09/12/2014

The Great Silence (1968)

According to Alex Cox, the reason Django (1966) director Sergio Corbucci set his superb Spaghetti Western The Great Silence in snowy mountains rather than the genre's more familiar dusty plains was simply that he wanted an excuse to take himself off skiing. From this decidedly unambitious starting point, a great masterpiece was somehow drawn, the Dolomites standing in for Nevada and providing sublime scenery as well as several unusual plot points: bounty hunter Loco (Klaus Kinski), for instance, is able to leave the corpses of his prey buried in the snow confident that they will remain freshly preserved until such time as he chooses to return for them to claim his reward money. Robert Altman and Sydney Pollack would follow Corbucci's example soon after with the release of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972) respectively, but neither quite captured the sheer mortal cold of the mountains in quite the same way. Even in the rather scratched and grainy 35mm print of the film I saw at London's Barbican last night, the agony of Corbucci's scowling gunslingers as their trigger fingers trembled with frostbite was palpable.

The title refers both to the eerie natural silence of a landscape muffled by snowfall and to the film's hero (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a mute avenger since his throat was cut as a boy who moves wordlessly about the world delivering bad men to the next, the greatest silence of all. Silence only kills in self-defence, waiting for the aggressor to draw first to ensure that he's never legally at fault for the cadavers piling up in front of him. This Man With No Voice is a formidable righter of wrongs, but he hasn't reckoned on the nihilistic glee of Loco, a vulture endlessly amused by the blank indifference of a godless universe, and the avarice and lust of banker Pollicutt (Luigi Pistilli), a cruel man with designs on Vonetta McGee's spiky local widow.


For Cox, writing in his book 10,000 Ways To Die (2010), Silence's decision to finally confront Loco at the film's bleak climax is an "atheist's sacrifice", a gesture made in full knowledge of the probable outcome and without even the consolation afforded to Christ on the cross, the promise of eternal life in the hereafter. Corbucci's wife Nori later revealed that her husband had been inspired by the recent deaths of Che Guevara and Malcom X when making The Great Silence, reading into their assassinations the pessimistic moral that the revolutionary who dares to take on a powerful and corrupt elite is always ultimately doomed to failure, no matter how just their cause or radical their method. The house always wins. But Corbucci saw a tragic nobility in the very hopelessness of their idealism, giving their inevitable destruction and defeat an inherent greatness and value. As Cox elaborates: "Both men walked into the lion's den, knowing they would most likely die, knowing they would not see their dreams realised, doing it anyway because it was the right thing." In death, even Silence makes a sound because his sacrifice is a powerful legacy to leave behind.

19/11/2014

Once In A New Moon (1935)


"Heavens! England's gone!"

Here's a rare thing. A "quota quickie" sci-fi from Fox British dating back to 1935, which tells of the fictional Essex hamlet of Shrimpton-on-Sea, unceremoniously plucked from the face of the earth by the sheer velocity of a passing "dead star" and which thereafter becomes a planet in its own right, Shrimpton-in-Space. The locals initially refuse to believe the truth when it's presented to them by postmaster Harold Drake (Eliot Makeham, an accountant in another life), but are finally forced to face facts, whereupon a class war breaks out between the socialist yokels and the landed gentry who have assumed power with a predictable air of entitlement. 

Once In A New Moon's outlandish Wellsian premise is is taken from Lucky Star (1929), a novel by travel writer and historian Owen Rutter, a former bureaucrat with the North Borneo Civil Service who was so obsessed with the Mutiny on the Bounty that he wrote no less than six books on the subject. However, its plot is merely a pretext for the gentle political satire that unfurls, putting mild-mannered Drake at odds with Viscount Bravington (Morton Selton), a purring old Tory keen on brown sherry and prone to smoothing down his lustrous white moustache when vexed. Bravington - a genteel hobbyist in the manner of P.G. Wodehouse's Lord Emsworth at Blandings - is being bullied into striking up a civil war by his fearsome wife (Mary Hinton) when he'd clearly rather spend his days organising a cherished stamp collection. Fortunately, the comet reverses its effect before anyone on either side is seriously hurt and the village duly crash lands in the North Sea just east of Scarborough.

This delightful little curiosity - bringing cosmic intrigue to Little England in a manner not altogether dissimilar to Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's recent The World's End (2013) - comes from director Anthony Kimmins, a veteran of multiple George Formby vehicles, who shows laudable ingenuity in getting a great deal done with almost no budget to speak of, a no-name cast and just a 63 minute running time. Kimmins succeeds in presenting us with a complete village's worth of distinct if clearly allegorical characters and  develops a pleasing sub-plot about Drake's doting daughter (the lovely René Ray) being pursued by the rebellious young lord of the manor (Derrick De Marney) despite his snooty parents' disapproval, a scenario always popular with W.C. Fields

Those looking for overt social comment or insights into the broader 1930's context from Once Upon A New Moon may be disappointed, although there's a striking moment during a newspaper-montage sequence - intended to show Britain's aghast response to Shrimpton's disappearance - when one of the other prominent headlines featured on a frontpage reads: "Nazi Terror in Vienna". One wonders if Once In A New Moon were well enough known to have been an influence on Ealing's later Went The Day Well? (1942).

18/10/2014

Red River (1948)


"I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act!"
- John Ford on John Wayne

Howard Hawks' Red River - a psychological Western with a distinctly Oedipal twist - is often talked about as an early example of the Classic Hollywood school of acting encountering the young upstarts of the Method, with John Wayne's on-the-horse/off-the-horse style squaring up to Monty Clift's soulful sensitivity drawn from personal experience.

That's certainly one interesting aspect of the film - Clift providing quite a contrast to the practiced genre playing of Wayne and Walter Brennan - but it's less often remarked quite what a phenomenal undertaking the production was. As with Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982), the cast and crew found themselves forced to live their story, leading a giant herd of cattle along the arduous Chisholm Trail while loaded with costumes and kit and toiling away in baking temperatures and only limited shade. The end more than justifies the means, however, with Hawks conjuring up a truly immersive experience for his audience, taking us into the fray by placing a camera in the rear of a covered wagon as the group wades across a high river and casting us among the fleeing cattle during a standout stampede* sequence.



The plot, adapted by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee from the former's Saturday Evening Post yarn, concerns Wayne's Tom Dunson, who stakes his claim on Texas soil in 1851 and builds a major beef empire after his girlfriend is butchered by Indians when a wagon train she is part of is attacked. Dunson adopts the only survivor of that atrocity, Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn), and raises him as a son with help from his old confidante Groot (Brennan). 15 years later, the Lone Star State is impoverished in the aftermath of the Civil War and Dunson needs to sell his herd to keep the business afloat. Setting off on the 1,000 mile trek to Missouri, Dunson and his men soon suffer terrible hardship, weakened by bad coffee and short rations. Dunson himself becomes tyrannical and obsessive in the best spirit of Captains Blye and Ahab, forcing the adult Garth (Clift) to intervene and overthrow him, diverting the cattle drivers east towards Abilene, Kansas, where the new railroad has just hit town. Dunson, maimed, swears revenge.



But Garth's coup is much more than a dramatic plot turn. For Red River is really a critique of posturing alpha male masculinity, offering us Garth the thoughtful, feminised consensus-seeker as an alternative to Dunson's unchecked and wrong-headed machismo and aggression.

As with other tough guy stars of the 1940s, Big Duke Wayne found post-war America ready for a more nuanced and complicated hero and more open to questioning the action man exploits he had previously thrived on following six long years of global conflict. Bogie would become Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954), Bob Mitchum a murderous preacher in The Night Of The Hunter (1955) and even loveable Jimmy Stewart a tortured neurotic in Vertigo (1958).


Wayne's Tom Dunson, a forerunner to the borderline psychotic Ethan Edwards of The Searchers (1956), is sidelined by Garth, however reluctantly, because his macho management style has bred an unhappy camp where morale is low and dissent rife. Dunson, white haired and covered in trail dust, looks like a phantom, his brutal, militaristic instincts having finally led him astray and rendered him obsolete. Garth, the Fletcher Christian of the piece, is the New Man that America needs, a proto-Democrat and pacifist prepared to listen and take counsel to achieve the best result in opposition to the overbearing authoritarianism of his Republican father figure, which, Red River shows us, has become a dangerous dead end. The film's gender politics are further underlined when both men are giving a thorough dressing down by a woman (!) at the close, love interest Joanne Dru handing out the ticking off with evident relish.

*That scene is also a fine example of how to turn comedy into tragedy. A recurring joke about a cattlehand with a sweet tooth pinching sugar from Brennan's chuck wagon is finally revealed to be the set-up for a disaster: his clumsily upsetting a pile of pots and pans while seeking to satisfy his craving causes the spooked herd to turn tail and run and a colleague (Harry Carey Jr) to be trampled to death in the ensuing melee.

Harry McClintock - The Old Chisholm Trail

01/10/2014

The Roaring Twenties (1939)


Warner Brothers hired syndicated newspaper columnist Mark Hellinger in 1937 in a bid to bolster its reputation for making realistic pictures "ripped from the headlines", founded on the success of films earlier in the decade like Little Caesar (1931) and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932). Hellinger was the sort of flashy character who wore loud blue shirts and white ties in hot weather and made a point of driving a car repossessed from Dutch Schultz. This Jimmy Cagney vehicle directed by Raoul Walsh was the first fruit of his partnership with Jack Warner and was based on one of Hellinger's own short stories, 'The World Moves On', about the criminal heyday of Prohibition.


Producers Hal B. Wallis and Sam Bischoff worked hard to emphasise the authenticity of The Roaring Twenties, opening with a signed endorsement from Hellinger and a montage of news reel footage counting backwards in time from the rise of Hitler in the present day to the stock market crash of 1929 and the outbreak of the Great War.

We're then introduced to Cagney's garage mechanic turned doughboy Eddie Bartlett, who dives into a French foxhole to escape enemy shellfire and there encounters sadistic George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) and frightened law student Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn). The three men bond over cigarettes and discuss their plans for the future. Back in the US, Bartlett finds it near impossible to get a job and becomes embittered, finally resorting to driving a taxi borrowed from his pal Danny Green (Frank McHugh) by night. A chance commission from a stranger sees Eddie unknowingly tasked with delivering illegal liquor to a nightclub run by Panama Smith (Gladys George), whereupon he is promptly arrested for bootlegging. Bartlett takes the rap for Panama, the intended recipient, and goes to jail. Impressed by his stoic resolve, she pays Eddie's bail. Wiping his shoes on the 18th Amendment, Bartlett enters the black market booze business and accrues a fortune, buying a fleet of cabs and hiring a small army of ex-cons to carry out his rum runs. Acquiring a taste for power, Eddie sets up teenage chanteuse Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) in Panama's club and reunites with Hally to form an uneasy but potentially lucrative alliance. Glory beckons, before Bartlett's glass is well and truly knocked over.


Walsh's film shows us none of the gaiety of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Jazz Age" and lays heavy stress on its vice and venality instead. Cagney is as charismatic as ever playing the plucky everyman seduced and corrupted by ill-gotten gains while Bogie is as sour and unpleasant as I've seen him. Several years before John Huston had the visionary idea of casting him as a hero for the first time in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Bogart is on truly nasty form, drawing on his years of experience playing deadbeat henchmen to snarling effect. By contrast, Gladys George is tremendously moving as Panama, in love with Eddie and hard-pressed to watch him have his hopes dashed by the young protégé he hopes to marry but who's really in love with Lloyd, now a mob lawyer troubled by his conscience. Frank McHugh is also good value as Danny, the cabbie sidekick being something of a stock comic role in those days (see Larry Dobkin's expert patter as Louis in The Saint for CBS, 1947-51). Cagney's death, lying bleeding in the snow, is as sad a pay-off as it is inevitable. "He used to be a big shot" is Panama's resigned eulogy.


Fans of HBO's Boardwalk Empire (2010-) will find much to enjoy and many points of similarity: Eddie's return from the trenches mirrors that of Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), his weakness for showgirls recalls Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) while his habit of ordering nothing stronger than milk in speakeasys is echoed in Michael Stuhlbarg's fey characterisation of Arnold Rothstein. Eddie's surprise reunion with George meanwhile takes place when he attempts to rob the latter's whisky shipment out on the Atlantic one foggy night, a scene borrowed by Martin Scorsese for the series' pilot episode.

14/09/2014

Ace In The Hole (1951)


What is it about the New Mexico heat that drives men to complete moral collapse? Long before Walter White took to the desert to cook crystal meth in his underpants, washed-up Big City reporter Charlie Tatum (Kirk Douglas) was kicking his heels in the orderly offices of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, dreaming of his ticket back to the big time. And then he found it. 

Charlie exploits the case of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a local man who has become trapped in a cave while potholing for Indian relics, a routine accident that Tatum whips up into a media frenzy, which soon goes national and benefits all concerned. Except of course poor Leo, slowly dying in the dark while the punters roll up outside to watch the protracted rescue operation, happily paying the ever-rising parking toll, chewing hot dogs and riding the Ferris wheel while they wait. Charlie positions himself at the heart of this queasy carnival, with exclusive access rights to the invalid. He's in cahoots with corrupt sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal), the sort of man to delight in a pet rattle snake, which he keeps cooped up in a shoe box, not unlike old Leo. Tatum and Kretzer ensure that Minosa's rescue is affected in the most time-consuming manner possible, by drilling downwards into the cave from above rather than through its blocked ground level entrance, thereby ensuring that their "human interest" story gets a full week's run, regardless of what's in Leo's human interests. 


Part of the tragedy of Leo Minosa is that he takes solace from the belief that his wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), with whom he runs the nearby diner and gas station, is grieving for him and doing all she can to engineer his release. This isn't so. Lorraine, a bored, dishwater blonde in the vein of Cora from The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), is actually planning to leave Leo and only relents when Charlie points out how much she stands to gain from the situation. Like Tatum, she's an urbanite from back east who feels as buried alive in the desert as her husband is beneath those rocks. She's disgusted by the fur stoll that Leo instructs Charlie to give her as a present and is clearly attracted to the journalist's ruthlessness and dynamism. It's the greed and self-interest of Tatum, Lorraine and Sheriff Kretzer that ultimately seals the injured man's fate, not the boulders crushing his legs.


Billy Wilder's Ace In The Hole is often branded with adjectives like "cynical", "acidic", "corrosive" and "vitriolic" and was angrily attacked by The New York Times and Hollywood Reporter upon its original release. But, in my humble opinion, this is one of the few really honest depictions of the amoral world of journalism out there. I'm not even sure it's a satire. Wilder is merely following the cosily embroidered dictum of Tatum's editor, Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall): "Tell the truth". Charlie's knowingly exploitative tactics and crowd-pleasing turn of phrase are still run-of-the-mill today in a profession that thought it justified to hack the voicemails on a murdered girl's phone, even if it meant hindering the police investigation into her killer.

It's no surprise to learn that Ace In The Hole was in fact based on a real incident - the tale of W. Floyd Collins, alluded to by Charlie Tatum in the film, who was trapped in a Kentucky cavern by a landslide and turned into a star by Louisville Courier-Journal reporter William Burke Miller in exchange for a Pulitzer. Wilder's film has lost none of its relevance in the online era, with widespread coverage of recent mining disasters in Chile, China and Turkey showing that its story still has currency with sensation-hungry readers. Wilder would return to the subject of murky hack work in 1974 with a remake of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's Depression-era play The Front Page, which has a more comic flavour but is nonetheless full of devastating lines. As fine as Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are, that film lacks the tour de force that Kirk Douglas displays here. The man is simply incredible throughout, driving the film just as Charlie drives his media circus. When Tatum finally slumps to the floor - following in the footsteps of Walter Neff from Double Indemnity (1944) as a walking wounded desperate to make confession - we feel as exhausted as he is. Charlie's tragedy is that his grand masterwork has cost a man his life and all been for nothing: New York newspaper boss Nagle (Richard Gaines) has lost interest and won't take his calls.

12/09/2014

Calamity Jane (1953)


Is Calamity Jane the gayest thing that's ever happened? Well, perhaps not. But between Ancient Sparta and this 80's music video by Baltimora, Doris Day was butching it up in deer skins and a cavalry cap and belting out 'The Deadwood Stage' for the ages.

Within the first ten minutes of David Butler's celebrated musical for Warner Brothers - an answer to the box office success of MGM's Annie Get Your Gun (1950) - we've already been treated to the sight of Day's seemingly asexual tomboy heroine roughing up barflys and mild-mannered thespian Frances Fryer (Dick Wesson) entertaining the liquored-up patrons of The Golden Garter in full drag.


Fryer has been mistakenly booked when the punters wanted vaudeville pin-up Adelaid Adams (Gale Robbins), prompting Jane to head east to Chicago to rectify matters. Her subsequent fish-out-of-water scenes in the Windy City include an extraordinary episode in which an amused prostitute catches Jane's eye with a come-hither glance, to which she responds with bemused but unmistakable curiosity, the first stirrings of a Sapphic sexual awakening. Her return with Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), another wannabe mistaken for Adelaid, results in the sudden blossoming of an intimate friendship between the two women, which in turn serves to rouse Jane's dormant femininity. The ladies, soon looking every inch the lesbian couple, give Jane's dilapidated cabin a makeover and sing a duet entitled 'A Woman's Touch' while Jane hammers together the furniture and Katie finesses the interior decor. And then, to cap it all, Jane ventures out onto the hillside alone, wearing manly duds, to close the film with 'Secret Love', apparently about her feelings for Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel), that Mr Darcy of the Black Hills. Yes, but is it though Jane darling?


However much of a delight this campest of romps is for its first two-thirds, the fun couldn't go on forever. This was 1950's Hollywood, after all, and so, inevitably, a conservative moral is tacked on demanding that Jane put down her phallic six-shooter, start wearing pretty dresses, cease all that "female thinking" and settle down with Bill. It's a disappointing if predictable conclusion to a joyous production whose gender-bending antics would prove a gentle forerunner to Nick Ray's weirdo feminist Western Johnny Guitar, released the following year.


What is ultimately most remarkable about Calamity Jane - apart from its cheery disregard for historical accuracy (see the real Jane above) - is Doris Day. The singer turned actress is so astonishingly bright, so swashbucklingly athletic and so utterly unselfconscious, it's quite breathtaking. She swings in and out of moving stagecoach windows with all the carefree ease of the young Errol Flynn, leaps onto saloon bars mid-song and is even lassoed from the ceiling at one point. No leading lady working today would be capable of a comedic performance of this sort and it's a crying shame that Day is so terminally out of fashion. A talent to be treasured, whether or not this sort of business is your bag.

22/08/2014

Poppy (1936)


"What a gorgeous day... what effulgent sunshine... yes... 'twas a day of this sort, the McGillicuddy brothers murdered their mother with an axe!"

W.C. Fields here starred as Professor Eustace McGargle for the second time on celluloid, having already appeared in a silent version of Dorothy Donnelly's play directed by D.W. Griffith in 1925, Sally Of The Sawdust (below). But this was the umpteenth time the great clown had played McGargle in his career, having been a regular in the role on Broadway in 1923, reportedly treading the boards of the New York Apollo Theatre 346 times.


Eddie Sutherland's Paramount Poppy presents us with the image of Fields that has come to define him. Decked out in billowing check trousers, spats and a towering Mad Hatter's chapeau and cane, Fields travels the countryside with his faithful daughter in tow (Rochelle Hudson), pulling cons and hawking tonic at medicine shows until the idea of posing her as the long-lost progeny of a missing heiress enters his mind and real trouble ensues. The film provides W.C. with a welcome opportunity to dust off and repurpose some of his most cherished routines in a period setting: his Golf Specialist bit now takes place on a croquet lawn, his talking dog trick this time fools a bewhiskered publican while his fleeing from the scene here involves a getaway on a penny-farthing bicycle (a particularly joyous sight). There's also plenty of new business, including a failed recital on a cigar box violin that is continuously interrupted by the seemingly malevolent machinations of the aforementioned topper.


It's marvelous stuff, but don't take my word for it. Graham Greene, the English novelist whose work has inspired a number of cinematic classics from This Gun For Hire (1942) to Odd Man Out (1947), Brighton Rock (1947) and The Third Man (1949) - started out as a film critic for The Spectator and reviewed Poppy highly favourably on July 17th 1936:

"To watch Mr Fields, as Dickensian as anything Dickens ever wrote, is a form of escape for poor human creatures: we who are haunted by pity, by fear, by our sense of right and wrong, who are tongue-tied by conscience, watch with envious love this free spirit robbing the gardener of ten dollars, cheating the country yokels by his own variant of the three-card trick, faking a marriage certificate, and keeping up all the time, in the least worthy and the most embarrassing circumstances, his amazing flow of inflated sentiments."

Greene further applauds Fields, in opposition to Charlie Chaplin, for winning our affection, "not by class solidarity (he robs the poor as promptly as the rich), but simply by the completeness of his dishonesty." A brilliant insight from a very fine writer indeed.

09/08/2014

His Kind Of Woman (1951)

It’s no surprise to learn that RKO boss Howard Hughes had a meddling hand in this oddball noir from John Farrow. What starts out as a fairly routine hot climate crime caper (in which Bob Mitchum’s no-luck gambler is dispatched to a Mexican holiday resort to greet a powerful mystery man arriving by sea) ends up becoming a wildly eccentric soapbox for Vincent Price. The great ham grandstands as film actor Mark Cardigan, who overcomes a sunken dinghy to lead a motley crew of hotel workers to Mitchum’s rescue from duplicitous gangsters.

The corking Jane Russell provides the love interest, wearing little and prowling about the place like a lynx. Until, that is, she is unceremoniously locked in a closet by Price, whose whimsical thesp longs for a real adventure after a lifetime of play-acting. The supporting cast is of a high calibre too, with Tim Holt, Charles McGraw, Raymond Burr and Jim Backus all showing up to add menace and texture. It’s a strange concoction, all told, and hard to know where Farrow’s work ends and Richard Fleischer’s begins (the latter drafted in by Hughes to tinker). His Kind Of Woman has gained a cult following over the decades and I’d say it deserves it. The closing metaphor of the steam iron burning a hole through Mitchum’s pants sums its humour up nicely.

26/07/2014

Stormy Weather (1943)


Andrew L. Stone's busy little musical for 20th Century Fox is a rare showcase for many of the great African American showbiz stars of the day, its cheery, celebratory tone and top notch songs enough to gloss over an extremely slight plot. What story there is is loosely taken from the career of Stormy Weather's star, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, whose "educated feet" enabled him to dance his way to stardom through vaudeville to Broadway and Hollywood and is best remembered today for appearing alongside the late Shirley Temple and, unfairly, as something of a beaming Uncle Tom figure.

Robinson is given the charming Lena Horne as a love interest here, she a veteran of MGM's similar venture Cabin In The Sky (1940). Her Selina Rogers gives Robinson's Bill Williamson his start in music hall after she encounters the former G.I. waiting tables in a Beale Street bar. Selina falls for Bill before relocating to Paris to further her career, only to return in time to dish up the title song (mournful and at odds with the film itself) and the anticipated reconciliation. All of which Bill accepts with the same broad grin. I suppose you can't keep a good man down. There's also some tidy support from Dooley Wilson, fresh from playing it again as Sam in Casablanca (1942), as Bill's perpetually broke army buddy Gabe, the owner of a curbside shoe shine stand who prefers to pose as a swell to impress the ladies.



But rather like Frank Tashlin's later rock 'n' roll musical The Girl Can't Help It (1956), this is really an excuse to gather together a wealth of related talent to run through their greatest hits on the Big Screen. Despite the occasional cringe-inducing diversions into minstrelsy - female dancers wear golliwog-faced sunflower hats during a cakewalk, Robinson and cast dress as Zulu warriors to bang tom-tom drums in a jungle sequence - it's wonderful to have a record of stride piano hero Fats Waller mugging his way through 'Ain't Misbehavin'' (above) and likewise Cab Calloway doing his peculiar thing. The Harlamaniac-in-chief is here given more time to demonstrate his megawatt charisma and outlandish tailoring than he was in the Paramount ensemble comedy International House (1933) and makes full use of the opportunity to show off a zoot suit a lesser man would have got lost in. Both are heroes in their field, but it's the Nicholas Brothers who finally steal it. Their wild tap routine has to be seen to be believed.



Like Horne, Fats and Calloway, Harold and Fayard Nicholas were seasoned veterans of Harlem's famous Cotton Club and their extraordinary athleticism and invention are immediately apparent. Fred Astaire considered this "the greatest movie musical number" he'd ever seen. Praise indeed. Astaire also famously admired Robinson and had already paid tribute to him with the 'Bojangles Of Harlem' sequence in Swing Time (1936).

18/07/2014

Hobson's Choice (1954)



Behind every great man, there's a great woman. In the case of Salford leathersmith Will Mossop (John Mills), that lady is Maggie Hobson (Brenda De Banzie), the eldest daughter of his boss, the blustering Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton). Whom she's also behind.

Unbeknownst to anyone but herself, the headstrong Maggie has decided to make a project of Will, marrying him, teaching him to write and encouraging him to found his own bootmaking business to build a better life for both of them. In so doing, Maggie realises both his potential and her own, the ploy enabling her to break free from a life of thankless toil beneath the heel of her complacent father, who expects her to pick up where his late wife left off. For Hobson has loudly and publically written Maggie off as a Plain Jane, an old maid, a young spinster. His is a cruel and entirely selfish line of reasoning because Hobson knows all-too-well how invaluable Maggie's managerial skills and good sense are to the running of his house and business. This pompous boozer has held her back for too long while his youngest girls (Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales) are rewarded for their uselessness with independence. For the ageing patriarch, faced with mortality and the demise of his cobbler's empire, this is King Lear. For Maggie, this is a simple Cinderella story in which her own sudden self-realisation stands in for the want of a fairy godmother.


Hobson's Choice was the celebrated David Lean's final black-and-white film and his last to be set in England. Made for Alexander Korda's London Films, it shares some of the grime of his earlier high gothic masterpiece Great Expectations (1946) but, sadly, little of that work's magic, despite the best efforts of its star and the endearing earnestness of the underrated De Banzie, touchingly vulnerable beneath her forthright veneer. Hobson's Choice is too reliant on accents for charm ("By gum!") and too modest and insubstantial a tale to stand up to scrutiny. Laughton's biographer Charles Higham pinpointed the problem when he said: "Neither David Lean nor Alexander Korda was suited to the task of turning this timeworn regional farce into a satisfactory film. Lean's chilly, academic, and formalised approach, and Korda's tendency to opulence and exaggeration combined to create a highly artificial, lush and overripe version of a story which should have been treated with warmth, simplicity and austerity if it were to work at all". Higham goes on to argue that Lean was the wrong class to be making a film about the "harsh decency" of plucky Lancastrians, but perhaps that is taking matters too far.

Laughton is said to have lost confidence in the project midway through and had a lifelong loathing for alcoholics deriving from a childhood spent growing up in his parents' Scarborough hotel. The scene in which Hobson drunkenly pursues the moon's reflection through a series of puddles in the cobblestoned street is nevertheless a lovely bit of silent clowning, even if it does appear to belong to another film entirely.

13/07/2014

Kiss Of Death (1947)


Henry Hathaway's gorgeous Fox noir Kiss Of Death continues to be one of the genre's most underrated entries, benefitting from a trio of brilliant character performances from Victor Mature, Brian Donleavy and especially Richard Widmark. It's far from perfect, and more than a little inconsistent, but has enough original flourishes to startle.

Hard-up hoodlum Nick Bianco (Mature) is busted carrying out a jewel heist on Christmas Eve, but refuses to squeal on his accomplices when pressed by D.A. Louis D'Angelo (Donlevy). Professional pride and the failure of mob lawyer Earl Hauser (Taylor Holmes) to make good on his assurances condemn Nick to the Big House. When news of his wife's suicide reaches him, Nick relents and agrees to strike a deal with D'Angelo, naming names so that he can get free and take care of his young daughters, since confined to an orphanage. With the subsequent prosecution successful, Nick manages to build a new life for himself with the girls and their former babysitter Nettie (Coleen Gray), eventually finding work as a bricklayer. But D'Angelo pushes him to continue serving as his stool pigeon, commissioning Nick to gather dirt on sadistic killer Tommy Udo (Widmark). When Tommy is unexpectedly acquitted by a sympathetic jury, Nick knows that the giggling, manic psychopath will come gunning for him.



Upon its release, Kiss Of Death was highly praised for its documentary realism, an opening title card assuring us that its events take place in real New York locations where these sorts of characters might actually operate. Shots of Mature's world-weary anti-hero playing with his daughters on the residential streets of Queens bear this out. Mature was meanwhile sent to Sing Sing prison, in true Method style, to get a flavour of the place and better inform his performance. While such striving for authenticity is commendable, the film quickly undermines itself by introducing a string of larger-than-life hoodlums and cynical cops, all of whom belong on the pages of pulp paperbacks rather than the evening news (although they're all the more entertaining for that).


A more serious inconsistency is Kiss Of Death's frustrating failure to develop the social criticism introduced by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer's script. Unusually for a noir, the traditional first-person voiceover is here spoken by a woman, Nick's new bride Nettie. She assures us that the sole reason Nick and his gang are knocking over a department store in the opening scene is so that he can buy Christmas presents for his children, Nick having been unable to find straight work as a result of a common reluctance among employers to hire ex-cons, "reformed" or otherwise, meaning they're passively condemned to an ongoing life of crime. This is a fascinating and no doubt all-too-accurate observation, but Nettie then goes on to explain that Nick has been a career criminal from boyhood anyway and is merely following in the footsteps of his own no-good father, unhelpfully confusing us about his real motivations and never returning to the matter. Much more biting is the film's depiction of Donlevy's pragmatic D.A. routinely cooking up deals with crooks, arranging for them to betray fellow gang members in exchange for lighter sentences.


While Mature is as sympathetic and bruised as he was playing Doc Holliday and Donlevy as dependable as ever, it's Richard Widmark in his feature debut that steals the film. Tommy Udo pushing helpless Ma Rizzo (Mildred Dunnock) down the stairs in her wheelchair deserves to be remembered in the same breath as Cagney's grapefruit assault on Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy (1931) among the great acts of violence in crime cinema. Widmark's cackling coke freak turn, railing against "squirts", snapping his fingers to the jazz drumming at Club 66 and quaffing champagne before threatening darkly against his girlfriend, has influenced everything from The Joker to the weasel gangsters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and has to be seen to be believed. Hathaway's masterstroke is introducing the idea that Tommy will seek vengeance against Nick and then having the exact opposite occur. Nick sends his young family away on the train, tools up and hides in the shadows, waiting for the laughing kid to come knocking, anticipating Max Cady's sick pursuit of Sam Bowden in Cape Fear (1962). But Tommy never shows up, too crazy for anything so obvious. Most interestingly of all, it's suggested that Tommy isn't even the real villain here. After all, he's just a mad stick-up man, with none of the power wielded by Earl Hauser, a lawyer as crooked as a country lane.

06/07/2014

House Of Wax (1953)


André de Toth's schlock thriller put Vincent Price on the map as a horror star and ushered in the first wave of hysterical excitement about the possibilities of 3D cinema, something we're still debating the merits of 60 years later.

House Of Wax was the first major colour feature to appear in 3D, a novelty introduced by panicked studio executives seeking to combat the sudden emergence of television as a serious competitor to movie houses, with theatre attendance halving as punters opted to be entertained from the comfort of their own living rooms rather than step out for the evening. For the first time, audiences were presented with grey-lensed polarised glasses to wear, enabling them to see characters lifted off the screen thanks to House Of Wax's much-touted "Nature Vision" process, which involved running two separate 35mm film strips for the left and right eyes using twin interlocked projectors, the installation of which required complicated modifications on behalf of exhibitors. The film also boasted stereophonic sound and proved a hit with movie-goers, helping to blur the line between auditorium and fun house, a notion William Castle would take further with his inventive promotional gimmicks for House On Haunted Hill and The Tingler in 1959, both of which also starred the ever-game Price. House Of Wax contains some insertions of its own to demonstrate the power of its technology, notably a daft intermission featuring a barker in evening dress batting a paddle ball directly at the audience and an otherwise entirely superfluous can-can scene. Ironically, the one person unable to profit from House Of Wax's third dimension was its director, the Hungarian de Toth having lost an eye in a childhood accident. Don't feel too sorry for him though: he was married to Veronica Lake.


The film itself, a loose remake of Michael Curtiz's Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933), is set in late 19th century New York and concerns Price's artisan sculptor Professor Henry Jarrod, whose commercially-minded business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) burns down their wax museum for the insurance money, cruelly leaving Jarrod to die amongst his cherished models of notorious historical figures (their melting away is a marvellously grotesque spectacle). Unbeknownst to Burke, Jarrod has survived the inferno and now haunts the streets in search of revenge, horribly disfigured and deranged. After hunting down and dispatching his former friend, Jarrod reappears and unveils a new museum to the public, whose exhibits are more lifelike than ever. So realistic, in fact, that visitor Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) becomes suspicious when the body of her late friend Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) disappears from the city morgue, only for her exact likeness to appear on the face of Jarrod's Joan of Arc.


House Of Wax has a pleasing brutality about it that would get lost in many of Price's later horror outings, the likes of The Raven (1963) and The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) descending into easy camp and knockabout whimsy, losing their way rather than going for the jugular. Those films have nothing to compare with the genuine shock of Burke's cadaver being discovered hanging in an elevator shaft, Jarrod's waxen mask cracking open to reveal a face twisted with savage burns or his death, tumbling from a balcony into a vat of boiling pink chemicals, writhing, seething and steaming as he sinks beneath the surface (surely an influence on the staging of Jack Napier's transitional accident in Tim Burton's Batman, 1989). Chasing Kirk down a darkened street with a simian roll to his gait, Price, clad in billowing black, draws on Jack The Ripper, Lon Chaney and Judex and the effect is extraordinary.


There's a fine supporting cast too, with Charles Bronson appearing in an early role as Jarrod's mute assistant Igor under his real name of Buchinsky. Frank Lovejoy, forever typecast as cops in noirs, appears as, er, a policeman, while the leading ladies would both be better known for their TV careers, Phyllis Kirk starring alongside Peter Lawford in The Thin Man (1957-59) and Carolyn Jones, unrecognisable hiding behind a dumb blonde wig and breathy Marilyn giggle, as Morticia in The Addams Family (1964-66).

05/07/2014

Billy Liar (1963)


Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) feels trapped, stifled, buried alive. A lower middle class school leaver unable to afford university, he's stuck in a dead-end job as an undertaker's clerk and lives in the same old cramped council house with his hectoring parents (Wilfred Pickles, Mona Washbourne) and grandmother (Ethel Griffies) in the same humdrum northern industrial town where he grew up, a landscape Morrissey would later decry. Precocious but under-stimulated, Billy's also caught between at least two women, the disappointingly proper Barbara (Helen Fraser) and the altogether brassier Rita (Gwendolyn Watts), the lad frantically passing the same engagement ring back and forth between the two and hoping against hope that neither finds out about the other.


Billy's only escape from the tensions he's engineered for himself by neglecting his duties, cheeking his aged guardians and cruelly toying with the local female population are flamboyant flights of fancy. He imagines himself variously as the benevolent dictator of the fictional republic of Ambrosia, a debonair seducer and a violent machine gunner spraying bullets from the trenches, relishing the temporary release these snatches of daydreams bring. Until, that is, the lovely, free-spirited Liz (Julie Christie) arrives to shake Billy from his reverie and offer him a chance to make his half-baked dreams of moving to London to write gags for comedian Danny Boon a reality. Dangerously close to getting what he wants, Billy bottles it at the last minute and returns home, bowed but not broken.


John Schlesinger's Billy Liar - based on Keith Waterhouse's novel of 1959, itself a British translation of James Thurber's New Yorker story 'The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty' (1939) - remains a timeless study of small-town ennui and the teenager's restless yearning for escape from colourless reality to some ill-defined Shangri-La of the imagination. Despite its very specific positioning in time and space - working class Bradford in the early sixties - this staple of the British New Wave is entirely universal in its themes. Celebrated for its winning fantasy sequences, Schlesinger's decision to shoot Billy's everyday world in cinéma vérité style is perhaps of greater interest to posterity, as it turns the film into an invaluable record of the red brick buildings, winding hillside streets and dance halls of northern England on the cusp of the Sexual Revolution, an asset it shares with other "Angry Young Men" productions of the period such as Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (1960) and This Sporting Life (1963).


This is not to dismiss the importance of Billy's visions, which provide a wonderful contrast to the drab milieu and look forward to the work of the great television playwright Dennis Potter, whose major preoccupation was the isolated individual struggling to cope with strong doses of reality and seeking refuge in cherished imaginary worlds. Beloved Potter serials like the BBC's Pennies From Heaven (1978) carry this theme, but the closest parallel with Billy Liar is Potter's early Wednesday Play entry Where The Buffalo Roam (1965), about a troubled young man from Swansea who's obsessed with cowboys and finally acquires a six-shooter, with deadly consequences. A nightmarish answer to Schlesinger's comedy, Buffalo itself interestingly foreshadows the modern epidemic of high school massacres currently blighting the United States and is well worth seeing if you ever get the chance.


Having said that Billy Liar is a comedy, it is also entirely serious in its intentions. Billy's failure to leave on the midnight train with Liz, leaping from the carriage as the whistle blows on a spurious errand to buy cartons of milk from a vending machine, is usually read as a failure of nerve, a pessimistic ending underlining our weak-willed inability to realise our most heartfelt desires in a world all-too-ready to weigh one down with cumbersome responsibilities. However, Billy's apparently cowardly actions really mark the moment he finally reaches maturity. Rather than run away from his problems at work and selfishly abandon his parents in their hour of need, Billy returns home to face the music and comfort his mother, grieving over the death of grandma, finally accepting the debt he owes to his family. Although his roots have so far held him fixed firmly in the soil, they've also nourished and raised him. Behind his father's gruff northern machismo there lies real love for a son he'd be devastated to lose, a touching thought. Admittedly Billy has lost out on the affections of the radiant Julie Christie, but he's bought himself time to think hard about what he really wants to do with his time on earth, rather than go chasing disastrously after a phantom opportunity.




Elsewhere, Schlesinger's film is loaded with cherishable details. The firm of Shadrack and Duxbury where Billy works is a deliciously awful portrait of a first job, with expert character players Finlay Currie and Leonard Rossiter forming a magnificent partnership as the bluff Yorkshire Councillor and smug middle manager respectively. It's easy to emphathise with Billy's failure to deliver their latest batch of promotional calendars, a task so unthinkably futile he can't bring himself to complete it, even though he knows he'll be keelhauled for the omission. And his friendship with colleague Arthur Crabtree (Rodney Bewes), co-author of the modest local rock 'n' roll hit 'Twisterella', is as funny and believable a portrait of two mates as I've ever encountered, their interactions peppered with authentic in-jokes, banter and silly accents. Exquisitely observed.

The Decemberists - Billy Liar

25/05/2014

Diamond Queen (1940)


As part of the Southbank Centre's fifth annual Alchemy Festival, Australian composer Ben Walsh and his Orkestra of the Underground are in town touring Fearless Nadia, a screening of vintage Indian action comedy Diamond Queen with a live performance of their new score for the film. The Orkestra consists of 12 musicians playing native instruments, including the tabla, shenai, sarangi and dholak, plus a foley artist and a traditional dancer, whose vibrant, brash, blaring performance lifts a ramshackle old pulp curiosity off the screen to marvellous effect. The show is an inspired tribute to Wadia Movietone's tough gal heroine, a butch Aussie expat who became an unlikely but major star of pre-Bollywood cinema, known for hearty fist fights and performing her own daredevil stunts. Quite unlike anything the American studios dared put forward in the 1930's, Nadia endures as a highly unusual feminist icon ripe for rediscovery in the west.

A strapping specimen of Amazonian womanhood marrying the brute force of Mae West with a sore head to the feminine grace of John Wayne, Nadia was born Mary Anne Evans in Perth in 1913. She relocated to Bombay with her parents aged nine, learned to speak Hindi and became an accomplished rider and circus performer, eventually crossing paths with an Armenian fortune-teller who advised her to change her name to something more dynamic. Discovered by influential producer J.B.H. Wadia, the blonde, blue-eyed Nadia graduated quickly from minor bit part roles in his films to dramatic leads, achieving immortality in Hunterwali (1935), in which she wore an iconic domino mask (see below) in the manner of Zorro or the Lone Ranger. Her presence on posters promised "Whips, quips and swinging hips" and who could ask for more than that?


Diamond Queen is set in "the quiet jungle near Sundarnagar" and plays very much like a Hollywood Western, its revenge plot revolving around the ownership rights to lucrative natural resources and familial betrayal. Director Homi Wadia, J.B.H.'s younger brother, packs in a moustachioed villain chuckling and arching an amused eyebrow at his own dastardliness (Sayani Atish), a highway bandit (John Cawas) and spontaneous brawls with chairs cracked over noggins and big men cast out on their ears. There's even a trusty horse with a name, the Son of Punjab. In amongst all the punch-ups atop perilous waterfalls and moving cars, there's also room for such comedic old standards as the time-honoured jalopy-breaking-down-on-the-railway-tracks and a buffoonish trio resembling the Three Stooges to serve as a chorus. As Madhurika, Nadia herself is primarily required to thump bad guys, toss furniture and leap from vehicles, but she also displays a great deal of charm in her romantic scenes with Cawas as handsome outlaw Diler. Their betrothal at the end was met with a rousing cheer from the punters in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, I'm pleased to report.



The version of Diamond Queen we saw last night was abridged from three hours to a running time deemed more manageable for the "YouTube-attention span generation". This cavalier cutting might have risked alienating diehard purists with a better known or more serious work, as might the virtuosi Orkestra's occasional showboating antics. However, I for one felt their efforts to bring Nadia back to life were superb and doubt I'll ever forget the sight of violist Shenzo Gregorio going about his business while suspended upside-down from a harness above the stage. Magnificent stuff.

17/05/2014

They Live By Night (1948)


Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva and Jay C. Flippen are the three cons who escape from a penal farm to become violent bank robbers on the lam in this superlative Depression-set RKO noir from debutante director Nicholas Ray and producer John Houseman. Taken from Edward Anderson's 1937 novel Thieves Like Us, the screenplay by Ray and Charles Schnee follows Granger's youthful Bowie, the gang's getaway driver, as he falls for Catherine "Keechie" Mobley (Cathy O'Donnell), the niece of fellow bandit Chickamaw (Da Silva), a one-eyed psychotic, jealous and vain when it comes to winning newspaper headlines about the trio's exploits. Bowie and Keechie pitch out on their own, trying to stay one step ahead of the law, and soon decide to get married, but it's not long before Chickamaw intrudes on their domestic bliss, determined to reel Bowie in for one last heist. Hmm, I wonder how many times Bruce Springsteen has seen this...


An influential precursor to lovers-on-the-run capers like Bonnie & Clyde (1967), Badlands (1973) and Natural Born Killers (1994), Ray's They Live By Night shows little interest in glamorising Chickamaw and his accomplices as latter day Robin Hoods in the manner of 1930's Warner Brothers gangster movies. These men are not black-hatted Dillingers toting Tommy guns in fine suits, just ordinary schmoes trying to tear a piece off for themselves in a fallen world. No wonder Ray was so popular with the French.

Of those three films, They Live By Night probably has most in common with Terence Mallick's because Keechie, although arguably more worldly than her husband, is a relative innocent and by no stretch of the imagination a pistol packin' mama. Ray's film relies on our emotional investment in Granger and O'Donnell and the pair do indeed make for a very appealing couple. The initially cynical Keechie's gradual surrender to Bowie's optimism and his growing realisation of his love for her prove a winning trajectory and their struggle to find a happy corner for themselves in an America beset by hard times and deprivation is very affecting. Their $20 wedding at a truckstop chapel is as poignant a scene as I can recall anywhere.


As with later Ray movies like In A Lonely Place (1950), Rebel Without A Cause (1955) or Bigger Than Life (1956), They Live By Night deals in fraught atmospherics, his characters' troubles always threatening to boil over into out-and-out doom and tragedy. Even Bowie knows, deep down, that there's no happy ending here, that he and Keechie will never get to Mexico and that their unborn child is his only real hope for redemption and a future of any kind.

16/05/2014

You Were Never Lovelier (1942)


Fred Astaire's celebrated dancer Robert Davis takes himself off to Buenos Aires to get away from it all, but is soon forced to sing for his supper when he gambles away his last red cent at the racetrack. Petitioning rich hotelier Eduardo Acuña (Adolphe Menjou) for work on the advice of bandleader Xavier Cugat, Robert inadvertently becomes embroiled in the latter's scheme to marry off Maria (Rita Hayworth), the second of his four beautiful daughters, so that three and four may follow suit. With the girl herself reluctant to settle for anything less than a paragon of knightly virtue, Acuña has been busily composing love letters and bombarding his daughter with orchids from a fictitious mystery suitor in the hope of teasing her into a more amenable mood. When Maria mistakes Bob for her secret admirer, the pair fall for one another, but Acuña remains to be convinced.

Having shanghaied Fred into the military in his previous encounter with Hayworth, You'll Never Get Rich (1941), You Were Never Lovelier is a reassuring return to the escapist fantasyland of Astaire's 1930's heyday with Ginger Rogers and RKO. William A. Seiter's musical for Columbia was to prove their final screen pairing and both are on cracking form, with Fred's solo audition piece a definite highlight. Anticipating Gilda (1946) by casting Rita among gentleman gamblers in the Argentine capital, the film benefits enormously from its back-to-basics formula, neat and non-intrusive songs by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, some amusing character playing from Gus Schilling as Acuña's intercom-hounded assistant Fernando and a strong adversary in the person of Menjou's doting but domineering patriarch.


Although, having said all that, the latter's interest in his daughter's romantic life occasionally teeters towards the problematic. As if toying with her emotions through heartfelt love notes weren't dubious enough, Acuña is then wary, bordering on hostile, when Davis arrives on the scene to challenge his supremacy and responds by handling his courtship with Maria like a corporate espionage assignment, complete with contracts drawn up and signed. Worse, Acuña then attends his own 25th anniversary party dressed up as a Scottish laird, seemingly a veiled nod to Maria's teenage preoccupation with Lochinvar, the chivalrous hero of Walter Scott's epic poem Marmion (1808). Not an altogether healthy obsession then and one that is rightly slain when Fred arrives at Villa Acuña on horseback in full armour bearing a lance, a lovely and unexpected moment. Hopefully Rita's little princess can overcome all of this and live happily ever after, but Mrs Acuña (Barbara Brown) may grow to wish that her first suspicions about her husband's surreptitious correspondence had been right.

11/05/2014

The Dark Mirror (1946)


A beautiful shop girl (Olivia de Haviland) is positively identified leaving the apartment of a murdered man, but an army of witnesses can swear to her being across town at the time. Lieutenant Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) is baffled by this apparently cast-iron alibi, until he learns that his suspect has an identical twin sister. When pressed, neither Terry nor Ruth Collins will co-operate with his investigation and admit to which of them was where, one obviously covering for the other. Stevenson can charge both with obstructing the course of justice but that's about the limit of his powers. Thwarted, frustrated and unable to reconcile himself with the idea of the guilty party getting away with a perfect crime, Stevenson enlists debonair psychiatrist Dr. Elliott (Lew Ayres) to winkle out the killer. When the latter finds himself falling for the kindly Ruth, Terry starts to exhibit increasingly controlling and disturbed behaviour.


Robert Siomak and producer Nunnally Johnson dish up an efficient little psychological noir that benefits from a strong dual performance from de Haviland (and some impressive trick photography). The actress, then experimenting with Method practices, succeeds in crafting two diametrically opposed personalities for Terry and Ruth, with the former's corrosive jealousy slowly but surely teased out by Elliott's Rorschach tests and word association games. As Terry, de Haviland carries a surprisingly persuasive air of menace, clearly relishing the scenario and perhaps drawing on her own experiences of sibling rivalry with Joan Fontaine, one of Hollywood history's most notorious feuds. Terry's attempts to convince Ruth that she's going mad has a touch of Gaslight (1944) about it, while her campaign of cruel manipulation seems a likely influence on What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962). The Dark Mirror also belongs to cinema's potent female doppelgänger micro-genre, placing it in a group with movies as varied as All About Eve (1950), Bergman's Persona (1966) and Single White Female (1992).

07/05/2014

Flying Leathernecks (1951)


You've got to love this hilariously misleading poster for Nicholas Ray's World War II action caper Flying Leathernecks. That temptress with the weirdly out-of-whack rack really has very little to do with John Wayne and Robert Ryan's increasingly bitter bickering over Marine Corps management styles in the bamboo base camps of the South Seas.



Ray's film for RKO is a fairly uncomplicated salute to the airmen who served in the Guadalcanal campaign in 1942, with Wayne's disciplinarian Major Kirby inspired by the real-life Major John L. Smith, a legend in his field. Bankrolled by madcap millionaire and noted aviation nut Howard Hughes, Flying Leathernecks packs in plenty of Technicolor action spectacle as the Cactus Air Force squadron do battle with "Jap Zeroes" high above the Pacific, much of which features real combat footage spliced in. Although shooting in colour helps to convey the balmy tropical heat of this theatre of war, black-and-white might have done Ray more favours when it came to concealing the obvious studio cockpit sets and back projection during the film's airborne scenes. Nevertheless, such episodes as the Battle of Okinawa would doubtless have thrilled ex-servicemen and impressionable boys in movie houses across America during Leathernecks original run.


Those left unimpressed might still enjoy the conflict at ground level between Kirby and Captain Griffin (Ryan), a very mild riff on the Captain Bligh-Fletcher Christian face-off in miniature, only with more hugging and learning. Kirby's a hard-but-fair taskmaster, weighed down by the hard decisions he has to make and not interested in winning any popularity contests, while Griff still wants to be one of the boys. Flying Leathernecks champions conformity and insists that group solidarity is all important: any pilot who displays too much individuality, notably Texan hee-haw Cowboy (Don Taylor), or otherwise capriciously disobeys orders can be sure to find himself unceremoniously blasted out of the sky sooner or later. In this highly conservative context, Griff must come around to Kirby's way of thinking, quit drinking saké and shelve his sentimentality before he can progress in the Marine Corps, a prize Flying Leathernecks appears to value. Which is odd, as the army is otherwise portrayed as a rigid, faceless bureaucracy, with the industrious kleptomania of Sergeant Clancy (Jay C. Flippen), who nabs everything not nailed down, from cakes to tents, served up as subversive humour at its expense.

05/05/2014

The Testament Of Dr Mabuse (1933)


For his final film in Germany before fleeing the malign influence of the Nazis, Fritz Lang revived two of his most successful characters and brought them together for a visionary new thriller. Criminal mastermind Dr Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), originally the invention of Norbert Jacques, was last seen cooped up in an asylum after his capture at the close of Lang's two-part silent epic Dr Mabuse, The Gambler in 1922. Herr Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), however, had been seen around the block much more recently as the detective on the trail of Peter Lorre's disturbed child killer in Lang's first talkie, the horrifying M (1931).

The director and his redoubtable wife and co-scenarist Thea von Harbou return to Mabuse 11 years after the events of the first film to find him still languishing behind bars but now suffering in a state of "catatonic graphomania". The condition renders Mabuse apparently unable to speak, though he sits up in bed day after day writing compulsively, almost non-stop, pouring out page after page of theoretical ramblings about the formation of an "empire of crime", whose reign of terror might bring society to its knees and thus enable the birth of a new dawn for mankind. Mabuse's notes are gathered up and thumbed through with interest by his presiding physician Dr Baum (Oscar Beregi Sr), but otherwise never leave the latter's care. However, when Dr Kram (Theodor Loos), a colleague, notices that the deeds prescribed in Mabuse's scribblings bear an uncanny relation to actual robberies and arson attacks then being reported in Berlin's newspapers, events take a sudden turn. Kram is murdered and the crabby Inspector Lohmann is, however reluctantly, duly called in to investigate the case.



As French academic Michel Chion has pointed out in his book The Voice In Cinema (1982), the obvious starting point for a Mabuse sequel in the new sound era would have been to promise audiences that they would finally get to hear the fiend's no-doubt-sinister cackles and barks, just as Clarence Brown's Anna Christie had been trailed three years previously with a tagline proclaiming, "Garbo speaks!" Instead, Lang and von Harbou counter-intuitively but ingeniously bent over backwards to avoid having their villain utter so much as a syllable, preserving Mabuse's mystique by holding his tongue and placing the matter at the heart of the plot.

This concerns a network of hoodlums and burglars who congregate in an empty room to hear a mysterious voice issue detailed instructions for their next caper from behind a curtain. All are suspicious as to who "the boss" really is and why he declines to take a cut of their loot, but each man is also well paid enough to know better than to ask. Letters etched into a glass window by a desperate crook spelling out "Mabuse"  appear to give the game away early on, but when the invalid bearing that name dies in his cell, his catastrophic plans continue to be announced as normal, so who's really pulling the strings? When Kent (Gustav Diessl), a former prisoner forced into the syndicate's service by necessity, decides to go straight for the love of his girlfriend Lilli (Wera Liessem), the disembodied voice takes exception and seals the room, trapping the lovers together with nothing but an ominous ticking for company. Kent fires at the curtain, but, as in The Wizard Of Oz (1939), the reality behind the drapes is a let-down, for Kent and Lilli find nothing back there but a microphone, a speaker horn and a cut-out silhouette. A metaphor for cinema itself as the ultimate illusion machine, perhaps, but of little help to Lohmann.


Lang himself had spent eight days in a mental institution carrying out research for M and the director again reveals a sophisticated and sympathetic attitude towards mental health in his treatment of Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), a treacherous stool pigeon driven mad by paranoia. Lang finds beauty in the deranged illustrations incorporated into Mabuse's criminal blueprints, which betray a very human creative impulse at work behind the patient's fevered imagination. Although his ideas in themselves are monstrous, Mabuse is not the real villain here because he is not well enough to be held accountable for them, the same verdict the kangaroo court handed down to Lorre's Hans Beckert in M. The true evil here is Dr Baum, a fascist who betrays his true character to Lohmann in the morgue when he raves about the potential of Mabuse's notions concerning the destruction and rebuilding of the human race, a diatribe intended as a parody of Nazi rhetoric that would prove all too prophetic*. Whether Mabuse has really used his prodigious powers of hypnosis and projection to manipulate Baum's mind from beyond the grave or whether Baum himself is also mad, imagining himself to be possessed by the ghost of his fellow doctor, remains a mystery too far even for the magnificent Lohmann.

Lang would revive Mabuse once more for his final film 27 years later, returning to West Germany to make The 1,000 Eyes Of Dr Mabuse (1960), with Wolfgang Preiss taking over the title role and Gert Fröbe's Inspector Kras standing in for Lohmann. A timely comment on Cold War spying and surveillance culture, this film would spawn a further five sequels under the auspices of producer Artur Brauner.

*Although both he and Adolf Hitler admired Lang's work generally, new Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels predictably banned The Testament Of Dr Mabuse, on the grounds that the film had the power to incite revolution, a compliment if ever there was one. The film had its world premiere in Budapest, Hungary, as a result.