Archive for Charles Bennett

Quartermain and the Pit

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2017 by dcairns

Maybe the 1937 KING SOLOMON’S MINES is the best?

I do have a story from the 1950 version, though, courtesy of my late friend and spy in the pages of film history, Lawrie Knight. He reports that one morning, Stewart Granger was nowhere to be found on the African location. He had heard lions roaring in the night, from his tent, and jumped on the first flight back to Merrie and Lion-Free England. That is all.

The ’37 one is in part a vehicle for Paul Robeson, which means its inherent colonial racism gets softened somewhat. Also, it has more singing than any other version — no bad thing. It’s also, just as significantly, a vehicle for Roland Young, whose comedy mutterings deflate a lot of the would-be grandeur and again soften any hint of white supremacy. You just can’t make a case for that kind of beastliness if one of your prime exhibits of pallid masculinity is the daffy, tight-lipped Young.

   

The charm offensive is enhanced by the director’s lovely wife Anna Lee, doing what she fondly imagines is an Irish accent, and then there’s John Loder who’s inoffensive here, acting as a kind of foam wadding between the more charismatic players, and then there’s Cedric Hardwicke as Allan Quartermain, a surprising choice when you compare him to Granger or Richard Chamberlain or even Sean Connery, but quite an effective one — he has more authority than all of them, and manages to ACT the necessary ruggedness. You believe he could be a great white hunter, or possibly a gray-white hunter.

It’s interesting that director Robert Stevenson, at the far end of his long career, would wind up tackling similar boy’s-own nonsense in Disney’s ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD. And there’s a trick to this one — the impressive African locales were all shot with stand-ins by co-director Geoffrey Barkas, with the expensive cast nowhere to be seen. The only bush they went near was Shepherd’s Bush. The footage is nimbly cut together with Stevenson’s English material (studio and exterior, usually low-angles to conceal the lack of dark continent vistas) and the illusion is almost perfect — the fact that you CAN see through it just provides an amusing tickle of subconscious entertainment running parallel to the plot and character business.

The later Disney film is similarly discombobulated, but much worse, for there the two kinds of footage try to join hands through the medium of rear-screen photography, so we have poor Donald Sinden jogging on the spot in front of process shots of Norwegian lava. (I can’t recall for sure, not having seen this film since I was ten, but I strongly suspect the lava was of the miniature variety, too.)

We saw the movie on Talking Pictures TV and were glad of it. Regrettably, great fuzzy blobs of genital fogging descended upon it, despite the lack of genitals involved. Their targets were the bazooms of the native girls, proudly displayed during ritual dances or just standing around, “to swell a scene” as T.S. Eliot would put it. Gone are the days, it seems, when the National Geographic double standard held illimitable dominion over all — native girls in their native attire on their native land were deemed not obscene, by the BBFC it seems as well as by estimable ethnographic magazines consumed avidly in private by schoolboys.

Transplant those same girls to UK or US soil, and you’d have pornography. It struck me that in the original TV roots, there was nudity on the slave ship crossing the Atlantic, a rarity for TV but one considered justified by drama and historical and ethnographic concerns and political seriousness. But the breasts stopped at Plymouth Rock, or wherever it is slave ships dock. The abducted women were now Americans, and could not therefore be seen topless.

(Is it coincidence that the first female nude in mainstream American cinema is African-American, in Sidney Lumet’s THE PAWNBROKER? Was there a mental connection to National Geographic that made Thelma Oliver’s dusky chest easier to swallow? Of course the extreme seriousness of the film’s theme must have helped too, as the nudity of Oliver connects directly via the main character’s mental association to his memories of the Holocaust. Very un-sexy tragedies seem to be key to be overcoming prudish censorship.)

Things mumbled by Roland Young in KING SOLOMON’S MINES ~

“No reason for being insanitary, even in Africa.”

“Mn, ah, mm, steady, mm, naaah…”

“My only toothbrush is in that wagon.”

“And what’s left of my trousers.”

“Mnyep.”

“Owh. Owwwhh.”

“Mnm.”

“I suppose we’re going to have melons today? Don’t the birds in this country ever lay eggs?”

“Seem to be a lot of people about, for an uninhabited country.”

“So unlike the home life of our dear queen.”

“Funny to think it’s Derby Day back home.”

Of a hundred-year-old witch doctor: “Would you say that she was… well-preserved?

Also: “Reminds me of my poor old Aunt Hannah… she came to no good.”

“It is too bad that just when we get to a fortune in diamonds, the mountain should decide to sit down on it.”

Also, on espying vultures circling, Young asks of Robeson, “What are those birds?”

“Aasvogel.”

“Must be, to live in a place like this.”

Considerable wits were involved in the screenplay — Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, and humorist Roland Pertwee.

The South African locations and Alfred Junge sets are augmented by nifty model shots — this scene looks very LORD OF THE RINGS, and minutes later we will realise that Tolkein’s Mount Doom has a lot in common with Rider Haggard’s subterranean realm, at least as visualised here — a secret tunnel opens out onto an underground lake of lava, complete with your basic Dramatic Overhanging Precipice. Throw in an ancient treasure and The Hobbit is prefigured also… This movie came out the same year as Tolkein’s first book, so it’s unlikely to have been a direct influence, but if young John Ronald Reuel had decided to celebrate publication by taking his best girl on a hot date to see the latest Cedric Hardwicke flick, he would certainly have looked upon these scenes and said, “This is just the sort of shit I like!”

 

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The Idiot Brother

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 23, 2014 by dcairns

wolfman

I like the concept of the idiot brother — maybe I am one — and Curt Siodmak always seemed a good example, though not so much as Billy Wilder’s older sibling William Lee Wilder (their mom really liked that name. Billy’s pithy biography of W. Lee — “He was an idiot. He made pictures, each worse than the last. Then he died.”)

Robert Siodmak’s career contains only one COBRA WOMAN, whereas Curt’s is largely composed of such nonsense, only more badly executed. Weirdly, when he finally got to direct, he was actually quite imaginative, and it’s his silly scripts that let him down. One could understand Robert being a little embarrassed about him. But Curt was sensitive and intelligent when he wasn’t making dopey films, as is seen in the interview he gave in Screenwriter, Words Become Pictures by Lee Server, a fine tome I picked up in Toronto (full list here).

Curt Siodmak: Robert and me, we had a sibling rivalry. He loved me and when I needed something he was there, and we were the best of friends. But there should only be one Siodmak, not two Siodmaks. Like when you have two dogs, one bites the other dog. Robert was two years and two days older than me, and the story goes that father took Robert to the crib and said, “Here’s your new brother.” And Robert said, “I don’t want your new brother.” And that lasted until he died seventy-one years later.

Siodmak talks about his short time in England, which I knew nothing about. He was working at Gaumont-British, and tried to interest them in a remake of his brother’s film, DER MANN, DER SEINEN MORDER SUCHT (A MAN, LOOKING FOR HIS MURDERER) which he had co-scripted in 1931 with Billy Wilder and a couple of other guys. Warning: this story is grim.

Curt Siodmak: The story, actually, was stolen from a book by Jules Verne, The Trials of a Chinaman in China, or something. (See here for another theft of the same source. A depressed man hires a hitman to kill him, but when his luck changes, he can’t find the assassin to call off the hit.)

And there was a producer working at the same studio named Felner [sic]. He was a German, and he didn’t like any other Germans working at Gaumont-British. He hated the Germans. And I showed him my story. He said, “How can we do a picture about a man who commits suicide?” But he came back and asked me how people hanged themselves. I told him about that. And a day later he hanged himself. He had been waiting for his labor permit, to stay in England, and it was late–it didn’t come through. And some of them played a practical joke. They told him that he’d been rejected for his permit, that he’d be deported. It wasn’t true. A joke. But they didn’t tell him. He hanged himself.

Lee Server: Who did it?

Curt Siodmak: That Hitchcock crowd. One of those cold people.

Depressing. And Wikipedia at least confirms Hermann Fellner’s cause of death.

Here’s that cold person Hitch, trying to warm up, in the company of his dog, Mr. Jenkins. Image by Peter Stackpole, from a book of his amazing photographs loaned to me by the bountiful Nicola Hay.

jenkins

Siodmak the younger’s most famous creation, Lawrence Talbot AKA The Wolf Man, is celebrated in verse over at Limerwrecks, by Hilary “Surly Hack” Barta and myself. Here.

The photo makes me think of another story in Server’s book, in his Charles Bennett interview.

Charles Bennett: I remember one occasion Brian Aherne gave a huge cocktail party at his house at the beach at Malibu. Hitch was there, and I talked with him about three-quarters of an hour, along with Charlies Brackett. And the three of us chatted by the fire for nearly an hour. The next day a case of gloriously expensive champagne turned up here at the house with a note from Hitch saying, “From that stupid man, Hitchcock.” So I called him up and said, “What’s this stupid man business?” He said, “That’s what you called me, isn’t it?” I said, “When did I say that? We were talking by the fire for an hour.” He said, “No, we didn’t talk. You didn’t say a word.” He didn’t remember any of it.

Server: You don’t think it was some sort of practical joke?

Bennett: He seemed to have no idea that we were talking the night before, or that I hadn’t called him “stupid.” But it was certainly some of the most beautiful champagne I ever drank in my life.

Blind Tuesday: Where is love and who turned out the lights?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2011 by dcairns

An obscure one — I’d never heard of MADNESS OF THE HEART until I stumbled across it. It has no reputation, but it does have points of interest: it’s written and directed by Charles Bennett, who collaborated on a half-dozen or so key Hitchcocks between BLACKMAIL and FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (including most of the late-thirties espionage cycle, all reviewed elsewhere on this site as part of Hitchcock Year) and also adapted NIGHT OF THE DEMON for Jacques Tourneur, incorporating a number of Hitchcockian ideas, including the master-villain with the sweet, doddering mum.

And then there’s Kathleen Byron, reprising her mad love act from BLACK NARCISSUS, only with a cod French accent. Powell told her that Sister Ruth was a great part, the only problem being she’d never get a better one, and he was right. So basically repeating the role here seems a reasonable option: it beats Freddie Francis’s CRAZE.

In brief: plucky doctor’s receptionist Margaret Lockwood meets and falls for French aristo Paul (Who He?) Dupuis. Then she’s struck blind, and the best medical minds, including the one she works for (yay! Maurice Denham!) conclude there’s no hope. After an unsuccessful turn as a nun (blind AND a nun? doesn’t Audrey Hepburn have automatic dibs on that?) narrating the story so far in flashback (the structure’s a mess but so’s this sentence) she hooks up with Dupuis again and he marries her, blindness and all. FINALLY we arrive at the family château in the South of France where Kathleen Byron plays an old flame of Dupuis, determined to destroy Lockwood so she can have him for herself… Now things can get going, and going is precisely what they get…

Spoiler alert! The next paragraph contains plot details written in invisible ink: highlight to read.

A daft plot twist allows Lockwood to cure her blindness and return, faking it, in order to entrap her unseen enemy. This frustrates one of the best tropes of the blind person in jeopardy thriller, which is the disabled character triumphing over both unspeakable evil and their own disability. In fairness, this convention isn’t set in stone and hadn’t really been established at this time: WAIT UNTIL DARK really fixed the template. But when you see it done decently, it’s satisfying in obvious ways that alternatives, like the boyfriend barging to the rescue in SEE NO EVIL, really aren’t.

End spoiler.

Oddly, Bennett directs this one better than he writes it, but he’s dealing with a cheap novelette as source material (ugh! that title!) and struggles to inject real humanity into it. On the other hand, his filming is often stylish, aided by Desmond Dickinson’s moody photography.

Listening to Fiona’s extremely zestful reactions to Byron’s acts of wickedness against her sightless rival (from repositioning a wine glass to attempting to arrange a drowning), I was struck by how films like this encourage a complicity with the bad guy. At times, Fiona was virtually egging the madwoman on. This wasn’t due to any dislike of Lockwood, who embodies pluck, but simply because in a film like this, nothing entertaining can happen unless the villain is plotting villainy. If the supporting cast were full of amusing bit players, there might be some welcome distraction from the main event, but asides from Thora Hird as a no-nonsense maid, there’s nothing doing. So we require constant perfidy from la Byron or the thing is going to just lie there.

Kathleen in a saucy two-piece, something I never thought to see.

Fortunately, K.B. does not disappoint, seizing one of her last chances to be interesting in a dull film. No act of spite is too petty for the ironically named “Verity”, who amusingly goes from leaving sharp objects near the maid’s baby so Lockwood will get the blame, straight to murder attempts, then back to faking love letters (to a blind woman?), and back to murder again. In this she’s aided by the château’s offscreen architect, who for some reason has supplied the building with a door opening onto a fifty foot drop. Perhaps the castle was assembled from a kit, like the Keaton homestead in ONE WEEK?

Why didn’t Kathleen Byron go from strength to strength? Simply because the British cinema of the ‘fifties was too weedy to contain her, I think. There weren’t enough psycho-bitch roles to typecast her successfully, and nobody was bold or imaginative enough to see her in more varied parts, despite the proof offered by THE SMALL BACK ROOM that she could be really excellent in a less extreme characterisation. (The reason David Farrar’s so uncharacteristically strong in that film is that she lends him fire. And he’s strongest in BLACK NARCISSUS when she’s around.)

There’s also the sad fact that she was apparently a little difficult, as talented people often are.  With the supremely difficult Michael Powell around to help her, that didn’t matter so much, but when they were no longer an item and his career was on the slide, that impetus was gone. (BTW, she always said Powell’s description of her, in his memoir Million Dollar Movie, standing naked and threatening him with a revolver, was sheer confabulation.) And nobody else owed her sufficient goodwill to help.

That was stupid: with the Rank Organisation embracing sappy bourgeois mediocrity in the ‘fifties, British cinema really needed a fierce talent who could heat up a moribund flick with a dash of hellfire.