Archive for The Hand

Five Little Dancing Fingers

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2014 by dcairns

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Getting in the mood for Halloween. It had been years since I saw THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS — I remembered it being slightly disappointing, and Fiona didn’t remember it at all. The heart sinks slightly at Curt Siodmak’s script credit, yet his scenario isn’t in any way laughable. It does have dull stretches, though. Director Robert Florey seems to come awake in fits, thrusting wildly canted angles or serried rows of faces at us, then falling back into soporific busywork. But from the time of the first death, the good scenes start to slowly outnumber the dull ones, and there’s always Peter Lorre…

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It’s surprisingly brutal for its time, with the severed hand scuttling about like it owns the place, flashing its stump brazenly. There’s a wet, meaty back view complete with wrist bones, apparently painted trompe-l’oeil fashion on the hand actor’s wrist, while the rest of his arm is blacked out. Apart from the various stranglings, it’s the hand who suffers most of the violence, crucified and burned by the neurasthenic Lorre (playing a character called Hillary, a mild-mannered name that doesn’t seem to quite suit him).

The source novel surely owes a debt to Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Hand, which likewise plays with the idea of a disembodied hand strangling victims from beyond the grave, only to offer a not-quite-reassuring rational explanation. But we can go further back and credit the inspiration to Algernon Swinburne — when Maupassant saved the poet from drowning, he rewarded his rescuer with an ashtray made from a human hand. As you do. I have to presume that the young writer, sat at his desk, Gauloise in hand, casting around for inspiration, seized upon the first interesting thing to catch his eye. A good thing for French literature he didn’t alight upon his waste-paper basket made from a human arse, or his paperweight made from a fossilised spleen. In fact, Maupassant’s study was decorated with the disassembled parts of an entire human being, gifted to him by Swinburne. Possibly they were the parts of Swinburne himself. But astute readers will have realized I stopped telling the truth here some time ago, though they may be surprised to learn how late in the paragraph the fantasy takes over.

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A very good bit — Lorre hears scuttling, and the previous astrology books on his shelves start to nudge outwards in a creeping series — the hand is crawling behind them! Swiping the volumes to the floor, Lorre searches out the stray extremity, and Florey tracks along INSIDE the bookshelf, behind the books, until the wriggling thing is discovered, cornered, and Lorre smiles with genuine pleasure at catching it. He then hammers a nail through it, seals it in the safe, and reports to Robert Alda, “I locked it up.” But Fiona misheard this, owing to Lorre’s thick accent, as “I looked it up,” and imagined that he had somehow tracked it down on the bookshelf under H for Hand, or possibly B for Beast. It’s a nice idea — why has there not been a remake to exploit this possibility? One thinks, of course, of the very good “A Farewell to Arms” gag in EVIL DEAD II…

Untold/Unheard

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2013 by dcairns

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The only downside of coming to America for ten days is that I’ve had to leave behind Oliver Stone & Peter Kuznick’s book The Untold History of the United States. Not because they’d impound me on crossing the border, though that seems conceivable, but because it’s a mammoth doorstop of a thing, if mammoths can be said to have doorstops (paleontologists are divided on the subject).

I’m highly skeptical of Stone as a filmmaker. His screenwriting produced three films accused of racism — MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (Turks); YEAR OF THE DRAGON (Chinese-Americans); SCARFACE (Cubans); it’s possible CONAN THE BARBARIAN was picketed by a few outraged Cimmerians. Of course screenwriters can’t be accused of responsibility for anything in their movies because they have no authority about what goes in ‘em. Robin Wood accused Paul Schrader of fascism based on his extensive writing output but I don’t think anything he’s directed really supports that, though Wood made a case for AMERICAN GIGOLO’s homophobic tendencies.)

Shadowplayer David WIngrove is an admirer of SEIZURE, but I’ve only seen the preposterous THE HAND from this period (come to think of it, the Michael Caine character who is so outraged that his barbarian cartoons are being rewritten after his hand is implausibly knocked off by a truck [true!] must be channeling Stone’s rage at getting rewritten by John Milius on CONAN — though he managed to get his response into cinemas a year ahead of Milius’s stimulus).

Then I thought SALVADOR was terrific and highly relevant, but was underwhelmed by PLATOON and since then have only sort-of liked anything from Stone. NATURAL BORN KILLERS has a compelling audio-visual style but is one of the more morally repellent films I’ve seen: though John Grisham’s attempted lawsuit against it was moronic, Stone’s film seems to invite such a reaction.

But I got stuck into Stone’s new book on the recommendation of (clunk of name-drop) Richard Lester, who had seen the TV series and pronounced it “brilliant” a word he does not use lightly (well, he never applied it to me). “I don’t know how he hasn’t been arrested for it.” The good news for non-Stone fans is that probably co-author Kuznick can be credited with the blinding insights, with Stone in charge of presenting them clearly in a way that works for an audience who may know only a little, or else quite a lot of misinformation, about the subject.

I’ve still to check out the TV show — only way seems to be to buy it so I’m waiting for payday — but I’m now fascinated to see what Stone does with it visually. The basic gist of the thing, chapter by chapter, is to present a contrary view to how large chunks of modern US history are understood. This is less the case in (skipping ahead) chapters about the last two presidents, but it’s certainly the case where the authors revisit world war two and the start of the cold war, a part of the book which presents Henry A. Wallace, a largely forgotten vice president, as the hero who could have changed the course of history for the better if democracy had been allowed to triumph over vested interests.

The book is at times heart-breaking, because we’re told that Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and then the cold war, were not in fact necessary. To give you just a small sense of the book, I want to talk about the bomb — because this chapter has haunted me since I read it.

I’d always swallowed the terms of the argument, if not the argument itself, you see. There’s something very compelling about the moral conundrum we’re told faced Truman: invade Japan and face severe casualties from US troops, or drop the bomb and cause many civilian casualties. The obscenity of war means a commander-in-chief is forced to weigh up the lives of friendly combatants versus enemy civilians, and how are you supposed to calculate that.

But this whole argument is academic and irrelevant here because that’s not what happened. George W.H. Bush once credited the atomic bombings with saving “millions of lives.” But the figure Truman claimed was “just” a quarter of a million. And he was lying too — he was provided with all sorts of contradictory figures (how can you be sure anyway?) but the highest was nowhere near that and the lowest was just three thousand.

But playing that game is still assuming that the choice came down to nuking or invasion. In fact, Japan was ready to surrender: they had been putting out feelers to the USSR, in hopes that Stalin could broker a more favourable peace. They were terrified that the “unconditional surrender” Roosevelt had spoken of meant they could lose their emperor. A lot of advisers were telling Truman that a clarification of the terms of surrender could have provoked an immediate favorable response.

Hiroshima did not prompt a surrender because the situation with Emperor Hirohito remained unclear. The Japanese already knew we could bombs cities out of existence since we’d done that to Tokyo, What probably prompted them to down arms was the USSR launching an invasion against them — this caught them between two super-powers, and meant they could abandon all hope of help from that direction. But before they could even respond to this attack, Nagasaki was bombed.

The argument is made, and it convinces, that America wanted to avoid the USSR making territorial gains in the East, and earning economic aid that had been promised for its participation in the war on Japan. Furthermore, General Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan project, was quite clear in his own mind that the goal of the bomb drops was not to affect Japan, but to affect the Soviet Union. The impact of using the atomic bomb would obviously far greater than the impact of merely possessing it — Japan was the USA’s last opportunity to show itself willing to annihilate a whole city with a single weapon.

If you have any more doubts about this, a direct quote from Truman may help allay them: he said that his announcement of the dropping of the bomb was the “happiest” he ever made.

Highly recommended stuff. I’ll be checking out the series.

Planet of the Andalusian Dog

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2011 by dcairns

“God damn you all to hell!”

Yes, I’ve inserted Chuckles Heston (and Linda Harrison as Nova and Henry the Horse) into UN CHIEN ANDALOU. It’s what he would have wanted. And what better fate for an axiom of cinema?

I first saw UN CHIEN ANDALOU at a science fiction convention. It was the first, and for all I know last, such event to be held in Edinburgh. It happened at the Grosvenor Hotel and it was called Ra-Con. The logo was a raccoon. Possibly holding a phaser. Does anybody besides me recall this?

They showed SOYLENT GREEN, with Harry Harrison, author of the original novel Make Room! Make Room! there in person to denounce it. So Charlton Heston and UN CHIEN ANDALOU have long been connected in my mind, I guess. They also showed THE GREEN SLIME, which made less of an impression, although it turned out to be my first Kinji Fukasaku experience, not repeated until I saw BATTLE ROYALE at the Edinburgh Film Festival (and scored a free umbrella like the one Beat Takeshi sports in the film).

UN CHIEN ANDALOU screened as parts of a mind-blowing shorts programme that also included Jiri Trnka’s haunting animated allegory THE HAND, Jan Svankmajer’s BYT (THE FLAT) and something called 23 SKIDOO, which I’ve never seen since.

Ahah, here it is, on the INTERNET –

And like so much of what disturbed my frame of mind as a child, it’s from the National Film Board of Canada. It all makes sense now.

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