Archive for Theremin

CINE DORADO: O is for La Otra

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2013 by dcairns

David Wingrove returns with another installment in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama. One correction — the first theremin in movies featured in Miklos Rosza’s score for THE LOST WEEKEND, in 1945.

 CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

O is for La otra (The Other One)

A life that could have been but was not.

A fate that chose the most twisted and tortuous paths.

- Dolores del Río in La otra (1946)

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Watching the credits to La otra, you could be forgiven for expecting a sci-fi movie. The camera drifts in outer space, planets aglow in varying shapes and sizes, while a theremin wails frantically on the soundtrack. (The use of this instrument in La otra may well be a movie first.) We might be at a low-budget, black-and-white preview of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! Yet this film, as we shall see, takes place on a planet infinitely stranger and more glamorous than Mars…

In the opening scene, a crowd gathers to mourn a dead millionaire. His widow – her face hidden by a black veil – steps daintily out of a hearse. A mousy woman with glasses pushes through the crowd and fights her way to the widow’s side. As the ladies stand shoulder to (padded) shoulder by the open grave, the inconsolable wife turns to the intruder and hisses: “Couldn’t you find something better to wear?”

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The first big hit for its director Roberto Gavaldón, and an acting tour de force for its star Dolores del Río, La otra (1946) is the Mexican melodrama that defines the entire genre. It is also one of the grandest and most flamboyant ‘women’s pictures’ of the 40s. The lovely Dolores plays not one but both those ladies at the graveside – who are, in fact, twin sisters. The wealthy Magdalena is vain, frivolous, grasping, cruel, selfish and generally vile. Her impoverished sibling, María, is pure, virtuous and hard working. Yet her life is poisoned by jealousy and hatred of the sister who has everything she does not.

Such casting was par for the course in the 40s, when no movie diva of any stature was content to play just one role in a film. In 1944, audiences in Mexico had thrilled to María Félix as blonde and dark femmes fatales in Amok and – from that other film industry north of the border – Maria Montez as good and evil twins in Cobra Woman. In the same year as La otra, Hollywood made ‘twin’ movies with Bette Davis (A Stolen Life) and Olivia de Havilland (The Dark Mirror). Davis – in a final bizarre twist – would remake the plot of La otra in her 1964 vehicle Dead Ringer.

Yet while the twin sisters in Hollywood films embody polar opposites of Good and Evil, the siblings in La otra are both corrupt and vicious to varying degrees. After the funeral, the two repair to the wealthy sister’s mansion, a fantasia of white caryatids and chessboard marble floors. Taking pity for once on her sister, Magdalena flings open her closets (a scene that foreshadows Written on the Wind) and throws a few unwanted designer gowns in her direction. “No, not that one!” she says, having second thoughts. “I’ve promised that one to the maid.”

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While callous Magdalena is fretting over her mourning outfits, poor frumpy María sits at the dressing table and wraps herself, for comfort, in one of her sister’s priceless fur stoles. The butler comes in to announce tea and sees her reflection in the giant mirror. He assumes, naturally, that she is the lady of the house. A strange light flickers, momentarily, in María’s eyes. We know, at that moment, that a dangerous (and probably lethal) plot is about to be hatched.

Leaving the mansion, María overhears the staff gossiping about the 5 million pesos her sister stands to inherit. Out in the street, it’s Christmas Eve and the whole of Mexico City is lottery-mad. The jackpot, of course, is 5 million pesos! This sum passes her on the sides of buses, flashes at her from neon signs. It even hangs over the bar where she goes with her detective boyfriend (played by Argentine tango singer Agustín Irusta). When she rails against her poverty, he says in horror: “I don’t recognise you when you talk like that. It’s as if you’d become another woman!”

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In the film’s bravura set piece, María telephones Magdalena and announces she is going to commit suicide. Mildly annoyed by such histrionics, Magdalena summons her chauffeur and drives to the squalid garret where her sister lives. She climbs the stair in the courtyard, as firecrackers explode around her and children sing hymns in a candlelit procession. At the top of the stairs, María is waiting with a gun. She points it at Magdalena – but we do not see or hear the shot. Instead, a child smashes the head of a piñata hanging in the courtyard; it bursts open, with a deafening bang.

Upstairs, Magdalena is slumped in a rocking chair. Dead. In a scene too graphic and visceral for a Hollywood film, María strips naked in silhouette. She then begins, slowly, to peel off the dead woman’s silk stockings. Finally, dressed in her sister’s clothes, she walks down the stairs to the waiting limousine. (She almost forgets to take off her glasses – but she leaves them on the table, with a suicide note, in the nick of time.) She gets into the car and drives off towards her new life.

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Not that she ever has much fun. Soon, she has to witness the late husband’s will. Unable to forge Magdalena’s signature, she burns her right hand with a hot poker so she can sign with her left. We watch the poker as it heats up slowly on an open fire; we get a close-up of del Río’s exquisite face as it contorts in agony. A few scenes later, a sleazy moustachioed gigolo (Victor Junco) shows up and demands her gratitude – sexual and financial – for helping her to poison her husband. Poor María has no choice but to give in. As she was clearly too respectable to sleep with her boyfriend, we wonder if this new man will notice she’s a virgin…

But even Mexican movies, at their most florid, have to draw a veil over some things. A triumph for Gavaldón’s operatic mise en scène – all multiplying mirrors and ominous shadows – La otra is the equal of any classic Hollywood melodrama of the 40s. The performance(s) of Dolores del Río can rank with the best of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck. Mind you, I’m still not sure why they needed those planets. La otra is in a dimension all of its own.

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David Melville

Let’s Pretend

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2010 by dcairns

THE PRETENDER –

Well, OK, this is a William Lee Wilder film that wouldn’t, all by itself, automatically make you think of him as Billy Wilder’s idiot brother. A brother of inferior talent, certainly, but not absolutely hopeless. The deciding difference is either John Alton’s moody noir photography, which is always a pleasure, even coming at you through a gray fog of low-def VHS, or the script, which has one very nice idea — sleazy stockbroker Albert Dekker (he of the appalling death) seeks to marry a rich client to stave off bankruptcy (she’s so rich she has the Emperor Ming, Charles Middleton, as a butler), but she’s set her sights on someone else. So he hires a gangster to procure a hitman to rub out his rival, thinking he’ll catch his gal on the rebound. But meanwhile she ditches her loverboy all by herself and proposes to Dekker. He can’t believe his luck. But he’s told the gangster to put the hit out on the guy whose picture appears in the paper as his girl’s fiance, and so when his own pic is printed he has to urgently call off the job — but a clusterfuck of plot contrivances immediately piles up in his path.

Wilder films conversation scenes in unimaginative and static flat two-shots, but when there’s tension or psychological dissonance afoot he and Alton achieve some charming noir effects, aided by a theremin borrowed from the smarter brother’s LOST WEEKEND. And while Wilder’s sci-fi and horror stuff always showed complete disinterest in character, here the lack of sympathy actually has a point, since the plot hinges on the protagonist’s treacherous and unworthy nature.

The track-in to close-up with theatrical lighting change to introduce internal monologue either comes from DETOUR or from some common noir ancestor, but it’s very nice here.

WOMANEATER, on the other hand, by Wilder’s directing partner Charles Saunders, is an unmitigated howler. George Coulouris (frequent victim of the hit-and-run Z-movie crowd) is a mad scientist who attempts to create a reanimation serum by feeding women to a tropical plant. It’s not quite clear how this will be a boon to humanity, unless I suppose each victim produces enough serum to revitalize two corpses. The arithmetic is never explained.

Eat Drink Man Woman.

Bubbly Vera Day is very funny, without really trying, as the heroine, a showgirl who loses her job and becomes George’s housekeeper. With her comedy comely figure and natural working-class accent, she is, on the one hand, a stylised comic-book character, and on the other, far too credible for a film like this. She seems odd because she’s the only actor with one foot in reality. Oh, apart from Joy Webster as another bit of walking plant-food, who plays her role with the kind of tired contempt that ought to have come naturally in such surroundings.

Crazy.

Jimmy Vaughn, as “Tanga, the native” is utterly hilarious at all times, but I can’t really find any argument to defend his cheerfully awful work here. He kind of seems like he’s just stumbled into the movie, or else maybe he was hired more for his bongo playing than his thespian abilities. And the local constable, Edward Higgins, is spectacularly ill-at-ease in front of the camera, making his every moment cherishable. While Vaughn has no other credits, Higgins’ screen career spans fourteen years of uniformed bit parts — I shall certainly be watching out for him.

NB: Womaneater is also a fine Britney Spears song.

The Woman Eater

Mogo on the Gogo

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2009 by dcairns

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“You have mogo on the gogo!” diagnoses Gregory Peck, mysteriously. Ingrid Bergman just laughs fetchingly. I’d have smacked him in the face. And then asked him what the hell that means.

There’s quite a bit of odd dialogue in SPELLBOUND, scripted by Ben Hecht from an Angus MacPhail adaptation of a novel by the pseudonymous Francis Beeding (in reality two different blokes), The House of Dr Edwardes. MacPhail, a drunken Scotsman, is no doubt responsible for the plethora of Scots names infecting the movie’s population: Gregory Peck is Ballantine, Leo G Carroll is Murchison, and Rhonda Fleming is Carmichael, Regis Toomey is Gillespie.

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My VHS copy of BON VOYAGE has some tracking problems, giving the titles an odd PSYCHO-like flavour.

MacPhail also worked on BON VOYAGE and AVENTURE MALGACHE, Hitchcock’s two war propaganda shorts, made in French in England. Both feature prolonged takes (AVENTURE is nearly all filmed in master-shots) of the kind Hitchcock was increasingly interested in, and which Selznick would try his best to discourage, since they interfered with his ability to tamper. Safely away from Selznick, Hitchcock indulged his interest in the sequence-shot. His producer on these shorts, Sidney Bernstein, would later collaborate with him on the production of ROPE and UNDER CAPRICORN, which pushed the technique to its limits.

BON VOYAGE strikes me as the superior of the two, for its fluidity, twisty story, and charming dope of a hero, played by John Blythe, a handsome young fellow who went on to a long but defiantly minor career. Though he was born in London, his character is a Scot, complete with throwaway drinking jokes. He’s also very concerned with eating — for a French Resistance drama, the movie focuses to a surprising extent on the need for quality sustenance. Very Hitchcock.

Like BON VOYAGE, SPELLBOUND features a couple on the run, fleeing from hotels, traveling by train, aided by colleagues and sought by the police. But there are differences.

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Dr Edwardes, taking over a swank psych clinic, is not really Dr Edwardes at all, but an amnesiac who may have killed the man he’s replaced. Dr Petersen falls in love with him and seeks to prove his innocence…

“Beeding’s” novel was a potboiler disdained by Selznick, but offering Hitchcock some interesting narrative possibilities. Unfortunately, Selznick had started undergoing psychoanalysis himself, and brought his doctor on as advisor to the film. (“Selznick’s shrink? She must have done a great job!” exclaimed Fiona) This meant that Hitchcock once again faced considerable interference from his producer, compromising many of the film’s most promising sequences — especially the famous dream. In the end, though it utilizes Dali’s designs, the sequence was largely directed by design genius William Cameron Menzies (responsible for the look of GONE WITH THE WIND, although his work here calls to mind the magnificent THE LOVE OF ZERO), with Peck’s voice-over rather ruining the uncanny atmosphere with a prosaic description of everything we see.

I also have issues with the dialogue. Hecht is a very important screenwriter, but his psychiatrists are rather clunky creations — and nearly all the characters are psychiatrists. It’s a similar problem to the priests in I CONFESS, they don’t talk like people, and the more Hecht tries to give them a jovial approach to their profession, the less convincing they are. Everything they say has some kind of psychoanalytic slant: “And may you have babies, not phobias,” says Professor Littleoldman Dr Brulov.

And then there’s all the stuff about Ingrid Bergman being a woman, as if we needed to have it continually pointed out to us. And always in such insulting ways. “As a doctor, you’re a genius, but as a woman… I hate smug women… Women make the best psychiatrists, until they fall in love, then they make the best patients… Nothing is so stupid as a woman in love… stupid… woman… stupid woman… stupid woman!!! Alright, most of those lines aren’t actually in the film, but many others just like them are.

Am I alone in thinking there’s a strange resemblance between Green Manors Psychiatric Hospital for the Very Very Nervous and the Selznick Studios?

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Both institutions are bursting with neurotics, of course. Guilt-complex nut-job Norman Lloyd and mustache-biting weird-ball Rhonda Fleming (both happily still with us today) haunt the halls of Green Manors, while cop-phobic Hitchcock, speed-freak gambling addict Selznick and alurophobe Val Lewton, who couldn’t bring himself to shake hands, were all inmates of the studio. The film’s opening info-screed, explaining that psychiatry treats “the emotional problems of the sane” is rather baffling. Don’t insane people need treatment too? And what are Lloyd and Fleming? Their keels don’t seem entirely even to me. The additional information, that exposing the roots of the neurosis automatically cures it, is highly questionable: Hitchcock said he could never really believe in analysis, since he was quite aware of the source of his own fear of policemen, but knowing that did him no good whatsoever.

The other thing that beats me in Freud is the idea that the mind suppresses damaging, traumatic information, to protect itself. Of course, observation tells us this is not true: the traumatized are signally incapable of forgetting their traumas. But more than that, the idea seems inherently contradictory. The mind protects itself by suppressing the trauma, but un-suppressing it results in a cure? Surely exposing the root of the trauma would cause exactly the greater damage the mind was trying to protect itself from?

Hitchcock nevertheless realized that the “dream detective” was a fascinating narrative notion, one which he would invert in VERTIGO and return to in MARNIE. SPELLBOUND, his first go at the idea, is perhaps the clumsiest, since the script’s concern with clarity for an audience unused to psychiatric lingo tends to battle against credibility, subtlety and pace.

But there are many compensations. The wordless scene where Peck, “spellbound,” wanders Brulov’s home with a straight razor in his hand, is a classic suspense scene with superb blocking and framing –

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Peck is a good new leading man, although his discomfort with the film and Hitchcock shows a little in the early scenes, where he seems unsure how to play a man unconsciously pretending to be something he’s not. Bergman, of course, is a fine Hitchcock heroine, with a winning smile in which the corners of her mouth sometimes go up, sometimes down. Sometimes one goes up and the other goes down. I could watch it for hours. Hitch face Leo G Carroll is welcome again, and the man from Pittsburgh who bugs Bergman in the hotel lobby, and the hotel detective, are probably the best characters in the film. It’s a relief to find somebody who’s not either a psychiatrist or somebody who thinks they’re a psychiatrist.

There’s also the music, by Miklos Rosza, with its gorgeous love theme (overused, Hitch felt) and eerie/camp theremin. If only the Dali/Menzies dream dispensed with VO and relied on the power of music and image, it would be a bracingly vulgar fantasia. Mr. Theremin himself, the inventor of the electronic marvel, suffered a fate common enough in Stalin’s Russia, he was disappeared. Conventional wisdom has it that he perished, unrecorded, in Siberia, but I like to imagine him abducted by UFOs and delighted to find they’re playing his song.

And then there’s the climax, with the real murderer shooting himself in the face from an impossible angle. Two Hitchcockian tropes return here — the outsized prop, first seen in the form of EASY VIRTUE’s giant magnifying glass –

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– and the flash of red, an avant-garde device harking back to the deleted train wreck sequence in SECRET AGENT, in which Hitch had wanted to animate the effect of the film itself tearing in the projector and catching fire.

Incidentally, Leo G Carroll must have extraordinary, Mr Fantastic arms to be able to point a gun straight into his own face like this. I reckon if you turn your head sideways you can do it, but you’d definitely be able to see your arm as well as your hand. But this in no way harms the shot for me, in fact, it enhances it. Like all the daft stuff in the movie, it’s in keeping with the general delirious tone. I’d say that SPELLBOUND is quite a bit sillier than most of Hitch’s American thrillers — it’s not tongue-in-cheek, so it doesn’t have humour as an alibi — but it’s nevertheless a sophisticated entertainment.

Sidebar: as I think I mentioned before, sci-fi author David Gerrold (father of the Star Trek tribble) once suggested that a traditional story has three climaxes: emotional, physical and intellectual. SPELLBOUND conforms to this, and goes one better: it has two sets of three.

In the skiing sequence, Gregory Peck must figure out the guilt-causing episode from his past, emotionally overcome it, and avoid going into a crevasse with Ingrid. The Freudian investigation naturally combines the intellectual and emotional parts of a good climax, so that all Hitchcock and MacPhail needed to do was get the protags off the couch and onto the piste.

This is followed by a dramatic revelation that lands Peck in the slammer, so that Ingrid must take part in a second set of three challenges. Intellectual: figure out who the killer is. Emotional: force him into a confession but talk him out of killing again. Physical: get out without being shot.

I suspect the three parts of a climax usually come in this sequence, for inescapable narrative reasons. One, figure out the solution. Two, make the emotional leap needed to achieve it, sometimes involving sacrifice, generally involving the change required by the “character arc” of convention. Three, act upon this new understanding. But there are other ways to order it, especially if the climaxes occur in three separate scenes. Hitchcock felt that villains needed to combine three distinct traits: brains, brawns and wickedness. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST he divided these qualities between three characters, the mastermind, the thug and the sadist. He doesn’t dispose of each baddie in a separate climax, but he could have. Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser do at the end of THE FOUR MUSKETEERS.

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BANG! A few frames of red. Since the gun firing into the audience recalls Edwin S Porter’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, I’m also reminded that that movie features hand-tinted red flames during the safe-blowing sequence, and I wonder if Hitch was inspired, directly or indirectly, by this venerable movie?

Next: NOTORIOUS, probably the most famous Hitchcock film I’ve never actually seen all the way through. I know, you’re shocked. I’m shocked. Time to rectify the situation.

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