Archive for Alexander Knox

A night on the tiles, a day in the dark

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2018 by dcairns

Yesterday was good —

I woke up and found Fiona asleep on the bathroom floor. She’d gotten up to read, and the only place to do so without disturbing me was the bathroom, so she’d made a kind of nest there and fallen asleep. Weirdly, her night on the tiles put her in a very good mood as neither of us sleeps too well when in a foreign bed, and the packed viewing schedule doesn’t allow enough time anyway…

We rocked up for a set of Segundo de Chomon shorts at 9.00 am, including the beautiful METEMPSYCHOSE, with its unhappy babies, and the interplanetary Japonisme of VOYAGE ORIGINALE. Segundo is, as his name implies, the Second King of Fantasy Cinema, after Meliés, but only just.

Then Marguerite Clark (THE MASTER MYSTERY) donned Pierette garb (a recurring motif this fest) in the surviving reel and a half of PRUNELLA, directed by Maurice Tourneur. The cardboard sets, painted in graphic style, combined with Tourneur’s typical lighting effects to make something of rare beauty, very much like his version of THE BLUE BIRD, made the same year. And it actually contains the line “Oh, Prunella!” as an intertitle. David Ehrenstein should have been there. We’d missed Tourneur’s THE WOMAN, apparently a better film and more or less complete, but surviving only in degraded 16mm form.

That didn’t give us time to make it to Mario Monicelli’s I COMPAGNI, alas, so we dived into one of the Fox series, NOW I’LL TELL, which I had previously viewed but it was vastly improved by the pristine projection and the crowd’s enthusiasm. Fiona was blown away by Spencer Tracy in his early bad boy mode — he has some extraordinary scenes. Also, lot’s of pre-code situations and dialogue. “I was born in the Virgin Islands,” says Tracy’s new mistress. “Oh really, you must have left at an early age,” he purrs, off-mic and with his back to us as they leave the room, making the censor;s job easier, but underselling the joke to make it funnier.

We were all set for RUE DE LA PAIX from director Henri Diamant-Berger, a Natan production, but were kind of warned off it, so slipped into Andre de Toth’s NONE SHALL ESCAPE! For the second time in a row we bagged the last two seats in the house. Movie deals with post-WWII war crimes but was released in 1944, making it a form of science fiction, its title a black irony now that we know all about Operation Paperclip. Excellent perfs from Alexander Knox as a Nazi swine and Marsha Hunt as his former fiancée. The heroic Rabbi is played, completely straight, by Torben “This is a talking picture” Meyer, of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and the Preston Sturges stock company by Richard Hale. De Toth gets some scope out of his small-town Polish setting by repurposing what obviously started life as a western town.

With mathematical speed we swapped DeToth’s hard-hitting melo for a new biopic doc on Sydney Chaplin by Serge Bromberg & Eric Lange. SYDNEY: THE OTHER CHAPLIN marshalls an astonishing range of source materials to paint a well-rounded portrait of this troubling, essential figure, previously glimpsed this fest as the Kaiser in SHOULDER ARMS.

Then came the 7TH HEAVEN postponement, which gave us an early night to catch up on our sleep — in bed, this time. This brings us up to now. It’s 8.14 and Marion Davies takes to the screen in a dual role, with Neil Brand at the piano, in 46 minutes, more or less. I must get cracking.

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Hosed

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2015 by dcairns

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I saw a bit of this film once playing on a TV in a bar in the mid-afternoon, and I was amazed. Had no idea what it was, though I recognized Jack Hawkins and was surprised to see him dressed as a Nazi. But I was FAR more surprised by what happened next…

This piece might need a trigger warning if you’ve ever been inflated to bursting point with a fire hose. In fact, if that has happened to you, don’t read that last sentence.

Eventually I worked out that the film was Andre De Toth’s THE TWO-HEADED SPY (1958), and even eventuallier I watched it.Hawkins plays a double agent, General Alex Scotland, installed on Hitler’s staff and sabotaging his supply lines to help end the war. The scene I had goggled at occurs when Felix Aylmer, Hawkins’ contact with the allies, is arrested by nasty Nazi Alexander Knox, and tortured.

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There’s the whipping, of course — rather more of it than we’re used to seeing in a film of this kind. But then Knox gets carried away and —

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In the words of Edward Gorey, “there was a wet sort of explosion, audible for several miles.”

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Yes. De Toth has just killed a character by having him anally penetrated with a fire hose, and then inflated until bursting point. You can see why I was surprised at seeing this on Channel 4 in the middle of the afternoon.

Of course, De Toth was a tough old nut. He broke his neck twice (once may be considered bad luck…), he lost an eye (nobody seems to know where), he worked as a second unit director for David Lean and a producer for Ken Russell. Nobody’s idea of a pushover. And he once tried, basically, to decapitate his leading man with a guillotine while making HOUSE OF WAX. But this is still an astonishingly horrible and grotesque scene. How it got past the censors in days when you couldn’t even show a toilet in an American movie is beyond me.

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“Well, it was worth a try, right?”

The film is apparently based on the memories of General Alex Scotland, but the facts seem extremely murky. Elsewhere, Scotland more or less denied ever having been on the German side during the war — he was certainly running an interrogation centre near London for captured Germans during the latter years of the conflict, not in the bunker with Adolf as shown here. Intriguingly and grimly, that centre was rumoured to be a hotbed of torture, leaving open the suspicion that the methods depicted may have been deployed for real, but by our side. In his Wikipedia page, Scotland is quoted as saying that high command asked him deliberately NOT to scotch false rumours about his being planted in Nazi Germany, for reasons he was never apprised of. I think it’s likelier that he was simply trying to make a profit from his war service any way he could, especially after the government tried to stop him publishing his memoirs under the Official Secrets Act.

The film isn’t one of De Toth’s best. Gia Scala is wheeled in as romantic interest, but Hawkins isn’t allowed to have close relationships with any of the people he’s betraying, which makes him a rather isolated, distant figure. Characters mostly thrive on relationships, and he has none.

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Hitler is always kept just off-screen, at one point occluded by a large globe, in an amusing nod to Chaplin. He’s played with Welsh fervour by Kenneth Griffith, which would have been hilarious if we’d gotten to see him. Most enjoyable actor is Donald Pleasence, who portrays his high-ranked Nazi big shit shot’s nervous strain by having him puff continuously at a cigarette kept one inch from his lips at all times. Had Pleasence ever had a chance to observe Fritz Lang’s smoking technique? The resemblance is uncanny.

Air Hordern

Posted in FILM, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2015 by dcairns

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Michael Hordern gave the wing commander a very hard stare indeed.

After enjoying Leslie Norman’s work on X: THE UNKNOWN, we popped THE NIGHT MY NUMBER CAME UP into the Panasonic and let her fly. I guess Norman is one of the missing links between Ealing and Hammer, but he never caught on at Hammer (he was fired from the staggering LOST CONTINENT), unlike Seth Holt whose taste for sensation made him arguably a better fit there than he had been as a producer at Ealing (where he had produced THE LADYKILLERS, an atypically subversive work).

But, excitingly, TNMNCU *does* have supernatural elements, though they are not of a suitably sensational quality to satisfy the House of Gore. The place: Hong Kong. Michael Hordern has a strange dream, which he tells to Denholm Elliott, who blabs it to a group of associates at a party. The dream involves a flight crashing on the Japanese coast. And the next day, all the circumstances of that dream begin to come true. Elliot, a heroic airman who cracked up after the Battle of Britain, is on the flight, as is his boss Alexander Knox, who has never flown before, and Michael Redgrave and Sheila Sim and various others. The exact makeup of the party changes at the last minute and comes to exactly resemble the dream. Then the radio breaks down, just like in the dream. The plane is lost in thick cloud… fuel is running low…

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The elaborate model shots are recognisable as just that, but they’re very impressive all the same.

The screenplay is by R.C. Sherriff, a James Whale associate who wrote JOURNEY’S END and worked on all the famous Whale horror films after FRANKENSTEIN. This manifests not so much in the uncanny element, as in the extreme Britishness and the unexpected dashes of humour — the ending, in particular, is a delight, a left-field gag like the abrupt laugh that finishes Hitchcock’s second MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Hordern delivers it with supreme aplomb.

Until then, it’s a slow simmer of suspense. It’s not as if that much is going wrong with the flight for most of the movie — it’s just the creeping dread as reality takes on more and more of the qualities of that damned (prophetic?) dream. An abstract kind of fear with a very concrete smash-up waiting at the end of it.

The film also deserves credit for its unusual structure: we begin after the crash, with search parties scouring Japan in search of wreckage, but then Hordern turns up and says they’re looking in the wrong place altogether. Refusing to say how he knows, he simply says that he knows. Being Michael Hordern, he’s very convincing, and the search may be diverted…

Then we go into flashback to the dinner party before the flight, and Hordern is prompted to tell his dream. Then we get a flashback within a flashback showing a dream sequence. Possibly a first for British cinema.

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And then we get to enjoy Knox’ tight, nervous grin, Redgrave’s slowly accentuated voice-quaver, Elliott’s glassy-eyed sense of subdued panic… The whole movie is a single sizzling slow fuse, ably illustrating Polanski’s dictum that “anxiety has no upper limit,” while the passengers delight their author by passing the time in feverish meditations upon free will and predestination. A philosophical disaster movie.