31/01/2012

Madame De... (1953)


Time for a little change of pace, I feel. Here's the regal Danielle Darrieux as the titular belle with Vittorio De Sica (an accomplished actor as well as the celebrated director of Bicycle Thieves, 1948) playing her doomed lover, Baron Donati, in Max Ophüls' sumptuous adaptation of Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin's 1951 period novel. The author remains one of the few people ever to see Madame De... and take exception to it. American critic Andrew Sarris regularly campaigns for it as "the most perfect film ever made" and I certainly can't recall seeing a more exquisite piece of cinema, though perhaps Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934) runs it close.


Set in the opulent surroundings of fin de siècle Parisian high society, a world of boundless luxury, the film's carefully constructed plot concerns its aristocratic heroine's decision to sell back a pair of diamond earrings gifted to her as a wedding present by her husband, a stern but loving general (Charles Boyer), in order to pay off some personal debts she'd rather keep private. The trinkets are then quietly resold to the general who passes them on to his mistress, who in turn pawns them in Constantinople to fund a gambling habit. There they are finally acquired by Italian diplomat Donati, who happens by chance to run into Madame de... at customs and falls in love with her without ever quite managing to catch her name. They begin an affair in the embassy ball rooms and restaurants of the French capital, which is initially tolerated but resented by the general, before matters come to a head and the two men take to the duelling field to settle the matter on a point of honour.


Coming in the middle of the German director's great purple patch towards the end of his life, which also produced Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) with Joan Fontaine, La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1951), a Guy de Maupassant compilation featuring Jean Gabin, and Lola Montès (1955), this tale of love, lovelessness and loss is exquisitely played by its leads, Boyer and Darrieux reuniting two decades on from their first pairing in Anatole Litvak's historical drama Mayerling (1936) and giving truly affecting performances. Boyer in particular is magnificent as a man forced to accept a role imposed upon him by his wayward wife that isn't necessarily true or fair. The rich emotional complexity in evidence here is as fine as all the silks, satins, furs and gemstones the General bestows upon his bride and Ophüls allows his actors every freedom, letting the action unfold naturally and trusting in the subtlety of his players as Christian Matras's camera glides, drifts and orbits around them like some lingering scullery maid. Stanley Kubrick famously noted that Ophüls' camera could "pass through walls" but this approach to shooting is no mere novelty and comes always at the service of mood, perhaps most clearly when Darrieux and De Sica are seen waltzing together and the camera's swoops and reels echo the intoxication of their movement, rallying against the stifling proprietaries and expectations of society. François Truffaut suggested in The Films In My Life (1978) that, "Ophüls was less interested in real things than in their reflections; he liked to film life indirectly, by ‘ricochet.’ For example the first treatment of Madame De…, rejected by the producers, planned that the story, which we all know, be seen entirely in mirrors and on the walls and ceiling."

Ophüls' heroine journeys from frivolous materialist to passionate woman to tragic victim with the passage of time and similarly the earrings themselves take on new layers of meaning and significance whenever fate intervenes to pass them on from one owner to the next. John Webster discussed the same phenomenon in The Duchess Of Malfi (1613), over three centuries earlier, when he wrote, "Diamonds are of most value, they say, that have past through most jewellers' hands" and perhaps Madame De... itself is acquiring a greater lustre as the world that created it falls away and disappears.

26/01/2012

Limelight (1952)


Charlie Chaplin had intended Limelight to be his final film, a closing statement on his own career, mortality and the fickle nature of fame. As it happened, he went on to make two more - A King In New York (1957) and A Countess In Hong Kong (1967), the latter a particular curiosity with Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren and Tippi Hedren among the cast - but Limelight is his real swansong and comes with more than a whiff of the vanity project about it. This nostalgic autobiographical melodrama is really classic Chaplin, in all of its maddening charm, humanity and unapologetic syrup.


Chaplin directs and stars as Calvero, "the tramp clown" (hint, hint), a former star of the London music halls of the late nineteenth century but a penniless alcoholic by the summer of 1914. Returning to his lodging house inebriated one afternoon, Calvero smells a gas leak and breaks into the ground floor flat of Terry (Claire Bloom), a desperate young girl attempting to commit suicide. Calvero rescues her and nurses her back to health, learning that she was once a ballerina but can no longer dance after failing to recover fully from rheumatic fever. However, a doctor suggests that Terry's condition is really psychosomatic and so Calvero puts her back on her feet and teaches her to walk again. Terry falls in love with her saviour but he rebuffs her, feeling she deserves to be with a younger man, and leaves to busk for a living. Terry returns to the ballet and triumphs while Calvero's comeback gig flounders. Later the pair are reunited and she wins him the part of a harlequin at the Empire Ballet under an alias. Once his true identity becomes known, a benefit performance is swiftly arranged in his honour, one last round of applause for a dying god.

Yes it's heavy-handed and leaves nothing unsaid (ironic for a silent comic) but Limelight is a touching and persuasive bit of business too. And while it may not be as searching a look behind the velvet curtains as, say, Tony Richardson's The Entertainer (1960), there are some deeply felt, true and occasionally bitter observations espoused here about the world and its myriad hardships and cruelties. Chaplin was no stranger to scandal after all and had encountered the best and worst in people over the course of his long and extraordinary career. He would soon receive another dose - on returning from a British tour promoting Limelight, Chaplin was told that he was no longer welcome in America because of his supposed communist sympathies, the country then caught up in the grip of paranoid McCarthyism, an occurrence that sparked his long-term estrangement from the US. He returned to pick up his only competitive Oscar 20 years later when Limelight was re-released, winning for best original score, but the rift was never truly healed.


Aside from its subject matter and standing within the Chaplin canon, Limelight is perhaps best known for featuring the only ever on screen pairing of Charlot with his great silent rival Buster Keaton (above). Rather like Keaton's brief cameo in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), the part was written in as a kindness to the Great Stone Face who had fallen on hard times after a messy divorce but he's superb on stage with Chaplin playing an absent-minded pianist struggling with his sheet music. Chaplin's own performance is as expressive and graceful as ever, Bloom is extremely endearing in her first silver screen appearance and Nigel Bruce (Basil Rathbone's Dr Watson for many years) is amusing as stuffy patron Mr Poston. Many Chaplin children also appear in small parts, most notably Charlie's son Sydney as Neville, Terry's lost love, and the film also serves as a useful guide to the sort of material the star was performing much earlier in his career (he first played a flea circus ringmaster in the unfinished 1919 short, The Professor, for instance). If the whole affair weren't quite so damned earnest and self-pitying I'd say it was a masterpiece.

15/01/2012

The Ladykillers (1955)


Alexander Mackendrick's pitch-black comedy stands as one of the jewels in Ealing's crown and is just possibly the greatest of all British films. Based on a masterly script by William Rose (an American, of all things), The Ladykillers concerns elderly widow Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), a sweet old biddy who lives alone in a bomb-damaged house in darkest King's Cross, a ramshackle residence cluttered with doilies, fussy floral wallpaper, parrots and pictures hanging askew. When she takes a new lodger in the person of the outwardly charming but in fact really rather sinister Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness), Mrs Wilberforce finds her quiet existence suddenly turned as lopsided as her home. Claiming to be rehearsing with the other members of his string quintet upstairs, the Professor is actually plotting a bullion heist with a criminal gang, a ragtag bunch of riff-raff comprised of Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker and the hulking Danny Green. The job goes off without a hitch (sort of...) but when the redoubtable Mrs Wilberforce learns the truth and insists that the Professor and his mob hand themselves over to the police, there seems to be only one solution to their predicament...


Rather than try and analyse this most glorious of capers, I thought I'd quote Mackendrick on the subject at length from his 2004 book On Film-Making, which offers the best reading of The Ladykillers you could possibly wish for, straight from the horse's mouth:

“The fable of The Ladykillers is a comic and ironic joke about the condition of post-war England. After the war, the country was going through a kind of quiet, typically British but nevertheless historically fundamental revolution. Though few people were prepared to face up to it, the great days of the Empire were gone forever. British society was shattered with the same kind of conflicts appearing in many other countries: an impoverished and disillusioned upper class, a brutalised working class, juvenile delinquency among the mods and rockers, an influx of foreign and potentially criminal elements, and a collapse of ‘intellectual’ leadership. All of these threatened the stability of the national character.
Though at no time did Bill Rose or I ever spell this out, look at the characters in the film. The Major (Parker), a conman, is a caricature of the decadent military ruling class. One Round (Green) is the oafish representative of the British masses. Harry (Sellers) is the spiv, the worthless younger generation. Louis (Lom) is the dangerously unassimilated foreigner. They are a composite cartoon of Britain's corruption. The tiny figure of Mrs Wilberforce (Wilberforce was the name of the 19th century idealist who called for the abolition of slavery) is plainly a much diminished Britannia. Her house is in a cul-de-sac. Shabby and cluttered with memories of the days when Britain's navy ruled the world and captains gallantly stayed on the bridge as their ship went down, her house is structurally unsound. Dwarfed by the grim landscape of railway yards and screaming express trains, it is Edwardian England, an anachronism in the contemporary world.
Bill Rose's sentimental hope for the country that he and I saw through fond but sceptical eyes was that it might still, against all logic, survive its enemies. A theme, a message of sorts, one that I felt very attached to. But one that it took quite some time for me to consciously recognise and appreciate".

An acute and thoughtful allegorical state-of-the-nation address then as well as a cracking comedy. As expertly played as the villains here are, it's the remarkable Katie Johnson, then aged 76, who really deserves the plaudits. Mrs Wilberforce violently attacking her clanking plumbing with a mallet in order to squeeze out enough water to fill the kettle is a definite highlight for her sudden and unexpected physicality but it's her dignified bearing, fine diction and unwavering moral compass that make her such an astonishing force of nature. Watch out also for an early appearance from Carry On star Frankie Howerd as an aggrieved barrow boy and, needless to say, give the Coen Brother's ill-advised 2004 remake short shrift - despite Tom Hank's best efforts in the Guinness part, it's entirely unnecessary and their worst film by some way. Irish comedian Graham Linehan recently scripted a stage version of The Ladykillers for London's West End starring Peter Capaldi that might fare better but, really, how could you not plump for the original?

13/01/2012

The Big Steal (1949)


After the combustible chemistry they demonstrated in Jacques Tourner's ultimate noir Out Of The Past (1947), audiences were hungry for a second pairing of stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. Their wish was only granted, however, when Mitchum's original co-star on The Big Steal, Lizabeth Scott, dropped out following his arrest for marijuana possession, fearing her image might be tarnished by association. Greer was called in, in spite of objections from a besotted Howard Hughes, when no other actress on the RKO lot would take the part and the result was this light-hearted chase caper through rural Mexico, again based on a script by novelist "Geoffrey Homes" (AKA Daniel Mainwaring), this time adapting Richard Wormser's short story 'The Road To Carmichael's' with Gerald Drayson Adams. Mitchum plays US army lieutenant Duke Halliday, on the run from his superior, Captain Vincent Blake (genre regular William Bendix), after being framed for the theft of $300,000 from the payroll. Pursuing Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles), the real stick-up man, all the way to Mexico, Halliday encounters Fiske's angry girlfriend Joan Graham (Greer), who is also after the slippery spiv over some "borrowed" funds of her own. The duo reluctantly join forces to track him down, with Blake not far behind.


Naturally, The Big Steal isn't the unquestionable classic its predecessor was but Mitchum and the tough, capable Greer spark off each other nicely once again and there's an enjoyably relaxed, comic tone to proceedings. Director Don Siegel, who would of course go on to shoot Dirty Harry (1971), demonstrates a sharp eye for the lively sights and sounds of the Mexican countryside (accentuated in the 1991 colourised version I saw), shading the background with herds of goats, outraged gas station attendants and sentimental road menders. Stereotypes perhaps, but there's also a credible, rounded Mexican character here in the person of Inspector-General Ortega, played by former silent heartthrob Ramón Novarro, sadly better known these days for his brutal murder at the hands of two rent boys in 1968, who choked him to death with an art deco dildo, than for his earlier career as a Latin lover and the first screen Ben Hur. Ortega makes for a shrewd presence, never for a second convinced by Mitchum's false identity and touchingly proud of his gradually improving English. The plot may not be especially original (it actually echoes This Gun For Hire, 1942, in several respects) but there's a great deal of fun to be had here, not least because of the smoking leads, a wild car chase making full use of some frantic back projection and a trio of strong supporting performs courtesy of the always reliable Bendix, Novarro and John Qualen, the latter an eccentric "fence".

08/01/2012

This Gun For Hire (1942)


A little more Veronica Lake from the same year in the first of her popular pairings with Alan Ladd, followed by The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), an Americanisation of Graham Greene's thriller A Gun For Sale (1936) from director Frank Tuttle and writers W.R. Burnett and Albert Maltz.

In his breakthrough performance, Ladd stars as Raven, an embittered hitman forced to turn fugitive when he is paid for a job in marked bills, prompting him to seek revenge on his double-crossing contacts while evading the cops. Raven is described by Greene as, "made by hatred; it had constructed him into this thin smoky murderous figure in the rain, hunted and ugly. His mother had borne him when his father was in gaol, and six years later when his father was hanged for another crime, she cut her own throat with a kitchen knife; afterwards there had been no home. He had never felt the least tenderness for anyone". Greene's protagonist served as the prototype for Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock (1938) and sports a grotesque hair-lip that warps his features (and by extension his moral outlook), presenting him with a serious professional handicap, especially when he spends much of the story on the run from the authorities with coverage of his sensational escape splashed across the front page of every newspaper. Ladd's only problem, however, is a broken wrist and a history of violence at the hands of an abusive aunt and a reform school. He's as handsome as ever and it's hard to accept his total nihilistic withdrawal from society, sympathising only with alley cats as fellow self-imposed outsiders. Surely someone so good looking can't really have done all that badly by other people? This is just one of several problems with giving Greene's grotty little revenge pulp the sanitising treatment. Instead of the pre-war European political assassination that rivals that of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand for significance in A Gun For Sale, Raven's opening assignment here is simply to take out a minor police informant in San Francisco. Similarly, when Lake's Ellen Graham is trussed up and imprisoned by portly villain Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), she is stowed away in an elegant closet rather than shoved unceremoniously up a boarding house chimney like her literary counterpart Anne. While Anne works as a chorus girl in a provincial Christmas pantomime, Ellen is a chanteuse and magician at a flash night club. The source is also hijacked somewhat for the delivery of a clumsy but timely pro-interventionist message: Gates and his employer Alvin Brewster (Tully Marshall), owner of Nitro Chemical, are preparing to sell poisonous gas to the Japanese, prompting Ellen to scold the previously indifferent Raven: "This war is everybody's business. Yours too." If only serial-Greene adapter Carol Reed (The Fallen Idol, 1948, The Third Man, 1949, and Our Man In Havana, 1959) had gotten his hands on it, we might have had something more remorselessly grim, a British noir along the lines of his own Odd Man Out (1947), the Boulting Brothers' Brighton Rock (1947) or Jules Dassin's Night & The City (1950). Greene himself said he didn't care for Tuttle's film and confessed himself mystified by the "strange intrusion" of a "girl conjurer" into the story but personally I found Lake's musical numbers a definite highlight, not least because of the bizarre dominatrix/angler outfit she sports in 'I've Got You'.



Still, for all those gripes, This Gun For Hire remains a supremely entertaining affair with two spanking hot leads, memorable bad guys (Marshall's ancient and dying Brewster especially) and some fine action set-ups, not least the shoot-out at the train yard and the gas mask scene, which is also in Greene's novella and presents a real gift for screenwriters as it's already a perfectly cinematic plot contrivance, designed to confuse.

07/01/2012

I Married A Witch (1942)


Here's a sweet supernatural screwball comedy starring an adorable Veronica Lake as Jennifer, a 17th century witch burned at the stake and imprisoned within a tree along with her wicked father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) by Salem Puritans led by Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March). Before she dies, Jennifer places a curse on Wooley damning all of his male heirs to endure unhappy love lives. Centuries later, a bolt of lightning strikes the tree and frees Jennifer and Daniel into the present day, whereupon she seeks out the modern ancestor of her denouncer, the soon-to-be-married gubernatorial candidate Wallace Wooley (March), and tries to make him fall in love with her in order to torment the family further. However, when Jennifer is inadvertently fed her own love potion by mistake, the situation runs out of control, the pair get hitched and she realises she must protect her husband from his new father-in-law, still unrepentantly evil and out for revenge.
 
Frenchman René Clair - a dab hand with comedy and the director of À Nous La Liberté (1931), a major influence on Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) - made this fun little outing his second Hollywood picture, after The Flame Of New Orleans(1941) with Marlene Dietrich, but fell out with producer Preston Sturges during shooting over creative differences. Sturges' presence is still evident throughout, however, as many of his stock company appear on the cast list, most prominently Lake and Robert Warwick as the scheming pater of Wally's intended, Estelle (Susan Hayward). The idea that Jennifer uses a spell to manipulate the election result in Wally's favour, a plot point that passes unquestioned, also seems to chime nicely with the great director's sense of humour. Sturges regular Joel McCrea declined to be reunited with his notoriously difficult Sullivan's Travels (1941) co-star, however, arguing that, "Life's too short for two films with Veronica Lake". Though no masterpiece, I Married A Witch seems an obvious inspiration for the later Broadway adaptation Bell, Book & Candle (1958) with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak and the popular Bewitched television sitcom (1964-72) and makes for a cute vehicle for Lake. It also boasts some spirited straight performances from Oscar winners March and Hayward and is rather similar in tone to Frank Capra's kookily sinister Arsenic & Old Lace (1944), all flying taxi cabs and witchy spirits taking the form of wisps of smoke and getting sozzled by hiding out in rum bottles. Speaking of witch hunts, the film's story was taken from Thorne Smith's unfinished novel The Passionate Witch (completed by Norman H. Matson and published in 1941 after Smith's death), with a script worked on by Dalton Trumbo, who would later become one of the Hollywood Ten when he was blacklisted in 1947 for refusing to name names to Senator McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee.

06/01/2012

Whisky Galore! (1949)



A sight for sore eyes. Basil Radford's fastidious Home Guard commander Captain Waggett contemplates the few legitimate bottles of Scotch still up for sale on the Outer Hebridean Isle of Todday during the chronic wartime shortage that besets the place in Alexander Mackendrick's debut film, an adaptation of Compton MacKenzie's charming 1947 novel of the same name. While Waggett (a clear influence on Arthur Lowe's Captain Mainwaring in the BBC's immortal sitcom Dad's Army, 1968-77) desperately tries to instil some English discipline into the local crofters and fishermen, depressed and inconsolable about being deprived of their "water of life", the poor blighter loses control entirely when the S.S. Cabinet Minister is wrecked off its coast, haemorrhaging a cargo of 50,000 cases of good whisky from its hull, at which point the locals gang together to steal it and make merry. Waggett is appalled, preferring to return contraband state property to the Crown (he being the sort of pompous buffoon who complains about "obstructive attitudes" while building a road block). A battle of wills follows and a "tight little island" gets tighter still as the government reluctantly moves in and the citizenry are forced to seek out ingenious places to stash their loot.

MacKenzie's book was based on the real-life wrecking of the S.S. Politician off Eriskay in 1941 and his screenplay with Angus MacPhail (an Ealing regular who worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Spellbound, 1945, and The Wrong Man, 1956) does much to streamline the novel, condensing the fictional twin isles of Great and Little Todday into one and cutting out much of its Gaelic language and religious conflict sub-plots. The result is a gently amusing caper in which Radford is a definite comic highlight, with many puns to be had on the name of the distilled drop in question, perhaps the best being an early scene in which an elderly man dies of grief for the want of a drink, whereupon a gathering of friends and well-wishers assemble to "mourn a departed spirit". Joan Greenwood is the only other big name on show from south of the border, with the rest of the cast comprised of Scottish character actors such as Gordon Jackson and the formidably bearded James Robertson Justice (below), with native folk serving as extras and advising on verisimilitude.


Rather like the same year's Passport To Pimlico, Mackendrick's comedy is another Ealing wish-fulfilment fantasy fable about deliverance from the hardship and rationing of the post-war years. It also follows producer Michael Balcon's favourite theme that anyone can become a crook when driven to it by the right circumstances, as demonstrated later in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and Mackendrick's own The Ladykillers (1955). Balcon was apparently unhappy with the director's original cut, however, and annoyed at the film's location shoot over-running because of turbulent weather and had it re-edited by the admirable Charles Crichton, who, it must be said, did a sterling job but for the oddly downbeat and moralising ending, which states that the islanders soon ran out of the good stuff once more and returned to their misery. Surely the teetotallers can't win in a film that is otherwise a staunch and unabashed celebration of the joys of a nice wee dram?! Mackendrick would return to the Scottish coast for another Ealing adventure in 1954 with The Maggie while Mackenzie would write a Cold War sequel to his novel in 1957 entitled Rockets Galore! in which a missile base is built on Todday to the chagrin of the locals, which itself was filmed to less acclaim by Michael Relph shortly after.

02/01/2012

Monkey Business (1931)


Here's a splendid Marx Brothers outing for Paramount, their third feature and the first from an original script not derived from one of their stage shows. From the moment these stowaways emerge from barrels of kippered herring aboard an ocean liner harmonising 'Sweet Adeline', Monkey Business proves to be one of their funniest and most nonsensical films. Having been chased around the ship by a furious captain and crew (as they would be again in A Night At The Opera, 1935), hiding out in gangster's closets and Punch and Judy shows, the Brothers find themselves on either side of a gang war - Groucho and Zeppo acting as "muscle" for tough guy Alky Briggs (Harry Woods) and Harpo and Chico for "Big Joe" Helton (Rockcliffe Fellowes), a situation complicated by Groucho's romantic overtures to Briggs' frustrated moll (former schoolteacher and Miss Massachusetts Thelma Todd) and Zeppo's love for Helton's debutante daughter (Ruth Hall). The idea of a "reformed" bootlegger trying to go legit and make a show of entering high society makes for a surprisingly topical plot angle for a Marx vehicle (which could be said to serve as a parody of the Warner Brothers gangster thrillers of the period) but, as always, the primary concern here is with pricking pomposity and all-encompassing, consequence-free anarchy, of which there's no finer example than the four siblings playing merry hell at passport control by throwing papers around and imitating French crooner and studio stable-mate Maurice Chevalier. "If a nightingale could sing like you..."



Groucho was very much at odds with writer S.J. Perelman during the making of Monkey Business, stemming from a disastrous early script reading at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles in which Perelman was asked to do a read-through in front of 27 people and five dogs, none of whom laughed once. However, despite the writer's unhappiness, there are plenty of great lines in tact in spite of the meddling of the Hays Office, not least this excellent Groucho plea to Todd: "Oh, why can't we break away from all this, just you and I, and lodge with my fleas in the hills? I mean, flee to my lodge in the hills." The Brothers also found a more sympathetic director than Victor Heerman from Animal Crackers (1930) in the person of Norman Z. McLeod, a University of Washington light-heavyweight boxing champion and World War One fighter pilot, who put up with and even encouraged their on-set clowning, which frequently included one brother dressing up as another to confuse proceedings. McLeod and Todd would both return for the equally successful Horse Feathers the following year, as would no nonsense producer Herman Mankiewicz (before finding immortality as Orson Welles's co-writer on Citizen Kane, 1941), whom Perelman described as having, "a stormy Teutonic character and [an] immoderate zest for the grape and gambling... if he had any lovable qualities, he did his best to conceal them". However, Mankiewicz knew comedy and hotly resisted efforts to expand the Marx formula: "If Groucho and Chico stand against a wall for an hour and crack funny jokes, that's enough of a plot for me". When asked by Perelman and fellow gag writer Arthur Sheekman about the psychology of the Marx characters, Mankiewicz replied: "One of them is a guinea, another a mute who picks up spit, and the third an old Hebe with a cigar. Is that all clear, Beaumont and Fletcher? Fine. Now get back to your hutch and at teatime I'll send over a lettuce leaf for the two of you to chew on. Beat it!" By all accounts, a brilliant but fearsome individual.

01/01/2012

The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1960)


"Is there no end to your horrors?!"
-Philip Winthrop To Roderick Usher

Happy new year folks! I thought I'd start 2012 as I mean to go on with a lurid but literary Technicolor Gothic horror from Roger Corman, the first of his eight-film Edgar Allan Poe cycle for American International Pictures. The wholesome but faintly gormless Mike Damon stars as Boston gent Philip Winthrop, who ventures out on horseback in search of his betrothed, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), only to find her bed-ridden and apparently imprisoned within the grounds of her family’s crumbling New England ancestral seat by her brother Roderick (Vincent Price), a tormented aristocrat suffering from a "morbid acuteness of the senses", an affliction that renders the slightest sensation too much for him to bear. Usher, a morose, obsessive individual as fragile as "fine glass" but highly controlling, is hostile to the intruder and explains his belief that he and Madeline are descended from a cursed bloodline, the last of a cruel dynasty of decadent tyrants, rogues, harlots, drug addicts, murderers and smugglers. Determined that the Usher name should die with the current heirs, Roderick strongly opposes Philip's plans to depart with Madeline and a violent argument erupts, during which the waif appears to pass away from a heart attack. After she is buried in the family vault with unseemly haste, Winthrop grieves for his beloved and prepares to take his leave but not before learning by chance that Madeline frequently suffered from cataleptic fits and thus might not really be dead after all...


Corman's Usher proved to be a winning formula and a follow-up, The Pit & The Pendulum, also starring Price and scripted by Richard Matheson, would hurriedly follow its blueprint to the letter a year later. Here, as there, Corman assembled a workmanlike production and a distinctly average supporting cast around his theatrically trained star but it matters not as an ice cream-haired Price carries the film with ease. Just the right side of hammy, the former noir character player and stage thesp makes for a marvellous Roderick Usher, perhaps the greatest of Poe's sickly, morbidly preoccupied protagonists and arguably the actor's best role. The man is simply unforgettable plaintively plucking his lute and daubing grotesque portraits of his deceased relatives as the house tremors and shudders all around him, both he and it buckling under the weight of their own sadness and moral decay. For once, Corman's thrifty sets - all rotten bannisters and excessively dusty fixtures - are entirely justified in their flimsiness, the house of Usher being an unhappy place built on a fog-blasted swamp where nothing can grow, the sort of desolate locale that can only be set free from the nightmarish secrets it holds by the cleansing fire that finally razes it to the ground. Brrr...