Archive for Aline McMahon

Doctor, Lawyer, Beggar Man, Thief

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2020 by dcairns

With a nod to Tom Waits’ Heart Attack and Vine, I conceived the idea of a Warren William Weekend Quadruple Feature — Since pre-code Warner Bros were in the process of producing a Mighty Tapestry of works documenting every aspect of American life, it’s easy to find any of their stars in roles embodying the roles Waits sings of. One could make the same series with William Powell, with a little studio-hopping (THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD, LAWYER MAN, MY MAN GODFREY, JEWEL THIEF), to name one.

Warren W. appears in BEDSIDE, THE MOUTHPIECE, THE MIND READER and THE DARK HORSE — I’ve had to stretch the definition of “beggar man” considerably, though — I would LOVE to see WW playing a shabby-genteel hobo, but I have to settle for a high society psychic, a profession that relates to sideshow charlatanry, but it’s definitely a cheat. On the other hand, for “thief” we could have had any of the LONE WOLF films and several others. The main reason for the exercise was to look at BEDSIDE again in the company of THE MOUTHPIECE, which I’d never seen… My suspicion was that they’d be basically the same film.

David Landau appears in losing hand of cards.

Not so! Although of course both have WW in rogue mode. Both are tales of sinners redeemed. But in BEDSIDE (Robert Florey), he’s so disgustingly corrupt (in a charming way) that his ultimate escape from any consequences for his actions as a phony doc — the medical profession closes ranks to avoid a scandal — comes off (and may have been sneakily intended) as satire. Whereas THE MOUTHPIECE ends on a stunningly ambiguous note — will WW pay the ultimate price for his misdeeds?

It’s hilarious to me that THE MOUTHPIECE shows our perennial rogue quitting the DA’s office in a fit of ethical revulsion after accidentally sending an innocent man to the electric chair, and then becoming, in reaction, a mob lawyer. Corruption awaits him in every direction, he just happens to fall into it. He saves J. Carroll Naish AND Jack La Rue, that’s how bad he is. He also has Aline McMahon as secretary/better angel, which is a sure sign of a man with a troubled conscience — see also FIVE STAR FINAL.

Both films have very good hangover scenes — WW had that slicked back hair — ruffle him, and a shaggy squid wafts loose its tendrils.

I can’t absolutely decide if the daringly open ending of MOUTHPIECE — there are strong indications that our hero will (a) die and (b) live — as the end title fades up he’s a virtual Schrödinger’s shyster — is the result of cunning or fumbling. The film has several writers and two directors (Elliott Nugent and James Flood). Did they all get together and come up with something clever, or all fight each other and come up with something muddled? The result is really interesting, whatever the process.

WW also lawyers up as Perry Mason, four times, and in James Whale’s WIVES UNDER SUSPICION, where his DA has an abacus of little skulls documenting/celebrating each killer he’s sent to the chair.

Auto Camp

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2017 by dcairns

So, I don’t know these things, not being American — is Big Ed’s Gas Farm in Twin Peaks a recognisable kind of thing? Do service stations get called stuff like “gas farms” in the US? In pre-code HEAT LIGHTNING, sisters Aline McMahon and Ann Dvorak run an “auto camp” out in the desert, and the characters who pass through (a multifarious bunch) accept the name as if it were an entirely familiar concept. To us, it’s like a service station with a tiny motel out back.

Brilliant film. Part of Warners’ unofficial program to document the full panoply of American life. They had to do an auto camp eventually. I’m a little sad they never got around to making a film based entirely in an automat. I love automats.

McMahon & Dvorak and Preston Foster & Lyle Talbot provide drama, while such interlopers as Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Glenda Farrell, Edgar Kennedy and Jane Darwell provide comedy. The balance is spot on. It has the structure of a play, but never seems theatrical, thanks to the WB house style and the atmospheric location shooting.

Something strange and interesting — since the cafe is a central part of the action, and it has big windows, the film features an unusual fluidity between indoors and outdoors. Some scenes are simultaneously both, like a conversation conducted by the sisters through a screen door (in which Mervyn Leroy is guilty of one of his semi-regular confusing line-crosses). Either Warners shot on location at a real auto camp or they built the whole place in situ.

Never do this.

And then a funny thing happens when night falls. Since location night shooting without obvious light sources would be a real headache, and since the story requires lightning bolts to illuminate the sky, the second part of the film switches to the studio. The whole set of buildings is reconstructed in an artificial landscape, with each rock, each joshua tree replaced by an identical replica.  We seem to have relocated, yet not to have moved. The black cyclorama representing the night sky is lit up by quick flashes, and it’s some of the most convincing movie lightning I’ve seen, far better in terms of realism than all those jagged animations, which always wiggle about too long, determined to be appreciated as spectacle.

The slightly uncanny doubling of the film’s sole setting reminded me of another service station, the sinister Convenience Store known as The Dutchman’s, recently seen in Twin Peaks. (We have convenience stores too, sort of, but usually without petrol pumps.) And that in turn reminded Fiona of the fatal service station in Sapphire and Steel, which TP co-creator has surely seen…

The Lynchian conceptual link is cemented by the fact that this seems to be the ur-text of a persistent noir meme, in which a character — McMahon in this case — leaves behind a shady or corrupt life in order to work at a service station — a meme continued by Burt Lancaster in THE KILLERS, Robert Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST, Brian Donlevy in IMPACT, and finally (to date, so far as I’m aware) and most strangely, Balthazar Getty in LOST HIGHWAY…

Steele yourself

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on July 4, 2014 by dcairns

Barbara_Steele

Daniel Riccuito’s article on Beautiful Babs, which I had a tiny frozen hand in, has a new home, at MUBI. Here. Substantially reworked from the version that appeared at The Chiseler, and so worth your time revisiting.

Festival burnout struck me on Wednesday and I fell asleep during Heinosuke Gosho’s gentle comedy THE BRIDE TALKS IN HER SLEEP (1933) — I have never fallen aslep in a movie in my life, but my usual nocturnal insomnia and the warmth of the venue had me slipping into Morpheus’ embrace the instant the lights dimmed. So since then I’ve been aiming myself at the kind of stuff that keeps you awake — Freda’s THE HORRIBLE SECRET OF DR HICHCOCK, Pabst’s Hitler film THE LAST ACT, the restored LADY FROM SHANGHAI. And an early night tonight.