Archive for Edge of the World

The Sunday Intertitle: The First Picture Show

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on February 24, 2013 by dcairns

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In ST KILDA BRITAIN’S LONELIEST ISLE (1923-28) appears as an extra on the excellent BFI disc of Michael Powell’s THE EDGE OF THE WORLD. I happened to look at it as I was revisiting Powell’s follow-up film, RETURN TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD (1978), in order to write an entry on it for an academic publication, Directory of World Cinema: Scotland. I don’t know if my piece strikes the correct academic tone: I have lines about octogenarian actor John Laurie’s eyes darting about in his skull like mad spies.

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Still, the little travelogue/documentary on ST KILDA, the real island that inspired Powell’s movie, is a treat. I was particularly intrigued by an item at the end suggesting that the film crew projected the islanders’ first movie show — this was apparently in 1923, and is confirmed by news reports at the time which indicated that a shot of a steam train caused the audience to stampede from the hall, Lumiere-fashion. It’s always the same story: you can show them movies, by all means, but don’t show them movies of steam trains. You have to work up to that stuff.

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Scottish children are baffled by the inert projector. I’m baffled too — why is it labelled “The Brunette”?

The Edge Of The World [1938] [DVD]

I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2008 by dcairns

I wasn’t planning on having a Fever Dream Double Feature set in lighthouses, but right after I finally watched Michael Powell’s THE PHANTOM LIGHT, I remembered that I had recently acquired SHIT! THE OCTOPUS, another lighthouse-set comedy thriller, and the synchronicity seemed to strong to resist.

(NB: It’s not really called SHIT! THE OCTOPUS, it’s called SH! THE OCTOPUS, but what I said above about struggling to resist synchronicity goes double here. It’s a very shit film whose title suggests that it might almost be called SHIT! THE OCTOPUS. What can I say?)

THE PHANTOM LIGHT begins with a powerful and terrifying non-diegetic sequence of disembodied reaching arm and beautiful title lettering and storm sounds and windy music and WOW! Then it settles down to a more clunky formula of comedy patter and sloppy plotting, with sudden bursts of invention and atmosphere. This is definitely NOT a quota quickie. The QQs were made to fill a government order that a certain proportion of films in British cinemas HAD to be British productions. This ruling was imposed on the film industry with no consultation, so the filmmakers struggled to fulfill the sudden new production demands. The idea took hold that films could be made JUST to fulfill the quote — they need not have any particular qualities, other than the ability to be projected on a screen. I wish this were LITERALLY true, we could have advanced avant garde cinema by decades. Five reels of Piccadily Circus on a foggy evening — add a V.O. by W.H. Auden and away you go. Didn’t happen. But what it meant in practice was opportunities for a lot of budding filmmakers. They could try, and fail, and try again. Entire careers were built on nothing but failure. Powell failed upwards from the start, building up his technical understanding of film storytelling, and occasionally daring to experiment with the more outré techniques which would in due course make his name.

As I said, THE PHANTOM LIGHT isn’t a quota quickie. It boasts considerable location shooting, including actual night shoots, and a couple of quasi-stars: Gordon (INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH) Harker, and Donald Calthrop (whose career would be hampered when a starlet spontaneously combusted in his dressing room) as “David Owen”, which happens to be my two first names. That said, it predates Powell’s collaboration with Emeric Pressburger so it’s not a major work. Cinematically it stands comparison with the later EDGE OF THE WORLD, but lacks that film’s artistic ambition. THE PHANTOM LIGHT is a pure genre piece with some experimental touches.

Most of these touches clearly owe a lot to Powell’s brilliant editor, Derek Twist, who would rescue EDGE OF THE WORLD from a morass of uncoordinated coverage and nature photography. Here, Powell has done his job well by providing Twist with lots of atmospheric detail shots of the lighthouse and its environs, and Twist uses this material to build suspense, creating virtual walk-throughs of the set, and sequences that almost break the mechanics of the lighthouse down into technical schematics. At the climax, as a ship heads for the rocks, he frenziedly piles shot upon shot in a manner that’s probably influenced by the Russian montage school, but in its hyperactive zest more closely approximates the earlier effects of the White Russian filmmakers in France in the 1910s.

He also has a very neat trick of interrupting talk scenes with very quick cutaways — typically about a second — of spooky activity, simultaneous plot developments, jeopardy, or just random lighthouse business. The ruptured rhythm approach foreshadows P&P’s later films, cut by both Derek Twist and Reginald Mills, which often break drifty, oneiric sequences with sudden shock close-ups: think of the climax of BLACK NARCISSUS or even the ballet in THE RED SHOES. In the case of THE PHANTOM LIGHT, the fractured pacing keeps the audience alert and gives the film far more surprise than its plot can provide (the biggest narrative shock comes AFTER THE ENDING, when we realise that a major story point, the identity of the leading lady’s character, has still not been resolved).

Asides from these pleasures, the film has a lot of unreliable Welsh accents, cheeky dialogue, and Gordon Harker, whose grumpy exterior should have been listed by the National Trust. If I can quote my own INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH article –

A phantasie ~ I want to take Gordon Harker gently by those protruding, handle-like ears, lifting his head free from its cradling shoulders, and tipping it forwards until hot tea spills from his protruding, spout-like lower lip, filling a saucer with rippling reflections. When the tea is drunk, the patterns left by the leaves will spell out, not the future, nor yet a bygone age, but a never-was era of whimsy and intrigue.

SHIT! THE OCTOPUS (1937) is a different kettle of kippers altogether. Based on a couple of plays, apparently wedged together with all their dramatis personae and major incidents intact, the film aspires to the title of Ludicrous Mish-mash, but lacks the cohesiveness to quite attain it. Allen “Officer Dibble” Jenkins and Hugh “Woo-woo!” Herbert play incompetent Irish cops on the trail of a crime lord called the Octopus. They pursue him to a lighthouse without stairs, home to a supposed artist, and are all attacked by a real octopus. Shit indeed.

Characters keep turning up until the screen is thronging with irrelevance. The basic comedy motor is missing. Instead of being a bungling sidekick, Hugh H is a joker, and annoying quip-making character who never says anything funny but is perpetually amusing  to himself. No wonder Jenkins seems to be in a constant tizz. The writers, all eleventy-hundred of them, have gone for a sub-sub-sub-Marx Bros zaniness where the comedy thriller set-up would benefit from characters who actually display cowardice, stupidity, avarice, and other actual human emotions, which can be funny.

What the film does have going for it, although it doesn’t add up to much at the time, is a lot of strange and disturbing imagery. It’s meant to be funny, but is basically creepy and queasy and ooky. In this the film oddly resembles Otto Preminger’s unhilarious DANGER: LOVE AT WORK.

This seems to be Elspeth Dudgeon from THE OLD DARK HOUSE, and she’s just done a transformation by coloured filter a la Mamoulian’s JEKYLL AND HYDE. A nasty moment.

The octopus spends most of its time in the next room, reaching through whenever it wants something. I sometimes wish Julian Sands would adopt the same approach in his movies.

Cinematographer Arthur L Todd. Slow but reliable.

Your basic big bowl o’ wrong.

Things I read off the screen in “They Drive By Night”

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2008 by dcairns

This is the 1938 British movie THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, not the 1940 Raoul Walsh one with the same title. Walsh’s film is a searing drama about truck drivers. Woods’ film is a crime thriller that isn’t really about truck drivers at all, which is maybe part of the trouble with it.

Lots to read in this movie! Maybe that’s what they mean by British cinema being in thrall to the literary tradition. Nearly every plot point gets reported in the papers and then shown in print onscreen. Also, the busy studio-based world of the film, a very convincing and atmospheric creation, is alive with advertising, signage and print of all kinds. In one exciting scene the hero flees past a shop selling “everything”, plastered with product names and so busy that the human eye goes spastic trying to take it all in.

Newly released from prison, good-hearted crook Emlyn Williams goes to see a friend who runs a SNACK BAR.

Many are the ads for Player’s Cigarettes in this film! I won’t reproduce them all or you will be hypnotised into craving the Smooth Smoke Doctors Recommend, and I don’t want that on my conscience. The items offered by CHARLIE’S include TEAS, you will note. For a hard-boiled crime drama, this film shows quite a lot of tea being drunk. It’s an odd effect.

Graham Greene praised TDBN, saying it was “on a level with the French cinema” — Greene was a great fan of PEPE LE MOKO — which rather misses the point. What it’s blatantly trying to do is mimic American levels of pace, vigor and aggression. The dialogue is a weird mixture of British (girls = judies) and U.S. slang. The plot races along with casual abandon, driven by outrageous coincidence and a hunger for action, but moving in loosely structured fits and starts. Greene wouldn’t have minded the coincidence — check how, in Gun For Sale (filmed as THIS GUN FOR HIRE) the fugitive assassin hero happens to get on a train with the girlfriend of the detective leading the hunt! The man chiefly responsible for TDBN’s coincidences is film editor Derek Twist, who rescued Michael Powell’s THE EDGE OF THE WORLD in the cutting room, and adapted this script.

DIGRESSION — Powell & Pressburger gave Twist his directorial break on END OF THE RIVER, a jungle drama with Sabu. In his highly readable 2-volume autohagiography, Powell blames Twist for the uninspired result, “making the Amazon basin dull”. But my friend Lawrie Knight, who was manning the communications centre back at Rank’s Denham Studios, told me that in fact Twist got sick after a few days and it was Powell himself who took over direction of the film. “And he ruined it. It was supposed to be about the slow pace of life on the river contrasted with the speed of city life, and Mickey directed the whole thing like a train.” Cinematographer Christopher Challis observed in his witty autobio, Are They Really So Awful?, that you couldn’t see the rain forest except by flying over it, so it proved surprisingly unphotogenic.

TRY OUR HOT \__/  \__/ THEY’R GRAND. Hot pictographs! My, that DOES sound grand. Instants later, our hero has stumbled upon an old flame, lying strangled, and goes “on the lam.”

I like everything about the above image. The ad for Woodbines proves the makers’ aren’t totally in Player’s pocket. The tiny sign saying “BLACK CAT” makes it for me, and the nuns. Emlyn Williams is an unlikely hero — he’s Welsh, playing working class, unhandsome, vaguely effete, and cast as a tough hero called “Shorty”. But he’s rather good. He has the advantage of unexpectedness. But British cinema didn’t know what to do with him. Like Robert Newton, he was tried as a male lead and found wanting. Just as Hollywood found a role for Newton (saying “Arrr!” a lot), so it was a Hollywood filmmaker who first saw Williams’ true potential — Josef Von Sternberg cast him in his abortive epic I, CLAUDIUS, as Caligula, a man so decadent he was “maybe even a little sissy, but not too much.”

NEWS THEATRE. That is such an exciting concept — a tiny tiny cinema devoted to newsreels. Next door to a shop selling “TOBACCOS”, so you can go in and smoke and make the projector beam stand out nicely.

Hiding out, suspected of a crime he — for once — didn’t commit, jailbird Williams is upset to find the feature attraction is all about MURDERERS. Is the “No. 17″ a homage to the Hitchcock film of the same name? Williams, a talented writer, helped script the original THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH for Hitchcock. He’s also the author of a horrifying but moving and brilliant true crime book, Beyond Belief, dealing with the “moors murderers” Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Follow the link to see the iconic mugshot of Myra, which caused John Waters to remark, “She’s going to do an extra twenty years just because she didn’t get her roots done that week.”

But Williams’ greatest contribution to cinema is his play, Night Must Fall, which has been filmed twice. Williams wrote the part of the psychopathic Danny for himself to play, and he seems perfect for it. In movies, the role provided great opportunities for both Robert Montgomery and Albert Finney, who gave contrasting performances of great detail and intensity. Well worth a look — but I wish there was a third version starring the creator of the role.

“You come out of the movies and the world’s changed,” complains Steve Martin in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN. Emlyn finds this especially true: not only is it raining (a proper British downpour which will last for the next two reels) but he’s now officially wanted for murder. Bummer.

Grabbing a bus out of London — the conductor is “Billy Hartnell”, future film star (BRIGHTON ROCK) and TV’s first Dr. Who — our Emlyn winds up at the first of the film’s several Transport Cafes, where CAMP COFFEE is on offer but the long distance drivers inexplicably prefer tea. It was at “greasy spoons” like this that Anthony “Puffin” Asquith, top film director and son of the prime minister, would moonlight, helping out in the kitchen in order to pick up truckers. Emlyn is himself picked up by a trucker, and after numerous adventures, ends up — at another cafe.

Along the way there’s an altercation with what should be some “Truck Stop Dames”, but since this is England, we have to call them “Lorry Girls”, which doesn’t sound right, somehow.

The big attraction at WALLY’S CAFE is the TEAS again:

British tea-drinkers are strongly advised not only to DRINK, but also to ENJOY their MAZAWATTEE TEAS. You have to remind them or they’ll forget, you know. The film now gets on with the lorry-based action, fifteen minutes of it, after which it moves on, having justified its title to its own satisfaction. Winning over a dubious trucker, bumping into an old friend who’s a dance-hall hostess and friend of the murder victim, and escaping from police, Emlyn makes the headlines again — stick with me, this is ABOUT TO GET WEIRD.

I question the “glamour girl” part slightly, but not as much as I question the other “top stories” — MERMAID WEEPS and DON’T SUCK YOUR PEN! Remember, this is 1938. Europe is poised on the brink of war. And the paper devotes its front page to a penny-ante murder story, a sobbing water nymph, and advice on what to not suck. BIZARRE. Oh wait, it’s the Daily Mirror, that explains it.

These aren’t quite as good, but HANDBOOK TO GUIDE VOLUNTEERS and RADIO JERKS FINANCE HITCH are still pretty interesting. This is a completely unnecessary newspaper montage anyway, recapping the action we’ve just seen, and introducing headlines we’ll get to see later.

Now the plot swerves into PIEGES / LURED territory, with Emlyn’s lady friend attempting to ID the real killer from among the clients at the PALAIS DE DANSE where she works. It suddenly becomes clear that the movie could have usefully omitted Emlyn altogether and made her the hero. The pretentious French of PALAIS DE DANSE was a British tradition — nearly all dance halls were known as “the palais“, it seems.

In an American movie the professional dance partners would be prostitutes, disguised for the sake of the Production Code. And I guess they are here, too. Some of them sound pretty POSH though. Now the film tips its hand, revealing the TRUE KILLER — Ernest Thesiger. Yes, red-blooded, testosterone-fuelled Ernest Thesiger is strangling dance hall girls with silk stockings and then going home, slipping into his housecoat and leering at hardcore pornography:

PARIS NIGHTS. Disgusting! The film devotes the rest of its running time, apart from the matter of rounding off the plot, to Ernest’s reading material. Apart from the odd house number (Ernest resides at No. 3), we only get to read what Ernest has read. His literary sloppy seconds, as it were.

MODERN DANCE AND THE DANCER, and THE STOCKING PARADE. It’s beyond depravity! Ernest plays Walter Hoover, a retired schoolmaster and pub bore who lectures the local drunks on the niceties of psychopathology, explaining how the killer derives a thrill from wielding power over life and death. “You do give things a queer twist!” remarks a regular. Maybe because the psychobabble is, for once, coming not from a pipe-smoking Lew Ayres type prof, but from an actual murderer, it’s surprisingly reasonable.

Thrillingly, the flick affords us not one but TWO glimpses of Ernest’s library, where he keeps his many leather-bound volumes. The room no doubt smells of rich mahogany. And semen.

SEX IN RELATION TO SOCIETY sounds hilariously dry and vague, but SOCIAL CONTROL OF SEX EXPRESSION is the real winner. Havelock Ellis was a real author, wasn’t he? (He was — I just read up on him, and he’s bloody fascinating. Click on his name.) So these aren’t mock-ups, but perhaps items from the Sinister Library of Derek Twist. “You do give things a queer Twist!” But there’s more to come:

CROOKED PERSONALITIES IN CHILD HOOD AND AFTER — well, that “AFTER” certainly covers everything. TWENTY HUMAN MONSTERS sounds like a damn fine read, likewise THE THRILL OF EVIL, but it’s SEX IN PRISON that makes me choke on my Mazawattee Tea. That’s so frank I can’t believe they even included it. Is it the novelisation of William Dieterle’s SEX IN CHAINS, I wonder?

And this is from Ernest’s scrapbook of murder, hidden behind the porn. BEDROOM MYSTERY is a fine, fine headline. Unfortunately, since Ernest has clipped out and saved all the bits relating to his crimes, he’s failed to preserve the advice DON’T SUCK YOUR PEN! Perhaps this will be his downfall.

Now the film continues to become derailed and unstuck, as the climax hinges on whether Emlyn can lick Ernest in a fight. IN A FIGHT — get your minds out of the gutter. Since we’ve already seen Em knock Er for six with a single mighty chop, there’s not much suspense in this. Ernest is a fey cat-loving schoolteacher(“Come here, my subtle one,” he coos at a kitty) while Emlyn may be a shorty but he’s a hardened crim. “Ernest Thesiger could be overpowered by his own kittens,” remarks Fiona. Emlyn beats them to it, and the film’s glossolalia serves up one final message: 

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