Archive for May, 2009

Exposition

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2009 by dcairns

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Looking at Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES reminded me that there was another version of the story idea — SO LONG AT THE FAIR, directed by Antony Darnorough and Terence Fisher.

Terrific thriller! It’s based on a sort of urban legend, about a couple (in the story it’s a mother and daughter, in the film it’s a brother and sister) who travel to the World’s Fair (but which one? the filmmakers wisely plump for the Paris Explosition of 1896, with the Eiffel Tower), where one of them promptly vanishes. Everybody at the hotel denies that the vanished relative ever existed.

This is one case where I’m not going to get into spoilers, although if you’ve read Hitchcock-Truffaut, you’ve read the solution. It works pretty well in the movie, and Hitchcock later recycled it for a TV episode.

Two things are striking about the film –

1) It’s successfully starry: Jean Simmons as the frightened heroine, who feels she’s losing her mind as reality is rewritten by conspiracy around her; Dirk Bogarde as the artist/swain who eventually comes to her aid; also, as if that weren’t enough, Honor Blackman; and David Tomlinson as the vanishee.

2) It’s from that period where British cinema was apparently bent on suicide, eradicating anything of interest domestically (Powell & Pressburger), while hemorrhaging talent abroad, and yet it’s a convincing film, compelling and exciting and stylish — but the talents were instantly dispersed to prevent the experiment being repeated.

Fisher of course boomeranged off to Hammer films, where he was productive and successful within that niche/ghetto of the genre sausage-factory. Darnorough, who had just collaborated with Fisher on a Noel Coward adaptation, THE ASTONISHED HEART, plunged into producing for a few years, before abandoning the industry. Jean fled to America and the waiting fingernails of Howard Hughes, Dirk fled to Europe and an amazing reinvention as art-house star. Honor became the first woman to do King-Fu in leather on telly in The Avengers, and Tomlinson was scooped up by Disney. And the writers, Hugh Mills and Anthony Thorne, who did an incredible job escalating the suspense and creating endearing protags, were allowed to slip out of the industry, despite a collaboration with Rene Clement on MONSIEUR RIPOIS for Mills.

For this one brief moment, they’re all together, producing a great entertainment. Simmons and Bogarde are great together. When he volunteers to rob a hotel safe to verify her story, she gasps, “Will it be dangerous?” “Goodness, I hope not, why?” asks Dirk, genuinely surprised. What a lovable chap!

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I don’t know how the co-directing worked. Fisher had already helmed a few little movies at this point, so presumably didn’t need help. A few suspense sequences have real panache, popping out from the rest — Fisher’s work? The production design is impressive, with flags waving from special-effects towers at the Exposition, and a fatal balloon ascension, and madly cluttered Victorian rooms. Cathleen Nesbitt (THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK begins to seem like a central hub of British film), as the steely hotel-keeper, is so convincingly French she convinced the French. The wrapping-up at the end is satisfactory, especially as the film is a new romance, weaving an elaborate thriller plot just to bring together a charming young couple.

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Everything is just like you

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on May 29, 2009 by dcairns

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My friend B. Kite, the Manhattan mahatma, is author of a splendid piece in Masters of Cinema’s DVD of Alain Resnais’s MURIEL, a copy of which should rest on everybody’s shelf.

Bigger than HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR! More recent than LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD! More decisive than SMOKING/NO SMOKING!

This brief extract gives you a flavour of the depths Kite seeks to chart, braving strong currents of received opinion and inky, obscuring clouds of ignorance. On the ocean floor lies the city of Boulogne, lost to time but now yielding her secrets to the submariner’s torch…

Wait, that’s Atlantis. There I go, thinking about Atlantis when I should be thinking about Boulogne. I’m always getting those two mixed up. Still –

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Early on in Resnais’ first two features, [the] recording eye descends into a character in the film, and that character becomes in effect the dominant consciousness of the proceedings. At least that’s one way of interpreting the stark shift in Hiroshima, Mon Amour between the opening 15 minute meditation on the bomb and a distant observer’s capacity for understanding catastrophe, very much in the idiom of Night and Fog but already interspersed with a foreign substance in the recurring still lives of the lovers’ limbs, and the beginning of its story. That story belongs to the figure the script designates “She” – the film follows the movement of her thought and associations and raises the possibility that her Japanese lover (“He”) is wholly a projection of her desire, bearing, as he does, so few distinctive qualities beyond a consuming fascination with the melodrama she compulsively recounts. In Marienbad, the incorporation is much more brisk, taking only a handful of shots to link the flowing catalogues of ceilings and doorways, those characteristic threading motions seen most notably in Toute la memoire du monde, to the incantatory inventory of “X” (“Again I walk these halls, these corridors…”).

 

Both of these films are grounded in the solipsism of controlling figures, and both become exercises in perspective and point of view. What to make, then, of the aggressive flurry of brief, object-dominated shots that throw us piecemeal into the fragmented world of Resnais’ third feature, Muriel? Here, the thing-focus is unleashed and insistent: already the quick pan along the circuit of a cigarette lifted to lips and lowered seems to announce that for this observing eye, objects are at least as important as the characters that interact with them. In this strange reversal of hierarchies, it becomes difficult to say whether the object or the actor more truly merits the status of “prop.”


B. Kite 

 

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Queen of Technicolor!

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

COBRA WOMAN. This is genius. Really kicks in at 3:53.

And Siodmak directed it the same year he made the excellent pulp-paranoid noir PHANTOM LADY. Maria Montez performs her sacrificial dance with utter conviction. That conviction may be misplaced, but it’s important that it’s there.

Much to enjoy here: two Maria Montezes, one good, one evil. See if you can tell which is which.

I also like the cunning way she disguises her intention of grabbing a spear, and the lightning reflexes with which her doppelganger responds to the threat. And the pointing! Almost as good as the pointing in the dance. Maria Montez may not have been the greatest actress, but she was surely the screen’s best pointer. If she’d been around for Philip Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS remake, Earth wouldn’t have stood a chance.

COBRA WOMAN obviously belongs on a double bill with Siodmak’s THE DARK MIRROR, for its cunning exploration of the theme of duality. Seriously, the topic comes up again in THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN. But if you have Olivia DeHavilland or Barbara Stanwyck embodying it, or if you have Maria Montez embodying it, makes a difference to the kind of results you’re going to get.

In case anybody’s not sold yet, COBRA WOMAN also features:

Sabu.

Lon Chaney Jnr.

An arthritic chimpanzee.

A volcano.

Possibly the greatest movie in the world if you’re a gay 8-year-old. Which I’m not, but sometimes a straight 41-year-old is close enough.

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