Archive for Black Angel

Trouble in the Glen

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , on March 5, 2014 by dcairns

black-angel

I had this distant memory of a film, and I never knew what it was. I suspect everybody has something like that. I actually have fewer than most, having tracked so many down and worked out what they were. But one that stuck in my brain involved a knight fighting a spectral figure who kept vanishing in a cloud of stoor, and then he somehow was underwater, and the whole thing was very spooky.

This was a short film screened as support for a feature, but (a) my family arrived halfway through the film so we never knew what it was called and (b) over the years I forgot which film was the main feature, so it became impossible to research. I asked on the odd message board, describing the short as best I could, but nobody could help.

Well, now the film has turned up, and I was able to see it with Fiona at Edinburgh Filmhouse in the presence of the director, Roger Christian. It’s called BLACK ANGEL.

BlackAngel-SFX

Christian had been an art director, working on THE FINAL PROGRAMME and ALIEN and MAHLER — good stuff. He would later direct cult film THE SENDER and despised Scientological sci-fi BATTLEFIELD EARTH.

What was exciting was (1) to discover that BLACK ANGEL was shot in Scotland and (2) that it has all the creepy atmosphere I remembered seeing it with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Christian had been influenced by Kurosawa and Tarkovsky and myth, and the resulting film is elusive in plot — well, downright messy at times — but extremely stylish and beautifully photographed by newcomer Roger Pratt (BRAZIL) and scored by Trevor Jones with electronic additions by Paddy Kingsland. The acting is mainly adequate, but its the mood that counts. Christian’s lack of experience shows in the writing, but what he writes with the lens is often beautiful. It’s actually really nice to see the zoom lens used subtly but insistently. The slight lack of clarity in the storytelling actually means that the experience of seeing in as a fortysomething was remarkably similar to seeing half of it as a teenager — you can’t quite work out what it’s all about, but it lodges in the mind’s less rational back room.

black_angel.scaled

According to Christian, the film was funded by the old Eady Levy, which took a portion of cinema earnings to support new talent, and got the support of George Lucas, who liked it so much he borrowed the step-printed action sequence technique for a moment in EMPIRE. I always hated step-printing, actually — when not part of the plan, as in Wong Kar-Wei’s FALLEN ANGELS, it tends to come across as a cheap alternative to proper slomo. RC freely admitted that the fight scene wasn’t impactful enough and his film was running a couple of minutes too short, so it was kind of an act of desperation. The epic soundtrack sells it.

I’m interested in hearing about your half-remembered, nameless films. Maybe we can ID them.

Skelton in the Closet

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2010 by dcairns

I’m very glad I looked more closely at Roy William Neill’s work, because during this last hectic yet sedentary week of marking student’s films (and production files, screenplays etc), I barely had the energy to watch any movies at all. But Neill’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies (he made eleven of them) are perfect entertainments for the tired academic — short (usually just over an hour), funny, atmospheric, and plotty without being too demanding. And the warmth of entering a cosy B-movie world peopled by familiar and loved character actors is not to be underestimated. Besides these restful merits, the films are stylish and witty, and managed the difficult (and somewhat unwise) task of removing Homes and Watson from their Victorian roots and planting them in WWII era settings, the better to shoehorn in propaganda messages, sometimes as overt as direct quotes from Churchill. Despite this potentially damaging decision, under Neill’s production and direction, the movies are thickly foggy, shadowy and authentic to the spirit of their source material.

Does anybody have a good source of info on Neill? What’s available online is patchy but intriguing. We learn that he was the Holmes expert on-set, deferred to by Basil Rathbone, who called him “dear Mousey.” He was born on a ship off the coast of Ireland. His father was captain. He died while visiting relatives in England, just after finishing the last Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movie, and the excellent Cornell Woolrich adaptation BLACK ANGEL. His was a Hollywood career, but he had returned to the UK to make DOCTOR SYN, with George Arliss, and nearly directed what ended up as Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES. His Holmes films benefit from a strong sense of Britishness, and in particular, oddly enough, Scottishness.

The Phantom! In THE SCARLET CLAW.

These “English relatives” fascinate me, because Neill is a Celtic name, suggesting Irish or Scottish roots, and Neill’s Holmes movies are peppered with Scottish characters and situations. In PASSAGE TO ALGIERS, Holmes and Watson are planning a Scottish fishing holiday. In THE SPIDER WOMAN they actually manage it, at the start of the movie. TERROR BY NIGHT takes place on the London to Edinburgh train, and HOUSE OF FEAR plays in a remote Scottish village, and amid the extensive cast there isn’t a single embarrassingly fake accent. THE SCARLET CLAW is set in Canada, where we naturally run into a couple of Scotsmen, including David Clyde, brother of silent comedian Andy. And every other film seems peppered with Scots cameos, from reliable bit-player Alec Craig, and series regular Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson. Nigel Bruce himself, of course, was descended from Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

All of this could simply be in homage to Edinburgh-born Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. But such a tribute seems unlikely unless Doyle’s origins had some personal meaning to Neill, so I’m holding out for a Scottish connection until proven wrong.

Here’s Skelton Knaggs in TERROR BY NIGHT, as a Scottish hitman, a role he luxuriates in obscenely, coming across like a depraved rentboy from Kelvinbridge.

The Sunday Intertitle: From Bad to Norse

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2010 by dcairns

A MOVING intertitle for you today, courtesy of Roy William Neill’s THE VIKING, a soundie filmed in two-strip Technicolor and produced by the inventor of the process, Dr. Kalmus.

Vikings attack suddenly!

While two-strip worked brilliantly on horror movies like DR X and THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, its limited palette and odd colour values are perhaps not wholly suited to a swashbuckling adventure like this: they attempt to add panache and glamour, but the effect is always slightly OFF. (I haven’t seen Doug Fairbanks’ THE BLACK PIRATE in colour so I don’t know if that succeeds more.) The cyan skies are hallucinatory picture-postcard backings, and the magenta vikings all look rather sunburned — which very possibly they were, running around bare-chested in what is clearly California.

We also get a tinny recorded score and sound effects — some manly singing, and the clash of cutlery when sword-fighting is introduced. I love soundies, because there’s no sense of the soundtrack being an anachronistic attempt at recreating the original effect. It is the original effect. I was a little upset to hear the composer of the new SUNRISE score badmouthing the original, which to me is exceedingly beautiful, flaws and all. I’m very glad both scores have been made available, so I can unhesitatingly choose the Movietone version every time.

Pauline Starke (WAMPAS Baby Star of 1922) is really good — but this movie preceded a precipitous decline into obscurity.

Have been thinking about, and looking at the works of, Roy William Neill since I posted about BLACK ANGEL. Every one of his films seems to contain moments of visual beauty far beyond what the genre content demands. The thrust-in on the screaming Saxon lady, with thrust-in on intertitle, is his most extravagant moment here, but his best visual poetry is usually b&w. Perhaps he’s best described as a Michael Curtiz who never made it into big pictures (THE VIKING may be as close as he got). Curtiz himself has a reduced reputation because he doesn’t quite fit the mold of auteur: he couldn’t give two craps about consistent personal themes, he’s purely occupied with a personal conception of cinematic beauty that’s expressed through light and shade and movement and design. But Curtiz obviously scores major points by having made movies like CASABLANCA. Not so Neill.

In early ’30s Curtiz movies like THE KENNEL MURDER CASE and THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, we see him working with modest material, imbuing it with sparkle and zip. These films are hugely enjoyable and none the worse for not being quite A-picture material. Such was Neill’s playground for most of his career, and he seems to have been very happy to be there. Anyone who’d make eleven Sherlock Holmes pictures, after all, does not seem to be hugely ambitious or restless. Maybe having had his shot at the big time back in 1928, he was relaxed and content enough just to enjoy the cinematic possibilities of whatever entertainments the studio passed his way, or maybe also he just genuinely loved light hokum and devoted his talents to it wholeheartedly.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 362 other followers