Archive for September 24, 2008

I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2008 by dcairns

I wasn’t planning on having a Fever Dream Double Feature set in lighthouses, but right after I finally watched Michael Powell’s THE PHANTOM LIGHT, I remembered that I had recently acquired SHIT! THE OCTOPUS, another lighthouse-set comedy thriller, and the synchronicity seemed to strong to resist.

(NB: It’s not really called SHIT! THE OCTOPUS, it’s called SH! THE OCTOPUS, but what I said above about struggling to resist synchronicity goes double here. It’s a very shit film whose title suggests that it might almost be called SHIT! THE OCTOPUS. What can I say?)

THE PHANTOM LIGHT begins with a powerful and terrifying non-diegetic sequence of disembodied reaching arm and beautiful title lettering and storm sounds and windy music and WOW! Then it settles down to a more clunky formula of comedy patter and sloppy plotting, with sudden bursts of invention and atmosphere. This is definitely NOT a quota quickie. The QQs were made to fill a government order that a certain proportion of films in British cinemas HAD to be British productions. This ruling was imposed on the film industry with no consultation, so the filmmakers struggled to fulfill the sudden new production demands. The idea took hold that films could be made JUST to fulfill the quote — they need not have any particular qualities, other than the ability to be projected on a screen. I wish this were LITERALLY true, we could have advanced avant garde cinema by decades. Five reels of Piccadily Circus on a foggy evening — add a V.O. by W.H. Auden and away you go. Didn’t happen. But what it meant in practice was opportunities for a lot of budding filmmakers. They could try, and fail, and try again. Entire careers were built on nothing but failure. Powell failed upwards from the start, building up his technical understanding of film storytelling, and occasionally daring to experiment with the more outré techniques which would in due course make his name.

As I said, THE PHANTOM LIGHT isn’t a quota quickie. It boasts considerable location shooting, including actual night shoots, and a couple of quasi-stars: Gordon (INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH) Harker, and Donald Calthrop (whose career would be hampered when a starlet spontaneously combusted in his dressing room) as “David Owen”, which happens to be my two first names. That said, it predates Powell’s collaboration with Emeric Pressburger so it’s not a major work. Cinematically it stands comparison with the later EDGE OF THE WORLD, but lacks that film’s artistic ambition. THE PHANTOM LIGHT is a pure genre piece with some experimental touches.

Most of these touches clearly owe a lot to Powell’s brilliant editor, Derek Twist, who would rescue EDGE OF THE WORLD from a morass of uncoordinated coverage and nature photography. Here, Powell has done his job well by providing Twist with lots of atmospheric detail shots of the lighthouse and its environs, and Twist uses this material to build suspense, creating virtual walk-throughs of the set, and sequences that almost break the mechanics of the lighthouse down into technical schematics. At the climax, as a ship heads for the rocks, he frenziedly piles shot upon shot in a manner that’s probably influenced by the Russian montage school, but in its hyperactive zest more closely approximates the earlier effects of the White Russian filmmakers in France in the 1910s.

He also has a very neat trick of interrupting talk scenes with very quick cutaways — typically about a second — of spooky activity, simultaneous plot developments, jeopardy, or just random lighthouse business. The ruptured rhythm approach foreshadows P&P’s later films, cut by both Derek Twist and Reginald Mills, which often break drifty, oneiric sequences with sudden shock close-ups: think of the climax of BLACK NARCISSUS or even the ballet in THE RED SHOES. In the case of THE PHANTOM LIGHT, the fractured pacing keeps the audience alert and gives the film far more surprise than its plot can provide (the biggest narrative shock comes AFTER THE ENDING, when we realise that a major story point, the identity of the leading lady’s character, has still not been resolved).

Asides from these pleasures, the film has a lot of unreliable Welsh accents, cheeky dialogue, and Gordon Harker, whose grumpy exterior should have been listed by the National Trust. If I can quote my own INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH article —

A phantasie ~ I want to take Gordon Harker gently by those protruding, handle-like ears, lifting his head free from its cradling shoulders, and tipping it forwards until hot tea spills from his protruding, spout-like lower lip, filling a saucer with rippling reflections. When the tea is drunk, the patterns left by the leaves will spell out, not the future, nor yet a bygone age, but a never-was era of whimsy and intrigue.

SHIT! THE OCTOPUS (1937) is a different kettle of kippers altogether. Based on a couple of plays, apparently wedged together with all their dramatis personae and major incidents intact, the film aspires to the title of Ludicrous Mish-mash, but lacks the cohesiveness to quite attain it. Allen “Officer Dibble” Jenkins and Hugh “Woo-woo!” Herbert play incompetent Irish cops on the trail of a crime lord called the Octopus. They pursue him to a lighthouse without stairs, home to a supposed artist, and are all attacked by a real octopus. Shit indeed.

Characters keep turning up until the screen is thronging with irrelevance. The basic comedy motor is missing. Instead of being a bungling sidekick, Hugh H is a joker, and annoying quip-making character who never says anything funny but is perpetually amusing  to himself. No wonder Jenkins seems to be in a constant tizz. The writers, all eleventy-hundred of them, have gone for a sub-sub-sub-Marx Bros zaniness where the comedy thriller set-up would benefit from characters who actually display cowardice, stupidity, avarice, and other actual human emotions, which can be funny.

What the film does have going for it, although it doesn’t add up to much at the time, is a lot of strange and disturbing imagery. It’s meant to be funny, but is basically creepy and queasy and ooky. In this the film oddly resembles Otto Preminger’s unhilarious DANGER: LOVE AT WORK.

This seems to be Elspeth Dudgeon from THE OLD DARK HOUSE, and she’s just done a transformation by coloured filter a la Mamoulian’s JEKYLL AND HYDE. A nasty moment.

The octopus spends most of its time in the next room, reaching through whenever it wants something. I sometimes wish Julian Sands would adopt the same approach in his movies.

Cinematographer Arthur L Todd. Slow but reliable.

Your basic big bowl o’ wrong.


The J’accused.

Posted in FILM with tags on September 24, 2008 by dcairns

Nothing to see here.

12 Hungry Films

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2008 by dcairns

Another one I should have listed in the previous post: Kurosawa’s MADADAYO. His final film as director. I loudly bemoaned the fact that it didn’t get a UK release at the time it was made, nor even after A.K.’s death. I was thrilled to finally get a copy. Then I failed to watch it. I look forward to getting Fellini’s last film, VOICE OF THE MOON, also denied a UK release, so I can fail to watch that too.

Here’s my list of films I’m aching to see (although whether I’ll watch them if I find them is apparently doubtful) —

1. THE DIARIES OF MAJOR THOMPSON. Preston Sturges’ last movie, described as “almost defiantly unfunny” by one biographer. But it’s hard to find anybody with a kind word for THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND either, and that one, though not prime Sturges by the furthest stretch of hyperbole, has a fair few laughs.

2. There are lots of Julien Duvivier films unavailable, or unavailable with subtitles. LA BELLE EQUIPE may be the most historically important one. And it’s got Jean Gabin in it.

3. L’AMORE. I’ve yet to really get into Rossellini, so this interests me more for the presence of Cocteau and Fellini as writers, and Fellini as actor. Maybe it would help me appreciate Roberto R.

4. A GIRL IN EVERY PORT. I know Howard Hawks is considered to have really come into his own in the sound era, and especially once the grammar of Hollywood talkies had formalised into the Golden Age of the late thirties and forties, but shouldn’t SOME of his silent work be worth seeing? Particularly this one, which features Louise Brooks as a prototypical Hawksian dame.

5. DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS. Ken Russell’s Richard Strauss film, suppressed by the Strauss estate. Reportedly the most extreme of Mad Ken’s TV films. Soon to be available in the US in a box set of the Great Masturbator’s BBC works. But I probably won’t be able to afford it. NB There are lots of other TV works by the Mastur which I haven’t managed to see either.

(STOP PRESS — apparently it isn’t in the set, despite being listed on Amazon.)

6. PHANTOM. This early Murnau classic is available from Kino, but I can never afford it (or when I can, the prospect of three other films for the same price as this single one always tempts me) and has aired on TCM a few times, but I’ve never managed to get a stateside correspondent to record it. The clips I’ve seen are truly mouth/eye-watering. They turn my eyes into salivating little mouths, is what I mean.

7. I was going to put Victor Sjostrom’s THE OUTLAW AND HIS WIFE, but remembered that I have a fuzzy off-air NTSC VHS of that, so it really belongs on the previous list. Big Victor directed my all-time favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED. So, in the wake of David Bordwell’s brilliant piece on it, I choose INGEBORG HOLM from way back in 1913.

8. If Duvivier’s availability suffers from an unjustified downgrading of his reputation (as I believe), Robert Siodmak’s obscurity is a mystery. His Hollywood output is mostly obtainable with varying degrees of effort, but the only pre-American work out there appears to be PEOPLE ON SUNDAY and PIEGES, which isn’t exactly “available” but can be had if you know the right people. PIEGES is a dream of a film, a slick thriller that prefigures the American noirs and would be essential to an understanding of the man’s oeuvre. So who knows what else is required viewing? And the post-American period is almost equally underrepresented. I managed to see NIGHTS, WHEN THE DEVIL CAME, and was bowled over by it (a serial killer in Nazi Germany… some subjects may be too striking to actually do badly). DIE RATTEN is considered an important part of post-war German cinema, but you can’t see it. I’d like to.

9. INN OF EVIL. Of course my shame at not having watched THE HUMAN CONDITION yet should preclude my mentioning more Masaki Kobayashi, but this one sounds too enticing. The fact that there are IMDb reviews suggests it is possible to see the thing.

10. THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED. I can’t believe there isn’t a thriving black market trade in copies of this one. Jerry Lewis’s Holocaust movie is something of a legend, its release forestalled by legal disputes, its reputation as the ultimate bad-taste artistic folly fuelled by only rumour and a few witness reports (I like Dan Castellanata as an actor but I don’t necessarily trust him as a film critic). Some of Lewis’s later films are problematic enough even without death camps, but this demands to be seen.

11. Anything at all by Alessandro Blasetti? Or any of the countless Riccardo Freda films that can’t be seen? Mario Bava’s last work, the TV film VENUS OF ILE? The unseen early works of Max Ophüls? There are too many candidates for this penultimate slot.

12. A note of optimism — I’ve longed to see Nick Ray’s films for a very long time, as it’s measured in Scotland. And finally it seems like WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN and THE JANITOR are on their way into my feverish clutches, to join the heaps of the great unwatched in my living room.