Archive for Derrick DeMarney

The Blackface Strangler

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2009 by dcairns

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And so to the delightful bonbon that is Hitchcock’s YOUNG AND INNOCENT, penultimate film in the classic thriller sextet that closed out Hitchcock’s British period (with the afterthought that is JAMAICA INN following on behind) and maybe the most underrated and underscreened movie in that sequence. With the exception of one scene, the justly famed crane shot through the Grand Hotel ballroom, leading into an extreme close-up of a killer’s twitching eyes, which is often quoted in Hitch documentaries, this movie is relatively little-discussed, and the discussions rarely acknowledge how charming it is. Maybe because charm is hard to analyse.

In Rohmer and Chabrol’s Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films, the authors observe that Hitchcock is not excited by his leading lady, Nova Pilbeam, but I certainly am. Having been moved by her intense performances as a child in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and especially Berthold Viertel’s LITTLE FRIEND, it was pleasing for me to find her here in near-adult form. She’s grown into her extraordinary face, which always made her look like some kind of mildly sinister elf, without losing any of her naturalness and appeal. She has the best, most convincing smile of any actress in early Hitchcock, and he wisely ends the film on it. It should be noted that not only was Hitch giving Nova her first grown-up role, but he developed a follow-up project for her, so my impression is that he was quite pleased with her as a leading lady. (Don’t know why the follow-up fell through, but remind me to tell you about it.)

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As the hero, Derrick DeMarney is perhaps slightly less satisfactory, seeing as he looks a bit drippy and sounds as if he’s fighting a heavy head cold, but he’s nevertheless likeable and understated. (I have to dismiss memories of him being pervy and sinister in UNCLE SILAS though.) It could be argued that this is a rare Hitchcock with normal people instead of stars in the lead roles. Of course, numerous among Hitch’s Brit flicks didn’t have true stars, but usually that was a problem. Here it feels like a refreshing novelty, and makes the title work all the better.

A struggling screenwriter is implicated in the murder of a Hollywood star, and sets out to prove his innocence with the aid of the chief constable’s teenage daughter. Tracked by the police, he seeks the raincoat whose belt was used to strangle the victim — a raincoat last seen in the possession of an elderly tramp.

From the opening strains of “Nobody Can But the Drummer Man” over the credits, this film comes on with gusto, an effect maintained by the first scene, in which the soon-to-be killer and his soon-to-be victim argue savagely, filmed by Hitchcock in an elaborate single take, with the characters twisting around each other like fighting cats, hissing insults at each other. It’s a complex piece of blocking and focus-pulling, with the choice of focus often rather interesting —

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After the woman turns up dead on the beach, young Derrick finds himself caught in a (rather flimsy) web of circumstantial evidence. One might think that, given the body’s location, the issue of footprints in the sand might be a key one, but nobody shows any interest in that sort of nicety. I suspect that Josephine Tey’s source novel, from which the writing team led by Charles Bennett borrowed only the initial set-up, may have made play with this kind of investigative stuff, but Hitchcock is interested more in the chase and the set-piece obstacles along the way. In other words, he intends to copy THE 39 STEPS, and not for the last time.

Boy meets girl at the police station, where Derrick faints and Nova, happening by, offers first aid. This leads to two delicious moments, the first being a bit of period slang, as Nova vigorously rubs the unconscious man’s ears: “Brings them round like fun!”

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The second is the moment where young Derrick awakens with his head resting on the 17-year-old Nova’s modest bosom, and Hitch smirkingly cuts to a close-up of him for the exact moment he becomes aware of this, then back to medium shot to show nova becoming all to conscious of it too. A saucy moment worth any number of Megan Foxes.

Then we have a very funny scene with Derrick’s court-appointed lawyer (“We mustn’t despair. Not actually despair.”). JH Roberts is terrific here. Well, he ought to be: looking at his credits, it seems he played nothing but doctors and lawyers his whole career. The  useless solicitor strikes such a glum note that Derrick instantly resolves to flee justice and prove his own innocence in the best comedy-thriller tradition. Meeting up with Nova en route, Derrick slowly entangles the lass in his schemes, as she reluctantly offers succour, first out of guilt, then a sense of adventure, then love.

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“I’m absolutely terrified of policemen.”

The first part of Nova’s seduction into crime is particularly nice. Accepting some change from Derrick to pay for petrol, she dumps him at an old mill-house and drives home in her decomposing jalopy, resolved to have no more to do with the  business. But when dining with her family (dad is the reliably sweet Percy Marmont, recovered from his Alpine tumble in SECRET AGENT) she learns from the array of little brothers that Derrick had given her his last few pennies, and now may be starved into surrender — or death! The child actors are all excellent (none are credited, although the youngest has the Pilbeam brow, and may be a genuine sibling), and it’s another suspenseful meal, of the kind Hitchcock had already exploited in BLACKMAIL (altogether now: “Knife!”) and THE 39 STEPS and would perfect in SHADOW OF A DOUBT. I’ll say it again: food is important in Hitchcock.

Dogs, too: while Nova’s pooch, Towser, is the only real featured player among the assorted hounds in British Hitchcock, every damn one of them features a dog of one kind or another, making the canine walk-on a more constant signature than Hitchcock’s own cameos. Again, this insight comes to you courtesy of Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock.

And this is a very English Hitchcock, reprising the dynamics of THE 39 STEPS, but with the rolling hills of England instead of the more rugged Highland landscape of the earlier film. As a result, the adventure is a bit more gentle — there’s only one killing in the film, off-screen, and the jeopardy is what the censors would call “mild”. It feels like Hitch wanted a light-hearted, even light-weight story after the heavy tragedy of SABOTAGE.

The escape from the mill-house is perhaps a little tame, in fact, and it’s not helped by the implausibility of Nova escaping unrecognised, despite the cops spotting her very distinctive doggie and car. The trail then leads to a transport cafe (is that a young Anthony Asquith washing dishes in the background, hoping to meet some rough truckers?) where a brawl breaks out, but Nova obtains the information Derrick needs, and thence to Nova’s aunt’s place, so Nova can alibi her absence from home with a quick visit. This leads to another favourite Hitchcock device, the tense scene played out during a family gathering. In THE 39 STEPS and SABOTEUR, the master-criminal is surrounded by his wife and kid/s, creating a surreal disconnection between the sinister plotting and the outward innocence. Here, it’s the protagonists who are the furtive ones, trying to allay the suspicions of the nosey aunt (Mary Clare, THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, THE LADY VANISHES) and make their exit as swiftly as possible. They are aided in this by the timely arrival of Basil Radford, not yet associated with the role of his life, playing Charters opposite Naunton Wayne’s Caldicott: Hitchcock’s next film, THE LADY VANISHES, would cement that relationship.

Finally identified by a policeman, and thus incriminated, Nova takes shelter with Derrick at a railway yard, where the lovers part for the night (Nova: “I’m tebbly, tebbly tired.”), she to sleep in the car, he to seek shelter at the flophouse, where he also hopes to find the tramp who nicked his raincoat.

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The railway yard is a classic Hitchcock miniature, impressive in scale and detail, and almost entirely convincing until the camera captures two miniature protagonists, a little replica Derrick and Nova, with car. It’s like Trumpton! I sure wish I had a pose-able Derrick DeMarney action figure when I was growing up. I wish I had a Nova Pilbeam right now.

Derrick in the flophouse recalls Jon Finch, decades later, bedding down at the Sally Army Hostel in FRENZY. Finding his prey, Old Will (Edward Rigby), Derrick practically abducts the old boy and there’s a daring escape (miniature and life-size trains and cars), leading on to the action sequence in the abandoned mine, where they drive to shelter from the law. The car promptly crashes through the mine floor, in a smashing bit of FX engineering, and Nova gets some cliffhanging in ~

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Caught going back for her dog, Nova is sent home to daddy, who feels forced to resign his post because of the disgrace his eldest has brought upon the family. Suddenly I’m reminded of the TV show Veronica Mars, a favourite in this household, where detective daughter was always getting into scrapes and compromising her detective/sheriff dad. There’s something quite powerful and moving about the idea of the independent and highly capable teen who, through youthful exuberance, oversteps the mark and brings disgrace upon the normally proud parent. 

A clew! The recovered raincoat, which was missing its belt and therefore more incriminating than exculpating, turns out to have contained a matchbook from the Grand Hotel (ah! the old matchbook clue! always a favourite), a place Derrick’s never been. The person who stole the coat and gave it to the tramp can be assumed to have strangled the woman with the belt, and may be a habitué of the hotel. The trio of fugitive, cop’s daughter and tramp unite to trap the killer in his (possible) lair.  

(Why did the killer give the incriminating raincoat away? That’s the kind of question it’s maybe not too profitable to ask, except to explore the dream-logic and daring of Hitch’s storytelling.)

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This leads to the spectacular crane shot, moving across the dance floor to pick out the twitching eyes of the murderer, as he sits blacked-up, playing the drums. And at the last moment, a musical motif enters the movie, by way of the song “Nobody Can Like the Drummer Man,” directing our attention towards the culprit even as Hitch’s camera alights upon him like the eye of God. It’s even better because the guy’s eyes twitch in time to the music.

The killer’s freaking out and confessing is somewhat pat, but I’ll forgive that for the lovely shot of Nova, looking from dad to Derrick and smiling her smile — the thriller has served as new romance once more, creating a little family unit.

Hitch was aided on this outing by a regular team of collaborators with whom he had built up secure working relationships: cinematographer Bernard Knowles and editor Charles Frend, both of whom would go onto directing careers of their own; production designer Alfred Junge, who would go on to design A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH; and writer Charles Bennett, as usual complimented by a team of associates.

But the movie marked a break for Hitchcock from his partnership with Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu, with whom he had quarrelled on SABOTAGE. And since Balcon had been acting as Hitchcock’s unofficial (and unasked-for) agent, rejecting all offers from America, Hitch now started to receive approaches from across the Atlantic. It was not inevitable that the risk-averse homebody would seek adventure in the west, but the allure of big budgets and high technical standards was powerful… but first, a project intended for the American director Roy William Neill would fall into Hitch’s chubby lap, and prove highly suitable.

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The author is anxious to contact anyone who can furnish him with a Nova Pilbeam action figure. No questions asked. The Tippi Hedren one just isn’t doing it.

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Uncle Silas

Posted in FILM, literature, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2008 by dcairns

Silas of the lambs

Adapted from the novel by J. Sheridan LeFanu (CARMILLA), this maybe misses real greatness but has some great stuff in it. Produced by Two Cities, who also made Olivier’s Shakespeare films, Carol Reed’s ODD MAN OUT, and David Lean’s first Noel Coward films (before Lean branched out with cinematographer/producer Ronald Neame to make BRIEF ENCOUNTER), this emerges from the immediate post-war period when british cinema was enjoying a boost in confidence and ambition. Overall, UNC SILAS has elements of Lean’s evocatively textured Dickens films, and a little of Michael Powell’s hallucinatory surrealism.

Genre-wise, it’s straightahead gothic melodrama. Jean Simmons, a rising young star at the time, plays an innocent young thing foisted upon her sinister relative who lives at Scary Hall (not its real name). He plots to Do Her Into get her inheritance. There’s a simple Locked-Room Mystery thrown in for good measure (which is probably the best thing to do with L-RMs, since if made the basis for an entire story they tend to reduce the narrative to puzzle-solving). As stories go, it’s all pretty generic and linear.

Director Charles Frank (a Belgian with a fragmentary and puzzling non-career) compensates for a rather basic story by throwing style at the film. He’s like a matador decorating a cake. Even the heroine’s French lessons get treated to an expressionist dream sequence — and a damn good one.

French with tears 

The credits suggest the involvement of a storyboard artist (“Script Illustrator”), and the mise en scene slots together with pre-planned precision and nicely designed angles. Cinematographer Robert Krasker (THE THIRD MAN) lights the doomy sets beautifully, and has a particularly nice approach to fireplaces, blasting light through them from behind to make flickering shapes on the floor.

John Laurie buttles

Based on his work here, it’s criminal that Frank didn’t make more films in Britain. I’ve never seen his scanty Belgian oevre, and it’s uncertain I’ll ever get to, but this movie has moments of incredible brio and gets so many things dead right that with slightly more complex material I can’t help but feel that Frank could have made a truly Great Film.

Jean Genie

The cast is marvellous, with Simmons breathing vivacity into the dull protag, Derrick DeMarney crepuscular and oleaginous as the eponymous Unc, and John Laurie as a hilariously odd, lopsided butler, materialising in rooms without warning, like Mrs Danvers, or Jeeves. My friend Lawrie Knight’s abiding memory of his quasi-namesake and fellow Scot was J. Laurie’s tendency to start every acquaintanceship with an account of his success in the lead role of Hamlet. If you watch RETURN TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, you can see John Laurie actually do this.

A fellow called Manning Whiley does good work as Silas’ awful, horny son, making great use of a powerful voice, and the great Esmond Knight brings his customary strength to the role of Simmons’ sympathetic family doctor. All the more impressive when we recall that Knight was blinded in the war. He continued playing sighted parts in films like THE RED SHOES and BLACK NARCISSUS, using sheer dramatic skill and self-confidence to make the audience believe he can see. In the latter film, he had to ride a donkey through a forest. “Don’t you want a stand-in?” “No, no, the animal doesn’t want to bump into a tree any more than I do.”

(Casting a blind man as a film director seems a fairly sick joke, but it shouldn’t surprise us that this is just what happens in PEEPING TOM. Knight’s character, Arthur Baden, a frenzied bully, is a parodic self-portrait by director Michael Powell [the character name derives by way of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scout movement. Furthermore, studio boss Don Jarvis is a “spoonerism” of real Rank Studios president John Davis, who is viciously and accurately parodied throughout, and the name of Mark Lewis, the film’s titular voyeur, is a reversal of screenwriter Leo Marks’ name.])

The only film where I’ve ever seen Knight play a blind man (in Olivier’s T.V. King Lear he plays the old man who actually LEADS the blinded Gloucester) is Richard Lester’s witty and touching ROBIN AND MARIAN, where Knight actually popped his glass eye out in order to be even more convincingly disabled. But to return to UNCLE SILAS —

— Best of all, Katina Paxinou is the scary French mistress, Madame de la Rougierre. Alternately shrieking and muttering, she is terrifying in her malice, offensive familarity and sheer stupidity — you may not think of stupidity as naturally frightening, but it can be, just look at our world leaders. 

K.P. submits to being made truly grotesque by Frank and Krasker’s leering use of wide-angle lenses: she lurches into close-up and makes things happen with her corpse’s teeth, or else she stands swaying on the spot and lets the camera rocket drunkenly in on her. Either way, she was born to alarm.

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the sort of window faces appear at

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The film’s only trouble is its inability to accomplish anything beyond suspense and slick visuals. It has a compelling baddie in the hypocrite and schemer Silas, but his bad qualities never amount to a coherent whole. The leading lady is trusting, then figures things out, then gets rescued, which robs her of the opportunity to fend for herself and grow as a character. It’s one of those films that can quickly fade to black after the villains are vanquished, because there’s nothing else to sort out.

One possible half-solution to this poverty of theme is to throw in some spuriously ambiguous final moment, tenuously connected to any old motif established earlier, and leave the audience with a faux-poetic puzzle. This is known (by me) as the Coen Coda, but I guess nobody was buying that one back in the ’40s.

I don’t mean to be down on this film AT ALL, because it’s a great directorial box of tricks — students of cinema (which I hope includes all of us) could probably learn more technique from this than from an acknowledged masterpiece like Lean’s OLIVER TWIST. But O.T. is the better film for narrative and thematic reasons, which lend it greater impact and make it satisfying in a way that UNCLE S. cannot aspire to be, for all its visual and aural dexterity.