Circle of Safety

I was all excited — I’d discovered that there was a Jacques Tourneur film set in Scotland — CIRCLE OF DANGER. I’d also heard it was very minor, which proved to be the case. A thriller without any thrills or jeopardy, the film is enlivened solely by performances and Tourneur’s combination of bold imagination and impeccable taste in filming them.

I once got into an intractable cyber-squabble with a fellow who insisted that all he wanted from cinema was beautiful mise-en-scene. He didn’t care about story or performance, all he enjoyed was the way the director moved the camera and actors together in a kind of dance. I rather felt that a good deal of the purpose of that dance was to bring out story and character values and present the performances to the audience, so our minds did not, so to speak, meet.

Tourneur was a director much admired by both of us, and for similar but not identical reasons. The second-generation film director (his father, Maurice, was considered by some to be among the top three or four picture-makers in the world, in the late ’20s) was known for taking whatever job was offered him and filming the script as he found it. His work was always excellent — there are barely any weak performances in his films (Merle Oberon in BERLIN EXPRESS takes the prize for lameness) and his decoupagea thing of elegance and ingenuity. Only the last few films can really be faulted for his contribution. But, even though I’m a director myself, I can’t really find sufficient interest in a Tourneur film unless there’s a good script.

THE FEARMAKERS, an incredibly tedious confection with no drama whatsoever, is the test case. Without interesting situations to present, all Tourneur’s skill is essentially rudderless. Although it’s true to say that his approach is not obviously devoted to presenting each moment at its most impactful, but rather at weaving a mood of poetic intrigue, Tourneur is seriously hampered if the scenario doesn’t offer him a spark of tension.

Dana Andrews in happier days: NIGHT OF THE DEMON.

CIRCLE OF DANGER isn’t as moribund as FEARMAKERS, but it could certainly do with some added suspense. Ray Milland is trying to find out what happened to his brother, killed in action in WWII. His investigation brings him into contact with… some nice people. He gets angry at one of them, but it’s all a misunderstanding. Some thriller. It’s a tribute to Tourneur’s mastery and the charm of Ray Milland (oily variety) and Patricia Roc (a natural nice girl) that the thing is watchable at all. Fiona floated off into a magazine after ten minutes. What follows is a summary of most of the things I found to appreciate.

Peter Butterworth as an American salvage diver in Scene One. CARRY ON film stalwart Butterworth must have been proud of his Amurrican voice — he gets it out again in Richard Lester’s THE RITZ, in which his disguised accent is intended to transport us from Twickenham Film Studios outside London, to a gay sauna in Noo Yawk.

An office in the Ministry of Defence. Having just watched the tedious THE BODY STEALERS, a Tigon Production which completed my Neil Connery retrospective, I was impressed with the different quality Tourneur brought to his scenes, aided by designer Duncan Sutherland.

Wee Neil Connery surrounded by a pervasive ugliness.

While THE BODY STEALERS spends much time in brown and undistinguished offices, which are cramped and ugly without making a dramatic virtue of the fact, Tourneur shoots out onto a facing window, through which other office workers can be seen going about their miserable humdrum lives. It opens out the scene while actually emphasising the claustrophobic discomfort of the environment. It’s drab, but STIMULATINGLY drab.

Scotland. Only about a third of the action takes place in the Highlands, but there’s a little bit of nice scenery and it’s pleasant to think of Tourneur coming here. Otherwise, the film gets some good use out of its London locations, and also includes scenes set in Wales and Birmingham. No Brummie accents, but there’s an incomprehensible Welsh coal miner.

Everything involving Marius Goring. While most of the performers satisfy Tourneur’s usual requirement of dreamy restraint (Patricia Roc, a limited but endearing player, is particularly well suited to Tourneur’s approach), Goring, with his sinister pointy teeth, is allowed to be a firebrand from the word go. Since he’s the only not-too-nice person we meet, his appearance is doubly welcome. Better yet, he’s an ex-commando, known for his savagery in battle, who’s now directing a ballet, and he’s very obviously meant to be gay. The surprise factor of a heroic and fearsome soldier who’s camp as knickers is pleasing enough, so that the character’s unpleasantness can be forgiven, but it gets better.

(How do we know he’s gay? His job, plus the fact that when Milland hears that the male dancer is being difficult, he tells Goring, “I think you should spank him. Hard.” Later, Milland will refer to Goring as “it” and “that freak”.)

Goring seems to be associated with fellow balletomane Reginald Beckwith (who later returned to Tourneur’s fold, playing the medium Mr. Meekin NIGHT OF THE DEMON), who’s certainly “light on his feet”, as they say, but he also appears devoted to taciturn Scotsman Hugh Sinclair, his commander in the war. At one point, Goring seats himself at Sinclair’s feet and leans into the man’s crotch to light his cigarette with a lighter Sinclair’s holding at groin level. Furthermore, the film’s “surprise ending” does surprise in one sense — Goring turns out to be a wholly positive character, whose rude manner hides a heart of gold, and he averts a tragedy that the pigheaded Milland was on the point of causing.

Based on this, and despite its numerous weaknesses as drama, I would have to say that CIRCLE OF DANGER presents possibly the most positive male homosexual character not only of 1951, but of all mainstream cinema up to this point. A tip of the hat to Tourneur, Goring, writer Philip MacDonald and producer Joan Harrison.

42 Responses to “Circle of Safety”

  1. Never seen it, and you make it sound fascinating. As the composer in The Red Shoes Goring operated at some distance from “Ballet Lermontov” — his chief compatrito being comnductor Esmond Knight. Now in Circle of Danger he’s cast as a kind of “Massine Jr.” (to judge from that still of him perched on a railing.) As for ” most positive male homosexual character not only of 1951, but of all mainstream cinema up to this point,” I’ll have to give that a think (as Little Nell would say) but you may be right from your description.

    Tourneur, I’ve been told, missed his chance hooking up with a major studio back in the day and was thus a “director for hire” sometimes finding a sympathetic project to work on (such as the superb Night of the Demon) but often as not left to make do with dregs like The Fearmakers.

    Have you seen Canyon Passage and Great Day in the Morning? He’s a quite accomplished director of Westerns.

  2. Of course “positive” is a relative term. “Lermontov” in The Red Shoes (1948) is defiinitely coded as gay, though he has relations with no one. Neither does Massine’s delightful “Mischa,” but we can certainly imagine him romancing a chorus boy or two. What “Lermontov” actually wants is the film’s abiding mystery. As an aritst his uncompromising nature is beyond admirable. Yet it yields to a destructive — and in the end self-destructive — streak. For as we all know “He has no heart — that man!”

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    I wouldn’t say he has no heart. His devastation at Vicky’s death makes that clear. It’s really about an obsession, his way of keeping all personal things like family and the others outside his life, from his work. It’s the only thing that keeps someone like him going. His way to avoid dealing with death, the fact that there’s a world outside his ballet, that it’s temporary and transient. The greatness of ”The Red Shoes” is that there aren’t any easy answers…no answers in fact to it’s dilemma. Like Vicky obviously doesn’t belong to the life of a composer’s wife but at the same time asking her to fanatically put her whole life into ballet is just as damaging. Julian Kraster(Marius Goring) seems the most mellow of the three players. He seems to fit everywhere.

  4. “Seems” is the operative term. He loves Vicky, but doesn’t understand her at all. He (typical male of the period) thinks she can just give up ballet and devote herself to him like that. Lermontov can give her ballet — but he can’t love her except as a romantic ideal or fetish. (Note the sculpture of a dancer’s slippered foot he casually caresses.)

  5. Arthur S. Says:

    Yet at the same time he’s a nice guy. And it’s important to note that in the last scene when he storms into her room he’s actually running away from the debut of his own opera premiere. He’s not really a hypocrite in that he asks her or expects her to do something he himself wouldn’t do.

    And Lermontov did humiliate him(though paradoxically also gave him the opportunity of a lifetime that he wouldn’t have gotten as an opera composer striking on his own because of the whole hierarchy and the like) so his anger at her going back to him is righteous. You can’t really cast blame on any one person.

    Of course the idea that a woman has only death in the face of dealing with this conflict probably won’t go well today in this woman’s liberation world where there are many working women and the like. Of course many women do love the film but also emphasizing that it is a film of it’s time.

  6. I find him a relatively nice guy. Unlike Lermontov he’s not terribly complex. He wants a career and he fights for it. His fighting spirit wins Lemontov’s admiration. But remember Vicky falls in love with him because of the music that he created for her. Lermontov created the ballet for her. So it’s a war between two contributors to the same work of art. She of course is the central contribution. But no one ever asks her aout what SHE wants, and she can barely express it herselg. Don’t imagine that things have changed all that much for women, because they haven’t.

    Remember too how Powell spoke of the war and everyone being told to go out and die for their country. The Red Shoes “told them to go out and die for art.”

  7. It seems like everybody in The Red Shoes is willing to compromise somewhat, except Lermontov. Possibly because he is, on one level, a metaphorical figure who stands for Art, the merciless uncompromising Master.

    My friend Lawrie said Goring was one of the most intelligent actors he ever knew. I was saddened to hear that Goring spent much of his later years campaigning against cultural embargoes against his native South Africa, which kind of suggests he was pro-Apartheidt…

  8. Apparently. He was also teriffic in Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa where he has a big speech about Oil Depletion Allowances.

  9. Arthur S. Says:

    I suppose so. I’m not even remotely suggesting that ”The Red Shoes” is dated. If that film ever gets dated then cinema is dead. Just that I was venturing about the whole dynamics of the film in light of today, that’s all.

    Lermontov is definitely the most complex character in that film, tragic too in many respects. In one way Lermontov’s reaction to their love affair is him realizing that his creation got away from him. He had assumed that he can ignore human beings and yet what that stunning ballet performance is a triumph of human emotions alongside the obvious high level of hard work put in by his company. It’s his realization that a work of art ultimately gets away from it’s creator or something of that sorts.

  10. And he HATED Bogart, apparently.
    I like him in AMOLAD best. Never mind the cod-French accent, dig the comedy timing. “You are determined to get me… in the salade!”

  11. Arthur S. Says:

    Julian Kraster was probably the only time he got to play a romantic lead of sorts and he’s very convincing. What’s amazing is light of his role as that French aristo who got his head chopped off in ”A Matter of Life and Death”, he’s practically unrecognizable. That’s one thing I admire about the Archers is that they didn’t typecast their stock company they gave them different roles constantly. Like David Farrar(another South African…what’s the dope on him, David. C?) has distinct roles in ”Black Narcissus”, the very underrated ”The Small Back Room” and ”Gone To Earth”.

  12. He’s also in Edmond T. Greville’s sublime Beat Girl with Adam Faith and Gillian Hills.

  13. Many people thought the cultural boycott of SA did more harm than good so it doesn’t necessarily mean that he was pro Apartheide for being against the boycott. What brought down Apartheide was the withdrawal of support for the financial Rand internationally – and that could have been done decades before it was felt ‘convenient’ to do so by the markets.

  14. The boycott was key to bringing Apartheid down.

  15. As far as dim Tourneurs are concerned — and I *am* a Tourneur fan — the little that I saw of “Appointment in Honduras” (approx. 40 minutes on television) seems to’ve been the nadir. Does that picture have any redeeming aspects?

    I’m also marginally curious about Mel Torme, whose singing I’ve been known to enjoy, and “The Fearmakers.” Does he have any good moments in that film?

  16. I’m not sure how effective the boycott was — it was in place for a long time before there was any change. I would achnowledge that you could be anti-boycott without being pro-Apartheid… but the objections to the boycott strike me as insignificant compared to the symbolic value of it. Most black South Africans supported the boycott.
    But financial pressure made far more difference in finally effecting change. Mrs Thatcher was always opposed to stringent financial measures.

    I can’t recall anybody really having any good moments in The Fearmakers — it’s so devoid of any drama, there’s literally nothing for the actors to play. The acquit themselves fine with what they’re given, but make no impression.

    Appointment in Honduras certainly has a poor reputation. I have only an incomplete copy myself so I haven’t looked.

    The westerns are indeed good. I like the way there’s so much rain in Canyon Passage. Makes me feel at home.

  17. Appointment in Hondouras is quite lovely — like all Benedict Bogeaus productions.

    I love Hoagy Carmichael’s “Old Buttermilk Sky” in Canyon Passage. It was as close to an “A” picture that he ever got.

    Mrs. Thatcher is the embodiment of Evil.

  18. One of the current Big Debates here is whether Mrs T should be accorded a state funeral when she eventually karks it. New Labour are afraid to agree because they don’t want to admit that they’ve basically adopted her policies and become the Conservative Party.
    I’m not sure what should be done with her remains. Buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart might be good.

  19. Stuff her ina baggy and leave her by the curb.

  20. Christoph Huber Says:

    According to Chris Fuijiwara’s (fine) Tourneur book, he blew it career-wise by accepting to work on Stars in My Crown for peanuts, because he loved the script so much. Thus having fallen financially from a somewhat repectable status, he was sentenced to the cheapo seats.

    Canyon Passage is a masterpiece. Wichita is also great. Appointment in Honduras, though not very dramatic, is lovely. It’s out on a bargain US double feature DVD with Dwan’s likeable Escape From Burma. (Solid quality, too.)

  21. Is there anything from the pre-Cat People period anyone would recommend? I’ve seen a few of the shorts, and they’re excellent. The Romance of Radium has a brief scene of African uncanniness that could stand as a rough sketch for I Walked With a Zombie.

    Stars in my Crown is worth countless careers.

  22. Arthur S. Says:

    Re: Regarding the treatment of the cadaver of Mrs. T…

    Remember what the Italians did to Mussolini?

  23. True — to which the British would reply “What kind of a people do they think we are?!!”

  24. The lamp-post thing seems kind of unsanitary as a long-term disposal option, although there’s something to be said for sticking her head on the railings somewhere prominent. Mainly because she just kind of has the right face for it, somehow.
    Hopefully there will be street parties, especially in Yorkshire.

  25. Arthur S. Says:

    Maybe there will be long queues at her funeral by hundreds who want to make sure that she’s really gone. No brain-savings should be allowed unlike Hitler who’s brain was eventually transferred into that of a contemporary politician(no prices for guessing who?). That’s why Harry Cohn had attracted so many people. But I miss Harry though I never met the great vulgarian. I wish he was President.

  26. i think the state funeral is to make sure there are enough troops on the street to prevent the mass mob rising up and pelting the coffin with slabs of paving and of course troops will have to be permanently placed at the graveside and thousands have promised to dance on her grave…

    Do you have a biog of Gorring David? I’d like to read it if so…

    And do you have copies of Edgar G Ulmer’s Yiddish films on DVD perhance?

  27. I have one Ulmer Yiddish film, Americaner Shadchen, but no Goring bio. I’ll copy the Ulmer for you.

  28. cool my yiddish teacher is discussing our next yiddish film season so I’ve been toying with suggesting showing Ulmers works. I’ll check out the library for Goring biog.

  29. My copy is just an off-air VHS, so it wouldn’t do for screening purposes, but it would allow you to check it out. I don’t think it’s too great… maybe the others are better, I don’t know.

  30. thats ok as if it does go ahead again I think they will get copies from Brandeis Uni where the biggest archive is.

  31. OK, I’ll pass you a copy next time we meet.

  32. Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown is a great film.

  33. Absolutely. Really makes you appreciate how great McCrea was — who else could have pulled that off?

  34. My other favourite McCrea film is Ride the High Country.

  35. I put Palm Beach Story and Sullivan’s Travels higher. I like Foreign Correspondent a lot too.

  36. I too like Sullivan’s Travel, although I wouldn’t really put it higher than Ride the High Country. Peckinpah was a great director. What I especially love about Ride the Hight Country is its elegiac tone.

  37. I like Peckinpah plenty, as a stylist and as a mental case who managed to put it up on the screen. Occasionally he makes a strong observation, as in Benny’s reaction to his girlfriend’s death in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. But stuff like the Susan George character in Straw Dogs is not an observation of real-life behaviour at all, it’s a reflection of the contents of Peck’s disordered mind.

    Sturges has a more sympathetic worldview.

  38. I never liked Straw Dogs. I like Ride The High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Major Dundee, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Getaway and Cross of Iron, in my opinion one of the best and most powerful anti-war films ever.

  39. Cross of Iron is very strong indeed. I like how the ending seems to disintegrate as you watch it — a reflection of Peckinpah’s state of mind (and the fact that they shut down production before he’d finished).

    The Getaway is beautifully made but makes me angry and depressed.

    There’s a season on here in January so I might try and see some on the big screen.

  40. May I ask you a question.

    Where did you get the high resolution picture of “NIGHT OF THE DEMON” [1].

    I would like to get some high resolution pictures (or sequences) of this movie but cannot not find any source.

    Thank you!


  41. I created the stills using VCL Media Player, a piece of software you can download for free. All you need then is the DVD (or an AVI file) of the film and you can grab any frame you like.

    The DVD was released in the US as Curse of the Demon & Night of the Demon, offering both British and US cuts.

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