Archive for Bulldog Drummond

Bullshot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 15, 2011 by dcairns

The 1969 follow-up to DEADLIER THAN THE MALE is called SOME GIRLS DO, and it’s both better and worse. Better, because it’s more consistently silly, rather than nasty, and the annoying American sidekick has been replaced by an annoying British sidekick called Reggie, as should be. Worse, as the script by David Osborn and Liz Charles-Williams lacks the occasional plot felicities of Jimmy Sangster’s original — indeed, it sometimes seems a straight rip-off. Both films begin with a glamor girl disguised as an air stewardess assassinating a passenger, unmask their villain as a would-be Mabuse called Petersen, and spend a lot of time with “Bulldog” imprisoned by Petersen as the madman monologues away about his plans for world domination or whatevs.

Petersen, who died in the previous film, has mysteriously returned, and is played by a different actor, the droll James Villiers, which suggests a fast-and-loose approach to continuity. Virginia North (Vulnavia in DR PHIBES), who played the useless nephew’s girlfriend in the first film, here plays a murderous fembot with an “off” switch on her neck. Also appearing as background crumpet are Joanna Lumley and Yutte Stensgard, with Daliah Lavi as lead femme fatale. Goo-goo-eyed babe Sydne Rome is a sort of femme foetal, with a berserk comedy performance that finally convinced me that she’s not a dumb blonde, just very good at playing one. I should know better than to be taken in by the bimbo act. Her work in Polanski’s WHAT? is so artfully artless as to suggest an entirely empty head atop a curvaceous body, being skillfully moved about by unseen off-camera-hands. But she’s a proper actress, or at least a real performer. What she does may not be subtle, but it shows the only real enthusiasm in the picture.

The idea of a maladroit female sidekick was trotted out again in THE WRECKING CREW with Sharon Tate providing the sexy bumbling, and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN gave the blonde business to Britt Ekland. On the one hand, at least it gives the actresses something to play. On the other, it’s not exactly empowering. Sydne Rome’s ditzy ebullience does take some of the curse off it.

Villiers, sad to relate, is hampered by a series of ridiculous disguises, and proves to be no master of accents. Only when he’s unmasked and can swan around, exulting in his own nastiness, do we get the full, unfettered J.V.

Richard Johnson raises an eyebrow here and there and is mercifully unsupplied with quips. A plot point involving the “robotizing” of girls — fitting them with artificial brains — seems tacky and unpleasant, unmasking the dehumanization fantasy of so much swinging sixties sex stuff: the idea of the perfect woman being brain-dead and compliant. Objectification is a tricky point — human bodies ARE objects and it seems fair enough for artists to explore their physical properties, but when the storyline drools over the idea of reducing a person to an animate automaton, something more sinister is going on. The fact that the mastermind of all this is played by the strikingly camp Villiers is just another note of nonsense.

This movie seems to have killed off “Bulldog” for good — not even TV has tried to resuscitate the old bigot. A 1983 spoof, BULLSHOT, from Handmade Films, was really quite bad: it took George Harrison quite a while to realize he couldn’t replace the Monty Python team.

A reader sends me this image of her striking James Villiers tattoo — “Jimbo” shares arm-space with Jonathan Frid from DARK SHADOWS.

Sapped

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2011 by dcairns

“Who you fucking?” This is apparently how actor Richard Johnson (83) greets friends he hasn’t seen for a while. It’s a pertinent question in DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1967), in which RJ plays “Bulldog” Drummond, partially re-imagined for the James Bond era. Or, since the screenwriter in question is by Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster, we might say de-imagined. Despite his Bondifying, this manly protag is weirdly abstinent sexually, and some of his bedroom antics are treated with a weird attempt at “plausible deniability” as if the censor still cared how many ladies the hero laid.

As part of the refit, “Bulldog” is now a jet-setting businessman, or insurance man, or something, which doesn’t seem to amp up his glamour any to me. Also, nobody calls him “Bulldog” — almost as if they were ashamed to be making a “Bulldog” Drummond movie. They needn’t be — it’s a character with a long, dishonourable tradition. The highlight of poor BD’s screen career is probably the fact that THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the film that kickstarted Hitchcock’s espionage cycle in Britain in the ‘thirties, started life as an idea for a BD movie. Anyhow, having rejected “Bulldog” as too laughable for the ‘sixties, Sangster is stuck with a hero whose first name is Hugh.

Rather than being accompanied by a near-deformed upper-class imbecile called Reggie, the new, disimproved Hugh is saddled with an American nephew called *can’t remember and can’t be bothered looking it up*. This blatant sop to out friends across the water is surely flawed by the fact that Nephew is an entirely useless character who gets captured and tortured a lot.

Ah yes, torture. The stories by “Sapper” apparently can be quite brutal (and racist) at times, and this is seized upon by Sangster, whose bread and butter was horror movies, after all. This results in some tonal lurching, as our hero threatens to break a thug’s legs by crushing them against a wall with his car (the guy gets off with badly barked shins), and Nephewman gets singed with lit cheroot and lighter by the sexy bad gals. Such nastiness sits awkwardly with the film’s flip, silly plotting and fun gimmicks like a giant remote-control chess-board.

Also, Johnson is a disaster as a sub-Bondian hero — he makes a tweedy professor seem sexy in THE HAUNTING by way of unexpectedness, but typecast as a staunch protag he’s as useless as Anthony Steele, and that’s saying something. Of course, the writing doesn’t help — while Bond movies always feature one or two scenes of pure exposition enlivened by gags and sparring with M & Q, Sangster fills the whole first half of the film with endless waffle, board meetings and chats with informants, which lack any dramatic tension. That stuff gets supplied by the in-between scenes where Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina wiggle about in revealing costumes killing everybody they meet.

In the first five minutes, Elke has killed an oil magnate with a novelty exploding cigar (it fires a bullet through his head, actually), blown up his private jet while parachuting into the ocean, and joined Sylva to speargun some poor guy to death while wearing startling bikinis. Later on, they’ll use curare to paralyse Leonard Rossiter before rolling him out the window of his penthouse shagging palace. All good clean fun, and helped by the film’s best writing (Koscina is always borrowing Sommer’s stuff, leading to lighthearted squabbling). Elke has little in the way of comic flair (beneath that curvaceous exterior throbs a talent of hinged plywood) by Sylva is pretty hilarious, giving her sadism a touch of knowing innocence that’s very Takashi Miike.

Director Ralph Thomas of the Thomas filmmaking clan (brother Gerald produced the CARRY ON series, son Jeremy has produced Bertolucci and Cronenberg) actually makes a fair fist of things, aided by Malcolm Lockyer’s John Barry impression on the soundtrack (title song by the Walker Brothers) — on this evidence, Thomas could have directed a James Bond movie at least as well as, say, Guy Hamilton. He has Nigel Green as the evil mastermind, which helps. But ultimately, the static, boring script sinks most of it, especially the low-grade quips. I envisage Sangster’s script being full of footnotes, pretty much whenever Drummond opens his mouth — “Insert wisecrack here.” But somebody forgot to do so, and thus we get devastating parting shots like “Hey, don’t forget your panties.”

Who Knew?

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2009 by dcairns

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I went into THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Hitch’s comeback film after the “lowest ebb” of WALTZES FROM VIENNA (Hitch also used the ebb-slam to dismiss his earlier CHAMPAGNE, which like WFV is not without its pleasures regardless) thinking I knew it fairly well and wasn’t too keen on it. Certainly THE 39 STEPS is a more ambitious and confident work. But it’s amazing how seeing MAN WHO KNEW in sequence, after experiencing all Hitchcock’s extant previous work, crystallizes the film’s merits, making clear that it was indeed a leap forward in his development as (cliche ahoy!) the Master of Suspense.

Let me simply enumerate a few of the film’s many points of interest.

1) Settings. St Moritz. This was the Hitchcocks’ favourite holiday destination in real life, so they begin the film there, making this the first thriller Hitchcock made with an element of globe-trotting to it. Glamorous and exotic locations became a standby of Hitchcock’s films, and indeed he had exploited foreign shooting in his very first film, THE PLEASURE GARDEN, as well as in EASY VIRTUE and especially RICH AND STRANGE, which is the story of an exotic holiday. THE MAN WHO begins with a pair of hands leafing through holiday brochures — Hitchcock’s first pre-credits sequence! — and continues to an Alpine skiing resort recreated largely in the studio (the film was a fairly low-budget affair).

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London. Hitch told Truffaut that the contrast between the open spaces of Switzerland and the dense streets of London was central to his conception of the film. For the first time since the opening of BLACKMAIL, Hitchcock’s camera invades the mean streets of working class areas, in this case, darkest Wapping.

The Albert Hall. Returning to this landmark last seen at the climax of THE RING, Hitch repeats the trope of BLACKMAIL of staging a climax in a familiar landmark, but improves on the idea by building the setting into the story, rather than having it appear in an arbitrary fashion. He also uses this sequence to weave the soundtrack into the plot, with an assassination attempt timed to coincide with a cymbal clash in the orchestral piece being performed at the hall. The idea of integrating music in this way, touched on in earlier films such as MURDER!, reached its first full flowering in the otherwise atypical WALTZES FROM VIENNA, and here is applied to the thriller genre for the first time. It won’t be the last.

2) Autobiography. Charles Barr, author of the terrific English Hitchcock, likes to think of MAN WHO as a quasi-sequel to RICH AND STRANGE, and I can see what he means. That film saw the suburban couple reaffirming their ailing marriage by determining to produce a child. The couple played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best in MAN have a young daughter, a little older than Patricia Hitchcock was at the time, but the family is once again in danger of tedium or splintering. The crisis of the plot rescues the nuclear family.

Barr perhaps makes too much of the hints of friction or instability in his book, but he’s onto something: every line exchanged between Banks and Best stresses their alienation, albeit in a lighthearted way. There’s much joking about Best’s infatuation with Pierre Fresnay, for instance. And between Best and her daughter, Nova Pilbeam, there’s likewise a lot of playful sniping. The performances make it clear that none of these lines (“Never have children,”) are meant seriously, but they’re so insistent that they’re clearly more than an ironic build-up to the daughter’s kidnapping.

3) Successive drafts. Knowing a bit about the project’s history sheds a fascinating light on what’s onscreen. Reuniting with Charles Bennett, whose play had provided the source for BLACKMAIL and who would be the key collaborator in all of Hitchcock’s British thrillers until THE LADY VANISHES, Hitchcock produced a treatment entitled Bulldog Drummond’s Child, but was unable to get it produced. When Michael Balcon visited Hitch on the set of WALTZES, he asked if Hitch had anything lined up, and the director took the opportunity to resurrect the project, but ditched the familiar character of Drummond. A cross between the stiff-upper-lip stoicism of Biggles, and the globetrotting adventurism of James Bond, Drummond was a pulp favourite who had already been played by Rod la Roq and Ronald Colman. The year of MAN, 1934, saw him embodied by both Colman and Ralph Richardson.

Abandoning the traditional hero leaves a somewhat weakened character for Banks to play. I wondered if Hitchcock and Bennett took the protagonist’s heroic reputation for granted, so that they forgot to give him anything daring or manly to do, but then I suspected that Hitch had deliberately moved the character away from the professional adventurer type he always affected to dislike. Banks’s character becomes a rather ordinary, albeit prosperous, husband and father. We never learn his profession, but we have no reason to assume it’s in any way glamorous. Making the hero an ordinary man is a key step in manufacturing the template for future Hitchcock adventures in the NORTH BY NORTHWEST mould.

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THE MANWHOKNEWRIAN CANDIDATE.

Another pair of plot points that mutated during the script’s development are Edna Best’s status as an outstanding markswoman, and the villains’ use of hypnotism. The first version had the bad guys brainwashing the heroine and using her as their assassin. But Hitchcock balked at what he saw as the implausibility of this, and declined the opportunity to make the original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Instead the hypnotism gag was reduced to a side-show to the main event (it could easily have been eliminated altogether) and Frank Vosper is introduced as a rival sharp-shooter. Best’s dead-eye skills are introduced as a means of having our English holidaymakers encounter the foreign assassin, and the secret agent who is spying on him, and they pay off at the climax when Best rescues her daughter with a policeman’s rifle (I like how the cop casually yields his firearm to a bystander!).

Actually, the most economical solution would have been to eliminate hypnotism altogether and use the threat to Best’s kidnapped daughter to motivate her to carry out the terrorists’ plan, but perhaps that would be too simple.

4) Influences. Barr astutely identifies John Buchan as the key inspiring force here. The cryptic message than must be decoded in MAN (“WAPPING G. BARBOR MAKE CONTACT A. HALL MARCH 21ST”) strikingly resembles that in Buchan’s Greenmantle (“Kasredin. cancer. v.I.”), and another of Buchan’s sequels to The 39 Steps, The Three Hostages, features hypnotism, a child-kidnapping, and hero Richard Hannay and his wife making separate excursions into the districts of London to thwart a threat to world peace, all plot elements used in MAN. To this I would add Berthold Viertel’s LITTLE FRIEND, which introduced child star Nova Pilbeam to the world. The story here, of a poor little rich girl whose mummy is being lured away from her stodgy dad by an exotic Lothario, seems to be spoofed in the opening sequences of MAN.

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5) Cast. What an interesting bunch they are.

The scar-faced Leslie Banks would never have been granted a leading man role in Hollywood, where he was unhesitatingly cast as the psychotic Count Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. It seems a harsh treatment of a man who got his facial injury fighting for his country in World War I. He’s a little stiff here, but his ineffectiveness is partially the result of a script so keen to deprive him of Bulldog Drummond superheroics that it allows him to miss out on the climax altogether.

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Edna Best is fine, but one has to prefer the actors in Hitchcock’s own remake. Nova Pilbeam is pretty extraordinary, though, with her savage, wide-spaced, electro-magnetic eyes, porcelain overhang of brow, and sharp little nose lips and chin (she is a living rebuke to anyone who suggests lips can’t be sharp). She’s an incredibly compelling performer, quite apart from her wonderful mad face.

The presence of Pierre Fresnay, moonlighting from a West End stage production, adds a welcome lightness to the opening scenes, and an intriguing foretaste of the actor’s work in two movies by Clouzot, “the French Hitchcock.”

Frank Vosper is a good sleazoid bad guy (the only obvious thing Hitch took from WALTZES), but obviously Peter Lorre is the important character here. Although the plot throws out a whole gallery of malefactors, including an old lady with a revolver, a threatening dentist, and an evil hypnotist, Lorre dominates effortlessly, just by constantly making strange. Still sporting the carnival-float head of solid fat he modeled in Lang’s M, and decorated with a skunk-like white stripe and a dueling scar to match Banks’, Lorre as “Abbott” drools cigarette-smoke and apologises to the hero after striking him. He’s good-naturedly contemptuous of his own hired hitman, devoted to his nurse, and prefers to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but his goal is to plunge the world into war. 

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6) Politics. “Tell me, in June 1914 had you ever heard of a place called Sarajevo?” While taking advantage of global instability to build a scenario based on international intrigue in a contemporary setting (films of Buchan novels had stuck to the build-up to WWI for their settings), Hitchcock uses the assassination scheme as almost a pure MacGuffin — we never learn what countries are involved, or who Lorre is working for. Perhaps the name “Abbott” is intended to defuse the actor’s foreignness somewhat, since Lorre would undoubtedly have been perceived as German by a British audience.

Nevertheless, the alliance of British characters and a French one against a gang led by a teutonic one, is suggestive.

Hitchcock ran afoul of the censors by modeling his climactic shoot-out on the real-life siege of Sidney Street, an east End gun battle he recalled from his youth, which was regarded as a blot on the British police force (and upon then home secretary Winston Churchill, who was criticised for using the mayhem as a photo opportunity) and had been banned by the censor’s office from any screen adaptation. The sticking point turned out to be the idea of policemen turning up with rifles, so Hitch had them requisition firearms from a convenient gunsmith’s, and apparently the force’s honour was saved. It’s fascinating how openly political British censorship was, although no doubt the establishment regarded criticism of the police as outwith the scope of mere politics.

7) Psychology. Barr again — he points out that with the light-hearted but somewhat barbed romantic triangle introduced at the film’s start, there’s something funny about Pierre Fresnay’s death. He’s dancing with Edna Best, who has just teased her unromantic husband, so Banks attaches her knitting to Fresnay, causing it to unravel and entrap the waltzing couples. A shot rings out, and Fresnay slowly collapses (a magnificent effect: “I’m sorry,” whispers Fresnay, dying). 

Barr suggests that this is almost as if Banks planned it, fixing his rival in position for the sniper’s bullet. That’s not literally true, of course, but the idea that the bullet comes as if willed by Banks is a fascinating one, especially as it connects the scene to the opening of Bunuel’s THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ. In that film, once again a bullet SPINGS through a window pane, leaving a neat hole, and kills a character as if at the wish of an onlooker. It’s tempting to suppose that Bunuel may have been inspired by Hitchcock, but if so, he never admitted it, being content to receive Hitch’s praise for TRISTANA: “That leg!” Hitch exclaimed, admiringly.

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Despite all Hitchcock’s efforts, and the public’s enthusiasm, his enemy at Gaumont, distributor C.M. Woolf, released the film on the second half of a double feature, with the result that the film’s colossal box office takings were officially credited to the “A” picture. Made cheaply, and attracting a massive audience, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH went down on the company’s books as a flop.

But Hitch had shown what he could do, and his producer ally Michael Balcon encouraged him to continue down this path with his next project… so it’s off to Scotland next week!

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