Archive for Cornell Woolrich

John Phillip Law West of the Pecos

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2019 by dcairns

DEATH RIDES A HORSE. Also dismounts, walks about, drinks whisky-and-water, smokes a pipe. Death leads an active, outdoorsy kind of life.

This movie is Pure Cinema — pure cinema is a pretty violent place, it sometimes seems. The spaghetti western version amps everything up to eleven and reduces the script to something that could be scrawled in a matchbook. The plot is mythic, the characters iconic, which is another way of saying childish, maybe.

The movie begins with a gang of outlaws performing what Slim Pickens in BLAZING SADDLES calls a “number six” — killing the men and raping the women. Then, since it’s important that we realize these are the bad guys, they shoot some bottles, some jugs and some assorted carrots and parsnips.

No, not the vegetables!

One of the rapists is called Burt Kavanaugh which seems a bit on the nose.

So, a nasty beginning, though it manages to avoid fetishising the sexual assault, and is brief to the point of implausibility. Beginning with this violent primal scene — witnessed by the youngest child — the movie establishes an almost giallo-like tone, before turning into an episodic revenge narrative Cornell Woolrich might have approved of. Sort of The Dude Wore Black.

There’s a loophole in the “number six,” you see — a small boy, not covered in the articles of war. He survives, and through the miracle of editing grows up to be John Phillip Law, next seen shooting some objects of his own. But he does his target practice in the open air, like a civilised person.

Next, we meet Lee Van Cleef, being freed from a chain gang to the tune of one of Ennio Morricone’s finest western scores, a kind of shitkicker Carmina Burana with a male chorus that seems to have been recorded in a bathroom, in a cavern. Words cannot express.

The lyrics are pretty indecipherable but seem to include neat-o phrases like “Wiiiiild Women of Woo-gow!” though I may be mondegreening a little.

Screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni also worked on defensible films like THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY and DUCK, YOU SUCKER! (but Leone employed whole swing-gangs of writers on each film) but also on less dignified-sounding ones like MEAN FRANK AND CRAZY TONY and MR. HERCULES AGAINST KARATE.

Some great fractured compositions in the obligatory musical duel, timed to three strikes of the piano keyboard. Director Giulio Petroni worked almost exclusively in this genre, and delivers striking set-pieces as well as possibly the best landscape stuff I’ve ever seen in an Italian western.

Van Cleef is his dependable bad-ass self. Law is pretty good — the character is meant to be more callow than Eastwood’s grizzled stranger, so his lack of authority isn’t a major problem. But if the film is slightly less than the sum of its excellent/ridiculous parts, it may be because the pretty and sunny young fellow at its centre does not compellingly suggest a vengeance-driven nemesis eaten up by Hate.

DEATH RIDES A HORSE stars Angel Eyes; Pygar; Father Pablo Ramirez: Dial M for Me; Capannelle: and Boogulroo.

The Gaze

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on May 25, 2019 by dcairns

We had our friend Marvelous Mary round last night for the first time in an age. She’d just been reading about producer Joan Harrison, and I offered to screen PHANTOM LADY, a favourite film of mine. I hadn’t seen it for years, but remembered most of the iconic images. But I had forgotten the above.

Ella Raines may not be the strongest actress in history, but she had a great LOOK, in the sense both of her physiognomy and style, and in the intentness she can bring to her gaze. This is a male/female gaze movie. At one point, she seems set to stalk a man to his death by her stare alone, like Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD. And she’s the heroine!

The movie gives us a sound-stage/back-lot/process shot New York, and combines Cornell Woolrich’s fervid pulp fiction style with the noir look and the dollar-book Freud beloved of Hollywood scenarists (in this case, Bernard C. Schoenfeld, of THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW and THE SPACE CHILDREN, of all things).

The low budget seems to show only in the B-list casting (but Raines, Thomas Gomez and Franchot Tone are all perfect and Elisha Cook raises the tone, temperature and stakes) and in the curiously thin soundtrack. There’s basically no score, which allows the jazz number and song (from Carmen Miranda’s sister Aurora) to pop out, but leaves a lot of dead air on the soundtrack, which detailed atmos and effects tracks might have effectively filled… but nobody took the trouble to make this happen.

Elisha Cook Jr. gets the shaft again

However, the suspenseful climax really turns this to its advantage, the long silences pregnant with terror, the white walls of the killer’s studio complimenting the blankness of the audio. The whiteness of the white whale.

THE KILLERS and other later Siodmak noirs are far more convincingly set in a version of the real world: this movie has a comic-book simplicity to every character and every line, though details like the two mean cops discussing ice-cream flavours impart a surprisingly Tarantinoesque quality (though without any of the concomitant vulgarity).

Really nice to revisit this: may be time to delve into UNCLE HARRY, CRISS-CROSS, THE SUSPECT, again too…

Blind Tuesday: Mother of Tears

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 29, 2015 by dcairns

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The return of our occasional series of Tuesday thrillers about people who don’t see too good. We’ll get around to WAIT UNTIL DARK one day, I swear.

But for now, let’s stay Argentinian, with Carlos Hugo Christensen’s NO ABRAS NUNCA ESA PUERTA (DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR), his 1952 Cornell Woolrich compendium. We might also consider this Cornell Woolrich Week Revisited.

The first story in the film is graced with spectacular, exotic production design, but takes a while to get going and is a little unsatisfactory, at least for me, in narrative terms — which is fine, because I want to talk about the second half, which deals with a blind woman and her son, who has been away for years but returns as part of a gang of armed robbers on the run from police but already planning their next heist. All this poor woman’s hopes have been wrapped up in the idea of her prodigal’s eventual return, and now she realizes, via a tune he whistles, that he’s a dreadful criminal. The conjunction of blindness with recognition via a tune recalls Lang’s M, which was also referenced in Christensen’s other Woolrich adaptation, IF I SHOULD DIE BEFORE I WAKE. The idea of the giveaway melody also recalls CLOCKWORK ORANGE and makes me wonder if M was an influence on that? Bear in mind that Alex’s spirited if misguided rendition of Singin’ in the Rain does not occur in the Burgess source novel and was an inspiration of star Malcolm McDowell…

The story makes free use of all the traditional superpowers of blind people — the mother has acute hearing, and can easily find her way about her home due to her perfect recall of furniture placement. Like Edward Arnold in EYES IN THE DARK and Audrey Hepburn in WAIT UNTIL DARK, she renders her enemies helpless by disabling the lights. She also has to fumble about as they sleep, locating their sidearms and removing them — the film’s most suspenseful scene. Watch out for that bottle!

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Christensen again proves himself a master of suspense — this half hour entertainment, with its thoroughly satisfying and tragic twist, would stand out as a perfect episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It’s real yell-at-the-screen tension.

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Yaaah!

Delightfully and heroically, Eddie Muller’s Film Noir Foundation has rescued the film just before its negative decayed — what we need now is a DVD release so the rest of the world can enjoy it in something better than a scuzzy off-air recording.