Archive for the FILM Category

Thunk!

Posted in FILM with tags , on February 19, 2018 by dcairns

One more thing about THE SILENT HOUSE, if you can bear it.

I was startled by a bit of beautifully staged action during the film’s lengthy Chinese flashback. The scene is a knife fight. We see one character draw back his hand to throw a knife.

We cut to a reverse angle looking past him at his target. His arm flashes forward.

 

The target reacts! And the knife juts from his bare chest!

Crikey, I thought, extras really were disposable in those days.

But no. Let’s break it down. It does indeed happen all in one shot, with the preceding view merely a set-up, convincing as that Man A has a knife in his hand. But he never throws it.

As his arms swipes forward (not throwing the knife, merely moving it behind his body, his victim reacts as if struck, moving his arm to reveal the knife in his torso, which was already there! This knife is a fake, with half its length missing and a base plate to hold it steady against his body, a pale strap encircling his chest holding it on, rendered invisible by the brightness of his skin in daylight in b&w.

A really clever bit of sleight-of-hand. Couldn’t work on stage, it depends totally on the camera only having one viewpoint at a time, unlike the many-headed theatre audience. So, I say, well done there, Walter Forde.

Advertisements

The Sunday Supertitles: The Yellowface Peril

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2018 by dcairns

I was mildly impressed by director Walter Forde when I first saw some of his thirties comedy-thrillers. None of these are at a Hitchcock level, although the comedy sometimes approaches the irksomeness of the worst bits of British Hitch. But his two INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH sequels (the original, confusingly, was directed by Eugene Forde) are witty and stylish — Forde could bring noirish atmospherics to his music-hall romps. ROME EXPRESS has some very inventive cutting and comes close to being a legit precursor to THE LADY VANISHES (Forde often worked with that film’s writers, Launder & Gilliatt, as well as other talents like Val Guest).

   

THE SILENT HOUSE is probably Forde’s most elegant piece of filmmaking, from an early tracking shot that passes ghostlike through the latticework of a window (surely Hitchcock was watching and nodding his chins in approval) to the use of big, frontal close-ups as shock punctuation. The plot lets it down — it starts as a simple but fun spooky house mystery, complete with will-reading, then plunges into a lengthy, hypnosis-induced flashback, then hits us with a flurry of reversals and suspense-menace involving hidden panels, apparent deaths that aren’t, and an actual snake pit. Yes, the villain has constructed a snake pit off his own living room, just in case he should need one.

The other thing that lets the movie down, or at least problematizes its simple pleasures, is the race angle. The movie is a colonial fantasy/nightmare, a bit like Hammer’s later ventures into this arena. Racism performs a queer sort of dance — at first, it looks like it won’t be as vicious as you feared, then it turns out to be much worse, then it unexpectedly backtracks, then lunges forward, and so on. We end up in a complicated place that does actually soften some of the most horrible aspects of the film. But they’re still there.

(Forde also directed CHU CHIN CHOW with Anna May Wong as an Arab along with George Robey and Fritz Kortner.)

The first hint of this angle is the appearance of Kiyoshi Tanase, an actual Japanese actor playing a Chinese manservant. The moody opening sequence, in which his master is flattened by a falling stone balustrade (a favourite country house assassination technique — see AND THEN THERE WERE NONE — probably never attempted in reality) seems to set him up as a villain. Still, it’s unusual and sort of cheering to see an actor who isn’t white given a substantial part in a Brit flick of this era.

Then Arthur Pusey, heir to the depleted estate, arrives, accompanied by his comedy relief chum Gerald Rawlinson. They learn that valuable bonds and a certain rare gem are hidden somewhere in the house. By curious chance, this is the exact set-up of The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will by Dorothy L. Sayers, a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery I had just read. This movie really is a mash-up of every mystery meme in the air at the time. Will the gem turn out to have been plundered from an eastern idol, like The Moonstone or The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God? It will!

Rawlinson’s effete pal, a sort of Cecil Vyse figure, reacts with superstitious horror whenever he sees a Chinese character — and it seems we’re supposed to share his anxiety. The next sinister orientals we meet DO provoke discomfort, as they’re played by white folks in wouldn’t-it-be-rubbery? false eyelids and yellowface. There are a couple of Portuegese-Chinese “half-castes” lurking about, and the respectable-seeming but obviously villainous Chang Fu, played by Gibb McGloughlin, a name which gives you some idea of how convincingly Asian he’s going to look, but that won’t stop me from inflicting his rotten face on you ~

Then we learn that Fu Manchu Chang Fu has an innocent white girl (Mabel Poulton, looking very innocent and positively pasty) under his hypnotic spell, the fiend! No suggestion of where he learned mesmerism, despite the lengthy flashback to the Mystic East — it just seems to be an inherent genetic trait he’s got along with the rubber eyelids and loose sleeves. And snake pit.

It is obligatory to mention that Mabel is one silent film star whose career really was derailed by sound — or, rather, by the class system. Cockney accent, you see.

Genuinely exciting climax, with the snake pit, a retracting floor, heroes in danger, and Tanase-san to the rescue. The one actual Asian turns out to be a good guy! And Chang Fu Manchu turns out to be motivated by religious passion — he’s relocated an entire Chinese temple (with a statue of some unidentifiable god, definitely not Buddha, but hey, at least he doesn’t have eight arms) to his English country house just so he can replace the stolen gem on its bosom as his dying act. A noble motive for all his perfidy, presented by the filmmakers with some awe and approval. But we have to think the whole kit-and-kaboodle’s now going to wind up in the British Museum, so was it worth his trouble?

And I guess the snakes will find a happy home in London Zoo, but the charming coda doesn’t tell us. Pusey and Poulton are married, Tanase is rocking the baby, and THE SILENT HOUSE is silent no more ~

I love a happy ending!

Isn’t it Awfully Nice…?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on February 17, 2018 by dcairns

I remember this TV show, hosted by Muriel Gray, in which she would go for walks with famous people. An itinerant talk show. It’s the kind of thing that passes for a good idea in television — fantastically stupid and basic in one sense, but in another sense, genuinely quite a good idea. You interview somebody while exploring their favorite stomping ground. My memory tells me this show was called Walkie Talkie but I may have invented that. Reality, and television, can’t be THAT inane.

Gray, who is from Aberdeen which means she can seem quite humourless (I know some quite funny Aberdonians, so this is a stereotype which isn’t really true, but can SEEM quite true if you get the right Aberdonian in the right circumstances) interviewed Monty Python member Eric Idle. I forget where they walked. Every episode dissolves into nondescript greenery in my memory.

Somehow the subject turned to women in comedy. I think Idle, whose work does seem to suggest an old-fashioned male chauvinism, ventured the opinion that maybe women just weren’t as funny as men, or not in the right way anyhow.

“So what’s missing?” asked Gray.

“A penis?” shrugged Idle.

“And why would that matter?” asked Gray, completely ignoring the fact that Idle had been attempting a joke, and thus appearing to prove his point, though not really.

Idle then gamely tried to justify his facetious remark by citing the jester’s stick and maybe other phallic appurtenances. Chaplin’s cane may have been cited, I don’t recall.

There may be something in the idea that the penis can inspire comedy. One very funny sequence in EVIL DEAD II, showing Ash (Bruce Campbell) getting beaten up by his own hand, seems to depend on the notion of a part of the anatomy with a will of its own. Perhaps only male creators would have written that. An even better sequence is Peter Sellers grappling with his prosthetic arm in DR STRANGELOVE, where the involuntary Heil Hitler it performs doubles as an unwelcome erection.

But the thing is, women know about the penis too, though I suppose they don’t usually know what it’s like to have one. I remember Yoko Ono saying she thought penises were hilarious: these dangling appendages that just behave exactly as they see fit, without consulting the higher intellect more than occasionally. I do think Idle is quite wrong. Women do comedy just as readily as men. Women’s comedy does, it seems to me, have subtle differences of flavour from men’s, but it’s all on a spectrum and I can’t really define the differences I suppose to be present. Any generalisation would inevitably be torpedoed by the innumerable exceptions.

Oh, and a lot of comedy about penises and also bottoms is probably indirect homosexual panic — we straights have to find these bits ridiculous to prove to ourselves and others that we don’t find them sexy. Maybe the penis will fade like a ghost from our comedies as we all get over the jitters. Whatever remains will be the true comic personality of the phallus — which might look a lot like Eric Idle.