Archive for The Tell-Tale Heart

Hume and Desire

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2011 by dcairns

Jules Dassin has a short way with stool pigeons ~

And this was before he got ratted out to HUAC.

The movie is BRUTE FORCE, really the beginning of director Jules Dassin’s run of good Hollywood films before he was compelled to work abroad (where he made more good films). Dassin tended to completely dismiss his earlier movies, forbidding their inclusion in retrospectives, although his short THE TELL-TALE HEART is excellent, and NAZI AGENT with Conrad Veidt is pretty good. He wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about BRUTE FORCE either, correctly remarking, “But all these prisoners are such nice, sweet people–they’re all so lovely–what are they doing in jail?”

Stuff like the drawn-out assassination the stoolie helps offset the sentimentality, and there’s a fine, nihilistic, quasi-apocalyptic ending, which shores things up. Flashbacks to the prisoners’ lives on the outset allow minute cameos for the likes of Ella Raines and Yvonne DeCarlo, who are always welcome, but they actually puncture airholes in the picture’s claustrophobic intensity, and let the pressure seep out. Inoffensive as scenes, they’re seriously damaging to the dramatic tension.

Fortunately, the movie is held together by the very different styles of Burt Lancaster (physical, simple and direct) and Hume Cronyn (crafty, contrived, but effective) as tough convict and fascist deputy warden. Cronyn is working to undermine his boss by fomenting trouble so he can take over, but he gets more trouble than he’d been counting on. In the concluding riot, the prisoners eventually transform into a foretaste of Romero’s ravenous zombies. It’s pretty alarming.

Well hello.

What makes the conflict more than usually juicy is Cronyn’s decision to play his role quiet, sibilant and coded gay, and Dassin’s collaboration in presenting him with a good bit of innuendo. The rifle polishing is downright suggestive. Torturing a prisoner with a rubber hose while Wagner blasts out of the gramophone is a pretty pointed bit of characterisation, with Hume’s fine array of Greco-Roman muscle art supplying a further raising of the eyebrow.

Dassin is one of cinema’s few likable sadists — his interest in the sexuality of violence or the violence of sexuality seems clear to me, highlighted by whippings in RIFIFI and THE LAW, and the perversity of BRUTE FORCE, but it never splurges out of its rightful place in the narrative. It’s also dramatically harnessed by the storylines of NIGHT AND THE CITY, UP TIGHT! and others, where the whole second half of the narrative consists of putting the protagonist through the ringer (has any leading man ever sweated so much as Richard Widmark in NATC?) — the idea of drama as a means of confronting the hero with everything he fears, everything that could destroy him, destructive testing for the human personality, is very much to the fore. Meanwhile, Melina Mercouri and Maximilian Schell’s relationship in TOPKAPI seems pleasantly kinky.

Furthermore, excusing Dassin’s relish for cruelty is the fact that, as a man, he was more sinned against than sinning. I know of no stories showing him to be cruel personally, but the blacklist certainly caused him to suffer. If he indulges a taste for fantasy violence in his work, that seems decidedly harmless by comparison.

BRUTE FORCE’s prison populace is dotted with familiar faces, like calypso singer Sir Lancelot, familiar from many a Val Lewton chiller, Jeff Corey, and Charles McGraw, whose whisky-singed snarl as one of the titular bad-asses in THE KILLERS should have qualified him for a bigger part, only Lancaster and Ava Gardner apparently stole all the attention in that one.

BRUTE FORCE is an effective prison drama as long as it keeps its mind on its job. Producer Mark Hellinger and screenwriter Richard Brooks are probably responsible for the editorializing from the prison doctor (Art Smith), who delivers drunken lectures at every turn about society’s responsibility to its convicts, but he raises the whole thing up into a tasty film noir stratosphere with his last lines, the absurdly heavy-handed, allegorical, yet rather thrillingly bleak “Nobody ever escapes!” Spoken with a crash of music from Miklos “Mr Subtlety” Rosza, and a pull-back through the prison bars from Dassin, showing the doctor as just as much a prisoner as everybody else, including the audience.

All this week, Shadowplay is participating in the For the Love of Film (Noir) film preservation blogathon. Read more about it here and here. There’s also a donation link, and all contributions go towards restoring Cy Endfield’s searing THE SOUND OF FURY, AKA TRY AND GET ME (reviewed here). This is a really worthwhile cause.

Hearts of Darkness

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on October 27, 2010 by dcairns

So many good versions of THE TELL-TALE HEART — of course, it hasn’t really worked as a feature film (Poe is, in general, tricky to expand to 90 mins or so) — but it would seem ideally suited to short form.

Here’s Vincent Price on TV treating it as a monologue. An absolutely delicious performance, inventive and detailed, giving the lie to the “ham” allegation — there’s nothing broad or clumsy about this, either in terms of behaviour or storytelling (it’s both a reading of the story and a performance piece). It’s funny because it’s witty — hits me like a sugar rush, so many bold and outrageous choices. And it’s not a spoof of Poe, just a relishing of the delirious and absurd elements.

Now here’s Jules Dassin’s short, made at MGM, which kickstarted his career. Best viewed as an exercise in the use of rhythm, deploying performance, sound, music, editing, camera movement and composition to create a poem in visual-narrative form. A very Poe-like approach, since rhythm is central to both the prose and poetry of Poe, and he wrote often about the need for a short story to create a single, unified effect. Say what you like about the auteur theory (and I like to rubbish it occasionally), in film, the director is generally the only person in a position to co-ordinate an approach like this.

And it’s as well he does, because in terms of adaptation, the film has suffered a lot of damaging rationalisation at the hands and minds of MGM — exactly the kind of studio who would balk at Poe’s unmotivated mayhem. Remember, a lot of verbiage is devoted to the important fact, in the story, that the protagonist kills for no good reason, purely because he doesn’t like the Old Man’s “vulture eye”. The MGM rewrite adds logic and motivation and removes interest.

Leading man Joseph Schildkraut had a good career going at MGM until he remarked publicly that he saw Louis B Mayer’s lips move as he signed a contract. Suddenly he wasn’t as in-demand.

Lovely UPA animated version, narrated by James Mason, who has a very different approach from Price but is generally good — it’s more about that amazing, distinctive voice than about detail of performance, although I find no fault there. This is an early UPA (and the first cartoon to get an X Certificate in the UK) and shares with the famous GERALD MCBOING-BOING the quality of ecstatic visual invention, in which design IS storytelling and vice-versa. It’s good and dark, surpassingly beautiful, and doesn’t stint on the maelstrom of angst and confusion that is Poe-try.

“It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

The Tell-tale Tit

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2009 by dcairns

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BA-DOOM, BA-DOOM, BA-DOOM…

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Tell-Tale-Tit!

Yer mammy cannae knit!

Yer dad’s in the dustbin,

Eating dirty chips!

Such was the playground taunt of my childhood, directed against anyone who “clyped”, or ratted on a friend to a teacher or other adult. No reason to mention it here, except that I’ve been watching THE TELL-TALE HEART, a rare British adaptation of Poe, from 1960. Director Ernest Morris was from TV, but does a pretty good job on an obviously tight budget. Also with TV credentials are co-writer Brian Clemens, the mastermind behind The Avengers (and later screenwriter of DR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE and CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER) and producers the Danzigers, specialists in B-films and quota quickies, who were quick to scoop up American talent like Joseph Losey and Richard Lester to direct TV thrillers like Mark Saber.

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Adrienne Corri has shed her DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS puppy fat and is now very skinny indeed, but Laurence Payne doesn’t seem to mind.

The cast reunites two stars from the Danziger’s hilarious DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, Edinburgh-born Adrienne Corri (whose future would feature several films for Hammer, one for Kubrick, and who had already made THE RIVER with Renoir) and Dermot Walsh. In the lead role of this romantic triangle is Laurence Payne, fervently neurasthenic as Edgar Marsh, or is it Edgar Poe? Weirdly, different characters in different scenes refer to him by different names. The confusion is rather surprising — filmmakers weren’t really doing Lynchian identity-blurs in Britain in 1960, and yet it’s a very odd thing to do by accident. Maybe the two credited writers wrote alternate scenes and never compared notes? I like the idea of the film being composed like a surrealist game of “exquisite corpse”, with each author unaware of the other’s pages.

I also liked the patina of weird scratches and smears covering the print, which made me think of the “underfilm” referred to in Theodor Roszak’s great novel Flicker — it was exciting to think that this shimmering mass of unreadable, subliminal runes and hieroglyphs might be branding my subconscious with arcane information that would ultimately sterilise me with fear.

The new plot spun from fragments of Poe’s short story has Poe/Marsh, resident of a big old house on the Rue Morgue (despite the real Poe being American, and this street being French, we seem to be, however vaguely, in England) smitten with Corri, the florist across the street, into whose bedroom he can spy. Like so many horror movie heroines, she has a blithe tendency to undress by the window — it’s one of the many ways in which real women disappoint when compared to their celluloid sisters. Since we’ve already seen Marshpoe perusing his collection of classy porn (staring hard at the pages until his arm falls limply to his side, a peculiarly hands-0ff approach to onanism), we can guess what effect this is likely to have upon him.

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A shy and fumbling suitor, Poemarsh turns to his man-of-the-world best pal, Carl Loomis (1960 was a good year for Loomises), played by Walsh, and suddenly the film seems like a premake of  Richard Lester’s THE KNACK…AND HOW TO GET IT, with a successful loverboy guiding an incompetent novice, until both find themselves competing over a girl. The difference being that Michael Crawford never bludgeoned Ray Brooks to death with a poker and hid him under the living room floor.

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BA-DOOM, BA-DOOM, BA-DOOM…

Now comes the Mario Bava stuff. The incessant beating of the dead man’s heart (?) is picked up by a ticking metronome and a dripping tap, leading me to wonder if Bava’s BLACK SABBATH, three years later, was consciously influenced by this obscure movie. When a claw-like sea-shell ornament and a piece of porcelain start rocking back and forth in time to the beat, I was strongly reminded of the sliding china hand from Bava’s last feature, SHOCK.

Then, my favourite bit, the carpet bulging rhythmically to the beat of the heart, as if the living room floor were a cartoon character’s bosom.

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BA-DOOM, BA-DOOM, BA-DOOM…

Finally, we get the Poe pay-off, “It’s the beating of that infernal heart!” (Payne is great at anguish and hysteria and Ernest Morris has a smart sense of when to let rip with an ECU) , and then an it-was-all-a-dream-or-was-it? ending no doubt inspired by DEAD OF NIGHT, which almost-but-not-quite accounts for the hero’s double name. (He’s Poe in reality, Marsh in his dream — although this schism contributes nothing except a floating caul of confusion.)

Close-up of a chess board where Marsh left it in Poe’s dream: “Checkmate!”

BA-DOOM, BA-DOOM, BA-DOOM…

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