Archive for The Lady Vanishes

Bathroom Blunders of 1941

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

Good Leonard Leff video essay on the Criterion DVD of THE LADY VANISHES. Light, breezy, but smartly observed — it fits the film’s tone. I was surprised he didn’t suggest that the mysterious box Hitch is carrying in the train station doesn’t contain a device for catching elephants in the Scottish highlands, but we all miss a trick now and then.

Also included is CROOK’S TOUR, the best of the ultra-cheap movies made to cash in on the success of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne’s comic relief Englishmen abroad. For copyright reasons, this is the only one where they star as C&C — but they were paired together under different names in a bunch of films, including DEAD OF NIGHT, and played C&C in a supporting capacity for TLV’s writers, Launder & Gilliat, in other movies. It’s a tangled history.

CROOK’S TOUR, while in no ways a distinguished piece of filmmaking, is pretty enjoyable, although of course there’s no trace of Hitchcockian dazzle or depth. Depressingly, Caldicott has acquired an offscreen wife, which seems like an attempt to stave off any suggestion that these two devoted bachelors might have a thing for each other.

However — it does contain my favourite C&C moment outside of Hitchcock. Charters narrowly escapes assassination in the bathroom of the exotic Hotel Hamilton, as the door leads not to a plumbing facility but to a plunge into the Bosporus.

“It’s labeled ‘bathroom’,” he complains.

“But that’s ridiculous!” protests Caldicott. “It should be labeled ‘Bosporus.”

Naunton Wayne is good with bathrooms.

The Lady Vanishes – (The Criterion Collection)

One more intertitle on Sunday, and then we plunge headfirst into the darkness of For the Love of Film (Noir), The Film Preservation Blogathon, about which you can read more here, and an early sampling at David E’s Fablog.

Hitchsnark

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on February 11, 2011 by dcairns

On watching the extras on Criterion’s superb double-disc edition of THE LADY VANISHES, I was struck by this crudely-lettered cardboard sign. Fascinating to see the soundproof camera booth, of course, but something about the sign captured my imagination. “Please keep away from front of camera.” I wonder it it’s been preserved, and if so, whether the present owner has ever considered sending it, as a piece of friendly advice, to Quentin Tarantino?

I’m not actually sure if I consider Tarantino a bad actor or not. Despite his addiction to casting himself in his films (which he hasn’t done lately, so this post may be even more pointless than usual), he’s never really given himself a proper scene to play, just dialogue. Or maybe that’s just the way it seems, due to his weak acting. But the problem really lies, I think, in the fact that QT is kind of upsetting and embarrassing to look at on a screen. It’s not just the face, which looks like it’s frozen in the act of collapsing inwards upon itself, an avalanche of cartilage funneling inwards towards some internal singularity situated just behind his nose. That alone wouldn’t be a problem for me, since I admire Jim Broadbent, for instance. The ability to have teeth but look as if you don’t can, in certain circumstances, be a positive boon. With Tarantino, it’s the embarrassing enthusiasm that gets me. Which is a rotten thing to say, since enthusiasm is, in itself, a wonderful thing.

When QT first appeared, promoting and appearing in RESERVOIR DOGS, his enthusiasm didn’t bother me so much. “Wow, a movie director who’s an honest-to-God geek,” I may have thought. Which seemed like a positive thing. I’m kind of a geek myself. But as QT became some kind of arbiter of cool, the geek defense fell away. Nerds and geeks seem to be most welcome when either they know we’re geeks and nerds, or they think we’re normal, which is adorably misguided. A geek who thinks he’s cool is just a dork.

Now, when Tarantino appears, I get an instinctive cringe, the desire to seek shelter from his bullying enthusiasm, his clapped-in mouth, his snappy diction. The way around this would be to focus on what he’s saying, because any instinctive aversion can be overcome when you realise the creepy person talking is actually making sense. But Tarantino seems to say less and less of interest. Which is the problem with his films, too, handsomely crafted though they are.

Original Syn

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2010 by dcairns

What a strange artifact this is: DOCTOR SYN (1937) is a rollicking British melodrama similar in some ways to the bodice-ripping romps of Gainsborough Studios — it even features Margaret Lockwood, THE WICKED LADY herself. But in the star role, as pirate and smuggler Captain Clegg, who has assumed a new identity as village priest Dr. Syn, we have George Arliss. The Iron Duke, as he was affectionately known, is a queer kind of film star, and an even stranger action hero. With a face like a feminine skull, nostrils so flared as to be positively bell-bottomed, and a skeletal frame of sharp angles like an elongated swastika, he resembles the mummified corpse of Kenneth Williams, animated by hidden pneumatic tubes. I guess the closest thing there’s been to him since was Peter Cushing, and indeed Cushing played this role in a Hammer remake in 1962.

The whole tenor of the film is pretty theatrical, in line with British cinema of the time generally, but Arliss himself is at times quite subtle. Describing himself as “a strange man,” he is as divided a performer as Clegg is a character, commingling sensitivity with a crisp kind of barnstorming. He’s no Todd Slaughter, though: his work is quite nuanced, and Katherine Hepburn credited him with teaching her film acting. (Come to think of it, Hepburn could have dragged up as Arliss quite convincingly.)

At the helm of the whole venture is Roy William Neill, a British-born director who’d made his career in Hollywood. Lured back to the UK to make a few movie, he was lined up to make the project which eventually became Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES, but political problems on location shut the production down. The designer of that film, Vetchinsky, creates an atmospherically angular, overhanging village for the shadowy goings on in Dimchurch.

This story has elements in common with every smuggling yarn the cinema has seen — as with MOONFLEET, the smugglers are mistaken for phantoms. (Neill would use a variation on this gimmick in his Sherlock Holmes movie THE SCARLET CLAW.) Rather than using a churchyard as entry to their secret lair, the criminal gang here use the coffin-maker’s house, and there’s a secret entrance behind a tombstone. As with JAMAICA INN, a pillar of the community is secretly a pirate chief. In fact, this premise seems to go back to the true story of Deacon Brodie, a respected town councillor by day and a burglar by night, a man whose dual nature seems to have played a role in suggesting the story of Jekyll and Hyde to Robert Louis Stevenson.

Asides from the Hammer remake and a Disney version starring Patrick McGoohan (possibly the most atmospheric and accomplished interpretation), the film seems to have inspired CARRY ON DICK, in which Sid James as Dick Turpin has a secret identity as a village vicar, a wrinkle not to be found in previous Turpin narratives, so far as I’m aware.

The strangest and most fascinating element of DR. SYN is the character played by Hungarian actor Meinhart Maur (a refugee who had worked for Fritz Lang in Germany). Known only as “the mulatto,” he’s disturbingly presented as a mute, subhuman creature who is used by the customs and excise officials as a kind of sniffer dog. As the story goes on, his unfolding backstory invites more and more sympathy, and the racist overtones recede slightly: we lean that he was mutilated and left to die by Clegg, his ears and tongue severed. He’s still portrayed as a horror movie monster (women scream at his appearance), but he actually has our sympathy. Only at the very end do we learn that Clegg was avenging his wife, whom the mulatto had “attacked” (an obvious code-word for something cinematic mulattos have a long history of attempting), clearing the way for a happy ending where the ethnically and physically handicapped avenger is blown to bits by dynamite.

British cinema can be creepy.

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