Archive for Miles Malleson

The First Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2014 by dcairns

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Over at the always exhilarating Observations on Film Art, David Bordwell, whom I finally met in Bologna along with his lovely partner Kristin Thompson, summarises the Cinema Ritrovato experience by writing up a single day’s viewing, thus giving us a sorta-kinda idea of what the overall buzz is like. I thought I’d steal the idea, as a way of reliving the glory and because there are plenty of enjoyable screenings that wouldn’t quite make a full blog post on their own.

I got into Bologna — or at any rate the outlying suburb-thing of Pianora, on the Saturday the fest began, late at night, so I missed such goodies as BEGGARS OF LIFE (recently enjoyed in Bo’ness) and Aleksandr Ford’s THE FIRST DAY OF FREEDOM, acclaimed as a masterpiece by those who saw it, and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE on the big, big screen in the Piazza Maggiore. And finding a bus on a Sunday to take me into town proved troublesome, so by the time I’d arrived and registered and had a cappuccino alongside new best pal Jonathan Rosenbaum and met longtime correspondent Neil McGlone and fellow Scotsman Mark Cosgrove, it was 12.15 and the only thing to see before the long, civilised lunch break, was the program of musical shorts previously discussed here.

Said program also featured YES WE HAVE NO… (the missing word is BANANAS), a silhouette-film seemingly directed by the ludic Adrian Brunel (it was found in his collection, anyway) and produced by Miles “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight” Malleson. A cartoonish treatment of the torment inflicted by catchy earworms, popular songs of the moronic variety that burrow into your consciousness and jam the controls on “REPEAT.”

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After lunch with the man I really must stop calling J-Ro, who gave me some useful pointers for stuff to see, I made perhaps a mistake and went to see a William Wellman double feature instead of THE TEMPTRESS, which looked extremely alluring, was only on once, and proved to be one of the hot tickets of the fest, the kind of thing for which the safety inspector averts an eye as the aisles fill up with perspiring bodies. But the Wellmans were good/interesting — YOU NEVER KNOW WOMEN starred Clive Brook, Florence Vidor, El Brendel (ack!) and Lowell Sherman, whose villainous smoothy is excellent value. Wellman starts with a spectacular building site disaster. A labourer rescues the chic Vidor from cascading scaffolding. Sherman steps in and takes the swooning beauty from his muscular but filthy grasp. “I think I can do this sort of thing better than you,” he suggests, via intertitle, and proceeds to take credit for saving her life.

The story goes on to be a backstage melodrama with Clive Brook as jilted lover, Sherman as interloper, El Brendel as a colossal pain in the ass even without dialogue, the whole thing a warning as to the inconstancy of woman. But it’s not nasty about it or anything.

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THE MAN I LOVE was an early talkie, and showed Wellman struggling, sometimes inventively, with the new technology. Sometimes he has three cameras running on a scene but they’re all badly positioned for the action as blocked, so the editor’s attempts to maintain audience engagement by shuttling from one bad view to another come to naught. But sometimes he throws the microphone aside and shoots mute, as in the boxing scenes, which have some impressively RAGING BULL-esque movement and vigour. And sometimes he simply stays on a decent shot, and lets the actors, a mulish Richard Arlen and an uncertain Mary Brian, wreck things for him.

Just up the hill at the Cinema Jolly, I could see UNE PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE and LA CHIENNE, so I did. I’d never seen the latter, so comparing it to Lang’s remake, SCARLET STREET, was extremely interesting. Obviously the original is not a noir, and has a weird serio-comic tone of its own which leaves some strange moments undigested in the Lang, particularly the big punchline of the dead husband’s return. And Renoir is able to end the film in an anti-moralistic way: with a change of emphasis Lang could have his hero cheat the law and get away with murder, but be nevertheless destroyed by his guilt, and by the fraud already perpetrated against him. But in Renoir, the protagonist may be down on his luck, but he no longer cares. To society, he would seem to have been punished most severely, but he’s a perfectly happy guy. That’s much more unsettling.

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UNE PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE is a masterpiece, of course.

Jonathan R had recommended Paradjanov’s SAYAT NOVA, which I had always known under its Soviet-imposed name of THE COLOUR OF POMEGRANATES, so I clocked in for my last show of the day at 9.30 at the Sala Mastroianni. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen all of it before — it’s that kind of film. But the familiarity induced by the abrupt ending convinced me I must have, probably in Derek Malcolm’s Film Club on BBC2 or something. Probably a VHS recording of same, in fact.

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A film about a poet that is in itself poetic is a rare thing. In fact, it’s very hard to tell whether Mr. Nova was any good as a poet — much of his verse is presented solely as title cards in Cyrillic, so you can’t even tell what it would sound like. And the bits that are translated have an almost adolescent whining tone — “I’m a really unhappy guy. Life stinks. Everybody hates me.” The one line that stuck out was “The world is a window.” Which is, you know, GREAT. Especially with Paradjanov’s stunning images as accompaniment.

Worrying about the poetry turned out to be part of a pattern with me — the last film of the day was usually one I had trouble getting into, owing to tiredness (with two magnificent exceptions — THE MERRY WIDOW and A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.)

The film, now restored in its Ukrainian version, is so fantabulous that it’s quite wrong of me to want to use it simply as a stick with which to beat Peter Greenaway. The temptation still arises, though, because it would make such a terrific, all-annihilating stick.

Russian Lark

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2012 by dcairns

While doing a bit of side-research on THE 39 STEPS — side-research being the stuff that’s strictly work-avoidance — I ran KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR, the big Korda misfire, directed by Jaques Feyder, whose LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE I had just revisited.

This film does rather waste everything it’s got — it has a lot, so it can afford to waste a lot, but as I say, it wastes everything. I have a suspicion Jacques Feyder is not quite my bag, which means I tend to appreciate the bits of his films which seem least successful, hardest to explain. LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE is almost entirely composed of such bits, so I like it a lot. KNIGHT’s biggest handicap is its lack of shape and drama, odd in a film with so much killing, romance, and headlong pursuit. With a bit of practice I might get to appreciate the way the film endlessly postpones its excitement, then repeats the same capture-escape cycle for the last hour. As it is, there are little glimmers of interest along the way –

Here’s Michael Redgrave in what may be his first film role — unlisted by the IMDb! Gloweringly fervid, he’s actually too exciting for the film, but by no means hammy or “theatrical” in a bad way. (I’m not mistaken, I hope — I thought I spotted Hitchcock fave John Williams, but it proved to be Austin Trevor.)

And here’s Moscow, elegantly imagined by Feyder and Clair’s regular production designer, Lazare Meerson. Much of this film boasts enormous reconstructions of Russian revolution scenes, so it’s a little surprising to find such a minimalist Moscow. Very effective and convincing, though.

Dietrich and Donat (who have surprising quasi-chemistry) circle each other for the first half hour without meeting, thirty minutes devoted to explaining why Donat, an Englishman, has become a Red Comissar. First he’s a journalist, due to be kicked out of Tsarist Russia for his too-honest articles — a complete retread of Olivier’s role in THE YELLOW TICKET. But swiftly he’s recruited by His Majesty’s Secret Service, in a surprisingly convincing, low-key scene — the functionary buys him dinner and drops a hint. Then he infiltrates the revolutionary movement, gets implicated in an assassination attempt, spends two years as a prisoner in Siberia, and is liberated by the Bolsheviks and finally is placed in charge of aristocratic prisoner Marlene Dietrich (the only Russian with a German accent — the rest are English and Scottish and say things like “What the dickens?”).

During all this circumlocutory preamble, Marlene just swans about in frocks, searching for a subplot she can call her own, but without her usual success.

It’s 39 STEPS time again when Donat goes on the run with this blonde, hunted by both sides — but the promising cross-country pursuit is continually interrupted by captures and escapes which always depend on ludicrous amounts of luck. But the train station with the mad railway guard (Dundonian character thesp Hay Petrie’s finest role: in THE FALLEN IDOL he just walks in and winds the clocks) is very fine, and a scene of Donat reciting Browning to Dietrich is actually sublime — Donat’s voice, the verse, and Miklos Rosza’s underscoring and Marlene’s wide, luminous eyes… The Adam & Eve idyll in the forest is beautifully shot by Harry Stradling.

Peter Bull plays another commissar, a little glimpse into how the Russian ambassador of DR STRANGELOVE started his career, perhaps. There’s also Miles Malleson — “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!” — and Raymond Huntley! Yay, Raymond Huntley!

Korda contract player John Clements gets to steal the show — a romantic Russian who dies for love, he basically usurps Donat’s role, leaving the whole thing to sort of fray away to a Grand Finally. We realize that the central relationship hasn’t developed past love at first sight, the jeopardy has all been of the same sort, and so the movie’s been running in place for an hour, as gigantic Meerson sets trundle past. No wonder the thing didn’t do well.

But as a sort of fantasy travelogue of the Russian revolution, sort of diverting, and never less than beautiful, visually. Haunted by history, since a traditional Happy Ending is impossible with Russia as one of the main characters. Impossible to this day, arguably.

Knight Without Armour (1937)

Film Club: First Men in the Moon

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2010 by dcairns

Nifty faux-Victorian pop art credits! And Laurie (The Avengers) Johnson’s superb theme tune. I think Johnson was on friendly terms with Bernard Herrmann (he later arranged BH’s IT’S ALIVE! score for the sequel) and was maybe recommended for this gig by the great American, who had scored several Harryhausen movies…

Arriving in 1964, midway between JFK’s announcement of his nation’s intention to “go to the moon and do the other things” — a strangely ill-written phrase, that — and the successful implementation of that scheme by Apollo 11 (what’s Neil Armstrong doing about his carbon footprint?) — FIRST MEN IN THE MOON was so perfectly timely that no remake could ever touch it. And so no remake has happened. (NB — I am wrong: there’s a 1997 cartoon with Shatner and Nimoy doing voices, and a forthcoming BBC version scripted by Mark Gatiss of the League of Gentlemen. But I am going to act as if I’m right.)

This is largely thanks to Nigel Kneale’s key contribution, the framing device which puts HG Wells’ historic story into a modern context, with the cheeky image of astronauts being confronted by a Union Flag jammed in the lunar dirt. Pipped at the post, by 65 years! This device seems to have been borrowed from Karel Zeman’s 1961 film BARON MUNCHAUSEN (AKA BARON PRASIL), in which the immortal baron is discovered resident upon the moonscape by flabbergasted space mariners of the modern age, but I think Kneale and his collaborators make even better use of it. Interestingly, this space mission is a multi-national venture, including American, British and Russian ‘nauts, so any hint of Brit triumphalism is defused somewhat.

I wondered if Edward Judd’s elderly protag was Ray Harryhausen’s age, but I guess he’s probably older. That’s the other reason this film was made at the perfect time: a Victorian space explorer could just conceivably be alive still in ’64. Judd’s old age performance is very nice, as is his crinkly makeup, and we also get nice cameos here from character thesps Miles Malleson (altogether now: “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!”) and Gladys Henson. Cue the flashback –

A miniature house photographed upside-down, the debris falling up out of shot…

Martha Hyer’s role was apparently boosted at the insistence of the studio, in defiance of the source novel and the title, and the writers only had one draft to integrate her fully into the story. This means she’s slightly awkwardly situated between Judd’s Bedford and Lionel Jeffries’ Professor Cavor — her attitude to the latter is sometimes inconsistent and sometimes vague. But on the plus side, she’s not annoying or pathetic, as women in sci-fi adventures often were (think Weena in THE TIME MACHINE).

Jeffries is the real star of the show, a peerless comic player who leaves no furniture un-gnawed, but who has a surprising ability to underplay when required. He goes from a bellow to a whisper and back, never at random, but according to a secret formula of his own that always makes sense when you se it played out before you, but which can never be predicted.

Judd is interesting because he’s initially a rather dislikable crook, then an even more dislikable brute, and only really appealing as an old crock. A sort of Kenneth More bloke actor, he seems to relish the chance to do something more interesting than a straight leading man role. It looks like Kneale’s hand at work, turning the two-fisted action hero into a thug, and the nutty professor into a humanist hero. You can see this schism in the split between military and scientific characters in his QUATERMASS series, and in Hammer’s THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. What with the pacifist Doctor of Dr Who also on the go in the ’60s, this was a good period for intellectual, non-violent heroes in British fantasy.

Peter Finch! Uncredited cameo, performed without the aid of disguise, just lots of face-pulling.

I actually like the way the film manages to sustain interest as Cavorite is introduced and explained and developed, and Judd is seduced into joining Cavor’s lunatic quest to the mountains of the moon. Most movies would aim to get the spacecraft launched by end of act one, but here the halfway point is reached before countdown commences. As a kid, I may have feared that we were in for another FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, where launch-day seems to take forever to come, but here the characters are actually interesting and Nathan Juran’s use of the widescreen frame is elegant enough to keep things moving.

Cavor, like Zarkov in FLASH GORDON, keeps his spacecraft in the greenhouse, but Cavor actually has a reason, heat being a big part of the Cavorite synthesizing process. I really like the idea of a substance which cuts off gravity the way lead cuts off X-rays, although I suspect this would make the bathysphere-with-bumpers weightless rather than propelling it upwards at speed. This is my favourite space propulsion system outside of Scottish author David Lindsay’s novel A Voyage to Arcturus, which depends on the use of “back rays”, light beams with a homing instinct, compelled to return back to their star of origin, and which drag with them the space explorers in their crystal ship…

The moon! A brief but great POV shot swooping through the lunar alps, then the lovely slomo roll-and-crash landing. Harryhausen has confessed that he wasn’t so sure railway bumpers would save the astronauts lives in such a scenario, but the craft looks sturdy and beautiful in a Victorian way, a worthy and more solid companion to George Pal’s art nouveau TIME MACHINE. Diving suits for space exploration is the sort of thing that seems sort of credible, although I kind of wish Bedford and Cavor were wearing gloves… Expose any skin and I think you’d suffer both frostbite AND explosive decompression. You’d basically becomes red snow.

Apparently, when NASA were developing spacesuits, there was some confusion as to what such a suit needed to be. In fact, if it keeps you in an airtight space and stops you bursting, it’s doing a good job. One proposed design was basically a full body condom, skintight and far less bulky than the costumes they finally went with. But nobody could feel really confident in a spacesuit that was only skin thin. A case of psychology winning out over practicality, perhaps.

We’re disappointed, aren’t we, that the little selenites are played by actors rather than stop motion puppets, yes? I think I prefer the selenites in the Melies version (which grafts Verne onto Welles without paying copyright royalties to either — at that point in cinema history, it probably hadn’t been established in law that you NEEDED to pay for film rights — but the first big moon-man scene is great and moving, distressing even, for Lionel Jeffries’ reactions to Judd turning into a xenocidal maniac, hurling the little insectoids into the void with brutish abandon. What makes the tonal shift shocking is LJ’s capacity for sudden, heartbreaking emotion, and he’s not only bringing unexpected depth to the feeling, but to the film’s ideas — traditional sci-fi machismo is being questioned.

Martha Hyers’ big nude scene.

I saw Jeffries interviewed once at home. He was a pretty good painter, and he’d done a moody self-portrait. He described his tiny grandchild’s reaction to the painting: “That’s granddad. He’s a broken man.” Long pause. Then Jeffries says, “Children can be very astute, you know.”

Harryhausen talks about the technical difficulties of shooting in widescreen, which meant that several big animation scenes were dropped. I love the mooncalf design, but it’s not one of his most expressive monsters, and the selenites, when they do appear animated, aren’t the zestiest personalities either. But the lack of creatures is actually compensated for by the narrative’s strength, and it helps the movie that it’s not a series of creature set-pieces.

As to the selenites’ purpose, their evil plan, they don’t really have one. At one point, Kneale planned on having them force the humans to breed or something, but that doesn’t seem too scary. I guess the threat is mainly to our explorers and not to the people of Earth at all, and I guess that ought to be enough. I would love to know, both for this post and for my vague VOX Project, who does the whispery voice of the Grand Lunar. Maybe it’s the narrator of TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER?

As for the GL’s look — that big head thing is such a classic alien idea, from THIS ISLAND EARTH to INVADERS FROM MARS to the Mars Attacks! playing cards, to the Mekon in the Dan Dare comic strip in the UK… and the lead Goblin in The Hobbit is described as having a huge cranium too… I guess in the low gravity of the moon, such a design would be just about practical, too.

The Cavorite space capsule is the third animated character in the movie, and its blast-off is a fine climax, as far as I’m concerned — I love the bottomless shafts and skylights of the moon-folk, as well as their oxygen plant and solar-powered perpetual motion machine — they’re not only less warlike than mankind, but more eco-friendly (if the moon can be said to have an ecology, and I guess it does in this movie: two species = an ecosystem, right?).

Back to the present. One of the Space Administration people here is Hugh McDermott, Edinburgh-born star of DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, who does a good American accent (like me, he seems  to have mislaid his Scots accent). And the cold virus climax is a neat swipe from Wells’ War of the Worlds. I think the idea actually works better here — not a deus ex machina (there are very few diseases humans can catch from dogs, which makes human-Martian or human-lunar cross-contamination a little unlikely) but an ironic wrinkle. Jeffries should probably have done more with the cold earlier though. But Judd throws away that last line with remarkable aplomb.

Forty-one years ago today, Neil Armstrong and those other fellows blasted off for our nearest celestial neighbour…

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