Archive for A Canterbury Tale

An Inspector Falls

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-05-01-08h40m14s135

It was in New York — enjoying cocktails with critic/filmmakers Dan Sallitt and Jaime Christley — I *THINK* — that the subject of Robert Hamer’s 1949 THE SPIDER AND THE FLY was mentioned, I *think* by Jaime. A Manhattan was consumed at some point so the whole thing’s blurry. But I had had a copy of this movie gathering dust for years, and had never watched it. The jist of the conversation was that I should blow off that dust and get the thing watched, and that I would not be disappointed.

In certain respects the film, starring Eric Portman as a French detective and Guy Rolfe as a master criminal, foreshadows Hamer’s better-known, later film FATHER BROWN (generically retitled THE DETECTIVE in America in what seems like a bid to obscure the Unique Selling Point). Both films are structured around a cat-and-mouse pursuit between a dogged detective and an aristocratic thief. But FATHER BROWN (a) gets shown on TV quite a bit and (b) isn’t very satisfactory — it lacks the uncanny quality of Chesterton’s source stories, and though it isn’t as committed to Catholic propaganda, what it substitutes, a bland moralism, doesn’t seem to interest the maker of KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. THE SPIDER AND THE FLY (a) never gets shown and (b) is very good indeed, with a proper complexity and a non-judgemental approach.

vlcsnap-2015-05-01-08h42m02s187

Portman is a rather cold, clinical chief of police, determined to net the equally ruthless Rolfe (suave, cynical, linear as linguini in outline). He falls for a woman (Nadia Gray) whom Rolfe uses in  a job and allows to take the fall. But Rolfe is beginning to have feelings for her two. Will Portman resort to dirty tricks to get his man AND get the girl? And, more excitingly, what will happen at the one hour mark after both of those questions are unexpectedly answered? There’s undoubtedly a slight judder as the film has to reboot its entire narrative with just half an hour to go — maybe it could have been longer and that switcheroo might have sat more comfortably as a midway break — but by and large the benefits of bamboozling the audience outweight the risks to structural integrity.

vlcsnap-2015-05-01-08h42m09s1

The cast is excellent. Portman, as ever, looks as if he might pour glue in your hair when you’re not looking, which adds a certain intensity to every scene he’s in. His character is a type I find appealing — the outwardly cold expert who falls passionately when he does fall. I didn’t really know Rolfe, though he seems to have slithered into everything. He’s wonderfully louche here. His frame, alarmingly attenuated, spaghettified as if by flirting with an event horizon suggests a stilt-walker. He’s the kind of master-criminal who probably leaves at each crime scene, as a calling card, a two-metre-long trouser leg. Supporting cast includes a skinny young Arthur Lowe who manages to look older in 1949 than he did in 1982, a whey-faced George Cole, James “Mr. Kipling” Hayter, and May Hallett as a very different housekeeper from the one she played in BLACK NARCISSUS.

vlcsnap-2015-05-01-08h41m39s186

Lowe. left.

Best of all, it’s serious like IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY but witty and ironic like KIND HEARTS. Seth Holt edited it, Geoffrey Unsworth shot it, and the smudgy production design by Edward Carrick makes nearly every set look like either a smeared charcoal sketch or a dripping wet clay model slapped together crookedly and then somehow populated by life-sized, breathing people.

Alongside Alec Guinness, who did his best to prop Hamer up as his drinking slowly dissolved his mind, Eric Portman seems to have been Hamer’s favourite actor. He can bring the crisp coolness of Dennis Price to a heavier, more dramatic role. It looks as if he’ll never be appreciated the way some of his contemporaries are. A CANTERBURY TALE shows what he could do, but it doesn’t quite do for him what COLONEL BLIMP does for Roger Livesey, probably just because it isn’t as beloved a film. But its strangeness suits him. Portman fans looking for more viewing recommendations are directed towards DAYBREAK, my contender for the Saddest Film Ever Made.

Advertisements

This Strangler Fellow

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2012 by dcairns

In THE VULTURE, Akim Tamiroff plays a man who can mutate at will into a giant scavenger bird. It all takes place in Cornwall, you see. I remember being disappointed by this film, which might strike you as odd, considering the subject. But nothing could be more desultory than a film about Akim Tamiroff as a Cornish man-bird, made with so little enthusiasm and flair — those involved apparently don’t realize that such a film ought to be fun. And it’s 1967 — cinema is being reinvented! OK, not in Cornwall, but the influences are abroad in the air. To give you an idea of how sad and insipid the film is, the last scene is devoted entirely to hero Robert Hutton (a man who carries a shroud of tedium about him like a medieval miasma) to whoever the leading lady is, just how Tamiroff managed to pull off a phone prank earlier in the film which gave him a false alibi. Something we the audience already know, and which can hardly be of supreme interest in a movie about a GIANT TURKISH VULTURE. The writer-director was Lawrence Huntington. So naturally I sought out more of his work. (To be fair to Huntington, he died the year after making THE VULTURE. But not until November, so no excuse really.)

WANTED FOR MURDER may be the most generic title ever, but it’s there for a reason — to conceal the film’s true individuality, a necessary task given the gay subtext crawling all over it like Toby Maguire. The year is 1946, and the British film industry is experiencing an artistic boom — by its peak, in 1948, creative confidence was even trickling down to lesser talents — it was almost impossible for anybody to make an uninteresting film. Despite a lot of banal detective stuff, WANTED FOR MURDER is pretty fascinating. It stars Eric Portman, fresh from his Glue Man duties in A CANTERBURY TALE, and was written by, well, everyone there was — but the initial adaptation of the source play seems to be the work of Emeric Pressburger. Now, Portman was happily gay, and Powell claims that Pressburger was a bit of a homophobe, despite all the gay actors in the Archers’ films, and the flamboyant and even campy tone of some of them… at any rate, somehow WANTED FOR MURDER has evolved from being a tale of a serial killer, obsessed with his late father who was the public hangman in Victoria’s day, to being an allegory about closeted homosexuality. Portman stalks the streets by night, engaging in brief romances with people he meets under a pseudonym. His doting mother knows nothing, but fears the worst. She urges him to bring a girl home to meet her some time, to settle down. He thinks she’s right, and pursues Dulcie Gray, a nice girl who works in a record store (he has an obsessive passion for classical music).

It’s all kind of right out there, and the detectives hot on Portman’s trail (who really do refer to him as “this strangler fellow”) are a more effective beard for Portman’s “lustmorden that dare not speak its name” than poor sweet Dulcie could ever be. Huntington actually directs with some command of pacing and moments of flair. His career went back to the early thirties and he was obviously a pro, and alert to the interesting stuff going on around him. There’s also the nostalgic feeling of British fairgrounds, the Underground and London coppers, concerts in Hyde Park and all of that. And a weird preponderance of Scottish characters — an Underground employee, a copper, and this poor murderee, Jenny Laird —

The American serviceman is our old friend, spanner-faced Bonar Colleano, another reason to be cheerful.

PS — a Langian Limerick.

Barn Storming

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2008 by dcairns

Hello, it’s Tod Slaughter again! And up to his old tricks — you know, murdering, and that.

Only two killings take place in MARIA MARTEN, OR, THE MURDER IN THE RED BARN, and one of those is Tod’s eventual and inevitable execution. The movie begins in a theatre where the cast of the play are introduced, making the theatrical nature of the events explicit — and since the hangman is presented as the final member of the dramatis personae, the end cannot be much in doubt.

Director Milton Rosmer (also an actor, and a regular player for Michael Powell) doesn’t make anything of the transition from stage to “realistic” film studio sets, and doesn’t add much in the way of cinematic appeal, tracking in from wide shot occasionally at the start of a scene. George King, who brought a little more panache to the shooting of CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE, acted as producer on this one.

Amusingly, it turns out that the central plot of MARIA MARTEN is recycled verbatim in CRIMES, adding an extra murder to the plot to keep things suitably juicy. Star / rampant hambone Tod Slaughter plays a corrupt squire who “ruins” local lass Maria M, then shoots her so she can’t interfere with his upcoming marriage to a rich lady. His plan hinges on framing Carlos, the gypsy boy who had wooed Maria. Carlos is played by Eric Portman, famed for playing a squire himself in Powell & Pressburger’s A CANTERBURY TALE. Flamboyantly miscast here, he plays Carlos with the cut-glass accent of an Eton undergrad, clashing preposterously with the other actors who play gypsies and yokels with a wide variety of Lancastrian-Mancunian-West Country-Cockney accents, but at least staying within a fairly narrow bandwidth of the social spectrum. Carlos’s mum must be regretting sending him to that posh finishing school.

Alas, Tod doesn’t have a moustache to twiddle in this film, and with only one rape and one murder to his name, his opportunities for salacious leering and barmy cackling are more limited than fans might like, but when caught in tricky situations he does reveal another string to his bow — he can squirm with outstanding effectiveness. As the heat is turned up, Tod’s entire form begins to wriggle and contort with discomfort, like a population of eels crammed into a carnival effigy. Delightful stuff.

Once again, it’s clear that the crudity of the drama and performances (“Winterbottom the village idiot” was a particular favourite among the supporting cast — the British film industry has changed so little!) are paradoxically sophisticated — the audience is meant to guess the plot turns long in advance, the better to savour them, and Slaughter’s overacting invites his public to share in his wickedness, blow by blow, with no evil thought or unhealthy appetite left untelegraphed. With everything nicely externalised, there’s no sense that we are guilty of the same evil desires, and our sense of moral superiority is secured by the happy ending, when we can watch in satisfaction as evil is extirpated.