Archive for Charles Vanel

Bathroom of Mystery

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2015 by dcairns

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Marking and hand-in time at college so my part-time job has become a full-time one for the moment, but to make myself even more tired I decided to do some midnight grouting. This did the trick and actually helped me sleep, I think. Light physical work after a day of mental work is quite relaxing. Of course, the fatigued efforts of an inexperienced grouter are not necessarily going to be the best you can get — the bathroom kind of looks as if the Michelin Man has committed suicide in it.

But I also found time to enjoy all 383 minutes of LA MAISON DU MYSTERE, and this forms the basis for this fortnight’s edition of, you guessed it, The Forgotten. The 1923 serial is available from Flicker Alley and features translation and liner notes by my chum Lenny Borger, and music by other chum Neil Brand. Linkage.

King Fu Fighting

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2012 by dcairns

Ah, Karl Grune! I’ve only seen his DIE STRASSE and already I know this is a man I would like to clap on the back and present with a packet of Trebor Extra Strong Mints. And I feel sure that he would accept this gift in the spirit in which it was offered. I have wondered if the famous image of the optician’s sign in that quasi-expressionistic meisterwerk could have inspired the similarly sinister sign that looks down on the characters of The Great Gatsby, published just afterwards (Ah, the twenties were very different things in German and America! — so this connection seems nice, somehow.)

But now — HOT WOW! — I’ve seen THE YELLOW HOUSE IN RIO, the French (Pathe-Natan) version of a UFA caper which shows Herr Grune in more antic mode. And it seems very much as if you CAN make a movie about a mad Chinese strangler with Pirandellian confusions of life and theatre, in two languages and with two casts, and have it be a minor-league classic.

This is the French version (full disclosure: I watched without subtitles, in a state of sort-of getting-the-gist, alternately frowny and delighted) — I haven’t heard of any of the cast of the German version, though one of them is called Charles Puffy, which does make me smile. In the French one, Charles Vanel, apparently bound by law to appear in every Pathe-Natan feature, appears twice, once as Scalpa the great actor, and once as King Fu  the mad strangler. (Is there a porno version where he’s Fu King?) If you have trouble believing Charles Vanel as the Yellow Peril, this film may not be for you. I found him every bit as convincing as Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Peter Sellers in similar roles…

So, the film is defiantly German in style, but with maybe a French lightness — but that makes it all the more bizarre. It hinges around two set-piece scenes, sandwiching a lot of talkier bits I frankly couldn’t follow. In the first highlight, our leading man Jacques Maury finds himself and the leading lady (Renée Héribel — another Pathe-Natan fave — she starred in LES TROIS MASQUES, the first French talkie, and co-starred in Gabin’s first movie too) abducted by the oriental fiend and threatened with noxious villainy if Renée will not dance. But it’s all an act — an audition to see if Jacques is right for the show, and he passes with flying colours.

The show opens, but there’s a REAL King Fu too — at the crazy climax, he takes the place of the actor and threatens our leading man for real. The curtain rises, surprising Fu, but he realizes he can do anything in front of the audience, who don’t believe it’s real. And he really does want to see Renée dance… Poor Jacques nearly has his arms yanked out by Fu’s devilish associates (yes, he’s a gang leader, also), all in front of a mildly appreciative crowd. Pirandello was never so grand guignol.

About the grand guignol… according to Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror, the French theatre of atrocities was very popular with the occupying Nazi forces in WWII. It makes sense, really, when you think about it. But several of the stars entertaining the SS, night after night, were secretly members of the resistance, who would have liked nothing better than to get their smartly-uniformed audience onstage for a bit of bloody participation.

This image, of the fake horror onstage and the real horror in the audience, always struck me as a great subject, and I haven’t pursued this story only because I’m not French. But now, as it happens, I’m making a French film (more later), so I figure, why not? If anybody wants to pay for my Grand Guignol script, maybe it’ll be my next project… I’ll be sure to steal a few ideas from Herr Grune.

Askew

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2012 by dcairns

Harry Baur’s marble-dusted complexion makes him blend seamlessly with the statue he’s propping up, an impressively gargoylesque opening image…

The crowning glory of Pathe-Natan, delivered just before the financial axe fell, was Raymond Bernard’s five-hour epic LES MISERABLES. I feel this masterwork is disqualified from appearing as a piece in The Forgotten, by virtue of its being available from the Criterion Collection (along with Bernard’s WWI epic LES CROIX DE BOIS) but I can and enthusiastically will write about it here.

As a kind of three film mini-series, the Victor Hugo adaptation delivers the long-form pleasures distinct to works such as LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS and THE MYSTERIES OF LISBON — we get to meet a large number of characters, to observe them over time, seeing them grow up or age, and seeing them tested to destruction by the forces of history and/or narrative.

Shamefully, I’ve never read any Hugo, and the only other adaptation of this one that I’ve seen was the Twentieth Century Fox version produced a year later, which conspicuously lacks the epic sweep even if it has big splashy set-pieces and fine stars (though Fredric March seems miscast — he might even have traded roles with Laughton to better effect).

Bernard commands a giant production, and delivers it with his favourite stylistic devices, most of which seem to have been popular at Pathe-Natan and maybe owe something to Gance, while prefiguring Welles: sweeping camera moves, frantic montages of action, and especially in part three, a flurry of handheld shots to simulate the chaos of battle. Bernard also loves his tilted angles, as Michael Koresky says in his excellent liner notes: “The result was a faithful, as well as compellingly askew, vision of the book’s post–Napoleonic era France, from the ballrooms of the aristocracy (shot at such a drastic angle at one point that the dancers look as though they may slide right out of the frame) to the impoverished back alleys of thieves and prostitutes (evoked with palpable decrepitude and anguish) to the barricades of the 1832 student revolt (filmed at times with remarkable handheld fury).”

Such a film also needs strong performers, and it has them: Charles Vanel channels his granite gravitas into the stiff and grudging Javert, allowing the character’s blinkered obsessiveness to emerge slllooowwwlllyyy. He also, in his final scene, manages to closely resemble the great Dick Miller, and there can be no higher praise in my book. The film’s real discovery is little Gaby Triquette as the child Cosette, a wondrously natural and expressive kid. In a brief five-year career she managed to work for Bernard, Julien Duvivier, Abel Gance and Marcel L’Herbier.

This fairy-tale nightmare forest — complete with handheld lurch towards eerie skull-faced tree hollow — might have influenced SNOW WHITE — Bernard Natan visited Disney in 1934 and bought the French rights to Mickey Mouse.

There’s also the astonishingly youthful Jean Servais, whom I knew from his much later performances in RIFIFI and TAMANGO. Next time I see one of those I may start to cry, because his descent from handsome young blade in 1934 to the raddled and hangdog figure of Tony le Stephanois is heartbreaking. Whatever he went through in the intervening years, including World War Two, it must have been pretty devastating.

Servais, right. I think in this shot, Raymond Bernard has found Servais’ perfect angle.

But the movie is inevitably dominated by its Jean Valjean, the incomparable Harry Baur. Again, the film has an actor unafraid to take his time, so he spends the first half hour as a hulking brute, frustrating us with his unwillingness to learn from experience — and then he starts to weep and it’s devastating. From then on, he holds not just our attention but our admiration with his hulking anthropophagous of a performance. It’s always tricky when a movie casts a tall, fat actor as a very strong character: do we believe he’s a tough guy, or is he just extremely large? Possibly a man that size needs to be superhumanly strong just to move around? Baur sells the fight scene where he defeats seven assailants, but the last act, where he carries Jean Servais on his back through the streets, down a ladder into the sewers, and then through shoulder-high filth, is where we really had to sit back and admit this guy is TOUGH.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)

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