“People melting, indeed!”

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2015 by dcairns

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The above scornful remark by a Scottish policeman in X: THE UNKNOWN (1956) recalls the words of the burgomaster in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN: “Monster , indeed!” And screenwriter Jimmy Sangster probably knew his Universal horrors, as he was about to write CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

The perils of a little knowledge: IMDb attributes the film to Leslie Norman, the credited director, and Joseph Losey, and I thought I could see traces of Losey’s trademark snaky tracking shots, but reading more I learn that Losey was removed before production began. as star Dean Jagger refused to work with a blacklisted commie. A shame. Losey had made a short film for Hammer (the turgid A MAN ON THE BEACH) and would eventually shoot THE DAMNED for the studio, but he wasn’t too sorry to be removed from this hokum. Hammer had wanted a Quatermass sequel, I believe, but author Nigel Kneale had refused to allow his creation into the hands of another writer. A shame, in some ways, since the character played by token yank Jagger is closer to Kneale’s conception than the bellowing lout played by Brian Donlevy in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT.

I had tried to watch this with Fiona once, but we got bored of the muddy quarry setting, which seemed to go on forever. The grumbling squaddies played by the likes of Anthony Newley and Kenneth Cope got sick of it and their lack of enthusiasm was infectious. Seeing it properly, I can’t understand this, as the movie is OK and for heaven’s sake, it’s a quasi-Quatermass set in Scotland. We should have been all over that shit.

My friend Alex, with whom I’ve been writing a Quatermass-inspired project, said he remembered this one improving as it went on. But later, when we discussed it, it turned out that he’d mentally grafted the last half of QUATERMASS II onto the front half of X, so naturally it improved. And somehow the bits went together quite well.

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If the film were in colour you’d be able to see that hapless young Kenneth Cope, centre, is wearing a red shirt. Yes, that’s a Star Trek joke.

The monster in the Scottish Quatermass turns out to be mud, which seems kind of apt given the weather. Radioactive mud from the earth’s core, explained by a shambolic bit of Sangster pseudo-science. But, as often with Sangster’s all-thumbs scripting, apparent mistakes or clumsy inconsistencies can be oddly evocative. On the surface, the film has little of the anti-militarism of Kneale’s writing, although the army try to dynamite the monster and then cement over the fissure it oozes from, so they’re idiots. But the best bit is the Geiger counter test — a group of soldiers are training in the use of Geiger counters when they happen to stumble upon the exact spot where the radioactive monster is going to emerge. It’s a fairly global coincidence, but that isn’t the best bit. The inevitable Michael Ripper tells his men that in a real radiation situation, they would be required to mark the spot and get out fast, as radiation can be very nasty. When, seconds later, the pale and trembling young Kenneth Cope does indeed find real radiation, he is ordered to stand on the spot so everyone can see where it is. He dies horribly.

This cheered me up no end, and made me feel the movie would be worth watching as soon as we could get out of the muddy quarry. And we do, to a couple of nuclear labs and a few simpler sets. The nearby village, Lochmouth, is scene of a great bit once the blob gets properly oozing — forced perspectives allow a very small blob to pretend to be a very big blob. For most of the film, the blob is absent, like Godot, though Leslie Norman does grant us a couple of blob’s-eye-view attacks. Before there was Michael Myer, there was X: THE UNKNOWN. X is also an unusual character in that he gets to physically embody his own main title, a gloopy X of rippling oily matter. Even Marlon Brando never got to embody a title, though clearly such an approach could have greatly enhanced his later work.

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Red-hating Dean Jagger is, appropriately, on the right, whereas Leo McKern is, like, whatevs.

Then Leo McKern turns up. Like chocolate, Leo McKern makes everything a bit better. I think even chocolate-coated rabies would be a bit better than the normal kind. But I’m unsure if a chocolate-coated Leo McKern would sort of cancel himself out. Anyway, I suspect he was Losey’s idea — his next film would be TIME WITHOUT PITY for that director. I was a little disappointed that McKern’s policeman character wasn’t given more to do — Sangster has crowded the film with largely benign authority figures who get on much too well together — and he accepts with complete credulity the theory that the radiation slayings plaguing this rural locale are the work of some mud. A scene of Leo angrily rejecting such a supposition could easily have been the best scene in the picture.

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Priest rescues little girl from blob, which is trickling listlessly through gap in dry-stone wall in front of a painting of Scottish scenery — and the little girl wins the movie’s best acting award by laughing her head off throughout. Nobody, it seems, had the heart (or energy?) to dub on screams.

Instead, the best bit is when makeup guru/top splodger Phil Leakey and effects wiz Les Bowie make a doctor melt. The doc has arranged a romantic tryst with a sexy nurse in the hospital’s “radiation room.” Because what woman can resist a proposition like that? The amorous medico’s disintegration is served up with two shots, a swelling finger closeup which suggests a Tom & Jerry hammer-to-the-thumb gag, while also looking forward to that staple of seventies and eighties horror, the bladder effect. Then there’s a LOST ARK type flesh-melt,all the most striking for its brevity. Lucio Fulci would have gotten a full minute out of that bit, but HE WOULD HAVE BEEN WRONG.

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Ha! The sign omits to mention that it’s the SEXY Radiation Room. OF DEATH.

So now commie-hating Dean Jagger has to kill the mud with special science. I liked the fact that the film’s ending hinges upon the need to zap the mud before it decides to rampage through Inverness. The film is a product of a gentler age, in which our empathy for Inverness was presumed to be strong enough to motivate a film’s climax. And I like the fact that Jagger is persuaded to use an experimental technique which, if it fails, is going to cause a gigantic explosion much more devastating than the mud monster.

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And then I *really* like the bizarre ending, when the mud-monster is blown up, and there follows a mysterious second explosion from the bowels of the earth. Dean Jagger is deeply perturbed. It shouldn’t have happened. Every one else is, like, whatevs, we blew up the mud didn’t we? But Jagger remains perturbed. And then the film abruptly ENDS, a colossal fuck-you to the curious. It’s not enough to constitute a typical horror movie closeup-of-a-bee sequel promise. It’s not pointed enough, specific enough. It’s just bloody weird, like Sangster started to write a final twist and then couldn’t be bothered, and then couldn’t be bothered XXX-ing out the bit he’d started.

Maybe they used up all their Xs in the title.

And lead us into TEMPTATION…

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2015 by dcairns

David Melville fills the gap between his series on Mexican melodrama and his upcoming series on… but that would be telling… with a special piece on a neglected 1946 melodrama sure to be of interest to Shadowplayers everywhere ~

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Was there ever a better year for Bad Girls than 1946? Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun, Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman. Each one stronger, smarter, sexier and more subversive than…well, just about any woman since. But one lady, that same year, could hold her own with any of them. An actress who’s been criminally underrated, in a film that’s been tragically forgotten. I’m talking about Merle Oberon in Temptation.

If the title doesn’t ring any bells…well, it’s not an easy film to see. Directed by Irving Pichel and produced (lavishly) by a long-defunct entity called International Film Corporation, Temptation is unavailable on DVD or any other home video format. It survives (just about) in blurred copies recorded from TV in the 90s. Not that it doesn’t still look splendid. The cameraman, Lucien Ballard, was Merle Oberon’s second husband. (He also photographed her in The Lodger (1944), This Love of Ours (1945) and Berlin Express (1948).) She married him, presumably, because he was the one man who could make her look more exquisite than she did already.

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So what is Temptation about? Many things…not all of which are directly apparent on screen. It was based on Bella Donna, a novel by the English author and aesthete Robert Hichens (1864-1950). A member of the camp gay circle that surrounded Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, he is best remembered today for The Green Carnation (1894) – a witty if rather scurrilous roman á clef about the, er, home life of his two famous friends. He also wrote the kitsch masterwork The Garden of Allah (filmed in 1936 with Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich) which, like this story, has a North African desert setting.

Temptation opens in Cairo in 1900. Merle plays an outwardly genteel Victorian lady, who gets into a spot of bother over some compromising letters sent to an Egyptian gigolo lover (Charles Korvin). Dare we suspect this story has autobiographical echoes? We do know Wilde and his pals spent almost as much money paying off blackmailers as they earned in royalties. (More, perhaps, in the case of the sexually voracious Lord Alfred.) It’s tempting to see Merle’s character (who boasts the achingly exotic name of Ruby Armine) as a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. She could – if only this film were better known – win herself a cult following to rival Bette Davis in All About Eve.

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We see her first in long-shot, drifting through the garden of her sumptuous villa in a plush suburb of Cairo. (I was not aware, until now, that Cairo had plush suburbs.) A vision in a long and trailing white gown, with a white lace parasol to match. Her clothes are by the great Orry-Kelly and Merle herself remarks within the first few minutes: “The things I remember best are the hats and gowns I wore – and the way I felt when I wore them.” At the risk of sounding shallow, I must admit much of the pleasure in Temptation comes from seeing what our heroine will wear next. Let’s just say Merle Oberon is never knowingly underdressed.

As the star wafts her way slowly through the garden, we learn that a sinister Egyptian police inspector has come to call. By the time we see her in close-up, it’s clear she’s wanted for questioning about a murder. Her dreary archaeologist husband (George Brent) does not seem unduly concerned. He’s too busy pondering the opening of a long-lost tomb. But his close bachelor friend, a gimlet-eyed Jewish doctor (Paul Lukas), has distrusted and disliked Ruby from the start. A flashback in London tells us she was once what’s euphemistically called an ‘adventuress’. Her first husband divorced her on “urgent medical advice” from Lukas, who then tried to dissuade Brent from marrying her “as I would stop an infectious disease from spreading”. We wonder, momentarily, if the poor girl has some sort of VD. Or is the doctor one of those movie characters (normally played by Clifton Webb) who seem to regard any woman as ‘unclean’?

With these two dullards as her day-to-day companions, it’s hardly a surprise when Merle (still in a flashback) decides to have a little fun on the side. ‘Fun’ comes in the form of a bogus Egyptian prince called Mahmoud Bahroudi. He’s played by the Hungarian actor Charles Korvin – the one actor with a cleft chin more prodigious than Kirk Douglas or Cary Grant! In any other department, he’s not much of a threat but Merle likes him from the start. They first meet when he tries to blackmail a young acquaintance – and are drawn together by recognition of each other’s mutual depravity. “You’re the first person,” marvels Korvin, “who lies as well as I do.” To put it more simply, the two are a perfect match.

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Korvin, of course, is only out for money. But all of Merle’s is under the control of her husband. “I wish he were dead,” she says with an air of mild annoyance. Her lover promptly hands her an untraceable poison in an exotically carved antique box. Soon enough, she’s found a villainous servant who can stir it discreetly into anything poor Brent eats or drinks. In the tensest moment, some poisoned tea is placed strategically on a tray with six or seven other cups. The servant swivels the tray, with a dexterity that is truly breathtaking, to make sure that hubby gets the right one. Merle’s beautiful dark eyes follow the tray’s every move. They glow anxiously as her husband lifts the drink to his lips – and puts it down twice, untasted.

It’s a truly mesmerising piece of silent-screen acting, made all the more offbeat and effective by the fact that it takes place in a talking film. In forty years as an internationally famous star (stretching from her doomed Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933 to her even-more-doomed vanity project Interval in 1973) Merle Oberon never enjoyed much reputation as an actress. The focus was on her exotic Anglo-Indian beauty and her early life as a ‘nightclub dancer’ (among other things) in the back streets of Calcutta. Yet anyone who doubts her ability to carry a film should track down a copy of Temptation. It’s a banquet of a role and she chomps it down and swallows it in one gulp. Only the lynx-eyed Lenore Ulric, as her sinister and possibly lesbian French maid, gets to steal even a tiny corner of the screen.

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Am I spoiling any surprises if I say that Merle/Ruby does reform before Temptation is quite over? Hichens’ friend Wilde deplored “the modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice” but that is what Hollywood in the 40s forced most movies to do. It’s reassuring to note that – while she is still satisfyingly wicked – Oberon sports a truly eye-popping dress with a black-lace-and-diamante bodice, festooned with pyramids and sphinxes and other Egyptian motifs. Surely no girl who wears a gown like this could ever be that good?!

David Melville

Frends at Sea

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2015 by dcairns

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OK, a little gentle nudging got me to look at Charles Frend’s unofficial trilogy of WWII sea pictures. When we get to THE CRUEL SEA it’s as good as it’s cracked up to be, so be patient…

First up, THE BIG BLOCKADE (1942) isn’t purely a sea picture, it’s about the economic war on Germany. It’s pure wartime propaganda, Ealing’s bit for the war effort, just over an hour long and a kind of sketch film, written by former Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail. Forced jocularity and British actors playing Germans and Italians and Russians. Historically interesting, of course. The Germans are the baddies — we’re encouraged to laugh as the factory management are threatened with Dachau if they don’t keep up production — the Italians are just a joke. “You violate me in international law!” protests a wop captain. “Wouldn’t dream of it, old boy,” comes the dry response.

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Robert Morley as a Nazi is a sight to see. Even more lip-smacking than usual.

The ocean-going bit involves Will Hay, popular British comedian — certainly a better character actor than George Formby or Arthur Askey, so I suppose we should be grateful. But his whole scene is basically a lot of information shoveled down the audience’s throat without enough comedy to make it halfway palatable. In the flying bit we get John Mills and Michael Rennie — Quatermass and Klaatu! — on the same plane. No wonder we won.

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I enjoyed the film mainly for the model shots and the sometimes bizarre stunt casting. Nazi Germany as Toyland.

Naval pictures are quite weird animals. They consist on the one hand of miniatures and special effects — the fantasy cinema of Georges Melies where everything is flimsily constructed and presented with a magician’s sleight-of-hand — and on the other hand, of stock footage, actuality material of the real war, with real waves, ships and (implied) death. In between these two extremes are the actors, sometimes on location, sometimes in sets. They have the tricky job of gluing it all together with dramaturgic paste. All Frend’s skills as a former editor are needed to maintain an illusion of cause and effect.

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SAN DEMETRIO LONDON (1943) is Ealing Studio’s tribute to the Merchant Marines, with a no-star cast but some favourite character people turning up amid the ensemble, such as Mervyn Johns and a baby-faced Gordon Jackson. Script is by Frend with Robert Hamer and F. Tennyson Jesse, whose novel A Pin to see the Peepshow was Hamer’s dream project as director. The team concoct some amusing banter.

“Nice bit of gun, that.”

“Ah, guns is like women, you never know until you’re in action. And then it’s too late.”

And Hamer’s reputation as a boozer is confirmed by some nicely observed drinking rituals. “Drink?” “At this hour? Thanks.”

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The first surprise is when the titular boat is shelled at sea and the crew have to man the lifeboats. One lot endure a rocky couple of nights in an inky ocean which is actually rear-projected in negative. It’s like the coach ride from NOSFERATU, an intersticial realm between filmic dimensions of reality — I suppose they slipped into it owing to that weird gulf between archive footage and miniatures.

The second surprise is when, spotting what they think is a rescue ship, the lifeboat survivors find it’s their own bloody ship again, still ablaze but miraculously unsunk and unexploded. In a gingerly fashion, they get aboard and try to make her shipshape, since another night in the lifeboat seems unsurvivable. So what we have is a tale not of warfare but simple survival. It’s all quite compelling, low-key and restrained in the British tradition. The really touching bit involves the men getting a cash bonus for salvaging their own vessel. Ealing’s love of camaraderie and the common man shine through. In fact, the studio was somewhat socialistic, and Ealing boss Michael Balcon was on a secret committee tasked with preparing the British public for a Labour government after the war. Here, the sailors share in the profits of their toils as we were all supposed to.

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SAN DEMETRIO LONDON ends in Scotland, and THE CRUEL SEA (1953) begins there, as Jack Hawkins gets his new vessel and new crew. The immediate dramatic issue becomes Stanley Baker, loudmouthed first mate, a used car salesman in civilian life (the other officers are all respectable middle-class solicitors and copywriters and such). He has to be gotten rid of with what’s either a duodenal ulcer or neurotic malingering. It’s suggested that he wouldn’t have had the mental resilience for war — although two of the remaining men show marked signs of strain later. Baker certainly makes a strong impression, snarling and sneering as if on the verge of erupting from sheer class resentment. He even vomits angrily, in what must be the most shocking emetic sequence of fifties British cinema — it’s not that it’s explicitly depicted, it’s just what Baker is able to do with the power of acting alone. That man could puke for Wales.

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With Baker out of the picture, genteel Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliot and John Stratton supply Hawkins’ support, and the film gets into its stride. When Elliot died, Dennis Potter appeared on TV to testify to his chum’s unique ability to suggest, by the merest contractions of the muscles around the jaw, the good impulses in a bad man struggling to get out, or the bad influences in a good man struggling to get out. He’s already doing it here!

The whole movie is about the psychological effects of war: living at close quarters in unpleasant conditions, fear of death, dealing with suffering and mutilation, and ultimately, being forced to make decisions that are hard to live with. The kind of material dealt with would have been impossible to show in wartime, I think. IN WHICH WE SERVE features civilian casualties and isn’t all upbeat flag-waving, but it’s hard to believe they could have gotten away with a captain sacrificing men in the water in order to depth-charge an enemy sub — that might not be there.

The sequence is boldly conceived and brilliantly cut. Realizing he needed a shot of the dead bodies drifting away from the ship, a shot he’d neglected to take, Frend reversed a shot in which the bodies are coming closer. So the emotional climax of the scene features seagulls whirling in the air tail-feathers-first, something nobody ever notices since the attention is riveted upon the centre of dramatic interest.

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Hawkins is excellent, of course, in the role that made him. He’d been bumming around the British film industry since the early thirties, appearing in a talkie version of THE LODGER where his great jack-o-lantern head bobbles about atop scrawny scarecrow limbs, made the more ghastly by pallid greasepaint and dark lipstick. Hawkins the Death-Clown. Putting on a bit of weight was essential to balance off that vast cranium — once he turned into a toby jug he was somehow acceptable, and made a fine character player for Reed, Powell, Gilliatt, Dickinson, Mackendrick. But he wasn’t usually asked to carry so much of the show as he is here.

Frend helps his actors along with some striking uses of sound, no doubt indicated in Eric Ambler’s script. As dead men float on the waves, we hear their memories, as if their brains, winding down to a long sleep, were replaying a few stuck phrases… and when Hawkins gets his new command, he momentarily hears screams coming from the speaking tube, a stray memory of the sinking of his last ship. I think these unusual effects come jointly from Ambler’s background as a novelist and Frend’s as editor, pushing the emotional dial up to a near-unbearable pitch by sheer brilliance of technique.

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