Archive for Time Without Pity

The Mummy’s Curse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2008 by dcairns

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“Bloomin’ Ada!” as my Mum would say. I have been tagged with a meme, using the parlance of our times. Next thing you know I’ll be participating in flash mobs and Anne Summers parties and other symptoms of this age we live in. I have been tagged by the Self-Styled Siren, who runs my favourite blog on classical Hollywood cinema (and occasional other subjects too) so I guess that means I have to comply. The meme (I’m not explaining that one: go pound on Professor Richard Dawkins’s door) requires me to list twenty actresses, and originated here. The idea is that they should be your twenty favourites — the Siren wisely narrowed that to twenty actresses whose mere presence in a film would be enough to make her watch it, and she’s hinted that she expects “classic choices”, so I’m guessing that tends to eliminate Little Nell, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Buck Angel or even Maria Montez. As well as this woman.

But I still feel  the need to whittle further, both to avoid repeating the Siren’s excellent list (I’ve just started on the THIN MAN films, and Myrna Loy is much on my mind), and to impart a unique something-or-other to the proceedings. I note that most of the actresses being selected are extremely beautiful, and since if I were to choose twenty actors, they might include numerous fellows I don’t actually admire physically, I thought it would be interesting to choose twenty actresses who… how shall I put this? Must find a classy and gentlemanly way of saying it.

Twenty actresses whom I would always be glad to see in a film, although I have no real desire to “do” them.

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1) Margaret Rutherford. I’m appalled to realise that I’ve had THE BEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE for over a month now without watching it, and after spending ages trying to source a copy. Rutherford, who George Harrison, back in his Beatles heyday, would choose if challenged to name a favourite actress, had a face rather like a very old man’s neck, but was both a dexterous eccentric comedian and a powerful tragedian, as witness her speech at the end of Orson Welles’s CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. She exemplifies what I’m talking about here, since sexuality didn’t really play much of a role in her art or life: apparently she and her husband both referred to lists of instructions — crib sheets —  to see them through their honeymoon night, so ignorant were they of matters erotic.

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2) Agnes Moorehead. Not so sure here, since I never bought the idea that Agnes was ugly, and the warmth and admiration I feel for her is akin to romantic love, so maybe, under the right circumstances… but sexiness wasn’t part of her screen repertoire, which included all kinds of genius qualities, including the ability to throw hysterical attacks so convincing that terrified studio execs demanded retakes on both MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, to make her less effective. (It might seem perverse for studios to demand such a thing, but I suspect studio interference is nearly ALWAYS based on a desire to make films less effective.)

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3) Margaret Hamilton. A very different actress, but with a parallel to Moorehead in that both were typecast as spinsters and crones at an age when they could have been playing ingenues, had nature arranged things differently. The Wicked Witch isn’t in enough films, but over the decades she did enough obscure work that her appearances are often a surprise, as in the Sean Connery heist film THE ANDERSON TAPES. I always get very excited whenever she turns up, like a small child experiencing his first mouthful of cocaine.

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4) Una O’Connor. Usually delivered in small doses, which was probably wise — her shrieking performances in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN might conceivably appear irritating if overextended. (You think?) But I just saw Renoir’s astounding THIS LAND IS MINE, where she keeps an impressive lid on it for most of the show, only allowing those deadly lungs free rein at one key moment.

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5) Spring Byington. Utterly fabulous actress, often excelling in warm-hearted, matronly roles, but check out her bone-chilling nastiness in DRAGONWYCK, which I maintain she steals from under everyone else’s noses. The point where her character is inexplicably forgotten about by the plot is the point where the movie loses interest for me, even as a tired rehash of REBECCA.

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6) Speaking of that film, Mrs. Danvers herself (strangely impossible to picture MR. Danvers, I find), Dame Judith Anderson, deserves a mention. Often called upon to inject menace or else matriarchal might, she turns her hand ably to comedy in René Clair’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

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7) I’m on shaky ground again with Ethel Waters, because I do think she’s beautiful, and always appealing, warm and engaging (in contrast to her knife-wielding offscreen behaviour!), and I wouldn’t like to think I’m shoving her into some character actor Siberia just because she’s heavy. But CABIN IN THE SKY allows ample opportunity to compare and contrast her with Lena Horne, and then certain subjective truths become inescapable. My love of Ethel is entirely platonic. My love of Lena is entirely otherwise.

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8) Irene Handl. When you have a figure as beloved in old age as Irene Handl, once in a while you get the urge to see what she was like when young. But with Irene Handle, youth appears to have been a condition she never experienced. A brilliant eccentric player, she forged an unlikely career, given her unusual appearance, but she always made an impression, even in the smallest role, because she was incapable of leaving a part without fully investing it with life. So she could quite often make more impact in thirty seconds than the stars did with the rest of the film.

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9) Kathleen Freeman. You know this one? Always saying “He’s such a nice boy,” in Jerry Lewis movies. Lewis is generally brilliant at casting his supporting players, and he knew he was onto a great thing with Freeman.

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10) Dandy Nichols. Able to effortlessly take the manners and mores of social realism, 1960s style, and flip them into farce. Has a great moment in THE BED-SITTING ROOM, looking uncomfortable on a horse. That should be enough for anyone.

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11) Katie Johnson. She’s in other films, but it’s for THE LADYKILLERS she’s remembered. So old and frail at the time that she failed the insurance exam and had to be replaced with a younger actress, who promptly dropped dead, so Katie got the part in the end, and a good thing too. Her combination of physical fragility and steely moral certainty is exactly what the film needs.

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12) Flora Robson. I saw her interviewed on TV when I was a kid and she was pretty old, and the interviewer kindly said that she had grown more beautiful with age, while the glamour girls could only fade. It’s kind of true, but what an amazing career she had with her big Rondo Hatton face — it no doubt kept her from many parts, but she was able to command some corkers. And actually, her flirtation with Errol Flynn in THE SEA HAWK is entirely charming and credible.

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13) Marie Dressler. DINNER AT EIGHT is actually kind of a yawn for me, but I do love her spectacular double-take when Jean Harlow says she’s been reading a book. Anybody who does a gigantic double take is tops with me.

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14) Thelma Ritter. Her presence here at number 14 makes it VERY clear, I hope, that this list is in no particular order.

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15) Esther Howard. A little obscure here? But SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS fans will know her as the randy widow Joel McCrea flees, jumping out the widow’s window rather that submitting to her wiles. Which is to say, sexuality is a part of the Howard repertoire, but it’s a comedy version, and what’s most important about her is her overbearing “charm”, deployed to very funny effect in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and about a hundred and fifty other films and TV shows. I’ll even add one not listed among her credits on the IMDb: WHAT A WAY TO GO!

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16) Megs Jenkins. One of my favourite larger ladies in British films, as seen in GREEN FOR DANGER and THE INNOCENTS. Her appearance is sort of Kathy Bates-like, but she has an incredibly beautiful and unusual voice, and I feel all warm and snuggly whenever I hear it. I would probably trade one of my less necessary limbs in exchange for about 1000 hours of Megs reading audio-books.

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17) Renee Houston. Had to have one Great Scot on the list. Renee was very pretty in the ’30s, but wasn’t making any films I’ve seen, so I know her from her later roles as battle-axes, drunken baggages and generally rambunctious females. She generally inspires a loud cheer in my household when her name appears in the credits, as it does in TIME WITHOUT PITY.

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18) The alarming Gail Sondergaard. I have no excuse for it, but I actually like her dragon lady yellowface stereotype turn in THE LETTER. And she’s terrifying in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, without seeming to try.

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19) Patricia Collinge. Cinema’s greatest mum, apart from mine, that is, who can be seen briefly from the back in extreme longshot in my short film CRY FOR BOBO, and who recently complained that I’d made her look dumpy or something.

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20) Aline McMahon, but then actually I do think she’s extremely beautiful and under the right circumstances, if I were a younger man, etc…

And twenty who do fill me with indecent cravings:

Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Annabella, Joan Blondell, Myrna Loy, Olivia DeHavilland, Paulette Goddard, Veronica Lake, Ava Gardner, Joan Greenwood, Gene Tierney, Natalie Wood, Claudia Cardinale, Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, Britt Ekland if I’m honest, Susannah York (I’m coming to believe she makes an even better Julie Christie than Julie Christie), Jeanne Moreau, Genevieve Bujold, Maggie Cheung, Charlize Theron… I could go on…

The Intimate Finger

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2008 by dcairns

Bright Eyes

Not really, of course. Joseph Losey’s pseudonymously-directed 1956 mystery was released as THE INTIMATE STRANGER (great title, and apt!) in the UK, and FINGER OF GUILT (sappy, generic title) in the US. So I’ve simply combined the two titles into one SUPER-TITLE. Richard Basehart plays the titular finger.

For its blacklisted director (working as “Joseph Walton” in the UK version, using producer Alec C Snowden as a front for the US release) and writer (the celebrated Howard Koch, writing as “Peter Howard”) it was a payday and a chance to establish themselves in the UK film industry. Koch dismissed the result as entirely undistinguished, but it led to better things.

I’d never taken notice of Richard Basehart much before except in IL BIDONE, where he’s dubbed. Here it was a shock to hear him sounding like John Huston — since Basehart played Ishmael in Huston’s MOBY DICK the same year, I’m assuming this is a deliberate impersonation, decades before Daniel Day-Lewis made off with Huston’s gravelly purr for THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

One thing that’s fascinated me about all the Losey films I’ve run recently is the element of autobiography. From Michael Redgrave’s alcoholism in TIME WITHOUT PITY to the tortured father-son relations in THE BIG NIGHT, each Losey film seems to declare some personal significance. Most blatantly of all, FINGER-STRANGER deals with a blacklisted filmmaker driven out of the US and targeted by a conspiracy in a British studio. The atmosphere of paranoia and persecution must have been something both Losey and Koch could relate to.

STRANGER-FINGER begins with an eye examination, the bright light being something which will return at the climax:

Bright Light!

At the start.

Lights! Cameras! Action!

And at the end.

Basehart begins to tell his life story and we delve into flashback, and eventually wonder “Hang on, why is he sharing all this guff with his OPTICIAN?” then we realise that the eye-man must actually be a head-shrinker only the film just kinda forgot to mention it. The framing structure is wholly unnecessary anyway, but as with Losey’s earlier THE SLEEPING TIGER, it takes us back to that innocent ’50s faith in psycho-analysis — a lot of the lefties who got drummed out of Ho’wood had the same trust in Freud they showed in Stalin, but then Freud was huge all over tinseltown, where the Big Lie is what business is founded on, and all the couch-space in town is eaten up by rich fruit-loops.

The story gimmick — young exec is tormented by mysterious letters, recalls the opening of Altman’s THE PLAYER, but this one develops differently: a young woman writes to Basehart and his wife (daughter of studio boss Roger Livesey) claiming to have had an affair with Basehart. He has no memory of her, yet she’s insistent, and seems sincere.

Alas, the first half is quite unbelievably stately, with the editor lingering on every scene after the protagonist has left. Maybe the movie was too short? Losey’s filming is fluid, but rarely provides the flash of Hollywood excitement he brought to the best bits of SLEEPING TIGER.

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All that holds the attention during this opening trundle is the central question — who the hell is this girl and what is she all about? — OK, two questions — plus some spectacularly inappropriate and loud stock music. All early British Losey films seem to feature scenes where women put on loud records then attempt to talk. At times the score here is effective, as it must be: if you play tender moments with CRIME JAZZ and suspense bits with Liberace schmaltz, it WILL WORK at times, and when it does it’ll be better than if you did it the sane way round. Half the time here it doesn’t work at all, and drunkenly pulls you out of the film, but there’s one romantic clinch where the timpani freak-out accompaniment fairly gets your pulse going and you think, “Golly, THIS IS CINEMA!” for maybe the only time.

So, the police attempt to cherchez la femme fatale, but she keeps her cool and doesn’t change her story, and they wind up doubting Basehart. For a moment it looks like her long recitation of her imaginary past life with Basehart is going to lead into a flashback, which would give us a flashback within a flashback within an opticians, but she cuts it short and saves us the detour.

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There’s a heavy spoiler alert now, because if I give away the ending then there’s no real reason to see this underwhelming effort, which might be a good thing, but it’s your choice, OK?

Basehart finds out that the whole thing was a set-up. His boss’s assistant, played by diminutive Welsh house-elf Mervyn Johns, resenting Basehart’s ascendancy, has hired an actress to destroy his life. That’s studio politics for you.There’s a tiresome false ending where Basehart thinks Livesey was behind the frame-up, then Johns gives himself away by repeating the whole plot in a dubbing booth with the mic on and broadcasting his (finger of) guilt to the whole sound stage — oops! Then Basehart persecutes his nemesis with an arc light (like all Celts, he instinctively fears bright illumination) before clubbing him to the studio floor with his powerful Richard Basehart fists. Regrettably, a climax where a muscular young man beats up an elderly, out of shape guy half his height into a tiny, defenseless Welsh pulp is not exactly a nail-biting suspenser.

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Shadowplay!

Now the film pauses yet again to admire sultry Mary Murphy (from THE WILD ONE), who has been enticingly cool throughout, then reunites Basehart with his estranged wife, who somehow got the news he’s innocent before anybody else knew.

Not a great film, but a great central enigma, and the blacklisting angle (not explicitly political — Basehart had a fling with a studio boss’s wife) is enticing. At the end, Basehart furiously calls Johns “an informer”, and the rage in that scene feels… personal.

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The producers would like to thank Fiona Watson for the phrase “tiny, defenseless Welsh pulp.”

Notice is given –

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on May 12, 2008 by dcairns

– that this is

JOSEPH LOSEY

WEEK –

– at Shadowplay.

In fact, it’s Joseph Losey Week all over the whole internet, though naturally we’re keeping it quiet and low-key. This is the only site that’s doing it OVERTLY.

We hope you enjoy!

Watch this space!

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