Archive for Charles Hawtrey

Retreat, Heck!

Posted in FILM, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2010 by dcairns

Hattie Jacques (pronounced “Jakes”), beloved comedienne, here cast as Captain Clark, a name which recurs in numerous of the novels of William S. Burroughs, always with sinister implications…

It occurs to me that CARRY ON NAKED LUNCH would have been a fine project… Kenneth Williams in CARRY ON DOCTOR is just a breath away from Dr. Benway already.

CARRY ON SERGEANT is the archetypal film with a lot to answer for. Based on a book by the relatively respectable R.F. Delderfield, it was certainly not intended to launch any kind of series, and certainly not a series as odd as the CARRY ON series.

How to define the CARRY ONs? They were all produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas. They were all ensemble comedies specializing in vulgar, end-of-the-pier humour and lewd puns. They starred a varying assortment of comic actors, with none being considered essential to the formula, but a few becoming so familiar that one might experience some disappointment at their absence. More on them later.

The nominal stars of this one are William Hartnell, the first Dr. Who, who plays the retiring sarge who wants to win the prize for best troop before he goes, and Bob Monkhouse, the stand-up comic who had made a name for himself in television and would go on to star in a couple of dentist-based comedies before fixing his attention more firmly on the small screen. I like Hartnell a lot, consider him a true film star, and I quite like Bob, but the Bob I remember was the perma-tanned smiler famed for keeping vast ledgers full of cheesy gags, who held some kind of record for most jokes told in an hour or something. I barely recognize this callow youth.

Bob and Shirl. No danger of skin suffocation here.

Bob is a newly-wed whose been called up for national service when he’d planned on a honeymoon. Future Bond girl Shirley Eaton (this is a terribly British affair), minus her gold paint, plays Mrs Bob, who gets a job in the army mess so she can attain her deferred conjugal bliss with Bob. Shirley appears to be very keen to act, in this one, attacking every scene with wide-eyed zeal, which coincides with the plot to give the impression that she’s some kind of nympho.

Anyhow, none of these performers get any laughs — the material doesn’t really offer much support — and the whole experience is feeling a bit desultory when, ten minutes or so in, Charles Hawtrey appears. Series regular Kenneth Connor has already been introduced, as a hypochondriac neurotic, and his usual strenuous comedy stylings have been exerted, but to only moderate effect. But Hawtrey suddenly opens up a portal into some Technicolor dimension of otherness, perforating the grey British celluloid world of the film with blazing hues. Hawtrey is not quite human.

Combining the qualities of cheeky schoolboy, effete homosexual, living skeleton and dowling puppet representation of a nonagenarian, this whiff of the uncanny basically reconfigures the whole movie around his spindly base and sends it spinning off into the realms of low camp, to be followed by twenty-nine more movies.

Here’s Wikipedia on Hawtrey the man:

Hawtrey owned a house full of old brass bedsteads which the eccentric actor had hoarded, believing that “one day he would make a great deal of money from them.”

His mother’s handbag caught fire when her cigarette ash fell in. Hawtrey, without batting an eyelid, poured a cup of tea into it to put out the flames, snapped the purse shut and continued with his story.

On his deathbed, Hawtrey supposedly threw a vase at his nurse who asked for a final autograph – it was the last thing he did.

Scarcely has Hawtrey (in films since the ’20s — he flits through Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE with a single line) blown a thin hole in the screen, when an unmistakably voice pipes up from O.S. and we are introduced to Kenneth Williams, reclining on his bunk, book in hand, still in civvies and greeting the sergeant with a supercilious air of polite condescension… Williams, of course, gays the whole thing up even further, if that were possible.

Hartnell, left, and Williams, right.

Williams, who did more CARRY ONs than anyone else (hating it the whole time, according to his diaries), is on relatively restrained form here. For one thing, he’s playing a character, rather than a heightened version of himself, although he surely identified with Private Bailey’s valuing of individuality and education over team spirit and mindless drudgery. Williams doesn’t do the trick with his nostrils, which could conceivably swallow the world if he wanted them to, and he keeps his nasal voice in a lower register, shunning the catchphrase “Stop messing about!” which he used on the radio and would soon deploy in the movies. And he doesn’t do the class shift, where his voice suddenly descends the social register like a perfumed slinky from duke to guttersnipe. All that will come later. What’s fascinating is how hypnotic he is when he does little, or at any rate less.

Everybody is young, except Hartnell, and Eric Barker (who also did the ST TRINIANS series). Director Thomas (uncle of Jeremy Thomas, producer for Bertolucci and Cronenberg) actually rouses himself to attempt some camerawork, several times — a fast track along the counter where army kit is being dispensed looks to have been inspired by ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. And “inspired” isn’t a word one would use to describe the visual approach of the CARRY ONs, usually.

The film itself is a team-building piece with minimal propaganda content but still somewhat conservative, as are all the CARRY ON scripts (the team battle hippies in CARRY ON CAMPING). But the performers are already starting to take the films into a different terrain, where obviously camp men compete over gigantic women, and anytime a lumpy male puts on women’s clothing (on the slenderest plot pretext), all the other blokes immediately find him irresistible. Shoddy filmmaking and cheap end-of-the-pier jokes performed with staggering gusto by a troupe of slowly disintegrating grotesque comedy wizards.

Can’t think why the Criterion Collection hasn’t gotten around to THIS classic —

Carry On Cleo [DVD] [1965]

Half as long and forty times funnier than the Mankiewicz version.

The Bijou Terror

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2009 by dcairns

Or, HONEY I BLEW UP THE KID.

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Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE, based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (not to be confused with Hitchcock’s SECRET AGENT, or with Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR for that matter) features a terrorist bomb, intended for the London Underground, exploding on a double-decker bus. Ironically, this bizarre foreshadowing of the 7/7 bombings would have been greatly reduced had Hitch got his way and blown up a tram instead. The dispute over the form of public transport to be exploded, with Hitch arguing that a tram was more recognisably London, and producers Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu arguing that a bus was, well, cheaper, resulted in Hitch never working with the two men again, which is a shame since they’d both been very helpful in the development of his career, and even his style.

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The grimly ironic ad for THE DESCENT on the side of the London bus destroyed in the 7/7 bombings.

SABOTAGE begins, after a dictionary definition of the term (“All movies should begin with dictionary definitions of their titles,” declared Fiona), with a blackout caused by — “Sabotage!” “Wrecking!” “Deliberate.” “What’s behind it?” “Who’s responsible?” — a rhythmic exchange of lines, recalling the musical use of dialogue in MURDER! but quite a bit more sophisticated. Hitch then cuts directly to Oscar Homolka, pudging through the darkness. Quite a bold choice, to eliminate any question mark about his guilt, by way of a single cut. The device is lifted pretty directly from Fritz Lang’s SPIONE, showing how Hitch was adapting silent movie technique (Lang posed his question with an intertitle and answered it with a close-up) to the talking pictures. Oddly, rather than making his films seem old-fashioned, both then and now he looks more modern than most of his contemporaries. Possibly because, as Hitch believed, silent movie-making is true movie-making.

Michael Balcon had been busily grabbing American movie stars for Hitch, starting with the English Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, established Hollywood players who had to be lured back to Blighty, and continuing with Robert Young in SECRET AGENT. This time he scored Sylvia Sidney, who found the Hitchcock experience traumatic. Most accounts stress the unfamiliar approach Hitch took, working without establishing shots and assembling a scene from inserts, which disorientated the actress (you should always allow the actors to play the whole scene through, even if you don’t shoot it), although writer Charles Bennett reckoned Hitch wanted to “tame” or “break” a big Hollywood star. But we have to bear in mind Bennett’s bitterness towards Hitchcock (which is weird, because Bennett accepted a Hollywood contract ahead of Hitch — it was he who broke up the team).

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Homolka returns to his home, above the cinema he runs with wife Sylvia Sidney, leading to this striking shot of her discovering him in bed, his alibi being that he’s been there all along. Hitch has established the cinema and the grocery stall next door (often invoked by documentarists seeking to illustrate Hitchcock’s father’s trade) and John Loder, the undercover cop posing as a grocer to keep tabs on Homolka.

As is typical of the British Hitchcocks, direct political context is shunned, so the terrorists in this movie are never identified with a specific nation or cause. Homolka’s boss is never apprehended, because that would raise too many questions. Loder’s boss has a speech about how the ringleaders will never be caught (why?), and what they’re after is the foot soldiers.

Homolka meets his cell leader at the London Zoo aquarium, leading to one of my favourite moments, where a fish tank dissolves into a screen showing Piccadilly Circus — the next target — which then collapses and liquefies in a stunning piece of mirror-magic. Another of the subjective effects Hitch is so keen on, but a really nightmarish and imaginative one.

Also in this scene we get an uncredited Charles Hawtrey, lecturing a girlfriend (!) on the sex life of the oyster. The presence of this campy yet infantile British comedy star leads me to a brief reverie about an imaginary Hitchcock CARRY ON film, with Kenneth Williams as a master criminal and Barbara Windsor as an icy blonde, but the moment passes.

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Homolka, left, with William Dewhurst as the Professor.

Homolka visits the charmingly whimsical Professor, who runs a pet shop as cover for his work as explosives expert, then invites diverse hoodlums round to the Bijou to plan how the bomb is to be planted. Another memorable cameo here, from Peter Bull, his face like a sore balloon. Bull, who can also be seen as a heavy in an INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH film a few years later, seemed to get a lot of villain roles, despite his plummy, fruity demeanor which seems to suit him for comic roles, like the Russian ambassador in DR STRANGELOVE (keep an eye on Bull during Strangelove’s final speech, where you can see him visibly struggling to contain his laughter).

(My understanding is that Bull was Robert Morley’s lover: what a sweet couple! But I may be wrong.)

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Loder scares off the heavies, and Homolka instead entrusts the bomb to Sidney’s younger brother, Desmond Tester (jocularly known to Hitch as “the testicle”). This leads to the film’s biggest suspense sequence, and what Hitch always described as a major miscalculation on his part — the death of the boy.

But Hitchcock’s verdict on the sequence was doubtless influenced by the barracking he received from critic C.A. Lejeune, who tore into him after the press show. And the killing is essential to the plot, as conceived by Joseph Conrad and redesigned by Charles Bennett. It motivates everything that follows. If there is a mistake, it’s perhaps in treating the build-up so lightly — the comic scene of the testicle being roped into a market toothpaste demonstration, ending with a sousing in hair oil and a brusque “Now bugger off, you little basket,” prepares the audience for a light-hearted solution to the crisis. They can’t seriously intend to blow up this boy after we’ve all been laughing at him?

They do — and Hitch cuts directly to Loder, Sidney and Homolka sharing a joke at the Bijou, their laughter striking a shockingly inappropriate note (Hitch is stealing from himself here, having previously used the cut-to-laughter device after Peggy Ashcroft gets slapped in THE 39 STEPS). Truffaut observed that threatening the life of a child amounts almost to an abuse of cinematic power… There’s no question that Hitchcock is taking his philosophy of “putting the audience through it” as far as he can, but does he take it too far? The comic set-up, followed by serious mayhem (not only does the testicle get exploded, but also an adorable puppy and a sympathetic bus conductor), followed by jarring laughter, is more like the kind of calculated outrage Robert Altman would perpetrate (Altman actually directed some of Hitch’s TV show, before producer Joan Harrison fired him).

Anyhow, even if the death of the testicle was an error, everything that follows it is incredibly effective. While Sylvia Sidney’s casting raises questions, what with her English brother (the testicle’s accent sounds like a juvenile Hitch) and vaguely foreign husband, her performance in the later scenes more than compensates for the unlikeliness of her turning up as a London cinema manager. Like Fritz Lang in FURY, Hitch seems to call attention to the idiosyncrasies of her face, with the impressively wide forehead, huge eyes and lips, and tapering chin. And as in FURY, Sidney turns suffering into something beautiful.

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The use of the Disney cartoon which Sidney watches, laughing automatically and then collapsing into tears when the slapstick action reminds her of her brother’s death, deepens the film’s painful confusion of comedy and tragedy. 

The cruelest tricks Hitch plays on the audience involve the appearances of the phantom testicle, popping up in jump cuts among the crowd, or charging joyously up to her before a perfect match cut reveals him to be a different child, barging rudely past. Hitchcock may be torturing the audience, but he’s also taking the bereavement seriously, and this film really captures that feeling of momentarily seeing a familiar figure who isn’t there. It’s the perfect combination of genre storytelling, film technique and poetic evocation of experience.

Sidney’s subsequent knifing of Homolka is another classic scene of domestic homicide, strongly echoing the famous “knife!” scene of BLACKMAIL, and the family scenes in THE LODGER. This is the scene where Hitch’s star became distressed that he was filming little bits and pieces of action without her having a sense of the whole scene. To Hitch, a close-up of  didn’t require any explanation to the actress, or any real acting, so why couldn’t she just stand there and carve the meat? Of course, actors are like the rest of us: the despise doing anything without knowing the reason for it. Tell your best friend to change their shoes, but refuse to explain why. It’s going to take you a long time to persuade them. And that’s your best friend.

While a lot of the stuff about Hitchcock being down on actors is exaggerated, he must have felt some frustration at having to explain perfectly mechanical bits of business in terms of motivation. There’s that line he’s supposed to have uttered when he found a performer simply couldn’t perform: “I’ve put him on the floor, I’ve wound him up, but he won’t go!

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Nevertheless, the murder is a tour-de-force of both performance and film-making, with Homolka prompting his own death simply by being a grouchy husband at the wrong time — and something else: does he want to die? It sometimes feels like it. Though he shows no real remorse (his earlier expression of reluctance to cause death through his acts of sabotage is wonderfully perfunctory), there’s that fascinating moment when he walks right up to his knife-wielding wife and makes a little movement towards her. Hitch had liked Pierre Fresnay’s death scene in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, so he re-uses some of the idea here — that slight delay when we don’t know for sure what’s happened. Even Homolka doesn’t know he’s dead. An idea copied a thousand times! (Random nice example: Demme’s SOMETHING WILD.)

Homolka, with what Fiona calls his “great Slavic pudding of a face,” is pretty effective, even if his suspicious manner is a bit too suspicious. He could probably have afforded to go for slightly more sympathy. But he’s a striking presence, and I guess this is his closest to a leading man role. For years he would play stereotypical Russians — Ken Russell makes him wonderfully endearing in THE BILLION FOLLAR BRAIN.

Deus ex machina time: the bomb-making prof calls at the Bijou to retrieve an incriminating bird-cage, is cornered by the cops, and blows the place up, destroying the evidence of Sidney’s crime. As in BLACKMAIL, the heroine gets away with murder and is romantically united with the detective who was willing to protect her, and just as in that film, it’s an uncomfortable happy ending. Although Hitchcock doesn’t push the idea, a life with murder in one’s conscience, unable to confess, seems like a hard thing to bear.

John Loder’s casting as the hero is often regretted, especially as Robert Donat was once in the frame to play the role. He would have pulled off the humour much more stylishly. But it’s not really a star part: the cop doesn’t actually achieve anything — he doesn’t catch any of the bad guys, he doesn’t prevent the bombing, he doesn’t rescue Sidney and whisk her to the continent, as he promises. All he really manages is a nice meal at Simpson’s, a favourite eatery of Hitch’s (the Lion’s Corner House, which proved unsatisfactory in BLACKMAIL, is raised as a possibility but rejected out of hand). In a nice bit of throwaway characterisation, we realise Loder’s feelings for Sidney when he tears up the expenses claim for the meal he was going to submit at Scotland Yard.

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Food is important in Hitchcock.

If Homolka hadn’t complained about his vegetables, he might have made it to the end credits unperforated.

Sound and Fury

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2008 by dcairns

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Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, filmed by Ken Hughes.

Yes! Ken Hughes films Philip Yordan’s Macbeth-as-an-Amurrican-gangster epic, in which lumpen Paul Douglas as the titular JOE MACBETH rises to the position of kingpin in a version of the New York mafia recreated on a small scale in England. The British version of America always seems like a cheap-ass solution, or at least it does when it’s obvious. Here we get reasonable but small sets, and a few obvious stock shots to broaden out the scope. What really gives it away is the cast.

Douglas and Ruth Roman (as Lily Macbeth) are the sort of affordable American stars who could be tempted over for a British film (Douglas had appeared in the minor classic THE MAGGIE a year earlier). The supporting cast is made up of a mixture of Americans abroad (Bonar Colleano, who’s very good here as a cheeky combo of Fleance and Macduff; beetle-browed Robert Arden of MR ARKADIN fame — both these guys appeared in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH) and those Brits who could muster a convincing yank accent. I’m inclined to think the following scene will be amusing to British movie fans:

After watching THE ATOMIC MAN, in which Charles Hawtrey intrudes like a music hall apparition, I’m beginning to suspect that Ken Hughes liked having Carry On film stars pop up and wreck his ambiance just for the hell of it.

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Also prominent in this scene is Ruth Roman. She does make a terrific Lady Mac, I take back anything bad I may have said about her. I think this kind of role maybe suits her better than the more tame parts I’ve seen her in. Her biggest problem is creating any kind of heat with the doughy Douglas, who’s good at freaking out, sweating and shaking his jowls as if he’s trying to physically detach them from his face and make them fly off and stick to the walls, but his baggy, Lon Chaney Jnr. appearance is a little unhelpful in more tender moments.

R.R. plays it fierce in the early scenes, and the snappy, snippy relationship reminds me of Douglas’ marriage in LETTER TO THREE WIVES. This is an unusual version of the play in that the Macbeths actually grow closer together. As a femme fatale, seducing her husband into murder, Roman, “the nicotine-stained goddess of the denim pantsuit” (here clad in revealing gowns) is very effective — Mrs. Mac uses sex as a weapon.

As one reared on Jon Finch in the Polanski version, I had trouble imagining how Douglas and Roman could have reached the age they’re at without previously showing the ferocious ambition that overtakes them. A straight rendering of the play would offer us a supernatural catalyst, whereas here, Roman’s fortune-telling friend is an insufficient motivation. Stripping the play of the uncanny does do it quite a bit of damage. Without the prophecies about Birnam Wood and “no man of woman born”, the climax loses it’s plot twists, although Yordan arguably improves on Shakespeare by bringing Macbeth and wife to their doom together.

The femme fatale scenes make me think that a straight noir approach would work better than a gangster one. For one thing, the underworld vibe is utterly generic, with Hughes concentrating his attention on creating a viable N.Y.C. in Pinewood or wherever, so that he has no opportunity to create the specific details that make a film like SCARFACE or THE PUBLIC ENEMY so memorable. And killing a kingpin lacks the moral outrage of killing a king: murder is a commonplace in Joe Macbeth’s world, so there’s a loss of dramatic force there too.

The best bits:

1) A distant bell tolls each time a kingpin dies. When Douglas has offed his boss (Gregoire Aslan, a surprisingly gallic mafiosa), the bell is accompanied by shrieking birds, and the killer’s moral torment is reminiscent of Sydney Chaplin’s downfall in Hughes’ CONFESSION.

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2) A completely unShakespearean character, Big Dutch, an oyster-munching vulgarian played by Harry Green, who has no reason to be in the film really, but frees everyone from the need to do a paint-by-numbers Shakespeare-goes-gangster movie. His grotesque, slobbering scenes are weirdly pointless but hypnotically repellent, focusing on the act of EATING to the exclusion of all else. “What an attractive man,” remarked Fiona, dryly. Accompanied by his food taster and two weird-looking blond girlfriends, Green’s ebullient schtick is almost Lynchian in its unashamed status as gratuitous cameo grotesque. Slurp!

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3) Bonar Colleano’s reaction to the death of his family. This always seems a near-impossible scene to play. How do you act a thing like that? Hughes holds on the speaker’s face for ages, with Colleano’s suffering hidden except as mirrored in the guy’s reactions. Then he does cut to B.C. and holds on him for ages too. And Colleano pulls it off. This guy got plenty of work as a stock American in the U.K. but either got stuck with some Brit screenwriter’s idea of what a yank should be, or played nationality-neutral roles (as in the fine DANCE HALL) where his American accent raised unanswerable questions. A shame.

4) Angus (Walter Crisham). A problematic role in the play. If memory serves, Polanski and Tynan made him a traitor, just to give him something to do. Ken Campbell speculated that the seemingly pointless role was just an opportunity for Shakespeare to do a walk-on (“Cos he always liked to be in ‘is own stuff, like Hitchcock,”). Here he’s the butler at the mansion house which passes from one kingpin to another, and his willingness to serve whomever’s in charge, coupled with his revealing just how often the place changes hands, is a nice warning of how short Macbeth’s reign will be.

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Mac.