Archive for Arthur Conan Doyle

The Palm Sunday Intertitle: Baker St Irregular

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on April 17, 2011 by dcairns

“It’s really quite simple, Watson. You see, I’m an opium fiend, and I find opium dens the best place to procure my fix of the stuff.”

“You astound me, Homes!”


Not really, of course. This is from THE MAN WITH THE TWISTED LIP, produced (and presumably directed) by Maurice Elvey in 1921, in which Eille Norwood plays Holmes — I enjoyed the way he sits.

Maybe Holmes wasn’t ideally suited to silent cinema — I even find the Barrymore version a little dull. The Great Detective’s cogitations require an excess of title cards to be elucidated, or maybe it’s just that the filmmakers concerned didn’t figure out enough strategies to make his thought processes visible. At any rate, there’s no excuse for the way this one begins, with a flurry of title cards stacked end to end, minus any actual intervening scenes. I’d have guessed that parts of the film had been lost and the titles reconstructed from censor’s records (about the only use film censors have ever served), only the titles look as old as the surrounding footage, when some eventually appears. Until further research confirms or disproves my suspicions, I’m looking at this as further proof of the British cinema’s traditional over-dependence on verbiage at the expense of visuals. Very honorable exceptions are of course made for Hitchcock, Asquith, and a few others…

Cop Show

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2008 by dcairns

OK, here’s the answer to CLUES… probably a disappointing one since few have even heard of it and it’s not that special…

Sixties policier GIRL IN THE HEADLINES has a rather exotic feel since everybody’s so posh. Even the heroic chief inspector is comfortably middle-class: Jane Asher plays his daughter, for heaven’s sake. It’s all the more bizarre because the story deals with murder and drug-running, yet our cast includes fashion models, a retired opera singer, a knighted captain of industry, a painter, and a TV actor. All plausible drug USERS, but hidden among them are diabolical smugglers and hot-blooded assassins.

Our lead cop is Ian Hendry — “eyes like piss-holes in the snow,” Michael Caine says of him in GET CARTER, but here he’s younger, fresher, has suffered fewer disappointments and put away less booze. Hendry was the original lead of the series that mutated into The Avengers, and had an apparently bright future ahead. By the time of GET CARTER he’d done REPULSION and THE HILL, but things weren’t working out. Mike Hodges says that in Hendry’s main scene with Caine there was a real tension, a resentment from Hendry towards the more successful actor, that seethes in the background.

Hendry is assisted by Ronald Fraser (and it’s weird seeing HIM get second billing), a somewhat grotesque character player with a head like a turnip and the world’s smallest mouth — basically a glorified pore. He provides comic asides and non-sequiteurs like a Dragnet sidekick.

Filling out the rogue’s gallery we have Jeremy Brett and James Villiers, both of whom there’s lots to say about. Brett, like his best friend Robert Stephens, had mixed fortunes with the role of Sherlock Holmes. Stephens hated working for Billy Wilder so much on THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES that he attempted suicide to get out of it, yet now it’s the role he’s most remembered for. Brett, much later in life, scored a great success as Holmes in TV adaptations of the entire Conan Doyle Holmes canon, but suffered terribly from manic-depression and a feeling that he could never escape the role. Treated with lithium, which caused him terrible physical problems, he reached a low point where he prostrated himself on the pavement of Baker Street begging the shade of Sherlock to release him.

Here he’s young, strikingly handsome, strong AND sensitive, and obvious star material. But I suppose the British cinema was moving into a phase where it wasn’t looking for a dashing leading man. Brett might have tried Hollywood, where his mental illness would scarcely have been noticed.

James Villiers plays a homosexual TV star (has small yapping dog, frequents all-male jazz cellar). Descended from the Earls of Clarendon, Villiers brings his customary aristocratic elan and a rather likable feyness to bear on a character we are clearly meant to despise. “I think he’d like to marry me,” suggests Hendry, though Villiers has shown no sign of any such infatuation.

Rosalie Crutchley, haunted and beautiful, plays housekeeper to the retired opera singer mixed up in this somehow. Known for her housekeeping — fans of THE HAUNTING can quote her “No one will come. In the night. In the dark,” — Crutchley brings solemnity and compulsion to her scene.

Michael Truman, the director of this modest, pleasant, unmemorable whodunnit, was a successful TV man who dabbled in film. The producer was John Davis, whose name lives in infamy as destroyer of the British film industry. Michael Powell savaged him in PEEPING TOM, creating a studio boss called Don Jarvis who says things like “From now on, if you can see it and hear it, it goes in!” — purportedly a true-life quote. As head of production at Rank, Davis presided over the collapse of the British film industry and the demise of Powell’s career.

(Powell’s cinematographer, Christopher Challis, reports that he had a job sitting on a committee at Rank to discuss the ailing industry. He hated the work, and resolved to get himself fired from it. His chance came when a report was read out, saying that Rank had quizzed punters leaving its Odeon cinemas, asking if there was anything the organisation could be doing to bolster film-going. The public had given them the thumbs up: nothing need be done. Challis stood up and said that since statistics showed that the majority of Brits never went near an Odeon, maybe the pollsters should be talking to THEM instead.

He was not asked back.)

It struck me as I was watching GIRL IN THE HEADLINES that Britain doesn’t really DO police procedurals anymore. Asides from HOT FUZZ, there hasn’t been a Brit cop film I can think of since the seventies. Of course it’s easy to blame TV for flooding the market, but other nations with healthy TV industries manage to present cinematic cop thrillers too. The French and Americans certainly have no problem making great televisual police drama and great cinematic police drama, and they know the difference, too. In GIRL IN THE HEADLINES the main characters don’t experience any profound change during the story — they just do their jobs. Which would be essential in a TV show where the characters have to resume duties next week, but it’s almost fatal to a one-off drama. I think the reason Britain doesn’t make cop films is a lack of confidence in being able to deliver the required cinematic qualities that would separate film from TV. These qualities are:

1) A character arc which results in a transformed lead character.

2) A story with a unique selling point, or high concept, to get people out from TV-land and into the cinema.

3) Visual style to lift the film from the run of TV police procedurals.

I’m speaking purely of the most basic commercial cinema and traditional dramatic form — there might well be other approaches that could be successful, but the above three points would be enough to make a cop movie populist and accessible. I think the fact that our cinema lacks confidence in its ability to pull off those three qualities in a cop film indicates a lack of confidence in cinematic storytelling altogether. It’s notable that Edgar Wright of HOT FUZZ is clearly bursting with confidence and overloads his film with the three factors cited — even though point 1 need not necessarily apply to comedy.

Swan's Way

And THAT should be the theme for a blog post in itself — comedy and character arcs.

Carpe Liber!

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , on April 19, 2008 by dcairns

One of the wisest things I ever heard was in the Cinema Bookshop in London. I always like to go there whenever I’m down — come to think of it, haven’t been in YEARS — and on this occasion I was there with Fiona and producer Nigel Smith. I was trying to decide whether to buy a pricey coffee-table type volume about Sergio Leone. I had been amazed at finding it, having never seen a copy or even having heard of it, and this was before Sir Christopher Frayling’s mammoth biography, so there was a sparsity of Leone literature around. And yet, there was the price.

Nigel said, “If you want to buy it, buy it NOW.” He was right — I’ve never seen a copy of that book for sale since. It probably helped sway me that the Cinema Shop had been the site of one major deferred purchase I’ve always regretted.

I’d found a copy of Dan Leno: Hys Booke, written by himself, A volume of frivolities, etc. A slender volume at a high price, it was really beyond my financial limits at the time. And yet I bet it was a bargain. Leno had nothing to do with cinema, he was a Victorian music hall star — and a fascinating figure. His book seemed very funny, but I can’t remember any of what I read. I can only remember a joke I saw quoted by comedy expert Roy Hudd on TV: “I found myself washed up on a desert island. Discovering a piece of fruitcake, I noticed that all the currants had been removed, and I rejoiced at this sign of civilisation.”

Hys Booke, as the title suggests, was crazy with wordplay, like a mid-period Spike Milligan novel, which made sense given Leno’s eventual insanity — incessant punning can be a feature of mania. At any rate, I’ve always regretted not picking it up.

The other book I really really regret not buying wasn’t even expensive, I just couldn’t decide if I neededit or not. A couple of days later I returned to Till’s Bookshop in Edinburgh, and dealt with the art of Charles Altamont Doyle, father of the more famous son of Edinburgh, Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle Snr suffered from depression, alcoholism and eventually, complete insanity, having failed to earn a living by his drawing and painting. But it’s wondrous stuff, and touched with madness from the get-go. Like his brother Richard, Charles Doyle painted scenes of Fairyland, with less skill but with more eccentricity — and eccentricity is essential in lifting Victorian fairy art out of the realms of the twee and back into the scary world of Celtic and Old English mythology where it rightfully belongs.

One ilustration, entitled Kissing the Sphinx, seemed to me gloriously perverse and erotic, though perhaps mainly for its title. Illustration-wise it’s admittedly trumped by THIS BEAUTY by Franz Von Stuck.

Stuck On You

Again, I’ve never seen the Doyle book for sale anywhere since.

HAPPY ENDING — I was forgetting, this is the Age of the Internet (how can I forget it when I’m ON it?) — the book, The Doyle Diary, is readily available secondhand on Amazon! Ordered — for 1 penny!

Dan Leno, His Booke, is likewise available, but even more expensive that it was in the Cinema Shop… I’ll have to delay that one until I’m rich.

Nevertheless, I think Nigel’s general point holds true.


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