Archive for August 10, 2008

That Eye

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 10, 2008 by dcairns

Weird dream!

In the dream, I was watching a movie — dreams can be so strange! — and in that movie, some characters were looking at a photograph, remarking about how the girl portrayed in it was strangely unattractive, but in a way you couldn’t quite put your finger on.

Cut to reverse angle detail shot of the photo. The girl has one eye in the centre of her forehead.

I immediately sussed that this dream-film was not a FIRST-CLASS PRODUCTION. The writer had tried to specify something precise about a character, and the director had thought, “That’s too subtle, the MASS AUDIENCE will never understand — what she needs is some big obvious flaw so everybody can agree she’s not attractive.”

I suppose it’s the dream-version of what my friend David Brown calls “the false good idea.” Mr. Brown has just turned down five weeks worth of pick-ups on the new Paul Greengrass film, perhaps fearing that Greengrass’s action movie career is itself a false good idea. (FIVE WEEKS of pick-ups! Edgar Ulmer would make you five whole features in that time, and only four of them would be terrible.)

Funnily enough, I know where the dream came from. When Steven McNicoll was visiting us last week I told him about an unfortunate moment in the TV version of King Lear starring Orson Welles. It’s the reconciliation scene, possibly the most moving moment in Shakespeare. Welles, wearing an unfortunate disguise that makes him look like Krankor, has to suggest that Cordelia must hate him, since his other daughters do. “They have no cause, you have some.” What comes out is “They have some cause…” pause, as realisation comes over Welles of the enormity of his flub. No choice but to finish the sentence, even though it makes no sense, and pray that the audience isn’t paying attention: “You have none.”

But Steven had a MUCH better story, which he’d heard from another thesp, Paul Morrow. An actor, unnamed, has to rhapsodise about his love. “That golden hair, those eyes!” But what comes out is “Those golden hairs -” the poor thesp falters, aware that to carry on is madness, but seeing no alternative, he finishes what he has begun: “Those golden hairs… that eye!”

The sickly expression coming over his face is that of an actor who realises he’s made a career-defining howler, but to the audience it actually seems as if he is PICTURING THAT HORROR.

Shanghai Drama

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2008 by dcairns

“You’ve never seen any of the Romy Schneider SISSI films? Oh, you don’t know what agony is.” ~ David Wingrove.

Yes, David was round at our place, translating another movie in his role as Benshi Film Describer. Ironically, while the world goggled, presumably, at the Olympics opening ceremony, we distracted ourselves from the horror that is SPORT with a ripe slice of chinoiserie, G.W. Pabst’s 1938 LE DRAME DE SHANGHAI.

Double it with Ophuls’ DE MAYERLING A SARAJEVO, two romances where the melodrama collides with a propaganda film coming the other way, with dire consequences for both. While Ophuls’ most lacklustre film is effectively scuttled by all the Vive La France material hitting it below the waterline in the final reel, Pabst’s film is stranger and darker, and just about gets away with its support of China against the Japanese invaders, which has at least been a recurrent theme in the film.

But what grabs the attention is the emotional side of the story — but not the mother-daughter stuff. Christl Mardayne, a star of Nazi escapist flicks, plays “Kay Murphy”, a pseudonymous Russian refugee who’s found stardom singing at “the Olympic” (synchronicity!), but yearns to be reunited with her daughter, raised in isolation and innocence at a Hong Kong finishing school. The teenage daughter has no idea that her mother sings in a sleazy dive and is also a spy working for “the Black Dragon”, a nefarious but faintly-sketched criminal organisation, in which estranged husband and father Louis Jouvet is a prominent figure.

“War is the triumph of beast over man. Peace is the triumph of man over beast. But man is more beast than man,” says Jouvet, his knife of a face cutting through the gloom. Once the obscure plot threads start to come together, Pabst’s skill with dramatic composition and his particular flair for the morbid can kick in. The great Henri HOTEL DU NORD Jeanson provides suitably noirish dialogue.

While Jouvet’s appearance, back from the dead with a scar snaking up his brow like a withered tree, is strong, his departure is even better. Discovering his daughter in Mardayne’s flat, he sees a halo of light cast around her face by the chandelier.  Finding a photograph of himself in her hands, he takes it to the mirror to compare the idealistic Russian of fifteen years ago with the corrupt gangster of today. The daughter is shepherded out by an alarmed Mardayne, and Jouvet grimly smiles at the contrast in the two images of himself.

A rather stunning shot-reverse-shot on the same actor!

Then, somehow, a blind is drawn, although no one is there to draw it. The chandelier falls dark, and the halo on the wall which illuminated the daughter’s purity fades, leaving only blank stone.

Jouvet goes to the window and announces his intention to induct his daughter into the Black Dragon organisation. Mardayne shoots him in the back. His dying words are “Why didn’t you do that fifteen years ago?”


No film can altogether survive the loss of a thesp like Jouvet, but this one carries on, offering us assorted sinister orientals, and a couple of noble ones. The Chinese actors are all listed on a separate card from the French, a kind of apartheit of credits. There are some genuine Shanghai crowd scenes. Mardayne and her daughter are freed from prison as the Japanese attack, but a Black Dragon assassin (louche Romanian actor Marcel RIFIFI Lupovici) stabs Mardayne. Her lifeless body is borne along by the crowds, as great chunks of newsreel footage start to invade the movie.

A poor coolie is beckoned to his doom. Cinematography by Eugen Schufftan and Henri Alekan.

A French film set in China with a German director, LA DRAME DE SHANGHAI has been released on DVD by the Italians, so it was great to have David to translate it, using both the French dialogue and Italian subtitles, which collide somewhere in his unique brain and emerge from his mouth as English.