26/12/2013

The Bishop's Wife (1947)


Happy Christmas! Here's a nicely festive feature for the holiday season in which Cary Grant stars as an angel sent to earth to aid Henry Brougham (David Niven), a newly elected bishop charged with raising the funds to build a new cathedral. Brougham is under pressure from his snooty sponsors and in danger of losing sight of what's really important in his life.

Comparisons with the previous year's It's A Wonderful Life* are inevitable, but Henry Koster's film proves to be a much lighter confection, with Grant's impish, pleasingly ambiguous Dudley setting out to woo the neglected Julia Brougham (Loretta Young) in order to spark her husband's jealousy and thereby lift him out of his personal and professional rut. Although Brougham has become obsessed with the construction of a monumental white elephant, he is no Fitzcarraldo or Colonel Nicholson and his crisis of faith is only lightly touched upon. Really, The Bishop's Wife is a safely chaste romance, with precisely no chance of Grant and Young's rapport ever boiling over into a torrid affair and Brougham only needing a gentle nudge to lure him out of his depression. The screenplay by Leonardo Bercovici and Robert E. Sherwood (later spruced up by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett) also struck me as something of a conservative cautionary fable, warning against unrealistic ambition and overreaching beyond your basic level of competence: Henry was obviously a much happier, more fulfilled and useful person conducting the boy's choir in his previous incarnation as pastor of St. Timothy's and is not at all suited to the business of buttering up socialites required of him as bishop.


Cinematographer Gregg Toland does a superb job of capturing the snowy grandeur of the American winter, echoing his work on Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), while Grant and Young make for a charming pair, both proving themselves to be excellent ice skaters. Niven does well as the crestfallen cleric and displays enormous dignity in the scene in which he realises that Dudley has magically glued the seat of his trousers to a parlour chair in front of the fierce Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper). Her melting when Grant plays a harp melody composed by her long-dead lover is another exquisitely played interlude, while elsewhere there's robust support from Elsa Lanchester as a nervous maid and from Monty Woolley as a sherry-swilling professor perennially putting off writing his magnum opus on the fall of Ancient Rome. However, one question remains: how the hell does Sylvester the cab driver (James Gleason) pay the rent if he never accepts fares?

*In addition to both carrying a divine intervention plot, both films feature child actor Bobby Anderson, the young George Bailey in the earlier film and here billed as the "Attack Captain" in the snow fight scene. Clearly something of a specialist.

23/12/2013

If I Had A Million (1932)


This excellent Depression-era  fantasy from Paramount revolves around dying industrialist John Glidden (Richard Bennett), who decides against leaving his fortune to grasping relatives and hangers-on and instead elects to hand out million dollar cheques to strangers chosen at random from the phone book. This premise provides the pretext for an anthology of eight different stories recounting how each recipient dealt with their unexpected handout. Extremely varied in tone, with segments directed by the likes of Ernst Lubitsch, Norman Z. McLeod, Norman Taurog and William A. Seiter and written by a mob of studio hacks gathered together by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, If I Had A Million proves to be a fascinating little chocolate box of goodies. 



The opening story, in which Charlie Ruggles is freed from his unhappy job in a china shop, only to return dressed in an immaculate suit and accompanied by a new pet rabbit in order to trash the place, sets the mood expertly. The next, in which a tavern whore (Wynne Gibson) treats herself to a luxury hotel suite, brings a touch of Viennese melancholy to proceedings, which is capitalised upon in the following caper. Warner Brothers gangster icon George Raft here plays a career criminal wanted for forgery who cannot enter a bank to cash in his bounty without risking arrest, ending up a hysterical derelict. Darker still is the tale of a death row convict, brilliantly played by Gene Raymond, who can at last afford a decent lawyer to argue his case, but is dragged to the chair before he can reach a payphone. 


Fortunately, Alison Skipworth and W.C. Fields lighten the load in 'Road Hogs' as a pair of retired circus turns running a tea room who lavish all their savings on a brand new automobile, only to suffer a bad smash on its maiden voyage. Broken but not beaten, the pair use Glidden's cash to buy a whole convoy of new vehicles and stunt drivers, patrolling the highway in formation looking for bad drivers to deliberately run into for revenge (an amazingly unlikely precursor to J.G. Ballard's 1973 novel Crash). Equally surprising is the brief use of Charles Laughton in Lubitsch's entry as a put-upon clerk, who simply rises from his desk impassively upon receiving notification of his windfall, ambles up the stairs to announce his resignation before knocking on the company president's door to blow a violent and triumphant raspberry, all with hardly a word said. Gary Cooper, Jack Oakie and Roscoe Karns follow this as three marines competing to take a pretty waitress out on a date to a carnival, dismissing the cheque's arrival as an April Fool and signing it over to a cafe owner to pay off their burger debts, only to see the girl walk off with the latter, newly minted. Ending on a truly touching note, May Robson stars in 'Grandma' as a bored, lonely and frustrated old dear who uses the money to improve the lives of her friends at a retirement home, ordering the institution's patronising staff to take their place in rocking chairs while the gals bake biscuits and dance, an investment that particularly gladdens old Glidden's heart.

21/12/2013

No Room At The Inn (1948)

Many thanks to my friends Mike and Celia for introducing me to this rarely seen but utterly superb drama from British National Films about the mistreatment and neglect of child evacuees during WWII. An adaptation of Joan Temple's play by producer Ivan Foxwell and the legendary Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, No Room At The Inn sees Freda Jackson reprise her stage role as the vicious Mrs Voray, an unscrupulous widow in an unnamed northern industrial town who offers a temporary foster home to children from the bomb-blasted cities in order to pilfer their allowances and bankroll her pub crawls with the proceeds.

Jackson is absolutely outstanding, attractive and humorous when it comes to the (numerous) men in her life, but a fearsome witch to the children she stockpiles and imprisons in her outdoor coal shed. Vain, frankly promiscuous, drink-sodden and deeply cunning, Mrs Voray deserves to be recognised as one of the great screen villains, while Joy Shelton provides a strong and necessary counterpoint as Judith Drave, a concerned teacher campaigning on the children's behalf. Mrs Draves' encounters with hypocritical middle class curtain-twitchers and an ineffectual clergyman are all too plausible and a scene in which she has Mrs Voray hauled before a meeting of bickering town councillors, only for her case to fall down for want of evidence and her enemy's "influence" with a lecherous butcher among their number, is particularly devastating. The child actors are all excellent too, with Ann Stephens and Joan Dowling (below left, with Hermione Baddeley) leading by example.


No Room At The Inn failed to find favour during its original theatrical run, which, with the benefit of hindsight, is perhaps unsurprising. In the aftermath of the jubilation and euphoria surrounding V.E. Day, the Great British public was understandably determined to put the horrific experiences and deprivation of the war years behind it and to face the future with a renewed sense of optimism. A screen entertainment earnestly seeking to revisit and expose the problem of child abuse on the home front, an inconvenient truth if ever there was one, was arguably doomed to fail at a time when cinema audiences wanted spectacle, romance and escapism, a little light relief from the grim, ration book austerity they encountered daily. Nevertheless, No Room At The Inn had a powerful impact on many who did see it at the time and has continued to resonate whenever it's been shown over the proceeding decades, typically with adults who themselves endured similarly unhappy experiences to those depicted in Daniel Birt's film, a far cry from the jolly adventures evacuees enjoyed in the likes of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe (1950). Never shown on television because of its distressing subject matter and long unavailable in any format, No Room At The Inn has fortunately resurfaced on YouTube in recent times and can be seen in full here. Needless to say, it's highly recommended: an entertaining and haunting drama that dared to discuss a national scandal that's still rarely addressed outside of university history faculties to this day.

20/12/2013

The Young One (1960)

This was the great Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel's second and last American film following a crack at Robinson Crusoe in 1954. Dismissed upon release and little seen since, The Young One has much in common with Harper Lee's novel To Kill A Mockingbird, which was published the same year, especially in terms of theme and mood, but was actually based on 'Travelin' Man', a 1957 short story by Peter Matthiessen. In its opening scenes, we're introduced to Traver (Bernie Hamilton), a black jazz musician, hepcat and war veteran falsely accused of rape by a wealthy white woman, who flees a lynch mob in a purloined motor boat before taking refuge on a remote island off the Carolinas. There he blunders into bigoted game warden Miller (Zachary Scott), who has recently assumed the guardianship of young Evvie (Key Meersman) after the death of her alcoholic grandfather. Miller is a native racist and an enthusiastic trapper of prey, but his real sport just now is the innocent, barely pubescent Evvie, whose developing feminine form has become an unhealthy fascination for him. 


Buñuel's primary interest here is in Miller's queasy sexual designs on his pretty young ward, rather than the racism and injustice suffered by Traver (reflected in the shift away from Matthiessen's title). The director successfully and uncomfortably involves the viewer in Miller's lust for his swampland Lolita - which this hawk seeks to legitimise by supplying the girl with adult dresses and high heeled shoes - by having Gabriel Figueroa's camera linger over Evvie's slender adolescent limbs, notably during a shower scene. The island setting feels both boldly unfamiliar and artificial, but its balmy climate serves to echo and exacerbate the feverish emotional conditions of its inhabitants, a trick borrowed from the Southern Gothic writers Buñuel is imitating, primarily William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. An unexpected shot of a raccoon slaying and devouring a live hen reveals another key genre influence, Charles Laughton's masterly The Night Of The Hunter (1955), a film with which Buñuel was unwise to invite comparisons.

After a tense opening, the director and his co-scribe Hugo Butler (then blacklisted and credited under the pseudonym "H.B. Addis", a name taken from the spine of his pencil) later stray into odd territory by attempting to excuse the partially reformed Miller, who is, after all, the tale's real rapist, by having him come around to Traver and by providing him with an even more menacing doppelganger in the person of Jackson (Crahan Denton), a racist so die-hard he believes black men are not wholly human because they are born without souls. This goes against Miller's deliciously nasty taunting of Traver about the behaviour of predatory black G.I.'s in Italy during WWII or his jealously tossing a "souvenir" grenade to frighten his nemesis when the latter presumes to play his phallic "black liquorice" clarinet to please Evvie. Traver meanwhile turns out to be the product of good intentions and lazy writing, a streetwise black character more upstanding, cultured and moral than all of his white tormentors put together. Muddying the waters might have been a better idea. Claudio Brook's kindly reverend, who arrives to rescue Evvie from Miller and cast doubt on Traver's guilt, is similarly two-dimensional and, in flipping a mattress Traver has slept on before using it himself, inadvertently but predictably unmasks himself as a hypocrite. Overall, The Young One is an interesting rediscovery but only minor Buñuel and hardly the unjustly forgotten masterpiece some would have you believe.

14/12/2013

The Phantom Carriage (1921)


The great Swedish silent director Victor Sjöström is probably best remembered by modern audiences, if at all, for his acting performance as the ageing academic Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman's beautiful road movie Wild Strawberries (1957). That film opens with a surreal dream sequence that provides Borg with a timely memento mori: his unconscious mind places him on an empty street in time to see a sinister horse-drawn hearse arrive and let slip its coffin into the road, only for the professor to investigate and encounter his own cadaver staring back at him. This famous scene is in part a tribute to The Phantom Carriage, Sjöström's inventive adaptation of Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!, a 1912 novel by the Nobel prizewinning Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf.

In the earlier film, Sjöström both directs and stars as David Holm, a cruel, misanthropic drunk suffering from tuberculosis who dies during a brawl in a graveyard on the stroke of midnight one New Year's Eve and is thus required to drive death's chariot for a full calendar year, harvesting the souls of the dead and delivering them to the hereafter as penance for a life ill-lived. Holm, however, is reluctant to serve his time behind the reins, whereupon the current driver, Georges (Tore Svennberg), a drinker who died exactly one year earlier, invites him to confront his past and redeem himself in the eyes of those he has wronged. These include Holm's estranged wife (Hilda Borgström) and children, his late brother (Einar Axelsson) and a dying Salvation Army sister (Astrid Holm) who tried to save him from himself before being struck down with consumption herself.


Lagerlöf's morality tale may owe a debt to Dickens's hardy seasonal ghost story A Christmas Carol (1843) and share her precursor's concern for the poor and downtrodden, but its true theme proves to be the toxic consequences of alcoholism for both society and the individual. Something of a temperance lecture, The Phantom Carriage presents a startling case study of man busily tearing himself and the lives of those around him apart under the influence of the devil's brew. "David Holm is as possessed by drink as a vampire is by blood", critic Paul Mayersberg has said. The motivation behind the character's love for the bottle and bitter hatred of his fellow man is never explicitly stated, but his actions are shocking enough. Sjöström's Holm is not averse to coughing in the faces of strangers or even his own children in the hope that they too catch his disease, behaving like a destructive agent of pestilence, a plague-bearer determined to bring the whole world crashing down with him. At one point he smashes his way through a locked bathroom door with an axe in order to attack his wife in a scene that clearly inspired Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), another film that dealt with a drinker's descent into psychosis. Holm's redemption saves this Gothic polemic from outright horror, but it's a close run thing.


Sjöström's film is also astonishing for its experimentation with double exposure, a trick for conjuring transparent spectres as old as photography itself brilliantly pulled off by cinematographer Julius Jaenzon and lab technician Eugén Hellman. This ingenious effect is used extensively throughout, capturing whole conversations, showing the Grim Reaper going about his business and even driving his carriage down to the seabed to retrieve the soul of a drowned sailor lying beneath the waves.

13/12/2013

Hoots Mon! (1940)


This rather unsuccessful British caper from the early days of the war was the 13th and penultimate attempt to make a movie star out of legendary British music hall comic Max Miller, but the first to have the bright idea of casting him as a comedian. As such, Hoots Mon! contains the only surviving visual record of the Cheeky Chappie's stage act (albeit slightly watered down for a family audience) so remains a valuable relic of a lost era, even if the film itself is more than a little slight. A specialist in rapid-fire wordplay and suggestive storytelling, famed for his ability to manipulate an audience, Max is quite something in his floral silk suit, fat tie and golf socks and his craft is there for all to see. 



Hoots Mon!, made by Warner Brothers' UK subsidiary at their studios in Teddington, appears to have been modeled on the zany American screwball pictures of the thirties, which makes a good deal of sense. Perhaps surprisingly, Miller's tongue-twisting repartee and scenes racing around a hospital causing chaos in a nightshirt actually call to mind the Marx Brothers and Groucho in particular. Max stars as Harry Hawkins, "England's funniest comedian", who takes exception to sharing a bill with "the Bluebelle of Scotland", Jenny MacTavish (Florence Desmond), after the lassie upstages him at the Empire Tottenham with a spot-on impersonation. Arguing backstage, MacTavish challenges Hawkins to take his act north of the border, where she insists he'll die a death. He accepts and duly does. Later Harry is duped into performing for a group of rabid, thistle-munching Scottish Nationalists, a gig that ends with him waking up in a children's ward with a black eye, before ultimately being reconciled with his rival. Desmond makes for a good foil, also impersonating Bette Davis among others, while Miller works tirelessly to win us over, but the finished feature from Max's regular director Roy William Neill lacks structure, character and plot, I'm afraid to say.

06/12/2013

Gone With The Wind (1939)

The new 4K digital restoration of David O. Selznick's blockbusting MGM Civil War romance Gone With The Wind, released to mark the centenary of star Vivien Leigh's birth, is magnificent and successfully restores the film to its full Technicolor glory. Seeing this hard-wearing classic on the big screen with a new lick of paint enables you to experience anew the meticulous costume and set design by Walter Plunkett, William Cameron Menzies and Lyle Wheeler and reacquaint yourself with the lavish scale of this truly epic production. It's positively dizzying, for instance, when director Victor Fleming has his camera rear up over Atlanta, the city devastated by Yankee cannon fire, before pulling back to reveal more and more wounded Confederate soldiers laid out in agony across its main street, zooming out until the shot finally takes in well over a hundred extras.


Selznick's famous publicity stunt, in which he sent out talent scouts across the southern states and auditioned the entire female population of Hollywood in search of the ideal leading lady, testing everyone from Joan Crawford to Lana Turner in the process, certainly paid off when it ended with Leigh (although, really, this largely unknown British actress had friends in high places: her lover, Laurence Olivier, and, more to the point, his agent, one Myron Selznick). Leigh's performance as the hot-headed, spoilt but surprisingly resilient Scarlett O'Hara continued to get laughs in the screening I saw, although the audience ultimately became exasperated with her obsessive pursuit of Leslie Howard's insipid Ashley Wilkes, especially after the much more appealing Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) had finally talked her into marriage. Legendary British film critic Dilys Powell always insisted that Gone With The Wind was overblown rubbish and that Gable was the only good thing in it, but I can't agree: although the man oozes star quality, Leigh is also superb and develops a marvelous double act with Hattie McDaniel as her long-suffering maid Mammy, the latter an expert straightwoman and as deserving of her groundbreaking Oscar as Leigh. Olivia De Haviland is also a major asset, her saintly Melanie Hamilton a much more vital part than I'd remembered and one supremely well played. You also get Thomas Mitchell for your money playing his usual red-faced Irishman, Ward Bond as his usual affable captain, future TV Superman George Reeves as one of Scarlett's suitors plus enjoyable turns from Harry Davenport, Jane Darwell and Ona Munson, to name just a few of the extraordinary supporting cast.


Tiresomely, debates about the film's depiction of black servants and field slaves have been reignited (largely by lazy journalists desperate to fill column inches) in response to this festive re-release, which might otherwise have been cause for unbridled celebration. A film whose opening titles announce it as a piece nostalgic for the Antebellum South, apparently a golden age of chivalry where black cotton pickers were unanimously happy in their work and well treated by their masters, was always going to be a sitting duck for modern naysayers. John Patterson of The Guardian is one such, but he is at least right to condemn other American films of the period, notably High Sierra and Sullivan's Travels (both 1941), for the racist clowning they include. Audiences today may well snigger at the repeated use of the word "darkies" in Gone With The Wind and find Butterfly McQueen's shrill performance as Scarlett's maid Prissy unpalatable, but overall the presentation of black characters is highly positive, if patronising. Mammy, Prissy and Pork (Oscar Poke) are treated with warmth throughout and fleshed out into plausible human beings, much more than the cowardly, bug-eyed comic relief we've been offered elsewhere. A racist film would also have no use for the scenes in which Rhett speaks admiringly of Mammy and jokingly flirts with her about her new red petticoat or in which Big Sam (Everett Brown) heroically races to Scarlett's rescue when her buggy is held up by predatory carpet baggers. Scarlett is even allowed to openly criticise Ashley for his pre-war ownership of slaves at one point. As Patterson concedes, Selznick's production deserves credit for addressing the question of race at all in the unenlightened times in which it was made. Its whitewashing of the realities behind slavery is unfortunate but hardly unexpected given its vintage and a long way from D.W. Griffith glorifying the Ku Klux Klan in Birth Of A Nation (1915). Expressing disdain on the grounds that Gone With The Wind is not a bold war cry for the Civil Rights Movement seems to me to miss the point entirely and expect too much from a commercial mass-market love story made to sell cinema tickets in the 1930s. Why not put this unsavoury issue to bed and simply immerse yourself in one of the finest spectacles Hollywood has ever put before the public?

25/11/2013

The Ghoul (1933)


Boris Karloff returned to England for the first time since setting sail for Canada in 1909 in order to make this really rather awful horror for Gaumont-British, overseen by Michael Balcon and directed by T. Hayes Hunter. Long thought lost, The Ghoul was the source of no little disappointment when a copy was finally unearthed by William K. Everson in Communist Czechoslovakia in 1969. An adaption of Frank King's 1928 novel of the same name (also a popular stage play of its day by the author and Leonard J. Hines), Karloff stars as Professor Henry Morlant, a dying Egyptologist who believes the ancient god Anubis will grant him immortality in exchange for the return of a priceless jewel once excavated from a pharaoh's tomb. Morlant swiftly shuffles off this mortal coil and is buried according to Egyptian custom with the gem bound in his fist, only for it to be pilfered by an untrustworthy acquaintance soon after. Morlant rises from the grave to retrieve his property, haunting his in-laws, loyal Calvinist man servant (Ernest Thesiger), villainous lawyer (Cedric Hardwicke) and a pair of nefarious Arabs, all of whom have joined in the treasure hunt around the dead man's dusty manor.


Karloff was only available for the picture having hit a deadlock in contract talks with Universal, who had wanted him to take a pay cut for their forthcoming adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man (1897). Presumably some wily executive thought the studio could get away with reducing his salary because audiences wouldn't actually be seeing Karloff on screen. Instead, he was loaned out to Gaumont and leapt at the chance to return home, as biographer Stephen Jacobs recounts in a post over at The Spooky Isles, which is well worth reading. The resulting film was an obvious cash-in on the success of its star's two previous hits, James Whales' The Old Dark House (1932) and The Mummy (1932), directed by Karl Freund. The Ghoul has a great many faults and is only redeemed by its impressive cast and exquisitely gloomy, candle-lit photography from German expressionist maestro Günther Krampf, who had served as cameraman on the silent classics Nosferatu (1922) and Pandora's Box (1928). Karloff is actually badly misused by the screenwriters, Angus MacPhail among them: killed off in the opening scene, he only returns late on and is then inexplicably unable to talk, staggering around and groaning like Frankenstein's monster or the bandaged Imhotep without cause. Meanwhile, Morlant's relatives, a pair of bickering young cousins played by Dorothy Hyson and Anthony Bushell, are wrongly foregrounded as the focal point of interest, with the hot-headed Bushell in particular guilty of some hilariously stagy and abrupt line readings. Hyson is meanwhile asked to faint twice and her cowardly spinster friend Kaney (Kathleen Harrison), the film's utterly unnecessary but endearing comic relief, also passes out through shock, none of which helps advance the plot one iota. Hardwicke and Thesiger are utterly wasted wandering around in the dark while all this squabbling is going on and very little is resolved at the conclusion.


The film did at least have one admirer. Future knight of the realm Ralph Richardson, who made his screen debut here as a suspect parson, fondly remembered The Ghoul in conversation with Roy Plomley on the BBC's Desert Island Discs in 1979, claiming that he'd managed to snag the best part and recalling laughing at Karloff for having to spend so long in make-up while all he had to do was slap on a dog collar.

22/11/2013

La Dolce Vita (1960)


Federico Fellini's most iconic and celebrated film remains as enviably stylish as ever. La Dolce Vita was always wildly ahead of its time, from its episodic, freewheelin' structure to its bold breakaway from drab post-war neorealism, inviting us to revel in the glamour and spectacle of the irresponsible Roman rich at play rather than mourn for the nobly impoverished. What is less often said about the film is just how savage and prescient it is as a critique of rabid modern media culture. Fellini's protagonist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is deeply conflicted about his career as a hack reporter, enjoying the interesting women he encounters (Anouk Aimée, Anita Ekberg, Nico) and the bacchanalian parties he attends in pursuit of a story for his tabloid paymasters but loathing the sleaze and exploitation demanded of him and longing for a more respectable, meaningful way of life. This is surely a universal dilemma for any self-respecting member of the Fourth Estate that endures to this day. On the one hand, Marcello relishes his helicopter ride as the statue of Christ the Labourer is airlifted out of the Eternal City in the opening scene and can hardly believe his luck when splashing about in the Trevi Fountain with the unbelievable Ekberg. On the other, Marcello is exasperated when he is expected to bury his cynicism to report on a "miracle" sighting of the Madonna in the provinces and repulsed when a colleague asks him to use his credentials to gain access to a crime scene after his erudite friend Steiner (Alain Cuny) has murdered his own children with a shotgun before committing suicide. The moral compromises that are all in a day's work for the yellow press have rarely been more explicitly or bitingly addressed and Fellini and his co-writers Ennio Flaiano and Tulio Pinelli deserve every credit. Their greatest legacy in this regard, however, was the decision to name Marcello's ambulance-chasing photographer acquaintance Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), a choice that gave the world a term for these previously nameless buzzards of privacy invasion.


Woody Allen had a crack at an updated version of La Dolce Vita when he made Celebrity in 1998 but perhaps the true heir to Fellini is Paolo Sorrentino, whose recent masterpiece The Great Beauty (2013) was closely modelled on the film. The brilliant Toni Servillo's columnist Jep Gambardella stands in for Mastroianni to guide us through the decadent nightspots inhabited by the wealthy elite that today comprise the privileged 1% of Berlusconi's Italy, a land otherwise brought to its knees by political and economic turmoil. Jep, elegant, quietly amused but something of a disappointed romantic, leads us from the rooftop raves and Botox parties of these fabulous creatures to the Polish strip clubs where they crash out and see in the dawn, oblivious to the hardship and ruin all around them. "We're all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little... Don't you agree?" Jep concludes. Half a century on, little has changed, Sorrentino tells us.

14/11/2013

St. Martin's Lane (1938)


Charles Laughton's London street poet Charlie Staggers is chagrined when an impoverished young waif known only as Liberty (Vivien Leigh) steals his takings one afternoon in Covent Garden and angrily pursues her home to the derelict townhouse she's squatting in. There he finds Liberty dancing alone in the moonlight (a standout scene) and takes pity on her, eventually adopting her as his protégé. Forming a performance troupe with his strange friends Gentry and Constantine (played by theatre director Tyrone Guthrie and harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler respectively), Charlie and Liberty prove popular with the public, while the latter catches the eye of influential West End entrepreneur Harley Prentiss (Rex Harrison), who promptly whisks her away and launches her career on the stage. Poor Charlie, who had hoped to marry his beloved "Libby", instead falls on hard times and turns to drink, all but forgotten by the orphan girl made good.

It has to be said that the young Leigh's Cockney accent comes and goes a bit in this reworking of a script by Clemence Dane for Laughton's Mayflower Productions, but she has energy to burn and the camera absolutely adores her. Liberty's ruthless streak and habit of using people to get ahead could perhaps be seen to echo aspects of the troubled actress's own personality, although the role had originally been intended for her co-star's wife Elsa Lanchester, with Leigh chosen instead due to her contemporary success on stage in Ashley Dukes' play The Mask Of Virtue. Laughton meanwhile, an uncredited co-writer and producer, found a fine vehicle for his peculiar talents and makes Charlie's plight very affecting (although apparently he didn't get on at all well with his leading lady on set). Irish-American Tim Lewis keeps things ticking along nicely, with help from future director Robert Hamer on editing duties, and the result is a touching if predictable melodrama, essentially A Star Is Born with theatre queue buskers. The Americans didn't take to it when it was retitled Sidewalks Of London, finding the accents impenetrable and the staging of the musical numbers lacklustre by their own high standards, but I must say I found plenty to enjoy.

07/11/2013

A Yank At Oxford (1938)


This sterling comedy from MGM-British stars Robert Taylor as Lee Sheridan, the titular all-American star of track and field, who wins a place at Oxford University and makes a big impression, overcoming a number of comic cultural misunderstandings, practical jokes and a ceremonial debagging before leading the city of dreaming spires to victory over Cambridge in the annual boat race. Taylor was previously known as something of a soppy romantic lead but successfully managed to break free from typecasting here by playing an athletic jock, bulking up for the part and convincing as a champion sprinter and rower, so much so that A Yank At Oxford was originally billed as, "The Bob Taylor picture you've always wanted!". The inevitable romantic interest is supplied by Maureen O'Sullivan as a fellow student but it's the actress's old school friend, Vivien Leigh, who makes the greater splash as Elsa Craddock, the promiscuous wife of a dull local bookseller. Leigh's performance here apparently did much to secure her the part of Scarlett O'Hara in David O. Selznick's blockbusting Gone With The Wind the following year. I saw Jack Conway's film screened as part of a Leigh retrospective at the BFI and it was, fittingly, one of her lines that got the biggest laugh, coming during a scene in which she casually informs a college dean (Edmund Gwenn) that she and her husband have decided to close up shop to escape scandal and the temptations of the student body and move away to Aldershot, a famous army town.


Taylor is sporting, redoubtable, two-fisted and no-nonsense as Sheridan, recalling to my mind Gary Cooper as Frank Capra's Mr Deeds. Among the supporting cast, Griffith Jones and Robert Coote are believable as Sheridan's fellow collegians but there are also two touching elderly turns to relish: Edward Rigby as Scatters, Sheridan's sentimental butler, and C.V. France as an endearingly doddery old don, insistent that our man's name is Jenkins. Lionel Barrymore is also in the mix, supplying his usual brand of cantankerous bluster, this time as Sheridan's father, a proud Midwestern newspaperman.


A Yank At Oxford's screenplay, from an idea by John Monk Saunders developed by Sidney Gilliat, Leon Gordon and Michael Hogan, was credited to Malcolm Stuart Boylan, Walter Ferris and George Oppenheimer, but also featured contributions from a number of other studio writers, including future Ealing scribe Angus MacPhail, playwright Ronald Pertwee and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who reportedly added several passages of key dialogue. Ealing legend Michael Balcon produced the picture and was slated to direct before falling out with Louis B. Mayer. The film spawned an affectionate Laurel and Hardy spoof, A Chump At Oxford (1940), and an imitation sequel, A Yank At Eaton (1942) with Mickey Rooney. As an Oxford native myself, I was delighted to see the city so well recreated in a picture of this vintage and particularly enjoyed the thought of Taylor being cast off the train at nearby Didcot, now home to an unsightly power station.

04/11/2013

Orphée (1950)


Jean Cocteau was long preoccupied by the myth of Orpheus, the ancient Greek minstrel who descended to the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice before meeting a tragic end, and returned to the tale several times in his pursuit of cinéma fantastique. This version relocates Orpheus to contemporary France and casts Jean Marais, Cocteau's Beast and muse, as an arrogant, lyreless poet who encounters Death in the guise of a mysterious princess (María Casares) at a St. Germain café when she arrives to collect the soul of his drunken rival Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe), who has been abruptly run down by a pair of mysterious motorcycle policemen. Orpheus returns to his wife Eurydice by hitching a lift with the princess's emissary Heurtebise (François Périer) but finds her company stifling compared to that of the mysterious femme fatale and becomes obsessed with cryptic poetry being transmitted over the radio. Heurtebise meanwhile falls for Eurydice having taken up residence in Orpheus's home and facilitates the latter's entry into the afterlife via a rippling mirror once she has been killed by the motorcyclists. There Orpheus faces a tribunal and wins the right to return to the land of the living with his bride, only to realise that he has fallen in love with the princess.


There is much to recommend Cocteau's atmospheric, dreamlike and idiosyncratic Orphée, but I have to admit I found his embellishment and complication of the myth unwelcome and counter-productive. John Keats's confession from 'Ode On A Nightingale', "I have been half in love with easeful Death", becomes quite literally the case here as a means of emphasising the creative artist's necessary dalliance with immortality and otherworldly matters, but where does that leave poor Eurydice? A beauty once worth dying for becomes the embodiment of mundane, bourgeois domesticity and a trap from which Orpheus should strive to free himself. Meanwhile, the operatic tragedy of his breaking his promise by looking back at her, when he has been expressly forbidden to do so, is utterly undone by the director's decision to play it for farce. The poet finally catching her gaze in a car's rear-view mirror feels anticlimactic when it should deliver exquisite agony.

Cocteau goes out of his way to introduce symbolic touches that nod to the tense postwar environment, notably the bomb-damaged ruins of the underworld, but the fascist-uniformed angel of death bikers are ludicrous, it has to be said. It has been suggested that the director perhaps felt the need to account for his failure to support the French Resistance - despite personally having suffered violence at the hands of homophobic right-wing thugs - and is addressing the matter through Eurydice's hearing in his own peculiar way. Despite Orphée's not wholly successful eccentricities, there's plenty of luxuriant, noirish cinematography to enjoy from Nicolas Hayer, some pleasing trick photography and bold performances from Marais, Casares and Périer, not to mention an appearance by chanteuse Juliette Gréco as Aglaonice, leader of the Bacchantes. A highly original stylist, it's fair and just that this créateur complet and friend to Picasso, Stravinsky and Erik Satie should have been hailed rather than trashed by the likes of Truffaut and Godard who followed in his wake.

03/11/2013

Hungry Hearts (1922)


An early Sam Goldwyn production, not long after the future studio mogul had changed his name from Samuel Goldfish and packed in the glove business for good, Hungry Hearts is an extremely moving silent melodrama about one Jewish family's journey from daily oppression in the shtetls of Tsarist Russia to the promise of a better life in the New World. Like so many immigrants before them and after, the Levins take up residence in a shabby tenement house on New York's Lower East Side and work their way up from nothing, encountering hardship and opportunistic villainy before prevailing in the pursuit of happiness. The film's story is taken from a novel of the same name by Ania Yezierska and, although Hungry Hearts is undeniably both highly conventional and sentimental, its universality ensures that it continues to resonate.


E. Mason Hopper's feature accurately captures the immigrant experience and the bustle of turn-of-the-century New York and is anchored by two marvelous performances from its female leads. Rosa Rosanova is impressive as formidable matriarch Hanneh Levin, forced to hold the family together when her scholarly but ineffectual husband (E.A. Warren) fails, particularly in the unforgettable scene in which Hanneh destroys her kitchen with a meat cleaver after a bullying landlord doubles the rent on the grounds that the Levins' apartment has become too luxurious (she's painted it white in a bid for grandeur). Hanneh, haunted by memories of Cossack brutality and motivated by a desperate love for her family, is as real and poignant a character as I've seen on the big screen. The beautiful Helen Ferguson is also heartbreaking as eldest daughter Sara: determined, ambitious and touchingly vulnerable. Her romance with young lawyer David (Bryant Washburn), a son of the previous generation to pass through Ellis Island, finally secures the Levins their suburban security, but it's a hard won victory and one that we greet with a cheer at this very human film's close. I was lucky enough to see Hungry Hearts screened at the Barbican in London as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival 2013 with a live accompaniment by talented multi-instrumentalists Robin Harris and Laura Anstee and cannot recommend it highly enough.

30/10/2013

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)


Robert Wiene's seminal Gothic masterpiece of sleepwalking, murder and madness, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, remains the totemic example of German expressionism, one of the greatest of all horror or silent features and boasts both cinema's first twist ending and one of its earliest frame narrative structures. Wiene's film of Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer's screenplay is universally admired and as influential a work of art as they come*, routinely referenced and parodied throughout the near-century since it first came creeping out of Weimar Germany. Its story concerns a mysterious travelling fairground act, comprised of the titular showman (Werner Krauss) and his exhibit, an omniscient somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt), whose arrival in the mountain town of Holstenwall in northern Germany happens to coincide with a spate of violent murders. But is all as it seems? And just how reliable is our narrator?

Janowitz and Mayer were disillusioned veterans of the Great War who believed in the potential of cinema as a new medium through which to convey important ideas to a mass audience. This commonly cited biographical detail has led to a great deal of critical speculation over the last 93 years as to the true meaning of the film. Siegfried Kracauer, for one, famously read Caligari as a prophetic warning against tyrannical powers seeking to control the populace through universal conscription. Caligari could also equally be read as a comment on contemporary unease about psychoanalysis and its broader ramifications, to offer just one other obvious interpretation. At any rate, the story the two writers concocted, though its conclusion arguably owes something to Edgar Allan Poe, was entirely their own and is all the more remarkable for that, fitting seamlessly into continental Europe's grand tradition of fairy tales and horror stories. 


The film's aesthetic, and its painted canvas sets in particular, seem to remain its most enduring calling card. Expressionism was concerned with giving outer voice to the inner emotions by distorting realistic landscapes and architecture to echo and evoke the mood of the protagonists or the tone of the narrative. Here, the ominous arrival of Caligari and Cesare warps Holstenwall like a carnival mirror, twisting its winding streets and alleyways at sharp angles and elongating its windows and doorways to suggest a cracked and fragmenting dreamworld, crooked and somehow deeply wrong. Wiene's nightmarish visual style has been much imitated, but never put to better use.

*One of the most recent films to tip its cap to Caligari, however obliquely, was Shane Carruth's extraordinary self-made and distributed Upstream Colour (2013), which also dealt with sleepwalkers being manipulated into committing crimes, albeit financial rather than homicidal.

24/10/2013

The Violent Men (1955)


Edward G. Robinson was reunited with Glenn Ford and Barbara Stanwyck, his co-stars in Destroyer (1943) and Double Indemnity (1944) respectively, for this workmanlike but enjoyable psychological Western from Rudolph Maté for Columbia. Taken from Donald Hamilton's 1954 pulp novel Smoky Valley, The Violent Men treads similar thematic terrain to Shane (1953) in presenting an upstanding hero, John Parrish (Ford), reluctant to join a range war that appears increasingly inevitable because of the aggressive behaviour of a posse of agitators bullying local farmers and nesters into selling their land to ambitious ranch tycoon Lew Wilkison (Robinson). The latter is crippled having been shot during a swathe of similar skirmishes a decade ago and his manipulative wife Martha (Stanwyck) has long since embarked on an affair with his virile brother Cole (Brian Keith), a melodramatic scenario that is probably the film's real point of interest. Stanwyck is firmly in Lady Macbeth mode here, more Phyllis Dietrichson than Annie Oakley despite the setting, and her love for the undeserving Cole, a meat head if ever there was one, drives her to increasingly desperate measures. Her daughter Judith (Dianne Foster), the Wilkison family's voice of reason, is disgusted by Martha and her comeuppance at the hands of a foe she's entirely underestimated is satisfyingly abrupt.


Attractively shot in CinemaScope, making good use of the heather groves and snow-topped peaks of its California and Arizona shooting locations, Maté's The Violent Men is an unsurprising but solid piece of filmmaking, finding a good use for three stars best known for noir and slightly past their sell-by dates. Hollywood used to turn out this sort of thing every other week like it was nothing. Nowadays, a man's lucky if he encounters one or two films of this calibre a year.

18/10/2013

Imitation Of Life (1959)


Douglas Sirk's final feature, after the extraordinary purple patch that brought us Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written On The Wind (1956), was another superlative melodramatic weepie, this time boldly addressing the problem of racial prejudice for the Civil Rights era. A second adaptation of Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel, which had already been filmed as a vehicle for Claudette Colbert in 1934, Sirk's updated version concerns an unlikely alliance between two single mothers, aspiring Broadway actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and unemployed black divorcee Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), after their paths cross at the beach and their daughters become friends. Living together in a rundown New York apartment, Lora and Annie's odd couple relationship proves mutually beneficial, but Annie's daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker), born white, proves increasingly troublesome, angry at her mother for the self-loathing she feels and the alienation she suffers at school. Lora soon meets an influential, if sleazy, agent (Robert Alda) and her career takes off, enabling her to provide her surrogate family with a life of material splendour. However, as both Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) and Lora's own daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) grow up, this peaceful idyll is shattered by adolescent rebellion, hormones and long-suppressed resentments, with tragic consequences for the saintly Annie.


To my taste, Imitation Of Life is a little baggier than some of Sirk's finest work and misses Rock Hudson's soulful presence. Hudson is replaced by John Gavin, an actor who featured in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and would go on to serve as the US Ambassador to Mexico during Ronald Reagan's Hollywood presidency. Gavin is fine as the photographer turned Madison Avenue man who is spurned by Lora for not staying true to his art only to win her back later in life, but he lacks star quality, especially when playing opposite Turner and Dee (later the wife of crooner Bobby Darin). However, this is first and foremost a Woman's Picture in the old-fashioned sense, with the Oscar-nominated Moore and Kohner taking centre stage for the final third. I personally preferred Moore's brand of dignified suffering to Kohner's bratty runaway act (Sarah Jane flees to Vegas to become a burlesque dancer, poisoned by one too many hot jazz records), but it's Turner's tears at Annie's bedside that really win the day. The cathartic closing funeral, in which Sarah Jane throws herself hysterically upon her late mother's casket, is also impressively staged, interestingly shot and something of a reverse-Gatsby: it's so well attended that even Mahalia Jackson is there!

P.S. Legendary comedian Richard Pryor was apparently dishonourably discharged from the US army and briefly imprisoned after repeatedly stabbing a fellow recruit who had presumed to laugh at a screening of Imitation Of Life while both men were stationed in Germany together in 1960. Well played!

13/10/2013

Jánošík (1921)


Juraj Jánošík is often described as the Slovak Robin Hood, a seminary student who became the leader of a band of outlaw highwaymen, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor on the mountain passes of Central Europe in the early eighteenth century. Feared by the corrupt Hungarian aristocracy and revered by the serfs for whom he fought, Jánošík soon became a mythic figure, a legend in his own lifetime, until he was finally captured and hung in 1713. His legacy endures and he remains a symbol of resistance against oppression in a land that saw more than its fair share over the course of the twentieth century. So important a figure is Jánošík to the Slovaks that a society of wealthy émigrés meeting in Chicago in the early 1920s decided to bankroll a film documenting his exploits in a popular new medium. Forming the Tatra Film Corporation, this consortium of investors hired director Jaroslav Siakel, Czech star Theodor Pištěk, a skeleton crew and an otherwise non-professional cast and dispatched them to the Old Country for location shooting, using a novel by journalist Gustáv Maršall-Petrovský and a play by Jiří Mahen as the source material for Jozef Žák-Marušiak's screenplay. The team may have set off with only a half-completed script in their suitcases, forcing them to ad-lib the rest of the story, but their finished film gave Slovakia a place in the history books as only the tenth nation to make a full-length feature film, a major achievement for this small but redoubtable nation.


I was lucky enough to see Jánošík screened at the Barbican yesterday in partnership with London's Czech Centre, with live accompaniment from a quintet of native musicians on violin, piano, lute, guitar, harmonica, pipe and fujara, performing and singing an eccentric semi-improvised score. Although Siakeľ's film is really in rather bad nick, it retains a ramshackle charm and serves as an attractive record of the verdant splendour of the Slovak countryside, its picturesque villages and traditional costume. The film's rise-and-fall of a bandit narrative closely follows the universal folk template but it's no less exciting for that, with the director clearly taking inspiration from early Hollywood westerns in his depiction of hold-ups and horse chases through the forests. Jánošík ditches his priestly vestments and embarks on a life of crime to avenge his parents after his farm labourer father is beaten to death by the local land baron's henchmen as punishment for presuming to take a day off to tend to his dying wife, a tragic backstory that gives our hero a satisfying revenge motive and immediately wins our sympathy for his cause. The sinister appearance of the elegantly moustached Vladimír Šrámek as his nemesis, Count Šándor, all dandyish decadence and beady-eyed malevolence, is also a great pleasure to behold.

29/09/2013

The Seven Year Itch (1955)


Marilyn Monroe shares a joke with Billy Wilder on the set of The Seven Year Itch before shooting the famous scene in which she stands astride a New York subway grate as a train passes below, causing her white dress to billow in the breeze as Tom Ewell stands back and admires the view. It's Ewell though who really carries the film, reprising the role of Richard Sherman from the source play's original Broadway run, and appearing and soliloquising in almost every scene as the neutered husband left home alone in the sweltering heat of the summer while his wife and son head up to Maine on vacation. Unlike Mad Men's Pete Campbell, who ran into trouble with a German au pair in similar circumstances, Sherman vows to forego all opportunities for infidelity until he encounters Monroe's leggy dream girl renting the vacant flat above and proceeds to tie himself in knots with desire and guilt.


Ewell and Monroe bond over potato chips, champagne and Rachmaninoff and make for a delightful double act in a comedy of sexual frustration that was controversial in its day and still feels startlingly frank. A recurring joke about two male "interior decorators" living upstairs proves to be just one of many extraordinarily daring details in George Axelrod's script, which brilliantly casts Ewell's domesticated publisher as a sexual Hamlet, tormented by his lust for Monroe but unable to decide whether or not to go through with an affair. Austrian wit Wilder finds just the right cartoonish tone for this bawdy premise and deftly interrupts Sherman's agonised hand-wringing with fantasy interludes spoofing such contemporary reference points as From Here To Eternity (1953) and Liberace. The result is funny and warm with plenty to say about society's ingrained hypocrisies towards sexual manners and mores, even if it does ultimately serve up a predictably conservative moral. The film's standout scene comes early on when Ewell visits a voguish vegetarian restaurant (which reminded me of this vintage Sid Caesar sketch) and finds himself harangued by a waitress, a militant naturist, on the subject of world peace through nudity, a notion worthy of Peter Cook's E.L. Wisty.

28/09/2013

Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961)


The iconic image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, nonchalantly tapping her cigarette holder, is a horribly overfamiliar one. Variations of this famous publicity pose have adorned a trillion t-shirts, posters and tote bags over the last half century and today it seems more ubiquitous than ever. You'd never guess Hepburn was playing an escort if you weren't already acquainted with Blake Edward's film or Truman Capote's more explicit 1958 source novella. In fact, the economic realities behind Holly's lifestyle are treated so euphemistically in playwright George Axelrod's screen adaptation that it has almost proved possible for lazy merchandisers to successfully whitewash this inconvenient truth out of popular memory entirely. Today's consumers appear to prize Hepburn's elfin beauty and slender grace above all else. Having only half-comprehended her best-known character, they have co-opted Holly as an emblem of kooky/cute female befuddlement, an Annie Hall or Frances Ha for the early sixties. There is a case for Holly Golightly as proto-hipster: she keeps her telephone shut up inside an old suitcase to muffle its ringing, plays guitar on the fire escape and enjoys stealing animal masks from thrift stores and guzzling champagne before the sun is over the yardarm. The character's confused pop cultural afterlife would all be fine (because, ultimately, who really cares about fictional characters being properly understood before they're splashed around as role models?), but I just can't believe that all those who sport Hepburn's likeness on their walls or indeed about their person have actually sat through Edwards' ugly little romantic comedy lately and doubt very much that they'd think much of it if they did.


For Holly herself is much more than a charmingly chaotic eccentric with a chic wardrobe. She's a deeply haunted individual, a functioning alcoholic repulsed by her New York clientele of "rats and super rats" (and thus, by extension, herself and her choices), tormented by concern for her G.I. brother Fred and on the run from a past she is ashamed of, specifically her underage marriage to Doc (Buddy Ebsen), with whom she has two children that she's abandoned. Her refusal to name her cat turns out to stem from a deep rooted horror of "ownership", meaning people laying claim to her or otherwise attempting to possess her or pin her down to a serious romantic commitment. Paul Varjak (George Peppard) appears to be the right man to make an honest woman of her (well, these were different times) but he too proves to be a self-loathing sex worker, a failed writer supporting himself as a kept man. There's is a sad and troubled courtship between two wounded souls in which tragedy is only narrowly averted. Despite the undeniable charm of the leads, I'd say this psychodramatic scenario makes for a largely depressing viewing experience - aside from a raucous house party scene and Holly and Paul's twee day together spent doing new things - with the action rather drably shot and lit by Edwards throughout. Only a jaunty score from Henry Mancini (which unleashed 'Moon River' on an unsuspecting galaxy) and lively support playing from the likes of Patricia Neal and Martin Balsam help lighten the mood. The moment in which Holly learns of Fred's death via telegram and trashes her apartment, wild with grief, is powerfully played but also genuinely upsetting. Add to this Mickey Rooney's appallingly racist yellow-face turn as Mr Yunioshi, an irate and clumsy Japanese grotesque who lives upstairs and is prone to pratfalls ("Miss-a Gorightry!" etc.), and you have a decidedly more problematic product than the t-shirts promise.

20/09/2013

Classe Tous Risques (1960)


Fugitive French crook Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) flees Italy with his partner Raymond Naldi (Stan Krol) and young family, getting as far as Nice before both Naldi and Abel's wife Thérèse (Simone France) are brutally gunned down by the gendarmes. With no time to grieve, Davos conceals his sons in a seaside boarding house and seeks help from crime boss Frangier (Claude Cerval), who dispatches hired hood Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo) to rescue the outlaw and his progeny in an ambulance and deliver them to Paris. En route, Davos and Stark become fast friends but the former soon learns that his old employers no longer have his best interests at heart, a realisation with bloody consequences for all concerned.

"I believed in the friendship of Abel Davos and Stark absolutely", said Jean-Pierre Melville after seeing Classe Tous Risques, a film that would greatly influence his own gangster-inflected oeuvre. "The two men's behaviour makes explicit their feelings, without either of them having to speak of their friendship. On the other hand, I was not able to believe in the friendship of [François Truffaut's] Jules and Jim, even though they speak of it often." Ouch. 


Melville was pointedly speaking out in defence of Claude Sautet's feature debut after it had been sadly underrated upon its initial release, dismissed as old fashioned by a film culture caught up in the giddy rush of excitement surrounding la Nouvelle Vague. Seeing it today in a spanking new restoration at the BFI, it's hard to resist cheering Melville's remarks. As tense, brooding and fatalistic a thriller as you could wish to see, Classe Tous Risques benefits hugely from Sautet's tight direction - his curious camera seemingly lurking in every corner, peering over the shoulders of his actors at all times to ensure we don't miss so much as a bead of sweat. Sautet had previous experience as an assistant director and troubleshooting script doctor so clearly knew a thing or two about the mechanics of storytelling. There's a real fondness between the leads, as Melville indicates, which makes the climax all the more affecting. Belmondo is, of course, a handsome dog and makes up one half of a very pretty couple with love interest Sandra Milo (below), but it's ex-wrestler Ventura's show. Recently described by Sight & Sound editor Nick James as promising "the simmering danger of a wounded gorilla", Ventura's tired eyes, wrinkled brow and flat nose are the scars of a brutal existence, of professional violence and punctured illusions. He was cast for his imposing physique and it's not hard to understand why such an authentic tough guy became a star.


The story was adapted from a book by Corsican ex-con José Giovanni, who also wrote the gritty novels on which Jacques Becker's Le Trou (1960) and Melville's Le Deuxième Souffle (1966) were based. One of Giovanni's ex-cellmates had been a certain Abel "The Mammoth" Danos, a hulking mobster and French gestapo during the Occupation, whom the aspiring author befriended by offering chocolate and contraband stamps in exchange for his life story.

03/09/2013

Carlton-Browne Of The F.O. (1959)


I say, what a splendid topper! Wherever did you get it? 

Terry-Thomas is the inept diplomat of the title in this Boulting Brothers send-up of international relations at the fag end of the imperial age. Carlton-Browne, the nominal chief of the Foreign Office's Miscellaneous Territories department, idles away his days sipping tea and skim-reading The Times from behind his ministry desk without a care in the world. Until, that is, a sudden crisis concerning the forgotten colony of Gaillardia stirs him into action.

This tropical island, discovered by accident in the eighteenth century when a British merchant ship carrying a cargo of oranges ran into it on a moonless night, has been permitted self-governance for the last 50 years, although no one bothered to tell the British ambassador (Miles Malleson), who has diligently remained at his post ever since. It is he who unexpectedly reports back to London after a five decade silence that Gaillardia has been overrun with Russian spies dressed as Cossacks intent on digging mysterious holes all over the place. Foreign Secretary Tufton-Slade (Raymond Huntley) dispatches Carlton-Browne to investigate but our man soon becomes sidetracked by a battle for sovereignty between the Oxford-educated heir to the throne (Ian Bannen) and Princess Ilyena (Luciana Paoluzzi), the preferred choice of the Grand Duke (John Le Mesurier), a situation hardly helped by the machinations of slimy Prime Minister Amphibious (Peter Sellers). The island is soon partitioned straight down the middle, leaving the Russians and Americans holding their cards close to their chests and Carlton-Browne precisely nowhere.


Carlton-Browne Of The F.O. had its premiere at the National Film Theatre in February 1959, which Evening Standard reporter Jeremy Campbell described thusly: 

"It was considered jolly good fun that Mr. Terry-Thomas should arrive in a donkey-cart dressed in full ambassadorial kit with a sword and a red hot water bottle, the English being traditionally reluctant to abandon their creature comforts. Imitation F.O. men in bowler hats slightly too large for them were brought in from the Ballet Rambert. They sipped drinks strange to the white-collared world of Whitehall - vodka with tomato juice." 

As fun as this occasion sounds, and for all the film's bold pursuit of big targets, satirical oomph (particularly on the subject of Britain's ludicrous post-colonial geopolitical posturing) and solid character playing, it is, in truth, maddeningly slow and not especially funny. However, Carlton-Browne's shortage of jokes doesn't altogether matter as it's a charming Cold War curiosity nonetheless and there are some definite comic highlights, notably Irene Handl's short cameo as a cheerily ignorant housewife being interviewed by a TV news crew in search of a representative opinion on the Gaillardia question from a typical member of the Great British Public. T-T is rather hamstrung in the title role, which is really more in Ian Carmichael's line, as it doesn't allow him to play his usual purring cad, although he is convincing as an upper-crust nit born into privilege and entirely out of his depth. He's missing Ascot for all this and that's no small sacrifice, we're led to understand. Huntley and Malleson are enjoyable as irate bureaucrat and doddering gout-sufferer respectively, Thorley Walters is amusing as Colonel Bellingham, Sellers is nicely oily without getting carried away but the romance between Bannen and Paoluzzi is far too slight to win our affection, her part in particular sorely underwritten. Still, the very sight of that feathered pith helmet is surely enough to raise a grin.

31/08/2013

Night Of The Demon (1957)


"It's in the trees! It's coming!"

When Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham), charged with investigating a suburban satanic cult, is found dead in mysterious circumstances, visiting American psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews) is asked to take his place. The very man Holden suspects of leading the devil worshippers, one Dr Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), seeks him out and cautions him against persevering. When Holden refuses to back down, Karswell presents him with a strip of parchment bearing an inscription written in ancient runes and warns Holden that he now only has three days left to live. Holden remains sceptical and teams up with his late predecessor's niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) to find out what this strange egg is really up to. You know Karswell's bad news: he's got a highly questionable goatee beard, he still lives with his mother (Athene Seyler), he enjoys dressing as a clown and his first name is Julian.


Night Of The Demon improbably shares its source material with Hideo Nakata's popular J-horror Ringu (1998): both are based on 'The Casting Of The Runes' (1911), one of the best-known ghost stories by late Victorian writer M.R. James. The idea of a death curse activated by an encounter with an ill-omened object is really all that unites them, although both boast a memorable monster. According to legend, the demon in this case was a famously divisive addition - scriptwriter Charles Bennett, director Jacques Tourner and star Andrews were all opposed to ever showing the beast on screen at all - but producer Hal E. Chester insisted otherwise and the result is actually a highly impressive, unearthly creation. Its appearances in a flash of blinding white light and eerie smoke at the beginning and end of the film are genuinely uncanny and, aside from its rather homemade looking eyeballs, it's a memorably snarling and unsettling apparition. Andrews is as reliable as ever in the lead as a rationalist whose denial of the possibility of the paranormal is severely tested by his experiences while the portly, balding MacGannis expertly incarnates the mundanity of evil. His end, stumbling desperately along a railway track after a windblown slip of parchment of his own, knowing full well that it's all too late and that the demon is finally coming to claim him too, provides a pleasingly savage climax but also stands as a poignant memento mori: won't we all, ultimately, end up this way, fighting hopelessly against the inevitable?


A pivotal early scene in Night Of The Demon, the first encounter between Holden and Karswell, takes place in the Reading Room of the British Museum in Bloomsbury. I was lucky enough to be part of the audience seeing the film screened at that very venue this week, enjoying Tourneur's work projected in the open air as part of the BFI's money-spinning new Gothic season. The museum had hosted a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's restored silent masterpiece Blackmail (1929) last summer, another thriller in which that iconic building played an important role, and the museum once more made for an impressive and atmospheric setting, a chill wind disturbing the trees on Great Russell Street, the shadows of its pointed black railings tumbling like spears into the courtyard as the sun set, the Grecian pillars of the temple itself bathed in lurid scarlet lighting. Peggy Cummins, the star of this and Gun Crazy (1950), who dated Howard Hughes and John F. Kennedy in her day, was also in attendance and seemed thrilled that the film was being re-evaluated in such auspicious environs.