda shorts is just too sweet. His comic sparring with Lanchester as a pathologically-chirpy nurse is amusing and both husband and wife were duly rewarded with Oscar nominations for their trouble, as was Wilder.

06/05/2010

Witchfinder General (1968)


Something wicked this way comes. Vincent Price stars as Matthew Hopkins, a ruthless profiteer roaming the English countryside in 1645 and exploiting the unrest, superstition and paranoia of the ongoing civil war to make a tidy sum "purging" rural communities of those unfortunate innocents accused of witchcraft. Arriving in Brandeston, Suffolk, Hopkins and his sadistic henchman John Stearne (Robert Russell) proceed to torture and hang a local priest, John Lowes (Rupert Davies), charged with "papistry" and rape his niece Sara (Hilary Dwyer). When Sara's fiancé Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), a Roundhead trooper, learns of these atrocities, the young soldier sets out in search of Hopkins and Stearne, vowing revenge.

Witchfinder General, a sort of British Western, can be seen in hindsight as part of a loose "folk horror" trilogy along with Piers Haggard's Blood On Satan's Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). It is most famous for being the third and final film by director Michael Reeves (after Revenge Of The Blood Beast, 1966, and The Sorcerers, 1967), who was just 24 when he made it and 25 when he died a year later from an accidental overdose of barbiturates. Lord knows what he might have achieved had he lived but it's rumoured that Peter Fonda offered him the keys to Easy Rider (1969). His cinematographer, John Coquillon, went on to lense Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) in Cornwall as well as Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973) and Cross Of Iron (1977). Reeves was certainly talented and turned in a small masterpiece here of brutal, matter-of-fact violence, mob hysteria and autumnal gloom. The director, who also co-wrote the script with Tom Baker based on a heavily fictionalised history by Ronald Bassett, had Donald Pleasence in mind as his first choice to play Hopkins, conceiving the character as an absurd, delusional chancer. When horror maestro Vincent Price was brought in instead, Reeves had to reconfigure Hopkins as more perverse, threatening and unknowable. Indeed, Price and Russell on horseback look like nothing so much as a demonic Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, casting long shadows over East Anglia and leaving behind the fear of god and a trail of charred corpses in their despicable wake. It's one of Price's best-ever and most toned-down performances, although he feuded constantly with his director on location. Price: "Young man, I have made 84 films. What have you done?" Reeves: "I've made two good ones."


There is not the slightest hint of the supernatural at any point in Witchfinder General. Accusations are made only in terror or to settle old scores, confessions are extracted through agonising torture and sleep deprivation. Matthew Hopkins appears to be neither a Royalist nor a Parliamentarian sympathiser. He is an opportunist taking advantage of the collapse of social order and rife religious mania to make a name for himself. He lives vicariously through Stearne's cruelty and has no loyalties to anything but his own whims and lusts, not even god. As historian Diane Purkiss said of the real Hopkins, the Witch-Finder Generall was, "by the standards of his own times not a monster, but a product of society... Hopkins lived in a vivid, narrow, frightened nightmare of a world where witches walked by night." She describes this "godly" lawyer as "ruthlessly self-fashioning" and a man who came to fancy himself as a sort of divine forensic scientist. The inhabitants of the lawless marshland he preyed over believed it was haunted by boggarts and witches in direction communion with the devil, who bore his mark and suckled his animal familiars with their blood. The war also left many grieving widows believing their dead husbands and sons could speak to them from beyond the grave. Under John Stearne's branding iron, however, these imagined whispers were quickly declared to be the work of Satan. Hopkins actually died from consumption in 1647, aged just 27, but his on-screen death, hacked to pieces by Marshall's axe, is much more satisfying, even if the soldier's catharsis is cut short by a compassionate bullet.


Ridiculously, Reeves' film was credited to Edgar Allan Poe when it was released in the US as The Conqueror Worm. This astounding marketing ploy, designed to reel in fans of Price's popular Poe series with Roger Corman, was tenuously justified by having the actor recite lines from the titular poem at the beginning and end of the film. How bogus can you get?

03/05/2010

The Punch & Judy Man (1963)


Tony Hancock, the immortal "Laird of East Cheam" in the BBC's Hancock's Half Hour (1954-61), the blueprint for the modern sitcom, stars as Wally Pinner, a miserable beach entertainer living in the fictional resort of Piltdown who is roped into performing at a snobbish society celebration by his naive and socially aspirant spouse Delia (Sylvia Syms).

Having unwisely cast off his regular writing duo, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, whom Hancock believed had failed to "grow" with him as a performer, the put-upon comedian brought in Phillip Oakes, a poet, novelist and critic who had interviewed him for Books & Art magazine in 1957, to help write a third feature following his inauspicious screen debut in Orders Are Orders (1954) and his solo relaunch in The Rebel (1961), an ambitious, Parisian art satire. Hancock apparently imagined that a more distinguished, intellectual collaborator would help him realise his vision for a "Chaplin-style" comedy while his young director Jeremy Summers, a former Elstree tea boy, declared that the completed script would add, "a new dimension to Hancock's versatility, which, I think, his public will be quick to appreciate". Unfortunately, these nice ideas overlooked the fact that Oakes had no experience as a comedy writer and that audiences wanted the familiar H-H-Hancock of his long-running radio and TV series, not an unhappily married depressive with a chip on his shoulder.

This is the main problem with The Punch & Judy Man. With the best will in the world, you'd have to admit it is painfully short on jokes, bitter and foolishly earnest in its pretensions. There's an unpleasant scene where Wally works out his repressed fantasies of domestic violence by laying vigorously into his Judy puppet during a show (in front of a crowd of doubtlessly traumatised children) and, by the end, all of his prejudices against Piltdown's provincial, bourgeois elite have been entirely justified by the wild, drunken bun fight their exclusive gala has descended into. Delia's illusions are literally beaten out of her by Lady Jane Caterham (Barbara Murray) and only when this poor, sad girl is seen sporting a black eye can the couple begin to rediscover their affection for one another. What on earth were Hancock and Oakes trying to get at? Perhaps a clue comes from these jaundiced remarks by Hancock, alluding obliquely to his own turbulent, alcoholic home life with model wife Cicely Romanis:

"The Punch & Judy Man is a cold, close look at the situation of marriage, which is pretty ghastly anyway. There is no happy ending, only a faint hope. When marriage gets scratchy and when, after some years, you know the other's weaknesses, you also know how to go for them. This works for both sides. The experienced destroyer of individuals who happen to live together, that's really the theme. People keep up the illusion and know how hard to hit each other (in the subtlest possible way) and become expert at tearing each other apart."

Hardly a promising premise for a light, "Chaplinesque" comedy then, but there you are. The end result is certainly a personal piece of work with more nostalgia for the passing of traditional attractions than Tony Richardson's The Entertainer ("We're very progressive here, you know", Ronald Fraser's pompous, leering mayor assures Lady Jane, sounding the death bell for old beachfront novelties like the titular show and John Le Mesurier's quaint Lord Nelson sand sculptures). Partly inspired by Hancock's experiences of growing up in Bournemouth and filmed on location in Bognor Regis, The Punch & Judy Man is at least a worthwhile record of a lost world. Another reason to recommend it is the cameos from Half Hour regulars Hattie Jacques, Hugh Lloyd and Mario Fabrizi plus Georgina Cookson as a lingerie saleswoman. The town's name is also a nice joke as it appears to come from the "Piltdown Man", a famous hoax in which an orangutan's jaw bone was placed together with a human skull in a Sussex gravel pit and then believed for 41 years after its discovery to be the missing link between man and ape. Several silent sequences in The Punch & Judy Man are nicely acted too, including a frosty opening breakfast scene and the "Piltdown Glory" sundae-eating sequence, featuring Sylvia Syms' seven-year-old nephew Nicholas Webb. Hancock, a misery to the last, so hated ice cream that he had to wash his mouth out with vodka between takes.


Although this is hardly an attractive introduction to Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock, he is, rest assured, one of the greatest comic talents England has ever known, a jaded, deluded, perpetually exasperated loser rallying against the universe in his trademark Homburg hat and Astrakhan. Check out Hancock's Half Hour if you've never heard or seen it before. Cliff Goodwin's definitive but harrowing biography, When The Wind Changed (1999), is probably not the best place to start. "Stone me, what a life!"

02/05/2010

The Entertainer (1960)


"I have an affinity with Archie Rice", Sir Laurence Olivier once said, "It's what I really am. I'm not like Hamlet". Olivier had first played Rice, a gap-toothed, greasepainted grotesque still desperately trying to peddle a tired old music hall song-and-dance act to a world that has long since lost interest, on stage in 1957. In John Osborne's womanising cockroach of a man, doing whatever it takes to scratch a living in Britain's dingy seaside resort towns, the great thesp found a grim metaphor for the human condition. Away from the limelight, the comedian drains pints of his beloved draft bass and endless bottles of gin and champagne and jokes compulsively to shield himself from the unmentionable horrors of life, not least the looming spectre of the tax man and his soldier son's capture in Egypt. Behind the relentless barrage of bawdiness and forced jollity, Archie is a schemer and a parasite with a toxic influence over the lives of his nearest and dearest, especially Phoebe (Brenda De Banzie), his hysterical second wife. Worst of all, he knows all this and is powerless to stop himself. Archie is, in his own words, "dead behind these eyes", just running through the motions because he happens to exist and sees no alternatives. It's this painful self-awareness that makes him so poignant. There's a little of Archie Rice in all of us, whether we like it or not.

As well as a character study, The Entertainer is also very much a fifties state-of-the-nation address, as betrayed somewhat by Osborne's tendency towards Kitchen Sink speechifying. Rock 'n' roll is in the air and all the young men in the life of Jean Rice (Joan Plowright), her brothers Mick (Albert Finney) and Frank (Alan Bates) and her boyfriend Graham (Daniel Massey), dream of escaping England for the Commonwealth. Mick joins the army, Frank fancies becoming a hotelier in Canada and Graham wants to do business in Africa. Jean herself fears for the future and attends a protest rally in Trafalgar Square to oppose Prime Minister Anthony Eden's misguided involvement in tripartite aggression over the Suez Canal. Like the microcosmic coastal town she visits in search of her father, Britain's imperial power is gently being eroded away by the tide, bit by bit. Like Archie himself, the country has singularly failed to face up to the rot and continues to plough on with the same old pre-war postures in denial of a changing world order.


Director Tony Richardson, the man behind other angsty New Wave classics like Look Back In Anger (1958), A Taste Of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962), plays things straight, benefitting from Oswald Morris's lovely picture-postcard monochrome photography and an excellent cast, especially Plowright, Bates and Finney in early roles as Archie's offspring. Knowing that Olivier married Plowright in 1961 adds an unavoidable, incestuous frisson to the film and helps emphasise the manipulativeness of his clown, who, needless to say, is a masterclass of characterisation, appalling and haunting, Max Miller as a monstrous metaphor for human degredation and decline at the end of the pier. Roger Livesey is also a treat as Rice's retired showbiz father, a gruff old gent still unable to resist an audience, as is Miriam Karlin as a cynical, chain-smoking showgirl. One further curiosity is an appearance by a young Thora Hird as the brash Northern mother of one of the bathing beauties (Shirley Ann Field) Archie has his wandering eye on.