Archive for Black Narcissus

An Inspector Falls

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2015 by dcairns

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It was in New York — enjoying cocktails with critic/filmmakers Dan Sallitt and Jaime Christley — I *THINK* — that the subject of Robert Hamer’s 1949 THE SPIDER AND THE FLY was mentioned, I *think* by Jaime. A Manhattan was consumed at some point so the whole thing’s blurry. But I had had a copy of this movie gathering dust for years, and had never watched it. The jist of the conversation was that I should blow off that dust and get the thing watched, and that I would not be disappointed.

In certain respects the film, starring Eric Portman as a French detective and Guy Rolfe as a master criminal, foreshadows Hamer’s better-known, later film FATHER BROWN (generically retitled THE DETECTIVE in America in what seems like a bid to obscure the Unique Selling Point). Both films are structured around a cat-and-mouse pursuit between a dogged detective and an aristocratic thief. But FATHER BROWN (a) gets shown on TV quite a bit and (b) isn’t very satisfactory — it lacks the uncanny quality of Chesterton’s source stories, and though it isn’t as committed to Catholic propaganda, what it substitutes, a bland moralism, doesn’t seem to interest the maker of KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. THE SPIDER AND THE FLY (a) never gets shown and (b) is very good indeed, with a proper complexity and a non-judgemental approach.

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Portman is a rather cold, clinical chief of police, determined to net the equally ruthless Rolfe (suave, cynical, linear as linguini in outline). He falls for a woman (Nadia Gray) whom Rolfe uses in  a job and allows to take the fall. But Rolfe is beginning to have feelings for her two. Will Portman resort to dirty tricks to get his man AND get the girl? And, more excitingly, what will happen at the one hour mark after both of those questions are unexpectedly answered? There’s undoubtedly a slight judder as the film has to reboot its entire narrative with just half an hour to go — maybe it could have been longer and that switcheroo might have sat more comfortably as a midway break — but by and large the benefits of bamboozling the audience outweight the risks to structural integrity.

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The cast is excellent. Portman, as ever, looks as if he might pour glue in your hair when you’re not looking, which adds a certain intensity to every scene he’s in. His character is a type I find appealing — the outwardly cold expert who falls passionately when he does fall. I didn’t really know Rolfe, though he seems to have slithered into everything. He’s wonderfully louche here. His frame, alarmingly attenuated, spaghettified as if by flirting with an event horizon suggests a stilt-walker. He’s the kind of master-criminal who probably leaves at each crime scene, as a calling card, a two-metre-long trouser leg. Supporting cast includes a skinny young Arthur Lowe who manages to look older in 1949 than he did in 1982, a whey-faced George Cole, James “Mr. Kipling” Hayter, and May Hallett as a very different housekeeper from the one she played in BLACK NARCISSUS.

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Lowe. left.

Best of all, it’s serious like IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY but witty and ironic like KIND HEARTS. Seth Holt edited it, Geoffrey Unsworth shot it, and the smudgy production design by Edward Carrick makes nearly every set look like either a smeared charcoal sketch or a dripping wet clay model slapped together crookedly and then somehow populated by life-sized, breathing people.

Alongside Alec Guinness, who did his best to prop Hamer up as his drinking slowly dissolved his mind, Eric Portman seems to have been Hamer’s favourite actor. He can bring the crisp coolness of Dennis Price to a heavier, more dramatic role. It looks as if he’ll never be appreciated the way some of his contemporaries are. A CANTERBURY TALE shows what he could do, but it doesn’t quite do for him what COLONEL BLIMP does for Roger Livesey, probably just because it isn’t as beloved a film. But its strangeness suits him. Portman fans looking for more viewing recommendations are directed towards DAYBREAK, my contender for the Saddest Film Ever Made.

Eyre Turbulence

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2014 by dcairns

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Cary Fukunaga’s JANE EYRE is a cracker.

(I remember The Scotsman‘s film critic greeting BLADE RUNNER at Edinburgh Film Fest with the opening sentence, “Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a cracker,” and thinking it was simultaneously slightly cool and slightly shocking that he should jettison the dignity of his position in such an enthusiastic, fanboyish way, but there are times when that’s appropriate.)

The director of True Detective serves up a smart period film that feels modern in all the right ways. The costumes and settings take us directly into the Bronte-world, and the authentic candlelight cinematography of Adriano Goldman allows us to feel actually present in a way not possible until very recently (Kubrick’s much-vaunted candlelight scenes in BARRY LYNDON still required huge banks of candles offscreen, erasing the flicker and rendering the effect not totally realistic, while the extremely narrow focal depth forced the actors to remain rooted to the spot.) I was reminded of The Knick — though Fukunaga doesn’t go quite so far as to deploy an electronic score to show just how modern he can go. The understated Dario Marinelli piano and violin accompaniment chosen has an appealing delicacy. You don’t want to get too clever for your own good, and what works for Soderbergh wouldn’t here.

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The performances are also strongly naturalistic — Mia Wasikowski and Michael Fassbender not only speak in authentic-sounding Yorkshire accents (and for once Rochester sounds properly regional), they have absorbed the accents so that they are able to concentrate fully on each other.

I didn’t see the popular BBC version, so I mainly recall the Zefferelli on ’96, which strikes me as inferior in every way, save one. I had remembered Maria Schneider, as the first Mrs. Rochester, having a more fully-written role. I actually remembered her having dialogue. Not so — here’s the scene on YouTube.

Some of Zefferelli’s editing choices seem whimsical — there’s an unexpected high angle shot that seems inserted to protect us from the performances rather than to allow us to understand the scene — Jim Clark’s account of editing for Franco Z in his book Dream Repairman (he worked on YOUNG TOSCANINI) kind of suggests that Zefferelli will favour in the edit whoever he happens to be on good terms with that day — but Schneider’s reaction shots are vivid and articulate. It’s often the best policy to play mad people as sane (cf Wasikowska in MAPS TO THE STARS and Kathleen Byron in BLACK NARCISSUS, who is terrifying but consciously decided to play it sane in defiance of screenplay and director), and you can tell Mrs. R understands everything her despised husband is saying, though he talks as if she is a dumb animal. Schneider, the madwoman in the attic of European cinema, had a lot to draw on here.

Not that Valentina Cervi is in any way inadequate as Bertha in the Fukunaga — she has the appropriate menace — it’s just that I think Zeff pulled off a casting coup that would be hard to beat.

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Also in Fukunaga’s cast and of note: Judi Dench can’t suppress her obvious intelligence to play a silly housekeeper, but we don’t mind; Jamie Bell manages to not annoy in the most thankless role; Simon McBurney always adds a touch of the unexpected; Amelia Clarkson is a terrific Young Jane. The idea of starting in media res and exploring the story via flashbacks allows Fukunaga to intercut a child and an adult who don’t really look anything alike and make us forget to bother about that, a bit like Bunuel and his two leading ladies in THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE —

— a casting decision that came about after Bunuel fired a recalcitrant Maria Schneider, thus closing the circle here and allowing me to escape. Sound of footsteps, door slam. Mad cackle.

 

Blind Tuesday: Justice is Blind

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2014 by dcairns

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A return of our intermittent series of posts on thrillers about the sightless. This one is kind of a departure though. Nobody in the movie is blind or pretends to be blind.

CRIME UNLIMITED is a 1935 Warner picture made at their UK studio in Teddington. Being post-code, it reconfigures some of the plot tropes of earlier films, adjusted to make them morally uplifting — for instance, James Cagney’s jewelry store scam from BLONDE CRAZY gets trotted out again, only here the perp is an undercover man seeking to ingratiate himself with a gang of heisters, so it’s all above-board, really.

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The leading lady is a heartbreakingly young and succulent Lilli Palmer, but of more interest to our jaded sensibilities is the fact that the hero is played by Esmond Knight. During WWII, Knight was blinded for real during a battle at sea with the Bismarck. He lost one eye and was almost totally blinded in the other — some sight returned to it in his extreme old age. He can be seen, minus glass eye, at the start of ROBIN AND MARIAN, but he played numerous sighted characters for Michael Powell, including a film director (parodying Powell’s own temperamental style) in PEEPING TOM and the Maharajah in BLACK NARCISSUS, which required him to ride a donkey through a forest. “I’ll be fine,” my friend Lawrie reported him as saying, “The donkey doesn’t want to hit a tree any more than I do.”

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Slightly eerily, the CRIME UNLIMITED features scenes where Knight is blindfolded and led to a baddie’s lair.

He also reports to his superiors by standing at a window and moving his lips. A deaf man in the building opposite reads his lips with binoculars and passes the info to Scotland Yard.

The movie is a reasonably enjoyable potboiler, well made (by Hollywood director Ralph Ince) and decently acted. Knight is an adequate leading man, but he was really waiting for a few years to pile on to turn him into a fine character actor. One does miss the more mature moral ambiguity of the pre-code era. One has to settle for fated social attitudes instead — Raymond Lovell plays a club owner in league with the crooks as a nasty Jewish stereotype. A good accents man, the portly Canadian would redeem himself during the war by specialising in Nazis.

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