Archive for August 8, 2020

Noirfolk

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 8, 2020 by dcairns

Here’s an experience fellow cinephages may recognize: it’s happened to me often enough that I have finally recognized it as A Thing, and A Recurring Thing at that.

You catch up with a Douglas Sirk film you’d never seen before; fascinated as usual, you pick up Jon Halliday’s Sirk on Sirk to see what the director has to say about it; and you find he has virtually nothing to say about it, and Halliday doesn’t press him.

This starts to become slightly annoying, and yet Sirk on Sirk is a very fine book. It’s just of very limited use in providing direct critical insights into many of the man’s movies. What’s the best critical study? Tom Ryan’s? Michael Stern’s?

The film that inspired these thoughts on this occasion was THUNDER ON THE HILL, available on Blu-ray in a Film Noir box set even though it’s not film noir, but it’s terrifically handsome. Beautiful flat sets representing flat Norfolk. Sirk grumbles that he’d rather have done it on location. And that he didn’t want the film, set in a convent, to have anything to do with religion.

Though I don’t think you can make much of a case for it being noir, it IS a kind of detective story with nun Claudette Colbert as the investigator. Flooding strands various parties at the Gothic hilltop nunnery, including a condemned murderess on her way to the gallows. But is she guilty?

Lots to enjoy here: Sirk’s staging, the moody lighting and the design and the fantasy of Hollywood Norfolk. There’s probably too many unconnected thematic elements — Sirk was right that religion could have been left out — and the mystery is fairly guessable at an early stage — but that’s OK, because the appointment with the hangman creates tension, so that the question isn’t really Whodunnit? but Will they be caught in time?

Ann Blyth as the convict is absolutely dreadful in her first scene, straining to hit a series of discordant emotional marks, but improves somewhat thereafter, and what she has going for her is striking beauty. Still, possibly the worst clunker of a performance Sirk ever had to work around.

The mother superior is, effectively, an antagonist — there’s a theme about the dangers of being sure you’re right, but oddly Colbert embodies that trait too — her certainty has destroyed her sister’s life — but this time, her certainty is a GOOD thing. That’s the funny thing about certainty — you never know where you stand with it.

THUNDER ON THE HILL stars Gerry Jeffers; Veda Pierce; Ellsworth M. Toohey; Morgan Le Fay; Dick Turpin; Mrs Higgins; Sir Locksley; Will Scarlet; Hominy; Phillip Musgrave; Lady Beekman; Algy Longworth; and Auntie Glutz.