Archive for Alida Valli

Blind Tuesday: Eat the Pianist

Posted in FILM, weather with tags , , , , , , , on February 21, 2012 by dcairns

Ran SUSPIRIA for some of my students the other week, particularly the cinematography student who wanted to see some interesting colour work. Argento’s film has that in spades — I can’t recall where I heard that the maestro of mutilation used discontinued Technicolor stock, and purposely replicated the colour schemes of Disney’s SNOW WHITE, but it seems to be true. At times, notably during the first double-homicide, Argento’s vivid hues land him in trouble, where the kaleidoscopic shifts in palette make the intercutting a touch confusing — is this a new scene? where are we? is that the same woman?

While Argento’s CAT O NINE TAILS features a sympathetic blind character played by Karl Malden, and must surely form the subject for a future Blind Tuesday column, SUSPIRIA has a minor blind character, a pianist, who is treated pretty shoddily by both the film’s ballet school/coven of witches and by Argento himself. First the poor chap is rudely ejected after an allegation, no doubt unfounded, that his guide dog bit a nasty little kid (Argento never bothers to clear up what really happened, but there’s a clear suggestion of canine provocation). During this scene, where Alida Valli gets to be gloriously nasty and flash her terrifying teeth, the pianist’s jacket and stick are flung on the floor where he has to fumblingly retrieve them. The ballerinas stand around, uncomfortably. That’s no way to treat the Bavarian Stevie Wonder.

This seems to me a pretty good example of Argento’ disinterest in character. It does the film no favours, in any conventional sense, for its heroine to stand passively by during this abuse of a disabled man. Having Jessica Harper step forward and help the guy out would’ve made for a sympathetic moment. As it is, Argento’s camera ignores her (is she even IN the scene? Why not?), dodging the question of how she would react and thus evading character insight.

That night, the pianist is gored to death by his own dog, in a scene which only makes sense if it’s a bit of diabolical influence from the Queen of the Witches. We never find out what happens to the dog, which departs, grinning, just as Harper will at the end.

For much of the movie, I was wondering, since Argento clearly has no interest whatsoever in dialogue per se, why he includes so much of it? It ought to have been reasonably easy to develop SUSPIRIA’s plot with action alone. But there is, occasionally, a weird virtue to his plodding conversations, where all the dialogue is utterly on the nose, as well as being post-dubbed in a variety of accents. It’s like listening to two chatbots talking in space. Sometimes it can actually make you feel high.

Udo Kier’s scene is the best example of this. As he tells Harper how she shouldn’t believe in witches, a wind picks up, ruffling their hair and the tablecloth and the potted plants and the trees in the background. Soon it’s going gale-force, with Harper struggling to act through her whipping coiffeur, to the point where one fears for the crew’s safety, but the soundtrack ignores it completely — there’s not even the mildest whistle of “Antarctic Whiteout” (Fellini’s favourite FX record). The result is simultaneously trippy and hilarious.

To cap it all, Kier then introduces Harper to a white-haired old expert who he claims can confirm everything he’s said. Instead, the  geezer starts talking about how witches are real, and have immense powers, but can only do evil. Kier has slunk off, so we don’t get his reaction, but Harper doesn’t find this contradiction strange, which is genuinely dreamlike — I think it might have been even better if Udo had stood there, nodding sagely, as the old fellow rubbished everything he’s just said.

No reference to the discrepancy is ever made — it passes in silence, like the wind.

Suspiria (Two-Disc Special Edition)

The Unexpected #1

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2010 by dcairns

Peter Cushing spanks Miou Miou, under the watchful eyes of Alida Valli (not pictured).

From TENDER DRACULA.

Number One in an occasional series of things you never thought you’d have to see. I’d apologise for the crummy quality of the images, but it kind of suits the film, which doesn’t work as a horror movie, comedy, musical or porno, but rather as a documentary about Cushing’s disaffected attitude to horror movies, his career, and life in general. I mean, there had to be better offers on the table than this. The Great Man’s decline into apathy would later cause him to accept a role in STAR WARS — from which his career didn’t seem to receive any kind of fillip. Actually, STAR WARS didn’t really do anything for any of its cast, somehow. For giving the thing conviction they deserved a lot of credit.

TENDER DRAC has lots of dialogue about how horror movies are dead, and how Cushing’s character, a horror movie star called MacGregor who lives in a castle (I *think* it’s Eileen Donan Castle in Scotland, seen in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, Zeferelli’s HAMLET, and many others) has discovered romance instead. It’s like Cushing’s version of TARGETS, as made by sex-mad European idiots.

Paradine Syndrome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2009 by dcairns

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A virtual clone of a short from REBECCA.

I must have tried to watch Hitchcock’s THE PARADINE CASE a half-dozen times. Now I can say that I’ve actually seen it, but I can’t say much more (proceeds to write several hundred words). The movie seems to slide off me.

Despite specialising more or less in crime thrillers, Hitch stayed out of the courtroom as much as he could (I can recall the divorce court in EASY VIRTUE, the inquest in REBECCA, but note how Hitch keeps the camera in the jury room in MURDER while the verdict is read out offscreen, and how he spies on the trial at the opening of NOTORIOUS, peeking through the door as if superstitious about entering. Hitch also, famously, avoided whodunnits, except here and in MURDER. I accept most of his arguments against them (the whodunnit us an intellectual game, like the crossword), and also observe one more uncomfortable fact — he’s not very good at them.

Gregory Peck is Anthony Keane, counsel for the defense, a notoriously passionate lawyer who falls in love with accused murderess Mrs Paradine ([Alida] Valli), jeopardizing his marriage and his career, while trying to pin the guilt on either her murdered husband (suicide), or the groom (Louis Jourdan0 with whom she may have been having an affair.

Hitchcock himself reckoned THE PARADINE CASE was miscast, with Louis Jourdan too suave to be a horny handyman (yet LJ is the most compelling figure in the film by a country mile) and certainly David O Selznick’s screenplay, written during the shoot, is a big problem, verbose and lumbering and devoid of sympathetic characters or dynamic momentum. Fascinating players like Charles Coburn and Charles Laughton are somewhat wasted, while less-than-fascinating players like Gregory Peck and Ann Todd are spread thin, and at their least appealing. And Selznick’s dialogue keeps on about how fascinating Valli is supposed to be, but the screenwriter doth protest too much. And when did Selznick decide he was a WRITER?

The dispiriting shoot consisted of Selznick’s new pages coming in sometime in the morning, so nothing could be shot until afternoon, and still Selznick would moan that the filming was going too slowly. Hitch had large, expensive sets built, and was marooned on them for ages, as the bloated production sweated money from every pore.

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Clone of shot from YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

On the plus side, there’s Lee Garmes’ lustrous and lambent lighting, moody and noirish and serving up numerous striking shots, especially of Valli and Jourdan. I quite liked the tetchy, affectionate relationship between Coburn and his daughter, Joan Tetzel, which has a bit of energy, but they mainly discuss what everybody else is up to, until the trial, when JT sits in the public gallery explaining the events to Ann Todd, and to us in the audience, like some kind of benshi film describer. Actually, a huge amount of the film consists of descriptions of thing it might be nice to see. Nobody investigates the murder. When the trial finally starts, all at once we get a lot of plot information, which kind of adds up to a realization that the prosecution doesn’t really have any case at all.

Where was I? Oh yes, the positive side. Well, if Coburn and Tetzel = Hitch and Pat, then Peck and Todd could be Hitch and Alma. Their introductory scene does actually do a fair job of portraying a happily married couple approaching the danger zone where they take things for granted, and making us care about the relationship. But once the case begins, Peck’s baffling amour fou for the glum and uninteresting Valli robs him of all sympathy, and since he’s pretty inactive as a character, we can’t replace sympathy with intrigue.

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I heard that a friend had postulated a gay subtext, in the form of a relationship between Peck and Jourdan, but I can’t see any narrative evidence for this — nothing makes sense unless we accept that Peck is smitten with Valli. But there is some hilarity in this theory, since every line exchanged between Peck and Jourdan becomes an obscene double entendre — “What was your object in entering by the back way?” “But you intended to come on me!”

Laughton is a (bitter) joy — Hitchcock complained that “Every picture with Laughton is a war,” but he must have realized that the actor enhanced any film he touched. But if you took out the scene where Laughton is rebuffed by Todd, then his character would be reduced to a standard high court judge, and he could still behave in mostly the same way in the courtroom: he’s showing bias, it’s true, but Peck is such a dick it’s hardly surprising. I’d favour Leo G Carroll too.

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Clone of a shot from EASY VIRTUE.

But since we have Laughton’s unnecessary character, we get Ethel Barrymore as his wife, and their miserable relationship is one of the film’s most effective elements. I guess it’s a film about couples. Oddly, I’d just seen Ethel in MOSS ROSE, her previous production. Must write a little piece about that one. It has Peggy Cummins.

Hitch tried to film in long takes but Selznick objected, insisting on close-ups to break things up. No wonder Hitch indulged himself with ten-minute-takes as soon as he was free from his contract. Falling behind schedule, Hitch managed to save time by shooting the court scenes with multiple cameras, which upset the actors, who couldn’t see each other for equipment.

I always find Ann Todd rather cold and brittle, which isn’t bad per se, but I also get the impression that she’s an inherently savage actress who’s being held back by her directors. David Lean certainly held her down. I’d like to see her allowed to let rip.

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Clone of a shot from NOTORIOUS, itself cloned from SUSPICION.

But nobody lets rip here. The movie is interesting for its resemblance to two of Hitch’s earliest, least successful talkies — MURDER, in which a woman accused of murder is defended by a high-class gent. In both films, the gent travels to the countryside and stays in a cottage overnight, although MURDER exploits this for humour. And Peck’s arrival at the country house made me think of THE SKIN GAME, in which a woman with a shady past is threatened with exposure. It’s not too promising that those are the films one is reminded of.

Hitch, diplomatically, was still negotiating for a possible renewal of his contract with Selznick, even as he attempted to set up his own production company with Sidney Bernstein. The desire for artistic control warred with a need for financial security, but the experience of THE PARADINE CASE must surely have decided him that his future lay elsewhere.

para6Clone of a shot from NO. 13.

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