Archive for Peter Lorre

M People

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 2, 2013 by dcairns

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My first and last trip to Berlin I recall trying to sleep in the day time in the Alcatraz youth hostel, where we guests of Britfest Short Film Festival had been placed after smarter accommodation fell through. I had been unable to sleep in this establishment for something like four nights and was almost starting to hallucinate. I lay on my bunk and could hear children playing in the street. German children. Which called to mind Fritz Lang’s M, and made me even less inclined to sleep.

M is one of those seminal films I haven’t actually watched very often. When first introduced to it, I had a fairly normal, banal reaction to early sound cinema, reacting to the perceived creakiness, and particularly the unsteady lurches of the camera and the fact that the movie’s studio version of Berlin has no incidental traffic noise. That last fact is now one of the pleasures of the movie for me — I like how the whole film seems to have beamed down from space, with alien modes of behaving and strange, grotesque characters. I ran it for students last week and they got to experience the weirdness for the first time, but I seem to be past it. I’m *in* 1930s cinema now.

The whole look of the movie’s world is incredibly beautiful to me — and yet many of the objects we see must have been quite commonplace. The water-pump that crouches amid the children like a preying mantis or an iron vulture is a perfectly naturalistic detail from a time when children played in tenement courtyards and every courtyard had a water pump. But it’s welcomed into the composition for its malign aspect. The drain set into the cement is somehow grim and suggestive of slaughter.

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An aerial track along a heap of confiscated weapons made me think of TAXI DRIVER, and recall that Scorsese spoke of Lang’s influence on AFTER HOURS — tracking shots that make you feel locked into the character’s horrible destiny — so Lang surely must have been hovering over the earlier film too. (Scorsese’s overheads, which carry over into LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST also, are not like Hitchcock’s God shots, they are geometric like Lang, and dissociative like an Out Of Body Experience (O.O.B.E.).

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Who is the central character of M? Who’s side are we on? Sometimes the answer to both questions comes in the uncomfortable form of pudgy young Peter Lorre, but really it’s a movie about a society rather than an individual — as with THE BOSTON STRANGLER which mimics the structure closely, you could replace the killer with a virus or a weather formation. But despite a rather cool, detached view of its often appalling characters, many of them Georg Grosz cartoons made flesh, the movie is certainly not lacking in human interest.

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Oh, did I miss something — why do we get this angle? It seems to betray a frankly inexplicable interest in Otto Wernicke’s genitalia. The fact that Lang was, according to information received, possibly bisexual, in no way accounts for this.

M (Masters of Cinema) Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD) [1931]

Peter the Plywood Primate

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 26, 2013 by dcairns

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The following essay was a freebie thrown in to accompany Masters of Cinema’s awesome DVD box set of Fritz Lang’s MABUSE films. For space reasons it couldn’t be included on the new Blu-ray edition, which I nevertheless recommend wholeheartedly to you (link below) so I’m offering it up here. Lang’s career has one of the most pleasing arcs of any in film history — he himself may have objected to another Mabuse sequel on the grounds that “The bastard is dead,” but he thought it over and perhaps realized that MABUSE CAN NEVER DIE ~

EVERYBODY’S GOT SOMETHING TO HIDE EXCEPT FOR ME AND MY MONKEY

About forty minutes into Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse, a waiter enters the Hotel Luxor ballroom carrying a toy chimpanzee, and presents it to a delighted guest. It’s a throwaway moment of surrealism, suggesting that Luis Bunuel’s admiration of Lang was not un-reciprocated (although Lang’s encroaching blindness and Bunuel’s deafness had hampered attempts to introduce them at parties, Lang did eventually sign an autograph for his fan).

The chimpanzee’s name is Peter, and he is Lang’s longtime companion. Some have speculated that Peter (perhaps named after the actor Lang made into a star, Peter Lorre) was a kind of son to the childless director, and certainly Lang posed for many family portraits with his little friend. These lovingly posed snaps are Lang’s final works as film-maker. Peter’s walk-on (or carry-on) appearance here marks an early clue to the new direction.

Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse [Masters of Cinema] (Dual Format Edition) [Blu-ray] [1933]

No question

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2012 by dcairns

Today I turned 45. Older than Bogart when he embodied world-weariness in CASABLANCA. MUCH older than the impossibly louche Peter Lorre, the suave Paul Henreid or the perennially middle-aged John Qualen.

Re-watching CASABLANCA… reluctant to say anything about it, not so much because so much has already been written, but because I find so little of it compelling or adequate. I remember Umberto Eco making an exciting case that the film’s success lies in its resemblance to other movies, its packaging together of favourite moments and stock characters into a sort of ultimate Pizza Combo (although I don’t think he used those exact words). Which might work as a description of STAR WARS and some other films, like maybe RIO BRAVO, but doesn’t seem adequate to the defiantly non-generic CASABLANCA. Of course, it’s the film which has come to embody classic Hollywood, and it features a lot of iconic actors doing what they do. But the film works for modern kids who have barely seen any 40s cinema and who don’t know most of these actors at all, I think. Just as Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology downplays the individual details that make each story different and interesting, so Eco’s semiotics underrates the originality of the Epstein-Epstein-Koch-Burnett-Alison scenario.

And consider — CASABLANCA, a wartime-romance-thriller (with singing) was followed by quite a number of films, many with Bogie, which self-consciously tried to duplicate it’s pleasures, none of which was as good or as successful.

William Goldman proves that Nobody Knows Anything by first arguing that the first ten pages are of crucial significance in any screenplay, then alleging that CASABLANCA’s opening is hideously trite and flabby — yet we meet Peter Lorre and Bogart before those minutes are up.

Then you get Robert McKee laboriously explicating the subtext of every line, which is fine as an illustration of how good dialogue uses subtext, but only gets you so far, just as dissecting a frog does not actually enable you to make a frog of your own.

And you get all the “they were still writing it as they were shooting it” stuff, which CAN’T, surely, be true — and it’s used to try and prove that scripts don’t matter or that everything is down to luck. Of course, you can’t get by without luck, but you can’t get by without skill either, when it comes to making something as cunning as this film.

Reading Howard Koch’s memoir, As Time Goes By, gives an insight into the process. Koch joined with project after the Epsteins and kept on it after they were seconded to another job in Washington — they later came back and continued to work more or less separately. The process was somewhat chaotic, but Koch was used to collating and connecting material at speed — he had worked with Orson Welles on the radio, turning over Mercury Theater of the Air productions in a week.

There was a play, and the first half of the script existed several weeks before filming. On the one hand we’re told that nobody had decided who was getting on the plane at the end, but we also hear that George Raft turned down the lead because Rick doesn’t get the girl (Warners memos reveal that they turned him down). The ending Koch and the Epsteins settled on was, in most of its basics, already in the play.

Some of CASABLANCA’s best scenes are positively symphonic in their complexity — the long sequence in which the refugee girl Annina is saved from Captain Renault’s clutches provides not only a subplot mirroring Ingrid Bergman’s own upcoming dilemma with Bogart, it ramps up the Nazis’ pressure on her husband, it has the Franco-German singing match which first shows Bogie taking sides, it completes the character arc of Bogie’s jilted girlfriend Yvonne who rediscovers her patriotism in a tearful closeup, and provides excellent comic bits for “Cuddles” Sakall, Marcel Dalio, Dooley Wilson and many others. It’s a film full of inveterate scene-stealers adept at creating opportunities for beautiful moments, and who them play fast and sly in case the director spots them and objects.

“If someone loved you…”

Koch’s book is also a useful counter-narrative to the idea that Michael Curtiz only cared about the look of his films — in fact, Koch argued for the political elements while Curtiz favoured the romance, resulting in a fortuitous balance that Koch credits with the film’s unique success.

Random thoughts ~

There are a lot of slightly camp men in this film*. Lorre of course portrays Ugarte as masochistically in awe of Bogie’s machismo. He says “You despise me, don’t you?” with a hopeful tone, which makes it hilarious: Bogart obligingly plays the top, and responds with the perfect “If I gave you any thought I probably would.” Bogart flirts shamelessly with all the camp men, but with the casual aloofness of a sadistic tease.

The first character killed on-screen dies right in front of a big poster of Marshall Petain. Maybe one of the good things about 40s filmmaking was that, flag-waving aside, it was a period when Hollywood films could actually take a political stance and not try to bodge it by simultaneously taking the opposite stance. Here, they kill a man right in a real, living politician’s big face.

Bogie, an American in Paris, and Bergman, a chic European, embark on a “No questions” love affair where they don’t share any biographical details — was this the inspiration for LAST TANGO IN PARIS?

Curtiz to Koch: “Don’t worry what’s logical. I make it go so fast no one notices.” If you start unpicking the ending, a lot of it falls apart, but the pace and the actors’ conviction sells it.

Speed comes in handy when they pull off a great screenwriting trick — drama oscillates between the two poles of “All is lost!” and “Saved!” As a drama builds, you want the wiggly graph line that soars to hope and plunges to despair to get very jagged indeed, and at the climax you try to make a complete switcheroo from disaster to triumph (or vice versa) in as little time as possible. In this one, Bogart goes from completely screwed to hero of the day on the single line “Round up the usual suspects.”

Bogart and Bergman kiss and we cut to a searchlight. “They’ve done it,” Fiona declares. Afterwards she observes that the film is strikingly modern — in fact, could you make the film today and have the leading lady cheat on her husband, then leave with her husband, who knows about it and accepts it?

Koch quotes a young audience member in the 70s who tried to describe why the film moved him: “CASABLANCA shows you things you really long for. There are all these graspable values floating around in the film. It’s full of a lost heritage that we can’t live. Life is no longer like that.” Moral certainties, I guess — but even in the film, which Koch admits shows a kind of life that never really existed quite as we see it on screen, the characters do have to struggle to locate those graspable values and hold on to them.

*In Suspects, David Thomson humorously postulates a romance blossoming between Rick and Renault after film’s end. It would make sense of Renault’s change of heart, and Claude Rains is certainly very ooh-la-la in the role. Meanwhile, Greenstreet pouts and puckers constantly (far more than in MALTESE FALCON where he’s coded gay), Lorre and Dalio are both craven puppies fawning on Bogie, and Conrad Veidt’s Major Strasser really really wants to get his hands on Victor Laszlo.

How long since YOU watched CASABLANCA?

Written with a nod to the Self-Styled Siren, who writes about classic movies from the heart.

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