Archive for Conrad Veidt

Butter Armageddon

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 26, 2020 by dcairns

I was moved to write a complaint to Film4 the other day. yes, I’m becoming one of those people. My previous complaint was to the BBC, and was at least about something serious, a piece by their science editor that began by questioning the seriousness of the Coronavirus threat (this was before 50,000 Brits had died, so I feel history has borne me out here) and ended by suggesting we’d soon have to make some tough decisions balancing the health of the populace with the health of the economy — calculating, as Harry Lime would put it, how many of those little dots we could afford to spare.

Well, the BBC has been guilty of crimes against humanity, perhaps, but The Telegraph has our mass graves already dug.

So maybe it’s a relief to get on to something trivial. My complaint to Film4 mainly spoke about the way the film was screened in the wrong aspect ratio, so that everyone was very long and thin — OK, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson are long and thin normally, but that doesn’t explain why the moon was an oblong. Everybody knows movie moons are always full, unless they’re crescent.

This might well have been my cable provider’s fault, but have you ever tried explaining an aspect ratio problem to somebody in a call centre? If you’re very lucky they’ll understand you well enough to suggest adjusting the settings on your TV.

But the transmission in question had another problem, one that was certainly not Virgin Media’s fault. Somebody had stuck English subtitles on the first exchanges, in German, between Veidt and Hobson.

This might seem like a natural thing to do. There are several lines, and it starts to get a bit frustrating that we (the presumed non-German-speaking viewers) can’t understand the dialogue. But this is absolutely deliberate, part of the Powell-Pressburger plan. As the scene progresses, our incomprehension increases the tension, which is finally broken by a joke, and even Hobson looks relieved.

Crass as the subtitler’s unwelcome intervention was, it made me realise something about the scene. At the end of the exchange, Veidt suddenly gets a rapt look in his eye and advances upon Hobson in a Stroheimesque manner… then picks up the true object of his desire, a dish of butter, which he smells deeply, before declaring, “Butter!”

“You had me worried there for a moment,” smiles Hobson.

True, Powell hasn’t quite worked out a way of tricking the eyelines so we BELIEVE that Connie’s gaze is fixed on Val, but you can’t have everything.

The gag is part of a quaint idea that the Germans would be suffering more from food shortages than the island-bound Brits in 1917, which I’m not sure is accurate. But maybe. It’s quite late in the war.

Anyway, what I realised was that P&P were pulling the same stunt performed more showily by John McTiernan and screenwriters Larry Ferguson, Donald E. Stewart and David Shaber in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER: making a transition from a foreign language, then one which the characters would in reality be speaking (Hobson in fact spoke German fluently), to English, for the benefit of the audience, the switch being performed by use of a single word which is the same in each language. “Butter” is “butter” in German and English, and “Armageddon” is “Armageddon” in Russian and English.

McTiernan’s version works with subtitles. The Archers’ version is clearly better without.

Also, Veidt’s German is better than Sean Connery’s Russian.

THE SPY IN BLACK stars Cesare the Somnambulist; Edith D’Ascoyne; Anakin Skywalker; Conductor 71; Julia Trimble-Pomfret; Uncle Pumblechook; Halima; Sokurah the Magician; Finn – the Mute; Dr. Petrie; Joe Gargery; and Professor Auguste Balls.

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER stars James Bond; Donald Trump; Alan Shephard; Damien Thorn; Darth Vader; De Nomolos; Duncan Idaho; Joseph Andrews; Dr. Frank-N-Furter – A Scientist; Ron Carver; Moominpapa; Ed Rooney; and Dr. Beverly Crusher.

 

 

Everybody Comes to Rick’s

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2020 by dcairns

So, seven and a bit years since I last watched CASABLANCA? Too long. We ran Karen Thomas’s fine documentary Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood as a companion piece to the somewhat heavier Filmemigration aus Nazideutschland (since Hollywood apparently ran out of original titles decades ago, could not unwieldy compound words by the Next Big Thing?), and it uses CASABLANCA as a sort of fulcrum, tracing the stories of many of the film’s European participants. It made me want to see the Curtiz classic again, so we ran it.

Thoughts on character introductions, spun in the direction of the Classics for Comfort CMBA Spring Blogathon.

Bogie is introduced with a shot of his hand signing a cheque, next to a smoldering ashtray and a wineglass, then a delayed tilt up to his face once we’ve waited long enough to be curious. See also: Sean Connery’s very first appearance at the roulette wheel in DR. NO. But whereas Connery’s Bond is gambling because that’s the kind of somewhat louche character he is, Bogart’s Rick Blaine is working out a chess problem. So, while much action and dialogue is devoted to Rick’s persona as a cynical drunk who’s at heart a noble romantic, this first shot suggests that he has an analytical mind which can work out complex strategies in advance, anticipating his opponent’s moves and countering them. Exactly the skillset he deploys in the film’s dizzying third act, spinning yarns to manipulate Renault, Ilsa and Victor Laszlo (only the wily Renault successfully tricks him with his phone call to Major Strasser).

So, once again the late William Goldman’s criticisms of CASABLANCA’s opening ten minutes can be seen to be, at the very least, overstated: for all its ponderous narration and documentary montage (necessary, I think, to connect the 100% studio-bound romance with the real-world events playing out even as the movie was first screened), it’s a model of tight construction and artful foreshadowing.

The introduction of the other characters is equally cunning. It’s perfect that Strasser (Connie Veidt) arrives by plane, like Hitler at the start of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. I think it’s the only time we see real sky in the film, and the plane’s landing in a matte-shot airfield with a painted city around it completes the transition from wartime reality to big sound stage (which may previously have had a sign painted on the roof diverting prospective Japanese bombers to the nearby Lockheed plant). And the arrival by plane at the start mirrors the departure at the end (but Strasser won’t be catching that flight).

There’s a fast tilt down from a matte painting, linked to a crane shot of the studio set — freeze-frame this, and the line between painting and reality (actually just a different kind of artifice) is shockingly obvious (I’ve drawn a line through it to highlight the dark fuzzy bar) but it’s impossible to spot at normal speed. It’s a microcosm of Curtiz’s line to screenwriter Howard Koch, telling him not to worry about plot illogicalities: “I make it go so fast no one notices.”

Claude Rains’ introduction as Renault is less dramatic: you might be fooled into thinking him a subsidiary character, like Basil Exposition. But his relaxed manner is an early clue to what an enjoyable and cunning presence he’s going to be.

Sam is introduced as we enter Rick’s. Dooley Wilson is treated with considerable respect by Rick and by Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet): he’s evidently the big draw at the Cafe Americain. A shame that Ilsa will refer to him as “the boy who’s playing the piano” later. You can justify it by saying it’s the forties, but I actually question whether a Swedish character who’s never been to America would have thought of the middle-aged musician as a “boy.”

Peter Lorre’s Ugarte slides in the door with a nod to Bogie while other business is being attended to. Very casual-like. If we didn’t know him, he might be just another of the numerous bit-players already seen doing business at Rick’s (buying, selling, pickpocketing). And in fact he is just that, only he’s Peter Lorre and he’s bringing a MacGuffin that already cost two lives (Nazi lives, though, we’re shedding no tears). By his third shot, he’s lavishing us with twitchy, sweaty anxiety and making it seem jolly entertaining.

I note that there is no reason at all for Rick to accept the letters of transit from Ugarte. He doesn’t want them, he doesn’t like Ugarte and he’s not, at this stage, supposed to be interested in the resistance (and the letters have no connection to the resistance yet). It’s pure plot mechanics, puppeteering the cast in plain sight. Never mind: we want to know what happens next.

Greenstreet enters with a tracking shot that cuts through the throng, touching breast, lips and brow in a smooth salute to a Muslim associate, and takes his seat while Sam is singing: we get a musical interlude but also a bit of suspense as we wait to hear why this obviously significant figure has arrived. He tries to buy the cafe. Rick rejects his offer without hearing the price. He tries to buy Sam. “I don’t buy or sell human beings,” says Rick. “Too bad, that’s Casablanca’s leading commodity,” replies Greenstreet, typing himself as a swine but doing it with not just a twinkle (everyone twinkles at Rick’s) but with an adorable-repulsive wrinkling of the nose, as if he were Baby Spice.

Ilsa and Victor enter together in another, different tracking shot: classic Curtiz, gliding through a space at a slight angle to the action, with a tone of interesting local colour slipped in between subject and camera. 3D without glasses. Looking at all these entrances in one sequence, one is reminded, abstractly, that this was once a play (unproduced). But it never feels like one, since the space is broken up into so many different playing areas, which feel like scenes in themselves. The busy bit players are reminiscent of a much earlier phase of Warners movies, the pre-codes which often documented a particular area of American life, commerce or politics or transportation, and would often open with a flurry of tiny sketches establishing the life of the place.

Ilsa and Victor glide right past Sam, who is playing the bittersweet Plaisir D’Amour, an absurdly apposite choice if you stop to think about it. But you’re not that likely to stop. The art of story is the art of making the audience wait for what they want to see, but making them enjoy your delaying tactics too. So Bergman doesn’t immediately meet Bogie, she meets John Qualen. And then Claude Rains. And then Conrad Veidt. And then Dooley Wilson… and then there’s a really remarkable ten-second shot of Bergman just listening and thinking…

Bogie and Bergman’s eyes meet thirty-two minutes and ten seconds into CASABLANCA.

CASABLANCA stars Samuel Spade; Dr. Constance Petersen; Jeremiah (Jerry) Durrance; Dr. Jack Griffin aka The Invisible Man; Gwynplaine / Lord Clancharlie; Kasper Gutman; Joel Cairo; Felix Bassenak; Madeleine – l’attrice francaise; Gabe Tucker; Marsinah; Miser Stephens; Sylvanian Agitator; Der sterbene Homer; Danton; Aramis; Baron St. Fontanel; Nectenabus; Count Alexis Rakonin; Crunch; Lo Tinto; and Reinhard Heydrich.

For the Classics For Comfort Spring Blogathon, my five classics recommended for cosy viewing at this Difficult Time:

CASABLANCA

REAR WINDOW

THE SEVEN SAMURAI

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

LONESOME

Chosen because I could watch them anytime and they’d give me a glow.

Hollywood, England Expects

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2020 by dcairns

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Two headlines, two movies. The top one is from MGM’s ABOVE SUSPICION, directed by scowling killjoy Richard Thorpe (at least, Esther Williams found him so, and I feel Esther can be believed), in which Fred MacMurray takes Joan Crawford spying on their honeymoon. The second comes out of CONFIRM OR DENY, a Fox wartime newspaper story originally authored by Sam Fuller, who knew war and newspapers. The big-budget recreations of the Blitz are pretty staggering ~

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But I mainly liked it for the thousand faces of Roddy McDowell. Here are some ~

Fritz Lang shot for two weeks on CONFIRM OR DENY before walking off, to be replaced by Archie Mayo. Lang might have enjoyed ABOVE SUSPICION more if he’d had a shot at it: it’s a mash-up of spy movie tropes including business nicked from the original MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (assassination timed to timpani).

The most arresting moment is when Conrad Veidt demonstrates the smooth hinges of an iron maiden — and it’s the very one he was pressed into at the start of THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, fifteen years before in his Hollywood starring role. This is his last film.

Picture Play Magazine had a piece about this prop in 1928, stating that it was now on display in a Hollywood museum: it evidently remained available to filmmakers at least into the forties.

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ABOVE SUSPICION stars Walter Neff; Blanche Hudson; Gwynplaine/Lord Clancharlie; Sherlock Holmes; Ebenezer Scrooge; Aunt Patsy; Miss Margaret Phillibrown; Aunt Milly; Comrade Buljanoff; Mistress Hibbins; Timmons; Adolf Hitler / Franz Huber; Henri Cassin; Evan Adams III; Mrs. Cruncher; and Young Lieutenant – Firing Squad.

CONFIRM OR DENY stars Alexander Graham Bell; Madame Blanc; Cornelius; Ianto; E.J. Waggleberry; Reverend Cyril Playfair; Sir Alfred MacGlennon-Keith; Velma Wall; Mrs. Troll; Uncle Arn; Inspector Lestrade; Sir Mortimer Fortescue; and Knuckles.