Archive for Arthur Grant

Losey Week Revisited

Posted in FILM, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2020 by dcairns

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I did a week’s deep dive on Joseph Losey, years ago. This is another, larger deleted sequence from the essay I’m working on. Poor Evan Jones got cut, because it was just too sprawling and diffuse.

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Joseph Losey had been forced to leave to avoid testifying before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. He would gradually, by talent and sheer force of will, reinvent himself: in America he had specialised in thrillers; in Britain he slowly transformed into a maker of art films, a form which had almost no history in the UK.

But his first collaboration with writer Evan Jones was made for Hammer films. The Damned (1961), AKA These Are the Damned, is often falsely grouped with the sci-fi thriller Village of the Damned (1960) whose success the studio probably wanted to cash in on. In it, a teenage gang’s conflict with a visiting American (the dependably dull MacDonald Carey) brings them into contact with a group of children are kept underground and rendered immune to radiation, primed to take over the world “when the time comes,” as the head of the project says, bears more relation to Losey’s debut The Boy with Green Hair (1947) and his juvenile delinquent picture The Sleeping Tiger (1954).

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Look behind him! It’s The X-Files!

Jones was tasked with adapting H.L. Lawrence’s source novel, The Children of Light after blacklistee Ben Barzman’s legal troubles stalled his progress on the script. Talking to Michel Ciment, Losey sketched out a brief bio of his chosen replacement: “Actually he hadn’t, so far as I can remember, ever worked on a film before. His parents were landowners in Jamaica. He’s milky-coloured, and he makes no secret that his father was black. He was educated at Oxford, I think. His play was pretty strong and dealt with the relationships of a landowner and his peasants in Jamaica. We had a certain political kinship and we got along very well in other respects, too.”

The job had to be done fast: at Losey’s urging, he largely threw out the original story, keeping only the premise. He was still writing until the day before shooting started. It’s a bizarre movie with many dysfunctional elements: disparate plot threads are introduced in haphazard fashion, and the attempts to wrestle with youth culture are terribly square and unconvincing. The sci-fi aspects made Losey very uncomfortable too: he couldn’t believe in them. But somehow a certain stark force is realized: the subterranean children, who are cold to the touch, are a metaphor for both Britain’s public school system (in Britain, for some topsy-turvy reason, private schools are referred to as public schools) and for the populace as a whole: literally kept in the dark. One very effective touch is that rather than building up a single villain in charge of the scheme, Jones emphasizes the team, which includes favorite Losey actors Alexander Knox and James Villiers.

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Though nobody involved can breathe convincing life into the gang of delinquents led by a young Oliver Reed, who has not yet learned to whisper huskily, there are commendable efforts to avoid the tabloid news clichés: Reed’s character is obsessed with protecting his sister’s purity, “…because you’ve never had a girl yourself,” she charges. Losey’s command of visuals was increasing as he found more and more talented collaborators. Here, production designer Richard MacDonald creates frightening and dreamlike caves and classrooms for the little troglodytes, enhanced by  Elizabeth Frink’s sculptures of wingless, decayed birds. “Life has the power to change,” intones Knox, “After the first great explosion, strange, wonderful flowers, unknown before, bloomed in the desert.” The film continually aspires towards poetry, is dragged down by plodding convention, then soars again.

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Arthur Grant’s black-and-white widescreen images are edited by Reginald Mills, who cut Michael Powell’s classics and would go on to cut The Servant (1963, written by Pinter) and King and Country (1964) for Losey. The sound design, dominated by crashing surf, anticipates the roaring breakers that give Losey’s later Boom! (1967) its title (“the shock of each moment of being alive.”)

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Losey was able to make Eve the same year, a true European art film based on a novel by thriller writer James Hadley Chase, a prolific British plagiarist who established a career penning American pulp fiction despite never having been to the States, armed only with a dictionary of slang and a map. The star, Stanley Baker, was Welsh, the son of a coal miner: his stardom anticipated that of later working-class heroes like Connery and Caine. Here he plays a novelist whose book has elevated him into high society, apparently cutting him off from the wellspring of his talent: but in fact he’s an utter fraud, who stole the manuscript from his dead brother. His destructive relationship with the title character, played by Jeanne Moreau, and with the vulnerable Virna Lisi, leads to tragedy.

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Losey hated the book and got Jones to change the setting from Hollywood to Italy, incorporating footage captured at the Venice Film Festival. There’s no sense that this is meant to be a thriller, and the producers were aghast at its running time (168 minutes in Losey’s original cut). But the remaining hard-boiled elements help balance Losey’s tendency to self-serious artiness, resulting in one of his most fully-achieved films, and there’s a much stronger sense that Jones knows the kind of people he’s writing about here (his best character in The Damned is the sculptor played by Viveca Lindfors: Jones feels the strain when called upon to script the inarticulate). He also had a gift for acid camp, here personified by James Villiers as an aloof screenwriter, who protests at a wedding, “Why should an intelligent man like myself be subjected to this kind of tribal ritual?”

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Losey likes stuffing his films with art: the setting of Venice gives him a valid reason to do so. In fact, art is inescapable there. And Baker’s tortured intellectual, self-destructive and lashing out, suits him admirably. The pairing with Jones (blacklistee Hugo Butler also worked on the script) was proving fruitful.

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Next, Jones adapted King and Country (1964) from a radio play written by one of the participants in the true life story it told: during WWI, a private is tried for desertion. It’s a clear case of shell shock, what we now call PTSD, but the court of officers cannot accept that because they daren’t allow any excuse for a soldier not “doing his duty.”

The tiny budget and cramped sets are overcome by Losey putting the focus strongly on his central performances. Dirk Bogarde, his other favorite actor of this period, plays the officer charged with defending Hamp, played by Tom Courtenay. Courtenay, the star of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Billy Liar (1963) is another of the new breed of regional, working-class actors (in his case, Yorkshire) who retained their original accents and introduced a new, understated naturalism. There’s an electrifying contrast with Bogarde, a Rank Organisation matinee idol who successfully rebelled against his image and, like Losey, made the transition to the arthouse, eventually working with Fassbinder, Visconti and Resnais.

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The play had been essentially a transcription from memory of the trial. At Losey’s behest, Jones opened it up to include a mock trial conducted by enlisted men in which a rat, captured from a horse carcass, is prosecuted. Jones wrote this with a good deal of slang which, when combined with regional accents and somewhat difficult studio conditions (the film was originally intended for television and shot in a mere three weeks) result in some difficulties in audibility and comprehension, but this actually enhances the realism.

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Unlike many reflections on the Great War (e.g. the recent 1917), Losey and Jones’ film eschews sentimentality and heroism. It is bitter and angry. The uneducated and traumatized Hamp, who has simply turned away from the guns and tried to walk home, is as guiltless as the rat and equally doomed. What cannot be admitted is that the war is unendurable.

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The final Jones collaboration was regarded at the time as an unmitigated disaster, and is still a film maudit. In fact, in his later career, Losey practically came to specialize in the film maudit, or what John Waters enthusiastically embraces as “the failed art film.” But Modesty Blaise (1966), based on a popular newspaper strip and intended as a parody of the James Bond franchise. It was, on the face of it, an incredible case of directorial miscasting. As Losey’s friend Richard Lester later said, “The last person that would come to mind to produce a movie that fits the adjective ‘zany’ would be Joe Losey.” “Antonioni,” claimed Losey, “said […] that it was ridiculous to try and parody the thing that one was oneself doing.”

Apart from the question of humor, Losey also strongly disapproved of the Bond films’ flippant  “violence for violence’s sake,” an attitude that may seem quaintly prudish today, but it was important to him.

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The resulting film, a pop art/op art pastiche based around nothing of any importance, is very attractive and, on paper, very funny. Jones was particularly successful at writing a camp villain for Dirk Bogarde to play with bleached blond hair, getting ironically overwrought about innocent lives wasted. “A father of two children, probably with a split-levek house in Woking, and a rubber plant in the lounge. Why can’t they be bachelors?!” At its best it hits a tone not elsewhere attempted and hard to pin down. When leads Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp abruptly burst into song (the film is not otherwise a musical and neither of them can really sing) the movie is not fracturing its own approach, it’s fulfilling it.

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But part of the oddness is Losey’s approach and pacing, with his circling tracking shots which had now become a trademark: it moves like an arthouse drama, leaving way too much air around the witty dialogue. If you see it with an audience you can sense them trying to enjoy it, trying to hurry it along to be the thing it needs and deserves to be. Something like Barbarella (1968), carelessly shot and with about five good lines, works perfectly well, with a lot of burbling electronica to fill in the dead spots, whereas despite classic stuff like Bogarde pegged out on the desert sands calling out for “Champagne!”, Losey’s film seems to not know where the jokes are. Plus it’s 119 minutes long and it has no motor, because the central characters aren’t taking the situations seriously.

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The film’s failure broke up the Losey-Jones partnership: Losey went on to direct Pinter screenplays Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971) while Jones worked on a scattershot collection of films without much apparent momentum or focus, but including one classic, Wake in Fright (1971).

Unbandaged

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2012 by dcairns

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The director had hiccups. A really bad case — they lasted days. It was a real problem because he might hiccup at any point, during a take, and ruin the sound. It became a running joke — the production hiccups.

Then one day he didn’t come in to the studio. He was dead. Apparently hiccups can be a sign of an approaching heart attack. Who knew?

With Seth Holt out of the picture, the picture was finished by the talentless Michael Carreras, the man who destroyed Hammer films with his terrible ideas and equally terrible ambitions to write, direct, produce, none of which he had the slightest knowledge of or capacity for. But BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB is still a pretty interesting show.

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It’s got Andrew Keir, the best film Quatermass, and James Villiers, and George “I was in CITIZEN KANE and now this” Coulouris, Aubrey Morris (Yay! P.R. Deltoid!) and Valerie Leon, known in the UK as the Hi Karate Woman. A fine actress with enormous juicy breasts.

The musique concrete is by Tristram Carey, who also scored THE LADYKILLERS, which Holt produced. He’s one of the very few filmmakers who worked at Ealing and Hammer, and he must have liked the dysfunctional family atmosphere — he might have fitted well into the BBC. Holt’s wife said that he and director Sandy Mackendrick should never have worked together, since rather than anchoring one another and compensating for their excesses, they hyped each other into a frenzy and made everything twice as crazy as it needed to be. Which is perhaps why THE LADYKILLERS is such a brilliantly extreme film. (Say, I’m writing a book about it, aren’t I?)

Kenneth Tynan wrote NOWHERE TO GO, consciously intended as the last Ealing picture (perhaps a good film to watch for this Blogathon!), a dark thriller which Holt served up with bracing savagery. TASTE OF FEAR, aka SCREAM OF FEAR, was Hammer’s best DIABOLIQUES knock-off, with the corpse sitting calmly at the bottom of the swimming pool destined to traumatize a young Tom Hanks when his mother, in a confused state, led him into the wrong cinema. Not BAMBI at all.

Holt’s best movie is surely THE NANNY, with a powerful and relatively controlled performance from Bette Davis, great work from the child actors, and a really gripping use of interior space — shot by Harry Waxman, who was always at his best in black and white (cf BRIGHTON ROCK). Davis described Holt as “a mountain of evil” or something, somewhat to the bafflement

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Late Hammer films are typically portraits of the disintegration of a stolid but efficient studio organisation, derailed by monumentally clueless management. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is actually really good, but the powers that be cut off the whole climax, leaving Christopher Lee and Satan apparently vanquished by a small pebble hurled at the Great Man’s dome by Richard Widmark. This one manages to hold back on the nudity apart from a couple of modest, not-too-distracting instances, and balances creepiness with camp in an unusual way. The asylum scene, with the maniacal flurry of canted angles and ludicrous toy cobra, was actually helmed by Carreras and it may be the only good thing he ever did — I’m inclined to credit Holt’s shooting plan or DoP Arthur Grant, who’d begun in quota quickies with Michael Powell and had worked at Hammer throughout their glory years —

UK: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb [DVD] [1971]

US: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb

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Frankenstein Must Be Annoyed

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2008 by dcairns

Well, he’s forever losing his patients (sorry).

This one DOES have a nice singalong theme tune by James Bernard.

So, some clever people on the IMDb have worked out that maybe the best way to make sense of the Hammer FRANKENSTEINs, leaving aside HORROR OF, which substitutes Ralph Bates for Cushing (how do we feel about this? I’d say it’s an interesting alternative in theory, in keeping with the Baron’s history of sexual ambivalence, beginning with Colin Clive. I’m renting HORROR, because I quite enjoyed FEAR IN THE NIGHT, which HORROR helmer Jimmy Sangster also directed). According  to Elsa4077  you need to swap 1967’s FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN with 1969’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, and regard EVIL OF as a dream. This allows the firey climax of DESTROYED to serve as the missing explanation for the Baron’s burned hands in CREATED WOMAN. It’s a pretty good theory, especially since Cushing’s hands are fine throughout DESTROYED, but damaged again in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, the last in the series. which makes no sense if the stories run in the order they were shot in.

It doesn’t explain what became of “Dr. Franck’s” Harley Street practice or his partnership with Francis Matthews, though. I propose an exercise in fan fiction, dealing with the London-centric mad science that brings about Dr. Hans Kleve’s death, amid welters of Kensington gore, and leads to the Baron fleeing back to the continent. Let’s call it FRANKENSTEIN HAS RISEN FROM BELGRAVIA, and have the London experiments result in the mysterious figure known as Spring-Heeled Jack. Douglas Noble, AKA Stripforme, suggests that the Baron could end up as Jack the Ripper, but he CAN’T, silly! We all know that Jack the Ripper was really Martine Beswick in DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE.

We first meet the Baron this time in a natty spats and latex monster mask combo (his cheek bones still show through, says Fiona), decapitating a doctor in order to supply his latest creation with a suitably educated brain. An intruding burglar leads to the destruction of this monster-to-be, and the discovery of the Baron’s secret lair. Plus an impressively nasty moment when, fighting with the baron, the burglar is knocked over and finds himself touching the severed head. Jeepers!

In his memoir, Rungs on a Ladder, production manager Christopher Neame (son of Ronald) reports that the actor playing the burglar was so distressed by the rushes, he was found pacing a corridor clutching his head to ensure it was still attached.

This opening, and the rest of the film, is considerably more energetic than the previous entries in the series, with series regular cameraman Arthur Grant using wider lenses, getting in closer, and moving the camera sharply in nearly every shot. Terence Fisher’s increased liveliness behind the lens is all the more remarkable considering he was walking with the aid of a stick after recently been seriously injured after drunkenly wandering into traffic.

Next we meet incompetent Inspector Thorley Walters, playing a quite different kind of idiot from his kindly assistant in CREATED WOMAN — officious, and in a perpetual state of umbrage. He’s a bit like Raymond Walburn’s apoplectic authority figures in Preston Sturges’ films. Assisted by long-suffering police doctor Geoffrey Bayldon (another veteran of these things) Walters is lots of fun, although the investigative part of the film fails to really catch up with the rest of the narrative. But the comic dialogue is surprisingly sharp (screenwriter Bert Batt was an A.D. who had never written a film before) and the acting by everybody is just DELIGHTFUL: Robert Gillespie as the dry-witted mortuary man — “I last saw him on the day I slid him into the drawer,” — Allan Surtees as the sergeant, reporting as if it were a mere formality, “His head’s been cut off.” Priceless.

The Geoffrey and Thorley Comedy Show.

Needing a new place to set up shop, Baron F moves into Veronica Carlson’s lodging house. I suggested last time that having used up the pseudonyms “Stein” and “Franck”, he would have to start calling himself “Dr. En”, and he almost does — he’s “Dr. Fenner” now. Mad genius that he is, he’s soon blackmailing Veronica and her doctor boyfriend, Simon Ward, who’s been dealing coke on the side to support Carlson’s ailing mother (another plot thread that goes nowhere, but let it pass). This strand of the story shows Frankenstein at his most unsympathetic (and he’s not exactly the most warm-hearted fellow in the other films), forcing Carlson to make him endless cups of coffee, then raping her. Then getting her to make more coffee, which I thought was going a bit far.

The controversial rape was added in at the behest of the distributor, supposedly, and everybody was compelled to go through with it even though subsequent scenes had already been shot. It’s a pretty appalling insight into British cinema circa 1969 that a gratuitous rape scene was considered a way to bolster the entertainment value and commercial appeal of an already pretty gory horror film. Terence Fisher shot the scene under protest, and both Cushing and Carlson found the experience mortifying. Cushing, ever the pro, throws himself into it with gusto, and interestingly the sequence is the most dynamic in the film, with a powerful subjective camera track in on Cushing ominously offering the door-key to Carlson, and then a flurry of violent handheld camera as he wrestles her on the bed. Now, Fisher HATED handheld photography: “The camera never stops moving, and the audience quite rightly wonders why,” and he uses it just once elsewhere in this film, so there’s a suggestion that it’s use here was a gesture of contempt for the offensive material. But it works, making the scene properly ugly, rather than the titillation the distributor had wanted.

There’s a serious question about whether this scene (damnit, these are SERIOUS FILMS!), tacked on late in the day, damages the Baron as a character. We know from his liaison with the French maid in CURSE that he’s not solely dedicated to his work. He’s a lusty kind of fellow (as was Cushing). But he’d always behaved like a gentleman, of sorts. If we take the films to chart a descent into depravity, this scene shows the Baron having become even more heartless than ever, and it’s in keeping with his committing a gratuitous murder later on, just because his plans have been thwarted. For all his Man Of Science act, the Baron is a rather headstrong, emotion-driven guy. And also evil as fuck.

The plan this time is to abduct Frankenstein’s crazy partner, Dr. Brandt (the skin care specialist?) from the asylum where Simon Ward works, and cure his madness with a groundbreaking trepanning procedure. But the mad scientist suffers a heart attack, and Cushing is forced to transplant his brain into the body of Freddie Jones, as you do. This film is very big on brain transplants, with everyone acting as if they’d never been done before (REVENGE is all about brain transplanting, with even Cushing joining in himself), but remembering the recent work of Christian Bernard transplanting the first human heart in 1967, it’s easy to see why this stuff was of special interest at the time.

Gurgle.

Freddie spends much of the movie in a comatose state, having his head drilled and milksyphoned into him, which is no way to win an Oscar, but then he wakes up and gives what Fiona suggests is THE BEST GUEST-STAR PERFORMANCE EVER IN A HAMMER FILM. Desperate to be reunited with his wife — the great Maxine Audley from PEEPING TOM — who believes him dead (she’s seen his old body) he escapes from the Baron’s HQ andclimbs in her window. What follows is a wooing-by-proxy scene, with Jones speaking from behind a screen, that practically echoes CYRANO DE BERGERAC, and is the certainly most emotional material in any of the Frankenstein films.

It turns out the Baron only brought Brandt back to life and sanity in order to get from him an important MacGuffin formula which is raised rather late in the proceedings and never explained, but at least it’s clear that Frankenstein is acting in the interests of science, not charity, which is consistent with his M.O. Cushing arrives at chez Brandt to get the formula, but the brain-transplanted Brandt is waiting for him…

Things then erupt in what I can only call a fiery denouement, expertly staged and cut (Fisher was a former editor who had a real mastery of building scenes from simple but effective blocking). It looks like it’s possibly be done with multiple cameras, a necessity considering the special effects involved, but it doesn’t rupture the carefully designed shooting style of the film. There’s a rhythmic quality to the slamming and opening of doors and hurling of lanterns, and Cushing’s work here, particularly stylish in longshot, reminds me of the reason Scorsese gave for his gang’s enthusiasm for this actor: “We admired the precision of his movements within the frame.” They must have had some great 42nd St cinephile discussions, those boys.

Freddie can sling a lantern with the best of them.

Well, a real, honest-to-God fiery denouement is exactly what one wants in a Frankenstein film, and they pull out all the stops here, throw them on the floor and burn them. The credits pop up as Freddie’s house goes up, just like at the end of APOCALYPSE NOW. The horror! It’s never explained exactly how the Baron escapes cremation to ride again, but at least this acts as a belated explanation for his singed mitts.

All in all, this seemed like both the most dynamic film in the series to date, as well as the best-written, with comedy relief brought in early enough so that it doesn’t jar, unlike in the Sangster scripts, and a reasonably solid structure and controlled pace, unlike those written by John Elder. If it doesn’t have the cerebral and metaphysical qualities of CREATED WOMAN, it benefits from keeping it’s brain on the subject at hand — demented surgical mayhem — and not being distracted with stuff about souls and force fields. A shame Bert Batt didn’t write more.