Archive for Hume Cronyn

The Oblong Box Set

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2013 by dcairns

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Delving into my Universal Monsters The Essential Collection Blu-rays Christmas pressie — I was drawn to some of the lesser titles, partly so they wouldn’t get neglected, partly so I could save some good ones for last. (All images here are from the lowly DVDs.)

First I ran THE WOLFMAN, which is not a very good film, alas. After THE OLD DARK HOUSE it’s nice to have another Welsh-set Universal horror — a pity they couldn’t have arranged for Melvyn Douglas to drop in as Penderell, or something. They manage to waste Warren William and miscast Ralph Bellamy, who doesn’t get to exploit his uncanny ability to remind one of that fellow in the movies, what’s his name? Ralph Bellamy, that’s it.

Screenwriter Curt Siodmak, idiot brother of the great Robert, knew that Lon Chaney Jnr was ridiculous casting as a nobleman, but doesn’t seem to have reflected too much on the implications of his story, which has a Gypsy tribe importing a contagion into peaceful Anglo-Saxon terrain. It’s a distasteful narrative for a German-Jewish refugee to serve up to American audiences during wartime, the more I consider it.

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As a kid, I was disappointed by the slow pace and lack of screen time awarded to Jack Pierce’s make-up, which I dug. But I was fascinated by Maria Ouspenskaya, who seemed genuinely uncanny.

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THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA seems to have always been a tricky property — it has seminal scenes, the unmasking and the chandelier drop and the general mood of skulking about in shadows in a cape, but nobody seems able to settle on what order they should come in or who the characters ought to be. I think perhaps a failure to realize that Christine is the main point-of-view character lies at the heart of many of the problems — this may be the big thing Andrew Lloyd-Webber got right. But Chaney was the only one to get a good makeup, and played the character without any cast backstory, as a mystery.

The forties Technicolor version that’s in the box set concentrates on singing and romance and comedy as much as melodrama, and top-loads the story with an origin for the Phantom that’s sympathetic but deprives him of mystique — it also leaves no time for his Svengali act, surely the heart of the story. Claude Rains is in good form, though his coaching scenes as a disembodied voice are underexploited — this should have been the perfect companion piece to THE INVISIBLE MAN.

Screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein is more important here than second-string director Arthur Lubin: he did a great job on Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, so I don’t know why this is so muted — partly the Production Code, I suppose. His other finest credits are THE WIZARD OF OZ, LAURA and CLUNY BROWN,  and his gift for light comedy is more evident here than his knack for dramatic construction. The rather stunning ending, in which Jeanette MacDonald Susanna Foster chooses her career and her two beaux, Nelson Eddy and Edgar Barrier, go off together arm in arm to dinner, makes the thing worthwhile — they fade to black very fast at that point.

Oh, and the three-strip Technicolor is bee-you-tiful.

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(Screenwriter and memoirist Lenore Coffee quotes a couple nice lines by Hoffenstein, not from his scripts but from his conversation. In response to the Variety headline BABY LEROY’S CONTRACT UP FOR RENEWAL, the Hoff remarked “If they don’t meet his terms he’ll go straight back to the womb… a swell place to negotiate from!” And when the legal department asked for a progress report on his latest script, a slightly tipsy S.H. bellowed “How any department as sterile as a legal department could have the impertinence to inquire into the progress of any writer, however poor… What do you think I do? Drink ink and pee scripts?”)

I believe the scene where Claude Rains strangles Miles Mander had to be taken several times because Mander’s head kept detaching when shaken.

Hume Cronyn has a tiny part and it’s great fun watching him steal his scenes.

Backstory is a problem. I quite enjoyed the intro to Dario Argento’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, in which the baby Phantom, cast adrift in the sewers in his cot, is rescued by rats, who presumably raise him as one of their own, like a rodent Tarzan. Tarzan had a fine operatic yodel, of course. But Argento’s Phantom isn’t deformed, he’s Julian Sands, which leaves him no motivation to be masked or live underground or do any of the things the plot requires.

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The Hammer PHANTOM, which I recently watched too, borrows heavily from the 1941 version — impoverished composer, acid scarring, etc. Apparently Cary Grant had expressed an interest in playing the Phantom, but his agent nixed it. I kind of wonder if that’s why the meaningless hunchback character was added, in order to give all the murderous stuff to someone else. It’s completely nonsensical and wrecks the film, which Terence Fisher handles rather nicely. Michael Gough’s slimy Lord Ambrose is a one-note baddie, and Gough hammers that note with relentless enthusiasm. Herbert Lom gets almost nothing to do.

That one was cackhandedly written by Anthony Hinds, a Hammer producer. There are undoubtedly some great producers-turned-writers — Joseph Mankiewicz springs to mind. The trouble in general is that producers can give themselves the job of writing without having any ability at it, as I found when I worked for Tern Television. Both Anthony Carreras and Anthony Hinds at Hammer got a number of writing gigs, without having the slightest sense of story structure, or even apparent awareness of what a story IS.

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Also watched DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS since Fiona’s brother was visiting, which Hinds authored — but his ramshackle narrative was fleshed out by the competent Jimmy Sangster, and then the very droll Francis Matthews acted in it, with delivery that’s as close to Cary Grant as Hammer ever got. A line like “Well I’m sure it would be educational if we knew what was going on,” isn’t necessarily witty in itself, but he gets a laugh with it. And I have to take my hat off to Sangster for the line he awards Dracula’s sepulchral manservant, Klove: “My master died without issue, sir… in the accepted sense of the term.”

The UK release is cheaper than the American, though admittedly it doesn’t come in its own coffin ~

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray] [1931][Region Free]

Christ Decrucified

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2011 by dcairns

THE SEVENTH CROSS was Zinnemann’s first major studio picture, after umpteen short subjects and two B pictures, and by his own account he lucked into it. He’d encountered the novel, and thought it would make a great film, and then was sent the script as a subject by pure coincidence. He liked Helen Deutsch’s treatment of the story, although he felt it added sentiment and commercial elements he’d have preferred to do without, but as this was his first major production, there was a lot of studio supervision and changing anything about the screenplay was not an option.

He was also extremely pleased to get Spencer Tracy as star, and writes enthusiastically in his autobiography about Tracy’s masterful subtlety. I sometimes find Tracy’s minimalism to be a kind of maximalist minimalism, everything reduced to simple form but writ large, but here he’s genuinely low-key, aided by a script that keeps him speechless for the first half hour, before allowing a few whispers and then more sustained speech as the character rediscovers his humanity after years of brutalization in a concentration camp. The same arc, kind of, gets a more realistic treatment later in Zinnemann’s haunting THE SEARCH.

THE SEVENTH CROSS neatly does two things. (1) it tells the story of seven escapees from a German camp. The commandant (Yay! George Zucco!) swears he’ll find them all and display them on crosses nailed to trees, and one by one, he does. But the last cross remains empty, as Tracy weaves his way across country and finds help to escape. (2) it tells the story of Tracy’s slow reawakening, his recovery of the humanity stolen from him, which is slowly developed by the small acts of kindness he receives from friends and strangers who help him.

The movie uses Christian imagery throughout, although at least the persecution of the Jews gets a couple of  mentions. I think Louis B Mayer and his colleagues felt that the war effort could best be served by stressing the universal nature of Nazi evil rather than focussing on anti-semitism, which maybe some American audiences might dismiss as someone else’s problem. So the issue is Christianized — there is the title cross, but also a lot of other imagery, such as the hero’s hands, injured while scaling a wall early on, so that he is marked out from his fellow men by stigmata. Requiring a pseudonym, he calls himself Krauss (Cross/Christ). This appeal to the common man is arguably a little dishonest, but it’s propaganda with justification.

An early encounter with an innocent child seems like a deliberate reference to James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN — Tracy is mute, large and animalistic, a possible threat to the innocent. But she’s also a threat to him. Maybe somebody recalled the Christ imagery Whale had applied to his monster?

Handshakes are also a motif in this film — see how many of them you can spot.

I would fight any man who tried to call the above a video essay, but I don’t think there’s much risk. It’s a highlights clip reel, emphasizing a couple of motifs. I’m hoping to re-hone my editing skills…

What a good movie — it has a big heart and combines modesty of scale with huge ambition for emotion and a little politics. “You need to know a lot to do the right thing these days,” muses former Nazi Hume Cronyn to his wife, Jessica Tandy (in her first movie — another great actor introduced to the screen by F.Z.). Also enjoy Steve Geray, Felix Bressart (above), Eily Malyon and George MacReady –

Ah, George! Hume Cronyn (the real heart of the film) visits George to get help for his friend Spencer. All we know about the man he’s seeing is he’s a successful architect who once swore he’d do something for the cause. Hume, a naive factory worker, stares at the decadent cubistic art on the wall and nearly goes crosseyed. This art marks George as a non-Nazi, but also, in Hollywood code, as genuinely decadent — MGM are no more forgiving of modern art than Hitler. Summoned into the architect’s bathroom, Hume finds him shaving, and we go “Oh fuck, it’s George MacReady, you’re screwed, Hume.” And sure enough, George is a vacillating aesthete with no moral backbone, which is good news in a way, because the only other role he’d be likely to get would be sadistic Nazi fiend.

Already thrown off-balance by the weird painting, Hume is utterly disoriented by George’s attitude, AND his bathroom, which breaks up space using mirrors in a way that echoes the multi-viewpoint art on his wall. Hume struggles to find his way out the door, nearly colliding with his own reflection. Left is right, up is down.

BUT the movie is even smarter than that, as George has a change of heart and attempts to man up and do the right thing — only he has no way of contacting Hume. Throughout the film, the struggle to create connections between different good guys, under the glare of their fascist overlords, is a major source of tension.

An underrated movie — shot by the great Karl Freund in true expressionist manner — which ought to be at least as celebrated as ACT OF VIOLENCE — not that that movie gets the credit it really deserves either.

This film also has the nerve to dissolve from George MacReady to a small child looking at a cake.

Hume and Desire

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2011 by dcairns

Jules Dassin has a short way with stool pigeons ~

And this was before he got ratted out to HUAC.

The movie is BRUTE FORCE, really the beginning of director Jules Dassin’s run of good Hollywood films before he was compelled to work abroad (where he made more good films). Dassin tended to completely dismiss his earlier movies, forbidding their inclusion in retrospectives, although his short THE TELL-TALE HEART is excellent, and NAZI AGENT with Conrad Veidt is pretty good. He wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about BRUTE FORCE either, correctly remarking, “But all these prisoners are such nice, sweet people–they’re all so lovely–what are they doing in jail?”

Stuff like the drawn-out assassination the stoolie helps offset the sentimentality, and there’s a fine, nihilistic, quasi-apocalyptic ending, which shores things up. Flashbacks to the prisoners’ lives on the outset allow minute cameos for the likes of Ella Raines and Yvonne DeCarlo, who are always welcome, but they actually puncture airholes in the picture’s claustrophobic intensity, and let the pressure seep out. Inoffensive as scenes, they’re seriously damaging to the dramatic tension.

Fortunately, the movie is held together by the very different styles of Burt Lancaster (physical, simple and direct) and Hume Cronyn (crafty, contrived, but effective) as tough convict and fascist deputy warden. Cronyn is working to undermine his boss by fomenting trouble so he can take over, but he gets more trouble than he’d been counting on. In the concluding riot, the prisoners eventually transform into a foretaste of Romero’s ravenous zombies. It’s pretty alarming.

Well hello.

What makes the conflict more than usually juicy is Cronyn’s decision to play his role quiet, sibilant and coded gay, and Dassin’s collaboration in presenting him with a good bit of innuendo. The rifle polishing is downright suggestive. Torturing a prisoner with a rubber hose while Wagner blasts out of the gramophone is a pretty pointed bit of characterisation, with Hume’s fine array of Greco-Roman muscle art supplying a further raising of the eyebrow.

Dassin is one of cinema’s few likable sadists — his interest in the sexuality of violence or the violence of sexuality seems clear to me, highlighted by whippings in RIFIFI and THE LAW, and the perversity of BRUTE FORCE, but it never splurges out of its rightful place in the narrative. It’s also dramatically harnessed by the storylines of NIGHT AND THE CITY, UP TIGHT! and others, where the whole second half of the narrative consists of putting the protagonist through the ringer (has any leading man ever sweated so much as Richard Widmark in NATC?) — the idea of drama as a means of confronting the hero with everything he fears, everything that could destroy him, destructive testing for the human personality, is very much to the fore. Meanwhile, Melina Mercouri and Maximilian Schell’s relationship in TOPKAPI seems pleasantly kinky.

Furthermore, excusing Dassin’s relish for cruelty is the fact that, as a man, he was more sinned against than sinning. I know of no stories showing him to be cruel personally, but the blacklist certainly caused him to suffer. If he indulges a taste for fantasy violence in his work, that seems decidedly harmless by comparison.

BRUTE FORCE’s prison populace is dotted with familiar faces, like calypso singer Sir Lancelot, familiar from many a Val Lewton chiller, Jeff Corey, and Charles McGraw, whose whisky-singed snarl as one of the titular bad-asses in THE KILLERS should have qualified him for a bigger part, only Lancaster and Ava Gardner apparently stole all the attention in that one.

BRUTE FORCE is an effective prison drama as long as it keeps its mind on its job. Producer Mark Hellinger and screenwriter Richard Brooks are probably responsible for the editorializing from the prison doctor (Art Smith), who delivers drunken lectures at every turn about society’s responsibility to its convicts, but he raises the whole thing up into a tasty film noir stratosphere with his last lines, the absurdly heavy-handed, allegorical, yet rather thrillingly bleak “Nobody ever escapes!” Spoken with a crash of music from Miklos “Mr Subtlety” Rosza, and a pull-back through the prison bars from Dassin, showing the doctor as just as much a prisoner as everybody else, including the audience.

All this week, Shadowplay is participating in the For the Love of Film (Noir) film preservation blogathon. Read more about it here and here. There’s also a donation link, and all contributions go towards restoring Cy Endfield’s searing THE SOUND OF FURY, AKA TRY AND GET ME (reviewed here). This is a really worthwhile cause.

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