Archive for the literature Category

The Secret Diary of Harry Palmer

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2016 by dcairns


Len Deighton is a poet. Who knew?

I picked up Horse Under Water, the second of Deighton’s “unnamed spy” novels, and the first one not to be filmed with Michael Caine. I’m not sure why it was skipped in favour of Funeral in Berlin, since Michael Caine has said he chooses projects based on (1) quality (2) money (3) is the location somewhere nice? A lot of this one takes place by the seaside in Portugal, he’d have loved it.

The hideously convoluted plot does its job, the laconic dialogue is a lovely British take on hard-boiled repartee, but it’s the prose which kept me happy as I sweated through my sickbed ~

The airport bus dredged through the sludge of traffic as sodium-arc lamps jaundiced our way towards Slough.

That’s making me feel ill, said Fiona when I read it to her. A gross, bitter sentence that contains “dredged,” “sludge,” “jaundiced” and still manages to reach a climax of nausea with “Slough.” Someone else might just have said “I got the airport bus.” Deighton goes on ~

Cold passengers clasped their five-shilling tickets and one or two tried to read newspapers in the glimmer. Cars flicked lights, shook their woolly dollies at us and flashed by, followed by ghost cars of white spray.

At the airport everything was closed and half the lighting was switched off to save the cost of the electricity we had paid seven and six airport tax for.

First, Deighton really notices stuff, so he can write down things nobody else has got to write about, like the mirage afterimage of cars in rain. And he feels stuff — mostly grumpiness about Britain. All the really striking sentences are about the awfulness of Britain. The book flashes back and forth between London and Portugal with a couple of Moroccan jaunts and one Spanish one. Also Wales, which is like London but colder and emptier. Also Gibraltar, which is close to Portugal but British and therefore awful ~

Two sailors in white were vomiting their agonizing way to the Wharf and another was sitting on the pavement near Queen’s Hotel.

“Blood, vomit and alcohol,” I said to Joe, “It should be on the coat of arms.”

“It’s on just about everything else,” he said sourly.

“Sour” is a very good word for the overall tone, which is what makes Deighton such a good Bond antidote. LeCarre provides misery and melancholy, Deighton adds spleen.

If they had filmed this in 1966 — well, for one thing, the London scene had changed a lot in the three years since the book came out, had it not? But they would have had to do a lot of wrestling with plot to find clear cinematic was to exposit the complexities. And the effect of shuttling back and forth between somewhere glamorous and hot and somewhere bleak and cold would have been very interesting — a can’t think of many films that do the hot-and-cold showers thing.


Her smile was like a thin shaft of Christmas-afternoon sunshine.

Later, our unnamed hero is on a train eating British Rail chicken in gravy (Deighton is also a food critic) ~

The blonde girl with the painted face was putting pink acetate on her fingernails; the acrid smell assailed my taste-buds as I chewed the chicken – it was better than no taste at all.

I love the first three Harry Palmer films — it was felt that the unnamed spy had to have a name, but it should be a bland one, to emphasise his anonymity. The character’s innate laconic, slightly insolent, low-affect tone was a gift to Michael Caine, who basically morphed into Palmer and carries the spy with him, always. I also like how the movies are so different, unlike the Bond series — each has a totally different director, a different screenwriter and a different composer, and although Otto Heller was cinematographer on the first two, he only uses the “Sid Furie shot” in the one that Sid Furie shot. I think I’m going to watch FUNERAL IN BERLIN now, since it’s the one I don’t remember at all. Guy Hamilton did not have the personality of Furie or, heaven knows, Ken Russell (BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN is a masterpiece and should be studied), but he made the best Connery Bond and was nothing if not efficient.

Horse Under Water (the explanation of the title is a spoiler) has a bleak and bitter conclusion, then a sexy coda, then several appendices, which allow Deighton to end it with ~

I closed the file.


The Sunday Intertitle: The Erotic Adventures of Prince Achmed

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on October 2, 2016 by dcairns


So I finally got to see Lotte Reininger’s shadow-puppet animation THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED on the big screen, thanks to the wondrous Shona Thomson, organizer of the tour it’s just been on — this 90-year-old German silent has been all around Scotland, accompanied by improvisatory acoustic combo Sink, playing to packed houses. I failed to crowbar myself into the screening at Filmhouse, so popular was it, but Shona got me a comp for beloved Bo’ness, the final stop on the tour.


“No, not the Flooby Monster!”

The plot is glorious nonsense, seeming as improvised as the score, and less organized, despite the time-consuming nature of animation. Reininger evidently aspired to script as quickly as she could scissor a cut-out character, and the result has the chaotic, freewheeling, logic-free quality of authentic folkd tale/myth, even though virtually nothing is actually taken from The Thousand and One Nights. Aladdin and his lamp feature, but are conflated with Ali Baba’s cave and a number of other things. My favourite aspect of the flaky structure was the long flashback (The Arabian Nights is full of nested narratives within narratives, it’s like Cloud Atlas written by an army of monkeys) in which Aladin (sic) recounts how he got from being some poor schmoe in Baghdad to having a palace and living with a princess, to losing everything and becoming a poor schmoe in China, being attacked by a flooby monster (I call it that: it doesn’t have a name in the film. I suppose it would be ein floobenmonster in the original German). This saga is embedded within Achmed’s own adventure, happening in parallel with it, but seems to cover weeks of time at the very least, whereas Achmed’s story appears to unfold within a single day. I love this. It’s the most impossible thing in a story containing demons, spirits and a mechanical flying horse, but it’s hidden in plain sight.


All I knew about Lotte R. is that she made this kind of thing. Turns out she made it by sawing a hole in her best dining table. But I did know a little about Oskar Fischinger, who worked with melted and reformed wax — though he has no credit on the film, I wondered if he was somehow involved, as the bubbly, globular magic performed by the sinister African sorcerer looks very Fischingeresque. There are also great effects with shadowy shapes, identifiable as the work of credited collaborator Walter Ruttmann, who created similar effects for Fritz Lang.


To begin with, Achmed’s adventures seem rather sex-obsessed. The sorcerer fancies his sister, so gets rid of Achmed with his flying horse. Achmed lands, with some difficulty, in the Wak Wak Islands, where all the girls are crazy about him. There’s a long kissy sequence which slowly and hilariously transforms into a riot as the girls can’t get enough of each other and start fighting each other and wrecking the cut-out scenery. Very Weimar moment where to girls lunge at once and he ducks and they’re surprised to find themselves kissing one another.


Audience members reported being enchanted by the tiny rippling reflections in the water.

Escaping the hot-tempered maidens, Achmed then peeps at the Princess Pari Banu and her maidservants bathing, and steals the princess’s feathered bird-of-paradise costume so he can abduct her naked. But then he wins her heart by letting her have clothes after all. This is the end – almost – of the sex part of the film. The rest is mostly violence, except for when Achmed rescues Pari Banu (the English subtitles persistently called her Peri Banu, an act of imperialism almost as bad as Achmed’s own) from the fiendish Chinese, and immediately takes her to bed. This is pretty sudden: they’re still in China, surrounded by enemies. But I guess he’s waited long enough.

(Once, researching puppetry for a project, I found a book which had a whole chapter on eroticism. Every single image was appallingly creepy. It seems that puppetry, using as it does human movement, like dance, is well-suited to evoking sex, but because it uses surrogates, the result is always going to be really freaky and wrong. Animation, which does not use human movement, and in a way does not depict real movement at all, is further removed from reality and somehow becomes less weird and pervy. So ACHMED can be full of intimations of hot puppet sex without making you worry about what the puppets smell like.)


I loved the use of shallow focus: pre-anime!

Demons versus spirits! Witch versus sorcerer! The final parts of the film feature multiple decapitations and mayhem, with Achmed’s scimitar despatching his opponents almost as fast as Reininger’s scissors can create them. If you’re a little worried, as I was, by the travesty of African and Chinese villains, you can take comfort in the fact that all the characters are ethnic, with Aladin in particular having a very beautiful Arabic quality in profile, without being caricatured. I guess in a story like this, the Arab characters are stand-ins for the presumed white audience, but at least they’re allowed to look Middle-Eastern. It’s not like casting Dale Robertson as Sinbad Jnr.


Sink’s music complimented the magic show beautifully — landing squarely in the mysterious Central Zone between right-but-obvious on one extreme and distractingly-wrong on the other, the accompaniment was always spot-on but in ways you couldn’t define or explain. The trio don’t always even look at the screen, apparently, but play an assortment of instruments, including the proverbial kitchen sink as part of the percussion. If you could tear your eyes from the screen you could catch the saxophonist ringing bells with his feet. I was wondering how the kids in the audience — and there were several — would react, but they were good as gold, and they got to play with the instruments at the end, which may possibly have been the most magical part of the evening for them. Oh, and there was a microphone with some weird echoing special effects on it, the one non-acoustic element of the score. I kind of wish I’d had a go on that, but I did ring a foot-bell.

From Gerald Kersh’s short story The Musicians, which I was reading just before the show started:

The second saxophonist played without moving his body. He was a long, lachrymose man, but as his fingers ran over the keys, complicated as the controls of a submarine, his eyelids drooped, his cheeks fell in, and something like a sleepy smile curved the corners of his mouth, as if he was sucking sweet nourishment out of the reed. […]

The drummer brandished strange weapons. He tickled the parchment with wire, and it laughed; rapped it with sticks, and it muttered; beat it with a club, and it groaned; while the man’s face, distorted as with rage, writhed and grimaced, and a queer fleck of golden light reflected from one of the cymbals fluttered around his mouth and forehead.

But Willie seemed to sit above it all. I watched his face. It expressed the mildest kind of astonishment. He held his violin, richly coloured like smoked fish, and glanced with a kind of dismay at his left hand, which, leaping out of his cuff, was running wild on the strings.




Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on September 30, 2016 by dcairns



I remembered that DARK PASSAGE had a lot of bravura subjective camera stuff at the start, and some unlikely coincidences, but time had erased all other details, so I thought I’d watch it again.

Vince Parry (Humphrey Bogart, a few stand-ins, and a photograph of some other guy) escapes from San Quentin, smuggled in a barrel like the Marx Bros. in MONKEY BUSINESS. When the barrel falls off the wagon, we get the first POV shot, rolling downhill, then an artful POV of the barrel-bottom itself as Parry staggers off. Then we’re into the cool stuff, striking subjective shots as our hero climbs over a fence, thumbs a ride, gets in the car, with cleverly hidden cuts: at one point a pan takes us from a real car on a real road to a studio effects shot (it seems to be a matte rather than the usual process shot — I don’t know why this should be).


Parry, wanted for murdering Mrs. Parry (he’s innocent, of course) gets plastic surgery which makes him look like Humphrey Bogart — the only time in history anyone has done this. An hour in, Bogie takes the bandages off, so the slower audience members finally realise the reason for all that concealment. Rather than deal with the estrangement of the leading actor being subbed halfway through the film — which is always a problem — Daves has withheld his star from our gaze for most of the movie.


During the in-between bit, we can see Bogart but he’s swathed in Invisible Man bandages. Oddly, they make him look like Eddie Cantor.

I would like a movie where Humphrey and Eddie play brothers, please.

The reason I forgot most of the movie is that the plot stuff isn’t that interesting, once you get past the weird directorial devices, but you have Bogie & Bacall, and Agnes Moorehead, and a good smarmy turn by ex-Our Gang actor Clifton Young as a gloating blackmailer. Very peculiar to have interest in a film decline when Humphrey Bogart comes in. But he does get to say, to Young, “Tell me, or I’ll shoot it out of you!”

From a novel by eccentric noir/pulp specialist David Goodis, a favourite of the French (SHOOT THE PIANIST, MOON IN THE GUTTER), the film delivers plenty of bizarre stylistic touches, apart from yesterday’s trumpet massacre. Bogie keeps meeting people who randomly want to help him and believe him to be innocent. A friendly cabbie leads him to the rather disreputable-looking plastic surgery who messes his face up. This leads to a groovy ’40s-style expressionistic nightmare sequence ~



The fascinating thing is the way so many of Daves’ techniques separate Bogart’s face from his body. Or other peoples’ faces from their bodies. The location stuff at the start evidently created sound problems — the camera tends to pan off people before we hear their voices. Of course, the gigantic sound kit of the period couldn’t even fit in a car, so the driving scenes had to be done mute. Bogart has a VO to help us through his POV scenes, but when the actor steps onto the screen for real, wrapped up like the mummy, he is unable to speak because of his operation, and the VO doesn’t come back. Daves even shoots part of a conversation over coffee and candlelight through a window during a rainstorm, so Bacall’s dialogue is unheard.

Maybe because our hero loses his birth-face partway through the story, this separation of face and vocals seems appropriate, somehow meaningful…

An odd thing: with his face and name changed, nobody recognizes Parry, despite his having the most recognizable voice in Hollywood…