Archive for Howard Vernon

The Madness of War

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2014 by dcairns

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An entry in Movies Silently’s super-blogathon, the Snoopathon. Subject: ESPIONAGE!

There’s an eye-opening bit in Sam Fuller’s epic war memoir, THE BIG RED ONE, where Lee Marvin’s soldiers raid a Nazi base in a Belgian insane asylum. Amid the skirmish, dazed inmates carry on eating, oblivious to the firestorm around them — an unlikely concept, given that mad people (and people with learning difficulties, who are also included in this fictitious Walloon-y bin) would be likely to be MORE upset by submachine-guns blazing away over the dinner table than even such as I. Then one inmate snatches up a gun from a fallen soldier and gleefully wastes a couple of his fellow patients, crying, “I am like you! I am sane!” And we recognize, hopefully, that Fuller has one foot planted firmly in the terrain of allegory, and is Making a Point. In a scenario where some people are peacefully eating dinner and some are shooting each other, who is crazy? And if the killers are the sane ones, how else should one prove one’s sanity?

(My dad once replaced the wiring in a mental hospital, and met a chap on his way out who had been issued a Certificate of Sanity to help him find work. My dad felt vaguely jealous. HE doesn’t have a Certificate of Sanity.)

The other most obvious films about madness and war which come to mind are CATCH 22, which is TOO obvious to discuss here, and KING OF HEARTS, which some people like but I find twee. Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold are both lovely, but the film seeks to set war (bad) and madness (lovely) as opposites, and has to lie through its teeth to do so. Or maybe it’s just total ignorance bout mental illness, I don’t know. The point is related to Fuller’s — mad people don’t make wars — but it’s not really true, as CATCH 22 can demonstrate.

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So I had worries about Raymond Bernard’s UN AMIE VIENDRA CE SOIR… (A FRIEND WILL COME TONIGHT…) would tackle its subject, an insane asylum in the dying days of Nazi-occupied France. But, since I knew Bernard’s work from his Pathe-Natan super-productions CROIX DES BOIS and LES MISERABLES, I shouldn’t have worried. The only weaknesses in this 1946 movie are that, coming right after the war, it portrays its German characters in broadly stereotyped terms, and contains a little too much triumphal material on the heroes of the Resistance. Both those stances are broadly true and respectable, but rather simple and uninteresting dramatically — but one can see why the French would have needed to hear them in ’46.

The film’s strengths are in its unsentimental portrayal of the mad, and the crafty plotting which sees a number of imposters planted amid the staff, inmates and neighbours of the asylum. There’s a Jewish fugitive, a British parachutist, a couple of Resistance fighters, a German spy, and one Resistance leader whose true identity is known only by… but that would be telling.

The actors who may or may not be playing those roles include the great Michel Simon, in the guise of a sweet-natured innocent with Boudou beard, who rejects the existence of evil and has declared himself President of his own republic of one, and romantic Madeleine Sologne, embarking on a tentative romance with a Swiss doctor, Paul Bernard (a favourite of Jean Gremillon). Oh, and Howard Vernon, whose experience in covert shenanigans here would doubtless stand him in good stead for his future collaborations with Jesus Franco.

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The treatment of madness allows for some humour, but I think that’s permissible — the movie is quite clear that mental illness is not a delightful escape from reality, but often a torment and something which makes the sufferer unable to function socially. The treatment of war is a touch bloodless, except in the startling references to Nazi death camps and the campaign of sterilisation and extermination, preceding the war, carried out in the name of eugenics and exciting no major opposition from outside Germany, which rid the world of those whose physical and mental disabilities had them classified as “life unfit for life.”

Both the spying and deceit, and the insanity, are great excuses for Bernard to deliver up his trademark Dutch tilts, a staple of his filmmaking since at least the early 30s (LES MIS is full of them). I haven’t seen THE CHESS PLAYER (1927) so I dunno if he was leaning to the side even then, but I know it intercuts a piano recital with military activity — something repeated here.

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The movie, which I think is a great one, may also be suggesting that the strife of war will send France itself, and possibly its director in person, mad. Raymond Bernard was Jewish, and had spent the war in hiding, in fear for his life, while his father, the writer Tristan Bernard, was interned at the camp at Drancy, which ruined his health and led to his death just after this film was released.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)

 

Under Steam

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

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Back on my Frankenheimer kick — THE TRAIN was one I had fond memories of, but it turns out I’d only seen the last half hour of this two-hour epic. During that section, it’s basically DIE HARD, with the injured but unstoppable Burt Lancaster single-handedly taking on a train full of Nazis with stolen “degenerate” art, the plunder of France.

The earlier parts of the film feature –

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Bad dubbing: with a strange old-time prospector voice emerging from the baggy wreckage of Michel Simon’s huge landslide of a face, and weirdly New York accent issuing from Albert Remy, I wondered if this was a misguided attempt at consistency — since Burt is playing a Frenchman, maybe they wanted all the French characters to sound American. But then a character shows up with a strong French accent, and blows that out of the water. (Also, Paul Scofield assumes a German accent to play a German, while some of the bit players around him actually SPEAK German). Jeanne Moreau sounds like herself, but with her accent dialed down to zero — is she dubbed by a soundalike or by herself with an accent coach hovering over her head wielding a bat?

Gritty textures: most of the best war movies are black and white, and this one makes beauty out of dirt and oil and metal and leather, in a way that would have been impossible with colour. And desaturated hues as in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN do not cut it. In fact, with its clanking, thrumming hissing soundtrack and loving detailing of the textures of machinery and grime, THE TRAIN is like the ERASERHEAD of WWII pictures, except –

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It’s GIGANTIC — they blow shit up on a massive scale, they crash real life-size steam trains, and they imperil human life in the most terrifying ways, Burt does his own stunts, and poor Remy has to uncouple a carriage from a moving train, and one actor has to stand by while a train comes off its track and nosedives into the gravel inches away.

The DIE HARD connection also calls to mind THE GENERAL, another one man army epic, but Frankenheimer’s aesthetic, which combines mockumentary energy with Wellesian Dutch tilts and propulsive tracking shots, aims at conspicuous production values and a relishing of expense that’s alien to Keaton, who serves up spectacle deadpan.

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The pyrotechnics and suspense are augmented by traces of a genuine theme — Scofield’s murderous Nazi actually appreciates the art he’s stealing, not as loot, cultural capital of “the Glory of France,” but as art. And he’s willing to kill for it. Against this is set Lancaster, whose humanist principles are seen as mere animal instinct by the German — he has no comprehension of what’s in these crates he’s required to risk his life for.

The story is told, I think by a screenwriter, of Frankenheimer talking Burt through the psychology of a scene in great detail, only for Burt to say “Ah, what the hell, I’ll just give it the grin.” It’s a story that seems to sum up Burt’s highly physical, movie-star charisma approach to acting — but Burt never actually grins in this film.

He’s very good, if stylised, jabbing and slashing with those huge meaty hands, the actor as athlete.

Movie features a cut from Dr Mabuse (Wolfgang Preiss) to Dr Orloff (Howard Vernon).

Frankenheimer’s ending — incorporating quick cuts of objects littering the ground, objects the story has revolved around — is reprised in many of his films, from THE HOLCROFT COVENANT to RONIN to his last movie, REINDEER GAMES (where the objects are dead Santas, if memory serves).

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THE TRAIN is a smart dumb movie, of the kind one wishes were made more often today. If we can’t have smart, we could at least have this.

Bats

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2013 by dcairns

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Our pal Marvelous Mary once spent an evening round out our place watching Jesus Franco’s SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY, and came away with a healthy respect for any filmmaker who could centre a movie around a Crocheted Shawl of Death. Francophiles will recall that star Soledad Miranda dons this garment each time she goes out to shag and kill. A keen and expert knitter, Mary was smitten.

So when Jesus died at Easter, Mary popped round for second helpings. We tried to watch THE GIRL FROM RIO aka THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU but a technical glitch forced us to resort to DRACULA PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN, which meant we had to trade Shirley Eaton and George Sanders for Jason Reitman’s mom and a visibly ailing Dennis Price. Too bad.

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Genevieve Robert as the Gypsy Woman: arguably an advance on Maria Ouspenskaya. For the first time in my life I begin to think of Ivan Reitman as a man of taste.

I often feel that Jesus Franco’s name should be spelled with a comma after the first name and an exclamation mark after the second. This film inspired that feeling with renewed force. It doesn’t so much lack a plot as bodily reject one, like a transplant patient spitting his new heart across the room to watch it spatter in a pointillist nebula on the far wall. Scenes wend hopelessly on without purpose or meaning, the action attenuated and dubbed like porno without the sex.

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Frankenstein Must be Debilitated. Or, “Not the pole dance, Dennis!”

Whilst in Dublin, I received from friend Paul Duane a copy of Dennis Price, A Tribute, by Elliot J. Huntley, a comprehensive, warm, fannish but erudite profile of the Great Actor. Huntley is generous to Franco, seeing the late films as noble rather than embarrassing, proof of Price’s devotion to his craft and desire to put on a good show however trying the circumstances. And DRACULA PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN is trying indeed. But Franco appreciated Price’s talents even if he couldn’t show them to their best advantage — “He was subtle and intelligent and quick. I found him magnificent. You could shoot eighteen hours with him” (never mind the quality, feel the width!) —  and Price enjoyed Franco’s company.

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Back seat Dracula.

On the plus side, the music, by Bruno Nicolai and Daniel White, is excellent. There are strange moments that seem straight out of a spaghetti western, which suggest a more bracing genre mash-up that might have been. This enhanced by the score and the constant antarctic whiteout wind effects, and the eerily human cries of a peacock add some indefinable unease to this already potent punch. Fiona pointed out a shot of a ringing church bell which had been apparently speeded-up, resulting in a queer, herky-jerk effect reminiscent of NOSFERATU’s phantom coach.

Franco makes great use of locations, though he doesn’t attempt to disguise that they’re Spanish and Portuguese  rather than Transylvanian. (Nor does he, in JACK THE RIPPER, attempt to pretend his location is Victorian London: it’s Zurich. Honestly, the two things everybody knows about JTR is that he stalked the East End and was never caught. In the Franco film, Klaus Kinski stalks Zurich and GETS CAUGHT.)

Odd bit with a bat in a jar that’s being slowly filled with fake blood. The poor pipistrelle can’t decide whether to struggle for freedom as the unending trickle of raspberry juice spatters its shoulders, or to lap up the delicious fluid. It keeps switching from one course of action to the other. You can read its thoughts, poor thing: “Must get out — gotta think! — mmm, delicious! — maybe if I push upwards — how do they make this stuff? It’s so sweet!” (The scene is undoubtedly cruel, but it looks to me like Franco rescued the poor chiroptera as it went under for the third time, then probably ran it under the tap or something. So that’s OK, and we can get back to worrying about the cruelty being done to the human performers, though mercifully they aren’t tortured with much dialogue.)

The illusions in the film are all curiously naked: the rubber bats on wires are obviously rubber bats on wires, but then they always were, in Universal and Hammer films too. Franco also films a real bat in closeup while some offscreen bat-wrangler flaps its wings for it to pretend it’s in flight. That looks exactly like what it is too. The plastic skeletons are resplendently plastic, and just to be on the safe side Franco performs one of his trademark zooms into ECU on Howard Vernon’s joke-shop fangs, in case we had become concerned they might be genuine.

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The Frankenstein monster appears to have had his makeup applied with a magic marker. And he has a false rubber glue-on chin, like Kenny Everett’s Marcel Wave.

When the angry mob of villagers hove into view, their torches are not quite ablaze — merely smoldering. This may be the most touching low-budget compromise I’ve ever seen. “They provide no illumination, but the smoke trails — cough, cough — allow us to see where we’ve been.”

And then, all at once and for no reason, the wolfman shows up (played by “Brandy”!). He has a papier mache nose. A well-known side-effect of lycanthropy.

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Jesus, Franco!

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