Archive for The Man Who Knew Too Much

Waverley Steps

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2012 by dcairns

Got my complimentary disc of THE 39 STEPS from Criterion. If you buy this Blu-ray you will, among other things, be easily able to discern the poster for THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH in the above image, which purports to represent Waverley Station in Edinburgh…

Dan Sallitt is in town for the Edinburgh International Film Festival with his excellent new feature film THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT. By a very weird coincidence my guest Chris Bourton brought with him the Blu-ray of RUGGLES OF RED GAP, which features a fine essay by Mr Sallitt. We watched the movie and enjoyed it. And by an even weirder coincidence, Charles Laughton’s character in the film is referred to (falsely) as a member of the Black Watch regiment, which is based in Edinburgh.

And — new in shops — my essay is attached to the Blu-ray of THE LOST WEEKEND.

Ruggles of Red Gap [Masters of Cinema] (Dual Format Edition) [Blu-ray] [1935]

The Lost Weekend [Masters of Cinema] (Blu-ray) [1945]

The 39 Steps (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Sapped

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2011 by dcairns

“Who you fucking?” This is apparently how actor Richard Johnson (83) greets friends he hasn’t seen for a while. It’s a pertinent question in DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1967), in which RJ plays “Bulldog” Drummond, partially re-imagined for the James Bond era. Or, since the screenwriter in question is by Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster, we might say de-imagined. Despite his Bondifying, this manly protag is weirdly abstinent sexually, and some of his bedroom antics are treated with a weird attempt at “plausible deniability” as if the censor still cared how many ladies the hero laid.

As part of the refit, “Bulldog” is now a jet-setting businessman, or insurance man, or something, which doesn’t seem to amp up his glamour any to me. Also, nobody calls him “Bulldog” — almost as if they were ashamed to be making a “Bulldog” Drummond movie. They needn’t be — it’s a character with a long, dishonourable tradition. The highlight of poor BD’s screen career is probably the fact that THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the film that kickstarted Hitchcock’s espionage cycle in Britain in the ‘thirties, started life as an idea for a BD movie. Anyhow, having rejected “Bulldog” as too laughable for the ‘sixties, Sangster is stuck with a hero whose first name is Hugh.

Rather than being accompanied by a near-deformed upper-class imbecile called Reggie, the new, disimproved Hugh is saddled with an American nephew called *can’t remember and can’t be bothered looking it up*. This blatant sop to out friends across the water is surely flawed by the fact that Nephew is an entirely useless character who gets captured and tortured a lot.

Ah yes, torture. The stories by “Sapper” apparently can be quite brutal (and racist) at times, and this is seized upon by Sangster, whose bread and butter was horror movies, after all. This results in some tonal lurching, as our hero threatens to break a thug’s legs by crushing them against a wall with his car (the guy gets off with badly barked shins), and Nephewman gets singed with lit cheroot and lighter by the sexy bad gals. Such nastiness sits awkwardly with the film’s flip, silly plotting and fun gimmicks like a giant remote-control chess-board.

Also, Johnson is a disaster as a sub-Bondian hero — he makes a tweedy professor seem sexy in THE HAUNTING by way of unexpectedness, but typecast as a staunch protag he’s as useless as Anthony Steele, and that’s saying something. Of course, the writing doesn’t help — while Bond movies always feature one or two scenes of pure exposition enlivened by gags and sparring with M & Q, Sangster fills the whole first half of the film with endless waffle, board meetings and chats with informants, which lack any dramatic tension. That stuff gets supplied by the in-between scenes where Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina wiggle about in revealing costumes killing everybody they meet.

In the first five minutes, Elke has killed an oil magnate with a novelty exploding cigar (it fires a bullet through his head, actually), blown up his private jet while parachuting into the ocean, and joined Sylva to speargun some poor guy to death while wearing startling bikinis. Later on, they’ll use curare to paralyse Leonard Rossiter before rolling him out the window of his penthouse shagging palace. All good clean fun, and helped by the film’s best writing (Koscina is always borrowing Sommer’s stuff, leading to lighthearted squabbling). Elke has little in the way of comic flair (beneath that curvaceous exterior throbs a talent of hinged plywood) by Sylva is pretty hilarious, giving her sadism a touch of knowing innocence that’s very Takashi Miike.

Director Ralph Thomas of the Thomas filmmaking clan (brother Gerald produced the CARRY ON series, son Jeremy has produced Bertolucci and Cronenberg) actually makes a fair fist of things, aided by Malcolm Lockyer’s John Barry impression on the soundtrack (title song by the Walker Brothers) — on this evidence, Thomas could have directed a James Bond movie at least as well as, say, Guy Hamilton. He has Nigel Green as the evil mastermind, which helps. But ultimately, the static, boring script sinks most of it, especially the low-grade quips. I envisage Sangster’s script being full of footnotes, pretty much whenever Drummond opens his mouth — “Insert wisecrack here.” But somebody forgot to do so, and thus we get devastating parting shots like “Hey, don’t forget your panties.”

Quick Fire

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2010 by dcairns

THE FIRE RAISERS is a Michael Powell quota quickie with a couple of familiar names in its credits –

Alfred Junge on art direction: Junge designed several of the great Powell-Pressburger films of the forties, before Powell decided to replace him with costume designer Hein Heckroth. (Junge’s reluctance to place a Coke machine in the anteroom of the afterlife in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH decided Powell that the man was no longer on his wavelength. Still, for a while, Junge was one of the key Germans in Powell’s team.)

Derek Twist on editing: Twist rescued EDGE OF THE WORLD from disaster, in Powell;s view, and later got a directing gig on END OF THE RIVER, although jungle sickness meant he didn’t actually direct for much of it.

Leslie Banks as leading man: apart from being THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH for Hitchcock, Banks would later appear in THE SMALL BACK ROOM. In that mature masterwork, Banks’ prominent facial scarring works fine for his character, an old-school army general. In the Hitchcock, his scar is ignored — British films often seemed indifferent to such things as scars, bad teeth or what we might think of as general physical unsuitability for leading man status. But here, Powell seems to see the scar as a problem, so he shoots Banks’ right profile more or less continuously. Banks always drives his car from left to right, always sits on the left of screen, only turning around in long-shot, and when his face is featured in three-quarter view, Powell has him adopt this pose –

The constant side-views get a bit Dick Tracy for my liking.

The movie itself is entertaining, with Banks as a roguish insurance investigator whose unethical practices eventually slip into wholesale criminality, when he hooks up with arsonist and fraudster Francis L Sullivan (later of NIGHT AND THE CITY fame). Sullivan gives the best performance (oily villainy was his stock-in-trade) but Banks is very good. The detective on their trail, named Twist in order of the film’s cutter, is played by Lawrence Anderson, father of Michael Anderson, who directed THE DAMBUSTERS, LOGAN’S RUN, etc.

Francis Sullivan (right) gets all the best bits.

Powell shows signs of real creativity a few times. “It’s time we did a fade-out,” says Anderson at one point, and Powell fades to black, a po-mo touch reminiscent of the famous “One is starved for Technicolor up there,” in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. And in this scene, we get a torture-by-mantra moment that recalls the “Is it safe?” routine in MARATHON MAN, as well as the montages of villains that would feature in Sergio Leone’s westerns.

This was Powell’s eleventh film in four years, and he’d hardly had a moment to absorb the lessons being flung at him, but we can definitely see him start to flex his muscles in this one — even if the results are a little ridiculous at times.

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