Archive for The Lodger

Ceiling Hero

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2010 by dcairns

CITIZEN KANE images via Checking on My Sausages.

In between saying inspiring things like, “Remake ORDINARY PEOPLE. Do it in your apartment. Play all the roles. Make it in a day,” my host in NYC, the esteemed Comrade K, projection into our sphere of a numinous, n-dimensional shepherd-warrior from a land before history, got me started on the following set of thoughts by an offhand remark, which went something like, “People were amazed by the ceilings in CITIZEN KANE. Nobody had ever seen a ceiling before. People couldn’t look up before Orson Welles showed them how.”

He’s right! Welles made the breakthrough by practicing a unique form of yogic meditation taught him by Rudy Vallee. This resulted in the opening of Welles’s “third eye,” which coincided with him lying on his back, causing him to discover the ceiling of his living room. It has been argued that people intuitively knew of the existence of ceilings before this, since logically every floor must have an underside. Some feminist writers have suggested that the ceiling’s true discoverer was a woman, arguing that the prevalence of the missionary position in pre-war life made such an awareness inescapable for the fair sex. But this strikes me as akin to arguing that people “had dreams” before Freud taught them how in his hit book, Close Your Eyes and Move Them Rapidly About.

Some point to the glass ceiling shot in Hitchcock’s THE LODGER as a pre-Wellesian ceiling, but in fact this is nothing more than a glass floor, above which Hitchcock suspended his camera while two burly stagehands held Ivor Novello upside down so he could place his feet on the translucent surface and mimic the actions of a right-side-up walker.  So in fact the shot actually depicts a floor, with Novello on the other side of it. Incidentally, Novello enjoyed the experience so much that he spent a month traveling this way, and had it specified in future contracts that all his films must include upside down walks. Novello later composed “Rose of England” in an entirely inverted position, complete with upside-down grand piano strapped to the backs of a half-dozen burros.

In explaining his concept to art director Van Nest Polglase, Welles was faced with the difficulty of introducing the concept of the ceiling to a man who, like everyone else in 1940s America, had never seen one. Resistant to yogic disciplines, Polglase finally had to be shoved onto his back and held down by Joseph Cotten, while Welles peeled back the eminent designer’s eyelids and forced him to look. Concerted to the cause, “Poley” later became a great proselytizer for the ceiling, even having a house constructed in Beverly Hills composed entirely of ceilings, top, bottom and sides, inside and out. The famous Polglase House was later purchased by James Mason, who had a notorious phobia of doors*. Living in a home whose rooms could be accessed only by skylights appealed greatly to the Huddersfield-born actor.

In addition to the heavily corniced plaster ceilings displayed in KANE, there were several “trick ceilings” — canvas ceilings through which sound could be recorded, and matte painting ceilings to fill in the top portions of large sets, where a real ceiling would be too costly or frightening. Welles also used his mastery of sleigh-of-hand to suggest ceilings that weren’t actually there, enlisting the audience’s imagination by saying things like “Look at that amazing CEILING!” while subtly pointing upwards, or hanging photographs and etchings of great ceilings from history around the walls of a ceiling-less set. In the New York Inquirer set, Welles experimented with rear projection, stretching a screen across the top of the set walls and projecting outtakes from SON OF KONG onto it, but test audiences found the stop motion pterodactyls distracting, and the notion was abandoned.

When KANE was released, the impact was extraordinary. Columbia boss Harry Cohn immediately called in architects to build a ceiling for his office, which until that point had opened on to the room above, forcing the accounts department to rappel from the ceiling to reach their work stations. Suddenly, it became possible to build structures higher than a couple of storeys, and miracle “skyscrapers” mushroomed up in America’s great cities. (Tall buildings seen in pre-1941 movies were always fantastical special effects.)

While Hollywood legend has it that Welles’s film was a flop, it has been suggested that audiences, alerted to these mysterious planes above their heads, became distracted from the cinema screen and spent the movie’s running time staring upwards past the projector beam. Not for the first time, Welles had been too innovative for his own good.

*In civilian life, Mason was only able to enter a room by the window, or while strapped to a hospital gurney, or sometimes both. Ironically, in the movies, he could “act” walking through a door with ease and even suavity, even picking up awards for his smooth entrances. Whereas Pat Boone, Mason’s co-star in JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH, could enter a room in a graceful, natural manner, but invariably either stumbled, fainted, or soiled himself when called upon to do so for the films.

How to Seduce Joan Fontaine, #45 of 1,000,000,000

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2009 by dcairns

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Buy her a Borgia handbag.

IVY (1947) is one of those movies where everything and everybody comes together in a frabjous fusion of talents and creates something really special: it ought to be far better known. A gaslight melodrama about a ruthless female poisoner who simply MUST have nice things, it made me feel as if someone had cut me open and inserted a big cake made of happiness.

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The principle underrated talent here is Sam Wood, whose career encompasses all kinds of nice stuff, from pre-code SHEIK knock-off THE BARBARIAN, to the Marx Brothers classic A DAY AT THE RACES. He’s kind of an anti-auteur, though, since his work usually effaces any recognizable directorial signature in favour of foregrounding performers and script, and darts about between genres in an efficient but anonymous fashion. But his small-town diptych, KING’S ROW and it’s opposite, OUR TOWN, are nevertheless very impressive entertainments. Perhaps the splendid visuals in each are more the work of Menzies, but Wood serves them up with genuine filmic aplomb.

Both movies were collaborations with the great production designer William Cameron Menzies, who also produced IVY. His monumental compositional sense is all over it. As if that weren’t enough, the film also boasts Russell Metty (TOUCH OF EVIL, WRITTEN ON THE WIND) on camera, music by Daniele Amphitheatrof (LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN) and a screenplay by regular Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett. I do actually wonder if some of the British Hitchcocks upon which Bennett worked would have been improved if he’s been the sole writer: this movie and NIGHT OF THE DEMON show the hand of a skilled and witty scribe who didn’t need any help to craft a delicious story. (IVY is based on a novel by mrs. Belloc Lowndes, author of The Lodger.)

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We begin in a splendidly artificial suburban street, where the entrance of a black cat, crossing our heroine’s path, seems intended to add a but of naturalism, but just ends up emphasizing the theatrical nature of this world. Our heroine — Ivy — Joan Fontaine — enters a cramped little residence in a furtive manner, paying a guinea to the little man who seems to be some kind of proprietor. The whole thing has the feel of a backstreet abortionist’s, until the little man sits at an upright piano and begins to supply mood music. You don’t get that sort of ambient care when Denholm Elliott’s guddling about in your innards with a rusty coat hanger.

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This establishment is in fact the home of a fortune teller, Mrs. Thrawn (a good Scots word meaning crazy/difficult), embodied by a remarkably restrained Una O’Connor, who proceeds to gaze into the beyond and tell Joan her future. “Does it have screeching in it?” I wondered. It does, but not from Una: comic maid duties in this film are performed by Rosalind Ivan, a fabulous character actress I’d never before encountered.

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VERY striking, vertically deranged composition introducing Madame Una, which is not only bold and eerie in itself — part of a breathlessly hushed yet manically intense shuffling of giant ECUs in this menacing yet domestic little cameo — but totally SMART, because it will chime later with a similar weird POV shot later…

Armed with a set of predictions, Joan goes forth to put them into action: she’s been advised to ditch her present lover, as another, richer one will be coming along. She doesn’t know quite what to do about her husband, other than passively suggest he might be happier with a divorce, but it’s nothing doing. The romantic quadrangle eventually adds up like so:

Ivy Lexton: wants to be rich.

Jervis Lexton: Ivy’s impoverished husband. Devoted to her, but quite incapable of offering her the luxury she desires.

Dr. Roger Gretorex: her current lover, equally devoted but only a bit wealthier. But he does have access to irritant poison.

Miles Rushworth: fabulously wealthy, and obviously drawn to Ivy, even if he is supposed to be marrying someone else. Come to think of it, this could be viewed as a romantic pentangle.

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Miles is played by Herbert Marshall, who didn’t always have the best luck with women onscreen — he was married to Bette Davis in two William Wylers, and he looks set to walk into Ivy’s poisonous clutches, only the other two chumps must be gotten rid off. They’re only played by Richard Ney and Patric Knowle, so can be considered disposable. Ivy conceives the idea of doing one in and framing the other.

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Here you go: another beautifully peculiar bottom-heavy composition introduces the POV shot of the irritant poison (every doctor keeps a large supply — it’s very handy), tying it in to the predictions of Madame Una, as Joan F. interprets them.

It’s really too entertaining, and if you haven’t seen it, you must, even though it’s hard to get. Write to your MP or something. Any movie where Joan F. gets to play a bitch-goddess is tops in my book, and it’s even better here since she plays the role with all the shy, shrinking mannerisms of her roles in REBECCA and SUSPICION, the flipside of those characters being the passive-aggressive succubus virago. Her shoulders go up as if trying to shield her ears from the wicked world, her head tilts slightly to one side as if she’s trying to wriggle out through a crack in the universe, and her eyes roll up just very slightly, escaping contact with those terrible people who want things from her, and consulting with the fiendish little brain concealed beneath that bland and beautiful brow.

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Throw in the awesome Sarah Allgood as a virtuous maid and Cedric Hardwicke as a detective — “You know the case is officially over, so I’m not allowed to think… But today’s my day off.” I think I’ve been guilty of badly underestimating Sir Cedric over the years. He always seemed like a bit of an old stick in ROPE, but he’s drolly amusing in Wet Saturday, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents drawn from a story by the great John Collier, he does a smart cockney plod here, and so I’m going to keep an eye on him this time in ROPE…

In this movie he doesn’t get to wear specs, so we can enjoy his eye-bags more fully. They’re not bulging valises like those appended to the orbs of Philip Baker Hall, nor are they quite the thin, almost translucent arcs inscribed beneath Henry Daniell’s optical apparatus, which resemble a little domino mask cut from his own skin. Cedric’s bags are like little polythene sacks which have had all the air sucked out of them, yet retain a certain three-dimensional heft around the edges. Apparently he stored his snuff in them when he wasn’t using his face for acting.

Second Intertitle of the Week: A Tale of Two Ivors

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2009 by dcairns

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Photographed off my TV set.

THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG — titles written by Ivor Montagu, who was brought in to “rescue” the troubled production, and realised it didn’t need rescuing. So instead he concentrated on helping it fulfill its potential, rather than steering it into some safer direction, as his studio bosses had intended.

(Montagu’s short comedy BLUEBOTTLES, which stars Elsa Lanchester and is very amusing, plays exactly like a cross-breeding of Keaton’s COPS with Hitchcock’s THE LODGER. It’s well worth a look, if you can find the VHS BFI British Avant Garde collection tape it appears in.)

The description “a but queer” may seem slightly tittersome today, especially given what we may or may not know about star Ivor Novello’s proclivities* but in fact the joke may well be deliberate, a private chuckle between Hitch and Montagu — it’s highly likely that Hitch, always interested in what everybody was up to between the sheets, had sussed Novello’s same-sex inclination. Indeed, to a modern audience, Novello is so obviously camp the surprise is that he ever passed himself off as a straight romantic lead to a movie-going audience. But the public had a whole different psyche then.

(The casting of whispery Laird Cregar in the ’40s remake suggests that this role was somehow seen as inherently queer, though by the time of 1953’s MAN IN THE ATTIC, the part has gone to Jack Palance, about whose red-bloodedness there can be no doubt. The universe would surely splinter if the slightest aspersion were cast in that direction.)

As for “he is a gentleman,” there’s a fascinating class undercurrent to THE LODGER, with Novello’s apparent “difference” (social, sexual, behavioural) marking him out as suspect from the start, although to be fair to the lower-middle-class supporting cast, there IS a murderer stalking the streets. In casting Novello, Hitch had to concoct an ending where he turns out to be innocent, leading to a rather funny fantasy of class mobility, as leading lady June (no surname — just June, please) meets the hero in his frickin’ PALACE, while mum and dad discretely make themselves scarce in its Xanadu-like depths. When a happy ending is THIS happy, some slight authorial cynicism can fairly be suspected.

Titles designed by E. McKnight Kauffer, who combines the influences of German Expressionism and Russian Constructivism, I’d say. And it’s been argued many times that this is exactly what Hitch does too.

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*Lying naked in a glass coffin while road workers and other rough trade filed into the room and “mourned” him, sexually.

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