Archive for Hugh Williams

Take My Life — Please

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on October 17, 2014 by dcairns

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TAKE MY LIFE (1948) is Ronald Neame’s directorial debut. As you might expect if you know of Neame’s background as cinematographer for David Lean, the film is often very beautiful. And as you might expect if you’ve seen other Neame directorial jobs (eg GAMBIT, HOPSCOTCH), it’s a mildly diverting thriller — though of course he had other strengths (THE HORSE’S MOUTH, THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE).

What stops it from reaching the Hitchcockian heights it presumably aspires to (it’s a wrong-man thriller, after all) is perhaps a shortage of truly tense scenes, and a slightly dodgy structure, where it seems to be missing most of a second act. It’s based on a novel by Winston Grahame (MARNIE) and inventively folds its set-up into a summing-up by portly prosecutor Francis L. Sullivan with illustrative flashbacks, the last of which reveals that arrested man Hugh Williams is not the culprit — instead, joy of joys, we get Marius Goring, aged up with some grey streaks to his hair and face, as a Scottish schoolteacher secretly married to the victim. Now, Williams’ wife must investigate for herself, locating and somehow incriminating the sepulchral Scotsman.

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As lit by Guy Green, star Greta Gynt displays Norway’s most alluring complexion. Her character’s career as opera singer allows for some nice visuals early on, and her artistic temperament ultimately triggers the circumstance that gets her husband incriminated (strict structuralism demands that this temperament return to play a role in the plot later, but it doesn’t). Hugh Williams, being imprisoned for much of the plot, can only look guilty — of what, we never know, since we know he’s not the murderer, but with his oiled beetle-shell of hair and somehow untrustworthy fleshy features, he is physiognomically incapable of projecting innocence.

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After the stylish and moody opening, the film has to rely on the threat to Williams to supply all dramatic tension, since Gynt’s efforts to clear his name do not put her in peril, do not give her problems she can struggle with, and rely on a wild and lucky coincidence to come to their resolution. Only when Goring is reintroduced and comes face to face with her can some proper suspense be created (Didn’t Goring ever play a vampire? He should’ve.) Apart from the ageing makeup, which looks fine in medium shot and goofy in close-up, he seems to have elongated the shape of his face, I think just by putting the tips of his teeth together rather than clenching them. At any rate, sometimes you can’t quite believe it’s him.

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The film’s other pleasant surprise is the darkly beautiful Rosalie Crutchley, whom I normally associate with her gloomy housekeeper role in Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING. Here she gets to be a bit glam, and makes me wish she had gotten leading roles exploiting her slightly Latinate charms. An impossibility in the British film industry of the time, I fear.

 

Full Steam Ahead

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2009 by dcairns

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THE LAST JOURNEY is a classic quota quickie — maybe the best ever — directed by Bernard “Mad” Vorhaus, about an engine driver on the brink of retirement who cracks up and attempts to crash his own train. It’s a precursor of the ’70s disaster movie, or more accurately, group jeopardy movie (since in this particular version of the genre, actual disaster must be averted) — stick a bunch of amusing stereotypes together in a perilous situation and watch them sweat. Or “perspire,” if they’re first class ticket holders.

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The reliably oily Hugh Williams in a typical cad/dirtbag role.

The story is by J. Jefferson Farjeon, a man who is suddenly all over my mind like a pox. He’s not only the author of Michael Powell’s lighthouse mystery THE PHANTOM LIGHT, which I wrote about already, but of THE GHOST CAMERA, written up for The Forgotten over at The Auteurs’ Notebook. This seems to be a style of title Farjeon favoured: I wonder if he had trunks full of unsold screenplays with titles like The Haunted Tripod, The Zombie Microphone, The Spook Boom or The Spectral Dolly.

He’s also responsible for the play which Hitchcock’s NUMBER 17. is based on, the subject of this Wednesday’s entry in Hitchcock Year, and a little number called TWO CROWDED HOURS, which in the manner of quota quickies, crammed both hours into a 45 minute running time. This was Michael Powell’s first directorial outing, and is apparently a lost film. Do check you’re not sitting on it, please.

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At last, a good hypnotist! Tearle’s suave doctor begins the film with a hokey demonstration of his mesmeric arts, and wishes that he could use the technique to save lives. Will he, before the film is finished? He will!

THE LAST JOURNEY is one of the most exciting films I’ve ever seen! Not for cinematic brilliance, although there’s a certain amount of that: Vorhaus does silly things like putting the camera inside the locomotive’s burner, and uses crazy canted angles to film the fraught railway employees trying to prevent a collision. What generates the real energy is the furious pace of the storytelling and cutting, and what makes it fun is the shameless comedy relief and boldly overplayed melodrama ~

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The lunatic engine driver keeps yelling “We’re overdue! We’re overdue! The crash! The crash!” with increasing fervour, like he thinks he’s in a Tod Slaughter movie.

~ while the comic relief characters are highly reminiscent of the one-note caricatures populating the later Hitchcock THE LADY VANISHES, or a Hollywood comedy like TWENTIETH CENTURY.

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“The Frenchman” spends the entire flick trying and failing to go to the lavatory — OK, so it’s not a great character arc — while Goddard is a boozy Yorkshireman, and not the director of A BOUT DE SOUFFLE.

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The stutterer is another one-note running gag, trying to order something in the dining car but being abandoned by waiters before he can ram a syllable from between his palsied lips. Ah, the truly th ’30s were a golden age of mocking the afflicted! Miss Smith is a hypochondriac bore whom Tearle, our hero, disposes of by letting her read his medical textbook, which convinces her she has motor ataxia. He prescribes dry toast, and she leaves for the dining car.

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Most amusing are the wildly dishonest pickpockets, fleeing the law and swiping everything that’s not nailed down as they go. They’re like cockney versions of characters from a pre-code Warners movie.

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The hero type on the left spends the whole movie chasing the train, desperate to rescue the girl he loves from the clutches of the oleaginous Hugh. Sidney Fairbrother is the temperance campaigner, butt of the film’s best and meanest joke. After making a pest of herself campaigning against strong drink throughout the action, she faints at the climax and has to be revived with a bottle of brandy. Waking up, she sees what she’s been drinking, and faints again. So they start pouring more into her, as we ~

FADE TO BLACK.

Famous Film Star

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on August 7, 2008 by dcairns

I knew it wasn’t my father

Who was bankrupt and poor.

He had a war.

He had a scar.

He was on Famous Film Star

Cigarette Cards

with Janet Gaynor.

It couldn’t be my father

who hit the registrar

and had to be bound over for a year

to keep the peace,

so who were they talking about

in the newspaper?

~ a poem by Hugo Williams, son of British movie star Hugh Williams, quoted in Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet.

I’m apt to be a bit critical of Sweet sometimes: I thought his TV series British Film Forever was disgracefully poor (it’s now verboten to mention it within the BBC, so ashamed were they), and in his seminal work above he does have a bit of a tendency to recycle other writers’ research… But he also personally dug up a lot of fascinating stuff and presents it in an accessible, often amusing form.

Hugo Williams’ poem is a touching insight into the stars and scandals of another day, a day of hair-oil and cigarettes, big bands and slow dances.

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