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 sak√© 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 Daily 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 a 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 writer 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.