Archive for Pieges

12 Hungry Films

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2008 by dcairns

Another one I should have listed in the previous post: Kurosawa’s MADADAYO. His final film as director. I loudly bemoaned the fact that it didn’t get a UK release at the time it was made, nor even after A.K.’s death. I was thrilled to finally get a copy. Then I failed to watch it. I look forward to getting Fellini’s last film, VOICE OF THE MOON, also denied a UK release, so I can fail to watch that too.

Here’s my list of films I’m aching to see (although whether I’ll watch them if I find them is apparently doubtful) –

1. THE DIARIES OF MAJOR THOMPSON. Preston Sturges’ last movie, described as “almost defiantly unfunny” by one biographer. But it’s hard to find anybody with a kind word for THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND either, and that one, though not prime Sturges by the furthest stretch of hyperbole, has a fair few laughs.

2. There are lots of Julien Duvivier films unavailable, or unavailable with subtitles. LA BELLE EQUIPE may be the most historically important one. And it’s got Jean Gabin in it.

3. L’AMORE. I’ve yet to really get into Rossellini, so this interests me more for the presence of Cocteau and Fellini as writers, and Fellini as actor. Maybe it would help me appreciate Roberto R.

4. A GIRL IN EVERY PORT. I know Howard Hawks is considered to have really come into his own in the sound era, and especially once the grammar of Hollywood talkies had formalised into the Golden Age of the late thirties and forties, but shouldn’t SOME of his silent work be worth seeing? Particularly this one, which features Louise Brooks as a prototypical Hawksian dame.

5. DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS. Ken Russell’s Richard Strauss film, suppressed by the Strauss estate. Reportedly the most extreme of Mad Ken’s TV films. Soon to be available in the US in a box set of the Great Masturbator’s BBC works. But I probably won’t be able to afford it. NB There are lots of other TV works by the Mastur which I haven’t managed to see either.

(STOP PRESS — apparently it isn’t in the set, despite being listed on Amazon.)

6. PHANTOM. This early Murnau classic is available from Kino, but I can never afford it (or when I can, the prospect of three other films for the same price as this single one always tempts me) and has aired on TCM a few times, but I’ve never managed to get a stateside correspondent to record it. The clips I’ve seen are truly mouth/eye-watering. They turn my eyes into salivating little mouths, is what I mean.

7. I was going to put Victor Sjostrom’s THE OUTLAW AND HIS WIFE, but remembered that I have a fuzzy off-air NTSC VHS of that, so it really belongs on the previous list. Big Victor directed my all-time favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED. So, in the wake of David Bordwell’s brilliant piece on it, I choose INGEBORG HOLM from way back in 1913.

8. If Duvivier’s availability suffers from an unjustified downgrading of his reputation (as I believe), Robert Siodmak’s obscurity is a mystery. His Hollywood output is mostly obtainable with varying degrees of effort, but the only pre-American work out there appears to be PEOPLE ON SUNDAY and PIEGES, which isn’t exactly “available” but can be had if you know the right people. PIEGES is a dream of a film, a slick thriller that prefigures the American noirs and would be essential to an understanding of the man’s oeuvre. So who knows what else is required viewing? And the post-American period is almost equally underrepresented. I managed to see NIGHTS, WHEN THE DEVIL CAME, and was bowled over by it (a serial killer in Nazi Germany… some subjects may be too striking to actually do badly). DIE RATTEN is considered an important part of post-war German cinema, but you can’t see it. I’d like to.

9. INN OF EVIL. Of course my shame at not having watched THE HUMAN CONDITION yet should preclude my mentioning more Masaki Kobayashi, but this one sounds too enticing. The fact that there are IMDb reviews suggests it is possible to see the thing.

10. THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED. I can’t believe there isn’t a thriving black market trade in copies of this one. Jerry Lewis’s Holocaust movie is something of a legend, its release forestalled by legal disputes, its reputation as the ultimate bad-taste artistic folly fuelled by only rumour and a few witness reports (I like Dan Castellanata as an actor but I don’t necessarily trust him as a film critic). Some of Lewis’s later films are problematic enough even without death camps, but this demands to be seen.

11. Anything at all by Alessandro Blasetti? Or any of the countless Riccardo Freda films that can’t be seen? Mario Bava’s last work, the TV film VENUS OF ILE? The unseen early works of Max Ophüls? There are too many candidates for this penultimate slot.

12. A note of optimism — I’ve longed to see Nick Ray’s films for a very long time, as it’s measured in Scotland. And finally it seems like WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN and THE JANITOR are on their way into my feverish clutches, to join the heaps of the great unwatched in my living room.

Things I read off the screen in “They Drive By Night”

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2008 by dcairns

This is the 1938 British movie THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, not the 1940 Raoul Walsh one with the same title. Walsh’s film is a searing drama about truck drivers. Woods’ film is a crime thriller that isn’t really about truck drivers at all, which is maybe part of the trouble with it.

Lots to read in this movie! Maybe that’s what they mean by British cinema being in thrall to the literary tradition. Nearly every plot point gets reported in the papers and then shown in print onscreen. Also, the busy studio-based world of the film, a very convincing and atmospheric creation, is alive with advertising, signage and print of all kinds. In one exciting scene the hero flees past a shop selling “everything”, plastered with product names and so busy that the human eye goes spastic trying to take it all in.

Newly released from prison, good-hearted crook Emlyn Williams goes to see a friend who runs a SNACK BAR.

Many are the ads for Player’s Cigarettes in this film! I won’t reproduce them all or you will be hypnotised into craving the Smooth Smoke Doctors Recommend, and I don’t want that on my conscience. The items offered by CHARLIE’S include TEAS, you will note. For a hard-boiled crime drama, this film shows quite a lot of tea being drunk. It’s an odd effect.

Graham Greene praised TDBN, saying it was “on a level with the French cinema” — Greene was a great fan of PEPE LE MOKO — which rather misses the point. What it’s blatantly trying to do is mimic American levels of pace, vigor and aggression. The dialogue is a weird mixture of British (girls = judies) and U.S. slang. The plot races along with casual abandon, driven by outrageous coincidence and a hunger for action, but moving in loosely structured fits and starts. Greene wouldn’t have minded the coincidence — check how, in Gun For Sale (filmed as THIS GUN FOR HIRE) the fugitive assassin hero happens to get on a train with the girlfriend of the detective leading the hunt! The man chiefly responsible for TDBN’s coincidences is film editor Derek Twist, who rescued Michael Powell’s THE EDGE OF THE WORLD in the cutting room, and adapted this script.

DIGRESSION — Powell & Pressburger gave Twist his directorial break on END OF THE RIVER, a jungle drama with Sabu. In his highly readable 2-volume autohagiography, Powell blames Twist for the uninspired result, “making the Amazon basin dull”. But my friend Lawrie Knight, who was manning the communications centre back at Rank’s Denham Studios, told me that in fact Twist got sick after a few days and it was Powell himself who took over direction of the film. “And he ruined it. It was supposed to be about the slow pace of life on the river contrasted with the speed of city life, and Mickey directed the whole thing like a train.” Cinematographer Christopher Challis observed in his witty autobio, Are They Really So Awful?, that you couldn’t see the rain forest except by flying over it, so it proved surprisingly unphotogenic.

TRY OUR HOT \__/  \__/ THEY’R GRAND. Hot pictographs! My, that DOES sound grand. Instants later, our hero has stumbled upon an old flame, lying strangled, and goes “on the lam.”

I like everything about the above image. The ad for Woodbines proves the makers’ aren’t totally in Player’s pocket. The tiny sign saying “BLACK CAT” makes it for me, and the nuns. Emlyn Williams is an unlikely hero — he’s Welsh, playing working class, unhandsome, vaguely effete, and cast as a tough hero called “Shorty”. But he’s rather good. He has the advantage of unexpectedness. But British cinema didn’t know what to do with him. Like Robert Newton, he was tried as a male lead and found wanting. Just as Hollywood found a role for Newton (saying “Arrr!” a lot), so it was a Hollywood filmmaker who first saw Williams’ true potential — Josef Von Sternberg cast him in his abortive epic I, CLAUDIUS, as Caligula, a man so decadent he was “maybe even a little sissy, but not too much.”

NEWS THEATRE. That is such an exciting concept — a tiny tiny cinema devoted to newsreels. Next door to a shop selling “TOBACCOS”, so you can go in and smoke and make the projector beam stand out nicely.

Hiding out, suspected of a crime he — for once — didn’t commit, jailbird Williams is upset to find the feature attraction is all about MURDERERS. Is the “No. 17″ a homage to the Hitchcock film of the same name? Williams, a talented writer, helped script the original THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH for Hitchcock. He’s also the author of a horrifying but moving and brilliant true crime book, Beyond Belief, dealing with the “moors murderers” Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Follow the link to see the iconic mugshot of Myra, which caused John Waters to remark, “She’s going to do an extra twenty years just because she didn’t get her roots done that week.”

But Williams’ greatest contribution to cinema is his play, Night Must Fall, which has been filmed twice. Williams wrote the part of the psychopathic Danny for himself to play, and he seems perfect for it. In movies, the role provided great opportunities for both Robert Montgomery and Albert Finney, who gave contrasting performances of great detail and intensity. Well worth a look — but I wish there was a third version starring the creator of the role.

“You come out of the movies and the world’s changed,” complains Steve Martin in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN. Emlyn finds this especially true: not only is it raining (a proper British downpour which will last for the next two reels) but he’s now officially wanted for murder. Bummer.

Grabbing a bus out of London — the conductor is “Billy Hartnell”, future film star (BRIGHTON ROCK) and TV’s first Dr. Who — our Emlyn winds up at the first of the film’s several Transport Cafes, where CAMP COFFEE is on offer but the long distance drivers inexplicably prefer tea. It was at “greasy spoons” like this that Anthony “Puffin” Asquith, top film director and son of the prime minister, would moonlight, helping out in the kitchen in order to pick up truckers. Emlyn is himself picked up by a trucker, and after numerous adventures, ends up — at another cafe.

Along the way there’s an altercation with what should be some “Truck Stop Dames”, but since this is England, we have to call them “Lorry Girls”, which doesn’t sound right, somehow.

The big attraction at WALLY’S CAFE is the TEAS again:

British tea-drinkers are strongly advised not only to DRINK, but also to ENJOY their MAZAWATTEE TEAS. You have to remind them or they’ll forget, you know. The film now gets on with the lorry-based action, fifteen minutes of it, after which it moves on, having justified its title to its own satisfaction. Winning over a dubious trucker, bumping into an old friend who’s a dance-hall hostess and friend of the murder victim, and escaping from police, Emlyn makes the headlines again — stick with me, this is ABOUT TO GET WEIRD.

I question the “glamour girl” part slightly, but not as much as I question the other “top stories” — MERMAID WEEPS and DON’T SUCK YOUR PEN! Remember, this is 1938. Europe is poised on the brink of war. And the paper devotes its front page to a penny-ante murder story, a sobbing water nymph, and advice on what to not suck. BIZARRE. Oh wait, it’s the Daily Mirror, that explains it.

These aren’t quite as good, but HANDBOOK TO GUIDE VOLUNTEERS and RADIO JERKS FINANCE HITCH are still pretty interesting. This is a completely unnecessary newspaper montage anyway, recapping the action we’ve just seen, and introducing headlines we’ll get to see later.

Now the plot swerves into PIEGES / LURED territory, with Emlyn’s lady friend attempting to ID the real killer from among the clients at the PALAIS DE DANSE where she works. It suddenly becomes clear that the movie could have usefully omitted Emlyn altogether and made her the hero. The pretentious French of PALAIS DE DANSE was a British tradition — nearly all dance halls were known as “the palais“, it seems.

In an American movie the professional dance partners would be prostitutes, disguised for the sake of the Production Code. And I guess they are here, too. Some of them sound pretty POSH though. Now the film tips its hand, revealing the TRUE KILLER — Ernest Thesiger. Yes, red-blooded, testosterone-fuelled Ernest Thesiger is strangling dance hall girls with silk stockings and then going home, slipping into his housecoat and leering at hardcore pornography:

PARIS NIGHTS. Disgusting! The film devotes the rest of its running time, apart from the matter of rounding off the plot, to Ernest’s reading material. Apart from the odd house number (Ernest resides at No. 3), we only get to read what Ernest has read. His literary sloppy seconds, as it were.

MODERN DANCE AND THE DANCER, and THE STOCKING PARADE. It’s beyond depravity! Ernest plays Walter Hoover, a retired schoolmaster and pub bore who lectures the local drunks on the niceties of psychopathology, explaining how the killer derives a thrill from wielding power over life and death. “You do give things a queer twist!” remarks a regular. Maybe because the psychobabble is, for once, coming not from a pipe-smoking Lew Ayres type prof, but from an actual murderer, it’s surprisingly reasonable.

Thrillingly, the flick affords us not one but TWO glimpses of Ernest’s library, where he keeps his many leather-bound volumes. The room no doubt smells of rich mahogany. And semen.

SEX IN RELATION TO SOCIETY sounds hilariously dry and vague, but SOCIAL CONTROL OF SEX EXPRESSION is the real winner. Havelock Ellis was a real author, wasn’t he? (He was — I just read up on him, and he’s bloody fascinating. Click on his name.) So these aren’t mock-ups, but perhaps items from the Sinister Library of Derek Twist. “You do give things a queer Twist!” But there’s more to come:

CROOKED PERSONALITIES IN CHILD HOOD AND AFTER — well, that “AFTER” certainly covers everything. TWENTY HUMAN MONSTERS sounds like a damn fine read, likewise THE THRILL OF EVIL, but it’s SEX IN PRISON that makes me choke on my Mazawattee Tea. That’s so frank I can’t believe they even included it. Is it the novelisation of William Dieterle’s SEX IN CHAINS, I wonder?

And this is from Ernest’s scrapbook of murder, hidden behind the porn. BEDROOM MYSTERY is a fine, fine headline. Unfortunately, since Ernest has clipped out and saved all the bits relating to his crimes, he’s failed to preserve the advice DON’T SUCK YOUR PEN! Perhaps this will be his downfall.

Now the film continues to become derailed and unstuck, as the climax hinges on whether Emlyn can lick Ernest in a fight. IN A FIGHT — get your minds out of the gutter. Since we’ve already seen Em knock Er for six with a single mighty chop, there’s not much suspense in this. Ernest is a fey cat-loving schoolteacher(“Come here, my subtle one,” he coos at a kitty) while Emlyn may be a shorty but he’s a hardened crim. “Ernest Thesiger could be overpowered by his own kittens,” remarks Fiona. Emlyn beats them to it, and the film’s glossolalia serves up one final message: 

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