Archive for the Television Category

Saving Farce

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , on February 3, 2023 by dcairns

MONSIEUR VERDOUX continued —

Chaplin-as-Verdoux-as-Varney answers the door to the mailman and indulges in his first bit of farce comedy, pretending his wife is upstairs in her bedroom instead of outside dead in the incinerator. Much of the farce in VERDOUX revolves around money, rather than directly around murder, though the murder is not, as Verdoux seems to think, an insignificant side-issue.

The pseudonym “Varney” implies “vampire,” from the Victorian penny dreadful Chaplin may have remembered, though I don’t know how widely read it was by the time of his birth. It also implies Reg Varney, star of lowbrow seventies sitcom On the Buses, but that one’s definitely an anachronism.

Farce is all about the terror of being FOUND OUT, and Verdoux has a lot to keep secret. His methods of collecting his late wife’s savings are treated with Lubitschian lightness — there’s a delight in showing the whole of his journey up and down stairs, in a pedantic, pre-nouvelle vague way. Richard Lester has talked about the difficulty of doing farce on film, because as soon as you start to cut, the audience forgets which door they’re supposed to be watching. The solution may be to cut less often, which may also be why there are more good farces in pre-nouvelle vague cinema than after, and why rather visually primitive TV shows like Fawlty Towers and Father Ted could do farce with an adroitness denied the makers of LOOT, HOTEL PARADISO and ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE.

Chaplin’s counting of the money is a gag that looks like one of his silent-era undercranking tricks, but isn’t. CC has really trained himself to riffle through banknotes at superhuman speed. Verdoux is an ex-bank clerk, but even if he weren’t, this skilled efficiency is appropriate to a man who has coldbloodedly made homicide his business, and is going about it all very professionally. The difference between Chaplin and a real bank clerk is that he doesn’t have to actually keep count, he just has to look as if he is. So as long as his fingers are moving very fast and the banknotes seem to be getting got through by this process, he’s perfectly convincing as well as impressive.

The busy-ness of Verdoux’s business recalls Adenoid Heinkel, rushing from artist’s studio to office. Heinkel too played the piano, and there as here the reference seemed to be to Nero. Verdoux’s ability to entertain himself at the piano while putting through a call which will make use of the money he’s defrauded from his latest victim makes him more inhuman, not less. But it elevates the mood.

I really, really like the piano gag — a knock at the door confuses Verdoux, who thinks something has shaken loose inside the pianoforte. It’s an audio joke of the kind CITY LIGHTS is so full of, it’s the perfect sound film development of the visual gag (see also Tati) and I wish there was more of this kind of thing in the film.

The newcomer is a woman to clean up the house for resale, and she’s played by Christine Ell. Mysteriously, this is her only film. Chaplin must have liked her face, which is indeed wonderfully characterful.

After setting all this in motion, Chaplin cuts away to the police station, where the terrible Couvais family are reporting their relative’s disappearance, and we learn that the police are already becoming aware of Verdoux’s existence, even though they don’t know his identity…

This is useful exposition — the cops established here will play a role later — but more importantly it generates suspense, because all farces are, essentially, thrillers. They have the same sort of moving parts, but move them faster. And, as a tale of murder and theft, MONSIEUR VERDOUX’s farcical elements are far closer to the crime film than is usual.

This cutaway also allows Chaplin to ellipse-elapse some time, so that when we rejoin him he has the house up for sale. He immediately tries to seduce the prospective buyer, Mme. Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom). A sensible woman, she’s understandably creeped out by his rapid advances. Verdoux’s ongoing pursuit of this perfectly sympathetic character will be a second suspense motor powering the later part of the film.

Hitchcock-fashion, Chaplin has us unwillingly root for Verdoux to escape justice, some of the time. But he never makes the moral mistake of having us root for Verdoux to successfully kill. That stuff requires careful handling, and it gets it, even though we can still find fault with some of the choices. Instead, Verdoux’ homicidal plans create suspenseful fear on behalf of his prey, the appealing Mme. Grosnay and the awful, yet perversely likable, Annabella, played by Martha Raye.

Fiona notes that the dressmaker’s dummy establishes the unseen late Mme. Varney/Mademoiselle Couvais as a large woman. “Well, he had to run the incinerator for three days,” I reply.

Verdoux (above left) toys “seductively” with a flower, tickling his chin in EXACTLY the same way he does at the end of CITY LIGHTS, but the effect is decidedly different. His overeager gaucherie in launching himself so wildly at Marie Grosney suggests he’s not as efficient at this as we first thought — the idea of Verdoux as a somewhat inept Bluebeard is not pursued elsewhere.

Verdoux, in an excess of emotion, falls out of a window. Chaplin may have seized on a more verbal form than DICTATOR’s combination of slapstick and dialogue, possibly because he didn’t feel like falling down so much, but his tennis practice has kept him spry and he can still do it.

Does this betray a slight overanxiousness on Chaplin’s as well as Verdoux’s part, a need to reassure us that however “sophisticated” the drawing-room farce gets, there will still be pratfalls?

At any rate, Verdoux doesn’t score, and probably a good thing for him, because shouldn’t he be abandoning the Varney persona, to minimise the chance of his various crimes being connected by the police?

Chaplin finishes the sequence with his first use of a shot of locomotive wheels which will become extremely familiar as the film progresses…

TBC

Cosies

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2023 by dcairns

I got hooked on Margery Allingham’s Campion books last year. I think she rates a couple of posts at least.

Allingham created her fictional detective Albert Campion in her second published novel, The Crime at Black Dudley (1929), and kept writing about him the rest of her life, with a little time off for side-projects. On the face of it, Campion is a somewhat derivative character — he has a lot in common with Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey and a little in common with Raffles, Boston Blackie, the Lone Wolf and the Falcon. He’s a very posh gent who hides behind a veneer of Bertie Woosterish silly-ass buffoonery and large horn-rimmed spectacles. But he’s also acquired the agility of a cat-burglar, the ability to pick locks, and the friendship and occasional assistance of many in the criminal underworld. He has an ex-con, Lugg, as manservant: a large, lugubrious man, he serves the same role as Blackie’s “the Runt,” while being his physical opposite.

The familiarity of these tropes adds to the books’ golden-age aura of cosiness, but in fact they’re quite unconventional as well. Allingham could write tight, fair-play mysteries when she chose to, but wasn’t satisfied limiting herself to that form. The Crime at Black Dudley plays like DIE HARD in a country house, with an unexplained murder happening during a hostage crisis. Campion himself is a supporting character and something of a deux ex machina. The only weakness is that the solution to the mystery depends entirely on information learned in the last chapter. I think if Allingham had constructed a real whodunnit and staged it against the backdrop of a group jeopardy thriller, she’d have had a really nice twist on the format. This would still be a good idea if somebody did it.

There was a TV show… I may have to check it out.

A couple of subsequent novels (Black Dudley and Mystery Mile) pit Campion against a Mabusean criminal outfit, “the Simister Gang” (Allingham’s character names tend towards the Dickensian). Police at the Funeral employs a really great twist, on a par with Christie’s genre-bending “the detective did it” and “the narrator did it” and “everybody did it” revelations. But by the time of Death of a Ghost in 1934, she’s experimenting with the structure: the killer is known halfway through the book, and the tension comes from the question of “How can we get any evidence to convict?” This kind of radical non-whodunnit approach recurs semi-regularly in MA’s books.

There’s also a bold streak of John Buchanesque adventuring, with international intrigues (Sweet Danger) and large-scale domestic espionage (Traitor’s Purse). The last-named is one of two wartime novels that hint that Campion has joined British Intelligence – these books also show the influence of American pulp fiction and noir. TP combines its wartime forgery plot (the Germans, it turned out later, really DID plot to destabilise the UK economy with forged banknotes) with a homegrown fascist villain suggestive of Cecil Day-Lewis/Nicholas Blake’s The Smiler with the Knife *and* an amnesia ploy suggestive of… well, everything. SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT and TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE and SPELLBOUND hadn’t been made yet, though, so it may well be a literary influence rather than a movie one. What were the hot amnesia stories in 1942? The second wartime book, Coroner’s Pidgin, uses the gimmick of the hero always being frustrated in his desire to sleep, eat or drink, and adds to this his desire to get away to his country retreat, for reasons not revealed until the rather moving final chapter.

Oh yes, Campion gets romantic interest, unlike a lot of his fellow sleuths (Agatha Christie turned down a lucrative MGM deal because they wouldn’t guarantee Poirot’s celibacy). Allingham works her way up to this gently, and it’s part of the gradual evolution that sees her hero becoming less eccentric and caricatured, and more real.

The best-known of the books is Tiger in the Smoke, which sidelines Campion so much that the film version was able to leave him out entirely. I’ve written about the movie before but want to revisit it. Seeing it in the light of the book makes its weaknesses more obvious but it’s still an interesting thing, with its own mystery about it. Again, a comparison with Nicholas Blake’s work is possible: when Claude Chabrol adapted Blake’s The Beast Must Die, he also found it convenient to delete the sleuth, Nigel Strangeways (originally inspired by the personality of W.H. Auden). The recent Ridley Scott-produced TV version reinstated Strangeways and made everything worse.

Several fans remark on Allingham’s work lacking the snobbery and racism of other golden age writers, but this is not entirely correct. There’s some throwaway antisemitism and hackneyed post-WWI evil Huns in the early books, the working-class characters tend very much to the caricatured (though Lugg is lovable), and Campion himself is discernibly High Tory, like his creator. But it’s true that the moments of discomfort are rare enough that the books are still very enjoyable, and Allingham writes a hell of a lot better than Sax Rohmer:

The fog had crept into the taxi where it crouched panting in a traffic jam. It oozed in ungenially, to smear sooty fingers over the two elegant young people who sat inside. They were keeping apart self-consciously, each stealing occasional glances in the same kind of fear at their clasped hands resting between them on the shabby leather seat.

I still have a ton of these to read. Maybe we’ll eventually get THREE blog posts out of them?

The Sunday Intertitle: Limited Edition

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , on January 29, 2023 by dcairns

Happy to announce the impending release of Arrow Films’ limited edition Blu-ray and UHD NAKED LUNCH. a project we prepared a video essay for a looooong time ago. Finally seeing the light of day, and worth the wait. I wrote and directed the video essay NOTHING IS TRUE, Chase Barthel edited it, and appearing in it are Luke Aspell, author of an excellent monograph on SHIVERS, and Fiona Watson, Mrs. Shadowplay. It was a happy collaboration because all of us are big Cronenberg fans. I also had a preparatory phone call with David Ehrenstein to make sure I understood his objections to the movie, even though as a Blu-ray extra it wasn’t ever going to be about the film’s flaws.

And it has intertitles!

This was before Arrow had an excellent long-distance system for recording interviews, so I spoke to luke over Zoom, and then the futzy quality of the calls (see also Who Is Bill Rebane?) needed some kind of artistic alibi, something to turn the bug into a feature and make a virtue of necessity, so I decided these talking heads had been intercepted from some kind of Videodrome-type pirate signal beamed out of Interzone…

So I created Interzone Broadcasting Service (IBS) test cards. Test cards are kind of intertitles, aren’t they? And it seems appropriate to have a little aberrant humour in any Cronenberg release.

This one is a nod to the BBC’s famous scary clown test card of my 1970s childhood:

The piece also begins with a bit of typewritten text (typewriters are important in this film) which quotes the blurb from the first edition of Burroughs (The) Naked Lunch I ever handled. Explaining the title isn’t a very Burroughs thing to do, and arguably keeping it mysterious is a good thing(never swap an evocative mystery for a boring solution), but it’s a striking and sinister explanation which positions the book’s (and the film’s) horrors as REVELATORY, a hidden truth stripped bare, a feverish and wild-eyed REPORT from a liminal and uncertain zone…