Archive for February, 2009

Genius or Lifeboat?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on February 28, 2009 by dcairns


Comedian Paul Merton’s show about early Hitchcock airs tonight, at 9, on BBC4, which is terrific timing in terms of what I’m doing with Hitchcock Year, finishing up his silent output this week.

Merton’s previous film show, dealing with the great silent clowns, featured some great clips, some amusing lines, and some nice stories. My only problem was the lack of real critical analysis — because the episodes were structured as critiques, not as biographies or histories. I have a suspicion that the Hitchcock show will have some of the same issues — in an article for The Times, here, Merton makes some good jokes, (‘One newspaper wrote a headline: “Hitchcock — Psycho or Genius?” Why not say: “Hitchcock — Lifeboat or Genius?”’) and partially explains his interest in Hitch; but doesn’t seem able to describe the films or express much about what’s interesting in them. The idea of Hitch as master manipulator of audiences only goes a short way towards evoking his artistry, and it’s even less relevant to why his earliest films are interesting.

But I think it’ll be good fun as far as it goes. My only other complaint is that, as far as I know, the show is really looking at Hitch’s silents, but the accompanying mini-season of films are all talkies, the earliest of them from 1935 — a case of BBC4 not quite having the courage to be a genuinely highbrow channel that respects its audience’s intelligence and interest.

Quote of the Day: Not O-kay for Sound!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on February 28, 2009 by dcairns


“We embarked upon a large programme of silent pictures, paying no heed at all to, you know, ‘I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles…’ and went gaily on…”

~ Sir Michael Balcon, in archive footage interview excerpted in Brownlow and Gill’s Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood.

Balcon, as head of Gainsborough Pictures at the end of the ’20s, typified the British attitude to the coming of sound, ignoring it in ostrich fashion until it was all but too late.

But sound could not be resisted. How Hitchcock reacted to the new medium will be the subject of Wednesday’s entry in Hitchcock Year.

The Tell-tale Tit

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2009 by dcairns





Yer mammy cannae knit!

Yer dad’s in the dustbin,

Eating dirty chips!

Such was the playground taunt of my childhood, directed against anyone who “clyped”, or ratted on a friend to a teacher or other adult. No reason to mention it here, except that I’ve been watching THE TELL-TALE HEART, a rare British adaptation of Poe, from 1960. Director Ernest Morris was from TV, but does a pretty good job on an obviously tight budget. Also with TV credentials are co-writer Brian Clemens, the mastermind behind The Avengers (and later screenwriter of DR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE and CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER) and producers the Danzigers, specialists in B-films and quota quickies, who were quick to scoop up American talent like Joseph Losey and Richard Lester to direct TV thrillers like Mark Saber.



Adrienne Corri has shed her DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS puppy fat and is now very skinny indeed, but Laurence Payne doesn’t seem to mind.

The cast reunites two stars from the Danziger’s hilarious DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, Edinburgh-born Adrienne Corri (whose future would feature several films for Hammer, one for Kubrick, and who had already made THE RIVER with Renoir) and Dermot Walsh. In the lead role of this romantic triangle is Laurence Payne, fervently neurasthenic as Edgar Marsh, or is it Edgar Poe? Weirdly, different characters in different scenes refer to him by different names. The confusion is rather surprising — filmmakers weren’t really doing Lynchian identity-blurs in Britain in 1960, and yet it’s a very odd thing to do by accident. Maybe the two credited writers wrote alternate scenes and never compared notes? I like the idea of the film being composed like a surrealist game of “exquisite corpse”, with each author unaware of the other’s pages.

I also liked the patina of weird scratches and smears covering the print, which made me think of the “underfilm” referred to in Theodor Roszak’s great novel Flicker — it was exciting to think that this shimmering mass of unreadable, subliminal runes and hieroglyphs might be branding my subconscious with arcane information that would ultimately sterilise me with fear.

The new plot spun from fragments of Poe’s short story has Poe/Marsh, resident of a big old house on the Rue Morgue (despite the real Poe being American, and this street being French, we seem to be, however vaguely, in England) smitten with Corri, the florist across the street, into whose bedroom he can spy. Like so many horror movie heroines, she has a blithe tendency to undress by the window — it’s one of the many ways in which real women disappoint when compared to their celluloid sisters. Since we’ve already seen Marshpoe perusing his collection of classy porn (staring hard at the pages until his arm falls limply to his side, a peculiarly hands-0ff approach to onanism), we can guess what effect this is likely to have upon him.


A shy and fumbling suitor, Poemarsh turns to his man-of-the-world best pal, Carl Loomis (1960 was a good year for Loomises), played by Walsh, and suddenly the film seems like a premake of  Richard Lester’s THE KNACK…AND HOW TO GET IT, with a successful loverboy guiding an incompetent novice, until both find themselves competing over a girl. The difference being that Michael Crawford never bludgeoned Ray Brooks to death with a poker and hid him under the living room floor.



Now comes the Mario Bava stuff. The incessant beating of the dead man’s heart (?) is picked up by a ticking metronome and a dripping tap, leading me to wonder if Bava’s BLACK SABBATH, three years later, was consciously influenced by this obscure movie. When a claw-like sea-shell ornament and a piece of porcelain start rocking back and forth in time to the beat, I was strongly reminded of the sliding china hand from Bava’s last feature, SHOCK.

Then, my favourite bit, the carpet bulging rhythmically to the beat of the heart, as if the living room floor were a cartoon character’s bosom.



Finally, we get the Poe pay-off, “It’s the beating of that infernal heart!” (Payne is great at anguish and hysteria and Ernest Morris has a smart sense of when to let rip with an ECU) , and then an it-was-all-a-dream-or-was-it? ending no doubt inspired by DEAD OF NIGHT, which almost-but-not-quite accounts for the hero’s double name. (He’s Poe in reality, Marsh in his dream — although this schism contributes nothing except a floating caul of confusion.)

Close-up of a chess board where Marsh left it in Poe’s dream: “Checkmate!”