Archive for Audrey Totter

Lamp Post

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2020 by dcairns

Occluding lampshades are a favourite compositional device, and this one, from Curtis Bernhardt’s MGM noir HIGH WALL, is particularly interesting, though perhaps not wholly successful.

Being an MGM noir, it’s full of hedging and excuses, and that’s what stops it being great — it’s gorgeously shot, exciting and well cast — Robert Taylor even has some excellent moments, and the miscasting of Audrey Totter as a kind of Ingrid Bergman shrink complicates things and makes the story more intriguing. There’s a natural edge and intensity to Totter which makes you not quite trust her when she’s required to be sweet…

Anyway, this lamp. Herbert Marshall has to do a lot of WALKING in this film, and he manages it very well for the most part. But you can hear his wooden leg SQUEAK, which I’m amazed wasn’t fixed.

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Towards the climax, Marshall and Walker have to engage in a vigorous fight, falling all over the furniture in Marshall’s flat, and this was obviously too challenging for Marshall to perform himself, so Bernhardt has devised a ruse. Yes, this also falls into the genre of “How to conceal Herbert Marshall’s wooden leg,” a trope most famously illustrated in THE LITTLE FOXES where he briefly exits frame on the left, so that his identically-dressed stand-in can stagger up the stairs while our main focus is on Bette Davis:

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So, here’s the scene. Marshall has shut the door, thinking himself alone, but then he hears a noise, and a dramatic shadow in snap-brimmed fedora crosses his form — Bernhardt gets to do lots of Germanic lighting in this one, which often LOOKS more Warners than MGM.

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SLOWLY he turns… and Bernhardt tracks back, the camera movement synchronized to Herbert’s pivot… and Taylor’s shoulder, side of head and hat brim slide into view.

vlcsnap-2020-05-09-14h01m03s798It’s a terrific effect: it not only reveals the intruder in a dramatic and mysterious way, it makes Marshall shrink as he becomes more vulnerable, with Taylor’s positioning making him seem, in a way, gigantic.

And Bernhardt now maintains this shot for several lines of dialogue, resisting a reverse angle and showing the kind of nerve few directors have these days.

When he finally cuts, it’s to a closer view of Marshall, showing the calculation in his expression and cueing up a POV shot which tells us that he’s looking at his revolver, across the room and behind Taylor…

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Having shown us what’s on Marshall’s mind and allowed us to guess what his plan is, Bernhardt now lets us see him execute it. The fact that we can anticipate what he’s up to is obviously good for suspense, as we can ask ourselves if he’ll succeed.

Bernhardt cuts back to the earlier over-the-shoulder framing of the cornered Marshall and pulls back as Marshall advances, Taylor finally coming into clearer view as he turns to follow his opponent’s movement…

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But now the shot gets weird. Berndardt’s camera pulls back to what should be a flat two of Marshall and Taylor, but turns into a shot of a lamp and Taylor…

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It’s one of those clever-but-stupid ideas. Because there’s no good dramatic reason for us to be observing the action half-hidden by a lampshade.

But the clever bit is, while he’s still talking, and while we can still see a good bit of his body, Marshall does a quick shuffle and steps back out of frame, letting his stand-in replace him. This happens while we can still see part of him.

By the time we get this next composition, Marshall has been replaced by his pod person:

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The out-takes must have been hilarious (and swiftly burned), with Marshall colliding with his identically clad stunt-herbert, or the substitution not happening quickly enough, so that we see both Herberts at the same time, awkwardly weaving around one another…

But the trick is done imperceptibly in the movie, the only flaw being our puzzlement about why this lighting fixture suddenly has a featured role.

So now the fake Herbert can grab for the gun, the real Taylor can leap on him, the lamp can go flying (fulfilling, at last, a discernible dramatic function) and the two men can crash to the floor and tussle.

We even get a bold glimpse of the stunt-herbert’s face, with the filmmakers confident that we won’t notice that it’s not our star because there’s too much going on, it’s too quick, and anyway, we clearly saw that it was him at the start of this shot.

The other main fake Herbert bit I remember is in TROUBLE IN PARADISE, where Herbert springs out of frame, dashing for the stairs, and Lubitsch whip-pans IN THE WRONG DIRECTION, rotating almost 360 to catch the fake Herbert leaping up the staircase two steps at a time, convincing us that the star is an athletic biped but that his director is drunk…

The Insult that made a Man out of Quimby

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2019 by dcairns

TENSION (1949) is a film I always used to get mixed up with SUSPENSE (1946) and also IMPACT (1949), but I think I’ve got it straight now. Barry Sullivan helpfully illustrates the title with an elastic band in scene one, where he talks to us, his chums in the audience, about his patient, sadistic, Porfiry Petrovich style cat-and-mouse approach to catching killers.

But the star of the film is Richard Basehart, that character actor in a leading man’s body, who plays milquetoast drugstore proprietor Warren Quimby — and this is an MGM film so Fred Quimby was running the animation unit — and I’m also assuming at least one of the three writers knew the obscure meaning of that first syllable.

Basehart is quimby-whipped by his mean wife, Audrey Totter, cast much to type, and the noir staples of misogyny and post-war malaise are much in force: “You were cut in uniform,” is Totter’s explanation for her otherwise incomprehensible decision to marry this wimp for whom she expresses nothing but contempt. When she runs off with rich lout “Barney Deager” — the names in this movie are GLORIOUS — Quimby hatches the most pathetic murder scheme ever put on film.

Humiliated by hairy-chested (and hairy-backed, and hairy-armed) Deager on the beach, Quimby breaks his specs. Getting them repaired, he learns of the new miracle of contact lenses, and has an idea. He’ll get a pair of these new-fangled things and be A NEW MAN — unrecognizable as he sets up a false identity as Deager’s neighbour, snuffs him, and then vanishes without trace. Sort of a Clark Kent/Superman thing, only with more murdering. Like the Zack Snyder Superman, in other words.

This plan is so dumb it doesn’t even have to gang aglae for Quimby to be in trouble, but it gangs aglae from the start: he falls in love with Cyd Charisse, who embodies every submissive virtue lacking in his spouse. Then he decides, at the last minute, not to go through with the killing, but someone else does, and suspicion rapidly falls on our mild-mannered pharmacist.

This being MGM, the more conservative aspects of noir are to the fore, but being a John Berry film (subsequent blacklistee), it’s also more complicated. The institutions of marriage and the police don’t emerge untarnished: Sullivan and his partner, surly William Conrad, are nasty pieces of work. When Totter memorialises her slaughtered lover with the words, “He was full of laughs,” Conrad snarls back, “Now he’s full of lead.”

Charisse is a delightful presence so she manages to make her insipid role bearable, but Totter is much more fun. The daft plot’s machinations are cruelly effective in that she and Basehart are thrown back together just when he’s decided he doesn’t want her anymore, and the finger of guilt starts prodding him in the nose even as Sullivan woos his wife right under it.

For a while there I wondered if the writers had lifted the concept from Clouzot’s QUAI DES ORFEVRES, but if so they left out the final twist that allows that movie an absurdly happy ending.

SPOILER:

This one contrives to punish the guilty and reward the innocent (after making them sweat a little), but fades out in a hurry before the final clinch, since embracing a woman other than your wife is technically a no-no even if it’s just a matter of time before the execution.

TENSION stars Ishmael; Adrienne Fromsett; Gabrielle Gerard; Tom Amiel; Walter Winchell; and Frank Cannon.

Wise Boxes Clever

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2018 by dcairns

Our viewing of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL of course demands a follow-up screening of something or other… I felt in a way less need to investigate this time, as I’ve already seen plenty of Robert Wise films, and even a few movies involving screenwriter Edmund H. North (IN A LONELY PLACE, SINK THE BISMARCK!, DAMN THE DEFIANT! and, ahem, METEOR). I’ve even covered STRANGER FROM VENUS. But THE SET-UP, directed by Wise in 1949, was overdue for a watch…

This one’s scripted by Art Cohn, from a poem (!) by Joseph Moncure March.

It’s alright… Percy’s here…

Really terrific filmmaking — I’m on record saying that Wise’s best cinematic effects usually hinge on editing, his métier, but this one has a lot of gorgeous push-in shots, moving deeper into the urban landscape of the film. The sweaty, shadowy feel of the movie is its best feature, aided by great noir faces — Robert Ryan, Alan Baxter, Percy Helton. Even Darryl Hickman, his fresh-faced appeal like a flower in hell, by which the surrounding inferno appears all the grimmer.

The big gimmick, that the story unfolds in real time, was a cause of frustration for the filmmakers since the audience turned out to be serenely oblivious to this. All those big clocks were for naught. But the excellent sound mix — there’s no score — does have great value, with the cross-cutting between Ryan and Audrey Totter tied together by devices like a streetcar blasting past, close-up for her, distant when we cut to him. The Aristotelian Unities may be quietly helping the film along, even if most of us don’t notice. After all, Hollywood style prided itself on invisibility. Why shouldn’t we consider this, and Wellman’s TRACK OF THE CAT, with its black-and-white-in-colour aesthetic, be regarded as roaring successes precisely because nobody at the time noticed?

Totter’s walk through town seems to very clearly prefigure what Welles wanted for his opening shot of TOUCH OF EVIL, in terms of sound design.

I was genuinely puzzled about how the movie would end, though I had a feeling it couldn’t be good. For a while, it looks to be as bleak as you can get. Bleaker. Audrey Totter has a near-impossible task, spinning the tragic denouement as a triumph, and she pulls all the stops out and then breaks them off and throws them in the air. A little too much, Audrey.

But it’s impressive how RKO got away with a crime story in which the guilty go completely unpunished, and indeed the law is entirely absent.