Archive for 23 Paces to Baker Street

The Couch Trip

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2012 by dcairns

I read Nigel Balchin’s The Small Back Room some years back, being a fan of the Powell-Pressburger film. It’s very good, and the film is very faithful, apart from softening the ending — Balchin had a weakness for bleak, all-is-lost finales.

I haven’t seen SEPARATE LIES, filmed by Julian GOSFORD PARK Fellowes, from Balchin’s A Way Through the Woods. Is it any good? But I do like 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET, which Balchin scripted. He did quite a bit of screenwriting, in fact.

This year I tracked down Darkness Falls from the Air, Balchin’s novel of the London Blitz, which is devastating (I guess they said the same about the Blitz). It’s not surprising that one was never filmed — for a book written in wartime, it’s quite spectacularly un-jingoistic. Again, Balchin’s pessimism prevents him from offering any pathway to victory: there’s an argument for the stripping away of bureaucracy to allow the can-do chaps to get things done, but no real hope that such a thing will ever happen. The nation will strangle in red tape as the bombs ceaselessly drop. All of this is tied up in a truly agonizing, wretched love story: the hopeless agony of the lovers in The Small Back Room seems actually desirable compared to the quandary of the stoic desk-jockey and his tender-hearted, unfaithful wife.

Pair it with Patrick Hamilton’s wonderful The Slaves of Solitude.

So, then I read A Sort of Traitors (terrible title, good book) and then Mine Own Executioner, which I discovered was a movie, scripted by Balchin himself and directed by Anthony Kimmins. I was intrigued: the book really doesn’t feel like it has a film in it. Having now seen the film, I kind of feel vindicated: there wasn’t a film in it, or anyway not a filmic structure: the action climax comes twenty minutes ahead of the supposed emotional climax.

But it’s very interesting stuff. The protagonist, Felix Milne, is a lay psychiatrist with a wife (Dulcie Gray) he’s ambivalent about, who has a sexy sister he’s somewhat less ambivalent about. He takes on a war-damaged patient (Kieron Moore) who has recently attempted to strangle his wife while in a fugue state. Most synopses of the story suggest that it’s a “physician heal thyself” yarn about a man who can solve others’ problems but is powerless to tackle his own. But in fact, Milne does eventually sort out his domestic sphere, whereas his efforts with Moore…

Milne is played by Burgess Meredith, because this was an era of frantically shoehorning Americans into British films wherever we could (how little has changed). Meredith is a good choice in that he seems intellectual enough, but a problematic one in that he seems a bit creepy. It’s not a quality BM can turn on and off, it’s just inherent. So that when the lovely Barbara White, as Moore’s wife, first describes the strangling incident, and Milne perks up, thinking “This case is more interesting than I expected,” Meredith’s rendition of this reaction inescapably suggests a man becoming sexually aroused by an account of attempted asphyxiation. Not what’s needed here.

Then, since he’s a psychiatrist, Milne must perforce smoke a pipe, and whenever we see Burgess with the stem clamped between his teeth, we’re reminded of his seminal turn as the Penguin in TV’s Batman, with his long cigarette holder (why the association of penguins with cigarette holders anyway?), and that’s kind of unfortunate too. Burgess doesn’t actually resemble a penguin, of course, he resembles a small, rat-like dog, eyes glinting with cunning and lust. His chemistry with John Wayne in IN HARM’S WAY is so good precisely because at any instant we expect him to start fervently humping the Duke’s leg.

Still, Meredith has that magnificent wet-gravel voice, so effective in the truth serum scene quoted below…

(And he directed the stage production of DUTCHMAN, developing the performances which were transferred direct to the movie.)

Everybody else is cast very well. I couldn’t work out what Moore was doing with his accent: it at first sounded like Welsh valleys, but maybe it’s Moore’s own Irish, a brand I perhaps haven’t encountered before. But it seems to change from scene to scene.

“The trauma lies in your childhood… your childhood… your childhood…”

Balchin is very faithful to his own novel, except that he’s forced to condense one subplot down to a series of montages (always a sign that something really ought to be discarded) and muffs one emotionally climactic death scene by rushing it badly. But Moore’s more extreme episodes of insanity and dissociation are chillingly powerful: the way he slides from first person to second person when describing his own actions, his inconsistent mood, and his mental blurring of the different people in his life is all very effective and convincing. The psychobabble is less so: “He’s a bad schizo,” says Meredith, concerned. But it’s slightly better than most Hollywood attempts at this kind of stuff.

Balchin himself worked as an “industrial psychologist”, a job his hero casually rejects in this book and film: he helped develop Black Magic chocolates, based on the absence of the colour black in the sweetshop window (economics plays a part too: the black box was cheap to make, allowing Rowntree to spend all the money on the choccies themselves).

Here’s the cinematic highlight.

Mine Own Executioner from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Anthony Kimmins had an odd career, swerving from George Formby comedies to this bleak and noirish melodrama. And then onto the reputedly dreadful BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE. This may be his high point. The framing and lighting in the psychiatrist’s office is great, but the subjective camera flashback (the first of several) is a stunner. Mucho credit to W. Percy Day for the process work, Ned Mann for the models, and special effects supervisor Cliff Richardson. If Kimmins conceived the idea for this, a major tip of the hat is in order.

Meredith’s therapeutic methods may be unconventional, but he GETS RESULTS, damnit! 

Blind Tuesday: Seeing-Eye Cat

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2012 by dcairns

Somebody is killing fashion models in Amsterdam — ever wondered why models are paid so highly? Because they’re always getting murdered.

Rejected from Forgotten Gialli, CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT winds up in Blind Tuesday (our occasional feature on blind-person-in-jeopardy thrillers), just because it’s made me rather cross. At the core of the film is a rather darling conceit, a killer using a black cat as assassin, its claws coated with deadly curare. The delightful absurdity of this idea — ever tried getting a cat to do anything? what happens when kitty washes her paws? and also, just WHY? – is rather stifled by the wrapping around of the entire plot and all the set-pieces from 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET.

Stealing is inevitable, and largely to be encouraged, in the arts, but there are times when it is to be condemned. The shot-for-shot lifting of the love scene from DON’T LOOK NOW in ABOUT LAST NIGHT… is one of them (why remind the audience, so forcibly, that Demi Moore is not Julie Christie and Rob Lowe is not Donald Sutherland [or vice versa] or that Edward Zwick does not even share a species with Nic Roeg?). This is another.

The rule is that stealing is good when it makes things better, but that holds it to a high standard — the artwork must be better than it would have been without the theft, but also better than it would have been with something original of an adequate standard. Ideally, the theft should be the kind whereby, if the viewer recognizes the source, pleasure is increased (“How clever!”) rather than spoiled (“What a blatant swipe!”)…

In the case of CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT, it’s to be condemned because it’s lazy and unimaginative, and because it doesn’t help the film, it actually constrains it. The effect is to break the thing in two, so that Anthony Steffen (rather good and sepulchral as the sightless hero) and his investigations seem to occupy a whole other movie from the bout of silly killings.

The big adaptation is to make the hero not a playwright who uses a tape recorder to practice his dialogue, but a film composer (who can’t see the film — how does THAT work?). This allows for a giallo-within-the-giallo, which is par for the course in this compulsively self-reflective genre. Graphic close-ups of breast-slicing in this embedded movie are far more horrible than anything in the main body of the narrative, until the ending, when director Sergio Pastore goes all vicious again, and we can guess that the killer is a woman. You see, whenever the killer does something truly nasty and misogynistic, you can be fairly sure he’ll turn out to be a woman (dishonorable exception: IGUANA WITH A TONGUE OF FIRE, where he’s gay) . It’s a kind of alibi instinct, to deflect the filmmaker’s own guilt.*

This is, on the whole, the kind of giallo that makes me not like the genre. It’s a field which triumphs when it unlocks its imagination, and there’s something deeply tedious about all these black-gloved killers. I think that’s the true explanation for the decline of Dario Argento: he’s become bored by his own tropes, and God forbid that he should ever examine them critically for signs and meaning. Mario Bava, God love him, wasn’t inclined to introspection either, but he felt compelled to explore every genre on offer, even those like the sexy-type-film which he instinctively disliked. It’s because he didn’t view himself as an artist that he experimented so much, making him kind of (but only kind of) the Keaton to Argento’s Chaplin.

Hey, another strange thing. The woman with the killer cat operates out of a pet shop called, according to its sign, UNDULATER. Why would a pet shop be called UNDULATER? And if you ran a pet shop called UNDULATER, wouldn’t that cause a fair bit of confusion (especially in Amsterdam)?**

*The other bit of giallo cowardice: if the killer is a priest, he will soon be unmasked or unfrocked as a bogus priest. Most of these movies are deeply conservative at heart.

**Stop press: W Krikken suggests,via Twitter, that the setting is Copenhagen. I think that is correct. Still, makes the possibilities for misconstruing UNDULATOR even richer, if anything.

In other news: Limerwreckage – Carradine rhymes again!

Blind Tuesday #2: Waterloo Sunset

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2011 by dcairns

David Melville’s away on holiday so his A-Z of the Cine Dorado takes a break, and we return you to our semi-regular Blind Tuesday feature, examining sightless person thrillers of yore.

23 PACES TO BAKER STREET has a nifty title going for it, even though when it actually turns up in the film’s dialogue it proves to be a complete red herring. Henry Hathaway directs with his usual efficient, slightly bloodless efficiency, although his use of widescreen in confined spaces is reasonably imaginative, exploiting the opportunity to show activity in two rooms at a time… The screenplay is by novelist Nigel Balchin, and fans of the Powell-Pressburger classic THE SMALL BACK ROOM can find fascinating connections with that movie, which is based on a Balchin book. In both stories the disabled hero is good at his job but lacks confidence and is tortured by his injury, which he takes out on a long-suffering girlfriend. The l-s gf is nicely depicted as someone who refuses to be a doormat, she’s supportive but somewhat aggressively so — she won’t take any of the hero’s defeatest self-hating bullshit.

But this is a blind person in jeopardy film, so Van Johnson’s disability has much more to do with the plot than David Farrar’s tin foot. He’s an American playwright in London for the West End opening of his latest mystery, and he uses a tape recorder (no dictaphone, but a big chunky reel-to-reel job, think THE CONVERSATION) in his work. His ex, Vera Miles (yay!) is vaguely trying to get back into his life, and like all movie dysfunctional couples, what they need is an adventure.

Adventure comes in a kidnapping plot overheard in the local pub — we see the shadowy silhouettes of two people, Van hears what they’re saying and smells a whiff of perfume. Hastening home he reconstructs the conversation, doing both voices, on his tape deck, and tries to interest the authorities. Better yet, he enlists the aid of Vera and comedy relief Cecil Parker to gather evidence.

The blind leading the bald: Van Johnson, Cecil Parker and Maurice Denham.

Cecil Parker is the whole show! Damnably funny and adding much-needed humanity and humour, compensating for the inevitably Van Johnson drag factor. Van’s not bad, by any means, but one can’t help imagining a lot of other, preferable actors in the part. Or a sturdy wardrobe, come to that.

Patricia Laffan has an interesting part too, but she’s underused.

Seems to me, if we’re going to have remakes, this is the kind of film that should be remade — it’s very well constructed, which means it’d survive updating, and while Cecil Parker can’t be improved upon, the film can. Masterpieces ought to be respected, with no nonsense about “introducing them to a new generation” by trying to supplant them with new versions. A stronger lead would be enough reason to do this one over. Still, I’m just as happy if they leave it alone.

Most interesting character is the shadowy Mr. Evans, kidnap plotter — years later, this seems to have inspired a character in Grant Morrison’s amazing Doom Patrol comic, The Shadowy Mr Evans — 0nly here he was basically Noel Coward with a periscope coming out the top of his head. I don’t think that would have fit in 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET, but it fit perfectly in Doom Patrol. Just shows you what a good comic that was.

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