Archive for Edgar Ulmer

Wicked World

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2014 by dcairns

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Husband-and-wife team Guy Maddin and Kim Morgan have programmed WICKED WOMAN (1953) as part of their mini-season at telluride this year, and their comments comparing it to Ulmer’s DETOUR (a favourite of both Errol Morris and Lucio Fulci) made it sound pretty damn intriguing. I tracked it down.

The comparison led me to expect too much, probably, but the film is at least as interesting as it is dull. It’s the work of writer-director Russell Rouse, who made some OK stuff before he made THE OSCAR (a gloriously wretched multi-car-crash of an all-star epic), with the wordless Ray Milland vehicle THE THIEF as a particular stand-out. Rouse created a sort of silent movie simply by having his leading man alone, at night, with no one to speak to. It creates a particularly bleak, lonely atmosphere.

While DETOUR derives a lot of its impact from forcing shots to extend until they become striking — who was it who said, “There’s nothing in it but genius, because they couldn’t afford anything else?”, WICKED WOMAN has a normal B-movie number of set-ups, and they aren’t particularly inventive. The speed of production didn’t compel Rouse to come up with crazy ideas, it just meant the lighting couldn’t be very elaborate and the camera couldn’t move much. The effect is televisual, with only the griminess of everything and everybody in shot to distinguish it from small screen fare. Apart from the very occasional moment –

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As far as thrills go, the movie is somewhat lacking. It’s kind of a noir, but the biggest crime contemplated is fraud, and the worst violence is when the titular W.W., Beverley Michaels, gets repeatedly shoved to the floor and bed by Richard Egan. But there IS Percy Helton, hump-backed orangutoad from KISS Me DEADLY, blackmailing Michaels into, ahem, being nice to him. If he were George Clooney, this would be distasteful, but he’s Percy Helton, so it’s intolerably skeezy. You have to rapidly assembled a firewall in your frontal lobes to disbar any images of that lipless, foam rubber face contorting in the throes of carnal ecstasy. Quick! Do it! Do it now!

Too late.

My favourite Percy Helton role is in the notorious Mandom commercial, where his fleeting appearance may be intended to remind us of the deleterious effects of not buying Mandom.

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What WICKED WOMAN does have is Michaels herself, a curious presence, six-foot plus and languorous like a moon-walking astronaut (though far less buoyant), her line readings alternating between depressive monotone and venom-spitting fury. Until she speaks, it always feels like the camera is running at 30fps. Just watching her cross a room is like Valium for the eyes.

And then there’s the movie’s vision, in which everybody, almost without exception, is crummy. Michaels, who commits fraud and adultery and sleeps with another guy and chisels and bullies, is just about the nicest person in it. The bar’s co-owner is an abrasive alcoholic, but I guess she’s basically OK. The short-order cook is a loud complainer, but decent. But Egan is a louse, all the bar customers are chubby sex pests, Michaels’ landlady and fellow boarders are vicious, braying jackasses, and Percy goes from being a seedy, needy dweeb for Michaels to exploit, to a blackmailing molester. The sex goblin versus the giantess. We kind of wanted Michaels to go on a killing spree at the end — she looks more than capable for throwing little Percy through the greasy rice-paper walls of her rooming house.

Bible Thumper

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2013 by dcairns

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I’ve wanted to see Frank Borzage’s last film, THE BIG FISHERMAN (1959) for a long time, but was resistant to seeing the wretched pan-and-scan copy that seemed to be the only thing available. So eventually I got a wretched letterboxed edition which at least allowed me to see the compositions, even if the actual imagery was blurry. A thousand thanks to Neil McGlone for helping me out with this. His DVD seems to have a very interesting provenance but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to talk about it.

Borzage’s long career had endured numerous ups and downs by this time. Much of his work during the 40s fell short of his best, but MOONRISE (1948) was a masterpiece, applying silent movie aesthetics to a contemporary story in a way that’s worthy of comparison to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Then Borzage endured ten years with just a few TV shows to his name. CHINA DOLL is a decent attempt to recapture some of his 1920s mojo (albeit resorting to self-plagiarism on a grand scale). Somehow the director who had seemed unemployable (no blacklist, but a drink problem is rumoured) got assigned the first Super Panavision film to be shot, a biblical epic intended to cash in on the massive success of BEN HUR. His producer and the film’s co-writer was Rowland V. Lee (SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), another old stager from the silent age, whose best work came in the pre-code era.

(Borzage has just one later rumoured film, uncredited work on SIREN OF ATLANTIS which is credited to Edgar Ulmer — another late film — a somewhat arthritic remake of L’ATLANTIDE. Draw a veil over that one.)

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Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the qualities, along with an epic sensibility (however you choose to define that) which are required by the writer of biblical epics for the screen did not reside abundantly in RV Lee, who crafts plodding and bellicose dialogue for his actors. (Wasn’t it Gore Vidal who defined the good/bad difference as lying in the distinction between “The food is not to your liking?” and “Don’t you like your dinner?” Neither one is more authentic than the other in terms of ancient-world etiquette, but only the second has a chance of sounding natural on an actor’s lips.) The story, from a Lloyd C Douglas (THE ROBE) novel, is decent enough, but as delivered here it comes front-loaded with exposition by the camel-load, dumped into speechifying and a flashback and resulting in boredom and confusion rather than clarity.

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What saves the film are three good actors. Howard Keel, a real-life atheist (“Well, if heaven’s like they claim it is, I don’t want to go. I’d get bored.”) injects energy as a pre-apostollic St Peter, a man who likes cracking skulls and catching fish, and he’s all out of fish. (Fiona flat-out refused to believe we were about to see a film called THE BIG FISHERMAN. “There’s no such film. You made it up. What’s it REALLY called?”) Susan Kohner brings naturalism whenever she can, smuggling it in if necessary. She’s playing a Arabian/Jewish princess (close: in real life she’s a Mexican/Jewish princess) in love with John Saxon. Saxon is typically fine, but the third major support this movie gets is from its villain, Herbert Lom (Herod Antipas). If your dialogue is hokey, you can fall back on your Freed Unit training like Howard and hoke it up for all its worth, or you can breathe life into it like Kohner and Lom. She does it just by seeming like a real person, whereas he uses tricks. After an assassination attempt, he plays the next five minutes out of breath, which works really well, contrasting with the heartiness with which he attempts to shrug off the attempt on his life.

(Kohner is underrated, perhaps because she retired young. Her kids are producers — so indirectly, we owe AMERICAN PIE to the star of IMITATION OF LIFE.)

It’s a shame the rest of the players seem direct from central casting, though Beulah Bondi is fine. Oh, and Dr Smith from Lost in Space has a plum role, to our joy. Jesus remains offscreen, as in BEN HUR, but the guy doing his voice is horribly sententious. The role does get a boost from this structure, which is kind of a Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead affair, interweaving a new storyline around the events of a rather familiar story — as a result, familiar gospel speeches can acquire a fresh resonance. Despite the wooden delivery of the anonymous ham, Christ’s “turn the other cheek” spiel gains something by being reflected through Keel’s two-fisted fishmonger character and Kohner’s vengeful princess. And the whole thing is aiming to send a pacifist message into the 1950s world, specifically to do with Arab and Israeli relations.

“It takes a Jew to make a picture like this,” said William Wyler while shooting BEN HUR. And it seems to be a Hollywood axiom, Cecil B. DeMille notwithstanding, that religiosity is best marketed by Jewish filmmakers. Borzage, a Christian, though an appealingly liberal and sexy one, was brilliantly at weaving his own personal iconography into his films, but seems overawed by the spiritual import of — what? The set dressing? It’s a Lloyd C Douglas potboiler, not the Gospel of Matthew!

But how does our director fair with the widescreen? Well, he has his moments. I particularly liked his opening shot, which literally opens out, taking us from a cramped canyon into a wide-open space, the whole landscape designed by John DeCuir, that master of ancient world art direction.

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Track back, pushed by our character carrying a sheep on his shoulders…

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He turns to his right and we pan left to follow him crabwise… <—

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Then he turns to his right again and we’re tracking forward, after him, towards an archway which finally gives us our expansive vista as the tracking stops and we let him shrink into longshot –

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“Hey Presto!” as the Christ almost certainly didn’t say when he did the business with the fish sandwiches.

If I only had the nerve

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2012 by dcairns

NERVEN (NERVES) by crazy kraut Robert Reinert is fondly recalled in today’s edition of The Forgotten. It’s over at the Daily Notebook and you can watch the whole film for afters.

And, as if that weren’t too, too much, here’s a rather fine limerick, on the theme of existentialism (“still a hot topic at the time”). I urge you to check out the others — quite possibly the largest collection of Edgar Ulmer-themed five-line poems ever collected in one heap.

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