Archive for Lawrie Knight

Paranormal Inactivity

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2010 by dcairns

I reported the slightly ungenerous opinion of my late friend Lawrie Knight, regarding filmmaker Vernon Sewell (“As far as I could tell, Vernon never had a brain in his head”) and then I heard from Sewell’s godson, advising me to look deeper. So I did.

It’s unfortunate that the three films I watched descended in quality from one to the next, but there was quality, and to correct that negative impression, I’m reversing the order and starting with the worst first.

GHOST SHIP (1952), starring Hazel Court and her husband Dermot Walsh, is a supernatural thriller — as were the other two films sampled. All three films use parapsychological explanations to fold their ghostly happenings into a scientific worldview, and all three feature cosy ladies who act as mediums (or should that be “media”?), as well as making substantial, and somewhat unconventional, use of flashbacks. This one was of particular interest to me because Lawrie had mentioned it — “He bought a boat, to use as studio. And I think he did make a couple of films on that boat.”

Unfortunately, Sewell hadn’t cracked a system for filming in the cramped quarters of his steam yacht: the result is lots of empty frames, into which characters protrude from the sides, before having discussions in lifeless flat two-shots, before exiting and leaving us with an empty frame again. Contrast this with Polanski’s dynamic use of even tighter environments in KNIFE IN THE WATER.

His story also takes ages to get going, with early manifestations limited to disembodied cigar smoke. Eventually a murder mystery is explicated via the medium’s intervention, and the middle-class couple can get back to yachting in peace. Best fun is the no-nonsense psychic investigator with his tuning forks, who realizes that the heat from the engine room acts as a trigger for spooky appearances ~

“The greater the heat, the more these vibrations are evident. Has it ever struck you how so many apparently inexplicable things only ever happen in hot countries? I mean, nobody’s seen the rope trick outside India. Voodoo’s only practiced in South/Central America. Firewalkers, fakirs, witch doctors: all in tropical climates. It’s like developing a photographic negative: the hotter the solution, the quicker the picture appears.”

Delightful. And all conducted with the aide of a set of tuning forks, too.

We also get a very young Ian Carmichael as a comedy drunk, holding up the action just as it gets promising, and a painfully young Joss Ackland. Having Danny Glover drop a packing case on his head in LETHAL WEAPON II was all in the future for young Joss.

A good bit better is LATIN QUARTER, also known as FRENZY, a tale of a murderous sculptor whose crime haunts his studio, necessitating the intervention of another pukkah psychic investigator and another mumsy medium. This movie integrates its flashbacks better, and it has Frederick Valk (the shrink from DEAD OF NIGHT) as the investigator, Joan Greenwood as a murdered model, Valentine Dyall (THE HAUNTING) as a prefect of police — lots of enjoyable players. The bad guy actor rejoices in the name of Beresford Egan, so we had to like him. Derrick deMarney is the hero, but you can’t have everything. Lots of Germans in this studio Paris, I guess because it was 1945.

Best of all was the modest HOUSE OF MYSTERY (1961), which reprises most of the plot of GHOST SHIP with a better, more involved flashback structure, more like THE LOCKET or The 1001 Nights. And the filming is MUCH better, with a mobile camera and slightly fogged style. The haunted cottage carries a genuinely intriguing mystery story which mixes ghosts, straightforward murder, and science fiction of the Nigel Kneale variety — lots of talk about buildings acting as recording instruments for the emotions enacted within them. Oh, and a really nice twist at the end. The cast here is very low-key, with Nanette Newman the best-known face, but the lack of star-power works with the film’s quiet, unfussed approach to the eerie. No wonder Sewell didn’t really thrive in the later world of British horror — his gaudy BLOOD BEAST TERROR, CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR and BURKE AND HARE aren’t a patch on these mild-mannered chillers.

Never to be Forgotten

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on January 23, 2010 by dcairns

RIP Jean Simmons. This was kind of a shock — she never seemed actually old. Maybe because she played Cleopatra early on, and age cannot wither her. At a more suitable time I must collect together my friend Lawrie’s amusing tales from the production of CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, not a great film but a great source of anecdotes on the absurdity of the film business and the personalities involved.

For now, here’s Jean at somewhere near her most beautiful, lit by Jack Cardiff in BLACK NARCISSUS.

The Sunday Intertitle: Total Victory

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2010 by dcairns

Bull Montana does what Bull Montana does best.

It was Hogmanay, in Edinburgh, the most Hogmaniacal city on this particular hemisphere of the planet, and we were all set to go round to friend Nicola’s to celebrate in comfort and warmth and alcoholic haze but (1) Nicola got a stinking cold and (2) I got a stinking cold, which meant Fiona and I celebrated in front of the TV with a good film, which is my answer to any crisis anyway (my late friend Lawrie, octogenarian, frequently housebound, paralysed down one side, after watching any decent film: “Ah, life is good“).

The film chosen was VICTORY, about which you can read a bit here (am I David Bordwell’s publicist? Or just a long-distance stalker?) — apart from its many dramatic and aesthetic merits, the film may contain cinema’s earliest over-the-shoulder shot, we learn. One of the great things about the o-t-s shot is that, used sparingly, it can still seem as fresh as when Maurice Tourneur tried it out in 1919. In THE KNACK, Richard Lester avoids the standard shot-reverse-shot formula so consistently that when he does do it, near the start and near the end, it seems almost like some crazy sixties gimmick he’s come up with, along with jump-cutting the actors around a park or winding the film backwards.

VICTORY is a 9-10ths faithful 1-crucial-10th travesty of Joseph Conrad’s novel, which incidentally Lester once planned to make with a screenplay by Pinter. The Great Harold’s script perhaps short-changes us on the romantic aspect of the story, which Tourneur and his scenarist Jules Furthman (later of Sternberg-Hawks affiliation) allows more expression, as you’d expect, but they cop out on the tragic ending. The result is a slightly weird moral to the story which equates true love with homicide — both are things you apparently have to be prepared to do if you want to live a full life. Hmm.

Mmm, that Rembrandt lighting, by René Guissart, about whom I need to learn more. He shot the 20s BEN-HUR, is all I know.

BUT — the film is visually a treat, with many many striking images. Conrad’s dastardly villains are one part of his novels that the movies can really get down with — see James Mason in LORD JIM as a frinstance — and here we can exult in Wallace Beery, Lon Chaney, LOST WORLD man-myth Bull Montana and a terrifying fellow called Ben Deeley as the psycho-albino Mr Jones, who becomes somewhat less terrifying as the film progresses but starts off as the most terrifying specter I’ve ever seen in a silent movie. Scarier than Chaney!

Some primo villainous musing from Deeley and Chaney.

Nevertheless, Chaney is impressive, with an unpleasant makeup and some impressive athletic work, and that powerful presence and ability to distort his body in expressive, expressionistic ways. What a performer he was. This shouldn’t really be considered as “a Lon Chaney movie” — it’s early in his career and he has only a supporting part, but in many ways, it utterly IS — the grotesquerie and violence, faithfully transferred from Conrad (a moment where a character falls face-first into a bonfire is an unconvincing special effect but memorably wince-making all the same) seem to exact prefigure Chaney’s later stick-in-trade.

Maurice Tourneur, whose work is nearly all hard to see via legit channels, is somebody who really should be honoured with a fat box set sometime. Here’s what’s available just now in the USA — I highly recommend it all. Nothing whatever is available in the UK.

The Blue Bird

The Poor Little Rich Girl

The Last of the Mohicans (1920 – Silent)

Before Hollywood, There Was Fort Lee, N.J. – Early Moviemaking in New Jersey

NB — if you follow the links and buy anything from Amazon, I get a percentage!

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