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.

02/05/2014

Went The Day Well? (1942)


"I must say, I should hate to think we were sharing our dinner last night with a couple of Nazis..."

Ealing's unofficial propaganda effort Went The Day Well?, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti from 'The Lieutenant Died Last' by Graham Greene, realises the nightmare scenario most feared by wartime Britain, that the Third Reich should successfully infiltrate and invade the jam and Jerusalem idyll of Little England, represented here by the fictitious Buckinghamshire village of Bramley End. As in Orson Welles's The Stranger (1946), the unthinkable happens and a wolfish Nazi in sheep's clothing inveigles his way into the Allies' cherished heartlands, conniving to win the trust of the locals so that he may spread his influence like a vicious contagion. Only in this case, there's a whole regiment of the blighters, aided by treacherous squire Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), a Fifth Columnist invaluable to the German cause.


Rather than a full-blown invasion on the scale of Operation Sea Lion, Kommandant Orlter (Basil Sydney) and his men have been ordered to start small, making a stronghold of this proto-Titfield so that their comrades may follow suit. Posing as British soldiers on manoeuvres, the canny Huns make themselves agreeable, organise billets and visit the pub before swiftly turning their guns on the startled locals and rounding them up in the church, curtly interrupting a wedding in the process.

Having laid out their microcosmic playing field, Cavalcanti and his writers Angus MacPhail, John Dighton and Diana Morgan then glory in the villagers' heroic fightback, whereupon the film becomes a hymn to community and good old fashioned native British pluck. The unflinching violence of the enemy - cruelly dispatching an aged vicar (C.V. France), mowing down the entire Home Guard on a country lane, even shooting studio child star Harry Fowler in the leg - is more than matched by the villagers. A dotty post mistress (Muriel George) serves her captor a hearty supper ("You Germans are partial to sausage, aren't you?") before bludgeoning him to death, the vicar's daughter (Valerie Taylor) blasts Wilsford to Kingdom Come and even Thora Hird's land girl gets behind a machine gun. It's rousing stuff and, at times, very moving, as when the lady of the manor (Marie Lohr) selflessly throws herself upon a grenade to protect a room full of children (one of several good roles for women). Cavalcanti barely conceals his relish for subverting the bucolic rural England of fantasy, as Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg did more recently in Hot Fuzz (2007). The image of a dead Gerry bobbing about in the duck pond neatly encapsulates his theme.