Archive for Boris Karloff

The Man Without Bogart’s Face

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2016 by dcairns


Welcome to Shadowplay, the daily blog about DARK PASSAGE.

Looking at part two of DARK PASSAGE, where it all kind of goes to shit. And where Bogart actually HAS Bogart’s face, having acquired it via plastic surgery performed by seedy rhinoplasterer Housely Stevens. Would you buy a used face from this man?


“Change it back, doc, change it back!”

Spoilers from the start.

The more the movie deals with who killed Bogie’s wife, the less compelling it becomes, and not just because his real wife, Lauren Bacall, is standing right in front of us, very much alive. It’s because this is all backstory, dealing with someone we never met, and it’s of interest to us only if it can solve the true plot problem, Bogie’s being wanted by the law for a crime which, it so happens, he didn’t commit. The movie seems to totally misunderstand our requirements of it: it thinks that as long as we find out whodunnit and the guilty party is somehow punished, we’ll be satisfied. But while that kind of closure + justice is important, what the movie has set up as its dramatic problem is Bogart being a wanted man. And at the end of the movie he HASN’T cleared his name, he never will, but he gets to retire to Peru with Betty Bacall. It feels somehow unsatisfying. Maybe also because the film’s version of San Francisco was maybe one-fifth actual location footage, and Peru is a special effects and studio fantasia. It’s like ending the film in a dream sequence.


But this floundering second half is kind of fascinating in the abstract, even if it’s not dramatically engaging. One weird thing is the way Bogart keeps presiding over fatal accidents. He basically shoves Clifton Young off a cliff — very good, grim shot of Young lying crumpled at the bottom. It suits him. At this point it’s going to be impossible for him to clear his name, and he IS somewhat guilty and so the movie’s prospects are derailed. And then Agnes Moorehead somehow auto-defenestrates, without meaning to, though given her dialogue before the fact and the typically frenzied manner she brings to her confrontation with Bogie, it would have made more sense as a strategic suicide. Instead, it feels like Bogie WILLED her through the skyscraper window, even though he needs her alive. It reminds me a bit of the abrupt climax of AMERICAN GIGOLO, where at least Richard Gere gets to grab the plummeting man’s legs and TRY to stop his death-plunge (again, he needs the defenestratee to clear his name).


But a bigger similarity is with THE WALKING DEAD, in which Boris Karloff plays a Bogie-like gangster raised from the beyond who goes seeking revenge on his killers. Strangely, Karloff never lays a finger on his enemies, he just slow-walks them to their doom, backing off the edge of railway platforms and under approaching trains, etc. It’s as if he’s come back from the dead but he’s brought death with him, as an ally or as a sort of miasma that surrounds him, focussing in on those whom he directs his malevolent glare towards.



It’s like Oscar Wilde wrote: “Karloff does it with a look, Lee Marvin with a towel.”

It’s been pointed out that John Boorman’s POINT BLANK plays like a hip remake of TWD, with Lee Marvin as the gangster who may have died (John Boorman has spoken of a possible Owl Creek Bridge reading of both his Lee Marvin movies) and who wreaks revenge on his foes without actually inflicting bodily harm on them himself. Its slick visuals, rat-a-tat cutting and Donald Westlake plot ingenuity make this the most engaging of the films under discussion, and by burying Lee Marvin’s revenant status deep in subtext, it makes it more fun to unpeel. THE WALKING DEAD is a little too somnolent for me, though you can certainly argue that’s appropriate.

POINT BLANK, of course, also plays out in San Francisco and features a spectacular sidewalk dive, this one from old Dean Wormer himself, John Vernon.

“Someone has to put his foot down, and that foot is me.”

And I guess GHOST STORY has a place in here too.

Anyhow, Bogart’s affinity with sudden death in DARK PASSAGE suggests both the shifty narrator of DETOUR (people just keep dying around me, honest!) and the fatal pro/antagonists of WALKING DEAD and POINT BLANK. Maybe Boorman would suggest that Bogie dies when the San Quentin barrel crashes downhill in scene 1, and the rest of the plot is just his dying fantasy. It would certainly give a meaning to the otherwise obscure title (there’s no significant literal passageway in the plot). And it would kind of explain how Bogart becomes a helpless passenger in his own movie. The “first person shooter” opening robs him of identity, and then his every action seems to be dictated by chance meetings, with a cabbie, a detective in a diner, the guy who picks him up who turns blackmailer. And all the deaths in the film just happen, Bogart doesn’t plan them or really want them. He’s the passive recipient of a narrative.

Between the Frames

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 3, 2015 by dcairns


First screening for students this academic year — THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE. Seen it a few times, screened it a few times. Was mildly worried it might be too slow an opener for our fresh intake of students, but they lapped it up. Good discussion afterwards, in which I admitted I’m still finding new things in it.

(Shadowplay and I are now so old I had to check I hadn’t written about this one before. But all I found was this — and I have no memory either of writing it, or of the events described.)


The whole movie takes place because of the lacuna in James Whale’s 1931 FRANKENSTEIN created by the censor. For decades, the movie was screened without the depiction of the little girl’s death, making Boris the monster’s implied actions more inexplicable and terrible. With the restored footage, her drowning is clearly an accident, since the monster doesn’t realize that children don’t automatically float. But little Ana Torrent in SPIRIT sees the truncated print (also dubbed into Spanish, with the introduction “Well, we warned you!” revoiced as an apt but unheeded “Don’t take it too seriously,”) and, confused by the scene and by her slightly twisted older sister’s explanations (which seem to fuse Mary Shelley with a child’s version of Catholic mythology), drifts into an anxious world of fantasy.


Ana Torrent’s eyes are big black dots, like those of the mouse in DUMBO, and in their obsidian depths, what dreams may come? Monsters are brought forth.

Early on, the mother in the movie writes a letter, seemingly to a lover. When her daughter disappears, she burns another letter. On this viewing, I flashed on a  possible interpretation, again informed by Catholicism, and in this case, Graham Greene and The End of the Affair. Is the mother bargaining with God? I destroy my lover’s reply, and will be a faithful wife now, if my daughter is returned safe.


None of the students (I just typed “other students” by mistake, but I could just as well let it stand) had reached this conclusion, but I think only one of them had seen the film before, and none had an alternative interp. The beauty of Erice’s poetic and allusive style is that, while some connections (between plot points, between strands of the film’s rich imagery) seem definite, others can be pondered endlessly, as if this movie, too, had a missing scene that would make all clear.

The Sunday Intertitle: Hello, Mabel

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 24, 2014 by dcairns


No wonder the Goldwyn lion looks grumpy: he’s only a painting. In those days, lions were only paintings. I guess it was Mayer who fleshed him out.

Two more Mabels. Mabel Normand left Keystone for the same reason nearly everyone else left — Sennett paid badly — and for another reason, that she was tired of being on the bottom of the bill with short films while everyone else was making features and getting all the respect.


At Goldwyn, she made WHAT HAPPENED TO ROSA which is pretty funny in places but only really gets going when Mabel drags up. The romantic comedy angle suffers from a lack of any real problem to solve, and the movie fizzles out. But the “plot,” in which gullible counter-hopper Mabel is convinced she has an exotic Spanish other self, at least allows her to be exotically glam. But it’s funnier seeing her as a boy with a coal-smudged face, throwing herself all over the furniture.


Much more interesting, we thought, was THE NICKEL-HOPPER, produced by Hal Roach. Roach had the right slapstick sensibility, and Mabel excels as a taxi-dancer whose work-shy father ruins all her chances at romance, until…


There’s a great back garden chase climax on this one. It’s a weird length, 37 minutes, but it’s jam-packed with shenanigans. And the cast! In one scene we get Oliver Hardy as an exuberant jazz drummer — and it’s impressive to see one of the most distinctive movie outlines inhabited by a whole different personality, sans moustache and equally shorn of his trademark fiddliness — and Boris Karloff, playing the same kind of Not Safe In Taxis sex louse he would essay so memorably in FIVE STAR FINAL (under the name T. Vernon Isopod, which I never get tired of saying).