Archive for The Magician

“I Adore Arabs – I Mean the REAL Ones!”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville, taking a break from Cine Dorado, his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama, casts an eye over the final film of Ireland’s greatest auteur, Rex Ingram.

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Rex Ingram and Baroud

Shot on location in Morocco in 1931, Baroud (1933) was the last film (and the only talkie) of legendary silent director Rex Ingram. Perhaps the defining Hollywood maestro of the 20s – with hits like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923) and Mare Nostrum (1925) – Ingram was as vital and influential a figure as D W Griffith had been a decade before. Yet by the dawn of the 30s, Ingram – much like Griffith – was seen as an unemployed and unemployable has-been. An obsolete (and silent) dinosaur in the brave new world of sound.

It’s easy to blame his downfall on this rapid and sudden shift in the technology of movies. Ingram, after all, was a supremely visual artist in a medium given over – in the early 30s – to wisecracks, musical numbers and chat. Easy but, perhaps, untrue. The careers of both Ingram and Griffith went into free-fall some years before Al Jolson sang in The Jazz Singer (1927). In the case of Griffith, the problem is all too clear. His brand of neo-Victorian melodrama looked quaint and out-of-date in the Jazz Age; his heavy drinking only exacerbated his woes.

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For Ingram, whose style and sensibility were far more modern, the case is more complex. Born in Dublin in 1893, he studied sculpture at the Yale School of Fine Arts and entered movies during World War I. After his run of triumphs in the early 20s, he fell out with MGM over NOT being allowed to direct the 1926 super-production of Ben Hur. Taking off in high dudgeon to the French Riviera, he built his own film studios (Victorine, in Nice) and indulged in what was euphemistically called ‘independent production’. The films he made there – The Magician (1926) and The Garden of Allah (1927) – were not successful enough to sustain him. A later film made in Britain, The Three Passions (1929), was an ignominious flop.

So it was clear by the 30s that Rex Ingram would never be a ‘company man’. More damaging, perhaps, was the gossip around his personal life. Although he was married to the dazzling blonde Alice Terry – the leading lady in virtually all his films – the couple lived in different homes for most of their marriage. Ingram’s true passion, it was said, was a string of dark, exotic and sculpturally handsome young actors who played his male leads. Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro and Ivan Petrovich were all ‘discovered’ by Ingram – and the Hollywood casting couch has never been just for young ladies. Tongues wagged that Ingram was “peculiar” with a weakness for “gentlemen of a sepia tint”.

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Pierre Batcheff, the dashing White Russian who stars in Baroud (his career ranged from Siren of the Tropics (1927) with Josephine Baker to Un Chien Andalou (1928) for Dalí and Buñuel) looks like an Ingram leading man in the classic mould. He even plays the Valentino-esque role of a lusty desert tribesman. (‘Baroud’, as the opening titles so helpfully tell us, is a North African word for a tribal war.) In one of the few amusing moments, an English lady traveller who wants to “engage” him crows with joy when she finds out he’s “a real sheikh” – not just some guide who’s been dolled up to lure horny tourists.

If Ingram had only allowed Batcheff to be the centre of the film, Baroud might at least make enjoyable eye candy. The script, alas places him on one side of a triangle involving his sister (Rosita Garcia) and his French comrade-in-arms, who’s played ill-advisedly by Ingram himself. (Was this, perhaps, a bid to save money?) It was often said, in his heyday, that Ingram was handsome enough to play the lead in his own films. What his admirers neglected to say was that he lacked the ability to act. In fact, the acting in Baroud is universally atrocious; only Batcheff gives something you might call a performance. So the love triangle – for all its incestuous and homoerotic overtones – can’t help but fall resoundingly flat.

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The more interesting scenes hint, nonetheless, at an ‘abnormal’ closeness between the two male leads. The first is a sleazy nightclub sequence – an Ingram staple since Valentino’s iconic tango in The Four Horsemen. Here, Ingram catches the eye of a platinum blonde chanteuse but passes her on smoothly to Batcheff. Their wink of lustful complicity suggests the two boys could have just as much fun without her. At a table nearby, a turbaned spahi puffs on a cigar and blows the smoke out through his ears; the singer repels an unwanted suitor by stubbing her cigarette out in his beer. So glamorously fetid is the ambience that one half expects Marlene Dietrich to stride in wearing a tuxedo. (Ingram’s co-writer, incidentally, was Benno Vigny – who also wrote Amy Jolly, the novel on which Morocco (1930) was based.)

A few scenes later, Batcheff has reason to suspect his sister has ‘dishonored’ herself with his infidel friend. A confrontation takes place at the barracks, in a cosy room shared by the two men. Batcheff pulls out an impressively phallic dagger and fondles it, menacingly, at crotch level. Ingram eyes him with some curiosity – until Batcheff flicks the blade out and lets him admire it. Tossing his weapon on the bed, he watches as Ingram picks it up and plays with it in turn. The camera fades on a loving close-up of the curved, gleaming knife. Perhaps the most flamboyantly queer sequence in Ingram’s output, the scene leaves little doubt that one man is ‘sticking’ something to his closest pal.

Too bad if such scene-specific readings make Baroud sound more interesting (or, at any rate, more fun) than it really is. Much of the film is taken up by interminable location footage, in which pro-French spahis and rebel tribesmen march from one side of the screen to the other, and back again. In Ingram’s earlier films, his studio-built recreations of Buenos Aires and Ruritania and Revolutionary France compel us with their dazzling detail. The Satanic orgy in The Magician makes even Hell look like a real place. But the dusty location shots in Baroud turn real-life Morocco into a succession of bad sets. Ingram, like most great film-makers, was an illusionist and not a realist. Did he realise this, perhaps, when it was already too late?

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So Baroud is a catastrophically bad film, but one that only a gifted artist could have made. It shows us Ingram poised – with excruciating awkwardness – between melodrama and realism, exoticism and reportage, homosexual and heterosexual love. A cinematic ‘dead zone’ from which no film-maker (except for Pasolini, perhaps) could ever have escaped. Returning to Hollywood, where he died in 1950, Ingram worked on as a painter, sculptor and novelist – but never again in films. Baroud has scarcely been seen, either in the 30s or since, but is well worth seeking out. As long as you don’t expect to enjoy it.

David Melville

December 2013

The Mysterious Mr If, Part the Tenth

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2011 by dcairns

Just re-reading the 1910 installment of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and reading for the first time the new 1969 episode, and am surprised to find a “Mr. Simon Iff” in it — this being a character from Aleister Crowley’s novel The Moonchild, a stand-in for the Great Beast himself. One of Moore’s amusing conceits is to suggest that all film & literature’s pseudo-Crowleys — Oliver Haddo in THE MAGICIAN, Julian Karswell in NIGHT OF THE DEMON, Mocato in THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and the suspiciously-similar Adrian Marcato in ROSEMARY’S BABY (remind me to do a whole piece on the occult significance of names in the movie) — are the same person, endlessly faking his own death and reinventing himself via metempsychosis — a word from Ulysses which Moore doesn’t use but which popped into my head due to the fact that I’m reading Joyce. 

Anyhow — this week’s installment of my inexplicably unproduced feature script sees us visit a location familiar to movie buffs: GREYFRIARS BOBBY: THE STORY OF A DOG and THE BODY SNATCHER recreated the place on sound stages, while THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE shot there for real. 

The idea of a surreal intermission is clearly swiped from Lester’s HELP! and the line inscribed on a tree is from HELLZAPOPPIN! so I must have been invoking Hel, Norse goddess of the underworld, for this appropriately funereal episode. 

Now read on…

EXT. GREYFRIARS CHURCHYARD – NIGHT

The little bronze statue of feared hound “Greyfriars Bobby” is garlanded with onions and adorned with a suspicious rabbinical beard.

The shadowy figure of If sweeps through the ancient cemetery scattering Scots Porridge Oats from a packet.

MR. IF

By the Endymion moon above, arise, my proud beauties! In the shadow of the bronze pup, I give life to these clay puddings.

Mist rises from the ground in an unnatural manner.

MR. IF

Get born, you terpsichorean terrors! Your master calls you, with whistle and lyre!

He blows on a silent dog whistle and strums a washboard.

A slender feminine hand bursts through the lawn at his feet.

MR. IF

That’s it, Pansy! This world welcomes careless girlies! The night is young and we’re all so beautiful!

Two more hands spring forth, clutching at the night air.

MR. IF

Come, Prancer, come Fido, come Barbara and Steve! Come Nervo, come Brando, come Compo and Spock!

Six young BALLERINAS in dog masks emerge from the earth.

MR. IF

My Borzoi Ballet! Our bridal gowns shall be plywood and paint. In a chariot of frozen milk drawn by four daffodils, we shall storm St. Giles’ Cathedral and force the city rat catcher to pronounce us man and wives. But first, a word from our sponsors.

He thrusts his porridge pack at us and we CUT TO:

EXT. GREYFRIARS CHURCHYARD – DAY

PRIEST

Amen.

A group of MOURNERS, many of them in police uniform, including a squad standing in formation with rifles.

The PRIEST is in full drone.

PRIEST

…although Inspector Shinty’s life was not so much cut short, as prolonged beyond all reason…

DI. Turner and Mr. Netherbow are among the group.

Netherbow, hat clamped on head, sneaks a look at his watch.

Turner spots a cloaked figure lurking behind a tree. Squinting, he sees that it is just a tattered black bin liner caught in the branches. He smiles ruefully.

PRIEST

…with the full ceremonial honours befitting an officer of his extraordinarily long service.

MR. NETHERBOW

And speaking of extraordinarily long services…

The squad raise their rifles and fire into the air as one.

As if in reply, a harpoon WHUNGS out from behind the bin bag tree, and a policeman crumples, impaled.

The squad turns as one man and blasts away at the tree. Branches and chunks of bark fly through the air as half the tree is destroyed.

At length the guns fall silent and Turner hurries over to the shattered elm.

Rounding the tree, Turner finds a spray-painted graffita written down the length of the trunk:

HA HA YOU MISSED ME YOU NEED GLASSES.

Trotting over to the grave side, Turner finds Netherbow kneeling by the slain copper. The curator is examining a slip of PARCHMENT attached to the harpoon. His pinched face is a study of superstitious terror.

MR. NETHERBOW

“Egg tower mouth doo go jet wren.”

High in the branches of the bullet-ridden tree… high, high up…no, higher… that’s it: a bird’s nest. In it, an egg. Closer. The egg cracks open to reveal a brass dog statuette.

A melodramatic LAUGH echoes as we go to:

TITLE: INTERMISSION.

Scratchy black and white film stock of hands working at a Potter’s Wheel. The hands gently shape the blob of wet clay until it has formed an approximation of an erect male organ.

TITLE: WE NOW RETURN YOU TO THE MAIN PROGRAMME.

EXT. GREYFRIAR’S CHURCHYARD – DAY

Netherbow and Turner stand over the slaughtered cop.

MR. NETHERBOW

Monstrous insolence! The fiend!

PRIEST

And I thought the service had gone rather well until…

TURNER

Don’t blame yourself, Father. Still, I wonder what that note means…

INT. COMPUTER ROOM, EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY – EVENING

The Prof examines an unusual computer printout. Strange.

PROF

I wonder what it means…

The binary data is arranged to form a picture of a hen.

A distant barnyard CACKLE echoes…

To be continued…

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