Archive for Dick Miller

Askew

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2012 by dcairns

Harry Baur’s marble-dusted complexion makes him blend seamlessly with the statue he’s propping up, an impressively gargoylesque opening image…

The crowning glory of Pathe-Natan, delivered just before the financial axe fell, was Raymond Bernard’s five-hour epic LES MISERABLES. I feel this masterwork is disqualified from appearing as a piece in The Forgotten, by virtue of its being available from the Criterion Collection (along with Bernard’s WWI epic LES CROIX DE BOIS) but I can and enthusiastically will write about it here.

As a kind of three film mini-series, the Victor Hugo adaptation delivers the long-form pleasures distinct to works such as LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS and THE MYSTERIES OF LISBON — we get to meet a large number of characters, to observe them over time, seeing them grow up or age, and seeing them tested to destruction by the forces of history and/or narrative.

Shamefully, I’ve never read any Hugo, and the only other adaptation of this one that I’ve seen was the Twentieth Century Fox version produced a year later, which conspicuously lacks the epic sweep even if it has big splashy set-pieces and fine stars (though Fredric March seems miscast — he might even have traded roles with Laughton to better effect).

Bernard commands a giant production, and delivers it with his favourite stylistic devices, most of which seem to have been popular at Pathe-Natan and maybe owe something to Gance, while prefiguring Welles: sweeping camera moves, frantic montages of action, and especially in part three, a flurry of handheld shots to simulate the chaos of battle. Bernard also loves his tilted angles, as Michael Koresky says in his excellent liner notes: “The result was a faithful, as well as compellingly askew, vision of the book’s post–Napoleonic era France, from the ballrooms of the aristocracy (shot at such a drastic angle at one point that the dancers look as though they may slide right out of the frame) to the impoverished back alleys of thieves and prostitutes (evoked with palpable decrepitude and anguish) to the barricades of the 1832 student revolt (filmed at times with remarkable handheld fury).”

Such a film also needs strong performers, and it has them: Charles Vanel channels his granite gravitas into the stiff and grudging Javert, allowing the character’s blinkered obsessiveness to emerge slllooowwwlllyyy. He also, in his final scene, manages to closely resemble the great Dick Miller, and there can be no higher praise in my book. The film’s real discovery is little Gaby Triquette as the child Cosette, a wondrously natural and expressive kid. In a brief five-year career she managed to work for Bernard, Julien Duvivier, Abel Gance and Marcel L’Herbier.

This fairy-tale nightmare forest — complete with handheld lurch towards eerie skull-faced tree hollow — might have influenced SNOW WHITE — Bernard Natan visited Disney in 1934 and bought the French rights to Mickey Mouse.

There’s also the astonishingly youthful Jean Servais, whom I knew from his much later performances in RIFIFI and TAMANGO. Next time I see one of those I may start to cry, because his descent from handsome young blade in 1934 to the raddled and hangdog figure of Tony le Stephanois is heartbreaking. Whatever he went through in the intervening years, including World War Two, it must have been pretty devastating.

Servais, right. I think in this shot, Raymond Bernard has found Servais’ perfect angle.

But the movie is inevitably dominated by its Jean Valjean, the incomparable Harry Baur. Again, the film has an actor unafraid to take his time, so he spends the first half hour as a hulking brute, frustrating us with his unwillingness to learn from experience — and then he starts to weep and it’s devastating. From then on, he holds not just our attention but our admiration with his hulking anthropophagous of a performance. It’s always tricky when a movie casts a tall, fat actor as a very strong character: do we believe he’s a tough guy, or is he just extremely large? Possibly a man that size needs to be superhumanly strong just to move around? Baur sells the fight scene where he defeats seven assailants, but the last act, where he carries Jean Servais on his back through the streets, down a ladder into the sewers, and then through shoulder-high filth, is where we really had to sit back and admit this guy is TOUGH.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)

The Chills: Alive, Alive-O!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2008 by dcairns

“Can you possibly conceive it? The unendurable oppression of the lungs, the stifling fumes of the earth, the rigid embrace of the coffin, the blackness of absolute night and the silence, like an overwhelming sea…”

The Chills — that sensation you feel is merely your skin trying to crawl off your body and get to safety!

THE PREMATURE BURIAL, scripted by Charles “Twilight Zone” Beaumont, loosely inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, directed by Roger Corman. The muted palette of Daniel Haller’s design and Floyd Crosby’s photography create cheap poetry in a little studio — it more than stands up to the big-budget homages of Tim Burton.

The nice thing about Roger is you can generally tell what he’s been looking at. BLACK NARCISSUS and THE RED SHOES lurked somewhere in his thoughts as he helmed HOUSE OF USHER and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH — the late Hazel Court even runs en pointe during her hallucination scene in the latter film, a closeup of feet mimicking a specific shot from Powell & Pressburger’s balletomane melodrama.

Here, Dreyer’s VAMPYR plays a big part, the drooping damp fogginess of the sets, and the little window in Ray Milland’s coffin tipping Corman’s hand. But a surprisingly big influence is Murnau’s SUNRISE. What’s great about the Poe adaptations is how they aim at entertaining drive-in audiences but they’re defiantly literary and cinephile in their approach.

In scene one, quoted above, Murnau’s DOUBLE MOON appears. Every surviving Murnau film features the moon, as Bill Krohn and David Ehrenstein point out in their FAUST audio commentary, and one striking scene in SUNRISE features two moons in one shot — as our hero advances into the swamp, a little moon illuminates his way from up ahead, but when he arrives at his destination, after several complicated turns, a bigger moon awaits him. The power of studio stylisation and the long take.

Faint outline of moon around Ray’s face — trust me, it’s there!

Now you see it!

Corman’s modest equivalent is in scene one, where Ray stands before a low moon that skims the horizon, and glances up at his father-in-law, Alfred the butler from Batman, who stands before ANOTHER, higher moon. And why the hell shouldn’t he?

Later in PREMATURE B, the camera follows Ray Milland through the drizzling, grey, dry-icy woods that surround his home, and the effect is reminiscent of that same SUNRISE shot, only Corman can’t sustain such a prolonged movement, lacking a ceiling track to pull it off with, and probably having only a few trees to track past — one gets the sensation that the illimitable black forest of the film is probably very small and endlessly rearranged between shots. But it’s no less beautiful for that.

The clincher comes during the inevitable TINTED HALLUCINATION. These sequences occur in virtually every Corman Poe (I seem to recall they play a big part in THE TRIP too). Corman goes mental with the optical printer and smears poor Ray Milland with green and purple mist, as he blunders about trying to escape from his coffin — and each time Ray screams, the music takes the place of his voice, a desolate horn sounding in synch with the aging matinee idol’s lip movements. In SUNRISE I think it’s an oboe, as the hero calls out to his missing wife from a boat… one of those unforgettable chills-making moments, actually. One I should feature here.

PREMATURE BURIAL deserves its mention not only because Hazel Court is terrific in it, and bravely submits to being completely covered with earth at one point, but because it achieves maybe the best atmospherics of any Corman film. The inspired choice of Molly Malone, whistled by the sinister grave-robbers Sweeney and Mole (the latter played by perennial favourite Dick Miller, competing with his partner for History’s Worst Irish Accent) creates a real frisson — Fiona reports lying abed in terror after viewing this in childhood, the tune echoing around the recesses of her barely-formed infant head.

“Infant? I was twelve!”

“Well, I had to put a word in there or it would sound like I was saying your head IS barely formed.”

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