28/01/2014

On Dangerous Ground (1951)


Angry cop Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is hastily reassigned upstate in order to lie low while police brutality charges are brought against him. Leaving the big bad city behind and soon finding himself trudging through unfamiliar snowdrifts, Wilson is tasked with tracking down the killer of a young girl. The victim's father, Walter Brent (Ward Bond), is out for revenge, teaming up with Wilson after his posse's search proves fruitless. The pair soon realises the man responsible is Danny Malden (Sumner Williams), the disturbed brother of Mary (Ida Lupino), a blind woman living nearby in a remote cabin. With Danny on the run, Wilson unexpectedly rediscovers his humanity by falling for the vulnerable spinster, recognising in her his route to redemption.


An underrated and surprising noir from the great Nicholas Ray, RKO's On Dangerous Ground starts out like Otto Preminger's brutal Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950), a character study of a detective on the skids, but finally reveals itself to be a Sirkian invalid drama in the manner of Magnificent Obsession (1954). This switch in tone is as remarkable as it is unexpected, and represented visually by Ray swapping inky black metropolitan streets and alleyways for the blinding white splendour of the American winter. This stark but beautiful landscape and the violent deed it plays host to makes for an effective juxtaposition, an idea since repeated in Fargo (1996), Erik Skjoldbjærg's Insomnia (1997) and much of the "Nordic noir" that has followed in the latter film's wake. Ryan is excellent as the blank, unsympathetic Wilson, a one-time college football star stifled by the urban jungle he operates in and concerned that its feverishly immoral atmosphere might be going to his head, while only an actress of Lupino's intelligence could prevent Mary becoming the saintly innocent of cliché and the film a mawkish confection. On Dangerous Ground benefits from a solid script from A.L. Bezzerides by way of Gerald Butler's novel Mad With Much Heart (1946), there's strong support courtesy of Bond, Ed Begley and Charles Kemper and a fine, characteristic score from Bernard Herrmann, anticipating his later work on Vertigo (1958). This is particularly obvious in the climactic scene in which the fugitive Danny Malden is chased up a rocky precipice before slipping and tumbling to his death, an incident accompanied by some appropriately frantic brass that calls to mind Scottie Ferguson's later misadventures in the Spanish mission's bell tower. One feels Hitch must have seen this film and taken a keen interest in its troubled boy killer.

22/01/2014

The Lost World (1925)


I've just got back from a screening of Harry O. Hoyt's blockbuster adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel The Lost World at one of the strangest venues I've ever visited: Barts Pathology Museum, a Victorian loft located on one of the upper floors of St Barts Hospital in West Smithfield that houses esoteric anatomical curiosities in various states of degeneration, pickled for the ages in formaldehyde. Like some nightmarish operating theatre from David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980), the museum's walls are lined with jars containing such horrors as human spinal chords warped by osteoarthritis, a complete skeleton disfigured by cretinism, a severed hand bloated with congenital elephantiasis, a guinea pig deliberately infected with tuberculosis via an injection to the groin for experimental purposes. There's even a lovingly preserved rodent ulcer. Brrr, rarely has a gin and tonic had a more welcome and steadying influence.

The Lost World was chosen for a short film season at Barts by Silent London because of Conan Doyle's connection with the institution, the writer having used it to make literary history in 1887 when he chose one of its laboratories as the scene for the first-ever encounter between Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in A Study In Scarlet. More recently, Benedict Cumberbatch's 21st century Holmes threw himself off the top of it in the BBC's teatime favourite Sherlock.



Anyway, Hoyt's big budget take on The Lost World begins when Professor Challenger (a bearded Wallace Beery, testosterone personified) makes the bold claim that live dinosaurs still roam the earth after reading his colleague Maple White's notebook from a recent excursion to the Amazon, a trip from which the latter never returned. London's scientific community responds to Challenger's wild proclamation and lack of material proof with a collective snort of derision. To prove the cynics wrong, the professor assembles a team of willing adventurers - including Maple's daughter Paula (Bessie Love), plucky journalist Edward Malone (Lloyd Hughes), "sportsman" Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) and a Capuchin monkey named Jocko - and sets sail for Brazil. Sure enough, the gang encounter pterodactyls, a brawling allosaurus and malevolent ape-men amid the sweltering jungle climes, with Paula and Edward managing to find time for romance against a backdrop of almost unprecedented peril and danger.


In this Jurassic Park (1993) for the Roaring Twenties, Conan Doyle himself (amazingly) makes an appearance to provide a brief prologue/endorsement before the feature begins. However, the real selling point is, naturally enough, the sensitively animated stop-motion dinosaurs on show from Willis O'Brien, a gifted special effects man who would later work on Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's celebrated 1933 King Kong. An influence on Ray Harryhausen, O'Brien's well-observed prehistoric monsters all have plausible, recognisably bestial traits, swishing their tails like snakes, bucking their heads and strutting like roosters or snapping sharp beaks like freshwater turtles, all in endearingly jerky fashion. An insatiably aggressive tyrannosaurus got laughs from the audience tonight, as did some unintentionally hilarious title cards and the escaped brontosaurus who devastates London at the film's climax. Anticipating Kong, this would-be Nessie knocks over the Duke of Wellington statue in front of the Bank of England, wrecks a perfectly good pub and smashes Tower Bridge in half before leaping into the Thames and swimming out to the Channel in a bid for freedom. At least Challenger proved his point.

18/01/2014

The Epic Of Everest (1924)

I've recently returned to Twitter and already it's paying dividends. Without it, I'd never have known that Rough Trade East was hosting a free screening of Captain John Noel's recently restored The Epic Of Everest on the eve of the documentary's debut DVD release, even though the famed record shop is just a few moments walk from my flat. Quite an invention, this internet. Between you and me, I think it could go all the way.

The film itself, lately revived and given a digital spruce-up by the BFI National Archive, records the ill-starred third British attempt to reach the summit of the world's highest peak in June 1924, an adventure that ended in tragedy when mountaineers George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared, presumed frozen to death, just 600 feet from the top. The rediscovery of Mallory's cadaver in 1999 leaves us none the wiser as to whether or not the two men actually made it, the climber's Kodak camera missing from his effects. Nevertheless, Captain Noel's record of their final moments, captured at long range through a Hobson telephoto lense, stands as a poignant testament to their heroism. What more fitting end could they wish for, asks one haunting intertitle, than to die among nature in "a grave of pure white snow"? The Epic Of Everest also ponders the native idea that Chomolungma, the spirit of this sublime mountain or "goddess mother of the world", deliberately intervened to sabotage their mission as an affront to the hubris of man, a frightening notion if ever there was one.

Inspired by other cinematic records of heroic post-war expeditions such as Frank Hurley's South (1919) and Herbert Ponting's The Great White Silence (1924), Captain Noel, an art school alumni and former soldier with the East Yorkshire Regiment in India, had been determined to make his own. With both Poles conquered, Everest seemed the last great challenge to a generation of veterans determined to prove that life was worth living and that wonder still existed in the world despite the traumatic evidence of recent history and the evolving horrors of mechanised warfare. With hindsight, some have read The Epic Of Everest as a propaganda piece reminding the colonies that the British Empire was still as mighty as ever after the Great War, but this seems to me to overlook the sheer pleasure Noel and company took in the sport of it all. Having learned much from shooting his first attempt, Climbing Mount Everest (1922), the captain founded Explorer Films and worked hard to rustle up the £8,000 funding needed to ensure that his team and their sherpas had only the most high-tech, customised equipment to carry with them. This included a lightproof tent for Noel to develop his negatives in and 14 cameras with rubber eyepieces to prevent the devices freezing to his face when shooting at altitude. The result of Noel's foresight and expertise is a marvel to behold: a fascinating record of life in the Himalayas before the men have even left base camp and an astonishing vision of blinding white snow, drifting clouds and giant icicles thereafter. The Tibetan native sequences, taking in the local colour from the village of Phari Dzong, the world's highest human settlement, and the Rongbuk monastery, might also seem problematic to modern eyes, betraying an Edwardian's disdain for the squalor in which the inhabitants live and a patronising attitude towards their folk customs and dress, but I'd say there's ultimately real affection here for a charming and resourceful people. Their modesty when confronted with the camera is particularly endearing. The commercially-minded Noel would later bring seven Tibetan lamas to London to help illustrate his lecture tour in support of the film's release, a stunt that angered the country's government and led to a brief ban on British explorers entering the now-disputed territory, the worst nightmare of Noel and his friends at the Everest Committee.

The screening I saw at Rough Trade was attended by Simon Fisher Turner, formerly Derek Jarman's go-to composer, who has created an impressive new score of ambient brass and "found sounds" for the restoration, featuring, among others, Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle on cornet, trumpeter Andrew Blick and a Nepalese family from Ealing playing a variety of regional instruments, including, excitingly, yak bells. Fisher Turner revealed that he had originally had Tilda Swinton providing heavy breathing on the soundtrack to remind us of the enormous physical strain of the undertaking - digging fresh ice steps with a pick-axe all the way - and of the climbers' reliance on oxygen tanks, but was ultimately persuaded against including the actress's dramatic exhalations. Captain Noel's daughter Sandra was also answering questions and told us that the film had languished for many years at the bottom of the family airing cupboard, gathering dust in a cottage in Kent over the decades, and was so little thought of that the Noels' cat even gave birth to a litter of kittens while lying on top of it! A truly amazing rediscovery.

09/01/2014

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922)


"[Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler] was a thriller about an arch-criminal and the public liked it for that. Nevertheless, it was also a picture of how crime was rampant in Germany after the First World War. The film reflected the demoralised atmosphere of Germany at the time, with the despair and vice attendant on the loss of the war. It was the kind of atmosphere in which a man like Mabuse could thrive. I saw the master criminal after World War I as a version of the superman which Nietzsche had created in his writing."

This was director Fritz Lang's reappraisal of his first Dr. Mabuse picture in 1975, looking back on the work over half a century on from its production and original theatrical run. The character, who first appeared in a novel by Norbert Jacques and is played here by the extraordinary Rudolf Klein-Rogge, is a hypnotist, forger and master of disguise who delights in manipulating both cards and people, even tinkering with the stock exchange via the theft and "rediscovery" of important diplomatic papers in this instalment's bravura opening. Although the character owes much to earlier pulp masterminds like Fantômas, Fu Manchu and that other "Napoleon of crime" Professor Moriarty, Lang saw in Mabuse something far richer and more unsettling, an emblem of his age. The man is a corrupt decadent, a symbol of the vermin that exploit, bully and abuse in order to get ahead in times of national crisis. Hypnosis provides Mabuse with the means of cheating at the gambling table and defrauding his opponents, notably the naive American industrialist Edgar Hull (Paul Richter), but this is more about sport than necessity.

Like Robert Wiene's Dr. Caligari, Mabuse is also a man of science who cannot be trusted, setting out his stall as a practising psychoanalyst only to use the insight he gains into his patients' minds in order to control them. The likes of Count Told (Alfred Abel), a collector of cubist art, whom he drives to drink and suicide in order to carry off his wife (Gertrude Welcker), is only Mabuse's latest victim. And if you can't trust the doctors...

Lang and his partner and collaborator Thea von Harbou (previously married to Klein-Rogge), showed uncanny foresight when they dreamt up their interpretation of Mabuse, effectively predicting the advent of opportunistic despotism in Germany. Critic Siegfried Kracauer famously included Mabuse in his "progression of tyrants", his grouping of sinister cultural figures like Caligari and Murnau's Nosferatu that appeared before the German public in the Twenties and spoke of the coming of dictatorship and Adolf Hitler. "[Mabuse] would be impossible to make in the United States: the idea of the superior race, of a race of masters, simply doesn't exist", Lang said in 1967. "In Germany, even when you are dead, you must obey, 'your corpse must obey.' I don't believe there is another people who are as ready to die without knowing why."


Almost four and a half hours in length and divided into two parts, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler is a sprawling epic that admittedly sags in parts. State Prosecutor Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke)'s plodding investigation into the fiend's activities might seem unbearably slow to modern eyes and there's a definite imbalance between the two halves. The first, 'The Great Gambler: An Image Of The Age', is far more interested in capturing Berlin's hedonistic nightlife, an underworld of cocaine, showgirls, gentleman's clubs and séances, while the second, 'Inferno: A Game For The People Of Our Age', concentrates on action. Here, a moonlit car chase through a forest, swiftly followed by a shoot-out and sewer escape (echoed in The Third Man, 1949, and Lang's own, much later While The City Sleeps, 1956), lingers long in the memory.

Despite its faults, excusable in early cinema, the whole is a magnificent achievement. Bearing out Norma Desmond's famous critique of the talkies from Sunset Boulevard (1950), "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!", Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler presents a gallery of remarkable countenances, with Klein-Rogge in his various guises, Abel, Welcker and henchmen Robert Forster-Larrinaga and Charles Puffy, respectively ghostly and plump, particularly striking.