Archive for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

The 7 Wonders of the Pre-Code World #6: Grot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 22, 2009 by dcairns

Grot!

What visions of splendour that name conjures up! These snaps are all from LITTLE CAESAR, but the production design/art direction of Anton Grot graced countless films of the ’30s (and ’20s, and ’40s). I think visually he may have had more to do with the look of some of these films than the credited director. Certainly Michael Curtiz would have had something to say about the look of DR X or CAPTAIN BLOOD, whether or not anybody understood him, but I could easily see someone like Mervyn LeRoy simply following a storyboard for these great establishing shots ~

vlcsnap-52366

vlcsnap-52462

vlcsnap-54107

Check those zig-zags!

I first read of Mr. Grot in Leon Barsacq’s nifty textbook Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions, A History of Film Design, which my dad bought me when I was a kid. I think at the time I was kind of disappointed that the book wasn’t really about Caligari and horror films, or film directing per se, but about the speciality subject of film design. And yet, the images in the book stayed with me — I’ve been trying to recreate versions of the Caligari image on the left all through my “career” — there’s even a version of it scripted in one of the feature projects I’m working on right now. The malevolent cross-legged man in the middle of the room!

So thanks, Dad.

Barsacq himself was a distinguished designer, closely associated with Duvivier, Carné and Clair, and his book opened up whole worlds to me — images got embedded in my unconscious, and the tricks of the trade impressed my youthful mind: forced perspective, the Schufftan process, matte paintings and hanging miniatures — THIS was the way to make movies. I don’t recall Barsacq having any particular agenda against realism, but his taste was obviously more attuned to spectacular fantasy and blatant trompe-l’oeil effects. His sensibility crystallized my own.

Veidt Shadows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2009 by dcairns

vlcsnap-188656

The 1924 original version of HANDS OF ORLAC, from Robert “CALIGARI” Weine, is too classy a film really to fit in with my demented quest to see all the films illustrated  in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, but it is in the book, and I did see it, thanks to regular Shadowplayer Guy Budziak. There are horror movies you should see as a kid, and when you see them as a grown-up, you wish you’d seen them earlier (for me, THE BLACK ROOM, CURSE OF THE GOLEM and the silent THE LOST WORLD might be examples), but I don’t think I would have appreciated the lugubrious tone and pace of this one as a kiddie.

It’s also good that I’m seeing it now, since I can connect the stylistic flourishes of German expressionism to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, a student of the German school. This week’s Hitch, NUMBER 17, is a particularly Teutonic crime tale.

vlcsnap-189843

Do you all know the story? Pianist Conrad Veidt plays Orlac, whose hands are smashed up in a train wreck, and is given the substitute extremities of a guillotined murderer. Strange stuff starts to happen, convincing Veidt that his paws retain the murderous proclivities of their previous owner. It’s all part of a fiendish plot by Fritz Kortner, the details of which are obscure enough to keep you guessing. For a while there, I thought that Kortner actually intended to make Veidt murder his own father, by convincing him that his hands were animated by malevolent will.  That plot, worthy of VERTIGO’s Gavin Elster in its twisted complexity, proves to not quite be the case.

Weine here achieves delirious effects without overtly contorted or theatrical sets, although the designs by Hans Rouc and Stefan Wessely are glossy, disconcerting and non-ergonomic. Fiona particularly relished Veidt’s weirdly low hospital bed, which actively compels everybody to loom over him. The best effects are a mixture of lighting (those deep dark jagged shadows, how we adore them!) and performance. Veidt is extraordinary, a floppy-haired stick insect, his brow furrowed into a taut brainscape of clenched convolutions. He does things in this film no actor has ever even thought of doing. I mean, he tries to throw his hands off! He tries to run away from them. Sometimes he literally holds them at arms’ length, as if they’re ablaze, or they smell really bad. At other times they try to crawl inside his face. At one point he looks set to moonwalk. “Michael Jackson!” Fiona cried. “It don’t matter if you’re black or Veidt,” I offered, lamely.

vlcsnap-190076

Alexandra Sorina is Mrs. Orlac, her eyes rolling about like electrified pearls, barely contained by the rings of kohl surrounding them. Actively demented before anything’seven  happened, she does the impossible and keeps pace with Veidt’s physical insanity.

And then there’s Kortner, who has a hard job, appearing as a diabolical villain in such eccentric company, but he has a brilliant strategy — rather than wholeheartedly adopting the contortions and gesticulations of the expressionist style, or merging into the more naturalistic, low-key approach of the supporting players, he alternates between the two, so that you never know what you’re going to get next. Kortner also deploys his astonishing face and body extremely well: he looks like a malignant, pugilistic baby.

Of course, the pachyderm in the parlour is Karl Freund’s Hollywood remake, MAD LOVE, an excellent horror movie (the version to see when you’re twelve) that substitutes a fast-moving parade of grotesquerie and nonsense for the glacial creep of the Weine. The silent movie has nothing that can compare withPeter Lorre’s appearance as the decapitated, reanimated murderer, with black rubber prosthetic forelimbs, fetishistic neck brace, and clockwork cackle, fore-runner to the wind-up Nazi in Del Toro’s HELLBOY.

Lorre, playing a dude, pretending to be another dude — the most balls-out horrific thing in any 30s horror movie.

vlcsnap-189074

But Kortner, deprived of Lorre’s snazzy costume, still does well, moving his plastic-bound arms as if they were stilts, somehow, convincing us that these are foreign appendages buckled to his lardy body. His clunkinessmakes a superb contrast with Veidt’s writhing and slinking.

It’s cinema as spastic ballet!*

vlcsnap-188391

*The phrase “spastic ballet” is copyright Arthur Penn, who used it to describe what he wanted from Beatty and Dunaway when they’re machine-gunned to death at the end of BONNIE AND CLYDE. But on take one, somehow Beatty didn’t get the signal, and while Faye Dunaway spectacularly died in slow motion behind him, Beatty just stood there with a faint, puzzled grin as bits of his head blew off. “I wish I’d kept that bit of film,” says Penn.

PLUG

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 27, 2008 by dcairns

samdale1

Just letting you all know that my pal Sam Dale has started posting his new semi-animated sci-fi comedy extravagonzo, MOON GAL AND THE PLANET OF THE SHE-VIXENS. It’s kind of like Rocky and Bullwinkle on magic mushrooms, only with a sort of Essex Barbarella instead of a funny moose. I would compare it to an injection of fizzy pop directly into the parietal lobes.

In other news, the Berwick-Upon-Tweed Film Festival kicks off tomorrow night with a screening of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI with live musical accompaniment.

And today is the birthday of Kathriyn Bigelow and Bruce Lee. I wonder which would win if they had a fight? Well Bruce is dead. I don’t mean to conjure up images of Bigelow pummelling his skeleton. I meant if they had a fight when he was alive. But Bigelow would have been quite young when Bruce was alive. I don’t mean to invoke the image of Bruce Lee beating up a little girl.

Oh, I don’t know WHAT I mean!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 362 other followers