Archive for Moby Dick

Tentacular Spectacular

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 17, 2013 by dcairns

Words cannot express the sheer clammy grip of 1919 serial entertainment TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS!

But I’ll try.

We begin in the desert — not perhaps the most fitting location for an octopus, but the serial has 300 minutes to run so we can afford to take it gently. Not that we do! Immediately, two scientists stumble upon “the Ancient Egyptian Temple of Death” — they seem curiously pleased at this. “It was not a myth!” declares the more fervid of the two.

While the archaeologists are pottering within, their native bearers — who are all black — are set upon by rapacious Arabs — cue close-up of one poor chap being lightly tapped on the brow with a rifle butt. The racial politics are made clear — black people make good servants, but Arabs are untrustworthy and will tap you on the cranium with their rifles if given a free hand.

Meanwhile, the shifty archaeologist tries to kill the fervid one after reading the inscription pertaining to the Idol of Death — a figurine depicting a bashful elephant — and we get what may be the most remarkable intertitle of 1919 –

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Not only is it spelled out in hieroglyphs, but it’s accompanied by a garter snake. Of course Egyptian temples are constantly a-slither with snakes, as we know from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. What the poor things feed on is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the lack of vittles explains why they always looks so thin.

The movie provides its own translation of this sacred text, but I think we should get Kristin Thompson to work on it, then we can compare both versions and see who is the best Egyptologist, Thompson or J. Grubb Alexander.

Anyhow, something or other happens and it turns out this is all a story being told by the fervid chap, now well stricken in years, to his anxious daughter. There’s some kind of nonsense about eight ceremonial daggers which open a stone vault, but the charming domestic scene keeps getting interrupted by STARING EYES ~

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Well, you can see how that might cause you to lose the thread of the conversation. What with being under an Egyptian curse and all, the Professor is concerned, and his daughter fortunately remembers that Carter Holmes, world-renowned criminologist, lives next door (with his Scottish lieutenant, Sandy McNab) and ventures forth to get him.

Now things get really interesting — while she’s gone, disturbing Mr Holmes amid his test tubes, pops is knifed to death by a masked assailant, but the bit of film this occurred in is now missing. I suspect a conspiracy. The “reconstruction” of the missing footage consists of random, Jesus Franco type zoom-ins on freeze frames, explanatory titles, and constant cutaways to the staring eyes. Oh, and a bit of CGI lens flare is added to one shot. It’s a magnificent job, arguably improving on the original sequence, although naturally that’s hard to be definite about since it’s missing.

Anyhow, the girl fetches Holmes, and there’s an odd bit involving a mysterious voice which whispers A-B-E-F-A-C-E at him. In such a situation, you or I might blunder badly by trying to locate the source of the voice, but our Carter, who may well be schizophrenic, accepts it as a given and merely tries to interpret its gnomic utterance. This leads him to a portrait of Lincoln on the wall which he cheerfully mutilates, obtaining a valuable clew for his troubles.

Then he has a punch-up with the masked fellow, later identified as Monsieur X. No pushover, Carter knocks X out a window — but the bounder vanishes from the sidewalk like Michael Myers at the end of HALLOWEEN. Then the girl is kidnapped. Then Carter gets a note telling him to report to 33 Folsom Street by midnight or else she’ll be killed. Then he goes there and sees the staring eyes floating out of the wallpaper. Then sinister hands reach through the wall behind him clutching irons gyves. Then we see the girl, facing sacrifice at the hands of a mysterious sect  ~

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Clearly, TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS is some kind of demented masterpiece and I have to watch all five hours of it or else I’ll never sleep again. Clearly I’m going to dole it out on a weekly basis as I did with THE MASTER MYSTERY, thus duplicating the authentic movie serial experience.

Director Duke Worne, a former B-list actor, was making his debut here, and he does a fine job, eliciting the required hambone performances and keeping the pace frantic and the action lurid. A shame the cinematographer isn’t credited, as there’s fine atmospheric work going on, and the design, though still relying on hand-painted flats some of the time, is exotic and atmospheric (there’s even a close-up of a dagger which is a painting, for some reason).

Screenwriter J. Grubb Alexander, apparently making the stuff up as he goes along, seems like a real Pat Hobby character, churning out silent thrillers and then foundering somewhat in the talkie era — his most famous credit there is the universally deplored (yet strangely loved) John Barrymore MOBY DICK, the one which adds romantic interest and pre-code dirty jokes. He also wrote for Barrymore on SVENGALI and THE MAD GENIUS, evincing a fine gift for inappropriate comic relief. His tone seems more surefooted in THE TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS.

I hope you’ll join me next week for the next exciting episode. See You Next Wednesday!

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Cosmic Ray

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2012 by dcairns

Ray Bradbury is, of course, irreplaceable. Nobody in science fiction or in literature can occupy the place he held.

In the cinema, things are more problematic. I recall an essay by Harlan Ellison where he addressed R.B.’s patchy record of screen adaptations, arguing that Bradbury’s dialogue, like Hemingway’s, is designed to be read, not spoken, and sounds weird coming from the lips of an actor in a scene. He might have been talking of himself (or Clive Barker, for that matter). We could get into a debate about which of these authors writes great dialogue which is just too literary to perform, and which writes purple, gaudy stuff that is sometimes a little too rich even for the page, but never mind.

Rod Steiger liked to camouflage himself nude on people’s couches in hopes they’d sit on him. Creepy.

Being rather familiar with Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451 (a little patchy, I think, but with a great Herrmann score and one of the  most beautiful endings of any film), SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (flawed but seriously underrated, and I ought to treat it to a Forgotten round about Halloween), and MOBY DICK, scripted by Bradbury for John Huston, who did a great job except for the styrofoam cetacean and the balsa Ahab, being as I say rather familiar with those, we elected to watch THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, which I’d never previously been able to sit through, and The Martian Chronicles mini-series which I don’t think I’d watched since it first aired.

Both movies are based on novels which are really short story collections, things which grew organically without the usual diagrams. Of course, the slide rule and shoehorn and bacon slicer have all been deployed to hew them into some kind of cinematic shape. Jack Smight’s film of THE ILLUSTRATED MAN put me off as a youngster by being slow, ponderous and kind of depressive.

The movie stars Rod Steiger, who suffered from depression for real, but we can’t blame him for the film’s tone, he attacks his role with typical ferocity. (If you want to see Steiger acting while in the midst of depression — I can’t think why you would, but I’ll mention it anyway — see John Hough’s AMERICAN GOTHIC aka HIDE AND SHRIEK, where he can barely bring himself to mumble his lines. Very sad.) Jerry Goldsmith’s score is elegiac and lovely, but maybe a little lacking in forward thrust. But it’s the script and direction which really drag. In cutting Bradbury’s collection of tales down to three, screenwriter Howard Kreitsek forces each episode to hang about too long, turning them into turgid mood pieces when many of them are snappy potboilers on the page, pulp nasties with plenty of poetic ambition but one foot solidly in cheap thrills. The Veldt is basically a sci-fi twist on an EC horror story. But in the reverential treatment trowelled on by Smight and Kreitsek, everything is drawn-out, ponderous and aching with Significance. The other two stories become kind of pointless in the distorted form presented, although the planet where it always rains is beautifully designed, and shows that Douglas Adams was right to say that a towel is a useful thing to have in space.

Rod Steiger rocking the Ricky Gervaise look.

The exception is the framing structure, which peters out at the end with a crap zoom on a dusty road, but for much of the time is quirky, edgy, and a-quiver with a kind of homo-erotic menace I don’t recall in the book. Steiger is excellent here, with his dog in a bag (a Pomeranian named Peke), and Robert Drivas matches him in fervid intensity. The 30s atmosphere is rather besmirched by Claire Bloom’s very 1969 hair and makeup (did production designers not get driven to DESPAIR by the haircuts and cosmetics inflicted in those days? — I’m sure it’s just my imagination telling me Julie Christie wears white lipstick in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, but I swear it’s not far off) but otherwise this is lovely stuff. Somebody film some more Bradbury stories, replace the ones in here, and you’d be onto something.

The Martian Chronicles suffers more severe flaws, but is a lot more watchable, thanks to a comparatively nippy pace, a greater variety of schtick, and some enjoyable hams. Top marks to Stanley Myers for his epic mood stuff, deduct two points for the disco theme tune (VERY catchy though it is), and great credit to Assheton Gorton (BLOW-UP) for his production design. The rocketships are naff (Bradbury himself called them “flying phalluses”) and a few other elements are laughable, but the obelisks and pyramids constructed in Malta and Lanzarotte are striking and actually convincing, despite the fact that everything’s decorative, nothing’s functional.

Michael Anderson (DAMBUSTERS), a former AD to Asquith, production manager to Lean, is a prose artist rather than a poet, which is actually good from a story point of view. He can’t smother everything in damned reverence because he doesn’t know what it is. He doesn’t have the taste to avoid NASA stock footage and redundant miniatures docking in space which aspire to 2001 but land squarely in the key of Thunderbirds, but he dishes up the yarns in a no-nonsense way.

“They left out the magic. They left out the part that was Bradbury,” complained sci-fi scribe David Gerrold (and he should know: he created the Tribbles), but this is not wholly true. Each episode (three ninety-minute blockbusters with three stories loosely linked in each) hits at least one moment of the uncanny, maybe because each Bradbury story has at its heart a little something that IS purely cinematic. He was too much of a cinephile not to put that in, and screenwriter Richard Matheson is too shrewd a dramatist to miss those moments.

So in the adaptation of Mars is Heaven!, Anthony Pullen-Shaw is good and eerie when he suddenly admits to not being Commander Black’s brother, after all — and Anderson has remembered how effective Joseph Cotten’s turn to camera in close-up was in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, another tale of a murderous family intruder with telepathy in Thornton Wilder land.

This is not my beautiful house from David Cairns on Vimeo.

And in what was once And the Moon Be Still as Bright, there’s a great bit by Bernie Casey as the astronaut who goes native –

The Last Martian from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Casey has immense authority, a rich voice, and a great way of seeming to throw away lines while really turning them to catch the light, although much of the time here he doesn’t seem to have learned those lines too well, which he covers up by gesturing in a stylized manner. But with this speech he knows he’s got something a little immortal, and he nails it.

The Intimate Finger

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2008 by dcairns

Bright Eyes

Not really, of course. Joseph Losey’s pseudonymously-directed 1956 mystery was released as THE INTIMATE STRANGER (great title, and apt!) in the UK, and FINGER OF GUILT (sappy, generic title) in the US. So I’ve simply combined the two titles into one SUPER-TITLE. Richard Basehart plays the titular finger.

For its blacklisted director (working as “Joseph Walton” in the UK version, using producer Alec C Snowden as a front for the US release) and writer (the celebrated Howard Koch, writing as “Peter Howard”) it was a payday and a chance to establish themselves in the UK film industry. Koch dismissed the result as entirely undistinguished, but it led to better things.

I’d never taken notice of Richard Basehart much before except in IL BIDONE, where he’s dubbed. Here it was a shock to hear him sounding like John Huston — since Basehart played Ishmael in Huston’s MOBY DICK the same year, I’m assuming this is a deliberate impersonation, decades before Daniel Day-Lewis made off with Huston’s gravelly purr for THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

One thing that’s fascinated me about all the Losey films I’ve run recently is the element of autobiography. From Michael Redgrave’s alcoholism in TIME WITHOUT PITY to the tortured father-son relations in THE BIG NIGHT, each Losey film seems to declare some personal significance. Most blatantly of all, FINGER-STRANGER deals with a blacklisted filmmaker driven out of the US and targeted by a conspiracy in a British studio. The atmosphere of paranoia and persecution must have been something both Losey and Koch could relate to.

STRANGER-FINGER begins with an eye examination, the bright light being something which will return at the climax:

Bright Light!

At the start.

Lights! Cameras! Action!

And at the end.

Basehart begins to tell his life story and we delve into flashback, and eventually wonder “Hang on, why is he sharing all this guff with his OPTICIAN?” then we realise that the eye-man must actually be a head-shrinker only the film just kinda forgot to mention it. The framing structure is wholly unnecessary anyway, but as with Losey’s earlier THE SLEEPING TIGER, it takes us back to that innocent ’50s faith in psycho-analysis — a lot of the lefties who got drummed out of Ho’wood had the same trust in Freud they showed in Stalin, but then Freud was huge all over tinseltown, where the Big Lie is what business is founded on, and all the couch-space in town is eaten up by rich fruit-loops.

The story gimmick — young exec is tormented by mysterious letters, recalls the opening of Altman’s THE PLAYER, but this one develops differently: a young woman writes to Basehart and his wife (daughter of studio boss Roger Livesey) claiming to have had an affair with Basehart. He has no memory of her, yet she’s insistent, and seems sincere.

Alas, the first half is quite unbelievably stately, with the editor lingering on every scene after the protagonist has left. Maybe the movie was too short? Losey’s filming is fluid, but rarely provides the flash of Hollywood excitement he brought to the best bits of SLEEPING TIGER.

I am smoking a fag

All that holds the attention during this opening trundle is the central question — who the hell is this girl and what is she all about? — OK, two questions — plus some spectacularly inappropriate and loud stock music. All early British Losey films seem to feature scenes where women put on loud records then attempt to talk. At times the score here is effective, as it must be: if you play tender moments with CRIME JAZZ and suspense bits with Liberace schmaltz, it WILL WORK at times, and when it does it’ll be better than if you did it the sane way round. Half the time here it doesn’t work at all, and drunkenly pulls you out of the film, but there’s one romantic clinch where the timpani freak-out accompaniment fairly gets your pulse going and you think, “Golly, THIS IS CINEMA!” for maybe the only time.

So, the police attempt to cherchez la femme fatale, but she keeps her cool and doesn’t change her story, and they wind up doubting Basehart. For a moment it looks like her long recitation of her imaginary past life with Basehart is going to lead into a flashback, which would give us a flashback within a flashback within an opticians, but she cuts it short and saves us the detour.

Stranger of Guilt

There’s a heavy spoiler alert now, because if I give away the ending then there’s no real reason to see this underwhelming effort, which might be a good thing, but it’s your choice, OK?

Basehart finds out that the whole thing was a set-up. His boss’s assistant, played by diminutive Welsh house-elf Mervyn Johns, resenting Basehart’s ascendancy, has hired an actress to destroy his life. That’s studio politics for you.There’s a tiresome false ending where Basehart thinks Livesey was behind the frame-up, then Johns gives himself away by repeating the whole plot in a dubbing booth with the mic on and broadcasting his (finger of) guilt to the whole sound stage — oops! Then Basehart persecutes his nemesis with an arc light (like all Celts, he instinctively fears bright illumination) before clubbing him to the studio floor with his powerful Richard Basehart fists. Regrettably, a climax where a muscular young man beats up an elderly, out of shape guy half his height into a tiny, defenseless Welsh pulp is not exactly a nail-biting suspenser.

Johns

Shadowplay!

Now the film pauses yet again to admire sultry Mary Murphy (from THE WILD ONE), who has been enticingly cool throughout, then reunites Basehart with his estranged wife, who somehow got the news he’s innocent before anybody else knew.

Not a great film, but a great central enigma, and the blacklisting angle (not explicitly political — Basehart had a fling with a studio boss’s wife) is enticing. At the end, Basehart furiously calls Johns “an informer”, and the rage in that scene feels… personal.

Losey

The producers would like to thank Fiona Watson for the phrase “tiny, defenseless Welsh pulp.”

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