Snakes and Funerals

and funerals

Not real snakes, of course, not like the bulging eyed fellow Debra Paget dances for in THE INDIAN TOMB (like the dragon in DIE NIBELUNGEN, his eyes are on the front of his head, human-style, an odd Langian trope) and not really a funeral, just a shot of a cemetery.

The subject, of course, is Fritz Lang’s MOONFLEET, enjoyed on a Friday as part of our weekly pleasure cruise through all things George Sanders-related.

“What genre is this?” I was asked. A male Gothic (small boy instead of young lady getting the pants scared off ’em), a land-based pirate movie, and a classic Hollywood throw-out-the-novel-and-have-some-fun swashbuckler. MGM’s much earlier TREASURE ISLAND (Wallace Beery version) might be the key model. The most interesting aspect is the dramatic irony where the young hero (Jon Whitely, the solemn little Scottish boy from THE KIDNAPPERS) doesn’t really understand anything that’s happening in the same way we do. He doesn’t get either that Stewart Granger is a bad man (good casting, there) or that he’s, by narrative inference, his father, or that he’s fatally wounded at the end.

RIP Jon Whitely, who died earlier this year

This should be more touching than it is, but I do find it somewhat moving. I suspect the emotions involved are not ones Lang had a particular interest in. He undersells anything that could be Spielbergian (a good thing too, some will think) and goes all in on the HORROR. He could have done a great TREASURE ISLAND himself.

Third from the right, Skelton Knaggs in his last role

And he finds some splendid uses for the screen ratio he affected to despise. Never take Lang at his word. When he seems most sincere, be suspicious. The serpent is most dangerous when it looks right at you.

MOONFLEET stars Scaramouche; Addison DeWitt; Sibella; Vellamo Toivonen; Harry, Jim’s Grandson; Musidora; High Sheriff of Nottingham; Maj. Kibbee; Alfred the butler; Cassius; Bunny Jones; Charlie Max; Angel Garcia; PTO; Sir Ivor; Finn – the mute; Nathan Radley; and Sir Roderick Femm.

7 Responses to “Snakes and Funerals”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The great, deeply strange “Cahiers du Cinema” critic Jean-Pierre Oudart based his theory of “La Suture” (an aspect of editing of Lacanian import) around “Moonfleet,” “The Tiger of Eschnapur/ The Hindu Tomb,” “Ivan the Terrible” and the work of Robert Bresson.

  2. Interesting! Lang is certainly a director for whom montage assumes gigantic import, and despite the colossal differences, he has something strange in common with Bresson, perhaps their shared fascination with objects?

    Lang and Eisenstein chatted on the set of Metropolis about the expressive import of montage versus camera movement… too bad nobody was taking shorthand notes on the exchange.

  3. How could you not mention the outrageous hairdos!

  4. Some of Walter Plunkett’s costumes are also on the extreme side. MGM always liked their period movies real colourful, which is part of the problem I have with their Three Musketeers.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Plunkett may have been extravagant I certain of his works but in realife he was a sartorially reserved gentleman. Don Bachardy did some lovely pen and ink drawings which as far as I know are the only record of what he looked like. Unlike Edith Head he wasn’t a Publisexual.

  6. It would make an interesting double feature with Disney’s “Treasure Island”. TI is in a smaller, Disnified world of G-rated sins where women don’t exist on-camera (Jim’s mother is dismissed with a line about her approving the voyage). In MF, Granger is flogged for one affair, is emotionally abusive to his current mistress, and has a thing going with Sanders’s wife (among others). If memory serves, the boy is befriended by a nice little girl to avoid making the film totally misogynistic (or to imply the only innocence is in small children?).

    The kid in MF, as you note, innocently believes Granger is his friend and may continue to believe so for the rest of his life, never knowing how close Granger came to betraying him, or that his change of heart cost him his life. Does the kid ever show a moment of doubt or suspicion? The story is the effect he has on Granger, not how Granger connected him with his fortune.

    The heart of TI is Jim realizing his mentor / father figure is a murderous liar and dealing with it. In the end he accepts that Silver, aside from developing qualms about killing Jim, will always be the villain he was. But on the basis of whatever relationship they had, wised-up Jim (in the film versions) is actively complicit in Silver’s escape.

    In a nutshell: TI is Jim Hawkins’ coming of age. MF is Granger’s redemption.

    A curio floating between the two is Disney’s “Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow” (a three-part TV project released on your side of the pond as a theatrical movie in the 60s). Loosely based on the same source material as Hammer’s “Night Creatures”, it’s G rated and not nearly as dark. But under the period trappings it’s surprisingly subversive for 60s television (perhaps why they never went back to the character). One plot line, centering on a pathetic informer, essentially turns the Scarecrow into a supervillain. Still Patrick McGoohan is great as the faintly diffident vicar and the still-iconic masked hero.

    Disney’s animated “Treasure Planet” pounds the surrogate father thing like a railroad spike (Jim is a teenager, and we see that his father walked out on the family when he was a child), but it’s a much better movie than its box office suggests. Excellent melding of tall ships and steampunk, and weirdly true to Stevenson.

  7. Still to see both the Disney and Hammer versions (is there another story tackled by both studios?) And Treasure Planet also. I don’t think there’s been a really strong film of the book, which is practically a horror story. Polanski might have done it justice. When Bobby Driscoll greets the grinning maniac Ben Gunn with a cheery smile, I call bullshit. He should be terrified!

    The lost Maurice Tourneur version with Lon Chaney playing two parts does sound promising, though.

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