Archive for May 25, 2008

Pass it on…

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , on May 25, 2008 by dcairns

Man U

A fellow called Timjim gets in touch to tell me about a website devoted to the re-release of Wojciech Has’ THE SARGOSSA MANUSCRIPT. It’s a good cause, so I’m happy to share the info. The novel by Jan Potocki is the closest thing to The Thousand and One Nights written in the modern era, a staggering work of imagination and scope. The film does justice to it. And it stars “the Polish James Dean” himself, Zbigniew Cybulski.

I might also say that it’d be nice if the rest of Has’ work got released too — I’m told it’s ALL great, and there’s forty years’ worth! The sooner we all start, the better.

When Lands the Saucer

Posted in Comics, FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2008 by dcairns

Warm up the probulator!

I’m indebted to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for the title of this post. I think it comes from an old copy of The Demon, and it stuck in my mind because I thought it was amusing. (Apparently I’m wrong about the provenance — see comments section.) Any title that seeks grandeur by shuffling the words around (THE RIVER WILD) makes me think of that Dorothy Parker line about “The Play Terrible.”

Let’s be clear — DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS is a B-picture. The opening credit, “Spartan Productions” is hilariously apt.

But D.G.F.M. doesn’t actually fit the “so-bad-it’s-good” paradigm, which is fortunate, because that’s become rather a boring formulation. In fact, bits of the film are genuinely excellent: there’s a really beautiful flying saucer, complete with spinning bit; a smashing robot; a sexy space girl in slinky dominatrix uniform; two more human women of interest to genre fans; and John Laurie, primarily known in Britain for his role in the sitcom Dad’s Army, but familiar to American cineastes for his appearnaces in THE EDGE OF THE WORLD and THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP.

Indeed, considering it’s a sci-fi thriller, there’s more than a whiff of situation comedy about DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS. More on this aspect later.

The bad bits of the film — the lethargic, stay-at-home plot, the indecisive villainess who should be driving the story but keeps dithering, leading man Hugh McDermott’s hideous face — are pretty bad, and sometimes annoying. The combination of good and bad elements is sort of enjoyable and exciting. You never know whether you’re going to be tickled or stabbed, entertainmentwise. It’s like a night out in Glasgow.

The “action” unfolds at a guest house in the Scottish highlands, host to more drama than is typically the case with such establishments, in my experience. A glamorous London fashion model fleeing a doomed relationship is already in residence — this is Hazel Court in her second fantasy film (she’d already done THE GHOST SHIP for Vernon Sewell two years earlier). Then a convicted wife-murderer, escaped from prison, arrives and is sheltered by barmaid Adrienne Corri (another horror/sci-fi regular, best known for being denuded by droogs in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, an Edinburgh-born Scots-Italian beauty who also worked for Preminger, Lean, Renoir…). Challenged to explain why this traveller has no money, she improvises a tale about him bending over to try and catch a salmon, then straightening up to find his wallet gone. The old “fish thief” story — very convincing.

Already we have the tea-obsessed housekeeper and her drunkard husband (John Laurie, natch) and a young nephew from London. Soon, a car-sharing Irish astrophycisist and American journalist turn up. It’s quite a houseful even before the alien invasion begins.

Prof. Hennessey tries to warm his hands on a spaceship.

The American is actually another Edinburgh-born actor, Hugh McDermott, but his accent seems to have taken a transatlantic turn. I have the same trouble myself, actually. Too many Marvel comics as a kid.

Then the saucer lands. And this is the off-season!

Our space vixen informs the residents that she’s come to pilfer our men, replacing the ones who were nuked in the Big Martian Sex War. She does this while ceaselessly, pointlessly walking up and down, like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, which is mildly freaky and kind of effective. Then she tells them they’re surrounded by an invisible barrier and can’t escape — the scientist tries and comes back with a gashed forehead, having walked into it. “I believe what my brain tells me to believe,” he cries, on more than one occasion. He should stop listening, his brain is a fool.

The humes act up, so Mars-Gal shows them her robot, and it’s a beauty. It wantonly discomouferates things, like Gort from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, three years earlier. One of those coincidences, I expect. Fiona and I were delighted by the robots design, pure Japanese tin toy. And his impressive HEFT. “That terrible robot!” cries Corri. “He’s not, he’s smashing!” shouted Fiona back at her.

The Martian, Nyah, is Patricia Laffan, who played Poppaea in QUO VADIS?, so this may have seemed a bit of a come-down, but she throws herself into it with more sneering superiority than anybody’s ever seen. This is the role she’ll be remembered for. Did she have an inkling of this as she slunk around the tiny set in her erotic space-wear? She’s first seen evaporating a balding wee man, a stereotypical “little worm”, in fact, the image of the masochistic bank manager of suburban sexual legend. She’s also reminiscent of another space-domme, the legendary Supreme Commander Servalan from the B.B.C.’s fondly-remembered but slightly crap Blake’s Seven. Interestingly, Servalan was played by another ex-Hammer glamour queen, the unconventionally beautiful Jacqueline Pearce (PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE REPTILE). Pearce is still unconventionally beautiful and still acts, while also working in a monkey sanctuary.

Anyway, returning to the monkey sanctuary that is DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS: I felt that Nyah’s power is considerably diminished by her inability to make up her mind. It may be a Martian’s prerogative, but it doesn’t help the dramatic arc…

Prof. Hennessey tries to warm his hands on a spaceship. Again.

Basically, the dramatic part of the story all unfolds while the saucer is being repaired by “Charlie” the robot. (Not a very Martian name, I’d have thought, although maybe it’s actually spelled “Chaghrrl-A” or something.) During the course of this little pit-stop, Nyah first freezes Corri, then un-freezes her, hypnotises the murderer and makes him go all murderous (doesn’t seem like much of an achievement, but still), abducts the small boy, then releases him, takes the scientist aboard her ship for a little tour, allowing him to gather intelligence to use against them, then announces that she will take one of the men as a guide to help her find her way around London. This conjures amusing images of her quietly landing in Camden Town and wandering the streets in her space garb, unnoticed by the general populace.

The film then allows the characters time to furiously debate who should make the supreme sacrifice by going with Nyah and attempting to sabotage her saucer in mid-flight. But this is a pointless scene, since Nyah has just told them SHE will be making the choice. It’s downright weird, this.

Predictably, Bobby Murderer gets selected so he can redeem himself and the Earth is saved and the landlady gets the kettle on. Suddenly I got the feeling I’d been watching A Very Special Episode of Father Ted. The scientist looks a bit like an older Ted. There’s the dissolute drunkard. And the tea-obsessed housekeeper. Admittedly, there are more babes and spacecraft than usual…

“Now I think we all REALLY need a cup of tea!”

The film is also a fine entry in the gather-in-the-pub-as-the-world-ends school of science fiction, a substrain unique to Britain. See also SHAUN OF THE DEAD, THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING, and several of the QUATERMASS films. See them before you see this, actually. But see this anyway.

Shadowplay would like to thank Huckleberry Hound for the word “discomouferate”.

Slightly Scarlet

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2008 by dcairns

Superscope

Obscure wide-screen systems! I *LIVE* for obscure wide-screen systems.

lurid

Lurid titling is good also.

sisters

They are sisters! Rhonda Fleming is comforting Arlene Dahl. Nothing funny going on.

Number One With a Bullet

The film is lit by John Alton, who had an amazing track record in film noir. His work is often even more distinct than that of his directors, even when it’s somebody like Anthony Mann. Alton also lit the ballet in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, but otherwise he didn’t get as much work as he should have because the unions disliked him for using so few lights.

I feel I should have liked this more — it combines fine noir credentials, with Alton lensing and a source novel by James M. Cain, with a women’s picture melodrama vibe. Should’ve been fabulous, but felt only intermittently so. Maybe it’s the John Payne factor, a terrible burden for any film, although I found him slightly more effective here than in THE DARK CORNER, a better film which he almost sinks. His amoral anti-hero character in this film would have been rather interesting had anyone else played it. Well, maybe not John Hodiak or John Lund or Jon Hall. Or Kent Smith. But anybody else.

Major Payne

Allan Dwan directs — it was something like his 370th film, a feat he could only accomplish by being literally immune to death. Victor Fleming once tried to hammer a stake through his heart, but it didn’t take. You know how your nose and ears continue to enlarge throughout your life? That’s what finally got him.

Rhonda's valley

But watching the film and finding the two redheads pretty appealing, I did some cyber-spadework and found Rhonda Fleming’s website, where she welcomes emails, although she’s very busy what with charity work and being a Christian and stuff. But I thought it would be cool to say “hi”, having communicated with very few Hollywood legends, really. I came up with a question to justify barging in:

“A question occurred to me about one of my favourite films — OUT OF THE PAST. I saw Jane Greer interviewed in a documentary called THE RKO STORY, where she talked about director Jacques Tourneur not speaking very good English. But Tourneur was born in America, and made all his films there, despite his father being French, so this didn’t seem right. I wondered what your memories of Tourneur are — I think he was a marvellous director and both Jane Greer and yourself were marvellously alluring and chillingly wicked in that film. Anything you can tell me would be gratefully received.”

It was actually Fiona who spotted that Greer’s recollections seemed inconsistent with the fact. A couple of days later I got a reply:

“I don’t recall too much about Director, Jacques Tourneur; it was so long ago.  However he just let me do it ‘my way’ and I don’t really remember any problem in understanding his English, but he obviously has been proven to be outstanding in directing us in roles that were diverse and full of mystery and excitement.  It was an honor to be a part of a great noir film.”

Which was very nice. It doesn’t clear up the question at all, but I can hardly blame Rhonda F. for not remembering a co-worker from sixty years ago. I can’t remember where I put my slippers.

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