Archive for Cat People

Things I Read Off the Screen in “I, MADMAN”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2010 by dcairns

NosfeRandy!

Upon meeting Shadowplayer and now chum Randall William Cook, Fiona and I became fascinated to dig into his career and find out what he’d been up to before LORD OF THE RINGS. I’d heard of THE GATE, which had occupied the shelves of video rental places during my relatively early days of movie-hunting, but had never seen it. Nor had I seen director Tibor Takacs’ follow-up, intriguingly entitled I, MADMAN. I obtained both.

The film’s first onscreen text: The Hollywood Reporter. Headline: Box Office Tops in 1959. My thesis: films are stuffed with writing, some of it carefully placed by production designers, some of it accidental, forced into the film by the ad hoardings and signage peppering the locations. The two form a dialogue. If we could eavesdrop of this colloquy of scenario and city, we would learn… something.

THE GATE is practically an epic, even though it mostly centres around a single house and a few characters, but I intend to interrogate Mr. Cook in depth about its amazing effects. It has an unusual structure seen also in BRAIN DEAD (AKA DEAD ALIVE) and TITANIC — all build-up for the first half, all — and I mean ALL — action for the second half. Certified genius Alex Winter is currently prepping a remake…

I, MADMAN feels smaller, but packs in a lot of ideas, not quite coherently — and to our great delight, Randy plays a central role, titular madman Malcolm Brand, an author of pulp nasties who somehow has found himself living out his own depraved fictions. To my greater delight, I now realize that Randy is also in Stephen Sayadian’s surreal, dayglo, semi-porno DR CALIGARI, which I must watch again sometime.

But to return to MADMAN — it begins, extremely promisingly, with a vaguely period, Techinicolor noir sequence, exquisitely overplayed by Raf Nazario and Bob Frank (the character players are as consistently exuberant in this movie as the leads are colourless), and then a stop-motion jackal-boy jumps into view, causing Fiona to scream.

There ain’t a lot of stop motion in this movie, but what there is, is cherce.

Much of Madness, More of Sin, by Malcolm Brand.” Very nicely design pulp dustcover, the title a quote from Poe’s The Conqueror Worm, a phrase which fittingly concludes, “…and madness the soul of the plot.”

Turns out this opening is a scene from a paperback the heroine is reading, which means we’re plunged into the eighties, losing most of the flavour the forties/fifties stuff has. But Takacs does get some agreeable effects out of transitioning from one period to the other — as when Jenny Wright, our leading lady walks into the shadows in her regular duds and emerges in gown and big hairdo, all in one shot — an effect presumably inspired by Simone Simon’s transmutation in CAT PEOPLE. At first I suspected a split-screen effect, disguised by the heavy shadows, then I came to suspect that the heroine in red is a stand-in, who scuttles off-screen under cover of darkness, to be replaced by the leading lady: a low-tech approach that really appeals to me.

I also dig the fact that our lead still has on her contemporary specs, but takes them off. By the next cut, her glasses and cup of tea, vestiges of our modern world, have vanished! There should be awards for creative continuity like that.

SHOPLIFTERS WILL BE PROSECUTED

ARE YOU ON OUR MAILING LIST?

NO LOITERING

BOOK CITY

Our heroine is a drama student who also works in a second-hand bookstore and is one of the few movie characters I’ve ever seen take a bus in LA (apart from in SPEED).  Since this is a horror film, a lot of the signs in it are warnings or commands, or intrusive questions. BOOK CITY is an incredibly apt name for the bookshop, since my thesis is that cities are full of words, and the film’s thesis is that books contain populations, some of them hostile.

For Malcolm Brand’s works apparently have the power to cross over into our reality. This is never explained, and for a long time it looks as if it’s going to turn out that the leading lady is crazy and is responsible for the series of gruesome homicides she attributes to the titular maniac of Brand’s second and final novel —

Meta-fiction hits the horror movie! I was slightly reminded of Scarlett Thomas’s novel The End of Mr. Y, which I enjoyed recently. In both, the heroine unexpectedly discovers the impossible-to-find and probably cursed book she’s been yearning for (initially it seems that our leading lady here is both terrified and turned on by Brand’s books, but nothing is made of this) and plunged into another world of craziness and menace. I, MADMAN is more generic, with fewer mouse gods, but the fact that the plot never fully resolves its mysteries leaves the door open to the creeping ineffable, which helps.

SEX FOR SWINGER! Slightly improbable book title for film.

PIANOS RESTORATION AND REPAIR – VINCENT BROS

SUBMARINE (name of a storefront) LOS ANGELES (sign on a bus) — both in the same frame, a promise of biblical deluge?

PUSH – WILL RETURN – OPENING HOURS (signs on bookshop door)

In I, Madman the novel, the narrator cuts off his face because the girl he loves doesn’t care for his looks, and then creates for himself a fleshy identikit fizzog harvested from the unwilling heads of the local citizenry. This character, played by Randy Cook in the expressionist manner, emerges from the book and starts culling the supporting cast, who were only there for that purpose anyway. A more economical writing idea would have been to have him target the heroine’s cop boyfriend at the climax, since he presumably has a face she DOES like.

ALCHEMY

EX LIBRIS

ACTRESS SLAIN — POLICE BAFFLED BY MUTILATION

You could certainly read this movie, even if you couldn’t see the pictures.

Cheekily, the movie marquee screen right advertises the director’s first film, cult obscurity METAL MESSIAH, which I’d love to see.

NON FICTION

SIDNEY ZEIT PUBLISHING INC, 4389 HOLLYWOOD BLVD, HOLLYWOOD CALIFORNIA

BOOKS 25¢ MOVIES 25¢ VIDEOS, THE CAVE ADULT MOVIE THEATER, LIVE NUDE SHOW, PEEPSHOW, ADULT BOOK STORE

The first text startles the heroine when she finds it in the small print in her face-stealing pulp fiction, the second tells her where to look for answers, and the third tells us all what kind of neighbourhood the publisher operates out of.

And this is the office of Sidney “I only do smut” Zeit, publisher of I, Madman. Magnificent performance from Murray Rubin (the great actors for B movies are out there if you look!) which swings from broad grotesquerie to touching humanity as he recalls the tragic fate of his top author.

TELEPHONE – PUBLIC LIBRARY OF THE CITY — both signs in one shot.

THE POPE SMOKES DOPE

ANGELS with swastika sign. These last two are graffiti at a crime scene.

Nobody notices that all the victims are connected to the heroine. Since there’s no “it was her all along” twist, it might have been nice if the cops suspected her, as they have every reason to do, rather than just thinking she’s screwy. The way society is, any crazy person connected to a murder is likely to be regarded as a suspect. And the cops could be turned into a threat rather than a potential rescue. And there’s no way they could NOT suspect her, to be fair to them — and remember Mackendrick’s wise words, “A character who is dramatically interesting thinks ahead.”

OVER 100,000 BOOKS

NEW BOOKS DISCOUNTED

SPECIALIZING IN HARD-TO-FIND TITLES

OPEN 7 DAYS A WEEK

ENTRANCE

—————->

VATTEY’S BOOK CITY

NEW – USED – RARE – ANTIQUARIAN

ROY ROY PIZZAS MEAT PIES

The above appear all in a single establishing shot! A connection is drawn between books and food.

Next, a flurry of book titles: THE POLITICS OF THE CENTURY, NATHANIEL WEST: THE ART OF HIS LIFE, ANSWERS TO EVERYDAY QUESTIONS. While, in the background, a hand-lettered sign reads SCIENCE FICTION.

The climactic struggle with Malcolm — books are falling all over the place! As he thrusts his arms through a set of shelves to paw the heroine, THE COURAGEOUS COMPANION falls through shot, and when the cop boyfriend with the designer stubble hurls him into some boxes, THE WOUNDED DON’T CRY drops into his lap: the most blatant gag title in the film, though not quite as funny as EVIL DEAD II’s use of A FAREWELL TO ARMS.

Then, the long-awaited return of jackalboy, summoned from the pages of Malcolm’s first book by the plucky heroine, who’s decided that the contents of Brand’s oeuvre tend to become real. Malcolm struggles with the half-human genetic experiment in a stop-motion battle to the death which sees Randall William Cook heroically animating a miniature version of himself. I’m not sure if that qualifies as masturbation or voodoo. Lots of motion-blur here, and the transition between human and puppet is pretty seamless, helped no doubt by the fact that Malcolm’s face is by now a mass of sutured tissue — lopsided nose, swollen lips, moulting scalp.

Randy was an actor first and an animator later, getting into the biz on the advice of no less a person than Bob Clampett, Termite Alley legend. A lot of animation has to do with acting, which isn’t generally understood… If you talk to Randy, you not only get great stories from his movie activities, you get all the voices too.

Jackalboy (who looks quite a bit like the excellent Harry Potter werewolf) is chopped down the middle by a sheet of glass, but rises again as a Johnny Eck-style man with half a body. A sign in the background reads THIS SIDE UP.

Then half-jackalboy pounces on Malcolm, they fly out the window, and all the loose pages somehow torn from, it feels like, Malcolm’s works (but there was only, like, one copy in the bookstore, so I guess it’s a lot of other books too) goes flying into the sky, and Chanson D’Amour plays us out (ra-ta-ta-ta-ta). What have we learned?

One last sign —

DELIVERIES

———————->

Sounds like a sequel to me!

Bwana Bubble

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2009 by dcairns

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So — like a lot of people who’ve read some basic film history, I knew that the first 3D feature was BWANA DEVIL, promoted with the tagline “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!” There were things I did NOT know, however  —

1) I didn’t know that BWANA DEVIL is based on the same astonishing true-life case as THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS: an unheard-of incident of two man-eating lions who hunted together, finishing off scores of hapless humans and delaying construction of the first trans-African railway.

2) I didn’t know that the film was made by Arch Oboler, genius of scary radio with a background in low-budget noir, and that he carried on pushing 3D into the 70s, long after the rest of the world had given up on it.

domoarigatposterOboler just wouldn’t give up on “Space-vision.”

I had occasion to mention Oboler this summer when I met Bruce MacDonald, director of the stupendous PONTYPOOL, which deals with the power of radio. He mentioned Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. I mentioned Oboler’s Chicken Heart broadcast, in which a giant, ever-expanding chicken heart eats the world, and discovered that MacDonald was familiar with the Bill Cosby routine based on the show, but not the show itself.

It still strikes me as weird that Oboler would come from radio, which uses only the dimension of imagination, sparked by sound, and yet the ordinary two-dimensions of cinema were not enough for him.

Here’s a classic slice of Oboler — listen with the lights out!

Oboler’s cult output also includes the slick psycho-noir BEWITCHED, which I wrote of here, post-atomic survival drama FIVE, and THE TWONKY, a bizarro comic fantasy about an alien visitor who takes the form of a TV set. As a drunken sports coach says, “I used to have a Twonky when I was a kid. A Twonky is something that you don’t know what it is…”

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The big problems with BWANA DEVIL are that (1) it doesn’t really benefit from 3D much at all, and Oboler’s flat, washing-line compositions are a waste of the medium. The lion leaps over the camera every time it appears, but there’s not enough suspense to make us afraid of the thing. Paul Schrader’s CAT PEOPLE gets one thing right — the very tactile  and three-dimensional big cats in the movie feel really alive and present, in a way Oboler’s cut-out creations never get a chance to. What’s needed is some Val Lewton atmospherics, giving the lions the aura of the supernatural the African and Indian characters ascribe to them. The real motheaten beasts in this movie, and the CGI creations in the more modern version (another form of 3D — computer-generated 3D cartoons) are neither real enough nor phantasmagorical enough.

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(2) The wonder of the story depends on the audience carrying it its head the fact that this is TRUE and UNIQUE, two qualities from outside the frame of the movie. We have to remind ourselves, in the midst of important action “Seems implausible, but apparently it really happened,” and “I don’t know much about lions, but apparently they never normally do this.” It’s a story that works brilliantly in the history books and when William Goldman tells it in prose. And the movie begins with a title, “This is a story that was told to me in Africa,” hinting at the excitement he must have felt when encountering this great yarn around the campfire.

Robert Stack tries hard in a role not so much underwritten as unwritten, and Nigel Bruce, the beloved Dr Watson from the Basil Rathbone Holmes films, makes a good fist of his Scottish accent — he ought to, despite being born in Mexico (!) he was a descendant of Robert the Bruce.

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“Take these damn Space-Vision glasses! Take them, I say!”

Much better is THE BUBBLE, Oboler’s penultimate Spacevision production, which draws on some of the pulp mystery and numinous terror of his best radio work. A group of 1D characters is trapped in a 3D town which seems to be surrounded by a giant perspex dome. The town is as incomplete and inconsistent as a movie set reconstruction of Patrick McGoohan’s Village, left half-finished, and its populated by humans reduced to robotic repetition, who “feed” by some kind of gross osmotic process conducted in a queer biomechanical temple. Is there no escape?

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The groovy yet unexplained brainwashing sequence.

Oboler’s direction is much friskier here, with carnivalesque effects created by camera movement and odd angles, but the aesthetic is still one of sticking stuff in the viewer’s eye. Why was Oboler obsessed with 3D if that’s all he could see to do with it? Unfortunately, his compelling premise fizzles out, and a lack of consistency in the characters’ behaviour robs it of a lot of its potential. The crux of these Twilight Zone scenarios is that they only work if played out to their natural conclusions, with the crazy idea followed through step by step with impeccable logic.

But the hackneyed effects are still enjoyable, the underwritten character are played by fresh, unskilled but somehow believable actors, and the idea is a nice, creepy one. If Oboler had only come up with a neat, PLANET OF THE APES-style zinger ending, the movie would probably have found its place as a minor cult object.

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Buy Arch Oboler from Amazon —

Five

The Bubble

Lights Out Everybody

Film Club: What’s a little pain to a lucky man?

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2009 by dcairns

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Regular Shadowplayer Guy Budziak has described THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER as particularly American, and this is so. We can trace the Americanism of the film in a variety of ways, some more cynical than others, beginning from its origins in the Faust myth. These symptoms of the American may sound a little cynical.

1) It’s Faust, but with an ordinary-joe hero instead of a great alchemist/sorceror.

2) It’s Faust, but with a happy ending.

3) It’s Faust, but with a smart lawyer.

4) The lawyer wins with an appeal to the emotions and patriotism rather than legal argument.

But there’s really a lot more to it than that. A socio-political message is bound up in a supernatural thriller plot, effectively amped up to the point where all seems conclusively lost, and then that happy ending is produced by what seem to be entirely fair means. And it ends with a flourish of wit.

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As I’ve already mentioned, the DVD release contains scenes I’d never seen before, but looking at the IMDb cast list, I get the impression that missing sequences are still out there: we have credits for a “studio gateman” and a “guide” who don’t appear. Their names suggest a behind-the-scenes opening that would tie in with that first frame of Dieterle’s name printed on a scrim stretched across a massive light. Intriguingly, the guide was played by William Alland, Thompson the reporter (and the News on the March voice) in CITIZEN KANE, another tie between the two productions. Something about Alland must suggest a reliable guide through narrative labyrinths.

“It’s a story they tell in the border country, where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire.”

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Premature anti-fascism in credits! Suspiciously egalitarian…

The film DOES begin with a quote from Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, although it’s a very brief one, dovetailing into a direct address to the audience (“It could even happen to YOU”) which will be picked up again at the film’s end, when Walter Huston looks in his little black book and finds US.

From here we have almost ten minutes of scenes previously unseen by me, cut apparently to reduce the prestige A-picture, which flopped, into a zippy B-picture, which might make some money. It’s remarkable how little these extra sequences add: screenwriters often write material intended to “introduce characters,” where in fact, if you remove these scenes, the beginning of the STORY will introduce the characters far more effectively. The only real suspense underlying the first minutes with Jabez Stone and his family is that pertaining to the mysterious figure with a little book, seen approaching the farm. (In an early example of Mr. Scratch’s supernatural powers, he will be seen tempting Daniel Webster in Washington before he actually arrives in Jabez’s barn.)

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james Craig, and his slight, but nevertheless unpleasant, resemblance to George W Bush.

Might be time to address those central performances. Most of us can agree, I think, that they’re not the film’s best feature, to the point where we don’t really consider them “central” at all. But what’s wrong with them?

James Craig is very full-on, and this broad-brush “intensity” brings out the worst in his dialogue, consarn it. Anything that might sound a bit awkward DOES sound a bit awkward. Someone like Joel McCrea, or Henry Fonda would have smoothed over any clumsy moments in the script, and perhaps preserved a bit more likability during Jabez’s nastier moments. Instead, Craig hits every emotion hard, making instant transitions from one to another, like a cartoon, and always playing the most straightahead version of that emotion. Nothing is under the surface, everything is on the nose. It can make him hard to watch, although thankfully he also has good moments, and they tend to be during his character’s more sympathetic scenes, which is useful.

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Anne Shirley is too much the wet rag, a fault of the writing, to be sure, but not an insuperable one. I’m not sure Olivia DeHavilland, suggested by Shadowplayer Jack Womack, would have been perfect, despite the fact that she’s worn the same hairstyle as Shirley. DeHavilland is an incredible actress, of course, but prone to the same kind of sweetness-and-light that makes the character of Mary Stone a little sickly. Somebody with an inherent nervous energy would get that woman up on her feet. The character does have one strength, besides her goodness (which is dramatically a bit dull) — she’s a pretty shrewd politician, suggesting things to her husband in such a mild way that he doesn’t feel pressured into accepting the ideas, considers them on their own merits, and then sees that she’s right. This makes her about as far from a feminist hero as you could possibly get, but it’s credible enough for the period, and suggests that the Stones would be pretty successful partnership as long as dumb old Jabez listens to his wife.

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Buoying the opening sequence up is the majestic Jane Darwell, a true icon — the matriarch of all matriarchs. (I particularly like her terrifying Ma Grier in THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, a perfect shadow-image of benevolent Ma Joad in THE GRAPES  OF WRATH.) Her casting her is pretty much according  type, one could say (except that she was the daughter of a railroad president from Missouri in real life) but it works, and the genuine personality she projects supports the whole movie for about ten minutes.

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Shadowplay! Huston tempts Arnold, in what used to be the film’s opening scene, and a very striking one. Here as elsewhere, Joseph August’s cinematography harks back to director Dieterle’s German expressionist background (he lumbers through the Murnau FAUST) with moody noir visuals.

In Huston and Arnold, we have the film’s true powerhouses. Huston, as Arthur S. observes, gets all the best lines, and delivers them with a roguish brio. His teeth are the whole show, like the front end of a skull trying to escape from his mouth. In TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE he performs sans dents, and it makes a whole other actor of him. Possibly Walter Brennan.

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Walter Huston is possibly my favourite actor of all time. He’s not only effective in an impossibly wide variety of parts (basically, anything that doesn’t depend on conventional good looks), he can adapt his whole approach to acting to suit the role: he’s hammy here, in just the right way (remember his advice to his son: “Always give ’em a good show, and always travel First Class.”), but he can bring it right down. In RAIN he’s a truly horrible man, and he does it without any sort of actorly disguise to separate himself from the character. (Compare Mitchum in the original CAPE FEAR, playing himself, as pure evil, to DeNiro’s decorative but un-scary work in the remake. Huston could play it either way.) In KONGO he takes melodrama to a grotesque zenith of distorted hysteria that threatens to rip the film from its sprockets. In DODSWORTH he’s just wonderful.

Bribes department: if anybody wants my undying friendship, get me a recording of Huston’s rendition of September Song.

Edward Arnold, replacing an ailing Thomas Mitchell, is Daniel Webster, of whom Emerson wrote, “Every drop of his blood looked you in the eye.” Arnold credibly embodies that startling description. The folksy politician is a tricky figure to get right — I think some of us are smart enough to resist that kind of appeal to our simple souls, and we’ve had some pretty bad examples in recent years — but Arnold is compelling. In a way, we don’t have to believe in Webster’s honesty and goodness so much anyway, as in his competence. Arnold makes him a marvelous orator (kudos to the script here too), and holds the screen during a long climactic speech when Dieterle, for dramatic reasons, cannot cut to the listeners for a reaction shot.

If you have the DVD you can check the deleted scenes and see the rather astonishing interpolated shots of Huston, in negative, gloating over Jabez Stone’s misfortunes. Deleted after the preview, these brief shots (not quite subliminal, but still reminiscent of the demonic flash-frames in THE EXORCIST) must have freaked 1940s audiences out completely. Would a standard-issue member of the public in 1941 Pasadena even be able to interpret what they were seeing here?

Anyhow, with the Mephistophelean cutaways excised, the sequence still works — Craig is a little grating, but that adds to the oppressive feeling as his problems mount: in a couple of minutes, aided immeasurably but a slowly mounting cacophony of farmyard noise (recordist James G. Stewart was another veteran of KANE), Dieterle gives us a vivid sense of the weight of debt crushing the Stones. And then, a moment of silence. Enter Huston.

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This is one of my very favourite movie entrances (and SO WHAT if Huston has already appeared twice), the pop-video backlighting and almost musical scoring of chicken clucks, and Huston’s sinister bonhomie, with the poise of a stage magician. Robert Wise cuts sharply, with a very quick cut of the gold bursting from out of the floor — so brief we don’t know if it’s real. Benet, writing with Dan Totheroh, uses most of Scratch’s dialogue from the story, and invents more of an equally high standard. Whenever I sign a contract, I always quote Stone: “What does it mean here, about my soul?”

(Other favourite entrances, you say? Karloff, backwards, in FRANKENSTEIN. Guinness, smirking behind his hat in THE LADYKILLERS. Joan Crawford, manning the threshold in the aforementioned RAIN. Oh, there are too many…)

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“What a beautiful sunset,” says Huston, in a confidential tone that seems to carry some special meaning.

I must confess I always found the scene where Jabez reveals the gold to his family to be somewhat odd. Mary can’t take it in, which is fair enough (and she did just hit her head moments ago, which Jabez has completely forgotten), but Ma’s skeptical attitude to the evidence of her own senses is downright peculiar. It’s appropriate to the morality-tale genre that Ma shouldn’t be overly impressed by wealth, but having established these folks as salt-of-the-earth normal people, the filmmakers have a hard time convincing me that Ma would take this momentous news in her style. But the scene has a rather surreal feeling to it as a result, which is quite nice.

Into town. Any community with Gene Lockhart as a civic leader is clearly in trouble. John “production for use” Qualen is magnificent as Miser Stevens — is “Miser” his actual first name? This underrated character player could be the nasal weasel or the squirming worm, sadistic or pathetic — here he’s a bit of both. Presumably he was once a truly upright citizen, because even at his worst, he’s not as obnoxious as Jabez will become.

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Daniel Webster’s visit to town allows for a fun visit from Mr Scratch, who bests him in the first round, slipping him a supernatural mickey of some kind in his Medford rum. We also have a cameo from wee Sonny Bupp, familiar from his role as Charles Foster Kane III. His gee-wiz line readings are a little forced: maybe he’s been studying under James Craig.

Despite having sold his soul to the devil, Jabez still manages to make a rousing speech on Webster’s behalf. An interesting point: Scratch hands him this opportunity, and apparently lends him the loquacity to make the most of it, and it’s the beginning of Stone’s influence in the community, which will be used entirely for bad ends. But Webster himself quotes approvingly from the speech near the end of the story, which seems wrong somehow.

All the stuff with Gene Lockhart’s flustered squire trying to organize an incompetent band looks forward to Franklin Pangborn in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO. Here, Lockhart is basically a comedy twerp, whereas later we will see him gambling on the Sabbath etc with Jabez, suggesting that Stone’s corruption exerts a malign influence on the weaker men around him, part of the film’s civic side: personal corruption infects the political sphere, because politics is made of people. (I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I’m a confirmed sabbath-breaker myself, but it seems to be the film’s stance.)

Scratch walking through the farmyard at night is another additional scene — I might overlook the previous cuts, since they tighten the pace and don’t hurt the narrative, but a frame less of of Huston is an undoubted crime. He has a number of nice little moments in the longer version, cruelly cast aside in the B-movie cut.

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Ah, fecundity! I love love love the dissolve from a wheatfield to Anne Shirley, lying in bed pregnant. Perhaps an example of the kind of ingenuity triggered by unreasonable censorship restrictions? If you can’t even say the word “pregnant,” this kind of silent-movie symbolism presents itself as an elegant solution.

At this point, Jabez is still bothered by his conscience, allowing Jane Darwell a fine speech about what happens “if a man gets his money in bad ways.” But soon we will launch headlong into the section of the film I call “The Asshole Variations,” in which our hero becomes a monstrous collection of boorish traits. Craig’s less appealing qualities as an actor fuse rather nicely with the character’s moral decay, letting us hate the guy pretty thoroughly for a reel or so. But would it help if the actor had enough charisma to keep us more invested in him? I’m not sure it matters that much here, oddly enough.

Another appearance by Huston, nicking a bunch of carrots, tightens the noose around Jabez’s neck. Being an adaptable sort of chap, since he can’t escape his contract, Jabez will soon embrace damnation with apparent enthusiasm. Huston is delicious: “I shan’t even come to the christening; it would be tactless and in wretched bad taste.”

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The Harvest Dance, coinciding with the birth of that promising young fellow, Daniel Stone, gives us Bernard Herrmann’s showiest scene. His jaunty devil theme makes me warm all over, and his sonorous leitmotif honouring “the land,” is beautiful, but the manic version of Pop Goes the Weasel, fiendishly lit by August and cut together by Wise with savage abandon, is a real show-stopper. What gets us into this ebullient swing, of course, is Simone Simon.

Censorship is apparently powerless when faced with a performance like Simon’s as “Belle Dee.” Viciously sexual, she uses her accent like a cute gun. A snub-nose. Her third word in the film is actually “gun” — well, it’s “gone,” but she pronounces it “gun.” Backlighting her with an infernal glow from the fireplace is arguably going too far, but it’s part of the aesthetic of a good Dieterle film to take everything too far.

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(I’m reminded of my favourite Christopher Walken story. He sees a lighting guy adjusting a reflector at his feet. “What are you doing” he asks, without the aid of a question mark — for Walken is beyond punctuation. “Oh, ah, we’re just going to bounce a little light up at your face, make you look sinister,” says the technician. Walken: “You don’t need to do that.”)

SS is a pretty interesting figure, and I find it hard to assess her qualities as an actress. Maybe I need to stop masturbating first.

That’s better. SS is certainly a different player in her native tongue, where she sounds like everybody else. In English we get these odd line readings. I’m sure she’s a far better actress than Jean Harlow (my God, can you imagine her speaking French?), but when Simon speaks English you get these strange inflections which are comparable to Harlow’s effective and at times endearingly awkward way with dialogue.

Since I have, for some reason, an aging French fanzine called Atomvision to hand, I’ll quote the SS interview therein, by way of Babelfish. She’s talking about how Val Lewton saw her in this film before he cast her in CAT PEOPLE.

it m’ had seen in ATMCB, a film in which I represented the devil. This film was carried out by the dad of John Huston who was also a marvellous actor. He played the devil but unfortunately I n’ did not have scene with him and that m’ much sadness had. In short, Valley Lewton m’ had seen in this film that j’ had turns in April 1941.

Strange. Although she can remember the month of filming, she seems to think Walter Huston was the director.

“She’s nice,” says Mary Stone, proving Dennis Potter’s point that truly good people are ill-equipped to recognize the Devil.

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Jabez goes a bit Michael Jackson when his son is born. And indeed, he will shortly build an outlandish mansion, court celebrity friends and have questionable sleepovers. He doesn’t sing Earth Song, though, so we can forgive him. The other figure he resembles is George W Bush, not just facially (perhaps he looks more like Josh Brolin playing Bush), but in his gigantic obnoxiousness later: reminiscent of Bush’s gloating fratboy side.

Brilliant and rather dirty scene, with Jabez pausing at the randy Belle Dee’s bedroom door. He’s not quite wicked enough yet to just march in and have her. Suddenly Huston is there, leaning in the window. He gives his hand one firm shake, and sends him on his way to lay her like a carpet. This is probably the best bit removed from the shorter version.

A rich and varied display of loutishness follows from Jabez — once a man’s indulged in satanism and adultery, it’s a short step to fishing on the Sabbath. A plot thread entirely absent from the short cut is his spoiling of his son, Daniel. It takes a visit from big Daniel to set the lad on the straight and narrow with an efficient bout of spanking. Not sure how I feel about this. I grew up with the threat of corporal punishment looming over my head — at school rather than at home. It seems positively Dickensian now. I never saw anybody “corrected” by it. I think a few timorous kids like me were kept in line by the fear of it, but I don’t think anybody was ever taught a valuable lesson by having their palm skelped by a bully three times their size.

Slightly awkward exposition by Jeff Corey and friends (including Scotsman Alec Craig, no relation to the film’s star). Gathering the bit players and having them discuss the plot is a rather hackneyed, 19th century theatre device. But it’s a minor blemish. (Hope it doesn’t look like I’m down on the film. It’s a favourite.)

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The next really great bit is of course the “party” where Miser Stevens is “collected.” Belle and Scratch technically DO share a scene together, but they don’t interact. This has the moment that seems to have inspired CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and some great uncanny sound work. Herrmann’s low tonalities during all the Scratch scenes have a wonderfully sinister effect, evocative of Halloween hauntings and bad dreams, and the danse macabre once again allows him to take centre stage.

Fantastic dialogue re moths.

The combination of Herrmann’s score and the RKO sound department’s work on the supernatural scenes is so richly evocative and eerie and beautiful… it stands comparison with any of the rightly celebrated sound and music work in CITIZEN KANE. I guess the only thing we don’t get here is the artful linking of scenes, mostly done via dialogue in KANE (where the phrases “Merry Christmas!” & “- and a Happy New Year!” link two scenes fifteen years apart) so that TDADW never quite attains the propulsive effect of Welles’ work — until the climax.

vlcsnap-72738“In the midst of life…”

Herrmann’s very on-the-nose, synchronized Mickey-Mousing of Jabez trying to cut down a tree (upon which is written his expiration date) really bumps up the energy, and then there’s a slightly conventional carriage chase — it looks too much like a B-western to me, perhaps because Mother Nature has been evoked largely in the studio until this point — but I like Belle’s last moment, which is ambiguous and weird. Despite Huston making it plain that she’s his agent, she’s always seemed slightly detached from the Faustian plot, her brand of wickedness more pleasurable than “all that money can buy” — and she’s from “over the mountains,” which sounds quite nice, rather than from “Hell,” which I have to admit sounds like a less agreeable holiday destination.

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Ah, the trial. Here, the script can fall back on the story most closely, since Benet fleshes his climax out more than any other section of the narrative. Again, brilliant sound work, including the wheezing echo of a laugh that sounds from the “Jury of the Damned” (kudos to anyone who can find a YouTube clip of The Simpsons’ version of this) and an artfully crafted ramping up of peril, so that all seems utterly lost (“Lost and gone, lost and gone,”) until it’s suddenly not. Never liked that crack about “If two New Hampshire men aren’t a match for the Devil we may as well give this country back to the Indians,” since it implies that that would be a ridiculous thing to do. Mr. Scratch is more attuned to modern thought: “When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there,” which is a fairly progressive admission for an era when Colonel Custer was still being portrayed as a hero.

H.B. Warner as Justice Hathorne — seems like a shame he never got to play the part in The Crucible. He’s definitive! The Siren points out that the composition of the jury is different in the film, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to interpret the changes. Some of the descriptions of jurors seem to downplay their socio-political relevance in the film, but Benedict Arnold is merely name-checked in the story, and he actually sits on the jury in the film. I guess he’s somebody most Americans can agree upon. On the political side, Shadowplayer David Fiore (AKA Anagramsci) points out that the film has rewritten Webster as a champion of the poor, which seems to be far from the truth. The short story is vaguer about Webster’s actual politics, while the movie simply creates a fictional Webster out of whole cloth. Not sure what to think about that…

Webster kicking Scratch out the door is well done, and here there’s a good bit of material about the future which the film omits. It does get the short story into more uncomfortable areas. Told that he will make an unpopular speech, Benet has Webster say, “So long as it is an honest speech, it does not matter what men say.” The speech appears to be the one supporting slavery. I think it’s sensible of the movie to simply omit all this. The fictional Webster would never make that speech, I want to feel.

Coda: rather neatly judged. Satan is too charismatic to be as soundly banished as he is in the story, but we need some relief for the Stone family. The jolly laughter round the breakfast table could easily become intolerable, though, but here comes Mr. Scratch with his little book…

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“It could even happen to YOU…”

There’s more, much more, to be said, but I’ll leave it to you. Also, I may have more Dieterle posts later in the week: I’ve barely scratched the surface with him. Next week’s movie is LE MEPRIS: feel free to suggest more, and start getting your hands on that one now!