24/05/2012

The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)

Here's a great little find. TCM and Sony recently released, UPA: The Jolly Frolics Collection, an amazing DVD box set compiling 38 theatrical cartoons drawn between 1948 and 1959 by United Productions of America (UPA) and released through Columbia Pictures. The studio briefly attempted to challenge the supremacy of Warner Brothers and Disney with a series of inventive shorts featuring such characters as Mr Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing before cracking under pressure when many of its writers were subjected to scrutiny by the House Un-America Activities Committee. Several of UPA's cartoons were Oscar nominated, however, including this exquisite and really rather frightening Edgar Allan Poe adaptation by director Ted Parmelee and designer Paul Julian. This was the first cartoon ever to receive an X-rating from the British Board of Film Censors, which was perhaps something of an extreme reaction but it's certainly a powerful piece.



Narrated by the inimitable James Mason with music by Boris Kremenliev, this nightmarish surrealist animation captures the essence of Poe's intense short story of 1843 in a way that any live-action version would be hard pressed to match. Mason went on to record a number of dramatic recitals of Poe's work for Decca in 1958, accompanied by Buddy Cole's sinister organ and a reading of the Barbara Stanwyck thriller Sorry, Wrong Number by Agnes Moorehead, which you can download here. The actor's lugubrious tones are ideally suited to the hysterical source material.

23/05/2012

Pépé Le Moko (1937)


Rarely have I found a still that more perfectly encapsulates the plot of the film from which it's taken. Jean Gabin as fugitive French gangster Pépé, hiding out in the labyrinthine Casbah district of Algiers, stares into the eyes of Mireille Balin's Gaby Gould utterly infatuated, little realising that she is being used as bait to catch him by devious police inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux), who looks on knowingly. Currently showing as part of the BFI Southbank's retrospective of the star's work, Jean Gabin: Working-Class Hero To Godfather, Pépé Le Moko was a major commercial success upon its release, the suave central character becoming an instant role model, something for all Frenchmen to aspire to.


An unmitigated pleasure as well as hugely influential, Pépé Le Moko, based on a novel by Henri La Barthe, benefits from its simple premise, cool protagonist and nicely sketched character parts. From the treacherous Régis (Fernand Charpin) and L'Arbi (Marcel Dalio) to local beauty Inès (Line Noro) and the sage old Grand Père (Saturnin Fabre), Duvivier's vibrant, hectic, lawless Casbah is populated not just with native Arabs but also immigrants from around the Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa as well as Eastern Europe and even China. The slum's winding streets, bazaars and rooftops make for a cauldron of the world, a fascinating cultural melting pot and the perfect hideout for a rogue like Pépé. However, like some melancholy Lucifer, this king of the underworld is tired of the prison he has built for himself and longs for home. His tragic romance with a wealthy woman who reminds him of the Paris Métro is touching even if it does come at the expense of the lovely but untrustworthy Inès (above). Pépé's demise at the end, handcuffed at the gates of the port, watching Gaby sail out of his life and into the sun is truly crushing. What follows prompted the Vichy government to accuse the film of demoralising the public, a witless stance it would take against most of the fatalistic Gabin vehicles of the period.

Pépé Le Moko was remade in Hollywood almost immediately after its release as Algiers (1938), starring Charles Boyer, Hedy Lamarr and Joseph Calleia and inspired a number of films noir set in exotic locations, most notably and obviously Casablanca (1942). Among Pépé Le Moko's earliest English-speaking champions was British novelist Graham Greene who praised it lavishly in The Spectator in April 1937, calling it, "One of the most exciting and moving films I can remember seeing... In this film we do not forget the real subject in a mass of detail: the freedom-loving human spirit pulling at its chain". Greene praised Duvivier's fluid shooting style and singled out the murder of Régis as the film's highlight, relishing its "comic horror" and eccentricity: "the little fat eunuch sweating and squealing in the corner between the aspidistra and the mechanical piano, the clash and clatter of the potted music." The film is also thought to have inspired Greene's screenplay for The Third Man in 1949. And, indeed, the popular Warner Brothers' character Pepé Le Pew.

20/05/2012

Donovan's Brain (1953)

I've just got back from watching this superior science fiction B picture at the Wellcome Collection in Euston, one half of a double bill showing as part of the centre's current exhibition, 'Brains: The Mind As Matter'. Yesterday's 'Brains On Film' strand consisted of this creepy horror starring Lew Ayres and Nancy Davis, the future Mrs Ronald Reagan, and Gray Matter (2004), an astonishing documentary by Joe Berlinger about the rediscovery of a laboratory filled with the brains of murdered mentally handicapped children in the basement of a Viennese mental institution, once the subject of horrific Nazi eugenics experiments. Berlinger observes the brains being given a solemn state funeral and then pursues the man responsible, Dr Heinrich Gross, a one-time recipient of the Cross of Honour still living comfortably on a generous pension courtesy of the Austrian government. A jaw-dropping story that's well worth seeking out.



Donovan's Brain, directed by Felix Feist from Curt Siodmak's 1942 novel, concerns US neuroscientist Dr Patrick Cory (Ayres), who is called in to aid the victims of an air crash. The only passenger to survive the accident is cruel, tax-dodging tycoon W.H. Donovan, but he too dies on the operating table. On the spur of the moment, Cory makes the ethically dubious decision to amputate the deceased's brain because he believes he can keep it alive in a tank, a call met with disapproval by his colleague Dr Frank Schratt (Gene Evans) and loving wife Janice (Davis). Sure enough, the brain flourishes, but Cory's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and it soon transpires that his conscious mind is being controlled telepathically by Donovan's disembodied organ, which has retained its former owner's crooked personality. Bad business ensues.

Ayres was always a quality turn and is splendid in the lead here playing a latter day Dr Jekyll, adopting the limping stoop, cheap cigars and blue serge pinstripe suits of his deceased possessor without knowing why. His transformation from earnest country doctor into villainous capitalist with a plan to conquer the world's financial markets like some zombified Warren Buffett could have been played for satirical laughs but is instead affecting and sad. There's credible support from Evans and the future First Lady and look out too for noir character actor Steve Brodie as blackmailer Herb Yocum, the hack who knows too much. Another noir connection here comes from Siodmak, whose brother Robert directed a number of films in the genre, most notably The Killers (1946) with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner.


Curt Siodmak fled his native Germany in the late thirties and its possible to read Donovan's Brain as an allegory for the rise of Nazism, if one sees the Third Reich as a puppet master bending the German populace to its will with aggressive rhetoric and propaganda. This was the second filmed version of the novel - the first being The Lady & The Monster (1944), a Gothic horror riff featuring Erich von Stroheim - and adapts the source to echo post-war anxieties about communist brainwashing, a common theme implicit in other movies from the ectobrain sub-genre like The Brain From Planet Arous (1957) as well as in more mainstream Cold War dramas like John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Siodmak spent much of his prolific career as a screenwriter in Hollywood, his best known work being The Wolf Man (1941) with Lon Chaney Jr and Claude Rains, another story about a man losing his identity to a monstrous inner force. Feist's film of Donovan's Brain itself contains a nod to classic horror of this stripe at the denouement, when a bolt of lightning strikes a conducting rod on the roof of Cory's home laboratory, causing the evil brain to be stewed in its own juices. Whether this is divine intervention or mother nature moving to end the throbbing cerebrum's reign of terror is left unclear, but it's a detail that certainly harks back to the galvanic experiment being conducted by Colin Clive's Victor Frankenstein in James Whale's famous 1931 Universal adaptation of the old Mary Shelley yarn. Donovan's Brain and its ilk can also be seen as relatives of the haunted limb horror films that thrived in the thirties, typified by Karl Freund's Mad Love (1935).

03/05/2012

The Gospel According To Matthew (1964)

I saw this last night as part of the brilliant New Cross & Deptford Free Film Festival in south east London, which is running for the rest of this week and is well worth investigating if you're in the area. The event is entirely organised by unpaid volunteers and strives to present films in unusual contexts for the benefit of the local community. Following a lie-down screening of Michel Gondry's The Science Of Sleep (2006) on Tuesday night at Lewisham Arthouse, in which the film was projected onto the ceiling by my very own brother Rob, Wednesday's offering was this tremendously beautiful account of the life of Christ, from the nativity to the crucifixion, courtesy of celebrated Italian auteur Pier Paolo Pasolini, shown in Deptford's St. Nicholas Church. Hard pews aside, the setting certainly enhanced the experience and helped create an appropriately reverent atmosphere for one of cinema's most important works.  

Pasolini himself was a (conflicted) atheist, a homosexual and a Marxist and many attempts have been made to read his personal affiliations into the depiction of Jesus of Nazareth here. Pasolini's Christ is certainly a humourless, temperamental, hectoring sort, pouring forth a steady stream of sermons and parables to his disciples as they wander the windswept hills in contemplation, but whether he is really intended to be seen as a revolutionary leader rather than a benign teacher is hard to say. The film is, however, very much an ode to humanity, with Pasolini's camera lingering long on close-ups of his largely non-professional cast, pausing to find the beauty in their imperfections. The production as a whole feels like a film for the people and is pleasingly unfussy in its execution. The child actors look shy and occasionally turn away self-consciously while the elders grin for slightly too long through snaggled teeth, their very amateurishness adding huge charm and authenticity to proceedings and breathing new life into the familiar stories of the New Testament. Christ himself is played by Spanish economics student Enrique Irazoqui (who apparently got the part ahead of Beat icon Jack Kerouac), while the director seamlessly melds Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion' with Odetta's spiritual blues on the soundtrack and favours rural southern Italian locations over the Middle Eastern sites he initially scouted (the subject of his 1963 documentary Seeking Locations In Palestine For The Film Gospel According To Matthew), creating a landscape more immediately familiar to his audience and in harmony with his performers. Costumes are minimal and special effects non-existent - the feeding of the 5,000 is dealt with in one quick cut -  the director clearly unconcerned with miraculous spectacle, historical accuracy or pedantic recreations of Roman-occupied Jerusalem and Galilee. The emphasis here is on simple naturalism, placing the film firmly in the contemporary neo-realism movement and a million miles away from the earnest, beardy Biblical epics Hollywood was churning out at the time, of which Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) and Nicholas Ray's King Of Kings (1961) are typical examples. Straightforward and real, Pasolini's Gospel According To Matthew is a towering achievement.

Odetta - Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child