Archive for Bernard Gordon

Igneous Schlock

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2016 by dcairns


THE MAN WHO TURNED TO STONE (1957) has a bit of interest and originality, even though it isn’t any good. There might be potential for a remake, if we made this kind of B-movie anymore.

The dialogue is atrocious (“Oh look, now, Tracy, you’re not going soft and spooky on me now, are you? I like you much better when you’re your hard-bitten old self.” “Just the same I’ll bet you a box of girl scout cookies that somebody died last night.”) and sadly it’s by Bernard Gordon, blacklistee — I presume his gig for poverty row producer Sam Katzman was brokered by Dalton Trumbo. But the story has some intrigue.


Basically, the top staff at a girl’s reform home are all immortals from the eighteenth century, kept spry by regular treatments of mad science. Their procedure requires the sacrifice of a human victim, so naturally they’re preying on the inmates, knocking them off practically nightly according to what we see, which causes some consternation among the higher authorities, but not half as much as you’d expect.

Eric (Friedrich Von Ledibur) is now so old that the treatment is starting to fail, causing him to petrify, to look poorly made-up, and to have a pounding heartbeat audible from across the room. He’s also mute, hulking and (with an effort of imagination upon the viewer’s part) scary looking — stalwart Doc William Hudson sizes him up with the words, “Coarsened features — could be Mongoloid.” Well, nobody ever looked less like they had Downs’ Syndrome. And thank you so much for the crassness.


Miscasting of this key lummox role robs most of the action of menace, but the lead nasty is played by Victor Jory, who brings conviction, understatement, and Dignity, Always Dignity to the part. Other decent thesps Paul Cavanaugh and Victor Varconi round out the rogue’s gallery, which also includes a woman, Anne Doran, who does too much eyebrow calisthenics but suggests a kind of cold dedication to Jory that’s sort of interesting.

The film actually works much better before Hudson takes over as boring hero — the young female staff member who first suspects jiggerpokery and her prisoner/trusty chum are ineptly written and performed but make more interesting, unconventional protagonists. The film’s sympathies are with the prisoners and you can, with only a few strained neurons, see the story as the kind of leftist parable commie screenwriters were accused of smuggling into pictures. Good for them, I say. It makes sci-fi hokum a bit more interesting. The trouble with this movie is it doesn’t have any arresting imagery to compliment the ideas — Laszlo Kardos’ direction is flat and grey, the mad science equipment doesn’t take any advantage of the possibilities implied by its supposed eighteenth century origins (An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump could provide all the visual ideas the movie needs) and the hulking behemoth is a skinny old guy with an unhealthy pallor. There’s a writing error too — this guy’s decline from sentience into zombiehood needed to be SHOWN, to give us the horror, rather than opening the film with him already subhuman. Oh well, better luck next time — as producer, Gordon would eventually give us the rather more successful HORROR EXPRESS.

White Russian, Red Face

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2012 by dcairns

For my birthday I had a bunch of people round and we drank white Russians (vodka + kahlua + milk) and watched HORROR EXPRESS, a movie I’ve always been indecently fond of.

Screenwriters Julian Zimet and Arnaud d’Usseau (who later co-wrote the mighty PSYCHOMANIA) look to have been blacklistees, hired by producer Bernard Gordon, who definitely was barred from working in Hollywood. They cobble together an amusing QUATERMASS-type yarn set on the Trans-Siberian Express, chuffing across the tundra from Peking to Moscow, bearing Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, an amok neanderthal specimen, and a Rasputin wannabe (prolific giallo star Alberto de Mendoza).

I’d always heard that the movie was made to exploit the availability of a model train from NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, a perfectly decent reason for making a film… guest David Wingrove felt some of the train footage looked familiar from DOC ZHIVAGO… online I find references to the train model and set both being recycled from Gordon’s previous production, PANCHO VILLA, aka VENDETTA. That film starred Telly Savalas, who turns up here as a cossack. That alone is a reason to love the film.

Note the unusual way of holding a cigarillo — Savalas was one of the screen’s great smokers until he gave it all up for lollipops. The Savalas career includes a notable Spanish Period, with LISA AND THE DEVIL (the film where he discovered lollipops, on the recommendation of director Mario Bava, as a way to quit smoking) and the immortal A TOWN CALLED BASTARD, which co-star Dudley Sutton described to me as “the crookedest film I was ever in.” Dudley also had some story about Telly being “out of his face on LSD the whole time.”

That rogue caveman soon busts out of his crate — we started a drinking game to swill back a white russian every time he escaped his box — this was soon replaced by a game to drink whenever a supporting player turned up with white, featureless eyeballs. It turns out the hominid is infested by an alien intelligence, trapped in the ice millennia ago. This being can drain the minds of those it comes in contact with, absorbing their knowledge and leaving their brains as smooth and featureless as a baby’s bottom, or Jeffrey Hunter’s face.

It can also transfer from host to host, making it hard to catch and subdue. Rival scientists Cushing and Lee set out to trap it, but the Rasputin-alike pledges his allegiance, as a kind of beardy Renfield character, offering up his own brain for draining. The entity snootily declines, stating that the monk has no knowledge worth filching. Instead he eventually uses Raspy as his new host body, before the authorities shunt the train down a siding leading conveniently to the precipice of obliteration. John Cacavas’ haunting (well, it haunted twelve-year-old me) theme tune resounds from the miniature wreckage, a spaghetti western whistle associated with the monster, implying that the beast lives on, perhaps having transferred its vast intellect to the film’s optical soundtrack…

The movie also seems to imply that this alien, if it made it to Moscow, might have started the Revolution — communism is a virus from outer space! A strange phenomenon that filmmakers too left-wing for Hollywood should find themselves reconstructing Tsarist Russia in Franco’s Spain. If we can swallow that, why should the scene where an image of the Earth seen from space is found imprinted on the caveman’s retina give us any trouble?

Buy: Horror Express (Blu-ray / DVD Combo)

The Sunday Intertitle: Rise of the Footsoldier

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by dcairns

Not easy finding an intertitle in Anthony Mann’s oeuvre. Lots of opening titles thanking the people of New Mexico etc, and lots declaring the factual nature of the story we are about to see — although Mann seems to have preferred VO for such direct announcement. But this card, from MEN IN WAR (1957), just about satisfies my stringent requirements, even if it’s only “inter” the main titles and the film.

It does neatly tie the story, an Korean war existentialist crisis drama, into the historical record, connecting it to other Philip Yordan scripts filmed by Mann — EL CID and THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and THE LAST FRONTIER and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE. Yordan seems to embrace both the mythic and universal properties of the western and other period subjects, and the more specific, historically-rooted possibilities.

I’m a little wary of generalizing about Yordan as an artist though, since he fronted for so many blacklisted writers (taking a healthy cut of their fees). When it cam time to restore the names of the true authors to the films’ credits, Yordan had apparently fallen out with some of his “collaborators” and refused to confirm their involvement. This strikes me as rather improper. And since Yordan was working as producer on the Bronston epics his name is attached to as writer, I have some concerns as to whether he actually did any writing. Bernard Gordon’s memoir, Hollywood Exile, makes no mention of Yordan doing any real writing on 55 DAYS AT PEKING (great stuff about Nick Ray though).

— EXCEPT —  a viewing of THE MAN FROM LARAMIE shows so many thematic concerns and character scenarios in common with TFOTRE that it becomes inconceivable that Yordan wasn’t a prime mover on that script.

In a weird way, Yordan’s name is still quite a good badge of quality on a film’s credits though, since he chose to work with talented blacklistees whose approach was sympatico to his own. So there’s a kind of pseudo-authorial style detectable anyhow.

As both the uber-generic title and the intertitle suggest, MEN IN WAR is a microcosm of the whole history of armed conflict. At times it almost feels like this dwindling platoon are on their way back to caveman times. Characterisation is briskly confined to what we can see and hear of the men’s behaviour — large numbers of them are left largely blank, with only Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Victor Mature, James Edwards (above) and Robert Keith making strong impressions: but those impressions are VERY strong. But I can never work out which one is Anthony Ray, and the normally distinctive LQ Jones is hard to recognise.

The conflict between Robert and Aldo is very interesting because it flies in the face of traditional war movie dynamics. Not just because Ray is looking out for himself and his Colonel, having counted himself out of the war. In most war films, there’s a character who’s right and a character who’s wrong. In this movie, Ray is consistently right, in the sense of acting in a way that ensures his survival. But it’s far from certain that Ryan is wrong. Most of the time he’s an effective officer, though given to self-doubt. Many of the personal clashes arise from the fact that he’s intent on contributing to the war, and Ray just wants to get out of it alive (I’m on Ray’s side).

On a first viewing, the ending, where Ryan reads out the names of his fallen men so Ray can award them posthumous silver stars, seemed like the movie was backing into more conventional patriotic territory. But the fact that Ray is tossing the medals into the dust rather disproves me. Each man is being true to the character he’s shown throughout the story. Only the tiresome song on the soundtrack attempts uplift (Mann seems PLAGUED by rancid balladry — GOD’S LITTLE ACRE has one of the more listenable ones, which isn’t saying much, but THE LAST FRONTIER and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE’s title tracks could be used in aversion therapy to put people off fifties movies for life).

MEN IN WAR is a really great work, I think, in a genre I have no naturally sympathy for (supposedly Robert Ryan, a former soldier himself, shared my contempt for the glamorizing of armed conflict — but I suspect he dug this movie). As with all Mann’s best movies, the tactile/visceral strengths are inseparable from what might seem to be the contrasting quality of thoughtfulness.

UK buyers —

Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist (Texas Film & Media Studies Series)

US —

Men in War

END of Anthony Mann Week. Tomorrow: something else! Tuesday: The Shadowplay August Impossible Film Quiz.