Archive for Anne Heywood

Grey Matter

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2015 by dcairns

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I’ve been known to mock Curt Siodmak, to refer to him as the great Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother. “Is he your favourite idiot brother?” my friend Alex asked the other day. He isn’t even that, I was forced to admit — W. Lee Wilder is a still more remarkable specimen of the breed.

But I was really impressed by TV movie Hauser’s Memory — teleplay by Adrian Spies, based fairly faithfully I think on Siodmak’s novel. And then I stumbled on a copy of Donovan’s Brain, young Curt’s best-known book. It was filmed three times officially — as THE LADY AND THE MONSTER with Erich Von Stroheim and Vera Hruba Ralston, as DONOVAN’S BRAIN with Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan (wouldn’t they make a houseful) and as THE BRAIN, by Freddie Francis with Peter Van Eyck, but Curt hated all three versions. The radio production with Orson Welles is better — probably. I’ve been saving it for last.

The book is really enjoyable, with memorable characters in its cold-fish narrator, a rather inhuman scientist who steals the brain of a dying millionaire, and various sleazy types he meets once the brain starts to telepathically force him to do its bidding. The formula is similar to Hauser’s Memory  — a dead character possesses a live one, so while there’s a battle to maintain personhood by a character invaded by a foreign mind, there’s also a kind of investigation/puzzle where we want to find out the secret motivation of the mental invader.

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Siodmak had the unenviable task of retraining himself to write in English after he fled Hitler. Other filmmakers managed to adapt readily, but for a writer the challenge was far greater. Language was Siodmak’s instrument. Like his former collaborator Billy Wilder, he never quite got the American idiom down pat, but Wilder always worked with brilliant co-writers to smooth out any linguistic kinks. In his novels, Curt has to struggle along by himself. He would write sentences like “The moon leaped like a giant in the porthole,” which possibly plays better in German, though I’m not wholly convinced of that.

Donovan’s Brain has sentences like “I woke at a very early morning hour,” which is weirdly OFF. In German, “very early morning hour” is probably one word, some beautiful compound noun a foot long. He gets his commas wrong here: “It might like a blind man, feel the light or, like a deaf one perceive sound.” I had to read that a couple of times to make sense of it, did you? And then there are bits where he reaches for an effect and his awkwardness with English makes him fall flat on his face: “Even the fact of our marriage had been dissolved in my work’s acid domination.”

But despite this, the book is a really good read! And it has bizarre stuff in it that’s never made it into any screen version. At one point, disoriented by the brain’s long-range control, the hero falls into a ditch and gets his vertebrae compressed by a steam shovel. He has to wear a full torso plaster cast that makes him look like a turtle for thirty pages. And this has no real impact on the plot at all. But it’s something I’d love to see in a film. It would particularly suit Von Stroheim, I feel.

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Young Curt was scathing about the changes inflicted on his book by filmmakers. In the Stroheim atrocity, directed by the sometimes skilled George Sherman, the mad scientist lives in a castle — in Arizona! — and the plot stops for a Spanish speciality dance before the brain has even been hatched. The novel goes like a train, but there’s no chance of zip with Erich setting the pace. The filmmakers supply him with a limp, just to slow things down even further, and instead of being an antihero he’s made a straight villain, with Richard Arlen as one of those useless heroes whose only purpose is to protest each new plot development. Ralston is fabulously bad, flashing her eyelashes with every other line to give “significant” looks.

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Felix Feist’s fifties fiasco is a lot closer to the letter of the book, but while Siodmak’s protagonist was somewhere between autism and Camus’ L’Etranger, Lew Ayres plays it repulsively HEARTY, and says things like “C’mon, get with it, baby!” I wanted to slap his brain. The more the script tries to render him likable, the creepier he gets. But I liked Gene Evans, who doesn’t seem like a movie surgeon at all, and who therefore may resemble a real one, I’m prepared to believe. And the future first lady vivisecting a monkey makes it kind of worthwhile.

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Freddie Francis (who also made THE SKULL!) brings more visual panache to his version than his predecessors, though the monkey brain earlier on is one of the most laughably inept props ever — it looks like a half-deflated balloon with the crenellations drawn on in magic marker. Anne Heywood, Bernard Lee, Cecil Parker, Maxine Audley — the supporting cast is excellent, even before you get to Miles Malleson as a sherry-swigging coroner (who fails to say “Room for one more inside” despite ample opportunity) and Jack MacGowran as a blackmailing morgue attendant. Peter Van Eyck is the closest anyone has gotten to capturing the icy callousness of Siodmak’s protag, though he’s also curiously antic. But the plot gets caught up in scheming and forgets all about the poor brain. The balance is upset. Siodmak complained that the filmmakers added a stripper, but there’s no sign of her in the print I viewed.Though Anne Heywood, always game, flashes a nipple for about four frames.

Now I guess I have to watch CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN.

 

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Chilly scenes of winter

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2010 by dcairns

The snow and ice out there looked so nice I sent the late William Fraker out to take some snaps of it before it all melts.

Not really, of course. The images are from the opening titles of THE FOX, a DH Lawrence story filmed by Mark Rydell, screenplay by John Lewis Carlino and Howard Koch. Fraker shot it, and it’s visually stunning.

I do tend to find Lawrence rather a load of tosh, but that’s because I’m inclined to find things funny where possible. Lawrence requires you to not do that, I think. In a way, John Boorman might have been a better match for him than Ken Russell, since Boorman similarly defies humour. I mean, I don’t deny that some woman, some time, may have stared into an icy pond and clasped her own breasts, but I can’t imagine she’d have done it with the earnestness and deep meaning suggested here.

Still, the movie has Sandy Dennis, that wonderful, uncontrolled presence, and is supported at either end by the cheekbones of Keir Dullea and Anne Heywood. One of them has a very attractive bob but I won’t spoil it by revealing which.

Koch, of course, had a hand in everything from CASABLANCA to LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN to Welles’s War of the Worlds. Carlino is known to me mainly for the chilling SECONDS. Here’s how his draft of the script for THE FOX begins —

FADE IN

EXTERIOR      FARM AND FIELDS     DAWN

It is dawn. The sun is just peeping over the trees, tinting the snow a faint pink. Fog and mist blend the shapes of trees with the whiteness so that all seems to have an amorphic unreality. There are no outlines, only dark shapes, emerging, blending, merging again. All is silent. There is no wind. Now as the sun moves higher, the mist and fog begins to burn off and shapes begin to define themselves. Thin fibril branches of trees and bushes, sheathed in ice, glistening against the sun. The fantastic geometric patterns of frost. The frozen ripples at the edge of a brook. The nimbus of gossamer-like cocoons and webs, flashing, crystalline, like spun glass. Everything is arrested, balanced, composed.

Incredible as it seems, Fraker manages to get 90% of that up on the screen, and more beautifully than Carlino’s prose can suggest. In particular, the image above revolves from hazy silhouette to solid, detailed form, perhaps in part due to Fraker creeping the shutter open to lighten the image, or maybe it’s a completely genuine Canadian sunrise, I don’t know…

Merry Christmas from the fox and his friends…

There Will Be Flood

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , on March 26, 2010 by dcairns

FLOODS OF FEAR, rather nicely directed by Charles Crichton (THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES, A FISH CALLED WANDA), is a B-thriller with an A budget, and an intriguing mix of good and bad qualities, both of which are equally entertaining at times.

Good qualities — escaped convicts taking charge of a flooded house during a destructive deluge in Canada: it’s a great dramatic situation. The cast is strong and the budget surprisingly fulsome, offering convincing special effects, both life-sized and miniature (and you generally can’t see the join).

Even though the central set-up in the film’s first third — convicts menace cute girl — is a little Victorian in its implications, there’s room for suspense and the film isn’t afraid of being exploitative and vulgar, which is somehow refreshing in a British movie of the 50s. And for a former Ealing director like Crichton to go as racy and pulpy as this is quite surprising.

Bad qualities — restlessly, the movie shifts out of the half-submerged house, dissipating suspense and pursuing a more complicated but less interesting narrative, rooted in a convoluted backstory we never see. But all his forgiven during the violent climax, set in a flooded shipping office.

Also — crummy title.

The most amusing bad quality, however, is the filming of a Canadian adventure story in England with English and Irish actors. In the lead, Howard Keel, in his first non-musical lead, is able to show the way with authentic North American vocalisations. Opposite him, the lovely Anne Heywood just plays it English, which is acceptable in the circumstances. Now the trouble starts. Cyril Cusack, as the psychopathic con, essays a dialect melding his own Irish tones with a rich blend of wildly different American sounds and mannerisms. These were the days before dialect coaching, when accents were largely expected to partake of the same generous suspension of disbelief that applied to rear-projected car journeys, bloodless stabbings, balsa barroom bannisters and people falling from high places who transformed into flailing, disarticulated dummies for the descent.

“Disarticulated” is actually a pretty good word for Cusack’s speech patterns — his voice belongs to a Frankenstein’s monster of American accents, with Tennessee legs supporting a Texas torso from which depend Brooklyn arms, the whole surmounted by an Irish-South African head, the bits strung together with fraying thread, flapping loosely as his performance plummets towards the murky waters below.

As hilarious as Cusack’s performance is, bundling together tics and tropes from a generation of sleazeball gangster characters, it pales next to that of Harry H Corbett, who is much funnier because his character, a stuffy prison guard, is more dignified, and because his accent, if we can even justify the use of the singular, is even worse than Cusack’s. In his very first sentence he manages to segue from Humphrey Bogart to Cary Grant. Grant, of course, had an accent unknown to Henry Higgins (“Nbody tawks like that!” as Jack Lemmon protests in SOME LIKE IT HOT), making it an unsuitable case for impersonation outside of a comedy. I think even if you were playing Cary Grant you might want to tone it down a bit.

“You dirty old man!”

Corbett was a serious stage actor at this point, remarked upon for his proletarian grit and manliness. How he wound up spending twelve years in a single sitcom is mysterious, but his ambition to be a great thespian informed his playing of Harold in Steptoe and Son, a study in frustration, disappointment, pretension, great dreams and lowly surroundings — perfect for a once-hot classical actor.

There’s nothing perfect about most of Corbett’s movie work, although he features in Gilliam’s JABBERWOCKY, Eric Sykes’ much-loved silent comedy THE PLANK, Mackendrick’s SAMMY GOING SOUTH, Joan Littlewood’s SPARROWS CAN’T SING, and of course CARRY ON SCREAMING. The rest tend to be dowdy British sex comedies of the kind clearly intended to put the British working man off sex for life, although COVER GIRL KILLER, made the same year as FLOODS, features an inventive and grotesque turn from Corbett, possibly patterned on Cusack’s pebble-glasses maniac in this movie.

Howard Keel is mainly staunch and shirtless as the stoic con with a tragic past — he has the kind of musculature, coated in soft flesh, that you just don’t see on leading men anymore. He’s holding his gut in all the time, like Mitchum or Shatner. But he cam move! That musical training pays off whenever he has to clamber or jump, suggesting that a deluge-based thriller is not actually the best vehicle for him. He could have played Burt Lancaster type swashbucklers, because he’s beautiful in motion.

Worth a look for the sheer spectacle and the hilarity of the Canadian accent drag acts. A good candidate for remake status, except that HARD RAIN kind of went there.