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.