Archive for Miles Malleson

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…

Curtains

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2009 by dcairns

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So, after Hitchcock’s independent venture, Transatlantic Pictures, went into receivership after the belly-up box-office demise of UNDER CAPRICORN, he ran for cover with a British crime story for Warner Bros. STAGE FRIGHT is generally rated as lightly likable or less, with a disproportionate amount of attention wasted on the non-issue of whether a dishonest flashback is permissible. I think THE USUAL SUSPECTS has taken care of that question.

The movie has more than that going for it — there’s a surprising shift from whimsical Miss Marple investigation to dark psychosis and horrible death at the end, for one thing. The other most interesting element (apart from Frau Dietrich, of course) is the Britishness. The movie sees Hitchcock working with a lovely array of Brit actors of the era, giving us a little alternate-reality glimpse of what Hitchcock might have been doing if he hadn’t left for America. Given the film’s minor nature, we might feel particularly grateful that he did go to Hollywood, but then the lack of ambition is partly due to Hitch treading water in order to gain confidence (both personal and industry) after UNDER CAPRICORN’s poor reception.

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Alistair Sim had been in UK films since the ’30s, supporting Jessie Matthews with comedy relief, and co-starring with Hitchcock regular Gordon Harker in a series of rather jolly crime comedies about Inspector Hornleigh, so he could easily have acted for Hitchcock a decade and a half earlier, but he didn’t. His 1948 turn as Inspector Cockrill in Launder and Gilliat’s stylish GREEN FOR DANGER (dissed by Truffaut, but don’t listen to him) showed the actor on Hitchcockian terrain (in fact, the slick murder scene halfway through feels almost giallo-like). In fact, James Bridie suggested Sim for this movie, having worked with him extensively in the theatre (there’s a disappointing TV version of Bridie’s The Anatomist starring Sim as Burke and Hare’s paymaster, Dr Knox, produced by the late Harry Allan Towers).

The cast also features grande dame Sybil Thorndyke, David Lean favourite Kay Walsh (quite brilliant), Miles “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight” Malleson, Joyce Grenfell (a celebrated English comedienne and co-star with Sim in the ST TRINIANS films), Andre Morell, a Hammer horror stalwart, and comedy turns Irene Handl, Lionel Jeffries and Alfie Bass. So the supporting cast neatly ties Hitchcock in to Ealing, Lean, Powell & Pressburger, Hammer, Launder & Gilliat. The only thing missing is a Carry On films star — although Hitch had used Charles Hawtrey in SABOTAGE and would make memorably against-type use of Bernard Cribbins in FRENZY.

From the opening titles, in which a safety curtain (ironically named, as it turns out) rises to reveal the London skyline, it’s clear that this film will explore the conjunction of real life with theatrical artifice, a favourite Hitchcock theme. Like MURDER, the film is based on a novel but deal with theatre (lots of sources suggest that MURDER was originally a play, but it wasn’t — it just feels like one). If there’s a study left to be written on Hitchcock’s oeuvre it might be on this theme.

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Jane Wyman plays a drama student in London — where Patricia Hitchcock was actually studying. Pat turns up as a friend, with the unflattering name of “Chubby Bannister.” So it’s tempting to see Hitchcock family biography at work, but our heroine’s parents don’t seem a match for Hitch and Alma, and have more to do with the source novel and with the plot’s requirements. That plot has interesting connections with the thriller Hitch had planned for Nova Pilbeam to star in after YOUNG AND INNOCENT, since it deals with a respectable young girl with a slightly crooked dad, and it also calls to mind the father-daughter dynamic of NO BAIL FOR THE JUDGE, another unmade movie which got put on the back burner because Audrey Hepburn didn’t wish to do a rape scene for Hitch. Looking at FRENZY, I can’t say I blame her.

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The movie begins in media res with Jane Wyman and Richard Todd (an up-and-coming British — in fact Irish — star of the day, still working now, best known for DAMBUSTERS, which Peter Jackson now plans to remake) fleeing, and then we go into the flashback, which is uncomfortable not because we later learn it’s inaccurate, but because it comes so soon in the story it feels broadly expository. We’re being told a lot of stuff before we have reason to care. But this headlong dive into plot is part of a strategy to put one over on us, so the discomfort is probably necessary, and anyhow things will soon settle down.

The key to the plot’s success in this movie (apart from that flashback deceiving us) is that what seems to be happening — Todd covers up a killing for Marlene and gets implicated, turning to lovestruck Jane Wyman for help — is an effective romantic triangle, enlisting lots of sympathy for poor Jane, wrapped up in a thriller plot (with echoes of Hamlet’s “the play’s the thing”) — which is pretty effective as drama long before we realise that it’s not what’s happening at all.

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This dodgy matte shot, an attempt at CITIZEN KANE faux deep focus, is a bit glaring, but it’s an interesting attempt at something. I once used that phrase to describe an odd moment in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, and a friend suggested they should put it on his tombstone.

“Here we have a plot, an interesting cast, even a costume,” suggests Sim, pointing up the theatrical nature of the story. And so Jane must use her acting skills (and a comical cock-er-nee accent) to wile her way into Marlene’s confidence and secure evidence to clear the man she loves. Complications, as they say, ensue.

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“My great aunt died over a glass of brandy… but it was her fifteenth that day.”

The most appealing complication is Michael Wilding (“an English Jimmy Stewart,” decided Dietrich, inaccurately perhaps, but it does point towards his lightness and charm) as Wilfred O Smith, that “O” being the first of Hitch’s jokes at David O Selznick’s expense. Here we learn it stands for “Ordinary.” Ordinary is certainly the most lovable policemen in the cop-phobic Hitchcock’s oeuvre. For a director of crime films, he hardly ever featured policemen as heroes (James Stewart spectacularly loses his job in Scene 1.  of VERTIGO; and then you have to go back to John Longden in BLACKMAIL I think…) Wilding’s easy appeal makes up for the fact that Todd isn’t that likable, which is unavoidable given the role he’s assigned.

“I love strange men. I mean… I’m very fond of them.”

Wyman is very sweet. It’s not at all clear where her American accent came from, what with her father being Scottish and her mother English… as welcome as Dame Sybil is, perhaps her role should have been taken by an American? But the stuffy mother and unconventional dad dynamic might have been harder to sustain that way: American women are always portrayed as free-spirited in British films. Which is a tiresome cliche, come to think of it.

Wyman apparently suffered the same affliction as Jean Arthur did, working opposite Dietrich in A FOREIGN AFFAIR: galloping jealousy. While Arthur’s insecurity manifested itself in paranoia, Wyman covertly tried to glam up her girl-next-door character to compete with Dietrich, a tendency Hitchcock had to gently suppress.

Sim always makes me want more Sim: but apart from the three HORNLEIGH films, he shunned sequelitis, doing only a cameo in the second ST TRINIAN’S film and refusing point blank to play Inspector Cockrill again. I’d welcome a whole series about Sim and Wyman, father-and-daughter crime solvers, even without Hitchcock directing.

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Marlene of course is profoundly underrated as an actress, even if she’s not “real” — she can be funny (check out her cleaning woman impersonation in DISHONORED) as well as alluring, sad (TOUCH OF EVIL is a study in fatalist melancholy whenever she’s about) as well as vivacious. Her way with a dramatic scene is as unconventional and unique as her way with a song, and like her singing it foregrounds a lack of obvious “ability.” This is a pretty interesting role: in A FOREIGN AFFAIR she’s completely sympathetic despite being a Nazi, whereas here she’s totally unsympathetic, despite being only an accessory. Then Hitchcock complicates matters with the scene where she’s unexpectedly nice to Wyman, and then she has her chilling chat with the policeman at the end which is pretty much the opposite of her exit in the Wilder film: a heart of ice is revealed.

(STAGE FRIGHT makes a very nice double feature with Billy Wilder’s “Hitchcock film,” WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, Marlene’s other London murder romp.)

That safety curtain returns, executing Todd in a rather French fashion, all the more grisly for being off-screen, and then Wilding leads Wyman away down a dimly lit backstage corridor that looks like the path from the execution cell: but the recurrence of the love theme, played earlier by Wilding on the piano, tells us what fate she’s heading for. A future as an actress seems a bit unlikely, but she’ll be a very happy Mrs Ordinary Smith.

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It’s nice to have another musical through-line (Wilding, like Farley Granger in ROPE, plays an accomplished party entertainer with his ivory-tickling), since that’s a mainstay of the Hitchcock style, and it plays out again in Dietrich’s two songs, La Vie en Rose and The Laziest Gal in Town, which are not staged by Hitchcock as musical interludes but as intricate by-plays between onstage and offstage action, external performance and internal psychology.

stagvChubby Bannister, right.

It occurs to me that Pat Hitchcock is so good in this — her very funny sheer lust at the sight of Michael Wilding is a comic high point — and she does an English accent far better and more consistently than Wyman — that it’s rather a shame she didn’t get the leading role (as enjoyable as Wyman is)… But that would be taking a big risk, and Hitchcock wasn’t about to do that with this film. I think also the responsible father didn’t want to expose his daughter to criticism in such a way. Nevertheless, we can see this as a film for and about Pat.

Hitchcock DVD Collection – Dial M For Murder / I Confess / Stage Fright / The Wrong Man / Strangers On A Train / North By Northwest

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