Archive for Charles Bennett

The Idiot Brother

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 23, 2014 by dcairns

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I like the concept of the idiot brother — maybe I am one — and Curt Siodmak always seemed a good example, though not so much as Billy Wilder’s older sibling William Lee Wilder (their mom really liked that name. Billy’s pithy biography of W. Lee — “He was an idiot. He made pictures, each worse than the last. Then he died.”)

Robert Siodmak’s career contains only one COBRA WOMAN, whereas Curt’s is largely composed of such nonsense, only more badly executed. Weirdly, when he finally got to direct, he was actually quite imaginative, and it’s his silly scripts that let him down. One could understand Robert being a little embarrassed about him. But Curt was sensitive and intelligent when he wasn’t making dopey films, as is seen in the interview he gave in Screenwriter, Words Become Pictures by Lee Server, a fine tome I picked up in Toronto (full list here).

Curt Siodmak: Robert and me, we had a sibling rivalry. He loved me and when I needed something he was there, and we were the best of friends. But there should only be one Siodmak, not two Siodmaks. Like when you have two dogs, one bites the other dog. Robert was two years and two days older than me, and the story goes that father took Robert to the crib and said, “Here’s your new brother.” And Robert said, “I don’t want your new brother.” And that lasted until he died seventy-one years later.

Siodmak talks about his short time in England, which I knew nothing about. He was working at Gaumont-British, and tried to interest them in a remake of his brother’s film, DER MANN, DER SEINEN MORDER SUCHT (A MAN, LOOKING FOR HIS MURDERER) which he had co-scripted in 1931 with Billy Wilder and a couple of other guys. Warning: this story is grim.

Curt Siodmak: The story, actually, was stolen from a book by Jules Verne, The Trials of a Chinaman in China, or something. (See here for another theft of the same source. A depressed man hires a hitman to kill him, but when his luck changes, he can’t find the assassin to call off the hit.)

And there was a producer working at the same studio named Felner [sic]. He was a German, and he didn’t like any other Germans working at Gaumont-British. He hated the Germans. And I showed him my story. He said, “How can we do a picture about a man who commits suicide?” But he came back and asked me how people hanged themselves. I told him about that. And a day later he hanged himself. He had been waiting for his labor permit, to stay in England, and it was late–it didn’t come through. And some of them played a practical joke. They told him that he’d been rejected for his permit, that he’d be deported. It wasn’t true. A joke. But they didn’t tell him. He hanged himself.

Lee Server: Who did it?

Curt Siodmak: That Hitchcock crowd. One of those cold people.

Depressing. And Wikipedia at least confirms Hermann Fellner’s cause of death.

Here’s that cold person Hitch, trying to warm up, in the company of his dog, Mr. Jenkins. Image by Peter Stackpole, from a book of his amazing photographs loaned to me by the bountiful Nicola Hay.

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Siodmak the younger’s most famous creation, Lawrence Talbot AKA The Wolf Man, is celebrated in verse over at Limerwrecks, by Hilary “Surly Hack” Barta and myself. Here.

The photo makes me think of another story in Server’s book, in his Charles Bennett interview.

Charles Bennett: I remember one occasion Brian Aherne gave a huge cocktail party at his house at the beach at Malibu. Hitch was there, and I talked with him about three-quarters of an hour, along with Charlies Brackett. And the three of us chatted by the fire for nearly an hour. The next day a case of gloriously expensive champagne turned up here at the house with a note from Hitch saying, “From that stupid man, Hitchcock.” So I called him up and said, “What’s this stupid man business?” He said, “That’s what you called me, isn’t it?” I said, “When did I say that? We were talking by the fire for an hour.” He said, “No, we didn’t talk. You didn’t say a word.” He didn’t remember any of it.

Server: You don’t think it was some sort of practical joke?

Bennett: He seemed to have no idea that we were talking the night before, or that I hadn’t called him “stupid.” But it was certainly some of the most beautiful champagne I ever drank in my life.

Blind Tuesday: Where is love and who turned out the lights?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2011 by dcairns

An obscure one — I’d never heard of MADNESS OF THE HEART until I stumbled across it. It has no reputation, but it does have points of interest: it’s written and directed by Charles Bennett, who collaborated on a half-dozen or so key Hitchcocks between BLACKMAIL and FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (including most of the late-thirties espionage cycle, all reviewed elsewhere on this site as part of Hitchcock Year) and also adapted NIGHT OF THE DEMON for Jacques Tourneur, incorporating a number of Hitchcockian ideas, including the master-villain with the sweet, doddering mum.

And then there’s Kathleen Byron, reprising her mad love act from BLACK NARCISSUS, only with a cod French accent. Powell told her that Sister Ruth was a great part, the only problem being she’d never get a better one, and he was right. So basically repeating the role here seems a reasonable option: it beats Freddie Francis’s CRAZE.

In brief: plucky doctor’s receptionist Margaret Lockwood meets and falls for French aristo Paul (Who He?) Dupuis. Then she’s struck blind, and the best medical minds, including the one she works for (yay! Maurice Denham!) conclude there’s no hope. After an unsuccessful turn as a nun (blind AND a nun? doesn’t Audrey Hepburn have automatic dibs on that?) narrating the story so far in flashback (the structure’s a mess but so’s this sentence) she hooks up with Dupuis again and he marries her, blindness and all. FINALLY we arrive at the family château in the South of France where Kathleen Byron plays an old flame of Dupuis, determined to destroy Lockwood so she can have him for herself… Now things can get going, and going is precisely what they get…

Spoiler alert! The next paragraph contains plot details written in invisible ink: highlight to read.

A daft plot twist allows Lockwood to cure her blindness and return, faking it, in order to entrap her unseen enemy. This frustrates one of the best tropes of the blind person in jeopardy thriller, which is the disabled character triumphing over both unspeakable evil and their own disability. In fairness, this convention isn’t set in stone and hadn’t really been established at this time: WAIT UNTIL DARK really fixed the template. But when you see it done decently, it’s satisfying in obvious ways that alternatives, like the boyfriend barging to the rescue in SEE NO EVIL, really aren’t.

End spoiler.

Oddly, Bennett directs this one better than he writes it, but he’s dealing with a cheap novelette as source material (ugh! that title!) and struggles to inject real humanity into it. On the other hand, his filming is often stylish, aided by Desmond Dickinson’s moody photography.

Listening to Fiona’s extremely zestful reactions to Byron’s acts of wickedness against her sightless rival (from repositioning a wine glass to attempting to arrange a drowning), I was struck by how films like this encourage a complicity with the bad guy. At times, Fiona was virtually egging the madwoman on. This wasn’t due to any dislike of Lockwood, who embodies pluck, but simply because in a film like this, nothing entertaining can happen unless the villain is plotting villainy. If the supporting cast were full of amusing bit players, there might be some welcome distraction from the main event, but asides from Thora Hird as a no-nonsense maid, there’s nothing doing. So we require constant perfidy from la Byron or the thing is going to just lie there.

Kathleen in a saucy two-piece, something I never thought to see.

Fortunately, K.B. does not disappoint, seizing one of her last chances to be interesting in a dull film. No act of spite is too petty for the ironically named “Verity”, who amusingly goes from leaving sharp objects near the maid’s baby so Lockwood will get the blame, straight to murder attempts, then back to faking love letters (to a blind woman?), and back to murder again. In this she’s aided by the château’s offscreen architect, who for some reason has supplied the building with a door opening onto a fifty foot drop. Perhaps the castle was assembled from a kit, like the Keaton homestead in ONE WEEK?

Why didn’t Kathleen Byron go from strength to strength? Simply because the British cinema of the ‘fifties was too weedy to contain her, I think. There weren’t enough psycho-bitch roles to typecast her successfully, and nobody was bold or imaginative enough to see her in more varied parts, despite the proof offered by THE SMALL BACK ROOM that she could be really excellent in a less extreme characterisation. (The reason David Farrar’s so uncharacteristically strong in that film is that she lends him fire. And he’s strongest in BLACK NARCISSUS when she’s around.)

There’s also the sad fact that she was apparently a little difficult, as talented people often are.  With the supremely difficult Michael Powell around to help her, that didn’t matter so much, but when they were no longer an item and his career was on the slide, that impetus was gone. (BTW, she always said Powell’s description of her, in his memoir Million Dollar Movie, standing naked and threatening him with a revolver, was sheer confabulation.) And nobody else owed her sufficient goodwill to help.

That was stupid: with the Rank Organisation embracing sappy bourgeois mediocrity in the ‘fifties, British cinema really needed a fierce talent who could heat up a moribund flick with a dash of hellfire.

How to Seduce Joan Fontaine, #45 of 1,000,000,000

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2009 by dcairns

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Buy her a Borgia handbag.

IVY (1947) is one of those movies where everything and everybody comes together in a frabjous fusion of talents and creates something really special: it ought to be far better known. A gaslight melodrama about a ruthless female poisoner who simply MUST have nice things, it made me feel as if someone had cut me open and inserted a big cake made of happiness.

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The principle underrated talent here is Sam Wood, whose career encompasses all kinds of nice stuff, from pre-code SHEIK knock-off THE BARBARIAN, to the Marx Brothers classic A DAY AT THE RACES. He’s kind of an anti-auteur, though, since his work usually effaces any recognizable directorial signature in favour of foregrounding performers and script, and darts about between genres in an efficient but anonymous fashion. But his small-town diptych, KING’S ROW and it’s opposite, OUR TOWN, are nevertheless very impressive entertainments. Perhaps the splendid visuals in each are more the work of Menzies, but Wood serves them up with genuine filmic aplomb.

Both movies were collaborations with the great production designer William Cameron Menzies, who also produced IVY. His monumental compositional sense is all over it. As if that weren’t enough, the film also boasts Russell Metty (TOUCH OF EVIL, WRITTEN ON THE WIND) on camera, music by Daniele Amphitheatrof (LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN) and a screenplay by regular Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett. I do actually wonder if some of the British Hitchcocks upon which Bennett worked would have been improved if he’s been the sole writer: this movie and NIGHT OF THE DEMON show the hand of a skilled and witty scribe who didn’t need any help to craft a delicious story. (IVY is based on a novel by mrs. Belloc Lowndes, author of The Lodger.)

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We begin in a splendidly artificial suburban street, where the entrance of a black cat, crossing our heroine’s path, seems intended to add a but of naturalism, but just ends up emphasizing the theatrical nature of this world. Our heroine — Ivy — Joan Fontaine — enters a cramped little residence in a furtive manner, paying a guinea to the little man who seems to be some kind of proprietor. The whole thing has the feel of a backstreet abortionist’s, until the little man sits at an upright piano and begins to supply mood music. You don’t get that sort of ambient care when Denholm Elliott’s guddling about in your innards with a rusty coat hanger.

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This establishment is in fact the home of a fortune teller, Mrs. Thrawn (a good Scots word meaning crazy/difficult), embodied by a remarkably restrained Una O’Connor, who proceeds to gaze into the beyond and tell Joan her future. “Does it have screeching in it?” I wondered. It does, but not from Una: comic maid duties in this film are performed by Rosalind Ivan, a fabulous character actress I’d never before encountered.

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VERY striking, vertically deranged composition introducing Madame Una, which is not only bold and eerie in itself — part of a breathlessly hushed yet manically intense shuffling of giant ECUs in this menacing yet domestic little cameo — but totally SMART, because it will chime later with a similar weird POV shot later…

Armed with a set of predictions, Joan goes forth to put them into action: she’s been advised to ditch her present lover, as another, richer one will be coming along. She doesn’t know quite what to do about her husband, other than passively suggest he might be happier with a divorce, but it’s nothing doing. The romantic quadrangle eventually adds up like so:

Ivy Lexton: wants to be rich.

Jervis Lexton: Ivy’s impoverished husband. Devoted to her, but quite incapable of offering her the luxury she desires.

Dr. Roger Gretorex: her current lover, equally devoted but only a bit wealthier. But he does have access to irritant poison.

Miles Rushworth: fabulously wealthy, and obviously drawn to Ivy, even if he is supposed to be marrying someone else. Come to think of it, this could be viewed as a romantic pentangle.

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Miles is played by Herbert Marshall, who didn’t always have the best luck with women onscreen — he was married to Bette Davis in two William Wylers, and he looks set to walk into Ivy’s poisonous clutches, only the other two chumps must be gotten rid off. They’re only played by Richard Ney and Patric Knowle, so can be considered disposable. Ivy conceives the idea of doing one in and framing the other.

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Here you go: another beautifully peculiar bottom-heavy composition introduces the POV shot of the irritant poison (every doctor keeps a large supply — it’s very handy), tying it in to the predictions of Madame Una, as Joan F. interprets them.

It’s really too entertaining, and if you haven’t seen it, you must, even though it’s hard to get. Write to your MP or something. Any movie where Joan F. gets to play a bitch-goddess is tops in my book, and it’s even better here since she plays the role with all the shy, shrinking mannerisms of her roles in REBECCA and SUSPICION, the flipside of those characters being the passive-aggressive succubus virago. Her shoulders go up as if trying to shield her ears from the wicked world, her head tilts slightly to one side as if she’s trying to wriggle out through a crack in the universe, and her eyes roll up just very slightly, escaping contact with those terrible people who want things from her, and consulting with the fiendish little brain concealed beneath that bland and beautiful brow.

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Throw in the awesome Sarah Allgood as a virtuous maid and Cedric Hardwicke as a detective — “You know the case is officially over, so I’m not allowed to think… But today’s my day off.” I think I’ve been guilty of badly underestimating Sir Cedric over the years. He always seemed like a bit of an old stick in ROPE, but he’s drolly amusing in Wet Saturday, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents drawn from a story by the great John Collier, he does a smart cockney plod here, and so I’m going to keep an eye on him this time in ROPE…

In this movie he doesn’t get to wear specs, so we can enjoy his eye-bags more fully. They’re not bulging valises like those appended to the orbs of Philip Baker Hall, nor are they quite the thin, almost translucent arcs inscribed beneath Henry Daniell’s optical apparatus, which resemble a little domino mask cut from his own skin. Cedric’s bags are like little polythene sacks which have had all the air sucked out of them, yet retain a certain three-dimensional heft around the edges. Apparently he stored his snuff in them when he wasn’t using his face for acting.

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