Archive for Deacon Brodie

Original Syn

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2010 by dcairns

What a strange artifact this is: DOCTOR SYN (1937) is a rollicking British melodrama similar in some ways to the bodice-ripping romps of Gainsborough Studios — it even features Margaret Lockwood, THE WICKED LADY herself. But in the star role, as pirate and smuggler Captain Clegg, who has assumed a new identity as village priest Dr. Syn, we have George Arliss. The Iron Duke, as he was affectionately known, is a queer kind of film star, and an even stranger action hero. With a face like a feminine skull, nostrils so flared as to be positively bell-bottomed, and a skeletal frame of sharp angles like an elongated swastika, he resembles the mummified corpse of Kenneth Williams, animated by hidden pneumatic tubes. I guess the closest thing there’s been to him since was Peter Cushing, and indeed Cushing played this role in a Hammer remake in 1962.

The whole tenor of the film is pretty theatrical, in line with British cinema of the time generally, but Arliss himself is at times quite subtle. Describing himself as “a strange man,” he is as divided a performer as Clegg is a character, commingling sensitivity with a crisp kind of barnstorming. He’s no Todd Slaughter, though: his work is quite nuanced, and Katherine Hepburn credited him with teaching her film acting. (Come to think of it, Hepburn could have dragged up as Arliss quite convincingly.)

At the helm of the whole venture is Roy William Neill, a British-born director who’d made his career in Hollywood. Lured back to the UK to make a few movie, he was lined up to make the project which eventually became Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES, but political problems on location shut the production down. The designer of that film, Vetchinsky, creates an atmospherically angular, overhanging village for the shadowy goings on in Dimchurch.

This story has elements in common with every smuggling yarn the cinema has seen — as with MOONFLEET, the smugglers are mistaken for phantoms. (Neill would use a variation on this gimmick in his Sherlock Holmes movie THE SCARLET CLAW.) Rather than using a churchyard as entry to their secret lair, the criminal gang here use the coffin-maker’s house, and there’s a secret entrance behind a tombstone. As with JAMAICA INN, a pillar of the community is secretly a pirate chief. In fact, this premise seems to go back to the true story of Deacon Brodie, a respected town councillor by day and a burglar by night, a man whose dual nature seems to have played a role in suggesting the story of Jekyll and Hyde to Robert Louis Stevenson.

Asides from the Hammer remake and a Disney version starring Patrick McGoohan (possibly the most atmospheric and accomplished interpretation), the film seems to have inspired CARRY ON DICK, in which Sid James as Dick Turpin has a secret identity as a village vicar, a wrinkle not to be found in previous Turpin narratives, so far as I’m aware.

The strangest and most fascinating element of DR. SYN is the character played by Hungarian actor Meinhart Maur (a refugee who had worked for Fritz Lang in Germany). Known only as “the mulatto,” he’s disturbingly presented as a mute, subhuman creature who is used by the customs and excise officials as a kind of sniffer dog. As the story goes on, his unfolding backstory invites more and more sympathy, and the racist overtones recede slightly: we lean that he was mutilated and left to die by Clegg, his ears and tongue severed. He’s still portrayed as a horror movie monster (women scream at his appearance), but he actually has our sympathy. Only at the very end do we learn that Clegg was avenging his wife, whom the mulatto had “attacked” (an obvious code-word for something cinematic mulattos have a long history of attempting), clearing the way for a happy ending where the ethnically and physically handicapped avenger is blown to bits by dynamite.

British cinema can be creepy.

Mr. Hyde in Edinburgh

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2008 by dcairns

A few unoriginal comments on Stevenson’s original The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

It’s been said before that the story has a lot of RLS’s hometown of Edinburgh about it. Although the given setting is London, with Hyde’s hideaway explicitly identified as a Soho address (that disreputable district, long home to the theatre and sex industries, would later also house the major British film companies, including Hammer House), Stevenson must have been influenced by his home city as he wrote the tale, in those two feverish overnight drafts.

Right at the start, when Hyde commits his first child-trampling, Stevenson introduces on the scene an Edinburgh doctor, described as “the usual cut-and-dry apothecary, of no particular age and colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent, and about as emotional as a bagpipe.” This man actually typifies most of the characters, apart from J&H, who populate the narrative. In fact, the lawyer Utterson is introduced as the most boring man in literature, and this is part of a consistent tactic to surround the arguably melodramatic title character with dry, methodical and sober-minded characters, creating a stifling normal world for Hyde to erupt into. These characteristics typify somewhat the puritan, Calvinistic ethos of 19th century Edinburgh, still somewhat in the air today.

Edinburgh is a schizoid city. In Stevenson’s day it was divided between Old Town and New. The New Town is Georgian, enlightened, civilised, luxurious in a restrained way. The streets resemble Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street, and exude dignity and rationality.

The Old Town is jumbled, chaotic, a mixture of periods and styles. Narrow closes open onto tilting and dishevelled thoroughfares, arranged down the sprawl of the High Street. These are the haunts of Burke and Hare, whose exploits inspired Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher (filmed by Val Lewton and Robert Wise), and Deacon Brodie, a respectable cabinet-maker and son of a town councillor who led a double life as a burglar. He’s played by Billy Connolly in a TV movie.

Sewage was still emptied out of windows in the Old Town in Stevenson’s day, to flow through the gutters, spreading disease and foul odours. (You cried “Gardyloo!” as you tipped your bucket, a bastard French version of “Look out below!”) So Edinburgh had a divided personality much like Jekyll and Hyde.

Today the Old Town, cleaned up a bit, is the tourist centre, leading as it always does between Holyrood Palace and the Castle. The New Town provides office space, shops and expensive homes. The dark side of Edinburgh has been exported to run down council estates like Muirhouse. (“In Muirhouse, no one can hear you scream. Well, we can. We just dinnae gie a fuck.” ~ Irvine Welsh.) The town council satisfies itself with keeping the centre safe and decorous, allowing the outlying slums to go to hell.

Sad to report, the young lead of Bill Douglas’s esteemed trilogy (MY CHILDHOOD, MY AIN FOLK, MY WAY HOME) was trapped by poverty in one of these areas, and succumbed to crime, drugs and an early death. They are places of despair.

“The figure in these two phases haunted the lawyer all night; and if at any time he dozed over, it was but to see it glide more stealthily through sleeping houses, or move the more swiftly, and still the more swiftly, through wider labyrinths of lamp-lighted city, and at every street corner crush a child and leave her screaming.”