Archive for Compton Bennett

Naval Gazing

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2015 by dcairns

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When I was a kid, the big military entertainments didn’t really mean that much to me — I don’t even remember for sure if I’ve seen WHERE EAGLES DARE. But the naval films were probably the worst, though not as noisy as air ones. So although Britain produced endless naval films both during and after the war — re-fighting the old battles all through the white heat of the technological revolution, I have seen David Lean’s IN WHICH WE SERVE and Michael Powell’s THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE and little else. And those are two of my less-favourite Lean and Powell films.

GIFT HORSE (1952) dates from a time when at least some of the US war pictures were starting to take a more considered, less triumphalist view of the conflict, now that the need for propaganda was over. Britain, feeling less secure, kept on flag-waving — but director Compton Bennett had a gift for melancholy and the five writers include the talented William Rose, whose THE LADYKILLERS conceals an iconoclastic sensibility. The film’s best moments have to do with the malfunctionings of the leaky tub gifted to embattled Britain by the US before America entered the war, and the malfunctionings of Trevor Howard’s rustbucket of a face. He’s a broken-down captain hauled out of mothballs for the war and given one last chance to salvage his holed reputation. Joining him for the voyage are numerous trusty supporting players, the kind of people these films always throng with —

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There’s no Jack Hawkins, whose involvement in RIVER PLATE was considered essential by the Admiralty — they simply couldn’t imagine taking seriously a sea picture without him, Here we benefit from less stalwart faces — a great slab of Bernard Lee, jug-eared and limpid-eyed, and the equally soulful Richard Attenborough, the babyish features that turned up with eye-glazing reliability. Here he’s amusingly cast as a former trade unionist turned “sea lawyer” — a sailor who knows his rights, knows the regulations, knows when he’s due overtime, and ends by lecturing his German captors on the Geneva Convention. His appearance is ever-predictable in these things but he always gives value for money.

The surprise bit by Hugh Williams had me rubbing my hands with glee — his oiliness always gives satisfaction, and results in an amiable surprise when he turns out to be a decent chap here. The weirdest casting is James Donald as a free-and-easy Canadian. It’s not just that he can’t do the accent, can barely suggest it in an embarrassed way, it’s that nobody was ever less free and easy than James Donald. If you want someone to stare wide-eyed at carnage and mutter “Madness. Madness!” James Donald is your man. But if you want someone with the gleam of gaiety in his eye and a devil-may-care sparkle in his smile, then please hire him and make him stand in front of James Donald. What James Donald projects is the cares of the world, boring out of his eyeholes with a soft whimper.

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Asides from the movie’s bracing melancholy — the ship fails to perform at every turn, and so do the crew, and their final victory is achieved by ramming a port, using the ship as a cudgel, then blowing her up — it also has a startling fight scene, a bar brawl in Sid James’ pub. Like the man himself, the character is an ex-pugilist, the walls of the house decorated with photographs of his past fights — the pub as metaphor for British cinema? But look what Bennett does with it ~

The Sid James Centre from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Something between COLONEL BLIMP’s jump-cut trophies and Richard Lester.

Then I turned to SINK THE BISMARCK, a 1960 Fox production in ‘Scope, but still British to the core. Doughty, doughy Kenneth More takes the Jack Hawkins part this time, playing an entirely fictitious commander parachuted into the true story because, presumably, the real sea lord didn’t want to be made into a Boy’s Own hero, or to be played by Kenneth More.

Sea battles aren’t close-quarters, which is probably why the young me didn’t care for them. They have the quality of board games, but with added death by immolation and drowning. Here, More never even gets his feet wet, directing operations from deep underneath Trafalgar Square with the beauteous Dana Wynter at his side, while the heroic death-blow at sea is struck by, of all people, Michael Hordern. In a long and varied career I doubt he had that privilege very often.

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Journeyman director Lewis Gilbert keeps the thing trundling along relatively briskly, and the only painful bits are the hackneyed scenes with Admiral Lutyens, played by Karel Stepanek, who can do nothing with the boilerplate Nazi they’ve written for him. In a misguided attempt at expressionism or something, Gilbert introduces the character (left of frame, above) with his back to us, head apparently ablaze. We sense that he’s smoking some evil brand of National Socialist tobacco, but the illusion that his scalp is on fire is inescapable and inappropriately amusing.

The other interesting bit of weak direction comes when More gets the news that his son is lost at sea (and the production, to their credit, did manage to find an actor with the same cuboid head as More). Hearing the tragic news on the phone, More closes his eyes in silent grief.

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Later, hearing on the phone that his son has been rescued, More closes his eyes in silent relief.

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Calling Comrade Kuleshov! Ken More makes the same face for grief and relief! Since the rest of More’s face is just a frowning thumb, I wondered what other choices were open to the filmmakers, and remembered Billy Wilder’s advice that you should always try to film actors getting bad news from the back. And then I remembered Werner Herzog listening to that guy getting eaten by bears in GRIZZLY MAN, and how he instead filmed someone else simply watching him listening to it, without being able to hear it, setting the snuff recording back by about three removes from the eventual audience. So I figured Gilbert should have cut to Dana Wynter, who has a far lovelier and more expressive face than More, and watched her watching her, capturing her reaction as she realizes what’s happened.

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SINK THE BISMARCK! is edited by Peter Hunt, a very talented cutter who helped set the pacey style for the Bond series, and directed one of the very best, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. But I think his talent was more for the action stuff than for scenes or emotion.

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Both movies cope mostly with real ship manoeuvres filmed specially, closer views of crew taken in the studio against variable cycloramas, and stock shots from the war, but both have occasionally to resort to special effects, and these sometimes get a bit psychedelic (above), though not as surreal as those watery explosions in DAMBUSTERS. Bennett and Gilbert both favour a stationary camera, which does the action no favours — I’m not calling for Paul Greengrass but a bit of sway would help things — but at least Gilbert has good model shots to work with — even the sea, usually a dead giveaway in model shots, looks convincing.

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Morning Is Broken

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on June 17, 2010 by dcairns

New Forgotten! Over at the Daily Notebook. This one’s very much forgotten, and very much deserves to be remembered. Sublime.

I am Giggling…Why?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2008 by dcairns

“The secrets of the analyst’s couch are like those of the confessional, only more interesting.” ~ John Collier.

Two films touching on the theme of psychoanalysis, then: Compton Bennett’s THE SEVENTH VEIL, whose very title suggests a relation between the seductive and the psychotherapeutic, and I AM FRIGID…WHY?, a demented dollop of Euro-sleaze from the febrile “mind” of Max Pecas.

THE SEVENTH VEIL is a woman’s picture from Gainsborough Films, makers of “classy” bodice-ripping romps like THE WICKED LADY and THE MAN IN GREY. All these films helped make a star out of James Mason as Britain’s leading attractive brute, raping and beating his way across the Flowers of Young English Womanhood to the delight of repressed 1940s audiences.

T7V takes James away from the period trappings, where he could safely say things like, “It’ll make a change, taking you by force,” and sets him up as a rich, neurotic cripple who forms a controlling obsession for his young ward, Ann Todd, a brilliant pianist. (This reminds me of Ann’s namesake SWEENEY TODD — you wait ages for a movie about a man lusting after his ward, then two come along at once. The only other one I can even think of is BATMAN AND ROBIN.)

Ann T is the star and female sensibility through which events are filtered, but they get further filtration from smooth-talking head-shrinker Herbert Lom (full name: Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru — I’ve been known to recite this at parties so be warned) who is treating her for suicidal depression and a fixated belief that her hands are paralysed, which they aren’t.

HCAKZS puts her under hypnosis, and she sorta drifts into flashback…

…and we realise what a big influence this flick had on Hollywood melodramas like POSSESSED, etc. Even the “technical terms” used, like narcosis and mutism, are the same. Todd’s case history emerges from these induced flashbacks, and we see her as a schoolgirl, entrusted to the “care” of James Mason, a distant relation in every sense:

Masonry

Ann T. espies Mr. Mason’s pussycat. “Would you like to stroke her?” he offers. She demurs tremulously.

Poor Ann has already failed to win a music scholarship after being caned on her hands, but the chilly Mason senses her talents and sets about molding her, Svengali-fashion, into a star. This rampant control-freakery soon extends to breaking up relationships with perfectly nice men. After YEARS of this, Todd finally rebels, tells her Wicked Uncle that she’s leaving…

Hot Toddy

Mason is kind of affecting here, because he wants to reach out to her, but his neurotic coldness won’t let him, and so —

Whack-O!

In an iconic moment of British ’40s melodrama, a wigged-out J.M. tries to smash his beloved’s fingers with his cane (Mason is Romantically Crippled, like Byron). Fleeing with her podgy German portrait-painter beau, Todd gets into a car-crash and injures her hands, though not seriously.

Now Lom has the facts. Like the best Freudian detectives, he seeks out the “suspects” and gets additional info from them, then calls them all together. Podgy Teuton, Mason, and Todd’s first love, the wise-cracking yank. Lom then effects a MIRACLE CURE simply by PLAYING A RECORD to Todd, who descends the stairs into the roomful of waiting swains, ready, like Lassie, to go to the one she loves the most.

And she chooses… well, it might be unfair to give this away. But if I say “the highest paid actor” and “the one more in need of psychiatric care than herself” you’ll probably get it. It’s a fascinating turn of events because the film gives absolutely no clue as to how this relationship is now supposed to work. A.T. has been cured of her fear, but will her new lover be able to express the tender emotions that have completely defeated him thus far? Is this going to be an s.m.-type relationship? Does Herbert Lom know what the hell he’s playing at?

The ending feels like a very bold piece of provocation: we are being asked, What do we think of this? Can we make sense of it? The filmmaker, of course, is copping out of his usual responsibility, that of telling us what to think. This means the film is either incomplete, devoid of meaning, or mature, treating its audience as thinking beings. I’d say Compton Bennett has actually hit on a way of EXPLOITING inconclusive narrative for financial gain.

Everybody’s very good in this movie. Mason gets to be brooding and uptight. Ann Todd is a revelation: always a slightly cold actress, here she exhibits an impressive range, even convincing in ponytails as a schoolgirl — she does an even better job that Joan Fontaine in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. Neither can convince as teenage, physically, but both do a great job with childlike body language. Certainly better than Sandra Julien in I AM FRIGID…WHY?

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Sandra, as the virginal Doris, is rendered frigid by the trauma of rape in a greenhouse, then must Walk the Earth in search of sexual kicks that might break through her psychological block. These include Kubrickian masked orgies, fey spanking sessions, and listless lesbianism, all filmed with oppressively coloured-gel-lighting, soft-focus and starburst filters until you’re aching for somebody to OPEN A BLOODY WINDOW.

Eyes Wide Apart

Orgy and Mess

Spankyman

There’s also the “theatrical troupe” glimpsed in the vid above:

Mr Boomtastic

But Doris only finds true happiness at the movie’s end, where she is able to have pure, loving consensual sex… in the greenhouse she was raped in… with the man who raped her.

Botanic antics

The psychoanalytic narrative seems to have been seen as a great excuse to abandon all narrative logic and have characters behave in a totally incredible way. Since understanding human nature is the speciality of SCIENCE, it’s OK for the behaviour in these films to make no sense to the audience.

I kind of have to hand it to Max Pecas for making a film as ludicrous as IAF…W? and still managing to have it be so outrageously offensive. Despite its campy surface (the men, though nominally straight, all seem like gay stereotypes) the flick seems to seriously propose the idea that revisiting a trauma can cure it — a popular Freudian fantasy (still big in Scientology), but even if Pecas was determined to follow this narrative (while making an erotic film about frigidity, itself a perverse idea)…still. The film can only be acceptable if we see it as 100% sexual fantasy and 0% sexual politics, but can a film entirely rid itself of any relationship to life? And should it?

The Audience

“I want to take you to the dernieres limites d’erotisme.” ~ Alain Cuny, EMMANUELLE.