27/12/2012

Yojimbo (1961)

The great Toshiro Mifune ponders his next move as the wandering ronin in Akira Kurosawa's influential samurai actioner Yojimbo. The film was famously ripped off and remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), just as Seven Samurai (1954) had been turned into The Magnificent Seven (1960), and it's easy to see why the Japanese director's films are so commonly alligned with Westerns. Yojimbo was itself inspired by John Ford's big skies and stand-offs, notable in its widescreen shots of the town's dustblown main street. However, it seemed to me that Kurosawa was indebted here to a less commonly cited American source: Pinkerton detective-turned-pulp crime novelist Dashiell Hammett. Yojimbo's bid to play a rotten rural backwater's warring gambling factions off against one another recalls the Continental Op's plan to "open up Poisonville from Adam's apple to ankles" in Hammett's Red Harvest (1929) while the savage beating and imprisonment he later suffers echo Ned Beaumont's plight in The Glass Key (1931). Unfortunately for me, it turns out that a number of more successful critics have already drawn these parallels. Bugger. Yojimbo also reminded me of Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi (2003) and it turns out that Mifune reprised his role as the calculating samurai in an earlier entry of the blind swordsman saga, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970), essentially an Edo period crossover in the manner of old Universal horror dust-ups.

Although it's beautifully staged, I have to admit that I found Kurosawa's film a tad slow in places, with one too many sequences of Mifune thoughtfully sipping dishes of saké holding back the pace. However, it's all worth it for the magnetic central performance and the sudden bursts of slicing swordplay. Magic.

20/12/2012

The Lodger (1927)


Still the best known of Alfred Hitchcock's silent output, The Lodger is a deeply unsettling London-set thriller about a serial killer known as The Avenger who picks off girls with golden curls on Tuesday nights before disappearing into the rolling Thames fog to evade capture. Evoking the mob hysteria of the Jack the Ripper slayings that had so terrified the capital 40 years earlier, Hitchcock's film for Gainsborough Pictures is taken from Marie Belloc Lowndes' 1913 novel and features many of the Master of Suspense's most celebrated tropes in embryonic form. This creepy tale concerns overbearing men attempting to impose control on iconic blondes, a wrong man trapped in a web of intrigue, confused sexual instincts leading to murder, play with handcuffs in advance of The 39 Steps (1935), a cameo from the director and the perversion of a leading man's carefully cultivated public image. The star in question is matinee idol and crooner Ivor Novello, who gives an utterly electrifying performance as the titular interloper, his handsome face riddled with guilt, torment and a sickly nervous compulsion, his disturbed lusts aligning him with Norman Bates. Novello is as strange and captivating in his way as Max Schreck was in Nosferatu (1922). Hitch's wife and long-time assistant Alma Reville provided a guiding hand creatively here while the atmospheric cinematography is courtesy of Italian baron Gaetano di Ventimiglia, his presence reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of early film-making in Europe, Hitch himself having spent time with the Expressionists at UFA in Weimar Germany (whose influence can be seen throughout The Lodger, notably via the light shining through the window into the landlady's bedroom). Producer Michael Balcon, the future head of Ealing Studios, was less helpful, unhappy with Hitch's handling of Novello's character and threatening to have the film canned before, fortunately, relenting. The mysterious tenant has meanwhile lived on as a plot device in cinema ever since, with nods to The Lodger appearing in everything from London Belongs To Me (1948) to The Ladykillers (1955) and Shallow Grave (1994).



As this is likely to be my final post before the big day, I'd just like to take the opportunity to wish you all a very merry Christmas and to thank you for reading Faded Video over the past year. Your support and encouragement has meant the world to this lone eccentric.

17/12/2012

She Done Him Wrong (1933)


The picture that made a star of Mae West, brought in enough box office receipts to save Paramount Studios from bankruptcy and led to the tyranny by censorship that was the Hays Code, She Done Him Wrong turns out to be something of a muddle in execution. Based on West's own hit Broadway play Diamond Lil (1928) and giving the actress top billing and a writing credit for the first time, the film is set in New York during the Gay Nineties and concerns bling-fixated Bowery saloon singer Lady Lou (West) and her romantic entanglements with various shady suitors. These include her boss Gus Jordan (Noah Beery, brother of Wallace), an aspiring politician with a sideline in prostitution and counterfeiting, his rival  Dan Flynn (David Landau), convict Chick Clark (Owen Moore), a Russian stage turn (Gilbert Roland) and Salvation Army director Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), the latter with a great deal more going on than first appears.

As always, Mae is something to behold and the adapted screenplay by Harvey F. Thew and John Bright is packed with zingers for her to fire off at will, my favourite coming when Lady Lou is complimented on the nude portrait of herself exhibited in the saloon: "Oh, yeah, I gotta admit that is a flash, but I do wish Gus hadn't hung it up over the free lunch". Overall though there's at least three two many lovers to keep track of (you can just hear Mae's response to that) and not enough time devoted to fleshing them out as characters by director Lowell Sherman. A young Cary Grant already brings real presence - Mae claimed to have discovered him here, in spite of his already having appeared opposite Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus (1932) - and there's some excellent songs by Ralph Rainger, John Leipold and Stephan Pasternacki for the heroine to belt out. These include 'Frankie & Johnny' (which gives the film its title), the highly suggestive 'Easy Rider'  and, of course, the almost pornographic 'A Guy What Takes His Time', which quickly became Mae's signature anthem.

16/12/2012

The Woman In The Window (1944)


Like Otto Preminger's Laura, released the same year, Fritz Lang's Freudian noir dreamscape The Woman In The Window concerns a man bewitched by a painting of a beautiful woman and his fantasy of the subject coming to life. In this case, the dreamer is academic criminal psychologist Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson), who admires the portrait in a gallery window before attending a dinner with friends at his New York club. A resigned family man, Professor Wanley is bored with his lot and jokes about harbouring repressed desires for reckless adventure. Later that night, a girl claiming to have been the model for the picture appears out of the ether, introducing herself as Alice Reed and inviting Wanley for a drink. She's played by Joan Bennett so, naturally, he accepts. Afterwards the pair head to her apartment so that Wanley can inspect some further sketches of Alice by the artist, whereupon her jealous boyfriend (Arthur Loft) rushes in and attacks Wanley without warning. He grapples with the man and is finally forced to stab him to death with a pair of scissors. Alice and the Professor agree to dispose of the body in the woods upstate and then go their separate ways. However, as the dead man is Claude Mazard, a prominent Wall Street financier, the case is quickly picked up by the newspapers when his body is found. Worse, Wanley's friend Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) just so happens to be the District Attorney and the deceased's bodyguard Heidt (Dan Duryea) is a blackmailer on the lam with intimate knowledge of his employer's last movements...

An interesting if somehow not wholly satisfying noir, Lang's film is notable for its paranoia about the power of forensic science as a tool for homicide detection. Nunnally Johnson's screenplay from J.H. Wallis's source novel Once Off Guard (1942) emphatically insists on the reassuring certainty that it is simply impossible to get away with the perfect crime, let alone an unplanned, frantic stabbing, in a world where one's every movement  leaves behind a potential clue. This insistence on the unquestionable authority of empirical evidence places The Woman In The Window firmly in the tradition of rationalist, procedural crime fiction from Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Murders In The Rue Morge' (1841) to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-) via Sherlock Holmes, although Lang as always focuses on the perpetrators rather than the sleuths. However, all this makes the film's too easy it-was-all-a-dream twist all the more surprising and something of a cop-out, although Sight & Sound critic Paul Mayerling recently used this ending to draw an interesting comparison between Lang's film and Stanley Kubrick's Arthur Schnitzler adaptation Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Both present a husband flirting with the idea of escaping from de-eroticised domesticity and carrying out his repressed extramarital fantasies, enduring some long dark nights of the soul in an unreal New York netherworld along the way. Ultimately, its hard not to read The Woman In The Window as a conservative cautionary fable, warning men off pursuing such transgressions against safe, bourgeois morality.


Lang would reunite Robinson, Bennett and Duryea in his next picture, Scarlet Street, a superior companion piece to The Woman In The Window in which Robinson gives one of his greatest performances as an aspiring painter, overlooked at work and hectored by his wife, who is led on by Bennett and swindled by Duryea until he can take no more and finally lashes out violently.

12/12/2012

London Belongs To Me (1948)

An unusual, character-driven Christmas melodrama from the Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder stable, London Belongs To Me deals with the troubled life of Percy Boon, a young mechanic on trial for murder at the Old Bailey in 1938, and the efforts of his fellow lodgers at a Kennington boarding house to rally round and petition Whitehall on his behalf. Dickie Attenborough stars as poor Percy a year on from his menacing portrayal of Pinkie Brown in the Boulting Brothers' Brighton Rock and again takes on a character whose guilt is firmly established. Percy has accidentally killed his ex-girlfriend Myrna (Eleanor Summerfield) by pushing her from a moving car in a moment of blind panic after speeding past a police checkpoint. The vehicle in question has been stolen by Percy so that he can respray it, sell it on and use the funds to win the heart of neighbour Doris Josser (Susan Shaw), the object of his affections. Myrna, jilted by Percy and jealous of Doris, had only wanted a ride home.

Attenborough does well as the cocky but well-meaning youth in over his head and is ably supported by the likes of Shaw, Summerfield, Joyce Carey and Hugh Griffiths plus Wylie Watson and Fay Compton as Mr and Mrs Josser, Doris's parents, who spend their savings on the 'Reprieve Percy Boon' campaign knowing that all it guarantees them is an uncertain future. But, once again, it's Alastair Sim who steals the show as 10 Dulcimer Street's newest arrival, Henry Squales, a phoney medium who affects a world weary sigh in his speech and is prone to staging bogus seances and pretending to be in contact with the spirit realm, channeling the departed souls of dead lamas for an audience of enraptured housewives. Sceptic Jan Byl (Fabia Drake), however, is as unimpressed by Squales' trances as she is by the sandwiches: "If this is lobster paste, I'm the Flying Dutchman". Quite. In a part that must surely have influenced Alec Guinness's Professor Marcus in The Ladykillers (1955) and in turn pays homage to Hitchcock's The Lodger (1927), Sim's shadow looms large over the front door before he charms his way in and seduces the widowed landlady, Mrs Vizzard (Carey), to save on rent, only for his recent past, faking photographs of ghosts in Brighton, to catch up with him. Other pleasing turns here include Ivy St Helier as ageing hatcheck girl and minor confidence trickster Connie Coke and Stephen Murray as the magnificently fusty revolutionary socialist Uncle Henry, who spends his days cycling around South West London grumbling about the "international situation" and the fecklessness of his fellow Brits.


Ultimately, however, London Belongs To Me does not hang together at all well. This is largely a failure of tone. Our protagonist is, after all, guilty of manslaughter, if not murder, and there's no getting away from the gravity of his predicament: Percy will be hung if convicted, leaving his dear, sickly mother (Gladys Henson) to die of sorrow. No matter how amusing the tenants are, Percy's imminent execution is a grim spectre to leave lurking in the background. This problem was spotted by contemporary reviewers like Dilys Powell in the Sunday Times, who liked the film but complained that, "the transitions from mood to mood are too roughly made, and the incongruity results, not in heightening the sense of [Percy's] tragedy, but in making the spectator feel ill at ease". This point-of-view was echoed by the September 1948 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin, which also praised Gilliat's work but argued that it "extracts too much fun from an unfunny business". Having not read Norman Collins' source novel, I was also left bemused as to whom the titular pronouncement refers to: the screenplay by Gilliat and J.B. Williams provides no answer. Despite some rich character performances then, it's hard to disagree about the film's faults or, indeed, with Powell's conclusion: "London Belongs To Me does the British cinema a great deal of credit".

09/12/2012

The Reptile (1966)

The legendary but long defunct British horror studio Hammer is up and running once more and currently in the process of re-mastering and re-releasing some of its choicest titles on Blu-ray via StudioCanal, a process that began earlier this year with Dracula: Prince Of Darkness (1966). The series most recently saw the resurrection of The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), Rasputin, The Mad Monk (1966), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967) and The Devil Rides Out (1968) and many more are set to follow. I’m very much a beginner when it comes to vintage Hammer, having only ever seen Quatermass & The Pit (1967), so I thought I’d check out the one with the juiciest artwork. Turns out you can judge a DVD by its cover.


The Reptile, directed by John Gilling, is essentially a daft variation on The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1902), in which a mysterious beastie prowls the misty moors of Victorian Cornwall in search of lost locals to feed on, a source of no little bemusement to the well-to-do couple who have recently moved to the village of Clagmoor Heath after inheriting a dilapidated cottage from one of the fanged creature’s many victims. Ray Barrett and Jennifer Daniel are rather stiff but commendably serious as the aforementioned Captain and Mrs Spalding (he presumably no relation to Groucho Marx’s loony explorer in Animal Crackers, 1930), even when asked to deliver such absurd lines as: “Would you mind telling me who you are and why you attacked me?” Among the surly Cornish pub dwellers, a staring, pipe-chewing mob worthy of Straw Dogs (1971), landlord Michael Ripper feels authentic, as does mad-eyed Scotsman John Laurie, quite literally foaming at the mouth in a supporting role. However, the real highlight is Noel Willman, a stern, stentorian figure who ultimately brings great pathos and melancholy to the part of the initially pantomime-sinister Dr Franklin, a theology scholar whose trips to the Orient have left him in thrawl to a Borneo snake cult, the sort of villains you might expect to encounter in one of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels. A menacing Malay manservant (Marne Maitland) haunts Franklin’s mansion and appears to have a peculiar influence over the man’s exotic sitar-playing daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) but what does it all mean? All this Far Eastern mysticism could lead one to conclude that The Reptile is a xenophobic film, warning audiences against multicultural influences and meddling with the foreign Other, although such a reading is probably unnecessarily political and would also have to be applied to Dracula (1958). Better perhaps to think of the events of The Reptile as payback for Britain’s colonial adventurism in the nineteenth century. The Empire biting back.

04/12/2012

Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

Critics voting in Sight & Sound's most recent poll to find the top 100 films of all time placed this amazing Soviet silent documentary - an experimental city symphony capturing a day in the life of Moscow, Odessa and Kiev by Dziga Vertov - at number eight.

I have to confess I'd never seen it before and only have now thanks to its recent screening on Sky Arts, a channel owned, ironically, by that ultimate embodiment of ruthless capitalism, Rupert Murdoch. However, I'm grateful to the Aussie media tycoon because Vertov's film is an overwhelming sensory experience, a violent, avant-garde barrage of images of Russian city folk cheerily going about their day's work like good Bolsheviks engaging energetically with the modern machine age.

Completely foregoing conventional character-driven narrative, Vertov begins with members of an orchestra taking their seats in a theatre before showing us babies being delivered in a maternity hospital, trams flying down cobblestone streets, horses heaving cartloads of coal in a subterranean mine shaft, clanking steam engines roaring down the tracks, telephone operators taking calls, beauticians cutting hair and giving manicures, cigarettes being rolled, newspapers being printed, shoes being shined, swimmers diving into the harbour, a Chinese magician performing tricks and much else before dusk finally settles.

Walter Ruttman may have had a similar idea with his Berlin: Symphony Of A Metropolis (1927) but it's hard to imagine a more harmonious marriage of theme and execution than Vertov manages to achieve here.


The director, who began his career shooting Kino-Pravda ("film truth") propaganda newsreels with his brother Mikhail Kaufman, occasionally appears in the film with his trusty camera and tripod at the ready, sometimes perched on top of a building and once on the back of a speeding carriage literally chasing an ambulance, implying that cinema can take us anywhere. His editor and wife, Elizaveta Svilova, also appears, examining and splicing the negatives from the reels he hands her, a detail that makes Man With A Movie Camera one of the silver screen's first meta-narratives.

As well as a patriotic ode to the glory of the Soviet Union and a record of the health, humour and capability of its working people, Vertov's film is also highly optimistic about technology and the potential it promises. He shows us enormous iron behemoths making light work of mammoth tasks like mass transport and mass production and delights in the cinema as a device through which the world can be reflected back at itself. Vertov's movie camera is a box of tricks, allowing him to toy with slow motion to capture the muscular athleticism of a female discus thrower, draw parallels between a typist and a pianist through rapid intercutting, play chess backwards or suggest similarities between a woman's flickering eyelids and the opening and closing of window shutters. The director even plays with surrealism, superimposing his own image into a punter's glass of beer.

With so many pictures and associations crammed into 68 minutes, watching Man With A Movie Camera is positively dizzying. The version I saw had a new score by Michael Nyman from 2002, its hectic pace perfectly matching Vertov's exhaustive (and exhausting) footage.

01/12/2012

Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936)

Frank Capra puts the American Everyman on trial in Mr Deeds Goes To Town, the story of Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a greeting cards poet from Mandrake Falls, Vermont, who inherits $20 million when his financier uncle is killed in a car crash while vacationing in Italy. Deeds reluctantly leaves home, worrying about who will replace him on tuba in the town band, and visits New York City amid much press interest to collect his unwanted windfall. Deeds is promptly descended upon by a swarm of cynics and opportunists, grasping in-laws, greedy lawyers, swells and snide publicity pimps. Variously derided as a “yokel”, a “sap”, a “hick” and a “beau hunk” by the Big City hucksters out to co-opt him into their corrupt and jaded universe, Deeds is really “a fine fellow, very democratic ” and fights back against the “fakers” and “moochers” out to swindle him, often literally. Deeds doesn’t enjoy the trappings of wealth but is able to ignore the ridicule of the newspapers until he learns that the woman he’s fallen in love with, Mary Dawson, a lonely stenographer, is really Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur), ace reporter at The Mail (an unfortunate choice of name for the periodical) under whose by-line the most intimate abuses have appeared. What’s more, it’s Babe who coined the one nickname that really stuck, “the Cinderella Man”. When a heartbroken Deeds decides to invest his money in farmland equipped with ploughs and livestock in order to support families hit hardest by the Depression, lawyer John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille) steps in and tries to have Deeds certified as insane, spinning his idiosyncratic behaviour against him and calling in a Viennese quack psychiatrist to diagnose him as a manic depressive. Only the last minute intervention of the community can help Deeds rediscover his voice and speak for himself for the first time.


For the most part a pleasingly “pixilated” screwball comedy, Mr Deeds is also rather sadder and more haunted than I’d expected. Capra and co-writer Robert Riskin, the team behind It Happened One Night (1934), adapted their screenplay from ‘Opera Hat’, a short story that first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1935 by Clarence Budington Kelland, a man who once described himself as “the best second-rate writer in America”. Deeds is a more worldly and two-fisted forerunner to “overgrown boy scout” Jefferson Smith, who would also be plucked from obscurity to shame the establishment with the good manners and simple decency it has forgotten in the rush for personal glory. Deeds is just as earnest, idealistic and patriotic as the future Junior Senator and just as keen to take in historic landmarks (Grant’s Tomb this time rather than the Lincoln Memorial) but seems less surprised by the moral decay he finds around him. As an uprooted rube myself, I particularly enjoyed this observation by Deeds on metropolitan life: "People here are funny. They work so hard at living they forget how to live." Cooper brings just the right balance of sensitivity and toughness to the role to make it a winner and is especially funny taking no nonsense (but the occasional Prairie Oyster) from his team of gay servants. The scene in which he beats up the literati at a swanky Manhattan restaurant after quickly realising he’s only been invited to their table to be laughed at is splendid and it’s hard to better the reaction of Walter Catlett’s drunken poet Morrow: “What a magnificent deflation of smugness!”

Deeds’ refusal to defend himself on the stand, however, having finally surrendered to disappointment and disgust as the country he loved prepares to argue that his altruism could only be the product of madness, is powerful stuff and anticipates both the strong, silent persona Cooper would bring to many a Western and to the suicidal despair of George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Babe’s tears of guilt at the damage wrought by her caustic, amoral school of yellow journalism remind us of the preciousness and fragility of innocence in a savage and occasionally despicable world.

25/11/2012

Great Expectations (1946)


As the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth draws to a close with yet another unnecessary prestige adaptation of Great Expectations (1861) foisted on the public, this time starring Jeremy Irvine, Ralph Fiennes and (inevitably) Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, I thought I’d say something about the definitive cinematic version of the book. Accept no imitations, David Lean’s take on the story of Pip, an orphaned blacksmith’s apprentice who becomes a gentleman thanks to the intervention of a mysterious patron, is a masterpiece in its own right and undoubtedly one of the finest screen translations of Dickens there is, probably even surpassing MGM’s David Copperfield (1935) and Ealing’s Nicholas Nickleby (1947).

Lean was inspired to make the film after (reluctantly) attending a performance of a new theatrical interpretation of the novel staged at London’s Rudolph Steiner Hall in 1939 with his actress wife Kay Walsh. The play they saw that night had been scripted by a young thesp named Alec Guinness, who narrated from the wings and appeared as Herbert Pocket while Martita Hunt starred as Miss Havisham and Marius Goring as the elder Pip. Lean returned with producers Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan who were equally enthused and promptly pitched the idea for a film based on this version to J. Arthur Rank, who eagerly gave his consent, although it took several years before the group could assemble a suitable screenplay, with Lean, Walsh, Neame, Havelock-Allan and Cecil McGivern all eventually contributing. Guinness and Hunt reprised their roles and were joined by such greats as John Mills (then aged 38 and playing half that), Francis L. Sullivan (appearing as Jaggers for a second time after taking the part in a 1934 endeavour), Bernard Miles, Freda Jackson and a young Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson as the two incarnations of Estella, la belle dame sans merci reared by her benefactress “to reek revenge on all the male sex”.


Lean and his collaborators weight the finished film just right, never dwelling too long on one episode or overemphasising one character at the expense of another. Important but minor figures like Wemmick (Ivor Barnard), Uncle Pumblechook (Hay Petrie) or Bentley Drummle (Torin Thatcher) are necessarily reduced but given their moments in the spotlight in scenes that never risk interfering with the pacing. The director was under the influence of German expressionism at the time and this is evident in the use of ghostly voiceovers and hanging fog in the Kent marshes sequences and in the gloomy gothic horror of Miss Havisham’s mouldering mansion, where mice frolic atop a rotten wedding cake and cobwebs sag across the candelabra like sighs. Lean apparently fired Robert Krasker as his cinematographer early into shooting over artistic differences, despite having used him to such great effect on Brief Encounter (1945), although the director would be rewarded for this bold decision when Krasker's successor, Guy Green, won an Oscar. Krasker, meanwhile, went on to form a formidable partnership with Carol Reed and would shoot the likes of Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949) before the decade was over.


Great Expectations’ biggest asset though is its magnificent cast. Hunt, Guinness, Sullivan and Finlay Currie as escaped convict Abel Magwitch could all have stepped straight out of the book while Anthony Wager is pitch-perfect as the frightened but redoubtable young Pip. Sullivan, dwelling in ghoulish chambers lined with death masks and token slipknots, is always a pleasure (“I have a very large experience of boys and you’re a bad lot of fellows”) but its Bernard Miles who breaks my heart every time as Joe Gargery, the humble blacksmith so gravely wronged by the mercurial Mrs Joe (Jackson) and so deserving of a second chance at happiness with Biddy (Eileen Erskine). The scene in which he visits Pip’s quarters at Barnard’s Inn and proceeds to fumble with his top hat in an attempt to balance it on the mantelpiece, a source of mortification to the young gentleman as it occurs in front of the kindly but aristocratic Herbert, is so especially excruciating because we know that Pip’s anger and embarrassment could only be born of love. Joe’s dignified departure, having instinctively understood the implications of his gaff, is devastating and one aches for the self-reproaching Pip: “I realised that in becoming a gentleman, I had succeeded only in becoming a snob.” The film contains any number of unforgettable scenes, from Magwitch’s jolting first appearance in the graveyard, to young Pip’s boxing match with Herbert to the nodding encounter with the Aged P (O.B. Clarence) at Wemmick’s house and the thrilling river chase to intercept the packet boat. It’s one of my all-time favourites, in other words. The commercial success of Great Expectations with post-war audiences prompted the production team to reunite with Guinness and Sullivan in 1948 for a less perfect but still highly entertaining Oliver Twist.

24/11/2012

The Island Of Lost Souls (1932)

Charles Laughton makes for an amused and Satanic Dr Moreau in Erle C. Kenton's classic horror for Paramount based on the enduring late-Victorian science fiction nightmare by H.G. Wells. Laughton's  Moreau is a graceful butterball perspiring lightly from the tropical heat in a linen suit and revelling in his infamy in exile. He proudly shows off his giant asparagus trees and mercilessly thrashes his grotesque "manimal" creations with a bull whip to the growing disgust of shipwrecked interloper Edward Parker (Richard Arlen). This sadistic and immoral proprietor of the "House of Pain" thinks nothing of carving up live animals and grafting their limbs onto the bodies of restless natives and thereafter sleeps well beneath a mosquito net, ignoring their primal screams into the jungle night. The sneer of barely repressed lust on his face as he stands in the shadows watching Lota (Katherine Burke), a panther woman and his greatest triumph, interact with Parker, clearly hoping for much more than just a flicker of sexual attraction between the two, is deeply perverse and unforgettable once seen. As biographer Charles Higham summarised: "Moreau in Charles's hands is much deeper than H.G. Wells could suggest: a perversion of a British Colonial administrator, and at the same time a symbol of Colonial oppressiveness... Above all, Charles suggests, as is so often the case in other films, the loneliness of evil, the fact that it eats on itself."

Wells composed his tale in 1896 to prey on contemporary anxieties about the darker ramifications of Darwinian evolutionary theory and abundant fears that mankind could regress to a bestial state. The Island Of Lost Souls in a sense updates the novel's concerns for the age of post-World War I body horror*, placing it in a similar realm to Tod Browning's Freaks, which was released the same year and with which it shares a leading lady, Leila Hyams. Even more darkly, it also essentially predicts the horrific human experiments shortly to be carried out by Nazi physician Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. The script was written by Browning associate Waldemar Young with Philip Wylie and the latter would be called in by Carl Laemmle to help doctor the screenplay for another Wells adaptation the following year, Universal's The Invisible Man, starring Claude Rains and directed by James Whale.


Laughton is unquestionably the highlight of Kenton's adaptation (despite the actor not taking to his director during the location shoot on Catalina Island and being revolted by the premise as a lifelong animal lover), although the steamy, feverish atmosphere of the South Pacific is well captured by cinematographer Karl Struss, who had worked on F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927). The monstrous creature effects also remain understated and impressive, with Bela Lugosi almost unrecognisable behind a bushel of hair as the Sayer of the Law ("Are we not men?!"). The grotesque make-up may have been the reason that the film was rejected outright by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) in 1933 (their records are vague) and only shown in the UK for the first time in 1958 with heavy cuts. It's tempting to compare the hacking and slashing done to this beautiful work of art by the censors with Moreau's grotesque vivisection experiments. The full uncut version only received a video release in 1996 and Kenton's film finally got the restoration it deserved this year courtesy of a spanking new DVD package from Eureka!. I just saw it at the BFI as part of an Uncut season to mark the centenary of the BBFC and can assure you that this bizarre curiosity positively glows on the big screen.

*Disfigured, disabled or limbless young men where a familiar sight in 1920s America, ex-servicemen physically as well as emotionally scarred by their experiences in Europe. See Jack Huston's melancholy tin-masked sniper Richard Harrow in HBO's masterly Boardwalk Empire (2010-).

19/11/2012

Les Diaboliques (1955)

School teacher Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) drowns her abusive lover Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) in a bathtub after conspiring with his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s marvellous psychological horror. The director famously snatched the rights to Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s 1952 novel, Celle Qui N'Était Plus, from under the nose of Alfred Hitchcock and subsequently included a number of nods to the Master of Suspense in the finished film. The most obvious of these is the very Hitchcockian black comedy of the couple carping about the noise of the bath filling up with water and “drowning out” the radio quiz show they are trying to listen to as the women carry out the gory deed on the floor below. The great man’s stout shadow also looms over the tense scene in which the handle snaps off the wicker hamper the accomplices are using to transport Michel’s cadaver from the apartment and that in which a drunken solider attempts to “Hitch” a ride in their improvised hearse. The anti-spoiler message at the film’s close cautioning audiences not to ruin the experience for friends who haven’t yet seen it anticipates the Englishman’s attempt to ban tardy patrons from arriving late to screenings of Psycho in 1960. Hitch may have missed out on Les Diaboliques then but he made sure he got there first next time around, turning Boileau and Narcejac’s 1954 follow-up D’Entre Les Morts into a little film called Vertigo (1958).


In Les Diaboliques, Clouzot superbly establishes a creeping sense of unease and malaise at the French provincial boarding school owned  by Christina but presided over by the snide and tyrannical Delassalle. Echoing Jean Vigo’s celebrated comedy Zéro De Conduite (1933), the pupils talk just as savagely as schoolboys really do and obviously come from far wealthier homes than their teachers. What’s more, they know it. Delassalle meanwhile bullies Monsieur Drain (Pierre Larquey) out of his nightly glass of wine and aggressively forces his saintly, birdlike wife to swallow the rotten fish the canteen buys cheap and dishes up without relish to save money. No one dares question the head’s authority or indeed Nicole’s wearing sunglasses at dinner, obviously concealing a black eye. Delassalle’s public flaunting of his relationship with Nicole in front of the children is as utterly queasy as it is humiliating for Christina, a kindly former nun from Venezuela who has inherited the property and whom Michel has clearly married for her money. Only a man as horrid as Michel could drive Christina to conspire in murder and his forcing himself upon her sexually appears to be the final straw.


After establishing this corrupt state of affairs, Clouzot shows us the murder in near real-time, making expressionistic use of sound as a train whistle announces the victim’s arrival in town and relishing the details of the brass weight and the doped bottle of Johnnie Walker. From then on, the director switches seamlessly from crime melodrama to supernatural thriller as Michel’s corpse disappears from its watery grave in the murky depths of the school swimming pool. Signoret is particularly well cast for the Spanish-style ghost story that follows (complete with Charles Vanel’s rationalist detective on hand to raise doubt), having starred in an adaptation of Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin two years earlier and hence boasting prior experience of being haunted by the dripping spectre of a drowned man on celluloid. Signoret is tough throughout in the more masculine role but Véra Clouzot, the director’s wife, provides an impressive study in fear as a good woman whose frail heart and Catholic guilt are being viciously preyed upon. Tragically, Véra Clouzot herself would die of a heart attack in 1960, a fact that undeniably gives Les Diaboliques an additional ghoulish frisson today.

18/11/2012

Pink String & Sealing Wax (1945)

The BFI Southbank is currently running a major two-part Ealing retrospective, the first half of which is dedicated to showcasing many of the darker dramas the studio made and excelled at but that are less well remembered today than its familiar canon of plucky underdog comedies. This week I took the opportunity to catch this brilliant but sickly Edwardian murder melodrama set along the Brighton seafront, an old haunt of my grandfather when he worked as a musician at the Theatre Royal. The full-length feature debut from Robert Hamer, following on from his ‘Haunted Mirror’ contribution to Dead Of Night (1945), Pink String & Sealing Wax contrasts the home life of humourless chemist Edward Sutton (Mervyn Johns) with the rowdy goings on at The Dolphin, a pub owned by abusive drunk Joe Bond (Garry Marsh) and his wayward wife Pearl (Googie Withers).

Sutton is prim, stern and a Good Christian, a self-made bourgeoisie who grew up in want and now rules his own family with dogmatic cruelty, breaking off a love affair involving his eldest son David (Gordon Jackson) and dashing daughter Victoria’s (Jean Ireland) hopes of becoming an opera singer. David strikes out for The Dolphin one night to escape the stifling atmosphere and drown his frustrations in drink, whereupon he encounters Pearl and falls in love. Later attending to a cut on her palm, the result of a fracas with Joe, David warns her of the dangers of tetanus and shows off the array of poisons lining the shelves of his father’s pharmacy. Pearl realises she can use this information to bump off Joe and free herself to pursue a relationship with the man she really loves, Dan Powell (John Carol), a cheap and fickle dandy.


“Is there something in the Brighton air which so stimulates the human frame that it can only find relief in acts of violence?” wondered Evening Standard critic Patrick Kirwan in a contemporary review of the film, no doubt thinking of Graham Greene. Transferring the familiar homicidal lovers plotline from French literature and American pulp to the stout and oysters world of early twentieth century Brighton, Pearl and Dan perhaps most closely resemble the parasitic Kitty March and Johnny Prince from Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, released the same year. However, while that film focused on their sad and downtrodden victim, Pink String & Sealing Wax, based on a play by Roland Pertwee, gives the conspirators a much less sympathetic target and instead involves us in the lives of the Suttons. The always-subversive Hamer clearly enjoyed demonstrating the unhappy consequences of patriarch Edward Sutton’s domineering piousness but these scenes perhaps don’t gel as well as they might with the unseemly goings on at The Dolphin, whose regulars include Catherine Lacey’s memorably giggly gin hound Miss Porter. Hamer would achieve a much sounder balance between the home and the street in his more accomplished It Always Rains On Sunday two years later. Nevertheless, there’s much to enjoy here, including fine performances from Johns and Withers, Hamer making excellent use of the latter’s expressive face during Joe’s death scene, Pearl passing quickly from glee to repulsion as she watches the strychnine take hold.

The BFI’s ‘Dark Ealing’ season is well worth looking into if you’re in town. Aside from the films themselves, the venue has also mounted an impressive Mezzanine exhibition of studio memorabilia. From original posters for Went The Day Well? (1942) and Barnacle Bill (1957) to concept artwork by the likes of William Kellner and Michael Relph and an original sketch for Valerie Hobson’s costume in Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949) by Anthony Mendelson. The highlight for me though was an absolutely insane letter written to Michael Balcon, dated April 15 1957, from the real Bishop of Matebeleland complaining about the comic mention of his office by Alec Guinness and Dennis Price in Kind Hearts, even though the diocese was only created in 1952, three years after the film was made!

10/11/2012

The Seventh Seal (1957)


"And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven".
-Revelation 8:1

Returning home from the Crusades to find the Danish coast riddled with the Black Death, a knight and his squire rest on a pebble beach, weary from their arduous journey. The men have been away at war in the Holy Land for a decade and have been left spiritually drained and disillusioned by their experiences. While the earthy Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) dozes faces down on the shore, melancholy warrior Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) looks up from his chess set and out across a dark and turbulent sea to find the Grim Reaper (Bengt Ekerot) staring back. Block engages the spectre in a game with his own soul at stake and wins a temporary reprieve, which he then pledges to use to perform one last meaningful gesture to make amends for the life he believes he has squandered. Pushing on, Block and Jöns encounter a painter of morbid church murals, a troupe of travelling actors, a mute, a cuckolded blacksmith, a corrupt theologian and a mob of religious fanatics hysterical in their persecution of "witches".


Like many film fans of my generation, I first encountered Ingmar Bergman through the utterly excellent parody of The Seventh Seal in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991), in which the titular dudes challenge Death to a selection of modern board games including Battleships, electronic football and Twister. The Swede's crisis of faith allegory - originally conceived in 1954 as Wood Painting, a play for his drama students at Malmö City Theatre to perform - undoubtedly remains the director's best-known and most iconic work, although it is often lazily and unfairly characterised as bleak and humourless.

On the contrary, The Seventh Seal is filled with warm moments. Block's picnic of wild strawberries and milk with the jesters Mia (Bibi Andersson) and Jof (Nils Poppe) makes for an idyllic interlude, the bawdy love triangle concerning Plog (Åke Fridell) is essentially a midsummer night's sex comedy (to borrow a phrase from Bergman acolyte Woody Allen) while the smirking, gallows humour of Jöns provides a neat counterpoint to his master's depressive agonising over the meaning of life in an ailing universe in which the "silence of God" is all too deafening. Block's morose concerns were nevertheless shared by his director, who used the film as a vehicle for the discussion of his own anxieties about the possibility of maintaining a sincere faith in the existence of a benevolent, omniscient creator in a post-Holocaust age of nuclear warfare.

05/11/2012

The Round-Up (1965)

The literal translation of Szegénylegények, the title of this stark Goulash Western from Hungarian auteur Miklós Jancsó, is “The Hopeless Ones”, which gives a much clearer idea of the mood of the piece you’re in for.

Set 20 years on from Lajos Kossuth’s revolutionary charge against the ruling Austrian forces in 1848, Jancsó’s film centres around one of the detention camps established on the Hungarian Puszta that was still being used for imprisoning dissenters after the signing of the Great Compromise between the aristocracies of Austria and Hungary in 1867, unifying the empire under a dual monarchy. The Hungarian troops manning the station in question are seeking to single out the remaining members of a guerrilla faction led by bandit king Sándor Rózsa from the latest crop of suspects they’ve arrested. Having interrogated and intimidated several peasants and farmers without success, they turn to János Gajdar (János Görbe), a known murderer. As in John Hillcoat’s more recent Outback bloodbath The Proposition (2005), the authorities make a deal with János granting him his freedom if he can help them to ensnare the outlaws. With little choice but to become an informant, János is ultimately slain by his fellow inmates while in solitary confinement. As only two cell doors were deliberately left unlocked to allow for this eventuality, only two men could have been responsible, leading the guards neatly to the real members of Rózsa’s gang. The culprits are finally tricked into revealing themselves with the promise of a pardon and a post in the cavalry, after which they are swiftly executed.


Most shocking during a scene in which a woman is stripped and forced to run naked through a gauntlet of soldiers who thrash her with sabres as punishment for daring to supply the prisoners with food – a sight so horrible that several of the men throw themselves from the ramparts in horror as she dies from her wounds – Jancsó’s brooding historical drama is a landscape painting of oppression with universal significance. The frantic desperation of János to save his own skin is palpable and the half-hearted manner in which the prisoners submit to being shackled, bound and hooded is deeply unsettling (for modern audiences, this spectacle will inevitably call to mind the abuse of Iraqi prisoners during the War on Terror). These men accept their fate because there is nothing else, as horrible a prospect as you could wish for. Hungary had been unceremoniously shunted from the Habsburgs to Stalin in the intervening years between the period in which The Round-Up is set and that in which it was made and the film is the product of a world in which tyranny has become a mundane reality of everyday life. The director was forced to distance himself from the idea that The Round-Up was an implicit allegory for the repressive climate that followed the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 but, of course, it was. Sergio Leone was a great admirer of Jancsó and it’s easy to see how his widescreen, wind-dashed landscapes, thoughtful tracking shots and close-ups on grizzled, heavily moustachioed faces influenced the latter’s contemporaneous Dollars trilogy (1964-66). For that matter, you can also see Jancsó's legacy at work in the austere, doom-laden cinema of his compatriot and modern counterpart Béla Tarr.

28/10/2012

The Trial Of Joan Of Arc (1962)

Now I know how Joan of Arc felt. Robert Bresson shot this documentary-style reconstruction of the final days of the legendary French martyr using the actual minutes from her heresy trial at the hands of Catholic bishops in 1431. The strictness of the parameters Bresson set himself in sticking to these remarkable historical records meant there was no room for epic battle scenes or spectacular sets and ensured a tight focus on Joan's emotional response to persecution. As was his custom, Bresson hired a cast of largely non-professional actors in order to make the film more naturalistic and because of his loathing for actorly artifice, a tactic also employed by Pier Paolo Pasolini in his Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964). To this end, future novelist and academic Florence Delay makes for an utterly mesmerising "Maid of Orléans", defiant in the face of her inquisitors at Rouen and unshakeable in her conviction that the voices in her head are those of St. Catherine and St. Margaret bearing messages from God. Delay's Joan does not recognise the authority of the ecclesiastical court convened to convict her and only flatly responds to the questions of Bishop Cauchon (Jean-Claude Fourneau, a surrealist painter by trade). She dies assured that the hypocritical clergymen who condemn her do not represent the will of her maker and leaves behind only a pair of smouldering iron shackles, a symbol of the meaninglessness of the church's terrestrial tyranny over a true believer. Her execution is a confirmation, not a tragedy.

Leonard Cohen - Joan Of Arc

20/10/2012

Le Corbeau (1943)

A mysterious figure begins sending poison pen letters to the great and the good of the small French town of St Robin accusing them of various misdeeds, signing his mischievous epistles simply as "The Raven". The first recipient is Dr Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), the new town physician, whom the anonymous tipster alleges has been carrying out illegal abortions and conducting an affair with Laura Vorzet (Micheline Francey), the young wife of a colleague. As more and more taunting letters arrive, Dr Germain sets out to unmask the vigilante agent of chaos responsible. His suspects include his own hypochondriac mistress Denise (Ginette Leclerc, below), the town wit Vorzet (Pierre Larquey) and even 14 year-old schoolgirl Rolande (Liliane Maigné).


A whodunnit in the sense that Michael Haneke's superficially similar The White Ribbon (2009) is a whodunnit, Le Corbeau is really a savage critique of French provincial life. Screenwriter Louis Chavance peoples the microcosmic St Robin with weak, corrupt, morally compromised leaders and a hysterical populace governed by fear and mob mentality. St Robin's is a society ready to crumble at the first hint of insinuation and The Raven duly obliges with an inky terror campaign that teases out the secrets and communal tensions lurking beneath the bourgeois respectability of its surface. A vision of a rotten town (and, by extension, country) akin to anything in American pulp fiction or noir and a grim meditation on the destructive power of accusation and hypocrisy, it's a wonder that director Henri-Georges Clouzot managed to get it made.


Clouzot was then in the employ of Continental Films, a Nazi-controlled studio charged by Joseph Goebbels with producing "mindless entertainment" with which to distract the French public while under occupation. Ironically, Continental was much less concerned with propaganda and censorship than the Vichy government, so Clouzot was allowed to proceed with his dark satire unimpeded, right up until the final cut offended everyone in sight (despite its deeply and deliberately ambiguous nature). Le Corbeau was hated by both left and right-wing critics for undermining the French character and French social institutions, by the Catholic church for its pungent cynicism and morbidity and by the Nazis for its attack on the informant culture they had sought to cultivate since seizing power. Unsurprisingly, the film was ultimately banned while Clouzot himself was prohibited from making films for two years in 1945 as punishment for collaborating with Continental. However, Le Corbeau was soon re-released and hailed as a masterpiece, allowing Clouzot to go on and become known as the "French Hitchcock" by directing such classics as The Wages Of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1954).

19/10/2012

The Wicked Lady (1945)

A jewel of the “Gainsborough Gothic” cycle identified by critic Francis Wyndham, Leslie Arliss’s The Wicked Lady was a box office smash in 1945 and stars the ravishing, raven-haired Margaret Lockwood as Barbara Skelton, a 17th century aristocrat who takes to the road to become a highwayman as a means of escaping provincial boredom. A lusty romantic melodrama filled with bawdy humour, lavish costumes and a dashing James Mason, The Wicked Lady was clearly made to cater to the fantasies of a predominantly female wartime audience of land girls and munitions factory workers whose husbands and lovers were away at war. In the US, films like 20th Century Fox's Jane Eyre with Orson Welles were churned out for much the same market. However, as Graham Fuller of Sight & Sound recently pointed out, the plunging cleavages of The Wicked Lady’s heroines, which upset American censors almost as much as Jane Russell’s joyous jugs in The Outlaw (1943), would hardly have deterred the menfolk.



Although pre-feminist (taken from Magdalen King-Hall’s novel of the same year), the film presents us with a female protagonist who is sexually liberated and simply takes whatever her heart desires – starting with Sir Ralph (Griffith Jones), the fiancé of her Plain Jane cousin Caroline (Patricia Roc), an impulse that leads Barbara Skelton almost casually towards a life of crime. The Wicked Lady’s frankness about sex comes as something of a surprise when one is accustomed to the generally more coy output of the period. Barbara’s bridesmaids leer, giggle and exchange innuendos as she prepares for her wedding night while her hated sister-in-law, Lady Henrietta Kingsclere (Enid Stamp Taylor), bites her lip hungrily at the very thought of being accosted by Mason’s notorious Captain Jerry Jackson. The latter himself is no slouch on this front: “Oh just one more!” cries Barbara as she hurriedly unloads gold bullion from a coach they’re robbing; “I’ve heard you say that in other circumstances...” he smirks.


The unjustly forgotten Lockwood is captivating and turns in a boisterous central performance as a woman who ultimately murders three men over the course of the picture - British cinema wouldn't ask us to root for a loveable serial killer again until  Louis Mazzini dug out the family tree in Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949). There’s excellent support from Roc, Stamp Taylor, Francis Lister and the under-used Martita Hunt and Jean Kent. The other male leads – Jones and Michael Rennie – are more forgettable but Mason is great fun: “By my stars... So it’s a skirt we have in the saddle!” He doesn’t always seem comfortable – as though he’s not entirely convinced that he doesn’t look ridiculous – especially in his scenes with buxom doxies at the debauched Leaping Stag tavern, but that only adds to the charm of the production. His merry ascent to the gallows at Tyburn is as funny as his return from the grave to rape Barbara is shocking. A fascinating and highly entertaining caper, The Wicked Lady gallops along at a lively pace thanks to some sharp editing from future Hammer horror director Terence Fisher. Arliss shows some real flair behind the camera too, shooting from inside a lit fireplace at one point so that its flames appear to lick at Barbara while her servant Hogarth (Felix Aylmer) lectures her on eternal damnation and recoiling backwards out of the window at another as an aghast Kit (Rennie) finally rejects the dying adventuress for her villainous ways. An ice skating scene on the frozen Thames is also inventively staged. Overall, a splendid romp.

14/10/2012

The Bohemian Girl (1936)

Stan and Ollie doing opera? It happened. Here the boys take on Irish composer William Michael Balfe's The Bohemian Girl of 1843, which in practical terms gave them an excuse to don traditional Central European folk costumes and pageboy haircuts and look ludicrous, a bright idea they would repeat soon after in Swiss Miss (1938). Balfe's plot lands our favourite saps in 18th century Austria,  where their simple existence as gypsy pickpockets is turned upside down when Ollie's fearsome wife (Mae Busch) kidnaps Arline Arnheim (Darla Hood), the young daughter of a cruel count (William P. Carleton) and then elopes with her raffish lover Devilhoof (Antonio Moreno), leaving the boys quite literally holding the baby.

Regulars Busch and James Finlayson, as the captain of the palace guards, are on splendid form here, she as irate and menacing as she was playing a deranged serial killer in Oliver The Eighth (1934) and he once more demonstrating his mastery of the suspicious squint and aggrieved snort. Thelma Todd also briefly appears in what would be her final role, a part that had to be truncated following her mysterious death from carbon monoxide poisoning. The studio sets and costumes are excellent, the gypsy camp makes for a colourful historic backdrop and there's some memorable business with Stan and Ollie trying to rob people while telling their fortune, a scam masterminded by Stan, unusually. The torture chamber finale, in which Ollie is stretched out on the rack to a phenomenal height and Stan horribly condensed in an iron maiden, is another superb gag. But the real highlight for me is the scene below in which Ollie watches enchanted as the grown-up Arline (Jacqueline Wells) trills the exquisite aria 'I Dreamt I Dwelt In Marble Halls' while Stan greedily devours the entire contents of the breakfast table, completely uninterested.



Competently co-directed by James W. Horne and Charley Rogers, The Bohemian Girl is a charming little piece of work but who knows what Balfe would have made of his grand romantic opera being given the Hal Roach treatment? 

06/10/2012

The Leopard (1963)

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
- Tancredi Falconeri

Some have hailed Luchino Visconti’s sumptuous adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's only novel as the finest film ever made and there’s a strong case for it. The Leopard recounts the life of the mid-19th century Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster), an ageing aristocrat initially in denial of the dead soldier on his lawn and the wider significance it represents as Garibaldi’s Redshirts sweep into Sicily. Insisting instead that nothing will change for his privileged caste, Don Fabrizio confidently assures his priest that his decadent world of hunting, picnics and balls will be free to carry on regardless of the outcome of the disagreeable recent spate of skirmishes. However, the prince also knows that his homeland is riven with a self-destructive urge for oblivion and is nothing if not “a country of comprise”. Don Fabrizio soon finds himself forced to make a series of pragmatic decisions in order to safeguard the legacy of his seven children as the “jackals and hyenas” circle to drive old “leopards” like him to extinction. Against his own wishes, the prince votes for Victor Emmanuel and the unification of Italy to ensure that the revolutionary mood of the peasants of Donnafugata does not spill over into violence. Later, he arranges for his dashing nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) to marry Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the daughter of gauche, nouveau riche landowner Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), instead of his own daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), knowing full well she is in love with Tancredi. Finally, Don Fabrizio rejects a prestigious senatorial position with the new government, surrendering instead to provincial irrelevance and mortality with a sigh for a lost age of splendour.


Lampedusa himself was the last in a line of Sicilian princes, a solitary cove who spent his life quietly following intellectual pursuits and pondering the possibility of writing a novel about the opulent lifestyle of his grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, during the Risorgimento. Lampedusa finally commenced the work in 1954 as a means of combating depression, brought on by the death of his mother and the destruction of the family palazzo in Palermo during the war, finishing the work a year later only to face the disappointment of seeing it rejected twice by Italian publishers. After the author’s death from lung cancer in 1957, Il Gattopardo was published posthumously to huge acclaim after being championed by novelist Giorgio Bassani and Visconti’s film followed five years later, taking the Palme d’Or at Cannes but met with bemusement at its New York premiere.
 

A great shame Lampedusa never lived to see his masterpiece achieve the immortality it so clearly deserved. Visconti certainly does him proud, his film a lavish, epic examination of the dawning of modern Italy and an elegy for its past. Visconti may have been a Marxist but he was also the son of a Milanese duke so his sympathy for the subject shines through. He manages to capture the last hurrah of the old nobility in meticulous fashion, owing a huge debt to the exacting work of his production designer, Piero Tosi. The oppressive heat, sunburnt hillsides and rustic majesty of Sicily itself are also superbly caught by Visconti, largely using natural light, just as Stanley Kubrick would a decade later in Barry Lyndon (1975). Outdoor scenes, notably the argument between the prince and his gamekeeper Don Ciccio (Serge Reggiani) seem an obvious inspiration for the Sicily passages in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974). Well known for its exquisite concluding ball, running for 45 minutes and intended to fatigue and overwhelm the audience just as it does Don Fabrizio, The Leopard’s early battle scene between Garibaldi’s troops and local forces is also utterly enthralling. Painterly in execution, the bold uniforms of the protagonists are juxtaposed with fallen stonework and flaming debris as local people flee the soldiers’ musket fire in terror while a mob of widows lynch a policeman in a revenge attack.


As for the stars, Lancaster proved a highly controversial piece of casting in the lead - third choice behind Nikolai Cherkasov and Laurence Olivier and originally dismissed by US critics for lacking stature in the role - but delivered one of his best performances, managing to embody this man out of time despite some ropey voice dubbing occasionally working against him. American actors always seem to benefit from Italian direction – think of Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone, Jack Nicholson and Michelangelo Antonioni, Marlon Brando and Bernardo Bertolucci and, more recently, Sean Penn and Paolo Sorrentino. Frenchman Delon is cool and nicely understated while Cardinale (phwoar) apparently managed to juggle shooting scenes for The Leopard with Fellini’s , which was in production at the same time. Incredible.

02/10/2012

You're Telling Me! (1934)

"It's a funny old world... Man's lucky if he gets out of it alive."
- Sam Bisbee

Although this W.C. Fields comedy for Paramount is one of the old rascal’s finest outings, it’s also unquestionably his saddest film. Fields often played oppressed husbands but his familiar blustering con artist never came close to surrendering to despair, always finding consolation in the bottle and the support of a doughty daughter when matters took a turn for the worse. But that finally comes to pass here and I can think of few more quietly devastating scenes in movies than that of Fields’ hapless inventor Sam Bisbee composing a suicide note and planning to poison himself with iodine on the train home rather than face his wife and child in disgrace. Fortunately, a fairy godmother intervenes in the person of the lovely Princess Lescaboura (Adrienne Ames) but the thought that even as resilient a cove as Fields can’t bear to live any more is an upsetting one indeed.

The reason for this aspiring Edison’s depression is the recent humiliation he’s suffered in front of the National Tire Company’s board of directors when attempting to demonstrate his most prized invention – a puncture-proof automobile tyre. Having previously installed four of these babies on his own car, Bisbee begins brazenly firing bullets at the vehicle while the suits look on, little realising that the rubber he’s busy deflating belongs to someone else’s jalopy – his own having been towed away by the cops while he was pressing the flesh inside. Things are bad at home too. Abigail (Louise Carter), his wife of 20 years, is embarrassed and aggravated by his every move – there’s a superb bit of business in which Fields drives her nuts by getting himself, his straw hat and the shoes he’s carrying hopelessly tangled up in some ornamental curtain ropes – while his daughter (Joan Marsh) is involved with a man whose family are appalling snobs. This suitor is played, incidentally, by the unbelievably square jawed Larry “Buster” Crabbe – an Olympic gold medallist swimmer who would go on to star as Tarzan, Buck Rogers AND Flash Gordon before the decade was out. Despite these troubles, help is at hand for Bisbee as the sympathetic princess turns the town of Crystal Springs upside down to her friend’s advantage and puts the ghastly Mrs Murchison (Kathleen Howard) well and truly in her place.


Directed by the prolific Erle C. Kenton, who made The Island Of Lost Souls for the studio with Charles Laughton in 1932, You’re Telling Me! ends up being a damning indictment of provincial snootiness and hypocrisy, embodied by the strident Howard as well as Fields regulars Nora Cecil and Elise Cavanna as the snide town gossips. Disapproving prospective in-laws were a common Fieldsian theme, also present in the likes of The Old Fashioned Way (1934) and Poppy (1936). Another recurring motif present here is the concluding golf scene with Tammany Young as an oafish caddy, essentially a remake of W.C.'s 1930 RKO short The Golf Specialist but priceless all the same. Perhaps the highlight here though is the film’s contrived but spectacular runaway ostrich chase, Fields trying frantically to hold onto the bird's leash as it sprints off down the street for no good reason whatsoever. Bisbee’s homemade inventions are also hilarious, including an attachment for guiding a drunkard’s key to the front door when under the influence, a double necked milk bottle for twins and the “murder chair”, a burglar trap that might have come in handy in the opening scene of The Man On The Flying Trapeze (1935). Fields glugging more than just a nip from the mayor’s “something on the hip” is my favourite scene though. As soon as you catch this happy sight, you know that all's right with the universe once again.

30/09/2012

Le Plaisir (1952)

Jean Gabin and Danielle Darrieux in another portmanteau work, this time a trio of sublime Guy de Maupassant adaptations from Max Ophüls, the great poet of movement, symmetry and splendour. ‘Le Masque’ tells of a mysterious reveller who collapses from over exuberance one evening at Montmartre’s Palais de la Danse. Upon inspection by a physician, this strange dandy is revealed to be an elderly man sporting a rubber mask, endeavouring to defy the years by concealing his wrinkles and grey hair so that he can continue to pursue wine, women and song as he did in his youth. ‘Le Maison Tellier’ tells of a brothel madam (Madeleine Renaud) who closes her establishment for the weekend to attend her niece’s first communion in the countryside, attending the ceremony with her full complement of staff in tow, much to the delight of their host, her brother Joseph (Gabin). Finally, ‘Le Modèle’ is the tragic story of an artist (Daniel Gélin) and his model (Simone Simon) who fall in and out of love before her suicide attempt leads them to reconcile.

One is quick to run out of superlatives when it comes to Ophüls. The obvious thing to note is his virtuoso use of a camera, never more spectacular and inventive than in Le Plaisir, a film in which the director keeps finding ingenious new tricks with which to echo and enhance the themes and mood of his action. Ophüls sends us swirling deliriously around the Palais as the masked man throws himself into the can-can in insolent defiance of death, has us scale the walls of Madam Tellier’s cat house and peer through the windows before the shutters are discreetly closed and takes us hiking through the bushes to spy on two lovers as they quarrel by the river bank. But our man saves his most remarkable feat for last, the astonishing death plunge of Simon’s heartbroken model – racing up the stairs of Jean Servais’ studio before leaping and crashing through a glass conservatory roof below, all shot in the first-person.


The film takes pleasure as its theme and I can think of few more joyous sights than that of Gabin’s cheery farmer ferrying his bevy of prostitutes by horse-drawn cart through the yellow rape fields of Normandy, a broad grin beaming across his face. His chaste romance with one of their number, Rosa (Darrieux), feels like a very human moment of connection between two lonely souls and her tears in the chapel and his drunken toast at the subsequent banquet are unforgettable because of the truths they encapsulate.

28/09/2012

Dead Of Night (1945)

This was Ealing’s only horror film and, although it proved influential, it has to be said that Dead Of Night is a bit of a mixed bag. A portmanteau affair bringing together five tales of the uncanny and supernatural, the film united four of Michael Balcon’s finest directors - Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer – but ultimately suffers as a result of its inconsistency of tone.

Architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arrives at a rural country manor where he is unnerved to find that he has encountered several of the strangers he meets there before in a dream. His alarm is dismissed by the resident rationalist psychiatrist (Frederick Valk) but the rest of the guests are intrigued and begin recounting their own experiences. The highlight of these stars Googie Withers as a bride-to-be who presents her fiancé Peter (Ralph Michael) with an antique mirror as a wedding gift, little realising that the looking glass is haunted and reflects only the bedroom of its previous owner, a nineteenth century aristocrat who murdered his wife and seems intent on possessing Peter from beyond the grave. Directed by Hamer, then an editor making his debut behind the camera, this is genuinely scary stuff that benefits enormously from Withers’ experience and conviction. The nuttiest tale in the bunch comes from Crichton and reunites professional Englishmen Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, better known as Charters and Caldicott from Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). This time the boys play Parratt and Potter, two best friends and rival golfers (rather than cricket buffs) who fall out over a girl and decide to play 18 holes for her hand. Parratt wins her by cheating, prompting Potter to drown himself in a lake, only to return from the hereafter to haunt his old chum on his wedding night. A great deal of silliness but apparently taken from an original story by H.G. Wells, if you can believe it. Dearden directs much of the workmanlike filler material while Cavalcanti brings in the most opulent scenes, a traditional Victorian Christmas ghost story of the don’t-be-ridiculous-he-died-years-ago variety and the concluding account of a ventriloquist driven to drink and insanity by a dummy with a life of its own. The killer doll plotline may be an old chestnut now thanks to Child’s Play (1988) and its ilk and was hardly fresh in 1945, but the episode is notable for a riveting central performance from Michael Redgrave, foreshadowing Norman Bates as a tormented and increasingly psychotic schizophrenic.


As well as the directors and stars on show, Balcon was able to deploy studio writers T.E.B. Clarke, John Baines and Angus MacPhail with composer Georges Auric to crank up the tension. There’s also a wealth of British character talent on show in supporting roles, from Miles Malleson as a gleeful hearse driver in an E.F. Benson-based short to Peter Jones as a clubhouse barman. Uneven overall but a suitably dark film to have made in wartime, there’s enough good stuff in Dead Of Night – not least the creepy ending that ties it all together - to make it a shame the studio didn’t return to the genre at a point when it was casting around for a new creative direction.