Grey Matter

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I’ve been known to mock Curt Siodmak, to refer to him as the great Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother. “Is he your favourite idiot brother?” my friend Alex asked the other day. He isn’t even that, I was forced to admit — W. Lee Wilder is a still more remarkable specimen of the breed.

But I was really impressed by TV movie Hauser’s Memory — teleplay by Adrian Spies, based fairly faithfully I think on Siodmak’s novel. And then I stumbled on a copy of Donovan’s Brain, young Curt’s best-known book. It was filmed three times officially — as THE LADY AND THE MONSTER with Erich Von Stroheim and Vera Hruba Ralston, as DONOVAN’S BRAIN with Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan (wouldn’t they make a houseful) and as THE BRAIN, by Freddie Francis with Peter Van Eyck, but Curt hated all three versions. The radio production with Orson Welles is better — probably. I’ve been saving it for last.

The book is really enjoyable, with memorable characters in its cold-fish narrator, a rather inhuman scientist who steals the brain of a dying millionaire, and various sleazy types he meets once the brain starts to telepathically force him to do its bidding. The formula is similar to Hauser’s Memory  — a dead character possesses a live one, so while there’s a battle to maintain personhood by a character invaded by a foreign mind, there’s also a kind of investigation/puzzle where we want to find out the secret motivation of the mental invader.

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Siodmak had the unenviable task of retraining himself to write in English after he fled Hitler. Other filmmakers managed to adapt readily, but for a writer the challenge was far greater. Language was Siodmak’s instrument. Like his former collaborator Billy Wilder, he never quite got the American idiom down pat, but Wilder always worked with brilliant co-writers to smooth out any linguistic kinks. In his novels, Curt has to struggle along by himself. He would write sentences like “The moon leaped like a giant in the porthole,” which possibly plays better in German, though I’m not wholly convinced of that.

Donovan’s Brain has sentences like “I woke at a very early morning hour,” which is weirdly OFF. In German, “very early morning hour” is probably one word, some beautiful compound noun a foot long. He gets his commas wrong here: “It might like a blind man, feel the light or, like a deaf one perceive sound.” I had to read that a couple of times to make sense of it, did you? And then there are bits where he reaches for an effect and his awkwardness with English makes him fall flat on his face: “Even the fact of our marriage had been dissolved in my work’s acid domination.”

But despite this, the book is a really good read! And it has bizarre stuff in it that’s never made it into any screen version. At one point, disoriented by the brain’s long-range control, the hero falls into a ditch and gets his vertebrae compressed by a steam shovel. He has to wear a full torso plaster cast that makes him look like a turtle for thirty pages. And this has no real impact on the plot at all. But it’s something I’d love to see in a film. It would particularly suit Von Stroheim, I feel.

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Young Curt was scathing about the changes inflicted on his book by filmmakers. In the Stroheim atrocity, directed by the sometimes skilled George Sherman, the mad scientist lives in a castle — in Arizona! — and the plot stops for a Spanish speciality dance before the brain has even been hatched. The novel goes like a train, but there’s no chance of zip with Erich setting the pace. The filmmakers supply him with a limp, just to slow things down even further, and instead of being an antihero he’s made a straight villain, with Richard Arlen as one of those useless heroes whose only purpose is to protest each new plot development. Ralston is fabulously bad, flashing her eyelashes with every other line to give “significant” looks.

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Felix Feist’s fifties fiasco is a lot closer to the letter of the book, but while Siodmak’s protagonist was somewhere between autism and Camus’ L’Etranger, Lew Ayres plays it repulsively HEARTY, and says things like “C’mon, get with it, baby!” I wanted to slap his brain. The more the script tries to render him likable, the creepier he gets. But I liked Gene Evans, who doesn’t seem like a movie surgeon at all, and who therefore may resemble a real one, I’m prepared to believe. And the future first lady vivisecting a monkey makes it kind of worthwhile.

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Freddie Francis (who also made THE SKULL!) brings more visual panache to his version than his predecessors, though the monkey brain earlier on is one of the most laughably inept props ever — it looks like a half-deflated balloon with the crenellations drawn on in magic marker. Anne Heywood, Bernard Lee, Cecil Parker, Maxine Audley — the supporting cast is excellent, even before you get to Miles Malleson as a sherry-swigging coroner (who fails to say “Room for one more inside” despite ample opportunity) and Jack MacGowran as a blackmailing morgue attendant. Peter Van Eyck is the closest anyone has gotten to capturing the icy callousness of Siodmak’s protag, though he’s also curiously antic. But the plot gets caught up in scheming and forgets all about the poor brain. The balance is upset. Siodmak complained that the filmmakers added a stripper, but there’s no sign of her in the print I viewed.Though Anne Heywood, always game, flashes a nipple for about four frames.

Now I guess I have to watch CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN.

 

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10 Responses to “Grey Matter”

  1. “You cooked her nines!”
    Apparently Nancy Reagan’s stepfather was a neurosurgeon, which adds a frisson of peculiarity, as does this:

  2. CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN is… not great, but kind of good for an 50s B movie. Things actually happen, and the whole thing is rather grotesque for a 50s B movie (not much gore, but a lot of people getting killed). ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU, by the same guy, also is surprisingly competent with a few smart touches (that are mostly ignored).

  3. revelator60 Says:

    The UC Press recently made available its online edition of “Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s”—it includes a long interview with Curt Siodmak, which can be read in full here:

    http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft0z09n7m0&chunk.id=d0e13522&toc.depth=1&toc.id=d0e13522&brand=ucpress

  4. Thanks!

    The combination of Edward L. Cahn and Curt Siodmak could be either terrible or good fun — just watched it, and it was mostly the latter, though with quite a lot of standing around desks expositing, which is kind of ELC’s trademark shot. The idea is indeed weird, original and creepy, and the villains watching their zombie slaves’ POVs on a monitor is a unique touch.

  5. henryholland666 Says:

    Had a disappointing experience last night with a movie I’d read good things about. “Journey to Italy” was shown in the ludicrous and really badly done dubbed Italian version on TCM. I thought it was pretty weak tea all around.

    To have to hear George Sanders voice, that glorious voice, dubbed in was bad enough, but boy oh boy did he phone this one in. Big fan of Ingrid Bergman, she’s good, but the two have zero chemistry together. That’s not actually a bad thing in this movie because a good chunk of it is them spending time apart but Sander’s scenes on Capri seemed especially pointless.

    After awhile it felt like a somewhat poorly filmed and edited travelogue, the scenes of Katherine walking around to tourist sites just seemed to go on forever. The reconciliation at the end felt totally unearned, a typical Hollywood studio system “happy ending”, even if the film was made in Italy.

  6. I’ve yet to really give Rossellini a try — he’s one of my shameful lacunae. But I’ve been slowly edging towards neorealism by way of De Sica.

  7. Yes, Creature with the Atom Brain has a high likeability factor. Now you have to watch Joseph V. Mascelli’s 1963 jaw-dropper Monstrosity! AKA The Atomic Brain. And Joseph Green’s legendary Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962) with its extraordinary (for its era) amount of splatter-factor.

  8. Oh, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die is a favourite — I did write about it a while back. I was mainly fascinated by the oddness of the dialogue…

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