Archive for David Melville

Forbidden Divas: All the Way to the Bank

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2018 by dcairns

Met up with David Melville Wingrove at Filmhouse yesterday — it was like one of those spy movie handovers of documents — and thus am able to bring you another of his marvelous works ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

All the Way to the Bank

 

“I don’t worry about the news. I am the news!”

–          Romy Schneider, La Banquière

A late friend who worked in films in the 60s used to grow misty-eyed whenever he spoke of Romy Schneider. “Ah, poor dear Romy,” he would sigh and gaze wistfully into the middle distance. “She was a lesbian, you know.” He made the word sound dangerously exotic and glamorous. He also gave the impression of not being entirely sure what the word meant. My friend is long gone and I have no idea where his story came from. Quite apart from her 25 years of screen stardom, Romy Schneider was famous in the European press for her colourful and rather tortured love life – which may well have included women as well as men. She had a very public affair in the early 60s with Alain Delon and they appeared together (notoriously) as incestuous lovers in Luchino Visconti’s stage production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in Paris in 1961. Her death from suicide in 1982 (following the death of her eldest son) sparked an outburst of public mourning comparable with that of Princess Diana or Eva Perón.

Even in her earliest youth, it was difficult to separate the life of Romy Schneider from the fantasy of her life as it was seen by her adoring fans. From 1954 to 1957, the teenage Austria actress became famous worldwide with a series of four films based on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (better known as ‘Sissi’) who was, essentially, the Princess Diana of the 19th century. The films are hideous – stodgy and interminable operettas, minus the songs – but the young Romy gives them a zest that Ernst Marischka’s direction entirely lacks. She became, from that moment, the uncrowned ‘little princess’ of Europe and recreated her role as Sissi in the Luchino Visconti film Ludwig (1972). Her public throughout her life was largely European. Despite – or perhaps because of – her roles in What’s New, Pussycat? (1965) and Bloodline (1979) audiences in Britain and the United States never took to her at all.

From the late 60s, Romy Schneider was based primarily in France. She won the César for Best Actress twice – for Andrzej Zulawski’s L’important c’est d’aimer (1975) and Claude Sautet’s Une histoire simple (1978) – and was easily the most famous Austrian to become an honorary Frenchwoman since Marie Antoinette. It goes without saying that Romy was vastly more popular, yet what a lavish and sensational biopic that might have made! The Francis Girod film La Banquière (1980) is not exactly a biopic. It was based loosely on the life of a real-life businesswoman, Marthe Hanau, but the name and most of the details have been fictionalised. It is in no way comparable, on an artistic level, with the work of Zulawski or Sautet. But it is arguably the one film (post-Sissi) that best sums up Romy’s iconic star presence.

Her character in La Banquière is not simply a banker. She is a working-class Jewish left-wing bisexual woman banker. A difficult enough role to pull off at the best of times, but against the politically charged backdrop of France in the 1920s and 30s, even the attempt would seem little short of heroic. Emma Eckhert (as her character is renamed) starts off as a delivery girl at her parents’ hat shop in the years before World War I. She goes to prison at a young age for ‘moral turpitude’ – after she is caught in bed with an aristocratic lady client. Shot in black-and-white, this prologue serves to establish two vitally important facts. Firstly, that this lady has an eye for other ladies. Secondly, that she has a keen and far more discriminating eye for hats. Not since Silvana Mangano in Death in Venice (1971) has any star sported such a dazzling array of headgear as Romy Schneider does here. They are designed by Jean Barthet, who was best known for the Technicolor cartwheels worn by the Deneuve-Dorléac sisters in The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). The advantage of his designs for La Banquière is that one may wear them without posing a danger to low-flying aircraft.

Once out of prison (and shot now in radiant colour) Emma wastes no time in getting married to an aristocratic mari complaisant. We assume he must be gay, partly because he seems unfazed by her affairs with other women and partly because he is played by Jean-Claude Brialy, one of the few ‘out’ French actors to survive the unpleasantly macho climate of the New Wave. (With films by Marcel Carné, Jean Cocteau, Marcel L’Herbier and Marc Allégret, among others, the much-ridiculed cinéma de papa of the 40s and 50s was artistically less adventurous, perhaps, but also a good deal gayer!) Emma pours most of her energy into building up a banking empire based on a new and revolutionary concept. At a time when large and established banks dole out a measly 1% in interest, the Eckhert Bank pays investors a whopping 8% on their savings. This involves, inevitably, some reckless high-stakes speculation and some insider trading of frankly dubious legality. Yet its central tenet is that ordinary folk should get a share in the profits of the banks. This was as strange and subversive an idea in 1930 as it is today.

Before long, Emma becomes a heroine to the lower middle classes of provincial France, known and adored universally as ‘Madame 8%’. Refreshingly uninhibited by paltry notions of good taste, she decorates her Christmas tree with giant gilded baubles carved in the figure of 8%. We may take this as a sign that she has, by and large, left her Jewish identity behind her. The ethical issues around casting Schneider as a Jewish woman are multiple and complex. Her mother, the actress Magda Schneider, was an ardent Nazi supporter who took her little girl to play-dates with the children of Doctor Josef Goebbels. Romy – who suffered a degree of guilt over this later in life – worked hard both on-screen and off to distance herself from her mother’s political views. In the last decade of her career, she repeatedly played a woman who suffered due to Nazi atrocities. In Le Train (1972) and La Passante du Sans-Souci (1982) she would play a Jewish refugee. In Le Vieux Fusil (1975) her character is savagely raped and killed by Nazi troops.

Taking on any or all of these roles demanded a moral courage that would make Jane Fonda turn pale. They make doubly distasteful the comments of Dirk Bogarde, who turned down Romy Schneider as his co-star in The Night Porter (1974) on the grounds that: “She would have to play the Nazi and I would have to play the victim.” Her character in La Banquière does not survive to see the Second World War and the role of the French authorities in the Nazi holocaust. An affair with a young left-wing journalist (Daniel Mesguich) leads Madame Eckhert further and further into the progressive and anti-Establishment politics of France in the 1930s. It leads also – in a twist that could only happen in a French film – to an enduring if Platonic friendship with his wife (Marie-France Pisier). Yet it also earns her the enmity of the Big Bad Bankers, led by a malevolently glowering Jean-Louis Trintignant and his bland but insidious boy-toy (Daniel Auteuil) who goes so far as to wear lipstick in his very first scene. These men decide to put a stop to Madame Eckhert and her anarchic business practices. It is a measure of how grim our world is that we never have any serious doubt they will succeed.

The director Francis Girod was and is a sort of Stanley Kramer á la française. His speciality is stolid but star-studded dramas on vaguely controversial themes. La Banquière is not appreciably better or worse than The Infernal Trio (1974) which stars Schneider and Michel Piccoli or René la Canne (1977) which stars Piccoli, Gérard Depardieu and Sylvia Kristel. Yet it is produced with truly eye-watering opulence and who can dislike any film that boasts a full transvestite ladies’ orchestra, kitted out in 18th century frock coats and powdered wigs? Such a film requires an overpowering star presence to sustain it and that is something Romy Schneider has in spades. She is by turns seductive, capricious, ruthless, generous, headstrong, courageous and doomed. You are left wondering why French people do not cut to the chase and appoint Madame Eckhert as President of the Republic for life. Most countries in the 30s could have done a lot worse. In fact, most countries still do.

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: ‘Allo, Sailor!

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2018 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns to consider another movie star who is both deep scarlet and beyond the pale ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

‘Allo, Sailor!

 

“My mother taught me there are two fragile things

– a staircase and a reputation.”

–          Maria Montez, Hans le Marin

In my distant and long-ago youth, one of my favourite films was The Moon in the Gutter (1983) – Jean-Jacques Beineix’s disastrous but hyper-poetic follow-up to his international hit Diva (1981). Set in a hallucinatory night world on and around the docks of Marseilles, it tells the tale of a poor chump (Gérard Depardieu) in thrall to an exotic and glamorous dream girl (Nastassja Kinski) but finding comfort with an earthy hooker (Victoria Abril). I saw this film over and over in its (admittedly sparse) theatrical showings. Its cinéma du look visuals, its swooning Gabriel Yared soundtrack, its invitation to “Try Another World” – emblazoned on a billboard above Nastassja, pouting provocatively in her bright red sports car – are etched on my subconscious to this day. It is, most likely, a truly terrible film.

I do not love The Moon in the Gutter any less now I know it is, essentially, a remake of a forgotten French film noir of the 40s. Hans le Marin (1948) is the tale of a poor chump (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who arrives in Marseilles on shore leave from an American merchant vessel. (His name is Eric and he is originally French Canadian; that is the script-writer’s novel way of explaining why a Yankee sailor speaks in fluent French throughout the movie.) He goes to a bar called the Kit-Cat Club and falls under the spell of a glamorous and exotic hooker named Dolores. She is played by camp B-movie legend Maria Montez, best known for such absurd Technicolor extravaganzas as White Savage (1943) or Gypsy Wildcat (1944) or, of course, the immortal Cobra Woman (1944). She sleeps with him and sets him up to be beaten up and robbed by a pair of thugs – one of whom is the noted French character actor Marcel Dalio. In the best masochistic film noir tradition, Eric responds by having her name tattooed onto his forearm.

Going on the hunt for his attackers, Eric accidentally kills one of them and is forced to seek refuge in a gypsy encampment. There he finds solace with an earthy wench named Tania (Lilli Palmer) who tells fortunes by breaking a raw egg into a glass. (I swear I am not making this up.) He is still prey, of course, to his overpowering obsession with Dolores. His quest to recover and reclaim her will lead him deeper and deeper into Marseilles and its squalid nocturnal depths. (In fact, Wicked City was the film’s title when it surfaced – albeit briefly and badly dubbed – in English-speaking markets.)  His is not so much a case of amour fou as amour of a downright bloody fool. It is obvious to any spectator over the age of twelve that Dolores is completely and consummately rotten. As in her psychedelic Technicolor epics, Maria Montez is in the business of hunting down hunky and half-naked men and turning them into live human sacrifices. Judging from her wardrobe, it is a highly remunerative profession.

 

Her first appearance, perched on a high bar stool in the Kit-Cat Club, is possibly her most dazzling and iconic screen moment. Her camp followers will protest loudly that her infamous ‘cobra dance’ in Cobra Woman is a display of diva excess that has no rivals. The one drawback is that Maria Montez emphatically could not dance. She does, however, show a remarkable flair for sitting on top of a stool. Up until that point, Eric has been dancing and flirting with one of the other girls. He glances over casually at the far side of the bar and his face, abruptly, turns to stone. We get a close-up of a pair of long and shapely legs, rising gracefully and sinuously out of a pair of elegant black evening shoes. The camera rises slowly to reveal two rounded knees, crossed one over the other, emerging from the black velvet folds of a skirt. A gleaming black leather handbag is perched on top of them. A hand, heavy with bracelets of rhinestone and silver, strokes the bag with its long, sharp varnished nails. Whoever these hands belong to is ignoring – and triumphantly – Marlene Dietrich’s rule that “Dark nail polish is vulgar.”

The camera does not pause, but goes on travelling upwards. It moves more slowly perhaps – tantalisingly, almost imperceptibly – as it reveals a voluptuous torso in a tight black bodice studded with sequins, which wink and glitter in the too-bright light of the bar. A rhinestone necklace glows, like a circlet of cold fire, about the base of the neck. The face above it seems cut off, almost disembodied, afloat in a magic space all of its own. It is the face of Maria Montez – dark, sultry, magnificent. She is staring insolently back across the bar at Eric. The smile that plays about her lips is the smile of a hungry cat that has already dined off one bird and is searching idly for another one to round off her meal. Slowly, she draws a cigarette out of her handbag. With a cool nod, she gives her permission for the strange man to walk across the room and light it for her. Eagerly and walking as if under hypnosis, he does so. His entire fate is sealed in that moment. The rest of Hans le Marin is as tragic and inevitable as Euripides. No matter if the dialogue is not quite the same calibre.

This whole film, in fact, was something of a family affair. Montez and Aumont were married at the time. They had relocated back to France after her career in Hollywood began to fade and his, unfortunately, never really began. Their co-starring vehicle at MGM, Siren of Atlantis (1948), was a legendary fiasco commemorated by Gore Vidal in his satirical novel Myron, a follow-up to the more famous Myra Breckinridge. Their first outing as an acting duo in Europe, Hans le Marin was scripted by Aumont himself and directed by his brother François Villiers. In style, the film is an intriguing mix of the pre-World War II poetic realism of Julien Duvivier or Marcel Carné and the newly fashionable Neo-Realism of Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio de Sica. It goes without saying that Villiers never became a big-name international auteur. Yet there are many worse-made films that were not directed by a member of the star’s immediate family.

If only Hans le Marin were better known, it might help to put paid to the idiotic notion that Maria Montez was possibly the worst actress in the history of movies. Her persona was flamboyant, to put it mildly, and an obscure Puerto Rican drag queen made something of a name in the 60s by performing in underground movies under the pseudonym of ‘Mario Montez.’ But her performance in Hans le Marin is sultry and hypnotic and about as finely nuanced as a portrayal of pure and unadulterated evil can possibly be. We can understand all too well why Jean Cocteau sought her to play the Princess of Death in Orphée (1950). Montez died tragically young in 1951 and Orphée would have been the ideal capstone to her career. We can only lament that she demanded too high a fee. Hans le Marin even lets her hint at a softer side. When she lures the hero back to her lair, we see keeps two white doves in a cage and cares for them with far greater tenderness than she ever shows to any of her men.

So was Maria Montez truly as bad an actress as film historians claim? I know a simple yet highly effective way to dismiss that charge. Just try to picture Meryl Streep playing her role in Hans le Marin or any of her other films. Talent is as talent does. And whatever it may have been, Maria Montez did it with a vengeance.

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: All At Sea

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2018 by dcairns

Hey everybody! David Melville is back with another plunge into the murky waters of forbidden divadom ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

All at Sea

“Where a beautiful woman is concerned, all men are curious.”
-Charles Korvin, Thunderstorm

Pity the poor actress who is more famous off the screen than on it. Linda Christian was a beautiful Mexican starlet who married Tyrone Power in 1949. The more cynical Hollywood insiders may say that was acting of a sort. But “the wedding of the century” (as the tabloid press described it) certainly kept the fans on the edge of their seats. Power and Christian became the most glamorous and golden of movie couples and their two children are minor celebrities in their own right: Romina as a pop star in Italy – and the lead in Jess Franco’s Justine (1969) – and Taryn as a swashbuckler in epics like Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). But when the couple divorced in 1955, Linda Christian slipped back into an obscurity she had never quite escaped.

One film, at least, suggests her fate was undeserved. Thunderstorm (1956) is a tale of tempestuous seas and torrid passions, set in an impoverished (but photogenic) fishing village on the Basque coast of Spain. One day, a rugged young fisherman named Diego (Carlos Thompson) finds a small yacht adrift in the bay. The vessel is leaking and half-waterlogged. But a gorgeous and only slightly dishevelled blonde lady lies unconscious on the cabin floor. She is, of course, Linda Christian. But she goes by the name of María Román. She declines to say who she is or where she comes from. She has a strange and almost otherworldly aura; dark portents of doom seem to follow wherever she goes. She is a B-movie variant of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea crossed, perhaps, with Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. After all – as the script wastes no time in telling us – the local fisher folk are convinced such creatures do exist.

Most disquietingly of all, she is styled to look as much as possible like Grace Kelly – who was, at that time, Hollywood’s biggest female star. That is a shame because Christian (on the basis of this movie) has a natural and unaffected elegance of which the pallid and glacial Kelly could only dream. She is also a vastly warmer and more expressive actress. That tiny suitcase she packed for her cruise holds a seemingly inexhaustible stock of designer clothes. Wandering about the village like a sort of living poster for the New Look, Christian appears puzzled when local women – who spend most of their lives scaling and gutting fish – gape as if she were The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The men stare after her in naked and ill-disguised lust. The tyrannical mayor (Charles Korvin), his wastrel son (Garry Thorne) and his drunken brother (Tito Junco) all want to get in on the act. Stray hints tell us that Christian is not exactly a stranger to male attention.

The director, John Guillermin, photographs the village (its name is San Lorenzo) with almost as much relish as he photographs his star. Known today as a high-budget hack, Guillermin hit his stride in the 70s with a string of films – The Towering Inferno (1974), King Kong (1976), Death on the Nile (1978) – that required little more skill than switching on a camera and not standing in front of it. Yet here he shows a flair for moody and eccentric camera angles such as Orson Welles might envy. With a multiplicity of low-angle and high-angle shots, swooping overhead vistas and one bravura moment in a bar fight – where a bottle smashes in close-up and liquor floods over the lens – the tiny village starts to resemble a labyrinth by Piranesi or a Pop Surrealist drawing by Escher. As the smouldering intrigue around her heats up, Christian’s glamorous blonde castaway seems like a harbinger of Jessica Lange in the catastrophic rehash of King Kong. Indeed, it is this film – and not the 1933 creature features classic – that John Guillermin’s King Kong feels like a remake of.

Not that life in San Lorenzo is non-stop action. The village is a real Spanish location and most of its inhabitants are actual (dubbed) Spaniards – apart from the stars, who are a Mexican, an Argentine and a Hungarian. Yet the locals spend interminable screen time yammering over what size of oceangoing vessel would maximise their haul of fish. Thompson argues that small ships – which they all currently use – are no good for fishing in deep waters, where the richest stocks are to be found. Korvin – who owns all the boats and is too stingy to pay for new ones – insists that large ships could never sail in and out of the town’s tiny harbour. Literally every member of the cast (apart from Christian) seems to have an opinion on this. What’s more, they feel the urge to express it at wearisome length. Where, we ask ourselves, are those stringent European Union fishing quotas when we really need them?!

At one point Thompson, in a fit of derring-do, commandeers a large vessel from up the coast. He sails it into San Lorenzo harbour, narrowly avoiding the jagged rocks that loom up on every side. To be honest, Guillermin swings his camera so perilously close to the rocks that we start to feel a trifle worried. Thunderstorm is a visibly low-budget film; it seems most unlikely the producers could afford a new one. Yet the effect comes a whole lot closer to 3D than any of the 50s films that were actually shot in that overhyped and cumbersome process. We root for Thompson to sail home free and it almost looks as if he might…but then, suddenly, he glimpses Linda Christian posing provocatively on top of the highest rock, luring him to his doom like a siren out of some pagan Greek myth. In the end, he is forced to admit that Size Matters.

For all its flashes of visual flamboyance, Thunderstorm never did establish John Guillermin as an art-house auteur. No more did it establish Linda Christian as a motion picture star in her own right. But it is hard to dislike any movie that strives to outdo From Here to Eternity (1953) when it comes to steamy sex on the beach. In one swimming scene, Christian rises Venus-like out of the surf with her nipples clearly visible through her bra. Later, Thompson pins her down on the sands in a passionate clinch. The waves wash voluptuously over them, tried and tested symbols of movie passion. But then, alas, the waves grow larger. Swelling almost to the size of a small tsunami, they drag the lovers out to sea and Thompson all but drowns. The scene is ludicrous, but nobody could complain that it lacks boldness. You might say the same for Thunderstorm as a whole.

David Melville