Archive for December, 2022

The Hogmanay Intertitle: Visions after Midnight

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on December 31, 2022 by dcairns

In SCROOGE; OR MARLEY’S GHOST, Walter R. Booth compresses A Christmas Carol into five minutes in this 1901 super-production, the first screen version of Dickens’ tale. It’s not strong on dramaturgy — Scrooge’s first scene, what remains of it, doesn’t establish his obnoxious personality at all (he seems peevish, but it’s one of those earlies that depends on you knowing the source material) — but the intertitles, superimposed over moving, spooky images, are extremely advanced for the day. It’s almost more a Melies trick film than a story.

The film predates continuity cutting, but has a story to cover that features multiple scenes, and sometimes one follows directly from the one before, as when Scrooge steps back in amazement from his suddenly animate doorknob (it is upsetting when that happens to one) and then goes inside. Mr. Booth covers the transition with a vertical wipe, a case of using an elaborate device because the simple one hasn’t quite been invented yet.

Old Ebenezer draws the curtains, thereby creating a dark space where visions of the past can be overlayed. The present, with a shaven-headed Tiny Tim, is presented “live”, with Scrooge and his ghostly companion witnessing it transparently from the sidelines. Dickens’ four ghosts have been sensibly condensed into one, so the sheeted Marley plays a pretty substantial role, worthy of his semi-coloned sub-title.

The final intertitle or sur-title as it might be, explains what follows in case it’s not quite clear. The purpose of these early fiction films seems to have been to remind the audience of a familiar story, rather than to actually, you know, put it over in dramatic terms. This one is missing the final redemption, and I feel disappointed at having been promised the death of Tiny Tim and then deprived of the satisfaction of seeing the blighter croak.

I want more Walter R. Booth, in better condition! I think I’d like him even more than his associate R.W. Paul if only we could see the stuff clearly.

Happy New Year and may the voice of John Huston bless us, every one.

This Benito is Neat-o

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2022 by dcairns

Following on, in a way, from THE GREAT DICTATOR, and from some work and viewing I’ve been doing on Damiano Damiani, I looked at IL DELITTO MATTEOTTI (THE MATTEOTTI ASSASSINATION), in which Mussolini appears as a character and Damiani appears as an actor. Damiani wasn’t really a trained actor, but made modest appearances in his own films — this is his only acting job for someone else, and it’s easy to see why he took it on — it’s a political thriller comparable to his own work. In his GIROLIMONI, MONSTER OF ROME (1972), Luciano Catenacci was a wild, Frankensteinian Mussolini. In this film, directed by Florestano Vancini the following year. Mario Adorf erases himself to the point of unrecognition, and is a very effective Benito — not exactly like the figure in the newsreels, but with no really distracting differences. It helps that we’re seeing him behind the scenes, and at an earlier historical period than WWII.

I’ve got George Pan Cosmatos’ MASSACRE IN ROME, I may as well watch that one too. Steiger!

Damiani isn’t the only director in MATTEOTTI — Vittorio De Sica is there too, and he IS a proper actor — he suppresses his usual twinkle and comes on with the fire and brimstone you might expect from his passionate neorealist stuff but which you rarely see in his performances.

It’s a very fine movie — Franco Nero is Matteotti, done in by the fascists, precipitating multiple legal and constitutional crises. It’s all highly reminiscent of recent historical events in the US and UK, with a lot of well-meaning functionaries struggling to preserve norms, but not having quite the radical will to stand up to such dishonest and vicious foes. Gramsci, the communist, does understand the stakes and the risks, but isn’t a natural partner for the more moderate forces which include Damiani as Giovanni Amendola and the marvelous Gastone Moschin as Filippo Turati.

The budget isn’t quite there, and the direction not quite nimble enough to cover the shortfall — Italy has done better than Britain at preserving streets that can pass muster in historical dramas, but there aren’t quite enough extras to fill them here. Still, it’s an exciting and smart piece of cinema — the historical background is filled in so craftily that one never feels overwhelmed by info-dump, or that the characters are telling one another things they already know. If you like Costa-Gavras’ Z, you’re almost sure to like this. Full of things you can hardly believe are true but that you know must be, because it’s not Hollywood.

One Stooge Per Dimension

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2022 by dcairns

So, two recommendations were enough — I got hold of a crumbling copy of SPOOKS!, the Three Stooges’ 1953 3D farce, which sees the team as detectives walking into a mad scientist plot in a possibly haunted house. In fact, there are no spooks to be seen anywhere in this, which is par for the course.

The Stooges first appear as floating heads of death (in the cleaned-up HD version their black romper suits are clearly visible), but they’re not, to my way of thinking, THE Three Stooges, more like A Three Stooges. Curly Howard is missing, presumed dead, replaced by big brother Shemp Howard. No matter that Shemp was in the gang before Curly, I consider Curly’s to be the classic line-up. Having Shemp, who looks like the bloated corpse of Moe, in the team, is sort of confusing and uncomfortable. I prefer him in his solo work, where the turns up in odd places such as the adventures of the Thin Man, the Lone Wolf, Charlie Chan, and one-offs like THE INVISIBLE WOMAN. He adds a creepy, abrasive touch to lighthearted adventures.

We now discover the trio in bed together, as private eyes. They get hired to investigate a kidnapping, and disguise themselves as bakers giving out free sample pies in the dead of night. The pies are obviously going to be important later.

Lest any of this ramshackle muck charm us overmuch, we should remember that talentless director Jules White helped shipwreck Buster Keaton’s career at MGM, though it wasn’t malicious, unless working in film while singularly lacking talent can be considered an act of malice, which I feel it can, sort of.

Still, White is determined to exploit the new medium, throwing and jabbing things at the audience relentlessly. Moe’s two fingers come shooting towards us. A big syringe pokes at us, a skeleton trundles forth on a wire (William Castle, take note) and a gorilla clutches at us. He’s played by Steve Calvert — they were too cheap to get Charlie Gemora.

Most interesting effect is when Moe kicks Shemp in the pants. Since White wants to photograph Moe’s shoe swinging up into the audience’s collective and bespectacled kisser, he films the action from the POV of Shemp’s ass. Possibly a cinematic first.

Inexplicable happenings: a rubber bat turns out to have Shemp’s face (a prequel parodying the yet-to-be-made THE FLY is the best explanation I can come up with) and a tiny moose head mounted on the wall comes to life and starts barking — which must be where Sam Raimi, a big Stooge stan, must have got the idea for the living taxidermy in EVIL DEAD II.

Philip Van Zandt as the mad scientist walks through it all with the face of a man who remembers being in CITIZEN KANE but not why he signed up for this thing.

At the end, the gorilla pelts the Stooges and the girl with pies, and everyone laughs. Fade out. I thought a nice idea would have been to have him rip his own head off and reveal a proper detective inside, ideally Basil Rathbone, but that would have cost money. I also thought that, having introduced the idea of brain transplants early on, it was a missed opportunity not to have Moe or Curly mindswapped with the ape (referred to, quite amusingly, by one or other of the violent clowns as a chimney-pansy). Stan Laurel would have gone for it.