Archive for A High Wind in Jamaica

A Buccaneer and a Half

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 29, 2020 by dcairns

A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA, available on Blu-ray but not to stream, is this fortnight’s Forgotten By Fox feature — here, on The Notebook at MUBI.

Suffer the Little Children

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 3, 2019 by dcairns

“He’s not fucking around,” I said to Fiona as the opening prologue of Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? unspooled in our Sony multi-region. Apparently Serrador himself came to believe that this no-holds-barred opening montage of actual death — Auschwitz, India-Pakistan, Biafra, Viet Nam — would have been better placed at the film’s end, and one can see a kind of wisdom in this: how does a horror movie “top” a sequence of actual, documentary infanticide? At the end, he must have imagined, the sequence would have served as a devastating and inarguable summation of his film’s thesis.

Of course, the sequence would have been better not included at all. Any horror movie is going to look trivial compared to actual real-world horrors, and if you’re going to draft atrocity footage in to your fiction film you need to have the best of all possible reasons and even then you may be better implying rather than stating your film’s relation to world events. Several home-video versions of this movie actually deleted the prologue. I disapprove of this because it’s censorship, and against the filmmaker’s wishes, but had NIS voluntarily chosen not to include the montage I’d have liked his film more.

“How the hell did this get made?” asked Fiona from the edge of her seat. I theorised that the seventies were a time when filmmakers experimented with the limits of free expression. Inevitably, one or two of them overshot the mark by a country mile (Pier Paolo Pasolini, I’m looking at you). Serrador’s controversial take on THE BIRDS, with the avian apocalypse subbed out for an onslaught of school-age psychos, their murderous tendencies transmitted like a plague, or a playground rhyme, is one such instance.

Serrador was already the successful director of LA RESIDENCIA, a snazzy, edgy Gothic horror with Lili Palmer, plus he’d helmed an influential shot-on-tape spookshow for Spanish TV, Stories To Keep You Awake. All this, and creating Spain’s top game show, the original of 3-2-1 (I always felt Dusty Bin was a bit sinister. You could never tell what he was thinking.)

Serrador directs the hell out of this thing, getting full value out of the early, pre-creepy stuff where we have nothing but the touristic adventures of our young British couple (Lewis Fiander & Prunella Ransome, both of who really bring it to the later hysteria scenes), and then out of the very creepy indeed scenes of wandering about a Spanish island eerily populated only by smiling kids.

It’s ages, in fact, before our heroes are faced with the awful choices necessary for survival, and even in the run-up to this, the filmmaker is strikingly discreet in his portrayal of child-on-adult violence. We see its effects rather than the horrible incidents themselves. He’s smart enough to know just how much can be believably staged. Not for him the unconvincing zombie tot of PET SEMATARY, wandering confusedly about the set while the soundtrack tries to summon the appropriate mood. His kids are only asked to do things they can do naturally.

“Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child, at least in a partial degree […]” ~ Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica.

Children, of course, are little bastards, as everyone from Clouzot to Peckinpah has shown. But somehow they’re very rarely murderous irl. Serrador’s mental mutation causes the swarms of young to not only fixate on slaying all adults, but to not give a damn about their own safety, enabling them to use force of numbers as the winning argument, heedless of the little bodies accumulating on the hot ground…

Given the immense skill — angles, editing and sound all enhance the creeping anxiety, and then performances step up to the mark to bring us all into a state of desperation — it’s a real shame that Serrador seems to have been effectively ejected from cinema like an unwanted bum. But we’ll be delving into what we can find of his televisual output, because the man was a master. However, ah, questionable, his methods.

Leave it to Cadaver

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2009 by dcairns

vlcsnap-469563“What’s he doing in our bathtub?”

A rare factual error from Pat Hitchcock in the DVD extras of THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY — the Jack Trevor who appears in Hitchcock’s CHAMPAGNE is not the same fellow as Jack Trevor Story, author of the source novel of this, sometimes cited by Hitchcock as his favourite film. They have different dates and places of birth and death, and of course, different names.

Story is otherwise best known as author of the satirical Live Now, Pay Later. The only thing I’ve read by him was an intro to a Michael Moorcock novel, which was funny and vitriolic and gave free rein to the author’s humorous jealousy of his even more prolific friend. Looking through his CV, he clearly had a genius for titles: Mix Me a Person, Man Pinches Bottom, Dishonourable Member, Hitler Needs You.

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Transferring the very English comedy of manners to New England, Hitch and John Michael Hayes create a very warm, witty piece, a black comedy that’s really rather sweet at heart. “The British are funny about death. Mention death in Britain and immediately somebody laughs,” observed Spike Milligan. And while Hitch has puckish fun with the rather shocking callousness with which his assorted cast of eccentrics responds to the arrival of an unwelcome stiff named Harry Worp, he also invites us to love and root for the five off-centre persons at the heart of his plot.

Shirley MacLaine has to rate as Hitchcock’s greatest acting discovery (although it was his producer who spotted her), and she was lucky enough to be spared all the stress Tippi Hedren later went through, emerging onscreen rather un-made-over, very much her adorable self. John Forsythe is remarkably relaxed and alive here, in what probably is his best ever role. It obviously helps that he has a good script to back him up. In THE GLASS WEB, a decent but uninspired piece of writing, Forsythe seems sullen and devoid of charisma. But the man in HARRY is entirely different, a live wire, intense, attentive, sympathetic yet a little askew. And there’s something nice about the way Hitch casts the stalwart player as a quirky goof, probably drummed out of the beatnik movement for failure to conform. His delivery of the line “Little men with –” (dramatic flourish) — “hats!” is memorable. In fact, everybody gets a line they were born to say in this movie. For my money, Mildred Natwick’s apologetic handling of the sentence “He fell into a threshing machine,” is pantheonic. And I’m always quoting little Jerry Mathers’ rendition of the seemingly ordinary line “I don’t understand that.”

Edmund Gwenn, who Hitch had tinkered with since early talking pictures, without quite finding a decent use for the guy (WALTZES FROM VIENNA and THE SKIN GAME miscast Gwenn as a bully and a lout; FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT attempts to make of him a mild-mannered English assassin). Here, at last, he is successful — Gwenn’s Captain Albert Wiles is cherubically adorable, and his December-September romance with Natwick (where her advanced years seem to be the biggest issue) is charm itself.

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Everybody here is a kind of fantasist, or creates the world in a way pleasing to them, except Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano), who as a policeman and a hard-headed realist is doubly damned in Hitchcock’s world. Although even he becomes sympathetic when Forsythe humiliates him with a lot of fancy talk and destruction of his evidence. It’s a gentle movie without bad guys — even Harry was “too good,” rather than the kind of cad he’s taken for, with his two-colour socks and shiny shoes.

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Forsythe has decided that he’s a great artist, and in the best Howard Roark manner, he doesn’t require the outside world’s validation. Captain Wiles has constructed a romantic past for himself, as globe-trotting sailor, and Natwick’s Miss Ivy Gravely hardly speaks an honest word in the whole movie, carefully constructing an identity some years younger than her own. MacLaine is more straightforward, but her son Arnie (Jerry Mathers from TV’s Leave It to Beaver, which I’ve never really seen) makes up for that — as Richard Hughes writes in A High Wind in Jamaica — “Their minds are not just more ignorant and simpler than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact).” Arnie, with his curious and individual ideas about Time, almost meets his match in Forsythe. “Today’s tomorrow,” he announces. “It was,” agrees Forsythe, after some hesitation.

Robert Burks’ evocation of the hues of autumn is sheer visual poetry, and all the more impressive given that a storm devastated the New England locations after only a few background plates had been taken. Those who complain of the duff process work in Hitchcock’s films are perhaps unaware of how much really successful fakery is going on (note that in TO CATCH A THIEF, when Cary Grant looks out the back window of the bus, FX maestro John P Fulton has added a reflection of Grant’s face to the second unit shot of receding country road — beautifully done, and showing a fine attention to detail). Most of the interaction of characters and landscape in this movie never actually happened.

Joining Hitch’s team is Bernard Herrmann, soon to be a crucial member. His light, but not too whimsical and never sugary score adds a warm emotional blanket to the action. BH later used the main theme as a standalone concert work, dedicated to Hitch, and the documentary Dial H for Hitchcock makes good use of the piece as a motif — it’s even more suitable than the Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme, capturing more of Hitch’s antic wit and childishness. It’s an atypical score — Herrmann is often thought of as a heavy composer (his dismissal of Richard Rodney Bennett’s nostalgic theme for MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS — “Didn’t the composer realize that this was a TRAIN OF DEATH?” — was used by Elmer Bernstein to illustrate Herrmann’s lack of irony) — but it seems that under the right circumstances, Herrmann could do comedy with a lighter touch than his laughing jackass orchestrations in CITIZEN KANE suggest. Very soon, of course, he would find himself scoring some of the more solemn and shocking moments in Hitch’s oeuvre.

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One of the ironies and inconsistencies which are so much a part of life — Hitch was extremely fond of this film, and yet long stretches of it could be dismissed as exactly the kind of “photographs of people talking” that he affected to dislike. On the other hand, in some shots, of which the image above is only the most glaring example, Hitch actually gets us to laugh at camera placement itself, making for a rare kind of cinematic beauty and humour.