Archive for Blind Alley

Ransom Note

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2016 by dcairns

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Never interrupt Ralph Morgan’s embroidery.

Charles Vidor was a very interesting stylist — some of his films are pretty ordinary, but then he’d do slightly mad things. GILDA, his masterpiece, has several eccentric flourishes, including a forced perspective shot with outsize dice as its very first image, and continually makes interesting cutting and framing choices that get more eccentric the more you think about them. His silent short, THE BRIDGE, (which you can see here) is full of striking moments, such as a double exposure of drumsticks beating with the chest of a prisoner about to be executed, making us not only hear but see and feel his pounding heartbeat.

MUSS ‘EM UP is a 1936 thriller based on a pulp detective novel by James Edward Grant (don’t know his work) — it’s faithful enough to the tone and conventions of Black Mask fiction to play like a true film noir, quite a few years early (even more so than Vidor’s BLIND ALLEY). Preston Foster is the hardboiled hero, and the un-starry but capable supporting cast comprise a fine net full of red herrings.

A wealthy man’s dog has been shot and he’s been receiving threatening letters. Gumshoe Tip O’Neil (Foster) moves in to crack the case, and finds that the entire family and staff are sharpshooters, making it tricky to narrow the field of suspects. Then there’s a kidnapping, and this happens ~

Ransom note from David Cairns on Vimeo.

So, Vidor tracks through the wall and on to another room — an Ophulsian trick, almost before Ophuls was doing it. What the roving camera finds in that room is the same group of characters, differently attired, at a different time of day. Again, like Ophuls in his very last films of the fifties, Vidor has TRACKED THROUGH TIME.

The other earliest example of this I can think of is the ambitious but slightly clunky shot in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP — “Forty years ago… forty years ago…” which takes us into flashback in a steam bath. Vidor’s version is earlier and possibly more successful, if less epic/romantic.

He repays watching.

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Gertie Getting Guttered

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 2, 2016 by dcairns

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A full study of expressionist dream sequences in 40s movies (a trend seemingly begun by Charles Vidor’s BLIND ALLEY, 1939) would be fun to research. I’m particularly interested by those in comedy films, where the nightmarish imagery is often more disturbing and less funny than in the dark thrillers. Vincente Minnelli’s FATHER OF THE BRIDE would be a good example — ALL Minnelli’s comedies have a feeling of inexorable nightmare about them — and this one employs imagery later recycled with a straight face in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (the floor turning to quicksand).

GETTING GERTIE’S GARTER is a vigorous, unfunny farce made by Allan Dwan during a brief phase in his long, long career when he was working as a farceur — UP IN MABEL’S ROOM has the same plot and some of the same cast, and there’s BREWSTER’S MILLIONS too. Sex farces where the hero is a love rat trying not to get caught suffer from a lack of sympathy (and would get banned in the 40s), and those where the hero is innocent tend to be silly and undermotivated. (George Axelrod complained that THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH became rather trivial once it became a film and the hero could no longer screw the Girl upstairs and feel guilty about it.) Joe Orton could bypass the problem by highlighting it — unsympathetic protagonists make a satirical point in his work — he’s making a case for what he believes humanity and society are really like. And he makes it funny. The other farces I’ve enjoyed are mainly every single episode of Fawlty Towers, where the character’s neurotic confabulations are true to character.

GGG, typical of many stage farces, distorts character and has people doing things they would not, or could not, ever do, for the sake of plot. Having introduced the hero as a professor who’s absent-minded to the point of dementia, having him then turn out to be a quick-thinking, sociopathic yarn-spinner, and everyone he knows be incredibly dense and willing to accept absurd explanations for absurd actions, is problematic since it’s unbelievable not in real-world terms but on its own terms.

But the nightmare scene is eye-catching. Hard to believe it was made BEFORE Lang’s SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR… but it was. I guess STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR’s extended legal nightmare scene was an inspiration. I include these images without the narrative points which explain them, because they’re better unexplained.

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Occurrence

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2011 by dcairns

Untitled from David Cairns on Vimeo.

To be honest, I’m not so much surprised that Ambrose Bierce’s work has inspired so many filmmakers, as I am surprised that it hasn’t inspired more. I guess the fact that he eschewed long form storytelling (as a matter of principle, to hear him tell it) is a factor, but so for the most part did Poe and Lovecraft, who are much more frequently filmed. I can’t account for that.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was most famously adapted by Robert Enrico, and the resulting short became, somehow or other, an episode of The Twilight Zone, exposing it to a much wider audience that Enrico’s other two Bierce films, CHICKAMAUGA and THE MOCKINGBIRD. But for my money, Charles Vidor’s version, entitled THE BRIDGE, is much much better.

It’s available on the extraordinary box set UNSEEN CINEMA, which you should all immediately buy.

The bit that really grabs me, in a film full of fascinating visual ideas, is the superimposition of the drumsticks beating the skin over the hero’s chest. Two images united to create more than one idea and emotion — by showing the drum and the man at the same time, anticipation is heightened, but the beating of the drum comes to stand for the racing of the man’s heartbeat, evoking something a silent film can’t make you hear, or feel. That’s CLEVER.

Some imaginative trope of that kind was surely required when Tony Scott filmed ONE OF THE MISSING, another of Bierce’s Civil War horror stories, but although he pulls off some good angles and generates a fair bit of suspense (you can see this short on the CINEMA 16 collection) he never gets near evoking the striking passage in Bierce’s tale where the soldier, trapped by rubble with his fallen rifle pointing straight at his head, primed and ready to fire, imagines the sensation of the bullet passing slowly through his brain…

Vidor really displays moments of similar zest in GILDA (the giant dice in the opening shot) and I guess in COVER GIRL, also LADIES IN RETIREMENT and BLIND ALLEY. When the project roused his enthusiasm, he was quite an expressionist.

Further reading: The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

Of course, Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionaryis wickedly funny, but less known than either his supernatural tales and his war stories are his grotesque, jet-black tall tales, which are quite incredibly sick and extremely amusing.

Further further reading: more from me at Limerwrecks here, here and here. What rhymes with TINGLER?

Further viewing: Unseen Cinema – Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941 An amazing treasure trove of obscure fragments of wonderment.