Archive for The Invisible Man

The Mummy’s Curse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2008 by dcairns

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“Bloomin’ Ada!” as my Mum would say. I have been tagged with a meme, using the parlance of our times. Next thing you know I’ll be participating in flash mobs and Anne Summers parties and other symptoms of this age we live in. I have been tagged by the Self-Styled Siren, who runs my favourite blog on classical Hollywood cinema (and occasional other subjects too) so I guess that means I have to comply. The meme (I’m not explaining that one: go pound on Professor Richard Dawkins’s door) requires me to list twenty actresses, and originated here. The idea is that they should be your twenty favourites — the Siren wisely narrowed that to twenty actresses whose mere presence in a film would be enough to make her watch it, and she’s hinted that she expects “classic choices”, so I’m guessing that tends to eliminate Little Nell, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Buck Angel or even Maria Montez. As well as this woman.

But I still feel  the need to whittle further, both to avoid repeating the Siren’s excellent list (I’ve just started on the THIN MAN films, and Myrna Loy is much on my mind), and to impart a unique something-or-other to the proceedings. I note that most of the actresses being selected are extremely beautiful, and since if I were to choose twenty actors, they might include numerous fellows I don’t actually admire physically, I thought it would be interesting to choose twenty actresses who… how shall I put this? Must find a classy and gentlemanly way of saying it.

Twenty actresses whom I would always be glad to see in a film, although I have no real desire to “do” them.

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1) Margaret Rutherford. I’m appalled to realise that I’ve had THE BEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE for over a month now without watching it, and after spending ages trying to source a copy. Rutherford, who George Harrison, back in his Beatles heyday, would choose if challenged to name a favourite actress, had a face rather like a very old man’s neck, but was both a dexterous eccentric comedian and a powerful tragedian, as witness her speech at the end of Orson Welles’s CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. She exemplifies what I’m talking about here, since sexuality didn’t really play much of a role in her art or life: apparently she and her husband both referred to lists of instructions — crib sheets —  to see them through their honeymoon night, so ignorant were they of matters erotic.

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2) Agnes Moorehead. Not so sure here, since I never bought the idea that Agnes was ugly, and the warmth and admiration I feel for her is akin to romantic love, so maybe, under the right circumstances… but sexiness wasn’t part of her screen repertoire, which included all kinds of genius qualities, including the ability to throw hysterical attacks so convincing that terrified studio execs demanded retakes on both MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, to make her less effective. (It might seem perverse for studios to demand such a thing, but I suspect studio interference is nearly ALWAYS based on a desire to make films less effective.)

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3) Margaret Hamilton. A very different actress, but with a parallel to Moorehead in that both were typecast as spinsters and crones at an age when they could have been playing ingenues, had nature arranged things differently. The Wicked Witch isn’t in enough films, but over the decades she did enough obscure work that her appearances are often a surprise, as in the Sean Connery heist film THE ANDERSON TAPES. I always get very excited whenever she turns up, like a small child experiencing his first mouthful of cocaine.

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4) Una O’Connor. Usually delivered in small doses, which was probably wise — her shrieking performances in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN might conceivably appear irritating if overextended. (You think?) But I just saw Renoir’s astounding THIS LAND IS MINE, where she keeps an impressive lid on it for most of the show, only allowing those deadly lungs free rein at one key moment.

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5) Spring Byington. Utterly fabulous actress, often excelling in warm-hearted, matronly roles, but check out her bone-chilling nastiness in DRAGONWYCK, which I maintain she steals from under everyone else’s noses. The point where her character is inexplicably forgotten about by the plot is the point where the movie loses interest for me, even as a tired rehash of REBECCA.

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6) Speaking of that film, Mrs. Danvers herself (strangely impossible to picture MR. Danvers, I find), Dame Judith Anderson, deserves a mention. Often called upon to inject menace or else matriarchal might, she turns her hand ably to comedy in René Clair’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

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7) I’m on shaky ground again with Ethel Waters, because I do think she’s beautiful, and always appealing, warm and engaging (in contrast to her knife-wielding offscreen behaviour!), and I wouldn’t like to think I’m shoving her into some character actor Siberia just because she’s heavy. But CABIN IN THE SKY allows ample opportunity to compare and contrast her with Lena Horne, and then certain subjective truths become inescapable. My love of Ethel is entirely platonic. My love of Lena is entirely otherwise.

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8) Irene Handl. When you have a figure as beloved in old age as Irene Handl, once in a while you get the urge to see what she was like when young. But with Irene Handle, youth appears to have been a condition she never experienced. A brilliant eccentric player, she forged an unlikely career, given her unusual appearance, but she always made an impression, even in the smallest role, because she was incapable of leaving a part without fully investing it with life. So she could quite often make more impact in thirty seconds than the stars did with the rest of the film.

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9) Kathleen Freeman. You know this one? Always saying “He’s such a nice boy,” in Jerry Lewis movies. Lewis is generally brilliant at casting his supporting players, and he knew he was onto a great thing with Freeman.

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10) Dandy Nichols. Able to effortlessly take the manners and mores of social realism, 1960s style, and flip them into farce. Has a great moment in THE BED-SITTING ROOM, looking uncomfortable on a horse. That should be enough for anyone.

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11) Katie Johnson. She’s in other films, but it’s for THE LADYKILLERS she’s remembered. So old and frail at the time that she failed the insurance exam and had to be replaced with a younger actress, who promptly dropped dead, so Katie got the part in the end, and a good thing too. Her combination of physical fragility and steely moral certainty is exactly what the film needs.

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12) Flora Robson. I saw her interviewed on TV when I was a kid and she was pretty old, and the interviewer kindly said that she had grown more beautiful with age, while the glamour girls could only fade. It’s kind of true, but what an amazing career she had with her big Rondo Hatton face — it no doubt kept her from many parts, but she was able to command some corkers. And actually, her flirtation with Errol Flynn in THE SEA HAWK is entirely charming and credible.

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13) Marie Dressler. DINNER AT EIGHT is actually kind of a yawn for me, but I do love her spectacular double-take when Jean Harlow says she’s been reading a book. Anybody who does a gigantic double take is tops with me.

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14) Thelma Ritter. Her presence here at number 14 makes it VERY clear, I hope, that this list is in no particular order.

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15) Esther Howard. A little obscure here? But SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS fans will know her as the randy widow Joel McCrea flees, jumping out the widow’s window rather that submitting to her wiles. Which is to say, sexuality is a part of the Howard repertoire, but it’s a comedy version, and what’s most important about her is her overbearing “charm”, deployed to very funny effect in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and about a hundred and fifty other films and TV shows. I’ll even add one not listed among her credits on the IMDb: WHAT A WAY TO GO!

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16) Megs Jenkins. One of my favourite larger ladies in British films, as seen in GREEN FOR DANGER and THE INNOCENTS. Her appearance is sort of Kathy Bates-like, but she has an incredibly beautiful and unusual voice, and I feel all warm and snuggly whenever I hear it. I would probably trade one of my less necessary limbs in exchange for about 1000 hours of Megs reading audio-books.

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17) Renee Houston. Had to have one Great Scot on the list. Renee was very pretty in the ’30s, but wasn’t making any films I’ve seen, so I know her from her later roles as battle-axes, drunken baggages and generally rambunctious females. She generally inspires a loud cheer in my household when her name appears in the credits, as it does in TIME WITHOUT PITY.

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18) The alarming Gail Sondergaard. I have no excuse for it, but I actually like her dragon lady yellowface stereotype turn in THE LETTER. And she’s terrifying in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, without seeming to try.

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19) Patricia Collinge. Cinema’s greatest mum, apart from mine, that is, who can be seen briefly from the back in extreme longshot in my short film CRY FOR BOBO, and who recently complained that I’d made her look dumpy or something.

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20) Aline McMahon, but then actually I do think she’s extremely beautiful and under the right circumstances, if I were a younger man, etc…

And twenty who do fill me with indecent cravings:

Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Annabella, Joan Blondell, Myrna Loy, Olivia DeHavilland, Paulette Goddard, Veronica Lake, Ava Gardner, Joan Greenwood, Gene Tierney, Natalie Wood, Claudia Cardinale, Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, Britt Ekland if I’m honest, Susannah York (I’m coming to believe she makes an even better Julie Christie than Julie Christie), Jeanne Moreau, Genevieve Bujold, Maggie Cheung, Charlize Theron… I could go on…

“Try to be sane.”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2008 by dcairns

“You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsting for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.” ~ Karloff in THE BLACK CAT.

You couldn’t get a more obvious Fever Dream Double Feature than the pairing of Edgar Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT and Lew Landers’ THE RAVEN. But nor could you get a more feverish or dreamy one.

The films are a matching pair, each using Karloff and Lugosi and each “suggested” by an “immortal classic” by Edgar Allan Poe. So immortal and so classic that the filmmakers have thrown away all but the title, as was customary in Olde Hollywood (oh, to read Preston Sturges’ treatment for THE INVISIBLE MAN, set in Revolutionary Russia “The director said it was a piece of cheese.”)

THE BLACK CAT is clearly the superior film, mainly because it came first and set the pattern, and THE RAVEN is a blatant attempt to follow that pattern exactly: a mixture of the horrible, the downright bizarre and the seriously silly. The mix of humour and horror in these Universal horrors is if anything more disturbing and strange than that in James Whales’ more famous classics: when Ernest Thesiger or Una O’Connor go into their thing, it’s pretty clear there’s intentional humour afoot and we the dazzling sophisticates in the audience are invited to share in it (while turning up our noses at those louts who see only ham and grue), but Ulmer’s film repeatedly hits us with moments pitched at some unknown region between serious and hilarious. Plus there’s the discomfort of Lugosi. Laugh with Lugosi! But somehow we cannot, without the fear that maybe he really means it. Karloff used to laugh at himself and say “Here comes the heavy,” as he entered a scene, so that Ulmer’s biggest job with the actor was to keep him in character. “Not the Hungarian, of course. You had to cut away from Lugosi continuously, to cut him down.” Lugosi’s horrified reaction to the titular pussy is pure Spike Milligan, a kind of melodramatic spasm so far over the top it punches a hole in the sky.

And by the way, who is John Belton? His little book in the Hollywood Professionals series, Howard Hawks Frank Borzage Edgar Ulmer, is very good. Shoehorning three major filmmakers into one slender volume prevents a serious in-depth analysis, but Belton’s good at the snappy summary (he’d make a fine blogger). Here he is on Ulmer:

‘The world around Ulmer’s characters has no fixity and is incomprehensible. Ulmer’s world, like Poelzig’s (Karloff’s) house in THE BLACK CAT, stands upon a battlefield, is surrounded by a graveyard of the soldiers who died there and is undermined with dynamite. As one character, remarking on the presence of the dynamite, points out, “the slightest mistake by one of us could cause the destruction of all.” Ulmer’s characters, living on the brink of insanity, constantly run the risk of making that one mistake and of unleashing fantastically chaotic forces that will hound them to their own destruction.’

Beautiful — that one paragraph serves as a key to Ulmer’s best films, unlocking the meaning of their nightmarish scenarios and settings, as well as binding them together thematically into a coherent body of work (sort of like a key with a length of twine attached, or something).

That instability is only emphasised by the fact that many of Ulmer’s landscapes are tabletop miniatures, tiny and vulnerable. I particularly like the Scottish scenery of THE MAN FROM PLANET X — an arrangement of soil and twigs reminiscent of the “sculpture” Henry Spencer keeps in his bedroom in ERASERHEAD.

THE BLACK CAT throws a disparate throng of characters together in the Bauhaus castle of of Karloff (influenced by Ulmer’s conversations with author Gustav Meyrink, whose work loosely “inspired” an earlier horror classic, Paul Wegener’s DER GOLEM), leading to a black mass in cod Latin (“In vino veritas”, Karloff intones solemnly) and a flaying alive.

Ulmer’s masterstroke is the modernist design of the “castle”, a neo-brutalist affair with a concrete bunker down below (floating female corpses provide a feminine touch) and a sort of Ginger-and-Fred elegance in the living quarters. Ulmer’s background in German cinema appears to have had to do with production design, although it’s hard to work out exactly what his uncredited contributions to films like METROPOLIS and SUNRISE may have consisted of. The inspired futuristic approach here makes THE BLACK CAT look quite different from every other horror film of the period, and is responsible for much of the uncanny, oneiric ambience. Ulmer’s camera abandons the cast to drift unmoored through haunted, near-abstract spaces that retain some of the specificity of nightmare.

Further weirdness is induced by the haphazard but endlessly creative plotting. The film is great at presenting freaky ideas, weaker on follow-through, but that actually helps. Just when you expect the idea of a chess game with human lives at stake to be developed, it’s abandoned and a new wrinkle is introduced. The film jolts along like an dodgem car powered by defibrillator pads.

The goofy names (Hjalmar Poelzig and Vitus Werdegast), incongruous classical score, lumbering comedy relief and genuine eeriness — impossible to enumerate or explain the many plot turns and tonal shifts, which leave one disorientated — add up to an impossible crime of the cinema, the kind of thing no film-maker can expect to get away with. Means, motive and opportunity simply do not present themselves for a movie like this. Stumbling across it is like finding a vicar decapitated at close range in a snowy field with no footprints.

And, incredibly, Universal attempted to do it again, shamelessly, with THE RAVEN. With a peculiar approach to adaptation, this film starts by nodding its head in a friendly-but-distant manner to Poe’s poem, then proceeds to make off with most of The Pit and the Pendulum instead. Lugosi, a more-or-less sympathetic species of lunatic in THE BLACK CAT, here plays a Poe-obsessed, lovelorn neurologist with a torture chamber in his cellar. A curious hobby, someone says. “Much more than a hobby,” replies Lugosi, with sinister emphasis, and then, brightly, “Goodbye!”

“Much more than a hobby.”

“Goodbye!”

A casual, cheery line-reading is always lurking around the corner with Lugosi, ready to knock us all sideways. He gives it the sepulchral creep for three lines, then flattens you with a chirpy aside. My favourite example is heard in THE INVISIBLE GHOST (directed by Joseph H. Lewis, this is a stone-cold masterpiece assembled from stray bits of crap) — describing to his family over breakfast how a murder victim came back to life in the morgue, only to die of shock upon seeing his killer, Lugosi shrugs, “It was horrible!” with the tone of one describing a bad omelet.

Karloff shows up as a wanted man desperate for a new face. Lugosi is intrigued by the notorious maniac’s history of iniquity — blasting a bank teller in the eyes with an oxy-acetylene torch, for instance. “Well, sometimes you can’t help…things like that,” grumbles Karloff, rather weakly. Turns out the fugitive loon wants not only a new mug, but a total change of identity — Karloff theorises that a more handsome kisser might make him a better guy all round. Lugosi, accepting this logic with surprising ease, decides to instead wantonly disfigure Karloff and use the resulting depraved freak to revenge himself on those who have blighted his putative love-life.

It’s not one of the better ’30s horror makeups. Reminds me a little of the unintentionally comic lopsided look Karloff sported in GRIP OF THE STRANGLER, decades later. But the mutant Karloff actually proves nicer than the original version, and Lugosi’s bestial plans gang aft aglae. The ending involves a room with walls that close in, supposedly recreating a Poe story, though the script acts shifty around the question of which story exactly…

My fave bit in Landers’ film (he made many many B-movies and TV episodes — the IMDb lists 163), asides from the line “Try to be sane!”, spoken to Lugosi in a fit of wild optimism by the chap above, is a moment when Lugosi is surprised, then indignant, at being caught emerging from his secret bookcase passageway by his manservant, who in turn also looks surprised, then indignant. The effect is hilarious in a curiously abstract way. Was it intended to be funny? There is no way to be sure. But it feels as if something genuinely unexpected has just happened and nobody knows what to do.

Both films are short (THE BLACK CAT was much hacked about by censors, due to its Satanism and sadism), around an hour apiece, making them ideal double feature material. Ulmer’s film is the real deal, a demented journey into warped inner space, while the follow-up is a too-obvious attempt to follow up with the same elements, differently configured, but both are hugely idiosyncratic entertainments from an era when the job of the horror film was not to recycle genre elements but to deliver the new and freakish and unfathomable, logic and taste be damned.

“Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.”

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