Archive for Angus MacPhail

Frends at Sea

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2015 by dcairns

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OK, a little gentle nudging got me to look at Charles Frend’s unofficial trilogy of WWII sea pictures. When we get to THE CRUEL SEA it’s as good as it’s cracked up to be, so be patient…

First up, THE BIG BLOCKADE (1942) isn’t purely a sea picture, it’s about the economic war on Germany. It’s pure wartime propaganda, Ealing’s bit for the war effort, just over an hour long and a kind of sketch film, written by former Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail. Forced jocularity and British actors playing Germans and Italians and Russians. Historically interesting, of course. The Germans are the baddies — we’re encouraged to laugh as the factory management are threatened with Dachau if they don’t keep up production — the Italians are just a joke. “You violate me in international law!” protests a wop captain. “Wouldn’t dream of it, old boy,” comes the dry response.

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Robert Morley as a Nazi is a sight to see. Even more lip-smacking than usual.

The ocean-going bit involves Will Hay, popular British comedian — certainly a better character actor than George Formby or Arthur Askey, so I suppose we should be grateful. But his whole scene is basically a lot of information shoveled down the audience’s throat without enough comedy to make it halfway palatable. In the flying bit we get John Mills and Michael Rennie — Quatermass and Klaatu! — on the same plane. No wonder we won.

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I enjoyed the film mainly for the model shots and the sometimes bizarre stunt casting. Nazi Germany as Toyland.

Naval pictures are quite weird animals. They consist on the one hand of miniatures and special effects — the fantasy cinema of Georges Melies where everything is flimsily constructed and presented with a magician’s sleight-of-hand — and on the other hand, of stock footage, actuality material of the real war, with real waves, ships and (implied) death. In between these two extremes are the actors, sometimes on location, sometimes in sets. They have the tricky job of gluing it all together with dramaturgic paste. All Frend’s skills as a former editor are needed to maintain an illusion of cause and effect.

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SAN DEMETRIO LONDON (1943) is Ealing Studio’s tribute to the Merchant Marines, with a no-star cast but some favourite character people turning up amid the ensemble, such as Mervyn Johns and a baby-faced Gordon Jackson. Script is by Frend with Robert Hamer and F. Tennyson Jesse, whose novel A Pin to see the Peepshow was Hamer’s dream project as director. The team concoct some amusing banter.

“Nice bit of gun, that.”

“Ah, guns is like women, you never know until you’re in action. And then it’s too late.”

And Hamer’s reputation as a boozer is confirmed by some nicely observed drinking rituals. “Drink?” “At this hour? Thanks.”

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The first surprise is when the titular boat is shelled at sea and the crew have to man the lifeboats. One lot endure a rocky couple of nights in an inky ocean which is actually rear-projected in negative. It’s like the coach ride from NOSFERATU, an intersticial realm between filmic dimensions of reality — I suppose they slipped into it owing to that weird gulf between archive footage and miniatures.

The second surprise is when, spotting what they think is a rescue ship, the lifeboat survivors find it’s their own bloody ship again, still ablaze but miraculously unsunk and unexploded. In a gingerly fashion, they get aboard and try to make her shipshape, since another night in the lifeboat seems unsurvivable. So what we have is a tale not of warfare but simple survival. It’s all quite compelling, low-key and restrained in the British tradition. The really touching bit involves the men getting a cash bonus for salvaging their own vessel. Ealing’s love of camaraderie and the common man shine through. In fact, the studio was somewhat socialistic, and Ealing boss Michael Balcon was on a secret committee tasked with preparing the British public for a Labour government after the war. Here, the sailors share in the profits of their toils as we were all supposed to.

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SAN DEMETRIO LONDON ends in Scotland, and THE CRUEL SEA (1953) begins there, as Jack Hawkins gets his new vessel and new crew. The immediate dramatic issue becomes Stanley Baker, loudmouthed first mate, a used car salesman in civilian life (the other officers are all respectable middle-class solicitors and copywriters and such). He has to be gotten rid of with what’s either a duodenal ulcer or neurotic malingering. It’s suggested that he wouldn’t have had the mental resilience for war — although two of the remaining men show marked signs of strain later. Baker certainly makes a strong impression, snarling and sneering as if on the verge of erupting from sheer class resentment. He even vomits angrily, in what must be the most shocking emetic sequence of fifties British cinema — it’s not that it’s explicitly depicted, it’s just what Baker is able to do with the power of acting alone. That man could puke for Wales.

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With Baker out of the picture, genteel Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliot and John Stratton supply Hawkins’ support, and the film gets into its stride. When Elliot died, Dennis Potter appeared on TV to testify to his chum’s unique ability to suggest, by the merest contractions of the muscles around the jaw, the good impulses in a bad man struggling to get out, or the bad influences in a good man struggling to get out. He’s already doing it here!

The whole movie is about the psychological effects of war: living at close quarters in unpleasant conditions, fear of death, dealing with suffering and mutilation, and ultimately, being forced to make decisions that are hard to live with. The kind of material dealt with would have been impossible to show in wartime, I think. IN WHICH WE SERVE features civilian casualties and isn’t all upbeat flag-waving, but it’s hard to believe they could have gotten away with a captain sacrificing men in the water in order to depth-charge an enemy sub — that might not be there.

The sequence is boldly conceived and brilliantly cut. Realizing he needed a shot of the dead bodies drifting away from the ship, a shot he’d neglected to take, Frend reversed a shot in which the bodies are coming closer. So the emotional climax of the scene features seagulls whirling in the air tail-feathers-first, something nobody ever notices since the attention is riveted upon the centre of dramatic interest.

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Hawkins is excellent, of course, in the role that made him. He’d been bumming around the British film industry since the early thirties, appearing in a talkie version of THE LODGER where his great jack-o-lantern head bobbles about atop scrawny scarecrow limbs, made the more ghastly by pallid greasepaint and dark lipstick. Hawkins the Death-Clown. Putting on a bit of weight was essential to balance off that vast cranium — once he turned into a toby jug he was somehow acceptable, and made a fine character player for Reed, Powell, Gilliatt, Dickinson, Mackendrick. But he wasn’t usually asked to carry so much of the show as he is here.

Frend helps his actors along with some striking uses of sound, no doubt indicated in Eric Ambler’s script. As dead men float on the waves, we hear their memories, as if their brains, winding down to a long sleep, were replaying a few stuck phrases… and when Hawkins gets his new command, he momentarily hears screams coming from the speaking tube, a stray memory of the sinking of his last ship. I think these unusual effects come jointly from Ambler’s background as a novelist and Frend’s as editor, pushing the emotional dial up to a near-unbearable pitch by sheer brilliance of technique.

The Sunday Intertitle: Off the Rails

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on July 7, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-07-07-10h24m01s160 THE WRECKER (1929) is now known mainly for its spectacular train wreck sequences, which are indeed note-worthy. I also found it interesting as an example of the British thriller with puckish sense of humour, made BEFORE Hitchcock had really applied his wit to his murderous melodramas in the way he would be recognized for later. The screenwriter is Angus MacPhail, who collaborated several times with Hitch and may have invented the term MacGuffin. It’s based on a play co-authored by Arnold Ridley, a specialist in comedy-thrillers (THE GHOST TRAIN) who found late-career celebrity as an actor in beloved sitcom Dad’s Army. Further research is needed, but I think Hitchcock tapped into a vein of comedy-thriller popular in the UK and adjusted it so the thrills predominated and the comedy was less likely to undercut the reality or get in the way. One sees the music-hall mood in operation all through the 1930s, and British comedians like the gruesome Jack Hulbert were often cast in thriller situations. It’s hard to justify these films as spoofs, since there were barely any serious British films for them to parody. Are they spoofs of the American thrillers? If so, they point to a mixture of embarrassment and superiority — “We may be making entertainment for the masses, but by Jove we shan’t take it seriously.” But I guess Ridley’s theatrical tradition of thriller-farce is also a major influence. vlcsnap-2013-07-07-10h26m54s92 THE WRECKER, surprisingly, has a nice balance, and director Geza Von Bolvary treats the action as opportunities for cinematic dynamism in ways Hitch would surely have appreciated. He’d also have been wondering why he couldn’t get assignments like this one.

Mogo on the Gogo

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2009 by dcairns

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“You have mogo on the gogo!” diagnoses Gregory Peck, mysteriously. Ingrid Bergman just laughs fetchingly. I’d have smacked him in the face. And then asked him what the hell that means.

There’s quite a bit of odd dialogue in SPELLBOUND, scripted by Ben Hecht from an Angus MacPhail adaptation of a novel by the pseudonymous Francis Beeding (in reality two different blokes), The House of Dr Edwardes. MacPhail, a drunken Scotsman, is no doubt responsible for the plethora of Scots names infecting the movie’s population: Gregory Peck is Ballantine, Leo G Carroll is Murchison, and Rhonda Fleming is Carmichael, Regis Toomey is Gillespie.

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My VHS copy of BON VOYAGE has some tracking problems, giving the titles an odd PSYCHO-like flavour.

MacPhail also worked on BON VOYAGE and AVENTURE MALGACHE, Hitchcock’s two war propaganda shorts, made in French in England. Both feature prolonged takes (AVENTURE is nearly all filmed in master-shots) of the kind Hitchcock was increasingly interested in, and which Selznick would try his best to discourage, since they interfered with his ability to tamper. Safely away from Selznick, Hitchcock indulged his interest in the sequence-shot. His producer on these shorts, Sidney Bernstein, would later collaborate with him on the production of ROPE and UNDER CAPRICORN, which pushed the technique to its limits.

BON VOYAGE strikes me as the superior of the two, for its fluidity, twisty story, and charming dope of a hero, played by John Blythe, a handsome young fellow who went on to a long but defiantly minor career. Though he was born in London, his character is a Scot, complete with throwaway drinking jokes. He’s also very concerned with eating — for a French Resistance drama, the movie focuses to a surprising extent on the need for quality sustenance. Very Hitchcock.

Like BON VOYAGE, SPELLBOUND features a couple on the run, fleeing from hotels, traveling by train, aided by colleagues and sought by the police. But there are differences.

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Dr Edwardes, taking over a swank psych clinic, is not really Dr Edwardes at all, but an amnesiac who may have killed the man he’s replaced. Dr Petersen falls in love with him and seeks to prove his innocence…

“Beeding’s” novel was a potboiler disdained by Selznick, but offering Hitchcock some interesting narrative possibilities. Unfortunately, Selznick had started undergoing psychoanalysis himself, and brought his doctor on as advisor to the film. (“Selznick’s shrink? She must have done a great job!” exclaimed Fiona) This meant that Hitchcock once again faced considerable interference from his producer, compromising many of the film’s most promising sequences — especially the famous dream. In the end, though it utilizes Dali’s designs, the sequence was largely directed by design genius William Cameron Menzies (responsible for the look of GONE WITH THE WIND, although his work here calls to mind the magnificent THE LOVE OF ZERO), with Peck’s voice-over rather ruining the uncanny atmosphere with a prosaic description of everything we see.

I also have issues with the dialogue. Hecht is a very important screenwriter, but his psychiatrists are rather clunky creations — and nearly all the characters are psychiatrists. It’s a similar problem to the priests in I CONFESS, they don’t talk like people, and the more Hecht tries to give them a jovial approach to their profession, the less convincing they are. Everything they say has some kind of psychoanalytic slant: “And may you have babies, not phobias,” says Professor Littleoldman Dr Brulov.

And then there’s all the stuff about Ingrid Bergman being a woman, as if we needed to have it continually pointed out to us. And always in such insulting ways. “As a doctor, you’re a genius, but as a woman… I hate smug women… Women make the best psychiatrists, until they fall in love, then they make the best patients… Nothing is so stupid as a woman in love… stupid… woman… stupid woman… stupid woman!!! Alright, most of those lines aren’t actually in the film, but many others just like them are.

Am I alone in thinking there’s a strange resemblance between Green Manors Psychiatric Hospital for the Very Very Nervous and the Selznick Studios?

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Both institutions are bursting with neurotics, of course. Guilt-complex nut-job Norman Lloyd and mustache-biting weird-ball Rhonda Fleming (both happily still with us today) haunt the halls of Green Manors, while cop-phobic Hitchcock, speed-freak gambling addict Selznick and alurophobe Val Lewton, who couldn’t bring himself to shake hands, were all inmates of the studio. The film’s opening info-screed, explaining that psychiatry treats “the emotional problems of the sane” is rather baffling. Don’t insane people need treatment too? And what are Lloyd and Fleming? Their keels don’t seem entirely even to me. The additional information, that exposing the roots of the neurosis automatically cures it, is highly questionable: Hitchcock said he could never really believe in analysis, since he was quite aware of the source of his own fear of policemen, but knowing that did him no good whatsoever.

The other thing that beats me in Freud is the idea that the mind suppresses damaging, traumatic information, to protect itself. Of course, observation tells us this is not true: the traumatized are signally incapable of forgetting their traumas. But more than that, the idea seems inherently contradictory. The mind protects itself by suppressing the trauma, but un-suppressing it results in a cure? Surely exposing the root of the trauma would cause exactly the greater damage the mind was trying to protect itself from?

Hitchcock nevertheless realized that the “dream detective” was a fascinating narrative notion, one which he would invert in VERTIGO and return to in MARNIE. SPELLBOUND, his first go at the idea, is perhaps the clumsiest, since the script’s concern with clarity for an audience unused to psychiatric lingo tends to battle against credibility, subtlety and pace.

But there are many compensations. The wordless scene where Peck, “spellbound,” wanders Brulov’s home with a straight razor in his hand, is a classic suspense scene with superb blocking and framing —

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Peck is a good new leading man, although his discomfort with the film and Hitchcock shows a little in the early scenes, where he seems unsure how to play a man unconsciously pretending to be something he’s not. Bergman, of course, is a fine Hitchcock heroine, with a winning smile in which the corners of her mouth sometimes go up, sometimes down. Sometimes one goes up and the other goes down. I could watch it for hours. Hitch face Leo G Carroll is welcome again, and the man from Pittsburgh who bugs Bergman in the hotel lobby, and the hotel detective, are probably the best characters in the film. It’s a relief to find somebody who’s not either a psychiatrist or somebody who thinks they’re a psychiatrist.

There’s also the music, by Miklos Rosza, with its gorgeous love theme (overused, Hitch felt) and eerie/camp theremin. If only the Dali/Menzies dream dispensed with VO and relied on the power of music and image, it would be a bracingly vulgar fantasia. Mr. Theremin himself, the inventor of the electronic marvel, suffered a fate common enough in Stalin’s Russia, he was disappeared. Conventional wisdom has it that he perished, unrecorded, in Siberia, but I like to imagine him abducted by UFOs and delighted to find they’re playing his song.

And then there’s the climax, with the real murderer shooting himself in the face from an impossible angle. Two Hitchcockian tropes return here — the outsized prop, first seen in the form of EASY VIRTUE’s giant magnifying glass —

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— and the flash of red, an avant-garde device harking back to the deleted train wreck sequence in SECRET AGENT, in which Hitch had wanted to animate the effect of the film itself tearing in the projector and catching fire.

Incidentally, Leo G Carroll must have extraordinary, Mr Fantastic arms to be able to point a gun straight into his own face like this. I reckon if you turn your head sideways you can do it, but you’d definitely be able to see your arm as well as your hand. But this in no way harms the shot for me, in fact, it enhances it. Like all the daft stuff in the movie, it’s in keeping with the general delirious tone. I’d say that SPELLBOUND is quite a bit sillier than most of Hitch’s American thrillers — it’s not tongue-in-cheek, so it doesn’t have humour as an alibi — but it’s nevertheless a sophisticated entertainment.

Sidebar: as I think I mentioned before, sci-fi author David Gerrold (father of the Star Trek tribble) once suggested that a traditional story has three climaxes: emotional, physical and intellectual. SPELLBOUND conforms to this, and goes one better: it has two sets of three.

In the skiing sequence, Gregory Peck must figure out the guilt-causing episode from his past, emotionally overcome it, and avoid going into a crevasse with Ingrid. The Freudian investigation naturally combines the intellectual and emotional parts of a good climax, so that all Hitchcock and MacPhail needed to do was get the protags off the couch and onto the piste.

This is followed by a dramatic revelation that lands Peck in the slammer, so that Ingrid must take part in a second set of three challenges. Intellectual: figure out who the killer is. Emotional: force him into a confession but talk him out of killing again. Physical: get out without being shot.

I suspect the three parts of a climax usually come in this sequence, for inescapable narrative reasons. One, figure out the solution. Two, make the emotional leap needed to achieve it, sometimes involving sacrifice, generally involving the change required by the “character arc” of convention. Three, act upon this new understanding. But there are other ways to order it, especially if the climaxes occur in three separate scenes. Hitchcock felt that villains needed to combine three distinct traits: brains, brawns and wickedness. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST he divided these qualities between three characters, the mastermind, the thug and the sadist. He doesn’t dispose of each baddie in a separate climax, but he could have. Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser do at the end of THE FOUR MUSKETEERS.

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BANG! A few frames of red. Since the gun firing into the audience recalls Edwin S Porter’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, I’m also reminded that that movie features hand-tinted red flames during the safe-blowing sequence, and I wonder if Hitch was inspired, directly or indirectly, by this venerable movie?

Next: NOTORIOUS, probably the most famous Hitchcock film I’ve never actually seen all the way through. I know, you’re shocked. I’m shocked. Time to rectify the situation.