Archive for Danger: Love at Work

I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2008 by dcairns

I wasn’t planning on having a Fever Dream Double Feature set in lighthouses, but right after I finally watched Michael Powell’s THE PHANTOM LIGHT, I remembered that I had recently acquired SHIT! THE OCTOPUS, another lighthouse-set comedy thriller, and the synchronicity seemed to strong to resist.

(NB: It’s not really called SHIT! THE OCTOPUS, it’s called SH! THE OCTOPUS, but what I said above about struggling to resist synchronicity goes double here. It’s a very shit film whose title suggests that it might almost be called SHIT! THE OCTOPUS. What can I say?)

THE PHANTOM LIGHT begins with a powerful and terrifying non-diegetic sequence of disembodied reaching arm and beautiful title lettering and storm sounds and windy music and WOW! Then it settles down to a more clunky formula of comedy patter and sloppy plotting, with sudden bursts of invention and atmosphere. This is definitely NOT a quota quickie. The QQs were made to fill a government order that a certain proportion of films in British cinemas HAD to be British productions. This ruling was imposed on the film industry with no consultation, so the filmmakers struggled to fulfill the sudden new production demands. The idea took hold that films could be made JUST to fulfill the quote — they need not have any particular qualities, other than the ability to be projected on a screen. I wish this were LITERALLY true, we could have advanced avant garde cinema by decades. Five reels of Piccadily Circus on a foggy evening — add a V.O. by W.H. Auden and away you go. Didn’t happen. But what it meant in practice was opportunities for a lot of budding filmmakers. They could try, and fail, and try again. Entire careers were built on nothing but failure. Powell failed upwards from the start, building up his technical understanding of film storytelling, and occasionally daring to experiment with the more outré techniques which would in due course make his name.

As I said, THE PHANTOM LIGHT isn’t a quota quickie. It boasts considerable location shooting, including actual night shoots, and a couple of quasi-stars: Gordon (INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH) Harker, and Donald Calthrop (whose career would be hampered when a starlet spontaneously combusted in his dressing room) as “David Owen”, which happens to be my two first names. That said, it predates Powell’s collaboration with Emeric Pressburger so it’s not a major work. Cinematically it stands comparison with the later EDGE OF THE WORLD, but lacks that film’s artistic ambition. THE PHANTOM LIGHT is a pure genre piece with some experimental touches.

Most of these touches clearly owe a lot to Powell’s brilliant editor, Derek Twist, who would rescue EDGE OF THE WORLD from a morass of uncoordinated coverage and nature photography. Here, Powell has done his job well by providing Twist with lots of atmospheric detail shots of the lighthouse and its environs, and Twist uses this material to build suspense, creating virtual walk-throughs of the set, and sequences that almost break the mechanics of the lighthouse down into technical schematics. At the climax, as a ship heads for the rocks, he frenziedly piles shot upon shot in a manner that’s probably influenced by the Russian montage school, but in its hyperactive zest more closely approximates the earlier effects of the White Russian filmmakers in France in the 1910s.

He also has a very neat trick of interrupting talk scenes with very quick cutaways — typically about a second — of spooky activity, simultaneous plot developments, jeopardy, or just random lighthouse business. The ruptured rhythm approach foreshadows P&P’s later films, cut by both Derek Twist and Reginald Mills, which often break drifty, oneiric sequences with sudden shock close-ups: think of the climax of BLACK NARCISSUS or even the ballet in THE RED SHOES. In the case of THE PHANTOM LIGHT, the fractured pacing keeps the audience alert and gives the film far more surprise than its plot can provide (the biggest narrative shock comes AFTER THE ENDING, when we realise that a major story point, the identity of the leading lady’s character, has still not been resolved).

Asides from these pleasures, the film has a lot of unreliable Welsh accents, cheeky dialogue, and Gordon Harker, whose grumpy exterior should have been listed by the National Trust. If I can quote my own INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH article —

A phantasie ~ I want to take Gordon Harker gently by those protruding, handle-like ears, lifting his head free from its cradling shoulders, and tipping it forwards until hot tea spills from his protruding, spout-like lower lip, filling a saucer with rippling reflections. When the tea is drunk, the patterns left by the leaves will spell out, not the future, nor yet a bygone age, but a never-was era of whimsy and intrigue.

SHIT! THE OCTOPUS (1937) is a different kettle of kippers altogether. Based on a couple of plays, apparently wedged together with all their dramatis personae and major incidents intact, the film aspires to the title of Ludicrous Mish-mash, but lacks the cohesiveness to quite attain it. Allen “Officer Dibble” Jenkins and Hugh “Woo-woo!” Herbert play incompetent Irish cops on the trail of a crime lord called the Octopus. They pursue him to a lighthouse without stairs, home to a supposed artist, and are all attacked by a real octopus. Shit indeed.

Characters keep turning up until the screen is thronging with irrelevance. The basic comedy motor is missing. Instead of being a bungling sidekick, Hugh H is a joker, and annoying quip-making character who never says anything funny but is perpetually amusing  to himself. No wonder Jenkins seems to be in a constant tizz. The writers, all eleventy-hundred of them, have gone for a sub-sub-sub-Marx Bros zaniness where the comedy thriller set-up would benefit from characters who actually display cowardice, stupidity, avarice, and other actual human emotions, which can be funny.

What the film does have going for it, although it doesn’t add up to much at the time, is a lot of strange and disturbing imagery. It’s meant to be funny, but is basically creepy and queasy and ooky. In this the film oddly resembles Otto Preminger’s unhilarious DANGER: LOVE AT WORK.

This seems to be Elspeth Dudgeon from THE OLD DARK HOUSE, and she’s just done a transformation by coloured filter a la Mamoulian’s JEKYLL AND HYDE. A nasty moment.

The octopus spends most of its time in the next room, reaching through whenever it wants something. I sometimes wish Julian Sands would adopt the same approach in his movies.

Cinematographer Arthur L Todd. Slow but reliable.

Your basic big bowl o’ wrong.

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Danger: Otto at work

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2008 by dcairns

“Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine.” ~ Vincent Price.

The Brown Bunny

In this age of high oddness — more things are available to see on home video than ever before, but not necessarily the RIGHT THINGS — it is particularly odd that Otto Preminger’s second Hollywood feature, DANGER, LOVE AT WORK, should be available from the BFI on DVD. Why not his first feature? Why not his only pre-Hollywood film? They might be completely negligible (Otto thought so), but then, so is this.

My dog-eared copy of Halliwell’s Film Guide calls the film “not inconsiderable”, which might be true, but I would go so far as to actually call it “considerable” either. Halliwell then compares the film to YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, which is bang on the money (something that can rarely be said for the once ubiquitous Leslie H, a steaming middlebrow who didn’t love anything made after 1968) — both films try to create comedy out of an excess of eccentricity. Both have dated badly and can irritate more than they amuse.

Preminger claimed that studio head Darryl Zanuck, having handed him the project, tried to foist Simone Simon upon the director as leading lady. OP protested that with SS’s scanty command of English she would be unable to cope with the current fashion for fast-talking screwball dialogue, and he claims that after a couple of days filming he was proved right. Simone was sent packing, only making her real mark in American movies a few years later at RKO.

I find it hard to believe that Zanuck would cast Simon as the daughter of a family of wealthy American eccentrics. How would he get around her obvious ooh-la-la? Some studio bosses may have been stupid, but Zanuck wasn’t one of them. Preminger tells this story in Gerald Pratley’s critical study of the director (mostly a bunch of Otto anecdotes), again in his ottobiography, and it’s repeated in Willi Frischauer’s unauthorised bio (mostly a bunch of suspiciously similar Otto anecdotes), but I’d love to hear the Zanuck version, or better yet, an account by a neutral third party.

Anyhow, Ann Sothern landed the part, and she’s the most appealing feature of the film, sexy and zesty and doing a bit of a Katherine Hepburn impersonation but not so’s it gets annoying.

Sothern Comfort 

Preminger further claims that Zanuck LOVED what he did with the film, and this is harder still to accept, since it’s conspicuously UNamusing for a comedy of this period (it’s pretty hard to find dull studio comedies of this era, though they do exist). The film also lacks much of Preminger’s flowing visual style, tending to cut into closer views whenever it threatens to get any visual momentum going. The exception is a nice shot that follows Jack Haley and Ann Sothern out of a bedroom, along a looong landing and down a staircase, which also serves as build-up to Edward Everett Horton’s entrance.

Horton Hears a Hoo

Horton (see B. Kite’s splendid profile in The Believer: “Edward Everett, are you gay?”) is another of the film’s delights, cast flamboyantly against type as a notoriously “masterful” he-man. As interpreted by EEH, this character is a mass of neurotic tics, obviously living a lie: HE knows he’s not masterful, and he expects at any instant to be rumbled by all and sundry, and so he strides around in a perpetual tizzy at the thought of his imminent shaming. A joy.

Jack Haley is a weak spot as leading hombre. With the appearance of a cherub gone to seed, he apparently thinks he’s CUTE. Fiona didn’t recognise the Tin Man without his lead-based face paint. He proves to be one of those select unfortunate actors who only really works when he’s wearing a funnel on his head. Richard Gere is another.

Fiona: “I don’t recall Richard Gere ever wearing a funnel on his head.”

Me: “He never had. But BOY does he need one.”

Also troublesome: John Carradine as Hollywood’s idea of a modern artist. One enjoys the Carradine presence, of course — a cadaver jerked about by invisible wires — but the loony modern artist is a tiresome comic trope. Then there’s the irritating kid — the problem here is that most Hollywood kids are already irksome without seeming to try (well, they DO try, awfully hard, but to be sweet and moppet-like rather than irksome), so an annoying little professional who’s actually an ass-pain ON PURPOSE is more than can be stood without anaesthetic.

Surviving Picasso

What I’m really complaining about is an accumulation of bits of zaniness, that tiresome substitute for the genuinely surprising. In a zany context, almost nothing is surprising except shock brutality (Jack Haley savagely kicking the little boy into a mud puddle isn’t funny exactly, but it’s a welcome change of tone). And surprise is lifesblood to comedy.

10,000 BC

But but but — Preminger was not totally without comedy props. His two Lubitsch-related films are hard to see, but I did manage to get my mitts on a VHS off-air recording of A ROYAL SCANDAL, made under the Great Ernst’s supervision (the other “collaboration”, THAT LADY IN ERMINE, was developed by Lubitsch then taken over by Otto after the maestro was struck down by post-coital heart attack). The film has just gotten a BFI DVD release.

And it’s pretty good! While most attention has focused on the film being unusually weak for a Lubitsch comedy, one could as well say that it’s unusually funny for a Preminger comedy. And it has Charles “Piggy-Wiggy”Coburn, who can’t NOT be funny unless seriously handicapped. The script seems to get wittier when he’s around, possibly because he’s playing a Macchiavellian rogue politician and that’s something both Lubitsch and Preminger can get a kick out of. Vincent Price is enjoyable as ever and in the lead, Tallulah Bankhead is a great Catherine the Great.

The Queen

William Eythe is the weak spot here — his timing is impeccable (EVERYBODY’S timing is impeccable when Lubitsch is lurking by, he mines comedy from the unlikeliest people) but he lacks charisma, and even in a tight white uniform he doesn’t really have what it takes to explain Tallulah’s lust for him. But he does get the best gag in the film…

Tallulah has laid her cards on the table — she hasn’t laid William but she’s declared she wants to. He steps away from the divan where she reclines and retreats to the wall. Pensive, abstracted in deep thought, he paces the room. For a long time he paces. Preminger’s camera follows him in one of those long, elegant tracks. Then — double take! he paces right into Tallulah, who has left her divan, unseen by us and him, to stand patiently in his path and wait for him to pace into her velvety clutches.

It doesn’t sound much, but it’s an elegant joke on the camera’s ability to be fooled, during a long take, if things don’t stay still. It marks the point in the film where Lubitsch’s wit and Preminger’s rather different pure style come together for one glorious moment.

The Importance of Being Ernst

Otto eroticism

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2008 by dcairns

Les Valseuses 

Going by these frame grabs, you might think Preminger’s second Ho’wood flick, DANGER: LOVE AT WORK was much more sexual than his controversial ’50s sex comedy THE MOON IS BLUE, a film which shattered the Hays Code’s authority over the movie industry but which is pretty tame (the use of phrases like “professional virgin” and “pregnant” is what caused the controv.) By contrast, the following out-of-context images are HOT STUFF and should probably not be viewed by anybody under the age of, oh, 34.

The Naked Man

Tarzan the Ape Man

Caveman

baby love

The Sticky Fingers of Time

The stained digits of Edward Everett Horton. How’s THAT for polymorphous perversity? I shall pass over the next two images in silence:

The Chase

Beauty and the Beast

Alas, I think these particular shots give a somewhat false idea of how sexual (and funny) the film is. More on it later.

La Bete

Look out Richard Gere!